America's Shadows

In the strengthening morning sunlight I carried Strongland up the mountain 

Accompanied by our silent American Shadows we gained elevation east out from the loosely-folded grain covered contours of the Wallowa Valley intersected with the bright glint torn seams of snow-melt streams etched into the amber and sage grasses, carrying forth the earth’s blood to thirsty cattle and fields and small towns below

We had left Georgia behind, exchanged her sweltering heat and cumulus clouds for a low sky awash with the colors of steelhead pushing upriver 

And red clay ground fine as porcelain slip for basalt and snow

And the Muscogee Creek Branch homelands for the lands of Treaty and Non-treaty Nez Perce Native American’s and a Statue of Chief Joseph the Younger and his words of peace and desperation

And plantation mansions for settler's decaying schoolhouses and a home made with salvaged boards from Appalachia, and juniper harvested from its site on the mountain

 

Splitting the earth from the sun

Our shadow traced across America's skin

Tomorrow is her Independence Day

No matter what variable or measure, state lines cannot be determined from those awesome heights

All you witness below is common ground

 

 We work our way towards the beating hearts of sons of American boys

And the Pacific Ocean

Her cold waters rush and swallow the ankles of fearless children that scream out across those waters to challenge the swelling waves and the surge of time,

"Turn back!

You don’t know us yet, wait your turn,

Until we come upon out time to relent to you.

Turn back!" 

  

Two days washed away since those moments in the ocean such as the forgotten name of a child you knew long ago

We are older now

I comment about gray in the beards

And erosion

And cracked and tumbling foundations

Brothers and sons

How we came to be, began long before us 

Strongland doesn’t yet understand this

 

“Dada” Strongland says, his child’s hand draws a line across the horizon of the world he is coming to know

My own hand, sticky with peach jam made from peaches weighing down the crooked branches of an old solitary peach tree tucked against this windswept Oregon mountain, I pull him close like water smoothing the  stones in the trout rivers below

We clear even the height of the sun just breaching the low hills pulled along the distant horizon

The walls of my heart beat harder against his stocky chest of new muscles and strengthening ribs, through our sweat soaked shirts that separate our blood

Even though it is half the same

Strongland’s arms drape loose around my shoulders; he knows I won’t let him go

 

Broad-beaked ravens cut arcs in the hood of blue above us, calling out to each other

Their serrated knife- winged shadows spiral across the mountain

I mimic them and Strongland laughs and I feel his breath brush my face like the soft shift of lupine and thistle reaching towards heaven from the cattle dotted meadows that surround us

 

I pull a piece of tall grass from the side of the dirt road and put it between my teeth

And a second one for Strongland

He held on to his only for a moment before with a laugh, he let it go into the wind 

Together we watched it sail away like a twisting feather, and my heart

Over the berm of the road before catching the wind fluttering towards a sinew of pale cinder gray asphalt streaked with logging trucks and grain haulers that appear no more substantial than a toy truck in Strongland’s broad hands 

We lost track of it, like so many things in this world, but I am certain it has settled in the tall grasses waiting until the earth reclaims it

 

We walked past an old barn; now just organized decay, perched like the peach tree on the mountain, waiting to succumb to the sun and the updrafts and the snow and time’s relentlessness

We stopped and studied the gaps in the exterior walls, exposing the light and shadow patterns laid across bare and lonely floors

I am tempted to disregard the No Trespassing sign nailed onto the dilapidated fence that separated it from the road

And carry Strongland across the threshold

But this was all Nez Perce land and we have gone too far already

Far below us, cast in metal, even Chief Joseph’s shadow resists his nonexistence

I carried Strongland further up the grade higher as my boots ground against the gravel and recalled stories told that morning

Of a gunshot survivor

A mother

A bullet would take the function of an arm but could not damage her grace

She preservers to raise proud children and teach them about how to make their own way downriver and write their own stories

As brittle as clay tile and as strong as Hells Canyon stone

And others who carry their scars on their hearts and survive when their sons have drowned in roaring waters

Through pain and triumph all America’s shadows are created equal

 

I scan the ridges above us, dense with pine and near-black ochre crevasses

They say the wolves have returned from Yellowstone to the higher mountains as they don’t mind at all the distinction of boundary or ownership of cattle or the lamb

I wear my Save the Wolves t-shirt, a hand painted gift from a child

I was warned not to wear it, to some, the sentiment is not welcome here

What is the difference between a wolf and the farms growing untold acres of feed corn along the Columbia River Gorge, I cannot fathom

Splendid emerald green, mesmerizing but out of place, drenched with an abundance of irrigation waters sprayed out from massive machines as if they will flow forever

Our American shadows ease along in silence as one

Dapple and break across a spring creek

Alongside the juniper and poplar

Above the sloped barn roofs in the valley, as bright as sun-lit mirrors

Our shadows will go with us I tell Strongland

When we are gone, they will be no more

Strongland rested his head on my shoulder

“Mama” he whispered

We turned back for her open, loving arms

As I carry him back down the mountain

Our shadows fall just the same as everyone else

Through unique to themselves all America’s shadows are equal and undivided

Lucky, Might Not be the Right Word. (Billy Parham’s Last Friend Series #4)

In the middle of the night his phone rang—the kind of the middle of the night that when a ringing phone rips you from your dreams you answer—so Strongland did.

  A women's voice, "I'm sorry to call so late, I’m trying to reach S.L.?" A low-tone beep in the background. 

  "Yes… This is him."

  "I have a man here, he's been asking for you...”

  Strongland pushed the sheets off his legs, set his feet onto the pine hardwood, brushed the hair away from his forehead and clicked his bedside lamp on. He cleared his throat, hoping his head would follow suit. "I'm sorry, who are we talking about?"

  "Parham, a Mr. Billy Parham. Is he your relative?"

  Strongland caught his reflection on a framed photograph of his mother and father, the three of them layered into one. He felt a rush of relief that this call wasn’t about either one of them. "No ma’am. Where is he?"

  The beeps in the background slowed; the sound of a cart rolling and hushed middle of the night voices. "Alamagordo Hospital, sir. He had a number written on a piece of paper in his pocket. I decided to take a chance that it might belong to you.”

  Strongland wiped the sleep out of the corners of his eyes. Guess my head ain't cleared. “Sorry, where is he again?”

  "Alamagordo, in New Mexico. Just north of the border."

  Strongland exhaled, it came out a soft whistle. "Let me get this straight, if you don't mind; Billy is in a hospital in Alamosomething, New Mexico, and he asked for me?"

  "That nearly sums it up?"

  It wasn't like he forgot about Billy, but he stopped checking under the bridge two months since the last time he saw him; hell and that was the first day they ever spoke. Here it was three months later when he answered this middle of the damn night call and it sure as hell caught him off guard. Her use of the word “nearly” came back at him. "You said nearly? What haven't I accounted for?"

  “S.L., it is S.L. right?"

  "Yes."

  “I hate to tell you this, and even more, I hate to question the situation and honestly it ain’t a single iota of my business, and now, don't get me wrong,  but many more times than I ever cared to see it happen,  a man like Mr. Parham ends up here out from nowhere, and nobody knows them, and nobody cares, and they are way too near to being dead then they ever saw coming, and from deep in a medical stupor they cry out for a person, say that person's name and maybe we get lucky and get a phone number and then we have a conversation like this and sometimes it's hard to tell if the call comes as relief to the person on the other end of the line in knowing that their person is alive, or maybe they are relieved they never have to wonder when that call was coming, they can finally just let go or..."

  Strongland couldn't follow; "Sorry, or, what?"

  "No need to apologize, in fact I'm relieved that you don't follow already. So, never mind okay?"

  Strongland went downstairs, pulled a bag of coffee grounds out of the freezer. "Okay…are you asking me to do anything here?”

  There was a long pause. Strongland filled the coffee pot enough for three cups, which was enough to get him to his drive to work. 

  She spoke again, easy and matter of fact and with a narrower drawl than he was accustomed; Strongland pictured a heavyset white woman with a pronounced dye job that made it appear that a dusty tarantula was easing its way down her forehead.

  "I don't have any other way to say it but Mr. Billy Parham is nearly dead, and I do mean nearly but don't count that as a medical diagnosis, just take it as fact…I don't think he has much time left."

  Strongland, not paying attention, heaped a quarter cup of grounds straight into the coffee maker without a filter and closed the lid and then started the coffee maker. "Jesus...okay. I mean, Jesus. If I was to come out there to see him, how long would you say I have to do that?"

"If he makes it through the next twenty-four hours you might be lucky enough to catch him still among the living."

"Don't you mean he'll be lucky?"

"Actually I don't know; lucky might not be the right word. He's an awful mess. Either got run over by a bus, which is my first bet, or got beat so bad he might never walk again. But like I said, that's if he makes it twenty-four hours."

  The coffee pot filled. The sun encouraged her first rays to break the stronghold of the night. A mourning dove complained. Strongland poured a cup of the coffee, pulled a mouthful of scalding grounds into his mouth, spit them into the sink. "Jesus..."

She came across as a smart-ass, and it surprised him. "No, it’s still just me, but if you care to see him before Jesus does you better get moving."

  Strongland dumped the coffee out, rinsed the sludge of grounds out, watching them swirl and disappear down the drain. "Which hospital do I go to, where are you again?"

She laughed, "Alamogordo, and its the only one we got, heck, except for illegals and bars we only have one of anything."

  The line went dead.

  "Jesus..."

Strongland threw clothes in a duffel, pulled a pair of boots from the line and then went online. Five minutes in of the twenty four hours to see Billy Parham alive he sank eight hundred dollars on a one-way ticket to Albuquerque, NM.

 

 

***

 

Strongland locked the door behind him and stepped off the narrow wood step down onto the gravel walkway leading to the garage set back a ways from his house. He pulled himself into his truck, checked his phone again to double check his plane ticket was in his email. Strongland hated flying, damn well hated it, hurtling through the freaking sky in a metal tube. Of course he would have rather just driven, but what the nurse said had hit him hard “If he makes it twenty-four hours…"

  He called his boss. “I might be back Monday; then again I might not be back till the Monday after that.”

“What in the hell S.L.,” was what his boss said.

“That’s a reasonable question. Want a complete answer when I get back, or a half-ass one now?”

“Get back next Monday if you want me to even hear what you have to say,” is what his boss came up with.

“Fair enough.”

