“Over naked shoulder the improving stars read my poems and flash them onward to a friend.” Frank O’Hara
Perhaps I should write a book. That was the thought I had days before, but waiting for a ride from the public transit muse had unfortunately reached its end of line; my end of line.
It was early. I read over the notes I had made and what I had attempted to write insofar. Somewhere along the line I had come to the brilliant conclusion that my story should be about drugs, India, and, or, maybe my experience with neither of them. “That sounds new,” or at least it did when that day was new. The more I read, the more I realized I had been borrowing heavily from my wife's Restoration Hardware and Crate & Barrel catalogs, passages sounded like palettes of color from which to paint my wall sconces.
Turmeric Yellow, Clementine Orange, Satchel Brown...
It only got better.
The title. I remember thinking perhaps something punchy, one word. Grab onto readers immediately. Smack or Hit or Punch could work. Perhaps even all three: Smack, Hit, Punch. These ideas were nothing more than a collection of now. The only timeless idea I had was quitting.
I was a scarecrow and no good ideas would land here. I needed help to either be found, or forgotten.
The crisp air of
greeted me harshly as I crammed myself into the car and decided to find a barista to activate my mind. I touched the dial of the radio to calm my mind as I headed into town. Lacking the initiative to tune to anything annoying, I chose the space between the comprehensible. I chose static, I chose a half channel, I chose what’s caught between the choices we are offered. Why couldn’t TV’s let you choose stations in-between, maybe that’s why I never trusted TV’s. Never trust something that only lets you choose whole numbers. Never trust presets. The AM radio static fluttered in and out of rhythm with the hills I passed on my way into town; my own interactive John Cage composition. Santa Fe
Fuzzy drone from the speaker sent me back. I remembered my grandfather. He had been a ham radio operator, a TV engineer, and one of the first people to develop color for TV. His ideas had revolutionized his community, enhanced other lives through the birth of new technology, and definitely left a dent on my ego. Not because I wanted to be better, just equal. Equal to a man who nourished relationships like a delicate soldering job and a man who was just plain good from button to cuff. Equal to a man who actually invented something in a world full of somethings.
One time we had built a crystal radio set together. The radio ended up looking like a soldering omelet. It sounded like a ball of lint being scrapped against a microphone but I kept it for years after. It felt good. The delicate positioning of wispy wires, the wrapping of naked magnets, making cozy coils and adhering tiny tube transistors with tender melting techniques all felt like we were preparing the most exquisite dish in the robot culinary arts.
Afterwards, we meandered down into his Sioux City lab, his basement that smelled of dust burning, as all the tiny glass tube transistors warmed up. He proceeded to show me the basics of Morse code. The gentle metallic tap of the telegraph key kept time as he emitted away.
“Dot” or “Dit”
“Dot” or “Dit”
… being short tones; and “Dash” or “Dah”
…being long tones. The combinations of those two simple tones could create anything. The combination of us could be everything. I wanted to be him or a part of him. I looked at the collection of his assorted postcards above his elaborate HAM radio set up. He was part of the world. His all caps call sign, WOPEX, held the greeting stoically above the text of each card. There was HAM radio auteur from across the world, submarine captains he had chatted with, and even postcards from astronauts with which he had tonally verbalized across the stratosphere.
My grandpa had explained that when radio waves were not traveling through air, walls, or cords, that they can travel as fast as the speed of light. They are a type of light. As I continued my drive, I imagined the static emission of my radio as pure light. The sound of the sun kept me company as I stared at its impressions across my dash. I wanted to smell light, taste light, and feel light. Two senses were not enough. They say no matter is ever lost in the universe, so is light new or old?
He had described how radio signals can travel forever, if nothing was in the way. I didn't want to be in the way. As a child I didn’t get it because I thought childhood was forever. But now looking back I realized that a part of him had been traveling away from me ever since the day we tapped away gently at the knob of the telegraph key that emitted…
.-- --- .--. . -..-
And I unfortunately, would never catch up.
Radio waves travel roughly at the speed of light unless going through a medium. About 5,865,696,000,000 miles in a year. Being that moment, our moment together, 26 years ago (and omitting the drag of the atmosphere of earth) my grandpa's signals are probably at least 52,508,096,000,000 miles away.
