Our 28th issue includes some of our strongest non-fiction yet, culled from our general submissions and fortified by an essay from Contributing Editor Benjamin Arnold. Whether it's burying dogs, suppressing homosexual tendencies during the Korean war, fighting cancer or the Costa Rican sun, these tightly woven prose pieces will leave you brimming over.
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It was the morning the dog was scheduled to die. Cancer had eaten away at his right rear leg and for nearly two weeks the flat-coated retriever had been limping and wincing in pain, the medication no longer muting what now appeared to be an intense and continuous throbbing. The veterinarian said it was a fast moving disease and there was little else one could do besides amputate. Still, that was no guarantee. The cancer would likely return somewhere else in the dog's body. So, the appointment for the injection was set for 9:40 that morning, as if it were an appointment with the dentist.
Phoenix was my girlfriend's dog, the older of her two. He was a big, lumbering animal with dark sad eyes and a love of water, and when he was at his best, during his daily walks, he would race through the manicured grass on the local golf course and dive into the pond on the 16th fairway. He'd swim in circles, dunk his head a few times, and come out of the water only after coaxing, shaking the droplets from the oil on his coat. This is how I would best remember Phoenix, what I would see in my mind's eyes when someone would say his name. In fact, when my girlfriend telephoned that morning to ask if I would mind waiting to come up to her home until after the appointment at the vet to give her, her son, and daughter some time to grieve alone, I pictured Phoenix standing on the edge of the pond, among the cattails, soaking wet, quivering with indecision, trying to choose between obeying the call of his master or giving into the pure instinctive pleasure of one more swim.
My girlfriend's phone call came just as I was returning home from walking one of my own dogs, also one of two. Mike was a 6-year old female Labrador whose masculine name came from the nickname of a nurse who had cared for my father when Dad was receiving chemotherapy treatments for his prostate cancer. Michelle said she had been called Mike as long as she could remember. She was a sweet lady. Mike was a sweet dog.
I filled Mike's water bowl, patted her on the top of the head, and turned toward my 16-year old son who had slept through the night on the living room couch.
"Graham!" I said, raising my voice enough to awaken, but not enough to startle.
Graham was staying at my home while his mother was out of town. He had fallen asleep on the sofa late the previous evening while watching Rambo on DVD, and his body was now taking up most of the cushion space with his broad shoulders and thick, muscular thighs, his skin seemingly melting into the leather like butter on warm toast.
"Whaaa," he mumbled, his voice saturated with sleep and muffled by the three sofa pillows stuffed around his head.
"We're going to the DMV. Let's rock-n-roll," I said with some urgency. I had promised, if we had time that morning, I'd take him to get his driving permit.
"Cool," he said, rubbing his eyes and shifting from lying on his stomach to his back.
"But you got to get up. Now," I said, standing over him. I could be a bit of a drill sergeant when it was time to start the day. Graham, on the other hand, tended to crawl his way into the morning. I still don't know how he got up early for those late summer, sunrise football practices during his freshman year when he was still on the team. That was before the grades started to slip, the bad choice of friends, and the school suspension for offering a cute girl in the parking lot a muscle relaxant pill that had been prescribed for his chronic back pain. He ended up at an alternative school for a year. No more football. But the grades improved and he was now scheduled to return to his old school's classrooms.
"I'm up, I'm up," he said, peeling his body from the couch, running one hand through his shoulder length hair and the other against his belly.
"Let's get going," I said. "I want to head up north to be around for support after they put Phoenix down."
"Phoenix is dying today?" Graham asked, momentarily startled.
"Kind of strange to put it that way, but yes," I said, trying somehow to come to terms with how planned and programmed this all seemed.
"Wow," Graham said softly, stumbling into a half-hearted attempt to find his jeans and his shoes. Earlier in the week, I had told him what the dog's fate would likely be, but now that the actual day was here it had become surreal. "Wouldn't it be weird to know the day you were going to die?" Graham added.
"I don't think Phoenix knows," I answered.
"Yeah, but we know," Graham said, pulling a freshly washed tee shirt over his head. "I'm going to miss Phoenix. He was my buddy."
Graham dog-sat Phoenix a few times as a favor and had spent an afternoon or two with him over the last several months. "I just think he was a great guy," Graham said. "Kind of goofy, like a big oaf, but I loved him. I'm going to miss him."
"You really liked that dog, huh?" I asked, sympathetically but a little surprised by Graham's reaction.
"He was the coolest. It's just sad," Graham said. "Where are they going to bury him?"
"Cremation," I said.
"Burn him? Really?"
"Yes, they want to spread the ashes, maybe in his favorite park."
Graham sat up on the couch, his usually active eyes quietly softening into a stare. Not one of blank thought, but one of singular focus.
"When you die, Dad, no one better burn you." Graham said.
"Why not, Graham?"
"I just don't like thinking about it. All that heat, the burning, the flames."
"I haven't really thought about this much, Graham," I said, grabbing my jacket and car keys from the coffee table.
"Seriously, Dad," Graham said, still sitting on the couch, his head now raised up, his neck stiffening, his shoulders back. "Don't do it, okay?" he said, his face showing clear signs of awakening, his eyes locking directly onto mine. "Just don't."
I took a seat beside him on the couch and stroked my hand across Mike's back, who had wiggled her body and her continuously wagging tail between the coffee table and the right arm of the sofa. Graham grabbed the dog just below her two ears, one hand on either side, and vigorously massaged her skin and fur.
"Hey, Mike," Graham said, lowering his head so he could have a straight-on look into the dog's deep, espresso-brown eyes and shifting his vocal tone from the serious to silly the way one does when talking to an infant. "Who's my girl? Who is my girrrllll?"
I leaned into the back cushion of the couch and thought about how several years ago Graham wept at my father's funeral, struggled with the death of his cousin's drug overdose, and wondered aloud about his grandmother's failing health, her frequent doctor appointments and hospital stays. Graham wore his emotions like badges, shiny on his chest, his sorrows, worries, and joys served up like offerings to those willing to accept them without condition. And like an arm wrapping around the shoulders of a troubled friend, Mike put her nose on Graham's knee and let out a soft sigh.
Graham, like me, has always been a dog person. Part of that condition is hardwired, innate, and another part is pure experience. If you grow up with a dog, live with a dog, then almost through osmosis the dog becomes a vital ingredient of your existence. I had a dog in my life from the time I was a baby. The first was a Collie given to me by my grandfather when I was just a few months old. Sally never left my side. She nestled her nose under my infant chin while I lay on my blanket on the living room floor, circled and guarded me when I played baseball in the backyard, and slept silently and calmly when I rested my head on her belly each Saturday morning while I watched TV cartoons. And after 13-years of companionship, on a humid and sunny Fourth of July, after several days of labored breathing and a complete loss of appetite, Sally died of old age. My father cried as he dug her grave.
"Damn fireworks," he muttered as he stabbed his spade into the soft ground under the towering white pine in our front yard.
Sally hated the cracks and pops of firecrackers, cherry bombs, and M-80s. The explosive sounds pierced her ears, sent her scurrying from the noise, cowering in a dark corner of our basement, hoping somehow to quiet the constant bangs and bursts.
She was the first dog my parents buried in our yard. In the suburb of Pittsburgh where I grew up, it was illegal to bury anything on your property, but that didn't stop my family from putting Sally, Soupy, Saddie, Gypsy, Molly, and Bob in the ground on our quarter-acre lot. Two dogs were buried under a couple of old maples, another under a big rhododendron, one by the south fence lined with forsythia, and another next to Sally under the front yard pine tree. Each time a dog died my father dug a hole, lined it with lime, placed or dragged the pet's body down into it, spread more lime, and completed the job with shovels of dirt.
"She hated that damn noise, " my father said under his breath as he shoveled earth, soft clay, and small rocks with a quicker pace, his face flushing, the volume of his voice increasing with each toss. "She hates this. Jesus Christ, stop shooting off the goddamn firecrackers!" he shouted into the sky.
