Songs of the Wolf #1

On my car stereo this morning was Rob Jungklas’s “John Doe“, one of the best songs you’ve never heard of. And I have the thought that there’s a small cadre of people that listen to Jungklas and are impressed with him, and they’re his audience.

This evening, I’m thinking about how frustrating it is that I keep waiting for an essay of mine to break through, to hit that perfect beat, and it occurs to me that maybe it won’t happen, but maybe I have a small mostly invisible cadre of people that read my essays and are impressed with them, and you’re impressed with me.

Then I think about my father’s words that I was too good to be a writer to ever be famous, which was his fatherly way at the time to protect me from the harsh reality that I wasn’t a very good writer.

But there was a kernel of truth: “Goodness” isn’t a reliable predictor of how famous a writer will be. “You’ll never be famous” is one message that the big bad wolf keeps telling me to keep me from writing.

Moment

I used to go by a different name. It’s been so long that I’d nearly forgotten. The other day, I was out somewhere when someone said the name. I turned because it seemed like someone was speaking to me, and they were.
 
I didn’t recognize it at first. It took my mind a few seconds to process, during which the person said, “I’m sorry, I thought you were someone else. Someone I grew up with.”
 
“I used to go by that name,” I said.
 
She identified herself. I used to be friends with her father. She’d been a child then. Now she had five children with her.
 
We didn’t know what to say to each other except, “It’s great to see you.” Maybe she’d only said my name out of the shock of seeing me, after all these years.
 
Life is strange. Our independent lives hurtle onward as people pass in and out. Sometimes I see a shadow that I used to know, but I don’t say anything because part of me doesn’t want to be wrong and part of me doesn’t want to be right.
 
“Thanks for coming, mind your step on the way home
The roads are busy, tonight just pick the ones you know
Thanks for calling, mind your step on the way home
Find a God and thank him” — Therapy?, “The Boy’s Asleep”

Can’t

I was in seventh grade, or maybe eighth, when the girl in the fuzzy sweater told me I was cute.

I still don’t know why she decided that I was going to be her boyfriend. I was awkward and out of place. I don’t remember ever fitting in, and certainly not with the girl in the fuzzy sweater.

Every time she spoke to me, I froze up and blushed. I would sink down as far as I could in my chair. At first she looked like she thought it was cute, but it wasn’t long before she was annoyed by it.

One day, as I sat in English class, I got a hot flash. My body was shaking. I was sweating. I couldn’t move.

The girl in the fuzzy sweater asked me what was wrong, and I told her, in quiet, embarrassed tones. She told me to tell the teacher. I said I couldn’t. She got mad and said that she was sick of me.

The girl in the fuzzy sweater never spoke to me again, and I never had another hot flash.

This was one of the places I learned I couldn’t.

Reflection

Today, I am a hero to a gull. And probably a sparrow.

Coming out of the Target on John R, I saw a gull attacking a heavily greased brown paper bag. He wasn’t getting very far, and was clearly frustrated.

As I walked over to look in the bag, the gull flew off to a safe distance, eyeing me warily. Was I going to steal his lunch? Was I going to make HIM lunch?

Instead, I made him lunch, but not the way he feared. It was a bag of sweet potato fries, so I dumped them on the ground and walked off.

He flew back and eagerly munched his lunch. I also saw a sparrow hopping around at a distance, presumably waiting for the gull to fly off.

Reflection

On one of my routes home, there’s a signpost to which has been affixed a stuffed animal and a plastic figurine of an angel with the head of a little black girl. It’s bleached now from the sun, and the stuffed animal has gotten raggedy from the weather, and the desolation of it gives me a momentary pause that my life could be worse, that somewhere someone lost a child to tragedy near that corner. Today, it was even more poignant because a block later I saw a homeless man asleep on the sidewalk, tucked into the shadow of a building. Meanwhile, several miles south on Woodward, the Qline opens up this weekend, not far from where Mike Ilitch failed to live long enough to see the opening of the joint Red Wings/Pistons sports arena in the increasingly regentrified Heart of Detroit. How many of those gentrifying hipsters drive past the homeless black men hiding in the shadows of buildings without even noticing their existence? Meanwhile, a sunbleached angel remains in testimony that the lives of the invisible and displaced matter, too.

And tomorrow, I’ll wake up white again.

Reflection

“There’s a shadow in the mirror with a glimmer of the one that was.”

My creative juices are like a gas-powered lawn mower that’s been kept a few too many seasons. I pull the cord and the engine kicks over a few times and I think that it’s the time that things will engage, but the engine just sputters out again. I pull the cord harder, jumping off the ground as I do so and pulling the mower up a little as well, and the engine tries a few more times, with a little more effort, but sputters out again. I pull a few more times, but eventually I give up: I feel like perhaps the tank has run dry, or the spark plugs are corroded beyond usefulness.

