Category Archives: JULY 2022

Midnight Mud Cruise

Moonlight Mud Cruise

Bill Diamond

The plan was to make indelible memories. The unspoken expectation was the memories would be the positive kind. Expectations don’t always work out.

I would soon depart Washington, DC for a life in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. A camping trip to Assateague Island National Seashore was on my pre-move Bucket List. Early May before the tourist crowds seemed to be a propitious time. The weather forecast was clear.

On arrival, the island was sunny and warm. There was no need to track down the Chincoteague wild ponies that are the island’s main attraction. They are EVERYWHERE from the moment you enter the Park. Although these feral horses are legally wild, their behavior belies that fact. They are not averse to human contact and many of the ponies are aggressive beggars. Park brochures warn you to stay a safe distance from the beasts because they can charge, kick and bite. Apparently, no one informed the ponies to similarly keep away. They readily approach cars, picnic tables, camping tents, and anyplace they darn well please. It’s a simple life. The horses spend their days eating; begging for food; eating; causing traffic jams; eating; mating; and eating.  

A full day of touring the island, photographing the horses and hiking the beach was capped off with a fortifying crab stew dinner at the Globe Theater restaurant in nearby Berlin. It was dusk when I returned to my site in the Bayside Campground. A ruddy orange, near full moon was just breaching the horizon.

My campsite backed up to the tidal marshes adjacent to Sinepuxent Bay separating the island from the mainland. The moonlight was bright enough to cast a slight shadow and illuminate the wispy clouds. I made a spontaneous decision to take a short moonlight kayak cruise through the wetlands before enjoying the campfire. It was custom made for creating a timeless recollection. What could possibly go wrong?  

Pulling the kayak off the truck, I realized it was an act of faith that it was still seaworthy. It spent the winter hanging beneath the deck. The sky blue bottom was marred with ugly brown drip marks where the deck above had been re-stained last Fall. When I had lifted it from the hanging straps, a squirrel nest had dislodged from the inside and tumbled onto my head. I dropped the boat and beat my skull to ensure no vermin were relocating to my hair. My father taught me, “If you take care of your equipment, it will take care of you.”. If true, I am soooo up shit creek.

When I put it in the water, I was relieved the kayak was watertight. Buoyed by the good omen, I secured my life jacket and launched before second thoughts could arrive. The scene was idyllic.  The moon was luminous and reflected off the tentacles of water meandering through the marsh. Calls and responses of the night birds drifted from the trees.

The nearby woods sheltered me from the freshening breeze. It also protected the bugs from dispersal. While my repellent kept them from biting, they swarmed annoyingly. I kept my mouth closed to avoid inadvertently ingesting a serving of bugs for dessert.

To steer clear of the choppy water of the open Bay, I wended my way among the narrow channels of the wetland. Paddling in and out of small tributaries, I worked a good distance across the bog before feeling a chill and turning for home. As I started to head South, so did the excursion. When I ran aground the second time, I realized that at low tide these wetlands turn into mud flats.

Using the paddle as a pole, I pushed off the bottom and moved with more urgency down the narrowing canals to keep pace with the rapidly retreating water. The water was winning the race. As luck would have it, the night was also turning darker. It was an inconvenient time for the moon to choose to play hide and seek. Note to self: even ‘wispy’ clouds can significantly block the moonlight. While I’d had the foresight to bring a headlamp on the camping trip, that foresight didn’t extend to bringing it in the kayak.

Stuck on another mudbar, I couldn’t discern a path forward. Well, … if not prepared, the explorer must be flexible. I decided to exit the boat and haul it overland a short distance to a wide channel with access back to the campsite. Good plan, but the topography wouldn’t cooperate. The first sign of this was when I stepped out and my foot sunk into the muck. While this wetland floor was adequate to support saltmarsh grass, my body clearly exceeded it’s carrying capacity.  

The alternative of spending the night in the kayak until the tide turned was unappealing. I resigned myself to my legs receiving an unexpected mud spa treatment and trudged through the ooze. Something that should have been common sense, only now came home to me.  May is still early in the warm season. There had not been time for the water to heat to it’s comfortable Summer temperature. The ocean liquid that was pleasant to paddle across was damn near frigid to wade in at night.

Mostly, the mud was shallow and topped at my ankles. But, occasionally, it reached my calf. At those times, the swamp grabbed tight and tried mightily to remove my Teva sandals. As reluctant as I already was about this unexpected ramble, the idea of a barefoot stroll through this quagmire was intolerable. I struggled to free my legs and footwear intact and tried to chart a course across firmer ground that would support my weight. I had limited success.

Dragging a kayak across land constitutes a portage. Portage is a French word and sounds exotic and adventurous. It conjures images of Lewis and Clark on the Corps of Discovery Expedition. In reality, it translates in English as ‘slog’. An equally rare term, but one with far less glamorous associations.

Scanning the dewatered swamp, I abandoned the notion of returning to camp by a wetlands water route. My new plan was to traverse the bog and use the open Bay to paddle back toward the campground. Although my legs were cold, my slow progress had me sweating. Trying to be optimistic, I told myself this effort would count toward my weekly aerobic exercise regime. Small satisfaction.  

Sitting in tedious meetings at work, I would glance out the window at the Potomac River and daydream about spending the day paddling. Right now, the warmth of the boring conference room seemed an enticing alternative. It proves the grass is always greener. To divert my mind from the muck sucking endeavor, I tried to distill lessons learned from this misadventure. At work, while evaluating whether to launch a new project, I would counsel staff not to jump in without thinking it through because things are always easier to get into, than out of. This fiasco seemed an apt example for that precept. It brought another cliche to mind: that I should practice what I preach.

The uneven terrain, mud holes and slashing vegetation made the crossing seem like a marathon. Eventually, I reached a sandbar at the edge of the Bay. Pausing to catch my breath, I imagined that for any rational stranger passing by, I presented the suspicious image of an ancient smuggler: dragging a cargo across an uninviting swamp in the dark without any lights. Not to worry, there were no sensible people out and about.

With the cold returning to my body, there was no advantage in further delay. Rinsing the mud from my legs, I was thankful that I retained my two sandals. Pushing the kayak into the open water, the stiff breeze was no longer blocked by the onshore trees and began to push back. The good news was that it scattered the bugs. The bad news was that it was blowing from the direction I had to travel. Deciding a straight line was a quicker path than hugging the beach with potential snags, I aimed straight across the inlet. While better than schlepping the boat across the mud, the paddle home would be no piece of cake. Heading into the wind meant each wave I cut through sent a chill and salty spray toward my face. I must have offended Poseidon in a previous life.   

To my right, there were blinking green lights on channel buoys. Farther away to the North, red lights marked the Park access bridge. Beyond that lay the dim glow of Ocean City. None of that was helpful to me as I headed in the opposite direction toward the dark Park. It was probably only fifteen minutes of paddling, but it seemed longer. I finally reached the shore near where the campground should be. 

The land was an undifferentiated black smudge. The wind had brought in thicker clouds and the moon only intermittently peaked through to shed some minor light. The tops of the trees were silhouetted against the sky. That was of little assistance as I wasn’t landing in the treetops, but in the unwelcoming abyss below.

With nothing to recommend one spot over another, I picked a random patch, landed and debarked. My eyes adjusted only slightly to the gloom. It was enough to see there was no obvious path through the thicket. Rallying my tired limbs, I lifted the kayak onto my shoulders with my head inside. Using it as a battering ram to protect my face from the tangle of branches, I plunged into the undergrowth. Low bushes scraped at my legs. Where was the protective mud layer when I needed it? 

