tobias crabtree

defining lines; drawing and writing

Tag: essay

A Ghost in Every Window

There’s an old farm house down there where the road turns. There’s no one living in it, the barn swallows and owls roost, rats and mice and skunks shuffle through openings and go about their business in the secret way that animals do. The Coastal Cypress trees, their trunks obscured by ocean fog, mark the way to the cliffs above the waves. And the waves are working to move the land, they will never tire. They have a deal with the Sea: to throw themselves against the land until the last stone turns to sand, and the oceans all reunite.

In the dark, the house above the sea stands hollow. I wonder of it’s abandonment. I imagine that it has housed many hearts. I am dreaming now, creating maybes and might-have-beens. What ghosts are looking at me through warbling windows? What caused the separation of habitation and inhabitant? There is, I must admit, something beautiful about a structure returning to nature. There is not a single hint of paint. The wood is all the color of drift wood, both grey and green at the same time. And the bleak, scraped land is all around. Artichokes and Brussel sprouts are the crops of choice. Miles of plastics cover the crops and there’s not a hint of plant life save that which is planted and sprayed and plucked and processed. Farming here looks more like a science project. Maybe that’s why the house is empty; new people practicing new ways. Not too far down the road is a sign with the name of Donald Trump in gaudy red letters saying something about making America great. I feel an urge to drive down to the cliffs and watch the ocean, to look at something I know is true.

The low branches of the cypress are huge and rotten. Up 30 feet they are more solid, some of them droop all the way to the ground. Everything is drenched from the rain event last night. There was lightning over the ocean. Just before dark, when the sun was still coloring the upper terraces of the world, a whale surfaced and spouted, the flume hung white in the dark air for a full minute after the whale had passed. And in the night I thought of that whale out there in the dark — maybe hanging in the black with the storm overhead while the lightning spoke the language of the clouds. Maybe thinking bigger and deeper thoughts than any human could ever imagine. Maybe even mapping out the course of all things that have ever been and looking into the future by mirroring the past. Maybe understanding the way of things because it is a whale and not intimidated by vastness and expanse, and, in truth, a child of both those things. And I listened to the rain and thought of that whale and remembered the color of it’s breath as it hung in the air over the water and beneath the clouds that were still lighted by the last rays of the sun. But that was last night and this tree is tall. My nephew is with me and he’s watching me navigate. We are Jacks-in-the-beanstalk. We are climbing to the clouds. And one branch at a time and a 100 feet high and again and again to the sky. My nephew doesn’t talk too much, I think he’s too busy thinking to say a whole lot. He’s strong and listens as we move into the top-most branches. Coastal Cypress trees are cool because you can top out and stand above everything. Several pelicans fly over with a tiny black and white tern in their jet-wash. All the birds look at us, we are odd in their space. Far below is the RV, the dolphin, looking as tiny as ever. I can see my lover reading her book about octopuses in the broken sunlight. A couple miles away sits the abandoned farm house and the ghosts are in every window, looking out.

Looking out. And smiling.


Give me the backroads, please. The ones with potholes and pullouts. The ones that make less sense and sometimes swerve to allow the tree to stay.

Yeah, backroads, please. Don’t bother listing them on the apps, just leave them be. Let them be found by real eyes and accidental turns.

And what about that old motel? And the old woman cutting roses in the shade of the cottonwood. With miles of open land on every side. And the sky, sitting quiet, watching the silliness below. That sign that says, No. No wifi. And that makes me laugh because that’s a funny thing to make a sign about. She’d rather be cutting roses than answering that question, so she made a sign for her motel.

Here the road turns in Merrill, like it did in Janesville, like it did in Lakeview. And there is little for the average. But for the looker, oh my, there is so much to see.

