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Concordance of the unknown…I ~ 6, much earlier…

Sometimes, when her father was traveling and her mother and Frieda were napping on Frieda’s narrow bed and all the boys were busy with the horses or mill work, Irene would set down her towel and steal silently to her father’s bureau to peer into the narrow mirror that hung there above the basin and pitcher. In its walnut frame, the mirror had a faintly brassy cast and showed black lines in the reflective surface. It was her father’s shaving glass and it was the only mirror in the house.

The face that looked back at her was wide and plain, the thin hair pulled back from her brow, fuzzy wisps curling where they escaped. She had none of her mother’s concentrated beauty — not her coffee-dark eyes or her thick, chestnut hair — and Irene knew that when her father called her “my lovely,” he was wanting of her some favor, some task, teasing her out from the crowded field of her brothers.

She had many things to occupy her hands and mind and time, but, at 16, she found herself wondering whether anyone might ever find her truly lovely. Standing before the mirror, one finger tracing the narrow contours of her lips, the darkened circles beneath her eyes, she thought perhaps not.

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fragment…

the Italian lightShe took socks from the drawer and shoes from beneath a chair. There was no closet in the room, just the bureau. Her blouses and jackets and scarves were a bazaar of color where they hung from a row of hooks behind the door. The bureau was covered with paper: books, sketchpads, journals, maps, envelopes and a blizzard of scraps scrawled with her handwriting. A few had drifted onto the floor and she turned her head to see what she had written on one, a deposit slip. Why had she brought her checkbook to Italy, she wondered? She had written a single line of dialogue on the small piece of paper:

‘Buona sera, Senor,’ she said, ‘may I take your clothes?’
She did.

scraps…

torn from a letter
A while back I wrote about my mother’s recipe box. Among its treasures was this scrap torn from a letter, preserved because of the recipe on the back for a “new desert — a whole peach peeled & the center filled with chopped dates & nuts & put to resemble pit of peach & then whole thing rolled in fresh coconut & put on a plate. Looks like a snowball! Very simple — Everyone here asks for you & sends… ious to get home to see th… which….”

What’s more intriguing to me is this side, the message incomplete but its attitude clear: “…wasting time. Enclosing a clipping might…you. Life is surely boring in a small town tho — I could never be satisfied with it.” A new desert indeed.

The handwriting may or may not be my grandmother’s — it resembles hers, her sister’s and my mother’s. There’s a hint of gossip here — the clipping about something or someone known to both the sender and the recipient, the suggested disapproval of someone’s move to a small town (the subject of the clipping? the recipient?).

I’m curious about the clipping, which did not survive, and puzzle over these scraps — these women who shared recipes and gossip, who wrote letters on paper to knit together their separate worlds. There’s privilege here: the privilege of dessert, of fresh peaches and coconut, of letters written on heavy paper, of boredom and discontent. Maybe I’ll meet them again in a story or poem.

For now, I’ll take the peaches.

overheard…

talk…in a roadside restaurant, a long time ago…

“One lie is as good as another.”

“They’re not worried about us little guys.”

“My mother said what about locking the doors and windows.”

talk“Somebody stole the [unclear].”

“He has alarm switches in every room and flips them on and off as he goes from one room to another. He doesn’t feel safe on the toilet without the alarm system on.”

“Whose crime is that?”

A Bowl of Words…fragment

“What would you do?” Laura asked Paul.
“Do? You mean if I wanted to kill myself?”
“Um-hmm.”
“I don’t know, Dr. Kevorkian, is this a multiple-choice question?”
“Yes, of course it is. But seriously, haven’t you ever thought about it? I mean not actually thinking that you would do it, but, you know, just thinking about it?”
“Yeah, I guess. But mostly when it’s in the news — Vince Foster or Kurt Cobain.” Paul was quiet for a moment, then said, “When I was a teenager I was pretty pissed off for a while and used to think that I would kill myself and really show my parents what small-minded tyrants they had been. It was always a gun — just a neat hole in the temple — and my father would barge into my room screaming at me for some petty infraction of the rules and there I’d be, on the bed, cold and dead. And he’d collapse and never be the same, and my mother would come in and cradle my lifeless body in her arms and finally have to be pried away. You know, teenage angst. It didn’t come to me in so many words, but even then I could see the difference between wanting to be dead and wanting revenge. I didn’t want to be dead; what I wanted was to put on this drama and watch it unfold and really bask in it and then jump up and say, ‘Just kidding!’ I wanted to hurt them.”
“What changed?” Laura asked.
“When I went to help my uncle rebuild after the tornado. Spent a couple of months swinging a hammer and after that I was different, and my parents seemed different too, though it’s hard to say who really changed. Took my mind off revenge, anyway…”

—–
more fragments from A Bowl of Words

A Bowl of Words…fragment

…Slowly, as Laura dressed and went downstairs, other names slipped into her awareness — Marilyn, Sylvia Plath — and then other deaths — needles and airplanes and car crashes that had preserved a famous face in perpetual youth — Janis, Jimmy Hendrix, Buddy Holly. That list was too long, she thought, and death was too big a word for one day.

