Rhetoric and the Written Word
v267, January 2017
Internet ISSN 1555-1555, print ISSN 1068-5154
Note that in the print edition of cc&d magazine, all artwork within the pages of the book appear in black and white.
the passionate stuff
my head hurts
I have to review
Before I review it
I have to read it
My head hurts
I might feel better
If I could write
My own thoughts
But I have to review
I’ve read 14 pages
And it sucks
Like no toilet paper
It sucks like turbulence at 30K feet
It sucks like finding your car
Has been towed
It sucks so bad
I can hear the trees mourn
But I have to review
It’d been published
And so I am required to review it
I guess I should go now
And read it
If I lie
And say some good things
There’s a chance the publisher
Will look at my work
The words I don’t have time
But I won’t do that
Because whoever published this
Sucks shit out of the brown eye
I will read it and it will suck
I will worsen my headache
Carefully writing a negative review
Like it sucks
And the publisher will complain
And the writer may complain
And my editor
The author’s friend
Will pay me
And more books
In Monday’s mail
the edges of our dreams if we had them are worn smooth as the cobblestones at our stinking feet, flat as our asses on the only bench they gave us . . . here comes a green jaguar, british racing green, to adjust my perceived material security: got $4 in my wallet, half a pack of camels, and eight rolling rocks in the tiny fridge . . . tomorrow's hustle is distant and i am lifted strong by the morphine pulsing through my head. i live in a cell upstairs so they think they can give me their diseases. they strangle one another and the cops interrogate me; they think i am one of them. i have fallen and they have never imagined a phoenix boy. to them, i am never getting out of here because nobody does. i am one of them. they see me at the soup kitchen with my mouth shut. they believe my stupidity brought me to the world they own. i am less than one of them. they beat one another with hammers and overdose and rot like any old liars . . . the jaguar eases down farewell street . . . tomorrow's suicide asks me for a cigarette. i say yes.
My back’s against a brick wall, a camel warming my head as i listen to the buzz of locusts flooding the lot with copper light. a plague of light. inside, they’re cooking up my salvation, a these and those cocktail stronger than any doctor ever saw. a moth flies past with the history of my life written on one wing, the other wing lucid as skin. he is moving too fast, but i catch the drift. there was a time when a thing i mistook for courage flickered before my eyes like a bug caught in a wine glass. i don’t know anything anymore. i can’t find a cause but silence, stillness, ears and ears. the brick wall is cool, my back aches. the nicotine finds the channels. a pizza delivery car goes by. i haven’t eaten. i will not eat. i have to go now, stepping on a butt and into the greeting card brightness. my surrender is prepared.
Elephantine Curioso, art by Brian Looney
I set my alarm for 4:30 instead of 5:30 so I could
roll over, take a pill, and fall back asleep. I’d leave two pills on the
night stand with a glass of water every night. I could feel the pain
in my leg, my hand, when I reached over to take the drugs. I’d
feel it in my back, too. And sometimes in my shoulder. The
water always tasted warm and dusty. It hurt to hold the pills
in my right hand.
I closed my eyes at 4:32. I hated that damn alarm clock. And
taking the pills early still wouldn’t make the pain go away
before I woke up. I knew that. But I took them anyway. And
I tried to fall back asleep. And I dreaded 5:30, when I’d have to move.
5:40, I couldn’t wait any longer, I couldn’t be late, we
couldn’t have that, so I’d finally swing my legs to the floor.
I’d put on my robe and limp into the kitchen. The trip to the
kitchen lasted for hours. And picking up the milk carton from the
refrigerator hurt like hell. This wasn’t supposed to be happening,
not to me. Just pour the damn milk. I’d wipe the tears from my chin
and sit down for breakfast.
The doctor doubled the dosage, and he was amazed
that I needed this much. He told me to follow the directions
strictly, STRICTLY. “You can’t take these in the morning the way
you have been,” he’d say. “You have to take them with food.”
That doesn’t help when I’m crying from the pain in the morning.
But I could get an ulcer, he’d say. And I wouldn’t want that.
Of course not. I just wanted the pain to go away.
Take one tablet three times daily, with meals.
Do not drink alcohol while on medication.
Take with food or milk. Do not skip medication.
Do not take aspirin while using this product.
Do not operate heavy machinery. May cause ulcers.
All I had to do was get through the mornings. The mornings
were the hardest part. Just take a little more pain, and
by the afternoon it will all be fine. Just fine.
An hour after the pills, and I’d start to feel dizzy.
I’d stare at a computer screen and it would move, in circles, back and
forth. I wanted to grab the screen and make it stay in place. But
I’d look at my fingers and they would go in and out
of focus. I’d feel my head rocking forward and backward;
I couldn’t hold myself still. I’d sit at my desk and my eyes would
open and close, open and close. Before I knew it, ten minutes passed
and I remembered nothing. I could have been screaming
for ten minutes straight and I wouldn’t have known it. Or crying.
Or sleeping. Or laughing. Or dying.
I had just lost ten minutes of my life, they were just taken
away from me, ripped away from me, and I could never
get them back.
And I could still feel traces of the pain, lingering in my bones.
I’d sit up at night and just stare at the bottle. It was a
big bottle, as if the doctors knew I’d take these drugs forever.
Hadn’t it been forever already? I’d open a bottle, look at a pill.
They looked big too. Pink and white. What pretty colors.
And then I’d think: If one tablet, fifty milligrams, could put me
to sleep in the morning, could make me dizzy, could take
a part of my life from me, then think about what the other
thirty-six could do. 1800 milligrams. It could kill me.
I wouldn’t want that. Of course not.
But just think, the bottle isn’t even full.
May cause ulcers. May cause dizziness. Side effects may vary
for each patient. May cause weight gain. May cause weight loss.
May cause drowsiness. May cause irritability.
Medication may have to be taken consistently
for weeks before expected results. If effects become severe,
consult physician immediately.
I began to count. In the mornings I took eight pills:
one multivitamin, one calcium pill, one niacin pill, one
fish oil capsule, one garlic oil pill, and one pink-and-white
pain killer that I was special to have, because you need
a doctor’s permission to take those. Then I took diet pills:
one starch blocker, one that was called a “fat magnet.”
As if the diet pills worked anyway. But I still took them.
And then I had to watch the clock, take a pink-and-white
at one in the afternoon, a different pill at five o’clock,
another pink-and-white at six o’clock, and there was also
usually sinus medication that I had to take every
six hours in there, too. Or was it eight hours? I started to
watch the clock all the time, I bought a pill container
for my purse so that I would always have my medication with me.
When I’d feel my body start to ache again, I’d look at the clock.
It would be fifteen minutes before I had to take another pill.
Inside America’s Studio:
What Sound or Noise Do You Hate?
Stumped by the shock
Of persons learning of persons
Hurt and harmed for protesting,
Most people, of course,
Don’t know how to protest
They do it lone wolf
(or Cap with sucker-Bucky friend)
In a kind of
“if no guns, we’re not vigilantes
so, it shouldn’t count”
Protest, in our Brave New Edward Munch
Is one or two or the Bombastic Four
Doing the shit Cheech-class in
Sister Mary Elephant
In our “Shut Up ad Sit Down”-nation
I always speak of with—yes—disdain,
Whatever candidate or Amy Schumer
The summer school gang’s gonna
Why are persons shocked
By persons hating and beating
Cain set precedent
And cops are tired the of 52-Pick Up
Of going to jail
Home Away From Home
It was the place
I first performed in
On a night when
No one showed up
And it was the place
I found my ex-wife
Our eyes embracing
In the blinding smoke
For it was the place
I first discovered
Carries its own end
And now this place
Of broken music
Is a restaurant where
I dine with ghosts
No Pets Allowed
Sometimes it seems
Like a shadowy confession booth
Where I ask for forgiveness
For the sins I might commit
And sometimes it seems
Like a solitary prison cell
Where I serve out a sentence
For someone else’s crime
And sometimes it seems
Like a physician’s waiting room
Where I’m given a number
And told I will be called
But mostly it seems
Like a salesman’s cubicle
Where I deliver my pitches
And prepare for the reply
Brian Forrest Bio:
Born in Canada and bred in the U.S., Brian Forrest works in many mediums: oil painting, computer graphics, theatre, digital music, film, and video. Brian studied acting at Columbia Pictures in Los Angeles, digital media in art and design at Bellevue College (receiving degrees in Web Multimedia Authoring and Digital Video Production.) He works in the Seattle, WA area in design/media/fine art. Influenced by past and current colorist painters, Brian’s raw and expressive works hover between realism and abstraction.
Linda M. Crate
i’m more than all the things
you never said to me
or the pink and red
lipstick stains i left
sides of your cheeks and lips
which you never
but even the pied piper
fooled a dame or two;
i know now not to fall for the music if it’s
too sweet because if it’s too good to be true
it always is—
false and insincere
you struck with me with the crescendo
but i am a moon child
daughter of silver and waves
i will devour you in the eye of the storm and crash
my hurricanes into your mountains
free all the sirens
in your eyes;
because once they were just mermaids
i will live
Linda M. Crate
your mother was constantly offended
what i wore, what i said, if i talked
or if i didn’t speak;
i couldn’t win for losing
so when i lost you
it wasn’t as big a tragedy as i first thought—
because if i am to love
it will be a man,
and not a boy like you;
stuck in the cogs of a machine of people pleasing
you can’t see how foolish you are
consider yourself a saint and a genius
but you are neither—
i couldn’t live life the way you do
always afraid of offending someone because i am
not going to wax and wan into nothingness
like my moon mother
i am going to crash like her moodiest of waves
crash a few egos if i have to
because life is not meant to be lived in closed doors,
and i have had enough of keeping my toes
in line and walking on egg shells
they can choke on the yolk of my dreams if they must
i am me and that’s all i ever could be;
there will be no apology
“They tell you how it was...
and how it happened
again and again. They tell
the slant life takes when it turns
and slashes your face as a friend.”
— William Stafford, from “Scars”
Any wound is real, he says,
and yes, it’s true, I know it.*
For the faces of promise
are also the places
the scars will be.
Yes, bright-eyed children,
this is the battle
you have to look forward to.
if you know how.
It might hurt less then.
For once we are grown
we are all too aware
of past tortures and traumas,
they leave physical and emotional scars
we wear like badges,
Hide the marks from your face,
your stomach from when
you were hospitalized
against your will for months.
Hide the bruises around your neck
as you leave the country
to escape the man
who once claimed he loved you.
Force yourself to forget
the disappointing diatribes
your disappointment of a father
gave you, while you struggle
to be stronger than him,
If you internalize some scars,
turn them around,
then watch your helplessness
transform to rage,
then to solace and insight
to help others recover
from their own physical
and sexual traumas.
They say that time heals all wounds,
and you wish for the scars to vanish;
your brutish, broodish demeanor
is a blemish
you wish would perish —
but wait a minute,
search for that scar
on the cleft of your chin
from when you scratched
when you had the Chickenpox.
You would swear
that scar was there,
where did it go.
Then you turn
to the one you love.
They tell you
they’ve never seen the scars.
That you’ve always been
a bright white beam of light,
almost too blinding
for anyone to fully take in,
which is why
you can never
be fully understood...
And this is all they think
when they see you,
and all they can say
I love you.
And maybe that
is the treatment
for the traumas...
and the scars
Any wound is real,
for scars too hard to handle.
And any wound is real,
as long as you give it the power
to take over your soul
and fester into a fiendish demon.
So just remember
that despite those vanishing scars
that are now
too taxing to tally,
despite those battle scars...
you are a blinding light
that no one,
Italicized portion of this poem are quotes
from the William Stafford poem “Scars”.
* line toward he end of the Ai poem
“The Good Shepherd: Atlanta, 1981.”
In Texas, you see
giant U.S. flags waving
and bumper stickers
See a Vine video 2/7/16
of Janet Kuypers reading her twitter-length haiku (w/ bonus words) Juxtaposition, or Irony? during Super Bowl 50 as a looping JKPoetryVine video in Austin, TX (Samsung)
See a Vine video 2/7/16
of Janet Kuypers reading her twitter-length haiku (with bonus words) Juxtaposition, or Irony? after Super Bowl 50 as a looping JKPoetryVine video in Austin, TX (Samsung)
See YouTube video of Janet Kuypers’ 2 poems Arsenic and Syphilis & Juxtaposition, or Irony? from memory; then she read her 2 Periodic Table poems Potassium Chloride and Thallium at Georgetown’s Poetry Plus open mic at Cianfrani’s 2/26/16 (w/ a Cps).|
See YouTube video of Janet Kuypers’ 2 poems Arsenic and Syphilis & Juxtaposition, or Irony? from memory; then she read her 2 Periodic Table poems Potassium Chloride and Thallium at Georgetown’s Poetry Plus open mic at Cianfrani’s 2/26/16 (w/ a Nikon).|
See YouTube video of Janet Kuypers saying her twitter-length poem “Juxtaposition, or Irony?” in conversation, then reading her poems “Protect Ourselves from Ourselves” and “Viewing the Woman in a 19th Century Photograph” 9/10/16 at “Poetry Aloud” open mic at the Georgetown Public Library (Cps).
See YouTube video of Janet Kuypers saying her twitter-length poem “Juxtaposition, or Irony?” in conversation, then reading her poems “Protect Ourselves from Ourselves” and “Viewing the Woman in a 19th Century Photograph” 9/10/16 at “Poetry Aloud” open mic at the Georgetown Public Library (Sony).
See YouTube video of Janet Kuypers saying her twitter-length poem “Juxtaposition, or Irony?” in conversation, then reading her poems “Pluto, Plutonium & Death”, “Your Minions are Dying” and “Salesman” 10/23/16 at the Austin open mic Kick Butt Poetry (Canon Power Shot camera).
See YouTube video of Janet Kuypers saying her twitter-length poem “Juxtaposition, or Irony?” in conversation, then reading her poems “Pluto, Plutonium & Death”, “Your Minions are Dying” and “Salesman” 10/23/16 at the Austin open mic Kick Butt Poetry (from a Sony camera).
Skateboarding down the four lane boulevard
He would look down at his foot to push off
Then back to his cell phone, smacking the keyboard
Never bothering to look around for passing cars
We were almost at the Penthouse
Before the middle aged woman realized
She had not pressed the button for her floor
After doing so, she continued texting
As the doors were closing
She finally looked up and hopped out
The lady did not move towards her destination
This addict continued playing with her device
The twenty something woman in physical therapy
Is laying on her stomach
Immersed in the video game on her tablet
Ankle weights on her feet
Lifting her legs up
One at a time, moaning
In between painful cries, back to the game
I will loose track of time
When I’m at home on my desktop
But I’m not in physical therapy or skateboarding
When engaging the internet
All the news that Fits
As per my social worker
As per Dr Andrew Weil
As per my common sense
Several times a year
For several weeks
I try to avoid the news
A daunting task
In this age
Of the information revolution
During those wonderful weeks
I remain, a uniformed citizen, in bliss
I receive a Classic Rock Newsletter
I know who died
What CDs, are being reissued
The artist’s who are touring
At this point
I don’t need to know much else
Judith Ann Levison
He sighed, drank a shot with a pill,
Knew his dramatic sister was in from Paris
To relate near affairs, all going nowhere.
Always tidying his eclectic apartment
His mother sent plaid grey scarves
And his father played pool with a vengeance
For he was denied a pension, denied success
None of this interested him
Outside the bus window the snow stalled
It would dissipate or make a show of it.
The man with baggy eyes beside him
Was quite keen on old cars, antiques and
Never went to church—all that death,
Misused authority, and weeping.
On his right a woman declared everyone
Had their own lodestar angel of light
You just had to look for it.
Then he saw a little curly haired girl turning
Her red mittens over and over
She sniffed the inside of each and bit
The string that bound them
Her brother then grabbed them, with raw laughter
Tossed them in the slushy gutter
See YouTube video of the 6/20/15 Janet Kuypers show “Poetic Shades of Chocolate” in 10 Shades of Chocolate in 10 Shades of Chocolate in Chicago (Cfs), w/ the poems Under his Bed, oxygen to flame the fire, Fuming in the Morning, PDQ in Tin Foil 2015, melted marshmallow 2015, grandmother charged with murder 2015, Before Taking Over the Controls 2015, and Empty Chocolate Counter.
See YouTube video of the 6/20/15 Janet Kuypers show “Poetic Shades of Chocolate” in 10 Shades of Chocolate in 10 Shades of Chocolate in Chicago (Cps), w/ the poems Under his Bed, oxygen to flame the fire, Fuming in the Morning, PDQ in Tin Foil 2015, melted marshmallow 2015, grandmother charged with murder 2015, Before Taking Over the Controls 2015, and Empty Chocolate Counter.
Download these poems in the free chapbook
Poetic Shades of Chocolate
w/ poems read 6/20/15 at 10 Shades of Chocolate show in Chicago
oxygen to flame the fire
kept trying to describe him to my friends.
i mean, it was such a red-hot relationship,
sometimes our love would burn so bright
and sometimes it would seem like we’re nothing.
because now i’ve figured him out and now
it all makes sense. he was a cigarette.
our time together was so short, and like those
nicotine sticks, it burned out too fast.
when he was getting me all hot and bothered,
i’d take a deep breath, suck in some oxygen
to flame this fire between us —
and her glowed with a red-hot intensity.
but whenever he got bored with me
he just made ashes of our relationship
and all that was left was a smoke trail,
and a smell i couldn’t name in the air.
everyone was telling me he was no good.
but i didn’t know better. i couldn’t help it.
i was intoxicated — but now that he’s gone
i wonder how much pain this affair has caused.
i wanted to be free. i tried many times.
but it was like he had this spell over me.
i was an addict. i just sucked him in,
adding fuel to the fire that was once our love.
Under his Bed
We hadn’t dated that long,
we’re not that close...
he brought me to his bedroom,
sat me down on his bed,
and said he had something to show me.
My legs are now hanging
over the side of his bed
and he says,
“Hold on a minute”
and he gets on his knees.
And I’m thinking,
“What does he want to show me?”
But then, while he’s on his knees,
he reached under his bed.
I was sitting there, my legs
were dangling over the edge
and I couldn’t see what he was doing —
until he got up off the floor
and placed the black objects on the bed.
“What is this?”
“They’re knee pads,”
So he’s brought me
to his bedroom,
I’m sitting on his bed,
and he’s showing me knee pads.
There was no explanation,
he just brought me
to his bed
to show me knee pads.
So my mind goes into overdrive.
Why did he bring me in here
to show me these? I mean,
we’re not that close,
we havent dated that long,
but is this something he needs
for some sort of sexual act?
Is he concerned about
my scrped knees if I’m getting
him off? My eyes were saucers,
and all I could ask was,
“What are these for?”
He started to grin.
“I just got roller blades,”
which I hadn't seen
and didn’t know.
But as I said,
we hadn’t dated that long,
we’re not that close,
so all I could think
when he brought me
to his bedroom
and showed me new gear
he kept under his bed,
all I thought
was that this was
the most bizarre way
to ask someone for the first time
for safe sex.
Empty Chocolate Counter
5/21/15, edited for 6/20/15 show 5/31/15
I used to save what change I could when I was little
and I’d ride my bike to the Plush Horse ice cream parlour
to get a scoop of their chocolate chocolate chip ice cream
(that’s chocolate ice cream with chocolate chips)...
But once I got a job there,
only boys were allowed to scoop ice cream there.
But it was under new management —
the brother of the owner of Dove chocolates
took it over, and I was hired
to work for their brand-new candy counter.
So now, for the first time,
this ice cream parlour was open year round,
and I was there to sell chocolates.
So, in the winter
it’s safe to say
it wasn’t very busy.
I was there in the winter
to sell chocolates to no one
along side the designated male
ice cream scooper...
Now, I couldn’t get away
with eating the individual chocolates for sale there,
they’d keep track of their inventory,
but their ice cream,
made in the back room,
was harder to keep track of.
So, every time I worked in the winter
I’d make myself a twenty-for ounce
chocolate chocolate chip shake
out of chocolate ice cream with chocolate chips
(and added fudge, of course).
But one Tuesday night in February,
I was sitting in a chair behind my counter,
with my precious chocolate ice cream
and chocolate chip shake, with fudge —
my shake was in my hand
as the side door opened,
right in front of my counter.
And that’s when the owner,
came through the door.
So I stashed my shake under the counter
and stood at attention.
“Hello, how are you sir?” I asked,
and he just grumbled,
mumbled he was fine
and he walked to the back office.
But another day at work with the boss,
when deliveries were dropped off,
I picked up a larger box
and the owner then stopped me.
“Wait, that’s heavy —
you shouldn’t carry that.”
And I laughed, explaining that I carry
fifty pound salt blocks for our water softener,
that I’m fine.
I think maybe him seeing
that women can stand up for themselves
made it okay, in the heat of summer
when the lines are out the door for ice cream,
for me to leave the empty chocolate counter
and be the first girl there
to ever scoop ice cream with the big boys.
Looking back, you may say
I’m a feminist pioneer
by being the first female
to scoop ice cream there,
but when I look back
I don’t see it that way.
I just remember home-made
chocolate ice cream
with chocolate chips,
molasses bits and added fudge,
and that, my friends,
into the perfect shake —
no matter which gender
did the work.
Fuming in the Morning
When I wake up every morning,
unlike everyone else,
I rip the blankets off of me
because I’m boiling hot.
Been trying to figure out why.
When I wake up every
I wonder if my missing you
by leaving me tossing and turning
in my dreams,
until I wake up in a sweat.
These must be my red-hot thoughts
percolating up inside me
in the middle of the night,
leaving me fuming in the morning.
This is what I wonder.
Is this what being without you
makes me do.
I think I run to you all night long.
When I go to bed at night
after a day without you, I’m ice cold.
But my brain spends hours
throughout the night in my sleep
thinking about us together.
Thinking about trying to find you.
It spends hours thinking about
what being without you means.
And I wake up,
like I do every morning,
after feeling like I’ve mentally
run a marathon,
and I go about my day, alone.
Life makes me cold again.
And I wonder what it takes
to get back to you again.
Janet Kuypers has a Communications degree in News/Editorial Journalism (starting in computer science engineering studies) from the UIUC. She had the equivalent of a minor in photography and specialized in creative writing. A portrait photographer for years in the early 1990s, she was also an acquaintance rape workshop facilitator, and she started her publishing career as an editor of two literary magazines. Later she was an art director, webmaster and photographer for a few magazines for a publishing company in Chicago, and this Journalism major was even the final featured poetry performer of 15 poets with a 10 minute feature at the 2006 Society of Professional Journalism Expo’s Chicago Poetry Showcase. This certified minister was even the officiant of a wedding in 2006.
