Monday, July 17, 2017

#238: Three Poems by Lori Lamothe




~These poems were selected by Clara Jane Hallar, assistant poetry editor


~This poem previously appeared in New Madrid (2016).

Forecast


At the border between properties
a galvanized washtub collects falling
snow. Hours later, the white’s risen
so high it brims over emptiness.
I want to kneel down before it
and rinse my bare arms in its cold,
clean comfort. I want to let the idea of
an original, untouched world accumulate.
Because there are so many spaces inside me
waiting for renewal. The heart with its huge
barn doors thrown open in anticipation
of love’s galloping horses. The mind
and its attic of memories, or even the hands
held out for work, its solid, familiar tools.
Above me, the clouds open their trap doors
all at once and flakes sift down, blanketing
everything with a marvelous innocence
that will surely last long enough this time.



Monday, July 10, 2017

#237: "My House Wordship" by Richard Kostelanetz

~This piece was previously published in Home & Away (1991).

I sit here in this old house alone.
–Edmund Wilson, Upstate (1971)

My apartment became famous for a day, early in September 1985, when it appeared at the top of the front page of the widely read New York Times's Thursday "Home" section. Accompanying a feature article on "Living with Too Many Books" was a photograph of me sitting beneath towering shelves tightly filled with paperbacks. Whereas most features in the Times are forgotten a few days afterwards, this one is often remembered, mostly by those likewise crowded. The article said I had ten thousand books, which seems too high, for the only figure authorized by me was "956 running feet" of shelves containing books. Those more experienced insist that the count must now be closer to fifteen thousand, which is the result of reading roughly a book a day for forty adult years.
            What the size of this library mostly reflects–a point missed by the writer, specializing in interior design–is not that I "collect" books, because I don't, but that I've worked my way through several intellectual fields. After taking degrees in American civilization and American history, I became interested in literature and literary criticism; more recently, I've written about other arts. By contrast, no one pursuing a single discipline would need so many books at home. A second fact shaping the size of the library is professional independence. Whereas professors can rely upon a university library, I can use only the New York Public. However, not only is its stocking erratic, but even the famed research central at 42nd Street is missing many items listed in its catalog.
            A third, more personal fact is that my books are extensively annotated, not only with marks on their pages but also with sheets of paper filled with handwritten notes. When I want to find something that I remember being in any book of mine, I first consult these sheets. In a practical sense, these sheets and annotations are more valuable to me than the books; for unlike the books, they are irreplaceable.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

#236: "When the Saints Go Marching Out" by Roland Goity

                                                                           

~This story originally appeared in Talking River Review (2006).


August 24, 2005:  Ivan boasted a warm, alcohol-fueled grin from his window seat as he and Katrina descended upon Louis Armstrong Airport. It had already been a long day; they rose before sun-up to catch their flight from San Jose, and had a long layover in St Louis (two Lynchburg Lemonades) before catching their connection to The Big Easy, Crescent City, The City that Care Forgot, N’Awlins. Katrina napped beside him with her mouth open, and Ivan nudged her awake. “There it is, baby: a place with class, with history, with style,” he said. “Get out your beads and get ready to party!” 

August 29, 2005: Sheryl and her six-year-old daughter Markeesha sat on the lumpy, sunflower-patterned couch in their Garden District apartment and sang one song after another. By the time they got to When the Saints Go Marching In, they were on their feet and tapping beats on the hardwood floor. When they finished, Sheryl hugged Markeesha whose eyes pooled with tears. Torrential rainfall and triple-digit winds rapped at the boarded-up windows and Sheryl did her best to hide the sinking feeling she had. “You sure Nana’s okay?” Markeesha asked again. Sheryl nodded and sighed with relief. Through fate, her mother was spending the week with friends in Shreveport. 

