Saturday, June 30, 2012

True Stories-- June in Oktoberland, Con't.

 In a darkened back bedroom, I break from sleep at the sound of soft clicking movements-- the slight scrape of nails or claws against the wood floor. I raise my head from the pillow, fogged in mind and sight, to look for the reason I've woken; to find the disturbance. In that second, it grows quiet.

 A slip of muted light from a hidden source casts the room into a Rembrandt-murky scene of purest chiaroscuro. Our closets have come unclosed; the doors open onto hollowed depths of velvet dark. Subtle motions inside the patchy black there could just be my eyes playing tricks on me. I try hard to focus, searching for the comfort of clarity. Then I see him, terrifyingly real again.

 The robin.

He hobbles towards me, broken-winged,  flapping and menacing, with such an accusatory look that it seems his tiny beak and eyes have been drawn by Friz Freleng for the specific purpose of inducing guilt and horror. And they do...

Because I killed him, and he knows it. It's been years that I've been having this dream-- this recurring nightmare born of remorse. Every year or two since the incident, which happened when I lived in Indianapolis, Indiana, only a ten minute drive from the famous Speedway.

 It was during a bad month sometime after the hubby-man and I had made a full-length feature film together, but before we had financially recovered from the expense to any great degree, (unless you've made a movie, you have no idea how expensive even B&W 16mm film is-- not to mention the developing, promoting, etc.) and I was sick at home with bronchitis again. I'd called in sick to my second job, and wouldn't have to go in to work again for two days. But I had no medical insurance, no cash reserves, no money for a second doctor's appointment to obtain antibiotics-- they always made me come back again, two weeks later, before they'd accept that I had needed antibiotics all along. The fact that it happened annually made no impression on anyone but myself.

 I got bronchitis every year, just like my mother, whose exact body shape, and fertility, I inherited. We both still get bronchitis every year, but we each also suffer from having doctors ignore our understanding of our own body's patterns, and so we both end up spending a minimum of a month sick, which leaves our lives and finances perpetually in catch-up mode. Being sick for a solid month is expensive, in dozens of little ways.

 The month I killed the robin, I had been to the doctor once already, and had him tell me that to be sure I needed drugs they'd have to do a chest x-ray, which I couldn't afford.  I went on with my life, coughing up bloody green chunks when no one was looking and trying not to be physically close enough to the children I took care of to infect them too-- which is impossible. Children from birth to age five own you, when you take care of them regularly. They don't allow boundaries on what they can grab onto-- your arms, your breast, your hair, your tongue, your eyelashes. It all belongs to them, and they will jump into your face or your lap with equal abandon, unstoppable. They want you when then want you.

 It is sweet, in that you're constantly aware how they trust and need you; it's problematic, in that it can put you in odd situations in public or around their parents; and you can't help sharing germs, just like a family. Unlike a family member, you will get some sharp and questioning looks when you hang around the living room pale and coughing, and you may get more than concern when it appears, to the fully insured people whose homes you spend your days working in, that you have not made an effort to secure the health care necessary to maintain your professional lack of contagion.

 Because the class system in America is/was semi-fluid in the middle, it is perfectly possible to be a well spoken, highly trained, well educated pauper. It's easy to mistake yourself for someone that will be able pay back the college loans that the wily admissions department of your chosen university assures you everyone has, only to find (when it's too late to avoid a state of default) that you'd have to be making thrice your current market value to do that and still eat, no matter how much money per hour or day your generous bosses pay you, no matter how big and luscious your Christmas bonuses.

 You can work for upright, socially conscious folks that cannot and will not realize that multiple doctor visits in a month, along with refills of high cost prescriptions, could make you homeless while you're still in their employ. They may be ready to suggest that you find a different doctor or medical group, but not ready to understand that a new patient fee on top of what you've spent before would mean that you could starve, or have to forgo vital brake work on the car, or have your heat shut off.