She sang with acoustic bands “Mom’s Favorite Vase”, “Weeds and Flowers” and “the Second Axing”, and does music sampling. Kuypers is published in books, magazines and on the internet around 9,300 times for writing, and over 17,800 times for art work in her professional career, and has been profiled in such magazines as Nation and Discover U, won the award for a Poetry Ambassador and was nominated as Poet of the Year for 2006 by the International Society of Poets. She has also been highlighted on radio stations, including WEFT (90.1FM), WLUW (88.7FM), WSUM (91.7FM), WZRD (88.3FM), WLS (8900AM), the internet radio stations ArtistFirst dot com, chicagopoetry.com’s Poetry World Radio and Scars Internet Radio (SIR), and was even shortly on Q101 FM radio. She has also appeared on television for poetry in Nashville (in 1997), Chicago (in 1997), and northern Illinois (in a few appearances on the show for the Lake County Poets Society in 2006). Kuypers was also interviewed on her art work on Urbana’s WCIA channel 3 10 o’clock news.
She turned her writing into performance art on her own and with musical groups like Pointless Orchestra, 5D/5D, The DMJ Art Connection, Order From Chaos, Peter Bartels, Jake and Haystack, the Bastard Trio, and the JoAnne Pow!ers Trio, and starting in 2005 Kuypers ran a monthly iPodCast of her work, as well mixed JK Radio — an Internet radio station — into Scars Internet Radio (both radio stations on the Internet air 2005-2009). She even managed the Chaotic Radio show (an hour long Internet radio show 1.5 years, 2006-2007) through BZoO.org and chaoticarts.org. She has performed spoken word and music across the country - in the spring of 1998 she embarked on her first national poetry tour, with featured performances, among other venues, at the Albuquerque Spoken Word Festival during the National Poetry Slam; her bands have had concerts in Chicago and in Alaska; in 2003 she hosted and performed at a weekly poetry and music open mike (called Sing Your Life), and from 2002 through 2005 was a featured performance artist, doing quarterly performance art shows with readings, music and images.
Since 2010 Kuypers also hosts the Chicago poetry open mic at the Café Gallery, while also broadcasting the Cafés weekly feature podcasts (and where she sometimes also performs impromptu mini-features of poetry or short stories or songs, in addition to other shows she performs live in the Chicago area).
In addition to being published with Bernadette Miller in the short story collection book Domestic Blisters, as well as in a book of poetry turned to prose with Eric Bonholtzer in the book Duality, Kuypers has had many books of her own published: Hope Chest in the Attic, The Window, Close Cover Before Striking, (woman.) (spiral bound), Autumn Reason (novel in letter form), the Average Guy’s Guide (to Feminism), Contents Under Pressure, etc., and eventually The Key To Believing (2002 650 page novel), Changing Gears (travel journals around the United States), The Other Side (European travel book), the three collection books from 2004: Oeuvre (poetry), Exaro Versus (prose) and L’arte (art), The Boss Lady’s Editorials, The Boss Lady’s Editorials (2005 Expanded Edition), Seeing Things Differently, Change/Rearrange, Death Comes in Threes, Moving Performances, Six Eleven, Live at Cafe Aloha, Dreams, Rough Mixes, The Entropy Project, The Other Side (2006 edition), Stop., Sing Your Life, the hardcover art book (with an editorial) in cc&d v165.25, the Kuypers edition of Writings to Honour & Cherish, The Kuypers Edition: Blister and Burn, S&M, cc&d v170.5, cc&d v171.5: Living in Chaos, Tick Tock, cc&d v1273.22: Silent Screams, Taking It All In, It All Comes Down, Rising to the Surface, Galapagos, Chapter 38 (v1 and volume 1), Chapter 38 (v2 and Volume 2), Chapter 38 v3, Finally: Literature for the Snotty and Elite (Volume 1, Volume 2 and part 1 of a 3 part set), A Wake-Up Call From Tradition (part 2 of a 3 part set), (recovery), Dark Matter: the mind of Janet Kuypers , Evolution, Adolph Hitler, O .J. Simpson and U.S. Politics, the one thing the government still has no control over, (tweet), Get Your Buzz On, Janet & Jean Together, poem, Taking Poetry to the Streets, the Cana-Dixie Chi-town Union, the Written Word, Dual, Prepare Her for This, uncorrect, Living in a Big World (color interior book with art and with “Seeing a Psychiatrist”), Pulled the Trigger (part 3 of a 3 part set), Venture to the Unknown (select writings with extensive color NASA/Huubble Space Telescope images), Janet Kuypers: Enriched, She’s an Open Book, “40”, Sexism and Other Stories, the Stories of Women, Prominent Pen (Kuypers edition), Elemental, the paperback book of the 2012 Datebook (which was also released as a spiral-bound cc&d ISSN# 2012 little spiral datebook, , Chaotic Elements, and Fusion, the (select) death poetry book Stabity Stabity Stab Stab Stab, the 2012 art book a Picture’s Worth 1,000 words (available with both b&w interior pages and full color interior pages, the shutterfly ISSN# cc& hardcover art book life, in color, Post-Apocalyptic, Burn Through Me, Under the Sea (photo book), the Periodic Table of Poetry, a year long Journey, Bon Voyage!, and the mini books Part of my Pain, Let me See you Stripped, Say Nothing, Give me the News, when you Dream tonight, Rape, Sexism, Life & Death (with some Slovak poetry translations), Twitterati, and 100 Haikus, that coincided with the June 2014 release of the two poetry collection books Partial Nudity and Revealed.
the meat and potatoes stuff
Above the quietness of this little high hollow spot the high pitched call of a Red Tailed Hawk brings my eyes to the sky. Taking a break from the garden work, I watch the large bird float about on the updraft. There is something about watching a hawk on the wing. It draws up a feeling of freedom from the gut. Like hot smoke up a cold flue, it comes naturally, un-worked. Nice. But, telling myself that this sod is not going to get busted if I stand here and look to the sky, I start to go back to breaking up the clumps of dirt. That’s when I see Julie Lewis walking up the dirt road. Dressed in simple jeans, an old hooded jacket, and sneakers, she crosses the little footbridge over the creek and right up to the garden. Stumbling while crossing the clumps of dirt, her unsteadiness betrays her weariness, and I know that she has walked a ways to get here. Big brown eyes present to mine with a sincerity that is not that common around here. Around here it’s mostly lore or ribald tales of one kind or another with a kind of sincerity that is saved for after the punch line. Like an innocent look with an “I swear to God” kicker. Perhaps most real sincerity is too soft for the hard sticks of this part of Appalachia. But even tired, those haunting eyes in a face too young for wrinkles, together with her long coal black hair and comely figure make Julie an attractive woman.
The last time I saw her was right after she married a guy from the next hollow over. I knew then that it wouldn’t last. One day when I was visiting the area to look at some of their goats, her husband, Jack, was at work and I hit on her. She liked it at first but when I tried to take her pants off she got cold feet and put an end to it. A little surprised that she had gone that far, I knew then that it was another one of those marriages that happen in this land of scarcity. I left on friendly terms with her and with a little more respect, though I knew her hardly at all. Just that, like me, she had come into this area from somewhere else.
At first I smile as Julie just stands there for a moment. But her face is so serious that it quickly melts my expression. Did my pass at her cause trouble that is now coming home to roost? As if to reassure me about that, she finally says, “Don’t worry, nobody knows that you came on to me.” Seeming to try to put together her thoughts while I quietly watch, she looks to the busted earth, bends down, and fingers an earthworm from the broken ground. Watching it wiggle in her palm for a moment, she drops it aside, stands and seems to brace for some kind of hurt.
“You’ve got no phone, Richard,” she says, “else I would have called. So you can take the seriousness of my being here by the number of miles I’ve walked.”
Thinking that this is the first normal talk that I’ve ever heard from Julie, and at the same time recognizing the intelligence and poise that she brings to it, I try to be encouraging, something I‘m not used to.
“Yes, I can see that,” I say. “I sure hope you’re about to tell me what brings you so far up this way. Is there something that you need some help with?”
Her eyes never leaving mine, like they are locked there by her need to miss nothing, Julie replies, “Jack and I didn’t make it. I think you knew that we wouldn’t. Else why would you have acted toward me the way you did.”
Pausing and lifting her eyebrows, Julie makes her point before continuing.
“I don’t know anybody other than you who is not a friend of Jack’s. I could tell when you tried to bed me that you were not a violent person. From the ways I’ve been, that is no small matter. Can I live with you?”
Having gotten out what she carried miles to say, Julie steps back a couple of paces and looks to the ground.
Never in my days have I been called upon under such circumstances and, though it has been plenty lonely around here, all of a sudden that doesn’t seem the bane that it was. When stacked beside a mismatch with another human being, it’s suddenly small potatoes. But in this land of obscurity and want, there is in Julie and the way she touches me, something that tells me not to run from what isn’t there. Dropping the hoe and feeling a favor pretty uncommon in my life, I say, “Let’s go inside Julie. There’s coffee, not so good, but coffee just the same. And you should see the innards of this place before we go any further.”
I can imagine the edge of Julie’s lips turning the smallest amount. As we walk toward the house we exchange glances, both of us continuing to inspect one another a bit. Trying to bring a little lightness to the situation, I offer up a pretty common question around here.
“Where you from, girl? Your speech and manner are not from around here.”
“New York,” she replies. “Where are you from?”
“Just a couple of mountain ranges over,” I say, “in the Coal River Valley, little place called Dorothy, not big enough for a stop light.”
As we cross the yard my two beagles are all noses and whipping tails as they inspect Julie. A good sign that she acknowledges with a couple of pets and kind words.
“Is that New York City?” I ask as we climb the two steps to the rough back porch and kitchen door.
“Brooklyn,” she replies.
Moving in with her cardboard suitcase, Julie takes up the little cot in my spare room where I keep most of my gun collection. For the first week or so we sort of get used to having each other around. She is good with the little wood stove and up before me to start or stoke it on the cold early spring mornings. And if need be, she doesn’t mind going to the well to draw water. The dogs love her regular feeding routine and, all and all, she is a good house mate. Plus I have more time for my cartoons, which a couple of papers pay me for. Not much, but enough for subsistence living. Neither of us expected more than that when we chose these hard rocks of living to begin with. But there is still that not so natural space between us. I try to show that I don’t need to jump into her pants to get along, give her space to drop the load I know she arrived with. Plus I am now living with her, not just passing by. To me there is a difference. Sometimes I think she knows this as we share coffee in the morning. There is a look in her eyes that reminds me of one of my funny characters—the would be girlfriend of a shy boy from the same block. But Julie shortly puts an end to all this. After getting the fire going one morning, she strips and comes to my covers to wait for the house to warm up. The change is not big. But certainly enough to soften our steps a little.
As onion sets turn to glossy green shoots and cabbages begin to look like broad fanned bonnets, spring warms to summer. Pretty quick it seems, Julie receives her mail order divorce without any trouble. The local law center was glad to do it with only one visit by a paralegal. My presence was treated as if it’s not uncommon to have divorces lagging behind new partners. Jack and his large clan were happy to be rid of the “City Girl” on an even-steven basis. Truly their differences were irreconcilable and neither had money nor property to fool with.
Having spent part of my life in resourceful areas, I know that one thing about the sticks that blessedly doesn’t tick in divorces are battles over wealth of one kind or another. Maybe, I consider, that is one reason why conjugal unions here are not the capital deal that they are some places. So Julie and I become as married as many people around here ever become....without the back speak of being married to someone else.
Kneeling on the couch and looking out the window to the far ridges beyond the lower end of the hollow, divorce papers scattered at our knees, Julie and I sip a rare cup of tea using the window ledge as our table. It is a time for reflection as we playfully clink our cups and smile at each other and the pretty view. Admiring the luster of her look as she gazes at the hazy mountains, I feel a goodness that moves me above the coarse, the practical. Something that would have scared the shit out of me before Julie.
Noticing my stare, Julie blushingly laughs and locks me with those pools of brown.
“What,?” she asks.
Thinking that to put into words my thoughts would be too wide open, I simply shake my head.
Julie places her tea on the window ledge beside mine, puts her arms around my neck and pulls me over her as we slide to the couch.
“Tell me Richard,” she says, “I want to know about you.”
A scent of lemon comes with her words and seems to float above her face and the nest of raven hair that holds it. My embarrassment melts as I realize that I can not deny this woman.
“I was thinking how nice it is that we are here together,” I say. “Like something made to be that way. You and me.”
Julie’s eyes well up as her words catch in her throat. After a moment, feeling like she has been called from afar, she whispers.
“Come here you.”
It’s an easy stroll out of the hollow to the lazy Greenbrier river that meanders through the little towns and countryside of this part of the wrinkled earth. Imagining ourselves a little like the Seneca Indians that used to roam and live along these banks, Julie and I set a couple of fish lines, start a small fire, and strip down to our swim wear. Somewhere in that cardboard suitcase Julie must have found a beautiful rainbow bikini. The way she wears it with the high sun flashing from its colors reminds me of Frank Sinatra’s Girl From Ipanema. However, I figure that Julie is just as nice as any girl along Frank’s Brazilian beach.
Using an old rope swing in a nearby River Sycamore, I teach Julie how to swing out over the water and drop in. I have never seen a girl that was able to do this kind of thing because of the arm strength required but Julie picks it right up. So lovely and bright as she arcs from the tree shadow into the sunlight, she seems to leave a contrail of beautiful flesh and color to savor. We even manage to both ride the rope out together, dropping into the clear stream, the yellowish green glow of its sandstone bottom clearly visible before it swallows us. Far across to the other side and near a heavily wooded bank a beaver disapprovingly tail slaps the water.
By the time we are done with our water play our appetite is built. Cutting a couple of small green branches, we roast hot dogs and enjoy the thoughts that a slow stream of passing water can bring.
While reclining by the embers and admiring Julie’s lithe figure for the umpteenth time, I see the small thin scar just above her bikini line. Something that I had noticed before but never mentioned, thinking that if I needed to know she would tell me. I trace the line with my finger and lift my eyes to her.
After holding my look, Julie looks to the river as a shadow passes over her face. Finding in the waters what she was looking for, she brings her eyes back to mine.
“I can’t have babies,” she says. “About three years ago I had stage three ovarian cancer and had to have my ovaries removed. They thought that they got it all but that’s the price. I’m sorry, Richard.”
The way Julie says this leaves me with questions that she must know are going to follow because she suddenly looks defensive. And Julie is not the defensive type.
“Hey darling,” I say. “I’m not into kids. Child free suits me just fine. There’s plenty around to take any of mine’s place to start with.”
Pausing to poke around in the coals with my stick, I too look for the words to go where I need to go. Where Julie, I can tell, doesn’t want to go.
“You’ve become a pretty import part of my life,” I say. “Thank God you got through it. Was this in New York?”
“Yes. It was all pretty simple. I was in and out of the hospital in a couple of days. They wanted me to do a regimen of chemo then get retested but I refused.”
Beginning to see where she is coming from, I can’t help but get a little uneasy.
“Why did you refuse?”
Taking a deep breath, then letting it go, as if the extra air was needed to continue, Julie opens the gates to a part of herself that had been closed.
“Because I’d had enough,” she says. “I’d lost my reason to be a woman. Now they wanted me to give up even my appearance of being a woman. And get sick to boot. Plus they couldn’t really tell me why except a bunch of mumbo jumbo. Expensive mumbo jumbo. I was just another poor Jewish girl with no health insurance to them, one that must have money somewhere in the family tree. But there is no tree. I am it. And until I met you, not much of an it.”
For the first time, perhaps getting an inkling of what brought Julie to this obscure land, I can see all of her. And that makes her precious. Too precious to push because of my ins and outs. I can only accept this woman that I have fallen in love with for what she is. And this, indefinably, puts a little edge to who I am.
“Ok Julie,” I say, “but if you decide that things aren’t right we can get help. There are ways. Don’t ever feel that you must go without.”
Falling silent, we sit by the dying fire and watch the shadows grow long. I throw another drift log on the coals, watching the fast smoke chase the mosquitoes. Sounding like a .22 rifle shot, the beaver pops a tail, wishing us long gone as the sun kisses the ridge. But we are not moving. Julie leans her head on my shoulder and we stare at the smoking log, waiting for it to burst into living fire.
The mountains are aflame with red and orange colors as the autumn winds send their leaves tumbling across the garden. Picking and husking the last of the yellow bantam corn, Julie and I leave a back trail of weathered husks and apple butter colored silk. Dropping the fat yellow ears into a shoulder bag, we move along, a duet of rhythm. Julie will eventually shave the surplus ears and can the rich kernels for the coming winter while I block and bust up some downed timber for the wood burner. The garden has been good to us and the Beagles, their favorite time of year at hand, have helped with bringing in some protein rich game to go with the vegetables. Fall has always been my favorite time. A time when past and future meet in one clear display. Thought is heavy, looking to the test of hard weather ahead, yet carrying the satisfaction of a recent harvest and vigilant preparation.
Finishing up the last row and dropping her sack on the back porch next to mine, Julie suddenly holds her stomach and goes to her knees. Like a person I had once seen shot in the gut, she tips over to her side and curls into a fetal position, grimacing in pain.
Dropping the garden rake, I run over and drop to the ground next to her. Holding her head above the grass and seeing her face twisted in pain, I am scared shitless.
“What’s wrong, Julie, Please tell me babe, what’s going on.”
With her eyes squeezed shut and her breath coming in short gasps, she reaches up and pulls my head to. In not much more than a whisper she says, “I think you’d better get me to the emergency room, Richard. I’m hurting something fierce in my guts. It feels like something ruptured down there.”
Half carrying, half dragging Julie over to the old jeep that we use for groceries and emergencies only, I strap her in and get us to the hospital which is just down river a few miles and across a bridge. When the E.R. staff see her condition they take her right in and have me wait outside.
Sitting in the waiting room for what seems like a couple of hours, first filling out paperwork, then just trying to come to grips with being in a place where people die, I am pretty anxious. Not since the war and its grind of human loss have I felt like this. And that was mostly for my own skin. This is new. What if I lose Julie. In a morass of emotions, I don’t see the ER Doctor until he puts his hand on my shoulder.
A dark kindly looking man of middle eastern descent, wearing a white coat with a stethoscope sticking out of the pocket, he takes a chair next to mine. As he sits I notice that his name tag says Dr. Amjad.
“You are Richard Jones,” he asks, “the husband of Julie Lewis?”
It is the first time that I have ever been called a husband and suddenly I realize that this is about me as well as Julie.
“Yes,” I say. “Is she ok? What’s wrong?”
“I have admitted her,” Dr. Amjad replies. “She is sedated and fine for now, but her preliminary tests together with her medical history suggest some serious problems. She said that you know a little about it.”
Thinking that the only thing that I know about is her previous cancer, I ask Dr. Amjad, “Does she have cancer, can you fix it?”
“We suspect that a piece of malignant ovary was not removed properly,” Dr, Amjad says. “According to our imaging, it has grown into a sizable tumor. We will remove it as soon as possible, and that should help some with the pain. But considering metastasis and the amount of time that it has been growing, her prognosis is quite guarded.”
Dr. Amjad pauses for questions but I mostly understand what he is saying. All of my what if thoughts have seen to that, so he quickly continues.
“She feels that chemotherapy will make her sicker and any benefit from that may be questionable to begin with. Once the surgeon has a look things will become clearer. But our oncology unit will do what it can. For now she needs all the support that she can get. She is in room 202. When she is able to talk why don’t you let her tell you how she feels. She has a great deal of concern about you. That is where I suspect you can help her most. Just go to the second floor nurses station. They will be glad to direct you. Now, if you will excuse me, I must get back to my other patients.”
Watching Dr. Amjad disappear through the white swinging doors, I can feel my heart sink to my stomach. Suddenly I feel hollow inside, like a once full vessel ripped of its contents in an instant. Going to the bank of elevators, I press the up button and hope that I can be what Julie needs. All the way.
On the way home from the hospital, Julie and I detour to Sandstone Falls and its little park. Walking out a ways on the boardwalk, we sit watching the cascading water drop and pass below our observation bench. The trees are mostly bare with just a few scattered evergreens and die hard poplars adding patches of green and orange to the steep grey timber around us. Watching the water swirl, spitting curls of white froth as it passes over the rocks, we hold hands and pull our collars close, the November nip reminding us of an approaching winter. Julie’s far away look, lacking the pleasant aura it used to wear, breaks my heart but I do my best not to show it.
Tracing a raised tendon on the backside of my hand with her finger, Julie breaks the back noise of rushing water.
“I hope I can make it without much pain,” she says. “You’ll have all the planting to do by yourself in the spring. When the time comes I hope the earth can be the purest white of snow. I always loved the snow. It makes me feel clean and new. Loved.”
Feeling busted inside and swept along like the waters beneath us, I try to put on a face.
“Don’t be silly Julie, you’ll be here. Of course you will be here.”
Gripping me with her look, Julie lifts her eyebrows in that way she has. For a moment I feel like a liar and am ashamed. Dropping the sham, I can only say what is.
“Know that I love you more than words can ever tell, Julie. Just as the sun rises and beyond, I will always love you.”
Dropping her eyes to my hand, Julie seems to see it for the first time. Lifting it to her lips, her face covered by falling hair, she trembles.
I cry too.
The yellow daffodil bonnets seem to shoot from the earth daily as spring opens its door and a tough winter subsides. Redbud trees near the hollow’s rising woods are glorious in their displays. And the grass has once again called the lawn mower out of my tool shed for its yearly maintenance. But I can not feel the new life appearing all around me. There is no joy. Someone once said that April is the cruelest month and now I know for sure what they meant. Julie sleeps most of the time, the time is near. But we are both thankful to have been given the winter together and the small meaningful Christmas that we shared. A palliative care nurse makes a round every couple of weeks to make sure that we have the morphine injections necessary for the increasing pain. The other related medicines mostly just set in the other bedroom along parts of the gun rack. It’s a strange almost surreal feeling I get on the rare occasions that she has a use for them. When I see them lined up there and paired with my guns I choke. I still let the dogs run for fun but I had to give up hunting. I only keep a couple of house guns now. The couch has become my permanent bed except when Julie wants company and that is not much now. And it’s easier from the couch to feed the fire and stay attuned to Julie’s needs during the night. Sometimes, like now, I just sit by the bed watching her. When her eyes twitch a little I wonder where she is and what she is dreaming. And I hope that I am there too. Being with her is everything.
