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Table of Contents Publishing the Literary West
Wake Up, Sleepwalker Sigman Byrd
A Night at the Y Robert Garner Mc Brearty
Active Gods Michael J. Henry
Glassmusic Rebecca Snow
Umbrellas or Else J Diego Frey
They Only Eat Their Husbands Cara Lopez Lee
Facing the Music Bruce Berger
Phantom Canyon Kathryn Winograd
Asleep Beneath the Hill of Dreams Chris Ransick
Living the Life David J. Rothman
Publishing the Literary West We at Conundrum Press are dedicated to publishing poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction from the best voices of the American West for a national audience. We’ve launched The Rocky Mountain Poetry Series, which features poets from around the American West. Each year, we will publish one collection from an emerging poet, one from a master poet, and one anthology from a state in the region, starting, as you might expect, with Colorado. Why do we do publish work like this? What’s so special about it? And why should you care? You’ve no doubt heard the buzz lately from the buy-local movement. Well, like a good postmodern man, I’ve taken the liberty to borrow some of the movment’s arguments and twist them to serve my purposes. 1. You should care about supporting regional small publishers because it will have an economic multiplier effect. Readers, authors, and small publishers in your town buy more often from other authors, readers, small publishers (and independent bookstores!) in your town, which recirculates more money in your region. Since authors, readers, small presses, and independent bookstores live right there in your community, the profits will stay in your economy. The big six publishers . . . no, wait, the big five publishers . . . hang on, Harper just bought Harlequin, so . . . the 1
big four publishers, are big enough. Does Rupert Murdoch need to line his pockets with yet more cash? Probably not. Do these publishers publish better literature? Sometimes . . . because they can pay for it. But is the sum of all of their books of a higher quality than the sum of all the books from a small press like, say, Conundrum Press? Definitely not. We publish better books more consistently than Harper Collins. Why wouldn’t you make the switch? Also, all the other regions in the country have had their time in the national literary limelight—except probably Hawaii. The American West is the last frontier of American literature, which is strange because, besides perhaps New York City, the country’s best hopes and dreams still live and die on the promising yet unforgiving landscape of the Rockies. The artistic and literary talent here is world class, and the rest of the country, particularly people from the “Garden State,” should know that you can come here to be single, transient, fit, and stoned if you want, but you can also holistically “live the life” of the body, mind, and soul on these rocky slopes. So when you invest in the literature of the American West, you are investing in the cultural, as well as the financial, health of the region. 2. You should care about supporting your regional small publishers because it will promote sustainability. Purchasing literature made closer to home reduces celebrity hot air use and shortens the supply chain, keeping you more connected to who, where, and how your literature is produced. And because there is so much noise out there—such as TV shows that want to be watched, games that want to be played, music that wants to be listened to, ads that want to influence you, news that wants to depress you, pot that wants to stone you, social media that wants to assimilate you, movies that want to stupefy you, and yes even books that want you to read them because, like in junior high, everyone else is—the best authors, the small presses 2
who publish them, and the independent bookstores that sell and celebrate them, need the peoples of their regional communities to consciously choose them over all others in order to survive. Here is a poem about these distractions from Sigman Byrd, from Wake Up, Sleepwalker, which weâ€™ve published in our Rocky Mountain Poetry Series as our first emerging poet: The Great Troublemaker Takes in the View I was sitting under a soaring cliff face and listening to the icy rush of water, like a Buddhist monk in an ancient forest monastery, letting heaven and earth take their turns, when a feeling coursed through my body as if this total stranger vegging on my sofa was channel surfing, and the sudden, sinking awareness that I hadnâ€™t lived a more purpose-driven life interrupted like an infomercial for the maximum ram-jam ab cruncher. I dipped my hand in the water and drew an arrow in the thick, muddy silt. I imagined a tingling filament of calm threading into my arms. But my thoughts like an old LP record kept skipping to a top-forty song about a nagging lack and then onto another song about the self-cleaning, aerodynamically designed city of tomorrow where I hoped to move one day. I got back in the car and drove home. I cracked open the latest Deepak Chopra. With splendid powers of concentration, I put on my yoga pants and practiced Downward Dog and Bird of Paradise on the deck
in the middle of the afternoon. And just when I thought it was safe, I heard a tinkling bell as on the edge of the yard, as if some lovable, loyal mutt had bounded over the fence with his toy, panting, tossing it in the air, racing over so we could play. Oh, mind, incorrigible creature of habit, your trigger-happy synapses, your voluptuous neural pathways blipped with another distraction: the kid across the street bouncing a blue basketball, his oversized Lebron James jersey, which reminded me of the six-year, $110 million deal the basketball superstar signed to play in Miami.
3. You should care about supporting your regional small publishers because your support fosters community. Local authors, small presses, and independent bookstores are more connected to your community and more likely to support community projects (like feeding starving poets), because just like you, they also have literary hobbies, go to poetry reading events, volunteer to edit or design books, buy literature at their favorite bookshops, and donate to their favorite poor author charities. As the miners and ranchers of the Old West learned the hard way, individual and cultural health does not happen out on the lone prairie. It happens in community. Comm-unity: a unity through communication. Not communication from a single voice, of course, but an appreciation and respect for the myriad voices springing from the common experience of love for the landscape and the dreams and lives that fill it. And when avid readers read the best authors their region has to offer, a special connection forms. Conversations and friendships between readers, and between readers and writers, is naturally fostered and 4
a strong and healthy community can be built. Let me end with a poem that calls to mind the importance of in-the-flesh, living-the-life experience called “In Reserve” by master poet Bruce Berger from his forthcoming collection, Raptor. Let me encourage you to read this one aloud. Go ahead. Take a risk, no matter where you are, and let these lines roll deliciously off your tongue: In Reserve Alone against a darkening sky stands one wind-blasted tree whose hypertextured bark catches the last ray of failing sun through Coffee Table National Park. With wings outspread the osprey lights, the fox stares straight into your eye, the patriarch bull moose surveys you from the topmost rocks of Coffee Table National Park. Miraculous, the way the nearby seeks to limn the far, the way close branches arc uncannily above the distant peaks of Coffee Table National Park. Each day’s perfection telescopes the time: it’s always just an hour before dark or one hour after dawn, when light is prime, in Coffee Table National Park. As if it rained last week, the fields are all insane with bloom, although nothing so stark as rain itself is ever seen to fall in Coffee Table National Park. No cirro-stratus ever dim the dunes, though shapely vapors are allowed to spark orgasmic sunsets over the lagoons of Coffee Table National Park. 5
Iguana with iguana, bat with bat, in glossy twos the mated ride the ark that rides your lap, that happy Ararat of Coffee Table National Park. The nubbin of a bumper never juts. the race behind the lens has left no mark of contrails, condoms, film cans, bags or butts in Coffee Table National Park. Perspective, sun and species always mesh. Remember to go light when you embark. Youâ€™ll find you will not even need your flesh in Coffee Table National Park.
We hope you enjoy this sampling of the latest releases from Conundrum Press. We are proud of our authors and of the hard work these pieces represent. Please visit conundrum-press.com to purchase the full booksâ€”they are also available anywhere fine books are sold. And please help us spread the word by passing this sampler along, as well as by leaving reviews and comments at GoodReads, Amazon, or in whatever social media platform you tend to use most. All our best to you, Caleb J Seeling Sonya Unrein Debbie Vance
Learn more about Wake Up, Sleepwalker
Wake Up, Sleepwalker
ROCKY MOUNTAIN POETRY SERIES david j. rothman, editor
The Great Troublemaker Waits for the Perseids Tonight I am watching a TV show about meteors, a full hour of atmospheric voiceovers and high-def motion graphics depicting collisions of frozen rock and metal, space debris tumbling in slow motion as it enters Earth’s atmosphere and catches flame like a Chevy Camaro riding the shockwave of another beautifully choreographed explosion on a rerun of “Starsky and Hutch.” But then a pledge break interrupts. A chatty senior citizen with a white pompadour urges me to join the community of civic-minded viewers giving fifty, seventy-five, a hundred dollars a month. I smile—it’s that time of year again when what matters most is the size of my wallet. Meanwhile, this talking head on TV, this pitch man for all things chock full and charitable, rolls up his sleeves so I can admire the tanned, youthful luster of his arms. He reminds me I’m a riot of dream babble, a target demographic of coded longing conjured by a focus group, a survey of satisfied customers. So I turn off the TV and open the sliding glass door. I step outside and breathe. If any super-chunk, solar system-hopping boulders are streaking obliviously through the sky tonight, I hope I will see them. But the only things moving are the shadowy SUVs floating past the dim, iodine-orange glow of the street light, the pale, snappy flashes escaping the windows across the street where the flat-screen, 10
surround-sound plasma TVs cast their medicinal spell on my neighbors. We are stardust, Joni Mitchell once sang, billion-year-old carbon, we are golden. I am trying to swim to the shoreline without getting sucked under. Itâ€™s like the movie where the main character, this aw-shucks everyman accountant, discovers his wife wants a divorce, and as he reads her seething text message, he reaches out to touch the moon. But it glows like a phosphorescent, photoshopped ad on steroids, the clear night sky drifts in like a form of product placement, and the exhausted words streaming out of the actorâ€™s mouth push something that sounds like a great, gassy atmosphere of superheated sand and rock, a meteor shower (a real one, dear God) careening irreversibly toward the heartland, the hypnotherapeutic strip malls and suburbs flashing on the screen before disappearing into thin air above us.
The Golden Noumenon Don’t get me wrong, I’m not unhappy with our progress: the enormous effort expended to create sophisticated digital phone networks or the season’s new, more colorful lawn furniture. Somewhere at this very moment all over the world strategically organized and astoundingly profitable corporations are getting the job done. Polycrystalline diamond drill bits bore into the earth. Mountains of superheated cement are pumped through hoses. Faces monitor shifting, colossal numbers on computer screens—all for the sake of our glistening, stain-resistant, non-negotiable quality of life. But let me be clear. Those faces— with eyes blinking in lovely, indecipherable patterns, with thoughts and feelings, predilections rotating in and out of moist lips and rows of teeth, with identities and career tracks spoken and unspoken— they’re human faces. I’ve seen them. Inside each one the golden noumenon, an unseen, unheard awareness cries out, Here I am. Can you hear it? It’s tearing into the counterfeit quietude manufactured daily for us micron by unholy micron. It’s there in the whispering spruce forest, in the clanging shipping container clogged with trees and lumber cut screaming from the logs, that voice, that open, intimate voice that wants to be embodied, called out from, and fit into like a cashmere sweater. It’s there, too, in the exchange of credit card numbers, in the manager’s two-for-one sale 12
on nails and drywall, glue guns and plywood, in the doll houses and coffins constructed from plywood, in the dust that coats the TV consoles when no one is looking, when the children are long gone, in the peer-reviewed papers where the words are written that no one will remember. I’m touching it. I’m holding it in my hand like a small, nameless visitor, a bird from a distant, unauthorized forest no one’s ever walked in. Here I am: the golden noumenon, the voice, the one thing we are incontrovertibly gifted with, the flare that wasn’t expected, a late awareness before the information arrives, before the news of money and the collecting of frou-frou, before desire and its habits of exhaustion. On the far side of language, in unmitigated clarity, the call packets diverted, the websites shut down, can you hear it? It waits for us. It has no mobile phone number. It cannot be taken away.
Close the Book Let the reading carry on in a different house, in a comfy chair beneath somebody else’s lamp. Let that person hear the words in their amniotic sloshing, in their playful pantomime of the sea at night. Enough has been said that maybe somewhere else will be said again by a more outspoken, temperamental author. Should you read that book? Will those brassy, effervescent lines shine for you? Will those memorable metaphors in another tone capture the boons and banes of the day? Close the book. Prop it back on the shelf. Or hold it in your hands. Feel the dust jacket as it slides along the woven hinges. No more words. Time for your life again—your life, as if that, too, you had cradled on your chest beneath some prophylactic circle of light. Turn it off. You’ve been on an exquisite journey, and for this you are grateful. But now let the window glow as if in the opening notes of a sublime but earthly aria in which you are the singer, the jilted chanteuse or love-struck troubadour ready for the next scene. Close the book. The spell is broken. A bowl of Cheerios and cold milk calls. A clean spoon waits for you in the drawer.
