At the picnic after the parade, while vets still in pieces of once-better-fitting uniforms hugged and slapped backs, laughing or whispering recollections, my cousin Brian sat at a table away from everyone drinking two sixes of Miller he’d lined up in columns of two, holding each one up in front of him before he chugged it down.
When I asked him if he was okay, he just shrugged and said, “Billy, this is what I do for the real heroes every Memorial Day…and for a few days before and after.”
“Man, you’ve gotta be kidding, what with all that heavy-metal certification of your courage — pulling your buds from a burning Humvee and fighting off bad guys while you’re burned and wounded from the IED yourself — right there on the front of your jacket,” I said, pointing to a pile of camo wrapped around a Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.
Brian said in his scorched-throat rasp, “Bein’ a hero sometimes ain’t more than a roll of the fuckin’ dice, Billy, a guy doin’ what he has to do when shit happens, just bein’ scared enough to run in the wrong or right direction — it don’t really matter at that moment — and bein’ lucky enough to make it out with a beating heart and most of his original parts.”
He popped the top on another Miller, lifted it above his head while murmuring something that sounded like “Ramirez,” took three long pulls on it and said, “Sometimes what folks who were never in combat call a hero turns out to be not much more than a wind-blown empty potato chip bag chasin’ a squirrel up a tree.”
Based on Lillie McFerrin’s prompt word FEARLESS.
Once upon a time,
there came a day, when
staggering from the shadows,
in the forest of fear,
I took the time to, just once,
face the warming caress
of the sun on my pale cheeks.
Behind me sighed
a stolen silhouette,
my own ink-on-paper form,
imposing its shadow
of things past,
while hugging a future
I’d yet to see.
With one last look
into that old darkness,
I turned and strode in
the footsteps of potential,
Me-to-be joining Once-Was-I,
marching, balanced on a moment
to a two-footed, shuffle-beat,
in this confederacy of iambs,
each a fleeting kingdom
They stomp at the gate,
lips pulled back,
keen for the start.
left and right
at their competition,
they push forward
as the starter
checks his watch,
jostling for that
There! an opening,
and one just in
from New York
darts for daylight,
pounds down the lane,
edging the one
in pink and green
who lost a shoe
at the eighth pole.
on the picnic table,
the victor exults
the first race
of the meet.
It’s 7:02 AM,
If you’ve never seen the 7:00 AM dash for prime picnic table turf at the Saratoga Race Course (which opens for its 146th meet today just north of my home), you’re missing a primal competition that rivals Saratoga’s Travers Stakes, the famed Summer Derby of American horse racing. And now, the great secret: In six decades on this earth, in this place, I’ve never once attended a day at the races. But I have a vivid imagination.
On the hundred-twentieth day of the drought — I know this because I kept X’ing them off on Mama’s 1892 Sears-Roebuck calendar — I watched big old storm clouds stack up against the distant mountains and heard my Pa say, “Shit, we’re in fer it now.”
“Whatcha mean, Pa…don’t ya think those rain clouds are coming our way?” I said full of a wide-eyed ten-year-old’s belief in miracles.
Pa worked up some juice in his mouth and spit it into the dust that barely held up the dead-dry and stunted corn stalks stretching like pale corduroy toward an east Colorado sunset that turned those hope-filled clouds a right royal purple.
“Son,” Pa said, kneeling down and taking me by the shoulders, “Theys that tell ya ‘Where there’s smoke there’s fire,’ never seen clouds like those, what’ll not bring us rain, but prob’ly Satan’s own hunger.”
I thought better of asking Pa what he meant again, but found out that night when those heaven-sent clouds of mine passed over our place, dropping not rain but lightning on our fields, burning my innocence as black as that quarter of our crop ol’ Satan ate for supper.
This week’s Five Sentence Fiction is based on Lillie McFerrin’s prompt word: Rain.
Some craft their offspring
like little mothers
birthing secret babies
in locked bedrooms,
through pain and tears.
Others have the cause
thrust upon them
in lonely moments
of quiet desperation
too much to hold, yet
too dangerous to speak,
to act upon.
Some push them
camel by camel through
the blinking needle’s eye.
While others shake them off
by the lakeful, tireless retrievers
splattering their bits
of Archimedean and
They give life to words
and toss them
like christened doves
from their windows,
carried on some divine wind,
to souls needy
for such sustenance.
Thank you brave poets.
Upon the third anniversary of the dVerse Poets Pub community and website, we’ve been asked to write an ode to poets or a specific poet. I never learned what an ode is, by strictest definition. But I have a heart and a wavering way with words. On my lunchtime walk, this 100-word drabble came to me. Congratulations and gratitude to my colleagues at dVerse and to all the poets in that community held so dear.
When I became a teen, and tired of sharing beds, berths and fraternity with my four brothers, I moved into the unheated room off the kitchen of our home. In winter, I’d scrunch my body into a fist and tightly cocoon it head to toe within a wool blanket. Then I’d shake my body to generate enough heat to simmer me off on an eight-hour hibernation.
If I scraped a hole in the frost off my window, beneath the winter moon I could peek into the neighbors’ diaries written in laundry on clothes lines that strung from back porches to poles at the other end of shotgun barrel backyards. And across the railroad tracks over into West Albany, shining above it all, you could see the all-night sundown glow from the giant sign above the Tobin Packing Company plant .
