1968 Zen was in. I tried without success to master ‘living in the now.’
1998 Now, of course, it is simple. Living in the now obviously was a concept conceived by old men. I am 56. I live in the now… in the dark shadow of the immense labyrinth of the past… crammed up tight against the stone wall of no future. I live in the now. I am the perfect Zen master.
Certain days I go into the maze. What is real there? I don’t recognize myself or even you. A multitude of tiny deaths have altered us, diminished some aspects… increasing others.
In the hallways I see my face or the face of who I once was. I don’t know her. And what about now? Am I the spawn of that dead creature in my mind?
November 21, 1997 at 12 noon in Philo, California my heart stopped up. Like a fist in the chest squeezing, squeezing the life out of me.
I became someone else again. On November 22 I was not the one you saw before high noon the day before. I am like the drunk in a bar when they flick the lights at 1:30.
Now I am a heart attack survivor. I’ve got a new boogie man.
July 5, 1978, Moab, Utah 7am. Breakfast rush in the Junction Café: He (my father) must have been about my age, 56. His hair was finally gray. He was not bald, not even thinning, but his beautiful wiry black hair had turned gray. When did it happen? Suddenly, I think. It just happened. One day he was young and then he was not.
He was drunk the night before. In my mother’s bar next to the café. I don’t think he slept all night. When everybody left the bar too drunk to walk, he stayed there. Alone. Still drinking. Thinking about all the bad things he knew. All the bad things he had ever done. He called my sister in Montana at 2 am. He told her how sorry he was that after he divorced Peggy he never came to see her. He never sent any money to buy them clothes. Oh, he did go back once. He had forgotten, but my sister remembered that day forever. The day he came back. She was going see her Daddy again. He flipped her a quarter and told her to go outside. He wanted to talk to her mother alone. She hated him for that. She will never stop hating him for it. He was sorry now. An old man. A gray haired man in his fifties staying up drinking and thinking of all the bad things he done. He didn’t want forgiveness… he told her. He just wanted her to hear him say he was sorry. She listened and wondered when or if he would ever call her sober.
He never did. He couldn’t say any of that sober. Couldn’t even say if he loved you.
He came to the café for breakfast looking like he often looked on Sunday mornings… A gray cast to his skin, his eyes congealed red and yellow. The lines of his life ruthlessly carved in stone. I was waiting tables. The regular waitress called at 5am to say her false eyelashes got stuck together in her sleep and her eyes were all weird. Whatever.
I saw him come in. It made me scared to see him after he drank. He wasn’t tough like he used to be. Like he thought he was.
He sat down at a table all the way in the front, by the jukebox. It was George Jones singing. “Today I started loving her again… I got over her just long enough to let the heartache mend, and today I started loving her again…”
The shift change from Atlas Minerals came in behind him. His table was full of happy back slapping miners bone tired and sharp clean from the showers. They just came up from hell on earth, half mile down into the hard red rock of the desert, into the dark and the methane gas and crushing weight of earth. When you go there you don’t know if you are coming back. Especially graveyard. Atlas always started new men on graveyard. Gets rid of the faint of heart quickly. There were more than a few who never got back into the bucket. Just turned around and went home. But these men went down, and now it was dawn and they lived to see another rising sun on the plateau. They were jubilant. Always jubilant at the shift change. The ones going down were somber, talking in low soft voices. Checking their lunches to see what was ahead.
Vic Thill was not jubilant. He was gray and hung over. He had found no sleep. No peace. No release.
“Do you want something for breakfast?” I asked him. “Bacon and eggs?”
“No. I’ll just have coffee and a piece of chocolate pie.”
I couldn’t believe he said that. Pie? Chocolate pie? Was that a good thing for an old man with a bad heart to be eating after he was drunk till 4am, exactly like Dr. Munsey had told him not to do?
I said, “Daddy, you don’t want pie do you? Eat breakfast.”
He gave me a cock eyed look. Pie. He was having pie. I got pie.
It made me nervous. It’s like he was trying to hurt himself. Testing. Seeing how far he could go with his body. I watched his back. I was behind the counter. He was over by the jukebox facing the window.
His back arched. He went rigid. His chair fell backwards. I ran to him. His lips were black. His faces was blue. I starting screaming. “He’s having a heart attack! He’s having heart attack! Help him! Help him!” I knew he was going to do it. I knew he was. Later when he came home from the hospital we were in the bar dancing. I said, “I felt like you did it on purpose. Why would you do that?”
He smiled down at me and swept me along to floor in his strong thick arms, “What exactly do I have to live for?”
What do you say when somebody says that to you? I didn’t say anything.
