Tag Archives: JANUARY 2023

Boadyland

Boadyland

Jonathan B. Ferrini

The squeaky metal fan churns white noise burying me alive in a deep REM sleep suddenly shattered by a car alarm. 

I slide out of a sheet wet from perspiration and into a wrinkled wash and wear suit, out the door holding a Styrofoam cup of instant coffee tasting like battery acid.

There’s no need to join the Foreign Legion, travel the world, hang out in Paris coffee houses or drop LSD when your mind serves up a dream loaded with the ingredients of a murky, subconscious stew, rich with flavor resulting in the next story.

Consider the RSVP carefully when opening the invitation from your subconscious mind to follow it down the rabbit hole because you may be surprised what you find. 

Caution.

 Watch the highway!

Muggy morning summer air, a prelude to a monotonous job I crawl towards in heavy traffic.

Seeking distraction from the radio dial but find only missiles of rage fired at me from morning talk radio generals.

Damn, another soldier advancing towards his own war cuts me off, forcing me down an offramp named Boadyland dropping me into a neighborhood resembling purgatory.

I stop on a chewed-up street of people and dreams.

Dilapidated homes occupied by people without hope. 

Unhappy, maybe alone, and desperate for their dope.

A delicate hand waives me into a cozy house fronting a street smelling of mace, meth, and death under the concrete overpass nobody but the disenfranchised know.

I meet a beautiful single mom planning a party for her baby girl.

“What can I contribute?”

“Whatever you choose, sweetie.”

“I’ll write her a birthday poem.”

I write and the tears flow witnessing mom’s resolve to make a gift out of nothing except people filling the street, their clothes resembling festive wrapping paper, showing up to celebrate a child’s life.

Everyone chilling and catching a breath before they hit the next curve ball thrown at them.

The ethnic potpourri creating culinary delights provides an abundance of light warming the celebration like a huge candle atop a cake made for a princess.

Cops cruising by, pointing their spotlights, scoping out the delight, but only meeting a paper plate of savory treasures. They’re appreciative and confess,

“Our badges have become too heavy to wear!”

“What about winter?”

“Ah, it’s hell, man.”

“Don’t listen to that dude, baby.

It’s the same peeps, eats, just turning the metal barrel barbecues into sidewalk space heaters, and icey cold drinks become soul warming liquor laced liquid treats. 

Same vibe wearing heavy clothing.”

I was dancing, eating, and loving inside a far out, freaky fraction of urban blight.

The bass tone to the jam was the incessant din of cars racing along the superhighway above us like subatomic particles blasted through a particle accelerator designed to crash into each other revealing the God Particle.

Sweet baby mama draws me near and whispers,

“That elusive particle is ethereal and found inside every human heart.”

I shout upwards towards the overpass,

“Crawl out of the Petri dish, stand firmly on both legs, and head over to the party at Boadyland!

I heard Galileo, Hawking, and Feynman might show.”

image by Harry Rajchgot

Dolphins of the Ganges

Dolphins of the Ganges

R.P. Singletary

In the midst of the warm winter sun, we ate and slept along the waters of the Ganges, dreaming of the river’s famed, elusive inhabitants. Smartphones stowed, computers and voicemail and traffic forgotten, this trip counted a lifetime in its making. Lying there with the heat of the mid-day’s rays casting an aura around her dimmed glow, she sighed. Ananyā turned her face into the pillow that the boatman had provided. “Watch for the susu,” he’d advised yesterday. She cuddled into the blanket, away from the sunny heat. I saw my chest move, felt my lungs breathe. I was breathing again, no longer holding my breath, wondering mistakes of the past. Nights of camping stretched into days of lounging, the boatman and his pal doing all the work, cooking, cleaning, paddling. Rudra had arranged it all. He wouldn’t take a single rupee, saying only, “That’s not how we do things here.” Thousands of miles away from his one-time home of Atlanta, my old chum now back in Delhi lived the definition of Southern hospitality when he arranged our trip. I tried, got frustrated, even with the internet, over the internet. Too many choices, too many chances, and whom could I trust so far away? The ordeal of Ananyā’s sorrow had capsized my tendency to stay afloat, so I turned things over to Rudra.

“Mark!”

“Yes, I’m here. I’m right here,” I said.

“Of course you are.” She reached for my right hand, which had always been within her reach. She grasped it with her left, squeezed it, sighed, collapsed back into the blankets – a routine I knew all too well, by this point in the journey.

“The ceremony was perfect,” she said.

“I know,” I replied.

Looking out over the landscape, I envied the constancy of the blooming mustard plants. Everywhere you looked: yellow atop green, high above the riverbanks. The wind danced into nature’s colors and always returned them to their proper place, yellow atop green. I didn’t want to consider their larger cycle. Come harvest time, they too would be cut down, replaced by their offspring the following season.

“I miss him,” Ananyā said. I extended my hand again, yet held my thought to myself, caressing only her hand.

“There will never be another like your Dad, I know,” I wobbled my head sideways in the way Indians have a tendency of wanting to do. She smiled. “You love me. If I ever doubted, I can no longer remember that time. This is what I needed, exactly what we needed. Thank you.”

Svaagat hai,” I replied. She smiled, again. I leaned into her and this time, for a moment, she held me.  She smelled of peace.

While her father lived, Ananyā could only love him. Her mother died giving birth to her, bequeathing Ananyā a lifelong legacy of motherlessness and only-child syndrome. Both of Ananyā’s parents came from very large families, all of whom had turned out for our wedding. In typical Indian fashion, several festive days of marital events combined generations and centuries of secrets, traditions, colors, fragrances – altogether, sensory overload for my family’s Christian half of the extravagant party. Her cousin, trained in opera, sang ancient Sanskrit lessons. With prompting by an aunt of my bride, one of my cousins arranged flowers, four floral pillars representing four stabilizing parents. My Garden Club mother still talks about the roses, carnations, marigolds. When he saw the four pillars in the chapel, Ananyā’s father said his wife, finicky as she was about flowers and ritual, would have approved.

Ananyā never fussed. She grew into the perfect child. She knew that because of her birth, her parents’ marriage had ceased. That’s how her sensitive spirit and precocious mind worked, and she tried to simplify all things into clear-cut, cause-and-thus-effect, this-leads-to-that. At a young age, she told me, she felt immense brokenness from her father, so she set about to achieve, to make her father proud, so he, unlike her mother, would never abandon her. That was how her young mind thought, she told me. Needless to say, she far exceeded any modern father’s imagination of filial success, from son or daughter. She lived up to her father’s family name, but also to her own: Ananyā, in her ancient language, meaning having no equivalent. The daughter-father bond merely strengthened over the decades, despite the distance after we married.

“Do you want to say anything?” she asked me last week, on the flight from Delhi to Varanasi.

“About what?”

“At the ceremony.”

I had never considered this an option. In so many traditional ways, I remained the outsider here. Since the new prime minister, things were changing even faster, yet millennia of tradition lay rooted, blooming and perfuming and incensing all of life here.

“I really don’t know what’s appropriate,” I said to her.

“Oh, I think in this day and time, just about anything is.”

“Even in Varanasi?” I asked.

Oh, my God. I don’t know. I’ve never been.” We laughed. My wife had seen more of the United States than she had of her ancestral lands.

An American Southerner by birth, I had read all of Twain’s works before turning sixteen. Somehow I remembered his description of the holy Hindu city: Older than history, older than the tradition of history, older even than the dirt where the tradition started, something like that. When we’d first arrived there, I didn’t think much of the place. I kept looking for unique evidence, museum-quality proof, but living remnants to justify Twain’s assessment and locals’ claims that their city was, in fact, the world’s oldest continuously inhabited, still-active city. My silent assessment: too dirty, in broad daylight or subtle moonlight; too real, at any and every hour of day or night, when cremated smoke fluttered heavenward through birds scavenging nutrient-rich, murky waters. As with India, as with the American South, we all have our rituals. Outsiders devote lifetimes to deciphering us, or trying to–

Ever true to his claim, unseen friend Rudra had handled with aplomb every detail of our trip.  The long-haul flight from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson to Delhi’s Indira Gandhi, the shorter flight on to Varanasi and its sparkling new terminal, the polite driver with bottles of water and the comfy SUV ride into the age-old city, the stay at the guesthouse adjacent to the Manikarnika Ghat. We arrived in time to say our final good-byes, but it would all be over for us too in a few days, and we’d soon be following our earlier path, yet this time in reverse.

