Little boy blue, come blow your horn
The sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn
Where is that boy who looks after the sheep?
Under the haystack fast asleep
Will you wake him? Oh no, not I
For if I do he will surely cry
—anonymous nursery rhyme
Want to hear a funny story? There’s a picture of me that looks like you. You probably haven’t seen it, and I can’t say I remember the day it was taken. I was perhaps three or four years old, only about a year or so older than you are now. I don’t remember the day it was taken, but I suppose that doesn’t matter. Like most pictures we take, what we often capture is not the moment in which it was taken, but something else, some other memory… I was standing with my mother in the picture, along with my older brother (the oldest, the one that lived in a home his whole life) and two of my sisters. You don’t know this, but they don’t make pictures like that anymore. With the rosy blush to the cheek, the background tinted in gray. Pictures taken today are more real than that. You look more real in the pictures… I can’t say what I was feeling at the time, but it almost looks like I was scowling in the picture. Perhaps because my mother made me comb my hair. My face is partly buried in the folds of her dress, and I’m the only one not smiling. In fact it looks like I’m about to cry.
That’s what reminded me of you in the picture'”that same pout to the lip, eyes squinted'”the same look your father would wear sometimes when he knew he was in trouble. He used to cover his face just like you, like I’m doing in that picture hiding in my mother’s dress, and what’s funny is we weren’t really hiding at all, covering our eyes like you do sometimes when you’re scolded. It’s in fact when we revealed the most. Because we can’t hide our desire to change'”it’s our nature… I suppose it’s what also makes us naked to each other. Because we reveal ourselves in our desires. And sometimes it’s not just our desires, but the meeting of our desires with other people. For instance that picture means nothing to you. It was taken years before you were born, and you’re not in it. That’s why I’m not naked to you in the picture. I’m just a small boy in overalls clinging to his mother. You may relate to it in that way'”a child’s need, for you still are a child. But I am not naked to you. You just can see yourself reflected in my need for my mother'”you can see that in the picture. But if you knew me, if you had a desire to know me (maybe when you see this picture as a young woman), you would see my need in another way and forget yourself. You would forget your own nakedness in the picture. You would no longer relate to it as a child (perhaps even relate to it less) and would instead focus on the boy, me, and make your judgments, influenced, of course, by what you’ve already heard, what you already know about your grandfather… I guess what this means is our desires sometimes make us relate to each other less, so when we are aware of each other, we do not focus on ourselves in relation to one another, empathetic to one another’s desires, we instead focus only on ourselves, trying to forget this in judgment and the satisfaction of our own wants. That’s why nothing is really naked to you yet, for as a child you know little of these judgments yet. But you will and you will no longer cover your eyes. Maybe you’ll even see the laughter in change, for now that picture of me has no memory for me of who I was then, but what I am now (and I probably was being scolded'”for not smiling, not smiling for the picture)… There’s another picture you may have seen. Your mother made it a gift for your father for his birthday'”a picture of me a little bit older, graduating high school.
I probably looked like a stranger to you, for I don’t look like that now either. But maybe you relate to it more, like to a character in a story. Sometimes we relate more to strangers, to fictions, even when we think we have nothing in common with them, because we forget ourselves in another way, not in judgment, but by imagination. Maybe you see a big bird in the picture, from watching “Sesame Street”. I do sort of look like a bird, all skinny and neck, big ears and thick hair'”the scrawniness of adolescence in black in white, wearing a suit and tie for the school photographer. You don’t judge me in that picture, just like we don’t judge what we can imagine when we forget ourselves this way… I suppose we know we are naked sometimes, but we just don’t care, when our own desires must come first, when that is the one thing we can’t forget (for we are always focusing on ourselves), and so we don’t relate to one another, but we don’t care because we know if others desire nothing of us it doesn’t matter that we are naked for we are invisible to them. We are fish in the water, either not taking the bait, or else not what they’re fishing for, not involved in their world. The rest of it is judgment and love because we also know in the end everything is revealed. It’s just a matter of paying attention and how we want to remember it… But I suppose you may already know of this. There are times when you don’t relate (not in judgment because you haven’t learned yet how it tries to satisfy desire'”our existence, our need for knowledge and a false sense of security). But there are times when your own desires come first. And this is when you are naked, for when we assert what we want what we really want is the desire to change (this being our nature, a constant becoming and balance), for the desire for change is really the desire to be unchanging. This is was what we reveal in our desire for love, to accept who we are, what will never change about us'”finding that truth in ourselves that is unchanging, the source of our nature, what we now have to try find again in our infinite diversity, what hope gives us'”peace… Right now it’s still just funny'”easily forgotten in the other things, like when you write on yourself.
Because as children, when we relate to one another, we are naked together and not alone. We are not alone because we are not aware of our nakedness… There will come a time when you will become aware (a different awareness than you have now for now your belief is incredible'”it allows you to accept incredible things… at least for a time, in that time in which, for a moment, whatever it is you are experiencing allows you to accept what you can imagine, and what you experience now never loses that importance in that moment, until it too passes, passes to the next awareness, the next moment of wonder, for this is your faith'”the imagination of your experiences), but as you grow older you will become aware with regret, and you will express this as being realistic and cynical, as the experiences seem to matter less, as you place less importance in them, instead accepting that the past depends on each new experience, becoming what you dwell on'”knowing you are guilty'”for when those moments of clarity come, you see perfection not in yourself (in fact this is the defense of your cynicism, your sense of humor as you grow older), no, you see perfection in those momentary unions you have with true liberty, when you realize how wretched you are, when for a moment you’re not chained to this world and its affections and you forget your habits and you are at rest… then something else begins working, and each experience can regain its importance'”there is meaning in everything'”each experience a parenthetical dimension where something can be read between the words, something you will have to discern, then you will understand what you desire for you see perfection does not need to change… and like a child you suddenly can accept incredible things again, relate to the meaning of things again (just like you know why Santa Claus is real now), and maybe, just maybe, you have moments when your nakedness holds wonder for you once more, forgotten not in shame or horror, but remembered in that limitlessness of hope… If I remember correctly, that picture of me in high school was taken just before graduation, the same day my older brother and I were arrested for grand theft auto. My older brother, not the oldest, Billy, the one that lived in a home, but my older brother'”your father knows who I’m talking about. I was giving my valedictorian speech, but it was interrupted when my brother came in through the back entrance of the auditorium, in handcuffs, in between two uniformed officers. I remember it looked like he didn’t know whether to spit or smile… My brother and I always had a thing for junkyards. That’s where we got the car. There’s more than one in my hometown, you know, or outside of town'”more than one junkyard. As a kid we used to find our way to all of them, for that’s where we played after school'”hide and go seek in the iron remnants of old machinery'”where we hunted rabbits, and in the wintertime it’s where we usually ended up for there was something about it then, the stripped framework like silent sculptures, cold and still in the gray air mixed with snow, some of the snow clinging to it, and all of it left there'”the junk'”seemed to have a purpose, like it was left exactly where it was for a reason, and something inside me felt like I was meant to find it, its useful purposes, that what belonged there could also belong somewhere else and somehow this I related to. It brought me comfort. I suppose it did to all of us, and that’s why we played there as kids, for it was forbidden… Seems like sometimes we can be caught up in a different current, a different current in the river of time. It’s when one season seems like another, when one time seems like another. Perhaps you don’t understand because nights are not days to you yet, nor is your sleep deceitful, for you have too few memories to overlap as they fight for dominance, too few things to forget… Your father and I used to rummage the junkyards together. I went there a lot after I retired. Sometimes he would come with me, but I could tell he didn’t find comfort there as I did, often you could tell he was somewhere else as I looked for parts. I still liked it when he came along though, because a part of me still believed he would relate to it as I related to it, where he would see the past still had its usefulness, and understand how it depended on us to find its usefulness when we awoke from a long sleep… I never got to see that junkyard you lived next to in Montana. There’s pictures of it. Pictures of you playing in it. It’s where you learned to walk. But you won’t remember that. Now that you no longer live there you’ve probably already forgotten it. You’ll just have the pictures, the pictures later to remind you, and maybe then you’ll know what I mean when I say one time can seem like another, maybe understand what your father learned but never understood when he went with me to the junkyard and fought his own memories there'”what pictures are all about'”an opportunity to wait, to wait patiently and remember, for we betray things by becoming them, because we forget what we came from… I was still angry. I was still angry at my brother the day that picture of me in high school was taken, that day we got arrested for taking a joy ride in that car we found at the junkyard. I didn’t finish my valedictorian speech, and my brother and I still hadn’t made up over the girl…
Time is happening all at once. Until the past consumes it. It is already happening. It has happened. It will happen again. Until there is nothing more to consume.
“Mira… Are you lost?”
I remember that’s what the man said. His face didn’t reveal how old he was. There were no wrinkles or damage from the sun. His eyes I couldn’t really see for it was dark and he was wearing a hat. This happened in Texas. That’s where I met this man. This after I met your grandmother in the school cafeteria where I worked, where we first talked as she helped me clean some spilled coffee from the tiled floor. I was about to graduate again, this time from the university, and it was the first time I’d been to Texas. I was there for an ROTC drill meet. I was in the Color Guard.