The annoying needle on the gas gauge is giving me the news. It’s been a while since any sign of a station and the forward progress of my half-bald tires is threatened by the fuel consumption. My foot is lighter on the gas and the dolphin sways with the cottonwoods and the grass as the wind pushes back. There is Paisley, population of 239. The sun just came up and the town is sleepy. Gas station opens at 8 a.m. The diner says Open. I park the dolphin and get the eye from the two women talking at the drive-thru coffee kiosk. I imagine Mayberry (Andy Griffith’s old town where he mostly kept Barney out of trouble–if you don’t know what I’m talking about, that’s ok. But it’s a T.V. show. Back when t.v.’s had rabbit-ear antennae and a knob that changed channels and only 4 or 5 channels to choose from. Back when black and white television was a thing.) might have been like this, minus the coffee kiosk. Something about that show made me sad and happy, both. I loved that Opie and his dad were walking to the creek with fishing rods while the song for the show whistled along. The episodes were everyday-type things. Nothing over the top. Just regular stuff with Barney being a genius buffoon.

Inside the diner there are 4 men at a table. Jan comes from the kitchen. Coffee and an egg sandwich. Paisley, according to the census has had a -4.0 population change since 2000.  The average income is $30,000 or so. Jan is nice and wants me to have meat on my egg sandwich. The 4 men leave with fanfair and jokes for Jan. A woman my age and her father come in and sit. I hear the old man talk, he’s a product of Paisley. His views are apparent. His jokes are easy to read and his daughter is patient as he speaks in circles. I begin to wonder if all old men are destined to be the same. I drop into my memories and picture the middle-age fellas with peculiar cars and hairy ears, and the Me of  now would have been one of these fellas to the Me of then. So will I be the old man with circular speak? And who will be patient as I follow my own footprints, looping in circles through the thick timbers of my darkening mind? Yikes! I shake my head and pay. Goodbye to Jan. Goodbye to Paisley. The dolphin has gas by 8:05 and the road goes on swervilly.

The Doyle grade goes up by Lost Creek where the brook trout are like 10 inch footballs. They are fat and full of lightning. I’ve pinched down the barbs on my hooks so they don’t cause unnecessary damage to them bony little mouths. The stream flows from some source and bounds down through the granite and the chaus and across my shins. The wind speaks in smell. I am tripping through my thoughts about being, about my being in particular. I wonder how many bodies these molecules of water that I’m touching and drinking have been through. What dinosaurs have guzzled these same atoms of Hydrogen(2) and Oxygen(1)? And of the wind. How many trees have these winds been through? Who last breathed this air? Bobcat? Bluejay? Bristle-backed boar? And the smells are colorful and the colors are songs. This is what the senses are for!

I’m not a middle-aged man. I’m not a boy. I’m just an organism in the middle of a giant organism. I am moving to and fro. The world around me moves inside the system to which it belongs. And that system swings on the Orion arm of the Milky Way. And this galaxy dances with Andromeda, while something bigger moves beyond my comprehension. I can’t comprehend it but I see it’s shadow flickering in the corner of my mind. I am wondering. I am everything that ever was. I am absolutely nothing at all.

In the Men’s Room, not the Psych Ward

There’s this one drawing I wanna do, I just can’t seem to drag it out of my head and get it to lay down on paper. It’s a common occurrence. It’s when I’m swimming a few hundred feet off-shore that I think of something I just absolutely must write down. Or I’ll wake up in the night, when drawing utensils are hidden away, and think of a thing that I’d love to draw. Whenever I’m tired, there almost always seems to be a parade of pretty pictures floating through my gourd — things to be written or drawn. There they are flaunting around, winking at me and grinning. There is a fickle nature to anything creative. So many flitty, pretty things dancing on tiny feet and then disappearing, leaving just enough behind to remind you that you’ve forgotten something special. And in the midst of my tantrum — and it is a silly tantrum — I’ll hear the bell of privilege ring. To have the time to draw and write is to be privileged. All my lovely pens and pencils. My sleek and silver computer with the glowing fruit on the lid. My eyes that see and my nimble fingers and opposable thumb. My tripping-and-tumbling-stuttering-mumbling brain. Yep, uh, now that I think about it, let’s just move on to something else.

