It’s been time to leave Strawberry for a while now. Your mother and I haven’t gotten along in years, but she calls me everyday and begs me to come back to Washington. I’ve been thinking about it. She says it won’t do you any good not to have a father in your life. She says she’s afraid. Between you and me it feels good to have her worry about me like this. We haven’t gotten along for years, and I’m sorry for that. To you, I mean. I want to apologize to you. Things don’t always work out the way you think they will when you’re younger. If you’re old enough to be reading this, I guess you know that already.
It’s not easy for me to sit down and write this to you – especially because I’m writing all the time – all day every day. It’s not fun like when I first got here and met Jim at the hotel and we went out for drinks and I looked at this decimated little town and thought I’d really stumbled onto something that might be life changing. It’s been life changing, but just in a different way than I’d imagined.
But it’s difficult to write this because of the implications involved in your actually reading this – and it’s difficult to write this because if you are reading this I don’t know you like I would’ve liked to know you, and it’s heartbreaking to think about my little girl grown up and reading words written by a father that never existed.
The citizens of Strawberry are dealing with their circumstances admirably. Naturally many people have left, but a lot of people feel a strong connection to this town. There’s no danger of contamination anymore, so there are relatively few environmental dangers, but Strawberry is decimated. Buildings are burned down or cleared out, the streets are empty and dirty, there are no jobs and almost no municipal services. Children go around in tatters without parents, scavenging the streets like hungry dogs. I don’t know if these children know of any other reality than this depressing giant dockside ghetto. Jim tells me when Strawberry was still a pleasant little town people used to like to go up to the docks and spend long days there – lovers and families and whatnot. I try to picture it – and I can a little bit – but it’s not easy to do. The dock smells like rot and dead fish, the water is a sick pale brown green kind of color, and the docks are a pretty dangerous place to hang out, especially late at night. Supposedly people dump bodies in the dock all the time – corpses are always surfacing. I saw the body of this young lady – she couldn’t have been more than twenty-three or twenty-four dragged out one morning, and the girl’s mother was there and got sick and started crying.
What little you do know about me you know through my poetry. Most of the books I’ve published have been mediocre at best. I think my publisher cut me a break just because I’m a reporter for the Washington Post. Not that the poems are without technical merit, but I think I’m starting to see now that they were missing something – something I suppose I’ve been chasing after for most of my life, and I really don’t know how to describe what that is. I wish I could express it a little bit more clearly.
It’s amazing to see people stripped of everything. It will probably make you laugh, but when I was in college I used to think of myself as an Anarchist. It’s true. I used to wear black – I even had one of those shirts – you know, with the red A with a slash through it and a black background. I think I just thought it was a cool thing to be. Later on, when I first started working at the Post I used to talk about Social Anarchy, and talk about Marquez’ “Hundred Years of Solitude” and say that the little community in that book started as a perfect Social Anarchy, and it was an ideal to work towards. I’m not really political like that anymore, grown up and whatnot, but I do have values and ideas and I believe in helping other people whenever you’re in the position to do so. Washington is a funny city, and it’s not an easy city to be a reporter in. Especially working for the Post. The politics at that paper are tangled up enough already; and it makes you not really want to think about what’s going on with all the politicians you’re always writing about. I still write editorials, but I don’t know if I will anymore. I don’t know if I’ll write for the Post at all anymore – or any paper for that matter. We’ll see. I don’t mean to ramble like this. I’m thinking on the page. I want you to know something about the way that I think about things.
The reason I’m bringing all this up is because Strawberry is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to what could really be called anarchy. During the two years of contamination, this town, which is real small to begin with, was sectioned off from the rest of the world. It was quarantined, no one could leave and no one could enter, and the town just died. Literally and figuratively. The population was decimated, the government stopped operating, the people lost hope and contact with other human beings, and now that it’s become re-integrated into the world, it’s a town that runs off the aggression built up between people who’ve suffered crimes too inhuman to consider. They still have no answers. No one knows what the plague was and no one knows how it started. Jim tells me a lot of people in Strawberry think the Federal Government designed it as a biological weapon. That they experimented its effects on a small town that no one would care about. People wonder how they were able to quarantine Strawberry so quickly. I don’t know what to believe, but I see what biological warfare can do to a community. Strawberry is not a part of the United States as you or I understand it.
