Pickup

Pickup

Hannah Ford

He’s been driving trail shuttle for nine years, ever since his wife took her kitchen appliances and smoking habit and left. Their dog had howled after her for a week or so, then he’d forgotten about her, curling up on her rocking chair like it’d always been vacant.

His sons check in once in a while, but it’s mostly just him and the dog now. It’s not a bad life, maintaining the trail during the day, picking up hikers when need be, getting home in time to watch the sun set over Lake Jocassee.

The couple called three days ago, having found his number on the Trail Angels website. The boy asked about getting picked up at the end of the hike. I mapped it out, the boy said, and we should get to the end seven days after starting. But Trip has been around the Foothills for a while and so he says no to that plan, because nobody finishes when they think they will, and many don’t even finish.

He picks the couple up at the trail’s end, where they’re standing next to their car and holding paper coffee cups, the girl leaning her head against the boy’s arm. The boy is skinny with a wide frame that he’ll eventually grow into. The girl is small, barely to his shoulder, her hair brushed neatly into a ponytail and her hiking boots stiff and new. She’s wearing makeup. Just looking at her, Trip knows she won’t make it.

“I’m Trip,” he introduces himself.

“Squint,” the boy offers. “Forgot my glasses on a hike a few years ago.”

The girl shrugs. “I don’t have a trail name yet,” she says.

“We’ll get you one,” says the boy.

Trip drives them to the trailhead, winding along the edge of ridges and stopping occasionally at lookouts. He tells stories of mid-hike pickups, like he usually does, because he figures it’ll make people more willing to call him if they need help. This couple, he tells them about the group of women he had to get last month because of blisters. “Blisters are about the most painful things,” he says, “and once they split, there’s no healing them unless you stop walking.” He glances in the rearview mirror at the girl in the backseat, but she’s looking out the window.

The boy, in the passenger seat beside him, nods. “I had some blisters at the beginning of the PCT,” he says, then proceeds to highlight his PCT hike. The girl is quiet, still watching the trees.

When they get to the trailhead, Trip pulls off in front of an outhouse. “Last bathroom for seven days,” he says, like it’s a punch line. The girl goes to use it while Trip and the boy unload the packs from the truck bed. Once she’s gone the boy turns to Trip.

“Wanna know a secret?” he asks. He digs into the brain of his pack and pulls a gold ring from a small cardboard box. “Had to use cardboard because of the weight,” he says. “I’m proposing at the end. We’ve been dating four years, since high school.”

“It’s a pretty thing.” Trip closes the box. “But she might not make it. I’ve seen more experienced hikers than her not make it.”

“She will.” The boy stuffs the box back into his pack. “She’ll be fine. It’ll be a great moment, ending the hike and getting engaged. She’ll love it.”

Trip starts to shake his head again, but the girl is walking back toward them. Trip reminds himself it’s not his business. The boy wraps the girl in a hug, his arms reaching around her body and her pack, and she smiles into his chest.

The girl turns to look up at Trip. “Thank for all the advice,” she says. “And for waking up early to get us.”

He goes through his usual routine: weighing the packs (the girl’s pack is ten pounds lighter than the boy’s, but she sinks under its weight), pointing out road crossings on the map, making sure they have his phone number and telling them where cell service is best. “The last road crossing is on the third day,” he says. “After that, you’re on your own. Trails go too far for roads to reach you.” Trip has never had a hiker who didn’t return, at least not that he knows of, but it keeps him up at night sometimes—imagining someone getting injured two days, both ways, from help.

The boy starts the trail enthusiastically, his pack bouncing as he makes long strides. The girl turns around once and waves to Trip. She smiles quickly, then turns to follow the boy.

 

The next afternoon, Trip has just dropped a group of middle-aged men off at the trail head when he notices a tube of lip balm in the backseat of his truck. He thinks immediately of the girl, because it’s scented lip balm and none of the men would have had it with them. Maybe the girl is out there getting chapped lips, but at least she’s not carrying around something scented during bear season.

The sunset that night is muted and grey, the air cold.
The following morning is cloudy. He tries working on the picket fence he’s been building, but he’s distracted and soon rain drops start to splat against his skin. He gets in the truck and drives to the road crossing, the last one the boy and girl will pass through before heading away from the road for the next four days.

He parks on the side of the road and watches the rain pelt sideways. Drops hit the pavement and splash high into the air.

Trip unbuckles his seatbelt and rolls his neck to the left, then the right. He scans the floor of his truck. There’s a stove he made out of the bottom of a beer can, holes poked in the sides to let the gas siphon out properly. There are leaves and dirt from his early-spring hikes in Maine, discarded Band-aids from hikers he’s picked up, and a granola bar wrapper. Trip wonders if the boy and girl passed through ahead of schedule, but that’d be nearly impossible with the pace she’d be able to keep. He’s never done this before, waiting around for someone who hasn’t decided yet that they need him, but he’s uneasy about the boy and girl. It’s not a good combination when only one out of two wants to stick it out.

He waits until three o’clock, then four, then five. He waits until he can barely see the trail for the lack of light.

 

photo by Rebecca Rajchgot, 2017

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The Whirlpool

The Whirlpool

Kate Henderson

Dickie’s teeth click when he eats. I have known for years they are false, but I can remember when I was a little girl and thought they’d come loose with age. Only his chewing interrupts the questions. What are you going to do now? Why don’t you finish university? His eyes are earnest. They bulge from his head, his head bobs up and down. It is hard to pay attention to the words, so I shrug at what I think are appropriate intervals.

“I guess you just have itchy feet.” He sighs, shakes his head, scoops up another spoonful of ice cream.

The conversation takes on a more general tone. The kids he teaches at school. Other grandchildren. Unemployment is terrible. Why don’t the kids take trades? I listen, but not closely. I let my eyes wander to familiar objects in the room I know so well. I remember Christmas dinners, when the Virgin Mary smiling down from above the cutlery box seemed less peculiar, when the table, filled with family, seemed less long. My eyes come back to Dickie; he is still talking. He is greyer now, his hearing even worse than I recall. He is retired, and teaches a class in Introductory Engineering at the community college. He is concerned for his students who are reluctant to settle down and work for a union. Instead they collect unemployment. He calls it “the dole.”

GrandEm fidgets at the other end of the table. We call her GrandEm because her name is Emma, and she says she was too young for Grandma when we were born. Her breathing is audible.

“You were far too young, Anne,” she interrupts suddenly.

I turn to her, add lightly, “Nobody could have told me then.”

“Well, I tried.” She says it too quickly. I can sense Dickie slump in closer to his ice cream.

“You remember. When you were here before the wedding. You just weren’t ready for such a serious commitment. I don’t think David was either.”

“Joseph,” I correct.

“Whatever his name was…”

“Still is,” I slip in, glancing down the long dining room table, hoping to have appealed to my grandfather’s sense of humour. Too late. He has turned down his hearing aid and is now carefully stirring his tea. GrandEm is still watching me. Even her silence is critical. I do remember the advice she gave me before the wedding. You have to stand behind a man, she said. Put all your energy into his success. And, oh yes, sex is not important. I’d made a joke about that too, but she hadn’t laughed then either.

She does have a sense of humour. She brings it out like the old, tarnished jewelry she keeps deep in her dresser. On summer visits when we were kids, my sister Laurie and I would watch as she’d carefully choose the right brooch to clasp at her neck, or maybe a string of pearls to accent a round neckline. “Isn’t this a scream,” she would exclaim, “an old lady like me getting all gussied up?” Then, with a flourish, she would produce something for us to add to our outfits. Often, the piece of jewelry was so old-fashioned that we would never wear it again. Once, though, I wore a sapphire that glistened from a delicate silver chain for months.

Back then, Laurie and I faced her together from the moment we stepped off the train. When her good mood faded we’d disappear to our room in the basement, the only place she did not invade because her wheelchair could not come down the stairs. We’d giggle into the night, hearing sometimes a faint sound, the smooth rubber of her wheels as they rolled along the linoleum at the top of the stairs. Secrecy was our only privacy. In the morning she would insist we have a bowel movement before breakfast. We were not to flush until she had inspected.

I try to remember when I first began to flush before she got there. I can’t. Did I flush today? A smile comes to my mouth.

“Well, I don’t think this is very funny,” she snaps. “Young people just don’t take marriage as seriously as they should.”

Before the wedding, I’d argued, I’d said there was a place for a wife’s ambition, for sex. She hadn’t listened to me then, and I decide she’s probably not going to hear me now, so I nod as she speaks. No, I don’t take things seriously.

It is summer. Back in January, I broke my leg. I thought of her a lot during the spring, as I learned to walk again, when I couldn’t stand long enough to cook a meal, when energy leaked away at the sight of every staircase. She has been in a wheelchair as long as I can remember, but I’ve seen photos of her with the canes, then crutches, as she refused to believe she could not walk. She’d been a Phys Ed teacher, and before that a dancer. When I was little, my father used to describe how tall and straight she’d been before the arthritis. Paintings line the walls of her bedroom. Ballerinas bent to tie the ribbons of their toe shoes, their tall, slender bodies graceful and poised.

“Are you sure you want seconds?” she frowns. I gained weight while the cast was on.

 

Three years go by, and I finally do finish school. I haven’t seen GrandEm and Dickie since I started taking classes, so I drive to town to visit with them. I can only stay three days so I call as soon as I arrive.

“We were very surprised to hear that after so long away you didn’t plan for more visiting time,” she says when she sees me.

“I don’t have much money,” I say. I bend down to kiss her cheek.

“You don’t need money with family around. Did you get the application form I sent?”

I nod.

“Did you send it in? They need teachers right here.”

I hug Dickie. I want to whisper a joke to him, but he is beyond hearing whispers. She always hears them anyways.

“It was for the Catholic School Board,” I say flatly.

“The children are the same,” she says, her lips forming a pursed, thin line.

I groan. “It’s the teachers they want to be Catholic!”

Dickie laughs. He winks. He beams with the knowledge I am a teacher, a “something.” He does not seem to mind that I do not have a job.

Instead of in the dining room, lunch will be served in the living room, tiny sandwiches on cut glass plates. GrandEm goes to supervise the housekeeper, who is new. Most help doesn’t stay long.

“Mary’s been with us for awhile,” says Dickie. “She was awfully good to have around while I was in hospital.”

“How are you?”

“I’m okay now.” He smiles. “They gave me a clean bill of health. No more cancer.”

“How do you feel?” I insist, holding his hand.

“Much better.” He smiles broadly and his teeth click. He appears to have less trouble hearing me than usual. Instead of the puzzled look he used to wear, his faded blue eyes appear calm and it changes his expression.

He wants to know what I think of today’s students.

“Do they seem lost to you?”

“When it comes to looking for jobs, maybe. But that’s because they don’t want to work just to work.”

He nods. “I guess you’re right. Jobs were so important to us in the Depression. We didn’t think about other things.”
GrandEm sits quietly on the other side of the room. She has dropped the subject of my teaching at the local high school. I almost want her to say something so we can include her in the conversation. The afternoon has passed quickly though, and it is time for me to go.

“I’ll drive you to your next stop,” Dickie says, rising. By this time, GrandEm is visibly sulking.

In the car, Dickie tells me his knee is reacting badly to the radiation that conquered the cancer. He is having trouble with GrandEm’s wheelchair.

“I guess I’m just plain getting old,” he laughs. His car has been stopped for some time outside the house I will be visiting. A friend waits for me inside.

“Go on now,” he says, “have fun!”

“I love you,” I tell him before kissing his cheek and getting out of the car.

 

The next night we all go to a restaurant to celebrate the ritual family gathering that takes place whenever one of the flock flies in from out of town. Aunts and uncles and cousins sit at a line of tiny pub tables pushed together tightly. Chair arms touching each other form a bond. When GrandEm arrives, someone removes a chair from the chain so she can position her wheelchair strategically beside mine.

“Hello, dear.” Ice hangs from her words. “I was wondering this morning how you got home from that boy’s house so late last night.”

