What Is in the Blood

 

Ellen Stone

We are flying over Erie,
late October. Boats still slash
blue like tadpoles, tails trailing.
The plain industry of Ontario –
hamlets splay beneath us now –
warehouse, pole barns, factory lots.
Roads bisect small towns like lone
train tracks stretching long to the north.
The threshing fields in between.

One night we drove into a thunderstorm
just off the Blue Water ferry, hot July
racing the boys & farmer getting in
the hay, the wheat, the oats. I forget
& it does not really matter, just
their tractor blazing through the tumult.
How they won, the rain, that triumph.
The bronzed beauty of rust & work,
such days of dust & dirt, days & days
after that. Another dawn. Dusk, a tally.

I don’t belong in this whiteness, such
narrow moments while this lake goes on
like mountains. We are thin consequence
burrowing into cloud, so substance-less.
If ever I touch land again – no dalliance
in air & water, just ground. Furrows
from the plow, temporary permanence
like breathing, but trail I can follow.

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Hamlet’s Neighbor’s Soliloquy

Marcus Bales

 

To yell, or not to yell — that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler, in the house, to suffer
The bikes and footprints of outrageous children
Running across my lawn, or scream my troubles
And, by opposing, shoo them. To vent, to rant —
No, more: and by a rant to say we end
The gouges, and the thousand natural shocks
That lawns are heir to. ‘Tis a cultivation
Devoutly to be wished. To vent, to rant —
To rant — perchance to scream: ay, there’s the rub:
For after rants parental calls may come
That we have frightened from our fertile soil
The neighbors’ kids who gave us cause. Respect!
I’ll bear the calumny my whole long life.
For who would bear the tire tracks of kids,
The knee-holed grass’s green now compromised,
The pangs of despised feet, the law’s delay,
The insolence of parents, and the spurns
That patient weeding of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his voice be heard
Through an open window? Who would footprints bear,
To grunt and sweat behind a weary mower,
But that the satisfaction of scaring off
To undiscovered countries of other lawns
And wish them no return, fires the will,
And makes us rather chase these kids away
Than hope their hopeless parents punish them?
Thus the suburbs make old geezers of us all,
And thus the native hue of toleration
Is goaded into action past restraint,
And the pale cast of thought is thrust aside
With disregard for children gone awry
And lose the name of neighbor. — Soft you now,
Here comes a bunch — I slide the window up:
You kids! Get off my lawn!

Marriage and Marriage Two

Penny Guisinger

*These two pieces are excerpted from Postcards from Here, a memoir in vignette form which will be released by Vine Leaves Press in February 2016.

Marriage

My wife catches porcupines with the trash can and the lid the way you or I catch spiders with a glass and a piece of paper. Porcupines are bad neighbors. They let themselves into the garden, and take one bite out of every tomato, every squash, every cucumber. They climb up our ornamental trees and rip off the branches, leaving ugly holes near the top. We can’t decide if they’re brazen or just stupid, they way they ransack the place in daylight, with us standing right there. They know enough to run, though, when Kara bounds toward them with the trash can. I watched her one morning chase a fat porcupine clear across the grassy expanse of our lawn. It waddled as fast as it could, and Kara (wearing pajamas still) had to toss the bulbous, plastic trash barrel ahead of her to capture it. Her aim was good. The barrel landed on the fleeing animal just cleanly enough to halt its escape. I do not support porcupine relocation. I worry too much about babies being left behind or porcupine homesickness, but I have learned to stay out of this. From the porch, coffee in my hand, I watched her wrestle the trash can lid beneath the soft feet of the porcupine, then she rolled the whole package over, sliding the creature to the bottom. She stood next to the barrel, breathing hard, and asked me if I would get some rope from the garage. I hate that she loads them up and drives them down the road. Hate that they are scared and confused and lost — I project too much. I regard her there, in flannel pajamas and a T-shirt. Then I put down my cup, go to the garage, and get the rope.

Marriage Two

He was a super model. A presidential candidate. A porn star. He stood in the field in front of our house, basking in his own light. The spectacle stopped me, quite literally, in my tracks. I had not seen this before, and it took several seconds for my brain to understand the information coming in over the retinal wire. He was as grand as he could make himself — feathers puffed out, almost standing on end, and tail opened like a fan.  Not only standing, but slowly turning himself in place, to show every angle, every facet. He looked like he had walked right off the front of a Thanksgiving card from Hallmark, so perfect was his tom turkeyness. He wanted her to see. She was nearby, pecking at the grass, striding slowly away from him,  wholly uninterested. Undaunted, he began to slowly move forward, as if he walked a thin catwalk, nodding to his fans. Aloof but aware. She was too busy to even glance at him, and that’s when I noticed a slight motion near her long, still tail feathers. Then more. Then the motion took the shape of four gray puffballs that followed her in a perfect line. Babies. He had, clearly, impressed her at one time and now just wanted some of the romance back. She pecked and grazed, keeping one eye on the babies, training no eyes on him. She was done with him, maybe just wanted him to stop showing off and help keep track of the puffballs. He serenaded her with a burst of sound like gurgling water, shaking his wattle. Nothing. She turned away. The puffballs collected by her scaly, yellow feet. She was busy. The tom stopped his pivoting, lowered his feathers, and shrank. He transformed from the rock star to the guy who delivers our mail, the guy with the good job and the steady paycheck.

 

 

How to Interview Your Mother About Her Lost Childhood

Umeeta Sadarangani

 

SUPPLIES YOU WILL NEED:

  • a voice recorder (a digital one is best, but an old cassette recorder can work)
  • paper, clipboard, and a fast-writing pen
  • Sweet Parle Gluco biscuits to nibble on when your nervous stomach needs to be soothed
  • facts about the 1947 Partition of India, “the largest forced migration in history”
  • a list of questions you can ask without starting to cry
  • the flexibility and agility to add or delete questions
  • the insensitivity to keep asking questions even when your mother seems troubled
  • forty minutes of uninterrupted time alone with her when your father is not in the room correcting and clarifying everything she says

TO BEGIN:

OPTION ONE

While standing across the kitchen counter from your mother as she peels potatoes for her famous aloo ki tikki and asks you about your income and savings (she only wants to know you’re doing okay), take the conversation in another direction, the one you want it to go in.  Conceal the voice recorder behind the bag of potatoes.   A small, digital recorder will be easy to hide—until she gets to the last potato.

Forget the paper and pen.  She shouldn’t see you writing, or she might not tell you the sad stories.  Lean on the cool kitchen counter, pick up a peeler, and offer to help your mother.  Smile at her as you steel yourself to begin.

OPTION TWO

Forget option one.  Forget the whole project.  You were delusional to think you could talk with your mother about this.  You cry when you read novels about the Partition, especially novels in which children are separated from their parents or witness their parents being hurt.  You can’t do this.  Put aside the recorder, take the package of Gluco biscuits, go out to the backyard, and eat the whole pack.

OPTION THREE

Give yourself a pep talk.

Gather your supplies, and invite your mother to sit down to chat with you; let her see all your equipment.  Tell her it is an interview for a writing project, but be prepared for her to take phone calls or to get up to check the potatoes boiling on the stove.  During the phone call, she will tell your aunt in Sindhi that you are “taking an interview” with her.  She will sound proud.  She likes that you are a writer, that your work is published (though she really wishes you would publish a book).  Hide your surprise when it becomes clear that she is pleased you are going to ask her questions.  Expect that she will take all other phone calls as well.

HOW TO CHOOSE QUESTIONS:

Consider what you really want to know.

