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Durant Station

14 Sep

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Durant is situated at the intersection of U.S. Highways 69/75 and 70, fifty-two miles east of Ardmore and seventy-six miles southwest of McAlester. Occupation of the townsite began in November 1872 when a wheelless boxcar was placed on the east side of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway tracks. In 1873 Dixon Durant erected the town’s first building, a wooden store, on the east side of the boxcar. Named “Durant Station” for his family, it was shortened to Durant in 1882.    — Oklahoma Historical Society

I tease Amy that she comes from a desert state.  Growing up, that’s what I assumed Oklahoma to be; a vast wasteland of parched earth and the lined faces of those who had tried to farm it.  The truth was more familiar.  Another town that seemed to revolve around the chain stores and fast food restaurants out along the highway, while the once vibrant downtown limped along on the strength of its few remaining businesses.  Another community that no longer wished to commune.

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Heath doesn’t see it that way.  For one thing, a couple miles down the road is Okie Donuts, where, I kid you not, they make the best donuts in the world.  Heath used to ride out there in the morning with Amy’s dad for coffee and a Boston Creme.  Now I take Heath.  The owner treats him as a special guest, having come all the way from New York.  And then there’s the donuts: light, fluffy, and sweet, but not too sweet.  Good sweet.  The kind of sweet that gets you out of bed at 6 AM, because if you’re too late all the maple will be gone.

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After donuts, we drive back to Durant in the early morning light.  The highway’s faster, but we take the back way, just like Amy’s dad.

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Farmers are talking outside Wright’s Drive-In as we roll into town, sipping coffee in the morning sun.

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Downtown the buildings still stand, soaking in the light and giving back the warmth and color of their red clay bricks.

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And somewhere in the past, a button-nosed girl is buying a ham salad sandwich at Durant Drug and stepping into the Plaza Theater for the afternoon showing of Endless Love. As romance blooms onscreen, the streets outside grow humid and warm; humming with footsteps, the laughter of chance meetings and the sound of cars going by.  The sun is low as the movie ends, and the girl and her slightly scandalized mother step outside and make their way home, past friends and neighbors; checking the time and talking about dinner as they go.

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The sounds fade, the air grows cooler, and the people disappear.  Heath and I are alone on the cobblestone street.  The drugstore is gone and the Plaza is now an office building.  For the first time Heath grows impatient, so as we walk, I try to paint the picture for him, attempting to bring to life a town I never knew, but which did so much to create his mom.  He listens, he nods, but he’s ready to go.

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The heart of Durant may be battered and worn, but I don’t think it’s moved out to the highway.  It’s not in the McDonalds drive-thru, and it’s not at the Waffle Shop, and it’s sure as hell not at the Walmart.  No, it’s still downtown, where the old facades continue to glow, beautiful and resilient, like Amy, her family, and so many of those formed by this place.  The heart beats softly these days, forgotten by many, but it’s there:  fifty-two miles east of Ardmore and seventy-six miles southwest of McAlester, just east of the old boxcar, waiting for those with ears to hear.

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Flow

19 Feb

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“We Americans are trained to think big, talk big, act big, love big, admire bigness but then the essential mystery is in the small” — Jim Harrison

We were away, and it was much needed.  Doubt had crept in.  Our little world had taken a turn and much of the unspoken support we relied upon had become suspect.  Along with the broken snow shovel and old clothes, friendships had become frayed, and as if we were traveling familiar terrain in an unexpected snowstorm, we had come up short, lost in a sea of white, unsure of the direction home.

Walking along the Delaware, we swap Heath’s camera back and forth.  The hills are quiet, and the river speaks a language I don’t know, hiccuping, groaning, and burbling its way through a world slowly becoming solid.

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We see things differently.  Heath fascinated by the small and near, while I look for sweep and curve, trying to take it all in.  But his eye is good, finding the beauty at his feet while I continue to scan the horizon.

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Comfortable with the stillness of the day, he’s a pleasure to walk with.  The incessant banter of our life at home has settled down, and we listen to the water and the wind as he walks on, stopping occasionally to look around, as if searching for signs.

