Sunset

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“I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.”

–Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Rain rips the red leaves from the dogwood and whips waves of gold down from the birch. A frost last week, though not hard and certain, was enough warning to corral the potted citrus and thorny bougainvillea inside for the season. Crushing acorns underfoot as we walk the trails, a year in the making. The crows pick the meat from the shells and the dog charges the squirrels when we return. Shed.

Houses in the old neighborhood are decorated for Halloween. It seems it’s always been this way, this casting and passing, this litter of leaves.  Dad’s ginger dog Ben and I walk down to the park. We pass lawns decked out with styrofoam tombstones, trees dangling plastic pumpkins lit by violet eyes. These are wards, I know, talismans strung on each threshold to forestall unfriendly spirits, effective even if purchased at a box store. After the cross-quarter, such magic, no longer needed, will be assigned to the trash. But the warding is sincere. Darkness gathering in the north, we walk on.

 

 

Downtown

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Yesterday I went downtown. I checked my hair for leaves and twigs and changed out of dog clothes.

Pam and I meet up at the Thai place where I order red curry, extra spicy, with eggplant and tofu. Pam still works on the 4th floor and shares her play-by-play intrigue at the office, a one-page sheet outlining goals of the next reorganization, current buzz words like “inclusive” and “creative,” a forecast of a brilliant and final restructure ensuring everlasting productivity and prosperity. Whatever. I make my predictions and give Pam her birthday present. Our server’s name is Eternity.

A quarter block from the restaurant, in an alley behind the video arcade bar, a homeless woman’s skull was crushed when a garbage truck ran over her while she slept early one morning last month. There is no city hall here. It was torn down and paved into a parking lot. New structures fill the pits that yawned so long from the demolished Woolworth and Sears buildings, empty so long that groves sprung from the cracked concrete at the bottom. It’s still the same downtown I left three years ago.

I’ve earned $560 since then, writing words of my own.


Six months ago, I resigned from a job working in a shabby cubicle with a stunning view to the east. I rarely turned around from my dual monitors to look out the window, not unless there was a rainbow or a police take-down at the transit station.  Even then, I only turned because other staff rushed in to lean against the credenza, chattering and pointing and leaving fingerprints on the glass. I spent too many years in different cubes, in hindsight all remarkably the same. I write at home now. I spend long moments lost, gazing out windows.

–Excerpt from “Vagabond,” originally published 2017 in Thoughtful Dog


 

 

Bridges

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The dog won’t cross bridges. She prefers to swim. A bridge is a different sort of crossroad. There might be trolls.

Once we hiked down the Ridgeline Trail, descending the grade to the footbridge over Amazon Creek marking the end of the spur, and Mercy refused to cross. She braced her feet like a donkey unmoved by sticks or carrots. The draw was steep and filled with brambles. I finally unleashed her and walked across. She watched me from the other side, stutter-stepping and complaining while I waited. With much rocking back-and-forth to test her mark, she eventually sprinted across the short span and took my arm in her jaws all reproachful at my betrayal.

We don’t go up to the Ridgeline much any more, not only because of bridge logistics, but because of my persistent prickling certainty we are being watched. Mercy might be willing to tangle with a cougar, but I am not. Or perhaps more truthfully, there is no doubt the dog can outrun me.

There is one wooden bridge she crosses readily, perfectly content to parade back and forth across, tucked along the trails among oak savanna at Morse Ranch. Today she happily leapt off the bridge down into the stream and returned after plowing through the water several turns. We met a little man there once, sitting and dangling his feet over the water, with a long ginger beard and a red hood. He tickled Mercy and let her kiss his mustache. If he whispered in her ear, I did not hear. A dog knows things.

It’s autumn, that time of year when the squirrels go squirrely, darting across a road before abruptly deciding to double back, only to freeze in place. It’s a pre-winter thinning of the squirrel population, I suppose, when the most fickle finally end up smashed in the road for crow food. A cyclist was killed when a squirrel leapt into the spokes of his front tire and he was thrown over the handlebars.