August 25:  After a night of Hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s and making boisterous fools of themselves at Preservation Hall, Ivan and Katrina were at it again. They were on Day Two of their planned tour to hit every nook and cranny of New Orleans’ famed French Quarter. And Ivan could hardly believe it. Only two days before he was in Silicon Valley pushing e-commerce solutions to anyone who’d listen; now he was strolling about cobblestone pathways and wrought-iron gates on Royal Street, taking drunken horse-drawn carriage rides in the shadows of stately mansions on St. Charles Avenue.  Jazz music drifted along the street, from bars and clubs and sometimes the sidewalks themselves. The street musicians were so good, in fact, Ivan guessed they’d probably command top dollar in most cities. This was Ivan’s utopia; this was “Disneyland for adults.” Indeed, it wasn’t long until he and Katrina arrived at a bar on Bourbon Street and were coaxed onstage by the long beckoning finger of the bass player in a ZZ Top-style trio: a rangy black man with an old-style ‘fro and instrumental chops not unlike Stanley Clarke, the king of Ivan’s self-congratulatory musical hierarchy. As they danced alongside the band, it seemed somehow natural to Ivan that he and Katrina were now improv entertainers of the Old Absinthe House. Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory himself, often celebrated there back in the day, and at that moment Ivan felt he’d forged a spiritual bond with the great general and president. This marvelous southern city satiated his ego, and as he danced the “po’ fool white boy” before the lively crowd, Ivan wondered what might someday be his own claim to fame. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

#235: "Hiking with Kierkegaard" by Mark Liebenow

~This essay previously appeared in Chautauqua (2014).



Hiking With Kierkegaard      
The Struggle Between the Idea and the Experience of Nature: A Debate Informed by Goethe, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, the Velveteen Rabbit, and a Hike to the Top of El Capitan.


            Before dawn in late September, I stand on a bank of the Merced River, below black mountains in silhouette, and watch the river’s dark blue water flow out from the forest and surge quietly past. The undulating surface reflects glints of silver from the sky’s early light. Mist hovers in the chill above the autumn meadow. When there is enough light to see, I begin a ten-hour hike by going up the steep switchbacks on the canyon’s north wall to the top of Yosemite Falls.
            An hour and a half later, catching my breath on the canyon’s edge, I glance back at Half Dome across the valley, locate my trail, and head into the forest for El Capitan, anxious to see what it looks like from above. From the valley floor, El Cap is a smooth granite monolith that rises 3000 feet straight up. Rock climbers travel from around the world to spend days pulling their way up its vertical face; for them it’s a rite of passage. I prefer to hike over the mountains and explore the forest along the way.
            In a shaded grove near Eagle Peak, I pause for a quick drink of water, but as I look around the landscape at an elevation of 7400 feet, a strange sensation invites me to sit on a boulder. What’s confusing is that on a long hike I don’t usually stop for water because I want to get back to camp before dark. I just swing my backpack around, grab a bottle and drink without ever breaking my stride. Setting my drive to get to El Cap aside, I wait to discover what is causing this feeling.  It seems like something that I’ve forgotten or lost.
            The growing heat of the sun filters through the trees and balances the crisp, cool air of early morning. Chickadees are chirping, chipmunks are scuffling through the dirt and leaves looking for stray acorns, and the breeze hums as it twirls needles in the sugar pines towering above me. I am energized by the quiet sounds and scent of pine, and the moment feels perfect, although this doesn’t say it right. I feel physically connected to the land. This says more, but the words don’t say enough. I linger for twenty minutes letting the presence of the landscape deepen.
            I come into nature because of surprises like this, whether I’m hiking in Yosemite, canoeing among the moose in the Boundary Waters above Minnesota, walking the old prairies of Wisconsin, or poking around tide pools on Oregon’s serrated coast. Yosemite Valley is seven miles long and one mile wide, and by camping for a week I experience something of the rustic life of John Muir. Nature’s architecture has created a place both intimate and open where people can explore the boundary between self and the wilderness.
            This trip I’m also here because grief has morphed into Moby Dick at home and I’m locked in a battle like Ahab, unable to kill it or let it go. Five months after my wife’s sudden death in her forties, I’m stuck in anger, depression, and apathy, and I’m hoping that nature can help me with this.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

#234: Three Poems by Scott Dalgarno

~These poems were selected by assistant editor Clara Jane Hallar.



~This poem previously appeared in The Yale Review (2007).


JESUS TURNS UP IN VAN NUYS, BUT HIS NUMBER IS STILL UNLISTED

I was raptured, temporarily, then recalled
due to a clerical error. There was the office
generated apology, of course, with a cc to God.

Des Moines looks so different to me now. Not nearly
so plural. Apparently I wasn’t missed, but then,
I’ve always been the penguin in the red muffler.

Sure, I want you to notice me, but I still want you
to have to look. Like the rest of the half-wit
world, I beat my gong with a spent cucumber.

