Sifting Through the Dust

The tactile memories have
flown with the winds of time,
carried on the dust
of crumbled happiness.
Would you recognize the voice
if it echoed back, back, back
to your age-muffled ears?
Would you attest, “Yes, that’s
the one,” should they approach
through these dark dreamy mists?
Probably not, since all you recall
are feelings, emotional placeholders,
little more than silhouettes
of erstwhile three dimensional,
wished-for perceptions.
So why do you hold onto
these faded portraits
of the never-really was?
Perhaps it’s because you hope
someone’s sifting through the dust
of shadow-thin memories of You,
and wondering, too.

Way of the World

Robins chase and spar
on the new-mown grass,
whether for sustenance
or sex doesn’t matter.
It’s just the way of their world.
Meanwhile, a hawk glides
on thermal waves
a-way up in cloud-washed skies.
His reason is more evident,
as his eyes scan
the flat green palette below
for any small moving shadow.
As his own shadow crosses over
the robins’ field of honor,
they scatter with mad flapping
and low trajectory
for the maples and pines,
since you can’t eat
nor procreate once you’ve become
vermillion-breasted tartare
in the belly of a red-tail.
Meanwhile, I sit and
watch it all, wondering
when my old instincts will return.
The ones that feed my soul,
express the intimate
of this Me-You relationship,
and helps me soar above
this pale gray palette
where shadows of stories are
all I have left of the Me
who also once took wing.

A stream-of-consciousness run of what I see outside my window and inside myself these days. The Way of the World is hard, no matter if you’re an air-coursing avian or an empty-headed mammal with a crumbling body and crumpled soul. The latter gained a little altitude during this flight of fancy.

Astride the Penumbra

In a life spent standing
astride the penumbra,
the margin of light and shadow,
I’ve spent most of my days
braced against the winds
always blowing from the sunrise
toward the sunset.
While counterintuitive,
it’s been the darkness that’s
illuminated my way to tomorrows.
It is a wearying place,
cold and fraught with the hidden
and the injurious. And yet,
I’ve come to know it as I would
rising from bed and finding
my way around this room at 2:00 AM.
But someday, I hope to see you
again in bright light, standing there
with the sun at your back
and a smile on your face
reflecting the mirror of mine.
Maybe that’s why, each morning
before I stride to my post
on the melding-point penumbra and
glance at my well-worn path
melting into the darkness,
I still hopefully check which way
the winds might be blowing.

Day 20 of my poem-a-day quest. A “dark/darkness” poem. I guess they didn’t know darkness is my metier. Though it’s been more difficult to get to the writing with the Easter holiday and family visiting from out-of-state. Never said I was the perfect host, though. Just a dark one.

We Star Rovers

In Jack London’s The Star Rover,
the warden at San Quentin
wraps a man serving life for murder
in a cocoon of canvas, The Jacket,
to break his rebellious spirit.
How many times have you (or I)
felt crushed within the constraints
of our Jackets, the class, gender,
race, religion, duties and all the
turns of the fabric of our lives?
Do you, too, lie in the darkness
of your nightly solitary confinement,
alone in this prison full of souls,
and dream the What If or
the If Only of your one life?
The prisoner withstands his torture
by entering a trance state,
in which he experiences portions
of his past lives.
Last night, I shed my shroud
of Here and Now, reliving the day
I fought the British on Lake Erie,
only to lose that life in the blast
of a 24-pounder hit amidships.
It was then I wondered,
“In which life do I sail now?
Which will I see of yesterday.
Or will it be a million tomorrows?”
Perhaps we’ll meet again in one,
slipping the bonds of our
unforgiving jailer minds.
I’ll bake files within
these cakes I write you.
All you need is to take a bite.

Always Another Bruise

It never really goes away like rain,
though some folks have equated it with clouds.
Some might call it a never-ending pain,
but that’s like comparing throngs to crowds.

Others equate it to that color there,
the primary between purples and greens.
Though it’s tones can reach from the open air
to the deep indigos of brand new jeans.

It’s that tonal range where I’m mostly found,
though sometimes I break through to the bright.
I’ve swum like hell to keep from being drowned
in these deep darks, then get too tired to fight.

