Tag: #amwriting

A leaf shaped like water disguised as a leaf


But first an otherworldly version of “He Leadeth Me” by Olive Sallee’s two grown boys, Ronny and Quick. That’s them, standing before God and all His corn, and also Justin Ryder’s half-blind Appaloosa, Mary-Ellen. They are pulling the notes out of their fiddles like they were chicken gizzards, all for the good of  the Jurystown Baptist Church’s Sunday Revival. 

Those noises help to advance the pass-along jar between the clusters of those womenless boys in the crowd who are tap-tap-tapping their quick-short fingernails on the sleeves of their thermal undershirts like they’re counting down the beats until it’s all over. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s something that needs to stop being one thing so it can start being something else.

Olive loves her boys, just as she loves the king-size Newport menthols she smokes at the very back of the canvas tent at the very end of every revival meeting, when Brother Rex lays down his Bible with one declarative thump and stomps down the aisle with his arms raised like a welterweight, sniffing up all the stink from a congregation that smells like the inside of a Sunday morning mason jar. Yes, she loves her boys maybe as much, though they are both fools: Quick, more than the other one.

Sometimes, though, all those sounds accidentally start to weave themselves into real music, if you let the notes drift away from you, off into the air, above your thinking mind.

Douglas Hauck, who has gathered up all the attention over there at that cottonwood tree, sways to something he probably has heard before. It’s not so much what you think you hear, it’s how it all carries, into a wide stillness, into the soft unborn skin of nightfall. Douglas, all forty-two troubled years of him, sways because he doesn’t know how to do anything different anymore. 

Beryle Bean, who is frequently called Saint Beryle — and not for any good reason other than she is unmarried and not especially ashamed of it — watches for her two dogs, who scattered off into the nearby cornfield. Twenty minutes, now, without any distinctive bark, she can still hear their hooooools far off, practically into Benny Thompson’s potato field. Those hounds make a more tolerable kind of music, in her opinion, than those boys who play their confounding fiddles.


“Olive, I am struggling,” Douglas says to her after the service. He lights her third Newport cigarette of the post-sermon with the disposable lighter he keeps in his jacket pocket to impress the smokers in the congregation. The women smokers. He thinks it makes him look acceptably sexual.

There is a hard slate sky carved upon the horizon, and Olive studies it carefully. She knows the wrecking ball nature of the weather this time of year — they all do — and this sky promises meanness.

“We all struggle, Douglas,” she says. “Each in our own way. We try not to talk about it to the uninterested, which, frankly, includes me. We look to Brother Rex for answers.”

“Yes, well. Him. I’m not sure he’s as well qualified as he claims. I asked him before his sermon if I could see his official papers — proof of theological courses, or degrees or even certification — and he said God Himself chose him, not any particular college. He said he is a man who has been blessed, unlike me, or anyone else in this rabble. He said his job was — is — to save those in frantic need of salvation. That’s a direct quote, by the way: ‘anyone else in this rabble.’ And then he asked me if my bank might consider making a donation to next month’s Great Pals’ Family Picnic Day over in Oslee Valley.”

Olive sighs.“Boy, that’s a long and strained answer to a question I did not ask,” she says, and clears her throat. “Like I said, we all struggle, and now isn’t the time to whimper about it. But I’m sure you have more important things on your mind this afternoon, don’t you? Like the color of Saint Beryle’s panties? Or the beads of sweat that trickle between those thin bosoms? I see how you stare at her chest, Douglas. Studying that little sunburned patch of skin. Would it interest you to know that Beryle doesn’t bother to wear underpants anymore? Not since she caught that infection. Maybe you’d like to consult with Brother Wade about that. I hear it cleared up for him. Eventually.”


“This thing. This creature of marrow and conceit, of blood and retribution.” Brother Rex exhaled, exhausted and loud, and he palmed his face with an already damp handkerchief. “This thing,” he said again, and wiped away the appropriate number of tears, which was the exact number as Christ’s disciples.


