Appomattox

skeleton-fish-museum-fish-bones-9365

Sarah, the sky that overlooks you and me, it opened up again today. The light that fills up the dogwoods is the same that curdles the cemetery gardenias. This has become summer once more, so you probably remember how things are colored, and then erased, without me telling you.

We have taken to planting crops again after last year’s calamitous conditions. Mostly it is cabbages, but also some acres of hay for the last two horses. You should see their shaggy stances, the hollowness of lean shoulders, the awful grief in their countenance. They will be confiscated by the army soon, Pa says, if we can keep them out of rifle range.

Lord, a soul can grow tired of salt pork and dooryard plantain, and sometimes you need to take a meal with neighbors (the Sowers, do you remember them and their dour Baptist leaflets?) to affirm you’re not being poor alone. The men will likely share homespun tobacco, the women will exchange recipes, the boys (and Alice) will tear up the yard grass with their raw feet, because that is the nature of this life.

We are each blessed in our own way, according to Pastor Paul, who joined up the fight last summer. Have you seen him? He promised he would write, but so far he has not, not yet. 

“Maybe he was killed,” said Cousin Ivy.

Do you remember sassy Cousin Ivy, from the Elridge side of the family?

 “Maybe they ain’t found his body yet, so he ain’t on any list of the dead,” she said. 

“Maybe you don’t know nothin’,” I told her. 

“Maybe he’s too busy fighting to be writing. He got any kin around here?” 

“No, don’t think so. I think he’s from Miss’ippi someplace. Seems like he was a solitary sort of preacher.”

“Maybe he found himself a woman, and she’s more interesting than writing back a letter.”

“Maybe you don’t know nothin’,” I said again.

“You ain’t very romantic, are you?”

“I never said either way,” I said. “And what if I ain’t, what’s it to you?”

“Then you are a bother to me,” she said. “Hand me another nightcrawler, these muds ain’t biting today.”

“That’s because you tore up the top of the river with your poor casting,” I said. “You, being a girl, don’t know how to properly fish for muds.”

“And you, being a boy, don’t know how to properly shut your big ole mouth,” she said, and she thumped me hard upon my ear.

I pretended it didn’t hurt, and that raised a smile from her, so we settled back companionably, and we cast out and didn’t say much for a little while. 

“Your pa mention the war to you?” she asked. 

“Little bit,” I said. “Not much. He wanted to join up, but his leg….” 

“You almost sixteen, ain’t you?” 

“Yeah. Couple more weeks.” 

“Gonna join up?” 

“Yeah. If they’ll take me.” 

“You don’t look too weak,” she said. 

“Stronger than you.” 

“Probably not. But they ain’t taking girls. Not yet.” 

“Maybe not ever,” I said. “That just don’t sit right with me.” 

“And why not?” she asked.

“I’m not trying to be smart, Ivy,” I told her. “I just think it’s… it’s too mean a thing for a girl, that’s all. War is just plain mean.”

“I can be mean,” she said.

“No, you can’t be. Not that mean. I’d rather go instead of you.” 

She looked at me, curious to my serious. “You ain’t mean enough, either, Cousin Jim.” 

Something grabbed hold of her line, and she tugged hard enough to hook it. She was laughing the whole time, and I didn’t want to think about the war anymore. It was a big ole mud– at least six pounds, I’d say — and it would feed her folks well. Then I hooked one, and, after a while, she pulled in another two. I could smell the sweat on her neck, and I swear it was perfume, the smell of gardenias.

And now the hounds watch me and Pa settle in for the night. I slouch next to him as he smokes, and he watches me scrape the fishbones from his supper plate into the weeds. The dogs whine. They have already fed. 

“You been spending time with your Cousin Ivy?” he asks. He is hitching up his trousers and he tucks in his undershirt after they are hitched. 

“Been with her today by the river,” I tell him. “She caught three and I brung in two.” 

“You know what I mean, Jim.”

“Daddy, she is my cousin.” I ain’t called him Daddy in three or five years. “She is also a dependable friend.” 

“She is your cousin twice removed, a cousin to a side-cousin. You are allowed to be with her, if she is your preference.” 

Charlotte-Bee, our eldest hound, howled at something near the barn, but that dog is half-blind, so we often ignore her.

“Weren’t planning,” I says. “To be with her, I mean.”

“That side of the family is slow,” he says. “They ain’t deep thinkers, is my best way of saying it. The girl herself may not be slow, but she has inherited their dispositions. Probably she will turn mean. Her daddy has that meanness, you know that. And you ain’t exactly a boxful of cleverness yourself, boy. She would have you eating out of a flower pot and drinking out of your shoe if you was so inebriated by her femininity. You understand?” 

