It’s impossible not to revisit over and over and over and over and…..The trees are desperate to be heard before all they’ll have is the rasping of branch against branch, summer’s exuberant chatter fallen to gasp into gutters and trash bags with jack o’ lantern faces, if they’re lucky. My house was small, the carpet smelled and I left it with fleas, like a true impoverished champion. I slept on floors. Slept, angry in the car. Slept in a tree house. I always bring that one up. I could smell the ocean, cold and seasoned but we didn’t go. We were always in a hurry, rushed dully from one place to the next by discontent and a bubbling brew of mental illness I still refused to acknowledge or name. Only the dog was nonplussed, so long as she had trees to race between on a fairly regular basis. He didn’t stop me from drinking then, because everything was a fight, and I just wanted to be drunk and broken. I refused to lick my wounds because I deserved the infection. I was sure of it. He still tries to talk me out of that thinking. I didn’t celebrate Halloween that fall. I remember sitting on the floor, looking out the window at the glooming dusk and hating his back at the desk in front of me. If I owned the failure I would just kill myself. I tried. He was more willing to let me pin it all to him, nail him up and let him carry as much as I couldn’t handle, so long as I carried some, built up my strength and slowly let him return what was rightfully mine. I could never see what he was doing for me. All I saw was his unavoidable anger. I blamed him for how I made him feel. He handed me glory and I used it to slap him across the face. His heroes always die. There’s no place for them, for their wisdom, bottled like a pressured geyser that has to be opened with desire that never comes. Even while I was bleeding him out I was his place. When I kicked him, I kicked at the dirt crusted over the spring. Whole blocks of that autumn are missing from my timeline. I didn’t confess to him until last week that when I tried to kill myself it wasn’t so much defeat as it was poor impulse control. That phrase has always seemed so vague to me, but now I know it’s the name for the teeth in my soul, that won’t tell me what to put between them when they set to gnawing. Maybe they just need to chew through my guts; that’s the one thing I haven’t tried. And what’s with trying to turn the semi colon into some kind of hopeful pity party? I can’t look at them the same anymore. They used to make me think of cinnamon buns, but now I just see doughy girls who identify as the need to be seen as broken. It’s not an identifier that’s desirable. Most of us with that badge are trying desperately to tuck it under our tattered lapel. The lady who redefined the semi colon as an anti suicide movement killed herself. Why does every episode of my self expression turn into some kind of hate speech? Can I just own the hate without apologizing for it? I hate you. There. There it is. I hate your social media. I hate your attempts to mask your emptiness. I hate your false unity. I hate your lives; none of them matter, regardless of their color or pronouns you’d be mad if we guessed but you hate clarifying. I hate your bumper stickers and your willingness to pay five times the worth for a cup of coffee. There are plenty of things I hate about myself too, which began to crystallize that immortal autumn. I found the poems I don’t hate the very most. I got rid of three quarters of my shit and I don’t remember what most of it was. Then I tried to carry the rest of it around in a giant back pack and realized, to lose the attachment to that insurmountable weight I saw as need, this idiot sheep needed to be shorn. If you leave the flock do you gain the ability to shift forms into some other animal? Or were you always an “x” in sheep’s clothing, you just had to notice the clothes to find the critter underneath? There’s a lot of significance to goats that was lost on me before. The church picked them for a reason. Dirty little bastards. They don’t eat trash like people think. Well, they do, but moreso they figure out what things are like sharks- with their mouths. Capricious. Caprine. Did you know that’s where they got that word? Maybe you did because you know about that goofy sea goat that owns most of January. Also applicable because January owns my genesis. September owns my exodus. The first of many. Maybe it was just some inspired Jewish gentleman, but if it wasn’t their idea the church certainly ran with the concept of the evil goat. Cloven hoofed, behorned Satan. Did you ever wonder if there were things in Hell enjoying themselves? I got in trouble as a child for voicing curiosity on that subject. There are a lot of questions my parents couldn’t or wouldn’t answer, but mostly the former, so they taught me how irreverent I was. I now know I particularly treasure things described as “irreverent.” Of all the word policing in our present “culture” how do I not hear all the religious colloquialisms being challenged more often? That shit is everywhere and a lot of it goes unnoticed. So much is ruled by pandering to religious sensitivity. We know more than ever that it’s pretense but it’s some sort of enduring obligation that sleeps under every political bed. It’s the brick wall someone can throw up in the middle of any road they believe has gone too far from their camp. There’s so much verbal exorcism, like sitting in the college computer lab, belligerently denying the role of the lab moderator when he told me to go at midnight, because I was realizing. In general. I was seeing. Everything and it came over me in enormous waves, filling my nose and eyes and lungs and I couldn’t