A Memory of Trees

black trees

Being dead, it stood out,

its bold blood-brown

against all that green

 

like a wrecked and rusted

Studebaker wrapped in

mile-a-minute weeds.

 

His last thought was

I’ll just lie here silently

till everyone is gone.

 

Ashes are incense’s

sole message—incense

made from the desert’s

 

thorniest rare briar,

which is never green.

 

Road Poets

hobo 3

American hobo terms

In addition to words that have entered into the vernacular from American hobo terminology—big house, bindlestiff, moniker, cooties, main drag, glad rags, flop, punk—there are others that deserve an appreciative nod and a smile.

Elevated – being stoned or drunk

Grease the track – to be run over by a train

Cow crate – a railroad stock car

Bone orchard – a cemetery

Tokay blanket – drinking alcohol to stay warm

Sky pilot – a preacher

Stemming – panhandling

Boil up – to get oneself as clean as possible

Flip (also On the fly) – to catch a moving train

Doggin’ it – taking the (Greyhound) bus

Rum dum – a drunk

Meave – a young girl hobo

Blowed-in-the-glass – a trustworthy person

California blankets — newspapers

Catch the westbound – to die

And hobos even addressed each other as ‘bo, just one r short of today’s affectionate fraternal greeting.

 

hobo 4

April

Premier Exif JPEG

Iris  —  Connie Payne

April is a thin place as the Irish say,

the fine line between now and nowhere

stomped into the fooking mud and

the nakedness of life on bare display

—sunlight glinting off frozen marsh

high nests clinging to the barren past.

 

Can you hear the wind move

through its emptiness?   In April

everything is owned by no one.

We belong to what endured

and once again we are excused,

given nature’s pardon to resume.

 

Premier Exif JPEG

Red Mask  —  Connie Payne

 

My Generation

smoking hand

The hands are years away

stubbing out a cigarette

from another era altogether.

The glass is no good empty.

 

It is well past closing time

for all the promises still in the race,

well past the time to wand all losses

into gains and find another paradigm.

 

We inherited a cascade of defeat

a lie-fattened polity of hate and greed.

We were asked to succeed and failed.

End game now, left for nature to complete.

Sarah’s Fire

flames

My father was a volunteer firefighter, rose to be chief. That was pretty much my family’s sole claim to any position in the village—Chief Burton. He never accomplished much beyond becoming volunteer fire chief. That was his life. That’s who he was. Everyone called him Chief, like that was his first name. Even us kids, us boys, called him Chief. My sisters called him Papa. As a boy, of course, I wanted to be a firefighter when I grew up. He would take me and my brother Tad along with him to fires. I had my own helmet.

Never did, fight a fire that is. Haven’t worn a helmet since. But there is still that conflagration fascination. I attend blazes whenever I can. If I see a column of smoke on the horizon, I’ll head for it. There’s nothing you can face as ultimate as a wall of fire. Nothing in nature’s arsenal of destruction—not earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes—is as enigmatic and primal as a raging inferno. You do not drown or freeze in hell, after all. For safety’s sake, the Romans built their temples to Vulcan, their god of fire, well outside the city walls. The Vulcan priests were called flamen. Papa Chief was a flamen. In a way, he worshiped what he fought.

I woke up coughing. There was an acrid taste in my mouth. The only light in the bedroom came from the red numbers on my alarm clock, which were too blurry to read. I found the switch to the bedside lamp. A haze of smoke appeared. I live alone in a brownstone on the Upper West Side, off Riverside Drive. There are three other apartments in the building. Each of us has our own floor. I’m on the first, above the garden apartment. One of us was on fire.

Is there anything we take more for granted than combustion? Is there anything more mysterious? The ability of a solid or fluid to transform itself into ashes and energy, into fire and light. In Genesis, the god guy does not create fire. He says, let there be light, not fire; but there could be no light without fire. There would be no life without the fire of the sun. There would be no stars. The Earth is the only planet where fire occurs, just as the Earth is the only planet where life exists. It’s as if we were bequeathed this special gift, as both a blessing and a curse.

There also could be no smoke without fire. The smoke was denser in the hallway, but there were no flames or heat. I opened the front and street doors, and the smoke followed me out onto the stoop and down the steps to the sidewalk. Behind me, there were no lights from any of the other apartments. There was no smoke above my floor, but wisps were coming through the crack above the door of the lower apartment.

I hadn’t thought to bring my phone. I went down the few steps and pounded on the door. I only vaguely knew these people. I was new there. There was a door bell, and I thumbed it with one hand as I pounded with the other. The door opened with a rush of smoke, and a young girl in a flimsy nightdress came out. “Mom started a fire,” she said.

Flames, like us, need oxygen to live. Up close, they compete with us to have it. Such a relationship. At some point in the pre-past, someone who looked pretty much like you or me took a burning branch of this flame’s distant, wild, and ravaging ancestor and domesticated it. That capture was the key to the species’ ascendancy. They would burn things. They would make ignition their slave. But there had always been slave uprisings, holocausts of fire, no need for brimstone.

“Where’s your mom?” I asked.

There were little pink flowers on her nightgown. “In the living room,” she said.

“Anyone else at home?”

“Hal,” she said.

“Wait here,” I said and ducked down beneath the stream of smoke now coming out the door. In the back living room, there was a floor lamp above a sofa with a woman supine upon it. Her left arm rested on the cushioned sofa arm above her head. Behind that was a pile of smoldering laundry with many-forked tongues of flame flicking up from it. Even the smell was dangerous. Beside the sofa, on the floor, was a half-filled ashtray and a half-empty glass of red wine that flickered with the flames.

I pulled on her bare foot to try and wake her, but she just rolled over on her side, away from me. “Wake up!” I yelled. “Fire!” She just mumbled and pulled her legs away from me to curl up.

The man of the house, whom I knew only as Hal, came stumbling out of the bedroom. “Who’s making all this noise?” Then, when he saw the flames, “Oh fuck.” He stumbled to the French doors out to the backyard and opened them, then disappeared through them to collapse in a hammock away from the smoke.