We’re all of us faking it, right? Only the young
don’t know that . . . . which makes them young.
Everything shifts over time. Now they’re saying

filthy is the new dirty. Don’t get me wrong,
I welcome the chance to come clean about my hiccup
with Jesus, but my people have always adored their

secrets, hording the unstutterable, holding their cards
under the table. My grandmother was a Shaker
all her life. She had teeth made from old mah

jongg tiles. Even her husband didn’t know. What
must Jesus think of the news that all these years
he’s been married; his wife, a rehabilitated Bible

whore? Hell, we don’t even know what he looked like.
Maybe dark short, with splayed feet and an eye that
wanders. Christus Domesticus. See them commuting. 

“Pick a lane,” he says, “Any lane, I don’t care”
(Mary likes to take her half out of the middle). Afraid
of being left behind, she’s forever offering

to drive, while Jesus leans into the tragic like some reckless
geek magician. Profiled in PEOPLE, they’re
like rock stars on holiday; see them walk, A-framed,

purling their way down Sepulveda, that Picasso body
of hers moving like a crab. He could fix that,
but likes her crooked, pink, & halting.

*****

Monday, June 12, 2017

#233: Three Poems by Ava C. Cipri

~Work selected by assistant poetry editor Clara Jane Hallar

 

~This poem previously appeared in Western Humanities Review (2008).

 

Queen of Swords


i.
you are the curator the loud custodian    one set of keys

one pass    single access

you stand guard at the gate

no other entrance no other may come

ii.
fast forward if you are looking for the protagonist
a woman of reticent character by this name [H.] you will not find her here

fast forward nor will you find her       Heath[er] . . .
no time

I write it down

rewind    I will not witness

iii.
the sky pinches back from its corners    fast forward

I know your window from the bus shelter & the hour
it crests the wall then the snow heaves the way I

watched the end from outside myself steeping
from that porch dismantled for three full seasons

iv.
it’s the photograph I continue to pick up the one my grandmother never
     displayed

too often    declared the futility of being a writer & want of spontaneity
photography at my command to have a camera around my neck
yesterday there was a tall blond amazon    her hair tightly pulled back in a
    leather-band

the season halts from November’s edge

v.
your door    and the season
it cuts the city the way a dancer
his partner clipped in the distance vanishes
into night into dreams too far
I return from your absence and limp into my life

knowing terror for the second time
overhearing the scream

vi.
for two Septembers I walk out into traffic

wonder the month it stopped—you finding my hair in the drain behind the
    stacks of books
under the suitcase which was our table

vii.
the walls of you the way you pulled me into those voice-filled fields until

no one could make you come as hard    fast with the trains extinguishing
    behind us


*****

Friday, May 26, 2017

#232: "Blind Spot" by Roy Kesey

                                                                                                

~This story was previously published in Harpur Palate (2005).


  
            It’s early, just barely light, and driving to work I get the feeling again, a car hanging right in my blind spot. I whip around but the street is empty as far back as I can see. That’s always how it happens. Things go bad sometimes.
            A few minutes later the feeling comes again, and I check my mirrors, catch a glimpse of a dented grill. I’ve never gotten a good look at the car so I’m not sure how I know it’s a blue convertible. I’ve never seen the driver, no idea who he is, but he’s been showing up more and more often, cutting it closer and closer. I whip around again and the street is still empty and you don’t have to tell me how weird this is. I know how weird it is.
            I get to the warehouse, shut off the engine and just sit quiet until Goat pulls up alongside. Yesterday Old Red sent Goat and me to the docks to see about a crate. It went a little rough, and Goat got his arm broken, and now he’s wearing one of those fiberglass casts, only this one’s bright orange, so I hassle him a bit.
            We go inside and say hi to Vid and Marty. Nobody wants poker or rummy this early so we just sit there and smoke. Something’s happening, no question, but we never get told until it’s time to go, and for the moment we’re twitchy like spiders.
            We watch seagulls for a while. We watch tugs and scows. We tell stories and ask each other what about lunch, and then Old Red comes out of the office, waves me and Vid to the Cutlass, tells me to drive.
            - I got a thing in my eye, I say.
            - What kind of thing? says Vid.
            - I don’t know, maybe some sawdust.
            - You got a hankie, so use it, says Old Red.
            - Vid knows how to drive too, I say.
            - If I wanted Vid to drive, I’d have told him to drive.
            I take out my hankie and pretend for a second, get in and start the engine, and we’re not ten minutes out when that fucker in the blue convertible slides into my blind spot again.
            - Take a right at the light, says Old Red.
            I nod, signal, catch a glint off the convertible’s windshield, look back at the empty lane, look again fast and there’s still nothing there. I ease over, make the turn and speed up.
            - Since when do you drive like a hundred years old? says Vid.
            - Leave him alone, says Old Red.
            So he knows something’s wrong, which isn’t what either of us needs. Old Red always has things on his mind but lately it’s been worse. He points us down to a Chinese restaurant with dirty windows and peeling paint. In the back there’s fifty or sixty small boxes wrapped tight. Then there’s some kind of problem, and before things get cleared up I take a shot to the nose, gives me a real gusher, but it’s mostly stopped by the time we get back to the warehouse.
            - Nobody teach you to duck? says Goat.
            I look at him and he goes back to watching seagulls until Old Red comes and tells us to unload. He leaves with Marty and Vid, and it takes Goat and me almost an hour to put all the boxes away.

