give me a daisy

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Archive for the category “Unpublished ’til Now”

nightlight

Moth
drawn to the light
the nightlight

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Watch…
I am drawing light
and growing;

Drawing butterfly pictures,
spectral ink blot samples
of a state of mind,
a moment in time,
a momentary rhyme,
a sign;

Tracing the sunlight
on paper
or determining the nature
of myself
of yourself,
and the world
of light flowing,
water growing,
earth shining

On this space
between places
we have found
to live in for a while.

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the key

Big old roll-top desk

 Paul Forrester’s eyes opened. With a single jolt of adrenaline, he was wide awake and breathing hard although his body still felt heavy and numb. The light was dim, but even without consulting his wristwatch, he knew the sun was up, and he didn’t have much time. He felt for the key in his right hand, running his thumb over the curved surface and then the smooth jutting foot at the end. Paul smiled, the urgency to move now tempered by anticipation. He stretched his legs and arms and wriggled his shoulders before rising to a sitting position on the lumpy, mildewed sofa in the basement of his parents’ house. Or what used to be his parents’ house. They were both dead and he doubted anyone had been inside the place for over a year—until he broke in two days ago, that is, and started searching for the key to his father’s desk.

He hadn’t really had to break in. He could have asked his brother for a key to the house. Henry Forrester knew nothing about their father’s unfinished manuscript and wouldn’t have given a rat’s ass about it if he had known. But Paul didn’t like having to explain himself to his stolid, practical, and completely unimaginative older brother. According to Henry, Paul was willfully refusing to live up to his potential just to spite the rest of the family.

He couldn’t deny the whole thing had been impulsive: taking time off from work without notice, driving across the state, and living on junk food for three days while he hunted through the detritus of his parents’ 25 years together. It was hard not to think of them lying a few feet apart in their graves in the cemetery he’d passed on his way into town.

But now he had the key. It seemed like a fluke. He’d gone through every room in the house three or four times and given the basement a couple of cursory searches, too, not really expecting to find the key down here. He had been tired, sore, frustrated, and ready to give up. Just as he was about to call his wife, Brenda, and tell her she’d been right about this being a wild goose chase, the image popped into his head, clear and bright as if it had happened last month and not over 20 years ago.

The summer when Paul was seven years old, his father was already middle-aged, his hair thinning and his waist thickening. Paul had become fascinated with the night sky and was amazed when his father came up from the basement one evening carrying a telescope. It wasn’t very powerful, but Paul didn’t realize that then. To him it was magical—almost as magical as the fact that it belonged to his father. The two of them spent many hours in the backyard that summer, identifying constellations or just admiring the moon and the bright spots of light. They shared an interest no one else in the family had. For a few months, Paul had felt close to his father, as though they had a secret bond. It hadn’t lasted, of course. With the shorter days, his father grew distant again, closing himself off in his study for weeks at a time.

So on a hunch an hour or so before dawn, Paul went into the basement one more time to try to find the battered and scratched brown leather telescope case. As soon as he saw it it, he knew that’s where the key was. And he was right. Once he found it, he only had enough energy left to stumble to the couch, clutching the thing tightly in his fist. He was out within seconds.

He stood up and headed for the stairs. Henry had sold the property and all its contents for what was to Paul an unbelievably large sum of money, considering the owner intended to raze the place and build a new house on the site. If Paul didn’t get a move on, he would get bulldozed along with the house. Sunlight flooded the first floor. He had to hurry. He went directly to the old-fashioned roll top desk, now covered in dust, in his father’s study. The day before, Paul had considered trying to have the desk removed from the house, but he had no way of hauling it back home. Besides, Brenda would have really flipped out if he brought this monstrosity back with him.

He stared at the tarnished lock, took a deep breath, inserted the key, and twisted it to the right. Then he grabbed the round knob and pulled. The drawer slid open smoothly, revealing a small leather-bound journal and a stack of typed pages that had once been held together by a rubber band that was nothing but crumbled remnants.

A note was paper clipped to the top page. “Paul,” it began. He was so startled, he nearly dropped the piece of paper. “You and I are more alike, I think, than we’ve ever acknowledged to each other. If you’re reading this, then maybe you’ve realized it, too. I hope so. I put more of myself into these pages than into anything else I’ve written. It’s more ambitious, riskier, than anything else I’ve ever done. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to complete it. But I have a feeling that if you’ve found it, you’ll know how to finish it. Write the end of the story, son. Make it yours. Love, Dad.”

Paul felt a surge of longing for the father who had been absent in spirit, if not in fact, for most of his life. At the same time, he felt more connected with him than he ever had before. But the rumble of the bulldozer making its approach up the driveway brought him back to the present. He scooped up the manuscript and journal and headed for the back door. After a few steps, he turned around—on impulse again—and went back for the key. He slipped it into the back pocket of his jeans before departing from his father’s house for the last time.

~ ~ ~

Note: This story resulted from a writing exercise. Imagine that you wake up in the morning with a key clutched in your hand. What does it unlock? 

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San Francisco poems (1974)

last days

English: Fog at Ocean Beach in San Francisco i...

Fog at Ocean Beach in San Francisco is clearing up (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Smoke dreams,
the days went in a haze
of musky air;
green and gold and lavender
love-spangled hours,
sun-dappled minutes;
fleeting glimpse
of someone
here or there.
Yellow.
Red.
In dreams conceived and born,
short-lived,
to dust return:
finely colored ash,
dissolved and lost.

ocean beach 

I.
Splash!
and a riot of foam:
the waves
roll in,
swallowing
the beach meticulously,
inch by inch,
sucking in
pebbles and shells
and footsteps
of bathers—
unwrinkling the shoreline
and retreating.

II.
A small bird
tracks
delicately
across
the newly varnished
surface
of the sand.

55.

lady,
inking a path
thru the night;
new words,
old words—
desires
translated into safety.

sleep
with a dream
or a pen
always breaks
in the coming of the dawn,
whose grey reality will
tear the page and
rip the fabric
of the night.

the infinity of possibilities
ends here
in the clarity of morning:
I don’t touch you,
not even with my words;
and the dreams are only
dances
on the far edge
of the lush and tender forests
we could know.

56.

Sometimes a goldfish,
I swim thru
the city’s nightwater
lit brightly from the top.
Neon and stars
indiscriminately
weld their light together:
a gold fishnet
of infinite capacity.

