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    My third rule of happiness.

    My second rule for happiness.

    My first rule of happiness.

    Camarillo

    My grandfather’s wake was an unexpected event, coming quickly after a hospital stay ‘round Christmas of 2000 suddenly turned bad, in spite of what seemed to be an improvement in his condition. He was only running on a partial lung and that part was growing smaller and smaller with time, but tests indicated he was doing well. Until his scattered family was summoned to California.

    "You’d better get going now," my Uncle Joe insisted.

    We wouldn’t know it until we got to Camarillo, but he’d passed just about the time we’d made it to Bakersfield. My Aunt Kathy knew by the tone in my Uncle Terry’s voice that Grandpa Sandy had gone, but he didn’t say it and wouldn’t until we all met in the parking lot of some motel off the freeway.

    I broke down like a little boy. Under the clear California January’s night sky and its stars, recalling where the stars found me in the summer of 1975, when Grandma Gwen had died.

    There was no way he could bring up my sister Amy and I by himself. I don’t think he was of the mind to, then, anyway. I’ve always thought he’d needed to lose himself in the world for awhile, to rediscover himself in some new form in order to get by. Gwen wasn’t the first wife he’d lost. His life was full of loss. But, when he’d turned Amy and I over to Kathy after having taken us down to San Diego from Nevada at the end of that summer, I think that hurt him in a way he couldn’t mend, living the life of an unintended bachelor and pushed from us for our own good above his own. It had been pre-arranged as Gwen lie dying in the hospital in Lovelock, ridden with cancer. It would be the best life for us. When the time came, and he couldn’t know it until it did, he would roam Southern California in search of work and peace, moving back to Nevada after awhile when he couldn’t find what he was looking for, and even then failing until he returned to California in ‘77, soon to meet another lady — Carol — who’d remain with him until his death.

    The family gathered with Carol in her kitchen table, sucking down coffee and smoking cigarettes until late. I don’t smoke, so I’d have to hang back a little in a pocket of fresh air or I’d let myself out into the backyard, where Sandy maintained a garden of herbs and vegetables and fruit trees. A chef by trade, he enjoyed growing his own stuff. There was a hybrid citrus tree in which grafted branches of lemons joined those of oranges, and at the side of the house stood a big avocado tree, its fruit only obtainable with a picking tool that consisted of a small metal basket at the end of a long wooden pole. I’m sure there’s a proper name for the tool, but I don’t know it. You maneuver the basket onto the targeted avocado, twist to clip it from the tree, and bring it down. There’s something of a game to it, easily-won.

    I stood outside among the fruit trees, looking upward to the stars, then, wondering why Sandy hadn’t let me talk to him deeply before he’d died. I’d wanted to get to him before he passed, just to speak with him for a little while. I don’t even know if he knew I was coming. My Aunt Ria assured me he had, but I’m not so sure I believe her, thinking she’d just told me that to spare me grief.

    Sandy and I had spoken a few times throughout my advancing youth and adulthood, but we’d drawn apart because of distance and time, because of situation — whatever excuse you might suggest I offer. Mine was mostly that I’d wanted to hang back until I could return to his life in a way that would make him proud of me. I was never there. Nor am I now. Going back the other way, I suspect he was always feeling guilty that he’d had to walk away from us. He needn’t have. I understood at an early age — as early as a year after Gwen’s death. That summer — 1976 — he’d found a nice lady friend and I liked her, too. One night after dinner at her house, the kids had all fallen asleep (she had some of her own, though I can’t recall how many). I’d fallen asleep, too, but had awaken and sneaked to the kitchen, to where I heard smacking noises and found Sandy and his lady friend kissing.

    They didn’t see me. I went back to where I’d fallen asleep previously, lied down, and started weeping in anger. I mean, how could he do that to my grandma?

    That attitude lasted for all of a few minutes. After which I’d reasoned with myself that the man was lonely, that he needed someone to love, someone to love him. He wasn’t doing anything to hurt Gwen. I did the best to calm myself and return to sleep.