Why would you say that?” says Douglas. “Beryle and I are friends. We sit beside each other at Bible study, that’s all. We — sometimes we — why would you say that, Olive?”

“I see the way you look at her, Douglas. And Brother Rex has noticed. It’s painful to watch you swerve so far off the path he’s set for us. That you think he’s unqualified is an insult. We know about you.”

“You know about me?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I have no idea what you mean. Beryle and I are friends, that’s all.”

“We know what you say when you think you can’t be overheard. We know your heart, Douglas.”

“My heart? You don’t even know my address, Olive. You don’t even know the names of my cats. You don’t know my desires, how could you? I don’t write them down, I don’t tell myself what they are. I live with them, and I pray for them to go away. You don’t know me. You said it yourself: you’re uninterested.”

Olive Sallee hears the singular sound of her boys’ fiddles drift down from a great distance, somewhere from inside an inimical churn of wind not quite ready to strip away the corn and tear out the bruised throats of  Beryle Bean’s awful hounds.

“That boy, Douglas. That drowned boy from Sunbury Lake. Do you still remember him?”


I have just about worn my legs out, swimming, far past four o’clock, far past the dock, far past the dogs, past anyone who might recognize my bobbing shape so far from the narrow thumb of a hardpan beach. 

I am premeditatedly naked, for the first time wholly hip to my fully-charged young man’s skin. There is  young Connor and his older half-sister Anna, and I want to impress her and I regret that I forget him. He follows me, oh, just follows me further than I intended to swim, being so submerged in so subversive a bliss that it’s been denied me ever since. The boy followed me beyond the shallows and Anna spit on my face, a prolonged roar at my disgrace, humiliates my soft boyish body, and I ought to forgive myself, ought to restrain myself from these aqueous desires, and some days I become submerged again, dead-skinned and numb to it all over again.

I have just about worn my legs out, running,  far past those days, all a miserable haze, oh, dear Beryle/Anna, all in a wildly orgasmic maze, and you will never hear me cry out in any of my remaining prayers how much I want to be near you, to lay down beside you, how much I want to reach for you, but, yes, I am only a fallen leaf shaped like water disguised as a leaf, and I drift, you know, I just drift so close but distant and out of your way.

“So long ago,” Douglas says. 

Irregular laps of lake water clutched the shore, sideways swirls formed from below, each swathe more luxuriant and urgent as he pulled the boy in. Everything was liquid and impermanently drawn, except for the boy. Connor was a doughy little boy at five, and still alive, as most boys are at that age, and not this sodden and heavy little shape with blue lips and cold plastic flesh. He used to have spindles for limbs and hair as yellow as corn, and now everything was the ash and purple clump Douglas pulled behind him. Connor probably used to wear a grin that disappeared behind shyness, he was just a little guy, after all. Just a regular, everyday little boy, who hid when the Polaroid came out of the box, who likely sought treasure under decomposing trees, and who quite possibly laughed at farts and toads and things that fell out of his nose. A typical boy who just solidly closed the door on everything good in the rest of Douglas Hauck’s life.

“Douglas?” Olive says, her voice a flinty caw. “Earth to Douglas, hello? Can you hear me?”

Of course he hears her. He has heard her all his life. Oh, she assumes different names and genders, and always finds different excuses for humiliating him, but the tone is  consistent: cruel and impatient, beneath a thin veneer of pity. A ‘why aren’t you normal?’ taunt that transcends schools and jobs and conversations. He can’t make that voice go away. God himself frequently uses that tone on him.

“I hear you,”  he says quietly. “Of course I hear you, I always hear you.”

And he screams.

And Ronny’s and Quick’s fiddles stop making whatever noise it was they were making.


The high and righteous Brother Rex saith unto Saint Beryle, “Let there be long nights and slick thighs between man and woman in this darkness,” and it did not come to pass, as the woman declined the advances of such an imperious ass.

