Not Together Anymore

Witch Hunts

We sit and plan our witch hunt with a cube of PBR. We’re hurting and angry, and Jeff loads and unloads his Glock 17.

You can’t just hunt a witch - they usually combust with their own spell; sting more like bees than wasps. But there’s nothing to stop us branding by association. We’ll seek out the ones who look like witches. We’ll seek out the ones who act like the witches. They may well be of the same stock, and thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.

The subtitles on the television show us the man in the studio telling the newscaster that the deathtoll is still rising, and then he annotates graphs of total death tolls this year. He says the witches will never blend into our western society. Jeff says, ‘All that means is that they’re easy to find,’ as his fingers wrap around the grip of his gun.

Next week in school, there is a recruitment a drive. There are more assertions and graphs, and Jeff’s hands move like those of an addict. There is a hive of hands itching throughout the room. The witch hunt is a grassroots operation, and is in everyone’s best interests. There are rewards to be reaped from the hunting of witches.

We sit and plan our witch hunt with a five paragraph order. We’re ready and eager, and Jeff clutches the clip of his M4 carbine.

##

Spring is Here Again

Spring is when I stand by the water and reflect because I know I can’t face another winter like that one. There are things and people on the surface together. There are burnt orange leaves behind me even though it’s supposed to be the wrong half of the year. I can see rust in a spring. Spring is when people talk about daffodils again, as though they know things or there are even things to know about daffodils. They say, Some shoots are starting to rise just off the drip line of my aspens or A good bulb can last longer than any of us will! Last year, someone told me the real name for a daffodil is Narcissus.

There I am in the water, as well as the things and people. There are ripples which meet ripples which seek to obscure me. My features are dampened, my skin irrelevant. You can’t see beneath the surface. Spring is both old and foetal. I look more human than I might have done for a long time. Spring is watching the world pretend to change.

There is Narcissus on the bank, someone might say, come early this year.

##

In the Waiting Room

As far as I could tell,
the father was sitting on the bathroom chest of drawers
talking to the upside-down dog in the bathtub
whilst his wife was doing a good job of balancing
the television on her head to entertain a child
who was asleep on the fridge.
They were all white
except for the baby on the roof
who I guess might have been Indian.

They called the child's name, but she wouldn't move.
The father tried to make her move,
stepping in between her and the doll's house,
but she got gripped the table and screamed
Why do I have to go?
And the father said
You're sick, Daisy
and she burst out crying and then I said
It's okay, Daisy, I'm sick, too
but that made her cry harder
and I guess I kind of laughed a little
even though I shouldn't have
and then the doctors took her away
and shortly after they took me, too,
but not before the baby was shoved through the window.

##

Just Like I Said

In my parents' garden there are two trees
and they're wrapped around each other,
tied together like fingers crossed in hope.
My mother told me over the phone she was worried because
one of them was growing these weird spots,
and she asked me to come home and take a look,
but I told her I’m busy and I'm too many miles away
with a car which only starts if I ask it nicely,
and I don't know anything about trees anyway.
I said the spotty one will probably go bad or die and then
we can get rid of the dead bark and the other one will
still be fine. And, yeah, it's a fun double-tree
or whatever, but I'm sure you can still sit under
the one on its own when the sun comes out and read your books.

It turns out I do know something about trees.
When I came home in the summer I found my mother
sitting in the garden under the untangled tree
which was surviving just fine without the other one.
It seemed to look a little thin,
and you could see where the other one had been
hacked off it, but it was still alive
just like I said.

##

Around a Bonfire

People on my left are trying to relate hindsight speculation about the public’s attitude in historical times of turmoil to today’s context, progressing from civil rights to the rise of the Nazi party with no signs of slowing down, and people on my right are talking about the importance of social networking within academic and business communities. ‘If you don’t climb those ladders,’ someone says, ‘you’ll find yourself sliding down the back of a snake.’

I’m not engaged in either conversation. I take a long sip from a beer someone has given me. There’s a thrush perched on a branch of the lilac tree and I wonder who or what he’s looking at and the lilacs are just coming into bloom and they’re fluttering in the same breeze that stands the hairs on my arm to attention and each of the logs on the teepee fire is a flaming rib hiding a heart of molten gold which had, until now, been missed. 

4 Poems

1

FOR THE RAIN
Act I: “Don’t be afraid, we will wait for the rain to fall.”

On the phone with my mom, she’s on
about my brother in her marked mezzo –
“after nine years he’s moving back home.”
She’s careful not to overstate his solo, then comes
the cadenza, the virtuosic display:

                             “it’s been raining here today.”
followed by
                       a pause;

a shuffling of static.

She must be moving to the window for
the denouement (“We Only Want Rain When There’s Drought”)
because she patters on:

“oh no, it’s stopped, thank god,”
 

Act II: “We are made of earth and rain.”

I don’t clap or cheer.
I let the static itch
with vibrato to accompany my aria:

“What nourishes her? What cleanses her?
What carries her voice?” I remember
why we live 2,748 miles apart, I remember
“we are made of earth and rain,” and I walk
to my own window, blink out at the composer –

the rock, the sand, the sky all around me.
  
                    Briefly, I’m between acts.

Entr'acte: On the corner of SE 29th and Belmont outside a trendy Italian joint, 9 pm, it’s sprinkling and a guy with a backpack glides by and asks, “is this the baby’s first Spring rain?” and I don’t say anything, I’m thinking about his question, so he apologizes, says he didn’t mean

2

to alarm me, “good night,” and he keeps walking but I call after him, just in time too, “no, no, I’m just thinking, we live in the desert, I think this is his first Spring rain,” and he turns back and says, “that’s awesome, have a good night,” and he has a smile on his face as genuine as the weather, and I say, “thank you,” he departs again and we stand there on the corner watching the lights from cars break apart on the wet road.

Act III: “In what language does rain fall over tormented cities?”

      The sun’s unfiltered strain fills my eyes,
sticks to my brain with its searing overture,
it harmonizes with the static and I’m back,
starved now for those Portland days,
where everything is so goddamned hip and where,
for weeks on end with no chance for applause,
it rains.

*Italicized excerpts by Pablo Neruda

3

MIGRANT MOTHER
             
                 (camping out with Mike and Jim east of town)

1.

sits on a box of Happy Vale,
charcoal sun draped over
heavy canvas against the Hudson,
she looks out over Nipoma Mesa,
pea-pickin’ country, home of the brave:
she feeds them,
her children cling to
      her, like a pit
      in a peach

2.

sipping on a bottle of hoppy ale,
dusty moon slips over
ultra-light nylon next to the Honda,
I look out over Horse Ridge,
juniper country, land of the free:
it feeds me,
my fingers grip
       the glass, like coyote
       on sagegrouse

3.
Mother and I,

sitting among the same forces that power the same sun,
       light the same moon, float the same stars,

a pea-picker and a poet,

separated by twenty-nine thousand rotations
for what is feast without famine?

 

4

ECOLOGY FROM DRY RIVER CANYON

“There's something lacking in my mental make-up, and its lack prevents me from being a rational murderer.”

The elk and pronghorn and black-tailed jackrabbit
lunch on bluebunch wheatgrass and idaho fescue,
the coyote and bat too sneer through here
with six species of lizard and one of mule deer.
The sagebrush grouse sleep in rubber rabbitbrush
and all the color growing up out of the tuff:
the oregon sunshine and sulfur buckwheat,
dwarf monkeyflower and indian paintbrush.
The golden eagle overhead watches
the cottontail in the cat’s ear chewing
the day away on his haunches,

“So it's a deficiency, not a superiority. But as things are, I'm willing to be as I am; I've learned modesty.”

and then there’s me, listening
for the ghost of Lake Millican
300 feet below this incision of
tuffed volcanic basalt scree
and igneous lava flow ground to cinder debris.
There’s pictographs from 1993 and a dog shitting
carelessly in a tinaja pool carved glacially
back in 10,043 BCE, and the plight
of two big pondos stealing vitamin D from
juniper trees says you can’t study the darkness
by flooding it with light.

“All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it's up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.”

*Italicized excerpts from “The Plague” by Albert Camus
“You can’t study the darkness by flooding it with light.” –Ed Abbey

5

AEOLIAN PROCESSES

Living among Paiute
ghosts, learn to question
things like what is
man and dust? 

Crone

Crone: (n.)

  1. Late 14c., from Anglo-French carogne, from Old North French carogne; a term of abuse for a cantankerous or withered woman, literally “carrion,” from Vulgar Latin caronia (see carrion).

1.     

I wake up in the desert Sylvia Plath.
In sand until it becomes hot enough for pain, 
                                                                                            eyes burn under their lids. Morning      

                                                                                always 

 noon
these days: too
                                                                                                           late. 

 

Death a bauble where conscience should be, finding
a new girl in granular limbs, swimming. 

How long before we bake into paper?
How many endless-sky afternoons until we turn blonde as baby days? 

                                                                          Bones forcing a body to find water.

Of course topography: for muscles, for contours. 
Of course dunes and walking, falling
                                                          through, 

                                                          back into a greater expanse
                                                          of particulate flesh, exponential
                                                          hours of loose failure,
                                                                                                           heading East.

 

I was ample, once.

 

 

                                                          How soft that was, sliding into my own loose earth.


Of course topography so eyes remember
they are for seeing more than three channels: 

Blue for sky 

 

                                                                                            blink fetal red glow

                                                                                            blink chameleon gold. 

                                                                                            Blink grit. 

Replace dune with bones, bones with mountains.

                                                                                                                           Topography:
                                                                                                   To loom and provide shade, 
                                                             bring purpose to my womanhood’s negative space.

Out of grit, become disparate anatomy: fairy-tale-being.
feeding land from decomposing mythical flesh.

One day, if I’m lucky, I too will decline
                                                                    my spine will fall
                                                                                                   away,
scoured clean with sand. 
                                                                   

                                                                    Another girl will blister-foot her way up to me, 
                                                                    waste valuable water crying in relief

By that time, the word ‘relief’ will hold no meaning
if paradise is all it cracks open to be. 

                                                                           We crawl into the first cleft of rock
                                                                                                                        pull legs in
                                                                            tibia-fibular siblings marionette-like, 
                                                                                                                     useless ankles
                                                                                                                     bloody feet    

                                                            We know bone weeps if you dig deep enough. 
                                                            We know we must drink
                                                            before flesh forgets native function,                 
                                                            chars and peels 

                                                                                                 all
                                                                                                             away.

Feeding here means hand-to-mouth succulent and tough green leaves, bitter but full of juice, tearing my tongue and cheeks to match my soles. Their redness corresponds: my wounds talk
to each other because my voice has turned to sand. 


In a churchyard I bite into a smooth white round tulip bulb dug from the border of the chapel. 

                                                                                The taste burns for days,
                                                                                                                 blink blue,
                                                                                                                 blink cooling.

 

 

I stuck my face in the hose, mouth open to rinse out the sting of perennial mistake


32.

I wake up hard and into wind, steady out of the north and always in my face. I tell myself moments like this are commonplace in adulthood, moments like this are the daytime
equivalent of trying to go to sleep without a happy ending. My mother laughs at me,
lights up on a

                                                       Lights up on a phone conversation.
                                                      MOTHER (older, wiser) listens to
                                                      DAUGHTER (tired).

                                                                               DAUGHTER
I imagined my thirties feeling more stable—

                                                                              MOTHER
HA (continuously, for 30 seconds of polite amusement.)

                                          My choice to abstain from
                                          motherhood no doubt carved the
                                          gap her laughter now fills. 

                                                           End of play.

 

When she was my age, she was watching her dreams fall apart and reconstitute into the
faces of two healthy, growing, 
                           all consuming
                                      children.

I have never outgrown that trait. I stand waiting for a traffic light and I am still growing,
my underneath and inarticulate nature unhinging its jaw to draw in whatever might be of
use. 

I swallow full quarter-hours trying to fit this mouth around what the fuck I am going to
do now that I know how to get what I want, eating every moment of my days without a
thought to when they will be digested.
                                      I look and look. Lights up

                                                       Lights up on a bathroom. A NAKED WOMAN, 32,
                                                       and her RIGHT EYE sit: one on the toilet, one in
                                                       the bathtub. 

                                                       Perhaps they are smoking a joint, or some other
                                                       liberal relaxation method. Perhaps one is
                                                       dissatisfied with her fat deposits (even though
                                                       that’s cliché). We all know which one pays too
                                                       much attention.

                                                                                   NAKED WOMAN
                    I’m making sure I haven’t spontaneously become a man.

                                             Eye puts the joint in the sink and runs water
                                             over it, until the fire goes out, until the paper
                                             and ash disintegrate, grey pigment no longer
                                             staining the sink, the sound of water
                                             traveling into the Naked Woman’s want at
                                             
her center and nothing escapes.

                                                                                  NAKED WOMAN
                   Read to me from the internet.
                                                                                  RIGHT EYE
                                            (Reading)
Absorbing selfhood past the event horizon, we can never
know what space the love we feed her shares with fear, or
anger, or confusion. We can only watch as the edge of her
maw moves back through time. Then the lights go out,
because no light can escape. 

Lights out, End of Play.

Love, Luck, Rebate

Love, Luck, Memory

The mother held on.
Didn't let the slick-skinned babe go,
when a wall of earth twenty feet tall
moved her house down the hill and into the river.

My friend calls that, Lucky as Jackie's Chanel suit.
Beauty pressed up against disaster.

Sometimes survival comes at a cost unbearable.
Sometimes you slip by like that wrinkly babe
who rode in his mother’s clutch.
His memory like the fog that settled over the river.

I remember things of little practical use,
the baby or the essence of a song about falling
out of love. Not the words or the singer,
just the vague feeling of something out of place.

The quiet outline of a catastrophe.
A hairline fracture that gives one day.

Always that space where something was.

                        Oso mudslide, Oso Washington - March 22, 2014

##

Rendered

Then
you were gold
intimate with choices
and things we never notice
until they leave;
balance, muscle, the absence of pain.
Unaware of the mystery
long inert under your skin.
The mercurial stranger
who slipped smoothly
through your blood,
quietly exposing nerves,
while you lived abundant
burning neon bright.

Who betrayed your body
as you stood stunned
while your pockets were emptied,
as if your losses didn’t matter,
as if you had plenty to spare.
The thrum of the MRI,
fluid pulled from your shocked spine,
hammered you thin as tin
alloyed with leaden questions.
Do you think courage increases
with the sheer force applied to it,
shaped as iron is forged by fire?
Your pulse hums soft
and you are rendered
waiting.

##

Primer

In my last dream of you
you were running for the exit
shaking your finger in my direction
shouting, It was her fault! She’s crazy!

Last week I stood behind
a precisely composed woman
in the Costco check-out line.
I thought of you, your magnum opus.

I looked down. My shoes were splattered
with paint, not of an artist.
Paint from a plain wall.
Primer.

I was crazy. I must have been.
Embraced in illusion;
palettes of soft color
washed in want and flattering light.

Until the hot blue shock
of how so much can turn
to nothing. Plaster to dust.
Disappearing ink.

A ball of white paper
crumpled on the snow,
stepped on without notice.
Not even the air inside made a sound.

##

Evan

On a February morning he rises
and fills the auditorium with passion so fierce
it bends his boy body to the shape of lighting.

He rocks forward and back, glasses flash
like satellites, electric blue-black curls bounce.
He pulls Orion’s bow.

We flow and ebb with long liquid notes
then, when dazzled by sparkling spiccato,
he takes aim. His target, that center

of all of us who sense something
otherworldly. We transcend through
the nebulae of this sphere and witness

Evan, thirteen years on this earth,
a rocket, a radiant star rising.
His finish, the tail of a comet,

leaves us stumbling to stand and applaud.
His wing tip shoes of midnight, his ground,
are all that hold his heavenly body down.

##

Pruning The Maple

My husband trimmed the Japanese maple
yesterday not knowing of the frost today,
this cruel cold.

I think of our daughters;
one storming through the spring
of her last year of middle-school.

The other reluctant to grow,
still sounding out words
while breasts bud under her shirt.

I work to protect them from the cutting,
from loss. I weigh innocence
and measure strength.

It used to be easy to work in the heat.
When the dahlias thrived and the smell
of thyme was abundant.

But someone is different now.
With so little recorded, it’s hard to know who.
I hold my daughters’ hands as I squint into the sun.

My skirt waves wild in the wind
tightens around my thighs, and I know,
it’s me who has changed.

I’ve become the lacey leaf
of the maple, the gnarled center
of the old oak.

He said he’d get a tarp today
to protect the maple from the frost.
To try to avert damage we may have caused
when we thought we were doing the right thing. 

##

When you come upon a snowbank in the desert

When you come upon a snowbank in the desert,

its crystals blinking on the red soil
of gully you’ve followed in hopes of finding
an arrowhead or chipping, stop. Taste
it’s coolness, on your hands, on your tongue,
lie back and make an angel
in it’s melting surface before it evaporates
and becomes the mud on your shoes.
Bury your face in it, even though it is sharp
on your skin like a knick of paper edge.
Let it melt on your eyelashes
so that the siskins there in the juniper
become a painting by Monet and it runs
down your red cheeks as though you are crying
but you are laughing. Let it up
over the tops of your sneakers,
let it soak into your socks until they
are so wet you take them off and hang them
out the car window on the way home as trophies
of where you’ve been, what you’ve done. Because
when you come upon a snowbank in the desert
you let it quench your thirst.

##

Orchestral Evening 

We were as one riding the tall grass losing
               its pollen in visible air along newly strung
barbed-wire that sang as the turkey vulture
               opened his wings to the polka of hoofbeats
the whirl of chucker feathers billowing on blue
              sheet music and the breast of a gyrfalcon
a dust field being speckled by rain hunting
               where the earth smell teases the whiskers
of grasshopper mice while cowbirds lay eggs
              in nests of red-winged blackbirds in woodwind
rushes river water through ditches shovel
             dug by someone’s great grandfather singing
harp songs across old bedsprings a muskrat
             summoned by distant ringing of roadside
harebells hiding honeybees whose solo
              ends when conductor pulls curtain strings
calls home coming home

##

Turning

Broken promises fall forgotten
             and bare plum branches
             shake the last pieces down
              I rake them away into

Mist behind burnt orange mountain ash
              flame of flicker wings
              a spot of red fire
              always caught in the corner of an eye

Sun like galardia
              claims the sky in passion
              akin to blooming colors of fall
              and red plum leaves papering my walk

Burst horse chestnuts
              green spikes browning, decaying    
              leaving smooth gingerbread nuts
              like stones in the driveway

Collecting them, little boy, little girl
              have found treasures of deep sea pirates
              their pride more sincere then any plunderer
              I am hijacked by their smiles

##

Mourning Dove Nest

Three eggs, soft ochre and pearl,
mottled like tea leaves in a porcelain cup
once used by your great-great grandmother
and then by you when teddy bears came to tea. 

In perfect symmetry of a water drop
they lie unquivering on twigs
reminding you of kerplunk only these are not unbreakable
marbles, but shells fragile as dried rose petals
in your mother’s jewelry box. 

But they are understated at best
hidden against a sagebrush stump
where your horse almost placed her hoof
before you pulled her short
and mother dove flew crashing along the ground
like a rubberband airplane when it runs
out of twist. She is begging to be chased. She hopes
to lure you from the nest, hoping
you will see her as easier prey and leave
all that is possible in three little eggs alone.

See You Later, Grapefruit

See you Later, Grapefruit 

Lately, exes have been sneaking into my dreams, 
and other places of suspended thought. Like
when I’m swimming laps, my body blue
and liquid as the water holding me. 
They wave. They smile. They flicker
along the blue-floor depths of the deep end. 

One shows up to ask if I think he’ll look good
with dread locks. Another shows up with his dog
to ask if I still love her. And another, 

reminds me of the summer he left. He was making
a movie in which I played a girl learning French, 
my only lines words I already knew. And because
he was poor, or young, or in a hurry
there was only one take. And because
I was nervous, or lonely, or young
I remembered only two phrases, 
which I purred, again and again, 
in my lowest, breathiest voice, 
the way I’d seen Jean Seburg whisper
to Jean-Paul Belmando in Breathless
that same summer
I was learning to say things
like cinema and terroir. 

And even in the final scene, in which
I was supposed to have been hit by a car and killed, 
I wouldn’t die, 
but looked straight into the camera
propelled by my too-sudden death—
and kept humming:
à bientôt, pamplemousse, à bientôt. 

##

The Fall

I. 
Today the leaves are turning and I am shaking out
old sweaters, turning their button eyes to the sun. 

How can we not look back, especially when told not to? 

The backyard, the leaves, the sinking light setting its heavy weight
behind me. The black spots—
floating and falling when I shut my eyes. From here

I can see the town where I grew up. 
The leaves, turning red there too—
pinecones dropping like firecrackers
from bare limbs. Perhaps I am still there to collect them, 

in buckets for a penny a pop, 
or perhaps there is no one, 
and the pinecones turn slowly to grass. Then 

there is nothing but the ruin of yard, a house
no longer marked by ownership—or life, 
or the smell of dinner. Then,
I turn away from memory. 

Will it all cease to exist? Vanish from sight
and feeling if I turn my gaze away? 

II
After another flight of stairs I will reach the roof

Or

I will reach the roof after another flight of stairs

Or

I will never reach the roof because I am looking back
to see my city, 
the full
disaster behind me. 

##

Train to Kenosha: A Romance Novel Plot

I watch as floodlights switch on with a sudden force
above the baseball field. One row, then the next
as if to meet my train in the approaching dark. 
I can’t hear the children’s shouts
as they round the bases, safe
under those six small moons, parents
not yet arrived to cart them home for dinner. 
I wonder where the time went? 
Can it already be this dark? In the town where I grew up
there were no floodlights. But back then
we could see forever in the dark. Even near dead
with sleep, we believed our limbs
could keep the night from falling. Rounding the bases, 
even in our dreams, as if touching them—
would hold time where it was. 

Tonight I simply want to get where I’m going. 
A lake town with an unfamiliar name. 
Its strange syllables catching the curve of my tongue
like rocks rattling
against themselves in my pocket. A man
will have driven through the rain, 
flash flood warnings in all three counties, 
to meet me there. He’ll smile
when he sees me. We’ll wait out the storm,
pass a bottle between us, 
let the glow of the car light draw us in, 
like two small children, 
rounding the bases towards home.  

##

The Poem you asked For 

From inside I trace the fat slopes
of the white hills with my finger
along the glass. Wonder how
it is we got here, through all this snow,
as though we were marooned sailors
on a strange landlocked ship, oars
flailing in counterclockwise winds. 

It is enough that we are here. It is enough
that I am rowing
across the sparkling snow to be tied-up
like an old dog, at your shore. 
Both of us called in

by the bar’s neon light. Its unceasing blink. 
Its want and want. 

More ships! you call
from the dockside bar. Horses too—
and battle bloodied men, at least ten! 

I’m prepared
to give them all to you, like a chest of gold, 
or my long-buried desire
but then I remember—this is my daydream
and you’ll get what I give you.

##

What I knew about Kissing Then 

Even though all summer no one drowned, we practiced CPR
on the undrowned camp counselors just to be sure.  
We remembered to shout, “ARE YOU OK?”
into the deaf ears of the acting drowned
and when we played the drowned,
we remembered not to answer.
We were nervous at first. 
Tentative and mechanical
in the way we pressed our lips to their lips
like we were kissing the smooth skin
of our best friend’s wrist, or the flat gloss
of our favorite poster, inventing
the feeling of tenderness. And then, 
we grew used to it. We took turns. 
People had favorites, 
though mostly we were generous
with our drowned and undrowned lips. 
I preferred to be the savior. 
Taking a delicate, soggy chin
in my own lake-wrinkled hands, 
tipping it back like a cup, 
the whole world resting on its lip, 
drawing my ear close to the edge
to listen for breath. And though
we were not supposed to hear a sound, 
I always waited
longer than most, 
straining to hear the rustle of life rise
up from damp chests
like the far-off hiss of the ocean in a shell. 
I’d let their sound fill me with new feeling. Then, 
bending closer, would press my lips to theirs
forming a full circle of flesh,
a complete seal of two bodies, and let out
my whole life. 

 

Three Poems

Calling Them Out

She knows it’s time. Something
in her body or the jug - a night breeze,
the heady air -  tells her they must go
now but they lie curled up inside,
cozy and warm, her dark womb
cushions them, safe from the bitter
world outside. They don’t want to leave
and so she calls them out.
She sings to them, to her belly,
crooning gently, her music
wafting out of the barn
across our pasture to the slough
where night birds pause their rustling
to listen, the cottonwoods pregnant
with suspense.

   Unable to resist
the first kid stretches his legs,
reaching out tentatively, tests
the route, lured by the siren
of her voice. His nose follows, nuzzling
the darkness of the jug and then -
too late to turn back – shoulders,
rib-cage, hips all
tumble to the straw.
She murmurs thoughtfully,
cleans his face for that first
sweet breath, hums as she works
to dry his coat, consuming the veil
that separated him
from her.

    And now the others follow,
slipping down, swimming
this blind path into the world –
one, two, three -
and it’s done, her masterpiece,
her symphony, three stanzas
and a poem, the lines
emerge at last full term
to sit - newborn - on the page.

 

##

Cranes

I watch them flying out above the field
late in the day – their long, graceful necks
reaching out, wings moving
in slow syncope, the female
slightly below and ahead of the male.
Their goal is common and beyond my view –
a grain field to the east, perhaps,
or the canal that winds along the edge
of our valley floor.  This is what
long-term pair bonding looks like:
they both know where they are headed, and
each knows the other is there
without looking or touching
wings.  They just know – 
the same way, when you and I
are walking along the canal road
and I reach out my hand,
yours is always there: cool when I’m hot,
warm when I’m cold.

##

Letting go

Because she was her dog – that’s what makes it so hard.
His new wife said it should be obvious:
the old dog can hardly walk, let alone
race cars down the fence line like she did
when he and his first wife built their home.
Oh that brown dog had loved her!
Even when she didn’t come home from the float trip
and the dog had helped the man unpack his car
so slowly, inspecting every item as if
his wife might emerge from a dry bag
or cooler. When the car was empty,
the dog waited for days by the gate
for some other car to bring the woman
home.  But she didn’t come home.  And then
the new wife, a new dog.
She couldn’t warm up to either one but at least
she’d quit waiting, started to eat again,
finally letting go of the past suddenly one day
like he’d let go of the boat for just that second.
They weren’t wearing life jackets.  The boat,
swept up on a rock amid the raging river –
“You get out and put on your jacket,” she’d called
out calmly above the roar. “I’ll stay here –
 I’m a better swimmer.” And so he had:
climbed out, pulled on his jacket, turned around
and she was gone.  No call for help,
no wave goodbye, just gone - letting him
go on home, back to the dog
and the empty house. Now
he has to let go again, this time
of the brown dog with the frozen spine
who drags herself from her bed to his chair
every morning, her amber eyes so full of trust.
He knows he should, but he’s just not sure
he can let go a second time.

In the end, the motel eats us

In the end the motel eats us

                         but I'm busy in room 208,
stabbing the little white flag of my attention
into continents as I discover them in the faux
stucco ceiling, founding new countries,
giving them names.

                         I'm the president, for instance,
of Coreverica, where it's always warm
due to its proximity to the lighting fixture,
and the people are generally happy enough
to forget they are
upside down.

                          Through the wall I can hear
an elderly woman dismantling
her dentures with a pen, peeling
away the wire, thumbing
the teeth clean, loading them
one by one into the yawning
magazine of a Glock.

                           A businessman on the other side
is stacking furniture against the door, a necktie
wrapped around his fist. Now it seems a sofa bed
won't quite close around him–– you can hear
the springs trying.

I should probably be getting ready, too.

The air conditioning has gone warm. Do Not
Disturb signs sway in the emptiness, tap the metal
locks like the beginning of rain.

                             A bead of shadow
slides back and forth along the abacus of purple
light beneath my door.

                             Above, children yell,
run into each other, fall down––

                                          my country trembles,
                               and all the tiny people

                              fall off into the sky.

##

Cleaning

A long day unbuckles its belt and drops
mud caked denim in a pile along Keyser ridge.

Fireflies swim into the new dark at its feet.
Kill the porch light.

I've asked too much of light and now
it's tired.                      The field

puts a barefoot woman in its mouth
where she spins the sadness from a borrowed sweater
with an elaborate series of pirouettes.

I count them,
I applaud.

The dead moon climbs into an oak
                            like a thought.

##

 

Smoke-Break in the Key of FFFFFFFFFF

you'd rather be inhaling the neon belch of an
old motel sign as it bursts against the floor
of a dumpster beneath the new
Management / rather be swimming into the
paper sea lining the back of this aquarium /
at least live in a town whose charm doesn't
involve Bruce Springsteen glockenspiels /
it's always nights like this you end up
calling what's-her-couch and asking how
she's been / it's been 6:30pm for five years
straight and everyone already has a partner /
even the partners / even the seagulls at the
mall that only circle the occupied parking
spots / though you've been going out at
night to the empty spaces and drawing
sidewalk-chalk cars in their open arms /
checking back each morning / but no gulls /
no shit / just the usual tacky cummerbund of
wet dog sky between the planned forest and
Town Storm again / a thing you find
amusement in considering a horizon / a
thing that leads you to start blaming things
like restaurants and phone companies for
why it was you who got stuck here / gets you
believing the little voices you've been
collecting: / you shame / you forgotten heap
of lawn debris / you bummer / you sun-
bleached and dead-eyed plastic owl nailed to
the aluminum corner of a bank roof / you
lifeless bank / you vast, unfurnished acreage
of Berber carpet in a bank / you should've
never made it past being a doodle of an
enormous, oblong breast on your father's OJ
Simpson binder in '79 / what have you
done / where have you gone / Jeffrey
climbed a mountain / Jenny bought a house /
you spent fast food cup with the beverage
identifier buttons all pressed-in / you don't
even know what you are / where to begin /
and you've been out here too long / you're
needed inside

##

What I'm Up To

Watching, from the hood of my car,
the day's current finally run to ground,
a few airport acres of snow bruise and cool
beyond a chain-link fence. Above,

departing flights are zipping
closed the vague District dusk,
each of them painted gold by sunsets
belonging to towns further west,

and I'm fingering a circle of light skin
on my arm where a fentanyl patch
once blocked the sun.

That's what.

Before I ask you the same,
give me five guesses. You are

Dramatic Spotlight No. 27A, performing
a silent reading of Nausea for the orange
spills of city matching you below. You are

Dramatic Spotlight No. 27C, awaiting
an apology for your elbow.
You want bigger whiskeys.

That was one guess,
hold on.

You are marking your territory
on the armrests of the world.

You are staring into the aisle, waiting
for the pilot to announce you are dreaming. You are

sitting next to me.

##

Queen Nicotina Crowning Ceremony, Port Tobacco, Maryland

The two pirouettes your green gown expresses
in frills, climbing air like a smoke ring
around you:
                    a portal into local history,
your town made relevant again, as if it weren't
a simple motor mile for commuters
yawning past
                      collapsed curing barn roots
swimming dead crop fields like shark fins.
Bless the bleachers with your scepter.
                                                              Smile.
Be adorned now by the County Fair MC
in the ceremonial cloak embroidered with three
gold braid leaves for good grades, behavior, 
beauty. 
             There she is––
                                    
Walking on air, she is––
Queen of the Golden Leaf––
                                            
This
will look great on your résumé, someday
when you're in need of a good line or two.

##

 

Dinner Party


    Dalia noshes on a piece of cauliflower steak and spits out her opinions.

    “Eggs rolls aren’t even from China.”

“I found this great park in the South end.”

    “But, it’s like you have to vote Democrat.”

    Daniel makes eyes with me and my wine glass. He pours without waiting for a response.

    “It’s really fantastic how you’ve broiled the cauliflower,” Leah is saying to Dalia. “The rosemary adds a lot. I think it would pair well with a kale salad.”

    “I should’ve thought of that!” says Daniel.

    “You know to massage the leaves, right?” asks Leah.

    “Oh, of course,” says Daniel. “I like to do mine with an olive oil and lemon vinaigrette.”

    “That sounds wonderful,” Leah says. She winces a knowing look.

    Across from me sits Dalia, and behind her head hangs a painting of a mangled face splashed across the canvass in bright reds and oranges. The face snarls with a gaping black mouth and pointed, bright white teeth. Maybe it’s the wine but I begin to feel as if the room is slowly spinning.

    Margaret turns to me, offers, “So how do you know Daniel?” Her tone is polite, but the politeness colors me as all the more pathetic. But she hasn’t been talking either.

    “We went to school together.”

    “In Toronto?”

    “No,” I am saying, looking at Margaret’s mish-mash of neon cancer charity bracelet, oversized glasses, homemade seashell necklace and throwback floral dress. The party seems a mix of business casual and thrift-fancy. “I, uhh, studied abroad with him.”

    “In Paris?”

    Daniel turns to Margaret, smirk aglow, and offers some French gobbledeegook. She reciprocates.

    “No, uhh, Hong Kong,” I say, but Margaret and Daniel are fully engaged in their French-talk.

    Dalia forks a sauteed beet wedge, then doubles the fork back for a clove of garlic, spins into some beet greens, and mouths it.

    “How’s your job, Matt?” she asks.

    “Sucks,” I say. “Waiting tables is waiting tables.” The tone of my response has dissuaded her from pursuing any further. She stares at me for a moment, chewing.

    “I know, right!” says Leah, with a little chuckle. A peace offering. “With the internship I feel like I don’t even have time to breathe.”

    Dalia lights up.

    “Oh, but New York! I’m so jealous.”

    “Don’t be. It’s just nice to be back home for a little while.”

    Leah and I went to high school together. Now her parents pay the rent of her Brooklyn studio to support her wageless, entry-level internship.

    “But.” Daniel has turned to me, leaving Margaret to eye the upholstery. “You do like your other job at the school, no?”

    “Oh, yeah. It’s great. Baking cookies, playing kickball.”

    Margaret smiles me some pity.

    “But it’s part-time.”

    “Good money at the restaurant, though?” Daniel asks. His demeanour has changed—straight business.

    Daniel is a self-employed carpenter, whatever that means.

