One Thing

He only did one thing well.

This new medication, it – went to his head. In the coffee shop he tapped out a sequence on the table, tappity-to-tap-to-tappity-to-tap, until he got it right. Those people were looking but he had a book and you can go to a coffee shop with a book and sit all day.

Sweat began to form on his brow and he shouted. A short burst about the color blue which he hated, especially sky. Then he thought of the park with its green, and shivered once.

Those people, smiling at the other table. And the ones at the park with the children. They did things well, he was sure of it. Had money, and boats. He knew they were watching him so he was careful but still – he knew they did many things well.

But at least he had one thing, he thought.

He crossed at the crosswalk. Waited for the white pedestrian light until he could walk and then he ran. He ran for the bench at the park with the twisty jungle-gym and the children laughing. Then the howling. The howling from his dreams and the horse hooves like thunder he couldn’t stop any of it, they were laughing, he remembered that deformed dwarf telling him…what? So ugly and ungodly, face of a vagrant, a heart-thief, twisted like the striated muscles he could almost see in his own flesh.

The switchblade made a “thok” sound when he opened it. Solid and for a minute everything stopped, like when the noon church bells passed the twelve mark and there was nothing but pigeons flying scared.

Then they started again, this time louder, a Mongolian horde pressing across the plain straight for his brain. He knew he could do one thing.

As he stepped onto the chair, later, carefully balancing himself, he heard muffled shouts outside. He looked at the rope and it seemed to him that the knot he’d tied there was the best one he had ever made.

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Just Eat Brownies

Scuffing the pavement, I tossed more rocks into my father’s garden. I kept an eye on the street. I’d see a car turn the corner in the distance – glint of a chrome bumper — sure I saw legs. A small girl coming towards me.  

There it was — that fluttery feeling – rising, falling in my stomach.  The arc of heat flushing around my ears. I was certain she’d come to my house. She said she would. We’d play, and maybe eat brownies. I met her that day on the playground. She’d come over. A girl! 

And I waited, my eyes on the disappearing road. It was like waiting for Christmas, for the last bell of the school year, for cookies. For the Braves game on Saturday. Waiting until you can’t sit still.  

And then there she is – how long did I wait? — reaching for her martini, and my mouth is open, not literally but I’m listening, watching, trying not to look at her cleavage. We talk and swerve and do the eye dance. Here’s a woman but suddenly she’s Catherine Johns from 2nd grade and we’re playing tetherball and I don’t even notice her ass because we’re both only 9 and asses don’t even exist yet, except we’re drinking and both divorced and there are five kids with us so we can’t say too much so it’s just back and forth, easy, back and forth and she knows she’s beautiful, and she’s seen the world, too, but maybe she likes that I’m not looking at that, I’m just looking at her eyes — no, looking beyond her eyes and into some other place that’s from long ago, girlish, sweet – stripped of the angles, the data mounds and schedules, the patter of patter on sidewalks, concrete mazes – worries – postures —

and I take that and put it there, next to the napkin, sideways from her breasts which I am not looking at (ok, maybe once) but we are complicated with boyfriends and girlfriends and isn’t there a way we can just play? Without immediately lighting candles and having sexy bathtubs and foot massages and fragrant poetry?

There’s a Keds innocence that’s always walking towards each other, some simple fascination with the other –how fast we can run to there, or there, landing with a breathless laughing — laughing just because everything else resounds, bell-like, in the autumn air. There’s no sex and no tomorrow and we’re just having dinner surrounded by the noise of new childhoods and yes, please email me back — I’m just wondering — did you get mine? — please, I’m waiting for you to walk around that corner and show up at my house, finally, so we can eat the brownies.

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Math Problem

Hannah is scrunched up on the floor, writing, in a position only a gymnast could find comfortable. Her pencil moves quickly. It’s 9:30, and it’s past her bedtime.

“Daaaaad. Just one more minute!”  She isn’t pleading – with her, it’s more like a command. Her voice is directed into her papers as she says it. She doesn’t even look up.

You can’t really argue with determination. 

I let her continue the Challenge Level 3 math problem. I had already spent 45 minutes with her, “helping,” because I’m the dad. Dads are supposed to be able to do fifth grade math, but it turns out that this isn’t always true.

When we first sat down, I had the breezy paternalistic confidence that I could do anything and that I knew all I needed to know. How hard could this be? I love helping with homework. I’d make myself useful, furthering her education. It might even be memorable.

I read the problem with her. We went over it a few times. I asked her some questions. After what I assumed was too long a time to be working a math problem, I began to worry that she might crack. We weren’t making progress. It was getting late. She did, in fact, burst into tears when I suggested that the problem might be too difficult, that she had picked an especially tricky one that probably not even other adults who are not your dad could solve.  I silently cursed her teacher.

