Sunday, November 25, 2007

They're burning the camp

"They're burning out the camp" said the young man. "Oh no" I replied, and asked if anyone had phoned the police, and did he want to use my phone to do so. He stared at me a moment and then said gently, "The cops are there. They're helping."

And yes, looking to the north and up into the hills I could see the plumes of smoke. My friend, who works at a local shop and is quick to make certain the coffee is on when I stop by in the morning with my mermaid cup, ready for the first jolt of caffeine, told me that the guy who'd led the police in on the "cleanup" was last seen throwing kerosene pretty wildly through the forest, making certain the damp woods, the sleeping bags, the blankets, the clothing, the papers and the piles of whatever was there caught a good steady flame.

My friend had to come down to work. He'd brought his puppy with him--a four month yellow and brindle mix of some unlikely dimensions and great size, with curling hair and a puppy's smile. Tank, the pup, was tied up outside, safe.

Later that evening, while the fires burnt on and on, I got more reports. Seemed the good citizens and their police friends had in fact missed a couple of the more remote homes, including that of my friend, his girl friend, and their pup. "I know better than to camp where I can be seen. You got to work and pant a bit to get to my place". And I was glad for that. I asked what remained of the burnt out sites; had anyone saved the sleeping gear or the tents. No, didn't seem so.

So I sat and thought about it, and tried to calm my heart, and began getting new blankets and warm coats ready.

That was the day that Kenny died. He'd lived in that camp at one time, and in another hidey hole down by the river. He was a striking dude when he first sauntered into my bookstore to check me out, a low to the ground, stout black dog named Digger at his heels, a battered cowboy hat on his head. His hair was black and grew to his waist. His eyes were shrewd and green, and I heard tell later that he'd been quite the ladies' man in his prime. He himself told stories of his 4 or 5 wives. Beautiful women, he said, were his weakness. And he'd peer at me significantly, trying to charm the bookstore lady as he'd charmed many a barstool companion.
He did charm my animals. The cats would sit on his lap and the dogs cluster at his feet. When Champ the pitbull joined the crew it was Kenny who told me stories of Champ's past. Like many of his stories they may simply have been good yarns, but they had the ring of truth. "Ah, you've tamed the beast, you have" he'd say. "That dog, trust me, he was a killer, and now look at him, meek as a lamb." Champ would wiggle with joy and smile.

Kenny was a drunk and an addict. In the years I knew him--ten or more years--I saw him grow thinner, more unsteady, more befuddled. He suffered head injuries dating from his time as a veteran, and more from beatings, falls, accidents. He did jail time. He went to rehab. He got sick, and sicker, and sicker still.

I was his address and his link to bureaucracies. Some of them helped, some didn't. Everyone tried.

I was also his bard, for early on, as he told me his adventures and as I learned of his situations when he wasn't around--in jail, in the hospital--I wrote a few columns about him for the county paper.

He loved being the hero of printed stories. After the first he'd announce himself with "I've come with another episode in the Saga of Kenny" and settle in his chair. Yes, he had a designated chair at the bookstore.

There was the time he asked for me to clean his injured head and give him a bandaid. The skull looked broken, and I made him go to the doctor, though he protested mightily. 17 stitches, and his head was never quite the same after that.

So, as I say, he died the day of the burning. I didn't know it. I learned about it later, after Thanksgiving.

And I sat down and cried and cried. Well, he loved my old yellow dog, Buddy, and old Digger is also dead. So I can imagine, with sentimental foolishness, that Kenny is hale and hearty and wandering some fine forest land, with a low black dog and a cheerful yellow one bounding ahead into joy.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

speech after long silence

"How does he look? Is his hair gray?" The phone call came from an acquaintance who had heard an old friend of mine had passed through town briefly.

I paused and thought a while; it has been a few years since I last saw him, and nearly a decade since he moved to another region, remarried, had new children. There was a time...well, it was long ago.

I said "yes, his hair is graying now, but he looks good". And indeed, the ones I love look perpetually beautiful to me; I am just not a terribly visual soul; I tend to see with the eyes of love, and those are unwavering.

To this brief visit he brought the oldest of the new children. The other children, the children of the first marriage, had been the ages of two of my own, and in those long ago days they were with me and my children day after day, extensions of my heart, as much my own as the children of my body. I had not met the first child of the new marriage, though I sent him, and his small brother, embroidered blankets when they were born, and their mother has sent photos over the years.

The little boy and his dad rushed into the shop as I was due to go out for a peace vigil. The father, as he always did, engulfed me in an embrace. The little boy stood quietly by. "Hello" said I, and told him my name, you must be...oh, let's call him James, which is not his name at all, and held out my hand. He gravely took it. A most polite child, the image of his older brother, who is now in college, save that he has his mother's fair coloring.

"She's been a friend of mine a long time" said his father.

The store was very busy, my partner not back yet from a visit to a friend in another town. My old friend and I spoke quickly of many things--the older children, the youngest child, with his mom in another state for a visit to her family. I helped the child find some interesting books. There is something of his grandfather in his eyes, I thought--I had loved that rough and ready guy tremendously, as well as his elegant wife. Both are dead now, but I could see flashes of the past darting like light over the six year old's face.

Time is a strange thing. My friend said he and his family are considering moving out of state, to be near his wife's family. That will be wonderful for your boys, said I.

