I’ve been away for a while. I’m meeting Kelly in the park. She’s sitting among the chess players. Her new boyfriend plays chess in this park but he isn’t here today. She tells me a story. ‘So this guy at a party came up to me and shook my hand and he said: “Are your hands always this clammy?” And I said “I don’t know.” And he asked me, “Do you feel guilty about something?” And I said “I don’t know!” Then he just walked off.’ We see Eddy, fresh out of rehab, leaving a church. Soon he’ll be crashing bar conversations outside Dahlak (he can’t afford to drink inside), telling people, ‘I gig.’ (Press him for venues and dates and he’ll cite the wedding shower he played in Bensalem in ’97.) Radwan is sitting on his porch reading from his phone. The news from Syria can’t be good. I can hear the social worker enunciating loudly inside; Radwan’s son has autism, he’s not hard of hearing. Behind the plexiglass at Lucky’s the bored proprietor is sitting and scowling. Luke’s back in Philly for a few days, then he flies to Mexico City for a gig with one of the trendy synth acts he produces. I tell him to bring Eddy. He gigs. I ask Kelly if she heard the refinery explosion, the big one, the one that sparked the fire that compelled the mayor to issue a shelter-indoors warning for the neighborhoods downwind of it. ‘Yeah, it woke me up that morning,’ she says. ‘The sky was all orange. I thought God had woken me up to witness a beautiful morning. Then I went back to bed.’
My people are exulting in hard-earned spring. The pages are flapping in the wind. The gardeners who spent the winter devising ambitious plans for cramped divisions of earth are bent over their gardens. The caution tape is skipping rope. The punctured balloons that snagged on the knuckles of trees are flapping in the cleansing wind. I should have been here transforming with the seasons, planting a bundle of keys to old apartments in the thawing earth. I should have been out back of Dahlak with Kevin, sitting on lawn chairs, chain-smoking, entertaining offers of left shoes from hapless street peddlers, giving out cigarettes like alms. Ada’s taken up this life, Kevin’s old life. His friends – Maisey, Jim – have become her friends. The books he read, his Ulysses, his Dubliners, his Beckett, his Burroughs, the late hours he kept, she’s taken it all on. Or was she always his double?
Luke looks sleazier than I remember him, and it’s not just the dollar-sign-bedizened baseball cap he’s wearing. Ross is tired from the heat, tired of looking for work. We make plans to see a Derek Jarman film at International House later that night. Omar’s passed on to the Great Suburb in the Sky. The soiled steps to the unmarked bar above Abyssinia, from which he would heckle bland Penn students, are quiet and clear of obstructions. The baristas at Green Line don’t remember me. The clerk at Mariposa who scans my groceries doesn’t remember me. Tim’s introduced us five or six times. ‘Didn’t Tim conduct your wedding?’ I ask. Now he pretends to remember me.
I walk out during the scene in the film where a punk dangling from a noose comes back to life as a yuppie, leaving Ross and Luke without a ride home. Fuck Derek Jarman and fuck Ross for not putting enough time on the meter. If I hadn’t walked out I would have gotten a ticket. I drive back to the sublet. Ada’s visiting. I can hear her and Lia yakking away from the open bedroom window. I’m not ready to talk to anyone. I walk to the park at the end of the city. A woman who lives on the corner greets me. I don’t return the greeting. I part traffic with my indifference to death. A family’s having a cookout on the terrace of a house next to the barbershop. The red-and-white pole of the barbershop is spinning, trip-hop is the soundtrack to the flowering feeling up on the terrace. The light turns green. ‘It’s me, your Uncle Fester,’ someone jokes. I remember that they stop checking the meter after eight on that stretch of Chestnut. Ross did put enough time on the meter.
