He feeds the ravenous seagulls down beside the lake, shares his lunch hour with people that most other people disregard. He thinks about Richard, living alone in his shack made of watermelon sugar, thinks about Robert risking his life by having his teeth cleaned without the benefit of antibiotics. He thinks about his own heart, murmuring unsteadily in his chest; about the problems of becoming older and colder in a land that rewards youth and warmth; about being fat and lazy in a place that values only fitness and ambition.
Today he listens to the radio and watches a freshwater iceberg circling around in the current where the lake flows out into the river, flows north toward Canada, where the iceberg seems particularly unwilling to go but seems equally and inevitably destined to be.
When he gets home, before it gets dark, he remembers the seagulls and the iceberg but he only tells her about the iceberg. When he tells her about the iceberg’s apparent indecision about staying in the lake or going with the flow, north to Canada, she tilts her head to one side and wonders about where he finds the time to think about saying such things. When he opens his journal and reads aloud the same words he just used to tell her all about the indecisive iceberg, everything seems to fall into place for her. A look comes over her face: sudden awareness that he’d never say anything out loud he hadn’t already written down (or imagined writing down) to tell her later.
He loves her and she has brown hair. He plans to write about her beautiful brown hair at some time in the future, as soon as he can, and come home after work, tell her all about it before it gets dark.
“Has my time finally come round, brother?” he asked the executioner, who stood by patiently, ax in hand. Because he was hooded and constrained by statute from speaking, the executioner did not reply, but their simultaneous presence at that very spot, standing opposite each other, separated only by the oversized chopping block at the appointed hour, spoke for him.
The prisoner made a low bow. The executioner took full advantage. Soon it was silent and they were both welcomed home.
The executioner’s mother, having lost half her sons, wept.
One sister, mad, alone and despairing, stood arms outstretched, motionless on the track. The rail, as rails must, sang under the weight of the train, and the sister, bereft of song, stopped singing forever.
The other sister, later, curious, leaned too far over the railing of the trestle hoping to see where her sister had finished her song.
In the morning, passersby, unaware of the relationship, finding the second sister lifeless on the graveled rail bed, marveled at the coincidence of two women, dead at the same spot, less than a week apart.
After the five-day holiday, after almost a week of sleeping in and napping at will, he’s unprepared at half-past five to face the fact that it’s another workday to be endured, to slavishly slave away. Routine works best to overcome inertia, he thinks, so he goes out to the kitchen, sets the coffee brewing and turns on the morning news. A scoundrel’s in office—no news there—and by the time he’s brushed, dressed, and ready to go the coffee’s ready, too. He fills the travel mug, kisses his lover goodbye, and sails out to face the day ahead. It’s not until he’s almost half-way to work he reaches for the cup, takes a sip and frowns. It’s awful and he can’t imagine why. But then it comes to him: no brandy.
The crow, apparently ravenous for the unrecognizable splat of highway carrion, does not budge from its feast, despite the near passage of a barreling fourteen-wheeler in the adjacent lane. The truck’s driver barely notices the banquet as he flashes by, his mind on his destination, his eyes scanning for radar cops or construction cones. The truck itself, intent on only its task of hauling weight and displacing the air it moves through, has no sentience; cares neither for the beast it carries nor the beasts it passes. It’s the middle of June, at last, and everything beside the highway’s grey is green.
Last night in the arcane landscape of darkness, while my actual body remained in the safe soft confines of headboard and fitted sheet, I drove some wild dirt back road at 80, dust everywhere, radio loud
her beside me on hot red leather all at once terrible and terrifying. I knew it would be her again. I couldn’t see her face but I knew, when we found ourselves naked, later, the musty room, sun-slatted,
it would be her again, urging me to pay the voodoo priestess, drink deep from the proffered chalice, let the ravens circle in and dive, dive. I knew it would be her again. When I raised the knife, I knew.
I remember how cigarette smoke curling up after almost midnight mingled with incense and music spilled out through open curtains from one private space to another all night long all along the boulevard all that long long summer long.
Thank you for leaving the light on. Thank you for not staying up or waking up; thanks for not making me tell you all about it just as soon as I got home, it being very late and all, and I would just as soon take it to bed and see if it affects my dreams, see if it leaves me anything I might be thankful for tomorrow.
but it was too late, too late. Her many silver children, sadly unschooled, netted only death, provided only one small unsatisfying meal for the insatiable clattering leviathan, working its way along the shallows, swallowing.