“Nothing ventured,” he said, and moved on to the next princess: this week, it was that cute divorced redhead, Loren Clayton, daughter of Wilfred, owner of the infamous Bait and Bar down on Oxford Street.

Rex. Was that even his real name, Rex? Why not just call himself, ‘Would you like to see my Dong, Sweetheart’? Amen, put it away, stud, not interested. It was the same thing every Sunday, the same dirty dance between the closure of the sermon and the opening of the potato salad bowls behind the big tent.

There was a sacrament of cruelty in Brother Rex’s services. Beryle herself was a New Testament kind of gal, but Rex kept pounding out those Golden Oldie Testament favorites about revenge and pride: 

But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. Good old Exodus, a real people-pleaser.  And “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “All is vanity.” Ah, yes, Ecclesiastes. Brother Rex really was color blind.

Never mind. It was hard to mind such things when her two hounds, Rosie and O’Donnell, were loose in a wide open cornfield. It wasn’t like them to burst out of the Ford and chase whatever scent they caught. They were better trained than that… unless those big thunderheads unnerved them. Once she got the girls back into the truck, she’d head home, not hang around for the fellowship supper. A good chance this could turn into a night down in the storm cellar, stuck with a couple of shamed dogs, stripping the corn silk out of their fur.

A scream — or something else, something more primitive, more deeply wounded (burn for burn, wound for wound) — lifted from the big cottonwood, now steeped in cloud cover and surrounded by clots of white short-sleeved shirts and beige linen skirts. The scene resembled an unfinished painting that mimicked motion, the finishing strokes yet to be determined.

“Hey, I know that guy,” she heard herself say, then realized she could not remember his name, or even who he was.


“I never meant for him to bleed so much,” Olive Sallee says. “I never saw Ronny move so fast, with Quick right behind him. Dropped their fiddles right there on the grass. As soon as that guy — Douglas, I guess his name was — as soon as he pushed me, both my boys come running. I mean, can you blame them? The guy was crazy. I never meant for him to bleed so much. I was only teasing him a little. Ruined my good Sunday blouse, too. Then the sky opened up like that, I don’t know what happened next. Hey, did anyone ever find Brother Rex?”

Sometimes, all those sounds accidentally start to weave themselves into real music, if you let the notes drift away from you, off into the air, above your thinking mind.

Hands Photo by Alan Cabello from Pexels

Tent Photo by Bastian Riccardi from Pexels

Jacket Photo by Rachel Claire from Pexels

By nightfall


She knows / settled into her land
she knows / the land will settle onto her
she knows / she is wholly unafraid she

lost her Silas twenty-
seven years come September they

stood through blighted mornings / stooped
beneath gritty eaves / toed
over ice bubbled gravel / laid hands
upon evening’s shimmered
lantern light

their shadows bled into one another
in life / in stillness

she makes herself become still at night
and inside her stillness he
still reaches for her she
still reaches for him
and the scent of their sweat has paled

we still claim the earth each morning
he said/ and she will change her mind by nightfall

they worked the land hard / they
worked each other harder / they
tried not to hurt each other with seventy-
six rough acres at their feet
and two baby girls at her breasts

sometimes they grew
a good season
and sometimes they
fell into the dust with
useless / ruined labor
and they knew they were only
one particular kind of dust / the kind
spat out from the clouds

each layer sacred
each grain a lesson

and she buried him in the middle of a quarter acre
that never grew anything but goldenrod
his shirt buttons were pale as potato flowers

he was without a topcoat
but his collar was clean
his hands and neck were scrubbed

the girls could not make it home
that season
in time to say goodbye
it did not rain

she re-reads their letters at the kitchen
table / their absences
and regrets written in an exaggerated
and flowery kind of script/ she sees

a certain trail of jittered sugar
between the bowl and her blue coffee cup/ it
seems almost elegant
on the crepe paper tablecloth

she brushes it away
and will sweep it all up by nightfall

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

The point of a circle


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


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


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.