I watched from the steps of the front porch as my father finished his job, stunned, even frightened by what had unfolded just a few feet before me. There were tears I hadn't seen before, angry words aimed toward God I hadn't heard my father say before, and an anxiety I hadn't felt before. My father's steadfast calm had disappeared. Raw emotion, vulnerability, his own insecurities, all that he had stoically tried to mask in an attempt to secure his young son's emotional safety had evaporated. The forty-year old memory of the day my father dug Sally's grave continues to surface at unexpected times, arises from the mind's attic in unexplained flashes, in photographic form, pictures from a camera. And when it does, I not only see my beloved dog, the Collie I grew up with, the pet that would rarely leave a little boy's side, but I also see my father, the beads of sweat on his brow, tamping the final throws of earth on a mound under a soaring evergreen tree. It's the kind of memory—the dead pet and a grieving family—that so often turns into the storyline of sentimentalized fiction, exploitable emotions used to pull the easily accessible string dangling from the heart. But, the experience is forever authentic, deeply human, and far more meaningful than what might be evoked in the pages of a sappy novel or a clichéd Hollywood tearjerker. The death of my dog, like the death of my father's stoicism, is woven into my life in complex herringbone patterns, the back-and-forth weave of a sturdy, reliable garment worn over and over. And on this day, that coat had been pulled up over my shoulders once again.
I stood from the couch and slapped Graham on the back. "All right, let's do it. Let's get you legal."
"Let's drive!" Graham growled with enthusiasm, the way an athlete gets psyched-up with his teammates before a game.
I gave Mike a little scratch behind the right ear as I moved from the couch toward the door. "You know, Graham. If you don't cremate me, you'll have to bury me. And maybe I should be buried in the backyard at your grandmother's with all the dogs?"
"I don't think there's room," Graham said, laughing.
"Maybe you could bury me on top of one of them, or build a tomb, a mausoleum. Dig up the dogs, put us all in there."
"Okay, you're getting goofy now, Dad."
"Come on. Who else would you want to spend eternity with than your most trusted friends ever?"
Graham knew I was being facetious, silly, trying to lighten up the mood of the morning. He looked at me, tilted his head, put a smirk on his face and his hands on his hips.
"Dad. You are too freakin' weird."
"Seriously, you could put the names of each of us on the tomb. Here lies Sally, Soupy, Saddie, Gypsy, Molly, Bob ... and DAD."
We laughed, forgetting for a moment what the day would eventually bring, the reality of a difficult goodbye. And Mike, sensing only the pleasure in the room the uncanny way dogs often do, quickly stood from her lying position and twisted her way in between us, her tail wagging her entire body, her ears slightly folding toward her back, and her mouth open allowing her thick, pink tongue to fall out from the side of her snout as if she too were laughing.
Biographical information: David W. Berner is a journalist, writer, and teacher. His book, Accidental Lessons—A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed, was published by AEG/Strategic in February, 2009. His essays and reporting have been published in numerous magazines and literary journals, and his broadcast work has been aired on National Public Radio, the CBS Radio Network, and public radio stations across the United States. David is an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago, teaching writing, audio documentary, and radio narrative. www.davidwberner.com, www.accidentallessons.com.
No one pays much mind to hear that I grew up with running water. If you're an American, there's a good chance to get that even without being rich.
There was a time, however, when I had none of the running water I had known. The years were 1954-'55-'56, I was in my early 20's, right out of college, a draftee in the U.S. Army. The hand I drew sent me to an infantry division in Korea. Those were years when Army camps in Korea were dotted around barren hills, before electricity was commonplace, roads were well paved, or Seoul had grown into a modern city.
Water you had poured from a faucet hot or cold became part of the past, hopefully of the future. As an enlisted man, you lived in a Quonset hut and hauled water in heavy cans from some central spot home, a structure with long rows of bunks, scratchy wooden floors, interestingly cracked windows, and hanging bare light bulbs. For brushing teeth, you poured the water you'd carried into your metal canteen and made a sink from an old round metal bowl. For shaving, you repeated the process, then warmed the bowl over a potbelly stove. When the task was done, you dumped the water outside. Years ahead of the days when we are asked to conserve water, you used it sparingly, for a less noble reason: when it was gone, it might be your turn to haul the next load.
Officers did something similar, but a Korean houseboy performed the heavy lifting. For showers, you trotted outside to a makeshift building. I never knew what the officers did; maybe officers didn't need showers.
The temperature was unreliable in both shower and Quonset, chilly when it should have been warm and, well, you know.
All this worked, once you got used to it, which took a while. That included banishing the memory of privacy.
I had been conscripted into two years military service after college. Drafted in April 1954, I set out on several weeks of basic training in Texas and then Georgia, mounds of sandy turf in both, then to await further assignment. My college friend Phil, drafted at the same time, wrote that he was being sent to Germany. That, I thought, would not be a bad way to spend the rest of my time in service, but it happened to him, not me. My heart sank when I read the order that said, "Korea." It wasn't that I was afraid of the war; fighting had stopped without a victory or defeat. It was that I had never been to Europe, my friend was going there and would probably get leaves to the sites I would like to see, including I figured Spain, where I could use my Spanish. In Korea, was there anything I wanted to see? What was there?
The answer, I found, was not much. From Augusta we flew to a replacement center at Fort Lewis near Seattle (maybe they'd like to replace me), and soon we boarded a ship at Tacoma for the trip across the vast Pacific. My mood was as gloomy as the Washington State weather. On a troop ship, you were assigned a job as an enlisted man; mine was to supervise the nursery with kids of parents going to Japan (there were no dependents in Korea at that time—they wanted running water!) It didn't take long to find that on a ship with weak or no stabilizers, you have the full impact of the roughness of the Pacific. Most days the best I could manage was to stumble to the nursery, lie on the floor to hold off seasickness, and hope the Army mothers would take pity.
We docked in Japan and deposited the Army wives and kids, then sailed on to Pusan, on the southern coast of Korea. Another replacement center (where I still did not get replaced), and assignment to an infantry division. An infantry division! Zero luck. My visualization was of men carrying heavy packs and rifles, not what I was seeking, and even less after we boarded trains that felt like streetcars with stiff wooden backs and started north over bumpy terrain. Maybe, I hoped, I could secure some desk job. Once at the next center, on a hill surrounded by even higher hills, I announced to whoever looked official that I was a good typist—surely even here there must be a typewriter or two and the need for someone to use them. Luckily for me (speaking in a relative sense), a clerk-typist was needed in the G3 (operations) office of the division headquarters. I was picked for the post and fantasized maybe not Germany, but comfortable indoor living.
A corporal drove me in an Army jeep to my new assignment, a distance not easy to measure since there were no signposts along the way. "Does everything look like this?" I asked, "this" meaning desolate. He hummed a yes. Soon I was confronted with the next reality: in Korea even the headquarters of a large division was in the hills, and indoor living would mean a Quonset hut. Was this what my four years of college had gotten me ready for? Was this why I had taught myself to type (maybe so, as it turned out)?
It was evening and I was greeted by colleagues in the G3 section, my barracks-mates, who were slouched on beds, reading or playing cards by weak light, garbed in Army fatigues (I soon got the bad news that civilian clothes were forbidden in Korea). "Welcome, long-timer," I heard voiced with a slightly malicious tone, since a short-timer, shorter, at least, was everyone but me. These were other draftees also there to serve the required time, clerk-typists and draftsmen, mostly educated young guys. They quickly exhibited a wry attitude toward planning war operations when there was no war, an approach that seemed a little daring but that suited me fine. A couple of hardened master sergeants were assigned nearby, to ensure that we did not let levity get out of hand.
