No One Noticed

The words ran together in the end,
like a watercolor the artist
splashed his glass of Perrier upon.
The colors were still his colors,
the underlying design his design,
but the product of his imagination
had been torqued and twisted,
gyred and plaited, dripping
to the floor, leaking on his shoes,
the temporary to permanent
and the permanent to trash.
And, in the end, no one noticed.
Thus is art—-words, pictures, images
and creations of serious fancy.
I tell you this because I won’t lie,
even though these lies I tell you
might be art, too, once they dry.

This is the 100-word poem I just dashed off in order to get my production of poems in May off the Number 13. That makes 14 poems and 21 stories. Add that to the 30 poems I wrote during Poem-a-Day April and I can attest that writing can be a fecund bitch and a harsh mistress who’ll bleed you dry…like my artistic lies you honor with your reading.

Comin’

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It was a mild December Friday, still in the 50s come the second week, but what Jerry Jenkins saw gave him chills like a three-night blizzard in a cold water basement flat.

Of course, that’s where he lived, a basement apartment in Plattsburgh, New York. He’d known times in his years up there, so close to the Quebec border, that some locals sounded half-French. But to find old Mrs. Yando waiting at the stairwell with a cop froze him from heels to hairline. Old habits died hard and getting the business end of a billy club was a habit he’d been trying to break since he got out of Dannemora’s Clinton Corrections Facility in September.

“Uh, something wrong, Mrs. Yando?”

Jenkins trained a kind of tunnel vision on his landlady. You develop this the same time you grow eyes in the back of your head in a max joint like Dannemora. The last time Jenkins looked at a uniform-type, even from the corner of his eye, said uniformed-type and eye met at the end of a blue-sleeved fist.

“You had a visitor today, Mr. Jenkins, and I’m letting you now that I want you out of here by the end of the month. I don’t need that kind of riffraff dirtying up my property, do I Ronny…um, Officer Laroque?”

Jenkins felt the chill again, even though beads of sweat formed at his temples.

“You heard the lady, pal. And I think I want you out of here, hell, out of this town, by the end of this weekend. Don’t make me come back to find your sorry ass in my aunt’s place on Monday,” the cop said, stepping into Jenkins’ line of sight, close enough to spit on Jenkins cheek with his North Country-accented “pal” and “place”.

“C’mon, I just got a job at the Bouyea Bakery this week. I’ve been clean three years now and kept this rathole even cleaner since I moved in last month. You can check with my PO,” Jenkins said, as he curled his fingernails into the palms of his hands. That was a painful trick he taught himself his second week in Tryon, the youth detention center downstate and his first brush with The System, as a reminder and deterrent to his temper getting the better of him. He was fifteen going on 30 at the time. And it was a two years going on turning 21 in Coxsackie rip he faced next.

Laroque pushed Jenkins against the damp brick wall of old lady Yando’s place, his forearm against Jenkins’ neck.

“I said by Sunday, punk. And I’ll be by to check.”

Jenkins’ hand brushed against one of the rusty bars that failed to keep out the irony from his soon-to-be old apartment. He wanted to rip it out and beat the cop’s French pumpkin dome with it, and then stick the old lady’s head between two of the remaining ones.

“Okay, okay, I’m leavin’,” he said. “But can you at least tell me who stopped by that brought all this on?”

“He didn’t give a name, but I don’t need no long-haired, sandle-wearing freaks knocking on my door asking for the likes of YOU. Obviously high on something. Never stopped smiling. So phony with his ‘thank you’s’ and ‘bless you’s’,” the old lady said.

And Jenkins felt a chill again, only it was different this time. The kind he’d get when his grandfather’d come to the house and bring him to the amusement park or a ball game. He was the temporary answer to his prayers. And then the old man died.

Jenkins knew, though. He said he’d come and he’s come, he thought.

“What’re you smilin’ at, shithead?” the cop said, pushing him back once more.

“Nothin’ really. I just wanted to know who stopped by.”

“Well, he better not come by again, understand?”

“You won’t see him,” Jenkins said. His heart was pounding. He could barely wait to run downstairs and get ready.