Beware of squirrels and trolls who boast of  “great and unmatched wisdom.

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Outlaws

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The roads I take to cross the river are easier to travel during summer, after the late spring exodus of university students. They pack U-Haul trailers and stuff back seats, abandoning kneecapped IKEA couches akimbo on the sidewalk, and wander off with purpose to other adventures, internships, home to work in the family business. Traffic chokes over the bridges; there’s no way over but through. Fall term starts next week and 20,000 students are unpacking and playing beer pong on the lawn.

Mercy and I got off with a warning.

Down at the old boat landing, heaving branches in the river for the dog to wrestle onto the sandy beach, I am chagrined to admit, we were ambushed. Caught unaware like freshmen. Let down the guard. Dazzled by the diamonds skimming over the riffles upstream. Who knew the police had a graphite black ATV to wheel down the rutted rocky trail leading to the water line? Mercy looked at the mini-mobile-park-SWAT vehicle and looked at me. I clipped on her leash and we walked up to meet the officers.

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It won’t happen again.

I had a friendly conversation with Officers Eric and Eric (both Erics, indeed), received the required  verbal warning dogs must be leashed in the  park, and inquired about the capabilities of their impressive vehicle. I studied the tire tread while we talked, assessing its footprint and clearance, asked about traction. Mercy nosed at the long grass. We disappeared up the rise and into the trees like the outlaws we are.

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A trough of cold air is slouching down from Canada; there are snow warnings for the Cascades this weekend. Alternating periods of rain and sun launched foraging season, with poison toadstools and penny loaf springing up, yet blooming with fluttery chanterelles and smokey morels as well.

I brush the dirt away from the gills and hood, give the mushrooms a quick rinse and pat dry. Half a yellow sweet onion, a sprig of thyme, carmelized low and slow in butter, before adding rough-chopped chanterelle, a dose of Marsala, a stir of cream, dished over pappardelle, all fog and woodsmoke, fleece and fall, jewels in the moss.

Equinox

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The last cucumber plucked, tomato plants pulled, hops and squash cut, seeds spread to dry. The wild turkeys feed on windfall apples and pears along the neighborhood streets, neglected imperfect fruit delicious in its fermenting, and strut into traffic. Days are shorter now. From raw harvest to measure, the Scales turn downward.

Rain came, early; the end of summer underlined by lightning, as if there might be any mistaking the change of season.

Thunder and roiling rising cloud armadas duel and pitch with cannon. A strike fried the wifi router and blew circuits, sent the dog under the bed, and me below deck away from the barrage on the southern windows.

Balance is never struck. I wonder at the phrase. Balance is a momentary pose found in vigilance and constant mediation, an asana of breath and intention. Was there ever a time of perfection? Sitting out on the cider house deck at sunset laughing while a train whistle blows in the distance. Perhaps. The moment dissolves into new tableau. It’s said one might balance an egg on end at the exact moment of the equinox.

Persephone falls.

Rainmaker

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For August, a checklist:

Buy roses, an odd number as the French do, rather than an American dozen–white roses, with a blush, to suit the bleached afternoon sky and the crumbs on the tablecloth. Cut the stems severely short. Wipe the small cobalt vase to place on the center of the dining table. Fill the blue bowl with water each morning and sigh.

Water the monster red geranium, the one that survived another winter, the one that spilled out and overwhelmed its large ceramic pot littering blood-red petals that smear underfoot into jammy stains.

Take Mercy to the river to swim and muck about in the weeds and willows. Bring home a flat smooth river rock that fits when I close my fist around it.

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Check the Orthodox calendar to confirm the feast day of the Dormition of the Theotokos is August 15th. I am not Orthodox, but the stores close in Athens and it would be difficult to find a taxi if I was in Greece.

Count the cantaloupes swelling on the vine. There is only one. I tickled the yellow-starred blossoms with a twig because I didn’t trust the bees. They seemed distracted. It’s too late.

Move the hanging fuchsia to the backyard; deer crept up on the front porch early one morning and ate two-thirds of it. The dog warned me, but I stayed in bed. Check whether the gladiolas were devoured as well.