Each time I stopped, the woods were silent, but for a few birds. However, once, I heard a footfall ahead. It was impossible to see in the dark, but from the sound, it was too big for a rabbit and too small for a wild pony. I heard it again. The thought bubbled up that the only animals that size are nasty or carnivorous.  

I told myself I shouldn’t be concerned. After all, I did have a 12 foot kayak on my head. However, it was unclear how great a defensive weapon it would be in the underbrush where I could barely move. To bastardize Robert Frost, the woods now seemed “hungry, dark and deep”.  

Of its own accord, my mind did a hypothetical analysis on whether it was better to be sprayed by a skunk or attacked by a rabid fox. Neither was attractive. Emboldened by my exhaustion, I determined to assert my rightful place on the food chain. I let out a roar to warn off any potential predators. Even to my ears, it sounded like an asthmatic clearing his throat. Despite that weak effort, I persisted with the concept that making noise should deter wild beasts.  

Talking would probably be even less effective than my pitiful roar. Screaming could convey eatable weakness. Since I never learned to whistle properly, my last recourse was singing. I have a limited repertoire. It was the wrong season for Jingle Bells. I can’t do justice to the Star Spangled Banner.  So I settled on Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup”. I loudly launched into the redneck anthem:

    “Red Solo cup, I fill you up

     Let’s have a party, let’s have a party

     I love you, red Solo cup, I lift you up

     Proceed to party, proceed to party.”

If the beer-soaked words didn’t intimidate any wild beasts, perhaps my off-key caterwauling would. With the lyrics reverberating inside the kayak, I continued thrashing through the woods.  When I ran out of the words I remembered, I listened for my visitors.  Silence.  Good news.

However, in the quiet, my imagination offered up an unwanted image of a snake lurking near my open toed sandals. It was likely because I’d seen a number throughout the day. At the moment, I couldn’t remember whether these reptiles were nocturnal. Not wanting to dwell on it, I told myself, ‘don’t even think about snakes’. Inevitably, the minute you say that, all you can think about is snakes. I had to get out of the woods. After some quick charging, I burst panting into a grassy field.  

Breathing heavily and with my chest heaving, I forgot about snakes. Not because they don’t slither in grass, but because a new thought erased them from my consciousness. It was replaced by the idea that if anything is more ubiquitous on the island than ponies, it is their droppings. This was triggered because my left foot stepped into a squishy pile of … something. I was momentarily hopeful it was merely a misplaced mound of mud. However, a pungent and undeniable aroma reaching my nose told me that was wishful thinking. “Shit!”, a loud and descriptive curse escaped by lips and echoed across the land.

I dropped the kayak from my head and rubbed my foot vigorously back and forth on the grass while trying to avoid any more piles. I was only partially successful in knocking the dung from between my toes.

Looking around, I realized I’d made it back to the campground. My site was a hundred yards away. Fed up with the evening, I grabbed the handle of the boat and began pulling it along the grass. At this point, my lightweight craft embodied the proverbial ton of bricks. I  motivated myself with the notion of a hot shower to warm up.   

As I dragged the kayak past the few occupied sites, I had that sixth sense feeling of being the object of strange looks. The other campers probably wondered whether I was stealing a boat in the dark; or, had been the source of the bizarre singing from the nearby woods; or, the rude curser. Or, all of the above. Regardless, I was in no mood to allay their misgivings with a friendly greeting.

Reaching the truck, I quickly grabbed a towel and warm clothes and headed to the shower to ward off what I imagined was incipient hypothermia. There, I received the coup de grace for the evening. No hot water. Great! Since, I was covered in salt and muck and manure, I steeled myself for the chilling soak. How bad could a cold shower be? Pretty freezing bad! I swear the water had to be pumped directly from the nearest glacier. If the military is looking for a replacement for waterboarding, I know the ideal substitute. Managing to survive, I got moderately clean. I will be making a submission to the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s shortest shower.

At least the campfire started quickly. As the flames defrosted my toes and tea warmed my entrails, I spotted ponies grazing near the water’s edge. I had a greater empathy for the chilly downside of their daily existence. Together, we enjoyed the sight of the timeless moon peeking through the clouds.  

END

Photo by Gabriele Motter on Unsplash

Backwater

Backwater

Bill Bilverstone

When he finally came back, he came back with a woman and—clinging to each other, leaning into the warm, slow current—they crossed the river from the opposite shore. 

“Hey!” she called after they’d scrambled onto a low island and crawled thirty or forty yards through thumb-thick willows that shut out much of the twilight, clamped in most of the heat.

Cody glanced back over his shoulder. A disassembled fishing pole thrust from the bulky yellow pack that occulted much of his grimy face. “Just a little farther,” he said. “Just another sixty or seventy yards.”

Donna could barely hear him for the crackle of what must have been eons of drifted leaves, while those that still hung from the willows rattled like tiny bones in the fusty air.

“Damn it!” She shouted when he began crawling again. “Stop!”

Cody fell back on his haunches, turned and fixed her in eyes shining with desperation.

“I know I’ve been asking a lot,” he said. “But I’m not insane. Bear with me, Donna. I can’t afford distractions until we get this over.”

“Help me,” Donna said without pleading. “I know I promised not to ask questions, but I followed you across half the freaking state with you shut up in yourself like a stone. Bear with you until we get what over?”

When she went on looking at him expectantly, Cody crawled back down the tunnel he’d forced in the willows and took her hand

“It begins,” he said, “or close enough, when I was thirteen and we lived in a trailer park a couple of miles upstream from where we are now. My mom gave me her old Discman and a box of CD’s and—especially when they’d scream at each other—I’d lie in the dark listening to the tunes.  

“Anyway,” he said, “This one summer evening after a screaming match with Mom, the old man came bursting into my room, wanting me to take off with him the next day fishing. When I didn’t move fast enough, didn’t answer him quick enough, he tore the Discman out of my hands and hauled me off the bed by the front of my shirt.

 “‘Hey! That’s mine!’ I hollered at this whiskey-smelling jerk with ‘Hotel California’ boiling out of his mitts. And just for that, the bastard smashed my Walkman against the wall.

“For about a second-and-a-half we stood there glaring at each other in the light that fell in from the hallway, and then I lost it big time and gave him this mighty shove. He bounced off the bed, slammed into the wall, and when he went sliding and cursing down between the wall and the bed, I had the good sense to run. I tore through the mudroom, snatched up a pack that I knew held a water bottle and a box of chocolate-covered raisins, and blasted out into the dusk.

“I headed downstream, splashing across an irrigation ditch and loping along the lower end of a misty hayfield until I heard my old man yelling and threw myself into the brush. After thrashing for maybe forty yards, I broke out on the river and ran hard along the bank I couldn’t hear my old man yelling, and then I ran some more. Eventually, I kind of collapsed, still clutching my pack, and when I finally caught my breath, it was so dark I could barely make out an island covered in stunted willows and way-off the silhouettes of ancient trees.  

“I waded across from the opposite shore that we just did, and after a long, dark, claustrophobic crawl through the willows, I came to a clearing with these monstrous old trees. The clearing was mostly bright sand with a few tufts of coarse grass, and way over on the far side where the cottonwoods were clumped together, a pool of black water shimmered in the light of a three-quarter moon and first stars.

