Tuesday, July 21, 2015

while I lay down
beneath the moon
Starlight Eyes is watching
deciding what we will do
as footsteps are already taken
in the place
where nothing left is hid
and nothing needs to be
and scars are as sacred
as the light
that still bursts through 
our seems
and all we have to wear
is the transparency
of love
that brings all 
in its own time
outside of time
making cradles of hearts
for the sacred found
inside of dreams
and the honouring
of knowing
beyond the knowing
and knowing with faith
what is done between
the here and there
is how the spirits
will decide 

Monday, July 20, 2015

you're a dangerous man
to love
because if I love you
then I will have to know
what it really is 
to love
and not to cling to half a lie

I will have to learn the truths
beyond this human 
comprehending
and remember who I was
before I came 
amnesiac into this place

I will have to believe in more 
than the illusion 
of who I think I am
and accept the miracle 
of purified reality
where love is so sacred 
it humbles me back to child
with responsibility too large 
to hold with both my hands

to endeavour to hold up
with the atrophy of these arms
what Creation has granted
this disbeliever 
who did not feel worthy 
of the gift of crumbling doubt
nor the transcenion of this 
stunted vision of the world

released into unseen before
where the stakes are only love
and everything to lose 
and everything to gain
and everything to shed
and all to metamorphosize

where on the other side is light
and a universe forgotten
waiting to be explored 
waiting to be
dangerous enough
to love


Thursday, July 9, 2015

Danaus and Asclepius

Danaus awoke from a seven day dream of having been a bird with wings that stretched out far into the sky. But emerging through the cone of her egg sack toward the light of day, she found she had no wings for flight. Only a cluster of many slow and uncoordinated legs.
She was still very new to the world, however, and had yet to shed the memory of the dream. Looking up the long milkweed stem she stood on, she measured it would likely take her entire life to reach the top, but if she started now, perhaps one day she would feel the open wind beneath her long cumbersome belly.  
Upon reaching the second level of leaves, Danaus found her movements had become too strangled and suffocated to go any further, so that all she could do was perch and rest awhile.
“It’s good to rest,” came a voice from above. “Don’t be discouraged. I assure you, resting is a part of the journey also.”
She wanted to ask who it was that spoke, but her face was too tight now to form words, and the lids of her eyes closed shut by themselves.

Danaus dreamed again of soaring the skies, and in the morning, greeted the sunrise as though she was busting out of her skin. And in fact, that is exactly what she was doing. Away fell the shell that had held her prisoner in her own body, exposing fresh skin that tingled as the sun brushed its gentle fingers across her back.
“Are you ready now?” asked the unseen voice of the day before.
“Yes! I am ready to take on the world!” she replied.
“It gets more dangerous from here,” the speaker warned. “There will be birds above waiting to make a snack of you.”
“I’m not scared. I was born to fly. I will reach the top.”
“In that case,” he told her, “you should eat. Not carefully like you have been. Dig down to the white beneath the stem. That’s where the poison is.”
“You want me to ingest poison?”
“Yes. For you it is not poison, but medicine. It will keep the birds from eating you.”
“I don’t know I should trust you,” she said. “Who are you?”
“I am Asclepius,” he replied. “Named for a great god of healing.”
“I am Danaus. Nice to meet you,” she told him, before digging in for a meal, as she was instructed.
After filling her belly until it sagged heavy between her many feet, she resumed her ascent. The sun felt hotter and the breeze stronger and when she looked around her, the wonders of the world spread out before her in the way a distant spider web shimmered, and in the dance of the spotted lady bug as it scurried over the long arch of a blade of grass. All of these things she could never have imagined before, so that she knew there must be many more unseen things waiting to be discovered.
But each time she began to make progress, her movements would become constricted again until the casing of her too small body brought her to a standstill. Rallying against her own skin, and exhausted she would say, “I can’t go on,” but remembering her dreams would add, “I must go on.”
“You will,” Asclepius would assure her, “when you are ready.”
Danaus had no time to rest, having been born with the fear that she would not have enough life to realize her aspirations. But her body choked her into a forced rest at its will, so that each time she had no choice but to wait patiently for the outer layer she no longer needed to break away.

