The double call of the owls in the hardwoods Had become threads in a dream that made no sense. As a boy he had confused the deep throb of the towboat diesels pushing coal upriver, A sound that could only be heard in the dead of night, with his own heartbeat. When the tow went round the upriver bend and faded, He awoke with a start fearing that without the deep vibration he would die. The soft coo of the mourning doves finally woke him. The mossy boulders where he coiled had held the sun’s warmth well into the night Rattlesnakes and copperheads also liked the warm fissures But he never minded sharing..he’d had worse in his bed. The buttery glow of the pallid morning sun Did little to dilute the haze shrouding the ridge. He had not planned on sleeping up there But the long day-spooked by the moon-had abruptly fled Leaving him unsure of the path. It was hard to imagine, so many years later That he had touched him just the once. Had he meant, just the once, in that one night, Or more than one time within that night. Or just one time every night of many? His explanations were never made clear. Even a child knew he was full of shit. The overlook revealed buzzards below; Pepper specks riding the updrafts from the valley floor. She knew the whole time Which was probably why she had never touched him Which would have been his clear preference. But all is forgiven Nothing forgotten Or is it the other way around? It would make all the difference. She was open to him later, But he never lay a hand on her Until much later when she pleaded that he wouldn’t. Now he heard them often Treading the squeaky floorboards at night As he shuddered in his bag Behind a locked door That wouldn’t keep them out, If they wanted to come in. But all is forgotten Nothing forgiven
Those who sleep snugly in their beds don’t understand that night is not just day with the light off but it’s own world with it’s own sounds, characters, spirits and ghosts.
As gentle dusk gives way and fades, a viscous oozing darkness fills the inky valleys, blackens the river, squeezes down the tracks from the countryside to be held barely at bay by the dull hiss of sodium lights and the fewer and fewer glowing windows. Night flows thickly through the alleys between house and hedge, nudged steadily by the ill winds of emboldened remembrances.
The two old girls sat at their accustomed corner of the long bar drinking their usual cheap Riesling and, as always, minding everyone’s business.
“Look at him preening,” said the tall one.
“He had a stroke, you know.” the other observed.
“I remember,” the tall one answered, her cheeks sunken, having left her teeth at home. “Can still see it in his limp.”
“No, that’s an old football injury. He’s had that for years.”
“I had forgotten he was a player.”
“Hew was something.”
“Strong boys become wounded men..”
“…then they become…
“…whatever he is.”
“You’re a caution!”
He stood beside his stool at the opposite corner of the bar-face to the ceiling-so straight he was almost leaning backward, relishing the warm pain that released along his spine from his belt line to the middle of his back. Controlled and controllable pain. He pushed a tiny bit more and it became a stab. He gasped and came back. Noticed that his glass had gone empty. He would wait for Chloe to notice. Calling out would appear desperate. And he wasn’t. Not anymore.
The bartender, the niece of an old friend, was loading the cooler right in front of the two gossips, not eavesdropping but hearing nonetheless. Was she pointing her bottom toward him on purpose as she bent to her task? To give him a bit of a show? In case she was, he kept his eyes there, not to shun a gift sweetly given.
There’s no fool like an old fool.
Lifting his eyes slightly,noticing the attention from the opposite corner, he raised a finger. “Evening ladies! Can I buy you a drink?”
“Amaretto for me”, called the redhead. The bar was a large room and-even when it was empty-raised voices were necessary. “Cognac” called the other. Wonder what they were drinking on their own dime? The bartender gave them fresh glasses, so it certainly wasn’t Amaretto and Cognac.
Her task in the cooler complete, Chloe made her way to him to collect a few bills from the pile in front of him and eyed his empty glass.
“Another I take it?”
“You take it correctly.”
She filled his glass as he liked it. Bourbon. Two fingers. One small ice cube.
“Can I buy you one?”
“Not the best practice, drinking on this side of the bar.”
“I never did when I worked here. You knew I tended bar here back before you were born.”
She gave a crooked grin. “Seems you might have mentioned that once or twice.”
“We-the bartenders as a group-would set up a bit of a libation station in the back, he tossed his head toward the double swinging doors. So when we’d go back to grab more beer or a fresh bottle-we could have a quick nip and none would be the wiser.”
She, as always, let the story play out and when he paused,
“Those biddies are watching you.”
“You should have television.”
“They’re not your biggest fans. They’re keeping track of what you’re drinking.”
He pointedly kept his head down-ear cocked. A priest in the confessional. “Can I steal one?”She pushed her pack his way. He took one, tapped it on the bar and leaned so she could light it.
He blew the smoke theatrically toward the ceiling.
“They’ll love this then.”
“They’re reporting back to your wife.”
Was she purposely leaning toward him, cleavage first? Maybe it was the bra she was wearing that made mountains out of molehills.
“I’ll be the talk of the back pew tomorrow.”
“All church ladies then?”
“Oh yeah-now anyways. Though the one down there on the left. The redhead?”
