Chairs in the tiny waiting room are too close and our knees might brush if someone else entered and sat down. There are slush stacks of grimy magazines. Try not to touch anything. The fan vent, or perhaps it’s the whir of various diagnostic machines, cycles a whine that repeats it sounds like a bear.
A colorized black-and-white film with a smear of pink lipstick.
The tires slap on the highway tunneling through dark fir phalanx in every direction and passing semis spray the glass before the wipers salute and return. A man in a cave, or possibly not a man. A bear. A gnome with a red beard fathered by a bear.
Queen of Diamonds crossed by the Two of Hearts.
Off the highway pull into a truck stop furiously lit with humming florescent floodlights. Green skin in the mirror scaly as a slyth and liquid silver eyes. I thought I’d outgrown all that.
Solitary men slouched on vinyl booth benches, backs to the wall and faces to the door, newspapers folded on the table next to mugs of coffee and plates of toast. They look up when the bell on the door jingles as it opens without raising their heads, just their eyes. Home fries, not hash browns, scrambled, not fried. Coffee, yes. Do you have cream? Plain cream, not this vanilla kind.
Ten of Spades follows behind.
No one is wearing a mask. A black and orange warning sign over the door to beware of nuclear isotopes, as though they might be dodged as easily as a flock of gulls, an exotic virus, a besotted stalker. No food, no drink, no smoking, no lipstick.
One hundred years ago my grandmother was a child when the Spanish Flu finally reached Nez Perce, Idaho.
The Great War ended. Uncle Non returned with a limp and a spray of shrapnel lodged in his back, shards sometimes found in the bottom of the wash tub, spit out by the wringer. Grandma called him Non, although his given name was Tom–she gave pet names to anyone she loved.
Grandma gave me Non’s moon lamp, the Art Nouveau style I admired, still fitted with the original frayed cord that sends moonlight rippling over the water when lit. Heat from the bulb turns the cylinder balanced over it to project behind painted glass. The iron base is sculpted with a gondolier and his passengers, The Lovers. It’s ingenious.
The family was as poor as all the other families in Lewis County, farm scratching in the panhandle, mending and re-mending brace and harness, hoping for rain but not too much. They lived in a small wooden house at the edge of town, a young father and mother with three children not yet of school age before the influenza epidemic arrived, a pale horse, pale rider.
The family was struck, along with many others, with the fever. Cows went unmilked, horses were set out to forage along the dirt roads of the town before a farmer became too weak to tend them. Alone in the silent mottled shafts of sunlight falling through cracks in the siding, my grandmother, Angela, did not succumb. She drug a chair to stand on from the kitchen table over to the crank telephone on the wall to call for help. Her own mother lie upstairs dying.
“How do you know this?”
She asks me twice after I read my response to the exercise to the group, then further: “How could you know this?”
I am in a workshop exploring the intersections of poetry and essay, the lyric weighting of nonfiction narrative. I’m taken off-guard by the unexpected question as response.
“My grandmother told me,” I shrug, as if it must be obvious. Yet, apparently, she doesn’t believe me.
“How is that possible?”
I didn’t understand the question. I spent my childhood in my grandmother’s company. I assumed other grandmothers told stories, shared memories, showed one how to take a cutting from a rose to grow a new plant. I shrug again and repeat my answer.
My grandmother is the only person who ever really slapped me, if I discount the offended young Spaniard in Salamanca whose blow I dodged. Grandma was trying to work a brush through thick tangles in my hair before we drove to town, hair just like her own, and I resisted each tug. I earned it.
The first time I landed, I crossed by water. We sailed at night out from the boot of Italy, running east in rain and wind, across the Ionian Sea. Our ferry tickets were deck-class and what scarce shelter the deck afforded was claimed. I pitched my free-standing tent. We wrestled our backpacks inside to weight the tent against the ship. All night the nylon flustered and bucked against the wind. My sister and I tossed in the dark on the groaning deck fearing we would kite overboard in the gale. A clear dawn broke through the cypress trees of Corfu. I slept finally, dreaming the throbbing ship engines were the heartbeat of a great beast beneath me, cradling me over the waves.
