CHEAP EATS We took the board outside and, like any other civilized wine-country people, we ate our cheese and our bread. We sipped our wine out of jelly jars, and it was cheap shit. Birds. Frogs. Crickets. The redwood trees catch fire in the sunset, and the pink peach blossoms and the white cherry ones glow a little after like phosphorescent stars on a teenager's bedroom ceiling.
The Jungle told a childhood story about worms, gathering them for his uncle, who, for show, would grill them on the barbecue. There were three of us: him, me, and this visiting friend of his from Bumfuck, Wash.
"So I get how it is that we return to the soil," I said. "But how exactly is it that we come from the soil?"
They looked at me. It was almost dark. In private, I had been wondering this since I was six. Geologically, biologically, ill-logically, I had wondered. Becoming worm shit seems pretty easy. The reverse blows all sorts of fuses for me. Not to quote myself, but I put it best 20 years ago, in a song: "I can make a dead cow into steaks but how can I make a live one out of stew?" People danced. Nobody answered the question.
Now seemed like as good a time as any to ask again. The Jungle is one of my go-to conversationalists and thinkers. We've spent many hours together, in vans, trying to wrap our verse-chorus-verse-chorus brains around just such concertos, and worse, like where to eat in Nebraska.
His friend had gleaming eyes, bushy eyebrows, and a long beard. Not quite white, his hair was nevertheless Einsteinian in length and spirit. And, turns out, his brother-in-law is a physicist. Thus was he able to explain to me, in lay-chicken-farmer terms, the law of conservation of energy: there's only so much stuff, it says, he said, and stuff can turn into other stuff, but nothing new gets created.
"Are you trying to give me writer's block?" I said.
He said he was not. He said something turns into something, but nothing does not. He might as well have been dancing.
Behind me, in the coop, my chickens were unwinding toward sleep, which is an audible process, like a car engine ticking as it cools. They kind of buzz, and whir. Then nothing. After a day of scratching, pecking, and bathing in dirt, eating bugs, stones, grass, and oyster shell, they deserve the few feet of elevation the roost provides for the night.
In the morning they will lay their eggs. Which kind of answers my question right there. For chickens. For humans, we will need to add poetry. My mom and dad, to the best of my knowledge, did not eat bugs or grit or take dust baths. In fact they were pretty annoyingly hygienic. At least at the time. Always changing my diapers and sloshing me in the tub, baptizing me, making me go to church and shit. As if to say: You are not dirt! You are not dirt! And other such poems and prayers. Maybe what's needed is not the addition of poetry, so much as the subtraction of it.
Yes! You know how I know? Because after the chickens were eaten the ones on the grill, not the roost we wiped our mouths and went inside, drank more wine, and Einstein said, "OK, I have heard both of you perform before. How about if I read you my poetry?"
This, for someone who's been through Catholic school and, worse, graduate school, for someone steeped in prayer then poetry, poetry workshops, and poetry readings ... this should have been a horror-movie moment, the Jungle and I looking at each other with wide, terrified eyes, the music chopping, screeching, swelling. May I read you my poems? Life had honed me to cut my wrists, or his, at the thought of it.
Instead I was thrilled, delighted, honestly honored that my slanty, woodsy, slightly witchy shack should hostess an impromptu after-dinner poetry reading.