Empty My Head

window scene

The spiders were still hibernating. The cobwebs on the ceiling quivered in the drafts. Juan del Llano scrunched over far enough to squint at the clock: 7:57 glowed green through the dust. The old black Sony she gave him for Christmas 15 years ago. Did people really used to wake up to the radio? He tried it once or twice to get up early to drive to Albuquerque for a flight, before he had an iPhone, when she was far away in cold Dubuque. As he eased back now against her and felt the warmth, she gave a little moan of recognition and the morning edge. A song or poem he’d never heard before kept cycling through his brain:

Empty my head
empty my head
roll it all out
on the ground
empty my head
just like I’m dead
except I’m still
here all around

Yesterday at cocktail hour. Juan had coffee, not tequila, six days past a bad boy molar. He remembered how it cracked. She drank lemonade and stared down at the carpet.

“I’ve had it,” he said.

“Me, too.”

No need to dig deeper, just The Situation.

He knelt down to build a fire in the Ashley. Where would they be in the old adobe without that hippie mainstay? Back in the woods in Arkansas some 50 years ago, he’d read his battered Whole Earth Catalog and dreamed of one. (Back to the land we go, hi-ho.) Seven or eight lifetimes passed between. Sagittarius rising or growing up an Air Force brat? Burn, you stupid motherfucker. The local paper he’d crumpled up for starter fuel was oddly slick and nearly fireproof, but soon the piñon flared, the stovepipe signaled hey look out with a crick-crick-crick, he turned the draft clear down, and twilight in el Norte faded into night at three degrees.

Why was it every time he reached his limit, yeah-yeah, it was already winter? Abundance thundered in the void and all he needed was a rain dance. He bought a fancy German vacuum cleaner, red faux leather sneakers, and real leather ones in black. He was so tired of the deprivation. Voluntary, mostly. Tired of dust, dirt roads, the neighbor’s dogs, what passed for life in wartime Taos. All around was madness: lunatics and fascists, zombies of his past. The old man’s life advice had mostly been of things to be afraid of, stuff you couldn’t have. How to bait a fishhook, now that was helpful. Which way to turn a screw, how to drive a nail. Nothing’s ever black or white. No one goes to hell. Surely goodness and mercy would follow him all the days of his life, and he would dwell in the house of Juan forever.

The oral surgeon had just left. Juan felt no pain except the memory of the cold steel forceps in his mouth. “Do you want to keep your tooth?” the assistant asked. That would have been nice, he almost cracked, but she was much too kind and smart to torment. (Move through life and be a dolphin, never leave a wake.) Curious, he sat up, peering at the tray. Ah yes, the old gold crown, still attached to a jagged piece of tooth with a bright red line of blood along the edge. As if he’d had his ankle severed by a bullet and they offered him his shoe and foot, he thought.

“No, that’s all right.”

Five hundred eighteen dollars, paid by debit from the chair. Like being maimed inside a spaceship, so you wouldn’t even mind. He didn’t, actually. The tooth was gone, he’d paid with fairy dust. They had it down, all right.

Out the door, still biting on the gauze. He and his wife were in the truck this time, his ‘01 Dodge Dakota with the big V-8. When they’d left the house, the Vibe had started up all right but cranked too slowly. Sensing trouble, he’d switched seamlessly to the gassed-up 4WD and off they went. The next day it was snowing when he tried the Vibe again. Not even a solitary solenoid click. Aha. It took three days with breaks to pull the old battery, take it to O’Reilly’s, and install the new one. There was still some jiggering with the hold down J-bolt to be done, but Juan had found the answer on the internet. That night it snowed again—five inches—and he finished in the morning. Six days passed before the Miele arrived from Amazon. The Vibe was still snowed in.

People he saw online went out and did things, never mind the plague. But in the cold and wind he lost his nerve. If only he could keep his thoughts from killing him. Did he not have a golden flaming Jesus riding on a tiger in his heart? He vowed to take the fancy German vacuum to the cobwebs, suck the sleeping spiders from the cracks, and wear the bright red sneakers while he did. Empty his head, goddammit, motherfucking blank, and be here now. The Miele was so German. Everything was click and turn and pop right out or slide right in. The motor spooled up slowly like a Zeppelin coming over the hill but sucked with black hole fury until the bag half-filled and flashed a warning. The filtration was so efficient, the dirt so invisible and deep, it did so after only half a room. No wonder the house was “impossible to clean.” Their old vacuum moved dust like a leaf blower shifted leaves. Every step they’d ever taken on the threadbare carpet only raised it up into the air to fall again on top of everything and down into their lungs, food, hopes, and dreams. You want to be free, buy more bags. Even half-filled, clogged, and signaling nicht gut, it yanked yards of greasy bullshit off the wall and antique shotguns in the corner. He moved one aside. The biggest cobweb spider he’d ever seen sat snarling in a clump of tiny victim husks, but not for long.

