Sunday night phone call, around 8 p.m. Maybe 1985:
Izzis…uh…ah…ah…hey, izzis dah number with dat guy? Guy whos gots all dah answers? I hear yoose gots a guy.
Luigi! Yeah, we gots him! He’s back from his West-chest-ah whirlwind kneecap-crack-a-thon! What’s yoose wants mees toos asks hims?
(High school kid laughter.)
Yo, yo, yo! What is up in the uppity-up-up?
Nothing, man. Just…Sunday night. School is done. (The sound of textbooks raised a few inches and dropped.)
(Laughter.) Sounds like done!
Yeah. Man. Just…. It’s dark. Just thinking about school.
Oh, yeah. It’s out there. Waiting for us!
It’ll be there no matter what! How’s that for comforting! (Laughs)
(A silence just long enough to be uncomfortable. And then:) Do you ever…uh…you know. Worry. About all of it.
(Quiet, but then laughs.) Anything and everything! I mean, what do we do? Why are we doing it? Why am I lugging all these books back and forth all the time? Writing all these numbers? I don’t know!
Yeah. Yeah. Like you look up and wonder. The stars don’t take tests.
No, they surely do not. But we do!
Heh. Yeah. Hey, thanks for taking me out to the field, to look. They were really bright out there. I’d never been back there. And then walking up to the tower…. I’d never been up there either. I see it all the time but never thought to try and go to it. Funny.
Yeah, that’s the red steady light! I see it on walks. All those warning signs made me feel like goons would pop out at us any second! At least we know it’s working for the phone company.
Could be working for the CIA. Reprogramming us to behave in school.
Ha! Yeah. You will turn in your homework! You will not peel out of the parking lot!
(Laughing going to quiet.) Funny. I never realized how close it is to your house. I look at it from my house all the time. I went and looked at it earlier before it was dark. Made me feel better. Knowing it was out there and you were out there. That everybody’s out there in the same Sunday.
I wonder if anybody else thinks like that. There’s that tower! And I have to go to work tomorrow!
I’m happy we went out there. It’s like something came together and I have something connected I didn’t before. And I didn’t know you could see the stars so well here in town.
No problem at all. Any time. Billions and billions! All of them out there, swirling around, and who knows who’s looking back at us. Wondering if there’s anybody looking back at them!
Yeah. They’ve got to be out there. It makes sense. There’s just so many.
Yes! And here we are! Sunday night! School tomorrow.
But we’re gonna go to sleep, and we’re gonna wake up, and it’ll be here! And we’ll be there! And then it will be Monday night! Tuesday! Wednesday!
No stopping it.
Nope! Not ever. I know how you feel. Trust me, I know! Hee-Haw comes on and I know what day it is and I feel like…gosh, what happened? Where’d it go? What are we doing here? That’s big stuff, out there stuff. For right now, right now, we got everything done. We saw the stars. We walked all the way up to that tower. And school is just school and that’s all it is.
Yeah. Yeah. Thanks. Thanks.
Hey! No prowblem! Yoose needs anythings else, yoose just call Luigi!
(Laughing.) Okay. I’ll do that. For sure. Thanks.
Yup! And, goodnight!
(A click, then a silence, clicks and clicks to tone. It comforts me. I hold the phone away and look into it, and I can almost see the perfect burble of electric stream.)
This year’s presumption was against going to Texas for Thanksgiving. The job is full-bore, no emotional gravity has me freefalling into an abyss, and with my parents’ September visit I have only a few hours’ vacation time left. Last year I was in desperate need of a place to go and be, and my parents’ house in the town where I mostly grew up was as good as any. This year I can stand on my own, but it isn’t a bad thing to see my parents more often. My adolescent need to break free is satisfied, though I have learned there is a comfortable limit to intimate family time. Four days returning to Seattle on Friday is the cheapest the airlines provide. A few clicks and it’s done. Thanksgiving now is about speed.
I tell few I am coming, the whole point to spend time with my parents: my oldest friend, a friend that has become old, and someone who has been friendly through long gaps must all be accommodated. A loose schedule fits on a Post-It: Monday with the friend who taught me about codependence and endured three-hour phone calls fresh after leaving my marriage, Tuesday with my oldest friend and his family camping in Oklahoma, Wednesday to see the other. It works out, though staying on my own Pacific time makes Tuesday shorter than I’d like. Dad sticks his head in my sister’s old room and announces the agreed time, but I am so tired. Drained, but to a rich, loamy sleep. I’d planned to be at his Oklahoma campsite by 10, but at that time am only backing down my parents’ driveway. Yes, it’s vacation time and my friend has nowhere to be, but it’s not like I see my oldest, closest friend every day.
