With Stars in Our Eyes

I closed the book, put down the lighted magnifier and realized this might be the last one I’d ever read.

You think of these things when you’re going blind. And fast. Ischemic optic neuropathy is what the doctors called it. On top of that, I had something called low tension glaucoma, something the regular eye exams would never pick up.

They were something I’d had for decades as my eyesight deteriorated and the doctors just gave me stronger eyeglass prescriptions and the lame, “You’re getting older” jive.

“Another headache, Dave?” my wife Jen would ask.

“Yeah. Work’s just been a bitch and my sleeping has sucked.”

“When are you going to see a doctor about it?” Jen would always say.

“It’s okay, Jen. Just migraine or something. I’ll take an ibuprofen and it’ll be fine,” I’d reply. But then the ibu didn’t seem to hit it anymore and my peripheral vision seemed to be shrinking.

After I nearly rolled off the shoulder of the country road out near Oneonta, almost taking out a jogger, I decided I’d better see the doctor. But it was too late. The damage was done, my optic nerves were dying and the world was going dark faster than the onset of a January night. Only no dawn was riding to my visual rescue.

To her credit, even though I deserved it, Jen never pulled the “I told you so” card on me. She was calmer than I thought she would be, though in no way unsympathetic. She just was Jden, the woman I’d loved for over forty years.

She found me sitting in the dark, moping, feeling sorry for myself. I’d become your typical panicked patient. You begin groping even before everything goes dark, pondering how you’ll survive in the perpetual night coming in just a few months or even weeks.

“Hey, why so dark in here?” Jen said and flipped on the lights.

“I’m trying the future on for size. Now turn out the lights, Jen, and let me think, okay?”

“I wasn’t talking about the lights, Dave,” she said.

“Wouldn’t you be upset if you were me, Jen? Tell me you wouldn’t,” I said.

“I would be and I am, Dave. But sitting here silently raging in the dark isn’t going to change that. Now let’s about this some so we can figure out what we’re going to do when…you know.”

“Are you kidding?” I said, jumping up from my chair and moving toward her voice. I tripped over the ottoman and fell to the floor, banging my head and seeing flashes of light like I hadn’t seen in months.

“Dave, are you okay?” Jen said, hitting the light switch again and rushing to my side.

“See? See what an invalid I’m becoming? I’ll be nothing but a fucking burden on you and useless to myself and everyone else.”

She stood up and looked down at me. I could feel her eyes boring a hole through mine. I recognized that energy from all the other times I’d been a self-absorbed asshole with her.

I scrambled off the floor to the window, embarrassed for my whining outburst. I opened the curtains and looked into a darkness that might well be my view for the rest of my life.

“I can’t even see the stars anymore, Jen. Our stars, the one’s we’d stare at from the bed of my pickup when we were 17.”

“We can get through this, Dave. We’ve been through worse. What about my mastectomy? Fucking cancer and you never wavered in your devotion and care. You’d hold me every night, loving ME, not just some bra mannequin, as much in love as in the back of that pickup.”

“I’ll never see the kids faces anymore, never watch the grandkids grow up. And worst of all, I don’t know how I can take never seeing you again, Jen,” I said with a catch in my throat.

“I’m right here,’ she said, putting my hand to her face. “I’ve got your stars right here,’ Jen said, touching my fingers to her closed eyelids. “And I’ll keep them for you, let you hold them, bring you every bug or vista you’d ever want to see. That’s what we do, Dave. If you can’t see that, then you’re blind already.”

Slowly, her face so close to mine I could feel her eyelashes and a dampness on my cheek, everything became so clear, even with our eyes closed. So clear a blind man could see it. She’s beautiful, isn’t she?

Quick first-draft flash fiction in response to Annie Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines challenge based on the Sara Teasdale line, “Give me your stars to hold.”

