excerpt from: The Book of Jonby Eleni Sikelianos
The Book of Jon is forthcoming this month from City Lights.
It is the year of the student revolution in France. Elayne and I are in a supermarket in Santa Barbara, maybe getting some bananas, which I will later ask her to cut “like that” (waving my hand in the air in several directions), and will cry when she doesn’t understand what I still know to have meant lengthwise, and the tears are tears of frustration at not having enough language to say what I mean. A man my mother seems to know approaches. He’s wearing loose-fitting Levi’s, dirty on the thighs, frizzled hair with twigs in it. I hide behind her legs while they talk, one arm around her left knee. He goes away. Mommy, who was that man?
Houses and houses and houses and houses. Houses and houses and houses and a pool. Then the bigger buildings rise up out of the Earth’s surface at the radiating axis of the city. Cars move around, people inside them. (Watch) from the window as the city changes from a sea of houses laid out in sloppy grids, splattered across the valley, creeping into the mountains, falling off right into the sea. (But there is no sea here.)
—Is this your inch? Whose inch is this? I will build a house on it.
Watch as the city shrinks from the window, into this specific patch of grass, that roof, those antennae, that language, that garage, a driveway, a child on a bigwheel. The child has shiny hair. It’s not a bigwheel, it’s a hippity-hop; she bounces down the driveway and into Carpenteria, 1970.
There are hobos out by the traintracks they wear bandannas over their chins and noses when the train stops they jump off chickencoop roofs and trains the children playing in the sandpit by the line of eucalyptus trees scream, men in dark stubble jump off the train to scare them, children of shiny hair, that is their job, to scare them, although they never jump off, the children never see them the children jump up from the sandpit screaming and run when the train stops. This is at dusk, and the night towering lemon is high.
Because I have abandoned many things—lovers, houses, hours, cats, cities—I hate to leave. I hate to leave restaurants, I hate to leave parties, I hate to leave the house after breakfast. But I am always willing to leave a lover or a city or a friend or my father, if not for good.
Later, just me, arriving in a border town far after dark in a country much farther from here, or in the outskirts of the capital, the train pulls in, we sling our packs onto our backs; night; bushes. Where do you sleep in dusty Khartoum?
As a young man, my father crisscrossed this country so many times a small constellation appeared, a light board with half-aborted destinations; he left barely visible electrical lines tracing and flashing after him, like the small luminous dots that line the sides of some fish, to help them keep their bearings. I chose to travel to distant countries, where no buses could be found, no telephones, and by the time I got home, you could not drag my father twenty minutes away from home to go to the movies.
Here is a journey.
The diner a buy-one-dinner-get-the-second-free kind of place, the rancid odors of badly mopped floors, wet rags and old grease, brown crumbs of ancient hamburgers littering the grill, and of course it’s run by a Greek, one Kostas, from Chios. My grandfather was a very important poet in Greece, he was the stuff. Yeah, yeah, and my father was a Turk. Jon asks for the ticket, one-way to NY, hands over his eyes. Hands over his seven dollars then eyes the waitresses. Tired creatures with skinny, flabby legs, knees knobbing through thick stockings, busy leaning on the counter smoking, calling everybody “Hon.” “Hon” this and “Hon” that, “What’ll you have, Hon?” “Do you want more hot water, Hon?” “Sure, Hon.” “I’ll be right back with that, Hon.” “Hon, I’ll bring you sommore hon.” Don’t these people know about the greatest invader in history? One Atilla. A blond with dark roots, hair pulled tight into a ponytail that will not smooth the mildly craggy folds of her face, is busy saying something about her daughter. She lowers her voice in confidentiality, a boyfriend is involved, a scar hovers on the bone below her right oculus, moving up to the subtle arrow of her eye. The scar wriggles as she talks. The other waitress makes a quick glancing movement toward Jon in a lower-your-voice we’ve-got-a-listener look and Jon wants to smack her, pop her right in the face, for being so stupid, so ugly, for working in this stinking diner with rotten coffee run by a stinking Greek who doesn’t know a shit’s worth about his own country’s poetry. Ena potiri skata, parakalo. A glass of shit, please. Prince So-and-So taught me how to ask for a glass of shit. How do you say I want a glass of water? Ena potiri skata. A glass of shit. The waiter looks at him bemused. You crazy Americans. You would have me ask for a glass of shit, you A-rab Prince? Yes. Oh, yes.
