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.

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.

Caius

backlit-blur-boys-brother-551591

we sleep above the roots
our legs knotted
our hands folded
beneath us
listening for the weeds to rinse
from our ears all
the twitches of the road

we have seen all there is,
you say,
and we will eat
what first must be blessed —
old hamburger meat
and flour tortillas from torn plastic bags
behind Trader Joe’s,
a feast for boys who first learned how to crawl
on a dirt kitchen floor

these things we must see
these things we must know:
these fallow graveyards the shape of oceans
these gravel pits filled with factory-defective coffins
with cracked lids and split silk liners —
deep discounts
for the dead on a budget

i see you run towards me in your sock feet your
leathered arms pumping
as if you were still a
child
as if I had the strength
to catch you in my arms

do you remember the
summery brine of sweat and rain
that dribbled down our faces
when we were boys
and did not think to be men
until much later

she has her chores, you said,
and I am one of them

brother Caius
you have become my chore now,
and I have become yours

Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels

Ruby, my dear

woman-girl-evening-kitchen-4058703

(Inspired by Ruby, My Dear by Thelonious Monk)

She has forgotten the beats
of her lightness
the circadian rhythm of rest
of motion
of rest

each passing morning presses into her belly
and each passing day cinches around her hips
and each passing night brails across her breasts
and each passing year reaches a suffocating end

the years, Ruby, my dear, the years,
you’ll know that cry
when it finds the lowest
part of your heart,
sets its roots there
and
that cry is a lot like a cigarette ember
that sparks through your bra and bites
into your skin
or maybe it’s like that Alabama belt buckle
that cracked its weight
against your bare thigh
and dropped you to the kitchen floor

and made you notice the crumbs
you missed
in your rush for a quick smoke
outside

Ruby, my dear
you’ll recognize that cry when it holds you down
and you’ll carry it with you whenever you fall into
another broken moment,
forced to hide your grace
in a rush to be any place else but here

She forgets the name of the man
who pours her husband’s afternoon pints
in an unmarked barroom
somewhere downtown.

She can’t stand to hear the push of her name
leave his mouth

— Roooooby — he says and

she feels reduced to that sound he blows through his lips
every time he
comes around.

He is a peculiar fellow: tall,
narrow of bone, dressed in a way
that seems so elaborate
for a man who carries that kind of grin.

If we had stayed in Georgia, she thinks.
if we just left those few heartbreaks behind us
we might still be fine.

But here, in these shallow rooms
of petulant conversations
there’s just this constant rhythm
of widening fault lines
thrumming through the air
and not-so-hidden resentments
behind every rushed goodbye kiss

The avocado-colored bed sheets
she bought them for their 30th
two years ago
are already unthreading, bleach-stained,
or bourbon-stained,
depending on who you ask
and how drunk he is

the plumes of disinfectant
settle on the cupboards and
matching countertop appliances,
on the cuffs of the olive-green work shirts
he drags across the kitchen table
every morning when he drinks his morning coffee

the residue leaves a stain you hope he won’t notice
but he always notices
and he will always tell you
about him noticing, and when and why

but he won’t take a sick day
just because of a goddamn cold
so you end up counting the cough syrup spoons
and goopy yellowed tissues he tosses
on y’all’s TV trays
over the long weekend
when you were planning on sitting outside
and smelling the air,
maybe planting a small box of herbs
inside the dandelion courtyard
that he never mows

and she sits on the edge of the bed,
broken down to her essential parts,
box spring and mattress both removed,
both ruined.
The frame is not a comfortable sit,
but when the man tells you to wait,
you wait because
she has been trained to defer,
and has come to dislike that about herself.

She forgets the name of the man
who will deliver her new bed
and she does not wish to re-learn it
every time he
comes around
whistling her name in a single sour breath

— Roooooby — he says.

Ruby, my dear
Years, baby, years, all those beaten-down years
and those beats of neglected lightness are done.
Do you know it’s okay for you to leave now
Do you know you don’t have to rush now?

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Appomattox

skeleton-fish-museum-fish-bones-9365

Photo by Skitterphoto from Pexels

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.