You tell me about the elasticity of mourning, and I still don’t think you know what that means. Laurel, am I supposed to shoetree this, fit it into something comfortable for you? How do you carry it, all this anger, and more; do you expect me to carry it for you?

So. Here it is. Not quite my definitive image of him, but it’s probably the one you expect. It’s simple, but not unexamined.


leaning over me as I squirm on the floor, belt coiled around his fist, staccato of leather busting me open like a pomegranate. Oh, and the buckle makes a jangly tambourine noise, did I tell you that? How it crashes against my bare ass, bloodies it, pulps me into low-grade meat? I don’t know if you still remember him as he was back then, slender and wiry. Without that belt cinched around his waist, his pants begin to slide. He’s forced to tug on them with his free hand, and that changes the arc of his swing. He hits thigh meat for a few smacks, his accuracy noticeably off. This makes him angrier. I try to roll, and, for a moment I can see the band of his underpants, which are robin’s-egg blue. This is a surprise, because I can’t understand how a man who would wear such colorful underwear could strike me with such ferocity. 



That isn’t the image — not the main one — I want to carry, but it’s the one that muscles in whenever I think of him. 

Ha, listen to me: whenever I think of him. Almost fifty years later, and there it is, waiting for me. The belt, the buckle, the blood. 

You were off at Northeastern, your first year, and you were nervous about everything, so you didn’t know how bad it could get. I was never one to come crying to you. 

Laurel, I remember every angle, every discoloration on those yellow kitchen walls, every grunt he made, every squeak from his heels on that old linoleum. Hell, I can’t remember my own phone number some days, but I can remember that. It’s kind of remarkable, isn’t it, the terrible things we force ourselves to examine? The cancer of memory, the curse of a forebrain, the meat function of the amygdala. We learn fear, but we can’t unlearn childhood. And that’s what’s really pathetic. We can’t unlearn who we were, or how we were tempered.


Sweaty white undershirt, green twill trousers, zipper not completely zipped. Brown penny loafers, gravel-scuffed toes and insteps. Bit of shaving cream on the left earlobe, a torn square of bloodied toilet paper on his chin. Mid-morning sunlight pulling through those grimy lace curtains — remember them, stained by all those wet, humid summers? — and the entire downstairs smells like boiled onions and Pabst Blue Ribbon. I wore my favorite brown corduroys, washed the day before, and of course they were ruined by lunchtime. And the floor still had small Cheez Whiz blots from the previous weekend, when we cooked up a big pot of macaroni-and. My blood was wiped up quick enough, but that Cheez Whiz is probably still stained on that goddamn beige flooring.

“Don’t. You. EVER. Steal. AGAIN!” 

I could hear him, Laurel, inside each one of my howls, I could still hear him. He may have even just mouthed those words to me, in between wallops. I don’t know.

That was all he said. Those five words. He didn’t ask me to explain, or offer an apology when he threw down rags for me to clean myself. He didn’t speak to me again for days, not until you came home for Thanksgiving. I guess he assumed I learned my lesson and would never steal again. 

And I haven’t. I won’t even park in a spot where there’s still time left on the meter. If I didn’t pay for it, it’s not mine. Pretty simple, right? He made me an honest boy. I must be one of God’s chosen, despite, you know, all the boozing that came later.

Don’t look at me like that. I know.

 I know. 

Three divorces and two kids who won’t talk to me anymore. Look at me, I am one of God’s chosen. Ha. There are all those innocent bystanders to consider, standing in front of the wreckage I became. I know that, Laurel, I truly do.

Yeah, sorry, there is a point, and I’m still digging for it. 

Such moments of clarity pay a steep price. It’s in the simplicity of it, that sparkling blink of purity I saw it in him, once. You asked me for my definitive image of him? It wasn’t in that beating. There was a moment when I got to see him cleanly and clearly.

