The Duke of Tryon Court

Dave Clemente would walk around the neighborhood, ostensibly for exercise, but really he was inspecting everyone’s curb appeal, like he was the Duke of Tryon Court and we neighbors his vassals.

If your lawn was a little shaggy, or some dandelions decided to pop their little butter pat knobs above the grass, Dave would be like, “Off with their heads.” And he would pretty much tell you exactly that.

“You know, Ben, you’d better get control of those dandelions before they go to seed. I don’t need any parts of those little puffy tops finding their way to my lawn,” he told me two years in a row. The fact that I lived six doors downwind from his place didn’t matter. I and my lawn were just one of the invasive species that had taken over his verdant domain.

In truth, no one took better care of his lawn than Dave. Or more interest in everyone else’s. I would see him when I would go out to fetch the paper at dawn, positioning his sprinklers for maximum coverage, one inch of water in the ground per day, each day a third of the lawn catching his godlike decree of showers that kept his greensward looking like a billiard table straight from the factory.

I’d wave to him later as I walked out to the car on my way to work, but he didn’t notice very often. You could see him eyeballing the arc of the sprinklers’ spray, nodding approvingly at the way, if the sun’s angle was just right, it would drape a rainbow across his lawn. His head would follow each sweep of the sprinkler, left to right, right to left, mesmerized by the gift of life he was imparting to the organism that his house wore as a mantle.

If grass was supposed to be purple instead of green, Dave’s lawn would be the most royal of purples.

I sometimes would imagine what it would be like to be in his head, gauging everyone else in the neighborhood’s lawns against his own. I would watch him stalk the sidewalks, turning his head a bit sideways to observe if any of our lawn’s had grown irregularly over the past week since mowed on Saturday or Sunday.

“You need to check the level of you blade deck, Ben,” he’d say. “Look how unequal your cuts are. Lopsided and, well, trashy. And you really should stick to one kind of seed instead of those cheap blends. See how the rye grows faster in this weather than the fescue?”

“Um, no.”

“Here,” he’d say and pull me down to knee level and then tilt his head to the side again like he was sighting a sniper rifle. “See how those rye blades are popping up like moles out of their hole in relation to the red fescue? Makes it look shaggy as hell. And speaking of moles…”

“I gotta go, Dave. I think I left the tub running.”

“Okay, and that reminds me. One inch of water over the whole lawn. Gotta water deep to keep those roots well hydrated. Can’t let your lawn turn brown when everyone else is trying for green,” he shouted over my shoulder.

Like I said, Dave practiced what he preached to the nth degree. He treated his lawn as well, if not better, than he treated his kids. Which, if I had his kids, so would I. Wild little buggers, but probably since he wouldn’t let them play on his precious grass.

You’d see little Marisa doing cartwheels on everyone’s front lawns all the way down to the Cramers’ place, where she’d play tag with their kids. All around the outside of their house, including the front lawn. I’d find Dave Jr. running under the spray from my lawn sprinkler on those days I remembered to give it fifteen or twenty minutes of shower time. Kid would leave the lawn a muddy mess. But my son would join him, so I couldn’t bitch too much. I’d join, too, on those hot evenings.
Besides, what’s the sense of having grass around your house if you can’t enjoy it?

And where was their Dad? More often than not, he would be peering down the breadth of his lawn, flat on his stomach on the driveway, ruler in his hand, making sure the height never deviated more than a quarter of an inch from three and three-quarter inches. Then he would move to the middle, lie on his belly again, and do the same thing for all 360 degrees of that island of hoped-for fescue perfection. And he’d see to it with a pair of surgeon’s scissors.

I once wondered where his obsessive-compulsive bent in turf grass science came from. Dave hadn’t attended agricultural school, he was an IT guy. His father was an accountant and his mom stayed at home with the kids. I did notice some old family photos on his hallway walls once at a Christmas party. One showed young Dave and his Mom and Dad and brothers—all wearing the same little outfits with matching bow ties and two-tone shoes—seated on the couch. On the clear plastic-sheathed couch. Next to the clear plastic covered lamps. Feet dangling above the snow white carpet with the clear plastic runners leading back to the camera and across the whole living room.