    “Yeah. Saving a lot.”

    “Good,” he says, relaxes. Daniel reaches for the wine and finds it nearly empty.

    “Say,” he says. “Where is Lauren tonight?”

    “She had to work,” I say.

    “I could’ve sworn you said she’d be coming,” Daniel says. Dalia seems to be glaring at me.

    “She was going to come but she had to switch shifts with a co-worker.”

    Lauren, my girlfriend, hates these parties. I check my phone. Lauren had said she might make it late.

    “She might come a little later,” I say.

    “How much later?” Daniel asks. The force with which he asks the question is a bit surprising. 

    “I have no idea.”

    Daniel says nothing.

    “They have to wait for everyone to leave and then they clean-up, and lock up, and then she has to wait for the bus.”

    “Can we count on her for dinner?”

    “I’m gonna guess no,” I say. Daniel forces a little smile and pours what’s left of a bottle of wine into my glass.

    “I try to buy Tilth,” Dalia is telling Leah.

    “See,” Leah says and shakes her head half-assedly. “You can’t even get Tilth back east.”

    It seems the lights have been dimmed. My head throbs red wine.

    “How much do Tilth groceries set you back?” I find myself asking Dalia. Briefly, possibly instinctively, she flashes her teeth at me and her lips and cheeks twist up in disgust, then she returns to Leah.

    “Well, you have to go to farmer’s markets, you know.”

    “I should try that!”

    Dalia lives off her trust fund. She owns the house we dine in.
    “I discovered a wonderful farmer’s market on Tuesdays in Harlem,” Dalia says.

    “I had no idea!”

    Daniel is refilling my wine glass again. He ladles another portion of beets onto my plate, smiles.

    The room is now flushed with candle light. The electrics seem to have been turned totally off.

    Margaret leans in towards Daniel and mutters some French niceties. He grins.

    “It’s all Oregon Pinot!” I hear, and the voice belongs to Carl. When did he get here?

    “How’s the marketing world?”

    “We have a great mushroom guy.”

    “Pretty soon McDonald’s will have salted caramel.”

    “I actually really liked the new Michael Bay.”

#

    It seems to go unnoticed when I excuse myself for the bathroom, or maybe I don’t excuse myself at all. I move in stumbling bursts down the hallway, sweeping a full circle of the house, and find myself in the kitchen. I would like a glass of water.

Opening the overhead cupboards, I find huge strings of garlic and red potatoes. In another there are bags of fresh carrots and celery.

    “Can I help you?” Daniel asks me. I didn’t realize he had entered the kitchen.

    “A glass of water.”

    “Sure. Uh-huh,” he says, clearly annoyed.

    “Sorry,” I mumble in between sips, “to inconvenience you.”

    Daniel watches me drink, says something about people needing to avoid too much water weight.

    “Where’s the bathroom?” I ask.

He leads me back into the hallway and a door is opened to reveal a wood staircase. We head down into the basement and he points me to the right room. Chipped white paint on a door that doesn’t seem to quite fit the frame.

“Oh,” I say. “Okay, thanks.”

Daniel watches me go into the bathroom. My head throbs. I shut the door.
    My piss sprinkles the toilet seat and goes off into the corner behind the toilet before I can get things back under control.

Through the floorboards I can hear the party chatter. It sounds like someone has put on music, probably the girl who layers her own autotuned Cro-Magnon wailing over house beats, but I can’t tell for sure .

I grab some toilet paper to wipe up the mess, do. It still stinks.

Daniel is waiting when I leave the bathroom. He leads me back to the party.

#

“Well, I had been trying the raw food diet,” Margaret says.

Dalia beams and she shoots me a look. She smiles and I’m not sure why.

“I try to only eat meat on special occasions,” Leah says. “But, raw, wow. Did you ever try paleo?”

“Paleo is such a load of shit,” Margaret says.

They all laugh.

I reach for my glass without looking and it takes me a moment to find it. The party is now standing and mixing. While I was in the bathroom, the group must have grown quite a bit, or maybe I just hadn’t noticed when these people came in. When did Carl get here?

I check my phone and there’s still no message from Lauren. I text her asking when she think she might make it.

“There is,” Dalia says commandingly, grabbing the party’s attention. “There is a fantastic new coffee shop right next to the cupcake place. They serve, like, actually fair trade coffee. All single origin, shade grown. The baristas pull great shots. I’m pimping it out to everyone these days.”

“Oh yeah?” Carl says, a big smirk on his face. He looks around the room, at me, back to Dalia.

“Well, actually,” Dalia is saying, “they require their baristas to only serve lattes that score at least an 85 on the cupping scale.”

“And how do they measure that?”

Carl looks at me again, licks his lips. That’s strange. Are they chapped? He is a very tall man. We’ve known each other a long time, since he, we, were both dorks. Now he works out, but he’s probably still a dork. Carl wears a smile that suggests he’s about to say something really silly, which he does often and in a strained, high-pitched voice.

Excuse me,” Carl says, “but I believe this cappuccino would score an 82.”

“So how do you know Dalia?” someone is asking me. I don’t recognize the voice. It is female. The candlelight is failing and I can’t quite discern her face, but maybe I’m just too drunk. Things would have that pleasant buzz and blur, or, rather, they do, but the spinning uneasiness from before is stronger.

I look at the teethy painting, respond, “I studied abroad with Daniel.”

“In Paris?”

“No,” I say. “Daniel just lived, you know, lived there. We studied abroad in Hong Kong. I had a stipend”

“Raising the minimum wage won’t fix anything,” some tall, backwards-hatted man tells Margaret.

Daniel is at the front door greeting a new guest.

“Lawrence!” Daniel says. Hugs.

“I brought a little something for the party,” this Lawrence says, holding out a bottle.

“Bulleit bourbon!” Daniel says, “That’s fantastic.”

“I like the rye better,” the faceless girl next to me is saying.

I’ve been ignoring how lightheaded I am and find that I’m leaning on the dining table for support.

Margaret grabs a chunk of cauliflower off the serving dish, pops it in.

“It’s like so hard to do anything," she says. "Anything good. For people."

Backwards-hat is nodding.

My headache seems to have stretched back into my neck and there’s a devastating knot to the right of my spine. 

“God, I’m hungry,” faceless tells me.

“You haven’t eaten yet?”

“No…” she says.

“Excuse me,” I say. It’s time to make the rounds and head home.

I find Daniel schmoozing with a couple I’ve never seen before.

“Matt!” Daniel says. “This is Tony and Julia.”

“Nice to meet you,” I say. Julia offers her hand and shakes warmly. Tony just stares.

“We’ve been holding out all day!” Julia says. I can’t make out her face, exactly, but I think she’s blonde. 

“Hey,” I say, turn to Daniel. “My head’s killing me. I think it’s time to go.”

“Nonsense!” Daniel says, tries to hand me his glass of wine. “The party’s just starting!”

“Nah, I’m sorry man. Not tonight.”

“Well, you’re too drunk to drive back, anyway. You wanna nap on the downstairs couch for a bit until you’re ready to join us?”

“I bussed today, but thanks.”

“Well you can’t go!” Daniel says, and uses two hands to put his glass firmly into mine. “We’re eating you!”

Tony is still staring. Julia seems to have frozen.

“Ha!” I laugh.

Julia unfreezes. I slap Daniel on the back.

“Goodnight man.”

Daniel turns to Tony and Julia and I make for the front door. With some drunken difficulty, I get there. My cell phone says I can still make the last bus. I bet Lauren went straight home from work, at this point. I fumble for the knob, turn it.

The door doesn’t budge. The deadbolt is locked and it needs a key.

I make my way back to Daniel.

“Hey, man” I say, turning him around and then leaning on him a bit to help myself stand. “Can I get the keys for the front door?”

Daniel’s face is blank.

“Or, could you help me open the door.”

He smiles.

“No,” he says, “We’re eating you tonight!”

I laugh, so does Daniel.

“So, can I get the keys or something?”

Daniel laughs again and then walks off toward the hallway.

#

Dalia doesn’t seem to notice when I ask for the keys. Her and Leah and a few others are talking.

“I mean,” this short tubby guy is saying. He wears what must be a thrift store cap. It has the Shell logo and a bunch of Chinese letters. “We live in the worst fucking country in the world.”

Dalia doesn’t like this.

“Here we are fucking drone striking children in Pakistan and trying to stick our dick into every other country in the world while a country like China—and, don’t get me wrong, they’re fucked too—but a country like China doesn’t go around fucking the third world to make its citizens’ lives better. And—”

Dalia sticks a finger in the guy’s chest.

“Yeah, but not supporting Obama is not supporting women’s rights,” she says. “You support this legitimate rape bullshit!? You want Planned Parenthood fucking shut down!?”

“That’s ridiculous,” the guy says. “I don’t like A or B.”

Dalia whips around to escape the argument, sees me.

“Can I get the keys for the front door?”

She turns back around.

“I mean…” Leah cuts in, trying to mediate. “Right. Ok. What I think Dalia is saying is, right, it’s fucking awful, of course we don’t like children dying, but what can you do? There’s nothing we can do about it.”

I tap Dalia on the shoulder and she turns around to face me.

“Can I get the keys?”

She glares at me and shows her teeth again.

“No,” she says. “Don’t you know? We’re fucking eating you.”

Daniel is at the front door greeting another batch of guests. I hurry toward the door and trip on something, land flat on my stomach. A hand helps me up.

“You okay? Bruised?” the hand’s voice says.

The front door has been vacated by guests, Daniel, by the time I get there. It’s locked again. 

Daniel is nowhere to be found. My head is throbbing. The party is circling, spinning.

I find myself in the kitchen and a few guests are chatting over whiskey. The windows appear to be bolted shut. Carl walks in.

“Hey man,” I say. “Can you help me get outta here? I don’t wanna miss the last bus and the front door is locked.”

“So unlock it,” Carl says, and gives my right bicep a squeeze. “No fucking meat,” he says, walks away.

In the bedroom I find a window that isn’t bolted, but it only opens about six inches. There doesn’t seem to anything solid or light enough to break it. Maybe in the kitchen.

Daniel has removed the garlic and other vegetables from the cupboards and is cleaning them.

The teeth from the painting have found their way into everyone’s mouths, appearing as two-dimensional jags of white given texture only in clumped paint. Swelling and dancing, the room careens from side to side.

I find a knife in my hand.

“Whoa, buddy,” I hear some teeth say.

I break for the bedroom, tripping, but collecting myself, and I get there without falling. I turn the knife backward to try and smash the glass.

My legs are swept out from under me.

#

I am being dragged on my stomach into the living room, and then I’m left there, knifeless, as if nothing has happened. I fish around my pockets for my phone but it doesn’t seem to be on my person anymore.

Dalia is still arguing with Chinese Shell Hat, and they’re shouting.

“I do my fucking part!” she says. “I buy fucking organic and volunteer twice a fucking week.”

“I can’t afford to fucking volunteer or to buy fucking organic,” Chinese Shell Hat says, “and correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t we both have Bachelor’s degrees?”

I stand up, dust off my hands. My head doesn’t seem to be throbbing quite as badly and someone has turned on the lights. There is a hand on my shoulder. I turn to see Margaret.

“Where is your girlfriend tonight?” she asks.

“At work,” I say. Again she smiles pitifully.

“She’s gonna miss you,” Margaret says and my stomach sinks into a lump.

Carl asks me about the World Cup.

“When did you get here?” I find myself asking him. It now seems like I’m watching myself from the back of my head. Things are misted, hazed over, and my eyes hurt with a dry, protruding pain like they might pop out the sockets.

“Had higher ratings than the World Series or the NBA finals,” he says.

I think about Lauren. I think about our apartment and sitting in our underwear, eating nachos and watching Star Trek. I think about the look on her face the first night after starting her cashier job, about smoking on our dorm porch and talking about Godard and Marx. I hope she’s not on her way here.

This is it, my stomach is telling me. But first, more meaningless conversation.

Daniel slinks up, gives Carl a warm slap on the back.

“Picklebacks tomorrow?” Daniel asks him.

“Tomorrow?”

“Okay,” Daniel says, laughs. “The day after tomorrow?”

Something has occurred to Carl, and he’s donned his smirk.

“Have you tried picklebacks?” he asks me.

“I—”

Too late!”

I find myself stumbling off toward the bedroom with the loose window, but I’m tackled before I can get out of the dining room. I feel my arms and legs being tied up, hear Daniel’s voice. Lying on my back now, I see a pepper grinder crackling away above me and salt sprinkling down. Margaret opens her mouth and flashes sharp jagged teeth. Daniel and Carl follow suit.

Leah is actually the first to pounce and tears at my right arm flesh. Maybe it’s the wine, or shock, but it doesn’t feel like much.

“No meat up there!” Carl says, and I see him ripping at one of my calves.

“Don’t eat too much!” Dalia says. “Save some to roast.”

Daniel tosses rosemary and thyme onto my belly.

“Best meat’s down here!” he says, and tears off a chunk. “Good fat content!”

“Oh, but how rude,” he says, and he gestures to another guest I hadn’t yet been introduced to. “Help yourself!”

Winter Women

The women in his life all seemed to come and go in the winter. Every time it snowed, he could see the shapes of them in the drifts.  

When the old man wakes up, he’s in a panic. He can’t bounce back from sleep like he used to and the fog of his nap will not lift. It’s dark and he’s moving and he’s half asleep and he doesn’t know where he is. Instinctively, he feels around for the little girl. When he finally feels his granddaughter’s head on his lap he begins to remember and breath more easily.  

They are on an overnight bus somewhere, diving deeper into the northwest desert, somewhere between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. 

He doesn’t want to wake Louisa so he gingerly pulls a can of Copenhagen out of his shirt pocket and, with dexterity that surprises even him, pinches some out of the tin and tucks it into the hollow behind his bottom lip. He luxuriates in the shock of fiberglass and tobacco and focuses past his own reflection on the glass of the Greyhound window. 

It’s still the middle of the night. Maynard can’t remember, now, what woke him. Not a dream. Dreams are the curse of a young man. The bus must’ve veered onto the highway strips. 

Outside, he can tell it’s cold. Alfalfa and Cascade Hops poke up through a dusting. Across the plane, a grain escalator and a refinery; a cone of light against the sky. 

Maynard moves uncomfortably in his seat, trying not to wake his granddaughter. His ass is sore from sitting and his curved back aches against the upright seat. He shuffles a little, winces, grunts and clears his throat. He spits black, spent chew into an empty water bottle and Louisa pulls her legs up into her chest. 

She fits perfectly in that chair next to him. Her world begins at the messy crop of sun-colored hair and ends at the tip of her tiny-sized gollashes. 

He looks at her and wishes it were any other life she were born into; any other life he could’ve given her. But by the time she arrived in his small and damp home, he’d already conceded his life to the past. 

Her clothes are dirty because Maynard was never much for the washing, she’s too skinny because he’s never been much of a cook. Her teeth are crooked and will probably stay that way. 

For miles, the bus rambles forward on that straight line of I-90, clanging imperceptibly downward toward the Columbia basin. The river threads itself through the alpine desert like a suture tying the Rockies to the Cascades. He tries to go back to sleep but can’t. His knees ache from not moving; the low rumble of the bus on pavement shakes sleep away like ice off a thawing pond. 

Instead, Maynard sits awake and runs his fingers through Louisa’s hair.

He thinks of the bus driver. All these people: what would it take? One single miscalculation of the wheel. 

He doesn’t realize he’s holding so tightly to the girl until she stirs. 

“Poppa,” she says. “It’s still night.” 

“Sorry. Go back to sleep. We’ve a long way to go,” he tells her. 

She ignores him and looks up and down the isle of the bus. The safety lights on the floor leave the fusillade an ugly green. Everyone else’s head bobs to the rhythm of the road. 

Maynard regrets that he wasn’t able to afford plane tickets, that they have to travel so long just to go the short miles between Montana and Washington, between Helena and Olympia, from one capitol to another. 

Elsewhere on the bus, a man violently coughs; the man across the aisle opens his eyes briefly and takes a slug from a flask; a woman a few rows back gently cries with her head against the window. 

Maynard realizes now he shouldn’t have brought her. There’s probably nothing to see in Olympia; Louisa’s mother won’t just wake up because her daughter’s in the room. It’s too much for his granddaughter. It’s selfish of Maynard. He thought, maybe, Louisa could wake her mother up. But for who? And why? She wouldn’t come home and Louisa would, again, cross the states motherless. 

Louisa climbs into Maynard’s lap and wraps her arms around his neck. 

“Poppa,” she says. “I want to go home.”

He scalds himself, quietly. Another mistake, he thinks, in a cascade of wrong turns.

“Don’t you want to see your mom?” he says. 

“Why can’t she come to us?” 

“We’ve talked about this,” he says and slips his hand under her bottom to reposition her.  

“She’s afraid of heights.” 

“The real reason.”

She nuzzles his chest and buries her face in his flannel shirt. 

“She’s sick.” 

It’s as close to the truth as he’s allowed Louisa to get. He doesn’t know what else to say, what else he should; wants her to know everything but wants to say nothing; knows only that the greatest joke ever played on anyone was when he allowed himself to think that taking Louisa was a second chance with his family and not just another opportunity to make a mess of it. 

 

He had once told Louisa her mother couldn’t come home to the mountains because she was afraid of heights. In a lot of ways, this was the truth. 

 

His first attempt at parenting, he’d had Constance. It was just the two of them after Verna left them for a horse breeder out of Tahoe a mere six weeks after Connie was born. They were never married and Maynard had only ever went so far as to agree that Verna was a good woman with sturdy knees and sharp eyes. When Connie came and Verna started to complain of the cramped space and the mess in Maynard’s trailer, Maynard assumed Verna would take the baby and leave him just the way it’d been before either of them showed up. 

The first time Maynard could ever remember being truly surprised by anything in his entire life was when, on a morning that the power had gone out after a heavy snow and a copse of downed trees laid across his property like they’d been arranged by giants, he walked into the small living room with a candle to find the double-wide empty save for a gently mewing Connie loosely swaddled on his floor.  

Maynard was already forty-one years old and felt twice that the first time he ever picked up his newborn daughter. 

 

The bus has been gently rolling downhill for over a mile. The land here tips itself like a hot bowl of soup brought to gently blowing lips. Down in the pit of the earth, the Columbia slowly slides across bedrock. It’s still the middle of the night, though. The river is more a breath, an arrhythmia of the terrain, than what its might may suggest in the daytime. 

Maynard has never been this far outside of Helena. It’d been since before Verna that he’d even left Montana. 

Age has made him soft. He wishes it hadn’t taken so long. Louisa has her favorite songs and sings them tirelessly; she swims in the creek during summer and rolls through the snow in winter; she comes off the school bus like lightning cracking a tree. But the terrible comedy is that he’s stuck with his own, brittle bones. He watches his granddaughter grow up from behind his own rheumy eyes and can do nothing but trace her movement through time the way the blind trace braille.  

From the bus, Maynard watches the light crack open the sky one inch at a time. Louisa eats a granola bar. He can tell she’s tired and cranky. 

“What is that, Poppa?”  

He sees that Louisa has stood up on her seat and pressed her face to the window. 

“Sit down, Lou. Be careful.” 

The Columbia is a gray, dead finger in the dawn. Fed by every drop of water falling west of the Divide, it is the zenith, the collected achievement of everything on this side of the Rockies. And it hardly moves. Maynard has never seen a more desolate, a more arid riverbed. 

“Is that the ocean?” She asks.  

“You know that’s not the ocean. We’re not there yet.” 

“Can we see the ocean from Mommy’s?” 

“I don’t know, Lou. I haven’t seen Mommy’s.” 

Maynard has a vague understanding that Olympia is near the Pacific Coast but doesn’t quite know, to what extent, a man can be on the Pacific. Taking care of Louisa makes him embarrassed for what he does not know.   

The bus rounds a massive bend in the highway and crawls, carefully, down toward the bridge. Louisa is awestruck. Her hands are pressed against the window like an animal in an exhibit.  

“Louisa,” he says again. “Please. Sit.” 

“I can’t see, though.” 

Maynard can’t blame her. The rivers outside of Helena are debris-stuck and gaunt; they are wild, rabid things limping out of the woods. This: this is no river. This is a dark rift ready to swallow the continent.  

He’s proud that Louisa is so fearless but Maynard shakes as the bus enters the bridge. He’s been having dizzy spells, bouts of vertigo. Maynard closes his eyes. Years of smoking, his doctor told him, and drinking and stress and loneliness. Get some rest. Get a hobby. I have a granddaughter, he told his doctor. That won’t help, his doctor had told him.

 

He hadn’t known just how quiet his trailer had been until the dust settled again. It never felt this big before Constance, before Verna. But in both their absence, he felt its rooms as cavernous and unending. 

Constance had left, too. She was seventeen, too smart for school, she skipped two grades and graduated the previous spring. She didn’t get it from him, he knew. The only thing they’d ever said to each other was hello and goodbye. Goodbye, he’d said, when she took his Dodge Dart out of the shed – she’d fixed it herself – and out to the highway. 

That’s not entirely true. No more lies, Maynard. Not with the little one, now. He’d called her a slut once, for making it with an Indian from Missoula on a school trip to the college. He remembered her laughing at him. It made him feel impotent. Useless. Antiquated. He hit her: curled his fist, sucker punched her in the jaw. She was fifteen. He was fifty-six. And it made him feel even older, weaker, sloppier. She laughed and cried at the same time. He was small, so small, that when she curled into a fetal position, he kept wailing until he disappeared.  

 

Someone’s saying something. 

“Excuse me. Excuse me.” 

He opens an eye. Looks for the voice. 

“Sir?” 

He opens the other, turns to the row behind him. The bus has crossed the bridge and is pulling off the highway. Louisa is standing and leaning over the back of the seat, trying to catch views of the river as the bus slows. 

“Can you please tell the girl to sit down?” 

The man behind them, reading a magazine, is leaning around the aisle seat, trying to get Maynard’s attention. 

“Grandpa,” Louisa says. “Come on.” 

“Louisa, you have to behave.” 

“Listen to your grandpa,” the man says. 

“I’m not doing anything.” 

“Please,” Maynard says. 

“Little lady,” the man says, “you have to sit down.” 

“Please,” Maynard says again. “I can’t do this right now.” 

She plops into the seat in a huff. 

“We’re taking a rest stop, I think,” Maynard says. “We’re probably close.” 

It’s in a town called Vantage at a bend in the river. The wide Columbia sluices past it and carries a breeze that bites like ginger. Maynard tries to carry Louisa to the bathrooms but has to put her down in the snow. His back still hurts. She sprints ahead to the toilets. 

He sits down on a bench, thankful to simply be off the bus. He breathes the bitter air in, lets it sting his throat and lungs like cigarette smoke. He pulls out a large finger-full of tobacco and tucks it into the pouch beneath his teeth. He sucks hard against his palate, trying desperately to squeeze as much nicotine tar into his gums as possible but finds it unsatisfying; hardly enough anymore. He pulls the black glob back out and tosses it to the ground, nothing but a bitter taste and a coat of sludge.

Maynard checks his watch. Louisa will not be quick in the bathroom and the bus driver had planned to stay a full fifteen minutes before the last push over the mountains and down into greater Seattle, then Tacoma, then Olympia. He scans the group of other bus passengers milling around the vending machines and bathrooms and finds the man who’d been sitting behind them. He’s smoking a cigarette, taking long breaths and staring ahead, toward the river so Maynard stands up and walks over to him, trying to stay out of his periphery, to remain undetected as long as possible. 

“Sorry about the girl,” Maynard says. “She means well.” 

The man who Maynard notices now is wearing a thick, pilled pea-coat slathered in cat hair has severely cracked lips which bleed tiny drops onto his cigarette. 

“You’ve got to discipline her, is all. Can’t let her get away with it.” 

“With what, exactly?” Maynard asks. 

He’d come to apologize for Louisa’s behavior and to bum a cigarette but now wonders if the man, younger, sturdier, and handsomer than Maynard is, can offer something else; even a handshake and a wink, something to show Maynard that he shouldn’t be too hard on himself. But Maynard knows now that he will not get off that easy and that his age, his exhaustion, his desperation is no excuse for his failure. Maynard likes the man right away. 

“Being disrespectful.” 

“I’m Maynard,” Maynard says. 

The man nods and shakes his hand. Maynard doesn’t find it odd, at all, that the man doesn’t introduce himself back. Doesn’t even register it.

“Listen,” Maynard says, “I’d hate to do this, but is there any way I could have a cigarette? Been with the little one for so long, I haven’t been able to sneak one in and I’d love a drag or two before she’s out of the toilet.” 

“Been hard on you?” 

Maynard nods, hoping to see the man’s hand slip into his pocket where he keeps the Pall Malls. 

“I’m just too old. You don’t happen to have an extra smoke, do you?” 

“Where’s the girl’s mother?” the man asks. 

“Olympia, Washington. We’re going to visit her. She’s been living there. But she ended up in the hospital and it doesn’t look good. Want to give the girl one more chance to say bye to her mom.” 

The man is tall and towers over Maynard. He’s extremely skinny and has the jawline of a classroom skeleton. Maynard tries to stay in his eye line but the man just keeps staring over Maynard’s head, out and up the giant river. 

“Seems a bit much for a kid, doesn’t it?” 

“I honestly thought it was the right thing. But now?” Maynard sighs deeply and watches his breath curl and coil. It’s hardly mid-day now but late winter weights the sun down like an anchor to the earth. Its long light casts the river in subtle pallor. 

“It was her boyfriend, you know. Threw gas on her when she was asleep and then lit the bed.” 

He doesn’t know why he’s telling the man any of this. He hasn’t even told Louisa her mother’s full condition: just that she’s sick and wants to see her. Of course, Maynard can’t know whether or not his daughter wants to see Louisa. His daughter’s been in a medically-induced coma for over three weeks and, before that, hadn’t so much as got on the phone. Not since the day she came back in a brief, delirious afternoon, to drop off her newborn daughter, the second and last time there would ever be a baby girl in Maynard’s trailer. 

“I just thank god Louisa wasn’t with her when it happened.” 

The man nodded. 

“God thanks you.” 

 

“Her name’s Louisa,” Connie said. “She’s six months and if you want her to be safe, you’ll take her. Just please, don’t bother with questions.” 

Maynard looked at the bundle of flesh in his daughter’s arms. So this was his granddaughter. He was a grandfather. He chuckled, inwardly, thinking how he hadn’t really ever gotten to be a father, first. 

“I think we should talk,” Maynard said. 

“There’s nothing to talk about, Maynard,” Connie said. “Take her, and maybe I’ll be able to come and get her in a few months. But right now—“ she trailed off. 

She’d shown up that morning in the same Dodge Dart, almost a full decade after she’d driven it away. He’d heard it coming up the drive, its old Diesel engine rattling the wildlife out of the trees. She kicked the door open, hair plastered to the side of her head with sweat and oil, holding a tiny package. It was only when she arrived at the front door that Maynard realized it was a human baby. She’d driven through the night to get back here and didn’t say a thing when he opened the door. She simply slid through, lied down on the old wicker couch with the baby on her chest and went to sleep for, nearly, a full 24 hours. Not even the baby made a sound. 

It snowed the whole time. A deep, quiet storm that dropped enough to pile up to, almost, the bottom of the trailer’s windows. Once, the infant began cooing and, gently, he stroked her near-bald head. He slept on the floor until they all stirred again and he woke up like he was coming to life. 

Once it stopped snowing, though, Connie was gone and Louisa kicked her impotent feet at the empty space beyond her blanket. 

 

He’s come back from the convenience store down the road. In two minutes, he smokes a cigarette to the filter and lights another one. Halfway through, he flicks it and boards the bus. Louisa isn’t there, though. He thinks she must still be in the bathroom. Then he notices that the man with the cigarettes is gone too. 

As he rushes up the aisle and out the bus, the driver warns him he has two minutes. 

“Have you seen my little girl?” 

The driver shrugs. 

“She’s yours?”  

 

He wrote Connie a letter once. And Verna too. There was also a letter inside his dresser for Louisa when the time came. 

    In it, he tried to explain why he’d been so angry; that having them in his life had made him to feel fear. But he couldn’t quite explain it. They remained unsent and, so, he remained alive. 

 

He’s knocking on the door firmly but patiently. If she’s in there, he doesn’t want to sound angry. 

“Louisa? Doll? Little one?” 

Nothing. 

He opens the door to a cold and empty, tiled bathroom. The water runs in one of the sinks. He turns it off. He listens carefully. Outside the bathroom, behind the concrete structure, the Columbia River takes its wide turn north beneath a large bluff. 

It’s full morning daylight now but the desert is a joyless gray. Patches of snow twirl with the wind over shredded islands of ice. A wind has asserted itself and is erupting out of the river canyon. 

Maynard scans the ridge above him and the slope below him, hoping to spot Louisa somewhere on the skyline. But there’s nothing. Nothing but the river. Its unhurried, carefree tumble to the Pacific is an insult to the old man. Nothing is ever that easy, he thinks. Nothing can ever be as sure as the water in its satisfied advancement downward. A river—this river—is a belief: that where it ends is incontrovertibly greater than where it began and that, no matter what it does to get there, the river is justified in its unapologetic breach. 

He hears a voice. Underneath the wind, like shadows behind a curtain. It comes off the canyon wall and he follows it back around to where the man is sitting on a picnic bench, smoking yet another cigarette.

“In over your head?” he says. 

“Anybody would be.” 

“Not everyone.”

The man doesn’t move except to bring a cigarette to his mouth and then back down again. Over and over. It’s an unholy silence. A wrong note on a church organ. 

If the river is so sure of itself, Maynard thinks, I’m the boulder in the middle that it barrels past in its unceasing movement. Battered by its passage until I am nothing. 

“So. Did you see where she went?” 

“You lost her?” 

“She has a tendency to wander.” 

“No, I didn’t see her.” 

“She’s not lost,” Maynard assures the man. 

“What’s going to happen when you find her?”

Maynard startles at the sound of the big bullhorn blowing from the bus and then the hydraulic release as it lurches forward. The old man is numb watching it crawl onto the highway. Then all the worried thoughts warm him: Did I look in the right row? Was she on the bus, after all? She could’ve been asleep in the wrong seat. He pictures her waking up twenty, fifty, one hundred miles onward. He wonders what protocol there is to return a missing grandchild to her useless grandfather. What reason, after all, would anyone have to return her to him, of all the people deserving of her. 

“What now?” Maynard says to no one in particular. 

“Wherever she is,” the man says, “I hope she’s not too cold.” 

Every woman in his life came and went in the winter. And for years he’d always blamed the weather, the cold. The constant crush of low atmospheric pressure in the mountains around his trailer was like the feeling of slowly drowning. Any sane person would attach themselves to the first warm thing they saw and then, again, leave when the light went out. 

What did this man know of the cold? 

“I think you know where she is,” Maynard says. 

“I’m sorry,” the man says. “But, I don’t. Could you blame her for running away?”

“Then help me find her,” Maynard says. 

The man shakes his head. 

Maynard looks at the man. Sees, for the first time, his beak-like nose, his claw-like fingernails. 

“Why weren’t you on the bus?” 

“This is my stop,” the man says. 

“There’s nothing here,” Maynard says. 

“Sure there is. You just don’t know what you’re even looking at. It’s why I like living by the river. This river, at least. It’s got a certain way of hiding itself.” 

“Do you know where she is?” 

“Kids like to play on the jetty,” he says and nods toward the leg of land kicking into the river, water chased up its sides by the current and the wind.  

 

He’d heard it from Connie a few years after she’d left him with Louisa. He ignored her calls for months at first, worried she was trying to get her daughter back. It was too late, though, he’d fallen in love with the little one. 

Finally, he answered, guilt slipping through the cracks his baby granddaughter had opened. 

As it turned out, though, it was that Verna had been found in an overturned pickup in the bottom of Lake Tahoe. Her husband had gotten it into his head she was stealing from him. 

“I had to identify her,” she said. 

“I’m sorry,” Maynard said. “I didn’t even realize you two had been talking.” 

“Once or twice a year,” Connie said. “How’s Louisa?” 

“She’s beautiful,” Maynard told is daughter. “But after everything? Why me?” 

“You’re the least cruel man I know,” she said.

It made his heart hurt for the little girl asleep on the couch, the world he couldn’t protect her from. 

 

    The two men were sidestepping carefully down the bluff crossing under the highway where the noise of the river collided with the throng of cars passing above. 

    What didn’t move past him? 

    “I never had kids,” the man says, kicking some loose, icy gravel down on Maynard’s shoulders. 

    “Could you hurry?”  

    A small trail wound down under the bathrooms. The two men had found it, littered with empty beer bottles, wrappers, empty packs of cigarettes. 

    “They were always too disapproving of me,” the man says. “The women I ended up with. Could never make them happy. Got to the point where their disapproval made me feel like it was my fault.” 

    “Maybe it was.” 

    “All I’m saying is, maybe, it doesn’t do any good to chase them.” 

    Maynard thought that, if anything, he’d never done enough chasing. He’d let them all go, convincing himself he was better off without them; that they were better off without him. In time, though, they all disappeared into the arms of people much worse, even, them him. And now, his granddaughter, somewhere, the youngest yet, lost into the arms of the slow-moving violence of the current. 

    

    He’d written all the letters on the same night. They all said the same thing: I wouldn’t have saved you even if I could. 

 

    She is out on the very tip of the jetty. The highway bridge rises above her like the sky waiting to fall to pieces. She is stuck on a water-slick stone. Her hood blows off her ears and her tears off her cheeks. 

    “I can’t,” he tells her. “You have to come to me.” 

    “I want to go home,” she says. 

    “Leave her be. She’ll come back,” the man tells Maynard. 

    “Why would she?” Maynard says. 

    “Mommy’s dying,” Louisa yells over the current. 

    Maynard looks around at the man. 

    “You told her?” 

    “Someone had to.” 

    “All I wanted was a cigarette,” Maynard says. 

    The river piles up against the stone, beaten to froth by submerged shoals, and grasps violently for Louisa’s tiny galoshes. 

    “And look what happened,” the man says. “This girl’s better off without you.” 