No one in Strawberry is safe – and yet, I feel like I’m safe. I’m treated like royalty here, coming from Washington into Strawberry, the way Americans are sometimes treated going to European countries. The women love me! It’s the first time in my life I can say that with confidence – except, of course, for your mother. Your mother is one of the most wonderful women in the world, and I only wish things could have been different between us. I feel like they could be now – if I were the person then that I am now, I mean – and that’s hard for me to explain to you, but it’s a moot point because it’s too late.
I’m treated like royalty, but also I believe with a certain amount of suspicion. After all, coming from Washington I’m pretty much the enemy – from the city that possibly decimated these folks’ home – and when I think about living back in Washington, with our Georgetown condo, and with the wonderful life of luxury and comfort we live in – with the taxes we pay and the money we give to Washington – and the mindlessness of being able to enjoy everything – just pay a small cost to the government so they can do whatever it is they do – if there is any merit to these conspiracy theories, how can I sit around and be the same person knowing that in some way, no matter how indirect, I’m contributing to the suffering of other people and doing nothing to put an end to it? I don’t want to get up on a soapbox here or preach to you. I know you’re smart enough to make up your own mind about things. And I don’t think people should spend their lives feeling guilty for being born prosperous. I’m just launching off some questions I’ve thought a little bit about.
I remember the day you were born. There are two days I think of as the happiest days of my life. The first is the day your mother and I were married and the second is the day you were born. I remember holding you for the first time, and that feeling – that feeling like, my God, I’m a father – like nothing else in the world, and how my whole life changed all of a sudden in a moment. And I knew I’d be a father – and we’d been preparing for it, your mother and I, but there’s nothing in the world like holding your little baby up for the first time and thinking about all the possibilities and opportunities open to this little creation of yours. Not to sound too sappy, but you are truly my most perfect poem. Okay, so that does sound sappy. Forget I wrote it.
The point is just that when I brought you into this world, I hadn’t seen anything like Strawberry. I knew the world was a place full of suffering and sadness and this and that, but I didn’t know it, like I know it now and I never felt like this is a world where you’re either prey or predator. And you can be a predator and never let yourself know it, but you’re still a predator all the same, and there you have it – prey and predator – and that’s just the state of nature and when you shut off the lights what you’re left with is Strawberry. The world is not the world I imagined I was bringing my child into.
There was a gang shoot-out in Southport last week and a twelve-year old boy was killed. Jim knew his family and we went to the wake a couple days ago. There were all these people lined up side by side in the church, as many children as adults – and everyone had the same look on their face. It’s a look I can’t describe, and I feel like it’s important that I learn how. The church was silent and eerie for a long moment right before the pastor started speaking and the old wooden beams leaned shadows into the pictures of Christ in the windows and nobody cried. People at the Post think I’m crazy. They say I have enough material to write my book and why am I still in Strawberry? Your mother calls me everyday like I said, and she begs me to come back home. She has a point. I need to be there for you. But I haven’t ever written poetry like I’m writing now – and in the last two months I’ve really become a poet. And it’s something – something in the faces of these people – is it the eyes – the whole expression? I don’t know. But I know that I have to stay here until I understand it.
Again, this isn’t an easy letter for me to write. Let’s hope you never have to read it – or if you do it will be some day when I’m old and gray and we’re having a few laughs maybe in Rock Creek Park on a sunny spring afternoon. It’s cheering to think about home, to think about the park and nice restaurants and to think about you, my lovely little daughter and our home and my morning Starbucks and all those other small things that I love. Kiss your mother for me. Tell her I love her and miss her and I’m sorry. Don’t be angry with me. Understand I had to do this. It’s important to me that you can forgive me. You always have my love.
(Whit Frazier, From Strawberry Press Magazine, July 2003)