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Blow

I am standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, waiting to see what this day will bring. The wind is sharp, the trains scream, the trees rattle their heads like women mad with grief. Fortune, in her shift and change of mood, is fickle as wind. It lashes, it pricks, it tricks me into submission and I board that train knowing that it is fortune driving, not me.

“It’s one o’clock, boy, is it not?”

I am leaning against the open car and watching, hand shielding my eyes from the blowing sands. Looking to my left, I see him, the man with the heavy mustaches, the man with the cards and the guns and the reputation. His foes are so enrooted with his enemies, so enrooted that it seems the tumbled ground would open and swallow him directly to hell, where surely he is destined to go.

“Yes. The train leaves in ten minutes,” I say. I don’t look at him. I don’t say anything that might invite him to join me.

He takes out his pouch and rolls a cigarette, making the ironic face that men with heavy mustaches adopt. He offers me one. I turn my shoulder away from him.

I will unfold some causes of your deaths.

Deaths, say my ears, deaths, plural. I feel my breath catch in my throat and I turn toward him, making eye contact and holding it. The train makes a sudden heaving gasp and jolts forward. The wind spins through the open car, the sound of steel and air keens and I am deaf, deaf and lost, on this train to god knows where.

Do not trust this history, reader, or my observation in this matter. This is only the story as I can tell it, truth or fevered imagining, I can’t say. Is it only this morning, only these few hours, since I left the warm body of Annabel, before these winds began?

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Walter

Walter in high school was not voted most likely to.

Walter in college did not distinguish himself.

Walter as an agent in his father’s insurance agency fell asleep in front of the green blinking data entry screens that measured out his days one blink, then another, then another.

Walter as a fiancée was comforting but not hot.

Walter slept well and drove a 4 door Buick when he was 22.

Walter’s hairline began to recede, slowly, at 27, but never blossomed into full-on male pattern baldness.

At 35, Walter’s wife, Elaine, left him for a slightly younger version of himself. Walter was mystified but not furious about this. They had no children, and Elaine disappeared back into the lake of his undistinguished youth without a ripple.

At 38, Walter went to his neighborhood Whole Foods market, where he bought a pint of black bean, corn and red bell pepper salad. Walking to the men’s room on his way out, he passed the community bulletin board. He read all the ads, in order, from left top to right bottom. At the far right corner, almost expired per the store’s 30 day policy, was an ad for International Cooking Classes, to be held in a home some two miles from the store. Walter pulled the tab with the phone number and stuck it in his wallet, where it stayed for months.

Around Thanksgiving, Walter, reflecting that he was almost 40, divorced, childless and uninterested in himself, found the tab in his wallet and called the number.

“No, no international cooking classes any more. I didn’t get enough people signed up. I’m teaching homeopathics now. You could sign up for that, it’s here at my house,” said the woman, whose name was Reina. No, Walter told her, he didn’t really want to study homeopathics. He wanted to learn to cook. Did she do private cooking lessons?

There was a short silence on the phone, and a brief negotiation about the cost of private lessons.

On the following Thursday, Walter went to Reina’s house. He brought with him an apron and a chef’s hat, both virginal white, and a set of hot mitts. Reina promised to provide the cooking utensils and the food.

That first week they sat at the table looking at cookbooks, identifying utensils by name, defining some basic cooking methods – dry heat, baking, braising, sautee, and so on. Walter took notes.

The second week they met at the Whole Foods in the produce department and they talked produce – quality indicators in different fruits and vegetables, seasonality, local growing patterns. They touched and smelled, they looked at prices and they looked at weather. Walter took notes.

The third week they met at Reina’s house. Walter brought pancetta, walnuts, chard, goat cheese, baguette, wine, beets and olive oil. At 7 p.m., they began.

Breathing

I expired on the day of my death. It had been my aspiration to move others, to lift their eyes, their voices, their hearts. At times I may have failed, and I may have succeeded at others. It is not my place to make that judgment.

