The lake house

Photo by Sanaan Mazhar from Pexels

i.

Francesca will miss the lake, but only in summer. 

There is loneliness here now, an airiness between the burden of making toast and the reach for a second cup. It’s a melancholy that balloons the laundry on the line; she says she’ll release it one day, just to see how far a four-hundred thread count sheet can fly.  Spiders will still comb through the woodpile at the side of the house, the side not facing Lake Michigan. They’ll burrow inside the lineations of bark and under the roughed-up kindling. Come winter, she’ll see more of them inside, on the corners of scatter rugs, between the summer shoes. That she isn’t squeamish about them anymore tells her how much things have changed.

She and Richard had lived here since 2012, but she still thinks of it as his. He set no boundaries or rules, said it was equally theirs. But he was here first. It was his decision to tear down the dock after the Halloween storm in 2014. The wind shifted it hard from its moorings, so it no longer sat symmetrical to the front deck. He would rebuild it in the spring, he said, but spring fell away and summer was too hot, projects came up, the roof needed work, and they — he — decided a dock wasn’t really necessary. 

The way that he pushed things aside was troubling. It was one less piece of clutter to worry about, he said, one less place to sit and watch the lake, she thought.

She hadn’t returned since the day of his funeral. Coming home, she saw there were minor seasonal changes, some not quite comprehensible. There was a plainness in objects she hadn’t considered before. She traced her fingers along the cold cedar handrail, hoping to feel the places Richard had touched when his hands were still warm and accessible; the porch light sconces glowed with unequal brightness, and they cast contradictory and unsettled shadows; the yellowed slashes of the venetian blinds were canted, evoking a drunken peek-a-boo tease; dead leaves poked between the deck’s latticework, already beyond the contentious crunchy-dry stage and now drooped in wet decomposition; an expanse of dewed cobwebs stretched between the furthest cedar branches, drenched in morning silver and looking as sturdy as bridge cables. 

“So, do you still teach?” Mae asked her.

And there. A dead chipmunk between mounds of mummified marigolds, belly eviscerated, a torn cabbage leaf still in its maw, maggots scattered across its chest like wedding rice. 

“Actually, I’m a librarian,” Francesca said. “People sometimes mix us up. ‘Come with me if you want to read’,” she added with a passable Schwarzenegger accent.

There was a plainness in objects she hadn’t considered before.

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing. Sorry, an inside joke.”

The sky was muddy gray, which seemed right. Everything felt suppressed, as if the house was holding its breath for her. She only had to turn the key and open the door for things to return to their natural state.

And so she did.

“This is my disaffection of any god not listening,” she said aloud, and wondered if her younger self — her ghost self — would understand this as a passive temper tantrum and not a real declaration.

“Richard said you teach young children,” said Mae.

“That’s sort of correct,” said Francesca. “I read to them and encourage them to read outside the school. Some of them do, some of them even enjoy it. But there’s no telling who will show up on reading days, which are Tuesdays mornings and Thursdays after lunch hour. Isn’t that funny? Libraries and public schools may be the only institutions that have a prescribed Lunch Hour. And prisons, I suppose. I’ll bet it’s even posted on bulletin boards. ‘12 p.m. until 1:00 p.m. is hereby designated as the Official Hour of the Lunch’.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s right.”

“It isn’t a lack of enthusiasm for reading that stops them, it’s the parents. Their work schedules, babysitting schedules, family situations, evictions, divorces, their laziness, drunkenness, habitual unemployment. You really can’t blame the kids.”

“Sounds rough,” said Mae, who discreetly looked at her watch.

“I also teach the children how to interpret their favorite stories through watercolors. Some of them have become quite good at it. But that’s another story. For later.”

“Hey, listen,” said Mae. “Do you think I could call you about Rick’s drawings later in the week? I really hate to be a bother, but I don’t want to be the only one without a lifejacket when Ellis-Martin starts to go under.”

“Sure, all right,” said Francesca. “I’ll be going back home tomorrow morning. I’ve been avoiding it since the funeral, but I suppose it’s time to settle back in.”

“That sounds great,” said Mae, who sounded like it was not so great.

Francesca thought: I’ll bet you were the girl everyone wanted to fuck in college. Who knows, maybe even still. You’ve got that Mary Tyler Moore sparkle and those roller derby hips and those goddamn freckles, so why not? “Yes. Do you still have the old landline number? I don’t think we ever changed it.”

“I’m sure I do. I’ll check my old post-its. I can’t tell you how much this will help, Frankie. I mean it!”

“I’m sure we can work something out,” she said. Who the hell holds onto their old post-its? she wondered. Just the sparkly girls from college, that’s who. She felt marginally ashamed for thinking ungenerous thoughts, but she was a widow now — was that technically correct, since she and Richard had never married? Could that be challenged in court for some reason? And who really cared what kind of thoughts she was having? She was In Mourning, and therefore deserved a little latitude for whatever thoughts she might have.

ii.

Francesca left the house on the lake in the shape of a snapshot. 

There were rudimentary decisions to make regarding the style of dress and shoes she would choose, the slightest pieces of jewelry, the restrained makeup that would help her look more lifelike, cheeses and deli meats and an appropriate wine, what would be good, can someone please help? 

When the gathering was done, she, in her exile, dishes washed and set on the draining board, packed a bag and drove until exhausted. She spent the week shut in a motel off the interstate, free, finally, to mourn by herself. By Friday afternoon, she was ready to come home.

When she re-opened the house, there was still a drift of elderberry candles coming from the bedroom, still the sturdy fragrance of garden herbs rising from her kitchen counter where she had spread clusters of rosemary, dill, and thyme on paper towels. She couldn’t remember why she did this, only a dim hope that, when she returned, the place would smell like she still belonged to it.

She made a joke about it, suggested name tags next time around, and was rewarded with strained smiles.

Francesca could recall the names of the two women who set up the buffet. Della and Joyce. Had she adequately thanked them? They prepared a crock pot filled with aromatic honey-garlic meatballs and set it beside a teak wood tray of prosciutto and calzone and a wheel of sharp cheddar beside rows of simple cutlery beside paper plates beside a stack of thick paper napkins beside baskets of picked-over bread and rolls beside — no,  someone had moved the plates of provolone and olives to the coffee table where they left marks on the cherrywood. People arrived — more than expected, many from Richard’s pre-Frankie days — and they offered condolences, said kind things in stumbly voices, mingled amongst themselves, and then left. Most of them called him Ricky and there were quite a few Ricks and one Richie. Hardly anyone called him Richard. They all seemed genuine in their appreciation and fondness for him. There were old softball buddies, work friends (but no one from Ellis-Martin, his former company), new and still-friendly clients, people who knew him from college, fucking everyone he had ever known since he was a boy, and they only knew Frankie as his wife, or his girlfriend, or companion animal, or whatever. It was dispiriting how many of them didn’t even know her name. She made a joke about it, suggested name tags next time around, and was rewarded with wan smiles. It was a sunny afternoon, she remembered, so she lowered the venetians in all the rooms so the guests wouldn’t be blinded by the lake water. There was soft piano music spraying from the speakers, and people reached for her hands to offer and receive comfort. She made note of those descending, giving hands and saw that most were wearing a wedding ring. That was interesting. The widow wears no ring, she thought.

