Like It Always Was

It’s not like it used to be,
so many of us old guys say.
But I overheard a twenty-something
whisper that to her girlfriend
the other day in the checkout line.
And I wondered what a kid would know
about the nebulous “used to be.”
How could she relate to changing
what was on television by getting up
from your seat, walking across the room
and twisting the dial to one of
the only four channels that existed?
In pixel-ridden black and white.
Coming out of a piece of
wooden living room furniture?
How could she understand a time
when the scant coffee shops we had
were pretty much limited to an
artsy neighborhood, a block or two
up from the head shop,
where they sold weed
surreptitiously in the back?
What would they know of atomic
missile crises and street-filling protests
over racial injustice,
environmental destruction and
“Impeach the Bastard?”
Then I blinked out of my reverie,
as the girls, with matching tattoos
on their necks, gathered their cloth
refillable grocery bags and walked,
hand in hand, out of the store.
I thought. “No, it’s not
like it used to be.
But, that’s okay, really,
’cause it is.”

If you have been lucky enough, as I, to have lived through the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, etc., maybe you can relate. If not, trust me, I’ve seen this before. But it did take protest to turn things around. Maybe not all at once. But then, folks from these times are used to instant information, communication and gratification, fast as a 64-bit architecture can spit. Patience, children. Such things take time. Like it used to be.

Advertisements

Before It’s Too Late

Father, mother, and brother Bill,
first love, some others, none named Jill,
upon my life’s way walk unfulfilled,
following me over another hill.

Old friend, best friend, only one,
I said “See ya, I gotta run.”
Next call I got was from his son,
so now my list of friends is none.

In every case, including romance,
we parted in some macabre danse.
When I look back it is askance.
You see, I never got that chance.

What chance you say? I thought you’d know,
at least by now in my tale of woe.
But in stringing rhymes I ain’t no Poe,
just a sad old poet name of Joe.

All these regrets have made me cry.
It’s too late, see, after they die.
But if you should go first, or I,
let me at least wish YOU goodbye.

Sorry, I threw some slant rhymes and extra beats here and there into this piece. But this poem came to me because recently I’ve had a closer brush with my own mortality than I cared to brush. It’s a small part of my relative absence (compared to the Prolific Joe you know) from this space for the past several months. I never got the chance to wish these people I loved goodbye before we parted, one way or another. Just my youngest brother. So I decided to get ahead of the possibilities, just in case one of us trips on a rainbow, so to speak. 

A Certain Light in the East

Photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash

This was a Christmas unlike any Skyler Van ever experienced, so far removed from the small tree in the three-bedroom ranch back in Bethlehem, outside Albany. She had no memories with which to compare the way her boyfriend, Schuyler Hewson and his family made their season jolly.

But the Hewson’s celebration triggered one memory which sent Skyler to the back of their living room, with its red-flocked wallpaper, glittering eight-foot spruce and away from the huge hewn-stone fireplace with its mantle full of embroidered Christmas stockings. One of them read “Skyler.”

But she couldn’t stand there with the Hewsons next to the warming glow of their roaring Christmas fire. The pungent aroma of the burning kindling, dusted with a pinch of some sort of evergreen incense, the tang of which Schuyler said tasted of Christmas, tasted of something quite the opposite to her.

“You feeling okay, Sky?” her boyfriend asked, putting his arm around her shoulder.

“I think I might need some air, Schuyler. Maybe that Christmas punch of your grandmother’s was a little too potent for me after all.”

“Well, it’s been known to grow hair on your chest. But don’t tell my sister I just revealed her big secret,” he replied with a grin.

That grin was one of the things that drew Skyler to her now-boyfriend in the first place. That and his sense of humor and confidence.

They’d met a year before at the Starbucks on the Yale campus, each grabbing for the same cup when the barista called, “Sky-ler? Double-shot, skinny, eggnog latte, cinnamon, no nutmeg.”

Truth is, Schuyler never saw her there, since she barely came up to his armpit in height. And that’s where her arm came from–her left, his right. Each suffered from morning blindness and deafness until they had dipped into the mountain-grown elixir some Incan god gifted the Western Hemisphere.

She was an Asian girl in a knit cap and scarf. And she looked up at him and said, “I believe that’s my coffee”

“No, I’m sorry,” he said. “He called my name and the drink I ordered.

That’s when the other barista walked over and called, ““Sky-ler? Double-shot, skinny, eggnog latte, cinnamon, no nutmeg.”

They each looked at the cup in their hands, then the one on the counter, then back at one another and then laughed.

“Here,” Schuyler said. “This is a coincidence for the ages.”

“Yeah,” she said. “The fact the names are the same is one thing, but who the heck orders the exact same oddball espresso drink as I do.”

“I guess I do. By the way I’m…”

“Schuyler, I’d imagine,” she said.