No military dependents came to Korea at that time (there being no adequate housing), there were few mess halls for food, and excepting a nurse or two, no women. It was a kind of American quarantine. The anticipation of more than a year of such living, dismal at first, was soon neutralized by the not unpleasant realization of having landed for the first time in my life in an all-male society. That environment may have been abhorred by others, but once into it I found I liked not needing to pretend to long for the company of women. I could join in talking about them but not be with them. When the urge for female companionship overwhelmed—we were, after all, healthy early 20-year-olds—some guys would jump the fence for sex with a native girl (almost surely understood but ignored by the officers). I would find an excuse to stay behind.
We were forbidden from leaving the compound because of supposed dangers beyond, and other than for sex, there was little incentive to do so. Looking past the gates, the landscape gave the feeling of being nowhere, with no sense of what lay near, just hills and emptiness. We wouldn't be able to speak to a Korean not only due to a language barrier but because we hardly would meet a Korean. Only when hormones were not to be denied did a guy bolt away at night and risk both being caught by a guard and catching a venereal disease which, being where we were, would be hard to explain.
In this artificial world, and living as close as we did, friendships and alliances formed. I was repressing homosexual leanings, a fact that I've greatly regretted since. But I had my yearnings, too, unquestionably inflamed by constant, exclusive contact with other young men. I developed a crush on George, another G3 colleague, who lived in my barracks, a tightly built, sweet, playful Southerner, who liked me but liked Charlie better, a jealousy I had to hide. We joked and occasionally smacked each other with a towel on the ass, and laughed over how cavalier we were about this Army thing. But if the towel-smacking had no meaning for other guys, for me it was an erotic scene, and I would give long looks if George stripped down for a sponge bath. I was too inhibited to try for sex with him or any other of the guys nearby, a likely possibility after a night of watching a movie and heavy drinking, our main recreation outside the barracks. Gay porno movies did not exist then, and wouldn't have been in our rustic little theatre in any case. Jerking off became the release, if one dared to shower at an odd hour and hope no one else had the same plan.
The men in charge of G3 were a half dozen officers, some separated from wives at home. Among them there was no levity, at least as far I could see, and I would go to work each morning, shaved and shoes shined, and, sitting in a low-ceilinged underground bunker, type their plans. Colonel Long, the head of G3, was a tall, lean, probably late thirty-something, with a deep voice and commanding manner who had already been promoted over older fellow officers. He and the majors and captains were graduates of the Army War College (imagine, I thought, a War College), and had plainly cast their lot with an Army career. I found Colonel Long frightening until I learned that being efficient and straight-faced would be our way to harmony. It was a shame, I thought, that some of the handsome officers were not gay, if indeed they weren't.
The colonel would plan "war games," and he would announce, "Men, we're going into the field tomorrow at 0600 hours." "Yes, sir," I would say, being sure that the plans were ready but wondering about going into the field, since I didn't see how we could be more in the field than we already were.
As consolation to an unchosen locale, we were each given one or two R&R's, which involved a short flight across the water to Tokyo. We stayed in a decent Army hotel, took long indoor showers, and invested in a civilian suit made overnight by some local entrepreneurial tailor. I went twice to Japan, always with a few others from my section. It wasn't quite Berlin or Paris, but I was thrilled to be there in the springtime when it was beautiful to see the Imperial Palace surrounded by tulips and azaleas. My pals would quickly inquire about a place to meet a Japanese girl, a loose Japanese girl. I again found an excuse to stay behind, though I went out on my own a couple of times to bars where it was plain that meeting a Japanese boy, a loose Japanese boy, would not have been hard. I was too shy and frightened to take it further.
Time went on. We did our jobs, I learned to keep tabs on any sarcasm in the presence of Colonel Long and Major Baden, who continued to plan war games. Good behavior and typing skills got me a couple of promotions, never to any lofty station but with a moderate raise of pay and the addition of another stripe or two on the sleeve of my shirt. The occasional new draftee arrived at G3 and was put to the same harassing as I had been. Even in division headquarters we were required to do mandatory drills with rifles. We also underwent barracks inspections, though our officers must have lowered their expectations, given the limited potential of our housing arrangement.
Mail was an anticipated moment, and when Christmas approached we fabricated decorations and exchanged inexpensive gifts ordered from a PX in Japan. I was probably the only Jewish guy there, but I was happy to celebrate any holiday, mine or not. With Phil, my envied friend in the Army in Germany, I exchanged occasional letters, and at times I received cookies made by my mother, carefully packed to survive the long trip across the Pacific from Texas. They may have arrived in crumbs, but it didn't matter. My brother, who lived in Connecticut, near New York City, sent a Kosher salami which managed to arrive with mold that did it little harm.
Halfway through my tenure in Korea, news went around about an Army school in Japan that taught typing and shorthand. Colonel Long must have decided that it would benefit his division and his career to have a soldier who took shorthand, so he reserved a place for one of his men. Gruffly he one day advised that he was ordering me there for a few weeks. I pretended nonchalance but inside was ecstatic—shorthand can be useful, who knows when. Look what my typing had done! But mostly, weeks away from Korea! I was fantasizing a wardrobe of civilian clothes and paved sidewalks when, at the last minute the colonel decided that I was indispensable. To my chagrin one of the other guys—George to be exact—was sent in my place. Anger. Disappointment. George left, looking all too insolent, I thought. In a few weeks he returned presumably skilled in shorthand and filled with smiles from, as he claimed, an unending succession of sexual connections with sweet Japanese girls.
To help ensure his welcome back, he brought a stash of American cigarettes and magazines purchased at Army discounts in Japan. Half dressed, we lay around and smoked, wrote letters, and tuned in on the radio to news from other parts of the world that seemed as distant as they really were, as distant as the moon. The hot summer turned into the cold winter, and the lineup of friendships never changed: I failed to get the reciprocal affection that I wanted from George, and my irritation at the easygoing friendship he had with Charlie continued to rankle. I went on repressing my sexual feelings. Water continued to be hand delivered, by one of us.
By then accustomed to the life, it didn't seem half as bad as I had foreseen climbing on to the ship in Tacoma. Strange as the society was, George and Charlie and Dave and Fritz and I created our own way to get through our time of country living. Still, our eyes were kept firmly on the calendar to calculate the time before we returned home.
Eventually, as a term expired, we one by one rotated back to the US (called the ZI, Zone of the Interior). In February 1956 my turn came. I received orders to present myself at a certain ship at Inchon, on Korea's West Coast. I loaded my heavy duffle bag on an Army truck for a ride to the final replacement center in Korea, where, this time, I really was being replaced. Congratulations came my way for having avoided the clap my entire time there (my stated reason for not jumping the fence). For my friends and some of the officers, even Colonel Long with whom I had made my peace, I left with mixed feelings.
But for the landscape that had offered no interest or any real human experience, not even any sense of location, I left with no feeling. Years later, watching the Olympic Games from Seoul, I was dumbstruck at the change from the city I had once approached on an Army truck over roads barely passable, light bulbs barely doing their job.
From Inchon I crossed the Pacific again on a huge Army ship with minimum stabilizers, going to Oakland/San Francisco. We were a week on the water. That time I somehow managed to avoid a job, which was just as well; my only recollection of those seven days was that to avoid seasickness I remained prone in my bunk, one in a vertical stack, far below deck. After what seemed an interminable time the waves subsided and the ground became smooth, and we pulled into the harbor of San Francisco. It was dawn. I had never been to the Golden Gate—on a sunny winter morning it was like a mirage. A moment of relief and joy—in the United States after 18 months in the Far East!
I had an aunt, a diminutive lady, who lived nearby in Mill Valley, and she had come to meet the ship and succeeded in doing what only a civilian could do—have me paged from where I and hundreds of enlistees had lined up in anticipation of docking. Hearing my name, I raced down several decks and found her, the carrier of mail—and more cookies. It took her a few minutes to recognize me, I was so thin and green from being in bed for a week.
