Thursday, June 29, 2017

Provisions for Winter, The Red Queen, and Rifle-Plates: A Report from The West

From my journal, in process of developing a magazine piece, dated 2012:

     It's not a twenty-five pound weight vest, but at eight pounds each both plates add to the workout. The sixteen pound vest of armor plates doesn't breath well, and the extra weight of a medical kit and a radio don't help. The plates under the rough Cordura fabric will stop a steel-core 30.06 round, however. It's a hot, heavy, sweaty comfort. After the climb, sitting on the rocky hillside, watching the road below, I wonder how it got to this.

     Last summer, we had a guest we never met. For months my dogs would bark, and be answered by a single dog far out in the pasture. On various nights, we saw a flashlight moving through the uninhabited range, or a campfire. Both would be extinguished as soon as headlights or another light aimed their direction. This gave no comfort. There have always been walkers who came through the country afoot. Some going north for work, or south to take their money home. Others just on the bum, or just unable to handle the urban world, but they all passed on through, and often introduced themselves on the way. They rarely meant harm, they were just going someplace. To take up residence uninvited on someones place, with never a word of contact and an effort to hide, speaks to some illness of intention or nature. The last time that had happened, the man tried to kill my father with a stolen rifle when dad rode up on his camp.
     That had been in the days before cartels, and back-country meth cooks. In the days when a man on the run could still disappear in a different city, before surveillance cameras and facial recognition in every airport. So I spent some days searching, with a rifle over my shoulder and a pistol on my hip, for this person or persons. I laid up on the hills and glassed the country with binoculars, and I scouted waters. My intent was not to solve any question of why they were here, but simply to send them on their way to somewhere else. If that meant gunfire, then it meant what it meant. Who knows what would drive someone to the backside of a place only reachable by thirty-five miles of dirt road, and really, who wants to find out?
     I never did find whoever it was. They moved on rocks, and away from places easy to track, and they laid up hard in the day where they couldn't be seen. Eventually, the far-away dog stopped barking and the light stopped burning in the night. Part of me is glad, and part of me isn't. Both parts of me would have been very happy, then, to have these chunks of bulletproof ceramic I have now.

     A man I've known all my life, one by whose measure I judge others, has begun to travel this country with a gun again. After his war in Vietnam, he parted with the routine carrying or use of firearms, for the over-familiarity. Taking a pistol for companion again was not a decision he made lightly, or one he's not regretted to some extent. But, after finding one too many trespasser on his family's ranch, one too many shake-and-bake meth cook and one too many mobile lab, he couldn't not take responsibility for his own welfare.
     On the border, they have cartels but further norte we have wannabes, with dreams of glory and money. They are less organized, and less trained, than their heroes of Sinaloa, Juarez and others, but no less dangerous to the land-owners, travelers and workers of the backcountry. Anyone who's seen an episode of Breaking Bad is probably familiar with mobile meth labs, vehicles from cars to RV's purposed to contain the workings of a methamphetamine cook. Shake-and-bake cooks, on the other hand, have been far less presented in the media. Combining gourmet ingredients that include camp fuel, lithium from batteries, and crushed allergy pills in a container and shaking it up, aspiring narcos create a one-pot meth cook. If the container doesn't explode, that is. The risk of explosion leads some of them to drive out into the country to run their cook. Sometimes they just leave the cooking mixture on the side of the road and watch from afar. Both mobile and shake-and-bake cooks are perpetrated by the kind of people who will kill you for interfering. Local elements of larger groups, and the desperate, desirous up-and-comers who have dreams of easy highs, quick money, and perhaps greater things akin to the hermanos down south.
So maybe that's how it got to this.


