White Lines, Dark Heart

This cunning minx came
slinking up on me
like a movie villainess
only without the swelling
heartbeat theme music and
sudden silence before she
took me. The air warmed,
like a sultry lover’s breath,
and I thought I saw the car
begin sucking up the dotted
road lines like they
were spaghetti.
Their snaking movement
mesmerized me, simmering me
in their pale-striped pyrexia.
That’s when her hands caressed
my face and things went black.
Somehow, though, I fought off
her womanly wiles before
she could turn up the radio,
then switch it off and
everything went sideways.
This time.

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Our Mighty Mite

You came into this world without warning,
like a tornado at 7:00 in the morning,
surprising and arriving a month early,
turning your parents’ world swirly,
and sending us miles and miles south
to learn more about you than just word of mouth.
In the hospital we met and you surprised me
and I quickly surmised, see,
you’re one tough little mite
to show such grit in this fight.
Now you’re growing stronger every minute
showing everyone you’re in it to win it.
And even if you didn’t make it home Sunday,
I know you’ll get there by Monday…
Someway.

This bit of one-handed, sleep-deprived rhyme is the story of my new granddaughter, who was in a couldn’t-wait rush to come and make the world a sweeter place. I wrote it while holding her tiny body on my chest. If that isn’t inspirational, I should hand over my poet’s union card.

Broken Harmonies

Time has smoothed
the jagged peaks
separating what never
could’ve been surmounted
over the long run.
Now the dust of empty years
covers the path from one
to the other, where
their footprints went
only so far and then,
inevitably, turned back.
But where they could
never again walk
together, their music
might still mingle,
flying in faint harmony
over the obfuscating
and the unassailable,
but only if they would
listen to one another.
’Tis a shame that one,
the dreaming pragmatist,
can’t hear it anymore
not morning nor night.
And the other, ever and always
the pragmatic dreamer,
won’t.

Not Too Hot, Not Too Cold

Albany from the Helderberg Escarpment

Lew “Ruby” Rubio hadn’t cased this place before deciding to break in. But he’d been on the run from the cops in Albany for two sleepless days and nights and figured he could hide up in this cottage in the Helderbergs for a spell while everything cooled off down in the city.

Lew figured no one had been home in at least a week from the number of newspapers that peppered the apron of the driveway. He decided to jimmy the sliding door on the side away from the road, even though trees blocked view of the most of house from County Rte. 10. With a screwdriver he discovered in the garden shed and twenty years’ practice in the Bronx and Albany, he was standing in the kitchen in thirty seconds.

Once inside, Lew found his suspicions were correct. The place had been buttoned up for some time. A check in the bathroom showed the electricity on and the water off. He found the main, gave it a good twist to the left and he figured he was set for as long as he wanted to stay there. As long, that is, as he remained vigilant for any visitors from the County Sheriff’s Department or the State Police.

But first thing’s first.

“I’m frigging starving,” Lew said as he walked to the refrigerator. Inside, he found jars of pickles, olives, condiments, three cans of Mountain Dew, two bottles of Nine Pin Cider, a large unopened bottle of Ommegang Rare Vos ale and a half-bottle of 2016 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon.

“Well, this is all very nice, but where’s the damn real food?” Lew said, shoving the refrigerator door closed and moving to the cabinets that lined the wall above the sink. In the dim moonlight, he found cans of Progresso Chicken Noodle and Minestrone soups, some boxes of Kraft Mac and Cheese, envelopes of Brown Sugar and Cinnamon oatmeal, a jar of peanut butter and three tubes of Pringles barbecue potato chips.

“Jesus, maybe something’s in the freezer. Aannnnd…two scrawny frost-burgers, half a bag of Tater Tots and two bottles of vodka. What the hell is up with these drunks?” Lew said, as he closed the freezer door, casting the kitchen back into darkness..

He froze when he thought he heard the crunch of something on the gravel driveway out front. Then he dropped low when he saw the headlights.