An orange beach bucket on her 12th story balcony

low-angle-photography-of-orange-concrete-building-under-blue-1436190

i. Alleluya
She sang
Alleluya for my mother
Alleluya for her husband
Alleluya for my father
Alleluya for his wife

ii. Songs for an audience of one
She sits as close to the sun as she can pull herself
in her Vaillancourt patio chair
an orange beach bucket beside her feet
Allah opp, motherfuckers, she yells
and then she laughs
and then she sings
in a sterling voice:

I am a girl disguised as kindness
between the camera and the water
my heart beats greedy raindrop beats
you see me but cannot see me,
it ain’t that easy.
You never could, mama
You never could, papa
You gone now, to each other
All gone now, I suspect,
but you can’t see me at all just yet
you can’t see me at all just yet.

She sees me in my fold-up lawn chair
fourteen-ninety-five on sale from Sears
three summers ago
with a can of Fresca in my good hand
untethered headphones in the other,
my naked legs a cry for help
and she waves at me, and smiles anyway,
drops her hand into the orange beach bucket beside her feet

Allah opp, motherfucker, she yells
and then laughs
One more for my audience of one
and in a sterling voice, she sings:

I am the mother of the children
who never knew me
who dream of unfading skin, glowing
unpaved roads that lead me
here to where they will never see me,
we all bleed the same without knowing it

and she drops her hand into the orange beach bucket beside her feet
and she is silent for a while
alone on her 12th story balcony
and I wave to her, tentatively
from the 12th story balcony
from a separate building
but she does not wave back
and it all feels hollow
except for her.

iii. Nightjar
We see each other from our distant places
above the spaces of plague and dissidence
almost every day or every other day she is there
just there
whenever she chooses and she sits
in her expensive coiled chair

and I lean back into my sagging lawn chair
and she sings and she chants and sometimes there is no rhyme
but there is a steady beat in her voice, strong enough
to open other tenants’ windows.
I am her only real audience, I think.

I cannot clearly see her face
I can feel the smile she sends me sad and disquiet
and I listen, never speak, because that is how she prefers it.

She wears a colorful modest skirt and blouse each time
and now I wear my best slacks, freshly pressed and laundered
every night
for her,
and a button-up shirt
and I brush my hair
and wear proper shoes and I sit and wait for her to show
and sometimes she comes out
and sometimes she does not
she is like a rare nightjar
and sometimes we both sit in our respective chairs
and say nothing
and sometimes she leaves without singing
and I sit a while longer
until the cold air brings me back inside.

Photo by Todd Trapani from Pexels

Cinnamon Suites

hand-holding-a-flower2 (2)

Suite 1

Evelyn-Jean Jones knows she does not look like that beige-blonde girl on page 28 of her brother’s Field & Stream October issue — the page with the below-the-fold advertisement for Kodiak boots and, apparently, women’s shorty-shorts — the magazine he keeps buried under his collage of college brochures — the brochures he broodily ignores when he comes home from JFK #3 Collegiate High School — the school he enters every morning as if it were a trench filled with mustard gas. He hides that magazine with that girl on that page underneath all the constricting thoughts in his life: the colleges that don’t really care if he attends them; the unremarkable grades that seem flat to everyone but his parents; the girl he likes who sits beside him in homeroom and advanced trig, and who likely walks to each of her classes with the standard-issue High School Richter scale to measure anxiety due to: pimples, grades, assorted teenage cruelties, and a thousand different oscillations of bad vibrations such as: being measured for every pound of flesh, every bead of perspiration, every drop of blood she sheds that must be so obvious to absolutely everyone. She does not wear Kodiak boots, but she does wear Dollar Tree sandals that will soon need Krazy Glue to keep the insoles from snapping down the hallway like a pre-teen boy’s trail of farts. This is a thing that boys do, and if she has a brother, he has already confirmed this to her.

But back to Evelyn-Jean: she knows who she does not resemble, and that is Miss Page 28. However, she is generally unattached to the idea that this is who she’ll always be, and there’s a pretty good chance that all the big changes are pending. Fourteen years old, and she may already be wise. She does not pretend to be smarter than she is, unlike her bro, who thinks he could be the next Ian McEwan or maybe Ralph Ellison (urmm, thing to consider here, and I’m hawking this from Sister Oprah: my dude, maybe you should be the first you instead of some watered-down version of someone else. She never EVER says my dude, not even when she’s mainlining M&M’s and maintaining a wicked weekend Mountain Dew rush, but Coolio over there is a special case, an inert exception to that particular rule, so you go on ahead and be the new Edgar Allen Duck if that’s gonna be your next performance-art thingy, my dude).

