All posts by JONAHmagazine

A literary magazine about challenge and change

Sea Foam

Sea Foam

Hayden Moore

 

‘Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep’

(William Shakespeare: Henry VI part II)

It was a place where the sea met the rocks and the rocks melted into the sea. In the shade of a twisted palm tree hosting thousands of glistening blackberries at its base, the girl watched as the translucent moon in a sky of mineral blue pulled the tide further up her legs. On the rocks beside her, a dead sea catfish stirred in the rising waters, its sun-hardened whiskers giving the eyeless body the look of petrified hope. A single crab prodded at the corpse with the patience of a matador past his prime. Dried bits of flesh were poked and prodded from the body of the fish. The girl knew the sea would take care of the rest. 

Galatea rubbed her left eye and winced. Over the years, she had been stung plenty of times. But this time, the walk through the swamp on her way to the jetty came at the cost of half of her vision for the day. The wasp that stung her eyelid was either smarter than the rest or just plain lucky. Galatea looked out to sea and watched the wind cast its sparkles onto the water. She reminded herself that beneath the surface an eternal battle was raging. From whale to minnow, everything was in a constant state of alarm. She knew there was no point in looking towards town. It was the same there, too. The only difference was the medium. But here, in the gray existence between water and air, Galatea felt like she was halfway home.

Dark clumps of seaweed drifted with the current and Galatea closed her good eye. The hirsute image of her father drifted across her mind. All those promises of riches and happiness, all the drunken blame on her mother and herself for the failure of the family Wool-works. It took three generations to build the family business, her great-grandfather nothing but a dirt poor sheep herder much further inland. But it only took a little more than a decade for her father, that monster of a man both in form and action, to ruin it. Fire took care of the rest. There was no reason to bury her mother, she was turned to ashes along with her father whose body was full of fuel in the form of cheap whiskey.

When the sea had reached her knees, Galatea was still deep in reflection with only a sliver of the seascape coming through her swollen eyelid. Then something soft struck her bare back. Again and again, she was struck with something that felt far better than some kind of malicious aerial assault. She looked up into the palm tree and saw nothing but the alternate fronds swaying in the breeze. When she turned back, she saw a few bruised golden grapes on the rocks. The grapes looked exotic, juxtaposed to the countless blackberries that stained the rocks they rested on with a deep purple. She had never tasted golden grapes, just green ones. Galatea picked up one of the grapes, took a deep breath and tossed it into her mouth. A smooth sweetness tinged with just a bit of acid made her tongue swell and her mouth water. When she swallowed, she saw her.

“I know, I know. It’s delicious isn’t it? I wasn’t sure if you’d eat it. Probably thought it just fell out of the sky from nowhere. But everything comes from someone,” the girl’s voice laughed from the palm tree.

“I can’t see you,” Galatea called out, shielding her good eye with her hand.

“You will. It just has to reach your eyes. Sorry. Your eye. Didn’t think I’d come across a cyclops today.”

“I’m not—“

“The name’s Acis.”

“I’m Galatea.”

“Well, what a pair we make. Hey, look!”

“Where?” Galatea shouted, looking around.

“At me.”

  If the sunlight dreamed of being a shadow in the form of a person, it would be who was climbing down the palm. Galatea put her hands into the rising waters to feel some kind of comfort as she watched. When the glistening shadow reached the rocks, texture and detail began to fill out the light. With every step, the form was walking towards personhood. By the time Acis reached Galatea, she was smiling, and in every particle a girl Galatea’s age in appearance. The dark-haired girl laughed as she sat next to Galatea.

“The last person ran away when I tried this,” Acis smiled.

“What are you?” Galatea asked.

“What are you?”

“I don’t know—“

“Me either. I’m just thrilled you can actually see me. Most people don’t get past a voice without a body.”

“But here you are,” Galatea muttered, not daring to make eye-contact.

“Here I am.”

“Well, I don’t like seeing most people and most people don’t take any mind to see me. So I guess we’re kind of even.”

“That makes us almost even. The water feels so good. It always does.”

It was then that Galatea noticed Acis’ legs in the water. Where the sea met her knees, the lower part of her legs were gone. Between the rolling wavelets, when the water had a moment of calm, there was nothing beneath the surface but the green water. A ring of sea-foam marked where Acis’ body gave way to water. Galatea marveled as a gust of wind sent the water to both their waists, leaving nothing below for Acis. As it receded, her body seamlessly was revealed.

“Quite a sympathetic thing I have going here with the sea, huh?” Acis laughed softly, looking down at herself. “When I go for a swim, I lose myself in it. Hey…you’re still here.”

“Me? Of course, I am,” Galatea laughed nervously. “But I keep on watching you disappear.”

“It looks like that. It always has. But you have a sea inside of you. Everyone does. I just have more. Look at your own legs. See how they change underwater?”

“Yes, but thats because of….refraction.”

“Sure. Call it what you want. But every particle of you wants to be what it once was. The sea is the womb of the world. We’re all sea-foam.”

“Can you breathe underwater?” Galatea asked, edging closer to Acis.

“I wouldn’t call it breathing. It’s more like a kind of being underwater. I just am as much as the water just is. Wait a moment. Don’t go anywhere.”

“What?”

Just as Galatea glanced out to sea, a rogue wave crested and crashed on the rocks. Countless particles of united seawater sent Galatea onto her back and into the blackberry bushes. When she looked up, in spite of the thorns pricking her knees and hands, she saw that Acis had disappeared. But when she looked down at the rocks, in a pool of sea-foam, she saw a glimpse of Acis. Looking to her left and right, she saw other bits of the girl as she crawled on her hands and knees back towards the edge of the rocks. 

As the water spilled back into the sea, the form of Acis appeared. Galatea watched as Acis lingered just beneath the surface like an aqueous hologram composed of water rather than light. Jellyfish, catfish, minnows of various sorts, a sea-turtle, a school of dolphins, nurse sharks and indistinct simple-celled organisms gathered around the image of Acis. Galatea watched and waited as the hot wind began its task of eradicating the rogue water on the rocks and herself.

Galatea had always found the wind disorienting. Wind proved the air was one of the minions of death and decay, the slow eater of everything standing. It was the wind that portended what was happening to her. As the creatures of the sea danced with Acis, Galatea felt her swollen eye begin to sting. The tinge of tickling pain turned to torment as the sensation crept down her face and throughout her body. Somewhere in her stomach, a white-hot lump of fire was cooking her from the inside. Galatea tried not to scream and expected to smell burning flesh but the stench never came. A gust of wind took her eyelids first. A dark liquid spilled out of her navel as her insides poured out of her in a viscous goo tending towards molasses. By the time she fell to her knees, nothing remained of her but clinging sinews and her lidless eyes. She wanted to close her eyes and destroy her sight but the setting sun mocked her in its radiance from afar.

Harmony, that strength of binding opposites, found its masterpiece when the wind sent a wave crashing onto the tormented body of Galatea. Following the slant and crevices of the rocks, the water brought her along on its journey back into the sea.

When her ruined body found its way into the sea, when the wind was nothing but an effect in the medium outside of the water, Galatea opened her eyes and saw.

The sea creatures were gathered around her and moving in their multifarious ways in a counter-clockwise direction. Galatea took no breaths, there was no need. She moved through the water as light does through space. There was no space or time, only a being. Her name sank to the bottom of wherever she happened to be like a hailstone would from a storm over the sea, sinking and diminishing before it even forgot it came from the sky. She was someone who had found where she was supposed to be, as true as water.

The palm fronds below her danced in the breeze as she looked down towards the rocks of the jetty. A small cloud high in the atmosphere drifted by the afternoon sun and melted before it passed. Below her, sitting on the edge of the rocks where the rising tide had almost reached her knees, a girl was rocking back and forth. Her left eye was swollen shut. From the top of the palm tree, she closed her eyes for a moment as she felt the light passing through her. Then she remembered the grapes. There were only three but she knew her aim was true. She pulled out one of the golden grapes and threw it at the girl below. Contact. She threw another. Contact again. Then another. The girl on the rocks at the edge of the sea turned and looked up into the palm tree. Acis smiled to herself as she watched the girl eat one of the grapes. When the girl’s lips pursed, Acis felt her own voice return.

photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Hannah

Hannah

Laura Sobbott Ross

 

I’d heard about you before you became

my daughter’s friend at the Christian school.

You were once the girl, buoyant and uncombed,

with just a can of soup at the lunch table

and no way to open it, a name on a list

of a family asking for Christmas presents,

a wicked chant honed to the jump rope’s beat.

I snickered at your clever nicknames for the pious,

the cartoon of our pastor blah-blah-blahing,

and yet, I’d wanted to complain to the same ones 

about your influence on my daughter. 

The two of you flipping your plaid bible skirts

at the adolescent boys playing soccer; a creed 

shivering down the spine of their spiral notebooks,

the corners of their pages licked damp with turning;

hearts and flowers sketched in the margins of yours.

The last time I saw you, you’d thrown yourself

fully clothed into a swimming pool amid 

indignant snowbirds in a hotel downtown

and were led away dripping, a raspy sea siren.

You’d had babies early, lost them in a ruling,

wandered cowlicked, inked, and dimpled

down the highway toward Daytona

where you died, a stripper living in a van.

The final photo you posted was of a manakin 

in white fishnets and a wolf mask, a macabre

piece of art meant to affront what terrified you. 

At least that was the last thing you wrote.

A red jellyfish scribbled where the heart would be,

skirted in a current of smarting veins. 

A third eye vortexed in onyx

across the flat plane of the plastic belly. 

I wish I could have told you that

sometimes, Hannah, if we are just a body, 

not somebody, just a body, maybe it doesn’t hurt 

so much. That giddy smile of yours studded

in hard spangles, the lobes of your ears opened

wide as the well of a spoon. I wish I could have

taken you in, Hannah, pushed you skyward

on the tire swing in our cul-de-sac, filled your 

pockets with all the things girls should have— 

birthstone charms and candy karmas and lullabies.

I wish I could have fanned that hard spark in you 

into something more than what would consume 

you. Your skin, a span of moonlight.

Stars lashing themselves against the metal room

of your van. Earth’s infinite spin, warm and 

quaking the palm fronds like a loose spirit.

 

photo credit: Harry Rajchgot, 04-2020

A FATHER SHAVING

A FATHER SHAVING

Juanita Rey

I stand outside the bathroom door.
peek around the corner
when I can work up the courage.
But he doesn’t even notice me.
His jaw is clenched, eyes focused.
No matter how many times he’s done this,
he still must let the blade know who’s el jefe.

His hands are hairy, his knuckles gigantic,
his grip shrinks the razor.
The whiskers are helpless before
this foam-bearded man.

From chin to lip,
he carves out a wide swathe,
but not once does he cut himself,
That blade obeys his every order.
It would not dare penetrate the skin.

He wipes his face dry
then braces it with aftershave.
The end comes with a step back
and an admiring glance in the mirror.
Then, as he leaves the room,
he pats me on the head.

If I was a boy,
he’d say something like,
“You’ll have to do this someday.”
But I am a girl.
I can only look forward to more watching.

Johnny Six-Shoooter

Johnny Six-Shoooter

 Tim Snyder

Near Winona, Mississippi, the road trip laughs and stories turned sour. Mini complained of nausea and asked to pull over at the nearest rest stop, but Johnny refused. They had made good time so far and were only an hour and a half outside Memphis. Mini needed to buck up. A couple minutes later, however, her stomach – against her wishes – gurgled. Mini tried to explain, but before her plea was stated, Johnny stifled her again: 

“You have to stop whining. You know, sickness is 95% psychosomatic.”

“You’re a jerk.”

“It’s a known fact.”

“Ooooooh. I feel queasy.”

“There you go whining again.”

Mini’s stomach obstinately grew worse. Minutes later, an irrepressible green sludge rode a potent wave of nausea from the pit of her stomach. Somehow, Mini subdued most of it, minus a small shot that whizzed across the cabin and landed half on the dash and half on Johnny’s steering hand. This small glob was enough to cause a chain reaction in which Johnny, horrified, swerved from the right hand lane into the left, which then caused an approaching blood red Chevy pickup to swerve into the grassy median. Fortunately, nobody died in the exchange. No damage, either. The Chevy pickup’s horn did blare, though, while the driver – a sunburned monster of a man – hurled a barrage of muffled curses and middle fingers. Mini whimpered, and Johnny quickly sped off from the scene before the Chevy driver could reorient his vehicle. 

A few miles down the road, Mini started in again.

“Johnny, I’m not kidding. You have to stop. It’s getting worse.”

“Can’t. Not after we almost killed that guy.” 

“I think I’m having morning sickness.”

“It’s three in the afternoon.” 

“Johnny, now!” The creature within erupted. “I’M PREGNANT!”

A dozen miles down the road, Johnny grudgingly pulled off at an exit in Oakland, Mississippi, a town with a population of 536, according to the sign. Sliding into a McDonalds’ parking lot, Mini rushed inside, while Johnny stayed out in the car. 

As Johnny sat brooding, an unexpected pain stabbed at his stomach. His head dizzied and panic engulfed him. Johnny’s life had been a whirlwind since receiving news of Mini’s pregnancy. Now, in this moment alone, a cascade of thoughts concerning the baby gushed for the first time. The sacrifices were already starting. Today, he waited in a fast food parking lot. In no time, he’d be waiting at a baby shower. Then in a hospital. A year down the line, he’d be at the tail end of a grocery line holding a jar of baby slop. He was turning into a domestic field hand. It had taken him years just to resemble a boyfriend, loving and monogamous. Now, a father? A husband? 

Johnny reached into the backseat inside his travel bag and rummaged for his prescription bottle. Eventually, he snagged it and shook it furiously when he saw that no pills remained. 

Johnny rolled down both windows for air. He leaned back in his seat and looked out over the landscape in hopes that the heavenly countryside might offer some redress. Mostly, the area was dense forest. Autumn winds, carrying whispers of winter, had created a leafy kaleidoscope of oranges, yellows, and purples. A nearby creek burbled as misty water rippled overtop its gravel belly. Johnny closed his eyes. His surroundings conjured up a vision in which he was an adult Huck Finn, venturing up the Mississippi through the beautiful southern sticks. In this fantasy, he had no worries. No obligations. He simply lived peacefully inside of fleeting moments and humorous happenings.

Johnny opened his eyes again, his pulse lightened. He looked around.