The slow or fast slide into degeneracy, what caused it? From childlike innocence to now.
After the house burned down, my grandfather Glaukos and his second wife Marian packed their four children, two cats, one dog and a parakeet into a jeep and took off from Cape Cod across America to find the right place to live. A few months later they settled in a small town in California by the sea, where they wrecked cars and threw glasses at each other, and a few years later Marian packed up their trunks and took the kids to drive across Europe looking for the right place to live. Their children played poker in the car, learned how to pluck out a few tunes on the guitar. In Greece, they were befriended by a farmer’s son and an Ottoman prince, basking in the fame of their grandfather-poet. They rented an apartment in Psychiko, and for months slept on the floors with not a single trace of furniture in any room. Melitsa, the girl, wore a pea-coat through the Athenian summer; the first signs of her madness had appeared. It was clear that Greece was not the right place to live. In Montreaux, on the shores of lake Geneva, they watched the ducks float by and learned a few words in French. Ah, oui, ahx non, my father mouthed. They skied a little and marveled at the bright shops lining the streets, pointing at the unplucked chickens hanging in the window; they went to school for a month or two, but it was not the right place to live. In all their looking for the right place to live my grandfather’s children found some wrong ways to live.
None of these stories will stitch up into a seamless blanket to cover this family’s tracks. In this story, all the seams show, they bulge scar-like, they come apart at the seams or they were never sewn up in the first place. This thread, my father’s life at fifteen in Lausanne, that thread, my grandfather’s life at sixteen in Delphi, unravel and twist, the snaking lines of those beautifully colored cartographer’s maps coming unhinged from their borders and uncoiling away off the page, disappearing into the aethers. There is nothing left on the map, just some names here and there, and swathes of color.
My father and his girlfriend decide to kick H. They have spent the $20,000 or so he got on an injury settlement in one short year, and so it seems a good time to take a vacation, a trip across the country, to move 3,000 miles away, leave their habitat/habit behind, to take their young son and drive, to invite Jon’s older children along for the ride, to hitch a trailer to an old rusting Chevy pickup with an engine that can barely haul brush and to caravan across California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, to “the land.”
My father picks me up from the fancy house in Montecito where I have a job as a live-in housekeeper/cook in exchange for a room. I’m eighteen. My brother Joe, eight, is waiting with Pat and Zeke (three) in a Safeway parking lot downtown with the trailer packed with stuff and the littler car. Pouli is not yet born. Pat and Jon spend an hour trying to hitch the trailer to the Chevy. They spend several more in Safeway. It’s dusk, and we get started, Pop, me and Joe in the cab of the Chevy, Pat and Zeke following in the Honda.
Several days seem to pass.
Nevada; the truck breaks down. It gets fixed. We average about 45 mph on the highways.
We play 20 Questions in the car. It seems to me that every answer is “Bob Dylan,” an animal, or the color red.
Knock knock. Who’s there? Bob Dylan.
I talk about The Magus, the book I’m reading at the moment. Yeah, it’s good, says Jon, but Hemingway is better. Faulkner is better, Steinbeck is better, Dosteovsky, Rimbaud is better. But that’s pretty good.
Putting my head out the window to dry the sweat (no air-conditioning, hot summer) and get a good look at the desert—my Ray Bans (prized possession) fly off and bounce into the shoulder. Pop refuses to stop.
Winslow, Arizona; a picnic on some dry dirt at the back of town, shade from one scraggly tree with a whole nation of ants. Watch the ants, industrious in the sweltering heat. We are all lifeless, limp. Disappointed because Winslow doesn’t live up to the glamour of the Jackson Browne song. (“It’s a girl my lord in a flatbed Ford slowing down to take a look at me”—not so much promise of glamour, really, in Winslow, in the long run.)
