Costa Mesa Cafe

    I wasn’t sure if she was familiar because I knew her from somewhere, or familiar because she had that look that reminded me of when I’d lived here. Reminded me of the brunettes in the land of the blond.

    Her summer dress was flattering in the way it showed her curves but avoided ostentatiousness. The woman who met her with a chaste hug seemed to be an old friend. The conversation was quiet enough that I could only catch bits and pieces. Obviously they had known one another years ago, maybe school.

    It didn’t take long for subtext to arise. She had a wife, but her romantic notions hadn’t been met by the real world experiences. The post-school years in Europe led not to a country lifestyle, but to a nominally appreciated corporate job. Words like sustainability and inclusion don’t mean as much when the checks have a conglomerate logo on them. Her tablemate smiled sweetly. 

    The reminiscence shone in her eyes. The sky outside was cloudy, but the blinds were down in anticipation of the typical eastern sun. I wondered how her eyes would have looked in the sun.


    When I thought of Victoria, I thought of high school sweethearts and missed opportunity. She had been not only kind and thoughtful, but smart and sexy in a way that was effortless. She may have been generous enough to survive my emotional wreckage if I had been strong enough to be honest. Instead of telling her that I needed time to figure out who I was and whether I needed something that I didn’t know how to find, I could have told her that I didn’t know how to avoid recreating the wreckage of my childhood. I could have told her that I was lost and confused and that I had no understanding of how to show love to a human being that had needs distinct from mine.

    I had told her things that I had never told anyone, admitting faults that I had barely acknowledged to myself. I had told the stories to push her away, as though my self-hatred could create pity in someone else. It only brought us closer in a way I couldn’t understand at the time. Intimacy in my family had come with sarcasm and unspoken betrayal. Intimacy with Victoria had been earned. I broke both our hearts.

 

    Her tablemate actually reminded me more of Victoria. Straight chestnut brown hair that demonstrated more burgundy in the sun. An easy smile of bright white through plump pink lips. Lean legs and friendly curves, and a slight limp that brought memories of the elegant scars that Victoria had across her left leg from a childhood dog attack. Her lilting inflection so that I could hear her smiles, even though I couldn’t see them. Her economy of words, allowing every syllable to build the conversation, to help it grow, like interconnected logs of a cabin, somehow more impossibly straight and sturdy together than the individual pieces could ever be.


    I had failed at finding love and instead found marriage. A dozen years of relationship is a victory, but it had imploded and exploded simultaneously, blowing up quickly and painfully on me, and burning inside her for years after. I was stubborn and insistent, but I at least knew to toss my cards once the other players had left the table. She kept them crumpled in her hand until the lights went out. And yet, here I was, twenty years later, wondering what Victoria was doing.

    That may have been why this woman a few tables over was familiar. Not for the hair color, but because she had that same grace in her eyes. The same smart fire that couldn’t hide her emotional intelligence even while she was speaking about education and history and the expanse of personal dreams in a global world.

    Victoria had provided me with so much, I wondered if she ever got anything in return. I had cared for her, provided affection and the behaviors of love, spoken in the only language I knew, kind gifts and brutal honesty, clear commitment and confused self-pity. We had provided one another with clumsy sexual awakening and tentative experiences. Even now, many lovers later, hers was the skin that I thought of. Hers was the ideal thigh that would could picture between the spread fingers of my grasp. Hers was the breast with the dark freckle that I would think of sliding my tongue over. Hers was the silky body hair tickling my nose. The earlobe under my teeth. The leg intertwined with mine on a cool night. The slick, neutral taste of her tongue. The gentle scent of her sweat in bed. Even now, decades later, I can feel her in my arms.

    This reminiscence is my undoing. It prevents me from overlooking the upturned nose of the woman in the summer dress. The nasal drawl of her tablemate. The gap of the server’s teeth, to much like my hated own. The slumped posture of the young woman eating with her dad. I create reasons why each of the women in my life, each of the failed romances and clumsy second dates end because they fail in comparison to a romantic ideal that memory has created. It sits, not in gauzy recollection, but in clear-eyed, picture perfect recall. But it is only that, a picture. Not a real world, only a two-dimensional shutter click. A perfect moment in time that fails to acknowledge the decay that would accrue, and the beauty that it can bring.

Court Day

May, 2003

The ceremony was casual and relaxed, outdoors, in the backyard of my grandparents’ house. My bride and I chatted with our seventy guests, dressed for the ceremony, before it started. My sister officiated and the simple ceremony lasted less than five minutes. It was just what we wanted.