There were only two other vehicles in the McDonalds’ parking lot, presumably belonging to a couple of the worker folk. Other than that, the only signs of civilization at the exit were an old HEIFERS filling station with a few pumps (but no customers) and a corroded Model T sitting off the side of the road about a hundred yards down. The historical remnant intrigued Johnny. He imagined an old carpenter, maybe even his own grandpappy, hauling lumber in the wagon. A simpler, better time. He romanticized that maybe now a sleuth (?) of little black bears were using the old vehicle as a home. Johnny needed to stretch his legs, so he got out of the hatchback and walked up behind the rusty rig to study it further.

However, with each step that drew him closer to the back bumper, the vehicle grew more ghoulish. There was a gaping hole in the cabin roof. Punched out were the side windows, and cinder blocks – rather than wheels – propped up the back axle. Chips in the black paint job made the vehicle look diseased with leprosy. Inside, somebody had draped a mangy blanket over the front row seat.

Johnny was upset the truck corrupted his romantic mood. He circled the wagon and stopped at the vehicle’s rear-end, outside the view of the McDonalds and filling station. He then unzipped and started to relieve himself on the old hunk of steel. In the midst of his urinary daze, Johnny suddenly saw a furtive head peep up and then go back down inside the cabin. Johnny ignored it thinking it was simply an illusion. He turned his head in the opposite direction and stared down the long stretch of pavement. A gust of wind shuddered the thick autumn leaves on the highway’s edge. Under the sun’s midday glaze, the scene bled together like watercolors on canvas.

Heyy. Pssst. A fink voice whispered.

Johnny then heard a small rustling inside the cabin. He turned his head back and saw the mangy blanket shift. 

“Hell, come on now. Who’s the peeping pervert?”

Johnny. 

Johnny staggered and pissed on his shoe. 

Why do you do such things-s-s-s?

Johnny hopped back and zipped himself in a single defensive motion.

The woman.

The voice was hypnotizing. Unreal even. Johnny knew not to answer, for what good could come from it? Still, he felt compelled.

“You mean Mini?” 

Yeessss. The voice grew pleased, which encouraged Johnny.

“She’s a good woman,” he continued unsure initially but gaining momentum. “A little nuts, but I’m going to follow through.”

Fooool.

“What?” 

The voice said nothing.

“What would you know about it? A man has to make a decision at some point. Settle down. Even if the heart’s not all the way in it, he has to pretend. The heart will eventually follow.”

Listen to the big man. He pours out his soul.

Silence lingered. Johnny felt offended.

Why do you berate her?

“Do I?”

Why did you not pull over the car? Why have no s-s-sympathy?

“Who the hell is this?”

She trusts-s-s you. Looks-s-s to you.

“What do you want?”

Your soul. The laugh was fiendish.

“I don’t think I can give that away.”

Maybe you already have.

“What are we really talking about here?”

From here on out, I want you to remember how weak and pathetic you actually are. I want you to know that I could’ve destroyed you.

“Yeah?”

But only through my mercy do you live. That makes you a slave. And for the rest of your life, you’ll always be that. Nothing more. An inferior being that only through mercy still walks the earth. 

“You’re a piece of shit. You know that? Nobody’s taking my fucking soul.”

Johnny leaned up to the door and took a full look inside the cabin. Sitting there, jaw open, teeth glistening, was a grubby little red fox. Spittle and hisses spewed from his yap. His fur was patchy. 

“Jesus!”

With a bound, the red fox positioned himself at the window opening, only a foot and a half away from Johnny and his sweating torso. The fox’s eyes were a sleazy emerald green. He seemed to smile knowingly. Was this the source of the voice? It couldn’t have been. It must have been.

Johnny dared not move for fear of the fox pouncing. Any sudden movement might lead to punishment. Johnny stared into the fox’s eyes. Deep inside there seemed to be a twinkle. Maybe it was the devil himself. 

Johnny slowly crept his hand into his jeans in search of a peace offering. As he fingered the lint in his pocket, he came across a pack of Bubblicious. Watermelon flavored. Johnny snagged a chunk of the gum and displayed it to the fox. The fox’s head tilted sideways. Johnny, slowly, raised his arm, made the sign of the cross, and tossed the gum up into the air. The fox snatched the chunk in its mouth. The gum seemed to slide down immediately, and the fox’s sneer dissipated. His tail wagged, stupidly. The devil gone. Johnny crept away from the rig and staggered across the old highway.

Reaching the hatchback, Johnny flopped down in the driver’s seat and closed his eyes. He rolled up the windows, locked the doors, and drifted into nothingness.

BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.

The explosive pounding nearly shattered the passenger’s side window and almost caused Johnny to soil his pants. Outside the glass was Mini. Her face had a scowl etched in it. Her hair was disheveled and greasy. Sweat coated her pasty skin. Her breasts, though, seemed plumper than ever.

“Open this door. You’re not funny.”

Johnny pressed the unlock button. The door snapped open, and Mini awkwardly plunked down. Johnny’s eyes deglazed as his spirit returned from its unnerving twilight zone. 

“You feeling better?”

“I puked.”

“What do you have there?”

“I got us some combo meals.” 

“Num.”

“Shut up. I’m not giving you any if you keep being a jerk.”

“I’m sorry for getting crazy.” He genuinely was. Johnny had no plans to mention or credit the fox for his apologetic turn around. Rather, he buried the patchy skank six feet deep in his subconscious. 

“There was no need for it.”

“I just wanted to make good time, I guess.”

“What’s the rush?” Mini shifted around trying to get comfortable, and Johnny for the first time noticed her belly’s bulge. The vision was sobering.

“I guess there’s not,” Johnny said, although he thought being in the car for unnecessary periods was excruciating.

“You have to be a little patient, especially with me being pregnant, especially when the baby gets here.”

“Mmmhmm.” Johnny said, bothered she would play those cards.

“You have to mature a little bit. You can’t keep acting like a child.”

Johnny nodded along and managed to muzzle himself for the sake of peace. To keep the fox at bay.

Mini, meanwhile, looked pleased with her airing of grievances. She seemed happy that Johnny kept relatively quiet through it, too. She smiled at Johnny. Johnny smiled right back. Could this be what women wanted, a nodding imbecile? Johnny wondered. Probably. He supposed men desired the same. The dynamic created a war of emotional attrition for which women – the more complex emotional beings – were better equipped. In this battle of wills, women came prepared as emotional tanks, whereas men arrived with emotional six shooters.

 

photo: Wikimedia Commons

Fipple

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Fipple                            

by  Louise Carson

 

     ‘the sounding edge of a side opening’ – Webster’s

Sounds like a word old as creation:

Adam’s pain: his rib-mouth constricted, plugged.

Eve’s voice pops the cork: champagne for everyone.

On Iceland, where only the land is indigenous,

magna thrusting, they have a word for a horse’s lip:

flipi, related to fipple, as Iceland relates to England and Norway.

So this northland pony, little fjord horse,

opens his mouth to the side, blows air over that plug, his tongue,

plays his penny whistle, his fipple of unknown origin.

 

photo by:

Rebecca Rajchgot: Iceland Ponies, 2014

RECOVERY AGENT

RECOVERY AGENT

Juanita Rey

A month of me in bed
and you pull back the sheet
and it’s like finding
a baby bird
abandoned and shivering.

How can this creature
ever fledge,
you must be thinking,
when it can barely
flutter a feather.

Sure, whatever was wrong with me
may have worked its way
out of my system
but what’s available
for a replacement?

You think a soft kiss
on my cheek might do it.
But I’ve been sick
and am now in need
of my old self.
Not unloved
and requiring you.

I just want to know
that my wings will work
when I need them to.
Only then,
can you make me
want to fly.

photo: Harry Rajchgot

THE OFFICES LET OUT

THE OFFICES LET OUT

Juanita Rey

 

At last, the inexorable traffic

has run out of places to be.

The haunting, blinding, 

no longer need blaze a trail

through the inner-city warren

with those intense yellow eyes.

From the tenement window, 

I see the face of the night’s last driver,

then the back of his head,

then tail-light and a couple of letters

from a license plate. 

After that, nothing.

All is quiet on the street below.

And the only lights 

are scattered between the 

surrounding buildings. 

And these are not seekers,

not trail-blazers.

They merely illuminate 

whoever stays put,

who has no other place to go.

Immigrants, the poor,

the jobless, the itinerant –

we will sleep tonight 

in our version of America.

Come morning, the cars return.

Where they’ve been

remains a mystery. 

I FOUND HIM THERE

I FOUND HIM THERE

By Tammy Huffman

I found him there

Wave walking wild seas

Frantic to snare

Gurgling mysteries

 

Racing to rope

Far fluttering gleams

Of thrown off hopes

And cast away dreams

 

Laughing to land

A misshapen curse

Heart God, head man

Blubber universe

 

Losing his grasp

He shakes bloody fists

A useless cast

A trashed, muddy mess

 

Give up, I sighed

Why stir up dead men?

Come out! he cried

And cast nets again

Branches and Fences

Branches and Fences

Esme DeVault

 

looking out 

my bedroom window

I see                         you

throw branches

over the fence

into our yard.

“It’s their damn tree!”

you shout,

“Why should everybody else have to fucking pay for it?”

I quietly close 

the window

and turn 

away.

 

later,

I write               you a note.

Hello neighbor!

I was very sorry

to see you so upset

this morning.

Please come by

any time

so we can talk about it.

I mail the note to 

you

in a pretty pink card

afraid 

that if I knock 

on your door

you        will        spit

in my 

face.

 

I feel better now,

perhaps in part because I know

that                              you will never knock

on my door

as                                  you 

are far too afraid 

of my dog.

 

photo by Rebecca Rajchgot (2020).

 

Callery Pear


Callery Pear

Ilona Martonfi

At Ground Zero

buried in rubble

one branch still alive

last living thing to get out 

of the Towers 

gnarled stumps 

trunk blackened.

Now after ten years 

in a Bronx nursery 

finally returning home

this spring

third week of April

white blossoms

in Lower Manhattan.

ii.

She remembers,

burned and torn paper.

The voices.

People falling.

Blocking out the sun.

 

The video of the remarkable story of this survivor tree, barely survived the 9/11 attacks, can be found at on YouTube.

The Interminable Rock of Ages

The Interminable Rock of Ages

Marco Etheridge

My Mother was a woman who believed in broadening her children’s horizons, despite her disappointment at where those broadened horizons sometimes led. Caroline Stoneking was a good Jack Kennedy Liberal. She remains so to this day, both a Liberal and my Mother. At the time of this tale, the appellation Liberal was not the pejorative that it has become; was not spit sideways from a sneering mouth.

In that long ago and faraway, my childhood world had drawn in a long breath and waited, as if reluctant to exhale. There was an expectant pause, both in the nation I was growing up in, and in my parents’ marriage. Jack Kennedy and Malcolm X had both fallen to assassins, but Bobby Kennedy, Dr. King, and Fred Hampton were still amongst the living. At the moment of this pause, the marriage of Caroline and Francis Stoneking teetered on a balance; badly shaken but not yet sundered.

Our collective world centered around the modest bungalows of Maywood, Illinois. Maywood was and is an old suburb of Chicago, a place indistinguishable from the city proper. Driving due West out of Sandburg’s City of Broad Shoulders would yield no clue that any boundary limit had been passed over. Maywood is famous for nothing, save perhaps as the birthplace of the musician John Prine, and the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. 

My little enclave was clearly bordered and defined. One and a half blocks south of our brick domicile was The Ike, the Eisenhower Expressway. Beyond that barrier children did not pass alone. An almost equal distance to the north were the railroad tracks that divided Maywood into two halves: Working Class White Folks to the South, Working Class Black Folks to the North. The dividing line was not strictly adhered to, but it was there. Seventeenth Street and Ninth Street, the two busy thoroughfares to the West and East, completed the limits of my nine-year-old universe. Inside that rough square, I was free to roam under the shade of the American elm trees that arched over the streets. 

Raised a good Unitarian, Caroline Stoneking maintained a liberal outlook on the subject of religion. Although we regularly attended services in the solid German-Lutheran neighborhood of Forest Park, my Mother liked to dabble. She ushered her two sons to Sundays of the Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian variety. Francis Stoneking, my Father, remained at home to guard the castle.

While my Mother was broad-minded with regard to denomination, she was not without criteria. She preferred her preachers young, vibrant, and handsome. Caroline Stoneking was a woman who liked her sermons pithy, uplifting, and succinct. 

 Beyond the boundary of the railroad tracks lay all that was wonderful in Maywood: The barbecue joints, the record stores, my beloved model shop, and the public school where my mother taught third grade. The churches were there as well, from gospel storefronts to soaring brick steeples. North of the tracks lay an alternate universe, accessible only in the company of an adult.

And so one sultry Chicago Sunday morning, we set out to have our horizons broadened. We were dressed to the nines, or so I believed. My little brother and I were sporting our matching Buster Brown blazers; he in red-and-white stripes, I in blue-and-white. We looked like half of a miniature barbershop quartet. My Mother wore good Lutheran pastel, with a matching pillbox hat. We may have thought we were the last word in nattiness, but we were soon to be proved wrong.

Our destination was a scant three blocks to the North, but one does not scramble across the loose rocks of the rail-bed in ones Sunday best. We made a detour to the West, crossing the tracks at Seventeenth Street. Walking east, the sun in our eyes, we could see the steeple rising over Madison Street: The Rock of Ages Baptist Church.

My family, minus my Father of course, attended church in a timely fashion. We usually managed to arrive before the opening prayer, but not by much. Our departures were swifter than our arrivals.

 When my Mother herded us past the wide-flung doors of The Rock of Ages Baptist, the pews were packed and the preacher was already in the pulpit. An usher took us in hand, wearing the most beautiful suit of clothes I had ever seen in my young life. The man caught me staring up at him. He gave me a solemn nod and a wink, then turned to lead us up the aisle.

Walking between those rows of pews was akin to entering a tropical paradise. It was hot, humid, and resplendent with every variation and hue of color that existed in the universe. A single Black-Lady-Church-Hat is impressive. A dazzling sea of those same hats is awe-inspiring. I was more than awed. I was slack-jawed; a bug-eyed little cretin out of his element. 

The usher guided us down that passage adorned with tropical finery. He indicated our seats with an outstretched hand, revealing the perfect amount of lemon-yellow cuff shot just so below the sleeve of his soft gray suit coat. Before we could take our places in the pew, the voice of the preacher rolled down from the pulpit.