  • What did she miss most about Karachi?
  • Were any of her friends on the ship that brought her from Karachi to Bombay?
  • How did she say goodbye to her father as she boarded the ship with the rest of the family?
  • When she left her home in Karachi in 1947 when she was twelve, did she know she would never return?

But you know that talking about the Partition makes her sad, so just ask her briefly, “What do you remember about Karachi?”  And hope she will tell you the rest.

“In Karachi, I had my own room.” Your mother smiles.  “With a desk and an armchair!  I used to study there.”

Picture your mother reading in the armchair, her pretty hair tidy, her legs crossed.  Think of her next permanent home, your Naani’s home, a two-room house in the Sion Sindhi Colony in Bombay, which had no armchairs at all.  The beds served as settees during the day.

Notice that your mother is still smiling.  “And my uncle, who was a manager at a bank, he had a car with a driver.  He used to pick us up and take us for drives.  It was fun.”

“Where did you go?”  You did not know any of this before.

“I remember he took us to the zoo.  The driver would spread a bedcover in the back of  the car, and all of us would get in and sit there.”  She is smiling.

“Did you have a favorite animal at the zoo?”

Her smile widens.  “Giraffes!”

Make a note that your mother likes giraffes.  Picture her at the zoo, looking up in delight.

A little later, when she describes the first place they stayed after the voyage to Bombay, note that she looks far away: “All the families were in a big shed. We had to put our trunks like dividers on the sides to make a kind of room. But there were no walls.  Everybody could see.  Our people in Delhi asked Naani to send me to them.   Not good for a young girl to be in a place like that, they said.  I said, ‘no.’ I didn’t want to go.  Naani didn’t force me.”

Try to picture your twenty-nine-year-old Naani managing four children in a cavernous shed in a strange city:  your pretty, proper mother, the eldest; your Aunty Maya, who played marbles with the boys and got her knees dirty; your handsome, generous Uncle Mohan, quick-tempered and loving; and the youngest, sweet Nimu, whom you never met because she was killed crossing the train tracks to get to school.

About fifteen minutes into the interview, when your mother tells you about waiting in lines for the latrines at the camp where they lived after the time in the shed, do not tear up when you see her shudder.  Above all, do not let her see you cry.  Crying will jeopardize the interview.

You have already taken notes about your mother and father meeting as twelve-year-olds at the camp and about the long walk to the station where they caught the train to school early in the morning.  Your parents have chuckled about their friend who would dry his only shirt by holding it out of the train window on the way to school.  Now take notes about the rationed food at the camp.  Write down that your mother took food for your father each day because he did not get enough at home.

About twenty-five minutes into the interview, your father will call to ask if your mother needs him to pick up anything at the Indian grocery store.

She will smile.

When she gets off the phone, she will move to the stove to make tea.

The interview will be over.

 

Frick

Justin Brouckaert

 

Frick had been running his rig around the country for over a year when they pinned him with his third strike. I’m laying the synth on a new track when he walks in and tosses his keys on the counter like he’s only been gone the weekend.

“Beer?” he asks, but he’s cracking a Bud before I can tell him where. I’ve got questions, but I just close my laptop and try not to force it. Frick’s got plenty of stories in him. Usually all you’ve got to do is wait.

“You ever get ringworm?” Frick walks into the room scratching his balls.

“Tell me about it,” I say. It’s just been me and the music for so long, even hearing about Frick’s hygiene sounds like a good chance of pace.

But instead of pulling down his pants and talking fungal infections, Frick tells me about his first strike: a missed weigh station five miles outside of Denver.

“It was the lights,” he says. “I was driving into the city and I couldn’t look away.”

“I don’t get it,” I say. “They’re just lights.”

“These were Denver lights,” he says. He pauses for a minute, like he wants me to take that in.

“So?” I say.

“Denver,” Frick says, “is the greatest goddamn city in the world.” He pauses, nods, and drains the brew in a single pull.

*     *     *

I jammed with a band called Penis Flytrap in high school, but we split clean when the other guys left for college. I wasn’t serious about the music—not back then. Instead I spent most of my time with Frick and Al and the Graham twins, two heavyweight wrestlers who’d outgrown the sport but were left with the bodies.

We all lived in a house together rent-free because Al’s aunt footed the bill. The cops knew us all right, but they knew Al’s old man better, and Al could have probably talked his way out of trouble even without the pass.

One day after a trip to the river, Al left an open cooler on the back porch. There was a half bag of Cheetos and a few empties inside, and that night it filled with rain. A week later a pigeon smacked our back window and dropped dead inside the box, and after Halloween the Graham twins added a shriveled pumpkin to the mix. A new game was born: what can you put in the cooler to make it more disgusting than before?

Hosts and guests alike stepped up to the challenge: in went dip spit and piss, liquor and beer, condoms and cigarettes and vomit, a half-pound of ground turkey that was already starting to rot. The houses were spaced further out where the city turned country, but if we’d had neighbors, the smell would have kept their kids out of the yard.

One night Al and I put twenty on a game of beer pong against the twins, and when it went to overtime we raised the stakes, loser takes a sip. Right away they hit three straight, Al and I missed the rebuttal, and the next thing I knew the twins were dancing and we were pacing the house, downing shot after shot to muster the courage.

Al and I regrouped in the kitchen to shotgun a beer, to taste one last good thing before we were ruined by that milky ooze, but Frick got impatient waiting for his turn to play. He marched past us to the porch and knelt in front of the cooler, gripping both sides.

“Pussies,” he grinned. He saluted us both, and dropped his face into the sludge.

*     *     *

I had time for my music when Frick was on the road. I was going to make it solo if I was going to make it at all, and I was working on a new sound—all instrumental, plucky but muted. Soft at first, but chaos when it comes together. Think Bon Iver meets Explosions in the Sky. You’d have to hear it to really know.

I would plug in my Telecaster for the guitar parts and use my laptop for everything else. Before Frick came back, I was pumping out a song a day, putting the final tracks online, picking up a about a hundred followers in only a couple of months—if nothing else, it was a start.

Now my time gets hijacked by pick-up football games and camping trips and parties where Frick only kind of knows one girl and we always end up fighting fat dudes in cut-offs smoking Black & Milds in the garage.

It’s Frick’s life, not mine—but the dude has pull. How do you tell your friend you’d rather spend your night alone when he’s got a fifth of rum and enough trouble lined up for the both of you? Lately I’ve been getting real about it, playing any chance I get until my fingers bleed. Work all day, party all night. I figure I should be able to handle at least these two things—my music and my friend.

I’m locked into a new song now, and this one’s got promise. It’s all about the rise and the drop, the single second of pause before the instruments crash together, jangling and wild. With each new song I think, “This’ll be the one that takes me,” but never like this. All I need is one to catch the right pair of ears, and I’m so close I can taste it.

I’m deep in a final mix when Frick comes in without knocking and tells me he’s got a case with our names on it. I tell him not now, but he just drops the thirty on the table and stares. Sometimes living with Frick is like having a kid around—anything I want to get done has to happen when he’s sleeping.

“Give me an hour,” I say.

Frick cracks a can and grins.

“I ever tell you about my second strike?”

This one came in rural Illinois, twenty miles south of Champaign, when he slammed on the brakes so hard he skid onto the shoulder and nearly toppled the rig, all to avoid a mother duck and her ducklings crossing the road.

“I said to the cop, ‘What the hell was I supposed to do?’ and the good old boy just says ‘Next time don’t be funny.’ Gave me a two-hundred dollar ticket for reckless driving. Said I could have killed someone, like it wasn’t just me and him on that empty-ass road.”

“Well,” I say. “He’s right, isn’t he?”

“Are you crazy?” Frick says. “What about the ducks?”

*     *     *

On some nights I do turn him down. I get cranky when my guitar sits for days.

