Fanning the Flames

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They never flinched when
the polychromatic peacock dung
hit the Chinese Dynasty fan
in a rainbow of aqua blues
and carmines, off-whites
and soot blacks. They cheered
as “real life” overcame
the fancified image there on
the crescent field of paper.
But this flapping artifice stood
folded and folded and folded again,
each crease one upon the other,
distorting its true image,
hiding slices of itself no matter
if viewed from this angle or that,
never showing you the whole picture.
Was I being cynical seeing
just another colorful load of shit
shot onto a piece of paper
prettied up for public consumption,
a brittle, yellowed air-pusher
given esteem because someone said
it was expensive?
Really, it’s not that much different
from the ones all the carny preachers
sell in their sweaty tent-meetings
where these stem-winders reflect
a cracked mirror image back
to the already converted.

I’m a old cynic who learned to hate politics (both lower and upper case P) as a baby reporter.  This piece could apply to all sides in the battle of the hyperbolic self-flapping fans for the hearts and minds of the overheated faithful. I’m done.

Broken Chains

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Each night’s become another
recitation of a rosary strung
with whispered Ave Marias
disrupted by the calls
from a father never seen,
a judge ever recognized.
This circle of fine filigree
inevitably will lie broken,
perhaps tossed under the bed
with rest of the best forgotten,
like the kind of secrets
that arouse you just before
you come to the crossroad
metaphor of a rising son,
that sacrificial cross, the sign
of death-turned-redemption.
This is the ritual I perform
each night, attached to a chain
linked to the miracle
of that blessed kind of death
lasting only a little while.

Five of the last seven nights have been this way, broken into decades of fruitless near-sleep. Nothing new, just nothing so recent. Once this was my obsession, then my obsessive literary theme. I’m hoping to break THIS particular chain with a new poem from my old, sleep-deprived brain.

You’re Welcome…Welcome…Welcome

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I introduced you
to those who
gave meter to my
iambic shuffle.
Voices, then
names and faces,
who’d accompany you
on your journey
to nameless places
on trackless roads
to destinations
whose way you’d lost
when your heart
tripped over itself
again and again.

They so mirrored
your thoughts,
you’d use them
to smooth those
jagged days
whose dust they’d wash
from your cheeks
as you’d listen
at night and wonder
the why, why, whys.
Perhaps I was unwise
to share, since now
they no longer
belong to me…
never could to us.
I’ll be fine…
echoes follow me
everywhere.

A 100-word free-write I used as a warmup to today’s fiction work. These dreamy pieces seems to open up my storytelling sluices and maybe give a bit of running-water rhythm to my prose.

Cradles

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They each hold their positions
of conscious unconsciousness.
One on her side, her back, her side,
gently rolling in a sea of slumber
only a child floats upon.
The other, in his soft chair,
head back, closed eyelids a’twitch,
whispering the tender tune
of the chain saw’s lullaby.
The house is quiet, save for
the call and response of
the gentle snores of toddler,
grandparent and furnace,
all keeping harmony with
the breathing of nearby homes,
each suspended from the dreamy
winter afternoon sky by tendrils
of exhalation from their chimneys
swaying in the breeze
like a nursery of cradles.

Any similarities between this scene and mine and my granddaughter’s afternoon here in cold and sleepy upstate New York are completely coincidental. Yeah…sure.

Echoing Days on the Muhheahkunnuk

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The Cohoes Falls, frozen in winter.

As I count down these,
my dwindling days out here
in the country for old men,
I feel my life closing in
even though here the sky’s
so much wider and higher
than it was over the city.
Even with steely buildings
shouldering me on their
right-angle ways toward
this corner and that,
I always managed to escape
thoughts of fewer tomorrows
to the here and now
of the river the ancients
called Muhheahkunnuk.

We’d wander from the anchorage
at Beverwyck to the falls
of Cahohatatea, in concert,
rippling like an echo south,
then north then south again.
I forgot it’s tune here and now,
where the trees shoulder me
toward another sundown,
whispering and cracking
like these old bones. Can I
head back upstream to my life’s
chiming Cahohatatea, perhaps
to drift on new echoes of this
old journey? The we can back up
to push off again tomorrow.