“You look far away,” Paul said, finding her at the kitchen table with nothing but a cup of coffee in front of her. “What’s the word, mockingbird?”
Suicide,” she said.
“Ouch. Larry’s mom, in the bathtub, with a gun. Sounds like we’re playing Clue.”
“A gun?” she asked. “Guns aren’t typically the weapons of choice for women.”
“Yeah. I don’t know. It was a mess. Larry found her.”
“Oh,” Laura groaned. “Was she sick?”
“Yeah. No. I’m not sure. She had something. But after Larry’s brother died, she was never the same. She tried to put together some semblance of a normal life, but he was her baby and she never did come back all the way. Obviously.”
“Who else?” she asked.
“Isn’t this a fun breakfast conversation,” he said, used to the serious turn their days might take. “Would you like to ruminate on some granola?”
“Sure. Banana, no raisins.”
“Yogurt?”
“No thanks.”
“What would you do?” Laura asked Paul…

—–
more fragments from A Bowl of Words

village lane…

gelatoThe village perched atop a hill, at the end of a long, narrow cypress-lined drive that twisted upward. They parked the Vespa outside the gate and turned to look back at all of Tuscany, fields in blocks of green and sienna, hilltops fortressed with villas.

Walking hand in hand through the high arch, they entered the cobblestoned lane lined with shops. Even in this tiny village, the shop windows and open doors were lush with their rows of jars and bottles, prosciutto, cheese, ceramics, jewelry and multi-hued mounds of gelato. Except at noon, when the high sun beat directly down, the small street was in shade, cool on the hottest days. The shutters on the upper floors were thrown open to catch the angled light, here and there a shirt, blinding white, hung to dry on the rail of a slender balcony. The cobblestones were scrubbed and glossy with centuries of wear.

An ancient woman dressed in black, her cane in one hand, her small string bag of groceries in the other, stopped at a closed door, shifted her parcel, opened the door and disappeared inside, the door shutting silently behind her, the air erasing the memory of where she had stood just a moment ago.

The sun pooled at the end of the street, where the buildings opened out into the piazza and they strolled toward the promise of its warmth.
—–
gelato

fragments…Lark, 2

Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten. Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten. Lark did not try to remember her mother. She did not reminisce. Her past was a phantom. There existed only the scrolling loop of the present — her pale hands, her broad feet in the brown scuffs, the green dress she put on each morning.

The food mounded on the Melmac plate incited no yearning. The setting sun through the wired glass was not a metaphor.

Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten. There were sometimes names: her own, Ginger, Elton. These she sang in her perfect alto to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, the syllables fitting neat and senseless into the nursery rhyme melody.

There was also the singing bird, its song raising goose bumps on her arms as it warbled up through the bird’s yellow throat. Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten. It had not always been like this.
—–
Western Meadowlark photo by Alan D. Wilson, Nature’s Pics Online

the beckoning…

whistleEach evening, sometime between 4:30 and 5, the beckoning would start. Usually it was Mrs. Jennewick, who would take three steps out to the carport and call, “Carrr-leee.” Two notes, low-high — a hog call — and you never heard the first syllable unless you were within a few feet of Mrs. J’s aproned torso.

Larry’s mom wore a silver whistle on a piece of string around her neck and would give it a long blast from wherever she happened to be — the kitchen, the backyard, the garage. Larry’s aunt claimed that she was hard of hearing because of the time that Larry’s mom blew the whistle when they were talking on the phone.

My mother had a single call-to-attention that she used for all purposes — getting us to come to wherever she was in the house, saying hello to a neighbor who was walking by, or retrieving me from the neighing bliss of galloping down the street on my invisible horse. Her strident, high-low “hoo-hoo” was an irresistible lure to teasers and mimics. There were kids at school who didn’t know my name, but called me Hoo-Hoo, and one time, for reasons I don’t recall, a teacher came up to me in the hall and said, “You’re Hoo-Hoo, aren’t you?”