That night, Jenkins sat at the old kitchen table, picking at the cracked Formica top with his fingernail. It still had blood beneath it from digging into his palm. He jumped at the gentle knock at the door.

“Who is it?” he said.

“Time to go, buddy,” came the soft voice he heard from the other side of the door. “We’re waiting for you.”

“Be there in a sec,” Jenkins said, picking up the knife in the middle of the table and slashing once, twice, three times at his right wrist. Then he took the slippery handle in his right hand and carved four more into his left.

The last one was a bloody underline to the long tat he got in Dannemora last Christmas that read: Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

“Comin’,” was all he said. And he was.

No special prompt for this story. I’m just trying to get as close to 31 of them written over the course of the month by “close of business” today, the 31st of May.

Alone in My Crowded Bed

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Some days I lie in wait
for dawn to come, knowing
I’ll never return to
the sweet darkness until tonight.
The thoughts, the images, the hopes
(dashed and otherwise),
and the guilt crowd my consciousness
out of bed like they all
rolled over toward me at once.

And nowhere was there room
for any dreams.

Not under my pillow,
nor beneath the bed or
in the jewelry box, because
I would treasure a dream so much.
Tonight, I’ll lie in wait
in silence behind the darkness
for one, like I wait
for dawn come morning,
alone in my crowded bed.

Had a free ten minutes while granddaughter slept. She awakened as I placed the ultimate punctuation on that crowded bed. One hundred words exactly. Funny how that happens.

We Swoop to Conquer

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I’ve heard her many nights,
sounding to this groggy traveler
on the road to Nod like a reveler
out back who’s maybe had too many
and felt like hootin’ instead of hollerin’.
There’s no denying she’s
the genuine article if you’ve heard
that true whooo-who-who-whoooo.
I’d give anything to see her swoop
from the oak in the full moon’s light.
I imagine she’d appear like a ghostly
autumn leaf in an early fall
upon some deserving tunneling varmint.
This morning, I came as close
as I ever will to catching that owl
in flight when one of her feathers
stayed behind, in post-predatory landing,
upon the grass below my window on
the natural and imaginary worlds.
It’s now my talisman for these flights
into the darkness where I hunt
for the beginnings, middles and ends of
the whats, the whens, the wheres, the whys
and, of course, all those whos.

Found that feather up there in my back yard this morning. Thought it might be a hawk feather. But my wife noted that she heard our recent visitor out back last night. Sure enough, a short check of Internet resources confirmed it’s a flight feather from a Great Horned Owl. I just couldn’t let all this go without making a written “something” out of it.

She Out-Ranks Me

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As he sat at the bar, Ben couldn’t help but notice the space people gave him. to his left and right, behind him, the patrons hung in tight twos and threes and every now and then one or a couple would pull their eyes from the conversation, but never turn their heads, to glance toward Ben.

He could feel them. Didn’t need to much look. If he did, it would only embarrass both him and the people sneaking a peek. Ben would like to say he was used to it, but that would be another lie in his ever-growing marching column of them. At least it didn’t make him angry anymore.

“Another one, Ben?” Andy the bartender asked. He looked past Ben when he did. Right or left, over top, like he was looking for someone. It was almost always the same. That was why Ben liked getting his coffee, newspaper and conversation each morning from the blind guy at the newsstand in the lobby of the building where he worked. Otherwise, it was email or the phone at his desk in the IT troubleshooting unit. Ben’s desk was over in the corner. Mutual choice with the boss, even though he had enough seniority for a window.

“Yeah, Andy. Just one more.”

As he huddled over his pint, like a priest hunched over a chalice of wine, Ben sensed a change in the sound of the crowd, as if a tunnel of quiet was being dug toward him from the left. He recognized the shadow of silence from the one he cast whenever he entered a place like this joint.

And when this muffler of conversation got to the open space next to Ben she looked right at him and said, “Is this spot taken?”

“No, no. Let me help you here,” Ben said and extended his hand.