“Daddy, she’s my cousin,” I say again, for emphasis. “And she don’t look at me that way.” 

“But you look at her that way, yessir, and if your Mama was still here, she’d already be ironing the wedding napkins and sprucin’ up her hair for such an event.” 

“Ain’t no such event to participate in,” I say, and he spat into the weeds, hitched up his drooping britches, and no more was said about that.

Sarah, the rain fell again today, exhausted, and its silver collected in our big pond.

Photo by Skitterphoto from Pexels

Newfoundland cross

The dog — an ugly Newfoundland Dalmation cross who came to us with the usual paperwork (though we determined early on that she was a non-practising Coptic Catholic) — became so attuned to our daily peccadillos that she died the day after Christmas.

Shoshana objects to the holiday reference. [Must you always make it about you, Cotton?]

How so?

[Referring to a holiday that only you celebrate. Not me, not the dog. Ah, well done, you’ve put me in parentheses again. The square ones.]

They’re called brackets. Also crochets. Don’t presume it means anything.

[Splendid. Now could you take them] off me. Thank you.

The dog — formally named Augustinia, but lately referred to as Marigold — is beside the point. She is not our official pet. We have no official pet, because Shoshana and I are not an official couple. She is almost divorced, I am married elsewhere. Our living arrangements are abstract and erratic. Marigold is, I think, a name meant to be ironic. Will someone please kill irony? It’s become a tacky ‘70’s wallpaper.

I called her Marigold because of that splash above her eye. Didn’t it look like–

It’s a silly name.

And Augustinia is pretentious. 

It’s dignified.

Did you ever even look at her? The slobbery jowls, her wet, sad eyes? How did that word even beam into your head when you looked at her? She wasn’t a bit dignified. She was sweet.

She was a functioning poop machine. She peed in geometric patterns across the carpet and pooped in chaotic lumps.

Cotton, she was a dog, not your [wife, not that little sycophant Charlie who wipes your nose and poops in the corner whenever you side-eye him. Marigold was… ah, well, yes, here we are again, exiled in your crotchless brackets.]

Crochets.

[Grow up, Cotton.]

It’s like being chided by Oscar Wilde.

[It’s like being judged by Miss Piggy. You’re being bitchy today, Cotton. This is about Marigold — excuse me, Augustinia.]

Augustinia. Yes. Why such a large dog, Shoshana? She was a mastodon.

She was sweet. She had a gentle presence. Even when she was breaking vases and pooping in the shower. Her eyes.

She killed my favorite shoes. Do you know how much I paid–

Yes, you’ve told me. Many times. And now she’s gone. You can buy new shoes.

 Mastodon.

Yes, she was. But she was ours.

Not officially.

But in all probability.

Cotton?

A tear?

The dog — an ugly Newfoundland Dalmation cross who came to us with the usual paperwork (though we determined early on that she was probably not quite as ugly as we first suspected) — may have become so attuned to our daily peccadillos that she died the day after Christmas. Her heart was very large. Unfortunately large. I wish we had known.

[You miss her, don’t you? Cotton? Dammit, Cotton, not] again.

Unofficially, yes. I miss her a little.

Liars and Thieves: Book Launch for Diana Wallace Peach

Welcome to the launch! Today, I’m proud to present the newest book — Liars and Thieves — by my friend Diana Wallace Peach, an extremely prolific and gifted author of dark fantasy, and a great supporter of independent writers. She’s written a new series, Unraveling the Veil, and I’m happy to shout it out.

Book One: Liars and Thieves

Behind the Veil, the hordes gather, eager to savage the world. But Kalann il Drakk, First of Chaos, is untroubled by the shimmering wall that holds his beasts at bay. For if he cannot cleanse the land of life, the races will do it for him. All he needs is a spark to light the fire.

Three unlikely allies stand in his way.

A misfit elf plagued by failure—

When Elanalue Windthorn abandons her soldiers to hunt a goblin, she strays into forbidden territory.

A changeling who betrays his home—

Talin Raska is a talented liar, thief, and spy. He makes a fatal mistake—he falls for his mark.

A halfbreed goblin with deadly secrets—

Naj’ar is a loner with a talent he doesn’t understand and cannot control, one that threatens all he holds dear.

When the spark of Chaos ignites, miners go missing. But they won’t be the last to vanish. As the cycles of blame whirl through the Borderland, old animosities flare, accusations break bonds, and war looms.

Three outcasts, thrust into an alliance by fate, by oaths, and the churning gears of calamity, must learn the truth. For they hold the future of their world in their hands.

