Chris’ Inferno

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way, give or take a few years, I found myself in a sun drenched expanse, on the outskirts of a dark forest, for I had chosen to find the path that does not stray.

I did not want to speak of that savage forest, dense and difficult, that was behind me. I had stumbled towards clarity through those twisting paths. I had fought and crawled for years, constantly beset by beast and deprivation. I had finally been released from that prison that I had oh so carefully crafted. No, I did not want to speak of that savage forest, dense and difficult.

I deserved a friggin’ break.

That sun drenched expanse: now, that was something to speak of. A vista of melting greens that bled into an azure sea, framed by palm trees. Black lava rocks jutted up from the ground. The air was alive with tiny birds and the grass streaked with mongooses.

At the beginning of the expanse, just a few steps out of the forest, was a tee box. 412 yards away, you could make out a flag dangling lazily above the darker putting green.

I did deserve a break, and this was it.

Dante had his leopard, lion and she-wolf. I had left aside my lust, pride and covetousness long ago and replaced them with my golf clubs and my workbench where I would bend the wire for my retainers in my orthodontic laboratory. Just to keep things synchronized, lets also have a mug of freshly ground Kona coffee.

His Divine Love is a simple one to replace: it is where I am and why I am here. Hawai’i, the Big Island, the home of my wife and where we eventually hope to retire.

My journey is over.

The hell with that savage forest, dense and difficult. It is time to break out that 460cc titanium faced Ping driver, tee up a ball, and…

…there is a kid in my way.

When I saw him in that sun drenched expanse, in the midst of my backswing, “Have pity on me,” were the words I cried, “whatever you may be—a shade, a kid.”

He did not answer; he just stood there shaking his head. He knew that I knew exactly who and what he was, but I did not want to admit it. The wire bending tools were put away, the coffee was still hot, and if I could get done the first 18 in a few hours I could sneak in another 18.

I started my backswing again, but he just stood there. All four feet of him, scrawny with skinned knees and a really bad haircut, right in my line of fire. The brat probably figured I’d slice the ball to hell anyway.

“Alright, what do you want,” I asked, keeping the driver in my hand.

He pointed, behind me, back towards that savage forest, dense and difficult.


He nodded his head, softly, barely disturbing the brown bangs that he tried to brush back but still ended up hanging just above his blue eyes.

“No,” I said again. “Just 18. Hell, just the front 9. Just…”

He brought his finger up to his lips, quieting me and my prostrations. He pointed again, back towards that savage forest, back towards that high peak in the distance, back towards the beasts and deprivations.

He came towards me and took the club that was almost as big as he, and put the head cover on and then placed in gently back in the golf bag. Then he came, took my hand, and turned me around.

“But I deserve a break,” I said weakly. His reply was to just stand there, holding my hand, with no tugging or urging.

The sun felt warm on my back, so warm. The chitterings and cawwings subtle behind me. I knew it was time. Aye, what can I say? I’m stubborn. And I had deserved a break.

Thinking my thoughts, as only the eight-year-old me could, he patted my hand.

I relaxed myself into his grip, and we sped like phantoms those three short yards to be once again in that savage forest. Branch and tree trunk flew by us, our feet inches above the snarled floor and the gloom becoming more dense. Dante’s leopard ghosted along side of us for a short bit but could not keep pace. His lion sprang from our path as we closed the gap between us. I never saw the she wolf, but her desperate howl lingered in the back of my ears as we moved deeper and deeper into that dense and difficult place.

The terrain becomes a blur. I know where the little brat is taking me so I just close my eyes and allow it to happen. I split myself, as I have done so many times, allowing one hand to feel his tiny grip while hearing the washing machine thrum in the background. It empties into the new laundry sink I had installed.

Home ownership is my life now. When I bought the house, and everybody told me that it would be a never ending project, I thought they were exaggerating. They were not. The new shed led to a fence which led to an attic floor which led onward and beyond.

My orthodontic lab is my life now. Bending wire to fit over plaster molds is half of my job. There is always more paperwork, always another doctor to call, and, no matter how well the lab is doing, there is always worry about loosing accounts and trying to balance new accounts versus amount of hours worked.

My wife is my life now. Dante can have his Beatrice; I have my Tracy. Warm and wonderful and oh so protective of me. Into my life came her daughter, my daughter, Tara. Such a boundless joy, and such a titanic shift in priorities, plans and dreams.