The priest at my brother’s funeral assured us he was up there in heaven with Jimi Hendrix, hearing the latest music before it reaches us, discussing elements of style and composition with other dead artists. He knew nothing about the young man who hanged himself beyond the obituary I wrote, but what did I know? I claimed him for myself, describing him as a seeker who’d studied art (he dropped out after one semester). So the priest improvised. Talking feedback. Guitar pick. Heaven is a recording studio where time is limitless. I feel cold. Gather round the burning bush. Gather round the hole it leaves. The German film crew is here. They want to know everything.
Ada texts Lia to invite us to join her over at Dahlak for a drink. She’s with Maisey, who just got out of the hospital, or rehab, or was thrown out of another group house, raped, hospitalized. I don’t know if I’m getting the timeline right. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s sitting at the bar in a hospital gown. She was there among the faces hanging off our table when I was last in town for my brother’s funeral, one of the girls who was in love with Kevin. In my grief I saw everything clearly, how Kevin was surrounded by scroungers who would pull him down. I didn’t know he was already down, that these were his people, and that I’d be returning for his funeral two years later. We get dressed, down some mescal and make our way toward the bar. We see Ada and Maisey sitting out back. They don’t notice us passing through the parking lot on our way to the park for people with fallen homies (per Lia’s lexicon). There’s an oak tree in the park that reminds me of Kevin. It has a gaping hole in its trunk where one of its huge boughs broke off.
When the Pages Are Flapping
When the pages are flapping I am happy. When the pages are flapping I’m not worried about the child climbing the dormant electric fence. When the pages are flapping I cease lamenting the fate of the ostracized lover. When the pages are flapping I don’t care what happens to the American tourist abducted by terrorists and sold into sexual slavery. When the pages are flapping I don’t lose sleep over the soul of the murderer. I’ve been told to stop. I could go on. I will go on. When the pages are flapping the smog of fried chicken is lifted. Dark pink flowers bloom with orange doodads. Nooses revert back to hardened vines. When the pages are flapping nothing is at stake because everything is already lost, and the pages breathe freely in their textlessness.
Please take a moment to appreciate the pages flapping.
‘They’re trying to outsmart this ludicrous magistrate who wears a three-cornered hat. And that symbolizes his pompousness, the three-cornered hat.’ Ross listens to classical music on the radio as he works. Copyediting a client’s Orientalist novel, tutoring a Saudi princeling, applying for teaching jobs, his own novel in the back of the drawer. ‘Uncomfortable for sure, that high humidity, and watch out for those torrential downpours. Up next we have a quartet of saxophones . . .’ After spending a year in Vienna on a Fulbright, he has yet to reconcile with his old life. He curses the surge of strung-out panhandlers on the streets, laments the absence of multigenerational families picnicking in parks at night. In any case, his preferred habitat is no city but a stuffed brown chair facing an air conditioner.
Some people in Cedar Park held a candlelight vigil for Lucky’s, the Chinese takeout joint that closed when their rent was doubled. I saw the stories and tributes circulating on Facebook. ‘Where else am I going to get fried tofu at 2 a.m.?’ Tim posted. Five years ago, when I lived across the street from Lucky’s, I wrote a poem about the owner.
When I entered he rose up from his dinner and went behind the plexiglass to take my order. ‘One egg roll,’ he repeated, slashing pictographs onto a piece of cardboard. His dull limbs awaited my next move. ‘That’s it?’ ‘That’s it,’ I said. He turned stiffly in the direction of the kitchen and squinted. The smuggler’s fee, the store, the green card, the wife and children, naturalization. Was it worth it? Standing behind a plexiglass wall fourteen hours a day seven days a week dropping egg rolls singly into boiling oil?
The owner was gruff to the point of rudeness. We have a long tradition of steak sandwich slingers and deli countermen abusing customers in this city, so the Lucky’s guy made sense to us. Once I saw him smile. He was out with his wife, his infant daughter bobbing on his chest. They had stopped to browse Tim’s junk sale. Unobscured by the greasy plexiglass, his wife was radiant. Tim recognized him and they exchanged a few words. He smiled. He was clearly in love with his baby.