Evelyn-Jean has met the girl to whom her brother is enamored (– is that word still up for grabs, or has it been permanently preserved in amber by Miss Jane Austin and her Lady Avengers, strictly reserved for suitably cotillion’d adjectives / so the loud-mouth’d verbs can leave now, okay? –) and she is a slight and pretty thing, in a vague CW teen vampire victim sort of way. Blonde, but not Page 28 blonde, casual no-name denim, not-too-blousy blouses, freshly-washed face, clean nails, yes, my lord, she will do as a bridesmaid, but not as the main course. The Chosen Girl knows who Evelyn-Jean’s brother is, probably, but other than the slightly hesitant name recognition attached to the face, he could be anyone to her: an actor in soft-focus to the left of Jason Priestley in a “90210 Reunion Special”, or an enfant terrible from one of the lesser state senates recently depositioned for three counts of Awfully Stupid. Is he your brother? Tell him I said hi, I guess. Oh, the burn of immortal love, bro, but you’re almost seventeen, so this is not your real life yet, unless it is, in which case, so sorry your soup is cold and we’re all out of those cinnamon bread sticks you like so much.

 

Suite 2

Evelyn-Jean Jones knows her brother does not look like that photograph on page 17, second column and above the fold, of the old obituary notices –a jejune black and white shot cropped from a blown-up photo from a lousy yearbook capture of him and his Math Crew celebrating whatever it is that math geeks celebrate when there are still Math Girls in the room: probably Batman, or a Skywalker, or a particularly cute cosplay. He did not look like that at all / so ill-defined / when he died, and Evelyn-Jean hurried past him so she wouldn’t have to remember what remained of him. That was a thing she would never say to anyone, not to any future husband / child /  god, should she ever go looking for that particular character again.

hand-holding-a-flower2 (1)“Ya’ll don’t know how this feels,” she says at her graduation. “You can push them all together, all them black and white newspaper dots, and still not see him. Not for what he did in his three-and-a-half years of high school, not for what he did outside the hallways and classrooms. But that ain’t the whole him. What he thought, how he felt — they shoulda called me up, I had real pictures of him. Good pictures. He was a real, real kind boy, an urgent kind of boy, and I teased him about it, and he brooded over my words, because he knew I was right. When he laughed,  it was a real thing. That boy could laugh when he wanted, and a lot of time, he did not want to. He felt all his moods, and he tried to be generous with them when they were good, and sometimes he failed at that. But we knew him. I knew him, his folks knew him, and they knew him to be a real sincere boy. His hurt was real, and he had a hard time showing it off to others. But I knew him. He was not as average as he thought he was. He would have been a good man, given a chance, given a few more years. But I guess you can’t put that into three paragraphs and a  show-nothing photograph taken by a ten-dollar camera, can ya?

“I did not stare at his gravesite. Why would I do that? Nothing there everlasting. And there ain’t no stone there to read, and there won’t likely be one until there’s money for one, because that’s the way those things get done. But it’ll get done. He’ll be remembered, stone or not. The preacher read things from his bible, and they were good and pure words, for sure. Words about faith and resurrection and the humble flesh we all wear. But the flesh ain’t all. I’m not a preacher, and you’re probably all tired hearing about such things right now. I’m not, but I am his sister, and I care about such things. I care about his spirit and about being one of the owners of his memory. Let me tell you what I saw as I stood there weeping, listening to the wind, listening to the spoken words, listening to myself weep and asking myself, and asking hard: why? Why him? Why was it my kind, uncertain, curious brother? Why him? Gunshot, ya’ll. Three times. Because he was carrying a pencil case and not a handgun. Why him? He was probably thinking about — and y’all listen to these words — he was thinking about / not doing about — asking a girl he liked to the senior prom. That was his big thing, his big deal for the day. Knowing him, it was probably his life commitment for that month. Just thinking about: Should I ask her? Maybe I’ll just stay home. Or should I just go ahead and ask her? That was the way he thought. Contractions and uncertainties. Should I have peanut butter on my toast or cinnamon? Should I write poetry or study for that math quiz some more? Should I, could I, if I. I get tired imagining the travails and the traveling those thoughts had to take, all those back roads and blind curves. And thoughts were what he had. And thoughts were taken from him, and taken from all of us. And now I’m the same age he was when he was taken. I ain’t been shot yet, but I may be, same as you. Same as any of us. Because we’re all hurting, but we’re all strong. And I think of my big brother, and I think, I know that boy. He wasn’t perfect, but at the same time, he was. I can’t be the only one who knows that.

