Noir

“Do you tell fortunes?

I do.

How? With just an ordinary deck of cards?

I leave the Jokers in the deck.”

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.

Pick a card.

 

 

Moon Lamp

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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.

Witch Hazel

Far away from down the hill, a child cries. The wailing swells and then suddenly falls away.

The river is full and fast, deceptively swift. The dog pulls toward the old boat landing where she likes to swim, but I nudge her the other way, toward the fresh-filt canals where geese and wood ducks shelter.

It’s last quarter moon, gauzy and gray, dissolving since the eclipse brought storm and havoc. Ringed by snow in the foothills embracing the valley, the mountains wait. A winter’s snow pack fell in the Cascades over the course of the moon. Wind down the wick of this lunar year, before the Rat arrives, when the scenery changes with new parts and lines to learn.

Pheasant skim along atop the muddy fields. Mercy is preoccupied with ground squirrel burrows.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and so Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina.

Are there happy families? Or are there only eddies swirling after the rapids, a submerged spiral born from equal measure forbearance and exhaustion? Photographs of Britain’s ginger Prince are recycled every day on news sites announcing his break from a gilded royal family ward to earn his keep like an American. (Indeed, there are no kings are queens here, save commerce.) In other news, our US President is on trial for high crimes and misdemeanors.

Crossing the bark path we meet a woman with a yellow Lab as tall as my chocolate. The dogs greet each other and we fall into step. When we turn toward the canals, they join us. A flock of Canada geese notice us approaching and toddle toward the water, I unleash Mercy to charge them and send the birds scolding. The woman releases her dog Mac, who is enthusiastic but confused.

“He doesn’t swim,” she says, “besides, it’s so cold,” I throw sticks in the water for Mercy and Mac wades along the reeds until finally he let’s go of his footing and swims.

We leave them to walk a loop along the waterway as rain spits down harder. Gray-on-gray, among bare branches and bristled fir, the flowering yellow petals of witch hazel glow alone.

 

Stone

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“Women cook and clean to keep the holidays”

–Amy Tan, Joy Luck Club (apocryphally attributed)

New Year broke already, arrived Christmas night.

There’s only stone now. Pour from the kettle in fingerless gloves, scant the honey, and save the bones for stock. Turkey vultures perch in the dying fir and spread their wings, not enough wind to dry in the mist, no rising thermals to hunt. They fly away north. It’s a long way down.

Solstice day the rain fell a river into the valley howling in from the Pacific. We lit the fire with rosemary limbs salvaged after February’s snowstorm, lengths of white holly from the tree cut down last fall. (Beware the Holly King I tell my son before he leaves for New Orleans.)

Take up the cauldron and brew. Sunday to the market, early with first light, where the staff are surly in their rumpled holiday sweaters stacking eggs and carrots, fresh loaves of rustic bread, hams and brisket for the crowds coming after me. Simmer soup from barley and beef shank, handfuls of thyme, Marsala wine, enough to share these days in the darkness when the sun stands in this liminal space loud with silence and phantoms.

My son wants his own iron pot as his gift. I go to a department store in the mall, out again at first light, and buy a fine red pot, the largest and iron heavy. I navigate down the escalator carrying it somehow, though I couldn’t see over the box, waiting behind two older women afraid to take the first step onto the unfolding case. “It’s a long way down,” one says to the other.

Wash the holly leaves and berries, dry it mindful of the barbs, arrange sweets around the sprig on a red platter. Bake the first pan of pasta, set to broil the final minutes to crisp the crumbs on top, pack everything into a basket insulated under a thick blanket. We go out in the early dark to join the company gathering to crack crab and hear O. Henry’s story read after dinner, The Gift of the Magi. Home then in the dark, sleepy and wine-filled, to feed Mercy and stroke her head beneath the starry lights of Christmas Eve.

What does it mean? I don’t know. For now, in this time of stone, the only certain succor comes from the kitchen; the dragon head in the moon’s own sign rages and needs feeding.

Talk won’t cook rice.

 

 

To Juan at the Winter Solstice

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To Juan at the Winter Solstice

There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.

Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
Or strange beasts that beset you,
Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
Below the Boreal Crown,
Prison to all true kings that ever reigned?

Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.

Or is it of the Virgin’s silver beauty,
All fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
When, with her right hand she crooks a finger, smiling,
How many the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love.

Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
Whose coils contain the ocean,
Into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
Then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
Battles three days and nights,
To be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?

Much snow is falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses:
There is one story and one story only.

Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
Do not forget what flowers
The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-blue eyes were wild
But nothing promised that is not performed.

–Robert Graves

Advent

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Black Friday I lit the fire early hoping to relieve the laboring heat pump banging and shedding ice. Brew chai and plug it with honey, survey the frost and fog.

Two weeks until Solstice; the Sun hangs three days before turning.

Black Friday open an inbox of advertisements, act-now deals, coupon codes, and come-ons that just keep coming. Even the organization administering Mercy’s microchip data sends emails pitching personalized collars and dog beds. Two years ago I ordered a light from Home Depot and can’t get the unsubscribe option to stick. Cyber Monday. Giving Tuesday. The newspaper itself is a slim fraction of the inserts stuffed inside. An offer for 10% off pet insurance just arrived. Monetize is the mantra.

Night falls during a dense afternoon and a crow pecks at the last withered apple.

I like to shop at the local hardware store. The handsome clerk downstairs with long gray hair and frost blue eyes is patient prompting me through the payment options on the card reader and the music piped through the store is classic rock not Christmas carols. I buy strands of multi-colored lights and string them around the house, toy with timers, light them up when I come upstairs in the morning and leave them on all day.

There are Christmas tree farms nearby. Trees are carefully trimmed each year, cultivated to achieve the classical cylinder shape expected by consumers, and then cut and sent to lots in the cities. There are free permits to cut a spruce, fir, or pine in the national forest, wild trees all akimbo and chaotic. When I was growing up and my family went upriver to cut a wild tree, I was skeptical when I saw the jagged limbs; yet, hung with lights and glass and shine, an ungainly tree transforms just as magically.

When I lived in southwest Oklahoma, I adopted a black Labrador named McKenzie, a cunning dog from a Cajun duck hunter’s litter. I named him for my homesick river and assured him there was wild clear water in the world. There was nothing evergreen out on the Plains, nothing except great globes of mistletoe strung in the oaks. When we went to the Christmas tree lot and looked over the selection of trees available, I refused to buy one. They were dry and brown, just like the landscape, needles already shedding. I bartered to take their freshest cuttings for a few dollars.

McKenzie and I walked out along Medicine Creek, where the tallest trees grew, with a frisbee in hand. I hurled the disc up hard into the oaks and knocked off bunches of mistletoe. McKenzie retrieved the frisbee. I threw it again. We worked together until we gathered armfuls of green and then we went home. I wove the mistletoe and bartered pine cuttings into an interlacing structure and decorated it with lights and ornaments.

Every year since, with any evergreens at hand, I weave an alter of rosemary, holly, fir, and pine. Strike fire in a time of stone. There is the magic.

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Ashes

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I found a grave beside the river.

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.

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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