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Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Carolina Christmas

1. Driver Safety

I am bopping along interstate 85, headed north into the Carolinas. A virile black Chevy pickup is my front door, a maroon Camaro is my back door and I’m in the rocking chair.
In my opinion, this is the safest place to be when a state trooper is lurking, ready to award a speeding ticket to a passing motorist, because he will either ticket the truck that is the pace-setter or the muscle car that is last in line and easiest to pull over.
In the world of fossil fuel spending, I know I am part of the problem, not the solution, because I love to drive – anywhere, anytime, and fast. I should feel guilty, but the pleasure of motion, sunlight and music overrides what I know is wrong about my behavior. Strangely, when I am in this heavy machine of steel and burning gasoline, I feel at my most weightless.

2. Not an Original Idea

Such a dry cold envelops these old mountains. I steer carefully through a hairpin turn on my ascent towards Asheville, N.C., aware that the pressure in my ears is changing. I should be living here, I think. I deserve to have this beauty every day. I catalog the reasons I love North Carolina which include, but are not limited to: music, four distinct seasons, rushing water, wildlife, a sense of wonder, BBQ.
As I count the number of Lexuses and Mercedes around Saluda and Flat Rock, I am mindful of the fact that everyone with a generous retirement income feels the same way.

3. A Stranger Here

“Them two boys just been saved. As for me, my soul at this time remains unaffiliated.” – O Brother Where Art Thou?

Although I have lived in the South for more than three decades, I still do not understand South Carolina. Nowhere do I feel more out of place, more “unlike” the culture around me, and I tend to think it has to do with religion and politics. But there’s something else, something I can't name, that causes me to feel like a different species.
My cousin Pamela, her husband Garry, and I drive to Landrum to hear music in a small, cozy bar called Zenzerra, where Garry will sit in with the musicians and add his mouth harp to their string band. It turns out that I know all the songs, and with the help of a shot of bourbon, I start to relax. When the band plays Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” it strikes me as funny that they are playing a song (written by a guy from my home town) that sounds holy but really is about carnal love with bared fangs.

4. My Fault

Sometimes I don’t know where I belong. This short visit with Pamela underscores how lonely I am much of the time in Alabama. I miss being with people who sound like me, share family memories, laugh at the same ironies. But those people are thousands of miles away or, in many cases, dead.
This is my own fault; I can’t go home because I’ve stayed away too long, and I’ve failed to assimilate where I now live. I fall asleep in my cousin Rachael's bed, humming a childhood lullabye that only my late mother knew, and now I am its only singer.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Jared's Xmas Card for Isa

Our Jared made this for his beloved Isa, and if there's a better present anywhere for anyone, prove it!
Can't wait to see them this Christmas!

