The Wolf

She wandered her way back to the parlor. It wasn’t a long wander, the house was a sprawling manse only in a child’s memory. And she always remembered it as a child, a young girl dwarfed by oversized furniture and looming windows, though she’d lived here up until ten years ago. Two years before he’d died.

They called it the parlor to tell it from the living room which was off the kitchen and where everyone would converge on holidays and birthdays. It was the living room that held the Christmas tree and the train sets with their glittering little buildings and soap flake snow, glowing in front of the french doors with the view of the back porch swing, the mulberry trees, and beyond the yard, the real railroad tracks and finally the river. A long sectional against the wall and a small curled sofa opposite the windows with a few wingback chairs could hold the whole clan as long as some stayed in the kitchen, or filtered through in shifts. 

She only remembered once or twice as a very young girl, the house being at capacity with all the uncles, aunts and cousins seemingly pushing the whole place outward-causing the house to breathe and squall in concert with the crowd inside. Those screeching times became fewer and fewer as everyone grew and factionalized; each claiming their own turf which seemingly could not be done without cutting ties to the ones that claimed their own.  

As she had so many times, she slunk through the archway dragging her fingers across the chilled smoothness of the layers of paint that did as much to reveal the imperfections in the walls as to mask them. Past the staircase bathed in the rainbows from the stained glass window on the landing, past the piano that hadn’t been played in decades, until finally stepping through the open door. As an adult, she always felt a little off balance when she first stepped into the parlor, like a child walking across a bed. It was darker than it should have been and it took her a moment to realize that the rhododendron, untrimmed outside the window, had grown enough to block the morning sun. 

Other than that, nothing had changed back here. Nothing. It was clean enough. Dusted and polished, but it was set up as it always had been-a museum display or something from a doll house brought to life-size. In years past the old man had taken pains to give this place the look of a hunting camp though the only “hunting story” of her life was when he, in his wingtips and tie, had shot an eight-point on the road coming home from work one December evening. As she got older she even doubted that story and wasn’t convinced that he hadn’t hit it with his T-Bird and tossed it in the trunk.

And there he still was, that ratty little deer head still over the mantel complete with the peeling red machine paint on the deer’s nose which  he’d done that one Christmas and laughing drunk told all the kids that he’d shot Rudolph. There were a couple of hunting related gee-gaws around like the ceramic smiling buck driving a car with two hunters strapped to the front fenders. 

Opposite the fireplace sat the well-used olive green sofa with the strategically placed white lace doilies still seeming out of place and above it the framed lithograph of the lone wolf. She stepped closer and, tall enough to not have to stand on the sofa anymore, still rose on tiptoes to get a better look. Squinted. She always saw the print in her mind’s eye as blue, and it was, as a winter night bathed by the moon might be. Warm yet cold at the same time.

The wolf was standing on a snowy hillside overlooking a little village lit only by the golden firelight leaking from the hovels that was quickly consumed by the surrounding ocean of darkness. She had invented families that lived there-their lives, their hopes, their dreams, and later, their fears. Childish things. 

Her idea of the wolf had evolved. As a child she was sure he was the village’s protector, breathing steam and keeping a watchful eye for things that could be even worse than he out in the unseen darkness. But then, over the years, as she spent more time back here, in the parlor, in the company of the man, she grew into the idea that the wolf was a predator, waiting for someone, probably the little blonde girl she’d invented,  to stray too far from the warmth and safety of her lighted doorway, seduced by a false sense of security.  

Or maybe he was both. 

Elephant Rock

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. 

There’s a Light On…

There’s a light on in my mother’s house that I had nothing to do with. In the year plus since we found her on the kitchen floor having taken one last fall into the hereafter, anything that happened in that house had been my doing. The same could be said of the previous two decades when I pretty much took over for the old man who checked out in a rented hospital bed in the front parlor. 

The emptying of three generations of stuff from matriarchs and patriarchs who threw nothing away. Who keeps six pizzelle irons that don’t work? A stone saw from a bricklaying business that thrived during the Eisenhower years. A garage under the back apartment that once held a work truck and a Hudson Hornet now held…what the hell is all this stuff?

