THE RED EARTH CREATIVE WRITING MFA OKLAHOMA CITY UNIVERSITY
© Red Earth Review, 2015
All Rights Reserved.
RED EARTH REVIEW
Editorial Board Craig Wolf Becky Wingate Josefine Green
Write in the middle of it all Faculty Advisor
Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
Red Earth Review is published once a year in July. For submissions, consult our website for guidelines and deadlines. Please email questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. We do not accept print or email submissions; directions for using our submissions engine may be found on our website. http:// bit.ly/RedEarthReview. Submissions sent outside our open period or sent by mail or email will not be considered or returned. Red Earth Review is available in print and as a PDF document. Print copies are $12 each and the PDF may be downloaded for free at our web site http://bit.ly/ RedEarthReview or viewed at Issuu: http://issuu.com/redearthreview. Contact us by email or by post to order print copies. Red Earth Review The Red Earth MFA @ OCU English Department, WC 248 2501 N Blackwelder Oklahoma City, OK 73106-1493 Cover Art: Oklahoma Summer © Gay Pasley, 2015 Note: All Red Earth MFA student submissions are referred for blind review by our guest editor, whose selections are final.
© 2015 by Red Earth Review, a publication of The Red Earth Creative Writing MFA Program at Oklahoma City University. After first publication, all rights revert to the author/artist. The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Red Earth Review Staff, of The Red Earth Creative Writing MFA Program, or of Oklahoma City University.
CONTENTS RENEE RUTLEDGE
MICHAEL G. SMITH
Relief Map Redux
Love in the Forest of Science
Old-Growth Forest Takuhatsu
Cocoons in High Tension
Fugue for an Early Jersey Snow
A Prisoner of Love
Into Great Silence
Walk Fast, Keep Going
I Have Been Jealous of the Legless Thinker
Except in Memory
WENDY ELIZABETH INGERSOLL
Zen While Painting Woodwork
Jamie Christine in the Tack Room
Grandma’s Got a Blowtorch
Saturday Evening at Murray’s Bar
Baba Sets Me Straight
I Believe the View
When the Wind Whispers
Why He Doesn’t Want Me to Watch Dexter
The Old Familiar
Shrinking World Theory
SUSANA H. CASE
Old Man with Beard
The Great Depression
Rowing Across the Flood
My Fat Husband
Fire Weather Warning
Old-Growth Forest Takuhatsu
The Swimming Pool OUR CONTRIBUTORS
Issue #3 July 2015
Rae sat by the window and looked out. She normally scorned idling of any sort, and in her view, looking through windows was just that. But she made an exception then, allowing herself the leisure. A windowshaped beam of sun framed the sofa where she sat, warming her. Below, an ice cream truck announced its arrival, stopping just outside her building. Circus music spilled out into the streets, attracting children who gathered like ants, their arms and legs everywhere, browned by the sun. If sugar had a voice, she thought, it would not sound like this. The music from the truck was a counterfeit of happiness, overdone, sickly, more a whine than a song. She compared the music to a little boy running in circles over and over, wanting nothing more than to fall asleep, but not knowing how. She would know to pick that child up and put him in bed. Everyone else would say, let the boy play, he’s got enough energy to last for days. She watched as the mothers below placed wrinkled green notes on their children’s outstretched palms. Dawn from next door had fat pink curlers in her hair and a cigarette in her left hand. Tammy from downstairs managed to hold an infant on her hip, open her daughter’s Popsicle wrapper, then bend down to tie her daughter’s shoelace, all the while talking into a cordless phone. All of them knew her as Mommy Rae. When her daughter had died while giving birth all those years before, Rae had barely had time to mourn. Her grandson was born healthy and Rae found herself a mother all over again, only twice as old and twice as slow. Little Nico had called her Mommy Rae from the beginning. Somehow, the title caught on beyond their tight-knit circle of two. From the time he was a young boy, Nico’s play friends got a similar line of instructions from their mothers before getting dropped off. “Listen to Mommy Rae, now,” their mothers would say. Or, “Tell Mommy Rae if you need anything.” Before long the entire building called her by that name, and when a tenant moved away the new tenants somehow caught on. It was an old building, four stories high, with five units on every floor. Her apartment was on the top floor, one of two units with bay windows that nearly took up an entire wall. As the years passed, the newer neighbors on the first and second floors became more like strangers, preferring anonymity to inclusion in the circle that knew her as “Mommy Rae.” Now, it was mostly the neighbors on her own floor, or those like Dawn and Tammy, whose families were planted in their units, who continued the tradition. 1
She wasn’t sure what came first, the name, or the inclination to extend herself to others. She made an effort to conduct herself with as much generosity and selflessness the title of mother implied. She was always the first to bring homemade chicken soup when someone on her floor got sick. She opened her door to acquaintances in need of lastminute childcare or a couch to sleep on for the night. She continually doled out the contents of her pantry – an egg or two or a cup of flour for someone baking a cake, a can of tomato sauce for someone else’s spaghetti. Communities, she knew, were selective about whom they chose to mother them. She believed her nurturing qualities had always been evident somehow. By now the crowd surrounding the ice cream truck had thinned. Fourteen years ago, Nico would’ve been one of the children rushing out of the building, swarming toward joy on a cone. He would’ve run through the apartment first, yelling “Ice cream! Ice cream!” before tugging her skirts, a hint of fear in his eyes because of that chance, that horrible chance she’d say “no.” She would’ve strained to hear the music and after hearing nothing, she would’ve told him, “there’s no ice-cream truck, no ice-cream” so that he’d pull her by the skirt to the window, this window, and together they would’ve waited. Then the music, faint, louder, loud, him jumping, I told you, her watching the boxy white truck make the turn around the curb onto their street. Somehow, she realized, children sensed the sound before it was close enough to hear. Sugar with a voice. No, the invitation to run around in circles. Rae realized she had only imagined this memory of her grandson, down there, one of the ants. But it felt so real that now she recorded it, claimed it, stored it with the rest of her memories. In time, she knew, the imagined memory would be no different from the others. This, in particular, was the defect of looking through windows. She’d never wasted her time with trivialities like daydreaming. Now, after only a few minutes next to a window, she found herself daydreaming – of things that never even happened. And then she’d made the fictions true and part of her. She’d let them in, let them change her, and would live the rest of her life with those changes while everything around her stayed the same. She was convinced that people who sat around enough, inventing through windows—these were the same people you saw talking to themselves on the bus or walking the Berkeley streets in outrageous outfits, characters in their own private make-believes. But today she let herself watch the dangly-legged ants with scratched knees and dry elbows lining up beside a boxy white truck then returning to their places indoors, on steps, or further down the street. She watched as the driver waited for stragglers and eventually moved on, his spot on the curb replaced by a carload of friends dropping someone off, the music thumping, their raucous goodbyes. Then afterwards, the settling. 2
She saw that the street, too, was alive, perking up then resting, busy, then bored. By now Nico’s plane was in the air, and by now he’d probably flown over the Mississippi River, nearly on the opposite coast. He’d left her only once before, had stayed with an aunt and uncle down in Los Angeles, from his dad’s side of the family, believing it would be the next best thing to having “real parents.” A month later he had been back, hugging her for days, saying he’d never leave her again. “You’re my real family, Mommy Rae, my only real family,” he had said. It was the one time he’d said the words out loud, the only time he needed to. And then it had not been for her sake, but his. Now Nico was gone, for good this time. Her grandson, 18 years old, lanky, and so beautiful to look at that she could just as easily laugh or cry whenever he was with her. She cried now, thinking about his pimpled forehead and easy-going manner. Just that morning they’d had breakfast together at the table. He was such a kind boy. He’d gotten his hands on a postcard of the Statue of Liberty, had saved it for her until he left that morning. It was wrinkled, bent on one corner. Now she laughed, thinking of his words when he handed it to her, “I’ll be right here Mommy Rae, well, maybe not right on the Statue, but you know, about 30 miles away. Close enough, Mommy Rae, I’ll be close enough.” Everything else was the same, and she knew what she was supposed to do. This was the same building where she had always lived. The same sofa, the same pictures on the wall, everything was the same now as it had been when he was there. The street, the block, her health, the trees. And she knew what she was supposed to do – go on, go on like nothing in her life had changed. She missed him, so that the window and everything on either side of it was gone, and all there was of her was the feeling of missing him. And the warm of the sun. At least there was that. And an 18-year-old boy had living to do, more than what could be had with an old woman in a stuffy apartment. She opened the window. And just like that, a bird flew in. ~ It wasn’t just the anomaly of a bird in her home, the sudden chirp of life where it wasn’t expected. She wasn’t sentimental that way, at least she didn’t think so. Other birds had flown in over the years; once a pigeon had wandered around her kitchen for an hour before flying off, as if to say, hello ma’am, just popping by for a snack, whadd’ya got, and then, so long I think I’ll go, then. She had had the usual panicky finches that banged once or twice into walls before finding a window. They zoomed off and she was always relieved for them, watching their escape and wondering how soon they’d forget their rebirth into freedom. Once a monarch butterfly had come by, royalty indeed. It had conducted itself like a guest, lingering at the threshold above her sill until 3
it was invited in. Please do, she had said, and the butterfly acquiesced. At the time her grandson had been napping in his bedroom. As the butterfly floated around, making itself at home, she debated whether or not to wake him. It would have been one of those moments when she’d put down her potholder, her iron, or her checkbook to stop and observe her grandson’s eyes moving in symmetry with the butterfly. She could sense so much through his eyes—a kind of rapture with the world. But she had remained alone with the butterfly, seeing the lined pattern on its wings up close, so personal, like pores on a face. There was the fluttering, every stroke light, making her think of space defined by shapes, then the fragility of it all, paper-thin wings vulnerable to a single touch – how sensitive they must’ve felt to every sensation. She had experienced something at that moment, alone with the butterfly. Exhilaration, then fear. But this bird was different from her other winged visitors, the majority of which were mosquitos and flies. The most obvious reason was color. She thought perhaps it was a tropical bird, she had never seen its likeness before. She imagined the bird was someone’s pet, escaped from a cage. It was about the same size as a parrot. She stared at the bird’s long red torso, the sweep of feathers falling downward from the top of its head, the hint of blue, green, and purple in its wings, and for a moment, nothing felt real. Not the bird, not her, the apartment, or the sounds below. She heard a distant shout, a child’s laughter, the rumble of a car accelerating, the steady beat of a basketball. Interwoven into all of this, she heard circus music slowly fading, like the beginning or the end of some eccentric show. But the moment passed and again she felt the pain underneath her bones, buried in her marrow, calling her into herself and her loss. The bird kept still, perched on the rim of a lampshade, only its eyes shifting to and fro. It was bewildered, she thought, and just as lost as she. She heard rapping at the door and got up to answer it. It was Tammy from downstairs. She still had the cordless phone in her hand and the infant on her hip. Her straight brown hair was perfectly combed; her eyes sparkled behind the make-up. Her daughter Sienna stood at her side. Sienna was halfway through the Popsicle now, the slush dripping along the sides of her mouth and chin. Her shoelaces were once again untied. “I hate to ask, Mommy Rae. But Michael’s at Jaden’s baseball game and Evette’s off limits on Sunday. I’ve got this hair appointment in half an hour, and I was wondering . . . ” “I’m sorry, doll. This morning’s not good.” Rae realized she had cut Tammy off in the middle of a sentence. She glanced over her shoulder to see if she could glimpse the bird from the hallway. 4
“Are you stepping out? I just thought, if you weren’t going anywhere, anyway. I mean, the good thing about watching two is they’ll keep each other entertained. Is something wrong, Mommy Rae?” Rae got the notion to show Tammy the bird. She knew she couldn’t expect Tammy to keep it a secret. And afterward everyone else might come swarming to her apartment all at once to see the bird. But something else overruled the part of her that felt protective of the creature—a sense that those rare colors in a bird shouldn’t be kept to herself. “Come in for a second, Tammy, there’s something I want you to see.” She led the group into her living room. Tammy and her two kids moved like a single person divided into three clunky parts. Rae stared into the emptiness and Tammy followed the direction of her stare. “Do you have a new picture on your wall, Mommy Rae?” Tammy walked closer to the pictures on the wall and inspected each one. “This one’s your daughter, right? She was so pretty.” “It’s gone. Must’ve flown away.” “What’s gone?” “The bird from the Tropics.” “Bird?” “This beautiful, rare . . . Ah, never mind it.” “Is Nico home, Mommy Rae?” “Nicolas left for New York this morning.” “That’s right! I forgot he was leaving today. We always knew Nico’d make something of himself. You must be so proud, him going off to college and all. Now Mommy Rae, I have the feeling you shouldn’t be alone right now. I think Molly and Sienna here’ll do good to keep your mind off Nico.” Rae looked at Sienna. The girl smiled and nodded her head. Her teeth were blue. “Alright, Tammy, that’s fine. Let’s put that Popsicle stick in the garbage now, Sienna, before it decides to do something dangerous.” “I’ll be back in three hours, four tops. Sienna, help Mommy Rae watch over your little sister, ‘kay?” Then Tammy wedged her cordless telephone between her cheek and her shoulder and spoke into it without dialing. As she spoke she bent down to tie her daughter’s shoes. “Hello Letty? Are you still there? Hello? Turns out I can make it after all. Yup, 2:30. And do you think you can fit my nails in, too?” ~ Rae woke up the next morning and thought of the bird, wondering if she had only dreamed it. From her window she scanned wood-shingled rooftops, the tops of telephone poles, other windows from nearby apartment complexes, and finally, the sky. A thought struck her and she 5
turned back to her apartment, inspecting the corners of the ceiling, the nooks in her furniture, the tabletops. She checked underneath the beds and then felt foolish, laughing at herself. At 9 a.m. Nico would call. She made herself some oatmeal and toast. Nico had been ravenous in the mornings, requiring heavy meals with bacon, eggs, French toast, sausages. She realized how satisfying it had felt to feed him and to watch him eat. She consoled herself with the thought that she no longer had to do all that extra cooking, and she would be spared from cleaning two more greasy pans every morning. It was just after eight. In less than an hour the phone would ring. She had time to shower and get dressed. By five minutes before nine she was back at the kitchen table with the telephone in front of her. She undid the knots in the cord. She waited. Every now and then her eyes rested on the postcard of the Statue of Liberty taped to her refrigerator, wrinkled and bent on one corner. At nine o’clock she placed her hand on top of the receiver, anticipating that the phone would jingle, its high-pitched ring vibrating up into her palm. She sat that way until her mind began to wander, escaping into the silences of her apartment. Around this time, when her grandson left for school in the mornings, there had always been some catching up to do. She had the shopping and the doctor’s appointments, the mending and bill paying to rush through before he came charging home at 3 p.m., hungry, disheveled, and always excited about some school project or ballgame, a dance or a girl. Her hand felt cramped and she was surprised to find it nearing 10 a.m. She made herself a pot of coffee, slowly scooping the coffee into the filter, pouring the water, then flicking the switch. She put some milk on the stove to warm. She fetched some butter and a tin of biscuits to dip into her coffee. There was a gurgle from the coffeepot and the intermittent drip followed by silence, another gurgle, another drip. She looked around for a dish to clean, a spot of dust to wipe, but her kitchen was spotless. It was then she heard a rapping at her door, quick, quiet, and a little impatient. A needy knock. She made no move to answer it. She sipped her coffee slowly, checked the dial tone on the phone now and then. It droned in her ear like the mocking voice of a spoiled child. It wasn’t like her grandson to forget her. Even on the occasions he stayed out especially late, he’d always called, telling her to go to bed and not to worry. Now she worried. But Nico had called her the night before, and she knew that his plane had landed safely. She should’ve expected him to be late. It was his first day in a new city, with plenty of distractions. She tried to convince herself this was something she had to get used to, with him living so far away. She finished the last of her coffee, now cold, and saw that it was past eleven. 6
She looked toward the window by the sofa. She could see it was sunny outside, but that the sun had not yet risen high enough to beam into her living room. She did not want to sit there again, an old woman looking through windows, day after day, with nothing else to do but live in memories and dreams. She remembered the bird and thought perhaps it would return. She wondered if its owner had found it. She walked to the window and opened it. The draft was a bit cool, but not unpleasantly so. She sat on the sofa and waited. The rapping at her door sounded again, a little quicker this time, a little louder. Rae did not get up or move her eyes from the window. When the phone rang she was so startled she nearly jumped. She ran to the phone and answered. “Nicolas.” “The jet lag gets bad, I know. Don’t apologize baby, I understand.” “No dial tone, really? And you went through all this trouble just to call.” “No I haven’t been waiting, baby. Of course I knew, of course. You wouldn’t forget.” ~ Rae fell into a routine in Nico’s absence. There were the usual tasks, shopping and cleaning. She looked out for Nico’s letters. They talked for an hour every Sunday. In November he would visit for a week around Thanksgiving. Some part of her day always revolved around preparing for Nico’s homecoming, whether it was buying something new for his room or planning some aspect of Thanksgiving dinner. And then something else occupied Rae’s thoughts. The bird returned. Rae now kept her window open all the time so that the bird could come and go. It only showed up during the day. Sometimes, while she was out on errands, she spotted it in a nearby tree or on top of a lamppost. She suspected the bird knew her by now, and that sometimes, it followed her. Once, she had even seen the bird while riding the bus out of Alameda. She was on an errand for Nicolas. “Send me an A’s shirt,” he had asked. “So they know what team I’m on.” She had been on her way to buy the shirt, thinking of how she wished she could write him back and ask him to send her a T-shirt, too. One he had worn to bed every night and hadn’t washed. One that would have his smell. Then she had seen a spatter of color through the window—purple, blue, red, green. It was the bird. She craned her neck and saw it land on an awning in Chinatown. She locked her eyes on the bird until the bus moved too far along for her to see. Rae bought birdfeed along with her groceries and placed the seeds in a bowl on her windowsill. By the end of the week, the bowl was always empty. 7
At first, Rae kept a lookout for fliers or postings in search of a lost bird. She’d grown attached to the silent visits, the bird’s eyes flipping this way and that, and every now and then, a single hop bringing it closer to the interior of her apartment. She dreaded the possibility that the bird might belong elsewhere. She decided not to tell anyone in the building about her bird. They would only scare it away. Rae answered her door less and less frequently and took to screening her calls. When Nico lived with her, there had been a certain rhythm to all the comings and goings in the apartment. It had made sense for her then to be part of everyone else’s lives. They were extensions somehow of her life with Nico. Now, when Mr. Roth next door came down with the flu, she paid a quick visit, bringing him soup from a can, and only because he was right next door. She took to sitting by the window. She brought her peeling there, or her sewing, folding, or crossword puzzles, keeping her hands moving while she waited for the bird or when it was already there, to keep it company. Then Rae got some news from Nico about Thanksgiving. He had written it to her in a letter. He was still coming, he explained, but hopefully not alone. Nico was asking for permission to bring a girlfriend along. He could hardly wait for his Mommy Rae to meet her. On the day she got the letter Rae was looking through her recipe book, with the bird basking on the sill. None of the recipes seemed right and she jumped impatiently between pages, consulting with the bird about ingredients and possibilities. “What about raspberry tart for dessert?” The bird responded by tilting its head to one side. “I suppose you’re right. We had that last year. But the girl’s never tasted it.” “I know, Nico, I shouldn’t fuss. Stop with the tickling now. Your wings are itchy!” She laughed and scratched the nub of her nose. Then a banging sound interrupted their conversation. Rae was in the middle of a sentence when Tammy’s voice clashed with her own, sounding through the front door between knocks. “Mommy Rae! Mommy Rae! Are you home?” Rae opened the door and saw Tammy was out of breath. “What is it, Tammy?” “I’ve got to take Sienna to the doctor. I think she’s got something stuck inside her ear! Please, can you watch Molly here for awhile? I can barely hold her with Sienna downstairs thrashing around like a wild boar.” Rae’s neck felt warm and she knew it was from a prickle of irritation. She didn’t feel alarm for Sienna. She imagined the girl in hysterics and concluded she was going to be okay, regardless. 8
“Why don’t you ask your mother to watch Molly?” Rae was uncertain where the words had come from. “My mother? She lives in San Jose. You know that. And besides, she’s working at the hospital. Not everyone’s as lucky as you, Mommy Rae.” At first Rae didn’t comprehend what Tammy meant by “lucky.” Lucky that Nico was not around to fuss over? Then she realized Tammy meant she was “lucky” not to be at work. She was “lucky” that she had been able to retire early in compensation for her daughter’s death. That her daughter had checked in at the hospital perfectly healthy and never made it out alive. She wondered if this was what others had thought all these years whenever they looked at her. Tammy took Rae’s silence as an invitation. She scooted past Rae into the apartment, dropping a baby bag in the hallway on her way to the living room, where she set Molly down to crawl around the carpet. “Wait, Tammy, you’ll scare him away.” “Scare who?” “Nico.” “I thought Nico was in New York?” “Not my grandson Nico. Nico, my bird.” “I don’t see a bird, Mommy Rae. Is it in one of the bedrooms?” Rae sighed. “Forget it. He’s gone.” She saw that Tammy was about to speak but had instead rushed over to Molly, who had placed a handful of crumbs in her mouth, which now covered her hands and cheeks. “What in God’s name? What’s all this behind your plant? Mommy Rae, do you know you have a giant pile of birdseeds there?” Rae looked more closely at Molly’s cheeks and saw that the little dots stuck to her skin were in fact seeds. She did not want to look where Tammy was pointing. Tammy’s finger and confused expression angered Rae. She thought and strained. It was Sienna, then. Sienna must have spilled them, then hidden them away the last time she had been over. An image flashed—the bag of birdseed high on a closet shelf. Rae wanted to be alone, to tell the woman and her daughter to leave. “Listen, Tammy. My daughter called me Mommy when she was alive. Nicolas calls me Mommy Rae. To you, it’s just Rae. Why can’t all of you get that straight? It’s just Rae!” When Tammy scooted off with Molly in tow, Rae considered purchasing a cage. ~ It had been several days and the bird had not returned. Rae worried that Tammy and Molly had scared it away for good. She spent long intervals by the window, waiting for Nico’s return. She found that the 9
waiting required concentration, so during these hours she put all her knitting or handiwork aside. Just to watch and wait. She hadn’t bought the cage and felt ashamed for coming so close. The best part about the bird, after all, was that it visited her by choice. She thought perhaps she had given the bird the wrong name. She would change the name from Nico. Didi, perhaps, or Sam. She was convinced she had to get the name right. She would keep on trying. She was waiting this way when the telephone rang. She shuffled to the kitchen. “Hello?” “Nico!” “I was just thinking about you.” “Why, what is it baby?” “No, why not?” “Well, I thought she was coming with you. “I see.” “.” “Yes. I’m still here. No, you’re probably right, especially if her parents are that strict.” “.” “No, no, you’re probably right.” “No, no, you have fun with her family now. I’ll see you around Christmas, then.” “Oh me, not much. I made a new friend.” ~ The knocks on the door were rare. She was surprised when she answered and saw her caller was Mr. Roth from next door. He was a newer tenant who’d been living in the building for under a year. He wore the same tired look he always had. She didn’t think it was fatigue, but a certain resignation. He was in his mid-50s, with thinning brown hair and long arms that dangled at his sides. She wondered if he wore that expression when he had been married, or if it had sunk in after the divorce. His clothes fell sadly about him, faded and dull, and just as resigned as he. “What can I do for you, Hector?” “Just checking in, Rae. I know it’s been awhile since Nicolas left, but I wanted to see how you’re doing.” “I’m just fine.” Rae glanced back into her apartment. “The hardest thing about my divorce is living apart from my kids. So you see, I think I can relate to what you’re going through.” Rae began to wonder what brought Mr. Roth around. He had always been one of the more reclusive people in the building. She refused to address him formally, as everyone else did. She was older than he and felt more comfortable calling him by his first name. In her mind, though, she thought of him the way everyone else did—as Mr. Roth. 10
“Is it alright if I come in, Rae?” “No, no, you’ll scare it. I mean, it’s not a good time.” “Are those birdseeds down there?” “As a matter of fact they are. Birds like me, and it helps a bird feel right at home.” “Listen Rae, the manager told me about the incident. You know, on Thanksgiving.” “Oh, for goodness sake, it was just a few pigeons. You invite one, you invite them all. I didn’t know they’d make such a mess!” “Just let me know if you need anything, Rae. I want you to know you’re not alone here.” “Thank you Hector, take care now.” ~ Rae forgot what she had been doing before Nico’s phone call. His voice sounded far away on the line, and she thought she detected a hint of strain. He was arriving in two days. But did she hear that correctly? Yes, two days, he said. He’d found a cheap ticket, a lastminute deal. When she got off the phone, she looked around the apartment and almost didn’t recognize it. The upholstery on her sofa was torn through in places, exposing missing chunks in the cushions underneath. There were piles of birdseed in corners against the walls. The dishes in the sink had piled up. She’d left bowls and plates on the tabletops, still containing uneaten remnants of last night’s dinner and that morning’s breakfast. The butter was left out and melting on the counter. Half of a blue scarf lay unfinished on the sofa, abandoned then forgotten. Strewn around it, Nico’s letters, some folded in their envelopes, others open, displaying his crooked handwriting. She began collecting dirty dishes and placing them next to the sink. She fetched the broom and dustpan and began to sweep. The thought of Nico coming home sent bullets of energy rushing through her. There was so much to do. The cleaning. His room. His favorite dishes. Rae tried to remember what she had been doing before Nico called her. She gave it up and moved on to the next errand. Suddenly there were many. The next day, after she’d sewn the last tear in the sofa cushion, there was nothing left to do but dust the pictures on the wall. She made the glass shiny and continued to wipe. She sprayed more Windex on and wiped, again, again. She sprayed for a fifth time and worried she might never stop. Then she sat on the sofa, facing her work. Her daughter’s 8x10 portrait stared back at her, the smile behind the glass as familiar as yesterday. All these years without seeing that smile in the flesh, and yet, she recognized the expression so well. Nico was coming home the next day. But the bird had not been back since he called the day before. How she missed her bird. How she missed her. Rae collapsed on the sofa and wept until she fell asleep. ~ 11
When she woke up Nico was there, his face the softest looking thing. He had taken a chair from the kitchen table and sat facing her. He had gotten a haircut. He was wearing the T-shirt that she sent him. She touched his face. “How long have I been sleeping? Am I dreaming?” “I don’t know, Mommy Rae. But you’re not dreaming.” “When did you get back?” “Two hours ago. I didn’t want to wake you.” “You must be hungry. The pasta. The chicken. I’ll get it started.” She detected the urgency in her own voice. When she propped herself up, Nico placed his hands on her shoulders and rubbed them gently, as if she were wrinkled and in need of smoothing. “Wait, Mommy Rae. Don’t get up. Not yet, I’m fine.” “Tell me everything, baby. How’s NYU? How’s the girlfriend?” The window was open. Rae could hear the neighborhood coming to life—two teenaged boys heckling one another as they walked down the block. Leaves in oak trees. Even daylight had a sound. She thought it would be different with Nico back, but she still felt it. Every vibration cutting into her, the pain deep inside her marrow. Nico did not erase it, even with him sitting right in front of her, showing her all the respect she had raised him to have. She was so proud. But then she felt confused, wondering when this ache had begun, grasping for the source of it all. “I’m with my best girl now. I want to know how she’s doing.” Nico smiled and held Rae’s hands. He was too kind. Too kind. But he would leave, and she was gone. She sat up completely and placed her feet on the floor so she could face him. She reached for her grandson, cradling his head in her bosom. She stroked his hair like an infant and let the sounds engulf them. “I’m sorry Nico. I’m so sorry, baby. She’s gone, she’s gone.”
MICHAEL G. SMITH
Zen poet Ikkyu wrote that stone Buddha deserves all the birdshit it gets I believed I had to keep moving and ducking I carried umbrellas stayed indoors then one day realized birdshit is full of iron, zinc, manganese, phosphorous, unseen things, holy things Like Ikkyu I now wave my skinny arms like a tall flower in the wind hold my tan face skyward dance in many places, always, always, always hug my niece
Relief Map Redux at Escalante National Monument, UT The streams I wade through seep from rock, and after a day of slogging a backpack, the same is true of the canyon silences touching me If a glacier is involved, it was yesterdayâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s and far away, and if rain fell, then it is tomorrowâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s levitating above setting sun ridge If intimacy is the nub, I catch updrafts, meet hawks eye-to-eye and croak with the frogs If time is required, then may it be entropically at rest, the saltwater cliffs tumbling again If my path is a scouring, then let me be a seasoned novice, and like light and wind, catholic in my choices, mind a map transparent
Love in the Forest of Science at the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest On the morning of ten million trees we knock on the silence the creek carries, pass stream tasters, air sniffers, avalanche debris flume poised to plumb the mystery called old growth. Steeped in a verse wordhungry ecologists and data-craving poets praise, you say letâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s finger the filtered light songbirds warm to. Orange jelly fungi spewing from my lips, I say let nurse trees suckle and swoon. Like owls called in, we amplify our ears and nibble at galleries of zigzag beetle art. Looking up, you say letâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s get lost in the tangle and lie in the moss. My head resting in the boughs, I say unfettered hopes fall from the canopy good man hallowed fir in his thunderous rush so selflessly departed.
