Arrivals and Departures, Part I
I. I’m searching for something. I’m trying to get home. My flight is delayed. It’s the day after my forty-three-year-old brother’s funeral. Kevin died unexpectedly. For three, maybe four days, he laid dead in his hotel room surrounded by plants, coffee cups, and cigarette butts. It is 2000, I’m in graduate school, in addition to working at one of those soul-sucking corporate jobs with Enron executives no less, and I’m thirty-seven and I’m searching for something.
II. I sit at a lunch counter to wait for my flight, order something to drink and eat. So many thoughts, unmoored and random, arriving and departing in such rapid succession it produces a pounding headache. I open a new notebook I’ve been carrying around and begin to write, all the things that have been in my head during the weekend of my brother’s funeral. From an overhead speaker the Scottish brogue of The Proclaimers is interrupted by the medicinal and tinny voice of some disembodied entity directing sojourners whose flights are, apparently, not delayed.
III. When I was six I wrote my first piece – “The Golden Monster” which I wrote out longhand – what did you think I tapped it out on a qwerty Underwood? – in my primitive scrawl in blue ballpoint ink on light-blue wrinkling foolscap, you know the kind with three holes running down the left margin partitioned by an alarmingly-red fence. Never shall the twain meet. The paper, the story, the golden monster, and its writer has long departed; I couldn’t even under hypnosis tell you anything about the piece itself. I have no recollection. I can, with some assurance honed over the years, that it probably (a smidgen of doubt) wasn’t a story, or wasn’t much of one if at all, since I’ve never been much of a storyteller. This isn’t false modesty. I tend to compose examinations, philosophical explorations of the human soul in contact with the alien, the beautiful, the ineffable – sometimes all three at once. This was probably my MO even back then, age six, tongue poking out the side of my mouth, furrowing foolscap in blue hieroglyphics. Who knows for sure, but me since the only copy of “The Golden Monster” has eons ago disintegrated into dust particles leaving in its wake only a trace of fluttering pages as if snared in some whirling memory vortex.
IV. You might imagine that a guy who penned his first story – albeit not a story – at the age of six, seven, would have been from that day forward a writer – and you’d be wrong. It’s a fair assessment and one I would have made given the same data, but in my case, it just wasn’t so. I wrote a little when I was six, seven, but then gave it up for pirate days of girls, sports, buffoonery, acne, acting, teenage existentialism and politics, and a litany of illicit substances. Oh, and the band KISS. A full decade would pass before I would make a return trip to the page. Grade eleven. September 1981. The homework assignment was to thumb through the dictionary, find an interesting word, and write a poem based on the word. I wrote “Manumission,” and haven’t stopped writing since.
V. Poetry and its demands gave way quite quickly to high school journalism, which helped me get assignments writing sports for my hometown daily newspaper. A debauched and lost stint in Australia following high school graduation was recorded in a thin travel journal my brother Kevin gave me before departing; stoned one night and egged on by some German friends on the hostel-circuit, I tossed the journal into the Tasmania Sea for reasons that escape me now. I simply remember its flight. The dollop sound, and the moonlight on the inky surface; it would be one of myriad lost manuscripts. When I arrived back in North America, tanned from the South Pacific sun and plump from its delicious beer, I tried to recall the things I’d written on the travel journal’s pages, but I couldn’t, really. Ink and memory both die in shades. So I made things up. One thing naturally led to another, and back home I was a reporter, briefly, and got fired for my atrocious spelling, which dashed all plans to stave-off maturity, buy a motorcycle, date unpredictable biker chicks, smoke copious amounts of weed and hit the road – instead I went back to school, to the University of Winnipeg or “Pinko-U” as my school was affectionally called for its socialist bent. There I majored in getting drunk, laid, skipping class, and there I dabbled in the various “ism” associated with inchoate fresh-faced college initiates time immemorial. I also wrote horrid essays (and charged others $100 for them) and wrote those self-indulgent short stories one composes in wish fulfillment or in order to explicate the latest shenanigans of drunken ersatz philosopher kings staggering through the nightscape. Soon enough I was publishing in journals, and got my work produced on stages and radio programs. But none of what I produced would be misconstrued for story-telling mastery. The usual response: mimicry; mock head scratching; “I really liked it,” people said smiling uneasily. The work was more like a host of ideas explored, beautifully meandering and less than explanatory. I was an essayist and didn’t know it – yet. “Do you want to write philosophy or fiction?” Robert L., an early ally and critique partner asked at our weekly whiskey and Wednesday conclave, which had been dubbed The Royal Olds Society of Bacchus (Olds being the name of the town), circa 1989. “Both,” I replied in up-speak my voice rising ever so slightly as I said and doubted the words’ implications simultaneously. Patron saint Jack Teagarden’s jazz played in the background. “Can’t fly on just one wing,” I’d say changing the subject aiming my empty crystal tumbler at Robert’s broad Irish-American grin and his gin-blossomed nose. “Can’t fly on just one wing,” he’d say rising, his arthritic body giving him just a little grief. Robert would trundle over to his bar, in the basement of his comfortable home, he’d say something funny as he always did or simply lift his leg and fart. We laughed and farted our asses off. I was twenty-two, maybe twenty-three and Robert was well into his late sixties. I learned a lot about writing from that man and how to enjoy life. We talked a lot about jazz and Robert always talked about going to Preservation Hall in the French Quarter in New Orleans; that’s the kind of jazz he liked. When I was last in the Quarter, pre-Hurricane Katrina, I took a jog through its cobbled and fragrant streets one early AM. I was the only one there as the sun came up on Saint Peter’s street. I stopped at the hall, placed my hand on its front door like a vet at a war memorial, closed my eyes and remembered that man. Robert L.
I am because you are. Robert L.
Can’t fly on just one wing.
VI. This middle position – both a philosopher and a writer – would come to dominate not only my art, but also my spiritual needs. It came: Neither this nor that, a bit of both, giving way to this; now this; not wholly one or the other; never resting, never stopping. Autobiography always breaks through my fiction; my objective journalism has a tad too much creative nonfiction in it; my poetry is prose, my prose lyrical and rhythmic. It is not without discernment.
VII. My inquiry is always the same – is this true? Not in a sense of objective data, but rather less pragmatic: was I being straight with readers, yes, but more importantly, straight with myself? Was this actually how I saw things; this was how I felt? Yes, yes. For me this truth was that middle ground, a position of constant vibration between two points. In this way, truth conforms to vibration; vibrate the string attached between two points and you get music, my music. You get beauty. Do I get at the truth? Sometimes I miss. Mostly I do not.
VIII. So it goes.
IX. I will admit from the onset of this memoir that parts may be dubious, but I am being straight. Unfortunately, I can no longer tell which parts – I have been mining and reworking these notes and notions for such a long time that my fabricated fragments or misremembered murmurations have become indistinguishably blended with the original facts. I am not even certain precisely how I first stumbled into the environs of this memoir, though I seem to remember I was somewhat stranded in the airport (not arriving nor departing either) waiting to fly back to Texas after Kevin’s funeral. I sat at a lunch counter, ordered something, opened a notebook and began to write. This is the story I will tell at my funeral.
X. Uh huh uh huh uh huh…
XI. I filled that lunch counter notebook, and another, and countless more. Filled them with my story, which is to say not a story, but diatribes, brokenness, bricolage, fragments, music; arrivals and departures. Dollops. Fluttering pages; rants and prayers. I filled them with Kevin. I filled them up with whiskey and wings. I filled them with You. For I am searching for… You.
In those fugitive pages I found… as I reached out my hand…