“Rudra, what are you doing here?” I said, startled to see him entering the lobby of the guesthouse. “We were about to go out for a stroll.”

“I decided to surprise y’all.”

Y’all sounds so quaint over here, Rudra,” Ananyā teased him before hugging him.

“This is so out of the way for you to be here,” I interjected, shaking his hand. “It’s not like Delhi is just a float down the river.”

“I had to go to Bihar for work.”

“What a lovely surprise!” Ananyā said.

“Nice to see you in such spirits, Ananyā.”

“Rudra, you didn’t have to–”

“Rudra,” I said, “really, truly, you didn’t have to do this. You’ve already done so much.”

“In all truthfulness, I’d never been to Varanasi. I couldn’t be outdone by a couple of friends from Atlanta!”

“Too funny,” my wife and I said at the same time.

On our walk, Rudra gingerly relayed rumors that the family in charge of the central fire for Varanasi cremations was Muslim. Talk of that kind living for long in this country surprised me, but as fiction often mothers truth, I wobbled my head. 

“I think you’re talking about the Muslims who hold the keys to the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem,” I said.

Rudra wobbled in kind. He said he’d already arranged the priest and torch-bearers upon his arrival. Everything would be perfect, as it had been for all of our visit, no need for worry.

I thought I knew India, married one of her beauties, familiar with much of its history, a speaker of thoda thoda Hindi, and oh, I can count: shoonya, ek, do, teen, char, panch….Preparing for the cremation unveiled a side of this world still very foreign to me: “Isn’t it lovely?” seldom crossed my mind as a question during funerals back home. “Isn’t it lovely?” the erstwhile funeral director kept mumbling, while preparing the body’s shroud and stoking the nearby fire. “Isn’t it lovely.” This time as a statement. “It is time. Chalo.” We followed.

I thought I knew death, helping bury three of my grandparents and an unknown number of cousins, but the eternal flames of old Varanasi and the tears of my modern and beautifully sad Indian-American wife conspired to conjure other definitions. Life, still so precious, despite our similar shades of differing wants. The purifying body of my father-in-law burned in front of me, and all I could think of saying remained unsaid. It was true for all of us there, my wife, me, and Rudra, who had respectfully distanced himself during the cremation. I held Ananyā’s hand. We both knew he had lived a good life. This man, who moved across time zones – a full day’s journey even by plane – to try to be with his sole daughter, but eventually did not take to Western ways and returned home before it was too late for him. I now saw that he loved me, too, because I loved her. I finally got it, despite our differences and our quarrels. The beauty of life, the transcendence of generations, the lore of Kālidāsa and Shakespeare, the lure of empire, its timelessness we all seek.

Georgia so far away, the Ganges nearby, I looked at Ananyā, her bindi proudly in place, a tribute to her father. Eventually, we stepped away from one another, the immensity of the ceremony needing room to breathe, as if fanning a flame. A single tear coagulated on her left cheekbone, suspending time. Our eyes locked. She removed the red dot. Her bindi traded her father for me, a tribute to all three. The piney wafts of burning sandalwood chided me, changed me into child, back to South Carolina pine-land forest fires, the smells of pine sap mixed with charred bark. I reached for her father; I looked for my own. Ananyā’s light sobbing awakened me from my stupor. Rudra motioned. I moved closer to my wife, resplendent in the glories of her native land, her white sari billowed, her father’s saffron wrapping extinguished. Father and daughter, united until the end. Eventually, she reached for my hand again, and I clasped it before kissing her palm. Marigolds fell to the ghat, color atop dirt, life surrounding death. This incredible India, this exotic beauty I married, I loved them both like never before. We kissed.

For the final night of our stay several days after the cremation, we camped along the river, a safe and considerable distance upstream from the city and its crowds. We supped, as we could, on the usual fare of dal, rice, cucumber, paratha, veg achari, tea – but no meat, no alcohol on the holy river. The boatman reminded us of the river dolphins, ever shy those creatures, and we gazed out into the darkening water, as he waved his hands like a magician.

“They love gud people – gud people verrry, verrry much, they love. They will come ’round, e’en if you do not see them. They will feel you. You will feel them. This is gud, verrry, verrry gud, this is.”

We looked, but saw no dolphins, and later that night, we dreamt. Playful, finned creatures of the Ganges frolicked in our dreams. They consoled us. Serenading by the moonlight, they cheered us on in the modern cycle of life, in still yet more ancient and mysterious ways.

image by Jake Levinson

the city beautiful

the city beautiful  

brian michael barbeito  

for Tara  

Every angel is terrifying.  

-Rainer Maria Rilke  

part one, the rabbit county and the angel that never was 

I enter the long winding roads of Prince Edward County. the destination is a house built on the water, industrial chic, and with Art Deco paintings and ornaments. I know I will pen belles lettres at some point, episodic epistolaries about the good and bad, fleshed out from napkin notes and field journals. I have to in order to frame my experience, if even for only myself. it seems that all around are dark brown rabbits. they blend at first with the summer chaparral and the shrubs, the dense thickets and the long adjacent field both. I sometimes slow to a stop for I don’t want to hurt any of them. go rabbit, go, I think and sometimes say, away from the danger of the vehicle. there is no signage and even the locals don’t know about the place. it is only for the elite but I am a guest. a guest in another world. there are eagles that fly around out back because there is a nest. in the county, there are wine vineyards and lots of space. one has to drive everywhere. I am an artist, a creative, a photographer and writer-poet, and wish that I was driven and not having to focus on the driving itself. an impossibly large turkey vulture alights and waits atop an abandoned barn. I stop to take a photograph. there is nothing for miles in every direction. the vulture flies away. they don’t eat rabbits that run through fields. they eat roadkill, dead things. I have a feeling that the county itself is a ruse or racket or empty vision. a bit of a dead thing if something could be a bit dead. but later a driver picks us up and we go for dinner at restored affluent hotel. pickerel. fresh obviously. soft lighting and clinks of glasses. but strange. these for the most part are not my friends and we have little if anything in common. I am as well read as any of them but would rather not say. some of them are bright spiritually, which surprised me, and a few are not and border on darkness. I like the rabbits and the eagles moreso. run rabbit run, i pensively wander in my mind’s eye, and fly eagle fly, over the lake pristine and somehow lonesome, yes the lonely lake in the county. on the way back the moon is shining full and brightly over an old brick movie theatre and lighted marquee, and through a series of clouds that frame it all. mysterious. whimsical. saturnine and sanguine at once. oh moon. more people have been enlightened during the full moon than at any other time. crestfallen seems the day when the night is endowed with its brand of magic. nature’s night anyhow, not the social reality of humans. soon we are travelling and I tell the driver to stop and everybody wonders why. there is a large deer in the road that nobody saw. the driver, a woman, thanks me. ‘You have the keenest of eyes and a quick word,’ says the rich man, and I tell him thanks. the industrial chic house, a mansion, has all the switches and faucets one would think of, but because of the design, everything is hidden. and there is no balcony. I don’t like it. I long for normalcy. it is far past nightfall and the rabbits must move as rabbits do, but under the moon. rabbits watching the witching hour. if there is an angel around the angel is hidden. the angel of place is absent. does not speak to me. in the wind or in the reeds or even through the rabbits. I am stuck. I have missed something or it has missed me. and if the moon knows a secret it keeps it to itself. how lonesome and spiritually vacuous seems the county that I have no affinity for. ~~~ 

