Poems in the Lap of Death
Jamie J. Barker
humanity i love you because you
are perpetually putting the secret of
life in your pants and forgetting
it's there and sitting down
and because you are
forever making poems in the lap
of death Humanity
i hate you
When the PG&E power poles crashed through the windshield and thundered out the back window of my VW Vanagon it looked as though the van had been skewered. I’ve heard that the local PG&E office has a photo of it tacked up on a bulletin board, and people continue to marvel over the now-faded Polaroid. I have been hesitant to tell this story all these many years. Maybe I am embarrassed of my own carelessness. Or perhaps my hesitance arises out of my inability to justify the outcome of this story in the face of others that end differently.
My daughter Emily was not quite two months old on December 8th, 1988. I remember the date because the police officer at the accident site told me I should. Emily is my third daughter. Before she was born, and before I was visibly pregnant, an old woman holding a hideous hairless dog approached us in a restaurant and claimed to have spiritual insight and clairvoyance, which she explained means “clear vision.” She told us that the baby I was carrying would hold the family together. “She will be the glue,” the woman told us. This turned out to be true.
I married Emily’s father when my two older daughters were seven and eight. As a family, we had a lot of adjustments to make, and I was completely clueless about so many things, including what my daughters were struggling with, and would always struggle with, as children of a family that didn’t have the resolve to remain as one, and the division they had to make in their hearts to make room for a new family, a new father. The day we brought Emily home from the hospital, all four of us gathered around this little curly-haired baby with a red gumdrop mouth and eyes that seemed too old and soulful for an infant. We were instantly smitten. Suddenly, our common purpose, the thing that bound us all together in unquestioning family loyalty, was our dedication to this baby we swore to protect.
On that December day in 1988, Emily and I were headed east in Fresno, the central California valley town where we live. Emily was in her infant seat, which sat dead center in the van, just a little to the right of being directly behind me. The gear shift was sticking in first gear—not unusual for the Vanagon. I loved that van; it felt big and safe enough to hold all my kids and their friends, a family-friendly sort of vehicle. But it was beginning to deteriorate. More and more I had begun to wonder if it was a good car for us. The gear shift was only one of the Vanagon’s problems. I had to remember to put oil in it constantly; it often overheated and stalled, ticking and sputtering, while sitting immobile on the side of the road, and the brakes were starting to get a little wonky. That day in December, while I was working away at the sticky gear shift, I didn’t quite notice that in the road ahead of me was a big PG&E truck. More accurately, I saw the truck, but didn’t see the three power poles that were strapped together, or the trailer that the poles were riding on.
I looked up from the Vanagon’s stubborn gear shift just in time to see—or rather hear—the poles come crashing through the windshield. The sound was thunderous. The steering wheel jerked out of my hand, and suddenly the interior of the van was filled with wood as it roared past the right side of my face. Glass showered over me and a strong creosote smell burned inside my nostrils. Suddenly the van sat motionless, hissing and creaking in the middle of the road. For a moment I was afraid to turn around, but I did, and I saw my baby, still in her car seat, covered in glass, but seemingly unharmed.
Walking in my neighborhood is a good way for me to get out of my own head. I like to breathe in the surroundings, walk under huge old trees, and nod greetings to the people I pass. I live in an older part of town, in a crumbling, sprawling, one hundred year-old house. In the early 1900’s, our street was the home of the wealthy business owners, who rode the trolley to and from the downtown stores they owned and operated. Where the trolley once ran is now a grass median in the middle of our street. People walk, jog, and ride bikes up and down, all day and throughout the night. They also cruise. I didn’t know people still cruised, but—in my neighborhood at least—they definitely do. Cars full of (mostly) guys crawl down our street, their occupants yelling obscenities and calling out to women suggesting they might want to join them in amorous activity; these suggestions are often accompanied by sexual gestures and horn honking.
At the corner, just down from our street, a 360 degree visual tour offers a liquor store and bar—both named Uncle Tom’s—two bus stops, an AM-PM mini-mart, Quick Pick mini mart, Jack-in-the-Box, Pan Mexicano, a Pay Day loan check cashing operation, and dozens of homeless persons, prostitutes, gangsters, aspiring young gangsters, and drug addicts. I recently spoke to a young mother who used to live on our street but has since moved. “No way was I going to raise my babies in that neighborhood,” she told me. “What a shit-hole it’s turning in to. Oh, well—no offense.”
I walked past the bus stop and said my usual hello to the homeless guy I like the most. He has a kind, wrinkled-up face and is always wearing hospital scrubs and a wool beanie, no matter the weather. A few weeks ago, he sat down with me at the Starbucks just down from the bus stop. I learned that his name is Charlie; he asked me if I could help him out a little.