Yesterday I went to see my shrink. I have a favorite restroom in the VA hospital. It might be pavlovian, and I might not should write about restrooms and what we need them for, you know, it’s not really for resting. There’s a reason it’s called a “toil-ette”. Don’t worry, I won’t go into any detail about the toiling part, although my little buddy, Cannon (he’s 3) loves to talk about pooping. (He checks everything for poop. Every plastic dinosaur gets checked for poop thoroughly, without fail. I guess their poop would be plastic too, and so it wouldn’t really stink. He asks me if I’m going to poop every time I get even remotely near the bathroom. He also takes it upon himself to check up on me if he notices that I’m in the bathroom. And lately, he seems to be the bathroom monitor. So good luck trying to sneak in for a peaceful little poop, you’re going to have a series of questions to answer through the door that you sure as hell better have locked. “Are you pooping? Why are you pooping? Is it ok?” and then often some instruction, just in case you haven’t learned how to manage pooping after all these years, “just relax. take your time. breathe.” Not that I mind, personally. I’d have no trouble sitting right next to another pooper and chatting them eye to eye — thank you for that, Marine Corps! Yer the best! It’s just nice that Cannon is making sure I stay up to snuff on all my training, which brings me back to the VA.) If I could choose, I would not use the restroom at the VA hospital. (If I had my druthers, I’d not go there at all. I’m not writing about my “druthers.”) But I had to poop when I got to the hospital a while back, and now, just like Pavlov’s dog (although I think Pavlov’s dog was trained on the opposite end, with food…but whatev’s, I ain’t a scientist) I walk in and, bling, I gotta go. Foster showed me his favorite restroom the last time we were there and I was impressed, it’s kinda tucked away and quiet and clean. I’m not going to tell you where it is because I don’t want you in it when I wanna use it, but I’ll give you a hint, it’s not in the psych ward. Anywho, I went on into my private pooper and sat down. There was a dispenser on the wall directly in front of me that unintentionally looked like a face with the eyes averted to the left, as if the face couldn’t look me in the eyes. I said, “why you looking to the side?” quietly. Then I remembered I was there to see my shrink and I started to be nervous that I was sitting on the toilette in the hospital talking to a dispenser, telling it to look me in the eyes. After that, I quietly looked around and found 4 more faces in things that are not intended to be faces — at least, I hope it’s that way! Maybe they have cameras in the restrooms that monitor whether or not veterans see the faces or not. Maybe it’s just a big experiment! Uh, nope. I won’t allow it.

And up the stairs to the Doc’s office. The waiting room. My favorite.

The upper 50’s lower 60’s couple was sitting in the decent size waiting room. My Doc deals mostly with retired folks. I don’t quite fit into his demographic and I’ve always wondered why I got put with him. I like him. But the couple in the waiting room. Yeah, I can’t get them out of my head. It looked like she wasn’t really ready to completely give up on her hair dye job, but maybe. The grey was creeping in at the roots and her hair was long, down to mid back. Her husband, Joe (she called him by name several times), sat to her right. She had pulled a chair in front of her and had her foot propped up out of it’s shoe. As she read the hospital supplied reading material, Joe quietly mumbled incessantly. He was saying things at a level where I would just hear a word or two out of every sentence. It was like he was having a quiet conversation with himself. The blonde lady read her magazine. I heard Joe finish a sentence with, “what about that?” Blonde lady didn’t look up. Now and then, Joe would look at me timidly but not with a look that seemed to be ready for a response. He reminded me of a dog on a leash under the table at a restaurant, nervously looking around but avoiding eye contact. For 15 minutes Joe never stopped his droning conversation. Finally the woman sighed heavily and stood to walk. Joe stood and she firmly said, “Joe, sit.” He sat and looked at me and I politely looked away. In that quiet space I could hear the lady talking to the receptionist. Words about appointment time. Words about sensitivity to hospitals. Words about not understanding. I looked at Joe and he was digging in the blonde lady’s purse with both hands. Digging and digging. She came back and didn’t seem at all surprised that ol’ Joe was elbow deep in her enormous red purse. He pulled back and began to talk quietly. A few minutes passed and the young doctor came into the room. “Mr. Brown?” Joe looked up with wide-eyed surprise, then he moved the same look over to his wife. She stood and looked at me for the first time. There were tears streaming down her face over the make-up, across the set wrinkles in the corner of her mouth. She never looked back to see if Joe was coming. He was. They got to the door where the doctor waited and she turned to Joe. He was 10 feet from the door and peering in, his head way out in front of his shoulders, afraid. “Come On, Joe…go in. Go in there, Joe, it’s ok.” Joe glanced out at me and the blonde lady followed his gaze. I smiled a little. Joe led, and the door closed. I sat and stared at the big table, I’d never seen a waiting room with a full size table, and the puzzle box that sat upright against the wall. It was Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. I thought about Vinny as he sat in his room at the asylum and stared east between the bars out into the stars. I remembered that he had admitted himself into the hospital. I’ve read that he had 20 different paintings and even more sketches from out of that second story window that looked out over the wheat fields. I wonder if he felt his brain skating away as the stars flickered and the moon crossed the sky. I guess it’s kind of ironic that the puzzle they chose to help occupy people trying to get mentally stable is a painting by a fella in an asylum after he ripped his ear off.

