Thursday, June 20, 2019

2 Minutes. Go!

He's yelling your name at the top of his lungs. The sound reaches up into the sky, hovers at apex, and then falls, exploding into light showers. He knows that you are big and thinks he understands what that means; he thinks that you must be the most beautiful man he's ever seen. You must be able to chop down trees with your hand. You must have a blue ox somewhere. 

This is because he doesn't understand how things really work.

H doesn't know about medical insurance and genocide. Not yet. He's too young for all that. I wonder when you're old enough for genocide?

And he's looking at you like you're some kind of spirit guide. Wide-eyed enthusiasm. What do you say? Most folks consider me a loser, so you may want to find a different guide? 

The boy still thinks that flowers and birds and puppies are important. He doesn't know about the kids his age who are caged and locked in the desert, covered in sickness and misery. He doesn't know about 9/11 or Chris Brown or Syria or slavery. He just wants to play and you can barely remember how that felt. 

But you know you used to feel it.

And that little boy is going to grow up and he'll wonder just like you do. A lot of folks loved Hitler, MAGA nightmare notwithstanding - when you're living it you want to make it small. This can't possibly be real actual historical significance could, it? Yeah, but it's all about perspective. 

The farther you get, in time or space, the bigger the damn thing gets. 

Boy.

22 comments:

  1. This is why we all need to interact with children... to remind us to wonder, to remind us what really matters. This is a gut-wrenching piece, and beautiful. That it is you who wrote it is no surprise.

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    Replies
    1. It is beautiful and painful. Sometimes I look at kids and wish I could keep all that awful adult stuff from them.

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    2. Can I say it was so good it made my toes curl? Or would that be inappropriate? :)

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    3. What everyone else said. Beautiful pain. And the boy's right: flowers and birds and puppies are important.

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  2. The Watch

    It wasn’t much, but Grandpa left me all he had. He was a poor farmer on the plains of Nebraska, when there was no radio, no television, no internet. The only piece of technology he had was his pocket watch.

    It wasn’t gold, but steel and tin—a working man’s timekeeper. The crystal was scratched, but clear enough to see the minutes and hours pass by.

    It told him when it was time for dinner, when it was time for church. Grandma was a big believer in church; Grandpa, not so much. When the calendar said Sunday, and the watch’s hands inched towards nine, he ran for the fishing hole before Grandma could catch him.

    Sometimes, when I was sneaky, I joined him there, and he’d tell me the stories of how he and his sisters played with the Indians, of how he met Billy the Kid, of how stock market crashes could make men kill themselves.

    I never knew which stories to believe, which were tall tales, and which were somewhere in between. But I kept them all, in my heart, far away from the harsh light of reality.

    When the envelope came, six days after his funeral, I was pretty sure I knew what was in it, what I hoped it would be. I held the watch it contained in my hands with my eyes closed for a good long while before I realized there was a piece of paper, a letter, too.

    Scrawled in pencil—he’d never believed in pens, said they didn’t allow for fixing mistakes—I found these words:

    “You never asked me about it, but I know it belongs with you. When you open its face, think of our time at the fishing hole. And remember we never know how much time we have. Love, Grandpa.”

    I wound the stem, before I flipped open the cover. Its reassuring tick tick tick filled the otherwise silent room.

    I never noticed the scratch marks on the inside of the cover before. I held it close to the light, and saw the scratches were letters.

    “For CD, love, Billy.”

    At least one of the tall tales was true.

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    Replies
    1. Aw. I love this. And the ending.

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    2. Aw. As your writing so often does, this one got to me, but also on a personal level. My own grandfather, never a wealthy man, left me a similar watch and nothing else. No signature from Billy the Kid, though.

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    3. Thanks! and David, that makes me smile.

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  3. Part 1
    ______

    Wait. Is there something else that needs to be said?

    She sets out on the street, her Converse shoes scuffed and beat, her gait awry from a soccer injury that stopped her dreaming of the sporting life. Her eyes are asquint, always scanning her vicinity. She is a restless woman, not young but also not old. She staggers on the fulcrum of her lifespan, and it might go either way, like a ride in a dream of a playground.

    The afternoon is lukewarm, a fetid breeze coming down from the hills like the land’s breath, the breath of something ailing. Clouds herringbone the pale sky, stitched by crows moving northward.

    This town is not a good town. Few cars move along its arteries. Even fewer old women gossip in the silent marketplace. A dog whines in a backyard, hidden like the embodiment of shame. God himself might have lived here once, but no longer.

    Something follows her in the dusty streets, amid the dry beige deposits blown in from the far-off desert beyond the hills. She imagines its footprints as it takes its patient time tracing her passing.

