Faces False and True

Iroquois False Face Mask

The lab smelled of dirt and plaster. It reminded Dr. Jacqueline Bird of the houses around the Akwesasne Reservation her father would help renovate on weekends to help pay for her education.

Jacquie smiled at the memory of her dad coming to the door covered in plaster dust save for his hands and eye sockets when she’d arrive with his lunch and a beer. Later, she’d spot the empties tossed in the haul-away dumpster. Their brown glass cast an amber glow onto the broken wall lath within, like browned ribs of the long-dead man arrayed before her on her work table.

“Daydreaming, Dr. Bird?” Jacquie’s boss Dr. Raoul Dumont said as he popped up behind her in the archeology/anthropology department lab in Syracuse. Her reverie disappeared like a puff of white dust from the protective plaster covering she blew off the remains of this soldier. She’d unearthed them herself from the dig site on the western shore of Lake George.

“Not exactly, Dr. Dumont. And I wish you wouldn’t jump up behind me like that while I’m cleaning and examining these remains. This man suffered enough without me further torturing his bones,” Jacquie said as she removed her safety glasses and appeared as the dusty echo of her father.

Dumont moved closer to Jacquie and reached out to move his finger down the page of her notes. As he did so, his hand once again brushed against Jacquie’s. His head floated just behind her right ear.

“So you believe this subject was scalped, Dr. Bird? You yourself have said that even postmortem head wounds can leave behind signs of hemorrhaging in the cranial etching. I do not see any signs of such hemorrhaging here. What proof do you have he experienced such torture? Couldn’t these just as easily be postmortem predation caused by scavenging…,” he paused and breathed “animals?” into Jacquie’s ear.

Jacquie recalled a conversation with her bachelor’s school friend Edie Blaine in the instant the hairs on her neck assumed an upright and locked positions.

Edie, a professor of anthropology at Dumont’s previous university, had warned her of Dumont’s reputation for harassing female students and colleagues alike.

“He gets away with so much because of his connections in the World Archeological Conference and the Society for American Archeology,” Edie told her. “Plus his uncle’s a ranking member of the Senate Education Committee. Connections and direct access to the money tree make him a tough little bastard to cut off for any university. Yours has more shine, so he jumped at the chance for more professional prestige and fresh sweater meat.”

“My report will prove my theory, Dr. Dumont. But let me show you how I believe my subject suffered at the hands of people may have been some of my ancestors,” Jacquie said.

Sliding from her stool, Jacquie looked Dumont in the eyes as she held a pointed probe in one hand and a scalpel in the other.

“I believe the man was a French Marine or Canadian like your forebears, sent down to stir up distrust among the Mohawk and English settlers on the southern end of the lake. I’ve seen wounds like this before and read documentation of their sources,” she said.

“And what, pray tell, was that, Dr. Bird?” Dumont said with an amused grin.

“In the documented case, the raiders kidnapped, raped or killed both white and native girls. My Mohawk ancestors captured one of them. As you know, theirs was a matriarchy of sorts and such crimes were often handled by the women of the clan. In this case,” Jacquie jabbed at Dumont’s crotch with her probe, “repeatedly piercing his pelvis with sewing needles, before removing his genitals. Very effective deterrent, don’t you think?”

Dumont recoiled from the probe poking at his crotch.

“Excuse me?” he said.

“They let him bleed out, hung from a rack like a deer. Before he expired, though, they removed the scalp from his exsanguinated skull, sewing it to his crotch, like a merkin. Hence, more pelvic scratches. Total demasculinization. Like to see the method they used?” Jacquie said, putting down her probe and reaching for Dumont’s toupee with scalpel still in hand.

“No! Thank you, Dr, Bird. I’ll leave you to your work,” Dumont said, looking like he’d seen a ghost. He scurried from the lab with his hands shoved deep in his pockets.

Jacquie returned to her work with a small smile. She saw the reflection of her dust-covered face on her blank computer screen and wiped the plaster from her cheeks.

“Have to call Daddy later to tell him how Granny’s stories of her grannies’ grannies’ grannies cut off another white dick today like they did in the old days,” Jacquie said to herself. Then she blew more dust off the bones of another man who didn’t recognize who he was dealing with.