possibly stop in the middle of figuring out whether to learn to swim or just be pulled out with the tide. I’m more in the camp of the latter lately but that fleet is halfway across the world now. So many ships. I decided to start, to begin the chronicle I’ve long been talking about, but now we’re at the point where I realize I will never be ready. I thought it was a sea but I have to withstand the tsunami before I can begin more oceanic metaphoric considerations. Every time I open the door I see more than I saw the last time, and this has been happening for years. The disease had to spread for me to admit its severity. That fall I decided to attempt a temporary surrender, but I can’t. And, the truth is, he was right. I said, “I’m not fighting to give up.” But that’s all I’m doing. I know it’s not an option and I keep focusing my energy on trying to find a way to make that less true because trying, REALLY trying and doing all that entails will break me and I know it. The liberation ended in death. We were listlessly watching I Know What You Did Last Summer and eating nothing but peanuts in the rooms where the shower water came in from the stinking lake. It wasn’t even a phone call, just a casual, “did you hear” text message and the next morning we’re running back to the city we spent most of our lives in to watch an empty body be surrendered after its owner ditched the brain with a bullet. Weird how entirely separate some bodies, minds and spirits conduct themselves. Not everyone’s though. I wonder if his new blushing bride got a semi colon tattoo before she started fucking his friends? He couldn’t find his place and he was too young to believe if he got older it could be better. Where were we when we heard about Maestro Mischief? Washington? We all sat in the van and there was that picture of him with the opposum and I cried when I read it was his wife who had to confirm his missing persons story ended in death. For some reason no one wants to say he did it on purpose. I’m listening to his music right now, and all of this started because I can’t not cry hearing everything he ever said now framed by his surrender. It was…what? Couldn’t have been a month after that the DSC died. Dead in the alley behind the liquor store and no one else seems to see the perfection in that. When a free climber falls to his death, at worst it’s, “What did he expect?” and at best, “That’s how he would have wanted to go.” But the guy that gave up family and beds and food to be drunk on the street corner outside the drive through coffee place- they all say it’s so sad. I will never be done. There’s always something else to say. A place is not so much a stationary location as it is a state of being. As in Your Place. A frame of mind. An emotional condition. A safe place. To be put in your place. To put into place. I am his concept. And he is mine and a lot of people never get to have that, don’t know where to look. I don’t think you can look, and some people get tired of drifting around, waiting for it to happen to them.
It was a good house for a breakdown;
A little too big
But with just the right kind of light.
I seem to remember a different view
Out the back bedroom window
Than the one I know is real,
But in the memory
There’s a giant elm tree
Reaching up to spread its arms
And protect that space
With the awful zebra gum striped wallpaper.
The truth is
The root of today’s evil
Is in that room
Where my children sat, alone,
Wondering when the doorknob would turn
And a friendly face would arrive
Bringing the promise of food
And dry diapers.
But I didn’t come
When they needed me.
I couldn’t bear to climb those stairs,
Look into those tiny faces
And pretend that I wasn’t the wolf
They needed protecting from.
There was no one for them,
Not even whispering leaves
Outside their window.
Dinner was often after dark
And their mother didn’t look at them,
Just looked at the wall and cried
Until the dishes were ready to be washed.
I went to the Renaissance Festival for the first time when I was nineteen. It was strictly off limits, even to the imagination, when I was a child because my righteous father (who had never been) told tales of the salacious nature of the event and the abhorrent behavior of all in attendance. As soon as the opportunity presented itself I followed my curiosity to the infamous event. I found the outrageous price of everything beyond the gates the most sinful part of the whole thing, but the cleavage was, in fact, impressive and the feeling of walking through a woodland village was worth the crowds and aimless quality of our whole experience. The thing I took away from the fair that had an impact on the rest of my life in a way I never could have guessed, was the handcrafted silver owl ring.
Fast forward three years. I’m back in my hometown, everything I had built upon leaving, now seen in reality. A life collapsed, my mind recoiling while my body went through the motions of keeping things afloat.
And then he shows up.
I knew Jesse in high school. We met when we were fourteen. I became new friends with all his old friends as he was silently transforming into a boy wise beyond his years, who knew the rest of us weren’t ready for the things he was discovering. So he just kept it all to himself. He was strange. Awkward. Didn’t say much. I had a messy relationship based in teen angst and drug addiction with his best friend. Jesse helped us get together, staying characteristically quiet about his own feelings for me. I was charismatic. Chaotic. Smart and mouthy and a tomboy who felt it useless to try to find a place in the teenage beauty hierarchy. Jesse never told me how much he appreciated that quality. He ended up dating my best friend.
