Archive for teen years

You Vanish

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2016 by sethdellinger

Grandma was a short, stout woman who made puddings and hoarded swaths of uncut fabric in an upstairs walk-in closet.  Earlier, she had been a farmer’s wife, raising four children and taking on city “Fresh Air” kids in the Sixties.  Her husband came down with Parkinson’s disease and eventually she had to wheel him around the house in a big wheelchair, help him swallow enormous pills.  She tended a garden out back and taught me how to pick peas.  She watched professional wrestling and baseball with the television on mute.  Then one day she vanished.  She’s no longer here.

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Jenny was a girl I met in college–or so I’m told.  I was a very heavy drinker in those days, and I literally do not remember knowing her in college.  She found me on Myspace about ten years later.  She had stories about me from college that I didn’t remember but we knew all the same people.  Her father had been my philosophy professor, and I vaguely remembered that.  We texted a lot for a while; we were toying with the idea of romance but after getting together in person, it just wasn’t there.  She liked horror movies and had lots of tattoos.  She was a fairly big woman but something happened at some point to make her lose a remarkable amount of weight–suddenly she was tiny.  I never asked what was wrong with her and she didn’t seem to want to tell me.  She’s gone now.  She’s not anywhere you might look for her.

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I went to high school with Nate.  We weren’t really friends, but we knew each other.  We ran in mostly different circles.  But we both went on the class trip to England.  We got somewhat close over the two-week trip, even though he thought he was a little cooler than I was, and I didn’t disagree.  We bonded over being heavy smokers and enjoying a good adult beverage.  When we got back home we mostly went our separate ways, aside from a minor power struggle we had over a female, and one time I accidentally set off the alarm in his lowrider truck.  He was a moody guy who liked the bass in his truck and wore backwards baseball caps.  He was really, really funny.  He disappeared in his mid-twenties.

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My first real girlfriend’s father was a nut about World War II aviation.  He’d sit in his chair in the living room and watch History Channel aviation shows all day long.  He was balding in a very adorable way, he didn’t try to hide it but a combover look came to him naturally.  He’d worked most of his prime years for a shoe company that went out of business at just the wrong time.  There was always a dog or a cat in his house that everyone else was mad at but he seemed content to ignore.  He enjoyed “black powder shooting”, which is the hobby of shooting antique firearms.  He never really said much to me–maybe “hi” and “bye” at the appropriate times.  The past seemed to weigh on him.  He has vanished.

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What is it, this business we have of ending?  It’s tempting to say we go somewhere–even if it’s just energy, even if it’s another life, anything, anywhere.  Of course, that’s just the rub of it–there is literally no way of knowing.  There is only the ever-present mystery. Although when you confront the thing head-on, there isn’t really much mystery at all.  We all know, at our core, exactly what it is (or better yet, exactly what it isn’t).

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Someday I, too, will vanish from these daily comings-and-goings, in a poof, like mist, like a lantern you thought you saw in a window.

First Date

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 4, 2016 by sethdellinger

I don’t remember the first time I saw Karla.  It would make a better story if I could, but I don’t.  I was 16 or 17 and working at McDonalds.  It was a lousy job but looking back I can see I loved it there.  I loved my co-workers.  There was a lot of laughing.  One day Karla got a job there.  I don’t remember the first time I saw her but there’s little doubt I took notice.

Very shortly after she started working there, I had somehow finagled a date with her. I have no idea how the date got set up–this is 22 years ago, so we’re basically talking about a different life.  I don’t remember narrative details but I remember her.  I remember being mesmerized by her while I worked.  She was demure, beautiful–but it was more than that.  There was something different in the way she carried herself; everything about her movements, facial expressions, even her tone of voice suggested a deep inner life, as though her existence itself might convey an intense meaning, if it could only be unlocked.  Even as a sixteen year old boy, these mysteries were magnetic.

We went on a date.  I was terribly excited and nervous.  I had, in fact, just stopped working at the McDonalds when our date happened, and had begun working as a dishwasher at Eat ‘n Park.  We decided to go to Eat ‘n Park for dinner.  I assume we had more date planned for afterward, but again–too much time has passed for me to remember.

As soon as we walked in the Eat ‘n Park lobby, things went awry.  My boss saw me and asked why I wasn’t at work!  I had been scheduled to work and not known it, somehow.  Quite distressed, Karla and I had to cut our date short before it had even started.  I felt like a total bozo.  She left and I went to the back to start washing dishes, only to discover my manager had been wrong and I wasn’t scheduled to work!  Alas–this was 1996 or 1997–none of us had cell phones or Facebook or anything.  She was just…gone.

I don’t know what happened after that, but we didn’t try again.  We had one date and we never even ordered dinner.  Over the next twenty years, I would, of course, live a full life; I would have a list of “ones that got away”.  But even after just that one short date, Karla’s name and face stayed with me and surfaced often.  I wondered about her.  What had I missed out on?  What churned below her stoic surface?  What cosmic secrets did she hold tight to?  Few people that I have encountered in my life seemed so vested with weighty things.

At some point, social media started happening.  It took me awhile to find her on Myspace; her last name had changed and I didn’t know it.  I finally did find her, but then, as now, she has never been very active on social media, and so we didn’t communicate much.  And of course that name change meant she was unavailable, besides.

It was probably for the best, because I wasn’t ready for her yet, not then, but after many more years passed and Facebook made everyone much more closely connected and she was getting ready to change her name back…I sent a message to her that was very well-timed.  I didn’t even know that I was ready for her, and everything she brought with her, but I was.  After seeing each other twice, we both knew.  We just…knew.

Now I get to keep unlocking the secrets of the universe with this woman for the rest of my life.  It’s easy to get sad by our missed “first date”, but it’s the best thing that ever happened to me–it made me wait twenty more years, until I was really ready.

Origin Story, or: Where I Started

Posted in Memoir, Prose, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2016 by sethdellinger

1.

I hunched inside my filthy, smoke-laden 1983 Ford Escort in the parking lot of the corporate office. It had been a three hour drive in the early morning, from my home in Central Pennsylvania to where I was now in Pittsburgh. I had worked for the company for eight years, but this was the first time I was seeing the home office. Although my excitement and nervousness was palpable, I couldn’t deny some disappointment with the plainness of the building. It wasn’t in bustling downtown Pittsburgh like I expected, but in some suburban shopping village, and although it was not a small building, its common brick exterior and clean design was reminiscent more of an upscale middle school than what I had been expecting. But nonetheless, here I was nervous. I was preparing finally for an interview to get into management. I had been a dishwasher and then a cook while I struggled and slouched through my early twenties, and now that I had begun to straighten myself out, my boss was taking notice, and suggested I become an actual manager. It seemed ludicrous to me at first, the idea that people would let me be in charge of something. But more and more, the idea took hold within me. I had, after all, basically been running the kitchen in that restaurant for years. The more that my bosses told me I had a bright future with the company, the more comfortable I became with the idea that I was a leader, that I was already a leader. I didn’t know anything about doing it officially, but it did start to seem like a natural idea. I was nervous as heck though. I had no idea how to answer questions for a job that entailed real-world grownup things. And now that I had been thinking about it so long, it became something I wanted very much, so I did not know what I would do if I just bombed the whole thing. My manager had done the best he could to prepare me, but this was all uncharted territory for me. I was wearing a clip-on tie that I had stolen from my father’s closet. And pants that I had gotten from JCPenney just for the occasion. I swung open the Escort’s door, and, putting on a fake face of bravery and confidence as much as I possibly could muster, I walked toward the bland brick building. Once I swung open the big glass doors and walked inside, I ceased being unimpressed.

2.

I’m in high school.  I think I’m probably 17.  Maybe I’m 16.  Who can remember details like that all these years later?  Details like how old you were.  Those kinds of details or statistics rarely matter.  Anyway I was a kid still, a teenager, you know?  I don’t remember anything about the evening that lead up to this night I’m telling you about.  I know I was with three of my friends–or more accurately, two of my friends and one of their girlfriends.  I began the evening in the backseat of one of the friends’ cars.  We were going somewhere to drink, to get drunk.  But this was a special night, because I had never drank before, or at least, I had never been drunk.  Sure, I’d had a few glasses of watered-down wine at some family wedding when I was a tyke, but I’d never felt any effects.  My friends and I had never snuck or stolen any kind of alcohol yet. Tonight was our first.  One of my friends–the one with the car and the girlfriend–knew a grown man named something like Darius who lived in Carlisle, which was the bigger town closest to our smaller town. I have no idea how he knew this man.  We arrived at his house sometime after sundown.  I didn’t know Carlisle very well then but later I would end up having my first apartment by myself very close to this Darius’ place.  Life is cuckoo like that, no?  So I settle into a deep, plush chair in this guy’s apartment–he has a girlfriend there, too, and they’re so much older than us I assume they’re married.  Darius has procured us all “forties”, or malt liquor that comes in 40 oz bottles.  I crack open the cap with a high level of anticipation.  It tastes horrible.  Wretched.  Very, very hard to drink the whole thing.  But I want it.  I want the buzz, the feeling, whatever it is–I’ve seen other people have it and I want it.  We all sit there nursing our 40s for awhile–I can’t tell you how long, who can remember those details?–and it gets a little easier to get it down as the night goes on.  I feel slightly light-headed but nothing to write home about.  I was disappointed to slowly learn throughout the evening that there was no more alcohol, just one 40 for each of us.  At some point I said to Darius (or whatever his name was), “Hey, I’ll give you a few buck to go get me just one beer.”  Everyone laughed, because you can’t go buy just one beer to-go, but I didn’t know, I didn’t know.  We left then shortly thereafter and by the time I got home, even my light-headedness was gone.  I knew, as I lay there in my bed, that I was gonna chase that feeling, that I was gonna find it.

3.

