Our Own Country
You and I live with Alu, a strawberry-blonde dog, and Esteban, an ebony cat, in a house that is too large for the four of us. We’ve filled it with more books than we’ll ever be able to read and interesting-to-us objects with long histories—a disintegrating taxidermied duckbill platypus your grandparents smuggled out of Australia, a pyramid of rough-hewn wooden boxes, walls of primitive portraits and landscapes. Glass containers of abandoned bird eggs and dead insects, lizards, a bat. The house is untamed and undisciplined, as is the courtyard, as are our minds.
You have no recollection of working as a curator of rare manuscripts, and you no longer read books. I sometimes struggle through a novel if I can force my attention. The lack of engagement is a recent development. I blame the pandemic though I’m still able to concentrate for long stretches while editing books, my job. Some of the projects are messy and incoherent, written by people I nonetheless admire for having the stick-to-it-ness I lack. (Recently I bought the book Grit, about perseverance, and only read the first chapter.) In an effort to tamper the growing stalagmites of periodicals under the desk, on a corner table in the dining room, along the perimeter of the guest bedroom where you now sleep, I stack unpaged copies of the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the London Review of Books, Biblio on a shelf above the washing machine until the night before pickup, when I deposit them in the neighbor’s recycling bin, where you won’t come across them. I’ll only renew the subscription to the New York Times, which you sometimes read. Sometimes reread.
I crave travel—the untethered drifting through shifting landscapes, vestiges of age-old cultures, how the senses sharpen when stepping into the unpredictable. Being hundreds if not thousands of miles from anyone I know. Now that venturing far from home isn’t an option, I’m trying to experience our city in new ways. This morning I visited a farm and bought bags of insect-gnawed greens, stubby okra, and three types of chili peppers for $15/pound. The woman who rang up my produce said it had been a while since she’d seen me, and I agreed, though it was my first time to the farm, and I couldn’t recall having seen her elsewhere. But I’m bad with faces, so who knows. Then I drove Alu to a neighborhood across the river. I wanted to believe he appreciated the unfamiliar sights and scents we encountered on our long walk, but he was overly excited when we returned to the car. Maybe he is more like you and feels grounded in our own home, in our own country.
You are happiest when Esteban is curled next to you. Throughout the day you obsess over his whereabouts, asking, “Have you seen the black dog?” When you found him this morning—stretched out in the upstairs cat lounge, an overpriced cardboard box with corrugated bottom and sides for scratching—you asked how old he was, and I told you. You then asked how old I was, and I said twenty-four. “Really?” you asked. “No, fifty-three,” I said. “Really?” you said and then asked how old you were, and I told you. “Oh my gosh,” you said. “Really?”
In the parking lot of the high school gymnasium where you’d receive the second dose of the vaccine, I rolled down the window, and the parking attendant said, “Yes, ma’am?” I corrected: “Sir.” After a pause, he commented that I had such pretty long hair that he couldn’t tell what I was with the mask on.
The standing-in-line wait was more than two hours. You said you could do it, but I requested a wheelchair; you didn’t need to prove anything. It was your turn before I finished the paperwork. The nurse asked if I was your son, and you told her I was your grandfather. She chuckled, and her assistant wanted clarification. I didn’t feel the need to explain our relationship but to make it easy, I told her I was a friend.
While we were waiting to see if you’d have a reaction to the vaccination, a woman offered bottled water and remarked that it was comforting to see family making time for family. You told her I was your grandson. I could tell by the laugh lines around your eyes that you thought you were being funny, which was a relief because yesterday you thought I was your nephew. She said I looked too old to be your grandson and added, “Maybe it’s the grey hair.”
A woman wearing similar black shorts and red polo as the parking lot attendant followed us to the car to retrieve the wheelchair. I asked her how to lock the wheels in place. You heard her voice from behind and wanted to know if she’d brought breakfast.
At a stoplight on the way home, I asked if your arm hurt. You wondered why I would ask that question. You didn’t remember the needle or the wheelchair or referring to me as your grandfather. You weren’t sure what I meant by vaccine. You nodded as I told you about the virus. “I’d be dead if it weren’t for you,” you said. “You’re a hero.”
