Asking for Directions

Robert Earl Keen tells me
the road goes on forever
and the party never ends.
But sometimes you reach
a crossroads, or a fork
in your life’s road.
And if you have no map,
or go off the reservation,
you could take a wrong turn,
if there’s such a thing
as “wrong” on your journey.
I only know I never could
remember the way back
from those corners I cut
when I left the path
others set for me.
But these latter days, as I
grow old on the trail,
no matter which way I turn,
I see nothing but dead ends
and I’m not ready to stop.
So that’s why I’m asking you,
since you’re still running
and look like you’re enjoying
your trip more than getting
to that dark place where
the exit signs are turned off,
“Which way to the party?”

No More To Soar On Eagles’ Wings

Bricks fall daily
from the temple,
mortar crumbling
like stale bread,
raining the crumbs
of best intentions
upon whoever walks in
its proximity.
But so few do now.
Within its walls,
words that stirred
hearts and souls,
echo like dust shrouding
its empty tabernacle.
The book lies on the pulpit,
its leathery covers shut,
gilded pages tarnished,
closed to what small
light teases that eyes
will unlock its words.
Someday.
A pigeon whispers
hosannas where once
verses rose to the steeple
on eagles’ wings,
ignoring the signs
it soon will fall,
unnoticed, silent
as a tree
in an empty forest.

Night So Long

The nights are so long
when I’m alone in my bed,
sleep having left me for another.
And yet I wait, listening
to the tick-tock of my heart
beat out the stretch of time
between laying my head
on the pillow and when that imposter
embraces me until my eyes open
and I find it wasn’t sleep,
but some ragged shadow held me down
while it sucked more time from
my life than just the few hours
I tossed in her arms. Maybe
it would be different if you
were here, too. But then nights
would be too short.

The Deal

Life has loveliness to sell. ~ Sara Teasdale

If I had the strength, I’d
steal some, because I don’t think
I’ll ever trade for it once more.
I recall it felt like holding you,
your eyes piercing mine, inspecting
the inventory left upon
the shelves of my soul.
That’s what loveliness feels
like, like holding you in my
ever-weakening arms once more —
priceless, though it’s cost me
so very much of my life.
Would that I had more days
I could barter for that loveliness,
but my stock has grown scant.
I exchanged them for moments
of the loveliness I felt you share
in my daydreaming yesterdays.

I’m not feeling too well these days and mortality has suddenly become my wingman. And, like a lot of people who feel thus, I go back and audit the balance sheet of my life’s black-ink experience versus the red of its too many hopes and dreams, and I’ve found how much I’m in arrears. Don’t waste your life’s assets, children. Splash that ebon ink all over your ledger’s pages until it’s full of nothing but black and the balance reads zero. It’s like they say, “You can’t take it with you.” This poem is in response to my friend Annie Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines prompt up there of a quote from the prolific early 20th Century American poet Sara Teasdale’s poem “Barter.” Hence, my title.

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.

Heroes

It was August 28th and Cindy Bingham knew her father, Walter, had fallen off the wagon again.

He’d gotten falling-down drunk around this time for each of the twenty-one years since August 28, 1862 etched its physical and emotional wounds upon him that never quite healed.

After sitting all night in a rocking chair by the fireplace in the Bingham home outside Stony Point, New York, Cindy heard the thud outside. This time Walter’s fall was as literal as could be. His brother-in-law Hiram Mott thought he saw Walt misstep onto the dusty road from the front seat of Hiram’s rig as it slowly passed in front of the Bingham place at dawn on August 29, 1883. Hiram had been drinking with Walt all day, just to keep him safe, but was too drunk to do much about his brother-in-law’s tumble anyway.

The clop-clop of his horses’ hooves drowned any sound from behind as they never stopped. The pair of bays just kept trotting north to the Mott place, their reins slack and their master dozing along for the ride. They’d made the trip many times with Hiram before.

Walter’s fall was also from his normal sobriety. That date and its memories had again set him to drinking day and night since the evening of the 26th.

Cindy Bingham found her father by the side of the road when she emerged bleary-eyed from the house about the time she normally would begin the day’s milking. It was a job she shared with her father since the death of her mother, Martha, two years before.

