25 November 2018

Disappeared (Part 16)

Sunrise in St. Louis. A new day begins within sniffing distance of the Mississippi. It is not lost on me that we will cross it when we leave the city. The big river psychically holds a place in the collective consciousness as “where the West begins”, especially to those who were born, raised, and spent most of their life on the east coast. It is a myth, mostly, but one that hovered in the back of my mind for years. Years, that is, until I spent some years living in Kansas. The Mississippi River may have been where the West began centuries ago, but these days it is more a state of mind rather than a reality.

That state of mind was on my mind when the wheels hit the road on the William L. Clay Bridge over the river. This was not where the west begins. This is where the next phase of my life, my eastern life redux would begin. Big water interposed between me and the wreckage, the fire, and the memories from the land of Oz. The short term goal was simply to make it to Ohio. Columbus, Ohio, to be exact. Never before had I been there, never had a reason to visit. It was a new day. The circumstance of distance made anointed Columbus as the mid-journey stopover, a place to catch breath and lay our heads.

King Pepe meows and places his front paws on the dashboard. The sun lights up his face, illuminating his eyes with tawny gold. The figurehead cat will soon lose interest in the road ahead. He will curl up in the back with that luxurious ease that felines possess. I envy him. He rests, I drive. My daughter keeps herself entertained via the smartphone, although we chat and like about memes and the weirdness of the internet. This is comfortable, this is good. This is the first road trip involving just the two of us. At first it was a bit awkward. My time in Kansas had afforded little chance for chance conversation, just us. But heart memory served me well, and we found common ground with broken ice. For the first time in years, I felt like a father in practice rather than just name. If my hands hadn’t been on the wheel I might have wept. But the kid could not drive and we had miles to go before we slept.

The river flows into Illinois, cross-wise to the Mississippi, a flow of striped asphalt bathed in the hum of traffic. Something happened when we crossed over. Was that a door slamming or a curtain falling? The horizon behind shifted and blurred. The undersides of the clouds no longer carried the tinge of flames below. The air itself smelled sweeter without the tang of smoke. Our vessel found its head, and I was content to let it follow the ribbon of pavement into the east. Illinois rolled away under the wheels. Indiana was more a chronometer than a place. Miles became blur, hypnotic, calming. Travel as a fugue state that brought peace of mind. Not so long ago I would have paid cash money to find that peace. My gratitude was palpable to have achieved it on the road.

A change in the weather greeted us upon crossing the border into Ohio. Clouds gathered overhead, storm curds gravid with the threat of thunderstorms. They chased us down the highway to catch up with us as we neared Columbus. The skies cracked open to turn the interstate into a log flume ride in a particularly hectic amusement park. The car did not so much roll into the parking lot of the hotel as it floated. Still, the deluge had not saddled me with the usual grouchiness that afflicted me when bad weather complicated my life. Quite the opposite. The rain was heavy, the road slick and uncertain. These things were easily handled. The water itself soothed and cleansed, whispering good things to the soul. Rain and river were carrying me away from the damage of the recent past into a future uncertain but full of promise. What the water told me is that the hurt is real but so is the healing.

As we checked in to the hotel, the storms moved on. We left our bags in the room, and went in search of dinner. Sunlight peeked through a hole in the curtain of the sky. White gold rays coruscated over billows of dusky purple. Omen? I do not know. Later, over ice cream, my daughter and I agreed it was beauty. Surely this boded well for the morning, and another good day on the road. That night I slept well, dreaming of a river flowing into the sea. I could hear the waves and it sounded like home.

18 November 2018

Disappeared (Part 15)

“Seeker knelt at the edge of the prairie, retching his guts out with volcanic intensity. Slow poison and spiritual exhaustion had taken their toll. His arms trembling with the violence of the possessed, sheer force of will kept his head from dipping forward into the foulness polluting the ground. Behind him, roiling smoke besmirched the horizon of the sea of grass that once held his heart. Seeker could feel the heat even at the miles he had put between he and it. He spat. Pain radiated from the stone behind his breastbone.”

Those words were written over a year past, chronicled here in a grim story of an interior movie playing in a weary head. It was not a movie suitable for children. Censor and critic that I am to myself, my daughter would not be viewing it now, perhaps never. She was not quite ready, in my estimation, to know the Seeker. Ah, no. That is not quite correct. In my estimation I was not quite ready to reveal myself as the Seeker. The journey east would begin in hope, not despair.

