John M. Gist
Crisis of Chrysalis
The barrel of the .45 ACP was tucked into my belt in such a way that the butt bore into my liver. As I stood to relieve the pressure, time, masked in the usual chronological garb, discarded its guise. Kairos, the supreme moment of the ancient Greeks, sat ready to command from the La-Z-Boy in which I had just been sitting. Kairos: time to act, the crisis of chrysalis, a breaking through. That’s what it felt like. I reminded myself of the beer and cocaine wending through my bloodstream, poisons perturbing consciousness. Lurching to the door-less door jamb at the entryway of the apartment, I considered walking out into the bright hot desert day and leaving Lou behind. Should the whirlwind rage, Lou should be the one who reaped it. Not I.
Cocaine clarity: blistered bickering between Lou and a Mexican in the back bedroom of the apartment melting like ice on a red-hot cast-iron pan, sputtering and gone, and two children, boys, both in single digits of years, kneeling on the living room floor in front of a big console television watching Looney Tunes while one of the three men sitting at a card table in the kitchen flicked playing cards for a fresh game, yellow light oozing from a single bulb hidden behind the discolored glass of a wall sconce, beer bottles cluttering the vinyl tabletop, cigarettes smoldering in ashtrays.
I held down the urge to yank the pistol and disconnect my brain.
But it was only a moment. Chronological order (Kronos of the ancient Greeks) returned, logic busting into my thoughts like a home invader.
Should I stay or should I go?
According to the Great Law of the Iroquois, “In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation, even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.” Paraphrase: each generation must look to the needs of the next seven generations by preserving resources and reducing environmental impact, and for this we must learn suffering. Of the scores I have come across over the years, it is the best working definition of sustainability so far. Simple and elegant, direct, it is the stuff of wisdom. But wisdom absent action is a trick of the senses, an illusion, mere words.
Another stripe in the rainbow spectrum of sustainability discourse: The Brundtland Report—sanctioned by the United Nations and one of the most cited sources on the subject of sustainable development—is supported by three pillars: Economic Growth, Environmental Protection, and Social Equity. The approach is fraught with incongruities. Perpetual economic growth has an Achilles’ heel: we live on a finite planet, a fact that locates infinite growth outside the realm of possibility. Throw social equity into the mix and what are the ramifications? More and more people striving for and achieving middleclass status (for what is social equity if it is not an access to wealth?). If current trends are any indicator, this kind of social equity—with more and more people having disposable income with which to purchase more and more goods and, thus, fuel an ever-expanding economy—would heavily increase the weight of the environmental footprint of humanity. Competing principles demote The Brundtland Report’s benevolent vision to the status of troubled sleep: economic growth and social equity poised to engage in battle upon the green fields of planet Earth.
Lou was an ex-punk rocker from California who claimed to have played bass for the legendary hardcore band Battalion of Saints. He may have been telling the truth (the band did go through numerous personnel changes). Maybe he made it up. Whatever the case, I believed him when he confessed to being a heroin addict who had kicked for the sake of his kids. To escape the drug scene he moved from southern California to Tucson, Arizona. He worked on and off as a repo man but the real juice came from selling marijuana and cocaine. He converted a spare bedroom into a makeshift office where drugs were measured and meted out. The room also housed a stereo system worth several thousands of dollars. Lou listened to punk rock whenever he had the chance, disappeared into the office and sat in a reclining chair and levered up the volume. He devoured tunes like a boll weevil in cotton.
Short and perpetually pale (his skin would neither tan nor burn), Lou had big, brown, watery eyes and wore a painter’s brush black mustache. He dressed in black jeans and t-shirts, wore navy blue athletic socks. He had a tattoo of Mighty Mouse on his left arm and wore his hair cropped close to the skull.
Sarah stood several inches taller than her husband. Baby fine locks of hair dyed the color of mango flesh trickled over her broad shoulders like thousands of chances vying to be real. Firmly plump, Sarah loved to cook. Italian was her specialty but she dabbled in Mexican and East Indian dishes as well.
Lou and Sarah threw parties. Two or three a week. I was invited to one of the parties by my next door neighbor in the apartment complex where I lived at the time, near Speedway and Alvernon Way. Sarah filled the bellies of her guests with Pasta Fagioli or Mole Poblano or Murg Palak (I recall the names because Sarah drilled them into us like an overzealous foreign language instructor). Later in the evening, after the dishes were done, Lou plied his trade. Music and laughter abounded. An outsider looking in would have observed Lou and Sarah treating life like a banquet where every wine flowed. But, unbeknownst to them, just as the young poet Rimbaud before him, Lou had taken beauty in his arms, found her bitter, and insulted her.