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Watching him, I search for signs myself.  What does he see?  In a brain whose synapses gather and splay like a flock of birds, what does a snowy day in the Catskills look like?  How does it feel?

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People are hard, and those that appreciate us are rare.  That’s true for anybody.  The natural world, though, that’s something different.  Perhaps it’s where we can best appreciate ourselves.

I hand him back the camera and he snaps the shutter, catching me unaware.  Taking a moment to check the image, he nods, and walks on.  I catch up, and walking beside him, we follow the river home.

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Proud

11 Dec

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It was already dark when Amy and Heath got home.  I had told Hallie we were going for a walk and she already had her shoes on, having struggled into her pink velvet boots, which weren’t the shoes I would have picked, but in Hallie’s world they worked.

When Heath got home, he was excited.  We had told him about the shopkeeper down the street who had been beaten a few days ago by a man shouting “I kill Muslims.”  The Giving Tree, our local yoga studio, had organized a meditation for peace, and we thought we should stop by.

On our way, Amy and I went over the meaning of meditation, leaning heavily on the fact that it would be quiet, and we should do our best to keep it that way.  Heath continued walking, happily bopping along, seemingly oblivious to all I had just said.

“Heath.  Heath.”

“What?”

“Did you hear what I just said?”

“Yeah.”

“What did I say.”

“We have to be quiet.  I got it, I got it.”

The crowd was small, forming a circle on the corner in front of the store.  Seven or eight people sat on the sidewalk meditating.  A few dozen others stood around quietly, some holding candles. Hallie was up on my shoulders and I rocked slowly from side to side as she took it all in.  Occasionally she would say, “Wow.”  One of the women on the ground smiled.

For about two minutes it was really nice.  Then Hallie wanted down.  So I ran her around a bit off to the side, where we wouldn’t disturb anyone, and we quietly took the kids inside for a treat.  Cookies, chips and crackers were gathered, and as we were digging around for our money, Heath stepped to the counter and said, “I’m sorry for what happened to you guys.  I hope you’re OK.”

The shopkeeper looked at Heath for a moment, then touched his heart, assured him they were OK, put his palms together and bowed.

Heath then said he couldn’t believe anyone would do something so horrible and started into a rant about the generally shoddy condition of humanity, which confused the man, and Amy had to step in.  But for a moment there, he had really nailed it.

Walking home, I told him I was proud.

“Why?”

“Because you spoke eloquently, and you spoke from the heart.”

He thought about that for a moment, and then said “Oh.  OK,”  before moving on, heading towards home, seemingly oblivious to all I had just said.

 

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Love Fatima Food Mart

Astoria Gathers to Support Fatima Owner After Anti-Muslim Attack

The Giving Tree

Sycamore

22 Apr

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“Why is the cross the symbol of Christianity?” 

“Well, it’s supposed to signify the sacrifice Christ made for all mankind.” 

I know, but it doesn’t really seem like much of a sacrifice.  He was only gone for like a week.”          

—  Conversation with Heath, shortly before our trip to Oklahoma

I notice the tree as we pull into the driveway, its hacked limbs struggling over the roof and into the sky.  John and Sue bought this house shortly before I married their daughter, and the tree over their back deck shaded our wedding festivities, a party for which her father and I drove to three different places, including a gas station with a smoker out back, to get just the right assortment of barbecue.

They’ve been waiting over an hour for the ambulance.  Battling pain and plummeting blood pressure, John is struggling with both his illness and its treatment.  I call the ambulance again and go back to see him.

“Hey John, how you doing?”

“Oh, I’m doing OK.”

We talk for a moment, and he does seem, not great, but OK.  Heath has been worried, so I ask, “John, do you feel well enough to see Heath for a moment, he’s been asking about you.”

“What? Sure, sure, I’ll talk to Heath.”

When we return, things have changed.  Now in pain, Amy is helping him back onto his pillows.  Not recognizing the situation, Heath begins.