“I was just sitting there next to the funky-smelling pool, wondering what-in-the-hell to do next, when something humped up out there, glistening for a moment like the back of a huge lunker fish.

“I right away checked the pack and sure enough, besides the water bottle and box of raisins, there was my cheapo, telescoping fishing pole

“What-the-heck, I thought as I hooked on three or four chocolate covered raisins and plopped them in. Even if it was just my imagination, the casting and reeling will warm me up.

“Right away something big started bumping at the bait, and I got all excited and gave a yank and zzzizzzz here comes hook, line and sinker but half the chocolate covered raisins whipping out of that black star reflecting pool.

“Whatever it was—and I say whatever it was because no trout could live in conditions like that—it must have been spooked, because when I got the hook rebaited and cast back in, it took a while before it began to bite. When it finally did, I waited until it swallowed the hook and then I gave the rod a good stiff jerk. That motherhunper reared back and went plunging all over hell with me reeling and the drag shrieking until all of a sudden it charged up to the surface and stopped. It gave me the willies the way it seemed to peer at me from just beneath the black water. And then it dove. It went straight down, I swear it. With me reeling again and the drag shrieking again, until finally the line broke with a .22-loud Thwack.  

“I got pretty bummed then. I wanted to run home and tell my dad about the humongous fish, but I couldn’t very well do that. What with me being out there in the cold and the creepiness hiding from him. 

“After a while I trudged on back to the willows and scooped a nest in the mass of leaves. I didn’t sleep very well, though, what with these upsetting dreams of hiding and fighting, and in the morning, I felt wrung out. I got up before sunligh reached the clearing, tramped on home and there was my old man sitting on the steps.  

“‘How’d you sleep?’ he says with this shit-eating grin on his big pitted face.  

“‘Not worth a damn.’

“‘Well,’ he says, ‘let’s run on into town and get you a new music machine. That piece of crap your mom gave you was practically an antique.’

“And that was that, not another word said. Except that he liked to brag to his cronies about the night his skinny kid knocked him on his ass.

Cody sucked a breath and wiped his eyes with the back of a gritty hand.

“Probably out of spite, I never did tell him about the huge lunker fish.”

“Well, thank you” Donna said, more heartsick than appeased, “at least I know why you’re toting enough tackle to land Moby Dick. But I still don’t understand why you decided to come back after all this time.”

 “You know how I’ve been jumpy and short-tempered these last few weeks? With you all the time bugging me with, “Talk to me, Cody. Cody, what’s wrong?’ Well, every night I’ve been having those very same dreams of hiding from and fighting with something I can’t make out. 

“I guess,” he said through a tortured laugh, “I’ve gone and caught myself an obsession.”

Somehow during his tale they’d got themselves switched around so that Donna was holding him as he stared off into the cankered scrub. And that was how they remained, blank-faced with no birds singing, until Donna roused herself, planted a sloppy silly kiss on his neck and said, “C’mon, Cody. If we’ve caught ourselves an obsession, we’d best see it through.”

                                                   

Despite their common purpose and much dusty crawling, an orange froth lathered the west when they broke at last into the clearing. They threw off their packs in the dense, Silurian dusk, and Cody stepped back into the leaves to dig for bait while Donna looked around. It was pretty much as he’d described, monstrous trees and mat-black water, except that one of the cottonwoods had toppled across the pool, its leafless crown shattered like a line drawing of a tree on the trackless sand.

When Cody had his pole rigged and baited, they bellied up to the pool to avoid spooking their quarry and halted just back from the torpid water. Right away Donna noticed that the pool seemed to suck as much light as it reflected, and when something stirred out there, she shuddered at the thought of a boy confronting this place alone. It was then— just as she sensed its rank sterility and vain fecundity and was wanting to drag him away whispering the urgent conviction that this pool had nothing to do with them—that he turned on her his desperate eyes. All she could do was smile and nod and give him up to relentless casting and muttered cursing while the moon rose and the cold seeped in. 

When, after an hour, there was nothing, not a single bite, Donna stood up, shivering, and said, “I’m going to start a fire.”

“What fricking ever” he snapped.

Frustrated as he was, Cody flung down armloads of splintered cottonwood while Donna used her pocketknife to shave kindling before erecting a shock. Flames were licking against the stars and half a dozen white grubs squirmed on the hook as clambered out onto the fallen tree and—balanced two feet above the fire-reflecting pool—flipped the bait out into the water.      

Almost immediately there came a tentative bump and he glanced over his shoulder, eager to whisper, “Hey, Donna, watch this,” but she was already up and stalking out from behind the wall of fire.

Bump Bump Bump the thing persisted. Cody set the hook with a vicious tug and the thing struck back like a barracuda. It plunged and writhed and slammed and jerked, but this time he was man-strong, with a man’s hard-earned skill and reckless determination, and the creature soon ceased its frenzied plunging, rose to a spot not fifteen feet from the log where, once again, it held and seemed to watch.

“Go on, you sucker,” he muttered. “Dive away, you big ugly brute.”

Instead, it rushed straight at him, rising and swimming faster and faster so that a great surging bow wave passed beneath the log where Cody never stopped reeling until the pole was jerked down, curled under and pitched him off with a tremendous splash of the blood warm water.

By the scarlet light of the prancing fire, through the wincing facets of shattered water, it banked and came storming back, long as a man but fisted into a head. He clubbed it with the butt of the rod and kneed it with slow-motion knees while the slack line wrapped them sinking together with the slimy gray eyeless head mashed against his face. 

Cody’s mouth burst open and the brackish water filled his throat as a backlit Donna came stroking down, gripped him under the chin and scissor-kicked them to the bank, where she was on them like a Valkyrie, knife glinting, slashing away the stinging line, while “Kill it,” he gagged. “Kill it,” he gasped. “Kill it before it gets away.”

Very calmly, very firmly, Donna said, “Let it go, Cody. Please let it go”

When he flung himself up, enraged, on one elbow, Donna dropped to her knees and wrapped him in a sinewy embrace. The harder he struggled the tighter she held him, whispering, “Leave it, Cody, leave it alone,” until he ran out of steam, fell back and unknotted his fisted hands.  

At the sound of a grinding slither, they turned and watched the creature—long as a man and toothless with a brow like a sperm whale—flop out into the black and scarlet pool and sink slowly away.

                                                      END

photo by Harry Rajchgot

Taquile Island

Taquile Island

William Cass

At an elevation of 13,000 feet, Taquile Island sat alone, as if dropped by the gods, in the middle of Lake Titicaca.  Puno, Peru, the closest town, was twenty miles away.  At that time, 1983, several hundred families lived there, all of them Quechua Indians.  Most of the island was covered in terraces that began at the water’s edge and climbed steeply among stone footpaths and scattered huts to the ruins on the mountaintop at its center.  No electricity, no running water, no vehicles.  It took less than an hour to walk across it in any direction.

Xavier, the youngest boy of one of the families, descended a primary footpath to the island’s main well carrying two empty clay jugs by their rope handles.  Like all males on the island, he was dressed in a loose white blouse under a black vest, black pants, sandals, with a wide red sash around his waist.  He wore a red woolen cap that had tasseled earflaps; the flaps were still tied up in the relative warmth of the dwindling late-May day, but later, after nightfall when the temperature fell towards freezing, he’d drop them.  His clothes had been woven by his mother and grandmother; the sash and cap had been knitted by his father.  The sky on the western horizon mixed vermillion with yellow.  