“You’re holding up so well,” an older woman in an expensive black pantsuit told her. “So sorry about your loss, my dear,” said a man who wore a gray Armani suit and whose fingers were so smooth they barely allowed for knuckles. “He’s with Jesus now,” said a harried middle-aged woman who carried with her an olive cable knit sweater. Frankie told her it was beautiful, and meanly hoped she would be misunderstood. “Yes, it is,” replied the woman, defiant. A real estate agent named Kip Kyle — it said so, right there on the business card he slid into her hand like a love letter — offered to assist her if she “wanted a nice place in the city instead of this.” He wore no wedding ring, but did have a jazzy topaz on his pinky finger.

That was interesting. The widow wears no ring, she thought.

And this, now, home again, Frankie listened for the different notes of the house, the familiar sounds, the hum of the refrigerator, the unsynchronized ticks and tocks of different clocks in different rooms, the flutter of fluorescence in the kitchen. She realized she was waiting to hear Richard’s voice arrive from another room, for his breath to rush towards her.

Already, the telephone dock was flashing its faux-urgent come-on. Why can’t they leave me alone? But it was Ophelia, just her Ophelia, the only other person in the world whose voice she wanted to hear.

“Hey, Francesca, it’s just me. Just checking in, haven’t heard from you all week.” Tired, as if she just woke up, or hadn’t gone to bed yet. “Listen, I’m sorry about missing the uh, gathering, you know I can’t handle those things. I really am sorry. I know he was decent, decent to you, and that’s what matters.” A sigh, a short cough, the snap of a cigarette lighter, a deep slithering inhale. “Call me if you want. Or even if you don’t want. I need to hear from you. Remember, I’m back on the coast. Ha, so to speak. Suze is still in Arizona, maybe for a while.” Cough. “Sorry, bad joke. Seems like I’m fucking up with everyone lately. But this isn’t about me. Call me. Oh, this is Thursday, so I’ll be at my meeting tonight between 7 and 9:30, thereabouts. Atascadero time, remember? Same number. Okay, bye. Love you.”

And she cried. She cried and it felt more cleansing and more real than whatever it was she felt in the anonymous motel room. Sometimes, she supposed, you can only find your truest grief in the place where you left it. After a while, she lit the remains of the candles in her bedroom and waited for the appropriate amount of time to pass before she called her daughter back. In fucking Atascadero, California.

Francesca knew she would need to build a fire soon, but did not wish to be like Sisyphus, forever pushing a wood-filled wheelbarrow up a steep hill. She waited until daylight was washed away in the lake and wondered if the spiders were done for the season and damn them if they got in her way.

Actress

The lowly roads of grit and stone brought Actress home. She surrendered her Jeep near the highway, parked it beside a dense imbroglio of pokeweed and gutted cardboard. Daybreak percolated below a broad swath of Kwanzan cherry trees, scattering immaculate light across Cornelius Lancaster’s tobacco field.

She left this place wearing river-soaked Nike knockoffs forty years earlier, and so it seemed proper that she return in the same manner: the clothes on her back, with an over-sized purse for the necessaries. Instead of the lick-and-stick tattoos she once adored, she now wore the real things, intricate etchings she collected from downtown parlors and off-ramp strip malls.

Her mother: You have no common sense, girl. You’re confusing chickens with horses again.

I wish I hadn’t mentioned Ellie to you. I wish you never met her.

She did all right for herself. You can ask her, she’s right here.

No, Ma. That was a long time ago. I knew there were stories, and I closed my ears to them.

Stories? Ask her, she’ll tell you. She’s tired of waiting, tired of wanting. You had her phone number in your change purse for twenty-three years, long enough for the ink to bleed into the lining. That scrap of paper smelled like old pennies when you were done with it. An anthropologist couldn’t have read those words.

There were no words, Ma, just her number.

Of course, there were words. I bet you still have that piece of paper squirreled away somewhere, maybe folded in the back of an old copy of Mademoiselle, or between those fancy garter belts you used to hide, scuppered under a layer of cotton panties. I knew about those, you know. I wasn’t snooping, but Lord Jesus Christ, girl. You kept that scrap because of what she wrote. I’m guessing there were just a few words. I don’t know what they were, but they were probably the heaviest things you ever carried. Sure, you memorized them, of course you did, recited them in front of a hundred sleazy bathroom mirrors, maybe had them tattooed on your hip, the one that gives you so much trouble. What does it matter now, they were only the words of a young girl. So go ahead and ask her, little Actress. Ask your girl Eloise how the years have been since you left. I’m sure she has more than a few words straining to get out.

Ma, talking to you is like staring into five loaded chambers. I’m tired.

Well, come on, then. I’ll be waiting.

The road was more compact than Actress remembered; it was diminished, really. The gravel was shallow and meager, randomly scraped down to the gray dirt. Rhododendron shrubs pushed against the road from both sides, drooping from humidity, pale lavender flowers in states of decay and disarray, scentless, ridiculously excessive. A thin daylight moon hung overhead, a scimitar blade ready to carve out old wounds.

Old wounds, indeed.

Hello, Missus. Good morning to you.

Actress saw Preacher Eli standing in the doorway of the Embury Methodist Church. He was an old man back then, surely in his sixties, and she could still remember his blue-veined Old Testament hands. He stood in profile, but she saw his hair had turned from nicotine yellow to Just For Men brown. It was unkempt and drifted below the ratty collar of a t-shirt commemorating The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls Tour. He was sweeping carpenter ants off the concrete walkway.

Have you yet been saved, dear?

Hello, Preacher. Yes, I have, but I’m not sure for what. Amusement, probably.

Bless you, girl, but I can’t hear. Can you come closer? Are you new? Do I know you?

No, you don’t know me, but I’m not new. I’m Actress.

Actress?

Yes.

Is this a joke? What kind of name is that?

A real one, given to me by my mother.

I once knew someone… long ago. Or perhaps it was a dream, a foretelling of God’s Plan. Your mother must have been very confused to give you such a name.

Yes. Or she had low expectations of me ever becoming a real person.

I’m sorry, please come closer. My ears are not so good. Do you have family nearby?

Yes. Just down the road. My mother.

And does she have the love of Jesus running through her veins? The rich, dark blood of his sacrifice, and not the puerile, watery piss of unbelievers. Does she?

You’d have to ask her, I guess.

Would you kneel with me, child? You see, I have swept all the ants away. They keep coming back, and I shall sweep them away every time. Will you kneel with me in prayer?

If you used a magnifying glass, you could burn them away. They wouldn’t come back.

Do I know you, girl? There’s something about you.

I have quite a ways to go yet, Preacher, and the day is warming up.

It is warming up for all of us, child. One day, only a few of us will be plucked from the furnace. I hope that you’ll be one of them.

Goodbye, Preacher Eli.

And you know my name? Praise God!

Yes.

Will you kneel with me? Acknowledge your sins to Him? And to me?

Goodbye, Preacher. Remember that I never did you any harm. Remember that, should anyone ever ask. Just say, ‘Actress never hurt a soul, but I still condemned her when she was 17 years old and had nowhere else to go.’ I don’t hold a grudge, but if you could say that to someone sometime, it would mean a lot. I don’t expect you to oblige, but I’m glad I had the chance to mention it.