Wanted to write up a quick flash piece for my friend Dan Mader’s weekly 2 Minutes. Go! flash fiction feature on his site, Unemployed Imagination. Wanted to keep it under 4,000 characters, but some first drafts just take on lives of their own. Not exactly sure where this came from, maybe a subconscious mashup of the current news and my penchant for frontier New York history. It’ll do in a pinch for a writer in the depressed doldrums.

Advertisements

What Was Found Above the Lines Has Been Lost Between Them

Aerial photograph of a Bristol F2B fighter aircraft flying above the clouds.

Above the lines you can see the scars etched
into the beauty’s countenance, crisscrossing
ones old and new, some smeared with spoiled
face powder trying to cover the pocks
and failures of old men’s vanity.
But that’s only if you regard them with some
romantic aesthetic you lose all too quickly
as you are assailed by the scream of
the engine in your lap, its heat of no use
in the freezing air and wind in your face,
redolent of burnt petrol and cast-off castor oil.
You dare not wax so poetic that you stare
at billowing, sun-painted clouds as if
they were masterpieces like great Cathedrals,
or as the marble imaginings filling them,
wrought by some absent God’s immortal tools.
No, above the lines’ beauty and cleanliness
are mere primer for a blank canvas, one yet
to be spattered with the black and red blooms
of Archie shells, the yellow tracings of bullets
as they pierce your wings, fuselage, or someone’s son.
You chance a glimpse of the slanting or spiral
chiaroscuro of a funeral pyre in descent,
in a hurry to bury another boy in the box
within in which he tried to stay above all the mud
And blood below, only to be lost between the lines.

Inspired by a picture and conversation shared with my friend, the novelist Julia Robb. These days, I feel so much like one of those young men of the Lafayette Escadrille or the Royal Flying Corps in late 1916/early 1917. I see little beauty in what I’m doing here anymore and feel my time at this is growing as short as my next climb into the cockpit of this desk. 

Sharp Pencils

The gale pushes its way
past doors locked and sealed
with hope and prayer.
But they will not
withstand the cloaked
forces of Nature between
dusk and dawn.
I know that darkness
cannot last longer than
a new sunrise, and storms
eventually give way
to a new bright promise.
If you believe your hopes
securely lock the entrance
to your sacred space,
or that prayers hold fast
the door of your sanctuary,
I can’t say you’re mistaken.
I only know another
dark storm has shattered
the door she opened
in me when first I saw her
open her blue eyes.

I started writing this down as just scribbles while I watched my granddaughter use the freshly sharpened #2s from the circular pencil box on my desk. I had written “Sharp Pencils” at the top of the page because that’s what we were using. Hence the title. She likes the pink gel pen, too. But, c’mon…

Hooks, Lines and Lingers

What used to be scars
are now but traces.
And what traces came
before those,
Time has buried
upon my face.
The marks delineate,
limn and illustrate
where compulsions,
like hooks in my flesh,
drew me to you.
I knew better, but I
couldn’t choose to ignore,
to turn, to run away.
Distance, of years
and circumstance,
dissolved any cords
connecting me to you.
Some hooks linger,
embedded in those lines,
reminders of how easily
I can be caught.
They’re affixed to feelings
I can’t explain, so
I share them here.
They’re no doubt obsessions,
but some call them poems.

Celebrate, Celebrate

In the service area waiting room,
most of the people waiting
for their cars to be healed
are older men, retirees who sit
and gab about cars they once owned,
or that white Shelby Mustang
they wish they could. Some wear
baseball caps emblazoned with the branch
of the armed forces in which they served
when they were kids.

The 70-something gent in the dark blue
Navy cap caresses the Shelby’s curves
as the bright lights gleam off
the embroidered “CV-34” and “USS Oriskany”
on the front of his cap.
I want to ask him about the fire
on the Big O, killing forty-four
of his shipmates in ’66.
But you probably shouldn’t bring up
such stuff at 10:20 AM in a place
where the only thing to drink
is bad coffee and Three Dog Night
blares a harmonized “Celebrate, celebrate…”

I drain my coffee and recall
my Draft physical and wonder
which of the guys who stood naked
in ranks of eight with me for some
perverse inspection on that
cold tile floor could be sitting
in the blue leatherette chairs
on this tile floor, bouncing
their knees and waiting bareheaded
for their names to be called again.