    Among Sandy’s fruit trees, beneath the stars that night, I cursed myself for not having been able to speak to him until then. He’d tried to avoid me, too, I know. I’d tried to talk to him when he’d been in town, but he wiggled out of it. I know he had to have thought I was gonna jump at him about the years he was away, about abandonment or some shit. But I’ve never considered those things to be true. I’d just wanted to tell him that I loved him. And still did.

    I picked up the fruit-picking pole and stuck it into the avocado tree, twisting it around a good-sized fruit, but I managed to drop it.

    My sister Trish came outside, then, searching for me.

    "How are you doing?" she asked, offering a hug.

    I pointed toward the hybrid citrus tree. “That’s amazing. To have both fruits on the one tree.”

    "Everybody’s wondering where you’re at," she told me.

    "Just looking at the stars," I replied — then followed her to the backdoor and inside.

    "Stairway To The Stars", performed by Glenn Miller.

    A Bus To The Stars

    A Winnemucca city cop had stopped to roust me out of the parking lot of the bus depot. It was particular cold in Nevada, that winter — so much so that it seemed to have stripped the oxygen from the air. Few were outside; the neon shone, casinos’ marquees blinked. But no onewas out, nor was there much traffic. Anything above the subzero temperature around it produced a haze or vapor and it felt like ice was forming on my upper lip below the nostrils with each exhalation that plumed from my face like a locomotive’s steam stack.

    "You can’t stay here," the officer had told me, standing above me in silhouette against the beams of his patrol car, it’s radio crackling within with voices in short phrases and police code. "You’ll freeze to death," he warned.

    I’d told him I was waiting for the bus. He asked me where I was going.

    "East," I replied.

    "Where, ‘east’?"

    "Just east."

    "But where to?" the loudmouth on the bus from Ft. Knox to Louisville insisted asking me, insisting on an answer, that I answer him. He and another guy were in the seats in front of mine, all of us near the back of the bus, Toward the front, increasingly so, were men in army uniform. Now and then (frequently, that is), the loudmouth would say something that would raise the ire of at least somebody in the front. He and his seatmate especially, though it was a general theme for the rear section, which was filled with young men being sent home from training for one reason or another.

    The loudmouth had obviously been burned severely upon the face and head at some point in his young life. He bragged that he’d got them to send him home because wearing a helmet was killing him when it pressed against his scarred tissue.

    "But it never really did!" he bragged.

    He showed the kid next to him something from his carry-on bag that had come with him from home: a jacket one dons when a threat of a nuclear, biological, or chemical attack occurs. An “NBC” jacket. He’d only partially pulled it from his bag, as he should’ve turned it in with the rest of his issued gear when processing out.

    "Why do you have that?" the kid at his elbow asked him.

    "I like it," was the loudmouth’s simple reply.

    With every word that came out of that guy’s mouth, more angry looks came from the front. Especially when conversation was loudly struck from the rear about how the army had been “tricked” by letting whomever go.

    I stood up, grabbed the carry-on duffel I’d brought from home, and began to move foreward.

    "Where are you going?" the loudmouth asked.

    I didn’t answer. I just moved as far ahead as I could, as far ahead as I thought those ahead of me wouldn’t be offended, to a pair of empty seats opposite the side on which I’d been sitting, and slid myself down and in, my face to the window, while the drone of the loudmouth and his camerades droned and the men ahead rode on in silence and the Kentucky countryside rushed past. And I wept.

    Tears almost froze my eyelids shut, kept them from freezing shut. In spite of the cold, in spite of the haze of the streetlamp nearby, a patch of clear sky was visible above, face upward to it, back of my head propped against my army duffel as it was. Stars shone down upon me. I wondered which one represented my grandmother.

    My grandfather had taken me into the backyard the night she’d died. He held me tightly and gently urged me to look upward. “She’s there, now,” he assured me. “She’ll always be with you, always be there to look over you, always be there for you to go to when you’re in pain, when you’re happy — anytime you need her, to talk to her. She’ll always be among the stars, now.”

    I asked him where, exactly.

    He let go of me with one arm and pointed to one star. “Maybe that one.” Then to another, then another. It could be any one of them, he explained. “That’s where Heaven is.”

