FLOYD

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(Photo by Tony Smallman)

 

This is true: in a concrete parking shelter behind the Portland Central Post Office, a seventy-two-year-old man named Floyd slept under a government surplus blanket. Floyd had worked on the assembly line at International Harvester in Rock Island, Illinois for forty years. He was married for forty-two years. I heard about Floyd from Dan. Dan runs a nonprofit called “Blanket Coverage;” he covers people with blankets for his vocation.

I do not make my living helping people keep warm. You might say I “cover them,” but that phrase would end “for a paycheck.” I write an obituary column.

I learned more about Floyd than about the deceased I memorialize. Six years of summarizing people’s lives in two-to-five paragraphs—exceed one column, you’re Section “A”–had given me a school yearbook view of the dead: “What’d you do? Who’d you know? Why’d you go?” Our staff (of three) prefers not to dissemble about our subjects, but we select which parts of the truth to report. Coroners and undertakers (as “funeral home directors” hate to be called) develop thicker calluses because they handle the bodies, but maybe that contact bestows a little honest humility. We’re more like newscasters who never move on to the human-interest story.

Obits sounded like a simple job: people die; I write about them. Pros—adequate pay, secure, home every night for dinner. Cons—slightly macabre, minimal prestige.

Turns out I missed some crucial points. Continue reading

Time Down Here

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It’s never that easy. Other people make it look easy, and I watch them with envy and chagrin and, when my heart can manage it, admiration. Some days I even feel joy, this ball of gratitude and pleasure that inflates my chest, one bike tube pump at a time, when I watch their eyes and their hands and their cheeks and I can almost, almost feel what they feel. They seldom glance at me. I’m not really there. Not in the same sense they are. I am incidental. When people look at me, they don’t see me, and they certainly don’t see me seeing them. If we make eye contact, they avert. They sometimes react as they would to a homeless person. I’ve seen buskers have conversation with people. I once saw a young man sit down on the concrete and chat with the old woman who plays her five-string guitar here. I saw him reach out his hand to her and grip her palm, squeeze her fingers as if he were greeting his own mother. Maybe he was. But no one talks to me.

I’ve often thought I could pick their pockets. They don’t see me, they barely register me, why would they notice if I took their wallets? Would my hand even take physical form if I reached into their purses, their overcoats, their jackets? Would they suddenly feel me and the sensation would race to their eyes? Or would their blindness travel down to their nervous system and numb any awareness of that tug?

I sweep. I mop. I don’t have disinfectant but I have a bucket. I pick up dropped cell phones. I’ve lost count how many. Sometimes, if I can get to a listing and find “home #,” I will call and try to tell them where they can retrieve their property. But now almost every phone is locked and I don’t spend hours trying to guess security codes. I just leave them at the newsstand where the gal who works the pre-dawn shift gets to decide what to do with them.

I empty the trash cans into the dumpster. I go through trash. I eat. I find things to help me. Continue reading

Loss

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This is a piece of a story I wrote in 1999.  I never went back and finished it, but as I was reading it tonight (looking through old writing, thinking about how to talk with my Bible class about prayer tomorrow), I was surprised.  This summarizes how I describe it still.

 

“Does it get better?”

“What?”

“Fuck you! You know what I’m talking about! Does it get better?”

His black eyes narrowed to slits. He looked ready to jump over the table and assault me if I tried to stall again. Does it get better? Of course it gets better; it has to get better. But I could not lie to him that directly. Sure, I could two-step around the truth and leave things unsaid, but…

“It doesn’t get better. You get different.”

“What?” The fire dimmed in his eyes. He would not punch me for being confusing.  Progress.

“You’re asking me if the pain goes away, if, after x number of weeks or months–”

“Years.”

“–Or years, whether the ache stops aching. That’s your question, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, the answer is not ‘yes,’ or ‘no.’ This pain just doesn’t work like that. Break your arm, the pain goes away, the bone mends, the cast comes off. Get pneumonia, your lungs heal, but they’re never as strong again. Sever a limb, and you can wear a prosthesis, but that new arm can’t be explained with, ‘yes, the pain went away.’ Oh, the pain’s gone, but only after they removed everything from the shoulder joint down.”

The anger had gone, replaced by fear.

“You still feel like a cripple? After eight years.”

I smiled, but not really. My face failed me.

“And six months. And thirteen days.”

“Shit,” he breathed. “You still count.”

“No. One day, in the first year, I spent a day that I felt like dying counting from every day of the calendar. It’s not tough math, and once you’ve run through it in your head, you never forget. Two-four-ninety-one. Simple subtraction in three columns.”

Damn! Why did I tell him that one? Helping. Focus on helping.

He nodded. I decided to take the lead before he asked another question for which he would not want the answer.

“Do you find it helps you more to talk about her or not talk about her?”

“’Helps?'” he repeated, “What does ‘helps’ mean in that sentence?”

“I guess ‘let you deal with your grief.’”

“No.” His eyes had gone lifeless, a salmon on display in

the market.

“I know, nothing helps in the sense of ‘makes better.’ I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about…well, when Rae died, I wanted to pin her picture to the front of my shirt, and set it on the table every time I sat down to talk with someone. That way, they would understand that she was part of every conscious moment, that my mind never left her.  People thought they were being polite, asking ‘do you want to talk about it,’ but that question pissed me off the most, as if I can’t handle having it brought up, as if I’m not thinking about her every waking moment of every pointless day.”

Pete nodded.

“So talking about her with others did not help much. I found that trips to the cemetery helped the most. Sitting in the grass, or walking aimlessly, reading the dates of birth and death. Being in cemeteries was the only time that my internal and external realities matched. Everywhere else, I felt dissonance.”

Pete nodded again. His eyes flooded, but he tried a wry smile.  I think it was supposed to be a smile.

“That’s why I like talking with you,” he said.