“Good Morning, Brothers and Sisters! I see we have some visitors with us today. Welcome, Sister. Would you care to introduce yourself to the congregation?”  

My eyes snapped to the sound of that wonderful voice. The preacher hovered above us, his robes a glowing purple, a broad smile on his wise face. This was a church experience unlike anything in my short life. At St. John’s, we scuttled quickly and quietly to our pew. The Lutheran ministers most certainly did not greet late-comers aloud. I was still goggling at the pulpit when my Mother spoke.

“My name is Caroline Stoneking, and these are my sons, Dale and Todd.”

“It is our pleasure to welcome Sister Caroline and her children. Let us open today’s service with a prayer.”

My Mother threw me into the pew, sliding in next to me and dragging my little brother after. The force of my Mother’s pitch landed me against the thigh of a large Black woman. The woman met my horrified chagrin with a huge smile and a pat on the knee. When we bowed our heads to pray, her amazing hat bowed with her.

The conclusion of the prayer was punctuated by a chorus of Amens. Raising my eyes, I saw the choir before me. Three tiers of scarlet robes rose to the right of the altar. Standing before this backdrop of scarlet was a skinny young man with an electric guitar. He struck a chord, the organist doubled it, and the gospel choir began to sing.

That music struck me with the force of a tidal wave, my tiny self a bobbing cork in its wake. The congregation began to sing and clap, swaying in the pews like tropical birds on a breeze. My hands rose of their own accord, hovering in the air before me, hesitating. My companion beamed her huge smile at me, giving me the permission I required.

“That’s right, Sugar, that’s right.”

And so I gave myself over to that music, clapping for all I was worth. I wanted it to go on forever, the guitar, the organ, the voices of the choir rising and falling in major chords. One voice would soar above the others, a high female voice, only to be answered by another, rich and masculine. The beat of the music was simple and clear, marked out by the loud clapping of moist hands.

That wonderful music still sounded in my ears as the familiar church business progressed. There were the announcements, just as at our church. When all the necessaries had been attended to, the preacher wrapped his hands over the rim of the pulpit and leaned forward. His face was serious and kind.

“Sisters and Brothers, this blessed morning I would like to speak to you of the challenges facing our community, and of how the Lord’s good words teach us to respond to these challenges.”

Thus began the sermon, the time when little boys are required to sit still and quiet. The preacher’s voice rose and fell, but as it did so, so too did the voices of the congregation. The cries rose all around me, confounding my knowledge of proper church etiquette.

“Amen!”

“Preach it, Brother!”

“Yes, Lord!”

The exclamations were wafted about by the fluttering of countless colorful fans. The Rock of Ages was full, and it was very hot. The woman beside me rocked in the pew, fanning herself and exclaiming. So too did all of those around our little trio. My Mother sat quite still, a small smile pasted on her face. Above the fluttering and the Amens, the preacher continued to preach.

I cannot tell you the words of the sermon, except that the voice of that preacher was like the gospel music that preceded it. I believe the man in the pulpit may have hypnotized me, because I sat still and quiet. It was my Mother who fidgeted. The recitation of God’s teachings moved far past the normal span of a good Lutheran sermon, the point at which polite coughing would inform the minister that he had overshot his allotted time. But this was The Rock of Ages, and the preacher had more to say. 

The sermon rolled on, accompanied by the fluttering of the fans and the Amens. I wanted to join in, to lend my squeaky voice to the exclamations. I was listening carefully now, hoping for the proper place to call out my Amen, when I felt my Mother’s damp hand grasping mine. Her voice may have been a whisper, but it sounded like a shout.

“Come on, Dale, we need to be going.”

I looked up at her in horror and confusion, the spell of the sermon broken. I shook my head, not understanding. She responded by tugging me to my feet. Then we were standing in the aisle, three lone figures naked before the congregation. It was then that I prayed with the earnestness of a child, prayed that the floor would open up and swallow us. The only answer to my fervent prayer was the kind voice of the preacher.

“I would like to thank Sister Caroline and her children for joining us today. I hope that we will see you again.”

My Mother, thankfully, said nothing. Getting us each by the hand, she marched my brother and me down that aisle and out into the bright sunlight of Madison Street. To her credit, she held her head high. I did not. The pause of silence passes. Behind us, I heard the deep voice of the preacher resuming his sermon.

A pause is only that and nothing more. At the beginning of the new year, the outside world let go its hesitant breath. That fateful season opened with the Tet Offensive in Viet Nam, the fighting invading our living room as black-and-white television images.  

Winter passed into spring and an assassin’s bullet took Dr. King. Two months later, another assassin laid Bobby Kennedy low. The nation reeled, and my parents reeled with it.

Amidst this turbulence, Caroline and Francis Stoneking entered the messy realm of divorce court. The proceedings were a drawn out affair, with more than enough bitterness to go around. Before their marriage was pronounced officially dead, the Chicago Police assassinated Fred Hampton. The Dutch Elm disease began killing our stately trees, leaving lines of immovable wooden tombstones in its wake. It was under these hammer blows that my small nuclear family fragmented and fled.

Caroline Stoneking, who would soon become Caroline Cooper, carted my brother and me off to a small city in Indiana. We became Methodists, drawn in by a handsome young pastor whose sermons were buoyant and of the proper duration. 

Once a month, my brother and I would ride the old Broadway Limited into Chicago. We traveled alone, guided only by the firm hand of the Black train porters. Over the many train journeys that followed, I listened carefully to the words of the porters, learning a great deal in the process.

 Francis Stoneking would meet us at Union Station. We spent our visits in his new downtown apartment, just blocks from the Lake Michigan shore. When our time was over, our Father would pack us back onto the train. These monthly journeys were the beginnings of a lifetime of travel.

It was in that Indiana town that I first acquired an awareness of girls. I became smitten with a beautiful young Black girl and she with me. Although the entirety of our young love consisted of public hand-holding and private exploratory kisses, it was more than enough to broaden the horizons of her father and my mother. I discovered that a widened view of the world was one thing in theory and another in practice.

Just as the world could not pause for my childhood, it has not paused for me. Four decades have passed since I last set foot or eye to Maywood. From what I hear, things have changed. The train tracks that divided my childhood realm are gone, replaced by an urban bicycle path. Green ash trees have been planted to take the place of the decimated elm trees. The City of Maywood renamed the municipal swimming pool in memory of Fred Hampton. This did not please everyone, but it pleases me.

The Rock of Ages Baptist Church is still on Madison Street, the old clapboard church reincarnated as a shining modern edifice. The old church has grown and prospered, for which I am thankful. 

I wish the old neighborhood well. If one of my many journeys across this globe should lead me back, I will be sure to spend a hot Sunday morning attending services at the new Rock of Ages. I will dress to the nines in my best suit, my tie a perfect knot. An aging White man in a middle pew, I will sing, clap my hands, and shout Amen.

In the society of anxious mothers

In the society of anxious mothers

Brandy McKenzie

 

How easy it is to slip into old habits.

How easy it is to slip into old lies.

She tells me about her son, his prostitution.

I write nothing down.  I have nothing

to give her that’s full or empty, just

reassurance.  I hint and I hem and I haw.

I don’t even know how to haw.

Her boy, her beautiful boy, & she’d given him

all a boy could there’s love, and then

there’s this line.  I can’t help but think

of mine and mine. And me: I’m so

introverted that way.  Turned inside out

so all my pieces shine. No, glisten.

She’s as raw as I, but won’t say so.

I won’t speak a line.  These children, tied

as they are to our bodies, pricking apart

innards like scribes. No, scriveners. No:

prognosticate, procrastinate, read the guts and tea

to see the what’s mine?  I don’t know.

I have no words for her.  Not mine, 

not hers, not wry homunculi we birthed

and named into this world.  I’ve lied,

again and again.  She’s cried, but lies about it.

I Want to Say

I Want to Say

by

Jan Ball

They’re taking four-

    year-old Reuben

to the hospital 

for his last goodbye

        to his mother,

my young friend.

I know about replaced

knees, and a mined abdomen,

but not terminal cancer,

especially in a young woman.

I want to say…

I want to say…

the sun flings silver stars 

like lucky dice across 

the lake this morning and 

popcorn clouds puff high 

in the tomorrow sky. 

 

Photo: Harry Rajchgot

Rideshare

Rideshare

Jonathan B. Ferrini

It was a hot summer, and I was “sweating” my physics final exam. I was required to take physics for a second time during summer school after failing the course during the Spring Quarter of my sophomore year in college. I was also “sweating” the grueling, twelve hour days, I was working as a rideshare driver.

My family lived in a large, luxurious home, in an affluent part of town. My parents were both successful professionals. Although I wanted to become a software engineer and design new Apps, I spent most of my time playing video games, drinking with my friends, and slacking. I attended a rigorous STEM university, and the students were very competitive. The coursework was tough and required intense study. Nobody reached out to one another to share notes, or help explain difficult subject matter. Our access to the professors was limited, and we waited in line to approach overworked graduate students, serving as teaching assistants, who had limited time, and patience for our questions. 

Distraught because I flunked physics and wasn’t devoting the necessary time to my studies, my parents meted out “tough love” to me; they kicked me out of the house for the summer with no money, and told me “to make it on my own.” They explained the experience would be “good for me” and motivate me to take my “studies seriously.” 

I found a friend’s couch to sleep on for the summer. I needed spending money, fast, and signed up for a ride share job using my hybrid car which was ideal because it had great gas mileage. Being a ride share driver had its advantages because I could “cash out” my earnings daily which were immediately deposited into my checking account without tax withholding. I drove twelve hour days, earning about $200, less gas money. After twelve hours of driving in heavy traffic, I returned home, hungry and exhausted. After a few hours of physics study, I’d fall asleep after eating a frozen dinner.

The job took me all over town, and into parts of town I didn’t know; mostly lower income. I’d often race through these “bad” neighborhoods, running red lights, to avoid potential car jackers, and fearful of the menacing appearing homeless who roamed these streets. It was tiring work but I met interesting people, beautiful girls, and felt a satisfaction from a hard day’s work. 

My rideshare app would alert me to a pick up at a downtown, budget motel, which always resulted in a scary ride. The passengers were usually frantic after being evicted, intoxicated or mentally ill. I accepted the rides because I needed the money, and all rides have the potential of becoming long and lucrative.

I arrived at the motel where an elderly, grey haired, black man, was tending to an elderly, frail, silver haired, caucasian woman in a wheel chair. As I approached, he was eager to see me, waived, and approached the vehicle. He told me they were only going a “few blocks”, and apologized for the “short ride.” It was a hot day, and I gave them my last bottle of water because they were perspiring, and I feared they were suffering from heat stroke. They were thirsty and grateful for the water. I noticed the elderly woman’s hands were grotesquely twisted, and she had difficulty holding the water bottle with both hands. The black man gently held the bottle to her mouth, allowing her to sip the water.

I opened up the trunk. The man carefully lifted the elderly woman from the wheel chair, and buckled her into the rear seat with tenderness and care, suggesting a relationship similar to a mother and son. He folded the wheel chair and placed it in my trunk. This man was large and imposing but exhibited chivalry, kindness, and love for the crippled old woman. 

He thanked me for “picking him up” which suggested he may have been the victim of rideshare discrimination by frightened or insensitive drivers. 

He remarked “I’m sweating worse than an Arkansas mule.” 

I had never heard that expression before, asking, “Where did that saying come from?” 

“My pop was a sharecropper in Mississippi and used it and other sayings often.” 

He was perspiring and distraught about his cell phone battery dying. I plugged his cell phone into my recharger cord, cranked up the air conditioning which calmed him down, and he thanked me. We immediately liked each other. 

He introduced himself as “Rollo”, short for “Rollin’ On”. He described himself as a “rolling stone”, never spending too much time in one place. He introduced the old woman as “Beatrice”. I introduced myself as Zack. 

Rollo was an imposing figure but a “gentle giant”. He was about 6’2”, 220+, and his body looked beaten down from a long life of grueling work. His face also showed the many years of a difficult life. He was maybe seventy. The elderly woman looked to be pushing eighty.

“What’s your story, Rollo?” 

“I grew up in rural Mississippi and I was a troublemaker raised by a single mom. We got by on food stamps and a vegetable garden. Despite our frugalness, the food stamps would run out by the third week of the month. Mama was a great cook and could make a nutritious meal from very little foodstuffs. After the food stamps for the month ran out, I wanted to surprise her with a good cut of meat. I got caught stealing a chuck steak from the market, and the judge gave me a choice of spending a year in county jail or joining the Army. I chose the Army which provided me discipline, a work ethic, self-respect, and “straightened” me out. I was happy to send most of my Army pay home to Mama. I did one tour in Vietnam and was honorably discharged in 1972. I was spat on when arriving home at the airport up north by war protestors, and caught the first bus home, back to my poverty-stricken town in Mississippi. Life was slow, no work, so I took to the bottle, and fell in with the wrong crowd. Mama was having difficulty walking and complaining of numbness in her feet. White doctors wouldn’t treat black folk so I took mama to the only 

Black doctor in town. He diagnosed Mama with Type 2 diabetes. He couldn’t treat her and urged me to take her for treatment to the nearest town with a university medical school hospital. Despite her Medicare benefits, the treatment was too costly for mama to pay. I took to stealing to pay mama’s medical bills. I stole anything I could pawn or fence for immediate cash. When she asked me where the money was coming from, I said I was sharecropping by day, and working as a night watchman. 

“I was eventually arrested, convicted, and I spent two years on a chain gang. Mama’s condition continued to worsen while I was on the chain gang but she managed to survive until I was released.

“After serving my sentence, and with the help of a veteran’s organization, I found work as a truck driver trainee, offering full training; decent pay which enabled me to pay all of mama’s bills, and the job had good benefits, including medical insurance for Mama. I moved to Phoenix where the trucking company was headquartered. Man, I loved driving. I drove the entire country and Canada, digging the freedom, and independence of working for myself. North America is one of the most beautiful places on earth, Zack. I’d call Mama every week from a different state or province, and mail her a souvenir. She was proud of me which gave me the self respect I sorely needed. Over the years, I developed lower back pain from hours of driving, and was prescribed opiate-based medicines which hooked me. I drank booze along with the opiates. The booze and opiates created a wonderful high and removed the back pain but I became addicted. 