There are not enough words for purple. Most are artifice. Along that inside passage, the purples of sea and land waxed dark at noon entering the Bay of Patras. Great stone breasts of islands lit by the rising sun on the water to port, shapes shaded aubergine and heliotrope diminishing to violet. The diesel exhaust of the ferry smokestacks swept aft with the wind, yet the lingering blow back was rich as earth–earth and the wine-dark sea. Is there power in naming a true name?
Andrew, a fisherman, the Apostle First-Called, was martyred in Patras. The Saint’s Orthodox Cathedral is the largest in Greece. With its high dome ornamented with gilded icons and frescoes, its filigreed windows, it houses precious holy relics. These relics include Andrew’s little finger.
The marble step before the relic shrine is worn by years of pilgrims kneeling to venerate the saint’s finger. We descended into the darkness of the original stone church and filled our water bottles from the holy spring, called Andrew’s, though once it belonged to Demeter. We left the church, the cloud of incense, and climbed the hills covered in new chamomile and wild thyme to lounge among the stones of the Castro.
Europa was a Phoenician princess. She was enchanted by a great white bull, a gentle beast crowned with wreaths of flowers and wild herbs. The bull bent a knee to the princess and she climbed on his back, the lustrous white hide glistening as only a god shines. With the beautiful maiden on his back, the bull charged down to the sea and dove into the waves.
The bull swam away from Tyre, in what is now Lebanon, to the island of Crete. The bull-god Zeus ravished the Phoenician princess and she gave birth to King Minos and his sea empire in Crete. The Greek word phoínio, from whence Phoenician derives, means purple. Tyrians extracted the royal purple dye from local species of sea snails and traded the precious pigment throughout the Mediterranean. That the lovely princess Europa gave her name to the continent is curious: Crete is closer to North Africa than Athens. There are often puzzles in the naming of things, as well as artifice.
As a younger son of the family, with no land to inherit and work, my grandfather walked to Athens and took fourth-class passage for America where gold lay in the streets waiting to be plucked–or shiny foil cigar bands mistaken for gold. He passed through Ellis Island in the early century, a short sinewy man in a jostling crowd of immigrants, all with the very same dreams of gold.
Like other immigrants with difficult names, his own was anglicized by the weary clerk at the processing counter. My grandfather’s given name was reinvented as Augers. An “auger” is a tool for drilling holes, or more arcanely a portent of fate and fortune. Here, perhaps, a new puzzle and artifice concealed in the rechristening.
Once in the city, he darted through the dirty streets gathering gold-foiled cigar bands. He worked. He traveled west. He married. He shot his thieving business partner and hid his family in a cave in the desert. Late one night, the family boarded a train traveling further west and north. “Our family is named for the winter star,” he told my mother, holding her up to the window to point out the bright red star in the head of the Bull, a shared breath fogging the glass as they gaze out into the darkness. They came as far west as there was country to cross to the shores of the Pacific.
Zeus set the great white bull into the winter night sky as the constellation Taurus. The blazing red eye of the bull, high in the flying wedge of stars between Orion and the Pleiades, is named Aldebaran. It is an Arabic word meaning “the Follower.” To the ancient Persians, it was one of the four royal stars: the Watcher in the East.
In November I gather up cereal and nuts, corn oil, Lea & Perrins, check the cupboard for garlic salt from last year. I find Mom’s recipe in the back of my battered Betty Crocker cookbook. I know the game now, but pull it out anyway and smooth it on the counter. I look over the instructions, typed in Courier on an IBM Selectric, for the oven temperature and Mom’s note that she used more cereal, more nuts, more of everything.