Maybe this will help, it’s all I’ve got:

Early May, the year I turned 17, the year I finally moved out. You were still dating that Paul guy, the one with the Corvair and the platform shoes. The guy who turned out to be a real asshole to you? Anyway, me and the old man were still swimming together in that house, and everything about us felt like drowning. We weren’t even trying to tread water. There was community college for me in the fall, and he was still working as a security guard at that Five and Dime over on Rochester Street — Jesus, how long ago was that? We had our meal times together, four or five nights a week, and we watched a few ball games on the tube if there was nothing else to do. You know, quality time.

One morning, he decides he’s going to mow the front yard. That was usually my job, but he surprised me. The sky was practically varnished with turquoise, and the sun poured down this honey-colored light that washed over everything. So he puts on an old undershirt and holey pair of jeans, and he pushes that old mower across our 30-by-30 front yard, maneuvering around the half-dead hedges beside the driveway, and he whistles a tune I never heard before, something simple, not too showy. It was… elegant, you know? I see the sweat on his shoulders and chest, around his eyes. Laurel, he looked like a younger man, his dark hair shiny with sweat and all that honey-bearing light.

He calls me over, and he puts his arm around my shoulders, pulls me in for a hug. I can smell his perspiration, the Brylcreem, the crumbles of tobacco inside his pockets. It was all him, a very large and real him, and his half-hug is warm and masculine and kind, and I think he means to kiss the top of my head, but then the garbage truck rumbles from down the block, right in front of Jerry Redman’s place, with all those noisy trash cans they used to put out.

The sky turns back to being ordinary blue, and the sun, an ordinary sun, and he smells like just another sweaty guy standing in his yard. He pushes me away gently, then lights up a smoke. He exhales for a long time. I go back inside and turn on the radio, turn it up loud. I can see him from the living room window, and he looks lost, like a boy. Like an innocent boy, smoking his first cigarette. And I am lost again. I think that was the last time I ever cried.

So this is how I carry it, Laurel. This is what I carry instead of the anger. I know you see ruination before you, a great self-inflicted loss in me, but I’m doing okay. I’ll stand by that grave site today, and I’ll be still. I don’t think I’ll cry — I still don’t know how to fake tears, not after all these years — but I will honestly grieve. I’ve had years of practice, you know? And I think you have, too.

How do you expect to carry it all, Laurel? When this is all done, I hope you’ll want to come over to the house. But come alone. You know you’re always welcome, and there will always be fresh coffee in the pot. Then you can tell me how you’re really doing. You can tell me how you want to tote this thing. I know it’s a hard thing to do by yourself, but I think I’ve finally figured it out.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

A collection of things

The trade winds have roughened since yesterday. There’s a cinnamon whiff of Carolina allspice in the air, another thing that’s blown in from the south. It doesn’t remind me of home, but it does remind me where I came from.

Each thing in this room is balanced by another thing, and each of them falls, eventually. Do you remember telling me that?

I smell the rain, hear it erase the miles between rest stops and parking lots. There’s a suitcase in the back I haven’t touched since Cincinnati, or maybe Youngstown. Things I packed for you, things I can’t bear to lose. I keep my things in a duffle bag, something I have to remind myself is still mine. Your hand-drawn map is still on the dashboard, yellowed from old sunshine. The miles, dear, the miles, all contained in the briefest of thoughts.

“Do you know where you are now?” she asks.


“Yes, silly, but where?”

“Mecca? I think that’s what the sign said. I drove through a covered bridge.”

And she is silent, and I wonder where  I am.

All the flags were at half-staff as I drove north through Kentucky. “You still don’t like to drive, do you?” she asks.

“The drivers try to drive me off the road.”

“Of course they don’t. Follow the map I drew for you. You’ll find your way.”

“Way where?”

And she is silent, and I wonder where I am.

I have become a brief collection of things to her, of aching bones and tired griefs and driving tantrums. “Way where?” I ask again.