A Poem About Loss
A Slow Violence
In another time, bequeathed a direct line to God, you might attract a following. Or you might be considered a curiosity, naked and shackled to a wall in your own filth, admission charged to cover your daily bread. Or burnt at the stake. Nudged over a cliff or sacrificed to a volcano. Exiled to the forest, the desert, the hinterlands. Pummeled out of your unawareness. A hole drilled in your skull, blood let from your veins, your humors balanced—blood and phlegm, yellow and black bile. Straightjacketed to a chair in the burrowing howl of the Great Plains wind. Shut in, shut up. Left behind as everyone went on with their lives.
Not so long ago, Piotr and Barbara Majewski tied their mother to a bed and forced her to drink holy water in an attempted exorcism. Believing demons could not tolerate pain inflicted on hosts, they beat her, snapping ribs, shattering her jaw, and causing severe brain trauma. The seventy-five-year-old suffering from dementia died from the injuries.
Soon after that misguided ritual you and I visited your neurologist for the first time. A woman standing at the reception desk said to the man she was with, “Stop it! I’m not answering that question again.” I felt like tripping her as she hissy-fitted out of the waiting room. The mute man smiled at you as he followed, and I elbowed you to get you to look away, break eye contact.
Yesterday evening you wondered if the new pill I tried to get you to take was poison. An enzyme blocker that supposedly will restore neurotransmitters, the pill overnighted on the note I left on the kitchen counter. You placed a banana over my words and below it wrote, “I am a great advocate of squash.” Fruit flies zinged out of the compost pail as I counted peels: five. I hid the remaining banana in the microwave.
This afternoon I ran hair clippers over your head from Adam’s apple to crown, up and down and around and around, sparing only your eyelashes. What was it, two, three weeks’ growth? I’m slow to realize you need tidying. I asked if you’d like to use your electric shaver or if I should use a razor, and you weren’t sure what the electric shaver was. As I swiped swaths through the foam, you puffed out your checks to flatten the grooves, pulled your upper lip down over your teeth, stretched your lower lip up, motions I’ve witnessed over our twenty-seven years.
Moments ago, I heard you in the kitchen. You ignored the vegetable stir fry I’d left in a covered bowl for you, opting for handfuls of cashews and slices of bread. You scooped peanut butter from the container with your finger and drained the milk carton. Stood at the counter, watching yourself in the darkened kitchen window, chomping through a box of lemon cookies. You eased down the spiral staircase and through the dark to our old room, where I sleep. You loud-whispered my name. “Are you awake?” you said and turned on the light. “Are you here?” My back to you, two pillows under my head, I felt I should respond, but all I wanted to do was dream.
Pounding woke us from an afternoon nap. Ears alert, Alu jolted from post-walk dozing, eyes questioning. Barely this side of sleep, Esteban slighted open his mouth in a silent meow. Stomp, stomp. Stomp, stomp, stomp overhead, through the upstairs library.
I said hello at the top of the spiral staircase so I wouldn’t startle you by all of a sudden materializing in the kitchen. You’re at the counter, digging into the bowl of brainfood—blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, kiwi, and apple—that await you every morning. You say around a spoonful of fruit, “I’m ready to go to the hill,” thus clarifying the change from the red swimsuit, blue T-shirt, and mismatched socks you insisted on wearing the last several days to blue jeans, a green-and-white gingham Oxford, wool socks I brought back from Iceland, and well-worn topsiders that have been around for as long as I have known you.
I explained that we had no plans to go anywhere, that I was on a deadline. “That’s too bad,” you said, “I was really looking forward to it.” Sometimes your dreams are stubborn, persistent. They sprout tendrils that twine into your conscious mind and hitch a ride into your wakeful hours. Like the time you called a friend before dawn one morning asking for a ride to the airport to pick up a nonexistent visitor or the first day of lockdown when you woke me wearing a sports jacket and khakis, worrying that we hadn’t bought gifts for some child’s birthday party we were hosting in the courtyard. The time you announced while still lying in bed that you’d driven by all the houses everywhere that morning. The small one on the corner with the pink door was still your favorite.
You’re unsure where you thought we were going, so I took you to the highest point around. Mount Bonnell overlooks downtown, Lake Austin, which is really a river, and the surrounding hills. You clutched my elbow as we headed toward the crumbling cement stairs. The stamping suppressed by deliberate steps, you basked in moving outside the confines of our home, the unfamiliar faces, the rejuvenating November gusts.