“When I returned the rig to Phoenix after a thirty day run, I failed my drug test, got fired on the spot, lost my commercial driving license, and ended up on the streets as a homeless man in hot as hell Phoenix. I survived on unemployment benefits for six months, and then turned to welfare. I took on odd jobs, when and if I could find them. I didn’t have the heart to tell Mama I was fired, and was too ashamed to call Mama or return home to Mississippi. I became a drug addict. Within a year, the trucking company forwarded me a faded, official letter from the Mississippi Coroner’s office informing me that Mama died ,and was cremated because no next of kin could be located. I suffered, Zack. The guilt of abandoning Mama was so intense; it could only be quelled with heroin, booze, and meth.” 

Beatrice couldn’t talk, except to mumble. Rollo reached over to wipe the spittle dripping from the side of her mouth. She was petite, and held tightly on to the arms of her car seat as if she was holding on to life. 

Rollo explained, “Beatrice was evicted from a hospice where she was expected to die from liver cancer. Her Social Security disability benefits weren’t enough to cover the expenses even in a poor quality hospice. Beatrice has no family. She is going to die on the streets, alone, without me. Until her time comes, I’m determined to make her life as comfortable as I can. We’re like family, Zack.” 

“Where did Beatrice come from?” 

“I met her at the Salvation Army, sitting alone in the corner of the cafeteria, having difficulty feeding herself with her shaking, twisted hands. I sat next to her and fed her. We’ve been together ever since.” 

“How did she end up at the Salvation Army, Rollo?” 

“Back in the eighties, politicians closed all the mental institutions and released helpless psychiatric patients, who had spent their entire lives under the care and supervision of mental health professionals, into the streets. Beatrice had been placed in a mental hospital for developmentally disabled children as a baby. She never learned to speak nor walk, but could hear, and understand most of what was said. She has cerebral palsy which crippled her hands. She never knew life outside of the state hospital. When they closed the hospital, she met briefly with an overworked social worker who couldn’t understand her, handing her a list of privately owned, overcrowded, board and care facilities, and a pharmacy where she could get her medications filled. It was like casting a newborn to the wolves. Most of her life has included short term stays in emergency rooms, prison cells, or sleeping on the sidewalk. 

“I’ve never let go of the guilt associated with not being by Mama’s side when she died. Beatrice reminded me of my mother. I was drawn to looking after her because it dampened the guilt raging within me. You like this ride share driving gig, Zack?” 

“No, I hate it.” 

“Why the hell do it then?” 

“Because my parents kicked me out of the house for the summer for failing physics and I need money.” 

“They kicked you out of the house for flunking a course?” 

“You have to understand, my parents are over-achievers. Dad’s a neurologist and a clinical professor of neurology at the medical school, and mom’s manages a Wall Street investment fund. They think by kicking me out of the house, and forcing me to “make it on my own for the summer”, they’d “toughen me up”, and I’d take my college coursework more seriously.” 

“Well son, I can tell you stories about tough love.” 

Rollo pulled his shirt up over his head revealing scars on his back. 

“The scars on my back are from whippings my drunken father gave me trying to straighten me out. I begged mama not to intervene because he would turn the whip on her. He eventually split, leaving me and mom to fend for ourselves, never returning. “I’ll take “tough love”, rather than no love, anytime, son. Your parents are showing’ you how hard life can be. Me and Beatrice are perfect examples. It was fate that led you to pick us up. Maybe we’ll teach you about life?” 

Beatrice tapped Rollo on the shoulder with her disfigured hand as if in agreement.

“I don’t even know what physics looks like, but I flunked life, Zack. I wish I could get those years back because I’d accept all the “tough love” my parents could give me, if it would provide me with a future like the one you’ll enjoy. You just treat this summer job as a brief stay in hell, drive the long hours, and remember the faces of the many homeless you’ll see. Take each day at a time, put one foot in front of the other, and hope for the best. If the wisdom you learn passes through one ear and out the other, or remains embedded in your memory, is up to you. When you go back to school, attack your subjects like your life depends upon your passing each course. Any time you find yourself backsliding, remember me and Beatrice. We won’t forget you.”

I drove them a few blocks to skid row where he asked me to drop them. Rollo unloaded the wheel chair from the trunk, and carefully helped Beatrice into the chair. I felt guilty leaving them on a busy, hot street corner, amidst despair. Rollo thanked me for the ride, shook my hand, offering me the following advice, “Zack, you make your own luck in life. You have all the tools necessary for success. Don’t squander them. Seize every opportunity. Failure is your friend because it will eventually lead you to success. Nothing can stop you, brother.” 

Beatrice nodded her head in agreement. She pointed to a faded, green, plastic, shamrock amulet, attached to a tattered string around her neck she must have worn for decades. Beatrice motioned Rollo to remove it from her neck and give it to me. The shamrock had the date of her birth inscribed upon it and must have been a present from jubilant new parents to their baby girl. The faded green paint, and lack of a chain, was like a metaphor for parents who gave up when they discovered their new born was disabled for life. I pondered the pain or relief they must have felt leaving their baby at a state hospital, never to see her again. 

I was saddened watching Rollo carefully wheel Beatrice down the sidewalk to a rescue mission. I hung the faded shamrock from my rear view mirror as a reminder of my new friends. 

As the remaining weeks of summer ground along, I treated my rideshare job like a sociology class. I purposely sought out rides in the downtrodden parts of town, and was pleased to pick up riders who I would have previously shunned for their appearance, mental condition, or economic standing. I was eager to learn who they were, what they thought, and how they came to be? I always learned something new about life and humanity from these sages of the streets. 

It wasn’t until I began receiving voice mail and text messages from my parents demanding I meet with them and “discuss the lessons I learned from my summer job” that I realized the summer had ended, and the fall term was soon to commence. I dreaded the specter of having to explain to my parents “what I had learned” from my summer of driving. They wouldn’t understand, and it wouldn’t be what they wanted to hear.

I was the first student to complete the physics final, racing through it as if it was an elementary school math test. I received an “A”. 

The summer of rideshare driving changed me. I didn’t want to return to the comfort of my home and plush bedroom, full of distractions, and light years from the reality of the streets I witnessed. I was independent now. I sought out minimalist accommodations within walking distance to campus, hoping it would keep me grounded in reality, and permit me to focus on my studies. I was fortunate to find a small apartment above a liquor store a few blocks from campus. The proprietor was the owner of the liquor store, giving me a bargain rent because I was a “responsible college student”, and would watch over the liquor store during closing hours. Although the apartment was a single room, dingy flat, with an old refrigerator, Murphy bed, and small stove, it was mine. I was beholden to nobody’s rules but my own.

I made contact with my parents by text message, with a lyric from a tune from my playlist. I chose Bob Dylan’s album, “Highway 61 Revisited”, hoping the lyrics would convey to them what I had learned over my summer of “tough love”, 

“When ya ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose” 

At night, I lay in the Murphy bed, and thought of Rollo and Beatrice, alone in the world, roaming from soup kitchen to homeless shelters. Rollo and Beatrice profoundly changed my life from that of a slacker to a motivated student because I saw the pain or affluence life can mete out. When the college term began, I attacked my studies with a new resolve. I couldn’t relate to my former classmates. I was a changed person. I fondly recalled the loving assistance Rollo extended to Beatrice and, whenever I encountered a student struggling with the coursework, I volunteered to help them. 

I approached the university and volunteered to become a tutor in those courses I now was mastering. My offer was gladly accepted by the university, and, as students began attending my tutoring sessions, additional gifted students volunteered as tutors. I’m happy to say, I changed the reputation of my college major from a competitive, “lone wolf” major, to a collegial, “help thy neighbor” major. My efforts were not lost on the Dean of Students who promised to write me a letter of recommendation upon my graduation, and encouraged me to attend graduate school at our university. 

My father and mother were very proud of my academic success. My father invited me to the Faculty Club to show off his over-achieving son. After lunch, we headed back to his laboratory where some medical students were dissecting, and studying the central nervous system of a cadaver. To my dismay, it was Beatrice lying on the stainless steel autopsy table. The autopsy technician approached saying, “She was brought into the ER yesterday by a large Black man. She was diagnosed as having terminal liver failure. She died in the ER. The man wasn’t a relative but produced a legal document showing he was conservator for the woman, and he produced a notarized Last Will and Testament, including a “Statement of Donation” of the woman’s body to our medical school.” 

A medical student spoke up while dissecting Beatrice, “We lucked out with this cadaver because it gives us the opportunity to study her liver disease, palsy, and developmental disability. We might find a link!” I was tempted to reply, “Her name is Beatrice and treat her with dignity!” 

I approached the autopsy table and stroked Beatrice’s fine silver hair. She was a small, frail woman, and terribly thin from years of starvation. I stared at her mouth closely, and could make out a glimmer of a smile. I was surprised to find that both of her hands were free from the contortions of cerebral palsy. Her fingers were straight, long, thin, elegant, and resembled those of a pianist. 

I asked the autopsy tech, “I’ve seen this homeless woman around town and know that her hands were severely contorted by cerebral palsy. Why are they straight?” 

My father overheard my question and answered, “I’ve seen this before, Zack. For some misfortunate people, the gift of life carries with it a price in the form of unfair burdens they must carry throughout their lives. For this woman, it was cerebral palsy of her hands and developmental disabilities. Over the course of my career, I’ve seen death provide a “repayment” of sorts for their burdens, and for this poor woman, it was the reward of beautiful hands.”

I suspected Beatrice was happy to leave this world, and I’m certain she was delighted to donate her body for the furtherance of medical science. I excused myself, entered the men’s room, closed the stall door, and wept. I was happy Beatrice found peace and beautiful hands in death, but wondered about Rollo’s fate, recalling the lyrics to the Dylan song, 

“How does it feel? How does it feel? To be on your own With no direction home A complete unknown 

Like a rolling stone?” 

I knew he missed Beatrice and his Mama. I also know he would take delight to see the gift of beautiful hands death provided Beatrice. I washed and dried my face while looking in the mirror, and recited Rollo’s advice, “I’ll take “tough love”, rather than no love, anytime.”

jesus was a dog like you

jesus was a dog like you

john sweet 

 

and in the frozen sunlight we

are burning gods and

their bastard prophets for warmth

but it still hurts growing old

 

it’s inevitable that every truth we

find will be lost again

 

that you’ll be crushed by the landslide and

i’ll be crucified by the zealots but

                                      right here

                        in this barren field

                    in this upstate desert

the air is bright blue and as

beautiful as any poison

 

the naked man falls asleep on the

railroad tracks and wakes up sacred and

we are hungry but not defeated

 

we are liars

but never alone

 

just an army of crows 

waiting patiently for the corpse of

                        the future to arrive

a painting, for beth

a painting, for beth

john sweet

 

or here where

shopping carts rust at the river’s edge

or here where empty parking lots

fill in the spaces between

abandoned factories

 

here where plastic bags flutter

like the flags of defeated nations

from the branches of february trees

 

spent all day in this forgotten

room searching for the sun

 

took the pills but still didn’t

feel much like eating

 

didn’t feel much like breathing

 

just kept waiting for the end of a

winter that never came

 

Kintsugi (金継ぎ,)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kintsugi (,)

Michael Smith

 

Time is a writer

of little diffidence – a sprite

who draws on everything:

the wrinkle next to the eye, 

the fading of the light,

into an artistry of go(l)d — 

wabi sabi, loving imperfections

we ponder.  

Oh, the strange splendor of despair, 

I’d despair, for as we age

we all age, and 

these marks, a kintsugi 

upon fragility, whose fragility is

persistence .

Such is the dialogue

Our faces hold, sans word

In the more golden years.

 

Painting: “Young”, 1975, by Vania Comoretti, as seen in the Municipal Museum, Salo, Lake Garda, Italy

Note from the poet:

This poem is part of a collection on lost (or dying) art forms.  They play the part of ode and lamentation at the same time.  Calligraphy speaks of its namesake, which has deep roots within both the Western and Eastern worlds.  In some cultures, calligraphy was (and is) seen as the epitome of art.  Dark Room is on print photography.  Printing photographs using traditional light sensitive photo paper is dying away in the digital age.  Even the materials for printing photos in a darkroom (film, developers, fixers, various chemicals, etc.) are becoming less available with fewer and fewer companies manufacturing them.  The day will probably soon come when only niche boutique companies catering to artists will make these materials.  Kintsugi (金継ぎ,) is an art form in which broken pottery is visibly repaired using lacquer and gold dust.  Underpin fragility and make virtue of not concealing it.  The objects are made stronger and more valuable by repair. The poem above uses this as a metaphor for the body. 

last night

     

 

last night

             by milt montague

 

last night

sleep eluded me

my mind kept churning

scenes of long ago

in the flush of memory

a small white light

penetrated the shadows

growing brighter

a beacon

shining on a gravestone

         Morris Kaplan

         loving grandfather, 

         father, son

         survived the horror of

         World War II

         1924-2018

          rest in peace

rest well old buddy

our years together

were few but memorable

I fell into a deep and tranquil sleep

when I awoke

there on my night table

next to the alarm clock

sat a small white stone

Spiegelgrund

Spiegelgrund

Ilona Martonfi

 

I would go and gather stars 

 

bury the black urns at the cemetery

by the Kirche at the top of the hill

 

remains kept in glass jars

sealed in paraffin wax.

 

Lay the children to rest

 

killed under the euthanasia program 

Kinderspital am Spiegelgrund

the ward where the children died

 

say never, never again

 

located in Penzing, the 14th district of Vienna.

The gassing of the inferior

for the defense of the Reich

 

patients with hare lips, stutterers, the slow ones, 

idiocy. Epileptics. The useless

 

photographed before their death:

Hansi, Herta, Jörg. Annemarie.

 

Lay the children to rest. 

 

Unworthy of life.

 

I would go and gather stars 

play the funeral sonata by Beethoven

 

place white roses at the field of stelae.

In the meadow, we built your body

In the meadow, we built your body

Shaman Keyote Wolf

 

Out of loose buttons, found a fresh way to

Weave clothes around thoughts so we had

Something to tear away;

Our idea of revelation was to absorb

The other in a way that settled

Deeper than flesh, until breath became

A flurry of footsteps through

The street of dreams, where thoughts kissed

Our strength back; and we could somehow say

That faith was an emotion

Born between us, a line always ringing,

We knew we could walk across the world on,

Never feeling the fall;

You said: “We will never be more beautiful than

We are right now.”

I told you: “Now is an eternity.”

Stuffed Animals and Small Men

Stuffed Animals and Small Men

Kaileen Campbell

He says

he stepped through the woods.