Slowly opening her eyes, Julie looks to me and turns her near hand over for me to hold.
Taking her hand, I look out the bedside window and see an Easter snow beginning to rapidly cover everything.
Squeezing my hand slightly and with the barest voice, Julie says, “It’s time, Richard. You be good and always know that I am here. I will help you. I love you. We will always be.”
Suddenly grimacing in pain, Julie’s eyes grow large for a moment as I reach for the needle on the nightstand. But before I can administer the morphine Julie stops me. In the clearest voice that I have heard from her in many days she says, “No Richard, now you must help me....in another way. Look under the window sill.”
Moving around the bed to the window, I see nothing under nor on the window sill. Looking to Julie to tell her that there is nothing there, I am stopped short as she reads my expression.
“Lift up on the center part,” she says, again showing a wave of sharp pain.
Pulling up on the sill, I see a small hidden pocket containing a large ampoule of morphine. Enough for a week or more. Knowing what it is for, I start crying but pick it up anyway.
Using only her eyes, those soulful brown lights of life, she brings me back to my chair and again whispers me close.
“Because I love you,” she says, “I know you can do it. It will be fine. I’ll still be here. Just let me go from the rest, Richard. It is time.”
Julie’s eyes follow my movements as I fully load the needle, leaving only a trace amount in the ampoule. I have to stop and wipe my tears away a couple of times to see what I am doing. And each time Julie whispers encouragement, helping me along with each of the little steps.
When it is done and both her hands are turned to me, I take them as she shows the faintest smile before her eyes close. Laying my cheek to her, I silently weep as Julie, in three shallow breaths, leaves her words.
“Thank you....my dearest...love.”
Two Red Tailed Hawks, mates I suppose, circle high above the waters of the Greenbrier River as I stoke the little fire and make ready near the old rope swing and Sycamores. On a nearby river rock the old beaver perches and stares. It is the first time that I have ever seen it out of the water. New growth is all about from the spring rains and the current flows swiftly, cold but fresh and clear. Julie and I adopted this river as our own and loved it for it’s continuity—-flowing, no beginning, no end. We thought of it like Siddhartha’s flowing waters, and how they imitate life. Always here but never in one spot. Julie is like that and that’s how we feel. Always residents together and in touch, but moving.
Removing her urn from my backpack, I carry it out thigh deep in the stream of current as the Red Tails kite their floats of freedom, sending shrieks among the ridges. The beaver turns to get a better view and starts sounding, like a crying infant.
Unscrewing the top of the urn, I pour a little of Julie’s ashes into my hand and let them slowly sift through my fingers to the passing current. Looking to the sky, I see the hawks weaving peaks and dips around each other. The beaver, now in the water, salutes with a smart tail slap. Then they wait on, watching.
Pouring the rest of her ashes to my hand, I let them fall to the freedom of the current. No beginning, no end. Always a part of what is.
We love her.
Charles Hayes bio
Charles Hayes, a multiple Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Story’s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, Burning Word Journal, eFiction India, and others.
symptoms (of madness)
down by the nightmare, the smell of burnt leaves hangs over the bank. it’s yesterday spoiling our dreams. the dead are never fully digested, just as the beautiful are never fully ignored. i was staring at the starer. the starer stared back. the wall was the best. it was blank and white and hurt less than colors and wallpaper patterns. i was pretty sure this meant i was insane.
YEAH, IT IS FUNNY HOW A MUSTACHE ISN’T ALWAYS WHAT ONE EXPECTS. I SAW A BARE-FOOTED BLACK HONDA STRETCHED OUT IN THE TREE-TOPS. I TOOK SIX SHOTS BEFORE I REALIZED IT WAS DEAD AND I COULDN’T EAT IT. AND HERE WE GO, THE HEDGER IS AT IT, ALWAYS AT IT WITH HIS SHEARS AND DUST MASK. ROBBING THE TREES OF THEIR LEAVES WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM BLACK & DECKER AND THE ELECTRIC COMPANY’S IN THERE TOO, IN ON A PIECE OF THAT AESTHETIC OF STRAIGHT BRANCHES SQUARED AND FLAT LIKE THE WORLD BEFORE COLUMBUS. I MUST LIVE ON A REGRESSIVE STREET. WHERE ARE THE ANGELS WHEN INSANITY ABIDES LIKE THE SEA? ROLLING COMING. ROLLING GOING. BUT NEVER GOING GOING.
the artist i had met in san francisco, malakami, and a girl from the villa spaghetti, shared our space on the east side of providence. it was the third floor of an enormous house. when malakami saw me staring at the wall he bought a plane ticket to hawaii. he was afraid of me, he said later. he was my friend and had been drawing art to go with my short stories. he was a skateboarder and skeptic, read h.p. lovecraft and was a pinball wizard. malakami was one of those beautiful people who acts harmless. malakami abandoned me, but he’d been working on it for awhile.
when i’d taken him in at the villa spaghetti, we were a pair of nocturnal heathens. i wrote and malakami drew. we went to bars and we broke open the night. then we moved to providence and he became a contrarian and took a step back. he disagreed with me so often it was impossible to talk with him. his patent response to everything was a deflective “really?” and that’s all he’d offer. no thoughts to follow it, just the hanging dismissal, which got to sounding idiotic in its repetition. he didn’t believe anything. “malakami, i saw your girlfriend on thayer.” “really?” “it’s starting to rain.” “really?” “the narragansett police got busted for looking at child pornography – in the police station.” “really?”“i think i need some new shoes.” “really?”
i supposed he thought i was a sell-out to be working as a newspaper reporter. it was too mainstream. he never said it, because he was reluctant to reveal himself, but i sensed his disdain. malakami was ten years younger than me and was a part of that generation which emphasized to everyone that it had given up before it had started. it had dropped out before tuning in. he never said or asked anything about my work. he got me wondering if i was a bigger asshole than i knew i was, not that i could do much about it. i don’t think malakami and his unfriendly slacker friends understood what i was writing. and it seems to me malakami should have known. he’d read my short stories and knew my sensibility. maybe he did know i was accomplishing more than i would have as a slacker, working as a newsroom iconoclast, pushing boundaries and fighting to get stories into print. maybe he didn’t like me chasing corrupt mayors out of town. i expanded the paper’s vocabulary to include words the readers used and appreciated seeing in print. you know, words like “boobs” (barbara eden) and “shit” (norman mailer). i hurt a fascist police chief so bad he traded nine millimeters for .45s and built a moat of silence to keep me out (didn’t work). i had the distinction of being the only reporter dragged into the publisher’s office for a whipping in the last 100 years. i received fan mail and had beautiful stalkers sending perfumed letters and following me to meetings. i won more journalism awards than anyone in the state, awards judged by the maine press association, the arizona press association, and the connecticut press association. these are just the facts. but the publisher didn’t care any more than malakami. i was waging war on his class, his golf buddy who was paying kickbacks to get city contracts. his friends meant more than that during my first year on his paper, circulation went up 30% on my beat. editors said kind things, but to the publisher i was the antichrist. some co-workers who were better telephone operators than writers were jealous, though content in the cowardice that meant job security. they sat at their desks with their noses in their computer screens and their ears to the telephone while i was out in the air with the man on the street – a practice i was bitched-out for countless times. actually, i was bitched-out for hanging with the man in the street for eight years. i nearly lost my job twice because i believed the man in the street knew more than the mayor. newspapers were killing themselves and i felt headed toward extinction.
malakami was the voice of youth and reason in that house. he gained most of his wisdom from comic books. he broke up fast with a sweet, humble and funny, and gorgeous blonde to go out with a self-centered egomaniac who called herself nova. nova came from santa cruz to study sculpture at rhode island school of design. she had a full scholarship. she quickly started a band for herself, called “slippery pork.” malakami was the bass player. nova once asked me “what are your views on art?” she ambushed me with this at 6 a.m. as i was on my way to the toilet. i was not awake and hadn’t noticed her sitting on the kitchen couch. she scared the shit out of me and i nearly threw up on her. malakami stopped coming into my room and avoided me well before i was staring at walls. maybe it was his girlfriend. maybe he was afraid of me in general. maybe he wanted to deny me. i never believed he envied me, but he had an attitude. as artists, we were opposites. he was very controlled, conscious, and obvious, whereas i was barely involved.
once we were on a pabst kick and i bought him a 12-pack before leaving for the weekend. i told him it was for him. when i returned, the 12-pack was still there, untouched. he had to have drunk beer during those two days. the pabst sat for almost a week and then i drank it. within hours, he bought a six of pabst and placed it like a condemnation in the exact same spot in the refrigerator. he didn’t want anything from me. i saw less and less of him. when i got sick, he vanished, then he bought that plane ticket home. i can’t blame him for being afraid now, but at the time i didn’t understand. the truth is a lot of people are afraid of those with an illness, especially mental illness, even people who love what the sick create – which makes them hypocrites.
PEOPLE ARE EASIER TO SEE THROUGH THAN BLINDS AND I HAVE SEEN THROUGH THE INTERSTATE WITH GLASS EYES. PEOPLE ARE EASIER TO JUMP OVER THAN BUILDINGS AND THO I HAVE YET TO LEAP OVER A BUILDING IN ANY NUMBER OF BOUNDS, MY SKELETON IS THE KEY TO EVERY SOUL. MY GIFT IS FINDING LOVE AND EXPOSING ARROGANCE. I CAN MAKE A MAN LOVE ME OR FLEE IN ONE MINUTE. I CAN INSPIRE GENEROSITY AND GENIUS AND SOULS WITH MY EARS.
i considered doctors and hospitals in the yellow pages and then closed the book.
one day i left the house and walked up to college hill. brown university chicks were looking out the windows of cafes. the cars seemed fast and loud. i didn’t like passing people on the sidewalk. i felt them reading me. i wanted to be alone, but i endured the world because i was on a mission. i went into the army-navy store and picked out a down sleeping bag. the guy there asked me where i was going with it and i told him the catskills. he said i would freeze to death. he tried to sell me a warmer bag. i didn’t want it. spring was coming. i wanted the old down one, not the newer synthetic one. i threw it on the fire escape to air out, grabbed a beer and drank down some percocet. i went into my room and closed the door and played my guitar. i chose the 12 books i could live with for the rest of my life, which would go down in a tent in the new york mountains. there was one woman: marguerite duras.
we had a cat named stew who made a night game of sneaking into my room and getting as close to my nose as possible. when my eyes popped open, he’d run - with a copy of balzac’s seraphita close on his tail. stew was my primary source of humor and entertainment. in the morning he would be standing outside my doorway, the line we had agreed upon, trapping me into a game before i made coffee. we had french roast, columbian, sumatra, kona, cabernet, chianti, bordeaux, pabst, bowmore, johnnie walker black, glenlivet, pernod, absolute, tangueray, newcastle, jim beam, and a bowl of percocets and vicadins. we did not have budweiser.
i was writing for the boston globe, the narragansett times, and reuters. i was making enough to pay the rent, put gas in the car and have a car, have a girlfriend, and indulge my weaknesses. which did not mean i could slack because once you’re in, you’re in, and if you stop for a minute, you’re out. i was caught in a never-ending race to produce bird cage liner. i was manic, and i did not feel strong in the head. i was interviewing all manner of humanity, from presidential candidates and actors to the guys lumping fish heads. they were all the same and none of it mattered to me anymore. my thoughts were fractured. i poured booze on the psychic pain and my thinking became scrambled. my way of life was my life and it was failing. a letter came into the paper, critiquing a story. it was hostile and, for the first time in six years, correct. i had written 1,600 stories and had been impervious. i was slipping.
in this third-story flat, stew was reading the tick and malakami was playing his bass before he headed to work at the laundromat. the chick was on the phone. always on the phone. Her social life was competing with my professional life. malakami had argued that we take this chick on to lower our rent. i had argued against it because i knew she would be ignored. when we had found the place, malakami and i were close, partners in a nocturnal cabal, and the chick had really wanted to move in, so i let it go. she didn’t like living with us and i didn’t care. she was a good chick, but she was taking up space with her need to be fucked. eventually she became a lesbian.
i had started back on my horn and was sitting in with a local jazz band. my hearing had become so acute that i started seeing things: i saw the notes when i closed my eyes, c, Eb, f, f#, g, Bb, c , displayed like a map to possibility. notes flashed while i played. i followed them. i had been playing 20 years and this phenomenon changed everything. i was in an altered state, but i was unaware. i saw these visions as a blessing, not a sign of impending hell.
home from a gig, buzzed, i’d find the globe on the machine wanting shit at 10 p.m. we need all you can get on a vietnamese murderer from providence. we want you to go to his house. do you know vietnamese? do you know anyone who speaks vietnamese? how about a professor at brown? oh, and we need it in 45 minutes. i run out the door and track down a street walled in by graffiti and lit up by shattered glass. i find the house the killer had fled from. there are lights on in the kitchen and basement. i knock. i look through the windows. the place is empty. i interview a neighbor walking his rotweiller near the abandoned house. “haven’t seen him in two days.” back home, i call in a description of an empty house and a guy walking his dog – maybe a cop.
NOBODY LOSES HIS MIND, HE LOSES THE ABILITY TO WARD OFF INVASIONS. YOU LOSE SIGHT OF THE MURAL WHILE YOUR HANDS FIGHT THE ABSTRACT INVASION. YOU BECOME A MONSTER AND AN ISLAND. IT IS THE REPLACEMENT OF THE INDIVIDUAL BY THE ALL, A MARTYRED FLIGHT TOWARD THE SOURCE, LOSING ONE LIFE TO BE A THOUSAND.
i had time to work on the short stories i had written in san francisco two years earlier, which was when i first met malakami. then i had been with jess, who was now a year in the past. jess had worked at an insurance company while i stayed home and typed. she made those short stories possible. malakami was a friend of our neighbors’. he visited them one night while jess and i were there. he was with his girlfriend. malakami was dressed sharply in a long black wool coat and did not say a word to jess or i. actually, he did not look at us despite coming through the front door into a living room where there were only four people, his two friends from hawaii and us. he talked to our neighbor, who was sitting on the couch next to me, but did not look at jess or me. they didn’t stay long. my first impression was not good, but i learned he was an artist. jess and i left california and broke up. malakami and his girlfriend broke up and he came east in a tail-spin. our villa spaghetti days began.
jess was now living in newport. i had run into her twice. it was strange to look at her as somebody else’s girl. at an outdoor flea market i watched a new guy demonstrate golf clubs to her. i had never thought of that. one time i saw her and i missed her. we had been through everything together and no other girl would know that journey. the memories seemed wasted without her. i was now with layne, the tall rhode island school of design student with long black hair. layne was a photography major and almost a normal chick. at first, her pedigree and family history seemed to have corrupted her very little. she was irish and she drank well and laughed a lot. her body and her sense of humor made me happy in the beginning. she was also one of the best photographers i had ever met and i brought her out on a story where she compassionately captured peter wolf’s pallor and decay for the world.
HER LONG ARMS AND LEGS MOVED THE BED. UNDER THE SHEETS I WAS RIGID IN THE SUNLIGHT, WATCHING HER SLEEP. SHE CRAWLED ON MY FLOOR, THROUGH MY CLEAN LAUNDRY, LOOKING FOR HER PANTIES, THE SUN BURNING LACE PATTERNS ON THE PINE. IN THE BACK ALLEY, A DALMATIAN NAMED SPOT BARKED AT SATURDAY MORNING GHOSTS. LAYNE’S EYES WERE THE DAWN. HER EYES BLUE LIKE HAVANA, SPECKLED WITH AZTEC GOLD FLAKES. BLUE AND GOLD WHEN SHE OPENED THEM. HER EYES IN THE MORNING SUN, I NEVER WANTED TO LEAVE THEM. WHEN SHE CLOSED THEM, I WONDERED WHAT SHE MEANT. IS IT STILL NIGHT? I WAS ALONE, WATCHING, WAITING. IF SHE WAS BLINKING, I WAS A FOOL. A FOOL, I FELL INTO HER BREASTS. I WAS JUST A MAN IN THE SUMMER OF HIS LIFE, WRITING POEMS ON HER BACK WITH HER BEAUTIFUL FACE IN MY EYES AND HER BLOOD ON MY FINGERS.
layne revealed herself to be very conservative for a liberal democrat. she was a liberal not in favor of proving it: the poor deserved to suffer. i was a-political and didn’t vote, but i knew there were more nobles among the poor and nobody deserved to suffer. layne’s family were millionaires and she had an allowance. she began to live in restaurants and bars. she had been studying art in italy before we met, had lived on wine and bread and simple foods. six months back in america and she was covering herself in bed. she was aware and it seemed to make her eat more richly. i was not nice near the end, but i was losing my grip on niceties. she was naïve in many ways, young and bourgeois. i could not educate fat.
layne used to scream her ecstacy. if people were talking in the kitchen, i’d laugh. i’d laugh until i remembered i was fucking her. the neighbors looked at me like i was slaughtering women in my apartment. layne fit the times. we were together for a lot of wine and a lot of laughs. she had a taste for fire escapes and abandoned buildings and met her father, the former attorney general, for breakfast every sunday morning. she dyed her red hair black and favored black skirts. she was affectionate. her grandfather had been governor so she could talk shop if i had to. she was 21 and her father was trying unsuccessfully to push her into politics. her father seemed wary of me. he knew the disappointment his daughter had coming. i saw that he saw and he saw that i saw him seeing it. what were two gentlemen to do about a scoundrel? i liked her face. i didn’t care for her naiveté, but her instincts were good. our break-up came along after i was losing interest in sex. she didn’t understand. she was young. no sex meant it was over. this was leading to when i cracked up and didn’t want her at all.
i left providence and resigned from the newspapers. a couple months later i called layne from a payphone near the villa spaghetti, the big white rooming house by the beach where malakami and i had lived. i had returned to rest. i was on lithium and other meds and was alright. i was writing and doing what i had always wanted. we talked and she sounded like she believed in me. we made a date for her to come down the following week. she would be in newport over the weekend for her brother’s wedding, so i’d call her monday. when i called layne on monday, she was changed. words like flippant, superficial, indifferent, distracted came to mind. she was not coming down to visit. a weekend with the attorney general had cleared her head. it had been important to him that i was a journalist. now? i was a nobody and worse. shit, i was now a member of the deserving poor! or maybe she had met someone at the wedding? her doorbell rang while we were talking and she went to answer it. i heard a guy. she talked to him for awhile, laughing, talking, a bit too long before she came back to the phone. she said she had to go. there was no warmth. i could have been selling a knife set. it was okay. i was no longer the same. i was reaching out and back for the life of a man who no longer existed.
malakami didn’t stay in hawaii. he flew back to san francisco and got a position at one of the largest banks in america. he rose fast in this bank. he told me about playing football with the bank’s vice-presidents. the skate punk was very satisfied with himself. his rebellion had not been against the banks and rich; he had rebelled because they wouldn’t let him in. two years later he married a young girl with money and a half-million-dollar house on portrero hill. she also had a pretentious name. within 10 years he would be a vice president at wells fargo bank. he’d stepped into the upper-middle class machine and was dazzled by the insulation. one day i asked the artist how usury was treating him and i never heard from him again. i had believed in malakami, but i think i was just believing in youth.
HE MUST BE DRUNK. BUT IT DOESN’T SHOW. HE PACES HIMSELF LIKE A GOOD DRUNK. THE BOTTLES ARE THE FOOTPRINTS HE’S LEFT BEHIND ON HIS JOURNEY FROM HIS MATTRESS TO HIS MATTRESS. WE ARE SILENT. THE DARKNESS YIELDS TO A STORY. AND LAUGHTER. THEN SILENCE AGAIN. ANTICIPATION DISPLACES THE DARKNESS LIKE A LIGHT BEHIND THE EYELIDS. HE GRABS A BEER AND THE WALLS CLOSE IN FOR A TASTE. I TAKE A DRAG AND LOCATE THE ASHTRAY. WE LIE IN THE DARK. HIDDEN. A SMALL FIRE, A CANDLE. SOMETIMES I BELIEVE THIS COULD GO ON FOR FORTY MORE YEARS. KILLING THE DAYS WITH A SENSE OF OBLIGATION. FALLING INTO THE ROCK BOTTOM OF THE NIGHT, OUR ONE COMFORT. I DREAM THE NIGHT COULD KEEP US ALIVE. I DREAM THE NIGHT COULD KEEP EVIL AWAY. I DREAM THAT IN THE DARKNESS OUR NAKED VOICES BECOME THE COMPLETION OF AN IMMORTAL CIRCUIT. MAYBE THEY DO. BUT IN THOSE PAUSES, THOSE SILENCES, I AM REMINDED OF WHAT WE CANNOT CHANGE AND MY EYES BURN WITH HELPLESSNESS AND SHAME.
And the Birds Came Down
There was a loud squawking overhead and the circle of women who had been sitting with their eyes closed and heads bowed all looked up.
“What’s that?” said one, the nervous tinge to her voice making her drop the small stone in her hand.
“It’s the birds,” said a matter-of-fact voice from the other side of the circle. “They often come down.”
Jay turned to Carlotta and whispered.
“It’s pitch black outside! Where did all those birds come from? That’s creepy!”
The squawking of what sounded like a sack of seagulls shaken loose could clearly be heard above their heads.
“Do you think she did it?” said Jay, looking at the woman sitting some small distance apart from the others huddled close in the circle.
“You’ll be telling me next she has the power to invoke spirits,” laughed Carlotta, for the first time in weeks.
“Well, you did feel something pressing down on your shoulders when you held that crystal” said Jay.
“And you heard music when you held the other one,” retorted Carlotta.
“And she was holding the same ones!” gasped Jay.
Carlotta looked at her friend and thought how gullible she was.
“Sure she has power. Power to influence our imagination! Don’t you see? We imagined it all! And as for those birds?”
Carlotta raised her eyes to the heavy pattering that was going on above her head.
“That woman might go under the heading of spiritual healer but nobody can bring down birds!”
Jay lifted her eyes to the ceiling.
Carlotta was annoying her. She’d tried her best to cheer her up by bringing her to the spiritual healing group and all she’d done was criticise it from the moment she’d walked in. Jay could feel her usually placid temper rising.
“There’s no need to be so negative!” she said and she should have stopped there, but the words seemed to slither out of her mouth. “Just because the dog has died!”