Every now and then, unprompted, Lou spontaneously professed love for his children. I believed him, for love, like evolution, is fraught with mutations; humans don’t much resemble fruit flies but we share almost 60% of our genes. An addict’s love is still love, though it may not look like it to the non-addict. I cannot remember their names, the boy and the girl, the children of Lou and Sarah. The only visual I am able to conjure are ghost-like silhouettes, another age, another time.
The boy, I do remember, was often sick. Fevers and coughs. Gelatinous phlegm the color of uncooked egg whites. It worried Lou to no end. The girl, four or five years old, smiled while kneeling in front of the family television watching cartoons. She was always watching cartoons, no matter how many partygoers mulled about the living room sipping boxed wine and beer, no matter how loud the music thumped from the stereo. No matter what, the girl smiled and watched cartoons and wore red ribbons in hair the color of ashen blood.
The air smelled of mesquite habituated by combustible engine exhaust. I sat alone on the back deck at Lou’s place. The deck faced north, overlooking an arroyo that wound into the night. I gazed into desert darkness. Deep bass pulsed from the stereo inside the house. A pocket of warm breeze trailed through yucca, around barrel cactus, between slender arms of ocotillo. Lights from an airplane blinked on and off just above a half-moon the color of a nicotine stained tooth.
The back door opened and out walked Lou. Any revelation attempting to form dissolved. Lou handed me a chilled beer and sat in one of his spanking new padded deck chairs. As he rolled a joint, we listened to caterwauling coyotes run the arroyo.
“You know,” said Lou, as he lit the joint with a Bic lighter, the reflection of the butane flame floating on his watery eyes, “sometimes I want to kill myself to stop the craving.” He took a hit and held it and passed the joint to me.
I didn’t know what to say.
“I don’t do it,” said Lou, the words scratching through the cloud of smoke escaping his lungs. “I live for my kids.”
The coyotes hemmed in a small dog they had lured into the wild with their whining and yapping. We listened as the pack angled and attacked, cackling like baby banshees. The domestic dog, lost and confused, shrieked as it was disemboweled.
There was nothing to be done.
Suffering as Virtue and Virtue as Art
The Warm Springs Apache taught their children how to suffer, deprived them of food and water, because they understood hardship as part and parcel of living. The children accepted privation without complaint. Strength in suffering. Role models such as Chief Nana (a contemporary to Victorio and Geronimo), crippled and aged, endured fatigue without protest. Nana outrode and outlasted men much younger than himself. For the Apache, suffering was an art, thick skin a badge of honor.
In Western society, comfort and material wealth are markers of success while suffering, more often than not, is an indicator of weakness. Max Weber, a father of modern sociology, in his influential The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, argued that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination—God determining who is damned and who is chosen-saved eternities before they are born—provided the catalyst to spur forth the ideology of profit. Imagine the stress brought on by such a worldview. An aging man surveys his property with the same nagging question always in mind, “Am I saved or am I damned?” If he owns a decent house, has a faithful wife who has given him children to carry forward his genes, if he is healthy, he might take it as evidence that he is among the chosen. As it is in heaven so shall it be on earth. His neighbor, who happens to carry the weight of a congenital heart condition and heavy monetary debt, may be, probably is, one of the damned. Or so it might appear.
Now, remove, or at least diminish, the role of God in the equation. Business became increasingly secular as the United States claimed the “Richest Nation in the History of the World” prize. What does wealth indicate if it is not the paradise of heaven? The only thing left: paradise on earth. And paradise must, by definition, be comfortable. Skin as soft as rose petals, then, would, in this society, hold greater value than skin as thick as the bark of a pine.
The Native American tradition calls for self-deprivation so as to preserve Earth to the seventh generation. The Brundtland Report promotes the belief that working hard, being good, and having access to wealth is the way to avoid suffering. Can there be growth without pain?
Like most authentic punk rockers of the era, Lou sensed something awry in the prevailing culture, something amiss in the corporate world of the bottom line. The inkling, once lodged, took root and his life transmogrified into an extended existential crisis, where, according to Zen philosopher D.T. Suzuki, “finite man is infinitely removed from God.” Godlessness brings its own brand of liberty and Lou was permitted to do as he pleased and so injected heroin into his arm. The drug alleviated the vertigo of freedom that plagued him like some foul stalker in the night. Heroin and punk rock. He plucked electric bass, stomped the stage and yowled into the microphone. The mosh pit gyrated before him. He jumped in. Once. Again. Let’s do it again. Patterned chaos.
It was Lou who suggested the family pack the Chevy van and flee across the desert in the star grizzled night. He must have understood that his California lifestyle was not sustainable. He knew it and so swore off heroin and guitars. A clean break. He took a job repossessing cars about the same time the cult classic film Repo Man hit screens in 1984. Kairos dressed as coincidence.