In the damp Pacific air
all the city is an ocean,
full of frogs,
and fish like me,
and seaweed
that tangles in my hair
and ties me
to the concrete ocean floor.

Chinese restaurant (novel excerpt)

This is another excerpt from my novel in progress, Skin of Glass.

Five-Happiness-Restaurant-San-Francisco-Interior

Five-Happiness-Restaurant-San-Francisco (Photo credit: foodnut.com)

November 1990. At the end of his shift at the bookstore, Ethan intends to grab a sandwich from the deli and go home to work on his paper on symbolism and surrealism in Modern Greek Literature. But once he’s behind the wheel of his car, he’s thinking not about Greek Literature but about Eve. Again. His plan falls apart at the first red light; fifteen minutes later he’s in a phone booth on Van Ness Avenue dialing her number. It’s rush hour and the blare of traffic and stink of exhaust fumes make him dizzy. His nerves are frayed and his reflexes dulled from lack of sleep. If he doesn’t finish his paper by the end of the week, he’s going to nail an incomplete. It goes without saying he isn’t getting any writing done.

When he started daydreaming about Eve, it was a harmless fantasy. Then he began seeing her face everywhere. It’s reached the point where he has to talk to her, at least hear her voice, hear her say his name, if only to tell him to go to hell. He feels as though he’s waiting for the results of some medical tests that mean everything: life or death.

She answers the phone distractedly, but after he identifies himself, she says, “Ethan!” clearly surprised to hear from him. Possibly pleased? Or is he projecting? When he says nothing else, she asks him if anything’s wrong.

“No, nothing’s wrong. I just wondered…have you eaten yet? Do you want to get something to eat?” There’s no warmth in his voice, no invitation. His hand is clamped around the receiver, and he’s staring through the grimy glass enclosure at the three lanes of cars stopped at the corner for the light.

“With you, you mean?”

The light turns green. The booming bass from a passing car vibrates along the pavement and travels up Ethan’s body, all the way to the hand holding the receiver. He says, “Yes,” amid the sudden crescendo of gunned engines. He feels his mouth form the word, but he can’t hear his own voice. When she doesn’t respond immediately, he wonders if he actually said it out loud, if she heard him. He won’t say it again.

“Sure,” she says. “But I need to change; I just got home. Can I meet you somewhere?”

He hadn’t thought that far, but the image of her sitting across from him at that Chinese restaurant pops into his head. He doesn’t remember the name, but she does, and they agree to meet there in an hour. When he hangs up, he looks through the phone book for the address, then walks swiftly toward his car, which is parked illegally across the street. The darkness seems to have deepened in the space of his telephone call, or in response to it. He could go to the library and get a little research done. At least he’d be doing something productive. But until he sees her and settles this thing somehow, it’s hopeless to try to carry on with his everyday life.

The restaurant is on Grant Avenue in Chinatown, an area he doesn’t know. He drives across town and spends twenty minutes trying to find parking. Even this time of year, the street is noisy and crowded, bustling with automobile and foot traffic. He parks on a side street a few blocks from the restaurant and tries to walk off some of his nervous energy. It’s cold and windy; he moves with his head down, his hands stuffed into the pockets of a gray down vest, not looking at anyone, and not bothering to glance into any of the lighted store windows filled with cheap souvenirs and garish clothing. What exactly is he doing? It would have been better for everyone, including him, if Eve hadn’t been home, or if she’d refused to meet him. In fact, he thinks she should have refused. He’s already mentally convicting them of betraying Jesse, although the only betrayal so far is his, and it doesn’t have to go any further.

He enters the restaurant, immediately fortified a little by the aroma of garlic and ginger. The petite smiling hostess shows him to a table for two, assuring him she’ll watch for Eve. He orders a beer, shrugs out of the down vest, and leans back in his chair. He looks around, trying to remember where they sat when they were here for the birthday party. Several tables had been placed end-to-end. But it was a long time ago, and all he can picture is Eve and the heavy red draperies and table linen.

He glimpses himself in the mirrored panel of a room divider and almost doesn’t recognize himself. He looks like a vagrant, somewhat sinister. He goes to the restroom to splash his face with water, run his fingers through his unruly mass of hair, and wash his hands. The whites of his eyes are so bloodshot they look pink; there are dark circles under them. A clear, firm voice in his head says, Leave now. Just go. But he can’t.

He’s back in his seat taking a sip of beer when the hostess leads Eve to the table, both of them smiling as though they share a happy secret. Ethan rises but doesn’t touch her, doesn’t smile, just says her name, “Eve.” Once they’re seated, a waiter places a pot of tea on the table and hands them menus. Eve slips her arms out of her camel’s hair coat and lets it fall against the back of her chair. What now?

She takes in the room. “I haven’t been here since January.” The memory seems a pleasant one. “Have you?”

“Me?” He shakes his head. “I almost never eat out. That was a special occasion.” He has one hand around the cold, wet glass of beer. He can barely look at her. All he registers is that she’s wearing a pale yellow sweater with a high neckline, and her hair is shorter than he remembers. They focus on their menus, although he isn’t really reading his. “You’re more experienced with this. Why don’t you choose?”

“But what do you like?”

“Anything. I’m not fussy.” Afraid he’s being rude, he adds, “I’m sure whatever you select will be perfect.”

Her skin is almost white. Porcelain. He feels vulgar and coarse by comparison. Classic beauty and the beast; they shouldn’t even be occupying the same table. She studies the menu pages, humming to herself so softly and unselfconsciously it melts him, the same way Molly melts him when she sits on the floor singing made-up songs to her dolls.

Eve recites her choices aloud, then repeats them to their waiter, adding, “not too hot, please.” The waiter—Chinese, with close-cropped hair and wire-rimmed glasses—bows and nods.

“Jesse always gets the Kung Pao Tofu here. This is his favorite restaurant in the City.”

Ethan sighs. Why hadn’t that occurred to him? This is such an amazingly bad idea. Jesse is going to be here at the table all evening. Well, it’s what he deserves.

“Did I say something wrong?”

He shakes his head, suddenly drained, too tired to be here, to be doing this. “No, no. This is probably a bad idea. I’m pretty tired. Not very good company. I’m sorry.”

