Category: characters

Harry and Birdie are married

An excerpt from Asunder, baby, now available from Amazon.

The crowd — the audience? horde? — has to noodle around the big fans, has to pay attention to each step. The women lift the hems of their dresses over thick extension cords, the gents elongate their stride like horses. Harry’s mother is already seated, of course, arms folded, three rows back, a half-opened rose.

“I didn’t want it to be like this,” Harry says to no one, and somehow she hears him and shrugs. He suddenly wants the bloodiest mary he can find. Gil keeps a big Thermos in the back of his Valiant, but he isn’t here yet, none of his friends are, not even the stray cousins. Maybe this is the wrong church, the wrong day. But no. Other than his mother and the two stooges at the door, there is no one here he recognizes.

She watches him pace, a compulsive half-race, watches him reach for his cigarettes, but they’re in his other jacket, the old leather that she calls tobacco brown, Jesus, he looks like he’s ready to be smoked, she says — anxious, heart pounding — my god, is he having a heart attack?

No.He will walk outside. Harry will walk outside and his mother will watch him, will study him, follow him if she chooses to, but that isn’t her way, not yet, not until it’s time to reveal her inner Norma Desmond. Harry will walk outside, nod at the passersby, Hey, how are ya, yeah, great day for a wedding, you bet, and then Harry will walk across the street and lay on the grass in the traffic circle, among the milky dandelion stalks and stubble grass, the pigweed, the creeping charlie, the clover, all the green inconsistencies. And there she is, a spasm of red tulle, firing up a Pall Mall on the top step of the church, barely outside the door, cigarette snug between two fingers, lighter in one clenched and gloved hand, purseless — she left her purse where she plans to sit because who’s going to tell the mother of the groom she can’t? Is that a thing, an actual title? Mother of the Groom, all Proper Nouned and to be held in highest regard? Who really cares about the groom, it’s all about the Bride, the beautiful Virgin Bride. And Birdie really is a virgin bride, mostly, sure, but she knows things, and she always stops him before things go too far, cuts him off, presses her fingers flat against his face, scrubs his whiskers with the heel of her hand, rubs hard against the jawbone and he can see the tips of her long nails, lacquered red, chipped from her work at the bar, and she presses his bottom lip with one finger, and he can taste a dot of her sweat and the sticky residue from the hairspray she uses, Miss Breck or Hidden Magic, something from the beauty aisle of Eckerd’s, a metallic lemony taste that puzzles him, is this the taste of desire, is this what this is?

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A photo, a book launch, and several thousand words…

I have been searching for this particular photo for months. A little over a year ago, my laptop died, and with it went a whole bunch of stories and notes, a half-completed novel, and all references to this picture. I’ve been looking for it off and on ever since, and now, here it is, on the eve of my book launch.

What is it? A little slice of late 1960s Americana, and a story waiting to be written. It ran in Vanity Fair, December 2013, and was photographed by Elliott Landy. It was hugely inspiring to me. I first saw it online a couple of years ago and… I wrote a story — relatively quickly — and that story evolved into more stories. The two people in the foreground became Harry and Bridget (aka Birdie).

I did the requisite research into that particular area — the West Saugerties, NY (only 7 miles from Woodstock) — and rediscovered The Band, “Songs of Big Pink”, and Bob Dylan’s association with the area. I decided on “Light of the West Saugerties” as the opening story of Asunder, baby and I really hoped to find this photo again, since it was such an inspiration for a few thousand words.

Asunder, baby will be available for Kindle readers and in paperback on Amazon tomorrow, January 12. Many thanks for reading this little origin story… they’re not usually this specific.

The story begins:

—–

July, 1967

I see you, Birdie, pressed into your favorite gold brocade dress, somewhat shrouded in a turquoise Navajo throw. You were always a July blonde / September strawberry, but today your hair is transcendent, luminescent, loosely tied with a loop of jute twine you picked up at the side of Burnett Road. You walk ahead of me at that final curve before the smell of water hits us, you draw me closer with the shimmer in your hair, the shimmy in your hips, the sweet in your voice. A song is sung, “At dawn my lover comes t’ me / an’ tells me of her dreams,” a rat-sized chihuahua tramps along beside you, pauses at the dandelion stalks, the river birch trunks, pisses on the things it wants you to love.

In real life, Bridget, you tend the bar at the Pinewood House in the West Saugerties. You complain about the Club members who line up for their Tom Collins sacrament every Wednesday afternoon: ex-cops, mostly; tough guys who don’t know what to do with their hands.