    The light seems septic—yellow and watery and unclean.

    She stops for a moment and smokes a Russian cigarette underhand, Asian style. Considers Tarkovsky and Murakami. Baldwin and Steinbeck. Sexton and Plath. Unshed tears of poetry behind the cloak of her eyes. Deadpan. She is of the earth, this earth.

    Resuming her ungainly walk, she thinks about Anton and the cruel things he said to her last night and the night before that, and she thinks she might not have it in her to forgive him. She is a naturally awkward yet truthful woman. Some might even see that as a strength. But not Anton. Not her parents. Not most people she meets or has met. Other than her shadow, no one has ever really seen her.

    Two people, both young, are talking on the far edge of a weedy lot. She slows and catches drifts of their conversation, raggedy clouds of words, torn banners: “…and here, where all else failed…” “…sometimes a handle is just a handle…” “…and the cat pretended the dog had vanished…” “…the ocean was such a disappointment…” “…he made sure to dig much further than that…” “…why, why, why? Oh, the teacher couldn’t have known…” “…the last shop on the row was closed…” “…come back to me, chica, your eyes are filled with love…” “…but they drove over the edge…” “…the signposts were endless…” “…really, how fucking hard is it to try?”

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  4. Part 2
    ______

    Question. When you see a woman walking a dog, do you focus on the dog or on the woman? Your answer to this will determine how your life goes.

    By the weak neon sign for a salon, under a sickly lime awning, she decides on impulse to get a haircut. Perhaps for the haircut, perhaps the human contact. It’s one of only two businesses still open, the other being a pet food store. Christiana is her stylist, and she asks for something neat and sleek, and Christiana nods solemn as a nun.

    In the chair under a black shroud, she says, “I think I’m being followed.”

    But Christiana says nothing, acts as if she hasn’t spoken at all.

    “I don’t mean to be any trouble, but did you hear what I said?”

    “No. And you’re not any trouble. But I don’t want to hear about such things.”

    “Okay.”

    Her dark lustrous hair, when she emerges from the ugly light of the salon, is cut in the shape of a bell. A silent bell that won’t ever toll.

    She enters the pet food store and walks among the aquariums, bright neon tetras and dusky mollies, until the owner says, “Are you looking for anything specific, miss? We’re closing in a few minutes.” And she bows and leaves, her heart rate quickened, her face a brief rictus.

    Does the sun ever set in this town? It feels like the afternoon has been stretched like a canvas over an infinite easel, long abandoned by the artist. Like an empty metro station, still empty tomorrow and the day after. She is the rat on the rails. The fluttering litter of wan eventide. The smoking moth beneath the incandescent bulb. Detritus. Flotsam.

    Behind, the sound of something shuffling.

    This is troubling, she thinks. She tries yet fails to remember her mother’s smile, the name of her first pet, the word for love in German. She remembers releasing paper lanterns over a lake one August night, dancing to “Born Slippy” in the nineties, loving sea lions, warthogs, penguins. She almost laughs when she thinks of her childhood bear, with his one twisted ear and his cataracted eye. (His bare tumultuous patch where she’d clasped him to her heart. Oh how love erodes.)

    Her mood has improved, like a jazz riff recalled, like Coltrane, like sanctuary, like a burst of starlings from a wood daubing some English sky, like June bugs glowing in a wet twilight, like things built from hope.

    And at last she turns a blind corner and walks into the gaping, dripping jaws of the thing that’s always been so content to wait.

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    Replies
    1. Wow. I seem to say that a lot about your stories, but wow is what I feel. Like a quilt, you stitch together pieces of the world into something symbolic of it yet remote from it, something beautiful, and in this case, terrifying. And dogs. And neon tetras. And Coltrane. Magnificent.

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    2. This is indeed magnificent. I love the images. And this line: "She staggers on the fulcrum of her lifespan, and it might go either way, like a ride in a dream of a playground."

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    3. Wow indeed, magnificent, like twice...You take us somewhere and back, all right.

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  5. At o’dark thirty, John stood tall in his black vest, his sturdy boots, shoulder to shoulder with the rest of them as they were given their final orders. Again his stomach punched at him. Again his higher functions punched back, harder. Telling him that he’d signed on for this mission. That it had to be done and done right. This behavior could no longer be tolerated. And someone had to stand up for it. It might as well be him and his loyal soldiers.

    The captain continued to bark. Talking about the whens and hows and such. Who would go to which houses, what to do when they got there, how to avoid the press.