“That’s okay, this isn’t my first trip to the rodeo. Only I hope I don’t get throw’d off before the night’s over.” In the silence surrounding them at the bar, the little laugh she let out sounded like clinking wine glasses to Ben.

“Andy,” she said, raising her hand and waving toward the bartender.

“Yeah, Elise. What can I do ya for?” Andy said after he rushed down to where she and Ben sat.

“Can you please get me one of those fabulous margaritas you make me? You know, the ones with no triple sec and leaving out the fruit stand?”

Andy laughed. “Sure thing, Elise. One Kah tequila, straight up, on the way.”

Ben watched as Andy pulled a skull-shaped bottle from behind his cognacs and better single malts. He noticed that it was painted with a face straight out of Día de Muertos. Andy poured a rocks glass two-thirds of the way up with the tequila and placed it in front of Elise.

“Thank you, sweets,” she said.

“Ya know,” Ben said, “I’ve been coming to this joint for a couple of years—not at this time, mind you—and I’ve never seen that bottle before. Nor have I seen you.”

“Ditto,” she said, and laughed that laugh Ben now figured was the sound of clinking glasses of high-end tequila.

“I’m Ben,” he said, offering his hand and feeling stupid because the girl obviously couldn’t see it hanging in the air between them. Nevertheless, she must have sensed something, a normalcy to introductions, and reached out to smoothly slide her hand into Ben’s.

“Elise,” she said. “And I’ve never seen you here before, either.” More clinking giggles. “That’s a blind joke. Usually has ‘em rolling on the floor.”

“Oh, heh, yeah. Good one.” Ben thought he was looking into the face of an angel, her skin as smooth and brown as a caramel apple. She owned a face men dreamed to make art about. When she turned her face to scan the crowd with some sort of vision that wasn’t something one saw with, was when Benn noticed that scar at the corner of her left eye that ran down and around her cheek, curving back toward where it began.

The track of a tear she decided to uncry, perhaps, Ben thought.

“So what’s your story, Ben. Must be a good one or we wouldn’t be standing here during Happy Hour like we were part of the morning crowd,” Elise said.

“Story?”

“Yeah. Your hand didn’t feel like I was grabbing hold of a Virginia ham, so I’m guessing you’re not morbidly obese. And you smell divine, by the way, so it’s not a hygiene thing. So why are we enjoying the benefit of some room here at Father Andy’s confessional box?”

“No big deal,” Andy lied. “I was in the Army. Hurt in Afghanistan. Work as an IT tech for the Labor Department.”

“So what’re you missing, Mr. Ben?” Elise said. “You must be minus at least an ear, maybe both. Your hand was smooth, so you kept at least one of those. Don’t detect any wheelchair.” She reached for Ben’s thigh and drifted her hand down one knee and back up the other all the way to his crotch.

“Two legs, original equipment.”

“Hey, stop that,” Ben said. He was beginning to feel more uncomfortable than usual. “What the hell’s you’re deal, Elise?”

“So I’m guessing you’re face is fucked up. Been there, done that.”

“Okay, Okay. Burned. IED blast through the window of my Humvee. One ear, most of my nose, Scarred over two-thirds of my head. Seven surgeries and counting. Now what’s your story?”

“Oh, the usual. Met a guy, fell in love, he liked to beat me up. And then it got a little rougher. He’d burn me here and there, cut me. The last straw was when he curt my face and threw me down a flight of stairs.” Elise pointed to her scar. “What he didn’t accomplish with his knife on my optic nerve, the stroke I had on the way to the hospital sealed the deal. Ta-daaa! Instant blind girl.”

“Wow, I’m sorry,” Ben said.

“Why? You didn’t do anything. I was the one chose and chose to stay with the no-good, swingin’ dick. Okay, enough about appearance. Let’s get the real freak show started,” Elise said. “Andy! Another Kah down here for your little writer girl. Oh, I forgot to tell you, I’m a writer.”

“Really?” Ben said.

“Yeah, and this round’s on me, soldier boy. Andy, fill up my friend Ben’s flagon with something better than whatever swill he’s been banging back. And turn up the friggin’ music. You better be able to dance, Mr. Ben, because tonight, tag, you’re it!”