part two, the rich lagoon and the angel that had to leave 

outside or the lagoon the roads travel long and straight. the sides are farm fields or forests. fields house clapboard barns atop 

concrete forms and most are the foundations for faded wood. what it was like for the generations that farmed there I know little of, but place usually has a spirit and one can sense at the least rough goodness in the terrain and air. whatever is there, good and bad, is not disingenuous but rather wholly confident in itself, in its own being. it is ironic that they say, ‘…salt of the earth,’ when there is not much actual salt around those towns. I can see the old style petroleum stations with faded signs and ways, open but soon to close and be taken over by multi national conglomerates. the two worlds old and new stand in many ways next to one another. Osho said that when it comes to people, centuries live contemporaneously. too true. and also true of places, their mise en scene and their spirit. they might create a mall and subdivisions, urban sprawl, for such things climb out of areas like a cancer spreading and take over healthy pastoral lands. all our cells and bones are susceptible. who cares for instance about the old stone walled church where some priest grey and bent over the lectern gives his exegesis? nowadays it’s the gospel of pure materialism people can only hear. inside the lagoons, past the trains and their tracks, is a large series of waterways built in the 1970’s at the same time I was borne. there can be no basements on a marshland. I used to fish there and live there sometimes. the corner store had friendliness and good prices, and next door to that, an actual ice cream place. I would walk all around with book in hand, Conrad, Heller, Steinbeck, Camus, so on, all the rest, the usual suspects, trying to teach myself. little aluminum vessels bob and away inside the light of day and receive say, the summer robust but also soon the borne autumnal air cool and its leaves orange red yellow brown green fallen but then leavened by the lee of branches over the ground in a dance of unseen but heard and discerned whimsical whistling wind winding like a spectre. phantoms in the courtyard. spirits in the far off ripples on the lake face. I want to know what is all there. too shy to talk to people, I stayed to myself. the affluent houses, some not three but four stories tall, and the sailboats and fifty, sixty foot power boats wait outside. I like instead an army type boat, something boxy and from another generation, maybe like the toys I played with as a child or the ones in comics I read. something. something soulful. rivets exposed and you can see the welds and store strong things. not this sleek fibreglass fakery of the rich. it’s precisely your figurative and literal scar that makes you interesting. show me your cicatrix. oh well. there were more square vessels before. they are disappearing. now they are a lark, ‘…oh look at that isn’t it neat?’ for a while the angel was there, this I know. in and about the books and the sandy shore and even the shore walls inside the lagoon. the goodness of a Saturday afternoon. energy. benevolent Sunday sun. sleeping. walking. reading. fishing. life worked out. but looking around the rope bridge and the canals, I can’t find the angel of place, that old angel that spoke to me in non linguistic ways. I can’t quite catch my stride or find my way. why did the angel leave and where did it go? did I do something wrong? ‘This place has changed,’ I tell the old and sagacious man, ‘you used to be able to go for a walk and buy an ice cream cone or bag of milk, but it’s all closed down due to high rent and has been for a long time now.’ he smiles and says, ‘Don’t you know everything changes? That was a long time ago.’ I just nod. but I don’t like it. maybe he is right. a long time ago it was. and everything changes. but I don’t like his answer. maybe because the simplicity and truth of it hurts somehow. I don’t know for sure, but I want to find the angel. I want to feel how I felt before. yet the angel has left. no note of explanation was provided. I was left alone to figure out what time and change, innocence and maturation, karma and providence and the fates mean. it was a tall order, w/no teacher. and all I had really wanted to do was maybe go for a walk and get an ice cream cone.  