Daily the nightly news blared and all the careless cavefish, distant, buried their heads in sandbars, blindly reading only the sports page, the market report, the alleged comics.
Lured into compliance, lulled by the infomercials and the ever-present sitcoms, caught up in the water over the dam, everyone went with the flow. No one was laughing now.
All the babes at Positive Pie have phones that go unanswered, phones that bleep and glurg incessantly; insistent phones that flash and flash and stab their heedless owners’ eyes and ears and only add to the general beer-filled boisterous brouhaha, add to the overall overkill of noisiness to no avail: all the babes at Positive Pie ignore their phones. The more they ring the more they get ignored. The old man at the end of the bar, at the bitter end of his working Wednesday, watching, has seen the babes ignore their phones before, has heard the glurg and buzz and, buzzed, he works to find the words to turn it into certain verse, to turn the worst of sounds around, to make the endless ringing sing a song. He thinks. He finds, at last, the ink. He sings along.
He was already at the bookstore’s café, trying to imagine something to write about when he saw them walk in. She was holding his hand like any young girl might hold her father’s hand, though it was obvious that she was the mother and he the son, clearly in his forties or maybe early fifties. They chose a table adjacent to his own, and the son helped her off with her coat, pulled out her chair, and settled her in, rearranging the napkins and the sugar dispenser so that the table was clear before her.
“Oh, this is nice,” she said. “Have we been here before?” “I come here sometimes, but I don’t think I ever brought you. I’ll get you some tea,” he said. “Would you like a muffin? Or how about a scone?” “Yes, please,” she said, smiling up at him, not recognizing that a choice had been offered. “I’ll be right back,” he said, adding in as playful a tone as he could muster, “Now don’t you wander off on me again.” “I won’t,” she said. “I’ll be right here when you come back for me.”
She looked over at the adjacent table. “Is that a television?” she asked. “No. It’s a little laptop.” he said. He turned it around so she could see the keyboard. “Is it okay if I write about you?” “Is it getting dark yet?” “No, Ma’am. It’s Saturday morning” “I’m waiting for my tea, I think.”
The son returned to the table with two small dishes and both a blueberry muffin and a scone on a single serving plate. She seemed baffled as to what should happen next. He started to sit down across from her, but had a second thought and pulled out the chair next to her. He broke both treats in half, placing them on her plate. She looked at him lovingly, looked down at the food, and sat still with her hands in her lap. Half a minute later the barista brought a pot of tea. He poured. She only stared.
“Go ahead, Ma,” he said. She reached for the spoon and stirred the tea. He put some sugar in it and she stirred it again. He broke off a piece of the muffin with his fork and fed it to her. She smiled as if it were chocolate melting in her mouth. “Don’t forget to chew,” he said, adding, “remember last time.” She put her hand on the teacup, but did not raise it to her lips. “It’s okay. It’s cool enough now.” “What?” “I said it’s cool enough now. You can have a sip.” “A sip?” she asked. “The tea, Ma.” He lifted her cup and handed it to her. She sipped. She sighed and smiled, placing it down on the table beside its saucer. She reached over and broke off a corner of the half-scone, looking at it quizzically. “Is this the french fries?” she asked. “No, Ma. It’s a scone. You love them. Taste it.” She raised it, touched it to her lips, then lowered it and dropped it into her tea. He pulled the cup over in front of him, sliding his own to where hers had been.
“Is your wife coming to join us’” she asked. No, Ma. I’m not married anymore. You remember?” “Is she dead?” “No, Ma. She’s just gone. She got married again.” “So she’s still alive, then?” “Yes, Ma. She’s just married to someone else.”
She looked toward her tea. “Go ahead,” he said. “Have a sip.” “What?” “The tea. Have a sip of tea.” She looked at the muffin, then at the scone. She put her hands in her lap.
“I remember your wedding,” she said, smiling. “You do?” “Oh yes,” she said. The movie was clearly running somewhere deep inside her. “It was hotter than hell. There were lots of flowers. They were lovely. It was in Hartford. Everyone was there. She had one of those umbrella things she carried down the aisle with her. What do you call them, again?” “A parasol.” “Yeah. A parasol. She had a parasol, right?” “No, Ma. That was your wedding.” “Mine?” “Yes, Ma. That was your wedding. Remember?” “It was a long time ago,” she said. “But I’m still in love with you, even after all these years.” “I love you, too, Ma.”