 

Strongland laughed at his reflection in the rearview, just wasn’t a way to know what was coming. Hell neither did Laura. There was something about this trip made him desperate to see her before he got onto that damn plane. Checking his watch, she’d just be setting the coffee on about now. Intent on staying a dumb-ass aren’t you? He was going there anyways.

  He drove through his just waking town. A thin veil of dawn was still draped across the border between the solid things attached to and set upon the earth and the ethereal makings of everything above those things that belong to the lower seam of the horizon. Clusters of grackles invaded the upper fold of the seam, and then dive-bombed in stuttered breaks and changes of direction to collect and organize on power lines and branches. One cop rolled by but that was it.

  Strongland parked in the lot, Laura’s car was there in her usual spot. He searched the panes of broad glass and found her standing over a table wrapping silverware in paper napkins and setting them in neat stacks. His eyes followed her hands. Never had such a menial task looked like a god-damned ballet, not that he’d ever seen one in person. He checked his watch again. There was plenty of time to wait till they opened, plenty of time to order and eat slow and watch her and plenty of time to never say a word about what was on his mind and plen…

Tap, tap. Laura rapped on his window.

Shit… He rolled it down.

Laura grinned at him. “We don’t have a drive-thru, you know that don’t you?”

Strongland felt his face turn as red as a late July tomato. “Yep.”

“I’d ask how long you have been sitting here, but I know exactly how long you have been sitting here because I saw you pull in.”

“Oh, how long ago was that?”

“Ten minutes, smart ass. You aren’t drunk are you?”

“Nope.” He could have told her he never drank, but like with most things he didn’t tell her, he stayed consistent.

“Headed to work?”

Hell. Sweat beaded at his hairline. “No.”

Laura looked out into the street, her eyes followed a semi as it lumbered by. It seemed like she was taking here time. Thinking. Without looking at him, “You sure you aren’t drunk?”

“One hundred percent certain.”

Laura studied him and then leaned in. For a heartbeat he thought she was about to kiss him, but she inhaled deeply though her nose, and then drew back. “Okay, well, you don’t smell drunk.”

Strongland turned red again, this time about an early July tomato. “I’d be surprised as hell if I did.”

“Come on in S.L.”

 

      He followed Laura inside and half-smiled at the other waitresses. Laura pointed at a two-top, and he sat. She returned with a coffee, set it down and then disappeared. Strongland rolled a bundle of silverware in his fingers. She returned again with two plates of pancakes, set one in front of him, and then such to his surprise as if someone set a case full of cash in front of him and told him it was all his, she pulled the chair across from him out, and then took a seat. Strongland gawked at her.

            Laura unrolled a package of silverware and then arranged the tinny chrome fork and spoon next to her plate. Her eyes never came off his. “S.L.?”

        “Yep.”

       “What is it?”

  Strongland told her, he told her about the call and his boss and his plane ticket. He never sank a fork into his pancakes. She never did either. She never interrupted or asked a question but just leaned into his words and soaked them up like the dry ground pulling in first deluge of rain after a long drought. Their coffees went cold. A waitress tapped her shoulder. Laura nodded and got up from the table. Strongland sat stunned and quiet.

The same waitress that tapped Laura’s shoulder went to the front door, flipped the CLOSED sign around and walked by him and gave him an odd smile. Time went by in starved mouthfuls. Strongland felt embarrassed as hell. Yep, definitely still a dumb-ass.

  Laura reappeared. Her crisp white server’s apron was gone, replaced by a faded blue button down. In her right hand she held a to-go cup and this she handed to Strongland; in her left hand she held a second to-go cup, and this one she kept for herself. She smiled at him, “Next Monday right?”

  Strongland held the coffee cup, the contents of which could have been scalding hot and he wouldn’t have noticed. “What’s that?”

“You’ll be back at work by next Monday?”

     “I better be if I want a job when I get back.”

     “Okay then S.L., and if you aren’t then you are going to have to find two jobs.”

       Strongland started to say “Wha…”

      “Don’t you say it again; I’m going with you so let’s go.”

Strongland considered her words, just as much as one can consider these matters when stuck in the eye of a hurricane and the hurricane was his heart the the revolving destruction was an old man, battered and broke and breaking apart and hanging on to what was left of his life, alone, surrounded by the sounds of machinery that were the only things that were accounting for that man’s life. Strongland nodded, just to himself really. He thought of his dad, and when his dad’s time got close to being drawn closed and the thin veils of darkness were laid over him he needed to know his mother would be there next to him and if those events befell her before his father’s Strongland knew his father would be with her just the same even though it would tear their hearts into pieces with such destruction that a hurricane would not compare. Billy Parham didn’t have anyone. Hell, I must be Billy Parham’s last friend.

Laura hadn’t sat down. She waited. Strongland looked up at her, did his best to keep his tears deep down in his gut. “Well hell, if I don’t get you back in time I ain’t gonna have a place to get pancakes so we better get going I guess.”

She nodded, slid the pancakes from their plates into a Styrofoam container, closed it and headed for the door; just as she reached the table with the bundles of silverware she took two off the stack and slipped them into her back pocket. One of the waitresses hugged her. Another waitress reached into a big glass jar that said “TIPS” and handed Laura all of the paper money.

Strongland checked his watch as he wheeled out of the parking lot.

Laura put her hand on his as he drove them north out of the city. “We okay on time?”

“I just can’t say.”

 

 

 

 

A Red Truck and the Weeping Willow

It was Saturday evening, the day before Mother’s Day. My family and I had driven up from Georgia to South Carolina to visit my mom and dad; a weight pressed on my chest, suffocating like no blanket of late spring humidity ever could. I pulled into a parking spot in front of my mom’s nursing facility; Strongland and his mama in the back, my dad sat in the passenger seat.

My dad opened his door to get out, took hold of grab bar, and then measured the long step down to the ground. “What made you buy a red truck?”

My eyes went to the rearview, found my wife’s; she gave me an easy and understanding smile.

  Beside me my dad steadied himself, waiting for my answer.

  I shut the truck off, a big red Chevy Silverado, and set my sunglasses on the dashboard and shook my head; how in the world are you asking me that? “I got a red one for mom…”

  Later on in the evening, as we drove away, my wife shared that when I had walked out of my mom’s room, or rather, when Strongland had taken my hand and led me out into the hallway, maybe knowing I couldn’t take being in there, that my dad told my mom about that red truck. I wish I could have seen my mom’s reaction; after all, that red truck was parked out there just for her. Only, for her.

  It’s not a long story, but the accounting of it cuts me apart into three parts, each heartbroken; one part of me feels real stupid for how it played out—part of me doesn’t even want to think about it at all because it brings my mom’s desperation to my mind—and then the last part of me is proud.

 A few weeks back I bought a truck; a Chevrolet Silverado, a glimmering Northsky Blue Metallic stunner, part marlin, part Baja-runner beast. That thing just looked alive, or at the very least, like clouds skimming across mountains and oceans.

My last seven cars were Ford Mustangs, one gray one, and then three red ones, followed by three black ones. Now, I have shoulder problems, my right shoulder is busted and torn and ground to bits.  Driving a manual just got to be a nightmare, but the worst part was getting Strongland into and out of the backseat of the Mustang.

So I got a truck. My wife always wanted one, and I can’t get my head around driving “just” a car.  You might have thought that I was going to go for another black vehicle, keep that trend going. But no way. I've had enough of trying to keep their paintjobs in nice condition, let alone pristine.

However it came about, I happened to fall in love with that Northsky Blue Silverado and that's the one I bought. I drove it home at 8:30 at night and parked it in the driveway. I went inside, turned the porch light on, studied it for a minute, and then locked the door. Then I tried to sleep. Laying there in the dark they came at me hard, gnawing visions; my mom, laying alone in her hospital bed, clutching her giraffe, wondering if anyone remembers her, waiting for the night to pass and the loneliness to get pushed away by the light of the morning sun and my dad opening her doorway open to share breakfast with her. That and the visions of two red toy trucks...

As my mom is being pulled deeper into the tar of Alzheimer's, and her mind weakens and her memories disavow themselves of her recollection, one memory has remained very clear to her; one Christmas, when I was just a small boy my mom and dad gave me some presents. Among them was a red toy truck. My mom still loves to tell the story of how I latched onto that truck and disregarded all else in the solar system and went off by myself to play with that truck. I have no idea what became of it, but I truly wish I still had it.

After all these years, I believe that my mom wanted to reconnect with that story and bring a recollection to reality that she could participate in. This past Christmas my mom and dad bought Strongland a red toy truck, a bright red Chevrolet. And Strongland loves it! He adores it. Maybe not more so than the solar system, but I think it means something to him. It sure means something to me... And to his grandmother. 

  That night I could not sleep, overwhelmed with a sense of guilt and betrayal. That morning I drove that bad-ass Northsky Blue Chevy Silverado to work and took in the color as it shimmered and changed in the light like the skin of waves as I drove down the highway. I went to one meeting and then did what I had to do. I called the dealership and told them I couldn’t keep it; find me a red one I begged.

On my lunch break I returned the shimmering blue truck and drove off with a red truck. A red truck because that’s what my mom remembers. I drove it home. My wife was in the backyard with Strongland. My mother-in-law, who had in fact, never seen either the red or the blue truck, was on the front porch. When she saw me pull up she went inside, out the back door and I guess asked my wife if I had a red truck… I would have enjoyed seeing the look on my wife’s face too.

  When I first explained the change to my wife I made up all kinds of excuses why I switched. Ironically all the things I made up about the decision were in fact some of my favorite things about the truck, I just twisted the truth… It wasn’t until later that I told her what really happened. You know your wife loves you when you can tell her a thing like that and not get laughed at. She understood.

On Mother’s Day I dropped Strongland and his mama at the front door of the nursing facility and drove around to the back of her building. There is a weeping willow there; it twitched and shifted in the wind, her long slim tendrils of branch reached towards the grass, still wet with from a just passed rain shower, viridian in a breaking sunlight. I pulled beside the weeping willow, parked and got out. I leaned against the truck and waved towards my mom’s window. I called my wife, she told me they could see me, and she took a picture for my mom to have; her son and his red truck, and the weeping willow.

  Just the evening before, I asked my mom if she could see the tree out her only window. Yes she could she said. Do you know what kind of tree it is I asked her. She couldn’t identify it. It’s a weeping willow I told her.

  My mom taught me most of what I know about trees. You don’t realize how important that is when you are a kid, or maybe that’s just me. It has taken me a long time to figure out what’s truly important. When my sister and I were growing up our mom transformed our empty and bare yard into a carefully planned and everlastingly beautiful tree-filled space. At one of the corners of our yard, on a property boundary stood a weeping willow. She hadn’t been the one to plant it, but it became part of the tapestry of greens that shielded our place from the street. She told me what that tree was those many years ago.

