On Larry Cornbluth’s first morning as himself in New York City, the sky was blue. The coffee began to make itself at six-thirty, and when it was ready, the three-beep signal cued Miamor to begin yowling for food. Upstairs, old Mrs. Niles’ television roared to life when TheToday Show came on. Everything was the same as always, except Larry.
Several years ago, Larry Cornbluth boarded a bus in Nebraska as himself and disembarked at Port Authority as Leif Corneille, danseur. He dialed back his age and enrolled at a Broadway studio, training for hours each day until his muscles cramped and burned. He worked two restaurant jobs just to make rent. But even then, when he was going for it with everything he had, his midwestern pragmatism nagged at him. If he couldn’t make it as a professional dancer, then at some point, he had to move on with his life. There was something unseemly about an aging wanna-be striving away forever among all the young hopefuls. So at midnight on Larry Cornbluth’s thirtieth birthday, poofwent Leif Corneille, dead at twenty-three.
Larry rolled onto his side in bed and looked around at the large dust balls where his furniture had been. Soon he would drive west and hope that a plan for the rest of his life would come to him before he ran out of highway. But first, he had to figure out what to do with Miamor. Taking her on a cross-country road trip with no real destination seemed prohibitively cruel. She was an old cat. Even short cab rides terrified her. He reached down and rubbed her head, scratching behind her whiskers the way she loved.
As Miamor kneaded the blankets, Larry listened through the ceiling to what sounded like Ann Curry and someone who desperately did not want to talk to her. A pattern emerged: a long question in a soothing voice followed by a halting, one-word answer that did not make for good television. After a few minutes, Larry understood that the interviewee had been held captive and raped repeatedly for years until a neighbor’s landscaper stumbled upon the trap door to her basement dungeon. The way Larry did with radio personalities he’d never seen, he composed a clear picture of the rescued woman in his mind: malnourished, dishwater blonde, pale irises, slumped on The Today Show couch beneath Ann Curry’s signature gaze of compassion, wishing she were anywhere else, even back with her captor. Ann Curry tried to coax elaborations out of the woman’s mother, who sounded ruddy and stocky. Definitely a smoker. Southern, or just rural—it was hard to tell which.
An avid viewer of all sensationalist media, Mrs. Niles had a perverse streak that drove her to turn up the volume when a news story got worse. Though Miamor’s kneading and the smell of fresh coffee grew more insistent by the minute, Larry remained in bed, listening.
“Hedy, see, she had one of her dogs with her that day,” the mother was saying. “When the dog came home alone, whimpering and shaking like a leaf, we about died.”
The thought of Miamor wandering outside alone and scared moved Larry to gather her against his chest.
The mother choked off a sob, then cleared her throat. “Hedy was fifteen and innocent then. Now she’s full grown. Her life’s a do-over starting now.”
Larry suddenly needed to see just who this Hedy was, so he turned on his own television. The degree to which he had been wrong about each woman’s appearance shocked him. The mother was wiry and small. Her daughter towered over her, big-boned, with long dark hair and black eyes that were deep-set and vacant. The mother sat pressed against Hedy, one hand on her knee, and the other wrapped around her waist like she’d never let go again.
Hedy stared into the camera and let a flood of tears pour down her face without brushing them aside. Larry sat up in bed and locked eyes with her. As crazy as it sounded, he felt like he knew her. Their lives were both a do-over starting now. He wondered if she’d someday be able to do ordinary things like shop for groceries, hold a day job, love somebody. Her face was all pain and revealed nothing else. A flash of anger came over Larry then, a protective feeling, and he wished he could push the camera out of her face. He switched off the television and got out of bed.
In the kitchen, Larry poured coffee and dumped dry cat food into a bowl. Beside the dinette set lay a box containing neatly folded ballet tights, jockstraps, tee shirts, legwarmers, and slippers, topped with an envelope of photographs. He wrapped his bathrobe across his chest and leaned forward, peering into the box. Coffee dripped onto a pair of tights as he lifted out the envelope. Flipping through the photos, he noticed reason after reason why he was becoming Larry Cornbluth again instead of dancing through life as Leif Corneille. His ankles were just this side of thick. His torso, however beautifully chiseled, was much longer than his legs. His port-de-bras always looked stiff. His arches were low, though from most angles, when he winged his foot, it was hard to tell just how low they were. And the look on his face never said Here I am, master of this stage. It said Please, let me dream a while longer.
Gilles stood beside Larry in half the pictures, with one long arm slung over Larry’s shoulder. In his favorite of these photos, they were sitting on Gilles’s piano bench after a performance, Larry in a nude unitard with glitter dust sparkling on his arms and face, and Gilles in black clothes that let him blend in with the baby grand. He gazed at his own smiling face, the simple round shape accented by deep dimples, a rosy complexion, sandy hair, and the otherworldly blue eyes that everybody in his hometown inherited from their northern German forebears. It was this youthful combination of features that had made Leif Corneille a believable teen that first year in New York.
Larry slipped the photo in the pocket of his robe. The rest of the photos he tucked back in the envelope, which he placed inside the box. He sealed the box with an extra strip of packing tape and hurried out to the garbage chute in the hall. Before he could change his mind, he opened the metal door and shoved the box inside, a birthday present in reverse. He listened to it fall until the sound faded away.
For five years, Larry had kept his false identity and the ticking bomb of its expiration date a secret. He planned to simply disappear when the time came, without explaining himself or saying goodbye. Unfortunately, he’d given up Leif Corneille’s life in the middle of a pay period, which made a graceful disappearance financially impractical.
Larry walked slowly to Café Verano. People hustled down Broadway with their phones in one hand, coffee in the other, jostling him as they passed. He crossed Seventy-Second Street as a train rushed to a stop under his feet, the pavement rumbling beneath him. Outside the café, he leaned against the wall and checked his messages. An on-again, off-again fuck buddy had already texted him a birthday booty call. His aunt Rachel left a voice mail that a package should be arriving soon. And Gilles sang “Happy Birthday” to him in French, then reminded him that they were supposed to have drinks that evening.
“Leifito, que paso, dude?” his boss shouted out the door. Another employee gave Larry a dirty look as she handed a coffee to a customer. “You’re late!”
Larry didn’t hesitate with the lie. “I got a job with a dance company, so I’m quitting. I’m sorry, Nic.” A film of sweat covered his face even though it was cool inside the café.
“Iliana!” Nic called over his shoulder. His wife hurried out from the back of the shop, her hands covered with flour. “Wash up, baby. Leifito here is bailing on us. He’s gonna be a ballerina at last. And we are happy for him, even though it really sucks he’s ditching mid-morning rush.”
“Ay, niño,” Iliana said. “Leifito, good for you. Nicky, go give him his money. I take care of this.”
Larry’s stomach twisted, sick at the undeserved congratulations. He followed Nic to the back.
“Good luck with the dancing company, muchacho,” Nic said, handing him a wad of small bills. “We all knew the day would come when you make it big time. Can’t everybody make a good latte, though, Leifito. Foam, it’s tricky. It takes the right touch.”
The sweat on Larry’s brow dried as he strode away from the café in the crisp morning air. He soon found himself at the park and sat down on a bench near the entrance, watching people pass. In a gap between crowds, Larry caught sight of a New York Post vending machine with a familiar face splashed across the front page of the day’s issue. Hedy fromThe Today Show stared out at him above the headline KIDNAPPED GIRL, NOW WOMAN, FOUND AT LAST. Hedy Plunkett of rural PA, missing for ten years, was found in the basement of a Syosset home. Beside the large present-day headshot, there was an inset of a young Hedy smiling in a yard teeming with pets—all animals she had rescued, according to the caption. Larry dug a handful of quarters out of his pocket and bought a paper.
Fayetteville, Pennsylvania. Population three-thousand, give or take. The paper’s description reminded Larry of where he came from in Nebraska, a town of about the same size.
Like Hedy, Larry grew up surrounded by animals. The cats were his favorite. Planning on veterinary school, he had been a biology major, and straight, when he started college, but in the middle of sophomore year, he went to see a dance company perform for extra credit in some required liberal arts class. Much to his surprise and horror, the give and take of the movement, the pure lines, and the embodiment of music all combined to overpower him. He felt clammy in the auditorium, his heart thundering in the dark, tears burning his eyes. He blinked them back so the kids he was with wouldn’t see. He had never felt anything like this, anything that made him say to himself, yes, that’s for me. As much as he loved animals, the idea of vet school was less yes, that’s for me and more this would be a logical career. It was humiliating, this sudden passion.
In the lobby at intermission, he made a break for it.