The well was a hole between two small boulders on the side of the path.  Another clay jug with a long rope tethered to a stake perched next to it.  Xavier set down his own jugs and lowered the roped-one into the hole until he felt it tip over into the water at the bottom.  When it had filled, he retrieved it and poured it into one of his jugs, then repeated the sequence until both of those were filled.  Next, he stood and hoisted them to his side where their heaviness dangled almost to the ground.  He began the climb back to where his family lived near the mountaintop.  He was perhaps nine-years old.  On his way, he passed several other children with empty jugs of their own.

At that same time, his sister was on the other side of the island collecting firewood, sticks and thin branches, in a shawl slung over her shoulders, a load that would become nearly as big as her.  Her twin brother had gone to bring in the family’s sheep; the two of them were a few years older than Xavier.  They’d all left the family work project they’d been helping with that day: the construction of a new hut.  It was for their older sister, Maria, who was in her late teens, and Diego, the boy she’d just married.

The sheep that Xavier’s brother followed were small, black and white.  All of them had red and blue ribbons strung through one of their ears.  Most of the bigger ones also had a front and rear leg tied loosely together to keep them from trying to scamper away; they moved awkwardly and sometimes slipped momentarily over the edge of the terraced pathway.  The sun inched lower, and it began to grow colder.  The dim shapes of slowly moving cows were visible in some terraces, as were other residents completing the same tasks along the pathways.  Here and there across the mountainside, fires and candlelight began to dot the interiors of huts.

Xavier was the first to arrive back at the terrace just below his family’s where three sides of the new hut had already been assembled in a cleared patch beside two scraggly manzanita trees.  Long shadows covered the final wall that his father and Diego had started building with adobe bricks.  In their black dresses, his mother and Maria were using rectangular wooden molds to form new bricks, which they added to the rows they’d set aside to dry.  A mark at the hem of Maria’s dress showed where the embroidered flower indicating unmarried status had recently been removed.  No one spoke.  

Xavier set down his jugs, then reclaimed his place in what was left of the pit they’d been digging and irrigating all day.  He used the spade next to it to break up several new feet of earth, poured water over the spot, kicked off his sandals, and began stomping again on the thick mud he created.  His mother came over and squatted next where he stomped.  She used her hands to scoop mud into her mold and mixed it with bits of straw from a pile next to her.  She shook and turned the mold until the wetted mixture hardly moved.  Then she carried the mold over to the collection of stiffening bricks near the new hut, carefully flipped it over, shook out the new brick, and turned it on one of its short sides to dry.  Maria was turning over other bricks that had stiffened adequately so their remaining sides would dry.  The dark, wet bricks that had first come out of the molds turned a pinkish, chalky color as they hardened.

Diego set a dry brick for the new wall in the next spot Xavier’s father had lined with wet mud mixed with straw, then tapped and straightened it into place with the heel of his hand.  They coated both sides of the new brick and its seams with more wet mud and straw, smoothing the surface with their palms.  The walls at their highest point stood short of six feet, but were taller than each of them.

The family continued to work as light fell further towards gloaming.  Eventually, Xavier’s younger sister, bent under her load, came down a path and dumped her firewood outside their hut’s open door, then joined him in the stomping pit.  Their grandmother came out of the hut and gathered a few scraps of wood for the fire inside that was cooking their dinner of vegetables simmering in a pot.

When the sky on the western horizon had become the color of a bruise, Xavier’s father shouted once, and as they all looked at him, made an “X” with his arms.  They stopped working.  Xavier’s brother was just coming over the nearest rise, his sheep’s cloven hooves clicking softly on the stones, and his father went to help with corralling them.  Xavier’s mother used water from a jug to wash the bottoms of his legs and feet, as well as his sister’s and her own hands, then the three of them walked up to their hut.  Maria and Diego stepped inside the three walls of their new home, looked around it, and embraced briefly before Diego went off to his own family’s hut several terraces away and Maria followed her family into theirs.  Xavier’s father and brother were the last to enter the hut where his grandmother was passing out clay bowls of soup and hunks of brown bread for dinner.  The fire and candles inside provided just enough light to show their faces where they sat on the earth floor and began to eat.

I opened my rucksack, took out a plastic bag of trail mix, an orange, a partially eaten chocolate bar, and the water bottle I’d brought with me on the boat from Puno that morning and began to eat, too.  I was hidden behind a clump of brush under another twisted manzanita tree perhaps twenty yards away and a little higher up the mountainside.  From there, I had a clear vista of their hut, the one they’d been building, and most of that side of the island all the way to the water’s edge at the eastern end where a full moon was just rising.  It threw a cone of shimmering silver across the dark surface of the lake.  I’d walked most of the island earlier that day after arriving on the boat, and then settled into my spot in the middle of the afternoon and began watching the family.  Around that same time, I saw the boat leave on its single daily return trip to Puno.  It was just an old converted fishing boat with benches built into the back for a dozen or so passengers; if they missed me or were concerned about my not being on the return voyage, I had no way of knowing.  I hadn’t asked if there were regulations preventing visitors from staying the night.

While I ate and watched the family finish their meal, I thought about things.  I’d only been able to make out Xavier’s, Maria’s, and Diego’s names when they’d responded to the father’s specific directions to them, but I wondered what the other family members’ names might be.  I thought about the lives they’d fashioned there together, their simple rhythms, their history, their future.  I thought about Maria and Diego’s new life together as a couple and of the woman back home in Juneau I was no longer certain I loved.  I thought about taking the boat back to Puno that next afternoon, the bus to Lima the following day, and then the plane home ending my summer’s travels where she’d be waiting to pick me up at the airport.  I thought about our own embrace there, of returning to our apartment, about starting another term at the elementary school where I taught.  She worked as a graphic artist.  We were both twenty-eight and had been together for two years. 

Full darkness had almost fallen when Xavier and his younger sister came outside the hut carrying the family’s empty bowls.  They used water from a jug to clean the bowls, shook them, and leaned them against the hut on a mat just outside the door. Next to them were the beans, carrots, and onions their grandmother had harvested earlier and sprinkled into a kind of carpet.  While they worked, those inside the hut blew out candles, spread similar mats, and begin stretching out on them under thick woollen blankets.  The mother and father moved into the darkness of the farthest corner, the grandmother next to what was left of the fire, and Maria and the brother to opposite sides of the hut.  I pulled my down sleeping bag out of my rucksack, unrolled it, and climbed into it, too, but stayed sitting up.  A small, cold breeze lifted the acrid smell of collective fires.

Xavier’s sister went back into the hut and crawled under the blanket next to Maria.  Before he went inside himself, Xavier lowered the flaps of his cap over his ears and tied its tassels under his chin.  In the moonlight, his breath came in short clouds.  He looked around him, then his gaze went up to the stars overhead, a canopy so vast it seemed impossible.  From a hut down the mountainside, the notes of a wooden flute broke the silence, a lonely, lovely sound.  For several moments, Xavier stood still, listening,  Finally, he went inside and curled up under the blanket next to his brother.  I lay down then myself, listened to the flute’s mournful song, and waited for sleep to come.

END

Photo by Thomas Quine, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

The Flower Lady

The Flower Lady

Jonathan B. Ferrini

“The Flores Family Flower Shop” was founded by my grandfather at a road side stand and grew to become a fifty-year-old favorite within San Diego.