Lucky’s will inevitably be replaced by a restaurant that closes at 10 p.m. The food will be better and more expensive. It will be rationally managed and staffed by young people selected for their obsequiousness and perpetual smiles, as dogs were selected by our early ancestors.
Over dinner – fake kielbasa, sauerkraut, garlic mustard – Kelly reports that the toxicity of the chemicals released into the air by the refinery explosion was worse than the company and city has admitted, according to two university reports. ‘But it’s not like any of us were outside for more than ten minutes,’ she says, alluding to some sociological study. ‘I work outside,’ Ada reminds her. It’s true, she works at a cemetery. Nowhere near the refinery. ‘Dan’s dad works at the refinery,’ Lia reminds them, ‘He drove right into the fireball.’ I laugh. I notice I’m hunched over my plate like my dad. When I called him to see if he was OK I ended up breaking the news to him. He’d been off that day. He told me he’d call and see what was going on. The next day he was aping the company’s PR: ‘It was never a problem the hydrofluoric acid they use was in containment before it happened it was a butane tank that exploded it could have been worse . . .’ The following day he went back to work. If the explosion had killed a dozen people he would have still gone back to work.
He works through the night unloading barrels of oil at the refinery. He is old, defeated, drugged, destroyed by the death of his youngest son, his movements are economical, his face fixed in a sneer. The oldest man on the job, he works out of a defensive crouch. And he works carefully, as carefully as he held me in his hands when I was a baby. My father used to laugh at the metal splinters in his hands, because pain was certainty then, and certainty love. The splinters that made him give up two-part inventions for the organ and his dream of becoming a professional musician. He unloads the oil from the freight train with great care, because my life is in his hands. Now he laughs nervously. Will the oil keep flowing? Three more years. That’s all he needs. Then he can retire. When the world releases him from its oily grip will there still be a world?
‘The Sunrise Coalition said we shouldn’t blame the workers,’ Kelly says, sanctimoniously repeating the activist group’s statement. No, let’s not blame the workers. After all, they make the gasoline that moves your car, the car that affords you privacy and security as you inch along the Schuylkill in rush-hour traffic through the maze of overpasses, the wreckage of blown tires, past the polygonal facade of the Amtrak building that magnifies the anemic sun and warms your face on a winter day as you sit in your beat-up old Volvo, gassed up and daydreaming about waterskiing. Let’s not blame the workers. ‘Wow, this is a real bummer of a dinner conversation,’ Ada observes. ‘Are you kidding me?’ I say. ‘This is political gold! We’re the folks sitting around the kitchen table! Steve can’t put food on the table because the refinery shut down. Steve’s just trying to feed his family. He’s got a pulmonary embolism, he’s prediabetic and will probably lose his foot if he doesn’t get it checked out soon. Steve shouldn’t have to sacrifice his health to provide for his family!’ Kelly watches as I load more of her sauerkraut onto my bun. I take another big bite. The gesture feels working class.
A Brief Biography of My Father
(The Early Middle Years)
1977. His hair is long and wavy and golden. He’s scowling like a young lion for the wedding photographer. 1981. Now smiling sheepishly at the eight-pound infant nestled in his sinewy forearm. A son! It’ll be a few more years until it’s my turn to yowl, to take my first out-breath, give my first lowing wail.
He bounds down the stairs in the morning on his way to the plant, taking the last three at a leap and landing with a thud that shakes the brittle porcelain bells in the landlady’s china closet. Returning from work, his face drained of color and enthusiasm, with just enough energy left to make it up the stairs, the landlady intercepts him at the landing. ‘Steve, I know it’s you running down the stairs in the morning, and I would appreciate it if you didn’t do that anymore.’ This is the way most adults talk to him, with a mixture of disappointment and admonishment, depending on how much he owes them. They all sound like the voice he makes when he’s imitating his father, an IRS accountant, giving him tax advice.