Unraveling the Veil series

Three outcasts, thrust into an alliance by fate, by oaths, and the churning gears of calamity, must learn the truth. For they hold the future of their world in their hands.

Diana, how do you define success?

In all parts of my life: Happiness. We only get this one life; there are no second chances, no do-overs. We are each miracles, here through the perfect alignment of billions of years of evolution, choices, and chance. It’s not a gift to be wasted. Happiness means different things to different people, but for me it’s choosing an attitude of kindness, care, and compassion and acting on that choice. Writing is something that brings me joy, no strings attached.

Diana’s very creative trailer, well worth watching:

Author Biography

D. Wallace Peach

D. Wallace Peach started writing later in life after the kids were grown and a move left her with hours to fill. Years of working in business surrendered to a full-time indulgence in the imaginative world of books, and when she started writing, she was instantly hooked. Diana lives in a log cabin amongst the tall evergreens and emerald moss of Oregon’s rainforest with her husband, two dogs, bats, owls, and the occasional family of coyotes.

Diana’s Links:

Website/Blog: http://mythsofthemirror.com

Website/Books: http://dwallacepeachbooks.com

Amazon Author’s Page: https://www.amazon.com/D.-Wallace-Peach/e/B00CLKLXP8

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Myths-of-the-Mirror/187264861398982

Twitter: @dwallacepeach

Thanks, Diana, and may you have much success with this new series!

Where we go dancing

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

Me and Fo’ were well-digging since 6:30 that morning — same as every day since the middle of August — at Missus Bryant’s place near the edge of the Tallahatchie, and we looked exactly as what we claimed: gritty all the way under our hats and teeth. Miss Francine, Fo’s older cousin from Chicago, said she was curious about where folks went to dance in Dollar, and he told her, “in our kitchens, mostly. But sometimes in the grass when the night is particularly dark and clear. We take turns at the radio dial — we hope for some Dinah Washington, but maybe come across Buster Benton, or turn it up REAL loud when we finally find Little Richard (if we can find a station that plays him) — and when we’re not dancing, or listening, we watch for stray headlights that might be bringing bottles of Something Special to folks who carry more than just cherry Lifesavers and carpenter’s pencils in their pockets.” And that was the most expansive speech I ever heard Fo’ give, but I was aware that he wanted to impress Miss Francine, and was a little bit infatuated with her besides. He grunted at me when I asked him to explain how anyone he knew would bother with a carpenter pencil when it would be just as efficient to mark a measurement with a sharp stone. Miss Francine turned to me and she smiled her most famous big city smile and she asked me, “Do you dance, Bennett, and not just with scarecrows, but with real girls? I don’t expect you to know how to dance with a woman, so don’t you dare be nervous if you have to say no.” And I said, “Miss Francine, I can dance the ears off a row of corn when I have a mind to. Why, that corn becomes ashamed of itself and wishes it could be half as worthy as old dry cabbage or a leaf of backfield tobacco than have to endure another minute of the spectaculation of my feet.” Fo’ made a sound like the backfire from his uncle Joby’s Massey-Harris. “It’s Friday night, Bennett,” she said. “I suppose a boy like you knows where to find a hot spot to dance, other than a nearby cornfield. Or with an ear of corn.” I blushed. I did not know any dancing place nearby, but I told her: “Yes, ma’am, I do,” and Fo’ leaned over and jabbed a skinny knuckle just below my rib cage. “Boy,” he said, “you don’t even know where to find a working radio in your Mama’s house.” I meant to swat him, but he side-stepped me and I almost fell into the hood of Miss Francine’s Chevrolet, which would have had a ruinous effect after my dance story. “Steady there, corn boy,” Fo’ whispered. “There is a cotton gin barn in Glendora,” I said to Miss Francine, and Fo’ raised his eyebrows. “I heard that they sometimes hold dances there for young people. They keep ice buckets of Coca-Cola and sell them for two cents a bottle and they run a generator for a jukebox.” This was not entirely untrue, because both Fo’ and I heard the story from my sister’s boyfriend Henry, who was only unreliable half the time. We were also told that it was a place for older boys, nineteen- and twenty-year-olds, and that we should stay away from there unless we wanted  to trade our curiosity for a beating. Fo’ was fifteen and I was almost fourteen (but looked older). And Miss Francine was a grownup woman with a car, so I didn’t think it was necessarily a stupid idea. “That’s a stupid idea, Bennett,” Fo’ said, and Miss Francine only shrugged, and that was the end of that. So we spent most of that night behind Fo’s grandma’s house, drinking lemonade and ice water, and the place stood out for me like a sandcastle under a three-quart moon, fading in and out, washing away and retreating under all kinds of wavering shadows. We heard  cries in that still night, or what I thought were cries , and some screams, though I imagined and dreamed of all kinds of things in the days that followed. We heard about the boy the next day. Miss Francine’s brother RickyLee  drove her back home to Chicago soon after. We shook hands and said goodbye, and I could see the relief in her eyes that she’d never have to come back here. I wanted to go with her, and not just because I liked her (I did), but because I wanted to be far away from everything here that was so broken and mean. 