“Hey, I don’t feel so good,” he told the friend from class he’d brought with him.
She pursed her lips and squinted at him. “You’re that bored?” she said. “It’s only another forty-five minutes. You won’t get the credit.”
He clutched his stomach for maximum effect. “See you later,” he said. “Sorry.”
After pretending to leave, her circled back to the stage door and waited. Finally, the company dancers emerged. One young man caught sight of Larry lingering there, twisting his hands.
“Come along for a drink,” he said to Larry. “You look like you could use one.”
At the bar, after Larry had confessed his passion, the dancer told him that there was no choice but to go for it. Be a dancer. “It’s just something you are,” the company dancer said. “It’s not something you become. Now you just have to learn to be yourself.”
After an awkward night in the dancer’s hotel room, Larry awoke alone and sore, next to a new pair of canvas ballet shoes and a handwritten note jotted on hotel stationery. You really need a stage name. Larry Cornbluth is not going to work. Good luck.
Once the chaos of his biology scholarship’s termination was over, Larry settled into the life of a dance major, rejected by his old friends and putting himself through college part time. A taste for freedom from ordinary expectations grew in him during those extra college years. Sure, he was beholden to the overnight shift and staggering bills, but once he finished his BFA, he would live in a world apart from the millions of grey offices, a more beautiful world. Even after he came to New York, he clung fiercely to that separation. Once in a while, he would buy a subway fare and sit on a bench by the track during morning rush. Never actually boarding a train, he’d watch people in suits get on and off, rushing, distracted, frowning. And he’d sew a pair of slippers, or listen to a score on his iPod, remembering why he had followed that dancer’s advice in sophomore year.
Still, sometimes the more beautiful world was lonely, and he missed being around animals who needed him. Despite his full schedule that first year in the city, he began volunteering at an animal shelter once a week. His job was to groom the cats, and he always stayed to play with them, holding them if they’d allow it. One Saturday, a skeletal Miamor arrived at the shelter with matted fur and a strange metabolic disorder that the vets couldn’t quite figure out. They feared she might be contagious, but quarantine was full, so Larry offered to take her home. The head vet was sure she’d be dead within a month, but to Larry’s surprise, she rallied. She grew plump, and feisty, and her fur became glossy. And now he had no idea how to let her go.
As lunchtime approached, Larry wandered south, intent on spending the day far from the New York of dance studios, workout wear stores, Pilates coaches, and diva boy bars he knew best. He had planned to explore unknown parts of the city in search of something or someone that would make him say yes, that’s for me, or at least maybe I could stand doing that for a while. He would keep his mind open. He would embrace the new and different. As he passed a busy coffee shop, Café Verano came to mind, and a flicker of shame flared in him. Perhaps he should cancel drinks with Gilles so he wouldn’t feel compelled to lie to someone even closer to him.
In Nebraska, his ballet teachers didn’t have accompanists, so they played records for barre and center exercises. When Gilles sat down at the piano bench for Larry’s first ballet class in New York and began to warm up his fingers, Larry could barely concentrate on the teacher’s instructions. Then Gilles began to play for pliés, and Larry almost forgot to move. His body language was more animated than some of the dancers, his fingers alighting on the keys as though he were playing in a grand concert hall instead of a ballet studio. There was so much joy in his music. When it was Larry’s turn to dance across the floor in grand allegro exercises, he thought he saw a glimmer of recognition of his own joy in Gilles’ eyes. Larry hoped then that they would become friends, and they did. He wouldn’t be able to pretend with Gilles tonight.
Gilles picked up after two rings. “Allô? Birthday boy?”
Larry smiled. “Hey. Thanks for the song.”
“You are sad,” Gilles said. “I can hear it. Tell me why.”
“I’m not sad,” Larry said. “I just…I’m under the weather.” He felt his throat tightening. “Can we reschedule for next week?”
“Absolutely not. You’ll feel better later. I pick you up at nineish. I have a class now—got to run.”
Larry listened to the dead line for a moment, helpless. He would either have to ignore the buzzer when Gilles rang, or tell him the truth. He wasn’t sure which would be worse.
He headed for Fifth Avenue, which offered the grandest view of the city. Glancing in every window he passed, Larry imagined the other lives inside and tried them on in his mind. Once in a while, he’d see another dancer. They were unmistakable, always. That extra lift in their posture, their apparent inability to look down, their precise movements as they paid for takeout, lifted a load of laundry, bent over to pick up a dropped dollar bill. But mostly, he saw regular people leading regular lives. They weren’t intriguing to him. They weren’t beautiful. They didn’t give him that yes, that’s for me feeling.
After several hours of criss-crossing the island, Larry plopped into a chair at a tiny outdoor café in the Village. He ordered a glass of pinot noir, then another. He read every article, ad, letter to the editor, and photo caption in the New York Post twice, and he re-read the Hedy Plunkett story a dozen times. By six o’clock, it had grown chilly, and the sun was long gone from the tabletop. Uptown at the studio, technique class with his favorite teacher was beginning, with Gilles accompanying. He always played the same music for pliés that he played that first day. Larry didn’t know what it was called, or who composed it, but he knew every note, and every nuance that Gilles would bring to it as he swayed gently on his bench.
Hedy Plunkett had told her sister that each morning, when her captor raped her before going to work, she’d hum her favorite song in her head, over and over again, just to get through it. Larry ordered a third glass of wine and a sandwich as the streetlights came on. He imagined himself sitting in a cubicle row in some nondescript glass skyscraper, humming Gilles’ six-o’clock pliés to himself.
By the time he reached his block, it was eight o’clock, and he felt sick from the wine. He stopped into a deli and bought a huge bottle of water. Outside on the sidewalk, he began to drink. He felt his belly expanding, and the sour taste on his tongue dissipating. Miamor, he remembered. She was long overdue for wet food. He hurried home to feed her and brushed her for an extra-long time. When his buzzer rang at nine-fifteen, he jumped. Gilles. He had forgotten.
“I’ve been calling you all afternoon and evening!” Gilles said, giving Larry the usual three kisses on the cheek. “Where were you? Nobody knew.”
Larry’s head swam, trying to keep up with the head motions under the influence of pinot noir.
“This was downstairs for you,” Gilles said. He handed Larry a brown paper package. Aunt Rachel was the only person from his life as Larry Cornbluth who had rolled with the Leif Corneille name change. Larry looked at his pseudonym in her flowery script and wanted to cry. Instead he tore open the paper.
Gilles looked past Larry into the apartment. “My God!” he said. “Where is everything?”
Aunt Rachel had sent a camera and a birthday card explaining. I’ll probably never come to New York, so take some pictures for me, sweetie. I want to see your life. I charged it up, so you should be good to go. Happy birthday, Larry Leif.
“Leif, where are all your things, cher?” Gilles asked.
“Oh, I ordered some new stuff, so I sold it all,” Larry said. He glanced around at his studio apartment, which looked so much bigger with only a few pieces of furniture left. “Look, my aunt sent a camera!” He snapped a picture of Gilles.
“Hey! Not until I compose my look!” Gilles peered at the camera. “That’s a really nice one,” he said. “Your aunt is very generous.”
Larry walked over to the window and took a shot of the street life below. His apartment in its current state was nothing he wanted Aunt Rachel to see. Miamor ran past, lashing her long tail at Gilles. Larry took a bunch of shots of her winding around his ankles, then of her by herself, leaping after balled-up wads of paper he tossed across the floor; then a close-up of her high cheekbones, green eyes, and fluffy white chest.
“Come on,” Gilles said. “Let’s get a drink.”
Larry took the camera with him, capturing the front door of his building, the shops on his street, and the inside of the old neighborhood pub where they sat down at the dark wooden bar.
Everywhere Larry looked, there was a television. Gilles waved hello to the bartender.
“Hey Froggie,” Bill said. “Usual?”
Gilles nodded. Bill carried pastis only for him. Nobody else ever ordered it.
“Have one,” Gilles said to Larry. “You will enjoy it, I promise.”
Larry shrugged. “Okay, thanks.” Almost no one else was there, which made sense at ten o’clock on a weeknight. “Bill, since nobody’s watching, would you mind turning off the TV?”
“I’m watching,” Bill said. “But I’ll do it for you, Twinkle Toes.”
As Bill reached out and pointed the remote at the main TV, Hedy Plunkett’s face appeared on the screen.
“Wait!” Larry said. “Nevermind, Bill. Can you turn it up?”
Bill sighed. “Dance, monkey, dance.”
Hedy Plunkett must’ve gotten used to reporters. She had gone from one-word answers to Ann Curry on The Today Show to multi-sentence elucidations on Dateline.