Because of situations that arose from my activity with my boyfriend, my parents transferred me out of district for my junior year. In a fun twist, my boyfriend’s mom moved their family to that district at the same time. I only saw Jesse a handful more times. He visited me at my new school and got in trouble with the principal for standing on the school mascot statue out front, and we were all asked to leave. Most notably, he was there when I ran away and stole his mom’s car to deliver me to my planned hide out, where we shared the devastation of seeing his girlfriend, my best friend, for the last time before she moved out of town. We held each other and cried. Who could have guessed how often we would do that in the years to come?
We didn’t see each other for five years.
And then turns of fate brought us to pause in our hometown at the same time. I was in no position to start a new relationship but, long story short, he was everything I needed and he knew that. I didn’t fully understand what I felt for him, almost immediately upon reuniting, something I had never felt about anyone before. I told him it couldn’t happen, I wasn’t ready, I was a mess and I would just drag him through it. He had a trip planned to the west coast and he didn’t know how long it would take. He told me he would come back for me, but if I still wasn’t ready he would go on his way and who knew when we would see each other again? You can’t put a spark on a shelf and have a fire later.
He left. All I could think about was him. We talked every day. He made the fog in my life seem to clear, but I was afraid to jump into anything, especially anything that meant letting someone else take care of me at a time in my life where it was vital for me to know that I could float on my own. He was back three weeks later. His first stop was my house. What followed was a sort of organic fusion, and I don’t think it was conscious for either of us. It was just natural to be in one another’s company and it felt like it had always been this way. Nothing was stated, nothing assumed, we just were.
It was the end of August, after a handful of fairly serious shared experiences, that we realized, and spoke aloud, what exactly our bond was. Summer tipped gracefully into its usual, golden pre-winter attire, and found us taking hikes and long evening drives, lying about on sunny afternoons and spending hours at the skate park. We even spent time with one another’s parents and even they acted like it had just always been this way. There are a multitude of places my mind goes at each season’s turn, and as this summer fades I return to this place. I lost my job not long after Jesse returned from the coast and it was my first stretch of joblessness since I started working. You know the feeling when you have a couple days off in a row and twenty four hours seems endless and doing nothing is a luxury? My life transitioned into that place and as Jesse and I blossomed I realized I had never loved or been loved, with the exception of my children, in all my life. Everything from before seemed so dull and lifeless and base. It was like just being in his presence opened up this wealth of knowledge whose existence I had never come anywhere near.
I remember telling him I no longer believed in the permanence of love. I saw it as a formless, floating sort of thing, like smoke drifting from a constantly shape shifting flame. We were sitting on the orange leather couch in his parents’ garage and I said, “I feel like we should tell other people, ‘I love you right now,’ and only tell our children that we truly love them.”
We had spent night after sleepless night talking, sharing every minute thought, and just looking into one another. We had developed this habit of just staring at one another for a while and one of us would ask, “What are you thinking?”
Later on the night I made my statement about the transience love, we were in his old room, his head in my lap. He looked up at me and just stilled, his mossy amber eyes gentle and inviting. I knew what he was thinking, but I was afraid to say it. Instead I asked, “What are you thinking?”
His response was so comforting…It’s hard to put into words how it felt. Not quite comforting even, but comfortable. Like I was coming home in a way I had never been able to in all my existence. Every facet of my life is peppered with, or altogether steeped in some sort of horrible shade. All shapes and sizes of trauma, abuse, emptiness, disappointment, total lack of love, security, trust or ease. When he answered me I felt relief, like this was the beginning of what I had always been so desperate for- a place I could truly relax, knowing I was safe, knowing I belonged.
He kept his eyes locked onto mine and said, “You know.”
I did, and he felt it, but it was one of those moments where crippling self doubt crept over the knowledge and made me afraid to say something stupid; to say I knew and be mortifyingly wrong. I couldn’t say it out loud. He felt that too. He could read me like a book, even then. But he waited. Silently challenged me to try, to trust myself.
I smiled a little. “Do you love me right now?”
He said, “I just love you.”
