Saint Jesús

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I. Mister Tinn

There is a constant thirst in this late September air, at least three degrees of distress waiting to undress my poor pecan branches. Their season may be ruined, Mister Tinn, but there is still time. This is not your problem, of course. Come with me, I will tell you about the Gleason boys.

If you look over there, in front of that buckled cowshed, you will see the three boys I taught to shoot pheasants with their father’s Ithaca back in ‘78. Oh, Lord, those were cleaner days, were they not? Not easier, but cleaner. That was back when you could extend a hand and not have it bitten. The boys were still respectful, and sometimes they even listened to me. Not anymore. They turned out to be conscientious shooters then, and now, contentious brothers. Just like their grandfather, Mister Jeremiah. Rotting fruit falls from that particular tree, forgive me for saying.

They are all grown men now, of course, but I still think of them as boys. Wallace, who is seated on that pretty blue roan, was the runt of the litter, and he never learned how to be anything but mean. He is probably the best marksman of the three and, I think, someone who warrants close attention.

Notice they do not acknowledge one another as they fall into their routine. They check the batteries in their flashlights, adjust their reins, examine their watches. Their rifles are holstered, canteen caps are tightened, tobacco tins secured in shirt pockets. They are ready for the long hunt, but they do not speak, not even to offer each other luck. Now watch how Wallace falls in behind his younger brothers. I wonder how much he thinks about that, if it is a conscious consideration. I have never been able to read his face, even when he was a boy.

If you glance over to the southwest field, you will see we have planted almost three hundred acres of sorghum this year. It is a blessing that it still thrives in spite of this drought. Beyond that field, there is a river, but not the one you may be considering. The little river I speak of is the Río de Caballos Perdidos — the River of Lost Horses and it is now almost a dry bed, barely viable even as a watering pond for the livestock. The illegals cross there at night, you know, and they bring their entire families with them: their grandmothers and cousins and sometimes even their sweethearts. Some have chosen this homestead as their destination, but most will avoid it. They know of Mister Jeremiah’s reputation. According to him, they trespass inside the fence line out of spite; they build their fires and leave their trash where it falls. Most of the time, they will cut around the field to the adjacent dirt roads, and then disappear. Sometimes bad things happen to them. No, I cannot say, that would just be repeating the rumors of the supper table. But they know they are not welcome here. Unfortunately, that is the life of the exiles.

You may think you are familiar with how much Mister Jeremiah dislikes them, but you do not know the depth of his discordance. Everything in the world that is wrong, he would tell you, it is wrong because of them. He can barely tolerate me, and I have been here for over thirty-five years. I came here as a young married man, and now I am an old widowed man, and this is the only place on earth where I wish to one day be buried. If he tolerates me, then it is with much equanimity that I tolerate him.

Have you ever seen a field filled with cicadas, Mister Tinn? They are a blur of motion, not just a gathering of insects, but a singular scheme, indiscriminate and erosive. And the sound? A grinding, claustrophobic cry that follows you into your sleep. Now imagine seeing such a thing of humanity cross that same field of sorghum. That is Mister Jeremiah’s fear, that relentless gathering. No wonder he sends out his hunting parties every month, to calm that surge.

A man like me, who does his job quietly, who tends to his orchard carefully and successfully, a man who stays out of the way when conversation turns serious and perhaps a bit dangerous, he is a man who can be trusted. Not for his character, no, but for his discretion. He develops a blindness to certain things. But am I blind, Mister Tinn? I can tell you what I see before me: the three boys I came to love back in ’78, and who have since probably forgotten my name. I am just the orchard keeper now. That is all I am to everyone here but my few close friends who are not nearly as well sighted as I. Thirty-five years as the trusted, unremarkable orchard keeper. Do I tell you what I know? I value my throat more than I value those boys, though that was not always how I felt. You understand if I remain cautious and bitterly silent.