I once played golf with Dave and instead of shooting the breeze as we walked the course, he would point out how the greenskeeper had done this to fix this part of the course and how he should have used that to keep a certain green from having darker green spots. I asked him how he knew that and he said his Uncle Carmine, who was a greenskeeper at a public course in Jersey, had taught him all this.

I once asked Gracie Clemente if Dave’s Uncle Carmine had ever been to their house.

“I imagine he’d be proud to see the efforts of his nephew.

“Carmine? Dave doesn’t have an Uncle Carmine. Oh, you mean Carmine Verducci. He was just a friend of the family. Sort of a surrogate father for the Clemente boys, since their dad was always working late hours. Dave and his Mom took Carmine’s death really hard,” she said.

After that, I didn’t begrudge Dave his idiosyncrasies as much. I may keep a shitty lawn, but I’m not exactly an unfeeling barbarian.

And I felt kind of sorry the day Dave died. We found him out in his backyard, lying on his stomach, his head up, looking and reaching out toward the back of his house.

“Poor man. he must’ve been looking for help from inside,” my wife said.

“Yeah. Sad.”

I say I felt kind of sorry because I knew Dave Clemente died doing what made him happiest. In fact, there was this calm and…I don’t know…accomplished look on his face when we found him. I didn’t have the heart to tell my wife about that few rogue blades of grass in front of him and how the Duke of Tryon Court already had his scissors in his hand.

This story — since I seem to be incapable of digging up sufficient emotion to write poetry lately — was prompted by Canadian writer and writing instructor Sarah Salecky for her “Six Weeks, Six Sense” writing feature. This week, we were supposed to use the sense of sight as a theme. I’m sure I blew the assignment altogether, but this thing just took off on me. I saw that one of her prompt photos and this story jumped out of my head to the page.

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Praying for Rain

“Do you think today will be the day, Pa?” Ephraim Holliday asked his father as the both stared west.

“Eph, I been praying it would be so,” said Ephraim’s father Eleazar. He reached down and gouged out a handful of the dry crust that covered what was supposed to be his cornfield like a scab. He crushed it in his hand and watched as the wind carried it eastward, as if saying, “You should go, too.”

“So you think those clouds gathering out by the mountains might be real rain clouds that’ll come our way?” Ephraim asked, since his father was the most learned man he knew out there on the Colorado prairie.

“I can’t really say just yet, Eph. A farmer’s just at the mercy of nature anywhere he lives. Out here on the shortgrass prairie, where water’s gotten scarce and we have to rely on nature’s own irrigation from the sky, mercy looks like it’s hard to come by,” Eleazar said. “Sometimes a farmer isn’t much more than a gambler, ‘cept the stakes are a whole lot higher than a few Gold Eagles.”

“Heard a man in Sterling say Hell would freeze over before we saw any rain that’d make a damn…oh, sorry…a difference for any dirt farmers out here,” Ephraim said.

“Go,” Eleazar said as placed his hand on his son’s shoulder and turned him back toward the house and barn. Ephraim knew that was his cue to do his morning chores, though they had become less laborious as his father was forced to sell off a few more head of his cattle and a mule just last week to the fellow running the mercantile in Sterling.

“Ephraim, could you fetch me a pail of water, please?” he heard his mother, Cora, call from their house, an unpainted cabin of sod and dry pine his father built with help from the Daley family. They had come west from Illinois with the Hollidays not two years before. They had made a life on the Illinois prairie for generations, according to Mr. Daley.

“Figured to make a go of it somewhere the land was open, free and wasn’t so crowded with lawyers, liars and politicians,” Daley had told his father the day they laid the first lumber.