The Late Show at The Argo

The Argo Drive-In late show ended at 11:30. When the last car had gone, Marti doused the sodium vapor spotlight, slipped on double latex gloves and rolled the trash trolley through the semicircular theater lot. An empty pint of Courvoisier, an unfurled Trojan, and a baby’s sippy cup joined the usual popcorn tubs and soda cans. Nothing special, not like the previous week’s find of a South Sea pearl ring and umber calfskin gloves. She heard the cough of the projectionist’s truck about to leave; Avner sounded a see-you-later beep and rumbled out the exit toward Cooley’s Package Store before it closed at midnight. In the distance Marti could see flashing blue and red emergency lights where the road bent sharply west. Silently she wished Avner a safe detour around the latest crash.
She remembered to check the speaker wires at Slot 23. She’d had to disable that speaker earlier; best to reconnect its parts while it was fresh on her mind. The couple in the car at Slot 23 had not been ugly about the speaker malfunction, especially since she’d moved them quickly to Slot 88 at the darkest corner of the parking rows. They hadn’t come to watch the movie, anyway, Marti knew. The woman had been all over the guy, humping him in the front seat and the back. They’d been oblivious to everything around them.
Marti stretched and craned to see beyond the Argo’s fence. On tiptoe she was 5’10” even. To the west, the red and blue still strobed. To the east, a quarter moon was rising.
Marti moved on to Slot 88. It was the Argo’s newest parking slot, created when the need arose one day. She checked around for any trash or unusual leavings. In the weak moonlight, it looked pretty much like all the other slots with their yellow numbers, speaker stands and call buttons, which patrons pressed in case of problems. Its special feature, though, was something she and Avner had created.
“I want a pit in the ground, like the one where the mechanic stands under your car, when you go for an oil change,” she had said.
He’d caught on in a blink. “But with a roof over the dugout part so it somehow blends with the parking lot.”
He had rented a backhoe to dig the pit one morning when the Argo was closed. Marti reinforced the sides with timbers; four by fours at the corners, two by fours to brace them. They ran PVC pipe downhill away from the pit to drain off water. The bay was big enough to hold a man of Avner’s size plus a toolbox and a folding ladder. It was narrower than the wheelbase of any vehicle. Marti drove Avner’s Silverado over the hole, then her own Acura to check. He practiced sliding under the vehicle’s chassis, into the bay and out again. He could reach every part of a vehicle’s underside while in the bay, especially hydraulic lines and brakes.
“No cutters, no cutting,” he’d told Marti as he selected the tools that would stay permanently in the bay. “Lines have to be damaged, but any neat straight cuts can be detected. That way, no blowback.”
“I’ll blow-back you,” she’d laughed, and they’d had sex in the bay.
The roof for Slot 88 had been a challenge, Marti thought as she rolled the trash trolley back to the concession stand. She turned the popcorn kettle off and rinsed out rags. Impossible to create an asphalt roof over the bay, they’d realized, and no way to camouflage it totally. They had given up on making Slot 88 perfectly identical to the rest. The roof just had to be strong. A flat steel grate slid over the opening, not soundlessly, but quietly enough. Slot 88 had no other parking slots next to it; no lights illuminated it. By the time the late show started, it was a shadow box.
Cleanup over, Marti exited and locked the drive-in gates. She liked this quiet time after the late show when she was sole custodian. Her employers, an elderly couple from Birmingham, left the Argo’s management to her and Avner. They didn’t update the sound system to digital, keeping, instead, old-fashioned in-car speakers that broke easily. “Just replace what breaks,” the man had said. “And keep a good electrician on call.” At her interview, she had told the owners, “I’ve always loved drive-ins. They’re an American tradition, and I want the Argo to survive.”
Two shows nightly – the early shows all PG-rated family fare, the late shows adults-only – meant a short workday for Marti. Twice weekly she completed paperwork or refilled soft drink canisters of CO2. Easy-peasy. Her pay, direct-deposited, was not the point. What counted was the opportunity afforded by the Argo.

It was nearly 1 a.m. when Marti pulled up to St. Vincent’s Hospital on Birmingham’s Southside. She rode the elevator to 3 North, the surgical intensive care waiting room. A haggard older woman, a sleeping child, a nervous-looking man were occupying chairs below a silent TV screen. The man rose quickly and walked to Marti’s side. “Shelley’s still in surgery,” he whispered. “The guy, the driver’s dead.”
“And that’s your…?”
“Mother in law,” he answered. “Shelley’s mom.”
“Lorne, let’s get coffee,” Marti said and drew him towards the corridor.
“We’ll be right back, Mom,” Lorne called out, then followed.
“Cameras are everywhere, so here’s what we’ll do,” Marti said. “When you buy the coffees, take a few extra napkins. Hand me my coffee and put the envelope in my hand, as naturally as if it was a napkin. Keep to natural movements. It’s all good; keep talking to me about Shelley and the crash.”
At 2 a.m. Marti entered the apartment, showered fast and slid into her side of bed.
“Mmmmm,” came Avner’s welcome. “Go okay?”
Marti fitted her front to his back. “Your half is on the dresser. It’s more than ever.”

The first client had come to Avner, actually. A plumber checking water lines at the concession stand had griped about his cheating wife. “Bitch probably comes here to fuck in the guy’s car,” he’d said. “Bet you see a lot of cheating bitches here. I should come over and catch her. Damn, I could kill her.”
Avner, joking: “Hey man, I could use some extra cash. Let me take care of it.”
Plumber, not joking: “Do you know how to fuck up the brakes on a car?”
Marti, hearing about this later: “Well, do you?”
Avner did, although he didn’t have the stomach for the aftermath. Marti had the job of visiting the hospitals. She was okay with that. Each one got easier. Cheating Shelley had been their fifth.
The routine was beautifully simple: The paying client told Avner what make and model car and license plate to look for. Marti passed by the cheaters’ slot and, with a practiced swipe, loosened a speaker wire. The cheaters complained and got moved to Slot 88. Avner slipped into the secret bay under their car as soon as the feature started; the couple drove away at the end of the show. They crashed sooner or later, often with fatalities to the woman cuddled up against her lover.
Money changed hands, lots of money. Time went by. Late shows played seven nights a week. People made love in darkened cars as if they were invisible, the last to copulate on earth.
Marti smiled against Avner’s back as she drifted toward slumber. Yes, her future was secure. The world would never run out of cheaters.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Love Songs in Kandahar

I. That woman who followed me home had nothing but trash to talk.
But you worried for days with a stubborn jealousy, refusing to touch me.
Late last night you went into the street and came home smelling feral.
You turned your back to me and twitched with restless dreams.
In the moonlight, your shoulder blades shone like vestigial hinges for wings.
I looped my arm around you, and only when I found a breast could I finally sleep.