It’s 5 AM. It is still very dark outside, and it’s cold. I’m taking my very inexpensive bicycle out of the back of my car. I’m in Presque Isle State Park, in Erie, Pennsylvania, way up in the upper left-hand corner of the state. Presque Isle is a forested peninsula that juts out into Lake Erie–Pennsylvania’s northernmost point and only seven miles from (still not-visible) Canada.  It’s about seven years since I started my management career, about 16 years since I took my first drink in that cushy chair with Darius, and about eight years since I had my last drink. I am putting a bicycle on a road that goes the length of Presque Isle, tracing the peninsula’s outer edge. I had set my alarm for 4:30. I wanted to be the very first person out on the peninsula this morning. It was awfully fun loading my car up in what seemed like the middle of the night, driving the 15 minutes through the city out to the lake, but when I got to the entrance to the park, there was a car already there waiting. But shortly after the gates opened, the car went a different direction, so I still felt like I had the entire peninsula all to myself. The crooning of the insects, the chirping of the birds, seems all for me. This solitary performance of nature is just another extension of my current life, the manner in which I am completely alone. Five hours from all my family and friends, when even a trip to the local Walmart poses zero possibility of running into anyone I know, it’s easy to begin to think that the birds and insects sing only for you. As I hoist myself onto my bike, I smile more broadly that I have in years. I recently discovered the joy of bicycling, and having this peninsula cutting into Lake Erie all to myself on this chilly but slowly brightening, slowly warming morning, somehow becomes the most delicious moment I could have possibly imagined for myself. As I pedal faster and faster, following the road that faces the outer limits of the peninsula, that happiness simply grows and grows. How did I come to live this life? How did I come to be so lucky? The birds and insects above increase in volume, as the lake reveals itself on my right, at this time of morning still a black mirror stretching out farther than I ever would’ve imagined, more vast than I want to ponder.

4.

I haven’t experienced as much death in my life as many folks have, but I have seen more than a few people I knew and loved shuffle off.  What a strange thing, too, when people die, right?  Suddenly they’re just not there anymore, like a phantom limb, or a dream you can’t shake.  What always rattles me most is how often the person truly fades from our lives.  Sure, we mourn them, we miss them, we still love them.  But usually we get rid of their stuff right away, clear out everything they spent their whole lives acquiring.  We loved them but not their stuff.  Then shortly after they die we consider it poor form to talk about them too much; why dwell on the past?  It might be considered obsessive to ask too many questions about what their life meant, what it meant to you or the universe, and what they might be experiencing now.  When I used to think about my death a lot–when I was sad, which isn’t now–I would imagine my loved ones saving the books and movies from my shelves, saying Oh Seth loved these, I will read them all as a tribute!  But I know now they won’t, and even that they shouldn’t.  I’ll just be gone, and this mountain I spent my whole journey climbing, crafting myself carefully out of nothing, will just fade, fade, fade.

5.

The boy had me in a headlock.  I’d never been in a headlock before—at least, not one that was meant to hurt—and so I was confused.  There’s not much worse than being confused, hurt, and restrained all at the same time.  Especially when you’re seven years old.

Really, I should have seen it coming.  Even though I was only seven and had never been in a fight in my life, I knew that the boy was bad news, and I had seen him in the church yard before I went in there myself.  And he’d been giving me awful, evil kid-signals for months.  I should have seen it coming.  But what do you want from me?  I was seven.

I walked into the church yard with a tennis ball and a baseball mitt, planning to throw my ball against the big wall on the south end of the church and catch the bounces; to this day, one of my favorite things to do.  But I saw him. The neighborhood’s resident bad kid.  The badass. His family lived in that gross house with all the trash in the back yard, and he never seemed clean; always had a brownish undercurrent to his skin, as if he’d just survived a house fire.  And the neighborhood was filled with the stories of the kids he’d beat up, spit on, ran his bike into.  I’d never been in his class at school but I’d seen him on the playground, and it seemed he lived up to his reputation.  But I must have assumed, for whatever reason, that I would somehow be safe from him.

And there he was, in the church yard on an otherwise abandoned afternoon.  Who knows what he was doing?  Probably breaking branches off of trees, throwing rocks into bushes.  Something pointless that seemed mildly primitive.  I chose to ignore him and walked around the church’s large beige utility shed toward the wall where I’d throw my ball.

(most of my life, this day at the church yard stood as my definition of terror.  Powerlessness.  Rigid cold fear.  What death might be like)

So I threw my ball.  Plunk, plop.  Plunk, plop.  Plunk, plop.  A joy in the mindlessness, in the solid feeling of the ball entering the glove’s sweet spot, in the lively reaction of tennis ball meeting brick wall.  And the emptiness of the church yard, the silence, the perfect echoes.  No cars, no distant sounds of grown-ups on telephone calls, just me, the ball, the mitt, and the echoes.

And then the boy was beside me.  I managed a weak “Hi” but I could see this wasn’t friendly.  The hairs on my neck stood up, my heart dropped to my knees.  He ran at me, but neither a fight nor a flight instinct kicked in.  I did not fully understand this development.  The moment before he struck me (with what the kids back then called a ‘clothesline’) I tried to speak, to say something, to reason him out of this, but it was too late, and I flew to the ground as though I’d been pulled by stage wires.

I stood up, not yet crying.  Bewildered and disoriented, trying to focus my vision,  trying to ask him why he did that.  I mean, I was just playing with my ball.  Had he mistaken me for someone else who had wronged him in the past?  Was he rabid, like the dogs my parents told me about?  Was he—

—and then I was hit again, with another clothesline, and was knocked down even harder than the first time.  I hadn’t even seen him coming, I simply felt the hit and went down without any warning.  But now I had wizened up just a little bit.  Still having no idea why the attack was occurring, I had at least figured out that it was occurring, and I got up immediately and began running.  I did not run toward home, as it was too far away and he would catch me for sure.  Instead I ran toward the swings and the slide.  Kids seem to figure out pretty early that playground slides are an excellent tactical position; once you’ve climbed the stairs of the slide and are safely perched atop it, others trying to get at you will have a tough time; if they try to come up the stairs, you can just slide down, then as they are coming down, you can go back up.  This is not a foolproof system, but it does buy time, and so it was to the slide that I presently ran.  And I made it to the landing at the top, swiveled around, scanning for the boy.  Sure enough, there he was, ten yards away, in front of the slide itself, as though I might be foolish enough of a child to just see a slide and go down it; as though I would have some Pavlovian play response.  He stood there grinning like the Devil himself, like he wanted to kill me.  And at that moment I believed he would.

As far as I knew, I was not just in some childhood tale of woe.  I was in a fight for my life, and I knew nothing about fighting.  I was a tiny kid by any standard.  Short, skinny.  I was also quiet, shy, a little withdrawn.  Nothing had prepared me for a moment like this.  I knew to go to the slide by watching other boys fight during recess.  It’s been largely my experience that contrary to what is portrayed in films and television, boys typically avoid beating up small boys.  It does little to advance their hierarchical positions and may even make them seem weak.  Up until this day in the church yard, I’d been left alone.

I held my ground on the slide fairly well.  He came up a few times, I escaped down the slide, and then I made it back up again after he came down after me.  A few times, as he lurked below, simply watching me atop the slide, I called down to him, asking him why he was doing this.  I imagine it must have sounded pathetic, pleading, like a man begging his executioner for his life when he knows he’s doomed.  I pleaded my innocence and the senselessness of what he was doing.  I did cry.  He was sinister.  Truly sinister.

After an interminable amount of time, he did a perplexing thing.  He sat on one of the swings that was directly beside the slide, and he started swinging.  I was, however, only perplexed for a short time.  I saw the ruse.  I would either think he was done with the attack and try to leave, whenupon he would murder me, or I’d actually go sit on the other swing to swing with him, whenupon he’d murder me.  I decided I could do neither, and so I simply continued to stand atop the slide, watching him swing.  It felt like days passed.  I wasn’t sure if maybe I could actually die atop the slide merely from the passage of time.  It seemed I probably could.  But leaving the safety of the slide also equaled death.  My young mind swam.

I finally made a run for it.  I wooshed down the slide steps, through the lawn of the playground area, onto the newly built, woodsmelling porch of the Newville Area Senior Center (an old house that stood and still stands on the church property), around the side of the Senior Center and into the bush-lined, circular sidewalk toward Big Spring Avenue.  Only about thirty more feet of church yard to go!  I could see Big Spring Avenue, and the houses that lined the street!  Civilization, and grown-ups, and policemen inhabited that street.  Certainly I couldn’t be killed within sight of the street!

But then he hit me from behind.  I catapulted through the bushes, off the Senior Center’s sidewalk, and out of sight of the street.  And then he was upon me.

He had me in a headlock.  I’d never been in a headlock before—at least, not one that was meant to hurt—and so I was confused.  There’s not much worse than being confused, hurt, and restrained all at the same time.  Especially when you’re seven years old.  But he was also seven—a thought that hasn’t occurred to me until just now.  How two boys can have such different breadths of experience with headlocks mystifies me.

I couldn’t breathe.  He had all his weight on me.  I was crying without breathing, the most alarming bout of terror I have ever experienced sweeping over me.  Here was death, here was the end.  I did not think of any of the cliché things dying folks supposedly think about.  I simply thought how horrible dying was going to be.  I was pretty sure nothing happened after you died—nothing at all.  Just an infinite blackness.  Why would he do this to me?  I had just been playing with my ball.

And then it was over.  He was off me.  I still don’t know how or why.  I never saw him get off me, or waited to speak to him.  When I felt him release me, I got up and ran as fast as I possibly could toward home, which was only one block away but to a seven year old it’s a decent little distance.  I was crying so hard I thought I’d throw up.  I was so mad, and sad, and confused.  Then, as now, being made helpless is about as bad as it gets.