What are you talking about? I don’t know–

Just somewhere down the road, that would be fine.

Damn you, girl. Get thee behind me, Adversary.

Yes, you’ve said those words to me before.

The churchyard cemetery seemed unchanged, its gravestones thinly illuminated by lemony morning light; it was a conspicuous luminance, one she thought she could very nearly peel from the granite like paint. The flatness of the yard, impeccably groomed, seemed contrived, like an embroidered wall-hanging. It was something Margaret Kempenaar would frame in her sunroom, above tempera-painted milk cans or surrounded by sprigs of fresh lilac.

There was wine, you know, and you know I don’t like the taste, Actress, especially the purple kind, the strong Old World kind. I made a face and I told her so, and that was when she brought out the good gin, the Old Tom gin, from a tiny cupboard above the stove. It was like a secret compartment. And I told her that. ‘Margaret,’ I said, ‘ that is so clever, having a secret compartment in the one place your husband would never think to look, right there above the stove.’ She grinned that big toothy grin of hers, lipstick on her teeth —  the exact color that a whore would wear, by the way — and she said, ‘Welcome to the Mom’s Club, sweetie.’

Ma, you know I don’t care about Mrs. Kempenaar. She’s running a divorcees’ daycare over there.

She’s my good friend, Actress. We talk about all kinds of things.

Custody battles, alimony payments, sordid tales of late-night waitress-boinking.

Don’t be crude. We talk about… the arts… current events….

Name that Gin?

You’ve got a mouth on you, girl. Did you finish your studies?

Yes. You finish yours? How to make the perfect Gin Rickey?

How do you know about these things? Do you drink now?

I know a boy who likes me and I’m practically legal.

It figures. Some 21-year-old ponytail who still lives at home?

Ma, I’m seventeen. You can’t tell me who I can accept liquor from.

What happened to that girl of yours? I thought she was more your type. I thought that was what you preferred, that what’s-her-name, Eloise? Ellie? What happened to her?

I don’t want to talk about her.

Would you feel better talking to Margaret? She likes older boys, too. She might understand.

We just can’t have a conversation anymore, can we, Ma?

This was the peripheral road, long since succumbed to weeds. Actress hoped to hear the tintinnabulation of a Private Property sign bumping against chain links, but there was only a queasy silence. The old fence post was rotted cartilage now, and the sign had disappeared, likely somewhere beneath layers of dirt. The kudzu had flourished, green had ransacked green, and the stink of mangled growth was heavy with fertile heat.

Manny, the Proprietor: Hey, Actress, you know these Mexican kids ain’t old enough, right? Their ID’s ain’t shit. These kids won’t be shaving for another five-six years, you lose your brains? I know it’s only Budweiser, but use some common sense, huh?

The road — really, just a pair of tractor tire ruts worn into the grass — led to Aquila’s Depot, a fancy name for a tin and tarpaper shack that sold sundry items to the locals, specializing in cold beer and filtered cigarettes. If you stood still for longer than a minute, you could hear the Sequatchie River talk behind your back.

Girl, take the broom to these kids, would ya? Look at that kid, does he look like Marlon Brando to you? No? Never mind, ask your mother. Goddamn Army brats, kids are hawking the ID’s from their big brothers’ wallets. Get ‘em outta here before anyone sees.

She worked at Aquila’s in her sixteenth summer, a couple of hours every afternoon, and was paid with a pack of Benson & Hedges 100’s and a twenty-dollar bill every Friday. It wasn’t much, but it wasn’t really work. She got to yell at kids and smoke cigarettes behind the shed. She might see six or seven people all day, mostly boys who tried to distract her from the beer cooler.

That was where I met you. You came to buy cigarettes for your stepfather. I wanted to brush your hair, read you Jane Eyre or something, walk with you to the river, teach you the lyrics to “Come To The Sunshine”: ‘Now comes the morning / Wet with the kiss of midnight’. I’d know right away if you liked Joni Mitchell. That would tell me everything. I wanted to know everything. God, I was so young, so foolish. So young.

Her mother: You’re spending a lot of time with that girl, aren’t you? You know, people will start to–

Never mind, you don’t know her. You don’t know me.

Look at you, almost 17 and you’re suddenly a mystery. How could I be so ignorant?

Never mind.

Bring her by for supper. If you’re such pals, she won’t care.

— Maybe I should, just to confuse you.

You should, but honey, you ain’t confusing anyone.

It was only a creased wooden fence post, its decay swathed in morning glory vines. Her sixteen-year-old hands touched it almost every night when she would unhook the heavy chain that extended across the path. She would drop its bulk into a spill of weeds, and she and Ellie would walk the quarter-mile to Aquila’s in the dark.

No, Ma, the heaviest thing I ever carried was that chain back to its post when Ellie ran off. But you wouldn’t know about that, would you?

She stood barefoot in the hallway, blouse and jeans soaking wet, hair a spiral veil dripping down her back, eyes dark and blurred. Ma stood in the kitchen, staring back. 

I didn’t think it was raining that hard.

I have to leave here tonight, Ma. I have to.

She ran away from you, huh? Did you expect any different? No, you stay here the night. I can see you’re in no mood to talk. Sleep on it. You’re not as frail as you think.

Ma was barefoot too, wearing an uncomfortably short nightgown, veins in her legs plainly visible, hair done up in spiky curlers, a smoldering cigarette between her fingers, studying Actress, watching her try to form words in her mouth. Actress could see a small spill — toe-sized, of watered-down gin, probably — on the kitchen floor by her mother’s foot.

I just tried to drown myself, Ma, but the river wasn’t deep enough.

Come on in here and get out of your wet things. You want a drink? No harm in it now, I guess. The towels in the bathroom are fresh enough.

I have to leave here tonight.

You need to settle down, girl, no need for theatrics.

Ma, do you even know me?

Oh, grow up, Actress. You’re just not that special, you’re only seventeen. Tried to drown yourself, did you? Lord Jesus Christ, you really are an actress, aren’t you? Guess I named you right.

The preacher. He yelled at me, too. Turned his back on me, same as you’re doing now. But you’re my mother. You should know me. All this time, you should know me better!

Towels are clean, Actress. Dry off, get to bed. We’ll talk about this in the morning.

No, I think I

I have never tried harder to be someone, Ellie.

What, Actress? Oh, hey, it’s starting to rain.

A mist of rain and a gleam of moon cast a fine emulsion between them, separating them like a curtain. Actress wanted to be near her, to talk to her in the rain, just wanted to be near her for another minute.

Can we leave now? We’re getting soaked. I don’t see the point.

I thought we could…. Do you know how much? I love you, Ellie. How much I want to be with you? Before you say anything, please just listen 

Oh, Actress, no….

The old place was just down the road, half a mile, maybe, but her memory was treacherous. The road didn’t look very different, other than how small it was. Diminished, really. What if her mother was gone, the house was gone, all of it was gone? What if Ma was just a ghost? Forty years was a long time. What if she was the ghost?

“Andrea, you’ve finally come home,” she heard a voice cry from down the road. “I knew you would. I knew you would come back eventually.”