Photo from unsplash.com

Photo from unsplash.com

December, 2013

The hearing is scheduled for 9:00, and we’re both shivering from anxiety and chill. It’s one of those winter days that the sun rises and the temperature starts to fall. I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation for it, but it feels illogical. I got here at 8:40 and she was already standing out front. As we’ve waited the temperature has dropped ten degrees.

It’s now 9:15 and we are here, standing in front of the courthouse, waiting for her missing lawyer.

The divorce is no contest and I’m not required to attend. I didn’t even hire a lawyer, so only she has one. Yesterday she told me that I didn’t have to be here and that she may start crying in front of the judge if I’m here. I apologized, but told her that I couldn’t imagine not being there, it’s something I have to do. I need this memory.

We’ve each called the lawyer three times, and sent text messages as well. We’ve looked inside the court building, but no sign of him. The clerk directs us to the room in which our hearing is scheduled. We enter the room and there’s no sign of him, so we sit and wait, both anxiously holding our phones.

9:25 and the judge calls our name. We stand up and she says the lawyer isn’t here yet. He tells us to wait and moves onto the next name.

It’s 9:40. I offer to print the only document that we don’t already have printed out, in case the judge will continue without the lawyer being present. She agrees, and I’m out of the courthouse and in my car. I find a copy shop a mile away. The whole time we’re texting back and forth and calling the lawyer.

At the copy shop the lady behind the counter helps get my document prepped and asks if I’m having a good day. I say “No…but it’ll be okay.” I notice the smallest wedding solitaire I’ve ever seen on her left ring finger. I notice ring fingers a lot these days. It’s become a reflex.

She prints out the documents and charges me. As she does, she says “I hope your day gets better.” I say, “it’s ok, someday it’ll make a funny story.”

It’s 10:00 and I’m back in the courtroom. Still no sign of the lawyer, and I can see the anxiety in her darting eyes. I don’t want to be here, this whole thing wasn’t my idea, but at this point, I just want it to be over.

The judge calls our name again. I stand up and offer that I have all the documents and ask if we can proceed. The judge says, “Not without your lawyer.”

We both call the lawyer again.


I didn’t want the divorce.

When I finally gave in and agreed to this, I really thought I’d done all I could, but the feeling of failure was immense. I had spent years doing my best, succeeding occasionally, failing often. I had changed in the last decade, much more than I expected to.

Now I just wanted it to be over. I wanted to deal with my failure on my own terms and move forward. Dealing with the lawyer, the money, the court, it just became the business of it all, and I wanted the business done.


It’s 10:10. We both call the lawyer again.

It’s 10:15. The lawyer has sent her an email. It reads I’m so sorry…I will call the court and reschedule…

“No way,” I say. “Tell him he is supposed to be here and we’ll wait.”

I seethe about the fact that I called him five minutes ago and he is replying by email instead of answering the phone. She emails him back: We’re here now, we don’t want to reschedule.

A few minutes later he responds with I’ll be there when I can.

As she continues to wring her hands I say “Aren’t you glad I showed up today?”

She says “You’re always right,” which stings a bit under the circumstances.

We settle in to wait and watch a hearing before the judge. Dad is in a wool suit and tie, Mom is in a slinky knit dress and high-heeled boots. The hearing is about whether their court mandated divorce decree can be modified so that Wool Suit can send his teenaged daughter to a counselor even though High Heels doesn’t approve. He is quiet, but I sense control issues. She is loud and fidgety and I sense emotional distress. The judge is listening to the lawyers and snacking on chips, as if he he were watching a courtroom in a TV show instead of presiding over one.

The hearing devolves into something that would strain belief if I made it up. High Heels can’t stop interrupting the proceedings to chime in or by shaking her head or grunting. Wool suit can’t stop talking when asked a simple yes-or-no question, and doesn’t realize he sounds just as crazy as she does, yet in a much quieter way. Eventually the judge takes a minute to admonish both of them and the lawyers. He says, “I’m quickly losing patience. This should have only taken a few minutes.”

We are watching slack-jawed while giggling a bit. At one point my to-be-ex-wife looks at me, and says sincerely, “Thank you for making this easy.”

High Heels is being hushed loudly by both her attorneys. They are joining the judge in exasperation. They are saying things like “You need to stop.” and “Just walk away.” She keeps picking up a legal pad and scribbling furiously on it then pointing at it to her attorney. He keeps waving her off.