II. This life is difficult. We hide from phantoms, phones go unanswered, you threaten to shave your head and wear men’s clothing. You worry that the mullahs suspect us, but that cannot be.
We never touch in public. You weep and I shake when a neighbor knocks on the door, fearing the Mujahideen.
Here, where no light penetrates ten thousand shades of hatred, how will we find our way?

III. What tiny dances your hand makes on my skin.
My heart climbs the trellis of my ribs when your mouth moves over mine.
In this moment when nothing else matters, where nothing else gets in, I fear we might carve into each other.
My blood courses in a thicket of channels that empty into yours, and back again, to mine.
I sink into you, entering your bones. Such is my hunger that I suck your marrow.

This is dedicated to women who love women under the Taliban.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Brief Recap of my Last Excellent Meal

You placed four perfectly crisp, golden-brown quail
still hot from the pan onto my plate.
We had shot them ourselves in a field in November.
I recall the dogs -- one flushing the birds from dun broom sedge while the other, its tail raised in semaphore, pointed.
I watched the canine ballet, set to the drumming wings of the covey
rising into the cold sky.
You aimed your gun, leading just enough so that you found the bob-whites
and tumbled them out of their arcing flight.
The panting dogs brought them back to us.
Now, as I lift a bird to my lips, I taste the air and the gunpowder and the damp coats of dogs and the report of your gun and your smile and the field where I stood, admiring.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Riding With Jason

Jason the tow truck driver has bright pink and green tongue studs and various other piercings about his face, but we share a love for Red Bull, so I run into a convenience store to buy us a couple of cold ones.
He has winched my car onto the flat bed of his truck and, as we drive to the Bridgestone-Firestone store, we chat about panhandlers (we both feel guilty when we refuse to pay out), the economy (you'll never be out of work if you tow vehicles) and deer hunting (we love the venison but hate freezing our asses off in tree stands).
The cab of the truck is littered with coffee cups, cans, damp newspapers, bottles and rags, bits of wires, bolts with mismatching washers, crescent and adjustable wrenches, needle-nose pliers, a CB radio, two cell phone chargers and a strange luminous chew toy that I am afraid to contemplate.
Jason is so good-natured and optimistic that he is the perfect counterweight to me, as I stew over the cost of replacing a 255/40/R18 high performance tire and the bent rim it rode upon
It occurs to me that his job brings him into constant contact with inconvenienced, worried people in much the same way that therapists always see emotionally disheveled patients, and I wonder if that is why he keeps a chew toy close at hand.
In the dark truck, our faces illuminated by the glow of the dashboard dials, we could be any one of a million mismatched couples driving somewhere together with different agendas.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


This place will swallow you up. You only need one-syllable words to describe it: plain, dull, gray, and dry. To these, add harsh in winter. One of the ice ages wore everything here down to a nub. If the emptiness doesn't hollow you out, the lonesomeness will. As far as you can see in every direction, the only thing taller than a man is a grain elevator. All the rest is flat, like something bit down on the earth, sucked all the juice out and left the bones.

I killed a man the other day. He tried to steal my thresher. I put a hole in his chest and let him bleed out right next to the John Deere. I'm wearing his jacket inside out, right now, and his gloves. By March, his corpse will be bleached; by August it'll be reduced to its components. Calcium and phosphorous are good for my wheat.

Under the laws of the prairie, he had it coming. Prairie law spells it out clearly. The worse your surroundings, the meaner you are allowed to get.

The meaner you get, the greater the likelihood you'll overreact in fatal and elemental ways.

Scorpions sting each other over nothing. Sparrow hawks that've gone a week without rabbit flesh will try to fly away with a farm cat twice their size.
A man tries to steal your thresher and ends up deader'n a hammer.
You can come out to Saskatchewan and see our laws in action for yourself, but I wouldn't recommend it.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Small Chair Speaks

On Saturday evenings, we let the furniture speak.

Harry and I usually leave the house to allow them privacy. We go out to a movie and then for Viennese coffee and pastries. By the time we get back, things have pretty much settled down.

Last night, with a bad storm front moving in, we stayed home with head phones on, listening to Garrison Keillor.

However, it had been brought to my attention that the small green chair had been bullied of late, so we discreetly removed the headphones and eavesdropped.

"You have to make more of an effort," the teak coffee table was saying, its voice surprisingly authoritative for a Danish product.

