Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket

For Max B., whose lifelong exile
From Germany, his native country, ended while
He was crossing Central Park West
At 69th St., on December 27, 1950, to see his latest
“Self-Portrait” at the Met.
(At 66, a heart attack felled him on the street.)
In almost every one, a cigarette
Jabs out at us, as he contemplates a secret.
Max, what is it?
Some vestiges of Paris or Berlin, the twilit
Faces, like death-masks, at a cocktail party? The earth
Swerves under them. Five years later, my birth.
Now I’m five years younger
Than when Max died. Five years, and I wonder
What comes next. I can feel Max’s restlessness
At the Plaza and St. Regis
Hotel bars, his favorite haunts. Alone, he’d sketch
The ruddy patrons, their scowls.
Everyone’s unhappy, everyone needs to retch
From the bottom of their souls.
In New York, in a bar, I love the space
Between my glass and the mirror. I see my face
That’s older, closer to my father:
Glasses, jowls, a bristle of gray hair. I gather
Data in a one-to-one survey.
I’m at the Met today
To see Max, and to ask him how it feels
To live apart. Is it as real as
His other life a lifetime ago, the grimy Weimar dives
Where he was king? How many lives
Do we each get? At the Met
Max glares back at me in his blue jacket.

 

 

About the Author: Gary Duehr has taught poetry and writing for institutions including Boston University, Lesley University, and Tufts University. His MFA is from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. In 2001 he received an NEA Poetry Fellowship, and he has also received grants and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the LEF Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Journals in which his poems have appeared include Agni, American Literary Review, Chiron Review, Cottonwood, Hawaii Review, Hotel Amerika, Iowa Review, North American Review, and Southern Poetry Review. His books of poetry include In Passing (Grisaille Press, 2011), THE BIG BOOK OF WHY (Cobble Hill Books, 2008), Winter Light (Four Way Books, 1999) and Where Everyone Is Going To (St. Andrews College Press, 1999).

From Now On or Bust

by Melanie Lee

     Today was Day Three of what everybody in the whole world said was From Now On and my knees were going to buckle but I said they didn’t hurt. Kids were playing. I gave my mother a peck instead of a hug. I would see her again the next morning, probably — she told me again that she had to come home from work after I went to bed. Ophelia would pick me up and take me home. I pictured Ophelia and pushed all the fluttering down my arms as I walked past Miss Cecil into the noisy clouds of Kindergarten. Mommy waved her hand near her high cheekbone before she left. I walked around the groups until it was time to do whatever Miss Cecil said.

     This was how the rest of the days the rest of the year went.

     After lunch Denise would climb the monkey bars, jut out her jaw like a pirate, swing and jab all around with her air sword. A strip of her brown bangs always dropped over her eyebrow when she turned to face this way. Each time I started to climb higher, she scrambled over the bars to block me. When I told Miss Cecil that Denise wouldn’t let me go high, she told me to talk to her tomorrow.

     I faced Denise. “Miss Cecil said.” I walked over to the edge of the bars and climbed up, then clambered sideways to the center. This was going well. But Denise closed in, locked and stuck out her jaw even more, squinted the points of her eyes even tighter and swung her sword wider. “I’ll push you off.”

     I considered huffing bravery, but I checked and it was a lot of bars down. I hated seeing me all crumpled at the bottom so letting Denise win was nothing. Bar by bar, I climbed all the way down. I found something new: a soft path of square red tiles made of rectangles and triangles. I followed it until I found a bench between two painted wooden towers set up like a storybook. There wasn’t any door to the towers, but even so, the bench was where I went during lunch.

     Late one afternoon, Miss Cecil and her assistant told us to form circles between the bench and the monkey bars and hold hands. They told a songstory I couldn’t hear most of but everyone else was walking around and I walked with them. They peeled us off into lines, saying we were getting our coats for a journey over mountains, through jungles, to animals in a faraway country. 

     I was ready for the trip. I bounced on my toes. My eyes got bright. I would leave Denise, Miss Cecil and Ophelia far behind, all alone forever. Maybe Mommy would come sometimes.

     The lines stopped in front of the cubbies. I waited for Thomas to get his coat on before I walked to mine. When I was pulling my coat from its hook I froze in a flash of newest knowing: we were just going home. Not going on a journey or seeing animals. Not leaving anyone here. Ophelia would be downstairs with the mothers in a few minutes.

     I was stuck in my throat. Stuck… I turned my head. The other kids were black figures between me and the sunlight coming over from outside through the windows.

     I swung my eyes around again for anything that knew me. My book bag was rumpled on the floor of the cubby.

     “I need to get my coat.” It was Cathy. I looked at her. Long blond hair, blue eyes. I looked at my bookbag.

     “Move. I need my coat. Miss Cecil.”

     Miss Cecil came up beside me. “People are waiting. Put your coat on. Let Cathy get her coat.” I did. The line moved. I crushed my ribs in, went wherever Miss Cecil led me. I kept everything in about that day, and many more, except for what wouldn’t stay in, like the vomit.

     That came the next day at lunchtime and the next and the next. The teachers didn’t yell at me at school. Lucky me. But I found out they did tell Ophelia.

     The train was rocking on the subway tracks home when she told me what they’d told her.

     “No I didn’t.” 

     “Don’t lie or I’ll slap you.” I hadn’t heard about slaps before. The train rocked some more. “I want you to stop throwing up. I’ll slap you if you do and I’ll slap you if you lie to me about it.”

     I stopped vomiting a few days later, slap free. Smart and safe, that was me. Then my lips started bleeding while I was asleep. Sleeping next to Mommy didn’t stop it.  Sometimes I’d wake up feeling blood running out my lower lip down my chin. Fast flutters about the blood falling on the bottom sheet were rising, so I had to think faster than the blood falling. I picked up the top sheet and squeezed my lips into both sides. Brown spots all over my side of the sheet showed me what my lips were like. I showed Mommy.  She said not to worry, got up and went to work without a stop.

