Killer Angels, Better Angels

It’s leaves are near-ochre,
yellowed with age and changes
in weather and geography,
like the pages of memory
I unshelve along with it each year.

I bring it out like a swimsuit
each summer since I found it
on that beach in that place from
that side which did not prevail.
Today, a page fell like a memory.

It tells a tale of the push and pull
of a time when men could be
paid for and sold, or lined up in ranks
to pay their last full measure
of devotion to a cause each held sacred.

As I run my finger down the page,
I am present in my place and time
as I am in theirs, though I smell
the aroma of a musty old book rather than
of Hell’s own sulfur and smoke.

And I am at peace reading of war and death,
vaguely secure that such a conflict
couldn’t again slash my nobly scarred nation.
Then all these men would have given
that last full measure for nothing.

It’d be our most-mortal sin to allow them
to have lived and died in vain, knowing their
new birth of freedom, and government
of the people, by the people, for the people–
all the people – did perish from the earth.

Rambling draft inspired by reading, breathing, feeling, listening to the pages of my old paperback copy of The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s fictional narrative of the actual men and events leading up to, within and following the days in July of 1863 we know as the Battle of Gettysburg. I find myself reading more of my Civil War books these days.I love them, but that I feel so viscerally compelled concerns me a little. 

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Blessed Sacrament

In the ever-Summer glare and heat
I found my life’s pain and regret
sanctified into something replete
with but little Hope baptized in sweat.
So the torment, no matter how holy,
still rips around my beaten heart
as if it was something mad and solely
bent and intent to rip it apart.

Perhaps I can hallow my vessel so hollow
with the heat from a different kind of light,
as good for my soul as the heart to follow,
soothing all my pain with its godly might.
And that’s why I’m here dipping pen in ink,
the black sprung from my soul to my heart.
Drawing pictures in words so we all might drink
of this sacrament that heals me called Art.

As I like to say, completing these pieces I share does not make me feel better. But all the time spent immersed in the process of writing them does. And that, my friend, is the miracle of Art, no matter how poorly rendered. 

Dreams at Angels-30

When I was a kid, I’d
lie on the grass, look up
and wish I could fly
to those billowing bundles
of sun-bleached linen some
otherworldly launderer
piled across the sky.
When I became older,
I finally flew there,
and it was then I wished
I could step off my silver wings
to trek those seemingly solid
wintry plains and mountains.
I’d be careful not to venture
near their thin ice edges, though.
I wouldn’t wish to shatter
some other boy’s aspirations
to one day reach his lofty dreams
only to find new ones down below
at Angels-30.

For what it’s worth, “Angels” is old aviation slang for altitude measured in thousands of feet. Therefore, Angels-30 is 30,000 feet in altitude. Photo ©2016 Joseph Hesch

Loud Enough

I think I remember what it was like to hear as you do. But now the world communicates with me as if I’m pressing mittened hands over my ears. It’s not like my ears have gone blind to all sound. If I sit in a quiet room I hear a kind of hissing sensation. And if I’ve run for a while, I can hear the thud-up thud-up of my heart pumping the blood uphill to my neck. At least it’s pumping, right?

But if you were outside with an armful of groceries, kicking the front door and to calling, “Cal, will you open the door,” while I’m watching television with my Bluetooth amplifier blowing in my ears, I might not hear you until you drop the groceries on the entryway floor eight feet away. Maybe.

Here’s the thing about slowly losing all your hearing: You don’t really notice it until you start pissing people off. And I’ve pissed off Jenna at an increasing rate for five years.

“Jesus, Cal, didn’t you hear me kicking the door?” Jenna will say. And all I can do is take that sapphire blue laser look of hers right in the eyes and shake my head. 

“No, sorry. The television amplifier was on and my hearing aids were…”

“Stop yelling. Half the neighborhood will think we’re fighting.”

“Sorry,” I’ll say and shut off the receiver around my neck, which brings the whole world back to muffled normal. Well, at least my current normal.

“But I did finish hooking up the baby monitor in our bedroom. The sound-trigger on the warning lights and closed-circuit TV work great. I tossed a basketball in there to be sure.”

“Ohh, that’s great, honey. Now would you put the beets in the crisper and the meat in the freezer?” she’ll ask.

And I’ll do exactly what she said. Until…

“Calvin, what are you doing?”

“Putting the beets in the freezer, like you said.”

“The meat in the freezer, honey. The beets in the vegetable crisper.”

Ohhh, I thought it was odd you’d want to put beets up there. But what the hell do I know? I’m just the deaf guy fucking up around here.”

And then Jenna will step over a couple of bags of groceries and hug me, saying something like, “I’m sorry, Cal. Beets, meats. I should’ve considered what I said before…”

“No, you shouldn’t have to, Jenn. I just have to pay better attention.” Which is true. when you have happened to you what happened to me, you tend to burrow inside and think too much about yourself and how the world doesn’t understand and really can’t take the time to try. Though Jenna’s been an angel, really. Even through my therapy and her morning sickness.

There’s nothing in this world I would love hearing clearly again more than Jenna’s voice. Hearing it without the assistance of these hearing aids, which have become the equivalent of a white cane to a blind guy. Or they will someday when I go totally deaf. The docs tell me they don’t know for sure. 

Sometimes, when the wind’s just right and I strain really hard, I think I hear mourning doves when I walk out to the end of the driveway for the paper at dawn. But instead of their low whistling coo — hoo-hoo-ah-hoo — like I used to make in fifth grade by putting my hands together, keeping space between the palms, and blowing across an opening between my thumbs, it feels more like a tinny syncopated sensation in my ears. 