His feet falling on

the leaves of trees. A man

seeing through his gun.

He looked to pull another deer from its skin.

He sowed this tale into my young ears. How he walked

into a perch 

to be cradled by a tree

and two red ears heard anew. He said he put out his hand

and it taught a fox into movement 

by inches

until its nose met a new friend.

Then his gun

sang to its head.

Eclipses

ECLIPSES

by

Rima Lyn

Iluna was confident that today was a very important day. She added extra moonshine to her sleigh. She showed her intended path to her four milky-gray horses. “We must stay in alignment. We must keep our pace,” she instructed them. She zipped up her soft faux-fur coat with the pearlized sheen. The fabric had the magical ability to keep her warm or cool depending on the heat. 

The heat would depend on how angry Solaris became when she blocked his view. He was so arrogant and full of his own magnificence that daily dominance wasn’t enough. His horses were even bolder. They never became tired, for they were made entirely of fire. The golden skin of Solaris would never burn from the heat because he was the heat.

Solaris, who so generously warmed them all, spoke his mind at all times. His sculpted legs never faltered. His chiseled arms never became fatigued from reining in his majestic solar steeds. But today would be different. Today, when sleep would normally claim her, Iluna would be wide awake. 

Awake and floating like a cloud of stars. Her unusual activity would give parts of the Earth two unexpected hours of cool relief. The stars would shine in the morning. A pleasing breeze would billow, and her lunar love would cool the sizzling Solaris to a fizzle. 

This did not happen often. Zoyu would not allow it. But today! Today was her day. She kissed the whiskery nose of each moon pony. One by one, she rested her smooth brow against the foreheads of Star, Silk, Sand, and Stellar. She fed them each a treat, a small square of milky whey cubes. 

Iluna closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she exhaled, the sound of wind chimes blew through the air. She gracefully stepped into her silver sleigh and reclined on her llama-hair pillows. She gently claimed her pearl reins and started the countdown…five, four, three, two, and RISE.

The mythical ponies took to the sky. Iluna donned a pair of iridescent glasses, the rims studded with stardust. Again she took a breath, deeply calm. The large but elegant ponies flew straight up like a team of equine fairies. High above they rose, to where the steeds of Solaris were beginning to flick their ears along the horizon. 

Iluna flew in what seemed like the opposite direction, but she knew where she was going. Unerringly, she navigated the sky to reach the impasse ahead of the fire. Instead of oozing through the sky like marshmallows, she rolled along like a tidal wave of pure foam. 

There! A flick of her ring finger against the reins and her beasts hovered to a pause. The moonglow radiated from the ponies’ manes and tails. They floated, galloping in place, gaining strength and speed without moving forward. 

Unaware, Solaris charged upward into the shimmering sky like a wildfire. He didn’t even see her. Enchanted by his own glory, confident that everything would be the same today as always. (It wouldn’t be.) He felt victorious in advance. Yes! Once again he would rule the day and enjoy a sense of accomplishment. He was amazed that something so simple could provide such endless enjoyment for him.

As he hit the 9:00 a.m. section of the sky, everything went dark. Solaris looked up in confusion while Iluna held her position and closed her eyes. He checked the dial he kept on his wrist. Why was the sky a cavern at 9:00 a.m.? Why could he see the stars? It was impossible. Utterly ridiculous in fact. 

For a moment Solaris assumed Zoyu was playing a trick on him, one he would consider forgiving this once. He looked to his right and saw Iluna and her silver sleigh glowing below him. Her horses continued to thunder in place. 

The beams of moonlight flowing from her chariot calmed him down. And yet, he was furious and wanted to punish her for interfering. Before he could plan his revenge he decided that a nap was the best idea. Solaris drooped into drowsiness. His chin crashed to his chest while his horses buckled their knees. 

Iluna removed her glasses and stood up. She stretched her arms wide and tilted her head back to take in her beloved stars against a daytime sky. The stars smiled at her. Iluna swayed and the light from her hair looked like shooting stars to the people watching below. 

Iluna enjoyed every extra minute of this glorious freedom from the heat of the sun—every delightful drop. But she did not stay a moment longer than the fates had planned. The hours felt like years. She was luxuriously drunk on moonshine.

At exactly the right moment, she sat back down. She replaced her eye guards and deftly flicked the luminous reins. She moved out of position, and as she did, Solaris awoke as if from a dream, disoriented like a confused child after a sticky summer nap. His chariot lurched ahead as his horses came back to life with fiery snorts. Within minutes they were awake and scorching the sky with contained fury.

The day proceeded without further incident. Solaris managed to forget his misty interlude. At the end of the day he devoured a bottomless bowl of fireflies with lamb as his second course. His horses dined on lava from a nearby volcano.

Iluna went to bed much later than usual. High on her invigorating change of routine, she skipped dinner altogether. Iluna had the most delicious, peaceful sleep. It was a restful, dreamless sleep. She floated on moonbeams, and relaxed to the smell of jasmine and gardenia. The whole time a smile played across her incandescent lips.

* * *

Racy stood on the tarmac with all the other sixth graders and their pinhole shoeboxes. She’d cut the hole in her box with Aunt Becky’s sewing scissors. With precision, she taped the small piece of aluminum foil over the square opening. Then she poked a hole in it with a needle. How could anything come through such a tiny hole? 

At the opposite end of the box she’d taped a small piece of printing paper as instructed. Instead of making her peephole round, she made it the shape of her eye and drew purple eyelashes around it. Miss Simmons had complimented Racy on what she called her artistic touch.

The eclipse began at 9:00 a.m.. From where they watched in central California, they would only see a partial eclipse. The moon would completely align with the sun, covering it all except for a ring of light around the edge. A total eclipse would only exist for people halfway around the world. 

They were waiting in orderly lines, organized by classroom. Racy searched the yard for Cory’s class. They were clear across on the other end, which might as well have been the moon it seemed so far. But if he was there, Racy felt sure her eyes would recognize the imagined halo around his blond head. That was how keen she was on bumping into him on any given day. 

The sky was clear. The children turned their boxes and the sunlight came through the pinhole in the tinfoil. Racy lined her right eye up and looked into her shoebox with wonder and anticipation…

It worked! The shadow of the sun projected through the tiny hole and onto the piece of paper. It looked like a cookie with a bite taken out of it. As she watched, the shadow became a half-eaten cookie. Then the moon took one more small bite out of the sun. Racy resisted the urge to look directly at the sun. She didn’t want her eyeballs to burn. Would they really?

Later, the children stayed outside on the schoolyard, talking and playing for over an hour. When they went back inside, there was juice and round, yellow crackers. She tried to make her first bite look like the partially eaten sun. 

After the bell rang, as she was leaving school, she forced her mind away from possible Cory sightings. As her mind cleared and became quiet, someone ran up behind Racy and put their hands over her eyes. First, she wondered if it was one of the girls from recess—but the hands were rough, so she knew it had to be a boy. 

She wasn’t friendly with any other boys besides Cory, so common logic said it had to be him. But she didn’t want him to know that she knew it was him, so she pretended not to know. She tried to turn around. “Who could it be?” She said aloud with what she hoped sounded like genuine surprise.

“No, no. No cheating,” clearly Cory’s voice said. His body standing right behind hers kept her from turning and looking. Racy peeped a smidgeon. She could see through Cory’s fingers and saw her shadow against the cement. For some reason, she had an extra head. 

She realized that Cory’s head was higher than her own. Their perfect alignment made them look like a tall creature with a giant Adam’s apple. In their joint shadow, her pony tails landed somewhere near his armpits. She laughed.

“What’s so funny?” he wanted to know.

“Oh nothing. I wish I could figure out who you are…” Racy laid it on a bit thick.

“Guess.”

“Ummm…Jamie?”

“Who’s Jamie?” Cory actually sounded worried. This made Racy giggle.

Now what’s so funny?”

“Your hair is tickling my neck.” Racy laughed through her words. As Cory let go, he tickled her ribs and goosed her under her armpits. Racy shrieked, “Stop, stop, please…” Her request dissolved into laughter. She was aware that some of the other kids were watching them, but she didn’t care.

“Truce!” Racy shouted.

“Okay, okay… Truce.” Cory put out his hand for her to shake, but as she grabbed it, he pulled her closer and began tickling her again. Then he grabbed her under both armpits and swung her around in a circle. 

Racy closed her eyes and felt the wind lift her as the sun warmed her face. Cory put her down after what seemed like hours and then collapsed to the ground. “Man, you’re heavy!”

“I am not. Take it back!”

“I’m just teasing.”

Racy looked at him, trying to catch her breath. She wanted to stay mad, but she couldn’t. She flopped to the ground beside him and blew air across her lower lip.

“Nifty trick with the shoebox, huh?” Cory asked her, as his gaze drifted up at the sky. He folded his hands behind his head.

“Yeah…I looked for you this morning, but your class was on the opposite side from mine.”

“I looked for you too,” Cory said, as he lowered his voice and stared at her.

Her red-hot face was saved by the sound of a car honking. Cory leapt to his feet. “That’s my mom, I gotta go. But we should hang out sometime—with or without eclipses.” 

Racy smiled and nodded at the sunlight that rounded his head in rays. She shielded her eyes and waved as he jogged backward toward his mother’s station wagon. After they drove away, Racy got to her feet and dusted off her cotton print dress. If it wasn’t for the warmth lingering on her cheeks and the smile in her heart, she would have doubted the whole thing.

How I Broke Up With Larry

How I Broke Up With Larry

Joan Potter

It was the leather jacket – scuffed brown leather that I knew would be soft to the touch and carry a musky scent. It was the kind of jacket a bohemian would wear, I thought, a poet. And sure enough, one day the jacket’s owner, a lanky guy with rumpled brown hair and an ironic grin who sat next to me in my economics class, his long, dungareed legs stretched into the aisle, passed me a folded sheet of paper. On it he had written a poem.

I don’t remember the words or even the theme, but I was impressed. I soon fell in love and we became a couple. It was 1953; we were juniors at Cornell. Although I was in the school of hotel management and Larry was studying engineering, we thought of ourselves as literary. We read the New Yorker religiously. We pored over E. B. White’s essays and his short pieces in “Notes and Comments,” and J. D. Salinger was our god. We’d just read his story “Teddy,” the one about a ten-year-old spiritual genius who predicts his own death in a fall into an empty swimming pool on a cruise ship. “Wow,” we said. “Amazing.”

One day early in our relationship I was skimming through a collection of T. S. Eliot’s poetry and noticed some familiar words. It was the poem Larry had passed to me in economics class. I wasn’t as bothered by his deception as I probably should have been, and decided not to tell him about my discovery. 

Larry and I remained a faithful couple during the whole spring semester, and the weekend after it ended he drove me to my home upstate, where he would meet my parents and two high-school-age sisters. He had filled the back seat of his car with random piles of dirty clothes; I can still picture a pair of grimy boxer shorts. The drive was long and Larry was tired when we got there. While I was unpacking my bags, he stretched out on the floor under the baby grand piano in the living room and fell asleep. The family tiptoed quietly around him. My parents were prepared to forgive him anything. Like us, he was Jewish, after all.

At the dinner table Larry was chatty and charming. He told a vivid story about how he’d taken a year off after high school and hitchhiked through Alaska, working in canneries and fish-processing plants. I was surprised he’d never mentioned this to me.

Later in the meal he told us that he’d taken some kind of test to determine his masculine and feminine traits. “It turned out that I’m thirty-percent feminine,” he said. My parents received this news with polite smiles. My sisters were wide-eyed and silent.

After a few days Larry drove back to his hometown of Mount Vernon, which also happened to be the birthplace of our idol, E. B. White. I had landed a summer job at the front desk of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and after a couple of weeks at home I flew to New York City to start work. I had dressed up for the flight, and was wearing new shoes, the best my hometown department store had to offer, brown-and-white spectator pumps with chunky Cuban heels.

Larry and a few of his friends were there to meet me as I stepped out of the plane and down the metal steps onto the tarmac. They drove me to the YWHA on 92nd Street, where I had reserved a small room for the summer. Later, when we were alone, Larry told me I had disappointed him.

“We were all watching everyone’s feet when they came out the door of the plane,” he said, “We were trying to guess which ones would be yours. But I didn’t think you’d be wearing those old-lady shoes. I was pretty embarrassed.” 

I cringed inside and kept picturing how my feet must have looked, stepping jauntily down the steps in those clunky shoes that I’d thought were so fashionable. But living in the city offered me an education in urban fashion. It also gave me a chance to spend a weekend at Larry’s Mount Vernon home. When we arrived on a Saturday morning, his mother, a plump woman with a curly blond perm, emerged from the kitchen to greet me. She told me I could use Larry’s room during my stay while he slept on the couch.

I was in his room hanging up my clothes when I overheard his mother on the phone, telling a friend that her son’s girlfriend was visiting. “He’s crazy about her,” she said. “I don’t understand it.”

While Larry was in the bathroom taking a shower, I was sitting on his bed, looking through the books on his shelves. I picked out his high school yearbook, class of 1950. There was his picture among the rest of the class. 

This time I confronted him. “I was looking at your yearbook,” I said. “You graduated in 1950. We’re both juniors in college. How could you have spent a year in Alaska?”

He launched into a rambling explanation, something about starting school a year earlier, a mistake in the yearbook, nothing that made much sense. I was beginning to understand that Larry had a skewed notion of the truth. But he was still cute and sexy so I convinced myself it was not an important problem.

Larry transferred to the City College of New York for his senior year – his father, who was separated from his mother – said he could no longer afford Cornell’s tuition. I went back to Ithaca and we kept in touch with phone calls and occasional visits. After graduation I moved to New York City to start a new job with an accounting firm.

I was sharing an apartment with two girls I’d met at the 92nd Street Y. We lived in a one-bedroom, fifth-floor walkup on East 26th Street; I had the pullout couch in the living room. My job was boring and tedious; I knew I should have majored in English.

Over the next few months I became increasingly sick of my work and annoyed with my roommates. I was also tired of Larry, who was now in his fifth year of engineering school and spent much of his spare time lying on my couch. I was beginning to meet new people, young men with jobs and ambition who also read books and the New Yorker and loved Salinger. I decided to break up with Larry.

It was a weekend afternoon. My roommates were both out. The buzzer sounded and I knew it was Larry. He gave me the usual hug and headed for the couch. I took a deep breath. 

“I want to start dating other people,” I said. “I don’t want to see you anymore.”