At the time I didn’t even understand how full bodied and true a statement that was. If I were to say, “I left him x number of times,” I would have to sit down and really think through the last four years. I ran from his truth and his peace so many times. But every situation in which I left had three things in common- One, as soon as I was gone I knew I couldn’t live without him, and my thoughts were always on him because, Two, he just loved me. And Three, I was always running from an opportunity I saw only has a threat. Out of that pure love he challenged me again and again to rise to the occasion. To burst out of my old skin and be the person he saw me keeping down, denying in favor of whatever was easier. We’ve all heard the phrase “brutally honest,” but never had those words been so thoroughly defined. His truths were like crushing blows to the skull. Like knives to the gut. Like looking into the eyes of a boa constrictor and thinking, “So this is how it ends,” as you feel your ribs give way. PC was not his MO. “Putting it nicely” was not his thing. And what I couldn’t appreciate was that he loved me enough to trust I could handle the things he was saying. That he saw me as someone who, even at her weakest, could catch the meteors he hurled at me and hold on while they burned down everything I thought I knew.
He almost lost me. I didn’t think I was as strong as he already knew I was. And now I’ve never been so thankful for anything as I am for my crushed skull, spilled guts and punctured lungs. We’ll leave phoenix metaphors out of this, because even my cheesy metaphors can’t do justice to what my husband did for me.
And now, summer is winding down and in my mind I’m back on my sun dappled street, outside the little brown house where I restarted my life, experiencing that weekend-off feeling and remembering those eyes on my soul, sizing up my potential. Jesse met my little, tattered family and knew he was home. No matter how hard I fought, how far I ran, how lost I felt, he was there, whittling off the useless bark and taking whatever undue retaliation I dished out. If I had tried half as hard to help myself as he has always helped me, we would have known years ago that I’m bi-polar and progress would have been a lot easier to make. We tell ourselves that ten years from now we won’t feel the weight of how things all started out, hell, maybe even five years out, but right now it’s like a long storm has stilled its raging and we’re finally piecing things back together.
I never took that owl ring off after I bought it, except for one of those times I ran off. Jesse found out I was planning to leave, I don’t even remember how, and he said, “At least let me take you myself.”
I agreed, but he also told me I should let him have my owl ring, so he could at least have something beautiful to hold onto out of all this. I really didn’t want to, but I felt guilty and agreed. I regretted it the whole time we were apart, although it wasn’t the greatest of my regrets from the moment I watched his car disappear around the bend. When we reunited I asked for my ring back. He was upset, I’d told him he could have it. I felt it was unfair to keep a relic of something you still have. As begrudgingly as I had first parted with it, he returned it. We both have a deep appreciation for owls, and it came to be “one of those things” that’s a deeply meaningful shared detail. That ring was a lot more to us than just a band of silver, in a lot of ways.
That year I scoured the internet, in hopes of finding a ring similar to mine. I used any and all keywords I could find, discovered all kinds of unique sites I’d never heard of, and found a lot of cool jewelry, but it seemed my handcrafted piece had no equal. Until, some time after I had given up hope of fulfilling my quest, but habitually continued the search, I happened upon a ring almost exactly like mine. It was glorious. It was fortuitous. I was ecstatic! I ordered it, intending to give it to him for our anniversary, but I couldn’t wait.
We were married that winter. His parents gave us their original gold bands that they’d replaced years ago as they grew older, but had always held onto. It was a deeply meaningful gesture, especially since it was my father in law’s idea, and he’s the prototype of the hardworking, emotionally distant male who is chronically disappointed in his sole heir. (Secretly he liked me. I always knew it!) We wore them proudly, but over time it just sort of came to be that we wore the owls on our left hands. It has become a symbol of affection to make a fist and rub their little silver faces together.
It was always going to be him, strolling in with a deep seated and well justified hatred of all mankind, yet carving out a space for the one person he thought could go against that belief. That first night we came back into each other’s lives we walked from my house to the river and sat on the bank hurling stones into the racing sludge. I tried to skip mine, impossible on that water, but he grabbed all the biggest rocks he could find and launched them like Zeus hurling smiting thunderbolts. I tried to argue with him on behalf of humankind. Ironic, considering what I’d just, and really always, been through. Years later I realized he hated everything because he was such a sweet and benevolent person, but no one ever seemed to prove worthy of the depth of his ability to love.
This is the first year in a while I haven’t faced the prospect of winter with some sense of dread. I can appreciate this autumn as a time of relief while rich colors wash over the land. This time four years ago was when I first happened upon “Wild Geese,” just flipped a book open to a random page and there it was, embodying everything I needed to hear, and when I shared it with Jesse it was like a piece of understanding of all things that we held between us. Right now, however, the wild geese are headed out, and the world goes on. Tarantulas come out in late summer here, and ticks start to consider leaving us alone for a bit. The air thins and no longer insists on being quite so soupy. And my head is full of images of my first meeting with deep, life changing love, and my place in the family of things.