Cahohatatea is the name for the waterfalls where the Mohawk River drops into the Muhheahkunnuk, the Mahican name for the Hudson. Since I retired, sometimes I think the thing I miss most about working in Albany–Beverwyck to its Dutch inhabitants–are my noontime walks along that historic “river that runs in two directions,” its waters pushed back upstream by the tidal flow from its mouth at Manhattan.

The Flicker of Better Angels

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Needless to say, they didn’t knock.

“Stay where you are. On your knees with your hands on your head,” the biggest one said.

“This is my home. What are you doing? What do you want?” I said as two more pushed me to the floor.

“You know exactly what we’re after, man. Where are they?” the big one said towering over me, his knee bumping my left eye.

“Where are who? Why are you doing this?” I said, wincing as his two partners wrenched my shoulders. I knew who they were and what they were after.

“The books, man. Where are the goddamn books? Our informant ID’d you as a subversive and told us you had a fucking library here. Hundreds, she said. Now where are they?”

It came to this as I’d predicted after He Who Shall Not Be Named was elected our leader and then turned everything over, spilling our constitutional rights onto the floor and, in essence, burning them. We no longer could peacefully gather to discuss, let alone debate, the state of affairs in which our land now found itself. Besides, you never knew who of the people you talked with might be one of their informants.

Within just a few months of taking power, HWSNBN ordered all news organizations to cease operations except for his sycophantic bootlicks at the renamed Supreme Network. He also shuttered all newspapers, except for The Truth and Our Democracy, now our two national newspapers. He had his cyber-cops monitoring all online interaction, again causing fear, anger and doubt among the half of the citizenry who voted for the other side. The First Amendment—-marketed by the government as The Worst Amendment, a true threat to national security—was stricken from the Constitution by well-armed executive order. And everyone just watched.

Next came book banning, kowtowing to the conservative religious zealots instrumental in getting the Supreme Commander elected. That part was easy, just emptying Libraries, bookstores and even schools of everything from Huckleberry Finn to To Kill a Mockingbird, Dr. Seuss to, of course, Fahrenheit 451.

With the precedent set, the government decided to remove other sources of education, entertainment and enlightenment from the public. Anything not given an imprimatur by HWSNBN was taken from the owner and destroyed.

I was a teacher, a writer of children’s books teaching youngsters to respect one another, always keep an open mind about someone and not base our opinions on the way they look, speak or pray. Yeah, I was one of their subversives.
“One more time, man. Where are you hiding the books?” the big one hissed in my ear, spritzing it with spit when he pronounced the evil word. The click of his pistol hammer cocking into place may have been the loudest sound I ever heard.

“They’re gone, all gone,” I said.

“You lyin’ son of a bitch. I’m counting to three and you better come clean or I’ll blow your faggot brains all over your nice baby blue carpet. Guys, who in their right mind would have a baby blue carpet in their place?” He laughed the laugh of someone who knew not of freedoms other than his now-inalienable rights to bully, beat and burn.

“I gave some away and destroyed the rest,” I said, half-expecting the next sound I heard, a blast, to be my last.

“Search this place, Lou. Who’d you give ‘em to, author?” He stretched that last word out like it was a vile taffy.

“The school libraries in Beekmantown and Green Island. They had so little to offer their kids and…”

He swung the barrel of his pistol against my cheek, I saw a flash and down I went. But I was till alive.

“You want any more of that, you’ll stop bullshitting us and tell us where they are. The next time I pull the trigger.”

“I’m telling you the truth. Then other books, my collection of histories and classics, I destroyed them with the dignity they deserved. Instead of the brutish methods you…”

The pistol swung again, but a roar accompanied the flash this time. But again I was still alive. I reeled in pain and disorientation from the discharge by my ear as the bullet destroyed the glass door in the empty bookcase across the room my wife gave me on our last anniversary.

“Last chance, asshole. Next time, right in your ear,” the big one said, and I was fairly sure he meant it. I could see that from the barely contained manic anger in his piglike eyes peering from above the black mask covering the lower half of his face.

“There’s nothing in the basement, attic or shed out back,” the one called Lou said as he reentered what was until a fortnight before my study.
“I’m not lying,” I said above the pounding ring in my right ear. They’re all gone.”