Always he would turn into this other Walt at the end of August. Then he’d slowly return to the quiet, sober and loving husband to Martha and father to Cynthia everyone knew as the local hero.

As she helped her father into the house, she recalled Walt hardly ever took out that medal, with its blue ribbon with thirteen red and white stripes, honoring his heroism,. Most especially not at the end of August. Instead, he’d only pull out the three old photographs that portrayed five smiling young men posing in impeccable uniforms whose exotic design was borrowed from the French Zouaves.

All of these young men wore the confident and guileless grins of soldiers who had not faced an enemy in combat. They’d not yet left Stony Point and heard the whiz and crunch of enemy bullets missing or finding their mark. They’d yet to feel the body-shaking concussion of a Parrot shell as it obliterated the men next to you and threw you six feet away, turning the world into swirls of red, white and gray. They had not yet “seen the elephant,” as the veteran soldiers described their baptisms in fire.

As she peeled Walter’s filthy clothes off her father before putting him to bed, Cindy Bingham recalled the first time she equated this room with this date.

When she was eight, she watched from the barely open bedroom door as Walt opened the cigar box where he kept the photos that turned him from doting father to brooding and distant stranger. That was when she connected the date and the contents of the box with an abnormally short and frightening temper. She had seen him lash out with his voice and the back of his hand to her mother should she try too much to console him. That day, she watched Walt carry his photos to the barn, where he sat with his back to its south-facing red wall. He gazed at them when he wasn’t staring into space or covering his eyes and shaking his shoulders.

Cindy remembered how she crept to the clothes press where Walt kept the box and opened its lid to see whatever could make her father change so.

Inside, she found the medal. It was a tarnished upside-down five-pointed star topped by an eagle perched on crossed cannons. The star was suspended from a ribbon that reminded her of the flag under which her father was said to have fought with great distinction in the War of Southern Rebellion. Beneath the medal, along with some documents and letters, she found another photo of her father, its image face-down. The photo was of Walt Bingham in the plain blue uniform of an Army sergeant, a grim and tired expression on his face and the still-shiny medal pinned to his chest.

The little girl heard the bedroom door open and there stood Walt, his eyes rimmed in red.

“What are you doing?” he said, in a voice caught somewhere between anger and anguish. He rushed to her and, before he could take the box from her, Cindy dropped it in fear, its contents spilling on the bedroom floor.

“Look what you’ve done. Don’t ever touch this box again, girl or I’ll…” Walter raised his hand as if he might strike Cindy, but stopped and dropped to his knees to put the photos, documents and medal back in it. Cindy, in tears, rushed past her father and downstairs to her mother. Together, Martha and Cindy watched as Walter rode away from the house and did not return until August 29, as drunken and disheveled as the man she was helping into their home on this morning in 1882.

* * * *

Once she was back in the kitchen, Walter softly snoring off his bender, Cindy thought back to when she was ten, when she finally got the courage to ask her father the question that had burned in her for two years.

“Daddy, why do you get so sad and angry when August turns to September?”

Walter Bingham, softly put his mug of coffee down on the kitchen table, closed his eyes and mumbled, “You’re not old enough to understand, Cynthia. I hope you never have to. Now go help your mother, please.”

It was her mother, Martha, who told Cindy that her father had returned from the war a changed man.

“He left New York a cheerful and strapping boy, so dashing in his blue jacket with its and red brocade trim, his baggy crimson trousers. I watched the gold tassel on his red kepi bounce to the martial air they played while his regiment marched to the train in Peekskill, bound for Baltimore that morning in 1861. He was the most handsome boy in that regiment.”

“Were you proud of him?” Cindy asked.

“Oh, my yes. He was my betrothed and I was the envy of all my friends. But, inside, I was terrified of what might happen to him, how I might become a war widow before we’d ever become married.”

“And what happened when he was away and then came back?” Cindy asked, because this was the answer she really wanted.