“Can I get you a coffee? Something to eat?” I asked him. “I have my ATM card on me.”
His response was immediate. “No—I don’t want that.”
“You don’t want coffee or food,” I said—more a statement than a question.
“No. I wanna get where I’m going.”
I dug in my backpack and found seventy-five cents in change and gave it to him. He grabbed it and added it to the coins he held in his stained wool gloves that were cut off at the fingers. He got up, tipped his beanie to me, and headed straight for Uncle Tom’s—the liquor store, not the bar. Later I saw Charlie slumped over on the bus stop bench, his head fallen to the side, drool coming from his mouth, my seventy-five cents worth dribbling down his chin, and I knew that he had arrived at his destination.
Today, on this lovely autumn morning, when I walked past the bus stop, Yoda Lady was in her regular sunny spot. I call her Yoda Lady because she sits cross legged on the ground and dishes out bits of wisdom as you pass, and the words are often in mixed order: “Company loves misery!” “I’m fancy loose and foot free!” or my personal favorite, “The early bush gets the worm in the bird!”
The Shining Man—another of my favorites from the usual crowd—stood on the corner shirtless, his muscled black body slathered with oil as usual. I waved to him but today he didn’t wave back, he just stood there, shining.
When I stepped into the parking lot of Fresh ‘N Easy, I saw a commotion near the entrance to the store. One of the F&E employees was out front, wearing the customary green t-shirt and an impatient expression. He was listening to a man holding on to a beat up old shopping cart that was bulging with clothes, blankets, a boom box, an orange traffic cone, dozens of plastic bags, and a small dog.
“He went that way,” the shopping cart guy was saying, pointing towards the train station. “And he had one of your carts—the new ones with the good wheels.”
As it happens, I had seen the guy running off with the bright and shiny F&E cart. It was empty so he was making pretty good time. I entered the store with the F&E employee and the shopping cart guy; the employee yelled out to another employee, and they went running out the door to catch the cart thief. The manager—a bedraggled-looking woman—pulled out her cell phone and announced to the people in her general vicinity that she was calling the police.
I was thinking about the irony of the guy with his own cart busting another guy who had stolen a cart, wondering about his motivations, and whether he was jealous on account of the “good wheels,” when I turned around an aisle and encountered a red-haired woman and a child. The woman had the little girl, who looked about four years old, by the arm, and was yanking her around so hard that the little girl’s head jerked back and hit the shopping cart full of their groceries. The girl screamed out; the woman slapped her across the face and said, “Shut up you little piece of shit.”
I stood frozen for a moment, right there next to the Shamrock Farms Organic Milk and didn’t know what to do. I remembered being told by an adult survivor of abuse that if you see a child being abused in public, you should say something, just so the child knows that what is happening to them is not okay.
“Excuse me,” I said rather weakly. I had no idea what I was going to say next.
The red-haired woman turned to me: “What? What the fuck do you want?” Then she grabbed the little girl by the arm again, and pulled her—just by that one tiny arm—up into the cart, where she landed on top of a bunch of frozen dinners.
I looked around for some backup, but there was no one around. I went to the front of the store, to the row of check-yourself-out registers; not one single green shirt was in sight. Through the window I saw two of the green shirts standing outside in front of the store, but the rest were gone, presumably in pursuit of the man who had just absconded with what would (also presumably) become his new portable home.
The red-haired woman abandoned her shopping cart in the middle of the aisle and left the store, nearly dragging the screaming child behind her. I was suddenly not that hungry anymore. I took a different route home—the one past the new condos they’d built to try to get people to live downtown—a section of town that has not only lost its appeal, but actually evokes fear in the people of our city.
Recently my young friend Tommy ran a red light. Another car slid out of the dark, and a woman in the car was killed. One moment Tommy and his friends were driving down a country road in the small town where Tommy lives, laughing and talking; the next moment, Tommy stood in the road while the dying woman’s family cried, clutched one another, and screamed hateful words at Tommy. Tommy spent a few days in the Fresno County jail on involuntary manslaughter charges. He has since been released and has a court date coming up. The day after his release from custody he came to see me. I walked into my living room and saw Tommy through the window in the back yard. He was leaning against the pole that holds up the patio roof, his hands in his pockets, staring out towards the row of Japanese maples. I wanted to see his eyes. I wanted to see how he had been altered. I was afraid to see how he had been altered. Tommy carelessness resulted in death paying him a sinister visit; at twenty-one he seemed too young to wrestle with the demons that must now taunt and torment him.
