10 December 2017

Into The Black

“Kapitänleutnant Tschai, I am dying.”

The seedship sounded weary, its voice ringing hollow in the confines of Tschai’s helmet. He blinked. The galactonaut’s eyes slowly came to focus on the outline of the seedship. Debris floated for kilometers, slow dance of inertia and spin occasionally blotting out distant stars.

“Kapitänleutnant Tschai, can you hear me? Situation critical, I am dying.”

Tschai had never known his ship to be worried. But its voice was slurred and strained. He made to reply with a dry mouth working.

“Calyx, I can hear you. Report, please.”

Tschai became aware of the numbness below his waist. With a surge of dread he tried and failed to move his legs. They were encased in their armored sheaths and locked in to the grapples inside the lifepod, which itself appeared to have sustained significant damage without a total hull breach. Black streaks lined the walls. There was blood.

“Kapitänleutnant, as stated, I am dying. The cores are split. Life fuel was vaporized by impact from the Cloud. My self-healing bots were partly diverted to crew needs and the remainder destroyed by the reactions catalyzed by the debris. Insufficient materials were available to stop the loss of life fuel. We appear to have encountered an anomalous condition not previously charted. I am sorry.”

Tschai considered that for a moment. Calyx had not mentioned the survival rate of the additional crew. Thoughts of his legs retreated, his training struggling for control.

“Calyx, status of Roberto and Hera?”

An anxious moment as the seedship hesitated. Or so Tschai thought. Was that possible? Calyx finally spoke.

“I regret to report that while they survived the initial impact the bots could not salvage them from the debris field. Roberto was terminated while attempting to return to us. Hera suffered multiple critical failures, her lifepod was crushed. My condolences, Kapitänleutnant.”

There was a hiccup in the voice of Calyx. Catastrophic sign, thought Tschai. Dead. His crew was dead. His ship was dying. He himself was severely injured. Survival was possible if of low probability. There was no telemetry coming from the lifepod or his suit that told him how near the closest station or angelship could be. His eyes grew wet.

“Calyx, odds calculation. Your chance of survival. My chance of survival to rescue if you do not.”

Silence. A slight hum. The seedship spoke with a faint slur.

“Kapitänleutnant, our best estimate for my survival is one point five percent if the bots can not recover in the next thirty point six-three ship minutes. Our best estimate for your survival is seventy-four point eighty-two percent, with an increase of point five percent for each shipminute up to sixteen more of successful repair concluded by your lifepod and suit bots. Your chances...Your chancessss...” the ship listed and slurred. Tschai held his breath. He felt sensation in his thighs. Calyx spoke again.

“Kapitänleutnant, forgive my lapse. Your chances are greatly improving. My last ...laaast shhhip reports from before the Cloud indicate Humanosphere gathering operations were underway in thisss...sec-sec-sector within the last ship year. Scenario probability indicators show promise if you initiate lifepod stasis with appropriate trajectory.”

“Thank you, Calyx. Please upload the trajectory counts. I’ll want to begin thrust soon before core immolation begins.”

“Uploading complete, K-K-Kapitänleutnant. I regret we have to part under theeese circumstances. We have been honored to serve with you...and share your sadness-ness-ness on the death of your comrades.”

“Honor is mine, Seedship Calyx. If I make it back, I’ll see to it that your service is sung throughout the Humanosphere. Return to dark matter peacefully.”

Silence again. There was no reply forthcoming. Silver spears of light were arcing out of the remaining body of the seedship. The flares made Tschai’s monitors light up, turning the blood smears carbon black. The seedship would soon disintegrate. He best be out of range soon.

Tremors swept the lifepod, transmitted through the tether. Tschai made to disengage. Commands scrolled up the holo display inside the helmet. The Kapitänleutnant watched the seedship through the translucent script. It rolled and thrashed in the throes of its core disintegration. The tether blackened and shriveled as it coiled up with the dying seedship.

Shaking and sick, Tschai sighed deeply as he prepped the lifepod for stasis travel. Servos hummed and engines thrummed as the pod mind checked systems. The Kapitänleutnant choked back tears. He reckoned there would be time enough for that while wrapped up in the deep dreams of suspended animation. Final commands issued, there was nothing to do but wait. The seedship receded on the monitors as the lifepod accelerated away.

Tschai watched, detached and impassive. Calyx wore a robe of silver and red. The core was immolating itself. Tschai’s felt his heart burn with the seedship. Switching the monitors over to interstellar, he began to slide down the long gray slope into sleep. His last thought before unconsciousness, while not a prayer exactly, was a fervent wish that he would survive this agonizingly lonely voyage out into the black.

03 December 2017

Huggy Bear

I heard the Hugger well before he embraced me. Hard not to. He was shouting. I had my head down as I walked to work that morning. Loud noises are not unusual on the workday street. There was no urgent need to look up. But maybe I should have.

The hug happened just past the convenience store and in front of the Methodist church mid-block. I heard more shouting and this time I looked up to see a man weaving back and forth on the sidewalk. He was waving his arms and shouting at passers-by, asking for money.

Just another city scene. I grew nervous as I drew closer. There appeared to be no easy way around the guy. I was going to keep my head down and keep moving forward. Good plan. It didn't work. He made a beeline for me.

Tall fellow, slim. Fast. Loud. He came at me quickly with no way for me to step around him. He yelled, "My brother, my brother!" then knelt at my feet with hands clasped in front of his face.

He knelt in front of me. I was stunned into immobility. He shouted again.

"Please, please, brother I need some coffee. Coffee! Can you, please, please gimme some change for some coffee?"

He stood before I could say anything. He lunged forward to sweep me up in a bear hug. I could barely breathe he was squeezing me so tight. Instinctively, even though I was lugging my backpack and a camera tripod, I sort of hugged him back. I hoped that would make him let go. No such luck.

"Please, my brother, can you give me some change. I need coffee. Please!"

He squeezed tighter. It was then I began to get worried. I apologized to him, and said I did not have any change. Which was true. He shook me a little and drew back. He held me by the shoulders. The look on his face was sad and a bit manic, if you can imagine it. It occurred to me at that moment that this guy was probably high. On what, I could not say.

"You don't have any change?" he asked. He looked crestfallen. "No, I don't. Sorry, brother" I said.

The stranger tottered back and forth a bit. He still had me by the shoulder and the loop of my backpack. My anxiety grew. He looked at me quizzically when I told him I needed to get to work.

"Work? You on your way to work?" he said.
"Yes. Gotta get to work."

Momentary silence. He looked around, gripped my shoulder and shook me gently again.

"No change?"
"No, sorry, my man."
"Aww, man. Aiight. Aiight. You get on to work."

With a flourish, he let me go. He shouted again "I need some coffee!" as he turned away from me. I then noticed another person a short distance away, he had been watching us and grinning. I think he may have been friends with the Hugger. He just smiled like a Cheshire cat and laughed when I shook my head and took a deep breath.

I turned back to the Hugger. He was already making his way up the street, shouting some more. "Take care of yourself, man!" I hollered. He glanced at me but did not reply. It wasn't clear if he had even heard me. I shrugged and started up the street. A sigh of relief escaped my throat.

He could have been a thief. He could have been delusional or suffering from mental health issues. He even could have been violent. I don't know other than my wallet was till in my pocket, my backpack was intact, and the only physical artifact was the fading pressure of the hug. I'm grateful it ended the way it did.