Where do I buy a new mower?

January 3

You were the Buddha.

That’s what you’d told us when you’d gone to China and the children had gathered around you, this towering behemoth of a man with a round belly and an expansive smile.

When you were lying there, flat, stomach distended from post mortem gasses, I tried to be sad at your loss. I have never grieved the way I feel I should, and so I thought of the Buddha. I rubbed your belly, “for luck” I said, and for me, that was the first part of letting go.

— ptkh 010314

January 2

There is a paper wasp nest dangling from a tree on our easement, high above the street. It is easily the size of a human head, even desiccated as it is from winter months of disuse.

Back in autumn, after the leaves had fallen and made the nest visible to anyone who walked by, I saw some kids throwing stones at it, but nothing came of that.

I wonder if it will fall before spring, and if there are dormant wasps sleeping inside it, and why the wasps chose such a spindly branch to build on in the first place.

But for now it dangles, like Medusa’s head held tauntingly up at the end of Perseus’s hand, the wasp entryway the silent scream of the Gorgon.

— ptkh 010214

The abandoned dacha

That morning, I met with Oleg in the house in the valley at the bottom of the steep road that nobody with any sense would ever try to drive up, the one carved straight up the side of the hill because people in that part of the world had apparently never heard of switchbacks.

I remember thinking about that road, about how precarious it was, and yet at some point it had been built by people who thought it was a worthwhile idea, and at some point it had been used by people who were not nearly as afraid of gravity as I was. As Oleg was.

For ourselves, we’d made our way to the valley, individually, by way of the footpaths that had been beaten through the weeds by marchers over time, by the consensus of the people who needed to go up and down that hill and who had chosen the same, relatively safe paths.

Oleg had gotten there before me. He was being paid hourly, and so he made it there before anyone else so he could claim he’d gotten there any time that he’d thought we’d believe. I was paid in food, shelter, and gratitude, and so I got there when it suited me. He’d already been there two hours, or so he told me.

The sun was still suggesting morning; the heat was noticeable, but comfortable.

There was a stray dog wandering along the dirt road that had once serviced Ladas, carting furtive peasants around the valley ring below the erstwhile fort at the top of the hill. The road was mostly overgrown; now and then, someone would manage to force a car along it, the crunching of stripped gears punctuating their attempts, but for the most part, it was a footpath now. Another footpath, through a gash in the world that technology had forgotten about.

We were to pull weeds. It was a Sisyphusian task: The nettles were up to my waist, and we without gloves were rasping our skin raw. After two days, it looked like we had barely made a dent. We had cleft a path to the front door of the house. That was it.

That was where I found Oleg, taking his break. His breaks were as long as his work periods, which was the Ukrainian way. Or so he told me. Or so, at least, I think he told me, because his broken English was barely serviceable and my Ukrainian, then as now, non-existent.

“I’m don’t know,” he said, wiping the back of his hand against his forehead. “This house. Is not good.”

I stepped through the threshold. This had once been someone’s life. Most likely, a dacha, a summer home. Someplace to put up one’s feet for a few months, to catch snatches of solitude and relative peasant comforts before the Soviet Russians had come and claimed them as communal property. And then, of course, left them alone. Left them to go back to the elements.

This had once been someone’s life. If the walls could have talked, they would have sighed wistfully and waxed nostalgic. But now, the walls were barely recognizable as such, with chunks of plaster and wood missing entirely, or collapsed onto the floor.

This was the living room, but I could look straight up and see the cloudless blue sky above me.

“Do they really want us to sleep here?” I asked, mostly rhetorically.

“I’m don’t know,” Oleg said again. He was just the hired help. We were just the American scholars whose hotel fees had gotten too expensive for City Hall. This was just their attempt at an idea, a building they possessed because the Soviet Union had willed it to them after its demise.

I tore at a stinging nettle that was growing up through the living room floor. I pulled it, caressed it, considered the ball of dirt that was snowing onto my feet.

“This place needs to be torn down,” I said. It was not a decision that was within my power to make.

Oleg laughed, then stood up and went back outside (which is to say, back to the other side of the doorway). I heard him start to hum a happy Ukrainian song as he went back to pulling weeds.

This was the decision point: This was the message. We never did sleep in that house. We wound up staying in what had been a low-level government office of some sort, a miserable and dusty place with gaping holes in the walls, no climate control, unreliable electricity, and an outhouse out back that we shared with the clothing factory next door.

The message was: No more hotel. The other message was: Don’t complain about the quarters we give you, because we can give you worse.

Looking back, I wonder what happened to that dacha. Sometimes I think that we were the last humans sanctioned to visit it, its last gasp to be connected, officially, with human hands. As I drive through Detroit and see its gutted skeletons, the tendon my soul has with that lonely dacha gets tugged just a little bit.

Just a little.