“What is this?” Gilles asked, but Larry shushed him. Bill brought their drinks. Gilles took a sip, but Larry ignored it, glued to the TV.
“What was the hardest thing about your captivity?” the interviewer asked.
Hedy pursed her lips and tucked a stray lock of long, black hair behind her ear. “At first, it was not knowing what happened to my dog,” she began. “I was walking Callie when he grabbed me. She ran after the van, and I remember looking out the window at her before he made me lie down.” She took a deep breath. “It was the first thing out of my mouth when I talked to my mom yesterday. She said Callie had found her way home.” Hedy smiled for a second at the memory of the good news.
“It’s your birthday,” Gilles said. “Stop watching this sad story.”
“Shhh,” Larry hissed. “It’s a happy story. She was found.”
Gilles rolled his eyes. “I’m gonna drink yours.”
“Fine,” Larry said.
“And now that you’re home,” the interviewer said, “how will you readjust to being back?”
“Well, I’ve been through a lot,” Hedy began. “But I’m still—” her voice broke then, and her eyes filled up.
Larry leaned in, afraid to miss a single nuance. Hedy looked down at her lap for a moment. She was shaking. She gripped the sides of her chair tightly, and the shaking stopped.Come on, Hedy, Larry thought. Keep it together. Her breathing steadied. When she looked at the camera again, her face was steel. She had composed herself completely. Larry wanted to cheer out loud for this small victory, this refusal to give her captor the satisfaction of her trauma.
“I’m still me,” Hedy said finally. “I’m not going to let what he did be the last word in my life. I’m still the person who rescues animals, and paints pictures of people’s pets, you know? I hate it that everybody sees me now as that poor thing on the news. I’m still me.”
Serious music cued up in the background, and the interviewer promised more with Hedy Plunkett in a moment. The station cut to a commercial for air fresheners.
“Bill, it’s his birthday,” Gilles pleaded. “He’s making himself crazy. Can you please turn off this depressing program?”
Bill rolled his eyes and cut the TV, but Larry didn’t complain. He had seen everything he needed to see. Gilles ordered another round, and they toasted.
“Thank you for being a friend,” Larry said. “I’m glad you’re here.”
Gilles clapped him on the back. “Isn’t that the song from The Golden Girls? Does this mean I am becoming an American because I know this reference?”
Larry laughed. “Um, I think it just means that you’re gay, honey.”
“Well, that is not a lie,” Gilles said. “Unlike the lies you have been telling me tonight.”
The smile fell away from Larry’s face.
“You try to cancel, you don’t come to class, you’re drunk when I come to pick you up, and your apartment is almost empty.” Gilles touched his friend’s forearm. “Something is wrong.”
“I failed, Gilles,” Larry said. “At a dance career. I’m done. It’s over.”
Gilles laughed softly. “When something’s in your heart, you’re never done. You find a way to keep it in your life. Do you think I trained for years to play for ballet classes?”
Larry placed a hand on top of Gilles’. “God, your paws are enormous,” he said, smiling. “You’re like a giant French bear.”
“All the better to grab your ass with, my dear,” he said, and they laughed together for the last time.
Alone in his dark apartment, Larry scooped up Miamor and stroked her as she purred. He kissed her face and scratched her chin. After a while, she wriggled in his arms to be let down. He double-checked that all the pictures of her on his camera were saved.
The next morning was sunny. At the usual times, the coffee pot started up and Mrs. Niles’ television did too. Instead of lying in bed, Larry was up and packing. I’m still me, I’m still me, I’m still me ran through his mind as he assembled a few duffel bags. He double-bagged Miamor’s food and litter, and gingerly laid her brush and a few toys on top. After she had eaten and drank her fill, and used the litter box, Larry hustled her into her carrier, kissing the top of her head as she protested being shut inside.
At the car rental place, he bought a map of the United States, and a map of Pennsylvania. If he made good time, he’d get to Fayetteville by lunch. Miamor gave up her yowling after a half-hour, probably figuring if they weren’t at the vet’s office by that point, then she was off the hook. Eventually the buildings of the cities and suburbs grew farther and farther apart until Larry found himself in the middle of nowhere. Welcome to Fayetteville, the sign said.
It wasn’t hard to find the Plunkett house. Larry cut the engine at the edge of the yard under a tree, where he’d be less conspicuous. Two cars were parked in the carport. There was a fence in the backyard. Maybe Hedy’s old dog was still alive. The Plunketts’ front lawn was covered with Welcome Home signs and all kinds of decorations. The biggest sign was planted firmly by the mailbox: No Press Allowed—Thank You For Understanding.
Looking back at Miamor sleeping in her carrier, he wasn’t sure he could do it. He could still just drive away. But then he thought of Hedy, and how his affectionate little miracle cat would wind her way around Hedy’s ankles and purr. He read the note he’d written one last time before taping it to Miamor’s carrier.
Hedy, my name is Larry Cornbluth, and this is Miamor. I heard on the news that you were an animal rescuer. Well, I am changing my life, and I don’t know quite where I’ll end up, so I don’t think it would be fair to put Miamor through that, as much as I love her. I know you’ll take good care of her. She likes wet food best, and she loves to be brushed. Thanks, Hedy. I appreciate this.
Larry got out of the car and set up Aunt Rachel’s camera on the roof, aiming it at the Plunketts’ front door and double-checking that it was on video mode. He hoped Hedy would smile when she saw Miamor sitting there. He hoped seeing her reaction on video whenever he missed his cat would be comforting. He grasped the handle of the cat carrier in one hand and the bag of supplies in the other and quietly strode up the front walk.
The front curtains were drawn. It crossed his mind then that he’d have to knock, unless he wanted Miamor sitting out here indefinitely. His arm was shaking as he reached out and rapped on the door. Immediately he heard muffled footsteps coming from the back of the house. He bolted down the walkway and made it to the edge of the yard, under the tree, before the front door of the Plunkett house creaked open.
There she was. Hedy. A completely normal-looking person in jeans and a long-sleeved tee-shirt. Her hair was in a loose braid than hung down her back.
She saw Miamor. He was too far away to hear it, but he could tell by her body language that she’d taken a sharp breath of surprise. The smile on her face was unmistakable, though. She bent down and peered into the carrier, resting her hand on top of it. She felt Larry’s note then and peeled it off.
“Mom!” she called behind her, into the house. “Someone brought me a beautiful cat!”
In the grass, Larry found himself preparing his arms, and extending his right leg before him in a tendu. Gently, he began a piqué attitude turn. He made one slow revolution, registering each yard and each house as he spun, and stopped on a dime, balancing for that extra moment dancers hope for but can’t ever count on. When it comes, when the physics and technique line up just right, it’s exhilarating.
“Hey!” the mother’s voice shouted. He grabbed the camera, gunned the engine and drove off, nearly blinded by tears.
Larry would surprise Aunt Rachel and stay for a week or so, spoiling her with cooking and cleaning and evenings out in Lincoln. She was the kind of person who’d be proud of him for having given New York his all even if he came up short. He wasn’t afraid to tell her he’d failed. But he wasn’t sure what he’d tell her when she asked what he planned to do next.
When he tried to imagine what I’m still me looked like for himself, he didn’t see an audition schedule, or an army of young dancers sizing him up and dismissing him. Instead he pictured a few friends and the occasional lover. He saw the sun setting over the ocean, and the Hollywood sign in the hills. A shelter cat with long black and white fur. A ballet studio where he’d take classes every evening just for fun, after he left work at the café that he’d own. He would make lattes and cappuccinos for people enjoying a leisurely afternoon or rushing off to their cubicles. He would watch them come and go. And he would hang a sign out front that said Living the Dream.
“Rusty” appeared to be an ordinary supermarket checker. Tall and slim, he had an all-American, Huck Finn sort of face with a half-jaded, half-amused half-smile. The only readily noticeable difference between Rusty and his co-workers was his efficiency. His remarkably deft hands were pale and a bit chapped (as is so common among redheads), with long, slender fingers that always seemed to be in motion. Like all the regular shoppers at that Alpha Beta store, I went straight to Rusty whenever he was working a till because the line moved along so quickly. He seemed to know all the prices, and counted out change faster than any bank teller I’d ever seen. In time, we became friendly, and chatted about nothing much while my groceries whizzed past into waiting double bags.
Rusty wore long-sleeved shirts over tight-fitting, long-sleeved thermal underwear, even on the hot Coronado days when the Santa Ana winds stripped even the store manager down to short sleeves and an open collar. I thought perhaps Rusty was a speed freak, shooting up during his lunch break, just trying to cover up the tracks on his arms. More likely, the air conditioning bothered him. Either way, it was none of my business.