Friday, May 19, 2017

#231: "Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Pit Bull" by Reuben Jackson


  
~This poem was previously published in Clockworks (2011).




I.

Among twenty sleeping row houses,

The only restless thing

Was the voice of the Pit Bull


II.

I was of three headaches

Like a neighborhood in which there are as many

Pit Bulls.


III.

The Pit Bull paced in the dealer’s yard.

It was but a small part

Of my anxiety.


IV.

A man and his dog are one.

A hustler, his stash

And a loyal Pit Bull

Are frightening .


V.

I do not know which to prefer:

The disdain of neighbors

Or the disdain of neighbors.

The Pit Bull breeding-

Or the policeman rolling his eyes.

  

VI.

Rain covered the picture window

With a posse of tear drops.

The ghosts of battered Pit Bulls

Crossed it to and fro

The mood traced in the shadows

Followed me into sleep.


VII.

O longtime brothers of Brightwood-

Why do you secretly long for Chocolate Labs?

Do you not see how the Pit Bull

Sits at the feet of the players

Around you?


VIII.

I know quieter cities,

and black men with unconquered livers.

But I know, too,

That the Pit Bull is involved in

What I wish I didn’t know.


IX.

When the Pit Bull strode in the shadows-

It turned the asphalt into a pungent river.


X.

The sight of a Pit Bull charging down Madison

Would make even the most ardent dog lover

Surrender the sidewalk.

  
XI.

He traveled the city

In a quiet subway.

Once, a fear pierced him

In that he mistook a sister’s ringtone

For that of a Pit Bull.


XII.

The block is silent.

The Pit Bull and his owner

Must be away.


XIII.

It was evening all afternoon

And it was going to rain.

The folorn Pit Bull sat in his

Dog house.

  

*****

Monday, April 24, 2017

#230: "Growth" by Amy Yelin



~This essay was previously published in The Gettysburg Review (2005).


I bring my father a slice of pizza and an orange soda in a grease-stained paper bag.  He is the only person in the surgery waiting room this evening.  A ghost room. He looks smaller than usual, dwarfed by the oversized sofa, his head slumped toward his chest, as if he were sleeping. Or praying. He eats greedily, and then we make our usual small talk. “How is your car?” he asks. “Your job?” He tells me again what is wrong with the state of health care in America. There are awkward pauses. We go outside so he can smoke his pipe.
“Six hours we waited,” he says, striking match after match as the wind taunts and blows them out. Finally one catches. He holds it to the rim of the pipe, and I see that familiar orange glow of fire. “The surgeon didn’t even call to update us. Six hours after we were scheduled, he just showed up. No explanation or anything.” My father sucks on his pipe as though it were a pacifier; the sound is like fish talking. We sit in silence for a while, on a stone ledge in front of the hospital.  The trees appear sinister, their branches reaching out, pointing at us, like skeleton fingers. I pretend I am cold so we can go inside.
When the surgeons finally come out, they look tired. The one my father and I think resembles Harry Potter assures us the prognosis is good.
“I think we got most of the growth,” he says. “There are just a few little dots left. Nothing that the chemo won’t take care of.”  He tells us he expects a full remission. Such confidence.
For the next six months, we are all obsessed with the word remission. It is our promised land, our mirage in the distance, our savior.