Danaus awoke one morning, feeling much too large for the way she remembered herself. “Good morning!” Asclepius greeted her. “How do you feel on this fine day?”
“Fantastic! But strange. As though I have doubled my size.” Danaus replied
 “You’ve done more than that,” he said. “You will have grown two thousand times your size before you reach the top.”
“Will that be soon?” she asked.
“Yes” said Asclepius.
“And then I can see you at last.”
“I am not sure I will be here that long. I must fly myself soon.”
“Wait for me? Please.”
“Danaus,” he said, “I wish I could promise you that, but when my wind blows, it will be my time. But don’t worry about me. You must worry about your dream.”
“My dream is to fly. Wait for me and we will fly together.”
Danaus worked her many legs as fast as she could up the stem of the milkweed, until at last there was nowhere further up to go. The pink petals of the wild roses blushed below her as bees kissed their centres. The wind at last tickled her belly and shuffled her antennae. But her friend was nowhere to be seen.
“Asclepius!” she called with panic.
“Yes,” he answered.
“I was scared you had already left. Where are you? I can’t see you.”
“I am inside this pod here, along with many many others. It is getting very tight and crowded here. Soon our wind will come and we will be launched out to our destinies.”
“Can I come with you?” she asked.
“Have you formed your wings yet?”
Danaus looked down the long wrimpled folds of her body. There were no wings. She had reached the sky, but she was not yet a bird.
“Ah,” said Asclepius, understanding her silence. “They will come yet, but not before I leave, I fear.”
Danaus was sad, as she looked out into the open sky. “It is so big,” she said. “If you leave before me, how will I ever find you?”
“There is no chance, Danaus. Together we are all part of a much larger cycle of things. Only one in ten of your kind ever make it, and yet you did. It was your role in the cycle to be that one who survived. When I leave, don’t worry. If it is a part of our cycle, we will meet again.”
Danaus sat quietly and reflected on how far she had come. No longer could she remember the moist smell of the earthworms, or the glint off the black ant’s back. The clouds were so close now she could almost touch them, but it was not far enough.
“Danaus?” said Asclepius.
“Yes?”
“It is time. My wind has come.”
“No,” she cried. “I will go with you.”
“You would fall to your death Danaus, and then how would we meet again?”
Just then the pod that held him cracked open with a snap, as a gust lifted Asclepius by the fluffy tuft of his fine hair, carrying him far away from her.
Danaus stood peering hard into the horizon, until he faded beyond the blue and white of the sky. And then he was gone.
The sun hurt through the tears in her eyes. Defeated and earthbound even at her great height, she crawled from the light to the underside of a leaf to be alone with her loneliness. But it was not alone enough, so she wound her crippled body up tight until it was hidden in a chrysalis far away from the world that had not given her wings when she needed them.
           
The weeks passed and she gave up on wanting to return to the outside. All her dreams inside the dark cocoon were filled with the promise of flight, but Asclepius was gone and she was only asleep.
            And then one day Danaus came unexpectedly awake again. Her back itched and she suddenly missed the feel of the sun. She didn’t know where she would go or what she would do if she went back out into the world. But she thought maybe with the last of her life, she would jump from the leaf and take the final risk that it would cost to feel her body move freely through the air.
            She pushed out of her little shell, her body damp and strange feeling to her. Blood pumped from her shoulders out beyond where she had remembered having had sensation before. She crawled back to the top of the leaf, and standing there under the morning sun, caught the wide shadow she cast.
            Turning her head and looking back she saw them now, the great wings she had grown in her dreams, the sun baking them hard and ready for flight.
            “Come, sister!” chattered one hundred voices above her.
            “Is this my wind?” she called back.
            “Yes,” replied the many fluttering orange and black creatures as the passed overhead. “This is the south wind that leads us home.”
            Danaus filled her lungs with breath, and as if by reaction to the tickle of the wind, let her wings shiver in ripples, until she rose up into the air to join the mass Monarch Migration.
           
            Her travels took her over thousands of miles to where the leaves were thick and green and the fruit ripe. The weather was warm and the sun shone often, but still she thought constantly of Asclepius, her lost friend.
            Then one day, when she least expected it, the wind came again—the kind of wind that calls the heart to follow. “Can it be?” she asked.
“Oh yes,” replied the Monarch who was perched next to her. “For each of us, there comes a second wind.”
            Danaus did not know where her second wind would lead, only that it was hers and must be followed.
            She flew many weeks back over familiar places that now appeared strange—the flowers and grasses shrunken, but exploding with vivid colour. She flew until the wind no longer blew for her, and then, exhausted, she settled on a milkweed to rest.
            “Danaus?” the milkweed asked.
            “Yes. How do you know who I am?”
            “By your feel. I knew you in darkness, so how could I not know you now in light?”
            “Asclepius!” she cried. “Where are you?”
            “Right here.”
            “But I don’t see you?”
            “I am right here.”
            Danaus lifted a foot and looked at the flower beneath it.
            “I know, I am much bigger now. And you? Look how you have grown? You have your wings. And I have my roots.”
“But you cannot fly with me now,” Danaus said disappointed.
“It is all part of the cycle,” Asclepius assured her. “I will feed you nectar from my flower to give you strength, and you will carry pollen out to the other flowers for me, and bring pollen from them back here to me.”
            And so Danaus was Asclepius’s wings, and he nourished her for it. Until one day when Asclepius had little nectar left to offer the already waning Danaus.
             “I am very tired,” she told him. “I am not sure I can go out again.”
            “Yes, I know,” Asclepius told her. “There is a new wind coming for you.”
            “But I don’t want to leave you.”
            “You won’t,” he said. “You will always be right here with me, but this is the way of our cycle together. You will lay your eggs on my leaves, and when they awake, I will feed your children and keep their dreams of flight alive.”
            Danaus did as Asclepius asked, and placed her eggs in his care, but her heart felt so heavy, she did not think she could fly again when the new wind came for her.
“Asclepius?” she said.
“Yes?”
“I think I must rest now.”
“Yes, Danaus. It is time now for you to come up here to the top. Your wind is almost here.”
Slowly Danaus crawled to the top of Asclepius’s dwindling flower and looked out across the meadow that spread before her. She was once a caterpillar that dreamed of wings, and now she was a butterfly who had travelled half the world and back again to find her friend.
“Close your eyes and rest now,” Asclepius told her. “I will hold you until it comes.”
Danaus kissed him softly with the last of her breath and fell away into a sleep that transcended the touch of sunlight.