Pondering distances made me yearn to travel some. To catch up. I caught 285 and decided to head toward
, in hopes that this highway would serve as some sort of mental driveway. A home for my thoughts. I leaned into the steering window to peer out and above my car into the light. I counted… Taos
I was catching up.
The drive was a series of numbers. All the counting made me neglect the numbers related to my present trajectory and I missed the exit for highway 68 leading into Taos. I decided to stick with 285 and come into
the back way. Taos
The road stretched out before me. Radio towers subsided. The telephone lines were busy relaying lies. Rotary dial cars caught my eyes. These empty highways speak to me. Lead me to a place to keep.
As I approached Taos, an abyss came into view. The bottom dropped out on the desert and the highway led me in a leap of faith across a truss. I slowed down. Glancing to the side, I could feel the pull of gravity tickling my stomach as the Rio Grande Gorge beckoned my name. It was the opposite direction of where my heart was headed but I stopped to look down instead. To look over a bridge. It seemed so simple.
Parking, I was greeted by the vendors of white guilt and the bohemians of my lost youth. I quickly maneuvered my way by without eye contact and focused on the destination. I stepped on to the Rio Grande Bridge. Walking on to the bridge made me uncomfortable almost immediately, as if I stood at a crossroads.
Up and out, or down and in.
I hesitated and then slowly walked back off the bridge. The wind snapped at my backside like the cruel end of a locker room joke, punctuated with a towel snap. Laugh if you want, but looking down was for kids.
I was welcomed back from my short-lived spiritual journey by the Taos Native American vendors. They greeted my return to land again with the same smiles they had said goodbye to me with before my timid steps out over the abyss. The smile that said buy something and save me. The smile that said we are humble, hurting inside, but your money will make you feel less guilty. Or maybe that was what my ancestors were telling me. Either way their smiles and my guilt were locked in some sort of bizarre symbiotic relationship, equally dependent upon one another. I strolled past the row of vendors with a haphazard nod of understanding but I knew their spirits could see right through my designer jeans (ironically purchased at a thrift store).
At the end of the row stood a single musician. Not Native American but more native to the surroundings perhaps because of his sandblasted car, his cactus fingers that strummed harshly at the arid guitar strings, and his slim Joshua Tree like demeanor topped with a ruffled white fishing hat. A stature ideal for long walks through the desert winds.
I stopped for a double take and instead of crossing the highway I ambled over to his meager desert sound stage which consisted of an amp distorted like the sound of sizzling tortillas being burned eternally, punctuated with the occasional pops of faulty wiring that emanated like Morse code.
I stood listening. Hoping to hear the light.
“Hey” he muttered, grabbed my hand, shook it as the note he last played droned on, then jumped back to the fret board. “Joseph,” he said and continued to finish his rendition of “Helter Skelter.”
His car was a desert burro and on its’ back it carried his bible. I looked over to a three ring binder that was strewn across the pockmarked hood of his car. In it seemed to be a collection of hand written music transcripts; the current page being a translation of a classic rock song. Each sheet was in a plastic sheath to protect it. From what? The desert preserves things like him.
I tossed a dollar into his hubcap offering plate. I stared at his plastic pile of work, there must have been at least a three hundred pages of hand written songs.
The song rattled to an end with the pulse of dying amp. Static followed.
“Got a lot of songs there.” I managed to state lamely.
“Yeah, gotta keep adding.”
Searching for something I thought I would pose my quest to good ole’ Joe, “Any original pieces in there?”
He turned to his book and casually flipped through the pages as if to check. The plastic pages gently reflected random light in all directions as he turned them, then the titles were revealed.
“Sympathy for the Devil,” “Heart of Gold,” “The Weight;” an iTunes playlist of random baby boomer classics.
“Well, these songs are original. Always have been,” he finally replied.
“I’m not though, no one is, not even McCartney. Hell, when you stop pretending your original, then you can really add to the swell.” Joseph stammered. “My amendments to these songs are slight but so is the last drop of water that breaks through a dam. Especially in the desert.”
The words stuck to me like a chollo cactus and then proceeded to dig deeper into me like its needles.
“Yeah.” I stammered.