About the Rocky Mountain Poetry Series “To have great poets there must be great audiences, too.” —Walt Whitman
The Rocky Mountain Poetry Series publishes classic and contemporary poets of the American west, featuring both established and emerging writers. We bring out several volumes each year that we believe embody some aspect of the vitality of our region: the landscape, the history, the people and the imaginative power and diversity that articulate them and render them both recognizable and new. The series offers no contests, competitions, prizes or awards, because those approaches divide readers by turning them into competitors. Our goal, instead, is to bring readers together, creating the greatest possible audience. In the end, vibrant arts communities emerge only when three crucial conditions exist: enough peace to allow people to think about art, enough quiet to give them the time to learn how to make it and enjoy it, and enough of those people to come together and support it in whatever ways they can. Assuming you are not running for your life, that you have enough to eat, and that you care about poetry, we hope you will join us as a member of the community that is The Rocky Mountain Poetry Series. —David J. Rothman, RMPS Editor For more information about the series, please visit conundrum-press.com
Learn more about A Night at the Y
A Night at the Y
Stor ies by
Robert Garner Mc Brearty
A NIGHT AT THE Y
inished with his day job, Ralph stops back at his apartment just long enough to change clothes and kiss his wife and baby goodbye before rushing off to his night shift at the Y. He stands behind the front desk with his left hand picking up phones and his right dispensing towels and locker keys. With a harried grin, caffeine-inspired energy, and the sinking realization that there is baby spit-up on his blue sweater, he greets the incoming members who are frantic to run, swim, lift, jiggle, jazz, and whirlpool away the jangled nerves of a long day. As the members burst through the front doors, stomp snow from their boots, and charge the desk with lowered heads and hunched shoulders, they remind him of truculent bulls, and he is transported by a memory to a day in a mountain town in Mexico twenty years before. The bulls are poised in the cattle truck, ready for the run. Ralph, twenty-one years old then, full of wild hope and amoebic parasites, dagger-thin and crazed from dysentery and ingestions of medicinal tequila, has taken refuge on the steps of El Patio café. Nine bulls come down the ramp—motley, scraggly, apathetic bulls to be sure. No monsters of Pamplona in this September fiesta. They clomp into the roped-off square, and the crowd lets out a collective half-gasp, half-giggle as it huddles against the barriers and gathers on the steps of the café. Young men prance in the 18
cobblestone streets, whistling and jeering. The bulls come to a standstill, snort, wheeze, roll anxious eyes about. Perhaps in the backs of their dim brains flickers the uneasy suspicion that this bacchanal can only finish with them on the wrong end of a public barbecue. These humble, pastoral beasts see no cause for confrontation. They show no inclination to trample, hook with their horns, or spew foam. They’d like to laugh this off; couldn’t it all be resolved peacefully? They stomp on the cobblestones, leaning their heads together, discussing their strategy as their breath rises in white puffs on this crisp, blue Sunday afternoon in late September. They try to back up the ramp into the truck, but four exasperated rancheros swing cowboy hats at their rumps; disconsolately, the bulls come forward into the sunny but bracing afternoon, and the crowd releases another excited cry. In his memory, Ralph sees himself backing up as high as he can on the café steps, wending his way behind children and serapewrapped women. But the other young men, so boldly challenging the bulls, seem to beckon to him: Come down! Run with the bulls! And briefly he yearns to encounter his fate, to die on those dusty cobblestone streets with a horn in his chest, blood in his boots, a wine flask tipped to his lips, while his fingers rise and twitch gracefully, keeping time with the mariachi music as he fades . . . on, brave marvelous soul! The rank odor of sweat and soggy towels and leather basketballs wafts over the desk, and from the gym comes the reverberation of bouncing balls and the trill of a referee’s whistle. Ralph’s memory of the fiesta momentarily slips away and he finds himself back at the Y desk, in the present, though he wonders, given the vast and inexplicable discoveries of modern physics, just exactly what is the present. His uncertainty about the nature of time makes him suddenly aware that he will never be able to explain modern physics to his son, or even cogently describe the inner workings of a telephone. Thinking of his 19
inadequacies as a father makes his heart flutter as he continues handing out towels and keys. His rush hour helper, Maggie Vivigino, the twenty-two-yearold, green-eyed olive-skinned weight room trainer, joins him behind the counter. Her taut body ripples beneath her purple leotard, and Ralph imagines she would have made a wonderful companion for his former self when he was cringing on the steps of El Patio café. But Maggie, he suspects, considers him a loser, working at the Y at his age, though she kindly tries to conceal the feeling. The evening rush speeds up. The Y members, punchy and frayed from another hectic workday, will brook no delay, resent showing their membership cards. “Don’t you know who I am by now?” “I want a good locker tonight! Last time you stuck me in a drafty corner.” “When are you people going to get your act together?” Meanwhile the phone lines are ringing urgently, the red buttons pulsating; the callers are desperate with weighty questions. Ralph stabs at buttons, puts people on hold, accidentally disconnects a few. “Where is my son’s soccer game tomorrow?” a caller inquires. “He lost his schedule and I don’t have the coach’s number.” “How do I sign up for the karate class?” “Where is the director? I want to speak to the director.” “Have you seen a woman in a green bikini?” “The Y? I wanted Pete’s Pool Hall. How long have you had this number?” “Who’s in charge there? I want to speak to the director!” “If you see a woman in a green bikini, tell her I want to meet her.” “Are you sure this is the Y?” “If I sign up for the karate class, do I need to know how to kick beforehand?” 20
“Listen, this is serious. I’ve got to find out about my kid’s soccer game . . .” Unfortunately, Ralph has little information to dispense. His job is to answer calls and forward them to the appropriate offices. But it is Friday evening and the director and administrators have fled the building. “Would you mind if I put you on hold?” Ralph says for the hundredth time. “Yes, I would mind. I’ve been on hold twice already. Can’t you just tell me where my son’s damn soccer game is tomorrow?” By this time, the soccer man’s voice has turned thick, hoarse, and boozy. “I’m sorry. I don’t have the schedule here. I just answer the phones and forward them to the program desk.” “Then let me have the program desk.” “I’m afraid they’re closed. They don’t open again until nine in the morning.” “But the game is at eight! You people are screwed up, you hear me? Screwed up!” “Ralph! Help!” Maggie screams from her station behind the desk. Ralph turns from the phone to see a fresh wave of incoming customers. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to put you on hold, sir. I’ll find out what I can.” “Don’t you put me—” He joins the fray and confronts a woman who snarls, “This is the longest I’ve ever had to wait. Can’t you make your calls on your own time?” A man flings his key back onto the desk. “This is a boy’s locker,” he hisses in righteous rage. A tall, bearded man takes a towel from Ralph’s trembling hand and inquires cheerfully, “Are we having fun yet?” Right in front of the customers, Maggie puts her hands to her face and screams, as she screams nearly every day at this time, “I’m quitting! I’m quitting!” 21
The members meet this pronouncement with a stony indifference, and she continues snatching cards from their hands and hurling their locker keys and towels at them. Then suddenly the wave dissipates; the customers disappear into the locker rooms and quiet settles over the front desk as another rush hour at the Y comes to a close. Maggie looks at Ralph with a bright mist in her eyes. “This is what I get for not finishing college. I’ll always work at crappy jobs.” He takes her aside, draws her back to the tall metal equipment lockers, thinks of holding her steely biceps, but doesn’t. He assures her she can still go back and finish college, though inside a subversive voice whispers: Of course, you can finish college like I did and still work at crappy jobs. As night deepens, only a few people straggle in from the snow. The calls, too, have slackened, though the soccer man keeps phoning, sounding drunker and more abusive each time he calls. Maggie has returned to the weight room to Stairmaster away her blues; her sinewy legs provide inspiration to all the panting after-hours jocks. Ralph calls his wife, and she groans with fatigue. Their sixmonth-old boy has been crying for hours. “What did the doctor say?” “It’s probably just teething.” “How long do you think it will last?” “About ten more years.” She sniffles, “I think I’m losing it.” “Courage, love,” he whispers, “courage.” He slips away from the quiet desk to take the dirty towels to the laundry room, and his heart twists as the sweet strains of Joni Mitchell drift from the overhead speakers: I was a free man in Paris. I felt unfettered and alive . . .
Alive and unfettered indeed, Ralph, on that day twenty years ago, huddles on the café steps as the bulls make rings around the square 22
and feign charges at the young men. The bold ones rush among the bulls, slap rumps and pull horns, and when the bulls are inspired enough to give chase, the young men dive for cover at the last moment. Ralph remains on his perch, cautiously watching the action. He detects about him, in subtle glances and stiffened shoulders, the faint signs of disgust: Oh, cowardly American, go down with the other young men and do battle with these ferocious bulls! Out of nowhere, a boy of about four has wandered into the middle of the street in front of the café. Too late, the crowd on the café steps spots him. In the same moment a bull, ten yards away, lowers its horns and charges. The crowd is paralyzed, deathly still, as if by holding its breath it can make the bull turn aside. Then its silence gives way to a panicked roar. Ralph is not certain, but later he thinks that he felt a push on his back, a palpable—yet unearthly—touch. He rushes through the crowd like a fish gliding past boulders that give way to him, and leaps off the steps. Too late to sweep the boy aside, he runs directly in front of the bull. He feels a bone-jarring impact in his side; his shoes seem stuck to the pavement while the rest of his body flies upwards. He is totally breathless, yet at the same time trying to puke. He’s vaguely aware of sailing beneath a blue sky before he loses consciousness. As he awakens, a wooden ceiling fan twirls slowly overhead. His eyes flicker open and shut, open and shut. The examining table is hard, and the scent of alcohol is familiar and comforting. The doctor and his nurse are marvelously efficient and reassuring as they smile down on him and tape his ribs. The young doctor is dashing in his street clothes; called away from the fiesta, he smells of beer and his eyes glitter. The nurse wears a lowcut flowery dress, and she leans over him and caresses his brow with a moist palm. “How are you feeling now, my hero friend?” the doctor says. Ralph blinks. “Is the boy okay?” The doctor and his nurse grin at one another, and their eyes 23
shine. “The boy is fantastic,” the doctor says. “And you will be okay. It’s the bull we are worried about now.” The doctor and his nurse fall against each other in a paroxysm of laughter and then topple lightly onto Ralph, who puts his arms around their quaking backs. * * * “’Kay, wise guy, where’s the soccer game? Tell me where my son’s soccer game is. I’m not dropping this.” “Look, I’ve done everything I can. I even tried to call the program director at home, but there was no answer. I don’t know what else I can do.” “That won’t do, my friend. That won’t do. I only see my kid every fourth weekend. You’re not screwing this up for him. Somebody knows. Somebody there knows.” His voice rises, takes on a chanting quality: “Somebody knows, somebody there knows, somebody knows . . .” “Look, I’m really sorry. But I’ve got to get off now.” “Don’t you cut me off, you son-of-a-bitch. Don’t you—” Ralph stares at the phone, but it doesn’t ring again. He almost regrets it because there is a sadness at the Y now as the hour grows late. Most of the members and all the other attendants have come and gone, and there are no distractions from his worries. He wonders if his family will make it in this new part of the country they have moved to. Will he find a better job? Will his son be happy growing up here, in this town hard-pressed against the Rockies? Will his wife’s health, already fragile, hold through the fitful nights as they get up again and again to comfort the baby? Out of the dark comes a family—a father, a mother, and a boy of about four. As they come through the front doors they pause, half inside and half out. Behind them, the night pours snow; a gust of frigid air rushes all the way to Ralph at the front desk. They hesitate in the doorway. Then the man gives the boy a gentle nudge, and they all come forward anxiously toward the desk. 24
The man, about Ralph’s age, is short, thick, bearded, with a burly chest and wide hunched shoulders; he looks as if he has seen a lot of rough weather, done a lot of hard labor, yet there is something weak about him. His smile is tremulous. The woman is Hispanic, with dark somber eyes. When they reach the desk, the man keeps his family huddled close, one hand resting on the boy’s black hair, the other holding his wife’s elbow through her old flannel coat. In a Texas accent, his voice coming out high at first before it finds its range, he says, “Hi. Think you can rent us a room?” He shrugs. “We can’t pay motel prices.” The one word Ralph doesn’t want to say to the worn-out looking family is no, but this is what he must tell them. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid we don’t rent overnight rooms here. We’re mainly a gym. The Y in Denver rents some rooms.” The man’s shoulders slump another notch. The woman’s eyes explore Ralph’s face, searching for lies. “Damn. We came through there an hour ago,” the man says. “We’re headed for Seattle . . . from Houston,” he adds, as if that explains their plight. He shakes his head and mutters, almost as if repeating a mantra, “Got good jobs in Seattle. Houston ain’t nothing but a bust.” The woman nods grimly, agreeing with him about Houston. Ralph wonders if she believes in the good jobs ahead. Ralph sees that they are all dead tired. The man and woman glance sidelong at one another, calculating the time back to Denver, this late at night, in the bad weather, the lost time on their journey; the decision is coming down against it. He is tempted to offer them lodging in his cramped little apartment for the night. But what would his wife say? Too dangerous to bring strangers in. Even though she is kindhearted, her fears for their son would make her say no. He knows he is only using her as an excuse, though. Even if he lived alone he wouldn’t offer, wouldn’t want to be drawn into their troubles. But the dark, round, staring eyes of the little boy remind him of what his own family might come to under different circumstances, adrift in a strange city, no money for a motel. 25
“There is a hostel by the campus,” he says slowly. The man blinks. “A hostel?” “It’s kind of like a dorm, but you don’t have to be students. It’s only a few dollars to stay there.” The man glances at his wife, still clutching her elbow. She looks at him, and then down at her son. She puts her hand on the boy’s head and draws him tighter against her leg. She angles her thin face away from the man and her jaw stiffens, a shift which seems to freeze the man. There is something about the word hostel, Ralph sees, which has stopped her, become a stumbling block. The man sighs and turns back to Ralph. “We’ll go on and look for a motel, I guess. You know anything cheap? It don’t have to be nothing fancy.” “I haven’t lived here too long myself, but we can look through the Yellow Pages. Most things are kind of expensive in this town, though.” As he reaches under the desk for a phone book, a sheet of pink, lined paper flutters out; he glances idly at it for a moment, and then stares in amazement at the columns of writing. He slips the sheet of paper under his sweater into the top pocket of his shirt and pats it to secure its position, as if the paper is some treasure of great worth. The man stands at the front desk, thumbing through the Yellow Pages and making his calls from the desk phone. He stumbles over his questions, his brow furrowing as if he can’t quite figure out what people are telling him. With each call, his voice quavers more; sweat springs out on his forehead and his blunt stubby finger makes mistakes dialing. Ralph eases the phone away from him and makes a few calls himself, but it is a football weekend and the motels are either full or too expensive. Because he can’t bring himself to offer his apartment, he says instead, knowing the inadequacy of the offer, “May I buy you all a cup of coffee? And a hot chocolate for your son?” The man, who has gone back to calling himself, holds the phone 26
to his chest, momentarily stunned by the offer. The boy’s eyes brighten as he looks over at the coffee machine against the wall. The woman moves away from the man’s side. As if it’s a way of saying yes, she wraps her arms around herself, gives an exaggerated, friendly sort of shiver, and says, “It’s cold here.” Ralph makes change in the register and goes around the desk into the lobby. The boy follows him to the machine. He takes hold of Ralph’s pant leg and stares silently as the cup drops down and fills. The woman wanders over to the green vinyl chairs, set in a circle around a worn coffee table, and sits down. She lifts a magazine and crosses one slim leg over the other, frowning at the no smoking sign on the wall. Ralph distributes the coffees and hot chocolate. As the few remaining members drift out from the locker rooms, the woman, unlit cigarette in mouth, stares at them with narrowed eyes. The boy follows Ralph as he makes a quick tour of the offices in back, making sure doors and windows are locked. The boy slips his hand into Ralph’s, and as he holds the tiny, cool little hand, he wishes he could do some finer thing. * * * With his ribs taped tightly, Ralph rises stiffly from the examining table. The doctor and nurse help him back into his shirt, and the nurse kisses him on the cheek and ushers him into the waiting room where a small entourage rises and cheers him as he wobbles forward. They offer to see him home, but what he really wants is tequila, he tells them. His request is greeted with a chorus of approval and he is taken up by his new friends and escorted to a cantina near the square, where he drinks icy Tecate beer and shots of José Cuervo, and his newfound best friends embrace him again and again. Later, he will dimly recall making fervid offers to take his friends to a ranch in Montana where they would live off the land and practice medieval chivalry. “You will need English lessons, Juan,” he recalls himself saying to one particularly affectionate but incoherent 27
man who kept putting him in headlocks and lowering his nose to the bar. A bloody sunset glows over the ancient mountain town as he stumbles out the swinging cantina doors; he is on the march again with his entourage, this time slipping through the barricades back into the square where the bulls, at last thoroughly pissed off, have gone into higher gear and are managing to hook a few overconfident young campesinos in the seats of their jeans. For what seems like hours then, but what must have been, in reality, only a few glorious minutes, he experiences what feels like saintliness. The bulls cannot hurt him. They charge at him and he stands motionless; at the last moment, he gives a sweep of his hands and sends them veering away. When he sees anyone in trouble, a bull moving in, he glides over and with a light touch on the rump turns the bull aside. The townsfolk scream his glory, a great roar rising from behind the barricades. They scream the only name they know for him: “gringo! el gringo!” Sombreros fly his way, coins, roses; a beer can bounces off the side of his head.