Resist reading any news, avoid all media sites, including Reddit. Pace the length of the upstairs deck, turn, pace again as though the house plunged in open water and call “Avast,” to the pots lining the forecastle, exhorting the geraniums and bay laurel to hold fast.

Bundle up the wool Flokati rugs and lug them down to the local laundromat next door to the cannabis dispensary. (Laundromats are damp and dismal places even with all the hopeful scents of detergent and fabric softener.)  Load a bag of quarters in three industrial-size machines, cold water only, and work the crossword puzzle in the free weekly newspaper while the machines spin. Lug the wet wool home again and flatten the rugs to dry in the sun for several days, turning as needed.

Let the young repair men inside to replace the tattered canvas of the awning. Though I tugged the monster geranium and its fellow potted flowers out of the way, the trailing petunia managed to be crushed underfoot.

Avoid the headlines. Return to the root.

Walk Ben to the park and loop down Walnut Lane on our return to see the enormous house under construction. Let the workers pet Ben, but avoid the nice woman with the yellow Lab, because Ben is still sketchy sometimes. Throw sticks for Mercy on the hill and let her greet the landscapers who arrive every Wednesday to mow and tend the neighbor’s yard.

Pick zucchini. Pick sun-gold cherry tomatoes. Pick pea pods. Pick cucumbers. Squeeze a grape, not yet. Wash my hair and comb through the spiral curls with my fingers before they completely dread.

Grate zucchini, salt it and and wait for the shreaded squash to sweat in the colander. Squeeze the water out and stir into muffin batter with the last of the blueberries. Freeze a few.

Strain the red currents that soaked in apple cider vinegar for a week and blend the juice with thyme-infused simple syrup. Bottle the fruit shrub and tuck it away, satisfied with sampling the overfill.

Write another poem.

Think of washing the front windows, but sit on the edge of the front porch dangling my feet and roll tiny white blooms of summer savory between my fingers instead.

Most things hang by a thread.

Chowder, Just for the Halibut

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Blackberries are blooming where three months ago the cane was flattened by snow. I admire their resilience while I feel so fragile and take their white blooms as totem.

Yesterday Mercy and I were caught out in a rain storm while walking down in the park and straggled home up the hill soaked, skirting the runoff cascading down the road. Today there are clouds pulling like taffy and hot weather building for the week ahead.  Last call for chowder.

Halibut Chowder

1 Shallot or sweet yellow onion, finely diced
4 celery stalks, chopped
1 red pepper, diced
1 russet potato, diced, or several small reds
¼ cup white wine
2 tablespoons white flour
1 1/2 quarts chicken stock (or vegetable, or fish stock)
Healthy Halibut filet, 1-2 pounds (cod is a good substitute, salmon too oily)
1 cup heavy cream or coconut milk
2 tablespoons tarragon leaf (or substitute mixture of parsley and dill)
Salt & pepper

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in soup kettle or large sauce pan over medium heat.
Add first three ingredients and saute until soft and vegetables sweat. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Sprinkle flour over the vegetables and stir, allowing the flour to brown until roux is golden. Slowly add white wine, stirring to incorporate flour. Gradually add stock while stirring constantly. Add enough water or stock to equal about 2 quarts of liquid.

Add potatoes and tarragon to pot and cover, simmering until potatoes soften, about 15 minutes.

REDUCE HEAT TO MED-LOW

Cut halibut into bite-size chunks. Slide into pot.

REDUCE HEAT TO LOW

Swirl in cream or coconut milk, stirring gently to avoid breaking fish chunks. Heat through about 3 minutes. Serve with hot crusty bread.

6-8 servings

Note: this basic recipe is very flexible and any combination of vegetables, stock, and herbs can be used. A firm white fish is recommended. Halibut is mild and tarragon is a natural complement. It’s important to barely poach the fish by reducing heat and serving immediately. Enjoy!

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Mercedes Athena Pandora Quesadilla, aka “One-Eyed Mercy” the dread pirate