part three, the city beautiful and the angel ever present  

immediately I can sense the angel. then she shows herself. she is in not one thing or place but in all things. I can smell and taste the Floridian air, the air of my childhood and even beyond. the angel has not left or become coy, been defeated or ignored, but is omnipresent. I look up, and breathe. the sunlight shines upon the parapets and interlock, the cement and the verdant palm leaves that sway a bit for the humid breeze. i am in Orlando. but Orlando is in me also, and that is part of the secret. like a beloved. I never stopped loving her. even when she was far away I held her close. I refused to let her go. pox to those who say let the past be the past. and pox to the entire spiritual canon and all conventional wisdom if need be. i choose only the mystic sensibility, and I love always the angel. she is in the water, for can’t you see the ripples illumined by the bright of day? she is in the conversations of the good hearted and in the dusk when the electrical lights blink on against the stormy mood ridden firmament capricious, unpredictable. what will it do? feel that wind? it is ancient. it is a spirit. it is an angel. the cab driver says, ‘If I can say one thing for sure in fifteen years of doing this, it’s that everyone wants to come here, from all over the world!’ and I nod and say simply ‘Ya.’ soon I walk the lakes and see the flora and fauna, herons and smaller birds, lizards, and even a wild alligator that is fed up with me for trying to take its picture and soon leaves under the water again. the sun warms. I see immense lands of wealth, opulence, even decadence, but that’s not my problem, for it’s the air and sense of nature ancient and hard to name atmospheric sense I am after. and I find it. in the walkways and near the indigenous trees utterly and continently green and thick with leaves that scream health and beauty. in the gates and pool pump motor sound and sometimes smiles of others. at the outdoor stores someone calls me and I turn to see. ‘You. Hey you, come here,’ and the woman looks a bit like a famous singer. ‘Me?’ ‘Ya you, I want to talk to you.’ i go over as told. she has a kiosk. ‘You want a vape?’ I tell her I have one. and cigarettes. lots nicotine. she frowns. ‘Okay then. is that all you smoke, just nicotine?’ ‘Yes.’ She gives the same frown. it’s fun and funny and in jest, telling me I am a bit of a nerd for not smoking anything stronger. she is more down than I am. soon i move on and she keeps waving at me here and there. but it’s a higher angelic presence than woman or drug, than even music or poetic word, that I listen and watch for. and it is there. it is everywhere there. thick grasses and roads and buildings have received the rains. it is hurricane season. wondrous. magical. powerful. insightful. beyond psychological sets. it is mystic. the skies are a major arcana, The Magician, manifesting much,- sun moon storm clarity cloud bird plane hope inspiration danger caution and other and all. and the grounds are wild with love. I breathe. I can breathe again for a bit. I am in the midst of the light. I am in the city beautiful and have returned to where I belonged. see, for better and worse, things are always right, if you are in the presence of the angel. 

~~~~ 

image by Brian Michael Barbeito

Postcard from the Exile

Postcard from the Exile

Michael Loyd Gray

      Aaron often sent postcards to his parents in America, Alice and Randall Wahlgren. The family traced quite a ways back to Sweden. They weren’t famers but lived in a two-story farmhouse five miles south of town at a crossroads. The postcards cost a quarter at a Winnipeg Texaco station and a Queen Elizabeth stamp cost six cents. It was easier than writing letters, didn’t require envelopes, and postcards were too small for explaining much, which was a relief to him. 

     He never quite knew what to say in his postcards and always jotted a few breezy lines about seeing the sights and even mentioned he had picked up some French. He vaguely wondered whether anyone in the two postal services read his postcards. Did they guess he was a draft dodger? He supposed there could be many postcards flowing back to the States.

     He sometimes included French expressions in the postcards but stopped after a while when he figured it would just confuse them. And he worried it might make him seem pretentious. His father mistrusted the French, even though he’d never met any. The French were certainly a rung or two above the Japanese on his ladder, but it was a ladder with many rungs. 

     Aaron never said anything in the postcards about coming home. Or when. When he could, he once wrote. But just that once, fearing it would be seen as a commitment. He always wrote that he was okay and working hard and they shouldn’t worry, but he knew they did. Mostly, he knew they didn’t quite understand why he was gone. He ended each postcard with “Your loving son Aaron.”

     Mostly, the postcards were photos taken in le Vieux Saint-Boniface, but a few times, he mailed photos of The Forks, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers mingled at the heart of the city. He liked going to The Forks on a Saturday for lunch in a café along the riverfront. He could get lost in the milling crowds and pretend he was Canadian. It was easier than pretending to be French. 

     One day he lingered in The Forks until evening and went to a bar with a stage and saw a band he’d heard of – The Guess Who. The song that made him reflect on his life so far was “No Time Left for You.” He hadn’t known the band was from Winnipeg. The song stayed in his head for days and he heard it on the radio. Sometimes he sang the lyrics to himself.

     But on Saturdays when he felt like being alone, when maybe a little homesickness crept in, and uncertainty, too, he would walk across the Esplanade Riel bridge spanning the Red River and stop to look down and wave to himself reflected in the water. If the river was rippled from a breeze, he would look wavy, indistinct – rubbery. Faceless, too. The Red River, he learned, was deceptive: it looked placid – tame — but had dangerous, swift undercurrents. 

     Once, he sent his parents a postcard of Lake Manitoba, a large lake northwest of Winnipeg. Quite a hike out from the city. But he’d never been there. He didn’t have a car, didn’t need one, and figured he’d never get up to the lake anyway. But the lake’s water was deep blue in the postcard, and he thought his mother would appreciate the color. He could picture it fastened on her fridge with a magnet. She collected them. Her favorite was a road runner magnet she got in Phoenix, Arizona, when she was a teenager on a school trip. 

     Aaron believed that his mother understood his absence better than his father, a World War II Navy veteran who was at the Battle of Iron Bottom Sound off Guadalcanal. He had the ribbons to prove his patriotism, kept in shiny cases on the mantle. The ribbons and medals rested in velvet, and he often showed them to guests. He’d won the Navy Cross and even Aaron knew that was a big deal. He kept the Navy Cross in a case on an end table next to his favorite easy chair, within reach. His father once absently said the Navy Cross was the biggest thing that would ever happen in his whole life. 

     His father’s dress unform, neatly pressed, still hung in a closet, and he kept several empty 20mm shell casings on the mantle. The casing came from rounds fired from his destroyer at a Japanese Zero. His father had manned the gun and the crew cheered, he said, when he brought the plane down. It was not the first one he’d shot down. There was a framed photo of the ship on the mantle. The words “Dead Jap” were painted on each casing. Aaron assumed his father painted them, but he never asked. He didn’t think it would be useful to know. Or desirable.

     His father’s destroyer had passed by the Zero’s floating wreckage and the red meatball insignia was still visible on the plane’s sinking fuselage. It was a story Aaron heard his father tell guests many times. Some of the ship’s crew lined up at the railing and saw the Japanese pilot floating face down in the ocean, his flying cap still on his head. His father said they felt nothing but contempt for him. He got what was coming to him. The sharks were welcome to the maggot bastard. He was just a damn Jap. A dead damn Jap. The best kind. The only kind worth a tinker’s damn. 

      Aaron had never met any Japanese, but he always hated his father’s story about the pilot. He knew the war had been just, necessary, but he couldn’t connect to the hatred. He figured part of that was because there had been no Pearl Harbor for Vietnam. Vietnam seemed more like a campfire no one paid attention to until it somehow grew into a forest fire, and no one could quite explain why. 

     During good weather, his father made a point every morning of running the stars and stripes up a small flagpole next to the front door of their house. He would stand very erect and salute it instead of merely placing his hand over his heart. But sometimes, he did both. He didn’t allow his family to speak during the ceremony. His father wasn’t a churchgoer, but Aaron suspected the flag ceremony was worship.

     He retrieved the flag at dusk and made Aaron help him fold it according to proper regulations. It was always a solemn ceremony, taking down the colors. It reminded his father of serving aboard his destroyer. He said he preferred the regimented life aboard ship. Things were clear-cut. Black and white. Civilian life had too many gray areas for him. He had the same factory job making farm equipment since he got out of the Navy in 1945. But to Aaron it always seemed like he’d never left his ship. Aaron and his mother were his crew. His father wore gray overhauls with his name on a breast pocket to work every day. It was a uniform.   