Constantly coughing now, eyes tearing up, I went to the kitchen and tossed things from cupboards to find the biggest pot I could. I filled it with water and took it back to toss on the flames, making more smoke. I did this twice more. The cross draft was sucking the smoke out the French doors. Then I heard the sirens approaching, stopping outside. Someone had called 911. I went back to the street to check on the child.

 

I’ve never had children. I haven’t spent any time with kids since I was one. They have always been easy to ignore. I’ve never had pets either, any “emotional support” creature. I’ve never been married, as a matter of fact. There are no therapy groups for people like me, because we don’t join groups and we don’t feel like victims. Our numbers are growing, though, just as the membership rolls of all churches are shrinking. The none-of-the-above demographic. People tell me I don’t know what I am missing, but they don’t realize what they have lost by joining the passé canonical parade of domesticity.

Somehow, in the general confusion that ensued, the girl, whose name was Rachael, ended up at my place. I had opened all the windows I could, but the apartment still smelled of smoke.  It was by now well after midnight. She sat on the couch in front of the TV and clicked through the channels, stopping at I Love Lucy. She looked cold in just her flimsy, almost see-through nightgown, and all the windows open, so I got her a blanket. She said she didn’t want anything, but she drank the glass of apple juice I brought her. I wanted to go back to bed, but I couldn’t with her there.

Rachael’s mother had been angry at the firemen for waking her. Hal never moved from the hammock. The daughter had been ignored. I told the fireman who seemed to be in charge who she was and that I was taking her to my place, out of the way. It was several hours before Hal came to fetch her. She was asleep on the couch. Hal didn’t say anything. He just picked Rachael up and walked off with her, as if she was a piece of forgotten luggage.

 

I liked the opium in the front rooms better than the kitchen’s patchouli. Like some hippie from the stoned age, I was auditioning incenses. The ancient temple rites of burning stuff. I wondered if that Arab wise guy in the Bible really did bring frankincense to the baby god’s paddock? French incense? Did he get it from Paris in 0 A.D./B.C.? I didn’t mind the aromas. I had quickly tired of the lingering eau de smudge that they covered. I noticed that some foods, like cheese, tasted different and that my musical preferences veered more toward the mellow. It was almost a week after the fire, a Saturday, when Sarah rang my doorbell.

Sarah was Rachael’s mother. She was bearing a cellophane-covered gift basket of fruits and cheeses. “Mr. Burton,” she said, “a small token of apology for stinking-up your home.” We had never really met before. I had seen her come and go, as she must have seen me; but this was New York, and never having had any reason to interact, we never did. She was professionally groomed, partial to pants suits. She carried a leather briefcase to and from work. She had great posture. I invited her in.

She seemed unaware that I had been there the night of the fire or that her daughter had sheltered with me while the firemen finished putting it out. She approved of the incense. She accepted the offer of a glass of wine.

When I’m not on the road, I work mostly at home and I had made the front room of my flat, what a floor plan would call the living room, into my office, so that I could sit at my desk and look up to see what was happening on the street. Changing focus is good for the eyes and the brain. We sat there.

The only goddess of fire I can think of is Pele, the volcano queen. In Hawaiian mythology, Pele’s archenemy is Kama-pua’a, pig man. Pele was once saved from being raped by Kama-pua’a by her deific soul sister Kapo, who distracted Kama-pua’a by throwing her flying vagina at him. Those were the days. Kapo’s distaff Frisbee slammed into Koko Head, leaving its imprint.

“Not much damage to your place?” I asked.

“It was a ratty old couch anyway. You have noticed the cleaning people coming and going?”

I had. A crew in incongruous white coveralls.

“The painters will be here next week. A chance to spruce the place up.”

Oh yes, and Vesta, the Roman goddess. But wasn’t she more the keeper of the hearth, domesticated fire?

“Hal fell asleep smoking,” she said. “I’d warned him a thousand times.”

“Happily, no one was hurt,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “And you suffered no damages?”

“Only the lingering smell.”

“And no expenses?”

“Well, my incense investments.”

“I’ll gladly cover those,” she said without a laugh, as if she didn’t know that I was joking. “Listen, I’ve brought a paper for you to sign. A proforma thing from my insurers, just confirming you have no damages or claims. They need it to close the filing.”

“More wine?” I asked. It was a Beaujolais, perfect for that type of overcast day. From her stature and features, the width of her brow and blue eyes, her lineage was probably Nordic. Her forebears did not drink wine. Grapes would not grow in those climes. Was there a Scandinavian goddess of fire? More probably a goddess of ice. She leaned toward me with her glass held out for a refill.

“Leave it for me to look over,” I said. “I’ll bring it down to you. How is Rachael?”

The look she gave me was sharp. “Now why would you ask that?”

I wondered if she was a lawyer, a prosecutor maybe. The briefcase and all. “I met her the night of the fire. Seemed a nice young person. Just asking if she came through it okay.”

“You met her the night of the fire?”

“Yes, out on the street. We were both fleeing the smoke.”

“Oh,” she said. “She was wearing her nightgown?”

“I guess,” I said. With pink flowers, I thought but didn’t say. If she wanted to play inquisitor, I wasn’t about to volunteer any unasked-for information. She obviously did not know where Rachael had spent the hours after the fire. Rachael must not have mentioned it, for whatever reason, which was none of my business. Nor had Hal. Change the topic.

“I’m glad to have the chance to ask if I make too much noise up here. I mean I am essentially walking around on your ceiling. I’m not a native New Yorker. I’m just learning the protocols. A couple of weeks ago I was at a large party with a New York associate who told me he could pick out the native New Yorkers without hearing them speak. And he could. When I asked him what was the tell, he said the way they walked. That people who grew up in apartments above or below fellow apartment dwellers walked softly, on the balls of their feet, while us alien invaders clomped around like we were in a barn scaring rats.”

“Well, yes, you could walk more softly. I can follow you from room to room. I’m glad you have stopped using that exercise machine in the back bedroom. That was particularly irksome. That’s above Rachael’s room. It kept her awake.”

“Thanks for the good excuse for why I stopped using it.”

“It was the rhythmical thing and not knowing when it would stop. At first, we thought it was you having sex.” Sarah took a sip of wine. “But it went on for too long.”

I said I would try to be more considerate.