    “Wouldn’t they like those optics?” the captain sneered. “Us leading away their children? You watch yourselves out there. There’s bound to be some sneaky early risers. You deal with them and you deal with them fast. Confiscate those cameras. Break ’em if you have to. They start to squawk, call it a national emergency. Hell, the president already called it that, so you got cover. Understand me?”

    “Sir, yes, sir,” John shouted with the others. Even though he knew he was not going to break any cameras. He had cover, too. He could always claim that in the heat of the moment, focusing on his mission, he couldn’t handle the children and the photographers. Besides, he thought getting a few snaps out there might be welcomed by the higher-ups, a way to warn the migrants that were thinking of coming here what could happen if they weren’t careful.

    “Move out,” the captain said. They were split into squads and loaded into the waiting black vans. His group was silent as they rolled through the streets, last night’s rain raising a fog that glowed eerily in the early light. Then one of the young men bowed his head, mumbling, a chant it seemed like, and it grew loud enough that John recognized it as a prayer.

    The large man to John’s left didn’t like that. “Fer fuck’s sake,” he muttered, then raised his voice. “Shut the fuck up, soldier. Unless you’re prayin’ for the success of our mission. Getting those fucking illegals out of our country.”

    The praying soldier stopped, turned his head, a look of disbelief forming on his young, freshly shaven face. “They’re people, Rico.”

    “And you’re a pansy ass. You shouldn’t have even pulled for this mission,” Rico said.

    The soldier pulled himself up taller. “I pulled for this mission so they would be treated humanely.”

    John knew enough to stay silent. He had other worries. Could he even do this? He had children at home. When he first heard about the separations at the border, he’d been livid. He couldn’t object publicly, of course. He’d taken a vow to fight for his country. But he did what he could. Watched over the children. Brought them food, toys, candy. He wished he could give them promises that they’d see their parents soon, that they’d be freed, but he figured giving them false hope would be cruel. If it was one of his kids in there…well, he couldn’t even let himself think about that.
    And now this. He took surreptitious glances at the men in his unit. At their shields, their flak vests, their guns. Of course they were playing for the media. These were women and children, mostly. It’s not like they were fighting another army. He wouldn’t be surprised if the captain had automatic cameras or video or whatever and had already snuck it to reliable contacts. His fears ratcheted up higher. Another thing to worry about.

    After what seemed like a horrifically long trip of probably less than ten miles, the van stopped, in an abandoned lot where several other vans and trucks were already parked.

    John took a deep breath and said his own prayer. Please God, he thought. Help me find these families and get them away from these monsters. Help me keep them unharmed and get them to the safe houses. And please watch over the rest of my team in the other vans and the other units as they do the same.

    The captain lifted his arm and gave the signal.

    They were dispersed.

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    1. An American horror story... and you told it well.

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    2. Very well done! I've been toying with a similar idea, but can't get enough emotional distance to even make it a story. I just degenerate into blithering rant...

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    3. Enraging and heart-wrenching. The reality not your story, Laurie, which is cathartic and gives us hope that individuals will still subvert evil imperatives. And yes, to your question on FB, John's motives are clear from the start.

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  6. They were the dog days of summer, the sort of days that call for lemonade or ice cold sweet tea. So hot, that even the most rambunctious dogs longed to lie in the shade. On such days, if one looks up, you can see cloud galleons sailing across sea blue skies, or cumulus dogs chasing imaginary bones.

    But Silas Calkins had no time to look up, no time for imagination, for he was a very important man with a very important job. He kept his eyes straight ahead, but tilted a little down, assessing danger in the sidewalk ahead, from the city’s neglect in maintenance, never once thinking of the danger to his mother’s back posed by the cracks he heedlessly stepped on.

    No, Silas was a grownup now. No time for frivolity, no time for dragons, for hooky, for reading, for laughter.

    He’d received a very important note, from the president of the enterprise that employed him. It informed him that he was the last of his kind, the only person to still hold his job title. Once he had read the note, he’d looked into his very practical bathroom mirror and practiced his serious visage for forty-two minutes. He finally found just the right line for his lips to hold, just the right angle for his eyebrows.

    Now he slid through the revolving door of the plant in which he worked. His reflection in the shiny glass, the squeaks his shoes made on the shiny floor did not attract his attention. The weight of the world weighed on his shoulders. He must hurry to his work station.

    He removed his jacket, carefully transferring his ID card to the collar of his no-nonsense shirt. He sat in his ergonomically designed chair. He took a deep breath. And then he pushed the big red button. Every thirty-two seconds, precisely, he pressed the button, the very important button.

    Outside, a dog chased a butterfly. A robin searched for worms. A squirrel peered through windows.

    Silas did not notice them, for none were so very important as he.

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