Sunday, December 4, 2016

He will have her.

It rained last night and these dirt roads that go home have turned into muck.

I'm hungover as hell.

I was out all night drinking with my brothers. Except one, who's in Europe fighting in the war.

He sends his money home, and we spend it on wine. Cheap stuff, but lots of it. When he comes home he will have nothing.

Finally he'll know how the rest of us feel.

He always thought he was better than us. Above us. He even prays. Ma saw him do it once and she said: "Everyone look Claude's talkin' to his food."

When he comes home he will have nothing. We will see to it. I will see to it.

Nothing for a house with the girl he promised to marry when he returns. Nothing for the children they want to have, nothing for a car.

I am in love with the girl he promised to marry.

When he comes home he will have her.

There's nothing I can do about that.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

You Will Always Yearn



My granny’s granny was French
and so rich as a little girl 
she had servants to help her get dressed.
Her dad was a doctor 
and we think he got up to something shady
that got him kicked out of France
or sent him running from France.

Something happened – 
some blip in the family tree – 
and my granny’s granny wound up poor in Appalachia,
picking huckleberries in a snake-infested valley
with my granny
to make sure they had enough to eat.

Years later my granny remembered 
how sad she was to be there
and hear the church bells ring,
missing church – 
there was a boy she liked at church
and the sound of the church bells
as she picked berries in the valley
meant she wouldn't see him that day.

*

My granny’s mom had never seen a monkey – 
not a real one, in real life – 
and one time a circus came through town.
My granny’s dad was going to take them,
so her mom could see the monkey.
He told them to wait at the store,
that he would pick them up after work.

They waited. 
My granny roamed back and forth,
back and forth,
studying the candy for sale, memorizing it,
playing word games to keep from being bored.
Her dad never came to get them – 
he’d gone out drinking after work.
Her mom didn’t see a monkey that day.

*

The chimes traveled on the breeze, God’s music box.
The heat and cicadas shimmered. 
Sweat beaded on their foreheads and under their arms.
Snakes kept out of sight.
The chimes said:
“You will always want things.
You will always yearn.
This is the way of our people.
This is the fate you were born into.”

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Standoff

 
The vehicle appeared in a field, in the frosty blue glow before dawn. It seemed somehow a natural part of the scene, a painterly composition – not quite dead in the center of the field, but off to one side. I remember my friend in high school who took art class bragging about how her teacher had praised her for drawing objects not in the middle of the sheet but nearer to an edge. I remember thinking I would have probably drawn them in the center, taken the obvious, disappointing tack.

I consider myself to be a sort of Joan Didion of local law enforcement – she wrote: “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.” Most are polite to my face but make it clear in other ways that they don’t think I’m right for this job. I’m an enigma; they can more easily see me doing something mousy in an office.

I don’t prove them wrong with bombastic bravery and pluck, like an inspirational character in a movie. I make myself indispensable in boring ways – by showing up on time, by doing the homework, by never saying no. I’m game for any assignment, not because of bravery so much as a perverse kind of nihilism, or possibly an unexamined death wish. Or a feeling of being immune, that nothing will ever really harm me – the kind of feeling that comes along with being a privileged member of a society.

I was driving alone, which is my preference. I saw the car in the field. It looked so natural that I almost kept driving. But it was my job to check. The car faced the highway, as if poised for a getaway. I had to drive onto the grass to approach it. Years into this job and still driving on anything besides the road feels thrillingly naughty.

Mist hovered just above the grass like a hem, and the atmosphere was the blue light of dreams. I half expected to see a unicorn go galloping by. Somewhere in the distance the traffic was starting to warm up but not here. Here everything was asleep.

The first thing I noticed when I drove closer to the car was that I couldn’t see through the windows. They were completely frosted over, opaque. The sight spooked and intrigued me. There could be someone inside, or not. A sleeping or dead body, or two Romeo and Juliet kids with noplace else to fuck. Or there could just be emptiness.

I pulled up so my car faced their car. My headlights lit up an out-of-state license plate. I ran the number through my system; it turned up nothing. No easy answers.

I took the key out of the ignition – lights off, silent, no reason for a circus just yet – and opened my door. I stepped onto the slick overgrown grass. The blades bowed as I crushed them. I stopped maybe twelve feet – two graves’ lengths – from the vehicle and stared at it.

There was no wind, just a hush. The sun didn’t seem in a rush to come up – just this blue glow forever.

The edges of the frost on the windows were scalloped, like a doily in an old lady’s house. I remembered looking at snowflakes on the window as a kid, amazed that something so intricate could just occur in nature, without a human brain to design it.

How long could this last? I felt the accumulating chill.

I couldn’t see in. Could they see out?

Take a step. You have to take a step. You have to get outside of your head and do things. You took this path because it would force you to do things.

I took a step.

Beneath me the wet grass bowed. Nature bows to action.