I didn’t think much about Rusty’s clothes until one day when I was about to leave the store with my groceries. The bottom of the bag had started to rip, and Rusty lunged over the counter and caught it in time. This sudden movement caused the sleeves of his undershirt to creep up an inch or two. I looked hard at his wrists and then into his eyes. Rusty’s half-smile was gone and he looked away, busying himself with repacking the groceries even faster than usual.
“There you go now, ma’am. You have a nice day.”
Ma’am? Have a nice day? I tried to smile and left the store in a hurry. Walking home, I thought about Rusty’s cold, deep-blue eyes. But Jesus, I thought, they weren’t as blue as the blue—not to mention the red, indigo and green—of the tattoos that began at his wristbones and probably went all the way up to . . . to where?
Now, I’d seen tattoos before, but nothing like these: intricate paisley swirls, cats’ eyes and fishtails, with not a speck of pale flesh anywhere. I remembered scenes from The Illustrated Man and Predators. Weird. Where in the world would a seemingly clean-cut supermarket checker pick up such colors?
I stayed away from the market for awhile. Rusty and I had shared an intimacy neither of us had asked for or wanted. I’d become more than a customer, and Rusty was no longer just a supermarket checker: he was a man with a past. And now I had seen some of it. Just the same, when the coffee and bread ran out, I ventured on in to the Alpha Beta.
My plan was to avoid Rusty by sneaking around the back to Coffee, Tea, and Powdered Beverages, but as luck would have it, he was restocking the shelves with iced tea mix.
“Where you been keepin’ yourself, ma’am?”
I looked up from the coffee grinder to see an almost complete smile on his face. “Oh, I’ve been working on my boat,” I lied.
“No kiddin’? You have a boat? Where is it—down there off Orange Avenue?”
“Yeah. The Esmeralda. She’s a beat-up 31-foot yawl. Small enough to single-hand, but big enough for me to live aboard.”
“Sounds terrific. I used to live on a boat in Louisiana. Kinda miss it sometimes.”
I tried like hell not to look at his wrists, but couldn’t resist, and glanced down for a split second. When I looked up, he was grinning and looking over his glasses straight into my eyes. He leaned past me, very slowly, and exposed—for just an instant—between his white throat and the neckline of his thermal undershirt, a half-inch of skin the colors of Amazon parrots. Still smiling, he handed me the bag of coffee.
“Here you go, ma’am.”
“Thanks a lot . . . sir.”
He threw his head back, laughed, and then said, “Don’t you be a stranger now. I mean to take a ride on that boat of yours.”
For the next few days I worked in earnest on Esmeralda. I scrubbed the deck, mended sails, changed the oil in the inboard—anything I could think of to make her ready. Exactly what I was getting ready for was unclear, but I polished, painted and tinkered just the same, every day until sunset.
In the evenings I’d have a sandwich and some Scotch, and try not to think about Rusty and all those colors running from his neck clear down to his wrists and God knew where else. Maybe he’d been in the Navy. Nah; that sure didn’t look like a navy man’s ink. A gambling man, judging by his quick hands—used to dealing cards and counting out money. No way. The days of riverboat gamblers were long gone. Maybe a biker—some East Coast version of Hell’s Angels—they liked tattoos, didn’t they? Not a chance. Too scrawny. Too smart. Too much paisley. Anyway, the Angels I used to know ended up dead, rich or in prison, not as checkers at the Alpha Beta.
A carny guy, that was it. A sideshow geek: sleight of hand, shell game, all that jazz. Finally just got tired of it and went straight, maybe, or got into trouble and had to hide out from the law. Rusty: an a.k.a. if I’d ever heard one.
At night I dreamed in Technicolor: sunlit fields of violets and poppies creeping with diamondback turtles and coral snakes, paisley storm clouds whirling in time to a calliope.
The night before last, while pouring my second whisky, I heard someone walking along the dock toward Esmeralda and me. I was so sure it was Rusty, I poured him out a drink. And there he stood on the other side of the hatch, smiling. A warm wind ruffled his white, short-sleeved shirt, and by the glow of the lantern I saw just the tail end of a copperhead weaving its way across his chest.
I hung the lantern in the forward cabin. All through the night, as he lay sleeping, I traced the geckos and daffodils, discovered ferns and inlets, circumnavigated palms and Egyptian pyramids, and gazed into the blue, blue sky.
Yesterday morning, just before dawn, I was inspecting a stand of evergreens on Rusty’s left shin when he woke up.
“Hey, what you doing down there, Ma’am?”
I left the trees and carefully placed my head onto a dolphin on his left shoulder.
“Come here, pretty lady,” he chuckled. “I won’t break.”
He kissed my ear. I kissed the dolphin.
“I know you won’t break. It’s just that . . . well, you really are something.”
“I do what I can, Ma’am.”
“No, Rusty, you know what I mean. Why did you ever get all these tattoos?”
He lit a cigarette and took a long drag. “Why not? It was just something to do. I don’t know. I guess I wanted something special that nobody could ever take away from me.” He tossed the cigarette out of the porthole. “And anyway, the ladies like ‘em, don’t they? I’m here in your bunk, ain’t I, ma’am?”
The smile ran up his right cheek, halfway to his ear.
“Yeah; I guess you’re here, all right.”
He pulled me over to him. The sun rose and flooded the cabin with light. His skin grew brighter and brighter until I had to shut my eyes. We held onto each other so tightly in the heat and dampness of that cabin, I almost believed some of the color ran off of him and onto me, like those Crackerjack tattoos I wore as a kid.
I fell asleep and dreamed in black and white. Rusty and I were sailing Esmeralda in the South Pacific. I stood at the stern in a sheer white dress, feeding dolphins, while Rusty handled the wheel. Very cozy. It was only when I woke up that I realized the Rusty in the dream had skin as blue-white as skimmed milk. I rolled over to have another look, but he was gone.
The smell of coffee wafted in from the galley, so I got up and went in. A little note was taped to the coffeepot: “See you at the store!”
A few hours ago Esmeralda and I sailed neatly into a slip, up here in Avalon. Thought I might take her all the way to Ventura, but I need a good night’s sleep and some supplies first. Nice little town, though. There’s a supermarket just around the corner.
“Dante and His Lion’s Paw”
“Dante Mourns His Beatrice”
To the Drugless Man Holding a Homeless Sign by Mark Jackley
But never mind that Ben, my friend in Social Services,
told me about the smack and oxycontin, and let us forget
you always sport a New York Stock Exchange baseball cap
as you halfheartedly clutch your folded, spindled cardboard sign
bearing your multi-colored plea, for neighbor I can imagine
that parts of you are sheltered only by the crumbled potion
cooked in spoons and booming like soft thunder in the punch line
of God’s private joke warmly whispered in your marrow,
the part of you facing middle fingers or the zombie stares
of people like me who just drive on, sometimes rolling through
the stop sign, making sure we never quite share your space
and catch whatever terrifying virus brought you here,
you its home and host as it returns the favor coldly
in its ravenous way, leading you by the hand and stroking
your blow-dried hair, stopping at this corner in the country’s
richest suburb and saying “Here,” under the unchained sky,
where the snowy, leaking stars are sleeping, not too far
from where my compassion lurks, wandering, often lost,
absent for long stretches from the brick walls of my heart.
Despite by Mark Jackley
“You don’t love because; you love despite;
not for the virtues, but despite the faults.”
I never knew his name but I knew that hers was Deborah
from all the times he came home drunk in the middle of the night,
locked out of their doublewide, wailing, “Deborah! Deborah!
Baby, let me in, I’m sorry, honey, I want to come in.”
A large woman who walked a little fluffy yappy dog
and talked about UFOs, she would cradle his head
of long greasy hair on the steps on summer nights,
the two of them sipping beer, gazing at fireflies.
But summer was long gone the very last time that I heard him
speak her name, bellow it in besotted pain
in the middle of the gravel road between their lot and ours.
On Christmas Eve, bathed in holiday lights straight out of Vegas
and giant blinking candy canes and squad-formation reindeer
staring out at lawn deer, of motorcycle Santa’s,
there he stood, celebrating the birth of our lord, amen,
with a bottle of Southern Comfort and the kind of psychic woe
religion was invented for, whiskey too, and let us
not forget the love of a woman on a cold dark night.
But she refused to scratch that itch, and the last thing he sobbed up
from his heart, his guts, I nearly had inscribed
on my wedding band, I can hear it still: “Deborah,
baby, Deborah, I love you…you fucking bitch.”