November 21, 1997, 2pm, in the hospital in Ukiah. I am hooked up to all kinds of things. In emergency. They give me a shot they call the clot buster. It will dissolve the clot, they said. It didn’t. If the clot doesn’t dissolve in 4 hours you get serious damage to the heart. It wasn’t dissolving. They were going to Medivac me to Santa Rosa. The helicopter was busy. Not available for several hours. The nurses looked worried. I told my old man I loved him and maybe goodbye. I watched the monitor and the faces of the technicians as they checked it. What does this mean? To die? It doesn’t hurt much. My heart. Oh it hurts, true, but I’ve been hurt way worse than this before. It doesn’t hurt that bad.
This is a dream I always had. It happened, really, in a way. I mean some of the facts are true. When my father was about 12 years old he was sent out by his dad to catch some plow horses in the pasture. This was in Glasgow, Montana, on land his daddy had homesteaded. Vic tried to sneak up on those horses in the grass because they were quick to run. A horse kicked him in the head crushing his skull. He was in a coma for two months. He lived but he had no bone in a sort of triangular one inch by one inch spot over his left eye. That is what happened. The rest is a dream.
This is the dream:
I am on the porch of an old wooden ranch house. I am watching a woman standing on the porch. She can not see me but I can see her. She is short . Her hair is tied back in a messy bun. She has a long skirt and a apron. Her hands are wound up in the apron front. She is straining to see something. Something she is afraid of seeing. But she knows, the way mothers know. She is my grandmother Loney. Out across the prairie someone is coming. Someone is walking and carrying something in his arms. She thinks it is her husband. He is carrying something. The way men carry dead weight. Maybe a deer. Maybe a boy.
She knows the way a mother knows.
He comes up, at last, and no sound is made. The air still. It is noon-day. The flies are hot and lazy, buzzing. The air intensifies and thickens and shatters like sudden broken glass implodes in upon itself. He throws the body down on the porch.
“He’s dead.” He says, “Horse kicked his skull in. He’s dead.” It was matter of fact. The man was my grandfather. A short French farmer with a square peasant face.
She started to scream. Scream like a woman who lost her child. “He’s not dead. Get the doctor. Get the doctor, Adolfe Thill, get the Doctor now!”
“Loney. Look at his head. Smashed. Boy can’t live like that. Be a vegetable even if he could.”
She wouldn’t stop. Screaming and screaming ‘til finally they got him to the doctor.
He was not coming back, the doctor said. He might never wake up.
A sleeping prince.
Then I was under the water. I was down in black water. It must of been off Antarctica. It seems like I was there a long time. Like I was sleeping… sleeping for a thousand thousand years. I had no dream of waking. Still, I did wake suddenly because I wasn’t alone any more in the icy cold. I reached out and there it was. A corpse. A cold dead thing. It was a boy. Now I could see him.
I pulled him up. I started to pull him up out of the deep water. We were going up. We had to get out of here. He had to go. I started to sing, “Come on. Let’s ride. Come on. Let’s ride. Let’s ride that painted pony. Come on let’s ride. Come on let’s ride. I want to ride that painted pony.” I sent him back to the surface.
That was my father. I knew in the dream that someday I would be his child. If he could be kept alive. He was, after all, a fragile creature. I had to make him go up. To save him. We had a ride to go on a painted pony. We had a thing to do. A dance. Slow dance around the floor.
So that was a dream.
Some dreams must be told. Others don’t matter.
People ask me with true caring in their voices how I am doing. I am fine. As good as new, I keep saying. The Doctor tells me that. Yet he asks me if I have experienced any chest pains? Am I carrying my nitro with me at all times?
If I am fine why would he be expecting chest pains? Why would I need to carry nitro all the time?
You can’t get answers from these men. $160 for a ten minute consultation. They don’t think you’ve earned the right to waste their time with questions.
I have prepared for death since I can remember. It’s always been there. I was not quite a murder victim more than once when I was young. I came close to accidental overdose like any junkie. I was in my share of easily fatal car crashes. That was a different feeling. Like. “Okay, I lived. Now if I’m lucky I can go on for an infinite amount of time.” Living is fun. Even when its awful it’s fun.
When other people died I said goodbye but I did not mourn them because I knew I was just dying too. Maybe by accident, maybe by plan or maybe by neglect, maybe by old age, but it is only a matter of time. How much time? Still the same question. But more pressing. More immediate.
What is a chest pain anyway? Is that different from a heart attack? Is it a stabbing pain? Is it a crushing pain? If I had a chest pain would I know it?
(If you experience chest pain take one nitro tablet every five minutes for 15 minutes. If it doesn’t go away call the ambulance).
My father died of cancer not too many years after that heart attack in the café. His heart never killed him. It never even took the wind out of him the way mine took the wind out of me.