Come Listen to Me, the Teller of Tales

“… come listen to me, the Teller of Tales …”  ~ Brian Jacques

The children would gather around the fire when the old man would sit and light his pipe. It was his silent way of telling them, “Come, listen to me, the Teller of Tales.”

The children were not the only ones who would grab for the words, the lines, the tales, the dreams the old man would weave into something palpable, like the log upon which he sat or the lap upon the young ones would cuddle. So too would be the tousled head that would rest upon a mother’s breast, a father’s grizzled chin. All of the warm and comforting.

Such a blessed distraction from the star that stared down upon them night and day, growing bigger with each rise and fall of the sun. One couldn’t really call them nights anymore, since the star’s light rivaled the twilight of dawn and sundown.

“Come listen to me, the Teller of Tales,” the smoke would say to their little noses.

“Come listen to me, the Weaver of Dreams,” his eyes sparkling in the campfire would say to their frightened eyes.

“Come listen to me, the bringer of sleep,” his comforting voice would say in its tone so soothing, never rushed or strident, never angry or dismayed, never giving in to the inevitable forever sleep that approached the world in a ball of ice and iron that had slipped from the belt of the great god planet and through the fingers of his red-faced minister of war. And now it was coming into the embrace of the mother of planets.

The old man would begin his stories the same each time: “In the beginning…” which gave the children a little anchor to end their days, something they could moor themselves to like the sea otters to some sea leaf before drowsing hand-in-hand with their loved ones, for no one wanted to be separated from them when the great sleep ultimately came when the ever-dawn became ever-night.

Here’s my last possible moment response to Annie Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines prompt for the week of May 28- June 4. It based on that quote from a character created by Brain Jacques in his Redwall series of novels. I’m not one given to writing fantasy, but in the half-hour it took to write this piece, that’s what appears to have happened on the page. I guess that’s what you’d call it, even though it sounds like historical fiction and reads like speculative fiction of a coming Armageddon.

On Grafton Lake

“What’s her name?” Matt asked, smiling his practiced interested smile, yet dreading the answer.

“Does it really matter?” Andi said, her eyes losing focus on his as she gazed through her ever-rosy haze her new lover’s perfection in her mind’s eye.

“No, not really,” escaped around Matt’s smiling shield, the one he had built and buttressed since Andi and he were twelve. That was the day they walked into the woods above his parent’s place on Grafton Lake—Andi and her parents were visiting for the weekend from home in Albany—and Andi kissed him full on the mouth.

“I think I’m in love with you, Matthew,” young Andrea Mezaluna said after pulling her lips away from Matt Harkin’s beet-red face. And then she stuck them right back as if he was a powerful magnet and she a piece of hot steel.

Matt’s hazy pre-teen confusion over Andi’s surprise and surprisingly abrupt pronouncement of her heart’s desire eventually burned off, like morning fog of the lake’s surface, by Sunday afternoon. Their hand-holding and long walks had not gone unnoticed by both sets of parents, who thought it was borderline inevitable, since the two had been playmates, fast friends and classmates since kindergarten.

Before the Mezaluna’s said goodbye to the Harkins for the remaining two weeks of their summer vacation, Matt and Andi walked to the spot where they first kissed. Sitting close, her head on his shoulder, they one last time took in this view of the lake, boats sailing or motoring by on its surface, framed by the pines, maples and birches, and the azure sky flocked with clouds that would gather into a thunderstorm later that evening.

No longer confused nor embarrassed, Matt took Andi’s face in his hands and kissed her as clumsily passionate as a twelve-year-old boy could muster and then said, “I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you…”

“Andrea! Time for us to go,” Mrs. Mezaluna called from below.

“…Andrea,” Matt finished. He wasn’t sure if she recognized the significance of the fact he never called her Andrea.

Andi gave him one more kiss, hard, hugging him so close he could feel her heart beat. Or maybe it was an echo of his, he was never sure.

When they walked hand-in-hand out of the woods, the Mezaluna’s were saying their thank you’s and goodbyes to the Harkins from within their car, waiting for their daughter before they’d head for home.