The rest of the visit was brutal. My mom wept and begged my dad to bring her home. My dad, as patient as any person I have ever seen took it all with grace and kindness and love that would stand forever as the perfect embodiment of compassion. Buying a red truck is nothing compared to this. But in one meaningful way I hope that it brings some lasting joy and comfort to my mother. If I could I would have wheeled her automated bed out to the truck, lifted her up and driven her home. My dad would have too. But sometimes, that blunt and cold truth is you can’t take remove a person from the place they most want to escape from. For my mom, it’s not the unadorned taupe walls that trap an underlying stench that no amount of chemicals can mask. It’s much worse than that, it’s my mom’s mind that she wants most desperate to escape from, where the willows weep and her yards and her streets and her strength melt and shear away like the edges of ice banks to drift apart in the oceans.

  And then it was time to go. A world continues on. I kissed my mother’s forehead, “I love you mom,” I told her.

  “I love you too,” she said.

  And then, her son and his wife and her grandson were gone.

I pray that she looks at the picture of me and the red truck and the weeping willow from time to time. And when she does, I pray that the roots of her mind sway in the warmth of a breaking sunlight and she’ll remember, without any doubt, that she was the planter of many trees that have taken root and grown and still live; and I want her to remember, the red toy truck she bought me when I was a baby, and the red toy truck she bought her grandson when he was a baby, and the red truck I bought her as a grown man.

*The photograph of the red truck and the weeping willow can be found in the “IMAGES” section.

Route 4 Men (Billy Parham’s Last Friend Series # 3)

Strongland drove through the city. Streetlights set on timers, opaque green-yellow pods like butterfly pupa, hanging from bowed street posts, softly buzzed to life. Connected by their electric umbilical cords they radiated queasy, popping light into an ink-swelling evening sky.

The last six hours Billy hadn’t said much of anything. He lifted when Strongland asked him to lift and he stacked where Strongland asked him to stack. He didn’t sweat or swear. The man just worked.

When they neared the overpass where Strongland had picked Billy up Strongland decided he’d ask a second time, and if Billy said no, well, then he’d leave it alone. “You sure you don’t want to take the apartment above the garage? It’s just sitting there entertaining ghosts.”

A flash of flush, instantly followed by a drain of pale leached from Billy’s brow before emptying below his dirty shirt collar. Billy hooked his thumb towards the murk of the underpass. He got out; reached his hand back through the open window. “Thank you for the work and the meal SL… I’m all set here, for now.”

Strongland took Billy’s hand, both still crusted in grit with the labor of the day. Strongland knew something he said was a wrong thing; months would pass before he learned the reasons.

Strongland wanted to move passed his fuck-up. “I got more work, all you can handle. Can’t pay you all that much but I can feed you. Actually, if you are interested I could see if the city has anything they could use your help with. It’d prolly be all under the table, but after today I’d vouch for you Billy.”

Billy nodded. “Let me think about it. Either way, I guess you know where to find me.”

“I guess I do.” Strongland nodded back, worked the transmission into gear and then slowly pulled away. Strongland checked the rearview mirror. Billy stepped backwards behind a trestle and then vanished. One thought came clear and instantly to Strongland, A goddamned Route 4 man

His father pointed out the Route 4 men when Strongland was just a kid, maybe twelve, riding shotgun in his dad’s Chevy through a small town just south of theirs. His dad nodded towards men walking the decaying and chaotic sidewalks along Route 4. The locals called it Main Street; Strongland and his dad weren’t locals, so they called it Route 4.

As Strongland grew older he realized that you could only ever truly be a local to one place, but nearly everywhere had a Route 4, and Route 4 men. These were the lost and the losing men. Swaggering or shuffling, darting eyes or blunt stares like just waking calves standing with unblinking eyes numbly observing cars that don’t make any sense to them rolling by their pasture. Men looming with untrue bravado or outright despair and most damn things in-between.

His dad had noted the headphones many of the men had on. “I bet you none of ‘em even has batteries to run those things. I bet you those men are just hiding within words they wish they heard, hiding from the insults that come from open car windows from graceless cowards—damn—they just want someone to think they have something of value.” Strongland remembered how his dad looked at him, like he was so full of love that it came across as hurt, and then after a long pause he spoke, “Don’t ever be a coward and insult another man as you drive by. Just don’t ever do it.”

Strongland nodded and it was as good as a promise and then he looked out the window and began establishing an inventory of what identifies Route 4 men; white off-brand prison-release sneakers, soiled pants, ill-fitting t-shirts, open coats even when it was cold, hats of any kind to cover unwashed hair. Belongings were reduced to plastic grocery bags and frayed backpacks and duffel bags held together with safety pins and unlit cigarette butts saved like prized possessions of dying men. Men of desperate thirst, gripping Styrofoam cups and plastic Mountain Dew bottles and paper sacks wrapped tightly around glass bottles. Some men laughed to themselves, others mumbled, some wept. Some men moved on in silence. There were old men, and young men, and some men walking step in step, or just behind one another in some kind of street survivor hierarchy. Some men walked alongside their woman, and maybe a child, a doomed child who would evolve knowing despair and trauma and broken hearts in a broken world.

All of them were desperate to make some kind of headway into this world, navigating along the broken sidewalks and entrances to fast-food joints, moving like moths from one street light to the next, or shifting along from one shadow or vacant doorway to the next, seeking safety from the harshness of their lives. Somehow to Strongland, even then, the ruined sidewalks seemed to be the perfect reflection of these men; once laid straight and clean and true, pathways with purpose and investment, now broken, run-over, spit on, used and disregarded and left to break down as an afterthought of usefulness. “God help them,” his father had said.

It had always stuck with him, what his dad had said about the Route 4 men not having batteries. One time when he stopped to get gas there was a Route 4 man loitering outside the gas station. The man asked Strongland to buy him something to eat. Strongland looked him in the eye and then stepped inside the harshly lit gas station by fluorescent lights littered with the trapped then doomed bodies of dried out dead flies. He walked between the aisles piling food into the crook of his arm, and set it all on the counter along with a hundred dollar bill. He asked for a four-pack of AA batteries and paid. Before he walked out Strongland stuck the change in the paper sack and then stepped outside. The man was there waiting.

Strongland let the bag hang at his side. “Can I ask you a question?”

The man reeked of coming rain and sour, he eyed the bag. “I ain’t no drunk.”

Strongland shifted on his feet, second guessing his right to ask the question like he always did and then found himself asking anyways like he always seemed to. He pointed at the man’s headphones. “You have any batteries for those?”

The man standing before him looked down at his grimy shoes, shoes that carried this man along the filthy streets from one place he didn’t belong, to the next place he didn’t belong. Then the man’s eyes swiveled out towards the rush of the street beyond them. He shook his head and shoved his hands into his pockets; his eyes weren’t ever going to meet Strongland’s again.

Strongland knew it too, and set the bag down at his feet, turned, walked back to his truck, filled the tank and drove away. He checked his rearview as he swung out onto the street. The Route 4 man and the bag had vanished—just like Billy.

“God damned black holes.” (Billy Parham’s last friend series # 2)

Billy didn't say another word until he set his fork down on his cleaned plate. His jaw moved up and down slowly with a hitch. As far as Strongland could tell it looked like it had been busted and healed badly. The chrome fork moved methodically, Strongland got the sense Billy was working really hard to pace the meal out, as if it was his last.

Strongland hadn't said a word either. It was hard not to watch him eat— just as much as it was damn hard not to look away. Strongland thought about a time he drove down from his old place on the mountain into town in a rain so heavy he half expected to get caught in a flash flood boiling off the granite and cement above him. Down in the city, the streets swelled with water a chalky blue from the clay and the trash and the grime. Strongland found that damn cat just where he expected to, hunched and shivering and scared most all the way to death, rain thundering down almost like hail, hammering that beat up Impala parked across from his work.

He knew the cat wouldn't come out. Sure as hell didn’t, just clutched the cement, yowling low at him from its throat, then just bore its eyes at Strongland’s jaw, refusing to meet his eyes, just enough to show that even if he might learn to trust him somewhere down the line, if he even so much as stuck a finger under that car that cat would rather ditch out and take his chances in the flooding street than let him get closer. So Strongland lay on the street, soaked to the bone, until the rain eased back enough that he could set a can of cat food out for him without worrying it would wash away.

Strongland backed away, rocked back onto his boot heels and waited and watched as that cat leaned into the can and ate in gulps and snarls and licked that can spotless. Strongland waited beside the cat until nightfall. By that time the streets had drained clean and the sky shone black like a thickly-glazed porcelain bowl was turned over atop the city. A city utility truck, outfitted with eye numbing yellow and orange strobes flaring against the darkness wildly, broke the night wide open; his eyes followed it across the far intersection until it disappeared behind a row of apartments, hunkered down into the inky atmosphere, blending into nothing. Strongland hadn’t realized until then that the power was out in this section of town. Strongland whispered to the cat, “Did you see all that action?” He peered underneath the Impala and there wasn’t anything under there but darkness.

Strongland realized he had been staring at Billy; a look came over him, and Strongland took it for guilt, or worse than that. Shame. A starving man ought not to feel ashamed for surviving long enough to eat. Strongland remembered a story his dad told him when he was a boy when they worked the soup kitchens; a man is ashamed not because he's hungry, he’s ashamed that anyone knew about it. It is only a survivor that can walk into a soup kitchen with enough dignity to keep himself from dying. 

Laura saved them, for a moment at least, fluttering to their table like a landing mourning dove, "You boys need another coffee?"

Strongland shook the offer off.

Billy half-looked her way. “No ma’am.”

She put her hands on her hips. "Suit yourself.” She cocked her head at Strongland and then winked before turning to look over at Billy. “Well, this is your boss's lucky day Mr. Parham, breakfast is on me."

Billy folded his paper napkin as if it was finely woven linen, set it on his plate, dead center, placed his hands on his knees and eased the chair back from the linoleum table and then stood. “You ought not do that to an old and broke man.”

Laura’s tanned skin flushed, first time Strongland ever saw that happen. “Do what Mr. Parham.”

Billy took in the room. He looked at the cleared plates and empty coffee cups and unopened paper creamers in their bowl and the ketchup squeeze bottle and stacks of jelly and his perfectly folded napkin. “Be so kind to a man that can’t repay.”