 Let me admit that I have a great fault, here. It's important for full disclosure, and to set up the situation of this story. I lived then, and somewhat less now, on the Bohemian fringe of an adult life, paying as I went, avoiding both credit debt and savings; consuming what I earned and using it to make art or joy for myself & others, rather than future security. For one, I'm not a materialist by nature. For another, financial security is a tale I can't quite believe in, a myth spun from secret rites I've never learned, entailing a lifestyle I have no blueprint for.

 Growing up poor is a condition you carry with you, that can hamper your ability to become not poor. It's a mindset, which others have written of eloquently; I'll add that it obscures and aggrandizes some possibilities, the life opportunities others might approach calmly. It can puncture determination as easily as spur it on. It creates a relationship with money that is sicker and more co-dependent than a love triangle between abused meth addicted parrots. Some survivors respond by becoming either miserly, or brash with any wealth they can find, some by becoming uber-responsible; some find themselves leery of financial commitments that seemingly everyone else takes for granted, takes on and fulfills.

 I got a little of each. It's been a long struggle, to cast off the confining outlook that poverty engraved on my childhood. Taking out student loans, for instance, had been a bold strike for freedom, one I'd never imagined I'd make. I took the chance and gradually envisioned the amazing idea of a life in Academia, a life where my plethora of talents might be an asset, not a downfall. A life, it turns out, that I became separated from by a sharp scalpel of grief and loss.

 That's another story, though. It's a story that took me out of the race to catch up with the many smart, kind people I used to work for, who hadn't grown up quite as poor, or not poor at all. They could imagine and create lives based on reasonable risks, with reasonable credit. Unlike myself, they could create children without a true worry those children would ever go hungry. They could be sure of their ability to keep those commitments. So the world has different rules for them.

 They may be too consciously and conscientiously trying not to be unaware, to see the small ways that they are, already. So when you're sick, you skip work days, and piss them off, losing more of your income, that way instead. And you know, all the time, that it's your own fault for being irresponsible to normal standards, and a little unconscious of your own societal shortcomings; for not living the way real people live.

 That's how it was on an early autumn morning-- it was cooler than usual, pouring buckets, windy as hell. I moved from the couch in our tiny living room out front into the kitchen to make a pot of tea, hoping to loosen the gunk in my lungs over the steam. Our kitchen was not large, but the back wall was half windows looking out into the double lot yard, with a ramshackle shed to the left and a giant maple in the middle. This gave a wide view and a feeling of openness to the small space. I often looked out the side windows, or the one in the back door, as I worked in there at table, stove or sink. It was my favorite room in the house, a place to gather peace and reconnect with homey pleasures.

 I set a few tea bags into the glass pot, looking out as usual, and saw an animal moving oddly by the roots of the maple. The kettle boiled, got turned off and poured out, and I went to the window in the door to investigate. A variety of wildlife passed through our yard regularly-- raccoons, possums, bluejays, woodpeckers, red-tailed squirrels, chipmunks, a mated pair of mallards that liked to sit and sun themselves in the grass, and once or twice, a hawk. But this was something smaller.

 Some bird was twisting, almost dancing, against the ground, unable to right itself. I watched for a minute, hoping it would rise and fly away, but it kept up the same strange, fitful pattern of flopping, and I had to go help.
 Once outside, I saw clearly that it was a robin. Something had happened to its neck, and the head was thrust back into an unnatural arch. Possibly the work of a cat, but there were no visible scratches, no blood, no ruffled feathers even. It may have been poisoned by some horrible chemical lawn treatment: my neighbors on either side avoided such ridiculous evil, as did we, but some in our neighborhood did not. Or the poor bird may have flown into a windowpane and gotten hurt that way, or been blown into a branch by the high winds.  
 The rain slashed coldly at both of us, and the bird's struggle grew more frantic. His shining small eyes showed terror. I was afraid to touch him, but would have to, I knew. He made not a single sound from his throat as he tossed wildly from side to side, trying to get up, to get his head to go forward. He was not going to live, probably, but I didn't want to let him die like this, cold and soaking and desperate. I set a chair over the area he lay in, for a little shelter, and went in to find a box.