“Do you think we should go now?” she asked. “It’s up to you,” he said. “Whatever you want.” “Oh, let’s stay a while. This is my favorite place. Everyone’s always so nice.”
Just before I wake up it’s Friday and a child I’ve never met living in my old house by the river takes a walk to the dark bank withdraws a gold nugget small as his infant sister’s eyeball bigger than all the false gold he’d ever found there before— but this time it’s the real thing and the kid looks astonished has no idea what will happen next and I’m a little startled too I wake up thinking liquid liquidity, liquefaction.
Call me Looneyman Coffeeslut. When you find me in the morning long before the sun comes up, (as if there’s likely to be sun) when you find me at the keyboard, half a man half asleep, call me Fingerdreams Hopeful, call me Renovated Crashburn. Yesterday I was Flabbergast Downheart , but all my friends (as if I’d had a friend) loved me as I was, called me Sameold Goodold when they met me on the street, gave me everything, I guess, they thought a man like Hankernot Renunciation might ever need. Still, though, need followed me everywhere, hunger dogged me secretly. Tomorrow (as if there’s any other day) is another day. Tomorrow you can call me Smiley Nirvana; tomorrow I’ll be Karmic Bailout.
I had considerable trouble leaving you. It was car trouble, mostly: I wasn’t really used to the standard, then, and it was hard to find reverse; or hard to find it fast enough anyway. Getting out of town was no picnic either, with all that snow piled up for blocks around the house, the storm localized around the cold front generated by your occluded heart. I had to start running the red lights because every time I stopped people kept coming up to the car asking me what took so long. I have to admit this much, though: when I finally got to the border, even though I was running on empty, I considered giving up and driving back. But I only considered it briefly.
While you are away, I go out into the sunless morning. The door that closes behind me closes forever. The house is an echo and the silent windows reflect only the vacant, untended garden. I have nowhere to go but I get into the car and drive.
All the signs are stop signs. People in the village stop, stare as I pass, seeing only half of me.
Nearly dawn near the border: Seconal, Valium, booze. No one expected the slow opening of eyes, least of all the man among the ferns, dismayed. This was to be the longest sleep, the rest, at last, so well-deserved. Imagine his surprise: dew-soaked, a slug across the bridge of his nose, no shoes or recollection.
He leaves the
hospital for the last time, unable to forget her face.
Half the country was locked in
an arctic vortex that night, wind chill readings in the dozens of degrees
below-zero, but he’d driven home—an hour’s drive over The Heights—with the
window fully open, his hands frozen on the wheel, his eyes blinded, the radio
blaring some almost incomprehensible ‘60s tune about love and a forever he can
only just barely recall.
When he reached the top of The
Heights he remembered how he’d once stopped at the pull-off on a mid-summer
night, sat quietly for an hour staring up at Venus, and written a poem about a
homesick Canadian dying to get home, flying across the median, sailing over the
ditch, and crashing in flames into the granite embankment. After all the years
of reading and reciting the poem, it had ceased to be a fiction. He never
crossed The Heights without recalling it.
Now, years and years and half a
year later, flying home, frozen, he forces himself to decelerate when
the headstone grey granite, harder than mere rock, looms, beckoning.
Morning: Icarus pursues a correlation between a red hawk, gliding, silent on a far dark horizon and the first slash of sunrise, dull fire before the day’s flames. But everything intervenes: meetings that haven’t happened, that won’t happen until after it's light, until after it’s almost dark again; the coffee that spills, the words that don’t; the pills and calls and all the deadly needy people, ready to be served, waiting to be saved.
He’s an unwilling subject: a wing he cannot grasp, an image of small flame spread out across a wide and empty air, lifts him from sleep but leaves him, breathless and parched, unable to speak; drops him, speechless, down among the boulders of another desperate day.
Mister Whistler looms down the gloomy street, hoping to meet the morning but limps himself back home before dawn. When the sun comes scrambling up at last over the staring and eggy town, sleepy in its early kitchens, all the yellow curtains in all the yellow windows burst into Sunday flames and fall, burning the countertops and leaving their feeble yellow ash on Mister Whistler’s sad and unswept morning floors.