No trip can be more American than the one I took the Tuesday before Thanksgiving 2013. Monday’s foggy cold has given way to clear north wind holding every oversized Texas and American flag at full horizontal, I-35 northbound a steady river of pickups and giant cars going too fast. Airports loom out of the prairie, then rises and washes clogged with fall-brown bramble, flat rises sporting white-faced warehouses. The Oklahoma border is marked by a giant Indian casino sign as imagined by the pharaohs. I get lost on side roads, and while calling to get straightened out marvel at color and shape: golden leaves trapped in scrub oak snaggle; brushed white pebbles trapped in licorice asphalt; the sky a vacuum blue come from winter’s closeness to space. Autumn here is color and air.
The park is not far, and all but abandoned: gatehouses are closed, camper slots empty. A long narrow road pushes the trees aside with wide ditches, the lake choppy at the bottom. Asphalt rivulets wind down to woods and my friend’s camper, nestled beneath oaks.
He comes out. I get out. In a moment, the hardest months when his voice was a string I clung to are resigned to memory, because now he is not a voice, but all of him.
I apologize for being late. We talk about the cold, and he reports that for the first time in all our lives the autumn leaves had color. His wife comes out and we chat about polite things I don’t remember. He refixes tarps covering the pop-out camper and we retire inside, greeting the children who are absorbed in books, bored in the way teen children are. It’s close and green and battery-lit, like cheating but your parents are okay with it. I’m happy.
He and I walk, no one else willing to join. All the better. The chip-and-tar road winds past the camp super, his giant red pickup and camper a bulwark of sheetmetal comfort, down to a long asphalt tongue emptying to boat ramps. The modular restroom construction is explained: four prefab sections hauled in and connected together, fascinating in the way practical tools fascinate us. Seattle had automatic restrooms for a time, I explain, stainless steel cylinders that rotated shut and cleaned themselves on the hour. (Complaints about costly German engineering caused their removal, though I wonder if a shiny German thing that looked like a suicide machine bothered the upscale hippie tightwad voter.) We veer off the asphalt to a trail, a park path to my eyes, partly paved and partly sand smoothed over where the asphalt should be, brilliant leaves and half-naked trees all around, and stone walls, and golden light.
We stop at the wall and talk, the trees protecting us from the space beyond the sky. We talk about what a hard year it has been for me, and how grateful I have been for his voice on the phone. He says what he always says: It’s no problem. Never a problem. Never worry about it.
Magic hour deepens, the light opening its volume large enough to walk in. I sit on the rock wall and we talk about the stars, the millions of miles and years. It’s different now, being older and knowing more in a way we wanted to know but adults could never tell us. The world is sicker, in the realest sense. Earthquakes in Wichita Falls from gas drilling; poisoned water in a land of to-be-permanent drought. People drive their giant trucks and live in their suburban houses secure in bubbles of money and air conditioning, removed from the reality of stone walls and the sky that does not care about us, no matter how much we pollute it. The world we grew up in–new cars every year, plastic everything, roads and roads–is not the natural order of things. Reversion to the mean will happen. We talk a long time about this. We don’t know what it will look like, only that it will be very, very different from everything we have known.
The fall light has no strength, only volume, and the wind blows hard, straight from the pole.
You know, my friend says, I know only one other person who talks like us. Who understands at all.
We are quiet a while. We are in a deep place feeling the depth. The sky stretches down its empty hands and we feel the walk of time. A lot has changed since the seventh grade.
Then I think I say something about the rocks, how as a kid in Texas I missed snow and real trees and real rocks like these. And here some are, just two hours north. Pennsylvania farmhouse walks had country roads lined with leaning rock walls like these, walls that wandered out into the woods. My grandmother and I would chase them, looking for alien pyramids.
The light is long-lived down here. We walk away from the shelter wall and the trail returns to road. No traffic bothers us. Place won’t fill up until Wednesday, Matt says. Man, you should see it then. We walk past a playground, green pipes for kids to hang on like a prettified refinery ruin, stop at the camp bathroom nearest his truck. It’s old school cinderblock, the institutional mustard-lemon paint half-lit by single incandescent bulbs, everything warm from groaning heaters. Funny how everything municipal-built when we were kids looks like this, I say. Reagan saving us from ourselves.
