Sunday, December 13, 2009

With No Earphones in, I Hear This (poem)

A homeless man I know
screams "HELLO! HELLO!"
from across a wide Boston
street. He spotted me!
I look up and over to see him
waving frantically, gloved hand
in the air. "MERRY CHRISTMAS!"
he yells. "HAPPY HOLIDAYS!"
I cup my hands and return, "HELLO
and my pit is strangely warmed
by this clear recognition
of an unlikely friend across four
lanes of December traffic.

Into the Eyes (poem)

Eyes have stared at me
this week, eyes belonging to men
I've known a long time.
One of them sez to me,
"You deserve the best --
you have a great ass and
a great personality and
you need a man who wants you
and only you." I smile
at him, old friend, and say,
"Yes" and "Thank you."
The other eyes just stare
with little to say besides
"Yes" and "Thank you."
Irony is never wasted
on me even though I clamor
for a longer stare into the eyes
of someone who is right,
who wants to look only
into my eyes, like I deserve.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Brunch on a Barstool (poem)

The best moment of my life
was beside you in a bar
in broad daylight
as we chatted idly
about our lives. God,
were we hung over!
Even so, we were coherent
and in-sync and you looked
into my eyes, I into yours
as you offered up cliché –
“Eyes reveal everything.”
Yours said something about love
and mine acted as mirrors
and this is exactly what
I never knew I needed.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

It Sounds Like Bing Crosby Backed Up by Brass (poem)

This song makes me want to dance
in 1944, long-gowned and gloved,
blushed cheek rested on a dark wool suited
shoulder, feeling the sway in the syllables,
the syncopation of words sung
to swelling sounds of horn and harp
and string and piano. Transplanted,
my eyes are closed and I am warm and whole in this
period peace where a nobler war was fought
than would ever be fought again.
There is such tranquility in the swishing
of taffeta and lace, a home spun elegance
found more deeply as musical measures
amble by. I want to be in love
in this dance, this era, this chance
at being something as simple
as present in the embrace
of a slow stepped dance.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Staged. (poem)

The man and woman stand
under a stark white spot
light; they are dressed in black
and posed close enough to look
uncomfortable. This is a stage.
They are the players. This theatre
is silent so when he speaks,
his voice is a knife severing silence.
“This could be more,” he says.
The woman remains blank
and gives the audience shivers.
You could be more,” she says
and turns to leave him alone
under that light. This is life.
They are living it. This world
offers nothing as he stands stock still
and the audience mills by, into
the night where she left him.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What Happens (poem)

My brain is leaking, liquefied,
down the right side
of my chin, after oozing from my ear,
the quickest drain,
the easiest escape once the matter
has reached its maximum
heat and melted.
This is my lobotomy.
I’ve used my cells for too many
years now and now and now
I barely recall the smell of rain,
the stench of free will,
the overpowering olfactory sensation
of my perceived who what when where.
I am dead. I am no more
the woman you knew before
my essence was baked and reduced
into syrupy nothing. All for what.
I don’t remember anymore, I can’t.
I just nod now. And I smile.
You tell me what for and I will say
yes yes yes yes yes.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Not Constantinople (poem)

for tom and kathryn

Balding under his beret, the man
stood, lofty and leaning, leafing through
cards in plexiglass casing. Off and on
goes the cap and so goes my attitude
about him -- pretension easily added
and subtracted. Then he speaks
to the lady to his left -- Say-la-veeeee --
a thick French drawl. Beret off, pretension
still on. I am strangely dismayed.
Over they come, a curious pair, she, short
and frazzled with a dueling accent
I cannot decipher. The man fans four cards
across my counter and asks, "Way-er kin
I git postcarrrds? She wants 'em." I stare, slightly
stupored, before offering advice that will lead them
out of my store, but only after they give me what
they owe. She starts to dig in her red leather clutch
for what my British tourists call shrapnel, coins
clinking together with unfamiliar clarity.
"They don't take Tuuuurkish money here," he chides
and he winks at me. I take his American
currency and catch a glimpse of his American ID --
California-based. He slides his beret back on
and gives a flick of the wrist wave. "Buh-bye now."
She smiles, strained, and I wonder if they'll find
the postcards they seek. I'll never know, probably,
and that lingers long enough on my mind to write this down.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Today Tomorrow Yesterday

Remember yesterday
when you looked for me in the plaza
(not the stone cobbled plaza or the tidy brick plaza or
the lazy yawning plaza in the movie about Ripley)
and you found me in pieces,
stretched like a marble unrolled from a sack
(balled up and barking inside
but shiny and brilliant on the out)
I remember you asking me on your way into the atmosphere
if you’d find me unrolled from the sack tomorrow
My answer is yes --
look for me in the plaza
(not the hotel in New York where my boss likes to tell
people she used their toilet)
I’ll be there, the bowling ball with pink and gold lettering
striving to knock down the pins of my foes
and try to delay the premature coming of congested thought
I know when you were here yesterday I smiled a lot
but there’s no saying what tomorrow may bring
Look for me behind glass and seek your reflection
in the palm of my hand -- see your life line? It’s the same as mine
(strange thing to notice
here in the plaza)
You found me again in my usual place
trying desperately to shatter
-- But all I remember is seeing you yesterday

Not even a Poet (poem)

1:30 AM is getting to be
the middle of my goddamn afternoon.

Seems I’ve spent more
pulseless moments pursing lips
and breathing softly
at this vacant hour than
any other, writing poems
about writing poems about writing poems
about writing poems about
writing poems --

And I’m not even a fucking poet.

I wish I could claim
insomnia as the peddler of my wake
but it’s more to do with shifting
siphoned, muddied thoughts of clay
away from the drawbridge
of my brain --

Arming Moses (poem)

Chad wishes that M-16s
could be sold as collectors’ pieces
to be slung over mantles
as trophies of war.
He says Charlton Heston has
some good points about the 2nd
Amendment: Moses gone mad
should be allowed to assemble
a militia, defend the burning bush.
He tells me he doesn’t have
guns anymore but he knows
how to shoot one,
(even though he won’t gut Bambi,
not even for survival).
Another patron turns and says,
“You never hear about a multiple stabbing,”
while Chad talks about re-loading
his hypothetical shot gun
from atop the library.

For the Man who Made Me Coffee in College (poem)

Can’t help but wonder
if I’d be better off
married to him, stuffed,
housewife-ish, living in my in-
law’s closet, drooping
with children destined to grow up
short with nice teeth
but bad eyes, a boy
named Eddie and a girl
named Lizzie, each chasing
a large, ferociously kind
golden retriever named
Wahoo. Maybe we’d have
season tickets at the Jake.
Maybe I’d make love
to my husband in pitched tent.
Oh, it used to be
what I’d pray for every night.
But it’s not at all
what I’ve got. And I don’t how
how he would have proposed
and I don’t know how complacent
I could become, but I do know
he would have loved me right
and I do know I would have been happy
trapped in his arms.

Reaching the Dead (poem)

Ever since your father died,
the shower drain has clogged
and unclogged and clogged again,
light bulbs have twisted in
and out of sockets, baseball
has made you cry and so
have boys. You’ve learned
to play the flute and you’ve learned
to earn your way. Nothing
seems wrong but nothing
seems right and you wonder
what your father has to do
with any of it. So you think
and you write and you want
to go back to sleep because
you’re too anxious, too indifferent
to take it seriously.
You’re tired. He’s been dead
for a long time and you’re not sure
you want to raise him
from his quiet.

But you must. Look: his hand
reaches and begs. If you take it,
you’ll learn to condense time
and trip on ghosts
without disturbing them.
Then with his hand in yours,
with his lifeline wedged
in youthful palm, you could tell him
what he’s missed. Take it.
You want to. He wants
to know. It’s not only the living
who want to reach the dead.

Five Ways to Say Goodbye (poem)

Five Ways to Say Goodbye

This is the first March
I haven’t fallen in love.
Maybe that’s because
I loved you long before
this month, or maybe
it’s because I’m alone
for the first time in years.

When you call me
my phone blats a circus
theme, um-ba-bop, um-ba-bop,
something your brother whistled
with scowl and harmony
the last time we failed to connect.

What can be made
of dreams, real ones
played through the night?
Will a dream slip into my bed
and grip me, rock me, soothe me?
Will that content you?

I need a voice.
Laugh with your tongue.
Press your fist
in my palm.
I will sigh
and you will need me to.

I love you
out of habit,
out of season.
Love me, too, maybe.
If you get the chance.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Omaha (fiction)

Mr. Blake leaned back in his wooden rocking chair and tipped his hat over his face. The air on the porch was muggy and heavy with humidity and summer dust, but it was still cooler than his house. He could hear his wife Luceile in the kitchen chopping carrots and celery and tossing them on top of the lettuce in a large, wooden bowl. She had the evening news on at full volume as she hummed Nat King Cole melodies. He breathed quietly into his hat.