    Up above, Maynard sees the bus pulling out of the parking lot, lurching onto the highway, up over a gentle grade to nothing among a field of unmoving wind turbines. 

    “Shit,” Maynard says. 

    “No need to curse,” the man tells Maynard. “Especially in front of the child.” 

    “Shit shit shit,” Maynard says. 

    His fear swings into desperation into panic and back to fear. His old heart cuts a youthful rhythm in his chest as the River pulls around him and threatens to swallow his granddaughter. 

    “LouLou. Please. Please come back.” 

    “You lied. Mommy’s dying. I want to go home.” 

    “I’m sorry,” Maynard yells above the wash. “It’s dangerous out there.” 

    The man yells out over Maynard’s shoulder: “Good girls listen to their poppas.” 

    Maynard turns around to catch the man winking. He nudges Maynard. “Am I right?” he says. 

    Maynard feels it before he sees it, his fist connecting with the man’s beak-nose, his chapped lips. The man stumbling back and slipping on a rock, going over the breaks and into the River. 

    It feels right. His panic subsides a little as the man struggles against the current. The River will carry the man away and leave Maynard clean. 

    The man’s words are gurgled and useless as he bobs above and below the Columbia. Maynard watches the man’s coat billow up around him and the green murk carry him to the center of the gorge and then, away. Away. Away. 

    “Grandpa,” Louisa says. 

    “It’s ok,” Maynard says. “Trust me.”

    He finds a footing and she slides closer.

    He pulls her in. First the mittened hand and then her tiny body. He wraps her in his coat, turns his back on the wind and curls himself over her. He stays like this for as long as he can, even amongst the debris and the billows.  

    “It’s ok,” he says again. But knows that she’ll be gone again if he ever lets go. 

     

    

 

In A Pig's Eye

My father and I were polar opposites. In his youth he was athletic, a high school football and track star who only left sports because of his service during World War II. I was the stereotypical kid who was always picked last, a nerd before it was cool, and the closest I got to the football team was when some of its members decided to beat me up for fun. 

I was bookish, intelligent, and a good student – many of the things he was not. He didn’t know what to do with me, a kid with a big vocabulary who scribbled stories. So he lavished attention on my jock brother. As I grew older, I began to realize that the rare notice he displayed was an afterthought, a kind of realization that acknowledged, “Oh, you are here, too.” Later, as an adult, I realized that treatment had its advantages. I simply went my own way in life. There was no expectation that I be “a chip off the old block.” Neglect has its definite advantages. 

One of those advantages was I learned how to shoot and I learned how to hunt. Through the Boy Scouts, I earned rifle and shotgun shooting merit badge. In college, I met classmates who invited me to go hunting with them. I learned how to handle a rifle, field dress a deer, and butcher out the back strap – skills traditionally handed down father to son. 

But that wasn’t going to happen in my family. Dad never handled a gun when I was a kid. I heard stories about him shooting after the war with my uncles, but Dad not only wanted very little to do with me but he also wanted nothing to do with guns. My mother said it was because of his experience in the Army. Dad was a combat medic during World War II. He rarely spoke about his service, but when he did it was with bitterness and great hatred for the military.  Dad used the f-word like a comma, but he particularly let loose with obscenity when it came to his sidearm while in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. His official status as a non-combatant limited his self-defense options under the Geneva Conventions. “All I was allowed to carry was goddamned, motherfucking .45,” Dad told me once when I asked what, if any weapons, he was allowed to carry in the field as a medic. “How the fuck was I supposed to hold off the German army with goddamned, motherfucking .45?” 

As an adult, I invited him to go shooting with me, simply a time when we could spend an afternoon plinking at some targets. He always said “no,” usually while turning the channel to a cable sports network so he could watch a football game. I would sit and watch the game with him. But fat chance that he would ever head to the shooting range with me.

However, in the last year of his life – he was 91 years old – he reached out to me and showed interest in the things I like to do. I believe he finally had a sense of his mortality. He knew the end of his days drew near.

But one day, he completely floored me:

“I’d like to go hunting with you,” Dad said. 

“Sure, Dad, that would be great!” I replied – and immediately began to think of the challenging logistics of living with a cranky nonagenarian in the pucker brush. If I managed to pull it off, taking my father hunting would be the craziest thing that I had ever done outdoors. 

He started asking questions about my hunting rifles, shotguns, and pistols – when I purchased them, what they were used for, whether I ever just shot at targets with them. It was odd discussing firearms with my Dad after decades of resistance, but I didn’t complain. On the other hand, I found that I had some misgivings including the worry that perhaps – just perhaps – this was a way for him to obtain the means to commit suicide. At the time, my mother had recently entered a memory care unit, yet another elderly woman whose identity had been stripped from her by Alzheimer’s dementia. Dad was depressed and lonely. 

But I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to be with him, to show him a pursuit that I did well, and to include him my world. I decided that something akin to a test drive was in order before we went on a road trip. 

“Dad, maybe we should go shooting some time soon. I could let you handle a rifle, maybe a pistol, so you can get the hang of it again.”

“Yeah, boy, I’d like that,” Dad said. 

A week later, I picked Dad up from his senior living apartment and drove him in my truck to the county rifle and pistol range. I had purposely selected three weapons for the afternoon: a Ruger 10-22 (which I was sure he could shoot comfortably), one of my Inland Division M-1 carbines, and a G.I. M1911 .45-caliber pistol. The World War II-era weapons were a gamble. I wanted to gauge his reaction when holding those guns, including the .45 whose name he had spoke as anathema so many times. 

After I set up the targets and gave Dad ear protection, I handed him the Ruger. He pointed it downrange and happily emptied the clip at the targets. He couldn’t the hit the broad side of a barn – his eyesight was terrible at that point – but he genuinely enjoyed the experience of firing the .22.  

“Do you want to try this?” I said, showing him the M-1 carbine. “It’s a lot like shooting the Ruger, but with a little more recoil.”

“Oh, look at that,” he said. “I haven’t seen one of those in years.” 

I checked the carbine to make sure it was cleared, then handed it to him. Dad held the M-1 in both hands and just stared at it for several minutes, turning it around and examining closely. It was a good thing that I twice made sure the gun did not have a chambered round and that I kept the magazine because Dad had no concept of muzzle control. 

“You can fire it,” I said. 

“A lot of the guys I knew carried one like this,” Dad said. “This and the Garand were everywhere. You had one or the other.”

“Dad, you should shoot it,” I said. “Do you remember how to load it and rack it?”
He shook his head “no.” I took the gun back from him, inserted a magazine, snapped back the bolt, and then handed him the carbine. Like the Ruger, it was easy for him to use – he pointed the gun downrange and happily fired away at the paper targets, missing them by a mile but having the time of his life. 

Then I brought out the M1911. My dad was probably the only soldier in the U.S. Army who hated the G.I .45-caliber pistol. Some firearms experts said it was the best combat handgun ever made, proof that the Mormon soul of its designer John Browning was touched by the god of war. I had no idea what he might do, so there were many reasons beyond gun safety that I handed it to him without a loaded magazine. 

Dad surprised me. He didn’t swear. He didn’t refuse to handle it. He simply grunted out an “hmm,” reached out to take the pistol in his hand, and stared at it. 

“This was all we were allowed to carry,” he said bleakly. “I remember training with one at Fort Knox while other guys were shooting Garands. It didn’t matter, anyhow. If I was treating wounded, my hands were full. Taking my .45 out its holster was about the last thing I would ever do – too busy bandaging a wound or trying to stop severe bleeding or giving someone a shot of morphine.” He paused, then asked quietly, “Can I shoot it, too?”

“Yes, of course Dad,” I said, handing him a loaded magazine.

He easily slid the magazine into the pistol, racked it, and took up a shooting stance that looked like a photograph from an old Army field manual. He held his breath each time he squeezed the trigger, smoothly firing seven rounds. He still couldn’t get any rounds on the paper but it was obvious that more than 70 years later he still remembered what a first sergeant had taught him on a firing line. 

“We aren’t going to take any of these hunting?” Dad asked. 

“No,” I replied. “I have a Remington .30-06 I will carry. You can have a similar rifle if you want.”

“I’ll just watch,” Dad said. He paused, then said, “I am really tired. Could we go back to my apartment?” 

“We can talk about the hunting trip on the way,” I said. 

“I don’t know about that,” he snapped. “We’ll see. I’ve got a lot on mind right now.”

So, I dropped the subject. Knowing my father, he would never mention the idea of going hunting with me ever again – or he would bring it up out of the blue when not one game animal was in season. No matter. He and I had actually shot some weapons together. I chalked it up as a red-letter day. 

About three weeks later, my father called me on the phone and asked, “When are we going hunting?”

“OK, Dad, here’s the deal,” I replied. “I can get time off from work. It will probably only take a few hours to throw some gear and food for the both of us into my truck. The question is what do we hunt? There isn’t really anything in season.” That was the simple truth because I am a rifle-hunter who never had more than deer tags. 

Then, I got an idea that was either a death wish or a stroke of brilliance. It was probably more of a death wish – I placed an elderly man into the equation.  But before you judge me, consider that I definitely developed an attitude that could be summed up by saying, “You want to hunt, Dad? I’ll show you some god-damn hunting before you change your mind again.” 

“We could go pig hunting,” I said. “There is no season on feral pigs and they are considered varmints. No tags required, and if I shoot one the state fish and game department will thank us. I even know someone with ranch land that would let us hunt there. Damn pigs tear up his ground with their wallows and breed like crazy. So whether we take a boar or a sow it will be worth the trouble.”

That’s at least what I told him. Perhaps I should have been more honest and pointed a few other considerations. Like there was a good chance that even with bait we wouldn’t see one oinker – feral pigs are cagey animals. If I managed to drop one I’d have more meat than I would ever use, so why bother? But most importantly, feral pigs are dangerous – truly an animal for risk-takers. Forget Wilbur or Porky Pig – those Hollywood pigs are the solid citizens of the porcine world noted for their charm and humor. Feral pigs have a dubious ancestry (although there’s domestic stock in their genetic background) and a bad attitude to boot. They are born pissed off and permanently set at Threat Condition Alpha, possessing plenty of bone and gristle and muscle around their vital organs and every intention in their tiny brains of charging a hunter. In fact, hunters have been gored, maimed, or at least chased up a tree by wounded pigs. 

If I took Dad pig hunting, I might condemn him to death by aggrieved swine. Or I would finally show him who the real man is among his two sons. 

“Let me make some phone calls,” I said. “We can leave in two days.”

Rick was more than happy to have me pitch camp on his land and hunt pigs. “I’ll even put out some bait for you” – completely legal because of the nuisance status of the animal and probably a good way for Rick to get rid of some garbage.  Sure enough, the next day it looked like at least half a dozen pigs ranging in size from shoats to what might be a sizable boar had rooted through the trash, judging from the tracks on the ground. 

“What do you do to hunt these things?” Dad asked after we arrived. 

“Stay down wind, stay quiet, stay hidden,” I said as I dumped a basket of rotting apples from the orchard around my house in the place where the pigs had grubbed through the garbage. “I’ve have a lawn chair you can sit in and it has a shade. I am going to lie on the ground on top of a pad with the rifle locked and loaded. We’ll be about 30 or 40 yards away” – I pointed at some bushes and rocks – “in a place where we will hide. Remember to stay really quiet and still. If you have to pee, piss on the ground where you are standing. But if the pigs are in front of us, try to hold it.”

“I’m 91,” Dad said, irritated. “That might be kinda hard to do.”

“Just do your best, Dad,” I replied. 

I was counting on the pigs to remember where the buffet table was and to smell new items on the menu. It was late in the afternoon but the light would be good until about 7 p.m. Dad slowly shuffled to the chair and wearily sat down. I was in front of him, lying on the pad, with my .30-06 resting on its bipod and the caps off the scope, settling in for a wait. 

Five minutes had not gone by when Dad asked, “You actually like doing this?”

“Dad, ssshhh!”

“I’m bored. I’m just sitting here.”

“Dad, that’s part of hunting,” I whispered. “I don’t think it’s boring. It’s waiting for nature to take its course. The animal is genius in its element. I’ve got to lay here, concentrate, and do everything I can to make it believe it’s the only critter out here other than its own kind. That’s a challenge, and I like the challenge.”

That satisfied him for a while. Then, out of the blue, he said, “Why didn’t you ask Stephen to come with us?”

Stephen is my older brother. “If Stephen wants to take you somewhere, he can do that some other time,” I said. “You asked me to take you hunting. Well, we are hunting. You did not ask me to take you and Stephen hunting.”

“He’s too busy, anyhow,” Dad said. “Stephen carries a lot on his shoulders.”
    My brother Stephen made millions in real estate and financial planning. I don’t hold that against him – even if he is a dick toward me – but it was always obvious that Dad was not particularly impressed with my career as a journalist. “He can get the servants to take you hunting next time,” I muttered. 

“What?”

“Nothing,” I replied. “Look, Dad, a pig has hearing ten times better than a human. We really need to shut up, and I need to concentrate.”

So, my father shut up. Well, sort of. He just sat in the lawn chair, silently moving his lips in a conversation that he was having with himself. The breeze blew in my face through the brush and I just stared downrange, waiting and waiting. 

Amazingly, we didn’t have long to wait. Less than an hour later, it was a made-for-television moment. Some pigs ambled toward the apples – three of them. It looked like a 150-pound boar and a couple of male shoats. It didn’t take long for them to go face first into the apples on the ground. 

“Dad,” I whispered. “Be really, really quiet. There is a boar downrange from us. I am going to fire as soon as I can get a clean shot.”

Dad said nothing, but leaned forward and adjusted his glasses. I could see that he was smiling, probably an indication that he could at least hear the pigs gobbling rotted fruit.  

I tucked the rifle into my shoulder and looked into the scope, both eyes open. I sighted on the boar, waiting and hoping for a clear shot. I wasn’t going to mount the head, so I would wait for the boar to present the most lethal spot: A head shot at the base of the ear.

Luck was on my side and the pig obliged. When the boar lifted its head to sniff the air, I centered the crosshairs at a spot where its ear popped out of glossy black bristles and squeezed the trigger. 

A loud bang – A split-second later, a pink cloud surrounded the boar’s head and the animal jerked to one side, hitting the ground. 

“Wow! That was loud!” Dad yelled. “Did you get something?”

I stared through the rifle’s scope. “Looks like it,” I said as I chambered another round. “Dad, stay here. This part can be a little dangerous.”

“Dangerous – why?” he asked, sounding concerned about me for perhaps the only time ever. 

“Because that boar might not be dead,” I said. “I got it with a head shot, but I want to be sure I dropped it clean. Just stay here. I’ll be right back.”

Some pig hunters carry long knives with them to dispatch a wounded pig, hence the name “pig sticker” – but not me. If that boar was still alive, I would put a second .30-06 round in its head, or a third if necessary. I didn’t hunt for trophy so the condition of the head didn’t matter. The condition of my head and other sundry body parts did matter. 

I walked warily but purposely toward the boar. The two shoats had scattered at the sound of the shot so it was alone on the ground, it’s head in a gathering pool of blood. I stopped about 15 yards away and stared at the body, looking for signs of life like breathing. The side of its head that I had shot was a wreck with one eye bulging out of its socket. I didn’t see it breathe. The pig didn’t move. I started to move closer.

Then the damn thing squealed, rolled upright, and snarled at me while clicking and grinding its teeth. In Pig, that basically means, “I am going to kill you, motherfucker.” It looked at me with its one good eye and charged.

“Hey, what’s going on?” I heard my Dad yell in the distance. 

Pigs have bad eyesight and the head shot did not give the boar 20/20 vision. It careened past me, then drunkenly wheeled around, sniffing the air and chattering its teeth.

“Did you get the pig?” I heard my Dad shout.

That’s when the pig decided that it could smell and hear a softer, weaker target: my father. Complicating the matter, Dad had got out of his chair and was walking toward the commotion. Of course, he could not see anything that was going on 30 yards ahead of him. 

The pig squealed horribly and darted off toward my father at a gallop. I lifted the rifle to my shoulder, sighted on the pig’s backside, and squeezed the trigger. 

Click! 

I never did the find the round afterward. I wanted to see if the primer was dimpled so I could send it back to the Remington-Union Metallic Cartridge Co. with a note explaining why for the first time in my life when I really, really needed a reliable .30-06 cartridge their ammunition failed me in the clinch. All I know is nothing happened. The cartridge did not fire and the pissed-off pig was yards away from my 91-year-old father who had no idea what was happening. 

I yanked back the bolt and chambered another round –the last one in the magazine—aimed, and squeezed the trigger as soon as the crosshairs fell on the boar’s body. 

It was enough. The bullet smashed into the boar’s pelvis, leaving the beast flailing. I ran up to where it was thrashing and I took an agonized breath. Then, I drew three more cartridges from the bandolier on the sling, loaded the rifle, and fired round after round into the bastard’s head. 

Dad still couldn’t see much of what had happened, and even though he heard every shot remained oblivious to his brush with death. 

“Jesus Christ, what’s all the shooting about?” he exclaimed. “Where’s the pig?”

“It’s close by, Dad” I said, gasping for breath. 

“Don’t get so excited,” my father replied testily. “I don’t know why you’re out of breath. You should be in better shape – like Stephen.” He paused, then stated flatly, “Hunting doesn’t seem to be all that interesting.”

Dad never really understood what had happened. Maybe it was better that way. At least he was not mauled to death by a boar, a way to die that I would not wish on him despite his failings as a parent. 

The next day, my friend Rick helped me load the beast on my truck for its journey to a butcher shop. 

“Damn thing’s all shot up,” Rick observed. “What happened?”

“You don’t want to know,” I said. 

Less than a year later, Dad was dead. As his life ebbed away in the final hours, it struck me that he never was impressed with me as a hunter. But he was there when I had made the best shot of my life, the one that allowed him eventually to die in peace despite the trauma of war, to die in bed, and to die surrounded by his children. What’s more, he wanted to be there with me when I pulled the trigger. I was more truly myself in that moment than in any other I had shared with him during our lives. It didn’t even matter that he did not see what happened. I knew what happened.

Throughout my life with him, I had been no one at all. But not that day. 

Not that day. 

 

 

 

 

You Wouldn't Have Known

We're sitting in the commons when Annie says I look like a man. She says it like this: “They did a good job with her. She looks just like a real one.” 

    Lisette corrects her, but her mother gets confused about the difference, so Lisette repeats herself, enunciating very clearly. “He is a man. He doesn't look like one. He is.” 

    “But not everyone passes,” her mother says. “Right? Isn't that what you meant?”

    “Oh yeah,” Annie says. “The boys are lucky. I wouldn't have known. With us girls, it's completely different. I can always tell.” 

    Lisette drops her face in her hands. They've been at it a while. “Oh my god. No you can't.” 

    She is the youngest, while Annie, at sixty-two, is older than everyone here. There are six in the new batch, all women, plus two: Lisette's mother—whose name I don't catch—and Cecily's younger amant. The patients arrived with two and three rolling suitcases apiece, shedding coats and stacking their boots in the foyer. Shoes are not permitted inside, excepting the nurses' bleached clogs. 

    It's all very sterile. 

    Annie, Lisette, and her mother have camped in the television room with the couches, while the others check out their rooms, and Cecily harasses the cook about her diet. “Beef if it's grass-fed,” she says, “Chicken or turkey if not, no fish, and vegetarian if none of the meat is organic.” The cook repeats, “Organic,” and Cecily says it again, drawing each syllable out, “Or-gan-ic,” to correct the cook's heavy accent. Cecily's boyfriend is Quebecois and she asks him to translate. The nurses and staff are bilingual-french. The guests are all anglophonic. “You know what?” she says to her boyfriend. “Never mind. Can you just pick something up? Does Canada have a Whole Foods?”

    Cecily and I are Americans, as in, The United States of, but the rest are Canucks. There is a push-pinned map of the world on the wall, showing each country, province, and state their patients have come from. Beside it is a thank-you painting, whose butterflies, on closer look, are actually fluttering vulvas. 

    The women talk. I don't. I'm still in a lot of pain. My surgery happened a few days ago, but I had some kind of reaction to the oxy and have only begun to leave bed. Other than that it was simple. They took the fleshy remains of my breasts and cut the excess before trimming down and re-attaching my nipples. They put stints on the nipples, drains in my ribs, and wrapped me up in a compression vest—an attractive foam pad held still by wide white elastic—to keep the pressure up on my chest. Not at all like what they're here to get. 

    Lisette wears a pentagram-covered quartz necklace. She has eyeliner and is current on all of the terms.  Annie isn't. Lisette can't resist. She says, “You wouldn't have known about me,” but Annie swears that she would. “It's the Adam's apple,” she says and taps on her own. “Can't hide that or the hands.” 

    Lisette's mother says she read an article about a girl who transitioned while very young and how she'd never have guessed. Annie says it's different when they catch it young, and I turn up the TV, which has something about a psychic. Everyone is off hormones—you have to be, for the surgery—and volatile. Hormone withdrawal brings mood-swings brings unwelcome sensations and smells. It's a betrayal, that bodies revert—though theirs won't anymore if all of the surgeries go well. 

    Annie is wind burnt, bottle blonde, and wearing pink slippers. She was a pilot. Like me, testosterone has squared her face out, which makes her insist she can't pass. Lisette, disagrees, says she's just middle-aged. Lisette, herself, is narrow and golden, hair pulled in a loose bun. Her mother, darker, petite, worries her hands. She wants my thoughts on the surgeon, but one of the nurses cuts in to announce dinner and help me get off the couch. I lock my elbows into my ribs and let her pull on my hands. With enough clench my stomach takes most of the pressure and my shoulders don't shift and then it isn't so bad. 

 

    Lasagna and salad. Everyone gets to the table, introduces themselves, I meet Lily, Marion, and Diana, and the usual questions ensue. When did you come out? How did you know? Was it hard? Was there loss? Your job, your parents, your friends?

    “I, for one, think it's amazing you flew out here for her,” Lily says to Lisette's mother. To Diana, “Can you imagine our parents doing that? I would have killed,” and Diana, whose parents are dead, doesn't answer. Marion has a girlfriend who wanted to come, but whose flight was delayed. Annie's children don't know she's here because they've got enough on their plates. Cecily serves herself, picks at the lettuce, and throws the rest out when her boyfriend returns with a shake. 

    Lily says, “I can't believe it's going to happen. Two years on the Medicare waitlist—I thought about flying to Thailand, but--” she shrugs. Marion blames rich Americans cutting in line. “That's why the wait is so long for our insurance.” To me, “No offense.” Cecily, opening a fashion magazine at the table, says, “Supply and demand.” 

    “If Americans cared--” Marion starts, but Cecily tells her amant that it's time they looked at the room. The pairs leaves and Marion says, “They could fix their own bloody system before mucking up everyone else's.”

    My stomach's still tight and the food seems plastic. Play food. I'm tired. I want to go to my room, but it's upstairs and the nurses are on break in the office. I try anyways, leaning forward with my elbows tucked in. I look like a raptor. There's snow blowing against the window. With a lot of effort, I manage three steps. 

    Lisette's eyes light up when she sees me, coming out into the hall. The expression gets to concerned pretty quickly and she runs up to support me in case I fall. My breath is heavy. It's kind of pathetic. Everyone else is at dinner. I ask her if it was the food or the company that was bad. 

    “Both.” She laughs. “Everyone's awful.”

    “What? You don't like Annie?”

    “Oh my god. She's my roommate. I hate everything.” Away from her mother, Lisette seems older—more self-possessed. “Do you want to just hang in my room?” she asks. “I'm around the corner, so, uh, no stairs.” 

    “Yeah,” I tell her, “Okay.” I'm still leaned up on the railing. “Not that I couldn't do it.” 

    She laughs, even though it wasn't funny, and wraps her arm around my shoulders in a way that brought us together more than it offered support. We hobble down the steps and into the hallway. I haven't showered in days. The rubber tubes hurt when they jostle and so does the fluid that comes out and sets in the drains. Twice a day I have to dump it, or a nurse does and marks off how much collected, and it stinks. 

    “Do you work out?” she asks. 

    “A little.” 

    “It looks like you do.”

    “Thank you.”

    “I mean, you have nice shoulders.”

    “Thanks.” 

    Her room looks exactly like my mine, with two beds stuck in a little bland room and a window, except for the luggage and the clutter all over the beds. I can tell right away which one is Annie's because it looks like a little girl's. Everything pink and purple. She brought her own bedspread. 

    Lisette's nightstand has an arrangement of crystals. I recognize the quartz and pyrite, but none of the rest. They're laid in a half circle around a big one, and behind are some tall candles in glass—missing the Mexican saints. On her bed she has a denim vest and a pile of Christian inspirational pamphlets. They're the ones people hand out at bus stops—all kinds. I see a Jehovah's Witness pseudo-science kind of textbook asking Cat Whiskers: Chance? Or Design? with insert captions and quotes. Then there's the fire and brimstone-type black and white comics, with pictures of hellfire, damnation, and an evangelical chick tract calling Halloween a satanic slap in the face. People hand me those, and I toss them, but she's got a whole dog-eared collection. She pushes them off of the bed. The vest is covered in patches. I know people like her. 

    Her mother is driving her crazy. She's treating her like a baby—as if she hadn't, you know, cut her off when she told her, tried to, like, starve her back into the closet, or settle for just being gay. “And now she keeps buying me things, you know? Like, retroactive guilt money. Like, I don't need a fucking, uh, Martha Stewart brand toaster or air purifier or shit. I live in a commune.”

    Lisette's sitting on the bed and I'm beside her and she's the same height sitting I am when I stand. I'm surprised she hasn't brought posters. I could see something political or explicit tacked up over the bed. 

    “It's, like, a half-squat group house in Vancouver, and I'm just like, how out of touch can you get?” She looks at me. “I'm sorry. That's boring.” 

    “It's fine.” 

    “Do you have parents?”

    I shrug. “Fuck 'em.” 

    “Right?”

    “If they don't like how I am—if they're not willing to help pay, then who the fuck cares?” There's more vehemence in that than I meant. It sounds bitter. “Not that I'm bitter,” I say. 

    She laughs again. “I like you.” She talks more about her relationship with her mother, lying back with arms crossed behind her head. I can't do that. I can't get up if I lie back again. I don't want to be stuck there. She keeps talking. I'm in so much pain. 

    “Are you nervous about the surgery?”

    “A little. It's worth it.” She touches the elastic wrapped over my back. “How long do you have to wear that?”

    “Just a couple more days.” 

    “Have you seen it?” 

    “Not yet.” 

    “Does it hurt?”

    “It's okay.” 

    “Can I see?”

    “Yeah. When they unwrap it.” 

    “You can see mine when it's done.”

    There's a knock and Lisette's mother opens the door. “Oh!” she says. “You've got company. I had no idea.” 

    Lisette says it's fine without getting up.

    “Okay, well, I'm heading out soon. Do you need anything? Are you sure? Alright then—well, you know where to find me.” To me she says, “I've got a room nearby at the little motel.” 

    “Bye, Mom.” 

    “Come give me a hug.” 

    Lisette groans. 

    “That's right, I'm just your mother.” 

    I didn't think they looked similar, when I first saw them, but it's starting to come together. Different colors, but they have the same hands, the same rounded face. They move their hands the same way. Her mother sees me watching. “She takes after her father. Took after.” She gasps and covers her mouth with both hands. It's a large gesture. “Was that offensive?” 

    “It's fine.” 

    “Are you sure?”

    “Yeah, mom. You can say that.” 

    “Really? Okay. You know I'm still learning. I'm just trying to make sure.” 

    

    América is the last arrival and she comes the next day. She's here for revision, so she's already got one, which sets her apart. She has to spend an hour dilating, because it's still fresh. She's doing that when I find her, lying splayed out and naked on the bed. 

    Not technically naked. She still has a dress, but it's pulled up to her shoulders and there's nothing beneath but the dilator, which is in her. I notice that she's still on the smallest of three. I'm not in her room, but the door's open. She didn't fully shut it and it's crept open, widening out of a crack. 

    In the main room they're watching Disney, but not really, an old princess film. They don't have a video player, so it's whatever is on the TV. A bunch of it is in French. Annie, Diana, Lisette, Marion, and Lily. Cecily went out to sneak a cigarette. It's against the rules for surgery, but the nurses will only scold her. She's not Canadian, so it's all out of pocket. They won't stop her. She doesn't care. 

    They're talking about sex. Also the surgery, but everyone's always talking about surgery, so that doesn't count. 

    Marion is fretting about her girlfriend because she wants to have sex one last time, the old way, before surgery, but her girlfriend won't come until later. The blizzard still has her delayed. She leans in, talking about it as though it's scandalous, the kinkiest thing you could do, and Annie takes the bait. She says, “I could never do it that way.”  

    Marion loves it. She pushes. “Why not? It's fun.” She has a dark A-line. She winks. 

    “Oh, no,” Annie says. “Never. I haven't even once since I realized.” 

    She lets that sink in. 

    “Wait,” Lisette says. “Nothing?”

    “Not for twenty-five years.” 

    The room is quiet. A princess, onscreen, gets her new gown. 

    “I can't wait for a pussy. Let me tell you. I've got it on my calendar. Six months and then we are going to have some good fun.” 

    Lisette is so horrified that she has to leave. “No sex,” she tells me. “How does she live? No sex at all.”  We pass América's room and she's still at it, stretched over her bed. I'm better today, walking better. América sees me looking. I ask if she wants me to shut it, but she says it doesn't matter. “Who's ashamed? I'm not.” 

    “Have you seen one?” she asks Lisette. 

    Lisette has seen pictures. 

    “Well, why are you waiting? Come in.” She has the middle sized dilator in. The other two are on the blanket, bright as legos, with lube. The big one's impressive. I tell her, I was born with a cunt and I still don't think that would fit. 

    América says everything's wonderful and Lisette shouldn't worry and the surgeon did a great job. She has a beautiful pussy. I see scars, but they're minimal, one on each labial lip. They look cosmetic. “Racing stripes,” I tell her, and we all laugh. “For speed.” 

    She goes up to the big one, the whole time very detached. Clinical, rote, tooth-brushing chores, in the beige and white hospice-care room. It's attractive. She has an accent. Is forty, perhaps forty-three. “Why that name?” I ask her, and she says it's because she has everything in her, North and South and all of the countries within. She comes from the Caribbean. 

    Lisette touches my arm. I look at her. We leave and go back to my room. I've still got the foam, but as soon as we're in, she tears at the rest of my clothes. I go for hers, lifting the shirt with my raptor arms, getting past the pointed young breasts. My pants are down in a pile of flannel. She kneels down and then bends a little further and puts my little cock in her mouth. She does that and then gets with me in the bed. I rub her long clit. It stays soft, but she rubs it along my junk some, pushing at the entrance, and then we give in. Nobody's going to climax. I could masturbate, but it's honestly not worth the pain. 

    We lie next to each other, not touching. “That's probably the last time...” she starts. I wait. “I can't believe Annie. How hard are pronouns? She was talking about Diana and kept using 'he,' and I'm like, 'You're trans. How can you not get this?' and then she was still saying 'he'!” 

    My incisions are pulsing. I can feel the heat coming off them, a sharp endless ache. 

    “She's driving me up the wall.” 

    I am only wearing the binder. I say, “She's older. She doesn't know.”

    “She should.” 

    “She's uptight.”

    “Because she hasn't been fucked in my lifetime.” She is daring me to answer. She arches her brow. 

    I tell her I need a nap and she obviously isn't impressed, but she can't say anything because we're all here for surgery, so you have to be considerate of all the failings, of the hygiene slips and the shuffling, to keep the awareness from working both ways. If she can convince herself that I don't look geriatric and wretched, that I'm attractive post-surgery, the gauze will also shield her. 

    I can't sleep when she leaves, but do arrange myself on the cushions so I'm propped up and reclining, because that's the most comfortable way. I can't take the painkillers after my bad reaction, so I'm just stuck here breathing, feeling my lungs stretch and pull on the stitches and trying to manage that pain. 

    Nothing that happens here matters. It'll collapse into a sentence—that time I went to Canada for my surgery—and all the patients and nurses and hospice-stuff will disappear. If I had a family, I'd let them coddle me, fetch pillows, get water, basically make me an infant. They should be here, but they aren't. The Canadians don't realize how lucky they are to have their surgeries paid by insurance. Lisette doesn't know. 

    Eventually I must have drifted off, because I wake to the pipes starting up. All the ladies have to shave their lower halves, under threat of the nurses re-scraping if they do a bad job. They take up all of the bathrooms for hours, trading off one-by-one. 

 

    At the hospital, they're assigned different rooms. Now Lisette and Marion are together, Cecily bunks with Diana, Lily and Annie are together, while América and I stay in hospice. She transfers tomorrow. It stopped snowing and the sky shone, darkening, as we crossed the grey car-splattered slush into the building next door. Here was the hospital, everything medical, none of hospice's careful touches, it's sterile-informal décor. 

    Lisette and Marion like the same music. They play witchhouse off of a laptop on the faux-wood meal tray. There are different nurses giving different orders to different women (in the same accents) on how to prepare. It's a night here, surgery all day tomorrow, then two days of recovery before returning to hospice for more care. 

    There is no common space—just the lobby—and no internet or TV. The women are restless, opening and closing books, journals; wandering into new rooms. I look out the window. There's a street, the snow, and the streetlights. Lisette and Marion get up and sit down. Even Cecily comes, wearing a satin kimono over the hospital gown. Her boyfriend follows, moon-eyed and silent. They're too restless for conversation. I don't stay long. 

 

    Lisette's mother is already here when I come the next morning. They haven't started. The nurses are eating bagels and I see the surgeon walking with his assistant, snapping his blue rubber gloves. A nurse comes out with a schedule and when Annie is first, not her daughter, Lisette's mother leaves. 

    It's early. I'm tired, but don't want to miss anything. There's some excitement as Annie gets strapped to the gurney, but then they take her and the lobby goes quiet. I look at a French magazine. It takes two hours. 

    She comes out in her blue gown on the gurney, hooked to a few tubes, looking ecstatic. Also, exhausted and drugged. They used a local anesthesia, so she was conscious, sometimes, and says it was worth it. She is so happy. They did it. She did it. It's done. 

    They roll her out. 