 

I soon enough had the opportunity to do so. It was an “emergency.” Sarah was out of town, or something. Hal wasn’t clear about that or much else. He had to go out, a crisis of some sort somewhere. Would I mind watching Rachael while he was gone? He was on something, rushing, not slurring his speech, but the middle of sentences went missing. Why people choose to lose control mystifies me. I was also unclear why an eight- or nine-year old girl—however old she was—could not be left to her own resources for a while. Like I said, I’m not a parent.

“I don’t like leaving Rachael alone,” Hal said, “ever since she lit that fire.” Hal really didn’t wait for an answer; he just left, telling me the door was open.

Well, what are neighbors for? A while after Hal left, I went down. Rachael was locked in her room. I knocked on her door, and she answered. No, she didn’t want anything. I asked if she had her phone with her. Of course. I told her to enter my number, and I gave it to her, slowly, twice. Only then did she ask who I was. I said, your upstairs neighbor, Mr. Burton. It did not seem right for her to know my given name.

“Are they gone?” she asked.

“Yes, they’re out for a bit. Call me if you need anything. I’ll be upstairs. Okay?”

I don’t care much for the Bible—a textbook for confusion—but it has its share of conflagrations—the burning bush, the pillar of fire, the flame of the Menorah. Barbecue was the highest form of Biblical sacrifice. Funny, Islam doesn’t go in for that at all. For Muslims, fire is just the devil, who worshiped it. I’ve looked for, but haven’t found, any reputable contemporary fire-worship cults, which is funny if you look at all the other things people worship.

Growing up, we never ate out. I was sixteen before I had a restaurant meal. For one thing, there weren’t many restaurants in our part of Maine. For another, my mother, a master of the anecdotal over the analytic, knew that people were poisoned when they ate out. In reality, we were too poor. So, I grew up two or three developmental steps shy of the luxury of New York take-out. I had gone down a couple of times to check on Rachael, still ensconced in her room whenever I showed up. On my twilight visit—I was beginning to wonder why Hal had not returned—I asked if she was hungry, and she said yes. We agreed, through the door, on Chinese take-out. She liked shrimp.

 

It was a quiz show with a lot of applause, where the contestants tried to guess what an audience poll had thought were the obvious answers to inane questions. Rachael’s choice. We ate in silence on the brand new, strangely purple, sectional sofa. She wanted to eat her shrimp chow mein from the carton, but I got her a plate. I put some rice on her plate as well and squirted some soy sauce on it. She had never had that before and liked it, at least she ate it.

I don’t know how to talk to kids—small-people small talk—so I didn’t try. Rachael didn’t seem to mind. She seemed content to ignore me. Were all pre-adolescent girls this self-composed? I was relieved to hear the front door open. Hal could have his non-job back. There was even enough take-out left—I had over-ordered as usual—for him to have supper if he hadn’t eaten. Only, it wasn’t Hal. It was Sarah, and Sarah was not pleased.

“What are you doing here?” is not a proper substitute for hello. You can’t exactly return the greeting.

“Hal…,” I began my explanation.

But Sarah interrupted. “Where is Hal? What are you doing with my child?”

Feeding her was the obvious reply, but I didn’t have the chance to answer.

“Rachael, go to your room immediately!”

Rachael was giving her mother the same we-live-on-separate-planets attention she had been giving me.

“Now!”

Rachael put down her plate, picked up her still half-full carton of shrimp chow mein and walked off to her room without a word. There was a burst of applause from the game show audience.

I can think of no positive connotations of fire when applied to human actions or emotions. People “flame out.” The stage beyond being pissed off with someone is being “burned up” with them. We all have sense enough to steer clear of folks with “fiery passions” and know that anyone “with fire in their eyes” is likely a dangerous sociopath. “Fire and brimstone” is just bullshit.  And, of course, there is always “ready aim fire.” Maybe Sarah had just had a bad day, a bad trip, a bad flight. She was dragging a suitcase when she came in. In any event, she ignited.

The gist of her explosion—if an explosion can have a gist—was that I was a predatory pedophile. She had learned from Hal that I had taken Rachael off to my apartment—her in her flimsy nightgown—the night of the fire and had kept her there for hours before he could find her. Rachael hadn’t been the same since that night, though she refused to discuss what happened. She had started asking for apple juice, which she would never touch before. Rachael said I had given her apple juice. What had I put in it? Rachael had been upset by the sounds of fucking she heard from my upstairs room, upset more than she should have been, as if it triggered a traumatic memory. Now this, seducing her in her own home.

“I always thought you were creepy,” Sarah said. “I checked you out on the sex-offenders list. You weren’t there, but that’s just New York. I don’t know where else you’ve been, what you are escaping from.”

I wondered how Hal lived with this. Rage isn’t pretty. I was still holding my plate of food. The TV had cut to a drug commercial, and the speed-reader voice-over was racing through the side effects. Somewhere in Genesis—the Bible may be meaningless, but it is sometimes fun—boss god orders Sarah’s name to be changed from Sarai, quarrelsome, to Sara, noblewoman. Good god, as they say, but his fixes don’t always stick.

I put down my plate and chopsticks and stood up. There was no point in trying to extinguish this conflagration. My words would only turn into steam. “You’re wrong,” is all I said as I brushed past her and out the door.

“May you burn in hell,” were her final words.

 

It’s been quiet since then. As far as I can tell, Hal never returned. Rachael goes somewhere else after school. I’m thinking of moving. This place is too big for one person. Maybe something more rural, back to the country. I really don’t need to be in the city. A cabin would be nice, a cabin with a fireplace.

 

 

Shark Teeth

Sharks teeth

A battered old tin film canister, one of those with a yellow screw-on top, filled with tiny black sharks’ teeth that they had collected on California beaches fifty years before. Why in the world had she saved that? It is not so much what is saved as what has not been discarded. Maybe a dozen moves since, three marriages, four kids. Big Sur, Monterey, Mendocino, the cold surf foam. It had been a contest. Who could find the most? They were searching for something then. They had found each other, but there had to be more.

