Down a steepening path of dust broad as a Viking’s oath we trod toward the “secret waterfall” in Auburn that my friend little Michele had been guided to by a previous explorer who would sling his canvas hammock in the cool mist above a dewy pool, and there meditate until darkness overwhelmed the scene. Several times as we wandered our way to Codfish Falls, Michele was moved to cry out “I love you, river!” to the marvelously green-going glassy water, a deep turquoise vein of living rock brushed by a wet cloth, the cleansing hand as imbued with caring as any docent’s. Our path was crested on the left by a grassy cliff descending to a rivulet that seemed no more than a blue-green thread of film thrown down among shadows. To our right almost the whole way of a good hour’s tromp lifted nearly vertical hillsides absolutely on fire with proud California poppies.
Have I told you about the California moon? Dawn comes on only resentfully, fully yellow, pushing the august moon offstage the way an old farmer shoos geese with his pitchfork. There are too many things to do, one cannot stop and look at the ice on the brown puddle, or listen to how the insects stir from their short hibernation in the patient grass. Dawn has huge fiery buckets to slop into the feed trough, a blazing motorcycle headlight pouring into the billion open eyes of chlorophyll nature covers her body with. We cover our bodies with a closetful of clothes, locking our senses away, letting our buttons and hands do all our feeling for us. Feet are like the moon, shoved absent-mindedly into socks, belted into shoes, away from distractions, and made to work like yoked oxen all day, their horns turned earthward, their steps undancing. All day the unnoticed moon pulls on us, palely flat in the blue, or rowing behind a cloud. Only at dusk, when the sun lifts from your neck like a burning chain unharnessed, the click and unclasp of an iron ring, do you lie down flat on the porch, letting a tendril of air under your collar–just a little, with your boots kicked off.
You wake up with a start. It is dark out, you think it is dark. Your back–having borne many burdens–creaks, or the planks creak, releasing the sour witch Sycorax from her prison pinned in a pine-knot among the floorboards. The moon, all day absent except for her gentle mother-tug, and who prefers rock darkness, has flown up over the hill and is white. White as a bridal gown held by its hanger as the bride runs away. But dawn remains on the moon’s back, laying his long chains of light, keeping his fiery eye on us, even in sleep. And the moon works to throw him off, to finalize the divorce, stop the beatings, and grows herself darker as the month passes, shaking her golden back like a retriever running to shore, the shot-gunned mallard in her gently cradling teeth, the water going everywhere as dreams.
She tiptoed to try the echo And made the chasm squeak. I called down my monotone, Parked with my pack upon the peak. Call on call the afternoon Condensed to a tuneful word, Until valley voices volleying Us was all we heard.
Shy to the point of disappearing in an unreconstructed squeak, little Michele is also, in the street parlance of our day, something “fierce.” Hair blonde as beer, a feisty blue-eyed five foot nothin’, little Michele, once you are within the circuit of her active care and attention, comes on as strong as a rap star. More than a few have suggested I start shoutin’ out “L’il Michele” and flashing a gang sign when I tell her tall tales. She has something of Paul Bunyan’s broad shoulders in her lack of compromise, her embittered bravery and willingness to out-face the rules of “Life, so-called.” And something in her, too, as whimsical and saddish as any Blue Ox quietly scraping an itch on the side of the Pecos. She’s the unquestioned queen of another realm, a place of endless wealth and sex, whose passport is stamped in feminine giggles and a toss of her hair. But woe unto the trespasser, the pusher of gates, the brash bandito who lays no homage at the queen’s pale feet! Then the countenance of a Sphinx looks down, carved by blood-sweat and seen in terror-dreams since the before-times, an unforgiving myth whose riddle may make Death your next meal. And no help from those high eyes lost in profound shadows of her own thoughts! No mercy, no mincing giggle or long-prepared appeal to a less-than-celestial court will avail. Those justices, those mysteries are her own book, written with exact clarity in a dainty executioner’s hand–the day-glo notebook doodled with daisies.