There was something strange about the man. When I finally saw his eyes, for a flashing moment I saw that picture again. That picture your father has of me graduating high school. For a moment the man reminded me of my brother, and I saw the cars again, the stripped metal of the junkyard and how it looked in winter. I saw us laughing again, my brother and I, and me riding shotgun as we peeled out onto the paved road. The junkyard behind us. An old painted sign in black and white hanging crooked over the gate'”Ableman & Sons Salvage, Inc. I saw his eyes for moment and this is what I saw, something that had happened in the past. But I also saw something else. I saw your father. I didn’t know it then, in that Mexican’s eyes. I just saw myself riding shotgun again. And to this day I don’t remember which of us looked away first.
He wasn’t very tall. The Mexican. He wore what looked like white pajamas with what strangely appeared to be a creased, greasy black derby hat, underneath which his coal-black hair, no gray at all, curled around his ears and neck. His shoes were sandals, but I think they have a different name for them, their sandals'”I’m not sure what they’re called… After that moment. That moment I saw his eyes in the light. They lost their color and dilated. I saw nothing in them after that. Even when light shone on them.
I guess he saw my eyes as I stood there at the corner. I was standing on Houston Street in San Antonio, and I didn’t notice him at first because I wasn’t paying attention. How often do you pay attention to bums picking through the trash? He was picking up cigarette butts. He was collecting them from the garbage can ashtrays, from the curbs of the street. He wore a leather satchel, already looking somewhat heavy with his work, and it was then that I realized he had only spoken to me because I was in his way.
“It’s the look on your face. Not where you are going. Que quieres? Look and you will see…”
“Sorry… I’m in your way,” I interrupted, and stepped closer to the curb because he was standing right in front of me now as he spoke, so close that I could smell his breath. It wasn’t cigarettes. It wasn’t cigarettes that I smelled, though it was what I expected to smell, but I could see nothing in his eyes, so I couldn’t tell if he knew. It was the first time I had smelled something like that on someone’s breath, but it was familiar. Sometimes in the woods with my brother, when we hunted coons at night, the air smelled like that, like the breath of leaves… “Lo siento… I’m not lost…” I said, and I stepped out into the street, out of his way.
(Now you’re probably wondering why I’m telling you this. Maybe it was something I saw in your eyes, and it reminded me of things'”different times, different places. But you’ll see what I mean. You’ll have those moments, moments where like with me that picture from my childhood standing with my mother, the joy ride with my brother in high school, and this man I met in San Antonio all of sudden happen at once'”your past happens all at once, and the present moment suddenly feels like a new beginning, a new beginning for yourself with a different awareness, a different self-knowledge. When it happens time doesn’t exist, for it is an unchanging moment, a moment in which there is nothing for time to measure, and I must admit those times, those times when I look into your eyes and see the past, like when I looked into those Mexican’s eyes and saw nothing, those times sometimes reveal uncanny predictions'”truths about the future, truths on which the past depend… Maybe that’s why I’m telling you this. And soon you’ll know where it’s going'”you’ll know more of the story that is. Soon you will know…)
Anyway, where was I? It was San Antonio. And the man was right. I was lost in a way. I had lost my friends. But I knew where I was going. I knew my way back. Somehow I knew the man knew that.
“A donde vas? You looked lost in thought, my friend. That is why I spoke to you. Do you know what the time it is?” He asked, his accented English lingering on the last word.
“What time?” I said, not really asking him, but myself, because it was dark, and I couldn’t remember how long it had been, how long it had been dark.
“Si… Si… do you have the time?” And he pointed to my wrist even though I wasn’t wearing a watch. He laughed a little to himself when I looked also. “Bueno… Esta Bueno… Do you have time, my friend, or its distractions? There’s no end to the distractions, no? Siempre… Siempre va! Always to the past…” With that he looked behind him, like for a shadow, but there was nothing there, and his eyes still had nothing in them, yet they seemed slightly filled with laughter when he faced me again. “Que quieres? People believe their faith lies in the future. No… No es verdad. Your faith comes from the past, my friend. Your future just distracts you from it. The future is no mystery! It is the mirror in which we see the past so we do not forget it! We still do though, don’t we? We wish to break that mirror, no? He! He!” The Mexican stood above me now on the curb. He waved his hands like they were floating on water as he spoke. I just wanted to get away from him. He had unsettled me, and for a moment, I really did think I was lost.
“I must be going… My friends are waiting,” I said, but I could tell in the sound of my voice the insincerity of it, the insincerity of what I’d just said, and I hoped I hadn’t offended him. I hoped I hadn’t revealed the real reason why I was being false to him'”my fear that he would unsettle me further. Because you see that was what I had been thinking about, standing there on the corner of Houston Street; I was contemplating my faith, and when he mentioned it, when he mentioned that word it brought back what had happened just a moment before, when I saw things from my past in his eyes. I knew why I thought of that picture. I knew why I thought of my older brother, just like that picture from my childhood reminds me of you now. I was contemplating my faith before that Mexican walked up, and I was wondering whether I had lost it or not'”the truth of my beliefs'”and I felt very alone at the moment. I missed him, my brother. I missed his friendship after what had just happened, after what had happened between him and I. And so you see maybe I saw what I wanted to see. I saw what I wanted in that Mexican’s eyes. I wanted something to change somehow.
You should probably know your grandfather isn’t a very superstitious person. I was a young man then, and I thought I’d figured a few things out. I began to really look at the man and forget about what had just happened to bring me to this meeting (this after another joy ride, with friends this time, in a car that wasn’t ours, but at least not considered stolen). I forgot what brought me to that corner and instead looked closely at the man’s face. His nose was rather large, almost flattened, contrasted in appearance to his expansive nostrils, but I noticed he didn’t breathe through them. His mouth was open even though he was no longer talking. And his eyes remained dark, but I no longer feared them. I saw no harm in them now. Just as in that instant when I first saw his eyes, when I remembered my brother and getting arrested at graduation, there was another flash and I saw the man for who he was, belonging only to that time and no other. I guess in a way it was like seeing a different picture of him, one I didn’t relate to, and so for a moment I forgot my own nakedness and saw his. In essence, I judged him. Time no longer seemed strange after that, after I forgot my own nakedness, and since time no longer seemed strange I was able to put things in perspective again'”I began to measure time again.
There are those moments when it still doesn’t feel right. Those moments where your perspective is not necessarily looking outward, viewing time as it were through the tunnel of your eyes, but above or at least outside, where you can almost see yourself doing the things or saying the things that somehow you know don’t feel right, that you know are not you. Sometime it’s in the rash judgments we make. They leave us feeling ugly though we want deny their true cause. Other times it happens when we don’t belong to ourselves, when for some reason we’re lost in another time, at a juxtaposition of points, like when we’re caught day-dreaming, asleep. It sometimes happens when we look too closely at ourselves, curious of our own nakedness. In those moments time doesn’t seem to matter at all'”all perspective is lost, including its measurement.
I figured the man just caught me off guard. He was right. I was lost in thought. The guilt just must have showed on my face. The truth I was seeking. Because, you see, I had just almost cheated on your future grandmother… (Perhaps now you may understand why I’m reminded by pictures, why I was thinking of my brother on that street corner, my faith, for the reason we took that joy ride in high school was so he could tell me about the girl, the girl I was to find out we’d both been seeing, what our fight was all about…) The past depends on the future for its measurement. I suppose the man was right about that too. He was right about faith. It was in our past, flowing into the consequences of our trying moments, moments where faith then can be seen merely as desperation, or a kept promise. I guess he just saw my desire. When I met him on that street corner, my friends and I had just returned from Laredo, from a whorehouse there across the river, across the Rio Grande. Just a few short hours before I had been in Mexico, on a midnight run with some Aggie ROTC cadets, but now I was alone, just a few blocks from the Alamo, on an empty street. I told my friends why I was leaving'”I gave them a reason. I told them I was looking for a phone. Because you see I was drunk and I wanted to talk to her. I wanted to talk to your grandmother.
You don’t know why yet. You don’t know why you want to learn things. But you will. Growing up, I always liked to know more than my brother, and he always wanted to know more than me. It came out in our explorations as children, in the things we began to name as we discovered them, the categories we placed them in. It was an unspoken game we played, unacknowledged even to ourselves. It was a race, but we didn’t know then it was for control. I just knew (and he knew) you felt more comfortable in the driver’s seat, when the other person wasn’t sure where you were going, but you did. It was power. Now looking back, I’m not sure why I was angry that day we stole the car, when my brother told me. I’m not sure if I was angry because I had been wronged, or if because of the girl my brother knew something that I didn’t.
That’s when the man said:
“Is it your friends that are waiting, or a girl? Tienes una novia, amigo?” (And now I could see his eyes smiling). “It’s a girl that’s waiting, no? Or maybe it’s you waiting on the girl… He! He!”
“How do you know I…”, but I didn’t finish the sentence, and by not finishing it I realized what I’d admitted. Somehow this made me more comfortable with the man though. I was past being unsettled. Now I was curious… Just like you’ll be curious, even when it makes you uncomfortable (hearing your grandfather talk about getting drunk and consorting with whores for instance), but for now you just hear my voice, you hear what’s in my voice and don’t necessarily understand what I’m saying, but what you hear in my voice makes you understand even more so, which is why I’m telling you now, so maybe you’ll remember it, remember what you hear in my voice now so that you’ll understand it better when you’re older, when you can read more into it, when you’re a young woman and have your first dealings with men… I was curious, just as you will be.