This would be the last move. The place was full of cardboard boxes from the liquor store. She had labeled all the filled ones, but she wasn’t sure where they were going. Once they were filled, she wasn’t strong enough to move them. So, boxes were scattered all over the place like an obstacle course. Her life as an obstacle course.  She stopped for a smoke. The hash pipe on the kitchen counter was still half-full.

She really disliked this place. She had resisted admitting that until the eviction notice arrived. This room had never known the sun. The shower stall was too small. She had always had a poor working relationship with electric stoves. And the one-floor walk-up had become a challenge. Downward and outward. With every move there was less to move. That was progress. She had started out with nothing but a suitcase.

She unscrewed the top of the canister and spilled its contents onto the counter. They were still as sharp as when the young sharks had lost them. Sharper than memory. It could be cold on those beaches, even in summer. That beach near Point Bonita where they nude sunbathed behind the sand berm, out of the wind, while tourists hiked by in down jackets and the park ranger, Scott’s friend, ignored them, the gulls above them stalled as stationary as feather-twitching sculptures in the on-shore wind.

Seeing as she did not text, she never heard from her children. Of course, they never heard from her either. That was the way she raised them. Once they found a mate, they were on their own. There was no one else she expected to hear from, so she never answered her cell phone on the rare occasions when it did ring. They were all robocalls anyway. There was the matter of her mail. She had no forward-to address to change it to, so, happily, she could just skip that task this time. The post office lines were so long. All those shoppers and flyers and catalogs could just pile up somewhere, become someone else’s trash problem. The Social Security checks went right to her checking account. The post office, that was where she and Scott had met, at the Berkeley P.O. She had been hungry for someone, and there he was, waiting in line in front of her.

She only had two of Scott’s paintings left. She couldn’t remember what had happened to the rest. Art work was funny that way. You tend to forget it is there. It becomes so familiar it is taken for granted. Then one year it is gone—replaced, stolen, damaged, lost, given away—and there is only an imperfect memory, like a lighter oblong on a wall where it once hung. There had been a charcoal portrait of her that her second husband had burned, because he thought the past and Scott could be erased.

It didn’t surprise her that this seemed so easy. She had done a lot more difficult things. This hardly mattered at all, because it involved only her. And if she had learned one thing by now, it was that there was no good reason to rush. If you took your time, you got to occupy it. It was her time, after all, no one else’s. Wasn’t that the greatest freedom, solitude’s secret gift?

There was the question of the prayer rug. It sort of refused to be packed. She didn’t know why it was the only thing she still seemed attached to. It wasn’t even hers. She had never prayed on it. She never prayed. Though, superstitiously, she had always had its temple icon pointed east. If she had a pet, it was the prayer rug. She never tired of its colors, its complexity. There was a story there. She did not need to be able to read the intricate Arabic script in its border or know the ancestry of its designs and images. She could not remember how long she had had it. She imagined the hands that had woven it, women’s hands.

The nice sheriff’s deputy, the one she named Thor because he resembled an Aryan statue, had said they would be there at noon. It was cloudy, so she wasn’t sure how close that was. She found time intriguing, its variable speeds. She had noticed that when she was younger, of course, but hadn’t understood it. Everyone wanted you to believe that time was set at some unalterable cruise control, even though everyone had to know that wasn’t true. Time, like space, was a personal experience. Time, like space, was fluid, subject to the forces of fluid dynamics. You were just a mote in the always changing flow. Thor had understood that when she laid it out for him. “Go with the flow,” he said.

Cops were like referees. You can’t have rules without referees. Or could you? When she was a girl, they had games with made-up rules but with no one there to enforce them. They just followed their own rules, or changed them to suit the game and who was playing. When you lived with someone, you agreed to rules. Not any off-the-shelf set of regulations, but stuff you learned to do or not to do to keep the peace, and maybe even please him. When you lived alone, there were no rules, just the things you did to surf through space and time. Thor wore no wedding ring.

They would remove her and all her belongings from Mrs. Tuckerson’s property. Court order, Thor said. Court, funny word that. A place where people dressed in white played tennis or where gigantic black men battled to get a ball into a hoop. A large unheated palace room where self-important people moved slowly because of all the robes and fancy clothes they had to wear. Or what happened in another sort of room, with its own throne and sort of altar rail, where someone in a severe black robe was addressed as “Your Honor.” It could mean to try to please someone or get their attention, or to do something really risky or stupid. It could mean the displays of a male desiring a sexual partner. She had been courted. She used to play tennis. She had done some stupid, risky things. But none of those had involved court orders.

“Removed from the property” meant piled on that useless strip of sad grass between the sidewalk and the curb, where the trash and recycling went every Tuesday night when she remembered. Thor would bring a crew to move her, he said; though, she was sure he could handle it himself. She took another toke on the pipe and smiled. Should she have Thor carry her there, down the front stairs and out to the curb? So that Mrs. Tuckerson, who would be sure to be there, and all the neighbors could watch, as if the evening news had come to their block. Maybe she’d give Thor a kiss as he put her down, disowned.

She had been dragged away once from an E.R.A. demonstration in Washington. A photo of it had run in the Post—though her face had been partly hidden behind a marshal’s arm and the shot was really of her hiked-up miniskirt. That was back when she had great legs. Scott was long gone by then, but when he saw the photo he dropped her a complimentary line about her legs. No courtship order that. She wondered if Scott still had his collection of sharks’ teeth. She had long ago stopped wondering where he might be.

She packed the film canister with the sharks’ teeth in her toiletries bag along with her hash pipe and stash. There was no way she could any longer manage a backpack. She was now a wheeled-suitcase nomad. She remembered when only flight crews traveled with bags on wheels. But like in the old days, when she would bungee-cord her sleeping bag to her backpack, she had the rolled-up prayer rug looped to the top of her luggage. She was as ready as she was going to be when Thor and his crew arrived, ready to accept the gift of invisibility.

Oh, Willie and Waylon, on the road again, in deed. Or at least on the street. Street people, road people. What was the difference? Street people were homeless, wandering. Road people didn’t need a home; they were headed somewhere. Beachcomber also held some charm of purpose, but she couldn’t see herself dragging her two-wheeled bag of possessions across a beach, into the sunset.

