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. 

I Thought I Might Have Touched Her

Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash,
“Night Toronto Rain”

It was a warm summer night that the rain was tempering on our skin. Even Cody showed a slick of sweat on her face under her umbrella. And I’ve never seen her really sweat. I walked beside her, my left shoulder flying unprotected by the umbrella and sharing the city’s feeling of cold rain on a warm background.

But the shock of that heat-to-cold on my shoulder was nothing compared to the one I felt next. The usual warmth I felt with Cody turned to a chill that ran through my body when she said, “Adam, I think it’s time we went our separate ways.”

Now, I had to give her credit for having the guts to tell me that to my face instead of texting goodbye like Marina and Barbara did. But that was Cody, always bravely expressing herself, yet worried about others’ feelings.

Nevertheless…

“What? Wait, you called me to meet you down here in this rainstorm to tell me you’re breaking up with me? Why? Please, tell me, Cody. Have I hurt you? Lied to you? Sucked as a lover?”

“We’ve had sex three times.”

“Well, and…?”

She stared at me with her reporter’s “Really?” look.

“No, it’s none of those things,” Cody said and pulled my arm fully beneath the shelter her umbrella.

“Maybe we can get out of the rain to talk about this…this thing that I thought bound us together in the way mutual hugs might. Or even transplants, like me giving a kidney to you,” I babbled.

“That’s ridiculous. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Well, it’s that, you know, that thing. I don’t know if I can describe it in any way someone else would understand it. I always thought you did organically. But here goes. Some people like that feeling of proximity that comes with being tied together, immobilized yet mobile, freely captive with another. Or feeling their heat, shivering with their cold, sharing the showers like this and the sunshine as if they wear the same skin. They can construe it as ‘being together,’ I guess.”

Cody just blinked, like raindrops hit her eyelashes.

“Tied together…” she said.

“Right, until someday, somehow they cut those cords. I have seen many people walking around still attached to their walking shadow even after he out she has left them, one way or another.”

She pulled out her phone and dialed someone, I didn’t know who. Onward I plunged.

“Other people can subsume, with permission of course, the object of their visceral need after searching so long to find that perfect match. Like you for me and me for you. A match fraught with the minimum amount of rejection, yet, with diligent aftercare, most likely to keep them alive. They can live on together even after their partner in this organic life no longer can.”

“Then it would be useless for one of us to drop dead?” Cody said with the most un-Cody tone I’d ever heard from her.

“Yeah…NO! See the one thing these experiences share is how each member of the couple are irreversibly changed by the experience. Maybe it’s the scars they can display or conceal, maybe even from themselves. Maybe it’s the memories of their partner’s touch, your touch, my touch, both on their skin and within it. Like a heartbeat, they feel even as they lie alone at night.”

I thought I might have touched her with that last bit of extemporaneous poetry.

“That’s right, corner of Fifth and Madison. Um-hmm, I have a red umbrella,” Cody said into her phone. She then turned to me and said, “I’m sorry, Adam, you were saying?”

“Right. Well, I’ll admit, I’m no expert on relationships. I’ve walked through my life carrying a platter full of bite-size pieces of my marrow-rich thirteenth rib, like some faceless butler named, ironically, Adam. And I’m serving at a grand party of the interested and disinterested. Some of the ladies have idly taken one piece of me just to wrap it in a napkin and toss it in the potted palm. Others have taken it with thanks and thought, ‘that’s different,’ and moved on to bacon-wrapped shrimp. Only once, with you Cody, did I have the courage to place myself on your plate, wrapped in wordy ribbons I hoped you might secure to yourself like a pin for some needy charity. You actually took them to heart,”

“Yes, Adam, but I really have to move on. The Los Angeles Times called and offered me a job. I just didn’t know how to tell you. And there was no time to do it. They want me there Thursday,” Cody said, placing her hand on my cheek.

But my cheek felt strangely numb, like I’d been standing in a blizzard instead of a summer rain. I couldn’t feel Cody’s warm skin against mine and it sounded like I might never again.

“Adam, I wanted to prepare you for this, just in case I got the good news. But there wasn’t any time. We’ve had a sweet couple of months, but the Los Angeles freaking Times! Career opportunities like this don’t come along every day. I’m sorry,” she said.

I just glumly looked at her and said, “I understand, Cody. I really do.”

“If you want, we can keep in touch. I really do like you, Adam. Maybe not as deeply as you would hope. But you’re a sweet guy and this party of yours is in a big room and I’m sure what you’re serving will appeal to someone else. I just can’t partake of it now.”

A taxi pulled up to the curb, splashing some cold pieces of a puddle on my leg and I jumped forward to a spot in the proximity of a hug with Cody. She wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed my cheek. This time it felt warm and soft as any kiss could. And then it was over.

Cody walked to her ride, opened the door, shook water off her umbrella, sat in the back seat and clunked the door shut. From the rear window, she gave me one last look, a faint wave and then she was gone.

The tunnel through which I observed this scene suddenly opened and I recognized the neighborhood, the street, the buildings we walked among for those months. The glare and color of the restaurant and store windows, the street and traffic lights, all echoed in smeared images on the puddled street like they were some abstract expression of the chill that now overcame this warm and rainy night.

It was then I realized I hadn’t waved goodbye to Cody. I just stood there with the rain falling on me. It was cold where it ran down my neck. I could feel the drip-drip-drip of it falling from my ears.

“Get ahold of yourself, Adam,” I said to my reflection in the puddle at my feet.