Photo by Lisa from Pexels

Água de Beber

pexels-mohit-suthar-3935572

so

do you remember me at all?

I was the boy who claimed ownership of the puddles on your front lawn in seventh grade. We both lived on Saharasan Road. When I heard that a man named Sirhan Sirhan had assassinated Robert Kennedy, I misheard and became convinced he lived on our street. I wore my almost-best Sunday shoes when I went to tell you. I stomped a muddy oration on your front porch to announce my arrival. You were not wonderstruck, your father called my father, arrangements were made to stop my ‘bullshit nonsense’. Yet I continued. I told you I couldn’t help myself, I was in mourning. I don’t think I knew what that meant, but it got your attention.

so

you were the girl who wondered if our footsteps would become fossils one day and the aliens would discover that humanity had paws shaped like size-7 Dollar Tree sneakers. We discussed this in February, just before that big ice storm hit. The raw cloth of winter wrapped around us, our snot-clotted coat sleeves bore testament to our locomotion. Why were we in such a hurry to create fossils? The alien part was cool, though. 

so

you remember this, don’t you: 

Sergio Mendes and “Água de Beber”? A piece of warm vinyl from back when we still lived inside the half-life of innocence. When it was cool for me to wear an Illya Kuryakin turtleneck under a sports jacket (cute as hell, you said, and I still question the veracity of your fashion sense).  Herb Alpert was good, Dionne Warwick was better, but Sergio was your thing, a compulsive soft-suede rhythm we confused with desire. 

so

you: baggy cardigans on the beach to cover your midriff during our vodka era.  You wanted to disappear into the sand, I wanted to find something in it. We took Polaroids of the fat Quebecois  tourists and invented Beach Boy haikus: 

So this is the life:

peeling the skinny dead girls

off our old surfboards

The antacids at the bottom of your handbag were plentiful and we ate them like Sweet Tarts.

so

do you suppose our old fossils are ready yet? Please tell me yes.

Light of the West Saugerties

July, 1967

I see you, Birdie, pressed into your favorite gold brocade dress, somewhat shrouded in a turquoise Navajo throw. You were always a July blonde / September strawberry, but today your hair is transcendent, luminescent, loosely tied with a loop of jute twine you picked up at the side of Burnett Road. You walk ahead of me at that final curve before the smell of water hits us, you draw me closer with the shimmer in your hair, the shimmy in your hips, the sweet in your voice. A song is sung, “At dawn my lover comes t’ me / an’ tells me of her dreams,” a rat-sized chihuahua tramps along beside you, pauses at the dandelion stalks, the river birch trunks, pisses on the things it wants you to love.

In real life, Beatrice, you tend the bar at the Pinewood House in the West Saugerties. You gripe about the Club members who line up for their Tom Collins sacrament every Wednesday afternoon: ex-cops, mostly; tough guys who don’t know what to do with their hands.

“You think we’ll see him, baby?”

“He who?”

You turn to me, your hair a spray of candied sunlight. “Don’t you ever listen to his words? Dylan, silly. Do you think we’ll see him there?”

“Maybe. Probably not. But so what? Maybe he’ll see us. Do you think he ever wonders about us?”

“He should. Because we’re fabulous. He will receive us.”

“We’re just going for a swim, Birdie. We won’t see him.”

You decide I’m being mean, we walk on. You continue to sing “Gates of Eden” to your rat-dog: “The foreign sun, it squints upon/ A bed that is never mine.” Your shimmer and your shimmy and your sweet all compel me to walk further down the road with you.

We caught the seven o’clock show at the Orpheum Theatre Saturday night, watched The Dirty Dozen for the third time. 

“We should go swimming tomorrow,” you announced. “Lily and Jack said they’re going.”

“You know I hate that place.”

“Why would you hate Daley’s? It’s where we always go.”

“Because it’s where we always go.”

“So you’ve decided to hate it?”

“And you don’t? Honest to God, Birdie, we’re always running the same conversations: who’s going back in the fall, who’s up for an internship, who’s moving to New York, who’s screwing who and–”

“Whom, baby.” 

“Sorry, whom. You can practically measure the beats with a spoon. And do we even bother to swim there anymore?”

“You make it sound so awful.”

“Isn’t it? I mean, can we at least stop pretending it’s fun?”

“Well, you’re in a mood. I’m not sure I want to go with you now.”

“We could do something different for a change. Just us. We could drive up to Canada, leave early, make a day of it.”

You frowned. “You want to go to Canada? Tomorrow? I don’t know, Harry. The car will be hot, the roads will be touristy.”

“We can visit Gananoque. You said you liked it there.”

“Seems like such a big deal just to avoid such a small deal. Timothy and Louise will probably bring wine.” 

“Tim’s a fool.”

“Oh, he is not. You’re in a mood.”

“He pulls the wings off his ex-girlfriends and buries them in his backyard.”

“Oh, he does not. You’re just jealous.”

“Of him?”

“Caroline says we’d make good breeding stock.”

“You and Tim?”

“Well, we are beautiful, don’t you think?”

“I– Jesus, Birdie, why do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Say those things?”

“You used to have a sense of humor, Harry. Did you pull off its wings and bury it in  your mother’s backyard?”

“I — what?”

Modern Times

I sat for you at the kitchen table, my arms still steady, yes, but not what they were even a week ago. I stared at those turquoise vinyl curtains you set above the sink. They filtered out the natural light, turned it into something aquatic, not quite deep enough to drown in. Outside the window was the small shadowed path that divided us from the Ellises, a walkway that led to our respective backyards. There was barely enough space for even a small patch of grass to sprout between the houses. Every day I watched Tommy Ellis’s siding slide into a more anemic shade of beige. 

Then there was the jar of blue Barbicide you kept on the table, where you soaked your combs, your scissors, the straight razor. Every Sunday afternoon you trimmed the hair around my ears, clipped the playfulness from my eyebrows, harvested the bristles that circumnavigated my neck. We listened to the radio, 950-AM,  “The Summer Sounds of the Sixties.” We had been housebound for months, so there was little need for talk. We knew everything that needed to be known.

So why did we keep listening to the same goddamn crinkled static every Sunday afternoon?

Lay, lady, lay / Lay across my big brass bed / Stay, lady, stay / Stay with your man awhile

“Jesus,” you said. 

You seemed near tears, I almost felt the same. That song was like a freshly bloodied scar.

“Must be fifteen years since I heard this,” you said.

“At least,” I said, and straightened my back against the chair. “It’s an old one, alright.”

“You know I don’t like to go back there, Harry.”

“I know that, Birdie.”

Your breath hitched, you rubbed an eyelid with your thumb. “You haven’t called me that in a long time,” you said. You set down your comb, leaned your back into the counter.

“I thought you didn’t like me to call you that anymore,” I said.

“It reminds me of those days, same as this song,” you said, and we listened a little longer. “But we’re still here, aren’t we?”

“Yes. I think so.”

“We’re still here,” you said. “Look at us. You sit there in the same chair every Sunday morning. I still barber your hair every Sunday afternoon. Have you ever noticed that the Barbicide is the only real color left in the room? I don’t wear bright things anymore, just these gray and beige knits.”