And if you will excuse me, sir, my pecans are still distressed and I need to tend to them while there is still time. I must go back to being unremarkable.\

II. Adella

I heard rifle shots last night, Adella, and I am almost certain it was not a dream. Almost, I hear you say, and I imagine you raise your eyebrows. You think I dream of trouble too much. I can almost see your pretty brown eyes, but it is all from memory. I wish I could forget everything but you. 

No. I will not be sad, you would not want that, and I still value our nightly conversations.

Yes, I am certain the shots were real, and they were close. I could hear the nervousness of the horses in the paddock. Yes, my sweetheart, I still have his cuff link in my saddlebag.

III. The River of Lost Horses

Above your altar, Padre: “Come with me, ye unwanted child, and I will give you refuge from your beggar’s heart.”

I do not recall that as scripture, though it has been many years since I stepped inside your church. You must be weary of that excuse; at least you have been spared from the worst of my hypocrisy. Did you write that little homily, because it is striking and it is artless. No, I am not making fun. Those are damaged words from a plaster saint. There is no refuge here, and no one is offering it. How do you not know that?

These are the words that are spoken and true: blood and soil. That is who we are. What more is there to man? Guilt? Yes, we can add that to the list, I think, if it even exists. This is our natural pathology. Faith does not come naturally, and neither do gold cuff links.

Would you like to see it? It has a small diamond in the center.

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I have held onto this for over thirty years. I suppose it could be considered theft, since it was not mine, but I have earned it. I found it under my bed the morning of my wife’s death. I saw its match two weeks later in the shallow silt of the Río de Caballos Perdidos. It was near the boot of Wallace Gleason, a 12-year-old boy. His grandfather accused the boy of theft and demanded both cuffs be returned. Of course they did not find the second one. I have kept it hidden and safe. The boy may still be looking, and I am almost sorry for him.

Why have I not spoken of this before? Who would trust my word over that of the esteemed Mister Jeremiah? It is pointless, and it is my sin I came here to confess, not his.

Father, you see, she was a kind of elevation for me, of kindness and elation, simplicity of character, but not simple with her thoughts. Wrong was never right, bad was never good, and she, with a clarity of spirit, an airiness of poise and surety, had suddenly passed from this life. Of course I was devoted, never let that be vague. When I went to wake her that morning, I knew something was gone. The water glass on her bedside table was untouched, her hair was unmussed by her typically restless rest, there was a dullness to her skin, as if undusted by the prickly morning light. How did this happen, how could this happen? She was young, and now gone. The world would mourn her, I thought. Surely grief would shade every corner of this land. But no. The day moved on, lives continued, conversations progressed from where they were left off. I fell to my knees when she was removed from the bed, and the fall bruised my shins, I fell that hard. When the sheet covered her face, I thought of that same sheet fluttering on the clothesline days before, her hands pulling the wet cloth across the line, fastening it with wooden pegs, days before. And I wanted to hide inside myself, or under the bed, in a small knot, and then I saw it, so out of place in this simple, private space. This fancy little thing would pay my salary for a year. There was never a question of who it belonged to, but why was it here? Oh, Father, I could tell you what I thought then, but I think you, of common sense, would know. For mercy’s sake I cannot say. I did not need further evidence, or corroborating statements from witnesses, or whatever they would serve me in the name of the law and to soothe my aching, praying knees. I knew who committed this sin against her, against us.

And I said nothing. And I did nothing.

I did not weep and he did not stammer when he asked me to accompany him to the river. He, his grandson, his ranch manager — a man named Doyle — and I, and I have no idea why he asked me to go. It was under the pretense of soil samples and irrigation, but I don’t recall any samples being taken, any measurements being jotted down. We all stared at the river and walked east and west, and swatted at horseflies and yellow-jackets. He did not mention Adella by name, only mumbled something about regret and age. We both saw the cuff link in the river mud, and he showed some alarm. That may have been a trick of the light, a bit of sunshine reflecting from the current.