The judge says something, then stands up and walks out of the courtroom. He just leaves. Wool Suit walks quietly back to his seat. High Heels walks to hers and begins picking up her papers. Her attorney walks by and she starts saying something to him. The attorney says “You’re killing me…” and keeps walking out of the courtroom.

Our lawyer shows up. He looks in bad shape. His hands are shaking, he looks pale and feverish, his hair is not properly combed, and he has cut himself in several spots with his razor. His suit is pressed and buttoned nicely, but otherwise he looks like the caricature of the guy whose briefcase is crushing documents in the seams as he is darting up the courthouse steps, glasses askew on his face, tie hanging loose. My anger dissipates into relief that he’s here, and she looks at him and asks “Are you okay?”

He doesn’t answer, but apologizes and begins to collect the papers he will need for our hearing.

High Heels and Wool Suit have joined their attorneys back in front of the judge. He speaks plainly.

“You guys have good attorneys and you are making their work much harder. I don’t feel the need to make a decision today, seeing as you already have a hearing scheduled for two weeks from now. When you get back in the courtroom, I hope you can act better, because at this point, I can see why I should be worried about the health and well-being of your children.” Damn. Even our attorney looks a bit surprised at this.

They are dismissed and our names become the only names on the docket. The judge calls our name, and this time we are invited to approach the bench.

The attorney introduces the case and hands the judge the decree. As he reads it, making notes, I stare at the plaque with his name on it. I think about the fact that my wife and I are standing before a judge, asking him to end the marriage that started 10 years and six months earlier, standing before friends and family and officiated by my sister. I can feel the tears welling.

My tears are preempted by the judge asking the lawyer about a couple points in the document. He hands the Divorce Decree to the lawyer and the lawyer makes changes in pen, and she and I initial each change. The judge offers the floor to the attorney who asks her the questions she needs to answer to satisfy the judge. She is mostly facing away from me, but I can see her tears as she answers the questions, then she’s finished.

The judge faces me, and asks me a few questions. I answer affirmatively and he announces that the marriage is over and signs the paper.

Photo ©2018 Joshua Leto

Photo ©2018 Joshua Leto

We are outside the courthouse. The wind has picked up and it’s even colder than before.

The hearing only took ten minutes after two hours of waiting. The lawyer is apologizing sincerely, and with a great deal of embarrassment. We both tell him not to worry, but it doesn’t seem to settle him.

She says “I’m just glad it’s over.”

He apologizes again.

I say, “I’ll admit that until you walked into the courtroom, I was pissed. But it’s okay, we forgive you.” We shake hands and he walks away.

She asks where I’m parked. I point north. She points south. She takes a step toward me and gives me a hug.

We walk away in opposite directions.

Do We Want Fake News?

Do We Want Fake News?

JPEG image-CDEC42F08D9F-1.jpeg

Even in the title to this brief essay, I found myself challenged to come up with a headline that struck a proper balance between interesting, descriptive, and philosophically honest. The best I could come up with was one that is semantically honest. In an effort to be philosophically honest and to subvert Betteridge’s Law: I do not want fake news, I just don’t think most people really consider the effects of feeding the algorithms that provide their news choices.

I read this tweet yesterday:

“.@Google killed its Reader in 2013 because RSS as a format doesn’t track browsing to sell ads, and lets the user chose what they want to read. As opposed to algorithmic personalization which siloes us into increasingly homogenous demographics for advertisers” @LucLewitanski (www.twitter.com, 7/2/18)

When I read this, it triggered these thoughts: I still use RSS as a news source. And, dammit, this is probably true.

I consider myself moderately aware of my own cognitive dissonance, and I try to combat it proactively when reading the news. For example, in my Apple news feed, which is the most algorithmically personalized source that I regularly use, I have added NPR, Fox News, The New York Times, and Breitbart as favored sources. Even with such ideologically different sources, I find the articles I tap on end up defining my reading preferences in ways that I want to avoid. Based only on my experience, I expect that most people’s Fox News online reading is loaded not with right-wing bolstering, but with crime stories. To test this, I navigated to foxnews.com using a VPN browser extension that said I was in the U.K. (As I write this, I live in Texas, but am visiting California.) I then clicked on “U.S.” on the homepage and was treated to a list of mostly political news stories, but check out this screenshot of the link to “Trending in US”:

from foxnews.com on 7/6/14

from foxnews.com on 7/6/14

The top three links are the types of story that usually show up in my Apple News feed, the fourth is nominally political. If I were to believe the perception that my Twitter stream offers about Fox, it would be that they are more focused on feeding me right-wing propaganda than anything, but they seem happy to follow the mainstream news maxim, “If it bleeds, it leads,” but this is self-fulfilling. There is likely a preference among readers and viewers for these stories. I certainly fall victim (pun intended?) to at least reading the headlines, even if I don’t click on most of the stories. And when I do resist the temptation to read the ones I’m most curious about, it’s at least partly because I don’t want to feed the algorithm.

