Keep the Change ~ 3rd Street, Albany, 1968

“Oh, it’s’a Friday already? Come in, come in,” Mrs Dargenti would say most weeks. The old Italian lady would invite me across her threshold and fish a buck and a half out of a gold-clasped change purse each week for her daily newspaper.

I can still smell the pungent bouquet of garlic, oregano, basil and olive oil, with a hint of what I’d someday learn was anise. From the living room walls, four generations of strangers, captured in First Communion piety or Wedding Day solemnity, intimately stared across the entry at me.

The living room furniture glistened under plastic coverings, preserved like Wednesday’s leftover lasagna, protected from time and tipped wine. I imagined everything inside was like it always had been, except now the sounds of Papa and the kids were replaced by the voices of Jerry Vale, Dominico Medugno and lonely sighs in italia.

Across the street in the three-story walk-up, six families lived (twelve, if you wanted to be accurate as a census), the hallways cloaked me in darkness while the air choked me in its closeness, redolent of boiled cabbage, piss, weed and something more felt than seen or smelled.

If anyone opened the doors to you, it’d usually be as far as the chain lock would allow. If that lock was off, you weren’t invited past the threshold.

“Whachoo want?” any resident younger than fifty would say if anyone even answered the door. I’d tell them I was collecting for the newspaper delivery. Inevitably, they’d say to come back later, tomorrow, next week, when no one would answer my knock.

But if Mrs. Symonds, the matriarch of the family answered, sometimes she’d open the door enough for me to see inside, where a dingy sheet covered the sagging sofa. A pair of mismatched sheets hung from curtain rods on the two front windows, providing a modicum of privacy from without.
Within, however, there was no such thing. Four rooms and a bathroom left little space to fit the grandmother, her son, her daughters and her daughters’ children.

If Mrs. Symonds paid, it would be apologetically for two of the four weeks she owed, and it would be with three crumpled singles she’d pull from her stained housecoat. I’d eat the balance of the other two weeks, cutting another three bucks into my earnings for the month.

I really didn’t want to go back into the building. The soundtrack from the other three flats, sometimes say James Brown and others maybe Marvin Gaye, never drowned out the backbeat of the looped percussive bang of my heart when I climbed to the second floor. Not after a guy I’d never seen before stepped out of the shadows by the stairs and cut a memory into my chest.

Later, when my connection to newspapers was to fill them with words instead of delivering them, I drove along my old paper route. There, the home that once preserved its past still stood. It now sported an out of character, unpainted front step of cast concrete, it’s aluminum railing canted to the left. Lengths of stained green vinyl siding sagged or flapped from its sides.

Across the street, a vacant lot stretched like a glass-strewn grave where the other house stood. If it was a fire or some stillborn plan for a new building that brought it down, I’ll never know.

The truth is, despite an effort to preserve some hazy, idealized past or merely survive the present, the future can be as cold as that thin blade, as hot as the desperation and anger crouched behind locked doors and beneath staircases and as inevitable as the fact you may be able to go home again, but home may not be there to greet you. Especially not with a buck and a half. Forget any ten-cent tip.

In retrospect, you can keep your change.

Don’t know why or from where I wrote this. Just started scribbling in pencil on a notebook page. Maybe Inspiration has run its course in my life. These days, it feels like that housecoat pocket of Mrs. Symonods.

Same As They Always Have

Spring Shoreline

On the creeks and rivers,
most of the ice has broken up
and moved idly downstream
like a weekend sailor floating
without care as it appears
the homes along the banks
are the moving ones. Sometimes,
the broken pieces will collect
in the narrows. But the waters
never stop, and will push against
the ice dams and bulge backward
over the banks, flooding the same
as they always have.
The pulsing Saranac or Mohawk,
the Black or Schoharie will
hemorrhage their riparian blood
over farm and field until the dams
break and the waters recede to
their courses. I’d walk the banks
then, observing how upriver
shore flotsam have run aground
and woven baskets of natural hand work.
That’s the rivers’ art, never stopping
to admire or regret what they’ve
crafted for good or ill. They’ll
slap their waves upon the shore
and move on, same as they always have.

STET ~ A Story

After reading his latest message, Alice Blanchard had enough of Clive Swindell. She balled up this note, tossing it at and missing the wire wastebasket next to her writing table in her tiny apartment.

“Honestly, Lucy, that man makes me so angry I could…” Alice finished her sentence with a sob.

“What’d the jerk say this time, Alice?” her roommate Lucy Watkins said as she picked up the offending projectile and smoothed out its prose, which, essentially, was what Swindell was telling Alice to do in the first place. Only Lucy did it much more gently.