     Aaron’s mother respected the flag ceremony but was otherwise indifferent. To Aaron, folding the flag was like mowing the lawn, a task he had to do and disliked, but his father saw it as essential elements to building his character. He had a teacher, Mr. Small, who said people were born with whatever character they were capable of. He didn’t much believe in character building. Mr. Small had never gone to war, his father said, and there was a lesson in that. Aaron never knew just what the lesson was. It wasn’t like his father to explain things. It was always his way or the highway.

     Aaron’s mother sent him handwritten letters instead of postcards, explaining that the few postcards at the drug store were mostly about barns and farmland, or flocks of geese and ducks, things he had already seen and knew, and anyway she preferred the extra space of a letter. She kept him abreast of family doings, of what his favorite cousin, Jack, was up to — farming. She said she wasn’t sure what hippies were, but they sounded like mostly gentle people who didn’t shower enough. The year before there had been a big concert in New York, she said, at a place called Woodstock. People still missed The Beatles. 

     She said she did, too.

mage coutesy The Forks (Manitoba) image gallery

THE PIGEONS

THE PIGEONS

John Grey

There are no songbirds

for what’s there to sing about.

Only pigeons remain,

in the rafters

or under the eaves

of every building in town.

There are few trees

and the intermittent crack of rifles

is enough to drive every curious

finch or sparrow or starling

back into the distant woods.

And an explosion can come

any time, any place.

Even the churches

provide no sanctuary.

Nor is the sky itself

safe from stray bullets.

Most measure wars

in the number killed,

the graves sprouting like crocuses

on battlegrounds more wintery

than winter itself

But some tally up the cost

by listening to what’s not there.

Ears attuned to the lark,

they hear only the

squabble-like coo of the pigeons

Amidst the war,

the dove of peace

is merely the dove

that knows no better.

image by Harry Rajchgot

MADRUGADA

MADRUGADA

by

Maryanne Chrisant

I.

We stayed at the old Hotel Colon that overlooked the Barcelona Cathedral, two hundred paces across the square, as we waited out the contagion. We had come for an international medicine meeting, or at least we had told that story—he to his wife, me to my sons and their reluctant father, my ex. We’d be in Spain for just a week. We slipped in just before the virus, but then it came quickly and we waited to leave, quarantined in the hotel. The cathedral was closed, the shops shuttered. The square was curfewed after sunset.

Quarantine, from the Italian, “quarantina”—a forty-day period of isolation marking time for latent cases of infection to exhaust their virulence. Forty days.

Our corner room was near the top of the hotel. It had a small Juliet balcony where we would stand, huddled together naked under the same blanket, to watch the stars over the now-dark city. We’d arise at madrugada—dawn—when the square held only stray cats, lean in their desire, and the old priest walking slowly to an empty cathedral.

I watched my lover—standing at our perch, the blanket robed his shoulders as he leaned his hands on the wrought iron balustrade. The air was moist, cool. He pulled the blanket around him, leaned out further. His face half turned. His lips moved.

Madrugada. The light that isn’t yet,” he said, and returned to our bed.

I curled under his arm, under the blanket. He pulled me to him.

“You are my—Madrugada.” 

II.

I held out a cup of coffee.

“The hotel is running out of food,” I said. “I overheard the kitchen staff.”

“Are you sure?”

“I know the difference between hay comida and no hay comida.”

“As long as they have coffee.” He smiled. 

Except in our room, we wore masks—indoors and on the street. We ate outside on the patio beneath the locust tree at the table that had become “ours.” 

“Is there any truth,” he asked in Spanish of the maître d’hotel who showed us to our table, “that the restaurant is running out of food?”

“Yes, but no. We have less of many things, like butter, like milk. We have plenty of other things, like flour, like soup. So no, we are not running out. Today we have grapes.” 

We were masked until our food came. Coffee—hot, strong, black—bread, cheese, and round, tart grapes.

We recognized the same twenty people stranded in the hotel. We nodded, we smiled. We kept to ourselves. 

We’d known one another for thirty years. He didn’t want to calculate my age. People would look at us, holding hands, our public kisses deep as we sat alone in the twilight. It was hardly worth hiding as the world was being overtaken by this virus that no one yet understood. 

Our rooms were our own territory. We changed our own sheets, cleaned our own toilets, all to avoid contact. We couldn’t leave the city. There were no cars to let, no buses, no taxis, no flights out.

We made love. We wrote. We read and re-read each other’s stories and day-old newspapers. We walked around the square and sometimes down empty, hidden streets. We made love. The quarantine was tolerable, in the absence of milk.

III.

My sons and I texted. 

“Are you eating?” 

“Yes, we’re eating.”

“More than ice cream and chips?”

A yellow smiley face. A thumbs-up.

“Is your father taking care of you?”

My sons—in high school and nearly grown. Back home, their grudging father kept a vague eye on their activities as I waited out the contagion.

In the afternoon the French doors were shaded with green painted shutters covered with ivy. Dappled sunlight fell on us, on the bed fragrant with our scents. This room, this place, this bed, our sex. 

Occasionally his wife would call. He would stand on the balcony and talk, his reassuring lies rolled like soft thunder through the French doors. 

“You’re angry,” he said, coming back in. He stripped out of his jeans and lay down on the bed. 

“I’m not angry,” I said. “But this will never change.” 

I moved to the other side of the bed to get up. He held my leg.

“I’ve been with her too long. She’s, we’re—old.”

“I was young when I met you.” I laughed.

“You still are.”

I laid a hand on his bare chest.

IV.

Viral coils tied a noose around the city. There were no hospital beds for the sick. The dead were waiting in trucks. 

For the healthy few at the hotel, the lack was progressive. One day, no soap. The next, no shampoo. Then the flour. No bread. At least there was coffee. And grapes. 

At the embassy we stood in line. Our turn was futile. There was no pressure from the United States to return their citizens. The president’s bluster could not wish this virus away. The nearing readiness of a vaccine whispered to us like the promise of milk. BBC news projected December. Could we live seven months more without milk?

We wandered the Via Laietana looking for open shops. Down the Carrer dels Mercaders, Merchants Street, we found a small store that sold local produce out of a back window. Given the mandatory closings this was likely illegal, but we willingly paid too much for a bag of oranges, a day-old loaf of bread, lemon soap, olive oil, and a wedge of Manchego. As we paid, I saw an old mercury thermometer that hung in a dusty package next to the toothbrushes. 

“Most people, they don’t know what this is,” the shopkeeper told us. He was sturdy; his face was flushed. He wore a mask and dirty latex gloves. He coughed.

V.

A few days later, we heard the tienda had gotten twelve bottles of milk from a local farm. He headed back for milk. I watched him from the balcony. Waving as he smiled up at me, his jaunty walk leading the sidewalk by the empty street. 

We’d just made love. Each time was like the first, thirty years ago. Each time—we were swimming under warm water but breathing—and the sunlight, the dappling shadows surrounded us in confused patterns.

I thought of this and him, his walk, his smile. 

It was then I realized he’d forgotten his mask.

VI.

Two days later he awoke, sweating and hot. I fed him two antipyretics and cold water. He slept fitfully, then awoke with chills. I had steroids and antibiotics, an inhaler, a stethoscope, and an oxygen monitor. Just in case. Something about being a doctor. Something about this virus. Something about love.

I stood alone on the balcony watching madrugada. Watching the stray cats. 

Where was the priest? 

Who would say mass? 

A thousand prayers swirled in this city already lost.

He moaned. I held his hand. 

“No,” he said, pulling it away.

“Yes,” I said, taking it again. “What hurts?”

“Everything,” he coughed. “My back, my legs. I think I have to pee…”

“Under your tongue, first,” I said, putting the thermometer in his mouth. Three minutes later it read 103. 

I helped him stand and walk a few wobbling steps to the toilet.

“I got it.”

“No, baby,” I said. “If you fall you’ll have to stay where you lay. Sit. Pee.”

He obeyed. 

“I can’t,” he said. 

“You need water and salt,” I said. “Let’s get you back to bed.”

He pulled at the blanket. 

“No covers,” I said. I placed a cold, wet cloth on his head and chest.

I called the kitchen. I asked that they leave a tray with a pot of hot water, honey, lemon, salt, and some food. Anything. A short time later the waiter delivered the tray, apologizing through the door for the absence of tea bags and the meager meal. I mixed the salt, the honey, the lemon with the warm water, and poured it over ice. 

I made him drink.

“That’s a lot of salt.” He almost smiled, but coughed. “Tastes awful.”

“Volume expansion,” I said. 

He was pale. His eyes were hollow. I put my head to his chest, listening to his heart beat. 

“Well?” he said. 

“Fast. But you have a fever and you’re dehydrated.”

He was breathing fast from the exertion of sitting up in bed, drinking, talking. 

I took the stethoscope from my bag. I listened to his lungs. Coarse crackles, like paper rumpling, took the place of the gentle “swoosh” of breath.

He watched my face. 

I dug the sat monitor out of my bag and clipped it to his finger. We waited, staring at the blinking blue light that finally settled on ninety-four. I wrote this down on a hotel pad, with the day, the time.