We disembarked in Oakland, and I went south along the California coast to be discharged at Fort Ord. Then I returned to San Francisco to spend a few days with my aunt and have my first look at San Francisco. Finally I headed to Texas for a welcome home. In the mail was a heavy envelope sent from the G3 headquarters in Korea. (Surely my discharge hadn't been a mistake!) On a handsome paper, Colonel Long wrote of me as an outstanding soldier. The commendation was glowing; better was help on the G.I. Bill which paid for a year of graduate school.
By then indoor showers and running water and socializing with women had become routine again—how fast we forget! I quickly adjusted to going back to school and, in a year or so, moving to New York and acting on my sexual urges. For awhile I corresponded with George and a couple of other friends from G3, and soon they too rotated back to the ZI. Wedding announcements began to arrive in the mail, and my friendship with George gave way to occasional Christmas cards, eventually carrying photos of him and his wife and daughter, my old crush having lost some of his thick brown locks, and sex appeal. Time doesn't help us sometimes.
There's a part of me, admittedly a small part, which regrets the experience in Korea as the only one of managing without the everyday amenities that we take as due us. My great nephew Jeremy spent the summer before his senior year in high school in a remote village in Nepal, and there, as well, he had no indoor plumbing or many things he takes for granted at home. He seemed to enjoy the novelty; if it turned into more than a novelty, maybe the enjoyment would fade.
I've never attended a Korean Vets reunion, but I've never attended a high school or college class reunion either. They're not my thing. In the latter two cases, it's not for lack of affection for the years there spent; and, in truth, I take satisfaction if not affection even for the time in the Army. Years after my term in service, young men finagled ways to avoid being called into service or remained comfortably on the side during non-draft years as others were shipped off to no-kidding war zones. I performed no heroic deed. Had I been willing, Colonel Long might have signed me up for more time, maybe even managed to have me follow him to whatever higher rank he was likely to attain. But I think he knew I was not a candidate for that, and would let my honorable Army discharge from two years of service be my badge.
The use of running water is actually not an idle topic today, as for environmental reasons we are urged to limit its use while we shower, brush teeth, shave. I find myself obediently doing so, turning off, or at least partly closing the faucet at those times and managing well. Didn't I already learn how to do that?
Biographical information: Stanley Ely is a native Texan, graduate of Northwestern University and Hunter College. Along with many articles, he has published four books and a fifth, "Ten Ways to Your Cat's Happiness: A Novel," will be out in summer 2010. Further information is on his website, www.stanleyely.com, and he also invites you to read and comment on his blog, adviceon77th.blogspot.com. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org. Stanley lives in New York City.
Costa Rica high noon—temperature one hundred five even. I smell sweat and cut grass. Thin clouds of nectar drift off splashy bougainvillea lining the dirt road, creating a tunnel of tenuous shadow. I smell the cleaner that my house-mother uses to scrub the floors. She does this twice a day.
The floors shine, but the rest of the house, threatened by the ubiquitous ants that gnaw at table legs, at the walls, and carry off crystals of sugar as wide as their backs so they look like an iridescent trail of diamonds glittering on dark floor, is filthy. Red-backed cockroaches are the size of half-dollars; I'm afraid to crush their spines with my flip-flops. We shower with ghosts of spider-webs hanging from the ceiling, empty grasshopper carcasses as brittle as dried leaves dropping onto our shoulders as they crumble back into dust.
My house-sister, Heisel, and I huddle in the doorframe, door propped open. She is seven. Gleaming hair flows down her back, her eyes the color of warm coffee lined with emerald green. They are hitched up in the corners.
I am impatient to leave the house, to stalk the mile of cratered rain-pocked road back to the reservation headquarters where the forest guides patrol the rainforest, protecting it from squatters, an ever-present danger. The guides wear rubber boots that come up to their knees, jeans, always, and buttoned short-sleeved shirts their wives have ironed and scrubbed so clean I can count the threads at the seams.
I teach English.
"¿Cómo es salir?" Heisel asks me. What is it like to leave?
"¿Salir?" I ask.
"De la casa," she explains. To leave the house.
I feel the twang of sun on my face, watch a neighbor as he tries to behead a coral snake that thrashes then twines around his shovel. The snake climbs the handle, writhing in pain or reluctance to surrender, club-head sticking stubbornly to rigid choked red-gold body.
I don't know how to answer this girl, who at seven has already chosen her husband, who knows that like her mother, she will stay home all day scrubbing floors until they shine.
Shovel stabs red earth. The snake continues to not die.
Heisel's sister giggles then tosses a nutshell on the floor and scampers after it, leaving dirty footprints all over clean tiles. The mother sighs behind me. The sound echoes through thin walls like moth wings brushing veined petals.
I change the subject, ask what Heisel is studying. Reading, she tells me. She graduates in May. School goes through second grade in this town tucked in the shade of the volcano Arenal.
I think of Arenal—the town I flee to on weekends when I escape this strangled family. I lounge in hot tubs and drink piña coladas, feeling the rumble of earth and watching lava ooze down the sides of the mountain at night, a slow-moving firework display.
At lunch, Heisel's mother had told me that after her second baby, the doctors warned her not to get pregnant again, that the cost might be her life. She seldom smiled, but she did when she told me this, and she curled fingers up over her lips to cover decaying teeth nestled among healthy ones. I looked away, didn't flinch when I dipped my spoon into the plastic dish littered with tiny ants, and dropped spoonfuls into my tea.
"Flotan," she said, they float, and spooned the squirming bodies out of my sweetened tea, dropping them into the belly of the sink.
"No puedo embarazar," she said, I can't get pregnant, grinned again, impishly, and returned to her floor with a steel brush as forgiving as a nail.
"Te toca a tí," she says. Your turn.
Not yet, I think.
One woman in town has twenty-four biological children. When I met her, she looked old as driftwood, wizened mouth, no teeth, sunken eyes darker than dirt. She was forty-six.
"So what do you want to be, Heisel?" I ask.
Her eyes fall to her dress, layered pink with ruffles and bows. "Ya sabes," she says. You already know.
After I leave, another assignment, I don't see them for months then run into the father at a conservation meeting. He is a guide.
"How are they?" I ask. "Your wife, your lovely daughters?"
He smiles, handsome face beams. "¿Sabes?" he says. "She is pregnant." His smile half-moon wide, wolf-teeth white in tanned face. "¿Mi esposa? She is having my son."
Biographical information: Perigee does not have any biographical information for this writer.
I have come home to write. To spend the seasons here. To spend, to waste, the seasons here.
A letter from Lonnie today. She sends her latest poem. Her images are brittle and delicate yet they cut across the page like a Cossack's cry. Pensive, tense, resplendent.
All sensitivity and tact.
I have loved Lonnie. Her poetry. My student.
The day is heavy and gray. Legacy of last night's storm. Summer thunder shook New England after several days of sun. The lightning was unusually thin—white and jagged crackling several seconds long. Lacy patterns in a purple June darkness.
This noon, while I was rereading Lonnie's letter, a robin flew into the sun porch screen with a chunky thud that startled me. Dazed, it glided to the fence, perched, hesitated, then dropped to the patio where, testing the flagstone, it recovered and hopped under the lawn chair to the forsythia bush. Later, having finished the letter, I noticed a noisy robin on the arched rose trellis.
A metaphor here, perhaps. Life as interrupted flight.
The trellis needs a new coat of paint.
Garage door goes up. Bruce is home from work. My youngest brother. Home from Julius Hartt for the summer months, working in the hospital kitchen. Showers up and begins playing Hindemith. He will be a great pianist one day.
Who'll throw the garbage out? Mother-voice breaks through the music to the sun porch.
It's going to rain again.
My mother doesn't understand why I've come. Regards me with curious eyes. A bit of suspicion even. Yet is delighted to have me home.
I'm twenty-seven, I explain, and free now from the draft.
My father will retire soon. Finely-lined purple bubbles balloon from beneath his eyes. The door is always open, he says, and does not question me.