Strongland stood, leaned a little towards Laura, gave her a half smile and nodded as he pulled out his wallet. “I’m still tipping,” and attempted to flip a ten dollar bill towards the table, it had a mind of its own and spun across the edge of the table and slid under the next table. Strongland reached down to pick it up. When he stood, Billy was walking out the front door.

Laura put her hand on Strongland’s shoulder. “I feel awful... I didn’t.”

Strongland covered her hand with his. “Forget it. That was really sweet.”

She nodded towards the door.

“Yep.” He handed the ten over and then followed after Billy, pushed out the door and found him kneeling in front of a Ledger newspaper vending machine. Without taking his eyes off the machine, Billy spoke in a near whisper, “Give me a minute?”

“See you at the truck.” Strongland left him there, his hands on top of the box like he was stooped down with his hands on a child’s shoulders and was about to explain something of paramount importance. He fired the Chevy up, cleaned his sunglasses, and looked the trucks in the parking lot over, comparing lifts and wheels, picking out the ones he would want if he had the cash to lay out.

Billy opened the passenger door, slid into the seat.

“You good to go?” Strongland asked him.

Billy grunted, nodded slightly.

They drove back the same way they had come into town. Several blocks slipped by in silence. Billy faced his window. It wasn’t until Strongland checked the passenger side mirror that he realized the old man was crying. Strongland looked away, embarrassed for both of them. Several more blocks faded behind them.

Again, in a near as much a whisper as it could come out, “It’s hard to believe the truths about anything anymore.”

Strongland kept his eyes on the road ahead, unsure if he should offer a response, but seeing as he sure as hell didn’t have one he kept his mouth shut. A railway gate lowered at the end of the block. Strongland rolled the Chevy to a stop. A train clattered and swayed and shoved the air hard and pushed the truck and reverberated through his lungs like he was front row at a rock concert.

Billy went on, softly still, so much so that it was hard to make out what he said as the train hammered by. “How’s it even possible to see a nothing thing like that. Black holes…just, how in the world can you see a thing like that?”

He didn’t look at Strongland as he spoke, and Strongland didn’t dare look to see if he was still crying. Strongland got the sense Billy was mostly talking to himself.

“How are they so damn sure? One more black thing out in the nowhere of an entire solar system and then one day, sure as hell, they claim they found a black hole. God help us. A man ain’t supposed to see a thing like that. Hell, I’d be half afraid just looking at it in the paper could yank out my soul and squeeze it into nothing.”

The Chevy rocked. The blur of yellow and gray and chrome and stainless and smears of graffiti crashed along, tormenting the metal rails. The last box car roared passed and Billy’s words trailed away with it. Strongland struggled to catch the words, but was less sure of them, even as the echo of the thundering train faded.

“I ain’t anything. Just ain’t anything, nothing left of me. All my life and now look. God damned black holes. Jesus Christ.”

Strongland reached out the window and adjusted his mirror just a fraction. Yesterday at work he’d heard about the first picture shared of a known black hole, and he hadn’t wanted to see it for himself. It hadn’t set well with him either. We were making advancements in all kinds of technical things, seemed like if you paid attention there was something new discovered every day; most good things, some curious, and others, just damn terrifying. This black hole business had left a cold hollow in his guts. Hearing Billy carry on to himself in that manner made him wonder who might possibly feel different about discovering such a thing, and if there was any to come with it, feel some sort of comfort. At the time, and more so now, he just couldn’t see how it would. Being able to prove that there is a thing out there just waiting to swallow every last thing until nothing was there but nothingness. Hell, how could that sit right with anybody?

Aside from the muffled burble of the Chevy’s V-8 there wasn’t a sound. Billy wiped his right forearm across his face as the track gates rose back up, clearing the way for them. The air around them settled and that last train car was out of sight.

Strongland pulled his foot off the brake and they eased forward. As they rolled over the tracks a shudder rolled up Strongland’s spine and across his shoulders. “The world sure seems simple until you decide you have questions for it.”

Billy wiped his face again with his sleeve. “Some things maybe should be left alone…forever.”

Strongland’s spine and shoulders shuddered again. Yeah, God damned black holes, someday those damn things are gonna swallow the last of the light that ever existed. He nodded and drove on. It was the only thing to do.

Somewhere out there that black hole, and untold others, are working away. And just sat there next to him, was an old man who had just seen a universal reckoning, and Strongland got the sense that like a shadow the sun itself couldn’t pry away from the man, all the dark things that were held inside the old man just stared back at him from the places that should be left alone forever.

A Job Offered (Billy Parham’s Last Friend Series #1)

Strongland backed off the gas, “Ahh shit.” He saw the man again, no more than a slumping heap of litter.

Solid cuts of shadow peeled away backwards in blocks across the open truck bed crammed with pieces of rusted metal and fire-scorched wood scrap, before in the blink of an eye his truck broke out into a clear and piercing sunlight. The man who had been there in the shadows disappeared back into them like the fluke of a whale cuts back underneath the skin of the ocean into a tear of swarming surface that heals itself in a moment than is gone as gone as a thing that never was; sorta like some folk’s lives, Strongland considered.

He checked the rearview, brushed a steel-toe across the brake pedal, and then wheeled his rig in a two-turn lock back towards the staggered patterns of shadow and light tumbling down from the railway bridge that crossed the road at an angle that wasn't quite parallel to the pavement below but was near enough to it that the span of bridge seemed to stretch on endlessly even though the junction of light and space and the moving and the still objects that shared this place come bound together like the tail end of a dream or a handshake between two men that never spoke before, were somehow similar to the other, then went on their way and never spoke again. These things weren't as clear to Strongland when he tried to cobble them together in his mind as that, but they were plain true as a shadow, even though a shadow is a thing one can never touch; a shadow just is.

Strongland eased the truck back into the shadows. The man reappeared. He sat with his back pressed flat against the juncture of creosote covered trestle, and pumice stone, that covered the dirt underneath the bridge to keep the red dirt from turning into slicks of Georgia mud that will sweep across the southeast with the spring rains that would come soon and come hard from the moisture building up in the Gulf of Mexico five hundred miles south west. Give it two more weeks and this place might as well be in the damn jungle.

Two truck lengths passed the man Strongland eased to a stop. Glancing in the rearview, "You're a dumb-ass ya know?" Strongland nodded at himself in the sliver of chrome, Yep. He got out and walked slowly towards the man, hand hooked into his back pockets by his thumbs, palms out and visible looking to make it clear he wasn’t approaching with any malice. He stopped a shovel’s length from the man and was about to speak; his mind caught itself in a glitch of surprise when the man, still set there on the ground, partially lit by a jagged break of sunlight streaming down between the tracks above; the man looked him over, casually, but Strongland had the feeling the man had taken in every detail of him.

  The man asked the very question Strongland had intended, "Can I help you, bud?"

  Strongland shifted a half step further back, took off his ball-cap, ran his fingers, coated with flecks of rust grit that come off the metal scrap he had bullied into the bed of his truck just a half hour earlier; shit, even though the spring rains hadn't pushed in yet the daily swell of heat sure had... it had been an early start to what was gonna be a long-ass day. Breakfast was next on the list, fried green tomatoes, a biscuit, bacon, hell, prolly pancakes too if he was honest with himself. Even though he felt the softness of winter had layered on around his belt buckle he still had a hard time when it comes time to order from Laura; she'd usually be a step away from his table, pen tucked above her right ear already when he found himself saying "and a short stack". She'd trail away without missing a beat with an "umhumm" that was as thick and sweet as the syrup that come out of the white bottles with the silver thumb-slide pourer that took their place besides the ketchup and bowl of plastic creamers.

Strongland grinned when he realized the man had repeated the same dang question as he stood there contemplating his lack or pancake resistance. "Well sir, I had stopped to ask you that very question."

The man sitting there patted his chest, reached around his drawn-up legs, folded near to his chest, patted his knees, and looked around like a man that was certain he had set something in one exact spot not a few seconds ago but now couldn't find it for the life of him.

  "Sir? Did you lose something?"

  The man raised his hands, palms up, clapped them together with a sharp bark that sent a group of mourning doves scuttling in a burst of gray and complaints.

  "Guess I lost my sign."

  "What sign is that?"

  "Well shit kid, the sign that said I need something from people that happen to come this way."

Strongland and the light and the light shifted again, Strongland uncomfortably, intentions derailed like an unhitched train car, the light shifted without intention or perception or the same sense of foolishness that Strongland felt. Dad’ll get a kick out of this when I tell him; a laugh broke from his throat. “Oh, heck sir, I come this way every Saturday, on my way to breakfast at a place up that way” and hooked his thumb in the direction of his U-turn, “and this is the third Saturday I saw you here. I figured I’d offer to buy you breakfast is all.”

  The man’s head cocked towards the truck, “What’s the story with that?”

  “Scrap. A place burned down mid-week up in Harris County, I sell the scrap, well, some of it anyways… some I keep, just depends on how it looks. That stuff, I am keeping the metal, gonna burn the wood.”

  The man nodded. “You haul it up there yourself?”

  “Like an idiot, yes I did.”

  “Looks a two-man job at least.”

  “I thought that myself about half away through.”

  That earned a smile from the man. The man’s hands ran across his stomach, and he swallowed hard. “Is it worth breakfast to you if I were to help with the unloading?”

  “It’s worth a day’s worth of meals, at the very least, if we don’t break our backs first. Thing is, we eat first.”

  The man shut his eyes. A beat. Another beat. The morning doves returned, bickered as they sorted themselves into order. The man’s eyes opened. “Deal.” The man stood. A warm stench of mildew, the same kind that comes from a decaying cardboard box, peeled away from wet concrete, alive with slick grubs and scurrying crickets.

  There was only one thing to do; Strongland held out his hand, “Deal.”

  The man didn’t carry a thing with him when they walked back to the truck. He brushed his backside off and scrubbed his leather logging boots on the concrete before swiveling into the truck. He wiped his hands on the underside of his waxed canvas barn jacket, gray and faded, with copper metal buttons worn to near gleaming with eons of buttoning and unbuttoning, before he pulled the door shut.

Another U-turn. They drove in silence. Across a set of railroad tracks, passed an old depot, an ice warehouse, a used mattress store, a bail-bond outfit with a parking lot full of a mix of high dollar and big-rimmed SUVs and junkers; hard to tell who a customer was and who was the proprietor just by eyeing the cars. The passed a CHEVRON, a MITCH’S PRIZED WHEELZ, a cluster of package stores, then a block nothing more than ankle high grass intersected by busted and cracked cement sidewalks and the remnants of a playground where no kids dared play.