I’ve sunk again. Life’s colored like this bruise
from the fight of always having these blues.

Sunrise on Beargrass Creek

“Been staring into that dark so long now everything’s moving. When’s sunup?” Cleve Bentley said, turning away from the clearing east of Beargrass Creek.

“S’posed to be a while ago,” said his partner, Israel Keene.

“Then where’s the sun?” Cleve said

“Damned if I know, but keep watching that tree line. Shawnee’ll be coming first light.”

“If there is any. That old hag Ben killed said we’d never see sunrise. She was just tryin’ to scare us, right?”

“She was’,” Israel said.

“Well, Ben sure ain’t gonna see it. I turned around and he was gone.”

“They probably saw the old lady’s hair on his belt and knew he was the one killed her. I’d’a killed him, too.”

“Israel, something is happening out there,” Cleve said.

“Damn, maybe they ain’t waiting.”

“I see one!”

“Settle down. I’ll move around and…”

But Cleve’s rifle flared and spit a slug at the approaching form.

“I got him,” Cleve shouted. “Gotta make sure he’s dead.”

”Wait!” Israel said, but Cleve had already crept away to where he thought he saw someone seconds before.

“Oh Christ! It’s Ben. I gone and killed…” Cleve said just before arrows pierced his ribs.

“Cleve?” Israel whispered. Two bodies lay outlined in something like a promise of day as the moon’s shadow began edging away from the sun.

A Shawnee man also emerged from the new shadows, ensuring his grandmother’s predictions — of an eclipse and the white mens’ fate — with a blow from his warclub.

Sunrise finally had come.

Here’s a 250-word flash fiction piece I wrote for Siobhan Muir’s weekly Thursday Threads feature. I felt the need to do a new story from my old genre, frontier and western.  Had to use the phrase “something is happening.” So I envisioned this scene in 1770s Kentucky. It needs a hell of a lot more character depth, setting description and, oh I don’t know, a plot? But I wrote it, which is a big deal for me these days.

How Dark Our Shadows

Have you every noticed,
while others marveled
at the brightness
of the afternoon sun,
we were the ones
pointing out how dark
it made our shadows.
We were the ones
who talked and talked,
sharing so much,
giving so little,
caring not enough
and too much.
We were the ones who held
one another’s secrets,
even after some escaped
our pieces of night
into the light. Look,
how dark the shadows
they cast!
A pity how our garden
never bloomed, but
such an inevitability
shouldn’t surprise us.
You blinded me
with your light
and you said mine
hurt your eyes.

Surge et Carpe Diem

The daylight times feel
so short now, and sleep
holds never more than
a handful of hours.
Life runs away like that
for the old man whose spirit
sees no age in him,
but whose body stabs him
to wakefulness along
the dark trail to morning.
It drops him without warning
into a drowsy torpor while
daylight, who knew him
so well, still calls
from the window
to come out and play.
He ponders where the
remaining shards of each day go,
as if they’re hiding in the pocket
of some thief of latter days.
He realizes no one stole
these missing heartbeats,
these warm knowing gazes,
these potential walks and talks,
these stories left untold.
He’s the one who lost them
to another sunset and he’s
the only one who can steal them
back from each new dawn,
if he’d let his ageless self
rise and seize this day.

Photo © Joseph Hesch 2017

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.

Widow’s Walk

“I see she’s still up there, Miss Loretta Gardenia Booth,” Enoch Steele said, jerking his thumb toward the tower that craned its neck above all other roof ridge lines that peered out at the entrance to Cloister Cove.

“Aye, been there every day for three years now, rain or shine, breeze of gale, waiting for the Cloisters Gardenia to turn-to ‘round the breakwater and deliver her Cap’n Matthew Rawlins back to her pining bosom,” the chandler’s clerk Martin Smoot replied while brushing a smudge of tobacco ash from Steel’s black wool coat.

“That ship’s as good as gone, wrecked on the Horn, scuttled by pirates off Java, its hull stove in by some rank bull off the Galapagos. We’d have heard something by now. A shank of driftwood, a bit of flotsam, a story passed from sailor to sailor, nothing. That woman waits for naught but a memory. G’day to you, Mr. Smoot,” Steele said as he grasped Smoot’s wrist, pushed it to the chandler’s chest and transferred the ash on the clerk’s fingers to his own apron.