I am a proud skeptic. When I describe myself as such, I don’t mean in the sense of leftist politics and fake-news-fighting. I even try to avoid cynicism, though I am frequently unsuccessful. I believe in skepticism in terms of lack of belief in objective facts. I believe all facts are subjective because I believe humans are unavoidably subjective.

When it comes to media and my skepticism, I recognized the opportunity for easy media silo building as a teen. I grew up in California in the pre-internet era and loved reading the L.A. Weekly and O.C. Weekly, mostly for the movie reviews and concert listings, but as a voracious reader I was so hungry for material that I read most of the cover stories, which frequently highlighted local political and social issues. It seemed to me that they trended strongly leftist and they seemed to sell me a different perspective than the Orange County Register, which seemed strongly right-leaning. I realized that if I read about an issue in both, I could feel confident that the information that was presented the same in both sources could be a reasonable simulation of a “fact.” I still take a version of this approach in my media reading in an effort to avoid the silos.

Which brings me back to RSS. Frankly I use it to largely avoid mainstream headlines. The most mainstream is NPR’s news headlines, which provides me with the closest thing I’ve found to bi-partisan summaries of national news and capsule views of international stories. I mostly use RSS for fairly niche art blogs or webcomic postings or “indie” music news or “alternative” comics news or the handful of online writers I like who offer RSS feeds. None of which I can reliably get from Apple News.

I know that I have created my own silo of information with my RSS feed, but at least it’s not an international company’s algorithm creating it.

Having presented my personal perspective, I see little example (anecdotally) of people who resent this algorithmic consolidation. I think that most people are happy with the news that is packaged and delivered to them in a way that doesn’t test their mindset to strenuously. I say this not with disdain, but with envy. I occasionally wish that my head were not filled with skepticism, but that I could unselfconsciously enjoy the world around me. And I could write another five thousand words on why I don’t wish that to be the case.

I am happy in the silo I create by following non-homogenous sources, self-selecting for people like me. People who don’t buy the mainstream American approach to systemic homogenization. My family is filled with people I love who are very happy with their Facebook feeds and Apple News headlines. I have tweens and I can’t decide on which side of the fence I want them to end up. Do I want them to suffer my continuous dissatisfaction, or do I want them to be mostly comfortable with whichever biased (“fake”) news source they like the best? That is a question I don’t have an answer for, Betteridge be damned.

Great Things About President #45

Number Three

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One of the frustrating things about being a typical American when it comes to politics, is that the system is ridiculously obfuscated. Even when I’m interested to learn how my government came to a decision I’m flummoxed either by the motivations of its players or the behind-the-scenes dealmaking one assumes is always present. In an era where everything is analyzed and illuminated, from sports events to smart phone releases, it is rare to hear detailed reporting from “the room where it happens.

A beautiful thing about #45 is that he is incapable of hiding his intentions, desires, or feelings. I am cynical enough to believe that our politicians are at least as cynical as I. This president has unwittingly dragged the back-door-dealing of politics kicking and screaming into the public eye. I am only capable of mentally tracking political events back for a few weeks at best, so if you read this anytime after tomorrow, forgive the feeling that I’m talking about ancient history.

Politico featured an interview with Mitch McConnell where he specifically talks about explaining to Trump why ending filibusters will be bad for politicians. “I’ve told him repeatedly, the votes aren’t there to change it,” he said. He also describes himself explaining a very basic concept of government, “I remind the president occasionally…but for that [the filibuster] we would have socialized medicine [and] right-to-work would have been eliminated across the country.”

This strikes me as good news because every time someone has to explain why #45 is doing something ignorant, we the people stand a chance of being less ignorant about it. We also, as a country, come closer to agreement when a perceived party ally of the president can provide an explanation for why he is being unreasonable about an issue.

