Monday, January 4, 2016
artist Meg T. Noe “Black Sun”
writer alex Jaros “Southwest Chief ” Part 1
1. California It snowed eighteen inches the day my brother died. The storm blew down from Canada, across the Great Lakes and covered Cleveland in a foot and a half of white. I was in LA at the time, drinking a gin soda at a bar below my apartment. The weather had been unseasonably hot that day, and after work, I went straight there without going home. I got the message later that night, after a few more drinks, two sloppy games of pool and a slow chat with a girl I hadn’t seen before. I gave up when she turned back to her drink for the third time, straightened hair falling between us like a bleached curtain. I shrugged and walked up the thin staircase to my apartment, sweat under my arms, and listened to the message on a plastic answering machine. The thing was an old Christmas gift, something I never really intended to use. My mom visited, once—the only time she came out to LA—and the first thing she did was set it up. I can’t stand the ringing without end, wondering if you’ll pick up or not, she said. People have cellphones now, I told her, but she continued to fiddle with the clunky, black box. How does the tape fit in this thing? Her hands went into the air. I’ll never use it, Mom. She looked at me and frowned. I need a cigarette. That was twelve years ago, when I first moved out from the bosom of the country. She was supposed to visit for a week, but only stayed three days. It’s too hot out here, she told me, and changed her flight. You know how I get in the heat, it’s bad for my skin. What she didn’t say was that I reminded her too much of my brother. The machine was talking. Listen to me, it said, Michael died. I had gotten a few dozen messages in this way over the years, scraps and pieces of my brother’s life relayed in my mother’s voice. Your brother is in a home now. Your brother is going back to school. Your brother was arrested again. Your brother is having a baby. Your brother is married. He’s divorced. He’s missing. He is, he is, he is. The news came back to me like a chant, and like anyone, I listened and never called back. He died this morning. The funeral is Tuesday. He was. There’s not much to do, she went on. Lynn is going to sell what’s left, a few small things and the jeep. My mother sighed into the phone. I’ve called your father. I stood in the dark apartment as the machine clicked and the tape rewound. The perpetual light of Los Angeles poured through my front windows—two giant, glowing squares—and I stared out through them at nothing. I waited for the vibrations from the bar downstairs to stop, to cease, and for a drowning silence to overcome my life. But it didn’t. The noise continued and the lights of the city did not waiver and my brother was still dead. Still in a box, on a slab, dissected and pulled apart, or maybe just ashes and a few loose teeth packed into a coffee can. In three minutes, I finished two beers. In ten, a
girl I knew would be over. In fifty, she’d be gone and I’d be asleep. The next morning my father would ride a bus down from Santa Barbara and we would take the Southwest Chief back to Cleveland. Planes didn’t agree with him anymore, he claimed. It was a three day train ride. I wanted to forget the news, skip over the dying business, and get back to the distant-brother-son-unclecousin role I played quite well. If you tell a friend that your brother dies, it should shock them. The people I had to face would be unfazed. My family had been waiting for this, expecting its arrival and now it had come. It would be easy to slip out of town for a few days, ditch my father, forget my brother had died, forget that past the deserts east of LA, there were other states, other cities, all leading in a connected line of highways and train tracks to Ohio. I woke up early the next day to the pale smells of morning, a hangover creeping up the back of my skull. Gasoline, fish, and breakfast tamales wafted up and through my open window from the trucks outside.