It didn’t take long for Lou’s California buddies to find and drag him back into the netherworld of the drug scene. But Lou was a man of his word: he refused to have anything to do with heroin or guitars. That didn’t stop him from first partaking in and then pedaling cocaine and marijuana. In a matter of months he was living in a middleclass home in a middleclass suburb on the northwestern edge of the city. Periodically he stopped to take an accounting of his life, as most men do, and, because God was infinitely far away, Lou gauged his position by physical means: nice house, a passenger car and a van, cable television, posed smile photographs, trips to the spa for Sarah, brand name clothes for his kids. A self-made man, he had done what he had to do. If his children suffered, nobody knew it, not even they, and so there was no lesson to be learned.
Strife as Justice
The desert Southwest can be described as a proving grounds where East meets West. Native American tribes, Pueblo and Apache, Navajo and Pima, represent the long trek from the East, from Asia, while the Spanish and Anglos traveled westward from Europe. The coming together, it seems, was inevitable. Humans spread out from Africa like a chthonian curse or, viewed from another angle, with auspicious potential. Cormac McCarthy chronicled the violence accompanying the clash of cultures in the American Southwest. Employing neo-Biblical rhetoric, Blood Meridian (1985), points to a potent hex placed on humanity by who knows what malign force, a curse that a cursory glance at human history reveals as real and relentless. The novel is based on historical events where mindless violence defined the human experience. It is a decidedly Western depiction, unfurled in a desert where redemption is sought in spilt blood.
Regeneration through violence, like a phantom invisible in heliotrope fog of its own making, has haunted Western civilization from ancient Greece to the Chihuahuan Desert I call home. The Western brand of suffering, it should be made clear, is not of the same kin as that the Warm Springs Apaches bestowed upon their children. Nor is it genetic to the Iroquois’ pine bark skin. The difference between the two, the East and the West, is, of course, worldview. The Old Testament, for example, sees Earth as something to be subdued. The Navajo, in a Native American instance, sees it differently:
In beauty I walk
With beauty before me I walk
With beauty behind me I walk
With beauty below me I walk
With beauty above me I walk
It is finished in beauty
It is finished in beauty
“For the Native American,” comments Hispanic/Apache philosopher V.F. Cordova, “there is not, nor can there be, a distinction between esthetics and ethics. The universe is a good thing.” In McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which has been compared to Melville, Faulkner and Heraclitus, the world is a kind of hell where, “We must know that war is common to all and strife is justice.” One sees the creative aspect of existence as positive, the other the destructive powers of man and nature as wicked to the point of depravity.
These two interpretations of suffering, one that learns to respect, the other that avoids to inflict, are worlds apart, yet they come from the same world, not two. Worldview, to state the obvious, plays a primary role in how humans relate to living. But, alas, “worldview” or, better, “worlding” is a fluid process where one person’s beauty can be another’s horror, a fertile environment for breeding confusion. America, precisely because it is the place where West collided with East, has suffered an identity crisis from its inception, a crisis that, left untreated, leads into the mire darkly.
Bawling for Feed
I begged Lou to stop selling me cocaine because, first, I couldn’t afford it on my measly yard worker’s wage and, second, I worried about crossing too far over the line into addiction. I failed to inform Lou of my reasoning in the fear that the word “addiction” might spark one of his long lectures about the horrors of heroin, how withdrawal ate at him from the outside in, tiny white worms of desire putrid and writhing, bawling for feed, the hunger a high-pitched frequency piercing his gray matter like a thin and sharp drill bit past the tooth and into the nerve. He could go on about the old days for hours. My nerves were already shot.
I moved into a small trailer (cheap rent), the aluminum siding designed to reflect desert heat. The trailer sat in a gravel lot surrounded by an eight foot chain-link fence. Each day after work I locked the gate and retreated to the trailer to eat Polish sausage and sauerkraut. I listened to crickets in the cooling evenings, watched palo verde beetles scutter dryly over the gravel outside my front door. I kept to myself. I rarely thought about cocaine after the first week.
By the second week Lou was climbing over the fence and banging on the trailer door. Resistance was futile. We sat on my dilapidated love seat and snorted lines of cocaine from plastic drinking straws. Lou did not ask to be paid.
Soon enough, Lou was asking favors. One was to accompany him to an apartment complex where a client lived. The client, a middle-aged Mexican with blue eyes, owed a good amount of money, drug money, to Lou. The idea was to take three AK-47s and two S&W .357 revolvers for payment. How Lou knew the guy had guns, I have no idea. How he convinced me to accompany him to the apartment packing a .45 under the flap of my shirt? Cocaine loyalty. People steal, kill, and prostitute themselves by various means for their addictions. And they will rationalize their sins away, always for one more day.
