Fallon Smart, one year later

On August 19, 2016 I was driving around aimlessly — something I never do. It was Friday, I hadn’t slept the night before, I was restless, so I cancelled my plans and meetings for the day, and waited. For a few red minutes I considered going to the bubble tea spot on Hawthorne in Portland to write, but instead opted for drifting. This decision had two results:

1.) I did not see Fallon Smart get struck and killed by a car.

2.) I was able to head directly to the scene when I was called.

One of my oldest friends is Fallon’s stepfather; I refuse to write ‘was’ when that role is still active. We’ve known each other for 20 years. I’m also close with his wife, and am godmother to their two youngest children. After my younger sister Rachael died, my presence in their household tripled, since it was a safe haven where I could fall into crying fits, and where I could remember that life is constantly renewed in the company of children. Grief has many unexpected spasms that can’t be anticipated till it pies you in the face, but can perhaps be summarized with, “It’s a beautiful day, I wish it were raining, I hate myself, fuck you.” Rachael’s death also brought my steady undercurrent of rage to the surface, because when someone dies at 34 and you are the older sibling and you were supposed to enter the ugly terrain of middle age together, and now you’re not, goddammit. I’m still angry, even as I type this, even 18 months later when I think of the fact that she never even knew the non-event of 35, let alone the sad trombone of 40.

When the phone rang on August 19th, I didn’t answer, because I don’t answer the phone, so if someone calls me then something is wrong. This time it was Fallon’s mother, screaming. Someone took the phone from her, and told me that Fallon died. My first thought was that I brought death through their doors with all my thick black grief; my second thought was that I wasn’t breathing.

Looking back, I was in shock. I gave the person who took the phone too much robotic information, the immediate to-do list generated by my brain to keep my body in motion: “I will go there now. I will take the back roads, since it will be quicker. I will avoid the main roads. I will be there in ten minutes or less. I’m on my way. Right now.”

There are so many scenes that follow this introduction, scenes of a life torn short by a reckless driver. If one day in the throws of dementia all these scenes are erased, I’m confident that two things will cling to me from 2016: 1.) Looking at Rachael’s blue, cold corpse, and asking for a lock of her hair. 2.) Running from my car to where Fallon’s mother was sitting in a chair with her two youngest children on her lap. Each one looked pulled from Pompeii, a portrait of a family frozen under ash. When I close my eyes, both of these scenes are vibrant in a way images only are when the chosen filter is death.

If you ask me about Fallon herself, the best I can offer is a handful of memories that illuminate me being an adult terrified of teenagers, not Fallon being a colossal young person who could cosplay and stitch story with the best of them. And Fallon was extra terrifying, because she had a sophistication and compassion that I didn’t have at 30 at 15, which always seemed to underscore that her time on earth would be short. She had ideas, dreams, ambitions, and the best an adult in her company could do is wait on baited breath for her to introduce them. I do not have the special misery of knowing her from her point of entry; I don’t have to wrestle down images from her toddler days, her first birthday, her first day of school, all of her firsts. This was my slow torture when Rachael died, choosing pictures for her memorial from every age, every first, that always included the three of us, the three of us, the three of us. There were four children in Fallon’s house, now three. How do you talk about your family when there’s one less? Does it ever feel like only one less?

This was a year ago. This was a year ago.

What am I doing? What am I working on? I’m working on grief. I’m working with grief. Grief is working me over.

*

I’m a writer, and I write about the contents of my heart that I don’t feel comfortable owning audibly. Very few people come to know me through conversation, where I’m mostly analyzing the environment and trying to decode what people want from me and each other. In most contexts, people are hunting for a listener who can witness their experience, an observer willing to see their truth even when they only talk around it. I can’t bring this same vulnerability; the room would get too crowded and the windows would fog. People learn about me through email, public posts, text messages, short stories, novels, because that’s where I’m comfortable gutting myself. So, in the middle of all this grief and support of others’ grief, in my wading through scenes and violent dreams and the changing faces of mothers and fathers and children, I wrote this about Fallon:

“Today’s dead includes a beautiful teenage girl with eyes that never settled on a single color. I know this girl; I don’t know this girl. So many of the living demand another round, many other rounds, the full exhausting route of nearly 100 years of life, to circle the drain of existence before a black hole exodus leaves them scrambling for a description more inspired than wow. She didn’t need that. She was lavender and grounded in an ancient way, her feet sunk so deep that they tickled the core fires, and now she has no choice but to climb skyward to spare herself the burn. Fallon is a redwood ascender, an upper canopy organism that can only be understood by those dedicated to climbing. An earth mother without the anchors. She was a girl who said I love you first, who answered the door without knowing who knocks, who got the haircut that startled her face bolder. I am 70% certain that I am alive and she is dead, but I’m adjusting percentages even as I write this. And I know that if I were an alien on a ship I’d lower my ladders for the likes of her, and let the orb spin right by the rest.