“You just need some food.” She pours tea for both of them. “Are you taking any classes this semester?”

He laughs. “One. Modern Greek Literature. Which I’m doing my absolute best to fail.”

They pass the time talking about teachers, classes, and homework. When their food arrives, he picks up his fork, but Eve insists he learn how to use the chopsticks. It takes him a few minutes to grasp the concept, and even then he’s far from adept. They slip from his fingers, clattering against the plate, and he drops bits of food on their way to his mouth. The rice is especially tricky. They both laugh at his attempts, but she encourages him and his technique improves.

He asks her when she started doing art and learns her father’s an architect.

“I used to go to his office with him, and sometimes I’d draw these fantastic, elaborate houses while he was working. I wanted to do what he did. In fact I would have gone into architecture, but I couldn’t hack all the math. It would have been a much better career choice than fine art, that’s for sure. But I’m rethinking that.”

“Rethinking what?”

“What I want to be when I grow up. It’s one thing to make art for yourself, but I’m not sure about trying to earn a living with it. And I can’t really say I’m driven by any grande artistic vision. I was planning to be an illustrator, now that I’ve finally mastered the human form.”

“What do you mean?”

“Learning how to draw people was hard. I was always pretty good at drawing things—structures, nature. Inanimate objects, I guess you could say.”

“It’s funny how that works. I still have trouble writing descriptions. If I don’t pay attention my stories all end up taking place in fields of white space. I guess I’m not very visual. I mean I see things but—”

“The trick is learning how to feel with your eyes.”

“Feel with your eyes?”

“I read about it in a book my father gave me.”

“An art book?”

“No. A novel. My Name is Asher Lev.”

“Oh. Chaim Potok. I read that one. Long time ago. So you know how to do that? Feel things with your eyes?”

She blushes. “Sort of. When I first tried it I focused very, very intently, but the harder I tried the more frustrating it was. I couldn’t get it. In high school I discovered the secret. Pot.”

They burst into laughter.

“Is your father an artist, too?”

“Technically, no, but he could be. He used to do these exquisite architectural renderings. When you’d see one you’d just want to live in it. In that world, I mean. But he doesn’t have time for it anymore. I’m not as good as he is.” She shrugs. “But this semester I have a photography course and I love it. Maybe because it’s new. But I can imagine being a photographer a lot easier than I can imagine being an artist. And I mean to get off the dole as soon as I can.”

“The dole?”

“Being supported by my father. He does some work for free, for community groups and nonprofit organizations, and I feel like such a leech that he’s still supporting me. I’d like to be on the other end, you know? Be making some kind of a contribution the way he does. Besides, I’m sure he has better things to do with his hard-earned money.”

“Well, speaking as a Dad,” Ethan says, with mock gravity, “I can’t imagine there’s anything I’d rather do with my money than spend it on my daughter. If I had any money, that is.”

“You say that now, when Molly’s, what? Three? Wait till you’re closing in on twenty years of financial support.”

“So would you stop doing art if you became a photographer?”

“No. I like to play with colors, textures, get the feeling of something or someone down on paper, to preserve it. Everything’s so temporary. This way I can preserve the memories.”

“Hm. Like impressionist photographs.”

“Hey, I hadn’t thought of that!”

By the time they’re finishing the lukewarm tea, he feels as though he’s been on a brief vacation. “This was delicious, every bit of it—at least every bit I managed to get into my mouth.”

“All you need is practice. But you did great for the first time.”

Her lipstick is gone, her blue eyes shining; she looks happy and relaxed, hunched over her teacup tucking strands of red hair behind her left ear. He feels a wave of affection for her. Affection. Nothing more. And he won’t ask for more; he won’t betray Jesse.

The waiter brings the check on a small black plastic tray. There’s a single fortune cookie on it. Ethan barely notices the waiter slip a cookie into each of Eve’s hands, he does it so quickly and smoothly. She blushes again, very becoming, and her eyes widen. She glances at Ethan and then at the departing waiter.

Ethan grins at her embarrassment. “There must be some super special fortunes in those cookies.” He reaches for the one on the tray, opens it with a single snap, pulls out the narrow piece of paper, and reads it aloud. “The road to knowledge begins with the turn of a page.” He rolls his eyes and crunches the pieces of cookie in his mouth. “Preaching to the converted here.”

She opens first one cookie, then the other, reading her fortunes to herself. Ethan waits for her to read them aloud, but she gives him a crooked half-smile and pockets them. He teases her about it, but she won’t tell him what they say. He pulls his wallet out and lays some bills on the tray. She slips her arms into her coat and he shrugs into his vest. On the way out, they nod to the waiter, who bows again and thanks them.

“Where’s your car? I’ll walk you to it.”

“It’s only a block away,” she says. “You don’t have to do that.”

“But I want to.” He presses the palm of his hand against her back, steering her in the direction she indicated. They walk slowly, in a comfortable silence. When they get to her car, she rummages through her handbag for her keys, and a small brush falls to the pavement.

“I’ve got it.” Ethan retrieves the brush and hands it to her. She reaches for it carefully, not touching his outstretched palm.

Suddenly she looks away. “Do you ever feel like you’re living someone else’s life? Like no matter how good you are you’ll never measure up?”

There’s a lump in his throat; all he can do is nod.

“Oh, listen to me,” she says, her tone shifting. “As if I have anything to complain about.”

But of course he knows what she means. He knows exactly what she means.

“Thank you, Ethan. That was wonderful. Such a nice surprise on a cold, gloomy day.”

He wants to say something light in response, but they’re standing too close, and instead of saying anything, he grasps her shoulders, pulls her toward him, and kisses her hard on the lips—waiting for her to push him away, maybe even hit him. But she sways unsteadily toward him so he folds his arms around her and she relaxes against him. A sigh escapes from one or both of them, and they stay like that, standing on the dark street in the cold, next to her car.

hey jealousy (a short story in dialogue)

hey jealousy

Hey jealousy
She took my heart
Well there’s only one thing I couldn’t start

–Gin Blossoms

Lakeshore Records

Lakeshore Records (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Lexie? Is that you?”

“Mark? My God, I thought you were dead.”

“Oh, no. Nothing that serious. Just got a little dizzy after working out in the hotel fitness room. Guess I was dehydrated. I’ll be out in time to catch my plane. But, wow, how amazing to see you here, Lexie.”