Been a depressed dry spell for me lately. But being out in the world this morning, seeing guys my age waiting around in somewhat jovial moods for ‘something’ spiked my imagination.

Step Nine

There’s this guy who penned a story
he’ll never share with you.
It’s a tale of two people who
should have, but ultimately never knew

their true feelings for each other
but should have sensed them coming.
Not roaring like a freight train, but
maybe a funeral parade’s muted drumming.

In it he tells her how he’s sorry
for the way he let her down,
though she’s so hurt she’ll forever view
him as a vain and heartless clown.

But he was compelled to tell her,
to again open his scarred wounds,
to make amends for damage he’d done
so he could listen to the old tunes

that always brought to his mind an Us
where only a He and She existed.
And though he fought like hell to forget her,
some of the obsessive feelings persisted.

So he comes clean with his long story,
all of the wherefores and the whys,
of how he one day just disappeared,
bringing her to forever despise

the guy who always lent a sympathetic ear
and a strong shoulder she could lean on.
How he followed some “expert’s” orders
to break away from the damage he was so keen on.

It ends with him saying a last goodbye,
after listening to her side of their tale.
But you’ll never read this story,
that’s always been his white whale.

It’s something he fought for years
to get out of his crippled system,
but now that he has, he feels no catharsis,
only realization of this hard wisdom:

You can follow all the steps prescribed
to cure your crippling addictions,
but until you confess your failings to yourself,
your true stories are nothing but true fictions.

Just so you understand, my poem is only a free-written, first-draft creative exercise in storytelling and rhyme. What is it they say at the beginning of Law & Order episodes? “The following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event.” However, feel free to run it on your mind’s big screen through whatever personal lens you wish. It’s yours now.

Not Too Hot, Not Too Cold

Albany from the Helderberg Escarpment

Lew “Ruby” Rubio hadn’t cased this place before deciding to break in. But he’d been on the run from the cops in Albany for two sleepless days and nights and figured he could hide up in this cottage in the Helderbergs for a spell while everything cooled off down in the city.

Lew figured no one had been home in at least a week from the number of newspapers that peppered the apron of the driveway. He decided to jimmy the sliding door on the side away from the road, even though trees blocked view of the most of house from County Rte. 10. With a screwdriver he discovered in the garden shed and twenty years’ practice in the Bronx and Albany, he was standing in the kitchen in thirty seconds.

Once inside, Lew found his suspicions were correct. The place had been buttoned up for some time. A check in the bathroom showed the electricity on and the water off. He found the main, gave it a good twist to the left and he figured he was set for as long as he wanted to stay there. As long, that is, as he remained vigilant for any visitors from the County Sheriff’s Department or the State Police.

But first thing’s first.

“I’m frigging starving,” Lew said as he walked to the refrigerator. Inside, he found jars of pickles, olives, condiments, three cans of Mountain Dew, two bottles of Nine Pin Cider, a large unopened bottle of Ommegang Rare Vos ale and a half-bottle of 2016 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon.

“Well, this is all very nice, but where’s the damn real food?” Lew said, shoving the refrigerator door closed and moving to the cabinets that lined the wall above the sink. In the dim moonlight, he found cans of Progresso Chicken Noodle and Minestrone soups, some boxes of Kraft Mac and Cheese, envelopes of Brown Sugar and Cinnamon oatmeal, a jar of peanut butter and three tubes of Pringles barbecue potato chips.

“Jesus, maybe something’s in the freezer. Aannnnd…two scrawny frost-burgers, half a bag of Tater Tots and two bottles of vodka. What the hell is up with these drunks?” Lew said, as he closed the freezer door, casting the kitchen back into darkness..

He froze when he thought he heard the crunch of something on the gravel driveway out front. Then he dropped low when he saw the headlights.

“Shit, not already,” he said, catching his breath as a car-mounted spotlight swept the exterior of the front of the house and the woods on both sides, its beam cutting off a slice of the darkness in the kitchen. Lew crawled toward the sliding door again, ready to make a run for it if necessary. But the Sheriff’s patrol car backed out onto Rte. 10 and once again he was alone.