Andy the bartender poured another glass of tequila for Elise, whose name was really Sara, pulled a new point of the good ale for Ben and set them on the section of the bar they’s just vacated for the dance floor.

He walked back down to the end of the bar where the new waitress was picking up a tray of drinks.

“Wow. What’s the deal with that?” she said.

“Oh, you mean, Elise? Her real name is Sara Beech. Military brat. She was an actress who got mugged over on West 49th and 8th. Bastard cut her up good. Almost died. But her career was pretty much over. And, yeah, she can see, at least out of one eye. Her brother was a West Pointer. Blown up, lost his legs in Iraq. Committed suicide.”

“Oh, my.”

“Yeah, she visits hospitals and talks to counselors and tries to find ways to give some of these guys a ‘buck up, Chuck’ whenever she can. I told her about Ben last week, so she decided to come in and give him a command performance tonight.”

“So you know her from somewhere? You encourage this here?”

“I should think so. Says she’s doing God’s work. Who am I to say otherwise? She’s my wife, so she out-ranks me.”

Another story for the day during May. (I’ve well-nigh given up on keeping up with the Story-a-Day prompts, but I’m writing 31 of them anyway.) This one is an odd first draft that came to me as I thought about Memorial Day. Sara/Elise may be doing a good thing or maybe she’s not. But at least she’s doing something for the vets she shows a good time for one night.

Twenty Knocks & Twenty More

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The house’s shadows
reach from dawn to the pines,
while the oaks tower above
and reach beyond them all.
The coda from spring songs signal
the second act of courtship
as new nests settle where
last month only glances
lit and then flew home.
Awakened here in my nest,
I watch it all ~
the sun reeling back its
shadows like I roll up
the blinds, the rabbits
browsing on clover for breakfast,
the pines shaking loose robins
like flame-chested cones.
When a day feels too much to bear,
I’ll remember how woodpecker
challenged oak’s supremacy
twenty knocks at a time.

Flashes of Memory

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Photo by Pawel Ryszawa

I heard the wail outside my open bedroom window and knew what I would see if I pulled aside the curtain. Under the full moon, a flash of escaped sundown would probably be speeding across the yard, heading from the thicket on the right to the woods on the left, where the fox kept her home.

A month ago, I would have nudged Karen and asked if she heard it–which she probably did. Karen heard everything, including things that weren’t there. That’s why I was sleeping alone now. She’d taken off one night a month ago back to her mom’s after she’d heard I was seeing someone on the side. I wasn’t, but I had about a year before. It was all a big mistake. My stepping out and then her believing what she heard, this time from her sister.

I kicked off the covers and crept to the window anyway.

“What the hell,” I thought. “Might as well get a gander at the Wild Kingdom while I still have a house from which to see and hear it.” I parted the curtains about an inch and peered out back. Sure enough, there was the metallic sheen of the fox, some fuzzy small-plate entrée hanging from those super-sharp teeth.

It was Karen’s idea to move out here, get away from the city, from her family.

“Let’s get our own place, Billy,” she said one night in our old apartment. Actually it was my old apartment, the one she moved into when we got together three years before. It was the same place that was our honeymoon love nest after she got pregnant and we were married.

After little Will was born, we both knew the place was too small, still too “male.” She needed her own nest, I figured. Something not her mom’s and something certainly not mine. So we moved out to the ‘burbs into a townhouse butting up against the woods and fields I’ve since come to like.

It wasn’t all that easy, what with the baby and all. And Karen and I were both real city kids. The first night, or what sure still felt like night, the robins woke me. They went off pre-dawn, like feathered versions of the trash collector-bumped car alarms in the city. Only louder and more persistent. Another time I had to shut the bedroom window to the screams of some unknown animal in the jaws of a nocturnal predator or maybe in the paws of furry rapture. Either way, its plaintive cries set Karen’s teeth on edge and my thoughts to R-rated dismemberment.

It happened again the next night. And I decided to see what the hell was screwing with my pre-commute rest. That was the first time I saw the fox. Karen was less than impressed.