“You’re not thinking of yourself now are you, amigo? You seek an explanation?” He bent to pick up a cigarette butt crumpled by my foot. I didn’t move as he did it. “You seek something to believe in?” He didn’t look at me as he stepped back up to the sidewalk. He didn’t turn from me as he stepped away, but his head remained bowed as it swayed with his words. “Some things change. Some things do not… No mas… no more I have to tell you.”
“But how did you know… I mean, about the girl?” I asked, and for in instant I thought his face looked as mine must have looked, as he raised his head above the angle of his hat, but his earnestness held amusement.
“Who knows, my friend? She might be as guilty as you, did you think of that? Maybe you are waiting on her to tell you. But instead you will tell her first, no? He! He! Siempre… Siempre va, my friend. What causes the guilt might change, but why you are guilty never changes! Estas chico! It is apparent you know nothing about women.”
He began walking, walking back along Houston Street, towards the River Walk. I started walking with him. I guess he assumed I would follow him because he began telling me a story:
“I had a friend who had a cousin who once painted rocks. She found them here, along the river'”this must have been forty years ago'”before the floods came, when they dammed up the river and created the bypass channel. Before they began building on it, what you see today… Her family came from when the original Mission was established, an Indian family like my own, when the first fort was also built by the Spaniards and traders from Louisiana… Anyway, this friend of a cousin, who’d lived here all her life, one day decided to gather rocks from along the river and paint them. She painted them and then arranged them in such a way that they created a picture, an image of something else… She began to show them, these rocks, to the people she knew'”her friends and family. Some were jealous of what she did with the rocks, for they had not thought of it themselves, or were afraid. Others were offended, for the rocks reminded them of something in themselves, something they didn’t like. And there were some that liked her rocks, for they tried not to own what they saw in them… The response to her painted rocks confused her, for people didn’t always respond the same. Sometimes she would rearrange them, the rocks, to try and see what other people saw in them. She did this so often that she would sometimes forget how to put the rocks back. She felt lost when this happened, much like you looked lost on that street corner when I first spoke to you, so much so that she began to wonder if it was worth it'”the time she put into the rocks… Then one day the people that knew her saw her carrying the rocks to the river. She had painted many rocks, and they were heavy, but no one helped her, no one helped her return the rocks to the river. No one said anything at all… The floods came soon after, and they moved the Mission to where it stands now.” (This is when he motioned with his hand as we were walking, for we were passing it then'”Alamo Plaza'”which in the moonlight illuminated the old trees there, the live oaks cresting out with their roots and branches.) “No one knows what happened to her rocks. Sometimes people say they see them below the current of the water, shimmering there beneath the water’s threads. And no one asks her about them (she’s still living I suppose). Because you see everyone knew how the rocks truly belonged. They knew how they were rightly arranged. That’s why no one helped her return them to the river… Como se va? Do you know? Do you know where we are going? For which changed, my friend? The river that now has the rocks? Or the woman that one day gathered them and on another day returned them'”the rocks that she painted on?”
“They both changed, didn’t they?” I answered as we walked.
“No… siempre verdad… One wanted to change. The other is change…”
“But…” I interrupted.
“Your faith is like those rocks, my friend. It should be like rocks in the river… You do not change the river with your rocks, but the river still changes. Si, it changes and is changeless in its purpose, and you just choose to fight that or not. Comprendes…? What do you desire? That changes. Why do you desire? That is unchanging'”it flows from something on which your faith can rest. It just depends. It depends on what you paint on the rocks…”
He was like a shadow beside me. At any other time I would have ignored him, small as he was, wearing that dirty derby hat. At any other time I might not have seen him at all'”might not have known he existed. He walked like his feet were in chains, hobbling from foot to foot'”and he never looked at me as he spoke'”his eyes didn’t seem to speak at all. He seemed to breathe with each word, out of his mouth, like the walking was almost strenuous to him.
I was still drunk and had forgotten about her for a moment'”your grandmother. And I realized something as I walked with him'”for a split second I knew something and then that too was forgotten'”yet though I didn’t know it, or didn’t want to know it, my walk with him became different. I wanted to trust this man. And I knew why. I wanted him to trust me… You know there’s a saying, something we all come to know and understand, each time with a new remembrance, each time with hopefully something never learned, but I knew it then, as I walked with this man, it being the dead of night and your mind not knowing if you’re dreaming, and it wasn’t guilt, that’s not what I felt walking with him, for we hardly feel that anymore, no, something uglier, more horrible (for at least in guilt there’s a certain freedom, in our admission and paying the price, even honor), no, this is hidden, reflected, basic, for you see it was my pride that I knew then, my pride that he had unsettled in its measurement when he first spoke to me, and you see that’s why there’s no rest for the wicked… I suppose it’s because no one likes to feel weak, a fool, and so there’s fear (also something basic), a basic fear that drives us, that drives us to play the game, a game we cannot trust, for that’s what keeps you up at night, not knowing whether to trust people or not, trust what they tell you, or what’s worse'”taking a good look at yourself when you’re not sure anymore if you can trust what you see… I realized that in the split second as we were walking together'”the man and I'”but then it too vanished. My pride no longer questioned it, what was happening, and I breathed easier.
You’ll come to know this as you get older. If you’re like me you’ll probably try to avoid it as long as you can. But there’ll come a moment when you’ll wonder, deep down, whether you’re a fool. Because you see it goes back to knowing things, like how I always wanted to know more than my brother. There’ll be times when you’ll think you’re ahead, and you’ll rest easily. But then there’ll be those times when someone will make you take a good look at yourself, make you doubt that you really know everything in your memories, and with that seed your pride will begin to work, your vanity… It’s really just a matter of pride with the other person as well, maybe even carelessness, why they make you doubt yourself, because you see there’s power in that, in information held in confidence. You’ll soon learn, as I learned that it wasn’t just my brother that wanted to know more than me. And it might keep you up at night, wondering what the truth really is, as people tell it, and whether you look good in the light of it. You can lose your hope in that. Hope in other people, for there’ll be times when you’ll be very sensitive to this and lonely. You’ll lose your hope unless you put your faith in something else then, and you’ll know when the time comes, even if everything else has been stripped away, at its most basic, stripped even to the very pride of your self-love, for then you’ll know it’s pride that makes you a fool in the first place.
Still, I didn’t like the fact. I didn’t like the fact that I was walking with this man, not knowing where we were going. It was like being awoken from a dream, like a steady sound that slowly gets louder, reminding you of another reality, its pertinence. But I walked with him and I listened, for now I wanted to tell him something. Something about the girl, your grandmother.
I guess that’s what trust is all about'”wanting to share something, or sell something, and doing what you have to in order to share it, or make the sale. I wanted to trust this man because now I wanted to share something with him, he left me feeling like I could share it with him (you see'”he had already made me trust him), and so I wanted to talk in order to instill his trust (a trust he already had because you see that’s why he spoke to me in the first place, because it’s not in the words that trust is given or gained'”it is read elsewhere'”it is a feeling unseen, built on faith, a hope, or coldly, on a selfish opportunity…). It was just strange how I sensed this, how he left me feeling like this, but I also knew about this, in a flash, an instant'”I knew that he first spoke to me because he saw me naked there on the street corner'”he knew I would want to trust him.
So of course I wanted to defend myself (and in a way I guess defend her too… because I could never consider her having the same thoughts I had, the same good intentions gone awry… for you see, it’s surprising what you don’t see, the reason being love for instance, or justice maybe, or naivet©…). I wanted to defend myself to this stranger, this Mexican picking cigarette butts from the street, and in so many words defend why I had nothing to tell her, your grandmother. Basically, I wanted to rationalize my own guilt. I wanted him to tell me I wasn’t guilty. That I needn’t worry about her guilt. For you see that’s what trust really is, what the sharing is all about at least. We want forgiveness. What keeps us up at night is taking advantage of that, wondering if we’re being taken advantage of, if we’re really just being sold something instead, selling ourselves.
I really didn’t cheat on your grandmother. Though I sure talked about it. It’s something brothers talk about. I’m sure even your father heard some stories'”I told him some, and he was with me sometimes, sometimes when I was with my brother. And sure we talked then, my brother and I, almost enjoying your father hearing, though he wasn’t much older than you’ll be when you understand some of this, because you see we weren’t beat, beat into submission then, for it was normally when we were driving, me shotgun again like those joy rides in my youth, your father in the back, normally we were fishing out hunting spots, on back roads in the woods, this in Missouri, where my brother lived then and not in Illinois like when we were kids… your father wasn’t much older than you’ll be when you understand some of this'”this was before he went to Texas, and what he saw was what maybe I saw in that Mexican’s eyes when I was lost on that street corner but didn’t know it… we weren’t beat then, my brother and I on those back roads, nor had your father been yet, so maybe what some of what we said scared him'”we weren’t beat and maybe even we were rebelling a bit, not necessarily remembering something, remembering our youth, a wiser joy than that'”no, we were living, and old enough to accept the unlawfulness of it, accepting almost what you would call the presumptuous grace of it I guess (for we live by grace), but no anger in it anymore, in our fate, more a mischievousness without malevolence'”funny in a way… and my brother and I understood that (though perhaps your father didn’t at that time). It was play. Because you see we were not cowards then, sticking to principles that made no sense when we were in that car'”we were brothers and we knew each other… Who knows? Maybe there’ll be some things you come to accept as well, about yourself, what may stifle your tears at the thought of men, after your trust has been broken a few times and you no longer feel unjustified in what you deny you’ve done yourself in the company of women… No, I never cheated on your grandmother, but I wasn’t no virgin neither.