Andi turned toward Matt, hugged him close one more time, kissing him on the cheek and whispering, “Please hurry home, Matt. I don’t think I can stand waiting two whole weeks until I see you again.”

And then she was gone.

When the Harkins returned to their Albany home that Labor Day weekend Sunday, the Mezalunas popped over from next door to invite them to a barbecue in their yard. That’s where Matt saw Andi holding hands with Richie Bischoff, who was thirteen hoping on fourteen, and he got a new understanding for what Andi Mezaluna meant when she said she couldn’t stand waiting two weeks for him.

That was Matt’s first inkling that for Andi, falling in love — which he later felt was her falling into obsession — was what she loved most.

“So she’s The One?” he said in her ear over the din of bar.

“Oh, yes. And she’s crazy about me,” she said, her eyes as shiny and earnest as they always were when her heart was ablaze with a new love.

Reflexively, the corners of Matt’s mouth bowed up, as he recalled all the times she’d run to him with that same expression he fell in love with in sixth grade, flashing that same spark he saw above Grafton Lake that melted his heart, yet ever since then burning down his hopes with it.

He never thought to tell her the truth each time she’d run to him like a little girl excitedly showing a new doll to her best friend. Because he recognized that her best friend was who he was.

He couldn’t bear losing her smiling face, the intimate warmth of how she’d whisper to him, bringing to flaming life any embers of his remaining hope, even knowing they’d burn his heart to ash once more.

This was the procedure she followed throughout high school and into college, where she discovered her attraction to dolls was more than just to the American Girls that still lined her bedroom, but to real American girls, along with one Pakistani and a girl she met in Montreal. Then there’d come the hockey player from Watertown.

Matt had tossed his heart at his share of dolls, too, one even Andi had even dated for a couple of weeks. But none of them worked out in the long term. They would give him either the “It’s not you, Matt, it’s me,” speech, or just realizing they couldn’t connect with a guy who had but one carefully tooled connection.

“So, tell me about this mystery woman, Andrea,” he said, that contented smile on his face, drawing close enough to feel her warm breath against his cheek one more time, feeding more fuel to the torch he’d compulsively raise in these dark moments, just to ensure he’d be able to share the only intimacy he ever would with the love of his life.

“Oh, Mattie, I love you,” Andi said with her bubbly laugh, hugging him so close he felt her heart beat just as perhaps she could have felt his heart, breaking, one more time. And it was the moment two twelve-year olds shared above an upstate New York lake and a hope Matt would always have that would glue it back together until the next time Andi fell in love.

On Day 27 of my story-a-day in May quest, I was challenged to write a story of a non-traditional love. I’ve written about men having an intense bond with their dogs, their jobs, the land, you name it, I’ve written a story or poem about that love. But a poem I wrote during April’s Poem-a-day challenge inspired this tale of a love that probably will never come to fruition in a traditional sense, but is as intensely felt by its principals as any. Just not in the same way.

And Crown Thy Good…

At the end of the bar, I saw old Mason Snyder sitting in his semi-usual ruminating funk, so I decided to slide my beer down there to here him out and see if we could repair the world a bit together.

After asking why the long face, Mase said, “Last week, I saw a study that broke down the average life expectancy in all the States and the spot with the longest living residents–at 85 years–was in some Colorado ski resort area, while the shortest are in Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota, where on average, people there can expect to live to age 67,” Mase said.

“Beyond the obvious disparity, is that what’s pissing you off so much?” I asked.

Mase had a long pull on his Bud, took a deep breath and said, “I saw some news bunny ask if the lives of Oglala Lakota County residents there were so short there because they died of boredom out there in the high plains.”

“Uh oh,” I said, knowing the righteous wrath coming in three, two,….