That’s the best I can describe it. So maybe it’s robins. Or it just as easily could be the hunnh-hunnh-huh-hunnnhof the semis’ horns combined with the whine of their wheels as they pass one another on the interstate. Or the whoooo-whoooo-wuh-whoo over the tick-a-ta-tick-a-ta-tick-a-ta of a freight train crossing Pierce Road a couple of miles from here. But I choose to think it’s the mourning doves.

But I have memories of all the birds, can even recall which thweet-thweet-thweet or pew-pew-pew went with who. I can remember how the tone of Jenna’s dad’s voice went from baritone to tenor and back down again the day she brought me over to introduce me, her new boyfriend. 

I can remember how a bullet going right past your head can sound like a zipping whissss, while one that’s going by ten feet away can crack or pop in a miniature version of a sonic boom. I can tell how the sound of a dual rotor old Chinook helo differs from a single rotor Blackhawk. I can tell you the difference between the sound of an RPG exploding in the vehicle behind you and an IUD going off under the one in front of you. But I only vaguely recall the sound of one that detonated next to my M1151, knocking me cold, killing most of my hearing and two guys on that side of the vehicle.

I also remember the sound of Jenna’s voice when I sat down with her after I was discharged, clean as a whistle on the outside, but pretty fucked up on the inside. She told me she was just happy to have me home. In one piece. At least that’s what I think she said. I’m pretty sure.

Things haven’t gone as well as she planned when she said she’d stick with me through it all, though. I mean it was going to be tough enough with me Black and her White, Italian no less. But, son of a bitch, she’s stronger than I could ever be, which is why we had another sit-down six months ago when she told me we were pregnant.

“Cal, I want to have your child more than anything I’ve ever wanted besides getting you home, but I can’t lie. I worry about things. You have this way of staring at me when I’m speaking to you — there’s that look right now. It’s like you’re saying, ‘I hear you, Jenn,’ but I can’t be sure you really do.”

“I know, but I’m hearing you now, Jenn. And I understand you…”

“And there are other times I think you hear one thing, but it’s the exact opposite of what was said. That’s the thing that scares me. Especially with the baby coming,” she said.

Don’t think I hadn’t considered all those things when I got home. Some days I thought she’d be better off without me, others I’d be better off without her. But I kept coming back to the same answer.

“Jenn, I understand what you’re afraid of. I am, too. There are times you say you love me and I miss it. And that must hurt you awfully. But that’s just hearing. We can find workarounds for that. I’m sure of it. But know this, I don’t want to live without feeling your words bumping up against my ears, freezing and teasing, scolding and holding, their temperature and speed sometimes more important than their meaning. They bump up against me and fall away so I have to imagine their meaning and insinuation. But they’re yours and I can’t live without feeling you there one way or another.”

So we are doing our best, despite meats and beets. And last week, when Jenna delivered little Bella the sound of her first cry was the sweetest thing I ever heard. Well, at least the vibration of it reaching more than the two tiny sets of bones and other machinery in my head. Heard it like I hear her Mom.  Warm and loud enough.

My first draft response to Sarah Salecky’s Six Weeks of Senses fiction project. I just finished this in about an hour and a half. It was slow and it was difficult to get going on because I couldn’t find a story in me to use the sense of sound I wanted. Maybe it’s because I can’t hear worth crap. Hearing aids in both ears. So I “wrote what I know.” 

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.

The View From the Precipice Through Gray Eyes

As I sit with her sleeping on my chest,
I wonder how her world will be
if she gets the chance to be my age.
Will she ever be able to swim
in a clean lake, hide beneath a dock
where you can clearly see all the way
to the shore from beneath the water?

Will she ever return from a visit
to The Great White North and be greeted
by border protectors who only mildly mistrust her
because she might be hiding duty-free booze
in the trunk, rather than meeting scowling guys
who mistrust everyone coming across
the Rainbow Bridge who have the dark tan
and jet black hair I did at 18?

Will she be free to read, write and speak
about anything, in any manner, for and against,
as I have my whole communicative life?
She makes a wiggle and opens her gray eyes
for a second, sees someone who loves her
holding her close, safe and warm, and I wonder.

Will she one day hold her grandkid and realize
what a special thing we had in this little town,
in her Grandpa’s old big-hug country
I once thought was full of possibilities,
back before the precipitous fall into
a land of Not Anymore?

I’ve always wondered, with both my granddaughters, the blue-eyed and the gray, how the future will be for them. It’s always been windy at the top of this mountain, but these days I worry more than I ever have a rank gust could blow us off.

Picking Up Our Pieces

You and I can rise after
so great a fall we
leave bookmarks in the earth
for the next chapters
in our history of falls.
Or maybe our last.
But if you gather yourself,
like you’d gather the pieces
of a pitcher knocked off
the highboy, and you hope
you have enough glue –
hell, enough pieces –
you can reassemble a vessel
that’ll hold who you are
and some of what you used to be.
There’s no chance you’ll
look exactly the same,
all those cracks and gaps
left where the pieces
lost used to fit.
Might even sag a little.
But you’ll still be you,
with a chance, and a little help,
to get set back up there
to watch, wobble, gather dust,
leak, or even fall again,
because gravity and life
stand ready to drop us,
where we can just lie there
in pieces or collect ourselves
and rise again.

Picking up the pieces, with a little help.