How the Heart Works: On Whatever the Hell that Was, from an Irrelevant American

The afternoon after I’m at my desk staring out the window.

There are newspapers spread in front of me, from which I should be clipping ads and articles relevant to the arts nonprofit that pays me to do such things.

I’ve draped my profile picture with the French flag filter, and my cover photo now depicts the Eiffel Tower’s stages of construction. I don’t feel any better, but that’s not really what it’s about. I don’t know what any of that is about.

A plane halves the clear sky, right to left, disappearing beyond the frame of the office window, silent the whole way. A white line blooms behind it, then it too disappears. I am left to bloom or not, sitting next to my office plant, the one I’ve managed to keep alive so far.

Just a few days ago I had a conversation about whether people are good or bad, at the root of things. Why do they have to be one or the other? we decided. Now I think maybe they have to be one or the other because knowing would help.

Something has to help.

The Little Prince Stands Alone on a Planet

The Little Prince

The Next Thing

I messed up at work today.

Not a big deal, but yes a big deal because all the deals are big when you care about doing a good job at your job. I suspect a lot of us do care, despite our viciously pretending otherwise.

Maybe the worst part was that it snuck up on me, like a bad Dean Koontz metaphor. I had rolled our Smart TV into the room–to be used for projection at the workshop that was due to start in about twenty minutes–and was arranging tables and chairs when the presenter asked where The Cord was, capital T capital C. These capitals were not the result of her way of asking, but of the immediate suspicion on my part that something was very wrong. And I wasn’t wrong; the TV was sans not one but two crucial elements that until now had been its faithful companions – remote and cord-thingy-that-connects-laptop-to-TV.*

*While I am the token “tech-savvy millennial” at work, this is a good indication of the extent of my IT legit-ness.

Cue cold rush of blood from the fingers and toes directly to the guts.

I found neither cord nor remote, despite searching with thinly veiled franticism every drawer and windowsill and potted plant I could think of in the next quarter of an hour, the regret simultaneously stretching and condensing these fifteen minutes into an agonizing wasteland that had me wishing I would have ______(done literally anything with a shred of foresight).

God knows where the lost parts are; the chaos that often engulfs the arts nonprofit world must have deigned to confiscate them for reasons I will forever fail to understand. The presenter went on to deliver her piece without adequate technology, and the entire hour I felt the weight of guilt and fought to herd those childish excuses that are wont to surface in the throes of failure. These thoughts are not pretty. You know them. We’ll skip them.

In the quiet that followed, I rearranged the furniture with a vengeance. I wrote my column. I prepared for tomorrow, which will come and which will happen whether I or you or anyone likes it or not.

You know what? Sometimes the remote just doesn’t want to be found. And sometimes you screw up. And sometimes you don’t. Either way, there’s still furniture to rearrange. And there’s still tomorrow. And there’s still love for you here.

When There Was Bill

When I was small and it was the weekend, my folks would put records on, and Olivia would dance with me in the living room. I remember Stevie Ray Vaughan and Van Morrison and the Beatles. Mostly I remember The White Album. I thought “Bungalow Bill” was “Buffalo Bill,” and O and I would argue about what was right. I imagine Louise, the youngest, propped up on the couch and watching us in bewilderment, too brand new to know who the hell Buffalo/Bungalow Bill was, or the Beatles. We’d keep at it until Dad called for one of us to ride with him and help pick up the pizza–George’s, probably–and now I wonder how much we actually helped with this particular errand. What I remember, and miss, is how his truck reeked of steel and iron and copper, of tools well-used.

Sitting alone in the office on a Tuesday night, not having done enough at my comfortable desk that does not reek of anything, I think to get up and close the window, but don’t; the George’s supper rush drifts through, suddenly redolent in the waning light, and Main is quiet after a day full up with the din of construction. They’re building a new SPAM Museum, which will fill the gap left by a January fire that burned in the middle of a subzero night several years ago. Sometimes it’s hard to know where there is less mercy, I guess. It’s cool with the sun setting behind the brick of the high school, where there was a fight not long enough ago over nothing, or something, or not enough or too much.

The cops light out again and again from the station across the street, bound for someplace, their sirens going and going and somehow not ever gone. I dig up The White Album on Youtube and hit play, seeking nothing more than a moment of what’s gone, just one split second from those forever Friday nights.

Tonight I am the victim of my own nostalgia, which is probably another one of those awful millennial traits you’ve all been warned about. But when you grow up dancing to Blackbird and Rocky Raccoon and you spend Friday nights driving home with a George’s Pizza warm in your lap and your dad driving the truck back home where there will be music and dancing until bedtime and where the only fights you will have are over what to call this Bill, whoever the hell he is, that’s something to be nostalgic over. And I’m not sorry.