“I want to go, I do,” I say. “I just need to work.”

“You worked earlier,” Frick says. He’s got to know I’m locked in, guitar in my hand and mix on the screen, but he just looks me straight in the eye, stupid, like none of it’s there. It would be one thing if he’d just go without me, but instead he stays in, paces around picking scabs and eating soggy fish sticks wrapped in tin foil.

“You call Al?” I ask. “The Graham twins?”

Frick shakes his head. He gets real quiet—turns in early, sleeps past noon. There’s a feeling in the apartment like I’m being shunned. Like I’ve betrayed him in the worst way.

I feel so bad about it, the next night I cut work early, walk down the hall to Frick’s room with a case as a peace offering. Part of me hopes he’ll turn me down and that way we’ll be even, but that’s never how it’s worked with us. I already know his answer before I even start to knock.

*     *     *

I got a call from Frick at least once a week back when he was on the road. The calls always came late at night or early in the morning, and though he never admitted he was calling to keep himself awake, he always started off groggy and got sharper as we talked. You hardly got a word in once you got him going about the old days, the house and the parties and the girls.

Back then I didn’t mind getting woken up at three in the morning to hear a little bit about Frick’s day, the cities he was passing, the bars he drank in, the makeshift gym he’d set up in the back of his rig. Sometimes he’d catch me when I was still awake, stuck on a song, and afterward I’d figure it out and work through to the morning. Something about Frick out on the road missing home reminded me why I loved what I was doing, why I was working part-time and living poor for my music while the rest of my friends were busting their asses forty hours a week at the plant and hating every minute of it.

One late night, just days before he came back, I talked to Frick for an hour, then told him I had to get some sleep. There was silence on the line, and then he just kept on talking, as if instead of saying nothing, he’d asked to keep going and I’d said Yes. So I lay back and kept the phone on my pillow, letting Frick’s voice go on while I settled on my side. I fell asleep that way, him narrating the shifting landscape of western Oklahoma, the flatness turning rocky around him, an inventory of everything he could see, for as far as he could see it.

*     *     *

Frick says his final strike came on a night he was travel-worn and filthy, when the ringworm and jock itch and rashes were at full-fester. I slept through his call and he drifted into something like sleep, taking a wrong turn off a Missouri freeway onto a service road that got too skinny for his rig to follow.

“I woke up like that,” Frick says. “Stuck.”

He came to, tried backing up and took down a power line that totaled his back end. Two days later, he was home.

Frick tells me all this from our couch, where he’s been parked for the last three days eating Cheetos, leaving orange stains on the handle of the bathroom door. He was hired at Ford but didn’t make it two weeks on the line before they let him go. He had rashes and scabs and a bulging hernia. He hadn’t earned any sick days, and his health insurance hadn’t kicked in besides.

None of this phases Frick. Not really. He just wears his pants a little lower. He learns to walk with a hunch.

*     *     *

After Frick gets a few days rest in him, he conjures the idea of getting hammered and taking kayaks into the river. I’m plucking at something new when he asks. The last song had promise, but it didn’t age well. A week later the magic was gone, and I was searching again. I say no to Frick at first—been having job trouble myself, had to talk my boss out of firing me for coming in too many mornings hungover and late.

“Maybe tomorrow,” I say.

“Come on,” Frick says.

Tomorrow,” I say, and my voice has a bite to it that surprises us both.

“What’s your deal, man,” Frick says. He hobbles up to me angrily and he looks so pathetic, fat and limping with his hernia popping out, I can barely look him in the eye. “You’re so pissy all the time. If you’ve got a fucking problem, you should tell me.”

When I’m with Frick, I’m filthy. I’m broke and stupid and drunk. I leave my guitar for days, and when I come back to it I feel useless, like I’m wasting my life. But when I look him in the eye, none of that matters. I can feel myself slipping and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

“Come on,” he says. “You want me to leave, you can say it to my face.”

I gear myself up to say something real mean, something that’ll cut through Frick like a cleaver, something that will let him know this is serious, that he can’t expect me to live the way he lives forever. But his mad act’s a front. His lip starts to wobble, and I know that it’s hopeless. I just can’t fight the pull.

“No,” I say. “I’m sorry. Let’s get some beer and go.” And Frick’s face slowly changes shape until he’s grinning wide as a pumpkin.

We shotgun two beers each and he shells out what has to be the last of his cash on another case and two cheap-looking kayaks. He drives us through the city from the store to where the river flows through, but not before we get turned around and do some swerving and looping and finally end up parking on a side street of a nice neighborhood a half-mile from the water.

“No worries,” Frick says. We drain what’s left of our road beers and pack our pockets with more. To get to the river we have to walk across someone’s big backyard and through the woods, so we take off across private property holding kayaks on our heads.

We’re in the woods long enough to stumble a little and lose our way. We walk for what feels like hours, passing the same trees again and again. The beers hit us like waves on a shore. We stop and stand for a minute, wobbling. I’m about to tell Frick to hold up and help me listen for the water when bright lights flash behind us. A car door slams. We’re told to stop where we are.

There’s a command to put our hands up. Boots on leaves. I follow the officer’s orders and the kayak slides off my head and into a tree. I feel the late-night wind like I’m wearing gloves—the callouses on my fingers are that thick. Frick and I stand right where we are, dumb and drunk and winded.

“Just let me do the talking,” Frick says.

It’s a quiet night. I listen for the water. I wonder if I can run fast enough to leave him behind.

Spring 2014

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Contributor Notes

Biting My Truant Pen

For a lot of people, I think, the writing process can be very ritualistic. There’s much more to it than the simple mantra of the Comp I classroom: pre-writing, writing, and revision. The rituals aren’t something that can be taught, for they come with time and experience, developing on an individual basis. I soon learned that I like to have a clean workspace, fresh cup of coffee, and some music before beginning any kind of project. However, there always comes a point in time when my rituals border superstitions. Sometimes my workspace needs to be clean. I get into this state of mind where I can’t write until I’ve prepared my desk like an altar. It’s a religious experience, but not the gratifying kind. It becomes gratuitous and wholly unnecessary, yet I feel compelled to go through the motions, droning on like a kid in Catholic school. If I don’t do everything correctly, well, there’s definitely no way I’ll be able to get any work done.

That’s not crazy, right?

The logical part of me knows obsessing over such small, inconsequential details can mean one of two things, that either I have OCD, or I’m stalling. What’s really going on is that I’m inert, locked in this state of stillness. Raleigh wrote History of the World in a prison chamber before his execution, so why can’t I type out a few pages on my Mac with a dusty desk? Augusten Burroughs, author of Running with Scissors, says that the best cure for writer’s block is to write about it, which is an oxymoron, sure, but not bad advice. He says it’s like taking an Alka-Seltzer. Free-writing will sometimes work for me, but I primarily like to read something inspiring, watch a good film, or listen to really depressing movie soundtracks (if you’re not familiar with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, give The Assassination of Jesse James a try).

Youtube can also help. Big Think has a great series of videos on all sorts of subjects, the writing process being one of them. I really like this particular one with Margaret Atwood. When asked about her writing process, she mentions rolling barrages in WWI, which was when a soldier crouched and another shot from behind, then jumped over the back of the crouching soldier, and so on. I can picture this endless, violent wave of people playing leapfrog with guns. On a good day, my output is kind of like that. On others, I’m stuck paddling upstream. It’s like my kayak is balanced on a large rock and I’m chopping away at a different kind of wave, one that’s cold and whipping me in the face. If I stop struggling and let go, I could drown, yet paddling furiously and getting nowhere is exhausting and counterproductive, much like performing meticulous rituals. Giving in to the inertness is probably the worst crime a writer can commit.