Old-Growth Forest Takuhatsu -after a poem by Ryokan Cut and burnt by perceived needs and desires, I carry a blank pad into the old woods. Lichen a most patient thing underfoot, the ancients donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t speak, donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t listen. And they speak and listen, they not not speak, not not listen my breath touching each one, each one touches me back. Past emptiness, old man Linji once said If you meet the Buddha, kill him. Woodpecker rapping a broken snag, I take his point, repeat with each awed step no buddhas, no no buddhas, all buddhas along this juicy trail no matter the belief I think I think.
Cocoons in High Tension Unsettled cocoons wrap steel-worm silk, tendering isolation’s embrace until the bubble winds secure against the breakage of desire. Cocoon-made coffins that curry no favor but appear, without prayer, carrying darkness that fills the hollow spaces of dried hearts, and before you ask the why of their spinning their biting wire tightens—the assassin’s wire noose that telegraphs your closing signal to archaic dots on dashing slips, papering your thoughts, wedging your antique squares onto the rounding pegs that hang cocoons in high tension, in the million volted sky—not heaven, not earth, suspended, untouchable, and left to spin unnoticed.
It was a three-minute drive to the neighboring farm, and a thirtyminute walk. Nina walked. She wanted time to figure out how to handle her neighbor, Rose. At the bank earlier that morning, when the gossipy teller, Louise Logan, had asked after Rose, Nina hadn’t known how to answer. She had seen her neighbor only once, right after the news about Rose’s son, Lance, in a stilted visit to deliver flowers and meatloaf. Since then Rose had shut herself off—and the short, shameful answer was that Nina didn’t know how she was. Warmth from the black macadam drifted up Nina’s pant legs. Canned pears and seven single-serving plastic containers of bean chili thunked against the small of her back, shifting in her tote bag. The mid-morning sky was bright, a few cirrus clouds belying the storm condition notices. Storm-warners, doomsayers, people who held sway over your life with words words words, never actions. They’d been wrong before—but they’d been right sometimes, too. Nina shifted the tote again, and pears sloshed in their syrup. Yellow wildflowers sprouted in the spring grass by the edge of the road, turning up their faces like little portents of happiness. It stuck in Nina’s craw that Louise Logan, of all people, had guilted her into visiting Rose. Louise, with her dyed-chestnut pageboy swishing around a jawline that didn’t need accentuating, and her wet, bright eyes watching too intently. She reminded Nina of a vole—a creature that tunneled, that sat perfectly still, jaw working and working, looking behind you to see what else was there, and then darting under for reasons known only to her. Now here Nina was, sent on a mission by a woman she didn’t like, to check up on a woman who didn’t like her. The mailbox rose up, rusty along the seams, its flag stuck into an upright position. She walked up the driveway, the tote bag’s contents shifting along with her stride, listening to her heartbeat and starting a mental list of chores she could ask her father-in-law to do at home, to keep the Old Man busy and out of her husband’s hair. The less Perry crossed paths with his father the better. Could she send the Old Man over here to repaint Rose’s mailbox? She ruled out that idea—he hadn’t come to Rose’s place in years. The house appeared around the final bend. Its shingles and tilting chimney were jagged against the sky, and the whole place looked like it could give you a black eye. A crow cawed, flying in an ungainly path toward the barn. Nina stepped up the creaky porch to the front door and knocked, but there was no answer so she went around back. Curls of peeling paint sprinkled the porch floor. 18
“Rose,” she called, rapping on the screen door. “You home?” She scanned the yard. No sign of life. She peered through the screen into the kitchen and called for Rose again. A putrid smell came from inside. Nina set the tote bag at her feet, considering where to leave it. It would be fine on the porch for an hour or two. But what was that smell? What if Rose had— Nina pushed the screen open. “Hello?” The source of the stink was clear as soon as she was inside: the trashcan overflowed, and dirty dishes cluttered the counters and the table. Nina made a spot for her bag and set it down, pulling out the items that needed to go into the refrigerator. She opened the fridge door and stood, honest to God stunned. It was a tinfoil shrine. At least ten casserole dishes, untouched, in varying stages of moldy putrescence. A gallon of chunky milk. Something furry in a produce bag. On the door, lidless slimy jam and pickle jars. One pristine stick of butter. Here was the answer to Louise’s question. Lord, Rose. You’re what, ten years older than me? You can’t be losing it. You just can’t, you have to pull it together. Nina shut the fridge door and went to the living room, calling Rose’s name. She walked quietly through the house, as if to lessen the impact of her intrusion. Upstairs, she paused outside the shut door of what had been Lance’s room. Touched the wood. Then moved on. Rose’s bedroom was empty. Down the back staircase, the sewing room had a twin bed that looked like it had recently held a body; cans of corn were stacked in a pyramid in the corner. The dusty parlor was strangely warm, and Nina paused in front of the mantel. Five black feathers fanned out above the fireplace with a thorny branch of dried rosehips—the makings of some decorative arrangement in the underworld. A family photo hung crooked above the mantel: Rose and her late husband, Theo, sat on either side of Lance. The boy looked like an imp, a sprite—a spirit that hadn’t left him even after he was a lanky teen, knocking on her back door to take a walk with Sill. In the photo he was about four, his face screwed into a toothy smile, brown hair falling into his eyes. On Lance’s right, Theo leaned back as if anticipating a blinding flash. Rose looked solid, her hands folded in her lap, staring into the camera like she could bore through and touch the other side. A presence seemed to breathe into the house—was that the screen door whining? Nina put a hand to her throat and turned around. “Rose?” How will she bear it? she had asked Perry when the news had broken. If Nina walked out to the backyard she’d surely find that spirited boy from the photo sitting in the dirt with Sill and a hose, making mudpies. She hurried back to Rose’s kitchen. The screen door wasn’t quite shut, so she pulled it tight in its frame. On the fridge door two strawberry-shaped magnets held a sheet of paper, folded in half. A faint 19
etching of black ink pressed through the white sheet. Nina unclipped it and unfolded the page. Now she was just snooping, Louise Logan would be proud. She ignored her trembling fingers. Her daughter’s name ran bold and black across the top of the paper—it was an email that Sill had printed out, dated five months back. The subject line read “For my mom.” Dear Ma—My best girl says she’ll pass this message on to you. I haven’t had time to write a paper letter. How are you? The food here is terrific (not!) as ever and its been real hot. I wish I could time travel back for the weekend for some good food. Damn that I don’t have super powers—ha, ha. Don’t worry about me, we are careful. How is Fergus? I’ll write more next week. Maybe even pick up a real pen? Better go, there’s a country that needs saving (oh boy). Love, Lance. Nina refolded the paper and returned it to its place on the fridge. Sill had never told her she relayed emails to Rose, but of course it made sense. Her daughter was locked now in a dance with Rose that Nina couldn’t follow. Sill had been as in love as a girl could be at sixteen. Nina remembered her own youthful passion with Perry, wrenching and electric, and cursed Lance for mixing it up with Sill before heading off to war. Then, just as fast, she grabbed the cross around her neck and offered up a quick plea for forgiveness. And for Rose—a prayer for her too, not that she’d want Nina’s prayers. ~ All told, Nina was in Rose’s empty house for almost two hours. She lugged out the trash, filled the sink with soapy water and washed the dishes stacked in it, then the pots that lined the counters. Holding her nose, she emptied everything from the fridge—pouring liquids down the drain, scraping solids into the garbage can, and took out the trash again. She scoured every casserole dish and scrubbed the fridge shelves, and then found some baking soda to set inside it. She washed Fergus’s food bowl, filled his water dish, and swept the floor. Then she set her chili in the sparkling fridge, left the canned pears on the table, and took a piece of paper from the shelf under the phone. Dear Rose, I stopped by today and I apologize for letting myself in, but I brought some chili that had to go into the fridge. I also brought some fruit I canned, we had too much. I hope you enjoy it. I was very sorry to miss you. Rose, I am so sorry for what has happened. I pray for Lance every day. Sill cries in her room- Sill is heartbroken Sill misses him too. She sat, staring out the window. What more was there to say? I’m sorry we aren’t closer, Rose, the way we used to be. I have no good excuse, other than— Can you ever— Just because I have 20
their name doesn’t mean I’m like them. Will you please call me to let me know you got this? Yours truly, Just as she was going to make a clean copy and sign her name, an engine rumbled into the yard. Rose’s truck. Nina knew the sound of that old beater. Stupidly, she hadn’t checked the side of the house where it was usually parked. Rose had simply gone to town, out driving, running errands like any normal person—she didn’t want Nina’s charity. Nina leaped up from the table. Her chair clattered onto the floor, note fluttering after it. The pen she’d found in a drawer near the phone rolled off the table and disappeared into a crack by the baseboards. She grabbed her tote bag and rushed out the back door, rounding the house and cutting through shrubs toward the low wall that separated the yard from the fields. She chucked the bag over the wall and scrambled after it into the corn. Behind her, the hayloft leaned at a funny angle and a bird minced from one corner of the eaves to another. Nina half-jogged home, only pausing when she hit the base of the hill. The Brown house was the only place with a view for miles—the sloping elevation started just past the old carriage barn and leveled off twenty feet above ground. Who’d had the luxury, in the old days, of using horses for any purpose other than working the fields? For that was how Perry’s great-grandfather, Elias Brown, had done it: hitched up the horses to push dirt into this homemade hill. Earth heaped as a pedestal, out of hubris or spiritual symbolism or a desire to look down at the neighbors. The house appeared reproachful to Nina. She felt utterly ridiculous, dodging Rose like that. It was cowardly, not to mention unchristian. She took a breath, not ready to go inside. The Old Man would be there and Sill wouldn’t. Nina walked into the yard, pulled open the door to her garden shed and clicked the latch tight behind her. The shed smelled of good, clean dirt. It was the one place entirely her own—her labels on the neatly ordered shelves, her carefully chosen seed packets sealed in airtight plastic containers. Perry and his Old Man argued about how to handle their hundreds of acres, but the vegetables that they ate most every night—those were hers. Nina collected herself, letting her sweat dry. She pulled a container from the shelf and flipped through the packets, planning what she’d sow once the rabbit fence was fixed, feeling steadied by each decision she made. She slipped a packet into her pocket, picked up a trowel, and went to the garden. The southeast corner of the fence had succumbed to the thumping feet of hungry rabbits. Nina’s carrots and crunchy romaine had been the first to go. Now they’d had most of her baby spinach and young lemon cucumbers. She pulled the damaged plants and tossed them into a compost bucket. Then she sat in the cleared space. It was still humid, and the sky felt a shade less bright. The few sprouts the rabbits had left bent 21
toward the dirt—a sign of threatening weather. Nina crouched to look at the indentation her butt had made. She poked a dozen holes into each moon shape, sprinkled in some arugula seeds and patted the dirt back into place, and then pulled out the hose to soak the soil. Arugula was peppery and bitter. Perry and the Old Man pushed it around on their plates but she and Sill liked it; and best of all, it grew like a weed—the rabbits let it be. Afterward, in the laundry room, she slung her braid away from her hot neck, peeled off her dirty sweatshirt, and washed her hands and face. The lunch hour had come and gone. She strode to the kitchen, pulled orange juice from the refrigerator, and paused to listen for sounds upstairs. Nothing. She took a long drink, cold and sweet from the carton. The downstairs bathroom door bashed against the wall. “Storm’s coming,” the Old Man said, shuffling in. “Zipper,” she replied, setting the carton back on its shelf. Ever since he’d been struck by lightning out near the Infamous Elm, he’d been slipping—he had walked out of the bathroom once with his pecker still hanging out of his pants. But aside from that one thing, she didn’t mind the change. He was humbler now, and didn’t act like he owned the world. “Seen Sill?” she asked. Sill had claimed cramps this morning and begged Nina to let her stay home from school. Nina had agreed, though that excuse, like the others, was wearing thin. At first she had indulged Sill’s grief, but her daughter had to learn how to stand against it and keep going—and if that meant Nina being brusque or cold, well, so be it. The Old Man shook his head, clacking his cane against the table legs as he settled into a chair, and gave a phlegmy cough. “I can feel it coming.” She’d had enough of kitchens for one day. Nina went up to the second floor without another word to the Old Man. As she’d expected, Sill wasn’t in her room. She’d seen no sign of her at Rose’s, but maybe they’d gone to town together. Nina sat on Sill’s bed, running her hand over the pink-flowered comforter cover. How will she bear it? she’d whispered to Perry, meaning Rose—but she’d meant Sill too. Pinned on the corkboard above Sill’s dresser was a photo of Lance. He leaned his back against a tree trunk and looked into the camera, his head tilted. The expression in his eyes—a soft velvety brown—was blatantly seductive. Now Nina knew: they’d slept together. That bolt of knowledge made her scan his face for deceit, but she saw only a boy, looking seductively at her with a question in his eyes that she couldn’t decipher. Thank God Sill hadn’t gotten pregnant. She released the comforter from her fist and smoothed it out again. It would be necessary for Perry to take over Rose’s land—what she’d seen today made that clear. If the Browns didn’t get it, the bank would. Perry would require Nina’s firm hand on his shoulder to see it through, just as he needed her encouragement to stand up to the Old Man. She 22
shut her eyes, took a breath before she stood, and smoothed the wrinkles out of Sill’s comforter. Downstairs in the kitchen, the Old Man sat listening to the radio. The weatherman, Ted Waite, recited a list of the counties on alert. Perry had known Waite a bit, years before, when he went by Eddie and flitted through town picking up girls. Nina thought the radioman still sounded like a philanderer, even now, with that wide, shallow smile in his voice. She turned the volume down. “How about fixing Sill’s bike? The front wheel has some bent spokes.” She was usually able to get the Old Man to do things for her, though she didn’t push. First she’d ask him to do the bike, and if he balked at that she’d move on to the thing she really wanted—the rabbit fence. She’d learned how to handle her father-in-law through trial and error, and unlike Perry, she didn’t take one stone for a whole wall. He stuck his pinky finger into his ear and then withdrew it for inspection. “I’ll take a look.” “That’d be great.” She opened the dishwasher and started unloading. “Not today.” “Whenever you can.” Perry planned to ask his father again about his idea to try some livestock. She’d urged him to—it was past time that he took over officially, and the way his father was stringing him along would only bring more bitterness. The Old Man coughed. He’d sit there for hours, rattling the newspaper and working his post-nasal drip. If she turned around, she’d hurl something, or scream. “We’ve gotta get ready,” he said. Toast crumbs littered the sink, and she rinsed them down the drain and then dried her hands on a dishtowel. “I know.” She had the storm routine down pat—they’d done it often enough, when tornadoes had cut close. She would open windows to give the wind leeway. Then she’d help the Old Man to the root cellar where they’d sit, breathing dank air until the battery-operated radio gave the all clear. The confident voice on the radio faded out and a jingle for an auto body chain came on, offering an oil change and brake check special. For no reason, the neat pyramid of canned corn she’d seen in Rose’s sewing room popped into her head: the only tidy thing in the whole house. “Sherwin, I went to Rose’s this morning.” The Old Man set down the paper, waiting. “She wasn’t there. The place isn’t . . . she’s not . . . I cleaned the fridge.” Sill would be with Rose now, maybe together on the porch—did they sit and talk and cry about Lance? The Old Man brushed his hand over his head and touched the tobacco tin in his left shirt pocket. He had done his part to ruin the friendship between their two families. When Theo died and Rose was alone with her boy and a mortgage, the writing was on the wall, even if Rose wouldn’t admit it. The Old Man had started going over to talk Rose 23
into leasing some acreage, but it was more than just looking out for widows and orphans. Nina suspected that he went to court her. A sore point with Perry she took care not to mention. In any case, one day the Old Man returned with shoulders stiffer than usual. I’m done trying to help that crazy witch, he’d said. And that was that—three generations of complicated neighborly history officially unraveled. He didn’t look stiff now—he’d shrunk a little at her words and slumped in his chair. But then he picked up the paper, shook it, set it back down, and pointed to the radio. “You’d better get the clothes off the line.” “I think Sill talks to her.” Nina’s eyes stung. “She won’t talk to me, you know. My own daughter.” Her voice seemed too loud, and she blinked. She pulled the towel off her shoulder and turned to swipe it along the counter by the sink, to collect more crumbs. “I’m going to make coffee. Do you want some?” They needed something bracing. He loved her coffee, and he’d take it as it was meant—a peace offering. The Old Man shook the newspaper again. “No, thanks.” She opened the coffee canister and measured out a quarter pot’s worth. The smell made the kitchen brighter. “Oh, what the heck,” he said. So Nina kept going, counting out a full pot at twelve heaping scoops. She liked it strong, and so did he. “She’ll come around,” the Old Man said to Nina’s back. “The girl won’t find what she needs over there.” Nina drew a breath, sliding her shoulder blades down her back. “I just can’t believe he’s dead. That it happened. Do you remember that time at the creek when the kids were little and Lance almost drowned? He was only four. He did drown, his heart stopped. Remember? I can’t stop thinking about that day. Sill doesn’t remember anything about it . . . but why would she? None of us spoke of it after.” She couldn’t tell if he was listening. He tapped his fingers against his chest, a nervous tic for as long as she’d known him, which was almost half of her life. When the smell of brewed coffee filled the room, she poured them each a mug. Ted Waite was back on the radio, talking about being alert, being careful. The Old Man shoved his chair back from the table as she set the mug in front of him. “Sherwin, why didn’t we ever speak of what happened? At the creek, I mean. I don’t understand. It was so . . . was it out of respect for Rose, or some sort of, I don’t know, some sense of shame that we let it happen in the first place? Or fear? Was it too close for comfort?” She slurped at the coffee and then leaned against the counter with one hand clasped behind her neck. Though she’d been horrified that Lance was killed fighting in that strangely muffled, faraway war, a part of her was not surprised. Rose had snatched him from the maw when he was a child, but all she’d done was buy some extra time. They were followed by a shadow. Nina believed this with a conviction as strong as 24
any she had, and her convictions, though they’d narrowed over the years, had deepened apace. But she’d never say what she thought about Rose aloud to anyone, even the Old Man. She knew how it would sound. Her questions sank into silence. The Old Man cleared a gob of phlegm from his throat, spat into a paper napkin, and took a sip of coffee. Perry would be amazed to hear how she spoke to his father. He thought, because she was pushing him to take over, that she resented the Old Man as much as he did. Well, she didn’t have a buffer, like Perry did. She was the buffer. And most days, she and Perry passed like ships—with her husband, it was all logistics and whispered dethronings. But the Old Man was underfoot, peppering her day with conversation. They talked more than Perry would ever know. Both men would be shocked at the way she talked to the other, the constant, daily betrayals. “I had a friend in Korea,” he said. “Joe Carnahan.” Not again. Another one of his rambling war stories. She stared into the black brew in her mug. “Got shot up outside of Pusan. He was a good guy. For more than a week I thought he was dead. Where do people get buried in a place like that? I mean, in New York City. That’s where he was from. It’s all I thought about. But it turned out he’d just lost a leg and they shipped him home.” He’d never heard from Joe again. That’s how war was, he said. People who were like your own flesh, then an empty space, and it all kept going. The names changed, the purpose didn’t. They were Americans, that was all they were. “Common ground,” he said. “That’s what we fight for.” She put her empty mug into the dishwasher and shut the door with a click. The Old Man had trailed off. Ordinarily, she would say something about sacrifice or bravery or how the world used to be, but he didn’t seem to be waiting for that. He sat looking down at his fingertips, pushing them together in a steeple shape. Perry and his Old Man would duke it out until the Old Man finally relented and let Perry make the decisions, and it would be up to her, Nina, to referee, to make sure their struggle for sovereignty didn’t implode, or (and here’s where the tricky part came in) that it did. A necessary tumult before resolution. “More coffee?” she asked, feeling her failure in the question. She would make a special trip this week to talk to Pastor Bowen. And she’d take Sill with her. The Old Man stood, and she could see a struggle in the way he pushed himself against the wood table. His bones were worrying him. He crumpled the snotty napkin onto his dirty plate and pushed it, not unkindly, onto the counter next to Nina. Then he told her it was pointless to dwell on the past, reminded her about the sheets on the line, and limped out the door, probably to corral his son. ~ 25
Wind pushed at the kitchen curtains. Nina grabbed the laundry basket from its spot near the back door and stepped outside. She felt a sheet, pulled a handful to her nose, and deemed it dry enough. Light blue cloth slid off the line into her plastic basket, and a queen-sized vista opened in front of her where there had been percale. The same view she’d seen while hanging laundry for the past seventeen years: the downslope with its scratchy grass, the start of the fields, the big sky. There was the storm, all right. A heavy bank of clouds in the west, miles away. She felt a prick in the air, a twingy feeling on her forearms and the back of her neck. The storm front cued in the rest of her senses. A breeze blew in a smell of manure and minerals on a whiff of super-oxygenated air. Perry’s tractor grew louder, he must be pulling it up near the shed. He cut the engine and an expectant silence fell. She pictured him sitting in the high seat, not yet moving, listening for her as she listened for him. He had said he’d try to run some ideas past the Old Man today. Here we go again, stumbling through the motions and then pulling up, startled, to find ourselves in the thick of it. In the thickets. If someone asked her whether she knew what to do in the event of an emergency she would laugh and say of course. But that’s not what Louise Logan asked of her, or Rose or Sill. How will we bear it? On the horizon heavy clouds dipped low toward the ground, and then dipped again. She saw a little upside-down peak form, an exploratory finger, soon sucked back into the larger mass. It emerged again, and then again, larger each time until the peak became a funnel, dipping down, swirling back into itself. She’d often seen them from a distance. Once she’d watched two funnels emerge from the same cloud, a dark ribbon and its shadow, twisting together, receding from view. This one wasn’t receding, it was heading toward them. Far enough away, but growing. A blurry grayblack outline, churning and strengthening. Nina felt a pang in her stomach—she’d completely forgotten to eat lunch. Something about the shape’s quickness, the darting of it, reminded her of a child at play and she thought of Sill—what if she wasn’t with Rose? What if she’s somewhere else, in the path, unprotected? She ran into the kitchen. The Old Man had the back panel off the transistor radio and was rummaging in the drawer for batteries. Perry came through the door just as she set down the basket and turned to the phone. Here he was, finally, her husband, eyes squinty and face red. He asked for Sill. “She’s with Rose,” Nina said, and Perry nodded. The phone line was dead. His hands dangled at his sides as they always did when he was indoors, knobby and rough. “She’s gotta be with Rose,” Nina repeated. The Old Man agreed, though she had no idea how he would know—he scarcely acknowledged his granddaughter most days. Perry looked at them both blankly, and the 26
Old Man headed to the bathroom, grabbing his belt buckle as he went down the hall. She knew what Perry would say before his words came. “The Old Man said ‘No.’” Nina took a breath. “As long as your father has a grip we’ll never—” She could finish that sentence, and had, a hundred different ways: threats, warnings, pleas, predictions. The skin of her neck felt crepey, still warm from her run into the house. She pictured Sill and Rose, crouched together in that tiny sewing room, whispering, backs curved around their memories of Lance. Down the hall, the bathroom door handle smacked against the wall. Nina shrugged. “Let him have it. Better yet, let the storm take it.” A far-off storm siren began to wail as the Old Man clattered back into the kitchen. Nina brushed a hand over her face and grabbed his elbow. Perry took his father’s other side and the three of them angled awkwardly toward the front door, a six-legged beast—seven, if you counted the Old Man’s cane. She swung the front door wide and the wind stirred her braid and lifted her shirttails. They stepped into an ocean of noise, that first lick of wind promising salvation. Lift me up and take me out of here. “We’ve got it,” Nina yelled across the Old Man to Perry. “Go do one more check for Sill.” Perry turned toward the back of the house. “He’d better move his ass,” the Old Man said, and started down the sloping hill to the storm cellar. He was moving too fast and wobbled, flailing his cane. She lunged for him and grabbed his arm but he shook her off, impatient as a kid. It struck her, as it often had, that he wasn’t holding control of the land to punish them, he was holding on as a boy holds onto his favorite toy—a prehensile greed, that aversion to sharing that most people unlearn, or pretend to. She kept pace and took his elbow. He tried to shake free again and she needed to say something sharp to pull him into line, but instead she shook him right back, pulling his elbow and then shoving. He crumpled, and latched his hand onto her wrist. They fell together, rolling down the slope. The Old Man gripped so hard the bones in her wrist shifted. A pebble bounced off her cheek and she clamped her eyes shut. The air rushed by, fabric tore, someone yelled, an elbow clocked her in the head. They rolled to a stop, and by the time she’d disentangled her limbs and struggled to her knees, Perry was there and yanking her to her feet. The Old Man still held her wrist. She grabbed him with her other hand and helped Perry pull him up. His eyes blazed as she unpeeled his fingers. “Take him,” she said, her breath snagging. Up the slope, a yellow t-shirt fluttered. “There’s Sill,” she yelped. Scrambling up the hill, she heard Perry yell something she couldn’t catch. She fell onto her hands, 27
the whole sky crunched, and at last she stood face to face with her daughter. Sill’s eyes were bruises. Nina cupped her hands around her daughter’s shoulders. There was blood on the yellow shirt—one of them was bleeding. They had to get to the cellar. “Come on.” She grabbed Sill’s hands and backed down the hill toward the shelter. You aren’t lost, you’re here with me—it may not be what you want but this is home. We— Screaming wind blew Sill’s hair up and back, and her lips moved too fast, something about an album . . . lost . . . trying to find . . . . Then Sill broke away and ran in the wrong direction. There was nothing to do but follow.
Fugue for an Early Jersey Snow . . . written on the edges of my life, you old light. —Johannes Bobrowski, Village Winter of my fifty-ninth year, daylight silts through the bruised blue of a storm front. On Red Bank sidewalks, figures lean into wind, are dressed for journeys that will carry them beyond the city, back over Cooper’s Bridge, where an immigrant casts a fishing line. The first signs of ice lave the water. A Sunoco, shuttered three decades, keeps its empty vigil at the south end of the bridge. Wind regathers in bare maple limbs. A small cyclone of leaves is what the city inherits of autumn, wind etching calligraphy in early snow that slants past bricked-over windows, over streets that will weigh the drifts to come. The blizzard finally blows out to sea. Stars plunge east into deepening Atlantic twilight. I join the fisherman at the bridge’s railing, his cast line a prayer he breathes over water.
A Prisoner of Love Never release my shackles! I want to remain in the pain of love with other recidivists who have no place to go. It’s too lonely out there. The stones of confinement are filled with the urgency of being with you. I’m quietly content like a clam thrilled by the ride of the tide. I’m intoxicated by your scent, the sound of your voice, and the knowingness of your touch. Not even the blind reading Braille could read my body any better. This is the only place to be for incorrigibles like me. A silver prism of light from the window in my cell spills over this contented inmate. The outside world is filled with a heart-wrenching slapstick of horrors. Less than one in ten will shake your hand or let you cross the street. Blissfully ensconced between the walls of your thighs,
Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;m here to stay, and refuse parole.