I think of saying I took a taxi, but it’s a small town, maybe taxis stop running at night. I think also of making grand gestures about how I stayed on his couch. Instead, I say, “I didn’t.”

The reply surprises her and she doesn’t pursue what was going to be a lecture about reputation. My name, my father’s name, her husband’s name – never people, only names.

We sit in silence at our end of the table. I look down the row of faces. Dickie winks at me. He is across from us. His hearing aid has trouble with all of the voices. He points to everybody’s drinks and shrugs his shoulders, as if to ask why. I lean closer to him.

“Why does everyone have two drinks?” he asks. “Are they afraid there won’t be any left by the time they’re finished the first?”

I laugh. It does look strange.

“Maybe your uncle offered to buy the first round,” he suggests with a chuckle.

“No, it’s Happy Hour – two for one!” We are both shouting over the noise.

“Oh,” he nods, smiles understanding. GrandEm frowns.

After we’ve eaten and the table breaks into small groups, Dickie slides into an empty chair beside me. I watch everyone, catch bits of news, marvel inside how much everyone has changed and stayed the same. Dickie takes my hand and watches with me. His big grin takes on a pride I’ve never noticed before. He looks pleased with what he sees. I remain silent, not wanting him to have to concentrate to hear. I squeeze his hand the way he taught me when I was a child. Four squeezes – do you love me? He squeezes back, yes. Two squeezes, how much? He holds my hand firmly and leans towards my ear.

“I don’t want to hurt your hand.”

We both notice GrandEm at the same time. She’s been wheeled to the other end of the table and is looking around at the teenagers who have had too much to drink. She licks her lips precisely, indicating in a single motion her displeasure. She catches my eye for a moment and quickly looks away. Dickie feels me stiffen.

“You know, Annie,” he says in a voice that is barely audible, “pain is a funny thing.” He pauses, looks down the table at her, as if he’s forgotten I am beside him.

“For a long time, I just didn’t understand what she was going through. Now I think I finally know, but I can’t even begin to make it up to her. It makes me shudder when I think of how close I came to never realizing. Waking up in the hospital with all that machinery attached to me and doctors and nurses everywhere – it really opened my eyes.” He hesitates, and looks back at me eagerly. “This spring, I’m going to rip down the back bathroom and make a whirlpool. Make it all accessible to the chair so she can get in and out on her own.”

The words tumble out. His eyes sparkle as he describes the new bathroom. He’s planned it down to the hand railings above and below the surface of the water. It is the first time I’ve heard him talk about something so excitedly.

“She’s always liked water,” he told me, “because it lets her move the way she used to.”

“I’m sure she knows how much you care,” I offer, stroking the back of his hand.

“No,” he sighs, “I don’t think she does.”

 

It is late December when I am called to come to the funeral. On the train I tell myself he lived a good life, accomplished a lot. When I get into town though, and I don’t see his big grin, I know it doesn’t matter how long he lived. At the church, GrandEm has them play his favourite hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers. She holds my father’s and my aunt’s hands, and tilts her head to look proudly towards the altar. What makes me cry is feeling Dickie’s smile on us. Maybe now he understands what is going on in all our heads. I look beside me at Laurie, wonder if she is remembering him from the old days when he would turn down his hearing aid and disappear into his den for hours.

It is Christmas, but there will be no big dinner back at the house. Instead, GrandEm holds a small gathering using the same cut glass plates we ate sandwiches from such a short time before. Everyone admires her strength from a distance. Wonders how she’ll get by.

“I don’t know what to say,” I tell her as we’re saying goodbye.

“I’ll write you a letter.”

She looks up wryly, as if to say I could’ve thought of something better. I bend to hug her. She kisses the air beside my cheek.

 

Back home, I try for weeks to write that letter. I want to tell her about Dickie’s plans to build a whirlpool, but on paper the words seem like another blueprint lost in the many he worked on. How can I describe for her his eagerness when he said he was going to build it deep enough so that her whole body could be underwater, how the hot water might help her not hurt so much.

My attempts never get mailed.

One day I receive a package of Dickie’s shirts. He took them all to the cleaners before he died, GrandEm explains in her letter, so she sent each of the grandchildren three. “I found the shirts in neat piles in his closet.” She goes on to say that the shirts are old, she is not sure I’ll find a use for them. I skim the familiar handwriting quickly. My eyes stop when the smooth flow of the fountain pen breaks.

“They say with time I’ll feel much better,” she finishes. “Please write soon.”

 

photo by Harry Rajchgot, 2010

 

Trans-Canadian Train

Trans-Canadian Train

William Cass

I met a young woman many years ago during an August evening of soft light and liquid shadows. It was during a short stopover heading west on the Trans-Canadian train that ran across the country’s southern portion. I’d boarded in Montreal following a visit with my grandmother in Vermont after a summer travelling the hostel circuit through Europe. I was on my way back for a second year of teaching in a bush village in the upper corner of the southeastern Alaska panhandle. I was twenty-four years old.

Passengers were permitted to disembark for a few minutes while the train was changing tracks in that town above the Boundary Waters separating Ontario from Minnesota. I was stretching on the platform while new and current passengers waited for the train to be ready to board again. The young woman was among those new passengers and stood reading a large book with a satchel at her feet. I guessed I was a little older than her. She held the book with both hands just below her chest that rose and fell slowly with her even breathing. She wore a mauve blouse under a light cardigan sweater, jeans, and sandals. Her auburn hair fell to her shoulders in a mass of curls, and when she looked up to regard the track-changing progress, I could see that her eyes were pale blue. Against that hair and those eyes, her skin reminded me of bleached driftwood. In the muffled light, she was so lovely that I found myself holding my breath.

She went back to her reading while I stood a few feet away stealing glances. A small clattering arose with the track-changing, and she shifted to look up towards it. As she did, her ticket fell out of her book and landed on the platform. I stepped forward and retrieved it for her. When I handed it to her, our eyes met and she gave a small smile. I did my best to return it.

“Thank you,” she said. Her voice was soft.

“Sure,” I heard myself say. “So, you’re getting on here.”

“Yes.”

“Going where?”

“To visit my sister and her baby, my new nephew.” She smiled again. “It will be my first time meeting him.”

I nodded while we looked at each other. A whistle blew, then the doors to the train slid open and people began boarding.

“Well, then,” she said.

“Safe travels,” I told her.

I watched her pick up her satchel, set the book on top, and carry it with her ticket to the train’s door closest to us. When she stepped up into the opening, she turned, gave me the same small smile, and disappeared inside.

I waited until the conductor’s last call while my heart gradually slowed to re-board myself. I’d chosen an aisle seat in a set of four facing one another in a middle car and had had them all to myself since changing trains that morning in Toronto. But when I returned there, an old man and woman I assumed was his wife occupied the two seats against the window. They were holding hands across their knees and staring outside. As I settled into my own seat next to the old man, they both regarded me with quiet, kind eyes. I nodded to them, and they did the same. The doors slid shut, the train lurched once, and we were on our way again.

We left the outskirts of the town shortly and were soon passing through stretches of pine trees, low bogs, calico meadows, and still, black ponds. It was all as beautiful as I’d heard that Boundary Waters region described. I watched the landscape pass in the stillness of the slowly unfolding northern evening and thought about the young woman. I’d looked for her when I returned to my seat, but hadn’t seen her. I wished I had.

After a while, the old man took a folded newspaper and pencil stub out of his jacket pocket and began to work on a partially completed crossword puzzle. His wife removed a cross stitch frame from her purse and busied herself with that. I watched the telephone wires dip regularly in the distance outside, and my thoughts moved back and forth between the young woman and my days ahead. The route we were on would begin heading northwest in Winnipeg, and I’d change trains again two days later in Jasper for the final leg to Prince Rupert and the ferry to Juneau. A friend from the village would meet me there with his float plane for the short flight back to Yakutat. Then it was another long school year looming before me of beauty, isolation, pristine natural wonder, cold, rain, and snow.

About eight o’clock, the train slowed through a hamlet with a little boarded-up station. At its outskirts, it passed a red clay road perpendicular to it that led like a knife slice for as far as I could see through a dense stand of perfectly straight pine trees. A small boy on a tricycle rode in circles in the road near where it met the tracks. He stopped peddling and watched us pass, squinting with his hand held to his forehead against the last of the sun’s dusty rays. A woman came out on the front porch of a house nearby and watched, too, as she dried a plate with a dish towel. I supposed it was something they did each evening when the train passed. Much the same as I did watching from my cabin window as my neighbor motored his Boston Whaler slowly back into the harbor after checking his crab and shrimp traps late each afternoon.

The train resumed speed. The light continued to fall, and the sky to the west became the color of a bruise. Every so often, the old woman stopped her handiwork to look out at it and sigh. On occasion, the old man would lick the tip of his pencil stub. Except for the regular hum of the train on the tracks, it was quiet.

The evening’s gloaming was all but complete when I straightened suddenly as I saw the young woman approaching up the aisle. She was carrying her satchel and looked directly at me. I felt a flush spread up through my chest. At our seats, she stopped. The hands of the old man and his wife paused, and they glanced up at her.

“The person next to me snored,” the young woman told us.

“So, I’m looking for a new seat. I’m wondering if this one is available.”

The old couple nodded, and she looked at me with her small smile. I gestured to the open seat with my hand.

“Thanks,” she said.

I watched her take her book out of her satchel before storing it on the rack above us, settle in across from my seat, and smile at me again. I was aware of the old couple looking back and forth between us. The young woman flipped the light on over her head, opened the book on her lap, and began reading. A handful of seconds passed before the old couple resumed their work. I sat back as naturally as possible, tried to return my attention outside, and folded my hands together between my legs.

The old man put the newspaper and pencil back in his jacket pocket a few minutes later and took out a tiny deck of cards. He unfolded the narrow table from the arm of his seat so it crossed his lap and dealt himself some sort of game. As he played, he sometimes licked his finger as he had with the pencil before dealing a card.

I asked, “What sort of game is that?”

He looked at me with his gentle eyes and said, “It’s called ‘Go’.”

“How do you play? Is it like solitaire?”

He smiled and said, “Watch.”

He continued licking his finger and dealing cards with a pleased expression. From the corner of my eye, I saw the young woman close her book and watch him play herself. After a moment, the old man looked across at her and said, “So, you want to learn how, too?”

She seemed to blush, glanced at me, then smiled and said, “I guess I do, yes.”

His wife had set down her cross stitch. “He plays all the time at the farm,” she said. “After dinner almost every night. After the evening chores are done.”

I asked, “What sort of farm do you have?”

“Wheat,” she replied. “Near Regina.”

The old man kept playing, but said, “A hundred acres of wheat and some dairy cows.”

His wife seemed to study me before saying, “Are you American?”

“Yes.”

“But you’re travelling here in Canada.”

“That’s right. I’m heading back to Alaska. I teach elementary school there in a little Native fishing village.”

“My,” she said. Then she looked at her husband and said,

“What do you think about that?”

He stopped and said, “I think it’s all right.”

“Don’t you get lonesome there?” his wife asked.

I shrugged, but felt color rise up my neck. “Sometimes,” I said. I didn’t intend for it to come out so quietly.

The young woman said, “I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska.”

We looked at each other until I replied, “You should. I mean, I hope you do.”

“What’s it like there?” the wife asked. “And what do you do when you’re not teaching?”

“Well, it’s pretty spectacular when the weather is nice. I like the outdoors, so I fish, hike, kayak, cross-country ski…things like that.”

“I’ll bet you’ve seen lots of wildlife,” the old man said. “Bears, eagles, and such.”

I nodded.

“What’s the most memorable thing you’ve seen?” his wife asked.

“Let me see.” I paused, considering, then said, “I think it’s a mated pair of black swans that wintered last year on a lake out by the ocean. That’s very rare as far north as we are. Unheard of, in fact, according to the locals. I drove out to see them every weekend and often after school if there was enough light left. I’m pretty sure they built a nest back in some reeds. I’m anxious to see if they’ve had any offspring when I get back.”

“I hope they have,” the young woman said softly. When I looked at her, she added, “I really do.”