I didn’t know her, I know her, I didn’t know her; this is the record, this record is words and number and dates and names and photos and needs to be forever, even if it isn’t. The record says she was intelligent and science-minded, says she loved to draw and read and write, that she was part of a choir that is now collecting donations in her name. Her voice trails through a description that flails at flesh and blood; this is a resume that leaves out the mistakes and bandaged humanity that churns a person loved. I can see her laughing through braces, debating the most efficient organization of a dishwasher with her stepfather, working language around her mouth to filter out offense. I can see her wondering who amongst her friends might help her field the halls of high school, wondering if it will ever feel less like a lonely maze of bodies and smells and books that won’t matter in ten years time. I can see her standing in a church with her girlfriend singing the opening verse of a Tegan and Sara song that begs, “I want you close, I want you,” adding fist-bopping dance moves that barely escape the bulk of a leather jacket worn over a dress, an elven warrior ready for a sci fi future of bleeps and clicks. I can see her gaze chewing me as I try to carve out a complimentary sentence that translates to teenagers, when in my core I know that my hodgepodge of experience can only help with scholarships and taxes and 90s era music and bail money.

And now, in the mirror is the self that saw her as dying, simply because some people don’t get stuck here, because they don’t need to be, they don’t need to circle the drain when it’s perfectly possible to jump right down the center and skip the hairball, the grease trap, the cap.

Still, I never wanted to see her lying beneath a sheet in the street.

And now, I can see the Buddhist monks blessing the crosswalk with flowing chants and graceful gongs, promising to pray for her for days upon days, suggesting that a short lifetime means good karma, without considering that this suggestion means nothing.

And now, when I close my eyes I see a purple orb balanced between her hands, the faces of her family aglow, the sad siblings and lost parents she left behind. There’s no fear, no demand for one final slide. What did it taste like to arrive?  I say goodbye, hello, goodbye, and I ask her ghost to speak, but it doesn’t, because she has something so many other dead don’t, and that is closure. Her final look was into her mother’s eyes, where she saw her beginning all over again, the first face, the last face, her first hello, her last goodbye. And that goodbye will circle and strike, circle and strike, until her mother’s face is bruised and bloody yet incapable of turning away from the next violent blow.

Still: I want her to be alive and choosing electives. I want her to be fretting over whether college is right for her, and deciding whether or not the arts are as intriguing as science. I want to hear more stories about how every teacher is her favorite teacher. I want to monitor the rise and fall of her face in and out of awkward until it settles into something adult at 25, and simply accommodates new sags and wrinkles. I want to follow her electric current to another end, one with a little more kindness, one a little less lavender and a lot more green, tucked into a cabin in the woods with two doors and great windows and a giant skylight she can’t reach with extended fingers. I want to see her partner emerge from the muddied place behind her, and wrap a warm arm around her to hold this rustic space in beauty, at once, forever.”

I want all of this for her, but what I want doesn’t matter.

Wander freely, Fallon Smart, and know that you are loved and beloved.

 

this is what I’m doing

The quiet of this cyber space should not be confused for an absence of activity. I’ve been working, working, working on a stand-alone novel that includes some of the characters you might already know. It’s an exorcism (or maybe an announcement?) of the ghosts that have been trailing me, as more and more important faces in my daily life vanish from earthly existence and leave the rest of us flailing and floundering about the earthcraft. I’m not sure I can write anything else until I finish writing this, but I’ll set it to print the moment it’s finished, or finishes me (whatever comes first). Until that moment I’ll remain a quiet sort, save for the obligatory social media raving about political discourse, and the occasional coffee shop observation. Which brings me to an important point: the gentleman to my left raises his cup, and then loudly slurps, once, twice, three times, before he sets the cup back down. It’s kinda like he’s racing the coffee. What. Is. The. Finish. Line? It also smells like burning bagels in here, which would be my personal perfume if it was available at the neighborhood drugstore. This is not Electric Youth. This is Blackened You.