What could I do? What could I say, Father? I am ashamed of my dishonor, I was a coward. Yes. Yes to all of it. I only knew what I knew, and felt what I felt. I was nothing to him, and I did not have the words to convict him.

These are the words that are still spoken and true: blood and soil

IV. Over the Bristlegrass

There is talk of invaders crossing the river soon. Not the river you may be considering, but the small one beyond the fence-line. The lost one. I have seen these people cross the river, and they are not the hordes of marauders and thieves and murderers someone may have claimed. They are fathers lifting their children over the bristlegrass, mothers stumbling over river rocks as they carry the last dry blanket in their arms. They are grandmothers with eyes as large as fear, they are uncles and cousins and sisters and brothers, and they are desperate and sunburned, thirsty and burdened, and mostly exhausted by the fear sickness in their bellies. Let them come forward, I say.

I have walked Mister Jeremiah to his grave and I have seen others pass by his dirt and spit a bullet of chaw on his stone. His hate did not carry him to glory. And now, for now, the hunting parties have stopped.

His two youngest grandsons run this farm now, and they are as ruined in reputation as he. Young Wallace disappeared after Mister Jeremiah died, and no one can say where he is, but I do not think anyone has offered to look. Perhaps he is still looking for that lost cuff link. I dropped that thing in the old man’s coffin before lid was finally shut.

I cannot say the Gleason boys will pay a decent wage, but they will not be pointing their shotguns at the fence line. They are tired, too. I will share what I can, and I will teach the ways of the orchard to anyone who wants to learn. My pecan trees will listen if you know how to speak to them, and I know their language well. I have been the orchard keeper here for almost forty years.

Let them come forward, I say.

River photo by Vlad Chețan from Pexels

Bed photo by Chanita Sykes from Pexels

The birds

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I did not think I would reach the age
where a decent 12-year-old single malt
would be considered
a regrettable choice.
I thought by now
I would be reading Chaucer,
maybe listening to an opera or two.
My second ex-wife says Pucccini is good,
though he’s no Frankie Sinatra.

Now I stand before this mess,
examining the sodium content
of my boil-in-a-bag chow mein.

Today I fed the last of my muffaletta bread
to the last of the winter sparrows
assembled in the Radio Shack parking lot.
There’s free parking around back
if you can navigate
between the crates of broken gin bottles
and plastic bits of modem.
The birds don’t seem to mind
the evaporation stains.

They leave wormy puddles on my door mat
when they come to regurgitate
breakfast to their scuttling chicks.
They don’t even try to aim anymore,
they’re like the tenured drunks
who fly to the urinals at Giuseppe’s Taproom
because because because because because
pissing on your pant cuffs is the secret code
that you’ve given up on the things
that make faith your last resort.

I did not think I would reach the age
where I would sit beside serious women
in a skatepark.
They wear the colors of homemade knit blankets
foaming across their laps,
and they carry pretzels in their purses to pass
to the finches flickering around that
lone
hibiscus
tree
with the petals blowing
onto the quarter pipe.
They share a flask of bourbon and tea,
and, yes, they are more interesting
than the rubber-boned 12-year-olds
still learning to appease the laceration gods.

Some of us never grow away from our choices.

(photo from Pexels.com)

Fifty-four years following an unfinished burial

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I.

The pigweed is choking out the old summer garden, 
and these morning glories have finally figured out 
the shortest distance between the dirt 
and the kitchen floorboards. 
 
The family pictures, all gone 
except for this one of Henry leaning against 
Mister Sam’s blue Chevrolet Coupe. 
You can see cousin Laurel’s shadow falling
across the patch of dandelions beside his boot,
him with a grin, and 
her, well, I don’t know
what happened  to her,
no one ever said whether living or dead.
 
That picture slipped behind the pantry shelves
and no one noticed it missing
for almost 60 years. 
Henry died back in ‘62. 
 
