I dream of O’Keefe in chains, alone at the small stone altar at Kiowa Ranch. She is cold, shivering uncontrollably. Her hand reaches out and touches mine. A fizzle of spent energy; her fingernails paint-stained and stippled with the pollen of cut flowers. She reminds me of an ancient martyr: St. Lawrence on a spit, a suckling pig and hoarder of gold; or St. Symphorosa, who drowned in the Tiber the day before her seven children were also martyred. The artist reminds me to be human, to walk in quiet places and listen carefully to the oriole’s song. My feet register cold through the soles of my red Chuck Taylor’s. I am not acclimatized to New Mexico’s late-spring freeze. Outside the low chapel the remnants of snowdrift line the path. My saints are glass candles on a makeshift altar flanked by two portraits: one of me, and one of my love. I wake in sweat with the single fingerprint of paint on my lips. All around are cicadas and late-night traffic.
Sprinklers are on, the leaves drip water to dry earth, and somewhere the pastel sky has still to reach its end. A hawk swooped down in front of the headlights this afternoon, chasing some narrow creature into the underbrush. Barely missed the blurred red tail. On a hillside deer cautiously stare as dog walkers pass by. Repetitive throb of tire rubber on asphalt. These summer evenings bring the house to its knees. Quiet. An infinity of time and space. Stacks of old journals betray me. Their words fade, naïve and inconsequent. Train journeys from San Diego to Carpinteria. Waiting. Farmer’s market in Pacific Beach, little to talk about back in those days. Maybe their range of produce has grown since? All these paragraphs about my father. Repetitive motif. Upside-down hat, the stitching crude and unfinished. Attention to detail. A rejection today. First submission of the year. August cusp. Try again. Fail again. The black necked swans in the shallow water. Perched flamingos, their legs bound with identifying tags. Tracking system. Poor bastard, gorilla. Bored out of his skull. Alligator, too. Perverse. Books to read. Avocados counted. Collaboration is difficult. Finding the thread to take up again. Images and ideas from here-and-there. Crunch of leaves at night. A larger beast. Coyote? Raccoon? Eyes backlit by torchlight. Behind my back a diminishing stack of books sits. Each sails into the postal system’s waterways, one at a time. In 2004 I wrote of a bookmark, languishing in a copy of The Web and the Rock. Chattanooga, TN. A bar called the Stone Lion. Humid days and nights. The Dakwa, a fish of Cherokee legend. “Are you still lost?” she wrote. Faith in a bare-naked cemetery. These are the disasters of the past. Pages later the news of a death. Lad I used play tennis with. Suicide. Hanged himself. The baying of local dogs at night, their irritable coughs and intemperate humors. Gaily Miss Douce polished a tumbler, trilling: — O Idolores, queen of the Eastern seas.
Rathgar, Dublin. November 1983. Creosote clouds over the Dublin Mountains. Red-bricked houses and four boys running rampant, singing, “armored cars and tanks and guns.” Mam calls order. Time for tea, poached eggs and bread-and-butter slices. Shovel the coal into the scuttle in the rain, next door’s cat cries in the dark. Scratches on the tar-papered garage roof. More cats. A chorus. Mam’s begonias consigned to the rubbish bin. Sparks hit the fireguard in the sitting room. Toothpaste, prayers, bedtime. Hilversum. Athlone. Amsterdam. Stations on the wireless dial. The neighbor mounts his ladder to adjust the television aerial. Statues of St. Martin de Porres and the Virgin Mary on the chest of drawers in the bedroom. Say the words by heart—O angel of God, my guardian dear.
The hall table is an old gramophone. Where the turntable went is a hole, surrounded by plush velvet. Small steel needles, nubbed and sharp, lay around the carcass of the HMV cabinet. The speaker, if they called it a speaker back in those days, is set behind hinged doors. Black metal, wide to narrow, a roadway for the Batmobile I whiz toward the curve it cannot get past. When I push my Dinky cars though, they disappear from sight, into the dark uvula of his master’s voice. Small fingers strain around the opening, feeling for the lost toys. When the Old Man and Mam move from our house in the city they get rid of the gramophone cabinet, and with it my childhood, swallowed in the belly of the beast. I want to tell them to hang on to it until my next trip home, but there’s a house to empty, a thousand things to do, and the Old Man fails rapidly. They sell the cabinet to an antiques dealer from town, who shunts it off in the back of a truck, the coffined resting place of my lost toys, and my lost childhood. The muffled cry of his master’s voice goes unheard.