The dog has died! A cold, cutting clause. How many times during the last few weeks had Carlotta repeated that clause? She knew what Jay thought. The dog has died. Get another dog. One dog was the same as another, wasn’t it? A head. Four legs. A tail.
That’s what they all thought. Those that had never had a dog. That’s what she had thought. Once upon a time. Twelve, long years ago. A lifetime. How wrong she was!
Her life had changed from the moment that small animal had run excitedly through.
And she’d resented it! Oh, how she’d resented it!
She hadn’t wanted a dog. It was her daughter Ruth who had wanted it, with passionate pleas to which Carlotta had given in. The dog moved in. Ruth moved out. And Carlotta was left with the dog.
“It’ll be company for you!” Ruth had said, as she packed her case that last day before moving out.
Company! She’d had years of company! She’d slid into the pattern of so many of her comtemporaries. Companion. Children. Cosy. Comfortable. Confining. And sometimes she’d resented that. Sometimes she had wanted to cut loose. To feel free. Free to pursue. Pursue her dreams. And for the first time in years she was.
And she felt dead. Like the dog.
It always got you in the end, she thought. Death. You could eat healthily. Exercise. Abstain from vices. But in the end it got you another way. Like the dog.
Spirits. There were no spirits. There was only suffering and death. And the end.
Like that poor animal.
She thought of that final morning. The sputum and the diarrhoea covering the carpet and the exhausted animal lying in it. She remembered sitting with the dog wrapped in a blanket on her knee at the vet’s and the small head cuddling into her chest. And a tear came to her eye.
A head. Four legs. And a tail. That’s what they’d cremated.
But that’s not what she was.
“I think I’ll go home now,” she said.
Jay looked at her in dismay.
“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean———————.”
She couldn’t finish the sentence.
“It’s all right. I just need space to myself. I don’t think it was such a good idea coming here. Though I appreciate you asking me. I know you were only trying to cheer me up!”
The two friends didn’t speak all the way back in the car. Jay dropped Carlotta back at her apartment and watched as Carlotta turned and gave her a distant wave.
Carlotta inserted the key in the latch and opened the door. Silence. She crossed the floor to the kitchen and opened the door carefully, aware it was silly to do so. There was no small nose peering round the door. No welcome jump at her weak knee. No basket to trip over as she made herself a cup of coffee. Just a silent, empty kitchen. She sat down on the sofa. There was no one trying to climb up at her face and knock her coffee cup out of her hand. She turned on the television and flicked channels to a programme about dogs. There was no barking so she couldn’t hear the television. She switched it off and a terrible feeling of depression descended on her. It had happened before but this time there was no comforting presence to sense it, come lick her nose and make it all right. She was free. So why did she feel so bad?
The solemn silence was broken by a loud click from the kitchen. Carlotta hurried through wondering what had caused it. There was nothing to be seen. She wasn’t perturbed. It had happened before. A movement of the building she thought. New apartments often did that.
Though she knew if the dog was there its ears would have gone up, it would have jumped down on the floor and gazed into space as though it were seeing something. Ruth had noticed it on one of her visits back home.
“What’s she looking at?” she had said.
Carlotta had brushed it off remembering what Jay had once said to her when she’d mentioned it to her.
“Dogs see angels, you know.”
“Christ, Jay, don’t tell me you believe dogs see spirits!” Carlotta had scoffed.
Her friend had always believed in such things, Carlotta knew. But she, Carlotta knew better.
There were no such things as spirits. When you were dead, you were dead. Final. Finito.
That’s why you had to make the most of living.
It was the next day she decided. She couldn’t stay in the apartment for a moment longer. She had to get away. The apartment was empty. Dead. While she stayed here she was too. She had to go somewhere there was life. After all she was free now. She didn’t have to organise a kennel. She didn’t have the depression of hearing a crying dog being taken there. She didn’t need to feel guilty about putting the dog in such a place. And she didn’t have the depression of seeing a thin, stressed, barked out and exhausted dog returning from there. Even though it had been a good kennels. Besides which she’d been through a lot. She, herself was exhausted. She needed a break. That’s why she booked the holiday to Cyprus on the internet that morning.
“You’re going where?” Jay said on the telephone that morning.
“Cyprus,” Carlotta said, wondering why she had to justify it to Jay.
“Are you sure you’re doing the right thing? It’s so far away.”
The closer it got to the day Carlotta wasn’t sure. Why the hell had she booked it? Jay was right. It was so far away. But there was no going back now. Or she would lose all her money.
“You’ll be all right when you get there,” said Jay. “I didn’t mean to put you off!”
But Carlotta wasn’t so sure. She packed up reluctantly, aware only there was no need to sneakily pack, so the dog wouldn’t know she was going away, any longer.
She arrived at the hotel late, and though tired, unpacked her clothes and hung them in the wardrobe before falling into an exhausted sleep. She slept fitfully, as she’d done ever since the dog had died, waking every few hours to put on the light and study, through sleep-laden eyes, the hands of the clock. The final time the room was light and she rose, pulled back the curtain and surveyed the streaming sunlight outside.
This was what she needed. She had breakfast in the hotel dining room, changed into her shorts and top, packed her beach bag and headed in the direction of the nearest beach. The morning was barely awake and the sea struggled to send a wave to the shore. One swimmer disturbed its slumber with slight ripples but the sea didn’t seem to mind. Carlotta camped herself on one of the sun-beds and started pulling stuff from her bag just before the beach attendant appeared. Once she’d paid him and he’d disappeared once more, she settled herself on the sun-bed to lay back.
It’s beautiful, she thought.
There was no one on the other sun-beds. The beach was deserted. She had the whole place to herself.
If there were a heaven, it would be like this, she thought.
But there was no heaven. There was only this beach. One lone swimmer. And her.
She’d been right to come. She’d needed to put distance between her and death.
And now she had. She was finally free.
Free of what and to do what she wasn’t sure. But at that moment it didn’t seem to matter. It would come to her. She had no doubt. The heavy heat made her eyelids half-shut. She looked at the sunlight striking the water. A strange thought occurred to her. She’d never noticed it before but it almost seemed as if the spirits of a thousand souls were dancing delightedly on the surface of the water till they hit the shore and were grounded.
Now you’re becoming poetic. You sound like Jay, she thought, as a small bird appeared at the foot of her sun-bed, followed by another landing on the one in front of her. All at once she was aware of a gathering of small birds all around her.
She never knew what made her lift her head and turn round to look at the beach. The beach that had previously been deserted. No longer. The beach was covered in birds. Hundreds of birds. Small ones. Big ones. All walking about confused as if they had been summoned by some unseen hand but were unsure why.
Like me, thought Carlotta. But now I know. I was wrong. Jay was right. There are spirits. Everywhere. Animals can sense them. And I did too. For a second. And someone or something sensed it. Even if only for a second.
She didn’t know if she had the power to invoke spirits or the spirits had power to invoke something in her. It didn’t seem to matter somehow. She knew, just like she’d known the first time that little dog had crossed her threshold, that she’d never be the same again. Like the dog had known when it had lain down in the garden to die the day before it did. She’d been wrong. There was such a thing as spirit. Death wasn’t the end. The dog knew. And the birds knew.
That’s why they’d come down.
Bullet for the Blessed
All hell broke loose and a bullet ricocheted off the side of the corner building and hit Milton’s leg. It stung, but that didn’t slow his power scooter. At his age he could kick himself for going to the corner on a Saturday night to buy black market weed instead of the state dispensary. Street weed was cheaper and killed his back pain.
What good is it if you’re dead?
More shots rang out in rapid succession followed by screams of terror as two young boys ran down the alley and hopped fences. Swerving left and right the wheels of his chair bounced on debris in the dimly lit alley. He slammed into his neighbor’s garage just two houses down from his. Which yard to cut through? The ping of bullets off chain link fencing decided for him. He pulled into the shadows of two garages; one abandoned the other under renovation. Piles of siding, drywall and other material leaned against the side of an opening big enough.
When he backed in his head still brushed against stacked lumber. Thank God for being short. He turned off the power that illuminated the controls. Shots continued from the street on the next block. It was all out war between those young boys.
Oh no! Two guys in dark clothing stopped in front of him.
Don’t look this way! The street lights flickered on and off. Could they see him? When they turned to duck out the alley he was deep enough in the shadows. They missed him and peeked out looking for whomever.
Don’t make a sound, Milton.
“Whoever come dis way shoot em,” one guy whispered.
“Got it,” his accomplice replied.
The silence was eerie, no cars, no wind, just the sticky humidity and the smell urine in the enclosure that shrouded him. Sweat trickled down his face, he dare not wipe it and a slight shake of his head didn’t cool him.
What? That was strange, but he didn’t move. One of the young guys turned, stepped back and took a leak against the garage. He tucked it and went back to his position. Thank God. Milton gripped the handlebars when he felt hair tickle his ear and then a sniffing sound.
A rat! Don’t move, don’t move. Little needle like feet stepped on his shoulder. A squirrel? That beat a rat, but both carried rabies. The pricks stopped and a bushy tail brushed against the side of his face and it hopped on the ground and ran to the alley.
It was a squirrel.
The young boys jumped slightly but maintained their focus on whatever. His stomach rumbled. He had to fart, but that meant death. Don’t squirm either, relax it will go away and it did. Suddenly a mosquito started to buzz in his ear and then those fools got restless and started to stir.
Oh no! Please don’t turn around, and they didn’t. But, that damn mosquito landed on the tip of his nose and went to work. He wiggled it, but it hung on and when it lifted off the itch almost drove him crazy. Now, he had to sneeze.
A vehicle sped down the alley.
“Here they come...I think,” the little guy said.
“OK, get ready...now.” The two of them fired simultaneously as it passed and then ran behind it.
Milton turned the power switch and prepared to shoot across the alley past the neighbor’s garages to his house.
WAIT A SECOND!
What? He heard sirens then screeching tires enter the alley. Seconds later several cop SUVs zoomed by. It took them long enough. He inched forward and looked both ways. Nothing. He pushed the joystick and sped to his house. The gate latch stuck for a minute. He slammed up against like his life depended on it...it did. It popped and he was between two garages on the way up the back ramp. He’d made it. Thank God.
Milton finished dressing his flesh wound and rolled to the kitchen table, dumped the weed and rolled one. The affects relieved the pain. Good he listened to the inner voice he’d never heard. Strange...real strange. Instead of off and on listening to the church broadcast that preceded his Sunday morning news program he’ll pay attention.
Rhetoric and the Written Word
Language... Its essence ebbs and flows. We are enraptured by its vocabulary. Its sounds and syllables trickle off the tongue into a dynamic ambiance of ecstatic wordplay, revealing the esoteric principals that are etched within our consciousness. We take dreams and extract from them a fragment of a memory that fulfills the very expression of life itself.
Unfortunately, there is a tendency to fall too much in love with those same sounds and syllables that engulf us. So much so that it is the formation and structure that takes precedence over the idea being conveyed, while being transcribed into the written word. An analogy can be made when viewing a painting in a gallery setting. If one were to pay more attention to the surrounding frame than the crux of what is emphasized within the work itself, then one might as well display the frame without having the painting housed within it.
In conclusion, it is not enough to incite reactions with words. One can only cry or laugh so much until one wakes up the next day wondering what it was all about. But the power of an idea and the wisdom embedded within the context of that idea can resonate beyond any emotional reaction generated forthwith. The idea itself is malleable yet durable. It is able to endure the prejudices against it that can rise over the acclamation of time. It plays no favorites. To paraphrase a quote by Lester Bangs: “An idea is honest and unmerciful.” Otherwise, it is reduced to rhetoric, propounded in speeches given by politicians, and we have heard enough of it all to want to swallow our ears. Yuck!
*Rhetoric and the Written Word, Creations 2015, Ada Writers, 2015
Earlier that night Matthew’s father told him if he took the car, he would report it stolen. “Do it,” Matthew said. “I’ll tell Mom how I got my fracture.” The splint had been removed so recently that his biceps and triceps were still abnormally thin, as if his elbow had healed itself by taking their tissue.
In Modesto Matthew pulled into the parking lot of a rent-to-own furniture store, where he now waited. Sarah had said they needed to meet, tonight. A woman tilted back in a recliner. Rising from cylindrical concrete bases, lampposts gave off light the color of cantaloupe flesh. A mini-van was parked nearby. The driver—a man with a moustache—was shouting at a second- or third-grade boy, leaning over him, slapping the dashboard. A song finished.
Sarah’s car stopped alongside Matthew’s. As he got in, she told him not to put his seatbelt on. She had chosen not to lie to her parents about the crack in her windshield. Her neck still hurt from when he shook her in the fight, even if he did save the punch for an inanimate object. Matthew’s shame scalded him.
“I don’t feel safe with you,” Sarah said. “Which means I can’t be with you.”
Then he was standing on the asphalt.
It was pathetic, he knew, but as her car rolled forward through the empty parking spot, he ran three steps and opened the passenger door.
Her tone was enough; he let go.
She pulled the door grip, and the automatic locks sank in unison. She was behind glass. Visible but no longer available. In the shower he had knelt in front of her with shaving cream and a disposable razor. They had lain skin to skin, hours passing quickly as breaths. He had written her letters so many pages long they couldn’t be folded into an envelope. Once, talking about the death of his favorite aunt, he had said sorry for crying. “Don’t be,” Sarah said. “It means she’s alive in you.” The memories mocked him now. They filled him with scorn for himself.
Brake lights going dark, Sarah turned onto Oakdale Road, vanished.
At a liquor store whose employees accepted any ID you handed them as long as you paid half again sticker price in cash, Matthew bought a fifth of rye and a two-liter bottle of cola. In the next strip mall he poured half the soda out, all the whiskey in.
He drove through the countryside taking long swallows. He loathed everything. The odor of the dairies seemed to stay in his nostrils, pungent, dark brown. Lifted pickup trucks with shoved-out tires came up to his rear bumper then passed him in roaring arcs, as if to dominate him. On the asphalt, hit skunks lay like cast-off T-shirts.
The car wasn’t new, but it had cost more than he would make in a year and a half of full-time work. After Matthew drove home drunk a month ago, his father excluded him from the family auto-insurance policy. He had yet to get insurance of his own.
In Hickman, Matthew turned off Lake onto Lampley. A yellow diamond-shaped sign read NOT A THROUGH ROAD. His parents lived on it. Driving north past an almond orchard, he approached the main canal. He felt the way he had as a child, after spinning too fast on the merry-go-round. His tires drifted onto the dirt, raising dust. In the moonlight it looked like vapor. A mailbox with a lowered red flag knocked off his side mirror, the faceted steel pole of a transmission tower flickered by the passenger window, and the up-sloping earth bank launched him—not with an exhilarating glide, but with a sudden grinding tip down—into the canal, which ran high with water diverted from the Tuolumne River.
In the days that followed, the only person Matthew wanted to talk about the accident with was Sarah. She answered his first call. After saying she was glad he was all right, she asked him not to phone again. The conversation lasted less than a minute. Her parents answered his next calls. Then no one did. The final time he tried, a message informed him the number was no longer in service.
What would he have told her about? The burst then punch of the airbag. The acrid powdery smell it released. Black water rose fast and gargling from the floor of the car, engulfing his knees, his waist, while large bubbles slid up the windshield. Then he was unfastening his seatbelt, kicking in his obscenely heavy jeans, shoes clunking and catching on the seat and steering column, left arm weak from its time in the splint. Through the lowered driver-side window he thrust himself. He swam across the current away from the sinking vehicle, glancing with fear at the supports of the beam bridge and hoping he wouldn’t be carried under the deck, which rested just inches above the water. He reached the concrete bank—steep as a jersey barrier and chipped along the edges—and lifted himself out. Later the police cars, fire truck, ambulance. Their blue, red, yellow, and white lights revolved and blinked with an unsynchronized brilliance that multiplied shadows and made them jitter. On the way home from the police station, Matthew saw his car for the last time. It dangled from the hydraulic boom of a tow truck, twisting counterclockwise then clockwise, dripping water, dead headlights pointing straight down at the dirt. But embedded in his memories of that night was one he would keep even from Sarah. It was much older. And to it he owed his survival.
The emergency-crew workers said Matthew had been extremely lucky. He had. He lost sight of his luck, though, as the consequences became clear.
Matthew now owed his father thousands and thousands of dollars. Not just for the wrecked car, which his family’s insurance refused to cover, but also for the ambulance ride, the hospital examination—even for the tow truck. The DUI added several thousand more to the debt. To pay it off, he had to work.
“Where?” Matthew asked bitterly at the dinner table. His license was suspended and his parents had said they wouldn’t chauffeur him. They lived in the country. To get anywhere, you had to travel miles of hot shadeless roads with no sidewalks or public transportation. He was stranded.
“Here,” his father said, driving his forefinger into the oak tabletop with a flat hollow sound.
He meant the pig farm. Matthew had worked on it before, when he needed spending money, but had only done basic chores: mending fences; cleaning the pens, barns, and trailers; feeding the sows, growers, and boars. If it had been up to his father, Matthew would have worked eight hours a day on the farm from the age of twelve. His mother, however, insisted that Matthew give his energy and attention to school. For years she had had the final word. But in the last month or so her voice had begun to carry less authority. And money had become critical. Matthew understood the two things were related.
His father laid out the terms while his mother sat in silence. They had agreed on the punishment in low voices in the master bedroom. It couldn’t be appealed. Matthew would labor on the farm. He would begin at sunrise and end at sunset, weekends included. When school started again—Matthew had recently finished junior year—he would work before and after class. He would earn minimum wage. But he would not be paid. Each hour worked would be subtracted from his debt.
“For how long?” Matthew said.
“Long as it takes to reach zero,” his father said.
“I’ll be in college by then.”
“You’ll be college age by then. But you’re not getting in a new hole until you’ve climbed out of this one.”
The farm sat on 19.75 acres. To the south, between concrete-lined banks, flowed the Turlock Irrigation District’s main canal. The Tuolumne River ran between bluffs to the north.
Grant raised Durocs, Yorkshires, and crosses. Born and suckled in the farrowing barn, the pigs were moved upon weaning to the grower barn, where they lived in multi-litter pens divided by age. He sold most of the hogs to packers, who paid by the pound and turned them into meat. FFA and 4-H members bought show pigs from him at two-to-three months. The very best animals he brought into his breeding herd.
Breeding. That was where the money was, and where Grant stored his hopes. If pigs from his farm won the right prizes—Grand Champion at county and state fairs, Reserve Champion or even Class Winner at the World Pork Expo—he would become famous again in that world. And from Hawaii to Montana to New Mexico, ranchette hog farmers, big-business pork producers, and ambitious high-school students would acquire boars and gilts from him at prices thickly muscled with profit. Because profit had always been the problem. When he took hogs to market, he had no control over the price. The buyer at the packing plant stated a figure. And while in theory Grant was free to accept or reject it, in practice his farm needed the cash and he couldn’t afford the time or risk involved in hauling the animals to one of the few other packers in the area, who would offer nearly the same price anyway. Most trips he broke even or made a loss. Which left him hundreds of hours older if not thousands of dollars poorer. He owed the feed company enough money to buy a house. If not for Linda’s job, he would have had to sell the farm a long time ago. They had nothing saved for retirement.
For nearly two decades, Linda had worked as a certified public accountant in downtown Modesto. In that time her salary had helped Grant pay the feed bills, finance the building of the second pig barn, and buy the animals with the genes his herd needed. But she had to force herself to do her job. Every year it took a greater effort. This tax season she had been assigned a retiring co-worker’s clients, on top of her own. In her windowless office, Linda added down and across on ledger after ledger, making sure everything balanced. She initialed and dated the corners of so many statements that at times her handwriting presented itself to her as both familiar and alien, like a sibling’s. The brass lamp with the green shade burned day and night, her coffee going room temperature, her ten-key calculator printing endless columns of light-purple figures onto rolls of paper, the bookcase looming at her back while the stacked boxes of client records crowded in on her like the hungry children that pressed and followed her a decade earlier in Tijuana. She met the March 15th and April 15th deadlines. But to do so, she forwent her weekends, swallowed prescription pills, and cried in private. The pressure helped her see what she wanted to do with her life. It wasn’t other people’s taxes.
She and Grant had the conversation six weeks before Matthew’s car accident. They were in the master bedroom, early morning, mouths sour with sleep and coffee.
“You’re not listening,” he said harshly. “Listen. Listen.”
“Stop giving me orders.”
Linda longed to write and illustrate children’s books. In her nineteen-year marriage to Grant she had completed one, made notes and sketches for several others, published nothing.
“I make my name as a breeder—one, two years at most. Then you quit.”
“So only your dream matters.”
“Your dream doesn’t pay the bills.”
“Most years,” she said, “neither does yours.”
He jolted coffee onto the comforter. He brought his mug down hard on the nightstand and the porcelain opened out into curved shards, the handle still in his hand, coffee browning the carpet.
He breathed jerkily. Blood threaded over his fingers and palm like yarn over a knitter’s.
“I’m going to make it work.”
“You’d better,” Linda said. “I’ve already given notice.”
It was now mid-July. At the dinner table, Matthew’s mother said, “Myopic.”
“Short-sighted,” Matthew said.
His father’s fork and knife screeched on his plate as he cut his pork chop.
“Exacerbate,” she said.
“To make worse,” Matthew said.
His father cleared his throat with a sharp grunt.
“Repudiate,” she said.
“To refuse to accept or continue with something.”
“Talent show’s over,” his father said, reaching across the table and taking the flashcards from Matthew’s mother.
“Worry about getting into college,” his father said to him, “once you’ve worked off your debt.”
Under that, Matthew sensed the other warning: Don’t think knowing fancy words makes you better than me.
Grant’s best boar was also his newest. Yesterday he hauled it onto the farm in the single-axle trailer and guided it into an isolation pen, where any diseases it might have couldn’t spread to the rest of the herd. In the pen the boar would also come into contact with the farm’s resident germs, and build up immunity.
The boar was six-and-a-half feet long, and had cost as much as a car. It had an auburn coat, drooping ears. A Duroc. Its feet were large, its eyes wide set, its sides superbly deep. As the boar walked, a curving shadow outlined its hams, emphasizing their mass and promising an abundance of meat—not from the boar itself but from its offspring, the ones that didn’t become breeding stock. Many would, though. The boar’s pedigree was certified by the National Swine Registry. And it had come from a big, fast-growing litter. At the Summer Type Conference, the boar had emerged as Champion, while two of its littermates won first place in their respective classes. Genetics you could bank on. The boar would bring Grant’s farm renown, its offspring profitability.