But the Daley’s hadn’t counted on some Pawnee children who would ride onto their farm from time to time. Fewer of them a week after little Leah Daley got the measles and died. They hadn’t counted on some of the Pawnee boys telling their fathers about the sick little white girl who went to the Creator with the spotted sickness. They hadn’t counted on the Pawnee all catching measles and begin dying and deciding to nip the source of their curse in the bud by burning down the Daley’s place with the Daley’s inside. And then all but a handful of that band of Pawnee just disappeared like they had been caught inside the Daley’s blazing end, which Ephraim’s father said they might as well have.

Eleazar took possession of the seven scattered beeves and two mules the Pawnee hadn’t stolen or killed. Except now they were gone in trade to folks between his place and Sterling.

“Fire’s a terrible thing,” Ephraim said as he hauled a bucket up from the well his father had sunk near a small spring in a copse of trees nearby. The only trees for thirty miles in any direction, Ephraim reckoned. And from the way their shadows had begun to wake up from their western leisure, he also reckoned it was going on nine o’clock or so.

“Pour some of that into the big pot there, Ephraim,” his mother said. “Have you had anything to drink out there?”

“Not yet, Mother. Gotta see to the stock first.”

“If it doesn’t rain soon, you’ll be able to do that with a thimble, I’m afraid,” she said as she hefted the pot onto the hearth.

As Cora brushed back a strand of hair from her face, Ephraim stopped and realized how much his mother had changed in the past two years out here on the edge of the world. The hair she’d pulled back was gray and her eyes had taken on cracks like the ones along the lines of furrows out back.

“I’m going back to work, Mother,” Ephraim said. and the gave her a hug.

“Oh, my. You caught me by surprise, Eph. Almost dropped a plate. What brought that on?”

“Just ‘cause, Mother.”

“Well thank you, Eph. You’ve made my day. Now you better scoot before it gets too hot out there.”

Ephraim left the house and joined his father, who had begun digging a trench to somehow connect one end of his cornfield with the spring.

“Shovel’s right there, Ephraim. Let’s see if we can get another eighty or ninety feet today before your mother shoos you back in the shade,” his father said.

“Clouds are building, Pa. Look at that.”

Eleazar picked his head up from his digging and peered through the shimmering air at the far mountains, where the clouds were indeed rising like heavenly mountains themselves. Only they were beginning to crawl east.

“Hmmph, maybe the mountain’s gonna come to Muhammad today.”

“What? Who?”

“Oh, just something from old saying, Eph. ‘If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain.’ Means if one’s will doesn’t prevail, one must submit to an alternative. Like if it won’t rain on our field, then we have to bring rain to the field. Now pick up that shovel, boy and let’s move a mountain,” Eleazar said.

Ephraim grabbed for his shovel, but once more looked at the rising peaks of white and gray and made another little prayer for any rain the Lord saw fit to give the Hollidays.

“Even a thimbleful,” he whispered.

“Ephraim!”

“Yessir, Pa.” And the sound of two deep scraping shovelsful, punctuated by a shallower one, began a chain that lasted through noontime, lunch and until the clouds and sun met somewhere between Ephraim’s labors and the mountains, and when a cool wind brought a chill to the sodden backs of the Holliday men.

While they had labored, the sun had fired morning into a cumulonimbus alloy of power and potential crouching above the eastern Rockies. They looked up at the cloud tops and saw summer had forged an anvil upon which it might clang out sparks and pound down thunderclaps upon the prairies.

“Clouds are getting sorta dark aren’t they, Pa?” Ephraim said.

“Yeah, they actually are. Say you prayers, Eph. This could be the one, just like you asked for this morning,“ Eleazar said.

Out in the distance a jagged rip of white tore down from the sooty bottom of the cloud mass moving swiftly eastward.

“Shhh… Count, Eph. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi… When they finally heard the rumble of thunder, Eleazar said, “I’ll be damned. Twenty miles.”

“How’d you know…?”

“Tell you later. Gather what stock you can into the barn and tell your mother I went to fetch what I can of the cattle. I’ll be back before anything happens. If anything IS gonna happen.”

They both scrambled from the ditch and carried their shovels toward the house, where Eleazar peeled off and saddled and mounted his bay and rode northwest to herd what beeves he could find and drive them nearer the house.