The small Mexican women sang hymns to the people on their way to work, sopa-sopa-sopa, tamales-tamalestamales, sopa-tamales. I melted out of bed and began grabbing clothes off the floor. Twenty minutes later there was a knock and I opened the door to my father. Dad. He grabbed me in an embrace. This was new. He had become a hugger. It was part of his move to California, his emotional redevelopment, as he called it. I waited for him to let go. He was losing hair. Not enough to be called bald, but enough that it had created a noticeable spot. It’s not your fault, Gabriel. He stepped back and held my shoulders. My father stood in a post-sixty retirement getup of sweats, a loose linen shirt and a pair of those radioactivecolored, foam clogs you can get from the Asian vendors. Why do you wear those? Look at me, he said. I resisted. My father wanted to lock eyes, to search
deep within me and find some material, agreed upon reassurance that everything was going to be okay. Along with the hugs, this had become part of his regime, his spiritual renewal. This was the guy who had earnestly enjoyed filing taxes, who had gotten one haircut his entire adult life. My father, post-divorce, had moved across the country, lost twenty pounds, and attended therapy on the beach. The shift was so extreme it was hard to take him seriously. I kept waiting for the other foot. You can cry if you want, he said. It sounded like a memorized recitation, a quote from one of his books. Let’s just agree it’s neither of our faults, I said. He frowned. I’m just reminding you out loud. It helps to remind. I never reminded you enough. ‘As kids’ was the implication. He was making it up now, one hug at a time. The everything-is-goingto-be-okay Dad had arrived in full force and seemed to be coping surprisingly well with the death of his youngest son. I couldn’t pretend to know how he felt, but I knew he had more time to prepare—he had spent those bleak days with Mike, had seen him pushed to the brink, physically and mentally. He had held the bucket, spoon fed soup, posted bail. He had given rides—that odd, unsung toll on a junkie’s parents. Driving your kid around year after year, odd place to odd place, their licenses—if they ever had one—long ago suspended, receiving calls from staticky payphones without notice, a sober voice after four days awake, like, Hey, Dad, can you come pick me up? My father had put in the time, and part of that had been accepting the likely outcome of a habit so concerned with killing. The problem was that it left little time for the rest of his life, the rest of us. Thanks. Let’s just go, we’re going to be late. I broke away from his grip and grabbed my bags. We headed outside to find a cab. I trailed my father as he walked briskly towards a busier intersection. Hidden in the nooks of overgrown and dusty lots, blankets had been strung up between shopping carts and stone walls. Above a carniceria, an American Apparel billboard showed the sharp curve of rib bones under a neon blue shirt. The young woman in the ad was smiling down at LA with pleasure. Her hand grabbed her own hip and I followed it down with my eyes, down her legs to her feet where the ad peeled away and curled back on itself. I couldn’t help but picture my brother here, beneath the shade of a makeshift tent, strung out, staring up at the woman, his eyes locked in a semi-permanent gaze with an ad. In forty minutes we had arrived at Union Station, hurrying across the green marbled floors towards the train, the engine already moaning on the tracks, waiting to depart. My father’s newfound apologetic nature was unnerving. I grew up, became familiar with, and moved away from a man who was anything but. Now, he announced apologies on your behalf, granting forgiveness with gentle, Pope-like waves. It made me unsure what I did or didn’t feel guilty about, what was or wasn’t normal. The train whistled and shrugged forward with rote confidence and soon we were beyond the station, our bodies carried determinedly closer to Ohio.
Not long after, the conductor came down the aisle scanning tickets. My father pulled out his phone and began pawing at the screen with exaggerated care. Need some help? I asked. Oh, no, no, I’ve got it. Just give me a second. The conductor, a middle-aged black woman, snapped her gum loudly and rolled her eyes a half turn. I handed the woman my own ticket while my father continued to fiddle with the screen, making the same repeated gestures. Dad. I reached over to take the phone, but he flung his arm out. I said I can do it, Gabriel! I recoiled, surprised by his outburst. The conductor raised an eyebrow and popped another bubble. His face contorted and I saw something like fear spread across his features. He touched at the screen and muttered under his breath while we waited. I can come back, the conductor said. No, no. My father waved his hand at her. Here it is. She scanned the screen and the machine beeped in acceptance. Two to Cleveland, transfer in Chicago, she stated, writing our destinations on a slip of paper that she hung above our seats. As soon as she left, my father wanted to walk around the train. The observation car has a roof of glass and they do scenic trivia, he said. He seemed eager, childlike. We just sat down, I said. I need a nap. What’s the point if you won’t come? He folded his arms. Just go by yourself, I said, but he refused to leave. I shrugged and leaned over, intent on sleeping off some of my hangover. A few hours later, the train was clicking along, passing through the lost parts of the state. The California of billboards and travel agencies is all coastline—a giant, blue ocean and lush tropical plants, a trickling yarn of land only a few miles deep. What they leave out is everything else—the roaming deserts, titanic in their unending uniformity, the huge swaths of militaryowned land, dry and cracked and lifeless, and