“Well, it looks like this heat wave will continue at least for the next few days, Dave,” the female anchor said. “But before we get to weather, let’s check in with Mary and see how the drive home will be today.”

“Thanks, Debra,” a new voice said. “Summer construction will delay most commuters...”

“Paul, you should see the traffic!” Luceile yelled out the window. “Makes me glad we live away from the hustle and bustle of the city.”

“Uh huh,” Mr. Blake said into his hat.

“Look at those poor people,” Luceile continued. “All they want to do is get home...”

Mr. Blake slid the hat off his face and turned to look at the TV through the window. “When I was in the war, all I wanted to do was go home,” he muttered. There was an aerial shot of the interstate that displayed clogged lanes and orange barrels.

Luceile laughed. “That traffic looks enough like a war zone. Except that young man doesn’t seem to mind it much,” she said, waving her knife at the screen.

Mr. Blake squinted. “What are you talking about?”

She turned her head to the side. “That boy in the white car there. He has his head stuck out of his window, like a dog.”

Mr. Blake shook his head. “How can you see that?”

Luceile went back to chopping the vegetables. “I can always find the silver lining, Paul.”

He grunted and looked out across his yard. He wished the weatherman saw rain in the immediate future. His own grass was a dull green, limp and tired. His eyes traveled across the road.

“The grass is always greener...” he quipped.

He rocked in his chair and stared in muted amazement at the flourishing field of corn across the wide, black top road. He saw his neighbor Darren Deetz walking through the stalks with his grandson Omaha.

“The next few days will be hot and dusty for the entire viewing area,” Dave the Weatherman said, “which is bad news for the farmers...”

Mr. Blake leaned forward in his chair and watched the corn stalks bend out of the way of their commanders. Darren’s worn-out Indians baseball cap bobbed above the stalks while Omaha was swallowed into the forest of vibrant green giants. Mr. Blake squinted and pressed his hands flat on his knees.

“What is it, Paul?” Luceile called from the kitchen.

He didn’t move. “Just looking at Deetz’ field.”

“In local news, World War II veteran Paul Blake, Korean War veteran Louis Freedman and Vietnam veteran Daniel Moore, each Purple Heart recipients, will be on hand tomorrow for the unveiling of the long-awaited statue honoring the community’s war heroes...”

“Damn statue.” Mr. Blake balled his fists on his knees.

Luceile wiped her hands on her white apron and quickly turned off the TV. Coming over to the window, she leaned against the frame and followed her husband’s stubborn gaze across the street.

“It is amazing, isn’t it? Did you ever ask him how he managed to get such a good crop in this terrible dry spell?” she asked.

Mr. Blake shook his head. “Man never had any sense when it came to farming, Ceile. That’s what makes the least amount of sense.”

Luceile chuckled. “Sandrine swears it’s the boy that brought all the luck.”

Mr. Blake frowned. “The boy?”

“Sure. Their grandson. Omaha. You’ve met him.”

“Of course I’ve met him,” Mr. Blake snapped.

Luceile ignored him. “Ever since his mama was killed in that automobile crash in the spring and he came to live with his grandparents, things seem to have turned around for them--for their farm, I mean.”

Mr. Blake narrowed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. “What does the boy have to do with the war, Ceile?”

Luceile frowned. “The farm, Paul. You mean the farm.”

“That’s what I said.”

Luceile sighed and shrugged. “Sandrine says her grandson is magical, Paul. And I have no reason to doubt the woman.”

“Except that she cheats in Bingo and has a half-insane husband,” Mr. Blake muttered.

Luceile laughed. “They’re good people, Paul. And I’m glad to see them doing well, as the result of a magical grandson or by the grace of God, I don’t care which. Now, why don’t you come on inside for supper?”

Mr. Blake’s eyes lingered for a moment on the swishing of the tall crops across the road and grunted before getting up and heading in to eat.

That night, he lay in bed beside Luceile with the ceiling fan whispering cooler breezes through the suffocating heat of the room, almost as suffocating as the stealthy heat of the jungles he terrorized in World War II. Staring up at the darkness, he swore he could see the face of Darren Deetz’ grandson every time he blinked his eyes. The innocent, deeply-tanned face of the eleven-year-old Omaha Oswald O’Ryan, smiling and bright-eyed, with messy brown hair and a joyful smile. Mr. Blake never thought much of him before, finding him to be nothing but a startlingly simple boy with a silly hippy name.

“Sandrine says her grandson is magical.”

Mr. Blake stared into the darkness and grunted. Blinking his eyes, he saw flashes of Omaha as he’d seen him earlier that day, standing in the field. Only now he was looking across the street and waving, smiling, beckoning. Laughing. Mr. Blake shivered despite the heat and fell asleep with his eyes open.

The next morning dawned tiredly. Mr. Blake woke up before his wife and swung his legs off to the side of the bed. Staring intently out the open window, he searched Deetz’ home for signs of life, for signs of Omaha, but all he saw was the tentacles of sunlight streaming over the field. Putting his hand over his face, he closed his eyes and flinched as he saw Omaha staring back at him. Laughing.

“Son of a bitch,” he muttered, rubbing his fingers over his face.

Luceile was still snoring, so Mr. Blake got up and made his way to the bathroom in the hallway. After splashing some water on his face and stuffing his legs into his faded overalls, he went down the creaking wooden steps towards the kitchen. He paused on the landing and stared at the plain brown floor that reminded him on a daily basis that he was back in civilization, that he was safe.

“I don’t need a statue to tell me that I’m a goddamn war hero,” he mumbled. “I need this floor beneath my feet.”

Turning his head to look out through the glass door, he saw the stalks of corn rustle, as if bending out of the way of a ranking officer, but he didn’t see Darren’s old hat.

“Must be the boy,” Mr. Blake said.

Without picking up his hat off the kitchen table, Mr. Blake went out the front door and across the road to Deetz’ field. He followed the swaying of the stalks carefully and quietly. He could hear the sound of children laughing and talking, but his focus was on the stealth of his mission. Mr. Blake slid through the rows of corn as fluidly as he had crawled through the jungles of the Pacific. His eyes widened and a determined grimace enveloped his face as he stalked his prey: Omaha. Laughing.

The sun hung low in the sky as it yawned its way into view. He ignored the soft glare, ignored the burn of his exposed bald head, ignored the painful gasps of air being gulped by his joints. His operative was to find that boy, find that magical boy; he needed to find out what that boy had to do with Deetz’ crop, what the boy had to do with him.

“My best friend died at the beach named after you, Omaha,” he said.

Deetz’ field banked on a tiny grouping of trees surrounding a small pond. Darren and Sandrine often invited Mr. Blake and Luceile over to picnic beside the water during the summer, although they hadn’t extended such an invitation since Omaha had arrived. When Mr. Blake got to the edge of the field, he paused and bent his hands onto his knees. Taking a moment to breathe, he felt the rivulets of sweat beading up on his face and trickling down his back.

“I’m getting too old for jungle warfare,” he muttered.

Straightening himself, he moved slowly towards the embankment of trees and peered into the clearing, towards the sound of the children’s laughter. His eyes darted as the sound bounced off the trees until he narrowed in on a little girl with short, dark brown hair in a red sun dress who was laughing and clapping at the edge of the pond. He stared at her, wondering what was so funny in the jungle, in the circle of trees around the circular pond. She was jumping, cheering, her bare feet sticking in the mud with every hop, her hands pointing to the center, the focal point, the heart of the clearing. Mr. Blake’s eyes followed the invisible light flowing from the tips of her impossibly tiny hands across the water.

“Oh my God,” he said, leaning his full weight against the tree.

It was Omaha. He was standing, firmly planted on the plate-glass water, in the center of the pond.

Mr. Blake watched in horrified amazement as Omaha waved intently at the little girl on the shore. “See, Edna? I told you I could still do it!” he yelled.

Mr. Blake tried to swallow his shock but his throat was too dry, and he choked on the fumes of surprise. Coughing slightly, his body doubled over as he slipped towards the ground in a crumpled heap. He lay in the dirt in abject disbelief and horror and moaned, his thick hands pressed tightly against his face. Seconds later, he pried his fingers away and stared up at a smiling face. Omaha. Laughing.

“Are you OK, Mr. Blake?” he asked, crouching beside him.

Mr. Blake sat up slowly. “Well, I, uh, yes, I’m fine, young man.” He rubbed his skull and felt a small knot starting to form where he’d hit his head.

“Can you stand up, sir?” Omaha extended his hand.

Mr. Blake grunted as the boy helped pull him to his feet.

“You’re really OK?” Omaha asked again.

“Yes, yes, I’m fine.” Mr. Blake stood awkwardly beside the boy, staring uncertainly at his strikingly normal face.