“Mother, did you see? Did you see the lightning? Hear the thunder?” Ephraim said as he rushed through the door.

“Only heard the rumble, Ephraim. Where’s your father?”

“He just went to gather some of the cattle. Said he’d be back directly. I gotta tie down the goats and milk cow and get the horses inside the barn. I’ll be back.”

As he headed outside, Ephraim saw the clouds had become a slate ceiling across the sky and he whispered again another prayer that his family’s farm would no longer thirst for relief from this drought. He jumped when he saw another flash of lightning and counted Mississippis until he heard the thunder, though he didn’t know how his father figured out the distance. Ephraim wondered if the thunder was God’s way of telling him salvation was on its way or only another empty test of faith, a weaving of wind and water with want.

His father was closing the corral just as he finished tethering the stock in the barn. Both Eleazar and his bay mount were panting and slicked with sweat.

“I’ll take care of Red here. You go in and help your mother with the other children,” Eleazar said as he uncinched his saddle and removed the bit from his horse’s mouth. “Scoot, I’ll be right behind you.”

Behind him, Ephraim could hear the wind blowing louder now and a flash of light burst through every gap in the boards of the barn walls. Then before he could get to “One Mississip…” a sound like the Apocalypse exploded all around.

“Is this it, Pa? This must be what we’re waiting for,” he shouted over his shoulder as he ran toward the house. Inside, his baby sister Lucy was wailing in his mother’s embrace and his two-year-old brother Edwin sat on the floor clutching Cora’s leg.

“Is your father back?” she said, fear widening those wear and sun crinkled eyes.

“Yes, Mother. He’s coming right behind…”

“Shut the door, Ephraim,” Cora said. The wind was blowing dust from what remained of a dream all through the front room.

And then came the hammering on the roof.

“Rain, Mother,” Ephraim shouted, which startled the baby even more. The clattering above was so loud, he didn’t hear his father enter, only felt the chill air that raised the hairs on the back of his neck. As he turned, he saw his father standing in the doorway. He was shaking small white balls off his shoulders and hat brim.

“Hail, Cora. Very little rain yet. And that wind’s blowing up something fierce,” Eleazar said, his own eyes projecting something Ephraim had never seen in them before. He’d seen his father angry enough to level a man twice his size. He’d seen him weep over the grave of little sister Susan back in Missouri. He’d seen their joy at Lucy’s birth. But he’d never even thought of the wide and confused look he saw at that moment in his father’s eyes.

“Ephraim, come here,” Eleazar shouted above the din on the roof and the roar of the wind, which, if anything, had grown louder. Eleazar knelt next to Cora and held his boys in front of him, as close to Cora as they could get without usurping little Lucy’s place in her arms.

“Let’s pray now. Let’s pray that we are saved from whatever has beset us out here on the edge of the world. Let’s pray, boys, as the Lord has ordained. “Our Father, which art in Heaven…” And the voices of Cora and her sons carried on with the Lord’s Prayer as Eleazar listened to how the wind had changed. It now reminded him of the trains that ran from Chicago to St. Louis. And he knew Hell had frozen over and his world had just turned upside down.

Outside, something looking like Satan’s tail dropped from the heavens, it’s tip a whirling skein of Colorado dirt, dust and short grass. And as the boys, their eyes tightly closed in prayer, recited “…now and at the hour of our death. For Thine is the Kingdom and the Power…” Satan scooped up their bone-dry souls, when the only sin they had committed was to pray for rain in this little portion of the frontier between his kingdom and the Creator’s.