So, take your Alka-Seltzer and get back to work.

– Aaron White

The Western Hero Rides Again – And Rides Again!

The Old West, “history” that instantly appealed to our hearts and imaginations, has been incredibly influential, particularly in view of its short life (the second half of the nineteenth century).  The first Western movie, The Great Train Robbery, arrived in 1903 and was eleven minutes long.  In Old Arizona (1929) was the first major sound Western.  The Buffalo Nickel “reigned” 1913-1938.  It was designed by James Earle Fraser, sculptor of the Indian statue “End of the Trail.”  The buffalo was modeled after Black Diamond, a bison in Bronx Park Zoo.  The Indian head was a composite from photographs of three visitors to President Theodore Roosevelt:  Iron Tail, a Sioux; Big Tree, a Kiowa; and Two Moons, a Cheyenne.  As the editor says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “This is the West, sir.  When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

As a child in North Carolina, I saw some four movies a week and have never gotten over my cowgirl outfit (brown fringed skirt and vest with red hearts for pockets, boots, hat, gun and holster) or Jeff Chandler as Cochise (Broken Arrow, 1950).  [By the way, Cochise was the name of Little Joe’s horse in Bonanza.]  In 1994, my husband Emory and I chaired Western Night at Carolina Trace Country Club (Sanford, NC).  In the midst of my sharing that palm reader Lee Bain, the sister of Lash [Al] La Rue, lived in Sanford, our compadres on the committee shot from the hip that they’d never heard of him and allowed as how he must have been purely Southern, but Tim Morrissey, Artistic Director of The Temple Theater in Sanford, later drygulched this Southern-only rumor by sharing that he saw Lash crack his whip in Kenosha, Wisconsin!  My ultimate response to such ignorance was a 4 x 8-foot Western collage displayed at and The Kemo Sabe (thirteen ten-point pages) distributed at the dance.  Later came the poem [Laurels, 7.1 (Spring 2003):  46]:

“A-Gnash, A-Rue for Alfred ‘Lash’ La Rue” ––  

The man in black is dead.  His whip is still.
He lashed the stereotype:   black means bad.
His weapon:  bullwhip long, Whip-Wilson-like.
But only Lash the stereotype cracked.
(De Vega Zorroed as persona bold.)
Unknowing stares when Lash La Rue is named
do not deter.  Kenosha friend can well
recall his B-grade movies, whip, and “pard”:
St. John, plain “Fuzzy,” sidekick better known.
(He played some roles in movies with John Wayne.)
Now oddly, both were also known as “Al.”
No Champ or Trigger had our Lash La Rue.
He fought with naught but whip and black attire.
And only Lash the stereotype cracked.
To code still true, he went to die alone.
That trek has failed to keep telltales in check:
his wives galore; his brushes with the Law;
his marijuana stash; his mean, hard look;
his prideful Cadillac; how women swooned.
His climb from bottle seems of small account.
When I on Lash do think, I’ll hold to fact:
he lashed his body learning how to whip
because he’d said he knew that art and now
would prove it true.  He wore a rakish smile,
a Stetson rakishly.  Now hang them up
with most of childhood’s dreams.  The man in black
is dead.  Alas, the man in black is dead.
Through oaters, fairs, and stage appearances,
the comics, television, pulpits last,
he stood, though his detractors lashed away.
Pop culture idol now is he for me,
for only Lash the stereotype cracked.

I have continued to write about the Old West, including a play/screenplay, Lillie Langtry’s “Lash La Rue Sweet Potatoes” World Crusade, Or, Why You Can’t Buy Quintussential Western Wear Boots.  It’s about a girl named for Miss Lillie, the singer who was the beloved of Judge Roy Bean, the “Law West of the Pecos.”  The best retort I’ve ever received resulted from it.

Color THE WRITER Blocked

The fifth-graders had rather ask questions
than hear THE WRITER pontificate.
The plump young man on the front row
has waited his chance,
can wait no more:
“What is the name of your latest play?”
My tongue is a whirling dervish:
Lillie Langtry’s Lash La Rue Sweet Potatoes
World Crusade, Or,
Why You Can’t Buy
Quintussential Western Wear Boots!”

He fires back from the lip:
“Bet you can’t say that three times!”
Color THE WRITER blocked.

My father and I used to listen to The Lone Ranger on the radio.  I was a member of The Lone Ranger Club and had a mask and a brown corduroy jacket with the Masked Man’s insignia.  Its zipper stuck when I was in the first grade, and my teacher, “Miss Maggie,” assigned my first boyfriend, Litchfield Patterson Huie (who died in Vietnam) to deal with it.  We sold Merita bread, the sponsor, in our grocery store, and it placed collectible pictures of scenes from The Lone Ranger and other “pop lit” in the loaves.

You probably know much of the earlier Lone Ranger lore.  At Bryant’s Gap, John Reid; his brother, Captain Daniel Reid; and four other Texas Rangers were ambushed by Butch Cavendish and the Hole-in-the-Wall gang.  Nursed back to health by Tonto, his faithful Indian companion, he became “the Lone Ranger.”  Tonto, played by Jack Todd (radio), Jay Silverheels (TV), and Chief Thundercloud (movies), called him Kemo Sabe (“faithful friend”).  My memories are principally of Clayton Moore as the “hero” and Jay Silverheels as Tonto.  “Who was that masked man?” was asked at the end of Lone Ranger television episodes.  The hero became known especially for his silver bullets and “Come on, Silver!  Let’s go, big fellow!  Hi-yo, Silver!  Awa-a-ay!”  The satirical humor of the new movie with Johnny Depp has Tonto hoping he never hears that again.  Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” is the theme song of the Lone Ranger.  [It’s also known as “The Mickey Mouse Overture” from Mickey’s having conducted it in a Disney cartoon.]  You may not know that Britt Reid, The Green Hornet, is the grand-nephew of the Lone Ranger and that his horse Victor is a descendant of Silver.  Family is important in Westerns—just think of all those brothers (e.g., the Earps; the Daltons, who are cousins to the James Brothers and Younger Brothers).

I am apparently the only person in America who loves the recent version, though I lament the absence of Tonto’s horse Scout (earlier called White Feller and Paint, incidentally).  I also question Silver’s pink eyes and the weird rabbits.  After Emory and I saw the movie in the afternoon, I sent an e-mail to my half-sister, sixteen years younger and a lawyer in Charlotte.  She read it on her I-phone while sitting in the movie with her husband waiting for it to start!  She used to watch it on television with our grandmother, who had to play Tonto to her Lone Ranger.

I don’t always like “high camp” and “send-ups,” even Johnny Depp’s.  But this movie drew on the past in ways that I haven’t seen critics crediting.  But they don’t often credit Westerns with very much generally and seem to forget “learning curves.”  Despite the claim that “oaters” (a name I detest!) are always White Hat vs. Black Hat, I don’t find them so.  See Gregory Peck in Duel in the Sun and John Wayne in The Searchers, in which his “infraction” is far more serious than his “man stand” in The Shootist:  “I won’t be wronged.  I won’t be insulted.  And I won’t be laid a hand on.”  Yes, they could have boo-boos, as in Stagecoach, when tire tracks can be seen during the Indian chase across the salt flats.  Yes, they could be moralistic, as in the “sweet” rules of the Roy Rogers Club and Gene Autry’s “Cowboy Code” (though the latter’s “A cowboy must never shoot first, shoot at a smaller man . . .” is a hoot [and not a Hoot Gibson!].

