Role of a Lifetime

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The knife never knew its role
as an abettor, as an enabler,
as the supporting player and
as a criminal after the fact.
The knife just knew the hand
that gave it sparkling life,
that brought it into the light,
after lying benign and hidden
in the darkness and warmth offstage.

The knife recalls the first time.
The clammy hand tentatively
surrounding it too tightly,
shaking slightly. It recalls
the feel of fabric against
its tongue and then the air
rushing by before it returned to
its quiescent chrysalis darkness.

The knife knows this cocoon, where
it grew into the confident actor,
learned the daring dance of sliding
its length against cloth and skin
in the slash. It felt assured
in the grip and thrust where it tasted
the salty heat of ultimate anger.

Tonight, the knife learned for
the first time the feeling
of being alone in the cold,
with no hand to hold, no role
to fill except to lie still
as lemon light lit the bloody stage
where a gun in the first act
went off in the third.

Written like so many in “the old days” of my poet’s life. Awakened around 6:00 AM by a foggy inspiration I don’t recognize until I draw its picture on the page. So often, thesis why I miss the old days

Triomphe

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“Huh!” He said. “I never would have thought that would fit in there…”

A ground-hugging silver Morane-Saulnier A.1. monoplane whooshed by us between a pair of telephone poles at a small aerodrome outside Paris.

“Who could?” I said to Johnnie Connelly, a reporter I knew who freelanced for the New York Herald. “As far as they know, no one’s ever done it before.”

“And those poles are supposed to represent the opening beneath the Arc?” he asked.

“Yep, width-wise. But these measurements have never been right to begin with,” I said. “Some of these guys like Monsieur Morane, who designed this airplane, say it should be about 17 meters. The pilot, Navarre, he insists it’s about twelve and a half. A friend back in the States that studied architecture in Paris. One of his professeurs gave him the assignment to make measurements, real and estimated, on most of the monuments in the city. The Arc was one of them. Navarre’s about right, but it doesn’t matter to him because his wingspan is eight and a half meters. And, like I said…he’s crazy.”

“So he has some room to spare?” Johnnie said.

“Yeah, if he was driving that Hispano-Suiza roadster he ran that Paris gendarme over with. But with a fast one-winger like this bullet? Hooo-weee, you’d better be right on the button in three dimensions, brother.”

“So you think I can talk to Navarre? This sounds pretty ballsy, especially if the authorities don’t know about it,” Johnnie said.

The popping sound of a spitting rotary aircraft engine throttling back broke up our conversation. It felt good to speak English again, even though I’d been living and fighting in France since 1917.

Johnnie and I’d become friends when he wrote a story about those of us Americans who chose to stay with the Aviation Militaire through the Lafayette Flying Corps and not join the United States Air Service when America entered the war. I may not have had many victories—just three confirmed, though I know I had five more, c’est la guerre—but I knew an amateur operation when I saw it. So I stayed with my last French Escadrille, Spa 157.

I’d talked to guys like Frank Baylies, God rest his soul, and Ted Parsons and a bunch of other guys who came to France through the Foreign Legion and the so-called Lafayette Flying Corps of Americans in French escadrilles.

“So how’d you get to know Navarre? He’s a legend they say.” Johnnie said.

“Well, my first squadron assignment was serving with his old Escadrille Number 67. By the time I arrived, though, he’d been taken out of the air because of wounds and a head injury.”

“Shot down?”

“Yeah, Jean Marie Dominique Navarre, La Sentinelle de Verdun, the Sentinel of Verdun, one of the most beloved French aviators to survive the war. Put in an asylum for a few weeks because he went a little off his nut,” I said.

I ran into Johnnie in Paris in late June, so he hadn’t heard about the great plan.

“Here’s the deal. Once the Germans quit at Versailles, the French government needs to put on a big display of patriotic élan to help restore some of the national spirit lost since ‘14. France may have won the War, but it lost a lot of its men to the guns and Huns along that snaking, suppurating wound of the front.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Mutinies in the trenches, minor riots in Paris,” Johnnie said. “So what’s that got to do with…” he ducked and placed his hands over his ears as Navarre made another pass between the poles at about 120 miles per hour. “He is crazy, isn’t he?”