     Ophelia looked at the sheets. “These will be hard to wash. Stop using them.” I couldn’t see any of the spots from the hall. “Use a tissue.”

     I forgot not to use the sheet the next day but a slap never came, even though Ophelia was around all day. By two days later, I’d learned the value of tissues. It was a lot of work to reach the box every day. I was surprised when my lips stopped bleeding soon.

     I walked around our apartment slap-and-word free. Ophelia was in everything, then.

 

 

About Melanie Lee: I live with my husband, daughter, our dog and hedgehog across the street from a beautiful park. I write memoir and poetry. onegreendolphinstreet.com

Customer Service

by Robert Paviour                

 

     It was time for our annual migration north to escape the blistering heat of Gritland. I was deputized to call the Bank of the Alleghenies to tell them we would be ringing up charges in New England.

     I got ‘Denise.’ “What kind of name is Garou?” Her accent was mostly flat, with a tincture of Redneck. Young. 

     “Cajun, I was told.”

     “Cajun?”

     “You need to study history.” 

     “Not my best subject, but I’m a star at IT,” she said. “So where are we going?”

     “Well, like I said, New England.”

     “Very good, Mr. Garou. Which states, please?”

     I thought saying New England would suffice, but I was wrong. “Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts. We’ll stop in Plattsburgh New York, too.”

     “That’s not in New England, is it?” said Denise.

     “Think about it: We have to drive through other states to get there.”

     “What other states?” After I listed them she said, “How about Michigan?”

     “Is that a trick question? Last I heard Michigan was not in New England. Did they move it?”

     “Well, some people go there.”

     “No doubt took a wrong turn. Denise, where did you learn about geography and history?” 

     “Fargo. Been here all my life. This is my dream job, with a chance of promotion!”

     “I’m sure you’ll go far.” 

     “Thanks, but let’s get back to your trip: some of the places you’re going are high risk.”

     “You think? Plainfield, Vermont? Freedom, New Hampshire?”

     “You’d be surprised. Let’s confirm your phone number in case we need to temporarily suspend your cards.”

*

     A few days later I was packing. My wife Estella was not happy: “You said we’d be gone by 10:00, Beau.”

     “I didn’t say AM or PM. I had to water my plants and call the Medicine Man for a refill of ‘Valium.’”

     “You don’t need to talk in code to me; what you need to do is lay off weed.”

     “When I die.” Both of us got cranky before going away.

     Once we got rolling we set a good pace, going northwest from Church Hill, Virginia. It was mid-summer; chicory lined the road, and the incense of blooming mimosas wafted in the air. Much later, I missed a turn when we got into New York State, which cost us 10 minutes. The low fuel light had lit up, addling me. Fortunately Estella was snoozing. I pulled off at Port Crane and filled up, using my BofAl credit card.

     I was returning the handle to the pump when my cell rang. “This is Denise. Did you know you could have paid eight cents per gallon less if you had stopped in Binghamton?”

     “Binghamton? Talk about high risk!” I made that up. “Anyway, I was lost.”

     “High risk? But I see what you mean about that turn on to I-88 -- tricky. I’m looking at Google maps.”

     “Right. Thanks, Denise.” This seemed a little irregular, but I knew that the Bank of Al was striving to improve customer relations after bad behavior during the Great Recession. 

     Estella woke up when she heard me talking. Damn! When I told her what Denise had said, Essie was less patient. “She was too easy on you. You weren’t paying attention — I told you about that turn off 81.”

     “Thinking of directions and gas at the same time was too much. I didn’t want to be a distracted driver.”

     “You are terminally distracted. Perhaps Denise can find someone else to drive my car.”

     I ignored her to focus on driving, going for another few hours then stopping in Schenectady. Estella had reserved a room at the Broadway Inn, one of her favorites.  Movie stars, musicians, and celebrities had stayed there in better days. It had a genteel air, but now the carpeting was frayed, the elevator creaked.

     Still, the staff knew how to play it up when Estella made her grand entrance: “Ms. Garou! What a pleasure!” I thought they were going to break out the bubbly.

     Essie’s hazel eyes twinkled and she said, “Is the media coming?” They laughed. She could light up a scene when she wanted to: bright smile, waves of true blonde, leggy, quick repartee. Flirty in words and dress. 

     Her mood lifted, and after unpacking we headed out for dinner. We agreed it would be nice to eat outside, and Mexican Radio had patio seats. I tried a “UFO,” a wheat beer with a slice of orange on the plastic glass.

     “Not your style,” said Essie. 

     I tasted it and made a face. She shook her head. The Mexican paella was fine, but the UFO was a dud. I drank it anyway. Essie tried to stop me from ordering a Sierra Nevada to wash away the bad taste. “You’re getting a belly.”

     “That’s Baby Beau you’re talking about.” She hadn’t heard that one, and smiled.

     We paid up with the BofAl card and were walking back to the Broadway when my phone rang. “I should have warned you not to order that UFO.”

     “How would you know what I like or don’t like, Denise?”

     “It doesn’t fit your profile. You usually buy IPAs. There was a new Hop-Scallion Rave on the menu.” 

     “Denise, I already have someone to tell me what to like or not like — she’s called a wife. Anyway, that Hop-Scallion is not a true craft beer — it’s made by Budweiser and is proof that if you put hops in piss, people will drink it.”

     “Ugh. I didn’t know that. Bud is Al’s stock pick of the month. I’m trying to be helpful, Beau. The BofAl wants us to be there for our customer.”

     Had I gotten carried away? It wouldn’t be the first or last time. “Sorry, honey. You’re only doing your job.”

     After I hung up, Estella said, “Was that the generic ‘honey?'” I nodded. “Don’t lead the poor girl on. She doesn’t know that the problem is you won’t listen, no matter how many people tell you.” 