And as her babies dreamed they were birds, the wind came softly under her still wings and carried her body over the sea of milkweed, the seeds of Asclepius trailing softly behind her. 

The end.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

I wake confused
and weak and empty
and know that she
is gone again

how will I dance
without her
the unfaithful lover
of my essence
the careless mate
to my soul
who has stolen
the sharpness
from my eyes

and turned me to
a hungry dog
that does not recognize 
its reflection
in the mirror
the beast who likes
the taste of blood
of everything she loved

but if somehow
you catch a glimpse
of the gentleness
now gone 
somewhere soaring
in the light 
tell her I am sorry
for all the hurt
I couldn't stop
and the hurt I could
and the times I lied
and told her we
were strong enough
when I knew too well
we weren't

but do not 
come closer
to this empty shell 
filling now with
whatever passes through
what you are seeking
lingers beside you
like a ghost
a breeze too faint
to sense
that longs also
to feel

Monday, June 22, 2015

When I found
there was no 
room left
in your heart
for me

I hollowed out
my own
leaving not
an empty hole
to bleed into
the dark

but a place
I've saved
to fill with light
so when 
your own heart

has grown
too crowded
to remember 
refuge
for even you

you will know
that somewhere
on the other side
of the moon
there is a heart
where you
are always
welcome.





Saturday, May 30, 2015

Returning

He walked along the side of the mountain behind his uncle’s cabin, where he’d spent a cold night shivering on the floor. He’d half expected the old man to still be there just as he was all those years ago, unapologetically broken toothed, waving away as his nephew walked down the long path toward the highway that led to the city. But the cabin stood empty now with only the unblinking eyes of two busted out windows to greet his return.
            It hadn’t occurred to him that his uncle wouldn’t be there, not once in over fifteen years and fifty thousand miles of riding shotgun with red white and blue truckers and old couples offering coffee and the gospel. Not once. His uncle had always been there to greet him as he’d lain on his dorm room bed and walked his way back up the trail, had been waiting as he’d lain on a bare floor. He’d lain on moldy bunkhouse mattresses, and squeaky camp cots, and in grassy ditches and walked his way back to his uncle. But only now that he had walked back for real, he found the old man gone.
            He didn’t know why he’d never made it back before. He’d wanted to. He’d wanted to until his body bled with rot gut whiskey and his lungs oozed constant streams of cigarette smoke. But how could he go back home without his dreams? Those dreams his uncle had tended like they were the seeds that would one day grow to crops to keep them both from starvation? The dreams the old guy’d packed in the rucksack like precious heirlooms and sent him down the road with? He’d lost those dreams. A quick glance in his eyes would have given away how hollow they now were—all that as lost.
It was shame really that had anchored him to the road.
            Somewhere along the way the dreams abandoned him like runaway lovers, and slowly he replaced them with the ghosts of old memories: a cabin on a mountain side, fly fishing with a patient old man, nights playing cards at the kitchen table by the light of a Coleman lantern and the whir of an airtight stove.
            He pulled a pouch of tobacco from his pocket and some papers, then crouched and set them on his lap. He pinched a little tobacco between his fingers and dropped it on a paper, before rolling it into a tight tube and sealing it closed. Surveying the land as he stood, he tucked the pouch away. The sky filtered through the bushes like deep blue berries, as he lit his rollie and started off again, not exactly sure where he was going. Not that he’d ever been sure where he was going. Not the day he walked down the mountainside. Not in coming back.
            After he’d lost his dreams, he’d chased after new ones. But every time he got near the gilding faded to show the facade: a girl, a job, a promising opportunity—none of them the real thing. And then when he’d seen there was nothing of substance behind the shiny lure, he’d run from them. Each and every one.
            He picked his way along a deer trail that snaked through the brush. He could hear the soft footfalls of his uncle just ahead of him. Hear his breath. He squinted his eyes and in the early morning fog, the outline of the old man’s broad shoulders in a red lumberjack coat came into focus.
            Gloria would be crying now, waking to find he hadn’t come back. He should have felt more guilt, but then he figured she should have seen it coming. The truth was, he had always left one foot on the road, had never been able to get it past her door, always knowing that the day would come when both feet would have to stand on the same side. Yesterday was that day. It was kind of a shame that things worked out like this, because she’d been a good woman. It was never that she wasn’t the marrying kind. It was just that when he looked at the back of her head in the dark of the night, it didn’t make him forget the dreams he’d lost.
            He dropped his cigarette into a deep indent made where the hooves of deer and the hands of time had worn through the moss, and snubbed it out with his boot. Uncle, where are you? 
            The wind answered with a rippling of pine boughs and a shaking of birch limbs.
            Why did I come back here?
            The harsh squawk of a raven stood the hair on the back of his neck on end.
            I lost them. I don’t know where they went. Wearily, he settled his weight on a fallen log. I had them, but I lost them. I don’t know where they went.
            Through the curtain of foliage came the whispering reply. They’re here. Bent-backed and marked with the heavy awl of time, the old man stepped out into the light. Well, damn! Been a long time. Didn’t expect much to ever see you again.
            The man rubbed his eyes. Uncle?
            Well who else did you come to see?
            His tongue tied itself in tangles leaving him speechless.
            So where do you think they went?
            I don’t know, the man said lowering his eyes and shaking his head. That’s what I came back to find out.
Sliding over, he made room for his uncle to set his crooked frame down. He took one of his uncle’s weathered hands and held it tightly. It was the type of connection he hadn’t reached for since he was a child, but he needed now. It was too much. Fifteen years of self-imposed emotional solitude had left him so starved out he couldn’t hardly get out of bed most days.
            The old man smiled. Come on, I got something to show you.
Still holding the time tanned hand, he followed silently through the bush.
So, you want to find your dreams? I looked for mine for a long time, too...looked out my window for you to come back here with your fancy degree and fat spoiled kids, and thought maybe I’d get one of those telephones installed and we’d talk on Sundays. Or maybe I’d move into town and play bingo on Wednesday nights and babysit for you and your misses on Saturdays. But…he turned back to face his nephew…you didn’t come back at all. And I got to realizing that morning, that morning when I packed those dreams up in your bag, I packed the wrong ones.  He stared deep into his nephew’s eyes. It was mine. I sent you down the road with mine. And, here I sat with yours. And no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get filled up with them, you know? Tell me son, you ever get filled up with mine?
            The man shook his head.
            Thought not.
They came to a clearing and the old man stopped.
            I don’t understand. How did I take your dreams away with me?
            Well, it’s like this... His uncle laid down in the tall grass. Beside him a rusty axe blade and grey worn handle protruded from a stump.
            Uncle, are you all right? The man bent and offered him a hand up.
            The old man waived off the help. See, you walked out of here with a rucksack full of wanting a fancy degree and a wife and a big home and all those big notions, and you left behind a life of trapping and fishing and hiking the back trails of this here mountain. And when a man’s carrying the wrong dreams, they can’t never be the right ones. Those wrong dreams, they got to be put to rest. New ones got to grow, the kind meant for the soil of a man’s own heart.
            He shook his head. No, I really wanted to make you proud. I really wanted to do it all for you.
            His uncle let out a deep guttural laugh. Horse shit. You never wanted to leave. I wanted to leave.
            He peered into his uncle’s eyes and the flecks of them became like tiny wood ants, scurrying along the surface. He reached again for one of his uncle’s hands, but it lost substance, crumbling like water logged timber. The old man’s mouth fell silently open and from it sprouted a tiger lily. Ferns grew up between his ribs, and mushrooms from his shoulders.
Desperate to hold on to his uncle, the man brushed aside the tall grass that surrounded the decaying debris of an old tree. Beneath it, the limbs were stripped bare, but for the scattered shreds of rags from a faded lumberjack coat, and the scattered dark patches of mildew freckles against bleached bones.
The man fell to his knees.
            He sat there for a time equal to fifteen years, smoking home rolled cigarettes beside the body of his uncle who had long ago met his end of the road.