    Next up is Lily, then Marion, then Lisette, then Cecily, and finally Diana goes last. Twelve hours of surgery. I don't know how they do it, the doctors, or why it has to be in a day. I wonder if they're drug addicts, or how else they stay awake and in shape. 

    Most of the women are sleeping. Lily's gown wants to open, and, while adjusting, she starts to cry. “Don't mind me,” she says. “It's nothing.” A nurse hands her a tissue. “I'm just nervous. I'm fine.” They wheel her away and another nurse asks me to follow her into the examining room for a checkup. I'm wearing the binder under an open flannel, which she carefully tugs back and over my arms. Beneath that are jeans—I was sick of pajamas—but those are left alone. She opens the binder and the pressure lets up from my ribs. 

    I can finally see what they've done. 

    The cuts go across my whole chest. Red raw lines held together with a yellowing plastic thread, and curved up at the sides. She holds up a mirror. I see wrinkles where the seam pulled my skin in. “Good, yes?” The nurse traces the line, showing me how the incision both sits under and helps to define my pecs. “Soon, you don't even see.” 

    My drain tubes go into the corners, and the cuts around them look open, like the stitching might come undone. It is so red underneath. And tender. Now it's exposed, my chest feels tender and young. 

    She has to remove the drains. I lift my left arm as high as I can while the snips the threading around the first tube. She pulls. It hurts more. Three slippery inches of plastic leave me, and I'm in a bit of shock, seeing how far in they had gone. She does the other side before I've really processed the first, and it hurts, but I feel so much better when it's all done. 

    I have a new chest. There is no extra. There are no tubes. There are no breasts. 

    I haven't had a chest like this since I was eleven, and then it all went to hell. I mean, I put up with it—thought, I don't like it, but I can deal. But now I am so much lighter. Happier, in an indescribable way. 

    I want to see how my shirt fits, buttoned, without the binder—I'd like to never wear a binder again. No more velcro or bras or getting too hot in the summer or checking, re-checking, the mirror to see if it actually is hiding my breasts. 

    But, of course, I have to wait while everything's raw. The nurse puts the foam back over my chest and seals the white velcro tight enough that I feel the pressure with every small breath. 

    At least I know what it looks like. That's good. I'm kind of winded. Sweaty. I smell like a man. The nurse leaves and I sit there for a while, thinking that it was all worth it, that I'd do every part over again. My body is already healing, trying to close up those holes. It makes me so tired. I need a minute.  Marion's under the scalpel when I come out. 

    Lisette and her mother are in the lobby. Her mother has takeout coffee and a memoir. She has the book open, but isn't reading. She's watching Lisette apply makeup, and asking if that's really necessary for a medical procedure. She seems worried that it will increase the chances that she might infect. “Besides,” she says, “it's a little bit much, don't you think?”

    Lisette has her eyes done up like an Ancient Egyptian portrait, with the black line over her eyelid that spikes up off to the side. She has sparkling wine-colored eyeshadow that matches her lips, and the effect is very high art. 

    “It's, well--” she drops her voice. “It's not womanly.

    “Mom!”

    “It just—I don't know, you've worked so hard to look like a—well, to look like yourself and I don't want people to think you're, you know, a, well, like a drag queen.” Lisette doesn't answer. She's darkening her eyebrows. “I don't want you being misunderstood.” 

    Diana comes out and asks the reception desk nurse if she can re-check the schedule. The nurse tells her nothing has changed. 

    “I'm a mom,” Lisette's mother says. “I want mom things.” 

    Diana takes the paper schedule. “For my peace of mind. Just to see.” 

    There are more nurses heading back and forth through the lobby, holding objects and clipboards, telling things to each other in French. 

    “Look, she's not wearing makeup,” Lisette's mother says of Diana. 

    Her daughter snaps the compact. “This is my armor. I'll do it my way.” 

    “Its just that it makes people think you have something to prove.” 

    Diana's listening, pretending to look at the schedule. She moves her lips like she might say something. She looks pained. 

    I tell Lisette she looks great. 

    “Really?”

    “Yeah. And I just got my drains out and saw my chest and--” I stop because she's turned back to her mother. Lisette says, “Drop it already, okay?”

    Her mother frowns and goes back to the memoir. Her coffee lid's covered in tooth marks. She bites the lid as she drinks. Diana returns the schedule. I sit in the chair nearest me. There is an uncomfortable, avoidant silence, until Diana's attention is caught and she points behind me and claps. “Will you look at that?”

    I try twisting around. Slow going. There is, as always, the pain. 

    “I can't believe that you're up!” 

    Annie walks into the center, shuffling in her gown and pink slippers, hooked to a rolling IV. She looks fine. A little bit tired, but not like she's had a big surgery. I thought she'd be out for a while, given her age, but nothing seems to phase her ex-military endurance, or healthful orange suntan. Diana asks if she should be walking and Annie waves off the concern. “I'm doing just fine—hurts less than when I lie down.” 

    Her slippers are the cheap fuzzy kind that are soft and then quickly matted—dirty and stiff, but hers still have the new tag. She asks what she missed while she's out. 

    Diana tells that Lily and Marion have both gone. “And Marion's should be almost done.”

    “Very good,” Annie nods. “And I see we've kept our young man.” She winks, dramatically, at Lisette. “He wants to keep an eye on you, doesn't he?”

    Lisette looks away. I say that I came for a checkup. Time to take out the drains.

    “Well, that's wonderful. I mean it: you boys are lucky. The hormones do everything. Next they can make you a willie and then no one will every be able to tell. I've still got a while. I'm thinking about those facial feminization surgeries. I'd like to shave my jaw down.”

    I don't want another surgery. Maybe a hysterectomy, someday, if I get cancer or if it stops working—because I've heard testosterone does that, makes your uterus sick—but I'm not getting a dick.  Annie tells me I'll change my mind. Lisette tells her I know myself best. I say that even if I wanted one, I couldn't afford it. Forty-five thousand dollars. That's what it costs for a dick.  

    Diana says that's positively barbaric. “Your country makes you pay the whole way, doesn't it? I keep forgetting you're from the US.” She asks how I paid for my chest and I tell her I put it all on a card and she tells me it's awful that I'd have to do that—the interest, the credit, and I tell her it wasn't my card. 

    “Come again?”

    This is a long story. There is a compressed version in which I do not talk to my parents, but they talk to my brother, and I visit my brother, and help myself to the emergency credit card that they gave him, because, I think, I'm family. It's a medical family expense. “I mean,” I tell them, “It's not like they can't afford it.”

    Annie, Lisette, her mother, and Diana are all looking at me. “They should have paid in the first place,” I say. 

    Lisette's mother closes her book. “That's awful.” 

    I start saying it isn't so bad, but-- 

    “How could you do that to them?” She leans forward in her chair. “They're your parents. You can't cut them out of your life and expect—that is just so selfish,” she says. 

    Lisette says, “Maybe he didn't cut them out, Mom, did you think about that?”

    “Lisette, I do not like that tone.” 

    “Maybe cutting your kids off is fucked up and oppressive and maybe he's doing his best to survive.” 

    “Lisette, I am sorry if I wasn't perfect, but I am doing everything I can to support you. This isn't easy for me.” She pauses. “It isn't easy to wake up one day and find out that everything you did as parent—even though you did your best—that it was all wrong and your ideas have been wrecked.” She's someone who cries when they're mad. “I thought I did the right thing.” 

    “Well, you didn't.” Lisette says. “I'm taking a walk”

    The nurse says she has to stay in. Marion is nearly finished and Lisette must put on her gown. She leaves. Her mother doesn't. She's still tearing up. Diana pats her shoulder. “I wanted grandchildren. Is that so mundane? She's showing me all these articles and theory and I just had this vision,” her voice broke, “of going to his wedding and holding my grandson.” She wipes her eyes. “No, thank you, I'm fine. It's all fine. I'm here aren't I?” She smiles. Her face still looks tight. “I need a cigarette.”

 

    Lisette's mother bundles up into her winter coat and snow boots and takes a breather. Lisette enters surgery. Marion sleeps. Lisette comes out. Cecily's awake enough, after her surgery, to tell her amant to shut off the camera. Diana goes last. It's so late. Marion's girlfriend finally arrives and they spend a long time kissing, the girlfriend's long hair functioning as a curtain to shield them from view. 

    Most of them are bedridden, save Annie, who glides around with her IV. They all have plastic bracelets. They all have blue blankets, blue gowns, and white sheets. Lisette has lost her makeup; they wiped it off in surgery. She doesn't notice. She sleeps. 

    Her mother isn't talking to me. I think, Nobody cares about me. Melodramatic. That's wrong. I'm off hormones, my feeling are going all over. It's like PMS, with the estrogen spiking, but worse. At least I still have my chest. In a few days I'll leave and it'll be over. I don't need a family. I stopped talking to them when my parents refused to switch pronouns. Nobody cares about me. 

     América checks in as I leave. Her revision will be easy. She'll go home the next day. I put on my coat, slowly, alone and slip on my boots. Today it didn't snow, and the ground has mottled, pocked with footsteps and grime and more slush. It's dark out. The nearest streetlight is dim, yellowing in a way that suggests the bulb is in its last days. 

    The hospital seems unnaturally bright. I can see into each window, illuminated by white fluorescents, and doubt that they can see me. Lisette and Marion are both in their beds, Lisette's being the one by the window. Her mother sits on the sill. I can see her back, the heather cardigan and slacks riding low, and I can see her hand on Lisette's sleeping forehead. Her purse is on the sill, as well as the open memoir. 

    I have my chest, I think. And I don't have to be jealous. I'm older than Lisette by a couple of years. I don't need to be coddled. 

 

    It's hard for most of them the next day. Hard to eat, hard to sleep, painkillers. América's surgery is done before I arrive, and she feels okay, but the rest are nauseous or hurting or both, and irritated at the mixture. Annie still can't settle down and goes from room to room, checking on the patients. The others don't get up for anything but the bathroom. The nurses are more obtrusive than before, checking-in and handing out pills. Cecily complains that the nurses are too brusque, too medically efficient. She had a breast job in the States, and was the only patient that day, bathed in the entire staff's solicitous attentions. 

    Of course, that was a plastic surgeon, Diana points out, with something to sell, not a state-run medical doctor. I have to agree. They act like the nurses I'm used to seeing at my stateside community clinic—efficient people taking care of a medical necessity—not selling something cosmetic. 

    Cecily isn't convinced. She sends her (notably handsome) young man into Montreal for a few odds and ends she is missing. He has hinted that Cecily works in LA, doing something glamorous and important. 

    Diana, by contrast, does not. She has her career in preschool. She's also managing fairly well, the only one to have eaten her whole lunch of bread and soup and jello. 

    I'm also better. I slept the whole night, without breaks, and this morning I took my first shower. There are only two more days with the compression vest and, after that, I'm done with binders forever. It feels like I could lift my arms over my head, but try not to get that excited. 

    Lisette is in a terrible mood, trapped and fighting nausea. She has an eighties cult television show on her laptop, which she half-watches while flipping through Christian pamphlets. She has a thin blonde beard dusting her lower features. There is nothing unfeminine about this. Her face is soft, softer, even, with the hair and it took me a moment to realize what was different, to remember that most women don't grow facial hair. 

    I can't move my shoulders enough to shave and have grown my own patchy beard. The effect is not the same, especially with my (diminishing) acne. Trans women, on the whole, get better skin on hormones. Trans men tend to the other direction. 

    Lisette disagrees about hair. She wants to know if the nurses will shave her. I tell her I'll ask, but she doesn't want me to leave. Her mother's in town and Marion is still kissing her girlfriend. She says, “I'm sorry I'm such a brat.” 

    We watch her computer. She holds her bladder in for an entire half-season, but then a nurse has to help her out with the catheter. I stay with Marion, whose girlfriend went to forage. She asks if I want to see something. 

    “What?”

    She arches her brows. “You know.” 

    “Okay.” 

    She hands me her cell phone and I look at the picture. “I had a big one, didn't I?” she says. “It's gone now, so I don't have any shame.” 

    Annie rolls in and wants to know what we're seeing. Marion switches the picture. “Cats,” she says. “Isn't that a cute little cat?” 

    Annie oohs over it. What a sweet little kitten. Is it Marion's? It is. She and her girlfriend adopted him over Christmas. “Oh, a boy cat,” Annie says. “I always think about them as girls—though I suppose they do have the whiskers.” She tells us a story about electrolysis, how that was the first thing she got done, even before starting hormones. She's surprised Lisette hasn't had her hair removed yet. “He's never going to pass with that stubble.” 

    Marion says, “She.”

    I say, “She passes.” 

    Annie assures me I'm wrong. 

    “Does it even matter?” I ask. Annie thinks that it does. Lisette overhears, coming back, and tells Annie she's going to grow a big bushy beard. “Like a lumberjack woman,” she says, and Marion laughs. She thinks that's a wonderful joke. 

    

    

Synthia's Stew

The mine is a massive, red-dirt gash in the prairie where dwarfed trucks zip up and down the corkscrew roads inside the wound. They circle down into the crater; then they circle up and out onto the lip at speeds just under reckless, chased by billowing red dust clouds to meet the snaking coal train.  Time is moneythe more coal you move, the more likely the job will last all year.  

    All this dusty activity lives under the immense Wyoming sky.  On sunny days, its blue radiates and hurts the eyes.  Often, the infamous wind shreds the white clouds into filmy webs that blow across the mine's ceiling to collect as pillows, mounded against the mountains to the south.  Sitting just beyond the coal train is the three-stoplight town of Synthia, sometimes called “Little Sin City” by bored locals. Most of the activity in Synthia doesn’t qualify as true “sin” except for a lot of gossip and fantasy picked up at the barber and beauty shop, Dela’s Donuts, and the benches in front of the hardware store.   

In 1972 the fringe of town supports the builders and movers of Synthia with warehouse-looking structures and a thriving trucking and construction business.  The castle on this fringe is a circa-1940’s lemon-yellow motel with a broken lime-green sign.  The sign welcomes travelers with a faded, cartoon family of four—all smiling with large, garish white teeth, now pitted from windborne dirt and gravel.  This motel, LaFamilia, is the mecca for souls moving through Synthia.  An interchange off the interstate, three miles down a two-way paved highway, ensures a small but steady influx of these floating souls. And these floating souls are sometimes as stuck as the well-paid permanent residents because of the strip mine’s job availability, compounded by the miles of surrounding emptiness with no jobs.  Thus, a stew of unstable humanity forms, personalities mingling, then stirred in with the lumpy gravy of crises and survival—and whatever exists beyond survival. 

Chapter 1

I was a thin and nervous fellow. I looked like a skeleton with an empty cavern growing inside me.  My parents and their immigrant friends all force fed me their dreams. No wonder I threw up a lot. When I left Philadelphia at 21 years old, I looked pretty grim. My hands shook as I packed that duffel bag with warm clothing and one western novel I had hidden from my father’s policing: one by Louis L’Amour, Riders of the Purple Sage.  I cashed a scholarship check from the University of Pennsylvania for $3,500 and withdrew my own savings, money my father had earmarked to help me study at Oxford. 

Instead of Oxford, I boarded a bus to Denver, Colorado.  Why did I head west? My parents had escaped to the West back in the early 1950’s, away from the mental prison of Russia’s brand of communism, but they carried part of that prison with them. I’m outrunning their prison! They can’t imagine who I am now, and what I’m doing in southcentral Wyoming.

Once on the streets in Denver, I bought a 10-year-old Jeep from a used car lot a few blocks from the bus station.  The car salesman, Big Ralphy, an ex-high school English teacher, shared the most delicious beef and bean burrito I had ever eaten.  Actually, it was the first burrito I had ever eaten.  In fact the act of eating had never felt so exhilarating before. Ralphy didn’t pry into my business, but he picked up my vibes—a young guy in flight.  He told me about Synthia.  “An intelligent, young guy like you, with such a big frame, shouldn’t have trouble finding work in the mine.  The pay’s good.  The work is consuming enough you won’t be bored for too long.  You often work outside but usually in the comfort of some piece of machinery’s cab with a view of a wide-open and interesting landscape.  I took a break from college my senior year in that mine. I still know some of the people in management.  I’ll give them a call in a few days.  Man, I couldn’t wait to go back to school after about a year and a half though! Which was a good thing. I got my head together at that mine, I guess.” I still remember Ralphy’s big round belly hanging over his nicely pleated, twill pants.  The belly shook as he laughed. Santa Clause as a used car salesman is how I think of him.  He gave me a very important gift—free of charge—an idea for an identity—a new joy for food and working at the mine.

While Ralphy prepared my bill of sale on the Jeep, I looked around his haphazard office furnished with two small metal school desks.  That made me smile.  The metal joints supporting the writing tops were wrapped in duct tape. Ralphy wasn’t a craftsman.  Many dog-eared, yellow legal-pad pages, scratched with lines and lines of handwritten notes in blue ink were piled on these two shoe-box-sized surfaces.  Big Ralphy followed my gaze—“My novel—in between sales I work on it.  I’ve gotten quite a bit done lately.”  He grinned, a bit of bean bobbing on his chin as he spoke.  Then I started to chuckle. His eyes were twinkling at me, and his chin with bean on it stretched out because of the big grin above it.  And he had the greatest dimple in that chin! The few chuckles grew into gut-rolling laughter. I laughed hard—the kind of laugh that takes your breath away and makes you tear up. I couldn’t remember the last time I laughed so hard! Laughter is contagious, so we both stood there, bending over, legs weakening, as wave after wave of laughter forced us to sit the floor and lean back, our arms propping us up. When the wave had quieted for a moment, he grinned, and I’d be off on another wave, wiping my eyes as I laughed. I made him choke on his last bite of burrito, which started the laughter again.  I had never enjoyed an eating companion as much as Big Ralphy. His last words to me were, “Good luck! I have a good feeling about you! You will be fine as long as you can laugh like this! Here, take the rest of these tortilla chips with you. I don’t need ‘um.”  He rubbed his own belly lovingly. “I’ll eat um if they’re here.”

I drove north, up into the dry, snow-encrusted plain of southeastern Wyoming and found The Ranger, a cheap motel, in LaMere. My room was compact, carpeted in bright orange shag with a narrow stove and tiny refrigerator crammed into one side of a closet.  The short blonde lady who showed me the room apologized for the carpet—a remnant of a color that didn’t sell from the local furniture store.  I didn’t care. The bar, which was attached to the motel lobby, used a thick, scratched and initialed chunk of hardwood, heavily varnished, as the serving bar with a wild collection of second-hand bar stools set down the eight-foot length.  At about 4:30 many LaMere locals showed up after work.  My first night was a Friday.  I shared beers and even smoked my first joint with some construction workers who were staying at the motel and remodeling the old A & W Drive-In down the street.  The next day the wind blew so hard on that interstate, my Jeep could barely maintain 50 miles per hour, creeping slowly towards the exit to Synthia.  I had the gas pedal floored most of the way.

I found Synthia and pulled into the LaFamilia Motel (Ralphy’s advice for a home).  Also per Ralphy’s observations, the wind stopped here, and the air was strangely still. The sun showed in rays through the rocky ridges around Synthia, and one ray lit up the air like a golden beacon aimed at the lobby’s big front glass window.  Per Ralphy, this was a common occurrence in Synthia.  I took that as a good omen.

My parents would be blown apart to know I am part of the “American blue-collar working class,” punching a time clock and working many odd and some long shifts.  As time passed, the mine and Synthia have become my own personal peep show into real human emotions and experiences. The work can be physically draining, but at the end of the day, I feel alive and satisfied.  My fellow miners are mostly Mexican or descended from Basque sheepherders from Spain, and Italian immigrants with great passions mixed with violence, love, hate, and a brand of courage I’ve never experienced before—to just live life moment-by-moment, day-by-day, expecting nothing more than what happens in those moments and days.  I want to stop analyzing everything and setting lofty goals while putting too much value on looking for hidden motivations. I want to accept what life throws at me—just accept and go on—doing what I must moment-by-moment.

I haven’t read an academic book in a year, but I’ve read my cookbooks and practice my cooking skills. I’ve created my own recipes, trying them out on my co-workers or others living at LaFamilia. I love doing—using my hands, shoulders, and back compared to thinking myself into my old “iron fist” that clenched away my days in Philly.  Now the open, lonely prairie and southern Snowy Range Mountains allow me to breathe deeply and fully. I move more slowly and concentrate on what is around me, step out long and use my legs and hips to really walk the ridges around The Rosebud Mine and Synthia.  I don’t concentrate on my inner self, or rush around like a neurotic squirrel—huffing and puffing, shallow and furious—afraid of the clock ticking away at the expectations of others. I’ve killed all expectations by others and myself, other than to work the dirt, feel the Wyoming sun and wind, watch the landscapes change, and cook what I want.

 

[

Chapter 2

 

     Martín Rojas raised his hand and ducked his head to avoid his wife’s tirade.  She yelled at him from the door of their boxy, turquoise-plastered home.  His airborne hand clutched a grocery list on a torn piece of graph paper.  "Yeah, yeah . . . alright, I heard ya.  Jesus Christ,” he mumbled as he escaped into his immaculate 1963 Chevy Impala.  It smelled of Armour-All and loving care.  “Why in the hell can't Lena do all this errand stuff?"  Martín puffed air from his cheeks and answered himself with a growl.  "Because she's too busy running around on her Harley trying to be a macho woman." As he turned the ignition, he envisioned his daughter for a moment—her wide, searching chocolate eyes, black hair swinging playfully in a long, thick braid.  Oh, Lena, you were such a pretty benita - - when you were little.  What happened?  Those eyes . . . now you always walk away.  No one can talk to you. You think we're all full of bullshit.  Even as a kid, you always watched everyone.  Now those eyes make everyone nervous.  

He scowled and peeled out, spraying just a bit of gravel as he entered the street—just a bit.  A smirk grew on his face under his well-groomed mustache when his wife glowered at him from the open screen door.  Martín answered her with his thoughts: A man's got to have some fun, damnit.

     He drove the four blocks to downtown Synthia in a slow, relaxed manner, resting his arm out the window and waved with a cool aloofness by lifting of four fingers a few inches at the three Mondragon boys as they unloaded the grocery truck outside the pink plastered store. The building was newly painted, a radiating Pepto Bismol shade.  "Ummm, decent paint job," Martín spoke to his steering wheel.  He could feel Rodney Mondragon's envious stare as he pulled up in front of his barber shop.  "Nice wheels, I know, I know," he said as he patted the door.  Now Martín was in good spirits.  He left the rumpled grocery list face down on the floor of the Chevy.

     The barber shop already had three elderly men waiting in line, reading papers and listening to the Spanish station out of Denver.  Martín's part-time barber-in-training, Julio, was taking a phone call and signaled to Martín with a pencil that he dug into his ear and then stuck in his mouth.  Martín grimaced and watched his clients.  They were too busy reading to notice.  Martín became "Martín the Barber," motioning to the eldest man with the right amount of deference—not too eager, not too talkative.  The elderly man had a prosthesis and a cane.  Martín placed the stiff appendage on a stuffed stool he pulled out for Mr. Chavez's regular shaves.  Many of the first- and second-generation miners were disabled from earlier experiences in underground mines and stopped by at least three times a week for shaves before they wandered over to Dela's Doughnut Shop and then to the porch of the hardware and feed store.  Martín believed the shaves gave the ex-miners their dignity for the day, sometimes the only pride they would feel all week.  Pride was essential to the mining men of Synthia, even if it was externally obtained.  Martín had seen many women and men take pride in their appearance, homes, cars, and clothing only to have that confidence leak into their soul. That leaking process, however, sometimes took years and years. 

     "Mr. Chavez, you been to the new senior center yet?"

     "Nah, too many fat, bossy widows.  I go to the VFW or Blue's."  

    Martín nodded.  "Julio, who'd you just sign in?"

     "A weird-sounding lady."  Julio brought over the appointment book.

     "What?  A woman?  What?"  Martin grabbed the book.  C. Rub-i-nov?  "What is the C for?  You sure it’s a woman?"

     "I know a woman's voice when I hear one, especially with THAT kind of accent Russian.  Kinda like a sexy, James Bond-type—you know, low and husky."  Julio lowered his own voice to imitate, but the words ended in a strange adolescent squeak, a bear growl rising to a girlish soprano in one syllable.  He blushed and walked away.

Martín cocked his head and studied Mr. Chavez's lathered face in the mirror.  The old man’s charcoal eyes smoldered.  Two bits ol' Mr. Chavez will walk by here later to see this mystery lady.  It's good, gives these old fellas something to imagine for a change.  "Did you guys see that last play Ben Morales made Friday night?  Encampment will be an easy win next week."  Animated conversation in broken Spanish filled the rest of the morning as they argued the merits and demerits of the high-school football team, which led to a discussion about who they’d seen entering the shapely new female principal's office after 5 p.m.  There were too many delicious fantasies and possible partners to settle on one.

Martín sighed to himself.  He hadn't envisioned his wife as desirable in a long time.  All he could see was the disappointment in her eyes, the pouty mouth that expressed a resentfulness in dark whispers, aimed at herself more than anyone.  Martín couldn’t help anyone who wouldn’t openly divulge their troubles.  The new principal wasn't his type anyway, and he wasn't a man to stray, at least not yet.

     At 1:00 p.m. sharp, the shop doorbells jingled, announcing C. Rubinov.  She was a striking figure for a middle-aged woman:  lean, long-legged in new jeans and shiny black cowboy boots with exotic, high cheek bones, and a startling, direct stare full of intelligence and confidence.  Her posture was unusual, a straight back and a long neck that slightly arched backwards, not haughty, but as if her head and shoulders lifted her entire body off the ground.  She stepped lightly, as if on her own pocket of air.  Julio stared enraptured, open mouthed, his book bag in hand.  Then he fell over the doorjamb, leaving for his high-school classes.  Martín nodded politely, rolling his eyes at Julio's clumsy exit.  

     "Mrs. Rubinov?  Would you like to sit down?"  He motioned almost too stiffly to the middle chair.  She floated to the chair and folded herself into it like a cat.  In the mirror, Martin’s eyes followed her long neck up to her smooth forehead and a bright, paisley scarf, wrapped turban-style around her head.  "What can I do for you today?"

     She spoke in a throaty voice, almost masculine.  "You may call me Celeste, 

 Mr. . . ."

     "Rojas, please call me Martín."

     "Accent on the last syllable, pronounced Mar-t-e-e-n?  Interesting.  I'm meeting so many different people in this state of Wyoming, so many friendly people open to meeting strangers—refreshing and without suspicion--like your air and skies.  I've been living in Philadelphia for the last seven years, so cloudy and close most of the timesuffocationlike St. Petersburg, at home.  My lips are very dry, though."  She squeezed them together.  Her mouth was relaxed and the lines around it suggested she smiled often.  Martín studied her eyes in his shop mirror; they also registered a sadness and fatigue.

     "Not a friendly climate for bare skin.  Can I remove your scarf?  I'm surprised you came to me instead of the beauty shop down the street."

     She laughed, a hoarse chuckle.  Martín assumed it was fatigue.

     "I should prepare you before you remove my scarf, Mr. Rojas.  You see, I have very little hair, and I don't enjoy women's pity when I must have a trim.  They seem so alarmed that I feel uncomfortable.  Barbers are comfortable with placing their hands on a bare head without comment.  Also, if you wouldn't mind, I know barbers are trained to do scalp massages, and I would so enjoy one."

    Martín swallowed and took a deep breath.  He gave scalp massages to a few of his hairless clients, often under the guise of increasing the blood circulation to strengthen whatever hair they had left.  A massage was relaxing.  But a woman?  I could say no . . . but I’ve never turned down a client in my life, not even the drunk ones.  Celeste was staring at Martín in the mirror, expectantly.  She didn’t smile or look nervous; she challenged him with her striking gray eyes.  Those eyes were the color of boiling rain clouds, heavy with suppressiondamned up.  Martín gently unwrapped Celeste’s turban, trying too hard to keep from touching her head.  He paused to study her creamy scalp, not perfectly round by any means, but a pleasant, almost symmetrical oval shape with patches of tiny swirling red hairs.  There were also a few sections of longer wisps. Martín snipped the ends with small trim-scissors in quick staccato sounds. The wisps curved nicely around Celeste’s skull, which he lightly smoothed with his palm—a first touch. He was gaining confidence and noted in the mirror how some patches of red hair stood out and others laid down. He snipped the patches to give Celeste’s head symmetry and balance, which gave him another opportunity to use both palms to smooth the s patches of hair on each side of her head. With a careful pressure, he felt her cool scalp under his warm palms.  His eyes narrowed with effort, noticing her lean thighs and torso below him. He tried to imagine he was touching a newborn baby’s head to keep his own pulse under control.  Then he rotated his palms on her head, slowly, with imperceptible motions at first, his palms warming the bare skin.  He began to regain his focus, and he increased the rotation.  

    His confidence grew as he glanced at the mirror in front of them, noting her eyelids were half closed, her lips slightly upturned showing an inward smile that signaled to Martín she was lost in her own thoughts.  This also pleased Martín; he knew his skills were much more than flipping, clipping and shaving hair. After a few larger rotations, gently kneading the taut, pale and vulnerable skin, warming, touching, rubbing her scalp, he cupped his muscular hands and increased the pressure, letting each of his fingertips individually massage her individually. They spoke very little, but the silence was comfortable.  In fact, Martín found himself lost in concentration. The minutes went by too quickly.      

His peripheral vision was keen, and sure enough, his front window received an unusual amount of local foot traffic. He trimmed the longer swags of auburn hair that wrapped around her head.  Then he found himself irritated that others were entering the shop.  Celeste Rubinov never mentioned her business in town.  Martín held a strong belief that a barber, much like a bartender, was there to listen, not to ask questions.  

    The background murmur of two new clients interrupted Celeste’s relaxed state.  Her eyes opened slowly, and she surveyed the pair of older gentlemen entering the door.  “Mr. Rojas, I enjoyed that,” she whispered.  Martín allowed his hands to slide down her long neck, releasing his pressure as he went.  He nodded, unable to speak.  They shared a brief, knowing stare in the mirror.  Celeste rewrapped her head in her turban, checked the clasps on her gold hoop earrings, and lifted her slender figure up onto her walking cloud.  She parted the pair of coughing, mangled older men as she walked to the cash register. 

    Martín looked at Mr. Chavez and his partner-in-nosiness, the severely stooped Tito Boretta.  Both were gray and shrunken, and they smiled too brightly at Celeste and Martín.  

    “What do you need?” Martin snapped.  They both shrugged, their ludicrous grins widening.  Tito’s voice stammered as his eyes nervously shifted between Martin and Celeste, grazing Celeste’s body.  He’s out of practice, too obvious, Martin noted, sadly.

    “Oh, we jus’ wanted to check if you could shave us next Tuesday.”

    “Of course, I always shave you on Tuesday,” Martin snapped.  C’mon man. Respect for your elders.  “Of course.  I’ll make the appointment.”  His nod was steeped in cultural meaning.

    “Very good,” Tito clipped.  His Italian accent flowed heavily over the words.  Martín knew he had saved their dignity, and they appreciated it.  Both gentlemen always paid for their shaves in cash, on the spot; no tabs or credit clouded their interactions.  The two shuffled out the door.  They put their heads together once they were standing on the curb in deep conjecture. 

     Celeste paid her bill and asked directions to the Best Western Motel near the interstate.  Martín told her it was the nicest place in town.  The only other motel was the La Familia, owned by an ex-barmaid inclined to forget maid service.  Then Celeste asked a strange question.

     "Who stays at this La Family motel?"

     "LaFamilia? Well, usually miners that don't want to live in the company trailers, or some ranch and construction workers.  They rent by the month, I guess."  Martín frowned at the prospect of this fine woman staying with Belinda Martel, one of the local drunks.

     "Don't worry Mr. Rojas.  I'm not staying there."

     "Come back again, Mrs. Rubinov."

     She sighed warily.  “I might need another massage soon.  I'll call you.”

     As Martín watched Celeste rise and walk from the chair towards the cash register, a memory of his youth in Mexico City flashed in his mind. He had been struggling to learn a complicated Latin dance from a group of professional dancers at the University.  Martín could only afford one year of school.  When his father died, he and his mother left for the U.S.  Yes, Celeste moved like those dancers, walking on air with their chests, shoulders, and heads high, long necks stretching for the sky.  It had been years since he had thought of that time in his life.  

     "Mr. Rojas, are you here, here in this moment?"  Celeste laughed again, that deep hoarse laugh, as if she knew where he was.

     "I'm sorry, Mrs. Rubinov.  I . . . I guess I drifted off."

     "Very good!"  She paid her bill and left the shop.

     "What a weird thing to say, to drift off is very good."  Martín felt odd, out of touch for a while, as if visited by an uncomfortable spirit.  He slipped back into his half-trance for a moment, remembering a particular dance step he had perfected at the University.  Involuntarily, his heel raised and hit the floor with a snap, and his head jerked back in as his heels hit the floor.  He stiffened and let his heels drum the floor, like a drum roll.  Then he stopped when an astonished male face smirked at him from outside the window.  He quickly turned his back to the window.

    "Agh, you dumb shit, pendajo!"  Martín finished his cleaning and closing chores in irritation, locked the door with an angry twist and went homeonly to go back to the grocery store for his wife's errands. 

Chapter 3

    I had just finished the 12-hour shift known as the "sixer," 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and was walking from the timeclock shed to my jeep in the parking lot.  I watched my wavering shadow in the orange-tinged air, as the sun was setting behind the black slag heap’s multiple crests and dips on the west side of the parking lot.  Orange rays illuminated some of the miner’s parked vehicles, then jumped and danced away into the creeping purple ridges around the mine that also encompassed Synthia.  

 My dusty red lunch cooler looked like a giant blocky fist in my left hand, and my long legs resembled twisted pipe cleaners in the gravelly shadows. The open buckles of my mine-issue, black work boots clanged—a common sound at the end of shifts. After clocking out, most miners unbuckled those heavy boots first thing, letting the cool air vent our sweaty feet. As a result, I stirred up mini-dust clouds by dragging my heavy heels.  I was thinking about how cozy my new clean, thick socks would feel when I could pull off the steel-toed galoshes enclosing my sweaty socks. All miners brought clean socks and athletic shoes or comfy boots, leaving them in their vehicles during their shifts. I was vaguely aware of the green, dusty truck, two parking rows ahead of me—a familiar truck I’d seen often, when I heard the angry woman’s voice. 