*

     I had trouble sleeping that night, thinking that these two women were micromanaging me. I was groggy at breakfast and had several espressos. 

     Essie was getting into her playful travel mode now, chatty, excited about seeing Dude and Bunny, friends in Plattsburgh. We took the Northway, and traffic faded when we got past Glens Falls. Not long before Schroon Lake there was a sign advising us of no services for the next 70 miles. 

     After that binge on espresso, I had to make a pit stop at the High Peaks Welcome Center. Estella tried to text Bunny, but we were in a dead zone, surrounded by gnarly mountains. I was coming out of the rest room when I heard a pay phone ring. Out of curiosity I picked it up.

     “Leave immediately!” said Denise. “The Zombies are coming — a vicious motorcycle gang! They rape and pillage!”

     “In the middle of the week?”

     “Step outside! You’ll feel the earth shaking! You can hear their roar. They tore up Fargo like a twister! Get out while you can! You may be big, but you can’t fight off the living dead.”

     “Denise, why are you speaking in exclamations? And how would you know how big I am?”

     “I scanned your medical records. By the way, you need to watch your cholesterol. I saw your picture — you look like a big cuddly bear, but don’t you ever trim that beard?”

     “Gurr! You’ve been talking to Estella.”

     “No. But stop wasting your breath — run!” 

     I hung up. Essie was out by her car. I heard the growl of unmuffled hogs approaching. “Denise says there’s a zombie jamboree coming.”

     Essie blew a bubble and popped it, smiling lazily. “Finally I can get someone to dance with me.”

     “You’re too old to be chewing bubble gum.”

     “I’ll switch to tobacco.”

     We were pulling out when a few Harleys chugged in, driven by paunchy grey beards, forward scouts of the Zombies. As they stopped and got off, I saw that they didn’t have that herky-jerky zombie gait, only arthritis. Several more arrived, with faux-trashy fem Zombies in the sidecars.

     “They don't appear dangerous,” said Estella. “I’m not sure of intel from Denise.” 

     “She’s an excitable girl,” I suggested. Indeed, no Zombies gave chase, shooting out tires, swinging grappling hooks.

     Before long we were in Plattsburgh, crown jewel of the hardscrabble North Country, a former base of the Strategic Air Command. We checked into Motel 6 - not Essie’s first choice, but it was my turn. “We need to save money after the Broadway. And they don’t charge for Internet service.” 

     She protested: “There are shifty-looking people in the lobby.” 

     “Makes me feel at home,” I said. In our room there was a sign from management that the TV would not work if removed. I peered out the window. Beyond the gated parking lot was a shopping center, shuttered except for a “Condoms Galore” store. 

     We unpacked and went to visit Dude and Bunny. I had lived with them in the “Last Gasp” commune across Lake Champlain in the late 70’s. Don’t ask how I ended up in Vermont; all I am authorized to tell you is that mistakes were made.

     Dude and Bunny put out artisanal cheeses and beers from Quebec. We topped them off with a smoke, sitting on the deck. Estella made a show of waving it away. 

     Dude had set up his laptop so we could Skype with friends. There was a slide show of pictures from the Last Gasp: gathering blossoms for dandelion wine, dancing at a party, bottling that god-awful home-brew – Dude and I came up with my first advertising jingle, “The Beer that Bothers!” 

     “What a time we had at the commune,” Dude said. “Some certifiably crazy shit!”

     “What I can remember,” I agreed, “was great.” Memories came of skinny-dipping in the green Huntington River, incandescent maple leaves in fall, and the Mayor offering us a bucket of fresh perch from his ice fishing. No cell phones, no laptops. 

     “Folies à deux,” said Estella, interrupting my reverie. “You fed each other’s craziness. Some lost too many brain cells and never recovered from all that fun.” She stared at Dude and me.

*

     Later we went for a walk over to the Boat Basin, speedboats, cabin cruisers, and yachts bobbling in blue waves. “The Quebecoise moor their boats here – cheaper than Burlington,” said Dude. 

     To the east I could see the Green mountains, poking up like jagged old teeth. I was surprised by a pang of longing to go back. My cell rang. 

     “What’s that woman got against a little partying?”

     “Denise - what, how…?”

     “The web cam. What’s a commune?”

     “A group of strangers living together in splendid squalor, re-creating families they had run away from.”

     “What happened?”

     “What always happens: we began pairing off and having kids. Nothing spoils fun like kids.” I paused. “Hey Denise, is this a social call? I appreciate you watching my back, but can we dial down the surveillance?” 

     “I thought I was being neighborly,” she said, sounding dejected. “Guess I’ll never get that promotion.”

     “Hey, you’re fine sweetie.”

     Of course Essie overheard. “Now its ‘sweetie.’ Things are heating up!” 

     We followed a walkway back downtown. The temperature was rising, but humidity was low, nothing like the steamy South. As the others talked and window-shopped, I went to get money from the BoAl ATM.

     Before I could slip the debit card in, my phone rang. “Denise!” I said. “What an unexpected pleasure!” 

     Now she was all business. “This is a high risk area.”

     “Dangerous like that geezer motorcycle gang?”

     She stuck to her script. “I can’t let you withdraw money.”

     “Denise it's 3 PM and broad daylight. There’s a Plattsburgh PD squad car across the street.”

     “The Russians were in Plattsburgh to spy on the SAC base. When the Soviet Union collapsed, some agents stayed, recruited by the Russian mob. They have a cell in the PD. I have reason to suspect there may be a skimmer on the ATM – I called to get it cleared.”

     “Denise, you are whacked. You need to get out, stop learning history from CSI. Give it a rest.”

     “Like you say, I’m doing my job. I’m freezing your card until I make sure the ATM is clear.”

     “Denise!” She had hung up on me. I thought of calling to complain, but if she got fired, the poor kid might have to be a roustabout or worse in the shale fields.