Another example of opening the doors to the secret room came out of the president at the G7 summit. Fox News described his contribution to the G7 as “contentions (sic),” saying that he “roiled his allies by first agreeing to a group statement on trade only to withdraw from it”. The article continues by explaining the Angela Merkel told German public television “that she found Trump’s tweet…’sobering’ and ‘a little depressing.’”

The beauty of this is that it is hard to imagine a recent president, Democrat or Republican, upending the expected norms of such a significant group. Can you imagine George H. W. Bush griping in public about Helmut Kohl? Or vice versa?

Some people fear that this president is destroying the respect other nations have for America while others are celebrating his apparent lack of kowtowing. Those who fear the destruction of respect are both underestimating the intelligence of other nationalities and overestimating the lasting damage one president can do. Those who celebrate are doing the opposite. I personally like to see through my rose-colored glasses and believe that the rest of the G7 (for example) understand that #45 is an anomaly in the progression of our country’s drive toward greater understanding and international compassion, and believe that, save for Supreme Court Justices, the president has little lasting effect on the nation. Whoever fills the roll of #46 will be able to undo most of what #45 does, as long as they continue to do it unilaterally.

In any event, my feeling is that in America, little of this political discussion really matters. On with the status quo.

Taking Dinosaur Jr. Camping

I put on Green Mind today, playing it on my phone while driving. Listening to it transports me back to 1991. I could feel the cheap foam headphone covers sitting on my ears as I fold and unfold the tiny liner notes from the cassette. I would stare at the cover photo during the solos and guitar noodling, and read and reread the text inside. I am sitting at a campsite in Yosemite, massive evergreens providing shade from the blue sky summer heat. J Mascis’s raspy yelp providing  voice to my teenage insecurities. I can hear the cl-clack of the Walkman reversing to play side two and when I take the headphones off, there are serene whispers from the river and wind and squirrels and birds.  Listening to the album over and over again, as only a teenager is capable, it feels as peaceful to me as the woods I am witnessing.

Yosemite, 2014

Yosemite, 2014

This Yosemite campsite has been a part of my life as few other places have. I was first brought here as a baby before my memories even began, and now bring my own children here. It is one of the few places on the earth that I don’t need a media distraction to survive. I can sit on the bank of the river, or better yet, float in it, and be enveloped by nature. I have never meditated in my house for more than a few minutes, but I can settle into a relaxed reverie among the leaves and needles and sounds and let the world outside disappear. I couldn’t tell you what was on the walls of my bedroom until I was twelve, but I can visualize for my kids the fourteen-foot-round boulder that was destroyed in the high waters and rolling rocks after 1998’s monstrous snowfall melt pushed coercive forces downstream. 

J Mascis seems like an artist I can relate to, even if the irony was that if I have the chance to meet him, I may not bother him and he would likely be happy about that. I liked that he didn’t bother putting his picture on record covers. I enjoy singers who don’t seem beholden to vocal consistency. I love the ragged nature of of the voices of Tom Petty, Laura Jane Grace and Kathleen Hanna. It’s partly because I can relate to how they made those sounds. I could maybe, on a good day, create a warble that could sound like that, whereas I could never make a sound like Roy Orbison or Aretha Franklin or Mariah Carey. I can’t identify instruments in an orchestra, but guitar, bass, and drums are within my mental grasp. J Mascis has a voice that I love singing along with.

This was my first Dinosaur Jr. album and I could see the control issues. "Guitar, J Mascis. Bass, J Mascis. Most drums, J Mascis. Produced by J Mascis". DIY with a boldfaced capitalized underlined Yourself. When you’re a teenager that can find few to relate to, that solitude is welcoming.

I’ve always been happiest when asking questions. Answers leave little mystery to uncover and seldom satisfy, but questions are eternal. Any answer can be followed with a question. The first chorus on Green Mind is a question, and goddammit if that didn’t resonate with me. 

We’re all nuts, so who helps who?
Some help when no one’s got a clue
Baby, why don’t we?

A Call From Whitehurst

“Hello, this is a call from Whitehurst Penitentiary. All calls are monitored. Will you accept the charges? Press ‘one’ to accept, ‘two’ to decline.”

    beep

    “Thank you. You will be connected shortly.”

    …

    “Hello?”

    “Hi.”

    “Thanks for answering.”

    “Sure.”

    “I’m, ahh, calling to see how you and the girls are doing.”

    “We’re good. Sarah just got her last report card for the year. All ‘A’s. And Hannah’s swim team just won their third straight meet.”