  Self-conscious of it all Strongland muttered, “Sad, ‘it’s seen better days.”

  “It’s the same all over.”

  “You’ve been all over?”

  “All over… and then some, yes.”

  Strongland rolled a stop sign, his right hand came off the wheel, pointing to a squat concrete block of a place, painted sage green with a neon ruby red sign above the front door “PALS”. It’s not all that much to look at but the girls are kind, and most of them are pretty enough to make you excuse the food if it was bad, but believe me, a starving man would think he was in heaven eating with the Lord when the start digging into a breakfast special.” He felt like an asshole for saying it as soon as it come out. It earned another smile from the man, and he let it go at that.

A weary looking cop carrying a Styrofoam container on his way out held the door open for them, 7:30, twelve-hour shift in the bed, stuffed with breakfast, on his way home. Strongland figured that’s how he would do it to in their shoes. The man nodded to the cop, it was returned.

  “Precinct is just up the way,” Strongland told him.

  The man nodded. “Let me wash up.”

  Strongland waited by the door, picked a curl of rust out from under his nail. A baby bawled about something. A group of cops came in, got a table. Laura appeared out from the swinging kitchen doors, winked at him, then disappeared around the corner balancing a years- worth of cholesterol and white sugar off to a table.

The man returned and in a way it sorta surprised him; Strongland half-figured the man was going to pry open the bathroom window , leap out, and disappear forever. The hostess led them to a square Formica covered table, they sat down on wood chairs that burped hollowly on the linoleum floor as they pushed back from the table just enough not to crowd each other. Strongland thought of the last time he sat with his father, just the two of them, to share a meal. It had been a long-ways back, but not long enough so much as to make it not hurt.

  Coffees appeared. It wasn’t Laura’s table, Strongland knew it, but she’s the one that brought em’. “Creams are in the bowl darlin’s,” and then was gone, leaving only one menu on the table in front of the man.

  Strongland shrugged at the man’s cock-eyed look. “Ehh, I always get the same thing.”

  The man nodded.

Strongland pushed his thumb under the waxy foil lid of the creamer, poured the thumb-nail sized amount of room temperature half-and-half swirl across the surface of the coffee dark as Seminole Swamp Water. The man eyed his mug for a long time, a long time. Strongland watched Laura. He loved her, but she was taken. The closest he would ever get to sharing a meal with her was breakfast at PALs.  She turned back to him, caught him looking and he blushed. Hell, fifty men a morning fall in love with her anyways… And she knew it and yet she was above nobody and didn’t put anybody down or act like she was anything but a girl giving a man everything he ever wanted, as long as it was just breakfast.

  “Well, this morning is full of surprises isn’t it?” She smiled at the man. “S.L., you gonna keep me guessing or you are ordering the usual?”

  Strongland’s skinned flushed like a school -boy just busted staring at a girl in class and he took a swig of coffee to try and hide it. Nobody really called him Strongland, just S.L. “Put it down just like all the times before I guess.”

  Laura nodded and then with an ease and kindness that comes from having a sweet heart and knowing how to work a table without making it ever feel like you just got worked, looked at the man, “And for you?”

The man smiled at her, showed a gentlemanliness that showed clear through the crud that he hadn’t quite managed to scrub off his face in the bathroom. “Double it up, ma’am.”

“Well that was easy enough, done and doubled.” Laura reached out, took the menu. “You know, S.L. don’t ever come in here on Saturdays but by himself, and I always take his order, and he has never, not once, shared the table with someone else. Are you his father?”

  Strongland realized his lower jaw had gone slack and clomped his mouth shut,

 

(Time-out! At this point the real Strongland had woken up from his nap. His mama brought him over and he sat on my knee; I guess he had something to add, the following is what it was; dxxxxxxxxxxzxx ngggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggbgerggggrgrgrrrrrrrrer; I appreciate you not minding I left his input intact)

 

feeling he prolly looked as much the fool as he felt. He looked at the man.

            The man returned the same easy smile, if he was off-put it never showed itself. “No ma’am. I guess S.L. here is sorta like my boss for the day.”

            Laura topped off his coffee. “His boss huh? Well, like I said, this day is full of surprises, and they keep coming in,” nodded at the direction of the door, a group of ARMY kids, starched and clean cut and most likely ravenous, and more than likely, about to fall in love with Laura, filed in, unconsciously, in a precise line, just like they were trained to, “like this line of customers that doesn’t seem like it will end either.”

            “I wouldn’t know about that at all, ma’am, I mean, anything else that might surprise you, but you are right about the line of customers. It’s a good sign I’d say.”

            Laura grinned and then pulled a handful of tin-foil jelly packets out of her apron and stacked them in the jelly holder like a roulette-wheel dealer stacking poker chips on the felt.  “Can’t argue with that… as long as everyone’s tipping.”

            The man grinned. Strongland felt his flush subside. How could you not love her?

            “Okay, anything else boys?”

            The man shook his head no.

             Laura tucked a pencil above her right ear. She turned to go, paused. “It just doesn’t sit right, me not knowing who all works for S.L. here, especially as I will be bringing the man his breakfast. I’d feel better about the whole thing if I knew who I was bringing it to.”

             It struck Strongland that he hadn’t asked the man’s name. Somehow, before it hadn’t mattered. But now it did, and he was ashamed for not asking.

             If the man was put-off, it never showed itself. Strongland began to understand that it was just the man’s way.

             “It’s Billy, ma’am, Billy Parham.”

             Laura nodded. “Alright then Mr. Parham.” She offered an easy smile, like butter melting on a hotcake, at Strongland, “before I get too far away, are you sure you aren’t forgetting something?”

             Strongland grinned. “Yeah, go ahead and put down a short-stack.”

             Laura studied Billy Parham. “Same for you Mr. Parham?”

             “Seeing as how the boss is buying, I’ll take a tall-stack… And ma’am, when you come back, just call me Billy.”

             She turned and was gone. Billy Parham picked up his porcelain mug, the rim was chipped, and had been washed smooth by a million journeys through a commercial dishwasher.

  Strongland took a swill of coffee and studied the man; he hadn’t ever seen a man appear lonelier. He recognized the look, he thought of his mother and the last time they had a chance to really talk to each other, and the last meal he shared with his father. As he sat there, he considered that offering his hand, and now, his friendship, was the exact thing he ought to offer. You ain’t a dumbass… Not always.

No prayer like you would know.

Held by the dark, quiet, a shift between us, a hesitant rising... Strongland pushes himself up between us, his head tilts as he peers at his mama. “Mama?”

“Yes baby.” She says.

A small hand points towards the window behind me. “Moon.” I reach out, sweep his hair across his forehead, damp with sweat. He leans to his mama, she lifts him up, sets her feet on the hardwood, and carries him to the doorway from the bedroom to the hallway. Just at the frame of the open door, “Dada?”

I get up and follow them to the front door. Bare feet on freezer-cold concrete slab. We walk to the sidewalk, just us and the darkness, look backwards to the house, an unlit rectangular wash of dull-white paint, like a single unused pillow set on a bed waiting for someone to lay their head down to sleep. Strongland’s loosely folded hand, like a cowboy’s hand in an old western feigns holding a pistol, reaches up and points at the moon, cold dusty-chrome, a lonely ghost, forever shying away from the light of the sun. The sky has not teased nor promised the light of dawn.

Like usual I am the first one to give in to the cold. “Let’s go back in.”

Back into bed. I can hear him nursing. His mama soothes him to sleep.

I am not a religious man. You cannot prove God to me; I have seen too much the other way, that if there was something out there it was more like a devil. But through this boy… I see myself, a plain thing, aware of the halfway mark of my time. I will not offer a prayer, none the way you might know. It’s all I have.

I have already been to the water

I have already seen the sun

I have already breathed the air

I have already eaten my fill and more again from the mother’s hand

I have already walked across the land

I have already spoken and said more than I ought to say

I have heard the sounds of beasts and birds

I have been clean and unclean

I have shut my eyes and seen darkness

I have shut my eyes and have dreamed

I have sat, still, and quiet

I have screamed and whispered

I have seen my own blood, and know my heart beats

And beats

And beats

And I have waited

I have asked questions

I have searched

And I have found many things

And lost many others

 

Strongland breaths, lies still, then shifts. An arm across my chest. It won’t last but a short time before his head comes up and he tilts his head in the darkness and says “Mama?” Then he will collapse against her. And she will soothe him. I will lay beside them and continue as close as I can come to prayer.

 

I will

I will return to the water

I will look again at the sun

I will take deep breaths of air

I will eat again from my mother’s hand

I will walk again the land

I will stay and speak

I will listen for the sounds of beasts and birds

I will become clean and then again become unclean

I will shut my eyes and accept the darkness

I will shut my eyes and welcome what dreams may come to me

I will sit here, still, and quiet

I will scream and I will whisper

I will bleed and feel my heart beat

And beat

And beat

I will wait again

I will ask my countless questions

I will search

In each of these

I only seek to find Strongland

He still lies against me. His soft hair drawn across my jaw like silk. His skin damp with sweat. His stuffy nasally breathing. I don’t dare move.

 

Strongland

Is the swelling water

Is the churning sun

Is the air I breath

Is what I eat from my mother’s hand

Is the earth beneath me

Is why I stay and speak

Is the sound of roaming beasts and birds

Is why I will become clean

Is the darkness I am unafraid of

Is what I see behind the lids of my eyes when I dream

Is the still, and quiet

Is my scream and whisper

Is my heart that bleeds and I feel it beat

And beat

And beat

Is why I wait

Is the reason for the questions that I ask

Is the reason I search

Is what I found

Strongland

For then the water and the sun and the air and the land and my words and the beasts and birds and my clean and unclean self and the darkness and my dreams and the stillness and the quiet and my screams and my heart and how it beats and beats and beats and the waiting and the questions and my searching and the things I lost and the things I have found do not equal the significance of being this boy’s father.

 He shifts, and rises up and looks across the bed and tilts his head. “Mama?” Outside, the moon has eased on, and the sky has promised the dawn and in that growing light Strongland’s eyes seek mine. “Dada?”

Just then, you might have swayed me towards the existence of God.

BLOOD CREEK - Random Excerpt

Danny swerved. “Goddamn!”