"You're weak and useless, if you want to know the truth," said the scratchy camelback sofa (I don't know why we bought it).

I was ready to jump in and defend the small green chair. I fondly remembered buying it at Kubinec's Fine Furnishings, its leaf-green corduroy unblemished and soft. It was my favorite place to sit in my pajamas. I liked to rub my arms over its arms.

When the small chair finally spoke, its voice was defiant.

"I am trying, I really am, but you see her! She's gotten too damn fat for anything but the wrought iron patio furniture!"

Harry helped me drag the small green bastard to the curb just in time for the storm to hit. Trash pickup is on Thursdays, and good riddance.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Fear the Chess Club (and the school band too)

In Alabama, the Blount County education system has begun mandatory drug testing of some students.
Those who will be randomly tested are kids in grades 7-12 who partake of extracurricular activities: Band, athletics, cheerleading, math club, debating, chess club, and so on.
The school board categorizes this selection of kids as being "those who participate in any activity where they will come in contact with other schools."

Oh well, sure, those rowdy math club kids from the other side of the tracks could be bad influences. It starts with calculus (a gateway operation) and leads to theorems and wild orgiastic fractions.

Is it just me, or does anyone else think that singling out kids in after-school activities is a bass-ackwards approach to discouraging drugs? I mean, is there not a whole ANTI-DRUG MOVEMENT based on providing kids with after-school distractions to KEEP THEM OFF THE STREETS? Kids who play supervised soccer and go to swim meets are not (and I could be wrong here) GENERALLY the ones cooking up meth.

Also, I have problems with kids being coerced into drug testing.
The threat is clear: Either you pee into a cup when we tell you, or you don't get to go to the band competition in Chicago this year; you don't get to compete for the National High School Chess trophy. While I understand that many companies test applicants for jobs (and I have taken my share of pee tests), those applicants are adults.

This Blount County program is funded by a $600,000 grant, by the way. That much dough could buy a heckuva lot of new band instruments, athletic equipment, art supplies and chess boards.

But I guess Blount Countians need the drug tests to make them feel safer.
That way there will be fewer rogue music majors roaming the streets at night, selling meth to math geeks.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Schadenfreude Report

I have no hard figures to back this up, exactly, but I’m pretty sure schadenfreude has become the new national pastime.
Taking pleasure in another’s misfortune is -- if not our default emotion -- pretty darn close to the mood in America right now.
I know I got a huge dose of it when I heard Christine O’Donnell had lost her race in Delaware, early Tuesday night.
Then, I experienced another sweet round of it a few hours later when Harry Reid was declared the winner in Nevada and Sharron Angle the loser. Aww, I thought, smiling widely, wonder what Sharron’s doing right now?
Meanwhile, in living rooms and country clubs around the nation, Republicans and FOX News analysts were swooning with schadenfreude. By God, we put the hurt on Obama, they were crooning. We’re the hammer, he’s the nail.
And the defeat of Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House? Wow, that news raised the schad-o-meter past the red line.

It’s tough to deny. Progressives felt this uncharitable version of satisfaction two years ago when we saw the Roves and Limbaughs of the world licking their wounds. I, who am not really a bad person (only a baddish person), kind of loved the moment when I thought we’d seen the last of the GOP idealogues for a while.
Little did we know they would morph into something even more shrill and maverick-y.
I mean, in 2008, who possibly imagined that they would erupt like a boil from the head of Sarah Palin and multiply?

But that’s the thing about schadenfreude: It is enjoyable, but it’s short lived. The cycle is about 730 days. And the happier we are at someone else’s downfall, the happier they will be when it’s our turn.
So, to the people standing on the sidelines of my unhappiness wearing smiles, right now, I say: Just remember this moment two years from now

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Guild of Two

The Glove Maker

Weeks of crossing the Atlantic in steerage and long lines at Ellis Island had all but exhausted Isaac, but he could not afford the luxury of rest, not now, when he had to open a business and feed his family.
He sat at his workbench, patiently showing Micah, his eldest, how to stretch butter-soft kid leather over a glove-maker’s sample so that the fingers were snug while the palm remained loose.
“The woman should be able to close and open her hand, so the glove must have some give to it, you see?” he asked, using the same words, the same hand motions, that his own father had used years before, when Isaac himself was a boy apprentice.
Memory carried him back to their shtetl, a sheltered and pleasant Russian hamlet where Bezoar goat kids grazed all summer, only to be slaughtered for their leather in autumn.
Isaac could smell the tang of newly tanned hides, could hear the songs his father had sung while stitching the elegant gloves that were sold to rich ladies of the Czar’s court.
Fondly, he regarded Micah who now was trying to please him by doing well, and Isaac wondered whether his own father had gazed at him in the same way, and his father, and his father before him.