My thoughts return to Joe Brown. Such a common name, you’d think I was making it up. And maybe I am.

How to lose 140 pounds

I sat inside my buddy’s house with a cup of coffee, waiting for the morning to happen. The sun came up again and proved that Tuesday still lands between Monday and Wednesday. I like Tuesday, it’s the day nobody talks about. It’s spelled kinda funny, I guess Wednesday and Tuesday have that in common.

On this Tuesday –it might have been this last one, but who’s counting– I sat and watched a little California Towhee throw himself against the sliding glass door over and over. At first I thought, ” aw, look at little buddy, he wants in where it’s warm, ” but then I figured out that he was fighting with his reflection in the glass. I wondered what he was thinking, like, “damn, this guy’s quick, he knows my every move!” or maybe he was thinking he would outlast the other bird staring back at him. There he was, pecking and scrapping and fluttering against his own image in the window. While he was busy with that, I was busy thinking about what he was thinking. I even excused him a little, at least he’s getting some cardio in. I finally couldn’t take it anymore, I started feeling bad for a lot of reasons. You see, the California Towhee is a drab little guy, he often goes unnoticed and when he is noticed, folks often call him a sparrow. I guess there’s nothing wrong with being confused with a  sparrow, but why grow out that long narrow tail if you ain’t gonna notice it? And what about that beautiful fade from brown to rust on the lower belly and thighs? I like the California Towhee because he’s just making his way, drab brown with a pretty little voice and a shy demeanor, through the big blue world. I reckon that somewhere out there are two little Towhees all mated up and snuggled beautifully and brownly on a branch, singing deeply each into the others’ heart, and all else is lost. But this little guy at the back window had somehow picked a fight with himself and he was pretty damn determined to win, or lose, however you wanna look at it. I got up and opened the door and broke up the fight. He bounced backward a couple feet, looked at the giant ape that ruined his fight, and flew away chip chip chipping into his Tuesday.

Little dude flew away, but he stayed with me all morning. Hell, he’s still with me, right here in this story, right here in my mind and as plain as day. I think, and this kinda bothers me, he reminds me of me. When I went for a run later that morning, I was daydreaming back and back into my life. All the steps I’ve taken. How many of those steps wasted? How many times have I walked a path toward the same mistakes I’d already made, and staring down at my own damn tracks all the while. Oh yeah, I’ll learn, eventually I’ll learn. These thoughts were in my head and creeping toward my heart while I ran. The path turned and my shadow crossed in front of me, I could see the shape of my nose and the tilt of my head. Sure enough, that’s me, right there in that shadow. I wondered how much of my soul my shadow owns. That ol’ Shadow, cast out on the ground, running and meeting me, only leaving me when I leap. I guess I own my shadow, maybe the sun is a co-owner. If either one of us goes away, the shadow is gone.

My mind found a place in the past, when I was in the Marine Corps. I heard an instructor yapping at me with a hard smile on his mouth, “Crabtree, how much do you weigh?”

140 pounds staff sergeant.

“Well, that’s a small pile’a shit, ain’t it, Crabtree?”

Yes it is staff sergeant.

And then, years later, on Tuesday, that same 140 pound pile of shit was running up a hill near Fosters house toward the rocks that sit in the middle of the buckbrush where the lizards lie cold and wait for the sun to stir their blood and the roadrunners run with chattering beaks, swallowing the frozen lizards, and the little black stink bugs lumber with their hind ends high and my feet were finding the ground over and over, each time meeting my shadow, and I was looking at myself and wondering about that little Towhee in the window. I hope he makes it. I hope I make it.