“God damnit, NO—stop it!”  

I saw two silhouettes in the cab of the truck with jerky movements, one leaning toward the driver’s door with a mine-issue booted foot up in the air in an apparent kick toward the other silhouette. Then the gun went off, followed by a man’s yell, starting low in the throat, climbing in pitch to a high scream from unbearable pain.  

Hearing the pinnacle of the scream, I dropped my lunch cooler and ran so fast in those damn galoshes, I wasn’t even aware of the running.  As I came closer, the driver’s door flew open, and I saw the booted foot again briefly in the air gaining impetus for another kick.  I knew I had to be at that open cab door immediately—and I was. A woman’s thick, black braid swung below her head toward the ground as her upper torso leaned out of the truck.  Instinct took over: I knew I should catch her.  And I did with inches to go. She was still trying to kick the man who was sobbing, holding his bloody foot.  

    “Leee—nahh!  Oh Lena. My . . .  b-box . . . it was for you!” He sobbed like a little boy.  

    As I slid in to catch her, I saw the gun in her hand.  She twisted angrily, as if she would now shoot me. In fact, her braid whipped me in the cheek like a piece of rope. Of course I was afraid. But my upbringing came through as instinct and saved me. As I held her, I said very plainly, in a calm voice—maybe it was a bit shaky—“It’s okay now.  I’ve got you.  He won’t hurt you now . . . .” 

    “He sure as hell won’t! That son of a bitch!”

    I noticed one strap of her overalls was pulled off her shoulder—by force it looked like. The metal button was bent sideways with a tear in the denim from the shank.  Her thermal underwear top was torn a bit at the neck.  I guessed this man was trying to grab her breast since her overalls were pulled oddly down on one side.  

    I held her back and neck in my lower arms. Her hips and legs were airborne. Using a scooping motion, I supported her until her legs were under her, and she could stand up. Surprisingly I was crouched, almost on my knees to support her.  She stood up, the gun in her hand, and stared at me with the coldest brown eyes—orange sparks in their pupils—like a piece of expensive bronze with copper highlights.  Those eyes were not frightened, but disgusted. Her lips were full, but in the straight line of suppressed anger. She was younger than I, but so tough, so sure of herself. I could feel her assessing the situation in seconds and making some kind of decision. 

    “I’m okay,” she said.  She clicked the safety on the gun. Hearing that click, I realized I had been holding my breath the whole time, my throat closed tight and mouth open. I let go--breathed so deeply, I coughed on parking lot dust.  I felt a bit dizzy, which I would never admit to anyone! And here in front of me, a pair of brown eyes are almost burning me, and she had a gun in her hand!  

 She reached under the driver’s seat to pull out a piece of leather and holstered the gun. I was impressed with her lack of panic.  She was under control—and even in control of us all.  The coldness of those eyes was also familiar to me. In fact the last time my instincts took over, icy-cold, green eyes were in my face.  I was attracted to those eyes too.  

Those green eyes came into my life briefly during my college days, when I worked as a bouncer I at a prominent nightclub in Philadelphia, the Baronsky Club.  I had tried to block an impending physical encounter between a beautiful green-eyed woman with red hair and a drunk Russian diplomat.  I can still feel my shock when the woman, two-thirds my 6’ 4” height, even though I was a thin man at that time, rudely shoved me out of the way without a thank you or even an appreciative gaze.  Her eyes had also been hard and disgusted, not fearful.  In fact, as soon as the encounter cooled, the diplomat turned his back to her, rolling his own condescending eyes and whispered, “Whore.”  The woman picked up an expensive, half-empty wine bottle from a nearby table and broke it over the diplomat’s buffed, bald head.  He staggered into two nearby tables, upturning their sumptuous dishes into the silk and satin laps of the unfortunate customers.  I remember controlling a laugh when I saw a cluster snails, their shells bobbing in a puddle of sauce, dripping from the blue silk lap of a horrified diner.  Then the owner of those green eyes whirled around, flipped her flame-red hair over her bare shoulders, held up her gloved hand bearing a huge emerald ring, and raised her slender middle finger towards the diplomat.  Her words were clear, and the whole dining room was quiet. “The next time you call me for an appointment, you pay me in cash before you touch my thigh, whether we are in public or not!” The woman walked out with her head high.  The room remained quiet for a few uncomfortable minutes.  And then an elderly lady began banging her rhinestone-encrusted silver cane on the floor, chanting, “Brava . . . Brava.”  Other patrons caught on and clapped in rhythm, shouting, “Brava” also.  Goose bumps grew up my arms and legs under my cheap tuxedo.  The Russian revolution was still alive and well in parts of Philadelphia in 1968!  I still think about that gutsy woman and her eyes.

I rubbed the “braid burn” on my cheek and didn’t show this she-miner the smile I felt inside. True to form, the she-miner offered no words of thanks or acknowledgement, just like the woman in the Baronsky Club.

This Lena woman calmly instructed the man, “Here Burl, wrap these around your foot!” She threw a pair of clean socks onto the seat beside this sobbing Burl.  They had been stuffed in his wrinkled cowboy boots on the floor mat next to his working galoshes.  “You’re lucky you made your move barefooted.  You’ve got ready-made bandages.”

“Am I dreaming?” I mumbled.

“THIS—a fuckin’ dream world?” she snorted and started the ignition of the truck.  Then she paused as I was leaning on the open door.  Those eyes again! Her gaze shifted to me—and went right through me. I felt my stomach lurch in a strange way.  Not like the constant pain and iron fist I felt from my father’s voice. No, this was more like a form of excitement and fear—a rollercoaster ride. Now there was hot and steamy chocolate pouring into my body.

“You’re that smart Russian guy, aren’t cha?” She left the truck idling and jumped out.  She placed her palm against my shoulder and gently pushed me. “Here, jump into the truck next to Burl.  I don’t want him even rubbing shoulders with me on the way to the ER. I might shoot him somewhere else if he doesn’t watch it.” With that comment Burl winced and looked at her in amazement.  Then his eyes glazed over as he stared straight ahead, holding the socks around his right foot. Small pinpricks of blood appeared on the socks.

Before I moved under her pressure, I asked, “Should I run up to the time clock hut and call the police?” That felt like the right thing to do. “He obviously can be charged with assault.”

“No.” She also quickly assessed Burl again.  “Burl?” Burl just stared ahead as if in a trance, not hearing her voice. “Burl!! God Damn it. I told you no, at least three times, and damn you! Why don’t you men understand the word no? Your mom must have let you ignore her when she told you no. Damn you! Do you hear me? A strange look of concern came over her face.  I say “strange” because I still don’t understand why she insisted I come, and we drove that fool to LaMere and the hospital.

“You’re going to help him?” I said.

“Hurry, get in.  No time to lose,” was her answer.

So I stepped up into that cab and sat next to the bloody and now dreamy Burl. Once I was settled, she jumped up next to me.  I noted her rounded hips and full breasts, and again, didn’t let my inner smile show through. I had warm chocolate coating my stomach now. I learned at a very young age how to block and mask those emotions.

    “Watch that son-of-a-bitch. If he starts to pass out, put both his legs up on the dashboard higher than his head, and there’s a thermos of water rolling somewhere on the floor,” Lena said.

    A few miners were running toward us.  “I don’t want their input.  Let’s go!” She put the truck in gear.

    “Oh I left my lunch cooler . . . ”

    “Not important,” was her answer.  She peeled out with her door open, spraying gravel on the small group of men starting to gather. “Taking Burl to LaMere—the hospital.  Call Mama Bee!” she yelled to the group while yanking at the door to shut it. 

Journeyman

Johann arrived at the long, low building on the Oberbaum Strasse, found his station, and nodded at the man across the aisle with a missing finger. Outside the late winter air was heavy, a prologue to snow. It made the men inside the workshop slow, as if the weight was on their backs, bent and muscled from years of transforming wood into unnatural shapes and textures. Today Johann planed a set of heavy oak doors. They did not require delicate sculpting. Their size was their adornment. Big enough for a small horse and cart, they were destined for the home of a rich businessman who shipped goods across the North Sea. 

    When the whistle blew, Johann took his coat and lunch and walked to the Spree, Berlin's industrial river with boats of all sizes, some still, some inching their way through the city, others in a race to outrun it. It was nothing like the Wümme back home where he liked to rest on its banks and watch the ducks splash a landing. Still, if he closed his eyes and concentrated, he could imagine his little sister Tina might appear, shooing her flock of geese. Sophie would just be walking home along the path, released from her job, a flush in her cheeks, her figure filling her dress . . .

    A noise broke his reverie. The man with the missing index finger sat down. He pulled cheese, a loaf of bread, and sausage from his metal pail. Johann watched as he cracked open the bread with his thumbs and tried not to stare at the nub on his right hand. The man made a slit from top to bottom, dropped the sausage and cheese inside, and squeezed the bread together, flattening the sandwich. With a quick turn of his wrist, he ripped it in two and offered one of the halves to Johann.

    Johann looked up, surprised. 

“Nein, bitte,” he said with a smile and shake of his head.

    The burly man shrugged and took an enormous bite. He was more than twice Johann's age and weight, the latter concentrated around his middle. He wore his leather apron under a worn coat. The apron was burnished a warm, nutty brown.

    “What’s your name, then?” 

    Johann put up a hand to shield his eyes. His companion was in shadows.

    “Johann. Johann Bruns. And yours?” He feigned interest. He had been around enough to know anyone too friendly was looking for something. 

    “Otto,” the man said. He did not offer a surname. 

    Otto fixed his gaze on the opposite side of the river, chewing his sandwich. He seemed interested in a barge that was loaded with grain. 

    “You are good with the plane,” Otto said. He took another enormous bite. Bits of bread fell out his mouth. He pushed them back in. A pigeon wandered close.

    Johann inclined his head. 

    “But not so good with the lathe.” 

    He straightened his back. Who was this man? Not a foreman. Perhaps he had been passed over and needed to soothe his ego.

    Otto put up a hand.

    “I am only saying what I see,” he said. “But it would not take much. With a little instruction, you could be fine.” He put the last bit of sandwich in his mouth. “You could be more than fine,” he added. 

    He considered something. 

    “I will show you,” he said. Otto got to his feet more quickly than Johann would have thought possible. He gathered his lunch pail, retrieved the piece of cloth that someone—his wife?—used to wrap his cheese, and ran the back of his hand across his mustache. He turned back to the workshop, motioning to Johann who was still sitting there astonished. 

    “Come,” he said.

 

For the past three years, Johann and his companion, Walter, had walked and begged rides between villages and towns presenting themselves as journeyman cabinetmakers. Experience was their wage. In workshops so small he could barely turn around and others large enough to hold dozens of men, Johann made sleeping cupboards out of gnarled oak, wardrobes from cheap pine, tables and chairs from light, malleable, plentiful beech.

They relied on the kindness of others. Sometimes they were invited to stay in a house. More often they lay their bedrolls in a boarding house reserved for young men passing through. At one, Walter woke up with red bumps on his forehead.

“You’ve grown spots like a boy,” Johann told him. “You sure you’re old enough to be doing this?”

Walter felt the welts, grimaced.

“Christ!” His eyes were enormous. “I’ve been eaten!”

Johann checked his own body, felt the swollen mounds on his neck and arms. He leaped from the bed.

“It’s fleas or lice,” he said. He stood in his long underwear surveying his flesh.

Walter was out of bed, too.

“Lice don’t bite like that,” he said. “But bed bugs, do.” He flung back the blanket and a scattering of specks retreated. They begged off that place the same day, telling everyone they met that overnight the bedbugs became grandmothers.

Entranced by the beauty of the Rhine and the villages along it, they headed south. They picked up a third companion, Michael, a metalsmith also on his wandering journey. In a village next to Dragon Rock, where legend said Siegfried killed the mountain-dwelling dragon and bathed in its blood, Michael repaired a photographer’s tripod. He took their portrait to show his thanks.

They borrowed hats for the occasion. Johann had a bowler. Walter and Michael managed to get fedoras. The photographer rolled down a giant painted backdrop to make it look like the three men were standing in front of the famous falls at the base of the mountain. He gave them each a small print. Remembrances of Dragon Falls, it said across the bottom. 

“This will impress the ladies,” Michael said, tucking the photograph in his kit.

    “You'll need it,” Walter said. 

    They exchanged insults, while Johann studied the picture, observing he was standing slightly apart from the other two.

    “Allo! Johann! What about you?”

    He looked up. They were like brothers those two.

    He shrugged. “I’m sending mine home.” 

    “To your mother?” Michael scoffed. 

    He raised an eyebrow.

    They laughed and pestered him, demanding a name, but he stood fast. 

Michael left them shortly after that, and Walter and Johann headed north to Bremen, to work with the joiners that outfitted the massive ships of Norddeutscher Lloyd. It was here they joined the union. The shipping company was in a race with the British and French to make bigger, faster ocean liners. Foremen walked the rows of men bent over workbenches. “Where’s your loyalty?” they shouted when a workman left to relieve himself or stood to straighten his back. The union promised compensation if a saw claimed a hand, a knot of wood took an eye. Johann figured union membership was a little like prayer. Even if he never needed the help, it was good to know it was there. 

He did not go home for three years. Journeyman rules forbade it. He sent letters, doing odd jobs to get stamps, but he was never in the same place long enough to receive mail. Finally in Bremen, he found himself in the same boarding house for six months. 

He swallowed at the sight of his father’s thorny script, the name of his village opposite the stamp. He stowed the letter his landlady handed him inside his jacket until he could read it alone. He slit the envelop open carefully on his bunk and unfolded the delicate paper. Nearby three men played a game of cards. Overhead someone snored softly in the fading daylight. 

How could he be so foolish, were his father’s first words. Johann blinked. Had he lost his mind to join a union? The socialist party? His father's words marched in angry rows aross the paper. The village, he said, was loyal to the Kaiser. Johann must renounce the union when he returned home. Otherwise he could not expect a welcome. 

Johann's lungs emptied. His heart was a train that roared in his ears. Was this his father's greeting after three years? He knew nothing about his son's life. Johann remembered the day his father sent him to apprentice with Herr Assmann. Joinery would be his destiny, he'd said, wood his fortune. He recalled the morning vividly thought it was six years ago. His father clapped him on the shoulder. Johann traipsed off in the direction of Assmann's workshop with the lunch his mother made. He'd allowed himself only one glance behind, just in time to see his older brother, Heinrich, give a wave and disappear into the barn. 

He would have given anything to switch places.

For a long moment he sat holding the letter. Then he crumpled it in his fist. 

The workshop was empty. Whatever Otto wanted to teach him, could it not wait until lunch was over?

“Here,” Otto said. He fixed a piece of ash in the lathe. He took down a small spindle gouge from the wall. He turned the crank so Johann could concentrate on the tool. Slowly the wood began to spin.

“Now,” he said, “let us see you make a cut.”

Johann could not decide if Otto was a meddler. He gathered he was a loner. Why not humor him this once? There was no one around to witness this small embarrassment. 

He made quick fists, released them. He picked up the gouge. “Faster, bitte,” he said.

Otto turned the crank faster. Johann touched the gouge to the ash. It made a beautiful, even cut. As the lathe continued to spin, the groove widened, the cut grew deeper. He realized too late. He'd gone too far. 

“You see,” Otto said. “Your touch. It is too hard. You must learn to be light.”

He took the gouge from Johann and motioned to switch places. This time Johann turned the lathe. Otto touched the tool ever so lightly, lifting it up and away after a rotation or two, like a conductor with a wand. His technique belied his size and age. 

The door of the workshop opened. A group of joiners scattered to their posts. Some cast glances at Otto and Johann. One man stared openly, his brows drawn together.

Otto looked up. “That’s it for now,” he said. He removed the practice wood and put a chair leg into the lathe. He nodded a dismissal. Johann returned to his station, feeling he should know something he didn’t. After a few moments, he continued planing the massive doors.

There was a solemnity that afternoon in the workshop. When Johann looked up, he caught a stare here and there. He determined to finish the doors and lost himself in the strenuous back and forth of working the plane. When at last he was done, he glanced over at Otto’s workbench. But Otto was not there. He must have gone home. Johann found himself wondering what his home was like, if he lived alone in a boarding house full of strangers, or if he went home to a wife who fussed and scolded at him and children who hung from his big arms and legs like buds on a willow. 

 

The next day Otto spent the morning making chair legs, beautiful, ornate spindles that looked too delicate to hold the weight of a man. Most of the men in the workshop were making doors or cabinets like Johann. But the spindle work, almost all of it, was given to Otto. 

At lunchtime, Johann grabbed his pail and waited while Otto wiped down the gouge he was using. The two men walked to the river and sat down in the same spot as the day before.

Johann unpacked the lunch his landlady provided, a boiled egg and a piece of dried fish. 

“If that is all you eat," Otto said, "you will look like one of my chair legs.” He handed Johann a hunk of cheese, and this time the younger man took it.

“Why were those men surprised to see us yesterday?” 

Otto's mouth worked his sausage. “It is against the rules.” 

Johann looked up. “What rules?”

Otto shrugged. “The union’s,” he said. 

In front of them, a tug huffed clouds of smoke. River swans darted for cover. A short distance away, a gypsy woman spread out a blanket on the edge of the promenade. She sat down, folded her legs beneath her, and set out a card. It said “blind since birth.” Now and then a workman tossed her a coin. 

Johann frowned. “Why does the union care if we work on our break?”

Otto prepared his sandwich once again, slitting the loaf with his thumbs, filling it with cheese and sausage, then flattening it with his hands.

"They say it is to protect us." He took a bit, chewed, and spit out a piece of gristle. "But the truth is they are afraid." His eyes narrowed. "They don't want anyone to show them up."

Johann picked his way through the fish. A thought occurred to him.

“You don’t belong to the union?”

Otto threw back his head.

“Ha!” It was more bark than laugh. “I have been a member of the union since before you were born,” he said licking each of his fingers in turn. His face turned serious.

“How do you think I survived this?" He held up his right hand, splaying his fingers so the missing gap was ominous. 

After the bitter letter from his father, Johann had gone home long enough only to pay his respects to his mother—and to see Sophie. He was astonished at the air of poverty that hung over the village. Thatched homes sagged between their rafters. The tiny market square was deserted. Tina's geese were gone—by order of Ottersberg. His beautiful, beloved Wümme was pocked with boulders and tree roots. The flood measures helped the farmers but devastated the fishermen, including Sophie's uncle. 

Aloud he said, “My father despises unions.” 

Otto watched the gypsy woman put some coins in her skirt, pull up her blanket, and move to a busier section near the Oberbaum Bridge. With his left hand, he massaged the angry nub on his right.

“Is your father’s approval so important?” he asked.

Johann threw the fish down the embankment and a gull swooped it up.

“I want to go back one day,” he said. "I want to open my own workshop.” 

Otto considered this. He gave a small nod of his head. 

“Then we had better continue your lessons,” he said. “But not today,” he added, looking once more out at the river and folding his hands over his ample belly to settle in for the rest of their lunch break. He swiped a fly from his beard. “Today we will watch and admire the ingenuity of this gentle gypsy woman.” 

 

As summer approached, the heat on the Oberbaum Strasse mixed with the heat of the men straining over their wood inside the workshop, until the temperature was like a pot on a stove. When the bell rang, the men bolted, seeking daylight and the cool river breeze. Otto and Johann left, too, but only long enough to eat. Then Otto stood like a sentry at the appointed time, stretched his big frame, and returned to his post. Johann followed. Always Otto had a piece of scrap wood set aside for his pupil’s practice and a new gouge or technique to show him. Always they finished before the other joiners returned. 

One afternoon, Otto demonstrated a cut with a fishtail gouge. He looked up, eyes bright at the precision of the tool. Sweat ran in rivers from Johann's hairline to his chin. He wanted to take his clothes off and jump into the river like when he was a boy. What would happen, he wondered, if he tried to swim in the filthy Spree? 

Otto gave him a shove.

“I give up my break so you can daydream?”

 “Sorry," Johann said, shaking his head. Then, "Don't you get tired of it?” 

Otto looked at him.

"Tired of what? Of teaching you? All the time. Your head is like this wood," he said tapping the stick of beech in the lathe. 

Johann smiled. 

"I mean, do you get tired of coming to the same place every day, doing the same thing? Don't you wish you could look at something other than the dirty river or this ugly building?"

The older man stiffened. 

“That river gets food and lumber and steel to people who need it." He looked around the deserted workshop. "This place?" he shrugged, his mouth grim. "It is not much, but it is a place to practice my art."

Johann felt a new heat on his face.

"Tschuligung," he said. "I did not mean to insult you."

Otto studied him. 

"You are homesick," he said. He glanced at the clock. “We are finished today, but you will come to my house for supper tonight." He released the wood from the lathe. "Otherwise you will wallow in it."

It was an invitation and insult rolled into one. 

Johann accepted both with a nod of his head.  

 

The sun hung low in a hazy sky when Otto and Johann left the workshop. They followed the Spree for a half mile, then turned south. As they left the industrial buildings behind, here were shops and carts selling flowers, vegetables, second-hand furniture. Otto stepped into a butcher's and came out with something wrapped in paper. 

Ahead was a series of row houses toward which they now turned. Otto produced a key, and they entered the ground floor of one of the homes. He fumbled in the entryway cursing as he tried to light an oil lamp although there was still light to see. A cat darted past and rubbed against Otto's leg. Another bolted in before Johann could shut the door. Otto clucked his tongue but let them stay.

He led the way into a small kitchen in the back of the house. He explained he rented the upstairs to a young bookkeeper and his family. He set the lamp down on a small table. One of the cats jumped up, but Otto knocked him away with a sweep of his arm. He invited Johann to have a seat. He took a large bottle from a cupboard, removed the cork, and poured its contents into two glasses. 

“A toast,” he said, handing a glass to Johann. “To your workshop.” His raised his glass and met the younger man's eyes. 

Johann raised his glass and downed the contents. The beer was warm and bitter and delicious.

Otto poured him some more. Then he took a scoop of coal from a bucket, dumped it into the stove, and lit it. He unwrapped the package from the butcher’s, a large cut of veal. He took some potatoes out of a crock and sliced them. 

Johann could feel the beer working, making its way to his head from his empty stomach. He looked around. The house was neat and tidy, although he could have done without the cats. Did his friend live alone? 

Otto put the potatoes in a cast iron skillet, added a bit of lard, and set it on the stove. He looked over at his guest.

"So tell me about this village then. Why do you pine for it?" 

Johann expected Otto's customary disdain, but the older man's face was blank, inquiring. He needed no other invitation. 

He described the Wümme's meandering ribbon of azure that ran through the village, flooding its banks in the spring, confounding the farmers and pleasing the fisherman. His family were the former, had been for as many generations as they could remember, the farm passing to every first son. He and Heinrich plowed the fields together. They took turns, one walked behind the blade while the other rode the giant shire, kicking its flanks if it went too slow. The house and barn were joined, one side for people, the other for animals. Otto raised his eyebrows at this, but did not interrupt. Johann described his mother's garden to the west of the house, the squash and pumpkin vines tangled with giant gourds, the tomatoes that reproduced themselves like rabbits. He pulled carrots, radishes, even sweet onions and ate them right from the ground. His father had an orchard—plums, apricots, peaches, and apples. Johann used to tie a piece of rope to a bucket, sling it over his neck, and climb the trees to pick. He was fast, sending down more buckets than his brothers and sisters, but always getting his fill. 

He took a breath, looked up. Otto was watching him. 

"I am boring you," Johann said.

“Not at all," Otto said. He added the veal and chopped onion to the skillet. The mixture made a soft hiss. The smell was intoxicating.

"What will you do if your father is right?" Otto asked. "If the village won't welcome you back?"

Johann's gaze dropped to the tablecloth. It was clean and yellow with age. He had not let himself consider it. Each day he faced the prospect of the dark, hot workshop on the Oberbaum Strasse by telling himself it wouldn't be forever. He planned to use the money he made working in Berlin to buy Herr Assmann's workshop. Herr Assmann had no son, and Johann thought the old man would be glad to sell it to him. He had said as much. There was no other plan. 

"I don't know." He spoke the words slowly, pressing against his sternum to relieve a pressure there.

Outside the evening light filtered it's last rays through close buildings to reach the window. It made a parallelogram of pink on the table. Otto took a poker to the coals in the stove and spread the embers. 

"Do you know," he began in a new tone of voice, "there is a rumor we are going to get work from Norddeutscher Lloyd." 

"What!? I don't believe it," Johann said. "That work is all in Bremen—near the ports where the ships are built, near their headquarters." He had seen the Norddeutscher Lloyd building when he worked in Bremen, the massive tower, the four stories of opulent offices. He had stepped into the lobby long enough to see the marble staircase with its curves as soft as a woman's dress.  

Otto lay thick slices of bread in the skillet.

"Ah," he said, "but the ship isn't going to be built in Bremen. It's going to be built in Stettin, and that is not so far from here."

"Stettin?" This was news indeed. If the ship were built in Stettin, it was possible the fittings, cabinets, furniture, would be built in Berlin.

"You'll never guess what they're going to call it," Otto scooped the meat and potatoes onto plates. He set the bread, toasted a lovely brown, off to the side. He brought the plates to the small table. 

"Kaiser Wilhelm?" Johann guessed. His father would approve.

Otto shook his head, his face splitting into a wide grin. 

"You'll never guess."

Johann lifted his hands in defeat. He wanted to eat.

"The George Washington!" Otto said.

"No!" Johann gasped.

"Yes," his friend said. 

 

 

Otto had a furrow in his already furrowed forehead. The lesson was not going well. He tried to get Johann to turn the gouge just so to create a series of symmetrical rings. 

“Nein, nein, nein!” the older man shouted when Johann did it wrong the third time. He took the gouge from Johann’s hand. “You must be delicate! Not some bumbling youth like the first time you are with a woman!” 

He shouldered the younger man aside. “Watch! I will show you.” 

Otto was so absorbed in demonstrating the technique, in Johann's failure to grasp it, he did not see the clock or hear the workshop doors open. In a rush the other joiners pushed their way into the building. Johann took his eyes away from Otto’s hands to see the surprised looks, the open hostility. One of the joiners, a short man with dark eyes, walked toward them. 

“What do you think you’re doing, Kaufmann?”

Otto looked up. His brow was still furrowed. 

“Go away, Peter,” he said. “This is none of your business.” 

The small man’s eyes grew darker. His lips turned inside his mouth. The air all around was charged.

“It is my business. It is all of our business.” The man called Peter swept an arm in the direction of the others.

Otto put the gouge down. He seemed to be moving very slowly. He fixed his gaze on Peter.

“What do you care that I am helping this man? I would help you if you asked,” Otto said softly, “but you don't.” He shook his head. "And therefore your work is lousy." He released the practice wood from the lathe. 

A deep stain began at Peter’s neck and moved up his jaw.

“I will speak to the foreman about this,” he said between clenched teeth. He shook his fist at the folds beneath Otto's chin. 

In a moment, Otto had lifted the wood high in the air. It shook, vibrating in his three-fingered hand, poised above Peter's head. Johann felt a ribbon of dread unfurl, traveling from his throat down to his gut, his legs. He could not move. His eyes locked on the raised wood above Peter's head, picking out his ragged cuts and Otto's perfect ones.

“Do not threaten me,” Otto said. His voice was low, barely audible, the sound of Johann's father's voice before he clubbed a fox that killed two of Tina's geese. 

“Otto.” Johann said, but no one heard not even the man himself.

The master joiner’s face was purple. This moment would change all the ones to follow. On the Spree, a tug's horn blared. Gulls screeched. A cloud passed between the earth and sun, dimming the weak light in the building. Then Otto lowered the piece of wood. It dropped it to the stone floor with a crack like the sound of bone breaking.

Peter turned and ran out of the workshop. 

For a long moment everything was still. Motes floated in rays from the window. Otto's breath came in soft ragged gasps. The steady pounding was Johann's heart inside his chest.

Then a single plane began scraping wood. One by one, the men returned to their work and the sound of rasps, the hammer of chisels beat an unsteady rhythm, while orange dust began to move in waves through the workshop. Otto stared at his hands, regarding the maimed one as if he'd never seen it before. He picked up the practice wood and tossed it on the scrap heap.  

 

That afternoon, the foreman entered the building and headed for Otto. He stood close and spoke fast. At one point he gestured at Johann who felt his insides shift.

Otto gave a nod of his shaggy head.

He put his tools down. He took off his apron and folded it carefully over his arm. He picked up his lunch pail and headed unhurried toward the door. He glanced sideways at Johann as he passed and raised his lunch pail. Then he pushed against the big wood doors and disappeared into sunlight. 

Silence settled over the workshop. The man named Peter broke it. He raised a fist into the air and shouted something. A chorus of men near him echoed it. Most of the men stayed silent. Some shook their heads. One close to Johann spit on the floor. 

“Enough!” the foreman shouted. He strode to the center of the workshop and put his hands on his hips. He looked around. “Get to work,” he said. The command was for all of them. But he looked at Johann.

Johann stared down at the walnut in front of him, a wardrobe for the staterooms of the new ocean liner. Already work for the ship had taken over the workshop. Otto teased that if their handiwork was going to America, perhaps they should, too.

Johanna knew he should begin the back and forth motion of his plane, but his limbs refused to move. They were dead weights in their sockets. He understood if he made some pretense, the moment would pass. Everything would go back to normal. Everything except for Otto.

He put the plane down. The foreman watched him. The other joiners stared. He didn’t take off his apron or gather his lunch pail. His landlady would scold him for losing it, but he didn't care. He headed for the door through which Otto had passed. Then he, too, felt the brilliant sunlight on his face, felt his body lift.

Otto had not got very far.

Johann shouted his name. He closed the distance before the older man turned.

“What are you doing?!” Otto’s face was angry, disbelieving.

 “You got fired because of me,” Johann said. He expected Otto to be crestfallen, but he appeared to be out for a stroll.

“Dum Kauff!” Otto shook his head. He looked ready to box Johann's ears. “You must go back!"

“What?” Johann was confused. “No! It's my fault. I can't go back.”

 Otto sighed. He shifted his apron and pail to the other arm. 

“The foreman did not fire me," he said. "Peter complained, so he assigned me to another workshop." He lifted his big stooped shoulders and released them. "It has happened before. Tomorrow I will go to work the same as any other day, but at a different shop along the Strasse.”
    Relief flooded Johann. The foreman was not a fool. He knew how skilled Otto was. Then another thought hit him. He was alone in not having a job. 

“Perhaps I can go with you?” Hope raised his eyebrows.

Otto shook his head. He pointed at the workshop. “You haven’t lost your job—yet.”

“But what about our lessons?” He heard a plea in his voice but didn't care.

Otto looked him in the eye. Suddenly his face had the solemnity of a man who had lost something. His voice was quiet.

“There is no point,” he said, shaking his head. “In your heart, you are not a carpenter.”

Johann sputtered a denial. 

Otto put his free hand on Johann's shoulder. “It’s true,” he said. “You are a very good joiner, and you could be a great one.” He shook his head again. “But it’s not what you want.”

“I want to open a workshop in the village.” The words sounded faint. 

 “You want to go back to your village, yes,” Otto said. “But your heart belongs to the farm, not to a joiner’s workshop for the rest of your life.”

He let the words sink in. “And you cannot have your father’s farm.” He said this last so softly, it was a whisper.

Johann's body was weightless, like desiccated leaves. At any moment, he thought his body might rise into the air and set down—where? The pressure of Otto’s hand told him what he said was true. 

“What am I supposed to do?” 

“Go back,” Otto said. “Go back to the workshop while you make a new dream. Make it while you work on The George Washington," he said. "You are young and there is plenty of time." Otto smiled. "Perhaps I will join you while you eat your pauper's lunch by the river,” he said. "Now I have my lunch break back." He flashed Johann a glimpse of his even, yellow teeth.

He pushed the younger man in the direction of the workshop. The swans were in the Spree, a dotting of goslings in their wake. On the Oberbaum Bridge, the gypsy woman spread her blanket for the afternoon crowds. She adjusted her scarf and smoothed her colorful blanket. She set her coin pot within easy reach.

He had no idea what the foreman would say. He did not want to face the triumphant Peter or to see a new joiner in Otto's place in the morning. He knew he had to keep walking. 

He saw the gypsy woman get up. She picked up her cup and folded her blanket. She moved silently, weaving in and out between the pedestrians along the Strasse—dodging mothers pushing carriages, businessmen, fishermen selling their catch—until she found a spot with some shade in full view of passersby who would be forced to acknowledge her. She spread her kit and started over. 

Johann put his hand on the workshop door and pushed through to the pungent, sweet smell of cut wood, the dimly-lit interior, and the sound of hundreds of saws, planes, and rasps moving backwards and forwards.

Last Rites

There was nothing else out there, no one else around, so there was little doubt who these men were coming for. Sheldon didn’t think they looked like cops, though. He looked past them, out to the road, to see what they were driving. And there it was, pulled up nose to nose, bumper to bumper, with his wrong­way Firebird: the distinctive black and silver and shape of a hearse.

“Why’d you take it?” the spindlier of the two men asked when he was close enough for Sheldon to hear.

Sheldon could see that these men were indeed dressed as Wilford had said that Peter, running behind the stolen hearse back in Rock Bottom, had described them: like cowboys. Except, unlike what Sheldon had assumed, these two guys were dressed like actual cowboys, or at least the grimy ranch kids they obviously were. They wore their plaid shirts and denim jeans and pointed boots and straw hats for the purposes of herding and haying. Birthing and slaughtering, maybe. A wardrobe not about the fashion of wannabes, but worn for a particular kind of work executed on a particularly brutal landscape. Sheldon thought that he himself would have been smart to wear a wide­brimmed hat.

“I didn’t take anything,” Sheldon answered, kneeling there, digging a hole with the short­handled scoop shovel he kept in his trunk, a pile of dirt on one side of him, his dead mother on the other.

“That supposed to be funny?” The spindly man, again.