But back at the Y, saintliness is in short supply. The man is running out of motels to call and it is nearing midnight. The Y will close in ten minutes. Only a diehard weightlifter or two remain somewhere in the dank bowels of the building. It is time for the nightly closing announcement, which Ralph amends from night to night. Over the intercom system, his voice echoes back at him, “Another night at the Y is fast drawing to a close. Prepare to go forth, repaired of body, mind, and spirit.” The man pauses with his finger on the Yellow Pages and gives him a pained smile. Turning, the man signals to his wife, who rises wearily from her chair and joins him. The boy, who has been staring mesmerized through the plate glass doors at the silent blue swimming pool, comes over and leans his sleepy head against his 28
mother’s legs. The man closes the phone book and says to his family, “Looks like we’ll rest up in the truck tonight.” His voice is a dry whisper. “We can run the engine enough to keep warm.” The woman nods, her lips forming a tight line, and Ralph notes that she is not blaming the man or trying to make him feel worse, which somehow makes him feel sorrier for them. He thinks again of inviting them to his home for the night, but is silent. The boy presses himself tighter against his mother’s legs. The man shuts his eyes for a long moment, rubbing the back of his neck and swinging his head like a tired old bull. When he opens his eyes and stares across the front desk at Ralph, he looks amazed to discover himself here, at this moment in time. Slowly, he sticks his hand out across the counter and Ralph grasps it. The man’s hand is dry and rough. He shakes without force. “Thank you, sir. You were real helpful. We thank you.” “I wish I could help, but—” “We’ll be okay.” The woman’s blunt tone silences him. She kneels, pulls her son’s hood up and ties the drawstring. Though he is old enough to walk alone, she cradles him and hoists him to her chest. Ralph comes around the desk and follows them toward the front door. They are halfway through the lobby when a tall shape appears on the other side of the glass doors; a man, clutching his jacket to guard his neck from the cold, lurches in from the snowy night, followed by a stream of frigid air. He shivers, stamps snow from his shoes, and glares wild-eyed at Ralph and the little family. He charges forward. Ralph moves in front of the family. “May I help you?” “You work here? You’re the one I’ve been talking to?” His head bobs on a long neck. He glowers. His face is flushed, and his breath reeks of whiskey. The family shrinks back behind Ralph as the stranger points his car keys at Ralph’s chest. “I drove all the way through the fucking snow and ice, pal, to personally chew out your ass, and I’d better 29
get some straight answers this time. Where is my son’s soccer game? Where, dammit?” Ralph stares at the man. Then he reaches under his sweater and whips out a pink sheet of paper. “Which team?” “What’s that?” The man blinks. “The . . . Rockets. Yeah, the Rockets.” He squints at the schedule Ralph is holding. “El Centro Elementary. Folsom Street. 8 am.” The man rocks back on his heels as if someone had struck him, then tips forward, pressing the points of his keys to Ralph’s chest. The astonishment in his face turns to rage, “Why did you make me go through hell to—” “Easy,” Ralph says. “Easy,” and he takes the man by the arms. Ralph walks, almost waltzes him the few steps to the coffee table. He pushes the man down in a chair, and takes his car keys. “I’ll call you a cab.” The man tries to rise, but Ralph puts a hand on his chest. The calmness of his own voice startles him. “It’s that or I can call the police.” The man stares up at him drunkenly. He stiffens as if to fight and then collapses. He sinks back in the chair and with a defeated expression he looks about the lobby for someone to make his case to; finally, his eyes light on the wall photos of the Y board members, and to their smiling, broad faces he protests, “What a fucked up place this is.” But he stays put, shivering, letting out disgruntled sighs and groans as a puddle of melted snow forms around his shoes. Meanwhile, Ralph sees that the family has slipped away. He rushes into the night and sees them trudging across the parking lot in the snow, the boy over his mother’s shoulder. “Hey!” he calls, running after them. “Wait!” They glance back, but hurry on for their truck. Catching up with them, touching the man’s elbow, he talks quickly, getting the offer out before he can stop himself. “You can spend the night with us if you like. It’s not much. We’ll have to 30
put out sleeping bags on the floor. And we have a baby who’s been crying a lot. But it’s warm. You can stretch out. Have a shower in the morning. Breakfast . . .” The man’s eyes widen and he looks in consternation from Ralph to his wife. She holds her boy tighter to her breasts, and Ralph speaks to her now. “It’s all right. Really. It’s no problem. I want you to stay with us.” Her face hardens, and for a scary moment he thinks she is going to tell him to shove his offer; then, in an instant, her face softens and he sees something more frightening: he believes she is going to cry. She squeezes his hand and nods. “Okay,” Ralph says. “Okay. Great.” His shoulders relax and drop, his chest expands; an adrenalin-like thrill rushes through him. Turning, he lifts his face to the shower of snow and starts back for the Y. The family follows close behind him, as if they are afraid to lose him.
And twenty years in the past (though, given the vast and inexplicable discoveries of modern physics, who can say just what the past is) he is seized by two policemen. One of them screams in his face, “Out of the street, cabrón! You want to get killed?” They give him the bum’s rush out of the square. Then he is weaving home through the cobblestone streets, followed by his loyal entourage and a ragged mariachi band . . . weaving his way home through the last bloody rays of the sunset, weaving below the flowered balconies, a beautiful woman waving from a window . . . the bugles serenading a young man home as he takes a glorious walk toward the future, toward a long wintry night at the Y.
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Michael J. Henry
birth order First You were the mistake, the one who crashed the wedding without an invite, in utero. You trudged to school all by your lonesome. You got the brunt of everyoneâ€™s confusion, their figuring out how to work all the levers and buttons. Later, you popped your window-screen and snuck into the night to do bad things. You crashed Momâ€™s Galaxie wagon in the ditch. Busted bones, circling stars, Venus and Mars. They named you The Wild One, The Floozy. You wished you were bland and tasteless like everybody else, like all the nobodies.
Second Middle child, they were too spent to give a bother, so says your tweedy mumbling psychotherapist. You wanted the award for Most Prettiest, wanted to have a superior thinking machine, piston the blood, whirl the brain, vault across the synapse. You were not impulse made, you were not the one they shouted at, though you sometimes wish they would have boomed and smacked your cheek. To suffer something, at least. When you won the spelling bee, was anyone there in the dark auditorium? No matter. You couldnâ€™t see anyway. But the winning word still thrums your heart: delicacy.
Third So, so, so. They don’t like the histrionics, so cut it out, for cripessakes. Any toy you wanted, you got. Whatever hour you snuck back into the house, no problem. You are their last best wish, the thing they’ll get right, finally, Jesus Christ—Don’t say G_d’s name in vain, it’s not polite. Their hope is a heavy ingot full of anvils trussed onto your back and you are running up the endless hill. You think you’re the only one in the race, but the pack is stomping behind you, and they are growing close, closer. The whole family’s there, to watch. They clap and holler— Run, darling boy, run, run G_d dammit run.
active gods Sitting on a park bench by the Peace Bridge, along the Niagara River, in Buffalo, New York Stone and iron moor the bridge and while cars and trucks chug over, water roils under, 14 miles an hour, white-capped and fierce. When driving over, Mother’s command to us kids was to plug our noses, as if Dad might lose it, was sure to careen the Galaxie wagon over the curb, tearing through the rail, to plunge. He was our one true god, the one who brought us in, and, he sometimes said, the one who could take us out. Now, as I watch cars glide over and reconsider the risks, a future slowly reveals itself: moving into an old brick house where surely there will be a wife and surely there will be some children tearing the place apart, little girls who sing of bridges in London, cherubs who’ll weep in cars, the sun too bright in their eyes, who’ll make bridges out of Legos, who’ll wiggle and squirm generally, and someday I’ll contemplate the fluid cascade of their golden or maybe red hair, their quick legs pistoning across a beach somewhere, a sandy tilted shelf I’ve brought them to, me being their active god. 37
Only then will I understand current and spindrift as the lake revels around their ankles at the shoreâ€™s edge, gentle waves frothing and repetitive. And maybe thatâ€™s all this is: a crossing over, a giving in, hoping to find devotion and belonging on the other shore.
another prayer You don’t need to figure it out. Give in to the low sun and the bickering kids in the other room. Let sundown come, let it be a sad, bland one, why the hell not? Let grief—over nothing, over everything—sweep the air in a thousand brilliant hues, let it pulse the heart, the hands. You are not in control, sometimes, so what? You miss so much of what is gone, but desire is sticky and not always sweet. Let everyone else write their long, tragic memoirs, let them review the bullet points and meditations, the cloying drag of life, how they bolt-cut the chain of their own special anchor, untethering. Let them weep for their loss. You’ve got your own past to enjoy, grieve, bury, love, forget.
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he village prayer house was just a few farms east, around the base of the hills wooded in spruce and fir. The oat and barley fields of Fårheim lay bright in the sun, the cut hay drying over long racks of poles and wire. Walls of mossy stones divided the fields which rose in gradual slopes toward the hills. Up in the meadows, sheep rattled their distant cries and brown spotted cows wandered and grazed. The Solheim family walked along the dirt road curving along the fjord between the shore and a low stone wall. Papa used his cane and Mama held his other arm. Ingrid followed between Leif and Alvdis. Kari and Per, several yards back, carried Papa’s case of goblets, each of them gripping a leather handle on either end. Leif wore his grey cap and ran a stick along the wall. Ingrid held Alvdis’s hand. She was two years older than Ingrid with the same blue eyes, almost, and the same long blond braids. Kari had tied the ends of Ingrid’s braids together in the back with a green ribbon. “I don’t want to tune at the prayer house,” whispered Ingrid. “I like tuning in the storehouse.” “You’ll do well,” Alvdis whispered back. “Think how much you’ve practiced.” Ingrid slowed her walk when the white church, its steeple pointing to the cloudless sky, came into view, gravestones surrounding it in uneven rows. The prayer house stood opposite the church on 42
the far side of the graveyard. Alvdis squeezed her hand and pulled her along. The sun shone into their faces and shimmered on the fjord. Little fishing boats dotted the blue expanse, the wooded hills above the far shore rising beyond the narrow fields just as they did on this side. “Gustav’s back is not doing so well,” Ingrid heard Mama say to Papa. They were just a few feet ahead. “And he has his own farm. So does Otto.” Ingrid glanced up at Alvdis, who shrugged. Mama and Papa didn’t seem to notice, or care, how closely they followed. “I would miss you, Lovisa, my love, but think how often I could go with Ingrid,” said Papa. “She is ready now. And the farm has always needed you, even with Gustav’s help.” Ingrid remembered Papa telling her she could travel with him when she was eight. She had stored that day like her sølje she wasn’t old enough to wear, safe in its birchwood box. Mama had given her the brooch on Christmas Eve, but when Ingrid held it in her palm and touched the gold, spoon-like discs hanging on the silver wreath, each just large enough to cradle her fingertip, Mama slid it from Ingrid’s hand and folded it back inside the white handkerchief. Slowing her pace again, Ingrid considered pulling free from Alvdis and running back home. She had just turned seven a couple months ago. Alvdis kept up with Mama and Papa, though, still gripping her hand. Ingrid tripped as she lurched forward. “She’s young to be away for weeks at a time. Kari, and maybe Alvdis, can go with you for now, though I don’t know how I would get along without them. And they’ll miss some school.” Mama gazed into the side of Papa’s face. Ingrid wondered if Papa could feel her watching him. “Ingrid will be fine,” said Papa. “She’s better than any of us at tuning.” Mama stood a little taller and unhooked her arm from Papa’s. Papa did well with just the cane. Maybe he listened to her footsteps. “Alvdis can come to help take care of her, and then you will have Kari and the boys at the farm,” Papa said. Alvdis skipped a little and 43
smiled at Ingrid with her mouth open. She swung Ingrid’s hand. Ingrid forgot where they were heading until they walked into the steeple’s shadow. Tomorrow, Pastor Torvund would wave and smile outside the open door. “Velkommen, Oskar og Lovisa.” But today was Saturday, when Papa would sometimes lead a worship service in the prayer house. He was a lay minister, he explained once at supper, when Per asked why he preached sometimes but not at church on Sunday. Ever since Ingrid was old enough to remember, villagers had crowded into the bedehus for Papa’s services. Families often came from surrounding villages, even from other fjords, especially when he preached and played his music for outdoor festivals up on the mountainside. Little white crosses were fixed upon the steep roof, one on each end and another lower down over the arched entryway. Ingrid saw a few families already climbing the steps into the big, white building with baskets of bread, cheese, and fruit for lunch between the service and Bible lessons. As they started up the narrow path through the graves, Papa’s cane struck a headstone. He stopped. “Lovisa, you are my eyes.” Mama returned her arm around Papa’s.