“In three years, that dashing boy returned a wounded hero. The people of Stony Point greeted him with honors fit for a victorious returning knight. The young man who limped off the train resembled my beloved Walter, but he was not the same boy I’d kissed goodbye. And that’s all I’ll say right now, Cynthia. Now off to school with you,” Martha said, giving Cindy a kiss, then turning to her dishes and pulling a handkerchief from her sleeve to dab at her eye and across her nose.

* * * *

Cindy made a pot of coffee, as much for her sleep-deprived self as for her deeply sleeping father. As she waited for the water to boil, she knew that by the second week of September, he would return to his normal self. Once again he’d be the loving and industrious Walt Bingham she knew better than anyone. Once again, he’d be a citizen of Stony Point who people would always greet on the streets with a doffed hat and a simple and warm, “Good morning, Walt!” or nod of the head and proper “Hello, Mr. Bingham. Good day to you, sir.”

Walt would politely acknowledge his treatment as the town’s foremost citizen, though he eschewed any attempts to draw him into political circles or any public activities, including meetings of the veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Three years ago, when she was fifteen, it was through a talk with one of those veterans, her uncle Hiram, that Cynthia learned the true genesis of her father’s hero status. That and his annual temporary metamorphosis into a drunken misanthrope.

“It happened at a place called Manassas in Virginia, Cindy,” Hiram said. “Your papa’s company was in reserve of other units who were putting up a great battle against the forces of the Rebel General Jackson, a brilliant soldier and brutal man who got his comeuppance in ’63 at Chancellorsville. But that’s neither here nor there to Walt’s story.”

“His company was ordered to fill a gap on the left side of the line, where the 5th New York was taking a terrible fire and beginning to falter. Your papa rushed up and took his position just as the 5th began falling back. Men were dropping, dead or wounded, all around him. The ground was so covered with them in their tattered once-grand uniforms that Walter had to quick-step atop their bodies to rush up to his position in the line,” Hiram said.

Cynthia gasped.

“Sorry to spell it out like this, little niece, but I think you should know why your papa is the way he is. Now amid all this chaos, Walter’s company, under fierce fire, began to waver and fall back. He, with a handful of other men, began running down a ravine that led toward our lines. In the woods above this little group of New York boys, Walt saw the Reb officers were dressing their line before making another charge. Your papa, already a corporal and a very smart soldier, realized the Rebels would likely strike at our big guns protecting the entire Corps’ left flank. That’s when he left his friends to go alert the artillery to their danger,” Hiram said, crossing his arms and rubbing his chin whiskers with his left hand.

“The Rebs saw what Walt was doing and started firing at him. I was with the guns and we watched him running like a rabbit, never expecting him to make it. He sprinted through the enemy fire, bullets tearing at his uniform and one ball cutting across his ribs,” Hiram said.

“I’ve seen the scar. Papa always tries to cover it, but I’ve seen it,” Cindy said.

“When he went down, we thought sure he was dead. But son of a bitch if he didn’t pop right back up and start running again. Funny thing about that. While we was hollering for Walter to run, the Rebs was cheering for him, too. Not that they wasn’t still trying to kill him, of course. When he got to the artillery commander, your papa reported the enemy were gathering in force in the woods on his left flank and the colonel would lose his guns if he did not limber them up and get them the blazes out of there. Which they did, by the scarcest of margins. They most surely would have been lost, our flank overrun and the whole army lost with them if not for your papa. After they patched Walter up and the officers made their report of what he did, they awarded Walt that Medal of Honor,” Hiram said and then spat at the ground.

“And that’s why he’s sad every year at this time? You would think he would be proud to have earned that medal. He’s a hero,” Cindy said, beaming with pride after hearing the story her father never told.

“Well, sweet girl, that’s not how war works. War affects men in different ways. Your papa was pretty shaken up by that Reb ordnance and musket fire chasing him down the ravine and the bullet that tore through his side. But what really wounded him was the fact that all the men he was with up on the line were lost. And those four men he broke off from to warn our guns? Not two seconds later, a Reb shell burst in their midst and, well…let’s just say they were lost, too. Walt was the only survivor of his whole platoon.” Hiram spat again.