Supermoon (For Vincent)

A stubborn distance – having to do with geography but even more than that with navigating humanhood – has, these last three days and nights, weighed on the pillow fort I’ve built in the crook of this supposedly grown-up heart. Prone to childish silences and questions, the supposedly grown-up heart thumped up at last night’s eclipsing, reddening moon, wondering all the time why humans don’t howl. While we have more sophisticated ways of expressing distance and full moons and whatever else can’t sit still in us, there’s something to be said for throwing out one long, guileless cry of concern for whoever is out there into real, actual, non-virtual space, and for the fact that the sound would live and carry not because you had carefully crafted a progression of sentiment that rings just right but because it’s in you and has to come out, and damn the stars if they don’t want to hear it.

How Long It Will Last

When I was on the rowing team in college, we drove a half hour south to San Pedro for practice six mornings a week. One day, as we rumbled under the overpass and pulled onto the freeway, those of us who had fought the sleep off saw a man sitting under a cardboard teepee. Outside of a few curious looks, we failed to react; LA is full of homeless men and women, and if you don’t get callous about it quick, you’re a goner.

The next morning, the same man was there, under the same cardboard. You don’t see this, usually, as the homeless learn to shift from haven to hovel to shelter to foxhole and back, never staying long enough to be remembered.

But the morning after that, the man was not only still there, but had also added a piece of cardboard to his hut. One of my teammates waved to him. And maybe it was the grim camaraderie that had set into our bones and callouses, the shared resignation to scheduled pain that we all clung to, that caused us to adopt him into our morning routine. Or maybe it was that a good three-quarters of the team was from Eastern Europe and most of the rest of us were not as far but far enough from home that we found the cardboard familiar. But he belonged, suddenly, with us.

The cardboard home grew daily. Even on days when we went out to the boathouse twice, it seemed that in the few hours between our first and second practices he had added to and refined his place.

One day he got a puppy, and the puppy became a part of our mornings, too.

On it went, into the spring, into the longer days and the earlier sunrises. The deeper into our season we dug, the bigger the man’s home became.

One morning he’d gotten a rug, and was sweeping outside his makeshift doorway as we passed. Our east-facing windows were open and we waved and offered him the sign to “fight on” – an otherwise tepid symbol meant to spur on school spirit. Two fingers up and palm facing out, what most people would see as “peace,” but we knew he knew what we meant. He returned it with a fierce and weary smile.

And then, the following morning, he was gone. Along with the cardboard, the dog, and the rug.

Just like that, it was all gone.

He came to mind tonight, and I didn’t know what to do other than tell you, here, now. I guess because I don’t know what his name is or where he is or what happened to him. And because it’s crazy that none of us ever knows how long the cardboard will last. And because it feels important to remember people even without knowing their names, without knowing anything other than that they keep a clean house and are nice to their dog.

First Draft

That sixth day was a long fucking day for God.

He made man with a heart you could literally break. Snap, just like that. Sometimes in two, sometimes in a lot of jagged pieces. And when the hearts broke, so did the humans. Just fell over, like a cut tree. Before noon, even, God realized this was sort of a disaster.

So God created replacement parts for hearts. Little valves and bits of tissue and such. But it wasn’t really any good, because it was only the sixth day of creation; He saw folks picking up these replacement parts and nearly fixing themselves or each other, but they were useless at fixing things yet. And He sort of wanted them to figure out the whole Western medicine thing for themselves. Otherwise what was the point?

So then He resigned Himself to another try, like you do. And after a lot of tinkering and no shortage of cussing, out came the second draft of man. Needless to say, God was pretty pleased with himself upon seeing the first heart break; the human not only stayed upright, but also continued to walk and talk and breathe, even without wanting to. Not really a great revision in terms of Free Will, but God was willing to lose the battle if it meant winning the war.

He’s busy, you know?

Lunch Ride

For lunch it’s the bar and a stool by the taps. It’s a sandwich with fries, because it’s Wednesday. It’s July, and the air sticks to itself. The wind heaves at my hair before I go in, but all the fight has gone out of it for now.

Last night I rode south between fields, corn and beans, with the sun sailing away to the west. The fields were straight and true and the corn was as tall as it should be, and the beans. Stray stalks of the former jutted up out of fields of the latter, stubborn holdovers from the fall harvest. I imagined, knowing as little about it as I do, some farmer somewhere. Telling his boy to grow the crops tall when he goes out on his own, so last year’s upshot won’t show.

They don’t need to be knowing you by what you done, he maybe told the boy. Let’s just say, for example, that he added, keep your rows straight and true and each as tall as the other, as much as you can. Pray for it every spring and thank God if it turns out by fall. Let’s say the boy nods, and when the boy is suddenly a man he keeps his rows straight and true and prays when he should and thanks his God when he should. When the beans replace the corn, he watches for stray stalks of the latter, growing as tall as they should one year too late, and cuts them down when he needs to, or when he can.

But I say grow your crops short, charming boy. Darling boy, show me what holds over in you.

A bead of condensation runs down the tap line–racing me with the patience that gravity affords its subjects–and for now I wait to heave downward, to match it, to run slick with friction to whatever end the heat might muster.