Spring, 1973,
another twister shredded 
the porch and the backyard tool shed. 
No one was hurt but 
for the way we thought about things.
We stayed on that particular patch of land.
Where else would we go? 
What else did we have?
 
Youngest brother Davy lost to lung cancer 
back in ‘89,
sister Marlene broke her hip down cellar
and it grew a blood clot, early winter, 2003. 
Mom, bless her heart, heart attack at 52, 
Dad, soon after that, broken-hearted 
and emphysema, 55.
And the rest that was left, cousins
and further-back kin,
well, they drifted away, you know, 
they just drifted apart.
 
There is no real hole in the moon
when it hoists itself up as a curled pale shaving,
it is the illusion of its incompleteness 
that sets your mind to doubt.

II.

Me and Lucille, we are the last ones. There is a particular sorrow in saying, ‘Remember Cousin Muriel?’ because no one does. Loo’s memory is fading, and I am right behind her. The years, you know, they pile one atop the other until the weight closes the lid. 

“They drift, honey,” Loo says, reading my mind again. “The memories, they drift like leaves, out of order, random as curtains. Sure, I remember Muriel.”

We are lying in bed, hearing/not hearing the oscillating fan that escorts us to sleep, thick family quilts piled by our feet, sardine-colored light pouring through venetian blinds. It is my turn to cook breakfast, but the floor is still cold, and I can see every word of our conversation turn to vapor. 

“I remember Muriel,” she says, and she squeezes my hand.

III.

Said my Loo: She was a very pale girl, short brown hair. Mousy hair.

I remember her lipstick, said I, what color would you call it? Brown?

Some kind of maroon, I think. It was an ugly color. Muriel introduced us, you and me, do you remember that? You were frightened of her, and that made me laugh. I don’t know why, because she scared me too. You lived just past the four-way stop, where it turned into Baltimore Road, and I spoke to you for the first time at church. You were quite a bit older.

I was two years older, Loo.

But I was a girl, she said. Two years is a lot at that particular age. 

Go on about Muriel. How did you know her?

Oh, said Loo, she sometimes taught Sunday school class, whenever Miss Barbara was ill. Her voice was so deep, like quarry water. She scared most of the girls, but she had a look in her eyes, a bedevilled look, like everything was a clever joke she constructed.

She was oddly built, I said. And her voice did come from her feet.

But she could recite those passages like she meant them. She could have become a preacher, in a different time.

And did she?

Did she what, dear?

Did she believe what she read, the gospels and the epistles, the psalms and the songs?

I don’t know, said Loo. I know she cursed when she was angry, which was often. Such vile words.

I remember her funeral, I said. It was an odd thing. It was so quiet until near the end of the service. You could barely hear the preacher speak.

No, wait, said Loo. I remember that, too.

Remember? Someone from town noticed she had been buried in the wrong plot.

They put her beside your cousin Henry, was that it?

Henry was not kin, I said. I’m not sure of his distinction. He was a friend of cousin Laurel, I think. Henry died the year before. Scarlet Fever? I know that Muriel was afraid of him, she made mention of it to everyone. No one ever explained to me why she was afraid of him. Oh, what a foolish mistake that was, burying her in the wrong spot. It made the whole thing feel so unfinished. I was twelve years old, and even I knew it was a bad thing.

Did they ever move her to a different spot?

No, I said. It would take too long, and cause too much sorrow for the family to go through it again. The church planted a rosebush between the two plots as a compromise, but the roses always died. In time, everyone who attended the funeral passed, or forgot, or stopped caring. Because that all happened in the old century, you know.

Just like us, said Loo, rather bitterly. From the old century. And then she smiled. But we still remember, don’t we, Charlie?

For now, I answered. This damn room isn’t getting any warmer. You want your eggs scrambled or over-easy this morning?

Oh, honey, you know how I like them. I trust you.