Diversity was not absent, as we might suspect, in the Western tradition bequeathed us.  The Mexicans are there and include a woman, Lupe Velez, known as the “Mexican Spitfire,” though Rodolfo Acosta, the Mexican-American character actor, frequently played villains.  The Cisco Kid may not always have been “authentic” and may have been created by North Carolina’s O. Henry (William Sydney Porter), but he brought us Mexican culture, as did Zorro, who, among others, was played by Reed Hadley and Clayton Moore, both of whom were cast as the Lone Ranger.  But I dare not forget that we did enjoy also Mexican mouse Speedy Gonzales of the movie cartoon.  Real-world relevance can be found, too.  Zapatista leader Subcommandante Marcos (1957-1994) wore a black ski mask, black military uniform, and bandoleers with red cartridges crossing his chest and was a mixture of Zorro, the Lone Ranger, and Batman.

Nor are Indians always the bad guys.  Quite a few silent films[1] were sympathetic to them.  Broken Arrow was the first after the silents to be so, but Pro-Indian movies[2] have persisted.  On television, Hawk was about an Indian cop in New York, and F Troop had comic Indians.  Most of us know Kaw-Liga, the cigar-store wooden Indian in the Hank Williams song.  Enos Edward (“Yakima”) Canutt was a famous half-Indian stunt man of Westerns for fifty years and provided second unit direction for sixties epics.  Elvis Presley played an Indian in Stay Away Joe and Flaming Arrow.  But we also had Little Beaver, played, among others, by Robert (“Bobby”) Blake, of “You betchum, Red Ryder” fame, and Papoose, his horse.  Cherokee Iron-Eyes Cody’s “one tear” ecology spot on television will never be forgotten.

African-Americans?  Washington (“Wash”) Jefferson Lincoln Lee was Tom Mix’s Black cook on the radio.  The thirties provided a series of Westerns with all-Black casts (e.g., Harlem on the Prairie).  Sergeant Rutledge (1960) had a Black as the central character.

The Depp Lone Ranger movie offers a young boy fascinated by the Old West as seen through the eyes of Tonto.  Imagine in the day of political correctness daring to have a White play an Indian, but the Indians, so far as I am aware, have not exploded in anger and, indeed, get to offer, through this movie, humorous comments on Whites.  Indians have apparently always respected those mentally touched, as Tonto is in the movie.

Westerns have generally relegated their humor to the sidekick, e.g., George Gabby Hayes (1885-1969), who rode alongside Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy (as Windy Halliday), Roy Rogers, John Wayne, Bill Elliott, and Randolph Scott; Pat Aloysius Brady and his jeep Nellybelle in the TV series Roy Rogers; Smiley Burnette, Gene Autry’s sidekick, as was Pat Buttram; Al (“Fuzzy”) St. John, pard of Lash LaRue; and Andy Devine as Jingles, who provided comic relief for Wild Bill Hickok.  I prefer such animal companions as Bullet, Roy Rogers’ wonder dog, and the wonderful horses, e.g., Dale Evans’ Buttermilk; Roy Rogers’ Trigger; Gene Autry’s “World’s Wonder Horse” Champion, who starred in The Adventures of Champion on television; Red Ryder’s Thunder; and Tom Mix’s Tony, “The Wonder Horse.”

Tom Mix, like his horse Tony, was a wonder—a US Marshal who turned actor and appeared in over 400 low-budget Westerns.  Another “can’t resist” is Murania, the underground scientific city visited by Gene Autry in the movie serial The Phantom Empire (called, as a feature picture, Men with Steel Faces).  It was ruled by Queen Tika, and its Thunder Riders were evil residents who sometimes came above ground.  Wonder what would happen if the Thunder Riders faced off against the Ghost Riders in the Sky?

I continue to learn (and revel in learning) the lore.  At a recent lunch with two other couples, I brought up the Depp opus and my take on it, and the conversation “triggered” memories.  One woman at the table, Mary Sawyer, a former Army nurse, suddenly burst forth with “Scratch gravel, White Wind!”  Not even I recognized that, and she didn’t remember who used it.  Google later gave me “Golden Arrow,” whom I remember, though not his general background and horse, and reminded me of my love of comic books, Whiz included.

I remain a bit leery of plump cowboys (e.g., Whip Wilson) and the “Singing Cowboys” (e.g., Gene Autry; Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and the “Sons of the Pioneers”; Tex Ritter, though he did sing the theme song of High Noon; and Jimmy Wakely).  “Happy Trails” was a good theme song for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, but I liked Gene Autry, who made Westerns 1934-1954, better singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”  Patsy Montana became his acting partner and wrote Western songs, including “I Want To Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.”  Audie Murphy, the most decorated World War II hero and a star of many Westerns, wrote “Shutters and Boards.”  Ken Maynard began as the star of silent movies but is credited with introducing song into Westerns.  Sheb Wooley was in Rawhide on TV but is best known for singing “The Purple People Eater.”

The names are legion and include William S. Hart; Johnny Mack Brown (a former football star); Canadian Rod Cameron (Nathan Cox); “Wild Bill” Elliott and Wild Bill Hickok (James Butler Hickok); Buffalo Bill (William Frederick Cody), who killed 4,280 buffaloes and had a Wild West Show that included real Indians and starred Annie Oakley; Calamity Jane (Martha Jane Canary Burke, married twelve times with eight movies made about her; Belle Starr (Myra Belle Shirley), the West’s most notorious female outlaw; Doc Holliday; Tim Holt; Bat Masterson (William Barclay Masterson), a U. S. marshal and later a sports writer; Australian Chips Rafferty (John Goffage); Randolph Scott (Randolph Crane), who started on the stage; Charles Starrett, known as the Durango Kid and another professional football player; and Bob Steele (Robert Bradbury), who began acting at age two and was in over 400 second features.  On the radio, the series about Bobby Benson included cowboy Windy Wales, played by Don Knotts.  One of the hosts of television’s Death Valley Days was Ronald Reagan.

When I spoke on this topic to my Rotary Club recently, the Assistant District Governor, Dr. Mark Zeringue, happened to be visiting.  He came up afterwards to ask if I knew anything about Milo Holt.  “Tim,” I responded, “but not Milo.”  Then, before he could reply, I remembered that he was from Chatham County, North Carolina, where we recently moved, and that Siler City, his home, hosted the “Milo Holt Western Film Festival.”  I had heard of it, never attended.  I later found the newspaper clipping I had saved—to my chagrin, I missed, in May 2013, its opportunity to see the “son of Tonto,” Chief Steve Silverheels.

Great Spirits have been among us.  These two quotations sum up, for me, the Old West (and the new Lone Ranger):

a voice-over at the end of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon—“The dog-faced soldiers . . . the regulars . . . the fifty-cents-a-day professionals, riding the outposts of a nation . . . .  Wherever they rode, and whatever they fought for, that place became the United States.”

William S. Hart, farewell/prologue to the audience, 1939 reissue of Tumbleweeds—“The rush of the wind that cuts your face . . . the pounding hooves of the pursuing posse.  Out there in front, a fallen tree trunk that spawns a yawning chasm, with a noble animal under you that takes it in the same low, ground-eating gallop . . . .  Oh, the thrill of it all!”



     [1]E.g., An Indian Wife’s Devotion, A Squaw’s Love, Red-Wing’s Gratitude, Ramona, Heart of an Indian, The Squaw Man, In the Days of Buffalo Bill, The Vanishing American, Redskin.

      [2]E.g., Devil’s Doorway, Across the Wide Missouri, The Savage, Arrowhead, The Big Sky, Apache, Taza—Son of Cochise, Chief Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, White Feather, Navajo, Hiawatha, The Outsider, Jim Thorpe—All American, Flaming Star, Cheyenne Autumn, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, A Man Called Horse, Flap, Little Big Man, The Stalking Moon.