Sheldon noticed that this hearse­stealer also wore a pistol on his hip. A revolver with a polished bone handle. It was slung from his hip in a tooled­leather holster. A symbol of a time past to most people. But Sheldon understood the nature of the real work of the ranch and he knew that this was a gun for varmints, not for Old West outlaws. At least he hoped that’s what this kid used it for.

Sheldon considered his predicament, its parameters now changed. These delinquents had intruded on his final reckoning with his mother. He knew their immediate problems were more dire than his, however. All Sheldon was doing was burying his mother. He hadn’t stolen a hearse, nor had he had one stolen from him. In fact, he hadn’t bought or sold or stolen or traded or bet on anything lately that he could remember. As far as he knew he didn’t have any business whatsoever with these guys. Other than the fact that these were apparently the scofflaws who had stolen the hearse with his mother in it.

“Jesse, stop!” the man squatter and more cylindrical said, the oil barrel to the scarecrow.

He turned back to Sheldon. “We don’t want any trouble.”

“I don’t think that’s entirely up to me,” Sheldon said.

“I told you we didn’t need to come back. We shouldn’t have come back,” this man who wasn’t Jesse said.

“Thought you were pissed I dumped the body,” Jesse said.

“I was, but that didn’t mean we needed to come back.”

“Didn’t want you to be pissed, Frank. Came back for you.” Sheldon sat on the edge of the impromptu grave and listened to the two young cowhands argue about their bungled caper.

“You didn’t come back for me, though,” said the one Sheldon now understood to be Frank.

“Wouldn’t have come back for anybody else, little brother.”
And then Sheldon understood the dynamic between them. Brothers. That was all he needed to know.

“Seriously, why’d you take it?” Jesse asked.

Sheldon didn’t realize Jesse was now talking to him. A wildfire of pain had sparked in his back, flaring up to engulf his attention for the moment. He burned inside and outside at the same time. Sheldon hadn’t thought he’d ever be back in these badlands, on this scorched earth. This was the high desert of his upbringing, the brutal, arid desolation that he’d tried so desperately to escape those many years ago. He’d only made it to Rock Bottom, though. Montana’s purgatory, guarding the gates between east and west. These days the eastern part of the state had found some cachet with the frakking of the Bakken shale formation. But paradise had always been to the west. The mountains and streams of myth. The trout and the elk and the wolves and the bears. He’d never made it out the other side. To Missoula, maybe. Or Livingston, at least. And now he’d slipped back through, chasing his mother into the heat of his history. No thanks to these two.

“Why’d I take what?” Sheldon asked.

“The body. Why’d you stop and pick up the body?”

“Because the body is my mother.”

“No shit!” Jesse said.

“You’re kidding,” Frank said. “Oh my god. I am so sorry. We had no idea. Jesse made me do it. I never should have played along.”

“Shut up, Frank. Jesus. We were just having some fun.”

“You shut up, Jesse. It’s his mother for chrissakes. We took his mother. There’s probably going to be a funeral. The family coming. I am so sorry.” Frank’s face twisted with remorse. “There wasn’t going to be a funeral,” Sheldon said. “Nobody was coming.”

“There, see?” Jesse said. “Always worrying about stuff that don’t need to be worried about.”

Sheldon squinted up at the two men. The heat from the high sun had reduced everything to its most primal state, animals in the middle of nowhere. Sheldon wasn’t interested in­­or even capable of executing with his ruined back­­a reductionist fight or flight response. He knew he was going to have to talk his way out of this. Whatever this was. Which seemed like a good place to start.

“What do you guys want?” Sheldon asked.

Jesse and Frank looked at Sheldon as if they were noticing him for the first time.

“My little brother didn’t want to leave no evidence behind,” Jesse said. “He’s always looking out for me.”

“Jesse doesn’t always think things through,” Frank said.

“My little brother thinks I’m retarded.”

“I just didn’t think dumping a dead body on the side of the road was the best idea you’ve ever had.”

“That’s what you said. S’why I came back.”

“To do what, exactly?” Sheldon interrupted, continuing his interrogation.

“Get the body back, I guess,” Jesse said. “You’d have to ask the smart one.”

“I’m not smart. I just like to think about things,” Frank said.

Sheldon sat there, still on fire from the exertion of his grave digging, the pain in his back. And drenched in sweat. He realized he needed to drink something. He felt on the verge of losing consciousness. Through the gauze the heat had wrapped around his eyes, an unwanted image of his father appeared. His father who had abandoned him while stringing barb wire along the south edge of the family’s property this side of Terry when Sheldon was thirteen. The heat got him, that’s what the doctor had said. And Sheldon’s father had been nothing but a memory since. Sheldon and his brother, left to deal with their mother. Sheldon didn’t want to leave any impression that he might be honoring his father by dying like him, exerting himself under the same sun that had taken him.

“You guys have any water?” Sheldon asked. Frank’s eyes lit with recollection. “I saw some kind of sport drink or something in the hearse,” he said. “Must’ve been the guy’s who was driving it.” Sheldon fought for focus, his back conspiring with the climate to try to take him down.

He regained a sliver of clarity. “Peter,” he said. “What’s that?” Frank said.

“Peter was the guy driving the hearse. He was in the Town Pump when you stole it. That’s what the guy at the funeral home told me when he called this morning. Buying a sport drink or something, apparently.” The guy at the funeral home, Wilford, was also who had tipped off Sheldon as to the general direction the stolen hearse had headed out of town. Which is how Sheldon had found his mother crumpled on the shoulder of I­94 and decided that with her afterlife so directly at hand, his hands, he would just get her buried and be done with it. Better for everyone whose lives his mother had touched.

“So there’s something good, at least” Frank said. “If you want his drink, I mean.”

“Good? Good? Nothin’ good about this,” Jesse said. “I can’t believe you’re gonna help this guy”.

“We have to help him, Jesse. We took his mother,” Frank said. “Go get that drink for him.”

“Me? Are you kidding?” Frank shot Jesse a glance that he’d clearly shot a lifetime’s worth.
Jesse exhaled a long breath that sounded like “fuuuuuuuuuuuuck.” He gripped the handle of the revolver and hung his head. “You’re a real prick sometimes. Most of the time.”

“Thank you very much,” Frank said. The festering malaise of brotherly love. “Just go get it.”

Jesse, his body deflated in defeat, swaggered with the kind of slow, damaged­joints limp that only the ranch can inflict back out toward the road.

“I’m sorry about my brother,” Frank said, once Jesse was out of earshot.

“It’s okay. I’ve got a brother.” It occurred to Sheldon that he hadn’t called his brother to let him know their mother was dead.

“What’s his deal?” Sheldon asked, watching Jesse shuffle out toward the road. “He’s never been right,” Frank said.

“Mine’s in Deer Lodge.”

“Yeah? Like living there, or...”

“Fifteen with five suspended.”

“At least you have that,” Frank said.

“What do I have?” Sheldon flashed back on his life, a forty­nine year noose of time tethered all the way back to his bawling birth. He had a hard time discerning anything in the darkness back there where the knot was tied.

“You know what’s going on with your brother,” Frank said. “You know what’s going to happen to him. Because it already did. At least you know where he’s going to be for the next few years.”

“Is yours that bad?” Sheldon asked, watching Jesse kink himself into the door of the hearse in the distance.

“It’s only a matter of time. Something will come of this,” Frank said, motioning out toward the hearse, down toward the body bag. “But it won’t be enough. I even thought I might try to kill him once, but I couldn’t do it.”

“Must not have been time yet. It’s like putting down anything. You know when it’s time. If it had been the right time, you’d have been able to do it.”

“I just wish someone would put him away before he hurts somebody. Like your brother. I mean not that he would hurt your brother, I mean put my brother away like your brother is put away. Whatever. You’re lucky.”

Sheldon contemplated that word, the idea it represented. He considered the grave he was digging for his mother in the middle of some farmer’s dryland folly. Luck didn’t have anything to do with it. Luck was like alcohol, as far as Sheldon understood it, the bottled fantasy of a better future. You keep going back because it keeps promising things will get better. But the promise is only a promise and the future is unrelenting, the bottom of the bottle forever unreached. He hadn’t been able to quit drinking, but he’d finally quit buying lottery tickets. Sheldon posited a theory with regard to Jesse: “Meth?”

“Yeah, this is a mess.”

“No. His eyes. I thought I could see the meth in them?”

“No. No. I wish it was that easy. He’s just always been that way. Half a click off. Never quite synced up with the rest of us.”

“How about that. So maybe it’s not his fault.”

“I guess that’s one way to look at it.”

“Maybe you’re the lucky one.”

They watched Jesse approach with a plastic bottle half­full of blue liquid. Not blue like water, but blue like a chemistry project. Sheldon attempted to rise to his feet, but thought better of it. Frank offered his hand to help.

“I don’t know what you guys’ deal is,” Sheldon said, lurching up, “but I need to finish this thing. Actually we all need to finish this thing. Get rid of her and get out of here.”

Frank offered to work on digging the grave while Sheldon drank. “It’s the least we can do,” he said.

After twenty minutes, when Frank tired of digging, he looked up at Jesse.

“Are you kidding me?” Jesse replied to the unspoken intent. “What do we know about mothers, anyway?”

It hadn’t occurred to Sheldon that these two men, these two brothers, had a mother. Of course they did, he thought. Everybody has a mother. That’s how it works.

“Let’s just wrap this up, then,” Sheldon said. “It’s probably deep enough,” He looked at Frank standing knee deep in the grave.

“I don’t know. Supposed to be six feet isn’t it?” Frank asked.

Sheldon had already put a foot on the body bag, on his mother’s shoulder, ready to roll her into the hole. At this point he was more interested in the speed and efficiency with which they could get her in the ground than how far under it she needed to be. He didn’t want to be around when the cops finally did show up. His story was straight, he thought, but this situation would require some explaining, some untangling, in order to extract himself from it. It would be easier to just be gone. He looked to Jesse to see if he would at least lend another foot to his cause. Jesse was pointing the pistol at him.

“Jesus,” Sheldon said. “What are you doing?” “Don’t move,” Jesse said.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Sheldon said.

“I said, don’t...move.” Jesse held a steady bead, the gun unwavering.

Sheldon looked over at Frank still standing in the grave. Fear paralyzed Frank’s face in an awkward mask. Sheldon looked back at Jesse, at the .22 caliber barrel pointed at him. His fear subsided a little when he reasoned he could probably survive a shot from a .22, as long as Jesse didn’t hit anything too important. And in too direct of a manner.

“Let’s be reasonable,” Sheldon said. He cowered back and turned his head.
And then Jesse shot him. Sheldon’s stomach convulsed, clenched around the bullet. He pissed his pants. He bent, dropped to his knees. Only he didn’t feel any pain. At least not any that he didn’t normally feel. Sheldon regained his senses, his balance, his bearing. The world around him came back into focus. He looked at the hand he pulled away from his stomach. Dirty, but clean. Without any blood on it. This cowpoke had missed, Sheldon realized, relieved.

Sheldon lurched back up to standing and braced himself again for the inevitable second shot. Sheldon could only assume that Jesse’s six shooter had five more in the cylinder. He’d be seeing his mother much sooner than expected, his escape from her thwarted by Chekhov’s gun. (Sheldon had taken up some reading since he’d gone on disability, some high­school paperbacks in a box in the basement.) But when Sheldon looked at Jesse, his would be executioner was just standing there. Gun down. Grinning. His yellow teeth reflecting the yellow sunlight. Jesse holstered his pistol with the twirl and flourish of a gunslinger in a Wild West show. Jesse laughed. “Oh shit, man. You should have seen your face.”

“What the hell are you doing?” Sheldon asked. His heart raced. His voice cracked.

“I just saved your ass,” Jesse said through a smug, shit­eating grin. Sheldon looked to Frank, seeking some form of reason.

“I think he’s right. I think he might’ve saved your ass,” Frank said. He nodded his head toward a point behind Sheldon’s ass. Sheldon turned around and saw sprawled on the ground a five foot long prairie rattlesnake, as thick as his wrist, with a .22 caliber hole in its head. “He had his sights on you, man,” Jesse said. “You shouldn’t have moved. I might have shot you instead of that rattler.” After the moment it took to fully comprehend what had just happened, Sheldon finally said, “Thanks for not shooting me, I guess.”

“That would not have been good if he’d bit you, I can tell you that. We might have needed that hearse,” Frank said from the grave. Sheldon regained whatever composure he had left and urged the assembled, such as they all were, to help him get his little project done before anything else untoward might happen. Frank climbed up to help Sheldon roll his mother into the grave. Sheldon pushed a little harder with his foot than Frank did, so his mother went in head first. She landed hard and they all heard the snap, crackle, and pop of her brittle bones. She hadn’t died of a broken neck, but she had one now. Then the rest of what Sheldon knew to be her emaciated body fell in after that and it was over. His mother’s last movement on earth. His mother who had not been a graceful woman, windblown and sunburned most of her life. Sheldon thought of hers as a life of irony, endeavoring as she did to feed and clothe and bathe the men in her life, while at the same time doing everything she could to make their lives miserable. Sheldon had never known her to enjoy herself, to drink or party or engage in any carnal pursuits. Of course, he tried not to think about such things in the context of his mother. And who knew what she had been hiding.

“Wait,” Sheldon said. He walked over and picked up the dead rattlesnake. He slid down into the grave. He unzipped the body bag for its entire length and split it open. He stood up to appraise his mother for the last time. She lay still, rigid, in a blue hospital gown. He knelt and wrapped the thick snake around her neck, the long rattle up against her cheek. He pried the snake’s mouth open to expose its fangs and stretched its head down onto her bosom. He clenched his teeth and climbed up and out of the grave.

Frank handed him the shovel.

Sheldon took a scoop from the pile of dirt. He looked down on his mother, the body bag left open. The snake. An end of life tableau. He tossed the shovelful of dirt directly onto his mother’s grey, lifeless face. Some of the dirt now in her mouth. He continued shoveling until his back would no longer allow. He handed the shovel back to Frank.

The dirt continued to move from one side of the equation to the other, from pile to hole, equalizing the natural order of things. Frank tamped the top of the grave with the back of the shovel blade. Neat and tidy.

“Should we say something?” Frank asked.

“What do you mean?” Sheldon said.

“You know...something? Like a prayer or something. A service.” “Like I said, there wasn’t going to be a service.”

“I know. That’s what you said. But still. She’s your mother. We’re all here. I’m just saying. She’s your mother.”

Sheldon looked down at the mound where his mother had become one with the earth. He looked up and around, establishing this, her last resting place, in his mind. Some rocky buttes farther to the south, the river on the other side of the interstate to the north. A long line of horizon to the east where the earth continued its fall into the flat plains of North Dakota. The Beartooth Mountains were out there to the West, Sheldon knew. You could see them from the right places in Rock Bottom. But not from here. Not that it mattered. The mountains didn’t have much to say to the plains, anyway. But Sheldon believed that this was where his mother would have wanted to be. “I wouldn’t know what to say. It’s good enough that she’s here.”

“Maybe I could say something, then,” Frank said. “Please.”

Sheldon couldn’t see what it could hurt, as long as he, himself, didn’t have to say anything about his mother. And as long as it didn’t take too long. “Have at it. Just keep it quick.”

“Get over here, Jesse,” Frank said.

The three men gathered around the grave. Frank took off his cowboy hat and held it over his heart. He motioned for Jesse to do the same. Sheldon looked off into the distance where earth and sky continued their attempt to reconcile. He looked over at Frank who was standing taller now. Sheldon thought he saw Frank’s eyes moisten, although he figured it only a physiological response to the wind and the dirt. Frank projected an air of intent, or maybe despair. Jesse assumed a crooked, closed lip smile. Sheldon closed his eyes.

After a moment of silence, Frank said, “I guess I don’t know what to say. Maybe we just need a moment of silence.” And so the men stood there in what silence there was, the timbre of the wind blowing past their ears, the muffled roar of the distant cars adrift on its terrestrial currents.

“Good enough,” Sheldon said, after it seemed like the moment had passed.

The men gathered their things and themselves. On the way back out to the road, Sheldon thanked Frank, trying to diminish any perception of sentimentality with a practiced masculine tic: “I appreciate that, man.”

“No problem, brother.”

Sheldon offered the men a ride back to Rock Bottom, suggesting to them that driving the hearse was probably no longer in their best interest.

“I know you were probably headed to the oil patch,” Sheldon said. “But I sure as hell ain’t going to North Dakota.”

“So you really ain’t gonna turn us in?” Jesse asked.


“I’ve done everything I needed to get done.”


When they reached the Firebird, Frank noticed it’s distinctive shape and markings for the first time. “This is a Trans­Am. Like the one in the movie.” Sheldon eyed the big eagle stenciled in gold on the black hood. “I guess so. I never saw it.”


“Me neither,” Frank said.

Jesse called shotgun and leaned the passenger seat forward so Frank could climb into the back. Jesse then slipped into the front seat, adjusting his holster to make the ride more comfortable.

The big V­8 rumbled to life and Sheldon muscled the car across the grassy median that split the interstate. He pressed the accelerator pedal hard and steered them toward the west, back toward home.

Red and blue lights twirled in the eastbound lane, coming toward them. Sheldon’s stomach clenched up hard. Not as much as if he’d been shot, his pants still damp from his own piss. He tapped the brake, slowed the car. But the cruiser rolled past without a glance from the officer inside. Sheldon watched it roll up on the hearse behind him in the side mirror, getting smaller and smaller in the distance he was creating with his increasing speed. And then the scene of his mother’s final reckoning faded away. Left to his memory now. He knew he wouldn’t be back.

When the lit up tanks and towers of Rock Bottom’s easternmost oil refinery could be seen in the twilight, Sheldon asked his passengers where they wanted to go.

Frank and Jesse’s co­dependent relationship was back in its easy, ongoing, everyday groove by then, so they weren’t quite ready to close down their day.

“How about Bucks?” Frank suggested. “We can a bum a ride after that. Or maybe that taxi program for drunks can get us back out to the ranch.

Sheldon exited the interstate and wound his way on side streets over to Buck’s Bar. He didn’t need to ask directions. In spite of its being Montana’s largest city, Rock Bottom was still small enough to know where all the bars are.

Sheldon pulled up to the neon­lit entrance like a hired car dropping off celebrities at a nightclub. He let the engine idle while Jesse and Frank crawled out.

Frank turned back and leaned in to address Sheldon for the last time. “We’re orphans.” And then Frank and Jesse disappeared into the bar. Gone forever.

When Sheldon got back home, the red light was blinking on his landline. The first message was from Wilford at the funeral home. He wanted Sheldon to know that they had found the hearse. But also that a new situation had developed that he didn’t want to disclose in a voicemail. The next message was from a deputy in the County Sheriff’s office over in Terry. Someone had called in a license plate number that matched Sheldon’s Firebird. Something about a hearse, and some guys in a field, and some questions that needed answering. Sheldon knew he’d need to fine tune those answers before he called anybody back. Or maybe he’d just wait to see if anybody was interested enough to visit him in person. He’d know what to say by then.

Sheldon’s couch beckoned him back to its disability­funded embrace. So tempting. So easy. His mother’s disappointment. But something else beckoned to Sheldon more. He popped a couple of pain pills and washed them down with what was left of the Pabst that still sat on the coffee table where he’d left it earlier. It was warm by now but still beer. And the dog­eared Steinbeck could wait.

Sheldon got back in the Firebird and drove over to the little house his mother had lived in for the last five years of her life. He pulled the key from the pot of dead flowers on the front stoop and unlocked the door.

The hospital bed that had confined his mother for the last six months dominated the living room. All the other furniture had been moved to accommodate it. The empty bed glowed in the apricot light of the setting sun. Sheldon could see that after his mother had been taken away, the hospice nurse had pulled up the sheet and baby­blue blanket and tucked them neatly around the mattress. A small table sat next to the bed with all kinds of bottles and tubes and boxes on it, pills and ointments and tissues. An oxygen bottle sat with its long plastic tube, coiled like a calf­roper’s lariat, hanging over the valve. The mask that had fed his mother her last breath dangled down almost to the floor.

Sheldon pulled the pillow from the bed. He tucked it under his arm and left the haunted room. He went to the back door and exited the house, his house now, it occurred to him. He dropped the pillow on the porch and walked back to the detached garage that faced the alley. The small garage’s clapboards were warped and rotten from a lifetime of neglect in the rain and snow.

Inside, he found the garage as it had been since he’d moved his mother from Terry, full to almost its greatest extent with the remaining artifacts of his family’s history on the high plains. Behind a box and a box and another box, he found two mattresses that he already knew were there, each wrapped in plastic, standing vertically at attention against the wall.

He gripped the edge of one of them, the one he knew to be from his own childhood bed, and wormed his way back out to the door, shuffling and dragging. He hauled the mattress to the middle of the backyard, where he unwrapped it from the plastic that had protected it from modern existence. He dropped it flat on the ground. He retrieved the pillow from the porch and returned to sit on the edge of the mattress, his weight crunching down into the brown, unmowed grass.

He removed his boots. He studied the dirt under his fingernails.

The day writhed and sighed and finally gave up, with the air cooling and the light leaving, with the sound of birds cross­fading into the sound of crickets, and with the first bold stars of night twinkling their entrance onto the darkening stage. He lay down under the weight, the amniotic universe pressing in, the infinite unknown beyond that. He lay down and curled into a fetal position. He pushed his head into the pillow that smelled of antiseptic and breathed in the dead skin.


His back hurt.

He tried to forget.

Eventually­­ was it hours or years or eons ­­he dreamed of something his father had told him: you shouldn’t drive anywhere in Montana without a shovel. There would always be weather, he had said. Snow and mud to dig out of. And there would likely be fires to put out. Montana was a place where you needed the right tools in order to live there. And someday, you might need to bury your mother. 

Dancing Mares and Rainbows

We meet the owner by the barn.  She’s talking with her mother, both women ignoring the skeletal mare standing behind them.  It’s a grey autumn afternoon, and a cold breeze pours down the canyon through the tops of the pines, scattering strands of forelock across the bay horse’s face.  “Over by the house.”  The owner nods across the creek to a clearing past an aspen grove, where a solitary backhoe works.  My boss, the veterinarian, sighs and we drift along with our gear a respectful distance behind the women and the horse.  She’s a professional, my boss, but she’s also a friend of these women. “This will be hard,” she’d said as we drove up to the ranch. This is the worst and the best part of her job: eliminating pain, putting a soul to rest, easing a human’s troubled heart.  But it’s still hard.  This is the last of the owner’s father’s great show horses – horses she danced with as a girl at the Kansas City Royale over twenty years ago before a crowd of thousands; this is the last thread that connects her late father to their living world.

    When we reach the trees, the women look around at anything but the backhoe and the growing hole in the ground, and I know what’s going through their minds.  Their hands stroke the soft, warm fur of the mare’s proud neck.  The hole is deep, cold, rude.  Suddenly, the mare notices the two of us coming through the aspens.  As if reading our intent in our approach, she tosses her head and snorts, her dark eyes wild.  For a moment, I imagine twenty-some years of show ring glamour: the noise, strange smells, horses calling.  Back at the barn – maybe in the office – there must be a showcase of ribbons, photos of her offspring.  Now her muscles sag and disease has stopped her once-gleaming coat from shedding.  A curly wool shows where the owner had to shave her in this past summer’s heat.  As we join them in the clearing, the old bay dances and blows, refusing efforts to calm her.  It must be our twin green overalls – our uniform for ranch calls - the owner jokes.  The backhoe moves away from the hole and shuts down.  Finally.  The silence is wonderful, the grove of aspens so peaceful.

    Now it’s our turn, and my boss and I approach the group by the hole.  The owner’s husband has arrived.  He takes the lead rope from his wife as her mother turns quietly and heads back across the pasture, studying the creek, the windy pines, the skudding clouds.  My boss is kind and quiet as she explains what’s coming.  I’ve heard it a hundred times and still I’m touched by her sincerity.  The horse either fights it or drops like a stone.  You just never know.  The owner is crying, so is my boss.  The mare is suspicious.

    This one isn’t pretty.  We’re too close to the hole.  The bay mare staggers, slides sideways and into the earth where she rests on her rump, her breath rasping and stopping, rasping and stopping.  We hesitate.  We could give her another injection, but in this case, it would be dangerous.  My boss would have to climb down into the hole with the mare, whose mind may be gone but instincts die hard and her hooves could be deadly.  So we stand and wait, and at last, there’s only the sound of aspen leaves chittering in the wind.  We all breathe again.  The mare’s position in the hole is awkward and I want to turn her head, to straighten her neck.  My boss just smiles, sadly.  “She’s not there anymore, you know.”

    A few weeks later, I’m at the grocery, talking with the owner’s sister about that day and the lingering sadness.  Then she brightens.  The night before our ranch call, she says, she’d been to the ranch to say her goodbyes to the mare.  She’d asked the old bay to give her love to her father, and the mare had gazed back at her with big, calm eyes.  For each of the four days after we’d put the mare down, there were rainbows; she’d called her mom and sister.  I’d seen one from our clinic across the valley: brilliant sun bursting through threatening clouds, an electric arc of color emerging from the canyon, new snow dusting the pines above the ranch.  It had been breathtaking.  Somewhere, she smiled, her father was riding a dancing bay mare.

2012, 2016, 2017

2012

For dad’s sixty-second birthday, I send a package. Ten albums of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And a pack of Camel Menthols. Our phone call ensues as if a year of silence hasn’t passed. He complains the music isn’t secular and the cigarettes aren’t his favorites. That’s sixty bucks I’ll never get back.

Mom once told me how she bought him thousands of dollars of suits at Men’s Warehouse for job interviews. He complained they felt weird. He said to her what he says to me. “It’s rude to buy someone something that they don’t want.”

Another sixty bucks buys groceries for the week. Sandwiches, potatoes, pasta, cereal, milk. Checking account balance: $12.79. Days remaining until next paycheck: twelve. Commuting to work costs roughly three bucks round trip. Ten bucks an hour for eight hours. Sixty-four total after taxes. Two weeks of work equals six-hundred-forty. Rent and utilities share is four-fifty. Minimum credit card payment is one-hundred-forty. Chipping away at five-grand. So in two weeks I’ll earn my pay and hand it over to everyone else who needs it, and I’ll have $50.

    Checking account balance in two weeks: $62.79.

Oh, I forgot to deduct gas expenses. Provided I don’t drive anywhere except for work, checking account balance in two weeks: $32.79.

Wait, the Netflix bill came in. $23.80.

The pizza from the other night to celebrate the release date for Rabbit: negative twenty cents.

Thirty-dollar overdraft fee.

The five-dollar breakfast burrito from the other morning to break up the monotony of the same old groceries.

Thirty-dollar overdraft fee.

The cat food. Another week of groceries. A day of feeling sick and throwing up and can’t come into work to make sixty-four bucks. Almost two-hundred in the hole. Put it on credit, maxed out again. Next paycheck. Next time. Don’t worry, it’ll change next time.

The boss says, “You’re doing good work. You have the highest sales numbers than anyone on your team. Do you have anything to share that might help?”

The job entails sitting at a computer with a headset, making cold calls to peoples’ homes and offering Time Warner Cable. Responses include: “Remove me from whatever list you have me on” “Go fuck yourself” “I can barely afford the cable I already have” “My father just died” and silence before hanging up.

The boss says, “As much as we appreciate your approach, can you stick to the script? A team of people worked very hard on creating this script for you to follow. It’s proven to work.”

I say, “Every time I do it your way I get yelled at.”

Next week. Next time. Next paycheck. Six-hundred-forty pays for the gas ride home and a night of drinking bleeding into a weekend of phone chat hotlines and lap dances and a divorced twenty-something from Vegas, women younger than me and older than me. Six-hundred-forty could pay for a Smith & Wesson or Glock 26 with some ammunition, but I figure I’ll go out the slow and painful way. Pour me another.

The boss says, “We’ve noticed your numbers falling. You’ve missed work the past two days and you don’t seem to be making any sales.”

Every time I do it their way nothing changes. Still twenty-three and no closer to growing out of sixteen. They say, stick to the script. Buy a car. Go to college, earn a degree. Go to work, earn a twenty-five cent raise per year. Can’t buy a house? Why not? Every kid your age used to own a house. You must be doing something wrong. We must be doing something wrong. I must be doing something wrong. Pour me another.

“Your card’s declined. Do you have another card?”

Just pour me another.

“If you can’t pay for your drinks, we can offer a payment plan. We can maybe set you up with a line of credit.”

I wasn’t aware bars offered those.

“We also take flesh as payment. One square inch of flesh per hundred dollars owed.”

That doesn’t seem so unreasonable.

Rabbit needs a different ending. Sitting at a cluttered writing desk, addressing an email to the editor the publisher assigned me. I have some additions to include, along with our developmental edits. Multiple endings. Maybe we can work them into the book, show how the author can’t rewrite how things turned out with his dad and whatnot. In between chapters, I listen to Nine-Eleven phone call recordings from the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center Towers. I want to learn their calm.

If I live until twenty-eight, I’ll have lived longer than Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, or Kurt Cobain. 1,825 days remain, roughly the amount of time spent earning a Bachelor’s in English. 180 days and four jobs later, I’m selling Time Warner Cable. At this rate, I could hold fifty-seven jobs and outlive famous musicians by a year.

If I live as long as dad’s lived then 13,505 days remain. If only living equaled currency, I could earn fifteen Bachelor’s degrees. $740,000. Is it really any different from $80,000? Twenty-grand per year for an education, and the new job pays less than seventeen-grand. Come on, how can you not own a house by now? Haven’t you thought of raising kids? Meeting a woman to marry? Buying her a ring? You’d be hurting to afford her dinner, much less flowers.

Maybe I’ll apply for grad school and student loans since the debt’s not vanishing anytime soon. Or go back for Physics this time. Chemistry. Astronomy. Cosmology. Maybe I’ll get a couple years in and get hit by a bus or a cancer diagnosis and it won’t matter what I was returning to school for. Was I happy?

Are you happy?

The boss says, “If you need someone to review the phone script with you, we can do that.”

You can? Oh boy, that sounds like just the solution. Review the script. The rules. The game. The sale. The pitch. The cash grab. Sure, I’ll get their money for you. For my pennies on the dollar. So long as you keep sending me that paycheck, that whopping $640 for 80 hours of my life. I’ll trade you the next thirty-seven years until I’m how old dad is now, and I still won’t be any closer to writing the best ending to our story and how that motherfucker couldn’t just be who I wanted him to be. This is it. And the book’s done.

Catalina highway runs through the Santa Catalina Mountains; follow it to reach the top of Mount Lemmon. Here, father’s father often visited. They spent afternoons relaxing in the midst of cooler winds, a treat for Arizona locals. Lowland desert makes up much of the scenery; throughout it, conifers such as firs and pines are interspersed. Changing seasons nourish mosses and lichens. Following tree-fires, the Snow-flower feeds on their decaying roots. Bird songs fill the space—a mountain chickadee or black-headed grosbeak. Beneath them, coils the Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake. The canyon tree frog calls out, clinging to a ponderosa pine. Dusty-green and worn-red brushes cliff-sides.

From the Mount Lemmon lookout, clouds have sailed in, squished, intermingled. Looming rain-shadows drag over lowlands. The trails you scaled, now beneath, are black outlines. Sun breaks through, the swirls golden, the city caught between a spectrum of rock and atmospheric pressures.

This, father saw.

His father saw.

I will see.

    2016

The newest professional assigned to figure me out and fix me, or in their words: assist me with managing emotional behaviors, is a woman in her late thirties, slightly older than Annie. Her left hand bears a ring so she must have some idea of managing emotional behaviors.

I say, “Annie’s been in a lot of pain lately so our current sex life isn’t regular. And that’s fine. I just can’t do anything by myself or my anxiety skyrockets and I start regressing into negative thoughts associated with bad memories.”

She says to try and think of my desires as a mass of energy needing different branches to excel. The core self is full of ambition. That ambition has long ago manifested itself into an energy that channeled into one part of me instead of many parts.

She says, “That happens to us sometimes when we overfeed what gives us pleasure. Would you consider yourself lonely?”

“I’m lonely in my head most of the time.”

She asks, “Do you recall the story of the two wolves?”

“No.”

“There are two wolves in a person. One represents anger, fear and shame. The other—mindfulness, forgiveness, kindness. The wolf you feed is the wolf that grows strongest. If you choose to feed the second wolf, you must not beat the first. Instead, allow the second to calm the first and sit by the fire as your whole self.”

“Is there anything I can do to try and redirect my desire?”

“You can try doing something small that also brings you pleasure. Drink your favorite drink. Eat a favorite snack. Try to indulge in other things that remind you of your diverse senses.”

On the ride home, I think of buying myself a large pepperoni pizza and some Dr. Pepper. Maybe watch some Golden Girls with Annie or a film we’ve both never seen. Maybe show her a film I love she’s never seen. Or watch one she loves.

Dad texts me, HEY AM SO SORRY I CULDNT B THE FATHER U DESPERATELY NEEDED N I TOTALLY GET THAT, WISH I CULD FIX IT ALL N DONT REALLY KNO WUT 2DO ABOUT THAT BUT NEVR STOPPED LOV4NG U OR UR MOM..I DO CARE ABOUT UR EMOTIONAL NEEDS, SPIRITUAL QUESTIONS, LIFE PHILOSOPHYS, JUS UR LIFE EXPERIENCES, ETC..MISS U, LUV DAD :)

I text him, Did you ever feel a ton of anxiety or have panic attacks?

YEP I DID FEEL BOTH OF THOSE TYPES OF ATTACKS, Y?

I’m having them all the time. Like I can’t breathe. I don’t know how to make it stop.

I DO NOW BUT 1ST RECOGNIZE WHO CAUSES THEM, OUR COMMON ENEMY, LUCIFER WANTS2 BIND U UP ANY WAY HE CAN BUT HEZ A LIAR! GOD DELIVERED US ALL FROM SLAVERY BRO!! I LOVE U JUS THE WAY U ARE SON, DONT LET PANIC B STRONGER THAN UR PERSONAL POWER, OR “CHI”, U RULE OVR IT, DUDE!

I’m arriving home. Annie asks how therapy went. I say, “Fine. How’re you feeling?”