First story of any length in a long time. A Western, I guess. It was prompted last week by Story A Day’s Julie Duffy, who asked for a solstice story. Then so much hard life fell down on me. So today, I just started writing a summer story. Can’t say if tornadoes his the Colorado prairie in late June or not. For once, I didn’t burn too much time researching as much as I normally do. Didn’t know what might come along to stop my writing and I wasn’t waiting to find out. So here’s a first draft, rough, dust-laden and jumbled as the Hollidays’ farm the day after this Summer Solstice sometime in the 1860s. And, yes, I know most early farmers on Colorado’s Eastern Plains lived in soddies, but I needed something that’d burn and made a racket when rain and hail hit the roof. 😉

Feathers in the Grass

Whenever feathers lying in the grass I spy
they remind me of my dwindling days.
For all too soon I too could fall and die
and how would you know I passed though this maze?
Each quill is the scar of a leaving behind,
the remnant of some bird’s flying away.
And when I find one I hope Life may be so kind
that you might find mine when I fly one day.
So I leave these feathers of a heart taken wing
and a soul that never found a nest.
They’re dipped in black and songs they sing,
so you might know my soul’s finally at rest.

I said goodbye to my oldest and best friend today. And on top of everything else going on in my little life, it’s left me shattered. But it reminded me that anyone’s time could come in the next week, day, hour, or minute. And in those seconds, however many we’re gifted, I hope we can leave something behind (doesn’t have to be a silly poem) for our friends to remember us. Maybe just to let them know in some way you loved them. BTW, love you. 

Photo © Joseph Hesch, 2017

The Spider

Slept here, watched here,
leapt here, fed here
in the window of this house
we’ve built for one another.
As you scurry past my watchtower,
solitary, I’ve seen your
comings and goings,
your joys and sorrows,
your yesterdays, todays
and hoped-for tomorrows.
With every turn, you rip away
a corner of this Web I’ve stretched
to sense the quickening
and ceasing pulses of things
I can’t see with my many eyes.
Once torn, I spin a new yarn
to memorialize your passing.
But the foundation has failed
and our house is falling, blowing me
away upon its final exhalation.
I am suspended in air without wings
and the great descent it comes.
For this moment, though, I see
all our lives spread beneath me,
the ever solitary spider…
And never have I felt so alone.

I am, I was, I

I
I am
I can
I want
I take
I can take
I can take more
I can’t take more?
I can’t take?
I can’t?
I’m not?
You
I’m not
I couldn’t
I couldn’t take
I couldn’t take more
I can’t
I can’t take
I can’t take more
I can’t take any more
I can’t
Take
Any more
And now you.
I just can’t
Just can’t
Just
I
I am
No more

A mind full of faces and places that mean everything and nothing races nowhere. Well, just here. Just here. Unwell.

Going Back to Escudilla

Whenever he came to town, Ike Biggs could feel their eyes on him not only on the street, but even from within the storefront windows. Some folks would step off the sidewalk into the street to avoid him, or move clean to its other side. They’d sometimes make it look like they were headed to a store over there, but usually Ike would notice how they’d look over their shoulders to see if he was watching them or, worse, following.

And he knew some would be saying something like, “The boy ain’t been right since that day,” just as Abner Klein whispered to no one as he leaned on a broom inside the doorway of his mercantile. And then Ike walked across the street, too, and headed right for Old Man Klein’s doorway.

“Oh shit,” the old man said as he tripped over his broom and stumbled to the floor. He did not make it to lock the door, with its CLOSED sign hanging at eye-level, before Ike stepped up on the wooden sidewalk and strode inside.

“You all right, Mr. Klein?” Ike asked as the old man picked himself up from beside the door and kneeled in a forlorn posture, as if God Himself had just given him the bad news he wouldn’t be saved that day.

“Oh, good morning, Ike. I’m just, uh, looking for my pencil. I think I dropped it over here somewhere.”

“You don’t mean the one behind your ear, do you?”

“Oh? Well land’s sakes, there it is. Why thank you, Ike. Thank you very much. Now, um, what is it I can do for you today? Oh, no no, you just stay there. I can get myself up,” Old Man Klein said, grasping the door knob and hefting himself to his feet with a profound sigh.

“I’s wondering if my order came in yet. That wire and linen canvas and feathers. Gonna make it this time for sure,” Ike said. Klein couldn’t help but see the large oval scar atop the young man’s head and how his eyes never quite looked in exactly the same direction at the same time.