Magnificent and mundane all at once. The vacuum was a sign.

A few days later Juan del Llano was on a tear deleting photos. In the old days he’d have filled another shoebox and stashed it in the closet but there was neither that nor shoebox to his name. Old adobes didn’t come with closets, just two pegs behind the bedroom door—one for a Sunday outfit, the other for the work clothes—that’s why someone invented the trastero. (They had a pipe suspended from the vigas in the bathroom.) But the 21st century came in via coaxial cable from the wireless internet receiver on the roof. He laughed recalling his surprise the day the ISP techs pulled out a portable drill and punched a hole through 18 inches of old mud bricks and never asked. Not that he cared, but damn the thing was easy. So that was how he started burning old tired pictures off the SSD… There were so many of the same things: canyons, mountains, snow, his silly face, the old dead cat, the tires on his neighbor’s roof. Delete, delete, delete. Another gigabyte, hooray.

He lingered over one shot, though. A scanned image of his five-year-old self sitting on the back steps of his mother’s sister’s house in Maryland. The one he spent the night in once with all his cousins sleeping in the attic, the old wooden building he’d have called a farmhouse now but this was on a quiet street beside the railroad tracks where bad boys and girls put pennies on the tracks to get them squashed. He’d done it once but gotten scared—what if it made the engine jump the tracks? There was a willow tree in the front yard. His Uncle Buddy cut a stick and made a whistle for him once the way you could because the bark slid nicely off the bright green wood. One time everyone was eating bologna sandwiches on white bread at the kitchen table, baking in the humid June, when the iceman (think of that) came up those same back steps, pulled an ice pick from his overalls, and chopped off corners of the block for them to suck on.

He stared hard at the photo. Something snapped and he felt clear and strong and knew that he could manage.

Hi, Juanito.

(Hello, Juan.)

Magic at his fingertips, mercy in his heart.

Morning Hello

Ranchos de Taos scene

Six weeks ago looking south

Good Morning! Here’s something I tweeted this morning that I wanted to share. I hope everyone reading this is fine today. I tell myself to stay alive, get through the winter, and thank God we’re living in New Mexico. May everyone be well, no matter where you are.

Same for me personally, by the way. Hidden shadow’s gonna manifest. But when you see, confront, and own it all, you get the mystery good stuff, too. It’s all underneath the trap door. Set your demons free, make art, and sing. God bless America, what’s left of it. We ain’t dead yet.

Be Yourself

Teresa in the back yard

In the back yard in Austin

That’s my sister Teresa in the center with her husband on the right. And yes, those are what you think they are—I still have a baggie full of seeds and wonder if they’re any good. She died of liver cancer in 2010 and hardly a day goes by without my thinking of her. A lifelong artist, she settled in Austin after graduating from U.T. and never left. For years she supported herself by selling her silk-screened art works on the Drag across from the student union building. If I started telling stories about her now, I’d never stop, like how she used to rollerblade on windy days with a handheld sail she built with a hula hoop, or the time she invented “cat fishing” by casting a fuzzy lure down a long steep hill above the original Whole Foods store and getting the neighborhood cats to follow it up to her house. She had her life and I had mine in mundane day-to-day existence, but the thing was we were close in spirit…

[continue reading…]

Soul Map

Soul Map post image

Just posted at GODDAMN BUFFALO (Substack). You’ll have to view it there this time, too many images for me to format here. Took me a good six hours as it was. It’s a purely experimental piece. Let your eyes roll over it slowly and see what associations might come up.

Charles Whitman’s Bloody Socks

Charles Whitman’s Bloody Socks post image

You can read about it here, but I was there and this is how it was for me. I don’t know why I’m publishing this now, sitting here at 7,000 feet in northern New Mexico so many years later. I actually tried to write a song about it, and I’ve rewritten this essay over a dozen times in the last few weeks. The goddamn thing has strangled me and I have had enough. I think I simply need to tell someone about the blood…

After I published this, I learned of the amazing film from 2017, “Tower,” by Keith Maitland, available for free streaming at that link, and strongly urge everyone to watch it for a greater understanding of my own recollection below. Most of the action of the film focuses on the south side of the Tower. Though I spent most of my time that day on the north side, there are a couple of very brief scenes in the film where I was only a few feet out of camera range. Strangely, the photo above appears for about half a second also. I thought I’d cropped it out of a much larger photo I found online, but perhaps my memory fails me here.