“There hasn’t been a lot of color anywhere, Beatrice.”

“Leftover chicken tonight,” you said. “Maybe pot roast next weekend if I clip the right coupons. I’ll peel potatoes, you’ll heat a can of peas or corn, or maybe slice up those old carrots from the back of the crisper. Or maybe we’ll just finish that butternut squash from the other night, I don’t know, it’s all busywork, Harry. We take our trip on the radio every Sunday for the sake of the old songs. Sometimes we’ll mumble the words because we forget them.”

“Some of them, sure. But not all.”

“No. Not all. ‘Galveston’ was on the radio the first time we kissed, at that car wash on Arsenal Street, remember? All those fat suds sloshing down the windshield, it felt like we were floating on some strange river. ‘River Man’…  I wore that short skirt you liked, kind of peachy with beige accents, a little tight around my hips? I had to sneak out of the house that night. I almost made myself sick, wondering if I looked too eager. I almost changed my mind.”

“And so you only wore it that one time. Yes, I remember it. You were so nervous. You kept shifting in the restaurant booth.”

“Yes. And I only told you the color of my underwear, I never showed you.”

“A very prudent blue, I recall. I had dreams that night.”

“Yes, that sounds like me. Prudent blue. Oh, Harry, all the music, all the songs. ‘Let Yourself Go Another Time’ still reminds me of the smell of candles at Mama’s funeral. Stevie Wonder singing ‘Superstition’, and I’m back pouring bourbon shots in Dixie cups at Doreen and Phil’s wedding reception. Your dad kept a cardboard box of Old Number 8’s in the back of his station wagon.”

“I remember. We were still kids.”

We weren’t!”

“Of course we were. Kids.”

“And we went swimming with our friends, we drank their shitty wine. We didn’t know a thing.”

“We knew enough. We stopped swimming there, remember?”

“Yes. Of course I remember,” you said flatly

and we were drowning again 

under the light of our kitchen. 

“I’m sorry, Harry,” you said, “but I don’t mean to dislike you so much.” 

Dylan’s voice retreated back to a place where we could not follow

in a low-minded darkness, we swim across the Big Pool, our limbs fan the water with austere strokes. Only Timothy and Louise have stayed behind, pie-eyed on homemade jug wine, giggling over the dregs from Tim’s extinguished joint. That single ember is all that distinguishes land from water. The last of our childhood feels conspicuous, lost somewhere in the plumes we leave behind.

“Hey, are you two behaving?” yells Louise. Her voice is high, unintentionally shrill.

“Bobby Dylan and me, baby, we are just friends,” I shout. I hear your bubbled laughter as you dip below the surface. Then you rise like a great fish, water streams down your face, your breath atomizes the air, fills your silhouette with diamonds.

Lay lady lay, baby. Yeah!”

You reach for me, hands blind to the dark. You whisper, “Do you s’pose they can see us from shore?”

“I don’t care if you don’t.”

“Well… if they can, we’ll pretend like we’re drowning.”

“No one to save us but ourselves,” is the last thing I say, and the light separates itself from the murk. 

The world lays still for a little while, and the water is both quiet and big.

Nicolas Waltz has left again

pexels-suzy-hazelwood-1157151

1/ Vertical

You are not the man you projected, Nicolas Waltz; you are not the man I protected for so long. I thought I knew you from the stale air gathered between us, your affected ease with a Goethe quote — Oh, why do you draw me, irresistibly, Into all this magnificence? — written in soap on our front window. 

Was there ever happiness here, or has it already passed, I asked, and searched for an answer in the notebooks in your cabinetry, in the bottom drawer of your library desk where you hid your gin, your vermouth, beneath a cluster of love letters.

I yield a cluttered picture of you, Nicolas: pushing an oily lawnmower, wearing cheap canvas shoes with muddy white laces, black trousers, and a Patti Smith t-shirt. Your hair was long then. It landed on your shoulders and looked comically abundant when accessorized with your Billy Dee Williams mustache. You cut the grass of our pre-paid burial plots every Friday morning, 10 a.m., before, you claimed, the weekend crowd arrived.

February 12/1968Do you prefer Pepsi Generation teenyboppers or Age of Aquarius girls over little sweet me, Nicolas? Don’t answer. I can’t bear to be last on your wishlist. I am more modest than either, but I will last longer than both. I haven’t received your latest letter yet, and I wonder if you meant the things you said to me after Christmas. Nicolas, I’m not sure I’ll be in Chicago this summer. Do you remember my brother Emanuel with the crooked teeth who tried to follow us with his new Polaroid? He kept teasing you about your long hair, but he’s a sweet boy. I think he’s too young and naïve to go to Vietnam. Mama said it might be better for us if we moved out of here and found a small place in the country, maybe in Indiana. We need to get away from the protests and unrest. Please write back soon, Nicolas. I miss you. I know summer is only a few months away, but Holy Jesus, the snow is smashing us right now, blowing straight in off the top of Lake Michigan. I want you to know what’s going on when/if we move. I think it’s more ‘when’ because Mama’s determined to get the ‘F’ out of here before it gets too rough. Please write to me, honey. You know how much I love you (especially since that night at Lake Missaukee).

Love you, my beautiful man.

I’m sure you found cold pleasure in those few calculated feet you tidied: standing vertical, cutting horizontal. You plucked the dandelions and scoured the weeds with an exhaustive oomph as I sat on the tailgate and watched the road beyond the churchyard. Here I will lay when I become calm, you said. And tonight, Aubrey, I will tell you my stories again, and you winked a tired eye and wiped your hands on the sides of your trousers, and we loaded the mower back onto the truck. I was already, frankly, quite tired of those games you incited, which gave neither of us any pleasure. 

You preferred to bathe before dinner those evenings, scrub the wear from your arms, sink your neck below the steam. Here I will lay, you said from behind the locked door, boiled alive again.

April 7/1970 — Said Mama: Have you come home again? / No, Mama. I’m here to pick up some clothes. / You stay for supper? / Not this time. Nicolas is expecting me. / Again? / Yes. Again, like yesterday and the day before. / You know, I do not trust him. He will break your heart. / I know, Mama, where’s my blue skirt? The wraparound? / At the laundry. I told you this yesterday. / No, I would have picked it up if you told me. / Maybe you were busy not listening to me. All I hear is Nicolas-this and Nicolas-that. I do not trust him. Emanuel did not like him, did I tell you that? Your own brother. / I know, Mama. What about the denim skirt with the embroidered — oops, never mind, here it is. 

An intricate blend of fennel/onions/olive oil rises from her kitchen. 

You call me if there is any trouble? / Yes, Mama. What about that beige blouse? Did you iron it for me? / Can you not yell? You know I’m in the kitchen.

Mama, dead now, two years, do you believe in time, Nicolas, because too much of it has passed without your courtesies. I became so urgent to see you after we lost Emanuel. Everything was frantic; all of me was hungry. You laughed, you seduced, you led me to your bed, and my appetite was not close to being satiated. You presumed this to mean I only wanted sex. I did not emerge from a chrysalis, Nicolas, to flourish for your benefit. and I am not unmindful of the desires of men. You have not been shy with your passions but remain ignorant of mine. Unhappily, I predicted this silence of yours, and I feel more naked than unmoored.