“That’s a big book,” the old man told her. “What’s it about?”

“Math.” She glanced my way, then said, “Actually, a mathematician, an artist, and a composer.”

“Are you one of those?” his wife asked.

“Not yet, but I study math in college. I graduate in a few months.”

“What will you do then?” his wife asked.

“I don’t know. I’m not sure.”

The old man chuckled and pointed to me. “Why don’t you head up to Alaska and help his students with their multiplication tables?”

We all smiled. “I’d like that,” the young woman said, looking at me. “That sounds pretty great.”

She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. I found myself blinking and turned towards the window again. The old man resumed his card game, and his wife did the same with her cross stitch. Then the young woman slowly opened her book and went back to her reading. It had grown dark outside, so there were no telephone wires or trees or bogs or meadows to see, just blackness and our reflections in the glass as the train rumbled quietly along.

Another half-hour or so passed before the man put his cards away and folded up his table. He turned off his overhead light, reclined his seat, and closed his eyes. A few minutes later, his wife did the same. In the window’s reflection, I watched the young woman tuck the book at her side, take another glance my way, then switch off her own light, recline her seat, and close her eyes. I waited until all of their breathing had slowed into sleep before I went through the same motions. When I reclined my seat, my knees almost touched the young woman’s. I extended them as far as was reasonable, but they wouldn’t quite reach.

 

During the night, I woke up often to reposition myself and watched the young woman in slumber until I fell back asleep. Twice, when I awoke, I found her staring at me, and I closed my eyes again quickly against my racing heart.

I awoke fully the next morning before the old couple and the young woman and got up to use the restroom as the pink-white light of dawn crawled through the train’s windows. On my way back down the aisle, the train slowed suddenly, and its loudspeaker announced the approaching station stop. Wide prairie stretched outside on both sides of the train. When I returned to my seat, the old couple and the young woman were looking out the window as the outskirts of a town began to emerge. We passed a warehouse, a neighborhood of old houses, then slowed more as we entered as cluster of brick business buildings. The train shivered to a stop in front of a platform with no stationhouse behind it, just a cinder parking lot with a few cars and trucks, and beyond that a traffic light dangling from a wire. Only one person stood on the platform looking at the train: a woman several years older than me holding a baby against one of her hips. We stopped so that she stood just to the side of our window. The train doors slid open.

The young woman stood and took her satchel down from above our seats. She put her book on top of it, looped the strap over her shoulder, looked from the old couple to me, and said, “Well, good bye. It’s been nice travelling with you.”
I felt myself frown and leaned forward. Then she was past me and moving up the aisle to the nearest open door. I shook my head. The old couple and I watched her disembark, hurry the few steps to her waiting sister, and the two of them embrace. They rocked a little together with closed eyes.

The old man turned to me and said, “Listen, that girl was sweet on you, and I think you felt the same.”

His wife nodded. “I saw it, too. It was plain to see.”

I gave a short nod myself. A whistle blew.

“Well, then,” he said. “What are you going to do about it? You’re not going to just sit there and let her get away.”

His eyebrows raised and his lips pursed into a thin, tight line. I looked past him out the window. The young woman had turned her head and was looking through the window at me; what I saw in her eyes was akin to yearning. I stood and clambered up the aisle towards the open door. As I did, it slid shut, the train lurched, then moved off up the tracks. I pounded on the door, but it stayed closed, the train gathering speed. When I craned my neck to see out the door’s windows, the young woman quickly disappeared, then the platform, then another neighborhood of old homes, and then there was nothing but prairie again, amber-colored and waving in the breeze.

 

Forty years have now passed since that encounter. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think often of her afterwards. I did. And even after my marriage, which was a good and satisfying and long lasting one, I’d think of her sometimes, and always with regret. Now that my wife has passed away and I’ve retired from teaching, I admit those memories and emotions have become more frequent. My wife and I didn’t have children, so I have no family and few hobbies or responsibilities to occupy my time. So, it’s true that I find myself these days thinking of the young woman more often, wondering what happened to her, what might have been. The sense of irretrievability seems somehow to have become stronger with age, more gripping, deepening in my bones.

Those black swans did have offspring when I returned to the village: three small cygnets swimming in the reedy shallows with their parents. Sitting here now tonight, looking out my window at a halo circling a full moon, I realize how wonderful and rare that was. Almost as wonderful and rare as an auburn-haired young woman with blue eyes above the Boundary Waters on a late summer evening of liquid shadows.

 

photo by Barry Lewis, 1979- “Across the River” – found on Wikimedia Commons

CACTUS

CACTUS

John Grey

I wouldn’t recommend the roadside.
And not on such a desert straightaway
where every passing car
kicks up a cloud of dust.

In a ditch of all places
and so small,
your roots get by
on water memory,
your fruit’s
a sun-scorched pebble.

But plants – not even cactus –
ask me the best place to prosper.
Seeds nestle down where they are blown
and try to make the best of it.

Besides, why else would an Australian be
on this highway in New Mexico?
A seed – an adaptation –
you have to believe
you can bear fruit anywhere.

 

photo by Harry Rajchgot, 2010

Jazz Notes

Jazz Notes

Renee Butner

This chaotic jazz suits my mood
after the frenetic day I had

Heavy on the drums
Brassy cymbals clashing
Piano pounding and lively
Scaling up and down
trying to keep up
with the beat

A lone horn sings out
Edgy and soulful
Leading the session several
golden shimmering moments
before backing off
To allow a bebop
walking bass line solo

Notes wrap around one another
Entwined in a dance
for the auditory sense

Jazz beat lines up with heart beat
I relinquish myself to
the new pulse

 

photo by Harry Rajchgot, Montreal Jazz Festival, 2016

Oświęcim

Oświęcim

Ilona Martonfi

Sown from the teeth of a birch tree
lashed together she

lives in a graveyard
paints a poem after Auschwitz

using Zyklon B gas
medical experiments

with a bundle under her arms
never took that photograph

the ghost plaint: here
remember the crematoria

living inside barbed wire
armed SS guards.

“Where are we going?”

Those feared as the other.
Those who rode in cattle cars.

Those whose voices silenced
fifty kilometres west of Kraków

Rajiya in the work camp.
Her only possession

a red knitted cardigan,
made by her Bubbe.


photo credit: Dr. Fred Leitner, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland, 2012

Iris observes a sparrow at the apex and remembers

Iris observes a sparrow at the apex and remembers

Diane Sahms-Guarnieri

Today, cold December sun streamingly rushes –
bright radiant light downpours the stone wall,
where a sparrow clings in the mist and Iris
wonders what it is holding onto. A flat wall?

No, not entirely, there is a high raised relief
an embossed concrete line which it clings to
in mourning light – much like a Mycenaean
stele marking the borderline between the
world of the living and the world of the dead.

******
Dark-cloud eyes flashed thunder; and lightning
must have struck open her chest because a sparrow
was pecking through the bloodworms of death.

Humble print of the Pietà hung and from
Madonna’s eyes tear-shaped garnets fell like
a broken string of pearls spreading hopelessness
all over the Carrara marble corridor.

Over-stretched leather covering of her heart
drummed out a faint death-beat march. Not shaking
of a rattler’s tail, but a dull-weakening beat.

The line on the monitor’s screen flattening.
And there was nothing for Iris to hold onto.

One large lethal tear slid dangerously down
rode over the high horseshoe cliff of her chin
the way a black and white movie once shown

a man inside a barrel riding over Niagara’s rushing
white waters shattering into the sudsy
foaming jaws of splintering death.

The shivering sparrow pressed against stone – Gone

 

photo by Harry Rajchgot, 2017

James

James

Robert Boucheron

 

James Pettigrew was the bell ringer of St. Giles Episcopal Church for as long as anyone could remember. Longer, in fact. The oldest members of the congregation remembered him from early childhood.

Clinging to their parents’ hands, they had trooped through the narthex on Sunday morning, glanced to the side, and there he was in the shadows. He stood there silent, straight as a stick, hard to make out in his black suit and dark brown skin. They were afraid of him and curious. Was a bell ringer like anyone, or was he a special kind of person?

James rang the church bell in an alcove off the vestibule. A short, slight man, he pulled down the rope with all his might. Then he flew directly up, hoisted five feet in the air on the bell’s return swing.

“He looks like a monkey,” people said, though they never saw a monkey do any such thing. James’s antique manners and grave demeanor stifled ridicule. Nevertheless, the title of “sexton” seemed overly dignified for a black man.

The children grew up, married, and had children of their own. James stayed the same. On weekdays, dressed in work clothes, he tended the churchyard. He cut the grass, pulled weeds, raked leaves, gathered twigs brought down by a storm, and trimmed the privet hedge. As people passed, he touched his hat, a decayed fedora, and greeted them in a guttural voice. He never forgot a name, and he needed to be told only once the name of a new arrival. He also swept the church, cleaned and polished, and made minor repairs.

“That bell ringer is worth his weight in gold,” people said.

James was punctual and reliable. He missed a Sunday only once in his career, and then by no fault of his own. In the course of repairing the bell tower, workmen inserted wood blocks to immobilize the bell. Then they forgot to remove them. Alternately, the workmen were Baptists who wanted to play a prank, on account of their long-running feud with the Episcopalians, and they left the blocks on purpose. This incident happened, if it happened at all, before anyone in the congregation was born.

James never went on strike or took a vacation. The bell of St. Giles was part of daily life, ingrained in the town’s consciousness. It was hard to imagine how a day could start without it, like eggs without bacon or coffee without sugar. Yet for all its regularity, there was no doubt the bell was rung by hand.

“There’s something about the way he does it,” people said.

“You can tell from the sound whether it’s for a wedding, a funeral, a plain church service, or a day of public mourning.”

In her pamphlet titled “St. Giles Church: An Historical Account,” available in the narthex amid postcards, offering envelopes, prayer lists, and devotional literature, Ella Eulalia Finch mentions James Pettigrew, as she could hardly avoid. Exhaustive research led her to write this:

What with fires, floods, rodents, birds, and a skirmish with Union forces toward the end of the Civil War, an event commemorated as the Hapsburg Engagement, many valuable records were destroyed. A vestry report from 1876 mentions a “bell boy” named James. A list of church members arranged by family includes a “James” under Pettigrew, a white planter who did not have a son by that name. He may well have had a former slave in his household, however. James was probably born before 1863, the year Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

If Miss Finch is correct, at the time she wrote James was over a hundred years old and still performing his duties. Arithmetic suggests he was close to his sesquicentennial.
James himself was reluctant to talk. He said did not know how old he was. He pointed to the spot where the shack in which he was born had stood. He could recite the names of parents, grandparents, and ancestors more remote. But he did not know the years of their birth or death, and dates in general were outside his ken. His wife and one daughter had died long before. He was vague about descendants.

After the pamphlet appeared in print, James’s eyesight began to fail. The churchyard was no longer as tidy as it had been. Repairs and maintenance fell into arrears. One morning at eight o’clock, the bell tolled three strokes and stopped. At breakfast in the rectory, musing over the newspaper, Father Percy raised his head. What could have happened? He hurried to the narthex and discovered James on the floor of the alcove, collapsed in a heap, clutching the frayed and broken bell rope.

The rector took James in his arms. Shocked at how light the burden was, he carried him into the church office. No blood was shed, and nothing looked broken, yet James moaned piteously. Tears gleamed on his ebony cheeks. He apologized for what he felt was a gross misdeed that would get him fired. Percy tried to hush him. He deposited James in a leather armchair which swallowed up the wispy figure. Percy picked up the telephone. He called for an ambulance to take James to the hospital.

This word roused James to a paroxysm. Going to the hospital meant only one thing. They would put him out of his misery like a foundered mule.

Percy had long practice in interpreting James’s statements, terse as an oracle. James predated the rector, of course, and quite a few others. Their portraits hung in a corridor, and James could identify each by name. He had known these worthies in their black gowns and billowing white sleeves. He had the advantage of Percy there.

Knowing that words would not calm the old man, Percy patted James on the shoulder and watched through a leaded casement, with its diamond panes of rose-tinted glass.