On summer nights, when the room and I needed an open window to breathe, we’d hear the trains go through and some clank to a stop outside the slaughterhouse. I even heard the sound of the hogs being squeezed from their airless rail cars along the narrow suspended walkway into the factory. From there they were somehow scrunched into sausage casings, packed side-by-side as First Prize hot dogs, a pitiless and final escape.
Years later, on a blowtorch summer afternoon, I sneaked behind a wall into the abandoned plant. I climbed to the room where the hogs blindly ran in the cruel hope of escaping untenable overcrowding with their brothers. I remember seeing walls shedding their old paint like forgotten ancient frescoes, the concrete basin stained with lost life in the killing room, the necklace of hooks on a chain encircling the room and hearing ghosts and echoes I didn’t wish to hear. Looking eastward out a vacant casement, I tried to see my bedroom window across the haze of distance and time.
And, on that August afternoon, I shivered in the cold.
© 2014, Joseph Hesch. All rights reserved
I most certainly didn’t set out to write this when I took on my dear friend Kellie Elmore’s prompt to write about your childhood bedroom. But, as I told Kellie, free writes can take you down dark alleys as easily as they can bright paths. Thanks for the company down mine.
“I heard you didn’t recognize your daughter the other day and I was wondering if you could tell me what that feels like, the actual not remembering, not any of that remorse or being pissed off stuff,” Ashley Goetz asked old Ken Parkworth, who grunted and continued to busy himself with a pencil and a marble notebook in his room at the Bitterroot Village Home.
Old Ken closed his notebook with a thump, glanced menacingly at the earnest psychology grad student and said, “Okay, but when I’m done you gotta answer a question for me, too.
“It’s kinda like your mind’s this huge history book, no cover, no illustrations, teeny, tiny print, with most of the pages from the index in the back ripped out that could help you find what you’re looking for…but sometimes those pages are ripped out, too,” the old high school art teacher said.
Ashley blinked twice, clicked the STOP button on her phone’s recorder and said in a hush, “Thanks, Ken, now what can I do for you?”
The old man opened his notebook, flipped its blue-lined pages around toward Ashley, revealing a stunningly accurate pencil portrait of the daughter he’d sent away Saturday in tears, and whispered, “Could you please tell me her name?”
A lunchtime write prompted by Lillie McFerrin’s prompt word, Pages.
Image Credit: James Speed Hensinger | Vietnam 1970
That dream returned last night, the one where shadows
dressed for bed crawl toward my resting place.
All I can do is lie there and wait,
knowing it’s coming, pickled in a perspiration
exotic, torporific, frantic, paralytic.
I dream these nights of being in-country,
asleep in a faraway land I did not know,
but in a bed I do.
The dark figures, with faces vaguely familiar,
sometimes raid my slumber when I see
their waking work in an old friend or
in scorching color on television.
My dream-self awakens to the nightmare pop-pop-pop
of small arms fire, the b-r-r-rap-b-r-r-rap
of the M-60 spitting All-American fireworks
into three-dimensional silhouettes, and then
comes the tripwire boom of upright, soaking reality
in which I do not wear olive armor on my back
nor upon my shoulders lug a sackful of
the things they carried.
My burden has no measurable weight but that
which I give it. My rank is guilty civilian,
a lifer who lucked out in the 1970 lotto
that saw boys next to me busted by
an insane spin of numbers.
Awake in this safe and dark bedroom,
I envision bodies and lives broken,
maimed, lost. And God help me, there are times
when I lie back down and stare at those ghosts
on the dark ceiling, and in some distorted sense
of shame and confusion, I may envy some
I had a hard time with this one. I wrote a very “Joe” fireworks poem yesterday in its place, but every time I looked at the photo up there, a prompt from my friend Kellie Elmore, this new (too darn long) poem came exploding back at me. It’s something that’s been simmering inside me — even wrote a short story about it — since long before I ever saw that photo. I post it with great reservation because I revere what these guys suffered and endured and don’t wish to diminish or dishonor that with the prattling of some stupid hump of a middle-aged “poet.” I guess what I’m trying to say is I had to write this someday.
Feathered Fireworks, by Joseph Hesch
I didn’t put up with the crowds this year
to see the soaring bloom of their fireworks.
Nor did I suffer the sweaty elbow-to-elbow
role of skeeter-bait until dark after
that day-long sun, beer and short-fused family
setting off their own soaring boom,
red glare, and F-bombs bursting in air.
Today I stepped outside, walked toward trees
and looked up at a red tail drawing arcs,
circles, gyres in a noontime sky,
searching for a picnic lunch before
the oncoming thunderclouds brought
their own kind of pyrotechnics
o’er my land of the free and
home of the brave.
A lunchtime 100-word drabble based my own sighting (and fuzzy iPhone photograph) of a different kind of red tail coursing the sky.
Even when it scorches your cheeks,
chokes you with
its smoky transformation
of dead heartwood
to blazing light,
you cannot turn away.
Even when your spine shakes
in the icy lee of it,
yet your eyes glaze and tear
in the proximity
of its crackle and flicker,
you don’t back away.
Even when it burns you
again and again,
you always eagerly scoot closer
to the flames, a moth that
cannot help herself from
Such, poets say,
is the power in the joining of
breath, heat, and
the fuel of desire.
Like fire itself,
it cannot be denied.
A ten-minute 100-word free write drabble (magic how it worked out that way) based on my dear friend Kellie Elmore’s Free Write Friday prompt up there. Been too long since I wrote one like this.