My head slammed against the window. The ass-end of the Avalanche slewed off the road, smashed down into a stone culvert, and jackknifed across the two-lane road. Danny mashed the brakes; we skidded to rest.

“What the fuck, Danny!”

“Son of bitch forced me off the road.”

Craning my neck, I looked back.

“What kind of car.”

“Some goddamned Ford rig. Came right at me. Fuckin’ son of a bitch!”

“You don’t know the truck?”

“Never seen it. Light silver. Lifted. Coulda’ been some college kids. Also coulda’ been some dealers.”

“Goddamn.”

Danny got out. I did too. Walked around the Chevy. All four wheels sat square on the pavement. Nothing looked twisted or broke. “Fuck it. We’ll know soon enough if we should be driving it.”

“Yep.”

We cleared off a clump of mud that got dug out and whipped out onto the road. The back bumper dug into the near frozen dirt next to the culvert. Danny whistled when we saw how close we were to tearin’ off his rear right axle. “Goddamn.”

 

***

 

“Are you gonna tell me why exactly we are headin’ to the bank?”

“Can’t say.”

“Oh hell. I’m guessin’ you could say, you just ain’t.”

“Yep. I told you I ain’t robbing it.”

“No shit. We already covered that what you wasn’t doin’. Now I’m interested in the what, are you doin’, part.”

“I haven’t gotten any further than right where we sit.”

“You swear?”

“Nope.”

“Hell, Danny.”

“It’s cool, Nickie.”

I sighed. “All right.”

The Dollar General was packed. We drove passed the Exxon station. I caught a glimpse of Bruce standin’ behind the counter. Time seemed to hitch and I could swear his hand started to come up, like he was gonna wave, then stalled and dropped away and wiped across the counter. Maybe he saw me riding inside and decided against it. I don’t know. Don’t care. I got my answer. He didn’t know anything. Just the very part of me askin’ hurt him. I told myself I should raise my hand in his direction the next time I pass through. Ease his mind. I figure it’s worth doing that for a man when you could. Cruel not to. Which worked when that’s what you wanted to be. I was angry. But I wasn’t cruel. I prayed I’d stay that way.

Danny pulled to the curb in front of the Weaver bank. A semi shuddered behind us. I had a clear view to Mom and Pen’s building just up the road.

I looked across at Danny. The way he was settin’ was the same way he set when I come up on him this mornin’. He wasn’t cruel neither. In fact, it could be he never done a cruel thing to a person in his life. I leave huntin’ out of that whole deal though. Plenty of people might call deer huntin’ cruel. But it wasn’t. Not the way we run chases. Here it’s part of life, and it’s not life wasted. Yep, he wasn’t cruel. But right now, I wasn’t sure what he was.

“Danny, you sure us comin’ down here is a good idea?” I asked, but I already knew it wasn’t.

He reached for the door handle. “Nope.”

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“You all right?”

“Long ways from it.”

He got out, shoved the door shut.

“Aw hell then.” I pulled the Colt from my waist and shoved it under the seat and went inside. I really don’t think Danny had any idea of what he was wantin’ when he walked in that bank. That’s probably what got underneath my skin the most. I come in. He just stood there in the middle of the bank. I took a seat in a fancy waiting chair. Wasn’t nobody in line in front of him.

Marlene Paulson stood behind the teller desk. “Hi Danny? Can I help you?” She asked it again.

He didn’t budge. Jesus hell is what I thought about how things were going so far.

Marlene looked at me. “What’s wrong with your brother?”

That’s what he looks like when he’s thinkin’ is all I thought of sayin’. But I said nothin’.

Marlene’s eyes went big and she stepped back from her window. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched her arrange some stacks of whatever’s in front of her. Same manner that Bruce had when I went to see him at the Exxon station. Something about standin’ behind a counter for years on end must fuck with your head and give you a narrow-focus god complex and you end up needin’ every last thing in the exact place you think it ought to be. Or maybe you just get bored. I don’t know. I ain’t never done it. Too much time was passin’. Maybe Marlene thought the same thing. Her mouth opened. I thought she was startin’ to say Danny’s name. Instead she backed away, walked real slow like maybe she thought we wouldn’t see her go. I don’t even know if Danny saw her in the first place. He still ain’t moved. Or said nothin’.

“What in the hell, Danny?” I said.

Hallelujah

“Hell, it ain’t right to bring you here.” I tuck Strongland under my coat, rain soaked, lit neon blue from an overhead train hurtling passed. Wet bags cling to my feet, disintegrating into nothing but brown dirt, waiting for the slugs to inhabit their remaining usefulness. This world, this city, wastes away to nothing much more than gray slush, once pure white snow, splashed  along the side of the concrete swaths, broken chunks of cinder and rebar; we used to hold you up they seem to say, now we lay in ruins.

                Strongland don’t seem to mind, tucked into me like a bird clutched to a branch, slick and pale, and rough, but still, a refuge. I thought about the men I used to see as a boy, walkin’ down Route 4, headphones on, god damn, I know they ain’t even got the money for batteries to make them things play. Let alone money for food, or even a drop of booze.

                I don’t have a choice now, but to walk. “You hold on to me, real close, okay?”

                “Dada.”

                That’s his answer; he will. He can walk now, still unsteady, but I ain’t settin’ him down. Not here. Not tonight. The leather of my boots squishes like seal skin, just skinned, slick with blood. Busted street lights overhead, loom, dead seal eyes, blunt faded, orbs, no more light. The city don’t care. To hell with this street. To hell with you. Go on now, scurry in the darkness. Oh, it’s alright, you are out of sight.

                Cold drops of rain come as hard as ball bearings whipped across a close distance from a boy’s slingshot. Welts swelled up like wasp stings on the back of my hands and the nape of my neck. It don’t matter. Cover me with them, it don’t matter. Just as long as Strongland don’t get a single one.

                Strongland’s broad hands pull him tighter. I know he’s cold. I bawl. He don’t know, all he sees is the inside of my coat. Another train breaks the world apart above us. Pebbles and poisoned water arc off the platform and join the fray of desperation below. Down with us. Down with us. Down with us.

                “It ain’t right to bring you here. To the city. Ever. You hear me? There ain’t no life here. Don’t you ever confuse being alive with life.”

                “Dada.”

               He understands. I don’t know how he does, I only know that he does, like the few words that he says that cover all of what he knows. I feel like bawling. I gotta do something to stop it. I sing, halted and ashamed. “You don’t really care for music do ya?” I forget the opening lines of the song.  And most of the ones after. I pick up where I can. “Your faith is strong but you needed proof…” I bawl. “Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew ya.”

                Strongland tugs at my jacket collar, tries to push his head out. “Moon.” He looks for it.

                “Not tonight baby. No moonlight.” I bawl. “Just you… Hallelujah—Hallelujah—Hallelujah.” I’ll walk forever holding Strongland this close. You can have the moonlight. “Hallelujah.”

                I keep walking. Cars go by, fewer now. Faces hidden behind streaking wiper blades and selfishness. I know he fell asleep. He knows I’ve got him. It will take some time to clear this place, to where I can set Strongland down to walk beside me. But for now, it’s on me. Hallelelujah. I got you. Hallelujah.

Do You Remember Me?

“Do you remember me?”

“Yes. Of course, I remember you mom.”

Tears, welled from pain and heartbreak, seeped from her eyes, catching a pale, robin egg blue, a chalk smear of low South Carolina early winter morning light, drawn by a delicate child’s hands beyond the window blinds, forever out of reach.

“You are still, right here, mom.”       

I stand on her left side. My hand lays on her shoulder, I feel sweat and heat from her body, stuck too long in that same position. Her tears continue to drain from her heart, water separated from her very blood. They do not fall away uselessly down onto the thin cotton sheet tucked around her waist. I know with each darkening spot on her clothing, her heart has deteriorated, just as fluidly as her mind is leaving. I cannot fathom the pain in each of those tears.

I remember, when I was young and angry and disloyal, a bastard on most accounts, facing off with my mother at the top of the stairway of our house.  I hate you she said. I know she meant it. I was not my mother’s son. I told her that I was much stronger than her and then pushed her to the floor and walked away.

Now, I am older and angry, and facing off with my mother at the side of her bed, our eyes locked, I am worried and attempting to remove all layers of past disloyalty, but I am no bastard. I am my mother’s son. I love you she said. I know she meant it. I wanted desperately to pick her up from this bed, and carry her away, instead, it was not my place to do so. Instead, it was almost time for me to walk away.

Between my mother and I lay a giraffe that my mother made for my sister’s oldest child. It then went to my sister’s youngest; my son is next in line to inherit it. About three feet tall, covered in fuzzy fabric, colored in bold geometric patterns, faded now.  “Giraffe,” is my mother’s closest companion now, her steadfast guardian and silent confidant that listens to her cry herself to sleep during the stretches of time between visits by my father. It waits with her through the spaces of horror and loneliness between each tick of the clock and each shift of growing and fading light pushing or disappearing between the slates of the blinds covering her one window.  I envy the giraffe, and its loyalty to her. My Mom’s hands, unsteady, quivering, reach for it, her fingers find split seams, white polyester filler bulging out.

“Giraffe, you have holes Giraffe.” She says. New tears cascade from another tear of her heart.

My hand, still placed against her shoulder, rises and falls with the sobs coming from within her chest. My hand, filled with guilt, waits for the moment to pass. My hand scarred and healed, and scared and healed again, offers only a passing shadow of comfort. Her body, loose inside slackening skin, a vessel for despair to thrive, already knows everything within her, and outside of her is passing.

            Again she pleads, “Do you remember me?”

            “Yes mom.” I pray you have forgotten how I was sometimes.

            Just outside the doorway, open to the wide sanitized hallway, brightly lit with florescent bulbs, my wife, stooped forwards, grasping Strong Land’s hands in hers, stabilizing him as he wavered on two feet, offered me compassion with her eyes.

            “Is it okay if I go to sleep?” my mother asks. This is her way now; we all understand. When it is too much to bear, sleep, her last protective barrier against the pain, is a godsend.

            “Yes mom.”

            My mother’s eyes close, her jaw drops closer to her pillow, towards my hand on her shoulder.

             “I love you mom.” I draw my hand back. Her skin has dried. Her tears have vanished. It is my turn now. I leave the room.

            I want to pick my son up and carry him. Just fourteen months old, he is damned sure determined he is gonna walk out of there. Two months ago, that’s all it would have taken my mom to get out of this place, if she could just make her legs work. But they don’t. And we know now, they will not, ever again. And that was too simple anyways. Nothing will be simple about this anymore. Well, the heartbreak is simple. It’s real simple. And devastating.