“So, this month, they’re going to hold a grand display and parade along the Champs Élysées, past the Arc de Triomphe. Representatives of all of France’s armed forces will march, except for what passes for its remaining cavalry and some officers. Those guys got to ride what horseflesh is still left standing or uneaten after the Armistice,” I said.

“Even you flyboys marching?”

“Yep. You’d think we’d get to fly over the crowd in formation? No, we have to march, too, like the rest of the trench-footed poilus. There’s a bit of airborne ego involved.”

“And, from what I hear, Navarre has one of the biggest.”

“Yeah. So here’s what happened. A bunch of French pilots, myself included even though I’m just a Reb from Georgia, gathered at the Fouquet cafe bar to discuss this ‘affront’ to our service and station. After too long a time, too many arguments and definitely too much brandy, the big shots, the ones with the most hardware on their chests, elected to stage a dramatic protest by doing what you see Navarre practicing,” I said.

“Why Navarre?” Johnnie asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. He’s still alive for one thing, instead of flying with the angels like their beloved Guynemer. And Nungesser, the people’s fighter? He’s still limping around after his last crash. He’s the one suggested his great friend and mentor, Navarre. Plus, I think he feels he’s got something to prove.”

The Morane made another swing around the airfield and glided to a landing so both aircraft and hero could get more fuel.

“Think I can go talk to him?” Johnnie asked.

“Sure, you can try. He’s still a prickly bastard. Always was even before he got conked on his noggin. Really loved his hero status. Worked it like a charm in the cafes and on the mademoiselles. Hell, he’s still only 23,” I said as we walked to where the Morane rolled to a stop.

You could feel the heat coming off the engine as the pilot dropped over the cockpit coaming to the ground. You could feel the heat coming off him, too.

Non, non, non,” we could hear him yelling at his crew and then turned on the guys in charge of the practice. He waved his hand from one pole to the other and back again and then counted on his gloved fingers. At that point, he stalked toward us with a glower that was setting back Franco-American amity to pre-1763 levels.

“Jean, s’il vous plaît. Pourriez-vous parler à un ami du journal américain?” I asked, smiling my most charmingly southern of southern charm smiles.

“Non!” was all he said, pulling off the silk stocking he wore over his pomaded coif rather than a standard leather helmet.

“Sorry, Johnnie. Maybe if we each were holding a bottle of Laberdolive Armagnac he might slow down a might. But it looks like he’s got the bit in his teeth today.”

“Oh, well. Nothing ventured…” Johnnie said.

“Look,” I said. “They’re hanging the telephone wires back up. I guess he wants to practice the “under the Arc” part, too, now.”

“Say, mate, you’re a pretty good pilot. What do you think of this stunt?”

“Me? Well, I think you’d better hope for a calm day with decent light. Trying something like this in twilight is practically asking for a funeral. Ol’ Nimmie Prince, the Oh-riginal Lafayette boy, was near broke in half when his Nieuport hit telephone wires while he was attempting a twilight landing.”

“Really?” Johnnie said, as he wet his finger and stuck into the air like he was hailing a cab in the city. “Wind’s picking up from the west. Did you say that no one’s ever flown under through the Arc? Ever?”

“Well, not exactly. The sainted Guynemer said it was too risky. And he’d take on four, five Fokkers all by his lonesome, so that’s pretty good authority. Roland Garros wouldn’t think of it either.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“Wait, here goes Navarre up again.”

Down the piste the Morane roared and lifted, like a silver hawk.

“Pretty little bird, ain’t she?” I said to Johnnie. “But I’d use a smaller plane. Maybe an old Nieuport Bébé. Slower, wings are only about seven and a half meters wide. Under the right circumstances, in that little kite, I know a few guys who could make that flight.”

“Like who? Could Navarre?”

We turned as the Morane banked and came toward the poles like a bat out of hell. At first, I felt the breeze on my face, the dust stinging my eyes. And then it switched to my right cheek.

“Wind’s shifting. He’d better give it some throttle and veer off to try it again,” I said, a lot louder than I had been talking.

