until the last light goes out

By Alan Horvath

Kirpan Press, October, 2007)


after being sick
for three weeks,
it occurs to me that
the city is rotting more
than my mind.
on sunday I decide
to stuff my camping gear
into my plymouth horizon
& drive an hour
south of san francisco
into the redwoods at
big basin state park.

I enter the park,
& frantically maneuver
through the different
camping areas searching
for the perfect unoccupied site.

this spot is selected for its
seclusion & shade from the
afternoon sun.

a park ranger accepts my money
& abandons me to pitch
my 9' x 12' blue & orange
cabin tent in 95° heat.
having never done this before,
I seek urgent help at the next site.

I ask a pudgy woman
& a boy with a cast on his arm
to hold the two sets of side poles
while I circle the tent,
telescoping the center poles
in even increments.

she repeats my instructions
over & over to her 13 yr old son
as if he has a hearing problem.

maybe she wants to prove
who is second-in-command.

within minutes,
I am perspiring like
a family of pigs.

to hide my confusion,
I inquire about the kid's injury.
"I got a broken arm,"
he says with amazement
as if I can't see his cast.
joan answers for him
& explains about a roller skating
accident in santa rosa where joey lives.

the tent resembles
a very large shriveled cow.

I chase myself around
the damn thing sticking stakes
into the ground while the tent
tries to maintain vertical.
sweat drips through my hair
& onto my face & glasses.

at this point,
it would take a loaded shotgun
to stop me from getting
this hunk of plastic erect.

joey looms over me
in dumb fascination
as I pound the tent pegs.
I glare at him
with blood in my eyes.

another 15 minutes
of hard labor & the tent slouches
like a beached whale.
I thank them for their assistance.
extending my right arm to the kid,
joey's face is full of awe.
he shakes my hand
& then looks me in the eyes
for the first time.

within moments of their departure,
I proceed for perfection
& rip the center stake loop
off the tent.

defiantly, I collapse
onto the picnic table
& survey my achievement
home for the next five days.

this tent is so massive,
it could hold the entire population
of a small mid-western town,
but only a bigger idiot than me
would have declined the deal.

I bought it for $50 from a guy
who purchased the tent in canada.
"the instructions are on the poles,"
he told me.

they are.
all in french.

*     *    *    *    *

a few hours later,
joey steps from the bushes
scouting for a good 'poking' stick.
I retrieve a huge bag of homemade
chocolate chip cookies from my tent.
I tell him to take a handful & so
this kid with a cast on one arm
digs his healthy hand into the bag
& fishes around until his hand is
completely full of cookies
(breaking the rest into crumbs).

I am convinced
he is either a slacker
                  or else a fool.

that evening
while I'm sorting
the sog from the blue ice,
joan brings a paper plate
packed with chicken, potatoes & beans.
she leaves me to consume the meal
& a fair amount of white wine.

when I finish the feast,
I return the wicker plate
holder to their campsite.

joan & I engage
in a conversation which
focuses on her life story.

she was raised as a tomboy
in a small nevada town.
following many varied careers,
she is a nursing assistant
at a retirement facility.

during our discussion,
joey is jumping around
like any kid his age;
turning his radio too loud,
then too soft.

joan mentions that
she is particularly proud
of joey's development
dispite his mental disability.
his twin brother, however,
is normal & active in sports.

& so, unfortunately,
my question
about joey is answered;
not only is it a disaster,
but a tragedy
that a heartless fate
handed him in the womb
(but not his brother).
when it is time to go,
joey approaches me
with his hand ready to shake.
again, his eyes are upon me.
I possibly have a friend for life.

*    *    *    *    *

after a miserable night
& an early morning walk,
I strip off all my clothes
from the heat & lie naked
inside the belly of the
dying whale.

I glance through
the side window in time
to see joey beginning
to peer into the tent.
covering whatever dignity
I have remaining in my life,
I wrap myself in my sleeping bag.

he wants to know
if I have a coat hanger
because he
accidentally locked
the keys inside their car.

I tell him that I don't have one,
but that I will be over
to their campsite to assist.

at their dusty station wagon,
joey shows me a slip of paper.
"I've got a note
in case I get lost," he says.
this doesn't unlock the car doors,
but pleases me nonetheless.
"don't worry, joey.
we'll find you," I reply.

with luck & bent wires,
      the door opens.

*    *    *    *    *

everyone is mentally challenged
in one form or another,
my only experience
with the clinical kind
was in 5th grade.
my elementary school
had a whole class of them:
room 201 &mdadh; the retards.

they would join us
outdoors for lunch when
the weather permitted.
most of them appeared
like their heads had been
squashed by a vise.

some seemed almost ordinary.

the next year
the school board moved
their class to another district.
there I was in room 201
-   learning equally meaningless drivel.

*    *    *    *    *

the following morning
finds me with a sore throat
& feeling flatter than zero.
I stay detached from everything
for a couple hours lying in my cocoon.
at noon, I give the day another
chance & discover nicer weather
than anticipated.