I drive the truck to the wholesale flower market at 4:30 in the morning six days per week, purchase the flowers for the day, and unload them at the store. I also do the flower deliveries.

My pop handles the office, my mom and sister are expert flower arrangers, and we all work the phone orders and the counter. 

The “cycle of life” is inherent within the florist business; birth, birthdays, graduations, marriages, sickness, and death. We do our best to provide cheer or empathy to our clients depending upon the circumstances.

We are “first responders” to the savagery of Covid, working tirelessly to accommodate the multitude of funeral arrangements required. 

Covid didn’t “discriminate” when choosing victims. So was the case of “June”, a “soccer mom” whose thriving home-based bookkeeping service failed due to the many restaurant and bar clients shuttered by regulatory closures. The loss of a second source of income, the distractions associated with the children seeking assistance with their home-based on-line school instruction, a husband working overtime at work and with his mistress, placed pressures upon an already crumbling marriage. 

June could no longer afford the stress relieving personal athletic trainer and yoga instruction, and sought stress relief from drinking wine. The increasing wine consumption ceased relieving the stress, and June turned to Oxy found within the medicine cabinet. When the Oxy ran out, she sought sedatives from her physicians based upon fabricated ailments. When the pharmacies and physicians caught wind of the medical charade, June was cut off from her daily “fix”.

The substance abuse interfered with June’s responsibilities as a mom resulting in her husband divorcing June, taking the home and custody of their pre-teen son and daughter. The judge ruled June to be an “unfit mother”.

June found herself homeless with her sole possessions being her minivan and clothes. Her friends and family weren’t keen on helping a “substance abuser” and abandoned her.

June took to living in an inexpensive motel room, subsisting on unemployment insurance until it was exhausted and she was forced to live in her minivan. The stress of living in a car, seeking different places to park each evening, often told to leave by security or police, led to the need for heavier sedation which she found in heroin. June looked into her rear-view mirror and saw a prematurely aging junkie staring back at her.

Seeking a quick nap on a comfortable couch inside an art museum, June marvelled at the beautiful flowers painted by Van Gogh. She dreamed of running free and happy through a field of sunflowers. She was awoken by the security guard and ejected but developed an idea. 

Word spread throughout town. A “Flower Lady” was wandering about giving out flowers to strangers in hopes of a handout. We suspected the source of her flowers were the waste bins behind flower shops. 

As I returned one morning from the wholesale flower mart, I saw a beat-up minivan with a person sleeping inside. I flashed my lights at the car, awakening what appeared to be a female occupant, who sped away.

I opened the trash bin, and noticed all of the discarded slightly fresh flowers had been picked through, necessitating a lock. 

Pop said, “Let ‘em have them. Better giving pleasure to somebody than landing at the dump.”

Every morning, over the course of a week, the trash dumpster was picked through. I parked the truck down the block, and hid to find the woman with the minivan carefully assembling bouquets of discarded flowers. She was quick and demonstrated a skill at arranging beautiful sets of flowers. I let her finish and leave, before bringing the delivery truck around. 

I told Pop who suggested we set a “trap” by leaving a fast-food breakfast, coffee, orange juice, and a dozen roses with an invitation to come inside and meet pop. 

June “took the bait”. She entered the store carefully as if fearing arrest. Pop greeted her and invited her inside his office to sit, handing her a cup of coffee she grasped and savored. 

Pop had an instinct about people. I think it was June’s eyes which won him over. Her eyes were dark orbits with tired red pupils, teary, frightened, craving love and understanding. They spoke to Pop’s emotions.

June was about 5’2’’ inches tall, emaciated, with long, stringy, dirty blond hair becoming gray.  The substance abuse and stress of living in a minivan made a woman in her mid-thirties look to be in her late forties.

Ferrini/Flower/3

June’s clothing and shoes were thrift store cast offs. There was a faint scent of urine about her suggesting the lack of a shower and toilet facilities for days. The lines and wrinkles in her face resembled deep, raging rivers leading to her soul, eventually drowning her, alone in an alley, with the only mourners being garbage cans.  

“Don’t be afraid, ma’am. What’s your name?”

“June. I’m sorry for taking your flowers. I won’t return. Please don’t call the police!”

“My name is Hernan, June, and I won’t call the police. I want to help you.”

After hearing June’s circumstances, Pop recanted,

“When I came to San Diego, I was broke and lived inside my beat-up station wagon parked next to my roadside flower stand. I understand hard times, June. I need extra help today. We’re slammed with customers, as it’s prom season. I’ll pay you $100 cash. We close at 7:00.”

June cleaned up in the bathroom and we provided her a clean shirt and florist apron to cover her disheveled clothing. She immediately went to work at the counter and taking phone orders.

June related to the emotional suffering of a teenage girl without a date requiring a corsage to the prom,

“This corsage is beautiful, darling. I’m certain you’ll attract many gentlemen to dance with you.”

June was empathetic with a young man selecting flowers for a first date,

“What’s your budget, Sir?”

“I was hoping to spend under $10.”

“I suggest a single rose. It will include a beautiful fern, lovely wrapping, and I’ll tie a ribbon around it for $5.00. She’ll love it!”

June began to sob, and retreated to the restroom. My mother knocked on the door and asked to be let in to console her.

“Why are your crying, June? You’re doing a wonderful job!”

“The teenage girl and young man are the age of my children taken from me. I haven’t seen them in months and may never will!”

“June, honey, there’s a nightly non-denominational substance abuse meeting run by a female pastor named “Sunny Dominguez”. Many of my son’s friends have benefited from these meetings. Between your hard work here, and your meetings, we’ll have a lawyer convince the judge to grant you visitation rights.

“You’re about the same size of my daughter. The three of us we’ll go through her closet and I’m certain Lupe will be pleased to have you pick out and keep any clothing she no longer wears.

“Sunday dinner is a big deal around our house. Please consider yourself a permanent guest.”

Mom held June tightly until she could resume work.

June had a glow on her face, bolstered by pride in a good day’s work, $100 bill, and a new found confidence in seeing her children. 

Pop offered June a full-time job, and use of a cot in the store room where she could live until she got back on her feet. 

In the ensuing weeks, June was always pleasant, upbeat, and hard working. The work around the store, combined with the opportunity to meet similarly situated people of all ages at the sobriety meetings, brought June happiness and sobriety.

June mastered all facets of the business including the register, taking phone orders, creating flower designs, and even making deliveries and pick ups when I wasn’t available. Customers would call and ask for June by name.

About three months into the job, June was excited to report she had been granted a visitation hearing and hoped her regular substance abuse meetings and Pop’s testimony would win visitation rights with her children.

Pop attended the visitation hearing, sadly reporting the judge denied visitation rights citing “unproven sobriety”. 

June never returned to work. 

We hadn’t seen June for months until I arrived one morning and saw her minivan. She was slumped across the steering wheel, a hypodermic needle within her arm, and an envelope marked for Pop. Alongside her body were opened photo albums showing her family; likely her last moments together with those she loved.

Pop opened the envelope, and found a cashier’s check payable to a funeral home for a cremation and scattering of ashes at sea. There was a second cashier’s check made payable to our flower shop, requesting the creation of a simple spray of tropical flowers.

Mom and my sister immediately went to work on the funeral “spray”. We charged no fee for the “spray” choosing instead to donate the check to Sunny’s substance abuse center. The funeral home provided a 50% discount and donated the remainder to the same cause.

