Saturday, January 2, 2016

Anna




It was snowing. There was a fire in the fat bellied stove, a chubby baby in the basket at her feet, her hands in rhythmic concentration, repeating a pattern with hook and yarn, an everyday industry requiring no thought, so her mind wandered weaving unconscious spells, benedictions Anna wondered where he was ... Harry, where they laid him to rest. She hoped there was a view. Harry liked a view. A hillside on a rainy day when the mist rose up off the back meadow, hovering its invocation over the bee stung monardas and yarrow. Blessing it.

"Magic happens in the mist ..."

He'd whisper, as if he'd known the sacred words that unlocked those mysteries and measured them out in careful deliberate doses, not to awe, but to admire. He'd mezmerized her always. His small gallantries when no one else could hear, as if it were a secret only they would share. All her life she'd known he was her destiny, she'd recognized him, from somewhere deep inside, the memories embedded so long ago, she can't remember the time or place, just the longing. It took him a while to come around to the truth of it, chastising and chiding her for speaking her truth about them, for saying intimate things that made him wince and think, in that time before he'd come to recognize her as well.

Then he'd seen her. One day crossing the meadow in her flannels and frills, picking flowers, and talking to herself as if it were the most normal thing in the world to hold considered conversations in first person. She'd seen him then, and smiled. It pierced his heart, the simplicity of her, the truth she spoke so darn scary and deep its irritation worming its way into his heart. Before he knew it, her truth became their truth, for he truly could fathom no one else filling him up the way she did with her questions and wisdom, her hand in his.

And then he was gone. All their hopes now hers alone. There was the child, and there was Edmund, gifts from God. Religion an institution she had not abandoned though the Lord had set her such a hard burden to bear, she'd have missed the social life.

Anna pulled at the ball of yarn suspended through the arch of the child's basket. The ball nestled next to the flanneled baby swaddled there, a turtle on its back, all four appendages dancing toward that moving thread, eyes popping at the teardrop prisms off the lamp, and sometimes startled by something unseen just past his mother's head. She wondered if he saw spooks. The old folks always spoke that way, as if the ghosts of the dead were part of living. She had to admit to having seen shadows at the fringes of her sight, her thoughts, and sometimes to hoping it was Harry come back to her. To them.

Jack was a strong baby. The Stokes were sturdy stock. They were cousins to her kin, but then everyone in Cedarsville and its outlying lands had a claim to the founding families. Anna had come from two towns over to visit Stokes Farm with her mother and father one bug nettled day. Someone's wedding, or christening. She'd not wanted to come all that long way by carriage and then a hot walk across the meadow, boiling in Sunday frippery, to the old farmhouse by the pond. She was eight, after all and would have preferred climbing a tree. She'd sat under a one instead, frowning, shooing away the gnats and that pesty little kid Edmund who'd started poking at her the minute they'd met.

Then she'd seen him ... Harry Stokes. He was 15, dressed in long trousers, and she knew she'd known him forever, that they'd made promises, somewhere, sometime, that only she'd remembered ...

The fire popped, boots scraped on the back porch, Anna startled from her reverie. She looked around her to what is, and smiled, ready to greet the man who has rescued her from ridicule and shame, who has taken another man's baby as his own, whom she has grown to love and trust and would never hurt for anything in the world. For all that was Harry was lost, its archeaology buried deep in the lining of her soul, to be mined in another time. This life it would be Edmund, he had earned it.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Harry Again



Married ...?! I must've misunderstood. While I was busy dyin' Anna was marrying my cousin Edmund?  There was even a child now, the conception of whom I didn't even want to consider. The familiar pain in my chest flared again, the feel of that Confederate's knife twisting the truth deeper into the already damaged organ. Anna was married, and not to me.

I Stayed around the farm the better part of a month, I thought to win her back, finding time alone with her, reminding her with the heat of my kisses of promises made and broken, in a vow to someone else, our love a casualty of war. Edmund. My kid cousin, pest, who we let tag along with us, endured his endless questions and the moony way he'd look at Anna like she was a dish of Aunt Oneida's fresh peach ice cream.

When he left me to die on the battle field I chalked it up to fear and inexperience. Everyone else thought I was a goner, why wouldn't he? But now it took on a sinister tone. I watch him now with fresh eyes, the way his hand rests with ownership on Anna's back, the way he cannot meet my eye or shake my hand, the shut bedroom door, the child who should have been mine ... Had this been his plan; to get me out of the way and make Anna his own? It was improbable. It was ...