He is the last in a line of anonymous appendages to power stretching at least as far back as the sixteenth century (a distant ancestor served as treasurer to Henry VIII ). The line does not include him: he is its terminus. No, he is the origin of an awkward, fledgling new line.
Their first apartment is too small to accommodate the organ. It sits in his parents’ garage. After a while his fingertips stop anticipating the supple weight of the keys pressing up against them.
In the early morning in the shower the swirl of voices bubbles up and he bursts forth with bits of Jimi Hendrix solos, jingles, odd phrases, goaty ululations, imitations, sounds of machines whirring and stamping metal parts, like a cipher repeating the sounds he’s heard the previous day. This manic stream of sounds spreads into the halls of his apartment building where, apart from the steam and reverberation that give it the swell of music, it becomes all too intelligible. He steps out into the now silent hall and quietly makes his way down the stairs.
1986. Another infant cradled in his arm, this one a girl, born with broken hips and the cord wrapped around her throat. His little girl. A miracle she survived. His hair is short and he sports a green-gold mustache. My father is beginning to assume his recognizable form.
1991. A fat baby boy perched on his paunch. His hair is cut very short, his upper lip bare. He is born again.
Four sets of eyes peer out at us from behind a tree trunk. ‘We’re trying to scratch the wood off this tree,’ one of the boys explains to us as we pass. ‘But it’s wood all over,’ I say. Kelly and I continue walking, neither of us remarking on the absence of adult supervision. After a few paces I hear the boldest boy say, ‘You’re right.’ We’re walking the trail that runs along Cobbs Creek on the border of Philadelphia and my hometown. I was warned to stay away from this park, but some older kids were always cutting a hole in the fence. We played in cars that had been abandoned, stripped for parts and burned. When the creek froze the chemical run off in the water made rainbows on the surface.
A few weeks ago, Kelly tells me, two of her neighbors were shot. A pregnant woman and the man who threw his body in front of her. They were shot by a vengeful ex-lover with a semiautomatic rifle. ‘Blap blap blap blap’ is the sound the gun made. She doesn’t reproduce the screams. The screams are implied. The man had helped her move a piece of furniture just the day before.
We hear the sound of basketballs thudding as we approach Baltimore Avenue. The trolley muscles around the Caribbean restaurant with a screech as it eases into its final resting place. On the basketball court a boy maneuvers a remote-controlled car under the legs of the men jockeying for position under the netless rim.
This city is filled with wrecks like us. Wrecks who are filled with the wreckage of others. The good news is the ambulance and fire department are already here in case any of these fireworks turn out to be lethal projectiles lofted on the wings of pistols. Don’t say I never loved. I loved even the ominous bells, the wet limestone after a sunshower and the pale yellow light, the vague rainbow (an oil slick in the sky?). The hem of Lia’s dress brushing the hairs of my leg. Cuz mother moon scraped it elegant that night, yeah.
One of These Mornings
Sweep sweep. Yawny greetings shouted across the narrow street. Kids playing on the porch next door, the screen door screeching as the adults come and go. The children are making tiny siren sounds, tiny strafing sounds. Well then, what are we waiting for? More explosions. Did we run out already?
The emissary from Amazon beeps and blips, scans the goods, sends her coordinates back to the mothership. A spry old man waves goodbye. I can’t tell if the figure sitting on the couch across the way is a statue or an old woman, she’s sitting so still. I take another sip of my coffee and let the record skip. The neighbors’ screen door, at first alarmingly unhinged, now sounds more like an elbow creak. Someone pounding chicken in the kitchen. The glockenspiels are quiet on this Bastille Day weekend. I stop the record and turn on the radio. Ravel: ‘impressionistic and modern’. Out of the corner of my eye the statue puts on a hat.