The ambulance crew wore white uniforms. They were efficient, antiseptic, and young, all of which fed James’s anxiety. Percy held his hand while they examined him. They strapped him on a stretcher and carried him down the church steps, as the rector walked beside. They were about to insert him into the back of the vehicle, when James tightened his grip on the rector’s hand. Percy pried loose the gnarled black fingers, then nodded to the ambulance crew. He breathed a short prayer as they drove away, top light flashing, no siren.

James caused a sensation at the hospital. His injuries amounted to little more than bruising. Nothing internal showed on an X-ray. But the patient’s age made his case unique. Nurses, resident physicians, and department heads came to his room, glanced at his chart, and gazed in wonder. Propped in the immaculate bed, James spoke to no one. A handful of more or less distant relatives whispered among themselves.

Hoping to interview a gunshot victim, a reporter for the newspaper hung around the hospital. He got wind of James and pestered the relatives. As though carved from diorite, James refused to acknowledge the reporter at the foot of his bed. On a pastoral visit, Percy contributed what he knew. Ella Eulalia Finch’s historical leap of faith was duly repeated and gained credibility. The reporter wrote a squib, and the Vindicator ran it on page four under the headline: “Bell Ringer Reaches the End of His Rope.”

On Percy’s recommendation, the vestry of St. Giles appointed Fred Huckle as “interim sexton.” The senior warden, John Shakewell proposed that they substitute an electronic recording of a bell for the real thing. No one took up his motion one way or the other. He volunteered to study the possibility and won tacit assent. They agreed that James Pettigrew’s retirement was both well-earned and long overdue, and they voted a small pension.

“What is his address?” asked Mrs. Sadie Thompson, the church secretary.

No one knew where the bell ringer lived. On a hunch, Percy led a search through the building. In the basement, behind the furnace, they found a room with a window, a wall-hung sink, a cot, and a side chair. It was warm and cozy, the vestry agreed, and neat as a pin. Traces of occupation included a black suit for a man or a boy, an antique radio, and a box of cornflakes. A farm supply calendar was pinned to the wall. The year on the calendar was 1934.

During two days of observation, James hardly stirred, as though he feared attracting more attention. The hospital released him to the care of a great-granddaughter, or so she believed herself to be. Leah Henderson installed him in the bedroom of one of her grown children. She had little to do with James before his fall. Now she was proud to fulfill a sacred obligation.

Soon after he arrived, James startled Mrs. Henderson by speaking.

“Go fetch Mr. Lionel Small.”

“Who?”

“Mr. Lionel Small. He owns the café on Main Street. A black man, short like me.”

Mrs. Henderson did his bidding. Later that day, Lionel Small entered the room. James asked him to sit by the bed, and he did.

“Why did you send for me?”

“No time for chit chat, young man. I’m almost dead, just catching my breath. I saw you in the church with a pretty young lady at the Christmas concert, and I learned your name. All my life I kept quiet. Now I want to talk, and I pick you. You’re not from around here, are you?”

“No, sir. From up north.”

“Good. That’s what I want to hear. You have a daddy?”

“He left when I was young, so no, I guess I don’t.”

“Right answer again. Now look here, Mr. Lionel Small, you and I are lightweights. We’re feisty and quick. We get in where a big man can’t, land a punch, and get out. I never had a son that lived past the first year, just one daughter. You be that son.”

“If you say so, sir.”

“I do say so. You going to marry that lady? What’s her name?”

“Daphne.”

“I had a wife. Cleo was a fine woman. She died too young. Never find another like my Cleo. Never even tried. You go ahead and marry that Daphne. She’ll do for a while, maybe a lifetime, and then what? You’re like me, Mr. Lionel Small, going to outlive them all. I get old, I shrivel up, and I act like nothing touches me, but all the time I remember.”

“What do you remember?”

“How it really was, how we survived. When we starved, and when we had food. The hate all around us, and the love between us. White folks know nothing. They live in their white world, all fancy ideas and good intentions. When they’re not out to get us.”

“What about Percy? Hasn’t he been good to you?”

“Like a man to his hunting dog. Percy’s better than most. But if you count on Percy as a friend, Mr. Lionel Small, watch your step. With his head in the clouds, he won’t see you here on earth.”

“How much can you see?”

“With my eyes, not much. I know plenty.”

“Is that story true that you were born a slave?”

“That’s my business. I was no kin to Pettigrew. They stuck that on me, and I couldn’t shake it. I tried to change my name to Freeman. The clerk at the courthouse refused. I said it was the truth. He said the truth was what was written.”

A week after his fall, James took a turn for the worse. He announced that he was going to die for sure this time. Mrs. Henderson sent for Father Percy.

As Percy walked into the bedroom, he cleared his throat by way of a signal. James sat bolt upright in bed. His eyes were open, but he seemed not to see the rector or anything else. He opened his mouth, but all that emerged was a hoarse gurgle. Percy sat on the bed and took James’s hand, which fastened on his with fierce determination. The rector talked at random—of the weather, incidents at St. Giles over the years, James’s notoriety, the honeysuckle that threatened to engulf the churchyard fence. He offered encouragement, words of comfort, the same he used at any deathbed.

James underwent an internal struggle. He sat up like a board and stared straight ahead. He trembled, gasped, and emitted strange sounds.

“Try to relax,” Percy said. “You don’t have to talk. When I ask a question, nod yes or no.”

“Should I call the doctor?” Mrs. Henderson asked.

Percy shook his head.

After half an hour, the crisis approached. Percy gestured for Mrs. Henderson to come closer. James was wracked by a final spasm, then all was still.

The rector quashed any hint of opposition to a funeral.

“The congregation of St. Giles may lack minority representation, but it was unquestionably the spiritual home of James Pettigrew. Indeed, his actual home.”

Fred Huckle rang the bell, now equipped with a nylon rope, for his late predecessor. The turnout in the pews, though sparse, was racially mixed and musically strong. Lionel Small attended with his fiancée, a young black woman, the model and actress Daphne Montage. Father Percy conducted the service according to the Book of Common Prayer, and he gave a eulogy.

“James was a constant presence in our lives,” he said. “We took him for granted.”

Burial followed immediately, in the churchyard which James had tended for more years than anyone could count.

Weeks later, a stone was erected at the grave. Lionel Small paid for it. The stone bore the name James Pettigrew, his date of death, and a bell carved in relief. Under the bell was carved the phrase: “Let Freedom Ring.” According to Mrs. Henderson, this was James’s choice.

 

Photo by David Hawgood, Sydenham, Oxfordshire, 2005, from Wikimedia Commons

Love Lessons

Love Lessons

Sue Granzella

In third grade, I learned that the Irish nuns of Saint Apollinaris School were married to Jesus. It was true; each Sister of Mercy, in her heavy black habit that brushed the toes of her sensible black shoes, wore a gleaming band on her left ring finger as very shiny proof.

“But are you all married to him, Sister?” Katie Bickle voiced the question that most of us were thinking. It was 1968, and Sister Mary de Chantal was teaching us about love.

After Sister explained the mystical marriage to us, we learned another confusing truth: the sisters loved each other and Jesus so much that all possessions were owned in common. In their convent, no one could accumulate earthly treasures, as all belongings were shared.

“But what about your glasses, Sister? Aren’t those just yours?” I was certain that I’d never seen Sister Mary de Chantal’s black-rimmed, cat-eye glasses on any of the other nuns.

A four-inch wall of starched white stiffness covered everything above Sister’s eyebrows, and the waist-length black veil that encircled her face concealed much of her creamy pink skin. But her dancing green eyes were still visible behind her communally-owned glasses.

“Ahhh, Soo-sun, thar are soom things that are mostly far ahr-selves.” The lilt of her brogue was the music of my third-grade year.

Sister Mary de Chantal’s love was not limited to her community of Sisters and to Jesus. It extended to the world of dance. She spent most recesses teaching Irish jigs to any girls who wanted to learn. Our scuffed white oxfords tapped and thumped the pebbly asphalt, and our scratchy blue plaid jumpers swayed in time to our concentrated hops and skips.

“One-two-three, one-two-three, kick-your-heel-and one-two-three.” The six of us chanted and jigged our way through the 10:10 recess one nippy Napa morning.

“Let’s do it again,” directed my classmate, Amy Blackburn. Amy could run like a whippet, commanding our respect during recess activities. We lined up, awaiting her signal. But over Amy’s voice, we heard the sound of a tolling bell. The school’s one hundred and sixty girls froze. We knew exactly what that meant.

Boys and girls were segregated during recess at St. Apollinaris. There was both a back and a front playground, with all of the classrooms in the middle forming a barrier between the two. The girls’ area was far superior to that of the boys, however. Both yards had an asphalt playground, but the crowning glory of the girls’ yard was that it contained the only bathrooms and drinking fountains in the school.

The boys were not allowed onto the girls’ yard until just five minutes remained in recess. At that point, an 8th-grade girl would march to the boys’ yard at the front of the school. Holding aloft a large black-handled bell, she’d wave it over her head in broad strokes, loudly enough to be heard over the grunts and yells of the sea of sweaty boys. This warned the boys that it was time to head for the bathroom and water fountain.
Before the bell’s tones died away, we in the girls’ yard could hear a faint roar that grew louder by the second. The rumbling materialized in the form of a monstrous boy-herd, their grey-corduroy-clad legs pounding the pavement as they thundered toward the four bathroom stalls and three drinking faucets. Small and large alike, they rushed past us as one, surging toward the same watering hole.

It was terrifying to be caught in their path. Girls peacefully skipping rope could be knocked flat by a reckless stray. Boy-on-girl casualties were common between 10:25 and 10:30 at St. Apollinaris. So when the bell rang that morning during our dance, we waited until most of the torrent had passed us by. Amy then waved her hand, and up we hopped: “Ah-one-two-three, one-two….”

Suddenly, I felt a sharp stab in my right ankle. Looking down, I saw a plum-sized rock lying next to my uniform shoe. As I glanced around in confusion, my eyes fell on Frankie McDonough, staring at me, mouth agape. His throwing arm hung limply by his side. The sun glinted off his glasses that were always slightly askew, and his floppy orange hair was lit up like a halo of fire. Frankie’s big eyes and frozen stance made clear his guilt. The pain dazed me, but still my mind whirled. Why had he thrown a rock at me? What had I done to him?

As I trailed my classmates back to Room 4 after recess, I already knew I would not tattle on Frankie. I would bear my suffering in silence as the saints before me had done. The nuns told us stories of saints who had sacrificed comfort – sleeping on beds of nails, denying themselves food, wearing instruments of pain inside their clothing – all for love of Jesus. God sometimes recognized the piety of these believers by allowing them to witness a statue of Jesus or Mary crying, occasionally weeping tears of actual blood. I used to sit in church during Sunday Mass and lock my gaze on the statues in front, willing them to shed tears of blood for me. It had never happened, perhaps because I’d never sacrificed enough for Jesus. Well, I would bear my pain bravely now. I’d suffer silently the wrong that Frankie had done unto me, a true innocent.

I’d barely sat down when I heard Sister Mary de Chantal whisper my name, and saw her beckon me with a crooked finger. The finger was usually just for the bad kids. Was I somehow in trouble? I didn’t consider the fact that I’d done nothing wrong. Feeling vaguely ashamed, I hung my head, and shuffled up to her desk.

“Soo-sun, are ye all right? You’re very pale.” Sister usually smiled at me, but now she looked concerned.

Immediately, I burst into tears and cried out, “Frankie threw a rock at me, and it hit me and it really hurts, and I didn’t do ANYTHING!” There. I’d spilled it all. The statue of Mary, Mother of God, would never cry for me now.

Sister nodded, and turned to give the summons this time to Frankie. He got not only the finger, but also the narrowed eyes and the mouth squeezed tightly into an “O.” He was in big trouble. I couldn’t hear much of Sister’s stern whispering, but I figured Frankie’s punishment would consist of several missed recesses, or maybe even a visit to the Monsignor.

My wounded feelings throbbed more than my ankle as I limped back to my seat. Even the prospect of the Monsignor brought me no comfort.

