CSULA Department of English | Statement 2003

a prose sestina

Elaine Howell

There are
midnights when my father leaves his bed, shuffles away from his
fifth-story apartment, and wanders the golf course. My mom calls
these incidents episodes, as if they're eagerly awaited,
half-hour segments of a television show. What I want to know is,
how does he get to the ground? If he takes the elevator, how does
he know which button to press? He must be lucid enough to know
that "L" is for the first floor, the only way out. And if his
escape route is the stairwell, how does he know how many flights
to walk down?

logistical details disturb my sleep whenever I lie down. I picture
my dad in green hospital scrubs (his preferred pajamas) standing
in the dark at his front door, typing in the right alarm code so
he can step soundlessly out. Under the bright hall light and the
tiny fluttering shadows of moths, he opens the door to the stairs,
with only one thing on his altered mind: the ground. Or on some
nights, perhaps the elevator door periodically rings open on Five,
as a matter of course. Does anyone see him, and does his condition
show? He steps inside, points out the "L" to his imaginary friends
and says, "Press."

In the white
rectangle of the elevator or stairwell, my father travels between
floors, intent on his mission but not in a hurry—here, he is
immune to the weight of time's press. He slippers to the parking
lot (or perhaps he is in bare feet, with his yellowed fungal
toenails out for show). His fantasy friends goad him into doing
something stupid, perhaps lying on his stomach and kissing the
ground. Always amiable, he jokes, "But of course." They walk to
the middle of the lot, where it is darkest and most wet with oil,
and he lies down. His arms are spread like the wings of a snow
angel, stretched from the sockets all the way out.

His lips, which
used to play Big Band on a strong, gold trumpet, touch petroleum
and chapped pavement, and, with a kiss, he passes out. His friends
drag him to the soft, slippery lawn of the golf course. They put
ghostly hands on his head and heart, and they press. When he wakes
for the second time that night, he follows his buddies across the
grass to a lake and looks down. Florida moonlight swirls on the
water and puts on a glittery show. Mesmerized, he and his friends
fall back on the ground.

They stare at
the stars and remember when they were outside all the time, when
they were young and used to lay blankets on the ground. They had
food, all kinds of it, full of salt, fat, oil, grease and sugar;
in those days, it was par for the course. They could eat all they
wanted and their bodies would stay firm and fit, never yielding to
gravity's implacable press. World War II was over, and so was the
Depression, and gradually they stopped thinking of the sky falling
down.  Every night they went dancing or saw a show. They thought
their youth would never run out.

But it did--it
always runs out. Twice this year, the police have found my father
sleeping on the golf course. His body sagged with dew, and his
cheeks and temples were painted with mud, as if he'd been in some
kind of tribal show.  Somehow, it even reached the press. There
was a small story in the Herald the next day: "Elderly Man
Found Sleeping on Ground." He said his friends let him down.

Mostly I imagine
him in transit, going down from the fifth floor to the ground. It
is so quiet at night, he can only hear the palm trees toss their
heads in sleep, and the sticky press of his feet on a wayward
course. He creeps to his blacktop bed and maps out the night’s
episode, waiting for his friends to show.