“And so are you, I gather. I haven’t seen you around here before.”

“Well, since your eyes are way up there and your attention is even further up, I imagine I could be pretty hard to see little five-foot-nothing me down here,” Skyler said.

“You in a hurry? Anyone with our particular tastes in Starbucks drinks maybe should see what else they have in common,” the six-three Schuyler said.

“Not today, but I’ll be here tomorrow and I won’t have a class until 10:30. Maybe then.”

“Great. I’m looking forward to it, Skyler…?” The vacant name holder hung in the air by its interrogation mark.

“Van. I’m Skyler Van. And you’re…?” she said, hanging out her own opening.

“Hewson. Schuyler Hewson.”

And, starting the next day, their relationship built up to and including next Christmas Day. From eggnog lattes to strawberry smoothies, to Pumpkin Spice and back to eggnog. All with a little cinnamon.

Outside the Hewson house that evening, Schuyler followed his girlfriend. He found her leaning against a wall with her eyes closed and taking deep breaths.

“What’s the matter, Sky? You look so sad. I thought bringing you here to celebrate with us might make you happy, We do put on quite the ostentatious show, I grant you, but the spirit is universal,” Schuyler said.

“Oh, it’s been wonderful. Look, I’m even wearing Christmas lights, for Christ’s sake,” Skyler said, fingering the necklace of bulbs she wore.

“True, you make a very cute little tree. Much cuter than that behemoth in the living room.”

“Why thank you…I think,” Skyler said with a weak grin.

“Aw, man. You’re not feeling well, are you? I told Mom not to have the cook put so much pineapple, brown sugar, clove and ginger on the ham. Non-Hewsons might find that a little too much for their stomachs. Plus that damn punch. Ya see, that Manischewitz wine my grandfather slipped us when we were eight or ten was the gateway drug to this bacchanal…”

“No, Schuyler, I just felt….uncomfortable by the fire, that’s all.”

“Oh, yeah, the old man really builds that bad boy high, doesn’t he. I always wondered how the ell Santa was going to make it down the chimney with that thing going all night. Poor son a bitch would end up barbecued and…”

“Schuyler, stop,” Skyler cried, her voice cracking like the logs in the Hewson hearth.

“What? Did I say something wrong? I’m sorry, my family’s Christmas parties can be pretty overwhelm…”

“No, Schuyler. It’s not your family, nor the ham, nor the punch. It’s my family that’s putting this sickening taste in my mouth.”

“You mean the cultural difference? I thought Buddhists didn’t mind celebrating Christmas. Think Jesus was some kind of Bodhisattva or whatever,” Schuyler said.

“No, that’s not it, either. We even have a Christmas tree back home in Bethlehem. It’s another thing I don’t talk about, so…”

“C’mon, Sky. I thought we had a deal. If I did something to overstep my bounds with your Vietnamese culture or religion, you said you’d let me know so I could do better,” Schuyler said, pulling his girlfriend closer.

“I…I don’t know if I can this time, hon,” Skyler said. A tear clinging to the corner of her eye.

“Help me make it better, Sky. Really. Was it something I said?”

“Kinda.”

“Well, I’m sorry, whatever it was. But unless you tell me, I can make the same mistake twice. I never want to upset you like this again.”

“It really is the fire.”

“Like I said. The old man, he..”

“Not your father, Schuyler. My grandmother,” Skyler said with a sob.

“I don’t get it. Your grandmother died years ago back in Vietnam. Before your family came to the States, you told me.”

“It’s how she died. And what you said about the fire and Santa and the image was just too much. My family still can’t take the whole sensory panoply of a fireplace, a bonfire, even fireworks.”

“Oh, man. You mean she was killed by an explosion or in a fire during the Vietnam War?”

“No, Schuyler. She WAS the fire,” Skyler said, trembling in Schuyler’s arms.

“Was the fire? How does somebody… Oh! You don’t mean…”

“Yes, I’m afraid I do. After my grandfather was killed in the war, she became even more devoutly Buddhist, especially when my dad came here to go to Cal. So he wasn’t there to help her until just before she and a few nuns sat in the street with their gasoline cans and…and…”

“Holy shit. Sky, I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”

“Who could? Who really could understand how grief and faith and protest can intersect in such self-inflicted horror on a street corner in Hué?  Skyler said. She looked up into Schuyler’s eyes.

“No. I’m afraid I have no sense of that, I’m sorry. How can I help you, Sky?”

“Just hold me. It’s freakin’ cold out here. I don’t think I can go back in your living room for a while. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the photos of that day and it made me very sick. Seeing your fire just triggered it again, Your parents think I’m some kind of Asian punk weirdo, Don’t they?”

“No, of course not. And screw them if they did. What do you say we go back inside to the kitchen and have something to drink to help wash that taste out of your mouth? No punch. Maybe I can make an eggnog latte?” Schuyler said with a grin.