We saw the Morane flutter a little, heard the throttle open up and then saw Navarre plow right ahead. His Morane lifted a little and the wing caught the wires. It was as if a rider had sawed on the reins and his mount slowed and reared. The Morane twisted in the wires, veered to the left and piled into a wall to the left.

“What the hell happened,” Johnnie said, breathless as we ran to the smoking silver bird.

“It was like I said. Too much airplane, too much wind, too bullet-proof a pilot.”

When we reached the aircraft, we could see the Sentinel of Verdun, the great hero of France, had lost his last fight, this time with technology, the wind and maybe his ego. Or maybe, in some strange way, he’d won. He’d triumphed over fear, doubt and unrealistic expectations.

Four days later, a well-known instructor pilot named Charles Godefroy flew beneath the Arc de Triomphe, much to the dismay of the General staff and much to the glee of we who fought in the air for France.

“He flew a smaller airplane, a biplane just as you suggested,” Johnnie said. He and I decided to watch the whole affair from his hotel window. It was bloody spectacular, just as I’d predicted. Just as I knew he’d come down the Avenue de la Grande Armée. Just as I remembered it when I won that bet with Putnam and Viallet I could do it late one afternoon in early ’17.

But that’s a story for another time, another bottle .

Catching up for some missed days’ stories for my Story-A-Day May effort. For this one, I was asked to write a story based on that first line up there: “Huh!” He said. “I never would have thought that would fit in there…”

As a World War One aviation aficionado, I remembered this brouhaha. I gave it a little fictional touch (and much too long a narrative) and came up with this draft story.

Dreams, Again

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Dreams can be such odd things,
such palpable occurrences in
the unconscious and subconscious
that can dissolve with the mere
opening of one eye and check of the clock,
or they’ll cling to you for days, years,
after performing for a minute in
your defenseless mind.

I never worried about dreams, except
for not having any, for many of those
remembering years. My mind ceded them
to the attic like I did comic books,
once-cherished things now kept
in dusty boxes as their colors faded.
But now they’ve returned, the dreams,
playing out like these graphic novels.

And you’re back with them, as hero
or antagonist I’ve yet to tell.
I’m just stunned by your appearance
so real in my Sleeping Beauty fantasy,
creeping up behind me, dressed in
daffodil yellow, whispering a mystery
and leaving the whisper of a kiss
upon my cheek. Then wake, one eye
on the clock again telling me
it’s always too late.

A Day’s Dirty Business

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The sound of a rough, untamed horse squealing and kicking up the dust as it’s being broken to accept a man in a saddle on its back can be as gut-wrenching as the feeling experienced by the young man whose job it to climb aboard that back and hold on for his life or primacy.

And so it was when the Circle-A’s head wrangler, Lew Bledsoe prepared to mount, for the fourth time that afternoon, the buckskin mustang with no name yet. The cowboys just called him Horse.

“I really thought I had ‘em last time boys,” Lew said to the surrounding cowboys who’d knocked off early and come over by the breaking corral to see the show. Lew never sent an audience away disappointed.

By the tall rails that surrounded the corral, ranch owner Andy Atkisson had to laugh.

“Haw, That one ain’t getting broke, plain and simple, Lew. Probably gonna geld him and see if that takes some of the piss and vinegar out of him. Or better we should put him out of your misery,“ he called to his top wrangler.

“I got a few more tricks under my hat, boss. Just you watch this time.”

Horse was tied close to a snubbing post and one of the other wranglers had draped a blanket over his eyes. Lew once more cooed into the mustang’s ears, just as his teacher, the Arapaho Sam Talks-To-His-Horses taught him. Horse’s ears levered from flat to vertical and swiveled with each change in the wind, whispers or energy around him.

“Hold pretty tight until I give you the nod, boys,” Lew told his helpers. But for God’s sake, stay still and numb-like until I do.”

Lew leaned gently against the quivering colt and floated his hand from Horse’s jaw to his withers and back again, all the while chanting Sam’s prayer for a union between Man and Animal. The last time he brought his hand back to Horse’s withers, he grasped his best breaking saddle’s pommel, took a breath, bounced a bit on his right foot as he lifted his left into the stirrup.