“Those four men wouldn’t be…”

“The young fellas in that photograph he keeps? Yes, dear girl. All school chums who joined up for the fancy outfits that impressed the girls like your Mama, the precision marching that impressed themselves, and to put down the secession in a couple of months. It took four years and thousands of lives. Some, like Walter, are still walking around, still sharing the warmth of his loved ones. But, come the anniversary of that day, he goes dead as his friends inside, too. Now you dry those tears, girl, and know how lucky you are to have Sergeant Walter Bingham of the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry as your father. And to know you have Walt Bingham, as strong and saintly a man as ever drawn breath, as your papa, period.”

It was that day Cindy vowed to help soften her loving but quiet father’s sadness, pain, guilt, or whatever tortured him so, most especially every late August.

* * * *

Her father still sleeping off 1883’s sorrowful fall, Cynthia discussed her father’s invisible wounds with her beau, Robert Van Wormer, who stopped by to see how she was faring with her father back home.

“My father tries so hard, Robert. And Lord knows I did my best to make sure everything was neat and quiet and loving these past years since Mama died. She once told me she almost made it happen one year when I was two. She hid the cigar box and the photographs from him. But by noon on the 28th, he became so melancholy, she said she thought he would harm himself. That’s when she gave in and showed him where she’d put it,” Cindy said with a catch in her throat.

“Out came the pictures and Mother said Daddy was gone for the next day and a half. That date has a power over him that she could never rein in and I’m not sure how I can. It’s like the sadness lies in the ground like a cicada and pops out to overwhelm whatever good we can bring to it. We are lucky he and his faith and love for us was so strong that he can soon enough bury it again until the next year.”

“You know, there may be a way,” Robert said. “Maybe if he took the cure, the whole treatment at the spa up in Saratoga. The waters, the baths, massage, just getting away from all these same faces and places, might just jar him into something other than his melancholy.”

“let me think abut it, Robert. And thank you for being such a love,” Cindy said, kissing Robert on the cheek.

* * * *

Good as his word, Robert suggested taking Walter away from home that August, taking the steamer up the Hudson to Saratoga for the springs and mineral baths, and not returning until the 29th or even the 30th.

“I don’t know if that would be the answer, Robert. But perhaps taking the cure at the Springs might be the thing to help keep my mind at rest and away from those horrible visions, those faces, those… Yes, let’s take the trip,” Walt said to the earnest young man.

A few days later, Walt and Robert were back in Stoney Point, Walt in roughly the same shape as all the preceding August 28ths.

“Robert, what in the world? How did this happen?” Cindy said to her crestfallen beau after they half-carried a very sick Walter to his bed.

“Everything was going extremely well, Cindy. The trip upriver to Albany was beautiful and the train to Saratoga was fine. Your father was a little quiet, perhaps reticent to speak openly of his problems with me, but once we got to the town, I think he actually got caught up in the whole spirit of the place. The baths there were still buzzing after the record win of the Travers Stakes race by a horse name Rataplan. It was all they could talk…”

“Robert, my father? I sent him off with you to avoid another occasion like all those other years. Please explain how he ended up like this while supposedly in your care,”  Cindy said, holding here hand up in front of Robert’s face.

“We were in one of the baths, having just finished a good steam and were getting massages, all part of the treatment I hoped would help your father. We couldn’t help but hear one of the other masseurs talking to a guest on the other side of the room from us. ‘Yes sir,’ he was saying, ‘this old place has quite the history. Famous folks from far and wide have come here for the waters and their healing powers. George Washington himself wanted to buy one of our springs for its bubbling waters. Just last week Commodore Vanderbilt, Diamond Jim Brady and Miss Lillian Russell herself stopped by for the baths and a massage. Why even that Rebel General Stonewall Jackson came right to Saratoga for the mineral springs and such on his honeymoon with the second Mrs. Jackson.’”

“Oh, no,” Cindy said.

“Next thing I hear is your father’s masseur saying, ‘Sir, please, you’ll have to relax just a little. You’ve stiffened up rather severely.’ Straight away, Walter, not even bothering to cover himself with a sheet, ran out of the room to grab his clothes and disappear out a back door. I couldn’t catch him, Cindy. I’m so sorry. I spent the day and night scouring every saloon and casino I could find searching for him. I eventually found Walt the next morning, the 28th, out cold in an alley behind the Adelphi Hotel on Broadway. I cleaned him up best I could, and we took the next train to Albany and on home.”