“Okay. But how about a strawberry smoothie? Christmas is over anyway. And can you come to Albany for New Year’s? I think this is going to be Năm của kẻ si tình,” Skyler said and hugged her boyfriend close.

“What’s that mean, said the willing-to-learn-Vietnamese half-Jewish boy,” Schuyler said as they headed toward the back door.

“Year of the Love Birds. I love you, Schuyler.”

“And ‘Anh yêu em,’ Sky. Told you I was willing.”

After a holiday-induced break and creative malaise, I’ve jumped back into responding to Sarah Salecky’s Six Weeks, Six Senses feature. This past week’s theme was the sense of Taste. One of the photo prompts was of a forlorn young Asian girl in a knit hat and a light-bulb necklace, another of a pink drink, and the final of something aflame in the middle of a street. Not sure I did Taste all that much justice and my use of the pink drink is weak, but the other two photos evoked this story of two kids from different cultures – on many levels – whose love seems like the real deal.

Recipe for Desire

From what I recall,
at first touch, your cheek
was so soft and warm,
and I laughed to myself
when my silly brain compared it
to a pillow of bread dough,
proofing by the stove.
But that’s me, always making
the odd connections,
usually wrong, sometimes poetic,
a few even right…for a while.
And I wondered what
it would be like to hold on
to your soft and warm self
and, more importantly,
what it would like to feel
your touch on my skin,
because you wanted to touch me.
That would be a communication
needing no words but understood
even by a deaf man, a blind man,
a man who compares a woman
to the staff of life aborning.
And that’s what you became,
a staple of my lonely existence
and the leavening of so many
of my dreams. Oh, for a taste!

Fig Newtons and Café Au Lait

Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

Never in a million years, would I have thought I would someday be wrestling a seven-year-old’s hair into an acceptable level of neat confinement. But then I never figured Jen might die before I did. I never expected our daughter Melissa to have a baby by “that guy.” Never dreamed that child would become my day job and one of my only reasons to get up each morning, once I retired.

Yet here I was running a spiky brush through Mimi’s coarse, tightly curled hair, as she wriggled and whined that I hurt her when my brushing would slide and stop with the discovery of yet another snarl.

“I’m sorry, Mimi. I’m trying not to hurt you, but your mother would kill me if I let you out of the house with your hair full of knots,“ I said as I worked the brush with my right hand and held onto my neat harvest of frizzled hair. The hair she inherited from her father, but her sweet little face was a café au lait version of her mother’s at her age.

“I hate my stupid hair, Grandpa,” Mimi said as I finally contained most of the subject of her dismay with four twists of a hair band at the back of her head. 

As I withdrew my finger from that elastic mini-tourniquet, I said, “Now why on the world would you say that?” 

I know, at that moment I wasn’t too fond of her hair either. But it was the perfect crown to her angel face.

“It’s just…just…all over the place. I hate it. I want hair like Taylor’s,” Mimi said.

“Taylor?”

“You know, Taylor. She’s the most beautiful girl in my class. Everybody loves her and she’s really nice and I want long straight, shiny blond hair like Taylor’s,” Mimi said with a defiant stamp of her foot on the floor that I felt through my slippers. Yes, I’m retired, so now I wear slippers, moccasins, around the house.

“Mimi, everybody loves you, too. You’re sweet and smart and musical and you look just like my little girl, which means I think you’re absolutely beautiful,” I said with a touch of my hand on her chin. Which was sticky.

“What the heck is on your face?” I asked her while I went to fetch a wet wipe from the white plastic container on the counter. She smiled. And that’s when I saw the brown stain on her tooth.

“Fig Newtons, Grandpa. I traded with Taylor. She wanted my ‘Nilla Wafers.”

“And when did you eat these Fig Newtons? You took your shower last night. I cleaned up the water after you were done, Miss Squeaky Clean.”

“In bed. I snuck ‘em under my pillow. Some of the crumbs got kinda itchy, but I still slept okay.”

“I see. Well, why don’t we both march to the bathroom and you can brush your teeth,” I said with a gentle hand on her warm little shoulder. Though I could see she was getting bigger every day.

“Okay, but I still hate my hair. I want to be as beautiful as Taylor, beautiful like a flower,” Mimi said.

“You already ARE beautiful. Here, let me load up your toothbrush. Now brush, and listen.”

“Mmm-mummmph”

“I know you think you’re not as ‘beautiful,’ as Taylor,” I said, emphasizing beautiful with air quotes. I’m sure they were wasted on a seven-year-old, but I was out of practice with that age. Boy, with Melissa at work, did I miss Jen (again) right then.

