Hacking at the Root

An admission to myself

Often devoid of credit, but the desire for credit

Must be the greatest admission of all—how small


See the bases get covered,

The circular logic spinning itself

As if I didn’t pay the pattern maker


A seemingly impenetrable barrier

Of laundered and distressed awareness:

Too clean to recognize, but too dirty for display


The willingness to understand


By the thirst to be understood


How often can I arrive late to my own sluggish conclusions?

Before the invitations, themselves

Return to an oblivious sender?


You hear my alarm as if I remembered to remember

As if the memories were available

As if availability was there when I needed it 


I was doing a lot less coke.  And the cleaner I got, the clearer I began to think.  I was still restless at night, scribbling in my notebook, but the verse actually seemed to be darkening.  Something was happening to me in increments, something that I wouldn’t have noticed had I been using; because I’d always assumed that the drug taking had darkened me.  But now that I was cleaning up, I was remembering that I wasn’t too cheery to begin with, so maybe the drugs weren’t the core issue.  Perhaps they were a distraction—or more pointedly, a symptom.  And I could buy nasal spray or whatever to manage the management, but clearly there was something inside me that required more effective handling.  Psychological shrubbery grown wild, the leaves of which I’d been hacking away at when I should’ve been hacking at the root.

There’s a scene in a film called The Salton Sea that opens with a tracking shot of a drug den.  It’s a group binge, the participants clearly enthralled, oblivious of anything beyond those walls.  Then the drugs run out.  Two are elected to go score, and as they head for the door one of them asks the time.  “Twelve,” says the other.  That means midnight, we assume, but then the door opens, daylight floods the room, and everyone recoils in horror.  That it’s noon doesn’t jar anyone.  It’s only the light—a literal assault on unadjusted eyes, but we get a metaphoric sense as well.  Light is the unwelcome reminder of the world out there.

I used to go to these parties all the time.  The only difference was that I was being paid, which provided a tidy excuse.  If you’re using regularly, you’re probably spending a lot more on drugs than you’d care to calculate.  You’re going out more and staying out later.  Eating, sleeping and exercise habits are being compromised.  You’re drinking more and smoking more cigs.  You’re talking more, listening less.  The only voices you really hear are the ones inside your head, and those voices are lying to you.

I remember one night at the restaurant, shortly after I’d moved back east.  It was a particularly busy shift and I was struggling to keep up.  Certain servers—I couldn’t tell which ones—were making it harder on me.  When I was watching, they’d do their jobs: placing the forks and spoons in the appropriate cradles to soak, the plates in the bus tub, rubbish in the trash bin, discards in the compost.  But when my back was turned, some would leave messes for me to disassemble: silverware, napkins, doilies, chicken bones—all jumbled together on shakily-stacked plates.  The few seconds this saved them clearly outweighed any guilt.  Sure, they weren’t dealing drugs.  They weren’t dropping bombs or selling bogus derivatives on Wall Street, but that’s my point.  We’re all for snuffing out insidiousness wherever it lurks, but we often overlook mindlessness and its cumulative effects.  That’s how it was for me: a slow accumulation of rationalizations and transgressions, and I see it everywhere now.  How often, and easily, convenience wins out over conscience, image over integrity.  This notion that you’re getting away with something—it’s like being holed up in a room.  It’s like hiding from the light.

Gone Daddy Gone (excerpted)

I’m thirty-six years old and I’m pacing the yard outside the house on Bright Street in Northampton, working up the nerve to call my father.  It’s warm.  I’m coatless.  I could do this all day.

But we need to have the talk.  I’ve been procrastinating.  I know my dad; he won’t make the first move.  I have to thank him for the money anyway; that’s my Trojan horse.  I take a deep breath and dial 727.  The light beats in my chest turn to those thumps: the ones I associate with anxiety, bullying, confrontation.

I’m relieved when he answers.  I didn’t want to leave a message, prolong this, plus it soothes me to hear his voice: warm and crackly with age, like an old record.  At seventy-five he’s mellowed considerably, seems content, and contentedness had never come easily to my dad.  We have that in common.  And then the divorce, his retirement, the move: all within such a short period.  Everyone was concerned, including my mom.  Maybe even her especially.

The small talk goes well, so I decide to regale him with the story behind my living situation.  He knows that my brother Michael, his own divorce pending, has lost access to his house—a judgment that was handed down on the same day I left California—but my father is unaware of the effect that this has had on me.