     Estella saw I was jammed and asked, “What’s up?”

     “Denise has frozen our debit card. She said this is a high risk area.” 

     “About time somebody said no to you.”  

     We made dinner plans with Dude and Bunny, and split to go back to the motel. I took out my laptop to scan emails and baseball scores. Estella said, “It’s stuffy.” She freed up the top buttons of her blouse and went over to the windows but couldn’t open them. She tried the AC to no avail. “It’s too warm! I’m suffocating!”

     “Feels balmy. Take off some clothes”

     “Your solution to everything. Anyway, it smells rank in here. I’m calling the front desk.”

     I shrugged: no one could stop her when she got cranked up.

     Soon there was a knock. Essie peered through the peephole and asked who it was.

     “Maintenance. We get call from Stella Garoot.”

     Frowning, she opened the door. A stumpy man walked in, dressed in shorts and a loud shirt, with gold chains around his neck. She said, “It's Estella Garou.”

     “Me Alex. Problem?”

     “The AC’s not working.”

     “Ah, too hot. I fix.” He turned the dials. Nothing happened. He scratched his head.

     Estella stood, tapping her feet. When had she begun to put red nail polish on her toes? “Do we need a room change? Where can I find a competent member of your species?”

     “Please pretty Miss. I fix. Two minutes.” I noticed him staring at her partly unbuttoned blouse. So did she, folding her arms. He took out a small rubber hammer, giving the whole unit a whack. It started with a blast of frigid air.

     I got the brunt of it. “Too cold! We don’t need another ice age.”

     “It’s fine,” said Estella.

     Alex reminded us, “Turn dial if you want up.” He made a circling motion in the air at about Essie’s chest level, then bent over to demonstrate. The unit stopped. He turned the dial back down and gave it another smack, creating an arctic gale.

     “Perfect,” said Essie. “If you don’t like it, go see if we can change rooms.”

     Alex seemed inclined to stay, hoping he could help her with those buttons. “Come on,” I said.

     “Leave hammer?” asked Alex, glancing at Essie.

     Once we were outside the room, he shambled off, hammer in hand.

     I went up to the front desk but the only room available allowed smoking. As I walked back, my phone rang. “Denise.”

     “I could see it all on the cam. Does she always complain about the heat?” Her voice sounded slurred.

     “It was the second-hand smoke. Denise, I think you’re getting over-involved.”

     “Estella treats you like dirt!” She got louder. “I don’t think she understands your needs. I do.” 

     “Denise, this is way too personal.” I ducked into an alcove with vending machines and ice. “Essie and me are fine. There’s no perfect relationship.”

     “I’ve been studying your phone records. I saw a series of 900 calls. Our algorithm indicates potential for infidelity.”

     “Is nothing sacred? Now you think you can read my mind! Well, the 900 calls were her idea. Even if my life is an open book on the Internet, it’s not very well written.”

     “Would you like to know what I’m wearing?”

     “No! Denise, you’ve flown off the rails.”

     “Congratulate me, Beau baby! I’m celebrating. I’ve been promoted. Turned out there was a skimmer on that ATM.”

     I felt gobsmacked, but managed to say, “Well done, Denise, but maybe you shouldn’t drink on the job.”

     “Pshaw! You’re not my Daddy. Look who’s talking about alcohol. Shame on you for making fun of my lack of education. What’s wrong with CSI and a few Buds?”

     Nailed. Again. “Just playing, Denise. Sorry.”

     “If I had an itchy finger, I’d send in the drones, teach you a lesson.”

     Had she flipped? “Don’t joke about that, Denise.”

     “Just playing. I can tell you like to play.”

     How could I get out of this? “Denise, it’s hard to think of you as other than my IT expert.” Change the subject. “Can we stick to the cards for now?”

     I heard a deep sigh. “I’m not sure I’ll ever find anybody.”

     “Denise, you’re so hot the phone is sizzling. Besides, you got a great personality.”

     “Thanks Beau. I have had a few hits.”

     “I’ll bet. Say, can I use that ATM now?” 

     “Give me a minute.” While she checked, I began to develop a plan that would have me hiding in Vermont, like I did years ago. It might take more work to not leave a trail, though they hadn’t embedded chips in me yet.

     Denise clicked back. “Beau honey? It’s all clear.”

     Honey? “Great. I’ll head over.”

     “I’ll update the traffic patterns.” 

     “Denise, this is Plattsburgh.”

     “Remember, you can get lost anywhere, Beau. Don’t forget your hat. Doctor’s orders. Al and me are always here to serve you.”

     Would I be served broiled or grilled? I put the cell carefully on top of the ice machine. I never liked that phone anyway, especially because anyone could reach me anywhere – or follow me. I heard it ringing as I walked away.

     I would have to act quickly. Probably I should trash the computer, too. The cost of anonymity is high. I doubted Essie would mind leaving. She likes Vermont too. I’m not sure how she’ll feel about calling her bank to say we’d be using their cards.

 

 

About the Author: Robert Paviour worked as a journalist and later shifted careers to a general psychotherapy practice in Charlottesville Virginia, where he lives. Now he has relapsed to writing fiction and telling whatever whoppers he may choose. Any previously published stories were in disreputable or defunct magazines.

Once By The Pacific

Dear Nicky,

     I am your father. You probably think ill of me, if you think of me at all. But here I am. And I’ve been thinking about you. So I’m writing to offer you a deal.

     I’ve learned through the Internet that you’ve been accepted as a freshman at the University of Virginia. I’m guessing you could use some money.  

     I have the means to guarantee four fully paid years of college. But there’s a condition. Before I pay the big bucks, you must fly out to California. You must meet...

... Your father

     A check for $1000, signed by Reynolds James, is folded in the letter. 

     “Send it back,” my mother says.

