Somniferum

“I say I switched sides not because conservatives were any more believable (trust me, they’re not) but because she was the best liberal I ever knew and even she couldn’t save anyone, particularly the ones that mattered. The one that mattered.”

Graffiti art

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On the concrete wall along South Alameda, the imaginary beds pushed up against real ones. It was Deb’s idea to commission a local artist by the name of Skid Robot to give the formerly septic Row a makeover by spray painting murals of headboards and canopies sandwiched between floor lamps and windows on the cement slabs against which people resurrected their cots. “Homes for the homeless,” she quipped, when long-term residents asked what the hell they were doing with their aerosol cans and bandana masks. For a moment, they stood around and watched, waiting to see what magic would materialize. Fairy godmothers, after all, almost always took the form of well-intentioned White women. For her part, Deb performed no sorcery and made none of the pictures herself, but she did inscribe “Joy and gladness!” in gold script over one of her favorite paintings, a garish, Christmasy portrait of a four-post bed with antediluvian drapes.

All of this, of course, happened during her younger, dumber days, when she was still a practicing Catholic and I was a pair of grubby hands vying with God for her attention. As the third in line on her totem pole of an eventual eight children, birth order effects alone bode poorly for my life outcomes.

I lacked the luck and predestination to be Jo, the firstborn. True, his father, he who shall never be named, acquired the status of honorary ghost in family stories, one ever lurking but never acknowledged. But Jo managed to overcome whatever sins his progenitor bequeathed on him with his absence and fulfill his duty as the achiever, the most-likely-to-succeed, the guy who locked himself in a tool shed for three months straight at the ripe age of 47 for the sole and exclusive purpose of learning French of the West-African variety. For work, he said. Other DEA agents diddled on Duolingo during prolonged stays on the toilet to fulfill their requisite duty to pick up a few lines prior to their deployment, but Jo did not believe in embarrassing himself.

I also didn’t inherit the second X chromosome necessary to be Kat, born after Jo and the first (and only) girl of the family. Beautiful but chunky, she quickly learned to ignore the things that men said and instead attend only to what they were willing to do. As for the siblings that came after me, well, they had even less of a chance than I did.

By the time I came onto the scene, Deb was already on the way to sainthood. Motherhood made her ineligible to return to the convent of her adolescence — Catholics, for all their family values, appeared to treat piety and human attachment as mutually exclusive, so inflexible were the rules surrounding the celibacy of nuns and priests — so she turned her efforts to more forgiving avenues of service.

To this end, she stationed herself and the three of us children at the Ammon Hennacy House of Hospitality. In exchange for undiluted devotion and occasional volunteering, the Los Angeles outpost of the Catholic Worker provided free housing for both those that needed it — the homeless who tired of the unremitting elements of Skid Row — and those who wanted proximity to the homeless capital of the country without actually being homeless themselves. Like Deb.

The idea, of course, was beautification, anarchy, world peace — in no particular order. Deb had commissioned the murals and added her own inscription commanding joy and gladness during the advent leading up to our first Christmas at Hennacy at the corner of 5th meets Towne, where local businesses had erected a concrete barrier, a wall to make the most inhabitable neighborhood in LA less so. The more militant of our housemates accused her of attempting to gentrify the Row, one holiday decoration at a time. “Skid Row will always be Skid Row,” she replied, a nihilist despite her penchant for all things Christmas.

It was an ill-advised move, one that continues to haunt, as bad decisions are in the habit of doing. No one of us knew at the time how ironic the command to be glad and joyful would become. But we should’ve known. Didn’t God himself command men to rejoice precisely when they didn’t feel like it?

Joy and gladness; gladness and joy! Deb wrote these same words for the funeral we never had, for the boy we barely knew. It was a good thing too — she understood how it would’ve sounded coming out of her mouth, even though she earned her liberal card the hard way, through systemic devotion to every child except her own, and even to all the grownups, except the ones we would one day become.

Accident, tragedy, loss. These are the words she could’ve used instead. Suffering tolerates description but not prescription, no? How Christ got away with it remains unclear. If any of us knew the answer to this, one of us might’ve stayed faithful, a believer to the end.