But isolation seemed to be affecting the boar. It wasn’t eating. So Grant now went to the grower barn, picked a two-month-old barrow.
With a red plastic sorting board, he kept the young pig tight to the fence and moving ahead. He led it into the isolation pen and latched and wired the gate, hoping the new pen mate, by giving the boar companionship and competing with it for feed, would awaken its appetite. The size difference would keep them from fighting.
He strode to the house. Inside, Matthew—seventeen and no respect for work—was already eating lunch. “Not noon yet,” Grant said.
Matthew chewed, said nothing.
“You break early, you get back to work early.”
Rising, Matthew slid his unfinished sandwich—ham, from a hog Grant had raised—into the trashcan. “It was fatty anyway,” Matthew said. He set his plate in the sink and walked out.
Grant ate alone.
Matthew followed the perimeter of the pasture, moving the trimmer from side to side under the bottom wire of the electric fence. If the grass grew too high, it would short it out.
His father approached, swiveled his wrist, fingers flat.
Matthew pushed the stop switch. “What?”
“I need to run some errands in town. Once you finish with this, clean and disinfect the farrowing barn.”
Matthew squinted. It was early afternoon, the sun white with a hue of sulfur. “That’s an all-day job.”
“Lucky for you it’s summer.”
Matthew pulled the starter rope and walked away amid the plasticky whir of the trimmer line.
The new boar grunted. It stalked toward Matthew, hams swaying, the muscles along its spine like the twin barrels of a shotgun.
At the rear of the isolation pen, in the boar’s bedding, Matthew crouched to scoop the feed out of the trough and rose to pour it over the wall. The feed was mainly ground corn, supplemented with soybean oil meal, vitamins, minerals. It looked like pale sand. As he shifted it, it loosed dust. He finished emptying the trough. The back wall came up to his collarbones, and between it and the corrugated-metal roof stretched a gap. Lifting himself, Matthew lay on his chest on the top of the wall, swung his left leg over, and eased himself down the other side. He had done it this way to leave no tracks. But now he saw the depressions his boots had made in the pine-shaving bedding.
The boar grunted again, bossily.
“Involuntary hunger strike,” Matthew said.
The boar slammed into the two-inch-thick wall. He started. The young pig—his father must have put it in there—trotted to the gate at the opposite end of the pen.
Matthew returned with a broom. After sweeping up the feed, he leaned over the wall and was stirring the pine shavings with the broomstick when the boar thrust in a swift upward curve, the side of its lower jaw just missing Matthew’s cheek as he threw himself back. The ground stunned the breath from him, and he was on his feet moving in a circle before he could draw and expel air again.
Front hooves sticking over the wall, the boar squealed. Matthew heard stress, ire: the demand that he replenish its trough, and stay out of its pen. He spit between the boar’s eyes. It dripped. Only later did he realize he didn’t have the broom.
A eucalyptus windbreak. A dairy where a hill of silage was covered by a white tarp weighted down by tire sidewalls. A cornfield, the tassels blurring atop the stalks. As Grant drove, his eyes moved over the landscape, but his thoughts traveled inward and forward, to the terrain of dreams. When he became a famous breeder, pig farmers throughout the West would admire him, and even the people who looked down on his occupation would have to respect the money he was pulling in. But that was only the outside of his dream. The inside was more important, harder to talk about. It had to do with the solitude of the work he did each day, with the continuance of the farm—and of his name. He wanted Matthew to stay. Not in the house necessarily, but on the land, with the animals. Which was why, after Matthew wrecked the car, Grant gave him the punishment he did. Now Matthew only performed low-dollar tasks, and grudgingly. In the two years it would take him to pay off the debt, though, Grant would be there working beside him. Matthew would learn the operation slowly and thoroughly, laboring with the humble grit of a hired hand while developing the long-range vision of an owner. Together the two of them would build the farm into one of California’s very best. And one day Matthew would take it over.
The first vehicle to be stopped by the dinging bells and lowering arms of the Milnes Road railroad crossing was Grant’s truck. A pedestrian he had passed—a young man Matthew’s age—came treading along the shoulder and stood even with Grant as the locomotives went by. The air smelled of heat, metal, oil, smoke. Boxcars rolled past. Then hopper cars, the chutes along their undersides like sows’ teats.
Here, where the country began, pedestrians were uncommon. Grant looked over at him. Neat hair, slacks. Headphones covered his ears. Probably getting off work, summer job at a gas station or restaurant, the polo shirt with his nametag folded in his backpack. He was enterprising, straightforward, and not above sweating—likely had two or three miles left to walk. Why couldn’t Matthew be like that?
Grant rolled the window down and asked the young man if he needed a ride. He didn’t seem to hear. His headphones, the passing train.
Grant extended his arm, raising his fingers. This didn’t gain his attention either.
The gate arms swung up. Grant crossed and parked on the shoulder directly ahead of the young man. Making the offer clear. Threatening trouble. Though Grant didn’t realize it could be seen this way until the young man gave him a mistrustful look, turned sharply to the left, and started walking in the rocks that paralleled the tracks, where no cars could go. For some reason, Grant felt it like a blow to the stomach.
The dirt lane led from the yard to the pig barns. Between the ruts the ground rose in a long, round-topped strip. Weeds bristled on it. Grant was heading to the farrowing barn to check Matthew’s progress, but as he passed the new boar’s pen something snagged his eye. The boar was alone. Reddish-brown smears on its snout, its lower jaw.
No, not alone. In the corner, forelegs folded, lay the young pig. An ear had been ripped off. Its throat was a burst fruit.
In the bedding was a broom. It didn’t belong there.
Grant stepped into the footbath to disinfect his black rubber boots, then entered the farrowing barn. It smelled of rinsed concrete, diluted bleach, old manure. Matthew wasn’t there. Because Grant had weaned the previous litters and the next sows weren’t due to give birth for a week, there were no pigs either. All in, all out—only way to do a thorough cleaning. If you didn’t, the babies would catch diseases and die. But dribbles of feed stuccoed the feeders. Shit was mashed into the flush-gutter grates. Apparently Matthew thought this was good enough.
Matthew lay reading on the black vinyl bench seat, sweat on his forehead. He had hurried his chores but he needed to improve his SAT score, and the paperback in his hands now—by an Englishman who had spied for his government during World War I—supposedly contained more SAT words than any other book in the Hughson High School Library. So Matthew had stolen it. The call number was taped to the spine.
The pickup Matthew lay in was from his father’s glory days, when he had shown a Grand Champion pig at the San Francisco Cow Palace, run the 20,000-head swine operation of a famous Italian-American rancher, and taken his mother dancing in the hotels and roadhouses of Visalia. On this seat, Matthew’s parents had kissed for the first time. One night, on her third glass of Cabernet, his mother had hinted at another milestone. His father interrupted, curtly telling her to switch to water. That was his role during meals: censor. Picking at his fingernails, tensing his eyes, he half-listened while Matthew and his mother talked. But as soon as one of them brought up a neighbor’s uncomfortable secret or discussed a violent news story, he broke in. Find something nice to say. Change the subject.
The pickup sat in the old horse-and-cow barn. The barn smelled of dust and sun-warmed wood. The knots had fallen out of some of the wall planks, leaving ovals of daylight.
Once bright, the pickup’s paint was a faded blistered yellow. The chrome bumpers had pitted and rusted. The tires held no air. Now and then his father talked about restoring it. But the farm ate his money, his time.
Matthew didn’t want his father’s life: entering through the laundry room after dark with cuts on his hands and grime under his nails to drop his manure-daubed jeans on the floor; walking angrily toward the bathroom in his briefs, the leg bands loose on his skinny thighs; sitting with shower-damp hair at the dinner table with nothing to say and all curiosity worried or frustrated out of him; falling asleep on the couch immediately after eating; rising again at dawn to scoop all his energy into the mouths of a throng of pigs that would scream or die if he was late but never see him as more than the man who fed them, the man who imprisoned them.
But that was the life his father was driving Matthew into. And when Matthew imagined himself in it, years and decades of it, he felt as if he was being locked into an air-tight trailer and left to suffocate. What life did he want? To get off the farm, and out of the Central Valley: that was as clearly as he could see it. College seemed like the best way to accomplish both, while giving him time to figure out a plan. If he won a partial scholarship, there was a chance his mother could persuade his father to put off repayment of Matthew’s debt. But with his current SAT score he wasn’t going to win anything. Part of the reason it had been so low was the night before the test. First Friday of May, just after his mother quit her job. He had swum naked with Sarah in Turlock Lake and come home after curfew smelling of bourbon, dried saliva, and drugstore perfume. His father snatched the car keys from him and pushed him back out the door. He told him he wasn’t welcome until he was sober. With a shout and sarcastic salute, Matthew said, “Sober and ready for duty, sir!” Before he knew how, Matthew was lying on his back on the concrete walkway. His left arm—he wrote with his right—moved as awkwardly as a stretched-out wire hanger. In the emergency room, the doctor-in-residency spoke with a Russian accent, his fingers scented with cigarette smoke. “Fracture. Head of the radius. Did you fell off your bike?” “I tripped,” Matthew said. “I was drunk.” It was the story he would have to tell his mother, too. A promise enabled him to uphold the lie: He would never again allow his father to use violence against him.
Paying no attention to the jumping spider on the weathered wood-plank door, Grant pulled and walked into the dimness of the old horse-and-cow barn. The floor was packed dirt. A rusty chain dangled from a beam. Above his ’69 Chevy short-bed stepside pickup burned a light bulb. And there was Matthew: lounging in the cab as if it was his. As if he had paid for the truck with his calluses, his backaches. His short dreamless nights and bone-on-bone mornings. His tight-lipped absorption of insults: shit farmer, dirty Okie, white Mexican. What was Matthew doing? Reading. Like a spoiled, daydreaming girl.
The cannibalized pig and Matthew’s half-assed job in the farrowing barn had primed Grant’s temper. But it was this evasion, this disregard, of real life—Grant’s life—that set it off.
He approached Matthew, who pretended not to notice. For a moment Grant felt the way he had decades ago, acting in a school play. All momentum pushed him to perform the role. Yet somewhere between gestures, between lines, he sensed it was possible to walk off stage.
“What cute shit were you doing in the boar’s pen?”
Matthew turned a page. “Finished my chores for the day. You can ask me about work tomorrow. Till then, I’m not your employee.”
Through the lowered driver-side window Grant seized the book. Startled, cursing, Matthew clutched Grant’s forearm and tugged; his cheekbone and temple slammed the roof. Left palm on the windshield, Grant braced himself, shot his arm forward to break Matthew’s grip, then snapped it back. Enamel on enamel.
Matthew swore louder, incoherently. He was cupping his mouth. He drew his hand away, gingerly opening his jaw, which popped. With his tongue he nudged his lower lip out. A cord of saliva and blood fell onto the bench seat.
Regret and shame and fear rushed through Grant. And anger—at Matthew for making this happen. In his hand Grant clenched the front cover and first half of the book. It had ripped apart at the binding.
Matthew stepped out holding the steering-wheel lock, which Grant had kept under the seat ever since the engine quit turning over. “Give it back.”
“Put that down,” Grant said.
Matthew threw the door closed, rocking the truck. “Give it back!”
“That was your warning.”
Matthew raised the steering-wheel lock above his head. Bending his knees, he exposed only his side to Grant. Grant recognized the stance: he taught it to Matthew nine years earlier when he was getting beaten up at school. Despite himself, Grant took a step back.
“Who’s warning who?” Matthew said.
Then, spinning to the side, he brought the hardened-steel rod down across the windshield. It cracked as easily as an iced-over puddle.
Before Matthew could smash in the hood, Grant had tackled him and was pressing his forearm against his son’s occipital bone, forcing his face into the dirt. Dust rose, thick as incense. Under it he could smell Matthew’s unwashed hair. “You excel at fucking things up, don’t you? Save it for your own life, you’ll have plenty of opportunity. Here, you’ve used up your mistakes.”
Matthew held his father’s stare.
“Dig,” he said.
Shovel at a slant in his left hand, Matthew touched his tongue to the inside of his bottom lip. The salty heat of swelling, blood. A lower incisor was loose. He kept his eyes on his father’s.
“You live in my house,” his father said fiercely. “And you will do what I say, when I say, how I say. Until your debt’s paid off.”
I declare bankruptcy, Matthew thought. Like you’d have to if it wasn’t for Mom. As Matthew said it, his father’s stiffened hand would explode across his face, leaving a mark nobody could believe was an accident. His father’s words were arranging and rearranging themselves in his ears. A choice needed to be made. Matthew saw himself in the underbrush on a riverbank. Rocks studded the water’s surface. If he jumped to the first, the bank behind him would vanish and the rocks would grow larger, but he wouldn’t know if they would roll out or hold firm until he landed on them. The far bank remained just out of view. He chose.
Thrusting the blade into the ground, he stepped on the shoulder to drive it deeper, and lifted out a shovelful of dirt.
“Throw it over there,” his father said. “And go down three feet. Don’t want it getting dug up.”
Matthew looked again at the wheelbarrow. It was the one they carried manure and old bedding in, a fluorescent-orange X spraypainted on the tray. In it lay the young pig. Its throat was bitten out, an ear missing. A bite also cratered its rump. This wasn’t what Matthew intended when he took the boar’s feed.
He dug and said nothing, now and then loosening the earth with the pick. The soil was sandy. As he tossed it, weeds shook. The chirp of the crickets pulsated dryly, as if it was the land’s heartbeat. Sprinklers hissed in the neighbor’s almond orchard. To the north, along the bluff above the Tuolumne River, the valley oaks and Fremont cottonwoods resembled smoke.
The sun set.
“That’s far enough,” his father said.
The blade sank, flung dirt out; sank, flung dirt out. Matthew listened to its rhythm.
“I said you can stop.”
Matthew thrust down again, scraping shale.
“Stop,” his father said roughly.
Stabbing in a half-circle to cut through and under it, Matthew raised the blade, and before pitching the dirt onto the pile saw the bones. The tiny ribcage. The vertebrae like charms on a bracelet. From a runt his father had buried. Too slow growing, too prone to illness, the runts were clubbed in the skull only yards from their mothers. Matthew knew the dead pigs ended up in graves, but had thought they were closer to the property line. Nothing hinted that this area of ground, near cracked lengths of PVC pipe and stacked sheets of rusty corrugated metal, held secrets.
“Now you see why?”
The stench—real or imagined—made Matthew gag. He took his T-shirt off and tied it around the lower half of his face. Sweat bonded grit to his skin. He kept going.
Standing over him, his father spread his feet and crossed his arms. “You’ll get tired before I do.”
Night came down. The hole was waist deep. On the dirt pile rested shoulder blades, shank bones, aitch bones. Although his blisters had torn open, Matthew refused to ask for gloves.
A car horn blasted four slow notes: the beginning of the “Charge!” rally call played in baseball stadiums. His mother did that sometimes to summon them to dinner. She had gotten the idea while the family, as a fluke, was watching TV together. A San Francisco Giants game. “That way you can’t say you didn’t hear me,” she said, laughing, her voice glossy with a euphoria that was probably caused by the rare sight of Matthew and his father choosing to be in the same room. Now the horn and its echo of lighthearted togetherness struck Matthew as more forced, more wishful than ever.
He pushed the blade down, snapping a jawbone off. He told himself what he was doing was no worse than breaking branches off a dead tree, something he did nearly every time he went down to the Tuolumne. He swung the shovel out; on the way back it caught.
“Climb out,” his father said.
Matthew pulled hard, freed it.
Each time the blade bit dirt, sweat dripped off him.
The horn sounded again.
His father let out a disgusted breath, kicked something into the hole, and turned away.
The night grew shades blacker. The halogen lamp on the back of the farrowing barn had been switched off.
Alone, Matthew picked up the first half of the book.
“Don’t pretend you don’t notice me,” Linda said.
With a pick, Matthew broke up the earth at the bottom of the hole. The mouth was level with his armpits. He took hold of the shovel.
“I brought you dinner.”
Still he said nothing to her.
She set the lidded plastic container on a pallet. “Beef stroganoff.”
“Feed it to your husband. That’s his favorite, not mine.”
In the distance, on Lake Road, a vehicle sped over the asphalt. It sounded like a long strip of tape being pulled off.
“I also brought you this,” she said, clicking the flashlight off then back on.
“Yeah? You going to post one of your angels here, too?”
Linda tried not to lose her patience. Her faith was deeply personal, yet as near to her skin as blood, or joy. A few years ago, she told Matthew about her guardian angel. It saved her life twice. The first time was when she almost bled to death giving birth to him. The second, a voice commanded her to get into the right lane a moment before an oncoming car burst through the screen of oleanders dividing Highway 99 and killed the driver behind her.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” she said.
Far away, a dog barked at an opossum, a trespasser, a memory.
“You married the wrong man,” Matthew said. “Twice.”
In college, Linda had been married to a man named Rick. Matthew had never seen him. Grant made her cut up and throw away all the photographs from that relationship a month before Matthew was born. I don’t want my son asking who this other man is. That other man was the first who told Linda he loved her, the first who slept with her, and the first—and only—who beat her. She ended up on her back on the bathroom linoleum, Rick above her, and when she finally managed to protect her face he switched from his hands to his teeth, biting her forearm then her breast, tearing the skin of both. Afterwards she picked an oil painting up off the floor. California poppies. Her signature curled in the bottom right corner, but the canvas was now slack, the wooden stretcher it was stapled to broken. In bed that night, Rick wept for forgiveness. It would never happen again. She stayed with him, and took her final exams wearing sunglasses, explaining she had been in a car accident. Never was three months later. Linda called her sisters and when Rick was at his job making cabinets, they moved her out, moved her 253 miles north to San Luis Obispo, where she enrolled at a new college and swam under fog in the cold green ocean the day she got her maiden name back. She changed her major from art to accounting so that even with one salary she would be financially secure. For over a year she kissed no one. She was working inside herself to grow outward, like a tree. A sense of smallness remained, though, and worthlessness. She returned to the Catholic Church. She made herself promises. No man would put a hand on her in anger. If she married again, it would be after a courtship long and varied enough to ascertain the man’s true character. She would always earn her own money.
One way not to see a half-kept promise is to avert the gaze. She laid the flashlight on the pallet, turned away from the thought, and walked wordlessly through the dark toward the house.
Linda entered the master bedroom and walked past the bed as if she didn’t see Grant. In the en-suite bathroom, water started running. Then he heard the bristles of the toothbrush against her teeth, followed by the squirt of solution into her contact-lens case, the screwing on of the lids.
She got into bed. After turning off her lamp, she lay stiffly on her side, back to Grant.
He finally broke the silence. “Aren’t you going to say good night?”
Without warmth, she repeated his last two words.
He waited, then turned off his lamp as well.
When he closed his eyes, his thoughts were too fast, too numerous, and too troubling. So he watched the black square of the ceiling. This gave him some control over them.
What had Matthew told her? That Grant had hit him for no reason? Grant would explain it was an accident, one that Matthew caused half of. And there were three reasons. Disobedience, disrespect, and a dead animal. A single one of those, when Grant was growing up, would have called his father’s belt down on him, or his mother’s switch. Boys needed to be disciplined. If not, they talked back, grew soft, refused to work, and broke the law. Matthew did all of these. Not because Grant’s methods had failed, but because he hadn’t been able to apply them consistently enough. Linda had interfered. Matthew had also had too many things handed to him. Like the car. The night he drove it into the canal, he shamed Grant and Linda. He was atoning for it now. Two years of manual labor would sweat the mouth and laziness out of him. They would also teach him the cost of grown-up mistakes. If nothing else, Grant wanted his son to stop looking down on him, and to stop encouraging Linda to. Because he had overheard Matthew yelling at her after other punishments, taking out on her the anger he dare not direct at Grant. “You’re a smart, educated woman. What the fuck are you doing with a redneck like him?” Linda must sometimes ask herself the same question. Grant’s greatest fear was that one day she wouldn’t be able to find the answer.
Matthew lay on his back at the bottom of the hole, one hand over his navel, the other over his diaphragm. He looked up at incomplete constellations, the stars like bone dust from a meat saw. Mice scrabbled. A barn owl flew overhead, noiseless as a shadow.
Closing his eyes, he tried to see himself moving through the next day. What came instead was a day from his childhood. It was a Saturday. His mother had to work: tax season. Matthew asked to stay home playing with his action figures, but his father needed to run errands and couldn’t leave Matthew by himself.
They started at the bank, where Matthew’s father ordered him to wait in the truck. Getting back in, his father said “fuck,” slammed the door, and drove in a silence that meant if Matthew talked he would be yelled at, hit, or both. At the nursery, his father spent a long time looking at apricot and nectarine trees; he wanted to plant some in the yard. Matthew wandered.
Bored, curious, he jabbed holes in bag after bag of potting soil. It spilled out dark, moist, and crumbly, with little white balls like spider eggs. He imagined baby albino spiders crawling out in every direction, climbing up the wooden boxes of the young trees, and pausing on the leaves to weave themselves silk parachutes that carried them on the breeze into the wild.
Fingers like pincers grasped his neck from behind. His eyes watered. Matthew’s father walked him like that across the gravel, past customers and employees, to the owner. The man and Matthew’s father knew each other.
“Tell him sorry,” his father said.
Matthew shook his head, not to slight the owner but to oppose his father.
“Tell—him—you’re—sorry,” he said, squeezing harder.
“I’m sorry,” Matthew said, lips trembling, “that my dad’s a dickhead.”
In the parking lot, his father watched Matthew load every punctured bag of soil into the bed of the truck. They got into the cab. His father rolled the windows all the way up, locked the doors; he breathed in, out, in. Hoping to somehow prevent what he knew had to happen, Matthew turned slightly to his left to buckle his seatbelt. At the same instant, his father jerked toward him and the heel of his hand struck Matthew’s skull, driving him powerfully into the seatback without marring his appearance.
“Don’t you ever disrespect me in public,” his father shouted. His words seemed to bounce off the glass and dashboard, expand in hot ripples on Matthew’s face, press deadeningly down from inside his head. “That man talks to half the farmers in the county. What do you think they’re going to be saying now? That I let you smart off to me? That I let you destroy other people’s property? You think we can afford all that shit I just bought? God damn it. All you do is cost money.”