They ripped out the trees at City Hall and installed a water park, glass ramps, a Starbucks in a glass box. Those trees were the last vestige of the city’s sanity! They sheltered homeless people and birds. It will take a century for the new trees to provide any cover. The government buildings, however, are as opaque as ever. They flattened Love Park. The new fountain is a flaccid version of its predecessor. Without the concentric seating that gave the park the feel of street theater it’s a traffic island. I take the 32 through the museum district, past wide boulevards narrowing into rows of cramped houses, an untouched row of rental bikes arranged along a weedy lot, to the ragged edge of Fairmount Park. I step down to have a look around. The faces are darker, the houses are taller, wider and in poorer repair. Victorians the color of dried blood with cataracts and missing teeth, a driving range on the edge of the park, a half-demolished warehouse with a huge sign bearing the smiling face of a white real estate agent, and past that, a bridge spanning a maze of transformers and pylons; coiled metal effigies to the old gods of industry, steaming in the drizzle. A man walking in the rain holds a triangle hat of newspaper over his head. The sidewalk dissolves into mud. This neighborhood has the wideness, the flatness, and the moldering indifference of the South. Cousin Mary’s house is boarded up. Newspaper clippings in the windows announce a commemorative event long passed.
On the 35th Anniversary of the MOVE* Bombing
The MOVE house was situated smack in the middle of a block with a view of Cobbs Creek Park. The houses the city let burn to the ground were replaced with squared-off contraptions that look uninhabited to this day, houses designed to be so uninspiring as to never allow a utopian idea to ever take root again. But there it is, the forest at the end of the city. With the sun going down it beckons you, you could get lost in that forest and come out feeling like you belong to the land and how to build a life around that feeling?
I sit on the steps of the boarded-up house watching the city workers teeing off on their lunch break. Before he made Giant Steps, Coltrane took small steps in Philly. He walked to the Jewish deli. He took the trash out. He pulled up some weeds in the garden in back of Cousin Mary’s house. He kicked heroin. He practiced throughout the day and night, his horn rippling the lawns of Fairmount Park, protector of the Schuylkill. Gigs on Columbia Ave to stay sharp. He would still be practicing backstage just before it was time to go on so that the first phrase out of his horn flowed like the middle of a conversation. He gets home still whirling but exhausted – no, not exhausted, he hasn’t yet exhausted the possibilities of the horn. Soon he’ll put the in-breath to work too.
And you realize that Exodus is the name of a woman. And how enduringly the day dies, the city burns the movement to the ground, the saxophonist throws down his horn and screams. Give us the ashes then. The coffee grinds, the dregs of your choice wine, we’ll take all of it. Grow something where. Build something in. My dead are many and near. I hear them in the tall grasses. My dear friends are here, and the house where Coltrane drove his neighbors crazy with his devotion. The house still stands.
The person who lives above us is crying like they just lost a member of their tribe. The sobbing is sad enough, but when they start kicking at the floor I want to knock on their door and try to console them. But I don’t. I stick to my training and leave them alone with their pain. Yet I can’t help feeling connected to them now. We grieve on parallel planes. They writhe around on the floor and I beat my head with a book. Lia dashes a mug on the wall and screams, and I sweep up the broken shards without saying a word, like a bartender clearing the empties before setting up the next round.
At 3 a.m. the smoke detector requests a new battery. It continues chirping after I take out the dying battery. I rip it out of the wall and it protests louder. I would throw it against the wall, but we’re subletting, and we already destroyed one of the girl’s mugs. So I get dressed and set out for the 24-hour CVS on foot. Fog moistening the streets. Trolley tracks cooling. The people I dodged all day, gone. Conversations lilt down from hidden balconies. I walk unencumbered by traffic, crossing wherever. I’m convinced that if Kevin were alive I would run into him. He, using up the night and me, observing the nocturnal life like a visitor to a foreign country. The CVS is staggeringly bright and empty. I don’t see the clerk who supervises the machines, but I hear her singing somewhere in the store. The grace of automation: no one asks me, ‘How’s your night going?’