I left the day she took my ring off. As long as she was wearin' it there was hope. And then ... there was nothing. Nothing but an endless stream of tomorrows far away from the place I had always planned to turn up my toes, my loving wife and a passel of babies with babies of their own gathered round, tears and fond memories. There have always been Stokes in Cedarsville ... but they won't be mine. My future stretches out on an endless road to somewhere else. I could not stay in Cedarsville and watch my cousin live my life, with my wife.

I headed west.

There's always somewhere to hang your head and drown your sorrows.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Grandma or Emmeline's Thoughts

Character essay reprint:12/07

There's a yellowjacket buzzing between the window and the screen. A frustrated hum the soundtrack to the moving picture which has become my life. Every now and then it knocks its body into the glass, the buzz fierce, determined. I could tell him that the fight is futile, but he still has to live it out to its close, where I forsee a new beginning, or what would be the point. The sound of life about to end is romantic, haunting, inevitable.

When did I first slip away? I wonder this when the sun glances off the window glass due east, the way it has on sunny days for the past ... oh ... so many years. I use to hide in my head all the time as a girl. It was safe in there, even if you didn't know what you would find, or where you would travel, if you didn't like it you could always change your mind. Life's not like that. The rules are less malleable and the colors less kind. I learned to do my chores and mastered looking like I was listening in school, then I could wander away at will, to anywhere at all. Maybe I knew then that I would retire here.

Yellowjackets, so aggressive, a barbed stinger made for repeated use. There's a hormone in its venom which acts like a homing device enabling them to swarm their victim, drawn to it, a small army of heat seaking missiles. It's horrible when you're swarmed. Your body becomes a rag doll, flailing and flapping, to make the pain go away. It's a deep hurt, the sting of a yellow jacket. But I still don't wish this death on it. Wasting away between window and screen, all that you can't have right over there.

Meat tenderizer neutralizes the venom. I use to carry it with me in the meadow where there was always a predator to be found protecting his queen. The MSG breaks it down. It works on jelly fish stings as well, Portugese man-of-war. I don't remember how I know this and not the other important things of life like how to talk, or walk, or even that to do these things might be important, to someone.

I was married young. Got caught up in the whirl and swirl of it, its reality only becoming clear at night when that old man would come to me reaking of liquor the points of his beard poking my cheek as he rocked himself on me, in me, those whiskers ... yellowjacket stings ... i was too young ... what was I thinking about ?...

"Get that spoon out of my face, Vicky Plamer!" I'd scream it if I could remember how.

Vicky Palmer, a child I wouldn't let feed my dog. She'll give up soon and go watch her shows. She likes the shows where people are unkind to one another. Where they gather in groups to laugh and ridicule. I liked jane Austen. Same thing really, different costumes. How did it go? Something like "We laugh at our neighbors and make sport for them in out turn ..." nicer language than our contemporary vernacular, but it's just people poking fun at other people. It's when they get the fists and guns and the ... I was the only girl growing up.

I had a daughter. She got pregnant by a boy who went MIA in Vietnam. It made her hard. She never liked me much. Thought I was dowdy. "Provenical..." Oh, baby, who cares? Really? I mean what difference does it make to how we live and die, if it's only skin deep? I always hoped for more. More meaning between two people. Had it once. Brief. Treasured. Beautiful. Something I draw off that dusty shelf in the back corner of my memories every now and again so as not to make it ordinary, eveyrday, but a special occasion memory. A remembrance of a time that was as fleeting and as swift as butterfly wings ... He was a drifter. Came to work for Abner and me one summer. That was all. I never thought of him as a place to run away. He was a destination all his own. Just for that while. A gift I gave myself because I deserved him.

Gentle laughter. Real smart and not afraid to share it with me cause I was a woman or stupid, all the things you start to believe after repeated use. Sun warmed skin on skin in the mountains and valleys of this land I had known my whole life ... to see it through a stranger's eyes birthed it back to me whole, mine again ...

"Zzzz...zzz...zzzz..." A stuggle against the window, now the screen, valiant. I gave up the struggle. It was too hard to participate. Once you lose the use of language folks write you off as stupid, not there. I was still having thoughts and ideas and I was angry. Trying to tell them, him... I was the one losing my mind after all. That's when ... the pills.

"Psychotic episodes ...", "Dementia ..."

That's how the doctors diagnosed my anger. How they controlled it. The drugs take you away for awhile. Further away than I had ever travelled in my head. I tried to stay here, live my life, but staying present took the day, there was no room for creative thought, trying to maintain 'normal' took so much effort. ... Now, normal is this.

