I saw grandma today. She’s very sick. Well, dying actually. When I went to her room in the assisted living house, it was in her old room because her new room is in the hospital ward now. I moved her bed, the family dish cabinet, the old dinner table we used to use for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We were taking them to a place to be sold. No one wanted them.

On the last load I stayed behind with my aunt. She said, Josef, there’s no reason for you to take the last; you should visit grandma, but bear in mind that it’s pretty grim. I said that I’m used to that, and that it didn’t matter; that I was ready for just watching her for a while.

Hospitals, even “rehabilitation wards” within rest homes always smell like stale chips and used synthetic clothing. Nothing beautiful can be summoned within that scent. However, the thoughts that echo within those that travel down those halls makes up for it.

She looked so small on her single bed. The bed was made, but she lay fragile under a blanket, looking like an ant underneath a wet leaf. I sat next to her, saw her face stretched so tight and tired. Where was the caretaker and the boy now? Where was the man and the too old to keep being old anymore, but there at that moment.

I kissed her forehead and she woke up. She wasn’t supposed to; she was supposed to be too confused, too detached — they told me to be prepared with the fact that she may not recognize me. She opened her eyes and asked, you’re back from New Zealand. Yes grandma, I’m back.

And we talked like we used to, but I could tell it took everything for her to remain engaged. So I made it easy. I talked about travel. I reminded her of all the places I’ve been. Told her that it’s hard to have two homes when neither feels like home. There was silence. Then she said, I’ve traveled a lot too.

She has been all over the world. When I was a child she would be gone for months at a time, but would return with stories about Greece, Kashmir, India — amazing adventures that I couldn’t have ever imagined if it wasn’t for her gift of story. She taught me that who we are as a people of the earth has everything to do with the differences, not the likenesses.

And then, when she had nothing left, she said to me, you can go everywhere in the world and be nowhere. And then she went to sleep.



December 31, 2012

We walked the streets of Mumbai all the way to the arch that said King George. There were guards everywhere, protecting the arch and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which was raided and bombed by Pakistani terrorists a few years prior. There’s nothing like a guard with a handlebar mustache and an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder to remind you of the scary truths lurking about.

We kept walking north and hit the railroad tracks. The smell of rotting garbage mushroomed. We took the overpass arching across the tracks and looked down onto an empty and crooked abacus of rails that often have felt passengers flop out of open-door trains. A train zoomed by when we reached the other side of the bridge and I watched young men standing proud, their shoulders exposed to the wind, one hand secured on a handrail, that hand all that was keeping them onboard.

I thought to myself how is death in a city of 14 million, in a country of a billion calculated? I wondered if mortality becomes even more of a game. Is the weight of love and sadness different in this aggravated gluepot of poverty, economic disparity and potential lawlessness? I knew my way of thinking was blind; I could feel it. My inexperience and western appetites keep certain simple truths obscured. But we continued with smudged glasses along the water.

Chowpatty’s mirth and grime and grit and swirling white of exhaust was paradise for the several young Indian couples holding hands on the bulkhead beside the sea. So there is love.

And after which I received more smiles from strangers than ever before. I smiled back and there began a dialogue. My self-consciousness as a foreigner was forgotten.

Joe and I left the water and climbed up a hill to get lost, and it was all smiles between each other too, it was because they are infectious I suppose.

We took a left into an alleyway and walked past old women selling fruit on blankets, and men getting shaves inside dimly lit duck-and-enter hole-in-the-wall barbershops. We continued down the alley until it narrowed into a path. We skated on the elbow path and the buildings began to rise like roaring lions. Colors got brighter, and the corrugated aluminum walls were ubiquitous. Wood patchwork filled all remaining holes. Joe and I were now just bit parts in a tumbleweed jigsaw quest. The pungent smell of masala slipped into my nostrils and kids poked their heads out of the windows and doorways to their makeshift houses and laugh when they saw us.

We got so deep in it we couldn’t turn back, even when the houses became so dense that our path completely vanished. A girl pointed between two walls and said, ‘That way.’ We greased up, shimmied through and kept our stomachs sucked in until we popped out onto a street where the neighborhood boys were playing cricket. They clamored over each other to have one of us take a swing.

We looked back behind us and the body of a slum buffed her chest at us. Joe and I stood at her feet and considered how that beautiful-ugly stands — I though out of mankind’s sheer will to make a home for one’s own self and for one’s family. That’s why slums stand like lions in Mumbai’s anti-Cartesian orbit. A simple truth.