Into Great Silence An homage to Philip Gröning’s 2005 film Carthusian brothers pray on their knees, eat twice daily within private cells, meditate, study, write books, pray again in silence. Alone. The slow turn of a page unexpectedly brittle, startles viewers Cloistered in the French Alps, no dreamers here, the work of monks in Chartres: pray for sinners, produce chartreuse liqueur, pray for the world, listen for God’s voice to come today or perhaps another, and pray Unlikely stars in a meditative masterpiece filmed only with ambient light and sound – After half a year utterly without discourse or even a body, whispers ear-splitting as a cup returned to table, scissors cutting robe cloth, sandals on stones Afternoon. A blizzard. Monks slide down their mountain, giddy with joy. Perhaps tonight a brother cannot help himself, will pray beneath a full-faced moon, hearing not God but a girl’s laughter, one who danced with him before each decided, quietly, to go another way
Walk Fast, Keep Going Your precious body is the source of all goodness. —Sé Chilbu Chökyi Gyaltsen, Commentary on the Seven-Point Mind Training
Having arrived in Lhasa after arduous travel I could ill afford— attaining a pilgrim’s circumstance without a pilgrim’s intention—I had just enough humility, or worldliness, not to expect a spiritual awakening. In the Barkhor, the cobblestoned marketplace encircling the 7th-century Jokhang Temple, monks and lay practitioners circumambulated Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest site, some of them in full-body prostrations, planting their thickly callused bare feet six inches forward of the spot where their foreheads—also callused—had touched ground, to bow again, squares of tire tread bound to their knees and their palms. They offered this devotion of the body with single-pointed concentration, parting waves of gawking tourists pointing cameras as locals gossiped, bought vegetables, and policed with friendly, hands-on insistence the necessity that all human traffic in the Barkhor move always clockwise around the temple —because to circumambulate counterclockwise, the “wrong” direction, is unthinkably inauspicious for all. Inside the temple, Tibetans standing in an hours-long queue to touch the revered statue of Jowo Shakyamuni let me cut line simply because I asked. My feet slid from beneath me more than once on greasy black soot laid down by scores of butter lamps before I could press my forehead to the Buddha’s hem, an awed and nervous imposter pilgrim wondering what, if anything, might befall me. Before dark that very day, my first day in Lhasa, I came down with food poisoning. Nausea, with vile sulfurous burps, gave warning in the afternoon, and although I went along with the group to dinner at a vegetarian restaurant run as a fund-raising venture for a monastery, I ate almost nothing. Nibbled some rice, sipped some green tea. People asked later if the fiery seasoned food on that table had been the culprit but my best guess at the source of my sickness was the two or three leaves of fresh, inadequately washed cilantro floating in the tasty and familiar sauce of some Indian curry I’d eaten with relish at lunch time, in a rooftop restaurant in the Barkhor, an eatery already vetted by an earlier group of American travelers as “safe.” The ferocity of the bubbling and boiling in my gut and the hideous smell and taste of first the reflux and then the vomit left me no doubt what I was in for—I’d had food poisoning before, in Cairo and in Manhattan. I settled in wearily, warily, to await its passage. Alone in the 33
dark comfort of the Kyichu Hotel, a westernized oasis catering to European and American travelers (yak-milk mac-and-cheese on the menu; flush toilets; two computers in an alcove off the courtyard offering slow but reasonably reliable internet access), I dealt patiently with the shakes, the convulsive dry heaves, and the violent diarrhea, even running a bath (that was hot, as the next one would not be) to clean myself and then my sweat pants in the aftermath of a particularly foul and uncontainable purge. I was glad for my prior experience with food poisoning; I knew I would not die from this even though it would feel like I might, for a while. As the night wore on, and the toxin worked its claws lower and lower through my guts, I noticed more and more trouble getting out of bed, more and more difficulty balancing on my feet long enough to reach the bathroom (very fortunately a private one, inside my single room). Of course I lay down on the floor by the toilet as surely anyone with this kind of illness does at some point. But the floor was unheated tile and I had shivers I could not stop except beneath all the blankets on the bed. Sometimes I bargained with myself about how much longer I could stay in the warm bed with clamped sphincter, risking an accident I’d not have the strength to clean up. I diagnosed my accelerating weakness as dehydration and prescribed myself water, by the sip, which usually came up. My daughter, at fifteen, threw up for so many hours in allergic response to an antibiotic that I had to lift her from the bathroom floor and take her to the ER for an intravenous drip. The part of my mind that was calm and becalmed—running slow for lack of fuel and balance—noted fear feeding like kudzu on that memory, sprouting chains of reason tangled with unreason: the dehydration process had gone too far too fast; I could never stop the slide with what I was able to drink; I would not be able to get up in the morning and ride the bus to the Potala Palace; I’d have to summon someone to take me to a hospital—a Chinese hospital, in Lhasa; who knew what medical or political consequences might befall me there. Long before dawn an enervation unlike any I’d ever known overtook me. I had no more energy for fear. Death had arrived, stretching out alongside me beneath the blankets, sharing my pillow, waiting languorously for the right moment to embrace me. That I would die seemed simple, reasonable, a fact, nothing to fight against. I rehearsed in my mind, slowly, certain corollaries of dying. So many aspects of my life would be left untidy: bills unpaid, emails unanswered, my will out-of-date, my apartment a mess, my underwear befouled on the hotel bathroom floor. My cat, chronically ill, a plague of sores, in the care of a sitter who would not know what to do with her when I did not come back and who would never be paid. And . . . ah . . . the ten-year life-or-death struggle to find a publisher for my novel would simply cease, and . . . oh . . . I would never see you again. 34
You: the beloved, still recovering from desperate surgery to remove from your gut what should have killed you, and still a year short, best case, of the moment we might have become we together, same state, same home. You, my one and only. But . . . hmm. . . also you, my children, who kept me alive when I saw no other reason not to die and who had grown now into lives I had so little knowledge of . . . and you, my ex, who needed so bad for so long to destroy me . . . and the ex before you whom I write out of everything, selfishly, conveniently . . . and you, my dead parents, persisting in dreams, habits, possessions, and every story I try to tell, no matter the subject. All you completing other-halves I’d clung to, warred for and against, the long line of you rejected yet internalized in whose glance I sought myself, by whose response I weighed my worth—I would die and you would forgive me, forget me or not; take spouses, have babies, find jobs and lose them, acquire honors and tattoos . . . or evaporate with the death of my brain’s encoded memories. All this would happen without my help or my witness. I sighed. I turned you loose. My room in the Kyichu Hotel was completely dark and very quiet. The blankets wrapped me snugly, the mattress supported me comfortably. Helpless, body and mind shutting down, my ruin inevitable, I was okay with dying. The lifetime of effort devoted to wanting some things so badly while striving strenuously to keep at bay the things I didn’t want, it seemed a little sad and a little laughable now. Oh, well. The mess I’d leave was the mess I’d leave. The clarity of so much plain truth made me happy. I remembered to remember the lama. I managed the visualization and, lying on my back in the dark, speaking aloud and slowly with mistakes and re-starts when I lost the thread, I said sadhana, the daily essential meditation liturgy, pleased and reassured that at the threshold of the bardo I had the presence of mind to remember what to remember. I had made it all the way to the end, of my life and the prayer, with dren-pa, remembrance, and shey-zhin, mindfulness. Death was maybe not so hard, after all. Just after dawn, Julie, the group’s second-in-command, came to my door, letting herself in with a key from the hotel desk when I could not get up. I didn’t try, but that was because I couldn’t. I knew I couldn’t. I didn’t want or need anything, I told her. Water, now mixed with the Gatorade powder another group member had donated me (and which probably did keep me alive), was at hand. Food was out of the question. So was, of course, that day’s junket to the Palace, and tomorrow’s threehour bus trip to the mountain-top monastery where the group would camp for two nights. “You’ll have to leave me here,” I told her calmly. “I can’t get up.” She didn’t argue with me. She closed the door and I lay back in weary peace. Very soon Julie came to the door again, and let herself in. 35
The hotel desk, she said, insisted that I was suffering from altitude sickness. Oh, come on, I thought, prodded from my languor by their stupidity. Their prescription, which Julie had carried to me, made me genuinely angry: oxygen, delivered through a nostril tube from a rubberized inflated pillow I was to squeeze beneath one arm, and a bowl of steamed rice. I sent Julie away and irritably took up the rubber pillow, inhaling the tendril of oxygen the full slight strength I could muster pressed out of the pillow and into the plastic tube. The oxygen stank of rubber and I felt absolutely no better but through my anger at the interruption of my death-embracing bliss, a ladder of rational thought spontaneously formed. With no intention to do so, I trudged it step-by-step to the reluctant conclusion that the Tibetans downstairs were probably right about the altitude sickness. I did know something about the condition, firsthand. I had some experience with its insidious onset, the disguises its manifestations wear, and the pernicious half-ass efficacy of the drug prescribed to treat it. Diamox is a diuretic used to treat congestive heart failure and a certain form of glaucoma. At higher altitudes, where oxygen is thinner than a given body’s accustomed to, the heart’s pumping slows from lack of oxygen, and fluid can accumulate in the lungs and or the brain, leading to death. Diamox reduces the load on the heart and gets to the brain more of what little oxygen is available. The drug is “recommended” to travelers who are “concerned” about altitude sickness, especially at elevations above 10,000 feet. The catch is it must be taken prophylactically, beginning twenty-four hours before ascent, and tapered off thereafter as the body acclimatizes, a simple instruction very difficult to put into practice when one is traveling from place to place, ascending and descending unpredictably. Drug-phobic in my upright middle age, and impressed by a list of possible side effects and adverse reactions that sounded at least as bad as altitude sickness, I packed the medication but intended not to take it unless I absolutely had to. Two days before the food-poisoning incident, I’d boarded a train in Xining, Sichuan Province, for a twenty-four-hour ride to Lhasa. I did so leaden with distrust of the Chinese after several desperate hours waiting in our bus outside the depot; a short-sticks lottery among the group to decide who’d get a shot at the first spots that might be available; then running, literally, to the track where a shopping bag of liquor and cash bribes changed hands before some of the tickets our travel agent had already paid for were pulled from beneath the hat of the minor official to whom the sack was handed. We claimed bunks with our bodies and our bags. I and the group’s youngest member found ourselves in a four-berth cabin with a Chinese mother and daughter amused by and friendly toward our American maladaptation. They offered tea and sweets, and 36
voluntarily dialed down the volume on the piped-in propaganda—the glories of Sino-Tibetan unity—available in a choice of Chinese or English. I drew a top bunk, on which I could not fully sit up, but which did allow me privacy as long as I was willing to lie down and stay put. That I did, once I’d made an obligatory and miserable scramble—the swaying of the train threatening to amp my low-grade nausea into full-blown motion sickness—to the toilets, one with a seat, and the other what the group had dubbed by then a squatty potty: foot-shaped depressions on either side of a hole in the floor. Back in the bunk, I lay down, turned my face to the wall—because that was the direction the train was moving—and tried to ride the waves of anxiety that rocked me worse than the train. I feared the Chinese because we were Buddhists on the way to Lhasa, and the political tensions there that would erupt in riots, arson, looting, and murder less than nine months later were quite palpable any time Chinese and Tibetans were in proximity. I feared my nausea because an outbreak of vomiting from the debilitating motion sickness to which I’d been prone since childhood would be impossible to hide or relieve for the duration of the twenty-four hour ride. I feared our destination, because I wasn’t sure I really wanted to visit such an exotic and spiritually charged place, and I feared more than anything else the road there: its highest point—a fact blithely suppressed by our leader—at 18,000 feet. The train would cross that high pass deep in the night, so I decided to try to sleep through it. Jet lag, sleep deprivation, and cultural disorientation exhausted me sufficiently that I dozed off despite hunger and noise. I awoke abruptly in full dark and complete stillness. The train had stopped moving, and I could not breathe. My heart punched my chest wall like a crazy, random fist desperate to get out of a box. Pressure in my temples suggested I’d held my breath too long under water. I sipped air, instructed myself to be calm, and regarded the frantic effort of my heart with dismay. I felt both keenly nauseated and absolutely inert. Terror zoomed around a racetrack in my mind, enlarging itself breath by inadequate breath—why had the train stopped? Had the Chinese soldiers —omnipresent, gun-toting, humorless—boarded? Were they searching car to car? Our Tibetan guide, a devout Buddhist who lacked the permission papers necessary to lawfully accompany us, had been imprisoned and tortured before for anti-Chinese activities. I feared for him and the wife and daughter he’d told me about. I feared for us should anything befall him, as no one in our sub-group, split away from our Chinese-speaking leader by the lottery for the train berths, could communicate with either the soldiers or the locals. And I feared shamelessly for myself—that my aching lungs would burst, that my laboring heart would quit. Move move move move, I told the train. 37
Darkness and silence answered me, my panic a tiny pebble disappearing into vast indifference. I lay there a long time, stressed and afraid, and embarrassed by my stress and fear. I had just enough presence of mind left to comprehend that my body’s distress created my mind’s unrest. Eventually I wrenched myself up off the mattress, closed my hand on the flashlight I’d wedged between mattress and wall, and in its small yellow moon-circle of light dug laboriously through my backpack for a water bottle and my first-ever dose of Diamox. In the morning, after a breakfast of tea and a banana (I bought three from an on-board vendor for the equivalent on $1 each and offered one to our guide, who despite his usual gravitas accepted eagerly and ate it quickly, confirming my worst fears about his destitution), I sat on a jump seat in the aisle outside the compartment, resolutely half-blocking everyone’s passage because I had to be in a different position—sitting up —and a different location—out of that narrow berth—than the one I’d spent the night in. For hours and hours central Tibet passed by the broad window glass. Naked, arid mountains stratosphere-high, fringing a permafrost steppe textured with small rocks strewn on crazy-cracked hardpan. Neither vegetation nor snow covered anything, the wind scouring away whatever snow ever fell in that desert. Here and there a faint blue-grey cast turned out to be lichen, which must have been some kind of food for the yaks and the sheep we occasionally passed, the yaks roaming free and the sheep loosely herded by nomads on Chinese or Korean Harley-style hogs, the motorcycles’ seats draped in prayer-seat carpets secured with bungee cords. All these sights, the train’s multiple unexplained stops and starts, and the Chinese surrounding us, some armed and in uniform, some tourists, like me, struck me as strange but benign. My night’s suffering was so clearly the result of lack of oxygen and panic: a brain starving for air had abdicated responsibility for regulating both the body and the will. Inhaling rubber-tainted oxygen through a tube in my bed at the Kyichu Hotel, I worked my way to a second generation of that same insight. Because of the vomiting and the tetchy stomach preceding it, I’d missed or ejected three consecutive doses of Diamox and gradually become more ill from altitude sickness than bacteria. Once again I forced myself up off the mattress, swallowed a pill along with a couple of teaspoons of rice, and within twelve hours I was, amazingly, more or less all right. The generally chipper, slightly uptight self I recognized as “me” was back, as was the revved-up heart rate, the slight lightheadedness, the deficient stamina, the dull headache, and a buzzing tingle in my lips, cheeks and fingers—all baseline symptoms of altitude sickness capped by a disagreeable drug. 38
You, all of you, were far, far away and knew nothing of what had befallen me and could do nothing to help me—but I reached for you anyway, on reflex, and took tight hold. I called you to mind and addressed my thoughts and feelings to you. Living, I could not be without you, for how else could I recognize myself, if not in the mirror of you? When our group reached the campsite below the mountaintop monastery late the following day, I debarked the bus in the odd, exalted state of aftermath—wan and wobbly and lit up with having survived, hyper-aware of how inconsequential the extremity of my misery and fear now seemed simply because it had left me. The world into which I stepped was stunningly austere—a mile-wide valley at just over 14,000 feet, bounded by two chains of tall, barren peaks and etched deeply through its center by a narrow and winding river canyon. Everything everywhere around me was some shade of brown—except a cluster of nomad’s tents, canvas-white appliquéd with bright blue eternal knots, and the sky, a different blue, clearer, purer, so undiluted by atmosphere it assaulted the eyes. Our group would, in days to follow, donate hundreds of pairs of used sunglasses for distribution to impoverished Tibetans, who go blind from cataracts and macular damage; and I would—wearing new, pricey UVA/UVB filtering shades and doused in #30 sunscreen— dab my hand cream on the lips and cheeks of nomad children, chapped cherry-pink and raw from wind and sun damage. That the attention pleased them, and that my gesture, pitted against natural forces so huge and harsh, was futile—this would be obvious, and disturbing. Even more remarkable than the colors and light of the stark landscape was its emptiness—the enormous capacity of its silence to swallow up all endeavor. The voices of our group of twenty, the hammer blows of the five-man mountaineering crew pegging down the mess tent (Chinese army surplus) and the dozen double-walled pup tents that would house us, the bus engine revving and relaxing as the driver executed a tight three-point turn in the rutted dirt track connecting the campsite to the two-lane blacktop “highway,” none of this amounted to significant scale in the earth-sky bowl that cupped us. All of us together plus all our efforts were no more forceful and barely more sentient than the shale and lichen and round river stones on which we set up camp. We had a rare free hour before dinner. And the weather, always mercurial at this altitude, waxed momentarily beneficent. The sun shone, the wind stilled. Toddling on unsteady legs, I carried toothbrush, toothpaste and water bottle, and my journal and pen—and the long, long letter for you, the beloved, to which I added pages every day—to the river canyon’s edge. When I peered over it, the boom of wild water beating boulders nearly knocked me down. I took a single step backward, into absolute quiet. Fascinated, I tried the move again, several times, 39
enjoying the impossible dichotomy of sound/silence, sound/silence. With almost equal pleasure, because I’d lacked all day the clean water to do so, I brushed my teeth, swigging merrily from the bottle and spitting hard into the canyon, noting with a nine-year-old’s glee my skill in staying upwind of the spittle. When I sat down to write, every detail of my life delighted me: the precipice into which I swung my legs—a straight drop of several hundred feet from the table-flat earth I sat on; the young yaks gamboling down the slightly-less-steep opposite bank for a drink, twirling their cow tails like awkward, happy dogs; the monastery perched four-square and gimlet-eyed like a medieval fortress on the rock face 1,500 feet above the campsite; the infinitesimally tiny but fully formed daisies growing under and between the stones near to hand; the sun heating up my back like an open flame although the air temperature was nearly freezing; even the hail stones that would mound up at my tent’s flap door by morning— ordinary wonders thrilled and humbled me. I felt so deep inside my own senses and at the same time such a long way elevated from my usual self that when I happened to glance toward the tents at the precise moment a fellow traveler twenty yards away dropped like a stone in midconversation and lay vomiting on the ground, my reaction came to me both through my own cells and from way across that great yawning gulf of placid silence. I watched people near her bring water and help her sit up. I felt-thought: she is sick like I was, poor woman, that is hard; and this is what happens to people like us, in places like this. But, after two nights in that tent, clutching you in letter-form while zipped to the nose in my zero-Fahrenheit-rated sleeping sack, shivering inside every stitch of clothing I had with me, including hat and gloves; after two days without washing more than my hands; and two days and nights of squatting above a latrine (inside a stinking, wind-whipped tent on the verge of lifting off the earth) as infrequently as I could bear, exultation had worn off. Our first day at the monastery we’d witnessed the monks in an intricately costumed and choreographed ritual dance performed just once a year, and we’d had a long audience with a young English-speaking monk, but we’d also sat for hours on cold stone on a freezing day, lacking food and toilet facilities, amid obvious surveillance by the Chinese. Several uniformed officials, including a chillingly beautiful young woman in severe olive drab set off with patent leather spike heels arrived shortly after we did to digitally record the ritual—and everyone watching it. I knew our leader had brought to this monastery not just our group but money and messages from Tibetan religious leaders exiled in the States, so when the Chinese abruptly followed him into the monastery and did not emerge for more than an hour, my anxiety about his safety and ours ratcheted my body misery into painful mental agitation. 40
On the second morning, then, having slept not at all, I crawled out of my tent aching and grumpy and outright sick again—dizzy, nauseous, a stabbing headache; clearly, more trouble with altitude sickness despite the Diamox—into a fine, cold rain that ruined my appetite for the day’s extraordinary plan: a hike, long and steep, ascending over several miles to a site, at nearly 17,000 feet, normally forbidden to westerners, a sky burial ground. We had specific permission from the monastery authorities to pass the sign, large, square, and warning in black and white and red characters, Chinese and English, that non-Tibetans must proceed no further upon penalty of law. Pausing there, our leader admonished us once again to take no pictures, keep cameras completely out of sight, and give way to Tibetan pilgrims circumambulating the burial ground. “Stay on the path, and keep moving,” he said, and set off briskly. Leaving the path struck me as no option at all, for to my left the mountain dropped away quickly, affording an unobscured view of the river snaking through the valley thousands of feet below, and to the right rose the sheer rock face into which the path, sometimes less than a foot wide, was worn. Moving was problematic, too. I drew each breath with difficulty, my lungs burning, snatching at air deficient of oxygen. I shuffled my feet diligently, but to small effect. Left one, right one. My progress depended on little successive bargains with myself: ten steps, and you can rest. Okay, now ten more. Resting did not help; I could not recoup any energy. But standing still required less will than moving. When I stopped I was only my body’s struggle to breathe, while walking forced my mind to get involved, bullying my feet to move. The succeeding ranges of naked peaks on the far side of the valley pierced clouds sunk to half their height. We were now above those clouds, but other cloud layers higher up dropped a steady, near-icy drizzle. I wore the hiking boots I’d bought on sale for gentler, better oxygenated climbs in the North Carolina mountains, my winter jacket, and a five-dollar plastic poncho from Walgreen’s, and, over long underwear and leggings, an ankle-length cotton skirt—a gesture of cultural respect now wrapping my thighs like a sodden rope. We climbed for more than two hours, a straggling group, each person negotiating individually the bargain between body and mind, the path ascending, the rain coming down harder, the footing growing increasingly slick. Diminutive Tibetans passed us, climbing steadily with no apparent effort, rhythmically spinning prayer wheels or silently counting mantra, the 108 beads of a mala pressed one by one between small thumb and tapered forefinger. We stepped aside deferentially, and stuck out like sore white thumbs, a head taller than the tallest of them. Religious Tibetans typically are calm and open-hearted to an extent most “I”-oriented Americans can hardly fathom—like the line-standers in the Jokhang so pleased and honored by my interest in their Buddha’s 41
blessing they welcomed my stepping in front of them. A highlight of my entire sojourn in Tibet would come a week later on a frigid, wind-swept lake shore when a solitary elderly woman, circumambulating, stepped into my path, thrust her prayer wheel into my hand, and grinned at my unsuccessful attempt to smoothly spin the heavy brass cylinder mounted on a thick stick worn smooth from generations of hands. She would seize my head in genuine gap-toothed joy when I recognized and spoke along with her, not too awkwardly, the mantra she recited. But on this higher, holier, grimmer path to the sky burial ground, our uncouth presence was clearly offensive. The Tibetans’ deeply lined faces remained unsmiling, and hard dark glances asserted they had no idea why we were there. I felt guilty. I felt fearful. With no common language, no way to explain to them the permission we’d been granted, I kept my head down and concentrated on cajoling my feet to carry me higher into the clouds and drizzle. The sky burial ground itself lay in a slight concavity atop the ridge line. That we’d arrived was evident because of the plumes of aromatic smoke—from juniper branches smoldering on dampened fire pits—rising from its center. A flimsy slat fence demarcating the ceremonial site sagged beneath miles of prayer flags strung the length and square of it— the top layers crayon-bright red, blue, green, yellow and white; the successive underlayers paled first to pastel then dissolved to grey shreds from long exposure to the elements. On the uphill side of the burial field, a dozen or so vultures waited with the keyed patience of white-tie dinner guests attending a signal from their host. In the very center of the site, at a distance of a hundred yards from the path I walked, a sky burial was underway. Men grunting with effort and commitment heaved mallets above their shoulders and hurled them down, crushing the bones in a cutapart corpse, preparing offerings, thus, for the vultures’ consumption; expiating in this way the karma of devout Buddhists who must, in a climate where no agriculture is possible, kill and eat meat to stay alive; and burying, in this way the religious dead in a terrain where no trees provide firewood for cremation and permafrost renders grave-digging impossible. Our leader herded us nervously. “Walk fast, keep going.” Some mistake had occurred; no burial was to have been in progress this day. Even with permission to be here, we should not witness this, but we could not turn back; circumambulating in the wrong direction would exponentially compound our offense. Because at this ridge-top the way was temporarily not steep, a measure of ease in my legs and lungs melded with adrenalin, enabling me to hurry as I was told. I dreaded what I’d see if I looked. I took seriously the religious and cultural affront looking constituted. But how could I not look upon something so fantastically and gruesomely holy? What stays with me yet is the sound 42
of force falling hard on human bodies—a particular tonality of thunk that insists the struck object was once juicy, once sentient, not stone, not dirt. I recalled as I strode through the mud, eyes down, risking one and then another furtive glance, that a body—a heavy four-cornered bundle wrapped in old but richly colored carpet, lifted from the open bed of a dusty small truck by two men struggling with its dead weight—had arrived at the monastery courtyard the same day and hour as our group. Traipsing from the bus to our seats on the cold, damp paving stones, we’d regarded the parcel placed amid us with no particular interest until our leader quietly signaled what we were seeing. I wondered if the body on the field—its quartered torso and orphaned limbs, the pale strewn viscera and the ample blood, all of which my mind recognized but refused to label—was the same body, that unknown being’s path into dissolution running parallel to our living paths a second time. We circled past the burial ground on its downhill side then ascended along the back side where the path ran lower than the field, screening from sight the ritual we could still hear. Tibetan pilgrims crowded the path, which fell away on the other side into a gorge rendered bottomless by our altitude and the low-slung rain clouds that filled it. At a spot three-quarters of the way around the burial ground, well uphill of the ritual and removed from the attention of the Tibetans, our group stopped to string up our prayer flags with the many thousand others, and to burn the incense and juniper boughs our Tibetan guide and bus driver had carried up in bulky bundles strapped to their backs. Our smoke plume streamed up with the rest, the rain making a good smudge of it. Some members of our group, Buddhist or not, joined in these ritual acts, but both remembrance and mindfulness had deserted me. Wet to the bone despite my plastic poncho, cold beyond the bone, exhausted, hungry, airless and wretched, I sat down in the mud. Not a one of my you’s came to mind; I was as alone as I have ever been. Days later, on a remote stretch of desert highway many kilometers from Lhasa, the bus would pass a lone monk prostrating his way down the pavement, progressing body-length by body-length from whatever distant village he inhabited toward the city, the spiritual center of his religious practice, accomplishing in what might be a years-long effort this once-in-a-lifetime holy journey in the most devoted way possible— face down on the path. Wholly absorbed in his effort, thin and dusty, tiretread pads bound to his hands, knees, abdomen, he took no notice of our gawking, but his helper, trailing him on a battered bicycle pulling a little two-wheeled cart of provisions, smiled at the staring white faces pressed to the bus window. Watching the monk on the pavement grow smaller as we sped on toward Lhasa on tires turned by diesel fuel, I’d feel how extremely small were my headache and body ache and hunger and weariness. But sitting in mud at the sky burial summit, I burned with 43
frank anger at my circumstances and the people around me who seemed more able than I to rise above them. I had just enough presence of mind to recognize the poison of that anger as an additional loss, a failure of view that seemed to negate the effort of the climb. How far I’d come, at such personal and monetary cost, and after all, it meant nothing to me. Me. I stared back downhill at the sodden prayer flags soaking up more rain, and the vultures now feasting on what I could just make out as pieces of human flesh. I didn’t think about what I saw, and I felt neither awe nor fear. Through a scrim of resentment about that emptiness, I just saw what I saw: what it all comes to in the end, for every ambition, and every body. The path down proved more treacherous than the path up. We slipped and slid in a sheep trail barely wider than our boots and as deep as our ankles, the excrement in its crease often human, because the pitch was so steep a shepherd could have squatted nowhere else. The day, already endless, didn’t end when we reached the monastery. First, we sat for a long stint in a cold anteroom awaiting the conclusion of our leader’s conference with the abbot. Then, having eaten and broken camp, we drove down the valley and up a different peak to a fabled hot spring where Padmasambhava, revered as the founder of Buddhism in Tibet, is said to have subdued and converted a serpent god. Despite temperatures near freezing and the never-ceasing drizzle, the half-dozen of us most desperate for either warmth or some relative cleanliness stripped to our underwear and waded into the rock-walled pool, gender-segregated by a wooden wall. I sank to my knees in the center of the pool, submerging to the earlobes in water a hot-tub-perfect one hundred degrees, utterly clear, and pleasantly mineral-scented. The same group of American travelers who’d pronounced the roof-top restaurant in Lhasa safe for western diners left us a warning of tuberculosis incubating in that spring, but whether because they’d been so wrong about the cleanliness of the food that felled me or because I couldn’t care at the end of that particular day what might befall me in the future, I dismissed the warning. I’ll never know if I exposed myself to TB (or the typhoid or hepatitis-A for which I’d had myself immunized in the States) but I’d hardly stopped grinning from my body’s first flush of enervation and delight when three small snakes—brown, wedged-headed, the length of my forearm and the width of my index finger—launched themselves from crevices in the rocks, swimming vigorously, speeding straight toward me and my bathing companions. I have an irrational terror of snakes, even the garden variety I know to be harmless, and I had no idea what the consequences of a bite from one of these might be. My mind stiffened but my body moved—fast, and out of their path. Watching them slither from sight into the cracks of the 44
opposite rock wall, my brain un-jammed and made explanation: disturbed by our arrival, the snakes swam out to check us out. My startled respiration quieted then, and last of all my reactive emotion unclenched: okay, okay, snakes are sentient beings, too—live and let live. Many hours later, returned to the Kyichu Hotel oasis, I will take a long shower, lukewarm, in a bathroom with no stall and no curtain, but also no snakes and plenty of soap and privacy. I’ll eat comfort food— spaghetti with yak-meatballs—in the restaurant downstairs, and after a night’s solid sleep in the blessed hard warm bed, I will get up extra early in order to hustle myself to the front of the always-long queue for a seat at one of the two internet-connected computers. I’ve told all my correspondents back home in the States I won’t check email but with urgency and some difficulty, because both the keyboard and the screen icons are in Chinese, and because our group is due on the bus in ten minutes, I type a short message to you, the beloved, the one among my many mirrors I most need today, in order to reassure myself I am still who I think I am. My sentences offer love, support, and brief touristy highlights of the trip so far, and I feel smugly virtuous about what I withhold: how sick I’ve been, how inconsolably lonely I am, how confused I am about why I came. When I click Send and my inbox refreshes, a loving brief message from you pops in. Simultaneous email. The serendipity of so gossamer a connection across twelve hours and 13,000 miles thrills me. I climb on the bus rejuvenated and rebalanced. All is right with my world, inside and out; you, so familiar, so deeply desired, prove it. Not until I am back in the States—airsick, utterly exhausted from twenty-two days in Tibet and thirteen hours in the air, barely able to stand upright, but doing so to phone you from a standup booth in Newark airport because it’s all I can find and I have to find you—will I discover what you withheld from me in that email I clung to: a second major surgery, barely three months after the first one, to patch up what had since come undone. You undertook the trial alone, no one to feed or drive you, no one looking in to cheer you, no me at the center of your life. Because of my pilgrimage, you might have died with no mail and no phone, no help and no witness from me. In Newark, I am angry at you for not telling. For destroying my illusion of our prefect cyber connection, revealing its bright affirming flag, its flash of satisfying heat to be my fabrication—momentary, dissolving, launched by my desire into the silence of our separate solitudes, our simultaneous but separate efforts to get on with the lonely business of living, or dying. In my agitation I do not recall that I had, in the arms of what I perceived to be my death, set you free. I will not catch on for a long time that two companion awakenings found me in Tibet: the clarity I 45
cherished that night at the Kyichu Hotel, and the gritty truth I didn’t want at the sky burial ground. I will not find out until I write this that I carry both awarenesses with me always, two experiences like two emails, two ways of being, indefinitely available for reference, their disconnect a prompt of dren-pa toward shey-zhin. Remembrance, and mindfulness. Stay awake. Be aware. Oh, to see what we see and feel what we feel, and to know what we make of what we see and feel, and to apprehend the dime on which that construction turns. The one thing—you, death or fear, joy, sickness, and clinging—becoming in the next moment the other thing or nothing at all —for no reason other than that day’s weather in the body, in the mind, in the sky.