When he felt he had no more tears left in him to cry or prayers left to make, he stood again and started back toward the cabin, gathering bits of dry brush along the way.
            He came to the place of his childhood home with its busted out windows, and carried the bundle inside, opened the ancient creaky door of the rusty airtight stove and placed the tinder and branches in its belly. He took his lighter from his pocket and lit the fire.


The End

Monday, May 18, 2015

Candy Smokes

It wasn’t that I normally walked to the store that late at night, but I couldn’t sleep and I was having one of those insane cereal cravings. I get them a lot so I’m usually good about keeping milk in the house but Jeff, that’s my son, went and put the empty carton back in the fridge. You know how teens are and how was I to know that the carton staring me back in the face as I made my shopping list that morning belonged in the trash, like I’ve told him a thousand times, and not on the top shelf between the pickles and the cheese deceiving me with the false promise that at the obscene hour when I wanted it, it would deliver me a god-damn bowl of cereal?
            I didn’t have to go to the corner store. There is an all-night grocery close by but it’s a little more than walking distance and lately I’ve been on this kick about driving less, doing my part for the environment and all, and Lord knows my thighs need the exercise. So I decided to walk and yes, they charge you twice what the milk is worth at the corner store but with the price of gas these days, well, same difference.
 I should have been in and out of the store in less than a minute. That’s how I shop. Enter. Zone-in. Retrieve. Pay. Exit. But as I got to the counter I realized I’d forgotten my purse and had to pick through the spare change in my pockets, and it turned out I had more lint than coins, so I had to put the half gallon back and got the quart instead.
I was handing over the last nickel to the clerk when the man with the gun came running in and I couldn’t believe it because I’ve never been that close to a man with a gun before and he touched me, I remember that clearly, well not that he touched me, rather that his hands touched my right arm as he pushed me aside… no not a shove, it was just a push, and even though he pushed me, when I caught my bearings again I found that I was the only other person, besides him, still standing.
The middle-aged Korean clerk was on the floor huddled against the bottom of the cigarette stand behind the counter, his hands over his head and sobbing, and the other late-night shoppers (an elderly man, two teen-agers and a lady in a suit) had starfished themselves against the dirty beach of  the floor.
The man with the gun seemed as unnerved by my lone uprightness as I was and I could see it in his mismatched eyes when he turned his masked face toward me… yes, mismatched eyes screaming through the holes of a balaclava. Like what the heck lady???
You know you can never say how you’ll react in those types of situations. Me? I just stared back my vision divided between the one blue and one brown eye… one blue…one brown... I’d seen that before, not that I could remember where but as I stood there my mind riffled through a plethora of memories—snapshots filed haphazardly under miscellaneous.
            One blue…one brown… it was that day I had a flat tire on the interstate five… no six years ago and I’d been all dressed up to make a big presentation to potential clients—clients my boss had reminded me no less than seven times that month that we needed if he was going to be able to keep everyone (meaning me) on staff, and there I was running late out of my Ativan anxiety medication, my sick and puking son probably in the school nurses’ room because I couldn’t find childcare... and then my tire blew… as in exploded. Not just a small leak. Exploded… and I had to extract myself from four lanes of traffic to pull over safely onto the shoulder.
My husband had died two years before and I’d spent those past two years having to learn to take care of a lot of things on my own— emptying mouse traps, cleaning gutters, and changing flats included, but this flat had the worst possible timing. I mean the rain was pouring and I was dressed in an expensive white blouse and even more expensive pale pink skirt, but the tire wasn’t going to change itself so I got out and popped the trunk and was just reaching in for the spare when a man in a blue Volkswagen pulled up behind me. Like you expect a guy in a Volkswagen to know how to change a tire.
            “No. Let me get that. Please? I wouldn’t want you to get dirty,” he’d said, as he pushed me gently aside. As he said it I noticed his mismatched eyes. One was deep cobalt blue. The other was a rusty brown.  
It all happened so quickly, really he’d had me back on the road in minutes and even as I sifted through the memories in my mind, the only one not face down on the corner store floor, I couldn’t remember a single detail about the man beyond his strange mismatched eyes.