A pose struck, the tumbled over container, camera around neck. Hold the image fast. Does the light create problems, or perhaps the slow trawl of the sun across the sky brings a passel of related issues? That day, I dropped back to walk slower, to fall into pace with my dead father. Weathered face and arms, summer tan. When the lights went out there were questions asked and not answered. Those unknown people turned up out of nowhere. Brass fittings. Pretty penny, indeed. Grained oak. Timbers came from the old forests that once covered the country. Pre-Ice Age. Salted meat lasts for decades. centuries maybe. I spilled the tea, brown leaves all over the table. Smoky aroma, the gunpowder plot. La Grande Tradition. Would have appreciated having those minutes over again, the sweating horses in the sheik’s field next to us, and hearing him say something profound in those last days before death.
The sound builds, the rumbling, tumbling of vowels and consonants, the swell of them all. Put back in its box. Quite right, too. There are the players, the performers, and the silenced. Verbs wax and wane from paragraph to page, their neatly chosen shapes supposed testimony to the chooser’s craft. On a shelf they sit, piled neatly, one on top of the other. Stacked bodies. Coffinless. Patiently waiting for release. The printer spits out leaf upon leaf of inked paper, ampersands denoting the breaks, the voice immature at first, then not so, then again too young. Pay attention to what’s said to you. Are you listening, God? Red ink faded to a pinkish hue, the twenty-one arrayed beads bringing a measure of calm. This, too, is a fiction, a fable, a tale told in printer’s ink by some marketing guru in a nondescript office in a far-flung business park. Walk away. Return. Walk away again. Return again. The story remains the same. The pattern repeated in groups of thirteen. Worry lines. The face etched deeper, now. The hairline receding. The fair giving way to gray and the green going down to grim. A tower distant, thunderhead. Beyond the second range. Institutional animal dead at the side of the road. Words on an invoice. Letters & numbers. Upside down text. There are steeples and minarets in some far-off European capital city. There the coffee is pennies to the dollar. Purple. Pink. Yellow. Green. Blue. Fields of flowers inlaid with sadnesses. Silence.
Fingers spread, the width of a wingspan, all the while readying for descent. The vista over the city is terrible, smokestacks and factories pushing rancid fumes into the world. On the desk there’s a deal of paperwork waiting for scribbled words and signatures. Days of helpless disruption. Mine. Not mine. Yours. Not yours. Ours. Hours. Clock hands whiling away the time, the wound cords, amber beads buried beneath the skin. Modification. Pages to be grasped, or not. This intellectual pursuit is a fool’s errand. Grimy windows spoil the view to the farther hill. A dying man, reaching for salvation, across the wooden boards. Fingernails catch and tear. The moss on the stone hides the evidence. Code. A break every so many characters. Parts. Eight. Symmetrical. Rhyme or reason. Neither to be found. On the crucifix of telephone pole outside the house are three woodpeckers. Each committed some nondescript crime. Today, they beat tattoos of guilt, sending their sins out onto the nearby rooftops. Move too fast for the human eye to catch. Yellow. The print is black. Stacked pages, Handwritten gibberish. Penultimate. Rock for weight. Air passage closed. Gasp. Gasp. The key is in the tin can. Aluminum. Rusting tines. All those turns are calculated risks. Pockets of moisture provide hiding spots for tiny frogs. The animal kingdom encroaches all about us. A broken meringue of tissue paper mops up the deceit of the written word.
Dark outside. Birds sing, but it’s the toddler’s sound machine. One hundred pages of edits on the floor. One hundred and sixty more to go. July. Humid. Overcast. Avocados to pick. Son to figure out. Life to decode. Silence on the home front back in Ireland. The Mother has settled into her new home. Assisted living. Assisted dying. The catastrophe of my office is mirrored by that of our garage. Not to mention the filthy cars in need of detailing. There’s no time. Books to blurb. On top of that. Reviews to write; less so. Better to say no in future. No money changes hands. Plenty of reviews for other books. Might be wiser to spend time soliciting reviews for my own book. The cars go by in twos or threes. Stop sign outside is less function and more fashion. The owls are nearby. Silent-winged. Mysteries surround me in the night. There are days when the weight is tremendous, the pull of the earth’s core almost too much. Resistance is pointless. Cups of tea to sustain the editing. Barry’s Red Label. Used tea-bags are dead soldiers in the assault on completion. Somewhere out there stories are being told. Lights in the window. Time for sleep.