“Computer. Where’s your goddamn computer, faggot,” the big one shouted into my left ear.

“One of your colleagues visited me last week and confiscated it at the behest of your informant across the street. The one who used to spend her days listening to talk radio and watching me from behind her curtains,” I said, preparing for the next blow.

“Is that so… You got any other devices you can use to spread your subversive lies with, writer boy?” the one called Lou asked.

“No, your people are quite…thorough.” I had five manuscripts on that computer and another two on my old iPad, which now were chewed up bits of plastic, glass and magnetic inspiration in some government scrap pile.

The one holding me down released his grip and I once again fell to the floor.

“All right, Andrews, we’ll be leaving now. But recognize this is only a warning. We’re keeping you under surveillance on the regular. If you so much as shit we’ll know what color. You get me? I shoulda taken that shot when I had the chance. You elites sicken me,” the big one said, giving me one more punch in the head.

And then they were gone.

That night, after cleaning up the mess as best I could, the blood would always be a reminder of that day, I went to the basement and made sure the curtains were shut tightly. With my penlight, I found the drain in the floor and unscrewed its cover.

Reaching into the pipe, I snagged the hook in the wire from which I’d suspended the plastic bag and pulled it up into the tiny circle of light. My Kindle hadn’t been dislodged in the search. I removed it from the bag and carried up into my darkened study, where I had digitized my library and transferred all my books to this glorious instrument.

I thumbed through the virtual pages and found the volume I was searching. I tapped it open and selected the words from March, 1861 and read them as I had many nights since the election and division of our nation. They gave me hope, as they will so many of us, even those who merely watched while all this happened. Your words once again inspired me:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

The next morning the big guy broke in again, kicked open my bedroom door and saw my Kindle on the nightstand. You don’t really hear the shot, do you, Mr. Lincoln?

Some people don’t have better angels. Some maybe don’t have angels at all.

This story was inspired by the quote from Mary Oliver. It all came in a rush and I can’t say it’s my usual theme (if I even have one it would never be politics), but here it came and here it is.

Searching for a Cure for Closed Books

 

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My books squat
in a burgeoning pile,
stratum upon dusty stratum,
each full of words wise
though silent,
save for the imagined
‘tsk’ my mind’s ear absorbs
with crimson shame.

I view them as a tourist
walking past pictures
of le Tour Eifel
or la Torre di Pisa,
glimpsing their images
from the corner of my eye
but never scaling their heights.
Even if that height
barely brushes my knee.

And there lies the blue and
fallow field of my e-reader,
within which I occasionally
climb stunted virtual trees.
Why do I no longer consume
the artfully written word?
Have I lost my appetite,
or am I waiting without recipe
to cook up something
even I would read?

Quickly dashed off poem of sorts inspired by this week’s prompt from Annie Fuller and her Writing Outside the Lines challenge. In this case, it is this quote from the great Mary Oliver (who I DO read):

“I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty. I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.”

Once I read on a level akin to respiration or eating, to sustain my life. Today, for reasons I cannot parse, I’ve become an asthmatic anorexic of the written word. I need a cure and I’ve yet to heal myself.

Unlock the Doors and Throw Away the Keys

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“How long’s he been in there?”

“Really? I’m not sure anymore. Could be a couple of hours. Could just as easily be a couple of months.”

“He just sits in there? Doesn’t talk to anyone?”

“That’s pretty much it, as far as I can tell. I’ve been in there a few times today, but he just looks at you––or maybe through you––and grunts an ‘uh-huh’ or ‘nah-thanks’. And then goes back to reading or staring or maybe just staring at what he’s reading.”

“So what do you want me to do?”

“I thought maybe you could go in there and try to bring him out. If not out of his room, then out of whatever shell or hole his hiding in. He’s always respected you, Ben. You’re always been Andy’s favorite coach, a mentor, a friend. I’m sure he’ll listen to you.”

“I don’t know. He’s been a little withdrawn for a bit. Still the hardest worker. Great pride and caring for his teammates. But he has been quieter and it’s really been noticeable since…you know.”

“But at least it’s worth a try. Please, see if you can get him to come out.”