My death.  I was talking about my death, wasn’t I? Leading one to question my presence here, on this page, letters crawling across the screen from a dead man. There are certain things that are hard for me to perceive, from this side of the expiration. For instance, whether or not my typing can be heard. There is no physical keystroke, you see, no finger pads, no fingerprints. I have no fingerprints. I find that wondrous.

I hope and pray that the little ones on the other side of that thin membrane that separates us will continue to learn, will continue to do right because that is what is in their hearts. I know, of course, from human experience, that the will to do right begins as a set of rules and gradually becomes a part of the body and mind, bred in the bone, as natural as breathing.

It does not matter now, wherever now is, but I was not an old man when I died. It was my job to hold still, as an old man does, to listen and to offer what solace I might. The church gave me the means to learn this, and the living, and for that I am grateful.

There is a lingering part of me still hovering there in that stone building, listening to the choir, preparing the sermon. I even imagine that I can feel the polished wood, smell the incense. There is an echo in dying; I did not know that, and I listen to it repeat, reverberate, and dissipate gradually in this timeless place. I wonder if timelessness has no beginning or end. I wonder that even as the sense of time falls away from me. The children will be singing now, in the fields where the bluebells wave in the damp green grass. A song I taught them, to comfort them, to fill their lungs, to give them all the breath they might need to live well, with or without me.

 

Don’t take anything personally

 

Just because I didn’t return your phone calls, don’t take it personally. I know my call is important to you, so I will stay on the line and be served by the first available representative, and if I hang up before my important call is answered by you, dear first available, don’t take it personally.

Don’t take it personally. I’ve cancelled many appointments, returned many plates of pasta, rejected many offers of marriage, I’ve even discontinued my membership in more than one gym. Don’t take anything personally, it’s only natural that not all magazine subscriptions will be renewed in perpetuity. Like an eternal flame at a contract cemetery, there will come a time when eternity is cancelled, when the flame is snuffed, when remembrance fades in the gradual way of worn silk, disintegrating plastic, faded photos on cracked gray stone.

I know my call is important to you, and I will stay on the line until you answer; I will put you on redial for as long as it takes; I will renew my connection with you from here until the hereafter. Don’t take anything personally. It’s as natural as an invasive vine, creeping onto the headstones, the marble slabs, the infant’s crèche in the moss-bound north. It is the inevitability, the gradual erosion of stone, the reclamation of body and earth by heavy, wet green ferns.

Even here, don’t take anything personally. Even the high dry wind carries every ash away, in the four directions and more.

Wuxi to Wuhan

The smashed banana plant in China made banana mash for smoothies manufactured and bottled in Cleveland, Illinois. The mash machine, a banana macerator, took in up to 1500 pounds of banana in a single open mouth gulp, emitting banana burps that hovered over the ancient city on the Yang-tse River. The banana peels were spit into a vat 20 feet high, which gradually came to a very high heat, releasing a continuous vapor. The banana peels eventually became a viscous substance that was compressed into long flat sheets, cooled and then cut into panels, which were sold to kitchen remodelers in Portland Oregon, who repurposed them into environmentally sound faux marble countertops with customizable colors.

The shaking of the banana macerator made an awesome sound, one that flavored the dreams of every small child and old man from Wuxi to Wuhan. The sound of squids walking, the sound of tree roots squelching through mud, the sound of moths wiggling out of their cocoons, amplified 100,000 times. The sleep of the people from Wuxi from Wuhan was both sweet and uneasy, and when they woke, they wiped banana vapor out of their eyes and had rice for breakfast, with dried fish and salty plum. The smashed banana plant on the Yang-tse River gave jobs to the people from Wuxi to Wuhan, but after the first generation, no citizen of either city ate bananas, and after two generations, many of them left, unable to stand the smell of bananas for even one more minute.

Simila says what she knows

The king knows my heart.