What was his name…? I was sure he’d given it to me. Or had he…? Because I have to tell you I am horrible with names, so bad in fact that I actually once ordered a DVD off a late night infomercial because it promised to help me be more successful in the business world just by teaching me the tricks of Moniker Memory, but Moniker Memory, all eight dvds, were at home sitting on the kitchen counter where they’d been collecting dust in their cardboard wrapping for the past nine years.
I don’t know how much time passed, maybe ten minutes, maybe ten years— it sure felt like I’d been staring at the man with the gun for a long time but who knows? All I know is that it took an eternity for a single bead of sweat run down the length of his eyelid and drip from his left lash, because time always gets like that, all slowed down like you’re in another dimension inside a black hole or a wormhole or something.
He was scared. Hell I was scared, and the whole store was scared, and I don’t know why but I reached for a pack of candy. I think I was after gum but I just grabbed the first thing and really reaching for anything at all could have been enough to startle the guy and get me shot or something. But I took the pack in my hand and read the label that said Candy Crayons which is just the new pc marketing-ploy cheesy-ass name for them because I went through a lot of these when I was a kid, seriously how many times had I ridden around the neighborhood on a banana seat bike with one of these little sticks dangling from my lips? A cigarette. Not a crayon. The rest of the pack rolled up in my t-shirt sleeve like I was one bad ass eleven year old easy rider.
“Remember these?” I said holding them up to the man with the gun. “Wanna smoke?” I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I’d probably lost my mind. But if I was crazy I was owning it. “It’s OK. These ones won’t stunt your growth.”
            The gun shook in his outstretched hands, and I could tell my behavior was definitely alarming him by the twitch that jerked his shoulders as he turned back to the Korean clerk. “Get off your butt and give me the cash,” he told him.
             I opened the pack and shoved one in my mouth but when I exhaled no fine mist of candy powder came out where the red tip should have been. I mean really that was the best part but it probably saves the candy company a fortune in production though I wasn’t going to let a missing effect or two stop me. So I puffed it anyway trying not to look like some hipster vaping millennial ’cause that’s what society produces when it gives kids sugar crayons instead of real god damn candy smokes. And the guy with the gun? I figured him to be at least my age so I asked him, “Ever play cops and robbers? I always played the robber. You too I bet.”
            He stared hard at me with his mismatched eyes and I wasn’t sure if he wanted to hit me or laugh. “Cop. Now shut up!”
            “So what happened?”
            He lifted his forearm like he was going to pistol whip me, but I stood my ground. “Shut up lady! Just shut up!” he said refocusing his aim across the counter at the clerk. “You. I thought I told you give me the money in the till.”
            The middle-aged Korean man didn’t look capable of unfurling himself from a quivering ball on the floor and really who could blame him, but he rose slowly anyway.
            “You changed a flat for me once,” I said as matter-of-factly as I could manage, letting out a deep James Dean exhale.
            “Lady, shut up. Just shut up. I need to think.”
            I drew from my sweet faux cigarette. “So what happened? How does the guy who stopped to change a stranger’s flat or played the cop as a kid end up in a store with a gun?”
            The clerk had managed to make it unsteadily to his feet but his flustered jelly fingers produced no result as he banged on the till keys over and over again. 
            “Lady,” said the man with the gun stepping so close his black wool nose nearly touched mine, “what the hell is wrong with you? I have a gun.” He waved it around too just to make sure I saw.
            I cocked my head to the side and drew a deep McQueen inhalation.
            “You’re nuts lady. Flat tires and candy smokes? What the hell is your deal?”
“Come on. All the cool kids are doing it.” Yeah, I was Queen McQueen all royal and cool.
 “Lady...”
I don’t remember the thwack. Just the ting that echoed as I stepped back to let the silenced man fall to the floor.
A muscular Asian kid stepped forward, an aluminum bat now limp at his side. The kid had a pencil behind one ear. He wore a name tag with the moniker Chul-Moo stamped into it.
Blood flooded the floor through the back of the black balaclava.
The school of starfish became erect again and crowded curiously.  
            I reached for my cell phone to dial 9-1-1 but it was at home in my purse. My god-damn purse. If I’d remembered my purse, or driven to the all-night grocery store instead, or if my son could unplug from his iPod and plug back into the world long enough to throw an empty carton out, or if I’d just remembered the gunman’s name, Jake, which I only remembered after the twitching mismatched eyes were locked into a dull ceiling stare…
I gritted my teeth like Eastwood and threw the stub of my spent candy butt in the slowly creeping pool of a dead man’s blood, reached over the counter and grabbed a pack of Marlboros and book of matches, stuffed a bottle of bourbon in my pocket and stepped back out into the night.