P1000249 - Version 2

Goa — December 24th 2012

Joe’s walking out to cool off in the Arabian and I’m writing at a table in the cabana with a cold beer. Goa. India. However did we get here? Chennai was insane. Landed, bribed the customs officer to get Joe in, taxied in a cyclone of cars and motorbikes, tuk-tuks and dust. Got to the train station without a second to loose.  Hundreds of sleeping bodies gapped on the floor like human hurdles, jumping over everyone to find the ticket window that must have vanished with the sun. We say fuck it and jump on a train without a ticket. Find the engineer, “Can we get a seat?” We ask. “Yes sirs,” He says, “but there will be a penalty…” Of course there will, we say to each other.

I couldn’t sleep. Outside the Indian scalp was obscured by darkness. What is Bangalore going to be like in the morning? As I’ve written earlier: masala dosas, learning to eat with my right hand, cows, bright spices, the market where I was lifted by a sea of people and saw hills of roses and pythons of Hindi garlands choke the stench out of the gutters. I. As. Individual. Lost in the sea of everyone.

That’s how we got here.

It’s almost Christmas. I biked on the sand and found an ancient payphone and made my call home. I’m so content. We’ve put the chaos of city traffic behind us for now. That braided confluence of humans, animals and machines all partaking in a flood that can only be described as a river acting naturally. It was exciting and terrifying and beautiful like love is perhaps.

Now here, realizing I got a lot of life left in me, I find no discernible difference between the crashing waves of the sea, and the incoming tide of souls who flooded Bangalore’s flower market. But I’ll take the calm for now; it won’t be long before Mumbai. I’m never happier than on the road…

I think I’m going to join Joe and take a swim.

There is so much more to see. Travel is the unreal real that unmasks life to its most fundamental components.

Merry Christmas.


Mary leaned back on the fire escape’s handrail and gripped it tightly with each hand. Her short wool dress hung loose. Her violet headscarf clung tightly to the dozens of course black ringlets pinned up into a mass on top of her head. Her nose was long and when she blinked, her large eyelids shimmered like copper pennies. She smiled at the camera. A thin gap between her front teeth stood proud like a black column. Josef focused the lens and triggered the exposure. The moment embalmed.

He lowered the camera and they looked at each other. The beeping of motor scooters, the growls of automobile engines, and the intelligible echoes of refracted alley conversations billowed up to the third story of the Athenian apartment. Mary removed her long tool-like hands from the rail and pulled a cigarette from a crumpled soft pack that sat lifeless on a wooden table beside her. She put the cigarette in her mouth and stood there looking at Josef. She sighed and pushed her hip to one side and flicked her eyelashes like whips at her young nephew.

Josef, as if pulled from a frozen lake, snapped immediately back into consciousness and instinctually pulled a lighter from the inner pocket of his wool two-buttoned blazer. He paused, stricken because he knew the contents of a jacket he had never worn before. Cigarettes, a lighter and foreign coins he’d never owned. He stepped towards her, reached in and engulfed her cigarette tip in flame until it crackled. He stepped back and smoothed his hands over the black lapels of the foreign jacket that seemingly had always been his, and the thin tie that looked familiar only from imagination. The silver lighter tucked inside his curled thumb tapped against his tie clip and pulled it loose. Mary gripped her cigarette between her thin lips, walked across the fire escape to Josef, and grabbed his tie. She yanked it gently and his attention crawled up from his chest to her eyes. She fixed his tie clip and adjusted his knot like she was the one that had dressed him that morning.

“You got handsome while I’ve been dead.” She said, exhaling a cloud of smoke that quickly curled and disappeared into the Athenian smog.        Josef was confused.

“You got beautiful and younger in death? Nineteen?”

“Oh, shut up. Eighteen.” She smiled, having enjoyed the morbid complement. “To think that I really wanted to die and turn into a crow. Ha!” She exclaimed. “Better to be young!” She paused. They looked into each other, the first time ever as adults. She had died when Josef was thirteen. “How’s your dad?” She asked.

“He’s okay.” Josef said.

“And Jean?”

“Mom’s good.”

“Is she still driving her brothers crazy?”

Josef looked puzzled. Uncle Mike had been dead for seven years.

“You know that Mike died, right?” He said.

“Yes dear, I’m aware that my husband is dead.” Mary said with an element of playful impunity and sass. “Old habits die hard. I’m talking about Paul.”

“Mom still enjoys giving him a run, but Paul’s good. Donna’s sick though.”

She didn’t react.

“So, do you see uncle Mike?” Josef asked.

“On occasion.” She said. “He sits with me on the rail.”

“This rail?” Josef pointed to.

“What other rail are you thinking of?”