I hated him for showing me that for the first time.  As I ran, I thought of the most horrible things a seven year old can conjure and wished they were at my command:  the light that shines on nothing, the mirror that reflects only another mirror, the fruit that ate itself.  These things were worse than helpless, they were hopeless, and I would engulf the world with them.

When I got home, Mom was working in the garden out back.  I hugged her so hard and cried so hard.  So much of my life has been about fear: about how much I had or how much I didn’t have.

6.

I was born on a frigid Friday in January of 1978.  There was a snowstorm, this much I know because the story is often told by my family.  It was snowing and maybe somewhat icy that day and it was a treacherous trip to the hospital.  Many of the finer details have been lost to time.  It seems as though maybe my father stayed home with my older sister–she also famously fell on some ice on the day of my birth, when she was home with Dad–but I have always got conflicting stories about when and how everyone arrived at the hospital.  It was cold.  It was snowy.  All these people that would become my family were probably very nervous and confused.  How challenging to think there was a day when you weren’t here, and the next day, you were.  Or: one hour you aren’t here, and the next hour, you are.  All crying and red and scrunched-up, a big ball of mushed-up senses.  You just…popped into existence.

7.

On this gloriously sunny and hot day just a little under a year ago, I found myself at a park about an hour from where I live, with the woman of my dreams and a delightful young boy. The boy is her son, who I am helping to raise, both of whom I found myself suddenly and joyfully living with. On this day, it’s a weekend that we all have off together, and my love has found this fantastic event for us to attend, a kind of history-themed craft and art fair. I have not been playing the role of family man for very long at this point, but already I know that this is what I want, what I need in order to become me, the real version of me. We walk together as a unit, commenting on the smell of the french fries, or the historical paintings made by local artisans. When our little man wanders away, I chase after him as he giggles, imploring him in a high-pitched comedic tone not to run too fast. My lady love buys me iced coffee, holds my hand tightly. We stop at the little kids’ events, little painting and craft tables, things where you spin wheels and automatically win tchotchkes. I love seeing his face light up, and I revel in taking pictures of her with him, as they are experiencing things together. In previous versions of my life, I would’ve come to this fair by myself, taking it in almost as a cultural anthropologist, loving the fact that I was able to be so alone amongst so many people. But here and now, I don’t miss that. I wonder who I was then, how was I like that? These two people are everything I could ever want. Eventually we make our way to one of the smaller event stages, where representatives from our local zoo will be bringing out animals to show kids. First there is a falcon, and the three of us, in the front row, are rightly impressed.  One after another more animals come out, and he shrieks, sits on her lap and then mine, and she leans into the crook of my neck, I can feel her smile against my skin, and when the zookeeper brings out the snake and walks just a few feet from us with it and the boy surprises us by saying snake, she squeezes my hand even tighter, we are so surprised together, and he squirms on my lap and coos at the animals, and I can feel myself, with such absolute astonishment, being born.

where the light gets in

Posted in Memoir with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 26, 2015 by sethdellinger

  1.

 

I awoke slowly, groggily, dry-mouthed.  Beneath my body I could feel a bed, a nice bed, cushioney and soft, but also the obtuse crinkle of a plastic sheet.  Then came the sensation of the plastic pillowcase; and then, finally, I remembered.

I was in rehab, and this was my first moment waking up there.  I didn’t dare yet open my eyes.  Who knew what kind of world this was?  

My body felt sick, tired, disgusting.  I was shaking, but not externally.  My insides shook, as if my muscle and blood were a loosely-congealed jelly.  I was hot–I could feel my body heat transferring from my head to the plastic pillow case.  I had to cough, and vomit.  Every bad thing a body can tell you, I was being told, but only slightly, moderately, on the periphery of emergency.  I was in this facility for the treatment of alcohol dependency.  I had arrived in an incredibly drunk state, and so only remembered small pieces of the event.  I did not remember entering the room I was in, or laying on the bed.  I had memory flashes of receptionists, bathrooms, swallowing pills.  Bright fluorescent lights in drop ceilings.  A hallway.  Very little to go on.  I had, in fact, no idea how long I’d been asleep.

I became aware of what had woken me: the sounds of people talking outside my room.  Still without opening my eyes, I could tell these were people standing outdoors, by a window.  As the crow flies, they must have only been seven or eight feet away from me, but of course, they were standing outside talking, while I was laying on a bed in a room with, presumably, the shades drawn.  I felt badly the need to vomit.

With great trepidation I decided to open my eyes.  I did so very slowly, not knowing if there might be someone else in this room with me, and if there was, I might want to continue feigning sleep.  Gradually I let the light in–it hurt tremendously, giving me reason to think I’d slept for over a day.  The room came into focus. Brown wood-grain particle board closets were directly in front of me, at the foot of my single bed.  To my right, another single bed–blissfully unoccupied, the sheets and blanket meticulously made.  A brown balsa wood desk in the corner to my left, and to the far right, a small door that looked like it lead to a bathroom, and beside that door, a larger door–this one presumably the door out. Probably to the hallway that existed in a flash somewhere in my memory.

The room looked frighteningly like any of the countless dorm rooms I’d lived and partied in only a year or two before, and only half a mile away.  I’d lived in rooms just like this where the closet was full of empty beer cans and liquor bottles waiting for an opportunity to go out to the trash without getting caught.  It did not seem that long ago that I’d looked at closet doors just like this one and contemplated hiding inside it, or peeing on it, or whatever.  Now here I was in a similar but very different room.  I was the same person I’d always been, nothing had changed inside me, but suddenly here I was waking up in rehab.

The sudden knowledge of the bathroom woke up a long-dormant pain in my bladder.  With great achiness and slow care, I swung my feet out of the bed and limped my way to the small door I assumed to be the bathroom.  I became aware that the entire place smelled of medicine, like an overly-air conditioned pharmacy.  It was a sterile smell but reassuring; whatever was wrong with me, I was in a place to be fixed.  Someday the shaking might stop.

The first thing I noticed was the sink.  Not because there was anything very special about the sink itself, but because of the large red sticker attached to it, imploring residents to “wash thoroughly” in order to minimize the risk of transmitting Hepatitis.   I peed into the pearly white, larger-than-expected toilet for what seemed like ten minutes.  Relieved, I limped back out of the bathroom thinking I might sleep for another entire day.

But I became sidetracked on the way to the bed by the voices outside my window.  Who were they?  What was going on?  I waddled to the window and ever-so-slightly pried open two slats of the industrial white venetian blinds.

Outside was a large courtyard, completely enclosed on all sides by the one-story brick building which I was inhabiting.  The courtyard was large enough to house two or three full-sized trees, a gazebo, benches, and some concrete walkways.  A dozen or so people were scattered throughout the courtyard, speaking in groups, smoking cigarettes, nursing tiny Styrofoam cups with steam rolling off the tops.  They looked happy—almost like this was grade school recess or a break in a business meeting.  They were of many different ages and seemed to run the gamut on the socio-economic spectrum.  It looked like an inviting place to be, but also terrifying.  I wanted to stay alone in this room forever.  I wanted to get under the blanket where it was dark and plasticy and shake until the world ended, or my parents came and got me.  Somewhere outside these walls my friends were going to work, stopping at gas stations, watching movies in living rooms.  I could hear the chatter outside my window die down as the group was being called back inside.  This was who I had become.

 

2.

 

Today I live about forty miles from the rehab I woke up in that day, which was over ten years ago.  I live in an area roughly referred to as Central Pennsylvania, although some purists insist on calling it South Central Pennsylvania.  Neither moniker is quite accurate, but anyway. 

Most places in this world are the same, more or less, although cases for distinctions can certainly be made.  Here in Central Pennsylvania, the case for distinction starts with the city of Harrisburg.  Or, perhaps more aptly put, what the city used to be.  A city on the rise throughout the 1800s, a series of events (both controllable and uncontrollable) caused the city to begin a constant descent into mediocrity and blight much like other, larger Northern “rust belt” cities from the 1920s until present day.  Intense racial division, poor local leadership and the alluring habitability of rural areas outside the city caused an outward migration that has never fully stopped.

 

Harrisburg (and by extension, Central Pennsylvania) sits on the banks of the Susquehanna River.  Although the Susquehanna appears at first glance to be a mighty, majestic river, it is in fact the longest river in the United States that is not deep enough to allow commercial boating traffic—another contributing factor to Harrisburg’s stagnation.  The river at points nears a mile wide but is often shallow enough to walk the entire way across.  Although it factors greatly in much of America’s history—the Revolution and the founding of Mormonism, for starters—its shallow depth prevents it from achieving any great level of fame, or any truly major cities from growing near it.

 

As citizens migrated outward from Harrisburg in the early 1920s they formed a network of small towns and communities so close together and homogenous that the ones on the opposite bank of the Susquehanna are often referred to simply as the “West Shore”, as though they were one community.  These tiny towns, often quaint and artisan more than they were hardy and working-class, took their names equally from American history, Native Americans, and the local landscape.  Towns like Camp Hill, Penbrook, Paxtang, Enola, Wormleysburg—each with its own identity, history, and geography, but each in turn also related to the exodus of Harrisburg.  Camp Hill is named after a church whose congregation split into two groups—one of the “camps” held their worships on a nearby hill.  Lemoyne—which used to be named Bridgeport—is a town of four thousand people that for some reason has an intense concentration of guitar and instrument stores.  Paxtang is taken from “Peshtenk”, an English word which means “still waters”, although which still waters it was named for, we don’t know.  New Cumberland hosts a notable apple fest each year despite being relatively far from where the apples grow.  If one were to travel from each of these communities into the neighboring ones, you would notice small but not insignificant changes in elevation, a tangled network of water tributaries, bulbous outcroppings of sedimentary rock, and a collection of wildlife that includes the brown bear, the white tailed deer, the timber rattlesnake, and the turkey vulture.