Over the next two-plus years, Frankie inflicted a peculiar kind of torture on me. I was a smart kid, and he made it his life’s mission to attack me for that trait. He constantly called me names that drew attention to my mind. He discovered parallels between my last name and the words “Godzilla” and “Gorilla,” so the monikers he coined usually were derived from one of those. Frankie himself had a staggering intellect, so the names he used often involved word-play and many syllables.

“Hey, Godzilla-brain!” he’d hiss when Sister Mary de Chantal turned to write math problems on the board. “Supersonic Gorilla-brain! How many did you get right?”

I tried to ignore him, turning away and folding my hands atop my desk.

“Hey, Gargantuan Monu-Mental Brain! Bet you didn’t get number eighteen!”

I knew it wasn’t a holy response, but I grew to truly dislike him. In fifth grade, when Sister Mary Gemma directed those who’d scored 100% on spelling tests to stand up, Frankie and I were always on our feet. And I didn’t like being lumped together with him. I cringed when walking to the pencil sharpener, braced for the inevitable taunt, the annoying whisper. It didn’t matter how far away from him I was. He always seemed to find me, his broad smile an ever-present magnet of mockery.

 

On the last day of fifth grade, a hot June afternoon, Frankie crawled over to where I sat on the cool tile floor, cleaning out my desk. I waited for the infuriating remark, but it didn’t come. Instead of whispering something that started with “Gorilla,” he startled me by using my first name, and asked if we could talk after school. I knew how to turn away when he was irritating, but I was at a loss when he treated me like a regular person. I straightened the Peter Pan collar of my uniform blouse, and nodded.

At 3:02, we sat on the splintery wooden bench, leaning against the cinderblock wall of room 6. The sun beat down on us. I removed the bobby pins that held my woolen beanie in place, pulled it off, and turned to him expectantly. Mom and my three siblings would be waiting; I wished he’d get on with it. Why in the world had he wanted to talk with me?

I noticed that for once, he wasn’t flashing that gleeful smile. He wasn’t even looking at me. He picked at the bench with one finger, scraping off flecks of paint.

Finally he spoke. “Do you remember in third grade when I threw the rock?”

Did I remember? The day I’d decided he was the most obnoxious boy in the class? I nodded, and he continued.

“Well, I wasn’t trying to hit you. I didn’t do it on purpose….because…..” His glasses began to slip down on his sweaty, freckled nose, and he pushed them back up. It was so strange to watch him struggle for words.

“It wasn’t on purpose…. because I liked you.”

I was so stunned that I barely heard his next words: “And I still do.”

He’d hurt me — because he liked me. He’d targeted me – throughout third, fourth, and fifth grades – because he liked me. Frankie McDonough liked me? It was too much for my mind to absorb. It was like trying to stop a freight train with my hands, and then push it back in the other direction.

He looked right at me. “I wanted to tell you before I leave, because my dad got a job in Redding, and we’re moving there this weekend. It’s pretty far. I probably won’t see you again. I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”

I stared at him, my heart thumping. Now I was the one fumbling for words. But before I could find them, our moms pulled up in their respective station wagons, and we parted ways.
In the short term, my experience with Frankie confused me even more than did Sister Mary de Chantal’s plural marriage to a non-Earthly man. In the space of sixty seconds, I’d learned that I couldn’t look at a boy’s behavior and think I knew what it meant. I’d learned that a boy who seemed to dislike me actually had a crush on me, but I’d also learned that I’d likely never see him again. To my astonishment, I’d even discovered that once Frankie told me he liked me, I felt a weird nervous flutter in my chest, the stirrings of me starting to like him back.

But long after my confusion faded, something else took its place. When I think back now, what strikes me most is that Frankie apologized. And it wasn’t because someone forced him to. He felt remorse, and wanted to make things right with me before he left town for good.

My childhood love for Sister Mary de Chantal planted the seed in me of becoming a teacher. It’s been my profession for twenty-eight years now; my students are third-graders, the same age that Frankie and I were when he pelted me with the rock so long ago. As each year passes, I find that I devote more and more time to soothing hurt feelings, to helping students solve their daily squabbles. But it’s not because my students today fight more than did children of decades back. The specifics of the conflicts haven’t changed much over time; I’ve negotiated skirmishes that broke out because of a thrown rock.

I look at my students sometimes, and wonder what they’ll hold on to from third grade when they one day look back from adulthood. Will they remember a particular lesson on fractions, or the story we read about puffins? I doubt it, and I can live with that. Will they remember the time a friend excluded them from recess play, and they cried every day for a week? That one is far more likely. I can’t count how many times I’ve sat with a third-grade perpetrator of recess violence, only to have the child break down in tears and describe the ancient—second-grade—grievance that spawned the delayed revenge-attack.

So on most days, my third-graders and I take some time to put down the math and talk about hurt feelings, practicing the words of apology and forgiveness. The closer I get to the eventual end of my teaching career, the more I’m convinced of the importance of this practice. I apologize, too, and I thank them when they forgive me. There’s so much pressure on us teachers to cover curriculum and prepare kids for testing; some people might think it a waste for a teacher to take time out of social studies and science so one student can express anger to another who keeps pilfering pencils and breaking them.

But until the day I retire, I’m going to keep taking the time. Because the thing is, when I try to remember that red-headed rock-thrower from third grade, I can no longer summon up the hurt feelings that flooded me that day. But it’s easy to feel again the sweetness enveloping me, the sweetness of a young boy saying simply, “I’m sorry.”

photo by Harry Rajchgot, Barcelona, Catalonia, 2016

Unclear

Unclear

M. A. Istvan Jr.

She would masturbate to the magazines
that she found behind her father’s workbench.
Shaved bald, the females seemed as young as her.
That made her okay with fantasizing about them.
It was easy—and helpful—to be unclear
about whether she was lusting for those bodies
or was imagining herself to be one of them.

 

photo by Harry Rajchgot, 2017

Traveler #17

Traveler #17

Jim Cole

By the time he was 46 years old, he had orbited eight planets, and then, finally, they selected him to go live on one for a time.

The blue surface felt like moss. Even through zinc boots and socks insulated with an aluminum alloy that left a rash on the soles of his feet, the planet felt luscious. Stepping onto the surface was exhilarating, as if he were the first to ever touch another planet. And yet, the weight of 300 pounds of gear – those zinc boots, four oxygen tanks, a big helmet they called the pumpkin, a tent made of carbon fiber, a stove, a camera and tripod, a solar battery pack, a weapon slung over his shoulder that frankly he had not learned how to discharge – left no trace. After three steps, he stopped to turn around – a maneuver more cumbersome than his instructors on Earth had warned. He stumbled, started to tip over like a dead oak tree, caught his balance, took a deep breath, smiled at his good luck, and pulled the camera from the pouch on his chest. He was giddy about snapping a photograph to beam back to his home planet, but looking through the lens all he saw were the faintest z-shaped tread marks in the powder blue surface. Before he could turn on the flash and focus again, any hint of his presence was gone.

“It is as if I were no more than a twilight breeze across a frog pond, or a galactic mist wafting by, with no interest at all in this beautiful planet,” he wrote in his journal later. The possibility of not leaving even the slightest mark on a planet had never occurred to him.

And it was beautiful, this planet, by any measure. Turquoise in all directions; gentle rolling hills that he thought at first were sand dunes. The atmosphere, what little there was of it, created an illusion that the horizon curved up. As if he were in a robin’s egg and he would never want to escape. The second day, he stepped onto the surface determined to leave no mark. If that were how this planet behaved, he would accept it. The physical laws vary from one planet to another, and this was his first lesson – to embrace those laws. He was sure he would go to other planets where his breath alone would unleash hurricanes, the camera’s click might topple sandstone cliffs. Anything was possible, and there were more planets than any human could ever know.

He decided to not wear the socks the second day. His feet were on fire, the skin peeling. As he spooned his oatmeal, they soaked in a bath of water and ammonia with a drop of rocket fuel. In the noisy cafeteria back home they had all talked about illnesses and injuries that could strike when traveling alone. Namski, the blond nuclear engineer, told him to ignore the official manual when it came to taking care of himself.

“That thing was written by engineers, not doctors. Rocket juice is what you need. You look like you don’t believe me,” she said, challenging him with her blue eyes. Early in training he had wanted to invite Namski on a date, but when she stared at him like that it reminded him what a mistake it would have been to even ask. There was a long silence around the table as he fidgeted in his chair and tried to show his I-believe-you-and-more face. The others nodded in agreement, then went back to their Fiesta Friday plates and margaritas. Nitrogen was the secret, and Namski had shared it with him. Nobody could explain it, but those who returned swore that a drop or two cured anything in outer space.

As he studied his feet, he still wasn’t sure if they had been teasing him or not. But if those who wrote The Space Traveller’s Official Guide to Health & Hygienics also designed the aluminum socks, then he was better off trying the nitrogen.

His bare feet felt infinitely better. The burning was gone, and now he swore he could feel the surface of the planet.
“My skin – perhaps due to its raw sensitivity – can now feel the skin (i.e. surface) of this place,” he would write for his second journal entry as he lay snug in his bed. “It is as though I am walking on the plush living room carpet of my childhood. And I found myself fighting an urge today to lie down on the surface. (I feel eleven years old, again. If only I had brought a comic book! Haha.)”

His second-day task was to inspect the space ship’s landing gear. As he trundled down the ladder, he looked briefly at the craft’s three legs, which were shaped like upside down mushrooms. He clipped the monitoring equipment to the bottom rung, and on a whim took off to explore. Just a little. The planet’s atmosphere made the sun look like a purple mole just above the horizon. He called that direction Marilyn Monroe, and headed that way. He could stare right at it and never go blind. He hiked for what felt like an hour – but, of course, a space traveler’s sense of time is warped by every planet, especially in the first days of an encounter. When he returned and established contact with Mission Control, it was Namski. She was furious.

“You cannot just vanish, I don’t care what the reason,” she shouted on the screen as if they were not 700 million miles apart. During his flight she had been promoted and was now his superior. Her hair had turned gray.

He had walked over one low hill after another without tiring, without wanting to stop. The surface cushioned his steps without being springy. There was nothing to compare this to. He could not stop. The thought of turning around, or even just pausing, had never entered his mind. It was infinitely pleasant. He couldn’t recall how he ended up back at his space ship. All he knew was that he had been immersed in a soft blue haze for a time, during which his heart rate and respiration had come to a comfortable near stop, and then he heard the click of a carabiner and he had one boot on the ladder. He was staring at a screen of data on the condition of the landing gear.

Of course, he could not tell any of this to Namski. Mission Control would activate the ship’s auto pilot and whisk him back to Earth.

“What have you been doing,” she said. She took off her thick black-rimmed glasses and glared. “Where were you? I mean, come on, three fucking days!”

“Time is different here,” he said. He could not explain. He assured her it would never happen again, though secretly he hoped it would. In return for this promise, Namski logged the incident as a communications breakdown. Traveler #17 was, after all, almost a billion miles from where he began.
A few days afterwards, it happened — the accident. Years later, they would still debate that designation. Though no one went so far as to call it “intentional”, the official record left room for conversation – Category 6 Accident, Humanly Avoidable.

Like all days with mishaps, this one began like any other – he sat up in bed and looked out the porthole, found the purple sun and then stayed still to admire the turquoise hew of the surface and the atmosphere. The scene made him shutter with excitement.

He noted this, once again, in his journal: “I feel young, like a child. I would hike into the landscape for three days, again, if I could. Maybe I will. Maybe I’ll run!! Or lay down and take in all of this luscious planet. I might stay here forever. I cannot explain the source of my glee. But, I will continue to analyze it here for the record.”