“Shit, not already,” he said, catching his breath as a car-mounted spotlight swept the exterior of the front of the house and the woods on both sides, its beam cutting off a slice of the darkness in the kitchen. Lew crawled toward the sliding door again, ready to make a run for it if necessary. But the Sheriff’s patrol car backed out onto Rte. 10 and once again he was alone.

“I’d better eat something now, in case they come back,” Lew said to himself. So he opened two bags of oatmeal, tossed the contents into a bowl, added water from the now-functioning tap and put it in the microwave for a minute. While it cooked, Lew poured a can of Mountain Dew into one of the red Solo cups he found on the shelf, and topped it off with some of the icy vodka.

“The Dew for the caffeine and the hooch for my nerves,” he laughed. He pulled the steaming bowl from the microwave, gave it a stir and slowly ate it, washing it down with the fortified Dew. Finished with his oatmeal, he dug a couple spoonfuls of peanut butter from the jar he left open on the counter, sucked down a hard cider and decided he’d better try getting some rest.

Slowly, he climbed the stairs up to the shed dormer, where he found two bedrooms and a half-bathroom. But, since the dormer was on the side away from the road, he thought he’d better get back downstairs just in case the cops made this place a regular stop on their patrols.

“You never know who might break in on you,” Lew said with a laugh.

Lew decided to crash on the futon by the sliding door, just in case. He opened the glass slider to allow some cool air into the pace through the screen. He then propped himself up so he faced the driveway and settled in for what remained of the night.

“Maybe I can steal a day or two here before I hit the road,“ he thought. Within two minutes he was sleeping soundly.

He never saw the headlights, nor any spotlight, but the sound of someone moving around outside coming through the open slider roused him around 3:00 AM.

“Shit. Where the hell did they come from,” Lew thought as he eased himself off the futon and padded over to the wall next to the slider. He peeked out one side of doorway, saw the shadow moving toward the doorway.

“I ain’t going back for them to put in the county lockup. I either gotta make a run for it into the woods when this dude moves to the other side, or I have to take care of him, myself…right now,” Lew thought.

He looked around for something to use as a weapon, if he needed it. Once again Lew heard the rustling sound and a chill ran through him, his heart began pounding, his mouth dried so much he could barely swallow. He saw the wrought-iron poker leaning against the wood stove and knew what he had to do. If someone came through the slider, Lew was certain he could take them down and put some distance between himself and this cottage before daybreak and any more cops could come along.

But he still hadn’t seen any sign of a vehicle out front, hadn’t heard the crunching gravel. He wondered if what he heard was another breaking and entering star looking to steal whatever of value he could find. Lew suddenly felt more superior to this interloper and figured it was time to put end to his stay here one way or another.

He’d eaten the owners’ oatmeal, drank their cider and vodka, made use of their futon and now he was going to use their fireplace poker. The intruder was now moving closer along the wall to the sliding door.

“This is it,” Lew said, taking a deep breath. “He’s right there and now’s the time to confront this asshole one way or another. One, two thr…”

Lew slid open the door and jumped out of the house and turned dead right, his poker above his head. He saw the silhouette of the intruder and raised his poker high, saying, “Get out of here, asshole, if you know what’s…”

But that was it. The brown bear, leading her cubs in a raid on the bird feeders and trash cans of the neighborhood, rose on her hind legs, stepped into Lew, and with a swipe sent him reeling bloody into the forest. She then burst through the slider doorway and went straight for the open peanut butter jar on the counter while her cubs licked the unwashed oatmeal bowl.

State Police found Lew lying beside County Rte. 10 about a mile east later that morning. They transported him to the emergency room at Albany Medical Center, where doctors reattached the blond-haired flap of scalp the mama of the three-bear rural crime spree flayed off him on her way to breakfast.