All of these towns, and Harrisburg and the almost-mighty Susquehanna, are inside a valley.  The Cumberland Valley is bounded by mountains from both the Appalachian and Blue Ridge ranges.  All of the mountains are on the small side, as far as mountains go, although there are certain vistas that can be quite striking, especially in instances where the mountain ranges intersect with the river. 

Although the Valley as we know it extends for only about seventy miles (and, at its narrowest, is only twelve miles wide) the Valley is part of a much larger geographic formation in the state of Pennsylvania known as a Ridge and Valley section, a land formation over a hundred miles wide that consists of repeating north-to-south peaks and valleys, formed, again, by the Appalachians and Blue Ridges.  One can imagine (can one?) the difficulty these north-to-south peaks presented (and to a degree still present) to transportation efforts which in this state show a strong east-to-west desire.

In Pennsylvania, to the north of the Ridge and Valleys lies a vast expanse known as the Appalachian Plateau—basically a continually elevated area that looks like a mountain range but is really just high eroded sediment.  This feature extends all the way to the top of the state until it drops off into Lake Erie. 

To the south of our Cumberland Valley are the Triassic Lowlands—a small misnomer as there continue to be drastic changes in elevation throughout, but there is a distinct absence of mountains in this area, and most of the soil and structure is left over from the Triassic Period—some even from Pangea.  The lowlands continue until Pennsylvania’s small Coastal Plain on the bank of the Delaware River—which supports commercial boating into Philadelphia.

However, this is how the modern human being would experience this world: be in your house.  Travel a few feet out of your house into your car.  Turn on your car, your air conditioning (or your heat) and drive to your destination away from your house.  You will do this by navigating streets, interstates and intersections that you know by heart even though they have nothing to do with you or the land in which you live.  Arrive at your destination.  Walk a few feet from your car into your new destination.  And this is how it is everywhere now—not just in Central Pennsylvania, but everywhere.  You can move all over this country and most of the world and have a relatively changeless existence, never knowing where you are, what the place is like, what made it that way.

Sometimes our destination is in a whole separate town from where we started just a few minutes before, but the speed and ease with which we travel makes noticing these changes unnecessary.  Sometimes we drive our cars over rivers and don’t notice.  Sometimes we drive them through tunnels at the bottoms of mountains and bemoan the loss of cell phone service.  Usually we don’t know the name of the mountain we drove under.  We have no idea the struggle society went through to make such seamless east-to-west travel so unbearably easy.  We see large birds gliding in circles, distant in the sky but don’t know what they are—we don’t even know that we could know what they are, that there was a time we would have known, would have been expected to know, would have been shamed by not knowing what the enormous graceful flying meat eaters were called.  We’re unmoored, unhooked, disconnected, floating in a gel of inconsequence, we don’t know and we don’t know and we don’t know.

3.

 

My first year out of high school I went away to college–twenty minutes away. I went to a State School in the town next to us, and even though it was so close to home, my parents wanted me to live on campus so I would have the experience. I didn’t take well to the college experience at first (although later I would take to it much too well); I simply wasn’t making friends or doing the whole “college thing”. I was holing myself up in my room all week, ignoring everybody except the roommate I got stuck with, spending my nights on the phone with my girlfriend back home. On weekends, I went home and worked at McDonalds. And hung out with my real friends. And partied.

One weekend I was at a party at some kid’s parent’s house. I have no idea who the kid was, or any good recollection of who was there. I’m not even sure where it was, except that it was in a guest room above their garage. I spent much of the night at the far end of the rectangular room, beside the ping-pong table (it wasn’t in use; we were too lazy for Beer Pong) on old bench seats from the local Little League field after a dugout renovation some fifteen years prior. I was with three good friends who were still in high school, and we were ignoring most of the party.

Late into the evening, as most of the revelers had left and a dozen or so inebriated folks remained, an overweight, bearded man approached us from across the room. I had noticed him all night because he was so out of place. He was at least 28 years old, and a real Red State sort of guy. He wore a camouflage baseball cap and a red flannel shirt, and not the kind of flannel that was so popular in those days: this was the kind of flannel you wore so you could do physical labor in the cold, and it was really ugly. His voice was a thick drawl, thicker than a Pennsylvania redneck; this guy was from the South. This wasn’t a Redneck party, and it wasn’t a 28-year-old party either. In fact, it was a high school party. Even I was a little old for this party. This guy was a sore thumb.

He squeezed his way past the ping pong table and stood before us. I got ready to stand and shake his hand, introduce myself, ask him what the hell he was doing there. But before I could stand all the way he says this: “I know what you guys are.”

We all sort of chuckled, waiting for the punchline or explanation. One of us said, “What are we?”

“Fags. You’re fags, and I hate fags.”

This was shocking. It was shocking because, firstly, we were all raised rather liberal kids, by parents who thought just about everybody was OK and that everybody should be treated OK. Which is not to say that I never uttered the word fag, but we were all misguided youth who thought it was OK to slur if you didn’t mean it in your heart. And this guy obviously meant it in his heart, which was disturbing. Secondly, it shocked us because we were all rather straight, and anyone who had actually observed us throughout the party would have known that. Red Flannel’s statement clearly confused us.

We tried at first to convince him. The hostess of the party had slept with one of my friends, and an ex-girlfriend of mine was also present. We called them over to testify. But the more we tried to convince him, the angrier he got. He started to raise his voice, he started calling us more and varied names (it doesn’t take a genius, after the fact, to realize that this man was quite clearly struggling with his own hidden homosexuality, and his probable attraction to at least one of us. I wish I’d have realized it at the time; things may have ended differently). It didn’t take long for the remaining partiers to flock around us. The hostess and her friends stepped between the man and us. Of course, as soon as they took up that “we’re-stopping-a-fight” position, he took their cue and began to threaten all four of us with physical harm.

While it is true that this man could not have beaten up all four of us, he would have created one hell of a mess and more than a little pain by trying.

The ruckus lasted the better part of an hour, with Red Flannel screaming at us, everyone standing between us, the four of us on one side of the room bewildered. This variety of event didn’t happen to us. We didn’t get in fights, nor had we ever had to get out of a fight, and this made it difficult for us to remain the coolest cats in the room. It was too bizarre of a situation to know what to do. Everyone was now imploring the Red Flannel to leave. At one point, someone suggested that we leave, but Red Flannel made it clear that he would not let that happen.

Finally and somehow, the man left. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Some people laughed, some stalked around, pacing out their anger, muttering about how he had ruined an otherwise chill party. The hostess was afraid the neighbors had heard the noise and would tell the parents.

This idyll lasted only briefly, as perhaps ten minutes after he left, someone reported that he had pulled his truck up to the stairs leading down from the garage apartment–the only way out. His truck was idling. He had his parking lights on, and the glow of a cigarette could be seen behind the wheel. We let out a collective groan. We waited. Fifteen minutes later, he was still there. Our hostess was elected to go down and talk to him.

She returned moments later with the grim news: he wasn’t leaving until the fags left, and when the fags left, he was gonna kick the fag’s asses.

Suddenly and strangely the tone started to shift; although no one would say it, people were clearly beginning to resent us, and somehow blame us. With the Red Flannel no longer present to directly blame, the party was still ruined and there we were. We were quite clearly now blamed, having done absolutely nothing. Us “fags” sat ostracized in a corner while Hostess and Friends tried to figure out what to do. Do they call the cops? Do we wait it out? And somewhere in their subconscious–in that Lord of the Flies part of the brain–I know they had a third option: do we sacrifice them?

The uncertainty seemed to last forever, but in reality it was only about half an hour. The tension in the room was broken by a frightening smash, followed by even louder splintering and cracking noises. Everyone ran to the door, the gray dawn sky and birdsong of the morning shocking us all. And then even more shock, as we saw the Red Flannel’s taillights driving away, faster than a gunshot down the curvy country road, and directly below us the shattered remnants of the wooden steps leading down from the room we were in. He had smashed into them with his truck, rendering most of the lower half useless lumber, and severing the top half from its landing. The top half of the stairs now hung from the building by a few weakened planks, swinging slowly in decreasing circles.

Three days later, the property damage was listed officially as the work of a hit-and-run driver, who was never caught.

 

4.

 

 

A man turns a forty-year-old black plastic knob on his forty-year-old faded white kitchen stove in Pennsport, Philadelphia.  Some mechanism inside the machine clicks repeatedly, while nothing appears to happen.  Then suddenly a small, blue flame appears below the ancient burner plate.  A man has turned a knob and a flame has quietly and simply come out of the machine.  The man will put a metal pot overtop of the flame, add water to the pot as well as other human food products and create a meal suitable to his human palette, all made possible by that quiet little simple flame.  For this service the man will pay about $30 a month, made out on paper checks and dropped in blue mailboxes.  The man does all this, and eats his food, and pays the people for their services, but he has no idea what is happening, how any of it happens.  In fact, he has such an absence of knowledge about it all, he doesn’t realize he knows next to nothing.

Outside the man’s house, if one were to travel mostly south, but a little east, for just a few miles—really just about a mile and a half, you would encounter Passyunk Avenue, a street that cuts unexpectedly diagonally across the city’s otherwise quite simple and helpful grid pattern.  Turning left onto Passyunk Avenue, you would immediately be confronted by a large but not imposing bridge, what is known in bridge parlance as a double-leaf bascule bridge, which is fancy terminology for a drawbridge, but one that has two moveable sections instead of one.  The Passyunk Avenue Bridge, as it is called, was completed in 1983 and is made almost entirely of steel and concrete, although the pedestrian walkways on either side have sections made of cast iron.  The bridge crosses the Schuylkill River, the smaller of the two rivers that border Philadelphia, but alas, like even the smallest river, we still need a bridge to cross it.  The Passyunk Avenue Bridge had to be built as a double-leaf bascule bridge to accommodate the heavy amount of shipping traffic that passes through the area due to the proximity of the Philadelphia Gas Works.