Rich russet sun-ribbons twine
dune oats and seaweed,
gray gulls and orange-creased crabs.
I walked on the watered edge
of the sand and noticed the sunlight
falling away to each side ...
From Lonnie's poem. I will write to her and suggest dropping the ed on walked and noticed because there is no ed on twine.
Subtle image of the sunlight parting.
A second gray summer day. Lighter, though, than yesterday. The constant shroud thickens and gives way to soft rain showers. More pleasant rain than yesterday.
Drove Bruce to work this morning. The hospital has grown since I worked there. Bruce earns two and a quarter. I started at a dollar five. Cost of living. Inflation. Progress.
Dropping Bruce at the side entrance I glimpse several uniforms within. Recall the tan khaki I wore. The gray tunic. White lab coat. Progress. Ambition set aside.
Continued to the city in a sudden heavier rain. Bridgeport is truly ugly. Attempts at renovation make it worse. The Open Book Shop does not have Updike's Assorted Prose. Nonfiction from his New Yorker days. Hadn't finished it before the fire.
I run back to the car in the rain. Find myself strangely patient in the traffic.
There is no hurry now.
I stop for a fishing license at the Sportsman Den but am told they have sold them all. Must go to the Town Hall in Stratford. I wonder if they will question me my Iowa registration, my Iowa's driver's license, and make me pay out-of-state fees. No, I must tell them, I am a resident of Stratford again. I must try out the old fishing spots. Try on the old clothes again.
It was sad that last night in D.C. I was with David in a Georgetown restaurant. He said he would never marry because he feared he was homosexual. I said I would never marry because I feared it was possible to love more than one woman. It was a cold and snowy January night. In the morning I left for Iowa after three years in Washington.
The Town Clerk's secretary is a friend of my mother's. I am surprised to find her here. She asks how I am. Has heard of the trouble at the University. Did I know the girl who was killed?
No, I reply, but does it matter?
Asks if I lost anything in the fire.
My books, I tell her. And my manuscripts. But she doesn't seem to understand.
Riots, she says. Spring fever.
Yeah, I laugh. Spring.
Typing in the details on my fishing license she mistakes my eyes for blue, my hair for blond, and I am flattered. But no, I tell her, the eyes are green, the hair brown but lightened by the sun. I have been working in the yard since coming home, in the sun before all the rain came—the lawn, the hedges, weeding where needed. Therapy of sorts. Shoulders still sting from the sunburn.
She types in my height and weight and inquires of my father.
Amazing recuperative powers, I answer. Discs removed from his spine. Two near-fatal heart attacks. Amazing recuperative powers.
I pay the four-thirty-five fee and leave the white and hallowed austerity of the Stratford Town Hall. When I pick up Bruce after work I will tell him that we will go fishing next week on his day off.
Did you see Flossie at the Town Hall? my mother asks.
Yes, as a matter of fact.
Well what did she have to say for herself?
Wanted to know if I knew the girl who got shot.
Well did you? my mother asks.
I told her it doesn't make any difference. Can't you see that either?
I remember my mother's letter to Iowa. She said she hoped to die before my father because she wouldn't know what to do if he died first. Then today over coffee she revealed herself again as she rarely does. Bruce and my father had left for work. We were talking of my older brother and his wife. My mother mentioned she wished she'd had a daughter. Someone to call up, she says. It's so much easier to call up a daughter than to call up a daughter-in-law.
What's wrong with four sons? I ask. I try to joke. It's nice to know we're not wanted.
No, she says, it's just that it would have been nice to have a daughter to call up once in a while.
She gets up and goes to the sink, pretending to start the dishes so I won't see the glaze in her eyes.
The cloudiness continues. In the back yard I notice a branch split off near the top of the maple tree. About twenty feet up. Broken by the storm some nights ago. I take a ladder from the garage, an old saw from the cellar, and ascend. The leaves are still wet. The supple limbs, jarred by my climbing, shower me thoroughly, as if in spite for intruding. I stand on the very top rung, grip the slim trunk with my left hand, and saw away above me with the right. The shower mixes with the sawdust and blinds me. I drop the saw.
Later, with the branch gone, the tree looks raped. I am mad at myself for cutting it. The broken branch might have mended.
Your father will appreciate that, my mother says. He can't climb now because of his back.
But my father mended. The tree might have mended. What is the point here?
In the afternoon the day begins to clear, the best weather since all the rain. The sun is not out but you can sense its presence. I decide to weed beneath the hedges. The soil is damp and the weeds pull easily. I fill a garbage can.
A VW stops at the curb. Vic. I haven't seen him in the eight years since high school. My mother sent me a clipping of his wedding when I was living in Washington. More recently, in Iowa, a clipping of him getting his wings in the Air Force. My mother is a great one for keeping tabs.
Vic's two-year-old son is with him. Still not married? he says.
No, just one of the hangers-on. His hair is graying prematurely. It worries him a bit. Salt and pepper, I say. Attractive.
Been home long? he asks.
Late spring, I reply. Several weeks.
Be here long? he asks.
A year. I'm taking a year.
A year off? he says. Already?
I laugh. A year on, Vic. About time, don't you think?
This confuses him some. Being shipped out for nine months next week, he says. Will fly commercial jobs when he's done. Invites me to meet the wife. Will call on Monday to confirm.
Good to see you, Vic.
Raining still. Last night, when the sun came out just before setting, it looked like a good weekend. But there was a thunderstorm during the night. I got up at eight o'clock and my mother, who is always the first one up, said the storm came at seven-thirty. How odd our sense of time is.
It thunders now. A short clap. In Iowa the thunder rolled and seemed to last forever. A police siren sounds. Perhaps the rain has caused an accident. The streets are dark and slippery. The rain comes again, steady and straight down. It splashes off the pavement and bounces several inches high.
More rain on Monday. I drive Bruce to work at six o'clock. It will rain all day today. You can already tell that it will be that kind of day.
I sit in the car for a minute when I return from the hospital and listen to the windshield wipers. I shut off the engine and listen to the rain pound the roof. Reminiscent rain.
On the sun porch now I recall those times in school when it rained all day. Grammar school. S.H.S. The rain beyond the windows enclosed us all and there was such a sense of shelter.
The day passes and Vic does not call.
I have been discovering TV again. For nearly ten years I have not watched TV, but I turn it on occasionally now. The first three programs I watched since coming home involved Blacks in one way or another. Every other commercial has a Black now. I have to laugh after the long absence. How very hard we are trying.
This afternoon I watched five innings of the Yankee game. They were playing some team I've never heard of. I didn't recognize any of the players. I was raised on Casey, Yogi and Mick.
The Yankees haven't won a pennant in years. Let us remember these Knights of the Round Table and lament the end of an era. America is in need of a metaphor.
One would do well to watch TV just once every ten years. I recall our first set, twenty years ago. A small screen only several inches square. Howdy Doody. Uncle Wethbee and the Weather. Con Edison.
What hath God wrought?
Benét dropped in today when he saw my car outside. Benét is Black. My neighbor and old college roommate. He lives in New York now. Columbia law.
How's the Big City? I ask him.
About to bust, man, any day now.
The race thing? I ask.
No, he says, not the race thing. The race thing is there like daily bread. Wall Street, man. The construction workers beating on the marchers.
I tell him of the farmers in Iowa who came into town with shotguns. Tell him of the girl who got killed.
Yeah, man, he laughs. It's getting bad.
The rain is letting up. The mugginess is gone. The radio forecasts sun. I will go with my father to pick up some loam. Weed the hedges again.
How intent and purposeful we are. I watch myself with amazement settle in to old routines. I suppose that is what home is. There is no Revolution here.
Mother-voice from downstairs. There is water in the basement from the rain. I mop for an hour. My father argues the necessity of repairs. The argument is trivial and petty and ends with everybody shouting.
I finish mopping and quickly excuse myself. Go upstairs to the sun porch and read from Isaac Babel.