The End

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Portrait of Crown and Bannock

This story originally appeared in Prairie Fire Magazine after it was a finalist in the 2010 McNally Robinson Creative Nonfiction contest.

1
Joe came into my life in an unceremonious way. I was seven. My brother was with our father and I’d spent the night at the sitter’s, because my father no longer took me. Friday night was my mother’s night off. I’d go to the sitter’s and she’d dress in the one half-nice outfit she owned and take the city bus down to the Buffalo Hotel with her friend who lived in the apartment below us.  
            Saturday mornings, I took a sadistic pleasure in waking her from groggy, hung-over-sleep. I’d get up early, walk across the parking lot to our apartment complex and let myself in with the key I kept on a white shoelace around my neck. But, that morning when I burst through the door to exact my punishment on her for not spending the night with me, it was different. A stranger’s oily head was laying on my pale pink pillow case.
            The sun shone through the bed-sheet-curtain onto his terracotta, pock-marked skin, his eyes shielded from it by shaggy black bangs. The room reeked of man smell, booze and stale cigarette smoke. I took a step back; as if a wider angle would help me to better understand the picture.
            My mother, becoming aware of my presence, opened her eyes. She sat up, reached for her cigarettes and presented me with a defiant look of teenage rebellion. She was twenty-seven. Her lips parted in a smug, disobedient smile, as if to say, “So you caught me. What’re you going to do about it?” No apology. No explanation. She lit a cigarette, a new habit for her, puffed out a breath of smoke and told me that Joe would be living with us from now on. I would have to share a room with my little brother.          
            I shrugged my shoulders like I didn’t care— caring was letting her win. I went back outside and hopped on my green, banana seat bike and rode circles around the park, until I was called for lunch. I expected a cold bologna sandwich, but when I stepped into the apartment, I found Joe at the stove frying potatoes and onions, like he owned my mother’s kitchen. The thought of eating his cooking made me ill. 
            He set a greasy plate in front of me and I looked from it to him. I didn’t want either. He smiled shyly, without saying a word. My mother pleaded with embarrassment, but I left my food untouched and went back out to ride my bicycle.
A light prairie rain fell on my back as I peddled. It didn’t matter. I kept riding; until I saw him come out the front door. I stopped my bike and watched him from across the street. He walked with his head down, tucked into the collar of his lumberjack coat, staring at his toes. My father never walked with his head down. When he disappeared around the corner, I rode back to the building, locked my bike to the stair rail and ran up to our apartment. He was gone!
 My mother was sleeping on the couch and I wondered what she had been thinking, as I stared at the Smurfs on the TV and crammed handfuls of dry Fruit Loops into my mouth.
            My independence was short lived, however. Joe let himself into our apartment without even knocking. He had a box of Black Label beer slung over his shoulder, and he looked at me guiltily from under those shaggy bangs. He kicked off his cheap Velcro SAAN store shoes and he looked for a moment like maybe he got it and felt bad for invading my home, but it didn’t make him leave. He walked past me and set the case of beer beside the kitchen table. My father would have at least put the bottles in the fridge.
            I see it all from the outside now— a family portrait, I sitting on the floor in front of the TV with my Fruit Loops, my mother snoring on the couch in the foreground, and Joe cracking a beer in the background. I call it: Initiation of the Child of an Alcoholic