“You’ll live,” I said. 

“For now.” He smiled. “I—don’t want—to go to a hospital.”

“I know.”

“Use—everything you brought,” he said.

VII.

We managed. 

I fed him doses of antipyretics and steroids as he drank salty honey water, and slowly ate cut oranges. We watched the news on BBC and some Spanish program only he could understand. We slept.

I called to the kitchen for food. Half an hour later it appeared on the floor outside the door. Vegetable soup, biscuits, cheese, and grapes. I fed him the soup. We shared bottles of orange Fanta.

His mouth was less dry. His heart rate was slower. Every two hours—temperature, heart rate, oxygen saturation, respiratory rate. Simple numbers. The first page on the hotel notepad filled. I started the next. And the next.

Nights passed. Cough, fever. Saltwater brew. Vegetable soup. 

After four hotel pad pages, the fever was lower. His urine was not as dark. His eyes weren’t as hollow. 

Standing at the balcony I watched the growing daylight. Only cats walked the square. 

“What is it?” he coughed out from the bed.

“You may make it,” I said. “As long as your fever goes down and your lungs hold.”

“They’re one of my best organs,” he coughed.

VIII.

In the night he awoke, calling my name. 

“I have to throw up,” he said.

I pushed the trash can under him. All that came up was water and the little bit of soup. The sheets suffered. We hobbled, cobbled together, to the bathroom, where he sat on a towel on the floor, next to the toilet. I held his head. Unremitting vomiting.

We slept on the bathroom floor, on towels, a pillow. 

A night light. Ice in a bucket. I gave him sips of salty broth and kept him from drowning. 

I dreamed I was drowning, different from our water dreams. My head laid back on the tile wall, his head on the pillow beside me. Cool-water washcloths on his head, his chest, turned hot too fast. I didn’t want to measure his temperature. 

He talked as he slept. He talked. His eyes open but not seeing. 

He awoke. He vomited. 

He slept in his delirium. 

Each time sleep replaced my awake, I drowned. The oppressive weight of the water against my chest. I slipped deeper. I couldn’t breathe. I’d been like this before, not breathing under the weight. I struggled to follow the light that came from—up.

Sunlight, through the bathroom door. 

I awoke. I had slipped down to the floor, his head on my chest as he slept. His fever had broken; his forehead was cool. We were both wet with his sweat.

He opened his eyes.

“My fever is gone,” he said. 

I nodded, my hand on his cool skin.

“Was I awful?”

“You called me by her name,” I said.

“I was delirious.”

“Yes. But—”

“I don’t love her that way.”

“And yet you called for her.”

“Did I know you, at all?”

“Yes. In your sightless seeing—you knew me.”

I held his hand to my cheek and kissed it. 

“Now sleep.” He put his head on my chest. “Word came. We have a plane.”

“When?”

“A week. You must be well enough. We must be. We have to be tested at the airport before boarding.”

“How long have I been—”

“Days. Days and days. A week.”

“Why aren’t you sick?”

“Children.”

“What?”

“My boys. We were all sick—a few weeks before I left. That’s my best guess.”

“Acquired immunity because you’re a mother.”

“Yes. And luck.”

Madrugada?”

“Yes?”

“Is quarantina over?”

“Yes. Almost.”

Forty. Forty days in the desert spent the Christ. Forty weeks’ gestation grows the fetus into a baby. Forty days passing quarantine in a hotel in Barça.

IX.

We flew back sitting next to each other. We held hands, my arm linked through his, his head on my shoulder. Descending into JFK and the half-turn over the western edge of Brooklyn—

“She’ll be there,” he said.

He looked at me, above his mask. There were tears. 

I couldn’t see through my own.

Our faces touched, the last intimate contact. 

“I love you,” I said.

“Shhhh, Madrugada,” he answered.

X.

In the airport, at baggage claim, my sons, ever casual, embraced me tighter than I expected. The ex-husband looked relieved. Seven weeks without alimony. Seven weeks as a parent.

Across the carousel I saw him embraced by a dark-haired, slender woman. I saw only her back. His arm around her, he looked at me over her shoulder. He didn’t stop looking at me—

My sons—were speaking. I—

I pointed to my bags, unwinding slowly down the main. 

I took a breath and looked again. 

He was gone.

I never saw him again.

image by Harry Rajchgot

SHAME

SHAME

Laurel Peterson

Charlene slouches into yet another 

poetry reading, because the guy’s a friend

and that’s what you do, even as she knows

she’s doing it to look good.

After, the moderator always lets

the group read their own poems,

but Charlene doesn’t want to stay

for their small, sorry expulsions of words

like the popping of zits, even if, once in a while,

someone captures a line 

as beautiful as a caged leopard. 

But tonight she sits in the wrong place,

and the needy woman whom she avoids like the flu

wants Charlene to read her poem, holds it up like a flag,

and Charlene’s exit explodes into a circus with her 

as the performing elephant. Even the next morning 

she feels the weight of it beneath her heart,

lonely and hard like fossilized bone. 

(Laurel Peterson)

image by Wendy Thomas

A Person of No Interest

A Person of No Interest

I’m walking down a street in my neighborhood when I spy, out of the corner of my eye, two policemen inspecting a car across the street. Looking more closely I see one of them is talking on the phone, calling in to headquarters, I guess. It could be that they’re issuing a parking ticket, but then maybe not. Maybe it’s something far worse, requiring more than just filing a routine report. Maybe they’re calling for backup. I’m curious and watch some more. Before I know it, the cop who’s on the phone picks up his head, stares at me, and then seemingly points in my direction. The two of them abruptly drop what they’re doing and move toward me, forgetting about the parking ticket, the driver, and whatever infraction the guy might have committed. I don’t understand what they could want from me, an average citizen, an honest taxpayer, but I’m not asking questions. I pick up the pace of my walk, glancing back every once in a while to see if they’re behind me, following. I know every inch of my little neighborhood in Queens, every street, alleyway, nook and cranny, just in case I need to duck out of sight. I don’t want to panic, and I shouldn’t panic, because what after all did I do? 

Maybe I did something improper and don’t know it.  

I could be unaware of a thousand things I’ve done wrong. Maybe I unconsciously committed a jaywalking offense, who knows? But that’s nothing—nothing for New York’s finest to get excited about. They wouldn’t waste their precious time. Mostly I’ve been minding my own business. Going to the post office to buy stamps. That’s all. It’s no crime. I have a slew of bills to pay and if I don’t get them in the mail in time my electric could be cut off and then my phone line, my gas, water, and God knows what else. Then, right after my visit to the post office, I have in mind to get a long overdue haircut.  I realize I don’t have much hair on my head, just on the sides, where it gets a bit unruly sometimes. Mostly my hair grows out of my nostrils and ears, but those hairs need trimming too, don’t they? As anyone can see, I lead a fairly normal life, going about my daily business like every other person, so why should I have anything to fear?

Perhaps they’ve mistaken me for someone else, a suspect in a crime or what they call a person of interest. I don’t know how I could interest them. All I know is that they’re headed in my direction and because of that I’m now jogging down the street. I gave up jogging years ago and never thought I’d be doing it again. But I see I have no choice. These two fresh-faced rookies, looking diligent and respectable as all hell, their blue uniforms clean and perfectly ironed, want to nail me for something, I just know it. I only hope it’s a big mistake, some wild coincidence, and if I slow up they’ll walk right past me, follow some other person, or perhaps hurry into a donut shop or wherever cops go when hunger suddenly hits them. But the fact is, I don’t want to take any chances. And so I speed up, turn a corner, go down the street, and then another.  

I’m practically sprinting now. I couldn’t care less about my old knee injury, the one I got from jogging barefoot on the beach one summer, on the hard sand incline just above where the water laps onto the shore. The hell with my knee, I say. I have pretty good instincts and know when I’m being followed, and, what’s more, I know the police can’t always be trusted. They’re coming and obviously they don’t want to lose track of me, so they move faster. I’m not sure why I don’t simply turn around and say, “Okay, fellows. I give up. Whatever I did wrong, please, don’t shoot.” But then again, maybe I just don’t want to know. Or I don’t want the humiliation of being asked a bunch of senseless questions by freshmen cops who most likely only want to win brownie points at the precinct, their real concern being not me but getting a pat on the back from their superior and possibly, down the road, a big fat promotion. They have their quotas for issuing parking tickets, so why not a quota for arrests? I’m an easy target, with my usual mild manner. So they think. They probably didn’t expect me to make such a getaway.   