    I stared upward into that pocket of clear sky, that night, the back of my head rested against my army duffel. I still wondered which star was hers. But I’d stopped going to her. I realized that, then. It was a heart-sinking realization. I’d thought that when I was a little boy, I’d always need her. But now, it was as if I’d all but forgotten her.

    The Road Of Snow

    I’d tried to make myself as comfortable as I could in the bed of that old pickup, my head propped against my army duffel as a pillow. I’d wrapped a ragged blanket the elderly woman in the cab had given me to warm myself against the still-falling snow. Her husband drove carefully through the flurries over the icy road that ran straight through frozen plains and farmland. I’d assumed I was in Nebraska because that was where I’d left the bus and began to walk deep into the countryside along farm lanes and fences and drainage ditches. I’d left the bus because I’d wanted to leave the bus. I’d left the bus because I was thrown off. Either was true, both were true. Perhaps neither. I barely remembered it at all, the bus, anyway. I’m not even sure it had happened, that it was happening. Spirit braves, leading me across the wastes toward some silent vision quest. My brave had approached me as a dog, leading me to a culvert for shelter, where I’d slept and dreamt of straddling the past and future, throwing stones into the faces of each, deciding instead to seek the present, at which point I woke up and discovered the weather had cleared and I was beneath a pristine moonlit sky holding countless twinkling stars above a sparkling blue-white landscape, cut in two by a line of utility poles and, a few yards past and above the culvert, a bullet-ridden highway sign that showed the image of a tractor’s sillhouette on it.

    The spirit brave motioned for me to wait at that spot and I did.

    I leaned against the signpost and when I opened my eyes again, the old couple’s pickup truck was idling next to me, its occupants gawking through the passenger’s side window — icy-foggy, that window — at me.

    "Are you okay?" the old woman had called from it, having rolled it down when I’d not moved since they’d come along and stopped.

    "Do you need help, son?" her husband, leaning over his wife’s lap from his place behind the wheel, queried as well, a more concerned tone in his question.

    I didn’t know if I believed in the Native American spirituality or ideas based on it that filled my head, then, but I didn’t not believe in it. There was something to it that kept me going, that made me think of things, consider things, to allow them to give me hope, maybe. When I’d given up. I hadn’t remembered why I’d left the bus nor when. I don’t recall exactly when the spirit guide came along. I didn’t know what to think even as I thought back upon it.

    Penny Lane snored at my side, my sister’s dog Roxy did the same across the room, dug into a chair. Outside, the snow had resumed after having turned to freezing rain, earlier. The ground in the backyard was wet with a snowy slush over it, the ground underneath muddy. The snow all those years ago, all those miles ago, the snow I’d trudged through the Breadbasket over was dry, it was wet, it was dry over wet, wet over dry, with no hint of the ground beneath it. An icy cloud through the Spirit World, through which those passing from one state of existence into another travel, symbolic of death.

    "Are you alright, son?" asked the old man, leaning over his wife’s lap to speak through her opened window.

    I struggled to my feet, using the signpost for balance.

    "You can’t stay out here," the old man called.

    "Get into the back of the truck," his wife urged me. "You’ll freeze if you stay out here!"

    I turned to consult the spirit brave who silently nodded. I then made my way toward the pickup.

    "Take this blanket," the old woman offered, pushing a worn quilt through her window.

    I took it with me to the back of the pickup, almost getting in before I remembered my duffel. I went back for it and returned, climbing over the tailgate after I’d tossed my duffel in first. I then bundled myself up with the quilt and lied down.

    On the small hilltop just beyond the road, I spotted the spirit brave as he changed into a dog and disappeared over the crest of the hill. That’s when I fell asleep, my head rested against the duffel as the flurries swirled around us.

    Thrown Stones

    My “target”, as I call him only for reference purposes, was a human being and seeing him hunched upon the bench opposite mine in the back of that army truck, separated and self-isolated from the rest of us, hurt — in spite of what the experience of the detail’s punishment had done to him. He had been punished with his attacker — me. He most likely hadn’t been brought to an understanding as to why he’d been attacked; he’d merely pointed out to me that I was making a helluva racket, roaming through those snowy woods with all those empty ammunition magazines in my pants pockets, clanking into each other like a pantsload of cowbells through the Kentucky countryside in the night.