.
2
My brother stared at me with confusion and accusation. We had a sort of sibling telepathy and I could read his expression. He was asking who this man was and how could I have let this happen. There was nothing I could do. I didn’t like it anymore than he did. But, I felt guilty for not being able to make it all better.
            Joe worked the rigs, which meant that he didn’t work much, except in the winter. He spent his summers drinking beer and collecting U.I. So, my mother decided that he could be our new sitter. I liked our old one better. He fed us healthy, rich people food and read books to us. I doubted if Joe knew how to read. At the old sitter’s we had lunch at the same time every day, and were only allowed one hour of television. Joe fed us whenever and didn’t care what we watched on TV, but he was strict, really strict. We hated the chores he gave us and how he made us sit up straight, and if we chewed with our mouths open, even if we had a cold, he would take his saliva-coated, food-slimed fork from his beer-and-onion-breath mouth and rap our fingers with it. In fact, rapping our knuckles was his favourite form of punishment. He didn’t yell like our mother. He didn’t give warnings. His face would just turn mean and tangled and he’d lash our knuckles with whatever was handy. Sometimes, he would even smack me across the face.
            Things weren’t all bad, though. He usually cooked us breakfast, which was less lonely than pouring our own bowls of cereal before heading to the sitter’s. It was always fried potatoes, or bannock. If my childhood mornings had a taste, they would taste like Joe’s bannock, smothered with butter and saskatoon jelly.
            He took us places, too. He loved the outdoors like no one from the city I’d ever met. I thought he might be like me, but not for too long, because it weirded me out. I thought about it just long enough to wonder if the traffic also kept him awake at night, and if he missed the country like I did. I hated our musty apartment.
When Joe wanted to go, all he’d say was, “Come on.” It was a lot of words for him. When we got our marching orders, we’d pull on our shoes and wait for him to find his fishing rod. Then, we’d walk. We’d walk and walk. We’d walk, until we were too winded to protest. We’d walk, until we were too tired to even think a complaint. We’d walk, until our little brains transcended the pain of our blistered feet and we’d follow him into a place of release, where the confusion of the world was forgotten along with our discomfort and exhaustion.
            The river wasn’t just for fishing. Joe was a stone skipper too— the best I ever saw. He’d wind back his arm and send a rock jumping like popcorn toward the far bank. Ours usually died with an instant balloup. My brother took on learning Joe’s skill like an apprentice studying a master. I gave up, preferring to scratch non-permanent words in the sand with a stick— sads and lonelies I could stomp out with my foot.
When I look back at him there on the shore, I don’t see him as the cliché— the Hollywood Indian, organically silent and quiet. Instead, I see the opposite. This picture is called: Man with the Indian Beat Out of Him

3
Winter came and Joe left for the rigs. We went back to the sitter’s. Then, one day he appeared at our stove frying steaks and drinking Crown Royal. When Joe drank beer, he sat at the table and was quiet. When he drank Crown he moved around a lot and got loud. I didn’t like him like that, but I did like the purple draw string sacks with the Crown logo on them. He gave them to me to put my Barbie things in. I also liked that we left the apartment for a fourplex on the other side of the park. We were moving up in the world, though children still came by door-to-door on Wednesdays selling meat from their freezers so their moms could go to bingo and everyone’s parents got drunk and made a lot of noise at night.
            We lived the high life when Joe first came home. He gave us money every day to buy slushies and rent movies at the store. He even bought us new skates. But, within a couple of weeks the money was gone. Joe packed to go back to the rigs, and my mother made an appointment at the food bank. It was feast or famine from the time he walked into our lives—steak and Crown, and powdered milk and canned vegetables.
Spring came and my mother bought an old canvas tent from the used sporting goods store with her tax return. Joe was back and we all went camping as a family. He whittled us whistles from green twigs and taught us to cook bannock on a stick like a hot dog. We’d fill the centre holes with jam, and let it squish out all over us. It was better than marshmallows. We were finally a Rockwell portrait: Happy Family Camping.
            In the winter, he went back to the rigs and we started the cycle again. It was like the same movie playing over and over, until one fall when we came home from school to find Joe gone. Our mother explained that he was in trouble and it would be cleared up soon. It wasn’t. He went to jail— convicted without evidence, as my mother always reminded us. He’d been in trouble once before when he had too much Crown and threw a chair through the picture window. The police had come and hauled him away, as he pounded his Velcro shoes against the back door of the cop car. It was a drunk-tank crime, not the sort of thing you go away for. We couldn’t see him doing anything you go away for.

Prison didn’t terrify Joe like it did me. He met us with a smile, at ease, as if Bowden wasn’t a scary place where people in uniforms searched you for drugs and locked you behind row after row of concentric, barred gates. I wished my father would get rid of his girlfriend so I could visit him on weekends, instead.
            I asked my mother why she stayed with Joe.  She told me she didn’t want to be lonely and that she had a right to be happy. We were all miserable. She cried every night.

The worst Christmas I ever had was the one when Santa gave me someone else’s Barbies. I could tell, because they had chopped off hair and wore outfits crocheted by my mother. It was also our first Christmas without my father.
            The second worst Christmas was the one we had at Bowden. Instead of drinking hot chocolate and eating gingerbread cookies, we hopped in the back of my mother’s Nova and drove down to see Joe. In the movies kids always sit around a tree getting puppies and doll carriages. We spent Christmas morning being searched. The guards even cut a small hole in the back of the teddy my father gave me, to search for contraband. It was the first gift my father had given me in three years. Later, I didn’t care. I found a receipt for it in my mother’s things.
            I hadn’t expected anything from Joe. It wasn’t like he could shop in prison. Besides, I didn’t even like him. Why would he give me anything? I was shocked and even a little embarrassed when he shyly handed me a brown paper package. I suspected it really came from my mother, but it didn’t. It really was from him. Inside was a beaded necklace and earrings like I’d seen women wear to powwows and rodeos. The beads were ice-blue and orange and strung together by his own hands into spider webs that hung in Vs. I didn’t want to give in, but they were stunning and I put them on immediately. I even thought for a split second about giving him a hug, but I didn’t.
            Joe held my mother’s hand, while we children played Twister and shuffle board, all of us trying to make the best of it. The adults pretended it was Christmas, but we knew better. No artist would paint: Children Playing Twister in Jail, on Christmas.