Daddy and daughter a reverse Lewis and Clark. We loaded up our wheeled canoe on a warm July morning with St. Louis, Missouri as the destination on the first leg of this expedition. Our cat, King Pepe, served as the bobcat analogue to me as the Seeker. He was in much better shape than the cat in the movie and was not long for his carrier once we hit the highway. He would have made a good figurehead for our vessel if high velocity wind and common sense had not dictated that we not speed down the road with a cat strapped to the hood.

Off we went in a curious mix of trepidation, curiosity, and (in my case) melancholic relief.

In the rear view is a horizon smudged with smoke. The sun merges with the orange line of the horizon, liquefying itself among the flames consuming the grass. The city is a hologram of fading light as the wheels find their lead on the river of asphalt leading out of town. My daughter does not see the flames. I am grateful we will not discuss the burn.

Our first wicket is St. Louis, Missouri. Gateway to the West, as it fancies itself. The gateway will now operate in reverse, a door is swinging the other way. The road rolls up behind us across the state. Upon arrival, the city greets us with indifference and humidity. King Pepe awoke in a nervous state. Saucer-eyed, he struggled a bit during the effort to get him into the cat carrier. There was no such angst upon opening the hatch. The cat quickly sized up the hotel room, finding a perch on the windowsill looking out over the St. Louis night. I felt some kinship with the animal. I realized I had been shallow breathing, almost sipping the air, on the entire drive across Missouri. Setting down my suitcase loosened something in my torso, and my breath came out all in a rush. Shaking, dizzy, my shoulders rose. I gulped the air. For the first time in days, it did not smell of smoke. If anything, I detected a faint mineral aroma that spoke of cool water rushing over stones.

In the east the river carried on as befitted its nature. Or should I say rivers? Duality was present. A river existing in my mind and the river existing in the corporeal world. The vision was in my head, this movie of double exposures, simultaneously playing, but slightly off congruency. I heard things, too. Water over stones, leaf litter rustling in the breeze. Bird calls. In the spaces between burbles and trills I could hear the faint susurrus of my heartbeat. This is the earth reminding us that we are alive, and gratefully so. The comfort to be had in such moments is amplified in its power to sustain.

The Mississippi River lies not far from the hotel. Its presence can be felt even when out of eyesight. It may be that the river’s voice could be heard without the noise of the city constantly talking over it. Also, there is the arch. The Gateway Arch looms over downtown, a silver parabola etched against a sky of purplish anthracite. My daughter wishes to see it up close, as do I. This may be the last time either of us will be here. Timing and history are not lost on us. There must be a way to carry a positive parting memory of this time in the heartland.

We trekked through the streets and across a frenetic major arterial road. It was surprising amount of traffic for being later in the evening. Overhead across the way loomed the arch. An alien obelisk of stark light on metal. I looked forward to garnering some good pictures once we arrived at the base. The riparian aroma, fecund and earthy, wafted off the Mississippi, filling the night and our lungs. The knot in my diaphragm loosened up, I think in anticipation. But it was not to be.

Construction and renovation were underway at the base of the monument. Fencing stood between us and getting within Frisbee tossing distance, never mind actually touching the arch. My progeny huffed a sigh of disappointment. So did I. The metallic taste of sly irony spread across my tongue to coat the back of my throat. We had come far with open hearts and earnest hopes that would not be fulfilled. This was a familiar feeling. To my credit I took it in stride. My daughter did the same. This was minor. This was a trifle. The road still lay open, with promise of its own. The brilliance of the arch convinced me of it. We took some pictures, my daughter and I, then turned our backs to the river to make for room and sleep. The river before us would be crossed in the morning, and the gateway would fulfill its legacy.

11 November 2018

Disappeared (Part 14)

Morning light fills the erstwhile cryosleep chamber otherwise known as the bedroom. I contemplate the Newtonian physics of a life in motion, and how for the longest time I preferred my body at rest to remain in that condition. Inertia made things simpler, less strenuous than it would have been to overcome depression, fear, and cowardice. To stay at rest is the soul’s insulation against facing the realization that it has no self-esteem, no self-belief. In turn this paves the road to personal hell, accepting estrangement and isolation rather than facing fear to assume command of life. In the cool pearly light of that summer morning after returning from the east coast, I decided to face fear and shine light on my unknown. I took the job. The portage over the mountains would begin whether or not I was ready.

A low murmur becomes a muffled rasp. The muffled rasp becomes a loud rush and gurgle. It is the unmistakable voice of the rapids, out of view but not far off. Riverbank views bend through the parallax induced by the acceleration of the current. What changes in the sound of life! A mild Doppler effect, side effect of speed, provides anxiety and amusement. Holding in place on the shore is less of an option now that change has taken hold. The river will tell me what to do. Whispers among the eddies and rocks cajole me to have faith, hold tight, this is in your blood and bones. There is a new future unfolding here on this silver ribbon under the star-speckled dome of the sky. It will bloom as it should if I am patient and careful.