Tommy didn’t look up when the back door shut or when I walked up to him. We stood shoulder to shoulder for a long time before either of us spoke. I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Are you okay?” I finally asked: a vacant and absurd question and nonetheless the one that came up and out of my mouth.
“I see her,” he told me. “At night. By my bed. She screams at me.”
When I think of Tommy, I also think of myself—my own carelessness in the van that could have altered so many lives forever in that split second when such things are determined, and not by us.
I fumbled at the van’s driver door handle to get out; when it opened I almost fell to the ground. I stumbled around the back of the van, and that’s when I saw the poles sticking a good four feet out the back of the Vanagon. When I reached the side sliding door, it was stuck; I pulled on the door so hard that when it finally slid open it almost bounced back to the closed position. I climbed into the van and put my face right up to Emily’s. I wanted to make sure she was breathing. I wanted to smell her, to feel her.
My hands were shaking so crazily I couldn’t undo the buckle on the car seat. Suddenly another pair of hands appeared, and a young man wearing a PG&E shirt was pulling at Emily’s car seat. He undid the buckle and pulled her out—he had to dip her tiny body a little to maneuver her under the poles. He handed my baby to me. I breathed her in; Emily blinked her eyes and made a cooing sound.
“She’s fine!" I cried out to the man. “She’s not hurt!”
I held Emily’s head next to my face. The bits of glass stuck in her fine hair cut my cheek. I became aware of several men standing around me. One of them touched a spot on Emily’s car seat. Barely an inch above where Emily’s head had been, the plastic of the car seat was gouged out.
“This is where the pole hit,” the man said with a dazed look on his face. “My god.”
A police officer questioned me, and the PG&E workers, and some other people who had seen the accident happen. This is when the officer looked at me and said, “Today is December 8th. You need to remember this day, because this here, this was a fucking miracle.”
• • •
When I was a young girl I thought it was funny to say, “Hit by a Mack truck.” I heard it a lot in my family. As in, You might never see me again. I could get hit by a Mack truck. I stopped throwing the expression around and began feeling haunted by the image the day I actually saw the Mack insignia on the front of a semi’s steel grill roll by our family car. I think I hadn’t even realized it was a brand name. Macktruck was just this vague reference to an unknown menace. When I finally identified and contemplated the bulk of this legendary nemesis, I got a little freaked out. My family was right. I could get hit by a semi, and judging by the sheer mass of the truck I’d just seen, there’d be nothing left of me. Suddenly, that was all I could think about.
Now that I’m older, I know that not only could we get hit by a truck, but we could also unexpectedly experience something that would change our lives forever. We might witness a horrible act, or lose our job and will to fight and end up on the bus stop bench next to Charlie. And we could experience the sorrow of prolonged mourning, like when we look into the faces of our grown children and see that the volatile nature of our own lives has irreparably damaged theirs.
I don’t know why my daughter and I didn’t die in that van, victims of my inattention, or chance. Call it fate, chance, God’s plan, the devil’s scheme, accident, coincidence, or the alignment of the planets; even our own Mother Earth can rise up and swallow us whole, and she occasionally does. And yet, we raise babies, write stories, and work to cure disease. You might be the one to hand a frightened woman her baby, safe from danger. You might also be the one that ran the red light that took someone’s life, and be forever haunted by the screams. Wealthy or homeless, no matter where you live or how you spend your days, we are all in this helpless huddle together.
The weather has turned cold now, and I haven’t seen Charlie, or Shining Man, or Yoda Lady in a while. They must be huddled up somewhere trying to stay warm, and I’ve been less inclined to walk to get my coffee in the early morning cold. The intersection is just another ugly street corner without us. It is our human spirit that brings life and beauty to that little spot of earth: our sadness and desperation, the words we offer one another, the way we turn our faces to the morning sun, or crawl into a pipe or bottle to hide from the pain. We are a sad, brilliant, broken, gorgeous work of art. We are humanity, and our connection to one another is the poetry we are making in the lap of death.
About the author:
Jamie J. Barker is a wife, mother, student, and the founding director of Dakota House--a community center in an impoverished Fresno, California neighborhood--where she is known as Ms. Jamie. She is also the founder of Writers Inside, an organization supported by the Fresno State MFA program that connects writers with inmates. Jamie is currently leading two writing groups at the county jail: one for female inmates and one for males. Upon completion of her MFA program, Jamie hopes to teach creative writing on a college campus, and to lead writing groups in a state prison. She currently lives in Fresno with her family (and her dog, Hector), where she is definitely lacking in free time to cook, hike, read, garden, or swim.