“Way Ward.”

“My name isn’t Ward,” I say, an old joke of which I have forgotten its origin. “Am I That Easy to Forget?” is on the radio. The Jim Reeves version, I think.

The westerlies  have roughened since yesterday. There’s an industrial whiff of cabbage in the air, another thing that’s blown in from the north. It doesn’t remind me of home, but it does remind me where I am going.

Photo by Andrew Neel from Pexels

Brewers Mills 1974


This is the place where the story becomes unbearable if left untold, he said. This is where the tale-teller sacrifices everything that bears the weight of all that noise.

I listened to him rant, again. It was always about the providence of the tale-teller, never about the other participant, the sacrificial listener. He could have preserved this blather in plastic and strung it from the rear-view mirror, or his neck. That was his rosary, his familiar.

Do you trust me, he asked, and he drove the Volvo into the big elm at the corner of Chatham and Colborne Streets, June 17, 1974. Neither of us survived.

He was right, though. You never know what the face of any given story will be until it can complete itself.

She wakes to the sound of a street sweeper every Monday morning, every other Thursday.  A small town delight, he calls it, but that insistent deep hum, that whir of machinery, has become an irritant. She sets the radio alarm to wake her before its scheduled arrival, but that hum always buries the squalid tin noise.

 Your anger with it, he says, makes it louder, you know. Go to the door, stand outside, wave at the man. You’ll come to enjoy it. It’ll become just another sound in your routine.

Routine. Like the one where he leaves every morning, 6:38. He’s never heard the sweeper, the angry, hypnotic thump it makes as it bumps against the curb. He’s never heard Sugar Sugar squawk on the radio, or Hey Jude flattened by machinery. Routine. How bourgeoisie. Let them eat Twinkies, indeed.

We were not yet dry though

the gin bottle was, an age ago 


we were an age 

that never impressed us much.

Where was the boy who wrote that, she thinks. Whatever happened to him?

The street sweeper shakes her from another deep sleep.

Photo by David McBee from Pexels

Madeleine is the name she has taken this time


She does not begin her song at its beginning anymore. 

We are still in love / with our presumed pedigree / of certain ghosts….

She sifts through each proceeding verse, the grain of her voice ascends. She sings of the construct of his skin, the obtrusiveness of bone, the scratch of thorns that precedes the blood. 

She is still considered a young woman, has changed little since I was small enough for her to cradle. Her eyes, perhaps, stare more deeply. Her hands tremble noticeably when she brushes the sand from my arms. The other women in the village seem older, but they are not. They stare, they shade their eyes with small flat hands, their lips tighten with frowns. 

I cannot contain him in my grief / in a temple of duplicitous priests…. 

“Are you her boy?” a woman asked of me. “The singer? The whore? She thinks you are his only favor. You are her bastard, did you know? Go, hide yourself and your shame.”

“I am not him,” I said, and the woman walked away. 

It is like this in every village. I never tell her what they say to me.

We do not stay in any one place for long. There are so many towns and villages along our path that we are not always noticed right away. There is something in her face, I think, that draws their attention. Although she cloaks herself in a widow’s robe, we are always revealed, and it is always with scorn.

The singer. The whore. 

I am unashamed, I tell her.

 I am not him, I said to the woman.

I fall into my mother’s voice when she sings. We do not need to go back to the beginning. In her song, we are both free and we are both our true selves. Of certain ghosts, she used to sing, and I still believe that is who we are.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels



I remember when dust was more beautiful than substance, something uncatchable, something whisked into cat corners. This was home. This was being a child. 

There is a box of in-season lettuce on the sidewalk beside the glass doors of Karl’s Barber Shop. Ladybugs — many — are sitting on the cardboard folds. Do they sit or stand? I’ve always wondered. The box is set crooked against the chipped brick wall, and it has been filled many times before: for lettuce, now, perhaps for apples, once, or old dishes, frail, muffled by newspapers and crimped grandmother-pillows. 