“Shut that damn window,” she whispered. “I swear, Billy, if those birds or that whatever-it-is right now wakes Will, I’ll kill YOU. Why do you have to sleep with the goddamn window open anyway?”

“I kind of like the sounds to fall asleep to,” I said. “The toads or frogs sounded like chimes last night, didn’t they?”

“Shut. The. Window,” Karen said, her voice carrying a short-fuse tone I’d heard her mother use on her old man.

But before I closed it, I looked outside. There she was. I’m assuming she was a she. The only other time I’d seen that color on a male was that actor, David Caruso. He was forgettable. She wasn’t She was as I’ll always remember, never forget, gleaming, moving like nothing I’d seen before.

Karen never did get the hang of suburban living. I’m not entirely sure she got the hang of the wife-and-mother thing either. When Will was about six months old, I fell from grace and had a one-week fling with an attorney from the firm down the hall from my office. It was my stupid over-reaction to postpartum depression and–in legal parlance–withholding of affection on Karen’s part.

“I’m tired, Billy, please…” she said whenever I would touch her in bed.

“Karrie, it’s been months since we’ve…”

“Billy, you don’t have to take care of a little one all day. It’s exhausting and I’m very, very tired. Maybe this weekend,” she said and rolled over to face away from me.

That weekend sex didn’t come until after Karen’s sister saw me in a joint downtown with the attorney chick after work one night. Karen and I had a big blowup. I was wrong, I know. I also felt incredibly contrite. I loved Karen and adore Will. Together they made my life so much fuller, worth all the hard work I put in to afford our home.
And then I had to go get impatient and greedy.

So I suggested we see a counselor. It was the counselor who advised us how to give and take a little more.

The first time we had sex after our counselor had set up our “working agreement” as Karen called it, I could tell her heart wasn’t in it. Blind horny as I was, I could tell. The fact that the frogs were chiming and the breeze was whooshing the maple leaves around out our bedroom window made it seem very natural and sort of Adam and Eve sweet. Then came another howl from below. Not Will. He was in the nursery next to our room.
I was pretty sure it was the coyotes I’d heard my neighbor say had been seen roaming around.

“Will you please shut that fucking window,” Karen said, tensing her body and waking the little fellow in the crib next door. And, other than the nights of counseling sessions and my birthday, that was that for our love life.

One afternoon, right after I got home from work, I took Will out back and put him in his play “corral,” as I started grilling up some steaks for dinner. Karen was inside watching through the patio doors, on the phone with her mom. They talked a lot more those days.

It was then I heard her scream, “Will!”

I turned and saw out the corner of my eye this flash of reddish-orange bounding across the yard. The low-setting sun made her shine like an arrogant alloy of cat and dog. I was transfixed. Not from fear or drink, but from the sheer beauty and audacity of her appearance in daylight in a space occupied by humans.

Karen came screaming out of the house to grab Will from his playpen as I waved my arms and shooed the fox toward the woods. As soon as the fox entered the shadows, she stopped, turned and looked right at me. This disembodied face hanging there in the dark, seemingly smiling at me. “What are you gonna do, man?” her expression read.

Karen never did stop screaming for another hour. She went from fear to outrage at me for not paying attention to Will (guilty as charged, I guess) and for being such a lousy husband. The ribeyes weren’t the only things burned that evening. Karen torched some bridges, too.

The next afternoon I was walking Will in his stroller when I ran into Old Man Gage, who built all the houses in the development. I told him about the fox encounter and he said he’d been hearing a lot of it.

“She feared nothing, Mr. Gage. Not even me.”

“That’s because she doesn’t perceive any true rival for her territory, not even those damn coyotes come down from the eastern hills,” he said. “You notice we ain’t seen so many rabbits and chipmunks lately?”

“Umm.. I guess you’re right,” I said.

“Foxes been cleaning up. Now they gotta move a little farther afield for their food. Probably even across the County Road up to where the coyotes are scrounging around,” Gage said. “Fox won’t bother you less it’s rabid. And we ain’t had any reports of rabies ’round here since that skunk thing two years ago. It’ll be pretty quiet over the winter. Come spring, kits on the way, it’ll pick up again.”