“Hi Pawpaw.  I’m sorry you don’t feel well and that the chemo is making you sick.  Dad says you’re even having hallucinations.”  Amy shushes him with a look, and I lead him back out of the room.  Through the front door I see the ambulance pull up.

In the days that follow, while the rest of Amy’s family camp out at the hospital, Heath, Hallie and I take care of her parents’ house.  I open windows, tie back curtains and lift shades.  Heath plays video games while Hallie and I watch T.V., walk down to the mailbox, or play catch out on the driveway.  Amy calls, we visit the hospital, and then return to await more calls.  Two days in, late at night, I get the one I don’t want.

I don’t want to tell Heath his grandfather is dying, but I have promised never to lie to him.  So when, in the darkness following Amy’s call, he asks again if his Pawpaw is going to die, I wait, remembering Amy’s firm denial of the possibility only hours earlier, and then, looking into his open face, say “Yes, it looks that way.”

“What?”

“It doesn’t look like he’s going to make it buddy.”

After a moment he breathes, and with his breath comes a high, animal sound like nothing I’ve ever heard.  My ten-year old son is keening.

“No!” His face is a grimace of teeth and tears, his voice a howl.  “Nooooo! Are you sure?  Is there no chance?”

“I don’t think so Heath.”

“No chance at all?”

“I don’t think so.”

And then he starts to pray.  I have never seen Heath pray, but he is praying now, laying on his back, his knees pulled in toward his chest, his clenched hands held above him.

“Please God.  Please!  Don’t let my Pawpaw die. Dad, do you believe God answer’s prayers?”

I hesitate.

“I believe he hears them.  I don’t think he always answers them the way we want.”

“But there’s a chance.   At least there’s a chance.”

“A very small one.”

“Well what are the rules?  Are there a limited number of times you can pray?”

“No, no.  You can pray as many times as you want.”

Though still crying, he is quieter now.  If he prays more, I do not hear it.  We must have slept, for when I look out the window the sky has begun to lighten.

“Dad, do you think God will answer my prayer?”

“I don’t know buddy.  But I do know it was a really good prayer.”

Silence.

“If Pawpaw dies I don’t know how I’ll ever be happy.”

The evening skies of Oklahoma go a fair way toward making up for everything else.  As the day cools, the air slides from a clear robin egg blue down into warmer pinks and oranges while the wispy clouds shade into gentle swipes of purple and gray, a vibrant display that, for a time, makes everything below seem irrelevant. Occasionally on such evenings John and I would talk, sometimes on his front porch, other times out back beneath the shade of the sycamore.  He’d always want to know about Heath and Hallie, his kiddos.  But though the skies are lovely over the following days, we don’t have a chance to talk again.  John does not make it home.  It’s just the kiddos and I.

The Monday after the memorial service a hard rain sweeps across the neighborhood, great gusts of wind snap limbs, damage the back fence, and struggle to carry away the stubborn old patio umbrella no one wants to run out and close.  After years of drought, the storm is too late to save the sycamore, and serves only to remind us of the danger it poses.  Sue tells me that over the past summer the tree “just burnt right up.” She couldn’t water it enough.  But she hates to see it go, for one limb is still alive, covered with buds and young leaves, offering the hope of a bit more shade in the days to come.

Sad for a few days, Heath finds happiness again in the family he loves.  He’s a different kid though –  more open, more present, and more thoughtful.  He won’t talk about John, though.  It makes him too sad.

Amy and I don’t talk much either.  Every time we try, I feel my own distance.  She did ask if I believe in heaven and, shamefully, I dodged the question.

But should it come up again, I’ll tell her that I don’t feel like her father is gone.  He’s here with me, much as he always was.  The conversations we had, the times we shared, and the solid feeling in my chest that I have for that man are strong.  Whatever he taught me is there.  The confidence he gave me as a husband and father is there.  He is with me, he is real, and he is not going away.

Heath and John Easter 2013

Walking the Dog

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Alone Again (Naturally)

11 Jul

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Cigarettes and beer on a warm summer breeze. 