Sudden darkness and driving rain again. From the sun porch I solve the problem of water in the basement. The drainpipe at the corner of the house is bubbling over, the gutter spilling water all along the eaves. The drain is clogged. A small lake has formed at the base of the cellar window from which the mess downstairs began.
I put on a hooded yellow slicker, take the ladder from the garage, a piece of BX cable from the cellar, and ascend. The rain beats hard on my head. My parents watch from the sun porch. I shove the BX cable down the drainpipe and flush out a broken bird's nest.
My parents stare from the sun porch, puzzled. I point at the ground and shout through the rain. It was only a bird's nest! But the summer rain comes down hard and they cannot hear me.
The rain has stopped. The sun is out. And all spirits lift.
Visited O.B. today. My older brother. A Yale man. Applied mathematics, computers. Already earns more than my father. His home, too, is larger. Two cars, a color TV, and a childless wife.
He shows me his new antenna. It rotates on the roof. Gets twenty-two channels now. Asks me to stay to watch the ballgame but I have other things to do.
I owe a letter to Chorba. He is going to the War against his will. Infantry, in basic training now. He writes they call him the Grunt. At Wesleyan with Benét and me. Phi Beta Kappa. Taken from his high school teaching. He writes of the insanity of it all.
No rain for nearly a week now. Summer seems here to stay.
The other day I mentioned I stopped to see Lonnie en route from Iowa. We were to have been married this summer. The mentioning was a mistake. My mother pursues it. Is it just that she wants a daughter or does she think I'll become a dirty old man? Lonnie's age always bothered her. It is understood that one should keep his distance, but I loved her anyway.
I asked Lonnie if she missed making love. We talked of our last time together in the fall before I went to Iowa. That long afternoon. Some farmer's field outside of D.C. Not knowing then that we were making love for the last time.
My father put some birdseed in the feeder by the trellis. From the sun porch I notice a commotion. A gray squirrel has routed the birds. I run through the dining room to the kitchen and out to the back porch, slam the door and yell. The squirrel leaps from the feeder and leaves.
Back on the sun porch a few minutes later I notice the squirrel stalking the feeder again. Again I scare him away, this time leaping off the back porch and chasing him across the patio into the Werner's property behind us. He returns yet again and this time I heave a brick at him. I am amazed at his persistence. My own.
Sunday morning is clear and sunny. Bruce is at work. My father has taken my mother to church. I decide there is a need for a dry well at the base of the drainpipe by the corner of the house. I dig a hole three feet deep, take an old garbage can, chisel out the bottom, and sink the cylinder in the hole. Connecticut soil is mostly gravel, so there is little dirt left once I have screened the debris. I fill the cylinder with stones and level it off.
The neighbor comes over from next door. Wants to know what all the banging's about. I tell him I was chiseling out the bottom of the garbage can. Hold up the jagged disc. He admires my work and I feel satisfied. For the first time since coming home.
Bruce and I get up at four o'clock to go fishing at Candlewood Lake. Want to be on the water before the sun comes up. In Trumbull we are stopped by a rookie cop for what he calls a routine check. Wants to wire Iowa to see if it's really my car. It's three a.m. there, I tell him. Delays us for half an hour. Smokes a cigarette as the sun rises. I
make a note of his name and show him our fishing gear in the trunk.
Headquarters says let us go.
Boat drifts in a cove. I loft a rubber eel among dead tree stumps near shore. Two sets of treble hooks. The bass rises with it well in its mouth and fantails across the surface. Excited, Bruce goes for the net. The bass leaps again and I revel in my control of the violence.
Bruce measures the fish against the tackle box rule. One of four keepers that day.
I try to smile, but the self-imposed nature cure isn't working. I am always conscious of trying to forget. The university violence that brought me home.
I get off a quick letter to the Chief of the Trumbull Police. Explain the incident. Routine. Checking for checking's sake. I cite my rights. Cops have enough trouble these days without hassling fishermen.
I suggest he take the rookie cop off the graveyard shift so he won't have to look so hard for something to do.
I remember when Martin Luther King was killed and the Blacks were burning D.C. I was with David at the Tombs in Georgetown. We came out to find the sky a billowing ash. Crossed the Potomac to Arlington and watched it all from the cemetery. From right above Kennedy's grave. David was scared to death.
Later, a little old lady offered me fifty dollars to drive her to her home in
Southeast. The bridges have been road-blocked, I said.
For relief from the heat today I went to the kitchen to make myself a milkshake. Took some ice cream from the freezer, chocolate syrup from the refrigerator, and Waring Blender from above the sink. The blender is a new one. I remember well the old one. It had but a single switch. The new one has seven buttons— whip, chop, mix, grate, purée, blend, and liquefy. The hum of the engine whirs higher with each successive button pushed, as if on a musical scale. It really did a job on that milkshake.
I went for a haircut today. Couldn't stand all the stares any longer. The barber is a friend of my father's, a member of the Rotary Club. He tells me his daughter has won a Rotary Fellowship to spend the summer abroad.
Great, I reply. Where's she going?
Was to have gone to Sweden but he's not going to let her go. Not going to expose his daughter to all that sex and pornography.
Haircuts are three dollars now. Even in Stratford.
Article in the paper tonight. Candlewood Lake threatened by algae. In five years it will be as green as pea soup. Once upon a time you could see to the bottom.
The Yankees have lost again.
My mother is planning a picnic for the Fourth of July. If Peter will come, the entire family will be together for the first time in several years. Peter, my father's third son.
I go to the south end of Stratford to walk on the beach. The water of Long Island Sound. Kramer is there. Another old high school buddy. We go to Skipper's-by-the-Sea
and get a pitcher of beer.
Did you make the five-year reunion? he asks.
No. I'd just moved to D.C. to teach high school.
Me neither, he says. Kawicki and the boys wrecked the joint. Four-thousand dollars worth of damage. No more reunions at that place for the class of '62.
It's always like that, I say. A few will ruin it for all. Like at the university.
I read about that, he says.
We have more beer and get pretty drunk. Kramer talks of the girls he had in the service. I talk of the girls I had in Europe.
Europe! he says. You bastard!
Ever get there in the service? I ask.
Spent four fucking years in Montana.
Montana? Where the hell is that?
Even fucking farther away from everything than Iowa.
Then we both talk of the girls we could have had in high school if only we had known any better.
I walk to the corner to mail a letter to Chorba.
Dear Grunt. Hang in there, baby. Iowa was hot. I lost all my stuff. Could never write there again. Connecticut is cool. Timeless. Stratford is sound asleep. I miss the kids
Lonnie. He never approved. Will be glad to hear it's all but over.
July comes in hot and dry. My father buys several truckloads of loam and has it dumped in the side yard. I start to spread it with a round-pointed shovel. My father goes off to buy grass seed. He tends to the sprinkler nightly to water the new grass seed. White flags flutter in strips along a string but hardly scare the birds away. Works only at first. Like with the squirrel.
The Fourth of July is gorgeous. Humidity has been low lately. Peter comes home from the woods in the northeast corner of Connecticut. We go off to my bedroom and talk. He has finished his Fantastic Bird. Stark painting of a heron on one leg. In a dark and forlorn marsh. Enormous red sun on the horizon. Metaphysical as hell.
Peter signs his paintings Petrum. The Biblical Peter. And on this rock I shall found my church. He will be a great artist one day.
When it gets dark we watch the fireworks above the Stratford Town Green. Can see them clearly from the front porch. Parents seem proud to have us all there. O.B. leaves early. His wife is chilly.
I go to the bank to cash a check. When I went away to college I left a dollar in my savings account to remain a customer, so I could cash checks when I was home. Compounded at the current rate, eight years later, I now have a dollar-thirty-two. But I cannot cash my check. The pretty girl nicely recites. Customers must have enough on account to cover any check.
The best thing about Iowa was that you could cash a check anywhere.
I withdraw my dollar-thirty-two, close my account, and leave.
