If I Recall, That’s the Spirit

 

I hope someday you reach that point in your life, as I have, when you recognize Christmas doesn’t march up to you like a balloon-festooned Fifth Avenue parade anymore, one whose colors, sounds and corporate sponsorships you can see from blocks away. Nor does it sneak up on you on little mouse feet in the snow. Christmas has become like old age to me now. One day I’m humming along to the rustle of life’s green leaves, all the while ignoring the gifts of my black hair, firm chin and memory like a 100-terabyte computer. The next blink, I’m shaving silver filings off the lower chin of some barely recognizable guy in the mirror. And suddenly I hear (and need to turn up the volume on) a song I think might be called “Silver Bells.” And that’s OK, because the tree downstairs today is always green, and somewhere inside me a little kid is coiled in bed — quiet as the whispers of angels’ wings — for that sunrise when I can charge into the living room in an explosion of torn paper and cardboard before we three brothers trek to church and back. These days, Christmas just IS. And, should you reach my tinsel-topped, Santa-in-training-bodied and memory-leaking station in life, you might recognize it doesn’t need to come at you but once a year. You can charge into it every sunrise, tearing open the gift of that new day and giving it to all you meet. If I recall, that’s the spirit!

A mid-December rambling. Now back to our regular programming.

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Just A Few Appropriate Remarks

It was a sunny and breezy day, I’m told, in that place where the headliner gave a performance of Springsteenian length, full of bombast worthy of a king…or Freddie and Queen. Then that other speaker, who’d taken the train up from points south, rose with a folded piece of paper in his hand, bareheaded, mournful, haggard and humbled by the venue, the times, the occasion and its raison d’être. And while the crowd still buzzed from the performance by first name on the marquee’s performance, the tall man presented his 271—word “appropriate remarks” in his scratchy voice, its accent many of the intelligentsia derided, while it was perfectly understood by those from the Kentucky hills and the Illinois prairie. And when he finished, he did not hear the thunder of applause, for the sky was clear, even of 21-gun cannonades. Nor did he hear the brassy fanfare of approbation, the wind only enough to move a lady’s hair across her brow. Instead, came an awkward silence and then a pitter-patter of hands reminiscent of raindrops on a gravestone. But it was a day of remembrance and there were gravestones by the thousands, most with names now long-forgotten. Not many have forgotten the first few words those remarks, nor the gist of the final ones. They are why a child learns that a score is an old word for 20. And why, deep down inside, we believe that this grand experiment of ours, this “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” That is our hope. They define us. Amen.

Marching Back to The Twilight Age

Across these shadow-filled decades you probably wouldn’t remember how we’d sit there on our beds and submit our lives and times to all the oh-so-mature, badass examination that only eighteen-year-olds possessing a 2-S or 4-F Selective Service deferment or a Draft Lottery number higher than 200 could muster. Through the tawny, fuzzy-framed lens of five beers each or the gray-white haze of ultra-clarity that you’d acquire from that illicit psychoactive agent you harbored in your sock drawer, artistic, philosophic and geopolitical certainty would hang in the air like soon-to-incinerate paper lanterns strung from one side of the room to the other. Occasionally, the rocket’s red glare of your proselytizing the work of Salinger would send me scooting for safety behind the cover of my Shakespeare, Twain and Chekhov. Do you remember falling to sleep to Zeppelin, Dylan and The Dead? How about the phony bomb threat someone tried to pin on the Black Panthers that emptied the dorms on our first night on campus? Can you recall how we wandered around the quads and stared at easily a hundred of the first girls we’d ever seen wearing clothing — actually or, most likely, in our dreams — more easily removed than high school uniform jumpers, wide-belted low-hipped bell bottoms or even a tight-ass mini? Do you recollect any of those deliciously salacious silhouettes of their Promised Land projected through each of the nightgowns by the fire trucks’ lights? I only just thought of them, sitting here with this faded old photo of her. I wonder whatever happened, since we never did. Those will never be the good old days, though, since so much bad since then blocked the light of the good. But the faintly outlined memories I saw today through something like those old chemically induced dorm goggles make me happy. I guess I could call them memories of the Twilight Ages, since at this age I’m living in now sure as hell feels like a Dark one.

I don’t wish you could have been there, but you probably had to be to fully understand this. It was a time of great social and political upheaval faced by kids who had lived through a just-averted nuclear war touched off a relatively few nautical miles from Key West, by burning racial divisions and flaming American cities, and by many an American boy about to turn 18 who sweated out if his next birthday recognition would include a card that read: “Greetings.” Guys my age tend to talk about their youth as “the Dark Ages.” But they really should be called the Twilight Ages. Today scares me in a whole different way.