“You want to come and play with us, then?” Omaha asked. “I mean, if you’re really OK?”

“Of course I’m OK. How many times do you need to ask me if I’m OK? I’m OK!” Mr. Blake said, waving his hands in the air.

“Great,” Omaha said. Laughing, he turned and bounded back through the trees to where Edna was making a small castle out of mud.

Mr. Blake eyed the children warily before joining them. Sitting on a stump near the pond’s edge, he folded his arms across his chest and gestured toward the girl.

“Who’s she?” he asked.

Omaha looked up, half-surprised to see Mr. Blake sitting there. “Oh, she’s my sister.”

“Sister?” he repeated.

“Mmm hmm,” Omaha said, patting another layer of mud onto the castle. “Her name is Edna.”

Mr. Blake stared at the back of the girl’s head and grunted. “Who names a little boy Omaha and a little girl Edna?”

Omaha looked over at him and smiled. “My mama,” he said.

Mr. Blake blinked. “Sorry, boy, I didn’t mean to insult you.”

Omaha stuck his fingers in the mud to carve a moat around the castle. “Oh, it’s OK, Mr. Blake.”

He watched the two children slather another layer of mud on top of the castle, Omaha poking holes in the side for windows, Edna smoothing out the edges. He forgot for a moment about Omaha, allowed himself to be bored, even, until his eyes traced back out to the center of the pond. He knew the pond was at least seven feet deep in the center. He himself was about six-six and had spend many a relaxing afternoons swimming with his wife and his neighbors. Mr. Blake stared across the smooth ripples of the pond and tried to detect the foot prints of the boy, Omaha. Foot prints on the surface of water.

“Hey, mister,” a small voice said beside him.

Turning his attention away from the invisible tracks in the water, he looked towards the voice, belonging to Edna. “Yeah,” he said.

“You wanna walk on water, too?” Her large, brown eyes were playful and curious.

Mr. Blake cleared his throat. “I, uh, well, you see, um... Too?” he asked feebly.

Edna nodded. “Like Omaha,” she said.

Omaha savagely poked another hole into the side of the castle. “Shut up, Edna.”

Edna turned back towards her brother. “What...?”

Omaha got up and caught his sister’s hand and dragged her back to the ground. “You can’t ask him that,” he said. “Not yet.”

Mr. Blake leaned forward in earnest. “And why not?”

Omaha looked from the frightened face of Edna to the curious face of Mr. Blake. “Because it’s impossible,” he said.

“To ask the question or do the deed?” Mr. Blake asked.

Omaha sat quietly for a moment. “You were in World War II, like my grandpa was.”

Mr. Blake straightened. “I was seventeen when I landed at a US Marine base in Okinawa.”

“What was it like?” Omaha asked.

Mr. Blake stared at the back of Edna’s head as she slapped another fistful of mud onto the castle. “It was war.”

Omaha folded his hands in his lap. “I mean, what was it like?”

Mr. Blake looked back out across the water. “It was, well... War, young man. Some days were downright dull and the highlight was swatting the mosquitoes away from your foxhole. But other days...” He stared at the soft ripples of water. “You shouldn’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to, son.”

“What do you mean, sir?”

Mr. Blake looked back at the boy. “What I mean is... War is more real than anything else in life. And too much reality can be hard to bear. Especially for a young boy.”

“Like you were?” Omaha asked.

Mr. Blake nodded briskly. “Like me.”

Edna turned and faced Mr. Blake. “Did you see lots of dead people, then, in the war?”

Mr. Blake felt a slight chill sting his spine. “Well, little girl, I, uh, well, yes.”

“Did you make them that way?” Her eyes gleamed.

Mr. Blake swallowed hard as his eyes jumped from innocent child’s face to innocent child’s face. “Well, it was a war,” he said finally.

“But...” Edna began.

Omaha laughed. “I think you’re making him nervous, Edna.”

Edna pouted. “You started it.”

“Well, I had a reason for asking,” Omaha said.

“What?” Edna asked, slapping her hand on top of the mud castle.

Omaha looked at Mr. Blake. “I asked because you asked him about walking on water.”

Edna nodded. “Oh.”

Mr. Blake narrowed his eyes. “What does the war have to do with the, well, you know, the thing, uh, the water, I mean.”

Omaha stood up and pointed towards the sky. “The clouds stay up there because someone once told them that they should stay up there. That the sky is their home.”

Mr. Blake looked up and saw nothing but blue sky.

“The clouds, see, have a right to defend their home. Mama used to say that’s why there were storms--the clouds were blocking invaders.”

“Like aliens?” Mr. Blake asked dubiously.

Omaha laughed. “Maybe,” he said. “But Mama said it was more a way to outsmart man and keep man out of the sky. You know, airplanes and stuff.”

Mr. Blake pressed his hand against his face. “Airplanes fly every day, boy.”

“Right,” Omaha said with a grin. Turning, he took a slow step towards the edge of the pond. Edna stopped pressing mud onto the castle and giggled as her brother stepped carefully, gingerly into the water. Mr. Blake watched in quiet panic as Omaha’s feet rose above the surface as he moved across the crests of the waves. When he reached the center of the pond, he sat down and bobbed like a duck. Edna clapped and cheered. Mr. Blake’s jaw dropped to the ground.

“You see, Mr. Blake, the clouds were supposed to stay in the sky and defend it. But people found a way to invade. The war you were in wasn’t supposed to be your war, but the enemy found a way to invade.” Omaha folded his legs like a Buddha. “People weren’t supposed to walk on water, but I found a way,” he said with a smile.

Mr. Blake’s face flushed. “Oh, God,” he said.

Omaha stood up and walked back across the pond. “My mama told me about the war you fought in a long time ago because she said it would help me understand my grandpa. She said that my grandpa lost himself in that war, your war. She said it was up to me--me and her--to help him.” Omaha stepped off the water and walked over to Mr. Blake. “That’s why I’ve come, you see.”

Mr. Blake looked into the consuming, patient eyes of the boy and shuddered. “Listen, young man, I don’t know what kind of trick you’re playing here, but I don’t want to be a part of it,” he said.

Omaha laughed. “I can teach you to walk on water.”

Mr. Blake jumped up from his seat on the stump and backed away from the children. “No,” he said.

Omaha grinned. “That’s what Grandpa said at first, too,” he said. “But ever since he learned how to invade--to win the war inside of him--he’s been happier. I can help you, too, Mr. Blake.” He extended a freckled hand.

Mr. Blake stared at the child’s hand and saw the fingers seem to reach out for him, to grow longer, to drag him into a war against himself, against nature. Omaha simply smiled with Edna leaning against him. Mr. Blake felt panic bubbling up inside of him. He felt like he was back in the jungle, was being tested by God, was tripping on a land mine.

“Leave me alone!” he said.

Omaha remained motionless, his hand stretched out before him. Edna sucked on a muddy thumb.

Mr. Blake turned and hurried out of the clearing, through the trees, and down the dusty pathway leading to Deetz’ house. He ignored the pain in his aged legs as he ran, bolted towards the house, the base, away from the enemy, away from the jungle. He saw his friend’s face, plastered with a serene smile, looking out of a second-story window at him. Mr. Blake ignored him and ran until the path melded into the driveway, until the driveway careened into the street.

He hurried across to his own house as a roar of thunder exploded up above. He looked up, startled to see the sky suddenly dark, consumed by storm clouds that Dave the Weatherman had insisted were not coming anytime soon. Mr. Blake dashed up onto the porch and into the house, slamming the door behind him in time to the second rocket of thunder.

“Paul? Is that you?” Luceile called from a back room where she kept her sewing machine.

Mr. Blake leaned against the door and gulped in air faster than he was able to breathe. He closed his eyes and saw the strikingly normal face of Omaha. Laughing.

“Can you believe how quickly this storm came up? Lord knows we need the rain, though,” Luceile said.

Mr. Blake felt his entire body begin to shake as the sweat ran through the cracks of his body, his hands pressed flat against the wall.

“I got a call from Sandrine this morning. She invited us over to lunch with Darren and their grandson this Sunday.”

Mr. Blake drew a deep breath and clutched the white curtains on the door. He closed his eyes and saw a flash of Omaha with Edna leaning against him. “What about the girl?” he asked in a low voice.

“Pardon?” Luceile called.

“The little girl. Edna,” he said.

The sewing machine stopped humming and Luceile came out into the hallway. Seeing her husband’s panic, she hurried over to him. “Why, Paul. Are you OK?”

“Why does everyone keep asking me that?” he asked thickly. “I’m fine.”

“Are you certain, dear? Come and sit down,” she said.

He shook his head. “I’m fine, Ceile.”

Luceile raised her eyebrows. “You’re not, Paul. Is this about the commemoration today?”

“Forget that damn statue, woman. I asked you a question,” he said, his eyes darkening.