This, being a child:

My father stands at the door, and he exhales hues of cigarette smoke, blue and gray and an ivory plume in the shape of a Saturday morning. The smoke smells important and impatient, the scent of everything I know of him: his roughness, his capriciousness. He is still a young man, and he has created everything.

It is numbness more than ecstasy that will lift you, I would tell my five-year-old self.

“Morning, Johnny. Brought your boy with you today, huh?”

“He’s getting a little long behind the ears. Say hi, bubs.”

I say, “Hi.”

“Well, hey, little man. You turning into a hippy? That hair is looking wild.”

“No, sir. Daddy say I jus’ need a trim.”

“Just a trim, yessir. Hop on over here, son, let’s see what I can see. Look at you, grown two inches since last time. What you feeding him, John? Magic beans?”

“Spinach!” I shout.

“That right? Never could stand the stuff, but it must work for you. Same as usual, John?”

“Yeah,” says my father, who is already seated. “No. Cut it a little shorter. There’s talk of layoffs at the plant this fall. Might not see another haircut ‘til Christmastime. Go ahead and bean him.”

“Damn, Johnny. Hope things turn out okay.”

“Probably not. Goddamn Nixon. Just do the boy today, Karl. I’m driving cab tonight, and I don’t care how I look.”

“That so?”

“Part-time, cigarette and gas money, mostly.” He picks up a copy of Field and Stream. There is a picture of a trout on the cover. He showed it to me last time we were here. “This is a trout,” he said. “About half as long as you are, Joseph. Those colors above his belly tell me he is of the rainbow variety.”

“Really, Daddy?”

“You calling me a liar, son?”

“No, sir. Never saw a fish that big before, that’s all.”

“They get bigger,” he says, and shrugs. That was my father’s primary form of communication: the sharp grunt of the shrug, the shut-up-if-you-think-you-have-more-to-say shorthand that is so easily misunderstood. It can be difficult to translate when you’re five years old. When you’re fifty-five, even.

“Wasn’t expecting you ‘til next Saturday,” says Mister Karl. “Wasn’t this your old lady’s turn to look after him?”

“Bitch changed her plans,” Daddy says. “She knew I had things to do this weekend. Goddamn car payment, goddamn kid payment. She won’t be happy ‘til she sees me go bust.”

“Uh, John?”

“Now I’m stuck with you-know-who all weekend. Might be able to land a babysitter, I dunno, I doubt it. It’s already too late to call my usual sitter.”

“Johnny? Big ears here, son.”

Daddy looks over and sees Karl pointing at me. I can see him in the big mirror. I pretend not to notice, but my face feels red.

“Aw, hell,” Daddy finally says. “Joseph gets to ride in the front of the cab with me tonight, ain’t that right, bubs?”

I try to be cheerful. “Yes, sir. And we’re gonna have hotdogs for supper, Mister Karl. And watermelon!”

“And watermelon? Holy smoke, kid, you got a good Saturday planned, dontcha? Wish I were going with you, instead of cutting hair all day. And you get to spend time with your old man. You’re one lucky kid, you know that?”

“Yes, sir. And Mister Karl?”

“Yeah, Joe?”

“Why is there a box of lettuce out in front of your shop? You know there’s a bunch of ladybugs all over the box? Won’t they eat the lettuce?”

Mister Karl smiles. “Yeah, kid, I hope so.” And then to my father: “You know old Pierce over at the hardware store? His wife put up a garden again this summer — the whole backyard this time — and he can’t give stuff away fast enough. Some mornings, it’ll be green beans, next day it’s onions. Today, it’s lettuce. A whole box of it, as you can see. What do I want with that much lettuce? A few pounds of potatoes, sure, but lettuce? Do I look like a rabbit? If you want a head or five, grab some on your way home. Otherwise, let the bugs have it. At least it don’t stink, like those turnips did. Hey, you remember that, Johnny? A goddamn milk crate full of ‘em. I told Pierce, son, next time bring me some of your old lady’s brisket, not her turnips. Does he ever get tired of ignoring me? Not yet, he don’t.”