4
When Joe was up for parole, we cleaned the house spotless. A lady in a grey suit came by to inspect our place, peering under beds and in closets. Joe was denied parole, because of the collection of empties we had gathered for refund at the depot. The lady thought they belonged to my mother and said it was an environment non-conducive to rehabilitation.
At the end of his sentence, Joe was released to the Salvation Army rehab program, right next to the Friendship Centre— that’s how he described where it was to my mother. I knew it, because my father painted the sign on the western wear store next door, back when I was still his daughter. I felt like his sign could see us. I hung my head and hurried in the door.
            Joe was high on sobriety when we found him reading the bible in the visiting room. His sobriety was intoxicating and soon the rest of us were hooked, too. If my father painted our portrait it would’ve been entitled: Model Family of a Recovering Alcoholic.
We started going to church regularly. Church wasn’t entirely new to our lives. Joe had reached out before, dragging us to beautiful old monuments, strict and full of ceremony. We were always met with the same look of suppressed horror and castigation my grade two teacher gave me when she found me playing barefoot on the playground, my ill-fitting shoes cast off. She called me a dirty, little heathen under her breath as she walked away, but I heard her.
The church people liked to sit us in the front row of pews like an exhibit: White Trash Woman with Heathen Kids and Savage. An usher would persistently hold a basket out, trying to convince us that God needed our bus change more than we did, while the congregation felt all warm inside for opening their doors to sinners. We learned a lot about sin in those churches— mostly that poverty was a sin. We walked home a lot, too.
            I usually wore a dress from a thrift shop. My favourite was a calico blouse and button down skirt with a fake petticoat sewn behind it. It was something Shania Twain would’ve worn in the early days. My mother preferred slouch boots and bright corals. My brother, when he was with us for Sundays, dressed in western shirts and Wranglers bought by our dad. But, Joe owned only t-shirts, jeans and SAAN Velcro shoes.
            As soon as the sermon would begin, quiet Joe would start slowly ripping those Velcro tabs. He’d rip them up and stick them down. Rip them up and stick them back down. I was ashamed of him. I’d sink low in the pew and pray to be made invisible.
            Joe would laugh mischievously to himself, before performing his final stunt. He’d close his eyes and fade off into a loud guttural sleep. Those old churches were designed to carry noise and his snores were no exception. We’d wake him as soon as the service was over and make a getaway as quickly as possible, never to return.
I never found God in those places, but I think Joe found exactly what he was looking for.

5
Joe gave up working on the rigs. It wasn’t an environment conducive to sobriety, or steak and bottles of Crown Royal and trips to the store for slushies. He took a job at a plant nursery. It was the perfect job for a man who loved nature and disliked talking. He stayed on there for a long time. Once, he brought me home a flowering cactus. I promised to never let it die, but it did. 
On one of Joe’s days off, he asked my mother if he could borrow her car to visit a friend who lived in a town near our father’s farm. He’d been on the wagon for close to a year and none of us were worried. In the days before sobriety, it would be a certain runaway, but he was different now. He was born again and Jesus had made him a new man.
            His boss called on the third day to say he was fired. He came back on the fourth. We had just moved to a new town outside of the city and my mother missed her exams at the college. He didn’t apologize. Instead, he threw rhetoric in her face about how she was as fat as a cow and couldn’t keep house worth a squat. It wasn’t his words. It was my father’s. My mother refused to take Joe back.
            She drove us to the beach for ice-cream, to make it easier on us. At first, I felt like celebrating. The sick feeling didn’t hit me, until my brother found our father’s cowboy hat in the back seat of the car. I dropped my vanilla cone out the window into the dirt and called it: Sabotage.

There is a man who hangs out by the Liquor Store. His hair is to his shoulders, he’s dirty and walks with a limp, and sometimes I can swear he’s Joe.
            In my dreams he recognizes me. I take him in the store and buy him a bottle of Crown Royal, instead of that cheap Royal White wine he drinks from a green jug. We go to Wal-Mart, because we have no SAAN anymore, and I buy us both a pair of cheap Velcro shoes. It’s Sunday and we decide to go to my sister-in-law’s church, the one my husband’s ex also attends. We sit in the front pew, aimed and ready to rip, as soon as the minister opens his mouth. When everyone looks on us with pity and condemnation we just laugh, numb with Crown we share straight from the bottle. No one raps our knuckles.
After, we go to the river. Joe teaches me how to skip stones like a pro and we eat bannock with saskatoon jelly. I draw our portrait in the sand: Father with Daughter. He tells me he loves me. I hug him and tell him, “I’m sorry.”
The End