Home. Matthew’s mother was still at the office. He walked down the hallway to his room and his father followed. After taking off everything but his underwear, Matthew lay facedown on the bed and sensed his father move to the closet, the carpet softening his heavy footsteps. Wire coat hangers jangled. One was lifted out, its neck unwound, body straightened. It was taking place with the slow unstoppable quiet of a sacrament. If Matthew tried to run, his father would catch him—he always did—and then it would be ferocious. Only a month before, his mother had screamed that if his father ever hit Matthew again she would leave him. And when she screamed it, Matthew saw her dragging her suitcases along the main canal, past walnut orchards, laser-leveled alfalfa fields, and creosote-blackened utility poles, in a lonely trudge west that would disintegrate her into particles of dust and sunlight and leave him, until release at adulthood, to be beaten and to starve for love in the prison run by his father. At that moment an impossible hope surged through Matthew. Despite what had happened in the truck, his mother’s threat would now protect him. His father would suddenly remember, hesitate. If he didn’t, Matthew’s mother would get home at the last second, and the sound of her opening the laundry-room door, keys tinkling in her hand, would halt his father’s arm in mid air. But the sound was an electric whoosh followed by an astonishing crack. And before Matthew felt pain he already seemed separate from it, a watcher somewhere in the room, foreseeing or recalling what was happening to the boy even as it was happening. A splitting of perspective and time. And related to this, a disbelief—stubborn, inexplicable, self-betraying—that this was occurring at all, or that it mattered. The boy’s father was working methodically. He had started on the buttocks, then traveled down to the backs of the thighs, behind the knees, the calves. The boy had promised himself he wouldn’t cry but when the hanger struck his ankles it felt as if they were shattering under the skin and ricocheting up inside his legs and tears moistened his face, which tingled with the heat of humiliation and rage.
Afterwards, alone, Matthew returned to himself in gasps. He had received many other beatings from his father, some worse. He had been chased furiously across the house and thrown into a dresser, the brass handles knocking as his father’s belt—the one with GRANT tooled into the leather—leaped in scuffing slaps out of his jeans, rose high, and came down, came down, on Matthew’s arms, back, butt, and legs and he clutched his head to his knees on the carpet until his father stomped through the opening and uncurled Matthew with a kick to the stomach. He had been backhanded across the mouth by the matchhead-red cast that covered his father’s hand and forearm one summer, then held down and muzzled by it on the tiled hallway, the fiberglass shredding Matthew’s lips and making his gums bleed while his father asked him if he still felt like smarting off. He had been hurled to the living-room floor and hit repeatedly on the ears, elbows, and kneecaps with the same cane his father had shown pigs with, and when Matthew tried to get to his feet his father yanked them from under him with the hooked end, twisted, and dragged; Matthew ended up with rug burns even on his face.
These things had happened all throughout his childhood. And until his mother’s threat, he had always believed that she allowed them. Even then—he was eight—he sensed that her words meant more and less than they seemed to. If you ever hit our son again, I’ll leave you both; you’re too much for me. If I find out you’ve hit him again, I’ll have to choose son or father—and I’ll choose father. If our son tells me you’ve hit him again, it will take me days to leave you and in that time you’ll catch him alone and beat him deaf and blind. Which was true? Which would happen? Matthew didn’t know, and he couldn’t bear the risks. Talk was slow, intangible, untrustworthy. Violence was swift and physical. So Matthew decided to tell his mother nothing. Not only out of fear, but out of shame. One way to live with the humiliation was to silence it. Another was to swear an oath: Years in the future, when Matthew had the strength and the coldness, he would pick a moment in which his father suspected nothing, had no time to defend himself, and he would murder him.
Matthew raised himself out, dirt drizzling from where his hands pressed the surface and his toes grazed the side.
Pre-dawn. He shone the flashlight into the wheelbarrow. Flies darkened the young pig like peppercorns. Tip it into the hole or drop it off the shovel? Neither seemed right. He waved most of the flies away then set the flashlight on the ground. Lifting the pig out, he laid it at the edge of the hole. He lowered himself back in.
The pig now level with his hairline, Matthew slid his forearms under it and as he brought it toward himself it rolled, yielding a glimpse of subcutaneous fat around the inside of the throat wound and dripping clotted blood onto his skin before stopping at his chest. He squatted, and rested the pig between his feet.
He climbed out. After shoveling in three feet of dirt, the depth his father had said, he left the rest of the hole unfilled. The sides were rough. The exposed roots of weeds looked like unraveling twine.
As it rose, the sun seemed to burn a saddle into the Sierra Nevada. He tossed both halves of the book into the hole. No distractions until it was over. He walked toward the house.
The sow must have given birth just before dawn. Six days early.
One piglet had died, nostrils and mouth clogged by its placental envelope. In the corner lay another. Alone, not nursing, it weighed one pound thirteen ounces at most—Grant could tell it would never thrive. He would have to kill it, hit it behind the head with the concrete-filled pipe.
First he needed to move the sow and the rest of the litter into the farrowing barn, where a crate would keep the mother from accidentally crushing the piglets, and fans and heat lamps could regulate the temperature. Here in the open-air receiving pens, the morning coolness was already wearing off. Any minute the July heat would be stressing the newborns. Any minute more could die.
But the farrowing barn wasn’t ready. Because of Matthew. And after digging all night—a perverse show of pride and resistance—he crossed the kitchen, ignoring Grant, and went to bed. Today, when chores had to be done in parallel and Grant needed a second man.
The growers and finishers were squealing. Their feed was late. It would have to be later. The youngest—the most vulnerable—took priority.
To get to Saint Anthony’s Church, in Hughson, Linda had to drive past acres and acres of orchards, the trunks of the walnut trees, almond trees, peach trees, falling away in long parallel lines that converged in the distance.
On the ground floor, the exterior walls of the church were brick, painted tan. The stuccoed walls of the clerestory were the same color. The doors, in contrast, were oxblood, as were the edges of the lower flat roof and upper gable roof. On the ridge stood a cross. Each of its arms ended in three rings.
From the outside, the stained-glass windows looked like dark jigsaw puzzles, with lead strips and joints where the pieces fit together. Inside, the pieces of glass cast red, blue, orange, purple, and green shadows. Linda was sitting in an oak pew. Eight-o’-clock Mass. The priest, a man from the Philippines who spoke with an accent but sang without one, was delivering the homily.
Though Linda heard his voice, the words she thought about were Matthew’s. You married the wrong man. Had she? Sometimes it seemed she had said yes to Grant in spite of herself. They had met near Visalia at a nightclub frequented by stockmen, vinedressers, feed-mill workers, and bikers. She was sitting with her sister at a table sticky with spilled beer, and the first two times Grant asked to join them Linda told him no. Her sister was visiting from college. They had gone out to catch up, not meet men. But when Grant returned a third time, a walleyed drugstore manager was talking into her sister’s ear and Grant said, “If he can sit here, I can too.” Linda didn’t think Grant was handsome. And it didn’t impress her that he ran the swine operation of a man whose surname could be found on the labels of dozens of products in supermarkets up and down California. To elude conversation, she danced with him. He moved eagerly.
For weeks afterwards, Grant phoned her. Linda made her housemate answer, instructing her to tell him she was in the shower, or swimming at a friend’s pool. It was summer. Finally Grant said, “In the water again. What is she, a mermaid?” Linda answered his next call, and agreed to go out to dinner. Out of guilt. She took her own car, to start the date later and finish it sooner.
At twilight outside the restaurant, the air smelled of eucalyptus and tar. The parking lot was freshly paved. Grant got out of his yellow pickup, shook her hand, and in the pressure of his gaze she felt his desire for her. His moustache was shaped like a horseshoe. Waist-size 30 jeans. Western belt buckle. It was silver plated, with engraved filigree and twisted-rope trim. Two menus in her hand, the hostess led them to a window booth with a speckled Formica tabletop. Linda ordered chicken breast strewn with sautéed mushrooms. Grant had the sirloin.
Without the din of the nightclub, she heard the idiosyncrasies of his speech, the mistakes. He pronounced “Tuesday” like “Tuesdee” and “toilet” like “toe-lit,” said things like “We was livin’ in Indio then.” She had gotten As in every English class she had taken. She felt embarrassed for him. “Where’s your family originally from?” she said. “We’re Okies,” he said. “I mean where in Europe?” He didn’t know. But he did know—he said he could tell—that Linda had been married, and divorced. He was polite. He spoke softly, listened with care. When he missed a few words, he said “pardon?” The waitress he addressed by name and with kindness, as if she was an aunt who had a smaller income and greater burden than he did. Although he had been raised without church, he possessed faith. He valued honesty, and family. He wanted children. He would devote time and attention to them, the way his own father hadn’t. In all the years Grant was in elementary school and junior high, even his first two years of high school, his father didn’t attend a single one of his events. It wasn’t until Grant started appearing in the local newspaper for winning purple and blue ribbons with the show pigs he had selected, raised, trained, and groomed, that his father went to the fairs Grant spent all his free hours and dollars preparing for. That was also when his father began to ask Grant questions—real interest in his voice—and to retain the answers. It felt good. Linda understood then that that recognition had been more decisive in Grant’s choice of occupation than any career counselor or graph of projected lifetime earnings could have been. And at that moment she stopped seeing him as a pig farmer. He was a man who needed love, a man willing to give it.
In the months that followed, she also found herself overlooking his tendency to impose his will on others, two examples of which were the night they met and the persistent phone calls afterwards. Sometimes he had to domineer—just to get his job done. He was responsible for thousands of hogs and many men, all of whom, in one way or another, set their wills against his every day. Under that, though, was another reason. He hinted at it one night when he was talking about competing, first as a teenager who could never afford the best show pigs, then as a jobseeker with less than a year of junior college on his application form. “I figured out the only edge I’d ever have was that I worked harder.” Which made Linda see that if he pressed his will down onto others, it was only because he did the same thing to himself, crushing the resistance of his own fatigue, pride, anger, and doubt, and forcing the larger part of himself to carry out the orders given by the smaller part.
When did she begin to sense she could marry him? They had been dating for a year, and to celebrate they were going to camp at Yosemite National Park. It was a Friday. Grant got off work late—scours was decimating the piglets in one of the farrowing units at the hog ranch—but he wouldn’t hear of canceling their plans. They arrived after nightfall. Every good site was taken. So they drove the dark curving roads until they found a clearing in the pine trees, no campers. “Good, privacy,” he said. “If nobody’s here, there’s probably a reason,” Linda said. They would be fine. He insisted. From a rectangle of ground they swept the fallen needles and removed the stones. Together they pitched the tent, pushing the poles—hollow segments connected by an elastic cord—through the sleeves and staking the guylines into the earth. Stars glittered. They lit the camp stove. Grant ate a whole can of chili, plus the beans and ground beef Linda couldn’t finish. With water from a clear plastic jug they rinsed the pot and cans and bowls and spoons, and returned them to his hiking backpack, which he hung from a high tree branch far from the trunk.
It was late when the bear came. After making love in the two sleeping bags that Grant had zipped together into one bed-sized one, they had fallen asleep, Grant right away and Linda so much later—she hadn’t climaxed, and something about the clearing still troubled her—that when she heard the padded footsteps and deep rough breathing she believed she was still waiting for sleep to enfold her. She whispered Grant’s name and what she somehow knew it was, terror in her voice. Instantly he raised his head. The canopy seemed to suck inward; the bear must have only been testing it, because under a swipe of its claws the nylon would tear as easily as tracing paper. Grant groped for something, darkness inside and outside the tent. He slipped his keys into her hand. He felt for something else. Whispering he said, “When I go out, run to the truck.” He zipped open the entrance, crawled out, and rushed—arms up, flashlight glaring, throat roaring. Bounding, high-rumped, the black bear fled. Grant approached the pickup. Linda opened the door and he sat on the bench seat. For a while he just breathed. He was still naked from being inside of her, from sleeping with his chest against her back. “What if that didn’t work?” she said. “You’d still be safe,” he said.
Scraping, brushing, Grant removed the shit and feed Matthew had missed yesterday, then soaked the surfaces and fittings in detergent. As it took effect, he checked on the newborn litter. They were nursing. He switched a few of the largest piglets—ones he might later use as breeding stock or sell as show pigs—to the front teats, where they would receive more and better milk, and headed back toward the farrowing barn. No time for anything else. All over the farm, pigs were shrilling with hunger.
After pressure-washing the farrowing crates and troughs, he started on the floor, the water hissing white against the concrete and blowing forward mist. He noticed a movement beyond the doorway. Matthew.
The gladness that leaped in him was immediately pushed down by his memory of what had happened between them the day before. He felt guilty, stiff. He stopped spraying.
“You’re late,” he said, not making eye contact.
Matthew said nothing.
“You help me with everything that needs to get done, I’ll log you a full day.”
Matthew tilted his chin up in surly acceptance.
The most urgent chore was to feed the pigs. As instructed, Matthew started with the sows. They were clamoring. When he scooped the feed into their feeders, they stood up, came over, and chewed vigorously, drooling and grunting. Matthew hurried, and before the sows lay down again, shoveled out their soiled bedding and threw in fresh pine shavings, making a layer two-to-three inches thick on the bottom of each pen. Then he fed the starters, growers, and finishers. The boars ate last.
In its isolation pen, the new boar paced. Its front legs moved forward in long powerful reaches. The hairs above its spine shimmered golden. Its testicles bulged.
The boar saw Matthew and went at the gate, rattling it, mouth foaming.
Ignoring the display, Matthew let the wheelbarrow down onto its legs and from it scooped five pounds of feed into a white bucket. The trough rested on the ground. If he leaned over the shoulder-high wall to pour the feed in, it would create a skirt of dust, spilling particles into the bedding and dirt. This caused waste, which his father strongly disliked. Today Matthew had determined to do every chore his father assigned him, and to do it well. He would prove he knew how to work, to make the withdrawal of his labor more painful. He had to enter the pen.
To lure the boar away, he dropped feed in the corner. He shut the gate behind himself and walked to the rear, free hand gripping a sorting board. It was a portable wall between himself and the animal.
In the bedding, sideways to the boar, he hunched over the trough and took his eyes off it only while pouring out the bucket. And in that moment, quicker than Matthew would have believed, the boar struck the sorting board and came down on it with its forelegs, pinning him beneath it, the board spreading the weight but the pressure still great enough to squash the air from his chest and stop its return. The boar’s jaws clashed, dripping spit. Its tusks hadn’t yet grown into weapons—it was only ten months old—but its teeth could take off his fingers. Something his father did years ago played in his mind like a safety video. “What’s the most sensitive part of a pig’s body?” he said. Matthew shrugged, then flinched as his father’s knuckles tapped his nose bridge. “Right there. One ever attacks you, that’s where to aim.”
Working his arm free, Matthew rammed his fist into the boar’s snout. It backed up screaming. On his feet now, he pounded the dirt with the sorting board, stamping as he did so. The boar didn’t retreat, but didn’t charge. If at that moment Matthew had had a weapon, he would have struck its skull with all his strength.
The smooth concrete lanes glistened. To the undersides of the farrowing-crate bars clung drops of water. Moisture darkened the divider panels.
Fans spinning, doors open, the farrowing barn would soon be dry enough to move the newborn litter in. But now with no sows or piglets in it—the thought crept into Grant’s mind and proved hard to drive away—the building made no sense.
“You got that?” his father said.
Matthew nodded once. Throughout all the chores he had done that day—sweep the passageway in the grower barn, flush the manure pits beneath its expanded-metal floor, pour mosquito killer on the lagoon the manure flowed into—he hadn’t spoken to his father. So far his father had refused to acknowledge it. Now they were in the farrowing barn, standing over the newborn litter. Bars confined the sow to the middle of the pen. It could lie down or get to its feet, but not turn around, not flop over.
“Show me,” his father said.
The piglets were Duroc-Yorkshire crosses. Matthew hesitated, then lifted one out by the hind leg, hand under its chest, the throbbing against it like a drumhead tapped from the other side. The piglet was writhing, shrieking. He pressed the corners of its jaws to coax its mouth open, and glimpsing its ridged palate he tilted its head so the fragments wouldn’t fall into its throat, and clipped its needle teeth off at the gum line. He trimmed its umbilical cord with the same sidecutters, and in a clumsy continuation of the movement snipped two-thirds of its soft-gristle tail off. It would never grow back. Next he stuck an 18-gauge needle, the tip denting the skin before piercing it, into the piglet’s neck and injected the iron. Veins branched through its ears. Notcher in place, he squeezed, cutting triangles out of the edges that would identify the animal for life. He sprayed iodine on the wounds and put it back in the pen. Matthew had processed his first piglet.
Together he and his father did the rest, disinfecting the tools each time. A runt was left. Matthew caught it. It felt colder than the others, struggled less.
“Give me that one,” his father said.
He knelt, holding it still on the passageway floor. “Bring the pipe.”
On the cart, beside the tool tray, lay a rusted steel pipe. Matthew picked it up. Concrete scabbed its sides and filled its center. Designed by his father, who had measured and cut the steel tube himself then stood it on a wooden block and poured in the wet concrete, the pipe had one purpose. Though Matthew had often seen the pipe, he had seldom handled it, never used it. Its heaviness surprised him, as it had in the past. He approached his father.
“What?” his father said.
Matthew was holding it out to him.
“Right behind the head. You’ve seen me do it before.”
Matthew didn’t move.
“Like hammering a nail.”
Matthew shook his head. Although he had planned to do everything his father told him, he couldn’t do this.
“All this pig’s going to do is waste feed and medicine and man-hours, and I don’t have a minute or dollar to spare. You want to play mute, fine. I like you better with your mouth shut. But you’re not deaf, so don’t make me repeat myself.”
As if it understood, the runt began to wriggle harder, screech louder. Matthew kept his eyes on his father’s. Still kneeling, his father restrained the piglet with both hands.
“Cry about how it made you feel afterwards. Right now, you better put that pipe to work.”
One swing, Matthew thought, and it’s over.
Dinner was ground-pork tacos. As Grant chewed pieces of soft corn shell and slivers of fried onion, he realized it didn’t matter that Matthew had refused to kill the runt. In spite of his sulking he had done a good job all day, the best Grant could recall him ever doing on the farm. He swallowed, and was getting ready to compliment Matthew on this when he glimpsed—with such clarity it made him yearn—the way it could one day be. He and Matthew would run the swine operation as partners, as men who trusted and respected one another. Together they would formulate feed rations, decide which boars bred which sows. They would wear ballcaps emblazoned with the farm’s logo and their shared last name, giving orders to hired hands in simple repetitive English and by-ear Spanish. They would haul trailer-loads of hogs to market and afterward eat at all-night diners where they would talk in voices mellowed by honest exertion while beyond the windows eighteen-wheelers filed down the highway and slabs of overhead lights whitely illuminated empty gas-station forecourts. Just then, Linda and Matthew started with the flashcards.
“Impecunious,” she said.
Linda picked up another. “Benighted.”
“Ignorant,” Matthew said, looking at Grant.
The words hadn’t been chosen on accident. Grant felt dazed, betrayed, as if Matthew had somehow seen the pictures in his head and torn them up.
“Having a stench, like pig shit.”
Grant slapped the table so hard his glass of water fell over, an ice cube gliding across the oiled oak surface. Ever since he had started raising pigs at fourteen, people had mocked and humiliated him. At school pretty girls used to pinch their nostrils shut as he walked through the hallways. The sons of wealthy dairymen would call out “Fifty-yard line” and gang up on him, punching, tripping, and spitting, if he crossed it. For stinking up their air. And to remind him that even young farmers had a hierarchy. The more expensive the animals you raised, the more land your family owned, the higher up you were. Grant’s parents had five acres and an arthritic horse. His father drove on the California Highway Patrol; his mother clerked in a doctor’s office. After high school—Grant had done badly in English and hadn’t been put on the college-bound track—the slights continued. At nightclubs, the girls he desired most found out within the first dance what he did for a living and thereafter became unavailable. Linda herself hadn’t returned Grant’s calls for weeks. He sometimes thought that if her confidence in herself and in the world hadn’t been cracked by her first husband, she never would have met Grant for dinner at that restaurant in Visalia with the toffee-colored booths and dull steak knives. After all, she had a university degree. Something she and many others seemed to believe turned you into a higher breed of human being. To this day, her co-workers enjoyed imitating his grammar and Oklahoma accent: “Bono sings good”; “wash” pronounced like “warsh.” Beneath the caricature of his voice, Grant recognized the reminder. Only now, they weren’t rich dairy boys; they were certified public accountants. Even Linda’s siblings found ways to put him in his place. Once, in a game of Scrabble, her architect brother said, “No, I’m not missing a letter. The ‘cella’ was where the god was kept in a Greek or Roman temple. I can’t believe they didn’t teach you that at pig-farming school.” People who at birth received privileges, people who ornamented their minds with book learning, might choose to treat Grant as less than them. But the one person he would never allow to diminish him was his son.
“Give me the cards.”
“Next word,” Matthew said to Linda.
“You disobeyed me once today. Don’t do it twice.”
“Matthew,” Linda said, “we’ll finish after dinner.” She set the stack on the table, between her plate and Grant’s.
“I’m done eating,” Matthew said.
Grant eyed him.
Matthew looked away, wiped his mouth with his napkin.
He lunged, one hand coming down on the rim of a bowl and flinging salsa onto the floor, the other managing to seize the top of the stack before Grant caught it and forced Matthew’s thumb to his palm and they fell like playing cards dropped mid-cut. Linda cried out to stop.
“Leave them there,” Grant said.
“Let go,” Matthew said.
Matthew fake-smiled. “Consider them left.”
Grant couldn’t tolerate the cleverness in Matthew’s voice, the sarcasm. But Linda was there. He loosened his grasp. Matthew pulled his hand free and sat down.
They were silent. Scattered over the floor-tiles lay diced tomatoes, kernels of corn, bits of cilantro. Water dripped.
Matthew said it without touching the cards, without looking at them. “You should know this one. Big man.”
“Stop talking.” Grant’s hands were shaking.
“To oppress. See, you did know it. Ex—”
“Expurgate. Something the head of this household just loves to do.”
Hands like C-clamps, Grant held the lip of the table. The red wine in Linda’s glass rippled. When he drove on the highway there was sometimes a moment in which, though he hadn’t yet passed an off-ramp, it was too late to veer onto it. He was going too fast, didn’t have enough distance. And as the paved slope rose alongside him, it was as if he was watching a possibility become impossible. Carried forward now by his own shouting, Grant had a similar feeling. “You smart off to me with your belly full of food I provided. Calling me words you learned sitting on your ass while I work sixteen hours a day to make sure you have jeans to wear and a double bed to sleep in. And you want me to send you to college? So you can come back on visits and rub your superiority in my face? You don’t know shit about discipline; you can’t even kill a runt when I’m there watching. No supervision, you’d flunk out and blame the school. I’m not giving you a goddamn dollar.”
