From downstream-coming up on it- It does look like an elephant. Massive head and shoulders, reclining Leisurely almost, facing the current, Watching for what might be floating around The upper bend and into its patch of river. It’s watched as my old man taught us how to Catch bait in it’s shallows and bass in It’s channels or off it’s weed bed. It has sat unperturbed as generations Jumped from it’s head, climbed up It’s back and swam around it’s bulk. My old man tried to capture it in Water colors, oils, pencil and chalk. It’s been photographed from the water in Summer and from the shore when it Sat alone, icebound and snow swept. It looks no different today than it did In the fifties when my old man sat me Up on its head and snapped away with His Argus. On videos, forty years later, my daughters Hop and wave from its back. Today, as the canoe bounces gently against it, I reach up and rub the warm, gray shoulder. “Hey, old man”, I say-not knowing if I’m Talking to the rock or the man who had First sat me upon it. I pushed off, passed through its shadow And continued on- Making one last cast into its eddy.
The figs were trimmed like hedgerows under the back terrace.
We took our coffee there overlooking the river.
The fruit, thick and heavy, awaited her soft hands to get there before the wasps.
Her tarts-light, sweet and savory, garnished with purple chive flowers-were a seasonal attraction that almost rivaled the fishing.
She was Irish, who kept the place.
Ruddy and cheerful. Efficient.
No hint in her green eyes that she’d lost two boys.
One in the war.
One soon after, of grief.
Sorrow did not hang on her.
Did not shroud her as it rightfully might have.
As it could have with a lesser spirit.
Of course, no one sees her in the kitchen,
Where a chance tear might drip into the diced potatoes,
Salting the morning’s hash browns.
She didn’t so much knock as scratch at the door. Might not have heard her had I not seen her pull up outside, two wheels crookedly over the curb. I opened the door only as far as the chain would allow. She reeked. Had been drunk recently but not presently. She held a steak, no doubt stolen from her work in the not recent past, almost wrapped in a stained paper towel. There was a shining need in her eyes that used to be for me. I opened the door and let her in.
We left her jacket and meat on the floor and shuffled toward the bathroom. She wanted me to undress her, to clean her, to anoint her with oils I never had. As the tub filled with scalding water and slippery bubbles, I pushed the shirt off her shoulders. There was a scrape on her lower neck that had been hidden by the collar.
“Who did this to you?” I asked.
She watched me sitting on the toilet, unsnapping and opening her filthy jeans. “Every mark on me is yours”, she said.
There are some mistakes that can be fixed, or at least forgiven. Wounds that can heal leaving nothing but a stain or a scar. Others though, remain open-seeping-to be carried or offered up every day, beyond lifetimes. I held her hand as she stepped carefully into the tub her spine pressing like white knuckles against her skin and put a towel behind her head when she lay back.
“You won’t leave me in here alone, will you?”
“I’ll leave the door open.”
“Stay. Please.” She was squeezing my hand.
There was an angry bruise on her left breast-just above the nipple. I wouldn’t ask where that one came from.
I already had my answer.
Back when they were separated, Dot lived in a house out in Pangburn Hollow. It was a smallish place with a stream out back, but big enough for her and the girls. Thelma and Denise were Irish twins, born-generously-eleven months apart. Let’s just say they were the same age 42 days out of the year. So, when they went off to the state university at the same time Dot was left alone in that little hollow house. Which was fine with her. More than fine actually. She had never lived alone in her life and it was a pleasant change to only have herself to look after. She had her cashier’s job down at Maracinni’s, which was five days a week, then she had card club on Tuesdays and of course, she had church, which wasn’t just a Sunday thing, what with choir practice and bible school and all. But then, before too long, she started to having Bud back again usually on Saturday nights. He first said he was “in the neighborhood” but that didn’t hold water because Pangburn Hollow wasn’t on the way to or from anywhere. She just accepted that he’d be showing up on the odd Saturday night when he was done cattin’ around, as she called it. He was still her husband after all and his railroad job paid for the girl’s school, so it was a small price to pay. He’d smell of liquor and cigarettes and she kept a bottle in the house for when he showed up. Sometimes they’d just set on the couch and watch the late movie and sometimes he’d fall asleep in the chair and she’d cover him before going up to bed. But sometimes he wanted what a man wanted, and she’d give him that too. But never in bed. It being Saturday night, her hair would be done up for church in the morning and she didn’t want to ruin it by laying in bed with Bud. So she would bend over the couch and he’d take her standing up from behind. He grouched about it at first, but he was getting what he wanted after all, so he shut up. Dot would never come like that, but she seldom did with Bud anyway. He was too quick. When girls used to call him Rabbit behind his back it wasn’t because he liked carrots.