The Music Teacher

This pale child next to me has the true gift, the rare gift that the learned old men at the august State Conservatory speak about in hushed tones. She places her hands on the strings with the confidence of a seasoned concert performer, and the music she makes is exquisite.
But there is something wrong with her spirit that I can’t name, as if playing well is her revenge, and not her calling.

My other students watch me play, their eyes never leaving my hands, careful to learn the fingering and the bow technique I use.
This one, though, she watches as if she is waiting to catch me in a mistake.

Sometimes at night I see her in my dreams, a malevolent grey form dragging a violin and whispering, “Now who is the teacher and who is the pupil?”

The Cave Dweller

Back in the year 2341, two Earthlings and three Martian Adepts unlocked the genetic code for passing down knowledge from one generation to the next while the fetus was in utero. This forever eliminated the cumbersome human act of teaching.

There had been fierce debates, of course, about how much knowledge to upload to the fetal brain via gene manipulation. Should new Passengers be required to know obsolete skills like farming, tool-making, book binding or harp-playing – relics of a bygone world?
The “Past is Prologue” school of thought said yes, whereas “The Future is Now” school said no.

The Martians valued the role of elders in training younglings for Galactic Passage, but Earth people outvoted them in favor of using Droids.

And so it came to pass that the words “teacher,” “apprentice,” and “guide,” left the Galactic Vocabulary forever -- except, my darling, for right here, in this crystal cave, where I tutor you in the secret art of touching others with words.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Without a Trace

Christine and her brood came down from the mountains in fall, exchanging their high plains meadow cabin for a flat in town with a view of a warehouse wall.
Has to be done, she told Roy at the hardware store, because ya can’t risk getting snowed in all the way up there, eh, even with chains on the winter tires. The kids were happier, anyway, she smiled, not having to ride the morning school bus down the pass when it’s still dark as pitch.
She bought insulating gaskets for her storm windows and then, impulsively, added a wall clock that sounded cheerful bird calls on the hour.
While Roy watched Chris cross the street, her back straight and her stride long, he couldn’t help wondering why her husband had disappeared, those years back.
No one wanted to believe ill of Chris, who was, after all, salt of the earth, but the man did just vanish right after one of her kids was rushed to the hospital with broken ribs.
Christine was adjusting to life in town again, and she knew what should and should not be done. She should join the book club. That way lay companionship and conversation, which were vital.She should not go into bars alone. The men looked at her and thought, there's a woman who's been up in the mountains without a man.She must be hungry.
"Stupid men," Christine thought, "who don't know the difference between hungry and lonely."
Christine needed to get back up the mountain one last time before the snows came, to load up the horses and bring them down to town. She’d arranged to board them over winter for, if she left them behind at the cabin, they’d go off who knows where in search of food and shelter.
She chose a school day to go, expecting to be back before the kids came home, and she packed a lunch and some apples for the mares before hitching the trailer to her Ford-250.
As she drove, she thought back to the times when Charlie and she had been happy, or happy enough, and the cabin beside the high plains meadow had resounded with music and lively conversation.
There, she had seen her first elk calf, her first golden eagle, Mackenzie Valley wolf, and first starry night undimmed by light pollution.
There, too, she had first tasted the back of a hand in anger, the sting of a horsewhip, bone-deep fear and, finally, an unthinkable act of self defense.
After greeting her mares with apples and kind words, Christine sifted through her house to be sure she’d taken everything valuable or private. A deserted mountain cabin in winter was a favorite destination of trappers and romantic teenagers, she well knew.
In her second desk drawer, she found a hospital bill, long since paid, for Zack’s emergency room visit four years earlier. The memory of that night rose up like hot acid, and she saw the small broken body and imploring eyes of her son as his father threw him against walls and furniture, again and again.
Stuffing the piece of paper in her pocket, Christine stumbled out of the cabin and herded the horses into the trailer while a bitter, sick feeling overwhelmed her. How much longer until time, or present events, erased that nightmare vision from her past?
A light breeze stirred the aspens, and from somewhere nearby came the call of an olive-sided flycatcher. Christine remembered teaching Zack and Lolly, then five and four, to recognize the quirky cheeping: quick three beers, quick THREE beers.
They had walked the meadow many times with Charlie on those days before his bouts of rage nearly took their lives. But all too soon, the children had learned to fear him as well as they had learned the names of the meadow flowers and grasses.
Christine sat for a few minutes in a patch of fragrant sage, calming herself before she had to get behind the wheel. She knew one thing for certain: Charlie’s “disappearance” had simply been a coward’s flight from the law, born out of fear of arrest, and she would never tell it otherwise.