“I’d better eat something now, in case they come back,” Lew said to himself. So he opened two bags of oatmeal, tossed the contents into a bowl, added water from the now-functioning tap and put it in the microwave for a minute. While it cooked, Lew poured a can of Mountain Dew into one of the red Solo cups he found on the shelf, and topped it off with some of the icy vodka.

“The Dew for the caffeine and the hooch for my nerves,” he laughed. He pulled the steaming bowl from the microwave, gave it a stir and slowly ate it, washing it down with the fortified Dew. Finished with his oatmeal, he dug a couple spoonfuls of peanut butter from the jar he left open on the counter, sucked down a hard cider and decided he’d better try getting some rest.

Slowly, he climbed the stairs up to the shed dormer, where he found two bedrooms and a half-bathroom. But, since the dormer was on the side away from the road, he thought he’d better get back downstairs just in case the cops made this place a regular stop on their patrols.

“You never know who might break in on you,” Lew said with a laugh.

Lew decided to crash on the futon by the sliding door, just in case. He opened the glass slider to allow some cool air into the pace through the screen. He then propped himself up so he faced the driveway and settled in for what remained of the night.

“Maybe I can steal a day or two here before I hit the road,“ he thought. Within two minutes he was sleeping soundly.

He never saw the headlights, nor any spotlight, but the sound of someone moving around outside coming through the open slider roused him around 3:00 AM.

“Shit. Where the hell did they come from,” Lew thought as he eased himself off the futon and padded over to the wall next to the slider. He peeked out one side of doorway, saw the shadow moving toward the doorway.

“I ain’t going back for them to put in the county lockup. I either gotta make a run for it into the woods when this dude moves to the other side, or I have to take care of him, myself…right now,” Lew thought.

He looked around for something to use as a weapon, if he needed it. Once again Lew heard the rustling sound and a chill ran through him, his heart began pounding, his mouth dried so much he could barely swallow. He saw the wrought-iron poker leaning against the wood stove and knew what he had to do. If someone came through the slider, Lew was certain he could take them down and put some distance between himself and this cottage before daybreak and any more cops could come along.

But he still hadn’t seen any sign of a vehicle out front, hadn’t heard the crunching gravel. He wondered if what he heard was another breaking and entering star looking to steal whatever of value he could find. Lew suddenly felt more superior to this interloper and figured it was time to put end to his stay here one way or another.

He’d eaten the owners’ oatmeal, drank their cider and vodka, made use of their futon and now he was going to use their fireplace poker. The intruder was now moving closer along the wall to the sliding door.

“This is it,” Lew said, taking a deep breath. “He’s right there and now’s the time to confront this asshole one way or another. One, two thr…”

Lew slid open the door and jumped out of the house and turned dead right, his poker above his head. He saw the silhouette of the intruder and raised his poker high, saying, “Get out of here, asshole, if you know what’s…”

But that was it. The brown bear, leading her cubs in a raid on the bird feeders and trash cans of the neighborhood, rose on her hind legs, stepped into Lew, and with a swipe sent him reeling bloody into the forest. She then burst through the slider doorway and went straight for the open peanut butter jar on the counter while her cubs licked the unwashed oatmeal bowl.

State Police found Lew lying beside County Rte. 10 about a mile east later that morning. They transported him to the emergency room at Albany Medical Center, where doctors reattached the blond-haired flap of scalp the mama of the three-bear rural crime spree flayed off him on her way to breakfast.

During his three-year stint at Coxsackie Correctional Facility, Lew picked up a few nicknames. Early on, the other inmates called him Zipperhead or Ruby. But as his hair grew back and word of how he was apprehended got around the yard, Lew Rubio was known by inmate and corrections officers alike as Goldilocks.

First draft of my first chance to try crafting a story for Week Two of Story-a-Day September. (I’m doing best I can, but  it’s been a true time crunch.) Since I may not get to all five of this week’s prompts, I decided to messily combine two:  1) Write a gender-swapped version of a previously-told story, and 2) Set a story in the opposite setting to what it was originally (in this case, contemporary vs. non-contemporary and realistic vs. fantastic). Suffice to say, it ain’t easy to draft a cohesive story while minding three-year-olds and on four hours’ sleep a night. But here’s my best-stab first draft.