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


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.