Between Boulders

We imagine loneliness in the same way we imagine

death, and twice we are wrong. It is not the last flicker

going out, but the wrap of risen wind on charred wood

in the dark. Not the abandoned copper mine with

broken windows at dawn, but the boy taking a bronze

plumbing pipe to the river. Not the dog’s velvet belly,

burst open and spilling wet maggots on the train

tracks, but the tiny pliable femur bone of a mouse

found inside there. We say I feel so alone and we mean

we don’t know how to communicate. We say The dog

is dead and we mean we aren’t listening anymore.

In the growing light the boy carries his pipe to the river.

He packs it with stolen tobacco. He hides between boulders.

He has no filter, no friend meeting him. He lights it

and sucks and his own wind wraps what is inside there.

Break

It had been some days since the doctor had given Josephine leave to rise from her hospital bed, but she had largely chosen not to do so.  Two weeks had passed since the evening her husband, Joe, had put her through the living room window.  Two weeks abed was not quite enough.  Josephine had come to believe she would know when it was enough because, in the hospital, everything had its proper time.  Sister Frances came with food and pills at seven and noon and seven again.  Father Emmett walked the halls with his duffel bag of hosts and wine and anointing oil between two and three in the afternoon.  Dr. Larkin probed and injected and dressed wounds an hour or two before sunset.  And Josephine’s mother, Irma, came to visit at four each day, save Sunday, after her lunchtime shift at the diner.

In the days after the accident (so-called by the nurses), Josephine had been ashamed to ask after her husband.  But a week went by with no mention of him, then ten days, twelve.  This sudden erasure of his life seemed to erase a part of her own, an effect she found not wholly unpleasant.  And something had happened to her eyes.  Nothing looked the same.   Here was the common world—the chipping nightstand, the telephone, the stuffed armchair that never regained its form once sat upon.  But the light was wrong.   The sun through the window was too weak in the mornings, then strong before dark.  The ivy creeper nosing around the window frame cast a shadow-vine that writhed on the bleached linoleum.  Shadow-leaves bucked in the gusts that beat time against the rackety screen Sister Frances brought to keep out the flies and wasps.  No matter how she blinked or rubbed her eyes, whether her sleep was whole or fitful, the light was distorted in this new world.

On her third Saturday at St. Mary’s, Josephine received her mother as she had each of the previous thirteen days.  She lay back against the pillows in a fresh cotton dressing gown with her eyes lightly closed.  She could always smell her mother coming.  Irma smelt of burnt coffee and stale rolls, the same smell she had come home smelling each evening of the six unholy days of the week when Josephine was a child.  The day was hot and pulled other layers from Irma’s skin.  Brine from reaching bare-handed into the pickle barrel.  Sweat beading up under hamburger grease and talcum powder. Since childhood, Josephine had liked to frighten her mother who had an odd tendency to hover over any prone body she believed to be sleeping or dead.    When the house-smells (parlor dust, wood mold, iron) were close in her nostrils, Josephine forced her eyelids open.

“Jesus and Christ!”  Irma leaped back and stumbled against the armchair behind her.

Josephine smiled with the right side of her mouth.  The muscles required for the other half-smile remained yet unusable.   When Joe lifted her body to push it towards the window, she had turned to the left, so that side had got the worst of it.  The flinch to the left wasn’t an instinct.  There had been time to choose which side. Looking up, Josephine focused her eyes on Irma’s nose, which occupied the center of her face like a small freckled mushroom sprouting from a boulder.

“Knock off that grin!  You look like a half-wit.  Where’s the doctor gone off to?  He see you today?”  For the past two weeks, Irma had been the fervent companion of Dr. Larkin, the ward’s afternoon attending physician.

Irma pulled her lips together and chewed them between her teeth.  Below her, in bed, her daughter looked smaller than she had as a girl.  The swelling brought by marriage and children was replaced with twitching slimness, as if Josephine’s bones had been re-strung with kitchen twine.  The first days after, Irma had made the arrangements.  They would all leave: she and Josephine and the boys.  There were cousins in Warnsburg, way down in the hills, where Joe, if he followed, would meet the end of a rifle.  In the first days, yes, that was the arrangement.

“Everything lovely at work today?” asked Josephine with a grimacing brightness, pulling her lips up her right cheek until the stitching in her face began to ache.  “Have a seat, won’t you, Ma?”  Josephine gestured with her good hand to the easy chair slouched near the bed.  Her fingers were thick, surprising above the bird-bones of her wrist.  She had bitten her nails to the quick all her life.  Here, someone had filed and buffed them.  But what then of the other hand, tucked beneath the sheet?  Irma pinned her eyes to the wall above the bed.  She would not see the left hand; she would not seek it out.

“It’s not teatime at the Savoy in here.”

Josephine dropped her hand from the air, but left the smile fixed in place. “Any broken eggs in the omelets today?”

It was their oldest joke.  Irma grinned and took her eyes for a spin around the thorned head of Jesus, perpetually crucified over the headboard.

“Dr. Larkin says you need to get up.  Get moving.”  Irma dropped the mass of flesh where her chin should have been for emphasis.  “He says to me ‘Irma, time is going on and your daughter with it.’  He says it’s going on, whether you like it or not.”   She said this in a way she believed to be cheerful, though she had no ear for that sentiment.

“He spent the morning next door with the Spiegel girl, him and Father Emmett.”   Josephine pulled a pout.  A half-pout, as it were.  Elsie Spiegel was a Bavarian doll, dimpled and curled within an inch of her life.  Her leg was crushed the previous Sunday when, jumping for the running board on the streetcar, she missed her footing.  Josephine tried to picture Elsie lying in the street, blood pressed out of her compact veins like oil from the meat of an olive.  But she could only summon up a chipped porcelain doll, limp and expressionless on the pavement.  Josephine’s eyes fixed themselves in a high corner of the room, behind her mother’s right ear.  A torn web, long-void of its spider, floated there beyond the reach of Sister Frances’s dusting spear.  Though the sun was full in the room, the web cast no shadow at all.

“We’ll see about that.  I’ll be having a word with Elsie’s father, be sure.”  Irma huffed a breath over her daughter’s face and levered her body upright.   Josephine watched the threads of web-silk pull loose from each other by small degrees.

“Her father owns a plastics mill.  He’s making her a custom leg.  Wouldn’t she have the luck?  She’s leaving soon.  We’ll be usual again, Dr. Larkin and I.”

Irma was standing now with her back to the window. The thought came to her unbidden, unwanted: Josephine could give a person the urge to slap her.  Arrangements had been made.  They could leave tonight.  It was simple enough, as most things were.  She thought of pleading with her daughter but, never having made a plea, couldn’t fathom how to begin.

Outside, cars sloshed in the trafficway cut some years back through the hillside where St. Mary’s kept broad watch over the City of Kansas below.  The windowpane was filled in the middle with the rustling tops of sycamores that grew in the cemetery on the trafficway’s opposite side.  Backed by the sun, Irma was a dark blotch against the bright day behind her.  Josephine listened for the bump and skip of car radios below, drivers waiting for the traffic light to turn.

Irma stood taller and picked at her blouse.  There was nothing for it then, nothing more to say. She turned and dropped her pocketbook by the chair before settling herself heavily into it.   Her eyes sunk level with her daughter’s body.  In profile, Josephine looked almost unharmed.

“I’ve a bit of news from the old neighborhood.”  The old neighborhood was Irma’s term for the small set of streets where she’d lived since birth.  It irked Josephine to hear it called this, as if it were an ancient enclave somewhere.  In truth, their houses were ten blocks distant.

“I’d prefer the National Geographic.”