Ingrid knelt on the stool beside Papa, the glasses dim and empty. She knew Jesus was walking on stormy waves and rescuing Peter in the print hanging behind them. She thought he still might notice her, in her grey-green dress with the lace collar. Ingrid felt dizzy up on the platform in front of the room, up still higher on the stool, but Papa stood firm at her shoulder. Mama sat in the third row of benches with Kari, the boys, and Alvdis. The familiar village faces watched Ingrid. Pastor Torvund was there with his wife and children, and Pastor Olsrud, Papa’s friend, had come across the fjord from Ulvestein. He wasn’t married yet, even though he looked almost as old as Papa. Ingrid didn’t like his face. It was puffy and red. He had large blue eyes, but they 44
didn’t seem to see anyone. Everyone was much too quiet. Maybe they weren’t used to Mama sitting down. She was usually with Papa, helping him tune, and she would always look up and smile at people as they entered the room. She would stop tuning to greet them. But today, Mama didn’t say hello to anyone. She’s sad, Ingrid thought. Papa doesn’t want her to tune anymore. “Fill the glasses, lille venn,” Papa whispered. He placed his hand on her upper back, then let go. She lifted the clear pitcher and poured into the front glass. No need for Papa’s tuning fork. The notes came easily into her head. She forgot her dizziness as she tested the glasses with her finger around each rim. Papa had said he wouldn’t need to check them this time. It was up to her. She bent her head to the long, disharmonious sounds blending their agony into the room. Papa spoke up, interrupting Ingrid’s tuning with a smile. “The notes have to travel in painful circles before they find harmony.” The growing crowd laughed. Ingrid smiled, keeping her eyes on the glasses, and wet her index finger on each hand. She played two glasses at once, a D clashing with an E, pressing her fingers a little harder than usual. The people laughed again, putting their hands to their ears. Papa bent down and whispered, “Enough.” Ingrid went back to work and the crowd grew quiet again. She finished and glanced at Mama as she backed her knees off the stool. Mama was still looking down, frowning at her folded hands. Ingrid felt a falling sensation, as if it were snowing inside her chest and arms. The green-and-white painted benches were almost full, but Ingrid’s seat at the end of her family’s bench was just a few yards away. Pastor Olsrud’s eyes as big and round as kroner coins were staring at her. Ingrid couldn’t get her legs to walk. She looked away from the pastor to Mama, her face angled up now toward a window across the congregation. “Go on, Ingrid,” said Papa. 45
She stepped down and crossed the polished floorboards. She glanced up at Pastor Olsrud as she passed him. A strange light grew in his eyes. Nausea struck Ingrid and she looked down at her shiny black shoes. She felt everyone but Mama watching her. The bench she was trying to reach seemed to slide away. She arrived, finally, and sat next to Alvdis. “Greetings,” said Papa. He wore his long-tailed jacket over his vest and a round, silver clasp held his white shirt snug at the neck. Six ivory buttons lined each side of his dark pants to the knee, white knitted stockings pulled over his shins. A silver buckle shone on each of his black shoes. He smiled again, moving his head as though he remembered what it was like to meet the eyes of a crowd. Ingrid imagined he could see them in his mind, as he remembered them last. Since Papa hadn’t yet met Pastor Olsrud before he went blind, his image wouldn’t be in the audience. She had heard Papa say his childhood friends had just become young men when he started losing his sight. Maybe they still looked as young in his mind as they had been then. The Amundsens hadn’t been so old, either. Ingrid wondered if he tried to picture everyone as they would look now, all these years later. He had been able to see Mama for only a short while. “By the time I met her,” he had told Ingrid, “my vision had started to go. Spectacles didn’t help. Everything was blurry and getting darker, even up close. I could see enough, though, to know how beautiful she was.” He said a brief prayer and addressed the crowd: “May we worship the Lord.” Ingrid took a hymnal from the green shelf behind the bench in front of her and handed it to Alvdis. Everyone stood. Papa was shy about leading his own hymns, even though they were starting to appear in the church song books. He chose an old hymn Ingrid knew by heart. Alvdis knew it too, and closed the book. They sang together with the congregation, “Jeg går i fare hvor jeg går . . .” Papa motioned for the crowd to sit when they had finished, 46
then began his first piece. His fingers glided over the crystal rims. The notes emerged into another Norwegian hymn the congregation knew well, but no one sang the words. They listened to Papa gather the echoes of water and glass, the wavering voices of angels.
After the service, as villagers gathered in the adjacent room for lunch, a few of them lingered behind with Ingrid and Papa. Josefi ka took Ingrid’s hands and pressed them together. “You did such fine work up there,” she said, a smile wrinkling her already-lined face, her grey hair pinned into a neat bun. Gustav smiled at her, too. He used a cane now, like Papa, but for his back. “Ja, she did well,” said Papa. Pastor Olsrud waited behind the Amundsens. When they moved away, he approached Ingrid. His voice registered low and rich, and he paused between sentences to look at Ingrid, as if trying to study her thoughts. “Your dress is very pretty. Did you make that collar?” He ran his fingers along the lace at her neck. His hand was rough and warm. Ingrid stepped back. “Kari made it.” “You’re not old enough to make your own dresses yet?” He sounded as if he didn’t believe her. “Your hands are very capable, as you showed us today. I think they could sew quite well.” “I don’t know how to sew yet,” Ingrid said. “You’ll stay with us this afternoon?” Papa asked Pastor Olsrud. “Certainly.” “Well, I am hungry.” Papa started walking away, moving his cane back and forth across the floor in front of him. Mama saw him from the other room and came to take his arm. Ingrid didn’t want them to leave. Pastor Olsrud stood in her way, waiting, it seemed, to ask her more questions. She looked around the room. Bia Larsen was halfway up the aisle between the benches, talking with Kristen Skalvik. Otherwise, everyone else had left. Pastor Olsrud lifted Ingrid’s hand by the wrist and clasped it in 47
his own. “See the missing button on my cuff ?” Ingrid looked down at his white sleeve, unbuttoned. “Kari or Alvdis could fix it,” she said. “Or Mama.” She tried to remove her hand, but he kept a firm hold. “Are you afraid you won’t do it right? I don’t mind if you use my shirt to practice. Would you like that, Ingrid?” “Nei.” “Well then, you needn’t be rude to your visitor.” He let go of her hand and turned away. Ingrid looked up toward the dining hall and there was Papa, walking toward her and Pastor Olsrud, searching the floor with his cane. “Ingrid? I thought you were right behind us. People are asking after you. Arne, come sit with us before the bread is gone.”
The villagers, except Mama and the children, filed out of the prayer house after lunch. Kari, thirteen now, was too old for the Bible school Mama taught. She walked home with Papa and Pastor Olsrud. Ingrid watched them go from the prayer house steps. Kari held Papa’s arm, Pastor Olsrud close on the other side of her. He turned to Kari and laughed, running his hand over her head.
The pastor remained at the dining table with Papa until late into the evening. Mama felt obligated, Ingrid was sure, to welcome him to stay the night so he wouldn’t have to row across the fjord in the dark. He would stay in the guest bed, upstairs in Mama’s sewing room. Everyone had gone up to bed except the two men. Ingrid, secretly awake, stood in the foyer beside the kitchen doorway, listening to the pastor and Papa for a little while, the dark kitchen between the dining room and herself. A candle burned beside the rocking chair, otherwise the foyer was dim. The pastor spoke as if he wanted everyone in the house to hear. 48
“How is your new ‘Christianity of Love’? Have you brought it by now to every corner of Norway?” he asked. “It was already in every corner, at one time or another. It’s not exactly new. First Corinthians thirteen tells us quite a bit about how we should love.” “Every pastor knows that chapter quite well, I think, Oskar.” “Of course, ja, but many pastors seem to easily forget it. I have heard some churches urge parents to beat their children, for example.” “There is that proverb,” Pastor Olsrud laughed. “Love works best, I think. I’m not the perfect example. I have a temper. But I would never strike my children.” “Well,” said the pastor. “I will have to think about that one. Without a wife, I have plenty of time.” “My other mission is to urge the youth to follow their calling— I won’t forget the evening God called me to music.” Ingrid remembered Papa’s story. Not long after his conversion, he had listened to a man playing the violin outside on a spring night, under the stars, villagers dancing in a large circle. Papa stood at a short distance, watching. The song was a fairy tune, yet Papa knew with sudden certainty that God was prompting him. He could give people a new delight in their faith, like King David when he danced before the Israelites rather than imposing obedience. Pastor Olsrud didn’t sound interested in Papa’s calling, though he teased him with a quote from Paul to the Corinthians: “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” Both men laughed. Ingrid crossed the foyer and climbed the stairs to the girls’ bedroom without a candle. She pretended to be Papa, stepping up into the darkness.
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Umbrellas or Else
J Diego Frey
Diner of Too Much Significance The Elephant of Impatience hunches over a booth in the Coffee Shop of What’s Your Hurry. Without meaning to, he has parked himself again at the station of the Waitress of Destiny’s Sarcasm. Two Old Ladies of Get Out Much? are struggling with their order from the one-page breakfast menu. He drums his nubbly fingers on the Formica from an Unlamented Past, glares in their direction. Waitress walks up, wipes down the table, pours him a cup of the Coffee of Much Earlier That Morning (black, two sugars). He orders: the Eggs that Run with Sadness, toast and the Hash Browns. The coffee is burning his esophagus. All the Bad Decisions and the Sorry I Squashed Thats, all the Don’t Look in Theres and the Yes Mother I’ll Clean It Right Ups . . . Has it all been worth it? The Tiny Beep of Unfathomable Casios flicks him by the left ear back to Now. He stands up, flings a Five-Dollar Bill of Discontent on the table, stamps out. There is a Bus to Catch and a job, a Boss Who Facilitates with Menial Tasks and Demeaning Praise.
The waitress wipes down the table. He will be back tomorrow, same time, at the Lunch Rush of Infinite Recurrence.
2 More Triolets No Horseplet You kids knock it off before someone gets hurt— this smacking, grab-assing, and general mirth. I’ve just finished sweeping and you’re covered with dirt. You kids knock it off before someone gets hurt. You’re acting like monkeys when monkeys revert. So before I start beating you for all you are worth, you kids knock it off before someone gets hurt— this smacking, grab-assing, and general mirth. Elly-Met Hillbilly goddess moved to L.A. when her Uncle Jed shot at some oil. She would’ve said tri-o-lett, not tri-o-lay, this hillbilly goddess moved to L.A., but I would’ve allowed her to pronounce it that way. (As her boyfriend I could have been that kind of loyal.) Hillbilly goddess moved to L.A. when her Uncle Jed shot at some oil.
Bruce Cattlecar, chicken car, people car caboose. I like red wine. You like red wine. We drink beer with Bruce. Storage building, office building, luggage rack museum. I have no time. You have no time. Bruce is on per diem. Elementary, tertiary, seventh manifold. I’m remorseful. You’re remorseful. Bruce keeps us on hold. Doppelganger, pterodactyl, ectoplasm scones. I’ll distract him. You vivisect him. Let the desert bleach his bones.
Narcissus Trims His Nosehair For nearly thirty-seven years I had control of nose and ears. Smooth skin upon the conch and lobe and nostrils clean as Manitobe. But time and genes bedevil me. My good health lost to revelry. I’m sprouting gardens in these holes profuse enough to shelter voles! Now naked fore the glass I stand, electric clippers in my hand, to prune these bushes back to stumps and check my testicles for lumps. Exotic growths from crotch to head— signs, at least, that I’m not dead.
This Was Supposed to Be a Simple Song Tell of a shelf upended by rain. And the forest of kelp that grew up in my brain. In the night comes your yelp (as we circle the drain): “Umbrellas or else— we will sing it again!”