     Then, there is another way to look at it. It has perhaps always been this way, and there was no “getting” involved. My grandfather carried a pistol in the backcountry, because there is often work to be done with one. Injured animals to put down, predators to stop in their depredations of livestock, more often than anything dramatic. But in carrying that pistol, he wasn't unknowing of the tools violent use. Born in 1906, leaving home in 1920 for a job behind a rifle in Arizona, he had killed men in self defense and maybe otherwise. Though his experiences elsewhere never followed him here, that's not to say it couldn't have happened. Not so long after my grandfather passed, my father had to shoot a man out here, in absolute self defense against an aimed thirty-thirty. My body-armor may tell a different story to the observer, but when the schizophrenic man with the stolen rifle raised it at my father, I wonder if dad wouldn't have been glad for some of his own?
     When I am out, either on the ranch or enjoying the wilderness in other places, I always carry a medical kit, and survival kit. Tourniquet, bandages, superglue, moleskin, oral rehydration salts, signaling tools, emergency shelter, parachute cord, a knife, and so on. I've rarely ever had to use any of it, but I still carry it because, as every philosopher worth his robes has said, shit happens. The gun is no different, nor the protection against it.
     As humanity moves forward, so do our technologies, and common tools. I've been told that I have no need for a semi-automatic rifle on the ranch, the erroneously called “assault rifle” being a military tool. My grandfather favored a Colt revolver and Winchester carbine for his ranch guns, just like popular images of the “classic” cowboy. Those tools were once at the cutting edge of military small arms, with extended capacity and much increased rate of fire. The difference? Time. My grandfather eventually switched from his Colt revolver to a war-bring-back German Luger in 9mm, that shot faster from a larger reserve of cartridges. Everything rolls on, and people adapt.
It's possible to create many questions about these things, questions of need, odds, and so on, but what do they achieve? There is a wisdom in this country, that what is, is. Questions become acts of denial, things that feel like action but are actually nothing close. Anyone who has lived out here very long, particularly anyone of second or third or more generation rural living, learns that you can talk yourself out of almost anything. Extra well-pipe costs money, so do spare leathers for the check valve, and do you really need them? Laying in extra tools, parts and supplies for a hard winter might be wasted if the snows never come and the roads never close. You might not need them, it is true, but no one knows what they really need until they need it. Out here, we try to keep as much of everything big and small on hand. More beans in the pantry, coffee can after coffee can of nails, bolts and screws, parts for trucks, and veterinary medicines most of us know how to dose for people too. Because we all know, it's harder out here than forty miles away in the land of paved roads and plenty. When the snows blow in deep, or the clay turns to bog in the monsoons, animals die for want of that extra feed or medication, and so do people. The only preventative? Have what you might need, and have it in spades.
     What is, is, and there's only to do about it what needs done. And that gets done with what is available. Fences get mended, cattle get moved, and we deal with drought, fire, and predation on whatever number of legs it comes on. Once there were no fences in this country, and the only thing that separated one man's stock from another was a brand, and a particular way of whittling an ear. Then barbed-wire got strung taught across miles of cedar fence posts, defining the edges of each man's range. Aermotor windmills started giving way to submersible pumps, and while that generator was running we strung up some electric lights too. Then those who could afford it started flying over their lands and herds in ultralights and helicopters, counting head and killing coyotes and wolves from the air. Numbered ear tags replaced ear marks, and then fencing got done with steel posts. The generators got replaced with power-line drops, or solar panels, and the kerosene lamps put away for emergencies. Now you can run your ranges with drones, and tag your stock with RFID tags that can be scanned on the go. Ranches across the west have motion activated yard lights and security cameras. Trail-cameras are placed as much to watch for people as to track stock and predators. And the bandits that gave rise to the brands and the fences in the first place? They care less about cattle now. Their interests are in the remote places, far from governing eyes, for cooking, weighing, cutting, counting money or butchering their enemies. And those who already live there? We're just in the way. So if we add body armor and AR-15's or AK-47's to the tools of our trade, we're just keeping up. Doing what needs done, with what is available. Like our fathers and grandfathers, laying in what might be needed for a winter that no one could say was going to be easy or hard.  