The Gas Works covers a sprawling hundred acres just outside of the city.  This treeless, brown stretch of flatland right beside the Passyunk Avenue Bridge and sidling the muddy shores of the Schuylkill is a mostly ignored eyesore, one motorists tend to not notice that they don’t even notice it.  The long wide expanse is brown dotted with yellows and reds, criss-crossed by pipes of all sizes, with seemingly-random outcroppings of unidentifiable structures, metal winged Eiffels growing out of the mud.  The flat mechanical carnage stretches as far as the eye can see, until it hits the Philadelphia city skyline; a striking vista indeed.

Most of these multi-colored pipes contain natural gas, which in turn is a “fossil fuel”, which is exactly what it sounds like.  Energy we obtain from extraordinarily old things, which in turn got their energy, during their day, from our sun, which is still around.  We dig them up and squeeze our sun’s energy back out of them, thousands and thousands of years later.  The Philadelphia Gas Works doesn’t talk much about where it gets its gas, but for the most part, it isn’t drilled here, although it certainly has been.  Now it is mostly shipped here in those huge boats that go under the Passyunk Avenue Bridge.  But see, here’s where it gets interesting: this energy from the sun was being stored in all these old plants and animals for eons under the ground.  Then we found it (probably in what is known as the Marcellus Shale) and we went to great lengths to get it out of there.  We’ve got to bust open the rocks that it is in, then we’ve got to shore up the cavity we created in the ground so that the gas stays there until we can get it.  Then we have to remove all the impurities from it, so it can be used for things like cooking macaroni and cheese.  These impurities include water; gotta get all the water and other gunk outta there.  But see, if you’re trying to transport natural gas very far, it’s pretty inconvenient to do it in a gas form.  If you can’t get it there in a pipeline (those pipelines only go so far) and you have to send it in, say, a boat, you have to now liquefy the gas.  So we bust up the ground to get it out, then we turn it into liquid and put it in a boat.  We do that by making the gas very cold.  Now this boat chug-a-lugs down the Schuylkill to the Philadelphia Gas Works and huge pipes are hooked up to the belly of the boat and all the really cold liquid gas is pumped into huge tanks.  Then there are other pipes that go from those huge tanks to what the Philadelphia Gas Works really are: the regasification plant.  We warm it back up and make it a gas again.  Then we shoot that gas out into a series of progressively smaller pipes that stretch out in grids that sometimes cover hundreds of miles, until they are in really little pipes that, believe it or not, are actually connected to your house! Then somebody who drops $30 checks into the mail every month decides they want to cook a stew, or maybe do some laundry.  And miraculously, the little blue flame shoots out.

Now this man standing here in Pennsport, he doesn’t know any of this.  And if you were to start telling him about it, he may interrupt you and ask you why it should matter to him.  After all, he’s got his gas, he pays his bill, and everyone doesn’t have to know everything, right?  That’s why there are specialists.  But if you started asking him other questions, about other parts of the city and world around him, you and he might find he continues to know next to nothing about his environment.

Why are the sidewalks in his neighborhood a certain width?  And different widths in other neighborhoods?  Why are the blocks in his neighborhood so long?  Why are they shorter elsewhere? How might these seemingly small details affect his quality of living?  Ask this man what he knows about train traffic through the city, or the history of invasive plant species in Philadelphia.  He doesn’t know, he doesn’t know, and he doesn’t care.  He doesn’t see why he should.  He is content to go to work and come back home and play with his things but the larger scope of the world and environment he lives in are completely lost to him; furthermore there is no compelling reason for him to change this.

This is the exact same thing that’s been said about kids in the country for a generation now, that they’ve lost touch with their environment.  There isn’t that big of a difference between living in the country and living in the city.  In rural areas people have become disconnected from the literal environment, in the cities it is our environment we’ve lost, but it’s all part of the same big moving parts.

In the country, there’s a difference between wildness and wilderness.  Wilderness is what people settle for now when they think they are seeing nature.  They walk on well-worn paths, drive their cars through parks, take tours.  That’s wilderness, but there’s nothing wild about it.  Wildness is self-willed, autonomous, self-organized.  It is the opposite of controlled.  It exists on all sorts of scales.  You can see wildness in the movement of glaciers, or in the star-forming regions of the Orion Nebula.  Wildness is everywhere.  It starts with microscopic particles and it goes more than 13 billion light-years into the cosmos.  It’s in the soil and in the air, it’s on our hands, in our immune systems, in our lungs.  We breathe and wildness comes in—we can’t control it.  And yet, nowadays, almost nobody wants anything to do with that aspect of the world, the real, the wild aspect.  You can live in San Francisco, ride a Google bus to work, stare at a screen, come home, stare at a screen, repeat repeat repeat and never see an ounce of wildness at any scale, but do you know how close whales live to San Francisco?  And giant Redwoods?  There is wildness there to be seen, not just the microbes in your lungs, but at a scale that can impress a human, but still it is screen screen screen, nobody glancing around them.  We are hive creatures now, far more so than in generations past, fiercely attached to our social network, which has become part of our identity.  Nature is a movie that goes by outside the car window.  And along with nature, the real world, the knowledge of the functions of the real world.

In the city, bureaucracy and layers of time and history stand in for the wildness that (only seemingly) gets lost in a metropolis.  Instead of wondering about falcons and sediment layers we can instead pick apart the mystifying nature of zoning ordinances, inter-departmental transportation squabbles, and the righteousness of green space allocation.  But we don’t, almost nobody does.  So it is that no matter where we live, we’re just lost in a machine, or parts in a machine, not knowing what function we serve, not knowing where the machine is going, what we’re really doing.  Turning on switches and turning knobs, putting on clothes we know nothing about to walk to stores we don’t remotely understand, living lives blindly, blindly, trusting in some overarching system to make sure we all get to some kind of finish line on time.

The man in Pennsport stands in front of his stove and makes a delicious meal overtop of his blue flame, eats it and loves it and gets a full belly while watching television, the screen’s glow not all that different from that blue flame, wherever it comes from.

 

 5.

 

In the winter, Erie, Pennsylvania is a cold, desolate, sometimes dangerous place. It’s not the ideal place to live alone with no friends or relatives within a five-hour drive of you. It snows almost all the damn time, and it’s so cold, and the wind just races across the lake, whether it’s the summer or the winter. Whether the lake is frozen or open, it is seven miles wide, and there is nothing to stop the wind. On one particular winter morning, I rose to an early alarm clock, to work the morning shift at the restaurant where I was a manager. Our day started pretty early, and it’s always hard to get up, but especially when it’s dark outside, and the wind howls like a coyote, and you know there’s snow out there, and maybe more on the way, and maybe more falling even right then. I crawled out of bed, put on my work outfit, poked my head through the blinds, and started my car with my remote start, one of my most beloved modern amenities. Five minutes later I was down there to hop in, excited about the warm inside of my car. It had snowed the night before, but not a whole lot, maybe four or five inches, which isn’t very much when you’re living in Erie. But it was just one of those things, one of those moments where your car and the tires are sitting just right, or just wrong, and despite the fact that you see no perfect reason why, your car is stuck. I had not left myself a whole lot of extra time to get to work, and I was in quite a bind. Being late is sometimes easier than others in that line of work, and I can’t remember the circumstances now, but I do know that I absolutely had to be there on time that day, and my car being stuck put me in a moment of desperation. With nobody to call – not even any small friends or acquaintances, really nobody that I knew – I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I was out of my car, looking all around it, shoveling the snow out from the tires as best I could, trying to rock it a little bit. All the small things one can do by yourself to get your car unstuck, but there’s only so much of that. Then, in the predawn darkness I saw approaching a young man walking down the center of the street that I lived on. I recognized the speed with which he walked and the direction he was going as a man heading to catch a bus. Yes, there were buses, but I had never even looked into that. As he came to pass me I walked onto the street, and sent to him, “Hey man! Hi!  Hey man, excuse me!  I’m in a real bind here, my car is stuck and I really need to get to work.  I’m really screwed here.  Can you help me push it out?”

He stood still and wooden, looking at me through my pleading screed.  After a pause, he said, “But, see, I’m on the way to catch my bus to go to work myself.  What if this makes me late?”

This was one of those very touchy moments in life for me.  I absolutely needed this guy to help me.  But he had a point and I knew it.  Why should he be late to work simply so I could be on time?  I was sure if he helped me, the car could come out quickly and we’d both be on time, but time was crunched so badly, there wasn’t even the moment needed to explain this.  I analyzed my chances, as well as the look of the kid, and rolled the dice.  I said this:

“That’s a chance you’ll just have to take.”

 

6.

Sometimes when driving, or riding the train, or walking around in some park, I will try to get an image in my head of what the land around me would have looked like four hundred years ago.  The same hills, the same landscape, but in my mind I’ll cover it in nothing and wonder what it was like to be the first person to chance upon it.  This is always useless to me.  There is so much wonder in this world, but I always have trouble getting past our influence, our disasters and clumsy systems.  And even in those places where there is some real beauty, like over at Bartram’s Gardens, or up on Presque Isle, or down the road on the Appalachian Trail, all I have to do is take one look at the skyline in the distance, or the cement path I’m walking on, or hear the sound of the Honda hatchback blaring through the trees, and I am out of the tenuous illusion and coldly back in reality.

We are constantly tethered to some safety line.  There is always a lantern, or a map, or a screen, or a cell phone.  These things guarantee that whatever experience we’re having is just an attempt at connecting with something foreign and old, that it’s not real, no matter how real it looks.  We’ve sketched out a new world over the old, and they are in two separate universes; the old is lost despite the remnants we see of it every day.  If properly prepared, one could live entire decades indoors, in a world of their own creation.