It goes back years and years…It’s hard to even pick one reel out of the churning snapshot memory bank of Autumns. Vaughn’s Apple Orchard with the strange apple pickers and the indoor/outdoor bees who built their hive in a “bee window” you could look through in the gift shop to see the bees at work in their home. The pumpkin patch across the road that stands backdrop to perhaps my only good memory of first grade, and to later memories of hooliganism on high school trips. I really am sorry I smashed the Golden Pumpkin at the center of the corn maze. That was really mean.
Just outside town, after you cross the big blue bridge over the torrent of muddy oblivion that separates two states, the Missouri hills begin their joyful undulation across the landscapes, raising the woods to the sky, that all below may watch as green yellows, burns orange and glows red in ripples for miles, interrupted by snaking highways and county roads. This was the way to my grandfather’s Midwestern paradise that can’t be synopsized because the poetic detail is boundless. In a child’s imagination the glory was absolutely unrivaled and I can’t simply run my fingers across the surface without wanting to plunge in head first and float endlessly.
There were quaint towns peppered along these roads. Towns that knew their only draw was their age and maintained turn of the century downtown storefronts, with names that included words like “Apothecary” and “Shoppe.” There were soda fountains and two story antique stores that smelled of potpourri, crumbling leather and dust. Towns reeking of nostalgia that all seemed to have their own Apple Fests, but were under constant threat of being swept away and forgotten given one good rainy season. I find it ironic that some of the ugliest stretches of the Missouri River run through Missouri.
Not long after moving out of my parents’ house I was finally able to taste the over-indulgent nectar of the Renaissance Fair that passed through every fall. My father used words like “vulgar” and “bulging” and “streams of alcohol,” whenever he mentioned the unholy passage of the event. As a child I would sit wide eyed as my father spat his views on the popularity of this debauchery, and I would wonder after the souls of all the willing participants in this Devil’s Fair. At nineteen I saw it for myself. The biggest evil was the price tags on everything. Two bit swords for $299.99 and cheap Lord of the Rings replicas, $300 stage costume clothing and $40 stoneware beer steins. Amongst all these things were peppered wonderful works by local artists, like stained glass panes featuring faeries and unicorns (I knew the lady who made those. She called herself Fable and wore her Renaissance tunic even when it wasn’t fair season), handmade knee high moccasins, intricately detailed belts and, most memorably, lovely silver rings in the shape of animal faces. I only had enough walking around money for one overpriced relic and it was one of these rings, whose role in my future I never could have guessed.
The “bulging” cleavage was, indeed, impressive, the humor delightfully unchristian and the “streams” of low grade modern Meade delicious. Experiences like this one set me on a quest of exploring all things my father had decried, because it seemed he hated anything where delight might be found.
All of this is the speed reel introduction to the memory of the hour, like telepathically absorbing snippets of each text as you run your fingers over the spines of a long row of books, on the way to one resonant title. Which is:
End of Summer, 2013. I was twenty-two, unaware of how incredibly young and naive I still was. The Autumn previous could be called “The Fall Out,” a witty little angsty pun.
I visited Florida for the first time and in one devastating twenty-four hour car ride all my illusions and self built walls crumbled, leaving me staring into the mouth of the demon who had been swelling for years, reveling in the lifeblood of my denial. Which, of course, lead to the cute little title of the next chapter of my life. You know the one, where you realize you’re an idiot and you’ve been lying to yourself so you can float around in the stasis of “what I’m supposed to do,” and then the water is drained from your shitty little pool and you try desperately to crawl back into your lies? I spent the autumn, and then the winter, trying to pretend again but it was impossible. This resulted in the most miserable spring of my life. Usually my favorite season, that year I felt the rejuvenation and spreading green mocking me. Chirping out the juxtaposition of my demise against the promise of infinite life.
“Tell me your despair
And I will tell you mine,
Meanwhile the world goes on.”
But I didn’t know that poem yet.
In April I wandered off like a pathetic ailing doe and found an abandoned house to shrivel up inside. By nightfall I still wasn’t dead and the blood coating my arms had dried and the crust cracked and burned when I moved. Suddenly the haze lifted and the dead, rotting structure, filled with small relics of whoever had left and never looked back, was horrendously frightening and I couldn’t get over the rubble, down the stairs and back to my car fast enough. I’d never felt so stupid.