We weren’t virgins then, my brother and I, when we fought about the girl. We didn’t fight that day when we stole that car from the junkyard, when he hinted at it and I knew. No, I came after him with a pitchfork the day we got arrested, when that picture of me at graduation was taken, when I found him in the barn, up in the hayloft with her in the dark… Now you’re probably wondering what the man has to do with it, why I’m talking about Texas, because you see that’s when the man said:
“What’s on your mind, nino?” He said this as we were still walking, and I suppose we had walked quite a distance, for it was then that I realized he had finished the story some time ago, about faith and the rocks. He hadn’t spoken since, but we had continued walking, and I was not there.
“You can’t remember, can you? Were you here, with me? Or somewhere else? Somewhere else maybe in the past?”
He turned a corner, in fact I think he was waiting to speak until we came to that corner, because his questions disrupted me and I hesitated to turn, almost walking up to the next block. I hurried to catch up to him, and I knew by how he didn’t look at me as I got in pace with him again that he was waiting for me to speak.
“I wanted to tell you about…”
“The girl?” He answered for me. “Is that what you really want to talk about? Or is it what just happened that now you can’t remember. What happened as we were walking? It seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it? But it was only just a moment ago. We were walking and then I turned. But it took longer for you, didn’t it? Not in just the turning, no?”
“I guess I was wondering if I could trust you,” I said.
“Is that important? It must be because you hesitated. Now you think I know something about you. And you think that’s important. That you will remember… Como se va? Is that how it goes? You want me to admit this thing. This thing you think I know. Then you think you would be in control again… Que quieres? What would you be in control of? For hasn’t it already happened? You want control of the past. Verdad? Your memory of it…? Do you know why you hesitated now, my friend? Mira! It was too late! I had already turned the corner!”
And so you see the reason why I’m telling you all this. Just like you know why you cover your eyes. It was just like with my brother, what I was afraid I would do with your grandmother. Because it was the same thing. The same thing with this man. Something sane and yet superstitious at the same time. I had made my judgments of him, but there was something else going on unsaid and I wanted to judge that as well. Because you see the man was right. I wanted to be in control of what had already happened. That’s what I really wanted to change… And it was just like with my brother. You see he never admitted it, about the girl'”it just slipped out during our joy ride from the junkyard (I knew my mother knew, but I also knew she would never tell him, my brother, about how she caught us out in the field, the girl and I, how she grabbed a stick and made a switch out of it, beating my bare ass as I tried to pull my pants up… and I knew that the only way he could know, how he could know why my ass was sore, was if she told him). Maybe he didn’t even mean to let it slip, which is why I was afraid, why I hesitated with the man in Texas, because I worried I might let it slip as well, let it slip with your grandmother if I just didn’t admit it to her, what had happened there. I knew because I remembered. I remembered, as you’ll soon learn, that we always reveal what we’re thinking, what we intend and don’t intend, even when we speak in courtesies, even when passing that stranger on the street, in our imagination. It’s just that most of the time we’re not paying attention because it’s not important to us. But we know when it is important to us… It was the same with this man, as it was with my brother that day we stole the car'”I wanted him to admit it. I wanted them to admit what they knew about something that had already happened… I know I wanted my brother to admit it, which is why I went after him with a pitchfork the day we got arrested, when I caught him with her, in the dark.
“Is this pissing you off?”
The man stopped. I stopped a step after him. He stopped walking by a door. A wooden door, hammered together by unpainted planks hanging loosely by rusted nails, stripped in places, old-looking and abandoned like what I remembered in the metal remnants of the junkyard… a door not quite closed but not quite open either, like a breeze left it undecided, a door that couldn’t make up its mind.
“You think if you knew the truth you would be in control. But which is truth? What you felt a moment ago, as it was happening? Or what you feel now, remembering it? Have you questioned how you question? For there are some things people don’t want to know. Verdad? No one likes it when you ruin the ending… Como? Why is this so? Perhaps because you lose your relation to it then, your faith? Perhaps because then there is only left judgment? For don’t you know your faith in the future lies in not knowing it, but knowing that it ends? Si… That is where hope abounds… Comprendes, amigo? What is it you’ve really learned? Or have you just been told? Huh? Have you got it all figured out? The river dies too, my friend. It has died and is always dying. It dies in the salt of the sea.”
Your grandfather was a young man then. And I thought I had figured a few things out. But you see this memory I’m sharing with you, about my youth, about this man in Texas, was crucial for another reason. It wasn’t just about marrying your grandmother, though without that you wouldn’t even exist, your memory of this in pictures of me wouldn’t even exist; no, I was about to graduate again, and I had some decisions to make about that. There will come moments, different moments in your life, as you grow into a young woman, moments of truth if you will, when you come face to face with these choices, choices you’ve made and the choices you have to make because of them, because of your past. There is pain in these moments, until you are no longer afraid, afraid of what you have to face. You see I was a young man then and I thought I’d figured a few things out, but I wasn’t quite ready to take responsibility for that yet'”I hadn’t learned that yet. I thought I was quite alone then, with that man in Texas, with the responsibility of the past behind me, a past depending on my choices now to even exist at all, exist in my memory, exist in death… I had a big decision to make, about my future. I was about to graduate again, but I’d been offered to stay to pursue a master’s degree, and I had to decide if I would stay or if I would be commissioned then, commissioned as an officer in the Air Force and begin active duty. I had to decide after the drill meet, when we returned from Texas. It was the last ROTC function of the year, and exams where coming up, and I knew if I stayed I couldn’t marry your grandmother. I couldn’t start a family.
It was the same thing. The same thing with my brother, which is why I thought of him there in Texas. Because you see I had to make a decision then as well, after we were arrested while I was giving my valedictorian speech, after I caught him with the girl… It is written it is appointed a man to die once. But there are other deaths. Other deaths that are little deaths, little deaths of awakening that bear forth much fruit. I suppose every change is a little death. What’s surprising is we don’t see it. And it is a contradiction. Why we don’t see it until we don’t want it, until we’re afraid of it… There was a different door that day. That day my brother and I were arrested. They had already taken his statement and were waiting for mine. We didn’t speak as we sat together outside that door, in a room bright with artificial light, light reflecting off the glass hanging on the wall, glass plaques, diplomas and awards, framed and arranged, and for a moment as I was sitting there with my brother I wondered what for, why the detective’s office shined with them in the artificial light, if not just to fill the space, the space on the wall, just as the couch my brother and I were sitting on filled space, just as the desk across from us, neatly organized, and the filing cabinet behind that did, all of it reflecting the artificial light coming from the fluorescent tube fixtures above, too many off them, running along the ceiling, almost giving an audible glow'”the only sound in the room. Then the door opened. This one with a window in it, etched with reinforced glass, and though it had a handle and a lock to turn, it only opened one way… My brother had already been in this room. He had already seen this door before. Because you see, this wasn’t the first car he stole.
Grace is much like your mother, how she cares for you. And just like all of us you won’t remember how you take advantage of that, how naked your desire is to own it. Right now you are still breastfeeding. But you don’t feed from your mother just for food. It is something else you want, and you use it to sleep at night. It’s just funny how there are times you forget that, how you fall asleep without it. For it is the same with grace, how we all find ways to fall asleep without it, but just like you we expect it to be there, to be there to take care of us. There are even times we want this when we really don’t need it, and because of this there are opportunities we let go by, like when your mother prepares food for you but you want her breast instead. But then we grow, we change, and we see our mothers in a different way, we see grace in a different way, hopefully… My brother only said one thing in that room as I was waiting to be questioned. He said it leaning forward, his elbows on his knees and his hands folded together, looking straight ahead to the empty chair behind the desk, a leather chair that the light from above seemed to sit in. He said it and I know he said it to no one in the room:
“I hope she don’t cry.”
And then he bowed his head, running his hands through his hair. Some dandruff flakes fell to his workpants (he was painting then'”a job out of town on a new housing development), and I remembered staring at them, the flakes resting on his knee next to a stain of dried white paint, when the door opened and I was called in… How strange it all is! For don’t you see? I had choice about what I would admit. And I knew what they wanted, what those men in the other room wanted after they came to arrest me at the high school graduation'”they wanted me to admit it. They wanted me to admit it was my idea to steal the car. It was why though that was strange. They wanted me to admit it so my brother wouldn’t have to go to jail. This was a small town, and some of the men in that room went to church with her… I had a decision to make that day, that day my brother and I got arrested, just like I knew I had to make a decision after I returned from Texas, and these are the little deaths that I’m speaking about, because these choices just weren’t about me, what I wanted to change just wasn’t about me… My brother was a two-time offender, and we knew it will kill our mother if he went to prison.