Zeke’s blond curly locks and tiny barreled chest. He is always smiling, cracking jokes, getting into trouble, bouncing around, stubborn and strong as a mule. Joe is quiet and light-reflecting, like a miniature polar bear.
A hamburger joint in __. There is no such thing as fresh vegetables yet in this part of America. Choices: hamburger, tuna fish, grilled cheese, cottage cheese with pineapple. I’m fat and a vegetarian, so I always get the cottage cheese with pineapple. There is some scuffle under the table. Stop kicking me with your big boots you fucking oaf, says Pat. You fucking bitch. We kids wander off to the pool room.
Tucson; Pop gets sick. No one tells us why he is vomiting or shitting every five minutes, can barely move. Maybe he has the flu. We spend days wandering by the train tracks, nights at the campground. He goes to the doctor and gets a shot. Years later I learn that he nearly died that kick.
I have no consciousness, no idea like “this is difficult,” “this is fucking difficult.”
We are on the road again. More days go by in this manner.
Time is laid out in dark gloppy bands, like black clumps of glistening seaweed stretching both ways, forward and back, so that you can’t tell where time ends or begins till someone comes along with a big shiny hatchet and lops off a piece into a segment of time—a doctor’s appointment, a week, an afternoon.
Pagosa Springs, Colorado; we have made it to “the land,” a small chunk of territory on the lower Rio Blanco, the only tangible thing to come out of the settlement ($3,000 of it), where Pat, Zeke and Jon will live in the trailer. But it rains all September and when the first snows hit in November, they move to Albuquerque and ditch the trailer. A few years later, some Pagosa Springs teenagers torch it, leaving a blackened radius in the scrub.
Sit next to my father on the stoop in front of the liquor store, yellow bug light flickering. What’s wrong, he says. I try to say something. What’s wrong. I thought maybe you didn’t love us. I say this. I was afraid you might think that, he says. He sounds annoyed with how obvious my statement is. That night he pulls Pat by the hair from the Chevy. “Are you happy now, little girl,” she screams. We kids stay quiet in the tent.
Beda comes up to the land. They all drink beers, faces orange by the firelight.
I have sex on the hillside with a runaway on a motorcycle from Memphis with an orange bandana around his neck. Back home, there is a strict stepfather he doesn’t like. We leave and he rides home, but calls me every few weeks for the next year or so, though I cannot remember what he looks like, his name. Joe remembers him slapping angrily at gnats.
When I get home I have 105 fever and cannot talk for several days.
I tell this story to no one.
Years later, Joe tells me it was like his family dream—we were all together, however much things had run amok.
What Was in His Pockets
Here is the list of his belongings, as compiled by the office of Public Health:
2 packs cigarettes (both opened, one pack Camels, one pack Marlboros)
2 black combs
5 books matches
3 pairs glasses (one for reading, two ’70s-looking sunglasses with big frames)
Also in this envelope with his belongings but not listed on the outer label, a receipt for the De Anza Motor Lodge, room 152, for which he paid $33.10, cash. He checked in on January 5, 2000 with one other person, a man. He did not check out. When the hotel manager, Amir, opened the door to room 152 on January 7th, he found my father on the floor, “sleeping.”
In a separate manila envelope is the money in my father’s possession, the amount marked in pencil on the outside: $11.42.
Those were the things that belonged to my father on the last day of his life. No wallet. No pictures. No home address.
The De Anza Motor Lodge is at 4301 Central, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The hotel manager is an immigrant from Tanzania. As a young man, he was one of the 45,000 East Indians and Pakistani expulsed from Uganda by Idi Amin. He emigrated from Tanzania to Albuquerque fifteen years ago. Every evening, from 7 to 9:30 PM, he attends church, and so was not at the front desk when my father checked in. About midnight, he says, he saw the two men from room 152 in the parking lot, “maybe drunk,” most likely high as lords.