“Okay, I’ll go in there and talk. But I can’t make any promises. We haven’t spoken with one another since the service.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much. I’ll leave you two alone.”

“Andy? It’s Coach Ben. May I come in?”

A pause.

“Andy?”

“Yeah, if you want to.”

“Hey. How you doing? I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by to say…”

“Could you close that door, please?”

“What? Oh, sure, sure. I’ll just leave it open a crack, okay?”

“Whatever.”

“So how you been? Your Mom says you’ve been kinda down in the dumps, though I can completely understand. What with..”

“Yeah, well, it is what it is. I’m okay. Just want to be alone for a while.”

“She says you haven’t left your room for a few days. Barely even eaten. That’s not good, man.”

“Not hungry. And I said I’m all right. Really. You don’t have to make nice and try making me feel ‘better.’ Okay?”

“Well, you don’t look okay. Jesus, can you at least open the blinds in here? It’s dark as the…oh, sorry.”

“The grave? Yeah, how ‘bout that?”

“I’m sorry, man. I should be more sensitive, think about what I’m saying. It’s just I didn’t expect to see you so…I don’t know.”

“Depressed?”

“Yeah, I guess I’d call it that. But, with your Dad and all, I can understand.”

“No, I don’t think so. But that’s okay. Look, you don’t have to stay. I’m all right. Just thinking. Trying to make sense. Figuring things out.”

“Like what?”

“Nothing, nothing really. Just…things.”

“C’mon, Andy, it’s me. Maybe if you just talked a little.”

“Okay, okay. I’m thinking about how I killed my father. You satisfied now? Now go away. Please.”

“What’re you talking about? You didn’t kill your dad. He, well, you know. For some reason he just wanted out. It’s a tragedy, man, but you can’t blame yourself for someone else’s decisions.”

“Oh, no? You didn’t know my dad, then. When I finally got the courage to tell Sergeant Clean Marine, Lieutenant Super-cop, he just stared at me with this look of…I don’t know what. Like I was some kind of repulsive criminal, a pedo or something.”

“That’s ridiculous. Your old man was proud of you. Super athlete, straight-A student, one of the most popular kids in your class, great son, true friend.”

“Liar.”

“I’m not lying. It’s all true.”

“Not you. Me.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“I’m the liar. My whole life’s a lie and that’s what made my dad kill himself.”

“You’re freaking me out, Andy. What do you mean, your whole life’s a lie?”

“C’mon, man. You know. You of all people know.”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“I finally told him about who, what I am. And that I was in love.”

“Yeah,so…”

“With you.”

“What? I never… You never.. You came out to your dad?”

“Yeah. And now you.”

“Okay, one big fucking deal at a time. And you think that’s why?”

“Not a two weeks after, man. He didn’t speak to me but a handful of words from the day I told him. I’d look up and find him looking at me and then quick-like tear his eyes away, like I was malformed, a freak.”

“Man, I’m sorry. Did you tell your Mom?”

“No, I wanted to get the hard part over first, then I’d worry about Mom. That was my big mistake. Besides even telling him at all.”

“I can’t believe your father would take that news like that. He always seemed so open, so loosey-goosey about people, especially for a cop. It’s what made him such a great cop.”

“Well, then you’d be wrong, Coach. I told him, I broke his heart, he killed himself. It’s all on me. And now I’m been thinking I might…”

“Cut it out, man. Stop this crazy talk. You’re not going to. You’ve got too much to live for. Your old man made his own decision. He didn’t have to do what he did. He could just as easily blown up, punch you in the mouth, thrown you out, whatever. It was his decision. This was all on him.”

“Nah. He’d rather be dead than have a gay son. Of that I’m sure.”

“Andy, stop! You stop that right now.”

“Mom? Were you listening? Jesus Christ, this is great. Why don’t we invite the whole town in here? I’m sorry, Mom. It was me. It IS me…”

“Honey, your father didn’t kill himself over you. He loved you. You were his shining light, the greatest decoration he had. He was more proud of you, valued you a thousand times more than his Silver Star, all the medals of valor combined, more than even me.”

“I’m sorry, Mom. It’s all my fault. I drove him to it. Did you see his face? Did you?”

“Andy, that was pain, fear. He didn’t have the courage to tell you.”

