This and That About There to Here

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If I was one to believe everything
you all say to me today on face value,
I’m sure I’d swagger, bust my buttons,
and maybe feel right proud to be me.
Instead, I listened to you say
this nice thing and that
about what a good this or that I am,
or this or that I’ve accomplished.
Through the filter of self-doubt,
this is what I heard instead:
That I’ve wasted so much of my life
taking this path or that role,
this course or that job,
making this choice or that mistake.

It’s too late to change now, though.
They all lie behind me. Today,
I value each scar, each lump and dent
I’ve earned in this fun house skull of mine.
I know now what I considered my failures
were the scenery on my swift journey here.
If it looked like the worst of Detroit
or the Pine Ridge Reservation, then I
can say I’ve seen what you’d call
your worst on my way here and the tears
they brought have washed me clean of regret.
I’ll worry about the There ahead when it
becomes the This and That of Tomorrow.

I’ve fought myself, beaten myself brutally, most of my life. I’m only beginning to understand that fact and do something it. But it’s a difficult process. The why of it lies back there in the clouds of exhaust I peek at in the cracked rearview mirror of my memory. I’ve no control over what’s there in the past. In my regret-filled days and nights I would worry more about them because the mirror says they may be closer than they appear. The best I can say about this is that they’re not catching up with me much anymore.

Only the Smile Remains

She had a bright smile, as I remember,
and I forget so much these days.
But the idea of what’s now a featureless face,
save for the memory of that brilliant double arch
of inviting conviviality, coquettish charm
and orthodontic perfection, floats
before me and I can’t blink nor rub it away.
Sometimes I can still make out her eyes,
deep brown with a filigree of gold
and ebony surrounding the pupils.
I only got close enough to study them
four times, and of those, only once
was with her knowledge, but not approval.

They were as bright as her smile
and were the windows to her troubled soul.
But now I don’t see her eyes too much.
Perhaps my recollection boarded them up when
she lost the lease on her soul.
It doesn’t much matter anymore, since I
moved off on my way, too. But I admit
to missing that bright smile and the times
I’d bask in its illuminant approval,
hear the chime of laughter from inside,
instead of feeling its bite on these,
my long smileless days, when in the mirror
I reflect on my own eyes, and see, and see,
and see…a candle within.

I was writing a story, and the character stopped in mid-draft to tell me this story about himself and the one who is but a shadow on a cloudy day to him now. I’d better put down my poet’s quill and pick up my writer’s keyboard to see what else is troubling this guy. Perhaps its the quote by the Cheshire Cat as he faded away, leaving nothing but his smile: “We’re all mad here.”

Listening for the Colors of Late October

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As October slides on wet
fallen leaves into November,
the morning wonders if
it’s really arisen. Out my window,
color is a muted thing,
if the reflection of colored light
is something you can hear.
My eyes strain to pick up
any sound that might be more than
a thump or a creak. But no.
The grass has lost its verdant harmony,
where the breezes bend each supple blade
in concert like a vast woodwind section.
The trees mumble like drugged-up hookers
waiting for gravity to finish
stripping them to the skin and
their cold intercourse with winter.
Only in the distance do I hear
the crackle and crash of
the far end of the spectrum,
a roaring row of tympani and cymbals.
The burning bushes stand out like
a bleeding gash on pale skin,
fireworks on a starless night.
And I get on my feet because I hear
their beat within my chest and scuff
in time to the kitchen for
a cup of today.

Wrote one going to bed and another when I awoke. Seems like old times.

When They Call Your Name

The Angel of Death

Angel of Death by Evelyn De Morgan, 1881

When they call your name,
it’s not like some sort of surprise.
It’s not as if several potential
revelers crouch hidden
behind the furniture and curtains,
some half-drunk, some in closets
already making out, flipping on
the lights and yelling “Surprise”
as you enter that darkened home.

No, when they call your name
you more than likely know it’s coming,
maybe dreading the intonation of
your nom de la vie, the whispered,
“Excuse me, Mr./Mrs/Ms./ (insert name here),
it’s time.” Or maybe you’ll be lying there,
all antsy, waiting for that light to illuminate
your way to where they want you to go.

You don’t have much say, you just
have to wait for its arrival
like the patient drip-drop of an IV bag hooked
to the blue vein in some scarecrow patient.
Or it can come so fast, like lightning
or a runaway semi on the interstate, that
you don’t even have a chance to mumble,
“Who, me?”

When they call your name, they just
call it, maybe mispronouncing it like Hersh
or Heesh. There was a time I didn’t care
if they called, no matter how they said it.
To leave all this would be no big deal.
But now I think I’ve earned the right
to be called my proper name, for a proper
departure from here to there, if there’s
a There there.

So I wait, no longer in a hurry.
I’d enjoy ignoring a first or second call,
like they were lame political pollsters or
credit card scammers. I’d just hit
the button that reads Dismiss. Or maybe
I could hide behind the curtains and yell,
“Surprise” when they come to pick me up.
Oh, I wish I could.

