Last Portrait before the Pandemic.
“My mother’s dying wish was to be buried next to her parents in Waukegan, Illinois,” Richard says, gazing down on his weather-worn walking stick, now a cane due to failing health.
“No one else wanted to do that for her,” Richard explained. “They cremated her. I found her ashen remains thrown on a workbench at my brother’s house in Enterprise, Alabama.”
“No. I’m taking her home,” Richard says, determined, a stubborn tone to his voice.
He did what he knew had to be done. Securing paperwork and a proper urn from the closest funeral home, he drove her remains across state lines. Alabama to Illinois.
Arriving in his Mother’s small hometown just north of Chicago, he settled in at his Aunt Karen’s house. Together Richard and Karen laid his mom to rest, only the two of them side by side that Friday afternoon before the Sunday Memorial Day Service. According to Richard, it was the extended family arriving, filling the house with disrespectful infighting and unquenched family greed that made it so tricky staying there.
Before the funeral service that Sunday, Richard withdrew to Lyons Woods. He sought to clear his head and meditate in the gorgeous tree-dense park of spidering walking trails in the center of town. Wandering through sun and shadow, sifting through this turning point in his life and reflecting on what it meant to be in Waukegan, fulfilling his mom’s dying wish. Laying her to rest next to her parents.
He went off-trail and found himself at the edge of the park and noticed a tree sucker root growing up and out of the side of a tree. Richard thought, “If I remove it, this will help save the tree, and I’ll have a walking stick.” So he walked back to his Aunt’s house, grabbed a bow saw off the garage wall, and went back out and cut the root off.
Trusting in the perfection of nature’s creation, Richard stepped away with more than a stick that summer day 13 years ago. He discovered and fashioned a wooden companion to prop up his ailing body and spirits, helping him during the most bitter times and seeing him through the darkest of places a person can ever walk.
“It’s more than just a walking stick or cane, it’s like my mom and her hometown are here with me.”
Open Mic Night
I was watching a spoken word poet ranting
I’d done spoken word before
and I thought
“Do I sound and look that lame?”
The poet went on and on
about the homeless
plastic shopping bags
I stood up from my chair and yelled
“I can’t take it anymore! ”
“Step away from the mic!”
“You and your annoying bleeding heart bullshit
need to step off!”
“Pack it in, go home, and read this drivel in front of all your pets!”
No one said a word
not even the poet
mouths hung open like backhoes
the room was dead still
the poets head fell forward
tears started to fall
then a full-blown breakdown
a collapse onto the floor
The audience so bored before my outburst
are alive with energy
by the poet's breakdown
a couple now attends to the poet who is in a crumpled lump
still on the stage
mic cord wrapped around a worn shoe
as I scan the room
all eyes are on me.
29th and R
Floating an inch above
the broken sidewalk
was her hashtag
the tall thin girl
in cut off shorts
white pockets showing
flaunting reckless beauty
with a handful of balloons
bobbing and weaving
above her blackened hair
potato chip crumbs
stuck to lipstick
half eaten bag
occupies her left hand
the balloon shapes
of my cousins'
The jangling sound of keys are attached to a huge man towering above me. The keys are rusty…or covered in blood…I can't tell. As the key man goes to turn, the metal wad of his keys strikes the chipped, painted guardrail making a sound just like a clear ringside bell--DING! Wide-eyed, I poke my head through the bars, and with a wail, grunt, and wet thump, the key man announces, “Welcome to the kill floor.”
One after another, the bloody, lumpy bodies hit the floor like Liston in the ring with Ali. As we walk past them, the smell of my aunt's perfume hangs thick around my face along with hair, blood, and dead cow. I look downward into their large brown beautiful, confused dead eyes as the killing floor men wade through blood and bone. Piece by piece, the flesh is torn and cut from the animal with no emotion, "it's a job. We make food for the masses and without us you'd starve" the key man explains.
Me, my sister, my mom, and dad, two cousins, my aunt and uncle…all of us traipse through the killing machine wearing pollster pant suits, Hippie fringed jackets and looks of disgust and horror.
As we continue over the iron-slotted catwalk, the key man points southeast over the rail and shouts, “Over here is where we sweep up the floor up with all the extra parts -- nothing goes to waste here.” My sister pipes up, putting her hand to the side of her face, shielding her eyes from the devastation below, “Why did we decide to take a tour of a meat processing plant?”
It is cold, freezing, as we walk through the wide-awake nightmare of the killing machine. We see the processing and packaging and we plod with audible gasps and disbelief. This meat is what we eat on a daily basis.
At six years old, I didn't understand what was happening and couldn't see the bloody butchery as more than a strange stage production starring angels of death.
As we reach the end of the tour, I can smell uncooked hot dogs. Sure enough, we walk into a room, and there floating way above my head are thousands of hot dogs hanging from the ceiling. The key man asks, "Anyone hungry?"
“Anyone want a hot dog?"
" I do," I say. I was super hungry.
The key man reaches up into what seems like heaven, his hand disappearing into the bright blue-greenish light and gives me a hotdog.
"Here you go young man, How does that taste?"
As I bite into the pale flesh again, I hear my sister wretch, turn and run from the room.