     “He says he’ll pay for my college,” I say.

     “Don’t trust him!”  She’s in my face.  “He ran out on you and two-timed me.”

     “Mom, I want to go to college.  How else am I going to get there?”

     “Get a job.”

     “Like you, at ten dollars an hour?” We’ve been over this road for months, ever since I got accepted. She doesn’t want me to go to college.  She’s afraid I won’t come back.  

     “You smarter than me,” she says. “You can get secretary work.”

     “I’m going, Mama.”

     She’s holding onto me. I can feel how hot her face is. “Don’t go!” 

     I kiss the top of her head. “It’s just a visit, Mama.”

     “I know him,” she says. “You don’t.”

     “That’s why I got to go,” I say. 

     Because he’s out there, thinking about me, waiting for me.  Because he’s my daddy and I’ve been wanting a daddy all my life.

~

     “What did he look like?” I ask Mama shortly before I take off for California. She’d cut all his pictures out of the album and burned them.  

     We’re sitting together on the porch swing after dinner. She’s brought a beer out from the kitchen and every once in a while she puts the can up against her forehead to cool herself off.  Her flip-flops don’t reach the floor.

 “Red hair, curly. About six feet. Athletic. He was a looker. Body like a baseball player, if you know what I mean, long and thin, butt sticking out. You favor him.”

     “My butt does not stick out.”

     I do have one memory.  He’s picking me up, holding me high above his head.  We’re in a room, could be our same tiny living room.  And he picks me up, light as a feather, he says, and holds me high until my fingers brush the ceiling.  I remember looking down at Mama, so far down, so small, and she’s laughing.  They both are.  He has a big bushy mustache, I remember that. 

     That’s it.  You don’t remember much before two, when he took off and never so much as wrote a word or sent a dime’s worth of support or even remembered my birthday.  Every year I’d pretend he was just about to walk in the door, holding a Barbie or a puppy or a charm bracelet.  And he’d smile at me and say, Happy Birthday, Nicky. 

     “How come he left?” I ask Mama.  

     “He two-timed me.”  It’s the same answer she’s been giving me ever since I was old enough to ask.

     “Look,” I say.  “I’m about to risk my life on an airplane crossing the country to see this man.  I need to know more than that.”

     “You don’t want to know.”

     “Yes, I do.”

     “Okay then.  He had another woman.”

     That doesn’t surprise me.  “What other woman?”

     “In Richmond. That’s where the son of a bitch lived.  He just came down here for . . .”

     “Came down here for what?”

     “You’re no babe in the woods.  You can guess what he came for.  Couldn’t get it in Richmond.”

     “How d’you find out?”

     She turned up one day.  Fancy type.  Polished leather boots half way up her legs.  Big bulky sweater and the kind of jeans that cost a fortune.  I was holding you when she rang the doorbell.”

     “What’d she say?”

     Mama starts to tear up.  “She just looked at you and said, oh my god.  Then she told me she was his wife.”

     “No way!  You were his wife.”

     “He married me, all right, but it didn’t count, because he was already married to her.” 

     I put my arm around her shoulders, which are shaking.  Mama’s smaller than me, a genuine petite.  And she’s kept herself up.  She’s a real artist with the cosmetics she sells at Herman’s, knows how to emphasize her dark brown eyes, how to use just enough blush to seem natural.  I can see how he fell for her.

     “I can’t believe it,” I say.  “Why did he marry you if he was already married?”

     She blows her nose on a napkin she has in her lap.  “I was pregnant with you.  I told him we had to get married.  He found a preacher, and that was that.  I should have suspected.  He was gone a lot.  But he was high up in the Herman’s chain.  That’s how I met him.  Those stores are all over the south, and I believed him when he said he had to be out of town managing them.”

     “What did you do?”

     “I was a fool,” she says.

     “I mean, when she turned up.”

     “Oh, her.  I kicked the bitch out of my house.  I didn’t believe her.  But when he came home, he confessed.  He’d been married to her for ten years.  Ten years!  They had two boys.  I was all to pieces.  I told him I was going to the police.  Bigamy’s a crime.  But he said, what good am I to you in jail?  Said he’d buy me this house, put it in my name, which he did.  He put $10,000 in a savings account for me.  Left me his car.”  

     “And he was gone?”

     “Yep.  Just like that.  I thought he’d keep up with you.  He loved you.  He really did.  But . . . “

     “You never heard from him?”

     “Not a word.”

     “Did you try to get in touch?  Get some money for me?”

     “I had my pride.  He broke my heart.  I wasn’t going to beg.”

     “So why do you think he wrote me now?” I ask.

     “Who knows? Maybe he wants a daughter, now you’re grown up so smart.  But don’t go.  I’m warning you.  He’ll butter you up and let you down.”

~

     The plane slams down hard and goes racing along the ground and I’m thinking it’s going to crash into some building, like a movie I saw.  But it jerks to a stop and I get my pocketbook and coat and make my way to the door.  

     He’s out there somewhere and I don’t even know what I’m looking for.  Except he’s tall and has red hair.  Like me.   

     I get out his letter, the second one.  I’ll meet you at baggage claim.  No picture.

     I keep one eye on the bags moving around a track and the other on the crowd.  No tall red heads so far. I grab my bag. 

     I wait. Ten minutes. I get out my cell phone and try the number he sent me.  

     You’ve reached the voicemail of Reynolds James.

     I hear Mama’s voice: “See? I told you.”

     A tap on my shoulder.

     “Nicky?”

     I whirl around to stare into the long, thin face of a man who’s bald.

     A chauffer, maybe? He’d have one. But do chauffeurs wear faded Navy sweatshirts and jeans?

     The man reaches out. His fingers are long, with prominent knuckles. Is he trying to hug me? I step away. He reaches for my bag.

     “Nicky,” he says again.

     “Did Mr. James send you?” I ask.

