Work

“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.”

–Alexander Chee

“How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”

Mystery

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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.

 

Heron

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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.

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Hallow

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Terry comes on Wednesday mornings. He drives an old gray pickup with a cracked windshield and garden tools lashed in the bed: mower, edger, leaf blower. Terry works for neighbor Vic across the road; he backs his truck into the hammerhead atop our hill and lets down the tailgate to roll out machinery. Mercy races from the front windows downstairs to the back yard yammering and howling, hammering at the back gate until I catch up to let her out to greet Terry and his dog, Aggie.

Hard frost in a moonless night, leaves skitter to drifts, bank against stone.

When Mercy was a pup, we went over to properly introduce ourselves beyond a nod and wave. She’s shy with strangers other than children, flitting and flirting, but determined to avoid strange hands reaching out to pat her square head, fumble at her silver doeskin ears. Mercy took a shine to Terry. She’s not startled by deafening gas-powered machinery now, quite the contrary. While riding in the car, she attends to every stranger out mowing we pass, as if each one might be Terry.

Dry cold air, sparking static from doorknobs and grocery carts, tentative metallic taste, another sort of lightning. Ground. Downward into this tilting northern darkness, a sinking ship, unsounding leviathan.

I walked out after Mercy with a bag of Halloween candy for Terry and chicken jerky for Aggie. I don’t know why I buy the candy anymore and stage it on the hallway table close to the front door when no one knocks; the steep hill and dead end road are a bad bargain for costumed children.

My son is grown and on his own, well beyond trick-or-treating–those years I insisted he eat some dinner before we ventured out in various storms to canvas the neighborhood and collect sweet booty in a plastic jack-o’lantern.  He was always the Dark Knight.

Snow above high in the wind, barometer of falling. The Wasp Queen driven out from her nest under fallen timber wanders, seeks shelter before the storm. 

I throw a tennis ball for the dogs, throw a stick Mercy stole from the wood crib when the ball is lost, and talk while the wind lifts my hair like Medusa because I’ve forgotten my hat. Terry has a backstage pass for the show at MacDonald Theater tomorrow, he says and asks, what do we plan for Halloween?

Prepare a fine meal, I explain: a lamb chop, an apple cut for the star seeded inside, a glass of red wine, arranged on linen with the blessed dead invited to dine.

Do they come? He asks.

Yes.

 

 

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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