Monday, April 17, 2017

#229: "Like Everyone Else" by Tara Laskowski

~This story was previously published in Fiction Weekly (2009).  



It was after the teenage girl died that Samantha Wolewski finally agreed to go out on a date with Harry, the cops reporter who worked night shift. Up until then she’d been dodging him—she was the new obit clerk, her first job out of college, and she wanted to be professional, make a good impression.
But then the girl died. It was a car accident—she had been on her way home from the hairdresser to get ready for her prom that night. Before that, Samantha had only had to write obituaries for old people. There was something about this girl’s picture— a dark-haired young girl looking over her shoulder, smiling brightly, hopefully into the camera. Sam wondered if the girl had hated the picture, if she’d hated the one lock of hair that had separated from the rest and trailed along her red sweater like a snake.
She tried to tell Harry about it on their way to the casino. What happened to the young woman’s date for the prom, her friends? “Would they still even have the prom after that?” she wondered aloud, to which Harry replied with a long, drawn-out story about his senior prom and how wasted they’d gotten afterwards on the second floor of the Red Roof Inn off of I-81.
“How romantic,” Sam murmured, already regretting her moment of weakness that had gotten her here in the car with the only guy in the newsroom who didn’t sing karaoke at happy hour on Friday nights. It bothered her that Harry incessantly cracked his gum. It bothered her he had yet to ask her a question about herself. It bothered her she couldn’t remember the girl’s name.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

#228: "Stewards of the Dead" by Susan E. Gunter

~This poem previously appeared in Atlanta Review (2015).

~Selected by Clara Jane Hallar, assistant editor for poetry



                                   
I watch them circle above me, wings
like open pages curving slightly
from the spine, a kettle of royalty
attended by a page, a lone hawk
hoping for scraps from their carrion,
a bit of flesh or shredded muscle.

A wake of them undertakes to clean
the world of waste, their wings caressing
leaf mold as they feast on the fallen,
leaving a heap of knackered bones,
odd tufts of fur for the devil’s cloak.

In Brazilian myth, vultures’ wings
blocked the light until the hero captured
their king. Man and bird compromised:
divide the world in two, sun and moon.

Gods of darkness, death, and terror, take pity.
Spare me another hour, a jeweled sunrise—
keep me from the tower of silence,
for I have not yet finished with words.




*****

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

#227: "Out for a Walk" by Eric D. Goodman


~This story was previously published in The Baltimore Review (2007).


            Last night they’d eaten fried chicken in their urban row house.  The chicken bones remained in his bowl, a skeleton of awful beauty, meat and veins still dangling. 
Now, Thurber’s head rested against Lindsey’s thigh.  He lifted it, looked up into her eyes, and put his head into her lap with the wisp of a sound, almost a whimper.  Lindsey put her hand on the crown of his skull and gently stroked his brown-black coat.  Thurber’s chocolate eyes looked ahead, floated up toward Lindsey, and returned to the blurred blankness ahead as she petted him.  Lindsey’s hand was heavy and slow.
            “You’re a good boy.”  The mellow muttering was sincere, but not entirely true.  If that were true, we wouldn’t be in this mess, Lindsey thought, and then hated herself for thinking it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

#226: "Never Enough Time" by Andrea Hollander

~This poem was previously published in Nightsun (2007).

~Selected by Clara Jane Hallar, Assistant Editor (Poetry)


Never Enough Time

after Seamus Heaney

Therefore don’t drive across Arkansas on the Interstate
but take one of the small meandering two-lanes
through the Ozarks. Park your car once in a while
and step out into the persistent deciduous forest.
Breathe in the wild mint and sassafras, notice
the way the sky’s blue seems bluer against
all that green. And when one of the small
old towns slows you down to twenty-five or thirty,
let the middle-aged woman smiling at the pump
save you any trouble. Answer her sister at the register
who’ll ask where you’re headed, where you’re from.
And if you happen into Stone County, please come
to my house, any local will give you directions,
though you’ll have to climb the last half-mile
up the rocky hill by foot. Knock on the unlocked door
or go out back, find me weeding beans or tomatoes.
After a stroll through the garden, I’ll make us some tea.
And together we’ll pass at least a couple of hours.
You can afford them. Do you truly believe
you have anyplace better to go?