“You don’t have,” Matthew said, “a goddamn dollar to give.”
Something hot and white as electricity flowed through Grant, creating deafness in his head and making his body light and quick and numb; it discharged, it had to; his forward lurch shifted the table with a rattle of cutlery on ceramic, and the slap came down at so powerful a diagonal it knocked Matthew to the floor still sitting in his chair. Linda was screaming their names and no and don’t. Wine had spilled over her white napkin.
“You’ll live in my house until you clear your debt,” Grant said. “Not a day longer.”
“No fear of that,” Matthew said. He was on his feet, words smeared as a drunk’s. Rancor twisting his mouth, he spat; blood landed on the table, and a tooth. A lower incisor. It came to rest on a knot in the oak that was the brown-black of a Duroc’s snout.
“This,” Matthew said to Linda, “is the man you married. But don’t worry, I don’t expect you to follow through on your threat. Just stop lying to yourself.”
Righting his chair, he pushed it against the table as if no one had been or would be sitting in it, and left.
Matthew couldn’t rinse the taste of blood out of his mouth. In the bathroom mirror he pulled his lip down. There was now a gap in his bottom row of teeth. It was as wide as the clip of a mechanical pencil. The gap made him look less intelligent. It made him look poor.
“You’re going to regret this for the rest of your life,” his mother had said when he refused to be taken to the hospital.
“Then I regret it.”
And what he thought was, You’ll see it every time you look. You’ll never be able to tell yourself it didn’t happen.
In the darkness, Matthew set the shopping bag on the dirt and unlocked the shed door.
He entered. It smelled of dust, the insides of toolboxes. A post hammer and a sheaf of T-posts leaned in the corner. A level hung from a nail. In the yellow-green liquid that filled its tube, a bubble floated imprisoned.
He had come for two things, one made of wood, the other made of steel and concrete. The latter was heavier. Before leaving, he swung it at the level. The glass tube was crushed, its contents released.
Matthew was kneeling behind the back wall of the boar’s pen. On the ground lay the cane his father used years ago to guide pigs around the show ring. Later he beat Matthew with it.
Matthew had already scooped the feed into the white plastic bucket and now from the shopping bag he removed the carton of skim milk, the jar of molasses, and the bottle of vodka. With a wooden spoon he stirred in their contents. He had learned the recipe from his father, who used it on the hogs he allocated to the family’s chest freezer. Stupefied, the animals wouldn’t dodge. And the slaughterer that Matthew’s father hired could imagine a diagonal line from right ear to left eye, another from left ear to right eye, and place the .22-caliber bullet just left of where they crossed.
On tiptoe, Matthew reached down over the wall, his hand around the bottom of the cane. Its hooked end held the handle of the bucket. Setting the bucket in the trough, he twisted the cane against the handle and tilted the bucket onto its side. Mush poured out. He re-hooked it and turned it mouth down.
The boar still slept, legs out, body jiggling. Matthew brought the bucket up. It made a dull cylindrical sound as it struck the boar’s ham. The animal started, grunted a warning. Matthew backed away. As if to ensure the bucket couldn’t move on its own, the boar pushed it, then snuffled, put its snout in.
The moon shone. Pine shavings lay on the dirt like hair on the floor of a barbershop.
Soon the boar approached the trough. It sniffed the mush, tested it with its mouth. It began eating.
Matthew waited. For the bottom of the trough to show. For the boar to go back to sleep.
Carefully he scaled the pen wall.
Between each step he let a minute pass. Mud gave under his black rubber boots, feces. The boar dozed.
He was now near enough to pet it. Under its bristles its skin would be warm and firm, like a man’s face under a beard. Matthew bent his knees. At the small of his back, between the waistband of his jeans and leather of his belt, slanted the concrete-filled pipe. He drew it.
The floor was carpeted. Matthew wore socks, no shoes. With each step he eased down his heel, then gently lowered the ball of his foot, his toes, advancing through the dark with such weighted slowness that the air around him seemed to throb, to set off an alarm that wouldn’t be heard but sensed.
Matthew’s father was breathing evenly, a short silence following each intake and outlet of air. But countless things—a creak in the plywood under the carpet, the grumble of a truck on the road, the scrape of a chain against a gate—could break his sleep. He depended on the farm for his survival. Part of him always watched over it.
The numbers on the clock radio tinged his face red, the way a stoplight reddens the leaves of a nearby tree. Matthew’s mother’s side of the bed was empty. In the corner, in her reading chair, she slumped. Her chin rested on her collarbone.
What Matthew was viewing felt as private as sex. He had never seen his parents willingly sleep apart. Still, she hadn’t left him.
Matthew clenched the shaft, rough with rust and flecks of concrete. Slowly he neared the bed.
On his father’s nightstand lay dozens of credit-card receipts. A life too overgrown with debt, only bankruptcy could clear it. No thinking. The next step would bring Matthew close enough.
As he took it his ankle made a popping sound.
The breathing remained even, but his father’s face seemed to tighten.
Matthew stood motionless.
His father’s eyes were in shadow, the dim red light falling on his cheekbone, his nose. They were the prototypes of Matthew’s.
At last his face relaxed.
Knees bent, Matthew raised the pipe above his head.
The hiking backpack had belonged to his father. Wearing it, Matthew crossed the pasture. Dark. Moon in the east. A rodent tunnel collapsed under his rubber-soled shoe, making him stumble. Overhead a shadow moved. The barn owl. Its face, he knew, would resemble a cut-in-half apple.
At his family’s property line, he folded the backpack over the top of the electric fence and lifted himself. The wire gave, swayed, and he tumbled into the weeds and dirt on the other side.
He walked Lampley Road. Past blackberry bushes where spiderwebs hung concave as mesh strainers, past a house with a bale wagon and gooseneck trailer parked in the yard, past an orchard of English-walnut trees grafted to black-walnut bases.
A gap appeared in the fences. Here he turned. He stepped over broken-off tree branches, sundered trunks. Beyond them, blocks of concrete lay in a rough line, all seeming to have come from a square column that had fallen and cracked apart. A ribbed metal drum stood in a skin of rust. Light was entering the sky.
He descended the bluff, going beneath valley oaks and dying cottonwoods, glimpsing in the distance the stark ponds of gravel-mining pits separated from the Tuolumne River by dikes. He startled a brush rabbit, pushed through willows and sedges. He reached the south bank.
After laying down the backpack and unzipping it, he looked at what it held. The pipe. He gathered rocks. Some were the color of wet cement, others of rain-darkened sand. He placed the largest and heaviest at the bottom, burying the pipe, and continued adding rocks until he couldn’t make the tabs of the zippers meet. He positioned the pack upright. He sat against it. Putting his arms through the shoulder straps, he got to his feet with difficulty, and clipped the chestband and waistband.
He stepped into the river. It covered his knees, his thighs. Bass swam. He was walking over large stones and small boulders when something wobbled, shifted, and his ankle tore like a steaming-hot rag, his foot sliding down, a rock the size of a curled-up child settling on top of it.
Limping, he continued toward the pool. The bank was undercut there, the earth moist and dark, the roots of a white alder dangling. The water barely moved. Six feet deep, Matthew estimated, though looking into it was like looking through a magnifying glass. A chain of bubbles rose.
Arms relaxed, he let himself fall forward into the pool, cheek and ear smacking the surface. Underwater he rolled, pulled onto his back by the mass and density of the pack, which, finding no active resistance, went like iron to the bottom.
The hall bathroom was the one Matthew used. In it, with the door locked, Linda was running the shower on cold but not showering. Instead she looked in the mirror. The perimeter was beveled, and in the middle, dried, were the burst and downward tracks of spat blood. It lay over her reflection.
A truth developed in her mind, and if she had let herself fix it in words, they would have been these: She had known, on some level, for years. And she hadn’t ended it.
She understood something else then, the dried blood like a web over her face. When Grant was unable to control her, part of him wanted to hit her. Because he couldn’t—she would divorce him, no second chances—he hit her son.
The knowledge had consequences.
After checking that his and Linda’s vehicles were still there, Grant had searched for Matthew in the buildings closest to the house: the dilapidated milk barn, the old horse-and-cow barn. Now he trod the dirt lane toward the pigs. To his left lay the pasture, enclosed by the electric fence. Two days ago Matthew had walked away along it, trimmer in his hands, the drone of the spinning nylon line seeming to blur the air around him, giving him the look of someone being erased.
The sun was rising from behind the Sierra Nevada. A rill of dust stretched along the bottom of the rut Grant walked in, his boots stirring it, the scent reminding him of what he had smelled on his son two hours earlier, when Matthew had entered the master bedroom. The turning of the door handle awakened Grant. Instantly his senses sharpened. But as Matthew crept toward the bed, something mysterious happened. A billow of sorrow and remorse rose inside of Grant, cresting in an all-giving, all-allowing love, and, overwhelmed by it, he made a decision. He made it in the receptiveness of night, would be unable to defend it after daybreak. The night, though, was when he had to act. He would feign sleep. He would let Matthew do whatever he had come to do. In this way Grant would humble himself, show his regret. Keeping his eyes closed, he made each breath as slow and deep as the one before it. How long did Matthew stand over him? Each second seemed to contain many, the way a shotgun cartridge contains pellets. Matthew’s presence weighted the air. He gave off an odor of dust, sweat, manure. Grant’s head told him to dive to Linda’s side of the bed, switch her lamp on, and shout for Matthew to leave the room. But he obeyed his heart. The weighted stillness continued. Then, as quietly as he had approached, Matthew backed away. A few minutes later there was a rustling in the hall closet, where Grant kept old coats, hats, and hiking gear. After that, the latch bolt of the laundry-room door clicked into the strike plate. Night amplified the sounds. Grant lay awake until the walls began to lighten. He was alone in the bed and, though Linda slept in her chair, alone in the room. The unconscious offer no companionship. Without showering, Grant stepped into a pair of jeans, settled a t-shirt over his head. He walked through the house, to be sure Matthew hadn’t returned. He tried to wake Linda. She pushed his hand off, turned her face away. He said her name once, then louder. She rose, not giving him her eyes, and walked swiftly to the hall bathroom and locked the door. Maybe that was better. Before upsetting her more, Grant would search the farm. Matthew might not be gone.
The first pen the dirt lane passed held the new boar. It lay in the bedding. Noticing the white plastic bucket near it, Grant halted. He went around the pen, found the empty vodka bottle. The pigs were only given alcohol on one occasion. Grant studied the boar. Pine shavings hung from its rust-colored coat. Flies, drawn by the molasses, crawled over its snout and lower jaw. On its ears and anus flies also gathered. The boar was drunk, but unscathed.
When a slaughterer or a hunter fires his rifle, the bullet that doesn’t enter flesh will dig into the earth or speed far beyond the target. What Grant feared when he heard the laundry-room door click shut was now confirmed. Matthew was gone. And Grant saw that between what he felt and what he did, between what he desired and what took place, there seemed to have always stood a sheet of Plexiglas. It had holes, but they were small. What got through was deformed by the force and pressure of having to fit.
Alone, in the dawn, Grant faced the boar in its isolation pen.
Lying at the bottom of the pool, not letting in breath or water, Matthew felt as if the world outside him had paused. There was a high-pitched humming in his ears. In the blackness behind his eyelids thoughts pushed, images glimmered. He saw himself holding the concrete-filled pipe. He raised it twice, desisted twice. Why? He had entered the pen resolute as any slaughterer. Compassion didn’t save the boar’s life. It didn’t wake from its stupor in the final instant and look at him with eyes animated by a scared intelligence. No, what stopped Matthew wasn’t the realization of what his swinging the pipe would do to the boar. It was the realization of what it would do to him. It would turn him into what he loathed: a man who used violence against a weaker being; a man who mistook that being for the cause of his anger. Violence had been bred into Matthew. And that violence sought nothing other than the breeder. Shoeless, Matthew crossed the carpet of the master bedroom to his father’s side of the bed. Like a pistol, the pipe was heavier than its size suggested, the extra weight seeming to correspond to the gravity of the deed it was made for. The alarm clock glowed red. It lighted the knoll of his father’s cheekbone, the ridge of his brow. He looked watchful even in sleep, and Matthew knew as he lifted the pipe that one blow was all he would have a chance to deliver. He summoned his rage, trusted its strength. But in the flush of power, in the thrill of imminent violence, he saw the one blow endlessly repeating itself on his conscience and body and life. True power wasn’t violence. Violence occurred in a chain reaction and couldn’t stop itself. True power chose its actions. In that moment, Matthew realized he had done enough. In raising the pipe above his father’s skull, he proved he could have done it; and this freed him from having to do it.
The river that ran above Matthew had begun as snow. It had come down on the crumpled granite slopes of the Sierra Nevada, trickled in the sun into pine-needle-flavored creeks merging at Tuolumne Meadows, rushed through a ramp-bottomed canyon, poured into Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and found a way through the convex barricade of the dam, done the same at Don Pedro. Its energy had been taken, its flow diverted and regulated, but still there was enough to reach him, to close over him.
In stronger and stronger waves, pressure buffeted the inside of his head. His heart scooped insistently at his chest, like a hand trying to dig in packed clay.
The river would wind west. As it did, the riprap lining its banks would confine it. Beyond Modesto, it would empty into the San Joaquin but its water would keep flowing, past the rust-streaked concrete piers of highway bridges, through a channel deep enough for oceangoing ships and their bleary trails of diesel, into the drowned river valley of San Francisco Bay, and there, in an unstoppable movement, it would course through the strait to the Pacific.
Matthew’s head was burning, his torso tight. A gas lighter than air seemed to rise, to spread irritatingly along the ceiling of his chest and stomach. He had one urge: to breathe. The same urge had jolted through his drunkenness after his car plunged into the canal, water pressing up along the windshield and boiling up from the pedals to cover his calves, his hips. How did he know what to do? This was what he wouldn’t admit even to Sarah. When Matthew was eight years old, a woman crashed through the white wooden guardrail of the bridge that spanned the canal south of their farm. She drowned. To drive in to or home from town, Matthew’s family had to cross that bridge. For months, every time they did, Matthew’s father ordered him to go through a drill, and as quickly as he could, Matthew had to say, “Seatbelt, window, out,” mimicking the unbuckling, the rolling down, and the climbing out.
The need to breathe ousted all thought. Matthew knew the drill. It was his. Unclipping the bands, slipping the straps, and leaving the backpack in the depths of the pool, he surged with a gasp into the air and light, where he waded across to the north bank of the river and on his sprained ankle trespassed through an orchard to State Route 132. He hobbled across it, off it, up smaller roads his father was less likely to drive. When enough land lay between Matthew and the farm, he turned west. He limped with his thumb out. Trucks blew past him.
Luke Sholer bio
Luke Sholer has published fiction in Eureka Literary Magazine, and his poetry has appeared in a variety of small journals. He has also published crime fiction in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Crimewave, and the anthology The Adventure of the Missing Detective and 19 of the Year’s Finest Crime and Mystery Stories. Raised in California and Arizona, he now lives in Spain.
June and Margo
April Claire Evans
Something about that already stifling Saturday in early July left June vaguely dissatisfied. The sky was overcast and threatened a “donder-boomer,” still she would have rather biked to the lake to dive down into the murky gray-green water; but, Margo had pleaded the sniffles.
Margo had been June’s friend since kindergarten, mainly because there were very few kids June’s age in the woodland community in which they lived. Also, Margo was one of the few kids who, like June, spent way too much time in front of the TV and had way too much time on her hands.
Anyhow, Margo was too much of a “tenter-foot” in June’s view, always staying home from school at the least sign of a cold. Sometimes June could barely stand it; it seemed as though whenever June invited Margo someplace she invariably had a cold, especially if the invitation was for a sleep-over at June’s house. According to June’s mother, Margo always had a cold because both Margo’s parents smoked and because Margo ate such a poor diet.
According to June’s mother, June bossed Margo around and Margo didn’t want to eat there because she didn’t like the food. June didn’t like the food much either, but she was used to it.
June’s mother was an Adele Davis groupie, which meant everything had to be uber-healthy. Margo was really grossed out by the undercooked cheese eggs, which she salted as if the mound on her plate were a giant slug and the salt would make it shrivel up and die. And she slathered the dry whole wheat toast with enough margarine and jelly to give her both an instant heart attack and diabetes.
Anyhow, if you asked June, it was Margo who was the bossy one. She always decided what imagination games they’d play and who would play what role - like that day. June had stayed the night at Margo’s house. Margo’s parents had gone out early to a flea market, their normal Saturday activity. And so, after a breakfast of Sugar Smaks (over which Margo poured at least two tablespoons of sugar) in front of the aging Zenith with intermittent reception, the two girls discussed what they would play.
June wanted to play “super-heroes” with herself cast as Wonder Woman and Margo as Wonder Girl. Margo wanted to play The Bionic Woman with June as Jamie Sommers and herself as both Steve Austin and Jamie’s kidnapper. June as usual gave in because Margo whined that she didn’t want to be Wonder Girl, and that June always got to be Wonder Woman. So, at Margo’s insistence, June trudged up the narrow staircase to the second floor to Margo’s parents’ bedroom. It was stuffy, and even hotter up there than it was downstairs. Margo’s mother had shut the windows tight and closed the blinds as she had in the rest of the house. June reflected that the house was always stale and dark – no fresh air or sunshine allowed. Margo had explained at one point that her mother was paranoid about the neighbors spying on them.
Margo first wanted to push the twin beds together (twin beds? hello Ward and June Cleaver), and after much grunting on Margo’s part they were where she wanted them to be. She plopped herself down, “Now you be Jamie. The KGB has kidnapped you and taken your battery packs. You’re helpless, and they have you tied up on a metal bed frame in an old warehouse.”
June fingered one of the blinds – no dust was left on her forefinger. “But if they took her battery packs she’d be dead or dying, or at least unconscious.”
Margo plumped one of the over-sized pillows and moved it to the far side of the other bed. “No she wouldn’t. They’d just remove her local packs, you know, in her arm and legs while she was unconscious; she’d still have her bionic hearing.”
June turned around and ran her fingers through her as yet unwashed dirty-blonde mop. “She’d still be unconscious or something,” she mumbled, as she rubbed her now greasy digits on her blue and white nubbly cotton pajama shorts.
Margo bounced her flabby backside on the bed – a bed so tightly made, June thought, that it would’ve passed a military inspection – making the flaps of fat that passed for developing boobs jiggle. “Oh c’mon June, it’s my turn to pick what we play anyhow; besides, it’s my house.” June wanted to retort that it seemed like it was always her turn to pick, and that she always picked at June’s house too, but she didn’t. She stepped over to the bed.
Margo grasped June’s wrist in her clammy, boney fingers, “Now, lie down. The KGB has you tied up.” June complied. Margo knelt over her and pinned both her wrists to the bed spread-eagle fashion. Margo leaned into her so that Margo’s scummy, yellowed buck teeth were within an inch of her face. She closed her eyes to shut out the sight, and because Margo’s breath, which smelled like a vomit-inducing combination of Flintstone’s chewable vitamins, Sunny Delight, and milk was making her nauseous. “Open your eyes, dummy, Jamie’s supposed to be awake.”
Once again, June complied. Margo held June’s wrists more tightly and shifted her weight so that the bed creaked; she spoke with a very bad Boris and Natasha accent, “So, Miss Sommers, you will tell us where to find the secret code to the base, no?”
The, “No!” that escaped June’s lips wasn’t just good acting – she wanted to tell Margo, “No! Get the hell off of me!” Of course, she didn’t.
Margo grasped June’s wrists even more tightly and angled her body even closer to June’s so that her sweat-soaked white sleep shirt came in contact with the skin at the base of June’s throat. “You will tell me, Miss Sommers, or I can make things very, very uncomfortable for you.”
June squirmed; it took all her internal strength not to knee Margo in her gut, or to at least tell her that she didn’t want to play anymore. “I... I can’t.... I don’t know the code.”
Margo’s smile became sinister, and she ran her teeth over with her ton...gue, which was stained orange from the Flintstone’s vitamins and the Sunny D. “O come now, Miss Sommers, of course you do; we know that your bionics were created and implanted on that base.... So, the code now if you please Miss Sommers, or I’ll have to resort to more drastic measures to drag it from you.”
June struggled within Margo’s grasp; her chubby wrists reddened. Of course she wasn’t supposed to put up a real fight, so she said as if she was about to spit in her face, “You’ll never get it from me!”
Margo shifted the bulk of her weight forward and treated June to her version of a menacing whisper, “Then I will make you beg to tell me by the time I’m through,” sending a fetid cloud of breath into June’s face.
It was all June could do not to cough or turn her head away. She gritted her teeth and closed her eyes. “Do your worst then, because I don’t know the code. Besides, don’t think that they haven’t discovered that I’m missing by now.”
Margo bared her ferret teeth, as in triumph, and said, “Then I will have the pleasure of prying the truth out of you.”
June gave a mock cry of, “No! No! Aaah!” Her struggle was not quite so mock this time as Margo pulled her wrists together in front of her chest in one hand, reached down and forced her legs open with the other, and then made grinding motions with her hips. June shut her eyes against Margo’s nearness and the sweat dripping down onto her face, and tried to hold her breath against the unsavory odors coming from her friend.
“Shh!” Margo hissed. She announced that Jamie’s captor had put chloroform on a rag, and held her hand over June’s mouth – her hand tasted as gross as the rest of her smelled. She continued the hip-grinding motions for five more seconds, as June played unconscious. It was five seconds too long for June’s liking. Then Margo announced that Steve Austin was in the building using all his bionic superpowers to find his Jamie.
She at last released June. She got up and made the appropriate motions and sound effects of the Steve breaking in and beating up the baddie. June was supposed to be unconscious, so she kept her eyes closed and lay motionless as she took several deep, restorative breaths.
Then Margo, doing her best deep heroic voice impression, leaned over June and shook her. She cried in an imitation of desperation, “Jamie, Jamie wake up! Wake up Jamie! O my God...what did they do to you? C’mon Jamie wake up!” There was a beat of silence. Margo treated June to playacted ragged breathing and choked sobs. Then she leaned in, her forehead practically touching June’s. All June could think about was fresh air and the cool relief of lake water rinsing her, enveloping her. Margo stroked June’s hair, pushing the sweated forelock back from her brow like an over-rambunctious child – who hasn’t yet learned how to be gentle with an animal – would pet a kitten, murmuring, “Jamie, Jamie...O my God, what did they do to you?” She slid her hand down the side of June’s face and the gripped her chin. As she leaned closer, her hot breath assaulted June’s face in un-rhythmic blasts. Her face closed in over June’s. The slimy spit-coated lips touched June’s – her eyes flew open; she pushed Margo away just as she heard the wooden screen-door bang shut, and flew down stairs with Margo behind her.