Contributor by Mark Jackley
Mark Jackley is the author of six or seven chapbooks
whose readership now numbers in the high two digits.
His work has not appeared in Ploughshares, The New Yorker
or any publication whose rejections are cold and neat
as a double gin martini at a faculty lunch,
or so he imagines. However, his moral faults
have been faithfully translated into several languages,
Spanish most successfully, thanks to an ex-girlfriend
who appeared between his first and his next two marriages.
He has not received a McArthur award or a Guggenheim or won
a contest named for a god of verse, judged by a minor deity.
He has never graced the Peace Corps or fished crabs in the Bering Sea,
but has mopped up warehouse floors. He has busted shit with hammers.
He lives in Sterling, Virginia, with his wife and no adorable
pets but has two dogs, Max, a Blue Ridge Halfwit,
and Dixie, a sad example of the rare Australian Waddler,
both suffered by Leo the tabby cat, who is mercifully clean and quiet,
crowd-pleasingly aesthetic. Jackley’s sole impressive,
nay, immortal achievement is Liana Marie Jackley-
Angulo, his daughter, thirteen, sly and charismatic
in the manner of great poems, dolphins and meteor showers.
Despite his urgent attempts, she is revising herself.
I am searching for
specimen of the
who has sometimes
do the walking through
the yellowed pages
of my past and accept
me for the quotation
dialogue I speak
and who sees me
as the dashing sort
with dashed dreams
debonair and demanding
as the dude in
and who places me
in the Erotic Fiction
section of her
store bought thoughts
and who talks
at her book club
causing the literate
moms to lick
the froth off
“I’ll have what she is having.”
What’s your story? by Ivan Jenson
Are you on location
in some exotic locale
or at home baking a cake
boiling angel hair pasta
or channel surfing
getting fitted for
some special occasion
or becoming undone
could you be
dining in or out
speaking or listening
in any case
are you happy, sad
what you are
or getting out of
because I have
yet to type
on my keyboard
you are pure
drawing on banked experience and earnings, I deplete the rotting woodpile of any past, my flaking barn filled with scorched ore, my private cemetery of flickering weeds all ablaze banked coals blown to life, all reduced to uncommon metal ingots of no commercial value after which I’ll no longer be gnawing lawn furniture out on the road but holed up, frugally assembling and polishing double-edged maps and chronographs to fuel industry with some fork into prophecy or political revolution or Elysium or celebrity-bashing iconoclasm, I won’t be spooked by the alchemy of regret except, maybe children
1. Hoop Dreams
Come on, Granddaddy, he calls, age seven,
Dribbling the ball on the deck,
Play some D.
Shoulders that have seen better days
Struggle to get hands up on defense.
I no longer conspire to let him win.
He breezes by for a lay-up,
A moment I want to think
He will recall when his sons and grandsons,
Also North Carolina boys,
Begin to bounce a ball.
2. The Bridge
To reach our house at Golden Pines
You go across a bridge,
The last bridge, my friend, age 80, calls it.
Don’t say that, I tell him,
Blood pumping, pulsing
Against skin turned to paper by the years.
For it had seemed to me,
Until not long ago, that
We might be exempt
From certain statistical probabilities
And live forever.
“November Songs” originally appeared in Homestead Review.
That was only shade
in gestures by the staircase
eclipsed from night swells
here by changing shapes
of ocean haze
returning from the Cape
of phantom memory
as ideas float on waves
with spacious sounds
of birdsong from the dunes,
breaths of wind
fill echoes of sea voices
away from unshackled time
of fragrant shadows
along the greensward shore
when first light marvels
from the quick landscape
of budding words
offering us sleepless news
of nature’s nascent signs
along the coast,
our footpaths consumes
the sunshine moving us
in corners and crevasses
on the muffled sand
oblivious to your fingers
holding a pear
you wander in the yard
outside of Bay windows
from a scent of Fall’s colors
barely tossed about us.
for years, I dreamed of eating you, of trapping you between
my paws and staring you into submission. too many years
spent salivating over you
and now that I have you, trapped under my claws
I’m not sure what to do with you, my heart
urges me to smother you before you can run, to
swallow you whole like a snake would a rat, but my
heart aches at the thought of this
being completely over
misses the chasing games we used to play, the ones you
finally lost. I will always be watching you
even during those times you think I’m asleep, eyes
half-lidded in nonchalance, faking
indifference. today, you get to
be the pet, my own, my only, and tomorrow
I’ll only eat a bit of your tail for breakfast.
The Last Day by Holly Day
on the last day, the vampires opened the caskets, crept
out of basements, mausoleums
underground bunkers, to find a world
peopled by the shambling
dying and dead, a radioactive
landscape glowing as red and molten
as the day the Earth first
began to cool. they strutted around
for the first few hours, kings of the world
before becoming sick themselves
from feeding off of
the radioactive dead
the dead blood burning like white lightning
all the way down. soon, even the last vampire
shuddered into dust
long before the rays of the sun pinked
the flaming horizon.
The cold hits hard and fast. That’s the way it is in the high desert; no smooth transitions like in stories. It’s sunshine one day, snow the next. Sometimes being a mother is like that, moving me forward when I’m not prepared. I could complain, but then I’d miss that small gift hidden in the storm.
It is six below. As I step out onto the porch, the icy wind stings my face. My stiff fingers grip the juniper logs and I quickly rush back into the house to get the evening fire started. I place crumpled newspaper and small, splintered wood into the living room stove, and wait in anticipation for the warmth the fire will bring. One down. I move to the kitchen to the large cook stove to repeat the process, but the ring of the phone stops me.
I already know who is calling. It is my oldest son’s nightly ritual.
We have had the same conversation for two years now.
“Hello,” I’ll say.
“I can’t do this,” he’ll say.
“Live here, in this world,” he’ll add.
“Why? What’s going on?”
“There’s no point. I don’t see the point.”
I’ll give my best Pollyanna speech, weaving my words through each obstacle my son puts up, determined to find some hopeful perspective to provide him with the strength to get through one more day.
When I was twenty-two years old and eight months pregnant, the coming of my first child was an anticipated miracle wrapped in delicious fantasy. Innocence, and all those tiny bits and pieces of television shows like Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, coalesced into my mind to paint a picture of family and motherhood. Any fears or problems could be calmed in thirty minutes. My child would live a life filled with wonder and miracles. I embraced each moment of my pregnancy as a gift and I welcomed the future.
It was time. The tiny front room of the old wooden house smelled clean and sterile in preparation for my baby’s arrival. Cool cloths were placed gently on my face and the soft voices of my husband, midwife, and closest friend surrounded me. Although I was in excruciating back pain, I was aware of consecutive contractions. I also noticed the sunlight streaming in through the east window as the faint hint of salt air drifted in. Our house sat near the Santa Cruz coast and the sound of the ocean calmed me. The last 13 hours of labor were about to end. The patterns of light reflected on the walls overpowered the night’s darkness. I pushed with primal strength and my baby was born. My world was reduced to the sound of soft sucking at my breast. I gazed into deep blue eyes and touched tiny curled fingers. In that instant, there it was: a mother’s love. I knew at that moment I would give all of myself for the life of my child; I just didn’t know what that meant.
I began to understand the meaning motherhood when my son was eight years old. I remember the cold, barren walls of the U.C. Davis Medical Center. The hospital environment provided no solace, no warmth, and no shred of aesthetic comfort. I sat near my son, as the sterile smell of alcohol, disinfectant and plastic sheets stung my nostrils. My feet were clad with hospital socks that would not keep out the cold of the polished linoleum floor. I could not find comfort in the hard plastic chair; its cracked seat pinched me whenever I moved. I sat and listened to the night sounds: the nurses who padded down the hallways, the soft cries of a child in the next room, and the agitated movements of my son as he tried to slip into sleep. Tubes and needles kept him from finding the comfort he sought, but eventually we both drifted off into restless dreams. Later, we were startled awake by a nurse who came to draw blood. I never got used to the constant disruption throughout the night. My son struggled to find calm in such a fearful place. As the nurse drew blood, I gently held his hand and spoke soothing words, trying to comfort myself as well as him. The nurse left and I sat beside him. My hand caressed his forehead, as the lights dimmed and the night sounds lulled him back to sleep. When the blood work was returned and the biopsy completed, I learned that my son had idiopathic cirrhosis of the liver. There was no cure and we now waited for a transplant. I was told to watch for signs of internal bleeding and to come back routinely for checkups. Though my heart felt like a sack of lead and it threatened to pin me down into my chair, I got up. I was determined to help my son through this difficult journey.