2/ Mawry Street

The neighborhood changed, you see. The moon, certainly crowded, does not have the room to be lobbed between rooftops anymore. Girls jump rope in the middle of Mawry Street, singing  I’m H-A-P-P-Y, Yes, I’m H-A-P-P-Y. They’re all nine or ten years old, double-dutching, hop-skip-jumping from broken homes, fractured bones, cheating fathers, beaten mothers, but it was always this way since the beginning. Time has no interest in what people desire. I grew up here, you see, before I understood gloom and the ways people doom themselves by wanting things and watching things disappear. Now, the moon is the size and shape of my thumbprint, and all the wonder has passed.

And this is where you found me, Nicolas.

Yes, here.

Here is where you found me, seated beside a cracked terracotta pot, bamboo stalks jammed into the soil like pieces of a picket fence, just another cheap porch-ornament my mother discovered at the Salvation Army rummage sale.

November 20/1973 — Remember last spring, Nicolas, when we strolled alongside those row houses of South Langley like young marrieds? You promised me we’d make a home there one day, someday, a place graced with old bricks and stone steps. We heard the lively syncopation of each other’s shoe steps on the sidewalk, and it was that kind of off-rhythm, that peculiar melancholic tempo, you divine when you can’t find your way back home. You bought us Coca-Colas and pizza slices from a place on East 75th just as the sun struck the big plate-glass window of the laundromat. The women inside were all dressed like my mother, in jumper dresses and shirtwaist dresses, and everything worn was in jewel tones, as if they were competing to be Audrey Hepburn. The sun cleaned the tired out of their eyes, and it smoothed the smudges from their dark raspberry lipstick. Those women would never be that lovely again, and that made me see it was just a big mirror revealing different versions of myself in twelve/twenty/thirty years, and Nicolas, you were not a part of any of them. There would be no row house in my future, just another walk-up apartment two blocks away from the nearest washing machine.

Why do I get so sad this time of year, I wonder? I know you’ve been busy, but it seems like we never talk, and Christmas is coming up fast.

Sundays had not changed, you see. The wind still trembled tin can tremolo through the eaves, and the silver maples were stripped raw of their gristle. A frozen lamb’s leg thawed in the sink; pan-fried saganaki lay arranged on the kitchen counter. Trays of Castelvetrano olives were on display in the dining room, graviera cheese in the breezeway between the garage and the living room.  It was always the same.

Standing beside the workbench, Uncle Abe and my father argued about Nixon and railroad unions and football. They brushed cigarette ash from the fronts of their sweaters as they talked. Aunt Stephanie deplaned in the kitchen and fussily quadrisected blood oranges for the big salad. Then, irritated, she rearranged the pickle-and-Ritz cracker platter. It was always the same, right down to the argument about the silverware placement.

We had all become sour, hadn’t we, practically distilled to the point of evaporation.

May 19/1974 — Nicolas, if you still, curiously, read my letters:

It was just past nine o’clock, do you remember? I wore my favorite old blouse (the Ahimsa silk, you called it, though it was plainly Naum Brothers Department Store, ragged to the very last button) and those paint-splattered jeans you were so quick to tease me about. I was barefoot and three/parts sex and one/part Christmas gift soap. I stood there and waited for your exposition of us, and you stared at me, naked, preferring silence. I waited for you to etch a demarcation of us on the steamed glass of the bathroom mirror, or my collarbone with a bitter nail if you liked, or in the taste of your vodka pressed upon my mouth if you’d rather, but you did not say. Your silence has revealed you again, Nicolas, as I knew it one day would. And now, you see, I can never again trust anyone I love. 

You left, of course, before I could turn away.

You called me, Nicolas,  after days of silence, you called me.

“Can I come over?” you asked.

“Where are you?”

[Look, three of the unions have already ratified, and I think Winpisinger needs to….]

“What do you mean? I’m at home.”

“You shouldn’t have called today, Nicolas. You know how my parents are.”

“And how are they?”

[He said the strike against the Union Pacific was illegal, you know….]

“Loud and busy. Today is our family day. Religiously enforced. You know that.”

“Oh. I just thought you’d like to see me.”

“Where have you been all week?”

[Cripes, Abe, that must make you the mayor of, uh, Shinola…]

“What do you mean?”

“I mean: Where have you been all week? You know I still live on Mawry Street? It’s right on your way to the rest of the world.”

“Oh. Sorry. I’ve  been busy.”

“Not with me, you haven’t.”

You sighed. “Can I come over or not?”

“No. Not today. Family only, that’s the rule.”

“Your parents are tyrants, you know.”

[Aubrey, are you still on the goddamn phone? Hang up already.]

“Yes, they are. So are you okay?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. You?”

“Irritated. Bored. See you tomorrow?”

“Hey, you want to get married?”

“What?”

“Married. Like in a church. The priest, the vows, the husband-and-wife thing. Does any of this sound good?”

“You’re crazy.”

[He called it bad-faith bargaining. What part of that don’t you understand, Jorge?]

“Think about it for a while, okay? I’m serious.”

“You’re crazy.”

“Yeah, probably. Call me when family time is over.”

“Nicolas Waltz, you are crazy. I’ll call you tonight. Okay?”

“Sounds good. Aubrey, I love you, you know.”

[Aubrey, are you still talking on the phone? What did I tell you?]

I whispered: “I love you, too, Nicolas.” 

Only eighteen and already half-way decided on an inevitable course.

September 18/1975 — Nicolas, once more, I am tired:

We preserved ourselves in salt after Emanuel died in An Lộc.  I saw the weight of his death in your eyes. In our bed, you rested your hand on my abdomen, near my great scar. I think you were as afraid of that scar as you were of my postponed grief.

Long before morning reached me, you were gone. I thought we would be indelible, but you’re erasing things again. I see the patterns of our lives stretched out on cloth, markings unremarkable, colors washed, edges lost. Did we become two blots of ink that blight the sheets? Are we just a matter of needle and thread, stitched together by a shared loathing of loneliness, regret? There used to be a time when I could explain these things in fiercest shades of red, but, as I said, I am tired, and you have left.

You expect, I think, your body to fail you; it will. It seems you should know this by now. It is the coarse-featured consequence of youth. Some things will invariably sag, and most will presumably fade. Winter will always drag us down and hurt us. We are in open winter now, Nicolas, and the storms do not shrug.

We remained together with only a few regrets and many apologies: hand-delivered I’m-sorry’s, bourbon-and-bitters surrenders, and most of our plaintive words, probably, sincerely remitted. 

But you are not the man you projected, Nicolas Waltz; you are not the man I protected for so long.

3/ Winter

We, who are wounded, stare outward, not toward any particular object or view, but to things familiar and sound, the un-toppled structures of same:  a bowed chain-link fence, perhaps the winter necropolis of a vegetable garden. (My sunflowers persevere, depleted; empty-headed carapaces now, they nod to each other all day — these are what you have left me to love, Nicolas.)

Mourning is for stone-ground grits and warm pita bread, with carob syrup, poured over both. Grief defies the well-lit kitchen and floral curtains and shots of caffè doppio. Nothing can camouflage the ruins; light does not tidy up the smudges.

