Sparks and Slivers

When I worked with group home kids there was an open space down the road where Christmas Trees were sold in dark wet San Fernando Valley Decembers; in random hot dry days a cheesy carnival might roll up and illuminate the night with barker con-games and nauseating rides.  During this festival celebrating nothing at all (or perhaps honoring the easy gullibility of those who have had reasonably good lives), several of the group home kids would be more than enchanted—they’d be ready to join the carnival and run away.

I remember one child in particular, a boy who had been left at the police station by his psychotic mother who on the one hand told the cops that the boy was “bad,” and on the other hand (since I got to know her a bit) loved her son and knew she could not really care for him.  Their favorite thing to do together was to go to an amusement park and deftly pack the most rides possible into a single day—she even had an elaborate system for maximizing ride time vs. wait-time, traveling light and calculating crowd ebb and swell and grabbing too much candy on the go.

This boy also had been completely abandoned by his father, and so it made a sort of sense that he developed, in the margin of his supervised visits to the carnival as the troupe was setting up shop, a bit of a relationship with a mostly toothless alcoholic with an Edith Piaf aging trajectory (i.e. thirty-something appearing seventy-something).  At first the boy merely had a plan to use all his allowance to win a large stuffed-doll; but over a day or two it became a more developed fantasy to turn eighteen (in four years) and then join up, living on the road, free from the constraints of normal (i.e. sucker) life.

These memories mingle in my mind with stories told by my mother-in-law about her girlhood.  While she is now dead, her spirit stays close by and small stories from her once-illuminated and bittersweet childhood glow for me like fireflies on sultry summer nights of my own childhood, hovering over fields and amongst branches while yellow shades of bedrooms glowed mysteriously in the dark distance.

One of my favorite Ellie stories contains just a few details:  her best friend was named Slivers (because she was so thin and could literally slip through fences) and Ellie’s nickname was Sparky (because her last name was Sparks, and probably because she was a tomboy and a firecracker).  Slivers and Sparky were best friends until Slivers ran away to join the circus.

While that’s all I know about Slivers, she lives on in my mind like a character in a Billy Wilder movie—someone I never knew, but who was real and who other people did know and undoubtedly love; yet I fear that her story might have had a lot of sadness in it too, which may be why it haunts me, why I wish I knew more.

Ellie’s dad, a military man, died when she was four and her mom moved them to their grandfather’s farm in Oregon.  Before marrying my, now dead, father-in-law, an urbane NY writer who came out to Hollywood with Danny Kaye’s radio show, Ellie had been married to a stuntman/cowboy.  She later became a painter and, besides painting rather well, once helped rescue a notable California painter from a mental breakdown.

The first time I met Arthur and Ellie, the dust of a cross-country road trip with their daughter still clinging to my clothes, they welcomed me in without question; this was not how it was with my family in bourgeois Chicago, but in the wild west I just strode into the saloon with enough sincerity and love and I was accepted.  Within hours we were in a booth at Musso & Frank, drinking scotch and hearing the first of many treasured stories.  I love thinking about LA in the days of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, John Fante and Nathanael West—nets, mists and shadows sharing spaces, unseen, in the Hockney glare forever fading along with Joe Gillis in my rearview mirror as I wind down Sunset toward the sea.  The stories I carry always so often pack more than a hint of melancholy, tales of folks for whom things didn’t quite work out spilling into a mythic mirage of a town where anything and everything could happen—and often did.

While I grew up in Chicago, hating the circus with it’s Shrine Auditorium stink and its abiding cruelty to animals, I also grew up in the beloved dark of movie theaters, dreaming the dreams of others who lived in palm tree sun and great arching studios with wires and mic stands and cameras and cranes and clapper-boards and argyle sweaters—men who drove convertibles and played golf in January.  It was all as phony as a set, but I fell for it like a million others and ran away to the circus of Hollywood, just like Slivers and Ellie.

In a town where you can die of encouragement, I was running on fumes when I sought refuge from the madness in the calm quiet of a psychology doctoral program; trips to locked mental wards for the criminally insane were for me a reprieve from the psychotic chaos of producers who changed your story ten times before losing their erection for it—and those were the women; the men threw telephones and actually shouted things like, “you’ll never work in this town again!”

In the Pirandello, or Beckett, or Kafka play that has been my own tangled thicket of a narrative so far (a story they make in Europe, I am told, which is probably why the producers’ parents left there in the first place), it made perfect sense that a bunch of troubled kids (therapists, counselors, group home lost boys and carny ride jocks and roustabouts) got thrown in together in whatever chaos atheoretical swirl the Santa Anna Winds blew in—each troubled in our own ways, each tasked with our own lessons.  When I left the group home the boy who wanted to run away with the circus told me that I was a bitch for leaving, but we both knew that we cared about each other.  I don’t know if he’s with the carnival now or working at a regular job.  I know that I wish him all the best.

Maybe there are patterns to things; I’ve always looked for them, reading the tealeaves and the dust; squinting to divine the common yearnings that make us run away, but also toward—unmet hungers, unseen selves, tattered bowls that leave us with little but wanderlust.  We all must wander in our ways; we all must feel our loneliness in order to become ourselves.  Writers and stories can give us comfort along the way, solace in the shards of the broken that have Ventura’ed before us.

There is a Kabbalah tale of creation in which God makes a vessel into which the universe can be poured, but the vessel breaks; the world we live in is said to be the remains of that shattered vessel—the task of each soul being to gather up the sacred Sparks and Slivers as we work collectively toward world-repair.  But there is nothing in the legend to say that Sparky and Slivers aren’t allowed to help us whistle while we work—or even whistle the all clear as we run headlong into the night of our very own psyche, James Dean’s East of Eden train forever sounding a mournful horn through verdant and dusty valleys.

So, let’s dedicate today to all the lost boys and girls, within and around us, and to the hope that they (we) will find their (our) way, find safety, Self and family in the vessel of inter-being which we all co-create, sweeping up each others’ endless dust… the sometimes almost formless, at times traceless, leavings of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce

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5 Responses to “Sparks and Slivers”

  1. Deirdre Says:

    These are wonderful stories….and they’ve helped me to reflect and connect on this Sunday morning. Thank you, Bruce.

  2. BigLittleWolf Says:

    This is gorgeous, reaching into so many corners. Tangible and ethereal.

  3. Wolf Pascoe Says:

    This kaleidoscope keeps whirling for me. I’m so glad it showed up mysteriously in my reader yesterday! Tom Waits said that the country tilted one time, and everything loose fell into L.A.

  4. A Supernova in my Backyard « Privilegeofparenting’s Blog Says:

    […] makes me think of the sparks and slivers of our tattered universe and the idea of gathering those shards personal to ourselves as we collectively put them together […]

  5. Being Rudri Says:

    I love how your imagery makes “Sparks and Slivers” so palpable. There is a whimsical, but sad texture to this vignette.

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