So I took the blame then. The blame for my brother. I also abandoned all hope of going to the university. That is until the principal of the school (the same man that handed me over to the officers at graduation) came out one day, to a field I was busting out with an old mule and a plow, and told me there was a scholarship, an ROTC scholarship to the university, waiting for me if I would accept it. How strange it all is! That your father was given the same chance, the same chance to admit something, not about what he knew but about what he wanted, what he wanted out of life… That’s when the man opened the door in Texas. As I was remembering this, my brother and the choice I had to make then, when that picture of me at graduation was taken, and the similar choice I knew I was going to make now that I was graduating again, and ready to start a family. I didn’t immediately follow him, this strange Mexican with his satchel of discarded cigarettes'”I looked both ways, both ways down the street, but there was nobody around, nobody else to talk to. I suddenly wondered what time it really was. It was the same time at home, in Illinois, where your grandmother was, it wasn’t a different time in Texas, but now for some reason I didn’t need to call her. I no longer felt the need to wake her up. But I didn’t desire to return to my friends either… The door almost seemed to open towards the man as he walked towards it, with no sound, and he didn’t turn back around to speak to me'”it was more over his shoulder'”his eyes maybe catching me in the periphery, but I could tell from the light coming from inside that they weren’t focused on anything, neither on me nor on the door he was opening, and he said something, something I couldn’t make out. It was only when I followed him, followed him inside, into an empty warehouse, where his voice echoed off the naked concrete, that I heard what he said:
“… an identity. It is our identity we are at war with, for on our deepest level they cannot both live together in peace'”our flesh and our spirit… Are you hungry? You don’t know what you want. Do you? That is because you don’t know who you are. It’s not that you don’t remember. You just don’t know how to remember it. Verdad? In your memory of this, of what is happening here, if you tried to express it, anything is possible, yes? And all these possibilities, the ways you could remember yourself in relation to each moment, each moment that has already happened, they are not entirely right, nor entirely wrong. You know this, yes? They may even seem right one moment and wrong the next. For they are both, both extremes. But you know, you know but don’t understand it'”that there is really only one way it can be seen, the way in which it doesn’t change… That is what you want. That is why you consume time. But it can only be given to you when everything else is taken away… Come… Eat…”
He motioned me past him, so he could close the door. There was music coming from somewhere. Most of the warehouse was in darkness, the light being only at the door, where the man had placed a wooden crate next to a bedroll, a candlestick on top of the crate. Most of the wax from the candle had burned down, melting and then dried on the crate’s surface, and a loaf of bread, some slices cut from it, lay on top of where the wax had dried. There was also something else, almost out of the halo of the candlelight'”the man was boiling a pot, or at least he had been'”an iron kettle was suspended above the ash of a recent fire. Its shadow invaded the candle’s halo, even though it was further in the darkness, further into the empty warehouse. It also seemed to be where the music was coming from. He must have seen me searching for its source because he said:
“Si… you hear it? It is a little radio I have. I like to listen to it in here. Otherwise it is too quiet, too many echoes… But that is not what you are thinking. Is it, my friend? Can music come from darkness? Suppose this candle I have was carried towards it. Would the light make the darkness cease to exist, or would the darkness merely prove that the light exists by giving it something to illuminate? Si… there is the most darkness where the light shines. That is why you do not understand it. They are contrary, and one is always dying as the other lives… We can shut our eyes. This is possible. Verdad? Si, we can do that. But we cannot shut our ears… Do you hear it? Does this music give you peace? Come se llamo, my friend? Sit… Eat,” and he motioned again, this time grabbing an extra wooden crate stacked near the door (it seemed the only thing stored in this warehouse'”a few empty wooden crates). He set it down and made a gesture for me to sit and waved to the bread by the candle. “I will make some tea.”
I listened to the music as he built the fire. I watched as he used one of the empty crates for kindling. I watched the shadows in the candlelight. The bread was fresh, but I only ate one slice. I was hungry, but I knew I wasn’t hungry for the bread. I listened to the music. I listened to the music, but not really to the words. I more felt it than anything, for it was the sound of a black man singing with his guitar, moaning the blues, and it must have been an old record because the sound was scratched and the man’s voice crackled. Then a new song began, just as the Mexican lit the match to the kindling, and with the light of the fire somehow my focus returned, maybe the bread helped too, and this time I listened to the words besides just feeling them, to the words the man was singing:
Well, you wake up in the mornin’,
You hear the work bell ring,
And they march you to the table to see the same old thing.
Ain’t no food upon the table, and no pork up in the pan.
But you better not complain, boy,
You get in trouble with the man.
“You ate very little. You are hungry, but not for bread. What are you hungry for?”
He was still kneeling by the fire, still looking into it. I could smell the wood burning, and also something else, what I had smelled on his breath when he first spoke to me'”it mixed with the wood smoke and I felt as if I were hunting again, hunting again at night with my brother.
“You lack temperance of the mind. It is your hunger that makes you a prisoner. What you sense. What you see. What you can imagine from it… Strange that what we see is what we don’t want to see in ourselves. But this you know because you want my trust, yes? You consume time with your habits with but momentary peace, for this is your past, a past that consumes to exist. That is the way of all flesh…”
He began breaking up the tobacco. The loose cigarette butts from his satchel. But I saw that he mixed it with something, some other form of leaf that he took from a pouch within the satchel. He did it as he squatted there by the fire. He did it as he spoke, but he spoke not to me, but to the fire.
“Que paso? What is this urge to explain yourself? Why does it haunt your memories? It is strange, yes? This urge to explain what has happened to us? And each time we think it is different, we think we are different, investing our time in an obsession we wish possess'”our work, a relationship'”movement, some goal, some object of passion that we must give a name… this time we wish to explain to our memory once it is over, after we have something else to do, our hope that it will give us an identity, a rest stop for our souls… Mira! Understand the fire!”
I had been thinking about what I wanted to say. Sitting there, where this man slept, by the candle and fire light, I was thinking about what I would say to him, how I would respond to what he had said. And I knew it was this same urge he was speaking about as he knelt there by the fire. Because you see we all do that. Merely waiting to speak. Thinking about what we will say instead of listening. And what really happens with all our planning? It is not at all what we come to remember… I was thinking about what I would say, but really I was just remembering what I had already said:
“You no longer have a brother.”
That’s what I said to him, my brother, after our mother came to get us at the police station. Our mother heard me say it. She didn’t know why I said it, or at least the real reason why I said it. She could tell I was angry, but she thought it was because I had taken the blame, the blame for the stolen car. But that wasn’t what I was really angry about, and this is maybe what I wished to explain to the man in San Antonio'”it was the girl. It was the girl I was mad about because he still hadn’t admitted it yet. Before our mother came to get us, after I gave my statement, I asked him. I asked my brother point blank. And that might be the strangest thing you have to learn, what you will learn growing up'”people lie. And what you will learn is why you still want to believe them… What was funny was I had lied, I had lied for my brother. How could I really be angry that he lied for me?
My mother heard what I said, and later that night, after dinner and most of the evening’s chores done, she told me a story. I didn’t know then that that would be my last night living in that house, that I wouldn’t be able to live there after that night with my pride, and that just shortly later, after my mother’s story, the moon full and low in the sky, I’d be up in that hayloft chasing my brother with a pitchfork, and before the next sunrise I’d be gone, taking with me my only pair of jeans, to work the fields of my uncle’s farm, the same fields that principal came out to, to tell me about the scholarship. She heard what I said, my mother heard what I said to my brother, but maybe it had nothing to do with the story.
“You remember Orry, don’t you?”
“He was your brother, wasn’t he?” I answered. “The one that died from smoking?”
“Yes, but that’s not the whole story. I’ve kept it from you kids, but I suppose you’ll know it soon enough. You’ll hear it from somebody in town… Maybe if I tell you now you’ll see why they’re telling you later…”
My mother said this as she was rocking. She was sitting in the rocking chair on the front porch, and I was sitting on the porch steps below her. The air was alive with the evening locusts, a cadence carried through the surrounding trees, the dark woods around us. One of the dogs, a pup from an old bitch my brother and I had since childhood, sometimes howled with the locusts. He’d raise his head, always to the left because he was blind in one eye, from where he was laying in the yard and howl towards the dark woods, towards the sound. We watched him howl as my mother told me about her brother, her dead brother who’d died in a fire.