This was the final entry in the official journal of Traveler #17.
He scrubbed the rubber smell of the bedding off his body until he had scraped his skin raw – upset by his outpouring of candor in the official journal. He lectured himself as he stood in the craft’s sanitizing mister, which in a moment of embarrassing loneliness he had nicknamed Misty. Then he sprinkled talcum powder on his skin – on his chest, under his arms, between his legs, on his feet. Flight regulations allowed four personal effects, and this powder was his fifth item. He had smuggled the canister off his home planet just to see if he could. What difference could it make? That, and a sixth item – a lucky silver dollar. And now here he was. No harm done. Each morning he was glad to apply the refreshing fragrance before encasing himself in the hermetically sealed space suit and helmet. So much gear. It must have been designed just to prevent him from truly knowing this planet.

He hiked singing a song:

“Blue-blue, blue-blue,
Blue-blue, blue-blue;
Robin blue,
loving you;
There is no noise,
We are turquoise.
Blue-blue, blue-blue….”

He was five kilometers from his ship, maybe more, when he stopped to make sure there were still no footprints in his wake. He had turned around many times by then and had the hang of it, but this time he felt his body tilt, begin to tip too far, falling unstoppable, and he relaxed his toes to surrender. All he could do in that clumsy suit was spread out his arms and let the laws of physics and carelessness have their way with him.

When he finally rolled onto his back, it took a long time to make sense of what he had done. Floating overhead was a small white curl. It appeared far off, the first imperfection in this perfect sky. But it was not a cirrus cloud. It was something else above his mask, just beyond his reach.

As it swirled slowly, he heard a noise – a faint buzz an octave higher than the usual ringing in his ears.

His eyes recalibrated and focused on a white line that ran diagonally across his mask. A crack. The space suit was decompressing. The talcum powder was being sucked out through the fissure. He felt his heart accelerate. He felt his throat constrict. He clinched his fingers and toes; they felt cold and tingly. He laid motionless imagining he could hide from the panic that was beginning to careen through his body. He closed his eyes and pretended he wasn’t there.
In his head, he ran through the stand-up procedure, the Nautilus Maneuver: Raise arms, raise legs, curl into the nautilus position, kick legs straight up, relax, swing boots back over head, tumble backward, come to a standing position. He had practiced hundreds of times in the pool back on Earth. But the pool bottom was hard concrete not soft carpet, and in training he had been relaxed with time and oxygen. Now both were running out.

For just an instant, he let his mind drift, wondered how the mask cracked on the soft surface. Then he kicked, rolled, and was standing. He spread out his arms, a pose that was not an official part of the maneuver.

“Ta-da!” He whispered.

He had strained to get upright and yet now his pulse was slowing down. With his oven-mitt hands he waved away the talcum cloud. He took a deep breath. He could not remember which direction he had come from. Hoping to find some smallish hint in the planet’s blue skin, he looked down and turned slowly. There was nothing to reveal the way back. He looked at the horizon and turned until he found the mole that was the sun. Still, he could not recall if he had been walking toward it or away from it or at some precise angle.

His oxygen could last six days in Earth time. Here he had no idea how long he had been walking. And with a cracked pumpkin, who knew how long a man could survive? Reluctantly, he looked at the gauge on his sleeve. Zero.

The pumpkin’s safety feature made it impossible to remove with the oven mitts on his hands. Every ceremony back on Earth was attended by at least one space traveler with fingers burned to the bone or fused together or blackened by absolute zero — victims seduced by beautiful landscapes or indescribable urges or overwhelmed by panic. In order to unclamp the helmet, Traveler #17 knew he had to first expose his fingers and hands to the atmosphere. But he felt at peace, as though no harm could come to him on this planet. Where he had been did not matter. The way back did not matter — he would be all right. Everything they had told him on Earth made no sense. Earthlings! How could they know what he would experience? He was welcome here. He wiggled his toes and felt the velvety surface. If he could touch the soft blue atmosphere, and if the blue molecules could float in his veins, he would be absolutely whole. He told himself he would write about this complete experience in his journal. Because he had vowed to not scar this planet, it would not injure him. They would leave no outward marks on one another.

He twisted the helmet and raised it over his head. He felt a tingling sensation on his cheeks and neck, like a fine rain. His third winter in college he had stood with a girl from his thermodynamics class on the Cliffs of Moher where the gusts off the Atlantic slung sea spray against their skin. This is what he felt, an evanescent sting that reminded him what it meant to live. The atmosphere was not freezing as the engineers had warned him to expect. It was cool, comfortable. He closed his eyes for what might have been a minute or a year, and when he could not hold his breath another second, he exhaled. All that he had read and been taught warned him that this planet’s irradiated atmosphere would turn his lungs and then his blood, veins, muscles and flesh to brittle autumn leaves, and so his human body would dissolve in this instant of his most luscious happiness.

He took an enormous gulp. The atmosphere had a slight metallic fragrance. It smelled like his sweaty hands after a workout on the chin-up bar, he thought. He took another breath, and then another, and, no, he did not vanish.

No, Traveler #17 did not vanish. Instead, Traveler #17 lived happily on that planet for many many years. His craft was summoned and returned on auto-pilot. Namski had grown very old and died and so wasn’t there when they opened the capsule and found it empty. The records showed no known relatives for Traveler #17, and so his four official personal effects — including a half-empty can of talcum powder — were listed in the manifest, then tossed in the incinerator. By this time, he was an old man in Earth years, and had grown so comfortable with the planet that he forgot sometimes what the atmosphere smelled like. Those evenings, he would rummage around the camera pouch until he found that lucky silver dollar, worn down by then to a perfectly smooth metal slug, and he would rub the coin in his palms until it was warm. And he cupped his hands over his face and breathed as deep as his old lungs allowed so he could remember that time when, whether they knew it or not on Earth, he became the first man to know a planet.

 

photo courtesy NASA

Jalopy

Jalopy

Mitchell Grabois

1.
My father ran aground amidst a naked, barbaric race. The women’s cologne must be distilled from excrement, he and his mates thought. They held their breath. The men’s penises dragged on the glacial ice. My father wondered why he had ever set sail.

2.
With global warming, the glaciers recede like a pack of erections that have simultaneously changed their mind. The Mendenhall Glacier wonders: Viagra or Cialis? I need to assert myself. I need to get back to fucking the world with my cold rod. The world is too hot. Women are supposed to be hot, but not planets. I remember when I was young and stretched out beyond what I could see or be aware of. I did not know myself. All the worse for me.

Now I know myself better, but what I know, I don’t like. I’m retreating from the battle. I’m becoming more frayed and mud-spattered every year. President Obama visited me, and he had tears in his eyes. Then, to take his mind off my fate, he went and watched Eskimo children dance in colorful costumes, big smiles on their faces. They laughed with joy when he got up and joined them in their dance.

3.
I once had a friend who was a microwave oven. She heated up quickly, but had a cold heart. I went to high school with her. We kept in touch over the years.

She married a man because she believed that as he aged, he would grow more and more to resemble his father, whom she greatly admired. But as he aged, he became the antithesis of his father. It made her bitter. Her glass door became greasy. You could no longer see what was inside her.

I talked to her on the phone. I was thinking about all the appliances that I’ve owned that have broken down and I’ve discarded.

My friend was a microwave oven. As she aged, the hinges on her door weakened and she began to release dangerous radiation. At night I would imagine myself spinning on her carousel and would get excited and couldn’t sleep.

I had a friend who was a vacuum cleaner. I had a friend who was a dishwasher. I had a friend who was a ceiling fan. My wife told me that all my friends are marginal, which was the way she reminded me of how marginal I am.

I would have been even more marginal if I didn’t live with her. I would have been a jumble of broken parts that don’t add up to make any one machine.

4.
I am the spiritual leader of the Cult of the Sacred Armadillo, but I’m thinking of branching out and also claiming leadership of the Cult of the Tasmanian Devil. I think that will bring more balance to my life.

I need balance. I get out of bed in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and fall over and lay on my back like a turtle.

My wife says What are you doing down there?

Nothing, I say, I’m thinking.

Are you thinking of starting a new cult? How many cults do you need to lead? How many cults will, in the end, satisfy you? I’m tired of being the bride of a cult leader. I feel guilty at having killed off all the other brides and buried them in the backyard of our old house. Our lives are as dull and predictable as episodes of Criminal Minds, which just goes on and on, year after year. It’s incredible, our tolerance for violence and perversity. We find it entertaining. We find school shootings entertaining. What are you doing down there on the floor? Have you lost your balance again? You ought to take yoga classes. Yoga is good for balance.

5.
I put on the uniform and pledged to obey all orders. When I returned I attempted to commit suicide. I was, obviously, unsuccessful. There’s more stigma to a failed attempt than to a successful one. We worship success.

I’m a narcoleptic child trying to concentrate on the catechism. Sleep is sweeter and sweeter.

The priest puts his hand down my pants. I fall asleep again. When I awaken, I know it has been a dream.

I put on another uniform and pledged to obey orders. I cheated on my wife because those were the only vows I felt free to break. She was breaking her vows too. We were both caught in the same trap. That was partly why we loved each other.

6.
The Pope visited America and, as he boarded the plane to leave, I breathed a sigh of relief that he had not been assassinated in our barbaric, over-weaponized country. Francis brought God back into organized religion, mercy and love for our fellow man, especially for the downtrodden, the least among us, and that is good. He reawakened—in some of us—a conscience.

But it’s also bad because it helps to perpetuate the power of ancient mythologies, and the human race will not progress, will not evolve, until we have left all the ancient mythologies behind.

7.
The whale caller sat in a cell in the maximum security prison in Canon City, Colorado, the same cell that had been occupied by Antonio Guerrero, the Cuban spy, one of the Miami Five, before he was released in a historic deal between the U.S. and Cuba, and returned to his homeland a hero.

While in prison, he tutored other prisoners. He wrote poems and painted pictures and sent his girlfriend long, passionate letters, which the prison censors greatly enjoyed reading.

But the whale caller was nearly illiterate. He had no ideals. He didn’t want to know any of the other prisoners, let alone help them. He only wanted to call whales, but all the whales were so far away, the ocean so far away. He could not even catch the faintest whiff of salt. He smelled dust. He smelled grass and cattle. He heard the roar of off-road vehicles. He could not hear the whales’ sweet songs. He could not even hear them in his imagination.

8.
I had a friend who was a chunk of granite from the Granite State. She was grey and speckled and very heavy. I loaded her into my trunk with some of her brothers and sisters and cousins. I was going to plant them in my garden. I lived far from the Granite State and didn’t know if I would ever get back there, so I filled my trunk.

As I was leaving the quarry, my rear axle broke. I was wondering if something like that might happen. I’d put my trust in God, but God was not worthy of my trust.

It was an old car. It was an old God. This God had a lot of staying power. He was the foundation stone for a world of stupidity. Obviously, my car didn’t have staying power. It was what used to be called a “jalopy.” The Kelly Blue Book said it was worth 99 cents, the same value as the autobiography I’d placed on Amazon.com.

I abandoned my car. Luckily I hadn’t filled the tank for my return trip. It maybe had 99 cents worth of gas in it. I abandoned my life at the quarry too. Altogether I was out about three bucks, not enough to worry about. I took a torn sweater out of the back seat and headed down the dirt road which led away from the quarry.

9.
I built my farmhouse over an underground stream. I didn’t know it was there. As the years passed the stream came closer to the surface, as if it were attracted to my new family’s warm life, until it finally broke through the ground and widened and created a small beach inside the south wall of the house’s foundation.

I didn’t worry about whether the stream would undermine my house. I didn’t worry about it swelling to a size of a river and flooding the first floor. I declared that the stream was a gift from God and got out my fishing pole. I went down the old wooden stairs. The fish I caught were bigger than the ones I used to get at the lake.

No one ever saw me in daylight again, except when I came out to dig fat earthworms behind the barn.