“Same as yesterday and the day before. I just wish it would stop.” Her face crumples into pain, tears squeezed out and down her cheeks.

We sit on the couch in each other’s arms, some of the time spent in silence and the rest in whatever random thoughts pop into our heads. The election results. The depressing Facebook feeds. The news. The shitty weather.

I say, “We should go out on a date. Maybe go to a comedy club.”

She seems to favor that idea. She says, “What was going through your mind that night before you held my hand?”

“Oh, I was terrified and thrilled at the same time. What were you thinking before I reached over to hold your hand?”

“I was thinking that as soon as the show was over and we were outside that I’d kiss you.”

2017

    More nightmares. 2 AM, wake up. Breathing’s fine, just feeling uneasy. Play a puzzle game on my smartphone. Uninstall the game. Read a book, write some.

    5 AM, start the coffee. Before I know it, noon’s rolling in. Then late afternoon. Annie’s headed out for a show. I tell her, “I’ll watch the online stream. Gonna call him tonight.”

    She asks, “How’re you gonna tell him?”

    “I don’t know. Haven’t figured that out yet.”

    She leaves. I call.

Goes straight to voicemail.

I sit and write for an hour or so. The sun’s just beneath the horizon. The gray sky’s awash with a deep, muddy orange.

The phone rings.

“Dad? How’s it going?”

He’s already mid-sentence as if we’ve been chatting. Whatever he’s saying I can’t make it out. I relocate to the living room and sit on the couch.

He says, “I had a really bad night, couldn’t sleep. Didn’t even get out of bed until like three-thirty.”

“Why’re you having such a hard time falling asleep?”

“Cuz my pain. Just my pain. My life has completely shut down…I got to sleep finally. But I just had a really bizarre dream where I was having sex with my mom and my dad walked in on us and caught me. I just knew she was Satan. It was a very upsetting dream.”

I say, “I’ve been having bad dreams lately.”

“Yeah, sometimes those bad dreams are the enemy trying to discourage you. And I just…I just started praying. I fall asleep better when I keep offering prayers.”

He rambles on about his various physical injuries, as if I’m his new doctor and need to hear about the first time he didn’t lift a heavy box properly. And then there’s the first time he slept in his truck. And this time and the other.

He says, “With my hip and my neck and my back out, I can’t do anything. I can’t do laundry. I can’t go to the store so I burn through my money having food delivered here. I’ve lost weight…which I wanted to do anyway. My stomach’s completely down which, that’s a positive thing out of it. Been trying to get rid of the weight. I want to get back to one-eighty.”

“Yeah.”

“And I have colon problems. Polyps. Diverticulitis. Chronic, what do they call it? Chronic colitis. I have digestive problems. It’s just a pain in my ass. They gotta do a CT scan. They’re thinking of colon cancer. I’m not really concerned. If I get it, I get it. I won’t do chemo. If that’s the way I check out then that’s how I check out. I won’t do chemo.”

“Did they say cancer?”

“Huh?”

“Did they actually suggest it was cancer or do any tests?”

“No, when I had a scan done like a year and a half, two years ago, they said there’s an abnormal thing. But I just…I went, I had…There’s some stuff my doctor gave me and you can feel them, like several bumps right up in there. So…Are you still at your same job?”

“Uh, no. I just recently quit my job.”

“You did?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“I was just sick of it. I would get really bored. Or I would get stressed out. My anxiety would get bad, like I couldn’t breathe. I just felt like it was getting in the way of all the things I care about. I’d rather be doing things that I feel passionate about.”

“I totally get that. You gotta do what you love. If you don’t follow your dream, you know…I flushed mine down the shitter with my drug addiction…So how’re you gonna make it financially? Are you still with roommates or you on your own? Or what?”

“I’m living with this woman I’ve been with for the last year. Things are good with her.”

“Is she willing to support you and help you out?”

“She’s been really supportive. I’ve found some odd jobs I can do here and there. And the mental health program and unemployment here is helping me out in the meantime while I look for another job.”

“Were you saying, would you say…I mean, I hate the word but would you say you were suffering from mild depression?”

“I’d say mild to severe. I’ve gone in and out of depression for as long as I can remember.”

“Yeah, I know. I don’t anymore. I prayed and God took it away. Life has ups and downs but I went through it when Richard committed suicide, my best friend of ten years. Plus, living with my mom and her being a control freak and wanting to argue all the time. And then I ended up in my truck. Yeah, that was the second time…I used to call my mom…I came down with that MRSA virus and almost lost my leg…I just called my mom every other night. I’d say, ‘Mom, I’m gonna end it. I can’t take it anymore.’ And she’d encourage me…My mom was the dichotomy…she was the one who’d say you don’t have to be so hard on yourself. But when she’d get mad at me she’d bring up the past. And I’ve a lot of time to think about things. And I understand I hurt my parents really bad. I really put them through the ringer. And that fact that they didn’t disown me? I’m very very fortunate. I understand her anger now. And a lot of time ago I forgave her. But I don’t even know where she is now. You know my sister didn’t even call me…They didn’t even call me to tell me my mom’s still alive or she’s dead. They moved her from where she used to be. For dementia. She’s not at the same apartments. That was over a year ago. When I was living on the street still she was doing my laundry. My mom saved my ass. As she could afford it. And my sister was pissed cause she was spending some money on me, but if it wasn’t for her putting me up in a hotel for a night or two nights or three nights when it was a hundred-and-five, was brutally hot outside; you know, I ended up in the hospital. Twice. From dehydration. My kidneys shut down. I almost died. Two summers. Twenty-eleven and Twenty-twelve. The summer you came up, I ended up in the hospital again. And I didn’t drink alcohol. They didn’t know what was going on. They really didn’t know what was causing it. But she would put me up there or, you know, only when I was really desperate. I didn’t ask all the time. I just…I would call her. And she did my laundry. That’s the only thing that saved my ass! She…I was getting food stamps, which, uh…they recently…I just got them back this month and I only get thirty-nine dollars a month! It’s worthless! It’s worthless. And I can’t even…I haven’t been to the grocery store in two months. I literally can’t do anything. When I have surgery I’m gonna be up shit creek because…they’re gonna do some rehab, and I’m by myself. I’m alone and I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I don’t know. I’m trusting God to work it out, but, yeah, I got…I’m having to pay two-hundred dollars a month rent, so that leaves me four-eighty, but now I’m gonna have to pick up a bulk of my food costs and I don’t even have a couch. And my chair recliner I just got which is a piece of crap that got donated, it’s broken, it’s leaned to one side and a screw on one side is sheared off, and I have to buy…somehow I have to buy a new couch on craigslist or something, maybe this next month when I get my check, when I get my check on the twelfth of April. Auto deposit it. So…you know, I mean, not alive but I’m barely existing. I’m barely existing. Which I’m thankful I’ve got a roof over my head, don’t get me wrong. I thank God every day. I have AC. I have heat. I have a new electric stove. I’ve got shower. I’ve got a nice refrigerator. You know…I’ve got, you know, I’ve got my big TV and I’ve got cable. You see, I don’t need much. I have the basics…But my stupid CD player! On my stereo…it just quit working. Stereo works but I was gonna play a CD and…I push a button to open the door and it doesn’t even open, it says something else. It’s gone completely haywire and I haven’t played it in months…Bizarre…Bizarre. It broke while it was off. Isn’t that strange?”

“Yeah, that is strange.”

“Yeah, it worked the last time I played it. So when do you start getting an actual check? I know there’s a wait period.”

“They said about four to six weeks.”

“So if you were making pretty good money, are you gonna get like the full unemployment amount?”

“Yeah, I should get the full they said.”

“Oh so that’s good.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna keep looking for work and focus on what I feel passionate about. And Annie’s got her music so goes out on tour here and there. I’ll join her for a few shows.”

“Oh that would be the life! That would be super cool! You know, me and your mom caught a lot of flack for living together and then she got pregnant. We felt guilty the whole time living together. That’s an individual choice. I’d never do it again, obviously, well, I’ve been alone for twenty-three years. And actually I like my life alone. I don’t have any drama. I don’t have any female drama. I’m too old for that. And I still have women who do that. I meet women who’ll just go off on me and I lose it. I go, ‘Hey, you’re not my wife. You’re not my mom. You’re not my girlfriend, so shut the hell up. Walk away. You don’t own me.’ No one owns anybody. But a lot of times when you get married or even live together they think they own you but that’s not how it works. That’s dysfunction.”

“Should be teamwork.”

“Exactly! And if it’s not that then it’s not the right one. And you need to get out. And hey, you know, as far as your mom goes…I have no animosity! I don’t even remember what she…and, maybe it was the…maybe it was some past stuff that she held some animosity toward me that she wasn’t able to forgive. Everybody has that. I understand. I don’t know what was the final thing but…but she just exploded on me like, I told you that. It was in front of you. I saw you standing in front of the TV staring. She was screaming at the top of her lungs, ‘Get the hell out of my effin life. I hate your effin guts.’ She had a couple things, couple of times before that, when she threw out all my clothes out the front door. And I’m like, ‘Calm down! Stop, please calm down!’ I was always trying to be the…calm person. Cause two people doing that, bad things happen. So I was the one getting her to calm down. And she’d go into her bedroom and lock the door for like an hour, hour and a half, and come out crying, saying, ‘I’m so sorry.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my god. Something really heavy’s going on with her. She…She was great to me. She actually supported me when I tried to open my own business. When I did stuff I owned a cellphone business. You know, she helped me out a lot. I still owe her money. You know…so it’s been busy. I learned a lot. And like, when you asked me what’re the top five things I most regret, hah, I mean there’s like twenty-five or thirty things I regret. But…yeah, I…a large part of me, I…you know, I’d stop on the freeway. I was out in the middle of the desert saying, what the hell am I doing? I don’t wanna go back to Tucson with my parents. I need to turn around. But I didn’t. So…you know, there’s that bubbling question—hey God, am I where you want me to be? Or are you just making the best of my dumb decision? You know, and was it meant to be? Or I dunno. I don’t know. Where I am now, is it where, was it where how my life was gonna end up? I don’t think so, myself. You wrestle with those questions all the time. Besides, you’re not even, I don’t even….I don’t dwell on that anymore cause what’s done is done. Unfortunately, you…oh well, we all suffered from that situation, I’m sure. Her. Me. And you. It impacted our lives. For the rest of our lives. You know, and I feel very very badly about that. You have no idea. I…I suffered depression from that. Just wondering, damn…I ruined my son’s life…Cause I, I asked…I wanted to get married! I wanted to be a family. She was a great person. She was an excellent cook. She was so creative. She just…my mom loved her. She was the only one my mom really loved. My mom totally loved her. She’s like, ‘Oh she’s a great person.’ And that’s…”

My cat Jori hops up onto the couch and cuddles into my stomach, laying her head down. Dad rambles on while I scratch behind her ears in little circles. She purrs.

He says, “People are brutal. Even in the church. It’s a hospital. That’s the reason people go to church. They’re trying to get well. I’ve been trying to get well for the first fifty years of me screwed up. I tell people all the time…you should know how to live your life. Which I do now. I am good to myself. I don’t criticize myself nearly as harshly cause I’m an affectionate…you know what? I strive for perfection but I’m not perfect and I’m no better than anybody. Nobody. Cause I’m a sinner. Saved by grace, man. And I’m a…and I’m a preacher’s son! I knew the right way! You know how much jokes I’ve had in my life? Dude, I was born in a church! My mom dedicated me from the instant she knew she was pregnant. Women know. They know. They don’t have to guess. They can feel it. It’s that sixth sense. They know when something happened. My mom knew. She dedicated me to God. So I felt like an overbearing responsibility to live the way I knew how to live. I don’t ever remember not believing in God. I think I became born again at like three years old. But I never…I said something to my dad once and I shocked him. He’s like, wow, that came out of a three year old’s mouth. My dad was sick. The only time I remember him missing work in his life. He was sick in bed. I came up to him and said, ‘Daddy? Why’re you in bed?’ He goes, ‘Well daddy’s sick. Really sick. He can’t go to work.’ And I said, well, I remember saying it cause I was way too young and I have a very vivid memory. Photographic memory. Which they claim doesn’t exist but it does. The so-called experts say…Well, I do have a photographic memory, but they, uh…they, uh…He said, ‘I’m sick.’ And I said, ‘Daddy, why don’t you just have Jesus to make you well? To do that?’ And my dad was like looking at me, like, oh my god, that’s right. Jesus said you gotta have the face of a child. Cause a child will believe everything. You don’t have that adult doubt. You know, you’re not tarnished yet. And you believe anything’s possible. And you believe everybody. You think everybody’s telling you the truth. Cause you’re just a little positive being with belief. It’s the innocent belief. Naivety. Which, you know, is a good thing. And then it gets real when you get older. You know, all the negative crap comes in. But my dad, he…it kinda shocked him that it would come out of my mouth. I said it just matter-of-factly: just ask Jesus and he’ll make you well. And it’s true. I believe that nothing is impossible. Nothing God can’t do. Because when he got me off the street, that’s the biggest miracle. And I’ve seen a lot of miracles, but…and just like when I got my social security…someone told me! I didn’t check. Someone told me, ‘Hey you can get it on your sixty-second birthday.’ And I went, what? Because I had no verifiable income since two-thousand. That’s seventeen years….I survived. I hustled. I…um, eh…and God helped me. I have guilts on some things I had to do to survive. But…I didn’t steal. But…I did things that…that I knew I shouldn’t be doing. But I had to do what I had to do to keep from dying…To keep from not existing. But…you know, I had to ask for forgiveness for that. Like I sold some of my medication. If I hadn’t I wouldn’t have made it…”

My cat’s asleep. I haven’t had to say a word to keep this conversation going. I wonder, if I left the phone on and headed over to Annie’s show, would he realize I wasn’t here? It could be the years of drug abuse. Years spent sleeping on the street. Maybe the schizophrenia—my doctors said that’s what it sounded like, anyway. I just want to tell him something. If I can find the right moment.

He says, “You know, I did it with LCD. Just…everything. It’s like…all or nothing, pushing the edge. I O-D’d twice over in Point Loma. When I was in college. I’m shooting up barbiturates. And, uh…I shouldn’t be here right now. So I have a guardian angel. I’ve always had a guardian angel watching over me. All my life. But I…I guess I wasn’t meant to go. This one guy…and I wouldn’t call him a prophet…but this one lady, she told me, ‘You have a very special gift. A very special gift that he wants to use. He wants to use in a very special way.’ So maybe that’s why.”

Another half hour passes. I look at the clock then check the online stream. I interrupt him, saying, “Hey, can you tomorrow? Annie’s about to go on stage and I wanna see her play.”

He sounds deflated. “Yeah. If I call and for some reason you don’t pick up my call just call me back. Or whatever.”

I say, “We’ll talk soon. I just…I wanted to talk to you tonight…I wanted to tell you something.”

“Well what is it? You can tell me anything.”

“Well…You said you trusted me. And I don’t wanna lie to you. I’ve been writing about you. About us. Mostly about me. But you know I wrote a book about it, and I’m doing that again. I can’t not do it. Writing things down is the only way I’ve figured out how to figure myself out.”

Without pause, my father says, “Hey, it’s okay. I totally understand all of it. And now that I know more about your situation I’ll know what to pray for. All I can say is don’t expect any results. And just do your best. I wish you nothing but the best, and I love you. You’re my son. You’re blood. You’re blood. I want you to be happy. I just want you to be happy. So when those negative thoughts come in? Ignore them. Say it right there, ‘I rebuke those negative thoughts.’ Serious. Rebuke it. And only think about positive things as much as you can…Anyway, tell her I say hi. Tell her I hope she does great and I hope you enjoy the show…And her name’s Annie?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I’ll pray for her, too…So…just be good to each other. Cause you’re lucky. That’s a blessing. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“Okay, talk to you tomorrow. Love you.”

“You, too. Okay, bye.”

“Bye.”

 

Songs of My Father

I first met my father when I was six months old. There is a picture of him holding me for the first time in the doorway of my grandmother’s house. A military issued desert hat, the color of sand and rock, rests on his back, the string pressed against his weather worn neck. I sit precariously on his tanned arm, a pudgy wary-eyed baby, while he grins into the camera. He had just returned from a year in Saudi Arabia. 

    This picture defines my childhood. There are others like it: yearly photographs that capture his returns to our family; evidence that we were each growing up and apart during his long absences. In these, his grin seems to fade and his eyes grow more distant as the photo-series progresses, while I become less cautious. I cling to his khaki uniform tightly, sure that if I love him enough, he will choose to stay home. Today I know the names for those innocent desires: AWOL; Mutiny. Then my reality was this: orders were received, gear checked, bags packed, boots shined, and hair trimmed. My father put his jeans and t-shirts away in the back of his closet where his clothes would sag with the weight of the briny humid air. There was nothing to do then except wait. 

Days after my father was gone, I’d stand with other swollen eyed children, friends whose fathers left with mine, in the school gym to sing patriot songs: the Marines Hymn, This Land is Your Land, and America the Beautiful.  As our voices rose, I felt the great sweeping elation of our unity, our collective anger and pride and fear bubbling up and out of us, loud enough, we hoped, for our fathers to hear us from their tents in the sand. When the last off-key voice quieted, there was only the sound of our ragged breathing, our beating hearts. 

 

I am a parent of a daughter now, a petite seven year old with a gregarious and inquisitive nature. Madison was one when I left her father, Brian, forcing her to become a child of a poorly functioning fractured parent home. In the first few weeks of our separation, her father and I worked out a makeshift custody agreement. He would get her every other weekend as well as one evening of the week; the total number of days he saw her in a month came out to around six. He didn’t ask for more time, and then, I was happy for it. I had purposefully never stopped to count the number of days I’d seen my own father, perhaps because I was afraid to reduce our relationship to a number that small. I had hoped Madison would grow up accustomed to seeing her father a handful of times a month. If she could grow up with this arrangement, it might seem normal to her, and she would never question the immediacy of his love.  

It has been six years and she cries when she cannot see him. A few months ago, after calling him and getting his voicemail, her voice thickened with grief, and she cried fat tears. She missed him. She was angry at him. He never answered her calls. Why? It is not the amount of time that has passed that bothers her; at least I don’t think so. Time is merely the physical remnant of the absence of her father. The absence of her father looks like a driveway that stays empty, the smell of gasoline and fresh cut grass missing from her clothes, the phone that remains silent. Madison knows it is supposed to be different. Is this subconscious understanding some co-evolutionary trait? At the most basic biological level, parents and their children exist symbiotically and inter-dependently. But this deconstructed explanation removes the dull ache of parental absence. It reduces the situation to a stream of facts. Small girls care nothing for facts. The Portuguese call it saudade: the feelings that remain after a person is gone, someone who may or may not be coming back. There is no word for it in English. When you say it, it sounds like a sob, like the way grief feels. She is filled with the ache of uncertainty: will she see her father again?

    

My father’s departures were the images of him kneeling next to me, the sky grey with early fog, the air cool, and me shivering inside my jacket. The hug of him all starch and kiwi and salt water: the smell of formality. He was saying goodbye and I was glaring at the ugly ship behind him, grey and imposing. I wanted to bury myself into the scratchy uniform on his chest until I felt delirious from the fumes oozing from his jacket. And then we would walk away, my mother, sister and me, back to the car without him. As the weeks bled into months, his scent dissipated from the house. I distinctly remember kicking the wall next to my bed when I was four or five and my father had left. I howled, the hurt inside so great I thought it might crush me, turn me inside out. The pain of my bare feet meeting the walls matched how I felt inside. We called his absence, away on ship. It meant eight to ten months of my mother, sister, and me, alone. It meant packing cardboard boxes full of homemade Rice Krispy treats, packs of gum, playing cards, letters, socks, magazines, chapstick, and cookies. It meant a fierce desire to hide myself in the box. 

I tell some of these stories to Brian. I don’t want you and Madison to have the same relationship that my dad and I do. He instantly panics at the thought of being compared to my father. Of course we won’t have a relationship like yours, he reassures me. I promise I’ll be there for Madison more. And he will. For a few weeks he’s present and available and pours out his love for her. She notices the extra attention, and she notices the way it ebbs and then stops. She is presented with the potential of a better relationship and then present when it fades away. She cries, I wish my dad lived with us, like other girls in my class. I want to believe that I wish he hadn’t put forth the extra effort at all. But that is a lie I’ve told myself for years.

 

Once, before my parents divorced, my father stayed home with me while I was sick. This memory, hazed with fever and time, prevents me from remembering why it was my father and not my mother who stayed. I was sick and still I was eager at the prospect of spending uninterrupted hours with my father. His presence was a commodity we, my mother, sister, and I, fought for. I lay on the cool sheets of my bed, faced the big blank wall, and shivered. Our house was ugly, I’d heard my grandmother say so, but I loved it. I loved the cool tile under my feet, and the big windows that commanded a view of the ocean. Our house often boasted a slew of invaders; troops of maggots and slugs advanced toward the threshold of our slider door at night. In the morning my mother would open the door, -- she loved the smell of salt-water moving in currents throughout the house, -- and cry out in disgust when she accidently tramped on the slimly battlefield. 

The day I was sick, skin taut and prickly against the cool air, the wall next to my bed lit up like a TV screen. I blinked my eyes hard, but the images stayed. Cartoon characters bounced around on my wall, each inside its own little box. At first I was thrilled. I tried to focus on a single TV screen, but found that I couldn’t. I was taking in all the images at once, and I felt like I did when I floated on my back in the ocean: body weightless, my heavy head filled with salt water. I called out to my father, rolled over, and threw up violently onto the floor. 

He rushed in, dressed in jeans and a shirt. His blue Levis were a shock to me. I rarely saw him without his uniform on. I don’t think my father was good at taking care of me that day. I’m sure he cleaned up the mess I’d made, and probably called my mother to ask her what to do. He seemed frustrated and helpless, wiping up chunky regurgitated bits of cheerios and curdled milk, with large handfuls of paper towels. What I remember though, is that after he cleaned me up and I was back in bed, he sat beside me in his crisp blue jeans. And he did not look like my father and maybe that was the fever rendering him foreign, but when he sat down beside me he still smelled like Kiwi, like my father, the Marine, and sleep found me.   

     

A memory: we were going to the beach. I was riding in the backseat of daddy’s car, and my legs were sticky against the black seat; each time I moved my skin pulled away like a band aid being ripped off. Daddy rolled down his window. Ocean air hit my face, my hair was in my eyes but I was grinning, mouth open tasting the salty ocean air, the way it burned going down.

At the beach I would beg him to carry me across the hot sand. I knew I was too big to be carried, but I was going to make up for all the times he hadn’t been here, smelling like Kiwi and starch. I would beg to be carried and when he said yes I would rest my head on his shoulder, feel his skin on mine, how small I was next to him, and I would say in my head, do not forget this, do not forget this. 

We were going to the beach without my baby sister or mommy. This meant that daddy was mine, that I was his, that right then, wind rushing up my nose, the blue line of the ocean coming closer, I could pretend he loved me the most. 

He did carry me across the hot sand. I didn’t try to hide my smile. His face scrunched up but he didn’t complain about his feet, the way I knew they were burning as he raced towards the shore. It was enough to be held. 

We got to the shore and I jumped from his arms and raced through the layers of foam and seaweed until I was stomach deep in cold salty water. I dove under and felt the water numbing my thoughts, filling my ears with the deep pounding quiet. 

When I looked for Daddy he was laying out the gold and red blanket, the one with the Marine emblem on it. It’s the blanket my sister and I hid under when he was gone and we were afraid and scared and lonely. It seemed wrong to bring it to the beach but I didn’t say that. Instead I waved until he saw me. 

“Come play with me,” I shouted.  I watched him shiver as he entered the water. “Take me to the big waves,” I commanded. I didn’t actually like the big waves, they scared me. The force and noise and quickness, they rolled up with speed and I was afraid of drowning each time. But when daddy held me it was safe. I could wrap my legs tight around his body; laugh at the big waves that couldn’t knock him down. 

He picked me up, shivered as my wet skin clung to his and walked further into the deep. It was enough to be held. He ran with me through the water. When I got cold carried me back to the blanket and wrapped me in a towel. My legs stuck out like broken pelican wings. He opened an orange soda for me, dug a hole beside the blanket, and placed my soda in the cup holder he fashioned in the sand.  

“Daddy, what would happen if bad guys came here,” I asked. 

“Bad guys won’t come here,” he stated, so precise I almost believed him.

“But what if they do?”

“Then the Marines will protect you.” 

“But what if you’re away on ship?”

“Then I would leave and come back. I would run and rescue you and your sister and mommy.” I was placated by his lie, and returned my attention to the soda. 

We were back in the car, driving home to mommy and sister. My skin was warm and tingled like goosebumps; my hair was drying crunchy from the ocean. I was tired but I didn’t close my eyes because I didn’t want to forget daddy’s arms around me, squinting in the sun, hot sand, sand on our soda cans, splashing in the ocean, the roar and crash of waves as I hummed a song I learned at school.

 

My mother once described to me a time when she and my father were stuck on the freeway together: typical Californian traffic. They were wedged in between thousands of other cars, all sputtering and humming on the hot asphalt. And there I was with your dad, she told me, hours alone together with nowhere to go. It was wonderful

 

    My father saw me for two hours every year from the time I was ten until the time I was eighteen. A formal custody agreement gave him three months annually. I spent summers with my mom’s parents, and it was there that he’d stride through my grandmother’s back door, an image that returned every year, always looking a little older, a little more harried. (On at least two uncharacteristic occasions, I stayed with him for a full week. His house was bright and too clean. Countertops empty of crumbs. The sink gleamed with newness; I doubt it ever held a dirty coffee cup. Bare white walls threw back the silence. The visits were marked by trips to movies, a place where our silences could be filled with the problems of archetypal characters whose plot lines were cleaner than ours. Let’s go swimming, my father would announce, and my sister and I would clamber to get our suits on. When we arrived at the pool we watched our father swim laps: a pale fish slicing through water. By the time he was finished, he was too tired to swim with us.) 

It was the same every year. I leapt into his arms, despite months I’d spent planning to act indifferent to his arrival. Then he drove my sister and me to Claim Jumpers or Denny’s. We ordered, and filled awkward silences with stories that began with “remember when,” since we had so few new stories to talk about. My father always inevitably said the same four things: “I’m proud of you,” “you know the value of a dollar,” “I’m praying for you,” and, “You know I love you.” The words fell onto the empty table in front of us, splattered there like the menus we’d already looked at. He stared at us awkwardly, unsure of himself.      

I didn’t think my father knew who I was. I was a girl who measured her worth by how many boys led her into quiet corners to grip her back with their sweaty hands, and breathe hard into her neck. My father, unaware, praised me for my resourceful and level head. He claimed that God loved me, and in this love I might find the peace my earthly father couldn’t give. But my father prayed to the God of Abraham, who bound his son with rope, a blade held over pale neck. I prayed to the man who pulled children into his lap to tell stories, and taught them how to love. 

So we ate our salads, our pancakes, our ice cream, and he drove us back to my grandmother’s house. Then he hugged me goodbye, repeated the lines of the role he played, and was gone. Over the next year he would send me a few emails, and some hand written letters, and I would rebel at the idea that our relationship was defined by the amount of money my father spent on postage stamps. His phone calls were brief, three to four minutes where he told me he was praying for me. His letters were always cryptic, always signed, I’m proud of you. You know I love you, Dad.  

 

My father came to my high school graduation. The day he arrived, he, my sister, and I sat around a sticky table eating burritos. My father began speaking in the only way he knew how, until my sister and I stopped him. Dad, we said, if all you’re going to do is say the things you always say, then you should leave now. We want to have real conversations with you. We want to know you, our father, not the man who commands men

He sat there shocked. I think we were shocked too. To have taken a stand and said the things that had been on our minds for the last ten years. 

For the next three days he told us stories. He made us laugh. We hadn’t known he was so funny. Or that he was a trouble maker in high school, that he’d plastered bologna on someone’s car in the midday sun and it had fried there to the paint. We didn’t know he liked the Food Network Channel. We didn’t know he was capable of that with us. When we knew, we wanted more.     

 

When I was twenty, Madison, Brian, and I visited my step-sister, Alexis,–my father’s second wife’s daughter–, at her home in Southern California. We drove through Camp Pendleton’s brown gates, past bored looking armed guards, and they lazily waved our vehicle forward. Alexis’s military issued house was, like my childhood house had been, within a few miles of the ocean. Standing on her patio, the sun on my back, briny air whipping hair into my face, the years away melted and unearthed the image of my father and me, at the beach, my small hand in his.  

In her house, the air-conditioner hummed and ticked, and the tiles were cold and sticky on my bare feet. I introduced her to my one year old daughter and her father, my boyfriend. Later Alexis pulled me into the kitchen to ask if I was really happy with Brian. I shrugged. I knew even then that he and I weren’t going to make it. It seemed instead a matter of how long we might ride it out for, our relationship a turbulent wave that had peaked and was sputtering and slowing as it reached the shore. Leaning there against my step-sister’s kitchen counter, just a few miles from my own childhood home, I felt strangely impartial to the prospect of our eventual dissolution. 

Alexis was throwing a birthday party for her daughter the next day and asked if we wanted to come. She mentioned my father would be there and then seemed shocked I hadn’t known. Her own relationship with my father had always seemed more complete than my own–she once told me she didn’t understand why he didn’t return my calls. I called him then. 

“What are you doing tomorrow?” I blurted out as he answered, his “hello” as precise as his service in the military had been. 

“Oh geez,” he hemmed and hawed, “well I’m actually in California right now, we’re still trying to sell the house, and I’m going to a birthday party for Kaelynn.”

“Dad, we’re here right now visiting. We should get together. You can meet your granddaughter.” The ocean rumbled in my ear. 

“Oh well I’ll have to see if we have any other plans and get back to you, I’m not sure what we have going on.”

“Ya, no worries,” I forced myself to say. I said goodbye and hung up the phone. 

 

From the time of my parent’s divorce when I was five, my relationship with my father had been as wild as the ocean’s currents. If I looked far out across the span of our relationship, everything seemed glassy and smooth. It was only when I paused for breath with longing,–for a dad who wanted to know what books I was reading and who’d I’d gone to homecoming with and what my favorite color was and how I imagined a different life with him and how I hated that he sent money for my birthday every year because it felt like a bribe, a buy-out for a father who wasn’t ever there–, that I noticed the way dirty foam bubbled on a shore littered with trash. As a teenager I would often call him during the months I knew he was home. Two or three minutes into the conversation he would say he was busy and could he call me back soon? Then months would pass before I called him again. He was still in the service and moved around every few years. Despite this, he and his wife frequently visited her daughter in California. He had visited me twice in the eight years since I’d lived in Washington. The last time he came I was pregnant. It was his first time meeting my boyfriend. He seems like a good guy, my dad remarked to me after visiting with him for only a few hours. It’s weird, my mom had said, how similar your dad and Brian are.

Months after our last phone call, when he was too busy to see me, he texted me to ask for my address; he wanted to send a Christmas card and gift to his granddaughter. My address had changed since I’d separated from Brian. I asked him not to send us anything, anymore.

 

When Madison was two she threw a tantrum so violent, kicking walls and screeching in my face, that I became livid, then silent. When she was calm enough, she sat in my mother’s lap and sobbed. I sat in the chair next to them, arms crossed, hands clenched. 

“Why are you upset,” my mom soothed. At first, Madison refused to answer, instead issuing a series of aggravated grunts. My mom persisted. 

Madison finally bleated, “I just really miss my Daddy,” and the torrent of tears that had mostly subsided, began again. 

    I hid my face in my hands and wept. In that moment I lost track of who I was. Was I my daughter, sitting in her mother’s lap, or my mother herself? Or were we collectively the female version of the trinity, all existing within each other’s pain? 

 

When my daughter cries for her father, I am incapable of detaching myself from her grief. Not because I am her mother but because when she, with swollen eyes, tells me that her throat hurts from her sadness and curls on her side to face the wall, I am once again that same child, weeping for my father. I’ll say, when I was little my dad was gone all the time, and, I haven’t seen him in eight years, so she won’t feel so alone in her suffering. 

My mother used to beg my father to see my sister and me. She’d cry, threaten, bargain, and plead, whatever she thought it might take so he would take us for more than a few hours a year. When I was angry at his absence and needed to find fault with someone, my mother was always closest. Why can’t I live with him, I’d yell at her. And always, unflinching, though she later admitted the great pain these statements caused her, she’d tell me simply, he’s allowed to have you for three months out of the year. She never said, but he doesn’t

So I do the same. I call Brian and I beg. I plead. I want to document Madison’s tears, record and send them to him and say, see, see how she aches? I want his tears to match her own, until he says, yes, yes, I can see her needs, and I can meet them now, now that I know. But I don’t. 

How do we measure our fathers’ love: In the amount of money he spends on postage; the brief phone calls filled with the static of thousands of miles of distance; hugs that feel formal and forced; emails that are cryptic or go completely unanswered? In the beginning it was easy for me to find fault with Brian. Now, I understand that people can become accustomed to anything. Because we have had our current unofficial custody agreement for so long, I believe Brian is complacent in the schedule. It works for him. When Madison asks him why she can’t see him more, he says that he’s busy at work, or he’s already made plans. He promises to see her later. Later is never now. For years I never considered what it must feel like to have to ask to see his child. Perhaps the pain of feeling like he wasn’t allowed to be the primary parent anymore, because he had to ask for what was rightly his, was greater than the pain of not seeing her for days on end. Perhaps he felt as though he had been typecast by me: one day he was the father playing airplane with his daughter, stopping for breaks of cheerios and cups of milk; the next day he was the baby daddy, allowed to see his daughter every other weekend, his horde of male friends infecting him with every baby mama drama horror story they could think of.  Perhaps the situation itself,–he is not the primary parent–, is the reason he stays away. In which case, I am equally and painfully at fault. 

My father too, had his own reasons for his absence. He was away for a year at a time, home for only a few months, and then gone again. It wasn’t a choice, he’d tell me over phone calls. I know your mom is taking really good care of you girls, he’d say. I’m sending you some money; look for it in the mail. I don’t want money, I want you, I’d tell him, to which there was never a response. 