It didn’t take Thor and his two helpers long to get all her stuff down to the curb. She didn’t ask Thor to carry her out. She had to take into account that she wasn’t as svelte as she once had been. He took her suitcase down last. Mrs. Tuckerson was there, standing a ways off, her arms crossed in victory.

“You can’t just leave your stuff here,” Thor said.

“I can’t take it with me,” she said.

“If it’s not removed, I’d have to ticket you for littering.”

“People will come and go through it, take what they want.”

“And make a bigger mess.”

“Then ticket her,” she said, pointing at Mrs. Tuckerson, who did not appreciate being pointed at. “It’s her property. I don’t live here anymore.”

“Listen, wait here,” Thor said. “I’m not supposed to do this, against the regs, but this is all you have, and I can’t just leave it here. I’ll get my truck and be right back.”

She waited, curious. It was a good half hour before Thor returned in a F-150. Mrs. Tuckerson had left, and none of the neighbors had come over to paw through her things, as she was still sitting there in one of her kitchen chairs. It didn’t take long for Thor to load everything into the back of his truck, her suitcase last. She climbed up into the passenger seat.

“Where to?” Thor asked as he started up the truck.

“Well, you can drop me off downtown, but I have no idea what to do with all that stuff.”

“No friends, no family who can store it for you?”

She decided not to answer. Silence for a while.

“Hell, I’ve got room in the back of my garage. It’s not that much. I can stash it there temporarily, till you find a place.”

“I’m sure that’s against your regulations as well,” she said.

“You bet. It could be called theft.”

Thor’s house wasn’t far away, a ranch house in a humble subdivision, but with a big two-car garage to which the house seemed an afterthought. He moved all her things in there while she waited in the truck. The kindness of humans not following the rules. Among the last things he moved were Scott’s two paintings.

“Wait,” she said. “Put those in your house. I want you to have them. You need more art work.” He would have the rest as well, as she had no intention of reclaiming any of it. But if the paintings were in the house—there were always blank walls waiting to be noticed—he might keep them and maybe years from now search his memory on how he came to have them. “They’re by a well-known artist.”

Thor dropped her and her suitcase outside a homeless shelter south of Main. He wrote out his name and address and phone number for her, so she could reclaim her things. She thanked him, gave him a kiss on the cheek. God, he smelled good, like a man. After he drove away, she dragged her suitcase up to Main and caught a cab to the airport. She had a ticket for an evening flight to Panama. Some old hippy friends had relocated to a place called Boquete up in the mountains near the Costa Rica border. Ultimate laidback, they said—no news, no rules, cheap. Check it out. She liked the fact that boquete meant hole in English.

The money she had saved by not paying rent the past eight months would get her there and get her set up, if she liked it as much as they did. After that, she could coast like royalty on her Social Security check.

Young sharks shed their teeth for larger ones as they mature, as they move up the food chain. The food chain, the original set of rules. As everyone knows, if sharks stop moving, they die, they grow no more teeth.

 

 

Risk Adverse

CrimeScene-LCN-040213-1.jpg

It was a Dark ‘N’ Stormy night. This was Victor’s third. The ice cubes did not clink against the side of the glass. He appreciated that. Sometimes you have to expand the search for good news. Plus, the taste of the nicotine gum was almost gone.

Victor missed the inquisitor gulls, the ones that came and sat on the harborside railing posts and gave you that sideways, one-eyed, unblinking, all-knowing, pitying gaze. They were never there at night, when their presence might be more meaningful, like after the third Dark ‘N’ Stormy when the suspect might feel more inclined to confess. He checked the time on his phone. It was an hour past when the Wentworths had agreed to meet. He’d been stood up again. This was getting old, but it was just as well. He had nothing more he could tell them. They’d already gotten more than their money’s worth. He left.

This was the best time of year on the island. All the rich asshole kids were back wherever else they didn’t belong, and the September breeze off the finally warm bay was kick-back perfect. Also, the roads were relatively free of drunks. There had been a time when Victor hadn’t been a paranoid driver, but that was before the accident. Now, he preferred deserted streets. Sylvie liked big words and called it thanatophobia. He called it physical risk avoidance. After all, wasn’t that his profession—risk-avoidance consultant?

The secret of his specialty—only it wasn’t a secret, he just couldn’t explain it—was field sense. Most people instinctively focused on the up-close personal details and missed everything else, everything important. They put themselves at the center and tried to figure out was happening from that disadvantaged perspective. Everything was about them, when really very little of what was coming down had zip to do with them. They were blind to the big picture—the forest for the trees thing. Paranoia. The eye of the bullseye is the worst place to avoid risk.

The Wentworths were a perfect example. As far as they were concerned, Tuckerson was their sworn nemesis. But Tuckerson wasn’t even sure who they were. The fact of the matter always—unless your supposed opponent is an obsessive psychopath—is that he or she or the corporate them doesn’t give a shit who you are, know nothing about you, and would like to know even less. They were your enemy only in your eyes.

Victor liked what he had learned about how Davy Crockett and those other old guys with their flintlock long guns used to bark squirrels. If you hit a squirrel with one of those fifty-caliber slugs, all you would get was a red splosh on a tree limb and an explosion of fur and guts. So, you aimed instead beside it, so that just the tree’s bark, like organic shrapnel, would bring the critter down. Victor had never eaten squirrel. There were risk-free ways around Tuckerson.

Victor had discovered his calling back in college, counseling draft dodgers. The ones who followed his advice never ended up drafted or in Canada or in jail. He was semi-retired now—the accident—and just took local clients, divorces and estate stuff mainly, and that drawn-out patent case in Providence. There was just the one stretch on the highway over the canal, then he could get back onto side streets again to home. His cataracts turned oncoming headlights into kaleidoscopes, and he did not need another DUI. Fuck the Wentworths. He’d send them a final bill. Wasn’t his first piece of advice to them to pay their bills?

Procrastination was another big mistake—a variety of magical thinking. Real risks don’t go away, they just got bigger. Ignored fuck-ups are breeders. If you bury dead things quick, they don’t stink. Things in closets don’t stay hidden. Etc. People never wanted to hear that.