The thunder echoed around the house.

“Yes, well, I think I understood you wrong,” she said slowly, placing a cool hand on his forehead. “Paul, you’re burning!”

He released the curtain and grabbed her hand. “All I want is a simple answer to my simple question,” he said. “What about the girl? Edna?”

Luceile shook her head. “What girl?”

Mr. Blake frowned. “The girl. Edna. Their granddaughter.”

“Granddaughter?” Luceile repeated.

“Yes, the boy’s sister. Darren and Sandrine’s granddaughter. Where will she be during this fantastic lunch on Sunday?”

“Why, Paul. The granddaughter was killed in the car accident with the mother. You know that.”

Mr. Blake stiffened. “No.”

“Yes, dear. Remember? Sandrine was preparing a little red sun dress to send to the child for the summer when the accident happened. The girl was buried in it, as I recall,” Luceile said.

Mr. Blake closed his eyes. And saw Omaha. Laughing.

“I saw the girl,” he said.

“Oh no, Paul. We never met the little girl. Just Omaha. You know that Darren and Sandrine had been estranged from their daughter before the accident.”

He opened his eyes and looked at his wife. “I saw the girl today,” he said.

Luceile’s face drooped, and she squeezed his hands. “No, Paul.”

“I saw her.”

Luceile tried to lead him away from the door into the kitchen, but he remained planted in the hallway. Her face was tacked with worry.

“It’s my fault. I haven’t been making sure you’ve been taking your medicine... Oh, Paul. Dr. Thatcher seemed so sure that the delusions would pass,” she murmured, feeling his forehead again.

Mr. Blake’s face tightened in indignation. “I’m not crazy, Ceile.”

“Of course not, dear,” she said gently. “Come and sit down. I’ll make you some breakfast.”

Mr. Blake pulled out of her light grasp and flung the front door open. Dashing out onto his porch, he charged down the steps like he was rushing out to face the Japanese until he stood beside a puddle in the rain. He stared at his own sallow reflection.

“Paul!” Luceile called from the porch.

He ignored her and continued to stare at the tiny pool of water. Gritting his teeth, he stepped gingerly on the water’s edge and stepped back. Sucking in a gust of courage, he balled his hands at his sides, closed his eyes, and took a determined step into the puddle.

Behind his eyes, he saw Omaha. Laughing.

Beneath his feet, he felt the squishing foundation of mud as his shoes were buried in the shallow body of water.

Opening his eyes, he looked up towards the sky and allowed the tears that were welling up in his eyes to escape down his face. Luceile hurried off the porch and over to her husband.

“Paul, come inside,” she said.

He looked at her with absolute sorrow in his eyes. “I can’t do it,” he said.

Luceile placed a gentle hand on his arm. “It’s OK,” she said.

He moaned. “Ceile, it’s not OK--I’m not OK,” he said. He brushed her fingers off his arm. “Just leave me be a minute.”

Luceile reluctantly stepped backwards towards the house, her face masked in years’ worth of worry. Mr. Blake stared at his reflection in the puddle and kicked the water to kill his distorted image. Shivering in the warm rain, he turned and walked slowly towards his wife.

“Every year, we plow our field, plant a new crop, wait for it to grow,” he said, standing face-to-face with Luceile. “That’s a natural cycle, right, every year, right?” He paused and glanced up at the thick clouds. “Something is wrong with me, Ceile. Because I can’t walk on water, not anymore.”

“Paul, no one is asking you to walk on water,” Luceile said.

“I feel like I’m back in the war--that maybe it never ended.” Mr. Blake clutched his wife close to his body and sobbed. Closing his eyes, he saw Omaha. Laughing. Opening them, he turned and faced Deetz’ house. He saw Omaha standing alone on the porch. Smiling and waving.

“Hey Mr. Blake!” he called. “Looks like the clouds beat the weatherman today!”

Mr. Blake stared across the street at the boy and said nothing as the rain pounded down on his sunburned head.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Savants (poem)

Combinations of numbers
slip through our teeth
as we puzzle over
addresses as phone numbers
and birthdays as graduations
We slap hands down
quicker than the draw
to see who knows what
and at the moment before
silver bullets of numeric logic
split skulls
we shrug off
the indecision and talk
about spelling.

There were Flowers and Vines on the Ceiling (poem)

We had a love bigger than Texas
and it flowed through
Tommy Doyle's in Harvard Square.
Upstairs, our friends' band rocked out covers
while downstairs we shared a booth
with strange connecting genes.
We are like the Human Genome Project.
You say you hate the word "like"
and we talk for hours about women
you've slept with and men
I've loved. There's so much in the air
to blend us together and we cozy
in a booth and talk about cum.

Menage a tois (a Boston poem)

I. We polished off sixteen ounces of So-Co
on a Tuesday night, savoring the last
few swallows around four a.m. We were watching
West Side Story and Tom cried
when Tony fell dead, when Maria stood up
for nonviolence. Whitney said she didn’t
like the movie. As always, I was somewhere
in the middle, content to hum and sing
about love and rumbles and all things passionate.

II. Tom colored the nails on his right hand
black with Whitney’s good Sharpie
and drew symbols of anarchy on his wrist.
While she was in the bathroom, he asked me
what else he should draw. I said a heart.
He put an arrow through it.

III. It was the nicest thing anyone had ever said
to me -- “You know, honestly, I have to say, any man
who has even had the chance to touch you
is the luckiest man...” Oh, that Tom,
who told me again that I should call
the lead singer in his band. I balked. Whitney sat
beside the bassist with her arms folded across her chest.

3 AM at the Holiday Inn (an Ohio poem)

I wanted nothing more
than to lay my head on your chest
and listen, listen to the chaotic
pounding of your doorless heart.
Pressed, my cheeks felt your rhythm.
Closed, my eyes saw lifetimes
of streaming consciousness, an ebb
and flow between two people
who are luckless but in love.
Oh, what a lucky curse!
Nothing should have stopped us.
Not with your slow breathing
and my leaded head bedded down.

Musings in the Cab of a Stranger's Truck (poem)

A hand can fit inside
another hand and linger there
as if it always had, as if
it were home, as if it made
sense, pressed near another
grove of flesh. Even if
the bodies are foreign
to each other, two hands
can twist and press
and squeeze with the intimacy
of years hung together, traceable
lifelines linked and teasing.

Reading Into It (narrative poem)

The plaster ceiling dripped white, crusty flakes into her coffee pot, papier-mached her hair, dusted her tables and chairs, fell into the cracks of her skin until she was white, lily white, and packaged for retail sale. The apartment was rented to her as a death trap for plasterphobians. She ignored the constant snow; she couldn’t afford to move. All she could do was dust herself and sit down to write.

“Are you lonely?” he’d asked once over the phone. “Your characters are.”

Just like that, he’d cracked through the plaster-covered marble exterior of her soul and clamped his greedy fingers around her humanity. Was she lonely. She’d laughed when he’d asked the first time, via e-mail, and laughed harder the second time over the phone.

“Fiction,” she’d told him, “is fictional.”

Have you ever heard the songs, she’d asked. Do you know the band? Because these stories come from some other poet’s soul, she said, I just transcribe them.

“Oh,” he’d said. He’d sounded disappointed, like she should have screamed, “Yes oh yes, I’m so lonely... So lonely. With no one to love me but you.” And he’d probably hoped she’d cry a little so he could reach through the phone wires and brush away her tears.

She thought about his mediocre face trying vainly to be as handsome as he really was beneath his self-loathing and wondered if he’d tried that line before and gotten a better response Wondered, as the plaster rained down on her head, if she could have been something better than she was right now. If she’d lied and said she was lonely, lonely, just like him.

“You don’t do the normal things people our age do,” he’d said.

And she’d smiled because, no, she didn’t. She did her own thing her own way and that’s why she was alone. Partially choice, partially not. There’s no way to prepare a dish the same way twice, to twice-bake-potato her life again to fit someone else’s recipe. She was OK with being alone because she wouldn’t have to feel beyond herself. She could flirt with the guy behind the sticky coffee counter, could strap on her tall boots and walk into a bar. Or she could curl up in the graveyard of youthful thought and childish prattle and read a book about the merging of cosmic thoughts or she could stare through those she saw. She could live the ambidextrous life of the “girl who has it all -- except for what everyone else has.”

“I don’t believe in love. It’s all about sex,” he’d said.

She’d said nothing and closed her eyes. Partially because she didn’t agree and partially because she couldn’t agree more. And her lips had started to quake with an “I won’t be your whore” response, but she’d changed the subject to something more abstract than sex or love, and he brought it back.

“I’ve seen a girl naked,” he’d said, and he’d laughed.

“So have my mirror and I,” she’d wanted to say, but her sarcasm was muffled by the stem of technology that connected them. “I know a guy who got a 1600 on his SATs when he was a freshman in high school,” she’d said instead.