The old man scoops another thin scrape of riverbank, dips the rim to
drown the till, swirls the pan. Part of the dig slips over the edge with
every circle. The murky water clears. Sandy granite. Schist. A glint of
mica. The man looks up. The sun is gold in a blue sky. The man sits still,
resigned. He sighs; scoops; swirls; spills. He wills himself to wait.
She thinks about how she looks, about how she looks in a sundress; puts it on and steps on out onto Main Street, pushes her stroller down past the Creemee stand where the hunks hang out, admiring each other’s tattoos and planning their romantic assaults on the wide-eyed waitress at the Valley House, making bets on who among them is most likely to get to second base first.
She knows she doesn’t stand a chance of catching their full attention or holding it very long, but she’s hoping there’s enough breeze to flutter her sundress, lure at least one of them into a second look, hold his eyes long enough so that her red hair and lipstick sends him a green light, tempts him to come on over and chat her up.
But the stroller’s working against all that. Sundress or no, lipstick or not, she knows she’s made her bed; she just doesn’t want to lie in it alone.
He chooses a theme and a pen. The nib is crucial, especially by the time he hits the third act when he makes a fine point on a dozen or so pencils for back-up. He exposes the characters by stages, methodically spilling ink on the script here, blood in the storyline there, and —as their hearts resolve themselves from paper into flesh—he beats them into submission, his manuscript their master, his work their play.
Canary (Online) December 2014 --Part 1 previously published (April 00) at New Works Review--
Wheeled glossy-wing'd and black Corvus Cornix, Corvus Corax to Home in golden Tamarack this cold day in space & sad when the sun goes down these hills
Merge here wood & water inland, hillbound streams dreaming driftwood beaches along the forested seaboard; merge green & grey the conifer and elm stands, gazing, down where fine white waterlace fans flat rockface & falls
Melancholy in this mist land The Raven and The Crow
Two days back in Time Birds, massing:
Put wing to Northland air you riveted, strung out & Against the sky: pull Winter in behind you
Like a vacuum: going, and nowhere. Somewhere trees reach, waiting.
Cornfields standing, left, amazed— frost light'ning stalks & leaves (where air has touched with ice the leathered scarecrow's fame) the stillness of the moment
Pinpoint: the Northern Star a sky away: Winter on these hills
Where the eye looks upward, nothing moves— above the landscape nothing is moving through still air
Bare these treelimbs in extreme starlight, frostbitten in air. What sun there is is cold
Still this greatcoated space under white inches of muffle
My Uncle Del, my father always said, could sell an icecube to an Eskimo, a dozen pairs of shoes to unwary legless vets; could sell, without a beat, Beelzebub himself a heater and a book of matches and insurance, too, just in case of fire. My father said my Uncle Del had paid his way through school by getting fools to waste their time and lose their thin and bottom dimes on crooked games of chance they had no chance of winning. And I don’t know if all that’s true, or if my dad was selling me a bill of goods about a relative I’d never met, and yet it seems it might be true: When I was young, if I had run to circus tents, if I were offered choice, I knew what kind of circus work I’d choose. I’d use my voice to rope the luckless suckers in; I’d stand outside the tent and sing in praise of freaks. I’d get the rent and every other cent the dopes could spend to see the geeks and flipperkids, the tiny Raisin Boy, the swallower of lengthy swords, the Fishface Twins, then send them out to borrow more, if only just to see the show again. I’d bark them in again, alright.
No one goes there now. For days the smooth snow, unbroken to the treeline, lifted there by wind along the ridge, settles at last among the stones. At night, stars, high, hiss an inaudible static, dance for the dead.
In the morning, if there is sun, it washes down between the stones, lights but does not warm. Cold reigns, and I stand in the drift, nearly ash among the ashes.