Too-long exercise in which I took the first line of the first song I have queued up on the iPhone to start a poem or story, then finish it with the last line. My Apologies to Ryan Adams for pinching these pieces of Come Pick Me Up.

Her Heart

piece of my heart

piece of my heart

It’s her heart that’ll get you.
It is a soft heart, warm heart,
hard heart, cold heart.
It’s a caged heart,
a free-flying heart,
a heart of flesh
that rests in her chest
and pumps the blood a’simmmer
that warms her touch
upon your skin, setting
your own heart ablaze.
It’s a heart made of thoughts
and emotions, with tiny
bricks of empathy and anger.
Her heart is covered
with notches for each
of her loves and a
near-matching number of scars
for all the times they broke it.
Yes, her heart gets you
in so many ways you don’t know
where to look, except maybe
within your own, where you’ll
know it by her flaming-arrow glow.
That’s because her aim isn’t only
to be so sure,but always
to be true.

Written in bed over the last 15 minutes before lights-out. I used to think of this as my creative hour, as I would lie there, waiting for sleep to come in sand tuck me in. In the near-sleep, with its breath and breath,  ideas and images fly into my pillow-framed head, where they’ll roost for the night and fly off by morning. That is, unless I catch ’em first and hold them for you until dawn.

A White Horse in Dark Times

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White horse by moonlight by ellimist

The only light to be seen was the wash of white from the half moon in our faces. Any shadows we cast could not give us away to the horses in the corral nor to the sleeping family in the farm house.

“You know if they see us they might shoot us for this, right?” I said to Will.

“Yep, and if they catch us, they’ll shoot us, or hang us. Or maybe they won’t see us or find us and we’ll have horses to get out of this county and head someplace where there’s food and water and not so much law,” Will said.

“Or outlaws,” I said.

“Yep. Now be quiet. You know what to do.”

Will was new to this stuff. Who wasn’t? But he figured we could, gentle as angels, drift close to the corral, slide open the gate, coo our way close to a couple of the horses, tie the ropes we carried stuffed inside our belts to their halters and lead them out to freedom. Our freedom.

It actually went pretty much to plan until we saw a small light inside the farmhouse window turn into the bigger light in a lantern, and that lantern moved toward the back door of the place.

“Damn it,” Will hissed. “Someone’s up. Probably headed to the outhouse.”

That was when a couple of horses got real nervous and started to snort and cut up, their ears all pricked forward. I tugged mine, a gentle little thing, over toward the gate and stood her between me and the house. But Will had trouble with his, its ears flat back, and it gave out a roaring sort of sound and that was that.

It gave Will a kick and started a chorus of squeals with the other four horses. Will was on the ground when his horse kicked him again, this time in the shoulder, just as the back door opened and the farmer came running out of the kitchen with his drawers at half  staff because he held the lantern in his left hand and a shotgun in his right.

“Who’s there? Show yourself, ya thievin’ bastards,” he yelled. As he grabbed for his pants with that his right hand, the shotgun under his arm, I tugged my filly out of the gate and ran like hell toward the woods with her. Didn’t look back until we were about ten yards out of the light.

I heard Will yell, “Don’t shoot, please don’t shoot.”

“Get up. Show yourself,” I heard the farmer say.

“Yessir, here I am,” Will said, his hands up and his rope in one of them.

By this time another couple of armed figures ran out of the house toward the corral and I figured it’d be a good idea if Misty——I’d already named the filly——and I put some distance between ourselves and the scene of the crime.

About a minute later was when I heard the shotgun blast.

Misty jumped a little and I did, too, but we didn’t have time to worry about what was behind us. I fashioned a set of reins from my rope and hopped from a tree stump onto her back and we trotted out of the woods and onto the moonlit country road headed south.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Will and I were farm kids,  lifelong friends and schoolmates when the war began. Will was in the agriculture school and I was in what he called the “aggravatin’ culture” school. He meant I was studying literature and mathematics and stuff he found, you know, aggravating. On mathematics, we agreed.

When the war broke out, there was nothing anyone could do but try to fend for themselves and their loved ones. It was harder than anyone expected. Barely anyone knew what to do, could never imagine such a situation that could place them in such a state.

There was no way for Will and I to contact our families, so we decided, since the school wasn’t doing much schooling anymore after the first or second major battle, to find a way to get home. Or at least a way to get somewhere we could fend for ourselves, protect ourselves, just survive.

We heard that the government was shut down and communication was next to nothing. I guess you could yell from one hill to another. That was almost how bad it was. Will said, since nobody knew anything of what was going on and had no idea what the hell to do, we should find ourselves some food and water and a way besides shank’s mare to get where we had to go. Wherever the hell that was to be.

We stole some knives, containers for water, cheese and ham from the school kitchen. Then we tossed what we thought we could carry into our school bags and lit out south, headed for home or wherever we could get before the war turned the world crazy.

It didn’t take long.