“No. I mean I thought you’d died years ago. At the lake. When the Wheelers’ boat sank.”

“What? Well, obviously, the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

“But—”

“You look fantastic. As beautiful as the picture of you I’ve kept all this time. I’ll bet you’re an amazing nurse. Such gentle hands you had. I remember. I’ve never forgotten those weeks at the lake, the walks we took on the shore, sitting at the edge of the pier and talking so long we got sunburned. Sneaking out behind the back of the boathouse at night. That was a…special time. You were special.”

“But, Mark—”

“Sometimes I wish we could go back, don’t you? Life seemed simpler and sweeter then, without all the obligations, the fuss, the stress. You know what I mean?”

“Mmm.”

“You must have married, Lexie. I see a ring. Any children? Can you believe Veronica and I are celebrating our 30th at the end of the year? Frannie, our oldest, is married, teaching in Kentucky—Kentucky, for crying out loud. But she’s pregnant, so I doubt that will last much longer. God, I’ll be a grandfather soon. And Paul is almost through med school. ‘My son, the doctor.’ What a cliché, huh?”

“Veronica?”

“Of course you remember Veronica. You two were best friends. She’ll be so surprised when I tell her I saw you.”

“Surprised? Yes, I think she’ll be quite surprised.”

“What’s the matter, Lexie?”

“Tell me about Frannie. How old is she? What’s she like?”

“She’s twenty-nine. Pretty and smart. Hell-bent on having a career before settling down to raise kids. Didn’t want to be like her mother, getting married and having babies before she finished college.”

“And how is Veronica these days?”

“Oh, she’s fine. Stays busy with the house and the cabin. And she has her committee work with the arts guild and a couple other groups. Right now she’s in Kentucky helping Frannie get ready for the baby. We’re both excited about our first grandchild.”

“Why didn’t you ever call me, Mark? Or write?”

“I thought you didn’t want me to. You’d met someone else, hadn’t you? It was Veronica, come to think of it, who told me you’d left with him. I was in shock when she told me, Lex, to tell you the truth. I’d thought you cared about me the way I did about you.”

“I left the lake because my mother fell and broke her arm and needed my help at home. You were off hiking with some of the other guys, so I wrote a note and gave it to Veronica to give you. She came to visit me a few weeks later. I trusted her, so I confided in her. She told me about the accident with the Wheelers’ boat.”

“Yes, that was a terrible thing. Mr. Wheeler’s youngest son, Petey, drowned.”

“But you weren’t on the boat.”

“No.”

“And you and Veronica?”

“Rebound kind of thing, I guess. And then she got pregnant, so we got married right away.”

“Well, I have some other patients to attend to. It was good to see you.”

“Lexie?”

“Say ‘Hi’ to Veronica for me. And just so you know, Mark, your first grandchild is four years old. His name is Kevin and he takes after his father. We’re celebrating his baby sister’s first birthday next week. Michaela looks just like her mother did at that age.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Veronica Rose. Your oldest daughter’s name is Veronica Rose, but we call her Ronnie. She has your eyes. Same bright blue; same long, dark lashes. I remember, too, Mark. I remember every day. I’ll get someone else to look in on you now.”

Lost in Space Again

October 18, 1989 (Loma Prieta Earthquake)

photograph of a collapsed facade of a building...

photograph of a collapsed facade of a building near Beach and Divisadero Streets in San Francisco (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sabina held the dress up in front of herself and looked into the full-length mirror. Then she turned to me.

“That’s nice,” I said. “It makes you look like Gena Rowlands.” Gena Rowlands?

Sabina’s hair was much longer and pulled back into a pony tail. The shop we were in consisted of three rooms, sort of large walk-in closets. There were no salespeople in sight. I don’t remember if Sabina bought the dress. She is real, but the rest was a dream.

When I told her friend Lee about it, she said Sabina was supposed to be shopping for a dress for a wedding next month. So I described the dream dress in as much detail as I could. Now Sabina’s trying to find this dress that will make her look like Gena Rowlands.

As for me, I’m trying to find the man who wandered into Sabina’s kitchen while I was sitting alone at her table after our shopping expedition. His hair was full and dark, his skin a light olive. He was wearing a white long-sleeved shirt and dark pants. He sat down across the table from me and started speaking in a low-friendly voice.

I was preoccupied and kept asking him to repeat himself. He told me his name was Roy Walli and even spelled it: W-A-L-L-I. He said he liked jazz and played the oud. When I related this scene to a musician friend, he told me the oud is a lute-shaped Arabic instrument and that playing jazz on it would be difficult but not impossible.

After a short time, Roy got up to go. He apologized, saying he hadn’t meant to bother me. Suddenly, I didn’t want him to leave and protested that he wasn’t bothering me at all. He didn’t appear to believe me. After he left, I drank some white wine through a straw from an oversized goblet. Then I tried to look him up in the phone book. It had an unusually large number of sections, but his name wasn’t in any of them. Later, looking through a second-story window, I saw his name on an old-fashioned sign—the kind an auto repair shop might have—on a red brick building. It felt like a dead end.

Should I run an ad in the Pacific Sun? “Divorced white female, age 43, seeks literal man of her dreams.”

Saturday was the night of the full moon. I didn’t sleep very well. My stomach was churning, my heart was pounding, and my head ached vaguely. I seemed to wake up every half hour. Deep in the middle of the night, I found myself in an unfamiliar large two-story wooden house. I was looking through another second-story window watching the full-moon rise. My friend was asleep, but I called him over to the window to track the huge luminous moon’s ascent behind two distant hills.

He wasn’t much interested in the moon and went back to bed. I continued to stare out the window, maybe a little hypnotized. As the moon rose, it seemed to grow larger instead of smaller, and to cast more and more light. All at once, it was huge and glowing, and I could see splotches of color and texture: mauves and blues and purples stood out against the pearly white ground. A large round white cloud served as a gauzy backdrop behind it.

The moon cast so much light that far-away planets became visible. Everything outside the window took on the surreal appearance of a charcoal sketch. Nothing was in color anymore, and none of the normal daytime landscape was visible. Jupiter, trailing some kind of vapor, and Saturn and its rings were so close I could almost stretch out my arm and touch them.