I listen to the cadence of Mister Karl’s voice, but not to most of his words. I  think he is a nice man, but he seems to be honestly confused by someone who has done a nice thing for him. Free vegetables? Free lettuce? Daddy calls lettuce a ruination of a good sandwich. I guess so. I don’t know. It doesn’t seem important enough to worry about it, or become angry over. Let the bugs have it, I guess. 

Mister Karl trims me very short. There is a big pile of hair beside the barber chair. I didn’t know there was so much of me to take. Daddy did not look at me the whole time, or at anything else, not even the old magazines. He nodded during Mister Karl’s speech about vegetables, but I don’t think he was even listening. Mister Karl dusts off my neck and shoulders with his little barber brush, and then helps me down. Daddy does not notice my haircut is finished.

“See you next week, Johnny? You’re getting a little long behind the ears, too, fella.”

“Yeah, maybe. We’ll see. Take it easy, Karl. Hell of a night tonight, I guess. Wish me luck.”

Mr. Karl hands me a penny for the gumball machine. “Good luck, son,” he says, and then he winks. This time, I get an orange gumball, one of the big ones.

Daddy takes one last look at the box of wilting lettuce outside and nudges it with the toe of his boot so that it’s flush to the wall. He lights up a cigarette and walks on ahead of me. I try to keep up, but fall further and further behind. 

This is being a child. This was being dust. This is being dust.


Detected in a moment of profound silence

It might as well be written in paraffin, she said,
the way this will all burn between us

Uncle Nathan would not regret choosing the white athletic socks
as an accoutrement to his burial suit,
nor his choice of “Love in Vain”
at his memorial service

and there he is, with a lavish depiction of goldfish
scales on his bow tie,
Yves Saint Laurent tidal-gray shirt and a fleur-de-lis
on the breast pocket of his forty-year-old wedding jacket

the nieces will be outraged and
the nephews, not so much
did he have any money
who was he, anyway?

might as well be buried
between two Valencia orange crates
as between these two half-grieving ex-wives
who study the pink in each other’s blouse:

Dee, the round, idiosyncratic blonde, fifteen years
younger than he / a subscriber to three
plant-based leggings franchises


Dorian, the angular other blonde, twenty-seven, smarter
than everyone else in the room, who still cannot measure
the time it took for him to dissolve their

he kept folded photocopies of his parents’
obituaries in his wallet and they have turned brown
and unimportantly crisp — like well-preserved October
leaves, or Ore-Ida tater tots


he kept his necessary papers — driver’s license,
blood donor card, theater
tickets — in his left shoe / told his grandchildren
he was wounded in some war / hence the perpetual

and now

a flourish of ghosts gather
at the dais

today we say goodbye to
a fine man…

Aunt Marlene, a flask of high-octane bourbon
in the confounding folds of her dress / takes
a petite swallow / she’ll be damned
if she shares it with the impotent man pretending
to be her husband two seats down
from that shaggy empirical redhead
he tries to impress with the cut of his
motorcycle boots

in the sixty-seventh and final mortal year of our dear
Uncle Nathan

and then

there is that sacred moment between

‘can you give me’

and the conspicuous dirty silence,
when all the introspective heartbeats and
the slightly humid exclamations


the sweat dangles from the lip
the tear struggles to define itself and fall
in a meaningful display of public mourning


the voice becomes
a bellicose yowl of unashamed grief


eternity is, all at once, undressed / then clothed
between the dry heaves of bored deprivation /pity,

and then

the sky pulls back its pretty laced veil
to reveal its demanding blistered face

‘an amen for brother Nathan?’

and amen


the nieces / nephews
stare at each other on their cellphones confused
and then make their plans
for when this
boring shit is over