I wished he would have stopped there but he continued on describing a journey that sounded more like a vignette from an Alejandro Jodorowsky movie. Something about a council of 12 Nudes all dressing and fashioning their own Lady Guadalupe mannequins that all ended up nude anyways.
We stood silently. A wind swept across the fret board of his guitar resulting in a slight hum from the amp. A new radio wave casually tossed into existence. This guy was doing far more than me to catch up with my grandpa even in his idleness. Joseph stood for a moment. The rush of a car streaking by broke his timid concentration.
“No, I guess I could write my own songs, but why? No one can live on purely original ideas.”
He cranked up the amp, then flipped through his book and prepared to become a mirage in the desert once more. I reached out to touch his songwriting book in hopes that it might steal me away like the Never Ending Story. This guy was something. He was his own river not through the gorge, but by it. His had gotten to me. I mulled over the words in my mind. I felt like some kind of action figure who was placed accidentally by a child in a nativity scene. Why did I always feel like the guy in camo at a congregation of robes? The desert was getting to me. Joseph was my own personal Jesus.
When I was a child I was always impressed with the idea of Jesus’ forty days and nights of wandering in the desert. The devil riding his back the whole time through the sand and wind of desolation. Forty days of temptation and wandering. I think it was in Luke 1:5,865,696,000,000 or something. But what always made me like this story were Jesus’ retorts to the devil. The wit displayed in a situation that would have broken anyone else was beyond the banter of even my smartest friends in the comfort of civilization. The devil challenged Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
Jesus simply replied, “One does not live by bread alone.”
I remember a sermon on these very words that had always struck me as poignant. The pastor claimed that Jesus was tempted by his power to end starvation, to save children from dying, to save the whole human race from suffering with his god given grace. But his refusal to do so showed more about the redeemer than by giving it to his followers. We need to suffer. God wants us to suffer, suffer to evolve. If Jesus simply swooped in with all the answers to our problems like a father to a child then God would disable us. By allowing the human race to “learn how to make bread” itself it enables us all to reach our deepest mature potential.
I looked back one more time before heading across the highway to my car. Joseph had already begun his next composition co-authored by The Flying Burrito Brothers. I noticed the stilts behind his façade. The back windows of his car were piled seat high with an assortment of junk. Cans, clothes, cases, containers. Haphazardly stacked and thrown about, not enough to live with but enough to get by. Then I noticed the tracks. Originally I thought he had backed into his parking spot. But the tire tracks in the desert dust that led from his car did not originate from the front tires or off the highway but instead from his back tires; coming out of the desert. He had not pulled in, he had pulled out. Pulled out onto his driveway. I had met Joseph at the threshold of his house. His highway driveway.
Was I the devil to Joseph’s desert crusade? Questioning his art? Questioning its value? Or was Joseph the devil to my quest to create? Stopping me short of my Adam and Eve? Or maybe both of were just our own prophets and the mere existence of multiple prophets was the existence of the devil. We were haunting each other, not just for forty days, but everyday our ideas were the devil to the other’s ideas. The overpopulation of ideas is what stops us all from thinking; I never considered that the monkey on my back might actually be someone’s pet.
I was lost, and found, and couldn’t catch up.
The sun was setting on this mild winter day already and I thought I should head home to the wife. I jumped back in my car and left the void in the distance. Static lead me home.
The sun had set. I looked up at the stars as they began their nightly undulations and imagined my grandpa's Morse code taillights leading the way.
I had caught up for a moment today, but he was pulling away again.
The idea of counting by one was comforting, though I knew nothing my grandpa had emitted would move by ones. Nothing in the world moves by ones anymore. “Especially radio waves,” I mumbled laughing at myself. But driving down the highway I liked the idea that I was just a bit closer to moving at the same rate with something in this world. A one to one ratio that doesn’t exist in today’s world or maybe never existed.
I veered hard as a coyote loped out into the headlights. Dust clouded the crimson blue sky and I slammed hard into a roadside ditch. I was stuck. I quickly patted myself up and down to ensure no appendages had gotten lost, as pain slowly tickled my nerves. Gingerly unbuckling, I pushed the door open with my foot, and gravity pulled me to the desert floor. I flipped onto my back and spread my arms out in acceptance.