I was awestruck, but the thought I might be the only one seeing it made me feel very isolated and deeply disturbed. I had a sense of all these huge planets, including the earth, floating in space with nothing to anchor them. It was disorienting and frightening. I felt as if I really could fall off the edge of the Earth.

Gradually, the moon rose higher in the sky, finally becoming smaller, its light dimming. The planets disappeared from sight and the world outside returned to normal. I must have stayed up all night because it was morning by then.

My friend and I woke up around seven o’clock, talked a little, and made love. He got up, but I fell back asleep. When I woke up the second time, alone, I could still see the clear, grey outline of Jupiter in the sky, and that sense of floating freely in space, unanchored, wouldn’t go away.

Yesterday, at four minutes after five o’clock in the afternoon, I was in Mill Valley, working alone at the far end of Sabina’s studio when the earth shook half a dozen marble slabs off the walls and sent them crashing down onto her desk and her paints and the floor. I don’t know where she was—maybe still looking for that dress. And I don’t know where Roy Walli was, either. Who was that guy, and just what was it he was trying to tell me that I was too preoccupied to hear? All I really got for sure was his name.

soloist (a poem)

MOON

moon (Photo credit: Nick. K.)

You pass through glass
(thick, leaded, amber panes)
into moments . . . doors opening and closing,
exposing the visible threads of your soul
to the brightlight: rhythms of dreams,
fractured fantasies,
and wrung-out visions of a holy life.

You hold your breath and stare
as time explodes around you
feeding your senses such seductive visions of hell
(the sight of people coming and going);
and the world arranges and rearranges itself
into patterns of roads that you watch
like a TV show
for signs of life.

Someone (something) is always moving,
toward you or away,
while you remain unmet,
framed in the doorway, entranced
by images refracting to the surface,
playing them out on silver strings
(your silver wings);
playing only to the moon at night,
you pass through glass.

Terry, on the outside

If I’m out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.

― Saul BellowHerzog

Saul Bellow, Miami Book Fair International, 19

Saul Bellow  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1965, television carried the sights and sounds of the bloody march on Selma, Alabama into living rooms across the country. Agitation over the Vietnam War was breaking out on campuses and in city streets, in both small towns and big cities. But the Stonewall riots were a few years away, and gay liberation was not yet on our collective radar screen. So it really isn’t odd that my first gay friend never came out to me and likely never even realized I knew he was gay.

Terry was medium-tall, about 25 pounds overweight, ruddy-skinned, with close-cropped dark, curly hair. He wore black horn-rimmed glasses that gave him, alternately, the look of a scholar or of a mad scientist. He lived in a wealthy suburb with his adoptive parents. The woman who gave birth to him was a distant relative of theirs. She lived in an apartment above a downtown department store, where Terry used to visit her. He seemed ambivalent about all three of these people.

I was attending college, but Terry wasn’t a student. He was part of the local theater scene, of which I was a hanger-on by virtue of being friends with some student actors. We were a loose-knit group of about a dozen kids with mixed economic and ethnic backgrounds.

Terry was energetic, sardonic, funny, and engaging. He amused and entertained everyone, often making himself the butt of his own jokes. But he could participate with equal aplomb in the deep, philosophical inquiries of the undergrad set. I found him more comfortable and easier to be with than most people I’d known all my life. We also found each other reasonably attractive and indulged in some innocent—although not harmless—necking. (I once contracted a serious case of mono from him that that required three days of hospitalization and a month of recuperation.)

Unless you’re completely exploded, there’s always something to be grateful for.

 ― Saul Bellow, Herzog

During most of this time, I had a stuttering romance going with David, a thin, intense, brooding young actor/student who appeared to survive on caffeine, aspirin, cigarettes, vitamins, and cereal. David, Terry, and I hung out together, often occupying booths or counter space in one of the all-night restaurants that were so much more common back then. We talked constantly, logging thousands of hours of conversation in person or over the telephone. We were into the novels of John Updike and Saul Bellow, so I imagine we discussed Rabbit Angstrom, George Caldwell (The Centaur), and Moses Herzog.

Some people, if they didn’t make it hard for themselves, might fall asleep.

 ― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

One night in the middle of winter, Terry and I were driving around in a car I had borrowed. I forget why, but it was suddenly imperative to him to lay his hands on some money. He knew the combination to the safe in his father’s business office, so he decided to break into it. But first I had to return the car, which meant we were on foot more than 25 miles from his father’s office.

We slogged several miles across icy streets and sidewalks, growing increasingly numb from the cold, to the home of Marian-the-Librarian. Marian was the head of the Children’s Department of the public library, where I had once worked, and we were still friends. But she was in her 60s and lived alone, so I’m surprised she even opened her door. But she let us in, gave us something hot to drink, and agreed to lend us cab fare.

The cab dropped us off at a restaurant, where we ordered coffee. Terry downed his quickly and set off to try to find another car. Hours passed, though, as the waitress kept refilling my cup and giving me sympathetic looks. I realized Terry wasn’t going to return, but I didn’t have enough money to pay for the two coffees.

Eventually it got to be morning, and I called a friend to come pick me up and pay for the coffee. I never learned the outcome of that particular escapade, but it was adventures like that that often earned Terry time alone for reflection behind one set of locked doors or another.

He had several stints in the state mental hospital, from which he wrote me regularly. One weekend, David and I drove halfway across the state to see him. It was a warm, sunny, summer day, and David and I were both in a good mood. We made up names for fictional characters by combining place names from a roadmap: Crystallia Goodheart (heroine), Joppa Scott (villain), Sagola Volney (possible pen name for me). We fantasized about starting a business to provide characters (names and descriptions) to lazy novelists.

It seems, after all that there are no nonpeculiar people.

― Saul Bellow, Humboldt’s Gift

Terry was delighted to see us, garrulous and clowning around as usual: jovial tour guide of the nut house. Once he was released, the three of us picked up where we’d left off.

A few years later, he started talking about moving to Boston and making oblique references to a “marriage of convenience.” I assumed he never elaborated because he thought I didn’t know what he was talking about. It didn’t occur to me that he might have enjoyed being mysterious. In any case, he wanted me to move to Boston, too, and I considered the idea. But I ended up going to California instead, and we lost track of each other after that.