“Uh huh,” I said, looking like such a dope. That’s when Will began to whine and get a little fractious, so we headed back to the house. Karen was on the phone with her mom.
I wish our winter was as quiet as it was in the woods behind the house. Karen seemed always angry at me.

“This place is a dump,” she said. “Why can’t you do things around the house like my brother-in-law does for Sharon?”

I was not the handiest guy around tools. My mitts consisted of eight thumbs and two index fingers, which I used for typing and picking my nose. And my typing was pretty suspect.

It escalated from there and she eventually told me she was leaving me to go back to her mom and she was taking Will with her. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I knew the marriage was broken and I had proven worse at fixing that than I was at putting in a new laminate floor.

When I was served with the divorce papers, I saw she was requesting full custody of our son. I was crushed. But my attorney friend–not the woman who had smashed the champagne bottle across the bow of this sunken ship of a marriage–said it would take a lot of dough and a better lawyer than he to fight it.

The papers also said she was pregnant. So much for regaining a joyous foothold in our marital bed.

So, here I was, alone in the suburbs, missing my little boy, depressed and angry and defeated. Unable to sleep. My life feeling picked clean. That’s when I heard the fox, saw her coming from the direction of the County Road headed for the woods. She stirred something in me. Some visceral need. Wasn’t sure of what it was until today.

On my morning run along the County Road, an oncoming car veered across the yellow line toward me. It whizzed by, sucking the air out of me, leaving behind a taste of exhaust and despair.

As I turned back to my run, I caught a glint of copper across the road by the shoulder about thirty yards ahead of me. A chill ran through me because I knew what I had just seen and I really didn’t want to see much more. But my way home took me past the spot where she lay, still in harm’s way.

I crossed the road and saw her, the victim of a rival she never expected, really. Her eyes were vacant and glassy. I’m sure mine were moist and manic. It was then I saw another four-wheeled predator headed toward where we were planted on the road.

I’m not sure what possessed me. She well-past saving and it was a bigger deal right now that I get back to the house and shower for another soulless commute. But I grasped her forepaws and dragged her to the weeds just off the shoulder, as the next car and the one behind it blew past us in oblivious whoosh-whoosh succession.

It was then I noticed it, the rolling, almost bubbling shift of the skin of her taut round belly. I left her body there and walked, outright weeping, mind flashing, all the way back to the house.

What was I to do, you know? I called in sick and found a new attorney.

This wasn’t the most striking memory I’ll always carry of her, though it still shares the same space in my dreams, my reveries, my nightmares. No, I’ll always want to remember her when we met, her gleaming, a flash of escaped sundown.

This story is in response to the Day 26 prompt of Story a Day May 2016: eliciting certain emotions in the reader. I think if there’s any emotion I tend to write more about, maybe better than others, it’s despair. The just-the-way-it-is despair that can overtake our daily lives, so intimate, so close, we don’t even know what it is right in front of our eyes. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I write better of hope, the hope we can beak the chain of despair. I’ll leave the choice to you. This story began as one of my poems and grew into the 1,900-word beast I hope (there’s that word again) you just read.

Another Day Waiting for an Answer

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The Japanese maple’s leaves flip over
in supplication to the rain gods.
They know their prayers and the
silent cries of the yellowing grass
are heard above, just not listened to.
The tree’s south side rustles
in the teasing breeze like
the crinoline petticoats of
some stripper with
a southern belle gimmick.
Enough to draw attention,
not enough to make it rain.
So we wait, the land and I,
wait to hear tapping on the roof
that isn’t from the woodpecker
who awakened me this morning,
hopeful, then hands turned palms-up,
not in supplication, but in today’s
silent “Why?”

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 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 1916.

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’d say he might have to be to try this stunt. I mean…why?”

“Here’s the deal. With the Germans finally quitting 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 get 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 ol’ Jean Marie 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 mite. 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 Manhattan. “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 nearby stone wall.

“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 my close call late one afternoon in early ’17,  when I won that bet with Putnam and Viallet that I could do it.

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.