 

painted by Joseph Wolf Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 1865 

Surge

Surge

Surge

Ronelle Hart

Solitary and slightly apart from my twin sister and brothers and three cousins, I would slip away to the single backyard swing attached to high poles cemented into the earth in my aunt’s back yard. At first I just sat there and swayed, with feet just off the ground, but soon I tipped back to hang on my arms, holding tight onto the chains attached to the seat of the swing with sturdy bolts. From that up-tipped position, I could see the slow spidery trail made by the tips of my hair in soil scuffed to powdery dust by previous feet, the hot sun on my tender throat, in a trance until the heat and hanging upside down made me too dizzy. I would sit back up slowly, to fully feel it: the surge, a streaming sweetness in my stomach. And then I would push up, and up, and up again, my feet hard against the earth and then not, finding the exact rhythm with arms and legs and torso, swinging higher and higher. With each downward swoop, sometimes I’d sing, in my soft schoolgirl voice: “SOME-how, SOME-day, SOME-where..”, my hair, unloosed from its tight plait, a dark warm animal rushing past my face on the high backward push, and dusty from where I let it drag again as I gave my body over to the sway of slowing down.

For a while after, my sweaty palms carried the imprint of chain links and smelled of bitter iron.

Vintage image from Wikimedia Commons.

Tug Hill

Tug Hill

R. Edward Hengsterman

There’s a boy. He does not speak. Dirty blonde and barefoot, he sits cross-legged in space. His arrival is unusual, but I have no fear. So in silence, I wait, until the moment comes when I can’t wait any longer. Then I scream, dance, cry, and laugh – outlandish pantomimes to break his silence, but still he never speaks. This ritual goes on throughout the night.

Then I wake.

Three days ago a boyhood friend died. The news of his death, though not a complete surprise, disrupted my sleep. To be honest, I’m ill-equipped to handle any emotional problems beyond my own. So I keep to myself.

Eric hadn’t crossed my mind in years. In fact, I didn’t realize I’d had any lingering feelings other than a few withered childhood memories until a one-sided conversation with my mother reminded me of the true depths of my baggage.

“Eric’s dead,” she said, “Died at home. Guess I’ll see you at the funeral.” Click.

My mother became a skilled emotional assassin after dealing with thirty years of my bullshit. The post call silence lingered for a good minute before I could commit any grief to the news of his death.

After the call, I sifted through the local news until I found his obituary. I knew enough to know when it says “died at home,” and the deceased individual had been dealing with the issues, only two options existed. Eric overdosed or committed suicide. I made a few calls, old friends, awkward conversations. The talks were brief and unwelcome. After a dozen calls, I learned Eric had hung himself with the electrical cord on his vacuum.

“He had issues,” an old classmate said.

On a side note, for years I’d counted on my obituary reading, “John Doe died at home, alone.” Up to this point, I’ve avoided this prophetic, morbid conclusion, though I’ve tried my damnedest.

The hour drive from the airport unravelled a mass of childhood memories. Overhead the air threatened snow. The winters in the Northeast always threatened. If you wanted to kill yourself, winter was the perfect time of year, bleak and dirty.

When you haven’t been home for a decade or more, there’s a reason lurking somewhere. And my mine lies hidden under a pile of excuses called failed adulthood. The closer I got, the more uncomfortable I became in my skin; annoyed with the seat belt touching my neck. Frustrated with the rolled collar of my shirt and baffled by the fluctuating temperature.

It was another thirty minutes and a wrong turn before I came upon the intersection where Eric and I caught the bus as children. I knew it was time to park the car and walk.

Tug Hill is a stretch of road from the bus stop to my old house. I assume it’s still called Tug Hill today. The single lane gravel road connected the memories of Eric and my consciousness. From sixth grade on we walked home together, and I hung on his every word. There were none of the usual conversations. With Eric, his words, hushed and intense, harbored a secret. Something he explained one day in a voiced filled with confidence.

“I’m a superhero,” he said, “With an underground hideout.”

He sketched an imaginary map in the air with his fingers as he spoke.

“It’s between two telephone poles. Numbers five and six, there’s a trap door.”

There was no hesitation in his voice. And his facial expression remained faithful.

“I save people,” he said, “From danger.”

Eric lived in two worlds, one where he was a human punching bag for an alcoholic father and another where he was a savior. He spoke of his lair with incredible detail – from the color of the buttons on his costume to the number of rungs on the ladder leading to his underground hideout. And I believed every word because I wanted it to be true for Eric. If his home life wasn’t tragic enough, school life was troublesome. I saw this first hand, the ridicule over his odd, reclusive behavior. I never heard him speak to anyone beyond a simple yes or no, or raise his voice to his tormentors. When I was eleven, I thought we’d be friends forever, and one day he’d show me his secret hideout. I’d thought of us as partners, a Batman and Robin relationship.

There were five of us who caught the bus at the bottom of Tug Hill. There was DJ, who once told me he’d seen a doctor because his dick was so large he couldn’t get hard. After our conversation, I’d spend the following week peering into my underwear. Maybe it was contagious. It was not.

There was Jeff, who I pretend to drink Vodka with one day on the way to school – taking swigs but not swallowing and then developing what I deemed a proper stagger for a drunk. Back then I hated the taste of alcohol. And there was Ronald – the newcomer. He left scars. On the days he bothered to attend school, Ronald made my life hell. A full on chase ensued the moment I stepped off the bus, and it didn’t stop until I reached my front door. Ronald was a large boy with a body resembling a fleshy Ape. Rumor around the school was that he had failed a grade or two, which explained his impressive physical attributes for a sixth grader. The remaining two were Eric and me.

It was only twenty yards from where I parked the car, and a chill descended across my skeleton that I couldn’t shake. I lit a fresh cigarette and pulled the inhale until I became lightheaded. There’s something surreal, being in a place that holds your childhood memories hostage. As if time preserved them until you return one day and claim ownership. The further I walk the gravel road the more I let go.

I now realize Eric had no value at home or school, so he developed an alternate identity. I counted the telephones poles as they approached. Houses constructed between one and two changed the landscape. I tugged hard on the cigarette, filling my lungs with frigid air and nicotine. Somewhere after my fifteenth birthday, Eric had become irrelevant. The other Tug Hill kids gave me flack. It was no longer cool to be his friend.

The closer I got to pole number three the higher my heart rate skyrocketed. Eric opened his soul, and I abandoned him, just as I had everyone else in my life. I didn’t have the strength to fight for Eric.

I chip away at the frozen gravel with the point of my shoe. Poles four and five were in view.

I pause and imagine the likeness of a young boy. It’s Eric, and he’s alone. He is ten yards ahead and waiting for me to join him. After a few minutes, he turns with a sheepish look, dragging the eyes of everyone at the Tug Hill bus stop in my direction. The pressure to expel him erupts and cackles from the peanut gallery break loose.

“Let him go. He’s a loser,” DJ says.

“Freak” Jeff yells.

At fifteen I succumb to the peer pressure. “Go on,” I shout. “Leave me alone.” Eric continues his walk alone and I never speak to him again.

I’ve reached pole five and find myself in a full blown panic attack. My breathing is fast and undisciplined. My hands are blotchy and tremulous. Hot ash from the Marlboro Red breaks off and sears into the fresh snow. Numbness covers the entirety of my body, my chest spasms with pain, and the world around me spirals out of control until I fall into a dreamy darkness between telephone poles five and six. Face first in the snow.

Where I lay, I see a boy, and he does not speak. Dirty blonde and barefoot, he glides across space and takes my hand. Fifteen years later it’s settled, and I am nothing.

 

photo by Rick Harris, 2007, from Wikimedia Commons

The Kick

The Kick

Cecil Sayre

Strange how a tree heals, its cells diverging,
creating a different path around the wound
for water to flow from the roots to the leaves,
the wound covering over with sap,
becoming a dark knot.

When I remove limbs from these wild trees,
I want them to heal into a dark knot,
but I never know where to make my cut.
Too close to the trunk, the wounds will not heal,
not close enough and new limbs will grow next summer.

Wild trees lined both sides of Ridgeview Road,
the shortcut Bryan and I walked to and from school
to avoid the older kids and their bullying.
We’d talk about our favorite kung fu movies
and attempt their kicks,

feeling we were hard to see in the shade of those trees,
and not thinking how someone could hide behind them.
But my son thinks about that, these trees outside his bedroom,
their branches smacking his window as he tries to sleep,
and for him I trim and cut them.

I hold a limb and work the saw and tell myself
I am holding one of his nightmares
and try to imagine its shadow,
the creature it becomes at night
as I tell myself again I am holding his nightmare.

In the shadows of the trees, walking home,
Bryan and I were arguing about a kung fu movie
and the hero’s amazing kick, one foot rooted to the ground,
the other smack up against the bad guy’s head,
an impossible act for any man, yet one we believed.

Bryan stopped by a large, white mailbox and tried it,
kicking the air beneath the mailbox.
I said, No, higher, and kicked the air above the mailbox,
neither of us seeing at the far end of the gravel driveway
the old man in the doorway of his garage.

He yelled at us, stood up, and raised his shotgun.
We ran, clearing the tree on the other side,
the wind from the shot breezing past my back,
bits of bark and wood hitting my jacket.
One could see the damage done,

a chunk of tree level with our heads, missing,
the wood blonde and bleeding, sticky with sap.
We used to laugh at the idea of anything being dangerous,
would want to touch and explore any wound,
study how it would heal, wait for the crusty darkness of a scab.

My trees now trimmed, I hope for healing,
hope for sunlight to fill my son’s window,
the shadows now dead limbs piled on the ground,
the naked space opened above them among the leaves
an emptiness only memory can fill.

 

photo by Harry Rajchgot, Montreal, 2017

 

arrhythmia

arrhythmia

john sweet

10 below zero in the first
blinding light of a sunday morning and
they are slaughtering prophets
down on main street

air freezes in your lungs
when you try to scream

woman i love sleeps and
dreams of all the
days before we met

i am too goddamned old to keep
laughing off this pain
that has come to define us

 

image by Harry Rajchgot, 2017

Under the Eaves

Under the Eaves

Diane Sahms-Guarnieri

Out there on the edge,
under the eaves
of mind’s fringes –
icicle of the past hangs

piercing through the present
a stuck scene re-playing itself,
a record’s needle skipping:
I need money, money to study.

She is speaking to someone whom
only she can see in the curtained
off rafters behind mind’s eye.
The darkness.

The blown out candles, or maybe
there is one, whose solitary flickering
refuses to be extinguished
in the webbed-wing lining of memory.

Late into her 80s, the present
lost as a blackout, yet
clear as a camera lens focusing on
a phantom apparition, her haunting –

tongue caught in ghostly protestations:
I need money, money to study Latin and French
with the instructor, who lives in the big beautiful
house on the overlooking hill –

then the added moaning of letter “o,”
she cannot let go of: O let me have money.
Again and again: O please, I need money,
money to study Latin and French…

as she presses wringing hot hands
along thighs, as if trying to iron out
the wrinkles of her own despair.
The seeing of someone not really here.

But there, where misfired thoughts live on
in the occupancy of haunted rooms.
This place – vacant to everyone, except
she – she who needs money,

money to study…
O’ please let me…
O’ let me study Latin and French
O’ please…please…

Voice drifting off into summer’s haze
flapping into cave of eternal night
exhausted she sleeps upside down, wings
curling in around, a delicate and boney body.

Neighbors

Neighbors

Eric Smith

My family had been in the neighborhood five years when Robert Aronson started the Belly Button Country Club. Robert, the only adult in the neighborhood whom every kid called by his first name, lived next door to us with his wife, Nan, and their two kids, Charlie and Elly. Like streets in every suburb that bloomed after the war, ours was a bare vine at first, houses growing up and down its length like fast appearing fruit. The Davies house went up on other side of the Aronson’s, the Roses’ on the other side of them, the Haskin’s house sprung up across the street. All modest homes compared to those in an older part of town, a section between us and the bay, where stately structures stood veiled behind dense shrubs and spreading oaks. We, too, planted trees and shrubs and built fences along property lines on our block but our fences were always partial, with openings left between us and our neighbors. A dirt path went around our chain-link fence to the Aronson’s where Robert laid down planking to keep us out of the mud. The redwood fence between the Davies’ and the Aronson’s had a gate that was always open, shut only by the wind. Moving freely between home and the homes of friends, we all eventually ended up at Robert’s.