As Steele walked to the wharves, Smoot ambled toward the peeling white house with the barred windows where Cap’n Matt’s lady stood on the widow’s walk, like one of Columbus’ crew in a crow’s nest, searching for any sign of Cathay on the horizon.

Though only moved to Cloister Cove three years before, Loretta Booth had become as much a part of the local scenery and color in town as that great old house, the bells in St. Augustine’s and the First Methodist Churches and the stench of whale blubber reeking from the harbor. Each had their places in the heartbeat of Cloister Cove, he thought. They were there, they were special, but no one paid much attention to that which made them so anymore. Each man, woman and child went about their business, neither looking up or down, nor wrinkling their nose at that which might make a manure-crusted farmer puke out his paunch.

A week later, while making a delivery of a fine German chronometer to the Masonic Hall, Smoot stopped in the middle of Captain’s Way, the town’s main thoroughfare, and decided to take stock of his senses and this little burg’s inventory of lives and property.

The onshore breeze still carried the gagging ghosts of sperm whales harvested from off the coast of Peru by men who could leave pregnant wives when they set sail and could return just as a child who knew them not celebrated its second birthday. He knew the inexorable lure of the sea for them, though.

“It’s best this business be so foul and dangerous, lest they just decide never to come home,” he muttered to himself.

The bells in St. Augustine’s chimed in four pairs of bong-bong, eight bells, just as the Methodist Church’s steeple pealed the requisite twelve times. Each was signaling noon, though that might confuse inlanders not steeped in the argot of the seaman.

Smoot smiled at how he and his fellow Cloisterites were a different breed even from other Connecticut Yankees. And above it all were the cries of the seagulls, a cacophony so constant that it was as easily ignored as the sound of waves lapping the shore or slapping the hulls of the vessels moored in the harbor.

As he walked toward the wharves and the chandler’s, Smoot looked up at the high roof of Captain Matthew Rawlins’ house, to assure himself that all was right in this little world within the greater world. That world then tilted on its axis. Miss Loretta Gardenia Booth was not manning her post on the widow’s walk.

Being a man of numbers, ledgers, balance sheets, Smoot saw this error in Cloister Cove’s books of life and couldn’t let it go without finding a good reason for this blatant discrepancy in his day-to-day.

He trotted up to the expansive front porch that sat like the lap on the old dowager that was Cap’n Mattie’s home away from his home on the seas. Smoot cupped his hands around his eyes to cut the glare and attempted to look inside for any sign of Miss Loretta Gardenia. But he saw no movement, not even the form of the captain’s West Indian cook, Sophie-Maude.

Now Smoot’s eccentricity was turning to a kind of fright, as if gravity would dissolve and all of Earth’s inhabitants would lose the tethers to their mother’s breast and be cast like seed into the void. He rapped urgently on the window light in the top of the heavy front door made of teak the Captain had salvaged from an English frigate that had not made it round the Horn in ’35. When he heard not a sound from within, Smoot pounded powerless on the seasoned planking that had resisted French shot at Trafalgar.

He shouted, “Miss Loretta Gardenia, are you there? It’s Martin Smoot from Bennett and Tinch. Are you well?”

When again he heard no reply, nor any sound, from within, Smoot ran to the back of the house where he found not only the barred windows extended, but the security-conscious Captain Mattie had installed a steel bulkhead door. He also found the firewood axe left in the cutting stump by Sophie-Maude.

Axe in hand, Smoot ran back to the front of the house and attempted chopping his was through the great front door, all the while screaming, “Miss Loretta Gardenia, get to your post or come to the door. We need you on that walk.”

As Smoot raised the axe for one more ineffective blow, a rough hand grabbed it, while another spun the chandler around and pushed him to the porch floor. Smoot looked up and saw a young man in a naval officer’s dark blue uniform jacket and white trousers, the axe held high and threatening as if leading a boarding party.

“What in blazes do you think you’re doing, sir?” the young officer shouted. “How dare you. I should box your ears, or better yet, take you down to my ships and have you bound to the mast for taste of my bosun’s cat.”