I’m now far ahead of them. If I go down a side street perhaps I can lose them altogether. I can disappear into a store, slip out the back way and find myself in a safe alley where they could never capture me. Never. If I sound confident about my moves, my maneuvering, nothing can be further from the truth. I’m actually shivering with nervousness. I’m still boggled by what all this means, still scratching my head trying to comprehend what it is I’m being accused of, and I start to recall everything I did or failed to do most recently. One of my students, I know, got upset about a grade she received on a composition. I wouldn’t be surprised if she filed a complaint. She came to my office this past Wednesday, demanding an explanation about her low grade. I remember it well. I was leaning over the desk, leaning over perhaps a little too much, in order to point out her grammatical errors, not to mention all her abysmal mistakes in logic and organization. She could have assumed I was trying to get too close, that I was eyeing her inappropriately—peering, as she might have thought, down at her breasts, two ripe peaches half exposed beneath a tightly fitting red spandex shirt. And so there it was: her perfect opportunity to retaliate, to get back at an overly strict instructor, an unfair grader. That’ll show him. She could have easily dreamt up a story about me, about some lecherous old man preying on innocent youth. An elaborate story, no doubt. And now, well, now that I think about it, she probably does deserve a higher grade—for her vivid imagination, her creativity. Maybe I should explain to her that, yes, yes, she will be getting her grade boosted a notch or two, no problem there. I might indeed tell her, if I didn’t believe it was too late. For almost certainly she’s already reported me to the dean of student affairs, who probably in turn contacted the local authorities, and very likely that’s why two rookie cops are now chasing me, relentlessly, down the block. 

As I reach the row of shops I can hear them closing in. I’m sure they plan to nab me, wrestle me to the ground, cuff me, and then throw me in the slammer, not only for whatever they have against me but also for running away, resisting arrest. They probably have evidence, piles of it, for whatever I’ve done. I know I had not been a perfect man, far from it. My former wife, Bernice, could easily attest to that. And I haven’t been the best of friends to those who once considered me a friend. I realize I curse out loud too much. And often I say terrible things about politicians. I once wrote a scathing review of an NPR show I heard while driving on the Grand Central, and sent it to an editor. But can you be arrested for that? I’ve also done a good job annoying city councilmen about the bus noise in my neighborhood, the way the new buses continue to screech while turning corners or stopping at lights. That couldn’t have won me any friends in high places. And let’s not, of course, forget how I regularly pilfer boxes of chalk and Scotch tape from the English department supply room. It’s terrible, I know. And then, finally, there are my very thoughts to consider. Many of them could not be more poisonous. I don’t know any longer what you can say or not say, think or not think, without getting into legal trouble. Yes, I’m guilty of many things. I won’t deny it. 

All of this runs through my head as I sidle down a gravel path between two stores that leads to the back door of the barbershop, the same one I was about to visit after going to the post office. I’ve made it. Made it there in one piece, despite all the throbbing in my knee. Oh, that damn knee. I’ve outsmarted the two cops on my tail. They’ve no idea where I could have disappeared to, but they won’t exactly give up their search, will they, no, not a chance, they’ll be clever, they’ll hand out my description to residents in the neighborhood, post signs with a pencil drawing of my picture on it and, sure enough, someone, a person I know, will recognize me and tell the police my address and soon the same two cops, those young rookies, will buzz my door, climb the stairs to my cramped, second-floor bachelor apartment, the place I’ve lived in ever since Bernice and I split up for good, and they’ll ask me, politely, to “step out, sir, and come with us, please,” as they size me up and lead me down the stairs, out the building, and into a patrol car sitting by the curb. I can almost guarantee this will happen, and in the near future.  

But right now I hear a police siren and then some commotion from inside the barbershop and I realize the two cops on the beat are closer than I think. And while they wait for backup (more cops, more sirens) I guess they’re interviewing local shopkeepers, collecting more information. They’re probably, this minute, questioning the head barber and his assistants about whether they’ve seen anyone suspicious, anyone fitting my description—a middle-aged man, average height and weight, wearing an old pair of khaki jeans, a blue knit short sleeve shirt, and a New York Yankees baseball cap, which the suspect sometimes takes off to mop the perspiration from his balding head.

If that’s indeed what the police are doing in there, questioning the barbers, I don’t understand why there’s such a ruckus. Anyway I know it’s best to stay put, not try to escape down the gravel path, because I’d surely be caught coming out of this hiding place, or maybe on the way out, clumsy me, I’d bump into an aluminum garbage can and make all kinds of crashing noises, calling attention to myself. For a moment I think of jumping inside the garbage can, but as luck would have it, it’s filled to the top with hair cuttings. So I don’t move an inch. Try not to breathe. But it’s no help. The two policemen, the ones pursuing me, are now opening up the back door of the barbershop and I see there’s no way out. I’m caught. They stand there, eyes squinting. They’re looking at me curiously, surprised somebody’s in back of the store, and I figure my time is up. I wait for them to approach, to grab me and throw me to the ground and read me my rights. I surrender, my white flag waving. I realize I’ve nowhere to go but into the hands of law enforcement. Stretching my arms out in front of me, I bend my wrists, and invite them to slap the cuffs on. “Here, here, take me already.”

But, strangely enough, they don’t come closer. There’s not, as I now understand, any hint of suspicion in the way they stare at me. It’s only curiosity, pure and simple—unless I’m reading them wrong. It’s obvious something else has occurred, something that turns everything upside down. After they start talking, and I pick up bits and pieces of the story, I discover they were only interested to go into the barbershop to handle a dispute. A dispute between the owner, the head barber, and a customer who’s been raving about a bad haircut he received and who, purportedly wielding a razor, began threatening the barber. The police, it turns out, were responding to a 9-1-1 call, a call put in by a witness, also a customer, who was apparently very satisfied with his haircut and thought it totally unjustified for anyone to attack a barber with his own professional instruments. “It’s an outrage,” he said. That’s what the witness kept repeating.  

I have a different view, though. I actually sympathize with the man who got the bad haircut. Once a barber cuts off your hair, it’s impossible to put it back. Everybody knows that. Even if you haven’t got much hair on your head to begin with, if you’re mostly bald, every little strand is precious, and so to overcut is a plain outrage, a pure injustice. No question about it. It’s perfectly natural to want to kill your barber. If he cuts off too much, you’re done for. Forget about any favorable impression you might have hoped to make, on a new boss, on a new client, on a young lady who happens your way. It’s now utterly doomed. If it were up to me I’d arrest the barber on the spot. But, sadly, I haven’t the authority to do that.  

The two policemen don’t take sides. Morality, not to mention aesthetics, is beside the point. They care only about the law. They deal with the straight facts, comparing notes with each other. Their primary reason for checking out the back of the building is to follow the routine procedure, until a detective shows up. Nothing more. They open the lid of the trashcan, peak in, and close the lid. They look around. Shrug their shoulders. And when they question me as to why I’m sitting on the ground, huddled there and looking pathetic, I answer their question with my own question. “So am I a suspect?” That’s mainly what I want to know. But they only smile and then shake their heads. “No, not really,” one officer says. And when I ask if I’m a person of interest, if I’m at least that, they both look at me oddly and again shake their heads and one goes back inside the barbershop to file his report, shutting the door behind him. The other policeman, now also about to go inside, turns to me at the last second and says, very matter-of-factly, that I shouldn’t worry because they have no interest in me, none whatsoever, and as he leaves all I can do is ask, in my desperation, in my loneliness, why not.

Tornado Weather

Tornado Weather

Michael Loyd Gray

     Zach Thompson nudged Wanda, a skinny blond cashier with a ponytail and flat chest. She was counting money at Wally’s Food Mart on the main drag of Argus, Illinois.

     “Quit it,” she says, shaking a wad of bills at him. “You made me lose count.”

     Zach was a meat cutter apprentice. He joked with the cashiers that apprentice meant he was still learning how to beat his meat. None of them thought it was funny except Wanda, who wasn’t too bright to begin with. Zach nudged her again.ic

     “Look here,” Zach says. “Right here in the National Examiner it says rural men have a higher suicide rate. I’m not making that up. Says so right here in black and white.”

     Heather, a cute brunette with long wavy hair working the next register peeked around the magazine rack.

     “Maybe you should go give it a try, Zach,” she says. You wouldn’t want to make a liar out of the National Examiner, would you?

     Zach and Heather had gone out once and ever since, she had a mean streak toward him.

    “Don’t you just wish,” he says, flipping her the bird.

     “A girl can always wish,” Heather says. “Especially when it’s someone as crude as you, Zach Thompson.”

     He stood defiant, hands on his hips.

     “I’m not crude – I’m colorful.”

     “Oh, sure you are,” Heather says. “Don’t you have to go do something with your meat?”

     “I’m off for the day,” Zach says. “Just catching up on my reading. But if you want to give me a hand, I can stick around.”