    “And Kim, how’s she doing?”

    “She’s good.” I looked up at the ceiling. The fan spun slow circles. “How are you doing in there?”

    “I’m surviving. When're you coming to visit?”

    “I’m not sure, it might be a while. Maybe for your birthday.”

    “I just had a birthday. Aren’t you going to be in Litchfield in August?”

    “Yeah, but, you know I don’t like to bring the girls up there.”

    He paused.

    “They’ll be out of college by the time I get out.”

    “Maybe.”

    “In fact…uh…I wanted to ask you a favor.”

    “What is it?”

    Another pause. “I'd like to borrow some money.”

    “Borrow? What for? How much?”

    “I found a lawyer who would file an appeal. He thinks he might be able to get my sentence reduced...by a lot, maybe ten years. That could get me out next year. He thinks maybe appeal the weapons possession and get the penalty reduced to just false imprisonment and possession with intent. The state could still hold me for ten, but not twenty-five. I met him in the wait, and he represented a guy that just got bounced. He’ll get to see his kids graduate. I could get to see my grandkids graduate… I… I think, I just… look… I know you think I’ve fucked up. I know you think I deserve to be in here… I just…”

    We sat in silence, hundreds of miles apart. A thin crackle on the line and voices in the background on his end. The hum of the ceiling fan on mine.

    “Call is ending.”

    The silence continued.

    He was next to speak, “No one deserves to spend their life in here. The worst fucking people in here don’t deserve it.”

    The silence returned.

    “I don’t think I can give you money.”

    “You don’t even know how much—“

    “What I mean is, why do you deserve it more than anyone else? Why should it go to you? People have less than you’ve thrown away and wasted.“

    The line died with a click.

    “Call has ended.”


    The lady behind bulletproof lucite studied me as I approached. I wrote my name and his on a clipboard and she looked at them.

    “Wait here. Someone'll be with you shortly,” the woman said as she pointed to a handful of seats behind me.

    I glanced at the wall clock and sat two seats away from a young woman and two children. The oldest couldn’t have been more than five. I wondered who they were visiting and thought of my own girls, eight and ten. I stared at nothing in particular.

    Fifteen minutes passed and they called my name. I stood and saw a guard approaching through the small square window in a door to my right.

    He looked at me and I puffed up my chest to show him my name tag sticker. I heard the heavy clang of the bar lock being released and walked through the door. The guard and I nodded at one another at the bar clanged shut.

    We paused at a room of traditional barred doors at either end. He chattered into a walkie on his shoulder and we were buzzed through the first. It was locked behind us. We repeated the process and were buzzed through the second. We made a right turn in the hallway and came to a door much like the one where we first met. He released the lock and he stood behind as I walked through, then he it locked behind me. 

    It was a modest visitor room. There was a guard in each corner of the room which was a simple rectangle with ground mounted tables and chairs. There was one more guard strolling through the room. There were high tiny windows that allowed a touch of natural light to supplement the fluorescents.

    I found an empty table and sat down, facing toward the door in the room that I hadn’t entered through. I tried to study the people around me without staring.

    None of the inmates had any type of shackle on hands or feet. They were young and old, as were their visitors. There were families, lawyers, and friends.

    I thought about the bright smiles I saw. The night would be darker when the convicts were back in cells and the visitors were back in their homes. Just as the time between their meetings had made those smiles brighter.

    The door opposite me clanged and opened.

    My father shuffled into the room, the familiar green jumpsuit hanging on him. He glanced around and quickly identified me. A smile rose on his face and he stepped toward me. 

    I stood above my chair and held out my hand. His smile dropped a little as I did. “Hi Dad.”

    He took my hand and shook it, “I’m glad you came to visit.”

    “Sure.”

    “I got the pictures you sent me, and the book, thank you.”

    “You’re welcome.”

    “It’s been forever since I’ve seen you in person. What, eighteen months?”

    “Something like that. Jack visits regularly, right?”

    “Yeah, he’s here about once a month, more or less. Brings his kids every three months or so. I wish you’d brought the girls.”

    “I know. I’m just not comfortable with it. They’ve been here twice, and that’s enough. They don’t ask to visit you.”

    “But I’m their grandfather, and they’re just kids.”

    “I’m not going to tell them they should want to visit you.”

    He tilted his head toward the table.

    I continued, “Look, I just think they are old enough to decide. The age they’re at, they don’t understand how people end up in prison. Maybe later on they’ll be more curious than scared, as they learn about more of the realities of life. Not all kids get to stay kids. I try to make sure mine will.”