hiatus from white male words

I cannot read white guys for awhile. It’s not that I dislike white guy writing; some of my favorite writers are fellows of the pasty persuasion. George Orwell. John Milton. That other dead guy; that one who lives forever. Doesn’t mean I haven’t had my fill of hard drinking, working class men with surly dispositions, fretting over the women who’ve done them wrong…written by tender guys living off trust funds in Brooklyn brownstones.  Had enough of five o’clock shadows and fifty-yard stares, emotional detachment and simmering resentment, unions that unraveled and road trips to nowhere — nobody consults a map, unless there’s a woman in the car, in which case that’s exactly what she’s doing. I’ve had enough of cops on the other side of the law and misunderstood criminals, corporate executives ducking out of afternoon meetings and into bars, marriages forever tense and inscrutable with no notion of tenderness beyond thank you, goodnight. These white men don’t recover from the backslap of romance, don’t enter into the soothing space of just knowing someone and relaxing. They are too busy drinking, divorcing, finding themselves, which usually means another woman, in a bar, in an office, in a car opening a map while he’s driving.

And speaking of this particular sort of writer, I’ve had my fill of female characters that place phone calls about child support payments and scream across the street about when he’s coming back, and never have ambitions beyond Lady Macbeth. This type of male writer never writes women thinking like they do, wondering like they do, plotting like they do. No, this white male writer makes women thin and demanding or fat and sorry, hunting for a hero or fulfilling childhood fantasies of sparkling eyes and inspired statements released as riddles. He will meet her in the park, he will meet her in the bar, he will meet her in the office when she comes in late and dressed inappropriately and unwilling to file anything alphabetically. Women described as “used up” and worn down by life, permanent mothers flanked by angry children that spit at each other across the dinner table, wild women whose only rebellion involves sexual promiscuity and growing their hair long and white and tangled.

In their interviews they will wear beards and soft sad eyes and tucked in flannel shirts and talk about the loneliness of writing. They will talk about adopting children from foreign countries as the long drunken route towards empathy. They will talk about their mothers, the abortion their girlfriend once had, their trip to Africa/Malaysia/Thailand that was totally different from the other white guys who were there for worse reasons. They will talk about the disappointment of their fathers, how they will never receive tenure; they will not talk about their trust funds. They will rattle off lists of other white male writers writing about divorce and murder and dogs and strippers and guns and rivers, and talk about their next book that will cover more of the same. In six weeks the black cover will promise a something-something “tour de force” and I will wonder if that’s a bicycle tour in France.

Too small, too drunk, too troubled, too on-to-something, too lost. This is too small, when a world of other worlds lies waiting.

Observation #9: Yarn

There’s a long yarn unspooling from his jaws, and there’s still a whole lot to untangle. A giant box of cds leaves him doing double duty as DJ, laser-spinning Marianne Faithful and the Cocteau Twins and a whole lot of troubled women that might find me fair company. This CD of Ms. Faithful was recorded when she entered her silver-haired years, and she sounds like a chain-smoking blue collar coaxed toward the microphone by her drunken karaoke counterparts. It’s not nearly as sad as younger Marianne trapped in a black and white time-machine, prisoner of evening variety shows and hair spray, posed for a portrait by stony hands. This isn’t loneliness; this is nostalgia. As her throat reports fire I’m thinking that there’s also something within me burning to the surface, a remake. Something that cannot be sorted clean. It’s then that I think he needs to play “Horses” in honor of Patti Smith’s prophecies, but that yarn has filled his cheeks and tied me and needs a pull to unwind.

Observation #8: Air-conditioned

Human contents of air-conditioned pod of refuge: man with a tribal wreath tattooed all around his leg, reaching up towards his knee. Despite sitting his bag remains draped over his shoulder, his eyes on his phone, his hands pulling at the pubic remains of a soul patch. “Nothingman” by Pearl Jam launches in the background, which inspires him to get up and take his shoulder bag and cell phone with him.

Six feet away, a man who has been stared down by grim shades: black hair, black shirt, grey pocket, grey pants, black shoes. He’s folded into a question mark to accommodate the chair and table, his shoulders sink low, and stickers cover his laptop and scream LA DISPUTE. I google it and discover a band from Michigan and suspect that we should hate each other and blame it on sports teams.