It was sunset when the boat sailed around Point Loma and into the Pacific Ocean. All of our family was aboard. June’s family chose not to attend.

Sunny Dominguez eulogized, 

“The world is full of fragile souls with loving hearts who become lost on their journey through life. When faced with adversity, and despite valiant efforts to recover, they succumb. June was one such soul.

She was fortunate to have met your family and receive your love and compassion. She will always be a member of your family, and you’ll find solace in the belief you were chosen to help June.”

June’s ashes were placed inside a water proof floating container along with her photo albums. The beautiful tropical spray was attached to the container and placed into the ocean by Pop. 

We watched June’s “vessel” quickly carried by the ocean current west towards tropical paradise as the sun set into the ocean. 

We shouted,

“Bon Voyage, Flower Lady.” 

“We love you!”

END

photo by Harry Rajchgot

World Travellers

 

World Travellers

J L Higgs

The airplane descended through the field of dark gray clouds into dazzling sunlight.  Asha leaned forward in her window seat, raised her camera, and pointed it at the dense jungle o

f ancient Banyan and Silk Cottonwood trees.

As the plane’s wheels bumped against the tarmac, she thought,  Air Force.  The takeoffs and landings by each branch of the armed forces were as different as signatures.

Removing her chewing gum, Asha wrapped it in paper and placed it in her shoulder bag next to a small, thick plastic bag.  “We’ll be there soon, Jabir,” she said. 

Traveling North on Sivutha Boulevard, the tuk-tuk moved through the encroaching untamed forest land with a determined steadiness, leaving Siem Reap behind.  After about 20 minutes, it had reached the sandstone causeway.  From there, the towers built to represent Mount Meru could be seen.   

Asha and Jabir were world travellers.  In the last three years, they’d been to Stonehenge, Chichen Itza, Petra, Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal, and Easter Island.  All of those places had been impressive,  but this trip was special.

o

After moving into a condominium complex without having done her normal due diligence, Asha had had a sleepless night.  Were there other single older women?  What about other black residents?  She’d often been “the only one,” and found interacting only with people lacking experience and an understanding of people of color uncomfortable.  

As she returned from her early morning walk, she saw a dark-skinned man outside the door of the unit diagonal to hers.  He had salt and pepper colored hair, a graying moustache, and was wearing a well-tailored suit.  With one arm, he was pinning a set of file folders against his side.  In his other hand, he held a commuter cup as he attempted to lock his door. 

“Good morning,” called out Asha.  

  Spinning in her direction, the folders slipped, and the cup’s contents spilled onto his hand and clothing.  “Shit,” he said, shoving the door open with his shoulder.  Then he kicked it shut behind him, his keys left dangling in the lock. 

That evening, as Asha continued unpacking her moving boxes, she heard a knock at her door.  Through its peephole, she saw the man from across the hall.  Sighing, she opened the door the length of its safety chain.   

“Can I help you?” 

“An apology.  For this morning,” he said, holding out a bottle of wine.

“That’s not necessary.” She started to close the door. 

“Then a welcoming gift from one neighbor to another,” he added.  

She hesitated.  His warm brown eyes appeared sincerely apologetic.  “Would you like to come in?”  she asked, unhooking the chain and accepting the wine bottle.

“Maybe for a minute or two,” he answered.

After they exchanged names and basic pleasantries, he explained that he’d been running late for a morning appointment with a client.  She then asked if he’d like to join her in a glass of wine?  He said he didn’t want to interrupt whatever she’d been doing. 

“No worries,” she said.  “I know where the wine glasses are.”  Walking over to a stack of moving boxes, she slid the top box aside and opened the lids of the one beneath it.  “Voilà.”

After pouring the wine, Asha went over to her couch and plopped down cross-legged.  Jabir looked around for a place to sit.  Boxes and unpacked items occupied all the other furniture in the room, so he joined her on the couch.

As she took a sip from her glass, he noted her high cheekbones, cropped hair, and large gold hoop earrings.  She possessed a unique sculptured beauty.  Smiling, her dimples surfaced, making her look playfully mischievous.

“Where are you from?”  he asked.  “You don’t sound like you’re from around here.” “Air Force brat.” She stretched an arm along the top of the couch.  “I was born in South Korea.  My father was stationed at Osan Air Force Base at the time.  You?”

  “Born and raised right here,”  he said, shaking his head.  “What was it like?”

“South Korea or being an Air Force brat?”

“Either…  both?”

“Ever been to South Korea?”

“No.  Always wanted to travel, but never had the opportunity.”

“We moved around.  Ramstein in Germany.  Lakenheath in the UK.  You go where you’re sent.”

“Must’ve been hard.”

“You adapt., though constantly being the new kid isn’t great,” she said, pausing momentarily.  “The hard part is making sure not to form attachments, since your living situation is temporary.  Now that I’ve retired, I’m looking forward to some stability.”

“What’d you do before retirement?”

“Air traffic control.  Same as my father.  I joined the Air Force after high school. Completed my tech training in Biloxi, and was assigned to Aviano, Italy.  Got transferred a few times after that and when I left the Air Force, I got a job across the river, at JFK.” 

“You always wanted to be an air traffic controller?”

“No.”  She laughed and lithely stretched out her legs.  “I will say that keeping all the moving pieces on the ground and in the air in sync is exciting.  That’s why controllers and pilots rely on a shorthand language for communication.  You’ve got to be flexible, creative, and decisive.”    

“Sounds intense.” 

“It can be stressful,” she said, then took another sip of wine.  “I wanted to be a photojournalist, but my folks weren’t too keen on the idea.  They didn’t think that was a realistic career goal for a black girl.”  She shook her head.  “I mentioned Gordon Parks to them and they said one exception was exactly that, and he was a man.  How ‘bout you?”

“Insurance?”  He shook his head.  Necessity had dictated his life decisions.   “Pure accident.”  

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” she said, raising her glass in a toast.

“John Lennon.” He returned the gesture, then took a sip from his glass.

They drank in silence, both lost in their thoughts.  At times, their eyes made contact, and they shyly smiled at one another.  

“Ever miss it?” he asked, breaking the silence. 

“What?”

“The Air Force?  JFK?”

“Sometimes I miss being an air traffic controller,” she said.  “It’s like you’re conducting a symphony but with real life and death implications.  The Air Force or JFK?  Never.  In every workplace, there’s someone who causes infighting.  And there’s also usually some white guy in upper management making everyone’s lives miserable.  Know what I mean?”

“Definitely,” he said, nodding.  “And they’re always spouting their unasked for opinions no matter how offensive they may be.”

“Exactly.”

“What’s that saying?  The higher a monkey climbs, the more you see just a behind.”  

They both laughed. 

“I can’t count how many times I’ve had to hold my tongue,” he said.  “If I ever said what I truly think of them or what they say, I couldn’t keep a job.”

Grimacing, she nodded.  “Well, at least we can commiserate among ourselves.”

“Yeah.  It’s one of the rare times we don’t have to be on our guard.”

With the atmosphere having once again turned somber, Asha and Jabir sat silently, contemplating their own thoughts, and sipping the wine in their glasses.

Suddenly, Asha sprang to her feet.  She went over to one of the moving boxes and removed a thick photo album.  Returning to the couch, she set the album down on the coffee table in front of it.  As she paged through the album, Jabir slid forward to get a better look, his thigh inadvertently touching hers.  He looked down.  She’d stopped on a page of sunlit, whitewashed buildings with blue-domed rooftops.

