Fishing in the Luna Maria

photo by Plato Terentev

The permutations of anger: the same lean belt administered each time, creased leather, broken down, worn, worn; the flesh burst purple below his underpants, somehow artful — a stained spider scarred on his ass, a sledge of pain stretched across each swing, torn, torn; the days of suppers in the dark, the last fibers of light pulled tight across a Chinese restaurant chimney, just down the street, he, outside, hip against the Parisienne, drawing from his smoke, long, long, in the rain.

Bobby came to this place, his father’s house, three days before Labor Day, one year after they buried him. He favored these days for their softer summer light, when the mosquitoes were disinterested in anything beyond the riverbank. The trout were spry in the morning and fed on small damselflies and midge larvae. He left them alone. Their splashes were enough.

His father lived here the last few years of his life, after his second wife passed. There was a little insurance money, and he had always been frugal, so he bought it outright. “Come on down, Bobby,” he said. “The river’s hopping with brook trout, just like that stream by Cranberry Falls. You wanna do that, come see your old man?”

He deferred. Every Easter weekend, every Fourth of July, every October weekend closest to his birthday. No, it was crunchtime at work, or, no, he was coming down with something coughy, or — just to fuck with him — no, he needed to spend time with Meg and the kids. “Bring ‘em, I’d love to see them.” “Megan’s mom is sick, dunno, could be bad.” “Oh-no.” ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ shit without the irony.

The truth remained: Meg left him months ago, found a new boyfriend who wrote game code, the kids loved him. Boyfriend was the new superman. “You’re such an angry man, Bobby,” she told him. “I have that capacity, yes,” he said, “but I’m not a violent man.” “Not yet,” she said. “No.” The most naked word he ever spoke.

Bobby helped them pack their things and he sold his car to her for a dollar. “We need to stay good to each other,” he said. “No anger, no resentments.” She agreed. It broke him that it could end so cleanly. They still spoke on the phone, they still listened to each other’s yearnings and grievances, but he was more muted. He taught himself to listen without being defensive, and so he listened. She talked, she wept, she became angry with herself for talking and weeping. “No worries,” he said. “So what are you doing next?” she asked. “I’m gone fishing this weekend or next.” “You should do that,” she said. “Maybe resolve things with your father, finally.” “I should, yes,” knowing that he wouldn’t. Resolve things was too big, akin to maybe you should plant a flag on Everest, or, hey, the moon could use your boot print. Sure. They made it through another conversation, and they remained on the good side of good.

Life inside summers, between inflatable pools and pitchers of lukewarm lemonade, he saw his own reflection in his boys, prismed, damaged. He considered his father’s place, the clean little river, the smooth elasticity of its current, bound by chubby clay berms stitched with grass. He told his father he would take care of the property. There was no signed will, no legal papers to clarify to whom his shit should go. The estate was still in probate, and he was the only surviving heir. It didn’t matter much to Bobby, he went there when it felt right. He mostly wanted to visit the river, and Labor Day weekend sounded right.

The rain held back, straining hard against heavy-bellied clouds. Not even dusk yet, and he could hear the far away preparations for fireworks, a coiled whistle and crackling strings of firecrackers, an indistinct murmur of approval from the crowd. He decided to mow the path of grass between the car and the porch, and, suddenly ambitious, from the porch to the back of the yard towards the river. The mower sputtered. He checked the oil, topped up the gas. Mechanical needs fulfilled, he cranked it again. Five minutes in, he was sweating from his scalp onto his neck. The yard was weedy and uneven, but the smell of grass clippings was pleasant. He remembered his father tinkering with his Evinrude on hot days, smudged fingerprints on his shirt pocket whenever he reached for his cigarettes, rags spread out on the workbench according to absorbency. “Go tell your mother I need a soda, but none of that diet Tab shit. Coke or a 7-Up.” He was a rigid abstainer; his own father drank and it ruined him, so he was determined to be the straightest fucking nail ever to be driven. Maybe a glass of bourbon would have mellowed him, maybe it would have set his brain on fire, who could tell? Bobby drank beer when it was hot, when he was puttering in the yard, but didn’t think about it too much.