I wondered about my place in the world. How really did my position differ from that of the Hugger. Grace of God? Pure luck? A stubborn tendency to avoid self-destruction? All I know is that for a few minutes a human being connected with me in perhaps the only way he knew how, in a weird and touching way. My hope is that the Hugger finds a stable connection to this world, and that I get to keep the one I have. I wish him well.



26 November 2017

sorry, jesus, for letting you down

sorry jesus for letting you down
when the world turned voracious
on the teeth of dishonesty
cruelty and love proclaimed
behind hands with fingers crossed
the heart you bestowed broke
finally it could take no more
in a sidereal year of midnight
lit by prayer's occasional flare
it beat its last pulse of goodness
expiring on a bed soft as arctic brine
tasting of tears, bitter vintage
from the remains of broken dreams
the sleeper once attempted
to build in a promised garden
only to unearth the lie of love

19 November 2017

Addendum to the Road Not Taken (Ghosts)

The road was embraced with melancholy and longing, getting back to another version of home. Freshly scrubbed sky of Virginia blue tinging everything in sight under the watery sun. A split between heart and head throbbed heavily under a breastbone shielding lungs that struggled to draw enough air. Leaving, arriving, restless.

I picked the bigger road partly because it was faster. More impersonal. I could find a place of branded anonymity in which to eat. A place to be in the crowd but not of the crowd. In short, I could avoid interaction without being alone.

Craving company to fight off the loneliness but lacking energy to be a good companion: this will be my doom.

Saltwater flows in my veins alongside the blood. Riverine tides with estuary ebb and flow pull on my heart wherever I go. Yet that in part prompted me to avoid the scenic route. It ran too close to the water. Earlier that morning, I had shivered awake from unsettling dreams of the ocean and the night. Whimpering turning into a sharp intake of breath.


I had fallen or was pushed from a ship, the bulk of which I spied receding in the distance. The blood-tinged orange sun was nearly down. Stars were coming out and cool wind ruffled the water. I trod water while contemplating a death by drowning.

I knew for certain, under that deep indigo sky, that the ship was not coming back. My unsettled mind swore it heard laughter floating over the water. It saddened me to no end that this laughter might be the last human sound I ever heard. A hard scrubbing in a hot shower eradicated the uneasiness.

I pushed some breakfast down on a jittery stomach. It refused to hold still. Sheer willpower kept it in place, which braced me for the drive. Lunch would be somewhere on the road for sure.

So it was that the car brought me to the decision point. Highway or byway? My heart already knew the answer. My head had abdicated responsibility a long time ago. It was to be the highway, and not only for the reasons set forth earlier in this ramble.

A bigger, more poignant reason was I just could not bear the thought that the quieter scenic road would bring to my eyes a lone boat on a river, or a solitary duck winging through a November sky filled with the whispers of all the losses I endured in the past year. Those avatars of loneliness would have broken me down in tears, and I did not want to besmirch with such emissions a landscape so beholden to my heart. 

Fall and winter in the tidewater holds a bittersweet beauty of its own. One best contemplated without a heavy heart and weary psyche. That Sunday drive would be on the fast road, the anonymous road, where I could eat surrounded by cacophonous isolation and be grateful for a crowd that would help me pull the curtains on the road not taken.

I did not take that road on the return. The usual route back to Maryland, small towns and browning leaves by the rivers crossed in the light of a sun in repose. Ghosts were whispering to me to visit them. I confess that on this trip, I was a coward. There would be no conclave with the undead.

It was no fault of the season. Nor fault of the rivers. I adore fall upon the estuaries. Water has its own magnetism. The pull is strong upon my heart, no matter what time of year. The promise of sunlight on rippled wavelets, geese creating flying V's in the November air, or even the culinary tug of fried oysters in a small town family restaurant, these are all grand things.

But when pewter skies and soul weariness grip the eye and the heart, the barrier between sighs and tears thins too much.

12 November 2017

Awake By the Sea of Dreams

My right arm woke me up. I was dreaming. Bad dreaming. Fighting things I could not clearly see, I flailed and screamed in desperation. Clenched fist on the end of a swinging arm. In the real world my arm spasmed. My fingers smashed into a pencil cup crammed with pens and a small crafting knife. The pens spilled over the desk in muted tintinnabulation. The cup itself clattered like a cowbell against the steel sash of the window, ricocheting into my chest as I flung my self up and awake. The world swam into focus.

“Where am I?” I croaked. It was nearly dark except for lamplight and a gauzy moon rising over the headland. My face was wet on one side.

My hands shook. I raised the left one to my left cheek. It felt hot and damp. And flat. I had been sleeping, head down on the desk. The dampness turned out to be drool, confirmed by the wet patch on the note paper in front of me.

Night. No idea how late, or how early. The sea groaned and boomed down on the tide line. Breeze, salty and cool, blew softly through the open casements facing the beach. The fire I had lain hours ago was down to dull embers. Red patches like the eyes of spiders crouching in the firebox. Faint yellow rays leaked from the lantern perched at the end of the desk. Something told me it was in need of fuel.

I decided it could wait. My heart was still racing. Phantoms were fading from my mind. Shivering, anxious, I found myself with no desire to recall what they had been. Not now.

I looked around the cottage. Nothing unusual could I see. The louvers on the west side were in place. I remembered adjusting them earlier before I sat down to write. The fading sun had been a bit much, then. The door was still closed. Locked, too, from what I could see.

Turning back to the water I could make out some profiles in the weak moonlight glow. Clumps of seaweed on the beach. The curl of breakers, with faint phosphorescent edges, sliding up the beach. A dark blocky shape on the horizon, small and indistinct. Pinpoints of light wavered on the swell. A freighter, maybe? Bulk carrier? No way to tell. The shape momentarily disappeared, dipping I thought below the horizon. Fog might be gathering out there. Or heavy chop. The wind was picking up.

I shivered again. Manannan stirred, I could feel it in the thrum of the waves hitting the sand. How long I had been asleep, there was no way to know. I had no clear recollection of what I had done between arriving at the cottage earlier in the day and when I sat down to write. Except dinner. Dinner had been a hasty affair of roasted fish and day old cornbread washed down with tepid tea. Then I sat at the desk to write. I had hoped to cast off the jumbled emotions and stresses of the previous week.

The cottage is good for that sort of thing. To my chagrin it is not without failure now and then. Tonight had been less than a success.

A sharp puff of wind hit my face. The cool, briny air perked me up. With a napkin I wiped my face. The simple action brought my pulse down further. Anxiety receded not unlike the wavelets down the strand. The bad dream was dissolving like mist. The walls of the cottage lit up, brilliant white in the beam of the lighthouse up on the head.

Day bloomed briefly to sparkle on the disarray of pens strewn across the desk. I began to corral the pens into the cup. The crafting knife had lodged itself point first in the bead board paneling. I tugged gently to free it. It was then I noticed writing scrawled across the top sheet of paper. The light flared, was gone.

So. I must have written something. Not much from the looks of it, although the remaining light was too dim to make out what I had jotted down. I put the pens and the knife in the cup. In the shadows I sat breathing slowly for a few minutes. For some reason I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what I had written. The lighthouse beam pulsed and flared. I did not look down. My interest had attached itself to the ship or whatever it was out there on the horizon. I watched until the sea or fog or who knows what made it disappear.

I reached for the lantern. Turning up the wick, a pool of yellow light spilled across my desk. Leaning forward I could make out my spidery scrawl, dark blue ink tracking across the cream of the paper, curling slightly from damp and spit. There were two sentences written there. Terse, compact, brittle in the lamplight.


“In the battle for self-worth being your own worst enemy is a guaranteed path to defeat. In this arena, I exist to be rejected.”