Before I had a family I used to stay indoors for a day or two at a time, talking to no one and doing nothing of value.  Once I did go outside after a long stretch like that, it still felt fake, like some slide in front of my eyes.  At a certain point, I’d have to tell myself, This is actually real and I am actually here, that dog or building or mountain range in the distance is a real thing inhabiting the same space that I am.  I think that must be a very modern sensation, that of having to convince oneself of reality.

7.

 

 

My father was born into orchard country. Nestled deep in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley, near the intersection of the Appalachian Trail and the South Mountain.  His youngest years were spent in rolling hills crowded by apple trees, which Mexican immigrants picked nearly year-round.  There were Mexican restaurants around unassuming bends in the country roads; I never saw them but I can imagine they might have looked out of place, if one stopped to think about them.  Dad told me a story once about a fancy-looking house that sat at the bottom of a gulley and was surrounded by Red Delicious trees.  I saw the house myself—it’s still there.  It looks like a small but stately plantation.  When Dad was a boy, the house had an in-ground swimming pool, which was quite a luxury in those days, and they’d let him and his friends swim there occasionally.  One Halloween, he was trick-or-treating and the family gave all the boys little pop guns—plastic guns that shot a cork out of a barrel.  He thought they must be rich.  He never forgot it.  He remembers it like it was yesterday.  My mother was born a mere 25 miles away, in a vanishingly small town surrounded by cow pastures, clumps of trees, and lean-to outbuildings.  Farm country.  In fact, she was born on a farm—a working farm, and she grew up doing the kinds of things you might imagine: collecting eggs from innocent chickens, watching her father and brothers shear sheep, waking up at the crack of dawn. Her dream as a little girl was to somehow, someway, move to the nearby small town and help her uncle run a pharmacy he owned there.  She pictured herself sweeping the floor, stocking the shelves, maybe keeping the books.  To her, this was a version of glamour.  Her family would take in kids from “the city” who needed places to stay; Fresh Air Kids, they called them.  Sometimes my mom’s country family swelled to great numbers; a surprising-looking bunch, I’m sure.  My genes—whatever they are—are a swirl of them.  I’ve got orchards in my blood, and my skeleton is a farm.

As a young child, I didn’t know much about my parents or where I’d come from. It wasn’t an issue I pondered.  I knew that I certainly felt like me.  I knew I liked to mostly not talk about what I felt inside.  I knew I liked drawing things, and that I sure did love the outdoors.  I liked playing with small boats in the bathtub, and Matchbox cars in the sandbox, and I hated going to sleep, and the dark scared me.  There were two neighbors who lived two doors down from us—at the time it felt far away, but it is literally just thirty yards, I just looked at it not six months ago—who must have been 50 years old at the time.  I considered them my best friends, although to them I must have seemed like a just occasional little person who happened by.  I liked talking to them and imagining what their grown-up lives were like inside that big red brick house—what the kitchen looked like, what they ate for dinner.  I miss them.  They’re dead now.

I was a fairly typical teenager. I was mostly about having fun; everything was a joke.  I could be cruel.  I smoked a lot of cigarettes and experimented with just about anything that could be experimented with.  I talked a lot.  I thought I was important and smart.  I hid secret desires and interests: poetry, philosophy, sexual confusion, the occult.  I got angry, I got sad, I read classic science fiction novels late at night in my bedroom with the door locked.  Women started to like me and it took me a long time to figure out what to do about it; when I did figure it out I tried very hard to be a “good guy” but still…I often failed.  I liked comic books, American Gladiators, and MTV.  Late in my teens I discovered Tumbling Run, a long hiking trail in the nearby Appalachians that follows a truly adorable stream, which is a trickle at the trail head and as you climb higher becomes a rushing set of falls and deep, clear pools.  I would hike it by myself, find perches away from the trail, pull out a notebook and write poems tailored after E.E. Cummings.  They were full of angst and love and fear.  I thought Tumbling Run would be like my Walden Pond, but mostly, I just forgot about it.

As a young man I encountered my problems: alcoholism and depression. But those weren’t the only defining elements of my life.  As I moved into adulthood I moved away from American Gladiators and even further from the tiny boats in the bathtub.  There were surface changes, like a deeper attraction to poetry and literature and “serious films”, but I changed for real, too.  I got angry.  Angry at everything.  I became of a mind that to judge everyone as harshly and vocally as possible was actually a good trait to have.  I smoked a lot of cigarettes, often two packs a day.  I was still funny, but now with more sarcasm and less joy.  I liked staying awake until the sunrise, never cleaning my car, and throbbing rock and roll.  I hated being alive.

After young adulthood up until this moment (what we shall refer to as life) I’ve just kept on changing.  There are always the obvious, cosmetic alterations: a sudden liking for big band music and Cary Grant films, corduroy jackets and Florsheim loafers, art museum memberships and mini-figurines of Felix Mendelssohn.  But also sea changes, but so fast; one moment I don’t want to talk to people at all, the next I enjoy the communion of strangers.  Seemingly one moment, an actual pastime of mine is driving my car through the country at night, the windows down, blasting music from my CD player, smoking cigarettes. A few nights ago I walked home through the city, listening to my music in my headphones, stopping to read the menu in a restaurant hoping there were vegetarian options. One moment I’m vehemently opposed to sports, the next I’m at an NFL game.

A month or so ago, I had breakfast with two of my oldest, dearest friends.  They looked the same as they always had, as I’m sure I did, and the little dirt-hole diner we ate in was the same as always, and the streets and parking lots were the same as they always were, when I was spending all my days there.  But having been largely gone from the area for five years, it all felt so different, so foreign.  Was that actually me that had lived here, had called these places home, these friends familiar?  Or was it a dream had by a being who calls himself me?  After breakfast one of the friends was driving me to my dad’s house, and as I climbed in his car I was overcome with a strange sensation. When I settled into the passenger seat I realized this was the car of a very serious cigarette smoker; ashes, crumpled empty packs everywhere, the stale pall of smoke infusing the upholstery.  And it looked like many cars I had in my day: old drink cups on the floor, change everywhere, ATM receipts and food wrappers.  I wasn’t grossed out; I felt oddly at home.  It had just been so long since that had been me.  It was like time travel.

If I’m able to look directly at the thought long enough, it becomes very clear that the notion of me doesn’t exist.  I’m a collection of moments, an intricate study in cause-and-effect.  I am the orchard, and the farm, and the boats in the bathtub, and the throbbing rock and roll, and walking home through the city last night.  I am time itself.  I’m not me.

 

8.

 

Somewhere everywhere bakers are opening up their shops. The tall commercial ovens click on with whirrs of electricity and gas. The little rooms get stifling and smell of yeast and flour. Today will be a ten or twelve hour shift. They will sweat through their white aprons and go home to unread newspapers. In other cities police officers are rolling out of bed, pulling their crisp uniforms on, fastening the large utility belt in the darkness of their century-old foyer while their family sleeps. The sun peeks over the rooftops and flowers open their petals in their pots along the sides of buildings. Third graders are walking to school wearing raincoats and backpacks and talking about pop singers. They have cell phones and they look up videos as they walk. The sunlight touches their necks and their tiny hairs stand up but nobody notices. A woman who works in a city newsstand arrives to open for the day. She enters through a side door and is alone in the tiny building, darkened still except for a small crack in the still-unopened front window where the light gets in. After taking her coat off, she walks outside, fumbles with the frigid padlock until finally the metal window slides open. It’s the loudest noise on the street yet this morning. Dozens of people are stepping onto an escalator. They avoid eye contact, they look at their phones, they pretend to be in a hurry. They wait on platforms, in hangars, on benches, in bus shelters, lines for elevators, by curbs for cabs, people are waiting. A man alone in a movie theater remembers an ex-lover while watching the Coming Attractions. For a moment he can’t remember what movie he came to see. At a grocery store a woman tries to decide which peach is best for her to buy and in the process she ruins five peaches. Now she can’t even remember if she planned on buying peaches today, and for a moment she wonders how there are this many peaches in the grocery store in the middle of winter, and she tries to recall if she’s ever seen a peach tree, or picked a peach, but she can’t remember, can’t remember, and now she’s thinking of her son away in college but he doesn’t like peaches either. All everywhere people are stuck at traffic signals on streets they don’t know the names of. They pass the minutes listening to talk radio coming from signals they don’t understand, from places they’ve never been, spoken by people they’ll never know. Their internal combustion engines idle beneath them-the sparks and fuel commingling to create a low-key contained continuous explosion. The light turns green and they’re off again to someplace else. An elderly man on a scaffolding nestled against a house hammers nails into shingling, and he will do it all day, all day, and more tomorrow. Grown people are everywhere furiously scribbling notes and typing e-mails and hanging Post-Its and setting reminders—there are so many things to do and to say and remember. A family of four is selling fresh fish in tables filled with ice by the side of the street. The kids should be in school but nobody seems to notice or think to say anything. The fish’s eyes are glassy and fogged up but people still buy them anyway, will still cook and eat them anyway, these hundreds of miles from the ocean. Mail is dropped through slots in doors. Squirrels pause on telephone wires, turning nuts around rapidly in their tiny hands. Landline phones ring in empty rooms and the neighbors can hear it, they can hear it, but they just have to put up with it. Waterfalls just keep insistently sliding over the cliffs, pounding the complacent ground beneath them and digging deeper and deeper holes. Somewhere deep, magma moves, hisses, is still. The tectonic plates are pushing the ground under our feet up into new mountains right now, right now, as we get onto this escalator, it is happening, the earth is forming new things beneath us right now as we ride the escalator, looking at our phones, it always has been doing this and it won’t stop until the sun, dying, swallows the whole planet. But smile anyway, you damned fools, and feel the hairs on your neck stand up in the morning sun, because there is nothing else, nothing else at all.