“Yeah, honey, the type of boredom that sets in where you have no prospects to change your life from the grinding poverty of being members of families who’ve essentially been prisoners of war for a century and a half. The type of boredom that drives people to drink and drug themselves into oblivion because they lost the home version of the Manifest Destiny game show. The type of boredom that causes kids on the Pine Ridge Reservation to kill themselves at a ridiculously high rate,” Mase said in his indignant and borderline angry tone when he talked about the treatment of America’s native people.

“That’s pretty tragic,” I said, feeling both sad and guilty watching Mase, who was of mixed Navaho and German heritage, take another gulp of his beer and the breath to go on.

“Oh, and by the way, Miss Talking Hairdo, that average life expectancy was for the whole of Oglala Lakota County, where
the numbers just a few years ago for Pine Ridge Reservation residents only were 52 years for women and fuckin’ 48 for men– 48 years of age and done,” Mase said, spun on his stool and stalked out the bar entrance.

“What the hell was Big Chief Bottom-of-the-Bottle going on about?” Charlie the bartender asked me in the wake of Mase’s diatribe on the mistreatment of red folks by the sorry-ass  Great White (absentee) Father over the years.

“C’mon we’re as guilty as any White Americans in not doing enough–or anything–to help these fellow Americans live better, safer, healthier lives,” I said in my own Mase-stoked righteously indignant tone.

“Yeah, well you tell him for me if he–and you, for that matter–expects to get his firewater in my joint anymore, he’d better keep it down or, better yet, take his whiny shit to some liberal fern bar, ’cause us real Americans don’t want to hear it,” Charlie said, flipping the channel from the fifth inning in Cleveland of another one-sided Mets matinee loss over to Fox News Channel.

A poor pass at my Day 24 effort for Story-A-Day May. The prompt was to write a “Sonnet Story,” one with 14 sentences and carried the sonnet structure, save for no rhyming or anything like that. Just twelve sentences of any length, with or without rhyme or meter. I don’t think I hit the mark of a Petrarchan nor Shakespearean sonnet, but at least it’s written and the data is absolutely correct…and shameful. 

To Do: Now What?

Wednesday, May 24 ~ The Last Day

1.  6:00 AM ~ Wake, shower, shave, kiss Pat goodbye, start commute.

2. Stop at Starbuck’s for Grande Pike Place. Tell barista Alyssa this will be last time I stop by at 7:30 in foreseeable future. Leave $10 tip.

3. Park in Lot C for last time. Try not bouncing like 5th grader too much as you show ID to guard for last time.

4. Pack up the office ~ one box only. Say goodbye to friends

5. Hand in parking permit and ID.

6. Officially retired ~ Check rearview mirror and enjoy the view shrinking.

7. Turn up car stereo to 10 ~ Play “Road Mix”

8. Laugh at commuters cursing on way home.

9. Daydream about what I should have said to He Who Shall Not Be Named boss on way out but didn’t.
Note to self: Fuck him. He’s there for another ten years, if he’s not murdered first. Hah!

10. Instead of gloating, watch out for cops south of Twin Bridges (Now’s no time for first ticket in 30 years).

11. Don’t miss Exit 9 making plans for future.

12. Park car, empty last two week’s Starbuck’s cups from floor behind front seat.

13. Leave box containing 30-year career in garage next to bags of manure, peat moss and other decomposing materials.

14. Take Pat out to dinner to celebrate freedom.

15. Go to bed and dream of all the things you can finally do now that you’re not anchored to The Job.

Thursday, May 25 ~ First Day of Retirement

1. 6:00 AM ~ Wake, shower, shave. Run to Starbuck’s for Venti Pike Place. Leave $1.00 tip.

2. Sit in kitchen, stare at Pat doing housework. Offer to help. Get sent out of room.

3. Take banishment to backyard and wonder about your Plain Language Project and what HWSNBN’s doing about it without you.