Then, walking the empty newly white rooms, which could recently only be navigated sideways my memories meld with theirs. Here was my great grandpa’s room (where I had Marci that night after the game) this was your Uncle Nick’s room (I hear in my grandmother’s voice, since Nick was dead before I was born). It was also later my grandfather’s then my brother’s and where Cindy and I had a memorable couple of evenings when the parents were out. The back bedroom was Amy. Jesus, she was a one and Roxanne too-who never cared that I’d been roofing all day. 

Even the basement wasn’t safe as I’d set that up with a throwaway couch that had long ago been thrown away. Down there was Marie and Colleen-God bless her, she’s dead now. Most of the people who’d crossed these thresholds are dead now-which is natural enough-but it would be nice if they’d leave and didn’t crowd me so in a house that hasn’t been this empty in seventy  years.

“I’m surprised you don’t want to hang onto this property”, said  the new owner when I met her at the inspection. Hang onto it? I’d no more be able to shed this place than a tortorice could doff it’s shell. I’ll be lumbering the rest of my life under the weight of this place, trying to avoid stopping by to trim the hedges, have a smoke on the porch or otherwise lurk. I still have a set of keys hanging by the door in case…of..what exactly? 

Maybe I’ll drive by tonight, to see if any bedroom lights are on. I could tell them about Uncle Nick’s room where one night I was sleeping with my grandfather and awoke to the sound of a nightmare’s machine guns only to find it was him snoring. 

I’m sure they wouldn’t give a shit. And to be honest, I don’t either. Just can’t get out from under any of it.

Spring Wind

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A poem by Louis Jenkins with an afterword

“The spring wind comes through and knocks over trashcans and trees. It has something to do with warm fronts and cold fronts, I think, or with high and low pressure systems, things that I don’t really understand and that aren’t really an explanation anyway. Ultimately, the spring wind is the result of some relationship between the Earth and the Sun that may not be all that healthy after all. The wind comes in a big huff, slams doors, pushes things around and kicks up the dirt. The big bully spring wind comes through on its way nowhere and, ha ha! We love it.”

No Louis, not all of us do. For me, the winds carry at least a discomfort, sometimes-depending on the spirits- a full blown dread. Whether in the woods, where the trees groan and grind together, the leaves sweep up and fly fearfully backward torn away from the soft place where they rested, peacefully composting. Or in the yard wondering which garbage can would go rolling (not so much fun when you got to chase it), which shingles would go or is this the blow that’ll finally bring the limb from the old hickory down on the shed. Ma told a story about the spring winds, how they picked up her little cousin Jeffrey and tossed him off the escarpment where her auntie lived and into the river below, to drown in full view of the Easter revelers who couldn’t get down the hill in time to save him. It was a story that never seemed quite right to me. Ma was little herself then, hadn’t seen Jeffrey blow into the river, just heard about it. Then of course, saw him in his casket looking like a little angel in his white suit and blonde hair-his sky blue eyes closed forever. You ask me, something else happened to that boy. I’ve seen the pictures of all those people; the flinty gray eyes (of course they were black and white pictures so it would figure) but still. There was something unsettling about the way they stared unsmiling into the camera. And there were other stories Ma almost told afore biting her lip. At any rate, they’re all dead now and I’m the onliest one who even remembers that story. The shit we carry through life can be burdensome.

The Shack

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.

Mulberries

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.

Morpheus

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She was still telling the story about the time Laurence Fishburne tried to pick her up in the Village. How she rebuffed his savage suavity, not realizing she was dating herself when she called him Morpheus. The Village wasn’t the Village anymore and Laurence was no longer Morpheus.

It wasn’t a story she should tell everyone, but it was one she told me too often. And when she told it, she stood too close and let her hand linger on my arm just a beat too long. We were working long hours on her project and I’d fly in from headquarters for a few days at a time.

She knew I was married which probably made me safe for her fantasies but trying for mine. There was the time she had taken me to a bar for drinks, somewhere out on the Island, then for a walk down a quaint sandy street. She was working through one of her divorces. “That bar is my husband’s favorite”, she said nodding across the street. “He’s probably in there now. But I don’t see his truck.” She smiled sweetly, careful not to catch my eye.

It was the same trip, or the one after, when she came to my hotel room to use the bathroom after passing on the one in the lobby. This was after an evening of dancing and dinner. I had the knees for it then.

She was wearing a fashionable for the time letterman’s jacket that bloused at the waist. It had faux leather sleeves that she rubbed against me as I held the door ushering her from the bathroom right into the hall.