    “But, I— .”

    “So, anyway, I’m here to talk to you about what you asked before. About the money for a lawyer. I’m not excited about this conversation, but I thought you deserved—that we could look each other in the eye.”

    “I appreciate it. So, here’s the deal. Jack already gave me five grand, and I’ve reached out to Tony, who still won’t take my calls. But that still leaves me five short. I don’t know what you’re money situation is like, but I know you’re doing ok. You take care of your family, I’ve always been proud of that.”

    I sat quietly and waited for him to start again.

    “It’s just that this could make such a difference in my life. This place… I can see my future. I’m only 58 now, but another twenty years, I don’t know if I can make it...with this lawyer I could be out at 65, it just gives me a chance to have a little life before I die… a chance.”

    He joined me in silence.

    “Dad… I… I don’t know. I don’t know why I should do this. Five grand won’t kill me. It’s not like I have it to burn, but I have money in savings. I just don’t know why I should. What have you done to deserve it?”

    “I’m your father. What about family?”

    “I know you’re my father. I can see it when I look in the mirror, but blood doesn’t mean family to me, and I learned that from you as well. There are people I would give my life for are not my blood, but they’re still family.”

    I could see his jaw clench as I continued, “Why do you deserve this money more than anyone else. Why do you deserve it more than Jack? More than Tony? And why should it make any difference at all for anyone.”

    I paused and he opened his mouth to speak, and then stopped. His teeth were slightly apart, and I stared at them. They were stained from years of cigarettes and black coffee. His pause continued, so I restarted.

    “I know you’re my father when I face every decision I make. The times I shut down. The times I let my kids have whatever they want just because they’ve asked for it. The times I treat them like adults instead of the children they are. The relationships I’ve blown up because they might be good. The fucking sarcastic dismissive jokes I make when people say something stupid. The—“

    I could feel the heat rising, my ears burning and my forehead flushing. His face softened as well. He clenched his teeth and dropped his eyes toward the table between us.

    “I apologize for getting upset.”

    “You’re my son. You don’t have to apologize to me. You never have to say you’re sorry.”

    “That’s wrong. I do have to apologize. I’m not apologizing for you. I’m apologizing for me. I recognize that I don’t have to let the anger and pain and frustration control me. It controlled me for years. I don’t want the anger to be in charge.”

    For a brief moment, I thought I could see recognition land in his eyes.

    “The anger doesn’t make decisions for me anymore. I still fuck it up here and there—actually every day I still fuck it up, but at least I can see my fuck-ups.”

    “When you called last month, my first thought, right after you got off the phone, was ‘Fuck that guy.’ It took me a day to even acknowledge the rage I’ve felt for decades. But behind all that anger was just a pile of pain. Just kid who didn’t understand. Who would put his who family at risk?

     "The anger didn’t mean shit. The important part was this hurt kid who had to figure this shit out. I turned it on everyone around me.”

    His eyes were back on me, and there was a genuine sadness in them. It wasn’t his fake frown to gather sympathy. Just in his eyes. His jaw clenched again to keep his mouth shut, as though he were literally biting his tongue. He released it and spoke softly.

    “I’m sorry. I did the best I could.”

    I felt the heat rise, but kept it in check, “I know.”

    “You don’t know what your grandpa was like. How he treated Tony and me. At least I didn’t do that.”

    He stopped and the sadness in his eyes was replaced by the pain of those memories. His look grew distant, as though he were staring, not just though me, but through the walls behind me, and the fences past them, and the trees past them, into the past and present and future all at once.

    I knew what my next words would be, but I let him sit in those memories. I kept contact with his eyes, even as they stared through and past me, through and past all my experiences, all our experiences together.

    A full minute later the loud clang of a door brought him back to the room. He spread his palms onto the table and his eyes brought me back into focus. The soft voices around us murmured back into the peripheral world, graciously drowning out the voices in my head, and his.

    “You have no idea.”

    “I know. And that’s why I came here to talk to you in person. To tell you face to face that I can’t give you the money.”

    “Why not? Because you’re still pissed that I fucked up? Because you think I was a shitty dad? Or because you think I deserve to be in here? This is your revenge?”

    “No. None of that.”

    “Then what?”