I will admit the most animal pleasure possible in a strange place is having a bowel movement in a warm, safe bathroom.
We retreat to the camper and have tea, hot water from a coffeepot. I don’t remember what we talk about, really, but it is friendly and warm and close. Humans make a hearth more than the fire. We have several cups of tea as the kids read and the heater clicks on and off. We don’t talk about the things from the woods. That is too huge a thing to bring inside.
Outside to check something, we walk to the lake water. It is a long walk, the years of drought having taken their toll, the grasses encroaching where the water once was. The fine sand sports the occasional shell, and we see a Seventies pull-tab. The water is clear and cut through with chop, and here at the water’s edge it feels like the desert to come, the dimming sky distending down to the lake’s empty bowl, pull-tabs gleaming in the sun. Now all is clarity and cold, my friend behind me hanging toward the land. It is the shadow side of magic hour, darkness and void taking the stage. It’s a long way from seventh grade, I say, and my friend laughs with agreement.
My father donated firewood from his considerable piles, but the prospect of gathering around the firepit strikes me as overstaying. I am tired, have promised the last friend a visit tomorrow, and still need to put in work hours (as promised to my timecard, connecting virtually to work and doing some). Feeling in a dream the whole trip, I don’t think it’s smart to stay too late and drive back even later.
So the long goodbye starts. My personal style has always been to leave long before the party’s end because it feels easier to break away from a plateau instead of a decline. We stand under the old-school mercury vapor streetlight, its blue bubble fending off night. We have had so many goodbyes like this, under driveway floodlights or dormitory hallways or streetlights with crickets all around. We talk a while as if we are on the phone. He understands getting back. We are both responsible types, unable to entirely shake off The Man’s needs, or what we imagine them to be.
There is never enough time to say the things we need to say and hold them long enough, and in the holding let them go. I am realizing this will always be true. He gives me a hug. It’s not too long, not too short–fine, just fine. And then we are talking and walking away, me to the rental car and him to the camper, and the lights turn on and I am backing up and then driving away into the Oklahoma night.
Thanksgiving day I have an early dinner with my first friend, at her parents’ house. The walk is a crashing stroll through leaves, stepping aside for barefoot kids pedaling Big Wheels. November light is bright. My friend’s parents seem distant and preoccupied, but food is abundant. It is the bright kind of cool that flirts with warm. A Seattle friend calls to make sure I have someplace to go. Standing out the front door in a sea of neat browning lawns a few blocks from what was my high school, I am touched and feel great about it. Sounds like things going great. And that’s great.
It is great. I don’t feel any Black Friday ramp-up, no rush or expectation. Neighbor families are out talking, laughing, only a few cars going by. Economists and their blather are nowhere, and that is good.
Early dinner lurches when the kids leave, my friend’s attempts at conversation falling flat on her parents and boyfriend. I rescue a few times and get a few laughs, but nobody’s playing but us. I am as grateful for their hospitality as I am discomfited by it, the stilted energy straight from high school. Outside I walk down the leafy path through the modest neighborhood near the high school that I have never been on. The place has secrets still.
Goodbye with this friend is shorter, easier, a different density: a hug and a bag of the Mexican candy her son brought back that she wants out of the house. I look around the little space that is the nexus of her life where my phone calls drop into, and while I feel surreal and dizzy, I do not feel lost. I am perfectly now. I get in the rental car and go.
Years past I would drive, looking for something. Last year I did not, and this year I catch myself before getting to deeply into it. Our old high school, now consigned to a middle school, is still blank and surprisingly small. The parking lot is open and the painted numbers that marked our spaces are another year eroded. Even the past is moving on.
The tower isn’t far. I haven’t thought of it at all, though I have looked out at it from my parents’ house. It’s harder to spot now, its Cold War era microwave feedhorns removed to now subsist as a cell tower. It is diminished, a stick with no ears, belly-heavy with the cell antennas only midway up. The town is becalmed with holiday, nobody outside, the brilliant fall light nothing to celebrate here. Something connects I had forgotten. I have time. I will go to the tower.
While the tower stands unmoved since my childhood, it seems lost like little old prairie house marooned among freeways and strip malls. The old community park and pool at its feet have been torn down, replaced by corporate-esque soccer and baseball fields adrift in a grey parking plain. One massive gate is closed but another is open, and driving to one end puts me at the old dirt road that led back to fields where an exercise trail ran. (As young kids, heavy wooden stations with placards explained how to do pullups or calf stretches. By college the elements had degraded them to leaning husks; now they are gone.) The water crossing is still there, and the concrete weir. There are no signs, no fences. I cross over.