To be fair, if everyone had obeyed her original graffitied command and indeed rejoiced despite themselves and their circumstances, the accident wouldn’t have happened. Deb tells me that is blaming the victim. She tells me this kind of victim-blame is precisely the kind of thing my kind of people are likely to engage in.

She nods knowingly whenever we discuss the past and disbelieves everything I say because I am her greatest disappointment: the son that became a Republican. I say I switched sides not because conservatives were any more believable (trust me, they’re not) but because she was the best liberal I ever knew and even she couldn’t save anyone, particularly the ones that mattered. The one that mattered.

His name I don’t remember, nor his exact age or disposition. On good days he shuffled across San Pedro to disappear into the asphalted lot of Ninth Street Elementary, whose two-storied structures and small windows resembled a rest-stop motel, albeit one dressed up in the kind of bright, happy colors meant to seduce and comfort children.

His father, on days he emerged at all, gopher-ed out of his pink tent, needle still dangling from the crook of his arm like an extra appendage, one he could not live without. He’d stretch and blink at the sun, accusatory.

“Just flyin’,” he’d say to passersby, who did not ask what he was doing. Deb knew better than to offer him anything but a hand. She kept clean syringes in her fanny pack and passed them out like Gideon Bibles, three, four at a time. Unlike the Bibles, people were relieved to take her alms.

Once the kid tapped her on the elbow and extended his palms to receive her needled rations. “You want a candy?” she said instead. “I want to fly,” he answered. She shook her head and called my name. “Luc,” she said. “Give this boy your sandwich.” I handed over my bologna and swiss, but could never shake the look of pity he gave me. A sandwich could never compete; this we both knew as well as anyone

How does happiness make you feel? The joy from a lover is not the same as that from a friend; a g-spot orgasm is not identical to a c-spot one; cannabis is not cocaine is not alcohol is not opium.

Of these forms of joy peddled, only one is a cure-all for everything. Take it enough, and it eliminates the problem of life itself. It’s hard to turn down a gift like that, even harder to refuse it once tried.

Opium, opioid, how beautiful thou art! A staunch flower, a devastating friend. A somnambulist to the end. God might’ve made the poppy as an extreme behaviorist experiment in how far people will go in search for a little escape, but leave it to the American doctors to pass it out in the name of pain management and the Chinese labs to take it to the logical next level in the name of Fentanyl.

A little yeast moves through the whole dough; a mustard, the smallest of all seeds, becomes the biggest tree. A few grains of magic can take you to Heaven or Hell, because magic does not come with dosage guidelines. (If it did, it wouldn’t be so magical, would it?)

Jesus take the wheel! Father Boyle cried this to his homies at the counters of Homegirl Kitchen, gunshot distance from Hennacy, and it worked; the Son of God could infiltrate gangs with his heart tattoos and lack of judgment and quippable platitudes. The toughest thugs in town had holes like everybody else, and Jesus offered to fill them in the place of missing rent checks and father figures, updated textbooks and properly trained teachers.

Deb tried to do the same, but divinity had already come in the form of jagged little pills and milky spoonfuls of moon dust. Shit that threw Tinkerbell out of the vernacular. Oxy made fairies obsolete. Whether the Lamb of God was immune to the new competition remained a question to be answered.

Once she tried standing outside the pink tent and speaking to the boy’s father through the shiny polyester separating life from death’s waiting room. “Your son,” Deb said, over and over. “He good,” the father replied. “Do it for him,” she said. She meant, stop it already; get it together. He must’ve thought she meant something else entirely. He must’ve thought she meant, show him how.

To blame Deb for what ultimately happened would perhaps be akin to crediting Taylor Swift’s Instagram bromide (“get out and vote”) during the last election season for voter turnout in the midterms, or attributing the excesses of Christmas to the depravities of Halloween. Maybe it was just a matter of time; maybe temporal sequence doesn’t imply causality. To her credit, she did make one more attempt at salvation before the accident happened — a supervised injection site, in the first floor of Hennacy, three blocks from the slums of the Row, stocked with volunteers and non-judgment. This was before Vancouver tried it, before Philly pulled it off. You could imagine the fire and brimstone that rained on the streets the day she took her proposal to city council. Housewives from Echo Park, business owners from Chinatown, retirees from Boyle Heights — they all came to protest what it would do to their housing prices and their clientele and neighboring cities.