“What? That I was an embarrassment to the marble man? The most perfect man ever?”

“Stop it.”

Ben back toward the bedroom door.

“The world would be better off if I was the one who killed himself. Then you’d still have Dad.”

“No, I wouldn’t. He was dying.”

“What?”

“Dying, Andy. Your father had an inoperable tumor. Remember those headaches?”
“No. I never… I mean, he never said…”

“He said he’d tell you when the time was right. But he decided to end it before it got started. He left it to me to tell you. You know cops. They just…”

“Don’t cry, Mom. I’m sorry. But when I told him..”

“Andy, we’d pretty much figured out something like that was going on with you a while ago. It was hard for your father, but he’d come around for the most part. He was even going to tell you we knew, wouldn’t let me. Said it was a man-to-man thing. I was so stupid. It’s just that men in his family never open up, don’t talk about what’s really on their minds. Macho bullshit. And you’re a true Miller, just like your father, your grandfather, your uncle Bobby. He’s gay, you know.”

“ Uncle Bobby, the freakin’ All-American? I didn’t know. I didn’t know any of this. Why..?”

“Because everyone kept their doors closed. All the time. That’s the real tragedy of your father’s passing.”

“I’ll see myself out, Mrs. Miller. Looks like you two have got some stuff you want to talk about. You want me to leave this door open?”

“Yes, Ben. And thank you for kicking this one open in the first place. Looks like we’re going to air things out in here, in this family, for the first time in a while. Maybe ever.”

“Aw, I didn’t do anything. I think you two just needed someone to help open that door you talked about. Hey, Andy, when you’re ready to get back to practice, just let me know. We can talk about all this. It’s all cool, okay? You’ve still got the most guts of any player I’ve… well you do. See you soon, okay?”

As Ben Tolliver stepped outside the Miller’s house, he gave a great sigh and tightly shut his right eye and gave it a rub with his finger. He pulled out his phone and clicked on a number he called often, but for nothing as big as this time.

“Hi, Dad? You got a few minutes this afternoon? There’s something I’ve got to tell you that I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

“Yeah, see you in an hour. What? No, don’t want to talk about it on the phone. I’ll explain when I get there. Yeah. Yeah, keep the door open for me.”

Here’s the first draft of a story based upon the photo above and somewhat on this quote:

Happiness often sneaks in
through a door you didn’t
know you left open…
– John Barrymore

For whatever reason, I just started writing it as all dialogue. It’s my hope that the voices are distinct enough and the language helps express emotion. It’s kind of an ultimate experiment and exercise in  “Show-don’t-tell.” My friend Annie Fuller laid the photo and quote on me .

If We Leave Our Hearts Ajar

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Do you ever consider once again being
what their world would think is happy?
I’m not sure you and I can grasp their joy;
it’s like a hummingbird made of smoke and dreams.
Perhaps something like contentment might someday
slip within our reach, if we slide back
the bolts and leave our hearts ajar again.

Sometimes I think I hear it knocking,
then realize it’s more than likely
echoes of smiles we once shared when
we wore knockoffs of their happiness
like hand-me-down school uniforms we’d shuck
while walking together for the pleasure
we shared in being ourselves.

A first-draft hundred-word poem inspired by that quote from the actor John Barrymore that Sharyl Fuller offered as a prompt for her Writing Outside the Lines Challenge this week.

Seduction and the Siesta

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The afternoon lies so quiet you can
hear the air breathe from the heating vents
to the ceiling, where it swirls and drops
like a lover’s whisper on your pillow.
You never enjoyed naps, such siestas
seeming to embezzle from you, skimming their
time-is-money cut from something your sure
you should be doing…if you could only
stay awake in your recliner.

You’d arise from those afternoon suspensions
of consciousness and verticality feeling
worse than when you reclined.
But that was before you turned 60.
Wasn’t it?

Now you crawl into these twisted trysts
with the post-meridian Delilah
who stole your once Samson-like strength
(and hair). You fight her Morphean
ministrations until she strokes your brow,
untying the knots in your expanding forehead.
She draws you into her somnolent embrace
with sultry promises, warm upon your face
like the dreamy promises of that expectant lover.
And you fall for her once again.