“And I stared, not at his gravesite, but at the field across the way. A field with a lot of cows and… I think I saw a few goats. The dirt was reddish and raw, with the last of winter finally draining away. But there were long paths of laid-down hay, kind of in a swirling and rambling pattern, according to where the tractor had dragged the bales. And the cows were eating the hay, and the goats were with them, eating the grass, and I thought: that’s where we should all rest. In a cinnamon colored field with others not like us, but just like us, who want to be friendly with each other and share what’s good. And I liked that my brother’s place overlooked such a place. It gave me hope for all the disquiet we feel. Maybe that kind of place is our real home, and not some gold-plated stone road full of mansions and riches, but a place of tough grass and stubborn soil, and calmness, always calmness, always slow and relaxed, with plenty of time and space to think about the space we have and the time we have to share it. I like to think that whenever my thoughts turn hurtful and blue.”

Suite 3

“Damn,” Evelyn-Jean Jones says to her partner. “I don’t know how that boy could stand the taste of cinnamon on everything. Both the girls seem to like it, though, and I’m glad of that. Now, don’t be getting any of that stuff near my cereal bowl, you hear?” And then she smiled without knowing she was smiling, remembering him.

Photo 1 by Engin Akyurt from Pexels
Photo 2 by Raphael Brasileiro from Pexels

soma

stars-and-clouds-at-nighttime-1229042

(Adult themes and language)

The East Coast light was delivered to them each morning on the cheap. It broke apart between the hand hewn beams Joanne loved so much, and then landed on her old West Coast quilt, miraculously complete. Dawn was the first trick of the day, she said: a ragged little something to make you believe you were waking up someplace else, somewhere more rugged, like Oregon or backwoods Appalachia. Goddamn Connecticut, she said. It fooled even smart people into thinking they belonged outside their natural state. 

Daniel’s father was not an architect, but he knew how to read a blueprint, how to lay hands upon brick and wood. This place was built as a wedding gift, and the old man died two days before they moved in. It was a heart attack at a traffic stop. Hardly the combative adieu most men hoped for, but it worked as decent after-dinner conversation.

On the first night in their marriage bed, Joanne told Daniel, “I’m the most tragic piece of ass you’re ever gonna find, Danny Boy.” 

He smiled and nodded. “Likewise, Jo. I hope.” 

They were a reasonably contented 20th century couple, cemented in stubbornness and tradition, until Gloria arrived. They did not invite her, of course, but they knew she would not change her schedule for them. And so they waited on her.

September 27, 1985 – 4:42 a.m.

Daniel at the helm of the bathroom mirror, inside it, stained inside it, exhaling Listerine, objecting to the flat space between the layers of his himness. Who is staring at whom, you might say, that certain cliché: am I real, the real deal, and who is this pretender before my throne? Am I firmly in place, consigned only as a load-bearer, as the pillar holding up all this shit and disgrace until it topples? Awful, yes, to consider there are these light fixtures and shiny polished faucets to maintain, oh, and the codified hand towels and ornamental soaps, the fuck is that about, eighteen dollar dollops of molded soap imprinted with cherubs, and I’m not even allowed to wash my hands with them? and the vodka still rages and it smells a little like mouthwash and a lot like backwash vomit. Fifty-two years old and still acting like a kid sneak-drinking Mateus, hiding the vino under the passenger-side seat of the old man’s wagon, except now it isn’t always vino, and it definitely isn’t rolling around in the back of the Olds. Joanne would have a cow. Is that the right expression, having a cow? No, she would have a fully-formed, prime Grade-A, fucking clot of beef if she knew I was still drinking five-dollar potato vodka. What do you say, Opposite-Me? I say go back to bed, asshole, it’s going to be the shittiest of shit days and she’s going to need you. Gloria’s on her way.

“You okay in there, hon?” moans Jo, her voice a blur, a smoker’s burr, barely aware under the quilt, barely awake but cognizant of his absence.

“I’m good, baby. Go back to sleep.”

“‘kay.”

“Rough day ahead,” he says, but it’s more to himself, because she already knows that, and why doesn’t he just do the right thing and fucking die already?