I wake from fitful sleep to the sight of a thick wall of orange clouds curdling above the rows of houses. For a moment I don’t know where I am. California after an earthquake? Florida during an eclipse? I pull the curtain closed but my mind is spinning, I can’t fall back to sleep. The clouds beckon me out into the street. I put on pants, shoes, check myself in the mirror. My eyes are steel sinks not wet with rest, hair a thatch of macheted weeds. I walk out into the street just as I am, jaundiced and craggy with troubled sleep, expecting the wall of clouds I saw from my window to have been a mirage, expecting comforting darkness. But it’s light out, painfully bright, the clouds seem to be illuminated from within. I’ve been away for a while but I know these streets better than I know myself. But I’ve never seen a sunrise like this before. No one should be seeing this, I think. We must not know how insane we really are. Dreaming under the spell of these clouds that don’t cast shadows and whose light is a delirium. We’re wise to stay inside sleeping, or we observe a prohibition we never had to be told. Where are the clouds leading me? The gardeners are away from their gardens. The caution tape is skipping rope for no jumpers. The trolleys don’t clank and vibrate the wooden slats of park benches pressed against the aching backs of homeless people. The bars are sullen, unsentinel, the vapors of false communion dissolved by the first rays of light. The church bells don’t toll for fear of waking the sleepers who would be drawn out into the street by the sight of this beckoning God road. The clouds stretched over the roofs glow with the homing instinct of all sentient beings to converge, to be together whatever, it’s as beatific and unsettling as anything I’ve ever dreamed. So where is everyone? Where are the wanderers incompletely consumed by fire? Where are the addicts with hot metal in their chests, with eyes and lips and lungs and fingertips burned on pipes? Where are the hungry ghosts? Where are the nurses on their way to work? Where is Kevin? The clouds are moving on, dispersing, the streets graying in their absence. In the drab gray awake I see the yellow residue of streetlights in the eyes of daisies, see my jaundiced reflection in the daisies. The sky no longer beckons as it did from my room. The wall of clouds isn’t for climbing. I’ll never reach the horizon, which is not a Great Wall or an Ark or the apocalypse around the corner but another horizon. And just before the clouds disappear into the blue of day as though they never existed, I see him walking. He’s just climbed down from those deathless clouds. He’s just burned off the last traces of the night that was his balm. To be with us again, to fail with us again, to sound out the limit of his existence again. The screaming is over. His speakers are blown. I watch him glide along walls warming with sunlight, like a holy man trailing robes not yet visible, a hand covering the static whispering from his mouth. Kevin, I want to say, but he might not recognize me in this form. Or his face will soften with recognition. And I will know that this is the end. And I know that nothing ends. I watch him walking toward the Agony House, a prayer pressed to his burnt lips. Where he sits on the porch smoking his last cigarette.
When we get to the rehearsal at Elise’s place everyone is plastered. Elise is giving Therese’s walker a lap dance. Therese’s breasts keep spilling out over her jumpsuit as she jerks her banged-up body up and down. She was struck by a car while getting off a bus. She apologizes for flashing everyone. Tim pours red wine into mugs and hands them to us. We have to drink fast to catch up or wilt into the background. I wilt into the background. Elise lives in a subsidized artist’s loft with central air. Being here in a heatwave feels regal. The room goes quiet when Erin starts singing in her deep, croaky voice while Ross provides angular piano accompaniment from the back room. Erin plays the mother to Elise’s child. We sit in reverent silence as she channels deep pain, caressing Elise’s real childhood wounds (both her parents committed suicide when she was an infant). In Elise’s play the child born with a blue birthmark is the cause of her mother’s death. Joel plays the father who resents the child’s existence. Erin spills a full mug of red wine down her shirt, mumbles something about medical marijuana and PTSD. We dance sensually ( Elise), absurdly ( Ross), cadaverously ( Jim). As the party thins out Elise becomes needier. She’s leaving for Prague for a month to study puppet making or something. She makes it sound like she’s going into exile. Lia wants to hang out more but I’m tired and ready to go home. Elise finds my reserve threatening and demands I show my cards: do I think she’s annoying or something? I know where this is going. Elise’s boyfriend sits on the couch waiting patiently for us to leave so he can drink alone.