My cheeks felt cold, except for some warm lines that gathered next to my nose and then pooled in the sad pockets at the corners of my mouth. I took a deep breath, exhaled a cloud of woe and stepped through it as I began walking…somewhere.

I reflected on the crazy shit I spouted while I was in that all-at-once stages of grief when Cody dropped her bomb on me.

“Giving her your kidney, dude? C’mon, don’t sell yourself short. She’s not walking away with your kidney,” I said, and then touched my chest. “It was your heart.”

Another Touch-prompted story. Lesson: Never write fiction in front of the television. Your attention to what you’re doing, and worse, what your characters are doing and saying, wavers and makes from some pretty weird stuff showing up.

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 Demon’s Face in the Window

I saw another one just yesterday.
Caught him staring in my window
before he could jump into my shadow
to pull me down to levels
even lower than I lie already.
They usually hide in darkness,
stealthy creatures that fill
your well of woes to overflowing
to drown your soul in their inky ichor.
Stealthy, they carry their own shadows,
that can hide comfortably within your own,
like a friend who’s faux, whose open arms
wave empty hands, yet somehow still
heap the ashes of spent heartache
in your eyes when they leave.
So you’re left blind, left groping
in the dark trying to find your way
to some bit of light in what’s become
this life overshadowed
by a cloud of spiritual death.
For a second, a stiff breeze,
like a prayer answered, blew away
the tormenting face in my window,
which really was only four leaves
situated just so. But in the reflection
left in the window, I saw the haggard face,
the downturned lips, the brows broken
over the knee of self-loathing and
the ash-filled eyes of the real demon
who’s ever plagued my life.

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.

What We Talk About When We Talk About…

Maybe someday we can shelter out of the heat to talk about this thing that binds people together in the way ropes might, or even transplants, like giving one kidney to another. Yeah, that thing. I can’t describe it in any way by which someone else would understand it as I do (or don’t). Some people like that proximity that comes with being tied together, immobilized yet mobile or freely captive with another, feeling their heat, shivering with their cold, sharing the showers and sunshine as if they wear the same skin. They can construe it as “being together,” I guess. Until someday, somehow they cut those cords. I have seen many people walking around still attached to their walking shadow even after he or she has left them, one way or another. Other people can subsume, with proffered permission, the object of their visceral need after searching so long to find that perfect match, one fraught with the minimum amount of rejection, yet, only with diligent aftercare, most likely to keep them alive. They can live on together even after their partner in this organic life no longer can. Yet still, there is always that spectre of rejection, loss, need. The one thing both of these experiences share is how all involved are irreversibly changed by the experience. Maybe it’s the scars they can display or conceal, maybe even from themselves. Maybe it’s the memories of their partner’s touch, both on and within their skin, a heartbeat they feel even as they lie alone at night. But I’m no expert. I’ve walked this earth carrying a platter full of bite-size pieces of my marrow-rich thirteenth rib, like some faceless butler named Adam at a grand party of the interested and disinterested. Some have idly taken one piece just to wrap it in a napkin and toss it in the potted palm. Others have taken it with thanks and thought, “that’s different,” and moved on to bacon-wrapped shrimp. And for others I’ve placed one on their plates, wrapped in wordy ribbons with which they might secure it to themselves like pins for some needy charity. A couple have actually taken them to heart, but I moved on because this is a big room and a server’s duty calls. What do I know? Maybe this is why someday we might sit somewhere, with a batch of iced libation between us. Maybe it’ll be something different that we talk about when we talk about love.

Now that’s a ponderous bit of prose poem or maybe fictional one-sided conversation, free-written around my morning shower. The inspiration was brought to me when I needed it most and I have no idea from where the results come, but I thank my muse that they did. Unless you know Raymond Carver, you won’t recognize the title, though maybe you recognized it without my coming out and saying the word until right before the final period. Perhaps one day I’ll revise this unspoken “thing” for a more concise, or expansive, dive into the phenomenon that touches and changes us all. I chose purple for this note because it is the perfect mix of blood and the blues, both of which are sluggishly coursing through me right now, so I’ve been unsuccessful in giving you something to think (or talk) about.  Let’s hope my over-the-transom inspirations cut a few more drops from me soon.

When When Is Not a Question

When I thought I stood strong,
you showed how I was brittle.
When I tried to be softer,
you crushed me at my middle.
When I made the effort to listen,
you would not converse.
When I reached out my hand,
you covered your eyes, and what’s worse…
When I opened to you my heart,
you closed yours forever.
When I pondered a way,
you wandered away with, “No, never.”
When I express this, my pain,
you think only of yours.
When I tell you I’m dying,
you ruminate merely on the wars…
When I told you I loved you,
never knowing how much life would be lost,
When I threw those parts of me away,
never caring how much the cost.
When I, some lonely evening,
come visit in your half-sleep,
When I will read my bad poetry,
some might still make you weep.
When I, tonight, take to my bed,
never certain I’ll awaken,
When I try recalling your face,
as so much from my memory’s taken.
When I do this, the good times
with you are so hard to find, that’s
When I remember, I’ve always kept you
in my heart, if not in my mind.

No stories every day or so, I’m afraid. Just more bad poetry, a rhyming disguise for self-examination of heart and mind. I wish I could do better for myself, as well as you, but these times are a struggle that only I can work through. So prepare yourself for more bad verse, which for some time may not get better, only worse. (Oh, lord….!!!) But I’m digging out this debris to find my RESET button. It’s just takes more time than I hoped when you use a pencil for a shovel.