So, I scraped together what little energy I had left and demanded we depart the wretched small town no locals ever left, and head back towards my old stomping grounds. Not too far from either mine or my ex’s hometown for family to visit. April was one big ice storm, turning every surface into deadly mirrors, daring you to move and keep your feet under you. As we left town for the last time, every branch and blade of grass a glinting crystal, we saw a semi jackknife and careen down an embankment. We were amused, finally seeing someone other than us slipping completely out of control.
The rest of the spring and early summer were filled with thick, green air, which I usually love. The rolling hills, this time, devilishly playful, engaging their inhabitants in a game of hide and seek with lightning bolts and funnel clouds.
But I was reading Sylvia Plath and my life had the same flat, unengaging hopelessness that leaves one finding amusement only in ruminating on clever ways to pull the final curtain. I took great joy in ending my communication with a man who claimed to love me, by dropping red food coloring and a razor blade into the bathroom sink, sending him a picture and then changing my phone number. I can forgive myself for that now because my personal growth in the years following lead me to realize, everyone from that part of my life was absolute shit. I already knew I didn’t have the guts to follow through and my poor children were alone enough, orphaned by my insurmountable despair. So, three weeks after the four year anniversary of the worst decision of my life, I broke my two year silence with my father because I had no one else, and he swooped in to save the day, helping me cart out my children and anything I could carry while my as-of-that-moment ex was at work. I stayed in the house I spent my formative years craving to escape, for one more dreadful night before dear old dad was up to the same antics that lead to silence between us in the first place, and I retreated to the local women’s shelter. Within three weeks I had a job and a small rental house a few blocks from the river.
An old friend saw I’d moved back to town and said he and some friends would love to hang out. I invited them to come by after I got off work one day and when I opened my front door that evening there were three friends I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade. One I didn’t recognize at first. The last time I’d seen him he was maybe a buck sixty, barely taller than me, draped in baggy clothes and hiding behind nose length hair. Now he was this hulking young man, easily two hundred pounds of raw righteous anger. I was immediately equal parts enraptured and surprised. His presence held the comfort of old memory, but his new form held a person I had never truly known.
I drink my coffee with heavy cream
like she taught me to love,
Every cup the perfect
And the art of the whimsically arranged windowsill
is a novelty I picked up
from her many eclectic homes.
We see sunlight in the same way,
Because of the unique darkness
Something only she
can understand with me.
This darkness is the cause
of our separation
despite being our common ground.
The strings between us
are razor wire;
We can follow them
to one another
but never make it
without bleeding fingers.
Once a sister
now a key
to reassembling a perfect portrait
When I was something like eleven years old my parents went out of town and left my sisters and myself with friends of theirs. The friends were an older couple, poetically nondescript in a perfect brown carpet and beige kitchen decor kind of way. Al had some sort of growth that gave him a Rudolph nose, more bulbous and increasingly red each year. He was the kind of guy who made it his schtick, teasing children about what he had done to get this nose, making up wild stories about how it came to be that way, and how we could avoid a similar fate. His wife, Linda, was big on top with stick thin legs and all her clothes were square, including her dresses which featured prehistoric, or perhaps just militant, shoulder pads. As a child, their property and home had the same vibe to me. Even the grass was brown and the most interesting thing around was the orchard, filled with rows of eerily twisted apple trees. There’s a vague memory of Al in a bee keeping suit, and a dark wooden shed where he kept the honeycomb in jars, the only light coming from a crude window screened in chicken wire. Fresh honeycomb had to be the most delightful thing I had ever tasted in my barely a decade of experience.
They were incredibly nice people and even took us on vacation to Branson, spending a day with us on the scorching tar walkways of Silver Dollar City. But, about fifteen years later, what I remember most distinctly is the savory nothingness and the flawless boredom. What I mean by this is hard to put into words. It’s laid out in neatly framed, moving photos in my mind’s eye, in a way that has come to define summer.
I hate Kansas. When we’re on the road and people ask where we’re from I typically say either Kansass or, “I’m not telling,” and I frequently offer the advice that, if you aren’t farming or cooking meth, stay the fuck outta the entire state. But my memories of the couple weeks at Al and Linda’s somewhat resemble a soft spot for the pulp of summer and vast lack of substance. It’s the simplicity, the feeling of almost comfort in the limbo quality of the place. I don’t like to admit it most of the time, but when the air becomes thick enough to drink and pools up on your skin, and cicadas thrum in rhythm with the miserable heat waves, a piece of me feels some connection.