I lock the front door for the night, thinking I should have known better than to hang on with whispered prayers, hinging hopes on the space where you leave your coat. Most days, I don’t even look for its silk lining, not willing to wonder through the obscured view of the storm door when I won’t return with your hook still vacant. I stand, my back against the glass until I think this foyer has grown smaller, no one here to stretch its walls back into place, and how hungry I must be, to invite men in night after night while I count change and accept the cartons of cold food. I’ve not lost track of how many evenings begin and end this way— days kept on my rewards member stub clipped to the menu on the fridge, tattered like the target of a shotgun blast. I throw away my fortunes and eat the folded cookies, knowing what can’t clothe a naked coatrack.
Comforter Come here, I said No here and he stretched into the place where my bared back would have been, but it was not home, and we were not home, and he was not home, because he wanted the space to be smaller but part of me could not condense, because I am not a contortionist by trade. I realized I was adrift when I woke up and looked in the mirror and saw I was a shrunken head, and knew I was ugly and even the voodoo man down the street would not have me for a spell. When you are gone I pull the sheets over my head and kick my feet high so they billow, and I can imagine Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;m a child in gym class or trapezist on the high wire under the big top, or something graceful that I am not. When you come back to bed you push down the sheets so they smooth over my body, and you can see every ripple when you say itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s silly to pretend Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;m anything but a woman.
Helo Dunker Clearing the black paint, he rubbed the goggles together all day so he would not swim blind through the submerged hull. He saved a life, once. His yearly cheating was put to use. My grandfather laughs because I have not measured my words carefullyâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;but I easily forgive the wheezing cackle, playing into a pattern of women loving men who lie, wives becoming ex-wives becoming my single mother or my miserably-married grandmother who I visit on borrowed time, strained conversations that run dry and force me to believe some memories are geneticâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;imprints of fears, flailing in the dark, longing to deceive instead of drown, the ghosts of the rotors.
It breaks because it falls Into the arms of the earth—that grave attraction. —A. E. Stallings, “Fragment” 1. We break so easily. Fall this slight distance from upright to the polished ground and we are like any piece of china. We make the same sound cracking. In the fragmented hours of the night that falling melody plays again and again. So I learn: there is a beat in breaking, a silver tone. 2. My friend falls and falls but does not break. He tries the stairs, the path to the house— he only bends. He must be made of India rubber like those bouncing balls, his sons. Crack of the bat, of the ground hitting a football helmet, never bone. If not India rubber, perhaps they are spirits come back from the dead for the sheer pleasure of falling again. 3. They say bones knit together, and I feel the click-clack of needles at work, each cell looped around another like my grandmother's yarn. The country where she was born is unraveling; in the sleepless hours I read the breaking news, and think of her piecing together her colored squares. She’d make a darn in history, she’d needle me back together if she could.
I arrive in Verona, North Dakota, in the middle of October, its land and trees barren and empty. The town is a handful of houses and dirt roads cut up into five-by-five blocks with one bar that sells booze, groceries, and scratch-off lottery tickets. Last census put them at two hundred forty three people. My father steps out of the car and onto the gravel parking lot. He looks at the brick building, then at me. “Quite the place,” he says. A onelevel, K-12 school sits at the edge of town. Beyond the school—open land and a vast, far-reaching sky. I pull my bags out from the backseat of my dad’s Buick. He stretches, and the bottom of his collared shirt comes up over his beltline to reveal his stomach. He’s fifty, and fit. “You sure you don’t want to stay?” I say. If he drove back, he’d be alone in his house for the first time. “I think I’ll get moving,” he says. I’d originally planned to drive myself. Take my mother’s car. But the day before leaving he insisted on driving. He said he needed some “windshield time.” He dips into the car and pulls out his Caribou Coffee mug. He shakes it. “Better fill up before I go.” “It’s a five-hour drive.” “I’ve got the radio,” he says. “I’ll be fine.” He takes a step toward me and holds out his hand. “Well,” he says. Instead of taking his hand, I lean into him and wrap him into a hug. It’s something we’ve done only a few times. After my father leaves I stand there, observing the two-story houses across the street, most painted white or tan, light blue or yellow. Things look unkempt—chipped paint and shingles peeling up, shaggy bushes, and the gravel roads spill into the front yards. The town is quiet. Nothing moves. The air feels crisp and dry, and smells of must and decaying corn and beans—harvest season. “They’re early,” Lynn says, showing me my room. She’d greeted me when I walked into the building. “Waterfowl migrate in from Canada, hunters migrate in from the suburbs of Minneapolis. You ready for this?” she says. I wanted a break from home, so two weeks ago I’d answered an ad in the Minneapolis Star Tribune for seasonal work. Lynn Nelson needed a hired hand for building maintenance and custodial. She’d bought this K-12 school a couple years ago and turned it into the Verona Hunting Lodge. 51
“Here’s where you’ll stay,” Lynn says, opening the door to the former teachers’ lounge. “It’s not much, but I’ve seen worse. My hunting guide, Sam, gets the other. It’s over there.” She points down the long narrow hallway, trophy cases mounted on either side. I pull off my Twins Hat and run a hand down my ponytail. Two duffle bags hung from my shoulders—everything I own for four months. “Put your stuff down and follow me.” Lynn’s in her mid-to-late forties, short and sturdy. She wears stonewashed jeans and an over-sized forest green hooded sweatshirt with “Bison” written on the front in brown letters with yellow trim. “You don’t have an issue with dogs, do you?” she says. I shake my head. She pulls a flask from her sweatshirt pocket and offers me a bump. I shake my head again. She takes a swig and wipes her lips with the back of her hand. “Last maintenance guy I had in here was scared of dogs,” she says. “He quit mid-season last year and I had to do all this myself.” She saunters into the locker room. The door has been lifted off the hinges and set to the side. The showers are open—no doors, no curtains, no privacy. Just a stainless post with a half dozen shower heads pointing in different directions. “Most of these guys who visit are suburb folks from where you’re from, and they’re mostly respectful and tame and I’m hoping they come back every year.” “I’m actually from a town south of the Twin Cities,” I say. She either ignores me or doesn’t hear. “So you’re good with pulling dog hair out of shower drains, unplugging toilets, cleaning shit out of the parking lot and yard—you’re good with all of that?” I nod. “Are you a hunter?” she says. “Deer, mostly,” I say. “Never tried waterfowl.” “Oh, boy,” she says. “You’re in for a treat. I’ll have Sam take you out sometime.” She stops in front of my room. “You got a romance back home in the Cities?” The question catches me off guard. “Not really,” I says. “And I’m actually from just south of there.” I put my Twins hat back on. “You’ve got some hair there, son,” she says, referring to my coalblack hair. It’s thick, pulled back into a ponytail. “I know women who’d kill for hair like that.” “Is that right?” I say. “Your application didn’t say Native on it, did it?” she says. “Did I miss that?” “No, not Native,” I say. “Well, anyway,” she says, “you’re probably tired from your long drive, so I’ll let you be. 52
I nod again. “Any questions?” she says. And before I can say anything, she says: “It’s kind of a learn-as-you-go. I’ll give you a list of assignments each morning.” Just then, a girl with short messy hair and a bandana around her neck appears from around the corner. She’s wearing a purple and gray flannel, and jeans. “Here’s Sam,” Lynn says. Sam extends her arm. Her handshake is firm. Her eyes are a rich brown, a shade darker than her hair. She’s taller than Lynn. “You don’t look happy to see me,” Sam says. “I just thought—” “—that I was a dude,” she says. She looks up at my hat, my hair. “Nice ponytail.” “Sam’s the best damn duck caller this side of the Mason-Dixon,” Lynn says. “She really brings in the hunters. That right, girl?” Lynn tousles her hair in a motherly way. “I’m Vincent,” I say. “You’re not from there, are you?” Sam says, pointing at my Twins hat. “No,” I say. “Why?” “Good,” she says. “Those people—they’re good for business, not good for company.” “Easy does it,” Lynn says to Sam. “They’re our livelihood.” “We’ll see,” Sam says, walking down the hallway. After a few steps she turns. She shuffles backward, and says: “Nice to meet you, Vinnie. Welcome to the Hunting Lodge.” Vinnie? I think to myself, and smile. “Vinnie?” Lynn says, laughing. “That Sam—she’s just something else, isn’t she?” The next morning I find a list of chores tacked to the bulletin board outside my door. I can hear Lynn and Sam talking down the hallway. I smell coffee. I reach into my army duffle and pull out a fresh set of clothes. In hypothermic anticipation, I’d purchased at a bargain outlet a few pairs of heavy-duty work pants, multiple sets of long underwear, two quilted flannels and two dozen wool socks. My hunting parka hangs on the backside of the door. I pull a shirt on. People shuffle around the hallway. I peer out from behind the door. “Hi,” I say. “Hey there,” Sam says. She looks down at my bare feet. “Don’t make that a habit,” she says. “All these dogs and nasty-ass hunters trackin shit and worms and who knows what else.” 53
I roll my feet out so only the sides touch the floor. She scuffs the carpet with her shoes. “Thanks,” I says. She smirks, nods. Sam shows me around the school. The cafeteria has been converted into three separate cooking nooks. Several small round tables and one large rectangular table make up the dining area, and two couches and a few chairs face a television tucked into the carpeted corner for postdinner relaxation. Next, she shows me the gymnasium, large and cavernous. It smells of stale dusty air and is mostly used for gun shows and wedding receptions. Each happen about once a month between April and October. She leads me to a classroom. “When I’m not with hunters, I’m doing the housekeeping and room maintenance stuff,” she says. “I empty trash and make sure the beds aren’t popping springs, stuff like that.” She sits on a twin bed in the far corner. The cinderblock walls are painted white. “I used to go to this school,” she says. She pats the bed and waves me over. “There’s easily a dozen beds in here,” I say, trying to count up how many classrooms there were, trying to do the math. “Lots of hunters come here,” she says. “We have to turn people away.” “So you’re a guide?” “I’m a caller,” she says. “It’s something I’ve been doing with my dad since I was a kid. I love the flocks. Never get tired of seeing them, hearing them.” “You call them in for people to shoot.” “I don’t shoot them myself,” she says. She stands. “Why the hell are you here, anyway?” she says. “Lynn says you’re not even a hunter.” “The free room,” I say. “I’m here for the free room.” She shakes her head, smiles, sits back down, and gives the bed a bounce. “Lynn wants me to make sure the beds are sleep-ready.” “Feels okay to me,” I say. “I’ll show you the rest,” she says, pushing me into the bed and hopping up. She skips out the door before I can say anything. The hallway floors are carpeted. The walls, white with the occasional red or blue streak. A few lockers still inhabit parts of the hall. Relics of the past. It’s a flat, one-level school, with two parallel hallways and connecting, perpendicular halls on either side, which is where the teachers’ lounges are situated. “Here’s my room,” Sam says. She knocks on the metal door. “What’s this here?” I say. “The cleaning rooms,” she says. “Old science rooms. This is where they clean ducks and geese and pheasants.” The black slate tables look clean and orderly. Sam shoves her hands in her back pockets and sways back and forth. “What do you think?” she says. 54
“I think I like it.” Later that day I’m touching up window frames with white paint. I stand outside on the back-end of the school. Lynn comes around the corner. “How we doing here?” “Just fine,” I say. I step back from the frames. Her sleeves are rolled up. The sun’s out, and combines roar in the rust-colored bean fields directly behind me. “With all those soybeans coming out those damn Asian beetles will be everywhere,” Lynn says. “Yeah, we’ve got those in southern Minnesota, too.” “They smell bad,” she says. “I haven’t noticed.” “So, you’re taking care of your meals and such, right?” “Yeah,” I says. “I’m fine.” I make eye contact to let her know I’m okay. “Because I haven’t seen you eat nothing today or yesterday,” she says. “Not that I’m nosing around, but, you know, I don’t want you to starve.” She rubs her hands together. “You wanna come by my house right now and have a look around? I could make you something to eat,” she says, touching my forearm. I look at her hand. It’s rests there a second too long. “I should probably get this done,” I say, moving my attention to the window frames. “Before the groups start arriving.” “Suit yourself,” she says. That night I call my father. He says hello and waits for me to carry the conversation. I ask how he’s doing and he tells me everything he did that day: changed the oil in his car, brought a load of my mother’s clothing to the consignment shop, and pruned a few apple trees. Once more, I asked how he’s doing and he tells me what he plans to do tomorrow, which doesn’t sound like much. I worry about him, but I don’t tell him this. Instead, I tell him about the Hunting Lodge, about Lynn and Sam. I tell him I’m happy to be in a place I’ve never been, and I tell him I miss him already. He says, “Okay, alright,” and then he says he’ll talk to me in a day or so, and then he says goodbye and hangs up the phone. I pull out the last of my granola bars and boil water in a portable kettle for tea. It was the only thing I could think of taking, something my mom drank every day. I’m not a tea drinker, but I’d packed what was left: lemon ginger, rooibos, Egyptian licorice—all herbal teas, apparently. I sip on lemon-ginger, crunch into my granola bar. I sit on the bed and read a magazine. I never attended college, but I imagine this is what a dorm room looks like: bed pushed against one wall, a dresser and desk against the other. A window situated opposite the door. In the hallway I 55
can hear hunters talking, laughing, moving stuff to their rooms. Outside it’s dark. “I hear we got a cute caller,” one hunter says. “A young gal. I hear she can blow like you wouldn’t believe.” Lots of laughter. “Might have to take her out for a private session,” another guy says. I smell cigar smoke coming from the hallway. I’m tempted to ask them politely not to smoke inside. I look at the cover of an Outdoor News magazine. Copies sit on a black wire stand next to the front door of the Lodge. I’d grabbed one when I walked in, but right now I have no interest in reading it. In the hallway, hunters discuss wake-up times and strategy. They congregate outside my door. Three conversations happening at once. I step into the hall. I’m wearing my long johns. They fit snug against my legs. I’d forgotten my flannel pajamas. “Who do we have here,” one of the hunters says. “We didn’t wake sleeping beauty, did we?” He glances at my hair, and then moves his gaze toward my long johns which could’ve been mistaken for tights. “Sounds like you all have a good strategy to kill shit tomorrow,” I say. “It’s gonna be a blood bath,” one of the guys says. He isn’t the tallest, but he has the thickest chest, and I recognize his booming voice as the one who’d joked about Sam. Everyone around me is drinking Bud Lite. There are five of them, and two dogs, and they all tell me their names, including the dogs, but I can’t remember any of them except for an old-timer with a white beard. His name is the same as mine. He doesn’t talk. Just stands there, listening. I like him the most. Him and the dogs. On the floor, next to the dogs, are duffle bags and plastic totes, which I’d find out later are filled with boxes of ammo, extra pairs of gloves and hats, hand heaters, and Salted Nut Bars. The men look related. A family gathering. “You a guide?” the loud, burly hunter says to me. He might be a few years older than me, close to thirty. “Building maintenance,” I say. “Fancy way to say janitor,” he says, laughing. No one else laughs. “I suppose,” I say. When the hunters are quiet and everything feels settled, I tip-toe down the hallway. When I get to the end of the hall and around the corner, I see Sam standing, back resting against the doorframe. She’s talking on a cellphone. I stay hidden for a moment, eavesdropping on her conversation, hoping I might hear my name, but the conversation is winding down, and I hear her door shut.
A light snow settles on the newly plowed corn and bean fields. Everyone says it’s perfect for hunting. Mid-day I see Sam sitting on a couch in the cafeteria. She’s nibbling on a sandwich and watching television. Her boots lie on the floor. “These guys are assholes,” she says. “Did you go out this morning?” “We went for a couple hours and didn’t see much,” she says. “They got a couple good shoots in, but not as many as we hoped.” “What happened?” “When the ducks don’t fly in, these guys ask me to blow harder. And then on the drive home they ask me to visit their rooms on the off hours for private lessons—I’ve heard it all before,” she says. “Lynn’ll say, ‘Oh, honey, get used to it, they’re just here to have a good time’.” On the television: a commercial for dish detergent. I sit next to her, thinking of what to say. I hardly know her, but I want to say something. I stare at the television. A bright young mom, blond, wears pants and a blouse, smiling on the screen. My mom used that same dish detergent, but didn’t look like the woman on TV. The detergent smelled of lemon. It used to linger on her hands after she washed the dishes. “Where’s a good place to hang out around here?” I say. “Verona’s only five blocks long and—” “—Oakes,” she says. “It’s ten miles south of here, on Highway 1.” “What are you doing tonight?” Sam goes out for a late afternoon hunt. Shooting hours: sunrise to sunset, down to the minute. DNR is strict about it. That afternoon, while Sam’s out calling, the first of the pheasant hunters start to arrive. “Those are the real hunters,” Lynn says to me. We’re standing inside the door watching a group of six men unload their trucks. “What do you mean?” “Their jackets aren’t glossy and new,” she says. “Their gloves are blood stained and ripped, and burrs all over their gun cases.” We open the heavy double doors and greet them. Above the front doors, leftover from the school, hang emergency signs—tornado and fire. The men had already checked in with Lynn. They salute and wave, and stroll past us, holding bags and shotgun cases, their short-tail pointers walking at their sides. No leashes. When everyone’s in their rooms or the cafeteria, Lynn says: “Everything going okay, sweetie?” “I’m fine,” I say. “I have a few more things to do before tomorrow.” “Where’d you get that work ethic?” she says. “I could use one more like you for around-the-home help.” I smirk and stay quiet for as long as I can, long enough that eventually Lynn walks away, down the carpeted 57
hallways and into the cafeteria to strike up conversation with the other men. Later, with my to-do list in hand, I double check the gas stoves and plug in the two additional refrigerators. Then I check the hot-water heaters. Everything’s tip-top. I sweep up outside, pick up litter, and re-wire sconces around the main entrance for additional light. There’d been a short. Lynn watches me work. She says something about the pheasant forecast, how it’s going to be a bumper year and that North Dakota’s number one revenue outside of oil is hunting tourism. A stiff wind kicks snow off the roof and onto my hair. Lynn comes up behind me. “See that house over there,” she says. She points to the house next door to hers. “That husband who lives there is sleeping with the wife over there.” She points to the other row of houses. “It happens everywhere,” she says. “Even in the middle of nowhere.” She makes eye contact with me, trying to draw out a response. I know what she wants me to say, but instead of replying I look down and continue working. She walks off, toward her house, and when she’s halfway across the street she turns back at me. I look away. Sam and the hunters show up just after 6:30 p.m. They stand outside, the air getting colder, darker. They snap photos of themselves holding mallards, their emerald green heads still shine this hour of the day. “Come on,” the loud, burly hunter says. “We need a group photo with Sam.” He motions toward me. “Hey, Chief,” he says to me, “you wanna snap our photo?” Chief? I think, and became self-conscious of my hair. He hands me the camera. “Sam you stand next to me,” one of the guys says. In one hand he holds two mallards by their necks. He sets his free arm around Sam. She gives a weak smile. “Might’ve been the best shoot we’ve ever had,” loud, burly hunter says. “Sam you gotta have a beer with us tonight. Take the picture, Chief,” he says to me. I line up the picture. They’re holding mallards, their limp bodies hang like bags of oranges. Several more lie in front of their feet, a sign of their success. I purposely misalign the picture, but I realize with digital it doesn’t matter. “You still wanna go?” Sam says, walking past me. I nod. “Gimme a half-hour,” she says. Inside, cafeteria/commons area, waterfowl hunters tell stories to the newly arrived pheasant hunters. One guy’s saying: “We drove up over a dirt road, this must’ve been late afternoon, and came up on a pond. The sun was hitting it just right because it was like an emerald blast—all those mallards, and their green heads shining. It was something.” 58
The men stand around, taking about hunting strategies and guns. Beers crack open. Hearty laughter fills the dining hall. These men had just met, but they’re friendly and open with each other, like they’re part of some secret club. I lean in the doorway, watching. Short-hair pointers mingle with Labrador retrievers. I pet a black lab. She wags her tail and licks my hand. The white haired man that I like, the one that hardly talks, sees me in the doorway, petting the dog, and tells me to come in. “Have a beer,” he says. I accept a beer and I’m momentarily trying to be one of the guys. But I don’t know what to say. Someone asks if I shoot, and I tell them I only own a single-shot gun for deer, and they all seem to think that’s cute and funny, and then they ask where I’m from and what I’m doing in North Dakota. “I want to learn how to duck hunt,” I lie. I’d never shot at a moving target in my life. Even the deer I shoot at are standing still, broadside. Always a clean shot. The loud, burly hunter squeezes into the circle of guys. “Well, Chief,” he says. “You cut that hair and hang out with us long enough, you’ll learn a thing or two about how to be a real hunter—how to shoot some ducks.” “That sounds great,” I says, feigning enthusiasm. “I can’t wait.” I bring my hands up to mimic holding a gun. I make a shooting sound and bring my arms back down. The other men, sensing my sarcasm, laugh. Burly hunter doesn’t look happy, but he smirks anyway, like it doesn’t bother him that he can’t get under my skin, and then he finishes his beer and sets it on the counter and goes for another. He offers me one, and I say, “Will I be more of a man if I accept?” He hands me the beer. The others laugh again. He doesn’t respond. I think I might’ve pissed him off but I don’t wait around to find out. “It’ll have to be a to-go drink,” I say. I snap it open, thank them for the beers, and head back to my room and shut the heavy metal door. I call my dad and tell him I’m going on a date, then I ask how he’s doing. His voice is low and his thoughts seem scattered. He tells me he isn’t sure if he can go back as school counselor. I feel glad, and a certain relief, that he’s telling me about this—it’s something we’ve never talked about. But I hear a knock on the door, and I know it’s Sam. I let her in. She notices I’m on the phone and sits on the bed. I clear away clothing and sit next to her. She’s wearing jeans, a collared shirt with some kind of floral pattern, a tan corduroy blazer, and red Converse. I tell my dad that I want to keep talking about this, that I’ll call him tomorrow, and he says yeah, sure, no problem, and then he says good luck. And I ask, what for? And he says: “Aren’t you going on a date?” “Right,” I say. “Thanks.” Then I click off my phone and look at Sam. “You look nice,” I say. “So do you,” she says. 59
I glance down at myself. I’m in my long johns and a quilted flannel. “I forgot to change,” I say. “I know,” she says, smiling. Oakes has an actual downtown strip. It’s bustling compared to Verona, where I haven’t observed anyone outside of the Hunting Lodge. Sam takes me to a place called the Sportsmen’s Lodge—dark wood paneling and low lighting, deer heads mounted on every wall. I’ve never eaten anywhere like this, and I’m a little unsure of being here, but it smells like beef stew, which my mom used to make, and Sam’s busy smiling and waving and talking to everyone. She seems happy. I try to relax. At dinner she talks and talks, and I find myself deeply focused on her voice—rich and strong, yet feminine cadence. A lovely voice. As we sit and talk, and eat cheeseburgers and potato salad, she tells me about her family, her life, that she hated growing up in this area but was scared to leave. She tells me that she’s looking for someone, someone decent like me, and I tell her we hardly knew each other, and when I say this she touches my hand and I flinch. I feel something grow warm around my mid-section, and after her hand rests on mine for a while I feel myself relaxing. I haven’t felt this way in months. She lifts her hand from mine and asks me a hundred questions, and I answer all of them. At first, it feels good to talk. I eventually tell her about my mother, that she was only fifty when she died on a hospice bed in our home—how I sat with her every day, all day, for a week before she died, and that she told me things that gave me strength to move on. I tell her how this all happened a couple months ago, and how I’d been living with my father ever since but needed to get out of town, away from my mom’s friends, my dad, our house—I tell her I just need to be away for a while, and then I look up from where I’ve been staring. I stuff a toothpick into my mouth. Sam dabs her eyes with napkins and I tell her that I’ve been walking in circles for the last few weeks, that I can’t seem to move on, and that even being here, in Verona, feels like I’ve put everything on hold. I tell her what really gets me is that I haven’t cried about it, and she asks why, and I tell her I’m not avoiding it, I just can’t seem to do it. And then I tell her one other thing: I tell her that I hated every person at my mom’s funeral; I hated their hugs and their sympathies, and I hated how I had to console them, help them feel better, and that if I could’ve just sat in a room with my dead mother next to me, for just a moment, just to spend some time alone with her, without all those sad sobbing people, that I would’ve felt better about everything. When I realize I’m shaking, I stop talking. I pluck the toothpick from my mouth. Sam thanks me for telling her everything and then says she’s sorry. For all of it. I take a few deep breaths, sip my beer. After telling her all of this I feel exposed to the point of self-hatred, but then she touches my hand 60
again and everything seems okay. “I’m glad to be here,” I say. “With you.” She shifts in her seat, leans forward, so that her elbows are on the table. “Me too,” she says. “Me too.” We finish our food, and near the end of our meal, when Sam looks up from her plate, I notice her eyeliner’s smudged. I hadn’t noticed earlier that she’d put it on. Her face is nicely round, and even in the dim light I can still see freckles dotted under her eyes and the bridge of her nose. Even with the makeup she looks young, but I don’t ask her age. I order another beer, and she does the same. We talk casually for while, finishing our beers. And then she turns away from me. She grows quiet. “You okay?” I say. “It’s nice to be away from the Lodge,” she says. I don’t tell her about the eyeliner. I like how it smudged around her eyes. Outside, after dinner, we sit on a wooden bench. We’re there for a while, quiet, before the noise starts. “What is that?” I say. She points to the sky. “Snow geese,” she says. “You’ve heard geese before?” “Not like this,” I say. It sounds like a fire horn. A line of snow geese—white and glittery—as far east and west on the horizon as I can see cluster in flight, honking, flying south. They fly closer to us, and the moon reflects off their white bodies, shimmering, glowing. “Must be cold in Canada,” she says. “Lakes and ponds freeze up there and waterfowl migrate south. But it’s early,” she says. “Lynn said the same thing,” I say. “Says they’re early.” “Oh, lonely Lynn,” she says. “You know her husband left for oil country?” I’m simultaneously relieved and disturbed to hear about Lynn’s husband, but I don’t respond. I tilt my head toward the snow geese. They’re like something out of a Disney movie—glittering and bright— out of place. “He’s been gone for a couple of years now. Comes back every now and again, but doesn’t stay long. Oil business is going crazy-busy.” Just then a small flock flies by, low to the ground—swift, sure, silent. “They’re something to look at,” I say. “I’ve never seen—” Sam wraps her arms around my waist and rests her head against my chest. I breath deep. My arms dangle for a moment before I bring her in, close. The geese pass, and the street grows momentarily quiet. She pulls herself even closer to me and shivers. I continue to watch the sky as small flocks of snow geese pass overhead, honking. The moon casts a metallic glow. Down the street a few pickup trucks rev up. For a long time, we just stare into the sky. Stars and geese and light wispy clouds. When we get back to the Hunting Lodge I feel a strong urge to call my dad. Sam sits in the room with me. It’s close to midnight. My dad 61
mumbles into the phone, and I can tell he’s been drinking, something he rarely does. I tell him I’ll call tomorrow, and he says: “Wait.” There’s a long pause and I know I should say something about my day or ask him about going back to his job, but I can feel Sam’s warmth in the room, beckoning me, and then something happens, like he’s dropped his phone. Eventually he picks it up and says, “Okay, talk to you then, son.” Sam nestles into my neck and kisses me, and I return the affection. For a while that’s all we do, and while that’s happening I keep imagining my father at home, by himself, drunk. I worry, and I grow angry at myself for not talking to him earlier. All at once I can’t focus on Sam or anything, and I just lie there and stare at the ceiling. Sam runs a hand over my chest and then my navel, and finally pulls at the button of my blue jeans. I tell her I want to but I can’t, and I try to explain, but it doesn’t come out like I want. I can tell she’s hurt. She lies next to me for a while, as a courtesy, and then gets up, buttons her shirt. “You can stay,” I say. “I like you being here.” But she says goodnight and slips into the hallway, and back to her room. I lie on my bed and feel a sharp chord under my throat, a burning, and an immediate sense of regret. All I want is to be home with my father, and to be near my mother’s presence, her dwelling. But I also want Sam back here with me, next to me. More than anything. Tears form and blur my vision. I blink once and everything’s clear again. Over the next couple of days Sam and I just wave to each other in passing. When I try to talk to her, she begs off, like she has chores to do or something else. When I ask if we can hang out at night, she tells me she’s tired from early morning hunts. During the day, I find lists of stuff to do and things I’ll just do on my own. I clean the toilets, pull dog hair out of the showers, straighten the cafeteria, and wipe blood and feathers off the counters in the science room. I also greet new groups of hunters and listen to where they were from, and answer their line of questions. All the groups are chatty. And when I’m not entertaining them, I think about my mom. I think about my dad. I think about Sam. That night in Oakes, she drove us home. The windows down, the heater blaring. I’d stuck my head out the window, looking for snow geese. I told her my head hurt like I just ate a bowl of vanilla ice cream. She’d said: “Get back in the car, crazy.” And then she told me to roll up the windows and we argued about the best kind of ice cream. She stood by Pistachio or Coffee, and I told her those were pretty sophisticated flavors for a country girl. She smiled and told me to shut up, so she could hear the music. She held the steering wheel with both hands and sang along with a country tune that I’d never heard. “You and tequila make me crazy,” was part of the chorus. A guy and a gal singing. Sam made me sing that one line of the chorus while she harmonized. I love harmonies. 62
I decide to call my dad every night and every night he tells me what he did during the day. I try to bring up his job, about going back to work, but all he says is that his leave-time is almost up. I say I’ll support whatever decision he makes, but he doesn’t want to talk about it. One night, about a week after dinner with Sam, I ask how he’s doing, and he explains to me how much work he’s been getting done on the house, moving Mom’s stuff out. “There’s no rush,” I say. “You have to let it go,” he says. I stay quiet, realizing this is yet another moment of miscommunication, him misinterpreting me. “Look, dad—” “—You need to stop your moping around,” he says. “You did that here, and it sounds like you’re doing it in—wherever the hell you are.” “Dad,” I say. “You know,” he says. “This is where your mom and I differ. She was never in a rush to do anything, and she didn’t get anything done. You’ve got to have more drive, son.” I breathe deep through my nostrils and exhale into the phone. “Don’t get all mopey on me,” he says. “This isn’t why I called,” I say. I pause and realize this is the most we’ve talked since she’s passed. “Look, dad,” I say. “Mom and I had a lot of good conversations in those last few days.” “Good,” he says. “It’s really helped me,” I say. “Thinking about what she said, and how she felt about us—you and me. I’d like to tell you.” “Do you think I need to know?” I pause a moment, feeling a wave of nervousness. “She said—she said she loved you deeply. Those were her words.” He doesn’t say anything. “And that’s how I feel, too, dad,” I say. And then for a long time the phone’s silent. Eventually, it sounds like he’s trying to say something. I wait. And finally, he says, “It’s tough, Vincent. It’s just been tough.” He clears his throat and tells me he’s going now, and then he hangs up the phone, and I bury my head into my pillow, and once that happens the tears come. For a long time they don’t stop. I pull my Twins hat low so no one can see my eyes and face, and walk through the hallways. It smells of wet dogs and gun cleaning solution. I stroll past the cafeteria where men are talking in low, lazy grumbles. Lynn’s voice scatters amongst them. I’m relieved to think that she has other men who’ll pay attention to her. In the hallway, dogs shift in their carriers. My hands are stuffed into my pockets. I turn the corner and see Sam standing in her doorframe, burly hunter standing in front of her. “Well, look who came out to play?” he says, upon seeing me. “Chief with the long hair.” 63
“Vince,” Sam says. She slides over and stands next to me. She’s wearing sweats and a flannel, and a pair of slippers. “I was just inviting the Great White caller for beers.” His eyes are bloodshot. “But you can both come join us in the cafeteria.” He smiles and bows his head toward us. “No one’s in the mood for this,” I say. “Exactly,” Sam says. “Creep won’t leave me alone.” “Creep, huh?” he says. “I’m a creep now?” He advances toward Sam and tries to touch her, but she slaps his hand away. “Sweetheart,” he says. “Don’t be mean.” When he reaches for Sam a second time, I feel a surge of energy, adrenaline, and without thinking, I jam my forearm against his chest and push him against a row of lockers. “Easy, man,” he says. My hat’s still on so I have to tilt my head back to make eye contact. I slide my forearm from his chest to under his chin, against his throat. I don’t know what to say, but when I regain my senses—seeing the burly hunter right in front of me—I think in that quick moment that I could do anything to him. I could harm in ways that I’ve never conceived of doing. I feel this movement in myself, in my senses, in my muscles, in my mind—a feeling I’ve never felt; a feeling at once necessary and vital, but also frightening. And he must’ve seen something come loose in me because right away he pulls up his arms and says, “Whoa buddy, I’m leaving now.” I slowly let up. He straightens his sweatshirt and backs up. Without his audience of hunters to impress, he simply shakes his head and disappears around the corner. I move closer to Sam. I bury my head into her neck. She smells of the North Dakota countryside—dry, dirty skin, perfect. We hold each other for a while before she unclasps her arms and says, “It’s a three-quarter moon tonight—snow geese’ll be flying.” She taps the bill of my hat, then tells me to put on my warmest clothes and to meet her in the back parking lot. We rumble down gravel roads in her pickup truck. The radio plays and she sings along in a whispery voice. She rolls her window down. Crisp air rushes in. I feel light and carefree. It’s only been a week, but I realize how much I’ve missed being around her. The moon is strong and bright. We park and drag two hunting blinds out of the back and into the middle of a cornfield. The gentle plains roll out before us. We situate our blinds—which are coffin-shaped, camouflage, with frames and flaps—side-by-side. We can hear mallards and Canada geese flapping by, honking, but we can see the snow geese, coming in packs as small as six or seven and some that fill the sky. For a while, we just watch as the geese glimmer above us, moving smooth and straight. I pull my stocking cap lower, and Sam sits up and untwists a thermos and sips. “It’s hot chocolate,” she says. “And 64
schnapps.” She hands me the thermos and hops out of her blind. She leans over, opens mine, and climbs in. “Not much room in here,” I say. “There’s enough,” she says, and gives me this look, reminding me to relax. She wedges herself against me and we keep each other warm. She wails on the goose call, a controlled, realistic squawk. It’s loud, almost too much for how quiet the land feels. She keeps on with the goose call and eventually snow geese come circling in, like little white flags shimmering around us. The geese continue to fly above and around us, some of them lighting on the cut cornfield. When they’re on the ground they don’t make any noise, and some must realize we’re there, because as soon as they land they launch back into flight and others follow. And while this is happening, Sam stops calling and digs her hands around my waist and brings me close. I wrap my arms around her shoulders. And for a long time we just hold each other as close as possible. We don’t let go.