I never had any special affection for Carly, but she came in for the same teasing and we were allied in our humiliation — a call and response of “Carrr-leee” and “Hoo-Hoo” threading back and forth across the center aisle of the lumbering yellow school bus.
—–
whistle

fragments…Howard ~ 9

Before he became a middle school teacher, Howard had for a while been a lab assistant for Dr. Carting. Mouse Boy, his friends had called him. Four rows, ten cages per row, one mouse per cage. He had liked the mice, their twitching pink noses and bright whiskers, but the work became tiresome and he suspected he carried around a faint aroma of mouse. So when Dr. Carting said her boyfriend needed a clerk to help him finish his book on the anthropology of circumpolar peoples, Howard took the job.

He proof-read the index and checked the spelling of the unpronounceable names, making innumerable trips to the copier and the library. He studied the soapstone carvings that sat on the shelf above Dr. Alexdrovich’s desk, comparing the information on the tiny labels on their bases to the captions under the photographs in the book. It was tedious, but at least no one called him Mouse Boy, and when the book was published, Howard’s name appeared in the acknowledgments.

After his stint with Dr. A., he went back to school to get his teaching credential. He thought he’d probably teach high school, but soon realized that middle school was where he belonged. He thought of Mr. Turner, who had been such a powerful influence on him when he was in junior high. Don Turner had helped Howard see round his pudginess and glasses to the boy who could wrestle and understand trigonometry. He had urged him to read Shakespeare and Vonnegut, Kesey and Harper Lee. He had guided him through the terrible letter of condolence to Portland’s parents. Mr. Turner had been something solid and parent-like when his own parents seemed not to notice Howard, seemed preoccupied with the twins.

Even now Howard could feel the agony of being 13. Sometimes when he looked at himself in the mirror in the morning, he was surprised to see the face of a grown man looking back at him…

the voice of the house…

jik ~ cut color and scotch tapeTook a poetry workshop* yesterday and what emerged was less poetry and more a random gush of words about place. Here, bits of several lightly connected, timed writings in the voice of a house:

…Before I settled here, before the graves were dug at my feet, before the eucalyptus trees were planted in that stark row, before all that, mine was a simple hill rising from the desiccated river bottom that seldom saw water, a few scrubby sage and manzanita shrubs clinging to my slope. But of course eventually the soldiers arrived with their guns and their shovels and their coffins. And they sprawled the dead around my feet and sliced roads between the corpses and blew into their trumpets the mournful blasts of memory.

…But of course eventually as they tell it the crocodiles came lumbering through the river beds looking for water, gulping round stones, eating the skinny coyotes that prowled the banks. That changed everything, you know. What was supposed to be a house became a swamp and that’s where I grew up, among the caimans and ocelots, behind the orange slough and its cabbage moths.

The place was sunburned and starched, empty on Wednesdays and crowded with arrowheads as the Chumash markets spread. The round scars of campfires pocked the basins and hillsides, charred sticks littered the river bed. Bones and bowls populated the branches as if to escape the predatory crocodiles. But we kept coming back here, kept calling the place home, kept building roads and burying our dead and hammering together houses.

The mystery outside the door was always the sound of sunset, which rang in peals against the blacktop and above the roofs and treetops. It was impossible to record the sound. We tried again and again. We recited it to one another as if we might remember it then. But like our dreams, it was lost…
—–
*Special thanks to the Sue Boynton Poetry Contest and Sheila Nickerson

A Bowl of Words…fragment

“Laura?”
“Mom?”
“What ever happened to Brian?”
“Richie’s friend Brian?”
“Yes.”
“Oh Mom, you must remember. Remember he used to race sailboats? In the summers, during college, he sort of hitchhiked around the world, crewing on sailing yachts. Then in the summer of his junior year, Brian and a friend and the friend’s sister were sailing off of Hawaii and the boat just vanished. Remember?”
“Oh, yes, now it’s sort of coming back.”
“After the search was called off, his parents wouldn’t give up. They took a second mortgage on their house and kept looking. They continued to believe the boat was blown up in some kind of weapons test. They tried to get satellite photos, but the feds weren’t very helpful. Brian was such a great sailor and a really strong swimmer, and there was no weather of any consequence the day they disappeared. It was very suspicious, but ultimately, it’s been what, 20-some years now, and Brian and his friends and the boat are still gone without a trace.”
“Those poor parents.”
“You and Dad weren’t really friends with them, were you? How come? Richie and Brian were such good friends.”
“I don’t really remember. There was something between Mason and Brian’s father, I think. Some male line-in-the-sand kind of thing. Maybe your dad will remember.”
“Didn’t I hear that Brian’s father died a year or two ago?”
“Maybe. I don’t know, honey.”
“I know Rich said Brian’s parents wouldn’t both leave the house at the same time for about ten years, in case someone called with news, or Brian walked through the door one day.”
“God. What an awful story.”