Just like it didn’t take long after dawn for Misty and me to run into another band of travelers on the road, only headed north. I saw a couple of them point at me and then their leader sort of shushed them. They came walking toward us as smooth as you please, saying. “Hey, pal,” and “‘Morning,” from about fifty yards away. I knew they were up to no good and kicked Misty in the ribs just as they came running right at us.

I always figured even the bravest or stupidest of folks don’t want to take on a galloping horse coming right toward them. These boys were something else. Their leader pulled a pistol from his coat and aimed it at me, while Misty and I rushed into the middle of them. I heard the gun go off and felt a sharp pain in my leg. Misty squealed, too.

In two jumps, we were through and past them. I looked down at my leg and saw a knife sticking out of it. Peeking behind us, I saw three of those ramblers lying down on the ground, but one’s face was just a smear of red. We must have hit their leader’s arm and—BANG—one of them was down for good. I pulled Misty up when we were a mile or so down the road.

I slid off Misty’s back and pulled the narrow bladed knife from my leg. It wasn’t in too deeply but bled a lot, even down Misty’s side. When I swiped the blood off her coat I saw the cut across her flank and I didn’t know what to do. Before the war, I knew what I’d do, but now…?

I washed my own wound off with some of my water and then wrapped it up with my only clean shirt from my school bag. But Misty? She was hurting and I felt horrible for taking her away from her home. Hell, I felt horrible about everything since the damn war began.

I was Skyping with my mom, talking about my next visit home, taking the Southwest flight out of Baltimore to Dallas, when…nothing. Then the lights in the dorm went out. I grabbed my cell and it lit up, but there was no phone, no internet, just a fancy flashlight.

People up and down the hall were flying out of their rooms as the battery operated emergency lights went on. I heard someone say they heard the news that the threats finally came to a head between our country and the other guys——the Russians, Iranians, Chinese and some wild-ass cyber-terrorists from who-knows-where and what-does-it-matter-now.

The whole Earth’s gone black. They’d all blinded and crippled the world’s transportation, financial, communication, electrical, you-name-it systems. In essence, the politicians and hackers had cast us back into the 18th Century. And for what?

So people ended up roaming the countryside of every continent, I’d imagine, trying to stay alive and most of us not knowing how without a computer to tell us.

I held Misty’s face in my hands and she nuzzled me with her soft nose. It was then I realized that’s what was missing. What we’d been missing since I was born and maybe before. The touch of another, the face-to-face expression of ideas, feelings, emotions between beings instead of through some artificial means.

I think it was when I felt the tears on my face and Misty gave it a good lick that I knew what I had to do. I took the reins off Misty and just let her go. But instead of me telling her where, I let her tell me. If it was back to that farm, fine. I’d tell them I found her on the road running from where her thief got shot by one of those roaming gangs like the kind that cut my leg.

I’d ask them if I could stay with them for a while until my leg got better.

And if she just wandered off to a stream, a field, I’d follow her lead. She knew to take care of herself. Maybe she’d find others of her kind to support her, protect her, bring her along on their journey. I figured she was hard-wired to do what horses did for millennia to survive, instead of what a dumb, unplugged millennial didn’t know what to do.

Who knows? Maybe tomorrow the grid might go back up, or maybe our new world  might finally come to a real end, instead of this virtual one.

This is the short, dashed-off first draft I wrote this evening of a story idea I had over the weekend. What if all this world-wide Internet manipulation and grand-scale hacking turned into an all-out war. It wouldn’t be The Bomb that would take us down. It’s be something as simple as switching everything off, over and over, until finally our modern world broke. Still a lot of work to do with this premise and story, but I thought I’d share it with all of you folks I only “know” through this silly machine you’re reading, as a reminder of what really counts in life.

When Ash Wednesday Comes in October

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End of the Mardi Gras Photo by Joseph Hesch © 2016

When the carny month of October begins descending into November and from there to the passing of the year, it will play the bait and switch with your spirit. The trees don their autumn raiment, turning from lively greens to gleaming golds, bleeding reds and sunburst oranges, only to fly away with your polychromatic joy in windblown death spirals of russet and fawn. Today, October’s grifting insult bordered on injury, shouldering a shivering chill from the north armed with a hybrid ammunition where the temperature’s too cold for rain and too warm for snow. It’s as if the clouds are spitting with derision upon your windshield as you drive by the sad maples and oaks, drooping in their now-tattered costumes like stranded and drenched Mardi Gras revelers, the detritus of autumn at their feet. It’s as if they know the Ash Wednesday of this year is upon us all.

The idea for this piece came from a short drive to the store, past the gray-shrouded maples, in the plastic precipitation that splatted upon my windshield and hung there in a 41-degree insult to the driver who enjoyed an 80-degree day just this week. That’s autumn up here in this land of perpendiculars, where the Mohawk and Hudson meet, tucked into the elbow of the Adirondacks and Berkshires, surrounded by the vertical beauty of the carnival of broadleaf trees, fully knowledgeable that next week you’ll be picking their shabby clothes off their bedroom floor outside your window. The photo above is by the writer, whose view and mood are at perpendiculars today, too.