I Have Been Jealous of the Legless Thinker It’s not a comfortable bubble to push around the museum of big, white sounds, the hall of my most empty, viral thoughts, those affected by metals, guarded by “Please Don’t Touch” signage that means absolutely nothing. He is hulking, sculpted, ripped apart, never singing loudly & yet, I want to be him. I want the plaque? I want the visitors, I think, most of all. I want you to witness me more often? If I could be weighed down, naked and comfortable, waiting for you to reach me or reach towards my phantom limbs, I would be really happy.
Except in Memory I watch the fire eat black plastic, settling into embers at the bottom of a rust-coated burn barrel. Inside I conjure the pale image of your face, black holes disintegrating hollowed cheeks, the washed out blue of your eyes. Before the smoke clears I know I will forget about the scar on your left hip or the way the vein above your right eye ticks as if I were perpetually bursting past your limits, your tightly coiled self-control. I scoop the ashes off the bottom, pewter promise glinting diamond among remains of cotton and polyester, phenidone, wax.
Nervously Searching The riled wind makes me nervous. Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;m riled, too - my soul or synapses; sputtering, zip, zap, fire again, jumpy, catching that wild wind smack in the face, how else to welcome the next hour, to know the nick and prattle of time, whether I am sooner or later. I remain unmeasured, on edge, my animal self clinging and ferocious. I feel the pull of hunger though Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;m not without food, the blows of violence though no one lurks at my door, the sticky mess of lies that rise like tetchy wasps though I am tearing through every thicket that springs up unbidden, looking for the pale gleam.
Greek Easter. The lamb is turning on the spit. Its blood on the lintel to spare the oldest child. The sacrifice of Abraham, gift to Zeus. Behold the Lamb of God. The lamb that totters after Mary, unschooled, shorn of will, a perfect follower, imprimatur of the spirit. Its noun: obedience. Its verb: gambol. The lamb is patient, held in the crook of initiation, raised as a host above the decorated altar. Lilies surround it. Lamb chops sizzle on the grill. The lamb born into straw finds its feet and suckles the sins of the world.
Lupus Wolf or butterfly. Red bandage. The flayed Imagination. No organ Inviolate as the song plays Along the cells. Dies Irae. Dirge of the unbaptized. Tuning the lungs or kidneys, The swollen heart. The bruises Blooming like chrysanthemums. How the body disowns its magic. Immunities forsaken. To war With battleaxe or bullet. Confusion of opposites: The lover as assassin. The word as betrayal. The poem as malediction.
Thunder Hill The gate crew links arms To align the rumps of cheap Nags into slots sufficiently wide To make a decent break. The day grows colder. They’re ready To take off and head for home. Turkey and fixings. Home. Warmth of a woman’s arms. Sit down. Dinner’s almost ready. Walls sepia with smoke. Break The wishbone. That’s a cheap Fortune for a double wide Dweller. Four hills stretching wide For an SUV to home In on, to soar into the break Of gravity, in the dirty arms Of fallen angels. A cheap Thrill, yes, but they are ready For any pleasure. More than ready To forget cold bows, the wide Unsound ankles, the cheap Horses on the downslope homing For the bone pile. Armed With angst, they crave a break. The bottom claimers that hideously break Down. Makes a man ready For Thunder Hill, for the arms Of impulsion, hurtling axle wide To a lost paradise. A meth-fueled home. You know that life is cheap. The truth is it’s the cheap Audacity of rocketing to the break Between inclines. The spider home A heart braves. Who is not ready For that. The plunge into the wide Abyss of luck. Disarmed.
Disarmed. The sheriff says down here everyoneâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s ready For Thunder Hill. Our destined home. A wide place. Cheap as dirt.
WENDY ELIZABETH INGERSOLL
Zen While Painting Woodwork I’m focused on the vertical edge
where door meets wall, where no matter how I purge extra paint from my brush, arrowhead-blue and white-white bleed on each other.
Do walls look better with the second coat? My new husband watches the game on TV— the catcher rips off his mask, bounds forward, spins to face home as he waits for the ball to fall— new hubby explains that due to its spin a ball does not drop in a vertical line, it travels while falling. Way to go, he cheers not to me but to the catcher. So far, this second time, no game-costing errors. I indulge in seventh inning stretch, then dip the bristles. Voila: crisp edge— my hand is in the zone. Now for my heart.
Jamie Christine in the Tack Room Her voice was made of tin. Some mornings I’d wake to a kick in the spine, and her shrieking I don’t want to go to school! Her mother would pull junk-mail from a pocket-book, shout she has the adoption papers – all that’s left to do is sign them. I’d find Jamie in the tack room, crouched amid the speckled wash bins. Jars of nails at her ankles, she gathered rusteaten lids and hoarded them under the porch. Our treasure, she said, bruised blue-green and gold like tiny galaxies.
Grandma’s Got a Blowtorch She makes crème brulee wearing a welder’s helmet, can change canister lights with just a reach up, no ladder, can make a bank deposit, coffee, and birthday cake for the little one in 2B all at the same time. She babysits her grandkids for entire summers, chats up the mailman, argues with parking enforcement and sugars frozen grapes—— to be used in counting lessons after camp, a snack to be earned. You don’t mess with grandma, she’ll burn you down, shortsheet your bed, raise your rent. She’s said goodbye twice to husbands—one dead, one run off to sit at the bar, no smoking allowed, not a blue flame in sight, his chest hair finally re-grown. She needs kisses from the kids, a canister of propane, and the money on time. When she’s wearing her hairnet, best watch out, be on your best behavior, be ready to run. Grandma’s got a blowtorch—she’s not afraid to use it.
Tune-up He loves in the way the used-to-be green Chevy advances up and over the hillâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;engine churning its last leg rumble. Invisible until cresting into view, a little rust added for wry charm, baggage of old receipts and papers in the back. He ignites. Like the crack of a ground ball charging past the reach of a desperate glove, a strike of heat lightning in a dry field. Explosive. Immediate. Unstoppable. She loves in the way an orchestra tunes up. Tentative, yet deliberate, playing the scales of possibility while ensuring fine melody and perfect pitch. Strong hands comfort the most fickle of strings, of reeds with histories back to timeâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s beginning. A countenance of concentration. Quiet as she gains confidence, she will bring you memories with lush harmony. Hers is a slow smolder. To watch them both is to learn the way ice melts in a glass, tempering heat, cooling the tongue. You sit on the porch of observation, watch the streetlights come on, learn how carburetors make music. A question is answered.
Saturday Evening at Murrayâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Bar The hours advance into the quiet grace of failing light. Four musicians tune up. Guitar, fiddle, banjo . . . the same hands that pluck the strings of the mandolin touch her thigh lightly, as if in secret, the words of the ballads in a dialect known only to her. Curtains of rain shadow streetlights. Watermarks of amber shelter cars, lovers caught outside for a quick smoke, a shuttered farmhouse far afield and the ever-present sheepdog, on call, searching for his last remaining wards, their presence camouflaged by dark, and the smell of winter. Gleaming faces, shining eyes crosshatched from shadows thrown by the fire, amplified by excitement as the first notes are tentatively played and pints are lifted. Nowhere to dance, though high heels and boots alike tap a gauntlet thrown, a dare to kiss the rhythm of intimacy, the caress of island harmonies.
Baba Sets Me Straight My friendly words are better than a heavy cake. A woman is guilty who is not at home. Such things don't happen to women who praise the lake but stay on the bank. It all starts with not being careful. Remember a crow will never be a falcon. Ah, if only those sitting above wouldn't spit on those below. Only cheese in a mousetrap can be free. Love tells us many things that are not so. Still you should have known fire starts with a spark. What were you two thinking bringing fire to straw?
Having crossed the stream of middle-age, our tent now pitched on the other side, we share the work of each other’s grooming; ensuring ears and nose are “hair-free” zones, that eyebrows don’t point to magnetic north and peach fuzz rules on the peach alone. Suddenly, we are primates perched in our human tree, constantly picking at whatever flaking things time attaches to us, plucking at whatever sprouts without cause or warning, ignoring sounds of the body’s rogue players. What to make of 30 plus years of love, when love’s commitments override the vanities of the flesh? Nakedness no longer a surprise, we devote our nights to reinventing the familiar, our days to keeping one another beautiful.
I Believe the View from the top of the lighthouse is skewed to alleviate fear. Thin body of the building disappears as I entwine my fingers in fence, a cage to keep me in, to keep birds out. I can see right through it, look down on families, tinier than ants, setting chairs and towels along expanse of blue, the only thing as grand as I feel. I imagine barriers dissolving, a two-step take off, the exhilaration of flying without wings. I wonder if the water would embrace me, or if the tides would turn, withdraw their crushing arms, let me crash face-first into sand, compact into simulated stone.
When the Wind Whispers after When the Wind Whispers, artist Osnat Tzadok it is the dead that answer. In subtle tones of hindrance, the words rise from coffins and urns. No stone is left unheard. Full moon responds, sending shadow messages for ethereal ears. The soothing hours pass. Risings have been averted for another cycle. The dawn breathes again, this time in sighs of relief.
Why He Doesn’t Want Me to Watch Dexter Watch out! Two dead mice. See how they lie like commas on the concrete sidewalk, small enough to fit into a palm? Not mauled, perhaps poisoned: the park is sprayed weekly with God-knows-what. Close as yin-yang. (I see you thinking, Please don’t name them Yin and Yang.) Did they seek solace in each other? See how they nearly hug? As if arranged there for some unknown purpose. No body parts missing, no carving knife. See those tiny ears, those tiny digits? Pay more attention. You almost stepped on them. When we get home, we’ll re-enact the scene: Curl up, grow fur, be still.
The Old Familiar My secrets have been unearthed; my plans, long ago told. I am no longer a land of surprises, a vivid or virginal Galápagos. Between what I’ve revealed and what you’ve discovered, all veins have been exposed, mined of fertility and invention. I have lost any sense of mystery. Even our memories have blended: the distant names of my past no longer are your strangers; my trials and triumphs as familiar as the bumps and curves of your feet. I imagine us creaking in rockers, finishing off each other’s thoughts, the only voice of our waning years, the comforting silence of tongues.
Shrinking World Theory starting with a Dickinson line (#367) Over and over, like a tune, the recollection plays. Other things you can’t remember: math, affection, plays. They don’t surprise you, the twenty-one daily pills. You no longer consider the demands perfection plays. Is water running through your hands ever the same? Our universe is filled with the games reflection plays. If you had to choose—a disease of the mind or the body? Careful, don’t underestimate the tricks that infection plays. The cerebellum shrinks, the tongue’s tip goes dumb. This is how the mind pays—correction—plays. You take on memories of things that never happened. Award-winning acting in the Insurrection Plays. Do you hear the spinning of the earth’s inner core? The awful trial of your life, without objection, plays.
SUSANA H. CASE
And one highway follows another, indistinguishable now that concrete has usurped macadam, the desert coughed up its last dust over the sides of the car: 64, 56, 283, routes like lottery numbers to play, traveling east, north, red-tailed hawks, like chain stores and fast talk, repeating at every so many fence posts, remains of animals, as if I were seeing the same brooding hawk, same dead animal, no more arroyos, no more mesas, my car moving where freight trains once rolled, everything else there is to own left behind with you in one coiled-up intensity, your own coiled-up intensity rattling in anger, everything changing, nothing changing, my wondering how many road trips must it take me to get where Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;m going, how much acceleration with no plan in mind, just get out of there, get somewhere else, those faulty maps, each departure beginning with less and less to say.
Old Man with Beard When Viracocha emerged from the lake, when nothing existed but darkness, he invented the sun so men and women could look at one another more clearly, live without quarrels, or mistakes, and when his sun moved across the sky, he decided people should make love in the light; people blinked their eyes crawling from caves, rivers, and earth, where heâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d hidden them, lives that lead to you and me, lying here gently moist, eyes open to each nuance, evenly breathing the breath that, long ago, he breathed into stones, before he walked away, a bearded old man, westward, over the sea.
The Great Depression In 1929, my grandfather’s boss at Hovanian Oriental Carpets ran out of money, so paid him his wages in brightly woven rugs from Armenia, Turkey, Afghanistan and China, “Take this home,” the owner said, “d’ram cheega.” So week after week he brought home carpets, tacking them to the floors then the walls of the three bedroom apartment in the Bronx, using a large Persian rug as a bedspread, and another to protect the couch. Then my grandmother covered the kitchen table, refrigerator, and stove, the bathtub, toilet, and sink; next, she stitched together clothes: pants, shirts, underwear, and socks, and convinced the cobbler down the block to make shoes for the whole neighborhood; then they lined the street and sidewalk with carpets and tapestries, remnants, and rugs. Soon you could walk barefoot on Bathgate Avenue, while up in the apartment, my grandmother cut strips of fabric to bake or fry, serving the pieces mixed with rice pilaf, or toasting thin slices in the morning, stuffing the rest into the coffee grinder boiling it down as thick as Turkish coffee, a stiff bitter tonic served with salt and sand.
Rowing Across the Flood During the drought I might have said we needed this. Pray for rain standing over dusty garden, drizzling priceless water upon each dying carrot. For years I watched the voltaic sky just as a child every Saturday night I beheld our depleted priest, willed the blessing of holy water to fall upon my skin, the task of watching it dry. Now that all growing has been drawn into this plague of green water, I row once-familiar streets, strive to reach a sheer horizon uncontained by trees.
My Fat Husband In the dream I’m married to a fat man. The have-to-buy-twoairplane-seats kind of fat. The eat-a-Twinkie-in-one-bite kind of fat. But he loves me. And I love him. In the dream we watch Jay Leno and my fat husband snacks on potato chips and I lean against his arm. I’m the girlmost-likely-to-succeed stroking the face of the fat man in the flickering blue of Leno’s light. We make out. His catcher’s mitt-sized hand caresses my back. I breathe hot on his neck. In the dream, the phone rings and I slide down the hill that is my fat husband. “Someone’s dead,” I say, “Why else would they call this late at night?” “Car crash?” he says and looks at me with half-closed eyes and a half-smile. “Let the machine get it,” he says. Leno introduces a ventriloquist and my husband laughs so hard, my head bounces on his chest. “Look, Babe, you can’t even see his mouth move.” The next morning, I woke up content. As I straightened the comforter on the bed, I thought of Scott, my thin, fit, real husband. He preferred Letterman and hated ventriloquists. I was alone at the beach house again. This past year, Scott had been away on business more often than he’d been home. He made the trip out twice this summer. One time he had to leave early for an emergency meeting in London. The other coincided with a client’s party to benefit a children’s hospital. On my way to the supermarket, I stopped into Starbucks and ordered a venti, non-fat, decaf, caramel macchiato, no whipped cream. “You might as well drink water.” Terra Fortunato. Her raspy voice and Long Island accent always made heads turn in the VIP tent at the Hampton Classic Horse Show. She wore a polo shirt, riding breeches and tall boots with rowel spurs that clinked as she tapped her heels like Dorothy in ruby slippers. She ordered a double shot of espresso in her venti latte. “Scott in town?” she said, handing a ten to the cashier and waving at her to keep the change. “Tokyo,” I said, “Merger’s not going well.” I took my coffee. “He’ll be gone an extra day or so.” “That should be good for a little trinket.” I poured a Splenda packet in my cup and thought of the never-worn, diamond stud earrings the Johannesburg delay produced. The gold charm bracelet from London. The Movado from Switzerland.