“Wow,” he’d said.

The plaster shook loose from the ceiling as a door slammed shut and she stared at her blank piece of paper and thought about turning the page.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Cold July (poem)

I can’t kick this cough
but that’s my usual fare.
I cycle through sickness
with the same drawn out tendencies
aligned with unrequited love:
hot, thick, consuming, spewing,
relentless, inescapable.

I have a cure for the common cold:
in lunges, yoga
is what purifies me.
Well, it can certainly help.
Just as it helps

with unrequited love. Outside it is July
in Boston and people hurry through
punishing rain that has dominated
for the last thirty days – what is our crime
already? All I know is I am thirty
years old for as many days as it’s rained,
a real washout so far.

Where is the sun?
Where is the summer?
When will this cough be requited?

Monday, June 29, 2009

Delayed Due to Weather II (poem)

There are certainly worse things
than sitting trapped in the second
to last row of an airplane, runway
bound, grounded, delayed due to weather.
I’ve experienced them – hands folded
on sterile laps while doctors smile
politely and say nothing directly –
cheeks blushed red with passion
and fury when love kicks my body,
already humbled, to the ground –
feet fidgeting on the edge
of my father’s grave –
But somehow this delay gives me
an additional pause, an internal hand
pressing me back, an inevitable
shouldaknownthat. Why should I expect
this trip to be any different? No journey
is easy; no flight is on time.

I Want to Hear You Tell the Story (poem)

There is a clever way to construct words,
to link them together, succinctly, to tell
the story of our lives. There are so many
ways, so many places to start, to stop,
to skip, to re-tell from different angles,
different voices, different clicks of verbal
cameras. I don’t always tell our story
well. Sometimes it’s too consuming, too vast,
to hard to iron out the complexities.
Where is the line? Verbal misdirection
points one way and slides another
especially on points of pride or love.
I have lost both only to rise back up,
new, refreshed, refined, still myself
but slightly scarred. Now my clever
construction of words requires a shift
in idioms – I don’t know what any of it means
anymore, no matter how I tell it.

Measure of Time (poem)

Flying across time zones
at night, losing the hour
I gained in reverse, I wonder
what I’ve sacrificed. Time is
a measure of what happened
when and I think I should start
keeping a minute by minute
mind-time journal of this moment’s
pastpresentfuture. Could I rig
a time zone filter so I could
continually lose and gain
increments of life, measured
by a machine, controlled by lines
of latitude? Would that be
a sanctioned method of living now?

So Many Fountains (poem)

There are more fountains
in Chicago than wind
and more revolving doors
than homeless people.
I love the speed of city,
the fast paced rush
of life in real time.
But every time I see
a bay of water majestically
filling the air with controlled
beauty, I pause. We all do.
Something stills the hurry
of humanity. It is important
to pause in the daily spin
of home, less than necessary,
but more than any sanity knows.

Morbidly Pre-cancerous on a Christmas Eve (poem)

“Love is having someone to watch you die.”
death cab for cutie

Some day I will get cancer and die from it
like every other member of my family.
I will shrink to nothing in hospice care
and hollow and whoever makes up
my friends and family will come and murmur
things about me out of earshot. I will choose
not to hear them, anyway, whoever they will be.
My loved ones change as predictably as the seasons
which is less cliché now that global warming
has jilted the ecological forces that spin
this planet. I don’t know who will bother
to hold my hand as I struggle to breathe,
struggle to set myself free from this
terrible earth. Even my best friends
abandon their posts with little notice
every once in awhile and I shrug
my pre-cancerous shoulders
and find new people to share in all
my outrageousness. I am too brash,
perhaps, too demanding, too demeaning, too quick
to turn cold and leave.

What if no one
longs to be near me when the cancer strikes?
What if they all
come back just to let me go again?

Someday when I am diagnosed
with cancer, I will tell no one
so I won’t find out which is true and I won’t
be defeated by another silent night.

Outside of the Obvious (poem)

There’s no reason
to answer, but I do.
This is what I want:
you, nestled chin, locked
on my shoulder. I have tried
to escape, move on, unlock
from you but it always comes
back to this: you call, I answer,
we join. There is no reason except,
lock busted wide open or not,
we’re never alone in this.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

On a Temperate Day (poem)

There are better ways
to do this, you know,
easy ways that involve
cliché phrases like
Shut up and kiss me.
We don’t give in to cliché.
Instead we spin and spin and spin
until I become a little tornado,
angry storm that destroys only
when I touch down, while you,
you are like a lightening bolt seen
far far away, rarely striking,
never twice. We are so close
to sharing this dark climate
but still so unable to face
into the wind and admit that we are
more than cliché, more than storm,
that we are what love could be
on a temperate day.

The Ocean (poem)

I keep finding new ways
to define love and I don’t
like any of them.
A friend says BE THE OCEAN,
let life happen as an act
of nature. But when I try,
THE OCEAN washes me up
on the same old shore. I’ve examined
this beach before, built a shelter,
scavenged for food, survived
for as long as I could.
As far as I can tell, this survival
is love and Poseidon is cruel.
He finds ways to reinvent me
on the same stretch of sand,
fool me into thinking I’m somewhere
new until the day I stumble
on my own artifacts from the last time
I was here.. It’s all the same mirage,
that’s what I’m getting at, it’s all
the same wave that brings me here.

Hello and Thank You (poem)

Instead of getting to know me,
put your lips on mine and press
with easy pressure, dance tongues
behind teeth, let them push through
to meet with pure satisfaction,
to touch tips and twine together, tongues,
pure sensation, deepening with twists
and spasms of neck and spine. Eyes closed,
you will see me for who I am
deep inside my kiss.

Certain Shade of Dark (poem)

There is a certain shade
of dark that signals night
to the mind. It’s 3:30
in the afternoon and I feel
like dusk. My mind has been wrapped
in lyrics for days now, well
before this recent bout of early
darkness. It is June and I am thirty
and there are so many places
I wish I could be, destinations for others,
a place for escape, reservations preferred
but walk-ins welcome. Saucy, sad,
and true. I am always in love
with at least two men who don’t want me.
I’m a place they’d like to visit someday, but,
like the Grand Canyon, will always be there,
no need to hurry, the erosion takes time
to show, and that kind of beauty only gets better.
They rush instead to artificial constructions
that demand immediate attention. Not like me,
patient, too patient, and part of the earth.
I stay where I am and hum a few bars
while I wait, songs that tell tales
of unrequited love, the purist form,
especially on a day drawn prematurely dark.

Rivalry (poem)

We are in the bleachers at Fenway,
Fenway a place that is ours, complete
with meeting points and staked out vantages,
and we are not having a good time.
It’s Red Sox versus Yankees and this
should mean something. But it means
less than anything and you spend
the evening locked in the story
of another woman. Why did you
bring me here? I stare you down
and you look uncomfortable.
Stop it, you say. I say, No.
You tell me no one you’ve ever dated
has liked The Dave Matthews Band
and I wonder what that has to do
with anything.

Friend of the Writer (poem)

I would imagine that it would be terrifying

to realize you’re a character in my verse,

no longer made of bones and muscle, heart

poundingly accurately alive. You’re my latest

creation. Welcome. I’m still learning

how to master your puppetry, re-create

your lines, pull your strings to determine

how it would feel to be you watching me birthing you

on this page. Don’t worry – I’m a professional

and you’re in good company. I won’t name you

and I won’t label you as anything other than how

I see you. You won’t like any of this

if you figure it out. Here’s the thing, though:

I don’t care. I’ve already put my thumbprint

on you and that will never change.

I will write a smile on your face and tell you

to relax into the paper. It’s easy and it's fun.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Take It (nonfiction)

One of my favorite photographs of my youth is me sitting on our red and brown stitched couch with my kitten Bubbles clutched in my hands. It hangs on my wall now, one in a collage of family and friends. I look at it without considering that the girl in the picture doesn’t know she won’t have the rest of her youth to nurture this kitten, that she’ll have to bury the baby before she’s even a year old. The girl in the picture doesn’t know that her daddy is very sick, sick enough to die, and that he will die. The girl in the picture won’t know that the day after her father dies, she’ll opt to go to school and her teacher, Mrs. Wright, a breast cancer survivor, will be there for her and walk her all the way home and listen to her talk. The girl in the picture doesn’t know how lucky she is at this moment, full of summer, full of light, full of peace.

The girl in the picture is a stranger to me. I don’t know what she’s thinking as her mother presses her finger on the button. I don’t know what she was doing right before or right after the photograph was taken. Presumably, she was a playing child. That child is as much a ghost as the others lost along the way of her life. I wouldn’t know what to say to her if I could reach through the paper and get to her. I don’t think I’d want to warn her. She’s perfect right now, and I can’t take that away from her.