“Andrew stop!” came a woman’s voice from the street.

“Mother, please don’t hurry. I’ve got this madman under control. Look what he’s done to…”

“Matthew’s door! Why would…? Mister Smoot?”

“Oh, Miss Loretta Gardenia, I was so worried. You weren’t at your post looking for Captain Matthew and I thought the worst,” Smoot said.

“What could be worse, Mr. Smoot? That Matthew has not been heard from in all these years? That no sign of the Gardenia been found in any of the whaling grounds from Patagonia to the Sea of Japan?”

“Then…then why have you been up on the widow’s walk all these years for, madam?” Smoot said, more confused and addled than he had been when running around the house, axe in hand.

“Why, my son here, Andrew Booth. This young apprentice officer headed for the first class of the National Naval School in Annapolis. He’s been three years at sea.”

“But Cap’n Matthew…everyone thought you were…”

“Waiting for the Captain? No, Mr. Smoot. That ship, if you will pardon the expression, has indeed sailed. But no one ever thought to stop by and talk, to ask how I was, if I’d heard from Matthew,” Loretta Gardenia said.

“Well, we just figured…I just thought…”

“No, Mr. Smoot you did not think. You saw a woman pining for her son, not her missing paramour. Now, if you would kindly remove yourself from my front porch, my property. My solicitor will be contacting Mr. Bennett about what can’t be replaced — my door. Good day, Mister Smoot,” Loretta Gardenia said.

Her son, Midshipman Andrew Booth, hefted Martin Smoot as he might half-full seabag and set him on Captain’s Way toward Bennett and Tinch and an uncertain rest of that day and tomorrow.

As he walked toward the wharves, head down and trying to see where his figuring had gone wrong half an hour before, Smoot didn’t notice the wind had shifted from off the sea to from the hills surrounding Cloister Cove, blowing the perfume of pine and oak over the stench of the whale ships. He didn’t hear St. Augustine’s ring the bong-bong of two bells, 1:00 PM. He didn’t notice the change in the sound of the keening gulls that climbed and swooped all around him.

Loretta Gardenia handed the front door key to her son and said, “Come, Andrew, let’s go in for some tea. You can tell me more about school, your voyages and how you found Matthew in Alta California. I can’t believe he would scuttle the Gardenia in, where did you say?”

“Yerba Buena Bay, Mother. He and some of his crew hauled the hull ashore and, with a certain Señorita Veronica Valdez, turned it into a tavern and bordello, catering to and robbing the gold seekers headed to the Sierras. With no law to speak of out there, and his obvious lack of conscience, he had become a man of high regard in the darkest, lowest places.”

“Did you express your displeasure with his abandonment of your mother?”

“I did, mother, and when we parted, I can assure you he was weeping in contrition,” Andrew Booth said with a tight grin. “The day before our frigate set out again for the Baja, the Captain was not commanding the Gardenia. He was not to be found. Señorita Veronica’s brother told me the Captain must have decided to join the argonauts in seeking his fortune in the gold fields. A man could disappear in the Sierras in a heartbeat, Mother. I do not expect you — or anyone — will be hurt by his selfish, sinful ways again.”

“I see,” Loretta Gardenia said, composing herself for a moment. “My brave boy, I’m afraid all of today’s news and excitement has rendered me a bit tired. Would you mind if I retired to my room for a short rest? Sophie-Maude will be back from the market in Mystic within the hour and we shall have a lovely dinner celebrating your safe return.”

But Miss Loretta Gardenia Booth did not go to her room. She climbed the stairs to the roof of the house and mounted her widow’s walk. She looked out over the harbor, cocked her ear at the sound of the gulls, whose circling flights and weeping cries she stood observed from her lonely perch all these years. She above all could discern the change that had at least momentarily come over Cloister Cove and her life.

She knew the sound of seagulls crying. Now she wondered, were they laughing?

This is my fourth story based on one of the five prompts I was given for Weeks One of Story-a-Day September. Don’t know as I’ll make all five now, what with Week Two’s prompts in my mailbox, but I may make a run at it over the weekend. The prompt here was pretty much the last line of this piece. I guess I’ve written this story backwards, from the back end to front.