Sunday, March 23, 2014


     My father cheered when our dog ate flies. Killed them on our windows by slapping them with his paws. Black dog paddling at the sky, my dad's high laughter.
     Soda Pop. He wasn't a mutt. He was more a blend or a mix. A graceful mulatto. A creole dog. Let the purebreds walk around nervous and crippled by the obsessions of their suburban owners, their purity laws and neighborhood codicils, their trim lawns and vacuum packed homes where no one spills or shits or loves.
  Give me a mutt.
  Soda Pop. Because he had a white belly and when he turned over we called him root beer. He was mine. Well he was my brothers' but a youngest son thinks everything is his. Or should be.
   I'm sure I was a negligent boy. Slow to want to walk him, quick while doing so. Dismissive, ungentle, confident he was lucky to have our home and there'd be dogs to come.
  Strangely enough there weren't. Or never have been. I haven't had a dog since. Love them, play with them, borrow them greedily from their cocky owners but my own?….not since I was 12.
  Soda Pop had a spaniel's black coat with slow curls you could grab. A child could sink his hand in. Fur trickled over his toes. His tail was bushy. He wasn't more than 50 pounds and not a fighter. In a neighborhood of tough boys, like his owners he was more inclined to shy than bite. He had the kindest eyes. In them lit the simple canine desire to join you by the fire. A thousand generations of "feed me" pouring forth.
   He was born before me. All the animals I knew as a child were. The cats were all grown ups by the time I figured out they weren't toys. Soda Pop was a grandpa in my eyes. We were probably the same age give or take a year. He didn't fetch. He'd start to roll over and stop half way. He would offer one paw but not the other. He died on the picnic table on our back porch. Wrapped in a blanket laying on his right side looking out at the big Elms standing between us and the neighbors and the murmuring freeway below. 
   12 Christmases, 12 birthdays, 12 New Years, one graduation and all those Thanksgivings stuffing our house and his nose with what must have been heaven- it was for us. So he wandered among our shuffling feet and nosed our knees and watched us from his rug.
  And since then across three decades and two continents and three cities and too many apartments, I've "had" 12 cats, 2 raccoons, 20 something gerbils, a hamster, a snake and horses who belong to other people but who I tell myself are mine. Every one of them I know "liked" me because I fed them and didn't beat them. But in every one I looked to see that evidence of decision, that pause, that stutter in their animal motion that told me they were choosing me over instinct. I'd say I've seen it. But the people who get pushed by dolphins away from shore by the same motivation that saved others- it was fun for the fish- don't get to tell a tale.
  Do they have a soul these beasts? Do they "care"? Do they choose or care to choose- the beat of reflection, the puzzlement that makes us human, that makes an animal seem sentient, that keeps a hunter from pulling a trigger? (Or I should say a sniper….huntings hunting and sort of about the fact that one takes a life that's valuable to preserve other life.) But killing on the other hand….guy's walking down an alley and he's your enemy, raped your daughter or something and he's in your sights….and then he does something…pauses to look at a shadow….tosses someone's newspaper up onto a porch to keep it out of the rain...smiles at nothing..... Can you pull the trigger? 
  My friend Lowell and I were in some bar catching up on the latest 5 months we hadn't seen each other when a bug started across our table. It stopped. He noticed it and slid his thumb across the wood, gave it a nudge and the bug went on and I said, "You know I can't bear cruelty to an animal, can't imagine it, sends me into a rage but I'll still squash a roach with glee." And he nodded and said, " Yeah but after awhile once you say it, it has to be everywhere right? Everything has a little soul, even that little guy. When you can, when you're not starving, and you''re not threatened with infestation or something…let em pass by."
  I close my place up for weeks at a time. Seal it. There's nothing in my house to feed on, or so I think, but there they are. Flies. Trapped. I find them on the window sill like seals in the antarctic, dried in place. Frozen in gesture. And once in awhile I'll nudge one of these scetic figures and he'll move. Are they cold or are they starving? Is this how they try and survive the winters, a walking hibernation, in a metabolic insect aspic?