By the end, I had to get decisive. I told her she had to get ready for bed, then went into the other room (so she wouldn’t see) to look for the answer on my phone. I found it. I read it, and kept reading it. The solution was long and I didn’t understand it. I realized that she would never be able to figure it out. I cursed her teacher again.

By then, though, Hannah had already pushed off into the Arctic wilderness on her own. She didn’t need me bogging down the sled. She was suddenly optimistic. She shouted from the next room that she’d figured it all out.

I knew she hadn’t. I knew that the pattern she saw was one pattern among many, and not the right one. But I let her keep writing. I let her stay up later than she should, pushing herself forward. In that moment, she was right. Sometimes, the answer just doesn’t matter. 

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whitening artery

She’s bad news,
like a long hospital hallway
you can’t follow,
a whitening artery —
this dry ghost of what was,
always the approach
but from an unclear distance —

the incipient thing
you can’t see —
do you hold it, carry it,
touch it? —

no, you count to ten
and remember
there are 50 ways
to leave a Sunday 

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The Stopping Hand

How the dark stains the shadow, some shapeless foolery, some cool corner we didn’t see where the dust landed like tiny flocks of pigeons, roosting for the duration, quills settled in unruffled silence where no wind flew, no hawk dove, where the child’s hand stopped – motionless – waiting?

Some stasis within the play — there was no reason, no room for doubt the day clarity came blinding its way across the sea and through the big windows that had asked for distance. The Easter she lay in bed, in what had been the living room, two girls struggling through viola notes, the weeping under the breath and the longing for her to be upright, cooking, walking – not this, not this bed-smile, the I-can’t, the never-no-more wispiness of the lived life, the thin papery skin bruised by what’s simple, and hurt by mereness – not this.

And more than one dreamed of the cardinal that night, scarlet, clear, loud – more than one heaved long breaths into their pillow, filling feathers with hot confusion and a swirl – more than one walked into the cicada night, the walled trees dark above, stepping onto sharp grass, swimming for light – the green pool dry, echoing with small leaves and the twigs blown by the last storm. We could float above the banks of the St. John’s River, the city’s lights oddly quiet far across the shore – invisible masks smoking, walking to the bus, unfamiliar conversations struck on the corner, taxi horn honking twice outside an apartment, flavors of chicken, the barbeque and the street lights on 14th – fingering pocket change, slick shoes tapping pavement, walking away – sound fading – back across the river – ears covered by the shocked night sounds –

and hushing, shushing, held gently by mercy and memory, stepping across the old threshold onto oak-warm creaking floors – he reaches for the one lamp burning, shuts it and sleeps.

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Snarl — To write, to live

That snarl — cur, holding inside a tornado of wrath, of slash/burn vitriol — what do I do with that, as a writer and as a person?

I want to write it down, of course. To remember that moment, to remember how I wanted to fight back but didn’t, to remember blind rage, checked by three kids in the room playing Uncharted Adventure and another one learning how to type, to remember all the moments like this, moments that convince me (as if that was necessary) that she is not, was not the one for me, ever, that she is, in fact, sick in some way. I see how I want to record that, logbook-style, as though a judge will spend his evening with my book and then mete out a slap-hand of hate to her, to tell her just where she belongs, to make her crawl and beg for my good blessings.

And I want to write it because it’s extreme, and juicy, and so unlike the flat rest of this day. It’s so human, I think, and won’t others want to see that? Would this not make good reading? I could write of the bus driver, the tomato plant, the bananas rotting on my counter, the comings and goings of light. But these things pale in comparison, pretty as they are in their own way. We do like a good car wreck.

I am busy in my kitchen making dinner for my son. Slicing chicken, chopping broccoli, green beans, sesame oil in the pan getting hot. I could almost let go of the past hour. I want to let go of the past hour. It would be good for me, I think. Why hold the play-by-play of this battle? I stew, momentarily, again. I can let this go — really, I can. I could till it back into the soil like manure, softening, forgetting, and let other crops grow. The sharp rocks in the field, viewed from afar, disappear into rolling grass that the bare feet don’t feel.

I see myself dissecting the bitter fruit, turning it from side to side, tasting it again and again to make sure I get it right. A regular John James Audobon of the emotional world, pinning it to paper.

There is a way to live, and a way to write. Sometimes you have to crawl into the scowl to escape it. Sometimes you have to believe that you write to release, and you have to believe that what you write, ultimately, will not smother you, even while it leaves you breathless and gasping for a clearing.

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Red Clay

 

Rutted, red clay — when they didn’t speak. We felt through the dark for the first moving thing. Swept hand, conducting the silence.
Keys — big hands. After years of use, smooth metal, and a golden feel. Early sparrows and the grammar of emotion. Wingbeats followed echoes of other wingbeats.
Shoulder-pat backslap fiduciary responsibility — they calculated and prodded, stacked meat for the others who came after. She woke wondering where her next breath would come from, idly watching leaves tap against the window.
There would be time. They stood and walked in every direction, all at once, holding nothing, eyes bright.
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