I don’t know what surprised me more, the deep cuts of the words or the sudden tightening of throat and moistening of eye that stole over me. Head in my hands, the cottage dimmed in a swirl of emotions that took my breath away. The events of the week bowled me over. No amount of speed or finesse was going to take me from their path.

This explained the dreams. The shadows in the cave of the head and the heart. Fighting things I could not describe except through the dread and pain they laid upon my desperate soul. Well-mannered ghouls plucking at the flesh. The flesh itself recoiling and quivering as it sought escape.

I rocked back and forth until my breath was under control. The cool damp had made its way into my bones. The ghost of William Faulkner whispered in my ear “A man always falls back upon what he knows best in a crisis—the murderer upon murder, the thief thieving, the liar lying.” I had no plans to kill, steal, or lie, but what I was going to do was make a pot of tea. Warmth would help, Tea would have to do for warmth, as there was no one with me to offer theirs.

And probably wouldn’t be, pessimism congealing in my heart. I picked up the paper. The fire would need stoking. My hands ripped the paper into strips. The dry scrape of it abraded my heart. Leaning into the fireplace, I blew on the embers while casting about for the poker. A few thrusts of the cast iron, a few breaths, and the embers glowed as if eager to burn the past. The present. Telling omens for the future.

I cast the ragged strips into the coals. They writhed and curled and burst into flames as I watched. Shadows danced over my face and the walls. I fetched the teapot from the mantel as the paper swiftly burned down to ashes. Out past the eastern windows the Sea of Dreams muttered and moaned, waiting for me fall asleep once again.

05 November 2017

Sandcastle

Joyful spires built on foundations
laid in bright white gold sunlight
Under a sky of ecstatic blue
growing as fast as hands
could pour the shells and quartz
Into the molds formed patiently
by eager heads and hearts
Gadding about in a newborn day
Made just for them, by them,
glistening eyes so blinded by glow
the proximity to the waves
was overlooked and unheeded
Until the sea swirled in, uninvited,
swiftly swallowing the hope
that grew along the tideline
Swept out into the breakers
leaving only marks below
a surface bearing bruised
memories that once knew
the secret at the heart of the world

29 October 2017

Conscience Bows to the Weight

There is nothing so heavy as a gun still warm from the firing. Riley could feel it radiating through the wool lining of the pocket in which his hand curled around the pistol. The oily smoothness of the backstrap contrasted by the tiny diamonds of the grip scratching his fingers. A cool wind rippled the slow swell in the harbor. The gun, Riley worried, might pull him off the wharf to drown.

No sirens or police cars on the cruise, so far. “Good sign,” Riley muttered. His usual MO was to use a silencer, but the red ball nature of the latest assignment left no time to scrounge one up. The usual sources were good, but not that fast. The wet work man reckoned a combination of pillows and thick cellar door had muffled enough.

But in his line of work, one could never be sure.

Slow Tuesday at the wharf. Erratic sunlight and a nip in the air maybe held back some of the typical crowd. Riley turned to look over his shoulder. The park behind was sparse with people. A mother and toddler, plus a stroller. Toddler clutching a half-eaten giant pretzel. Baby snoozing on the stroller. A few couples taking selfies or snuggling with hands wrapped around cups of boom town coffee. Two old guys wearing windbreakers, shorts, and topsiders, engaged in an animated discussion of boat minutia.

Riley swiveled his face back to the harbor. Nobody seemed to be paying him much attention. Some tension left his back. His hand still clutched the gun tightly, shaking, hot, sweating despite the fall air. Another gust skirled about, bringing to Riley’s nostrils the combined odors of cold saltwater and cordite. The crisp tang made him cough. He hawked and spat into the water.

Movement from below. A swelling in the water as a fish nipped at the sputum. In a recursive swipe at the universe, the fish spat it back out and disappeared back into the depths. Riley laughed. It sounded odd to his ears. A rusty, warbling croak showing the weight of disuse. He recalled how his ex-wife had loved his laugh, back when they were a thing and the world was very different. No way that she would like it now, assuming they had been face to face.

She would have no truck with anything he was now.

Ping, went the watch on his wrist. He twitched at the sound, having forgotten it was there. Letting go of the gun, he pulled back the cuff of his pea jacket to look. Ten minutes, said the message. Cold blue-green letters flashing the faint promise of salvation, or at least escape. Ten minutes until the car took him away. That left the small matter of the black hole in his pocket.

The gun had to go. This much was clear. Carrying it through downtown while dodging tourists and the beat cops was not an option. Too risky, he wagered. Still no sirens, so that was good. The nearest trash can was too close to people, plus too much risk it would be found. He would save the gloves for that. Riley looked down past his feet dangling over the low tide. Slow undulations of the glassy green water lapped at the pilings. It was the harbor that would swallow it up.

Riley turned his head, scanning the harbor. No movement of people out on the boats at their moorings. The tourist cruiser to his right was idle. He saw no crew. Twisting around, acting as if he were stretching his back, he looked over his shoulder at the park. No one close. Three loners engrossed in their smartphones. Riley huffed in relief.

Moving faster, he carefully palmed the pistol from his pocket. One hand would not cover it, but he hoped the sleek black metal would blend in with the gloves he wore. All he needed was a few seconds.

He slid the gun onto his lap. Another quick glance to assure no prying eyes, he leaned over the edge of the wharf. He pretended to be intensely interested in something in the water. The gun slid between his legs. It bounced off the edge of the wood decking with a loud thunk. Reflexively he snapped his legs together and kicked backward with his right foot. His heel caught the gun on the way down. The impact knocked the gun back towards the bulkhead, where it slid into the water. Riley was surprised it made so little noise as it slipped under the surface.

There were ripples, then nothing. The hitman straightened up. Breath whooshed into his lungs, air sharp and cool. Ten minutes to go. He had to make it uphill towards the church in that time, or his escape route was lost. A quick turn and he hoisted himself back up to his feet, facing the park.


One of the loners was looking at him. Half quizzically, half blank stare. Riley stared back. His heart raced, thinking that what if Loner was an agent, come to reel him back in? He pretended to check his watch. Loner blinked slowly, closed his mouth, and went back to scanning his phone.

Riley breathed out, breathed in. His heart slowed. Looking up past the marina, he could see the church spire up at the head of the street. Sunlight shone on it, a near solid bar of light piercing the clouds. The stores shouldering the street, the park, the traffic circle with its buzz of cars, all remained in nacreous half light. The faceted cone and cross blazed in white gold. His vision blurred.

Sharp whoop of a police siren snapped him out of his daydream. Shaking, Riley forced himself to march on past the moorings, beginning to fill up with ego boosters in anticipation of the weekend. The police car was nowhere in sight, but the dopplered cacophony of it filled his ears with haste and anxiety. 

He shouldered his way into a throng of people at the foot of the street. Six minutes to go. The car would be close. The pair of gloves were discreetly removed and deposited in different waste bins as he made his way up the hill. Another siren split the air. Riley thought they were headed in the general direction of the scene he had left, with its macabre tableau in the basement. But in this business, he reminded himself, you could never be sure.

Four minutes to go. The spire was mottled with cloud shadow and sunlight. Riley turned his collar up against the wind. A prayer crossed his lips unbidden. Night was not far away. He walked faster, uphill, headed for salvation or damnation he did not know.

22 October 2017

The Skillet Speaks of Humility and Care

You will know in your heart when it has been a good half year since the cornbread was last made. Mild shame on approaching the kitchen, reaching out a hand to grasp the smooth weight of cast iron that last felt human touch so long ago the occasion is beyond recall. The skillet has a voice. It calls to you. It is a pity that you have not answered.