Out of the blue, during the winter of 1977, I started thinking about Terry quite a bit. I felt a strong urge to find out where he was and what he was up to, but I didn’t follow up on it for several months. His adoptive parents were no longer listed in the phone book, for one thing, and I was out of touch with everyone else who’d known him. But the urge persisted, and eventually I located the name and address of a possible relative. I wrote to him asking for Terry’s current address.

The man turned out to be Terry’s uncle. He called me as soon as he got my letter to tell me Terry had committed suicide in Boston six months earlier—right around the time I’d started thinking about him again.

I don’t delude myself that if I’d found a way to get in touch with Terry earlier he wouldn’t have killed himself. That would be presumptuous. There’s no way for me to know what was actually going on with him. But when I found out what had happened, I felt like a member of a mountain-climbing expedition who got distracted and looked away. And in that moment of looking away, I failed to see another member of the party lose his footing and fall, fatally, to earth.

We are funny creatures. We don’t see the stars as they are, so why do we love them? They are not small gold objects, but endless fire.

― Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King

how i misspent my youth

This is the second guest post from Rich Jones, who previously shared some ramblings on his place of employment, an antique store (what’s the big deal with Charles Bukowski?). Here he offers a few brief episodes from his aimlessly misspent youth in San Francisco in the late 60s/early 70s—which back then was probably the best city in the world in which to aimlessly misspend one’s youth. They may remind you of the old adage God watches out for drunks and fools.

Looking east down Geary Boulevard from 36th Av...

Looking east down Geary Boulevard from 36th Avenue. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

will work for weed

When I was thirteen, I got my first job delivering the morning paper with a couple of school chums, brothers who dealt marijuana on the side and paid me a lid per month instead of cash to help them with the route. I’d get up at 3:00am and bike to the corner where the distributor dumped the papers; then the three of us would sit around inserting adverts and folding and loading the papers into a canvas shoulder bag while smoking dope. We’d hit the pavement by around 4:00am.

We delivered papers in one of the tonier neighborhoods in San Franciso—Presidio Heights—which includes a gated cul-de-sac, Presidio Terrace, on Arguello Boulevard. Among others, it was home to then Mayor Joseph Alioto and then Supervisor, now Senator, Diane Feinstein. We had to go door-to-door once a month to collect the subscription fees. Oddly enough, the greatest concentration of deadbeat accounts, those who “paid by mail,” but in fact didn’t pay at all, was within the Terrace.

Eventually, the brothers got tired of the paper route, so I took it over as a sort of sub-contractor, still working for marijuana. I really enjoyed that job; I liked the deserted streets, the cool morning air, the walking around, and of course, the dope smoking. Unfortunately, I lost it after about a year when the paper consolidated routes and began requiring car ownership for delivery people. But it was fun while it lasted.

boots in the sand (stoner version)

When I was still in junior high, I cut school a lot to hang out with an older group of stoners. They liked to hang out in Lincoln Park, near the southwest corner of China Beach, a place called Eagle Point. It was near a contemporary style wood-sided house occupied at the time by members of a local rock group known as “The Jefferson Airplane.”

One evening, some of my friends and I were out there drinking beer and smoking pot, when I felt the call of nature, got up, and staggered downhill. Coming around a bush, I suddenly found myself treading air and plummeting down the cliff face, too drunk to be scared until I was well on my way. I was wearing a three-quarter-length leather jacket I’d scored at a thrift store only weeks before, which kept me from shredding my back against the rocky shale as I slid down.

As luck would have it, the tide was coming in, and I landed up to my knees in partially liquefied beach sand. The sand was like glue, and the only way I could move was to step out of the pair of knee-high suede cowboy boots I’d spent several months of odd job wages on (earned in the underground economy of the time) at a surplus store on Market Street. Totally shaken and scared witless, I half crawled, half waded through frigid, knee-deep water to China Beach, weighed down by my wet clothes and the leather jacket. From there, I managed to walk from 28th Avenue to 10th Avenue and Anza Street in wet woolen boot socks, raising a set of blisters the size of Kennedy half-dollars on the soles of my feet. Thanks to the cold sea water, adrenaline pumped into me during the fall, and the long walk home, I was stone cold sober when I got to the front door; thus, I managed to sneak to my room, avoiding embarrassing parental inquiries.

When I saw my friends at school the next day, they all swore they’d been completely unaware that I was missing.

fade to blue

While nominally attending high school, my wiseacre friends and I spent much of our time hanging out in an area known as “the Pit,” which was located under the western side of the concrete stands of the football stadium. The Pit had restrooms that were kept locked except for game days and a windowless utility/storage room where the groundskeeper, whom we all called “Jack T. Gardener,” kept his equipment. Jack was pretty cool. He would unlock the restroom when we had a quorum and didn’t report us when we smoked cigarettes or drank beer there. He even kept some softball equipment for the impromptu games we held in the early afternoons when we were buzzed and mellow. In exchange, we kept the Pit cleaned up and carried our empties off campus so he wouldn’t get into trouble when the boys’ dean, who shared a last name with Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, came snooping around.

My best friend, Ed Chung, was part of this group. One day while the two of us were wandering stoned and happy down Clement Street, we found a box of plastic sunglasses in the trash outside the now long gone Owl Drugstore. Their frames were of various styles but all of the same rather unattractive shade of blue (probably why they were being thrown out). We took them over to the Old Man Shack where seniors played checkers and smoked themselves to their graves in Mountain Lake Park and sorted them out. In the process, I discovered I could wear two pairs at once, with the second pair resting atop the first so I looked like I had four eyes. Ed tried on two pair as well, and we both laughed till our sides ached. Then Ed thought up a stunt we could pull, which he organized and we carried out that very evening.

Around 8:00pm, Ed, his older brother, Ray, our friend Chris, and I all met at a tennis court off 25th Avenue and smoked a joint. We then walked out to four bus stops westbound along the 1 California Electric Line and spaced ourselves one stop apart, between 25th and 32nd Avenues, where the line turns south at Lincoln Park to loop back towards downtown. Each of us was wearing two pairs of blue framed sunglasses, one pair atop the other. The bus, with only a few passengers, stopped for each of us. We got on, paid our fares, and seated ourselves from front to rear. When the bus arrived at the 33rd Avenue turn-around, we all got off. The driver didn’t say a word, but he definitely gave us the fish eye.