After staring at the arresting image for a few moments, he turned the page.  There was a photo of The Great Wall of China with morning mist rising from its rough-hewn stones toward snow-capped mountains. 

  “Did you take these?” he asked, turning back to the first photo.  “What’s this one?” “It’s of some homes overlooking the Aegean Sea in Santorini, Greece at sunset.” “They’re amazing.”

“Well, thanks to the US Air Force, I traveled extensively while I was in the service.  I’ve got a bunch of albums like this one…  if you’re interested?”

“I’d love to see them.” 

After that, Asha and Jabir began taking turns hosting each other at dinner once a week.  Following dessert, they’d look at her photos.  He’d ask questions about each country’s food, customs, and inhabitants.  She found his inquisitiveness and attentiveness to her responses uniquely refreshing.  He was consistently impressed by the depth of her knowledge.

  As the months passed, their dinners became more elaborate, the bottles of wine more expensive, and that evening’s attire in line with that of a special occasion.  It was during one such dinner that Jabir told Asha what had led to his lifelong fascination with foreign places.

  Excited by the opportunity to see bare-breasted indigenous women in the Amazon Rainforest, a childhood friend had snuck a copy of The National Geographic magazine from his home.  In that same issue, there’d been an article about the Angkor Vat temple complex in Cambodia.  The photos of the multi-tiered sandstone buildings adorned with images from Hindu mythology had so captivated Jabir that he requested a subscription for his 12th birthday. 

From then on, he’d devoured every page of the yellow-covered monthly magazine when it arrived.  And while his adolescent peers decorated their bedroom walls with photos of star athletes and hot cars, he covered his with pictures of places he dreamed of visiting.  

On another evening, as they looked at some of Asha’s earliest photos, she went into her bedroom and emerged with a small cube-shaped camera.  It was a 243 Baby Brownie Special.  Her very first camera.  She told Jabir her maternal grandmother had given it to her when her father received his first overseas assignment.  She and her grandmother had been very close and agreed that Asha would send her photos of the places they lived.  But photography soon became an obsession.  Over the years, Asha had acquired more sophisticated equipment and taken courses covering everything from shooting techniques and photo composition to darkroom skills. 

With their ages, lived experience as black people, and interest in travel in common, Asha and Jabir’s relationship flourished. In addition to their dinners, they began spending time together attending movies, going for sunset walks, and watching television.  Being in each other’s company so often also led them to share their life stories. 

Asha learned a stroke had partially paralyzed Jabir’s father the summer he graduated from high school.  Because of that, he’d foregone college and gotten a job to help his family financially. When the last of his four much younger siblings completed high school, he was studying for his insurance licensing exam.  After that, he’d married, subsequently gotten divorced, then spent years caring for his aging parents.

“I’ve lived alone since their deaths,” he said.  “I’m not that close to my brothers and sisters.” 

“That can be a good thing,”  she said, “Provided that it doesn’t lead to loneliness.” 

Jabir learned Asha was an only child and never married, despite twice coming close.  In both instances, her prospective husband had wanted her to leave the service and be a stay-at-home mother.  Jabir asked her if she ever regretted not marrying.  

“I’ve grown accustomed to having my own personal space and things as I want,” she said.  “Sometimes when I was doing a lot of traveling, it would have been nice to have had someone with me, but things just didn’t work out that way.”  

“That sounds a bit lonely.”

Looking thoughtful, she then said, “Well, during the day, you’re normally busy sightseeing.  It’s the constant dinners and nights alone in a foreign country with no one to talk with that are hard.”

That night, for the first time in a very long time, they spent the night with one another.  Theirs was not the sexually charged passion of youths.  Instead, each of them took simple comfort in knowing someone understood and deeply cared for them. 

   In the morning, when Jabir awakened, he lay there watching Asha sleep peacefully.  When she finally opened her eyes, he smiled at her and said, “I’ve been thinking.  We could travel together.” 

She stared at him, the silence discomforting.  Then he noticed the warmth in her eyes. Feeling reassured, he said, “I’ve been thinking of retiring.  We’re both in good health.  I’ve never been sick a day in my life.”

“I’d like that,” she said, moving closer until their bodies touched.  “You only live once.” After that, Asha and Jabir often spent the night together.  The focus and purpose of their dinners became deciding what places they’d like to visit.  First to make the list was Angkor Wat. When the places and their potential travel schedule had been settled upon, Jabir asked Asha if she thought they should purchase travel insurance.

“Why?” she asked.

“For protection.” 

She laughed.  “Once an insurance salesman, always an insurance salesman.  You do realize there’s no such thing as unlimited protection or an absolute guarantee.” 

He joined her in laughter.

o

Now,  late in the day, as the sunlight was waning, most of the tourists had departed.   Asha’s thoughts returned to the present as she set her shoulder bag on the ground, knelt down, and pretended to tie her shoe.  Digging in the ground with her forefinger, she created a shallow trough.  Then, she reached inside the shoulder bag, pulled out the plastic bag, and poured its coarse, white, sand-like contents into the trough.  

Jabir’s strokes and heart attack had been sudden and unexpected.  In the three years since his death, Asha had done her best to fulfill their plans.  His siblings, not having kept in contact with their brother, had actually appeared relieved when she asked for some of his cremated remains.  

Task done, Asha swept the loose dirt back in place with her hand and stood up.  She placed the now-empty plastic bag inside the shoulder bag and draped its strap over her shoulder.

  “Angkor Wat is beautiful, Jabir.,” she said.  “You’d have loved it.”  Then, after kissing her fingertips and touching them to her heart, she raised her camera toward the temple and pressed the shutter release button.      

END

Photo attribution: Termer, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Poems from the Loo

Poems from the Loo

Catherine A. Coundjeris

I thought it was important.

Zoom, zoom far away and long ago

when I was flying high above the clouds

on a journey to England from 

my home in Maryland.

Head full of old English poetry

and visions of plum pudding

and clotted cream dancing in my head.

I thought it was important

my first flight ever and I packed 

all the poetry I had ever written

in a white plastic bag that I carried

without a care in the world with my grey purse

on board the airplane.

Mother said, Careful, you will lose it all,

but I didn’t believe her.

I thought it was important

on a six-hour flight.

Dinner in a basket and  

I tucked the basket and green apple 

into the white plastic bag 

to keep for later

and then landed at Heathrow

Zoom, zoom onto Victoria station.

I thought it was important.

Bags and all

picked up by George and Maureen

And whisked off to their London flat.

A nap and a holy dream

of stone castles and grey skies.

Then a trip to the fish market

to buy our salmon dinner

and to get some fresh air.

After a bowl of olives

I thought it was important.

My appetite turned to the apple

as I realized the white bag was gone.

All my poetry was lost!

George took me to Victoria Station

and there in the loo the

Jamaican caregiver told me

I thought it was important.

She had tucked it into her

cleaning closet for safe keeping.

Basket and apple and poems.

George more knowing than I

gave her a large tip

and I was forever grateful

to George and that beautiful woman

and her lovely words.

I thought it was important.

What was lost was found again!

