We witnessed the waves as bystanders, watched them spill into limestone gulleys, and we waited for something different this time: a new color, perhaps, to percolate from their churn, or for the sun to gild the shore with a little more gold.
You pilfered persimmons
but only for the seeds
from Missus Mead’s trees
she can only eat one piece of fruit at a time
unless she slices them for pies
then I will inform her of the deed
but if the trees grow elsewhere, will they even be hers?
they will be closer to the water
such a long walk from her orchard
they will grow in her memory
but they were still pilfered
and now I fancy strawberries
Your words do not weigh enough, my father said. We need to build you up. You know how to use a walkie-talkie, right?
I couldn’t make sense of what he was saying. Words don’t weigh enough? Walkie-talkie? I had just finished high school two weeks earlier, was about to turn 18, and he signed me up to work on a road crew. With muscles unleavened and shoulders like butter knives, I didn’t think that was a good idea.
But to look at him, even casually, you knew the word ‘no’ was not an option. His dimensions were broad, but, you would think, unremarkable; his face, a modest clay, was a little too plain without benefit of finely-tuned details. Chin, just so, maybe slightly too flat, but not insubstantially so, though his nose, a scintilla too blunt for a man who, you would suppose, possessed a diminished sense of smell; a broad forehead, yes, shaped for good hats, like a fedora or a gray felt Homburg. And eyes: well, that’s what would stop you from thinking him average or dull. Dark green, swamp green eyes. Curious eyes, but not yearning or imploring. You would conclude: here was an intelligent man, but wait, also a troubled man, but no, pointedly philosophical, brutal, vivid, imaginative. You never knew his temperament before he spoke, and the man was not a talker. His voice was naturally soft, but it carried, and it made you interested in what he had to say, made you crane your neck so you could watch him strip the words to their plainest enunciation.
So ‘no’ was not a choice. I joined a work crew as a flagman on my eighteenth birthday.
You craved the wild fruit of Pompeii, you exclaimed
and as a young man, i sought it
there was no such flora in northern California,
so of course in Sausalito, i just bought it.
I was to be put to rest in the second cheapest coffin he could afford. They haggled, Mr. Bueford D. Weill, Jr. and he, but the words ‘dignity has no price tag,’ put him off.
“That I should kiss my son’s cheek and lay my hands square on his shoulders is all the dignity he requires,” my father said. “He was not a ‘mahogany and antique bronze finish’ kind of boy; planks and sturdy bolts and a comfortable mattress would do him fine. He respected a dollar and a firm bed. He won’t think less of me, because he’s deceased, of course, but I think he might respect me, even dead, if I did not have to forgo a mortgage payment for the sake of a fluffed pillow and half a chesterfield.”
It was agreed, then, that I should be put to flame, and whatever residue remained of me be poured into the lake or, more likely, latch onto a substantial happenstance of a come-along wind to play-along with my ash.
I don’t know what I thought of this much fuss, with all corporeal appetites for sight and such no longer of any interest to me. I was waiting for him, I think, to say goodbye in a way that would end all complications between father, son, and whatever ghosts wound between us. A simple, even clumsy, goodbye, would be fine, but he held onto his grief with both hands.
My dream had a beginning, he said. We walked along a canopied path, prolific with beach grass and the skeletons of striped bass, and we were the same age. I could not feel the warmth of the sand, but I told you it was warm and you agreed, yes, it was warm. And then it was gone, all of it, except for the water, and it was gray and filled with stones. I told you it was cold, and it felt cold, and you said, yes, it was cold. You gathered persimmon seeds, my hand reached to receive them, and I woke up holding nothing.
And I told you that a Buick Skylark ignored my Stop paddle and sped past me, filled with boys my age, and they all wore the same cartoonish grins, shiny with spit and noise. I waved, frantic, to Ronny and his crew, who noticed the car, of course, and I was reprimanded by Mister Douglas Hawkes as we stood beside his pick-up truck. What else could I do? I memorized the license plate, but what else could I do? I forgot that I could speak, that I could yell, I only waved, waved like a dunce, as if I could command the waves to relent.
And my father, still dreaming, said, I dreamed of something that became nothing, and that was the beginning of our goodbye.
A big thanks again to Suzanne Craig-Whytock at DarkWinter Literary Magazine for giving my short story ‘Lamentations of a Farmer‘ a wonderful home. She promotes and publishes so much great work and I’m so pleased to be included there. It’s well worth the visit. Thank you! And the artwork she chose to accompany it is perfect!
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.”
“How are the boys?”
“Oh, they’re okay. They’re hanging out with Dennis and that other one, what’s his name….”
“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.
“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.
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?”
A big thank you to Suzanne Craig-Whytock for publishing my latest flash fiction, Touch/Either/And/Or Adoration at her brand new literary magazine, DarkWinter at darkwinterlit.com. Please pay a visit and check out the other works (fiction and poetry), and feel free to add something to this growing publication. Suzanne is an award-winning Canadian author, and she’s extremely talented and funny. Also check out her must-read hilarious blog, mydangblog. Thanks for reading.
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
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.
He and I, we simply align ourselves
at opposite ends of a path.
We disguise ourselves as amiable strangers
(though I would know him better if I asked).
The pain of his gist was his least obvious gift,
and a profoundness shortly occurred to me.
Pulling his legs from the clay field drifts,
with sensitive voice, he shortly demurred to me:
“In my sorrowed mind, I wander blithely
around my own mangled tale,
writhing between eloquence and ignorance
— to what avail?
“I wash all my scars until the old blood runs fresh.
and the longitude and latitude shudders my flesh.
I tinker with the dams that hold back my prose,
shocking my ears from so many sharp blows.
“And you, sir, you stand there, unequivocally calm,
my heart blisters over, and you hear it as balm.
My travails and hardships leave your disposition unchanged: surely he exaggerates, or in the least is deranged!
“I assure you, good sir, my story is as plain as I say,
that I tell it so simply, I can say without shame.
Though we each cross these meadows in slow studied gaits,
I appreciate your pass on my way to my hay.”
I confess, my transgression was not meant as aggression,
and I mumbled my apology through quivering lips.
Alas, no begrudges as we partook our bucket lunches,
we reared to dislodge each rider from our hips.
these there are the scars she said a fleshybrown hook on her belly a rage of adjectives against her skin by hand under shirt under skirt look here where the skin broke at the damages she tolerates for not knowing his rages against the surface part of her, the retractable blade went here, look, touch these damages they are only torn fabric silk and muscle bleeding dye and plasma, dying you hear a different meaning from the language she has given you
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,
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.