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Man Comes Around


     It rained that Tuesday. The gutters overloaded and filthy water washed up over the curbs. The club hadn't opened yet, and the few within were still, watching the rain. It streaked the one-way reflective front windows. A woman beneath a large black umbrella stopped and checked her hair in those windows. Once sure the rain hadn't mussed her hair too greatly, she hurried on.
     The piano player was oiling the dark wood of his instrument. Most of the lamps were off and the empty barroom was hung with grays and cool blues of wet light. From where Lou watched, the piano player, sleeve of his white shirt billowing at the garter, was almost silhouetted against the front windows. Lou liked the man, and his quiet dedication to his work.
     The piano player stood straight, cloth in his hand, and looked out the windows. “It's going to be strange” he said without turning.
     Lou wasn't sure what the man meant, “Strange?”
     “Without you running the place.”
     “Oh. Yeah, well. Who's surprised, eh?”
     “Oh, no one”, the piano players tone was coolly even, “but it will still be strange.”
     Silence hung in the room, and the rain rose then to fill the emptiness with its battering. Large drops shook the windows, maybe the whole building, with their force. The piano player gathered his materials and went into the back room.
     Lou started to make himself an old-fashioned. He called to the piano player, “You wan'a drink?”
     “I'm alright, Lou” the other man said from just behind him. Startled, Lou slopped the bourbon a little. The man moved so quietly.
     “What are your plans?”
     Lou sipped the drink, “I'm going down to the coast. My sister left me a place down there, and I've never really used it. Be good to now.”
     “They'll send the man around.”
     “They don't know about the place” he sipped more, and stood silent, rinsing the liquor across his tongue, for a long time, “but yeah. They'll send the man around.”
     The piano player nodded, “Ya know, Lou, while you've got the stuff out, I think I'll have that drink.”

     The dock was cold. To the south the water was tossed gray, capped with dingy white. The sky another layer of the same, muted gray across the expanse of ocean, below closer pale gray clouds. The piano player flexed his hands, enjoying the leather of his gloves on his knuckles. He felt good. The salt in the air teased his taste buds. The cool temperature was refreshing, and he enjoyed wearing the wool coat.
     “Do you travel much” the woman asked.
     “No. But I always enjoy it when I do” and he kissed her. She giggled and did feminine things with her eyelashes at him.

     Lou opened the door, and started to smile at the familiar face. The piano player waited until Lou's face had fallen before smiling back.
     “So, it's you.”
     The piano player stepped into the cottage, brushing past Lou, observing the emptiness.
     “It was always you?”
     “Yes. Always me, Lou.
     “You've known me a long time.”
     “I have. You were a good man, for a long time.”
     “Now I ain't?”
     “Now you're not.”
     Lou looked fat, and sullen, and old. He felt it too. The piano player killed him, quietly, and left. The breeze was still blowing in off the water, cold and salty.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

In April

10-April-2013
Gavin, Raylan, Cole, Aiden, Connor. These are the names we've talked about. I've been taking turns calling the son in her belly by each, and she laughs at me each time. She laughs, but we ruled out a few that way in less than six hours. She is beautiful when she laughs, and shakes her head, ducking eyes and chin in denial of being called beautiful. Bulbous she says. Beautiful, I say, only more so with the son of many names in her belly.
Last night on the phone she told me she loves me. We'd hung up, and I'd whispered in the darkness and continued to drive. Then she called me back, her voice rich with confession and fear. The same voice I'd heard just a few mornings before with news that could take the shine off any new penny. I tensed, and I waited, while the darkness raced away above and ahead of me for eons, and she said “I love you”.
These are not the same woman. Both have a baby in their belly, one might be mine, the other definitely not. To say that I am lost would be a lie, I know exactly where I am. Sitting in a room, in a falling down house, drinking beer and smoking. Miles from a woman I loved, full up with a son that is either mine, or not. More miles from a woman I love increasingly, her body more stranger than friend to mine, also pregnant. I am also terrified.
I could raise a son, a half of divided parents who still like one another but who burned love down and pissed in it's ashes. I could love a woman having a child not my own, her child a part of her I could love as well. I do not know if I can do both of these things at once.
The past year has plumbed the depths of my strength, and found the places where I fail. Where I draw into myself, and cannot get the work done. Where I slob for a time, or drink, or simply sit and think too much. I found those places on my own, fighting to keep a relationship that had turned to poison, and sacrificing a business, and anyone who wasn't her. I found the place where I scream insults, and the terrifying moment where she puts her arms over her head and cries “Don't hit me!” when that was the last thing on my mind but only I knew that. I built a library of things to play over in my head, and wish and hate and fear about and at. All that, I found under the weight of just me, just fading love, just a terminally ill family member, just a business, just two-thousand acres of ruin. And now, here I stand, about to have a son. In love with a woman who is growing full and luminous with child of her own. Every waking breath is full of fear, and every sleeping dream full of twisted apparitions that bring waking.
We'll find out the paternity in three days, or five. Friday, or Monday, when the results come in the mail. When I'll know if the son in her belly is mine as well. For months now, all five months, I've prayed in that hobbled way atheists do, that it was mine. For reasons of faith, in myself above all others, and reasons of deep primal urges. The same urges that sang high when I emptied myself deep within her, shriek and wave in monkey-like demand of satisfaction. Because I have never let go of anything, without leaving deep claw marks in it. And now, for all that, I am desperate in my hope that it is his instead. My best friend, her man now. I want the names she and I discussed to be not my decision now, but his. I am ripped down the middle by fear, and love, and desire. I am the anti-Buddhist in this, moved by all the desire of the kingdoms of men, and all the fear it breeds. And I am not lost, I am right here.


