Falling Like Autumn Leaves

The Winter snow is gone, but
the trees still hold Spring
in their fists, as if unwilling
to give up tomorrows
for the chilling prospects of today.
But I still see leaves, some lying
in corners, pasted together
by tears Winter held back.
Others, scoot like squirrels
in the March breeze, trailing
the shadows of seasons past,
before this doleful year when
so many, like autumn leaves,
fall away by the thousands
yet die alone. Maybe tomorrow,
the trees will open their fists,
extending new life on their limbs.
I know groves, though, where
too many others can’t reach back.

Love In the Time of Corona

So…what if this time it’s really the end?
The time to say adios, good-bye, adieu.
If it is, then what better time to send
one more poem, my friend, to say thank you?

Isn’t it strange how many questions I ask
when it wasn’t answers I really needed?
See? Now there’s two more I add to the task
of figuring you out. Never succeeded.

You whispered at me so many secrets,
then pushed me away when I’d lean too close.
Now, I’ve caught so many of your regrets,
and never knew why it was me you chose.

So here’s the end. Not too close, should I sneeze.
Never mind, we were always each other’s disease.

Sorry for the extra beat at the end. Sometimes such things don’t have a suitable explanation. They just have to be. Let’s just hope it’s like an extra heartbeat. Be well, stay vigilant, and know I’m always thinking of you as we each wait out whatever lies ahead. 

A Matter of Honor

They think I don’t hear them, but I do. Or at least I hear the hum of their talk with words bobbing up every now and then.

It certainly bests the sound of breathing, the crackle of my neck turning left and right on the cot, or the heartbeat that longs to feel hers, just to make some poetry that probably doesn’t rhyme anymore.

But out in the hallway, I’m pretty sure the guards are talking about me. I hear “bastard.” And maybe that was a “poor,” which I’d appreciate if this wasn’t the eve of the dawn we’ve been waiting for. Or dreading.

There! I’m pretty sure that was a “governor,” but it just as well could have been a “southerner,” or a “lovin’ her.” They all could apply to me. Though I’m not sure Yankees understand family and honor like we do.

I probably deserve the dance I’ll do when the sun clears the horizon. Eye for an eye and all. Carpetbaggin’ sumbitch deserved every last ball I put in him. Wish’d I had Daddy’s LeMat to wipe the grin off his face with a shotgun blast, too.

But some Yankee’s probably got that, too. Took everything, eventually, didn’t they? Saber, gun, horses, farm, Mama’s honor, my…

I heard the lock clank.

“All right, I’m afraid it’s time. Ya know, I’d have shot that scoundrel, too, Missy. If it’s any consolation. I take no solace in hangin’ a twelve year old girl,” the glossy-eyed, red-nosed sergeant said.

When there are no more of their culturally established defenders around, some women grow up fast to protect themselves and their own. Especially in a mid-19th Century rural society. This 250-word story reflects such a young woman doing what she decided needed to be done in a family whose men were erased by war. It’s in response to that first sentence up there, the prompt for this week’s Thursday Threads feature from author Siobhan Muir.

I Still See a Face

It seems so stupid,
how that face is still in my thoughts
visiting me more often than even
someone’s idea of a Muse.
And while some might call it
my poetic river’s source,
the thought of it brings
more sorrow than joy.
On my ceiling dark, I lie awake
and see those eyes swing
from glad to sad to mad
(or even angry)
and randomly hopscotch emotions
until my mind surrenders
in exhausted relief.
And so thank you
for your curious lullaby.

Your silence is often the last voice
I hear before the darkness
consumes my consciousness
and my dreamless sleep
provides escape from
the gladness, the sadness,
the madness, that would
drive most other men to
slumbering fantasy,
but prods me toward
the sweet relief of a poet’s
near-sleep breath and breath,
hopeful that even if all those
transgressions are not forgiven,
they may, at least someday,
like that face,
be forgotten.

A Willing Suspension of Disbelief In a Fearful Symmetry


Coleridge coined the phrase two centuries ago. The willing suspension of disbelief (WSOD), that is.

I was taught the phrase as part of a course on Romantic poetry – better known by most of us as the Byron and Keats stuff. It is the coin of the realm for creators of fiction, where a reader is only too happy to believe that a kid named Luke, from long ago in a galaxy far, far away, could shut down his target acquisition computer and use some spooky supernatural Force to make the greatest massé shot in (fake) space Western history.

These days, we see it in the DNA of almost every form of media, from books, movies and TV shows (Including “reality” television. Reailty? I mean, c’mon!) up to and including the news. Sure, you count on everything you hear from a talking hairdo on television to be the truth, but I’ve been on the other side of your news mirror (ink-stained, pulpy paper species) and you tell me if you believe what item lands in A1 above the fold or in the first time-part happens organically.

