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)

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

The state of the body

He looked so hollow in his little box, surrounded by God and all the unlit penny candles. The living lines of his face were erased. I could see the gray in his hair, a fine drift of curls I had not noticed before. His untamed eyebrows were freshly barbered, his flamboyant complexion struck butter-dull. This is what was left of my father: a plastic sculpture of what he looked like, not who he was. This was not the Papa-Monster who rubbed his 12-hour beard across my giggling face, or the Singing Papa Bear, his hushed baritone leading me to the good sleep beyond the bad dreams. 

The church was empty and I stood alone. Perhaps Father Miguel was behind me, watching me become a man at eleven years of age, perhaps waiting for the first manifestation of physical grief, I do not know. I did not cry or whimper or buckle. The church could have been full, it did not matter, I was still alone, and it was right that I should be. Alone with my father. The state of his body did not matter, except that it meant his soul was nearby, studying me, listening to me, reading my heart. He helped me to walk through the rest of that day, and the days that followed. My grief, I decided, would be a private thing, something between him and me.

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.