We managed to get through this stunt without cracking up on the bus. Afterward, we headed to Eagle Point to smoke more dope.

ice sledding in San Francisco

There used to be an ice vending machine at a Union 76 service station located on Geary Boulevard at Stanyan Street. For, as I recall, a dollar you could get either large bags of crushed ice or solid 12×12 ice blocks.

The doors through which the ice was dispensed were large enough for a slender teenager to crawl through. So we’d climb in and steal blocks of ice and then haul them the six blocks over to the Presidio Golf Course via Arguello. Along the way, we’d scrounge copies of the throw-away newspaper The San Francisco Progress which typically accumulated unread on front porches and in the vestibules of flats and apartment buildings.

The Presidio Golf Course had a hill to the west, just past the clubhouse near the Arguello Street Gate, that sloped steeply and dramatically down towards Mountain Lake Park. We’d take the ice blocks up to the crest of the green, put the pilfered newspapers on top of them, and then ride them down the manicured hill—typically stoned out of our minds.

When pursued by the MPs, which was frequently, we’d escape by crossing a deep, concrete culvert that ran parallel to the hill and was choked with blackberry bushes. After crawling under a chain-link fence and scarpering for the nearby park exit at 6th Avenue, we escaped onto Lake Street, scratched and bleeding, but free. We never once got caught.

brown haired girl (a short story)

Memory is incomplete experience.
— J. Krishnamurti

A pleasurable warmth coursed through me from chest to belly and all the way down my legs to my toes. I’d been dreaming something good. The details had all vanished leaving behind this vapor trail of contentment. I’d read that if you keep your body in the same position after waking up your dream might come back to you. I tried feigning sleep, but Delilah batted at my nose with the tips of her claws to let me know she meant business. I took her paw in my hand and stroked her soft fur with my thumb. “Good kitty,” I whispered. Not about to settle for sweet talk, she yanked her paw from my grasp and let out a piercing meow. No question who was in charge here.

I opened my eyes to confront her steely green orbs less than three inches from my face. “All right, baby. Time to rise and shine. Or rise, anyway.” As soon as I pushed the quilted purple coverlet aside, Delilah jumped down from the bed and pranced out of the room, her black and white tail pointed skyward. I pushed my feet into slippers, wincing at the sight of my varicose veins. I used to have great legs, a hiker’s legs, strong and smooth and muscular; they had carried me up the sides of more than a few mountains back when. Now they looked and felt like they belonged to someone else, less like legs than sticks of wood.

Delilah called impatiently from the kitchen, so I stood up and ordered my feet to get moving. As I passed through the doorway, the memory flooded me so abruptly and with such Technicolor clarity I reached for the wall to steady myself.

Sam and I are in his green VW bug, heading out of town on the last weekend of October. We have food: yellow Delicious apples, cheese, and bread brought by me; wine, dark chocolate truffles—my favorite—and the ever-present red plaid thermos of black coffee brought by him. The sky is amazingly, brilliantly blue, with fairytale puffs of pure white clouds scudding across. The air feels crisp and clean, as if rain-washed.

We pass the bait shop with its signs hand-lettered on the windows in blue and white paint offering live bait, boat repair, fishing licenses, and cold drinks. Half a dozen teenaged boys in ripped jeans and Rolling Stones T-shirts are hanging around the entrance to the Mom and Pop store next door, smoking and shoving each other around, trying to kill some of the time they might someday wish they could get back. On the other side of the road, sandwiched between a couple of shabby used car dealerships, there’s the no-name café with its rectangular sign atop a tall pole towering over everything in the area and sporting a single word: “Eat.” A battered gray pick-up, probably belonging to the owner, is the only vehicle parked in the gravel lot. Sam and I keep threatening to go inside and order something to find out whether the food is edible and if the place has an actual name.

Sam says, “Hey, Annie,” in that fake casual tone of his, “could you root out one of those truffles for me?”

I stare at the round glasses resting on the bridge of his freckled nose, at his sculpted cheekbones and thatch of auburn hair. He looks sort of like an Irish John Lennon. “Ha, ha,” I say, not giving him the satisfaction of a smile. “How long were you saving that one up? Did you bring those truffles just so you could get off a one-liner?”

Sam grins. He runs his fingers through my hair, which falls around my shoulders in heavy brown waves. My chest constricts.

“I brought them because I love watching you eat them. You look like you’re about to have an orgasm.”

I hate having him see how embarrassed this makes me. I’m 19, but Sam is 21, and he seems much older and more experienced. I tell him to pay attention to the road, but he laughs and starts singing can’t take my eyes off of you…you’re just too good to be true…

As Delilah’s meows approached the level of caterwauling, I proceeded toward the kitchen humming the song since I couldn’t remember the rest of the words. Delilah made small circles in front of the door, the feline equivalent of pacing.

“OK, OK. You know I’m not as fast as I used to be. Someday you’ll be old and stiff, too. See how you like it when it happens to you.” I reached down to scratch the top of her head, but she gave me a dirty look and leaned away. I held open the door to the backyard, and she stepped out primly onto the top concrete step, surveying her territory before scampering into the yard. She was damn nimble for a 13-year-old cat. If you converted her age to human years, she was older than me, and frankly I was jealous of her agility.

I followed her down the steps and felt the sun on my bare arms. It was warm, but not yet hot, and the sky was cloudless. We needed rain, but I—and my bones—loved these dry, sunny days best. Delilah sniffed around the fence skirting the flowerbed, checking for traces of nighttime visitors. The lawn was green, thanks to the sprinkler system my son-in-law had installed, and all my flowers were blooming: the marigolds and zinnias, as well as the pink Queen Elizabeth roses and the sunflowers. I’d have to come out later with a bowl to pick some raspberries; the bushes bordering the fence were lush with fat red jewels.

Back in the kitchen, I heated water in the kettle, tossed some ground coffee into a brown paper cone, and bent close to inhale the scent. I’m still a coffee addict; it’s an old habit, one I picked up from Sam, actually.

He turns onto a dirt road taking us deep into the Michigan woods. We’re both quiet now, partly because of the quiet outside, but more, I think, because the trees have stunned us into silence. The leaves are so intensely gaudy with their red/gold and burnt orange colors that when the breeze ruffles them and sends handfuls whirling through the air, the countryside looks like it’s going up in flames. But you can tell fall is coming to an end. By next weekend, or the one after, most of the leaves will be gone, leaving the branches winter-bare.