The field is still here, now a mowed place for power lines to run. We would come here from middle school through college, looking around, marveling or tsking at the truck ruts run through the mud. My old town is a nexus of high tension wires, the steel giants running along streets and through fields, everywhere. In high school, Matt told me a neighbor kid had climbed one of the towers to kill himself, touching an arm-thick cable while holding on to the tower strut. I remember it was dark and hot, summer relentless, and for the first time the world’s immensity had no wonder.
A determined walk brings a wall of mesquite scrub, a dirt track punching through. The incline is gentle but worth unzipping my jacket. It is startling how powerful the sun is, the light a kind I have not seen for many years: bright with child lightness.
Financial instruments have been busy since the housing bubble, transforming untouched plain and scrub into “housing developments”. I consider the term an oxymoron. The land didn’t need “developing” into anything, having come to its current homeostasis through millions of years of adaptation. It will long outlive the quick-build-and-get-out mentality that builds roads assuming houses will follow. Didn’t the pushbutton mortgage era end? Doesn’t seem like it.
Turn my back and the present disappears, the land the same as 1979: dirt track, trees, grass.
This land is not like the Oklahoma of two days ago. It seems thinned out, a grasping interface between moisture to the east and scrubby desert to the west. As a kid I was frustrated, disgusted at the puny trees, the grass that had no loam in it, everything spiny and scratchy: no English garden here. But in the now I can see how some people find it beautiful, at certain times. It is so clear here. The people may have pretense, but the land is honest.
Here is the height of honesty, the center of the panorama at the top of this essay. This is the last point offering a view backwards, the top blocked by trees. Directly center where the horizon meets the sky is a long, thin hump; to the left of that, with a tower on top, is a smaller peak. One or the other is called Brown’s “Mountain”. They present a moderate challenge to a runner or biker for a few minutes. Local lore asserts it is owned by Reba McEntire. For me it has the feel of geology, the ancient seas receding to reveal this sandy, washed-over place.
The road becomes a deep channel, impassable to vehicles, though I see running shoe and dog prints. People must jog here, finding country charm. The curve rides up a berm and the sun beams hard from the west, but the view is obscured by brush. There is no trash here, at least. Another minute and the trees and road give way to a clearing, the road roaming everywhere underneath the tower’s linear presence.
It is different now, to be sure: shorter, lopped off. It must have extended higher to hold the microwave feedhorns, giant grey Dumbo ears pointing every direction. They’re gone now, the elaborate Cold War communication system they were a part of disassembled. As a kid I worried about our chances of nuclear destruction, Fort Worth’s keystone position of weapons manufacturing highlighting it as a prime target for Soviet missiles. The local news played booster to all the good jobs doomsday weapons provided, eliding what they could lead to. Late weekend nights I stayed up late watching rubber suit monster movies, the world gone mad after nuclear war. I read A Canticle for Leibowitz, Alas Babylon, and the Harlan Ellison tour de farce A Boy and His Dog. All the while this tower in my midst must have carried codes to silos and bombers and submarines, lit up DEFCON boards, rung phones in secret offices. Now, Thanksgiving 2013, the height of an age has been cut off and reduced to commerce. Ages always pass.
The trees keep a secret I don’t remember. I am coming to see something I have already seen for the first time.
Approach is diminutive. The road is a deep rut, drainage pipes broken, a catch basin covered with wood weathered the color of ashes crumbles into a pit choked with bottles and fast-food cups. Weeds are everywhere. The short gravel driveway runs to a fence run over with warning placards, beyond which all is weedless gravel, dun-colored brick blockhouses, and conduits. It has the feel of a municipal thing that is the very last line item, kept going out of maintenance crew charity. But it hums. It is alive.
I take pictures, look around, try to remember. To the south is a country road and houses, trucks in the driveway: this is nothing special to them, having always lived in its shadow. For me it is plain and real, apart from but not disconnected from thirty years ago when I looked out at it and wondered what it was. When Matt and I walked to it, we must have marveled at its construction, another amazing and unknowable Grownup work whose function was unknowable. I wonder what you can see from the top, I bet we said. It would have excited us, just to be with it. Standing with it would have marked the end of a kid journey, a kid triumph.
Its starkness befits Texas.