“Now, this is bound to get you riled a little.  It’s got me shook, and that’s some doing.”  Irma dragged the chair nearer to Josephine’s head.

“Father Emmett, he’s been to Africa.  He told me about the women, stark naked, no tops or brassieres. And Sister Frances, she was in Mexico, so she can speak Spanish.”  With her mother seated, Josephine shifted her eyes to the ceiling and moved them lazily over the matte hills of plaster.

“Alright, here goes.  You know the Macon house on Mercier Street?  With the cat smell?  Been there since before the Pilgrims?”  Irma felt suddenly troubled by the warmth.  The sun should have been relenting this time of day.   The drops on her brow had broken free and begun to course around her little nose.  She took a moment to wipe her face with her handkerchief.  “Last night…Josie, it burned clean to the ground.  Mrs. Macon didn’t make it out.  It smelled awful, all that cat hair burning.”

The Macon place was known to Josephine from her from her earliest life.   The house was pistachio-green clapboard with a brick façade painted a matching green.  It was small, too small for the lot, with scrubby grass twenty feet in all directions.  A thick border of red geraniums planted around the foundation gave it a Christmas look in the summertime. The Macon house was of unending fascination to children, some of whom believed Santa Claus lived there summers.  Though it had probably once contained children of its own, the only occupants during Josephine’s lifetime were old Mrs. Macon and her calico cats.  They prowled the grounds day and night, innocently massacring the geraniums and crabgrass: death by mass urination.

Now Irma’s eyes had little specks of light in them, as if she were seeing the fire before her.  Josephine’s own father had been killed in a fire just before she was born.  The subject of fire still held a strange power for Irma.   Josephine tensed the muscles over which she had control, causing a flood of pain down her left side.  When she did this, her body felt a part of her distorted vision, the left side an outsized shadow, the right, its natural state.    Irma’s agitation rose with her voice.

“I went over there straight away when I smelt it, but wasn’t anything I could do.  The windows were busted from the heat and the cats were running all directions.  Remember when we used to go by there when you were a little girl?  Remember you used to hold your nose?  You always wanted to go by there, even with it smelling so bad. “

Josephine turned to see her mother, a stack of pale lumps piled into a shirtwaist dress.  It was true; the house had fascinated and repulsed her.  It flaunted its terrible existence in the street, forcing itself on one’s eyes (the colors), up one’s nose (the smell), into one’s ears (the mewling).  Absurdly, at the center of this pressing horror was only Mrs. Macon, a woman so unremarkable that Josephine could not recall her face.   Relieved of her news, Irma leaned back and blotted her neck.  Josephine opened the right side of her mouth.

“I was thinking of cats, too, just the other day.  Father Emmett saw a tiger in Africa.  He said it moved like it was shrugging its shoulders all the time.  Like it didn’t care in the least about eating you.”

Irma started forward to reproach her daughter, but then closed her eyes against it all.  The white walls, the heat, the pitifully small Christ assigned to this room.   A car blew its horn lazily in the street.  Then the room was silent for a long time until Irma stood up to begin her search for Dr. Larkin.

 

On her third Sunday at St. Mary’s, Josephine awoke with a feeling of lightness.  Below the room’s open window, a car radio played a song about love.  A young song.  Young people in their cars were going out for drives across the river.  The countryside, of course, lay in all directions.   But they were driving to the green hills beyond the river, where the Missouri made bluffs when it cut west off the headlong plunge of the Mississippi.  When they were courting, Joe and Josephine had driven these hills.  They were carsick hills, coming one after the other, rapid and shallow.  When they reached a crest, Joe would gun the engine.  Josephine would reach under the white leather seat to hold on.  The car would float for one second, no more.  She was so light then.  They would plow back down into the next trough.   They bruised their legs and broke the shocks.   In the evenings, they came back dirty from road grit.  They ate hot biscuits and had an hour alone, in Irma’s parlor behind the lace drapes.  Joe brushed his hands all over her dress.  She traced her fingers over scars from street fights.

At three o’clock, Josephine woke again and felt a stirring under her breastbone. It was swelling in her, as if something had lodged in her chest, a little bubble poking against her clavicle.  When Dr. Larkin arrived for his rounds, he took five short strides to her bedside.  A tall man would have taken three.

“Mrs. F, how are we today?” asked Dr. Larkin through a red beard.  His eyes did not meet hers, but swept as a searchlight over her broken left half.  Then he was at her side, deft fingers on her cheek.

“I couldn’t say how you are Dr. Larkin,” mumbled Josephine through her half-wit grimace. “So I suppose I couldn’t say how we are.”  Dr. Larkin looked up from the dressing he was peeling off her face.

“Sharp, very sharp.  Your mother is a sharp woman too.”  Dr. Larkin leaned back to his work.

“Yes,” continued Josephine, “but what type?  Would you say my mother is tack-sharp?  Or perhaps knife-sharp?  Or, in your case, a scalpel? ” She often spoke sweetly to the doctor, letting his manful concern spread over her like a balm.   But the new stirring thing had her, as Irma would say, a bit riled.  “Have you any wine or cordials around, Doctor?  I’d like us to make a toast.  To sharp women.”

Dr. Larkin laughed and pressed his fingers down to secure a fresh sheet of gauze. Josephine’s left face felt new and tight as it healed.  The appearance was ugly, but the healing was not without its pleasure.

“You’re quite a sport, Mrs. F.  You’re a very funny woman.  I didn’t know you took after your mother so much.”  The doctor lifted her shoulder from the bed.  She winced behind her teeth then swallowed it.

“Dr. Larkin, let’s just say we go our separate ways, my mother and I, on most accounts.”  It felt grand to say this to the doctor, to vie for his attention as Elsie must do.

“Well, Mrs. F,” said the doctor, an instrument of some kind audibly clutched between his own teeth, “They say the truth will set you free.  So, just keep that in mind.”

“What?”  Josephine braced the muscles of her right face and made her voice rude.  “What are you saying?”

“It’s just a saying that helps people I talk to.  I was saying to Elsie yesterday that when God closes a door, he opens a window.  And she said to me, ‘That might be true, Doctor.  Though if God forgets the window screen, you’ll soon be infested.’ She’s a sharp one, too.”

Dr. Larkin walked around to the bottom of the bed and squatted to test her reflexes.  When he tapped the bottom of her right foot, Josephine did an unexpected thing.  She pulled her leg up at the knee and sent it out for a not-gentle kick to the side of Dr. Larkin’s neck.  It had been a decision; there had been time to decide.  Enough time to draw her knee back and position her heel so it would fall against the flesh of his neck.  His red beard twitched as his head flicked back towards the open door.  He made almost no sound as he hit the floor, just a scuffle of shoe leather and gabardine.

On Sunday evening, after dinner and pills, the riled feeling within Josephine began to push in a flush across her chest and face.   Outside her body, the world had gone quiet and dark.  The window’s creeping ivy outlined an unbroken blackness.    The tires of the cars going home to Sunday supper were only a slight hum now in the gash of the trafficway.  The overhead lamp cast an intolerably equal light, neither bright nor dim, somehow worse than the sickening quality of the sun.  Sundays had a tucked-in quality at the end of them; Irma would be putting the boys to bed now.  For the first time since her admittance, she felt terribly alone.  Her pulse came faster, filling the capillaries near the skin.

The hallway was half-dark when Josephine slid her foot over the threshold of the room.  In the warmth of the night, the nurses had shut the lights to make it seem cooler on the ward.   At the end of the corridor was a desk with a nurse and a little way beyond, the chapel. Her steps fell unevenly, the pads of her feet much softer than the third-limb rap of her cane.