This current life is not all poetry and speculation. Obligations beget pragmatics. Sliding down the slope of summer brings me to a grand visit from my daughter. It is her long summer break. She will be spending a big chunk of that with me. In my new place where I am alone. I will not tell her of the loneliness and desperation to which I succumbed in this funeral palace. Instead we will live in the moment. We shall make plans. We will spend time enjoying the company of the other. Most importantly, we will make this life change a golden opportunity for adventure. It is rare in my experience to take slack time and turn it into a cross-country road trip with someone you love. But this is exactly what we shall do. Come the right time, and we will point the car eastward, following the highway and urging my possessions to catch up. While waiting for that to happen we will see something of the world between the middle of the country and the coast upon which we both were born. It is for the road, and life.

Meanwhile, the sparks that had flown had nestled themselves in the Sea of Grass, a fulfillment of wind and combustible nature. Tiny djinns attired in robes of pale gold and orange danced among the parched stalks, sending plumes of thin smoke up into the desiccating air. I could taste it in my many dreams of escape.

So it began. Fire on the prairie makes the animals run fast. I awoke one morning from a fever dream with my legs already in motion. My kid was coming for a visit. I was trying to catch the boomerang, get things under control, and have the bow pointed to the east.

04 November 2018

Disappeared (Part 13)

Flashback. It is summer. My first one alone after twenty-plus years of being in a relationship. I am on a footbridge that crosses a stream adjacent to the apartment complex into which I had recently moved. Beside me is my daughter, who is gazing intently into the water below the bridge. Water bugs dimple a surface reminiscent of quicksilver where the argentine sky is reflected through gaps between the crowns of trees lining the banks. My progeny is casting twigs and leaves into the stream, playing a game of “Pooh Sticks” while we pass the time on a lazy day. The uncomplicated smile on her face engraves itself in my memory. It will come back to me years later as I stand on a different bridge, watching a faster current in a stolen moment between adult obligations. It will, in turn, make me smile.

Spending money I possessed momentarily for a shot at money I was currently without. Standing on the edge of the ledge, rappelling rope in hand, nothing but air below was what I dreamed. Flying into Baltimore was the reality, a blitz trip of a visit with less than two days on the ground. I ate well that night of my arrival, with good friends. A full belly does wonders for the outlook. Later that night, in the warm submarine light of a neighborhood bar, the bartender tempted me with the possibility of another fine drink. But recent history and prudence made the right decision. I contented myself with chewing a lonely ice cube sheathed in the memory of gin and lime. Clear head and a calm stomach for the morning, I said. There would be time for another drink later, whether in commiseration or celebration remained to be seen.

Good fortune was in the house. Rain dampened the day but the interview went well. It was shortly thereafter that I was offered the job. I nearly fainted with relief and gratitude. A sizable chunk of the future snapped into focus.

The river flowed on, a calm path into an arboreal canyon. This quicksilver thread stitched onward to the ocean, lit by the soft torch of promise. Sparks flew, carried far away to land among the sere undulations of the Sea of Grass. The terrain there had been sliding into aggressive desiccation for months. Lawns, trees, prairie grass had all assumed a cloak of dull brown that could not be unseen by my heart. There was rain, occasionally, that the ground seemed too weak to absorb. Perhaps spirits were at work, supernatural guides working overtime to convince my battered soul that to uproot was to return to life.

What is the proper name for the plate tectonics of one’s life? How to measure the drift of one’s continent of the soul? Can these things be quantified? I found myself lying awake in the small hours of the morning with those questions ringing in my head. The pent-up energies of frustration and helplessness slipping the leash as the possibility of positive, profound change materialized for me. I was nearly hollowed out by the breakneck rush of metaphorical air from my mental lungs, gasping with relief. It was clear that the ground was moving. With the ground on the move, at such pace, surely that meant the river would soon change its course.

I have often wondered if green, growing things worry about their roots. When the ground is drowning or it quakes in the grip of seismic nightmares, no tree can sleep easy in its bed. A loosening of the grip trembles its way from the tips to the crown, the heaviest of which is usually the first to fall. If my life had an advantage it was that it was not a tree. It was something smaller. Something closer to the ground. Any roots I had in the Sea of Grass were not thick and deep. These roots were sunk just enough to anchor me against the small floods and heavy winds of life. Thus, I kept on station just enough to buy some time. And now that time was in the bank.