They found that boy’s body, the boy they called Bobo, and what was done to him, I can’t describe, and I won’t. It made me give up on learning how to be a boy. All at once, the idea of being foolish for the sake of being foolish seemed so badly foolish, and I ran from it fast. Me and Fo’, we stopped being boys right away. We gave up on digging wells for thirty-cents a day for Miss Bryant and her ilk, and spent a lot of time trying to figure out what kind of men we wanted be. Some days it still matters, I guess. I asked Fo’ years later what his grandma thought about us staying in her backyard that night. “Don’t think she stitched the two things together,” he said. “ But she was always kind about you, in spite of you sometimes being a world-class fool. ‘You boys act properly around Miss Francine? Ricky’s girl?’ ‘Yes, ma’am,’ I said. ‘We amused her plenty. She’s a nice girl and we were very respectful.’ Granny nodded, like that was what she expected. Then she rubbed her eyes, like she was suddenly weighed down by a lifetime of tiredness. ‘Nice is good, Fo’, she said. ‘Being reliable is good. But taking care of one another… making each other feel safe in the other’s company. That is especially good. And you are good, Fo’ You are especially good.’ And then she told me an old story about a dance contest she entered when she was a girl. I heard the story a hundred times before, but this time it gave me shivers, Bennett. You know? It still does. We could have gone dancing at the wrong place that night.” 

That was the only time we ever cried together, and it rained down hard out of our eyes.

The point of a circle

i.

In this twice-awful summer, we’ve become seasoned to the swell of black powder and scorched cedars coming in from Dorian Bandy’s old tobacco farm. One pretty day, I’ll invite you to see for yourself the swath of red-dirt graves stretched out like a shadow across that particular valley. 

Joselia, it’s not just us who lost their boys. 

Every day takes them further away from us. Their personal effects – freckles above the hairline, tides of peasant temper, pitches of overweening laughter — will fade. Memory will become unreliable again, or, worse, untrue. Our boys ought never have become explanations for our failures. I find myself wandering in and out of those years, restless to settle into a time that wants to keep me. 

Write to me when you have the time or inclination, etc. There are some names I can’t remember that need remembering; they’re like table settings that suffer from mismatched cutlery. Not important anymore, but still….

I remember a woman you used to like until you didn’t. I remember everything about her except her name. It scares me, what I’ve forgotten.

Regards, Robert

ii.

Robert, while you think about the names you need to keep, I consider distance. The great spaces between a mourning father and — what was it you called me last winter? — a bitter maw. It all falls in the span of summer minutes, between the lightning bugs and the cicadas. I think of the states lovers find themselves during wartime, when that war is fought over a misspoke word or a misdirected eye. Lines are drawn, fences built, promises buried. The wounded, the lost, the dead.

I don’t consider either of us blameless. Boys going off to war is not something we decided for them. Boys must let loose their vitality in a meaningful way. Were we proud of them? Of course. Were we afraid for them? If I’m to be honest, I would say not as afraid as I should have been. We were on the side of right, weren’t we? We believed in better angels. We — I — worried they might come home lightly damaged, their packaging torn a little. But this. This! It is the price we pay for such righteous pride. War does not care about mothers or fathers, does it? We were not excluded, we were not exceptional. There is this distance between what we thought we were and what was done to us. It was this burden of false expectation that changed who we are to each other. That was my culpability.

You worry about the names of women from twenty-two years ago. Robert, you are an ass.

I am disinclined to accept your invitation to survey your local gravesite, regardless of how pretty the day. Robert, were we always doomed in this regard? It is a serious question, and I have been asking it for the past fourteen months. Write back or not, depending on how long your pout.

Regards, etc., Joselia

iii.

We bathed in the limestone waters of Cutcheon Creek this morning. The rain lashed us hard for twelve days, and we emerged with willful appetites. Sally (her name was Sally) said she could hardly see Bent Leather Church, said it resembled a salt block slung crossways in the mud. 

“She will never know, Robert,” she said, and I was eager to agree with her.

Rhapsody

You tell me about the elasticity of mourning, and I still don’t think you know what that means. Laurel, am I supposed to shoetree this, fit it into something comfortable for you? How do you carry it, all this anger, and more; do you expect me to carry it for you?