I could live the rest of my life and just be happy, if it wasn’t for that little brat…

…who is tugging at my hand, for we are here.

I’ve always said that my favorite quote was by some French dude. It started out as my sense of humor but now is the reality. I have no idea who the original author is, though many have said it in various ways:

“It is not the destination but the journey that matters.”

If that little kid was not holding my hand I’d be saying “screw the journey” and teeing off into a Hawaiian expanse of greens and blues. Priorities had shifted when I met Tracy, and here is the place where I first glimpsed the possibility that I could meet her.

The forest, here, is not so savage, nor so dense and difficult. It is just a place with a rolling terrain, a hike along the foot of a mountain. It is a place where I was finally able to shrug free from the final monkey on my back. It is the place where I wrote, on February 23, 2007, the column “With Soft Eyes,”:

…and the dragon twirls around a pole and transforms into a beautiful woman. I look down at the sword and shield in my hands. Useless, they drop to the ground.

I’ve always had one huge problem with the 12 step programs. As much good as they do people, I just don’t think that they actually help people. From what I have read, what I have seen, what I have experienced, they treat addiction like it is a dragon.

It is there in your life, breathing fire through a jaw lined with razor sharp teeth. With a snort of coke, or a shot of whiskey, or a lap dance, it pounces. Always stalking you. Always there. So you reach out to a program, and make it into a shield between you and it. As long as you keep that shield up, its fire cannot touch you; its jaws cannot rend you.

By this approach, though, you make it a fixture in your life. Ever present. Just waiting for a chance to pounce. So it is perceived, and so it becomes a reality.

…and the dragon turned lady sways up to me at the bar, places her hand on my leg, leaning oh so close that her breasts brush against my shoulder.

Are some people just hard wired that way? I’ve learned that addiction runs in families. Maybe dragons do exist? My perception of reality is a bit different.

I see her there, all sweet and seductive. I can feel the warmth of her hand upon my leg, and that warmth spreading through me. But she isn’t a dragon. And there isn’t a dragon lurking in her shadow. There isn’t even a dragon within me.

There is an onion. (Don’t ask. It is the way that my mind works. I can’t help it; I just try to follow along. I cannot even come up with a good analogy to help you follow along.)

This is a different kind of onion, though. It is tucked away inside of my soul, my emotional growth, hidden within a fold of my subconscious. Maybe there is a little kid that traded a baseball for the onion. It is layered like an onion, but each layer is a different type of material: granite, steel, titanium…you get the picture.

Beneath all of those layers is the itch, the compulsion. I guess that I believe that if you are able to peel back those layers, get to that core, you’ll find that itch. Underneath all of those layers, you will not find a dragon, curled into a ball. You’ll find a wisp of smoke, that will be carried away on the breeze.

I’m not trying to knock the 12 step programs here. I wish that I could find one for Friday and Saturday nights. Help me pass the time. Ease my way through an evening, until the itch passes, until I can look upon my addiction again with soft eyes, instead of the steely eyes of a combatant. Aye, I would like a shield at times. But I also don’t think that it is healthy to make that shield a permanent fixture in my life.

That there is another way. A better way for me. All that I need to do is to be able to see it…

“Hallelujah,” I cry, raising my arms up towards the trees, breaking free from the kid’s grasp, “I saw the light!”

I squat down to look the kid in the eyes, stopping the impulsive move to swipe his bangs. He is standing with his arms crossed and his nose wrinkled.

“I saw the light, and in it was Tracy. Now give me back my damn golf clubs and let’s get out of this forest.”

He stamps his foot, his sneaker tied tight in a double knot. He snaps his head back and forth, twice, and stares at me again.

“I deserved a break. Had a business to build. A family. I was finally safe. You were finally safe.”

He relaxes, moves towards me, and brushes my bangs away from my eyes. He gently holds my cheek in one hand and points behind me with the other one.

It’s tough to argue with someone who is not talking, so I stand up and allow him to take my hand once again. He rubs my arm and we are away again, diving down deeper into that savage forest, deeper into that dense and difficult place.

I don’t know how many columns I wrote. Coffee Chronicles, a travel log. It was a private journey that I posted to the web for almost seven years. It brought me sanity, clarity and a measure of peace. It saved me.