Concordance of the unknown…I ~ 5

I cardLater, when she tried to recall the journey, she remembered nothing of the miles covered that first day. She could still see the neighbors waving, her sight blurred by tears, and the baby bundled in her lap. But the long hours of riding, the meals unwrapped from the basket and eaten at the roadside, the children running and napping and crying — all that was lost.

How hard it had been that first night, asking shelter from strangers. The cart had drawn up in front of the small, rough-hewn stone house sheltered below the branches of an ancient cedar. The rabbi’s house. Berti had told her the name, described the house and the tree.

How often she had opened her own door to the timid knock of a passing traveler, made welcome the men and the families who knew there would be warm food, a clean bed. But now, to stand at this solid wood door with its iron hinges, the baby in her arms, the two children clinging to her skirt, she felt she had suddenly inhabited someone else’s life, become someone unknown, a stranger to herself…

fragments…Howard ~ 8

bougainvilleaThe bougainvillea had again spilled over the railing onto the deck, a magenta skirt. Howard gazed at it as he dressed. His mother had loved the plant, which seemed the antithesis of all the snowy places she had lived. Here, under the warm sun, it grew everywhere in gnarled, woody abandon, draping its brilliant pinks and oranges across walls and fences.

Moira had loved it too. Reminded her of home, she said, and right away, as soon as they moved into the house, Howard had dug a hole in the patio planter and carefully spooned soil around the exposed roots of the young plant. For a while, it had been a modest houseguest, its heart-shaped leaves and papery flowers the perfect backdrop for snapshots. But at some point, when Howard was turned away, it had bloated and surged, taking over everything in its path.

Then — now, soon, he could see — Howard would battle the bougainvillea with clippers and leather gloves. The delicate flowers and tender leaves gave no hint of the inch-long thorns secreted within the fluffy greenery. As he attempted to subdue the plant, pruning it back to a more reasonable size, he swore and bled, Moira standing in the patio wringing her hands.

Now Moira was gone and so was his mother, but the bougainvillea clung to the wall, insistent as a memory…
—–
bougainvillea photo

fragments…Roland ~ 2

old newspaperUntil we invoked a closed-door policy on his office, Roland’s desk and shelves and hunched figure were on full view, a collision of neatness and chaos. Every surface was covered with piles of paper, the piles squared and tidy, like with like.

Newspapers towered in stacks along the credenza (those on the floor having been removed when the nighttime cleaning service threatened to quit). Dozens of yellow pads sat in two piles, used and unused, and lined sheets that had escaped their pads made up yet another. Manila folders, filled with papers and borrowed from the department’s master files, claimed one corner of his desk, where the pile rose ever higher, nearly obscuring Rolly from view.

While-You-Were-Out phone message slips, Post-it notes (new and used) and business cards had their own stacks, and then there was the sad but neatly stacked collections of folded paper bags and slightly-used paper napkins Rolly saved from the meals he ate at his desk, in spite of the company’s no-food-at-your-desk policy.

In between the stacks, aligned neatly as timber, were pencils, toothpicks and, for some reason, unused drinking straws still in their paper wrappers.

When the situation became intolerable, Rolly was ordered by his friend the boss to clear out the mess. But he was incapable of parting with his paper, so we sent him away and descended on the office with trash bags and recycling bins. Hoping to find room to put away the few things worth saving, but expecting more crammed paper, we opened the credenza, file cabinets and desk drawers. They were utterly empty.
—–
newspaper image by ShironekoEuro

fragments…Roland

yellow padRoland was a good man. Heart of gold, we’d say, making excuses for him. He was personable, kind, handsome in his own way. He’d show up at the office scrubbed and slicked, tie knotted tight, two hours late, ready to go. He greeted the day with fresh enthusiasm, as if this would be the lap through the maze that would get him to the prize.

In the accident of employment, with the well-meaning help of people he’d known since high school, Rolly had followed a greased path to the wrong work. He should have been a football coach, a mail carrier, a cop. Instead, he sat at a desk and wrote press releases, each word a labor.

He wrote on yellow legal pads, in pencil, the paper furrowed and ridged with the pressure of the lead. Within an hour, he’d be sagging, his tie loosened, his shirt no longer neat, his face already looking like he had forgotten to shave.

His were the simplest stories: a promotion, a new employee, a remodeled office. The text was rote, first sentence and last nearly identical in every release. He only had to write two or three lines for the middle, no fancy words, no research. But it would take him all day, writing the lines over and over on his yellow pad until they were perfect.

Once a week, he’d fire up the computer and type the story. Leaning in, he’d peer at the monitor over his half-glasses, then look down at the keyboard, to find the next letter, inventing the alphabet.