Bubbles wasn’t my first kitten, but she’s probably my favorite. Tiny, tortoise-shelled, forever playful, forever loyal, she was everything my five-year-old self could want from a pet. Even Boo, our adopted, ornery and even sometimes frightening older cat, took to Bubbles, mothered her, looked out for her. There was just something precious and dumb about this kitten, something right. Something enduring.

My mother brought her home to me after reading an advertisement in the paper. It was a surprise, as was every kitten that arrived in our home, but this was an especially exciting one because this was the first time we were going to raise a baby. Our first cat had been a gray tabby hand-me-down from an older woman who no longer had the time or inclination to take care of her. Muffin, as I immediately renamed her, was the outdoorsy type, forever dropping dead birds at my feet and disappearing for days at a time only to return with a new set of scratches. I was only about three when she moved in and don’t remember much else about her, outside of our token photograph of her sleeping in my father’s briefcase and, oddly enough, the way she died. My entire family had accompanied me to Akron General Children’s Hospital for the in-and-out procedures of having tubes put in my ears and my adenoids removed. Of course, this meant we were away all day, leaving poor Muffin, used to outdoors and freedom, cooped up and alone for probably the longest stretch in her life span. She wasn’t an especially young cat, at least seven or eight years old, and her years of fighting in the forest had weakened many of her nine lives. I remember the fall-out of our return home vividly. My younger brother Josh and I had stationed ourselves in the family room and turned on the children’s film Bedknobs and Broomsticks, while my mother, father, and older brother Casey were two rooms away in the dining room. I heard a slightly horrified gasp from my mother and looked over to see Muffin walking through the room. I remember wondering why she wasn’t coming over to jump in my lap, since I hadn’t seen her all day, but, regardless, she didn’t. Instead, she circled around the small, round table my grandfather built and vanished from the room. Seconds later, my mother, shaken and wide-eyed came in and sat down beside me on the couch. Her skin was pale and tears hugged her lower lids. “Sissy,” she said, her voice thick. “Sissy, Muffin’s dead.” I can still remember the confused, suspicious twitch of my lips as I looked stubbornly back at her and said, “No she isn’t. I just saw her.” I had! Right there! I pointed, I begged Josh to tell her he’d seen Muffin, too. But Josh was laying on the floor in front of the table. He’d seen nothing. My mother shook her head and hugged me close. “She’s dead,” she said.

Later, after we buried Muffin in the backyard along the edge of our white picket fence and my mother bought me the book The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, the story of a boy whose cat dies, the details of what had happened fixed themselves on my brain. The story of Muffin’s death is actually a very funny one now, one that we tell each other when we want to laugh in the face of the tragedies forever finding my family. Apparently, my mother, my father, and Casey had all been standing in the dining room, Casey standing precariously close to the grandfather clock which leaned against the wall. Muffin, so happy to hear our voices, came running out from wherever she was hiding and bee-lined for Casey. And missed. She ran into the clock and died from the head trauma.

She ran into a clock and died. Are you getting all of this?

Truly a funny story, one that catches people off-guard. I guess time finally got the better of her, eh? Wink wink. Sure, but did you hear what else I said? I saw her.

I saw her.

But the person in my family with the keenest sixth sense is not me. In fact, that title belongs to our next cat Boo, a darker gray tabby who we were supposed to cat-sit for six months while a former music student of my mother’s took a job on a cruise line. Sixteen years later, she was still ruling our house and inspiring us all, until we finally had to put her to sleep. Boo was a cat with issues, shall we say, and even my father, all six-feet and five inches of him, was sometimes afraid to venture down the front staircase because that sneaky, clawed cat often hid right around the corner, out of sight, and would jump at you, hissing and spitting. Scary, this cat. But she’d suffered abuse at the hands of a boyfriend of her former owner, which left her forever skittish around people. Try explaining such trauma to a child who just wants a pet who will chase after a string.

My father, whose childhood on a farm told him cats weren’t good for anything but chasing rodents in the barn and scratching fleas, as God intended for them to do, ended up working the hardest at being Boo’s friend. He was in graduate school at the time, working on a masters in engineering, and spent many late nights at our kitchen table talking to Boo, who, like her predecessor, enjoyed sleeping in his briefcase. Little by little, my father and the cat from hell reached a level of understanding and, strange as it may sound, mutual respect.

Probably around this time is when my mother decided, enough was enough, we need to get these poor children a kitten. I never knew how my father felt about the addition of another pet, on top of the emotionally wrecked one we already had, but that could be because he was forever on the go, traveling for his engineering job at TRW, working on his masters, and being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But, then again, I was only five.

And I was overjoyed by the kitten’s perfection. We have dozens of pictures of me with my first official pet, my first “from scratch” experiment in parenting. Bubbles, who got her name because that’s what popped out of my mouth when my mother asked what we should call her, followed me everywhere, slept by my head at night, purred constantly. I don’t remember one instance of being unhappy around her, and I also don’t remember one instance of sharing her with anyone else in my family, with the exception of Boo. My mother surely took a risk bringing a baby into the house with such a tyrant around, but my father’s coaxing had relaxed Boo enough to give her an open mind about the baby. In many ways, Bubbles may have been more the answer to Boo’s prayers than mine. I didn’t need more love and security: I had everything. I had a close, unified family, a place to live, a gauzy but guaranteed future of anonymous good things. Boo, though, had none of these things. My mother often referred to her as wise, which is the best word, ultimately, to describe her. She gained her wisdom through those early, traumatic years. Like a feline Phoenix, she rose up from the ashes, and as time filtered on, I grew to respect her more than most people I knew. After all, Boo was once afraid to love and afraid to trust, but she overcame that fear. She risked herself and fell in love with my father, and she fell in love with Bubbles.

Ironically, these are the two inhabitants of my world whom I loved the most, also. But for me, loving them was automatic. I was a child of the sun, a child of summer, carefree, full of laughter, with my arms stretched and ready. I was the child my father wanted, and Bubbles was the kitten I’d dreamed of for two years. I had achieved perfect equilibrium.

Which means, of course, to us realists and pessimists, that things were about to change. Profoundly.

I was used to my father being away. He was constantly on business trips and I never questioned his absence. When he’d return home, he’d enter through the garage door, call out a greeting, and wait for us. Usually, Josh and I got to him first and he’d scoop us both up, one in each arm, and hold us close. The main thing I remember about my father is he gave the best hugs on earth, and he smelled warm and comfortable. Those first moments upon his return from wherever he’d been that week were some of the happiest of my childhood. I loved my mother, there is no doubt, but there was something special for me about my father. So when he was diagnosed with cancer and eventually had to be hospitalized, I still anticipated that sweet moment when he’d return home and wrap my brothers and me up in an enormous, overwhelming bear hug. The best we’d ever had.

While I waited, my mother’s father and mother practically moved in with us. After all, my mother was trying to run a household, take care of three children under the age of eight, and spend time with her husband. I was mostly happy about my grandparents’ extended stay at our house. My grandmother, in particular, was good at playing with my brothers and me, tolerant of our childish antics, and willing to laugh along with us. My grandfather was more the quiet type, reflective, observant. An evening with Grandpa meant a long, slow walk down the block, mimicking the deliberate downward tilt of his head, the careful folding of his hands behind his back, the every few paces quick, pea-shooter spit. My brothers and I didn’t understand why our grandparents were around all the time, since we normally visited them at their house and only on holidays or during the summer, but we never questioned their presence.

In the meantime, Bubbles was teaching me to be friends with Boo. Boo merely tolerated us all, but she seemed to be waiting for my father’s return almost as much as we were. Maybe even more. I had other things to occupy my mind, like who’d be over to play kick ball in the crux of our cul-de-sac that night, what we’d do in Mrs. Wright’s kindergarten class the next day, and what Berenstain Bears book I should read to Grandma. I had never experienced trauma, besides Muffin’s headlong collision with Father Time, and didn’t know how serious the situation in my house was becoming. Boo knew, though. She always knew. But for me, ignorance was bliss. I didn’t know.

I didn’t know.

I only remember going to visit my father one time while he was in the hospital. My mother explained to my brothers and me that he had cancer, which meant he was very, very sick, and he had to wear special clothes and had special medicine, but he was still our daddy. I still remember walking into that room, pale in the afternoon light, a buttery cream, smelling of extreme sterilization and the buzz of electronic healing. I remember my brothers being afraid, clinging to my mother near the door. My father opened his arms, though, and I didn’t hesitate. I went right up to him, stood by his side and leaned in to hug him. A photographer from a medical journal was there and asked to take a picture of my father and me. The magazine was doing a story about him because he was the youngest documented case of pancreatic cancer. It was 1986 and he was 38. The photographer said our picture would probably be on the cover. I was excited. At the time, my dream was to be an actress and I loved the idea of being in a magazine.