4. Resist urge to call work.

5. Wonder when feeling of stepping off cliff, blindfolded, without a net ends.

6. Ask Pat again if there’s anything you can do for her.

7.  Go to Starbuck’s and see what afternoon crowd looks like. (Too many old guys. Can’t relate to Off Track Betting crowd. Remember to bring iPad next time to look artsy.)

8. ? ? ?

9. ! ! !

10. ….

For Day 23 of my Story-a-Day May challenge, I was charged with writing a story in the form of a list. I was dubious if I could make something happen in that format, but I remembered my last day of work before my retirement. Polished with hyperbole and a twist of imagination and here you have a story…I hope.

Never Forget Your First

Remember your first kiss?

“So what was it like? Your first kiss, I mean,” Liz said, figuring she might even know who first pressed her lips against mine and I reciprocated.

Where do women come up with these questions? Why she was so inquisitive about such a ancient history was lost on me. I sure as hell didn’t wish to know who she locked retainers with back in her training bra days.

“Well? Can’t you even remember, Erik?” she said, incredulous that I may have forgotten such a major milestone in my emotional, psychological and sexual education like another lost bit of high school I absent-mindedly tossed on that pile of Pythagorean theories, amo-amas-amat’s, and names of all the noble gases.

“Really, I don’t remember much about it other than it being another dance to hang out at…just softer and smelling better,” I said with a chuckle. Which I soon regretted.

“You’re either closer to a forgetful Alzheimer’s diagnosis than even I thought, or one cold son of a bitch,” Liz said like she was a helium-filled balloon shrinking and sinking to the floor right there in front of icy old me.

“Give me a minute and I promise I’ll let you know all about it,” I said, trying to buy some time to actually remember or at least come up with a plausible story.

So she went to the kitchen, busying herself with fetching me another beer. After all, I was rummaging back into my cluttered closet of a memory to bring forth the mother lode of her need to connect on some level she could tap and understand.

She came back into the room and quietly set a glass of beer on a coaster on the side table. She then curled herself up next to me on the sofa in that way girls do—legs and feet beneath their bottoms like nesting cranes—wrapped the Mexican striped throw around her shoulders and smiled a softly expectant smile at me. Its message was plain: “I’m waiting!”

“I regret that my porous old memory cannot recall every aspect, facet and emotion of that night. I’m not even sure who she was. Rosemary? Barbara? Definitely not Mary Grace. Though, boy, do I wish.”

“Ahem, stick to the knitting, Erik.”

“Okay, I see brown eyes shining up at me, sparkling like polished mahogany in the moonlight, or street light or maybe porch light.”

“That’s a good pull after that clumsy start, Romeo.”

“Yeah, well…I can still feel that cold stab of fear, tempered by hot blasts of potential embarrassment at the very real possibility of  screwing this up and setting my life on a path of remaining forever the untouched one. Obviously, I’ve gotten over that hurdle.”

“The night is young, Erik. Touching will be optional. Go on,” she said, her eyes softening a bit from their clinical observation of my amoebic squirming in the upholstered Petri dish next to her.

“Girls, yourself included, I’m sure, think about this moment, dream about it, worry about it, from an early age. Am I right?” I said, trying to absorb something of what she was feeling. You know, like I was a girl.

“Did you practice, perhaps pressing your lips to a mouth made of your thumb and index finger, there in your pink and sky blue-appointed, single-bed sanctum sanctorum?” I asked.

“Of course not,” Liz said. But the red rising from beneath the throw, up her neck and glowing like hot coals on her cheeks told me otherwise.

“A guy can’t think that far ahead, would never give that first kiss a dry-run. It isn’t like rehearsing his expression of insouciant cool in the steamed-up mirror behind that locked bathroom door. You figure one night it just happens.”

I could see her lean in now, her warm interest overcoming her cool displeasure.

“ Ya know, it’s uncharted, virgin, that first feeling of neo-carnal warmth a guy feels glowing off that girl, that woman, Her. The smell of her recharged perfume in the dark is heady stuff, sweaty, intoxicating, inviting.”