We’re sitting on the worn limestone steps of the closed pet shop. Apparently it’s a holiday. Lia stops a woman in black who is walking a black dog with brown paws. ‘Can we pet your dog?’ she asks. Out comes Lemon Pie’s purple tongue, but the dog is too afraid to get any closer to us. ‘We found her in a field in Mississippi. The rescue drove her up here,’ the woman says. She lifts the dog by her barrel chest to show her the cats in the window. Lemon Pie is unimpressed. Now Ada wants to move to Mississippi, where chows – ‘the best kind of dog!’ – can be found in fields. Lia wants not the state but the dog with the anxiety problem, like our other pets. ‘I want to move back to the South again,’ says another dog walker passing by at that moment, her outer-thigh tattoos winking back at us. ‘Not Charlotte again. Maybe Asheville.’
‘Let’s move to the country,’ the next singer up on the barista’s playlist whisper-warbles, and the buoyant mood in the cafe dies. I just came from the country. Nothing happens in the fucking country. I want to be here!
I help Jim break down Tim’s curb sale, a show of camaraderie, almost out of spite. Jim is the head groundskeeper at the cemetery where he and Ada work. When I texted to ask him if they needed any help he deferred and deflected and then hired Elise. I’m so broke I’d work the graveyard shift at the graveyard. Go home and read Beckett. Strap me into bed and blindfold me. Tim returns to A-Space in jolly spirits, his breath reeking of alcohol, with croissants (chocolate and almond paste!) and challah bread that’s supposed to go to Food Not Bombs. (Note to readers considering applying for public assistance: don’t put ‘Food Not Bombs’ as current food source on the application. The word ‘bombs’ is a red flag and will trigger the dreaded personal interview.) As I’m putting croissants in my bag a big Jamaican with bloodshot eyes walking a Rottweiler pup stops to chat with us. Tim offers him a loaf of challah. He wants the one with raisins, not eggs. ‘Raisins! Not eggs! One love!’ I can’t tell if he’s playing a Jamaican or not. Fist bumps all around.
On a whim I knock on Radwan’s door. He invites me in. I go upstairs to grab my guitar and ask Lia if she wants to join us. We go back down together. Radwan has his son Hamudi sit next to me on the couch. Hamudi plucks the bass string of my guitar and watches it ring out, mesmerized, then laughs maniacally and runs away. He keeps trying to flash us and once succeeds. Radwan tries to contain him and Hamudi slaps him in the face. ‘No, thank you,’ Radwan says. This is what the social worker advised him to do in these situations. Lia thinks the boy has a crush on me and is mad at his dad for cock-blocking. But he forgets his anger when Radwan tickles him. A pubescent boy who cannot speak, whose every movement is controlled, no wonder he rages for hours on end.
Since Shanaz is in bed with a pinched nerve, Radwan makes tea and serves us cashews and Shanaz’s fig-stuffed cookies. He gets very sad when we talk about the crisis in Syria. Lia changes the subject to the new neighbors. They vacuum at least three times a day. ‘They must worship their vacuum cleaner,’ she says. Shanaz laughs from the bedroom and puts in a biblical quip. Radwan translates and we laugh as though we’ve understood.