He rolled over and turned to face me.

“You just want another E. B. White,” he said, “and you’re never going to find one.”  

Stuff Like That

Stuff Like That

Michael Johansen

 

“Coat-racks!”

That was Stig talking.

“What?”

That was me.

“Coat-racks!” Stig was adamant. “We can sell ’em as coat-racks.”

“Sell what as coat-racks?”

Stig was always trying to sell something as something else.

“The old hydro poles by the railway line.”

“Hydro poles? They’d make pretty big coat-racks,” I said.

“Not the whole thing! We take the cross pieces with all the insulators, turn ’em sideways and mount ’em on a wall. Two hundred bucks, easy. We sell loose insulators for 20 bucks a pop down in the city and add five bucks if it’s still got a peg poked up its ass.”

Stig had his thinking look on his face.

“You know, we could roll up the wire, ’cause there must be all copper inside them, what?”

What nothing. For once Stig’s idea wasn’t so stupid. He was right about the wires. There were miles and miles and miles of them alongside all the tracks. They must go right across the country. They used to turn switches and stuff like that, but the railways started using satellites instead. They let the wires go dead. They let them rot, too – just letting the poles fall down any way they like: easy pickings for a fellow like Stig.

He was right about everything else, too. I’ve seen myself how much people charge for old glass and that wasn’t even in the city. I thought his coat-rack idea could work. Slap on a bit of paint, or call it rustic. Some’ll pay good money for stuff like that.

 

That’s how Stig got me out on snowmobile. I followed him way the hell back off the trail. I pulled a bobsled – better, he said, for the cross pieces. He had an ordinary box sled and said we’d toss the loose insulators in there. He said he’d already found a spot. We just had to follow his old tracks. The spot was perfect, he said, because none of the poles had fallen down along that stretch. They’re still fresh, he said.

He was right about that, too. There was a whole long straight row of poles and none of them were down. All the insulators looked ripe for picking, all the wires still strung between them all the way down the stretch.

“You sure they’re dead?” I asked.

Stig ignored me.

We had two chainsaws with us, but Stig wanted to make the first cut. I didn’t care. He said he wanted to do it just right, so we left the snowmachines down the line where the bushes would keep the railway folks from seeing them. We walked and Stig picked the pole just about in the middle and started up his saw. I stood back. He cut out a big wedge on the side where he wanted it to fall – away from the tracks – and then tramped around in the snow to make the third cut on the other side.

“Get ready!” he shouted when he was just about through, stepping back when his saw bit air.

Nothing happened.

Stig let the motor stop and then gave the pole a push. It teetered a little one way and then back, but it stayed upright. It looked like the wires were holding it there.

“We’ll need to take another one down,” Stig said.

Five poles later and they still wouldn’t fall. I’ve never seen Stig so pissed off. I was thinking I should take the chainsaw away from him. He was hardly even taking any care any more, just hacking through the pole as fast as he could, no wedge or nothing. When it wouldn’t go down he just cursed it and stamped to the next, attacking it like all the others. I was glad when his saw ran out of gas and sputtered off by itself. He cursed that, too, and it looked like he was going to throw it, but something caught his eye and he just cursed that instead.

“That’s it,” he shouted at me and pointed. “That’s what’s doing it: It’s that tree!”

He was right again because a few poles past us there was a big tree had fallen across the lines and was pinning them down, pulling them really tight. It sure looked like what was holding our poles up and I wondered how we were going to get it off. I wanted to think about it some more, but Stig already had the answer.

“I’m going to pull that son of a bitch down,” he said and stamped to where we left the snowmobiles.

He didn’t say he needed me for anything so I just had a smoke. It really was a nice day – sunny and not too cold. Without the saw running I could hear birds in the trees and wind and stuff like that – and far away I’m pretty sure I heard a train. It was a good smoke.

Stig started up his machine and drove towards me along the poles he’d just cut, but then he did a little loop in the woods around me, coming out not too far from the big tree. He had me take a rope and go back to tie it as high up as I could, so he could drag it off.

It was a spruce, so it wasn’t too hard to climb, especially as it was laying down pretty straight. I was still thinking about everything and I wasn’t sure if his rope was good enough for the job and I was thinking he should maybe cut the tree first, before he pulled it, but I climbed up it and tied the rope and got down again and Stig never gave me a chance to say anything. I was walking back to him where he was gunning the motor and he couldn’t hear me. He couldn’t wait so even before I got to him he took off fast, spraying me with snow, ’cause he must have figured the faster he pulled the rope tight the easier the tree would come down.

Well, he was right about that, too, but I was right about the rope. When the rope came tight the tree kind of bounced and the snowmachine bounced too and the tree came over sideways, but then the rope was tight again and it snapped. I could hear it and then I could feel it because I was right beside the rope and it wrapped around me and jerked me off my feet. I just had time to grab the rope myself so at least I’d be dragged frontwards and I yelled at Stig to stop and for once he heard me and stopped, looking back to see what I was yelling about. I rolled over onto my back so I could get the snow out of my nose. That way I could see Stig had been right about the tree holding the poles up. The tree was down and the first pole was starting to teeter, first one way and then the other, and then it started to fall. The second pole was right beside me and I knew where it was going to come down.

“Go on, drive!” I yelled. “Go on, man!”

Stig couldn’t hear me though, ’cause suddenly there was this train running right alongside us and blowing its horn. Stig must have seen the poles coming down anyway because he booted it, jerking me on the end of the rope and dragging me backwards. First I was too busy to notice anything else happening because I was watching one pole after the other slam down right behind me, the coat-racks pounding themselves deep into the snow right where I’d been seconds before, but then I saw these faces staring out at me from the train windows – a few little kids with these shocked little expressions on their faces seeing me almost get clobbered by those hydro poles. I tried to give them a smile and a wave – let them know I’d be all right so they shouldn’t be afraid – but Stig had come to the end of the trail and had to veer around the sled he’d left there. The rope hauled me clear into the air and then let go of me. Lucky for me I didn’t hit anything except a thick drift of snow, but I sank into that pretty quick. It took me a few minutes to dig myself out. The train was gone and Stig was looking at all the poles. They’d fallen just like they were supposed to, but the wires had wrecked all the insulators, shattering them when they pulled tight and snapped.

“Barn boards,” Stig said.

“What?”

“Barn boards,” he repeated. “We take the broken insulators off and sell the cross pieces as barn boards. You know how much people will pay for stuff like that?”

 

Forever Held by an Invisible Patch

Forever Held by an Invisible Patch

Suzanne Ondrus

 

Some plants live for life, despite their two-year visible life, continuing on forever, full in imagination.  Maybe it is those joyful things gained with pain that we cherish most– our children, degrees, homes, gardens, and citizenship.  I cherish the blackberry patch that I grew up with by my house.  Every year in May half the stalks would set their tiny white flowers and half would wait for their turn the following year to bloom, resting on the dead ones.  I think about how we humans rest upon layers and layers of civilizations, how we individually stand thanks to those fallen, for our nation, for our family.  I remember how the flowers would then die and green nubs of berries would come, growing to red and finally to full dark blue, black. The important men in my life are snared by this small, dark fruit, painful to gather. 

Growing up my sister and I would take old metal coffee cans and go out back to the patch with my Dad.  The three of us spread out in the patch.  We were flexible then, bending down to stare up at the silent burgeoning beauties hanging.  We always came back with colanders filled and with one or two thorns somewhere in our flesh.  The patch thrived between a row of pines and a willow.  

The berries were so abundant that we froze bags and bags of them.  They went from dark purple to red in the freezer.  I cannot remember when the patch started to thin.  I suppose it happened gradually or when I was away at school.  I remember when the willow by the patch started to die, its large limb broken, swaying downwards.  It was the start of my parents’ divorce.  The tree went untended, just like the patch.  While my Dad threw furniture around and we righted it, nature was left to tend to itself.  The hanging limb withered year by year, but still hung, like the noose my Dad told the therapist was around his neck; the noose was us. 

One day I noticed poison ivy around the blackberry patch.  I was picking in August.  The patch was thin, and there were few berries.  The berries there were small and not plump.  I remember spotting one plump one on a low plant.  I bent down to pick it, then suddenly stopped as I saw the three leaves signifying danger.  The berry was so ripe, so full of juice, but I could not proceed to pick.  How would I put it in my mouth?  I stopped and retreated.  I could only look at this berry.  I dared not to touch it.

After my Dad had moved out of the house, he was not allowed on the property.  The land and the house that he spent thirty years in were verboten by law to him.  You strike your wife, you threaten her, and you may not come near her.  The trees he planted grew.  When he came to pick us up he could only stop at the driveway.  The land that he had lived on for so many years was forbidden territory.  The hanging limb stared at him from down the driveway saying, “it’s over, it’s over.”  But he still asked us to bring him berries when we saw him in July or August, and every time we came with a handful he was in disbelief, as if we were hoarding barrels of them at home.  The patch had simply stopped.  Instead of picking with colanders and coffee cans, a small bowl sufficed.  

Perhaps the patch was destined for decay, being that it was by a dilapidated barn.  Half of the barn had to be knocked down so the rest could remain usable.  Maybe that corner of the property pulls things down. Adjacent to this corner stands a tall oak tree.  It has grown wide and is firm in place.  Sometimes I would go to sit there during my parents’ divorce, my back to the patch, staring at the corral, remembering how my father had wanted to burn the field, to make anew.  We were small.  It was a Saturday.  We were doing family yard work when he decided to burn.  The whole corral started on fire and we turned to see him standing there yelling.  We came with shovels and buckets of water.  Everyone covered a different side, working for a common cause.  We were lucky that day.  The fire was contained.  It did not spread to neighbors’ land.  My favorite childhood knickknack is a candle of a little firefighter girl holding a hose, with the inscription at the base that “only you can put out the fire”.  I like to think of how we are responsible for our anger.  My Dad had such difficulty controlling his anger, whether it was his loud voice, curses, angry eyes or red face, and I too have trouble maintaining composure or right words when something pricks me.  With fire and anger comes responsibility.  

Some of my fondest memories are of my family together on our land, doing yard work.  You cannot really talk when you are doing yard work, so I guess there is very little chance of things going wrong.  And this was a plus since my Dad liked to say things to get a rise out of people.  Picking up sticks and raking leaves were big family projects, helped by the trailer attached to the little yellow Sears tractor my Dad drove.  It was time to breathe the same air, look at the same things and time to reach out together.  I do not see many families working together in their yards today, and it makes me sad.  There is something so beautiful about pulling a tarp together, grunting till reaching the dropping place.  There is a sense of united entitlement to end the day together.  We give something very important away when we hire landscaping crews to do our yards for us.  Perhaps the moment we hired others to come to work on our yard is when our family really started to fall.  There was no need to work together on the outside, on the visible, the tangible.  Maybe we lost a connection to our land at that moment.  Maybe our land lost its connection to us too and started to die, the blackberry bushes one by one lost.

Our next-door neighbor to the North was like a grandfather to me growing up.  He’d been there since my parents had moved in.  When my Dad learned about the neighbor’s blackberry patch in the woods he asked if he could have a few bushes. The neighbor later told me my Dad had cleared the whole patch; he was shocked.  After our neighbor died about forty years later, a huge blackberry patch came forth between his garage and row of pines.  It was like those berries came to stitch his fifty-year spot he had on that piece of land in place, as if someone would be sure to lose some blood if his property was altered.  When I saw the blackberry patch on our neighbor’s land, I felt like he had given us a sign that he was o.k., that he had given us a present, as if to say that new patches will come into your life.  Those berries were like justice served, though too late, but they stand and flower returned back to where they first came from.  Maybe because our neighbor was so deeply rooted to his house and his land, he was able to be porous, to let my Dad come like a hawk and take those blackberries, because he knew the flux of nature, that what goes out finds its way back eventually.  My Dad died two years after my neighbor.  Now they are both in the invisible patch; it is abundant beyond my human eyes.  There is sweetness in their mouths.

Casser Tour, Summer of Love

Casser Tour, Summer of Love

Glen Moss

In the Summer of 1967, as heat and anger gathered to explode in Newark and Detroit and love gathered in San Francisco, I boarded a bus in New York’s Port Authority with my parents.  This was the last vacation I remember my parents taking and the last I felt obligated to take with them.  I was 13, wouldn’t be turning 14 till after we returned with images in my bag I would unpack and explore after Midnight when the voice of WNEW-FM’s Allison Steele added her purple throated voice to my Brooklyn nights.

My parents could teach a class in pretending to a middle class life while seeking to cover working poor income. This may be far more common today with great recessions recent and looming, and an economy of deepening and widening divide, leaving many with memories of assumed solidity and finding liquidity only in the sweat from fear.  Back then, even as the ‘60’s opened rifts in perceptions of permanence, we weren’t yet at recessions, gas shortages, and disco.

My few friends were all at camp, volunteering or working at places with doors opened by parents. Me, with a stutter and imagination, I packed a small bag and joined my occasional bookkeeper mother and always women’s shoe store salesman father. How did they even come up with the money for this 7 day tour of upstate NY and a day trip to Expo ’67 in Montreal…the last world’s fair of any note. Back in September, when I had my poor kid bar mitzvah on a Thursday morning, apparently the other sanctioned day for this particularly Jewish American affair, what little money was offered by the 15 or so family in attendance was quickly handed to my parents so the rent could be paid that month. “Today I am a renter”, is what I should have said.

The “should have saids”, especially self-damning for a stutterer, would have prominence one particular night on this trip. The thread of that evening’s tapestry began when we first entered the bus. My parents sat in the fifth row of two seats on the left side while I took the window seat across the aisle so I could lose myself in the scenes that would roll by, knowing that everyone else would be coupled up and no other kid would be dragged along.

Within minutes, my parents and the couple in front of them started talking and laughing. I was pointed at, and I turned my head and waved. No need to attempt saying “hi”…I could get stuck on that ‘h” until the bus reached Westchester.  So began a vacation connection that dominated my parents’ attention, not to my surprise but to my liking as it allowed me to be separate and wander.

The other couple, Sal and Donna Bonneti from Newark, was as authentically middle class as my parents were not. Sal owned two plumbing and hardware stores and Donna was a junior high school teacher. They had two kids, both boys, 16 and 17, at sports camps in Pennsylvania. Just the kind my father wished I was and knew I’d never be. I was the son who he beat at boxball and handball every Sunday morning. The one who threw the Passover meat down the incinerator by mistake. 