“He says this latest draft of my novel lacked any discernible plot, was short on dialogue and action, and long on exposition and, what he called ‘the mewling and mawkish meandering of some high school girl.’ The publisher is expecting this manuscript in two weeks. Now I’ve got to type the whole thing out again with the changes he’s ordering based on what I think is his personal animosity toward me,” Alice said as she pulled the marked up manuscript of her second book from a large manila envelope.

“Looks like it’s bleeding blue blood, Alice. Like Swindell took out his poison pen and just kept stabbing it.”

“The publisher loved my first novel. Not sure why they assigned their — and I quote — best man to be my editor. He’s downright rude and demeaning. I’m going to take the train downtown to his office — uh-gain — and confront him with his edits. I followed every one of his ‘suggestions’ last time, the time before that, and the four or five times before that, and look at this,” Alice said, fanning the pages of her manuscript in such a way that its passing pages looked like a light blue wave crashing on her writing table.

“And all he does is look at me, barely blinking, saying, ‘Well, Mis Alice Blanchard, I’m trying to help you make a success of this book and we’ll keep working on it until it shines,’ like I didn’t know what I was doing.”
“Maybe he hates women,” Lucy said.

“I just know he’s mean to his secretary and pretty mean to me,” Alice said, putting on her best hat and gloves and heading for the door. “Don’t hold up supper, Lucy, I should be back before 5:00.”

Alice silently practiced what she planned to say to Swindell when she got to his office. She recalled the meeting with the editor where he had tossed the third draft of her novel manuscript at her from across his desk.

“Not nearly good enough yet, Miss Alice Blanchard,” he said. “I wish to be carried along on the emotional wave of your heart and voice in this work.”

“He’s never written his own novel, you know. He’s really just a poet,” his secretary told Alice. “Probably editing and polishing it until he’s satisfied…which will be never. One of his authors told me if he’d kept rewriting until Swindell said his book was finished, he’d be waiting until that Hitler fella came over and planted a kiss on President Roosevelt.”

Alice grinned and rose from her seat in anticipation of the subway grinding to a stop down in mid-Manhattan’s Flatiron District. She walked right by the secretary and knocked once then burst into Swindell’s office.

“Why, Miss Alice Blanchard, what a surprise to see you here. Have you completed your redraft already?” Swindell said, not the least startled nor perturbed by Alice’s abrupt entrance.

Swindell was a man in his late forties who always wore a suit, keeping his jacket buttoned and rep tie knotted at his starched collar. On his desk stood four columns of manuscripts, each about a foot tall and as perfectly square and plumb as the building in which they sat. In the darkest corner of the office, a Victrola played a recording of Leopold Stokowski leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in Brahms Symphony No. 4.

“No, Mr. Swindell, I haven’t completed my redraft. How many redrafts do you expect me to do when you have me change something only to mark that you want it changed again? Sometimes back to the way I had it in the first place.”

“Believe me, Miss Alice Blanchard, I have only the best interests of this company — and you, the author — to ensure this novel will shine to the sun-bright promise of my not insignificant editorial gifts. And yours as writer, as well, of course,” Swindell said. Then he just stared at Alice.

“Well, Mr. Swindell, I think you and your ‘not insignificant gifts’ can take a long walk off a short pier. I want you to take one more look at this manuscript, not with your eyes, but with those of the readers who might plop down their money to buy it. Show it to your bosses, too. See what they say.” Alice pushed the marked up manuscript across the mahogany desktop toward the editor.

“I expect you’ll be sending it back to me, a mess of blue pencil on each page, but I don’t think I can make it any better than it already is…and has been,” she said, turning and walking out the door without waiting for Swindell to reply.

On the train headed back home, Alice thought, Well, that’s it for this publishing house. Maybe I can take this manuscript to another one after I it back with my letter of rejection.

Two weeks later, a fat manila envelope arrived at Alice and Lucy’s door. Inside was a proof of her manuscript and a letter from the publisher that said in its first paragraph they were ready to take it to print.

“Yee-haw, the Texas-born Lucy shouted. “That’ll show that tight-ass Swindell. What’s that other one?” she said, pointing to a second envelope with the publisher’s address in the upper left-hand corner.

“Don’t know,” Alice replied as she sliced the top open with a steak knife. Again, it was a pile of pages, wrapped in brown paper, with a cover letter on top.

Alice took the letter and began to read it.

“It’s an apology from the vice president for my having to rewrite my book so many times and go see Swindell about it each time I did,” she said. As Alice continued to read the letter, her face grew pale and she gave a short gasp.