Learn more about They Only Eat Their Husbands
They Only Eat Their Husbands Love, Travel, and the Power of Running Away
Cara Lopez Lee
The Butt of The Lion thirty-five years old—kunming, china
Yuantong Temple has been standing for more than a thousand years, and in such a venerable place I expected an afternoon of peaceful contemplation. But, without knowing the language, I feel destined to misinterpret this country, no matter what I do. I am an observer of people and sights I cannot hope to understand. As I entered the temple, I saw signs saying that photos are forbidden inside the halls. But the guards in the main hall said nothing when flashes went off as several Chinese tourists took photos of an ancient Buddha. In the outdoor sections of the temple, photos are allowed, and I took several. In the midst of a large square pond stood a graceful octagonal pavilion linked to the surrounding complex by two stone bridges. The multiple arches of the bridges cast reflections in the water, creating a row of perfect circles that begged to be photographed. Hundreds of Chinese on their New Year holiday swarmed the grounds. In the courtyard, they lit candles and incense and offered food and money before statues of Buddha. Although it was crowded by American standards, compared to the congested city outside its walls the temple was as serene as I’d hoped—until I took my final photo. I was about to leave when I spotted a small hall I’d overlooked. 60
Three golden Buddhas dominated the room where only a handful of people were meditating or praying. A shaft of sunlight pierced the dimness and turned the golden Buddhas into shining temptations. This room displayed no sign forbidding photos. Still, it seemed prudent to assume the rule applied here, too, and it seemed respectful not to snap photos inside a room where people were performing devotions. But after a few of the faithful left, an idea struck me. I decided to wait for the room to empty, step outside, and shoot a photo from there, catching just a glimpse of the golden altar in the background. Then there’d be no one to offend, and I’d technically be following the rules. I waited until everyone left the room except one small boy. He was out of sight of the doorway and I knew my camera wouldn’t pick him up. So, I stepped well outside the room and casually snapped my shot. Instantly, a tiny elderly woman whom I hadn’t noticed rushed forward from the room’s shadows, shouting at me. Her angry movements threatened to fling her tight little bun from her head. My camera’s flash must have gone off, alerting her to my presence. I’ll never be sure of her precise complaint. She spoke a vituperative rush of Chinese, of which I only understood one phrase: “Bu hao!” (“Not good!” or, more to the point, “Very bad!”) As she scolded me, she grabbed my elbow with one bony hand and smacked my arm with the other. When she propelled me down the walkway to an unknown destination, yelling and slapping my arm the entire way, I grew fearful. I was in a communist country. Evidently I’d broken a rule. But surely I wouldn’t go to prison . . . would I? She was pretty old, her back hunched with osteoporosis, and I could have outrun her. But the temple was filled with young, fit Chinese who would surely side with one of their own. So I made no attempt to flee her grasp. The little boy followed after us as the old woman pushed me into the office of an official in a green uniform. She kept pointing at the boy and pointing at my camera, screeching with even 61
more emotion now that we had an audience. The man looked blankly from her to me. “Do you speak English?” I asked the man. He shook his head. So while the woman continued to shriek, I pointed at my camera, then at the little boy, and made negative gestures with my face and hands, indicating I’d taken no photos of the boy. In response, the man grabbed my arm and firmly guided me to another office where he presented me to two more officials: a young man and young woman. The grandmother followed, still gabbling. I asked the female official, “Do you know English?” “A litter,” she said. Oh God, I’m going to jail, I thought. The young woman listened as Grandma continued her tirade. Even in my fear I was impressed at the old woman’s lung capacity. After many minutes even the officials seemed to tire of her monologue. But they listened with exaggerated patience. Finally I interjected, speaking slowly and distinctly: “I see the signs that say ‘cameras forbidden’ inside temple. I took no pictures inside. I stood outside and took a picture. My flash must have gone off. (Here I pointed at my flash.) I think this woman saw the flash and thought I took a photo of the boy. I did not. (Here I pointed at the boy, pointed at the camera, and shook my head.) I took no forbidden photos.” The old lady shook her head, stomped her foot, and made other gestures to indicate she didn’t believe anything I said, whatever I said. With deliberate calm, I gradually backed away. “I have done nothing wrong. I am sorry for the trouble. I will leave the temple now.” I bowed and turned to leave. I tried this trick twice, and twice the officials blocked the doorway. The young female official and the old woman began conferring and gesturing to my camera. “Please don’t take my film. It will ruin my pictures. I have done nothing wrong.” I was worried they wanted to do something worse than take my film, but 62
thought it best to direct their attention to the most optimistic of potential punishments. When I tried to leave a third time, the entourage shepherded me toward a desk where the young woman pulled out an official form. There was only one thing left to do. I thought, Start crying, Cara. Now! My nerves were already ragged, so it was easy to call forth some real tears. My lips trembled as I pleaded, “Please let me go! I’ve done nothing wrong. Please let me go!” That’s when they did the most surprising thing of all. All three officials, and even the old woman, took one look at my face, shook their heads with pity, and more or less said, “Oh, no, no,” in Chinese. The young female official and the old grandma gently shooed me out the door with a soft flutter of their hands. I turned and scurried out before they could change their minds. The problem was, once I started crying I couldn’t stop. I found myself walking down a public street, weeping profusely before hordes of gaping Chinese, most of whom I towered over by several inches. Through the water trebling my vision, I made out an old man smiling at me and holding out an ice cream bar. It took a moment for me to realize he was a street vendor. An Englishman who lives in China recently warned me, “Chinese ice cream can be a bit dodgy,” but I bought one anyway. The old man patted my arm as if to comfort me. He kept smiling and asking questions in Chinese, even though I kept saying, “Ting bu dong.” (I don’t understand.) By the time I walked away, slurping the watery-tasting ice cream, I was smiling. Then, as I recalled the tiny old grandmother dragging me and slapping me, I started to giggle. If anything, passersby stared even more than they had at my tears. But their eyes held no judgment, only barely suppressed mirth. Lack of understanding can carry a penalty, but it can also carry a reward: laughter, the trophy of escape artists and survivors.
Today I spent Valentine’s Day alone, in a land of 1.3 billion people. This morning I rented a bike for five yuan (about sixty-five cents) and rode from Dali to Xizhou, a village of Bai people, the local minority group. For twenty-five kilometers, I rode on a long ribbon of two-lane highway, passing acre after acre of flat farmland. Along the way, I stopped in a hamlet to ask directions. The village looked deserted until I spotted an old woman standing next to a small temple. She smiled and beckoned. As I approached, she waved me into the temple. Curious, I bowed then stepped through the entry into a dirt courtyard. A small building stood along one of the four walls. There was nothing else except a palpable silence. I crossed the courtyard to the building and took a few tentative steps into its single large room, which was barren of decoration. As my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I noticed the prayer rugs lined up before me and realized this was not a Buddhist temple. It was the prayer hall of an Islamic mosque. I remembered something and looked down. My shoes! I turned to walk back to the door and remove them. Too late. Before I could exit, a girl of about ten appeared in the empty courtyard and rushed toward me, chattering. I didn’t know what language she was speaking, but it was obvious she was scolding me. I quickly backed out of the building, bowing and apologizing in bad Chinese, “Dui bu qi! Dui bu qi!” (Excuse me! Excuse me!) As I backed into the courtyard, the girl crawled partway into the temple on hands and knees, swatting and rubbing the floor. That’s when I noticed the dirty footprints I’d left behind on the thin carpet. Even Buddhist temples often require people to remove their shoes and I should have erred on the side of caution in the first place, but in the profound silence I’d stopped thinking. The mosque was silent no more, and neither were my thoughts, as the little girl continued to pummel the floor. I wondered if this community frowned on women entering the prayer hall at all. The girl 64
had entered, so maybe not. Still, I felt like an intruder. I turned to leave and tripped over two more girls who’d followed the first into the courtyard. They stared at me as if I were naked. Self-conscious, I looked down again and saw my other mistake: I was wearing pants with zip-off legs, and I’d gotten so sweaty from bicycling in the heat that I’d zipped off the lower legs, converting the pants into shorts. They weren’t all that short, but they showed my knees. I didn’t need to be told that this was disrespectful to Islam. In fact, I haven’t seen any women in China wearing shorts— Muslim, Buddhist, or otherwise. I gestured at my legs and repeated my apology, which sent all three girls into a fit of giggling. It was obvious my pronunciation was gibberish to them. I still can’t get the hang of the Chinese tones. Maybe these girls didn’t even know Chinese. Nonetheless, I pulled out my phrasebook and riffled the pages until I hit on a word that seemed to fit the situation. Pointing at the prayer hall, I attempted to ask, “No women?” This only made them laugh harder. Their laughter was cut off by a voice issuing from the mosque’s humble minaret, a muezzin calling the men to prayer. Realizing that it was now too late to leave the mosque without being noticed by the men who were surely heading this way, I opened my fanny pack and found my pant legs. I frantically stuck a leg through one of them and began zipping it back on. I stopped in embarrassment when a man entered the courtyard, but he ignored me as if I were invisible, walked right past me, entered the hall, and knelt on a prayer rug. While I pulled the second leg on, the scolding girl beckoned to an old man. He walked straight up to me with a questioning look. In my nervousness, I dropped the unzipped pant leg around my ankle as I again struggled to apologize. I repeated my rendition of, “I’m sorry. No women, only men?” as I pointed at the building. He looked even more baffled than the children. Giving up, I hopped out of the courtyard, one leg off, one leg on, the three girls following at my heels. When I sat on the ground 65
outside to finish re-assembling my pants, the scolding girl sat next to me and smiled. I smiled back and pulled out my phrasebook, hoping to find something new to say. She gestured that she wished to see the tiny book. I handed it to her, and she started reading some of the Chinese words aloud, unwittingly giving me a lesson in pronunciation. I looked over her shoulder and repeated some of the phrases. She smiled again and corrected me, this time squelching her obvious urge to giggle. When I looked up from our lesson, I saw that we’d attracted a crowd of a dozen or so curious children and adults. Most of them were chuckling. I bowed and said, “Ni hao!” More chuckling. Then I asked the girl for the phrasebook, riffled the pages again, and haltingly asked the elders, “Please, how far to Xizhou?” Several of them pointed in the same direction. One white-haired man held up a single finger. I assumed he meant one kilometer, although he might have meant one minute. Maybe he was pointing to Allah. “Xie xie ni! Zai jian! (Thank you! Goodbye!)” I said, and mounted my bike. I turned to wave as I pedaled away. Several people smiled and waved back. That’s when it became clear: I had not offended them, only surprised them. Their unreserved smiles made me wish I hadn’t decided to leave so abruptly, but I could think of no excuse to stay now. I rode one kilometer in the direction they’d pointed, and found Xizhou. When I arrived the market was in full swing and I had to walk my bike through the buzzing swarm of people. The Bai have dark, delicate, sweetly crinkled features reminiscent of Tibetans. Bai women wear either a multicolored cloth wrapped around the head, or a flowery pink and blue fitted cap with a white tassel. The bright headdresses floated between vivid displays of vegetables, mandarin oranges, Popsicles, apples, and bananas. Slabs of fresh meat crawling with flies were thrown on bare folding tables. A butcher leaned over hunks of bloody meat, a cigarette bobbing up and down in his mouth as he haggled with customers. A dead rat lay stiff on the corner of the table, its eyes squeezed shut into little cartoon X’s. 66
Ever since I arrived in China, I’ve mourned my lost eighteen inches of personal space. But it wasn’t until I reached this rural village that the pressure of China’s overpopulation felt physically dangerous. Bodies continued pouring into the market until I was wedged so tightly into a jostling line that the possibility of being trampled became quite real. It was frightening, but energizing. Being squashed in a crowd made me feel very Chinese—though the stares did not. You’d think I’d be used to people staring at me. They’ve been doing it all my life. I both hate it and love it when people stare at my face and ask, “What are you?” Part of me wants to scream, “I’m an American!” or “I’m a human! What are you?” But another part of me loves being the melting pot personified, and watching their faces change as I share my story. I’m not aware that any of my father’s Mexican ancestors came to the U.S. by wading or swimming across the Rio Grande, just as none of his Chinese ancestors ever worked on a railroad. My Chinese great-grandfather was a restaurant owner in El Paso, where Mexicans have lived since long before the borders were drawn. My great-grandmother was Mexican, but I believe she and her family simply walked across the bridge from Juarez to El Paso. On my mother’s side, one of my Irish ancestors was a hillbilly. That great-grandmother was a poor girl from Appalachia, but she was lucky enough to be born with a pretty face. So when she was a teenager, she put on her best dress, came down from the mountains, went to the city, and caught herself a man. Then there were my English ancestors who lived in New England before the Revolutionary War, my Swiss ancestors who moved to the Midwest, and my French and Cherokee ancestors—I’m not sure I buy the bit about being descended from a Frenchman who married a chief ’s daughter, although that story has been passed down in my mother’s family for years. According to another old family story, whispered for generations, one of our New England ancestors married a half-African woman. That makes me something like 67
1/2048th African, completing the American mosaic, the torn bits and pieces that make up me. Some people do recognize one of those torn pieces or another, and it seems that some don’t like what they see. One tanned summer day when I was twelve, I was riding my bike through the white suburban neighborhood where I lived with my grandparents when a voice startled me from my daydreams. A little girl of about eight hollered, “Get out of my neighborhood, you dirty Mexican!” Ever the optimist, I duck-walked over to her on my purple Schwinn with the banana seat to explain why it was wrong to call people things like that. I was sure that when she saw how friendly I was she would recognize her error and apologize. The pain didn’t hit me until I saw the truth in that little girl’s narrowed eyes, followed by her turned back and stomping feet: my friendly explanation only made her hate me more. I slowly pedaled away, thinking, This can’t be how most people are. This can’t be how my life is going to be. I was right. Sure, a few store clerks have ignored me in favor of paler customers, and a few people who’ve heard both my last names have asked me questions like, “With a name like Lopez, why don’t you speak better Spanish?” I wanted to ask that guy, “With a name like Mc-whatever, why don’t you speak Gaelic?” Still, it’s not how most people treat me. It’s not how most of my life is. Many men find my exotic blend intriguing. Then they discover I’m just another American woman who has spent half her life looking for an American man, often going to lengths that would shame the skeletons in my ancestral closet. They find me unusual, yes, but not in the ways they want. Alaska taught me to embrace being different, to almost desire oddity. But the penetrating, sometimes hostile stares in this country are growing tiresome. Until now, I never really knew what it felt like to be a foreigner. Before China, the only foreign destinations I visited were Canada and Mexico. Because I’m 3/8ths Mexican, in Mexico I’ve sometimes been mistaken for a local. Because I’m 1/8th 68