As the bus took its route north to the first stop in Lake George, I heard the shared laughter as my parents and their new friends exchanged histories, real and shaded. I looked out the window as suburbs and then more rural space opened up to the July sun.  In just a few days we would hear the news about riots in Newark with fires burning a city that would see ashes and broken glass as a turning point; where blood and national guard boots marked spaces where homes and stores stood only a week before. Sal and Donna, shaken and the easy smiles gone, would leave the tour early to return home and become part of the Newark exodus to find a new place to try and start over in middle age. Memory advises that they moved to Westfield, with a new hardware store and stories to add to the July that changed Newark and Detroit, and the hopes from 1964 and 1965.

Lake George was a half-day stay in a town where a beautiful lake and history from the French and Indian War were obscured by the honky-tonk commercial drapes.  We likely had lunch somewhere but no memory is attached even as an aftertaste. The taste that mattered would come that evening.

We pulled into the parking lot of the St. Moritz in Lake Placid around 5 PM. It was a large Victorian hotel with all the requisite dark wood and American imaginings of Old World grandeur. High ceiling lobby, polished floors, uniformed employees, overstuffed chairs and a genteel hush.

My parents’ room had a large bed and thick curtains. Mine, smaller, had a single bed set against the wall with the window opposite.  The Casser group was set to have dinner at 7, so I asked if it was OK to take a walk to town and be back in time. As I took many walks on my own in Brooklyn, this was an easy ask.

An Adirondack town of once and future Olympics, Lake Placid allowed me to easily imagine I was walking in a village in Switzerland or Germany. That’s the beauty of an imagination nurtured by time alone and internal architecture; my eyes become a projector of images that mix reality and dreamscape. Walking past shops keeping winter like a child you don’t want to change, I could feel a chill and hear the glide of skis. 

I made it back by 6:30 and my parents were wearing their best. My mother in a dark blue floral dress and my dad in a suit. I had dark brown corduroy pants and a dark shirt. We took the elevator down to lobby and were shown to large dining room, almost a ballroom it seemed, filled with tables for the Casser tour and one or two others. Sal and Donna were already seated at a table and waved us over to the three empty seats.

As we walked over, my heart sped up and I could feel sweat forming in my scalp. She wore a black dress and black stockings, and her black hair framed a face with red lips that were slightly open and eyes the color of a lake at dusk. We sat down and no one noticed my sweat or my breathing. And then, she came to the table.

“Good evening. Welcome to the St. Moritz. My name is Beth and I’ll be serving you tonight.” I saw my father and Sal glance at each other and I felt angry. I tried to lift my eyes to hers but couldn’t. Donna told her how lovey she looked and asked if she was a student or worked at the hotel full time. Beth said she was a student at Ithaca College, majoring in English and her family lived in the area.

She asked for drink orders and when she came to me, I managed to look up and, in one of those moments I could never rely on, I said, “Coke” without a stutter. She smiled and I reached quickly for my water glass, almost knocking it over.

Dinner was a blur of my watching Beth as she approached the table, asked how everything was, asked about the tour and where we were from. When she heard, “Brooklyn”, her dark lake eyes widened and she said a friend lived in Brooklyn Heights. She visited during Christmas break and the streets were so pretty and did we live near there. My mom smiled and said we lived across the street from Prospect Park, only a few subway stops away. Hinting that it was as nice as the Heights, maybe even a little finer. Another pretend, but so much had become that I wasn’t sure if she knew the difference. Beth looked over at me, smiled, and said,

“Sounds like a nice place to grow up.”

I swallowed my third Coke and managed, 

“Oh, yeah. I l-l-love the park.” My stutter brought looks from Sal and Donna, but it was Beth’s that mattered. In her eyes I saw more than the usual mix of embarrassment and pity. Or believed I did. I wanted to say more but could not.

I did love Prospect Park. It was my escape in many ways; a place where I could be in Middle Earth or the England of Edward III, anywhere but Brooklyn and the three room apartment I choked in. I would sit in the living room that was my parent’s bedroom at night and read Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia. Or sit out on the fire escape outside the bedroom I shared with my older brother and read, getting lost in the story and the sound of the open subway trains rolling noisily just beyond a concrete wall. In that moment looking into Beth’s eyes, I knew I added something special to my walking dreams. And maybe to my sleeping ones.

 

As dessert was being served, a group of four from the hotel came into the room carrying a microphone and moved to a space at the back of the room near a large piano. Three were musicians, one guy carrying a bass fiddle, another a saxophone. The third sat down at the piano.

The fourth guy set up the microphone and said, “Good evening, ladies and gentleman. On behalf of the entire staff at the St. Moritz, we hope you are all enjoying your stay with us and thanks to Casser Tours and McClellan Vacations for choosing us for your visit to Lake Placid. Tonight we would like to continue with a tradition we have here at the hotel. We’ve discovered through the years that every summer we are lucky to have among you some real talent in song. So, we’d like to invite anyone who has talent and feels brave enough to come up and share a song or two.”

Oh no. I knew what was about to happen. Whatever happened to their lives, however smaller and plainer they became, my parents always saw themselves as entertainers, at least together. My mother did have a fair husky kind of voice and back in the late 1930’s was asked by a quartet who played Brighton Beach to accompany them on a tour. They had heard her sing, maybe on the boardwalk one summer afternoon when she was with friends, and thought she’d be perfect for their sound. They even had a group name picked out, Gypsy and the Four Kings. But when she asked her parents, Rachel and Morris, a clear ‘no’ kept her in Brooklyn and singing at family gatherings, and maybe still at the boardwalk. But no farther.

My father wasn’t a singer. He could help my mother keep a tune moving, but his real talent was in dance. He looked a bit like James Cagney and he moved a bit like Gene Kelley. Together, my parents found their escape through dancing, gliding in sync with an energy and grace they could never replicate in lives that seemed to forever recede from pre-war dreams. And I existed in the regrets when the music stopped. 

One or two people from other tables found the courage and need to step up and sing a standard the band knew and could adapt to the singer.  Then, I heard the chairs move and I saw my parents heading toward the microphone and the space where, for a half hour, they could make all the pretend real.

As they began with Gershwin and switched to Berlin and began to dance, you could feel each table’s conversation turn to silence and surprised admiration. All the attention they always wanted right there amidst the coffee and chocolate cake in a ballroom at the St. Moritz in Lake Placid, New York.  Sal and Donna watched them, smiling. Sal turned to me, and whispered, “Hey, they are really good. You must be proud.” I nodded, looked down and wished I could get up and leave. I thought about it and then suddenly, sitting down next to me was Beth. She leaned over to me and I stopped breathing. She leaned into me and said, “I know. “ She put her hand on mine and continued, “Once you are a little older and can get away, it will be OK. I promise”. 

She got up and maybe she smiled at me but I couldn’t look at her then. Only when she walked to other tables could I watch her walk, stop, and lean in to a whispered request.  I wished I had said something.

My parents continued to dance, now to Porter. I  got up and walked away, unseen. Or so I thought. As I turned to look back, I saw Beth looking at me and she waved.

I walked to the lobby, sweating and my hands shaking. I heard applause as I left the hotel and walked towards town. The lights from the shops were on now and I stopped to take a breath, and then another. I started walking again, and imagined Beth was with me, not saying anything, just holding my hand. After a while, I imagined telling her about England in the 14th Century and her smiling. I saw that smile for a long time. After I had left for college, as Beth had promised, things did get better, and I was able to smile back.

Wedge

Wedge

Louise Carson

 

Wedge. A great word

      caught in my beak.

          Wedge heel. Can’t be

              caught in the grate.

                  Wedge the budgie

                      yellow

                  in his cage.

              A wedge of geese

          honk no surrender in a

      Wedgewood sky. The manuscript

wedged under my door keeps it open.

VELO CITY


VELO CITY  

MARK C. HULL

We sat there plopped like puddles of water on the floor, at the gate, waiting for the flight to depart. She was a stranger to me and I to her, and sometimes those are the best friendships I’ve ever had, fleeting as they are. It wasn’t obvious that we had anything in common, other than the fact that, due to the crowd, we had taken up spots on the marbled tile. It was as good a bond as any, us sitting on the floor together. As it turns out we were both heading home, too. Home as in the geography of our youth, not necessarily where we were currently living. 

“Did you hear they found D. B. Cooper?” she said.  

“Oh?” I said, not believing it. 

“He gave a sworn deposition. He’s been living as an investment counselor outside of Seattle for almost fifty years,” she nodded, intent on convincing me. I was familiar with the story. D.B. Cooper was the notorious bank heist villain who parachuted from a commercial airliner in nineteen-seventy-whatever, most likely dead, the stuff of lore and legend. I suspected that, somewhere in the United States, every day, someone was claiming to be D.B. Cooper.

“I hadn’t heard.” 

“What fantastic speed these things have,” she said, looking out the window, regarding the airplane parked at the gate. I sensed she was the type to toggle back and forth between subjects, in a way, traveling twice as fast in conversation as I was. 

“From the outside, sure. From the inside it feels like you’re sitting still,” I said. 

“Are you trying to be clever?” 

“Always trying. Rarely succeeding.” 

“Technically, the first American to travel to outer space was a chimpanzee named Ham,” she told me. 

“A pioneer,” I nodded. 

“Imagine if everything came to a screeching halt,” she said. 

“I believe that is referred to as death,” I said. 

She winced, almost imperceptibly, at the mention of the concept, although I got the impression that she was less afraid of death than she was of stillness, of being rooted to one spot, of running out of gas. She tapped a message into the phone she was holding, fielding yet another conversation. I sat back and thought about my trip home. Speaking of being motionless, I was traveling in order to sit, for a while, in a parked 56’ Buick Skylark convertible. I was going to sit in the backseat on the passenger side. It was a thrilling and scary and stupid plan, to make a thousand-mile journey in order to sit in the backseat of an old parked car. Yet here I was, making it. 

“They discontinued them, you know,” she said. 

“What?” 

“The rear hatches that used to be in planes. The one D.B. parachuted out of. They stopped installing them.” 

“Were you planning on trying one out?” I said. 

“Oh, oh, look! That guy’s luggage bag is open and his stuff is spilling all over the place!” 

I turned to see a man wheeling a suitcase down the concourse with a line of random items in a trail behind him. Someone stopped him to point out his open bag. He turned and began cleaning up the path of clothing he had left. 

“Where are you heading today?” I asked. 

“Same place as you, hopefully, since we are on the same plane.” 

“Velo City?” 

“Yep.” 

“Going for something fun?” 

“I have to go to a funeral,” she said, not sounding the least bit sad. 

“Oh,” I said, in sudden realization. “I’m sorry.” 

“It’s going to be great,” she said. “My friend that died is going to be there.” 

She had me stumped with that one. It was so obvious as to be utterly confounding. My own phone came alive in my pocket with a tiny spastic shudder. I looked at it, hoping that the girl sitting next to me, a complete unknown, had somehow figured out my phone number and decided to send me a fun little message. No such luck. Instead it was from someone named Constantin, another stranger. “Constantin here,” the message read. “Meeting A.S.A.P.! Stock in free fall. Circle the wagons on software crash!” 

“Wrong number,” I typed back. 

“Oops. Thanks,” responded Constantin, now gone forever.  

My phone never gives me anything exciting. It is a gadget of spam mail and wrong numbers. It promises the world of possibility at my fingertips and keeps it just out of reach. All the mystical opportunities, invitations and offers are careful to avoid my inbox, like sailors circumnavigating the Bermuda Triangle. 

“What are you going to Velo for?” she asked me. 

“If I tell you it will sound like I’m crazy,” I said. 

“No judgment,” she promised. 

“A car from my past has reappeared. It holds a special place in my heart and I am going to go sit in it and try to relive a very special night.” 

“Reappeared! Like D.B. Cooper,” she said, aglow with the connection. “Did you lose your virginity in it?” 

“No. We used it to rescue a mermaid down at Swift Beach once,” I said. 

“I love Swift Beach. In fact, if I am ever reincarnated I want to come back as a seashell on Swift Beach.” 

I guess the 56’ Buick Skylark convertible was my own personal D.B. Cooper. I didn’t even know what year the car was actually made in, I just liked to say 56’ because it sounded cool. It had fins on it, and a lot of chrome. I had been obsessed with it since I was seventeen, casually obsessed, if there is such a thing, because my ride in the car was the result of a blast of spontaneity that still mystifies me, twenty-five years later. There had been a high school band recital, and I had been playing the kettle drums, which means I commanded the thunder, and there is no greater rush than commanding the thunder in a hundred-piece orchestra. I was so powerful that the conductor himself, started melting. Really, the man’s arms began dripping off him. 

“I wonder if they sell battery chargers around here?” she asked, frowning at her phone. 

“I’m sure they…” 

“I can’t wait for a slice of pizza,” she declared. “First place I’m stopping when I get to Velo. A slice of pizza with extra grease.” 

“It’s funny about home,” I said. “The things about it that we love and the things about it that we hate.” 

“It’s the place where I keep all the embarrassing stuff from my past tucked away, like in an old attic, gathering dust,” she said. “All the zits, the punishments, the taunts, the tantrums, the awkward kisses, the growth spurts, the wild spread of pubic hair, a hundred broken hearts. All the wrong words I’ve ever spoken I’ve spoken at home.” 

“That is my philosophy,” I said. 

“I don’t like philosophy. Philosophy is stupid,” she said. I nodded. It would make sense that she would think that and I would disagree, given that she was seven or eight years old and I was a hundred and forty. These ages were very rough estimates. 

“It is the tether that keeps pulling me back, like a child tugging on a balloon that keeps trying to escape to the sky,” I said. Not a child, though, a Buick. Jodi’s Buick had been taken away from her by her parents because she wasn’t supposed to be driving it that night and now it was back, somehow, in the driveway. My brother had called me to tell me the news. After I hung up the phone I booked my plane ticket, before it disappeared again.  

“These days I seem to only return for funerals,” she said. 

“Was the person who died close to you?” I said. 

“He is my one crazy friend. He was out in Moab doing some dangerous hike through the desert and something bit his foot, and by the time he got help his foot had shriveled up and died, so he is having a funeral for his foot.” 

“Just the foot?” 

“Yes. He is the only person I know wild enough to pull off a stunt like this. He is always risking his life for something or other. I suspect he will die off in increments. One day there will be nothing left but his head.” 