I torch the coleman
& break eggs.

as I'm putting the stove away,
the two of them pass my site.
joan says in mock astonishment
"hey, he knows cooking, too."

"a little," I confess.

they have been
exploring the ancient trees
outside our camping area.
joan is pooped from the hills

*    *    *    *    *
& joey is still revved up.

she asks me if I would mind
trading places for an hour.
I think for a few seconds
before my uncertainties
                  laugh her away.

*    *    *    *    *

in the afternoon
I cruise through the various
camping locations that I saw
on the first day, but unlike
my previous search,
the car moves
at a slower pace.

deer are everywhere
& eat food from people's hands.

upon returning to my area,
I discover joan & joey in the road
with a small child
& two frightened women.

joan found the boy
wandering in the trees
& was taking him back
to his own campsite.
the boy's mother & grandmother
stand white & drained with worry.

joan says,
"I understand
exactly how you feel.
my son gets lost allot, too."

& then
I continue driving aimlessly. . .

*    *    *    *    *

      the afternoon passes
into a cloud of darkness
                        sleep devours me.

*    *    *    *    *

a rustling of stellar's jays
awakens me to tackle breakfast:
a mini box of sugar pops with milk.

I hike to the restrooms
with the showers & scrub
off the grit for the first time
since sunday.
I feel soapy but clean)
& smell like my spanish soap.

arriving at my site,
I find joan disassembling her tent.

I visit my neighbors
for a final conversation.
our topic centers on
joan's travel plans.

her first stop is san jose
to visit her older daughter
& then return joey to his school
for special children north of marin.
joey's twin is in san francisco
at his grandmother's house
which is joan's final desination.

as we are standing
near their picnic table,
joey steps backward
& falls into the fire ring.
I instinctively pick him up,
brushing off the soot.

I position joan & joey
against a fallen redwood
& take two pictures with
my instant print camera.
I explain that when I tell
people about my camping trip,
I will mention them
& would like to show a picture
to accompany their names.

she selects the photo that
makes her look fatter & gives me
the one with joey's broken arm
around her shoulders.

I shake joan's hand
& tell joey
to be careful
riding his skates.
they wish me luck
which I'm sure I'll need
sooner or later.

returning to my own tent,
I dig through everything
for the tenth time:
finding things, losing things,
sweeping dust & dirt.

when I emerge
from the tent,
they are gone.

*    *    *    *    *

from my backpack,
I choose an unread bukowski
& attempt to keep cool
in the shade of the sequoias.

out from the underbrush
a raccoon appears
begging for food.
it's cute,
but I don't think
we're supposed to
feed the animals
the same crap that we eat.

I coax it to stay
by throwing odd
pieces of paper at it
so that I can retrieve
my camera.

after a few minutes
the raccoon has the good sense
to realize that I'm jerking it
around for my own pleasure
& departs to pursue better offerings.

I hear an accordion
from the next campsite.
already joan & joey's vacancy
is replaced by the next campers
& their individual short stories.
whoever they are,
they're not actually
playing the accordion.
from where I'm sitting,
it sounds more like one note
in varying degrees of loudness.

the stellar's jays,
that had been plague-like,
have disappeared.

* * * * *

the next morning
is gray & thick with fog.
at times the sky drips condensation
into the parched earth, but nothing
gets more than slightly damp
this time of year.

summers in the bay area
are dry & hot or foggy & cold
depending how far inland you are.

winter is the wildcard.
december through march
can be a continuation
of summer or else
the reason why
god created rain.

my first two winters
in california were devastating.
rain & high winds & more rain.
just when you thought it would stop,
the rains intensified

*    *    *    *    *

& the winds swelled.

entire beaches
were lost from high tides.
million dollar estates
slid down pacifica & marin hills,
playing a game of croquet
with each other until
they met at the bottom.

in the state parks,
giant redwoods toppled
into each other like
enormous 'pick-up-sticks';
their shallow roots
withstanding centuries,
but never this much water.

within seconds,
something that was
supposed to do its best to grow,
was now
supposed to decompose.

death screams louder
when so many die at once:
like a 7.1 earthquake
collapsing a freeway
during the evening rush hour,
like the fiery ascent
of a DC-10 outside of chicago,
like a chemical holding tank
accidentally releasing toxic gas
over a sleeping city.

everything changes
according to a cycle of things.
nature starts in spring.
some insignificant seeds are allowed
to grow into mammoth trees,
others grow into people
like joey or me.
everyone tries to be what they can
& at night we reach for the stars
in the clear sky.

after it becomes dark
I build a campfire for my final night
pachu mama teaches:
give back something
for the gifts the trees
have given to you.

in a small way,
this fire is the only
proof that I was really here.

I will demonstrate the myth of sisyphus
when I dismantle the tent
& pack my black horizon.
the city & my life inside it
await my return.

I stare awake the coals
until the tiny embers have gone black
& then leave whatever is left
as a memory,
because that is the fire
that burns the longest.


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