He was listening to the news. Victor always listened to the all-news-all-the-time stations when he drove. Well, he wasn’t really listening as in paying attention. He had it on. It was an old habit. The stories just rolled over anyway. If you always listen to the news, nothing is ever really new. Sylvie only listened to recorded books, sometimes the same ones over again. Same thing.

Close to home, Victor stopped for a nightcap at his pub. Matt was there, asked for Sylvie. “Fine,” Victor said, “fine.” He had no reason to think otherwise, even though it had been a week—no, ten days, if this was Thursday—since she’d left. Victor was a record keeper, a numbers man. He knew exactly how many drinks he’d had each day, how many cigarettes he’d sneaked. He could tell you unerringly how much cash he had in his billfold. He knew to the added monthly interest how much he owed. He found comfort in counting things. There was order there, if little elsewhere. But recently, freelancing, he sometimes lost track of what day of the week it was. Seven was a funny number to group things by. And such strange names. Fifty-two times a year everyone paid homage to some Norse god named Thor, while Christ had only one day a year named after him. Not that Victor gave a shit about it.

His name wasn’t Matt. It was Gregg. Matt was the other bartender, the one whose wife had just died. Or was that Gregg’s wife? None of it really mattered. Sylvie was fine. Sylvie would always be fine, a little strange maybe but fine. It was actually a relief not having her around.

 

Sylvie’s cat was still around, though, and Victor had to feed it. Victor didn’t understand about pets, especially cats. What was there to understand? They were a pointless, expensive, shit-making, frivolous complication. It was like growing things you couldn’t eat. There was something almost immoral about it, keeping something living captive. Nowhere was it mentioned that Buddha or Mohamad or Jesus had pets. When he opened the door to his house, what did he smell? Cat stink. It wasn’t strong, but it was there, the odiferous equivalent of white noise.

The cat had a name, but Victor never used it. He called it cat, or fucking cat when Sylvie wasn’t around. It was there in the hall when he came in the door, rubbing against his pants leg. Sylvie said the cat didn’t like him, which was fine and meaningless. What was a pet but an object of the owner’s projection? The cat was an agent of her disesteem for him. Witches could turn into cats in superstitions. The cat didn’t mind begging him to be fed.

Ever since the accident, bending over was a form of torture. He had put off the operation because he had no insurance and couldn’t afford it just now. He had to bend over to get the fucking cat’s dish, the one with all the pretty fishes. He held onto the counter to keep from falling and gritted his teeth. He fed the cat.

Victor was soaking his back in a hot tub when the phone went off in the other room. It went through to his voice mail. The message was from Sylvie’s Uncle Vermin and Aunt Petty, both of them, taking invective turns. They’d been calling every day since the day after Sylvie vanished. They were certain Victor had done something to her. They had already reported her as a missing person. Now they were going to the police with their suspicions. The cops had already been there once, to get a photo and description of Sylvie and ask him questions.

 

The cops came back the next day. They had new info that Victor had threatened Sylvie. They wouldn’t say where they had gotten the tip, but Victor could guess. It was true. He had recently threatened her—with taking away her credit cards—but he didn’t tell them that. He just said no. They knew about his DUI. They knew about his concealed-carry permit. My business, he explained. They asked to see his gun, so he went to get the Glock to show it to them. Only, it wasn’t there beneath his socks in the bureau drawer.

Sylvie must have taken it, he told them. Why hadn’t he reported it stolen? Because he hadn’t known it was gone. He hadn’t touched it in months, not since the accident. The news of the missing gun brightened the detectives’ mood. Now they were getting somewhere—not only a missing, allegedly abused spouse, but a missing lethal weapon as well. Were there some soft courtroom trial testimony days in their future?

“Look, she took all her stuff with her,” Victor said. Including her credit cards, he thought. Couldn’t they track her that way? Her cellphone?

“Or you got rid of all her stuff along with her, including the gun.”

“Let me report it stolen to you now, seeing as I just discovered it. You’ve got a description of it from my permit. It must have been stolen eleven days ago by Sylvie.”

When they left, they didn’t take him with them, but Victor figured they’d be back. What was the big deal? Weren’t people allowed to leave? If Sylvie wanted to disappear and reappear somewhere else as someone else, if she thought that might make her happy, more power to her. She wasn’t breaking any laws. To be sure, she’d be happier away from him. It had come to that awhile ago. Let her max-out her credit cards. He’d been considering declaring bankruptcy anyway. Her departure dowry. He missed having the gun in the house, though. He didn’t like the thought of Sylvie having it.

He decided to call her. He hadn’t tried to reach her before. She obviously wanted no contact with him. Maybe he would threaten her with theft for taking the Glock. She had no permit for it. She could mail it back to him from wherever she had gotten to. When he called her cellphone number, it rang two times then went dead. He tried again, same results. She’d had his number blocked. Sylvie had definitely gone solo.

 

The doctors had cut off his oxycodone. Victor called his stepson Warren. In the neighborhood where Victor had grown up, every Irish family had to have one member, either priest or nun, in the clergy. These days, every family needed a pusher. Warren, Sylvie’s youngest, had accepted the calling. Warren said he could get him something stronger, but Victor said no, just prescription strength, well, 60 or 80 mg if he could get it. Why be kind to pain? Victor knew better than to ask Warren if he had heard from Sylvie, knew better than to even mention her name. It was a long story he didn’t know, didn’t want to know. Victor knew Warren wouldn’t come to the house. They arranged to meet in a Dairy Queen parking lot.

Most cars these days looked pretty much the same in the rearview mirror. Highways, the great international melting pot. American, Korean, German, Japanese—all akin in shape and color. Were there still any English, French, or Italian cars on the road, aside from vintage models? He had to drive through town to get to the Dairy Queen, midday traffic. Victor didn’t know for sure, but he had the feeling he was being followed. Was he just being paranoid? There was no reason why anyone would be tailing him. He took some elusive turns but couldn’t tell. The feeling wouldn’t go away.

From his line of work, Victor was familiar with the state’s divorce laws. Desertion was sufficient cause, but desertion by a missing person was a new one on him. That could be drawn out. He should have started proceedings months ago, after that scene in Costa Rica, before the accident. But he had put it off because he didn’t feel like moving and he knew that he would lose the house because he had nothing else to settle with. All life was things falling apart or threatening to fall apart. Just listen to the news.