Like our fathers, Robert worked hard during the week seizing the opportunities of a post war boom, securing his share of treasure loosely buried in the Golden State. But unlike our fathers, he didn’t play golf on weekends or watch sports or take long naps, he had a different notion of leisure. Not surprisingly, kids in the neighborhood gravitated to the Aronson’s on weekends to see what Robert was doing. Dressed in a tee shirt, jeans, and moccasin-loafers, Robert was often found playing in his workshop or assembling something in the yard, and always with plans, never disclosed, for fun later. Sometimes he’d pile us into the bed of his VW truck to drive to an embryonic housing development where we skate-boarded down a virgin street with the perfect slope. Once, after buying one of the first “slip-n-slides” ever sold in the country, he took us into the gated estate of a family he knew so we could slip-n-slide on their terraced lawn. Since the building of every new house in the neighborhood interested him, he often put a half dozen of us in his car, and several more in the trunk, and drove to the latest home-site after workers had gone for the day. We’d thread the skeletal frames, collect lead “coins” cut from electrical boxes, and scavenge discarded wood and nails for our own construction projects, mostly toy boats. Robert made sure we didn’t break anything, step on nails, or climb an unfinished stairway. And one Saturday, every month, he loaded the back of his truck for a dump run. Robert would lay a tarp on top for us to sit, older kids holding onto younger kids as we rode down Atherton Ave over the freeway to the bay-shore dump to watch hundreds of sea gulls wheel in the sky and bulldozers push stinking garbage around.

Of course, he built the first pool in the neighborhood. Standard length but charcoal colored, made of concrete mixed with crushed lava. A bunch of us were there when the chugging caterpillar dug the hole, the deep end, first. We saw the bottom framed with rebar then the dark gunnite sprayed on and the upper tiles laid and the deck cement poured. Two garden hoses ultimately filled the pool, taking a couple of days. When it was done, Robert did an inaugural cannon-ball off the diving board after which we all jumped in. And never got out. Not that summer or the next, as long as someone’s mother was there to watch. A trampoline soon went in, set at ground level over a pit, an idea Robert got after taking us to a fun center in town. We’d swim, bounce, and swim all day then come back after dinner to bounce some more, even into darkness. The trampoline and the pool brought kids from new houses farther up the street, not only in summer but year-round.

I was eight years old when we became members of the Highgate Country Club. Rising affluence in the neighborhood induced several families, including the Roses, Davies, and Haskins, to join local clubs. Our lives changed instantly. Now, we were on swim teams, working out three days a week. Though we continued to wander over to the Aronson house on days we didn’t practice, we all saw less of each other, and less of Robert. In July, we came together for a trip to Lake Tahoe, a half a dozen families in a big house Robert rented on the lake. Robert sat for hours behind the wheel of his new ski boat towing each of us to our heart’s content. From the shore, a parent joked how no one had ever seen Robert sit in one place so long, far surpassing Christmas Day when he made his yearly rounds in the neighborhood, sitting in a chair in our kitchen or living room for maybe twenty minutes before he was up and off to wish the next neighbor “Happy Holiday.”

I don’t remember first going to the Highgate. Though I was old enough to fix enduring memories, the thrill of swimming in an Olympic size pool, practice as a new member of the team, even my first grilled tuna sandwich out of Isabel’s minuscule kitchen, are all lost to me. But the Belly Button Country Club, I remember clearly. I was ten years old the day Robert gathered us around his pool to announce the club’s founding. There were about twelve of us, all laughing at Robert’s latest playful idea. It was just like him, we thought, a case of Robert being Robert. When Scotty Davies began pulling at something in Robert’s hands, Robert lined us up to make sure we met the club’s one and only entry requirement.

“Show me,” he said to Scotty who lifted his shirt high. “Yep, you’re in.”

I showed mine.

“Funny lookin’,” he said, “but yeah.”

My sisters giggled. He waved them over.

“Girls, place a finger where your belly button is. OK. OK…. right. OK.”

After verifying the existence of a dozen navels, he handed out patches for our bathing suits: a depiction of a belly button set inside a circle with the initials B.B.C.C.

“Congratulations,” he said, pushing his glasses back on his nose and ticking his eyebrows, “you are now members of the Belly Button Country Club.”

He led us to the Aronson house then hurried inside while we waited on the lawn. The soundtrack from “My Fair Lady” was playing– “Wouldn’t It Be Lover-ly.” Coming out of the house, Robert had a square of folded cloth across his arms which he opened and held up: a flag with the same logo as our patches. Leading us to a flag pole just off the lawn, he lowered the Stars and Stripes, hooked the new flag below it then raised both flags high.

“When you see this flag, the pool is open. Members and guests. And today,” he said, pushing on his glasses and working his brow, “the Belly Button Country Club is officially open.”

For a few weeks, we eagerly watched for the flag. Swimming at the Aronson’s was simply for fun, not competition. But the novelty didn’t last long. And most of us didn’t know what to do with the new patch, we couldn’t put them on our speedos along with our swim team insignias. Some kids had their moms buy them a second suit for the B.B.C.C. but most patches, like mine, wound up in dresser drawers. In the end, the attraction of the Highgate and other clubs was too strong, especially for our mothers, who dropped us off in the morning and picked us up at five. For them, it was the easiest thing to do. For us, it was an adventure. Walking up the garden path to Highgate pool was like going to summer camp every day. A special domain where kids created their own activities –ping-pong baseball, sharks and minnows, bellyflop contests–while adult supervision stayed limited to a cool lifeguard who stepped in mainly to prevent injury or keep water balloons from accidentally hitting the stray mother, or worse, a grandmother. At Highgate, my sisters and I formed a new circle of friends, seasonal peer groups not unlike the friendships we had at school, enduring year to year and growing stronger while our neighborhood friendships, like the seasons, altered and faded. Highgate was also a place where I renewed crushes every year, or felt new ones, the opportunities to flirt being endless. Plus, l could eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, provided Isabel had it in her kitchen– I only had to sign my name.

In the end, the whimsy of the B.B.C.C. could not compete.

The flag continued to fly for a few years. Robert kept the pool heated fall and winter when pools at the Highgate and other clubs were closed. Not many kids showed up. Halloween still brought us over, a tradition of meeting at the Aronson’s after we’d scoured our street. Robert would load us in the back of the truck to drive to mansions of people he knew in the older part of town, down dark driveways no trick-or-treaters ever went, and where Robert knew they would have to give us money. There was also a fantastic neighborhood ski trip he organized. Seven families willingly dragged themselves, along with ski equipment and luggage, to the Aronson’s house at five in the morning to board a bus, a coach complete with a professional driver who took us to the Olympic Village at Squaw Valley where, amazingly, we slept in the same dorms used by athletes a year earlier. None of us kids had ever ridden such a fancy bus. I remember being impressed by Robert’s son, Charlie, who must’ve been only nine at the time, sitting on a folding chair, clip board in hand, checking our names as we boarded the bus in the dark. Later, while Scotty Davies and I settled into our cushy recliner seats, Charlie went down the aisle making the final count. But this was not unusual. While the rest of us played in their yard or swam in their pool, Charlie and his sister Elly were often finishing up their chores, carrying out responsibilities inconceivable to most of us.

I went on my last dump run when I was thirteen, about to enter High School. The back of the truck was full of kids so I sat up front with Robert. I remember thinking how his nose hairs had grown over the years and how his habit of twitching his eyebrows seemed less a tick than an exercise in keeping his eyes wide. I rode up front both ways, down to the dump and back. On the way back, I said something about how, whenever I get my first car, I want a stick shift.

“Like the truck,” I said.

“Come see me in a couple years,” Robert replied, “I’ll teach you.”

When we drove by a street in the older part of town, I remarked how Willie Mays wanted to buy a house here but couldn’t. Robert said he’d heard that, too.

“Why?” I asked “why can’t Willie live here? Why can’t the greatest baseball player in the world live in our town?”

“Neighbors,” was all he said.

As I grew, I wandered farther from home, slipping the confines of the neighborhood, an outward movement that lasted years. First, on a bike. Then in a car. By the time I got to college, my town had become my hometown and the people I knew my childhood friends. My parents, the Roses, the Davies, and the Haskins became longtime neighbors waving remotely to each other in cars or meeting, by chance, in a grocery store. I continued to visit Robert on breaks from school, he loved watching all of us become adults. Later, I’d see him every few years, mostly when I was in town for Christmas at what I now called my parent’s house. He’d show up, without fail, on Christmas day to catch up, always remembering the last time he saw me, and what I was doing. And, every time, amazed to hear that I still wasn’t married.

I continued to move outward, by planes, now, across an expanding universe to other continents and cities faraway. Five years had passed when I saw Robert for the last time. My wife Carolyn and I were in town to visit my mother. I took Carolyn next door to meet our neighbor who, it turned out, had received a diagnosis of cancer that very morning. Sitting on his patio near the flag pole, the Stars-and-Stripes waving occasionally in an unsteady breeze, Robert talked briefly, very matter-of-factly, about the treatment his doctors were devising. Then, pushing his glasses back and twitching his brow, he turned to me to inquire about the career change I was contemplating the last time I saw him. He also asked Carolyn a few questions, and was delighted to learn I’d married a woman with a dozen grandkids. He and Nan, he said, were going to have Elly’s kids for a few days at Tahoe where he was going to show them how to sail. Robert sat with us a whole hour.

His memorial was a year later, with several hundred people in attendance. Carolyn and I went with my mother and two of my sisters. Lots of old neighborhood kids showed up: Scotty and his sisters, as well as a few Roses, Haskins, and others, all of us gathered at a community center to hear family and friends speak from a stage. In our hearts, joy wrestled with sadness, Robert had been a giant in our childhoods. As we listened, we learned things we never knew about him. Like his part in the landing at Anzio that pushed fascists out of Italy, something we couldn’t have known because Robert, like all our fathers, never talked about the war. And since I didn’t think of the Aronson’s as particularly religious, I was surprised to learn of his work with Jewish charities, and how that involvement grew over the years. I don’t recall the Aronson’s going to temple, or Charlie being bar-mitzvah’d, or Robert ever wearing a yarmulke, only a vague recollection of a menorah in their hallway at Christmastime.

As Charlie, now in his late fifties, spoke of his dad, I pictured Robert’s son at eight years old doing weekly pool maintenance: skimming leaves, emptying the filter basket, getting out a test kit to check the ph before adding chlorine. I thought how my parents were pleased if, at that age, I didn’t lose my new football after a week. Concluding his tribute, Charlie took from his pocket a handful of B.B.C.C. patches which he waved and offered to anyone interested. Afterwards, I went looking for Charlie in the sizable crowd. I wanted a patch. I also wanted to tell him how much I appreciated his father for always remembering the last thing I was doing, even if I hadn’t seen him in years.

We got to talking about the B.B.C.C.

“I guess the country club scene really wasn’t for him,” I said, “since he didn’t play golf or tennis, and I can’t imagine him sitting around playing dominoes, drinking beer and bourbon.”

“Oh, no,” Charlie corrected me, “he wanted to join. He applied at the Highgate and others, but didn’t get anywhere.”

Charlie paused. “We’re Jewish.”

“I had no idea,” I fumbled.

“Yeah, my dad tried to find a sponsor but I guess they all knew it was futile. So they didn’t try.”

“They? You mean his neighbors?”

“Yes.”

Charlie asked me about my life, I asked about his. We exchanged broad outlines. I couldn’t shake what he’d just told me, and was still thinking about it when I rejoined Carolyn and my mother. My sisters soon appeared. They, too, had found Charlie and got patches.

As we got in the car, I laid my patch on the console between my mother and me, understanding, for the first time, the truth about belly buttons.

“Because everyone’s got one,” I said out loud.

“What?” my mother asked.

I pointed to the patch, wondering what more I might say.

“Everyone’s got one,” I said again.

My sisters laughed. Lee said she was happy to get one. Mary said she couldn’t believe there were any patches still in existence. As I drove, they talked about the ceremony and poor Nan Aronson and the size of the crowd and how good Scotty Davies looked. We rode in sunshine down the beautiful avenue through the gorgeous neighborhood to my mother’s house. The place I grew up. My childhood home. Native ground.