At Al and Linda’s there was a lot of hang time. My sisters, being too poised and mature as new teenagers, mostly stayed in the air conditioned house, curled around books, while I slipped out the sliding glass door to wander the orchard or challenge myself to find something interesting. There was hardly any shade on the property. If you’ve ever met an apple tree you know that’s not really its purpose in life, and if you’ve ever been in the Midwest, you’ll know how useless even real shade can be. I’m always amazed when we go west, how I can be baking in the sun, step under a tree and get too chilly, so that I want to step back into the dry heat. I didn’t even realize until a few years ago that Kansas has a sub tropical climate, having once been beneath the sea. It’s a low spot where all the moisture runs and stews its inhabitants. The grass withers, the trees shudder and sometimes begin changing colors out of either confusion or self defense, and everything seems to pause.
Summer, in Kansas, can be a bit like night, because only those with a specific purpose are still dragging themselves about. Walking outside can be like wandering a vast secret clubhouse, the only other inhabitants in possession of the same closely guarded information as you, so that there’s no need to stop and converse; your shared presence means you both already hold the key.
I remember walking the drainage creeks to see where they led, the chatter of birds and insects a dull waterside roar. Saplings who had the luck of blowing into this unseen territory, rather than the well trimmed properties a few yards up the bank, willing their leaves to wave in a nearly imperceptible breeze. Leeches and frogs alike, lying in wait, hoping not be noticed in the stinking mud. I was always afraid of water snakes. Something about the way they glide so elegantly across the surface of the water coming across as royalty, and a bow, or at the very least a clearing of their path, is warranted. If snakes are the rarely seen kings and queens of this dominion, mosquitoes are the swarming street peasants, guarding over their disgusting broods not out of care and concern, but only to ensure that their vile lineage be carried on. Someone has to help the ticks keep the soulless deer in check.
I braved the muck and critters as though I were discovering parts unknown, willing to bleed and stink a bit in trade for adventure. My imagination never failed me as a kid and these creeks could be anything I wanted them to be. I might be journeying to a mystical temple deep in the jungle, wading the Amazon to test my courage against the legendary anaconda, turning sunfish into piranhas and salamanders into baby crocodiles, or perhaps I was an orphan, turned to theft and survival dependent on crime, the storm drain tunnels my secret refuge. If you never strolled through one of these tunnels as a kid you’ve missed out on a kind of magic. They seem roughly palatial, ten to twenty feet tall with varying amounts of water trickling or pouring over their floors, impenetrably dark at their centers with small passages snaking off into deeper shadows like black holes in the wall. Sometimes animal remains and paintings decorate the hide outs, and my imagination required I suppose the bones were those of a human, sacrificed long ago to some fire in the sky.
And all along, the cicadas, thrumming, voices soaring, their stridulation defining the pace and secrecy of the summer.
At Al and Linda’s there was that incredible stillness; life free of time. I don’t remember waking up there. I don’t remember going to sleep or eating dinner, just one long stretch of afternoon and eternal sunlight. Timelessness. I finally put my finger on it. Summer on a plain of dry, golden grass is like living inside a sensory deprivation tank- you float, you cease to exist in the conventional sense and life takes on the quality of ink on a page, as though you are a static character in the midst of being written, alive and in motion only when a reader lifts your book and allows you to travel as they turn the pages. And the quintessential insect song only adds to the suspended quality of events, droning constantly on, varying only in the number of voices, fading in and out but never completely quieting.
I’ve always preferred ambient light to artificial and enjoy the way it changes throughout the day. I also enjoy the various feelings of places based on the quality and source of their light and the visual flavours experienced as I move from one place to another, traveling through worlds six feet apart but vastly different. I loved to play outside in the summer until I was too hot to stand it, and then retreat inside the cool dark house, walking slowly into the blackness of the hallway, focusing on the light slipping in from the kitchen trying to reach through the shadows of the foul smelling corridor that housed the opening to my father’s lair. It was always either dark or artificially lit in there.
I would take off my shoes, set them neatly in the row along the wall and walk quietly into the blue living room.