 

 

 

 

Big Spring

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2015 by sethdellinger

The Big Spring Creek (as it is technically named) rises from inside the Earth somewhere about two miles from my dad’s house, which is the house that I mainly grew up in, along with my sister and mother, until we all moved away except my dad.  He’s still there, tending the hyacinths.

The Big Spring (us locals never say the ‘Creek’ part) bubbles up out of nowhere under a hillside, about twenty feet from a bend in a very pretty road.  From there it meanders about six miles—never really more than a few feet deep—until it empties into a larger creek, the Conodoguinet Creek (us locals do say that creek, although more often than not, it’s just The Conodoguinet.  We’ve all heard the story that it was named when a cowboy asked a Native American, “Can I go in it?”, which is, of course, about the stupidest story ever told).  The Big Spring hops up out of the ground (it is what is called a Karst Spring, meaning the soft limestone ground has allowed water from surrounding runoff to create underground tunnels, from which it then shoots forth), makes a very scenic area even more scenic for a few miles, and then becomes something else entirely.  Its life, from an individual molecule’s point of view, is pretty brief.

Growing up, we moved from an old house into a new house when I was about eleven years old, but both houses were very close to the Big Spring.  It’s a small creek, but nonetheless, growing up near water has its perks.  I never learned (or wanted) to fish, but I spent lots of time on the Route 233 bridge—that one right there by John Graham Medical Center—peering down into the pristine flow, tracking the movement of the brook trout as they navigated their daily lives.  I also liked how swarms of anonymous insects gathered near the surface, buzzing about in a loose ball.  I imagined they drank the water, and maybe liked the sunshine.  I think maybe I wanted to be one of those anonymous insects.

My father now lives closer to the Big Spring than any of us from my family, but he didn’t grow up near it.  He grew up in a different small town about 25 miles away.  Nowadays, that doesn’t seem far, and I grant you it wasn’t a massive distance then, either, but it was farther.  The interstates weren’t as perfectly engineered as they are today, and cars weren’t so finely manufactured.  You drove 45 miles-per-hour on the network of roads that had sprung up organically over time, as people figured out where they wanted to go.  And each town still had their own Main Street, their economic centered downtown, so there was much less reason to go from Mechanicsburg (where Dad grew up) to Newville (where I grew up).  I’m sure the chances of Dad even hearing of the Big Spring Creek in those days was pretty slim; Mechanicsburg had plenty of its own attractions.  He once told me a sad tale about his days in Little League baseball all those 25 miles away.  In those days, they made you try out for the teams.  He wasn’t good enough to play with the kids his own age and they relegated him

Dad, very young, in Mechanicsburg

Dad, very young, probably even before moving to Mechanicsburg

to “pony ball”, where he played with boys much younger than himself.  Regardless, one year, his pony league team was a very good team.  Their star player was a young pitcher by the name of Bill Shortridge who was just pitching lights-out ball.  Near the end of the season, one of the teams of older boys came and took Bill Shortridge off Dad’s team and promoted him to the older league.  Even so, Dad’s team finished undefeated, even without the star pitcher.  Later, at an awards ceremony, they were handing out a trophy for Most Valuable Player, and it was still given to Bill Shortridge!  He must have been very good.  But an adult pulled Dad aside and said to him, You know, if it wasn’t for Bill Shortridge, we were going to give that award to you.  Dad told me not long ago, “I wish they just hadn’t said anything to me at all.”

I had a very similar (although admittedly less heartbreaking) experience with little league baseball in Newville.  My dad and I are both short men, which means we were also “little” boys.  In most athletics, being a small boy is a one-way ticket to obscurity.  In addition, I was not very good at baseball.  Before I ever swung a bat it was decided I would play one age group below where I should be.  So when I arrived at the ballfield each Saturday, I would see my friends and classmates over at the bigger field, playing a version of the game that looked to me like it was on steroids.  Then I would go play a game of baseball with kids two or three years younger than me, and they were still better than I was.  I was (and always will be) afraid of the baseball.  They’re just so hard.  I’d usually get stuck in right field, and even then I’d often botch a play; when a fly ball was hit to me I would make sure I took the least-effective route to it so that it would land before I had to try and catch it.  Once, I didn’t get a single at-bat in a game and my parents stayed after to complain to the coach and he bawled them out for standing up for me.  Later on, on the car ride home, they just laughed about it because the guy had been such a maniac.  They’re good parents.  But I’m also not any good at baseball.

 

In my teen years, my family had moved out of the small town of Newville to a house in a more rural area.  Walking down to the Spring was no longer quite as easy; it was now a little over a mile away.  It was still easily reachable by bike and of course by car.  There was a large

Me in the gravel parking lot, age 35.

Me in the gravel parking lot, age 35.

gravel parking lot along the Spring out here in the country.  That parking lot was the site of many “firsts” in my life—most of them illicit in some way.  This creek which had been a source of innocent musings to me as a child now bore witness to very much of my growing up.  I still visit that parking lot almost every time I visit Dad, but there’s nothing really there for me anymore.  Some places don’t ever own any real magic.

 

My mother grew up in yet another small town—not Newville and not Mechanicsburg, but Oakville.  Now this is a tiny town, but not too far from Newville and the Big Spring.  She was probably aware of it was a child.  She grew up on a real life, honest-to-goodness farm.  She often had to gather eggs as a child.  Her sister (my aunt) tells a story of moving freshly born piglets out from under their mothers so they wouldn’t be crushed.  They had many outbuildings, as farms tend to have, including a pump house, where you would heave and ho on a big metal pump and call water up from deep underground.

As her parents got older they sold the farm and moved into a house in Newville, on Big Spring Avenue.  My parents, after meeting in college and getting married, would later buy a house just two doors down from Mom’s parent’s house.  I would spend my first days as a human being (notwithstanding a few days in Carlisle Hospital) in the big

Mom on the farm in Oakville as a young teenager

Mom on the farm in Oakville as a young teenager

yellow house at 66 Big Spring Avenue.  Both of my parents, despite being from “the next town over” came to adopt Newville as their homeland.  Mom would eventually be on the committee of the Newville Area Community Center, and Dad would be the announcer and finally the coach of the town’s ill-fated Twilight League baseball team, the Cardinals.

In those halcyon days, Newville had an annual carnival-type event down at the town playground (this was different from the current annual Fountain Festival).  As a child, the carnival seemed like the biggest event in the world.  It felt like the whole town was there.  There were dunk tanks and food stands and those things where you throw darts at balloons and face painting.  The whole shebang.  I also was made to feel special at these events, because my mom was something there, and the importance of this is not to be diminished: she was the long-standing champion of the Dual Sack Race.  This is a race where you and a partner each put just one leg in a large burlap sack, and then through teamwork you race other teams in a kind of start-and-stop hopping motion.  Mom’s partner each year was family friend Wayne Witmer, and boy-howdy, they were good.  They just simply won every year, but nobody knows for quite how many years.  One year they even made the local paper, the Valley Times-Star, with a picture and everything.  Mom recently said to me, “I can still see that picture in my mind, exactly.  I was so cute and little and lithe!”  Lithe.  There’s something time seems to take from all of us, no?  Know what Mom and Wayne won every year for their heroic efforts?  An ice cream cone.  Despite the meager winnings, when the event organizers stopped offering the event, it made Mom feel sick.  She looked forward to it so much.

When I was pretty young, but I don’t know how young, I was out at the Spring with a couple of my other pretty young friends. I’m not even sure which house we lived in at this time. I know that we were out in the country, although we might’ve lived in town. But my friends and I were out in the country, and we were taking big rocks, as big as we could actually carry, and moving them across the Spring, trying to make a dam. I don’t know why we were doing it, it’s just the sort of thing that you do when you’re a kid growing up near a body of water.  You want to manipulate it, plus, you’re also bored. We got about halfway across the spring, it was actually a pretty good dam we were building – and we can actually see the waterflow changing a little bit, when down out of one of the grand houses that stands up in the lush vegetation beside the pretty road (which is, for the record, called Spring Road) strode toward us our elementary school principal. I didn’t know it at the time, but Art MacArthur, the principal of Newville Elementary School, lived in that grand house, and he had been watching us.  But the thing was, he didn’t come to yell at us.  We were scared when we saw him, but he was very nice.  Most of us, he knew our names just by looking at us.  He talked to us for a few minutes, complimented how well we had made our dam.  Right before he left he told us that if a police officer or Game Commission official happened by, we could get in a lot of trouble, so we should put the stones back where they had been.  So that is what we did.

My sister Adrienne has always been about three years older than me, and presumably, she always will be. I say that she’s about three years older than me, because sometimes it’s only two years. It depends on what month it is. So of course, we had slightly different experiences

Adrienne in the backyard of the Newville house with grandma Dellinger

Adrienne in the backyard of the Newville house with grandma Dellinger

growing up. But we did spend an awful lot of time together by the spring. When we were very young, and still living in town, we would often walk down to the spring, where there is a large and a very old stone arch through which a bend in the stream  meanders. We could walk up a very steep embankment and get above the stone arch (which wasn’t a bridge so much as a tunnel through the embankment), and simply be there, being in our own little world. It really is a very secluded area, the town itself is almost devoid of activity during the day, even now when I visit. Back then, stifling hot summer days would send everybody who was actually home during the day inside, and we could be out and about. There was silence, and insects, and cars in the distance. We would be above this stone arch, which was probably over a hundred years old even then, and we would look for big thick branches that we could lay down on. We would pretend it was our own sort of hideout or fort. Our age difference was enough that we weren’t often playmates, we didn’t share fantasies or other worlds, but this little secret place, we could share. Later, without me, she would bring her first boyfriend Mike down to the same spot, find little coves in the trees, and make out with him. She was growing up, which I suppose is something everyone has to do. It was, I suppose, her version of the gravel parking lot that I would later find as a teenager, once we moved out to the country. Either way, that spring was just trickling past us, whether we noticed it or not.