“I don’t know, I just thought…”

She laughed.

“No baby, this is it. I’m just a chain-smoking teenager on an Athenian fire escape.”

“And uncle Mike?”

“He’s a crow.” She said then turned away and looked down the busy street.

Josef didn’t know quite what to say. He detected a hiccup of annoyance in her body language and so let the subject sit for a minute. He looked down the same narrow street that she was facing ahead of him. He watched the automobiles dart like painted flies into the grids of white boxes within boxes that were nestled within the bigger boxes and blocks that made up the city. The permutations made him dizzy. He switched his attention to Mary’s back. Her creamy shoulders looked rich like butterscotch and the tattoo of a stained glass butterfly enriched its amber surface. The butterfly wings, embossed with flecks of purples and greens inscribed on her youthful skin, relayed to Josef a message of the temporal spectrum of permanence that counterbalanced the idea of a fleeting present. A tattoo in the face of the afterlife didn’t hold any sense of permanence at all, and he wondered how far the present could be stretched.

In general, Josef didn’t believe in an afterlife, but always felt that if there were one, Mike and Mary would be together in it—victorious over disease. But, now eternity seemed even more complicated than he had already imagined, complicated with spirits still jockeying for meaning. That Mary missed Mike made the afterlife a let down. To think, the drama of life never ends, that death itself can’t settle life’s twists of fate. Disillusionment unsettled his stomach and Josef wanted a cigarette.

“May I have one?” He asked.

She passed the packet over her shoulder without turning around.

“You know crows.” She said after he lit up. “They’re always working.”

“Working?” He said, trying not to choke on the razors he felt he had just inhaled.

“Honey, hadn’t I taught you anything?” She condescended. “The sun dance?”

“In North Dakota, where you and uncle Mike used to go to during the summer.”

“Crow’s talons,” She said, “pinching spirits by the collar like laundry. Moving them from one world to the next.” She looked up and around her. “It’s busy work. He enjoys it more than the title insurance company.”

Her eyes appeared to change color—to violet.

“Do you still see him?” She asked suspiciously.

“Once or twice. Though it’s hard to know if I’m deceiving myself.”

“Of course you are, baby.” Mary turned back to face him. “So what’s bothering you?” She put a fresh cigarette in her mouth and crossed her arms like she needed to protect something. Josef stepped into her and gave her a light. She blew smoke in his face, but it didn’t smell like anything.

“Dean died.” He said.

“I know.”

“How do you know?’

“Because word travels fast in the afterlife.” She said, deadpan. “…Because the little piece of shit has been sneaking up on me.” She meant it lovingly, Josef saw. It was still her way of loving.


“Where else?”

“Sneaking up on you?”

“Scared me shitless. You know what scares dead people?” She asked.

“What?” He smiled. Earnestness had always been a part of her humor.

“Other dead people when they don’t know that they’re dead; scares the shit out of us.” She wasn’t joking after all.

“He doesn’t know he’s dead?”

“You know your brother.” She said as she bent down to ash. “Would you expect any different?”

“Did he say anything?”

Mary studied her nephew’s face. His urgency gave away something big, perhaps something bigger than she had been aware of.

“Please don’t tell me he has visited you?”

“I don’t know. It’s like I said about Mike, it’s hard to tell if I’m not just making things up.”

“No honey,” She said sympathetically, “you’re not deceiving yourself. Maybe about your uncle, the asshole never knew how to properly keep in touch with anyone, but Dean…”

She sighed.

Josef turned and gripped the fire escape’s rail. He searched for any thought or thing to occupy his mind to keep Dean away. Dean’s issues weren’t his problem.

“So this is Athens in the 60s?” He asked rhetorically, looking down into a little Greek grocery with sharp clods of Greek letters stamped on its large front windows.

“Well, it’s what you think it looked like.” Mary said.

A loud oscillating hum registered in Josef’s ear.

“What’s wrong with Dean?” Josef asked, unable to ignore the issue.

The hum turned into a pulse. The razors in his lungs spun like a thousand propellers.

“This was real.” She said calmly. Josef barely could hear her.

“What about Dean?” He asked.

She pinched the end of her cigarette close to her face and smiled.

“Coffee or tea.” Her lips smacked.

“What?” He said as he watched her lose color, and the shadows between the white boxes of buildings stuck between other boxes and blocks grow warmer and deeper. The black crevasses split and grew like ink in a fish tank, overwhelming the city. Athens was dying—this made sense.

“Finally,” He though, “something meaningful to mourn.”

She was gone again.

“Coffee or tea?” The impatient cabin attendant repeated.