Four years later he vomited blood, and we made the first visit to the ICU. They took him away by ambulance. As I drove to the hospital, hot tears stung my face. The doctors had discussed this for the past four years. But why now? My son was 12 years old and here we were again.
The smells. I always remembered the smells: plastic, alcohol, hospital food, disinfectant. I sat by my son. I couldn’t leave his side. He was not conscious, but I did not want to leave, even to use the restroom, as I thought I must be at his side when he woke up. The ICU was like living in a small, glassed cage. At least it was quiet there, except for the comings and goings of doctors and nurses. Each tick of the clock synchronized with my heart pounding in my ears. I looked down and saw my son’s pale, thin arms, and the dark bruises that formed circles where the nurses drew blood. His name moved higher on the transplant list and so we waited.
It stormed the night they called. It was one of the worst storms in the history of the mountainous town where we lived. Power lines were downed; heavy, wet snow was falling. Branches crashed like thunder. We had one room with a heat source, so my family and I crowded there for warmth. We were fortunate to have power and made the best of the evening. We drank steaming hot cocoa and watched Cheers. The phone rang.
“Who could be calling tonight?” I asked.
“We have a liver. You need to get to San Francisco as soon as possible.”
I put into practice the scenario I had rehearsed in my mind many times: call my mother to come stay with my daughter and middle son; take them to the neighbors until family arrived; call my in-laws, so they could help with the kids, too. As the storm raged, we packed quickly and drove the three hours into the city. Thus began a year of living in and out of the hospital. All time warped into one: lack of sleep, ticking clock, waiting, waiting, waiting. Morning medications and blood draws. Bland food and the sound of television. Children cried. Each day was a repetition of the day before. We waited for a miracle, and finally things changed. The liver transplant was successful, but follow-up was critical.
We began the journey towards healing. I became one of the “liver moms.” We were the privileged few who could enter the nurse’s station to get the medications for our children. We took blood pressures, temperatures, and delivered meds. We had to. This would be our routine over the next several years outside of the hospital. I learned what medications should be taken when and how to keep track of blood pressure and temperature. Everything would be charted.
I stayed in an apartment in San Francisco, and after two months, my son moved out of the hospital and in with me. We walked to the hospital for daily check-ups. We walked together to get our morning coffee in the warm summer sun. This rejuvenated my soul after so much time in the hospital. Finally, the check-ups diminished to twice weekly, and after a couple of set-backs, we were allowed to travel home. Relief overwhelmed me. I was thrilled to be reunited with my other children. I always loved being home and I found myself crying with gratitude that we were there. Together. Small things, like cooking a meal, being surrounded by my own things and sleeping in my own bed were luxuries. We did it. In time, life gradually returned to normal. Normal? It was a matter of perspective.
Although my son’s physical health began to improve over the years, his mental health declined. After he turned eighteen, he was out on his own, but each year brought him further into depression, and finally, his first 5150. I was flooded with paper work and preparing for the end of another school year. I was exhausted, but couldn’t sleep. My son was in his late 20’s and he lived in his own apartment in Northern California. The conversation I had with my son earlier in the evening would not leave my mind. I tried to calm his fears as he cried-desperation thick in his voice. He had not been able to sleep or eat and he weighed only 105 lbs. I called his brother and asked him to check in on him. “He should be with him now,” I assured myself. Then, at 3:00 a.m. and the phone rang. It was the hospital.
“Your son is in the ER. He was brought in due to suicidal ideation. We found him on the railroad tracks. He wanted us to be sure to call you to let you know that he is O.K. He’s pretty sad and depressed; we’ll be moving him to in-patient mental health soon.”
I hung up the phone. Suicidal ideation. The cutting. The crying. All the classic symptoms. Of course, when I tried to get help, I was told, “He’s an adult. You can’t force him to get help. If he wants help, he can come in.” I imagined for years this could happen, but hoped for the miracle. My Pollyanna speech. My strong words of encouragement. My determination. They never really worked. I just kept hoping.
Two more years and two more 5150’s. Right now, my son is in jail. After his last major depressive episode, he was back in college and went out to check on a severely depressed friend; he was worried because she appeared suicidal. An older man answered the door, but told my son he could not come in. My noble (albeit too emotional) son tried to walk by the man in order to save the girl. The man hit my son. Physical touch was associated with a long history of pain; my son hit back. The man and my son both called the police. A report was written and my son was told to go home. He did not know that he was supposed to appear in court.
Three months later, my son called the police after he witnessed his brother’s ex-girlfriend breaking his things. The police came, but things were calm and she was on her way out. The policeman, however, later returned and told my son he had a warrant out for his arrest. The policeman grabbed him from behind, but my son fought back. Touch-pain-fight-flight. At about 105 pounds, one would not think he would be a threat to a very massive policeman, but it took another person to pull him off the officer. My son was taken away.
I wait for the phone to ring again.
“You have a collect call from an inmate from the county jail. Press one to accept the charges.”
I press one. My son is not too depressed. He is taking his medication. He likes the structure and routine in jail. He’s upbeat and he talks about the future. He sounds almost hopeful. He could be out in a few weeks, he could go on probation, or he might do four years in state prison. If he can keep his current attitude, it will be a miracle. Even if he doesn’t, I’m determined to count this one moment as miraculous grace, a small gift hidden in the storm.
Milton and Gertrude on a date in Bad Kissingen. Photographer unknown. Date unknown. Who are these people? I would like to have known them at this moment. But that would have changed it all, me being there, present and accounted for even if uninvited, even if I might be waiting around the corner or in a hotel room or… Would they appear as carefree?
This is before. Before marriage, my siblings and me, and a transplant to the United States – culture shock in Los Angeles. Before breast cancer and dementia. Before career disappointments. Before marital difficulties. Before Kennedy and the Vietnam War. Before Watergate. Before the world I grew up in, which is now archived as history.
There was a before before this photograph. An archive I need consult to understand.
His father was a successful Jewish-Polish U.S. immigrant entrepreneur, cigar salesman, merchant, Packard dealer, investor. One day in 1932 all is lost. EVERYTHING. All property. All savings. Grandpa is a broken man. Grandma opens a sandwich shop. Dad drops out of college and goes to work. Runs numbers on Wall Street. Marries twice; divorces twice. Serves in the air corps of the army in World War II and translates in North Africa where he sees Josephine Baker perform. Gets slipped a Mickey at the Moulin Rouge. Reenlists to serve in occupying force in defeated Germany. Meets Gertrude, his Captain’s secretary, at Christmas party, 1945. Lives 95 years.
She, the second daughter of a Roman Catholic mercantile family, knew Aachen, and perhaps little else besides two World Wars and the Depression. At some time she married a man from Iran. At some time she divorced him. Which was the greatest mortal sin – marrying outside the faith or divorce? Something else not yet archived? Somewhere she learned English. Enough to get a job with the Americans translating; enough to make sure her mother, sister, son and daughter got one hot meal each day, courtesy of her work. Lives 74 years.
This moment that falls between before and after captures my imagination. Who thinks of parents on a date, like real human beings, curious about each other, wondering if this might be a right choice, letting go of pasts and futures for the tenure of a shared glance and smile? Where were they coming from and where were they headed? How long had they known each other? What were they hoping to find? They had three children. Were we the ones they wanted?
A prince kisses a princess and they live happily ever after until? He grows warts? She, a second chin?
I try to understand the strength of a generation that sorts though the threads of a fabric of life that has been torn asunder. Concentration camps. Bombs. Famine. Economic disaster. Catastrophes most of us have been blessed not to know. What makes one get up again the next morning? Why bother? What’s the point? What mind can remain intact when each moment brings a new uncertainty, aftershocks that continue for years on end, cease, and stir anew unexpectedly, just when you thought it was safe to leave the house? Pick up the pieces and make a mosaic, filling in the emptiness with new hopes.
World War II is over. Hitler is defeated. America is victorious. It is too soon to know that ‘never again’ are only empty words for future Chinese, Cambodian Slav, Argentine and Rwandan generations. Roads are rebuilt. Produce appears in markets and chocolate resurfaces. Winners publicize the faults and flaws of the vanquished, drawing attention away from their own sins of omission and commission. Until allies become enemies, and former foes friends, shared secrets are revealed, and we are forced to see our own reflections in racism, assassinations, environmental spoilage and greed.
But not on this day. On this day two people walk with hope, anticipation and pleasure in each other’s company. A wistful ‘perhaps,’ arriving early.