If I brought him inside, warmed him up, maybe he would stop struggling, which could be hurting him more. At least he wouldn't die of exposure. I spent a moment first to call the ASPCA, and ask for help, or a clue. They had no help to give but a phone number-- they didn't take birds, not wild ones.
 It began to thunder, and lightning. I put on a jacket and leather gloves and went out with the box. It was hard to figure out how to approach the patient, though. Each time I reached for him he rolled away, his wings active, feet scratching the air. It made his struggle more horrible. His chest was heaving rapidly in fear, and after a few minutes of trying to get him into the towel-lined box without hurting him, I gave up and went back inside to look for some real help.

 No could help me, it seemed. I called the county Wildlife & Forestry office, and they gave me the number of the Humane Society, who gave me the number of another local animal shelter, who told me they couldn't help. I called an exotic animal place, Wild Birds Unlimited, and spitballed ideas with them. I called the Audubon Society, who didn't deal with robins. I called five vets/animal hospitals, and finally found one who would give the bird a kill-shot for 35 dollars, if I could get it to them within the hour before they closed. They were a forty-five minute drive away, and I had no money, plus my car was low on gas. They wouldn't bill me later, either. It had to be upfront. No one could help me help the robin... it was a wild animal, yes, but a common one, not covered by laws of preservation or mercy. It had fallen through the cracks of our mish-mash attempts at control and coexistence with the natural world. Unlike a cormorant heron or a spotted owl, bobins were everywhere, and no one gave a crap.

 I was getting desperate, now. I called my mother, my sister, my friends, for ideas. Someone suggested I wring the bird's neck, or step on it with a heavy boot, to put it out of its misery. I just didn't have the courage for the first, and the second suggestion would have been absurd. Stomping a bird to death! Every vegetarian's dream sport.

 I realized that I would have to kill it, out of kindness, or watch it die slowly and painfully under my maple tree. While I dealt with that, it got colder outside, and nastier.
 In between calls and silly or brutal suggestions, like backing my car over it (when I couldn't even lift it into a box), or hitting it with a shovel, I braved the storm again to try to bring the dying bird into the warm garage, with no success. We were both getting weaker, and we were both full of despair. We'd been pushed into a bad situation together, a set of shitty circumstances that I would have to resolve, and I felt the lack of preparedness I lived with as a weight around my neck, now.
 Inside again, shivering and much sicker than I'd been a few hours before, I got a return call from a friend that had grown up on a farm, and still lived on one, though not a fully functioning one now. They did keep chickens and a couple of horses, and about eight acres full of mulberry trees. He asked detailed questions about the robin, agreed it was unsavable, and then told me to do what they did with unwanted kittens and the like-- drown the bird in a bucket.

 I was horrified, but as I considered the impossibility of trying to deliberately run over a robin in my driveway (what would my neighbors think of me, then?), it seemed worth a try. We talked about how to do it, and then I hung up and drank a quick shot of my cooled tea, to steel my nerves.
 The biggest bucket I had would do-- it was a forty gallon white tub of food grade plastic, bought for a buck from a donut place I'd worked long ago. They sold the tubs the donut fillings came in, since they couldn't be recycled and took up lots of space in the dumpster. I had two or three, and used them for hauling my homemade compost out to the vegetable garden. I set one in the yard near the tree and filled it from the hose. It was more than wide enough at the top, thankfully. I didn't want to break the wings while killing the bird.

 Today, at this moment, I can't quite recall exactly how I got it into the water-- I believe I lifted it, squirming and shaking, onto a wide shovel, and dropped it into the water from that, where it flapped and tried to swim. I didn't have the heart to hold and push its head under the water, but my friend had assured me it would not take long for it to drown, and he was right. After a minute or so of tortured scrabbling, it stopped moving.

 I left it in the bucket, to make sure it would not revive, and went in the house to shower off the cold, evil feeling that soaked me. When I was clean and warm, I had lost the will to face the rest of the mess-- throwing out the water, putting the corpse in the trash, along with the bucket, which I'd have to toss as well, since it carried a taint I couldn't scour out, mentally. I left the whole thing undone overnight, feeling awful in every possible way.

 In the morning, the body was gone.