16-April-2013
On the train headed home now. Watching the city I love roll away, and knowing I'll never be here for any of the same reasons again. Two years ago she moved up here, rich with the beginnings of a car full of belongings and sunshine on new walls. Two years now, and I'm moving on. I was never here, in the ways I should have been, and never there like I needed to be. Two years torn between living. Riding this train back and forth, and now riding it away. It's not that last time I'll ride, and not the last time I'll be here, but the last time for any of the old reasons. The sun is high and bright, the air clearer than yesterday, and I am clean as I've ever been.
The baby in her belly is not mine. We got word late in the day, yesterday, and I felt the line go taught and then rip away. The last hold between the great love of my middle twenties and wherever it is I'm going now. I cried, and left four knuckle made cracks in the doorframe, and then I joyed and shook loose and clean. I bought whiskey, and smoked cigars, and spoke into the darkness and light of miles of copper and fiber. I told the far away woman, also growing and beautiful, that I was loose upon the stones, and headed her way.
Going through old writing, I found a poem I'd forgotten from years ago. And I'd written there about the pack I've worn on my back, the last seven years now. It was newer then, less taken to the ends and depths of everything, and at the time so very empty. It's been filled, and emptied, and torn and sewn again and again since then, and now it has been replaced. Two days ago I bought another, newer and better. The old pack, I bought to go to Georgia, and the new one I bought to go there once again. In that old poem, I wrote
“If I had something to pack
and somewhere to ride
and a pair of arms waiting for me at the end
I’d be rich”
and now I see that I am. Whatever comes.

I am here in April, a spring month, returning to center, stripped away and moving forward. I'll never be a man who practices clean living, but I am cleaner now and it's beginning to feel very good.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Weight of Her That Would be Familiar in my Hands