Mostly in the morning, I would sit down and write. It was a blog before there was a such thing as blogs. Sometimes, I would write every day for a week. Other times, there would be months in between columns. I poked and prodded all the dark things inside of me, making them scamper so I could see what they were. I sliced at old wounds, to let them bleed and discharge the puss and foulness that lay beneath them. I examined myself, naked to anybody who read the column, to discover truths.

Long ago, I had been forced from the path that does not stray and needed desperately to find it.

We slowed, just a whisper above tangled roots and crisscrossed paths. Fallen trees that had been blasted by crushing forces littered the ground. As we came to rest in a great hollow, fog rolled in. He releases my hand and I stumble and fall to my knees. He stands in front of me.

“Kid, you who are my guide, see if the force in me is strong enough before you let me face that rugged pass.”

His eyes widen in surprise, then he sneers at me, turns his back, and goes to find something to play with.

I get up, dust off my legs and shrug at the kid’s back as he ventures further into the fog. “Just playing to the masses.”

He turns his head and sticks his tongue out at me, then goes back to poking at an ant hill with a stick.

The depression that I am in is clear of all roots and leaves, as if a monstrous being sat here. Sickly trees lean over it but do not encroach. It is the resting place of a demon. A place where it can sit with legs crossed and cradle a man as if he were a child while whispering insanities to him, feeding him lies and convincing him they are truths. I know where I am.

The kid glances at me from the fog as I settle into the depression, crossing my legs and resting my arms on my knees.

Coffee Chronicles had to be posted on the web. I had no choice. A “dear diary” scribbling would not and could not have done anything for me. A long, long time ago, I crawled into the lap of that demon, with his devils and imps surrounding us for the bedtime story, and he made me believe I was alone. Coffee Chronicles was a shout hurled into a void.

And now I strain, just as I did on that morning in February of 2004. The kid is forgotten: he’ll back when it is time. The trick is to listen and not allow your mind to get in the way. It is about opening yourself to the possibility that what you are hearing is not an echo of your own shout, but a response:

I trudge along a path, clear despite the fog-filled landscape. Without a whiff of breeze, colors are dulled to the point where they are grays and blacks. My white t-shirt stands out like a beacon, and the red strap of my backpack is comforting.

Into the silence comes a sound, beginning at just above a whisper and then fading back into the surrounding silence. Where did it come from? My right? Left? Behind me? Can’t be, because I am alone, trudging along this path towards…clarity? Redemption? Not the future, but a future? Just tired of walking in circles.

Wiping at the perception in front of my eyes, like clearing cobwebs. Sticking my fingers in my ears to do the same. Stopping. And looking around, at yet another emailed response to my column…

“Thank you for sharing the Coffee Chronicles with me.”

In sanity I trust, and sanity is telling me that my perceptions are lying to me. They have been for years. Long ago, I crawled into the lap of a demon and nestled my head against his great chest. And he whispered, a constant whispering, telling me that I was alone. Broken. Without hope, and without comfort, except for the solidity of his chest, and the poison of his voice.

I sit down upon the path, with my legs crossed and my head cradled in my arms. I have been alone for so long that I am afraid of the faint sounds, that begin just above a whisper and then fade back into silence. Is it insanity? I know where I am, know that I am alone, and yet…

“…And I’m blessed to encounter you, Chris, because I truly believe you will understand what I have become and where I’m heading, but most of all where I have been.”

And I look up, look around. Nothing, a whispering demon is telling me, nothing at all. Just stay where you are, no more moving forward, just sit and cry for what may have been, for what can’t be, and for a life destroyed, broken, non-existent. Listen to my voice, he tells me, and only my voice, and allow your tears to streak down my chest.

Where have I been? I look behind me and the fog is my horizon two feet away. I look in front of me, and see a path.

“…I offer you my wings, my respect and surely my honest support. I’m not afraid of the path any more.”

I stand-up out of his lap and wave away his whispers. Wings? Respect? Honesty? Support? I look down and the demon becomes a smaller thing, just big enough to fit a child in his lap, and I turn away, to look forward.

From the clouds of my perception, comes a sane clarity. Ghost-like figures I see, stumbling along their own paths. Or maybe just sitting and crying, huddled in upon themselves, or maybe cradled in the lap of their own demons.