It was in this space the “afternoon sadness” was born, the opposite of golden timelessness. I have this distinct yet fragmented memory of sitting on a stool in the middle of the room, uncharacteristically silent, looking out the window at the movement and sunlight beyond the glass. I must have been between the ages of five and seven. The curtains were blue and there was a room sized blue and white braided rug we, for some reason, called “The Family Rug.” There was almost the sense of being inside a fish tank. I watched the neighbor’s small dog running back and forth in the yard, but didn’t hear it bark. I watched their enormous elm tree wave its fingers over their roof as though casting a spell, but I didn’t hear its whisper. I watched the top of the small coniferous shrub right outside bend under the weight of a bird, but as the feathered creature opened its beak and threw its head back, I heard only the stillness of the house. The feeling that the day was winding down disappointed me in a mortal way, as though the sun’s descent through the sky signaled the end of all things. The Lord giveth, they had taught me, and he taketh away. He must be the one, then, flicking the burning ball of light farther from me, farther towards my father’s waking, towards my nightly battle with terror of things I wished would just show their faces already and get the fear over with.
The isolation was nearly tangible, the color of the light and the decor as though I was frozen inside a block of ice. I could feel my father sleeping at the other end of the house. Even with his eyes closed and his breathing slowed, all subjects were at the king’s disposal, servants of the silence of the house, that he might sleep through the day, undisturbed, and work through the night to avoid the life that played out before him against his will. It was as though, as a small child, I could feel the inevitability of time slipping, slipping, slipping, (if I may) and how meaninglessly so.
My mother would come in from her yard work smelling of sweat and her secret cup of diet Coke, forbidden by her husband because fat women shouldn’t drink soda. She would turn on the radio and, as though they knew what I was struggling with, the christian radio station would taunt me with what I still think of as “end of the day” music, and I would stay in my spot until my mother sent me away or asked me to help with something, or my sisters entered the room to mock me with their beautiful singing voices and pointed helpfulness. “Your daydreams are over,” they may as well have whispered. “It’s time to Help. Are you even doing anything?”
The day would wind down soon. It would be harder to see out the window. False, yellow tones would fill the house, and any sound would be as phony as the light, piping from the throats of a flock of sheep in the presence of the wolf, trying to placate him as his yellow eyes flickered across their meat. When allowed their freedom, there was nothing they wanted to do anyway. Our mother would enforce bedtime and I would lie awake in my windowless bedroom, imagining the sun, fresh, as though never seen, lilting over the garden and gracing the strawberries come morning. I would quietly dress, tease the squeaky back door open as quietly as possible, and slip out into the still cool day, convinced I might catch a glimpse of a fairy sprinkling small droplets over the butterfly garden and grape arbor. Our yard would suggest the inhabitants of the small house may have souls, but in the quiet afternoon, in the wind-down of sleepy light, I knew otherwise, even then. I just desperately wished-no, then I still prayed-that it weren’t true.
I bury myself in caring for things
I may not be able to keep alive;
Was it my subconscious that wrote out “carrying” when I thought I meant
To say caring?
Do I focus my efforts on things
I see as redeemable?
another in the dime a dozen story
of released kittens,
I left her to die,
with a litter of flea bitten young
when I realized I could barely even keep myself alive.
Then there was the puppy
who showed me how my eyes gleam red
in the face of things
I can’t control.
I’ll never have my own dog
I did better with the bird
I found in the mouth of a cat,
dragging myself from bed at noon
to judiciously cut nuts and berries
into slivers, on a saucer,
and watch him eat
until every morsel had vanished.
He stayed with me until he was able to fly
and I was sad to realize
how badly I had wanted him
to stop depending on me.
There was another cat,
by the neighborhood children.
My daughter told them I had taken their pet.
I refused to give her back,
but she got out
and was pregnant before she was a year old.
There was nothing I could do.
They started keeping her inside.
There are dog packs here
eating trash in the ditches.
I leave them alone.
At least they have each other,
often just pairs,
one small, one pit- no surprise.
I killed the infant mice
out of laziness
and cried for two days
at my abhorrent behaviour.
I decided I hate mice.
Vicious little bastards,
worse to one another
than my awful feeding schedule and lack of warmth
could ever be.
Maybe I saved them, after all.
Now I have a starling.
She’s so afraid
and I just want her to know that I love her,
with her twig thin legs
and immaculate claws.
My heart melts when she gapes at me
and fluffs up contentedly in my palm.
I want her to live forever.
We fed her the caterpillar we failed to feed.
I don’t know why it wouldn’t eat,
like the fifty some caterpillars we watched hatch yesterday,
walked about hunting on behalf of,
for very specific leaves.
Four courses we provided
and they’re having none of it.
Their mother only lived five days.
They were her only purpose.
She was beautiful and I don’t want
to end her legacy.
We won’t even get into the pets I had
as a child,
under my parents’ regime.
Disclaimer: If I made it sound like I killed my puppy, I didn’t. I gave her to a guy who named her Lilly and apparently taught her to ride a skateboard.