“I would have told you,” he says.

“Of course. But tell me this: How would that bit of conversation even begin?”

“Not easily, I’m sure.”

“Nicolas, that doesn’t even begin to endear you to me right now.”

“I’m sorry, Aubrey. I don’t know what to say.”

“Of course not, why would you? You’re dead.” The tissue comes away smeared with traces of overnight mascara. “You could have burned those damned letters, you know.”

“I haven’t thought about them for years,” he says.

I was barefoot and three/parts sex and one/part Christmas gift soap.

“Who was she, Nicolas?”

I see the patterns of our lives stretched out on cloth, markings unremarkable.

“She was the past.”

“Some of those letters came after we were married. Well married, I thought.”

“I was trying to pull my heart up a mountain, you know. The weight was too much.”

You know how much I love you (especially since that night at Lake Missaukee). Love you, my beautiful man.

“Nicolas, I don’t know what that means. Did you leave her, or were you going to leave me?”

“Winter is a hard season.”

“You have no idea, pal. All those conversations ago, all those stale, inert discussions, and not a single clue you were climbing a goddamn mountain with her.”

“I should have burned those letters.”

“But you didn’t.”

“I should have.”

“Screw you.”

June 11/1979 — There are times, Nicolas, when you cause me to think you are like the painter Caravaggio; your violent currents belie the quiet surface. There is darkness known only by your closest. Not that you paint, of course, but you brood and seclude each thought; you do not include me in your grief, but live in the contrasts of chiaroscuro.

Of course, your mood deepens near the anniversary of Emanuel’s death. I may never know why you suffer for him. You never knew him, you never met him, and I doubt I ever painted him in realistic textures. (There it is again, the darkness and light motif that you adore.) Emanuel was full of light, and you are his very contrast. Perhaps this is why you feel the compulsion to leave me.

We will survive this, won’t we, Nicolas? I understand you as much as I can appreciate anyone with such a disposition. 

I remain faithful, as always.

She pads across the kitchen linoleum dressed in Adidas sweatpants and his old Patti Smith T-shirt. The image on the shirt has faded to a forty-year wash, but it is still comfortable and soundly made. 

The funeral frippery, the Earl Grey and sympathy roses, the stink of peace lilies, and well-wishers’ leftovers, all of it removed by noon. She scrubs the soaped handwriting from the front door window. The Goethe quote — Oh, why do you draw me, irresistibly, Into all this magnificence? — was ridiculous in hindsight. A bit of baked penne casserole for lunch, a spot of Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon, and she’ll be ready to rid the walls of Nicolas’  cluttered portraits.“Oh my dears,” she says to her sunflowers. “Was there ever happiness here, or has it already passed?” She sets aside her wine and puts away her dishes. It’s been an odd day, all told, but she feels she should write Nicolas a letter, something to help her decide if he should stay. You are not the man you projected, she writes and then considers all she has left to say.

Bobbi sits with her husband

Courtesy of MetroGraphics

Shoulders squared, she recalls. You must wear a calm, unremarkable smile. Unaware, her left hand rests on his calf, ring finger prominent for her half of the photograph. She wears an apricot dress, freshly pressed for Mass, and pineapple decorative ruffle sandals, flat on the floor, hair gathered in a complex construct of barrettes and pins. You look wifely, he says, mid-level lovely, he says, whatever he thinks that means.

Lamentation does not counter your sins, she says to her unborn child; sadness does not excuse all the bad things we’ve done. Smile for the camera, sit next to your father; this is who we are, this is what we do: we smile unremarkable smiles and we are celebrated for our self-regard.

Photographer Samuel — a Gen X artiste who wears a Nevermind tattoo on one bicep, and keeps his belly as flat as a frozen hamburger disc– shifts his lighting umbrella a degree, mostly to impress them, and something to distract himself from thoughts of his aggravated assault charge, his public intoxication record, the delayed shame of fucking the undocumented waitress on top of flattened bed-in-a-box cartons behind the Light of Kings Korean restaurant. Or maybe he’s just a blue-collar guy, a mensch, someone who calls his mother twice a week, dates a Presbyterian girl he met at Bingo, teaches photography part-time at the community college. She considers his prison shoulders, those narrow meat-grinder hips, and it doesn’t really matter who he is. He could take her right here, right in front of the Winter Wonderland backdrop, without so much as a pre-game analysis. She is, after all, mid-level lovely.

And now, melancholy, she turns to her husband. There is a daub of shaving cream smeared beneath his ear, a washed-ashore otter sort of gray. I will not mention this, she decides. I was trapped in my body at such a young age. Where were you when I was frail, hiding from life, biding my time for my time to arrive? I was never further away from you than I am now. What do you think of Samuel? Should he take me here inside the filtered lighting? Should we smoke Chesterfield Kings after the flash bulbs pop? What do you think? What would you say?

“Your hubby says you’re expecting,” says Photographer Samuel, and nods with approval. She despises the word ‘hubby’. It indicates a lateral kind of masculine arrogance, as her mother would say. A word you would present in bold type for a late-morning Saturday cartoon: Hubby and Wifely, Crime-Fighters. Or something. Did it really matter? “It shows,” he says, and then stammers a disclaimer. “I mean that in a good way, of course. I mean the glow.”

“The glow?”

“You know. The expectant-mother glow. Congratulations, is all I mean.”

“Oh. Yes. Thank you. I am glowing, I suppose.” She examines the words in her mouth, tastes them carefully, then swallows. Hubby and glow. What’s next? With child? I am with child with my hubby, and I currently glow. How nice. Those words need to be put to death, of course. She smiles an unremarkable smile. She will save the good smile for later, when it matters, in that fractured disconnect between say cheese and atta girl, you got it right!. Samuel, who is, after all, just a young guy wearing a gray Hanes T-shirt spotted with pizza grease, and retro-60’s mustard-yellow bell bottoms, cannot stop himself:

“I don’t mean ‘glow’ in the traditional sense, in a cliché kinda way, you know? I mean far-out glowing, the way Jackie Kennedy glowed, post-assassination, pre-Onassis, you know?” He grins at the logic of his cleverness.

“She gets it, Sam,” says hubby, finally irritated. “We’re not paying you by the hour, are we? Because all this glowing has got to fucking stop.”

“Oh. Sorry,” says not-so-clever Samuel. He folds his soft arms together and scratches them. “Just making convo.”

Hubby sighs loudly, then waves his hand. “Don’t worry about it. Bobbi booked this without telling me about it until last night, so my day’s already shot. Don’t take it too seriously.”

“Hey, no problem.”

“That your Mercedes parked out front? The red one?”

“Yeah, man, that’s the’65. A 230 SL, used to be my dad’s.”

“Sweet looking ride.”

“Oh yeah, it is. Only thirty-four thousand original miles, and”

The fabric of the day has changed, she decides. The boys tore it up and altered it into something else, something not dependent upon a woman’s presence. Sorry, Samuel, I have decided not to fuck you now. It’s not your fault, we were doomed from the start. I have too many original miles on me.

Bobbi drifts into the soft babble that surrounds her.

“Babe?” he says in a pretend whisper.

“Hmmm?”

“You have a smudge. Your lips?”

“I have a smudge?”