So. Here it is. Not quite my definitive image of him, but it’s probably the one you expect. It’s simple, but not unexamined.

Him, 

leaning over me as I squirm on the floor, belt coiled around his fist, staccato of leather busting me open like a pomegranate. Oh, and the buckle makes a jangly tambourine noise, did I tell you that? How it crashes against my bare ass, bloodies it, pulps me into low-grade meat? I don’t know if you still remember him as he was back then, slender and wiry. Without that belt cinched around his waist, his pants begin to slide. He’s forced to tug on them with his free hand, and that changes the arc of his swing. He hits thigh meat for a few smacks, his accuracy noticeably off. This makes him angrier. I try to roll, and, for a moment I can see the band of his underpants, which are robin’s-egg blue. This is a surprise, because I can’t understand how a man who would wear such colorful underwear could strike me with such ferocity. 

No.

No.

That isn’t the image — not the main one — I want to carry, but it’s the one that muscles in whenever I think of him. 

Ha, listen to me: whenever I think of him. Almost fifty years later, and there it is, waiting for me. The belt, the buckle, the blood. 

You were off at Northeastern, your first year, and you were nervous about everything, so you didn’t know how bad it could get. I was never one to come crying to you. 

Laurel, I remember every angle, every discoloration on those yellow kitchen walls, every grunt he made, every squeak from his heels on that old linoleum. Hell, I can’t remember my own phone number some days, but I can remember that. It’s kind of remarkable, isn’t it, the terrible things we force ourselves to examine? The cancer of memory, the curse of a forebrain, the meat function of the amygdala. We learn fear, but we can’t unlearn childhood. And that’s what’s really pathetic. We can’t unlearn who we were, or how we were tempered.

Listen: 

Sweaty white undershirt, green twill trousers, zipper not completely zipped. Brown penny loafers, gravel-scuffed toes and insteps. Bit of shaving cream on the left earlobe, a torn square of bloodied toilet paper on his chin. Mid-morning sunlight pulling through those grimy lace curtains — remember them, stained by all those wet, humid summers? — and the entire downstairs smells like boiled onions and Pabst Blue Ribbon. I wore my favorite brown corduroys, washed the day before, and of course they were ruined by lunchtime. And the floor still had small Cheez Whiz blots from the previous weekend, when we cooked up a big pot of macaroni-and. My blood was wiped up quick enough, but that Cheez Whiz is probably still stained on that goddamn beige flooring.

“Don’t. You. EVER. Steal. AGAIN!” 

I could hear him, Laurel, inside each one of my howls, I could still hear him. He may have even just mouthed those words to me, in between wallops. I don’t know.

That was all he said. Those five words. He didn’t ask me to explain, or offer an apology when he threw down rags for me to clean myself. He didn’t speak to me again for days, not until you came home for Thanksgiving. I guess he assumed I learned my lesson and would never steal again. 

And I haven’t. I won’t even park in a spot where there’s still time left on the meter. If I didn’t pay for it, it’s not mine. Pretty simple, right? He made me an honest boy. I must be one of God’s chosen, despite, you know, all the boozing that came later.

Don’t look at me like that. I know.

 I know. 

Three divorces and two kids who won’t talk to me anymore. Look at me, I am one of God’s chosen. Ha. There are all those innocent bystanders to consider, standing in front of the wreckage I became. I know that, Laurel, I truly do.

Yeah, sorry, there is a point, and I’m still digging for it. 

Such moments of clarity pay a steep price. It’s in the simplicity of it, that sparkling blink of purity I saw it in him, once. You asked me for my definitive image of him? It wasn’t in that beating. There was a moment when I got to see him cleanly and clearly.

Maybe this will help, it’s all I’ve got:

Early May, the year I turned 17, the year I finally moved out. You were still dating that Paul guy, the one with the Corvair and the platform shoes. The guy who turned out to be a real asshole to you? Anyway, me and the old man were still swimming together in that house, and everything about us felt like drowning. We weren’t even trying to tread water. There was community college for me in the fall, and he was still working as a security guard at that Five and Dime over on Rochester Street — Jesus, how long ago was that? We had our meal times together, four or five nights a week, and we watched a few ball games on the tube if there was nothing else to do. You know, quality time.

One morning, he decides he’s going to mow the front yard. That was usually my job, but he surprised me. The sky was practically varnished with turquoise, and the sun poured down this honey-colored light that washed over everything. So he puts on an old undershirt and holey pair of jeans, and he pushes that old mower across our 30-by-30 front yard, maneuvering around the half-dead hedges beside the driveway, and he whistles a tune I never heard before, something simple, not too showy. It was… elegant, you know? I see the sweat on his shoulders and chest, around his eyes. Laurel, he looked like a younger man, his dark hair shiny with sweat and all that honey-bearing light.