“It was the smoking that killed him, but it’s how it killed him that most people don’t know about'”we tried to just keep it in the family'”most people don’t know about how that fire really started… It’s no mystery, Jimmy, how your faith is won or lost. We’re really just seein’ reflections, you know. What we see, what we believe in, is most of the time just what we’re givin’ people to respond to. And it’s our past you see, it’s our past that we’re responding to, sometimes pitying ourselves for it. But it gives us some sense of control, an identity. Strange that this is also how faith that is weak is fed, or broken… sometimes we get a peek through the glass, and afterwards, the light, the way the light is reflected off people has a different angle to it. It creates shadows in the reflections. Some things get through that didn’t before, and other things that were once seen are suddenly shut out'”I guess that’s what it was like for my brother, why he died I guess'”I suppose what it’s like for all of us at different junctions in our life. Just that some of us are more sensitive to it, more sensitive to how things change and come around again. Others forget more easily… Orry didn’t forget that day. The first day it occurred to him that maybe his excessive smoking habit and the bad things beginning to happen around him were somehow related, and maybe that thought stayed with him, and his faith grew in it not just because it was told to him (he did know in the end), no, I think he began even believing it possible because he told it to himself (unseen to even what was intentional, what other people will tell you about it later)… Don’t ever be fanatical about nothing as a man, when you’re livin’ on your own. Promise me that. There’ll be times when you’ll have to tell yourself things, things no one else will tell you, things you might not fully understand, but when it interferes with lovin’ people, lovin’ people and yourself the right way anyway, some truth is missing from it, some reality, and it may even be a lie you’re telling yourself. It’s wise I guess, it’s wise not to forget your past, but you should never take a good long look. What you see of yourself should always be remembered, but not loved, not loved obsessively, and once you know it when asked to look you should never look again… I suppose it was just easy with Orry. It was easy to make him take a good look at himself. And I can’t really blame anybody, say any one person was guilty. We were all guilty. Because the first time it happened no one meant it to happen. He always had a thing for codes. Encryptions, riddles, puzzles of all kinds'”he had a knack for them. It was strange how he could find words in a puzzle yet not understood other codes, other codes being spoken all around him. It wasn’t that he couldn’t unravel these codes, the situation always being the key, he was just a little late in learning them I guess, and then he preferred his own puzzles. Maybe that’s why he started smoking. Why what he was good at made him somewhat retarded in another sense. Because when he couldn’t respond to what people we’re saying, what they were really saying around him, he found other ways to express it, sitting for hours with his puzzles… But my brother wasn’t a bad man. Vain perhaps, but not bad. Which is why I didn’t understand how he could think his own thoughts could hurt anybody. Folks always sort of made fun of him because he had a way of saying exactly what was on his mind. It’s funny the one time he didn’t was when something bad happened. He came up with his own code, you see. He came up with his own coded message to give to a girl, a girl he was sweet on in school… From what I heard (I was going to school then too) it was quite personal, the letter he wrote her. That is once someone bothered to decipher it after he died. I suppose that’s why he never talked much and felt foolish when he did. He had a way of confiding in folks like it was always a private conversation, and then he wasn’t sure who should be ashamed. He must of felt foolish when the girl couldn’t understand his message. We tend to laugh at what we don’t understand, especially in school. Handing it to her at lunchtime, surrounded by all her friends probably didn’t help. He just walked away after he gave it to her (it was almost summertime and we ate outdoors then, during exams, resting under the dogwood blooms), he stepped out of the shade where the girl was sitting with her friends (he never did sit down) and lit a cigarette like they were not there. It was probably because she was laughing why she choked, but see Orry couldn’t hear that, not while he was smoking. Later she said it was her tooth, her tooth was hurting which made it hard to chew, which caused her to choke, at least that’s what she told him when he gave her the second letter, this one not written in anagrams… Everything happens for a reason. It’s just that sometimes we think it’s important, and other times not. The truth is it’s both, and when we don’t see that we’re in some form of despair. You can’t make yourself happy, Jimmy. Just like you can’t really make others happy though you should try. It’s funny how we feel despair when we realize this from time to time, before we have something else to pursue, when we get what we thought would make us happy, when what we felt was important isn’t important anymore. It’s so light, you see, so simple'”everything in all its significance'”but you only know this when you’re not trying to please yourself, when you know you’re doin’ what you’re supposed to be doing'”pleasin’ God… If you do that you get what you want.”
I remember the moonlight then. I was watching it as my mother spoke, listening but not quite listening because I was still distracted, you see, still distracted by what I thought then was my questionable future. I was worried about what was going to happen to me after my confession, and I was angry that I had been lied to, and I wanted to see if she would lie to me too, if the girl I knew my brother was seeing would lie as well when I asked her. I was watching the moonlight as my mother spoke, thinking about this. As I listened I watched the moonlight shine through a spider web hanging from a nearby tree. The light was right to see it then, and I could see a spider, a big one, in the center of it, in the center of the circling threads. The web swayed suspended in the low-lying branches, just above the path leading to the barn. It swayed though there was no wind I could tell of as my mother continued the story.
“I suppose my brother knew she shared it. That she shared the letters he wrote to her. But I guess he just never considered why. He was just happy, happy to think somebody believed him, believed in him. He was the center of her attention, and he liked it. He liked it that now everything happened for a reason, at least at first… But the truth was at first even he didn’t really believe it. He had merely mentioned it as a possibility, a whim of his passion, in the apology he wrote (the letter she could understand), to show how he had strong feelings for her. Strange how it began to happen all of a sudden'”little small mishaps that somehow his schoolmates had the rare energy to muster'”always, of course, while he was smoking… What people don’t know, what they might tell you about it later that they don’t know is maybe I’m to blame. Because, you see, I finally told him. I was his sister and I didn’t want to see him made fun of… It’s the worst feeling to find out what you once believed is a lie. It’s the worst form of despair, the worst form of fear. Then it just depends on how you can forget, how you can forget yourself in other people, how you forget yourself before God… Orry couldn’t forget, he couldn’t forget himself, so he got drunk, he got drunk in that barn there when this was my father’s house, and now people say he just fell asleep smoking a cigarette and nothing more about it, but that ain’t how he died'”he died because he wanted the bad things to stop happening. Maybe he really believed they would…”
When she mentioned the barn I knew. I knew because I remembered the straw stuck to my brother’s pants from the day we took that joy ride with the stolen car. Maybe my mother knew too, but she didn’t stop rocking when I leapt from the porch and ran towards the barn. The light was different so I didn’t see it. I didn’t see the spider web until I ran through it. But I didn’t stop. I ran with its threads trailing behind me. Because, you see, I knew then. I knew my brother was up there with her in the dark, up there in the hayloft of the barn. I knew it was the only place he could be…
It took me a while. It took a while for me to stop thinking about what I had already said. Sitting in that warehouse in San Antonio. The man had muddled me. I was still wondering how I had so easily accepted it'”following this Mexican to where he slept, how like my mother’s brother he had made me look at myself. It was almost like the past I knew didn’t matter, that perhaps it didn’t exist at all how I had once felt it. And I wondered which really existed for the other, because it seemed like what was happening could be explained both ways, I was both making it happen and also responding to it as it was happening, and I wasn’t sure, I just wasn’t sure what to believe as they both circled around for control in my identity. It was strange that none of it'”my childhood, the argument with my brother and the stolen car, even all that I done since to prove that I could graduate (working full-time bussing tables in the cafeteria, cleaning the toilets in my boardinghouse to pay for my room, studying all hours of the night), none of that mattered, not even my pride in my poverty… and yet all of it was there, commingled in this conversation I was having with this man, but now shaped somehow into another form, another identity, almost like a mirror image, that made me afraid, afraid for my own sanity in a way I guess, but still I listened, mesmerized by the man’s words and the burning fire:
“What is it that you love? What burns in the fire, or the fire itself? Or should I ask which is it you really want'”the things that change or things that change you? Mira! For how does the fire burn, my friend? The fire burns by consuming only that which it can change.”
He was still kneeling by the pot. The ground leaves from his pouch he poured into the kettle. The fire was going good now. The kindling from the crate crackled as the heat dried it, as it began burning. I couldn’t help but watch it, watch it burn as the man spoke.
“Before, this wood had no purpose. It was left here to rot in this warehouse. But now, as it burns, it has more than just something to do, and as the fire burns away its imperfections, what can change about it, it becomes what is acting on it, because, you see, it already has all the properties to become it, to become fire… Now this wood has a purpose. It warms us here, in the dark. And it is the same with your will, my friend. Only when it burns, burns with the fire of love, does it have a purpose'”the purpose to unite with the love that made it and thus become as it is… Siempre va, my friend. So it is with time, that eternal river, with which we wish to unite so as to see our perfection, our changelessness, for how does time measure itself? Does a fire really end? Or only what became the fire? What your pale reason hides from you?”
Then the man turned. He turned and stood away from the snapping flames reaching up from the kindling. But as he turned to face me, he was different. His face was different, and so were his clothes. He was no longer a small Mexican wearing pajamas. He was a black man with a different hat, and when he smiled (because he smiled when he turned towards me) his teeth were white, blindingly white…
And that’s when it happened again. After the last of exams at school, the last lecture. And this was about a week after what happened with the man in San Antonio, after I had returned from there. The same nudge. The same altered perspective, and then everything lost, and only your grandmother to save me… It’s funny how you look at it. When bad things happen to you. When it happens, you might not even call it a bad thing'”the sudden changes to your life, the sudden changes in how you look at yourself. It may depend on if you even look at yourself at all. Because, you see, it’s not just your own responsibility that you have to take into account. We know if we deserve what happens to us. There’s no such thing as an accident, and when you see that, the things that happen to you just don’t seem that bad anymore… Don’t ever see justice as malevolent. It makes it easier that way'”the things you have to do after you face judgment. And it exists even in what you have to do after you feel like you haven’t been judged at all, when you learn to carry your own sins around with you. Because then even your own sins, their consequence, are turned to blessings, for they allow opportunities for forgiveness, and something else dies instead… I didn’t die in Texas. But something did happen when I returned. Something changed.