“I guess. It looks off. The color, I mean.”

He means it’s not perfect. He can wear his hair uncombed and eyebrows untrimmed, and leave a brick of shaving cream below his ear, but the photo will be ruined, completely Armageddonly awful, if her lipstick is presumed to be a microbe “off”.

“Maybe you should pee, while you’re at it,” he whispers. “You’re squirming.”

“Maybe I should pee and de-smudge,” she says. “Yes.” What did he not understand about women? Does he think those things are done simultaneously?

“You alright?”

“Hey, no problem,” she says, and Samuel points to the hallway.

“Second door on the left,” he says. “Knock first, I share it with the dentist’s office next door.”

Shoulders squared, she recalls. You must wear a calm, unremarkable smile as you press your key sharply against the doors and hood of a Mercedes-Benz. Remember always to sign the damage prominently in your hubby’s name.

Lamentation does not counter your sins, she says to no one as she walks around to the passenger side. Sadness does not excuse all the bad things we’ve done.

Lord, July

Lord, July:

All your scarecrows are spurned in Issaquena, blighted and lonesome and gray. Listened to the hollow burs as we walked, somehow kept time to their fidgety rattle. Some soldiers, the young ones, reached down to snag one, press their fingers along the stems, as if they never saw cotton before, as if they were herding children to their lessons instead of deserters to the noose.

When we reach Mayersville after dawn, there is nothing there but age: a few old women boil coffee in front of their shacks, a small number of old men poke their heads around splintered door frames so they can sniff at the air we bring with us. There are no children here, only the peculiar noise of absence.

The soldiers march us single file to Little Sunflower River.  There are five of us — four, now that Denham has fallen — barefoot and scabbed from the iron that scrapes  our wrists and ankles. We walk with what remains of our shirts tied around our waists, and with our chins, we rub the sweat from our arms.

Lord, give me just a small string of words to comfort me, something to recite to myself, a testament of some weight. 

I see Sergeant Rochester fiddle with a length of rope soon to be draped around someone’s neck, maybe my neck, maybe even his own. I cannot say who the criminal is, because I cannot remember my crime, and he has yet to confess to his.

Lord, she wakes me, and it is almost Christmas:

You were crying, she says.

Was I?

Yes. Something about ropes and cotton. 

She draws me near, and I close my eyes to her.

I don’t remember, I say.

You have them a lot.

Yes. I suppose.

Talk about it?

Not now. I want to listen to you breathe.

She laughs.  Now I’ll have to think about you listening to me breathe. 

She kisses my shoulder and it feels like summer on my skin.

Just breathe, I say, and I’ll do the same.

She turns off the light, 

and I cling to her for warmth. 

I wonder if the Christmas tree is too close to the heating vent, 

and what is hanging from each branch.

Lord, July:

An eruption of artillery, and we fall towards the sawgrass. 

Photo by JACK REDGATE from Pexels

Pentimento

He presumes to understand the cat sanskrit writ across the front mud yard, the vigorous dialect of entrails, the still-wet scribbles collected around the jacaranda tree trunk. He takes a rake to the mess, gathers bones in a small paper sack, folds dirt over the killing ground. This has become his morning ritual, and he has not yet told his children about the deeds of their second-favorite pet.

All six sisters sit staunchly upright on an iron bench in front of Ay’s Grocery, waiting for the milk wagon. Some days the girls seem smaller as the early morning fog captures them wearing identical linen dresses.

“That’s alright, Papa,” said Mira, the oldest. “The birds are just waiting for us to die, anyway.”

To each child, a gift is given. The cruelty may be that it may not be discovered, so a father cannot nourish it, thinking it absent. Mira was twelve. He was forty-two and a half, if his birth certificate was correct. It was possible it was not.

“They are all sadness, these blessings,” said Cora, the fourth girl; that something so important could be so simply said.

His girls spoke things that felt substantial. He did not train them to do this. Their mother taught them quietly and privately, so they could save him from his grief.

He presumes to understand the cat sanskrit writ across the front mud yard, but he still cannot quite read the language of his daughters. They already know he hides the birds’ remains from them, and yet still choose to buy fresh milk each morning for their second-favorite pet.

He sits upright against the jacaranda tree trunk and lays his hand upon the wounded dirt. He waits for them to emerge, one girl at a time, from the morning fog.

A leaf shaped like water disguised as a leaf

1/

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.

2/

“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.”

3/

“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.

4/

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?”

5/

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.

6/

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.

7/

“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

Liars and Thieves: Book Launch for Diana Wallace Peach

Welcome to the launch! Today, I’m proud to present the newest book — Liars and Thieves — by my friend Diana Wallace Peach, an extremely prolific and gifted author of dark fantasy, and a great supporter of independent writers. She’s written a new series, Unraveling the Veil, and I’m happy to shout it out.

Book One: Liars and Thieves

Behind the Veil, the hordes gather, eager to savage the world. But Kalann il Drakk, First of Chaos, is untroubled by the shimmering wall that holds his beasts at bay. For if he cannot cleanse the land of life, the races will do it for him. All he needs is a spark to light the fire.

Three unlikely allies stand in his way.

A misfit elf plagued by failure—

When Elanalue Windthorn abandons her soldiers to hunt a goblin, she strays into forbidden territory.

A changeling who betrays his home—

Talin Raska is a talented liar, thief, and spy. He makes a fatal mistake—he falls for his mark.

A halfbreed goblin with deadly secrets—

Naj’ar is a loner with a talent he doesn’t understand and cannot control, one that threatens all he holds dear.

When the spark of Chaos ignites, miners go missing. But they won’t be the last to vanish. As the cycles of blame whirl through the Borderland, old animosities flare, accusations break bonds, and war looms.

Three outcasts, thrust into an alliance by fate, by oaths, and the churning gears of calamity, must learn the truth. For they hold the future of their world in their hands.

Unraveling the Veil series

Three outcasts, thrust into an alliance by fate, by oaths, and the churning gears of calamity, must learn the truth. For they hold the future of their world in their hands.

Diana, how do you define success?

In all parts of my life: Happiness. We only get this one life; there are no second chances, no do-overs. We are each miracles, here through the perfect alignment of billions of years of evolution, choices, and chance. It’s not a gift to be wasted. Happiness means different things to different people, but for me it’s choosing an attitude of kindness, care, and compassion and acting on that choice. Writing is something that brings me joy, no strings attached.

Diana’s very creative trailer, well worth watching:

Author Biography

D. Wallace Peach

D. Wallace Peach started writing later in life after the kids were grown and a move left her with hours to fill. Years of working in business surrendered to a full-time indulgence in the imaginative world of books, and when she started writing, she was instantly hooked. Diana lives in a log cabin amongst the tall evergreens and emerald moss of Oregon’s rainforest with her husband, two dogs, bats, owls, and the occasional family of coyotes.

Diana’s Links:

Website/Blog: http://mythsofthemirror.com

Website/Books: http://dwallacepeachbooks.com

Amazon Author’s Page: https://www.amazon.com/D.-Wallace-Peach/e/B00CLKLXP8

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Myths-of-the-Mirror/187264861398982

Twitter: @dwallacepeach

Thanks, Diana, and may you have much success with this new series!