I chuckled, and excused myself for finding amusement in tragedy. She encouraged me to laugh like she was.  It was ridiculous, after all. Though we were sitting next to each other right there on the floor of the airport I felt that she was a satellite, above me and around me, whizzing by in an arc of movement and flux. Every soul has its own momentum, and some travel faster than others. 

“Was it your car that you lost?” she asked. “The old Buick?” 

“The car was Jodi Kilgore’s,” I said. “She lived in the neighborhood and was part of the band. Played the flute, if I remember. What had happened was we had a band recital and I was playing the kettle drums…” 

“A fine instrument…” 

“And I was hammering away with such intensity that the conductor’s arms fell off.” 

“What?” 

“He was a guest conductor and he was flailing so wildly that he split open the  tuxedo jacket that he was wearing. At first I couldn’t understand why he kept pushing his coat sleeves up, and his tempo got faster and faster and the orchestra got faster and faster as he tried to keep his sleeves on and still keep his baton moving, except he couldn’t because the jacket had ripped right down the back and eventually he had to let it fall off him. It was a miracle the musicians kept playing, I mean, a few slight flutters but we got through the piece. To have teenage musicians watching a grown man burst out of his concert jacket and still keep it together is evidence that some kids are amazing and the future is not doomed. We were young professionals. We held tight. Once the show was over, though, and we were outside the auditorium we howled, the kind of laughter that makes you think something in your chest will be damaged beyond repair.”  

“So what about the Buick?” 

“There was an after-party at a band kid’s house, the tuba player, and I didn’t have a ride and so Jodi had an extra seat in her dad’s Skylark, which she wasn’t supposed to be driving, as it turns out. Until that moment we never had spoken and now I was in a car with her and her friend Sarah riding shotgun, and two guys that played the trumpet in the backseat with me, and we set off to this kid’s house but we were still laughing so hard about the conductor’s arms falling off that Jodi had to pull off into the Swift Beach parking lot because her eyes were filled with joyful tears. Then she decided to whip the laughter out of us by driving that Buick in big wild circles through the empty stretch of pavement. We went sailing around and around in crazy orbit. I was pinned to the back wall of that car and the two guys next to me were pinned against me, and we laughed and I looked over at Jodi Kilgore and fell in love with her right then and there, her magical profile, and her stunt driving, and the song that was cranked up on the radio that was the best song ever even though it was super cheesy, and when she finally screeched to a halt we all decided that wasn’t enough and so we jumped out of the convertible without opening the doors and ran straight into the water, fully clothed, drifting in the surf that reflected a billion stars above us. That’s where we found the mermaid.”

“A real mermaid?” 

“It was a six-foot wooden masthead washed up on shore, covered in seaweed. We had to save her. So we loaded our mermaid up into the Skylark and took her to the party. We arrived all damp and wild-haired and we were hailed as heroes for rescuing a mermaid and also for playing a smashing concert even though the maestro had fallen to pieces.” 

“Sounds like a great night,” she said. 

“After that everything started to unravel,” I said. “A gang of football players showed up uninvited to the party and stole our mermaid. Then when Jodi’s dad found out that she had taken the car he was so angry that he got rid of it the next day, or so we thought. Now it’s back in the driveway of that old Kilgore house and I’m going to walk right up to it, yank that canvas top down and climb into it and sit there for as long as I need to, and in my head I’m going to drive in big wild circles. I don’t care if they call the police.” 

“You’ve left a part of yourself in that car,” she said. “Since then you’ve been dying off piece by piece, like my friend.” 

“You have been very helpful,” I said. “Enjoy your funeral.” 

Time to board. We gathered ourselves up and got on the plane. I hoped, maybe, that her seat was next to mine, but of course it wasn’t. Instead a man sat down next to me, a man that looked strangely similar to the police sketch of D.B. Cooper. Somehow I knew she wouldn’t be sitting next to me because all the magic, fortune and luck I had ever known had come and gone in that one strange night with the melting maestro and the Skylark and the mermaid and Jodi Kilgore, who went off to college and never came back. Just as well. Let her exist in her perfect state in the dells and glens of my memory. 

As eager as I was to see that Buick again I was also a little scared that it would not be the fascinating transport of my nostalgic youth. It may have, over the years, settled into being a plain old car. Maybe it would sense my presence, remember me and, between the two of us we could get a little bit of that old sizzle happening again. Victory or failure. Either was possible. 

It occurred to me that the elusive concept of heaven may just be getting to return to a moment, a cherished, full moment, and realizing that it was as glorious as you remembered it to be, that it did hold all the sacred energy you had assigned it for all time since then, that it was the boost of velocity that kept you going for years afterward. Hell, on the other hand, would be getting to go back to that same moment and realizing you had it all wrong; that it was a con, a mirage, a false event, a dead boneyard that was forever playing a trick on the senses. I got off the plane, hailed a taxi, and crossed my fingers for heaven. 

First Snow

 FIRST SNOW

Margaret Miller

I was thirty the first time I saw vehicle snow chains, a necessary part of my new life in northern British Columbia. For thirteen years I’d been a city driver, confidently navigating my way through the traffic maze of Australia’s largest city, Sydney. Ice scrapers, block heaters, lock de-icers and snow chains were not a part of my life. But all that changed when I moved half way around the world to a small cabin at Moberly Lake, more than a thousand kilometres north of Vancouver. 

I spent many weekdays alone at the cabin. The closest neighbours lived a few kilometres away; the small town of Chetwynd was a twenty-minute drive south. One winter morning I planned to visit a new friend in town, so pulled on extra layers and Mukluk’s and waded through freshly fallen snow to the two-wheel drive truck. After some worry and a few wheel spinning efforts I knew I was snow-bound. I simply could have returned to the cabin and phoned my friend to let her know I was marooned until the driveway was ploughed. She’d understand; weather often altered plans in the north. But I was hungry for company; a new-comer with too much time on her hands feeling frustrated at the bottom of a long driveway. I pulled the tire chains from behind the bench seat and my ready-for-anything snow pants, suited up and wriggled under the rear wheels of the pick-up. I’d been shown how to fit chains a few weeks earlier and knew it could be awkward. But it wasn’t rocket science.

Like most Aussies, I hadn’t grown up with snow. Summer or winter, my backyard was green and the eucalypts in our garden and street were always in leaf. During crisp winter mornings, frost collected on the lawn and in rare summer hailstorms ice stones briefly blanketed the street so it oddly resembled a Christmas card. But it never snowed. The only flakes I grew up with were housed in a small glass dome on a shelf in our living room; one tiny cottage and three tiny evergreens trapped under glass. White flecks swirled in the oily sky when the dome was tilted. Was this anything like real snow?

In my twenties, I set off from summer-time Sydney to experience snow in Britain and Europe. With the temperature hovering in the mid-thirties, I departed from the airport, carrying a knee-length wool coat, wearing thick socks and laced boots. I explored cold London for a few weeks, rain and drizzle but no snow, then ventured northwest in a blue rental Mini to Wales. I woke the following morning in a cozy Cardiff Bed and Breakfast and parted the heavy drapes by my bed. A few inches of snow had fallen overnight. White dominated the landscape; everything looked new and clean. I hadn’t heard a thing. No tell-tale pitter-patter on the roof during the night. No rattle at the window pane. I studied the new view. A downy layer on the lawn and shrubs. The stone fence, dark and mossy under a white crown. A vanilla ice-cream scoop on every fence post. Big white pillows on the roof and bonnet of the Mini. A white strip on the overhead wires. Did snow stick to everything? I thought about driving in these changed conditions. Could an Aussie in a Mini handle it? The B&B owners offered pointers on winter driving, so I ventured out in my first snow to my first medieval castle.

There were few visitors at Caerphilly Castle that day. Mid-week, off-season. After a cautious drive along flat roads, an immense fortress loomed in front of me. Dark stone; tall walls; turrets and towers, most intact and straight, some crumbling or leaning with gaping cracks against the grey winter sky. And fresh snow everywhere. I donned my long wool coat, pulled the hood over my head and left footprints in the snow as I crossed the draw bridge and made my way to the top of the gatehouse. New snow-covered the seven hundred year old structure; milk-white against grey and dark brown and black. I stood alone in a quiet sepia landscape devoid of colour.

I saw snow in other landscapes in the next few years: a tour of Scotland, a beginner’s ski course in Innsbruck, weekend jaunts to the Snowy Mountain seven hours south of my Sydney home. But snow remained a novelty for me, a respite from the mild winters and long, hot summers of Sydney. Then in the eighties I moved to Canada for life with Bryan, a Canadian I’d met travelling, and snow became part of my daily life. I certainly knew snow could be beautiful; it sparkled in sunlight and captured the hues of the rippling Northern Lights. And it was fun; we played in it, skied across it and down it. But snow was work; for seven months of the year, we shovelled and piled it, ploughed, scraped and occasionally cursed it. As a driver, snow tested me. With practice, I learned to read winter road surfaces, to be soft on the brakes and to steer into skids. I came to recognize the bump-bump of a frigid morning drive as the flat spots on the tires rounding out and accepted the need to stow emergency winter gear in the truck.  But my pioneering sense of adventure wore thin that morning, so I grabbed the chains angrily and dragged them in under the vehicle. 

I felt warm and cramped under the truck, but my effort with the first chain was working. I fitted and closed the locking levers, then wriggled over to the other wheel. I pulled and tugged a few more minutes, then more success. I crawled out and climbed into the truck, turned over the engine and hollered when the chains bit through the snow and carried the Toyota and me up the driveway and onto the ploughed road. I pulled over and repeated the whole process in reverse. Chains unlocked and off. Snow pants off. Gear stowed. I cooled my flushed face with snow from the roadside, sucked on a ball of it to quench my thirst and settled back into the driver’s seat. I slid on my sunglasses, pushed an Eagles cassette into the player on the dash and drove through the northern landscape to the home of a new friend.  

One Saturday a few weeks later, when the temperature warmed to a mild five degrees below zero, Bryan and I decided to top up our water storage tank. The cabin had no running water, so year round we relied on lake water and with careful winter use it could last about a month. A green garden hose snaked up from the tank to the ceiling in the mudroom, passed through the wall, crossed the living room, and dropped through a second wall into the bathroom. The spigot that dangled over the claw-foot tub was the only water source in the cabin. We had no shower. No flushing toilet. No kitchen sink or taps. No hot water tank. But we were comfortable. The big kettle on the gas stove heated kitchen water; an immersion heater designed to prevent livestock water from freezing heated our bath water.  

We suited up for our water collecting routine and ran  a Pink Floyd tape to the outside speakers under the eaves on the deck. Bryan disconnected the electric pump from the metal tank and lugged it twenty metres to the frozen lake. He fetched his chain saw and a few tools while I ran an extension cord and another hose from the tank down to the collection spot. About fifteen minutes later, after Bryan cleared snow from the ice, cut an impressive thirty centimetre block from the solid surface and checked all fittings, soft and delicious water ran uphill and into the tank. I checked the kitchen clock. It took about ninety minutes to fill the tank, so we’d need to watch the time. 

 

After the work of set-up we relaxed on the deck with steaming mugs of tea.  

“Time to build a snowman,” announced Bryan. “The snow is just right and the steep driveway will be great for this.”

It would be my first snowman. I’d seen cartoon versions of giant snowballs rolling downhill so understood a little what he was thinking. We tested snow quality with small balls rolled on the flat spot near the cabin. They swelled and left widening tracks in the snow. We moved a good distance up the driveway, eager for a massive ball to begin our man of snow. Unwieldy weight defeated us, so we moved closer to the cabin and began rolling again. We worked together to create three impressively large snowballs and maneuvered them close to the picture window in the living room. We laughed, stacked and decorated the balls. I smoothed the big white tummy and carefully shaped the white head. Branch arms grew from our man’s shoulders and spruce-needle hair sprouted from his scalp. Would we be able to find stones for eyes under all the snow? 

“Of course he needs a carrot nose,” said Bryan. “Any in the cabin?” 

Any carrots in the cabin? Realization hit us at the same moment. How long had we been playing in the snow? We rushed back into the mudroom. Lake water gushed from the storage tank onto the floor. The mudroom, living room and only bedroom were flooded. Shoes floated under the coat rack. Plywood floors and carpet squares were sodden. Bryan yanked the hose from the tank, threw it outside and unplugged the extension cord. One final hiccup of water trickled down the outside of the tank, then all was quiet. We looked at each other and started to giggle. Much of our home was waterlogged. It was mid-winter and below zero outside; and our big new snowman was waiting for his nose. We laughed. 

After more work inside and outside the cabin, we shared a bottle of wine by the woodstove in the living room. The pump was back on the tank. The extension cord rolled and stored. Hose drained and coiled. Chain saw and tools stowed. Floors mopped. Soggy rugs hauled outside to freeze and stand guard by the woodpile. We relaxed together on the couch and looked through the picture window at our big man of snow, his carrot nose firmly in place. 

Did You Ever Think of Love This Way?

 

 

Did You Ever Think of Love This Way?

Michael Robins, Lieutenant and Commander, Tank Corps, Canadian Army, during the Italian Campaign of the Second World War

Did you ever think of life this way?

Away from all the things you dream by day

Alone where battles rage and wars are won

In inwards eye see things bygone

Did you ever think of life this way?

 

Did you ever think of love this way?

Parted from loved ones who had to stay

To keep hearths burning and love aglow

For men who might not return you know

Did you ever think of love this way?

 

Parted from loved ones who had to stay

To keep hearths burning and love aglow

For men who might not return you know

Did you ever think of love this way?

 

Did you ever think why wars are fought?

Has not world’s history the world taught

That men can live in bliss and peace

Not kill each other like savage beasts

Did you ever think why wars are fought?

 

Did you ever think of death this way?

Away from all the folks you’d like to say good bye

Torn by either gas, shell or mine

Never wholly using life’s full time.

Did you ever think of death this way?

 

Did you ever think of death this way?

Alone in cold, damp, blood stained ground

Without a guiding light or sound

To lead you on your final way

Did you ever think of death this way?

 

Did you ever think of why we fight?

Of death and torture a constant sight

Tired, hungry, worn men in flight

Never peaceful through the night

Did you ever think of why we fight?

 

Did you ever think of peace this way?

Of bliss and quiet through the night

No fear of bombers now in flight

No torn bodies, no ghostly sights

Did you ever think of peace this way?

 

Written, according to the poet, “in an hour of weakness”, on a battlefield in Italy, on November 21, 1943