“You are going about this the wrong way,” his father used to say, about almost everything Bobby did. The old man was good at drawing, amazingly good, fucking fantastically good, but he considered it a chore, something he only submitted to when he had exhausted everything else and didn’t feel like watching TV. He kept a Faber-Castell colored pencil set in his sock drawer and only took it out on rainy days or late nights when everyone else had gone to bed. Sometimes he told Bobby to watch him, maybe learn something. “You don’t just set the pencil on the paper and start to draw. No, sir. ‘Carving is easy, you just go down to the skin and stop.’ You know who said that? Michelangelo. And drawing is the same thing. Look for the thing and draw it. It’s already there.  It doesn’t have to be hard, but it has to be good, the best you can do, excellent if you can. Get it? Do you understand why I don’t do it very often? Because it would goddamn consume me.” And that was the deepest his father ever spoke about anything, and Bobby was eight years old, and that stuck with him more than the physical beratements. The beatings. He never forgot the lesson and he never lived up to it. That was what goddamn consumed him. His imperfection and his apparent acceptance of it.

Megan called him after supper. The place still had a landline and Bobby kept the phone connected, because you couldn’t get any bars on a cellphone out here in the Great Beyond. You could be laid out beside the river, half-eaten by a bear, before anyone realized you’d already been digested. At least a landline forced you to crawl back inside the house and die righteously, on linoleum.

“Just wanted to make sure you got there okay,” she said. “Is the place alright?”

“Locked up tight. A little dusty, and the yellowjackets have built a nest over the woodpile, but it looks good. Oh, and I think the back deck has termites. I’m going to call the exterminators on Tuesday. Nothing broken, though.” He took a deep breath. He hadn’t spoken so many words since he filled the car on Thursday and bought two bags of ice for the cooler. ”How are you doing?”

“Oh, I’m fine,” she said, and paused. “Shitty, actually. You know what? I miss you. Labor Day was always a fun time. Wasn’t it? The promise of kids going back to school, cooler days, everything feeling fresh again.”

“You’re just being sentimental. If I were there, you’d be missing Elon.”

“His name is Alan and you know it.”

“Sorry, it’s a bad connection. You have any plans for tonight? Fireworks, cocktails by the lake?”

“He’s working, as usual. Are you planning to blow shit up?”

“Not even a sparkler. I can hear them getting ready over at the park. I’ll watch from the yard. A shot of bourbon and I’ll call it a night.”

“Sounds wild.”

“How are the boys?”

“Oh, they’re okay. They’re hanging out with Dennis and that other one, what’s his name….”

“Ronny?”

“Rory. Like the cowboy. They say they’re going to play video games, but you know damn well they’ll be down at the lake smoking cigarettes and picking up women.”

“Milfs, they call them.”

“Is that what they call them?”

“Seriously, though. Are they doing alright?”

“Oh, sure. The magic has rubbed off with Alan, as I figured it would. They’re kids. They’ll get in trouble and it’ll burn them once or twice, but I think they’re good boys and hopefully it won’t be too devastating for them. They’re fine, Bobby, really.”

“Okay. You need me to give them a stern talking-to, just let me know.”

“You know I will.”

A companionable silence fell between them. A rumble of thunder came from somewhere in the west. 

“Meg?”

“Yeah, Bobby?”

“I don’t want to go fishing in the Luna Maria anymore.”

“Well, that’s good,” she said. “I don’t think you’d catch very much, and the conditions aren’t conducive to, you know, living.”

“That’s what I’m saying. I’m tired. I don’t want to go further away.”

She was silent. He could almost see her, studying her watch, distracted by a noise from outside, contemplating her scratched rose fingernail polish. “I never asked you to.”

“Okay. I just wanted you to know.”

“What do I know?”

“That I think I want to keep this place, maybe flesh it out, build on it. It’s not his anymore. And that I want you and the boys to come visit and maybe hang out. Elon can come too, if he’s not too busy.”

She gave him a faint raspberry. “Talk to me tomorrow, Bobby. By the light of day, not by the light of fireworks and sentimentality.”

“I will. Are you sorry you called?”

“No. I just didn’t expect it to take this turn.”

They gradually said their goodnights and he sat in an old adirondack chair in the middle of the yard and waited for night to arrive. The overhead clouds shambled by slowly, great beasts sniffing at the earth.

The first raindrop fell on his wrist, and it was cold and spread onto his hand like a spider. The deluge was sudden, and it stopped him from moving; he was committed to it now, a full-on rain, and he was submerged in it, tasting it like a kid, and it felt a little like a blessing.

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.

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