     He laughs. “You could say that.”

     I’m frightened. “I’m sorry,” I say, “but who are you?”

     “I’m your dad.”

     I want to grab my suitcase and run.  

     He smiles. “I’m sorry,” he says. “You had no idea what I look like. My fault.” He reaches into his pocket for his wallet and shows me his driver’s license. Reynolds James.

     But there could be other people with that name.

     “I’m sorry,” I say.  “I was expecting. . .”

     “Hair?”

     I nod.  

     “Red, like yours. Lost it early.”

     “Do you mind?” I take out my IPhone and snap his photo. “My first day in California.”

     He laughs. “Not at all.”

     When he turns to go, I quickly text the photo to Mama.  She’ll know.  I follow him to the garage.  What choice do I have?  He’s got my bag.  His car is dented, streaked with dirt.  A Japanese car, I think. 

     “Jump in,” he says, throwing my suitcase into the clutter on the back seat. 

     I just stand there beside him in the dimly lit garage.  Afraid.  I mean he found me on the Internet.  He could be anybody.

     “I am your father, Nicky.  I don’t know what I can do to prove it.”

     I’m looking around for help. But the garage is empty.  

     So while we’re standing there he just starts talking. “Poor girl. You’re scared. You expected a father with red hair. In a suit and tie, I bet. You expected me to drive a BMW or something. I’ve got one; I should have brought it.”

     “I don’t believe you,” I mutter.

     “Let me tell you who I am, Nicky. I was the son of a bitch who ran out on your mother sixteen years ago, because I was married to somebody else. But I’m not that man anymore. I’ve left him behind.”

     “Who are you?” I ask. We’re still just standing there by the dirty car.

     “A hiker, as you can see.”  He points to binoculars on the cluttered back seat.  “Don’t worry, Nicky.  I don’t deserve you, but I am your dad.”

     I don’t know why, but I’m wanting to believe him.  Maybe because he knows the history.  Maybe because I’ve come so far and I want a father.

     My iPhone pings.  He sure got old, Mama texts, but that’s him.

     I laugh with relief.  “Why don’t you wash your car?” I ask.  

     He smiles.  “It just gets dirty again.  Come on.  Get in.”

     We cross the Golden Gate Bridge, driving over the blue water and all the sailboats and up winding roads into hills covered with brown grass and dusty trees.  

     At the top of one of the hills, we park outside a wooden gate and walk a cobblestone path through rhododendron and azalea bushes.  The wood frame house spreads all over the top of the hill.  Inside the rooms all run together, living room, kitchen, dining room.  All wood floors and glass.  So many windows you hardly need lights. 

     I didn’t know people lived like this. 

     I look up from unpacking my suitcase and see a deer out the window. I snap a photo and text it to Mama; she has to see this.

     Right away she texts back.  Does he live in the woods?  

     I find my father in the kitchen.  “You must be exhausted,” he says, “It’s almost midnight back in Virginia.”  

     I gobble up the tuna salad sandwich he’s made for me.  

     “Get some rest,” he says in a soft voice.  “Thank you for coming.”

~

     After a restless night, I drag myself to the kitchen in search of coffee.  A young woman in a black tank top and a mass of curly blond hair jumps up from the table. 

     “Hello.  I’m Rose.”

     I shake her hand, pretending not to notice the rose tattooed on the pale skin of her upper arm. 

     “Welcome,” she says, handing me an outsized ceramic mug filled with coffee.  “Reynold’s been counting the days.”

     My phone pings. A text from Mama: R U OK?  

     “English muffin?” Rose asks, pulling one apart and dropping the two halves into the toaster.  Silver rings with fake stones cover her fingers.

     “Thank you.”

     “You’re going to love it here,” she says. She’s really very pretty. “It’s just fantastic.”

     I’m thinking, what’s this woman doing here? Where’s my father? 

     “I don’t think I’ll be here that long,” I say.

     “Too bad.  He wants to show you around, take you hiking.  He’s crazy about nature.”

     “He is?”  

     “You know.  Birds.  Flowers.”

     “I don’t know anything about that.”

     “Don’t worry.  He’ll teach you.”

     “Is his wife at work?” I ask.

     She looks surprised.  “What wife?”

     “I thought he had a wife named Cynthia.”

     “Maybe he did, but he doesn’t anymore.”  She grins.  “I’m his girlfriend.  Since Valentine’s Day.  He came to the studio for a full massage.  And one thing led to another.  He’s a cool guy, your dad.”

     I’m thinking, do I really want to get back on an airplane and spend my summer selling shoes at Herman’s?  Not really.  Not at all.  And here I am.  In California.

     “I might give it a week,” I say. 

~

     Hi baby. Thanks a bunch for the photos. Looks like the scumbag is king of the mountain out there in California. What about his wife? Is she being nice to you?

     When are you coming home? 

~

     We’re driving along curving roads in the banged up Nissan, past black and white cows clumped together in muddy fields, past hills that roll out to a distance of blue water.   

     “Why did you come out here?”  I ask.  I have so many questions.  It’s easier to ask them riding in a car, not having to face him.

     “I was running away from my life.”  He laughs.  “That sounds like a bad soap opera.”

     “Why?”

     “Why?  I hated it.  Hated driving the freeways from town to town, hiring and firing managers, checking on merchandise, supervising building projects.  You have no idea.”

     I’m suddenly furious.  “You left my mother and me for another woman, and then you ran away from her.  And now you have somebody else and you didn’t even tell me.”

     He looks surprised.  “You mean Rose?  God, I’m sorry.  I thought I said she was living with me.”

     “Nope.” 

     “Look, I’m a rat.  I said that yesterday.  But the fact is, I didn’t love my wife.  That’s how come I got involved with your mother.”

     “What about your children?”

