Monday, November 30, 2009

Night, Cafe, Tea

Tonight, I linger at the cafe. People form long, snaking lines, drum fingers to glass desperate for a hot cup of something to fight the chill. I need heat as bad the next fellow, but wait for the line to clear. Sometimes you can pretend you don’t need anything until the pretense becomes solid. This is most true when it comes to tea; perhaps it is also true that it pays to whistle a happy tune.

And today, I manage it, that much. Part of that I owe to a fine conversation with a wise woman last night, who pointed out that I might have a tendency to find the downside of things and then wallow in shadow moaning about the lack of light.

The sky out the steamed windows is a bruised blue-black; rain seems imminent and never arrives. Intermittent, auguring nothing clear. But I’m willing to consider the possibility that it's winter, December weather, and not the cold gray evening of the soul. In considering this last week I wince a bit—at what point does recognition of grief become indulgence, loss just a sad-sack celebration of self-inflicted misery?

Today I finished a short-story I’ve been working on for four years, and I believe it good. (My favorite line: “And in a moment I understood how you could sacrifice until commitment made you better than you were.” My second favorite, from tonight: “And then Laura gives a laugh that’s like a cry, everything becomes the commotion of relief, and I look down at this infant innocent of all the grief ahead of him, and know how to love this child like my own”). My novel is free of the stacks and under consideration by four different agents, all established and reputable. The end of the quarter is near. My tea is still hot, as a result of not having moaned too much here.

And so I think I’ll stop, and figure out where to go from here.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Day after Thanksgiving

Today the sky is yellow and distant. The sun clears the clouds now and again, throws sharp, short shadows that cling to the bottom of things as if hiding, and people walk briskly in heatless light, hands in pockets. It’s rare to see clearly in late Fall—a gauze of rain blurs and softens everything, and the blinders of coat-hoods tight about the ears keep one focused only on what is ahead. Now everything can be examined, and the exposure is terrible, a world of judging eyes. I do not look directly at anything, squint into the bright afternoon hoping for blindness.

I like metaphors like this, but if I am being solipsistic, it does not mean anything good. And I know it doesn’t. I do not want to consider. I do not want to see myself.

I am on the edge of thirty, and live still in the comfortable, provincial little town I was born in. I’ve lived in the same cramped highrise apartment now for the last six years, an oriental rug laid over the veneer-wood floors, the dirty windows offering an eleventh floor view of the campus of the tidy, adequate little state university where I teach. For the last year, I’ve been in a relationship I thought might be the one, with a girl who I cannot manage to hate though she’s taken from me until she wanted nothing more I could give. It is not that I’m too forgiving, or too self-flagellating, just that what happened was nobody’s fault.

But my god, I am sick of this town, of the confines of my life. My family is here, my decent, kind folks who are so very concerned for me in light of this breakup, and so like my ex that they actually suggested I go back to her and tell her we were making a mistake. My brother and his wife and kids are near, and I love them and appreciate being a part of their lives. Yesterday we ate a moist turkey and decadent sausage and fennel stuffing they’d made, and everyone but me collapsed on the couch, cuddled with children and dogs, satiated, satisfied— content. I sat across in chair, back straight, holding myself apart. I am complicit in limiting myself, I don’t deny it. But I can’t fake it: try as I might, I am not thankful for much at all. What I have discovered this year is that it is possible to travel a great way on a long and difficult path and arrive at exactly the same place.

I want more; perhaps I want too much. Or perhaps this restlessness is more than loss or grief. Perhaps it is a kind of beginning, the first flutter of resolve that insists on change, that finally takes wing after so long.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Kenny Cox scene

This little piece of prose was originally in the essay I published about Kenny's death in the Eugene Weekly. It is simple, adolescent, clunky, and sentimental. But I still like it.

As usual, it comes down to the three of us, Kenny, Gabe and I, two in and one out, takedowns or until you’ve waited too long for your turn. Practice is over, the windows steamed and everywhere the contained scent of bodies and sweat boxed by the cold dark beyond. Some of the kids watch at the edge of the mat, sprawled about their gearbags, waterbottles in hand. They’re fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old, and I would say guys, but we have a girl out for the team this year, Penny, a real brawler who doesn’t take shit from any of these little shits. She’s watching them go, Gabe and Kenny, Gabe with his great swollen biceps and chest and all those tattoos he came back with from Iraq—that, and the scar that runs red and blue from his knee to his hip. Strong fucker, benches 450 and weighs an all muscle 170 to Kenny’s 155. State champion that Gabe was in high school, strong as he is now as a competitive lifter, he has no chance.

He’s wrestling Kenny Cox. The Kenny Cox. Not that you’d know him, with that shoulder-length hair and full golden beard, those tattered sweatpants cut to shorts and a tucked in shirt, those wrestling shoes with only the memory of rubber soles, the leather cracked, colorless. Or maybe you would, if you ever saw Kenny Cox compete. There’s still the barrel chest, stubby little piston legs, the same forward-driving fury, flurry after flurry of levels, hands on an elbow, head, tapping the knee to see if Gabe lifts it, the forward-back side stutter-step, fake for a low single, and Gabe sprawls back and Kenny tries a quick snap and shuck, fails to get around him, and waits in a perfect stance for Gabe to recover and push forward just a bit, and that’s it: Kenny clears the left elbow, steps into an easy single, yanks the leg straight onto the top of his shoulder, Gabe hopping comically on one leg, once, twice, and Kenny sweeps the last foot and Gabe is on the mat and Kenny on him and that’s the takedown. Two points.

Kenny stands, offers Gabe a hand up. Then he turns to me, and we square off and shake hands.

That’s the last memory I have of Kenny in the wrestling room. I can’t remember our go, though I’m sure he took me down—he almost always took me down—for it blends with hundred other times we went at it in that wrestling room, grown men pushing thirty, bad backs and joints, artificial tendons and chronic sprains, slower than we’d been, less hungry to win than to be on the mat. In that room, I spent four years of high school pushing myself beyond breaking, wanting so many things I didn’t yet understand and funneling all of it into each effort on that mat. And so it is somehow fitting that’s the last place I’ve wrestled, the last place I wrestled Kenny, a moment that’s past, a place that is gone for me now just as Kenny is gone, those losses inseparable.

Kenny died on Kauai four months ago seeking Eden, searching for an ineffable something that he couldn’t stop wanting. He went a very long way. I too have looked in strange places for something pure and true to heal me or release me, to finally suffice, and so I can’t say I don’t understand. I understand too well. And that makes me mourn him not because I was so close to him these last years, but from kinship, as if my grief were also for a lost part of myself. Perhaps it is.

The last time I saw Kenny was a year ago in the heat of August. I didn’t get to talk to him; I was in an air-conditioned cafĂ© working, saw a flash outside and then a short, tan, shirtless man run past in only jeans, his feet bare. Kenny. I pressed my face to the glass and watched his halo of hair recede down the street. I could have called to him, stopped him, but he seemed so purposeful and sure in his stride, and so I watched him run into the blinding afternoon, farther and farther away, until I lost him.


I'm sorry to report that I'm a bachelor again... not the tune I'd been singing.

But sometimes things change.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Stanford Magazine

I am pleased to report that Stanford Magazine will be publishing a short piece about Tod Surmon in their next issue. They were a pleasure to work with, and while I've never lost more than 1/2 of a 1,500 word essay before, I've also never made fifty cents a word...