Everything just keeps trickles right past.

 

 

I’m Not Me

Posted in Memoir with tags , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2014 by sethdellinger

My father was born into orchard country. Nestled deep in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley, near the intersection of the Appalachian Trail and the South Mountain.  His youngest years were spent in rolling hills crowded by apple trees, which Mexican immigrants picked nearly year-round.  There were Mexican restaurants around unassuming bends in the country roads; I never saw them but I can imagine they might have looked out of place, if one stopped to think about them.  Dad told me a story once about a fancy-looking house that sat at the bottom of a gulley and was surrounded by Red Delicious trees.  I saw the house myself—it’s still there.  It looks like a small but stately plantation.  When Dad was a boy, the house had an in-ground swimming pool, which was quite a luxury in those days, and they’d let him and his friends swim there occasionally.  One Halloween, he was trick-or-treating and the family gave all the boys little pop guns—plastic guns that shot a cork out of a barrel.  He thought they must be rich.  He never forgot it.  He remembers it like it was yesterday.  My mother was born a mere 25 miles away, in a vanishingly small town surrounded by cow pastures, clumps of trees, and lean-to outbuildings.  Farm country.  In fact, she was born on a farm—a working farm, and she grew up doing the kinds of things you might imagine: collecting eggs from innocent chickens, watching her father and brothers shear sheep, waking up at the crack of dawn. Her dream as a little girl was to somehow, someway, move to the nearby small town and help her uncle run a pharmacy he owned there.  She pictured herself sweeping the floor, stocking the shelves, maybe keeping the books.  To her, this was a version of glamour.  Her family would take in kids from “the city” who needed places to stay; Fresh Air Kids, they called them.  Sometimes my mom’s country family swelled to great numbers; a surprising-looking bunch, I’m sure.  My genes—whatever they are—are a swirl of them.  I’ve got orchards in my blood, and my skeleton is a farm.

As a young child, I didn’t know much about my parents or where I’d come from. It wasn’t an issue I pondered.  I knew that I certainly felt like me.  I knew I liked to mostly not talk about what I felt inside.  I knew I liked drawing things, and that I sure did love the outdoors.  I liked playing with small boats in the bathtub, and Matchbox cars in the sandbox, and I hated going to sleep, and the dark scared me.  There were two neighbors who lived two doors down from us—at the time it felt far away, but it is literally just thirty yards, I just looked at it not six months ago—who must have been 50 years old at the time.  I considered them my best friends, although to them I must have seemed like a just occasional little person who happened by.  I liked talking to them and imagining what their grown-up lives were like inside that big red brick house—what the kitchen looked like, what they ate for dinner.  I miss them.  They’re dead now.

I was a fairly typical teenager. I was mostly about having fun; everything was a joke.  I could be cruel.  I smoked a lot of cigarettes and experimented with just about anything that could be experimented with.  I talked a lot.  I thought I was important and smart.  I hid secret desires and interests: poetry, philosophy, sexual confusion, the occult.  I got angry, I got sad, I read classic science fiction novels late at night in my bedroom with the door locked.  Women started to like me and it took me a long time to figure out what to do about it; when I did figure it out I tried very hard to be a “good guy” but still…I often failed.  I liked comic books, American Gladiators, and MTV.  Late in my teens I discovered Tumbling Run, a long hiking trail in the nearby Appalachians that follows a truly adorable stream, which is a trickle at the trail head and as you climb higher becomes a rushing set of falls and deep, clear pools.  I would hike it by myself, find perches away from the trail, pull out a notebook and write poems tailored after E.E. Cummings.  They were full of angst and love and fear.  I thought Tumbling Run would be like my Walden Pond, but mostly, I just forgot about it.

As a young man I encountered my problems: alcoholism and depression. But those weren’t the only defining elements of my life.  As I moved into adulthood I moved away from American Gladiators and even further from the tiny boats in the bathtub.  There were surface changes, like a deeper attraction to poetry and literature and “serious films”, but I changed for real, too.  I got angry.  Angry at everything.  I became of a mind that to judge everyone as harshly and vocally as possible was actually a good trait to have.  I smoked a lot of cigarettes, often two packs a day.  I was still funny, but now with more sarcasm and less joy.  I liked staying awake until the sunrise, never cleaning my car, and throbbing rock and roll.  I hated being alive.

After young adulthood up until this moment (what we shall refer to as life) I’ve just kept on changing.  There are always the obvious, cosmetic alterations: a sudden liking for big band music and Cary Grant films, corduroy jackets and Florsheim loafers, art museum memberships and mini-figurines of Felix Mendelssohn.  But also sea changes, but so fast; one moment I don’t want to talk to people at all, the next I enjoy the communion of strangers.  Seemingly one moment, an actual pastime of mine is driving my car through the country at night, the windows down, blasting music from my CD player, smoking cigarettes.  Last night I walked home through the city, listening to my music in my headphones, stopping to read the menu in a vegan restaurant. One moment I want to be single forever, the next I’m in love more than I ever have been.  A month or so ago, I made a short visit to the area I grew up in (somewhere between orchards and farms) and had breakfast with two of my oldest, dearest friends.  They looked the same as they always had, as I’m sure I did, and the little dirt-hole diner we ate in was the same as always, and the streets and parking lots were the same as they always were, when I was spending all my days there.  But having been largely gone from the area for four years, it all felt so different, so foreign.  Was that actually me that had lived here, had called these places home, these friends familiar?  Or was it a dream had by a being who calls himself me?  After breakfast one of the friends was driving me to my dad’s house, and as I climbed in his car,  I was thinking he has a car! (I no longer have a car).  I was nearly aghast (but without judgment) when I settled into the passenger seat and realized this was the car of a very serious cigarette smoker; ashes, crumpled empty packs everywhere, the stale pall of smoke infusing the upholstery.  And it looked like many cars I had in my day: old drink cups on the floor, change everywhere, ATM receipts and food wrappers.  I wasn’t grossed out; I felt oddly at home.  It had just been so long since that had been me.  It was like time travel.

If I’m able to look directly at the thought long enough, it becomes very clear that the notion of me doesn’t exist.  I’m a collection of moments, an intricate study in cause-and-effect.  I am the orchard, and the farm, and the boats in the bathtub, and the throbbing rock and roll, and walking home through the city last night.  I am time itself.  I’m not me.

Where Did You Go, Where Have You Been?

Posted in Memoir, Prose with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2014 by sethdellinger

Where did you go, the you that was there before?  The you that I tried so hard to be like?  You’ve settled in now, haven’t you?  Settled in for weekdays, Pampers, “the grind”.  You’ve all-but disappeared into it.  And that’s fine.  So have I, in my own way.  I look at the cubicle-dwellers, the 9-to-5ers, the mortgagers with judgment.  I judge them for a life spent in the cattle chute, but I’m the same, in my own way.  I wake up to an alarm five days a week, dash my utility bills off monthly in tidy little envelopes, take extra long showers and even bubble baths to de-stress from the rigors of a world I can’t even begin to understand.  I’m in the grind, too, in my own version of a cattle chute.  You were beautiful once, even more than you are now, supple like sand underfoot right after the wave withdraws, and I’ve never been a model but I had that nice little six-pack of abs and that 90s-era skater hair.  Who could forget the smell of your own hair in my face, your feet akimbo in the air.  We must have been dank and gorgeous like John Sloan’s Wet Night on the Bowery, everything akimbo in the air and musty and frivolous.  But who could look back and want that time again?  There was so much pain and we didn’t know a damn thing.  Who wants to not know a damn thing?  But then we wake up in this world, in this present-tense, and wonder where our beauty escaped to.  How did it siphon off?  We’re always so safe here, so comfortable.  When was the last time you felt real danger?  It is important to feel real danger.  What proof have you that you are alive?  What new horizon can you actually imagine, aside from the top of your stairs, or the local pizza parlor?  Dammit we were gorgeous but now it’s just about not forgetting umbrellas and digging out of debt.  Who ever heard of digging out of debt?  Does the field mouse understand what an interest rate is?  How about the barn owl, how much does it know about 401(k)’s?  What in the world is going on here?  What does any of this have to do with living?  Remember once, you and I were racing each other back and forth through my parents’ front yard–I guess it would have been my front yard, then, too.  And it kept bothering me when you would beat me because I was young and an idiot and full of the uncertainty of a scared animal.  I hated that you beat me again and again but I tried not to show it.  Then we laid in the grass and kissed deeply and for a long time, everything about our bodies sweet like warm milk just out of a cow’s insides.  Then we laid there and looked into the blazing-bright sky and, as young people are known to do, talked about the clouds, and what they looked like, and what held them there.  And then I asked you, Am I the funniest person you know?  I needed you to say yes to that, without any pause, but you didn’t say yes, you were honest, and it killed me inside.  Oh to be that young when such a small thing mattered so much.  Who wouldn’t love to hear, nowadays, near the midpoint of things, that you were the third funniest person you had ever met.  What a compliment that seems now!  These bits of personal fire are rare now, rare like two sweet bodies laying in the country grass, rare like paid-off debt.  Down the chute, down the chute, we all just keep going down the chute.  And what can we do?  Try and hop off?  What are the options?  Become a vagabond, wander the cities and towns, begging for whatever work there is and move on, like Richard Kimble searching for that one-armed man?  Or move to some commune–assuming they still exist–and paint or grow potatoes but also share your washcloth and help raise other peoples’ bratty kids?  No thanks.  The cattle chute’s the only way to go and still have your own place to poop every day, and there are so few comforts in this animal life as it is, you’ve got to keep the ones you’re able to find.  So slide, slide, slide we will.  But damn if one doesn’t miss the days before you knew you were on the cattle chute, the days with your hair in my face, where did you go, where have you been?

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