“Oh, Robert, I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve to be brought into this so deeply,” Cindy said.

“I don’t think there’s any more we can do, Cindy. That date and those memories are too strong. And, if I am to be Walter’s son-in-law some day, his welfare will be as much my problem as yours,” Robert said, as he took Cindy’s hand.

In October of that same year, Robert asked Walter for Cynthia’s hand in marriage. Cindy could see her father’s habitually passive expression Walter was overjoyed, because he now knew Robert to be a young man of integrity and respect for not only his daughter, but himself as well.

“So have you picked a date for the nuptials, Cindy? Sometime in June? I understand June is the month most brides cherish for the occasion,” Walt said, his arms around his daughter.

“We’ve decided upon August 28th.” She tugged her father closer, as Walt’s embrace grew limp.

“No, Cindy. I can’t, you mustn’t, I…”

“Daddy, Mother always said that it was the horrible memories of what happened on that date in 1862 that hurt you so. And I figured perhaps I could give you something good on that day to help soften some of those bad things,” Cindy said, her eyes welling up.

Walter, a head taller than his daughter, looked not at her, but at the wall behind her, as he would on those days when he would sit with his back to the barn wall, searching for something but not finding it. He gave a great sigh.

“My darling girl, since your mother’s death you are all I have. You are my life. I would not wish to lose you to any man, with the possible exception of young Robert.” Walter gave a slight grin. “And I adore you for this gesture and will accede to your wish. And with God’s help, we shall see you a glorious bride and I the proud and joyful papa come this August 28th next.”

* * * *

On August 24th, 1885, Walter Bingham gave a cigar box to his daughter, telling her to keep it safe for him. And though he was subdued and quiet for the next four days, Walter looked every bit the proud father of the bride as they walked down the aisle of the Reformed Church in Stony Point.

Walter hired a photographer take portraits to remember that day. He kept but one on the mantle of his home for the rest of his life. His daughter had helped turn it into life that, while not as lighthearted and high-spirited as the boy who left Stony Point in 1861, was never again as broken as the man who returned in 1863. In fact, it turned quite hopeful.

The photo on the mantle was a hand-tinted portrait of Walter and Cindy. He in his fine morning coat and cravat and she in her her mother’s wedding dress. On his lapel, beneath the pink rose, he sported a locket containing a small portrait of Martha. On her bodice, Cynthia wore an odd piece of shiny jewelry, which the photographer had painted in watercolor tints of yellow for the upside-down star and pink and blue for the ribbon.

Robert had given Walt the frame in which he displayed it, gilded and bearing one word upon a scroll at its bottom. It read, HEROES.

I was inspired to write “Heroes” by a story I read about some Vietnam vets and decided to superimpose that inspiration, on Memorial Day, upon America’s defining conflict, the Civil War.

This is a revised version of the original, incorporating suggestions by Julie Duffy and other members of the Story-a-Day writers and critique group. My thanks for their insight and generosity.

Not For Naught

I looked up from within my clear,
in-plain-sight brooding spot, Today,
and discovered once again it began with
a different kind of F than Monday.
Another week had passed and once again
my life didn’t matter any more
than last Friday and all the ones before.
Accomplishment, I’d never seen, heard
nor even sniffed. Joy lay on the scale
of few and far between,
carried forward on the backs of Yetis
and others never seen.
I wondered, “Why do I stay here,
why do I even try?” Is there something
wrong with me because I don’t care if I die?

Living’s become just moving from one day
to the next, week trudging after weeks,
until the tap on your heart’s shoulder
comes and a voice like Johnnie Cash’s speaks:
“Brother, it’s closing time.
Forever o’clock, no one here gets a pass.
What is it behind you leave?”
We both look down into my brooding glass,
where once a heart did beat, and see I
left no legacy, nor any name to fete.
Just piles of words I wrote for you
(yes, dear, YOU) that even I forgot.
But if you recognize yourself here when
I’m gone, my living was not for naught.

Ten-minute, before-bed scramble because sometimes I do wonder.