Abner died. I sat in my wheelchair at the service. Violet sent flowers. I wonder how old Sadie is now? She was three, no four when she left us. It was nice having a child in the house again. ...

What's that sound? That scratching. "Zzzz ...." That yellowjacket is frantic. Something's changing. Wood on wood. It's familiar, that sound ... I haven't heard it in years. The buzz is moving off ... I wonder who opened the window?

Friday, December 18, 2015

BILLY PALMER


Dude!!! What the fuck?! Cool, huh? I mean .... like, yeah ... where you goin' now, cuz I was thinkin' like, I don't know, maybe doin' somethin' like, shit ... you know, like, maybe I will, you know, cuz it's possible to, like you know ... get there from here ... you know? You okay with that? ... Cuz if you're not we don't have to, you know, we could maybe get it together to hang out somewhere else with them, you know, so don't sweat it if you're not sure yet, cuz we can decide like later, man, you know?

Huh? Vicky? What the fuck, she's great, man, old ball and chain, right? But you know, like what the fuck, right? Neutered, right, males, right, married men, like ... fucking women and shit right? Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha, right? Yeah, my mom was all like, you know, .... "Vicky Palmer! That whore?!", hahahahahahahahahaha, like look in the mirror, you know, right? She's a fuckin' saint, my mom, right? Not!

In highschool, man, that's when I got hip to her shit, like you know. Yeah, right? Had to work twice as hard for old Richy-Rich man Lessiter, right, lazy old farts on his crews, right, it's construction, right, I'm like sixteen and some old fat ass says like, right in my face, right, like I'm s'pose to know or somethin' right, "Slow down kid, no one's gonna fire you while old Lessiter's nailin' your mom." ... Just like that, right, I mean, what am I s'pose to do with that, huh? Like fuck you, dickhead, your daughter's blowing guys for quarters in the boy's bathroom, scumwad, like right? Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

Nah ...I don't believe it at first, right, but you notice shit, like, you know, secret shit, and I know it's true and shit so I shut the fuck up to save the old man, right, drunken piece a shit, and I take care of the little guys while she's out, right? Shit ... you know ... but I'm over it, man, like who fuckin' cares, right? History, right? The old man's dead, she's with Lessiter now, and Thanksgivings a bitch, right? ... But ... like .... I got vicky, right? Like what the fuck ... maybe we can, you know do some shit like later, man, okay like ... you know, right?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Drifter



Ice blue flames flick the darkness, sharp edges bite at the dawn, the chill. How long now ... another few days I expect, till I face the past to see if there's a future there. I write in this small notebook, its leather binding now worn and rough in patches, spattered and splotched, liquid's history marks its cover with a heiroglyph known only to sprites and water daemons. I chronicle the events of my time in hiding, running from the grumblings of a war whose face I wear.

White men fight over economic subsidies, a president fights to align his constituents, all under the banner of the abolitionists cry, and yet ... they ALL hate us. Hate that we're the reason for this unrest, this anger, this ' nigger ...' animals, trainable, not educable. My people grow their food, wipe their asses, craft their civilizations, and we're the ones who are the beasts? They brought us here, flesh eating cattle, couldn't breed the fight out of us, the history, the memories as stories back to thatched huts and tribal fires, warriors ... and now that our presence has placed challenge to their collective morality, we are again to blame. The irony of it. What is fair after all? We the people ... ALL men are created equal ... according to someone's gods.

Who am I in this changing America? Born a free man to a Placee. Raised handsomely on funds deeded to us by a white father whom I call 'Sir' and 'Mister', a man who hears "Father" and "Papa" from white children elsewhere, in a world where I am not known, not welcomed. Where do I fit now that all distinction of class and money have gone, our way of life so irrevocably altered by this war to come. Any man may put a saddle on my back, a bit in my mouth and claim me as property. Some of our people will fight with the Confederacy, a futile effort to preserve the old ways of money and pastime. We men of color who have also owned our brethren. How must we pay for this? I run.

One aches for home. The smell of the river water at low tide when the mossy greens, the dark secrets of its depths, lay naked to the sun. Fish stews musky with bayou herbs, the lilt of Patois, sinister magic in spiced air, strains of a banjo companioned by lapping water, creaking wood, crickets bowing small fiddles ...

A free man. I will remain a free man ... by the waning flames of this small warmth carved out of night into day ...

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Harry Coming Home




When they found me at Cedar Creek, that battlefield in Virginia, I was pushing out my last breath,

"Anna ...".

There was pain, in my chest, as if my heart was broken,

"Anna ..."