It is often the case my farm seems to me the only sane place in this country. I take it this is because, other than my wife and some animals, no one else inhabits it. Madman, bore, or perhaps something in between, I am the primary possessor of the human agricultural perspective on a bit of earth American law recognizes as mine, but which, in reality, possesses me as one of its minor living inhabitants. I have tried to do right by it within my significant limits, but, alas, have made enough agricultural mistakes in my life to forget most of them and curse myself in remembrance of those I do recall with a silent condemnation. Since my school days, truth be told, I have not ceased to marvel each year at the fool I have been the year before. Yet, on the extreme other side of these many active mistakes there dwells an attitude of complacency reflected in the way I sometimes idly watch the fields from my rocker, contemplating them all the while—particularly if a jug is handy. The agricultural problems and attributes of the landscape are laid out before me—the solutions to which, if any ever present themselves, destined eventually, in retrospect, to be reckoned ignorant and those of a fool. The former version of me, the doer, is something of an innovator (however meager his rate of success); the latter, the muser, a leisurely pragmatist with a practical, rather than idealistic, penchant for strategizing an approach to something that may never occur. I will be the first to admit my perspicacity often is suspect and misspent, but then trial and error are part of the farmer’s (as well as the writer’s) trade.
I have chosen to write briefly on my agricultural identity for a number of reasons, not least of which is to combat ongoing negative stereotypes of farms and farmers. In popular culture farm life frequently continues to be characterized as stagnant, dull, parochial, stupid, and backward, largely on account of its hard remitting toil. As with all stereotypes, each of these qualities may prove true depending on a given farm. Yet I also find each one of them problematic with regard to my own agricultural background and observations. As one who has traveled a bit, I would take special exception to the first pejorative word—”stagnant”— by noting simply that all excursions are relative and carry with them their own inherent limitations: life remains life wherever one idealizes and experiences it, even in transit or within the space of a few square miles. Moreover, I would assert the other characterizations primarily arrive from the observations of those who either suffered tragically in their agricultural upbringings or who failed, sometimes willfully, to discern the value of a farm’s many underlying nuances.
One simple fact is that the labor farm life demands of an individual usually is to the purpose of the betterment of the self, literal and artistic. “Work is the law,” wrote the painter da Vinci. “Like iron that lying idle degenerates into a mass of useless rust, like water that is an unruffled pool sickens into a stagnant and corrupt state, so without action the spirit of men turns to a dead thing, loses its force, ceases prompting us to leave some trace of ourselves on this earth.” Work delivers people from evil, or at the least lessens the evil they would do, in most any vocation. In farming, seasonal changes, the almost imperceptible lengthening and shortening of light hours, and variable weather make its undertaking a constant and rigorous exercise in observation, planning, and critical thinking. There is always something different to do, and it may demand to be done very quickly—as during harvest—or at a more leisurely rate (the mending of fences in winter comes to mind).
It was the slow, reflective periods of agricultural life which afforded humans the leisure to develop the arts for hundreds of years until widespread mechanization changed that process in the early twentieth century. Yet everything—the most fundamental and essential qualities of existence (all the elements of art)—may still be found on a farm: strife, peace, love, nature in most all its aspects, ideals, boredom, disgust, inspiration. And they are all diminished or intensified and combined to the degree one wishes or allows. It would be crude (and erroneous) to say these are predominantly surface phenomena. They appear so only until one comes to understand, with time and repetition of experience, their deeper implications. I have found that when possessed of free time, farmers seldom waste it. We may snooze in a rocker or take in the last ten laps of a stock car race, but, to my knowledge, we are least among the professionals when it comes to candidates for sustained outright sloth. We may on occasion appear set in our ways and unwilling to change. I believe this to be a byproduct of our strength, though it is possible for us to waiver and neglect many things for a time—even forget to be ourselves. But that has never much troubled me. At least never for very long. I know such men and am one of them.
When I am away too long I miss the qualities of the farm that abide in memory: the crows of the roosters and, yes, even the caws of crows; the gentle roll of the fields; the feel of a heavy maul or lightweight hoe in my hands; the odor of mown hay. In essence, I miss what is pleasing and beautiful about a farm; I pine for what Walt Whitman called “the secluded-beautiful, with young and old trees, and such recesses and vistas!”
There was a time a few years ago when I thought I would be leaving my farm and living in a city, and I actually attempted to do so for a matter of days, securing an apartment in a sprawling early 1900s building which sat alongside a crowded, narrow sloping street. I found myself existing in a dreamlike state whenever I was there, combined with a dreamlike sense of insecurity. When I laid down to try and rest I felt both lost in bliss and ready for any catastrophe. After a time I could feel the greatness of spaces I had known while taking my rest on the farm had disappeared, replaced by labyrinthine darkened walls and other lives pressed close all about me. I found I could not sleep alone in such an environment and would drive out of the city with my camping gear to one of the spots I knew in the national forest. There I would rest in contentment until the morning sun struck my eyelids, turning them red. In truth, I spent not a single full night in the city and when I returned to my farm it was with a powerful sense of relief.
Why was this? For one thing, I know for a fact there is an unbroken line of farmer men on my father’s side of the family stretching back to the Bavarian region of the Middle Ages and, I suspect, far beyond. May one simply break that line suddenly? For me, the answer appears to be no. And yet I can hardly remember my feelings toward the farm of my youth other than the vague sensation that somehow I belonged there—that it was where I was supposed to be. Perhaps most all children feel that way about the places they are reared. My memory of my childhood farm still wrestles with itself as if it were an angel or something else fantastic—the clear lights and ugly shadows of those unforgotten days wrapping about themselves in tumult. I do know that with regard to the continuum of agriculture in my life, its earliest recollections have such a peculiar quality that they have become merged into a single sensation of profound emotion containing both careless joy and an invincible sadness. It is this feeling which continues to form me and casts a shadow over the rest of my life, including all I write.
In 1953, the Appalachian writer and farmer Byron Herbert Reece remarked to a reporter that his novel writing had been interrupted by the need to plow his potatoes.
The reporter noted, “Anybody can plow potatoes,” and urged him to get back to his book.
More than a half-century ago, the reporter’s statement was perhaps true, but I would wager in the second decade of the 21st century more people can write novels than plow potatoes.
Indeed, we have lost many of our agricultural ways—even the simplest of them. To know they are something of a rarity is evinced by the fact that when I take my tractor less than a mile up the highway to the gas station I am waved at by numerous anonymous people in passing cars. The children in particular gesture and point in the same manner they might gesticulate at Indians or buffalo: because of the rarity of the spectacle—something they’d heard of and never expected to encounter on account of the phenomena’s fame for near-extinction.
In truth, there are more of us than one might think, though we often pass in disguise. Most all people who farm nowadays, self included, are industrial farmers in the context of Henry Ford’s vision: that is, out of economic necessity we work part of the time on the farm and part off. Like writers, farmers are not capable even of subsistence; our farm profits would not be sufficient to pay our property taxes and expenses without the income from our jobs.
Why, then, do we keep on doing it?
Here I should say something of my other vocation, which is responsible for the thing you find yourself perusing, and its relationship to farming. When it comes to farming most authors I know who write on the need for agricultural responsibility wouldn’t know which end of a horse to feed sugar to. They mean well, but I know for a fact the reality of day-to-day living would not agree with them. For one thing, it would quite simply kick their asses. Unless possessed of exceptional constitutions, at the end of a farm day they would be too spent to write, or do much of anything else for that matter. This was a fact the literary southern agrarians of the 1930s quickly discovered while trying to translate their principles into action, Allen Tate’s lazy incompetence at Ben Folly serving perhaps as the best example. A couple of them backed up their pens with pitchforks capably enough—Andrew Lytle, Madison Jones—but for the most part folks writing about agrarianism maintained a safe distance from actually practicing it. There is good sense in this since farming can actually kill you, as it did Byron Herbert Reece, who suffered and perished before his time.
The most famous of us, Wendell Berry, has remarked the only real time his farm chores allow him to write is winter. I generally agree with this assertion, though to an extent that season, too, is interrupted by my teaching duties. Yet it does afford more time than the others because one is not cultivating earth, planting, gathering wood, tending bees, and performing other tasks the remaining three seasons demand. Regardless, it is important to plan both one’s farming and writing endeavors with a minimum expenditure of time in mind. Though I occasionally experience impatience with a perceived slowness in others, I count it a great advantage to possess as one of my few gifts a penchant for efficient, streamlined thought.