“But sometimes beauty is more than only looks, of which you have plenty, little lady. There’s a city on the other side of the world called Singapore. And in Singapore is this stunningly beautiful park. EVERYBODY says it’s one of the most beautiful parks in the world. Now at the center of this beautiful park are these giant metal frames that look like trees. They’re made of twisted bars of steel that reach way up like redwoods and spread out at the top like another tree I’ll tell you about in a second.”

Mimi spit into the sink and said, “Is this gonna be another long story, Grandpa?”

“Keep brushing and listen. Now on these frames of metal trees, beautiful vines and flowers climb and grow. Just like the grapes do every year on Grandma’s arbor in the yard. But inside these phony trees that everyone says are so beautiful are these concrete towers, just like you’d see in Charlotte or Raleigh or even Washington. They aren’t beautiful but the beautiful phony trees cover that up,. Sometimes outside beauty isn’t the whole story about something. It’s just…outside.” I said, hoping I could get this next part through to her.

“Uh huh.”

“These metal trees branch out at the top something like a fig tree, the kind of tree that made the fruit in the sticky and sweet middle of your Newtons. You have to agree that a fig is a pretty sweet thing, right?”

“Yeah, but…”

“Well, did you know that the fig is the only fruit, sweet as it is, that doesn’t grow from a pretty blossom or flower first? Nope, the fig’s blossoms grow on the inside and help make it sweet and different in a very good way. Just like you. Beautiful, sweet and different from any other girl in the world. Except maybe your Mommy. Now rinse and spit,” I said.

“Thbbbbb… But I don’t want to be different,” Mimi said.

“Are you kidding? Do watch TV? These blond news bunnies all over the air are like dandelions in my crappy lawn. All pretty and yellow when they pop up, then BOOM, they turn into those white floating seed thingies that make you sneeze. And, by the way, dandelions are a weed.”

“Are you saying Taylor’s a weed, Grandpa?  That’s not a nice thing to say. Taylor’s my friend,” Mimi said. And I realized that my half-assed parable had merely served to pass the time that it took for her to focus on what made her my sweet girl.

“Can you call Taylor’s mom and ask her if she can come over today? She’s got this new American Girl doll we can play with. It looks like her,“ Mimi said, half hopeful and a still a little down.

“Of course. You tell her she can bring her doll over to play with yours.”

“But I don’t have one. Mommy said maybe for Christmas.”

“Mommy has yet to learn that Grandpa’s don’t need Christmas to spoil their granddaughters. C’mere,” I said, leading her into my little office space downstairs.”

“Grandpas who don’t have too much to do sometimes just sit around and think what they can do to make their beautiful granddaughters happier. With Grandma gone, I needed help, so I enlisted the aid of Kendall here.” I pulled the box with the slick plastic window on its front from behind my desk and handed it to Mimi. Inside was one of those American Girl dolls, only this one had tight curly hair pulled back in two puffy pigtails and her pretty face was the color of Jen’s coffee, when I got it right. Sure it was for her birthday in two weeks, but now I could get her even more stuff.

“Oh, Grandpa, she’s beautiful,” Mimi squealed.

“Say that again.”

“She’s beautiful, she looks just like…”

“You.”

I think I got it right this time, Jen. 

Another Six Senses, Six Weeks assignment. This one was to center on the sense of touch, which i didn’t do as well as I’d hoped. But I enjoyed writing this little story. It kept revealing more things to me as I went along. That photo was one of the prompts, as was a photo of that park and a halved fig in a glass dish. Used the prompts, just gagged on the theme, unless it touches someone’s heart.

Love Is Blind

There’ve been a few I always could make smile,
don’t ask me just how, though God knows I tried.
But, just as often, it was I, shy of guile,
who was left without love. In fact I cried.

I know, who cares about the jester, the fool,
when all I hoped to win was their nearness.
Oh, who am I kidding? I’m such a tool.
This fool wished to be their prince, so fearless.

They’d draw me close, but I wanted nigh to,
a proposition always doomed to fail.
In the end, they’d find others to sigh to,
but those ends weren’t The End of my love tale.

Chasing after Princesses, their faults unseen,
love found me, in the blue eyes of my blind Queen.

Here, I Made This for You

 

I’m told these holidays are for wee ones,
or for those people who wish they still were.
I know some adults want more than just ski runs,
where season’s warmth’s overcome by chill brrr.

And maybe that’s why I never skied much,
preferring the embrace of family.
Okay, maybe we’d glide on sleds and such,
but home’s hearth we could reach quite handily.

We all grow up and make new homes someday,
with distance ‘tween ourselves and our own.
But even if we’re alone that one day,
we can still reach out and not just by phone.

Christmas makes All our sister or brother,
so why can’t we share with one another?

I know, corny. But if I can’t be a little corny, schmaltzy and sweet this time of year, when can I? And yes, You (You know who you are), I did make this for You. Maybe you’ll find some more from your secret Poetic Santa soon.