By the time she was three, Madison could call her father unassisted. She’d wait patiently for him to answer. Except that he rarely did. She is seven now. “I want to call my dad,” she’ll state, “I know he probably won’t answer, I’ll leave him a message.”

Madison makes more phone calls to her father than I ever did to mine.  

Brian and I still don’t have a custody agreement. I think, when we separated around the time of our daughters’ first birthday, we were both too afraid to go to court. We liked the idea that we were mature enough to figure out visitation rights without the ruling of a judge. So on the weekends when she goes to her dad’s house, I’ll sit to my bowl of oatmeal at breakfast, and I’ll pray that God nourishes the food to my body, keeps my loved ones safe, and helps strengthen the relationship between my daughter and her father, amen. 

On Sunday night she trudges through the door, usually with frizzled, unbrushed hair, clothes she has been wearing since the day before, and tells me that the only thing she ate that day was cookies and a pickle for breakfast. I ignore the hair, the clothes, the food, and I ask her if she had fun. Her father will have just pulled out of the driveway, and she will turn to me with red eyes about to spill over and say, “My dad didn’t spend any time with me.” 

“Well what did you do,” I’ll ask as I pull her into my lap.  

“He played video games and I played by myself,” she’ll bury her face into my shoulder. “He said he had work to do on his computer and he ignored me. He took me to grandma and grandpa’s house and I spent the night there, without him.” 

In those moments I struggle to remain only her mother: stable and emotionally capable of helping her separate her feelings. What I want to do is shrink, grow smaller, until my body closely resembles hers, and I can take her hand in mine and tell her that I’m angry at my father too: we are sisters in our pain. 

Madison’s relationship with her dad is not always turbulent, and it is unfair of me to paint it so. I try to help my daughter concentrate on the good. When she has an exceedingly great time with him,–when they have read books, built ships out of Legos, and watched shows together–, we talk about it in detail. When she is able to spend extra time with him, she waits, half anxious and excited by the door until his silver sedan pulls into the driveway. “He’s here, he’s here,” she shouts, throwing on her coat and running outside to leap into his arms. Her excitement is painfully beautiful. I ache for the possibility of her continued joy. I worry that my insistence that they have a better relationship has more to do with me than it does with her. Because I do not want my daughter to grow up angry and unwanted, I push at her father to be there more. But perhaps the gestures I use to push him towards his daughter are only pushing him away.

 

Five years after my visit to California, when my father had chosen something else,–a wife and step-daughter–, over me, my grandmother, my mother’s mother, called me to talk about love. I do not remember who brought up the conversation. But I do remember these exact words. 

“You cannot give up on your father.”

“Why,” I begged her, sobbing into the phone. “Why do I have to be the one to try so hard? Why do I always have to call him, why doesn’t he ever return my calls, why doesn’t he want to see me more? Why can’t we have a different relationship?”

“Briana, I can’t answer that. But I know that when you get to the end of your life you will regret the opportunity you might have had.”

“Grandma, it hurts to love him. It hurts to have him in my life.” 

“Of course it does. Love is pain.”

    The wounds I’d pretended were healing had only festered over time. My anger and love and pain bubbled beneath the surface of a deteriorating skin. I knew enough about medicine to know that I’d have to cut the wound open again in order to clean it. I trapped my frustration onto a page and sent it to him. I want something different from you, I wrote. I want you to be the dad who’s there, the one who wants to know what I do for fun, the one who shares jokes with me, and takes me to lunch, the one who doesn’t have to say he loves me. He responded with his own misunderstandings. He blamed me for shutting him out. I blamed him for pushing me away. We didn’t see that we were fighting for the same thing. 

    Eventually, after several angry emails and the dwindling possibility of our relationship moving forward, I wrote, you had the opportunity to see me and you didn’t. Why didn’t you love me enough to be there? I specifically referenced the time in California, when we’d been less than fifty miles from each other, but I realize now that I was asking the question for a lifetime of absence. 

    I can’t remember what his response was, but I can remember that he didn’t blame the military, my mother, or me. He apologized, not as a captain of the Marines, or the ex-husband of a mother doing a good job, but as my father. And there seemed to be a shuddering intake of breath issue from both of us, in this admission. 

 

    When I emailed him a few years ago, my father had told that we might never have the relationship I wanted; it just wasn’t what he could give. He asked if he could call me and I had said no, that I felt less vulnerable on the safety of the page. And that was true until the day, years later, I’d found out I was having a miscarriage. After his career in the Marines he had become a nurse, a healer of wounds. I was broken and empty and I called him to say, I’m bleeding, and I hurt. He talked to me for an hour: as a nurse, as a friend, and as my father. 

I call my father more often now.    

    “What’s up,” he’ll ask. 

I need to speak to a nurse, I’ll tell him. 

“Shoot.” 

And then he’ll listen while I explain the symptoms. He interjects to specify: pain in the abdomen or the belly button, temperature over 101? I can see him nodding on the other end of the line before he begins to give me his advice. We use medicine as code to talk about other things,–he says, my knees are shot, I can’t run marathons anymore, I had to find new hobbies, I’m lonely, and I say, Madison complains of stomach problems, is something actually wrong, should I take her to the doctor, am I a good mother?  

Recently I called him on behalf of Madison. On the other end of the line, his voice sounded deep with fatigue. After explaining her symptoms he told me to take her to the ER. It was almost midnight. Call me back and let me know what happens, ok, he’d said. In the car on the way to the hospital, Madison, shaking in the back seat asked, “is my dad coming?” I’d called him after I got off the phone with my own father. Her dad wouldn’t come. He said he had to work the next day and besides, the hospital was too far away. I told her he wasn’t. She began to cry. 

“Why?” 

“Because sometimes people don’t make the right choices.” 

“When he does these things I don’t think he loves me,” she shivered as she sobbed.

I couldn’t respond.  At the hospital, her father sent me text after text, asking if we’d been seen or not, and how was Madison doing. I asked Madison if she wanted to call her father. 

“No, it’s not the same as seeing him,” she grumbled from her hospital bed. I nodded. I knew. 

On the phone my father had closed our conversation with a familiar hymn. 

“You know I love you and I’m always prayin for you.”

I know, dad, I know, I’d whispered. 

And I did. 

I hoped that someday my daughter would know it too. 

Outside the Lines

Before, I didn’t really see pigeons, and I certainly didn’t pay attention to them.  Ubiquitous in cities and never too far away from people, I let myself write them off as flying rats, as more part of the built environment than the natural one, as ugly, filthy, common, boring, unimportant.  I, effusive in my love for almost everything that grows, that crawls, that runs, that flies, spared no affection for them.

I didn’t like how beady their eyes are, or the ungraceful way they move on the ground, that little strutting walk, head bobbing forward and back.

And if I had occasionally stopped to follow that arrowflight across the horizon with my eyes, be assured that I looked away when I realized that it was just a pigeon, not wild enough to be worth watching.

 

Before, when I third-personed myself, self-consciously watching my own actions as if from someone else’s eyes, I used the words “she” and “her,” but the other word I used to describe myself, “girl,” was always modified by the word “tough.”  I wasn’t some girly-girl, I wasn’t just a girl, I was a tough-girl, a breed apart.  It was an identity, a shield, an explanation for all the ways I didn’t fit in.

I knew I was different, I knew I felt different, but I didn’t have the language for it.  I didn’t know about spectrums.  I didn’t know there were more options than man or woman.  I didn’t know about in-between spaces.  I didn’t know about the vibrancy and the possibility that can be found in shades of gray.

 

 

Crouched in the last of the afternoon light by the corner of a yellowish-tan brick building, watching a small bird of prey tear apart a pigeon, piece by piece, I am just a human, no more categories needed.  

I have never seen anything like this and I didn’t expect to see it here at the corner of Ryman and Pine, downtown, Missoula, MT.  The pigeon is on its back, head ripped off, only the bloody backbone still connecting it to the body.  The raptor is a bit smaller than the pigeon, with glossy brown feathers down its back and wings, white and brown flecking on its breast, and a striped tail, one tail feather askew.  It is perched atop the still breast of the pigeon like a child on a small dirt mound, claiming to be King of the Hill.

It surveys the gray expanse of sidewalk with dark eyes, rimmed in yellow.  Odd shadows play across the cement, light reflecting off windows and even the stop sign rising only a few feet away from both the bird and the corner of the building where I am crouching.  Across the street, maple trees march in a line along the side of the courthouse, the bark of their bare branches dark against the white walls.  Buses huff in and out of the bus terminal.  People walk by every few minutes, many stopping to pull out phones and take pictures.  Most give the raptor a wide berth, but some maintain their path, and at least one, absorbed by the papers in her hand, almost steps on it before another onlooker warns her of what is below her feet.

The bird seems fearless, occasionally flapping its wings in indignation at someone walking too close, but never leaving its perch on the pigeon.  With its sharply hooked beak, it clears the pigeon’s breast of feathers and then rips away small chunks of flesh and swallows them.

This meal is worth watching, a wild drama, even though I missed the chase, the midair collision of bodies, the smaller bird bringing the larger one down to the sidewalk, the struggle and the death. 

 

My feet have just landed back on the thick grass, the bright white disc secure in my hand, even though we both anticipated that it would fly over my outstretched fingers at the top of my highest jump and fullest extension skyward.  I’m smiling, pleased with myself.

Across the field, my friend opens his mouth.  “GUUURL!” he shouts.

I throw the disc back, because I can’t think of anything else to do.  It’s that word, “girl”, no modifiers, no qualifiers, no “tough” to almost change its meaning.  I don’t know how to respond.

Anything would be better than that word, “girl,” naked without “tough” there to try to warp it into something it’s not, outside my head in the air like a flashing neon arrow, reminding me and everyone else of the way I am perceived.

 

It is the excitement of the utterly unexpected that brings me to unfold from my crouch against the wall and lend my thoughts to the conversations that spring up among other observers of the raptor.  None of us know quite what it is.  

Standing on the sidewalk, discussing its identity and sharing the moment and the awe, the bird itself occupies most of my attention, but a corner of my mind wonders who, what, these people—these strangers—think I am.  I don’t pass consistently as male or female.  Blunt features, face bare of makeup, hair loose and to my shoulders, bulky coat broadening my figure.  I never pass the way I want to, as in-between, both feminine and masculine or else neither, genderqueer.  I know most people don’t realize there are other options, don’t realize they don’t have to try to squeeze me into one of two boxes I don’t particularly fit in.  I hope they struggle to make a decision about what I am.  I hope neither choice is obvious.

 

I pause for a moment in the employee bathroom/janitor’s closet, my hands sudsy, my reflection staring back at me from the mirror.  In this job I am surrounded by words, used politely, used descriptively, that take some visible things about me and paint them into my whole self.  She, her, woman, ladies, Ms., ma’am.  I haven’t said anything to change that picture because I am scared that I have no legal protections here, of the rumored intolerance of the people who live in this valley, that this community won’t be willing to learn more about the in between places that take up so much unacknowledged space in this world.

I have trouble saying why the word “woman” doesn’t fit me, except that it never has.  I’m not a man either, but that statement I don’t feel like I need to defend or explain.  I have supporting evidence: my body.

My body.

My body tells stories about me that don’t fit with the way I live inside my head.  But my body is so much more than the pieces that would put me in one gendered box or the other.  I am legs and arms, torso, shoulders, hips, heart beating, brain and nerves firing, fingers touching and creating, eyes watching, ears hearing, tongue tasting, a tangled mess of logic and emotion that rises from the specific arrangement of all of these.  I am human.

My hair hangs past my shoulders, mostly straight.  My chin is square.  My nose is kind of big, but mostly just nose-like.  My brows are thick and there is a permanent line coming down between them.  My eyes and mouth are neutral as I examine the reflection of my face.  It is just a collection of features and two years of not cutting my hair.

I want to be seen: as in-between, as genderqueer, as merely human.  And it occurs to me, looking back at myself, for there to even be a hope of that happening, I need to be able to see myself.

Today, I think I can.

 

A few days later, biking over the Higgins Street Bridge, a handful of pigeons swoops over the red marquee of the Wilma Theater.  I still the slow churn of my legs pushing on my pedals and watch them wheeling against the gray sky.  And I feel something unexpected, a corresponding swirl of awe.  

I have looked down into the plucked carcass of one of those birds, met the fierce light in the eyes of its killer as it peered down from the bare branches of a Norway maple.  That is what merlins are made of.

I have done some research about pigeons and about merlins.  Maybe the pigeon is not so tame as I thought it was, maybe the merlin is not as wild as it seemed to be.  Merlins are one of the few species of raptors whose populations are growing rather than declining.  They have followed pigeons and house sparrows to cities and learned to make their homes there, the way pigeons have, the way raccoons have, the way deer have, the way, even, humans have.

There are no clear lines between what pertains to the human world and what pertains to the natural world.  There are no clear lines between male and female, feminine and masculine.  Maybe there are no clear lines anywhere.  Merlin, pigeon, me, we are life.  We use what is in us and what is outside of us to make our place in the world, trying, and sometimes failing, to survive in this messy and dangerous and beautiful world. 

Corn Snakes No Longer Eat Mice

Today’s the day I tell Taylor. I know it. I know it because I woke up to a text from Mom saying Flame the corn snake is still missing. And that the high’s 80 in Lubbock. Eighty in January? That’s freakishly abnormal for my hometown. Which is a sign. Warm weather augers warm reception to unwelcome news, right? 

Other signs: after we got ourselves out of bed, Taylor fed the cats. He also cleaned out their box, and then offered to make breakfast. Now he’s slicing bread against the Texas-shaped cutting board. Eggs boil on the stove. 

I’m sitting on the futon. You could call it “meditating” but really my mind’s just trapeze swinging back to the same thought, that I’m going to tell Taylor both how Dylan’s coming back to town soon, and when I see Dylan next I want to tell him how I feel. 

January’s already arrived in Moscow, Idaho, with more snow than my north Texas hometown’s ever seen. Snow on the sidewalks, the downtown grain silos, the banks of Paradise Creek. The firs and spruces hoarfrost their branches so that Moscow blooms into an oneiric landscape whose cousin I’d only seen in the dust storms that blew through Lubbock when the sky turned red as menstrual blood. 

So far this morning, no clouds unfurl the sky like snake skin. Rather the window’s all sun, and it’s the kind of yellow we could sauté with butter and fry over-hard.

As Taylor starts to chop kale, I think about Mom’s missing snake. Mom coordinates an animal program at my old elementary school with over a hundred different animals including tarantulas, parakeets, and guinea pigs. The corn snake’s been missing since last week when a fourth grader forgot to secure the lid with the bungee cords. I remember the corn snakes. Growing up, Mom sometimes kept one in an aquarium on the piano bench. Mom fed the corn snake mice. Live. I never watched the mice die, but I stole glances after, when their paws were limp, their heads dangling back. 

When I watched porn in seventh grade for the first time, my stomach felt like those mice. I knew I shouldn’t wander onto whitehouse.com, nasa.com, dirtbag.com, but my curiosity deepened with my ache. I clicked from one picture to another: the women were all boobs, spread legs, and shaved. I knew I shouldn’t. What if what if MomDadKristin walked in? It was the same time I had a crush on both Zach and my best friend Ashley. I thought that if my parents and sister found any of this out, my dad wouldn’t talk to me for a day, and Mom and Kristin would cry.

Finally, I turned off the computer. I put my head in my hands and felt the quivering between my legs. From then on if desire’s a mouse, there’s always a snake waiting nearby.

Or maybe desire’s the snake. And the snake can’t live long without swallowing a mouse. 

 In the kitchen, Taylor sings to himself. He’s slender. His smile leans to the right in an endearing way, and he has a crooked front tooth. Next week he’ll turn thirty.

“Laurelle, breakfast is ready,” he says. He sets two plates on the table, their contents the muted greens, yellows, and browns of Lubbock. The table was the first furniture we’d bought when we moved to Moscow: Goodwill, ten dollars. Taylor found it. Someone had painted the table half crescent moon, half earth. 

I eat on the moon’s face. Taylor butters three pieces of toast.

“What do you think of the new knives?” Taylor holds one up.

I take the knife from him. It’s slender with raspberries on the handles. Against my thumb, the knife’s ridges have the same naked smoothness as Taylor’s pockmarks. “I didn’t even notice them,” I say. “Not bad for Goodwill.”

“I like this one best,” he says, pulling another out from the Mason jar on the table. “The plants remind me of all the cotton fields back in Lubbock.”

Taylor and I moved from Texas back to Idaho a year and a half ago. We left Lubbock with its Applebee’s and cumulonimbus clouds and billboard signs that read “I called them Commandments, not Suggestions—God.” We moved to Moscow with its independent restaurants and stratus clouds and billboards that said “Come say High at Mary’s.” One panhandle to another. My parents gave us their extra wedding silverware. They married thirty years ago. Shortly after, Dad got a job at Texas Tech and moved Mom from Las Cruces to Lubbock. No mountains or hills or curves in the road. No zoo. No neighborhood bible study after Tim-across-the-street refused to let Mom lead the prayer service at our house.

Now most of the knives they gave us are gone. Lost to where? We couldn’t say.

 “Tell me a secret,” Taylor says. He’s cracked an egg on the table and grins so that his front tooth hangs out.

“I’m usually the one who asks you that.”

He peels the egg, putting the pieces on the table rather than his plate. “I’m a wild-card this morning.”

I hmmm and press the knife’s handle to my finger, wondering it it’ll leave an imprint. 

It does.

 “Okay, once in Lubbock, during undergrad, I started Facebooking with this student Jose in a class I was mentoring.”

“Were you their guru?” he asks, popping the egg into his mouth. All of it. 

I look at him. It’s the same look my face made yesterday when I saw squashed mouse on the sidewalk. “Did you even taste that?”

He makes some muffled noise that sounds like “yeshh.”

I go back to my knife handle so he can chew the egg. “No, I wasn’t their guru, Taylor, I was just a year older than them. Anyway, I don’t remember if I messaged Jose first or what we said. But I do remember that the messages were really long. And that I didn’t tell my boyfriend at the time, even though we’d been dating for over a year.”

“Is that the secret?” Taylor picks up another egg. Same snap of bones on the table. 

“No. The secret is that I told my sister about it once. Can you guess what she said?”

“To ask the student out to a movie?”

I grin and fidget with the knife. “You’re funny. She said I’d fuck things up with the boyfriend if I kept getting into Jose.”

Taylor bites into the second hardboiled. Bits of the yellow stick in his beard. “How did

that make you feel?”

“Pretty stupid. And that I might be a total creeper.” I look at my fingernails. They’re more yellow and brittle than I’d like. “I didn’t stop talking to Jose and I didn’t act on the attraction either.”

Taylor reaches over the table. He touches my hand, tracing my fingers then my wrist. This is how he tells me he understands. I wonder what he understands. I wonder if he knows that back then I wouldn’t have thought I could date both the boyfriend and Jose because I didn’t know such relationships even existed. After I graduated, I interned with a nonprofit aimed at keeping kids in their hometowns: Lubbock, Tulia, Littlefield, Nazareth, Brownfield. The nonprofit never asked, what if staying here meant you’d coil pieces of yourself around until they died. Then what are you left with?

The heater comes on. It sputters like the downstairs neighbor’s truck warming up in the mornings. I know there’s nothing like a new flame story to follow one about an old love interest. I could just open my mouth and say: Dylan’s coming back and I’m going to tell him how I feel. Instead, I butter my crusty piece of sourdough, seeing just how long the rubber band can stretch before it breaks. What a habit. It took me twenty-eight years to leave Lubbock for good. Yesterday, I started planning the Comp course I’ll be teaching next week when school starts and overnight Moscow’s downtown will do the rise and swell thing with students, most of them back from their small towns like Rathdrum or Rigby, Priest River, Teton, and then Boise. No more open tables at One World, the coffee shop. Our neighborhood of rental duplexes and split-up-homes will become a hot bed of parties, bass, and unintelligible shouts that’ll be either joy or anger. Maybe our neighbor will even butcher another deer on his porch like he did last fall.

Taylor moves on to the third egg. He picks at the shell and tells me he wants to meet someone who peels them like oranges—thumbnail under the rind, loosening it all in one pretty twirl. 

I set the knife on the table. There aren’t perfect windows to say things, so I just say it. “Dylan’s coming back to town next week.” 

Taylor puts his half-chewed egg on the plate. All he says is, “Oh.”

“Oh” was what Taylor said last fall when I told him “I think I’m into Dylan.” Earlier that day, Dylan had dropped by my office. He was twenty-three, five years younger than I was. He asked if I’d look at one of his writing prompts. It was nonfiction. The essay went that after Dylan’s father came out, his parents got divorced and his dad married a man named Tony. One night, Tony shot himself dead in a sedan. Dylan, his siblings, and father all went the funeral and no one from Tony’s family acknowledged them.

Dylan called the piece “Idaho.”

 We talked more. I don’t remember what about. Maybe how I defined feminism or why Mary Karr wrote Cherry in second person. At one point, I saw a moth crawl across Dylan’s shoulder, and without thinking, I flicked it off, grazed his shirt. Felt the air between us crack. Snap. My face got hot. 

  I thought so this is real. No more pretending. I needed to tell Taylor, even if it would hurt him. He knew I fell for people easily, many people, all at once, and this wasn’t my first time getting swoony over another man. In the beginning, Taylor and I tried an open relationship and so I had a short thing with an old friend. Taylor thought he could handle it but he couldn’t. He fell into a river of utter despair. So there are rules Taylor and I have made. We can both date other women, but for now, I’m not dating other men.

At the table, Taylor raises unibrow, and the effect is more limp than dramatic, like how Paradise Creek sometimes gets in winter. I’ve been with Taylor long enough to know he won’t ask, “Why did you bring Dylan up?” He’ll wait for me.

I tap my egg on the table and say, “Taylor, I want to tell Dylan how I feel.”

 “Why?” Taylor asks, his jaw stiffening. 

 “Because,” I say, picking at the shell, knowing Mom once taught me the trick to peel them in one clean swipe, but I’ve since forgotten. “I want to be honest.” 

 “Can you wait to be honest until right before he leaves Moscow for good?”

 “That’s in April.” I bite into the egg and swallow quick, before I taste the white part. Sometimes Taylor boils them too long and their insides harden like uncapped glue.

 “Why do you want to tell him now?” Taylor asks. I notice his shoulders are up to his neck.

I huff and look out the window at the icicles. After days of melting and freezing, they’re the same yellow of my mother’s teeth. Mom blames the color on fluoride. Once a dentist told me I didn’t need to brush with toothpaste because there was so much fluoride in Lubbock’s water. I took it as one more sign to never move back home.

Mom’s lived in Lubbock thirty years, and for twenty of them, she resented it. She planted lavender, but it died. Fine. She planted Mexican Hat grass instead. No zoo? Fine. She made our living room and then my elementary school into one. We had bird cages of cockatiels alongside aquariums of legless lizards and corn snakes. I grew up with guinea pigs in plastic bins in my rooms and ferrets in the dining room. I didn’t know if all those animals were enough for Mom. I didn’t know if she’d be happier back home in Chicago with the Brookfield Zoo where she had once been a zoo keeper and took care of baby elephants.

Now, there’s an egg chunk caught behind my molar, and I pick at it with my finger. 

“That’s gross,” Taylor says.

I smile so he can see the kale caught in my front teeth too. The day we left Lubbock, Dad gave us six plastic animal plates. Giraffes, lions, elephants. I ate my egg breakfasts on them until they got old. Then I hid the plates underneath the crock pot. This conversation about Dylan also feels old, predictable. The biggest fight of our relationship bloomed across a sepia morning last fall when Taylor said, “Maybe I don’t want you to tell Dylan how you feel after the semester’s over” and back and forth we went, boiling the teapot until I exploded. “I’m going to tell Dylan how I feel even if you don’t want me to.” Taylor got so pissed he took a shower. He went to work. Came home. Crawled under the blankets and looked at me long and hard. He said if we were going to try polyamory there had to be trust, and he couldn’t trust me if I was just going to do what I wanted anyway. 

Now I’m not keen to dust that same argument off. Or eat breakfast on it. I pick at my thumbnail and say, “I want to tell Dylan now because he’s no longer my student.” The thumbnail breaks and I peel it off. “Dylan’s graduated. I can finally say something.” 

 “But why now?” Any expression or emotion from his voice has dried to monotone.

I let out a groan. “Because, Taylor, there were so many moments last semester when I wanted to tell Dylan how I felt and I couldn’t.” 

Like that Friday in October I ran into Dylan outside the library. The moon was obvious, toe-nail shaped. We chit-chatted. I told Dylan if he’d wait for me to hang up a flyer, I’d walk with him wherever he was going. He waited. We walked through the library courtyard and stopped at Dylan’s dorm. The steam from the campus power plant looked like a tornado. Neither of us had plans for the evening. Dylan said, “Well we’re chatting so let’s keep walking.” 

I thought he was hot. I couldn’t say why. His hair was mouse colored and short. He wore glasses and hunched bad when he walked so we stood shoulder to shoulder, a similar height.

But really, for me, it was much more that he laughed at my jokes. It was that he stayed after class just to talk, and when I sent him Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is not a Luxury,” he wanted to meet and discuss the piece more. It was when we started meeting once a week for coffee at One World. It was the meeting when he showed up and started crying and told me why. 

Dylan and I took the less busy path along Paradise Creek. Not a whole lot about the creek lived up to Paradise. It hid behind thick trees whose names I’d never learned. Not-mesquite. Not-desert willow. Not-cottonwood. On the reed banks were Bud Light cans and dark glass bottles. 

Even if though I’d talked to Dylan a million times, walking with him my teeth still went to boulders. My words came out weird. So I don’t remember if I brought polyamory up or if he did. Either way, I told him I didn’t start calling myself poly until I was living in New Orleans. There, my friends often had multiple sweeties, boyfriends, girlfriends, and lovers. They used words like primary and secondary partner. If my insides were Moscow’s eleven story dormitory, I’d been living in the pitch black three a.m. hour. In New Orleans, with friends where polyamory was the norm, the clock hands moved all the way to morning, the lights came on. I was ablaze.

Did I ask Dylan his thoughts on open relationships or polyamory? Did he bring it up? Either way, his version was much shorter. He said he had been in two relationships. His girlfriend was across the country, and they agreed that “if anything physical came up” they could explore it.

    Then his hands flapped around—quail scared from underbrush—and he said that nothing had come up. If it did, he didn’t think he would do it. 

    Sure, I heard Dylan say, “I don’t think I would do it,” but I latched onto the “if anything physical came up.” And my eyes shimmered like streetlamps in the creek water. My body was aware and rigid and I was ten, sixteen, eighteen, twenty-two all over again. All wrapped in one. Flustered. Earlier that fall, I’d assigned my class to read an essay I’d written for mock-workshop. In the essay, I wrote I could spend an afternoon with some people and whittle the hands of the clock down to their bone and I still wouldn’t get bored. All that time still doesn’t feel like enough because there’s always so much more to say.

Looking at Dylan, his face orange with streetlamp, I wanted to tell him, “I’m really into you. You are one of those people for me.” But I said nothing. There were many things I kept from him. Like the worry about Taylor. I knew Taylor wouldn’t want to hear about the creek, about this walk, even if I felt yellow as the table’s moon face. Taylor was that other side, the blue.

I kept things from Dylan too. How I remembered Andy. How Andy always wanted to read my writing and hear my ideas for new projects. Then he started hitting on me. I’m Dylan’s teacher, and he doesn’t know how I feel about him. I’m not hitting on him. We’re just meeting-with, walking-with, talking-with. Andy read my writing, I read Dylan’s writing. Andy listened to my ideas, I listen now. Am I am I am I being Andy? 

I said nothing as Dylan and I walked along the creek. The moon set. I asked him which tree reflection was his favorite, and Dylan pointed to one which I thought was snake-shaped and strange on the water. I wondered how this moment could be both exactly what I want and still feel lacking.

After I tell Taylor this memory, he hmmms. “Well,” he says, rubbing the pockmarks along his face. “I don’t know if I’m okay with you telling Dylan how you feel.”

I start playing with the egg shells on my plate. With my fingernail I break them into tinier pieces. “Can you help me understand why?”

 “Because I might run into him downtown, and then we’d both know,” Taylor says. The underbelly of frustration starts to turn upright. 

“And you’d feel uncomfortable?”

 He puts his head in his hands and groans. “No, it’s not just that. If I saw Dylan downtown, what would I say to him? Do I acknowledge that I know he knows? Do I say anything at all? And I’d go back and forth and be anxious.”

I put my elbows on the table and my chin in my hands. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know either,” Taylor says. He starts to trace the painted earth on the table, the land masses in mint green. “You know logically I have no problem that you’re into Dylan. Or with polyamory, open relationships, what have you. But that’s just logically, Laura.” He looks up. I notice his eyes are watery. “My body’s not there. And I just get all these thoughts going across my mind of you and Dylan together. Then it’s all insecurities and hypothetical situations and anxiety from there.”

I reach across the table and hold his hand. His skin is warm as bathroom stream from the shower. Taylor looks at me and blinks once then twice, then again. More times than I’d guess. There’s a quiet snap that comes with understanding. 

 “I think I get it,” I say. “You’re worried that you’d say yes to avoid a fight rather than it being true.”

“Yeah exactly.”

“I’m worried about that too,” I say, my belly the teapots I sometimes forget in the sink until they’re overflowing water. “It’s just, Taylor, I feel I’m already giving up what I really want. If you were totally okay with me being with other men, I’d date Dylan. And so I feel like me telling Dylan is this one thing where I could get some satisfaction and feel like I’m honoring what I want too.”

“I hear you.” Taylor leans over and kisses my mouth’s corner. It’s my favorite place to be kissed. He takes my other hand. 

“What do we do?”

“Maybe we wait until he comes back into town. I’m not sure how I feel about you telling Dylan, maybe then I’ll be okay with it.” 

My belly doesn’t feel any lighter. Taylor kisses my forehead. I lift up his shirt, put my hands on his belly. Tell him it’s as flat as cotton fields and kiss his belly button once, then twice. Taylor picks up his dish, then mine, and puts the butter knives on top. He carries them to the sink and soaps up his sponge. 

On the table, next to the mason jar of new knives, is a bubble wand. It’s an old birthday present from Taylor. The wand’s plastic top is a snake’s head that becomes the handle. Its belly is crisscrossed with yellow diamonds. I stand on my chair. I look at Taylor in the kitchen where the sink runs water until it gets hot. I twirl the wand. Round and round. Out stream long lurid bubbles. I grin to myself. I’ve heard stories about giant bendable wands that blow bubbles the size of trucks. So I ordered one of those wands for Taylor. After all it’s his birthday next week. 

My bubbles are coffee cup sized and lilt to the kitchen on their own air current. They wander over Taylor’s head and one pops on his shoulder. Taylor smiles. He opens his mouth wide, jaw seemingly unhinged, and pretends to eat one then the other. 

Last night, in darkness of blankets draped over the bedroom window, Taylor told me he used to hate his pockmarks. He’d marked them high on the list of Why No Girls Want to Date Me next to his skinny build, crooked nose, and that he grew up poor. 

We had turned the box fan on to cover up the downstairs neighbor’s bass. I listened to the hiss, and Taylor asked, “Are you into other guys because you’re not as attracted to me?”

I sat up. I kissed Taylor’s pockmarks and took his face in my hands “Not at all,” I said.

Taylor wormed his way closer. His face buried in my arm pit, and I ran my fingers along his neck. Someone shouted downstairs. I waited for another shout to tell me its nature. Nothing. Taylor rolled to his side. I tucked my arm under his shoulder and slid my legs in with his, the big spoon to his little one. My eyes got drowsy. I could feel myself slink into the upside down dream world where I sometimes made out with my friend Claire, various middle aged men, women I didn’t know in real life, a dog, and then Dylan. Several times I’d dreamed about making out with Dylan. Once in a car while he was driving. Once in my childhood bedroom. A few times on a playground. I liked it. It was the only way kissing him was ever going to happen.

Now I twist the snake head back on its body and put the bubble wand on the table. I need to work more on my Comp course. It’s such a habit. Instead, I watch the icicles melt from yellow to white against a backdrop of sky that sometimes goes red with forest fire smoke. Not dust. In a town where only a handful of churches sit on street corners. Where I can say I’m polyamorous and not be mistaken for polygamist. Where somewhere my parents’ old knives lay lost underneath refrigerators, in gardens, in gutters, fallen from my backpack. 

What will I say to Dylan if Taylor’s okay with it? I like you? That’s so high school, even if it’s the truth. How would the scene even go? Will we be walking again on the path by the creek? At night? Will Dylan start up some story about the high school friends he never talks to? Maybe he’ll say again how he’s afraid he doesn’t know how to form real friendships. Then we’ll pass the bridge with puke still decomposing from last fall? And when his story ends, will that be my sign? That it’s time? Will I say something like so I want to be honest about how I feel about you? Will he be expecting this? No, I think see the surprise in his eyes. An unpeeling. I’ll say what I need to say. 

Everything I kept. 

All of it. 

What will Dylan say? 

Does it matter? 

In the kitchen, the frying pan bumps against plates in the sink. My phone buzzes. A new message from Mom. They found Flame the corn snake. Dad drilled out one of the cabinets and Mom grabbed her by the tail. Whoo hoo! Mom even has a mouse ready to go for her lunch. In the message, Mom says she’s had Flame for ten years and was so worried she’d get trapped in the walls and die. 

I think that my mom’s a mom to snakes and put the phone back on the table. Once I asked Mom how she’s been able to live in Lubbock for so long. I don’t remember exactly what she said. Something about it being a give and take. Living there, she had to let go of some of the things she loved like zoos, growing petunias, hiking paths. But if they’d lived elsewhere—would she have started the animal program? She didn’t know. 

I don’t either. In the kitchen Taylor turns off the sink. I watch him take the yellow sponge and wipe off the counter, catching bread crumbs and garlic peels in his cupped hand. He hums. His voice bounces from one note to the other, and the song’s so familiar it hurts. I stay sitting at the moon-earth table, so round. A snake eating its tail. I feel the bent-backed ache in my stomach, the curiosity, just take this a little further because I want. I want I want I want.