Leaning against the door-less door jamb, a seizure clamped first my throat and next my lungs. The two boys kneeling on the floor watching television in the living room wavered, as if they were holographs not real, as if the entire scene had been invented to fool me into rendering my soul to the void. An amaranthine mist drifted over my vision. I pulled the pistol from my belt and took a step toward the children.
Next thing I knew, Lou was standing beside me, his hand on my own, the .45 back in my belt under the flap of my shirt. We left the apartment carrying only the guns with which we came. But Lou had a wad of folded one hundred dollar bills bulging in the front pocket of his jeans. He refused to tell me what had happened, what I had done to cause the men in the apartment to fidget and look at their feet, the children to disappear, only that I should lay off the drinking. We drove to his house and sat in the makeshift office and listened to Iggy Pop blasting from the stereo. It felt like a visitor at a stranger’s wake.
The last time I saw Lou his eardrum burst. I was helping him assemble bunk beds for the kids, screwing in wood screws with a yellow-handled Philips screwdriver. Looking up from the work, I saw Lou holding his hand next to his ear like an old man hard of hearing. The painter’s brush mustache hung over his lip like a dead animal. His eyes were wide and watering. Tuning into the shrill ringing in his ear, he believed, at first, it was music, celestial, far away, and so confused his condition with revelation. Blood dribbled down his earlobe over the diamond in his stud earring.
Meth was relatively new in those days and, once Lou caught the scent, he was a convert. He had snorted a line like a cup of morning coffee before we started on the bunk beds. I refused to join him and drank coffee instead. We knelt over the bedframe, our knees cushioned by mauve carpet installed the previous week. I can’t remember what happened next, whether I drove him to the hospital or left him kneeling over the beds of his children. I never stepped foot into his house again.
Over the course of the next week, every other evening around 6 p.m., Lou would climb the eight foot chain-link fence and pound on my trailer door, beating the hams of his fists against the metal and wood, chanting my name as if it was some strange language, slow and mad, designed to resurrect the dead. I refused him entrance by way of silence.
Blossoming in the Night
Water is scarce in the desert. As obvious as that may seem, people keep moving out here in droves. Tucson is at least twice as large as when I lived there decades ago. They keep coming, looking for something, for money, for love, for God. They crave that which they know not and are defined by that craving and so stare stupidly at the desert floor looking for the footprints of the striped lizard they witnessed scurrying across the sand moments before. They never find them. Above: the sun a white-hot hole.
My fear is that humans will succumb to some gnomish curse delivered through the DNA like a time-released poison that leaves its victims writhing in ignorance. I fear that, like Lou, we will continue to sacrifice that which we love to that which we crave and in doing so dread suffering rather than accepting it for the sake of the children. These fears wax and wane like waves in a tide.
Lou, like Glanton, the blood-crazed scalp hunter in Blood Meridian, wanted more, always more, could find nothing to abate. He played the part of a godless Calvinist who craved it all to prove himself divine. More. Again. Let’s do it again. Chaos incarnate. Like The Brundtland Report, in which everybody wins, corporations, citizens, and the environment, Lou refused to see the contradiction that was his life. Instead of reaping that which he had sown, whirlwind or no, he handed it down the line to his children, and, probably, far beyond, even to the seventh generation. Lou, it could be said, scalped his own kin. Not even Glanton would have gone so far.
Lou chose his craving and so murdered his art. It was his choice, not another’s. Rehab works only on those who are willing to change, to suffer for something greater than personal gratification. At the end of the day we all face it alone: desire. We choose how to deal with it. Either we attempt to own it, to possess it, or we respect it from a distance. The former can lead to craving—money, sex, drugs, love, fame, the same old players—because desire cannot be owned, it is its own brand of becoming. The latter, respect for the primal power that is desire, may lead to beauty, a place where the generative force of nature opens like a datura blossom in the deep night. The choosing is perpetual, it would seem, no past, present or future, the moment always supreme: Kairos forever walking beside us, hand-in-hand, one hopes, more often than not, with beauty. Walk with beauty.
Lou found beauty bitter the night he forsook his guitar. Of that much I am sure. To kill his addiction he felt he was required to sacrifice his art. The moment he gave up playing, he was infinitely removed from God.
Every now and then I wonder about Lou:
If he had skin enough thick to tear open the chrysalis,
If, in praise of folly, he plugged-in a guitar and strummed,
If he noticed, for the sake of his children, and theirs,
to the seventh generation,
the beauty in suffering.
Or if he stayed the course,
with blinders on,
tumbling always headlong
into the deep
John M. Gist’s creative nonfiction and short stories have appeared in publications such as the Dr. T.J Eckleburg Review, Superstition Review, Gravel, Spilt Infinitive, Prick of the Spindle, The Fiddleback, Dark Matter, Left Curve, New Mexico Magazine and others. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has three published novels and is co-author of the philosophical work Angst and Evolution: The Struggle for Human Potential.