During his three-year stint at Coxsackie Correctional Facility, Lew picked up a few nicknames. Early on, the other inmates called him Zipperhead or Ruby. But as his hair grew back and word of how he was apprehended got around the yard, Lew Rubio was known by inmate and corrections officers alike as Goldilocks.

First draft of my first chance to try crafting a story for Week Two of Story-a-Day September. (I’m doing best I can, but  it’s been a true time crunch.) Since I may not get to all five of this week’s prompts, I decided to messily combine two:  1) Write a gender-swapped version of a previously-told story, and 2) Set a story in the opposite setting to what it was originally (in this case, contemporary vs. non-contemporary and realistic vs. fantastic). Suffice to say, it ain’t easy to draft a cohesive story while minding three-year-olds and on four hours’ sleep a night. But here’s my best-stab first draft.

When I Was Born

“When I was born,”
Grandpa’d say,
recalling his youth.
Not, “In my day,”
like other old-timers.
used the expression
whenever discussing
the Great Depression.

Today I’m the same age
he was then,
though not nearly as old.
I see when
he looked back, he saw
each day as new morn,
another time
he’d be reborn.

I wanted to use the last Story-a-Day Week One prompt, “When I was born…”, for a story, but ran out of time. I saw my old friend Joy Ann Jones was running a new series looking for 55-word poems, so I’m trying to do justice to both. And since today is my birthday and I’ve reached “that age,” I decided to write knowledge-of-age poem. So there you go…

Another Bend In the River

Life is a short thing
we can make seem longer
just by thinking about it.
A night can be long thing
we can make seem shorter
by not thinking at all,
simply closing our eyes
and allowing sleep to snip
short the string we follow
from today to tomorrow.
Time is a river, so they say,
a constantly moving stream
of here to there in its own
temporal course. It has its
gently flowing stretches where
joys float within arms length,
as well as it rippling runs,
swirling eddies of stasis
and buffeting rapids where
Time can speed you along
as easily as it will beat you
fearsome sore for the toll.
I’m speeding by one of the final
waypoints on my journey. Only now
I spend my time sorting through
the remaining recollections
of this trip, though not as much
as I ponder the flotsam of memories
I’ve lost to relentlessly restless nights.
I see only a life unspent playing out
in the spaces where missing experiences
once were laden, albums and journals
lost, floating me lighter and higher,
speeding me along to some great sea where
I’ll become another drop, a vague dream,
drifting eternal in a night never-ending.

Widow’s Walk

“I see she’s still up there, Miss Loretta Gardenia Booth,” Enoch Steele said, jerking his thumb toward the tower that craned its neck above all other roof ridge lines that peered out at the entrance to Cloister Cove.

“Aye, been there every day for three years now, rain or shine, breeze of gale, waiting for the Cloisters Gardenia to turn-to ‘round the breakwater and deliver her Cap’n Matthew Rawlins back to her pining bosom,” the chandler’s clerk Martin Smoot replied while brushing a smudge of tobacco ash from Steel’s black wool coat.

“That ship’s as good as gone, wrecked on the Horn, scuttled by pirates off Java, its hull stove in by some rank bull off the Galapagos. We’d have heard something by now. A shank of driftwood, a bit of flotsam, a story passed from sailor to sailor, nothing. That woman waits for naught but a memory. G’day to you, Mr. Smoot,” Steele said as he grasped Smoot’s wrist, pushed it to the chandler’s chest and transferred the ash on the clerk’s fingers to his own apron.

As Steele walked to the wharves, Smoot ambled toward the peeling white house with the barred windows where Cap’n Matt’s lady stood on the widow’s walk, like one of Columbus’ crew in a crow’s nest, searching for any sign of Cathay on the horizon.