Going Under

Lately, this same dream comes to me every night. It’s a dream in which I’m treading water in the middle of a vast ocean on a night of the new moon. I rise and fall on the swells of this inky deep that fills the great depression beneath me. I can tell I’ve been in this water a long time because my fingertips are pale prunes and my eyes sting from the tear-like waters that splash my face. Occasionally in my dream, I sense a vessel approaching, but my voice makes not a sound, my words, my cries for help lie stillborn. I am silent, invisible, mere flotsam as far as they can tell. Often, I recognize the passing craft, perhaps as if I launched it myself or I once sailed with it in my younger days of even a great grey ship of the line bearing a USS (insert some President’s name here) on its prow. And as they drift by my silent kicking and stroking that keep my head above the dark void that would consume me, they toss something over the side. I always hope perhaps it’s a life preserver or line with which to haul me free. But it inevitably turns out to be more ballast that snugly tangles around me and smugly seeks to pull me down, down, down below the surface again. Sometimes it succeeds. But I’ve always had sharp teeth and a sense of survival and place to know in which direction to swim for the surface again. Lately, though, I’ve lost my bearings and the weights have dropped upon me all at once in a tangle of knots and cables I can’t seem to chew through. And I’m going down, down, down. The interesting part of all this dream scenario is that I don’t think of the things above, below and all around me in any concrete terms or even ideas. They’re all just vague faces floating around in the darkness that consumes me. It’s all dark clouds, but not in any poetic sense. Almost literally dark clouds is all my brain can conjure. And when I finally find the emotional and intellectual wherewithal to chew on something for a moment, it just gets covered up by all the other things spinning around me. This sounds scary because to me it isn’t scary anymore. It’s nothing. I’ve become nothing along with it. I believe I’ve gone under, disappeared for good this time. I’m alone, and the dark grows darker and I’m exhausted beyond words from the fight, and just as my breath is giving out, I close my eyes and let the nightmare take me. Then, with all hope lost that this dream will ever end, I finally drift off to sleep.

The Scars That Never Stop Hurting

He didn’t know how to make peace with his past. What offering of acceptable remorse exists when the past, in whatever personage or spirit, listens naught and averts its eyes at the mere thought of him? He’d try, “I’m sorry,” but seven letters hanging off-kilter from an apostrophe can get blown sideways and lost in the winds between two people, two different lives from what came before. His mind has lost its edge and quickness since its days of serving up scars even before others knew the sting of his cut. Now his life is not much more than a scar, something to look at and recall all those wounds he administered across his lifetime. So he waits upon his cold chair for that final felling wound. He sighs at how the sword always fell to his pen, but knows the scythe always wins. Perhaps then a peace he still dreams might come will reveal itself before he hears the swoosh of that existential steel. And, if comes too late, he must assume the role a scar on a piece of someone else’s past. But wouldn’t it be grand to hear that voice say, “Would you write me again.”?

A 200-word free written bit of what feels like literary (those probably not literate) confession and self-imposed penance. Hey, you sit down without a shred of inspiration, you can’t expect Shakespeare or Kendrick Lamar. You just hope and expect ‘something’ will appear eventually. Oh, and the new photo, old regrets and ancient scar (I have many more, some of which you can’t see) are all ©Joseph Hesch.

What the River Says, That Is What I Say

A deer walks across the Hudson River north of the 112th Street Bridge near Cohoes

On that Sunday afternoon, Ashley and Sam strolled along the riverside walkway. It was he first day above freezing in a week and the Hudson stretched like a white highway of ice from Cohoes to Poughkeepsie.

“I bet you could skate all the way downriver for maybe a hundred miles on this stuff. It’s gotta be at least a foot or more thick,” Ashley said.

“Yeah, that’d be pretty cool. If you knew how to skate. You’d either punk out by Rensselaer or break your ankle in the first hundred yards,” Sam said.

“I was just thinking out loud, Sam. That’s all.”

“Why do you do that?” Sam asked.

“What?”

“Think out loud. Do you believe people really want to hear what another person thinks?”

“I…I don’t know. I was just talking to myself, I guess. Sorry if it disturbs you so much,” Ashley said, as looked out toward the river and saw nothing, but heard the voices again.

“It doesn’t disturb me, it’s just annoying sometimes. ‘Oh, Sam, wouldn’t it be great if we could skate downriver? Oh, Sam, it’d be wonderful to go back in time and see what it was like here three hundred years ago. Oh, Sam, I hope our grandchildren will have a safer world to live in then we do now.’ You’re always dreaming, Ashley. Time to wake up and see the world for what it is, cold and heartless and only too willing to stomp you into dust. Can’t you see that no one cares what anybody else thinks in this world? That’s real life, Ashley. Not your little dream world,” Sam said.