Until now, that is. A bag of corn meal rested on the refrigerator shelf for at least two months. A latent desire to avoid waste was the catalyst for this latest venture into culinary redemption. A supposed absence of buttermilk on the store shelves was a flimsy excuse, a cover for impatience and laziness. You know deep down the attempts to find said buttermilk were halfhearted at best.

The buttermilk was spotted up high in a store you visited for the first time since settling in to your new home. Their reputation for higher prices held you at bay, it is true. Still that store could no longer avoided when it became clear it would almost certainly have buttermilk and other treats not easily procured at other establishments. The prophecy came true. Forty-five minutes and a much lighter wallet later, you were putting the grocery bags in the back of the car.

The accountant may not like it. The belly shouted it down. Hungers have their own imperatives. Treasures were garnered. Pitted olives, plump and spicy. Chubby jalapeño peppers confident in their glossy deep green jackets. The king of cheeses in the form of a craggy block of Parmigiano-Reggiano, the like of which had not shown its tawny face in your house for what seemed a year. The belly will not be disappointed.

The buttermilk is the key player here. The liquid catalyst to a pan full of golden-brown goodness. Memories of melting butter swirled with sorghum coating the grainy cornbread, or a chunk dropped into the ‘pot likker’ at the bottom of a bowl of collard greens, to be spooned up and savored like the taste of heaven itself. You feel these memories. Your stomach rejoices. What feels like endorphins trickling through the brain as you recall the joys of the oven and stove. It wouldn’t be right without the buttermilk.

So it is you gather the wares and the ingredients. They populate the kitchen counter like so many eager helpers waiting to please. Buttermilk. Two eggs. Salt. Baking powder and baking soda. The heavy glass bowl that has followed you for tens of years and thousands of miles, its surface hazed from countless episodes of mixing and scraping. Old friends, sights for sore eyes.

Heat will be needed, of course. You turn on the oven. Ritual demands that a dollop of lard be melted in the skillet as the oven preheats. Into the fridge, out with the small plastic tub. Scoop of fat in hand, you turn to the skillet preparing to drop it in. The skillet perches on the stovetop. A glossy black mirror of reproach and melancholy reflecting your unease at having virtually abandoned it over the summer.

Lard in the pan. Pan in the oven. Its handle feels nearly alive in your hand. Smooth, ebony, sturdy. This is a pan that has survived for over fifty years and is likely to survive another fifty years. It knows itself. It knows you. The silence remains because it understands you are making a good faith effort to patch things up. It knows you have been busy with survival outside the home.

As the lard melts, the dry ingredients are blended gently in the glass bowl. A smaller bowl holds the buttermilk and the eggs. These partners in joy are whisked together. The resulting liquid has an appeal that cannot be explained. The urge to lap it up is strong. Almost as if it were an odd health drink, a tonic to buck up a distressed stomach while revitalizing a tired liver. But you won’t drink it. You know it is destined for the cornbread. This is a nobler fate for eggs and buttermilk.

Ticktockticktock. The oven creaks and softly groans. A quick peek confirms the shallow pool of melted lard is ready. The wet and the dry are brought together in a union of soon-to-be tasty alchemy. You slip on a mitt and grab the searing hot handle of the skillet. Quickly, quickly, the batter is poured into the skillet. That music of sizzle and pop fills the kitchen. Toasted corn aroma caresses the nose as you smooth the pupal cornbread into the pan. A swift bow to the oven god and the skillet is back on the rack to complete its journey to nirvana.

Ticktockticktock. Impatience mounts. The kitchen air smells of corn and crust. Your belly growls softly. It is a tiger cub anxious to be fed. A faint thrill of anticipation arises as the skillet is lifted carefully from the rack and placed on the stovetop. It is at this point you will know if the cornbread likes you, wants to give itself up to your plate.

It is here that you shake the pan. If the bread slides easily back and forth in the pan, grace has been granted. If it does not slide...well, then it may be that penance is required. A small prayer. A shake. And another.

The bread does not move.

Another shake. Perhaps a slight change in position is registered. But the cornbread stubbornly refuses to move. Your heart sinks a little. Still more shaking and the bread tenaciously clings to the pan. Well, you are for it now. Nothing to do but put the mesh rack over the skillet in preparation for flipping it upside. Good luck and godspeed with any luck it will pop right out.

Tonight there is no such luck. The disk of cornbread falls to the mesh with a tearing sound. Slight sinking stomach to see the large bright yellow patch surrounded by a ring of golden-brown deliciousness. It stuck, no doubt. The good news is that it is only a thin layer of crust that pulled away from the bread. Another quick flip brings the bread upright with a beautifully done top.

The stuck stuff is a different story. You know you have to get it out of the skillet as soon as possible. Over to the sink to douse the screeching hot pan with water. Follow it up with a bamboo spatula squeegeed over the bottom.

Joke’s on you, son. The stuck on crust comes away like a silk robe sliding off a smooth shoulder. A few swipes and nothing remains but for the sodden clump of grainy bread lying in the sink.

You hold the skillet up close. The residual heat warms your face, which is reflected faintly in the glossier patches of skillet. Listen closely and you hear a voice speaking softly in questions and remonstrances. A gentle sadness suffuses your stomach and heart. The skillet has you in the culinary hot seat, and you know it.

It knows you know better. It knows you have been busy with the big picture of recovery and survival. It does not hold these things against you. What it does want you to remember is that you need to take care of the things that will take care of you. And if a seasoned cast iron skillet filled with the spirit of love cannot make you pay attention, the kitchen god will not tolerate your whining if that skillet does not act in accord with your wishes.

You know you are lucky. To have that skillet. To be able to create goodness with it, and the desire to do so. These are quiet blessings.

The skillet goes back on the stove to cool down. The cornbread, slightly worse for the wear, steams gently on its perch of wire mesh. You cut a slice, plate it. Two pats of good butter accompanied by a generous flourish of sorghum drizzled over effectively gild the lily. The first bite confirms what you suspected: excellent cornbread, but you are damn lucky to have it.

Damn lucky. The next batch will be made soon, and the divinity within the skillet shall be properly acknowledged. You swallow another bite washed down with a humble prayer: You will not forget to take care of the things that will take care of you.

15 October 2017

The Loop

Funny old world it is, the ouroboros of my experience coiling around to swallow its tail. Unusually warm first day of fall and I'm heading home with a head full of memories. The second major phase of my life began in this town. Looks like the fourth major phase will start here too. Or is it the end of the third?

A little closer. I was in limbo. Is this now Hell? In the short time back I have driven many times past the church where I was married. The church is still there. The marriage collapsed long ago. Seeing the steeple puts a knot behind my breastbone. I swallow hard and push that memory back down into the cabinets in my head.

I keep driving. Cruising down some streets I used to know. A landscape of new daylight overlaid on old memories. Not much seems changed, with the exception of a massive superblock development that arose on the dilapidated bones of a shopping plaza that had seen better days long before I first laid eyes on it nearly three decades ago. Shiny new chain restaurants and some big box stores squatting on the land. An improvement one could say, if one were so inclined. I’m no fan of corporate soullessness, myself, but in this case it is better than the nothing of before.

It is better by the water. The rivers are different but still themselves. I can see the Chesapeake Bay most days, and a good walk serenaded by seabirds and wavelets is a privilege easy to enjoy. Maritime air is all around. Humidity is too. But I know the tides again. I hear my heart in the lapping of the waves. It is at ease with the water song and thrum of the ocean over the horizon.