We put up with him, but the boss loved him. Kept him around like a mascot, a wounded older brother. Used him as a chauffeur, a part-time friend, a human shield for a shy man in a too-public position…

fragments…Lance

stepsLance coughed. His ribs ached. His chest held the certainty that one good cough would dislodge the congestion and all would be well. But it clung to his lungs as he barked and hacked, his face red. He had no patience, no time, for illness.

Even now, in his 70s, he saw himself as the young tennis champion, the star quarterback. How he had run! Down the canyon, along the curving highway to the beach, crossing the wide expanse of raked sand to the wet-packed shore, then the mindless miles, the nimble sprints.

He could still feel the heat in his quads as he had stormed the steps each morning, lapping other runners on the way up and again, later, on the way down.

How many hundreds, thousands, of miles had he clocked, swimming just outside the break between the jetty and the pier? His arms still held the ocean’s sluicing coolness, his eyes still watched the way the sun colored the sand and palms each time he turned his head to take a breath.

That young man was alive inside him, fast, invincible. But now it was all about the breath. The steps, the ocean, the running, now something remembered, something burned away by the vodka, the cigarettes. Something he had taken for granted as he became the champion of boardrooms, traded the tennis courts for law courts, kept score with dollars, houses, wives.

Lance coughed again…
—–
Santa Monica Pier steps by Angel Aguilar

conversation…

‘What do you want from me?’ he asked, curious.

A juicy little movie of possibilities projected onto the screen of her mind. ‘Mostly, I guess, now and then, I’d like you to just stand here and hug me like mad. Wrap me round and pull me close and make the years and the distance disappear. I want us to keep telling stories. I’d like you not to vanish for months at a time. I’d like you to stay alive forever. These aren’t unreasonable requests, are they?’ she asked.

‘My dear,’ he said, ‘you are the quintessence of reason,’ promising nothing.

the bench…

The pair of cypresses stood watch from the brow of the hill. Behind them, the stone cottage; before them, the long sweep of the fields, silvery olive trees, billowing oaks; between them, this bench: a large half-round of scarred and time-polished oak set on rough-hewn granite uprights.

The bench held so much of the history of the place, the foot track passing nearby, the ancient roadway just beyond. One could almost watch it like a film: travelers resting as they chewed their bread and cheese; couples leaning shoulder to shoulder; a girl, crying, her hand cupping the weightless body of a nearly-fledged sparrow; a man, writing, a sheaf of papers tucked beneath his thigh; soldiers, surprised to discover this silent vista in the midst of war.

The bench held all their secrets, the memory of their visits, the stories and feelings they spilled into the wide valley. It held the sunsets, the wine, the gouged initials. It held the storms and lies and sorrows.

That morning, as he walked toward it with the first warmth of the rising summer sun on his shoulders, the bench seemed to sit at the very cusp of his life’s possibility…

command post…

bouquet…Moving into the new corporate suite seemed to mark a transition in Beverly’s character. She promoted herself to an elevated level of command. Her desk, which sat guard before a broad bank of locked files and cabinets, was surrounded by a moat of counter just outside of Hal’s elegant office with its birds-eye maple woodwork, in-suite bathroom (with shower) and crystal-stocked bar.

The office now echoed with alternate rounds of bickering and whispered collaboration between the two executive secretaries. The design of the space put all of the power in Beverly’s lap. Then again, there were three executives and only two assistants — something not perceived as a problem by the executives, but bitterly contested by Beverly and Tracy, who wanted to ‘belong’ to one man (of course the execs were men) exclusively.

The self-appointed arbiter of taste, etiquette and office politics, Beverly bossed everyone, including Tracy, and Tracy, who didn’t come naturally to the role, passed it along with a stiff-jawed meanness that was deeply resented among those who had previously counted her as a friend.

Beverly’s desk was always ornamented with a spectacular arrangement of fresh flowers created each week by the same Hollywood floral-designer-to-the-stars. This was far more than a splash of color; these were enormous, extravagant displays of excess: three dozen peonies in the middle of winter, exotic tropicals picked from the jungle the previous afternoon, and roses of hues, size, fragrance and number no one had ever imagined.

On special occasions, an additional arrangement, or two, would appear on her desk, always accompanied by an enclosure card that Beverly refused to share. Sometimes she managed a demure blush when questioned; often the occasion, like the sender, remained a secret. More than once, the flowers got out of hand, bouquets and plants and huge vases of lavish abundance lined so densely along her counter that Beverly disappeared behind them, the office resembling — and smelling like — a funeral parlor…
—–
flower photo by Carol Gillott

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