Christine had grown up in a farm family that placed no romantic filters over reality, a family that imparted an unblinking view of survival priorities.
“Women and children firssst,” she hissed, steering the pickup and trailer slowly through hairpins, down the mountain pass. To her left, coolly assessing the scent of the two trailered mares, were four coyotes plump with a summer's worth of rabbits, and more.
“Good dogs, very good dogs,” murmured Christine as they shrank in her rearview mirror. “They clean their plates and chew the bones like mother’s little helpers.”
Down to town she drove, thinking ahead to autumn jackets for Zack and Lolly, thinking ahead to the time, not so very far off, when she’d file the official papers and be free of a man who’d just disappeared one night without a trace.
Zack and Lolly were old enough to remember the night their father went away, but not old enough to sort out the confused events of that night.
In a foggy sort of way, Zack recalled his mother taking him from the cabin in soft blankets, Lolly crying between them on the ride to town. He recalled that she had left him in the hospital that night and gone home.
When she came back the next morning, she’d said, “Papa is so very sad and sorry that he hurt you. He agreed to go far away and never come back, so that he won’t ever hurt me or you or anyone again.”
Lolly remembered that night differently, but all she had were disassembled images of her Papa lunging and yelling, of her Mama endlessly chopping something in the yard and then throwing the pieces far down the hill while the moon traded places with the racing clouds.

The Education of Lila

The Wakassa Pass ran by Lila’s cabin and sloped upward to a high plains meadow where rudbekia and plumbago grew wild. Their gold and blue mirrored the summer sky. Not many travelled that pass anymore, not since the government had paved a new road through the hills. But occasionally, photographers laden with gear hiked the pass to set up their cameras. They sold pictures of the meadow to the Sunday rotogravure sections of big city newspapers. People in cities liked to look at pictures of hawks making lazy-eights and sulphur-colored butterflies drinking nectar from red salvias.
The year was 1943, and the world beyond Lila’s horizon was at war. She rode her mare, a placid quarter horse, to town once a week to get provisions and hear the war news. She’d heard talk of a victory over the Japanese at a place called Midway, though neither Lila nor her kinfolk had heard of the place before. Neither had they heard the names “Solomon Islands” or “Guadalcanal.”
A photographer passing through had taken Lila’s picture in front of the cabin, and he had mailed her a copy along with a world map, as thanks. He wrote, “Your smile made the sale,” and Lila wondered how much the magazine, named “LIFE,” in capital letters, had paid him. She smoothed the map’s creases carefully and pinned it to the kitchen wall. When the radio announced a terrible event at Bataan in the Philippines, she located that far-off place and circled it. She learned the names of cities and rivers in Europe and Burma where the blood of American boys had spilled. One Saturday while she was at a store in town, the radio said that 600 soldiers and airmen from North Carolina had died overseas since the war had started. In town, people prayed for the safe return of “our boys.”
The cabin had passed down to Lila from her mother’s side of the family. Her Uncle Thomas and Aunt Rebecca had built the place and tilled a garden, using dug-up field stones to form the walls of the spring house which doubled as a root cellar. Lila grew vegetables in a neat plot by her kitchen door. She shot the rabbits that came to eat her garden, baking them into pot pies with the English peas and carrots they’d come to steal.
In July, two photographers -- a man and a woman – stopped at Lila’s door. They asked for water, and she brought them a jar from the spring house. The man smoked in the shade of a hickory tree while the woman took photographs of Lila on her mare and showed her a newspaper depicting the surrender of a short, dark-eyed man they described as the dictator of Italy. Lila proudly showed them her map of the world, and while they examined the circles and lines she had drawn, she had them spell out the name M-u-s-s-o-l-i-n-i. The couple, it turned out, had taken that picture and now were back in the United States, recording what they called Appalachia. They seemed surprised that life anywhere could be so “untouched” by the war raging around the globe. Lila told them that President Roosevelt had sent more than 600 telegrams to widows in North Carolina since the war had started.
When they left, Lila circled the western corner of North Carolina and wrote in the margin of the map: In Appalachia, 600 dead are not untouched.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


1. The hotel room was elegant. He arrived after her, shedding coat, tie and shoes. She directed him to a sofa covered in a fussy chintz, and when he was seated, she straddled his lap. There, looking into his eyes, she fed him blueberry pie and vanilla ice cream. She fed each forkful carefully and slowly, and he ate with his eyes closed. He savored the warm, juicy pie morsels and cold ice cream as if each were a kiss, although he knew it was all the dessert she’d ever give him.