It was gut-wrenching to watch “Tower.” My few memories fail to convey the full impact of that day, which came back with a wallop while I watched. Mysteriously, one of the persons featured in the film appears to have been living at Stag Co-op, where I also lived the year before. Every location shown is somewhere I walked or sat every single day I was a student. Absent the gunfire and the drama, someone could have been following me around with a camera. The “coincidences” are unnerving. – JHF

Walking toward the Tower at the moment that it started, bang-bang-bang, people dropping on the sidewalk a block ahead before it curved into the shade of big green live oaks. I thought it was a rush week stunt at first I swear, firecrackers, maybe, except the people on the ground were lying still on noon-hot concrete. Someone started screaming.

I’d just stepped off the curb to cross the street. No way. I must have turned around and retreated into the Littlefield House, an old two-story limestone building used for music practice rooms, because I remember sitting downstairs hearing bullets go through the wooden roof like metal bumblebees. That drove me outside to the alley, separated from the yard and sidewalk by a four-foot wall. There was an Austin policeman with a revolver and a civilian with a deer rifle hunkered down behind it, shooting up at the Tower. I didn’t see how they could possibly be effective. The shots coming from the Tower were professional, loud, and dangerous. At this point, people were still driving onto campus 30 feet away because no one had thought to block the entrance. How would you know it wasn’t just another day? I remember being much more excited than scared.

The University of Texas Tower (Main Building) was the center of the campus. Most people passed by or walked through every day if just to hit the bathrooms and the water fountains. Administrative offices below, the huge Main Library above, and then the tower itself, 27 levels of offices and library stacks with study carrels around the perimeter where anyone could sit. Graduate students had reserved carrels on the quieter upper floors where you could keep your books and papers spread out. The elevator ran through the center of the Tower, all the way to a room below the observation deck. There were stairs you walked up one more level to a kind of waiting room with windows and doors that led outside. At the top of the stairs was a desk where a Texas granny-lady welcomed you and had you sign the guest book. What a great job she had, I used to think. (He killed her with a shotgun.) All of this was free and easy. The view from 300 feet up outside in the open air, with my elbows resting on the wide smooth masonry wall, made me feel a privileged son of Texas. It was never crowded up there and I often wondered why.

The afternoon was ad hoc chaos. A private plane circled the top of the Tower with someone inside firing out the window. I was surprised that Whitman didn’t shoot it down. From wherever I happened to be one point—I roamed around a lot—I could see the barrel of the gunman’s sniper rifle poking out from the observation deck. Eventually I circled around on the east side to make my way to the Tower, keeping to the cover of the trees. I simply had to be there. I may have heard a radio and known the end was near.

There were dozens of people clustered around the west ground floor entrance to the Main Building, maybe more. I guess we figured he couldn’t shoot straight down. Campus police weren’t letting anyone inside. I maneuvered my way as close to the door as I could get, knowing that’s where they’d bring him out, alive or dead. All at once they did, moving quickly with the stretcher held down low. I’ll never forget what I saw:

The body was long and obviously heavy, covered from head to ankle with a sheet completely soaked in blood. I mean wringing wet all over, drops falling on the sidewalk. His feet were hanging off the end of the stretcher. The socks were soaked as well, bright red like the sheet. Where were the shoes, I thought. Did they blast the guy right out of his boots? (It happens.)* And how did the socks get wet like that? Did that much blood run down his legs before he cratered and the two cops emptied all their weapons in a final frenzy?

Afterwards I walked across the south mall, probably to retrieve my bike. There were dozens of students hurrying home or to a phone, whatever one does after a disaster. Several people had been shot out there in the blazing sun, though their bodies were now gone. What hadn’t been removed was all the blood, and there was plenty of it. A university groundskeeping crew was hosing it off the mall and down the steps into the storm drains. Most of it had already congealed into translucent slabs of reddish-purple jello.

Just like Whitman’s bloody socks, this was something I knew I’d never see again: an older fellow wearing overalls and a big straw cowboy hat, stoically hosing globs of human blood down the steps I climbed up every day heading from my classrooms to the Texas Union or the library. Everything about the cleanup scene was wrong, though.

Something in me wanted them to leave it like it was.

*In the film, Whitman is shown dead on the observation deck with his shoes on. What are we to make of that?