*****

Monday, March 20, 2017

#225: "All We Did" by Elise Levine


~This story previously appeared in Gargoyle (2009).


Any man with a ponytail, any man twice our age: this was our thinking way back when, what passed for thinking. Any man changing the marquee after hours as we rode the streetcar past the second-run movie palace. One of us swaggered off at the next stop, dirty slush up to her ankles but so what, her baby-fat body not yet a bulb she’d blown, winter white not yet her favorite color.
            In the aisle of the theater, rows of faded red velvet seats, rank and file, observing
like cattle. Forget-me-nots, in the carpet.
            Spring came. She tried all things. Which when we think about it now, how quaint.
            Pregnant once and never again. Cramped for weeks after.
            She went away. She came back. Everyone who’d stayed looked the same, terrific, inexhaustible. She left again, and when she returned everyone had vanished. She was in need but the buildings were mute. Mother dead. Father too. The sister she never had. Cinema Lumiere an expensive isolation.
Slowly the flowers release themselves from our fingers.

Monday, March 13, 2017

#224: Two Poems by W.T. Pfefferle

Gondola Hallways, Part 2

~This poem previously appeared in Signal Fire (1983).

Venice in the summertime.
The little girls play along the marble walked streets
and throw small red and blue balls
against storefronts.

And inside the buildings,
fashionable men and women sell
the finest linens from Paris and Grenoble.

In the waters of Venice a dead man
lies.

And down the waterway a few hundred feet
an old woman washes her apron and sings of the long ago,
as Monsieur Demarco floats past the houses
that face the Rue de Bijoutier.

*****

Monday, March 6, 2017

#223: "Dicot, Monocot" by Sejal Shah

~This story previously appeared in Pleiades (Spring 2002).


Do you remember the sixth grade, Margaret?  Blood and Foreign Language beginning the same year.  There was that line between all the girls then.  An extra bone, a horizontal spine—.  A keloid inch scripted onto my chest, a fossil, an unreadable note, the first of all the unanswerable signs.
We counted.  We all counted.  You know what I mean.  Even if we didn't talk about it all the time, you remember.  Even if we never talked about it, you know what I mean. 
Maybe you should have kept it, our book.  I still have it.  You would have tossed it—maybe by the seventh grade.  I still have it, our book.  What do you remember?  Remember, remember.  As if I could hold us at twelve.
Miss Merrill had all of us, every science class in the sixth grade.  Remember that day when all the boys had to leave the room?   (No one could hold us at twelve.)  I don't think they ever told us where they went.  Miss Merrill had the bluest eyes.  Did you ever wonder if they were real?  It was a long time ago.  Did Nick ever tell you I saw him with no underwear?  We were out back by the creek. 
I still have the book.  I know Nick probably threw his out.  Maybe your mom made him.  You don't take stuff like that to California.  Toothed monocot.   Do you know that the weeping willow is a toothed monocot?  We knew this once.  We had a page for the silver plants.  We snuck into the Jones' backyard, but I was afraid of Daisy. 
Dusty Miller:  Lobed dicot.  Lamb's Ear:  smooth.  We didn't know then:  the silver rubs off—.  The conifers are the next page.  Pitch smeared under the plastic covering.  We draw pictures of the leaves next to the leaves themselves.  You will not remember this.  We are only eleven.  No one counted at eleven.  Did I ever tell you about your brother?  It was a long time ago. 
You moved to California, Margaret (how could you?).  You didn't even take our book.  I still have the gingko we found at the end of my street (Monocot lobed).  A Japanese tree splitting itself into two—mitosis, mitosis—leaves like fans; pleated.  We thought they were special, but there were whole trees of them.  The tulip tree was one street over (Dicot lobed toothed).  By the end of November, we could have found our way there by counting rows of bark, the first language beneath our hands. 
Do you remember the most special one?  The one we went into Elm Lane for?  We weren't allowed, and we went anyway.  (No one could hold us at twelve—.)  We found a tree that had leaves like stars.  Sweet gum; we looked it up in the book (there must have been a book).  (Dicot lobed toothed).
I didn't put anything special on to save them.  We were only ten or eleven.  What did we know about fixatives?  I think we glued them to the paper.  I think it was probably Elmer’s.  I think we had to use my mother's sewing needles to open the bottle, you know how it always stops up. 
It had been so long when we stopped hearing from you.  We never found out who spray-painted “Ozzy Lives” near the creek.  You were going to be a ballerina.  Crimean Linden, Verbanica Magnolia, White Oak, Pussy Willow.  What did you become when you grew up?  Saucer Magnolia.  Star Magnolia.  No one could hold us at twelve. 
Did Nick ever tell you he saw me without underwear that one time?  We had a page for the silver plants.  It was out back by the creek.  And did you become a dancer?  A weeping willow is a toothed monocot.  Or did your bones get bigger?  It’s OK if your bones got bigger.  You know you can't help it, your bones. 
*****