I play music these days, at night, after everyone is asleep, he said. I drift off into that world--there's no pain there, there is beauty. I think of you, sometimes.

The little boy wanted to know why the dog wears a sock, and I told him Champ's story. My youngest child wanted to see his old friend--my friend was Gabriel's stalwart helper and champion in many ways, back when Gabe was tiny. I could tell James seemed puzzled--a big kid with Down Syndrome; might have been the first person he had met like this. I trust his father will explain. My friend said, "wow, last time he didn't have any facial hair at all" and Gabe smiled, for he is proud of his bit of pale fuzz.

And the phone rang, and my partner returned, and someone needed books on how to train dogs, and a kid I've helped came in to tell me he was out of jail, again, and to return the money he'd borrowed, and I needed to get to my vigil.

I wish we had a longer time to talk, said my friend.

I do too, I said. It is lovely to have met you, I said to James. You have your mother's beautiful eyes. Not that there is anything wrong with your dad's eyes, mind you.

My friend laughed, and left.

I found my peace signs and adjusted my black clothing and rushed out to my corner, apologizing to Sara for being late. And watched them drive away.

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Patch up these souls, please

He was wearing a top hat the last few days, jaunty atop his greying curls, a perfect image from Alice in Wonderland, dashing about the streets of this town, finding places to curl up and sleep in the bushes, raging at the stars.

"One of these days" said the blonde who works sometimes at the laundromat nearby, "someone will put him in the back of a pickup and tie him and beat him and no one will find the body. Good riddance, I say."

"That would be murder, and that would be wrong" I said, mildly, putting some blankets into the big washing machine.

"But no one would miss him"

"His parents might, you know they live down the street"

"Yeah, and he tried to kill them"

"Well, I don't know about that. You know, he's hard to take, but I might miss him"

The conversation wasn't going very far. I got the machine spinning and went back to my store. And it's not that my friend the blonde is fully unkind. After a very rocky start to our relationship, in which she tried earnestly to convince me that it was best to have folks freeze in the hills than try to help, she now and then slides into the bookstore when no one is around and hands me a bag of clean socks, or some wool sweaters. "Someone will need 'em. Don't like waste."

The thing is, there have been deaths. Murders. Beatings. Knifings. All in the beautiful little towns, in the forest lanes where the ravens look on, beside the green river.

The thing is, there are a lot of broken people. No, not all of them are without homes either.

My friend with the top hat once had a home, a kid, a family. He had a dog too, a yellow Staffordshire much like my Champ. I don't know his whole story of descent into whatever hell he is mostly in. I do know I felt very pleased the day, years back now, when he stopped for a moment to watch me plant petunias and said the first whole sentence I 'd ever heard him speak. This was after 2 or 3 years of my daily "Good morning, how are you doing?"

He said "My mom likes petunias too."

His mom does. She shares my love of flowers; I've always meant to ask her for some seeds of her broken-color four o'clocks; the sort my grandmother grew, which are so hard to find seed for these days. I grow yellow and fuschia and white ones, but all self-color. I have gazed enviously at her splotched and patterned flowers for many a summer now.

I went back to put my laundry in the dryer. "You know," I said, "it's not that folks like that guy really want to annoy or scare you. Think about..well, suppose someone had a broken leg and walked all slow and got in your way. Would you blame him? You might get all irritated, but you'd know he couldn't exactly run, right?"

She nodded.

"so, this guy had kind of a broken--I don't know, heart, mind, soul. And he gets in the way. "

I doubt I convinced her. Ah, but there are days I simply want to call down divine healing or choirs of angels, or devas, or whatever would work--I'm not even fussy about the name or the tradition. Just send some divine healing, okay? Patch up these souls. Free them.

The checker at the market said today "you know Sean? The one with the leafblower?" Yes, I do. The guy has driven me nuts for a few weeks. He has the loudest leafblower in the universe and has decided to make the world neat, being at the top of his manic cycle.
Well, he's in jail. Or with luck, being evaluated at the mental health hospital up north. But probably in jail. Broke out all the windows in a vacant restaurant. To free the air. I knew he was spiraling out--but there's no one to catch him. His sister owns a shop down the road, his parents are fine and well known and compassionate. No one could help.

I made a little trip--I don't have to go far--to the place a young guy enroute to his mom's house was beaten to death one thanksgiving some years ago. He'd spent his last day with me, listening to Mozart in the shop. We'd given him the blanket he died in. I was the last person to hear his breathing.
There is still a stain on the cement. I pass it nearly every day, but tonight I went there, and stood a moment, and said again "I am so sorry".

"I didn't plan on being homeless" says the tall dude who has asked for some raingear for weeks--and finally got some. "I know" I say, "life is odd, you just never know" "Got that right, sister" he says.

"Did you know some homeless people have dogs?" asks little Jessica, who is six, who has spent several days now hanging out at the shop. I affirm that this is so. "And some, like me, have kitties" she says, brightly. Right again. She's living in a van with her very young mother and father, and a kitten she dresses in doll clothes. The kitten has also spent a lot of time visiting, much to the interest of the store cats and Champ the pitbull. Jessica has instructed Champ very sternly in the best way to treat kittens. "You must never ever eat a kitten" she says. She was running a fever yesterday, but came by for early Halloween treats. Princess, the kitten, was dressed as a fairy princess.

"Do you ever just want to fly away?" asked Jessica, leaning her hot head against me. Sometimes I do, I said. Sometimes I do.

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