IV.

Take a look at this picture. It was taken by someone I don’t remember, of someone whom I can barely recall. But I remember the event, the time of day, the slant of the sun, the sound of the bees surrounding the morning glories, the smell of the illicit beer on Henry’s breath, my father laughing behind me, my mother watching through the kitchen window, and I remember my cousin Laurel sliding away from the camera. She was a shy girl.

Mister Sam drove his brand new Coupe straight onto our lawn, and he parked it beside the side porch. My father loved the lines of that car, coveted it for himself, and wanted a chance to drive it. The car was beyond his means, but he didn’t hold it against Mister Sam. They were friends.

Someone pulled out their box camera, Henry stepped in front before anyone was ready for a formal shot, and the picture was taken.

But look closely. Focus in on the shadow that leans into the dandelions by Henry’s foot. There is a second shadow intersecting the primary one. It belongs to me, reaching for a kiss from Laurel. She was trying to move away from me, and her shadow bumped into the portrait. She was afraid of me. It wasn’t my first attempt at a kiss. And she wasn’t the only cousin from whom I attempted one.

“Don’t,” she said, and then she ran away. She didn’t say anything when I met up with her later, when we were alone.

I have lost my dear Lucille, and my heart grows more weary with each step I take towards her stone. We were the last of our time, me and Loo, and now I’m the last. I will lay roses on her grave every day until I am unable, and hope they will survive me. She is the only one I need to remember.

It is the illusion of my completeness that sets my mind to doubt.

(photo from Pexels.com)

Unintentional harm

There was a bruise on her thigh
the size of my eager young thumb,
the shape and color of a cat’s serving of
Neapolitan ice cream.
It was not my intention to cause her such a harm,
but it was the mark of my drowning eagerness for her,
a thoughtless expression of my wretched rawness.

I did kiss her quick,
a slight sweep upon her hip,
my lips a light touch upon her caramel skin.
She did not flinch or brush me away,
and in her eyes I saw a reflection of myself:
ragged, thin, braced against a cracked nighttime window
framing my narrow frame into a surprising self-portrait.

And I, unexpected, delivered her no preach of the affection
she had overwhelmed in me.
She poured over my every pore,
and my thirst for her was abated, though my heart was dispirited
that I caused her even this unintentional harm.

Soft brick window wells

do they still hold sleepovers
behind the textile plant,
on those burned-out chesterfields and
the la-z-boys with the brown foam
spilling out of the arms,

and do the bricks still smell like homemade
Portuguese wine
and wet takeout cartons

are the psalms still written on the plywood windows,
random angry verbs and treatises on
Vietnamese honey bees, and
big-G Gods and little-g goddamn ex-wives,
it’s all there, Mister Tinn, a written history
of living drunk on lower Caraway Street

but do you know what it is,
what it really is,
it’s all hidden in the uncomplicated folds of
the fabric of her skirt
like laurel leaves
under my fingers
that certain shade of green
and that certain breath she held
when she saw me approach her
and then

leave
and I’m

flicking cigarette butts into
coffee cans and soft brick window wells
clotted with three years worth of dead leaves
and I’m hoping
maybe something will ignite

and hey, there’s the new kid Carlos explaining again
the harmony of Samdhana yoga
to those with no fucking flexibility, he says
there was too much oneness between the sangria and his breath
when he tried his Yin posture on his teacher and her husband
swore he would beat the living shit out of him
if he tried that kind of

harmony
again

so do you think maybe he’s old enough
to end up dying here
with the rest of us

damages

these
there
are the scars she said a fleshybrown
hook on her belly a rage of adjectives against her
skin by hand under shirt under skirt look
here where the skin broke
at the damages she tolerates
for not knowing
his rages against the surface part of her,
the retractable blade
went here, look, touch these damages
they are only torn fabric silk and muscle bleeding
dye and plasma, dying
you hear a different meaning
from the language she has given you