the few desolate cities holding onto thin roots in waterless country. There it was, out the window, burned colorless by the sun. Can we go now? he asked me. Yeah, okay. I brought cards, he said, pulling out a deck from his front pocket. We stumbled along the swaying train towards the front cars, seeking out a table. My father chose a bench seat but I kept going. He grabbed my arm. I’m just getting a coffee, I said. He looked worried. I’ll be right back. When I returned, I found him sitting at a different table playing cards with an Amish man. My father saw me and waved. Have a seat, we’ll deal you in. This is Jacob. My father pointed at the Amish man, who held out a giant, hairy hand. I shook it and he opened his mouth, exposing big, squared teeth. Heyo, the man said. His beard hung down to the middle of his chest, fanning out in a blonde arc around his face. He had no mustache and his cheeks were shaven clean. Nice to meet you, I said. Gabe. That’s about all I can get out of him, my father said, scratching his chin as he considered his hand. Don’t think he speaks much. The Amish man flashed another grin. Seems to understand cards, though, my father added. These folks ride around the country on trains, trade each other from community to community like baseball cards. I cringed as my father spoke bluntly about the Amish in front of this man. I tried to look apologetic, but my father seemed not to care. He had become an odd mix of new-age tolerance and old-age indifference, a man who would lecture you on the benefits of yoga while smoking a cigarette. They dealt me in and we began playing hearts. A few hands in, the Amish man croaked a jumbled
string of syllables. I shrugged, unsure, and nodded to my father, but he had turned and was looking out the window, aimless. The Amish man repeated himself and this time I picked out the heavily accented words, starched with unusual emphasis. Where are we heading? Cleveland, I said, and he nodded in recognition. My father’s attention was still held beyond the glass. Dad, it’s your turn. What? he shouted, a little too loud. He turned back to us and saw we were waiting on him. Cleveland, he added, hoping it was the right answer. It’s your turn, I said, pointing to the cards. I know whose turn it is, he said briskly, and laid down a card. It felt strange to say the name of the place where I grew up. It had been twelve years since I left. When I first got to LA, I ripped a hole in my memory and let Cleveland spill out. I filled it with everything I saw, everyone I met. I worked parties, bars, gigs that didn’t last long. I tried to convince myself that I was a native in LA, that I had lived there my entire life. I adopted the city, a patchwork of pieces unshapely and hard. I had never seen so many people wearing sunglasses indoors, most of them with absolutely nothing to hide. We were all just pretending, living a fantasy, hoping no one found out what we all shared—that we had come from somewhere, had mothers, probably arthritic and brash, and fathers, dumb with age, clinging to newfound faiths and hard of hearing. We played through the afternoon. The Amish man turned out to be quite good and took nearly all of the games. When we finished, we shook hands and I watched him walk down the aisle towards the front of the train. I leaned over and saw him stop among a group of other Amish people—men who looked like slightly different versions of himself and women wearing what I wanted to call bonnets, rigid geometric shapes perched on each head like white birdhouses. They congregated in the aisle around one another, speaking quickly in a language I couldn’t understand. The words felt rough and broken, the sentences almost familiar, like they might have simply been speaking in reverse. The noises were unsettling, foreign, and I felt transported beyond the stretches of California, to some place I had never been. 2. Arizona The sun poured sideways through the window as I opened my eyes. I could feel the sweat framing my face and collecting under my arms. By now we had passed through California and into Arizona. The land had become an insipid orange, the dirt itself the scorched embers of some eternal fire. My father sat next to me, entranced once more with the landscape beyond the window. Dad. Hm? He rubbed his eyes but kept his focus towards the wilderness. What are you looking at? It took him a moment to turn back to me. Dad? I, uh, I saw Michael out there. He pulled at a drooping earlobe and stared into his lap. You saw Michael where? In the sand, between two bushes. I laughed, but when he raised his eyes they were glossy. He’s not out there, I said, but my father turned back to the window. My father had been drafted during Vietnam, a time he rarely spoke about. A framed military portrait sat on our mantel, the only relic that suggested there had been a time when he was young, thin and could handle a rifle. The father I knew spent each morning quietly sipping coffee and pondering crosswords, an arm settled across a belly I associated with parenthood. Had this man climbed knotted ropes, hopped fences, and shot at other men? One night, my brother spoke into the lilac darkness before bed. Did you know Dad killed a guy? Liar. My brother dipped his head over the bunk to reveal soft hazel eyes. Three years apart in age, we still