You took ahold of the bannister dividing the stairs into the up side and the down side, and breathed deeply as if summoning strength. I guessed we’d head back to the car, but you asked if I was ready to climb. “We could sit here for a while and people watch instead,” I said.
“I don’t need to see more people.” Clinging to the handrail with both hands, you pulled yourself onto the first stair, the second, the third. Ninety-nine more to go, you asked, “Are you coming on the journey?”
We couldn’t go ten steps without you engaging with descending hikers on the other side of the railing. You commented on hair styles and tennis shoes, the size of a muscular mutt, the size of a scrap of a dog swaddled in a baby wrap. To a twenty-something with a neck tattoo: “I hope that’s your mom’s name,” you said. The guy tugged down the left side of his wife-beater. “Verónica is here.”
By the time we reached the second landing, a line had accumulated behind us. I guided you to the side to allow the patient hikers to pass. “Way to go, you,” one woman said. “You’re an inspiration,” her friend said. Your eyes gleamed. “I was climbing this mountain before you were born.”
“I think that’s what they mean,” I said.
A woman and a man carrying an infant pass, and you, mask hanging around your neck, asked, “How much do you want for that kid?” Forced laughter, and I backed away into a “Warning, poison ivy!” sign, and the dad said something about there not being enough money in the world, and the woman said something about her son being a keeper, and you gave a queen’s wave and said, “Good luck.”
You sat on one in a snaking row of limestone blocks that separated the concrete summit from the scarped cliffside towering over the river. “Glo-ri-ous!” you said and lifted your arms into the endless blue Texas sky. You asked me to give a woman selling beverages five dollars although she was only asking for two and then you refused to select one from the vinyl cooler. You called out to the couple with the baby from the stairs, but they didn’t hear—pretended not to hear, as did the teenagers sitting on the picnic table guzzling Coronas when you asked if they’re old enough.
The hike down was slow-going; everyone less patient on the other side of the railing. A woman with headphones glided past us down the steps. “Brava!” You called out. Moments later she headed up again. “Brava!”
At the base of the stairs, you said, “Thank you for this fabulous day.” You shuffled over caliche to the car. “I never want to do that again.”
I’ve Got One Question
Remember being nervous and complaining about my driving when we were in New Zealand, heading to Akaroa, and I put on the emergency flashers and slowed to twenty miles an hour the last leg of the trip?
Remember being nervous and complaining about my driving when we were in New Zealand, heading to Akaroa, and I put on the emergency flashers?
Remember being nervous and complaining about my driving when we were in New Zealand, heading to Akaroa?
Remember being nervous and complaining about my driving when we were in New Zealand?
Remember being nervous about my driving when we were in New Zealand?
Remember being nervous in New Zealand?
Remember being in New Zealand?
The self-proclaimed arbiter of what exists and what doesn’t, what has occurred and what hasn’t, what you’ve witnessed, suffered, relished, and reviled, I with all my cocky, well-fed, well-exercised, well-hydrated insight determined the best course of action—the most logical course of action—was to keep the record straight about goings-on here in the real world.
“Nobody’s waiting for us at the airport,” I once corrected. “You’ve been sleeping all day, dreaming.” There was that time I admonished you for believing I’d gathered the neighborhood cats for a mass kill-off in one of the downstairs bedrooms. And there was that other time when the goddamn son-of-a-bitch was making a mess, stopping all the people everywhere from eating dinner and buying sweaters. “He’s no longer in office,” I pointed out and pulled up the most recent presidential election results on my laptop, trying to anchor you in the material world. There were so many moments before the reset, before trying the new tack of joining you wherever you were instead of dragging you along with me.
Alu and I were just back from our evening walk when you called out from upstairs, thanking me for the wonderful party. It was the first time I’d seen you out of bed that day, and I didn’t have the energy to try to dismantle your waking dream. We met in the kitchen, and you carried on about how friendly everyone was and how much fun you had and how the food was “delicioso,” especially the vanilla milkshakes, and how had I time to prepare it all? You wanted to know how many people had been there, and I guessed twenty, and you insisted there were at least twice as many. “I think you’re right,” I said. “Maybe even more.” You sat on the sofa and eyed the still room. There were no party memories to retrieve, but I could tell from the surfacing smile that something comforting was kicking around in there. “It was a great success,” you said, and then you wanted to know how I’d cleaned up so quickly after our guests left. “It’s my favorite part,” I said, “putting everything back in order and replaying the evening so it doesn’t slip away.”