Standing there in front of the open garage I thought of Joe for some reason. He was in his seventies when I took over managing the bar for him and he was tied up with Sherry who was a good thirty years younger. I knew Sherry for having a kid with my buddy Bull a couple of years before he killed himself. It wasn’t his only kid, just his only with Sherry and they are all still knocking around town, fun house mirror images of him. Even the girls, which is a shame. Don’t know what happened to Sherry but back then I’d find Joe’s Viagra everywhere; in the register, on the bar, the desk in the office, the floor…He couldn’t see too well but was too vain for glasses. I’d sweep them up into a small bank envelope and leave them in a drawer. I wished I’d have kept them. We buried Joe two years ago when the second fall cast a shadow over his brain. At ninety-six he wouldn’t have survived any surgery which was fine as he was pissed to have outlived everyone. Holly, the tenant in 703, was talking to me but I really wasn’t focused. Since the library was closed for this pandemic shit she was out of work and couldn’t make rent which I’d inferred. It was fine. Ma had really liked her, so she had a pass, which she didn’t know about. She was a nervous type who I’d once described as looking like a dark little man with long sideburns. Which was unfair but today she was dressed like a pile of dirty clothes left behind at the laundromat. I’d seen her out and about though, when we could go out. I’d seen her on the outside of a few vodka and crans. She cleans up well and, me being me, I’d watched her walk away a time or two or lean over a bar. I knew what she was bringing to the table. She was saying something about unemployment, and she’d have some of the rent next month for this month then when she got her big check…and on and on. She was squinting or smiling, I couldn’t tell. But then I heard her say something about making it up to me. That she could do that. That was it. That’s what made me think of Joe. And his pills. I wished I’d have kept some of those. I bummed a cigarette off her. She tossed me the pack. “I didn’t know you smoked”, she said. “I don’t”, I told her.
Georgie was sitting behind the station drinking the cheapest quart that thin money could buy. His mask was flapping, hanging from a band over one ear and showed stains of paint overspray, tobacco, blood and probably snot if I got close enough to look. Betting he found it. He was leaning to the left, away from his bottle hand, because the bleached-to-pink red resin chair he was sitting on was dumpster salvage-tossed there with a broken leg. I tried to steer clear because Georgie was always good to bum a buck or two which was okay normally but not so right now. He saw me right enough, but all he wanted was an ear in passing. “They should drop an atom bomb on all of it”, he said, looking at me but not-as his eye tended to float and wander. “Wipe out all this sickness and disease at once.” “Georgie,” I said moving on, “That would take us out too.” “That’s what I mean”, he coughed. “Start again but get it right this time. Have god not make any animal that walks on two legs. Give us enough time, we’ll just fuck everything up!” I slowed, waiting to see if he was done. He didn’t seem sure.
What I wouldn’t give to drink like I was sixteen again. When two six packs, a pint of peach schnapps and two joints in a Sucrets tin could last a weekend at the cabin but would not be enough to even make the drive now. To not have to spend forty dollars on high end IPA’s and brown liquor just to bend the mood enough to make me tolerable at home in the evening. Back then I’d be smiling on a half can of Stroh’s and laughing out loud by the time it was finished. Those. Those were the days.