I was the scarecrow. No one would land on me here. I would find my mortality on a cactus field. Well, maybe not. But indulging in feigned moments of mortality will take my thoughts further.
I lost time and the frustration of the moment, of the day, of my life, crept in.
Nothing is original. Nothing is original. Nothing is original.
Trying to divert my pessimism, I considered that I should probably call my wife. I thought of joy she had brought me through even our few years. Were we not original in some way? Or was our connection, our banter, our cycles a bad repeat of yesteryear programming? Maybe it’s all a cruel joke.
Hell, eventually everyone will end up with the same last name. It's simply a numbers game, an equation based on Victorian mannerisms, dependent upon the constant of traditions. I imagined the institution of taking surnames in marriage will persist for the sake of this desert epiphany, and perhaps even more falsely on my hopes of traditional Hispanic family units immigrating into America's heart as they have into mine (feminist stop reading here). Either way, what would be the final last name of the human race when it reached its culmination of integration? Smith, Johnson, Williams? The obvious would be Smith but I'm going with Garcia as a Cinderella story. It does far more to hope for this.
I considered my role in this unification of all that is named by or owned by other humans. And though I add to this equation of commonality through my own marriage, I considered a lapse.
The first year of my marriage I sent texts messages to my wife regularly. These silly proclamations of love were neither unique nor grand. Just i love you (I actually did type it all out. Naive to the doctrines of texting, understandably so, being I was already 33). Again I added to the commonality. After a year of this banal habit, I asked her why she had never replied to any of my odes of teenage love. I was devastated when she replied that texting was not part of her cell phone service.
Not one of my messages did she receive.
It was not my inability to type with my thumbs that had failed but the whole incompatibility of some invisible network. My own simple amendments to the countless tales of love had failed. I had tried to add to the communal routines of romance and failed to succeed as well as succeeded in failure. I realized I do far more to say “i love you” when it is invisible in an ever expanding network of dial tone pollution.
I now know my texts serve a higher purpose. Lost in the tangle of incompatible satellite transmissions they glide effortlessly out towards some unknown nebula seen only in episodes of Star Trek. Deep into space like some foul ball in the game of love. Sentiment took over. Somehow I fell in love with this idea of my texts being some grand proclamation of love that I had inadvertently added to the drone of space, the tangled web of the virtual, and more importantly to the continuum of endless courtship. My own telegraph. They too do far more now than I can by saying “i love you” in the span of my short life with my mate. I do far more to spark my individuality by being with my wife.
I felt reassured and I wanted to share anything, I wanted to share with my grandpa, I wanted to share something original. I thought of the frequencies my grandpa had used, how they were still traveling across space winking at me from a far. Frequencies possibly in a deep space hibernation waiting to be discovered. I wanted to be part of that continuum.
Holding myself up on my elbows with my head in a crunch position I typed on my belly. I typed nothing original, in fact I typed the only phrase I knew in Morse Code, probably the most overused code that ever existed; the equivalent of texting LOL or OMG nowadays.
Clumsily I texted,
... --- ...
With my finger hovering over the send button like a hawk on prey, I prayed that a satellite relay would miss its coordinates and my message would be sent ricocheting off deep into the desert of space. I imagined it joining my grandpa's signal and I closed my eyes believing my signal would add to the momentum of the river.
I pressed send on the text in the same hopes that it will do far more. Either lost or found.
A beacon of dismay flashed back at me. “No Service.”
I let my head fall back to the desert floor as my arms flailed outward in despair. My phone went bouncing over brush as did my inept attempt to add to the universe. I laid as if crucified by destiny. My text went skittering across the desert floor on a short range journey across an impossible plain. A word tumbleweed. I think my cell phone “shot put” actually had gotten further than my electronic pulse.
Laying prone, I felt the grit of the desert holding me. Sand dug its way into the follicles in the back of my head. Time. Then hope crossed the face of this lame desert scarecrow.
Maybe I thought.
Maybe my electronic gesture will do far more. Its unintended new direction, its sacredness through brevity of existence, and its tumbleweed demeanor made me smile. I turned my head to the side against the dirt of the desert floor and imagined my current electronic plea dancing and oscillating amid the succulents of my intimate horizon, as it slowly dissipated.
I started counting.
... --- ...
.. --- ..
. --- .