            My wife and I make our way through the facility; black nurses and white patients, all women as far as I can see. We say hello to the nurses, avoid a patient who seems way too interested in our boy. The only thing that stops him is a live bird display just inside the main hallway. He squeals with delight, watching the birds flit from bar to bird house. He squeals when the birds chirp. He squeals when they disappear into cover. He doesn’t understand. All they have to do is fly away and return to where they belong; they do not belong here—my mother does not belong here—just leave... But it ain’t that simple. God dammit. Tomorrow is Christmas. Fuck Santa Claus; God, what will you bring for my mother?

            Opening the door, stepping outside, I know my mom is in her bed, clutching Giraffe and weeping. I can hear her ask, “Giraffe, do you remember me?”

Outskirts of Living

Besides the markers of those gone I will follow

I won’t question you

You know the streets and hiding places

On the outskirts besides the shallows

 

Tall like looming angels

Fading robes in silence casting shadows

My heart resides in the beats between the city limits and the light years I cannot travel

Besides I wouldn’t anyway I pay them no matter

Cast aside my faded coat to adjust my bones, broken and hanging on by torn flesh and sorrow

 

What would I know had I never questioned the laws of some lonely fortitude?

Fortunes wasted and unsaved and tossed aside like faulty pride

I won’t leave your side even though I ain’t beside you

I was in your eyes

A shelter after them million miles through never-mind and blindness

Peace they say to those that seek it

Power they taunt to the powerless and meek

Freedom they cry to them that release them

Wealth they offer for those who stole it

Warmth they promise for those cold and alone

Water they pour for the desperate and the weary

Time they count for those on the run

Dreams set forth into the minds of the sleeping

Coyotes and hummingbirds

Colors and blindness

And I follow behind without question

Besides the markers of those gone I will follow

You know the streets and hiding places

On the outskirts besides the shallows

 

Tall like looming angels

Fading robes in silence casting shadows

My heart resides in the beats between the city limits and the light years I cannot travel

Besides I wouldn’t anyway I pay them no matter

I exist now in my mind along the outskirts besides the shallows

BLOOD CREEK - Close! And, dang!

Just wanted to share a glimpse into my world of seeking representation for my manuscript, Blood Creek to literary agents. On July, 25, 2018 I queried Elizabeth Kracht with Kimberley Cameron & Associates, and today I heard back from them. In the realm of submitting manuscripts to literary agents, any feedback is useful, and this very kind and encouraging rejection letter is very good news. Well, an offer would be really great news, but to have the agency describe Blood Creek as “a quality piece of work” means a whole heck of a lot! I will email them today and thank them for reaching out to me!

I took a break from querying agents to launch both Strong Land and Civil Words Not Civil war on Facebook, and am in the process of identifying my next selection of agents to contact. And, I feel hopeful.

I’ll tell Strongland about this tonight when I feed him mashed pear and wheat bread.

Anyways!

Dear Andy,

I hope this email finds you well.  As an assistant for Elizabeth Kracht, I am responding to your submission.

I wanted you to know that Elizabeth and I considered your work. Last year was an extremely busy year for Elizabeth causing her to fall behind on her submissions. Because we receive more than two hundred submissions per week, it is necessary to be extremely selective on a very subjective basis. Unfortunately, we have to pass on this project. It's a quality piece of work and I am sure you will find an agent to represent you. 

I wish you all the best in your future publishing endeavors and feel free to submit any future projects.


Brittle, Wind Dancer

I watch my mother as she waits for her legs to work. I watch my mother, waiting for the world to reorganize into some proper meaning. She contains intelligence that cannot be quantified, but now, shoved along in gusts of confusion cannot process how she once could. We are not machines. Whether that makes us goddamned or unbound I cannot say. 

Her thoughts flitter and twist and get swept away from the course of road that lay before her. On their ballet shoe pointes they scrape and claw at the surface of what was, tenuously spin and slide, silent aside from her accompanying breath. 

Her memories, these Brittle, Wind Dancers, vivid colors, sharp creases, unattached stems, individual parts of some disintegrating whole, blurring, a shifting organism, not a machine, but a life I could never qualify. 

We sit, side by side, heart by heart. You are still stronger than me, sharing your tears. I am too weak to show mine. ” I have always loved you,” she repeated. “When you were bad, you were so bad. When you were good, you were so good” she said. Now, mom, I am good, and you always, you always did your best.

I cannot lose you. And you cannot lose me. Or your daughter. Or your husband. We will all grasp tightly the unquantifiable that is still your life. We, the four of us will weave it together, twisting the short and delicate fibers of life into a fabric that will not tear no matter how many times we wrap ourselves within it when we are cold, or use it to shield us from the glaring light of unbearable truths.

When there come times when we feel pain and loss and have no fibers at hand to bind together, we will return to our memories, shear them like the wool from a young ewe, gently work our wire brushes through the strands, imperfect, delicate on their own, tough, when bound together. Again, and again. Lamb after lamb. Season after season. Age after age. Love compounds love. Memory is restored, vivid, still part of this one whole cloth that you yourself have woven. It becomes you, this gift of all ages. I understand love. This, mom, is your greatest gift to me.

Let us hold this woven cloth around you. Grant you some respite from these gusting winds. Let us protect your thoughts, as they push and fade, bringing with them fear and despair. Let us set ourselves as baskets on the ground about you, collecting your precious thoughts to be held sacred within us. Be to the damned, and glory, these vivid and fading colors—they, like you —are the most true of the Brittle, Wind Dancers.

Hazards

Can’t help but see a thing like that, even from miles out. Nothing between us, and the growing light from the fire, nothing at all but shoving wind, and hard pack, ground down into low folds of pale ocher sediment like a dust-caked floor mat shoved up behind an open door.

Strongland looked at me. I knew he was wondering what I was going to do. I pulled over. In a situation like this, you cover ground, try not to make mistakes, watch for things that will catch you up, make damn sure your intentions aren’t something you have to backtrack on your way out of some trouble you didn’t see layin right there in front of you, some issue that only gets in your way when you get careless. If it was just me, maybe I could afford to be just a hair careless. But, I felt Strongland, all brown eyes, looking across at me. Can’t be careless. Even if you don’t have the answer for what might need to get answered when you come up on it.

Another car loomed and wavered and disappeared altogether behind us. I hadn’t seen another car in either direction, hell, maybe in the last two hours. When we came to a spot that wouldn’t get us any closer I flicked on the hazards, eased off the gas, and pulled off the highway, just as far as I could from the outside of the white line. A fence ran along the road, parallel to it, as far as I could see towards the horizon. It just disappeared way out somewhere in front of me. Just ended like a phone call, a line going dead at the end of some long conversation. How much longer would a man try and catch the end of that thing? Or a long ago ended phone call. I don’t know.  Perhaps a great distance.

We got out. Strongland stepped to my hip. Not a word passed between us. I taught him to approach most things like a fly-fisher would a creek. You come up quiet, no use in just barreling in. Wait, and see what the shadows and the rocks, tucked in beneath the surface tension, tell you about the things you cannot see at first.  Then if you get to a place you believe you have learned a way to approach what’s in front of you, without ruining it, then you make your move.

Wasn’t much we could say about what we saw. Maybe a mile out, add another half-mile and you’d be on it. I wasn’t sure if it was a barn, or a house, but it was sure as hell not surviving the fire that swallowed it. No way.

Strongland took my hand. I saw his feet dig against the dust that piled up along the fence line. He had been like that since he was born. You could always tell that boy’s brain was working away in direct correlation to his feet digging in. He was nervous about it. Scared even. “There’s nothing to be done. It’s gone. Or, will be if we tried to get there.”

That car pulled up. An old timer got out. Dressed in a suit. Polyester? I really didn’t know. But it was well looked after.  “That your boy?”

“Yessir.”

He looked Strongland over. “He’s got the same eyes.”

“Yessir.”

His hands, paper thin skin, gold wedding ring, dingy yellow fingernails, wrapped easily around the barbwire fence. Wind rocked us. Strongland leaned into me. His head at my belt.

“You from around here, sir?”

The old man’s eyes lit up like the fires. Then a shadow swept through them just as real as submerging your body into a bathtub full of ice.

“I used to be… hell, yes. I used to be.  I don’t belong to no place now.”

“Sir?”

All three of us watched that thing burn. Smoke curled away from it, long drags twisted like a dragon kite bucking to break off its string. 

Tears welled in the old man’s eyes. I watched two versions of the world emerge on the skin of the tears as they slid and broke down the man’s face, the man’s skin that was exactly like the hard pack laid out from our feet into all directions. He wiped them away with his shirtsleeve.  “That place is mine.” Nodding toward the fire.  “Was mine anyways.”

I was going to ask the man what happened. Maybe he knew it. His eyes betrayed that he had slipped past reasoning. I didn’t ask him. I knew what happened and could imagine his ancient thumb rolling the spark on a forty-nine cent Bic.

Strongland reached out, put his tiny hand on the old man’s hand, clasped around the barbwire.  I didn’t stop him.  “Do you need help mister?”

The old man smiled. “Only if you are God.”

Strongland looked up at me. How’s a young boy supposed to answer a question like that?

“No ‘sir.”

The old man patted Strongland’s hand. “Oh hell, I’m an old fool.” His eyes shifted, he stared at me. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean anything by it.”

I nodded. Grit wedged between my boots, Strongland’s were covered.  It was the first time I realized the old man wasn’t wearing shoes. Just crow-black socks.  There were questions I wanted to ask the old man. But Strongland wasn’t ready for questions like that. Not yet. There would be nothing to prove by asking them. Nothing to gain. Whatever brought that old man to the spot he was in to decide to burn his house down was a long time in the making. A long time I guessed.  “You have any place to go?”

“Well…” the old man laughed, dry and harsh, like splintering wood, “I don’t think so. Not anymore… Like I said, some things, too many things, just don’t make sense to me anymore. They just goddamned don’t.”

I reached out my hand. His own clamped around mine like it was the only blessed thing holding him to the earth. “There’s a lot of the world feels like that these days, sir.”

He nodded. Got back in his car. Pulled back onto the highway and drove away.

Strongland and I stood, together. Wind pushing hard. Already the fire lost its anger. We waited until there were no flames. Who knows where that old man was going. Who knows why the ways of the world were shifting into some unmanageable course. I couldn’t. I stared into Strongland’s brown eyes. Yes, they were like mine. I prayed he would be smarter than I am.  ”Are you ready?”