Poking through my grandfather's things this afternoon I come across a sermon written by his father. On the family farm at Addison Hill in upstate New York. The Young Man's Boundless Limits. In one big paragraph:
Since the foundation of the world there never has, nor will be, any power or influence to debar a young man from being what he ought to be, to himself, to society, and to God. Young men with determination, self-interest, and stick-to-it-ive-ness have no limit. But how can one expect to reach a standard of usefulness, enterprise, and success without some purpose in life? As we look down along the annals of history we find that most noted men of the world are those of humble parentage. Look if you please at Columbus, one of history's most noted men, and who can say he did not leave an example worthy of commemoration? And we can find the same example of perseverance, honor, success, and fame in hundreds of others such as Washington, Webster, Clay, Field, Fulton, and Edison, men to whom today we owe our freedom, privileges, and enlightenments. Trace these men if you will back to infancy, and ascertain for yourselves if I was not right when I said they were all of humble birth. Men who did not have the privileges that we now enjoy, nor facilities, for procuring that which is most needful for every young man to have, an education. But still as long as this world stands, their names and deeds will be remembered and cherished in the hearts of oncoming generations, and they shall be known as young men who, by being true to themselves and doubtless true to God, were able to conquer. Who then can say that young men have not the privilege of being what they desire to be? Young men of courage, morality, and energy have the power in their hands of being examples to the world, worthy of commemoration. There is a call, by society, by the world, and by the still small voice of God, for young men of talent and education to occupy places of trust and honor. But the first thing necessary is preparation. He cannot expect to rise to an exalted position in life without battling, without rebuffs and discouragement. But let us be encouraged by the old saying, “Where there's a will, there's a way.” But in all of our undertakings, no matter how high our aim may be in life, let us not forget that our success and interest, both in this life and the life to come, depends on our obedience to God. And if we have these purposes, these aims and determinations concealed within us, and the love of God in our hearts, who can say otherwise than that the young man has a boundless limit?
I remember a saying my father pasted in the kitchen when we were young. To Earn More You Must Learn More. We grew up on it.
My father never went to college. He made it the hard way. He thinks college is a magic black box. And O.B. proved it at Yale.
I decide to paint the trellis out back. It arches over the path to the Werner's yard, bird feeder appended top left. I take a putty knife from the cellar and scrape the weathered white away. It leaves the trellis dull and gray. I clean out the bird feeder. An ancient can of paint, left over from doing the house trim years ago, is barely enough to finish the job. It takes longer than I thought. I work in the sun for most of the morning. Splash myself often. Paint in my hair and eyes. The thin slats are a nuisance to cover. The birds abandon it for three days after.
My mother brings out a beer. I find myself looking for things to do now.
Claire came to the house last evening to start piano lessons with Bruce. She is O.B.'s wife's aunt. Bruce teaches piano in his time off from the hospital. Most students are just kids. I listened from the sun porch.
Claire comes in and sits down. They talk. Not a note is played. The talk gets louder and I realize there is an argument. Claire won't cut her fingernails. It's impossible to play well with long fingernails, Bruce explains. I'd rather not teach you if you refuse to cut them. Claire gets up and leaves. Shortest career in the history of the piano.
Good for you, Bruce.
It rained last night for the first time in several weeks. A brief storm. Nothing to speak of. By day it is difficult to tell. I feared for the trellis but it had already dried.
Mid-July weather continues summery, perfect. For whatever there is to do.
I am surprised to learn that the #1 record in the country, a song I've been hearing since spring, was made by four guys from Stratford I went to high school with. One of them was my best friend. The first thing they all did was move away. Cut an album in
My father pans the group. He is jealous on my behalf. The disc has already sold a million.
I send Bill my congratulations. Offer to write some lyrics if they ever do an album. But he doesn't write back.
Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.
My father's vacation is in the month of August. Not so very far away now. My parents announce they will go away. First real vacation in years. Head north through Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Cut across New York to Niagara Falls. Maybe see a bit of Canada. Bruce and I will be alone. My father writes to the Triple-A for road maps.
I go to my room and write Lonnie.
I get a letter from the Chief of the Trumbull Police. He is looking into the matter. He is not as hasty as the rookie cop.
The neighbors and my parents' friends can't get used to the idea of seeing me here at home. They peek in at me reading the newspaper on the sun porch as if to make certain I'm real. It's good to have you around, they say. But I can tell they're not so sure.
Biographical information: Professor of English Emeritus at Ohio Northern University, Claude Clayton SMith is the author of a novel, two children’s books, and three books of nonfiction, with a fourth—Ohio Outback: Learning to Love the Great Black Swamp—to be published by The Kent State University Press in 2010. Smith was the 2008 Claridge Writer in Residence at Illinois College. He holds a BA from Wesleyan, an MAT from Yale, an MFA from the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, and a DA from Carnegie-Mellon.
Granny's quarters are aclutter with NY Times Book Reviews, with medicine bottles, with Catholic tchotchkes. Seated on her bed, platinum Granny aims the "pusheroo" and her longtime companion CNN exits the room.
"Sit down. I want to talk to you for a moment," she says.
I'm headed out, my shoes in my hand. Though covered with housecoats and slacks, her armchair seems as good a place as any.
"Do you think Beth's cat has fallen off the roof?" she asks.
I'm a right-shoe-first sort of guy, but it does not go on easily. There's at least nine, maybe ten, extra pounds of water in me, and my last few hours, upright, have drawn much of it down to my sock-covered feet. I try to pull my shoe on over a polyester-blend water balloon.
"Granny, that's none of my business." But all household topics filter through me, and I know my cousin Beth's cat has indeed fallen off the roof.
The remote control at the ready in her lap, Granny says, "She could use your guidance."
I loosen the laces to press down into the shoe. Tying the stubby ends proves more difficult. "I'm twice Beth's age and I've got chest hair." I work on the left shoe and catch that my words have not registered. "I'm twenty-eight, and I'm a guy, Granny."
Soon, Beth and her neighbor friend Katie are in my Toyota Supra, foal bodies layered in sweaters and winter coats. Heat on, I drop the windows and hit the button for the sun roof. We are off through the neighborhood of Tudor-style houses and disrobed maples. The CD player draws in her Nirvana, Blind Melon, or Pearl Jam - their music, though it should be mine, too. I am already what one ex-girlfriend has called a fuddy-duddy. My Dvorak and Glenn Miller remain stowed in the rear.
I find their world-weary music precocious: You ain't seen nothing yet, kids.
Our game has no name other than a simple "Getting Lost." Each time, we head further out from known territory, twist through unrecognizable secondary and tertiary roads. Neither my one functioning eye nor the myth of diminished depth perception stops me from dodging in and out of traffic. I find a strip of state highway so sparsely traveled I pilot the Supra over a hundred mph. For a few miles, I am sixteen, fresh with license. Beth cranks up the Pearl Jam. The angst in the music overtakes me, and I pass Mainline mansions and horse runs at illicit speeds.
When we deem ourselves sufficiently lost, we follow the breadcrumbs of intuition on a new route home before the winter dusking falls. That's the real game. Finding our way back.
There's a brief stop at a convenience store. The girls run in while I use the pay phone to call Beth's mom. The laces of my right shoe have come loose, and there is plenty to retie them with. The pressure of the shoe and my movement has worked the liquid up, into my ankles. The girls emerge. They are deliberate, almost graceful, in their movements. But Beth still seems a child with her bag of Skittles. I focus on her can of Coke.
I am thirsty, water-laden and cannot drink.
At Monday's weigh in, I'm thirteen pounds liquid overweight. I follow the dismayed nurse into the treatment area of the dialysis center and take my place at a vacated recliner. Soon, a tech dons his plexiglass faceplate and hooks me up to the machine. Two needles pressed into a Gortex tube in my left biceps serve to recycle my blood. For three and a half hours I cast covetous glances at nurse Laura, am entranced by the drone of the dialysis machines, suffer the proceedings of the O.J. murder trial. I drift in and out of consciousness as the unrelieved plethoras of water and toxins are strained from my body. A female technician emerges from the purification room with a filtration cylinder. Her butcher's apron is a graffitied wall of splattered blood spelling out: This is not medicine. This is leeching and bloodletting.