It’s an all-day roasting affair in a low oven with frequent gentle stirring working through two batches. I stick to tradition, never adding cheese crackers or mini shredded wheat, just the Chex and the Cheerios, five jars of mixed nuts without peanuts, stick pretzels. It’s been 20 years since Mom died in another November. Before Thanksgiving she always made gallons and yards and acres of this Scramble to give away in jars and tins saved throughout the year. I ship off a jar to Auntie in Davis, priority mail.
We should be driving across the state, through snow and ice, just across the Snake River, for Thanksgiving. My lumbar still feels the pull and ache.
Yesterday before sunrise I walked out in the dark in falling snow to check the road. I drove downtown through the muffled gray to High Street where snow turned to rain. I met the HVAC tech, Lonnie, in the parking lot for scheduled winter maintenance on the old building; it was built in 1909 as a boarding house and now divided into offices and upstairs flats. The heat pump arrays are fenced in and locked on the alley. I have the keys.
We work our way through each lock. I check the wall I painted last weekend over the same tag, same tagger, different color, when the temperatures held high enough. I walk over to Dutch Brothers kiosk and buy a hot chocolate for Lonnie and an Americano for me. We are outside in the cold for hours, Lonnie cinching down his hood and me fumbling for keys.
After I sign the work order, before Lonnie leaves, I hand him a bag of the Scramble. He asks if it’s trail mix and I shake my head and smile. Oh, he says, it’s that stuff, because does it really have a name we all agree upon? It’s a relic from mid-century America. He opens the bag and takes a handful to shake into his mouth, wipes salt from his whiskers when I wish him Happy Thanksgiving and hugs me.
The dog worried at a fork in the trail and turned to question, a branching we usually avoid that leads to a rise undercut by the current, a path obscured by a fallen tree. Mercy jumped the log. I followed her up the trail to the outcropping over the water.
Two branches lashed together forming a rough cross were staked in the ground, a family photograph attached below wilting wildflowers and weeds. Man, woman, boy, girl, posed in some department store studio trying to smile. I called the dog in. Two plastic boxes rested on the narrow end of the tree jutting over the river, lids ajar, white labels on each box “Organ Donor.” There was more, but I didn’t read it. I took hold of Mercy’s collar. Down below us on the river rock under shallow water, white silt sunk and unstirring, ash and bone.
We walked back along the road. My hat felt too tight. Mercy fell in step beside me instead of straining at the leash. I watched her as we walked away. For a quarter mile, more, we saw no one. Fog licked at our heels.
Lines we recite to ourselves walking and waking, stepping between borderlands, the bardo, hoping to find the necessary incantation.
“Ask for me tomorrow and you will find me a grave man.”
Beloved Mercutio, you are the true tragedy come from those stupid star-crossed lovers.
“The notes from the violin are always leaving.”
I didn’t write that line, Phil did. He said it was after a Rilke poem, so long ago I don’t remember which, how nothing evaporates, only expands into eternity.
After my wisdom teeth were removed, Phil and Tom came over with quarts of malt liquor hoping I’d share my painkillers. I didn’t want any Colt 45, but gave them each some codeine. When the beer was gone, Phil heated a stove burner to high. He rubbed two butter knives over the stove coil until they were glowing red and then pressed chunks of hash between the blades to raise plumes of blue smoke.
In the morning, after I’d thrown out the poets and gone to bed, I found the blackened knives crossed on the counter in a scattering of ashes.
“You can have talent, but if you cannot endure, if you cannot learn to work, and learn to work against your own worst tendencies and prejudices, if you cannot take the criticism of strangers, or the uncertainty, then you will not become a writer. PhD, MFA, self-taught — the only things you must have to become a writer are the stamina to continue and a wily, cagey heart in the face of extremity, failure, and success.”