They weren’t the only ones. The man and his son showed up to City Hall too. At one point, the child tapped Deb’s bullhorn while it was resting uselessly against her side. She gave it to him; he took it, lifted the receptacle up to his lips.

I wish he quoted William Brewer, even Edgar Allen Poe would do. Instead he said nothing, only laughed, smile stupid and unremarkable, as if tickled by the existential anxieties of the sober minded people invading his living room. We should’ve known then: it was already too late.

When a child dies, it is always a tragedy, no matter the circumstances. Only when grownups perish does the context matter; whose hand was responsible makes all the difference. The day the boy died, his father was there too, right up there with him in the clouds, searching for a place to land.

An opioid seduces, then sedates. It lulls you to an oblivion until you forget to breathe, and then don’t. Freedom that suffocates; isn’t that the irony? Some of us run toward life; others can’t run fast enough away from it and need a little extra help.

That weekday morning the father-son pair failed to emerge from their candy-colored tent. The sun shone, then blistered. School bells rang, then went silent. Deb waited until lunch to launch herself into their orbit, a decision she later regretted.

She tapped gently on the tarp, useless. She unzipped the flap halfway, as if caught in foreplay. “Good morning?” she asked, a stupid question. The air smelled wormy and damp, but forever the soldier, Deb kneeled and parted the polyester, in search of someone to save.

The two of them lay side by side, resting kings entombed in sleeping bags. On each, an arm, sticking out of the batting unnaturally; the father’s occluded the son’s. His appendage, all too familiar, bore the same needle; next to them rested the same spoon, still shiny and damp. An opened bottle of water lingered nearby, standing sentry, bearing testimony to what was.

Deb grabbed the father’s wrist, pressed hard in search of rhythm. Finding a descending adagio, she dropped it and bent over his sternum to get a second opinion. His heart confirmed what she suspected: a tempo approaching its final al fine.

She opened her fanny pack: more needles, a Motorola flip phone, a single syringe, its mouth blue, and hope in a jar, its letters and lid orange, like the sun, like the life it promised to restore, when administered promptly.

Deb considered her options. Dialing 911 was out of the question. EMTs took too damn long; LA traffic was unforgiving even when matters of life and death were at stake.Plus cops were loathe to visit Skid Row, and for good reason: nobody liked them, regardless of color or gender or age. Calling out for help outside the tent relied on the kindness and dexterity of strangers, which, for all her liberalism, Deb did not trust or believe in.

She turned to the man, bent her head down low to his cartilaginous ears. “Sir!” she cried, a last resort, magical thinking at its best. “Hey,” she yelled, suddenly offended by his indifference. She spanked him on the throat with her palm, hoping for a reaction.

Getting none, she reached for the syringe and its filial vial. The closest thing she had used before was an Epi-Pen for the two times that Jo, ever the prodigy, got stung by a bee and proved allergic. She carried the device because she herself was deathly allergic to soy and eggs, an unfortunate combination that made her unnaturally thin and preternaturally suspicious of things that entered bodies.

Still, she had studied the brochure and taken the class. Her options were big muscle groups — shoulder, thigh, butt — for quickest delivery of the antidote. Unlike CPR, she had never practiced on a dummy. But now was her chance to prove that heroism needed no practice.

When Deb finally administered the naloxone to the father, mouth agape, skin blanched, eyes already gone, she didn’t notice his son riding on the same train towards permanent solutions for temporary problems. She thought he was merely sleeping, a child, drowsy. He looked like he was looking for heaven; little did she know, he was already there.

The father, forced to deboard, crashed with a jolt. His high, now ruined. He couldn’t help but hate his rescuer, perhaps not that different from the ways the unsaved despise the evangelist. He did not thank Deb, not then, not now.

For her part, she rebuked him for his ingratitude. “I saved your life, you’re welcome,” she shouted over his tremors, cross. She looked at his son, hoping that in him she would be able to locate the indebtedness she was missing, but required for her efforts.

The boy, by now, was sleeping, of course, in a rest that he would never recover from. Those who wander sometimes remain lost. Did the father sense this upon waking? Did some primordial string knit their heartbeats together, such that the one slowed in the absence of the other?

Perhaps if he had borne the child from his own entrails, maybe if they were once connected by a precedented cord, he could’ve known, or suspected, that the demography of the world he awoke to was a different one that the one he fell asleep to — n minus one.

