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CSULA Department of English | Statement 2003

Episodes: 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?

These 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.