It happened in the woods. But what I can remember about it is almost like a picture. My mind still sees it sometimes, even when my eyes are open. It was in the woods where it happened, but it wasn’t the spring air that I remembered then. It was still the woods, but it was winter, the previous one, before beginning my last semester of college, when I went home for the holidays… I went home then'”to see my mother (my brother was already married by then, and had a son, and it was forgotten then, it wasn’t important anymore why I had left home after graduation'”the girl was forgotten'”just a silly story now, now only mentioned for temporary control of the conversation when we were alone together and needed to laugh… at least it was until I went to Texas). I went home for my brother’s birthday (not Larry’s, though he was there with his wife and newborn son and a few shotgun pellets still remaining from where I shot him in the ass that night up there in the hayloft… no, it was my oldest brother Billy’s birthday, the one that lived in a home'”his birthday was Christmas…) It was wintertime in that picture I have of going home, the picture in my mind that I remembered there in the woods, after the last of my exams were taken and I was walking back with your grandmother to the room I had at the boardinghouse. That picture in my mind I remember and nothing else. Anything else I forgot. I lost all memory of myself in those woods and only your grandmother was there to witness it. And all I can tell you about it now is what I remember of that picture, that picture I saw in my mind then. It was still the woods, but it was winter. A light layer of snow, almost a frost, covered the ground, and for some reason I was back on the bridge, the old train bridge at home. The tracks came out from the woods and crossed the river where the old road had been, the old road that had led into town. I remember I was standing on it, on the old train bridge, looking down into the frozen river, and for some reason I knew I was home because it was Christmas, my brother’s birthday. The sun was setting, and it was one of those winter sunsets, when the cold air and cloudless sky mellow the colors that seem to spring from the horizon. The twilight rays reflected through the woods, onto the sheets of ice where the water still moved in the river… I don’t know why I remembered this. Why I remembered this picture in my mind. All I know is it’s all I can remember of what happened then, what happened then in the woods with your grandmother. A frozen river at sunset is my only memory. That and the story your grandmother told me…
Now you’re probably wondering about the tea the man gave me. That tea the man made when I was in Texas, in San Antonio. I didn’t find it strange that he was black when he turned around. Not after I drank some of the tea. He was like an old friend, and what’s strange is I knew I’d see him again, and I did see him again. I saw him again in my dreams after I was diagnosed with cancer'”he was the image of one of my friends who died in the war (I saw him die), after I became active duty and volunteered for Vietnam… He didn’t warm the tea for long. It was almost cold with some of the leaves still in it, and when I tasted it I knew the man’s breath'”what had reminded me of the woods at night. It had a taste that I will never forget, though I never tasted it again… It’s funny what we give up for an image. Perhaps it’s the price for our idols. When I returned from San Antonio the choices I made were merely a formality. I declined the internship to work on my master’s in psychology (I wanted to be a counselor) because there was no money in it, at least then when I needed it, when I needed a way to support myself to marry your grandmother. No, I joined the military instead. Because it was a job and it provided some stability. I signed on active duty and my first assignment was in the Netherlands. I married your grandmother and my job was in a missile silo. I was a nuclear weapons officer… I remember what happened after I drank the man’s tea, but it didn’t make sense until later, until after that last lecture before graduation, until I was walking in the woods with your grandmother.
“What do we burn for its allurement? The allurement of smoke? Why is smoking, the use of tobacco and other indigenous herbs in ritual, as a rite of passage, so common in many cultures? Yet here, in our society, its history is underground. Why is that? This is something you must ask yourselves. Why its use as a rite of passage loses its purity, its religious aspect, when we hide it from ourselves… Most of you are about to receive your degrees, but you should not forget what you’ve learned here. What history outside our civilization shows us. What it shows us of how a man becomes a man.”
It was a seminar really, for an elective (I was an English major)'”an anthropology class in the afternoon'”and I didn’t really like the professor. He was old, but he still dressed for the stage, always with a handkerchief, and he had way of looking you in the eye (like his own eyes were about to pop) while he spoke in front of the class, like what he was saying was directly to you. An Oxford graduate, divorced I believe, and he liked to speak of his attempted suicide as a young man as if it was our ethical responsibility to hear it.
There’ll come a time in your life when you discover the lines you’ve drawn, the lines you’ve drawn in your life, lines you’ve decided not to cross, suddenly begin to curve and turn in on themselves, and in those moments you won’t be sure if the lines even exist anymore. The truth is they really don’t, at least they don’t when you admit it to yourself, for what you’re really dealing with is time, and time doesn’t follow a line. If it really did there would be nothing to sustain us… I had signed the paperwork that morning, my commissioning paperwork, and afterward, sitting in that seminar, my exams over, I knew this wasn’t the first time I’d realized giving up wasn’t the same, it wasn’t the same as giving in. The trick is to laugh. And I suppose that’s what I did, for you see that’s what your grandmother said I did. I just began laughing. I laughed there, walking in the woods with your grandmother… Humor is a happy thing, the happy killer of faith, an alternative to hope. And at that moment I felt like I had no alternatives.
It’s funny what we give up for an image. But you see what I discovered, what I saw with that man in San Antonio is that our flesh needs it. Our flesh must have a form, some image, in which to house its identity. And without that there is nothing, there is no life… Knowledge without love is a noisy thing. And I guess there are easy ways and hard ways to acquire knowledge. The problem with the easy ways is when they finally make you see your own sins there’s no love there to forgive you for it. That’s sort of what I felt with the man, this black man in San Antonio. I felt drugged, and what I understood there with this man was stolen, (unlike with the shamans, those shamans of ancient cultures that professor had been speaking of during that last lecture before I went walking in the woods) that it had not been given to me because I deserved to understand it. I knew what I deserved. I needed only to understand what I had to do after I left there, after I returned from Texas and married your grandmother'”what I had to do to be a father… He was sitting across from me now, the black man, his knees hunched up with his arms around them. The strange thing was he was wearing a suit and nice shoes, but for some reason you couldn’t tell that. It seemed like he belonged sleeping in that warehouse even though his clothes tried to deny it.
He was smiling at me, and now I noticed a gold tooth in the blinding white teeth. Nearly forty years later I would see it again. In my dreams. My dreams of dead friends from the war. I didn’t want to be an officer. I didn’t think I’d make a career of it, that I’d make the military a career, but I did for thirty years before I retired. It provided for my wife and children. And it changed me. Because you see there’ll be a line in your life you’ll have to draw, a line you’ll have to choose, where you have decide what you want to do'”what makes you happy, or doing what you have to do, not only for yourself but for the ones you love… It’s our punishment, you see, our children. It sustains the race, and it’s a punishment we can bear. For when do you know what you really want anyway? What you want is only good when the line disappears, when time disappears after you’ve made your choice, and you realize what you have to do is the same thing, the same thing as your happiness. The man was right. It was like the fire, the burning fire we sat beside in that warehouse, the fire I was still watching.
“How’s the tea? You know dat’s river water you drinkin’. It’s clean though. I boyled it… Ain’t no beginnin’ or endin’ to dis. You know what I’m sayin? You feel me? Ain’t no point A to point B. Because point A is point B…” He was laughing now, a low laugh, almost like he was clearing his nose and throat. It was a deep laugh. “Same with the river I suppose. Like those in the valley knows. The river is cyclical'”its flow. Sometimes the old man floods. Other times he dries out… Sometimes you got to swim sideways. Not against the current, but sideways. Dat is if you knows where you wants to go… When you chasin’ the past, you really just findin’ your future…”
I do remember the last thing I saw, the last thing I focused on in those woods with your grandmother, before I saw the frozen river at sunset. Summertime was approaching, and the trees were full of them then. The white webs of bagworms hanging down from the limbs. I focused on them and new then that I’d been sleeping. I’d been asleep since I returned from San Antonio… There was a dream I had. The night I left home after I fought my brother. The funny thing is sometimes a dream can crowd in, when you awake, and it’s hard to remember which is really important and you have to find something to do, something to prove your waking life, its necessities, are really more comfortable, secure, and that there’s nothing really to return to, nothing your hiding from'”what you want. There was a storm when I left home, and I slept in a neighboring barn, in the wet hay with flashes of light and rain coming through the wood rafters. I dreamed of the girl. The girl my brother and I fought over. All I can remember of it now is I wanted to be alone with her, but I couldn’t. We couldn’t hide to be alone. And I remember waking for a moment, the rain had stopped, and as I tossed in the hay I fell asleep again and I dreamed of swimming, swimming with seahorses… I awoke again, this time it was near dawn, the dark just beginning to fade and the birds starting to sing, and when I fell asleep for the last time it was like I had brought my flesh with me, and I knew what I wanted, and I was trying, I was trying to be alone with it, but my mother kept looking for me to tell me, to tell me what I already knew, what she had tried to tell me before I left, before I ran to the barn, the white threads of the web trailing behind me… When I awoke the morning light was coming in, in blue colored rays, and I decided to stay awake but I just wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure if maybe I’d left something behind, that perhaps some of my flesh still lingered in the dream. I wasn’t sure if it wasn’t still there, waiting for me. And it was. The same desires. The same fears. They were there with this man, the man in San Antonio, and when I returned from Texas I just put them to sleep, where they belonged, because in sleep we know not where time goes, but I knew they would be awakened again, that I would have to face them for they were true, and I did, in those woods with your grandmother.