I worked on the 14th floor of the bank tower in downtown Portland. As part of June’s Rose Festival celebration, upriver bridges lifted for ships to pass through to dock downtown. Crowds gathered to greet sailors at the docks, to stand in line for tours along the towering decks. No one returned to witness the cranking castoff and engine reverse at the end of the pageant, when the ships turned their steel bows back out to sea and rose petals blew black on the sidewalk. I watched from the tower window.
I rode the Burnside bus. My stop came at the foot of a pocket park between the bank tower and Mary’s Strip Club. There are upright canines plying downtown streets, the jackal-men, the wolves, coyotes, and hounds. One December morning, I stepped off the bus behind two men. One pulled a package of raw chicken from the waistband of his pants, meat stolen a dozen blocks up Burnside from the Safeway store where they boarded. As I crossed the park, one tore the plastic wrap away, crouched down and ripped at the dimpled fat with yellow teeth, vapor from their co-mingled breath wreathing as they huffed at flesh and disappeared in fog.
Sometimes I took the elevator down to the street to smoke, coat-less in the cold. I wore cobbled black pumps like retreaded tires and shivered in a faux-silk polyester blouse. When she saw me braced against the wind on the sidewalk, Audrey turned her loopy-wheeled shopping cart up 5th to ask for a cigarette. Her left eye was lazy and drifted to doze as we talked. She traveled with an old Yorkie bedded down on the black plastic bags stacked in her cart. When I gave her a cigarette, Audrey tucked it behind her ear and drew down her navy surplus cap. She didn’t smoke, she said, she needed to trade it for something to feed the dog.
I walked the pedestrian alleyways and sidewalks downtown. Coyotes crouched on flattened cardboard drumming stubble cheeks with stained fingernails. I worked my way across city blocks diagonally, crossing streets as traffic ebbed and stalled, skirting construction pits, smoke-eyed poodles with pink hair and script tattoos, wolves with red silk ties wheeling Humvees into valet parking. I moved to another city and took another job in another downtown, another one skimming the concrete fringe, searching out my own reflection in plate glass windows.
In the freezing fog of November, the camp in the oaks collapsed to a heap of canvas and nylon, a single shoe, broken glass. We walk up river, skirting crushed plastic bottles and clothing shreds the dog takes into her teeth and thrashes, if I let her. This one is a pirate seeking booty. I scout the ground as we walk, scanning for the glint of needles or orange syringe caps.
We pick our way down the bank, over black rocks, to the river. Great Blue Heron fish alone, still as snag, feathers blending with the timbre of the current. Sheltered by reeds and overhung alder, I startle a bird from her reverie beside an eddy. The heron cries out before launching aloft over the river. Chastened, I counsel the dog as we watch her flight dissolve in the mist.
The scent of water and wet dog settles over me, walking out singular, but not alone, into the open places, another vagrant, another mutt looking for home. There may be meaning in daring a place among this enigmatic array of earthly things, though it eludes me still.
I whistle for the dog and walk out, listening. These secrets are beside the river, if they are anywhere. There are fierce shy birds hidden there along the bank, birds the color of water.
Fog seeps in during the dark morning hours and licks at windows and jambs. It may dissolve by noon, or it may settle and weep for a week. Out of the valley, above, the sky is bitter blue and the sun radiant. Waiting in traffic, playing with the radio.
One or the other, not both. Choose.
At some point the building inspector comes to check the new hot water heater installed yesterday. There’s a sign stapled outside displaying the permit number. The old tank started leaking and a towel laid to soak up the rivlet needed changing twice a day, wringing out one and barricading with another, hanging the wet one out on the deck railing to drip. It’s a hybrid hot water heater with wifi, warming a tank of water via heat rummaged from the air. It looks like the robot from Lost in Space.
D. managed the replacement, as with all the structural and engineering things that go wrong in a household because he’s a wizard, moving my plastic bins packed full of salvaged wrapping paper and Christmas ornaments from the garage shelves to run the condensate line along the wall to drain outside, and then stacking them carefully back. Before the young men came to install the new heater, I took a long hot shower and combed through my hair with my fingers to shed any honey locust leaves, because civilization is held together with duct tape.