A mysterious presence holds the only information about my father’s last minutes. His road dog, Little John, has the word out on the street, and even the bike cops, who had a certain fondness for my crazy father, are keeping their ears open to find out who checked into the De Anza Motor Lodge with my father that night.
The young thanatologist who performed the autopsy, Dr. Klein, cites several possible causes of death. The patient had an enlarged heart, serious liver disease. He had in his possession Xanax and clozapine (indicated for the management of “severely ill” schizophrenic, bipolar, depression and dementia patients “who fail to respond adequately to standard antipsychotic drug treatment”). (Clozapine is known to carry a “significant risk of [causing] seizures”; up to a one week supply may be provided to the patient to be held for emergencies, such as “weather, holidays”.)
Jon had also recently been prescribed:
Forms of CARBAMAZEPINE (Clinical indications: seizure disorders; non-FDA approved to stabilize various mood disorders. Abrupt withdrawal may precipitate status epilepticus)
CARBATROL (a carbamazeprine) (Potential dose-related side effects include: drowsiness, diplopia, headache, ataxia, nausea, vomiting, dizziness. Other systemic side effects include: abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, loss of appetite. Rare but potentially life-threatening reactions to all forms of carbamazepine involve aplastic anemia, toxic hepatitis, and pancreatitis)
DILANTIN (an antiepileptic drug related in chemical structure to the barbiturates)
DEPAKOTE (prescribed for epilepsy and manic episodes; “typical symptoms of mania include pressure of speech, motor hyperactivity, reduced need for sleep, flight of ideas, grandiosity, poor judgement, aggressiveness, and possible hostility”)
The alcohol level in his blood might have been deadly. It is possible that, for the first time in two years, he had missed his methadone dose. (Little John reports that there was some trouble with the dosing nurse that day.) He might have had a brain seizure. It may have been, if it were a crack-cocaine overdose, a very painful death: my father clutching at his head and pounding himself against the walls till he falls to the floor, limbs jolting, then twitching. We do not wish this. The living hope that the dead did not suffer at the moment of dying. We hope that a small spot of dimness appeared on the horizon and spread slowly, peacefully covering the eyes, blanketing each spinning thought till the lights go out. Having seen his daughter and estranged son recently, he might have decided that all was in order. He might have simply sighed and stopped breathing. He might have been, after twenty-eight years of intermittent drug use and alcoholism, very tired. There were no signs of trauma to the body.
One day a person is on this side of the world with you, and you can think of that person walking down a quiet, sun-lit street, or you can think of calling them, or of them calling you, even if they haven’t called you in years, and of what you might say to each other, all the interesting ideas of late; he might tell you in great detail about his dream of people living in tunnels and caves in a large mountain, and his step-sister the poet was there; and you can think of going to visit him, in his town, and of seeing him standing in the kitchen in the middle of the night in his underwear, knees bent slightly, hands (as always) dangling at the ends of his arms; and of his deep, rough and deeply comforting smell of tobacco smoke and woodchips. And then, one day, that person is no longer on this side of the world with you. There is a thin veil, a flimsy partition, and this person, a person you love, has stepped across it and off into the dark world. He is dead.
And I can no longer imagine visiting him in this world. I can imagine very little, really, maybe nothing, about the black place into which he has crossed. It is unfathomable that I will, for the present, continue my life on this side of it—the side of days and nights, and pigeons, bagels with butter, and sunlight. What is he doing on the other side? Is he doing something? Or nothing? I can imagine him in his old world only, the one I am in now; or not really even in this one, but in pictures of this one, from a former time; pictures of him doing something in the past, something I have seen him do or can imagine he would have done; but no pictures of him now—no pictures of how his face might have changed, of what new thoughts he has conceived, no trajectory of life lived and the person who goes along changing to fit that life.
Eleni Sikelianos’s previous books include Earliest Works and the National Poetry Series winner The Monster Lives of Boys and Girls. Her new book of poetry, The California Poem, will be released in October from Coffee House Press.