Danny B. initials the dust of the library’s basement window makes his mark inside a heart with his favorite girlfriend’s initials, pierces his full and dusty heart with an arrow, with angled feathers and a very serious point; and despite all the books and periodicals the institution offers, nothing means more than these four letters because Danny knows that tonight after the slow dance, walking her home in the dark under the feeble streetlight he can stop and point to the window, point to his dusty handiwork and hope she overlooks the crack in the glass and the fact that several other windows all bear similar artifacts: his name in dust in identically shafted hearts, and his former girlfriends’initials. The girl’s not blind, she sees it all but doesn’t care; she doesn’t care the window’s cracked, doesn’t care that half a quiver’s love is spent on half a dozen other dusty panes. She lets him make a pass, lets him kiss her under the blazing streetlight, and when the dust has settled she goes back home, cracks a notebook, fills a dozen empty pages with Mrs Dan, Mrs Daniel, Mrs Danny B.
Grace Thank you, father, for all that hash when I was just a high schoolboy; and for all those girls, their cute little pink feet and silver toe rings up on the dashboard, Stones on the radio, calico dresses in the wind, tanned legs, hot nights, warm flesh, and all those summer sunstruck mornings waking up with no idea whose house I was in, whose bed, and not a second’s thought about how it’s only Tuesday, smoky and unknowable. Thanks for the moon reflected in windshield raindrops, and for midnight mushrooms, Day-Glo under blacklight, mescaline boogie, acid rock, and acid. But mostly thank you for ’68: Danny Riley and his floral necktie finishing up his student teaching, smiling and handing me books, saying Oh man, you should read some Ginsberg, or Brautigan, maybe. No; here, I got it. For you, Ferlinghetti.
Wrong Hands He doesn’t know how he let his hands do the things his hands had done: casually thrown away a wedding ring, made a fist and used it, ransacked a complete stranger’s home, plunged a needle, pulled a trigger. It’s like they were someone else’s hands; like they’d never opened a book, never taken an oath, never tucked a little girl into bed, or stroked her hair. Now, everything had slipped away from him, left him predictably alone, completely empty-handed.
Today in the notch, despite the mere scrim of a mid-April snow, rainy flakes barely frozen, falling, liquefied, through an early morning mountain air, even the casual eye could catch (captured in a momentary parting of fog) the small grey buds of the red maple, the low spark, purple flame of crocus.
Three soon-to-be grads from Harvard or Sarah Lawrence opine on the morning news how their Senior classes seem simultaneously base and baseless in light of their last three years abroad, considering how, after all, once you’ve seen morning in Jalalabad, everything golden in the heart of the desert, everything wan and wavering in the high desert heat, everything else pales by comparison. Or so they say, three young women taking their last few classes, studying The Modern Islamic Middle East, The History Of Moorish Art, The Economics and Politics Of Oil Producing Emirates As Reported In The Western Press, Such As It Is. One of them has perfect parents in Prague, will go to live with them as soon as the mortarboard is tossed in the air; one of them is hoping for a career in diplomacy, if she survives a military stint and a battle for the civil servant’s desk. The third is planning a family just outside The Beltway, her most immediate goal a gallery, small showings on alternate Tuesdays, her house only a mile or two away, jogging distance, close enough to push a stroller or walk a border collie, far enough away to kid herself she’s got a life that matters.
All the water we needed was well below the glacial till. Twelve gallons a minute, four hundred feet down. Charlie and his boys had to keep changing the bit, making sure the mud went down smooth, the flush and cuttings came up like they should. Three blistering days went by before they hit anything vaguely resembling bedrock; three days of a grumbling crew, the chaser truck shuttling back and forth for pipe, for Cokes and smokes and general store hoagies, hotter than sweltering hell and only the middle of May. Tonight, two Mays later, I’m out on the deck, an icy gin and tonic reminds me it’s almost summer again, Venus smiles down, farmboys off in the distance, probably drunk, have themselves a little impromptu fireworks display, either because they just got back from Toronto, or because they’re too whopping drunk to know it’s not quite the Fourth. Either way, I’m waiting for you here beside the well tonight, enjoying the show from a distance; happy as man lately lost in the desert come in at last for something cool to drink.
Outside for obligatory photographs: ubiquitous head-shot, profile, three-quarter profile, bust. I stand between the battered, rusty plow, lost in a stand of spruce, and the house’s winter windows, nearly buried by blizzard. I squint and I will be squinting forever standing, frozen by the shutters.
When I see myself, inside, later, at first only pixels, then paper thin, I am several hundred pounds of meat none of it lean, leaning on a cane, a lame spectacle trapped by reflex and bifocality, with snow at the temple of my thinning hair.