I’ve been here a long time already, asking what it means and not knowing. My friends turn up their faces in friendly expectation when I turn toward them, a bubble at my lips, words about to float off from their silent home in my belly, where I keep a small coal guarded that only one wizened Tibetan knows about. Only a mountain wind can flare the small coal alive, the whip end of a lank donkey-tail. I put my hand into the bowl of spicy peanuts instead of speaking, swallowing the bubble, its spices breaking on my tongue.
Michele is introducing me to her Sacramento cohort, fine folks with a range of faces. Stories get told, introductions and fabled embarrassments. Stories whose intricate inner emotional edge little Michele could recall in almost infinite detail, her hands sailing the topography of the conversational arena like Einstein mapping out the first square of timespace in his mind. Everyone is politely greedy to know how Michele and I first met, what windswept moor or blurred stage-set of the past first let us see friendship as our kismet. “At a bookstore where we both worked.” “He had a rock and roll poetry vibe.” “She was so shy, I just had to know her.” “The way her hands leapt and almost clapped when she said ‘poetry.'”
How does a crow grow a nest for its dark life? Day after day over the empty fields, here a glitter, there a glint of something draws the wings to its sides to plunge earthward. The black head cocks to one side, and a bit of foil shimmies into its beak. Somewhere in the crow an egg is waiting, to be laid, to be hatched. But day after day there are the empty fields, flying alone, resting on other people’s fences, as here and there in a hedge a stick cries out “pick me up.” And we have a life we do not understand but that is our own life, a speckled egg glowing down among the sticks our beaks have gripped.
Tonight is a simple time of rain. Rare on this California visit, which has been clear and cool every evening, a weatherman’s suicide note written in stars and slow-moving clouds. But tonight there are wet voices, small bodies smashing themselves on the roof to get in, to have a quiet talk. The drops, which disappear on my fingertips, when seen in their steady-state are sweet berrylike beings whittled at their tips, each one hand-carved for the occasion. If I let them in, what would they say to me? Would they wonder how the rainfall inside me stays caught, a bag of water smoking a pipe? I hear, above the muted violence of their splatter, how they are whistling as they come down, firemen down a firepole blowing high-pitched life through their nostrils. When morning arrives and our convocation has dissolved, I walk out a few miles into the clear cool morning. One block over a house has burned down in the night; it is all foundations now, soaked, empty as a blackboard before the teacher hangs up her coat and tucks her damp umbrella between the wastepaper basket and the old metal desk.
The sinuous pipe smoke rises beyond me, forgetting its warm origin in my mouth. Now it is becoming many different shapes as the indecisive breeze takes it. Eventually, it is a smear on the ceiling, or the tasty tail of a raincloud.
It is so difficult to maintain one’s dignity. No matter how much one tries to strut and swat water like a swan, white feathers impeccable, your beak held proudly as a conductor’s baton one second before the first momentous downstroke evoking symphonies, the ugly duckling is still there within us, quacking a sour note. My body is too puffy, and that crooked beak!
There’s this crummy pub at one end of some town in Marin, I forget the name of the town. Basically, it’s a crappy shack stuck between a holistic aromatherapy candle repository and a henna tattoo specialty shop. Called blandly “The Pub,” it has a large long crowded smoking porch out front that looks onto tan joggers and the strolling street life of a cute suburban square. In the way back, through a crooked corridor where the creaky bathroom door blasts open at unexpected intervals, there is another porch, small and dingy, with ashtrays piled like Cambodian killing fields, railed in with a high rail that interferes with an instructive view of the neighbor’s laundry.
This is a place where you can drink hard and stumble home, smoke your sins, and chuckle at the shaggy dog tales of the other anonymous patrons. The patrons remain anonymous, no matter how long you have made this backwater your stopping place, or how many scratch games of checkers or chess you have played with the cracked queen, her red crown missing a fang, because here beer is the sanctified libation, and your community with the other patrons extends only to the fact that you want to forget your life for a few smoke-filled hours while the sun drowns itself in the Pacific.
On the cash register that rang up my Dutch sourbeer earlier is scotch-taped Woodie Guthrie’s quip: “This machine kills fascists.” It was stuck there by a bored and attractive young employee who mocks all who she meets: consumer, client, co-employee, unwinding expert, or dissolute layabout.