Terra stirred her latte. “Hey, Frank and I are having a little party this weekend. Barbecue. Nothing fancy. A bunch of guys and their wives from Frank’s company.” She took a sip and licked the latte foam from her upper lip. “I don’t know.” “Oh, c’mon, Angel. It’ll be fun. Different.” “I’ll check with Scott.” “Even if he’s not back, come by yourself.” I inched toward the door. “I’ll let you know.” I squeezed past a teenage girl texting as fast as I used to type. Terra shouted, “Saturday seven o’clock.” It’s not that I didn’t like Terra, but our friends seemed to fall into categories. Scott had his work friends and his golf and racquetball buddies. I had my riding friends, and the book club ladies. These groups, except for one or two people, hardly ever mixed. Terra was a riding friend. I saw her at the barn a couple of times a week and at the equestrian center Christmas party. It was at the Christmas party that Scott and I first met her husband. From their initial handshake, I could tell Scott disliked Frank. The way he set his shoulders and narrowed his eyes, in spite of his charming smile. It was a posture I knew well from countless publicity photos of Scott with most of his clients. Luckily, they never saw past the smile. At a country club cocktail party once, a woman asked me how it felt to be married to a man who had the power to make CEOs of multi-billion dollar corporations tremble. She actually used the word “tremble.” To me he was just Scott, the law student I met at a party in my senior year at NYU. So I sipped my wine and watched him through the crowd. He stood in a semi-circle of friends, telling a story, pausing for effect, building to a punch line. A strand of hair had slipped onto his forehead. He looked like a boy. A Kennedy. A Prince William. He’d turned just slightly and caught me staring. I’d never imagined myself married to a man like him. I’d gotten through school on student loans, scholarships and part time jobs. His parents funded a new section of the law library. One time, I asked him what he thought of Frank. Thug, he called him, and I’d agreed, though I’d grown up with guys, even liked guys, just like Frank. In the parking lot, I placed my coffee cup on the roof of my BMW and fished in my bag for my keys. To tell the truth, I was bored, so a barbecue at the Fortunato’s could be amusing. I sat in my car and swirled the coffee to get the last bit of foam from the bottom of the cup and I slurped it down. I was alone and I still looked around to see if anyone heard the rude noise. My phone chimed a text 90
message. It was Scott saying he’d be home Friday. I texted back that we were invited to the Fortunato’s on Saturday. “UGH!” was his reply. I picked up a package of spring mix greens and a few containers of fat-free vanilla yogurt and headed home. I changed into a bikini and floated in the pool, my body bobbing, limbs swaying, letting the water carry me in micro-movements. The sky was practically cloudless. I tried to meditate like my yoga teacher taught, but I was never good at quiet. The color of the sky reminded me of a new dress I’d bought. The sweet smell of freshly-mowed lawn took me back to my parents’ backyard in Brooklyn with its tiny patch of grass and tiny garden at the back. My father had called it his estate. “Well, go pick me some basil, your highness,” my mother would say. He’d kiss her on the cheek and still wearing his sanitation worker’s uniform he’d head out to the yard. Sometimes I would help him plant. I loved the musty smell of the earth, the sharp aroma of rosemary, basil and mint, the feel of the squash, tomatoes and cucumbers clumped with moist dirt. A few months before I graduated from high school, my mother got sick and he let the garden go to rot. When she died, I mourned for its loss, too. And when my father passed away six years ago I stood where the garden used to be. A tiny sprig of basil had pushed through the soil. Scott held me close and kissed my cheek. I cried because we were selling the house I grew up in and also because the new owners planned to grade the garden to build a playhouse for their kids. The sun reflecting off the water in the pool made my cheekbones burn. I paddled to the edge, climbed out and settled in a chaise with the book I was supposed to read before tomorrow’s book club meeting. A mystery with a bullet-hole graphic on the cover. “Bullseye.” Bullshit, I thought. The author was our group leader Sonia’s husband. He selfpublished after even his big-shot publishing connections couldn’t land him an agent. I started writing a novel once when I was dating Scott and working as an editorial assistant at an entertainment magazine. I left the manuscript in my desk drawer when I got married and quit the job. I flipped to the first page of the book. The words blurred, and I floated into a dream to the sound of gulls and the smell of salt air. I dream I’m at Coney Island on the beach. My fat husband sits next to me in a low sand chair. He is bare-chested and sunburned on his neck and arms. He looks like he’s wearing a milky-skin tee shirt. My name is tattooed on his right forearm in a heart. Angel & Ed. My fat husband is named Ed. The air smells of Coppertone and cotton candy, and in the distance carousel music fades in and out with the surf. A red, yellow and blue beach ball rolls into my shoulder and a toddler with skin the color of a mocha latte chases after it. She has rows of red bows tied in her pom91
pom hair. Her mother reaches for her and apologizes, but Ed has the ball and plays peek-a-boo. The baby claps her hands and squeals. She has the tiniest teeth. He hands the ball to the mother and we watch them sway and weave through the landscape of bodies on the beach. “How about a swim?” Ed says. He wades straight in, parting the sea. I stand in the shallow water. With each wave that crashes over my ankles, more sand sucks out from under my feet and I sink deeper. The baby’s beach ball bobs by my knees and Ed falls into a dead man’s float. The novel slipped off my chest and tumbled to the patio stone and I jumped awake. The song of a distant ice cream truck drifted in on a breeze and I remembered the tattoo my father had on his upper arm, Anna, in flowing script. I went to the stables early the next day to beat the heat. When I brought my horse, Taz, in from the ring Terra was sitting on my tack trunk. “Good ride?” “Yes, he’ll be ready for the Classic,” I said, and patted Taz on the neck. I started to unbuckle the bridle. Armando, one of the Mexican grooms, hurried to take the reins, and I shook my head to say I’d un-tack my horse. Terra raised her penciled brows and said, “Angel Barton gets her hands dirty? I’ll alert The Post.” I took off the girth, pulled the saddle from Taz’s back, and heaved it onto a nearby rack. I wasn’t about to tell her how many hours I spent as a kid grooming horses and mucking stalls at a small barn in Brooklyn in exchange for lessons. “Did you talk to Scott?” Terra said. “Yes, he’ll be back in the city tomorrow.” I filled a bucket with water, poured in liniment and swirled it around with a sponge. “So, I’ll see you guys on Saturday?” I wrung out the sponge and ran it down my horse’s chest and front legs. “Sure,” I said, “seven o’clock. We’ll be there.” I thought I’d tell Scott the liniment fumes affected my judgment and I agreed to go. Maybe he’d laugh, and for a minute, not be so stressed out. He’d probably have some last-minute meeting, anyway. Terra pushed herself off my trunk and wiped shavings dust from her breeches. Her hands were tanning-bed dark with manicured nails painted fluorescent orange. I just knew her toenails matched. “Great. I’m glad Scott can make it, too.” I smiled, but felt my posture take on the same form as Scott’s did the time he shook Frank’s hand. After I finished with my horse, I went home, 92
showered, changed and headed out to Sonia’s for the book club meeting. I didn’t read the book. I tossed it on the passenger seat of the car. As I backed out of the driveway, I thought about Terra. I was sure she and I came from similar backgrounds. I worked hard to erase the accent, tone down the clothes, my voice, and to keep my hands still when I spoke. Terra was herself. She didn’t care how she talked, who she offended, or what and how much she ate. If I got angry, and I didn’t catch myself, my words would come out sounding like the girls who hung out on the corner at the candy store in my old neighborhood in Brooklyn. I was almost at Sonia’s house and a blonde-haired toddler ran across a front lawn, carrying a beach ball. Her nanny, a lanky black woman, scurried behind, bent over, with an arm on either side of the girl. The child tossed the ball into the street. I slammed the brakes hard. The book slid and landed next to my purse on the floor. The nanny scooped the child onto her hip, kicked the ball back to the lawn, and waved at me. Mere seconds had passed, yet I saw the ball roll, the nanny’s lope and the child’s curls bobbing as if in slow motion, as if it were a dream. I eased the car forward again and drove, past the Larson’s, past the Bentley’s, past Sonia’s. I kept going until I merged onto the parkway through the East End of Long Island, Nassau, Queens into Brooklyn through Canarsie, Mill Basin, Sheepshead Bay to Bensonhurst. Traffic was heavy and the trip took over two hours, but I was calm, as I turned off the Belt Parkway onto familiar streets. I drove slowly, weaving past one double-parked car to the next. Kids danced in the spray of water shooting from the sprinkler on a fire hydrant. As I approached, a mother shouted from a stoop for them to get out of the way. I pictured myself on that stoop, yelling to my little girl, and I bit my lip. After so many years of trying, the testing, the doctors, the miscarriages, Scott and I gave up on having a family. Okay. Scott gave up. I wanted to adopt. He refused. I drove for another block, figuring I’d circle around and head back to the parkway, but someone pulled out of a spot up ahead, and without thinking I squeezed the Beemer into the tight space in two swift moves. Damn, like riding a bike. The neighborhood had changed little since I was there last. Young guys smoking cigarettes, stood outside the candy store, looking the girls up and down as they went in. Old men sitting on folding chairs were playing cards in front of the social club. St. Rocco’s Church. The Penza Funeral home. The pizzeria. The bakery. The salumeria. When I was little, my father would take me to the salumeria every week to buy ricotta, provolone and fresh parmesan cheese. I always left with sticky rainbow Italian ice in a white pleated paper cup. I got out of the car and strolled from storefront to storefront. The guys at the candy store hooted as I walked near. I flipped my bangs the way I did when I was a teenager. I felt at ease. I felt at home. I felt young. 93
I slipped into the salumeria. The pungent aroma of cheese tickled my nose. I took in the ham, sausage and salami hanging from the ceiling alongside the provolone and parmigiano cheeses. I eased my way past the people lined along the deli counter. A piece of sawdust from the floor got into my sandal and I was tapping my toe to shake it loose when I spotted Carlo. Our mothers were best friends and he was always at my house when we were kids. We even dated for a few months in high school, but that was a mistake. His hair was a little grayer than when I’d seen him at my father’s funeral. He barely spoke to me then, and how could I explain an impulsive trip from a beach house in Southampton to a salumeria in Brooklyn? I was lonely and bored so I thought I’d get in touch with my roots? I turned quickly and cut in front of an ancient woman wearing widow’s black. She yelled at me in a mix of Italian and English to wait my turn and gave me the evil eye. I backed into the freezer filled with tubs of gelato and Carlo called my name. “Angelina DeLuca.” A woman with a toddler wrapped around her thigh, sucking his thumb, looked at me. Her stare put me on the defense. My hair was highlighted blonde, straight, pulled back into a pony tail, not the darker tumble of frizz and curls it used to be, but I had the urge to let her know I grew up here. Carlo wedged between us. He was carrying a small globe of provolone cheese. “But it’s not DeLuca anymore, eh? What is it? Trump? Vanderbilt?” “Nice to see you, too,” I said, thinking how stupid that sounded. “C’mon, I’m kidding.” Carlo tossed the cheese from hand to hand. “What happened to your sense of humor?” “Barton,” I said, “it’s Barton, now, and has been for eleven years.” I turned to leave. My face hurt. I shouldn’t have come, I thought, and I dreaded the long drive back east. “Been by your old house?” Carlo followed right behind. I kept walking. “How ‘bout St. Rocc’s? Been there? Yeah, everybody wants to get Monsignor Santoro for confession, these days. He’s practically deaf.” I shoved past an obese woman sampling olives. “Every time I see your picture in the paper, I cut it out.” I pushed open the door and set off the bells. Carlo was close enough to grab my arm if he wanted to. From inside, the cashier shouted, “Hey, Carl, the cheese.” “Put it on my tab,” he yelled. I felt his breath in my hair. I got to my car, threw my purse on the hood and dug for my keys. “Whoa, nice ride.” “Thanks. It needs a tune up.” “Sal and Joey could take care of that,” he said. “Yeah, and half the parts will end up in Greenpoint and the rest in Jersey City,” I said. “There you go! That’s the Angie I know!” 94
He was punctuating his words, punching the air, cheese in hand, bouncing from foot to foot, like the basketball player he used to be in high school. A woman walking by pulled her daughter out of the way, and I covered my eyes with my hands. He stopped. “I’m sorry. Did the simple Italian guy from Brooklyn embarrass the little princess?” “No, asshole. You’re waving cheese.” Carlo exhaled a long breath and leaned against the Beemer. It felt natural for me to move to his side. The hairs on our arms touched. I looked out at the vegetable market, now owned by a Korean family. Zucchini was on sale. “You don’t really cut out my picture from the papers do you?” He laughed and cradling the cheese in his arm, picked at a callus on his thumb. “I got the one of you standing by a dinosaur at the museum.” “Right. The breast cancer fundraiser.” “That’s good,” he said nodding, “you honor your mother like that. She’d be proud of you. I know your father was.” A young woman with an infant in a sling walked out of the pizzeria. “I don’t know about that. He wasn’t really fond of Scott,” I said. “That’s ‘cause he wanted you to marry me.” I laughed so loud the old men playing cards looked up from their hands. Carlo waved to them then turned to me. “What a cop ain’t good enough for you?” “Don’t be stupid. You’re my friend.” He looked away. “So what are you doing here, Ange? It’s not like you can’t get cannoli in the city.” “I don’t know. Just looking around. Thinking maybe I should move back.” Carlo tossed the cheese in the air and caught it as if it were a high fly ball in left field at Yankee Stadium. “What, you? Here? Leave your penthouse . . . ” “Brownstone.” “And do what? Shop at Key Food on Wednesdays? Bingo on Friday? Church on Sunday? That’s not you. Never was.” “That’s not true. I can see myself in my backyard, planting parsley or something,” I said, though I knew he was right. He shook his head. “Beam-me-up Scotty know about this?” “Stop it. He’s a good guy.” “Yeah, well, is he gonna move to West Sixth Street and take the subway every day to Wall Street?” “Park Avenue,” I said. 95
A portly man stopped in front of the vegetable stand and swung his young son onto his shoulders for a pony ride. “So what’s going on? Things not good with you and Scott? He hitting you or something?” He dug his fingers into the cheese. “No, nothing like that,” I said, “I don’t know. Just life, I guess.” There was a time when I could tell Carlo anything, but I couldn’t tell him how much I wanted a baby and would never have one. I felt like a failure, and I didn’t want him to think of me that way. I knew he still loved me, and though I didn’t love him except as a friend, I wondered what if we had been together, had a family, a house, would I have fallen in love with him? In my mind I saw us around the table, our little girl blowing out candles on her birthday cake. I was so wrapped up in my thoughts I didn’t notice the tall brunette until she was standing almost in front of Carlo. Her hair was parted to the side and fell past her shoulders. She smoothed the front of her sun dress and smiled. She had to be twenty-three, twenty-four, a good ten years younger than me. Carlo jumped off my car. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?” she said. “Here catch. Your cheese,” he said, and tossed the provolone to her. She caught it without missing a beat and dropped it into a canvas bag hanging off her arm. “Ange, this is Rita, my girlfriend. Rita, Ange, an old pal from the ‘hood.” Rita tilted her head and extended her hand. Her nails were painted bright red. Mine were polished milky white. “Really?” Rita said, “This ‘hood?” She looked me up and down. “Yeah,” I said, “I used to live on West Sixth. Not anymore. I stopped by for some cannoli.” Carlo laughed loud. “You’re too much. Keep in touch, Ange, alright? Let me know how everything works out.” “Yeah, I’ll give you a call,” I said. I knew I wouldn’t. Rita looped her arm through his and I imagined her thinking, over my dead body, as they walked up the avenue. I was too tired to drive back to Long Island, so I went to our apartment in the city. I laid in the middle of our king-size bed. The comforter puffed up around me then deflated and I sprawled half on Scott’s side, half on mine. I didn’t even wash off my make up or change my clothes. I felt like I weighed a ton. Sleep took me into a dream. My fat husband and I are at Yankee Stadium. He’s eating a foot-long hot dog with sauerkraut and spicy deli mustard and washing it down with a huge cup of Bud. I shake a Cracker Jack box, looking for the prize and 96
find a water soluble tattoo. Ed says, “Cool,” and rubs the condensation from his beer cup on my upper arm then presses the cartoon to my flesh. The Bosox are in town. Score is tied 3-3, bottom of the ninth, two outs, nobody on. The Yankee batter is up. The pitch is good. The batter swings. Even up in our section, we hear the crack of ball against bat. It echoes on a delay. Ed and I are out of our seats screaming. The ball is gone, out of the park. My fat husband swoops me in his arms. “Talk about sudden death, eh, Babe,” he says, his wet mouth against my ear. The next morning, I woke up later than I would have liked. Slowly, I remembered I was in the city. I rolled over to Scott’s side of the bed and inhaled the scent of his cologne on his pillow. I thought about staying in town, greeting him wearing nothing but a kimono, but I had no idea what time he was due back. I wanted him home. I wanted him to stay a full week in the Hamptons, to kiss me when I finished my round at the Classic. I wanted to go to a mindless movie, eat popcorn and hold hands, to make love with Leno’s “Jaywalking” in the background. To be the way it used to be when we daydreamed about living in Connecticut with two kids, a dog and a pony. I got up and dragged a step stool into my closet. Along the top shelf, I moved aside an old riding helmet, my high school yearbook and a quilt my mother had made for me when I was a baby. I pulled a brown expandable file down and put it in a tote bag. On the drive back east, I blasted the Classic Rock station. I stopped at CVS and bought hot pink nail polish and curl enhancing shampoo. I changed into breeches and a polo, and went to the barn. Armando, the groom, told me Terra left an envelope on my trunk. Turn-by-turn directions to her house. At home, I ordered a pizza and ate it sitting on the floor, drinking a beer. I pulled my purse off the sofa and dug around for my cell phone. No messages from Scott. I tossed the phone back in my bag and opened the brown file. The adoption petition and application were a couple of years old and the lawyer’s card was still stapled to the folder. The application was wrinkled from when I had crumpled it into a wad. I’d had another miscarriage and Scott had held me tight against him on the couch. Vanilla scented candles flickered on the coffee table. The aroma was a little too sweet and I nuzzled Scott’s arm and inhaled a blend of cologne, cigar and fabric softener. “Maybe it’s time to give up,” he’d said into my hair. “You want a child as much as I do,” I said, “don’t you?” He kissed my neck. “Yes,” he said, exhaling against the back of my ear, “But.” “But? But what?” “It’s been too long, Angel. I can’t stand to see you get your hopes up and then . . . ” 97
“No, next time it’ll be fine. I won’t get out of bed from the minute I find out—” “If. You might not even get pregnant. Just stop,” he said. His voice was a whisper. I weaved my fingers through his. He rested his face against mine. We stayed like that for minutes. “We could adopt,” I said, and his body tensed. “That wouldn’t work.” “Don’t be ridiculous. Look at us,” I said, “any social worker would jump at a chance to place a baby with us.” Scott pushed away from me and sat up. “That’s not what I meant,” he said. I pulled a pillow against my stomach and watched him. He wouldn’t meet my eye. “Scott.” He shook his head. “It wouldn’t be a part of me. Part of us,” he said. “He or she would be our baby,” I said. “It would be somebody else’s baby that we’re taking in.” “You can’t possibly believe that,” I said. This was a man who had spent an afternoon a month at different public schools to talk to kids about his job. One time Scott’s buddy, Reggie, called an impromptu poker game when his wife was off on a girls’ night out. The nanny had gone home and the baby woke up hot and fussy. Scott had changed Reggie’s son’s diaper and rocked the infant back to sleep while Reggie fanned out the winning hand and scooped up the pot. “I’m just trying to be practical, Angel,” Scott said. “Think of my name. What about my family?” “What about our family?” I said. He pulled me to him. “We’re a family,” he said, “We’ll be fine.” While Scott was negotiating a hostile takeover of a company in San Francisco, I called the adoption agency recommended by one of my barn friends. Scott came home, and I showed him the materials and pictures my friend had emailed of the little girl she and her husband adopted from Romania. No, was all he said. End of discussion. He walked toward the den, but I ran ahead of him, holding up the application. I’d started filling it out. “I don’t care. Boy or girl. You choose,” I said. His posture became rigid. “I told you how I feel,” he said, and tried to push past me, but I blocked him. “Yeah, I know. Your family. The great Barton name. You hardly speak to your parents. You spent your entire career running away from your father’s name to prove you could make it on your own. You married me, for God’s sake. I’m not exactly a debutante.” 98
He ran his hand through his hair and turned toward the wall. He seemed to be studying the texture of the paint. “I mean, I wasn’t part of your rebellious stage, was I? Look at me, Scott. You do actually love me, don’t you?” He closed his eyes and when he opened them, his face was soft again. “Of course, I love you. How could you even think . . . ” I went into our bedroom and sat on the cushioned bay window seat, staring at a picture of us in front of City Hall, snapped by a tourist passing by. We’d eloped. No plan. No pre-nup. No big party. Scott wore a suit with a bow tie. I wore a designer dress I’d found in a thrift store on 23rd Street. His parents weren’t thrilled, especially his mother. I got the impression they thought he’d get over me eventually and marry a proper girl. We’d see them occasionally at a fundraiser or gallery opening. I always acted confident, no matter how my stomach felt. After a couple of years they warmed up to cordial. I could get through those encounters because I knew Scott loved me. I wadded up the adoption application and lobbed it at a wastebasket near the dresser. I missed. The beach house felt cold. I looked at my watch. Eleven-thirty, and still no Scott. I gave up went to bed. I drifted into a dream while Jay Leno interviewed people on the streets of Los Angeles. My fat husband flips fat burgers on a charcoal grill. Our three fat kids spray each other with a hose in the backyard. Our fat dog waddles after them. I stand by the storm door and study my reflection. I’m fat, too. Ed comes up behind me and kisses my neck. “You’re beautiful,” he says, “I never dreamed I’d have a woman like you.” I lean into his body. Our guests arrive. It’s Scott. He’s wearing a tank top, shorts and flip flops, and he’s holding Terra’s hand. She blows me a kiss with her orange lips and cradles her very pregnant belly. I felt the mattress shake and I saw his shape through blurry eyes. “Ed?” My voice is a gritty whisper, and he didn’t hear me. I focused. He was undressing in the moonlight. Scott. A Michelangelo sculpture. “I thought you’d stay in the city tonight,” I said. “Met a client at Dune.” He slid in beside me, kissed my forehead and turned away. He smelled of alcohol, cigarettes and a sour cologne I didn’t recognize. I reached for him and he gently moved my hand away. He was gone when I woke up. The note said, “Golf with client.” I left him a note, “Fortunato’s at seven,” and headed to the stables. I spent more time than usual. I groomed my horse before I rode, bathed him afterwards. I swept the dirt and sand I picked from his hooves. I cleaned 99
my tack and polished my boots. The other riders gave me odd looks. Armando said he had to tip me, now, since I was doing his job. I told him his English was getting better. It’s the longest conversation we’d ever had. Scott was drinking a gin and tonic and talking on his cell when I got home. I pointed to the phone, and he mouthed “Client.” I showered and changed into bright pink capris. I tucked in a yellow floral tank top and wove a purple scarf through the belt loops. My fingers flashed neon pink, as I wound my hair around the curling iron. I sprayed myself with lavender, put on the diamond stud earrings and strapped the Movado on one wrist, and clipped the charm bracelet on the other. Scott finished his drink, and looked at me through bloodshot eyes. “New look?” “Retro, actually.” “Okay. You kind of look like an Easter egg.” “Thank you,” I said. He lost his balance slightly when he stood up. He reached for his keys on the hall table, and I got there first. “How about we let the Easter egg drive?” The Fortunato’s party was in full swing when we arrived. Frank was at the gas grill orchestrating burgers, chicken, sausage, onions and peppers into a sizzling symphony. He was a solid man, not too tall, with a barrel torso and pot belly. He winked at me. Either Scott didn’t see, or he ignored the gesture. Terra spotted us and strode like a speed-walker. She defied the laws of physics as she raced over grass in spike heels. “Love, love, love the outfit,” she said, stepping back to assess the whole picture. “It’s retro,” Scott said, as he took a Coors Light from a bucket of ice. “I’ll take one, too,” I said. He and Terra stared at me, their mouths like matching doughnut holes. I popped open the can and took a big gulp. I was having fun already. Terra laughed, and punched Scott in the arm. “You’re in for a wild night,” she said, and headed toward Frank. “What’s up with you?” Scott said in my ear, as we strolled through the patio. I shrugged. From the crowd, I heard, “Angelina! Oh my God it’s you!” Carmella Gatto headed over. Carmella was a year behind me at St. Rocco’s. She hung with the theater crowd back then, and I noticed her flair for the dramatic hadn’t waned. She sashayed over like she was walking the red carpet, tipping her head from side to side as if to notice who was noticing her. Her hair was piled high and she wore gold dangling earrings. Strands of gold chains hung from her neck, bouncing 100
against her red tube top. She was drinking something blue with an umbrella in it. “The minute I saw you, I thought it was you,” she said. Scott finished his beer and went to get another. “I haven’t changed that much,” I said. “Oh my God, are you kidding? You’re like a star.” She sucked at her drink through a yellow straw. “If it wasn’t for you, Rosie would never of dumped Vito and gone to court reporting school,” she said. “Yeah, she’s with some guy in Park Slope now.” I didn’t see the connection and suspected the mysterious blue liquid had something to do with her reasoning. “So how do you know the Fortunato’s?” I said, hoping to steer the conversation away from me. “I don’t, really. I only met Frank once. Nico’s cousin Lou works for him driving trucks down the docks.” She pushed the straw aside and tipped the glass up to swallow the last drop of her drink. “Me and my friends got a share for the summer, and we bumped into him at Starbucks this morning, so he invited us.” Scott returned with a slice of brie on a cracker. We stood in silence, the party going on around us. I looked over Carmella’s shoulder. A fat man wearing a Hawaiian shirt and plaid shorts played catch with a baby girl. A woman walked over, kissed him and handed him a beer. They sat on folding chairs, and the toddler scrambled onto his lap. “So,” Carmella said, looking at Scott, then at me. “So,” I said, “Oh. Carmella, this is my husband, Ed.” “I’ve heard so much about you, Ed,” Carmella said, practically jumping up and down. Scott stared at me. “Scott,” he said, “I’m Scott. Who’s Ed?” “Ed? I don’t know,” I said. My face burned, but I had the urge to laugh. “Did I say Ed? I meant Scott. This is my husband, Scott.” “Who the hell is Ed?” “Uh-oh,” Carmella sang. “No one. There is no Ed. I’m not used to drinking beer, I guess.” I giggled. Carmella laughed. Scott stared. Terra announced dinner was ready. I slipped my hand around Scott’s and pulled him toward the tent where they’d set up the buffet, tables and chairs. I felt him watching me. I felt light. The little girl ran across the lawn alternately bouncing her ball and pouncing on it. She cut in our direction, and when the ball landed at Scott’s feet, he picked it up and faked a few tosses. The child laughed and laughed, bopping around, getting into the impromptu basketball game. Scott bounced the ball and the girl grabbed it between her pudgy hands. 101
“Good steal,” Scott said, and grinned, showing his perfectly aligned teeth. The child’s father called her and waved in our direction. Scott waved back and we watched the girl run to her dad. I leaned into Scott. He put his arm around my shoulders and we walked toward the tent, where people were lining up to eat. “Ed doesn’t exist,” I said. “Really. You expect me to believe that.” “Yeah. He’s like this character in my imagination. I might write about him one day.” At the buffet, Frank slapped Scott on the back and told him he had a business proposition for him. “Yeah, I met your father. Said you’re a helluva lawyer,” Frank shouted. Scott’s jaw tightened. Frank speared a hot dog. “Food first. Business later,” he said and dropped the charred frankfurter on Scott’s plate. Terra turned on a recording of Sinatra singing, “Volare.” I put a sausage and pepper sandwich on my dish and hummed along. Penso che un sogno così non ritorni mai più . . . “I think that a dream almost never returns . . . ” At home, I walked out of the master bathroom to find Scott running his fingertips down the adoption application I’d left on the dresser. I’d filled out the entire form. He swallowed hard, climbed into bed and I joined him. “I’m doing this with or without you,” I said. His breath was like a metronome. We laid side-by-side, looking up at the ceiling. If I were to move my arm just a hair, we’d touch. In a few minutes, I drifted into a dreamless sleep.
The tube top— white with blue flowers— hides her devastated flesh beneath its puckered fabric, puckered like her skin in the wake of the knife. She grips its Velcroed edge, rips away its flowered mask, revealing cloth bandages swaddled around her chest like a present wrapped by a six-year-old. She unwinds the layered bandages in a demure striptease, stares into the mirror, still, transfixed by her reflection. Sani-strips taped to her skin staunch the blood seep. White stitches bind her flesh together. Underneath, the aftermath of extraction: yellow sunset— purples fading into greens— painting her ivory hillside with malice. The red-soaked gauze lies spent on her bathroom counter like the abandoned shroud discovered the third day after crucifixion, the impression of her once-whole breast rising to the surface.
Fire Weather Warning A rare alert for November, even after rain. High winds, low humidity in the grass lands, pressure dropping— together they chart the alarm. Always the unknown variable, not what you know to look for, what could reasonably be foreseen. Years ago, driving in the mountains, August a red clay road that should have been powder suddenly caked in mud, where all we could do was ride the ridge toward the center, crawl a long mile toward the plateau where only the tribal try to go, or even know about. Land of the little people a surprising number believe in, not only among the Crow. The gods might be just over your shoulder when you turn, a glimpse of something you almost catch, behind you now, a breath of sweet grass, sage, or the scent of bitterroot. Is the trust you most need intuitive or counterintuitive, learning to recognize what you see, to know there is always something crucial you won’t. What of this November rain, fall crocus re-blooming, hyacinth not rooted deeply enough pushing through, a storm forecast from the southeast. Very old my grandmother woke up thinking, what will this day hold. Not in fear, just a curious strain for the world’s oddity, a quizzical stance, a not misplaced bewilderment. The winds of advent blow from north to south or should, but not in this season out of time, this waiting for the unforeseen.
He stands at the train station & sees the spaces further down the tracks, stares at everything moving away, reminds him of the Ferris wheel near the circus, the one that starts slow but seems to speed up & rock near the top. He imagines the spokes flying by until they waver & bend light, catching time, one container stuck at the second highest point, boxed within two passengers: a mother & daughter. They push their arms upward, laughing louder than wind, making the gondola sway even more, a moment they do not want to end. He signals farewell to this train that carries those he loves, almost
almost as much as his cause, as much as staying,
& while his wife will not wave, eyes full of lost futures, his daughter does, believing in something that will not happen, all grins 105
& wind-loose hair, is
believing this train a ride
that will return them to where they began. believing this train is a ride that will return them to where they began.
Old-Growth Forest Takuhatsu after a poem by Ryokan Cut and burnt by perceived needs and desires, I carry a blank pad into the old woods. Lichen a most patient thing underfoot, the ancients donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t speak, donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t listen. And they speak and listen, they not not speak, not not listen my breath touching each one, each one touches me back. Past emptiness, old man Linji once said If you meet the Buddha, kill him. Woodpecker rapping a broken snag, I take his point, repeat with each awed step no buddhas, no no buddhas, all buddhas along this juicy trail no matter the belief I think I think.