A moment later the driver’s-side door opened. It opened slowly with a prolonged creak, dramatically, as if it were the Phantom of the Opera inside about to appear in a velvet cloak and maudlin mask, to orchestral swells.

Instinctively – no, because it was my job – I drew my weapon, as my colleagues say. As I would say it: I took out my gun.

But no one came out.

My pulse throbbed to life and my head swarmed with options. Run. Stay put. Holler for the person to come outside. Fire a warning shot if they did not.

You took this path because you wanted to do things.


It’s not in my nature to do things.

I decided to wait it out. I stood staring at the vehicle, now with one door hanging open like the ramp of a UFO that invading aliens are about to descend from. I held up my gun but not convincingly; for me it has always been a pose. I surrendered to whatever might happen.

Que sera, sera.
A painterly composition.


I had the sense that I had been hypnotized by the loveliness of the eerie scene, that I didn’t want to disturb it with a burst of gunfire or yelling. Or maybe I felt safe in the silence. It was more like a dream this way. “Dream logic,” they call it, the rules by which dreams occur.

I stood still, forever.

What came out of the car was not a face but a hand with a gun.

I can’t see in but they can see out, through that grandma’s doily of scalloped ice.

I know I was supposed to fire, or at least run. But why resist when you’ve recognized your destiny – that your whole life has been building toward this?

Nature bows to action.

Take me, take me onto your spaceship.

Recommendation

The space agency created a special committee just to review the flood of applications that came in for the new program. The criteria: old age and a happy life. 

The reason for old age was obvious. There was only enough fuel for a one-way ticket to Mars. Classic cocktail-party question: "Would you go?" If you answered yes, you were adventurous; no, you were boring but pragmatic. 

There was no then-conceivable way to bring more fuel for a trip home; the cost and logistics boggled the genius scientists' brains. Maybe someday they could do that, but right now this was the best they could do.

The reason for requiring the applicants had lived a happy life was less scientific, more superstitious, and formally objected to by more than one member of the normally staunchly rational committee: the agency didn’t want any ghosts on their hands, moaning about unfinished business from beyond the grave. 

(It was also a PR thing: The mission was to be seen as a glorious sending-off, a tearful hero's farewell complete with YouTube montage set to Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World"; sticking an embittered curmudgeon in the ship would send the wrong vibe.)

One-way ticket, no coming home.


Yet they received a flood of applications.

Even from young people. They would die young but be immortal. These applications were discarded as soon as the reviewers looked at the DOB.

An English professor was brought in to scrutinize the life stories. A psychologist, too. Who had lived the happiest life? Who had seen enough, done enough, to be ready to go?

After months of reviewing applications in a top-secret room, amid speculative reports in the news, the committee issued its unanimous recommendation: No one was ready to go. Each candidate still had life to live. They would send no one to that glorious but certain death far from home.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Ancestors

With unaccountable relief I plunge my hands into the dirt
to rip out spring’s first weeds,
not because I like to kill young things
but because I feel my hands belong there.

Back bent, fingernails and cuticles lined with black, I feel
a straight line connecting me to my hillbilly ancestors.
American peasants, Appalachians. 
The people at the bottom, closest to the ground.

It’s like the time my husband broke a plate at Barnes & Noble,
ill-balanced on the lip of a trash receptacle while transferring our café fare to our table.
I heard the shatter, like a shotgun firing at a race,
and I was off: 

Crouched low on the ground, picking up pieces – 
the big shards but also the microscopic flecks – 
when a more urbane person would have summoned an employee
then sat back down to continue looking at their magazine.

My stuffed pretzel had been on the plate that smashed; it bounced on the ground
but I picked it up and put it on a napkin, intending to still eat it.
“You guys did a good job cleaning this mess up!” said the young guy with the mop.
“Don’t you want another pretzel?” said the café woman twice, incredulous.

But I want to eat it like a good girl who doesn’t ask for much,
like an Appalachian who is grateful and doesn’t waste,
like a person who doesn’t garden as a hobby but 
whose hands feel at home in the dirt. 

 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Monday, March 14, 2016

Cut Off Your Nose

Saint Ebba heard they were coming.

She’d both feared and looked forward to it.

Everyone had been looking at maps – this place was right on the path, right in the way.

She’d lain awake at night, flat on her back, looking up in the cold. Vikings were monsters in stories parents told at bedtime. They didn’t come into the lives of just anybody. She had almost felt honored. Her life might mean something after all.

What would they do when they got here? They would take the girls. She wasn't supposed to let that happen. She was in charge of everyone. Mother Superior.

There were no men or weapons to protect them, so she had to be clever. She had to twist her mind. It came to her in blackness one night. It almost excited her. It was terrible; she shivered then went to sleep.

In the morning she passed around knives. They would do it if she told them to, especially if she went first. Their pretty faces would be as ravaged and ugly as she was deep in her heart that had wished for this all along.