My friend Amanda walked into my hotel room the other night. Through the door and past the foot of the other bed, never waking the other friend sleeping there. She sat on the foot of my bed, the weight of her that would be familiar in my hands, pressing down the soft mattress. Dressed in white, she smiled and spoke. Not hearing her, I raised up, turning my ear to the fullness of her lips. Still not hearing her, I looked and of course, she wasn't there.
She was seventeen or just barely eighteen when we met. She worked at the coffee bar on campus, and was beautiful in ways that made me afraid. I bought coffee, kept my eyes down, and only looked up again to watch her from far away. Friends sat at the bar, I sat with them, and I made friends with the girl on the other side. We walked, sat together and bellowed “Damnit, Janet!” and “Slut!” during Rocky Horror, played naked in the Rio Grande. She called me Cowboy. She was my roommate for awhile, and there were nights we drank in the kitchen, laughing and dancing, and nights she sat on my bed, half naked in my arms, weeping. Some nights, the same nights. She taught herself Latin, because she wanted to, and worked leather in her spare time. I've missed, for years and all the worse now, a leather armband she made me and I lost somewhere. Often I watched her start dancing alone, in dark and in the light, and bring the whole room around, everyone moving and laughing.
I have so many memories, they out number the glitters of fast clear waters. Of her laughter, of her small hands improperly but enthusiastically wrapping my Forty-Five the day I taught her to shoot, of her body, her mind and the whispers from her lips. I remember her so many ways, and among them, under dark clouds. When you're nineteen, there are days that are so fucking hard it hurts just to be alive. They are, until you're actually an adult leading a grown-up life and find out different, the worst. I was there to see Amanda have some of those days, and I remember times when, in the face of all else, she could cheer herself up by getting dolled up. She'd come into the house trailing dark fumes, only to go into the bathroom and start putting on makeup, and come out smiles.
One night this past July, in the little travel trailer she'd gypsied across more than a few states in, Amanda cleaned herself up, stripped to her most beautiful state, put on her makeup and lay down naked and shot herself in the head. She was happy, as far as anyone knew, and had plans with friends for the days that followed. Long ago I came to love the questions in life, and since I've been glad of that, because there are damn few answers.
I had grown a bit distant from her by the end, but had often had the thought that, as interesting as she was now, not even twenty-five, she would be fascinating in her thirties and beyond. If you keep a list of things you'll never see, it will always run ahead and outstrip the list of what you have. It is best to not take an account, but the hand is forced at times. Having been distanced from her, by other loves and an impatience with certain immaturities, there are parts of her living that were unknown as well, but that is so different. With the living you can, at the least, always turn and find that they are somewhere, familiar and breathing. The dead are the emptiness in our panning of the crowd. You can't roll back the days and go to her, tell her you love her or ask her why. This is universal, an unwritten law of physics: The mechanics of dealing with it.

As we get older, we suffer less for childish pettiness and the immature anguishes of our late teens and early twenties. Not that we suffer less, but we suffer less for the cheap and bullshit things that once seemed so important. In this still young awareness, of our selves, of the important, we see those who've been there with us for so long. Some people and ideas never last, they fall aside as we move forward, while others stay. The lessons we learn from those people are what has carried us, and if we are lucky, there are a few people who are still there when we get here.
Amanda was the second of my friends to die, in as many months. Paul, a friend and mentor, passed away unexpectedly the month before. And just a couple weeks before that, two of my dogs were poisoned. This summer has been a wave of absence, days on end of looking expectantly and adjusting to the emptiness in rooms, corners and telephone lines. Empty hands wrapping around formless air, in hope of the shapes and weight of the familiar.
I keep finding out that it is in the autumn when the lessons of the past year begin to sink in. This is when I grow, realign, and drive anew from experience. This is when everything comes, on turning leaves and cool eddies of air, from event into learning.
What I've learned now is something I'd long parroted in my own head, but which now is mine. I own this knowledge, as we all must. This is all very fleeting. The beautiful and the ugly, the naked, the clothed, the loved, the hated. You aren't here for long, and they are here for less. Tear off big pieces, splash in the waters, and drink mouthfuls of whatever tastes good. You cannot structure, moderate, or responsible death into abatement. You cannot abstain enough to not die. Abstinence and structure are the nature of death, as it is the only promise, the only fixed thing. We live within it's confines, and that is structure enough. All you can do is live.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Train

I'm falling in love. Sometimes I fall fast. Sometimes I fall slow. Most times, I can't tell. This is one of those times. I've fallen in love with the train. Its stinking, roaring, mass hurtling along has charmed me, taken from me, opened my eyes and given to me. The train is filled with humanity, all its trash, stories, tears, smells, hopes and inescapable realities. When we ride, we go with people we might otherwise never meet, companions we would never choose on the road. The train does not follow the roads though, it is the disruption and ruin of roads, and travels its own line. A line fixed in place, spiked to the earth in case it might otherwise try to move, because the places it runs are not necessarily kind or wholesome. The rail is fixed to places of waste, degradation and abandonment, thus passing tie by tie across truth and among beauty. Things otherwise unseen.