Sometimes News Sense is more like News ¢ent$.

And so we come back to Sam Coleridge, a laudanum-imbibing lotus-eater who would maybe be an Adderall-snorting edible-ingester today. Or a President. He would require you to believe everything he says is Gospel (and don’t get me started on the WSOD of that subject) and even use your opiate of the masses as the pre-warmed lube for the shtupping.

But maybe some don’t mind buying into the jive, especially if it fits into the jagged narrative they’ve got hidden under their sheets. Maybe they’re willing to forget what’s right and what’s wrong if it’s entertaining, in a nostalgic sort of “way it used to be” way. When it really wasn’t. They’re just suspending their belief of history and morality to suspend their disbelief in the lies, damned lies and “What-abouts” of the faux-arrogant fearful.

It’s all so Romantic, in a literary sense. It’s all so tribal, in a political one. You do you. I’ll do me. And maybe someday we’ll meet somewhere in the middle, when the smoke clears and truth means truth again. Maybe we can read Blake together.

Yeah, like that’s gonna happen. We’d have a better chance of rhyming “eye” with “symmetry.” Right, Tyger?

Circling the Herd In a Time of Social Distance

When you’re a kid and you get sick,
most times you’re lucky enough
to have the strength of many around
to tend to you and help you through it.
Or at least that’s how it was
during most of my life.
Oh, we’d run up against quarantines
for measles and chicken pox
and even polio (because I’m old).
The nation was a herd taking care of our own.
Now doctors tell me that a bunch of us
are going to get sick. But the herd
can’t take care of me because it seems
most of our horns have been sawn off
by the wolves in the food chain’s penthouse.
So, with almost seven decades
seasoning my once brown and shaggy coat,
it feels like I might be facing
a predator with no one of any muscle
having my back, at my shoulder,
over my wounded body. Sure seems like
it’s time to circle the herd for protection.
But it’s hard to feel safe while keeping
six feet of distance between each of us.

Terminal Contagion

Mortality casts its shadow jet black
at such dark times as these we’re living in.
My journey will end and I won’t come back,
probably lie on roadside, giving in.

I tried and tried to make my days brighter
to fend off the cause of this affliction.
But these dark clouds won’t let it be lighter,
erasing even my shadow depiction.

I caught this sickness when I was a kid
and it almost killed me and some others.
It’s contagious, and inside me it’s hid,
and can infect me, you and our brothers.

The virus in the news isn’t this disease.
It’s terminal hatred. Don’t succumb, please.

Always ~ Your Poet

I suppose I could try reaching out,
to inquire how you are.
I wonder about that too often,
more than from time to time.
But when I gather the courage
to extend my hand, I find my arms
grown shorter and my courage smaller
than they feel here in the dark.
But what if I could touch you?
Probably I’d feel your shoulder
twist away from this something
unexpected, unusual, unwanted.
So I send this soft bit of me with
unlimited reach, a near-anonymous
touch from my darkness to yours.
Hi, how are you? Thinking of you.
Always ~ Your Poet

1919

As Alice put another cold compress on Frankie’s forehead, I had my hand on her shoulder and felt it heaving up and down.

“Don’t cry, Alice,” I said. But when I looked in her eyes, they were dry. What I felt was not sobbing. She’d been suppressing her coughs, so she wouldn’t wake Frankie.

“It’s okay, honey. I’ll take over now,” I said.

“Thank you, Frank,“ Alice said, pressing her burning cheek to mine. As she left the room, I heard her cough…hard.

For a year, I’d seen buddies die in front of me, nearly ripped in half by German Maxim machine guns, wrong place/wrong time in an artillery barrage, and now a cold that killed in only a few days. I’d seen it France. I was told by some of the boys soldiers were dropping like flies at Fort Riley in Kansas. We slid more than twenty over the side of the Liberty ship bringing us home to the States. They told me it had hit New York City, too.

I was beginning to feel guilty about how some folks were saying we Doughboys brought the sickness back to America, this Spanish Influenza. I didn’t need that kind of help. War can make a guy feel guilty all on his own.

Frankie murmured something and started coughing, a weak, choking sound, so I propped him up a little more. But I knew even that wouldn’t help much.

I’d gone to France because I was drafted, not to make the world safe for democracy.

I fought there to take care of my buddies, but you can’t take care of someone vaporized by an 88mm shell dropped on his head.