  Or has my apt become a flylike Galapagos? Do they know I won't kill them anymore? That I find them fascinating, beautiful? Warbirds compared to the happy blimp of a bee? Their mad cursive to a yellow jackets dutiful line? Bartok to Korsakov's Bumble.
  As I do with rats I imagine flies must mate for life. That they know their fellows and family. As I've come to with spiders so I am now with flies. They've such delicate armature, an architecture of living wire, eyes like dark gems cut with an hundred facets no one can see.
  I'll catch them under a glass. Slide a postcard beneath. The scramble. Possibly an arm lost but they'll manage. I walk out onto the porch and snap them free into the air. The fly catching lift like a jet off a carrier, like a spider falling in private gravity, mini mini squirrel, insectoid feline flipping over to safety.
  I just can't kill them much anymore. I don't own the rights. I can't take the motion away. The tapping perfection of their legs, the almost mammalian cleaning, the pauses they make before they move on, to me seem like small times of decision. They ponder, I believe, they choose, they wonder. They must.
  And sometimes in this chilled state they'll come to me. I'll get close and they'll indulge my prodding and step onto a finger, wander across my hand with the slightest tickle that tells me someone somewhere could call this weight.


  I hate flying.
  No, I don't hate flying.
  It deflates me. You get up there in the air and the world's suddenly flat. It's a panel. Men and women are specks, pepper on the ground. Cities look like digital grids, electric metrics, pinching out cars and trains and dirtied around the edges.
  Or the clouds close in and you could be nowhere. The white nowhere of 29,000 feet in a plastic tube.
  But when I hear a plane I look up. Every time. I love the sound of them, I love their naive shape, the faith we have as children given form - If I look like a bird I will be a bird!
  I love seeing them teeter as they land. Something so huge admitting its unwieldy nature to the eye. You want to reach out and steady a wing tip, help the girl descending the staircase in her heels.
  They look like dreams. They look dreamt. A huge business built on the absurd idea that you can defeat friction pushing an aluminum tube through the sky. That you can hold off gravity long enough, charge people just enough, if you thrill them, and everyone gets there faster.
 Because it is there.
  But what a drag. Continents reduced to "flyover"s. Oceans crossed that have swallowed nations, and buried enough metal to build London 80 times. The earth's meandering miracles, her scent and body and her beings given us as gifts, made into a spiritless map five miles down. Why would you want it? Sitting in tortured barcalounger and fed the same same same same thing. Eyes, ears, nose, mouth taking in the bad air, the bad food, the bad mojo.
  But when I hear them go by I look.
  I look up and I see my father's dreams. I see a fragile thing a boy born with polio thought could get him off the ground. Could free him from the stern gravity of Pittsburgh. You can't run, you can't play, you can't fight, but you can fly.
  They go by, the commercial liners, the private jets, the weekend rarities and I see him in his basement building models; a wartime child with his fighter planes and bombers and DC-3s which carried the troops, the frames he cut from balsa wood by hand, the glue rare and expensive, the paint applied with medieval patience. I will build a world. I will make a thing that flies and I will be that thing. I will know them stem to stern, piece by perfect piece. When they pass over your house I will turn my back and tell you their names from the sound of the engine as they level off.
  Fifty years later, his son playing on the rug somewhere near him, sitting in his chair, a jet would gear down on its approach to Pittsburgh and my dad would say "727" or "707" or "Heavy" and keep reading.
  This is my chariot, this will be my way, up and out.
   But it wasn't. You could fly with a withered leg but back then you had to have perfect eyes. And he didn't get those either, in Pittsburgh's eastern suburbs born in a house far from any neighbors in 1929.
  Planes were my father's imagination. Not in it. They were it. Once in a great while we'd be in the same living room not doing the same unspoken things- I'd play, he reads- and as suddenly as he could be he'd be up and out onto the porch. Something with an engine built when he was a teenager was passing over our house and he'd stand in the back yard and look up and speak to whoever it was who was listening; name, model, make, year.
  My missing dad loved planes. Enough to make my missing brother back from college haul off and scream one Thanksgiving that he loved them more than us.
  And now I love them. No, I don't. But I look.