They heaved me onto a pile with the dead, and near dead, sure I wasn't gonna make the night, too many others with a better chance of seeing the sunrise. Come the dawn the pile of bodies on top of me had grown, I must have welcomed the warmth, until I decided not to suffocate instead of bleeding to death, the pressure of all those bodies above having stemmed the flow of my life's fluid enough for the wound to close up a mite on its own.

It took me near an hour to work my foot out into the open enough to wiggle it sose someone might notice. I could hear the voices of the medics, and walking survivors, calling for the living. I hoped someone might pass my grave and notice that the meter of my foot was different from those of the twitching corpses. It occurred to me that a regular rhythm, some synchopated measure, might serve,

'Oh! Susanna ...' I tried to hum it in my head, while bobbing my foot in time to the beat, my feeble voice muffled by the cloth and flesh tomb.

I thought back to Anna and me dancing to that song, old man Finkbbinder on fiddle, poncy Billy Ofsteder singing full tenor. I'd change the name to "Oh, Miss Anna ..." and whisper it in her ear all soft and secret. She'd catch her breath, and tell me not to hold her so close, it was getting hot in there ...

"...Oh don't you cry for me ..."

My cousin Edmund watching us, ignoring sweet Helly who followed after him like a lapdog.

"... Miss Anna, don't you cry ..."

My foot alone in the air, the rest of me crunched under meat sacks of blood and excrement in what use to be the living, singing that song.

"Over here!!"

A voice boomed near by. I felt the pile jostle overhead and the pressure give way to a gunsmoke clouded sky. I thought maybe it was heaven.

I woke up again in a dungy hospital tent to some grizzled old man, smeared in blood, digging a horse needle into my chest

"Aaaaaggghhhhhh ....!!!

There was something in my mouth, I bit down hard, grateful for a place to revenge the pain. Someone splashed me with liquid, liquor by its smell, and then I was gone again until I came to much later in more pain then I knew anybody could have and live. I thought about Anna, she was what I was livin' for. The look on her face when I dragged my sorry ass back and walked her down the aisle of the reformed church we'd been worshipping at since we were children.

I lived for the soft of her skin, the memory of the warm wet between her thighs the one time she had let me in, when I'd told her I was heading off to war. How we'd repeat that bliss after making a pledge before the preacher and the rest, make us some sons and daughters ... there have always been Stokes in Cedarsville. The thought of Anna made me pray to live instead of wishing I was dead. Anna was worth living for.

It took longer than I'd hoped. Everytime I'd get near well enough to make the journey home, I'd push too soon, and land myself in some flop house nursing a fever and an abcess. A spinster lady took me in up in Maryland, or was it Delaware. Said she was only doin' it in the hopes that some other woman was doin' the same for her men folk on the road home from war. It took almost a whole year to make it back to Cedarsville, and when I rounded that bend down Schooner's Lane, named after the ship builder turned farmer who'd settled the land along with the Stokes men back around the time a Henry was king in England, by the time I turned that corner and saw the farmhouse, well, I thought my aching heart was like to burst with joy. I was finally home, almost to Anna ...


HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Sadie's First Holiday on the Farm



Sadie spent her first holiday back on the farm alone. Grandma was there, but she didn't talk, just sat, propped in her wheelchair, staring at nothing. Moving with assistance, Emmeline Stokes could transfer her weight from one warehoused position to the next, offering no emotion to the event. Sadie wondered what she was thinking ... where had she gone so far away in her head while her body was maintained on the farm. First by Mrs. McMichael, Emmeline's oldest friend, whose brood had all grown and moved away from Cedarsville in search of the bright lights and big citiness of Manhattan, an island so far out of Lily McMichael's realm of thinking it might well have been on Mars instead of just 2 hours down the Thruway.

But Lily had dropped dead of a heart attack on her way to bring Emmeline her supper. So Sadie was sent a telegram by a social worker, and she'd left her quiet librarian's life in Lorain, Ohio, where there was nothing much to hold her, to come home and see to things. There was no one else to do it. But Grandma had been a shock.

Emmeline, Sadie's Grandma, had married onto the Stokes farm the summer she was 17. Abner, that was her husband's name, Abner Stokes was 30 when she caught his eye. He'd been married before, but that wife had been barren and then she dried up and died on him at least five years before Emmeline filled out, right in front of him. Her dad had owned the dairy farm down the road and she was always taggin' along after her brothers. Then giggling with her friends walking past Abner's barns. And finally whooshing by in the souped-up cars of teenaged boys. It had been too much for Abner to bear, his imagination was wild with raw images of flowers wrenched from their stalks before the blossom had bloomed. So he'd married her and they'd had Violet and not much else.

