To be honest, I don’t know why I’m writing you this. It should have been the art I made for my ex-wife Mary in 1995, that she gave back to me in 2008 after I left her, that I later put in the trash. The art you told me recently got you working with shellac. It should be that I’m giving you, instead of this depressing thing about how I haven’t spoken with the oldest of my children in almost nine months, and the younger not since two Christmases ago.
I guess because when we talked about it before, I can’t remember exactly, maybe you asked in passing, “How’s the kids?” and I didn’t have an answer at the time. Maybe because I think you’ll understand me, like you always did. I haven’t been sleeping again lately, and this is when my mind wanders to the man I read about who died, trapped in a cave, but I don’t want to tell you about him. It’s too awful. If I find my mind lingering on him, I get seized by a whole body panic and I have to get up.
When I first got sober and couldn’t sleep, I went to war nightly with God. My mind was a scorched battlefield, blackened, shelled earth churned from trenches to craters. These days it resembles Zone Rogue in France, given back to nature and forbidden, saturated with ordnance, hundred year old arsenic lingering in craters. The toxic woods, wild and hoary, haunted now by deer and wild boar, trenches filled in with vines.
There is this vision I carry, not quite of myself- An old man alone in a mouldering trailer in the woods, bitter, childless and insane. No doubt, you have known such men. When I first got sober, he figured heavily in my mind- I considered this an alcoholic death even if I managed to stay clean.
It’s cold mornings like these- when I’m up early to feed the yowling cats, but again not quite early enough to manage to write, I wonder if perhaps he’s already arrived. I get on my worn out coat hanging by the leaky back door I haven’t fixed yet and head out into the frozen mud to free the chickens from their coop. The cracked tile floating underfoot like a shit-covered mosaic, and I remember to grab the screwdriver. I’m not using it to kill anyone, it’s to prize the eight little half-domes of ice from cups of their watering bucket. You know how this works. I always figured that, being a country-boy, you grew up with the same tales of horrors perpetrated against these birds, or else, like me, witnessed them firsthand.
Summer gets up and I finish my coffee with her as she tapes up my sprained hand. I try to get out the door before her kids wake. To facilitate quiet conversations that have a better chance of happening if I’m not around.
Pointing the truck toward Southside, it’s crossing the Powhite bridge where it really starts to bother me. Likely because it’s this point on the other side of the bridge, I’m only a mile away from their house. I ignore the river, bloated and steel grey, I’m looking for the nameless creek that empties into it there. I’m sure you know it, completely fabricated, it passes under Forest HIll and the train tracks. It’s cold outside the cab of my truck, but I’m not fooled by the last groan of winter. Studying the woods alongside the road, accessible as they aren’t yet burdened but the weight of all that green, I’m not sure what I'm looking for. Lost children perhaps. The sandy stretch where it emerges from snaking around behind the toll station is lined there with birches, flaking and slender, and shouldered with granite as it runs fast from a glut of late March thaw.
I’ve been going this way for a little over a month, filling a friend’s garage with sawdust from fabricating casework for bookshelves, paying particular attention to whatever happens to be going on with the creek as it seems to determine the flavor of grief for that week. Throughout the winter It’s been ever present, with me to the point I feel like there's something wrong, like a vitamin supplement I'm not taking.
Even though it’s been a string of bad days, the garage is warm enough, and I’ve been doing this work long enough I can rip down material on the table saw letting sadness wash over me without worry of losing a finger. I pay special attention to the music I listen to, so that I don’t have to take time and fall apart. At the end of the day I’ll sweep the dust-pile under the saw into a bucket for the chickens. There’s a ruined tire from the Harley I keep filled for them to bathe in. Which reminds me I haven’t told you about Greg the Bastard.
When Summer brought them home a year ago as chicks, they were unsexed, and as they grew, we inadvertently wound up with two roosters. Even though Greg is much bigger, he’s still number two and it’s made him skittish and unpredictable. Fierce Greg the Magnificent, Hen Raping Greg. He charges the dog as well as the kids now, and he’s even started to buck up on me. He stalks the yard like boys and men you and I have both known all our lives- insecure, large and dangerous. He doesn’t scare me, I’m more afraid the day will come when I will have to kill this animal.
In my twenties, Liz King, who you might know, got me a job after school let out with a woman I won’t name here. Another artist, she lived in an old farmhouse down Jeff Davis Highway and had been sexually assaulted by a man there. My job was to help powder and paint the place in order to put it on the market as she didn’t feel safe there anymore. We painted the whole inside. Flying the back roads in her pick-up to some Paint store way out Hull street, she told me how the man had befriended her dogs beforehand and how he threatened to kill her if she looked at him. I don’t remember asking her about it, just the image of her long legs in cut-off shorts clutching and shifting the small truck all over Southside. I made it most mornings, except after getting home late from a Rancid show in Hampton, I was too hungover and didn’t get to her place til well after noon. She was gone, but had worked the whole morning by herself. Later that day, when I called Liz to tell her how I fucked up, she fired me over the phone.
I bring all this up because she owned a lone rooster named Ajax, who hated me. Specializing in ambush tactics, I wasn’t safe anywhere in the yard from Ajax. The lady usually escorted me in from the gate, but heading out to the shed was dangerous. I can still feel him on the backs of my bare legs. Once, while rolling the living room ceiling and overwhelmed by the fumes of oil based primer, I stepped out on the front porch to dry heave a minute and catch my breath. Ajax heard and came stalking around the corner. Incapacitated, I cussed him, but head lowered, he came for me, creeping up the steps one terrible talon at time.
Later I made a six foot tall portrait of Ajax as best I could remember him. Crimson comb like a child’s depiction of fire out of control, waddles surrounding the beak blazing and reckless. The emerald of the sickle feathers a cyclone of green. Hock, shank and spur a series of harsh, black lines. Very Twombly-esque, it’s still hanging in my dad’s office. Based on this one hangover, I went on to make work for the next ten years depicting the Battle of Troy as a series of cock-fights. Achilles the Terrible dragging Man-killing Hector through the streets of Troy. That sort of thing. The drawing I made Mary came from that run.
I go home by way of the Huguenot bridge, because the Nickel bridge takes me directly in front of the house where my children live, which no matter how I’m doing, always threatens to cave my head in. If I go that way, I always think about stopping, and kneeling outside in the cold, perfect grass, with the thought if I wait long enough they might come out to see me.
I know it’s merely grief, the same garden variety of depression, that Chris Cornell said in an interview once was no less dangerous and could just as easily land a man on the end of a rope.
But that is not my way. I’ll drive home to Summer and her kids, help with dinner, watch TV and bed by ten thirty. Regardless. And if I find myself lying awake and the void comes, I won’t scream into it like the old days, I’ll sing to it. I don’t know why, maybe it’s a lament. Maybe I think my children will walk out of the darkness and into my arms.