Ryan’s boss let him take the city’s truck home at night so he could hit the streets early. His territory included busy San Luis Obispo arterials that flowed through a jumble of houses and apartments near the university. He worked alone, placing the orange witch hats, dodging cars, and waving at impatient motorists. On a hot August morning, he stopped to install traffic counters on the legs of an intersection faced by stucco apartments. A woman in a bathrobe exited a ground-floor unit and strode toward him. “Can I ask what the hell you’re doing?” she called. He ignored her irritation. They all seemed pissed about something. “Somebody wants four-way stop signs installed at this location. I’m doing traffic counts to see if–” “That’s a stupid idea. Those college yahoos will just make more noise jamming on their brakes, then hauling ass. I work nights and sleep days.” Ryan pulled a business card from his shirt pocket and handed it to her. “Write me a letter or send me an e-mail spelling out your concerns. I’ll make sure it gets to the right people.” “Lotta good it’ll do.” The woman seemed to realize how she was dressed and wrapped the skimpy robe tightly around herself. She wore beaded moccasins below brown shapely legs and dimpled knees. Tangled auburn hair fell across her shoulders and framed her smooth face. But her amber eyes looked tired. “The city engineer will consider the request in a couple of weeks. You can speak with him before he decides.” “I might do that. Is he nice-looking?” Ryan took a step back and stuttered, “I-I don’t know about that.” “Well, is he as handsome as you?” He felt his face flush. “No way.” “What’s your name?” “It’s right there on the card, ah, Ryan Broderick.” “Like the actor?” “Yes, something like that.” “So do you work in this area often?” “Often enough.” “Ah, such a coy boy. When will you be back?” Ryan removed his cap and ran his fingers through his hair. “I drive by daily to check on the counters. On Friday morning I’ll take them out, unless somebody steals them first. It happens.” “I’ll keep an eye out.” “Thanks . . . and your name is?” 108
“Margarita . . . like the cocktail.” He grinned. “I like margaritas. I’ll see you.” She smiled, sauntered back to her apartment, hips swaying, and turned at the door to stare his way. Ryan ducked his head and tried to focus. He chained the counter boxes to sign posts, stretched the tubes across the traffic lanes, and duct taped them to the asphalt. When he ventured a glance, she’d gone inside. But the drapes quivered behind her window. In the year since Vicky dumped him, he’d sworn off women, substituting cold beer, guitars, and bad porn. But Margarita definitely had possibilities, more than the airhead college girls who ignored him, and with a body like hers, he-– The vehicle’s horn sounded like a siren. He turned to the right. The side mirror of a delivery truck nearly took his head off. Ryan sprang forward. The step van never slowed. Damn it, I start thinking about women and it’s like walking across a freeway on acid. That evening, he unpacked his three guitars and set each on a stand. He couldn’t really play any of them. In the hot SLO Town twilight, he sat on his bed and plugged in a cherry-red Gibson. The old Fender amplifier hummed and crackled. He closed his eyes and fingered the electric strings, letting them vibrate, with the sound growing louder and louder until the woman in the next trailer started yelling. The silence afterward seemed precious, like when a migraine finally fades and the pleasure of its absence feels so sweet. In that quiet time, he thought about Margarita. She’s gotta be pushing forty, a real cougar, knows how to work it. Best thing that’s happened to me since . . . He downed another beer, set the alarm for 5:00 AM, and went to sleep. ~ Margarita sat at her laptop and fingered Ryan’s business card. Being old school, she penciled in a notation on her wall calendar for the following Friday, not wanting to miss his return. Opening her e-mail service, she began drafting a nasty letter to the City Engineer. More daytime traffic noise would make her extra cranky during her night shift at the hospital laboratory. She tended a row of blinking machines and ran STAT blood tests while the other techs slept with their wives and husbands. Since she had neither, her bosses figured she wouldn’t mind night work. Screw them. They’re all a bunch of nerds anyway. During the next three mornings before she went to bed, she drank cups of weak tea and gazed out the window, looking for the traffic dude’s blue and white truck. She’d seen the delivery van almost hit him and had beaten back the urge to dash from her apartment and see if he was okay. He’d looked shaken. But she wished she could work through her own issues with as much poise. 109
On Thursday morning, she washed her hair and touched up the highlights while pulling out the gray strands. After shaving her legs, she laid out her tightest pair of denims and a sleeveless blouse. What the hell am I doing? she thought, and stared into the mirror. This guy’s in his thirties, probably gets lots of attention. At least he’s out in the world, while I’m some glorified machine jockey. On Friday, she sipped a tall latté that she’d picked up on the way home. Her makeup looked perfect, her blouse showing just the right amount of skin, her nails freshly painted. This is so stupid . . . I’ll scare the guy off. But I gotta try something before . . . I dry up and blow away. She thought back to the wild years with her husband. They’d moved to San Luis, for him to get a college degree on Uncle Sam’s dime, for them to start a family. Margarita squeezed her eyes shut for a few moments, trying to block out the memories, then continued staring past the nearlyclosed curtains at the fog-shrouded street. A set of headlights came out of the mist. The truck pulled up along the red curb, its orange roof light flashing. Ryan got out and went to work. In a minute, he’d retrieved the traffic counters, pulled up the hoses and stowed the equipment. It happened so fast that Margarita froze. Hell, if I dash out there now, it’ll look like I’ve been waiting for him, like some prom date. Ryan glanced toward her apartment, stood motionless on the sidewalk. Margarita rose from her chair, shook her head and let out a deep breath. She grabbed the curtain to draw it shut just as Ryan moved toward the walkway that led to her door. Holy crap, he’s coming. My place is trashed. What if he wants to come in? She backed away from the window and thought about hightailing it out the rear door to the parking lot. Before she could decide, a soft thud sounded. Wait, wait, don’t answer too soon, he’ll think you’re too eager. She choked back a giggle, counted slowly to ten, then twisted the doorknob. “Ah, it’s the traffic man, right on schedule.” Ryan pushed back his cap and grinned. “Just thought I’d let you know that I’ve finished the work. The . . . the city engineer should decide in a couple weeks.” “Thanks, Ryan. Say . . . it feels chilly out there. You wanna come in for coffee?” What am I doing? I don’t have any coffee. “Sure, but I can’t leave the truck for long.” “I understand. I picked up lattés at Starbucks on the way home.” Ryan shambled inside. They sat at the counter in her kitchenette, the sink filled with dirty dishes. She handed him the coffee. “Ah . . . isn’t this yours?” He pointed to the lipstick smudge on its rim. “Well, yeah . . . I wasn’t planning on company, but I wanted . . . ” 110
He stared at her. “Yeah, so did I. I shoulda brought something. So . . . so where do you work nights?” “At the hospital. I’m a laboratory technician. They stuck me with the 9 to 5 shift.” “Lots of science in that work, huh?” “Most of the time it’s routine. But when the ICU fills up, we get busy quickly.” The conversation languished until Ryan blurted, “You . . . you look really beautiful . . . I mean, ya know, for someone who just got off work.” “You look nice too.” “Yeah, it’s gotta be the uniform. I’ll bet you look great in a lab coat.” She smiled and watched him sip the coffee. “I’m sorry, I hope you like cream and sugar.” “Tastes good. But next time you can forget the sugar . . . and the cream. I like coffee black, like asphalt.” “Huh, I should have known.” Ryan left his seat and drew back the curtain. The fog had thinned and morning traffic had increased, trapping some cars in back of his truck. “Hey look, I gotta get going. So when can I see you again?” “I take my lunch breaks sometime between midnight and one. But don’t mess up your sleep on account of–” “Hey, I’m a night owl. I’ll see ya.” He hurried to his truck and pulled away, the tires squealing. Margarita’s shoulders relaxed. It hadn’t gone badly. But she wanted to get past the small talk, past the abridged versions of their life stories to that first moment of intimacy. She moved to the kitchen sink and washed the dishes before peeling off her clothes and slipping into bed. Her dreams filled with noisy traffic and handsome men in uniform. ~ Ryan drove several blocks before turning the truck onto a side street and pulling up. His hands trembled. He shook himself to loosen his shoulders. Jesus, I’m out of practice. The second time I see the woman and already I’m telling her how beautiful she is. Slow down, idiot. He automatically reached for his pack of cigarettes but found an empty shirt pocket, having quit five months back. He grabbed the clipboard from the seat next to him and studied the day’s work schedule. Throughout the morning, he tried but failed to push Margarita from his mind. He knew he wanted to bring something to their midnight meal, but mentally kicked himself for not noticing what kind of food she ate from his brief visit to her kitchen. He decided on vegetarian tostados from the Mexican restaurant. At lunch, he relaxed at Laguna Lake Park and watched the windsurfers bounce across the water in a 15-knot breeze. He remembered taking food to his last serious girlfriend, Carla Martinez, a decade before. She’d worked part-time as a delivery girl for 111
an auto parts company while attending the University. He’d thought she’d be the one. But Carla had disappeared after she’d run a red light and her truck Tboned a car, killing the driver. As a new hire with Public Works, he’d been called out to help with traffic control. He saw the bloodied corpse of the man, an ex-Marine, the newspaper reported, who’d been thrown from his car, the dude’s head destroyed in the landing. He figured Carla had escaped to Central America where her relatives lived somewhere along the Miskito Coast. The police had investigated but no warrants had been served. He never heard from her again. For Ryan, it felt like she’d been killed in the collision. He steered his thoughts away from the memories of their passion, of their growing companionship. He’d never come that close since. After work he drove to his mobile home park at the south end of town, slipped into swim trunks, and took a dip in the pool. The neighborhood ladies basked in the waning sunlight. They smiled and gave him the eye. He floated on his back, mentally rehearsing the conversations he’d have with Margarita, what he would tell her about his history, about the things he loved, things he loathed. For Christ sake, this isn’t even a real date. Don’t do anything stupid and you might have a chance at seeing her again. By midnight, he’d showered and shaved, put on a clean pair of Dockers and a sport shirt, and drove to the Mexican restaurant. College students attending summer school mobbed the place and it was 12:45 before he pulled into the hospital parking lot. He passed the ER reception area, followed the signs to the laboratory, and pushed through a heavy door. A row of chairs lined one wall and a counter stretched across another. A “Staff Only” sign hung from a door. He tapped the bell on the counter. From behind the door came footsteps. They stopped. Ryan waited for what felt like forever, spinning the cap in his hands. What the hell is she doing? Easy, easy, don’t freak out. The door opened finally. Margarita appeared, smiling. ~ She had sat in back of the gas chromatograph and stared into space for most of the evening. With the ER nearly empty and the wards quiet, she had little work, had drawn the blood of only two people since starting her shift. As midnight came and went, she checked her wristwatch repeatedly and fidgeted on the stool. Maybe his “I’ll see ya” was just a brush-off, like “I’ll see ya around.” Maybe he already has a girlfriend and wanted to let me down easy. Jesus, men can be such jerks. I hate this guessing crap. Then the bell sounded. Margarita moved to the door, but stopped, checked her makeup in her compact mirror, applied lipstick, and powdered the dark shadows under her eyes. I’m not fooling anyone; I 112
look 45 if I’m a day. She pushed through the door. Ryan looked amazing. She smiled. “Ah, sorry I’m late,” he said. “I stopped to grab us some food. Hope you like vegetarian.” “You didn’t need to bring anything. But thanks. I’m an omnivore. I’ll eat almost anything, except maybe escargot and sweetbreads.” “That’s good to know. But I don’t think the taco stand serves either of those.” Her laughter came out too loud, more from relief that he had shown up than from the humor. “I’ll let them know I’m taking my meal break.” She dialed an extension and muttered instructions into the phone. “All right, I’ve got half an hour. Why don’t we go into the garden?” “Sounds good.” She took his hand and led him down a polished corridor to a side door that opened onto a tiny garden with rose bushes, ferns, patches of lawn, and concrete benches. Overhead lamps bathed the place in orange light. The night air felt cool, but not cold. They sat on a bench. Ryan laid out the tostados, chips, salsa, and soft drinks between them. “A pretty good guess,” Margarita said. “You didn’t peek in my refrigerator, did you?” “No way. I just got lucky.” “Glad to hear it.” She downed the food as quickly as she could, her hunger surprising her, the salsa super spicy. Between bites, she caught him checking her out, but not in a creepy way. He chewed with his mouth closed, used the napkins instead of wiping his hands on his pants, didn’t slurp his drink or belch – all good signs. “So how long have you worked here?” he asked. “It feels like forever, but about twelve years.” “I’ve been with Public Works almost that long.” “Doing the same thing the whole time?” “Yeah, pretty much.” “Don’t you get scared messing around in traffic like that?” “I used to. But I learned to be aware of what’s happening around me and focus on work at the same time.” “So how come that van almost hit you the other day?” “You saw that?” Margarita felt her face grow warm. “Well, yeah. You were right outside my apartment and I heard the horn.” Ryan grinned. “I didn’t concentrate on what I was doing.” “Why?” “I was thinking about you.” Margarita hadn’t expected that reply. She felt her face burn. “So you’re blaming me for almost getting killed?” 113
“Relax, relax. I’m not blaming anyone. It would be like me coming into your lab and talking with you while you run tests. Think you might make a mistake?” She laughed. “I doubt if I could work with you there.” “See, that’s what I’m talking about.” Ryan smiled. Margarita fidgeted. “Look, I gotta get back in a couple of minutes.” “Can I drop by tomorrow?” “Ah, sure. But let me bring the food. I’m not used to eating so much. I’ve gotta watch my girlish figure.” “Don’t worry. I’ll watch it for you.” “Yeah, I got that.” “So, what days do you have off?” “Tuesdays and Wednesdays.” “Hell, I work Monday through Friday. This is gonna take some planning.” “Yes it will. We’ll talk tomorrow and figure something out.” Ryan hustled to gather up the remains of their lunch. He walked her to the door. “’Bye for now . . . and I’ll have some ideas for a proper date.” “Good, I’ll see ya.” She turned to duck inside the lab, feeling even more awkward than at their last parting. But Ryan laid a hand on her shoulder, turned her toward him gently, and kissed her on the mouth. “I wanted to do that ever since I got here.” “I-I could tell.” He pulled his cap onto his head and hurried down the hall. She shivered and pushed through the door, only to find two cops and a drunk waiting for a blood-alcohol test. Hell, I should ask the soused bastard if he still has his bottle. I could use a nip. She grinned at the cops and stared at the drunk’s bare arms, blue with tattoos and thick veins. He would be an easy draw. ~ For the next few days they met at midnight. Ryan felt like he lived a TV sitcom, thirty minutes at a time. Margarita brought quiche Lorraine that she kept in the laboratory’s refrigerator and reheated in a microwave. The second night she took him into the lab to retrieve their food. He stared at the spotless counters, at the blinking and gurgling machines, sniffed the antiseptic stench with wafting overtones of urine and feces. Petri dishes holding God-knows-what and bags of purple blood packed the frig where she stored their meal. “Jeez, is it safe to, ya know, keep food here?” She laughed. “Nobody’s ever gotten sick. Besides, the infectious stuff is stored in the Bac-Tee section.” She pointed to a smaller room off the main lab. 114
They ate in the garden, disclosing bits and pieces of their lives in between bites. On the third night, Margarita slid into his arms and covered his face with kisses, her breath coming fast in the cool air. “We definitely need to schedule a proper date,” Ryan said. She grinned. “You’ve got that straight. How about Wednesday?” “I’ll take you out to dinner . . . say six o’clock?” “I’ll be ready. Hell, I’m ready now.” She kissed him one last time and they parted. That week Ryan had a dozen field jobs to complete plus a bunch of office work, drawing up traffic control plans for a repaving project. Wednesday evening he picked her up in his hybrid and drove downtown to his favorite restaurant with its outdoor patio bordering the creek. The sun had dipped behind Mt. San Luis but the air felt warm, comforting. Night herons and egrets perched on rocks at water’s edge, waiting for their meals to make one wrong move in the stream. Ryan stared in awe at the beautiful woman: well-coiffed, gold jewelry set off by her tan skin, and a perfume that smelled like honeysuckle. “Do you want me to model my outfit for you?” she asked and laughed. “Sorry. I’m a guy. I stare at women.” “You’d better. It took me most of the afternoon to pull this together.” “Yeah, same here.” He motioned to his simple clothes. “Hold still for a minute.” She reached across the table and picked a piece of bloody facial tissue from his cheek where he’d sliced himself shaving. He groaned. “I cut easily. Nothing like grossing you out on the first real date.” “Are you kidding? You know what I work with in the lab. I’d tell ya more about it but I’d ruin your meal.” They ordered entrées and a carafe of cabernet. The patio filled with chattering couples and families. As the night cooled, the wait staff turned on the overhead heaters. A guitarist set up in a corner under a huge oak and played quiet Bossa Nova. They ran through the details of their life stories, talking mostly of work, of their interests, she in natural sciences and he in electric vehicles and guitar building. By the time they got to the really personal stuff, the crowd had cleared out, the carafe stood empty, and the guitarist was long gone. “So . . . so have you ever been married?” Ryan asked. “Yes, for seven years. How about you?” “Almost.” “That sounds pretty vague. Tell me more.” Ryan sat back in his chair. “No, ladies first. Tell me about your marriage.” 115
Margarita ran her finger around the rim of her full water glass and lowered her head. “Phil and I met when I was going to UCLA. We got married after knowing each other for only six weeks. He went off to do his thing in Iraq...twice.” “He sounds like a career military man.” “He thought he was, a real gung ho Marine. But the Middle-East and the war changed him. He got out and we came to San Luis for Phil to get his degree.” “So . . . so where is he now?” Margarita looked Ryan in the eyes, her mouth a thin tight line. “He’s dead.” After a count of ten, Ryan asked softly, “How . . . how did it happen?” “I still can’t quite believe it and it’s been ten years.” “You don’t need to tell me if it’s too painful.” Ryan reached across the table and took her hand. “No, I need to. I haven’t really talked to anybody about it, part of the baggage I’ve been hauling for years.” “Just take your time.” Ryan looked around for someone to bring them another carafe of wine. But the patio was deserted, the wait staff nowhere in sight. “I guess I’m still furious about the whole deal,” she continued. “Phil spent three years in that sand box, getting shot at, his buddies blown up. Then he comes here and gets killed by some fucking hit-and-run driver.” Tears spilled from her eyes and streaked across her perfect makeup. “Some broad ran a red light. Her truck smashed into Phil. He was thrown from the car, declared dead at the scene.” The back of Ryan’s neck tingled and he gripped Margarita’s hand. “You’re . . . you’re hurting me, Ryan. Are you all right? You look . . .” “Did . . . did they ever catch the woman?” “No.” “Do you remember her name?” “Oh yeah . . . Carla Martinez.” Yellow spots swam before Ryan’s eyes and he sucked in a deep breath. The silence built between them. Finally, Margarita sighed. A weak smile flashed across her face. “So now you know my sad tale. Tell me about this ‘almost’ woman of yours, the one that got away.” “Please don’t freak out, but . . . but you already know her.” “Why would I get upset? And how could I know–” “Her name is Carla Martinez.” Margarita yanked her hand away from Ryan’s, knocking over her water glass. “YOU’VE GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING ME,” she screamed. “This is too . . . too weird. I gotta get outta here.” 116
She bolted from her chair. Ryan made a grab for her arm but missed. She ran across the patio and down the creek-side path into the darkness, her sobs echoing in the night. Ryan jumped to his feet, emptied the bills in his wallet onto the table, and took off after her. But by the time he reached the nearest street, she’d disappeared. He retrieved his car and drove around the neighborhoods leading to her home, but couldn’t find her. Her apartment stayed dark all that night. During the next few days, Ryan sent Margarita e-mails, asking for a response, sympathizing with her for such a cruel twist of fate, pleading for a chance to talk about it. He received nothing back. He considered stopping by the hospital lab or her apartment and confronting her. But that idea pissed him off since he couldn’t have done anything to soften the shock, except maybe lie to her. In the end, only his anger remained. He stopped trying to contact her and kissed it off to bad karma. ~ Summer gave way to autumn, to the crush of university students, and the increase in citizen complaints about speeding crazies in the neighborhoods. Ryan set counters and conducted speed surveys along a street near the campus. On a Thursday afternoon, he parked the truck with its amber lights flashing, set out the witch hats, and began installing the equipment. In the distance, sirens wailed. From a cross street, a fourdoor sedan full of punks slid around the corner and accelerated toward him, its engine screaming. Ryan crouched in the street, applying the final piece of duct tape to the hoses. The car struck the traffic cones. The driver jammed on the brakes. In a cloud of blue smoke, the sedan slid sideways toward him. With all his strength he sprang upward. His boots slammed into the car’s hood as it passed beneath him, catapulting Ryan into the air, an end-overend flight into the landscaped median, then darkness and a dreamless sleep. He felt nothing. Then the pain hit like a knife crammed into a nerve and twisted. He tried crying out, but something in his throat stopped him. Lights and shadows flickered across his eyes. Garbled voices called from far off. The pain faded to a dull throb, then darkness. But the light returned, this time bright like the sun-struck chrome. The cold hit him and he shivered uncontrollably. Masked people hovered above him, some yelling orders, others sliding his naked body onto a polished metal table. More orders. His wrists burned from the needles. “Just relax, you’ll be out in a minute . . . ” Darkness. He became aware of the clock and the calendar on the wall across from his bed, aware of the tube down his throat, of the IVs in his arms, of his legs hanging from ropes and pulleys, of beeping machines, of 117
shadowy figures scurrying about. He turned his head slightly and the tube pressured his throat. He choked. “Lay still,” somebody told him. “We’ll take that tube out when the doctor says it’s okay.” A wave of pain rolled over him and he moaned. His chest felt like somebody sat on it, his legs hung heavy like burning logs. A nurse fumbled with his IV and the pain faded. He closed his eyes and thought about his guitars, about the roaring sound of the feedback. He waited for it to stop and for the comfort of the silence beyond. Days passed . . . he could only tell by the changing date on the calendar. After a week, they rolled him out of the ICU and down the hall to a room with windows and two empty beds. The following morning, they removed the breathing tube. His throat felt like he’d swallowed razor blades. They gave him ice water, an enema, a bedpan, his first meal. “You’re lucky to be here,” the balding doctor told him. “Two broken legs, one of them a compound fracture, a broken clavicle, four busted ribs, and a bad concussion. Plus, your face isn’t as pretty as it used to be. You would have been killed if you hadn’t jumped so high.” “Timed it just right,” Ryan muttered, “a real Bo Jangles.” He tried to smile but it made him hurt. “Yes, you did. But you’re in good hands here. With time and rehab you should be back on the streets.” “Oh joy.” The pain surged through his ribcage, making breathing difficult. Ryan closed his eyes and reached for the morphine button. He felt hot all the time. With his one mobile arm, Ryan threw off the covers, being careful not to tangle with the cath tube. He stank and longed for a shower. They brought him a mirror and he inspected his face – the forehead badly scraped, a couple front teeth loose and aching. But mostly he slept, waking for meals, bowel movements, and doctors’ visits. Late one night, near the end of his second week, he awoke to the lights blinking on and somebody pulling the sheet over his naked body. He rubbed his eyes and gazed into Margarita’s face. She stared at him, unsmiling. “I’m sorry, I’ll only be a minute. I need to draw some blood.” “No, I’m sorry. I’d hoped . . . you seeing me naked . . . would have been under . . . under better conditions.” The hint of a smile tugged at her lips. “Yeah, well, I’ve pretty much seen it all before.” “Maybe . . . but not mine.” He tried grinning but it hurt. She tied a tourniquet around his left arm, tapped his veins, her fingers warm and gentle. “Hold still now. You’re going to feel a pinch.” She inserted the needle. “Have you taken my blood before?” 118
“Of course. The week you were in ICU, I ran all of your tests. You were pretty much out of it.” “Thank God. I’ll probably . . . be hooked on morphine . . . before I leave this joint.” “It happens.” Margarita wrote his name on the tubes of blood and picked up her tray to leave. “Wait. Don’t go.” “I have to process these samples and–” “We’ve gotta talk.” “Yes, you deserve that. I’m off shift in four hours. I’ll come back then.” He grabbed the cuff of her lab coat. “Please do.” After she’d gone, he found it hard to sleep. An all-night movie channel showed The Graduate. He watched Dustin Hoffman make a glorious fool of himself before he finally drifted off. Ryan woke, feverish, thirsty, sweating. A shadowy figure stood over his bed. “Is . . . is that you?” he croaked. “Yes.” “Sit . . . please.” Margarita lowered the bed rail and perched on the edge of his mattress. She’d removed her lab coat, her face in shadow. “What . . . what should we do now?” Ryan asked. “I don’t know. When I think of you and that Carla woman I get a pain right here.” She touched her chest. “Yeah, I . . . I know about that one. The day Carla killed your husband, we both lost someone.” “I know that. But thinking about us being together brings it all back. I thought maybe with time I could get over it. Then the same thing almost happened to you and . . . and I don’t think I can handle another . . . ” She covered her face with her hands, shoulders shaking. Ryan waited for her to quiet. “I know what you mean . . . we’re both careful . . . about who we . . . we fall in love with.” She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. “You’re right, too damned careful.” “We could work on that.” “Yeah, maybe.” Margarita stood, leaned over and kissed him lightly on the lips, her soft hair falling about his face, smelling of honeysuckle. The noise in his head quieted, leaving just the steady thump of his heart to prepare him for the red lights and green lights ahead.
The Swimming Pool At Vivo City, expatriate children dive and canon-ball, and whip the water with flotation snakes until Vivo’s concrete face rings with slaps. Reclining in slender shade of potted palms, mothers worry. How is civilization to be kept up, in Singapore? And, which one? The ayahs are no help. “Oh, so cute!” they simper, screwing water wings to their charges’ slippery arms, then turn away, muttering darkly, when the children throw them off. A father tosses a rubber disc and his son plunges for it again and again, like a retriever. Between tosses the father scoops and splashes his tiny daughter, whose mouth slaunches open as if wildness were giving it a permanent swerve. “Crocodile!” shouts the boy, and the father sets the girl upon a floatie and dives, heaving and reptilian, to dunk his son. The boy shouts for more and the father complies. It is like a drill. The boy grabs his sister’s ruffled suit bottom, and “Eeeeee!” she screams, and vanishes. Now comes the blond mother’s vague call, “Trudi?” Over the spot where the girl was comes a killer whale. On its rubber back rollicks a youth, a lissome Asian girl clinging on behind. The father yanks the whale’s tail as if cracking a whip. In the swirling wake Trudi surfaces. “Sorry, Sir! Sorry!” gargles the youth, who is a roughneck on the oil rig where the father is drill chief. The father rears back a finger as if he’d drive it through the roughneck’s temple then tames the gesture to a clutch upon his son’s arm. “Titan!” he scolds, the Outback a twang and bite, “Toiw-tn!” The boy only grins. Soon the father does, too. Titan is a good lad. The mischief that squirms in the boy’s chest is a boyish version of what wriggles in his own. There’s no harm. The game resumes, the rubber disc ever farther, and deeper. . . Oh, yes, Titan can manage them all. The ayah who hates him, and the father who loves him but too rarely. He knows what to do when his sister’s sunny face swerves to the doings of the pair on the whale, or, as now, to their mother’s expression sinking like a stone to her book. “Chomp, chomp,” he says, near Trudi’s ear. She spits out water in a dribbley smile. Admittedly, Mr. Icky flummoxed him at first. His pushed-out, googly eyes and white, wispy hair, and in particular his loud blurts in both Chinese and English, either way no never-mind to him, made him different than all the rest. The pretty Chinese lady with him wasn’t different. But her easy way of slap-slapping lotion on his skinny shoulders, not away-looking or ashamed in the least, was. She kept 120
Titan’s eyes, smiling as if she quite liked what she saw. Titan stopped like stone so Trudi bumped him from behind, and “Icky!” was her verdict. The man only laughed. “Well, well! I’ve been called worse before than ‘ichthus’!” To the Chinese lady he said “Schay, yu-zhe-hazy, honk-onk.” She smiled into her hand, still meeting Titan’s eyes with her dark and shining ones. Titan scowled. “‘Fish,’ young sir. ‘Icthus’—Fish! Fish!” said the man, wriggling long, eely fingers and then, with a hunch of skinny shoulders diving — bloop!—into the pool. Titan saw, he was right. Undulating through the water, silvery-white with tufts and flaps like fins and gills, mouth streaming bubbles and googly eyes like nacre, he was a fish indeed. He popped up in the shallow end, a man again with arms a “V.” Then, grunting, he snapped elbows to his sides and collapsed like an umbrella. The lady jumped up in a clatter of wood-soled sandals. “Gun dan . . .” the man said, pointing upward beside his nose. “Gun . . . dan . . .” He straightened, slowly, eyes focusing again and going glad. His smile was a joyous gape of teeth jagged as a piranha’s. “Who will swim with me?” he said, and Trudi leaped into his arms with a happy shriek. So, Titan jumps around and mimics hard. The fishy stare and the twisty way of breathing beneath an arm-pit. The happy smacks and hisses like something tasting good, when Miss China pats lotion on Mr. Icky’s chest and belly. At this, Mum’s face closes like a fist. “Not nice, Titan,” she says. So, Titan jumps harder, shifting her attention to the heavy ashtray wobbling off the glass-topped table, and to Trudi, whom she scoops up when it shatters. That evening, he and Dad have a private word. “It’s difficult for your mum, adjusting to Singapore,” says Dad. “She’ll get it. She’s a sport, truly she is, but you must help. Come on, lad, don’t trouble her. Be a little man.” And Titan tries. He tries commanding, “Come to the pool!” The pool’s the best thing in Vivo. It may well be the best in all Singapore, since he’s seen none better and he’s seen loads. Broad and gentle, tapered as a beach, the pool makes everything easier. Just a shade cooler than the sultry air, it makes that air delicious. Mr. Icky knows. So does Miss China. “Go with ayah, Titan. Go on, now! I prefer air-con,” says Mum, but air con is forced and tense. Anyone can see, behind her big sunglasses and fresh from a dip, a book on her lap and her skin turned the color of buttered toast, Miss China is cool and relaxed. She looks like Mum could easily look. Titan wishes they’d know each other. Then one morning, she’s right there. The breakfast buffet, overlooking the pool, is almost as good. It has everything one could want. Titan has paused at the steam table to consider whether Asian 121
porridge would go well with his crumpet and Nutella, when Miss China materializes as if she’s stepped straight from the water behind the halfdark window that reflects her. She leans over the bamboo steamer, nostrils twitching, and then pincers two fat dumplings with chopsticks and sticks them to her plate. Titan watches, gob-smacked. It’s not so much that she’s there—they do show up at breakfast, sometimes—but rather how easy she is. Is it a business suit she’s wearing? If so he’s never seen one like it, all dark and soft and clinging like a hug. Singapore ladies with real jobs wear sharp-cut suits and faces stiff as paper. Miss China’s face is lively. It wrinkles at the porridge, and she takes a spoon of rice instead. Three pearl buttons at her open neck tremble on their gold loops like jewels. Titan clears his throat. Her eyes widen when she sees him. “Ah—“ “Jo-ching,” he says. They’ve been chatting at the pool—Chineseplus-English, “Singlish,” it’s called, here—but now she cocks her head. He flushes. “G’morning,” he amends. “Ah—” She smiles, and nods—“Forgive me, yu zhe! You look different, in your school clothes, and I not quite awake. Good morning! Zaoshang!” Titan smiles also, with the pleasure of understanding—little fish— and also because she’s got a dimple. It’s like a dent in custard. He wonders why he didn’t notice before. Maybe because now her lips are painted, the same bright, perfect red as her fingernails. Titan knows her toenails are this red, too. He’s seen them, at the pool. “Titan? Hurry up, please. Don’t lollygag.” Mum, at their round table, stirs Bovril—ting-ting-ting—and adjusts Trudi on her house-coated lap. Trudi fusses, flexing a starfish hand near Mum’s thin-stretched lips, and Mum places another toast square there. Titan waits, for her to look up and see. But her eyes drop to the Straits Times, instead. “Mum—?” Mum’s lids snap up. Her beautiful, pale eyes look coolly, and only at him. Then down her nose again. She jerks her chin to his empty chair. “Titan. Eat.” A solemn look has filled Miss China’s face, like milk into a cup. Titan isn’t yet very good at reading Asian looks. Not offense, he thinks. Maybe—sorrow? In a flash, he sees them as she might. His frowning mum, the crumby plates, Trudi slumped like a sugar sack. Mum checks her thin watch on her bony wrist for the hurry-up to school, then—what? Bathing. Shopping. Straightening the echoey flat for—what? Titan sometimes wonders, as, diving into the shiny neatness upon his return, he his kicks shoes askew and dumps his satchel, shouts for his snack, his trunks, his 122
water snake and goggles, and for his sister, to hurry—hurry to the swimming pool. Titan smacks down his plate, clipping the glass so over it goes and brown Bovril arrows off the table top. Miss China has already gone by, dark pleats of her skirt a swinging curtain. She escapes, save for a single drop that glistens on the nylon of her calf. Vivo City has a shuttle. In reality, a van (a disappointment—Titan had hoped for something quite amazing) that takes residents about. To Great World City, to Suntec, and Raffles City. In Singapore, “city” means “residence hotel” or “mall,” and these are malls. This was a disappointment also, and “All these people do is shop! That’s all there is!” Mum said. But it’s also true the malls have Ferris wheels and laser shows, climbing walls which the Asians kids are too sissy to climb very high. Titan’s not scared. Pooh! He eggs on Trudi, her face just below his heels, “Put your hand just there! And your foot there! Now pull!” until an attendant calls, “Hey! You kids! Come down—lah?” It’s best when Dad comes. After dinner they’ll stroll, Mum and Dad slow and hand-in-hand. Then all is as it should be. Dressed-up, hair glittering, silk cords of shopping bags draping on her arm, Mum is queen. Dad, in officer’s whites, is captain. Trudi is princess or first mate, depending, and for himself Titan has tried on many roles. Skipper, and Coming through, he’s thought, toughly navigating. Sometimes he’s a roughneck and even tougher. Gooks. Arseholes. Mr. Icky, observing at the pool, pooched out his lips. “Playing soldier, are we? Well, well. Hm. What about your name, young man? Eh? ‘Triton’—? The sea god? The gracious master of the deep? You have a curling tail, a wreathed horn. . . you didn’t know? Well, now you do!” So, Titan puts fist to lips and blows. “Bao quian! Look out, now. Xie’xie’ni. Thank you . . . ” The crowd parts as smooth as oil. “Karen—please. That’s madness . . . “ When he’s upset, his father’s voice is rough and hoarse. He tries to speak low, but the tone carries through the hubbub of Ngee An City like a howler monkey. “What would you have me do, then? Come, love—don’t be that way . . .” He can’t make out what Mum says, tight like hisses. His father always gets wilder when she’s like that. “I tell you, Karen—it’s not!” Trudi goes down, smack, and they both come rushing. Titan is sorry, since there’s quite a lot of blood, but it’s not his fault she tripped on his curling tail. Besides, it’s just a baby tooth. Then, Grandma Ruth has come! Perth is a long way, her face is pinched and her hair which-a-way from sleeping awkwardly, but “I 123
couldn’t go a minute longer without my grands!” is her explanation. So, it’s off to the Night Safari, and Jurong Bird Park, and to the Botanical Gardens like Singapore is brand new again, and unwrapped nicely for Grandma. “Oh, my, Karen!” says Grandma, putting her hands together for the orchid gardens and Mum smiles as Dad looks beamingly on. Grandma steers Trudi’s push-chair and asks Titan’s help with the unfamiliar words on displays as Mum and Dad lag behind a bit, holding hands. Titan gets in a spot of trouble, snapping off a bloom for Mum, but Dad says “Psst!” and steps in the gift shop with Titan for two vials of orchid perfume. “Oof! Titan! Gentle, now!” says Mum, when Titan squeezes her hard about the waist. Titan introduces Grandma to everyone. Which is to say, the doormen and the desk clerks, the maids, and shuttle driver. To Mr. Icky, naturally, who makes her blink-blink though Titan thinks he looks quite well, in street clothes that cover his tufts and queer flaps of skin beneath his armpits. Titan knows by now that of course he’s not “Mr. Icky,” but Steven Madden, and “Doctor” to be precise but not a medical one. A scientist, “Top-flight—the best,” says Dad, and, now with his “angina” clearing up (“Not ‘Angela,’ Titan. ‘An-gi-na.’”) with shore leave, he’s feeling quite a lot better also. He kisses Grandma’s hand and shows tips of his crooked teeth when he smiles, then gobbles at Miss China, who nods, and gives tingly hisses back, “Wǒ hěn gāoxìng jiàn dào nǐ.” In the foyer, with its chandeliers and polished marble that words bounce off of, she sounds like chimes. Grandma’s smile is blank. Titan whispers, “She says, ‘Pleased to—“ but Miss China steps forward and puts out her hand. “A preshure,” she says. “Bit of a queer bird, isn’t he?” says Grandma, in the lift, and Dad, eyes raised to lighting numbers, keeps looking there. Dad and Grandma are careful round each other, Titan has noticed. Especially when it’s just the two of them. It’s like a game of statues. Grandma is usually just a smidge better. But not always. “He’s all right,” Dad says, after a moment. “Incredibly intelligent, that’s for certain, and highly respected. He was raised in foreign service. BP sends him everywhere. He’s happy to go.” “Citizen of the world, eh? Well. I expect that’s what it takes, these days.” Dad glances down and catches Titan’s wondering gaze, upside-down since Titan’s looking backwards. His father’s sunburnt flesh hangs heavily beneath his pale eyes. His forehead is creased as an iguana. He smiles, and the flesh crimps. “I expect,” he says. “Right, Titan?” “Right!” “His wife seems nice,” says Grandma. Dad’s chin jerks up. His Adam’s apple bobs, and stills. The door pings, and they’ve arrived. 124
Grandma is helping Mum to see that all it takes is pep and energy, to make the flat like home. “Fish and chips, Titan! You remember?” Mum says, and Titan does, though not the taste, which is nothing. Salt, and crunch. “He’s got used to eyeballs and tentacles,” Mum says, and Grandma makes him cheese-melt instead. The flat is much busier than it was, which Dad says is nice. There’s cooking all the time, and now “activities,” Baby Jimboree for Trudi, and tai chi on the tumbling mats for Titan. “Leach off some of that energy, eh?” says Grandma. She sews mounds of things—rompers for Trudi, a sundress for Mum, shorts for Titan that are tight in the crotch but he mustn’t complain. The maid piles scraps into pyramids. The place smells of milky tea. Titan nibbles ladyfingers cautiously. So, everything is “ship-shape” for his off-shore duty, Dad says. “Eh, Titan? No troubles, this time—right mate?” Titan droops. “There, there. None of that, lad . . . ” Dad crouches, pointing over the balcony rail toward the Indian Ocean, and the smoky horizon where Java and Sumatra are burning off their fields. “Imagine it, Ti. It’s beautiful. State of the art! That rig is the future, my boy, and your old man is totally in charge. If Dr. Madden’s invention works—and it will—the sky’s the limit. For now, though, you must hang tight. Obey your mum. All right?” “Take me with you, Dad! Please?” His father’s smile is a rough scrape on the side of Titan’s face. “Not yet, son. One day, I promise, but for now you’re too young. You must be with Mum. . . ” How he wishes he were older. He’d so love to see the new well head, be there when it’s tested—and he know Dad is right; it will work—and be part of this “global frontier,” Dad calls it. This new era of safely drilling deeper, and deeper, to fetch energy the world needs. He’s listened to Mr. Icky describe it, can understand in Chinese and English both! He’s watched Miss China’s soft eyes glow and knows she understand, too—this brand-new era they’re embarking on. Him, though—he’s stuck. Trapped on shore. He doesn’t even have recourse to Trudi, who is forever strapped to her kiddie chair, drowsy with all the licking of spoons and bowls Grandma gives her. Grandma tempts Titan also, waving beaters and whisks like wands, offering goes with the food processor, but he’s having none of it. He does his racecar instead, up the hallway, round the coffee table, through the kitchen swing door with a thump and screeching down the hall again. Grandma catches his shirt collar and takes his face in her soft hands. “Titan! You make me dizzy!”