Dancers learn to spot during an extended turn, during a fouetté, a pirouette, to maintain body line and balance without becoming dizzy. A dancer focuses her eyes on a fixed point as she turns, whipping her head around ahead of the turning body to maintain equilibrium.
Pick a farther spot, one in the middle distance, and don’t let go.
Today the calender turns over to November and National Novel Writing Month, a challenge for intrepid novelists determined to write 50K words in 30 days. That works out to 1667 words per day, even on weekends, holidays, elections, and when the power goes out. To all those participating in Nanowrimo, I salute you.
I completed the challenge twice, finishing one (short) novel and getting 60k words written on the second. I signed up on October 30th for my first Nano, having only just learned about the nonprofit event that day, and secretly believed it was the quick-start kick-start I needed to launch my next brilliant career as a novelist.
Here is the summary of that first attempt:
“When vagabond musician, Lucas, is summoned to discharge his grandmother’s estate and sell her Victorian house, a battered old chest reveals an handwritten book among the antiques in the attic. The eighteenth century journal tells of an English ancestor, orphaned and shipped abroad to central Asia, as governess to the ambassador’s children. As he reads Verity Hightower’s struggles in a vastly foreign country, Lucas must confront his own desire to keep the house, pitted against his brother’s demands to sell it quickly. With each chapter of Verity’s story, Lucas embraces the lessons of necessity, family and the true meaning of “home.”
Ugh. Hybrid bodice-ripper-romance dual narrative.
Here is the summary of my second Nano novel:
“When a sheep rancher and her dog are savagely killed, suspicion falls on the neighbor’s rescue dogs. To protect her dogs from being blamed for the carnage and destroyed, seventeen year-old Sammi flees with them across the mountains to the high desert. As Sammi desperately tries to elude the state police and forensic biologist pursuing her, she crosses paths with the otherworldly beast spreading carnage, and his master. Sammi must fight for her own life, as well as the lives of her dogs, against dark immortal forces.
Better? Horror-fantasy I swear I will finish some day.
I learned a lot about myself and a lot about story. But this year, I’m struggling to keep the writing hours, rather than the word count.
“The coyotes roamed the edges of the neighborhood at dawn and dusk, big eared, serene, drawn tight as bow strings. Coyotes love to trick domestic dogs, to play with them and draw them away from their yard and out into the hills, where they then set upon them as a pack, kill and eat them.”
The heat pump register bangs, laboring to filter and deliver warm air against condensing fog, heavy morning mist. It may burn off by noon, or not at all. Sometimes we don’t see the sky for days, with rain and fog and full-spectrum gray from dove to doe. Sink down in the loam like locust backing into the earth to wait. Dread, over the left shoulder and behind, yet looming ahead.
This is not the season for the hopeful. They come in the summer, go to school, fall in love, find a job, and stay. When the light drains away and freezing fog fills the valley for days, they ask how long it will last. When a far line of sight is blocked, the only view is inward down to the bone.
I once hired a brilliant network engineer named Jonathan. He moved here from the mid-west with his girlfriend after she was accepted into a graduate program. Get the best rain gear you can afford, I advised, walk outside every day; get candles if you don’t have a fireplace, grind spices for tea and bathe in the vapor. Jonathan lasted until early December. He apologized, and I argued, but he had to leave he said, else he would hang himself.
Solace of apples, perhaps the same alchemy that extracts antivenin from venom, the honeycrisp as cure. Core and chop the fruit to simmer down to chunky sauce, spike with cinnamon and nutmeg. Heat a cup of amontillado to a near-boil and soak red flame raisins to plump. Mix a muffin batter with applesauce and raisins. Give away the batch to those who politely refused the crisp imperfect apples from the tree.
Temporary measures, taken in sequence, become strategy.