To this day, walking the streets of New York, I’ll turn a corner and bam!  There it will be: that essence of summer 1972.  And I have to stop, because, for a moment, I am nine years old, sitting on the porch of our Lake Michigan cottage, holding my little Sears & Roebuck 9 volt transistor radio, listening to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally.”

It’s an odd song for a kid to fall in love with.  A father dies, a mother dies, a young man’s abandoned at the altar.  I believe suicide may be contemplated.  But none of this really matters.  Because it’s not the words so much as the gently loping beat, like the saunter of a sun-kissed girl walking along the sand, a melody with the quiet insistence of waves on a shore,  and that distinctly English melancholy of something beautiful coming to an end.

Cigarettes and beer.

It was a crazy summer.  My cousin Joni, sixteen and wild, had run away to California, only to turn up several weeks later, with a copy of Joni Mitchell’s Blue tucked beneath her newly unshaven armpits.  She would play “California” and then solemnly intone to whoever would listen, “It was just like that.”  She was so cool.

But even cooler was her friend Memphis.

First of all she was from Memphis.  Second of all she would take driftwood  and turn it into art, painting it with a big letter “M”, and clouds, and seagulls and stuff.

But mostly, she would talk to me.

We’d sit on the porch as the sun went down and the beachgoers across the street packed up for the day, and in her exotic southern accent she’d tell me stories.  Like how her sister had been home sick one time when she heard that her boyfriend, whose Camaro Z28 was the baddest car in all of Memphis, was stepping out on her.  How her sister had pulled on her bathrobe, tied a scarf over her rollers, and headed out in search of that Z28, and how, finding it parked outside a local burger joint, she had stopped the car, walked inside, and dropped her boyfriend’s date with a single punch.

And we would talk about girls.  She tried to get me to believe that the prettiest weren’t always the nicest, and that I should always give the less attractive girls a chance.  I didn’t really believe her, but I lied and told her that I had a crush on a girl who wasn’t very pretty at all.  She smiled.

And as the night settled in, and the rangers locked the gates and began their patrols, we watched the spotlight on their pickup sweep across the darkness, while the adults inside the cottage gathered around the big table, talking and laughing, playing cards.  The breeze lifted the hair from Memphis’ face and I stole a glance as she looked out across the water.  It was 80 miles to Milwaukee.  Too far to see.

 

Heath came to me last night as we were getting ready for bed.  Having mistakenly tried to eat ice cream from a frozen scoop, I am holding a bloody washcloth to my lips.

“Dad, can we go out on the porch and talk for a while?”  There’s an urgency in his face.  He’s afraid I’ll say no.

“Sure.” I mumble, getting some ice for my lip, which is beginning to swell.  “Go on out on the porch.  I’ll be right there.”

The fireflies have finally arrived, and as I join him they glimmer up and down the block.

“There’s one!” he shouts, jumping up and following it around the porch.  Fascinated by this little piece of light, he is every inch the nine-year old.  But soon he will be ten.  He borrowed my sandals for the first time this week.  Still puppyish, he is growing into his feet.

We talk about his first day at summer school, his new teacher, his friends.  When things go quiet he pushes for more.

“Is there anything else you want to tell me or anything you think I should know?”

Struggling to maintain the conversation, he leans on the professorial cadences he finds so comfortable.

“Dad.  Is there anything else you want to tell me or anything you think I should know?”

I laugh, because of course there’s too much.  And then, gently, I say “You know Heath, we don’t always have to talk.  We can just sit together and enjoy the evening.”

“I know, but I like to talk.”

So we do.

 

In a few weeks we will return to Lake Michigan, and a town that is in many ways unchanged.  But it won’t smell the same.  Most of my family are gone now, and sadly, they took their packets of Kools and their Pabst Blue Ribbon with them.

But, for my kids, there are two houses, a grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins galore, as well as porches, sunsets and the breeze off the water.

I heard years ago that Memphis had become a nurse.  I’m not sure where.  But I like to think she’s still out there, telling stories, painting driftwood, and giving sage advice to precocious lovelorn little boys.