Those lyrics echoed in song

 forever in my mind:

Poems from the Loo.

photo by Harry Rajchgot

TRICKS

TRICKS

John Grey

Pick a card.
Any card.
Let me guess.
It’s the sunlit oak trunk
of Canadian forests.
No wait,
I see red-shelled bedbugs
and the suit…
the flag of storms.
Now put it back
among the tender people
and the loudmouths,
the revolutionaries
and the computers.
Let me shuffle.
Pick another card.
It’s the black misted canyon
of New York hotels.
Am I right?
Stop shaking your head like that.
I know it’s thousands of people in pain
of the metal finger cymbals.
I’m sorry.
You were expecting
the ten of clubs or something.
But I’m not a magician.
You don’t even need
to pick a card.
I can tell you it’s
the penumbra of reckless cancers
or the weakened eye
of Capitalism’s forefathers.
Okay, no more tricks.
I’ll just hand you
the last thing I wrote about you.
No, don’t shuffle it.
Don’t ask me to pick a card.
If you know it’s the
white-capped waters
of love long passed,
then what’s left for me to say?

photo by Harry Rajchgot

Of Autumn

Of Autumn

for Josephine

Rose Maloukis

light—

days when the wind

floats branches on the far

side of the park, 

pushes slow and rolls 

light onto leaves—

they bow, turn, lift 

their shoulders I

I cannot look away

your shoulders

light brightens—

naked yellow lapping 

the last warmth 

before stepping 

into cold corridors

little little girl in light

determined, walks

with her father—

he glances at me

you glance at me

light—    

photo by Harry Rajchgot

Things Fall Off

Things Fall Off

John Reed

Things fall off and roll under other things. 

And sometimes they break when you’re almost done. 

And then you’re late but you have to go back. 

And people think they’re being so clever. 

And the cords are tangled just out of reach. 

And what should we do with our precious time?

And what would we do without Novocaine?

Maybe eat with our hands, much too loudly. 

Maybe ask our frenemies for more money. 

Maybe take the extra party favor.

Maybe flip the switches and hitch the latches. 

And itemize what we can’t leave behind. 

And scream in tunnels on the sleeper train. ⠀

photo by Harry Rajchgot

Climbing Mount Royal, 2020

Climbing Mount Royal, 2020

Peter Richardson

You’re twitchier than usual coming up this path

that shadows the curves of Camelien Houde road

but at least you’ve sloughed off the windy effluvia

of other people’s sidewalk breath as you slowpoke 

up the last three turns to the guard-railed belvedere.

Here’s where muscle cars idle in parking spots. Fans

of flaming tailpipes pass blunts between leather seats

till someone coughs which sparks a round of guffaws

and loud heckling. You remember that kind of a scene

taking place five decades ago in someone’s apartment.

Can it really be that long? Taj Mahal and The Doors

provided background music in the last years of a war

that ended on an embassy rooftop. You sat in circles

in rooms reeking of patchouli oil, while somewhere

graduate students struggled onward to their degrees.

You wonder if the guys in that Camaro give a crap

about becoming accountants or even laying cement

so it doesn’t crack after the first frost. Looking east

to Rougemont, you attempt to quiet your thoughts,

seeing them as clouds hanging over Mt. St-Hilaire.

At last, you stumble onto the Olmstead summit loop

with its west-facing glimpse of Lac St-Louis. That,

surely, is what you came for—a far off panorama 

of shoreline and river that just keeps on flowing

beyond jammed ICUs and sleep-deprived nurses.

Aren’t they the ones you should be saluting 

as you head for Beaver Lake, Tu Fu’s Selected

riding in your back pocket? All honour to that 

frail court advisor who, despite bouts of asthma,

penury and near-death treks over snowy gorges,

could praise the hoe he used for digging wild roots.

photo by Harry Rajchgot

Françoise Singing

Françoise Singing 

Peter Richardson

It blindsided them and ended the awkward

talk they’d been making when finally they

rustled up three cups of over-steeped tea

and sat across from her in recycled air

in the long-term care canteen—bald

son-in-law and grown granddaughter.

Wasn’t Françoise down to three words

of greeting? How could she sink a shaft

far enough down in her mind to recoup

this tuneful blues banisher? If pressed,

her visitors might’ve said they sensed

a slippage to a crowded kitchen table

on, say, a Sunday in Montreal’s vanished

Faubourg à mélasses, her father tapping

a glass for her to sing a snatch of Piaf.

The war in Europe over, rationing ending,

butter on the table, mint jelly, leg of lamb,

her kid brother and sisters called to order

by the faux-gruff father. But that’s fantasy.

This is Françoise at ninety, holding notes

in a lunchroom with no one to press record

just two maladroit listeners trying to field

what’s thrown to them—flats and sharps

that peel through air—sonic tchotchkes

that won’t come again, much less a medley

for the dazed father-daughter duo who clap

with hands that don’t know what else to do.

photo by Harry Rajchgot

Promenade

Promenade

Peter Richardson

I used to be able to lope along at the clip my daughter’s maintaining,

the younger one—fifty years my junior—cruising a step ahead

as we cross St-Denis. I tell her I’m bemused by the speed

with which she eats up ten blocks, then twenty and I remember

my father asking me to speak up, to repeat what I’d just said.

Can you please slow down a bit? I ask, and she decelerates 

before zooming ahead again. My father’s early hearing loss 

brought out the callous teen in me. I wanted him to try harder

as if he had a character defect that would get better if he made

an effort. Are you going to a fire? I ask. She sighs. We approach

Parc Jeanne-Mance. I used to be as fast as you. These days

I have to double-time to gain the half step I need to keep up.

My hearing’s shot too, I say, which she claims has more to do

with my not listeningthan with needing space-age hearing aids.

And what does pretending to be deaf have to do with dawdling?

she asks, as we dogtrot across Parc Avenue and up the brick

walkway past the gazebo. Was I ever this rude with my father?

I bow to her peppery wit. She’s fed up with my non-sequiturs,

my failure to listen when she and her mother talk in that elided

mother-daughter French which, although always grammatical,

leaves me in the semantical dust—but isn’t it up to me to hustle,

to cinch in my belt and listen with renewed zeal in the new Babel?

photo by Harry Rajchgot

kingdom of nil

kingdom of nil

john sweet

grey on grey in the kingdom of nil,

and kay would understand this

you escape only to return of

your own free will

you dream of suicide

of windowless rooms

within windowless rooms

doors that open onto

endless variations of your

lover’s naked corpse, 

and is there still the possibility

                                      of joy?

quietly, maybe

cautiously

the future always

remains a possibility, 

the past can always be

torn down and built again,

                             or this –

we are only ourselves, but we

can learn to be flawless liars

we can keep saying i love you

until it finally means something,

but you knew this already

you came back again

only to plot your escape

only to prove how easy it

was to leave me behind

i don’t feel anything no more

i don’t feel anything no more

john sweet

the death days,

everywhere and always

the decorations hung, but

most of the lights burnt out, and so

fuck the past and fuck

the present

ignore the future

you will fall in love, yes, but

fear will always be the stronger emotion

the house,

collapsing slowly

the drugs your children take to

help them forget you,

and listen – 

christ’s hands are too small to

hold all of the

pain we cause each other

these cities are destined

to become deserts

man builds a house 

just to set it on fire

buys a gun and then

shoots at the sun

understands that there can never 

be anything more

terrifying than hope

almighty

almighty

 

john sweet

 

two in the afternoon and

cold enough to understand the

meaning of hell

 

corpses of children still

smoldering in frozen ditches

 

dogs sick, dogs starving and

always the need for a

war that will leave only

          peace in its wake

 

always a clock running

backwards in an empty room

 

fields full of anonymous

bones and nothing beyond

them but more of the same