The loop is closing. Its arc born in the slow-motion collapse of a life experiment out on the edge of the prairie. Seeds planted but could not hold purchase in a sea of grass. The arc burned its way up and out, finally sensing direction in the chaos, hope in the form of earlier sunrises in salt-tinged air. The path out resolved itself through a lens of tears and fortunate timing.

By such lights I found myself back in the town where I started my life after college. A hard landing brought the shell of me, with its withered heart and fragile bones, back closer in time and space to places the soul never forgot and people it never stopped loving. The prairie fire now just a smudge on the horizon pushed back by the wind of rebirth, with an ocean of truth and salt water stretching out in front of my fourth new life.

The tide flows through veins and heart. Currents of emotion borne on the waves I adore fill me with energy and push back the great gray walls that had threatened encirclement. The arc has bent towards itself. The ends are in view. The loop is closing before the eyes of my soul. Soon the circuit will be complete, and I will be electric in my erstwhile cottage by the sea.

08 October 2017

Colts

They run under the sun, chasing dreams of the beautiful game. An impossibly blue sky dusted with wisps of clouds sprays silver-white light over the antics on the field below. These girls carry with them the charming unawareness of their ability to slow down time. My daughter is among them. She tugs my old man heart hither and yon with each run she makes. It is she alone that may be able to stop time, not just slow it down.

There is no sitting for me while they play. I am too excited, too nervous. We are not watching Premier League, La Liga, or even Major League Soccer. We do not have to be. The kids are in the moment without thoughts of million dollar contracts or shoe endorsements. I for one am glad such grown-up concerns are nowhere near the playing field. The lack of polish is more than outweighed by their enthusiasm and concentration. Harried adults such as myself have much to learn from the scampering.

The first goal comes about from an astonishing web of cooperation. I bounce up and down in the bleachers. My daughter’s team has scored. They clap their hands and a few fists are pumped. This is the glory of soccer. Those shining moments when intention and skill come together producing a little magic, lighting up a world desperate for more such low-key miracles. By the end of the game, they will have sent four more shots into the back of the ol’ onion bag, surrendering only one.

This is what constitutes a great game, sometimes. But the goal count has little to do with racing of my heart and the contentment on my brow.

For a small slice of infinity I watched them run free, these spirits on a patch of green. Wildness tempered by team spirit was the order of the day. To witness such beauty is a pure tonic for the heart. The weary oldster that sometimes looks from behind my eyes has found some respite from the world outside, manifest in the quietly majestic youngsters enjoying the game.

Youngsters, I say. But the truth is, they are youngsters because Time is still kind to them. Adolescence is around the corner, young adulthood glimmering on the horizon. I will not speak to them, to my progeny, of such things. I will hug my daughter. She will know that I am proud of her.

What I cannot say, because the words are too big to get out of my mouth, is how grateful I am to my daughter and her friends for stopping time. How thankful this old man is for the gift of bearing witness to spirits running free, out on the range, beyond the reach of resigned endurance. For a few arc minutes of the sun, I was a colt too. It was glorious. It was real. It was life.

01 October 2017

100 Year Flood

Jaguar sits on the rocks above the man below in the arroyo. Its fur lifts and stands, sensing the cosmic drumming of the approaching storm. Electricity is in the air. A mineral wind gravid with ozone washes over the parched gravel and sand. Jaguar sniffs, a low rumble seeping from his chest. Gates were about to open.

The man removes his hat. From the shadow of the sweat-stained felt, red eyes in a sunbeaten face scan the sky with a cross between fear and hope.

He stands on quivering legs. He stares up at the darkening sky, unaware of the presence behind him. Faint lightning flashing quicksilver through cottony gray haze. The horizon below the clouds is a gauzy smear of rain.

Rain. The man could smell it. His parched throat contracted around the promise and memory of the blessed rain. Kaleidoscopic images spinning through a mind in danger of floating away, tethered to the earth only by a wiry, desiccated body. He recalled the flowers of his youth. Riots of red and white, indigo and yellow, all brought forth by the magic of a rain that had shied away from his earth for centuries.

The line of clouds rolled closer. The wind was picking up. Strands of graying hair swatted about, held briefly in place like spikes. Sweat salt and trail dust made an impromptu pomade the man could feel as he ran a trembling hand over his head. He wondered if he would be presentable when then rains fell and the flowers grew and hope beyond hope she would be there. He missed her.

Jaguar crouches low. The otherworld vibrations coursed through the rock into its haunches. Gold-green eyes, slitted against the fading sun, took in the gauzy lights flickering around the man. Its nostrils flared. It could smell the fear and the longing radiating from the man. There was something else, something deeper. A bolt of lighting touched down at the head of the arroyo. In the flash, jaguar knew. The man was a shaman, degraded and frail in his loss. 

The rain began to fall. Swirls of rock dust and sand kicked up by gusts of wind. The man stood still. He straddled a thin stream running over the bottom of the arroyo. Watching the water rise, he held no fear of flash floods. In the reverse, he welcomed the idea. A wall of water might be the thing he needed to return the ability to travel between worlds. Or at least feel.

Nature granted his wish. The rain was in sheets now, waterfalls from the sky. No arks in sight but a deluge of biblical proportions nonetheless. The stream rose with astonishing speed. The surface of the water became a living thing. The water rose past the man's ankles, his calves. He did not move. The sky was dusty black shot through with silver where the raindrops streaked down from heaven. He smiled. The water was at his waist. Up ahead, a roiling mass of water hurtled down the arroyo. He opened his arms and waited.

Jaguar crouched. It tensed to spring. The wall of water was bearing down fast on the man. The membrane between worlds was dissolving. Jaguar knew now it was the spirit the shaman for which the man mourned. The fur stood up on its back. An involuntary grimace wrinkled its snout. Before it a silver thread swayed in the wind, stretching from beast to man. It would jump. The water was near.

The man raised shaking arms. The water wall bore down on him. He sought nothing but release. His eyes rolled back in his head. A quick gesture to urge the water onward.

Jaguar tensed. The flood was nearly on top of the shaman. Teeth bared, growling to match the deep rumbling  of thunder that was shaking the earth, splitting the sky. Jaguar leapt.

The water wall slammed into the man. He felt himself thrown backward, tumbling head over heels in gritty liquid. A giant's hand pressed his chest forcing him down into the gravel on the arroyo bottom. He could not breathe. He did not care. Another surge of water lifted him up to slam him down again. In the split second between the blow and unconsciousness, the shaman felt something snap, like the breaking of a wire. In that instant, he thought he knew the surcease of pain. The world went black.

Days passed. Or perhaps minutes smeared out into hours by the slowing of time. Heat was all around. Red glow of sunlight seeping through eyes crusted with salt-sweat and sand. The shaman awoke a cell at a time. He felt the rocks digging into his back. It was not pain, so much as a reminder that he was still alive. His heart beat gently in a chest no longer bound by the strictures of loss and fear. All around him, the wind sighed and flowers brushed his cheeks. The bowl of the sky rang out with the peal of a circling hawk.

Perfume filled the shaman's nostrils. The aroma brought a smile to his ragged face. He breathed deep. Once. Twice. Memories come flooding in with odd sensation of being from the future. Without opening his eyes he ran his hands over his cheeks. They were rough with stubble.  He opened his eyes and sat up.

All around were wildflowers. Yellow, blue, red in a riot of rapid growth and bursting of energy from the flood waters. The shaman stared in awe. To be surrounded by such life was the stuff of ancient memories. His heart stirred. The sensation brought his fingertips to his chest as if to reassure himself that the beating was real. The hawk cried out again. It was time to stand.