Chinese—as if a person could be broken down into a pie chart— Asians back in the U.S. sometimes study my eyes and ask, “Are you part Asian?” But here all they notice is my difference. So when I returned to Dali this afternoon, I bought a new outfit: a pajama-like top and pants set, turquoise batik with tiny white flowers. While it’s not traditional, it has an Asian feel that I hope will make me less conspicuous. I tried to buy a traditional qipao dress as well, but even the extra large was too tight to zip up. I’m barely five-foot-two and a size six, yet compared to the women of China I look like a Clydesdale clomping among ponies. I returned to the courtyard of the Number 5 Guesthouse, where I’m staying, and a voice called out to me in a jovial accent, “You look amazing, like a China doll.” I looked up to the second floor gallery to find the source of the voice: Rolf, a carelessly handsome young Dutchman with blond curly locks, a stubbly chin, and laughing green eyes. He was dangling his legs over the edge, grinning down at me, smoking a joint. He’d been sitting in that exact same place, joint in hand, when I’d arrived last night, and again when I’d left this morning. I smiled flirtatiously, bowed deeply, and said, “Xie xie. Although I think I’m a little too big to fool the locals. Who would’ve thought I’d ever qualify as a giant?” “In the Netherlands you will barely make the height requirement for the roller coasters.” Rolf ’s playfulness was an open invitation to conversation. We skipped right over the travelers’ small talk—“Where’ve you been? Where’re you going?”—questions that often start conversation but thwart communication as people exchange rote recitations of their travel resumes. Instead, I told him about my experience in the Islamic village, which tickled him. “So, you have a dilemma,” he said. “You wish to meet new people and learn about their culture, but you also wish to hide your own culture from them.” “No, I just want to hide my legs.” 69
“And naked legs are not part of your culture?” “Maybe . . . ” “I understand,” he said. “It can be uncomfortable, people staring at you. I think they probably stare at me more than you, because my skin and my hair are more light. At first it seemed impolite. But I’ve been traveling in Asia for many months, and now I’m used to it.” Conscious that I had been staring at his light eyes, I looked away. He chuckled, and I wondered whether he was amused because he was used to women of any race staring at him, or just because he was high. Rolf told me he and a few other Dutch travelers are going out tomorrow night to celebrate Chinese New Year’s Eve and he invited me to join them. “That’d be great, thanks,” I said. “Of course.” He grinned and took another toke on his doobie. * * * The calligraphers have been busy for days, sitting in the street markets with little bowls of gold paint and broad red ribbons, creating messages of good luck, prosperity, and happiness. The red banners hang around doorways, bringing luck to each household for the coming year. The sweet, acrid smell of incense drifts from Buddhist temples and ancestral gravesites, invoking blessings from the spirit world. Long noodles slide from bowls to chopsticks to smiling mouths, imparting long life. These are the quiet signs of the Chinese New Year. The rest is a deafening noise. By midnight last night, the celebration reached a thundering crescendo. Flowers of flame filled the night sky, and the air grew hazy with smoke. Firecrackers exploded up and down the streets. Many of them were more like small bombs, and the sudden booms, often just a few feet away, slammed my eardrums until I thought they might bleed. Surely I lost at least as much hearing in one night as a Dead Head ever lost in a year. We foreigners have been swept into the happy maelstrom. Last 70
night, Rolf, several other Dutch travelers, and I went to Café de Jack’s to celebrate. At midnight, our group stood outside the café with dozens of other Westerners and blew up hundreds of yuan’s worth of fireworks. A flaming ember flew off one string of firecrackers and landed in the fleshy web between my thumb and forefinger. I let out a yelp of surprised pain and shook it off. I was unscathed, but a few minutes later another burning piece of firecracker shrapnel smacked me in the cheek. I wondered aloud whether I might lose an eye, finger, or toe before this holiday was over. Rolf overheard me and chuckled in the slow way of the stoned. We stayed at the café until well after three a.m. I tried to get drunk, but my friends from Holland outpaced me. Rolf observed the party with detached amusement as he lit a large joint and smoked it right at the table. A young woman in our party leaned toward me and whispered that she thought smoking pot in the middle of the restaurant a rude affront to the owner since it could get him in trouble. But Café de Jack’s caters to backpackers, a group known to engage in fringe behavior, and I suspected that Jack, or whatever his real name was, wouldn’t care. I was glad to see Rolf misbehave so boldly. It put me on my guard. I have no intention of letting myself be charmed by another addict. Rolf made it even easier: he didn’t appear at all interested in charming me. As the hours burned to cinders, the beer-sodden party lapsed into Dutch. Rolf politely translated for me, when he thought of it. But the Dutch language has a friendly sound and I didn’t mind not knowing the meaning. Besides, I couldn’t hear a damned thing anyway. * * * When I woke around noon, my head still rang with beer and firecrackers. The screaming, hiccupping, bellowing holiday explosives had never ceased throughout the night. If possible, the celebration was even noisier today. The streets were packed with people in a festive mood. 71
Lunchtime was wrapping up when I walked into town for breakfast. I was just sitting down at an outdoor restaurant when a small lion pranced down the street. It was made up of two men festooned in yellow tassels: one man hidden beneath the red and gold lion’s head, the other beneath the lion’s yellow-draped rear. Together, they moved like a crazed cartoon character, gyrating to the drums, cymbals, and bells played by the colorfully dressed women behind them. Unexpectedly, the golden lion frolicked right up to my table, and the guy in the rear stepped out and gestured to me to take his place. I smiled and gestured back: Who, me? He gestured again: Yes, please, by all means. I glanced uncertainly at the crowd of Europeans standing around the restaurant. “Go for it!” two people called out. I grabbed the costume’s rear flap, dove underneath, and rushed up the street, capering and dodging, hunched over, unable to see anything but the feet of the guy in front of me. I had to struggle to keep up with my quick and agile partner. I couldn’t stop giggling, which made me all the more breathless. I danced halfway up the street before the other man took over again. For the first time in China, I was more than just the observer, or the observed. Someone had invited me, if only for a moment, to play a part, even if that part was the butt of a beast. Yangshuo, China
I can’t stop wheezing and coughing, and every breath I take is an agony. I’m not all that surprised to be sick, after three weeks of leaded gas fumes, factory smoke, cigarette smoke, filthy bathrooms, body-invading crowds, meals at which several of us dip our chopsticks into the same platters, and the universal Chinese practice of spitting into the street—everyone hawks loogies, I mean everyone, even well-to-do women in makeup and heels. The loogies alone are enough to explain why so many flu pandemics start in China. I keep telling myself I’ll be fine so long as I take my vitamins, 72
drink water, and stay positive. After my communication problem in Yuantong Temple, I’m not about to set foot in a doctor’s office. I’m liable to wake up in a hospital bed with hepatitis, or minus a lung. I’m a foreigner; would anybody care if I died? If I’m still sick by Thailand, I’ll visit a doctor there. Even as sick as I am, and as chilly and damp as the weather is, I couldn’t stand the thought of staying cooped up in my dorm today. So I walked to the marketplace. The town of Yangshuo was hunkered down like a criminal, concealed within low gray clouds and cold gloomy rain. The roads were pounded dirt turned to mud, lined with sorrowful wood buildings: dark little shops, cafés, and houses. The guesthouses have names like Micky Mao’s and Hotel California. A fog-cloaked gang of rock formations surrounds the tattered edges of town; the mottled green karst limestone peaks rise abruptly, their tops unknowable portents swallowed by the mist. It’s as if Yangshuo is the only place in the universe, and the rest of the world a hallucination based on memories of a life I’ve entirely imagined. When I reached the market, I stopped at a butcher’s table to stare at a dead dog. It was skinned, head intact, body and legs stretched out as if Rover had been killed while chasing a rabbit. Then, in a dark corner on the dusty ground, I spotted a woman selling unexpected sparkling treasure: sugar. I bought about half a cup, to go with the instant coffee and tea bags I carry in my pack—many guesthouses provide hot water in the mornings, but little else. Reluctant to sell me such a trifling amount, the woman grumbled as she poured the raw brown crystals into a cheap plastic bag, weighed it on her scale, and thrust the purchase at me with irritation. After that, I stopped by an Internet café where I eagerly opened an email from Sean. His dad’s doctor had confronted the family with a horror that I still associate with cheesy TV dramas and dark comedies. They were discussing whether or not to “pull the plug.” His father had been on a breathing machine long enough 73
to make his recovery appear unlikely. Sean wrote: Next time you’re at one of those temples, maybe you could light a candle for my dad. I don’t know what we’re going to do. It’s not like he’s a vegetable. I told him that I love him, and he squeezed my hand. Even though he couldn’t talk, his eyes were open and he was looking right at me. I knew he wanted to tell me he loved me, too. I didn’t know what else to say. I wish I could talk to you, you always know the right words to make me feel better. I hope you’re safe, wherever you are. Whatever I leave unsaid in this life, there will always be just one thing left to say: I love you. —Sean
With a sigh, I replied: Dear Sean, I’m sorry you and your family are suffering. Of course I’ll light a candle for your dad. I’ll tell you more about my journey next email. For now I can’t think of anything else to say except . . . I love you, too. —Cara
After that, I came here to the Countryside Café to sit alone, cradling my hot milk-tea, raping the blank pages of my journal with an angry black pen, listening to the shuffling footsteps of the rain. I feel exquisitely sad, and tonight the emotion feels as sublime as a work of art, full of orgasmic pain and rage, tender longing and loneliness. I wanted to travel alone and unencumbered, to leave my past behind and find some peace. But peace is nowhere to be found.
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Facing the Music
Figures in the Carpet Every thread of that rug was tied by hand In some far sweat shop And bought by my father in an age When orientals weren’t so overgrand. Feathered stamen stitched to shagged calyx To urn with spikes simultaneously tried to bloom In a culture that forbade the image, Enigmas of red and gold Repeating four times around the room, Their blunders of the human hand Buried in postwar recliner, Lamp and davenport and, savingly, Our Louis XV console record player. A DJ by age six, I threaded 78s to the spindle’s top, Flicked the switch, ran to my toy chair At the rug’s vortex and let the vinyl drop. Orchestras, pianos fired garlands And vipers and enigmas of red and gold, Imagined geometry That bloomed inside my skull while I, The tiny sultan, flew That carpet off to inner, abstract lands. ‘It’s the same story at school,’ the teacher told My mother in despair. ‘He doesn’t use his hands.’ Paralyzed by sound in that rapt phase, Positives, negatives Pinioned my cells until the music’s current Jolted me from the chair: now the point Was to be the arpeggio, the melodic Leap. A blaze Of concertos incarnate, I sprang from the saffron 78
Harp, caught my balance On the rocker’s false cadence, Spread-eagled the brass, spun the violin’s Swoon, released the kick Of the snare, rendered the run in octaves With bank shots off the bookcase, heedless When Mom and Dad looked in On their dangerous salon And she said to him in words I didn’t decode For years, ‘Seems like we’ve bred A song-and-dance man.’ To be the music was finally to be Gaped at. Parental eyes Abetted by pupils that could ambush a spin To the inner music on The hockey rink, the baseball diamond Were bad reviews that burned Through the urge to incarnate Concertos. There was no return To flying carpets and a chair outgrown But from the next room grinned, With Cheshire tusk, the family grand. Hands that refused to exercise Came into play. My overpedaled molten Stamens and spiked urns never quite Redeemed each other or the score But here, respectably benched, was a way Inwardly to dance. And wasn’t repertoire Tangled in flesh fatally Performance? Enacted, spotlit, at the keys By a soul in black and white, 79
Music had for long by heart Burns in the collective stare, Blinds itself in so much light. Practised calm begins to seize. Wish and sinew pull apart. Fingers trained like chimpanzees Begin to tremble and misgauge. Sensibility will scare, Whether it ascribes mistakes To deficiency of art Or a hand that merely shakes. Song-and-dance man falls onstage. The journey out is the goal? So is returning. Two hours a day The inheritor of the family grand Traverses the ridges and plains of sound, Voyaging between A mind that dreams of spotlit Perfection and hands that wonâ€™t come clean. Enigmas of red and gold still surround That agent of a flawed geometry, An aging child who hears the onrushing Hush from which the figures in the carpet Chromatically burst, and plans To keep refingering a hidden dance To the last ebony.
To Answer Your Question Mozart or Beethoven, he asked by his five-foot wall Of records, German, an artist. Fresh from high school, How should I know if I was supposed to prefer Beethoven’s central command and squared-off thunder Or Mozart’s sinuous charm? But the question had A wrong answer, and was honed to see if I made A suitable companion for his son. The one you prefer, I said in desperation. No, please, choose, he persisted with that faint Hovering demismile that seemed to hint Some terrifying dictum such as, “The boy Reads Dostoevski while the man reads Tolstoi.” Whichever you like, truly, I stammered, maddeningly Aware I’d found the wrong answer anyway, But one that got us dismissed to music I can’t Recall, blissful breakfasters, ignorant Of the deep inconsequence that flares into art. To answer your question, Mr. Stephan, Mozart.
Agitato Because I wasn’t picking up the flow Of fingers arched and flying across the keys, My teacher had me lay my hand on his. Marooned from the ivories, No octave to show for my eight years, My tiny handspread crested the mountainous Tarantula of his agitato, Swilling, instead of music, the eeriness Of human sinew laboring beneath my own, Stranger than any animal I’d known. Now I’m the creature I watch. Octave-capable if still ill-arched, I catch my fingers upside-down in the black Mirror of the fall board, where One glance at that squad Of lizards scrabbling their grid Reveals I no more know the back Of my hand than I ever Fathomed my teacher’s pelt. I take it in Through aging eyes instead of childish skin. I learn the notes, I drill, my fingers play. What moves them here to there I cannot say.
Music has no flesh at all. Itâ€™s only waves Precisely sequenced to be filtered through A labyrinth of auricular Entanglements into the temporal lobe of A curiously evolved simian, there To discharge some chemical voodoo That mysteriously moves Its target to joy, recall, even love In modes weâ€™ll neither find nor understand, As I shall now attempt upon the grand.