Strongland looked out at the highway, then back across to the scorched ruin. “There’s nothing to be done here.” He took my hand in his, and led me from the barbwire fence towards the car.

I knelt down onto the hard pack and wrapped my arms tight around the boy. By god I hate to ever release him from them, not now, not in forever. But there was no sense in waiting anything out, no use wasting the time that wasn’t even ours. Strongland studied me again. He has his mom’s eyelashes. I swear he nodded.

Alright, I thought. “Let’s get home.”

We buckled in. I turned the hazards off, reached across to him, put my hand on his chest then wheeled onto the highway. Strongland never looked back at that fire. He never asked why. He had already come to some conclusion that squared it up in his mind. I knew he was already smarter than I ever was. Someday, down the line, I’ll ask him what conclusion it was he came to. Maybe then, I might understand.

 

Funeral

Summer has died.

Strongland insisted on sitting on the ground. I sat him on the walkway. It was the first morning the temperature had fallen this October. I wonder how the chilled, rough concrete felt on his skin. He turned back, grinned. He’s okay. He’s oblivious. We’ll see what he does a month from now.

We sat quietly. Sometimes owls call to each other, back and forth across the street, hidden among the pine and maple branches. A slowly opening eye, night pulled itself to sleep as the sun awoke, first leaching pale madder red, warming slightly to watercolor-wash scarlet, then opaque salmon pinks, quiet traces of shuffling light as if God was unfurling colored parchment paper across the sky.

Autumn is born.

My mind rumbled clumsily. How do you explain a funeral to a boy? How do you tell him that the men that have held him on their laps in one place or another, have dropped by to see him, or he has seen at family events, will never see him again? Strongland won’t remember. A great sorrow in me envies the forgetting.

The men of this town are dying. I named four men to Strongland, his small version of my hand, minus the scars and broken but healed bone, gripped a fallen leaf, tightly between his fingers. I can’t tell if to him the leaf was just a thing, or a treasure to behold. He tore it apart into jagged pieces. One he handed to me and grinned. Another dropped away. He held the last piece.

Is this how God holds us? We fall away, or are clutched tightly, or given up to another hand to care for? How does a father or a mother tell a boy these things?

I met the son of one of the four men that died during this transition of seasons.  A gaunt man, a younger version of Robert Duvall, offered his hand. His understanding was that I had just moved here. “You came at a bad time,” he said, a trace of a smile, as if he was channeling the words his deceased father might have spoken had he been the one to greet me. No, I wanted to tell him, as I thought about fathers and their sons, my own father, and my own son. I came at the only time it could matter.

At the funerals of their fathers, the daughters and granddaughters rose, and drawing from some deep well of courage and grace that men, other than preachers, seem to find hard to come by in these situations, choked back tears, clutched lined white paper and shared beautiful passages that can only be written by daughters. We, the still living, listened, and prayed, and pushed back against our own timelines of mortality.

Strongland’s mother and I decided his birthday will be our official announcement that the season has changed. And so it has, just. And his small hand will grow, and his skin will weather and become scarred and his bones will break and heal and I will pass on.

Autumn will fade and die—but we are here at the only time it could matter—in all our glorious heartbreak.

 

Civil Words

On October 21, 2018 I launched a Facebook page “Civil Words Not Civil War”; here’s why. My instinct, for whatever number of reasons, is to fight, lash out, and smash things. I don’t admit this with pride, these instincts have cost me, but I have reveled in the sensation of my hand, balled into a fist, punching something, feeling the object shatter with my will and force. It’s been a long time since I hit another person. Decades ago. High school years. As with drugs and alcohol, when I was seventeen I left violence, and my engagement with it, in my shadow. But the thing about a shadow is the only time you can’t step away from it is in the dark. Many things in our world are dark. In the light of day the shadows bleed themselves into places that deserve the light; civility is one of those precious realms becoming overwhelmed by shadow. And within that shadow, I have become angry. I have wanted to lash out, curl my hand into a fist and throw it, welcoming new scars and the satisfaction of a fight. And so, as shadows creep across us, I have to fight myself first of all. I have to be civil.

I wasn’t sure where or how or what to do. My voice is but one and with it most of the time I sing in a congregation of like-minded people. I feel the anger and despair of this congregation. I belong to no church, but the world, and the world is angry. I can accept the anger, and vocalize my opinions, and do so with respect for others that, though they feel differently about the world than I do, has beliefs that lead them.

Several weeks ago I began to notice posts on Facebook that claimed fact, or portrayed themselves as true, or contained images with captions that I could not believe were accurate. It seemed that these posts originated from one Facebook page in particular. I sought the page out, and requested to join. The administrators required that an allegiance to one particular group be made as a condition of being accepted as a member. I submitted a message with my request to join and stated that I did not support that particular group in the majority of their causes, but wished to join the group so I could respectfully contribute counter information when I felt it was important to do so.

To my surprise, I was allowed to join the group. What I found there terrified me. So, I withdrew. Then I thought about it some more, and joined again. During my second stint I had some productive conversations from individuals in all corners of the United States, and even Europe. The last string of conversations was not productive. It kept me up at night. My wife asked me to take our address off our website. I know now, that there are people out there that are literally preparing for war. Civil War.

The last person I engaged with, as civilly as I could, (who I suspect was attempting to engage me in the same manner) wrote, “if we can’t express our views here, where can we?” The truth is, this person is right. The next day I was banned from the group. Maybe there were complaints to the administration? I don’t have an answer.

I became so angry. And I still am. And with that anger I decided I needed to take action. For me, yelling won’t do anything, yelling and screaming and cussing at others only increases division between us, causes others to scream back, lessens my ability to listen and in the end, only I will get hurt.

As I reflected on the shadows that have pushed their way across our human landscape I decided that I would lay my wager down on civility. But I won’t throw a punch. I will encourage. I will be respectful. I will attempt to offer civil words in exchange for the same. And I will vote, although civil words need to be cultivated, nourished and given light to flourish, long beyond elections, long beyond my lifetime. Long beyond my son’s lifetime. I will teach him to offer the civil word.

All of these decisions weigh on me, as there are others out there that will fight and punch and scream. I have chosen sides. I hate to think I am diminishing the fire that my like-minded friends have. I understand that my actions might increase divides with unforeseen consequences. But, my friends, I know we need you. I need you. The human landscape needs you. And I hope we are victorious.

And still, civil words will be my path. Civil Words Not Civil War.

Hurricane

I remember it as if I was still in the moment. But it was last year, September of 2017. We were waiting on Strongland, he was almost here.

  It was my request, and she obliged. Skin tight around her round belly she stepped off the brick porch, pulled her shirt up, stomach exposed like a polished boulder, to the coming hurricane. I watched, fascinated. Rain streaked across her skin. Faint, living light, a wash of pewter and sepia swallowed what was the sky. And the wind. Across the street the tall pines bent and bucked and fought and twisted. Branches snapped and crashed onto the slick concrete street.

  God how I loved those moments. I wonder, even protected inside his mama’s womb, how much of that hurricane got inside him that day, into his veins, heart and mind. I wish I could have been her, Strongland's mama; she got to know him a lifetime before I even met him.

  But I know him better now. I'm learning. I was gone all the night before. We agreed that it just didn't make sense to drive back and forth. Where I was, and what I was doing is not important. Only a handful of things are to me now. But where I was meant I was hours from home. They said the hurricane was heading straight for our home. I left as soon as I could.

  Now, tonight, it's just me and Strongland. His mama is working. 

I can't say what's coming, I won’t know till it’s gone. Pewter and sepia light has swallowed what was the sky. And I stepped off the brick porch. Rain has streaked across my hands, wrapped tightly around him. Rain has streaked across his forehead, darkening his late autumn corn stalk blond hair.

  And the wind. Across the street those tall pines bent and arced and shook and groaned and yielded and stood straight again. Branches gave up and snapped off and crashed to the wet concrete street. 

  God how I love those moments. I know him better now. Even still I wonder how much of that hurricane became a part of his veins and heart and mind. I've seen him rage. Just like me. Just flashes. I know him better now. I've seen him alight and aware. I know him better now.

Strongland fell asleep in my arms. I carried him to the bed. His quick and shallow breaths are lost to the rotating storm. Lashing rain streaks across the bedroom windows. I can’t say what will become of tonight until it is gone. I'll just hold him. Just like this. And we'll wait on his mama. I'll know him better then, even if it's just Strongland's quick breaths in a hurricane. 

Counting Up, Counting Down...

My first born son is about to turn one year old. What an overwhelming, and wonderful occurrence. I want to write for him, something mythical and true, like his very existence. But nothing, nothing could ever come close to what he brings to me... What can I say? How to begin?

Do I write about the moments, both the lingering and the quick, and all the moments in between, that he will never remember, and I will never forget? Would I try to calculate a range of beats his heart has pounded from his very first since his mom and I touched him?

Will I write about how his body has grown, tiny bit, by tiny bit, his broadening hands, his eyelashes, his clapping and gurgling and righteous laughter, and his shallow, rapid breaths when he sleeps, tucked up between his mom and me.

Will I write about how he has gotten so dang strong, and his names; Swinging Bear Fists, Ro- Ro, Rollo, Chunk, sweetie, Strong Land.

What will I write?

I have twelve days; I will let you know.

The Last Cicada

The Last Cicada

 

Near the end of every summer

Just when you get ready to go back to school

And put your grass stained sneakers

away away away

The Last Cicada waits

 

During all those summer days

There were millions and a million more than that

But not as many as there are stars

And certainly not as many as all the love I have for you in my heart

 

Remember how they could keep you awake

All those hollering cicadas singing

Calling out to each other

Their screeches and creaking music coming through your open window

Just because you couldn’t understand them doesn’t mean they don’t have meaning

But now their songs husssh

away away away

 

And those green trees you and the cicadas spent your days of summer under

Begin to turn yellow

And orange

And red

Until all their colors have faded

Away away away

 

 

And then there was just one

You never know which one it will be

But it could have been one of the cicadas you have been lucky enough to see

The last cicada goes

Looking at the world through eyes unlike yours but they have seen the same things as you

Flitting from branch to branch

Singing a lonely solo

 

Sometimes you might be lonely too

But come every sunrise and every summer

With new green and your old pair of sneakers

You will no longer be lonely

And the world will be filled

With millions and millions of hollering cicadas

And endless things you can do

 

But always remember the last cicada

Singing a lonely solo

Until their final song has faded

Away away away