The sounds rise above and beyond the whispering, becoming stronger with a breeze that tatters perception. I can hear, and see. One figure becomes more substantial, coalescing into a solid human being, and I can hear her, as if she was standing right next to me, not whispering, but talking, confiding, from one friend to another…

“…Our paths are very similar; you cannot even imagine. And I can smile, because I have been down your road, oh Lord yes!!!”

I am not alone. You are not alone. –no matter what the whispering tells us.

And I raise my voice in song. Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Everything. Everything. Everything is going to be alright now baby…

What were you expecting: a hymn? No, a little bit of Muddy Waters is just what the demon fighter ordered. I sling the backpack back over my shoulder, and continue on my way. There are roads to walk, paths to find, and a sanity to embrace.

The kid comes over and pokes me with the stick. Then, he climbs into my lap, puts his head on my chest, and sighs. We do not have to stand up this time, do not even need the illusion of movement. He hugs me tight and the depression crumbles silently around us, like pieces of glass slipping from a frame into nothingness.

And we are stuck. He hugs me tighter and I lean my head so it touches his.

“No, I don’t want to go there. Not yet.”

He relaxes his grip and the forest comes back into focus. One more dance through metaphors–I have never been sure if I use metaphors to better explain things, to paint a picture that is greater than the sum of the words, or if I hide behind them?

I know that the kid in my lap is not a metaphor. Dante is, as is his Inferno and the characters that populate it. But it is almost time to cut the strings on my marionettes. Almost.

But we are at the end of a beginning. It was a tenuous hold on stability at best, in an apartment in 2001. It was close to a year after I started Coffee Chronicles, a year after I had been thrown out of yet another place that was supposed to be a refuge. In December of 2001, I was writing what was to be the introduction to Stumbling Towards Clarity, part one of Coffee Chronicles.

The mountain humbles the terrain. Forests, streams, brambles and swamps are swathed in shadows. It demands more than a glance, yet slaps away scrutiny. Turning away from it brings about a pressure on the back of my neck. Hairs raised. 110 of them.

After 110 columns, I find myself surveying a landscape that I have dredged from my memory and put together in bits and pieces. Shards of my past lay scattered about. Nightmares haunt some of the terrain. Old friends rest near brooks waiting for me to arrive with a case of beer.

A cat, who is still not sure what her name is–and doesn’t really care–stalks me. Tumbled down shacks, former homes, house demons and imps, begging for a wrestle and a tumble. Strangers drift through the forests, people that I thought I knew. Answers lay buried throughout.

A stiff breeze is pulled towards the mountain, and pulls my eyes back as well. Craggy. Some sheer faces, snow covered summit. Beckoning. Maybe on the other side, blocked from my sight, is a beach. White sands that lead into depths, a playground where two metaphors can be mashed together.

Metaphors abound, as I sit on a hill looking out over the landscape of my mind. A ghostly wolf growls at my side, seeking an enemy to struggle with for dominance, for supremacy, for survival. No, my friend, I pat down his ruffled main, scratching along his jaw. You have served your purpose, and served me well, but that purpose is past. The wolf disappears.

A high pierced cry echoes off the mountain and I glance upwards to see wide pinions locked against an updraft. The eagle is lifted higher, above and beyond the mountain, and also disappears.

Back to the foot of the mountain. A child plays in the dirt, building castles and forts. Wearing a drifting smile, he ignores the calls to come home. A knight approaches, to crumble in rust and dust at the child’s feet.

A demon breaks from the undergrowth, long arms stretched towards the child to snap him up, carry him back to a place of torment. My four-year-old nephew bursts forth from the other side, looking ridiculous in oversized football pads, all three feet of him heaving towards the towering demon. They meet, crash, and my nephew is left standing there, wandering over to the child to help him build a new fort.

In an ultra-deep, bass voice, “Ohhhhh yeahhhh. Everything. Everything. Everything is going to be alright now, baby…”

Oh yeah, the blues ain’t nothin’ but a good man feeling down. Got traveling on my mind. Got dancing in my feet. And I got the dream of being a writer arcing across my fingertips.

Old dreams. Older metaphors. There is sifting to be done. Going through the old writings like an accountant through numbers. Tally them up the correct way and let the new fiscal year start on the right foot. Or on the left foot. As long as the other follows so forward progress can be made.