Victor had been waiting at the Dairy Queen five minutes when Warren’s car pulled into the space beside his. Warren had said it would be around a hundred. Victor had the cash. He pulled out his billfold. When he looked up, he was surprised to see Sylvie sitting in the passenger-side seat across from him. Her window was rolled down. She didn’t speak or say hello. She just pulled up the Glock and pointed it at him.

Instinctively, Victor buzzed up his window. The first shot missed him, shattering the window, blinding him with shards of glass. He never heard the second shot.

 

Princeps

class photo 1

5 April

There may be people who have not felt it, people too dense or too much into themselves to get it, but I can attest to it and so can you—that there are certain, rare human beings who just are leaders, whether they like it or not. I’m not too good with my own chronology. I was maybe eight or nine when I got to know Lawrence. That was his name, never Larry.

Lawrence was quiet. He wasn’t big or anything. You’d have trouble picking him out from all the other guys in our fourth-grade group photo, all lined up like props on the front steps of Mt. St. Monica’s. Who can remember names that long? I have trouble finding myself there. That’s Barbara Zimmerman, though. Who can forget her? But even then, in that group of twenty-eight, if you had asked who should speak for the class, they would have said Lawrence, even though he didn’t talk that much. It wasn’t that he was different in any way. He was just another kid like us, but, I don’t know, you could trust him to say the right thing.

Later in grade school, to no one’s surprise, he was elected class president and was captain of both the baseball team and the crossing guards, all of which duties he reluctantly accepted. He was MC of our dance and talent shows. The nuns would call him out of class to run their shopping errands. When we graduated, Lawrence was the valedictorian. He had no close friends.

All of that was sixty-some years ago. Today, I got an email message that Lawrence was dead, had died two weeks ago in Arizona. The message didn’t say what of, not that it makes any difference. At our age, death is mundane, remarkable only if you were shot robbing a bank or set yourself on fire in some stupid protest or something equally out of the ordinary.

It’s been a dozen years since my last meeting up with Lawrence. It was in L.A. I was still with the airlines. Somehow the nuns at Mt. St. Monica’s had found me. They were launching a fund raiser to try and save the school and wanted my help. Our class’s fiftieth anniversary was coming up. They wanted not only to touch me up but for me to see if I could lean on some of my classmates, such as were still around and they could track down. Lawrence was on their short list. Either they were afraid to approach him themselves or they had already tried to no response.

I thought it funny that the church needed money. Had they gone broke paying off victims of predatory priests? Maybe they hadn’t yet equipped their collection baskets to take credit cards. I sent Mother Mary Angelina a check. I tossed the list—Barbara Zimmerman was not on it—but I copied down Lawrence’s email address and number, an L.A. area code. My job often took me to LAX.

The next time I was there, I called and left a voice-mail message. To my surprise, Lawrence called back. He remembered me—third base, couldn’t bunt. He even recalled my sister Helene, who was two years behind us, and asked for her. Alzheimer’s, a home on Long Island. We arranged to meet for lunch at a Mexican place in Santa Monica. I got the impression he lived nearby.

Lawrence and I had gone on to different high schools and in different directions, but every so often I’d wonder about him. If I was back in Pittsburgh visiting my mom, I’d ask around about him, but he had pretty much disappeared. “Nam,” one person told me. Another thought he had gone into the Peace Corps. Everyone remembered him.

I was sitting at the bar in the Mex place when Lawrence came in. We recognized each other right off. He hadn’t changed much. His face had aged and his hairline had receded, but he hadn’t gotten much bigger either in height or girth. He still had the build of the compact second-baseman I remembered.

I don’t remember much of what we talked about. Christ, that was a dozen years ago. Nothing earth-shaking for sure, probably mostly about me and what I was doing at the time. He didn’t say much about himself, asked a lot of questions and listened. He was a good listener. We stayed sporadically in touch via email after that, which devolved into Facebook, the impersonal.

Via Facebook posts, I learned of Lawrence’s favored causes and political bent, none of which I shared. Normally, I dump people I don’t agree with, but I didn’t defriend Lawrence for some reason. I even followed links to a few of his sites and discovered, yep, he was the head of two of the organizations.

I said the last time I met Lawrence was a dozen years ago, but I did see him once since, by coincidence. It was in Jacksonville a year or so after our meeting. I was there on business, staying at the Hyatt, and bored silly as usual in that most vacuous excuse for a city. There was a conference going on at another hotel, and I noticed Lawrence’s name listed as one of the featured participants. It wasn’t a conference I’d choose to attend, but, like I said, it was Jacksonville. I went over. They wanted twenty-five bucks for a one-day entrance fee. I put it on my company card.

It was a panel discussion, more like a debate I gathered, though I had zero interest in what it was about. Up on stage, Lawrence was one of five people seated at a long, black-draped table, sitting at the end. He didn’t have much to say. The other panelists were all trying to sound important. They had their own special vocabulary laced with acronyms that meant nothing to me.

The auditorium was full. I found a seat in the back. I couldn’t decide whether Lawrence’s look said boredom or embarrassment. When he did speak at any length, toward the end, as they were summing up, it was only for a few minutes. He leaned into his microphone, his eyes downcast, and used simple words, simple sentences. He didn’t say anything I could disagree with. No one else did either.

I’d come with the idea of meeting up again, maybe having a drink together. But when the event finished up, there was no getting close to Lawrence, and the people around him were not the type I wanted to mix with. As I was leaving, two separate women with clipboards stopped me to get my signature on their petitions. One of them followed me out onto the sidewalk.

“You’re a fed, aren’t you?” she said. She was an attractive young lady.

“A fed what?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t really care. You’re here to watch us. I was just wondering what you think.”

“If I were a fed, would I tell you?”

“I don’t know. Would you? Why not? I’m nobody. I’m just curious.” She was younger than my daughter.

“I was only here to see my old friend Lawrence,” I said.

“I bet you have quite a file on him.”

There was an official-looking laminated ID on a string around her neck. I looked down at it now—Sarah something long and foreign. She noticed.

“Now you can start a file on me,” she said.