September 27, 1985 – 7:18 a.m.

Joanne at the edge of the bedroom mirror, beside it, hiding from her nakedness. She’d put on too many pounds since the Fourth. Maybe since before that, since last Christmas. Or maybe since forever. Fuck. Weight and shame, that’s all this was. All. This. Is. Daniel never said a word, not a tot of encouragement, not a nod of acknowledgement that she was suffering. What do you call this? The Middle-aged Blues? Might as well romanticize it, and why not? Growing old before you could really gather up all the facts of how you’ve lived so far? No one wrote songs about this kind of loneliness, did they? As your husband merrily lives a life outside of you. People have a way of forgetting the ways the other half fades. The primal organism of love, not just the smooth camera-ready surfaces, all the playful erections and generous curves and the wet boundaries of touch. They forget about the chambered heart, the damaged blood, the aching ligaments and the splintered bones. They forget about the ovarian cysts and the broken skin and ugly scars that still look like billboards in the dark. They only see the before and after in the photo album, and they nod and reminisce about the rocket-powered orgasms of newlywed bliss that always always always obscures the disappointments and stained regrets. We are childless, honey, because of me. We both know it and have never spoken it, not aloud, it’s not allowed, even when the other is asleep. And I weep. You know it, Danny, I weep. And you turn over in your sleep, and you turn the bottle over to your lips, and you pretend that we’re both too old for this nonsense, it doesn’t matter. But it matters. It has shaded us. And now we really can’t stand to look at each other, can we? But we do. For the sake of ourselves, we do. Because every morning, we awaken to the terror of our calamity. And calamity is what we know but haven’t quite expressed yet.

Will you be sober for the disaster of today? Because I really doubt you will be, and I really don’t need you to be. Because I know we’re going somewhere together, and I really hope we get there soon.

Daniel, yelling from the kitchen, “Are you ready for this, Jo? She might still miss us.”

His words don’t sound too blurred.

“Hurricanes never miss,” she says. “Who can ever be ready for something like this?” Did that sound like a chant, did it have a sing-song singularity to it, the proper note of resignation? She hoped so.

“I hope my dad built this place strong enough,” he says. “I think we might have a chance if Gloria turns a degree or two to the north.”

“Goddamn Connecticut,” says Jo. “Goddamn Gloria.” And, under her breath. “Goddamn us.”

Photo by Arnie Chou from Pexels

My words

There are some days when I am so tired of the words. My words. Their  looseness, their tightness, their clutter, their chatter, their aloofness and evasiveness, their show-and-tellness, their hip-hoppiness. They’re  too unrefined, too shiny, too abstract, and they float like blots of snow in a Rankin/Bass Christmas cartoon. I want them to be sweeping, I want them to be respectful, I want them to weep and soar, I want them to be dramatic piano notes, each. one. a. slow. plink / plunk. and. then. echo
down
a
dark
stone
corridor
and
scald
all 
the
walls
with
their
beauty.
AND THEN 
I WANT THEM TO

BURSTOPENSOLOUD

like BUBBLE wrap, and startle children and small animals, and then I will put them in the corner because they know what they’ve done AND they won’t stop giggling. I want to dress them in jeans and a paint-splattered T-shirts, in expensive tuxedos, in riverboat finery, and I want to retire the old ones, fuss over the new ones, and dig a big hole in the backyard and discover all the dinosaury ones. I want to invent brand new words that open up brand new ideas and I want them to line up for a proper photograph wearing their bestest-best smiles and show everyone how friendly they can be. But mostly I want them to let me rest. I am so tired and they always want to play with me. I want to save them in a big glass bowl and chew on them one at a time when my chewing teeth are ready and I want to swim with them on fresh white paper or on creamy parchment and tickle them with ink when the lights are just bright enough to glow upon each one of them and then. walk away. and just let them. SLEEP. for just for a few minutes each day.

But then, what would I do, what could I do with no words to renew or paragraphs to imbue, what would I do? What could I do? And what, I shudder, would they do, I wonder, suddenly broken into pieces asunder? I wonder and I wake them up as fast as I can just in case they want to stop playing, or forget what they’re saying. This is no time to rest, I guess, no time at all.

There are some days when I can’t keep up with the words, can’t catch them at all. My words, plunk / plink, and that’s what I think.