I don’t know if that magazine ever wrote a story about my father and I don’t know what ever became of that picture, but that was the last time I saw my father alive. And I wish to God that I had a copy of that photograph.

I wish for a lot of things.

I wish my father was a fighter. I wish he hadn’t given up. I wish his family was more supportive, more present, less willing to sit back and wait. I wish my mother wasn’t so willing to point out that my father was not a fighter, a quitter, and from a long line of passiveness. I wish my mother wouldn’t repeat there’s no reason he had to die. He chose to die, he chose to give up. I wish my father had made another choice. I wish I knew him well enough to know if he’d tried.

But if I had that photograph, I’d know, for that one instant, that my father was in a hospital bed, with a protective arm still wrapped around me. I’d have proof that there was something for him to fight to keep. I’d be able to point at it and tell my mother, See? He loved us. It’s not his fault that he died. It’s not his fault that he died. I don’t know whose fault it is. I don’t know if “fault” is the right word.

I don’t know a lot of things.

My heart was breaking for another reason, outside of my father. There was something wrong with Bubbles. She stopped eating, she stopped playing. She still slept by my head and allowed me to carry her around, but she wasn’t herself. Boo was worried. I was curious. My mother took Bubbles to the vet and came back with the same look she’d had on her face the day Muffin died. She told me Bubbles had a tumor in her throat and that’s why she couldn’t eat. She told me a tumor was like what Daddy had. She told me Bubbles was very unhappy and the doctors couldn’t do anything to help her.

She said it was time.

After we put my kitten, who was less than a year old, to sleep and buried her in the backyard beside Muffin, I felt abandoned. It stopped being fun that my grandparents were always around and my mother never was. It stopped being OK that my brothers had been afraid to stand beside our father at the hospital. It stopped being eternal summer. Bubbles had been my best friend and constant companion and now I had nothing. I read The Tenth Good Thing About Barney over and over and wondered if tumors hurt. I knew they must, though. They hurt me tremendously, and I didn’t even have one. I clung to my mother as a source of stability, as someone who understood me. She was the only person alive that I thought might love my father more than Boo or me, and if there was anyone left in this world for me to turn to, it was her.

About a week after Bubbles died, though, I was very angry at my mother. My father was being life-flighted from Akron General Hospital to another hospital to try another course of treatment and my mother was going with him. Even she was leaving us! She told my brothers and me about how she and Daddy were going to fly in a helicopter and begged us with her eyes to see this new phase as an adventure. Like our father was in some action movie and she was going along for the ride. She didn’t know how long she would be gone, but Grandma and Grandpa would be there to take care of us. I didn’t understand, and I was tired of trying. All I wanted was something normal and consistent in my life, not this helicopter extravaganza. I sat on the floor in my parents’ room while my mother packed her bag, and I cried, begged her not to go. Please don’t go. But she asked me to be brave and climbed into the car with our neighbor Mr. Robinson, her ride to the hospital.

All afternoon, I laid on the brown, velvet couch in our living room, pretending to sleep. I didn’t want to do anything but stay mad at my mother. How could she leave? Didn’t she understand? The air was tense in the house because we all understood that my mother was all we had left. Boo stayed hidden all day.

Sometime in early afternoon, though, a joyous thing happened: Mr. Robinson’s car pulled up and he and my mother got out and came into the house. She hadn’t left! She hadn’t abandoned us! I felt as if life had been renewed within me. Things would be OK as long as my mother never left, better than OK, wonderful. Stable. Content. We’d wait for Daddy to return together, my mother, my brothers, Boo, and me. We’d be happy again. Complete. There would be no need to let helicopter rides or cancer or hospitals or sadness to divide us ever again. My mother was home, my mother was home. I sat straight up from my nap.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the front door swing open. Mr. Robinson held fast to my mother’s arm as they came in the house. My mother was crying. Ferociously. Painfully. I was still smiling, though, because she was back. Standing right there. My grandparents, though, hurried to meet my mother and Mr. Robinson at the door. My mother collapsed into her father’s arms, and he was already crying. He knew what she was going to say before the words could escape her emotion-fraught lips. He knew. I backed out of the room, went to find my brothers, disappeared for awhile. I think I knew, too, but I wanted to ignore the words that were soon to splay from my mother’s anguish, I wanted to cling to the string of happiness that I’d just recovered. I wanted the door to open and it be my father, returning from a business trip. I wanted to look over and see Bubbles winding her way around the round, wooden table my grandfather built. I wanted to believe in possibility.

I don’t remember who told me my father had died, that was the reason my mother was back and not going on a helicopter ride. I think it might have been my grandmother, but to this day, I remember the fractured second of manic happiness when my mother walked back through that door, not the revelation of why she was home. Regardless, roughly a week after we buried my best friend, my father was pronounced dead, hours before he was to be life-flighted to another hospital for new treatment. He gave up, my mother would say later in one of her fits of frustration. He didn’t have to die.

When my mother was a child, her own mother died of cancer, and her father remarried within the same year. She could see the cycle beginning all over again. And even though she had a good, strong relationship with her stepmother, whom she only ever calls “Mom,” she knew the sinkhole produced by the death of her husband. A man who didn’t have to die. She knew she’d have to face her three young children and tell them their father wasn’t coming home. She knew the consequences of a lost parent and now she knew the emptiness her father had felt upon his own wife’s death. She understood more than she ever wanted to understand.

Her father wanted to close his eyes and take it all away. He wanted to remove the burden Denny’s death was sure to cause his daughter. Janet Ruth, he thought, all I ever wanted was to keep you from knowing how this feels. He wanted to break his hands free from the bondage of fate tangled up with time, he wanted to erase the sound of his daughter’s pain-pressed tears. This man, who once hid in the Hungarian woods of his childhood with the family’s cow so that German troops wouldn’t slaughter it, who witnessed a woman beat her child to death with a shoe to prevent the child from crying, whose name is glossed over by tourists at Ellis Island every year, who is the epitome of strength and survival, this man became helpless the moment his daughter walked through that door. His own seeds of cancer, his of the stomach, grew from this sense of impotence, and he, too, died a year and a half later. He couldn’t stand to see me live his life, my mother would reflect far into the future. He died so he wouldn’t have to watch it.

My father had an open-casket at both his calling hours and his funeral. He was a much-loved man, open-hearted, generous, endearing, eerily reflective of the man Josh is growing to be, but my mother wanted to keep the after-death rituals as private as possible. In the newspaper, it listed his calling hours but labeled them as “closed,” and none of my father’s family came out of respect to the listing. Daddy’s older brother Ron had the responsibility of telling the family that they were, of course, welcome to come, but he’d failed, as he failed in many things in life. Those complexities and snafus aside, I remember seeing my father in the casket, appearing peaceful and sleeping, wearing his glasses, as he did in life, and dressed in a gray suite that I’d never seen. I wanted him to be wearing his scarlet and gray sweater with Joe Cool waving an OSU pennant. I wanted him to be as familiar as possible. But nothing was familiar, nothing.

At the funeral, the first I’d attended that had not been in our backyard, I was antsy and confused. I didn’t understand what was being said or what was going on or why all of these people had come to see my father dead. He was buried in our hometown Medina, far away from the Akron church where we’d had the service, but people came to witness. I suppose that’s the best any of us can offer: to bear witness on our living histories.

Sometime around my father’s funeral, I drew a picture on a piece of purple construction paper. The crayon depiction of my mother, my brothers, and me at my father’s grave reveals my mother to be the only one crying while the rest of us are smiling with flowers, much like the ones we tossed on his casket after it had been lowered into the ground. My mother was struck by this picture and had it laminated. She still has it somewhere. When I drew it, she asked why she was the only one who was crying. My mother remembers my response, and every now and then, nostalgia brings this story up, but I can’t recall the answer right now. And I’m hesitant to bring up my father’s death, an event and topic so long gone and buried it feels suspicious and awkward to address now, to find out my six-year-old self’s explanation. Thinking about it now, though, as a student of interpretation, my mother is the only one crying because she’s the only one, to this day, who understands. So, my father died. I don’t know life any other way, and I take for granted that not all kids grew up the same way I did. My life is normal to me, but my mother knows differently.

So does Casey, who was forced by nothing but necessity to become the man of the house when he was eight. Somewhere, under his calm exterior, he knows he was cheated of his childhood. He remembers our father the best and talks about him the least. I probably talk about him the most, which I’ll admit is infrequently, and Josh more or less asks questions about Daddy since he barely remembers him.