He calls me over, and he puts his arm around my shoulders, pulls me in for a hug. I can smell his perspiration, the Brylcreem, the crumbles of tobacco inside his pockets. It was all him, a very large and real him, and his half-hug is warm and masculine and kind, and I think he means to kiss the top of my head, but then the garbage truck rumbles from down the block, right in front of Jerry Redman’s place, with all those noisy trash cans they used to put out.

The sky turns back to being ordinary blue, and the sun, an ordinary sun, and he smells like just another sweaty guy standing in his yard. He pushes me away gently, then lights up a smoke. He exhales for a long time. I go back inside and turn on the radio, turn it up loud. I can see him from the living room window, and he looks lost, like a boy. Like an innocent boy, smoking his first cigarette. And I am lost again. I think that was the last time I ever cried.

So this is how I carry it, Laurel. This is what I carry instead of the anger. I know you see ruination before you, a great self-inflicted loss in me, but I’m doing okay. I’ll stand by that grave site today, and I’ll be still. I don’t think I’ll cry — I still don’t know how to fake tears, not after all these years — but I will honestly grieve. I’ve had years of practice, you know? And I think you have, too.

How do you expect to carry it all, Laurel? When this is all done, I hope you’ll want to come over to the house. But come alone. You know you’re always welcome, and there will always be fresh coffee in the pot. Then you can tell me how you’re really doing. You can tell me how you want to tote this thing. I know it’s a hard thing to do by yourself, but I think I’ve finally figured it out.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

A collection of things

The trade winds have roughened since yesterday. There’s a cinnamon whiff of Carolina allspice in the air, another thing that’s blown in from the south. It doesn’t remind me of home, but it does remind me where I came from.

Each thing in this room is balanced by another thing, and each of them falls, eventually. Do you remember telling me that?

I smell the rain, hear it erase the miles between rest stops and parking lots. There’s a suitcase in the back I haven’t touched since Cincinnati, or maybe Youngstown. Things I packed for you, things I can’t bear to lose. I keep my things in a duffle bag, something I have to remind myself is still mine. Your hand-drawn map is still on the dashboard, yellowed from old sunshine. The miles, dear, the miles, all contained in the briefest of thoughts.

“Do you know where you are now?” she asks.

“Indiana?”

“Yes, silly, but where?”

“Mecca? I think that’s what the sign said. I drove through a covered bridge.”

And she is silent, and I wonder where  I am.

All the flags were at half-staff as I drove north through Kentucky. “You still don’t like to drive, do you?” she asks.

“The drivers try to drive me off the road.”

“Of course they don’t. Follow the map I drew for you. You’ll find your way.”

“Way where?”

And she is silent, and I wonder where I am.

I have become a brief collection of things to her, of aching bones and tired griefs and driving tantrums. “Way where?” I ask again.

“Way Ward.”

“My name isn’t Ward,” I say, an old joke of which I have forgotten its origin. “Am I That Easy to Forget?” is on the radio. The Jim Reeves version, I think.

The westerlies  have roughened since yesterday. There’s an industrial whiff of cabbage in the air, another thing that’s blown in from the north. It doesn’t remind me of home, but it does remind me where I am going.

Photo by Andrew Neel from Pexels

Brewers Mills 1974

pexels-david-mcbee-1546168

This is the place where the story becomes unbearable if left untold, he said. This is where the tale-teller sacrifices everything that bears the weight of all that noise.

I listened to him rant, again. It was always about the providence of the tale-teller, never about the other participant, the sacrificial listener. He could have preserved this blather in plastic and strung it from the rear-view mirror, or his neck. That was his rosary, his familiar.

Do you trust me, he asked, and he drove the Volvo into the big elm at the corner of Chatham and Colborne Streets, June 17, 1974. Neither of us survived.

He was right, though. You never know what the face of any given story will be until it can complete itself.

She wakes to the sound of a street sweeper every Monday morning, every other Thursday.  A small town delight, he calls it, but that insistent deep hum, that whir of machinery, has become an irritant. She sets the radio alarm to wake her before its scheduled arrival, but that hum always buries the squalid tin noise.

 Your anger with it, he says, makes it louder, you know. Go to the door, stand outside, wave at the man. You’ll come to enjoy it. It’ll become just another sound in your routine.

Routine. Like the one where he leaves every morning, 6:38. He’s never heard the sweeper, the angry, hypnotic thump it makes as it bumps against the curb. He’s never heard Sugar Sugar squawk on the radio, or Hey Jude flattened by machinery. Routine. How bourgeoisie. Let them eat Twinkies, indeed.