She grabbed her aged brown canvas back-pack that had once belonged to her older sister Amy from the threadbare if clean couch and wheeled around, nearly running smack into Margo’s father who was holding a greasy white bag of some sickeningly sweet-spicy tomatoey smelling food item. He put his oily, hammy hand on her shoulder and grunted, “Whoa there June: Careful now.”
June took a step back out of his grasp and stammered, “Sorry, Mr. Hogentoddler, I, I was just on my way out.”
He took his freed hand and pushed his unlit pipe to the other side of his mouth and said, “I brought a couple pizza subs from Special Pizza City now, if you’re hungry.”
June could just picture Margo pulling her sub apart and salting it, and then scraping the cheese off with her buck teeth, strings of it clinging to her orifice as she made little smacking sounds with her lips – ugh! “Uh, no thanks. I think my Mom’s waiting for me at the lake.”
He rubbed his hand over the furry growth on his neck. “Okay, then. Tell your mom I said ‘Hi’.”
June said, “Okay,” and then exited to the porch where she pulled on her battered Keds. Margo’s mother was sitting there on a brown and dun chaise lounge rocking back and forth smoking a Capri.
She didn’t look up until June pushed the door open, then she put the cigarette in the center of her mouth between her lips and brushed imaginary ashes off the chaise as she spoke through the cigarette. “Margo catches cold easily you know. When she was a baby I had to take her in for an operation – I saved her life. She had to have a tube in her stomach; she still has the scar.” Mrs. Hogentoddler lifted her blue and white checked blouse to touch her own puffy, cellulite-ridden abdomen and continued, “It was right here; she almost died.”
June didn’t mean to be rude, but she’d heard the tale a thousand times before. “Yes, Mrs. Hogentoddler, I believe you’ve told me that.”
Margo’s mother rubbed her belly. “Saved her life. She had to have an operation.”
June pushed the door a little farther open and said, “Yeah, you did. Bye, Mrs. Hogentoddler.” She didn’t wait for a response, but let the Dutch blue-stained door slap shut behind her.
She grabbed her ancient pink and rust Schwinn, another of her sister’s cast-offs, and pedaled out to the main road, sending crows into noisy, cawing flight overhead as she rode by. She whizzed down the hill to the main route, nearly spinning out into traffic. She crossed, and then panted up the hill by the general store that was a throw-back to another era. Up the hill, around the dog-leg turn and by the brown expanse of Soldier’s Field she pushed the heavy bike – pumping her legs as hard as she could – with one thing on her mind, getting in that water. As she reached the part of the road where it branched off to the left and there were pine trees on either side she began to feel the pressure in her bladder; she pedaled even harder until she reached the wooden steps up to the deck.
She hauled her bike up the stairs and announced to the zit-faced teen boy at the white-washed board ticket window that she was Celia Rodemann’s daughter, and that her mother had a punch ticket at the booth for her. She pushed her thighs together as he was taking way too much time searching through the rusted index card box and hoped she wouldn’t wet herself right then and there. He finally found it and punched it as slowly as possible before giving her a nod.
She wheeled her bike around to the bath house and propped it on the wall next to the door rather than employ the resistant kick-stand as she could feel the urine seeping onto her panties. She pushed the old creaky door open and went directly to a stall. She sat on the seat and stripped off her pajamas and panties, letting them fall to the floor as she let the flood flow from between her legs. A small exhalation of relief escaped her lips. She dried herself there in the semi-darkness and dug in her bag for her bathing suit. She pulled the day-glow orange piece of nylon up over her stubbly legs and onto her sticky body and tugged the padded bra cups into place. She rolled up her discarded clothes and put them into her back-pack along with her sneakers.
She padded on bare feet out across the cool cement flooring and out the door and down the steps. She could see her mother arrayed on her fold out lounge chair like a queen, her broad-brimmed aquamarine sun hat clearly visible from a distance, enthroned under a sturdy oak tree with her courtiers around her (in other words, her friends and her current boyfriend).
As June approached, her mother turned with slow grace to peer at her over the big frames of her sunglasses which she’d purchased along with the hat. Her matching eyes did a scathingly thorough assessment of her daughter. “Well, nice of you to join me – did you have a good time?”
Being fixed there in her mother’s gaze made June want to dig herself into the damp earth; “Yeah. Fine.”
Mrs. Rodemann extended one tan arm towards the battered metal cooler and stated, “I packed peanut butter sandwiches and orange wedges.” It was not so much an invitation to eat lunch as an order. June lowered the pack to the ground and moved towards the cooler and pulled out a sandwich bag that contained half a sandwich on whole wheat bread. She opened it up and obediently took a bite. The heavy bread stuck in her throat with the health food store peanut butter acting as mortar, making it almost impossible to swallow. The chubby iron-curled Mrs. Van DerVentor in her upscale version of the ubiquitous black suit shot a question at June about Mrs. Hogentoddler’s mental state, but June couldn’t pry open her mouth to give her an answer. It didn’t matter; Mrs. Van DerVentor went on to make a comment about Margo running the Hogentoddler household as her parents were weak and ineffective.
As soon as June had sucked the juice from the orange wedges that her mother had pushed into her hand – just enough moisture to loosen her jaw – her mother proclaimed, “Well, it’s time for you to go for a swim, June.” She studied her short, chubby daughter for just a moment; a look of disapproval furrowed her brow and pursed her lips; she announced for all the beach to hear, “June, that suit fit you at the beginning of the summer – I think you’ve gained some weight.”
June really didn’t have a reply for that, other than to mumble low in her still peanut butter coated throat that she was going in the water. Her mother arose from her beach lounge and produced an oversized white t-shirt from the bag that was a perfect match for her hat. She handed it to June with orders to put it on or she’d get sunburned. June obediently pulled it over her head; it nearly came down to her ankles.
She could hear the chatter between the “beach buddies” resume like the buzz of the cicadas that would soon descend upon the woodlands and fields as she waddled away on legs now sore from pumping the heavy bike up the hill.
She went to the end of the wooden dock and stood for a moment anticipating the shock of the cold water on her overheated body. She took a deep breath and let it go. She took the final step, her toes over the edge of the last board, and balanced there for a second – then she let go. Arms outstretched she fell into the dark, cold womb water. There, among the weeds that choked the lake she floated face down – the dead man’s float that she’d been taught while learning to swim at the local high school – the shirt encasing her like a shroud. Above her, turkey vultures circled the trees in search of carrion.
CEE’s Life Matters; All Others Pay Cash
“...the prospect before us then, is a world of Andersonvilles, of jailors concerned only with executing the commands of their masters, afraid of their conscience, concerned only with the masters, to whom they have lost their souls.”
—William Shatner, The Andersonville Trial (1970; PBS)
Me, watching The Above: “Does it come with a shuffleboard package?”
Just to be a historical spoil sport about it, IF I’d been alive then, I’d’ve voted for Nixon, in 1960. Dewey, in ‘44, maybe not ‘48. Hughes, in ‘16. Hearst, in ‘04. And William Jennings Bryan, in both 1896 and 1900. The last, is my soulish proclamation, “I Am A Populist!”, as I douse you all in the baptismal of my POV. “I believe as I do, STFU.” A breathprayer, easy to memorize. I expect that to be your creed, cradle to grave. And, it is. But rare is the one with insight, who realizes their soul comes first, as really, is there anOther? Can any of us know? Too many of you fear that creed, until conflict arises, then in transference, you embrace your Adonis Creed or Apollo, abandoning your Rocky for a face not as vulnerable nor open.
Many reading, live as did Maude Findlay, with her good intentions and noble causes and sour mouth and soul. I give Norman Lear credit—he tried, with Maude, to blow up the high-toned liberal and the papier mache of its heart. Lear, positioned, monied, knew human work took dirty hands. Not like Archie Bunker’s. Willing hands. For that, you need hearts and minds. For those, you have to win them. And here, Bryan and I step in, staid yet independent, and say, “convince us, this Way of yours?” And when that fails, we expect to walk away with our perspective intact. Which is why more and more guns are blowing away more and more persons. There are myriad details in the moments of myriad lives, but the pressure-pull of the trigger sings, “By GOD, I HATE Your Perspective!” And, insisting anyone, any person, let alone group, “matters”...at all, let alone Hog The Halogen Searchlight until I’m bawling for the nurse to turn me over...well. No. The reasons vary. Most, are that we all have lives. Lives, are busy things. You mattering as We Are All At Sugar Cookie Parity, will have to wait.
If you don’t think I understand the emphasis in affirming one group over another, to the exclusion that Only That Group, should be afforded attention...to most of us, topically, to said group, intrinsically...to us, “yes, any singling out and persecution is understood, we’re on it, Human Family, Home Team”, to the Group, “please Get It Through Your Heads, a person is a person is no difference nohow, i.e. SEE ‘ME’, goddamitt!”...well, yes, of course, I understand the emphasis. I think it’s come a bit late on the timeline, and by that, I mean, too late. The new DSM, threw out Narcissism as an actual “personality disorder”, don’t forget. That’s because, to recap, such a way of approaching the world, is far, way common, now. Paris common. Gwenith common. Harrison he’s-annoying-doing-it-as-a-geezer common. Clooney. Hillary. The Donald. Sarah Silverman. What my pedestrian, small town-bred Dad called, “Wellll, smell me!” These role models, generously provided by a 9000-channel universe and the 21st soap it sells, have a kind of “rubbing off”-effect...even if (mainly the young) have to jump, Circus Charlie through flaming hoops, to win “Nice adulting!” posts for having performed a minor service. Fact is, only a final, back to back Custer’s Stand-bunch, will champion HATE, but it takes a bit more to “see” others in an active sense which doesn’t involve a double whipped moca java cherry limeade cappuwhatzis dingleberry triple cream enlightened dark two-shit rich chickory with choco sprinkles, hold the chickory. In short, the Greenwich Village “I Love You and Respect You and Value Your Soul”, melts into the heat of the street after any sharing of aphorisms, as people have lives to live, what a concept!...and, you may be my brother, but you’re also heavier ‘n shit, as I have groceries, I’ve gotta walk six blocks, then I have laundry to pick up...y’know? So, hey, luvluvluv, it’s nice to care, but gotta run, gotta pick up th’ keed! We’ll get to how your humanity will sit, ingrained in our 9-5 souls, at the next meeting. Probably month after next, ‘cause we’ve got the polar bears on the next agenda. James Cromwell’s serving wheat germ pizza.
I tell you in my usual confessional, okay, I care about others, but I don’t care about them, really, in the way I think most people command other people to love Other people (what a twist, M. Night!). Demonstrably, see, I am not You, and You are not Me. Oh, we can play the “if you cut a CEE, does he not bleed?”-game, but I don’t recommend it, and I’m just guessing, but I’m pretty sure when my time comes, it’ll involve something wrong-turned and stupid like that. The point being—and please throw out any word games from college, as they ARE GAMES, Chumly, word’s out—each individual human person, is in fact a singular identity, and each owes no debt and keeps his own tab (word to Louis CK, name the place, my choice is brass knucks). When we eliminate tribes and peoples, “teams” and schools of thought, Earth becomes then, the sum of Keep Totting Billions of the parts, each selfdetermined and independent. I admit, were that realized, you might indeed have Hobbes’ worst nightmare, the free-for-all Looney Tunes ball of dust, with all killing all...but take heart, you know damned well I speak in concept, and we know this won’t happen. Those who seek justice for Others via the “Let me finish!” method, or birthed by sweat of The Next Guy, a dusty one seen proclaimed in front of Abe’s Ephesian colonnade, in footage increasingly Cold War and grainy, won’t see that dream, either. Or any mulberry bush danced ‘round. Here we all are, but there can be no accord, because plenty humans only believe (short list) lives matter, and legions believe (longer list with definite gaps) lives matter, and others go further, line item down to “just get rid of these leaders, 1,2,3” or “only (you know what color) matter!” That doesn’t take into account fringe elements, let alone the CEEs of the world, who think your life matters, if the check clears. I’m very “what have you done for me lately?” The tallest kid through all the grades, I never extorted anyone’s lunch money, but local merchants tell tales of elongated stares which sent shivers through them, when they’d blatted the wrong thing at the adult Me and knew it. Yes, that’s all very personal, I know, hold the solipsism, you say. I can’t. We’re all guilty of it...and that admission, is as universal as it gets.
Those who openly march in antithesis to any lessons we’re supposed to learn, are few, and they are reviled. Those who harbor hatred, or wish a bully or an advocate with a fist full of fist, are many, and these merely wait. As with all crime, HATE has gone indoors. And short of policing all minds and playing right into the hands of Late Great Planet Earth survivalists, it’s a wo...a nation, of “just wait, asshole”, a-happenin’. Open lip service is given by fewer, if you notice. Specified lip service, down to the syllable, ignites no epiphany, but tinders hidden infernos. Again, to get all “Self” about it, if the movement on many campuses, per very definite, proscribed thinking and None Other, found its way to my door? I think that would do it, for me. I think that, yes, would be my headline, my life initialed at that point, question or comment? Because there exists no YOU MUST, when it comes to the ‘what’ or indeed the ‘how’, of a human mind, its path, its negotiating a way through the world. Good old Dad, he pushed me the military. I told him no, as “the instant I got there and they started screaming at me, I’d say, “Well! Screw this!”, and start walking toward the gate...only, I wouldn’t be allowed to leave. And, I have a problem with that.” It’s why I never open the door to uniformed officers, either, if anyone’s paying attention. Next time, men, use a battering ram, because you’ll die of old age waiting to be Joe Friday, at my door.
If you were to ask the imponderable, re: “equality” of CEE, you’d get the statement, “yes, but it comes down to good behavior and deportment”, and from that standpoint, any street anarchist with a placard, walking in a circle chanting goofwad non-rhymes, may as well be a lower life form. If you said “equal treatment”, again, yes, but it still comes down to behavior, and that breaks down differently for many of us. As Pat O’Brien says in The Quiet Man, “The proprieties at all times!” If a person steals your wallet, I’m okay with equality, if I can pretend to study a treetop and not be a witness; if he steals mine, he’s total scum and I want 16 bullets pumped into him. If I see him outside my home in darkest night, I’ll be telling our finest he hit his head against the fence nine times because he kept tripping; if I see him outside your home, well, don’t you wish you’d given me that ride, when it was below freezing as you drove past? The level of disregard in the Above models, is palpable. I maintain that’s the balance of Americans, grass roots, neighborhoods, church pews, lunch pail. That’s the beast, here, now, today. Almost everyone, simply knows better than to hold a fist to the heavens and play the antihero. To be analogous, if you can’t or won’t marry gays, schedule them all for your day off, like many doctors do Medicare patients. Let your coffee and doughnut gophers do their real jobs. Any enemy of your perspective who then still insists, preschool screamer, “Naw, SHE’S gotta do it!”, is batshit crazy, and should be treated as such. Don’t forget, any merchant has the right to refuse service. Oh, gee, they’re stuck in snow drifts, again. You know, the day they ran that three-wheeler all afternoon, annoyed the piss out of me...
You’ll tell me you’re not this person. No, I doubt you are. Mostly not. Pretty much not. You’ll nod to concepts of brotherhood or love or caring or lending a hand, but it’s Jimmy Carter you’ll want to drive the nails, while you grin larger than his best, 1976 photo op and think, “I’m here with Jimmy Carter, uuuuhhh...” To cull from Christendom, as A.W. Tozer wrote, “We want to be saved, but we insist that Christ do all the dying.” It’s a statement I’ve made for at least six years, that there are but scant Little Red Hens, yet too many scream for their supper. This includes showing love and believing that all are One. It includes holding respect in our hearts. Me, I don’t give a shit if you look like Grace Jones or Dolph Lundgren, you’re not me, you didn’t pay my property taxes and were going to leave us to die, so in the cosmological spin of roulette, I’m hoping like Hell, for a Judgment. I’m makin’ the sandwiches for it like Peter Pepper, leveled up. Most people, aren’t so vengeful or bitter or Cartmanlike, about The Other. Most, are “busy”. And, “busy”, often stated as “it’s just been ‘real crazy, ‘round here”, is in reality, apathy. A shrugging of shoulders. “What can ya do?” But like the Little Red Hen’s selfish pals, each intent on slavish work done by anOther, so to enjoy its reward.
This life, though devoid of true virtue, is its own reward. No one makes that life for you, or paves the path set ahead. The only way to accomplish such, is utter totalitarianism, either through world bondage of near-all, or complete subsuming of our will through entrapping our minds via tech. It’s one of those, either/or, or this one hates that one and that one shoots the other one, and the one over there cries and starves, and some others live in fear and dread. If you’d like to play Three Card Monte on the official, CEE Choice, I don’t champion the current maelstrom of humanity’s mass tearing one another to shreds. No way. I’d rather have the world be controlled, en toto, all marionettes on strings. It’s what selfishness buys, and it’s what lying about your selfishness, deserves. So, bring on Big Brother and hail the conquering despot, for, yes, I believe personally, in the holy wrath of a bully God, but just in case I’m wrong, nonfriend, I’m not about to miss out on being Taylor Negron in Bruce Willis’ face. So, get it over with. Thrill me. One scream, and use it well, to tell the truth of ‘who’ you are.
(justify your existence)
I started up the Appalachian Trail out of the New River Valley near downtown Pearisburg, Virginia at dawn. Having given up hunting a couple of years before, I didn’t remember that it was deer hunting season until I topped out and came across the camp of a couple of bow hunters. Friendly young men, they told me that they had come up the same trail the day before and were amazed that I had made it up so early. In a full sweat amid the chill autumn morning, I knew what they meant. The climb had put me on all fours at times, scaling the switchbacks, even sometimes using tree roots for foot and hand holds. But I carried only a twenty pound pack. Just as surprised that they had done it with all their gear, I figured that they must be more than a little serious about going after deer the old American Native way. After a few courteous exchanges I moved on thinking that it was OK to share this place with them. I knew that regardless of their luck, once I was gone from their sight, my senses would never be called to their presence. That was one of the main reasons that I was there to begin with—-to get in some quiet solitary time. No roads. No people. Only a footpath.
Circling the lip of the ridge, I came to three huge rocks rising from a little naked flat spot that created a window to the broader mountain chain coming out of the north. The view was one of the most beautiful that I have ever seen. And the utter quietness filled me. I could imagine how the American Natives must have gloried in those mountains. And how they had followed the rivers in and out of them. How they must have felt when they had to relinquish them and never come back. Like the monumental rocks I stood among, great spirits were no doubt there as well.
Cutting loose the grandeur of the river valley views, the trail plunged for many miles into the high forest of Appalachia, running ridges for miles on end, high above the misty dips between their neighboring humps.
Five miles or so in, I passed a threesome going in the opposite direction and exchanged a little conversation about the weight of packs and such. I couldn’t help but delight in their reply, “about ten miles,” as if it were gulf links chatter, when I ask the distance to the next forest shelter. I also learned that there was a forest access road near the shelter. Now I was sure that I was where I wanted to be. Other than the weight of my pack they asked nothing. An independent bunch traipsing around those parts it seemed, they only tolerated a brief exchange of info before hoofing on, discovery more important than foreknowledge.
Many miles on, trail heads and people afar, I rendezvoused with the deer. Apparently they were smart enough to be deep during hunting season. I had seen no people since the threesome several miles back. But in this inner sanctum of hardwoods and Mountain Laurel a small group of white tail does, followed by their attending buck, crossed my trail. The does leisurely passed on but a snapped twig underfoot froze the buck mid trail, his ears spiked and large dark eyes fixed on me. Also frozen, I observed for perhaps a full minute while he occasionally twitched his tail or stamped his foot, presumably trying to get me to move and break my outline against the forest backdrop. Holding that mid-stride pose until my body strained, I finally brought my feet together and uttered a greeting. Leaping forward, hind legs kicking air, his white tail starched straight up, he disappeared into the hollows below. It was a nice rendezvous, and one that I had hoped to have.
Hiking on through that fall country where the air, leaves, and sunlight were at their aged best, their aroma and color one of a greater earth, I felt the spirit of Thoreau’s Walden, a place near where I used to live. A place I had visited......just to commune with ghosts. It was exciting to carry the ghosts of Northern reaches in and around my native southern haunts.
Occasionally a grey, and more rarely, a fox squirrel, its fat cheeks crammed with an acorn, scampered over the forest floor and gathered food for the cold windswept months to come. When I would get close they would usually sidle up and around an oak, a peripheral eye watching my alien pass. But like so much these days, and those, it passed far too soon. Later that afternoon I began to see signs of more of my kind: pieces of trash, harder packed paths, National Forest amenities and the like. But even that did not prepare me for reaching the access road.
Seeing all the four wheel drive trucks and vehicles parked along the access road, I thought at first that there must be some sort of Forest Ranger reunion going on. But once I cleared the forest cover I saw that many men, their expensive guns at port or handed other ways, were meandering around talking to one another. That’s when I again remembered that it was deer season. Scanning the vehicles for a harvested deer, I saw not one. Reflecting that fact, the mood of those gathered there was not good. Most of their faces showed tired frustration and disappointment.
Going down the road to exit the trailhead and complete my hike, I was more or less ignored until I was approached by what appeared to be a lone hunter. Or perhaps he was just a late arrival. About my age, between young and middle, he was holding one of the more expensive rifles. Also wearing a mask of disappointment, he said, “Did you see any deer?”
“Yes,” I replied and smiled, showing that I was not put off by the crowd. But more importantly to him, I suspect, it showed that there were in fact some deer around there.
His face brightened.
“Oh Yeah? Where?”
I pointed back to where I had exited the trail and said, “About eight miles that way I saw several doe and a buck......”
Before I could finish the sentence his face fell and his lips turned down in disgust. Doing a quick about face, he stomped off leaving me standing there about to tell him how nice the deer looked. I just smiled to myself and proceeded on down the old forest road to another small town and a bus link back to my forty hour job. Thanking all that was greater than me for such places to wash my spirit, I hoped that they would always come to me as easily as I had come to them.
Charles Hayes bio
Charles Hayes, a multiple Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Story’s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, Burning Word Journal, eFiction India, and others.