“You think we’ll see him, baby?” you say.

“He who?”

You turn to me, your hair a spray of candied sunlight. “Don’t you ever listen to his words? Dylan, silly. Do you think we’ll see him there?”

“Maybe. Probably not. But so what? Maybe he’ll see us. Do you think he ever wonders about us?”

“He should. Because we’re fabulous. And he will receive us.”

A patchwork of cotton flowers

The only breeze that blew through Nannie Dee’s front yard carried a miasma of malt liquor fumes and hyacinth perfume, Millicent’s step-mother’s favorite and thereby unavoidable. Nannie could count the number of real Christians in her front yard with the fingers on one hand, and the rest of them could have the back of the other one. Still, she would be polite. She would offer refreshments and compliment them on their new shoes (or their new blouses, or their fashionable ties, if they bothered to wear one), and her countenance would not change. This was Millie’s day, and none of their frowny-face pantomimes were going to change that.

“She’s with God now,” proclaimeth Judith Meyers, the new-ish teacher who taught Millie ‘Northern History’ and was likely from someplace like Boston or Newport, but who had tamed her accent to fool the local folk. Oh, she probably came from good stock, alright, raised in some third or fourth generation Italianate style home, on her second marriage at the tender age of thirty-four, and, no doubt, already eyeballing her next Mister. There were stories about her, but Nannie Dee would be charitable: “Thank you, honey, God bless.”

Next up was Courtney Everding, Millie’s Academic Advisor, and her husband Darryl, a stately-dressed cowboy-type — a mustached goober, really — and the man who most likely raped Millicent. He was currently squeezing a sausage biscuit to death. “So sorry for your loss, Missus Dee,” she said, and offered her a hug. The goober nodded, distracted by all the young women wandering the yard. Millie’s friends.

“Appreciate the kindness,” said Nannie, then whispered: “And if you was to cut your husband’s throat and cock when he falls asleep tonight, I would gladly alibi you without any complaint from my conscience.”

Missus Everding acknowledged her with a crisp nod as her husband squeezed that biscuit until crumbs started to fall on his shoes.

Next up didn’t matter. They were all cotton flowers from the same patchwork quilt around here. Oh, she would judge them in her old-style way, everyone did that, always judging each other until that judgment didn’t even matter any more. This was Millicent’s day, and if Nannie Dee — the girl’s grandmother, after all — made a sour face for just the tiniest of seconds, it wouldn’t be more damning than if her dentures had slipped a little. And who would fault her for that?

“God bless you, honey,” she heard herself say to a boy who rode over on his tractor. She would complain to his grandfather tomorrow, because the boy tore up a small patch of her sweet alyssums. Things like that did not sit right with her. Boys had to learn early, or look at all the trouble they’d cause later. “Give my best to your mama, you hear?”

The one before last

Your hands are still old frayed cloth,
hardly ever warm,
unadorned by rings or polish, but scratched up
from your cat Saint-Mary
whom nobody likes, but you’re too attached
to the rough animals that hurt you.
I ignore her when I visit you,
but still insist on serving the tea.

You say, sit down and warm up those slippers I gave you
Christmas last year
or the one before last.
Did I knit you that scarf, do you keep yourself warm,
do you remember that war,
no, you were too young for that war,
that was the year we left home to come here.
I remember that year better than
the one before last,
will you drink all your tea,
you’re a good boy
for remembering me.

You’re an old lady now
(you call yourself that),
filled with all sorts of living
that others can’t hear.
Do you still alphabetize your grocery list,
and grow rosemary in your kitchen?
Do you still draw those pictures
of the beach from before the war?
Your sister died then
and your mother did, too.
You loved that place, sadness and all

and then you disappear in front of me,
far away into the years as you watch
the sea wash over the sand,
when you were not the last one
left to listen for it.

Have I told you about when I was a girl,
you ask. Yes, you have,
and many times to the same sad end.
But I listen, you see, and I think Mary does too
because she stops biting into the slippers you made me
the year before last, and she watches
you with her cultured cat eyes.

For a while I disappear with you and we walk the beach
and feel the salt as it bites into our pores
and I press a smudged rag into
the flesh of my boots
and wipe away the sand
with the shoe polish you keep
beside the wooden box of milk bottles by the door,
and I hear the high laughter of girls,
all the sisters,
gone now,
all gone.

and then the air is dull again
with Lemon Pledge and cat food
and a motorcycle drives by
and I am still here and
you are still counting the rocks in the sand
and we are separated by the decades again.