Just a little, Lew, he thought. Don’t want him spooked too much again. He pulled his weight up off the red dust that had been pounded hard by the twelve horses he’d already broken that day. He slowly lifted his right leg over the mustang’s back, pulled down his hat, took a long breath in, slowly let it out and nodded to the helpers.

* * *

At a cabin about two miles from the ranch, Inés Bledsoe was saying goodbye to a surprise guest, Bess Atkisson, Andy’s wife.

“Now you be sure to give a holler if you need anything, Inés. We’re just a hoot over the hill and you know how fast word gets from here to there around here.

Inés gave a small smile, and thought, Yes, and wait until I get Lew home and give him a piece of my mind for telling Andy that we’re expecting. Only thing moves faster than news is gossip and Bess beats gossip in every race.

“I most surely will, Bess. You’re most kind to us. When the baby comes, I’m sure we’ll need some help for a day or two with Luciana. Her father can tame a thousand pounds of horse like falling off a log, but one nine-year-old girl is too much for him,” Inés said.

Bess Atkinson settled her skirts around her and beneath the seat of the black buckboard and laughed.

“Well, Inés, Little Lu might be a little wilder than the average mustang and is twice as smart. Or so I’ve heard from… Well, so I’ve seen,” Bess said.

Yeah, you heard from your sister the school teacher, Inés thought.

“Luciana’s charms precede her wherever she goes, I am afraid. You have a safe ride home, Bess. And thank you,” Inés said.

When Bess’ buckboard disappeared in the dust surrounding the Bledsoe place, Inés returned to her housework, pouring some of the water she always kept boiling on the wood stove into one small tub to heat up the wash water and continued to clean the morning breakfast dishes.

As she pulled Lew’s coffee mug from the wash water to slip it into the rinse water, Inés felt a sharp pain in her belly. She gasped as the mug slipped from her soapy hands and dropped toward the puncheon floor.

* * *

In the one-room schoolhouse a couple of miles south of the Bledsoe place and an equal distance from the Circle-A’s corrals, Luciana Bledsoe was done listening to Miss Cornelia drone on about Jesus and something called con-joo-gation of verbs like that con-joo-gation had been handed down to Miss Cornelia by Jesus Himself.

Luciana, called Little Lu since she was three and began herding chickens and trying to ride the family dog, turned toward the open window that faced the Circle-A and imagined her papa melting wild mustangs into the beginnings of all manner of ranch stock. And she imagined climbing atop wild mustangs, just as her father did. She’d be known as Little Lu Bledsoe, Girl Wrangler of the Circle-A. She already was the best rider, boy or girl, in Socorro County.

“Luciana Maria Bledsoe, you quit that wool gathering and put fold your hands as in prayer and set your eyes front and center of this classroom,” Miss Cornelia said from halfway down the aisle. In her hand was her dog-eared copy of the King James Bible, which she was known to use for boxing the ears of inattentive students of either gender.

“Horses again, Miss Luciana Maria Bledsoe? You were thinking of nothing but horses again,” Miss Cornelia said and raised her Bible as if she planned to smite the Girl Wrangler of the Circle-A. But instead, she slapped the book down in front of Lu and pointed to a verse from Psalm 32.

“You will please stand and read this aloud for the class…and yourself.”

Lu picked up the book, stood and squinted at the tiny print.

“Yes’m, Miss Cornelia,” she said and read:

“Psalm 32, Verse 9. Be ye not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding: whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle, lest they come near unto thee.”

“Do not be as the horse, Luciana Maria. Get your head out of the clouds of dust and become an educated young lady. I do not wish to hold you in with the bit or bridle of harsh discipline until you do. You are better than this,” Miss Cornelia said, turning and returning to the front of the classroom.

“I bet my papa could give them horses plenty of understanding with not much more than a hackamore made from this belt and your mama’s apron strings,” Lu whispered to her friend, Marisol Eugenia Pillow, who giggled in response.

“You will write that verse fifty times after class, Luciana. And you twenty-five, Marisol. Shall we continue?”