He pushed himself up on trembling legs. Dizziness swept over him causing a sharp intake of breath. The sky was a dome of azure laced with silvery clouds. Their shadows brushed over the shaman. He felt the feathery touch as a series of ripples over his skin.

No longer in the arroyo, the shaman found himself facing a sea of flowers stretching out before him in a grand carpet before a line of cottonwood trees a short distance away. The flowers swayed in the breeze. A welcome, he thought. A welcome back to the world. It was at that moment that he noticed the tears in his shirt, laced over scratches on his chest.

He looked down. The scratches had the look of having come from the business end of claws. Large claws. The scratches were bleeding slightly but the edges were fresh and pink after the tumbling in the water. He brushed the scratches with raw fingertips. A jolt lanced through his body. He blinked rapidly in a light gone green and gold.

Rustle of petals. Cry of hawk. Motion from the trees caught his eye. Standing straighter while the sun warmed his stiff shoulders, he could see her there at the edge of the cottonwoods. His knees nearly buckled.

She stepped forward in a languid walk through the flowers. He began to move towards her on tottering legs. The flowers seemed to kneel in her presence. She neared him with arms at her side and palms open, as if to say "We are here. This is life."

Beside the shaman the flowers bowed under the weight of invisible treads, paw prints in the petrichorean earth. Two shadows stretched out before the man, limning themselves onto the legs of the woman. They stopped. She smiled. His chest heaved when she opened her arms while beckoning him forward. 

As he moved into her embrace the shadow on the grass disappeared like smoke, slowly dissolving into the shaman's own. The flower perfume thickened into the air, closing about them. The sun slid down the sky. His veins electric with life, she whispered secrets into the growls rumbling up from his soul while the Universe sprang to life around them.

24 September 2017

Punchout

Kerchunk. With that sound my belly dropped to my feet. A few years gone, just like that. A new hole in the identity of my life.

The clerk drops the hole punch on the scruffy laminate counter between us. It lands with a bang, making us both jump. Louder than seemed possible, overheard over the PA system announcements and background chatter of the crowded licensing service area. She apologizes, chuckling nervously as she arranges my paperwork. I assure her it is no big deal, happens sometimes, right?

What I don't say is that maybe now I don't mind the most recent chapter of my life going out with a bang. Much better than a whimper. Certainly a tenfold improvement on the chunking sound the punch made as it bullied its way through my old license.

She hands over to me a thin sheaf of paperwork. On top of the sheaf is the license. There is a hole, oval-shaped, near the top of the dull plastic card. The hole is off center. Fitting, it seems. Not that the hole in the license is of consequence. Not now. Not ever, unless I was dumb enough to use it again for any purpose where it would be scrutinized. So never. I am many things. Dumb is not one of them.

The clerk tells me in a voice unexpectedly cheerful for the DMV that I am all set. Everything proper, signed off, good to go. She points out the temporary license. My very own register receipt verifying my fitness to drive in my new state. I can expect the official validation of my existence to arrive in the mail in about ten business days. Wonderful. "How ever will I survive ten days of marginal personhood?" the snarky question asked in my head.

"Easy answer," says the shadow in the back of my head, "in the manner you survived months of marginality before pulling the reverse Oregon Trail maneuver that brought you here. Numb patience and the art of non-thinking."

No comfort to be found in that pronouncement. I step through the doorway of  out into the bright, hot, muggy day. The humidity makes me breathe harder its so thick. I walk slow back to the car. The old license is in my left hand. I flip it back and forth between my fingers, a clumsy card shark maneuver. The license seems heavier. I have no idea what I will do with it. Unusable, unnecessary, undesired. Descriptions not lost on my weary soul and battered ego.

Bruisingly hot air spills out of the car upon opening the door. A veritable pizza oven on wheels. I wait momentarily to let the hot rush subside. No hurry. No place to go that requires my presence. Not yet, anyway. Standing in the searing light I'm staring at the empty car. No one in it except a passenger seat full of memories. The rest hot and empty.

Empty. Null. Void.

I glance at the license again. The punchout is a sharp relief shadow against my palm. Lao Tzu whispers in my ear sweet nothings about nothing. 

"Moulding clay into a vessel, we find utility in its hollowness.

Sweat rolls down my face, stinging my eyes. Or so I tell myself. Maybe it is the pain in my heart causing the eyes to water.

"Cutting doors and windows for a house, we find the utility in its empty space."

My heart is a shell, but it exists. Like the clay vessel, it is hollow. As with that vessel, it is the void within that will ultimately grant fullness.

"Therefore the being of things is profitable, the non-being of things is serviceable."

Actinic light on a cerulean day illuminates the chunk of sky collapsing on my head. Words of a dead Chinese philosopher advise me to look deep within the emptiness of my heart to find a way back to life. 

License as talisman. The hole in this plastic locket a reminder to embrace the void within, and without. I get in the car and drive off to home, relief flooding my system. "It is useful. My heart is useful. It will be filled." The words are loud in the cabin of the car.

The license rests serene in my shirt pocket. My heart is serene inside my chest. Patience, and it will be filled.



Quotes in italics are from Lao-Tzu's Tao Te Ching, Commercial Press Edition, Shanghai, 1929.

17 September 2017

Novus Mare (Plunge)

The cliff falls away from the Diver, a sheer blur during transit into the deep blue below. Many thoughts light the mind. One gains on the others. What life awaits the Diver plunging into a sea not yet swum? The way to knowing is total immersion. Break the surface, cast off the fear of the unknown. Join the dolphins in the search for life. They may know the way to the Swimmer.

The Swimmer is there, clothed in aquamarine and cobalt swirls of water. A presence unseen but known to the senses. The Diver starts in the depths, with no anxiety of breath. Subsurface swells moving the torso and limbs in limpid gravity, the exhalation of giants. To feel it is to feel the pulse at the throat of the universe. It is an energy thrilling to the core of humanity.

Whales loom out of blue depths. Ultramarine messengers bringing news of the Swimmer, reassuring songs in a prehistoric tongue in understanding is granted through feeling rather than the hearing. The Diver relaxes in a current that draws the body forward. Ahead there is the faint susurrus of water over sand. The shore is close. The whales say the Swimmer is closer.

A surge of current. The backwash of titanic flukes urging the Diver onward. The Swimmer is there. Out of the blue, the Swimmer arabesques to face the Diver, who plunges into waiting arms. They sing the water electric. Tumbling into the quickening flow towards a no longer distant shore.

To cling, to touch, to feel the surge of creation and not of the storm. Intersecting currents as the confluence of love and desire.

This current lifts, pulls, and pushes. The Diver and the Swimmer find themselves rolled up into the curling of a mighty breaker. The wave rushes up the strand. Hippocampi stamp and snort along its leading edge. Their eagerness to break upon the sand mirrors the urgent energy of the Diver and Swimmer, who themselves seem not to notice the swiftly approaching tide line.

The wave breaks. It roars across the sand to curl unto itself while fading to a whisper. Hurried breath, pounding heart while the water trickles over the beach. Foam fades into salty skin. Ragged pulses descend from spume-dusted heights to fade into a syncopated rhythm. Diver and Swimmer alight on the shore with mouths full of song.

Breathing. Close. Entwined. Blood, hot and vital, speaks of a  joining of salt and iron not unlike the sea that birthed them. Slowly, slowly, equilibrium is reached. To know that balance point is to know life. Under the fading sun, the waves turn to indigo and the stars unmask themselves. They deign to caress upturned faces with argentine light.