     “My boys were grown when I left.  But they hate me all the same.”  He looks over at me.  “Look, it’s no excuse, but the fact is I had to marry Cynthia.  We were in high school and she wouldn’t get an abortion.  It was a nightmare from the beginning.  But I did love your mother.  And you.”

     “Then why did you . . .”

     “Leave you?”

     I stare straight ahead and nod.

     “I was a coward,” he says, “I gave in to my wife, and it was the hardest thing I ever did.”

     “Sounds like bullshit to me.”

     “Yep.  I guess it does.”

     “So how come you invited me out here?” I ask.

     “I told you.  I wanted to get to know you.  Besides, I have money.  Why not give some of it away?  The boys will have nothing to do with me.  So I looked you up.”

     He stops the car.  We’re parked beside an old barn.  Branches of large evergreen trees bend toward the ground. 

     He jumps out of the car, wiggles his shoulders into a backpack and swings binoculars around his neck.

     “Grab a bottle of water.  Let’s go.”

     He strides off, squinting into the sun.  I follow him along a path high above water.  Far down, huge waves are crashing white.  

     He grins.  “The shattered water made a misty din. / Great waves looked over others coming in.  Robert Frost,” he says.  “Once by the Pacific.”

     I’ve heard of Robert Frost, but I don’t know a thing about poetry.

     High above us a large bird hangs in the wind.  Its wings are stretched out.  Not moving.

     “Red-tailed hawk,” he says, handing me his binoculars.  “It’s called stilling; he’s up there looking for food.  They’ve got amazing vision, those birds.”

     The hawk is gone before I can focus the glasses, but as I swing them around, two large deer-like animals with gigantic antlers appear.

     “What are they?”

     “Tule elk.  Handsome, aren’t they?”

     Flowers are everywhere, yellow, red, white.  And more elk. 

     “Are those Redwoods?” I ask, pointing to the large trees overhead.

     “Cypress. Redwoods can’t survive out here. Wait! Look up. Use the binoculars. Up there in the branches.”

     “I don’t see anything.”  

    “There’s a fork in the tree, high up.  Can you see it?”

     Something is up there.  Something blurry.  Then I see eyes, staring down at me.

     “What is it?”

     “A great horned owl. It’s not every day we see the likes of him.  This is your lucky day.” 

     Is it?  I breathe in sunshine and chilly air.  Suddenly, I feel like I can walk and walk and never get tired.  

~

     Hi Baby.  From the photos it looks like you’re out in the woods all the time.  Doesn’t the man work?  You say he’s teaching you about birds.  That’s weird. 

     And he divorced that Cynthia.  What an asshole.  Though I’m not sorry for her.

     When are you coming home?

~

     On the coast overlooking the Pacific.  A flash of red, a white rump patch.  A high pitched keew.

     “Flicker,” he says, grabbing my arm, pointing.  “See him?”  

     He’s landed on a coyote bush in plain sight.  His beak is sharp, and points up. He’s beautiful.  

     “How’d you get into birds?”  I ask.

     “You mean, how did a business type like me discover all this?”  He sweeps his arms around.

     “I guess.”

     “Before I was a department store guy, I was a kid.  The kind of kid who climbs trees and looks for birds’ nests.  I got good at recognizing their songs.  The department stores were my dad’s idea.  He owned them and made sure I followed in his footsteps.”

     “So now you’re into nature?”

     “What I am is complicated.”

     That’s for sure.

     “So how does Rose fit in?”  It’s a question I’ve been puzzling over since I arrived.

     “What do you mean?”

     “You know what I mean.  She’s not interested in birds or hiking or poetry.”

     “I don’t know.  She’s uncomplicated.  Maybe that’s it.”

     “Will you leave her too?”

     He stops in his tracks and glares at me.  “That’s mean and none of your business.”

     But it is my business.  It’s exactly my business.

~

     It’s August.  Hard to believe it’s only been six weeks.  I’ve climbed Mt. Thomas, peered into tide pools at Big Sur, hiked to the top of Nevada Falls in Yosemite.  With this man who whistles bird songs, who reads me poetry.   

     Who left my mother.  

     Time to go home.  

     “One last hurrah,” he says.  “Top of the mountain.”

     I’m game.  “How many miles?”

     “Starting from the house and back, fifteen.”

     A month ago I would have said no.  Too long, too hard.  But I’m stronger now.  My legs have muscles I never had before.  

     A sandwich and a bottle of water in my fanny pack, my new binoculars around my neck, a baseball cap on top of my red hair.  I’m ready.  We start up the hill from the house, climb steps cut into the red dirt, cross bridges, zigzag through coyote brush and lupine, pennyroyal.  I know some names of flowers now.  We climb over rocks.  At the top we unpack sandwiches and look down on whitecaps, on Crystal Lake, on Mt. Juniper miles away.  Red-tails and vultures are flying in circles.  We’re at the top of the world.  

     “I’ll miss you,” my father says.

     Despite his ridiculous floppy canvas hat, the sun has colored his face bright red.  His blue eyes search my face, willing me to say I’ll miss him too.

     I say instead, “Thank you for having me.”

     He’s looking down at the ocean through his binoculars.  “The clouds are low and hairy in the skies.”

     I take it up.  “Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.” 

     “I taught you that poem anyway,” he says.

     We sit for several minutes. 

     “Are you glad you came, Nicky?”

     “Yes.”  

     “Will you come again?”

     “Do you want me to?”

     He looks at me.  “Of course.”

     “Why?”

     He laughs.  “What a question.  You’re my daughter.”

     “For the past sixteen years, that didn’t count for much.”

     “I missed you.  I wanted to see you, to talk to you, to see what was becoming of you.  All those years.” 

     “Well, thanks very much.”

     “I don’t expect you to understand, but Cynthia was so furious when she discovered your mother, I had to promise to put you out of my life.”

     So much weakness makes me angry.  

     “So why didn’t you see me after you left her?”

     “I was afraid.”