* * *

The Circle-A cowboys lifted the limp body of Lew Bledsoe through the rails of the breaking corral. The back of his head poured blood from a crescent-shaped wound, where the mustang called Horse had stomped upon him after flipping onto his back, pinning the wrangler beneath his half-ton body. As Andy Atkisson said, this was a mustang that never would be broken. Would rather die first. He had broken the wrangler who never failed to break his charges.

“I shoulda told him to forget this damn beast. The piece just ain’t worth it. And now he looks like he’s gone and hurt himself, too.”

“Boss, who’s gonna tell Inés? She with another little one on the way,” said Johnnie Pillow.

“I’ll fetch Bess and we’ll both go over to Lew’s and tell the poor girl,” Andy said. “Now fetch me my Marlin from my saddle, Johnnie. I got another job to attend to first.”

* * *

Inés Bledsoe wiped tears from her cheeks while she picked up the pieces of Lew’s china coffee mug. She didn’t know what to tell Lew. He’d used it every day since before they were married, before Little Lu tamed the horse-breaker. Inés got weepy when she was expecting Little Lu, too. But this felt different.

Again, Inés felt a pain in her belly. She made the Sign of Cross and kissed her fingers. And she began to sob just as the sound of a rifle shot raced like gossip from over at the Circle-A.

At the school house, Luciana Maria Bledsoe had just begun the thirteenth time she’d written Psalm 32, Verse 9 into her copy book. Lu thought that maybe she’d better listen to Miss Cornelia before the old biddy fitted Lu for something like a schoolmarm’s harsh Mexican bit like her papa once showed her.

Lu looked up at Miss Cornelia, reading her bible from the little table she used as a desk. She thought the teacher, with her long nose pointed down at God’s holy word, reminded her of a picture of St. Luke she’d seen her Grandma’s big bible. Or maybe like Andy Atkisson’s gray. She had to giggle, which felt mildly blasphemous, so she returned to copying King David.

She never noticed the crack of the .30-caliber Marlin repeater as it raced across the flatland. It was as if it bounced off Mis Cornelia’s school wall like sin off a saint.

In the corral at the Circle-A, twelve newly broken horses were settling down after Andy Atkisson fired a bullet into the head of the mustang with no name. Next to the horse squatted Lew Bledsoe’s hat, its crown-side up and crushed. Onto its big brim the dust of a day’s dirty business settled, too, slowly turning it from a sweat-stained dawn yellow to sunset red.

Sorry for this long Story Number 18 of Story-A-Day May. We were asked to write from the inspiration of a painting. I chose one posted on Facebook by my friend, the Texas author Julia Robb. I envisioned the building as either the Bledsoes’ or even the schoolhouse.

Another Night’s Conversation

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“I never asked for this,” I said.

“You didn’t NOT ask either.”

“So now?”

“You sleep. I die.”

“Again? And if I wake up?”

“You’ll still be alone.”

Another make-up of a Missing-Story-A-Day. The prompt was for a Twitter story, a story of 140 characters of less (spaces included). I’m not sure if being a poet who started in haiku and who obsesses over 100-word limits for his poems helps in writing Tweet-sized stories, but I don’t think it hurt, either.

Part of the Job

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“What’s with the thousand-mile stare?” Dr. Koch said as I gazed at nothing but a blank computer screen.

“Gave a patient the bad news. He said how pretty the prognosis sounded,” I replied.

“No two the same. Part of the job. You’re lucky to have an understanding guy like Kevin home.”

I headed down to the elevators and texted him.

Death, always death, so dense it choked me, left me weeping in the garage. I needed to see Brian again…today.

After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

In a vain attempt to catch up with my missed stories for three days, Here’s I needed a rewrite of a story from Week 1. It’s a different look at the other 100-word drabble, Fiddleneck. I changed it to a first person narrative from the doctor’s POV who gave our patient his terminal prognosis. In addition, as I did for Fiddleneck, I used the closing line of a famous novel as the closing line for the story. In this case, Hemingway again. This time the line closes “A Farewell to Arms.” Again, not sure I’m following the rules. But rules are made to be bent and broken by writers sometimes.

Eyes of Amber

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Amber sidled next to him slowly, quietly, with a feline smoothness that she belied with her first words.

“So, I’ve never seen you here before. First time?” She smiled.