Learn more about Phantom Canyon: Essays of Reclamation
Phantom Canyon Essays of Reclamation
On White Space and Silence White space begins this way: I point to the rusted head frames of Battle Mountain, the skeletal portals of abandoned mine shafts—so many invisible but for the names printed on this tourist map— Sweat Mine, Dead Shot Claim, Smuggler—and Leonard says, “Who cares.” Or I say, here, a sabotaged cable broke, here, fifteen men free falling a thousand feet down in a metal cage past telluride ore and vein to die, and Leonard waves his hands at the ruins scattered across Vindicator Valley, at the junked-out shacks and modular homes that litter Goldfield, and says, “I don’t care.” But I do. And so I say, here, a man named Harry Orchard, over a hundred years ago, rigged dynamite with trip wire—the first man in history to kill without being in the presence of what he killed, to sever flesh from spirit completely blind to its flash into holy. And I want to say to Leonard now, do you see how that word holy means everything, but I can’t say why exactly, so I say nothing or I say here, and this is where that white space comes in, because now I am really thinking there, of that long ago girl in Ohio I once saw leaning over a quadriplegic’s wheelchair, my father, even doctor that he was, shaking his head at the tiny stain of blood on the back of her stretch pants, a whole unspeakable world I did not know mapped out for me. 86
* * * What is white space? And why should the lyric essayist care about it as much as the poet? To the beginning poet, we say, “Well, white space is everything on the page unmarked,” and we point to the left and right margins of the poem, to the empty spaces at the ends of lines and between stanzas. “This matters as much as what is written,” we’ll say. And that is enough, to begin with. But white space is more than that. It is the power of juxtaposition, of the poet’s unspeakable, of the mind moving between what is known and unknown and then back again, that movement mapped out by what the poet Robert Bly calls the “absolute essentiality of image.” It is why Ezra Pound can compare passengers at a train station to petals on a branch and we know it. Or why the poet James Wright can touch, in “A Blessing,” the ear of a horse, then break into blossom, and we believe him without another word said, only the white space left. Or why I can stand here with Leonard at this scarred foot of Battle Mountain with its hidden portals and horizontal drifts of underground mining tunnels, and be struck so suddenly by the stained pants of a girl I saw only once when I was a child. * * * Essayists speak of the “vertical movement” of the essay, the movement “that delves deeper rather than moving forward,” this verticality achieved through “associative memory, figures of speech, lyrical descriptions.” What they speak of is the white space Bly calls the “underground passages of association,” the intersections of consciousness and unconsciousness. But the difference here is that this white space is made up of what the poet cannot readily say, or does not want to say, like that unnamed image plunging forever into the stalled heart of Rilke’s panther. And it is this, the essential “unsayable” of a poem, understood on an intuitive emotional level, that poets welcome as the white space that can emerge 87
around the perimeters of image and not feel the impetus to delve into it with the essayist’s “narrative inquiry,” as long as the core of that white space resides where, as Bly says, some “genuine grief has reached out and touched [them].” I think of the rocks I polished as a girl, tumbling them week after week with finer and finer grit until finally I could keep wholly visible what once only water briefly uncovered: their veins and shadows, the glittering quartz of their unspeakable hearts—my mother’s and father’s, I am thinking now. In The Art of the Poetic Line, James Longenbach says that finally line break means nothing in a poem except how it connects to sentence and syntax. Yet I keep seeing that white space at the line’s end dangling there, perilously, as full of want and ruin at the breath’s end as I think I was, my parents loving me I know now, but so silent in my childhood landscape of absence and white space, in my own stain that filled it, as I waited for word, for their any word, to name me back into being. * * * Absence. Perhaps this is the word I seek, how white space in the lyric essay, all it so easily says to me in its unsaying because of all my family could never say, might supersede anything else, giving way to neither line, nor break, nor syntax. How beneath everything I am writing here is absence: like that slab of inarticulate rock I hauled out of the Ohio creek bed, when my father was dying, to mount it to the wall outside my cabin door, each time with my entering and leaving this place rubbing my fingers against the blue map of its fossils in the same way Leonard touches the mezuzah affixed to the right of our door in blessing. Blues, Browns, Walkers, Smiths, Cutlers, Hutzels: I say the names of those who inhabited my childhood landscape as if in litany, and suddenly, here is the girl’s menstrual-stained pants, here, my father, uncomfortable with anything of the body, catching my eye, shaking his head in silence at the whole sadness of that scene—all this past and gone, half-guttural what I sometimes pull out of absence, 88
out of white space, out of this stone I keep polishing the silence of with my passing hands. * * * Semiotics teaches us that reality is but a system of signs. That the signified is “the pointing finger,” not the “star,” only the word. And meaning? The interior construct of the perceiver. I think of the image, and of the skull’s bony orbit, and of the eye the pure world enters reversed, upturned through the shaft of its pupil. In gold mining, I tell Leonard, there are two kinds of gold, like there are two kinds of image. One is native or pure, the noble metal of alchemists who sought the philosopher’s stone to change what was base into immortal, the “Shining Dawn” of gold’s Latinate chemical symbol, of nuggets and dust, of placer deposits and prehistoric alluvial riverbeds, of fossilized veins and fevered prospectors. The visible gold of the hand, I say, like the visceral image we take in that mirrors the concrete world, its worth weighed against the pitiless sun, there, I say to Leonard, pointing above the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Blood of Christ, I say. And Leonard yawns. Is this the ultimate tension for the lyric essayist: what is written on the page versus all that is not? Articulated word for the willful husband versus all the weight of association, of white space, of absence that she knows dangles after? I say the name of a mountain to Leonard and he yawns, even as this translation of light I am speaking of falls upon the lit stones for me like sacrificial blood, and here is the holy again, and here, Harry Orchard, forgiven and baptized, living forty-six years in an Idaho Penitentiary amongst his chickens and roses, and, here, the woman Harry made widow, who forgave him everything, and here, the man, the boy that I cannot, my unspoken languishing here as if holy to me. “What do you mean, ‘cannot ?’” asks Leonard. “Forgive? Then say that.”
* * * There is a second kind of gold, I tell Leonard, an impure gold wedded to underground metals, to low grade ore, the telluride gold of Cripple Creek and Victor deep in the solidified remains of this volcanic magma we stand over. Elusive gold, I tell him, like that second kind of image, that whole cities of men once lowered themselves thousands of feet down in metal ore buckets to mine, gold unknowable to the eye, gold of the white space, of the vertical, the miner’s gold that cyanide and acid dissolve in pits beneath the broken rock until it emerges shining in its half-articulations. It is this second kind of image, this harder image to mine poets call the “deep image” which can conjure up white space and all its unspoken. Bly calls it “an animal, native only to the imagination,” because now the image can never be returned to the world as it once was, but only as an amalgamation of thing and self. This deep image is like the image taking root in the heart of Rilke’s panther, in the white space inside it, its fine thin scars spreading out hungrily each passing year—here, Jack the quadriplegic drunk and weeping in his wheelchair, here, the thick yellow molasses of his catheter, here, the girl leaning over him bleeding as I soon would be, my girlhood taken from me—“taken” the insufficient word here— on an early winter afternoon by a stranger spotted later at a bar, a Band Aid on his finger where I had bitten him, spotted there by the brother of Jack who would too soon on a winter night try to touch me through my winter coat with his cold hands— “Does the infinite space/we dissolve into, taste of us then?” asks the poet Rilke. * * * I remember my father, some time later, cutting a black mole from the rickety pipe of my child spine, my father, who loved me so much in his white surgical coat, wanting to heal me. And what I never told Leonard, rooted here with me above these long winding drift tunnels, these abandoned mines and their incessant 90
verticalities: how the blue stone of a world can enter the white space of any of us at any time, my father placing the mole in a glass jar of formaldehyde beneath the operating table’s light so we could see its glittering white root stems and the dark melanin of my body he wanted to prove benign, and his, and my mother’s, long silence after. “Say it,” Leonard tells me. Forgive.
Learn more about Asleep Beneath the Hill of Dreams
Asleep Beneath the Hill of Dreams
Dream at the City Plaza Two stone lions guarding the thoroughfare step down from their pedestals. Pale sun refuses to cast shadows as they lope stiffly across brown grass toward a woman eating lunch. She waves a hand with wands for fingers and lions turn to stone again. Icicles rise from the Town Hallâ€™s gutters, impaling pigeons. The flag lowers itself to half-mast, signaling another soldier was vaporized. Ambulances are not coming. An ancient priest sells indulgences from a tent with a neon sign, his radio playing Spanish chants. A child disappears inside his robe. Suddenly, the cobblestones rattle in their sockets and the fountain, dry for generations, spurts blood and oil. Lovers who were kissing now tear each otherâ€™s hair
and shriek. Sparrows fall from the sky dead. The mayor walks past in an ermine robe, acknowledging nothing.
Dream at the Pub An old friend arrives, clutching his chest. A minor coronary event, he says and proceeds to laugh it off, tell you how once his ex found him, naked and trembling, on the bathroom floor and left him there while she rummaged his desk for the insurance policy. The waitress comes, a woman with snakes for hair, and patrons at nearby tables petrify but not you two, who both know to order beers while glancing only at her reflection in the window. When she returns, your friend slices off her head with his slim cell phone shaped like a scimitar. A winged white horse leaps from her pooled blood. Never mind that phony Pegasus, he says, and begins unraveling the tale of his impending death, describing how heâ€™ll step over and back, over and back that black threshold. The effort makes him sweat, and in sympathy you sweat, too, trying to summon silence in your mind but remembering how Kerouac said death chases us across a desert, patient and persistent. Your meal arrives, a jambalaya floating with forgotten faces. The band plays a familiar tune, badly. The chalk sign behind the bar states Happy Hour has been canceled, replaced by a brief spell of nausea and nostalgia for that evening when the cute girl French-kissed you under an October sky. Paramedics pull up and despite his protest,
defibrillate your friend until his chest hair combusts and heâ€™s lost, smoke rising and spelling out his will. When youâ€™re sure heâ€™s gone, you help yourself to his beer.
Domestic Dreams 1. Dream in the Backyard The dog gnaws an enormous stick, a joy only animals know glistening at each whisker’s tip. Though it’s only April, corn stands shoulder high, stalks green as an elf’s tongue, bulbous ears budding below tufted silks. Two neighborhood children pass, giggling, then unfold their wings and fly off, magpies by the time they perch high in the enormous ash. Honeybees hum harmonies, dipping into valerian blooms, and dangling laden legs then drunkenly head for the hive. Inside, your supper cooks itself, fragrant steam rising, as a bottle of Burgundy decants itself into a glass and a wooden spoon without a hand stirs the soup. 2. Dream on a Quiet Morning Before quiet departs the neighborhood, chased by the rattle of garage doors and the low drone of invisible planes, you open the gate with the broken latch, step through the arbor and traverse a cool brick walkway, sure the whispers are silverlace leaves, not the breeze between them. Hazy May sun is pale and welcome, not yet the tyrant of late summer that blazes and burns, ripens the bulbous tomato and 98
swells squash into monsters. You take the tendrils of a vine and weave them into the trellis, marveling at their overnight growth. Soon, the phone will ring. Soon, a task and then another task will crowd the afternoon, loudly pushing to the front. Soon, this hour will fade away, taking the songs of birds, the damp earth, the popping of stubborn crabgrass roots pulled from soil. Soon all this will turn back beneath the surface, though your hands will be calm all day. 3. Dream of Honeybees in the Clover While you sleep a warm June night, your woman and children sweat colorful scenes into their sheets as a crescent moon unstitches daylight from your lack of dreams with a sharp but benevolent tongue. All night long, clover advances, opening out in the moist dark its delicate fronds and purple shafts, three-headed creeping rootmass driving through poor soil as pale light burnishes plains on its way to your porch. At dawn, sun coaxes sweet miasmas from blooms, summoning black and yellow engines from hives, a pouch of pollen on each foreleg, proboscises plunging in nectar nooks, a sizzling mass hovering above the expanse of turf. You remember stepping deep into that 99
plush green days ago and a black stinger lodged between your toes, tattered flesh-end where it tore from insect abdomen. You winced for the bee, not knowing your leg would soon swell large as a melon. Now you’re a bloat-footed king on a throne, high summer songs in the throats of kids on bikes, popsicles dripping across their wrists. Neighbor dogs pant in a lost language, synchronous sound hinting at secrets like the symmetry and strength of dragonflies’ wings. You drown in this lush landscape, drinking like the bees what is sweet, burrowing in cool clover for a face full of perfume. 4. Dream at Lughnassadh At first, all you hear is a murmur from the garden’s far corner, as though green tomatoes were discussing mutiny, pressing reluctant squash to make a choice. Soon, rustling leaves become the sharpening of knives, the seasonal bloodletting about to commence. Oh, for a bushel of sleek eggplant whose thorns are soft and don’t pierce flesh. The vine is an insane woman whose hair will not stop growing. Magpies land amid tumbling pumpkins, their beaks seeking mosquitoes and ladybugs. Will the fox hunt housecats tonight or will a wash of stars hypnotize her, spinning so wildly she is willing to lie still under a slivered moon and forget her pups’ hunger? Rare morning rain softens dirt in the warm dawn, dripping from all that in summer fecundity heavily hangs. In whispers you wonder if Lugh could explain 100
why we were dropped here like fruit to rot, if not for our seed. Faces on the paper money in your pocket bicker about the awful war. Your questions seep into dirt the way tears moisten a shirt. The harvest is planned for tomorrow and already, workers gather outside the hut, waiting for work, their brown faces hungry, their hands tough.