Ma still had most of her teeth at the end. At least parts of most of them and it was one of the few sources of vanity she had left. There were gaps, of course, mostly along the sides and in the back but they weren’t too obvious unless she wide smiled which she really didn’t.
With the gaps she had to chew her nicotine gum in the front where you’d see it flopping about threatening to drop out at any time which it sometimes would but never threatened a fire or left a burn mark as her Pall Malls did. She’d just pick it up off her lap or the table (if it made the floor it stayed there) and popped it back into her mouth.
Things changed the day she broke off one of her front teeth in a sandwich. “The hell?” she asked angrily looking at the small yellowish nubbin stuck crookedly like an old gravestone in the bun. Her dentist was long dead and she wasn’t interested in finding another. Just smiled less, talked into her chest and concentrated hard on chewing away front the new jagged hole in her mouth.
Eventually, for a short time, she went back to smoking. She was shaky then and needed both hands but knew enough to move the whole operation out onto the sunporch where her plastic chair and concrete floor presented less of a fire hazard.
The refrigerator crapped out at an opportune time. Not the dead of winter when everything would have frozen solid and not proper spring when everything would have spoiled but right in the middle when the outside temperature was just about refrigerator cold. While the repairmen spent days futzing about with blown motherboards and compressors that were apparently too small and ran too hot (whatever), I got used to going out onto the predawn porch in my robe for the milk and eggs. The cold slab on my bare feet was bracing and took me back to the time when we would actually have eggs and milk on the porch and to old Missis Timko across the alley stepping out in the snow in her bare purple Carpathian feet to snatch her cream.
And it’s true, I thought. Everything in the house-every convenience, every necessary imposition, is lying in wait. Waiting for just the right time to go bad and upend everything you had planned for the day or week. (Even if it’s nothing-because plans don’t have to entail the actual doing of things. They just have to be plans, ideally complete with lists and bullet points.) And the cost! What can go wrong with a root cellar, a cooking pit, a grill on the porch, an ice chest-provided there was a source of ice in the summer months?
She wasn’t happy when I continued leaving my dairy and eggs on the porch after the refrigerator was returned to it’s humming best. The neighbors were complaining, she said which I doubted but there were times when I’d step out sans robe enjoying the stunning chill first thing. They could just look away-nothing to see here. What are they doing up so early anyway? True, raccoons did abscond with my cheddar one night, but it’s a small price to pay.
Frustrated one night, she told me that I’d be happy living in a shack. The next trip out back, I measured the shack and thought I might get a couple of pallets in there next to the mower and be just fine. Then I could dig out by the compost. Always thought shitting in the house was barbaric and the plumbing, the piping and the water and the loud “whoosh” at night a complete pain in the ass. An outhouse would serve just as well.
The mulberries stained hard-deep purple bruises across the back of my shirts. Ma never minded though. They were her Dad’s trees and we only saw them when we visited the old place. She kept a few of the stained shirts, clean otherwise, in a drawer and would have me wear them around the apartment where we lived in town. She’d hug me and run her hands over the splotches which I couldn’t feel but she could. She’d whisper “Daddy” and sometimes cry.
I climbed one of those trees once. Not too high-I was a little kid-but high enough that the inevitable fall left me splatted and dazed, flat on my back. Lying there, the sun leaking through the purple flecked leaves, a man took shape. A man I wouldn’t meet for years.
He was big and dark, up from the Islands to live with his daughter next door for the summer. He was wearing a clean white T-shirt that stretched sorely across his bulk. The sun glistened off his head as he picked mulberries into a dented pot from a tree in the park across the street.
“Daddy!”, his daughter cried her accent only revealed when she was agitated. “Don’ pick the berries! People up here will tink you too country!” She said this running in her bare feet. His smiling eyes caught mine.
“She say dat til she taste da pie…” he said. Then he laughed a rolling rumble that I couldn’t help but join.