On my way back through the crooked corridor, I notice tar leaking from my pipe; it lays a dark stain on my left index finger warmed by the ignited bowl. The ship’s hold of my lungs are leaking tar too, I know, into the cold ocean of death, the black outer water lapping. The small back porch is dark now, with a lone low light swinging from a wire. My rumpled ballcap waits in a swayback chair for me, my whistle whetted, the Red Hen British brew in my hand already half sucked down.
A wrong turn bounces the borrowed car onto a riverbed of Old West cobblestones. Buildings around my bubble of idling modernity exchange their sheets of non-committal waterfall glass for wooden faces straight out of a John Wayne movie. I am lost in an antique downtown scissored into a maze of one-way streets under the immense shadow of interstates overhead whose omnipresent ramps lay in wait to whisk the unwary explorer to unlabeled otherwheres in a wink. I have taken a wrong turn into the past, rolling into the Twilight Zone with a cracked windshield and a slipping transmission. This is a ghost-town, large as life and stuck like a sepia stamp onto this forgotten corner of downtown Sacramento. One lone cowpoke leans with leathery authority against a post outside the General Store. I can just see a pickle-barrel and bags of flour piled in the doorway’s shadows behind him. Next to the General Store there’s a blacksmith shop and livery stable, but no horses lounge at the hitching rail shooing flies. Perhaps the four-footed citizens of this past have been seduced onto the open road by the interstate’s hydra-headed entry ramps, just as I have been sluiced to the sidelines to find myself in this pond of the previous century-and-a-half–a pond so still its surface refuses to reflect the curious face bent close, for the tar-dark waters have been sprinkled with a fine, obscuring dust. I let the car decelerate the last mile-per-hour as if letting time out of the tires, dropping the reins until the old gal finds a spot to stop. I crane my neck and periscope around, disoriented and downtrodden. Worn saloon doors swing empty in the empty breeze. Time’s sandglass lies on its side, being without advancing. Perhaps there is something for me here; something in getting lost and in staying lost. Something in Old Sacramento where the wind plays with my untucked shirttail and my glasses slip on the sweat of my face. Something. I almost feel the false assurance of meaning patting my back. But then I realize, unstuck in time as I am, that I do not know where “here” is.
Out of the grass, Walt Whitman! You and I have much to say together. Finely and carefully let us comb our words. Let your beard grow mossy and uncut! I dance in these grasses as the moon dances. Each leaf unfurls individual as a middle finger: "Fuck you! I am that I am," as the Lord sayeth. To me each leaf is a clear word whispering. Together our tide is slowing rising, Lapping, lipping, leaping the grains of the shore. Almost it is sunset between us, as it was dawn Heretofore. Almost, Walt, you come To know my name. Almost, I have found where you are waiting.
The drive out happens in this flattening heat. Dust like a cropduster’s dust sprays out from behind the old Dodge Dart, the windshield cracked and unprotected by tape or attempts at repair. The dashboard is hard and shell-like, a dead wing flitting hotly along in the dirt. Waves of super-heated air present several horizons to the naive eye, all orange, dividing downness from the timid blue of the skies. Trees, anchored in some undetectable gush of water, watch us skip by like a flung stone. White lines on the highway, tell-tale twine slyly paid out by an Indian captive, suggest a direction. I roll up the string until my hands are mittened with it, cocooned in the silky substance, a white ball of light in my hands. Abandoned fruit stands, side-drifted lean-tos, stand up like unattended mailbox flags in front of the rusted field tractor, ticking unmoving in the pan-fry temperature. The fields sizzle with grain, matchsticks ready for sudden illumination. When the salt drops come to sting my eyes, I cannot wipe them away my hands are so full, my heart set on Half Dome, the crunch and shuffle of a good long hard hot walk, the stiff curtains of cliff after cliff, maybe the shifting curtains of Bridalveil Falls already lifting its cool tassels…. I crack a smile and stick my head out the roll-down window to dry off.