     “Start without me,” Heather says. “I bet you always do.”

     “I’ll think of you, Heather.”

     “I’m so honored.”

     Zach attempted what he figured to be a seductive smile and pose, an arm dangling nonchalantly across the magazine rack.

     “You’d miss me if I was gone,” he says. “What if I was one of those rural men who couldn’t take it anymore? What if I just plunged into the deep end?”

     “The deep end of what?” Heather says, wiping strands of hair from the corner of her mouth.

     “The Sangamon River,” Zach says. “That’s the only place round here where any rural men could off themselves by drowning.”

     “Don’t forget Beverley Patterson’s new pool,” Heather says. “It’s supposed to be nine feet in the deep end. That would work just fine, Zach, and it’s a lot closer than the river.”

     “I heard it wasn’t filled yet,” Zach says, glancing at his shoes.

     “It was when I was there yesterday,” Heather says. “Why don’t you go over and practice plunging into the deep end? It ain’t like you’ve got anything to do, Zachary.”

     “Yeah?” Zach says. “Well, it just so happens there’s a good reason why I can’t go down to the river. Or that pool. And drowning ain’t the only way to go, Miss Heather Smarty Pants.”

     Wanda abruptly whacked her drawer shut with a loud bang.

     “Yeah, but drowning has flair,” she says. “And it’s not messy.”

     “Honey,” Heather says, “your basic rural man ain’t got any flair. They can’t even leave the toilet seat down, so why should they be tidy when they kill themselves?”

     Heather and Wanda high-fived each other and the smack of their colliding palms reverberated. 

     “You’re right,” Wanda says. “But the Patterson pool would still be a lot cleaner than that muddy old Sangamon, if you don’t mind chlorine, that is.” 

     Zach threw his hands up.

     “Somebody trying to off himself wouldn’t care about chlorine one way or another,” he says. “Don’t you know anything, Wanda?”

     Wanda looked puzzled.

     “Could someone die from too much chlorine?” she says.  

     “I have no idea,” Heather says. “But it sure sounds like a job for Zach.”

     Zach smirked.

     “I’ve got more important stuff to do than stand around yakking with retards,” he says.

     Heather popped the gum she’d been chewing.

     “Look who’s talking about retards. What could you do, Zach, that could possibly count as important?”

     Zach shrugged.

     “Oh, nothing much, I suppose – except there’s a huge weather front ready to roar in here. It’s tornado weather, for God’s sake.”

     “Where’d you hear that?” Heather says. “You’re making it up.”

     “I heard it on the radio. Weather cells and all that.”

     “And your point would be what, Mister Rural Man?”

     “I just might go chase one of those suckers, like those guys do on TV.” 

     “You’re shitting me,” Heather says. “You’re suicidal after all.”

     But Zach felt he was on to something. It had come to him real sudden-like.

     “All I need is experience chasing a tornado here and then I can go out to Oklahoma and join one of those teams. I could get on TV. I could become a famous tornado chaser.”

     “How do you list that on your resume?” Wanda said. “And what do you do once you’ve caught up to the tornado?”

     Zach frowned and then appeared confused.

     “What do you mean?”

     “I mean, what’s the point?” Wanda says. “What’s the reason for all the chasing?”

     Zach didn’t want to admit he wasn’t sure about that part of it. He had the vague notion that it was about experiencing a tornado and being somehow changed by it. And to be on TV, to do it as a job that people looked up to and even admired. Like being an actor in a sitcom. A celebrity. Somebody.

     “To become something, of course,” he says quietly.

     Heather couldn’t keep a straight face.

     “You’re something alright,” she says. “I can just see you on TV now, Zach.”

     “Can you?” he says hopefully.

     “Oh, sure. You’d have a reality series – Zach the Incredible Pinhead and Tornado Groupie. Guest morons would join you each week and fly through the air in your crappy old pickup in the center of a tornado and wave bye at cameras before getting squished into pulp. Wheeee!”

     “Doesn’t sound like a series,” Wanda says. “More like a one-shot deal.”

     Wanda and Heather high five each other again.

     Zach felt queasy.

     “Well, I wouldn’t be famous right off,” he says. “I’d break in and work my way up to maybe wind velocity guy.”

     “What the crap is a wind velocity guy?” Heather says. “You’re an apprentice meat cutter, Zach. Not even the real deal yet. Before that, you were an apprentice high school dropout. What makes you believe you’ll ever be on TV?”

     Wicked smirks passed between the two girls. Zach felt like knives had passed through his shins. The kind of big, heavy knives he used in the store’s meat locker on carcasses of hanging meat. The sort of blades that could strip flesh with just a flick of the wrist. That could split bone.

     Heather blew a big bubble and popped it loudly. It jumpstarted Zach, suddenly aware he’d stood there a long time without a word. A galling, sickening realization washed over him. He’d never done a damn thing in his whole wretched life. He’d never finished anything, not high school, not his GED, not even an appointment he failed to keep once with an Army recruiter. He’d even failed to acquire the knack for selling drugs for an old high school buddy and that sure didn’t require a high school diploma. Zach was already 25 and hadn’t done anything worth bragging about. He was an apprentice meat cutter, only a month into his training, because his uncle owned the store and worried Zach might drift into oblivion.

     “Earth to Zach,” Wanda says. “You just going to stand there all day?”

     Zach wished he could just disappear in a flash of smoke. He longed to be immediately beamed up to the Starship Enterprise, his molecules snatched off the planet and reassembled elsewhere into a much wiser man – a man of action. Any action. And anywhere but where he was, which was certainly nowhere, and now, just plain old pathetic as he realized he had staked his notion of redemption on chasing tornadoes and living to go on TV to tell the tale.

     His head was abuzz with random thoughts and paper-thin plots to appear less of a fool when suddenly, the Argus Civil Defense siren went off, signaling a tornado warning. The siren wailed obscenely. It was mounted on the water tower just down the block. It was so loud that Zach thought it sounded like the ominous death wail of impending nuclear attack everybody knew from movies. 

     The siren drowned out everything and made thinking nearly impossible. Everyone in the store stopped in their tracks. Then customers went to windows and looked up into the sky. Heather and Wanda calmly removed their cash drawers and headed for the store’s basement. 

     Zach refused to go. He stood on the sidewalk with a knot of people, scanning the sky, shading bis eyes with a hand. He hoped for a funnel spinning crazily out of very cloud he saw.  He wished for a big old goober of a black funnel, twisting madly like a giant top. But if one was up there, it was hidden by clouds.

     But one could be there. Everybody knew a tornado could simply appear out of nowhere, in an instant. Zach began to believe one was coming. Don’t panic, he told himself, because this really is happening. It all stated low-key. That’s the way it was on the TV show, just folk sitting around having a smoke and shooting the shit, and then, boom – off to the races in a flash, tires squealing, motors racing wildly, people pointing and gawking out their car windows, pulses racing, sweat beads skiing down their foreheads.

     And then nobody was ever the same after they’d chased one and caught up to it. Sort of like in school when they read about Ahab and Moby Dick, he supposed. Zach was certain nobody could possibly be the same after feeling a tornado’s power and witnessing its strength. Yeah, it was a hell of a lot like Moby Dick, for sure.

     Zach felt pulled and pushed by an unseen force. He got in his pickup and sped down Main Street, frantically twisting the radio dial for a station with weather news. Doppler radar over in Bloomington had picked up a possible tornado just outside Argus, near the river, and Zach floored it. He made it to the river in record time, most of the way with his head stuck out the window, wind howling like a banshee and blasting his face like God himself had reached down from the heavens to playfully slap him around. Zach tingled all over. He knew it had to be like this out in Oklahoma with the real tornado chasers. Just like this. He was one of them now.

     At the river, the wind became vicious, violently shoving his truck toward a ditch several times, Zach fighting to keep control, but loving every second of it. It rained hard, about as hard and fast and thick as anyone could ever recall. More than two inches an hour, according to a TV meteorologist in Champaign. 

     The Sangamon River jumped its banks and Zach tried to plow through a deep pool on River Road, but instead stalled his truck and had to wade to high ground. He walked halfway back to Argus in cold rain and wind before he got a ride from a county sheriffs deputy, who tuned out to be a guy he’d gone to high school with. The weather service decided it had been a bad storm alright, and record rainfall, but not really a tornado. All that turbulence eventually just fell apart and became normal air again. 

     For a few days, Zach swore to everybody he met that he would empty his savings account of exactly $847.58 and drive out to Oklahoma to hook up with the tornado people. But when the tornado siren went off again, just a week later, Zach trudged wordlessly to the store’s basement with Wanda and Heather. He sat quietly by himself in a corner with his eyes closed tight and waited for the all-clear.

photomontage image by Jason Weingart (Wikimedia images)