Come visit me again, you say.
You know I will when I can, I say.
I know your hands are old frayed cloth
and are finer every day, like antique lace.
Mine are growing more finite and painful.
I wonder if you will still remember me once the tea is all drunk
and the years gather more space between us.
Will the beach still be there for you
when we are finished with this wander,
and will you remember to bring my slippers
for when I visit?
You still smell the sea,
but I will always smell the rosemary
growing in your kitchen.

A place for departing saints

I watched the widowed mother

pause on the steps of

Matilde of the Sacred Heart,

a sight in black and white

posed in a black polyester dress,

maneuvering

cautiously down

cracked white concrete,

and I studied her

 

studying my children

across the street

in the

catholic park,

riding their bicycles and hiding

behind summer trees and sharing

their lovely laughter,

 

and it gave her

and it gave me

and it gave us

a précis of her new world.

 

she considered the words

spoken in

the privileged language

of prayer,

still, inside, chanting, inside,

in an idiotic, monotone

 

an old rubric

gutted by a god

prone to soliloquies

 

and

she hailed a cab

for someplace else.

Our usual fable

We wash the bone mud
from our torsos,
and if there is a word for this,
it is sorrow.

We see the frustration
in the lean faces of our children,
the dirt griming their arms,
the hollowness griming their bellies.

You and I will fumble with 
our usual fable:
this will pass
and it will pass soon
and it will pass as we sleep
and the land will turn green again
and the sun will turn warm again
and the fields will grow thick again
and we will rest all our doubts,
but yes, this will pass.

A malingering moon watches
over us,
and the baby studies the
cracked face through the worn curtains
in her room.
There is music downstairs
to accompany our fable:
I have my father’s old guitar and
you tap a pencil
on the kitchen table to 
the plink of wash water in
the beaten feed bucket.

You sing indistinguishable words,
soft enough
to be a prayer and perhaps that’s what it is,
you say it is,
but it fades into hushes until we
can barely hear the sounds you meant for God.
We take turns wrapping our hands
around each other’s fists, 
and then we rest them on the gathered tablecloth,
my guitar on my knee,
Sally on your lap,
and I thank God we cannot see each other’s eyes
because I know there is resignation in them
and I know there are ashes in them
where a fire once burned,
but the fire has burned away 
and I cannot see that in you again,
I will not see that in you again,
and yes, this will pass.

We take each other to our rest
in our crumpled bed, with its heavy iron posts
that flake with rust
that you wash away with a dry rag
every morning,
and you sweep away the dirt that falls
out of my cuffs and pockets 
every night.
We will pray about love
to each other
and we will pray about love
for each other
until sleep takes us
and it will.
Like the days before it,
this one has finally passed.

The storm

We sit cross-legged on the scatter rug and listen to the rain peck at the windows. The water fractures itself against the screen and it draws patterns I want to trace with my fingers. We have a box of candles on the kitchen table, for when the dark comes back inside. She leans into me whenever the rain turns loud, and her face is solemn and so still. Outside, the wind carves itself into the hickory trees. She can’t hear me offer up comfort, so I lean back into her. We listen. We wait.

The man on the other side of the door

This is a place of unremarkable geometry, of hand hewn beams and reclaimed cabinets, of cotton curtains and poplin tablecloths.There are stout lines built around her silly feminine froth. You might savvy her girlish moods: the bright New Orleans yellow in the hallway, or maybe the baby doll figurines on the bookcase. But don’t forget, this is my home, and it is a place of unremarkable cruelties. 

There are stains in my study that look like ketchup, but are not. There are sudden movements that turn on all the security lights.There is a smell that is barely masked by the nine dollar dirt that feeds her windowsill herbs.

I’ve heard all these sounds before, but this one is closer, and I know why. There is a man on the other side of the door, limping, wet from the chase. He beats on the glass with the heel of his hand. I turn on the porch light because I know. I’ve been expecting him for twenty years, back from a time when my life was fraying. He took the left road and I took the right. I don’t want to see him now — for us to see each other, really — but his t-shirt is torn from armpit to belly, and I swore to him. He is older now, of course he is, but his eyes still show his fury, and mine have turned soft and careless. 

Richard,” was the only word he had to say, and I knew it was time.