At night, when the watchful gaze of our temporary neighbors turns inward, to their big screens, and the vegetation-cloaked trail along Cobbs Creek reverts to campground for the unhoused, and the cars careening around the parkway loosen up because the lights are green and farther ahead turning green, and a jacked-up day laborer buying a forty of malt liquor at the beer store says, ‘It’s me, your Uncle Fester,’ and the cat is lounging on the bed belly up, and it’s cool enough to give the A / C a rest, and I’ve just talked to Peter in San Francisco for two hours and handed him over to Lia, and the work is as done as it’s going to get, I stand in front of the full-length mirrors that flank the bed, my head glittering gold, my eyes bloodshot from happiness, the black hollows under my eyes black with joy, trimming the stray hairs around my nipples.
Dear friends: I’ve been away for a while. Now I must leave again. I take a walk around the block. Scaffolding crowding the steps of the church where I usually sit. A man hunched over, hands in head, head in hands, counting his remaining teeth. Sir, if I could have just a moment of your time – Sorry. I understand. Hey, remember when. I remember everything. I’m walking behind a mother and child with a bulldog on a leash. I don’t want to scare them. The mother hears leaves rattling, senses my presence, moves to the side, the girl and the dog move to the side. The girl is eight, nine. They’re talking like girlfriends, the mother professing her love of books, the child her loathing. Up ahead on the corner there’s a little hutch where people put unwanted books. That’s where I’m headed. I overtake them. We arrive at the same place. ‘Put the book in there,’ the mother tells the child. She hesitates, afraid of me. ‘Do you have another book to add?’ I ask her. She smiles shyly and places it on the pile. The mother’s deep-set features are in shadows. She has only books and the conversation of her young child. Under the streetlight I can see that she’s smiling sadly. They move on. The book is called The Care of the Soul. File under self-help, or whatever they call it now. The cover is sticky with little-girl hands and dog drool. I leave it for someone else and keep walking to the park for people with fallen homies. The grass is tall and thick. The benches are all occupied. Silent tears are streaming from the cataracted eyes of a drunk sitting on the edge of a park bench. Two men with neat dreads are taking big rips of weed, blunt guts at their feet. They’re laughing as they trade stories about a mutual friend in the past tense. I pass a couple clinging tightly to each other under a blanket. Down in the bowl I see flashlights, a crowd of people have gathered to listen to a woman strumming a guitar. With a ragged, reaching voice she sings: Are you thinking about love or are you thinking about yourself? Hey, remember when Jimi gave us rainbows and Janis took a piece of our heart? Janis is urging us on to greater heights of selfless love from the declivity of a dark green oasis in a maddening city. The year is 2018. The basketballs raining down on the court are thinking about love. The drunk with tears streaming down his face is thinking about love. The gaping hole in the giant oak tree is thinking about love. The hole is shaped just like the sound hole of a guitar. Down in the bowl the flashlights are twirling and jumping with joy. Everyone unremembering the chains of trauma that brought them into being, that root them to benches and grooves in the sidewalk with dandelions pressed between their toes. My back aches. I sit on the downed tree limb to think about love. The song ends. The people in the bowl applaud, the basketballs raining down on the court applaud, the drunk with tears streaming down his face applauds, I applaud. And then a directorial voice issues from the bowl: ‘OK, actors. Go home.’
* editor’s note: The revolutionary Black liberation and animal rights organization, MOVE, was founded in 1972 in Philadelphia. The group, which opposed all governmental and capitalist structures, police brutality and modern technology, were evicted by force in 1978. A police officer was killed during the armed siege, and nine members of the group – one of whom was heavily pregnant – were sentenced to life in prison. (They assert that the officer was killed by police shooting behind him.) In 1985, a second eviction and armed stand-off involving 500 police officers ended when a police helicopter bombed the MOVE house on Osage Avenue with a so-called ‘entry device’. Six adults and five children died in the ensuing fire, and sixty-five houses were destroyed. Survivor Ramona Africa and relatives of the deceased filed a civil suit, and were awarded $1.5 million in a 1996 settlement. Displaced residents were awarded $12.83 million in damages in 2005, following a jury trial.
Photograph © Lia d’Agostino, Prayer for America, Oakland, California, 2015