Thursday, June 25, 2009

Owl Things Rise and Fowl

The owls are back. The first time I saw them they flew delicately and silently around my head, literally in my hair, after I barged into their dormitory. It took me a minute to realize they were not bats, but my wide-eyed visitors. Their mastery of the air impressed me. They did not seem to mind at all the close space of my outdoor storage ramada and moved through it like dancers – cutting tight turns, pirouetting, climbing, stalling as they settled onto a comfortable perch suitably distanced from the clumsy interloper. I apologized and retreated. 

All three of them are here. Up close they are petite, tiny, fragile. They perch on my hanging bike wheel, my chainsaw case, a section of copper pipe, and they defecate on the tires, frame, toolbox, plastic storage organizers. I don’t mind, but also see some of the perfection of that. They show me my priorities. I would rather have a wild owl living in proximity than a clean bike, even though I am a bikophile.

Where do they come from, these beautiful little western screech owls? Last year they appeared and roosted in Kyle’s book shelf on the porch, as if they could sense someone in trouble, tormented, and were there to add an archetypal touch to the melancholy scene. 

When I see them in the morning, they are resting, their eyes half closed, like they are looking over a pair of reading glasses at an annoying student. I like to think that my talking to them as I put in laundry keeps them calm, that I won’t disturb their siesta. I hope they are accustomed enough to my interruptions that they will not fly away to a more remote roost. I want to check on them, the way I used to check on the chickens before the bobcat took them. 

I prefer the owls. As a lazy farmer I would rather not feed my flock, but am glad to provide wild fowl with a coop. A bird raiser by chance, an owl cultivator, a gardener of wild things, a witness to a world as far beyond my control as it is hungry for life.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Rising Waters (Written September 12, 2001. A True Story)

It is hot here in Tucson, record hot, and news of September eleventh -- only yesterday -- keeps coming in. No one seems to know what to do. For lack of anything better I wait for rain. 

It’s humid. We all sweat. Clouds gather, and we hear thunder, but the promise of rain is not kept. Only dry lightning, fires on the ridges. The swamp cooler doesn’t work. What rain does fall drizzles down with no result greater than dust stains on the windshield. People around me seem heavy, tense. When we move, anger and fear swim beneath the surface of our bearing, waiting for the slightest provocation. Viscera are on alert for fight and flights.

I park my truck after listening to yet another story on the radio of someone not coming home from the Pentagon, the World Trade Center, the crater in a Pennsylvania farm field. Impotent frustration, rising from columns of smoke and flame and then dust from the collapse of the Twin Towers, eviscerated from without by an unknown enemy, has me looking for someone to take it out on. News of layoffs, of plunging stocks, trigger a fear of the unknown, which creeps slowly under my skin. I am a temporary worker, paid when money is plentiful. The news is not good.

As I spread the windshield shade and lock it into place with the visors, tucking it neatly into the joint between dashboard and windshield, I notice a man walking toward me across the parking lot. He is pushing an ancient, rusty, deformed bicycle. I wonder what he is doing here in my parking lot, my jealously guarded little corner of the university, my territory, my one small perk for being a low rung college teacher. He looks at me before I decide to make a break for my office and my dark thoughts. I want to be alone rather than acknowledge him or anyone who might want a part of my attention. I am consumed by a need to brood. 

“Hey big man, you know where the VA hospital is?” he asks. The man is as grimy as he is black. He also happens to be wearing a torn and dirty T-shirt with the slogan “Grace Happens” dancing in joyous script across his chest. “I’ve got a hole here over my heart and they said they were going to take some skin from somewhere else and fill it in. I got to get down there to see a counselor, God willing.” 

I speak literally here. The hole in his chest is real, measurable, fleshy, exposed. He is standing in front of me, one hand over his heart, the other grasping that misbegotten hulk of twisted metal and rubber that will never again in this world move without being dragged. 

Around us the university is gaining momentum for another day. The hum and rip of traffic beyond the wall speaks of a world at speed, in action, moving faster and faster toward… what? Affluence? Retirement? War? Beautiful blonde women wearing shorts that ride low on their hips and tight tube tops sling backpacks over their shoulders and chirp off toward their classes. In front of the sororities, boys in monstrous SUVs kiss girlfriends before the girls climb down from the trucks and stride sleepily up the sidewalks to the grand front doors, where other girls wait to hear the stories.
This man, standing in front of me with all he owns, is telling me he has a hole in his chest. 

What the hell does that mean? 

His pants hang loosely, too big around his waist, heavy and caked with film and fumes of the street. What is he doing here? I can’t think about a hole in someone else’s chest. 

“It’s somewhere down on South 6th Avenue, about ten miles from here,” I tell him, looking closely at him as he pushes his broken steed toward me like Don Quijote leading Rocinante to the windmill. He is lean and muscular, sunburned, with cracked lips. 

“It’s a long bike ride,” I say. His hands grip the sun-rotted grips on the bars of his dilapidated machine and his eyes go filmy. 

The morning sun is already hot and I feel the first rivulets of sweat run down my back, and heat rising from the asphalt parking lot. 

“Well, this here bike doesn’t work, locks up every time I try to pedal it. It’s not like those bikes now that do just about everything except pedal for you.” He smiles at the thought of this, amazed at what wheels like that might do for him if he had them. “So I’ll need to take a bus. Big man, if it was you askin’ you know I’d give it to you. In Bakersfield, where I jus came from, the fare is seventy-five cents. I figure it’s more here. Can you spare the two dollars, big man?”

I think for a minute and remember that I had given my last singles to my son for hot lunch and have only a ten and a twenty. I tell him I’ll check and that I would ask in the office the best way to get to the VA hospital. As I turn to the building, he starts to walk away. I wonder if he is leaving, but check my wallet first and then my pocket for change. He sees me digging and slumps perceptibly when I put away my wallet, turn back toward him, hand extended with a few coins.

“You know it’s a help, big man. God bless,” he says as I give him the change.

“Go down to Fourth Avenue,” I say, pointing toward the mountains, “and then follow the street that way,” pointing again, “under the tracks. You’ll be downtown then and the transit center is just a few blocks from there. They’ll tell you how to get to the VA hospital, if there are buses running that way during the strike.” 

Shit, I think, that’s right. There’s a transit strike that has limited buses to all but the most necessary routes. He’ll be lucky to find any way to get to the VA. I tell him this. His expression doesn’t change with the news. He looks at me kindly, with a hint of something – pity? compassion? – smiles, and turns. 

He waves goodbye, his back toward me, already hunkered down into his journey and walks off, away from the mountains, in the wrong direction, as I stand there, briefcase in hand, still watching him, wondering if I should drive him, at least to the transit center, or give him the ten in my wallet, or offer to look at his bike to see why it locked up, but instead I open the door and slip into my air conditioned office and make a list of the things I need to finish today in order to keep my job and maintain a delicate, invisible veil between me and the street, me and raw grief for strangers, me and the people who fell from the sky in clouds of pulverized concrete and steel girders, me and this strange, helpless need to do something. 

I keep wondering about the hole in that man’s chest, now swept away by the tides that rise and ebb in my own. Now if the rain would just fall, in curtains, for days.