Three seniors crowd around the comfortable easy chairs, and when they ask to borrow the extra chair across from me I hope one of them uses it for feet, or as a makeshift card table.  Instead the older man sits himself between the two women, as they remove lids and fuss with sugar packets and plastic cream cups and don’t say anything. A table opens up, and they take all their cups and containers and bagels and the chair that once held a ghost across from me with them.

Directly across from me: an older Asian women with threads of silver dancing down her scalp. The only skin I see is a patch escaping her sleeves, red roads traveling two inches down into elbow. There is book opened flat in front of her, and she tracks words with a highlighter between long looks out the window at the man with the leg tattoo and too many 90s adornments, avoiding Pearl Jam and pacing.

Observation 7: Barroom

I like bars that look like hollowed-out bowling alleys, right down to the lingering smoke smell and people arguing over phantom scores. The booths all plastic and faded into beige, strange folds chased around metal until they anchor. The lights are overhead and on until someone who refuses to remove sunglasses complains, and with a flick of a switch the sad remains of a brown carpet better suited for a 70s-era airport, or a hotel room in Idaho, are suddenly disguised. Replacing the overheads is a slow moving globe of holiday colors, orbiting every face: the world is red, the world is green, the world is blue. These places don’t have jukeboxes, they have a DJ who hasn’t left the booth since 1986, a prisoner of records with Jehri curls on the cover and shoulder pads and shirts buttoned right up to the top and pencil mustaches. The Electric Slide is going to be played; it’s only a matter of time. The waitress has also never not been there, and she doesn’t come to take an order, she arrives with a great big bucket of ice, bottles of cheap beer jutting out from the frozen slab like they grew that way. Choose, and choose often. The chalkboard behind the bartender announces Tuesday as 10 cent wing night, and mozzarella sticks as a thing every day, all the time, along with a couple of things that come with a side of ranch dressing. There’s a bottle of Jack and another of Absolute and the Maker’s Mark occupies the high shelf, and the bartender is kind and twice the size of an average man, and the glasses he pours heavy into are dirty and no one is going to say shit. Then the DJ is moving his hands and talking fast to wild-drive us into George Clinton. Without a word every citizen of the middle-aged crowd herds onto the tiny dance floor for obligatory booty shaking. I am Pavlov’s Atomic Dog.

The world is red, the world is green, the world is blue.

Observation 5: Food for Crows

It started with trail mix. Since I’m allergic to nuts this is something that I shouldn’t eat, but laziness convinced me that once almonds and cashews are weeded out, the chocolate chips and sulfur-infused cherries that remain qualify as dinner. The nutritional takeaway is somewhere between Snickers’ bar and frozen pizza, and my stomach is still appalled.

The pile of pieces and parts was impressive, and grew as I pressed my own dumb again and again. I couldn’t toss them into the compost bin without feeling more California than Oregon, and since my bank account says I don’t live anywhere at all, they needed to be used.  As an experiment I left a handful of nuts in a wooden bowl in my yard, assuming they’d make gourmet fare for foraging squirrels or nutria (Portland’s ROUS, for Princess Bride fans). Between compost and the sloppiness of humans, such creatures have grown accustomed to feasting on our food anyway. Ever see a bird flying with half a sandwich? It happens.

The bowl attracted the attention of one crow, who watched me very carefully from her perch on a nearby satellite dish. She watched as I watered outdoor plants, fussed with cats. She watched me right through my kitchen window, and while she monitored my activity, let the neighborhood jays feast on the contents of the wooden bowl. Crows are smart; I don’t doubt that they regularly use jays as their personal tasters. This crow also had an eye on my cats, who took turns arranging themselves in the window to try out their best bird calls on the jays. They’d have to toss aside several IQ points to try that on crows. Portland crows are big beautiful birds, and they gather in great noisy roosts all over the city. The average crow is basically larger than a cat, so the only cat this crow was interested in getting a read on was the Maine coon, Scooter, who lazily occupied an entire Adirondack chair. It doesn’t take extensive inspection to surmise that this largest cat is also the gentlest: a great big Buddha who once got an abscess because of his habit of capturing a bee in his jaws, holding it until it tickles, and then letting it go with a squeak. Really. He sulks when I kill house centipedes, and fully supports my capture-and-release spider program. Not a threat. The crow flew away.

The next day I rose to find three crows waiting for me, each arranged around the nearby satellite dish, looking into the kitchen window. I took a handful of nuts from the stockpile, and placed them in the bowl. They cawed, then took the cashews, leaving the almonds for the jays.