    "You," his platoon’s drill sergeant had loudly explained to him, "just couldn’t keep yourself from sneaking up on that private to let him know he was wrong!"

    "I’ll tell you this," his drill sergeant continued. "If I was out in the night and some motherfucker come up on me like that, I’d have maybe done the same thing — or worse!"

    I shuddered. Because the act — me swinging at him with the butt of my rifle — wasn’t a primary reaction. My first had been to shoot him. Had we been issued live ammunition for guard duty-

    The dogs lumbered happily into the living room ahead of me, each choosing places to lie down upon or into, one plopping onto the sofa, the other burying herself into the space between a chair and its back cushion. Mine was the dog on the sofa — Penny Lane, a yellow Lab/pit bull cross, copper-colored with a brown snout and eye mask, her chest white. She’d curled herself into a ball and looked sadly toward the TV.

    I sat down next to her, reaching over to stroke the fur beneath her chin.

    When I was in Kindergarten, a dog had gotten into my school’s playground area against the rules. As if dogs are aware of such things.

    Several children chased after the dog, trying to shoo it off the playground, through the opening of the playground’s perimeter fence.

    Some of the boys had picked up rocks and were throwing them at the dog.

    I picked up a rock, too.

    There was a white-haired kid with rotten teeth who liked to hide behind certain bushes on my way home after school. Upon my approach, he’d leap out to torment me.

    He had just let loose a rock at the dog.

    He’d turned ‘round just then, facing me. I froze — but just for a moment. Then I threw the rock at him. The boy. Hitting him in the forehead.

    I felt my finger on the trigger of my M16, staring into the illuminated face of that private. And I remember the squeeze. Then the desire to thrust a nonexistent bayonnet. Then came the swing of the butt. All in the timeframe of a moment.

    The school had sent us both home —R.J. for his wound, me for my behavior. The next morning, we were summoned to the principal’s office, where we were seated in front of his desk.

    The man was huge to us. Intimidating. Wielding a wooden paddle. R.J.’s forhead was bandaged.

    He asked us why we were throwing rocks. We both mumbled answers. Which, for little kids, begin with “I dunno”. It didn’t matter to him about the dog and I hadn’t divulged R.J.’s tormenting.

    He showed us his paddle. “If there’s any more rock-throwing, there’ll be this,” he assured is. Then we were dismissed.

    The army truck pulled into the Disney Barracks and made its way through the area’s streets to the 6th Cavalry Squadron’s billets, turning into the asphalt lot behind its troops’ offices and supply rooms, behind which were loading docks for each troop.

    It stopped. Then a pair of specialists came ‘round to the rear to order us to dismount.

    The target was first. He trundled ahead of us after we’d followed him out of the truck, Thomas, Dieter, and myself.

    R.J. stopped ahead of me on our way to class, pausing to scowl threateningly at me before turning ‘round and continuing. I’d halted when he’d turned. But, when he turned and resumed walking, I did, too.

    The target never turned himself ‘round to face me, never looked over his shoulder. He just kept walking. Toward our troop’s building’s double doors. Into which he disappeared. I don’t recall seeing him after that. Nor can I remember his name.

    The Kentucky Sawmill

    "Jesus Christ!" the staff sergeant gleefully bellowed at us as we shoveled wet sawdust into the backs of army two-and-a-half-ton trucks with snowshovels. "I love it when they send me scouts! They get shit done! Don’t they get shit done?"

    He nudged his buddy, an E5-grade sergeant, who seemed unimpressed by anything about the detail.

    "Yeah," the staff sergeant resumed. "Scouts know how to get shit done! Unlike tankers. I hate it when they send me a gad-damned tanker."

    He turned to his other side, scowling downward at the malingering recruit who’d elected to prostrate himself across a log.

    "You are the saddest sonofabitch I’ve ever come across, private," he informed the tanker recruit who seemed insouciant to anything the cadre on the detail offered him — all of it harsh.