In the distance, I hear the wistful baying of the dag-vark, calling their prey out of safe dens. Strange, isn’t it, how the innocent, helpless creatures of every world are so easily seduced? It has always been so, though, and so it was for me.

The king knows my heart, and I, I know something of his mind, and thus am able to control certain small things without his knowing exactly what I do. His heart, though, is still a mystery to me. It is a mystery that keeps me alive, at his discretion.

How did I get to this point, 3.6 light years from my youth, hurled through space in the great lemming-like panic of year 7147? All of us, every light haired, mossy green one of us was thrown by giants from one world to another. Then a sudden, heavy silence, and then the suns came up, one, two, three. Number four was Varg-ner, my king.

The king knows my heart. What I know is that, alone, I made horrifying mistakes that I never would have made in community.

Community. There is a word that sticks in my throat. I am the only one of my kind on this world. We, all of us, all of us communal and bound to one another through something that is not blood, not exactly, but is the closest I can come to naming it, were tagged and shipped with our various talents to the planets of my king. One of us per planet. My king’s fear is that two of us, together on a single planet, might link through blood and an unrelenting passion for the secrets of our home planet, and turn it all back. 3.6 light years back. Back to the time before this, or forward to the time after.

 7147

“Hold on,” he said softly to the woman, and they took the last step. She turned her face to his, and as the lights came on around them, she watched as his face broke and spread and shot away from her, trails of light, a comet of remembrance, a path that would lead her back to him again some day. However many light years it took.

Brimnook stood in the open spaces of his designated planetary assignment. Trees proliferated here, multivariate trees, branches reaching and writing, word trees spinning words to be harvested and fed to the CGS farms, where words generated and regenerated in a tightly controlled process that Brimnook oversaw, he being the migrant editor of the 7th planet occupied by Varg-ner when the troubles came. The sick trees Brimnook beat, or cut down, or burned. Or hid. For his eventual return, following the path left by his home-mate, his moss green woman, the woman who fed him words to sustain him through all of this time, travel, travail and now, through the secret door that would take them all back home.

 

Home

When I finally got home, I nosed around hesitantly, as if I were an intruder in a forbidden kingdom. This, though, was my kingdom – no, our kingdom. Where we’d been there was no word for “we,” or “us”. My job had been to cut all such words out of the bleeding trees and to destroy them. The king, though, although he knew my heart, did not know my mind, and it was a bittersweet task to betray him by taking those words, us, ours, yours and mine, we, and using them to collapse his interplanetary kingdom, as gently as pulling a string, as tipping over a single tile, as tossing one small stone down a steep mountainside.

(30 minutes, Monday writing group. Genre fiction – romance and sci-fi standard terminology blended.)

 

Knife

“Swiving is the first dance I learned, before the tango, before the mambo, before the twist, before the mashed potato, before the waltz,” Imelda tried to say, but inhaled wrong and laughed laughed laughed until the end of WWII with GI Joe and all his cousins.

Imelda liked a jolly good roll in the hay with GI Joes who came from the U.S. and spent time with her aunties and her uncles, and Manila was home to Imelda, who was going to school in Philadelphia after the war.

It was springtime in Pennsyvania and Imelda was crying in the arms of Angus Cormac, the Irish-Filipino son of a butcher who wanted to marry Imelda and take her to Allentown. She cried because she saw herself sitting in a blood stained apron wrapping haunches and hocks in newspaper and this is not what Severo had promised when he took her in four years ago, safely away from the meat district. The meat district. Imelda knew that the meaning of those words had changed, and she held that change against her body, sharp and ready to cut clean and deep. Severo, of course, was dead by the time she understood – young, still pretty, and dead of a knife wound. “My only thanks was that the knife was not mine,” Imelda said at the Severo’s wake. “I do not come to praise Severo, but to bury him. I bury Severo in my memory, and in yours, and that is the end of that. There is no more to tell.” She set the knife down, turned her back on them, and left the room.

(10-minute quickwrite – “swiving” a preferred  verb of  Mary’s)


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