Friday, June 15, 2012

True Stories-- June in Oktoberland, Con't.

 My father was murdered by loan sharks when I was 11. He was not living with us at the time.

 This is a weird kind of cachet for a daughter to have, and I may never learn to use it correctly; to impress and/or horrify properly, to show the seriousness of my understanding of outsiderhood or trouble, or street cred. Instead, I speak of it matter-of-factly, and people go dead quiet, or sputter a little. If they know me only since adulthood, whenever that happened, they may get a look of wary disbelief, as if I'm putting them on, and will reveal the joke any minute. Some have thought I was lying. But it is true.

 I remember the night we found out-- just a couple of weeks or so after my February birthday, making it March, I guess. It was late, so late it was getting early, and my oldest brother came down the long dark hallway, through my older sister's room, and in to the large unheated back bedroom I, my mother, younger sister, and other brother then shared. Except I'm not sure if my other brother was there or not. I can't recall him on the scene-- I was tired, suddenly waked by the slamming of a door, voices. I was there, and I heard my big brother say clearly, "The old man's dead." It's funny, but even though we hadn't lived with my father since I was a toddler and my little sister a baby, and I had no relationship with him, I knew who my brother meant, instantly-- and not just because his infrequent references to our father were always about "the old man." It was a scary enough set of circumstances to make me question my intuitive belief, though.

 My mother was rocked, broken-up, of course. Leaving someone because of their alcoholism doesn't make you stop caring, and it doesn't kill passion. Then my brother, a hard-ass, tough and almost unfazable, a guy nicknamed The Ox by his trucker co-workers, passed out, from shock I suppose; passed out while near the entrance of the big room, and on the way down scratched his back on an uncovered motherfucker of a long, vicious screw that was sticking out from my big sister's bureau, where the drawer's knob handle had fallen off and not been fixed yet. The scratch must have been 7 inches long-- I'm not sure if tetanus shots were required-- I do know it was discussed at some point. But his fading down the front of the dresser in slo-mo was electrifying to me, unexpected, and gripping to watch.

 I say shock, but from that day to this, I've never remembered to ask him. We haven't been close, primarily because of the more than 10 years between our ages, and then later, geographical distance that grew into other kinds of distance. Well, there are/were other reasons, too. My older four siblings had a radically different experience of childhood than we two younger girls-- they had lived with, loved, been hit by my father. They had gone from a large house in Lancaster, NY, to having creditors at the door, had eaten potato bread three meals a day at times, had witnessed fights and had piggy banks stolen from for booze expenses, and all that goes with a drinking father. Our separate, non-drunken dad life must have seemed a magical tour by comparison. At best, it made us seem spoiled, and made it difficult for our older brothers and sisters to be too sympathetic to our measly problems. 

 Occasionally I remember to wonder-- had my brother been drinking, and blacked out from that? Was that the true measure of how upset he was, having to give my mother the news? I know what that's like, because I was the person to find my maternal grandmother's body, and tell my mother of that loss. But that's another story.

 The untimely death of my father caused a sudden, permanent raise in our standard of living. Instead of being on welfare, as my father was disabled, and a veteran, and the law couldn't get much money from him to support us, we now had an income-- money from his insurance, and his railroad retirement pension. My mother was able to get a job, too, being fresh out of college at 42. Again, another story. We got his car, the dull pine green Dodge Duster I painfully learned to drive on (manual steering, if you can believe); we moved out from the middle of Buffalo to Tonawanda that very summer, going from a rented falling apart flat with an absentee landlord, to a nice rented double with the owner living upstairs and a wide swath of deep, scary fields beyond the backyard.

 I should say, it was a raise in most respects: my younger sister and I had been attending parochial school, just up the street from us and next to SUNY at Buffalo, on a special financial arrangement involving much good will on the part of the school. But in Tonawanda, maybe because of our still-not-posh rating, the Catholic school didn't want us, for any money-- my attendance record, I'm sure, had something to do with that, too, but I hadn't even approached anything like the spectacular spree of school-skipping I would begin in 7th grade, then 7th grade again, then 8th.