The twinge of her leaving was nowhere near the nightmare of her staying.

I was no longer Morpheus either.

In the Permian Hills

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I watched him kill sparrows once, in the field behind his old farmhouse. This was years after Kate died, but you’d never know it because her stuff was still everywhere. He blamed sparrows for the for the loss of songbirds and his beloved finches and titmice. The trap was a box like contraption of heavy metal screen wrapped around a wooden frame. At one end of the box was a hole and just inside the hole a cantilevered arm with a screened cover. The birds would hop onto the arm which would simultaneously drop them into the box and cover the hole-trapping them inside.

This was back in the Permian Hills, which he called the place where they-he-lived. Soft hills that rolled and undulated between the horizons like waves in a washtub. He loved saying it, planting his flag in the region as if naming it made him something more than a short time caretaker. Remember the place as brown. It wasn’t, of course. Not always. It could be beautiful in the summer when everything was planted and the high sky was deep blue swept with wispy high clouds. But my memories allow it no more than the sickly greenish tinge of a catfish’s belly.

He would bait the device with millet and rough grain, not the thistle or black oil sunflower seeds that he fed the songbirds. He’d set it on the stump of an old oak out back while we went about our business. Later we’d find any number of birds milling about inside contentedly nibbling until we walked up on them and they thrashed against the screen trying to get away. He’d reach into the box and gently grab anything with color that had been trapped and toss them into the air to flit furiously away. The sputzies, as he called them, he’d drop them into an old work sock. Then he’d spin the sock over his head-said it would put them to sleep-before bashing it into the stump.

He’d toss the tiny downy carcasses into the field, food for owls or kestrels, foxes or coons. His face never changed from the lifeless and dull chore-look, the same as if he was changing a tire on the tractor. I still wonder if he did this when Kate was alive. Somehow doubt it.

Wednesday

Wednesday is Catechism Day

Catholic kids get out early

from school to St. Cecilia’s

up three blocks, through some yards

stop to smoke some Kents

fine stolen sixth-grade cigarettes

then screech and swirl into the church’s basement

the nun drones on…

fidget…

sleep

she sings of Hell and other things

who knows?

excused to run up and out to the alley

two more cigarettes

then Sen-Sen, six for a penny

then home.

The Colonel Comes Home – Memories

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(Continued from The Colonel Comes Home – 4)

Sylvia Palacios sat on a hard stool in the courtyard of her home and let her eyes flow over the untended garden and the darkness of the ever-encroaching jungle. Years before, they’d cut many trees in clearing this land. What she knew is that trees, like memories, were never gone. You could drop the thickest tree, cut it into logs and send it down river or burn it for charcoal. With a strong mule and harness, maybe a little dynamite, you can be rid of the stump and with dirt fill, the ground would look fine. Would look strong. Would be strong; for a while.

But over the years the roots below ground would be eaten by insects; would rot. Would disappear and become voids where there was once strength. The voids, unseen on the surface, would create sinkholes that lay in wait to twist a knee, crack an ankle or crumble a house. That is what memories are: voids from the never-forgotten past that open sinkholes in the soul and she had fallen into one and gotten horribly twisted.

She could not grasp why she did what she did. Even now, in the light of day, she could barely remember it. But when she finally awoke this morning and found Laurencia gone, she knew what she had done. She was strangely composed as she changed from her night clothes into an old, shapeless cotton house dress: a fitting garment for her last day on earth. She deserved no better. She wore no underclothes in case there would be another whipping before her execution.

Her long hair was tied in a braid to make it easier for the hangman’s noose or, God forbid, the chopping block. She’d heard of beheadings-horrific stories of tribal warfare-but had never seen one. If they were to shoot her, she hoped it would be against the front wall so the last thing she would see was the garden and the purple mountains beyond. That was her preference, she supposed. Antonio had been shot. In battle, yes. But shot.

These were her thoughts as, with a rumble, the soldiers rode into her yard. The first of the riders, a tall one with gray hair, had an axe strapped to the side of his saddle. Had she eaten anything in the previous days she would have lost it from one end or the other. Idle rumination of one’s imminent demise are one thing; seeing the instrument of your own end riding in, is was quite another. As it was, her stomach empty and feeding on itself, she only stared, bowels roiling.

(Continuing…)