I was permitted to leave Los Angeles on the condition that I continue formal probation in Hampshire County, living with my brother, a reputable businessman and homeowner.  I was to check in monthly and find legitimate work, like any local offender, but now I had to explain to Hampshire County Probation that the housing, my transfer’s lynchpin, had fallen through.  I contacted Chief Foley from my childhood home, pled my case.  Foley was unmoved.  He gave me twenty-four hours to land an address in his county—or else.  That meant revocation of the transfer, and my LA-based PO had bitched about the paperwork.  His final words were “Fuck this up and I’ll hang you.”  I repacked some things and headed for the door, brushing past my mother on the way.  “What if you don’t find anything,” she said, “where’ll you go?”  Back to jail, I replied.  There was no time to bullshit her.  I drove straight to Northampton with the goal of targeting tattooed, wayward-looking women on Main St.  I realized the outlandishness of that, but it was too late for Craigslist.  That I succeeded can only be attributed to luck coupled with the Jedi mindset: that zone in which you simply cannot fail.  A young woman named Teresa took me in, a situation that would sour soon enough, but I could tell Foley that I was living there, on Bright Street.

Dad likes my story, which I tell comically, leaving out the part about mom’s despair.  He laughs easily these days, and in stark contrast to when I was young, he’s very attentive.  He no longer talks over me.  I thank him for the money, a much-needed two grand that helped tremendously with the settling process.  I’ll get it back to you as soon as I can, I tell him.  Of course he rebuffs the offer.  “You’ll inherit it anyway,” he explains, “why wait another ten years when you need it now?”  I tease him about his optimism, reminding him that he’s already outlived his own father by several years.  Again, he laughs.

I wait for the next lull, take a breath, and dive in.  No amount of mindlessness or impulsivity could explain a drug business five years running, so I make no excuses.  I just explain that I did what I did willingly, recklessly, methodically.  I paint broad strokes, sparing him extraneous details.  No point in defending my product line.  That I sold only what I used, eschewing heroin and other opiates, probably wouldn’t sound cogent to him, I assume.  To him drugs are drugs.  I do explain, however, that while I broke the law, I broke no moral code of my own.  Everyone involved was a consenting adult and no one was ever coerced, cajoled, etc.  It’s very important to me that he understand, “I never meant to hurt anyone,” and though I know how flimsy that sounds, I say it anyway.  He stops me, tells me that he gets it: the temptation, the lifestyle appeal.  He even uses the word “glamorous,” which I’m sure I’ve never heard him say before.  I begin to realize that my nervousness had nothing to do with any perceived disapproval.  It was about my father’s true feelings, and how I’d have to live up to them now.

Ever since his boys had grown he’d cherished every moment he could spend with us, in person, on the phone, and the divorce had only intensified that.  Here I am throwing myself on his mercy, and all he wants is for me to feel better.  As determined as I am to repent, I feel consoled, so I give in to it.  “I just didn’t know,” I say.  “The sales thing wasn’t happening, and then this opportunity comes along.”  Again, he tries to comfort me, tells me that it’s okay.  Now I’m the one talking over him.  My new job (restaurant, kitchen), the writing I’ve been doing, the possibility of grad school.  I’ll make things right, I promise!  Then I feel the tightening in my throat.  I’m trying to keep from breathing—no, I’m trying to keep from crying.  “One day,” I say, “I swear I’ll make you—” and my voice cracks on “proud.”  Now the tears come.

I can hear my father choking up.  His breathing labored, he struggles to tell me that he’s proud already, that he always has been.  We’re both crying freely now, yet somehow I can’t resist appealing to his manliness, for he ought to know: his boy was no punk.  “No one fucked with me in jail, daddy.  And the cops didn’t break me, either.”  Again, he tells me that he’s proud, that I handled myself well, the way he would have.  “You were always a good boy, James.” 

Now I know.  This man, the one I’ve wanted so badly to please my whole life, the one I’ve always suspected of having to accept my existence after the fact—he loves me regardless.  And he always has.

That would’ve been September or October of ’09, whenever I got around to making the call.  But I know that mom called in November.  I was headed home from the gym, I think, but I was definitely going south on King St.  She asked if I was sitting down.  I said I was driving, which answered her question in the literal sense, I suppose.  Actually, mom, I’m standing.  On the edge of a cliff.  Teetering.  That might’ve made a difference, who knows?  You can’t blame someone in shock.  “Your father had a heart attack,” she said.  “He’s gone.”