He turned, startled by Amber’s voice, kind, inviting. He’d been lost in thought, gazing without focus on the lights.

“No, this isn’t the kind of place I tend to come to when I need to think,” Ben said. “Do YOU come here often?”

“No. Me neither. But I guess it’s a good place to talk. My name’s Amber. What’s yours?”
He looked past her at the crowd, the lights all around.

“What? Oh, yeah. Ben.”

“Hi, Ben. Mind if I sit here with you?” Amber moved a little closer, could smell the whisky on his breath and knew she had a chance tonight.

“Well…”

Amber slid closer and smiled again. It had worked for her before many more times than not.

“You look a little upset,” Amber said, and took a sip from the drink she held. “You want to share a little? I’ll tell you my sad story if you tell me yours.” Even in the dark, with all the colored lights around, Ben could see she had soft light brown eyes. Almost…amber. They glowed with gold flecks and gently, warmly demanded his attention. He turned away.

“Broke up. She left me. Said I didn’t give her what she wanted, what she needed. Said I’d become cold and disinterested.”

“Awww. What’s her name?”

“Jess. Jessica. What’s it matter to you?”

“I’ve been there. My guy left me for some nurse. Blamed my job. The hours and all. But this new bitch works even shittier hours than I do. Sometimes, people just don’t fit, ya know? The heart wants what the heart wants, they say,” Amber said. She smiled that smile and her brows clinched just for a second and then relaxed. But Ben saw her eyes flashed even more fiery in the flashing lights.

He looked away again, but Amber knew she’d made a connection. Now to play him some more before she set the hook.

“Whatcha drinking? Looks like some serious medicine for a broken heart.”

“Jack Daniels. Figured if I was gonna go out I’d best go strong. Jess is a wine drinker.”

“My guy liked his Jack, too. Never knew if it was going to make him horny or ornery.” Amber slid a little closer. “I’ll bet she said you didn’t want to do intimate stuff besides, you know, fucking, all that cuddling we bitches crave all the time.” She said it so matter-of-factly, Ben had to chuckle.

“How’d you know?”

“Bitch,” Amber said, pointing toward herself, her eyes wide, like she was revealing something only too obvious. “Funny thing, though. David—that was my guy, David—he said that same thing about me.”

Amber slid just a little bit closer to Ben. She could feel the heat coming off him now, smell the sweat. Just a little more play. His head jerked up and he slid just as much away from her.

“Look, I don’t need…”

“Easy there, Ben, I didn’t mean nothing. Just thought, you know…kindred spirits and all.”

“You don’t know.” He swigged another mouthful of his whisky.

“Do. Been through this, like I said. Hate to see someone suffer like I did.”

“Yeah?”

Amber leaned back a bit and her voice got quieter. “Yeah.”

“I’m not stupid, ya know. I can see right through your ‘Oh, Ben’ bullshit.”

“Sorry. I just thought…” She whispered something else.

“What?” Ben said.

“I said, I’m sorry. Didn’t want to scare you off. I’m not Jess. I’m…” Again, fainter. Whispers.

His whisky nearly gone, just a tawny puddle left, Ben wobbled, leaned forward, reached to catch his balance. His whisky tipped and some of the remaining drops fell.

That was when Amber pulled Ben to her body, as her team pulled the safety line back toward the bridge’s roadway. Four officers restrained Ben as he struggled.

“It’s okay Ben. I won’t let them hurt you. Told you. I’ve been through this before.”

As officers led Ben to a waiting ambulance, Amber by his side, a suit from the mayor’s emergency affairs office stood next to her boss.

“She’s always had a way with these folks, always has a chance,” the lieutenant said.

“Empathy, intelligence, training and, if needed, a strong right cross.”

“Tell me about it,” the suit said.

“Fuck you, Dave,” Amber said, her golden eyes blazing, as she climbed into the ambulance and slammed the doors behind her.

Life and poetry got in the way of my Story-A-Day May, but here’s the first of a new batch. This is supposed to be a story “ripped from the headlines.” It originally was about a bridge jumper who was talked down by a cop. My cop is a woman and I wanted to use the word and name “Amber” for her for some odd reason.