Tell Me a Story
"I use to live under that bridge over there. There wasn’t much for me when I got outta prison. I’d see the tourists and tour buses stopping over here (at St Louis Cemetery #3) and it was super hot so decided I’d panhandle and get some money together so I could buy bottles of water to sell to the tourists. It was my way out from under the bridge. I stood on the corner, and I got some hand-outs, day after day, and pretty soon I had enough money to buy water. But then I realized I needed a cooler to keep the water cold so back out to the streets I went to get money for the cooler. When I got enough for the cooler, I realized I needed ice. Damn, so after a lot of work and trouble, I had my cooler filled with ice and cold bottles of water for the thirsty tourists but that cooler was so heavy and bulky I decided I needed a bike to haul the water and make it easier for me and the customers."
"My bike is great—she’s got a slow leak in one tire, but I have three of them now, and I trade out the parts from one to another when one goes out. I live in a house over there where I keep the bikes."
"The tourists really like the water—I have a permit, two permits—take a look, I keep one in my cooler and one clipped to my shirt. I’m legit so that none of the police can make me stop selling to the tourists. They can’t make me go when they see I have a permit—it’s official. The permits are good for a year and I get one each year. They are $50."
"I have the nice kind of water that the tourists want. I taste-tested all kinds of different brands of water I was going to sell and the cheap off-brand water tastes cheap. I like Dasani best even though it’s more expensive. It just tastes the best and it’s a quality brand."
"Before I was in prison, I had a fleet of trucks and I installed cable systems. I had a large group of guys working for me. There’s not much out there for you when you get out of prison, but I like selling water on hot days."
"I sell the water for 1 dollar a bottle — I meet great people every day and listen to classic rock radio on my bike. Life is so good for me now."
“Sometimes you have to make your own luck.”
Tell Me a Story #4
I lost my hair when I was 10 months old - no one knew why back then, it just fell out one day, see. I grew up on a farm in Windsor, Colorado just South of Nunn and West of Greeley. It was just farms and patches of dusty dirt out there so we really didn’t go to the doctor because it cost too much money. I grew up very poor. That was in 1935.
I was very self-conscious of my appearance and I always wore a hat except when I went into the Church on Sundays. I couldn’t wear a hat in the sanctuary. People would walk up and rub the top of my head and throw comments at me. Grown-up people in my church would just walk up and rub the top of my head, a little kid. I hated that so much. It made me so mad and angry and very sad and everywhere I went, people looked at me.
When I got a little older, we moved into town, onto 5th street in Greeley and my Uncle gave me his bike, see. My Uncle Art rode the bike to work when he worked for the Union Pacific railroad. The bike was old and it was manufactured before the war. I was surprised it didn’t get melted down and used for war metal. My guess is because he rode it to work. See—that bike might have wound up as part of a gun barrel on a Sherman tank to kill Nazis or blow the head off Hitler but it didn’t, and I rode that bike everywhere escaping the grown-ups and their barbs.
One day a guy from the Lions club pulled up in a big mercury sedan. He stopped me on my bike and asked me questions about my hair, my appearance, my history. I never understood why people cared so much about the way I looked. I hated the questions the man from Lion’s club asked but he was an adult so I answered his questions. I pointed to my house and he walked over to my Mom and they vanished under the shadow of the screen door. I thought I was in big trouble. After the man left my house, my Mom sat me down and said the man in the Lions club was upset because I had no hair and I always wore a hat. He said he was going to see if people from the Lions club would raise money to buy a toupee for me. They must not have liked looking at a bald kid wearing a hat riding around the neighborhood on a bike that should have been melted down for war metal, see.
The man and his friends at the Lions Club raised the money needed for the toupee and one day after school my mom picked me up in our 1940 Ford and I went into town to get fitted for the toupee, see. It was a strange thing and it felt foreign sitting on top of my head, and it was so hot from the tape or glue. I missed my hat, see. I wanted to simply be left alone and wear my hat and ride my bike. But now even that simple pleasure was ruined by a guy who had a problem watching a bald kid in a hat ride a bike around his neighborhood. He had the problem with me, imagine that. And he had hair, and I did not have a single hair on my head and I never would.
Small Pleasures 1913
Homeless and stinking of Night Train she leaned in close and gave me the news, right there, right in front of the Kandinsky. The words hit me square and laid me out emotionally flat with her simple sentence: “You never really loved me, you just put up with me all those years. Sleeping with whores.” Her voice cracking under the pain.
It wasn’t true, I didn’t even know her. People turned to look at me curiously like one of the flawed masterpieces. The mental illness seeping out from around her swollen eyes, welling up as the tears fell from her red blotched cheeks landing in coin-shaped drops on the clean museum floor. Exposed for all to see like the beautiful cracked-up painting on the wall. The misshapen lines and busted-up tones and exploding colors draped in complacency and unwashed hands. The painting captured her pain in two-dimensional form. I glanced down to catch myself from looking her in the eye. No eye contact. I could still hear her voice as I walked away but it ran off in mumbled tones of buttery nonsense. The crowded room all stared in disgust at my exit.
Good guys finish first.
I live my life through slivers of time
Moments strung together
With victory and failure
Wins and losses
I watch the broken leaves arch their backs on my window sill
I see my life break apart and fade
Only to grow and bloom again
The tough seasons of drought and loneliness are always a hand on my shoulder
I brush it away and move forward
Through the bitter cold and hot heat
I will never lose this war
I will always win