“What you see when you see me? What the color is of money? You hear me? You feel me?” And suddenly I couldn’t make out his face and I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure if he was still black. All I could see was his eyes, and the whites were not white. They were yellow from drinking alcohol and reddened from lack of sleep. “I had dog. A good dog once. He was good wit da children, and he walked wit me when I walked'”he went wit me to look for food, you know… One day a man pushed me. I guess he didn’t see me (I was kneeling by the water, pickin’ up cigarette butts for the pot, by the water yore drinkin’ now). He was talkin’ to a woman and didn’t notice me I guess, and he nearly pushed me in as he was walkin’ by… My dog bit him. He didn’t mean to'”he was just protectin’ me. And he didn’t really bite the man, not hard, he was just lettin’ the man know we were there, sorta of guidin’ him like, you know, grabbin’ his arm wit his mouth so I wouldn’t be pushed off into the water, the river dare… Maybe that would have been the end of it (I think he was embarrassed'”you feel me'”cuz of the woman), nothing would have happened after dat (he just kicked him off you know, he kicked my dog off and kept on walkin’ wit the woman), and maybe that would have been it if the woman hadn’t of noticed his wallet dropped, that his wallet had fallen out in the scuffle and was near close to falling in the water, near to where I was still kneeling… I wasn’t tryin’ nothin””I wunted tryin’ to steal from the man. I handed him his wallet, but see dat’s when dat woman raised a fuss. When she looked at me and the dog and the wallet nearly being lost she let out a yell, and well… you know–dey kilt em. Dey kilt my dog, and I spent a night in jail… Is dat what you see? When you see me? Feel me? Because I can talk like a white man too… It’s the only wicked thing you know'”killing what shouldn’t be killed, killing that thing inside you that believes, that thing inside that allows you to trust people and believe that they can trust you'”it’s the only wicked thing…”
Most people don’t really know what sacrifice is. What giving really means. The only true sacrifice is self-sacrifice, and when you know what that means, what’s gained from it and what is really lost, you see that it’s not really a sacrifice at all, and then all the reasons for it aren’t impersonal and arrogant and patronizing, for there is no self to feel this, and the only debtor becomes the self you’ve put away, the purity of it being your gratitude and the absence of guilt in what you’ve received'”unseen blessings… I knew what this black man was saying. I knew what he was saying about what it does to you when no one believes in you, when instead of earning their trust you earn their worst fears, and I guess this goes back to what I already said about judgment'”what judgment really is and how we use it to control the past.
Then I knew he wasn’t a black man anymore. He was my son, your father. He was my son speaking to me from the unborn, without tears. I knew this because I still believed. I still believed because they hadn’t killed that yet, and I knew my son was also promising me this. In this vision he was giving me this promise. And that’s why, you see, that’s why the past depends on the future'”it depends on the future in hope… I hoped this belief wouldn’t be killed in my son, your father. I hoped he would learn who to please, where the truth of his perfection truly lied. I hoped he would learn why hope never dies. What I learned in giving.
And that’s when I cried. I cried riding shotgun as your father and I drove through Montana, after he left Texas, before you were born and lived there, before you learned to walk there, in that house next to a junkyard. I cried because your father couldn’t tell me what he wanted. I cried because I feared he wouldn’t learn what I had learned, that he would not learn it before I died. What it meant to be a father.
We know not where time goes when we are asleep. Maybe you’re just beginning to figure that out. There are lots of things you’re learning now, even though you don’t know why yet you learn them. You’re not in Montana anymore now, where you learned to walk. Nor are you in Texas, where your father returned to remember some of this. There is a new child coming, and you are in New Orleans now, where your father went to school, after his own scholarship, not given him by the principal while he was busting out a field after taking the blame for his brother, but given him out of his own guilt, which is our last hope in the misperceived outcome of mistakes… And I cried then too you see, and that is my guilt because I didn’t believe in him then. My hope was faint. It was faint because I was still trying to figure it out, my role as a father'”the strange mystery of time'”a mystery that I must laugh at now because it stills remains unfinished even in my death… Do not try to understand your father. You will not understand just as he didn’t fully understand me. Just as you will weep over your own children. When you see yourself in the mirror of their youth, before maybe you can explain to them your bewilderment in the resemblances and meaningful coincidences… Your father received a scholarship, just as I did. But he didn’t steal a car, and he didn’t have a brother to chase with a pitchfork. Read his books. They explain it better than I can'”what happens to us when we get what we want. I never got to read them all. The ones he’s still writing. But I think he still hears it sometimes. The sound of my voice from his memory. I think he hears it every time he forgets something he’s already learned. There’s a comfort in that, you see, when we awaken from a long sleep and remember again there is nothing to fear. Hope is a comforter; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me…
It’s when you don’t want to learn anymore is when you have something to worry about. I didn’t want to learn anymore of what my mother had to tell me that night after my brother and I were arrested, when I ran through that spider web and up into the barn. And I guess I really had nothing to learn from the man in San Antonio. This black man before the fire. For they were already words long written down. And not one of them could be changed.
“I’m not the one… I’m not the one…” he said. And that’s when I noticed his hands. How they almost looked deformed from use'”white with calluses'”and bent in such a way, crooked from swollen joints, that he couldn’t make the fingers straight. “Do you really want to lay the blame of all this on yore flesh? On the fiery darts of childrun? Or is it something more? Yes… you hear me. Ain’t because it’s happening again. It’s always happened, and it don’t change'”the past don’t change. That’s what yore seein’ now. The glimpse of the eternal'”what you like to call coincidence'”spirit voices… You hear me? Ain’t nuthin’ to fear but fear itself. Or is dis a dream you havin’?”
Then he was gone. I don’t remember how he left. Maybe he just walked out. Left to rummage for more cigarettes in the garbage. I don’t remember. Maybe he kept talking, but I just didn’t see him anymore to remember. Maybe that’s what it was. I know I didn’t feel strange being alone there. The music was still playing. And I must have watched the candle burn down, burn down to the dried wax on the crate.
Your reputation is your greatest treasure. Strange how it seems that little of it is left up to you, and the countless thoughts and worries you store up in it end up of such little worth because they are just vain efforts for control. Don’t hesitate to see the contradiction in this, for then perhaps you’ll see the value of the treasure. The true treasure. The chastisement of time that teaches patience. It’s why I’m telling you all this. So that what you relate to you will relate to well, and what you judge when you judge it you will know what you know of it is already in the past, and it depends, it all depends on your hope for forgiveness.
It was dark in that barn. But I saw the light up in the hayloft. He heard me coming, my brother did, so he was ready. He was fully dressed when I made it up the ladder. She had more clothes. I don’t remember who I looked at first. Who I really looked at. I’m not sure who was more surprised… When I left that warehouse, that warehouse in San Antonio, the door shut firmly behind me, and that’s when I saw it, what I couldn’t see the night before (for it was morning now, the dawn already broken, the pavement of the streets gray in the light of it), a sign. Someone had marked the door long ago, with what looked like black paint from an old paintbrush that could no longer keep an edge, and then I knew what the crates were for. Maybe there were other book depositories to be left as this one was, and for some reason I was comforted to think that the stranger that I had met the night before slept inside them, that he was meant to sleep inside them… My brother had straw in his hair, and that look of being awoken from a dream that made sense a moment ago. But I knew he hadn’t been sleeping. The pitchfork was hanging on a post by the ladder. What I didn’t know is she already told him she knew I knew. Once he told her what happened with that joy ride from the junkyard she knew I knew. Maybe she had to point it out to him. Or maybe he just told her to see her response. In any case, he was ready for me. He had our step-father’s shotgun. He was aiming it at me.
That’s when I really looked at the girl, and in that moment’s look I knew I couldn’t hesitate. And so I didn’t. I charged at my brother with the pitchfork. He knew I was his brother. And so he didn’t shoot. The next moment we were grappling in the hay (he ducked and took me over his shoulder, me landing next to her, the pitchfork stuck in the wall) we grappled for the shotgun, and maybe he really fought me and maybe he just let it go, but once I had it he knew to run. He went out the hayloft window (there were bales of hay stacked below it), but not before I got a shot off. I can say now I knew where I was aiming, but I can’t say it was anything I was thinking that made me lower my sights. Maybe it was because I caught sight of the girl again, out of the corner of my eye, and this time I still didn’t hesitate, just as before, but I also knew it was for a different reason.
I was laughing in those woods. Those woods with your grandmother. Maybe I was laughing at the judgments. The judgments in which I had no control, and still the responsibilities that came with it, so basic and flowing from the past. Maybe I was laughing at what I had created. And when I could laugh no more your grandmother told me a story. A story about a man who survived a terrible disaster, a hurricane maybe. He survived and even saved his children. But when the worst of it was over, when the worst of the disaster was over and they returned to their homes, he lost his glasses, the glasses he wore to see. He lost them and before he could find them again one of his children accidentally sat on them, where he had left them, where they had fallen in the crack of his favorite seat… I don’t remember where she told me this story. Maybe it was in those woods, after the last of my exams, after what had happened in San Antonio with that stranger that was a man. Maybe she told me it there while I was laughing. Maybe she noticed how much I was blinking then, how my eyes were blinking… But perhaps it was later. It could have been after we were married (we married soon after I graduated; I graduated and was commissioned) because I do somewhat relate it with what was going on then, with what was going on in the world then, because I had to go to work, because you see it was soon after the Bay of Pigs.
But you will come to know these things, just as we all do. Only some of it will you read in books. The rest you will come to read and remember in voices. And you will survive it, you will survive your knowledge, just as I and your grandmother did and your mother and father are doing now before you. You just have to remember your name. Your name that makes you strong, and your true treasure in that… And maybe when you’re old enough you’ll come to read and remember some of this. A story told you somewhere (in a dream maybe) about your grandfather and how he stole a car. You’ll see it in the pictures. Pictures of me that look like you. But you know what they say about pictures, don’t you?
Sometimes pictures are less than the truth.
So wake up. Wake up now… Wake up and remember that you are loved.