Korean War vet Ernie, beside me, complains of chest pains. Across from me, Whitey claims to have been a municipal shit-kicker. Speechless octogenarian Elaine is wheeled in on a stretcher. Twelve of us are seated for treatment this morning shift. Two of us are eligible for a kidney transplant. Only I have taken the dare and await the call.
Shriveled and brittle, I climb into the Supra afterward. The schools have not let out, and I gun the car down a residential street, through piles of curbed leaves. A glance in the rearview proves my attempt as futile as it is foolish. No leaves are kicked up in a colorful swirl. They remain brown and grounded and dry.
I pull over, rummage through my case for my Glenn Miller CD. Maybe. Cue up "Saint Louis Blues March," definitely. At once, trombone and clarinet repaint the sky, replace the leaves, rejuvenate me with old man music.
Biographical information: Sean Toner's essays have appeared at webdelsol.com, in Opium Magazine (where he's twice been a finalist in their 500-word memoir contest), and in the "Worst Meals Ever" anthology from Serving House Books. Sean has been sightless since 1995 and is a public speaker about disability. www.seantoner.com
"Sir," she says to me, "what do you have there?"
"Oh, just some bookmarks."
"I see. You're not supposed to distribute literature like that on the plane."
"I'm sorry. Didn't know. Why is that anyway?"
"Well," she explains, "everybody is trapped on the plane. They don't have anywhere to go, so they feel obligated to take your literature, and that is not fair to our customers."
"Trust me, people don't have a hard time saying 'no' if they don't want these bookmarks. I just had four people tell me to move on. And I'm only asking the passengers who are reading a book right now anyway."
"Sir, I understand what you're saying, but these people are trapped here. It's just not fair."
"Oh, you mean trapped and unfair like charging five bucks for a Bud Light? Five bucks for a small glass of cheap wine unfair? Unfair as in not accepting cash anymore?" Trapped as in watching that horrible movie? Who watches movies starring Kevin Nealon anyway?"
"Right now, sir, I'm only warning you, but I could cite you with an FAA violation."
"I understand what you're saying, but I'm not pushing some religion or taking people's money here. Actually, I guess I am promoting The Church of Poetry. You just took my last bookmark anyway, so I'll just sit down now, okay?"
This scene unfolded on a flight from Reno to San Diego this winter. After learning that my family would be spending time in Mexico over Christmas, I started thinking about how to promote my chapbook of poetry, Fractals of Past, during my travels. I had plenty of promotional bookmarks that contained information about me, my website and my chapbook, so I decided to take them all with me. I also took business cards with one of my shorter poems on it.
I didn't know exactly what I was going to do with my bookmarks and business cards, but ideas came to me while I drove to the airport.
While waiting for my first flight, I made a sign that read, "Free Poetry." I asked people who spent more than a second looking at me if they wanted a free poem. If they didn't run away, I offered them my business card. Only one of the twelve people that morning said something to me that I won't dare share with you. The other eleven seemed positive about our interaction and warmly took my card.
Next. While I was on that flight to San Diego, I walked up and down the aisle (when the seat belt light was not illuminated) and asked those who were reading a book if they would like a free bookmark. There were twenty-eight people reading books and six Kindle users. Even two of the Kindle users took my bookmark, and only four other readers rejected my offering. So before I even completed the first leg of my trip, thirty-seven strangers knew that I write poems, and that I would like them to consider buying my chapbook. That's all I'll ever know about those people, but maybe they will share my information with others. Who knows how many people will read some of my poems on my website and buy my chapbook. Who knows if any of those people will read, like, dislike my writing.
By the time I landed in San Diego, I thought of some things I would do to promote myself the rest of the trip. In every airport I spent some time and money, I offered free poems in the form of my business card. (I took sixty-five cards with me, and only brought eleven back home.) I also visited many stores in those airports and slipped my bookmarks into various books and magazines. I put them into reading materials I thought people would buy. I also asked people who had just purchased a book if they would like a free bookmark. Many people took them without thinking twice. Not only am I shameless, I'm sneaky. Nobody ever yelled at me for distributing bookmarks in or around the bookstores.
I also started many conversations with people about what they were reading as we waited for flights. Before moving on, I offered them a bookmark. Very few rejected me.
I believe my airport promotional efforts were worth it. The people who took my bookmarks and business cards will continue on their travels and end up spending time in other parts of the world—and hopefully pass along the information I shared with them. I stumbled upon a couple other promotional ideas for poets and writers while travelling—I'll share them with you later.
When I arrived at the resort in Cancun, I realized I was surrounded by more people from even more places around the world. Many people read while relaxing by the pool. Many people read while waiting for their spouses or friends to meet them in the lobby. By now you can probably guess what I did.
I made sure I had my promotional materials with me everywhere I went. I offered bookmarks to those reading by the pool. I even placed bookmarks and business cards inside novels left alone while their readers hopped in the pool or got another drink. I left them in restaurants, bathrooms, lobbies, elevators, and taxis. While waiting for others in our group to shop in stores, I would find a bookstore to invade. I never stopped looking for opportunities to get my information in the hands of people.
Why am I sharing this with you? If you are a writer, you had better get proactive with promoting your work.
Start thinking beyond the normal promotional efforts that publishers, agents, and publicists would suggest to you. Many writers are doing unique things to advertise their work. Some create Facebook, Myspace, and twitter profiles for their main characters. Some offer free excerpts on their websites, blogs, or podcasts. Others create reading/performance events to highlight their work. Some talk with their intended audiences in speaking engagements or workshops.
I place bookmarks in your novel while you're enjoying the pool or offer you a free poem while waiting in an airport line.
I don't know if doing readings at bookstores will get the results you want—especially if you are a "new or emerging voice."
If you are a poet, organize a poetry event—not a reading. You can do readings after you get enough people interested in listening to your work on a cold winter night. Poetry Slams and noncompetitive poetry events where many voices share a stage can be effective ways to draw attention to The Church of Poetry and promote your own work.
I'm working on hosting a Poetry Slam in an airport. A friend of mine asked why I would do that. I told him that there would be hundreds of people waiting in the baggage claim with some money in their pockets. And besides, pulling off a Poetry Slam in an airport can't be any more difficult than getting a corporate bookseller to help you organize a reading in their store.
Advertising budgets continue to shrink, and publishers are facing a myriad of issues in this economy. Freelancers are negotiating compensation changes. Newspapers are figuring out how to create an online, pay-for-content paradigm. Open-source applications and e-readers are forcing new thoughts.
Self-promotion is tricky business, but it's a gamble worth taking. You need, however, to move beyond worrying about your ego and feeling embarrassed during your promotional efforts. Get your pitch down. Be able to advertise yourself and your book quickly and coherently. Who are you (as a writer/poet), and how can you get others to care about who you are? What are you willing to do get your word out?
I'm hoping that when I release my next collection of poetry, Synaptic Traffic, in August that my 24-hour poetry event (that I'll put up on www.ustream.tv) will pay off and get the attention of some new readers.
Biographical information: Benjamin Arnold has survived teaching high school English for five years. When he isn't teaching, he is writing, painting, and raising a reader. He is the founder of BEtheCAUSE, a collective of artists, musicians, and poets, which hosts open mics and poetry slams. Word Riot has published some of his poetry, and he is working on his first collection of poems. He earned a degree in Literature and Writing Studies at Cal State San Marcos in 2003. Arnold lives in Reno, NV with his wife, Tami, and son, TK. He is a contributing editor for Perigee—and continues to investigate and write the world. You can keep up with him at www.benjaminarnoldwriter.com