    The staff sergeant pointed a flattened hand toward me and the recruit I’d swung my rifle butt at during bivouac, well-connecting with the side of his head — his jaw, certainly — sending him into the snow.

    "Truthfully," our troop’s commanding officer had told us as we stood before him in his office after we’d returned to the billets from the field, "it was a flat-out battery case. You could be in the stockade in a hot minute, Camack!"

    He turned to the other guy, a recruit belonging to another platoon who was notorious for trying to catch the mistakes of his camerades so he could correct them before lecturing them on the importance of-

    "But I’ll tell you something, private: if you’d have been sneaking ‘round the woods at night, hell-bent on sneaking up on me, I might’ve done the same thing. So. What is it? What should we do, here?"

    I’d slipped backward in the snow as I’d swung my rifle at the guy, so he’d not been hurt seriously. The air to the CO’s question seemed to remind the kid of this while insinuating the kid’s own culpability. I’d not swung more than the once, and the other private was a documented turd, as talk around the troop spread with tales of his creeping and correcting. It hadn’t won him many friends. And the training cadre themselves were never too keen of a splitter.

    The following day, he and I were assigned the excruciating detail of being loaded into a deuce-and-a-half and taken to an area lumber mill, where we lifted sopping sawdust above our heads over the tailgates of trucks in the melting snow that revealed its red Kentucky mud with every bootstep, mud that turned into a quagmire as the day progressed.

    "Gad-damn, I love me some scouts!" the staff sergeant marveled. "You outta be thankful one of them doesn’t stomp through that mud from over there to kick your ass into it, Parker!" he barked downward at the tanker recruit, still malingering upon his log at the staff sergeant’s side.

    "I don’t care," Parker defiantly answered, shifting his body into a new position.

    Another truck had showed up; my target had gone over to painfully snowshovel sawdust into the back of it while I and Thomas remained.

    Thomas was a photonegative to our surroundings, a black kid from Jamaica by way of New York City. I never knew how long he’d been in the U.S. before immigrating, but his accent was still heavy with its native tune and wonderful and I’d not ever come across him without a smile on his face which showed like an arc light, along with his bright eyes, through the darkest of skin I hve ever known on a person. He always stood ramrod straight, with his head cocked a bit to the rear, his chin up.

    "Heh, heh, heh," he would boldly chuckle with that Jamaican voice of his, the joy pouring from his face into all who faced it. I loved the man and have always wondered what had happened to him after I’d left the army.

    "Gad-dammit, look at those scouts load that sawdust, Parker, you sorry ass…" bellowed the staff sergeant of Thomas and I.

    Thomas leaned over to me, his characteristic glow missing from his face. “I wil never get used to this cold-“

    "Quiet, shitballs!" the staff sergeant shouted. "Or you’ll be shoveling sawdust until your wives are collecting your gad-damned pensions!"

    He singled me out. “You got a wife, private? You’re too ugly to have a wife.”

    "No, sergeant," I replied.

    “‘No’ what? That you don’t have a wife or that you’re not ugly? Because I’ve got some news for you if you think otherwise.”

    "When do we get to eat?" Parker whined fom his log.

    "Shut up, you!" the staff sergeant barked, having turned with a finger jabbed toward the malingerer.

    "What’s all this sawdust for, anyway?" my target asked the staff sergeant, from behind the other truck.

    "The colonel wants a new exercise pit. You wanna discuss it with him, private?"

    My target did not.

    My buddy Dieter, just behind Thomas and I, quietly chuckled.

    It had started to rain, melting the snow and wettening the red mud around our boots worse than it already was, which was bad-enough. The sawdust had become almost impossible to lift with those big-ass shovels, and daylight was getting shorter.

    "Okay, troops," the E5 called out. "Sling those shovels and mount up!"

    Parker immediately shot upward from his log and darted for one of the trucks, followed by the rest of us, muttering under our breath to each other at what a shitty time it would soon be, cleaning our boots.

    "I think I need new ones," Thomas chuckled deeply.

    We helped each other up the back of the truck and over the tailgate, taking seats on the sidebenches.