My oldest friend has spent his life within a few miles of this place, out of choice. He and his wife were wrenched from beloved first homes when young and did not want their children to have the same experience, so have stayed close to family, close to the tower. Over the years my friend would detail taking his young son to the same creek he played and caught fish in, and his growing son’s fading interest in such pastimes. They walked to the tower, though I don’t know if the son marveled as we did. In my darkest adult hours I told my friend how I thought back to the petty worries of school, my heart black with fear of it, blacker still with the future, and how I stood at the old hayfield fence that blocked off my subdivision from the leftover countryside, looking out at the tower’s blinking lights and thinking of him. It felt safe. I knew there was always somebody out there.
I put a sadness on the tower. I had the idea it would always be taller than me: I could never understand its construction, be someone who designed such things. For a long time I believed this. There is a strange, comforting safety in presumed failure.
Now it is now. It is a happy Thanksgiving, my oldest friend cooking a turkey on a gas grill by a lake, dinner with my parents yet to come. It has been a hard year but it is not hard now. It is going very well. It’s a shock. It makes me feel quiet, early yet, nestled in clean sheets.
I am quiet with the tower. It hums. People are calling through it, sending Thanksgiving wishes, giving directions to dinners. It will stand a while still.
I follow the dirt track a different way and end up at another corner of the housing development. Incomplete roads end at barriers. To the rear of this picture men are working, their pneumatic tools thunking ticky-tack mansions together on a holiday.
This was a solitary place. Back in that time, I can imagine kids not at all like my friend and me coming up here to smoke and drink, bushes and beds of trucks platforms for teenage escape. Younger kids imagined monsters, or places to explore. Now it is an archipelago surrounded on all sides. But it’s still there.
Tuesday afternoon phone call, 3 p.m. my time, 5 p.m. his time, August 2013:
Hello. How’s the beach? I feel bad calling you on vacation. I’m intruding.
It’s totally fine. Totally fine. Everybody is off walking down the beach and I’m sitting in a chair on top of the truck, and it’s just beautiful–sunset, the water, everything. I get one whole bar up here. Hope it holds out!
I’ll take the smallest of miracles right now. Including the modern one of having a phone at the beach. Especially one with you at the other end.
You doing okay? Today better?
Yeah. Better. The shrink had some suggestions. I upped the dose. Shaky still, but better. Feels like better is building but not here yet.
Man. That’s one rough ride you’ve been on. But I’m here. I can listen.
I’m grateful. Just hearing a voice willing to put up with crazy talk helps.
Man, I know! You may not think so, but I do! But it’s all about the future. And about now. Like we’ve talked about. There’s rough times and then there’s good times, and we are all on the bus together, going through them. It’s going to get better.(A pause, with waves and distant shouts.) Times like this I remember that microwave tower by your house. I’d go out and look at it Sunday nights when I felt sick about school. Knowing it was there–you were there–really helped. That tower is still there and so am I. And you can depend on that. All the times we’ve talked over all the years–it’s helped me too. So don’t ever worry about it. I am here, through it all, flashing my red light. The red flashing light of sanity! (A deep sigh into the thing that is not sanity.) Thank you, man. It is no problem. No problem at all. Boy! So fantastic out here. Busy, too! All kinds of people. Guys with those long poles fishing, big fires, people running–really something. Sounds great. Controlled madness. A Chevy Chase movie. Would you be interested in coming with us? We’ve had our kids’ friends along sometimes, but most people bail out at the end. You could rough it in a popup camper!
You…. Yes. Yes that would be great. Especially the beach. I love the beach. Funny, the best thing about Texas is the beach and I only ever went twice. Stupid. Should have taken whole summers there.
Well, I don’t know what the plan is, but we usually go somewhere for Thanksgiving. I’ll have to let you know. Could be the beach again. Or could be Oklahoma!
Doesn’t matter. I’ll be there.
We can talk about the tower and the infinities of space and time and be amazed. Just like old times! Just like now.
I’m ready for amazement. Ready for moving forward again.
You are, man. Every day.
Well, I should go in. Get back to work. I’m really glad for your one bar.
So am I! That one bar carried by satellites and cables and towers. And here we are! Two time zones different but it’s still now. And the meds are helping, right?
Anything else, yoose lets Luigi knows!
(Laughing) Okay. I will. Thank you, man.
Sure thing. Bye!
(The parking lot shines with summer light and car chrome, and there is a warm wind. I feel, powerfully, that my friend is gone, but that is just the chemicals and all the confused electricity. He is there. We are on the bus together. The tower blinks.)