Now every morning starts more or less the same. The youngest crow, an adolescent who seems committed to the family unit (or maybe the crow equivalent of an adult reading comic books in his mom’s basement) starts squawking. Her squawk is different from the full throated “caw” of her parents, and she won’t quit under I wander outside dazed and toss a handful of nuts into the bowl. Note: they have to land in the bowl. For a few days awhile back I just tossed them into the yard, and the crows looked at me like I could no longer be trusted with nut distribution, and left them all to the jays. Logically one could deduce that the nuts are easier to see in the bowl from the air, but I think that’s how they know for sure they are for them and from me or my partner, and therefore safe. Or maybe they like the ritual. Within three minutes of proper bowl placement, all the nuts will be gathered, while at least one maintains watch on a wire. The adolescent will up her squawking game, furiously flapping at the crow with the most nuts stored away in her jaws. This crow will then mash up some of the nuts on the ground, gargle them, and regurgitate them into the mouth of the adolescent. This usually quiets her down. I keep an eye on the cats the whole time, as I don’t have the budget for the emergency room visit that would likely be required if one felt ambitious, and put a large bowl of water out on especially hot days for impromptu baths. We are friends.

They return the favor in unexpected ways. We used to have a neighbor who would amuse himself by rising early to stand on the sidewalk and play the same six bars on his trumpet, over and over again. Consider for a moment the tidal wave of curse words that would trail from my partner’s mouth in response to this unwanted wake-up call. The crows were equally unamused, and decided to demonstrate their feelings by dive bombing him one day, right in front of us, as we stood outside. The trumpet player screamed. Can you high five a crow? There are ways.

This is not my first friendship with crows. Awhile back I decided that I needed to get okay with handling dead things, and so I started lifting crows that had been hit by cars off of the roadway before they were pancaked flat. Crows mate for life, and form elaborate communities; when a crow is struck by a car, the full family sometimes assembles nearby to honor the fallen friend and support the widow. The ruckus is amazing. It is hard for me to imagine witnessing a friend’s death, and then watching him get brutalized again and again. The first time I lifted a crow from the concrete, the noise of outrage was deafening; when I placed the body on the green, they fell silent. I can’t say whether they understood what I was doing, but the next time they were silent the whole time, from when I lifted the dead remains to when the body touched green. I did this maybe a dozen times before I relocated to a neighborhood with fewer crows, but while I lived there I felt close to the crows, and that they remembered. It felt special, but I know that they don’t just remember me.

There have been many experiments to test the intelligence and memory of crows, the most famous of which involved men in masks who captured and tagged a small number of crows. The masks were then passed on to different people, over and over again, to see if the crows remembered the faces of the men that captured them. The crows not only remembered, but word of the offense spread, and crows dive-bombed the wearer of the mask in larger and larger numbers. It’s good to be in with the crows, and is quite bad for your health to not be.

These crow friends of mine provide a sense of security. They alert me when one of the neighbors’ crosses the street, when the mailman approaches, when the morning is getting too warm and I need to wake up before I miss it. They gobble up the bits of loneliness that inevitably afflict anyone with the occupation (or preoccupation) of writer. And they provide their own answer to Alan Moore’s query of “who watches the watchmen?” The crows, of course. The crows are always watching, observing, recording.

 

 

Observation 4: Octopus

My friendship with this tree is an old one. Our introduction was not a meeting so much as being summoned to a waiting cradle of branches. My wow has the force of a hundred surprised children without the tongues to speak; the tongues of a thousand agog aliens synthesizer- circling electronic eyes; the eyes, ocelli, of a million metamorphosed insects testing the beat of their wings, antennae tasting air of moss and mushroom, ocean and leaf. Octopus tree responded to this wow by warming me: Your light is so very blue. This is something you don’t forget. Now all of me autopilots down the trail, wondering if in the evening hours this Octopus dances to the edge of the cliff overlooking the Pacific and considers returning to watery home. Branch over root Octopus Tree would fall, until broken bark revealed the tentacle truth. When we are face to face this is something I show her, while she pulls at my nearest memory, crows on a wire, and pushes moss and mushroom into my skin. Octopus Tree and I tangle, light dancing around every limb, reading her, reading me. Colors swarm us, mold and mushroom, moss and sap, wildflowers yellow. All the while, blue ocean beckons from below: to me, to us, to me.

Friend
Friend