    Dieter leaned forward to me. “By the way, I forgot to thank you for this opportunity.” Our drill sergeant had decided that a couple of my buddies should join me in my punishment. Dieter was my closest buddy, my battle buddy; we’d become pretty tight. Our racks were in the same bay of our squad’s room in the building in which we were billetted. Thomas, though, was in a room or two over. Yet it was Thomas who somehow got picked whenever I did for some vile thing. Dieter usually escaped the crappy details. Or that’s how I remember it. I’ve tried to analyze the hows of why any of us may have been selected for shitty details aside from bad behavior. I just seemed to stick out like a little goof. In hindsight, some of the cadre actually liked having me around because I busted my ass. But that was- It was a show. That was after I’d gotten told I was going home. I hadn’t wanted to appear like a sad malingerer like that Parker, out there at that muddy sawmill. Otherwise, I was pretty good at getting out of having to do as much work as I could. I’d even paid others to go to details in my place — often for just a few bucks. Money was tight at times; a buck or two was a lot between pay draws.

    As the truck rode up out of the holler on the logging road back to Ft. Knox, Thomas assured me that I wasn’t ugly, but he hadn’t found me attractive-enough to turn over from women to men. Which may have been one of the sweetest things anyone’s ever said to me in the back of an army truck.

    My target from bivouac sat down the opposite bench, away from us 3rd Platoon boys.

    He seemed so isolated. So lonely. Alone. I felt bad for him. I truly did. Not said in that condescending way people say that when they want to isolate someone from themselves. I just don’t think anyone should have to live like that. Maybe that’s why he tries to flip shit all the time. To flip himself onto the what he imagines to be the pop from what he believes is the bottom. I know others like that. We all do, probably. Anyway, he disappeared into my past after I’d left the army, along with Thomas and Dieter, though Dieter tried to maintain contact. I couldn’t do it. Though I imagine the Parkers of the world have little problem with such things. Sometimes, anyway. Until conscience forces their faces backward and their eyes onto what they’d passed on or neglected.

    "I’ve got my orders for West Germany," Dieter wrote. "Send some Copenhagen!" he pled, desperately.

    I folded the letter neatly and returned it to its envelope, pushing it into my jacket’s left breast pocket before adjusting my scarf and knit cap, leaning back onto my old army-issue duffel on that bus station parking lot’s asphalt, looking upward into the clear winter sky, the cold air around me crisply stinging my cheeks.

    The fog that seemed to have been hanging over northern Nevada had lifted and there were those stars above me, twinkling. Watching over me as I fell asleep on that cold ground. Having hit the bottom, come to rest upon it.

    "Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out)" — The Hombres

    Tales Of Two O’Clock

    In spite of the freeze outside, in spite of the snow, the inside of the joined shelter halves was warm, the inside of the sleeping bag was comfortably so, even though I was stripped to my underwear up to then — as was commanded — so that we’d not sweat in our fatigues and catch a cold and die or some shit. Little glowing worms crawled about in the red Kentuky ground at the foot of my bag where I sat, pulling my pants on and stuffing my feet into my boots for guard duty, due shortly. At 2 a.m. Or, more-appropriately, 0200. But I’m a civilian, now, so I exclusively use civilian timekeeping.

    I emerged from the shelter halves after having finished dressing, placing my steel pot helmet atop my head. The army still used them, then — at least in training units. Mine weighed heavily on my neck, pushing on my shoulders. I pulled my M16 out of the shelter before fastening it shut, took to my feet, and looked for the sentry I was supposed to relieve, my boots crunching through the snow as I trudged into the treeline.

    2 a.m. I snatched my phone and took it outside without a jacket, taking care not to slip across the the ice and fall into the driveway, thanks be to my elderly loafers, whose soles had been worn slick. I’d wanted a photo of the snowfall on the street running through our neighborhood. To post to Twitter. For the hell of it. I’m a quasi-photographer. I specialize in cell phone photography. Dressed-up snapshots filtered through digital trickery.

    The photo came out dark and ghostly, dimly lit by a couple of streetlamps and the odd porchlight, all minimally reflected upon the snow.