“You believe that? That the world is such a dark place? That we’re all our own little islands, all alone against everything else conspiring against us?”

“I’d say that’s pretty damn close to how it is. At least they one I see every day,” Sam said.

“Not everyone is a cop and sees people at their most vulnerable, most desperate, most…”

“Violent? Animalistic? Evil? I’m out there every day protecting the sheep from the wolves and the wolves from the sheep, Ash. That’s the real world. Not the bubbles and seashells and angels you think it is.”

“Why do you do that?” Ashley said.

“Do what? Clue you in to the truth of the way of the world? How it really is survival of the fittest and we should keep our own counsel or have it thrown back in our faces?”

“That and always put down anything I have to say as being naive or stupid. I have a right to speak my mind same as you do. And you always do,” Ashley said, her voicing rising and beginning to quiver.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sam said.

“I guess it means that you think you always know more than anyone else and that their opinions, their feelings, don’t matter to you.”

“Are you gonna start this again? Look Ashley, all I mean to say is that you’ve lived a sheltered life, girls’ school, private college, teacher working in your old grammar school. You’ve practically never left the womb. I can respect your decisions. That’s just who you are, a quiet, gentle, kinda naive angel who I love and want to protect from this jungle. But you’ve gotta open your eyes and poke your head out the cloister sometimes. It’s mean out here and you need to get a thicker skin, like that river ice,” Sam said as he put his ands on her shoulders.

“Cold and hard, eh? You don’t think I’ve got a tough shell?” Ashley said, pulling away.

“Now don’t be getting all emotional. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,”

Ashley turned and started walking back upriver toward the parking lot of the river walk.

“C’mon, Ash, its been a tough week for me. I had to go into too many dark places full of dark beasts. Eddie Barnes got shot and I got my ass chewed by my watch commander because I was doing my job two blocks away when it happened. Like I’m supposed to be everywhere, maybe even to take a bullet for someone else. I should’ve kept my mouth shut,” Sam said.

“You mean be hard like that river ice?”

“Maybe, yeah.”

“Not tell me that you’re hurting so I can understand and not just think you’re angry at me because I become the target of your anger?”

“Aw, c’mon, you know I’d never…”

“I think we need some time off, Sam. Maybe it’s time you sat back and thought about what’s going on inside of you and how it affects everyone else you come in contact with, especially me,” Ashley said over her shoulder.

“Have I hurt you? No. I just…I don’t know maybe blow off steam and you’re close to me when I do it.”

“Then I won’t be so close maybe,” she said, picking up her pace.

Sam rushed to her side and took her shoulder, spinning her to face him.

“Are you breaking up with me?” he said.

“Break up? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just getting harder, like that ice, a thicker skin. Isn’t that what you said I needed?”

“I was just…”

“Just because I’m quiet doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on. Doesn’t mean you haven’t hurt me, that I don’t feel or I’m not moved to anger or tears, or the joy I feel when you’re merely nice to me. If I’m quiet on the outside it doesn’t mean I can’t be a tiger or a landslide or a bomb on the inside. Some things are best kept on the inside, just so they don’t hurt others, even if they might hurt me. And sometimes, just like your angry pronouncements, they find their way out of me.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean, Ashley?” Sam said.

“It means, just like that river out there, underneath this gentle shell that you’ve calloused and scarred, I’m moving, thinking, loving, hating, understanding, confused, but always moving. Not standing there like some frozen little statue for you to curse or cuddle at your whim. Underneath, I’m moving. All the time.”

She pulled away and dialed her girlfriend, Jen.

“I’m ready now,” she said, as Sue’s car pulled from a parking slot in the lot ahead and pulled up by the beginning of the river walk.

“Ashley, c’mon. Don’t be like this. I’m sorry. I just didn’t understand. Not if you don’t tell me,” Sam half-shouted at her back as she reached for Jen’s car door.

“I did, Sam. But all you ever think to see of me and everyone else is the outside shell and never think that there’s a river running all the time just beneath it,” Ashley said to the cold wind blowing off the ice. The ice she would always dream of skating on for a hundred miles as the river ran with her.

For Day 12 of my May Story-a-Day challenge I responded to a prompt from writer and editor Elise Howard, who asked me to select a poem that resonates with me, and let it inspire me as you write my next short story! If you’ve read my work for any length of time, you’ll remember how my favorite poet is William Stafford and how among my favorites of his is “Ask Me.” With little time and no energy, I sat down and rapped out this piece with that subtle yet more-beneath-the-surface poem in mind. Here’s, that poem:

Ask Me by William Stafford
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

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.