    “Because it’s not right. It’s not right to deny you out of anger, or out of pain, or out of selfishness. It’s not right to get revenge. But it’s not right to do it out of pity, or righteousness, some fucked up notion of family that I don’t believe in. I’m not going to give you the money because it’s not the right thing to do. Are you here because you deserve to be? I don’t know, but it’s not for me to decide. I have no doubt you did the things you did to get here, but who the hell knows if this is the answer. I have no doubt that few people deserve to be in here, but that’s not between you an me.”

    “But you could make a difference, right here and now. You could help me get out of this place that so many of us don’t deserve to be in.”

    “But I don’t know these other people, and I can’t afford to get them all out. And more importantly, I don’t know if they should be out. I’m sure some of them deserve to be here and some don’t. Some of them had every opportunity and some had no opportunity whatsoever. Some of them have been getting the short end of the stick their whole lives and this place is just one more place they get hit by it.”

    “But I—“

    “But you. You know, you never once said to me today, or any other time, that you didn’t do it. Probably because you know I wouldn’t believe you anyway, but you earned that, too. You gave me so much bullshit over the years that you destroyed your credibility. And that’s why I’m not going to give you the money. I don’t believe you’re going to use it any better than I will.”

    “Well, it doesn’t seem like I’m going to convince you otherwise.”

    “I didn’t come here to be convinced, I came here to tell you in person. I came to tell you why. I came here to give you the respect you deserve as a human. But not to give you the money.”

    “So, I’m just stuck in here? So I…”

    He let it trail off.

    We sat in silence. I could feel the turmoil of guilt and sympathy in my gut. But I kept silent.

    After a moment he stood up and turned around.

    I stood and faced him, and waited.

    After another moment he walked to the guard by the door. He said something and the guard nodded. The door clanged open. He walked through. It clanged shut behind him.


    “Hello, this is a call from Whitehurst Penitentiary. All calls are monitored. Will you accept the charges? Press ‘one’ to accept, ‘two’ to decline.”

    beep

    “You will be connected shortly.”

    …

    “Hello?”

    “Hello. Is Hannah there? I’d like to talk to her please.”

    “Sure.”

    I carried the phone upstairs and found Hannah on her bed, headphones in, computer on her lap. She saw the door open and was staring at me.

    “It’s your granddad.”

    She dropped the headphones and stood up, took the phone from my hand, and turned back around, dropping onto her bed.

    “Hi granddad.”

    …

    “Yeah”

    …

    I backed out of the room, but stopped in the hallway and leaned against the wall.

    “Yeah, we learned about family trees in history class, so I wrote you the letter.”

    ….

    “She’s good.”

    …

    “No, she’s swimming at her friend’s house.”

    …

    “She’s good.”

    …

    “Yeah, it’s good. I got all As and I’ve already got a four and a five on two AP tests.”

    …

    “Yeah, that’s good.”

    …

    “Calculus, that one’s the hardest.”

    I moved back toward the door of her room. When I stood in the door frame, she looked at me, then back at the ceiling.

    “Yeah.”

    …

    “Ok.”

    …

    “Yeah.”

    …

    “Ok, do you want me to get dad?”

    …

    “Ok. Bye, grandad.”

    She set down the phone and looked at me.

    “He didn’t want to talk to you.”

    “That’s ok, I understand.”

    “Why?”

    “I don’t want to speak for him, but I think he’s mad at me. And if you heard the story, you might understand why as well.”

    “What’s story?”

    “It’s a long one.”

    She sat up and I sat on her bed. She pulled her legs up and wrapped her arms around them. Forty minutes later, I finished by explaining how he’d walked away that day, and that we hadn’t really spoken since. And that when I read the letter she sent, I hoped that this phone call and this conversation would occur.

    “Do you ever feel bad? Don’t you think you should’ve helped him?”

    “I do feel bad sometimes. But I think I did the right thing. I did the best I could.”

    She leaned over and hugged me, and I smoothed her hair and kissed the crown of her head. Then I went downstairs and started dinner.


    The sun was falling into clouds on the horizon as we approached Jack's house. The street was crowded with cars, and humidity was weighing down the paper “welcome home” banner. Noise came from in the house and the backyard. Hannah and Kim stepped in front of me and opened the front door. I followed and closed it behind me.

    I turned right to the living room as Kim and Hannah hugged my dad at the same time. I stood frozen just outside the room.

    After their embrace, he reached back down and took his cane and shambled toward me. The voices in the room fell back as my vision focused on my dad’s face.

    When he got in front of me, he leaned heavier on the cane and reached out to me with his right hand. I shook it.