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

#222: "A Nameless Mound" by Tyrese L. Coleman

                                                                                         

~This essay first appeared in upstreet: literary magazine (2016).


My ancestors haunt a dirt road called Egypt. At the end of the road, my aunt’s bones rest beneath a rise of earth.  Her grave is unmarked, and it is my fault. A clearing in the woods, our family’s boneyard is full of other, older, nameless mounds and dead red leaves. We used to tiptoe through those woods, my aunt and I, my little hand inside her big one. We watched our steps — bad luck to walk on a grave, you know; means you’re next. Broomsticks in hand, we swept away leaves, whispering to her brothers and sisters: Pick, Pug, Fred, Bee.  She made me sing “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” told me about her mama when the swept-away leaves revealed “Bertha Coleman.” She let my hand go, I mushed my nose, inhaled the ghost of Jean Nate′. She’s right there beside them now. Their plotted arrangement: Great-grandma Bertha, Aunt Bee, then her— skeletons of matriarchs, a row of bones once covered by light-brown mole-pocked faces, relaxed hair still growing inside silk-lined boxes, cigarette-puckered cheekbones—high and arched cause you know we got Indian in us. But you wouldn’t know she was there unless you knew she was there. Unless you were there on the day we laid her down, touched my arm while I sat next to the casket in the woods, heard a rose thump her pearl coffin. Unless you were at the church and felt my shoulders heave behind the first pew, the pew reserved for daughters, for husbands, for grandchildren—she had none of those, only me, a great-niece of 28 no one trusted to get it right. And everyone spoke over me. And I forgot to give her grave a name. Her grave in the boneyard inside the hollowed space in the woods at the end of Egypt Road where some poor ancestor of ours decided to cut down some trees, dig a hole, and lay a body, then cut another tree, dig another hole, lay another body—cut, dig, lay, cut, dig, lay—till Colemans wandered Egypt-land like Isrealites.
But before I buried her, before she died, before the death rattle, before the hospice, before the phone call to come home, when we first admitted her to long-term care that turned out to be so short, I lay beside her crumbling body on the thin nursing home mattress and held her small hand inside my big one. Evening had come, but the sun wanted to stay. It pushed through the shades, white light not going to be stopped for nothing, flicking between cracked salmon blinds like through the trees on Egypt Road, and her skin had taken on the iridescent gray of fish.  I lay next to her, slipped a pearl ring off her finger, and placed it on my pinky.  I held her hand; put my head to her shoulder, and I remembered when my mom was a teen mom and my aunt had kept me after school. Off the bus, down Egypt, her trailer was tight: fat little boy figurines holding out arms saying I LOVE YOU THIS MUCH, Garbage Pail Kid cards over paneled walls because my cousin gave them to her, and she never said no, pictures—me, school photos of my cousins, me, family I didn’t know, family I’d just seen, me, her dead mother asleep in a casket, me—plants snaking the half wall between the kitchen and living room, Mahalia Jackson’s alto moan, and pork-n-beans with burnt hot dogs. She never forgot a thing. Holding her hand, head on shoulder, I cried because fuck cancer! Sunlight still fighting through the blinds, she would die in that nursing home. 65, only 65. The family we had left was there: her sister Patty, my mother, my soon-to-be-husband, my brother, me, me, me.
She never forgot me.
She breathed in, but not out, and the sun finally touched her.
Cut, dig, lay. Cut, dig, lay. The woods so tight spent too much time watching my step. For seven years: mortgages, bills, children, excuse, school, bills, excuse, excuse, excuse. And even if I do—when I do—I still never ordered the goddamn tombstone.
An army of ancestors—the Coleman clan, a dying breed—march through Egypt, searching for their names. In the middle of the clearing they all stop: here lies Elizabeth Anderson née Coleman with nothing but a dead red leaf stuck to her mound.