Though only moved to Cloister Cove three years before, Loretta Booth had become as much a part of the local scenery and color in town as that great old house, the bells in St. Augustine’s and the First Methodist Churches and the stench of whale blubber reeking from the harbor. Each had their places in the heartbeat of Cloister Cove, he thought. They were there, they were special, but no one paid much attention to that which made them so anymore. Each man, woman and child went about their business, neither looking up or down, nor wrinkling their nose at that which might make a manure-crusted farmer puke out his paunch.

A week later, while making a delivery of a fine German chronometer to the Masonic Hall, Smoot stopped in the middle of Captain’s Way, the town’s main thoroughfare, and decided to take stock of his senses and this little burg’s inventory of lives and property.

The onshore breeze still carried the gagging ghosts of sperm whales harvested from off the coast of Peru by men who could leave pregnant wives when they set sail and could return just as a child who knew them not celebrated its second birthday. He knew the inexorable lure of the sea for them, though.

“It’s best this business be so foul and dangerous, lest they just decide never to come home,” he muttered to himself.

The bells in St. Augustine’s chimed in four pairs of bong-bong, eight bells, just as the Methodist Church’s steeple pealed the requisite twelve times. Each was signaling noon, though that might confuse inlanders not steeped in the argot of the seaman.

Smoot smiled at how he and his fellow Cloisterites were a different breed even from other Connecticut Yankees. And above it all were the cries of the seagulls, a cacophony so constant that it was as easily ignored as the sound of waves lapping the shore or slapping the hulls of the vessels moored in the harbor.

As he walked toward the wharves and the chandler’s, Smoot looked up at the high roof of Captain Matthew Rawlins’ house, to assure himself that all was right in this little world within the greater world. That world then tilted on its axis. Miss Loretta Gardenia Booth was not manning her post on the widow’s walk.

Being a man of numbers, ledgers, balance sheets, Smoot saw this error in Cloister Cove’s books of life and couldn’t let it go without finding a good reason for this blatant discrepancy in his day-to-day.

He trotted up to the expansive front porch that sat like the lap on the old dowager that was Cap’n Mattie’s home away from his home on the seas. Smoot cupped his hands around his eyes to cut the glare and attempted to look inside for any sign of Miss Loretta Gardenia. But he saw no movement, not even the form of the captain’s West Indian cook, Sophie-Maude.

Now Smoot’s eccentricity was turning to a kind of fright, as if gravity would dissolve and all of Earth’s inhabitants would lose the tethers to their mother’s breast and be cast like seed into the void. He rapped urgently on the window light in the top of the heavy front door made of teak the Captain had salvaged from an English frigate that had not made it round the Horn in ’35. When he heard not a sound from within, Smoot pounded powerless on the seasoned planking that had resisted French shot at Trafalgar.

He shouted, “Miss Loretta Gardenia, are you there? It’s Martin Smoot from Bennett and Tinch. Are you well?”

When again he heard no reply, nor any sound, from within, Smoot ran to the back of the house where he found not only the barred windows extended, but the security-conscious Captain Mattie had installed a steel bulkhead door. He also found the firewood axe left in the cutting stump by Sophie-Maude.

Axe in hand, Smoot ran back to the front of the house and attempted chopping his was through the great front door, all the while screaming, “Miss Loretta Gardenia, get to your post or come to the door. We need you on that walk.”

As Smoot raised the axe for one more ineffective blow, a rough hand grabbed it, while another spun the chandler around and pushed him to the porch floor. Smoot looked up and saw a young man in a naval officer’s dark blue uniform jacket and white trousers, the axe held high and threatening as if leading a boarding party.

“What in blazes do you think you’re doing, sir?” the young officer shouted. “How dare you. I should box your ears, or better yet, take you down to my ships and have you bound to the mast for taste of my bosun’s cat.”

“Andrew stop!” came a woman’s voice from the street.

“Mother, please don’t hurry. I’ve got this madman under control. Look what he’s done to…”

“Matthew’s door! Why would…? Mister Smoot?”

“Oh, Miss Loretta Gardenia, I was so worried. You weren’t at your post looking for Captain Matthew and I thought the worst,” Smoot said.