Liz pulled her legs from beneath her and hugged them to her chest, resting her chin on her knees.

“Then that feeling of her mouth drawing closer, warmer, tropical, her breath sharing mine, mine with hers. My shaking hand on the small of her back, hers rising to slide within my black hair bristling like a porcupine’s quills at the back of my neck.

“Then you simply fall into that wet, warm pool of flesh, that doorway to the pounding trip-hammer heart, the unknown, the soon-enough revealed. After that, the fall becomes a climb and dive from the high board. Then another. Then…”

“You’re not playing me, are you, Erik?” Liz said. “I mean, is this really how you felt?”

“Oh, yeah. I can still feel it. Walking away, whistling my quiet, night-time whistle through the ivied posh, the ever-freshly painted not-so and my own not-very neighborhoods home, my left hand touching my flushed cheek, my lips that tasted of strawberry lip gloss, the smell of her perfume still on my fingers, Charlie I think it was,” I said, looking deeply into Liz’s brown eyes.

“Wow, Erik, that’s more than I ever expected,” she said, cuddling up close to me, putting her sandy-haired head on my shoulder.

“But that’s all I remember,” I said.

“You jerk,” she said. “I’ll bet it wasn’t this memorable.”

And then she gave me a warm, wet kiss full of promise, momentous and unforgettable. And I felt that spin and drop like I hadn’t felt since that first time.

Only rated NC-17.

For Day 22 of my Story-a-Day challenge, I was encouraged to make my prose as purple as I liked, in a quest to find out how much description I really need. We’ll, as a poet in the other side of my other literary life, I tend to throw the schmaltz around pretty liberally.  If you don’t think so, just take a look at the previous to poems I posted. I’m not sure I took a deep dive into it in my story, but I hope there’s enough gooey description in here to satisfy.

Restless

I didn’t know if she awoke before I did or I before she. I only know I could feel her eyes upon me.

Just not her touch.

“Yes, another restless night,” I said.

“No, you didn’t keep me awake,” I lied.

The ceiling did. Consciousness did. Worry did. Old truths did. Fantasies did. Longing did. Guilt did. I did. But I couldn’t tell her that.

“No, I didn’t know I kicked and thrashed all night,” I said. But the covers lying in disarray on my side told a different story. One where if looked as if I ran and swam and crawled my way across this No-Man’s-Land searching for somewhere to tuck in until the barrage lifted. But dawn lifted first.

I looked over at the clock and, as it has for the past weeks, it taunted me with a left-hand number less than six.

“I don’t know if I can make it today,” I said, sensing that sinking feeling in my chest again, an emptiness like it had been crushed dry. But I knew I had to get up and bump my way through another day, fighting off the sleep that never quite came last night.

“No, I haven’t dozed off again, just…gathering myself,” I said. I’d been locked in another bout of the woolgathering inattentiveness on the daydreams that substituted those I never had at night anymore. Night had become a wasteland of artillery flashes, reds and yellows and whites cutting through the darkness, after which the colors of days were smothered by the darkness of exhaustion.

“I wish I knew,” I said when she asked why I’d had another rough night. But she knew why as well as I did.

I took a deep breath, sighed it away like I’d sighed away another restless night, filling the room with wordless exclamations, near-silent calls for rescue. Sighed it away like I sighed away the covers on my side. Sighed it away like I would this day and the last and most likely the next.

But before I pulled myself from the ravaged percale plain upon which we lost another hope without a dream to support it, I kissed my fingers to reach out and touch her, to let her know one more time. But they came to rest upon her empty pillow with which I shared these nightly battles between damned consciousness and blessed oblivion.

My very short story for Day 19 of my May 2017 story-a-day challenge. No outside prompt today. Just a carryover from the poem I woke to at that ungodly hour again. These too-short, dreamless nights can kill you, but they also can inspire you to dreamy inspiration, too. Until you finally drop…