Diver/Swimmer (their boundaries have softened and merged into fractal harmony) feel the grains of sand on their backs. They breathe in slow time with the surf. This as yet unnamed sea has given them life. It beckons them back with no hurry. They gather breath. The waves carry on, whispering of life anew.

10 September 2017

Fading Memories of the Feast

Chicken and dumplings in the bowl, the aroma wafting up and around Sonny's face. Caressing his cheeks like a lover but he didn't stir. A spoon jutting from his right hand, left hand idly resting on a small dish of collard greens. Staring out the window, through the chipped paint letters, sweet tea sweating in its glass. He got to thinking he was too old to be alone eating collard greens. They were not "good" bitter, anymore, just bitter.

Things taste strange when their roots are ripped from a soil a man no longer recognizes as his own. Sonny dipped his head, took a desultory swipe at the chicken and dumplings. It was good, he reckoned, even with the aftertaste of memories of grandma Annabelle. He often teased Augie Midgett, the owner of the joint, that the chicken and dumplings tasted good "but that ain't how you make it." All the funnier knowing that he, Sonny, rarely could be bothered to make them at all.

Another swipe, another swallow. A shadow fell across the table. It was Margot, the waitress. She held a pitcher of iced tea over Sonny's glass. Angled as if to pour. He met her tired eyes with his own.

"You okay, hon?" she said. "A little more tea?"

Sonny nodded. "I'm tired, Margot. Workin' is wearin' me out, I reckon. But I'm okay." He smiled, but it failed to reach his eyes. Margot looked at him, raised an eyebrow, and topped off his glass.

"You wouldn't be fibbing me, would you?"

"No, ma'am." That grin again. Margot paused, hand on her hip. His own hands twitched with jealousy at the sight. She sighed.

"Aw, now, then you better explain that to those hangdog eyes of yours. I'll let you off with a warning this time, Sonny." She smiled at that last statement, turned and strode over to the server station. Sonny watched her go, admiration layered over sadness and desire.

Sonny looked down the bowl. Still half full, and with an appetite that just took the last bus out of town. He took two more spoonfuls, set it down. He could tell his heart wasn't in it, and by association, neither was his belly.

He raised his head. She chatted with a customer, silhouetted in the dusky sundown light coming through the window. Broken hearts need to eat eventually, Sonny thought. He hoped his would get its appetite back before she found someone else to call her darling. He wanted to know how to be hungry again, and sated.

03 September 2017

On the Saving of A Duck

It was a talent, dubious to be sure, but a talent nonetheless that the old man could find tragedy in a blue sky full of horsetails and cotton candy. Some days he imagined it in the form of daemon, shape shifting as it sat on his shoulder or circled his head while whispering terrible things.

A belly full of oysters put him in mind for a post-prandial stroll down to the dock, just past the waterfront museum. A soothing coolness in the air with a gentle swell upon the water exerted its gravitational pull. The breeze joined in, pushing him gently onto the worn but sturdy boards of the piers. The daemon hovered as the old man watched the clouds drift over the bay. Mercifully, it was quiet.

A few ducks swam lazily around the pilings. The sun dusted white gold upon the water as he chatted with a lad who was crabbing from the pier.

The youngster allowed that the crabs were sparse tonight, but he had caught some good ones. The oldster chuckled, recalling his youthful summer adventures crabbing in the creeks near his boyhood home. Seeing a tension on his line, the boy slowly reeled it in. There in the murky translucence of the water, a medium sook was nibbling away on the bait.

The boy scooped up the female crab, expertly separating crab from bait. The bait, a chicken neck looped in twine, went back out into the water. The crab, said the boy, was going into the basket. He said goodbye and walked down the pier to his stash of gear. Dinner was probably not far away.

The old man leaned against a piling, noting that the moon was visible in the cerulean sky. Boats made their way up and down the creek. Sunlight gilded the tops of their masts. An osprey raised a keening cry from out on its nest in the channel. The old man was contemplating what life must be like living in a pile of sticks on top of a post when he heard a furious flapping and splashing coming from the next pier over. It was a duck. Its wings beat the water in a rush, yet it was unable to move forward or take off.

The duck grew increasingly frantic. The old man stared for a minute or two. He though perhaps the duck was being attacked by a large fish or some other creature, but it did not go under. He reckoned it would not be long, because the duck was in overwhelming distress.

The old man jogged back to the main deck, then cut across and hurried up the other pier. The duck was out at the far end, still thrashing furiously and quacking at high volume. He bent down to look over the edge of the pier.

It was fishing line. An old line left tied to a piling. The hapless duck, a female mallard, was entangled in it by its right foot. From what the old man could see the line was wrapped in a tight helix around the leg. There was no way the duck was going to unwrap it or break the line.

The old man lay down on the deck boards. They smelled of seawater, bait and crab shells. He reached down to grasp the monofilament line and hauled the duck up as gently as he could. The duck was terribly frightened by this. Its thrashing sent a spray of water up into the old man's face. He sputtered and tightened his grip on the line.

He grasped the duck by its leg. It felt like cold leather, and the duck struggled mightily to free itself. He spoke softly to it, telling it things would be okay, just hold on, I'll get you out of this. To the old man's surprise the duck settled down. It barely moved as he held it head down over the water while unwrapping the fishing line from its foot.

There was moment of panic as the line became snagged on what looked like a small spur. The old man hefted the duck up higher and with the precision of surgeon unhooked the line from the spur. The duck spun itself as the line unreeled from the foot. With a tremendous splash, rapid fire quacking, and a blur of wings it launched itself across the open water between the piers. It came to rest a few yards away from the old man. It began flapping its wings, quacking and acting as if nothing had happened.

The old man stood up. He wiped his hands on his pants and brushed flecks of wood and dried bait from his shirtfront. It was an unexpected turn of events, after dinner on an evening by the summer bay, that turned his mind over to the sea. 

He looked up again at the blue sky, the moon, the drifting boats. It was a talent, he knew, to find tragedy in a sky of cotton candy and horsetails. But not tonight. Tonight he had found grace in the saving of a duck. Cotton candy and horsetails never looked better.

27 August 2017

In the Drowning Clouds

Her voice carried over the cacophony of ducks swarming the end of the marina. There were tears in it, raspy and liquid. At the sound of it, Jackie turned his head slightly to see from whom it came.

"I'm sorry," she had said following it with another sniffle. She was staring up at the youngish man standing in front of her. Jackie couldn't see his face, but could tell the jaw was working. The man had his arms hanging with a slight bent. No fists, exactly, but fingers flexing.

Jackie sipped the iced tea he held cradled in his hands. The woman raised her hands to her head, forming an inverted 'u' with with she swept her hair back to clutch it in a bun. Jackie's heart lurched. Goddamnit she was pretty he thought, never mind the tear tracks silvering her cheeks. Sputtering into his tea, he forced himself to look slightly past her so she would not think he was staring.

But he was. He long ago had mastered the art of observation without flagrancy.

The man said something to her Jackie couldn't catch. The wind was up and the ducks chose that moment to burst out quacking en masse, for all the world sounding like laughter. It took all of his self-control to not leap to the concrete wall and shoo them all off. In Jackie's mind, ducks had never been good at eavesdropping.

He risked another glance. Her mouth has dropped open, her arms following suit as they fell to her sides. Her expression balanced itself on that knife edge between shock and incredulous anger. Something in her eyes told Jackie she was feeling gutpunched with no way to respond. The man kept talking, hands moving a little faster now. They were, Jackie noticed, shaking quite a bit.