     “That’s lame.”

     “All the same, it’s true.  Afraid you’d reject me. Hate me.  Like the boys.”

     “You could at least have sent me birthday presents.”

     “I told you.  I’m not a good man.  But I’m trying to change.  And I wanted to see you.  Is that so bad?”

     It’s too late, I think but don’t say.

     He looks right in my face.  “You’re my daughter, Nicky.  I don’t want to lose you.”

     I turn away.  “You have a history of losing people,” I say.  “Or more like, discarding people.”

     He looks suddenly pathetic, hunched there, his red face shining in the sun.   

     “Nicky,” he says, “try for just a minute to imagine that I have changed.  That I am capable of change.   That I’ll be here next summer waiting for you.” 

     I think about Mama and how she would hate it if I ever came back here. How she would make me feel guilty.  I think about how much she loves me.  So I’m tempted to say, you made your bed.  You got me here this summer.  That’s it.  But here I am on top of this mountain, and . . .

     “I’m not sure,” is what I say.

~

     Thank God you’re finally coming home.  It’s been the worst summer of my life. I got T-bone steak for your first night and French fries.  I’ll be at the airport.  I can’t wait. 

~

     We’re bumping into each other, frying potatoes, broiling steaks.  This kitchen is so small.  It’s never bothered me before.  I’ve never even noticed the grease stains streaking the walls.  And I don’t want to notice now.  This is home.  

     Mama’s rushing around, setting the table, patting me, kissing me.

     “I figure you might not need his money now,” she says.  “I got a raise.” 

     I say, “I’m proud of you, Mama.”  I am.

     After dinner, I get out my laptop.

     “You want to see my pictures?”

     “I thought I already did.”

     “I have a lot more. Yosemite, Big Sur, the Pacific Ocean.”

     “Okay,” she says.

     I click on slide show and watch my summer flash past.  The photographs I’ve only seen in miniature on my iPhone jump out at me, large as life. 

     “Who’s that?” she asks.  It’s the first time she’s said a word.  Rose smiles at the camera, one hand on the kitchen table, a cup of coffee in the other.  

     “That’s Rose.  Dad’s girlfriend,” I say.  “I told you about her.”

     “Looks like he’s robbing the cradle.”

     “You could say that.” 

     She pulls her chair up to the computer and peers into Rose’s laughing face.  “She looks cheap with all those tattoos.  She’ll be gone in a year, mark my words.”

     “I don’t know.”

     “I do,” she says.  

     And I’m thinking young, pretty and, what was his word?  Uncomplicated.  Like Mama all those years ago.  

     “You may be right,” I say and turn off the computer.  I can watch the photos another time.

     “I’m glad to be home, Mama.”

     It’s what she wants to hear.  She grabs me round the waist and holds on to me.  The top of her head fits under my chin.  I love her.

~

     I’m in my bedroom, pulling out shirts, pants, sweaters from the closet, discarding one after the other.  I leave for college in a week.  None of my clothes seem right.

     “Ta dum!”   Mama’s at the door.  She drags a huge suitcase into the tiny room. 

     “Surprise!”  Her smile looks uncertain.  “Is it all right?” she asks.  “The woman in luggage said all the college kids are buying them.  But I wasn’t sure.”

“It’s perfect, Mama.  Thank you.”

I’m fighting tears.  It must have cost so much.  And not just money.   I wrap myself around her.  Feel her rigid shoulders, her thin arms tight around my waist. 

     “It’s for college,” she says, pulling herself away.  “Not for California.  It’s much too big for California.”

     “I know.”

     “You’re not going back there, are you?”

     “You mean, ever?”

     “I saw the letter,” she says, “from your college.  He’s already paid for all four years.  So you don’t need to go back.”

     “I don’t know.”

     “He’ll get tired of you, just like he did the rest of us.  Just like he will with that Rose.”

     “Maybe.”

     She’s standing there, a small figure, hanging onto the enormous suitcase she’s bought with her raise, pleading with her eyes.  I want to reassure her, tell her I’ll never fly off to California again, never see him again.  And in some ways it makes sense.  Chances are good he’ll lose interest in me, like he did with all the rest.

     But there are mountains out there.  And oceans and birds and flowers.  There’s poetry out there.  

     And there’s my daddy. 

 

 

 

About the Author, Nancy Bourne: My stories have been published in Upstreet, The South Carolina Review, Summerset Review, Carolina Quarterly, Quiddity, Forge, Persimmon Tree, MacGuffin, Thin Air, Bluestem Magazine, The Long Story, Shadowgraph, Steel Toe Review and Ursa Minor. My work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. 

CUL-DE-SAC

The slow gray flow of street
peters out in a circular pond,
rippling in asphalt eddies around
occasional tired looking weeds
breaching the surface from silty depths.

Five houses lay scattered as driftwood
on a waveless shore, burned skin
flaking in tiny curled shadows,
roofs weeping excess shingles
onto a hiss of dry grass.

A dog furred in nondescript brown,
tail down and straight, paces
with a slight limp, tongue drooping
like a faded rose petal ready to fall,
searching for a place to ford the current.

 

 

About the Author: Spencer Smith is a University of Utah graduate and works in the corporate world to pay the bills that poetry doesn’t pay (i.e., all of them). His work has appeared in over forty literary journals, including Main Street Rag, Potomac Review, Plainsongs, RHINO, and Roanoke Review.

TRUMP AS A FIRE WITHOUT LIGHT #402

 

We could have built things with all of this driftwood.  They didn’t have to burn
everything.  They didn’t have to toss all of that ash into the skyline.

 

 

 

About the Author: Darren C. Demaree is the author of seven poetry collections, most recently “Unfinished Murder Ballads” which is due out August 2017 from Jellyfish Highway. He is the Managing Editor of the Best of the Net Anthology and Ovenbird Poetry. He is currently living in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children.