2. They sat beside each other until dusk, enjoying the quiet unlit room. They talked about the 40 years that had passed since they’d last seen each other, just children, really. He had brought photos of his son and daughter who were older than they had been when first love immersed them. He was elated when he could make her laugh, a fabulous laugh, the kind you would recognize in a crowded theater or café despite all other sounds. She could see the boy in the man’s face, and she longed to run her fingers over his features, but did not. Being in the same room after all these years was miracle enough.

3. On the train home, he sat in his usual reserved car with his usual evening paper. He smiled to himself as he replayed a devious joke she’d told him about a debate between a rabbi and a pope. He closed his eyes and tasted faint vanilla. He would write to her next week, or the week after. There was no rush. She was as much a part of him as his bones, and he was in her marrow.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Conversation With a Ghost

This must never get out in the press, for it would cause widespread panic. The priests would surround my house, not to mention the police and possibly the army. Castor Desayuno has come back from the dead! Yes, the butcher himself!
You are saying to yourself right now, or possibly to your beloved who sits beside you in the morning sun with her hair down and a cup of café con leche in her sleepy grasp, Castor Desayuno cannot possibly be walking the earth. You must think I am mad!
You are protesting, ‘But we saw his head on the end of a bayonet, paraded through the streets of San Cristobal. We saw his body lowered, headless, into a grave over which no priest said the holy words.’
But as surely as I stand before you at this moment, I saw Castor in the flesh, last night. He was a hungry ghost, desperate for conversation. He beckoned to me to sit beside him on the steps to the Shrine of the Eternal Madonna, the very one where he was cut down in the middle of fornicating with a girl the age of his daughter. Some later said it was his daughter.
He begged me for news of his old enemies. Was General Fuentes still in power? Where had the chief of police of San Cristobal hidden the gold looted from Castor’s villa? Did I know if his faithless mistress had married some anemic, hairless dog of a Socialist?
To tell the truth, Castor looked healthier than you do, right now, my friend, as I tell you this. Ha! You are shaking, I see. Your face has gone as white as a glass of milk. Perhaps you had some dealings with the butcher, in his day? Well, of course. Who didn’t?
Now, you are thinking I must have been drunk, or asleep and dreaming this encounter with a vapor.
But no, I was walking in the night streets as sober as the cobblestones. The moon was descending, and the cafes had already closed. There were no rattling chains or bloody fangs, such as you see in children’s books.

I am telling you that the gate of Hell has opened wide, and the bastard has taken back his corporeal form. Nothing you have ever seen will compare with the horrors ahead.
Castor Desayuno, if you can imagine it, is not the worst of those yet to come. God, no. He is just the messenger!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Unfailingly. Repeatedly

“Trust me, it’s not what you think,” says Marti, knocking the ash off the end of her Winston and waving at the bartender for a refill.
“Well,” I answer, “it’s not too hard to figure out. He’s either married or he’s not. And since his left hand has the tell-tale gold birthmark, I’m going out on a limb, here, and guessing married.”
“Well, technically no, but in a way, yes. Really, it’s not what you think.” She swizzles her screwdriver with a tiny bar straw.
“Marti, what I think is, you are now officially living a cliché. And you are too good and gorgeous for a cliché.”
She studies the bowl of honey roasted almonds on the bar, oblivious to the dozen men around her who’d happily swat me off my barstool, just to sit next to her. Marti has that effect on men. Sadly, she also has a keen nose for the ones who are wrong for her, and it is to them she gravitates. Unfailingly. Repeatedly.
“Look,” she says, not looking. “Give me a chance to explain, okay? Ted was married. Past tense. He and Sonya got divorced. Then she was diagnosed with lupus – I think it was lupus, or maybe rheumatoid arthritis – and she asked him to stay in the apartment until the medication started working and she got stabilized.”
“Yeah? How long ago was that?” I ask.
Marti picks up her glass, drains it, and stands. She digs into her purse and throws a twenty down on the bar.
As she turns to leave, she says, “Four years. Satisfied?”
And then she’s gone.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Regarding Utrillo

“But he was a terrible alcoholic, just terrible,” one woman was telling her friend. “His wife had to watch him every second.”
“So many painters are, aren’t they?” said the friend. “What about that Toulouse Lautrec? And Jackson Pollack? His wife must have been a saint.”
They lingered a moment more in front of the canvas, regarding a leaf-strewn sidewalk and the perfect symmetry of a fence diminishing into the distance.
I moved in after them, taking up my position in front of the beautiful urban landscape with its layered light and shade and signature Utrillo perspective. Almost imperceptible, as if an afterthought, was the figure of a woman looking through the bars of the fence. Utrillo, I thought. You give yourself away. In all your paintings it is the city you adore, the cathedrals and streets and boulevards you make love to with your brushes. People are incidental, hurriedly daubed into being with a dot and dash. But your trees! They ply their wares to the viewer. Your stone and mortar come alive. Montmartre was your universe, and you were its cognac-soaked, dazzled stargazer.
A tour group approached, led by a docent, so I stepped back to let them pass.
“Utrillo,” proclaimed the tour leader, “was an Impressionist, yes, but one of the lesser ones.”
With that, the group moved on, eager to find Monet and his water lilies, featured on the museum’s poster.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Just Like Petey