I stayed alive to get home to Alice and Frankie, to see my boy grow up. To feel the warmth of my wife again. Tonight I felt feverish heat.

I heard the bed springs ring in the next room, then heard Alice cough again. And again. And again.

You feel so helpless at a time like this, no matter who you are or what you’ve experienced in life. How do you prepare for this? How do you prepare for dying by the hundreds and thousands? Or one at a time.

Frankie tried coughing again and he sounded like he was drowning and I could barely take it anymore. Such suffering for a kid. He opened his eyes and looked at me that same way. And that day broke through the thin crust I’d try to grow over the memory.

I saw that German kid in the middle of that shell hole again. It was full of water that had this yellow-green scum on top of it – the residue of their mustard gas. 

Me and my buddy Charlie Oakley had him covered with our Springfields and motioned for him to come out. But he wouldn’t. He just kept yelling – no, screaming – “Hilf mir, bitte.”

Then the boy, he wasn’t more than seventeen, I’d guess, he kind of fell over and his face went into the water. And he looked like he had shrunk by about a foot. He fell again and between the stagnant water in the shell hole and that Mustard residue, he started choking, drowning really.

Charlie said, “Shit, the kid’s stuck in there. Bottom of the hole must be all mud. I’ll fetch him.”

“Let him go, Charlie. He’s just another Kraut,” I said and spit into the water.

But Charlie was a preacher’s kid from North Carolina and it was obvious since all the way back in training at Fort Slocum that his mama raised him a real Christian gentleman.

Charlie slogged around to the far side of the crater and slid about halfway down. You could see how he was trying to figure out how he could reach the kid. 

“Hey, Frank, come over here. Hold my hand and I think I can grab this kid’s collar,” he said.

The mud in France is a living thing, you know, a monster that’ll suck your boots right off your feet and then eat your toes for dessert. As I clopped-plopped over to Charlie, the mud in that shell hole must have had enough of the German kid and it decided to try an American.

Charlie’s feet slid out from under him and, like on a sliding board, he flew out over the edge and fell flat on his back in that poison water and sticky mud. I ran over as fast as I could, but I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t see the German kid anymore, either.

“Charlie!” I screamed. I mean I screamed. Then I saw his head bob back above the water. But that was all I saw.

“Frank! Help me! I don’t want to die like this. Help me, buddy.” Then he went under again. 

He came back up, but all I could hear was this gurgling in his throat. His eyes were wild then they settled down. Just his face was above the water now. He stared at me like a yellow-green picture of Jesus in Gethsemane. Kind of pleading. And I knew what he wanted me to do.

I remembered what Jesus said that night. I looked into Charlie’s eyes and said, “Father, remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

Charlie sort of nodded and I raised my rifle and squeezed off the most difficult shot I ever took, even though my target was only seven feet away. Charlie disappeared, but the image of his face didn’t. Never will.

Frankie stirred again, shaking me out of this memory. I saw the whole thing in but a second or two. This time Frankie’s breath came like a fingernail swiped on a washboard. It sounded so much like guys who’d caught just enough gas to singe their throat and lungs, but not kill them. Not until they got to the hospital in Étaples. Then they’d get sick, dying there a day or two later. Fever. Lungs giving out.

Like Frankie’s did that night. Honest, they did. Alice lasted two more days. I’d been home three weeks and I can’t help but wonder. Did the influenza kill them or did the war?

Last night, I had that nightmare again where Frankie and Alice are neck-deep in the water and mud of that shell hole and pleading with me to save them. I raise my rifle, but just as i bring my rifle to my shoulder, I woke up. I eventually fell back asleep.

But then, a new dream. I hear the scream of that 88mm shell and it’s falling on top of me instead. I wake up and I realize it’s been me screaming. Again. But that 88mm falling on me? 

Oh, how I wish.

This story is a beefing up of a 250-word mini-flash I wrote for Siobhan Muir’s Thursday Threads. That version won the week’s contest. This version is the first draft of a more complete study of war, PTSD, survivor’s guilt and a world-wide pandemic. Needless to say, it was in many ways inspired the coronavirus infecting folks worldwide. I just built around a similar illness from 100 years ago. 

Turning Back the Pages

The decisions we’ve made
have steered our lives
like some existential
“choose your own adventure” book
with its pages ablaze.
We flip them back in recall
and feel the sting of those
times we chose C instead of
A or B. But what if we hadn’t?
I’d probably still be jamming
my fingers in my mouth,
wincing with the pain
I’d feel about the pain
I caused, scanning
the scorched past through
blackened memories of
times when I thought
my light was bright enough
to decide C sparkled like
the sapphire or obsidian
in those eyes I misread,
too.