We were not yet dry though

the gin bottle was, an age ago 

when 

we were an age 

that never impressed us much.

Where was the boy who wrote that, she thinks. Whatever happened to him?

The street sweeper shakes her from another deep sleep.

Photo by David McBee from Pexels

Brewers Mills 1971

There we were, 
burying a goddamn horse
all the clouds smashing
against a depthless sky

we waited in strained attentiveness
for the sound of a moon
to howl back at us 

we knew this was
the distance we were
from kings

Madeleine is the name she has taken this time

pexels-pixabay-46249

She does not begin her song at its beginning anymore. 

We are still in love / with our presumed pedigree / of certain ghosts….

She sifts through each proceeding verse, the grain of her voice ascends. She sings of the construct of his skin, the obtrusiveness of bone, the scratch of thorns that precedes the blood. 

She is still considered a young woman, has changed little since I was small enough for her to cradle. Her eyes, perhaps, stare more deeply. Her hands tremble noticeably when she brushes the sand from my arms. The other women in the village seem older, but they are not. They stare, they shade their eyes with small flat hands, their lips tighten with frowns. 

I cannot contain him in my grief / in a temple of duplicitous priests…. 

“Are you her boy?” a woman asked of me. “The singer? The whore? She thinks you are his only favor. You are her bastard, did you know? Go, hide yourself and your shame.”

“I am not him,” I said, and the woman walked away. 

It is like this in every village. I never tell her what they say to me.

We do not stay in any one place for long. There are so many towns and villages along our path that we are not always noticed right away. There is something in her face, I think, that draws their attention. Although she cloaks herself in a widow’s robe, we are always revealed, and it is always with scorn.

The singer. The whore. 

I am unashamed, I tell her.

 I am not him, I said to the woman.

I fall into my mother’s voice when she sings. We do not need to go back to the beginning. In her song, we are both free and we are both our true selves. Of certain ghosts, she used to sing, and I still believe that is who we are.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

 

Lime slippers

limer

I .

You said:

 “So — and just so you know this, just so you recognize what I am telling you — this will mean the end of your crisp hospital corners.”

“Française, please, Marie. Pas d’anglais s’il vous plaît.”

You squeezed your eyes shut. You hated this; I knew this about you. Cela signifiera la fin de vos coins d’hôpital nets!”

And you left. You walked out on him, and you did not show him a tear. You gave those tears to me — raw and lucid — half a mile down the road. 

“I didn’t tell him what we rehearsed, Daniel. I’m sorry. If you want, you can drop me off at the drug store and I will call for a taxi.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because the French word for fuck does not sound quite so declarative to you, and it is the only language I want to use right now.”

“I’m not just dropping you off.”

“Then you can wait for me in the car. I only need a few things. I don’t even have a pair of slippers, and I dislike your stone floors.”

“Then I will knit you a throw rug. An entire series of them.”

“You don’t knit rugs, Daniel, you crochet — never mind. It will only take me five minutes if I don’t swear en français, ten minutes if I do, fifteen if the police are summoned.”

“Marie?” I said, and leaned towards her. “You’re finished with him. Terminé. No police, please. We go home, to our home, to our floors, and I will kiss you just a little.”

“You are not French, Daniel. You do not know how to kiss me just a little. I am too distracting for your petits English kisses, ma chérie.”

“Then let us scorch your fresh hospital corners,” I said, “and I will kiss you into eventuality.” You laughed more tears than you cried, and I discovered a new thing: you were mostly unafraid to run with me, and I was mostly afraid I could not keep up with you.

II.

Seven dollars and sixteen cents for a pair of lime-colored slippers. Molded cotton with thin rubber soles. You bought me a six-pack of Löwenbräu and a ballpoint pen. I’m still not sure why. You brought with you a plain cloth shopping bag filled with toiletries and magazines and chocolate, as if this were a vacation, or an escape.

 “The years,” you said. “The years that I made their bed, cooked their meals. The years, Daniel.”

“Years that are behind you now,” I said. “Those slippers, though. They will last forever.”

“Are they not beautiful? They were in a discount bin beside the cassette tapes. I almost bought you a Dan Fogelberg album… he reminds me of you. There were mauve slippers, and orange, and strawberry red, but this was the only pair in this particular shade.” 

‘They look radioactive.”

Oui. I should be able to find them in the dark.”

“You should be able to find them from outer space.”

Oui. Is that wrong?”

“No, not wrong. In fact, very apt. Very you.”

Oui. Very me. Are you jealous I did not buy you a pair? As I said, these were the only ones in this color.”