“Lu, Swindell’s dead. Found him slumped at his desk over a file with my name on it: ‘Miss Alice Blanchard.’ The letter says they decided to send them to me because…”

Lucy unwrapped the brown paper surrounding the envelope’s contents and said, “Honey, these are all hand-written in blue pencil and they’re poetry.”

Alice took the first page and read:

If Only Alice
When the light of day follows the sun
to its westward bed, and clouds tuck in
the moon and stars, I sometimes wonder
what it would be like.
If.
That’s when I see my clearest,
when the distractions of the real
don’t encroach on this vision moment
where the voice in my head echoes the same
sad reverie as perhaps yours might.
If.
That’s why I share this bed with
naught but a weighty conjunction,
a supposition called on account of darkness,
a two-letter regret wrapped in desire
and a vision of you in the not-there.
If.

“They’re all love poems, honey,” Lucy said. And it looks like they’re to … you.”

“I was so sure he hated me. Why else would he keep sending me back edited and re-edited manuscripts? Oh. Oh my, just so I’d come down…”

Alice took the pages from Lucy and fanned through them, seeing her name here and there, as if floating upon the emotion, hearing it in Clive Swindell’s voice above the roar of his final heartbeat wave of blue on white.

Rough two-hour first-draft story in response to Annie Fuller’s Writing Outside the lines prompt of this quote from William Wordsworth: “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” I thought of setting this story in New York City in ,ohhhh, say 1934. Don’t know why. It’s just how I saw it.

That’s one of my old poems I repurposed for the scene. Oh, and STET is editor code for “let it stand,” an instruction on a printed proof to indicate that a correction or alteration should be ignored.

Blue on White

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen – Torn Notebook

“Fill your paper with the breathings
of your heart.” ~ William Wordsworth

I’ve hidden some dog-eared
notebooks on the bottoms of
my desk drawers into which
I’ve opened a vein and gushed
the contents of my heart
to you like a mooning teen
would in his spiral-bound journal,
his unrequited sighs tearing
at the pages, making a break
for it over the wire.
Hands smudged bloody with ink,
we each pen our own
Twenty Love Poems
and a Song of Despair
.
The pages pulse with heartfelt
exhalations and exultations
to someone we never could outright
tell how they make our hearts quicken,
criss-crossing white dreamscapes
with blue blood trails.

This week’s first-draft poem in response to Annie Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines Challenge prompt. It’s that quote from William Wordsworth at the top of the poem. It filled my paper with poetic panting in quick order. The short story to go along with the prompt, however, might take a little more time.

Afraid of Being Afraid of the Dark

Here in the darkness, we all look alike.
Yet we fear that which we cannot see.
If we reach out to explore more than
what we hide or hide from,
we might find whatever differences
we sense are actually differences we share.

I wonder what would happen if we conquered
our fears, raised the shades, opened our eyes,
unlocked our doors and allowed a new day
into our rooms. Perhaps we’d discover
it isn’t one another we need fear,
but the darkness within which we cowered,
covers over our heads,
pillows muffling our ears and minds
we kept imprisoned, locked away
by our own intentions.

It’s fear that compels us to conceal
ourselves from the known and unknown,
fears of being hurt in which
we not only hurt ourselves,
but the shadow-shrouded world
we hope would just go away.
My fear is it already has and
now we’re really alone the dark.

The Search Continues

I’ve been searching for something
my whole life, but if you stopped
and asked what my goal, my hoped-for was,
I’d likely give you the same kind
of twitchy, unfocused look as
any other liar. I’d give you some answer,
firm as granite or flimsy as fog.
But, in truth, that answer’s proven
as elusive, as out-of-reach as
that for which I’ve searched.

It’s worn me down over all this time,
and the only truth I’ve ever found
is this: Life’s one long crawl
toward a shiny something that
turns out to be nothing more
than a mirror reflecting the fact
I’ve spent my life digging
for nothing more than a clear look
at who I am and what I’ve become.
And I haven’t captured that yet.

What Can I Get You?

Would you let me
buy you a drink?
Or are you one
who partakes alone,
by the TV’s light
with the sound
turned down?

I wouldn’t even
have to sit 
this closetoyou.
That’d make me
uncomfortable, too.
Though I don’t
hear too well
in a bar.

I can’t remember
if you’re one of those
pugnacious drunks
or if the wolf
you turn loose on
some booze’s buzz
is a puppy like mine.
My spirit puppy.

I ginned up the courage
to ask, since I’m
just talking to
a piece of paper
and a poem’s always
been my go-to
cheap date.

Here’s my daily shot of spirits. The kind of spirits that possess me and communicate things through me I’d never have the sand to say. Or even think to. Mopey old spirits thirsty for something you can’t pour from a flagon. Unless said vessel is a heart.