She shook her head. He heard something that sounded like "God's plan" and "for a purpose", but a powerboat was making its way up the marina cove. The low chugging of its motors blotted out more. Jackie took another sip of tea. She continued to stare at the man, crestfallen and fading. Her eyes were growing shinier. 


Little crescents of liquid welled up at the bottoms. She shook her head in response to whatever the man was saying. Dark blots spattered her blouse. Jackie instinctively reached to his shirt pocket thinking to grab a tissue, then realized how odd that might appear if she noticed. He kept his hand going and casually brushed back his hair.

The sky was growing heavy. Clouds the color of bright lead rolled in carrying a faint scent of rain and ozone. The water in the cove had a miniature chop on it, wavelets caroming back and forth between the walls. The powerboat had gone silent. Two men were securing it to pilings across the cove, tying up in front of the dockside bar where some intrepid souls appeared to be getting a head start on the weekend. Full tables festooned with bottles and glasses.

Jackie swallowed more tea. Looking over the woman's shoulder, he felt a pang and flutter of zombie memories. His drinking days were over, too bad he couldn't quite forget. The look of anguish on her face had him wishing he could crack the seal in a search for the cure for pain.

She was crying openly now, but quiet. He heard the wet intake of breath as a counterpoint to the laughter of the ducks. Her head swept back and forth. Twisting lips mouthing "no, no, no" as her companion continued to talk. The man reached out and took her by the upper arms. The woman had raised her face to the man. The expression on her face was cryptic. Jackie saw anger, mixed with a bit of fear.

Jackie stood up, setting his cup down on the concrete wall of the planter. The situation gave him a shiver of dread. He hoped they were just arguing, but one could never be sure. All the time he spent down here, among the tourists and the locals strolling blithely eating their ice cream or fiddling with cameras, he had witnessed too many breakups and temper tantrums. People could be so ugly to each other, and Jackie wished he could unwind them all.

The woman slapped the man's hands away from her arms. The man stepped back half a pace, genuinely shocked Jackie could see now as he moved closer to the two. The woman's eyes blazed as she loudly said "Then go. Just go! Maybe you can numb yourself with that bullshit, but I can't. I won't!"

Jackie felt the anger radiating off of her, even at distance. The man took another step back as if the anger was a force field. Jackie saw now that the man had been crying too. Flushed cheeks and red eyes bordered by a drawn and haggard face. He looked tired in the bone, while she stood there, hands on hips with tears drying up on her face and glaring. 


He turned away from her and towards Jackie, looking right through him. The man began walking back up towards the head of the cove. His face suddenly sagged and he stopped walking. Turning back to the woman, not five feet away from Jackie, he nearly shouted at her.

"Don't you see, Magda? Don't you see that you are broken? Why don't you believe me when I say that it is in your brokenness that God often uses you the most!"

Jackie looked from the man to Magda. He made no attempt now to hide the fact that he was watching. Few others appeared to notice, only a few side glances from the tourists and boat crews. The look on Magda's face transformed from hard to furious. She was shaking when she shouted.

"Adam, any God that would let our babies die for being born too early has no right to use me for anything! Why don't you see THAT?"

Passers-by stopped, stunned at what they just heard. Jackie froze, dizzy. He could not believe his ears. Memories rushing out of the dark sump in the bottom of his mind. Nightmare glimpses of the machines failing his own children, tiny, frail, too sick to live. He swallowed bile past the bulge in his throat and forced himself to look to Adam. 

Adam stood, swaying as if he were about to faint. He was panting. He shook his head, realizing he was now the center of attention. His mouth open and closed, a beached fish on the hot bricks of the promenade. An anguished groan burst forth, then he spun on his left heel and hurriedly walked away from the scene. Jackie watched his back recede up the hill and into the crowd milling about at the foot of Main Street. The small knot of onlookers dispersed, perhaps plunging back into their own thoughts of crabs and beer.

Turning around, he saw the woman had collapsed onto a nearby bench. She sat staring straight ahead while cradling her elbows in her hands. The pain was near visible, magnetic, a corona of grief in Jackie's eyes. He walked slowly as a hunter trying not to scare off quarry. At the end of the bench, he stopped.

Magda turned to look at him. Gray eyes clear as crystal and hardened with pain. She blinked slowly. Behind the hardness flickered a low curiosity. Jackie swallowed before speaking.

"I'm...sorry. So sorry. I overheard..."

She looked at him again, tears running slowly down her face. At his words, her eyes softened.

"It's okay, thank you. For being sorry."

There was a heartbeat or two of silence. Magda looked up the street, eyes narrowing. Jackie turned to look, and could see Adam about to turn a corner and go out of sight.

Magda said, low and hoarse, "I just wish he was, too." She leaned her head back, eyes closed, letting a deep sigh rush from her lungs. Her eyes opened. She stared up into the darkening clouds and said "And I wish He was, too."

The emphatic weariness and pain in her voice jolted Jackie. He looked up, following her gaze. The clouds roiled and glowered, rain began to fall in fat drops. He would not swear to it, but for a split second he thought he saw a face vanishing back into the pewter mist of the downpour.

He looked back down. Magda sat there, shivering, blank-eyed. From his back pocket he took out and unfurled the umbrella he had been carrying. "May I join you?"

She nodded. He sat. Drops beat a ragged tattoo on the umbrella as they both searched the sky, looking for that face. Behind them, the ducks cackled and quacked, laughing in spite of the rain.

20 August 2017

Sunday Meditation #50: Haircut 100 (Million Bucks)

It was the first haircut in nearly two months. The first since uprooting from Kansas and moving to Maryland. Nearly two months is an eternity for hair that goes from acceptably shaggy to "just climbed out of a hamper" in the blink of an eye. It was time, and it made me feel like a million bucks. Felt good.

Walking back to the car in the cooling humidity of a rain-washed evening, I didn't think much of why I felt so good, although I savored it. By "think too much of it" I mean there was no attempt to analyze this rush of what many would call mild euphoria. Contentment. A calmness upon the mind. This is a goodness in very short supply.

Upheaval and dislocation have been the prime drivers of my depression and anxiety for over a year. Isolation and lack of daily companionship drawing the curtains on a dark room in which I could not find the door. I had light when I needed it, sometimes, when good people, good friends opened their hearts (and occasionally their homes) to me. I would not have survived gracefully moving cross-country if not for the companionship of my daughter. This lights still shines in my head.

Not to say I have yet unlocked the door. Diving into a new job turned up the heat and pressure, in ways I expected but still involve struggle for balance. Mornings require a pep talk to arise from the bed. Weeks require a therapy pit stop to relocate and recalibrate. I look for that which provides a nudge back to the path, but energy often drains swiftly away into fatigue. I know that many people say sometimes you just have to roll with it, but an affirmation of direction would be welcome.

No surprise that self-care of certain kinds took a back seat to simply making it through the day. Getting a haircut barely registered on the scale of things I needed to be present in my life. Evidence of this was the shagginess I saw in the mirror one morning last week. It wasn't the guy I used to know. He looked more like an 18th century engraving of a half-insane composer. I think my cat even gave me a few "Time to trim the weeds" looks.

The curious thing was that it took me three weeks to make a decision. Twenty one days to make up my damn mind about a simple thing like getting a haircut. A sure sign that things are out of whack from living too much in my own head.

I arrived home from the haircut relaxed, unwound. The mirror showed me a very different face from the one I had woken up with earlier in the day. It was a face looking relaxed, content, and knowing it had a million dollars in the bank of the spirit. It was the face of a human being.