As I have been seeking to establish, farming and writing are more alike than one might think. They are concerned with the essences of things. It has been remarked neither one’s fellows, nor one’s god(s), nor one’s passions will leave one alone, yet the work of farming and writing constitute realms in which one may find meaning and good during one’s fleeting significance in life. Writing affords the writer the privilege of relating all the manifestations of existence, great and little, superficial and profound. The successful writer independently creates through imaginative effort and against all difficulty of expression. And in order to achieve the best creation the writer must sacrifice something—give up some essential shred of the self forever. Writing, then, like farming, is at once painful and taxing and rewarding—only in different ways.
And so we reach the time of harvest for this brief essay. With some reservations, there are a few particluars I feel tentatively certain about. For one thing, this piece has led me to a recognition of the relationship between my occupations of writing and farming—that, in many ways, the latter anchors the former. Farming provides diversion, protection, consolation, the mental relief that comes from grappling with material problems, the wisdom of dealing with other forms of life in all their cycles, and the feeling of well-being that accompanies “riding”—note I refrain from using the word “harnessing”—the elemental powers of nature to a respectable harvest. Nature’s power often is hidden, sometimes overcome, though never extinguished. So powerful is its hold on me that I can not give it and its cultivation up. I know because I have tried.
Invariably, farmers and writers answer that call to do our work which comes from within us—which is a way of coming from nature—and has made us who and what we are. We make our farms and writings even as we are made by them. Noticed or unnoticed, ignored or commended, we meet, as best we can, the demands of our special and specialized work and lives. Somewhere within the sincere endeavor to accomplish, to go as far as strength will carry us, to continue undeterred by reproach lies that integrity which is ours. And if we deign to add to that integrity charity toward our fellow writers and farmers, especially those not so fortunate nor so far along as ourselves, then we approach an even greater good, and one in which there can exist no measure of excess.
Only in our imagination and in nature does every truth of existence find its existence. Imagination and nature, I believe, are the supreme masters of life. The tending of fields, like the rendering of memories, is as much a rendering of fields as a tending of memories. My first great adventures—at least those that were so to my mind—occurred on farms and so, I suspect, will my last. The localities of those early places had definite importance. Yet in the recounting of such a life a certain amount of naïveté, sentimentality, and even flat out error is unavoidable. I remain unapologetic for them as they are natural and probably impossible to overcome. And this fact is as true in farming as it is in writing. Indeed, I have witnessed the wisest and most venerable of farmers and writers betrayed by the hardest of their earned knowledge as they struggled to practice some new task. Some observers, such as myself, are supportive under these circumstances—even admiring of the courage necessary to risk failure in attempting something genuinely new—while others will exhibit only scorn at a person stumbling while seeking to break out of their established mold and identity. Which kind of reader are you?
If I could identify the attitude in which I approach writing and farming, and the writing of farming, I would articulate it as the spirit of love. It is a love that springs forth from the fragility of the human species; that—as was not the case three quarters of a century ago—the species possesses the means to destroy itself. What a weak, fragile thing it has transformed itself into—not unlike some delicate, endangered heirloom variety of vegetable. I think we have an obligation to care for it as best we can.
Though much of this essay has been concerned with farming as investigated through the medium of writing, I refrain from laying serious claim to the titles “writer” and “farmer” myself. After all, can one truly know the nature of even one aspect of life? How can we when we don’t know even our own thoughts? One may love writing and farming without that fact making one a legitimate participant in those vocations. True, I have loved them and practiced them for decades, but it is not for me to gauge the measure of my failures or successes. Nevertheless, right or no, I have found myself bold enough here to speak of them with a certain measure of authority.
I like to think that when I grow too old to be trusted with a pen or set of tractor keys, I shall lay down my books, quit my fields, and contemplate a place to be buried or, in the old northern European tradition, burned atop a pyre. Perhaps I shall have my books and tractor burned with me, which no doubt would make for an entertaining spectacle among the mourners as well as a source of much gossip in my little rural county. Why not? Who says one cannot both fade away and burn out?
We have all noted how things have changed—the sky, the atmosphere, the light of judgment which falls on the labors of all of us, renowned or obscure. No one succeeds in everything they do, and in that sense we are all failures. Yet there are farmers and writers still planning, planting, gathering, even now—reaping the honest harvest of a duty faithfully if imperfectly performed.
After obtaining degrees in creative writing and English literature, Jill Bellrose sailed to Southern California, where she spent several years writing for a top-25 daily newspaper. Now back in her beloved Portland, Oregon, when she’s not working on her first novel, Jill creates content for numerous advertising agencies and commercial websites, and regularly writes nonfiction pieces for a popular series of humor books.
Casey Clabough is the author of the novel Confederado, the travel memoir The Warrior’s Path: Reflections Along an Ancient Route, and five scholarly books on southern writers, including Inhabiting Contemporary Southern & Appalachian Literature: Region & Place in the 21st Century. Clabough serves as editor of the literature section of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities’ Encyclopedia Virginia and as general editor of the literary journal James Dickey Review. He lives on a farm in Appomattox County, Virginia and teaches at Lynchburg College.
Holly Day is a housewife and mother of two living in Minneapolis, Minnesota who teaches needlepoint classes in the Minneapolis school district. Her poetry has recently appeared inHawai’i Pacific Review, The Oxford American, and Slipstream, and she is a recent recipient of the Sam Ragan Poetry Prize from Barton College. Her book publications include Music Composition for Dummies, Guitar-All-in-One for Dummies, and Music Theory for Dummies, which has recently been translated into French, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, and Portuguese.
Robert Demaree, a retired educator, is the author of four collections of poems, including Mileposts (2009), published by Beech River Books. He has had over 550 poems published in 125 periodicals, including The Aurorean, Avocet, Cold Mountain Review, Foliate Oak, Louisiana Review, Louisville Review, MediaVirus, miller’s pond, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Tipton Poetry Journal and in the 2008 and 2010 editions of The Poets’ Guide to New Hampshire. He lives in Wolfeboro, N.H. and Burlington, N.C.
Melanie Faith’s photos, essays, poems, and flash fiction have been published most recently at Vermillion Literary Project, Linden Avenue, The New Writer, Foliate Oak, and Origami Poems Project. She holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, NC. and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her poetry chapbook, To Waken is to Begin, was published by Aldrich Press (September 2012). She is a writing tutor at a college prep. high school, an online writing instructor, and a freelance editor.
Jnana Hodson celebrates observing whales and seals. He blogs at Jnana’s Red Barn (jnanahodson.net).
Refer to the poem entitled “CONTRIBUTOR” above to read Mark Jackley’s biography.
Ivan Jenson’s Absolut Jenson painting was featured in Art News, Art in America, and Interview magazine. His art has sold at Christie’s, New York. His poems have appeared in Word Riot, Zygote in my Coffee, Camroc Press Review, Haggard and Halo, Poetry Super Highway, Mad Swirl, Underground Voices Magazine, Blazevox, and many other magazines, online and in print. Jenson is also a Contributing Editor for Commonlinemagazine. Ivan Jenson’s debut novel Dead Artist is available as a paperback and on Amazon Kindle and Nook. His new novel, a psychological thriller entitled Seeing Soriah, is now available as an eBook or in Paperback on Amazon.
Kandi Maxwell is a high school English teacher and a writing teacher consultant for the California Writing Project. She has instructed writing workshops forMemoir Journal’s (In)Visible Project. She has also published essays on Indian Education for Teachersvoice and California English.
BZ Niditch has published in North American Review, Pacific Review, Atlanta
Review, Minnesota Review, Cincinnati Review, Folio, Nebo, Prairie Schooner,
the Aurorean, The Cafe Review, Poet Lore, Hawaii Review, Apalachee Review,
Skidrow Penthouse, Grasslimb, Spillway, Prism International, and Owen Wister
Review. BZ is the author of 40 poetry collections, including CAPTIVE CITIES,
FUGITIVE POET, LORCA AT SEVILLA, 2011-2012. He also has several collections of fiction, plays, aphorisms and memoirs.
Dean Puretz lives in his childhood home in Van Nuys, California, with his partner of 24 years. He studied Psychological Anthropology at UC Davis and received his J.D. from Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. He has taken writing classes at UCLA, UC Irvine, Stanford and the Gotham Writers’ Workshops. This is his first published work
Allison Wolcott started out as a ballet dancer, then had a change of heart, earning an MFA in Fiction Writing at the University of Arkansas, where she was a Walton Fellow. Her short fiction has appeared in SHENANDOAH, THE BELOIT FICTION JOURNAL, and THE JABBERWOCK REVIEW, among other places. Wolcott lives near Chicago and is working on a few novel manuscripts for young adults.