“Yeah. Helen. She was a bit of one back in the day. Word was, she liked it in the back door.”
“Preferred it that way…so I’m told.”
“Oh, you don’t know, for certain. First hand?”
“What, me? No, I’d never bugger and tell.”
She snorted a laugh. “You never know about people.”
“In your job, you’d better.”
“And now they all go to church together.”
“It’s a load off my mind. A relief actually.”
“Why a relief?”
“I’ll only have to put up with this for a few more years. Until eventually, they’ll all be in Heaven gossiping all they like but they won’t be able to get to me where I’ll be.”
She smiled and said, “It’ll be more fun where we’re going…”
“Gotta be more fun than this.”
She nodded to his empty glass.
“No, I’ll be off.” He lifted his jacket from the back of his stool and slipped it on.”Evening Ladies!” he waved at the biddies.
“Tell Milly we’ll see her in the morning.”
“Will do lovelies!” he winked at the bartender who was enjoying herself.
“Leave through the back” she said. “You know the way.”
“Indeed I do.” that had been his point of entry and exit for years.
“Just watch the steps!”, she warned. “And I might have left you something on the linen shelf.
He smiled, dropped a too-large tip on the bar and pushed his way through the double swinging doors. The light back there was harsh fluorescent and his eyes blinked. It was the same: ice machine, walk-in cooler, liquor cabinets. To his right, hidden when the door was propped open, a shelf with bar towels, folded neatly from the service and wrapped in paper sleeved bundles. He could see a bottle cap peeking over a pile and lifted a bundle.
It was a bottle of brandy. Nothing that they kept behind the bar. This was good stuff, kept on the lighted shelf beside the register. Beside it was a small glass. He poured two fingers gently. Not to be greedy, then opened the ice machine.
Behind the bar Chole smiled, hearing the creak of the ice machine door.
One small cube, he thought. Just to awaken the bouquet. Not to dilute.
He sipped gently, savoring, gazing at the wooden door to the office with the hand lettered sign: Authorized Personnell Only. He recognized the spelling and penmanship as his father’s and raised the glass. “See you soon, Pop.”
Finished, he wiped the glass with a clean towel then secreted it back with the bottle. The tell-tale PING of the alarm system alerted the bartender that the door was open and that he was gone home.
Outside the club, across the alley, the coke train still rumbles dully on it’s way toward the western mills. It’s path is foretold by the single white eye cutting ahead and slicing the darkness. He’ll watch it pass and recall his uncle’s story of inadvertently kicking the severed head of the poor unfortunate who picked the wrong place to pass out.
He pulled his jacket tight around his neck-the silence suddenly crushing in the train’s wake. Was probably bullshit, he thought. Tales told to boys who played around trains.
Across the fenced lot a tow boat’s blue lights creep upriver, pushing coal to the coke plant. The hundred year cycle.
His left foot dragged slightly on the alley’s uneven surface. That would happen when he was tired or tipsy. He stopped. Was that his name he heard? Was someone calling to him? He turned to look back. Was that Chloe standing at the back door? He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the dim lamp above him. No, he realized. It’s not her. It’s not anyone.
Had he really seen her? He’d heard her for certain. Hadn’t he? Who among the living would be about now, calling his name? No one. It wasn’t like back in the day when he couldn’t walk ten paces without running into someone he knew.
He was still facing back toward the club and took a halting step. A rat squeaked and scurried from an upturned milk carton leaving a wake through a fetid puddle that shimmered silver and gold in the faux light.
Ah, you’re real at least he whispered watching the slick shadow push its way through a crack in the foundation of the long defunct lamp factory. After a time, he turned again, resuming his pathway home.
No fool like an old fool.
He made his way steadily if not swiftly to the crossroad, past the empty lots of remembered row houses and friends who had lived there. This was Steve’s with the bike. Then the hardware store where his Pop had bought him a wagon. All long gone.
It was Sappy, the night officer heading back to the station after a walkabout.
“G’Night Sappy”, he raised a hand. At least it’s not just him and the rats.
His father’s house, now his, sat darkly in the middle of the block beside a garden of thick yew trees crowding out the hedges that reach for him and scrape at his jacket as he slides by. As a boy, they came to his waist, perfect for playing cowboys or war. Now they loomed and grabbed, beckoning him deeper into the lot-a perfect venue for a rustic crucifixion. How many times had he napped unseen here-just not making it to the door? The garden was the shortcut to the back door-where the spare key hung behind the thermometer on the porch. He patted for it blindly. Would it kill her to leave a light on?
In moves practiced thousands of times, he slid the thermometer aside, snatched the key and, with only one miss, unlocked the door.
Inside, he closed and locked the door and left his coat over a chair and headed for the stairs. The hour being what it was, he took them slowly and carefully, good leg first. At the top, he paused at his wife’s door, listening to her light snoring.
“Milly?” he whispered with a light rap, “I’m home…”
“How does that concern me?”