Deb, meanwhile, talked and talked, oblivious to the fact that she was now at a funeral, one in which she herself was delivering the eulogy, for a boy, barely a man, that she never knew but tried to help, except when he needed it, depended on it, and she, in her tried and true tunnel, could only see his innocence and not his loss, and in her blindness gave his lifeline to his father, who neither deserved it nor wanted it, a cardinal sin it was: throwing pearls to swine.

If this were a proper tragedy — one written by Shakespeare or God — the denouement would go here, the communal lament, the significance of a hero’s life lost. But our hero was no lionheart, just a spandrel, a byproduct of men’s irresistible temptation to reproduce, or modernity’s siren call, or children’s insatiable capacity to pay for the sins of their fathers.

So unlike the kings and prophets that preceded him, the boy in this story did not live long enough to learn anything and bequeathed nothing, not even to the man he left behind, who did not die but lived. The day Deb moved us out of Hennacy, he was still in his pink tent, flying solo. History teaches nothing; if it did, we might live forever.

Deborah, Deborah. The day the boy passed, I stopped calling her Mom. We became acquaintances instead.It seemed the appropriate thing to do. Over the years, Deborah became Deb. Now I do not call her at all.

After Hennacy came Nick, pink and handsome, then Ben, plucked from San Telmo and reborn in Santa Barbara, where Deb was starting her own non-profit, a hospice house for people who couldn’t afford to die on their own. She reconfigured her life, leaving the man who had adopted Jo and donated the seed for both Nick and me, then weakly smiled when Ben arrived on the scene. A restaurateur who believed that wives, like customers, were always right, he was surprised that compliance alone could not keep a woman, or at least a woman like Deb, who moved on quickly, in search of men who were capable of saying no. At an anti-apartheid rally at Occidental, she met a librarian who shared the same name as her first husband but surpassed him in his attitudes towards imperialists. Together, they erected a shantytown meant to resemble the Khayelitshas of Cape Town but instead approximating the makeshift aesthetics of the Row. But no matter; she said nothing, only watched as a young Barack made a sophomoric speech outside the administrative center urging the chancellor to divest from global racism. People forgot what he said but remembered him. Deb, for her part, wenthome that night with the librarian and stayed until she bore Max, followed by Dom. At 45 she left the librarian and married a homeless gentleman whose alcoholism could not compete with his charm. He gave her Mike. Between lovers and children, she greeted death regularly, protesting selectively over causes that involved dead bodies (Rodney, Tiananmen, Iraq, but not the Berlin wall, climate change, or the women’s march); with time, they became old friends.

They say killing begets killing, because suddenly you have something to atone for. One killing is problematic; two, less so, because doing it twice means it wasn’t so bad to begin with. Could that be why Deb became the patron saint of the dead and dying? Possibly.

These days, when I am alone during the holidays, and Christmas in particular — a frequent state of affairs — I drive along South Alameda Street without stopping. I call Dad but not Deb and we talk about anything but why. I do not ask him what he was thinking when he let his young wife take his younger children to try to save the world, or whether he was tempted ever to come save us. He, too, does not ask what we saw and learned in his absence; he does not wonder if those could explain a few things, like where we spend the saddest (or happiest, depending on who you ask) day in December. We talk and I drive without reading the signage left behind by people who knew not what they demanded or scanning for neon tents on the tarmac, in search of something to memorialize because the imaginary homes and gold lettering are long gone, buried under new paint bragging about old tribes, as ancient as memory, as divisive as time.

In their place, there is no vacancy, no room for the children they commemorated, for neither Jesus in his godforsaken manger nor the boy in his doomed pink tent, born two millennia apart to a world that did not know what to do with either, both destined to depart before ever seeing old age, yet whose brief and quiet tenures left something to be desired, an impossible gap, waiting to be filled, or maybe just remembered by those who knew them in one way or another, or at the very least, thought that they did, however imaginary this might have been.

Featured image by Eric Parker, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

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Comments

  1. I liked the writing style of this very peculiar story. I may just have to re-read it over the weekend. It certainly seems like it’s from 2020 and broken California, that’s for sure. Of course this entire country is so strange now that this story isn’t as weird as real life. NOTHING is weirder or bleaker than real life now.

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