Leaning back in my chair, away from the computer. The windows are fogged up because I have the dryer on. Pretty is on her perch that she demanded I set-up on the dining room table. A blanket and pillow are strewn across my recliner. The kitchen is clean; good soup, far too much, fills the refrigerator in every plastic container I could find.

That heavy feeling is passing. Stripped away on the breezes that flow towards the mountain.

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” and my piggyback ride on Dante is over. It’s a good read, if you get the right translation. My personal favorite is the one by Allen Mandelbaum.

I stand at a beginning. It is not the beginning, but as good a place as any to begin. It is an apartment in Pennsylvania at the end of the century. The year 2000 was a couple months away, I was 29, and was at the beginning of the end.

The kid squeezes my hand one last time and then disappears: he does not need to bear witness to this again.

I read something, or saw it on tv (was it an episode of NCIS?). The character said something to the extent that they were not afraid of the memories, but of getting lost in them. I have a weird memory. It took me a good couple of years to learn my neighbors’ names, but I can remember moments twenty years in my past as if they had just happened. It goes beyond that as well. If I choose, if I invite it in, the moment exists once again. The sounds, smells, feelings and textures of a moment exist in the present. It is sort of like freeze dried food, before and after adding the water.

As I write this, I can feel the waves of madness. It is like standing on the shore with the tide coming in. Each consecutive wave growing higher and more insistent. It crashes against me and then tries to pull me back into the sea. I cannot split myself for this, exist in the moment while keeping a hand on reality. I need to allow the next wave to carry me with it.

I remember warmth. Radiator heat is the best. Hot water gurgles through pipes and creates epicenters of heat that radiates throughout the apartment. My memories are like a patchwork quilt and I honestly cannot tell you how I arrived here. I know I was 26 when I graduated college. Three years had me stumbling through life with my actions and reactions becoming more and more desperate.

I remember a two floor apartment, with my bedroom and an expansive office on the third floor and a huge living room, kitchen/dining room and a spare bedroom on the second floor. It was a great place, nearby to my nephew who had just been born that April. He was joy, and I mistakenly thought of him as my salvation.

I remember a job writing for a local newspaper as a stringer. After pissing away an excellent opportunity in Maryland, this was my chance to start making my journalism degree work for me and rebuild the life that I wanted.

I remember wanting to help my mother, mistakenly thinking that I could save her from herself.

I remember my arrogance, my last defense against an insanity almost thirty years in the making, and the tidal wave that came and ripped it from me.

Embrace all hope, ye who enter here.

Chapter 2: Aftermath

The room breathed in counterpoint to my own breathing. The rocking of my chair set the rythem and it was all that I knew. The pipes banged as more hot water fed into the radiators and I was never sure if I was hot or cold. All I knew was the rocking of the chair.

I would get up to go to the bathroom, forget what I had gotten up for, and make my way into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. The coffee would brew, and then be forgotten, as I rocked back and forth in the chair. I lost count of how many full pots of coffee I emptied down the sink.

I kept the lights off and the door to the spare bedroom closed. I would not even look at the door as I passed it in between the bathroom and the kitchen. I also tried not to look at the dark floor. Each time I did, red spots would flash up at me, forcing me back to my chair.

In what would be one of my last assignments as a stringer for the Delaware County Daily Times, I had covered the Primos council meeting. After the meeting was over, I approached one of the council members that I knew personally.

“Are you aware of the incident that took place a couple nights ago, where a woman attempted suicide in an apartment on Chester Pike? Ugly scene, lots of blood. The police had to break down the door.”

“Yes, Chris, I do recall seeing something about that. Do you need more information about it or something?”

“No,” I replied, “that was my mother. In my apartment. The blood soaked mattress is still sitting on my front porch. I have to pass it each time I go in or come out of my place. It…assaults me. Is there anything you can do about that?”

The mattress was gone the next time I left the apartment. The floors had been scrubbed. The tiles scrubbed. The kitchen that had looked as if someone had splashed a can of red paint over everything was sparkling clean. But flashes of red would still pierce my eyes and force me to take refuge in the rocking chair.

“My fault,” the apartment would breath. And I would rock back and forth, nodding agreement, until it was time for my next shift as a door man at a local strip club.

I had tumbled back to Philadelphia.