And Boo. Who, like me, lost the two great loves of her life within timequake moments of each other. I don’t think she ever recovered. I don’t think she even tried. Certainly, time went on, and Boo represents the ultimate in survival for me, but all I’d have to do is look at her and know she would never open herself up again. And she never did, which isn’t to say that she never bonded with our family--she did--particularly Casey--but she became aloof with the goal of survival in mind. Sure, other cats came in and out of our house: first Sugar, another of “mine,” a gray tabby who died of liver failure six years into her life; then Toby, Josh’s, a black, quality-bred manx-with-a-tail who was dumb as royalty and lived to fifteen; Maxwell, another of mine, a red tabby the size of a mountain lion and striding through his thirteenth year; and eight-year-old Abigail, my mother’s, a ragdoll look-alike with stunning blue eyes and an infectious laugh, but Boo did little more than tolerate any of them. And once we got the dogs, first Maggie, an English cocker spaniel, and then Henry, a Pembroke Welsh corgi, she was so far beyond caring, she never even acknowledged their presence. Boo survived childhood abuse, the construction and deconstruction of the two people she loved most in the world, a house full of competitors, a move to a new house, more competitors, and two terribly evasive tumor removal surgeries, and only when she was nearly eighteen and her quality of life had disintegrated did we opt to put her to sleep.

Until her death, though, she was the meter by which I read my father’s presence in our lives. There were certain times, usually at night, when she would wander around our house, offering a strange yowl to the silence. The other cats would retreat to the basement, hide under couches or in corners when Boo would get like this. I never knew for certain, but I also assumed she was sensing my father, or perhaps my grandfather, in the house, even when we moved from Medina to Fairlawn. Boo always knew.

Since my father died, my life has stretched out in all kinds of directions, directions that I often attribute to his death. I am aware of how different my life would be with a father around. For instance, we would have probably moved to New York or California for my father’s job and then we would have never gone to live in Fairlawn. Or maybe we would have stayed in Medina because, with my father around, my mother might not have never been stalked and threatened by one of her sixth grade music students, hell, she may have never even gone back to teaching. Casey would have never gotten into that fight the week after our father’s funeral and maybe would have been a mellower, happier kid. Josh would have a strong sense of himself through witnessing our father in action. I wouldn’t be afraid of commitment, sure that the minute I love someone wholly, he’ll abandon me in some permanent capacity. Or maybe I’m playing the role of writer here, curious about what happens to the characters in our drama if we choose an alternative future drawn from an alternative past.

Ask the following: What if your father had put his foot down and you’d never gotten a cat? Without Muffin, would you have ever gotten Boo and so on? What if Bubbles hadn’t gotten that tumor? What if your father had beaten the cancer or what if he’d never gotten it at all?

Ask the following: Would you change anything, anything at all?

Answering would be like asking silence to speak.

The Lie That Matters (fiction)

“Lisa,” she lied.

The man didn’t laugh so much as he grunted and took a rocking step back. He muttered something no human could understand which she interpreted as, “That’s my favorite name.” She smiled warmly. It was the least she could do. The man was missing a few teeth and in need of cleansing, this was apparent, but otherwise, he seemed kind. Almost like the sort of guy she’d like, honestly, genuinely, if she wasn’t meeting him for the first time on the worst day of her life.

But that, too, was a lie. No, an exaggeration. It was the worst day of her life because she could think of nothing worse than the terrific awfulness of what had happened before she’d dodged down the winded steps of the Copley T station, inbound trains only, away from the badness; but she could think of worse things. She knew they were coming. Worse than this man, covered in heart-tugging black fur that she supposed was hair, she presumed he was a mammal, like she was, this man standing far too close in terms of American social standards, not drunk or stoned or otherwise altered, so far as she could tell, just a man being overly friendly, forcing her to lie once more, but an innocent lie this time. This lie wasn’t hurting anyone. This lie was safe.

“I have a donkey and a horse,” the man said. He was rolling the palms of his feet to the side, resting his ankles on the ground in a very uncomfortable-looking position. Even the man appeared uncomfortable through his smiles and strange acrobatics. She stared at him for a moment, the same smile she’d offered with her false name still lingering on her plastic face, plastic because she worked in customer service and knew how to smile to the general public. She could pretend this man was her customer at Barnes and Nobles, just a guy who wanted to know where he could find some Flannery O’Connor or books on wicca. She could pretend; she’d had practice. But now, she couldn’t even respond to the man, this proximate man whose breath smelled like tomato soup and lemonade, this man with blackend teeth and striking green eyes. She remained motionless, uncertain. The man didn’t seem to care. He was asking her where she was from. She wasn’t responding. She was thinking about the lie.

She was thinking about the lies that matter. Like, when she was in grade school and her mother told her the bus driver used to be an FBI agent or her elderly babysitter was a personal friend of Stevie Wonder. Those lies, those lies were innocent. They didn’t matter. They were spun out of faithfulness, derived from honesty. The faithful, honest attempt of a mother to soothe her overly practical daughter into believing life could be extraordinary. Or when her second boyfriend, a stunning peacock of a boy named Jeremy Winthrop, cool blonde hair, half-lidded blue eyes, faintly stubbled chin, all of nineteen years old, had told her that hadn’t forced her to have sex on her parent’s couch the day after Thanksgiving the year she turned seventeen, that she’d wanted it, wanted to feel his dick inside of her, wanted to lose the stain of virginity. Then again, maybe that lie wasn’t so much derived out of honesty and faithfulness as it was out of a need to believe it was honest or faithful. She could appreciate a good lie for a good cause. She thanked God every day for the good lies.

The man was speaking to her again, but she wasn’t listening. By the time she realized he was still focused on her, he was nearly screaming, “LISA!” And she remembered that’s who she said she was, thought maybe it might be a good plan to be this Lisa for the rest of the day, and fluttered her Lisa-like eyebrows at the man. No, she had never run in a marathon, but, boy, does she find it witty that, while throngs of crazed runners battle up Heartbreak Hill, he will only be running from the bedroom to the kitchen for more beer and Milano cookies, and, yes, she was naturally blonde, and yes, she tried to work out regularly. Being Lisa felt good to her, like she was somehow reborn into innocence, like she was herself again. She wanted to thank the man, but she didn’t. It wasn’t Lisa’s style, so much as it was her own.

As the man told her a story about when he was a boy, growing up in Hell’s Kitchen, she slipped back into neutral, plastic grin and all, and her mind drifted back up the stairs, back up to the trouble. There had to be trouble, of course, or else why would she feel such a need to trade places with Lisa, her invention? Yes, there was trouble, of the worst kind. She wondered if Lisa smoked pot; she kind of wanted to, but only if her new alter-ego was cool with it. But then she decided that numbness only prologned things. The lie was what was at stake for her now. This was a lie that mattered.

“How do you feel about dog racing?” the man asked. She said she thought it was barbaric; that was one thing she and Lisa most definitely agreed on. “How do you feel about lying?” she asked him, and he shuffled back a step. “Well,” he said slowly. “Sometimes a rat will eat soup.” She stared at him, stared at the narrow spark in his eyes, and heard his howling laughter fill the station, the underground cavern where they waited in vain for the train, where was that train, and he repeated his nonesense response. She told him quite sincerely that she couldn’t agree more, folded her arms across her chest, and wondered if he believed her name was Lisa. She wondered if it mattered. She wondered why she’d lied at all, she’d probably never see this man again after today. But she knew why she’d done it--lies felt good to her today. Better than ever.

She’d had a bad day and this man, this forever-chattering man, wasn’t making it any better. She closed her eyes as if that would help, but when she opened them again, he was still there, still standing too close, with his bohemian black hair and his sour breath. She was tired. She needed to get away.

Her boyfriend, for lack of a better term, asked her to leave Boston for the week to travel to New Hampshire with him to visit his brother. She’d said no, sighted work, and didn’t answer his calls for three days. He wanted too much from her, had said he loved her too fast, and she was wary of him. As much as she needed a break, as much as she’d wanted to avoid the day she’d just had, a day she knew was coming far in advance, she turned him down because he wasn’t a worthy alternative. He was too old for her, taxing almost ten additional years onto her own, and too grounded and too ready for permanence. Also, he was too short. Besides, she wanted nothing permanent. She was looking for Now, not for Ever.

“Amen,” the man said, and she wondered if she’d spoken outloud. It didn’t matter. She was stuck waiting for the train, the same as he was. It was OK if he knew. It was OK if he didn’t. She cocked her head to the side and thought about telling the man the truth.

But she didn’t. Instead, she thought about the lie, that terrible lie, that awful lie that had spun her out of her karmic balance and jettisoned her into personal power failure. She also thought about how her feet hurt and how she wished she was speaking to her boyfriend so he could sidle over to her apartment and treat her feet like his own mama. Her mind was drowning in the lie.

At that moment, the train arrived, and the man heaved one last mildewed breath at her as he said, “Stay beautiful, Lisa. It’s not easy,” and leapt onto the train. But she didn’t follow him. She sat on the bench and watched the train pull away, watched her latest lie vanish into the tunnel of darkness on the lips of a man she’d just met.