Learn more about Living the Life
Living the Life Tales from Americaâ€™s Mountains & Ski Towns
David J. Rothman
The Year of the Thunderbolt
uscat called me from the operating room late Tuesday night and said that because he was on call until six a.m. and had Wednesday off, and because, since it wasnâ€™t a weekend, the nanny would be coming tomorrow to look after Rachel while his wife was at work, and because it was the best snow year since the nineteenth century, and because he was crazy, yes, he would climb and ski the Thunderbolt with me on a one-day lunatic ski excursion from New York City. As he told me this I imagined him wrestling an immense hypodermic into the jugular of yet another unconscious victim of Brooklyn gang-warfare, a procedure Muscat has told me is one of the most interesting in anesthesiology. So what if it was 175 miles each way, Paul continued, or that we had to be back by dinnertime or risk being terminated with extreme prejudice by our wives and psychologically scarring his two-year-old daughter, who would grow up thinking daddy loved Mr. Raimer more than her? So what if the weathermen were predicting an arctic February cold front to sweep through the region tomorrow? So what if we didnâ€™t know where the trailhead was? We knew which mountain it was on. I packed my bags and hit the sack. Mt. Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts, sits just south of Williamstown, near where the Massachusetts, New York, and 104
Vermont borders come together. At 3,491 feet, it doesn’t exactly scrape the sky, but after Mt. Washington, Katahdin, Mt. Mansfield and Camel’s Hump, Greylock offers some of the best backcountry skiing in New England, on trails cut specifically for the sport many decades ago. As all those other mountains are many hours further north, Greylock stands as the best and biggest backcountry prize in the region. The king of Greylock ski trails is the Thunderbolt, a steep, twisting trail that drops down the eastern slope from summit to valley, a sustained pitch of 2,300 feet. Like many early ski trails, it was cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s, and became the site of major competitions in the years before lifts. When that innovation came in, most of the original “A” racing trails cut in the east by the CCC, such as Mt. Mansfield’s Perry Merrill and Nose Dive, and New Hampshire’s Wildcat Trail and Cannon’s Taft Trail, were incorporated into lift-served ski areas. This didn’t happen to the Thunderbolt, which never saw anything other than a small, long-dismantled lift near the bottom, and a ski area off to its south side that went belly up years ago. Although it is starting to grow in, the trail remains a backcountry classic. Greylock is small but looms large in America’s early consciousness of the mountains. Emerson counseled Thoreau when Thoreau revealed he was planning to climb it that it was a “serious mountain.” When Thoreau did go, in 1844, he wrote about sleeping at the summit under a door he’d found off its hinges in an abandoned shack, and the beauty of the view across the tops of the valley fog at dawn. Although we don’t know if he ever climbed it, Melville dedicated Pierre to the largest mountain he could see from his house just north of Pittsfield, comparing it to a king in purple robes. There’s even an eccentric theory that the mountain’s outline, clad in the clouds that give it its name, resembles . . . a great, white whale. Although I grew up in the Massachusetts Berkshires and skied almost every lift in the range as a boy in the 1960s and 1970s, in those days very few people went into the backcountry to ski. I had 105
heard of the Thunderbolt, but never skied it. For one thing, in many of those years the snow that had once been so reliable developed the annoying habit of turning into rain before it reached the earth. So that February, when blizzard after blizzard buried southern New England and I found myself the proud possessor of a strong telemark turn cultivated in the Wasatch, I vowed it would be the Year of the Thunderbolt. All I needed to do was convince some other fool to make the trek with me. Enter Muscat. Bleary-eyed from another desperate night of sewing people back together, Paul picked me up at seven on Monday, and, dressed almost as strangely as the hookers on 10th Avenue (albeit more warmly), we sped north on the Taconic Parkway. About three hours later, we were nosing around on unmarked roads at the base of the mountain, searching for the trail head. After parking and then thrashing around in the woods, we finally found it, tucked into an unmarked drainage at the corner of a field that was once the finish area for races. The snow was copious. There were no tracks, and we took turns breaking trail, sinking in a foot on each step. It was deep, it was dry, it had no raincrust or wind damage, and it was one hell of a workout with only two people. As we wound our way up through the forest we began to realize that the weatherman had, for once, been right. Clouds were rippling the summit like prayer flags and when we stopped for lunch at a shelter about halfway up, we were cold in minutes. The fettuccine alfredo I had cooked for dinner the night before had congealed into frozen ganglia. It was disgusting to watch Paul eat his portion. Perhaps living so close to death on a daily basis has ruined his table manners. I have no such excuse. Climbing New England trails is different from climbing above treeline, east or west, or even in the pine and aspen forests of the lower slopes of the Rockies. Again excepting Mt. Washington, Katahdin, and a few other isolated slide paths on the highest peaks, avalanche is never a problem, but views are rare and the terrain tends to buck and roll. Trails twist in every direction as they cross 106
the folds of hollows and drainages. Successful touring in the east is less a question of picking a safe line to a ridge or summit, than of reading the maps carefully enough to make sure youâ€™re on the right trail, as many of the best trails for skiing (or gaining access to the ski trails) are poorly marked, and rarely have lead tracks. Seclusion has its advantages. At one point we flushed a wild turkey from the brush. It lumbered off through the bare branches like a laden B-52. We decided not to skin the upper half of the trail, to save the snow and to avoid the steep grade, but ascended another ski trail with more switchbacks, the Bellows Pipe Trail. After seven switchbacks through deepening snow, we joined the Appalachian Trail, which runs across the top of both the Thunderbolt and Bellows Pipe as it descends northwards from the summit. Unsure of how far a walk it would be if we stayed on the deep snow of the AT, we decided to cross over the ridge a few hundred feet, then walk up the unplowed auto road. Big mistake. Although the snow had been compacted by snowmobilers, the road climbs very, very gradually, circling the summit cone almost twice before arriving. The light was beginning to fade, and the snowy hills below us and out to the Taconic Range to the west, the Berkshires to the south and east, and the Green Mountains to the north, began to dapple in the blues and oranges that come with sub-zero temperatures. The summit is bald, and once there, we confronted serious weather, single-digit cold and high winds combining to drop the chill factor into the forty- to fifty-below range. Bascom Lodge, the old Appalachian Mountain Club shelter, was boarded up tight, so there was no escape from gusts strong enough to send unattended ski poles skittering across the ice. As Paul came onto the summit I could see from fifty feet that his nose was white, a problem we fixed with a warm hand, but we had taken much longer than expected on the climb, we were tired, and it was time to get down. When the weather is that harsh, there has to be an implicit understanding of what needs to be done at every moment. Doctors are 107
good at that. Hunkered down in the wind-shadow of the lodge, with hardly a word, we strapped on knee pads, adjusted laces and buckles, and coaxed frozen zippers. After scrabbling across the summit, we descended the Appalachian Trail to the north, and as soon as we dropped into the woods, the snow improved and the wind calmed. By the time we’d descended the four hundred feet to the hard right-turn onto the Thunderbolt, we were gliding through squeaky cold snow over a foot deep, light and dry on a cushion thick enough to cover the chest-high brambles and saplings of summer. We made the turn onto the first steep pitch of the Thunderbolt proper, and the trail rolled away to the valley, a secret, unbroken stash of white in the late afternoon shadow, two thousand verts without a track in sight. The wind swirled in the treetops. The first two pitches after the turn are the steepest, somewhere in the 35-degree range. After several hundred vertical feet it backs off, but still falls away nicely, a classic New England ski run. The designers knew their game and built in switchbacks, fall-away turns, open slopes with sudden views across the valley and multiple transitions in fall-line. To race it packed out and rutted must have been a long, fast, technical ride. Accompanied by the ghosts of racers, we made hundreds of turns, the longest powder run I’ve ever had in New England. We forgot how cold we were and that the light was failing as we played through pitch after pitch of winter forest. When we approached the bottom, we traversed out to the abandoned ski area. Stumbling through the woods for a few minutes brought us out onto the gentle, open fields of the lower slopes. We coasted down to the car as darkness fell. Now all we had to do was thaw out, find some food, and get home. As we drove through downtown Adams, the thermometer on the bank read twelve degrees. When we stopped in a diner to eat, we looked the way we felt, but they fed us anyway. Paul came up with the inspired idea of calling each other’s wives to say we would be several hours late, the theory being that when each 108
woman first heard her husband’s friend’s voice, she would immediately worry that her own man had broken some vital part, and, on learning that he hadn’t, would be so relieved that she would forgive all minor transgressions. It didn’t work. About halfway through dinner, Paul looked up and said, “Davecantalkneemoh,” and began to slide down the orange vinyl like a junkie going into a nod. Starting to fade myself, I poured him into the car, which looked like we had recently robbed both a ski store and a fast food concession. Paul revived briefly around Poughkeepsie, insisting that when we stop for gas we buy gummy bears and apple juice in a convenience store whose fluorescent lights bit at our eyes. He still wore knee pads. Soon after that, we traversed the dark, snowless suburbs, then shot across the Harlem River onto the island of granite platforms, feeling as if we had left the natural world behind. We’ve all felt it, the warp of reentering the hive after even a single day on some testing peak. And alpinists have been writing about the tension between going away and coming back for centuries. It’s been there from the beginning, maybe April 26, 1336, when the Italian humanist Petrarch ascended Mt. Ventoux, in southern France. That may be the first record we have of climbing a mountain when the only motive was the climb itself. That’s the motive Petrarch claims in a famous letter he composed on the evening of the same day to his former confessor, Father Dionigi da Borgo San Sepolcro, an Augustinian monk. Petrarch’s letter makes it clear, however, that he wrote to Dionigi not only to describe the joy of the excursion, but also because he was feeling guilty about the “earthly enjoyment” that the view from the summit had given him. In retrospect he decides that, like St. Augustine (whose Confessions he carried with him to the summit), he should have had his mind on more spiritual questions than his own selfish experience, berating himself for this lapse: “How earnestly we should strive, not to stand on mountain-tops, but to trample beneath us those appetites which spring from earthly impulses.” Petrarch seems 109
to be torn between a Renaissance desire to explore and know the world, and a medieval view that such knowledge is irrelevant, that what he should have understood from the start is that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again. Well — maybe he was just tired, hungry and cold. But Petrarch’s encounter with the mountain convinced him that what is most worth contemplating was not what he had seen from the summit, but rather what lay within his own soul. Before you decide that Petrarch’s reaction against enjoying the beauty of the natural world has nothing to do with the way we live now, consider how earnestly and anxiously we still defend our recreation against arguments that it is only a frivolous and selfish entertainment. But no, we say, perhaps a bit testily, wait a minute, to love the world’s wild garden, especially its ragged, magnificent edges, its roaring green waves, its craggy peaks, is a good in itself. Here in the modern world, perhaps especially in America, we have an outdoors made available to us in philosophy and in reality as a transcendent vision. Our encounters with it can be a communion with the sources of creation, part of life rather than an escape from it. But perhaps we protest too much. Maybe the anxiety we feel between wildness and polis is productive, even useful, an achievement, not a problem. Petrarch might not have had his vision of God that day unless he had climbed Ventoux. The complexity of drawing these two things together — our purposeless joy in nature on one hand, our purposeful obligations on the other — shows how much we remain Petrarch’s ambivalent heirs. Odd how the wilderness and the city, whether of man or of 110
God, give each other meaning. And so I remember: tired humanists, friends for life, we rattled down the West Side Highway, rack after rack of glittering lights on our left, the rotting docks on our right, fragments of wilderness in our hair, smelling bad, contemplating sleep and tomorrowâ€™s work, touched by delight and the frigid wind and swirling snow of the Thunderbolt.
Conundrum Books Poetry Facing the Music, Bruce Berger Wake Up, Sleepwalker, Sigman Byrd Crazy Chicana in Catholic City, Juliana Aragón Fatula Umbrellas or Else, J Diego Frey Active Gods, Michael J. Henry No Stranger Than My Own, Michael J. Henry The Thread of the Real, Joseph Hutchison, Colorado Poet Laureate Some of these Days, Robert King Asleep Beneath the Hill of Dreams, Chris Ransick, Denver Poet Laureate Language for the Living and the Dead, Chris Ransick Never Summer: Poems from Thin Air, Chris Ransick Memory’s Rooms, Eleanor Swanson
Fiction Let the Birds Drink in Peace, Robert Garner McBrearty, Pushcart Prize winner A Night at the Y, Robert Garner McBrearty A Return to Emptiness, Chris Ransick Glassmusic, Rebecca Snow
Creative Non-f iction They Only Eat Their Husbands: Love, Travel, and the Art of Running Away, Cara Lopez Lee Living the Life: Tales from America’s Mountains & Ski Towns, David J. Rothman Phantom Canyon: Essays of Reclamation, Kathryn Winograd Columbine: A True Crime Story, Jeff Kass Lost Sheep: Aspen’s Counterculture in the 1970s, Kurt Brown
Conundrum Classics Beethoven in Denver, Burton Raffel Beauty at Night, David J. Rothman The Elephant’s Chiropractor, David J. Rothman, Colorado Book Award finalist The Geography of Hope: Anthology, David J. Rothman, Editor Letters From a Stranger, James Tipton, Colorado Book Award winner Wire Song, Mark Todd Living, Loving, and Other Heresies, Zsolt
Coming in 2015 Poetry Red Canyon Falling on Churches, Juliana Aragón Fatula The Year the Eggs Cracked, J Diego Frey Lost Songs and Last Chances, Chris Ransick Geography of Hope: Colorado, Rocky Mountain Poetry Series Tamped, But Loose Enough to Breathe, Mark Todd
Fiction Patriarch Run, Benjamin Dancer You Were Right to Mace Me, Robert Garner McBrearty The Antichrist of Kokomo County, David Skinner Thin Blue Smoke, Doug Worgul
Creative Non-f iction First Church of the Higher Elevations, Peter Anderson The Blind Man’s Elephant: Practical Essays on the Craft of Poetry, Kurt Brown
We are thrilled to introduce The Conundrum, a free triannual collection of some of the finest fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry from...
Published on Nov 4, 2014
We are thrilled to introduce The Conundrum, a free triannual collection of some of the finest fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry from...