When I get on, I see the old man sitting by the window across the aisle from where I like to sit. I say old, but he is anywhere from forty to eighty. His skin is pale, a melanin rich hide disused to the sun. His clothes, a white wife beater and blue shorts lay over him with a looseness of hand-me downs, or lean times. We talk, eventually, and he tells me today is his first day on the outside in nine years. He doesn't say what he was down for, but he shows me drawings he did while he was inside. They are all for his daughter, made in the half-light glow of the block after lights out, with the stubs of golf pencils hidden by day. Pencils were contraband he tells me, and it was hard drawing with only the last inch or so. The sketches are masterful, of beautiful Hispanic women, their long flowing hair drawn across the entire pages. There the graphite is laid on in fine long strokes until it shines and has the texture of hair. Across cheeks, it is carefully smudged and erased, to give blush and dimple to the faces. Each sketch is a different size, on torn pieces of copy paper and blue lined notepaper. He speaks with pride, and confidence, of the making of the sketches, the stealing of paper and pencils. When he says he's going to give them all to his daughter tonight, his voice shakes and his eyes wet, though only the smallest amount.
While we're talking, I take off my glasses to wipe away some dust, and he see's the birthmark, a single dark freckle really, below my left eye. He touches his teardrop tattoo, and with a smile tells me I have the killers eye. I have no hope, I gave it up, so I just nod and say maybe.

The pale gray concrete ties, in multitude beneath the rail, are as bones of some ancient colossus windswept from dark volcanic sands. This is a desert carved out of another, the railroad right of way barren and scattered with the loose debris of industrial function. Between the rails like ribs, and the cottonwoods, this journey is a skeletal one. The trees in summer have burned, and not regrown. In the coming winter, they will be barren and stark white. In ancient graves are the altered forms of children, held from birth to be sacred offerings, their bones twisted and misshapen by bindings. These trees are like those bones, nothing that can be known beforehand, all angles different, unexpected and sinister. The rail is ordered, a mechanistic cruelty. The trees are laughter, along the river, their ghastly twists natural and always returning to leafy greenness. There are bones, and then there are bones.
There is a lie beyond these windows, that we free of the signs of human presence. Yet it is that very thing we ride in and atop. The train does not move through empty wastes, but rather is and is surrounded by the debris of people. Broken and thrust from the sand, like more old bones, gas station drink cups, broken electronics and indistinguishable refuse. These things scatter the holy lands, beside sheep carcasses and car bodies burnt and rusting. Are these things bereft of meaning, apostasies in the sacred dirt for not being killed pots or real bones? Or are they the only objects which carry the human truth?
No land is a waste, until someone sets foot on it and declares it so.

Along the train tracks there is much truth in the land, that protected yet rarely inviolate right-of-way. Down against the bricks and among the weeds are beds of rotten cloth, soiled sleeping bags and scavenged foam. The very same materials as beds of plenty, but stripped apart and ruined, brought down to fluid stained fundament. In some of the beds are actual bones, decorated with jerked strips of failed flesh. The winds will open these bundles, and play the weightless, waterless, lifeless tatters. Prayer flags for still living losers, asleep in stolen beds, the spirit of the dead ground into the remnants beneath them.
These things are beautiful, and I am glad to see them, these gifts of loss and misery. I would not be able to, if not for riding the train. This great machine, this diesel devil, iron horse, this beast of will and smoke. I am in love with this thing, in its beauty and filth, for all it passes through, and all it carries.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Meaning in Accident

There is a piece of clay in my house. About the size of a Kiwi fruit, and shaped vaguely like one that's been a bit squashed. It is dingy-white and red, a natural clay found not far from here, and harder than stone. Never having seen a fire, it was age that hardened it. Being worked, at a nearby clay works, it was one day dropped and never again picked up.
In its surface, indented a small depth, is a perfect human thumbprint, its whorls and ridges as hard as the hubs of hell. A thousand years and change, and the thumbprint is perfect to the touch, not mating with my own but rough against it. A human presence, physical, warm if left in the sun, cold if left in the shade. To touch the dead, all I have to do is turn to the cabinets and take down this artifact. To touch the living, all the dead have to do is wait. What meaning exists, must exist in accident. Nothing with purpose could carry so much weight.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Language - Stephen Fry, with Kinetic Typography

I rarely post others content here these days, trying to avoid lazy posting (lazy posting, or no posting, quite the dilemma), but this is delightful and I anticipate the small audience I have here will appreciate it.
Do take the time for it, please. I took the time to let it load on a 36Kbps dial-up connection, with less stability than Libya, and it was worth it. I'll have to download the whole original audio at some point as well.