Sam pulls off the road near a picnic table. We’ve never encountered anyone else here, so we think of it as our private retreat. I relax against the seat and breathe everything in. The air smells of decaying leaves and distant smoke. I know I will never forget this smell. Sam puts his arm around me, pulling me against him. His jacket brushes my cheek and my hair falls in front of my face. I brush it away and he kisses me long and hard, with his eyes open, staring into mine.

“Want a truffle?” he says, and we both crack up.

I slap at him lightly and push him away. “Maybe later.” I raise my eyebrows and attempt a suggestive look before digging into my pocket for a rubber band so I can pull my hair back into a ponytail. We get out of the car and head for the lake about a quarter of a mile away.

The sound of a train whistle made me shiver, but it was only the tea kettle. I turned off the heat and poured boiling water over the grounds. While the coffee brewed, I went to my bedroom to get dressed. These days I avoided looking at myself if I didn’t have to, but now I stood in front of the mirror as I slipped out of my nightgown, let it fall on the floor, and stepped into a worn pair of size eight jeans. Although I hate bras I usually succumbed to convention, but this morning I said the heck with it and pulled a T-shirt over my bare breasts. My nipples poked against the thin yellow cotton. I combed my fingers through my hair, which is thinner and gray now, but still comes down past my shoulders and still has some wave in it. I reached into my pocket for one of those coated hair bands that go on and off so much easier than plain rubber bands do.

Sam and I hike to the lake and take the trail up into the hills. As we climb, we talk about all the places we’re going to hike next year in different parts of Michigan, maybe the Upper Peninsula, and in other states later on, when we’re both finished with school. He wants to try Colorado; I’m dreaming of New England. We intend to travel a lot once we can afford it, so we spend a lot of time pouring over guidebooks for India and Greece and Spain, planning elaborate fantasy hikes.

When we get back to the car, we transfer everything from the back seat over to the picnic table and spread it out on top of a brown and white checked cloth. I grab an apple, sit down, and swing my legs over the seat of the picnic table. When I bite into the apple I spray juice everywhere.

Sam laughs and sticks his hand out. “Hey, be careful with that thing. It appears to be loaded.”

I make a face at him and laugh, too, trying not to choke or spit out apple bits. Sam cuts hunks of bread and slices of Swiss cheese and arranges them on paper plates while I unwrap the box of truffles, trying not to drool all over them. He opens the wine bottle with his Swiss Army knife. It’s inexpensive Cabernet, but at least it isn’t screw-top. He fills two paper cups halfway and hands one to me. I switch the apple to my other hand, wipe my palm on my jeans, and take the cup from him

“To us,” he says, winking and giving me a crooked, sexy smile.

My heart is so full I can hardly stand it. “To us,” I whisper back. Our toast feels ceremonial, like we’re making a do-or-die promise to each other, a vow, serious and holy. The forest, too, seems alert to the subtle change in atmosphere. And me, I’m wide open and ready, on the brink of the rest of my life, my beautiful life with Sam, who is strong and smart and funny and everything I will ever want or need.

Three sharp raps at the back door preceded the sound of Sandra’s voice. “Mom? You in here?”

“Coming!” I headed back to the kitchen where I found Delilah winding herself around Sandra’s legs. “You,” I said to the cat. “Back so soon?”

Sandra glanced at my chest before looking me in the eye. “I was on my way home from swimming and thought I’d stop by.”

“How nice. Would you like some coffee?” I lifted the plastic cone and offered her the mug of brewed coffee, but she shook her head.

“Not yours. I’ll fix my own.” She set her purse on the counter and carried the tea kettle to the sink to refill it. “Have you eaten breakfast?”

Sandra had recently taken to stopping by unannounced either to nag me or to see if I’m showing signs of losing my marbles, I’m not sure which.

“Nope.” I took a sip of black coffee, sighing as the caffeine kicked in. “Not hungry yet.”

“Mom, you should eat something in the morning. Even if it’s just toast.”

“You’re right. I’ll pick some raspberries in a minute. You can take some home with you for the kids.” I pulled out a chair and sat down at the oak table, watching my dark-haired older daughter carefully measure coffee into a fresh paper cone. She took after Philip, her father; practical people, both were neat, cautious, and meticulous, always busy-busy-busy, darting about, weaving their webs of safety and security around themselves and everyone close to them. Time and repetition had worn down my resistance to their ministrations.

Resting my elbows on the table, I gazed out the kitchen window past the cloud of peonies blooming against the fence on this side of the yard, toward the pastel haze of the eastern mountains. Sam. I hadn’t let myself think of him in years, allowing those memories to fade as the color of my hair has faded, to grow as brittle as my old bones. But what harm was there in indulging myself now, after all this time?

“You know what would go great with this coffee?” I said. “One of those dark chocolate truffles. With an Amaretto center. No, not Amaretto. Gran Marnier.” I could almost taste it. “Doesn’t that sound absolutely…um, really good?” I’d almost said “orgasmic.”

My daughter whirled around to face me. “What are you talking about? Mom, you’re not eating candy for breakfast, are you?”

I could just hear Sandra’s outraged report to her sister, Christine: “She’s eating chocolates for breakfast. Chocolates filled with liquor!” Chris would correct her: “It’s not liquor; it’s liqueur”—completely missing Sandra’s point and making a distinction that would be lost on her sister.

I stared into the dark steaming mug on the table and felt my lips twist into the smile of my younger self, slim-hipped and strong-legged; a little shy, but game, and impatient for the adventure to unfold. I had been so confident in Sam’s and my love, so certain of what the future held. There was so much I hadn’t known, so many things I couldn’t possibly have foreseen.

The cat curled up next to my bare feet purring, reminding me of who I was here and now—and where. But when I closed my eyes, the spirit of that eager young girl slipped into me, transporting me back to Michigan on a late-fall day amid flaming leaves and hushed, crystal-clear air, where I was poised—or maybe not exactly poised, but there—on the brink, with my whole life, for better and worse, still all out in front of me.

Maybe that girl would have been as scandalized as Sandra was at the idea of eating chocolate truffles for breakfast. But she would have been willing to do it. At least once.

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