Pipefitters and Joiners Local 212 occupied a squat cinderblock rectangle between two used car lots on Broad Street. By day, all the union's business was conducted in small beige offices. By night the spacious auditorium-cum-banquet hall was used for social and political events, depending on the members' wishes.
Now and then, pipefitters and joiners would get in the mood for something a little different, and that's where I came in: I teach adult art appreciation over at Robert E. Lee Tech. A few of the guys decided it would be fun to have a night class on art or new books, and, after a vote, Tuesday Night Art For Beginners won.
For openers, I took the twenty-some attendees through a typical power point show of American landscapes, European Impressionists and Modigliani's nudes. I pointed out the use of light and shadow or the predominance of certain colors by certain painters.
As the hour was drawing to a close, I clicked to Van Houte’s Dutch modernist oil painting of a boy in a middy-blouse with neckerchief and jaunty blue cap.
I felt the energy in the room shift.
Where there had been polite interest before, I sensed a vivid focus.
“How come he has no face?” asked Pete Vanelli. “Did the painter forget the face?”
“Shit, that looks exactly like a picture my Ma has of my kid brother,” said Johnny DeFalco. “I’m serious! He had a suit just like that. You remember our Petey?” he asked of the man next to him.
“Yeah,” the man said, “he’s the one died in Vietnam.”
Pain made a crooked stick of Johnny’s mouth.
“Hey, I had an outfit like that, too,” said a man in the back row with a pooch of Copenhagen in his left cheek. “Even had the red kerchief.”
“So how come he has no face?” Vanelli asked again, this time more urgently. “What kind of painter paints a little kid with no face?”

I wanted to say that good art makes a specific image universal, that the facelessness was exactly what allowed them to relate to the painting, each man imprinting his own beloved boy on the canvas.
But all I could bring myself to say right then was, “Hey, that’s modern art for you.”

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Game On

He’s sitting on the curb, Mr. Bigshot Jimmy McLean, cleaning his fingernails, legs all stretched out so everyone can see he’s wearing Air Jordans. All Teeny and me want to do is play our hopscotch, but his big feet are sitting on the square marked “HOME.”
He’s got the whole street to sit, so why does he have to pick our hopscotch place? That’s like being at the movies, and the whole room is empty but some tall guy comes and sits right in front of you.
I am 13 now, and Teeny’s 12-and-a-half. My father says we're too old for hopscotch, but we like it. Teeny likes balancing on one foot while she bends down to pick up her stone. I like drawing with a different colored piece of chalk for every square: pink for 7, blue for 6, green for 4 and white for the rest. Mr. Bigshot Jimmy McLean has rubbed away the letter “E” in “HOME” with the heels of his fancy stolen shoes. I know they're stolen because two days ago he told Teeny’s brother’s girlfriend he was too broke to buy her a cherry Coke.
Teeny's standing arms akimbo now, giving Mr. Bigshot Jimmy McLean her eat-shit-and-die look, but he ain’t paying no mind. He just goes on cleaning his big ugly nails, sliding the index fingernail on his right hand under the left hand nails and flinging pieces of dirt down on the street. Down on our number 2 hopscotch square. Teeny steps in closer, in fingernail flicking range.
“Move off, you lesbo bitch,” says Mr. BJM.
“That would be your Momma you talkin’ about,” Teeny says.
The picking stops and I sense the edge of something dangerous is about to pop out of Teeny’s anger vault. I think Jimmy does, too. I think he doesn’t want to tangle with a female reform school reject.
“So how about a game?” he says, all casual and friendly now. He stands, moves to the HOME square of the hopscotch grid and looks at me.
I toss him the chalk and say, “Here. Think you can remember how to print the letter “E?”

Tamper-Proof Bottle

Pills come in tamper-proof wrapping.
So do new CDs, uniball pens, and power drills from the Home Depot.
All these and more have been made impossible to crack open and mess with unless you use a flame thrower or bolt cutters.
Not so the Congress. It is tampered with daily even though, like a CD, it is very well packaged.

Someone should have warned us.