She sends a look over his head to Mum, who is unpacking yet more shopping. Titan lets himself relax a moment, his head heavy in her palms. The light is suddenly not quite so yellow-hard. “You’re beside yourself, young man,” says Grandma. Titan thinks she sounds tired, too. “See what I’ve dealing with?” says Mum. “Imagine, in and out of the pool five times a day. . . . “ “The pool!” “Hush, Titan. You’ll wake your sister. Here. Have a biccy.” “She’s not sleeping. She’s awake as you and me.” “It’s all right, Mum, I’ve reserved the ayah. Okay, Titan. Get your sister. But remember—no funny stuff.” Titan’s cheeks cool where Grandma’s warm hands were. He races down the hall as she stills the swing door shut behind him. But he can still hear, through the pass way. “I think he senses something, Karen. . . “ “Sh!. . . radar dish, for certain. . . “ “Trudi! Time to swim!” She’s sitting up, serious and still. A docile prisoner. “Trudi. Trooo-di!” He presses close, fingers wriggling through the bars. His sister’s milky face focuses. She starts to smile. The kitchen door flaps open. “—Now Karen. He’s their father . . . ” “Yeah, well . . .” A shadow, like when pigeons shoo and flap shadows over the pool bottom, flickers between Titan and Trudi. Out the bedroom door her focus goes, a scowl wrinkling her forehead, her mouth slaunching open. She can look so funny, and so frightening. Like an older version of herself, swimming to the surface. Like when she understands. Titan pincers a silky curl and pulls. Her eyes return and become her age, again, in his command. He makes his free hand into jaws. “. . . is it, with these men, Mom? What is it?” “Now, Karen—” “Raaawwwwrrrrrr.” He blows a hot roar, like the jackals at the Night Safari. Trudi’s eyes go wide, and she gives her crazy, sideways smile. He smiles, too. The grills are smoking and the poolside cabana is roped off. Cook unsheathes sausages from cellophane, cracking jokes that raise wan smiles from the crew. Most have been reveling all through shore leave. They’re tired. A return of order and regularity on the rig will be a relief. “Hair of the dog,” they say, and clink bottles with a shrug. Titan, slithering and cannonballing among them, overhears mutterings, snatches of stories punctuated by small snorts. Mum presses her lips tightly, but doesn’t warn him away. She’s got an air of finality about her, too, setting 126
out heaps of food without much looking up from her tasks. Dad, sitting in a circle of three or four thick men tilts his head up and says “Karen —?” but she passes by. Miss China, deep in the cabana with a Chinese newspaper propped on her lap, glances at him when Titan zooms up, finding her. “Ni hao,” he says, and her smile is a flicker like the tail end of a firecracker chain before her gaze goes back over the edge of the paper to where Mr. Icky and Dad are chatting. What sparkle there is to the party so far, comes from Mr. Icky. He smiles so hard he looks ready to sneeze, gestures with heaving flaps of arms and hands. Men come to him and beam, clap him gently on the shoulder and keep their hands there, as if drawing energy from a battery. Titan tries to decide whether he looks quite fit, as the men say he does. Certainly, he’s nervy. He’s dressed with flair, in bushman’s khakis and a hat pinned up at the side, the stiff material giving the impression of bulk. He’s drinking, which Titan has never seen him do, and queerly—not forthrightly, twisting and overturning as if handling a tool, like others do, but in sips and trickles that are quick and sly. Dad’s eyes follow this. All the crew seem joined in buoying him. Shoring him up, perhaps. Titan hasn’t quite understood, before, how Mr. Icky fits with the others, but now he does. Dad is chief, but Mr. Icky is the center. Like the wobbly nucleus of a jellyfish. Like the head of an octopus, bulbous and ballooning, for which the others are tentacles. Titan stops a moment to meet his glistening eyes. “Lǎobǎn,” he says, and gives him his first salute outside of practice in his bedroom mirror—two fingers to his brow, and jaunty like Dad’s. Mr. Icky tilts his head. His smile is gentle above jagged teeth. “Thank you, son,” he says. “Hěn erzi, young Triton.” The afternoon loosens and gets limber. The weather cooperates, trade winds lifting as the monsoon season nears, clearing Sumatran smoke away. Tall palms bend and clatter. Heliconia gives royal waves of its long leaves, and birds of paradise dip and lift like derricks. The ruffled pool glitters, enticing more and more into the waters. The Asian girls arrive, their lovely, gangly arms strung with shopping bags of one last spree. Wind lifts their hair. They’re lovely, and unsure. This is the end. The men collect themselves, and beckon. “Come in, sweetheart, the water’s fine,” says one. Another hoots. “Love you long time,” he mimics, and is hushed. The killer whale is brought out. Rollicking commences. Titan can feel, that now Mum is looking for him. From underwater he spots her thin legs, circling. He pops up for air and dives again, ducking underneath the beef-red and slender-brown legs thrashing overhead. He saw Mum’s squinting frown, but also that her hand are full of plates and bowls, and bottles gripped at necks. 127
Grandma is circling also, slow and fagged compared to Mum. Titan surfaces, just to his goggled eyes, like a seal, and feels almost sorry at the bedraggled sight she makes. She has tried, but in truth she is out of her depth. Her poor, old face looks white and scared. When she locates Trudi, floating on a chaise oared by the cabin boy, it’s only because the fuchsia water wings and ruffled sunhat she made herself are give-aways. “Hush,” Titan commands, “ānjìng,” when his sister squalls to be hauled backward off the chaise. He puts their faces nose-to-nose until she sees it’s him, and that she’s being looked after perfectly well, and Grandma has been obscured from view. “Ahoy, mate,” says the cabin boy, equably, and knifes the water, arrowing away unencumbered. Titan ferries Trudi toward a bevy of Asian girls and watches covertly as the cabin boy swans one of them, separating her from the rest like a panther separating a gazelle. “He’s got no education to speak of, Ti, no prospects beyond a roughneck,” Dad cautions, when Titan admires this young man who is no more than a decade older than he is. Increasingly Titan understands—there’s time to be got through. “You’ve got bigger fish to fry, Titan,” says Dad. “Come on, then. Hep-hep. Let’s get to work, shall we? Do some drills?” Titan understands. But he also knows there’s less time than Dad thinks. Things are changing. Fast. The rubber disc rests on tile just by the drain dead center of this immense pool floor. Titan remembers, when it seemed a Herculean task to retrieve it even from the shallow side. But then Dad urged, tossing ever further, deeper, until finally a plunge was nothing, as easy as a jump in air. And then, better than the air. Much better. “Terrific, eh?” Dad grinned when Titan passed fear and got it. The incredible charm, of this watery world. The best world—the only one—to be in, when all is upside-down and inside-out, elsewise. Titan touches base with both hands on the drain grille, feeling its heavy suction pull his fingers hard, threatening to turn the rest of him into a cork, as, centimeter by centimeter, his flesh is gathered there. “Pure genius,” Dad says, of the engineering in Singapore, where water is sparkling clear no matter how insidiously they drill. Getting it right takes incredible effort, and courage, and intelligence of the very best. But when it works—and it does—there’s nothing like it, Dad says. He says, Titan is progressing famously. He’s ready for the next step—scuba lessons, the next shore leave. Bali, he proposed, which provoked a row with Mum, “Are you crazy, Jerry? Are you insane? They aim for Aussies, there! They blow us up!” and though Dad said it’s been two years since the bombings, she won that one. “All right. Phuket, then,” she agreed. Though to Grandma she muttered, “Fat chance.” Titan pops to the surface just as the killer whale rocks and judders by. Past its heaving tail Dad comes into view, still and red-faced, eyes down-cast. Titan lifts his arm like a periscope then just as quickly lowers 128
it. Mum, also, is revealed, just by dad. Her chin is thrust out, her hair flung back, one hand on her hip and the other aimed at his chest. Once, twice, Mum drives her finger and Dad steps back, but just to brace himself. Mum leans forward further. She’s a scrapper, “Just the sort for a wild buckaroo like your dad, Titan,” but she’s too small to threaten him, physically at least. Dad used to pick her up in Perth, heave and toss her until she’d stop screaming and laugh. At least she’s not screaming, now. Then water dribbles from Titan’s ears, and, in the nervous hush the party has fallen to, he hears her. “. . . think I don’t know?” The hand not pointing at Dad’s chest flings out, toward Miss China still as an obelisk behind a cringing Grandma. Her gesture is like flinging trash away. “—really and truly think, I’d stay here, quietly, with your whore?” Titan knows what to do. It’s a moment’s work, to note his sister bobbing by him like a fuchsia water toy, and to dive and tug her little leg, the pistil of the sea anemone flower formed by billowing ruffles. It’s what they do, as is the piercing shriek she gives that Mum never ignores, no matter what. What’s new, as her little arms, flung up, slip from their water wings, is the depth of water. There’s a moil and a toil, and he grips her slippery foot in spite of how she kicks, then something hits him, hard, and he lets go. It’s the oar, thrust down from a chaise, and above it, like a face plunged through a mirror, the desperate cabin boy trailing silver bubbles from his mouth. Now, bodies plunge and arrow in, as if they were raining from the sky, and with a mighty splash his dad is there, writhing his arm round Titan’s throat and then his rib cage, jerking away and upward in a tired swimmer’s carry even as, in an agony Titan can feel more than see, his father writhes to see what Titan momentarily spots as well, which is Trudi, a small heap of gold and pink, crowded to the pool drain. Then, Mr. Icky arrows there, his sandals flapping off behind, his white hair streaming. Titan is jerked up and out, and folded over when the breath he tries to draw gets choked on water. He retches, tries to breathe again, but sharp hands on his chest and stomach squeeze more water seeps out and splattering. Then, slowly, his mother supporting his unfolding like a bellows, Titan breathes air only, watching through a film of water the operation proceeding on the towel below. Mr. Icky, white as bone, his sodden shirt defining every rib and bump of backbone, is on over Trudi like a crawfish. Tenderly, one hand props his sister’s neck, the other pinches nostrils shut with delicate, wishbone arch of thumb and forefinger. He bows, kisses Trudi lingeringly, puts an ear to her lips, her chest, then gives the kiss of life again. Miss China, hovering above, drops one tense, tingling word when Mr. Icky’s shoulders jerk. But when he fists his trembling fingers and flings it 129
toward her, she shrinks back. Titan sees, she’s nothing but a servant after all. Now Trudi’s eyelids flutter and her eyes pop open, blink, fix in horror upon Mr. Icky then search, find Mum, who Titan didn’t know was sobbing until he hears her, “Tru-di, Tru-di, Tru-di” and feels the racking way her arms let go. Sirens spurt, bwip-bwip-bwip, through the breezeway, and then clattering feet and whizzing gurneys thumping gear boxes. They’re not necessary, now, but Dad still bows his head, “What if?” writhing on his features as always when he thinks of how things go wrong in a heartbeat, and all one can do be prepared, with drill after drill after drill. Then, after all, disaster strikes. Mr. Icky, perched on a chaise, cradling himself after his exertions, puts one hand down to keep from toppling, then with a rueful moan, cannot. Down he goes, landing on his side, curling like a shrimp. Miss China cries out and springs between the bodies to kneel, neat as a Geisha, at his head, and scrabble in the pocket of her robe for his medication—his digoxin, as it happens, since what she is to him is his nurse. Whatever else she is will never be spoken of, and, after today, Titan will never see her again. He might have, at a funeral, but Mr. Icky didn’t die. Not quite. The medicine was there, and EMT’s, and Dad fueled the process as he could. Mr. Icky would have been just fine had a stroke not followed hard upon his heart attack. In the Wernicke’s region of his brain, the stroke blasted language and comprehension. He lived. But his usefulness was ended. The time in Singapore is vivid in Titan’s memory. Dad references it a lot. “Remember ‘crocodile’?” he’ll say, his laugh liquid and rough as oil in loose engine parts. “You got your chops, that’s what! Now you must use them. It never was easy, son. You just have to do your best. Just like your old dad. Hah! Couple of Bonzers, the pair of us. . . .” And Titan, from his side of the world, will realize that Dad has wandered off point, unable or unwilling to follow. With a feeling like a tightening noose he’ll call up Trudi, who will be a comfort as usual. She’ll grouse, and tease. “Oh, well then—Mr. Captain of Industry, is it? And what am I, then? Your coolie?” But she’ll go, from Adelaide or Melbourne or Sydney, wherever her current perch is, to look in on father whom she, also, loves, very dearly, in spite of everything. “Don’t blame your mother, lad. She did her best,” says Dad, when he’s too swozzled to recollect that Titan never blamed Mum, or anyone. Who would there be, to blame? It’s just, everything changed. The world changed, and he became a different person. A different breed. When Mum says, “When are you coming home, son?” it’s him who can’t follow, this time. “Home.” It sounds like a dead language to him. One that no one speaks, anymore. 130
Trudi gets it, sort of. She’ll say, “The thing you have to understand about Titan, is he doesn’t see the world the way most do. When most people look at a map, they see land. Titan sees water. Isn’t that so, Titan?” Yes. And, no. In truth, Titan sees the whole thing. Water, land, what lies beneath. It’s exhausting, actually. He thinks quite a lot about Mr. Icky. “On the shoulders of giants” is how Transocean described the proliferation of their deep water technology, after Mr. Icky’s well cap made it possible. He wonders, what would Mr. Icky do with the challenges Titan faces? Would they be impossible for him, too? When everything is just too much, he likes to look out over the roiled ocean surface and imagine Mr. Icky, white legs spread like a derrick on the sea floor, skinny shoulders bearing up the rig on an axis running straight through the world, down to the Indian Ocean and just intersecting the place Dad’s rig used to be. Dad’s right, that the symmetry is amazing. “Don’t despair, lad,” Dad says, when he’s able to hear. “You can puzzle it out. If anyone can it’s you.” “Why not have me there?” says Trudi. “Surely, if we put our heads together. . . . and besides, I could use a vacay. I’ve never once seen New Orleans! The ‘Big Easy,’ don’t they call it? What do you say—take it easy, for a change, with your little sis perhaps?” Titan tries to laugh. It comes out choked, more like a sob. “Titan. Listen to me. You’ve always found a way. You’re just tired, is all. Let me help. I’ll come. You show me the rig—Deep Water Horizon, is it? Sounds lovely!—and we’ll talk. I’ll help you figure what to do.” Titan feels a little better. Dread that has built up in his chest like plaque—like the cement, rigid and substandard, that BP has contracted and must not be allowed to use, lest there be disaster no one can recover from—subsides a little. He can breathe. He can even laugh, freely if just a little, can even joke, when his sister says, “Just keep me from the drain hole this time, will you?” “Chomp-chomp.”
OUR CONTRIBUTORS Jeffrey Alfier is winner of the 2014 Kithara Book Prize for his poetry collection, Idyll for a Vanishing River (Glass Lyre Press, 2013). He is also author of The Wolf Yearling (Silver Birch Press) and The Storm Petrel–Poems of Ireland (Grayson Books). His recent work has appeared in Spoon River Review, Saranac Review and Tulane Review. He is founder and co-editor of San Pedro River Review. Kristen Beck has a poem published in the Fall 2014 issue of Arcadia. She is currently an undergraduate student pursuing a degree in psychology at Salisbury University. Micki Blenkush works as a social worker and lives in St. Cloud, MN with her husband and daughter. Her writing has appeared in Nota Bene; An Anthology of Central Minnesota Writers, in Limehawk, and in Rose Red Review. Elya Braden took a long detour from her creative endeavours to pursue an eighteen-year career as a corporate lawyer and entrepreneur. She is now a writer and collage artist living in Los Angeles where she leads workshops for writers. Her work has appeared in Cultural Weekly, Deep Water Literary Review, Dogwood, Euphony, Forge, poemmemoirstory, Split Lip Magazine, Willow Review and elsewhere. Jeannette Brown writes poetry and fiction. Her work has been published in Bellevue Literary Review, Southwestern American Literature, New Millennium Writings, Texas Observer, ArtSpace, Mother Earth, Breathing the Same Air: An East Tennessee Anthology, Suddenly IV, Knoxville Bound, and other publications. She is the editor of Literary Lunch, a food anthology. Darlene Cah used to improvise on stage. Now she improvises with words. Her stories have appeared in various journals including Smokelong Quarterly, Referential Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review, and the anthology Have a NYC, among others. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. Susana H. Case is a Professor and Program Coordinator at the New York Institute of Technology. Her photos have been published in the San Pedro River Review and Weave Magazine among others. One of her chapbooks, The Scottish Café was re-released in a Polish-English version, Kawiarnia Szkocka, by Opole University Press in Poland. She is the author of four full-length collections, including Elvis Presley’s Hips 132
& Mick Jagger’s Lips (Anaphora Literary Press), and 4 Rms w Vu (Mayapple Press). Please visit her online at: http://iris.nyit.edu/~shcase/. Tobi Cogswell is a four-time Pushcart nominee and a Best of the Net nominee. Credits include or are forthcoming in various journals in the US, UK, Sweden and Australia. In 2013 she received Honorable Mention for the Rachel Sherwood Poetry Prize. Her sixth and latest chapbook is Lapses & Absences, (Blue Horse Press). Her seventh chapbook, The Coincidence of Castles, is forthcoming from Glass Lyre Press. She is the co-editor of San Pedro River Review (www.sprreview.com). Joan Colby has been the editor of Illinois Racing News for over 30 years, a monthly publication for the Illinois Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Foundation, published by Midwest Outdoors LLC. In addition, she is an associate editor of Kentucky Review and of FutureCycle Press. Joan lives with her husband and assorted animals on a small horse farm in Northern Illinois. Darren Demaree’s poems have appeared, or are scheduled to appear, in numerous magazines/journals including South Dakota Review, Meridian, The Louisville Review, Grist, and the Colorado Review. He is the author of As We Refer To Our Bodies (2013, 8th House), Temporary Champions (2014, Main Street Rag), and Not For Art Nor Prayer (2015, 8th House). He is the Managing Editor of the Best of the Net Anthology. He currently lives and writes in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children. Milton P. Ehrlich is an 83 year old psychologist who has published numerous poems in periodicals such as the Wisconsin Review, Toronto Quarterly Review, Antigonish Review, Shofar Literary Journal, Dream Fantasy International, Pegasus, Blue Collar Review, Chiron Review, Parnassus Literary Journal, Xanadu, Mobius, Christian Science Montor, and the New York Times. Christine Hale’s short fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in many journals, including Arts & Letters, Hippocampus, Still, Prime Number, Spry, Mandala, and Saw Palm. Her first novel, Basil’s Dream (Livingston Press/University of West Alabama, 2009) has received some good notice (details at her website, www.christinehalebooks.com), including an honorable mention in the Library of Virginia 2010 Literary Awards. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and has taught undergraduate writing there as well. At present she teaches for the LowResidency MFA Program of Antioch University-Los Angeles. Jane Hoogestraat's book of poems Border States won the 2013 John Ciardi Prize and will be published by BkMk Press in 2014. In addition, 133
she has published in such journals Crab Orchard Review, Elder Mountain, Fourth River, Image, Midwestern Gothic, Poetry, Potomac Review, and Southern Review. She teaches at Missouri State. Louisa Howerow’s latest poems appeared in Antiphon, Mom Egg Review and Sliver of Stone. Her poetry has also been included in anthologies, most recently, I Found It at the Movies: An Anthology of Film Poems (Guernica Editions) and Imaginarium 3: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing, 2014 (ChiZine Publications). A.J. Huffman has published nine solo chapbooks and one joint chapbook through various small presses. She also has two new fulllength poetry collections forthcoming, Another Blood Jet (Eldritch Press) and A Few Bullets Short of Home (mgv2>publishing). She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, and her poetry, fiction, and haiku have appeared in hundreds of national and international journals, including Labletter, The James Dickey Review, Bone Orchard, EgoPHobia, Kritya, and Offerta Speciale, in which her work appeared in both English and Italian translation. She is also the founding editor of Kind of a Hurricane Press. www.kindofahurricanepress.com Wendy Elizabeth Ingersoll was a piano teacher for many years before retiring. Her book Grace Only Follows won the 2010 National Federation of Press Women Contest and was a finalist for Drake University’s 2012 Emerging Writer Prize. She also has two chapbooks out. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Naugatuck River Review, Passager, Caesura, Controlled Burn, Mojave River Review, and received a Pushcart Prize nomination. Susanna Lang’s newest collection of poems, Tracing the Lines, was published in 2013 by the Brick Road Poetry Press. Her first collection, Even Now, was published in 2008 by The Backwaters Press, and a chapbook, Two by Two, was released in October 2011 from Finishing Line Press. She has published original poems and essays, and translations from the French in such journals as Little Star, New Letters, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, The Green Mountains Review, The Baltimore Review, Kalliope, Southern Poetry Review, World Literature Today, Chicago Review, New Directions, and Jubilat. Book publications include translations of Words in Stone and The Origin of Language, both by Yves Bonnefoy. She lives with her husband in Chicago, where she teaches in the Chicago Public Schools. Mercedes Lawry has published poetry in such journals as Poetry, Nimrod, Prairie Schooner, Poetry East, The Saint Ann’s Review, and others. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize, she’s published two chapbooks, 134
most recently, Happy Darkness. She’s also published short fiction, essays and stories and poems for children. She lives in Seattle. Keith Lesmeister is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Tin House Blog, Meridian, Redivider, Harpur Palate, River Teeth, Natural Bridge and elsewhere. Michael Minassian lives in South Florida. His poems have appeared recently in such journals as The Broken Plate, Exit 7, Iodine Poetry Journal, Main Street Rag, The Meadow, and Visions International. He is also the writer/producer of the pod cast series Eye On Literature available on iTunes. Amsterdam Press published a chapbook of poems entitled The Arboriculturist in 2010. Melinda Ruth has a poem published in Summerset Review. She is the Fiction Editor for the Scarab Literary Journal and currently a student at Salisbury University, in the English Creative Writing program. Renee Macalino Rutledge received an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College, where she was the prose editor of 580 Split and the recipient of an Alumnae Scholarship. She has been published in ColorLines, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, Filipinas Magazine, Oakland Magazine, and others. Her first novel, The Hour of Daydreams, is forthcoming from Forest Avenue Press in 2017. Thomas Sabel is a writer and poet from Fort Wayne, IN. His works have appeared in Whistling Fire, Tipton Poetry Journal, Riverrun, Confluence, wordriver, One Million Stories, and the Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling. His mid-grade fantasy, Legends of Luternia: the Prince Decides, has been published by eLectio Press. Elizabeth Sachs’s work has recently appeared in Consquence, JMWW, The Wild Vilolet and Spark: A Literary Anthology.. I live and work in Western New York and in Singapore, where "The Swimming Pool" is set. Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one skittery cat (his in-house critic). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, and novels. Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted by more than 200 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies including The Potomac Review, The Bitter Oleander, Shenandoah, and Conclave: A Journal of Character. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his story “The Sweeper.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an 135
accomplished jazz and blues guitarist who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing. Peter Serchukâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s poems have appeared in a variety of journals including Poetry, Boulevard, North American Review, Poet Lore, Paris Review, Texas Review and other places. Serchuk has authored two collections: Waiting for Poppa at the Smithtown Diner (University of Illinois Press) and more recently, All That Remains (WordTech Editions). M. E. Silverman, editor of Blue Lyra Review, moved from New Orleans to Georgia to teach at Gordon State College. His work has appeared in over 75 publications including: Crab Orchard Review, December, 32 Poems, Chicago Quarterly Review, BatterSea Review, Neon, Tapestry, The Southern Poetry Anthology, The Los Angeles Review, Mizmor L'David Anthology: The Shoah, Cloudbank, The Broad River Review, Pacific Review, Because I Said So Anthology, Sugar House Review, and other magazines. M. E. Silverman was a finalist for the 2008 New Letters Poetry Award, the 2008 DeNovo Contest and the 2009 Naugatuck River Review Contest. He recently finished Bloomsbury's Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry and is working on a second. Michael G. Smith is a semi-retired chemist whose poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Cider Press Review, Nimrod, The Santa Fe Literary Review, Sulphur River Literary Review, Superstition Review and other journals and anthologies. The Dark is Different in Reverse, a chapbook, was published by Bitterzoet Press in 2013. No Small Things, a full-length book of poetry published by Tres Chicas Books in the spring of 2014, was a finalist for the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award in Poetry. Sandra Soli is a writer and editor who worked as a teaching artist and poetry columnist for a decade. Honors include an Oklahoma Book Award and nominations for the Pushcart Prize. Publications include photography as well as articles, poetry, essays, and short fiction. She is a proud biblioholic. Erin Traylor is a student at Salisbury University. Erin is currently the managing editor of the SU's literary magazine, The Scarab, and a contributing editor to the student newspaper, The Flyer. Genanne Walsh was awarded the 2014 Big Moose Prize and her novel, Twister, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in late 2015. Additional novel excerpts have appeared in Puerto del Sol and Blackbird. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and lives in San Francisco. 136
Scott Wiggerman is the author of three books of poetry, Leaf and Beak: Sonnets, Presence, and Vegetables and Other Relationships; and the editor of several volumes, including Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry, Lifting the Sky: Southwestern Haiku & Haiga, and the new Wingbeats II. Recent poems have appeared in Decades Review, Frogpond, Pinyon Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and the anthologies This Assignment Is So Gay and Forgetting Home: Poems about Alzheimerâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s. He is chief editor for Dos Gatos Press in Albuquerque, New Mexico.