He followed the hall, gliding his hand on the railing that the agency installed after. His room was at the end. He cracked the window inviting the darkness then lit a cigarette from the box he kept on the bedside table and stretched out not bothering to undress. . From his back, he saw the red dot reflection of the cigarette in the dresser mirror.
He had come to view a long life as a sort of penance but he couldn’t remember for what.
Between melts, the frozen river is slow enough That the ice seems motionless.
Hard and gray it could be immobile until the high sun, Shining coldly, opens the cracks that had closed overnight.
Floes move only in relation to the skeletal sycamores whose wide green Leaves will block the view of the water in five months.
Not “short” months, the frozen ones are the longest. Salvation is knowing the mud of March is weeks away.
How many would join me in hanging from those Same sycamores if February had thirty one days?
Her cabin was the next one along the road.
No more than fifty or sixty yards down what amounted to
a rutted cow path.
It was a distance easily traversed-even skipping-in day light
now after ten, full dark even in mid summer with no moon
relying only on the smattering of stars above the canopy of oaks,
Black walnuts and gnarled locusts, to avoid the cow pies and puddles of piss.
My tread was lightened because she took my hand and let me lead slowly.
Until she squealed, certain she had stepped on a snake, and bolted like a spooked colt
almost pulling my arm from it’s socket.
We ran the rest of the short way, me dragging behind like a bag of potatoes.
My fantasy of being her lord and protector, dashed by my father’s
Squat little legs.
A pack had moved in after picking the place Up for cheap In a sheriff’s sale. Their addled plan was to rehab, then flip it. A scheme that fell to pieces once the meth dried up and Their meager talent in the trades became obvious. The best of them was an agreeable mutt named Doobie who grew fond, not so much of me, but of the kitchen scraps that found their way over the fence. Over time, he got some of the best cuts as he needed them more than I did. Jamie, still in boots and slicker commiserated over a coffee in the yard once the fire was out. Judged it a total loss. It was that before the fire I told him, and sure He’d take a shot of Crown in the coffee. He pointed out that they had raised pretty decent kale But who couldn’t do that? Around the corner of the collapsed porch Entwined in the fence, were the last red tomatoes of the season, Most gone brown now under weeks of frosts, The hard green ones will stay that way over the winter. Stillborn. Come too late.
The chair in the garage came recently to mind;
Straight ladder back, built for utility not comfort,
Heavy enough for leaning back front legs off the floor;
Thick glossy shellac,
Chipped and yellow with age,
Cigarette burns like smokey teardrops circle the seat.
It was the one my grandad sat in, to observe
The workings and comings and goings, when he was
Too old and infirm to work the saws and airhammers.
People still stopped to see him and commiserate as he sat,
Shirt buttoned to his neck; hat pulled down
Waiting patiently to be asked
A question or given a beer.
There was talk that his father had used the same chair
To sit by the open door and take in the morning sun;
But that was well before me.
After grandad was gone, the chair stayed largely empty
But for short respites from labor or concrete floors.
Until my dad settled into it after the first surgery.
He had taken to wearing a hat
and buttoning his shirt to the top.
I’ve wondered about that chair;
If it stll exists in the building long sold
I need a place to sit now and watch the parade
That continues, but includes only my shadow.
He found himself at sea; alone, misfiled, misplaced: a spoon among the forks trying To understand where he fit. What did he know about menopause? About what years did down there Turning wetlands into deserts; Lush marshes into Craggy rocky places. One adapts, he was told. She had a plan. Will you take off your pants At least? he asked. She played tennis and knew her legs drove him wild. Of course, she said. But strip now. He did as he was told and she, Like a mom with a recalcitrant toddler, Took him by the ear and patted his bum Toward the bedroom. Am I going to regret this In the morning? he asked. Of course darling, she purred. That’s what mornings are for.
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.
September Sun never quite rises,
Choosing to slink along the ridgeline,
Collar turned up against the coming darkness,
Bound for the back door and it’s own
Glancing sideways at the forest on the way out
It cuts sharp shadows never seen in summer
That split the stream and
Frighten the trout.
Let's sleep in the same tent for awhile. Hold up beside a river, in a place nobody knows. Up off the gravel in the high grass We’ll tend the fire and gather strength. We’ll spend the night dancing in the starlight Making love to the light of the moon. We’ll invent a language- Secret looks, words and winks That only we understand. Then we’ll sleep and dream the same dream. We’ll share the sunrise, Pack and go on; Knowing the world will never look The same again.
Written for my brother’s wedding which took place on a dock on a glassy lake tucked between rolling green mountains and high blue skies. We were surrounded by friends, families, feasted on chicken and good wine and danced under swinging lanterns to mountain fiddlers. The marriage lasted years, through two farms, six dogs, a couple of herds of delicious small goats, countless chickens, ducks and many good dinners. But I knew from that day on the dock that she was crazier ‘n a shithouse rat and it was only a matter of time. Of course, I’m sure she would have a different perspective but this isn’t journalism. I couldn’t give two shits about her perspective.