“What could be worse, Mr. Smoot? That Matthew has not been heard from in all these years? That no sign of the Gardenia been found in any of the whaling grounds from Patagonia to the Sea of Japan?”

“Then…then why have you been up on the widow’s walk all these years for, madam?” Smoot said, more confused and addled than he had been when running around the house, axe in hand.

“Why, my son here, Andrew Booth. This young apprentice officer headed for the first class of the National Naval School in Annapolis. He’s been three years at sea.”

“But Cap’n Matthew…everyone thought you were…”

“Waiting for the Captain? No, Mr. Smoot. That ship, if you will pardon the expression, has indeed sailed. But no one ever thought to stop by and talk, to ask how I was, if I’d heard from Matthew,” Loretta Gardenia said.

“Well, we just figured…I just thought…”

“No, Mr. Smoot you did not think. You saw a woman pining for her son, not her missing paramour. Now, if you would kindly remove yourself from my front porch, my property. My solicitor will be contacting Mr. Bennett about what can’t be replaced — my door. Good day, Mister Smoot,” Loretta Gardenia said.

Her son, Midshipman Andrew Booth, hefted Martin Smoot as he might half-full seabag and set him on Captain’s Way toward Bennett and Tinch and an uncertain rest of that day and tomorrow.

As he walked toward the wharves, head down and trying to see where his figuring had gone wrong half an hour before, Smoot didn’t notice the wind had shifted from off the sea to from the hills surrounding Cloister Cove, blowing the perfume of pine and oak over the stench of the whale ships. He didn’t hear St. Augustine’s ring the bong-bong of two bells, 1:00 PM. He didn’t notice the change in the sound of the keening gulls that climbed and swooped all around him.

Loretta Gardenia handed the front door key to her son and said, “Come, Andrew, let’s go in for some tea. You can tell me more about school, your voyages and how you found Matthew in Alta California. I can’t believe he would scuttle the Gardenia in, where did you say?”

“Yerba Buena Bay, Mother. He and some of his crew hauled the hull ashore and, with a certain Señorita Veronica Valdez, turned it into a tavern and bordello, catering to and robbing the gold seekers headed to the Sierras. With no law to speak of out there, and his obvious lack of conscience, he had become a man of high regard in the darkest, lowest places.”

“Did you express your displeasure with his abandonment of your mother?”

“I did, mother, and when we parted, I can assure you he was weeping in contrition,” Andrew Booth said with a tight grin. “The day before our frigate set out again for the Baja, the Captain was not commanding the Gardenia. He was not to be found. Señorita Veronica’s brother told me the Captain must have decided to join the argonauts in seeking his fortune in the gold fields. A man could disappear in the Sierras in a heartbeat, Mother. I do not expect you — or anyone — will be hurt by his selfish, sinful ways again.”

“I see,” Loretta Gardenia said, composing herself for a moment. “My brave boy, I’m afraid all of today’s news and excitement has rendered me a bit tired. Would you mind if I retired to my room for a short rest? Sophie-Maude will be back from the market in Mystic within the hour and we shall have a lovely dinner celebrating your safe return.”

But Miss Loretta Gardenia Booth did not go to her room. She climbed the stairs to the roof of the house and mounted her widow’s walk. She looked out over the harbor, cocked her ear at the sound of the gulls, whose circling flights and weeping cries she stood observed from her lonely perch all these years. She above all could discern the change that had at least momentarily come over Cloister Cove and her life.

She knew the sound of seagulls crying. Now she wondered, were they laughing?

This is my fourth story based on one of the five prompts I was given for Weeks One of Story-a-Day September. Don’t know as I’ll make all five now, what with Week Two’s prompts in my mailbox, but I may make a run at it over the weekend. The prompt here was pretty much the last line of this piece. I guess I’ve written this story backwards, from the back end to front.