“Do you know Lawrence?”

“I thought he was your old friend.”

“Tell me, why did you think I was a fed?”

“You guys are everywhere. I was standing in the back. I watched you. You weren’t there to listen. You didn’t once react or clap. You were just checking out the crowd, like you were looking for someone.”

“Well, I’m not a fed, not any kind of cop.”

“You are kind of old, I guess, up close.”

“Lawrence and I were classmates,” I said. Had that been meant as some sort of defense? Why was I still standing there talking with her? She was pretty. Or was she just young? I turned to go.

“We’re only trying to make things better,” she said.

I heard from Lawrence once, too, after that—an email note of condolence when my mother died. The devil knows how he learned about it.

21 April

Damnest thing. This morning I got an email message from the sheriff’s office in Gila County, Arizona, a mass mailing to everyone on Lawrence’s email list of contacts, asking for any information on his next of kin. They wanted to know who, if anyone, wished to claim his remains. There was a number to call. I called. Hell, I got nothing else to do these days except watch the news.

I told them I was his cousin. They didn’t offer any condolences or ask for any proof. I told them I wanted him cremated, and they told me that as next of kin I’d have to arrange for that myself. I tried to do that over the phone, then gave up. I can’t reach anyone who is any help. I’ve decided to fly out. I sort of miss flying since I retired.

24 April

Globe. Got in yesterday. It’s an hour-and-a-half drive from Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix to Globe, the Gila County seat. Two-lane black top—hot, hard, empty country. Checked into a Travelodge. This morning found a laid-back clerk at the County Courthouse who condescended to help me out. Less paperwork than I expected. For cremation they have to send the body back to Phoenix. I only had to hit a couple of offices plus a local mortuary to arrange and pay for the burn job. I offered to buy the clerk a drink in thanks for his help, and he suggested a dive across the street from the courthouse when he got off work.

I don’t know what Humphrey’s 2 Lanes Saloon is named for. There are three billiard tables. It’s purple inside. There were pool games in progress, the sound of games at all the tables. The clerk, whose name is Clark like some unfunny joke, met me there. A double Wild Turkey on the rocks.

Clark brought with him Lawrence’s case file, not a copy, the file itself inside its official brown folding file folder. “You might as well have this,” he said as he pushed it across the bar. As I flipped through the thin file, just four or five officious pages, Clark struck up a conversation with the woman bartender.

“What’s the Rock House Trailer Park” I asked. The woman gave me a funny look.

“Just what it says,” Clark said. “The trailer park up in Rock House. That’s where they found him.”

“That loner last month?” The woman asked Clark, who nodded. “Ray answered that call. He said the stench in that little trailer was even worse than the Orbach’s rotting horse.”

“Been dead a week or more the doc figured,” Clark said.

“Warm for March, too,” she agreed.

“It says here the cause of death was O.D.,” I said.

“Overdose,” Clark said. “They don’t know that for sure. Doc didn’t run no tests. They’re costly, take too much time.”

“Figures though,” the woman said. “Anybody dies alone like that out there probably did OD on something.” She went down the bar to other customers.

“But an overdose of what?” I asked.

“Don’t matter. Just OD bumps our stats up for more drug-control money.”

“Did they find any drugs?”

“If they did find any, either Ray or his partner would have taken them.”

“I heard that, Clark,” the woman said from down the bar.

I closed the file and pushed it back to Clark.

“No, you can keep that. We got no use for it. Case closed now the body’s gone. They want no record of it. I went to check about his personal effects, like that laptop they found there and any of his other stuff. I figured you might want it. All gone. No record of it. Freebies.”  Clark took a long sip of Wild Turkey. “Things get stripped clean here in the desert.”

1 May

I never did pick up Lawrence’s ashes. It was Sunday when I got back to Phoenix. The place was closed and I had a flight out. I can still fly for free and I didn’t feel like going home. So, I came on here to Maui. It’s not so much fun when you’re old. It’s funny—all these years I’ve had to edit myself from calling him Larry. Always wanted to, never did. I wonder if anyone ever called him Larry.

 

 

 

Random

Dead sign

Coincidental with the calendar change, I’ve retired a used-up spiralbound work notebook. Below, in chrono-order, is a selection of uncrossed-out marginalia.

Hereonout (nice word)

“Knowledge is only a rumor until it is in the muscle.” Goroka (PNG) saying.

Supernatural is our term for mother chaos and her husband chance.

Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

Chionophobia—fear of snow

Feelings are just visitors. Let them come and go.

Pussy—possibly from Icelandic for horse’s cunt.

Whispering her own praises.

Reality is more inventive than I am.

Entheogenic—god-enabling

Book ideas: Witchcraft Cookery, Create Your Own Private Language, Midwinter’s Nightmare

Stradivarius’s first violins probably weren’t that hot.

In a land where ignorance is not just bliss but blessed.

All good books manage to satisfy and surprise.

Memory hacker.

He bought her green bananas so that she would have a reason to hang around another day or two.

The best jokes—when the punchlines are the unexpected truth.

I don’t write books. Books happen. I write scenes for my characters. I write the beginnings and ends of chapters.

Obstruction of misjustice.

A passionate person—someone on the side of their hormones.

Lost like noses from Roman busts.

Someone who feels self-righteous about not cheating at solitaire.

Prayer—the solace of thinking you are doing something while wasting your time.

Selfie death rate.

People who flaunt their intolerance wear their insecurity with pride.

A shadow mistaken for a stain.

At least I don’t have digital dreams.

Vampire dopers only get stoned after dark.

Her conversation was like verbal charades—she talked and you tried to intuit what it might mean.

“A ship is always safe at shore, but that is not what it is built for.” A. Einstein

Huaorani full

Huaorani (Amazon)

 

Old Photographs

row boat

I like the way the horses keep running

after the race is done. I savor the last

flowers of autumn, the last glass of wine.

I prefer landscapes void of humans.

 

It is not a love affair with the past.

I am glad all that is done as well. It’s

the pleasure of resting on my oars,

the sweet taste of solitude, not loss.

 

When I look at old photos I see the sin

of  moments arrested, memory enshrined.

Time will not be stymied.

I drift with the current into the dusk.