“The canvas and feathers got here just day afore yesterday, they did, Ike. But the wire I had to special order from Chicago. The kind you wanted ain’t thick enough for fencing. In fact, about the only thing it’s good for is stringing pianos. Cattle would just bust right through it and I don’t think you can really corral chickens, eh?” the old man said with a nervous laugh.

“Ain’t for no corral and you know it, Mr. Klein. It’s gonna hold together something more grand than anything anyone in this town or even them Tonto and White Mountain Apache have ever seen. And I don’t mean no grand pianee, either,” Ike said as he pounded his hand on the counter.

Ike then rubbed at his scar and closed his eyes, which suited Old Man Klein because he never could figure out which one to look at when he had to talk to Ike.

“Now don’t get yourself all riled up, Ike. Didn’t mean to start anything. Here, let me fetch that batch of canvas for you. This is going to make some giant tent, I’ll tell you,” Klein said as he headed to the storeroom just at back of the mercantile.

“It ain’t for a tent, you know,” Ike said, calming down as he heard Klein fumbling with bundles in the back. “You’ll all see the day I come back to town and I ain’t walking.”

“A’course, son,” Old Man Klein said as he hefted a huge roll of off-white canvas onto the counter. “You’ll be riding that buckskin pony you lit out of the White Mountains with, no doubt. Fine little piece of…”

“No,” Ike shouted. “Won’t be ridin’ Jlin-Litzoque neither.”

“Well, if you ain’t walkin’, and you ain’t ridin’, I got no idea how you’re gonna get into town except maybe…”

“When you expecting that wire to come in, Mr. Klein? I’m gonna need it to finish my łigai-itsá.”

“Was told it was in Scottsdale yesterday, so we should have it here by Friday. Your licorice?”

“My łigai-itsá. White eagle.”

“Oh, sure, Ike. White eagle. I’ll be sure to send little Eddie up to your place and let you know when you can come down and pick up your wire,” Klein said.

Ike pushed twelve dollars onto the counter.

“Thank you, Mr. Klein. I’ll be down to pick it up lickety split. And in another week or so I’ll be coming here maybe even faster. Certainly grander. Why I’ll go back to Escudilla and I’ll come a’soar…”

Sheriff Ben Benson knocked on the door frame of Klein’s store and said, “Morning, Abner. Ike. Everything all right in here today?”

“Yep, Sheriff, just fine,” Ike said as he rushed past Benson, his huge roll of canvas and a sack of feathers locked in a bearhug.

“Will you look at that, Abner. Sidewalk clears of folks like it was the damn Red Sea and Ike was Moses himself carrying the Commandments. Boy looks like he’s seen the Burning Bush itself, too. A’course poor Ike ain’t been right since them White Mountain Apaches tossed him over that cliff on Escudilla Mountain,” Benson said. “Would’ve been kinder for the poor, addled sumbitch if he hadn’t hit that eagle nest on the way down. Some days he talks like he wishes he’s one of them eagle young’uns that fell with him.”

“Yeah, but they were able to fly away and poor Ike just sorta fell like a sack of… Wait a minute!”

First story draft in a very long time. I have no idea from where it came and it’s as first-drafty as one of my stories can get. But, darn it, it’s a story! I started with the idea of some Western character name Faustus and wanted to see what deal we both could make with the writing Devil his self. Instead, I wrote about a man (Ike, as in Icarus) who was looking to soar with the angels.

July 5th

Thunder rolls from cloud to cloud where fireworks boomed clear their cannonades last night. The flash of any electric pyrotechnic hides in the hazy sunlight, whereas darkness embellished the rainbow blooms of July 4th’s aerial party favors. But where’s the rain? Perhaps it’s pausing for thunder to clear its path, warning to shelter those savoring the mid afternoon air, warm and wet as a lover’s kiss. Another rumble and I turn away, thinking this storm might be all bark and no bite. That’s when something rat-tat-tats at my window, startling me, and its fangs begin chewing away at the sill.

Photo © Joseph Hesch 2017