Sadie couldn't remember her Grandma whole. Violet, her mother, lit out off the farm as fast as she could. She'd dragged Sadie, the lovechild of a boy who'd never come back from Nam, and headed west for glamour and the movies, for which she knew she was destined. They ran out of money in Lorain, Ohio and Violet died there many Marlboros and MaiTais later. Leaving Sadie alone to clean out her drawers and rent her mother's room to make ends meet.

Sadie'd flirted with that other life, the one of booze and barstools she'd inherited from her mother, which resulted in several small tatoos and waking up to men who held no interest by daylight, no real joy at night. There had to be something more to life. Something like the adventure of the novels into which she escaped. But so far life's journey held nothing more glamorous then picking out a container for her mother's cremains, and then figuring out where she'd have wanted them spread. She knew her mother would not want to be locked in a box, but rather floating in the ether of something grand. Sadie had taken a trip to Cinncinnati and dumped Violet into the Ohio River, where she'd swirled away, a grey-green mass, sinking on her way to Kentucky.

But, like I said, Grandma had been a shock. Sadie had seen pictures after all, and heard stories of someone powerful and vibrant and alive. "Not enough room for the two of us ...!" Violet had always said. Sadie assumed this meant personalities. Personality was what Violet had a lot of, and Sadie had known to diminish her own to make room in the small house, or it would probably have exploded. But Grandma just wasn't there. No personality at all. Like a window onto nothing. It had been a great disappointment to Sadie.

She had so looked forward to belonging to something larger than every day. But Grandma was just maintenance ... in the beginning. Sadie started poking around the old farm house a month or two after she'd set up a routine for Grandma with Mrs. Palmer, and gotten herself a pocket-money job at the used bookstore in town.

Town. One block of not much. There were the weekenders who brought the exotic with them up from New York City and looked down their noses at the trades. There were the regulars who roamed the town; Dollar Bill, the homeless guy who they say walked out of his office on Wall Street straight up the Henry Hudson, landing in Cedarsville, in the same suit, now shredded and dirt caked, the Windsor knot of his tie holding his collar together. His parents had had a house there when he was small. It was where he'd been happy.

There was a Busy-Body, who owned the dress shop down the street. Gender dubious, She liked bouffant hairstyles, rhinestone glasses, and sold a mix of kitch and boutique. Her companion was a troll-man, who everyone knew was a woman, also known as the Gossip. She could be relied upon to recall the salacious events of Cedarsville, no matter the era, and made the most godawful smelling linament, which worked really well, but could clear a room. Sadie wondered what President Bush would make of this heterosexual couple.

And then there was Henry. Henry Becker, whose mother, Abby, had been the only person Violet could tolerate in that small town, so the stories of little Henry Becker were tinged with a magical charm, and the mandate to look after Violet Stokes's girl was inherited. Henry had showed up at the bus the day she arrived with her small suitcase of treasures, the rest of her life not worth the freight. He'd driven her up to the farm house, took her in to meet Grandma and Mrs. Palmer, and she hadn't been able to get out a word. Not a single word. Nothing seemed good enough to say to him, this special and rare beast who had come so suddenly upon her in this wooded place. She wanted to be her best self for him.

This had never happened to her before. She could talk. Have conversations. Though she rarely did. Henry had been something else. He was a seismic event. The heat rushed to her face, her chest got tight, and all the words rushed from her head ... all she wanted to do was throw her arms around his neck, give her mouth to his, feel his hands on her ... but she could never find the path, the words, which are the normal road to such events.

Henry had awakened something in her. When she set presents for Grandma and herself under the small tree she'd sawed down and decorated with the red-glass ornaments she'd found in a dusty trunk, forgotten reflections of a warmer time in the old farmhouse, she gave herself a present from Henry. It was wrapped in plain brown paper and tied with a green velvet ribbon, a ribbon her mother had given her to wear in her ginger hair at a piano recital when she was 12 ...

She didn't need to open it, she knew what it was. So she stared at it, wondering how she would react if it had really come from him. Well, because it had really come from him in a way, its spirit. She knew her cheeks would flush with color and she'd smile without being able to stop herself as her fingers fumbled with the ribbon, too pretty to let go to waste, looking up at him as he watched her, waiting for her impetuous delight ... when she'd fling herself into his arms laughing at the small scrap of old paper on which he'd written but a single word ..."Hope?".

Sadie smiled, blushing as if it were more than her fantasy. It was enough.

HAPPY-MERRY!