    I shone my penlight through the trees, trudging between them.

    "You’re making a lot of noise," a disembodied head alerted me, having appeared instantly a yard in front of me, lit up by its own penlight.

    My pants pockets were full of empty rifle magazines, two each to a pocket, clanking together as I moved somewhat difficultly along through the wood.

    "I could hear you for-" the head began.

    I swung my rifle butt ‘round into the side of it, knocking it and the man it belonged to into the ground.

    Snowy Meridian Street

    Winter Dogs

    I punched the latch of the back screen door; the dogs burst through it past my leg and out into the snow. I followed, popping my black jacket’s collar up and zipping it to just below the chin, covering my neck in the cold, my breath misting in front of my face. The motion-sensing light went on, illuminating the iced-over cement patio. The dogs were already deep into the backyard, taking shits and siffing about and pissing in spots they’d found suitably fragrant for them to and shitting some more after more sniffing. I looked after them, hands in jacket pockets, the cold winter air upon my face, thinking about how my glasses would fog up when we returned indoors.

    The winter air — the cold winter air — always reminds me of a particular two or three winters of the past, of my youth, variously pleasurable or not. A Basque girl with a long, curly mane, the cold asphalt of a bus station parking lot. I dunno about the other winter. The remaining one. A mixed bag, I guess. Filled with parties and let-downs, warm things and disappointment. Which sounds a lot like youth in its reality to me, now. On the outside, looking in; on the inside, looking out. And neither set of eyes real. Nor are the objects of their attention.

    "Come on, dogs!" I called.

    They were alternately chasing each other and sniffing about, just in case they weren’t quite done — and they weren’t, at least one of them, usually, stopping to take one more leak or dump. Or to chew on grass, even, if they’d gotten into something that’d given them upset stomachs.

    They’re always in the garbage — sometimes dragging bones or discarded food containers into my bed to lick and nibble at leisurely, leaving the aftermath there to surprise me at the moment I’d chosen to dive into bed, gad-dammit.

    I loved her. That Basque girl. I still do. We’d left home for our colleges at the end of our Christmas breaks in separate cars, that morning or afternoon (I can’t remember which; it was so long ago), but met at some little gas station in Oregon. I pretended to- I dunno. Be mad at her? Ignore her? I guess I was mad; she was dating a roomate of mine.

    She followed me — or tried — as I tried to avoid her by moving around our car. Until she switched directions and somehow caught me. I’d probably let her. I hadn’t really wanted her not to catch me. I’d wanted her to catch me and hold me and hang on to me forever.

    I thought of her, too, after boarding that bus eastbound, a winter before, after the army had sent me home and I was in my wandering period, government money in my pocket. Everything I owned was on my back, almost, stuffed in my old army duffel. I thought of her for miles and miles and hundreds of miles without her ever knowing, she back home and me off to some kind of vision quest upon the Nebraskan plain, lying in the snows, there, half freezing to death until a kindly old couple in an ancient pickup truck pulled up to me where I lie in the icy road, offering a ride to safety.

    A ghostly Indian brave on horseback gestured to them for me to heed their offer. Which I did.

    After I’d slung my duffel into the back of that old pickup, I looked back for the brave; he was gone. You think up such images, anyway. When you want to think them up. When they need thinking up. Perhaps as I had the dog who’d led me there. It’d stood over me in the snows that blew over us. At one moment he was there, then he was a brave.

    "What did he say to you?" I imagine someone asking me. I don’t think he said a word. Either of them. The spirit. Whatever it was. What I got was a feeling. A revelation. Which was simply not to die. It made it a choice for me. And led me to that road and later that old couple in their truck. Who’d give me a bed and a meal and a bag of sandwiches and a bus ticket home.

    I’d hit the bottom.

    I watched the dogs frolic in the snow until they’d had enough, galloping like a pair of wild horses toward me, their tongues out the sides of their open mouths.

    I opened the screen door, waiting for the dogs to bound up the step aside me, which they did. Then I opened the back door and we went inside.

    "We Shall Overcome" — Louis Armstrong

    "Soul Kitchen" — The Doors

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