 Do I even need to say it, this time?

So, we were forced to attend the excellent, but larger and non-religious, schools in the public school system there. I went to Willow Ridge, after 2 horrid days at Glendale, and it was a trade-off-- at Glendale, my class was huge, because they had merged two big groups into one double classroom. This didn't sit well with small-school me, so I bussed it past the creek everyday to Willow Ridge, where there were six sixth grade classes, but whew! each in their own private, normal classroom. My homeroom teacher, Mr. Murray, was a gentle, kind person, and my first male teacher. We did okay together, except when I frustrated him by speaking too low-- he had hearing loss in one ear, and I was painfully, deathly shy and self-conscious, especially without a familiar uniform to wear. Uniforms are great for keeping teenaged tits in place. But I digress.

 Another small raise was that my little sister and I began to receive a weekly allowance, for the first time in our lives, of a quarter apiece. I usually squandered mine on rocket pops-- those red, white and blue popsicles, which cost exactly my allowance at the time, per popsicle.

 The hard part was, we had to move away from my best friend that lived around the block from us, and my other good pal. Our next door neighbors for the previous few years, were a very cool young couple with three kids-- girls aged the same as my sister and I, to be friends with, and a boy one year older than me, to torture me everyday about my burgeoning booblets. We had to leave them, and none of those relationships were ever the same, though we all tried for a while. Worse, there was really no one accessible, that was either of our ages, in our new neighborhood, except the boy who lived upstairs, and didn't like us much. He certainly didn't play with us, or hang out. There was also no place to go, no place you could walk to but the one convenience store about a half mile away, and they didn't let kids loiter. Suburbs. Yech.

 I have been at pains to verify the salient points of this story, and it hasn't been easy-- my impressions being the impressions of a young and tired mind, and my family not being given to talking about our father much. Some of the lesser details may be swimmy feelings that ran together, but I think not; it was a startling sort of event, the kind that sets up sharp, forever. And the big important parts: the death, the fainting, who said what, have been verifed for me. It's true as true-- my father was murdered by loan sharks.

 The crime was never solved; when my mother sought answers from the powers that be, she was told not to look into it, that that would not be a safe thing for her or her remaining family. She was told outright not to pursue justice, or information. It was only then that she was given the full understanding that her husband's death, left to bleed out in a stairwell from a wound in the head, had not been at all accidental, not a case of an old drunk slipping during a binge. It was murder, and the case was closed. She wisely let it be-- a smart woman with six kids and her own mother to take care of, knows when to let things lie, at least for a long while. Nothing much about the matter has come to light in the intervening decades; a few minor additions to the tale, but not concrete ones.

 My father was buried, and some of my own classmates were the altar boys at his funeral, which I did not attend. I wonder now, how much shit and blame my poor mom had to take from her in-laws on the occasion. I wonder if anyone connected with the killing did go to the funeral or burial, under the guise of friendship, or drinking buddy-ship. I can never know. There are no trails left to follow, if I wanted to. Even his original grave is gone-- his parents moved him, without consulting or telling his widow and children. They preferred to dig up his bones a year or so later rather than let him stay where we'd put him, and we found out while trying to visit his plot. One more indignity, for the road.

My father was 48 when he was beaten to death: the same age I am now. It's an odd, if common, occurence to realize you are outliving a family member by age gained, particularly one of your elders. I already had it happen four years ago, when I hit and then passed the same age as my late, oldest sister. She wasn't murdered, she died of cancer, although the way she handled her illness, you could make a case that she committed suicide by cancer. Or, I could... and have.

 But that is completely another story.

 I truly wish you all a Happy Father's Day, believe me.

 Peace, Mari

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Poems and True Stories-- June in Oktoberland

Under a Plum Tree

I'll be innocent, for you

If you force me to

If you'll prey on

My guardian angels

If you make them cry and hide their eyes

Slapping Prudence and Hindsight

With bold hand and grim smile

I'll spill the crouching cadence

Of adult analysis

To dream in clay

Or Kool-Aid colors

Waking with questions

You won't see coming