When Josephine pulled open the door to the chapel, the room was near full.  She walked to the front pew slowly, letting them see her in all her cut-and-bruise glory.  She had a sudden desire to be seen.   The chapel air was thick and she shrugged through it like a heavy drape.  She sat on the right where Mary’s pink toe peeked out from the blue folds of her robes to press upon the serpent’s slithering head.  Across the aisle, under Saint Joseph’s staff, Elsie Spiegel was saying her prayers. Her bowed head was just over the space where her leg should be.   Her robe and nightgown covered the stump, but there it was, outlined by a sudden cliff-drop of satin at the thigh.  The absence of her leg made her beauty more dollish.   It was difficult not to look at her.  The girl was younger than Josephine had thought.  Perhaps the ward made them all look older.  She should have been out riding in a car, coming back from the hills on her Sunday drive.   Josephine closed her eyes and began to pray.

Irma had largely passed over Mrs. Macon in her description of the tragic fire.  Most people passed over Mrs. Macon, who did nothing to fight her own eclipsement with her garish house and its feline stench.    In trying to call up the poor woman, Josephine could see only oxford shoes and socks with elastics stretched to the limit.   Settling into prayer, the Macon house burned before Josephine’s eyes as it must have before Irma’s.  Blue-orange fire curled in quiet, neat lines over the green paint of the house before spreading out to roar.  The cats flowed out, not one by one, but as dense as the streams of flame bursting from the screens of the front porch.  Ridges of fear edged into the lingering pains in Josephine’s jaw and shoulder.  As the house burned, two streetcar tracks grew away from it, bright as fire themselves. A trolley bell clanged loudly, mixing with the fire sirens.  The hot windows failed to burst, but cracked instead with the dull, grinding-glass sound of a body going through them.  The prayer was loud now, viciously loud, and Josephine began to shake hard in the pew.  It had been a mistake to leave her bed, to leave the shadow-light of her room, to pray now as she hadn’t for weeks.  She breathed hard through the right side of her face, sweat thickening on her lip.  Then the prayer was quieter, quieting down, and she walked barefoot under a bright sun over the charred bricks of the Macon house.  Around it, the border of geraniums remained unharmed.  Mrs. Macon was lying in the middle of the bricks, a little charcoaled.  Josephine knelt and lifted the old woman’s head into her lap.  She stroked at the cat’s fur that covered the woman’s head, soft and rippling under her palms.

 

On Monday morning, the telephone rang.  Josephine was again abed, Sister Frances having found her half-asleep in the chapel the night before.   She read a dime store romance the nurse had smuggled in, though dime store romances were discouraged.  When the bell began its ringing, Josephine started.  It had done this only three times since she arrived.  Twice had been Irma, calling from the diner when she wanted to laze in the phone booth and talk.  Once it had been her boys, both struck suddenly quiet by the novelty of speaking to their mother through the handset.  They had cried while Irma shouted at them from the background to say something nice to her.

The phone was on its eighth ring when Josephine answered.  She reached over with her good hand to grasp it, then pulled the receiver from the cradle.  She hadn’t counted on its weight.

“Hello?” said Josephine.  It was odd to hear her voice on the telephone. It came out breathy and hard in the way of meeting a stranger.

The other end was still.  Then, the voice came, rough as crust on bread.

“Is this Josephine Fatovic?”  it asked.

“Yes?” answered Josephine, forearm aching from her grip on the receiver.  She loosed her fingers and relaxed her shoulder.  It was a woman.

“Oh, well.  It’s Mrs. Macon.  From over on Mercier Street.”

Josephine frowned and was quiet a moment.  The paperback tented on her lap waved its pages in a sudden breeze from the window.  The heat had broken in the night.  The breeze was cooler now and sent gooseflesh popping down the right side of her body.

“Of course….Mrs. Macon.  I mean, I heard the terrible news.  About your house.”

“Oh, well, my cats are the only terrible thing really.”

Josephine paused to stare at her knees under the covers, then darted her eyes about the room to sooth the queer feeling in her stomach.  But the sun came in weak as water and nothing looked the same from day-to-day.  The web in the corner was gone, demolished. The stuffed chair was mustard yellow today when yesterday it had been the color of wheat.  Sister Frances passed by the door, solid as an iceberg in her white habit.

“Mrs. Macon?  Where are you calling from?  It’s just…my mother said you passed.  In the fire.”

“Oh, sure, Irma tells a tale, don’t she?  But I guess you’d know….”

Irma was known to tell tales, it was true.   Josephine slouched back into the pillow.  In her mother’s mind, one of life’s great pleasures was to be informed someone was dead and then to learn the opposite.  It was a strange sort of gift, but a gift nonetheless. When Josephine’s father was burned in the fire, this very thing had happened.  They told me he was three hours gone, Irma would say.  He’d run down the street clean ablaze.  But there he was.  Plenty alive in the hospital . Leaned his head down on my belly and talked right to you.  Remember what he said?   Josephine did not remember.  He had only lived another ten days.

“But there was a fire, wasn’t there?” Josephine’s chin dropped down to her chest.

“Sure was.  Big one in the kitchen.  Started when I was frying chicken.  Maylene jumped right up on the stove and dove for the leg while it was still in the pan.  Landed flat on the handle and flipped the whole darn thing over right into the flame.  Caught herself afire, too.  It was a dreadful thing to see! ”

Mrs. Macon sobbed a few big tears into her end.  They were the fat tears of a grief that could be soothed with a few shushes.   Josephine remained silent on the line.  As she pictured Maylene in the act of chicken-thieving, she could not help but feel a little satisfaction at the cat’s fate.

“Well, I called anyhow to say your husband has just been wonderful.  I didn’t know where to go or what to do after the house burned, so I went with Irma.  There she was, in front of my house, when I came out with the firemen.  But she was all full in her house with you feeling poorly in the hospital and her looking after your boys.  She went right down next day though and got your Joe to take me.  She said he needed somebody anyway, to look after him and cook.  Said you might be gone a good long while.”

A breeze gusted and knocked the romance to the floor.  Josephine took a breath, then another.  Mrs. Macon held the line and squawked.  Sunlight dumped itself suddenly on the squares of linoleum in front of the window.  The room seemed to spin six inches, then stop.  The last things she remembered before the hospital: the grinding-glass sound of the window breaking, then the blue-painted floorboards of her own front porch. Her face was half-turned up to the ceiling.  Underneath her body, a spreading warmth.  It was dark already.  The porch light was bright so that Joe’s face, when he bent over her, was hard to see except for the sweat that caught the light.  When he reached down to lift her head into his lap, she saw that she could die, if she chose.  But he brushed his thick fingers along her arms and waist.  Then along her ribs and neck.  The way he had in Irma’s parlor, with the door closed, with the lamp dimmed.   She had fallen into the blackness of injured sleep still huddled in the crook of his arm.

With her good hand, Josephine cast back the sheets and pushed herself up to sitting before snatching the telephone back to her ear.

“Mrs. Macon?”

“Yes…?”

“Don’t you go bringing those stinking cats in my house.  If there’s a mess of cat piss to clean next week, I’ll be the one giving you hell.”

Josephine slammed the receiver in its cradle.  She made her way across the linoleum to stand at the window, in the square of light.   Morning traffic flowed in the street below, toward downtown, the river and the hills beyond.  In the graveyard, worn headstones squatted like a flock of pinioned birds.  Josephine knocked Sister Frances’s window screen to the floor.   Both hands on the sill, she leaned far out.   Somewhere on that road, that rude moat of life, her mother was riding the streetcar to work this morning.  Humming a tune, pleased with herself.  Josephine leaned farther out.  The left side of her lip pulled open with her right and the sun came into her mouth.  It rested on her teeth while her screams passed over it, that diffident and changeable light.