“You got the slippers, I got the pen. And the beer. Very me.”

“Yes, and I am very tired now, Daniel. Do you mind? I am ready for those small kisses of yours, but, I regret, not much more. Are you sad now?”

“Sad? Yes, a little,” I said. “But it’s a long drive, and you need to sleep.”

“Ah, yes. And the world sends its regrets.” And she turned from me. 

The city was behind us and it was a bronze Rodin sculpture, a monument to this idolatry I felt. What remained of the moon was scattered, masking absinthe rows of stunted trees. Where we landed was so far from the place I thought was promised us. Of course I was sad. 

III.

You said:

“I think you will be a very good artist, Daniel,” but it was in French: Je pense que tu seras un très bon artiste, Daniel.

Your voice was sleepy and shadowy. “Yes? I will be?”

“Of course you are already good. But great, is what I mean.”

We will be great,” I said. “You will be there to see to that, right? By my side?”

Oui. I will see it.” 

“Did you sleep? You were very quiet.”

“No. No sleep. This is a longer drive at night. It bears a weight, does it not?”

“It feels like it. It’s late, almost 1:30. We’ll be there soon.”

“How soon?”

“Half an hour, forty-five minutes. Traffic’s light, so not too long.” I stroked her cheek and she closed her eyes. “This would have been an expensive taxi ride.”

“Yes. I am sorry. He made me so angry, I could not think. ‘Française, please. Pas d’anglais s’il vous plaît.’ Like I was a child.”

“You were kind to leave it at that,” I said. “You two are like sticks of dynamite when you’re together, each one holding up a match, daring the other to strike.”

“He is a bastard.”

“He is your father.”

“That does not change his bastardness.”

“I suppose not. Let it go for now,  Marie. It is still a fresh wound. Give it time to heal.”

“Yes. To heal. Can we stop somewhere for coffee? I feel a migraine gathering between my eyes.”

“We’re not too far from home, honey.”

“Please? I won’t be able to sleep anyway. I am still tightened up.”

Wound up.”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re too wound up. That’s the expression.”

Pardon, can we somewhere for a fucking coffee so I can will not be so wound up?”

“Yes. You are tightened up, my mistake. Next exit, I promise.”

“I am so sorry, Daniel.” 

C’est la vie. It’s been a long night.”

Oui. It has. We are arguing like bastards.”

IV.

I said:

“Two creams, two sugars, is that correct?”

“Yes, my love. And I am so sorry. Beaucoup d’excuses.”

“No worries,” I said. “Anything else?”

No. Yes! Perhaps beignets, if they have them? I am suddenly hungry.”

“I’ll ask, you bet. Or any reasonable substitute.” 

Oui. Any reasonable substitute.”

It was two o’clock in the morning, but the restaurant — Mister Warren’s Southside — was busy, with a lot of truckers and shift workers filling up on coffee and early/late breakfasts. Who ‘Mister Warren’ was, I had no idea. The room was filled with the usual aromas of a good diner: freshly brewed coffee, greasy eggs, toast, bacon, good cigarettes. I almost went back to the car to ask you if you wanted a sit-down breakfast, but then I remembered your oncoming migraine. So I stood in line and waited. There were three large men and a laughing tattooed woman ahead of me. I thought you might fall asleep, and so was in no hurry. I thought of ‘Nighthawks’ by Edward Hopper, and smiled. If I could be that good….

When it was my turn to order, I asked for two large coffees, and half-a-dozen Boston creams. I think they were freshly made. I stuffed extra napkins in my pocket. I almost started to whistle, walking out the door, but I think I knew.

The car, of course, was gone. I retraced my steps, trying to convince myself I parked one row over, or not as close to the parking lot lights. I refused to notice the plain cloth shopping bag left in place of the car. I thought you were playing a game with me because I corrected your English. How many times did I correct your English? So I stood there. And I stood there longer, and I waited. I knew but refused to believe. You were gone. Inside that plain cloth shopping bag was your / my pair of lime green slippers. No note. No explanation. 

I found a ride home, eventually. I arrived at seven-thirty that morning. My car was there, parked in the driveway, and you were still gone. There was no note. I decided not to wait for you. I went inside and placed the plain cloth shopping bag on the kitchen table.

I cried more tears than I laughed, and I discovered a new thing: you were mostly afraid to run with me, and I was mostly afraid you would not keep up with me.

I went to bed and I slept on the back of several broken hours. When I woke up, I showered and shaved. 

Then I discovered a new thing about me: I would move on. And I decided I would cancel my French lesson on Monday.

I took them for three more weeks, and then signed on for the advanced class.