shared a room then. I looked up at him from beneath plaid covers. He told me about it today. Yeah? Yeah. Why’d he tell you? I asked. He was crying. My brother blinked slowly. No way. In the shed. Why were you in the shed? I told you, he was crying. My brother’s face was full of concern. Who’d he kill? Some boy. Some boy? In Vietnam. Said you could see straight through his head. Like a big Cheerio, I said, even though the joke felt wrong. That’s not funny. We stared at each other and I searched for something that would make the moment light again. But Michael’s head disappeared and a moment later he turned off his lamp. Compassion came naturally to my brother. The kid who brought home injured birds, gave funerals to bugs, and who got somber when he realized winning meant the other team losing. For Mike, life was littered with landmines that could derail his day—encounters that brought him face to face with the inherent tragedies of life. More and more as he got older, he had to develop routines to escape. Videogames, books, headphones clamped over his curly hair—he locked himself away. There’s only so many ways to eulogize wild animals. My brother had been doomed. My father saw something of himself in Mike, more than just the dark features they shared. It had been easy for him to find empathy, to understand the struggles of an addict. I was doing okay: got B’s, had a few friends, graduated high school and got accepted to college—a relatively well-adjusted kid. I couldn’t compete with Mike’s immense inclination for fucking up. How long do you think you could survive out there—without water? my father asked me. I shrugged. Who knows. Let’s play gin, he said. He patted himself down for the deck of cards, but could not find it. Maybe you left it back in the observation car? He shrugged, unable to say. The colors outside faded and the aching fluorescent lights reflected back upon us so that we only saw our own selves. We sat in silence for some time. My father read and I mindlessly flicked at a game on my phone, matching chaotic shapes to one another. The train stopped on occasion at some small platform to let
passengers off or to pick more up. 3. New Mexico Later, the lights of the car were lowered to a dim impression and the world outside appeared once more. We had left Arizona behind and were cruising through New Mexico, heading for Albuquerque. Above the train, a teacup moon cast fingerling shadows across the glowing sand. The land below became low hills spotted with tall, thick cactuses, arms spread out like dancing women in the night. I searched among them for signs of my brother, somewhere between the shadows and the dancing women. Perhaps my father had really seen him, out there, a lost soul in the desert. At some point, I fell asleep. I could feel the plants growing outside, their cells multiplying and expanding while others died and broke off, carried away by the rushing locomotive. In the dream, my father had more hair. He sits on a bench made of blue, plastic chairs. We are at the police station. I would see my father sit on those chairs many more times. He always sits the same way, with his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands. I cannot see his face when the hard, cold metal rings tighten around my wrists. I cannot hear the policeman speak. I ask my father for help, I plead for him to do something. He does not move and I notice his hair is beginning to turn gray, the color working its way up from behind his ears. I shout his name but he still does not raise his head. I know he will not look up yet, but I still shout, waiting, hoping this time will be different. I want to stop the dream. I want to walk over to him and to ask him many things. But always I am taken down a hallway dark and infinite, one that could only exist in a dream. No matter what I do, the hallway will devour me. The lights of the hallway turn off and there is a blue darkness waiting to take me from my father, who still does not look at me. The dream is one that I had often. My father let Mike and I stay in jail over the weekend the first time we got caught with crystal. He thought it would teach us a lesson, a good scare. This was a one-time thing; his kids were middle class suburbanites from Ohio. I got it. Mike didn’t. Mike got comfortable. They gave you white-bread sandwiches. A magazine to read. Solitude. All the lights on the train had been turned out and everything was silent except for the rhythm of the cars clapping down the rails and I was unsure I had truly awoken. It was as if the train had lost all power but was still propelled quietly onwards by some unseen force. I could feel the pull of the tracks below, iron grappling iron, guiding us with inevitable certainty towards our destination. “Southwest Chief ” continues in our next issue, out Jan. 18th.
Megan Taylor Noe (b. Corpus Christi, TX) likes dark things. Her sculptures, photographs and videos express a fascination with morbidity and the material of memorialization and ritual. Through an exploration of the mutability of objects and the transience of time, her works question what death and ritual looks like in contemporary life. The genesis of these works produced her first book, Black Sun, published by Oranbeg Press in early 2014. She anticipates the release of her next book DEATH in October of 2016. Her work has exhibited extensively in Chicago and recently in Mute Annotations at Black Bear Bar in Brooklyn, NY. Meg is also the Director of Exhibitions at Weinberg/ Newton Gallery (Chicago, IL) where she curates exhibitions focused on issues of social justice in partnership with organizations. She currently lives, laughs and loves in Chicago, IL. www.megtnoe.com Alex Jaros recieved his MFA from Columbia College Chicago where he was a recipient of the Follett Fellowship. He earned his BA in English from the University of Missouri in 2011. His work can be found in Goreyesque, Epic, and among varied zines littered across the Midwest. LDOC is a free photography and creative writing publication distributed every first and third Monday at the following Red Line stops: Howard St, Belmont Ave, Lake St, 69th St, and 95th St. LDOC features a new local artist and writer each month, creating an accessible installment-based art experience for the Chicago commuter.
LDOC is currently fully funded by the 2015 Crusade Engagement Grant from Crusade for Art. www.crusadeforart.org
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