Her hair was auburn.  She was sixteen.  I think of her every time I hear that song.

 

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Tumbling through Brooklyn

30 Jan

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People say time flies when you’re having fun, but that’s bullshit.  Time just flies.                                                                     — Heath Bell

The plan had been to walk Brooklyn, Coney Island to Greenpoint.  An early start with a stop for breakfast in Red Hook, and then a beer in Greenpoint, at that little place on the corner.  In this way I would mark the day.  So come the morning, despite a sore head, a late start, and little desire for a beer at any point during the day, I head out the door.  Coffee in hand, I take my seat on the train, and as the wheels begin to turn the world blurs past.

 I don’t know how to reach him. 

The train takes forever.  The initial pleasure in skipping work fades as the commuters disappear,  leaving only the Brooklyn bound: tired mothers, complacent children, and one very large, angry leprechaun, whose headphones are not taking him to a calmer place.

Even though I see myself in him all the time.

Coney Island is a sad place on a winter’s day.  Bereft of people, the remaining attractions hug the boardwalk like so many dinosaurs, asleep at water’s edge.  Dreamland, Luna, and Steeplechase are long gone, replaced by housing projects, empty lots, and sky.  The few old buildings left along Surf Avenue continue to fade, making room for  an Applebee’s and other improvements reminiscent of a highway rest stop.  A runner passes me on the boardwalk, shirtless in the cold Atlantic wind.  Older guy.  Tough or just crazy?  I vote both, and head inland.

The difficulties in maintaining a friendship, and the inevitable sense of betrayal.  A process of years in my life; minutes in Heath’s.

Once known as the Road of Dreams, Stillwell Avenue is now a bleak strip of auto repair shops and the occasional decrepit house whose demeanor hints at more prosperous times.  A waterside inn perhaps, built along Coney Island Creek when it flowed all the way from Gravesend Bay to Sheepshead, creating an actual island.  Now gray and salt-stained from the spray of traffic, it looks barely inhabited.  I pass by, looking for hints of life, and then continue on, crossing a bridge over the creek’s stilled waters.

How many times has Amy said “Please don’t go away from me”?

Over the next several hours I chip away at the grid, zigzagging through the streets and avenues, progressing at a glacial pace on my journey of discovery.  What do I discover?  Brooklyn’s big.  And Bensonhurst goes on forever.  You heard it here first.

It’s what we do.

Toward the end, hours late for breakfast, legs leaden and feet blistered, having slogged past the auto shops and porn parlors beneath the roar of the BQE, I know I should quit; find a train and head home.  But I don’t.

Not caring.

And then, finally, turning left at the first opportunity, the startling quiet of Red Hook.

Buoyed by familiar landmarks, I head in the right direction, but, strangely, the community fails to materialize.  I see the projects, the parks, the silos, and even the damn Ikea, but the battered little houses where Brooklyn’s more adventurous denizens raise chickens and children in what feels for all the world like some dusty little prairie town are nowhere to be found.  Until suddenly they are, disrupting my sense of geography by appearing at a completely unexpected angle. Having arrived at my destination, I have no idea where I am.  

* * *

He appears as I take off my coat, standing awkwardly to one side, shifting slowly from foot to foot, lost in his own living room.  

“Hey, Heath.”  I toss the words gently, as if they don’t matter, and I wait, not sure if he’s heard me.

And I’m standing at a screen door as my dad tries to coax me into a game of catch.  Embarrassed, because I’m not good at catch, but torn because I know I’m disappointing him,  I cannot bring myself to step through that door.

After a moment, Heath looks up, walks over, and puts his arms around me, awkwardly, as if he’s afraid to complete the hug.

“Happy Birthday, Dad.”

I pull him close.

“Thanks, Heath.”

Looking over his shoulder, I see Amy shake her head.  This was not prompted.

I continue to hold him as long as I can

We feel more than we can show.

And then, without a word, he’s gone.

 

Heath and I Buddy Walk 2012

Photo of Coney Island from http://www.city-data.com