Posts Tagged 'loss'


I remember your twin brother and how he had a dimple on the left side of his smile. You didn’t have any dimples, and when I was seven I was suspicious that you and he were not really twins after all. But still the two of you always had perfect synchronization, rebuilding carburetors, installing the new clutch cables, draining and replacing the transmission fluid. It was a twin ballet, the two of you so different, one with dimple and one without, Jake with his dirty jeans and his flat boy butt, you with your sweats and the tank top that showed a little bit of girl belly. I remember that Jake lied more often than you did, at least I noticed him lying, and when he left, he went to France, or so he said. But when he came back, he didn’t seem to have picked up any French at all. Meanwhile, you and I had been studying up in school so that when we graduated we could go to France together and the three of us have a French movie adventure, something with beaches and candlelight and that was romantic, wasn’t it?

I remember when my dad came home from work one morning. We were making breakfast; there was a tower of toast and the bacon was in the frying pan, spitting hot grease over the white stove top. He came in and sat down without saying anything, not even “mmm, bacon” and he did not pour himself a cup of coffee like he usually did, just took off his gun belt, hung it over the back of the chair and pressed his hands together like they hurt or something. Mom turned away from the bacon, yelped a little at the hot grease as it caught her on the wrist. She wet a dishcloth with cold water and put it on her wrist, and sat down across the table from dad. He kept his hands pressed together, and after a moment, she reached out and put her hand, dishcloth and all, over his, and there was silence, and grease popping, and the toaster shot out two slices of bread.

“Kids, go on out and feed the dogs,” she said. “We’ll have breakfast ready in about 15 minutes.”  I started to protest, but Jerry kicked me and pushed me out the kitchen door.


gaping maw

He’s taken my money and killed himself. This is what I have to ask myself. I mean, I can imagine the earth opening up, gaping mouth and hungry for vengance and taking him down to the steaming pits of hell. I can definitely imagine that, and I can definitely more or less agree with that plan, what with all that greed and all that theft and all of those people, people like you and me, just left out in the cold, holding the bag, while he’s been sucked down into those bowels. But what I can’t understand is where the money went. Do they use money in hell? What currency? What exchange rate? Do they extend credit? Because what I don’t understand is why the man would kill himself after he got all the money. I can readily understand suicide for someone who’s too poor, too sick, too miserable, too pained to tolerate the hand they’ve been dealt, but when billionaires kill themselves, you’ve just got to ask a few questions. I mean, they wouldn’t be billionaires in the first place if they’d had any scruples, am I right? So how does it happen that scruples develop after they’ve taken everything but the very shirt off of my back and where the hell is my mother’s money? That’s all I want to know. Maybe he’s not really dead. Maybe he and Bill and Bernie and whoever else lives on their privately-owned island paradise somewhere, paying for their exile with her retirement funds. 

Then again, maybe he really is dead. He could be dead. So I ask again, where is the money? And then again, maybe he didn’t really kill himself. Maybe the machine killed him, the machine that makes the money happen, makes millionaires into billionaires (billion is the new million, had you heard?), then eats their heads.

Maybe he didn’t kill himself. Maybe his head exploded from trying to do the accounts, from trying to account for, be accountable for, the transfer of wealth from the gullible middle class into his own stainless steel glass and white leather penthouse apartment that he’s had replicated in several major cities worldwide so he never feels like he’s away from home. Because he’s pretty fearful of being away from home. Remember when he was little and he used to wet his bed until the psychiatrist recommended the electric matress pad that gave him a shock every time he did it? But not until he asked for them, because he was going away to summer camp and the summer he was seven, every kid in Potlatch Village knew he was a bed wetter and a thumb sucker too and they made his life a living hell. So much so that he told Dr. Stangard that he’d either have to use the electroshock system or give up on ever getting into a decent college. Dr. Stangard wrote a prescription for nerves and ordered the electric pad, which was delivered three weeks before camp started. It only took 4 days.

Then again, maybe he did kill himself. Maybe that early bedwetting was an indicator of deep sensitivity that he’d learned to suppress using electroshock and assorted prescription drugs and he was so out of touch with his feelings that he could screw anyone, even his own parents and sister, without feeling much of anything. And maybe when he went to rehab, like he did last December, they cleaned out his system and all those feelings came rushing back and overwhelmed him and he had feelings again for the first time since he was seven years old. Poor little guy. And maybe if he hadn’t turned on himself, he might’ve turn on us, like some of them did, mowing down an entire tribe of CEOs and investment bankers. And maybe we should be grateful that he didn’t. Bless his heart, we will miss him, won’t we?

The woodcarver’s wife


The man sits quietly on a short red stool. He holds a knife in one hand, a piece of hard wood in the other. He is carving. He stops periodically to smoke. He smokes different things: sometimes he smokes tobacco, sometimes ganja, sometimes an herbal mixture that soothes his lungs while lightly scarring them at the same time. An anesthetic smoke. His first choice is for tobacco mixed with ganja, a nice blend that elevates the spirits and focuses the mind, and in this state many beautiful wood carvings are made. He sells carvings. The man sells wood carvings to another man, who lives just far enough away and in just a big enough city to have an apartment in a high rise, with stairs and elevators that sometimes work, according to those who may know.

The man who lives in a high rise works in a coffee shop where there is internet. He works in an internet café, and from here he sells wood carvings to import export businesses. He makes some money doing this, and does not try to elicit information about bank accounts from old people in other countries, even though it is well known, according to the internet, that this is a quick and easy way to make moneys that may or may not be illegal, depending on the country of origin and the country of arrivals, and the regulations governing each.

So, the woodcarver sits quietly on a short red stool, making wood carvings that his business associate will sell for him. And because of this business relationship, he will eventually have enough money to go to a different internet café without his business associate. There he will see, with the help of his nephew (who guides the mouse through many incarnations) the grand scope and potential that makes sales a mighty elixer, a draft for the very thirsty. He sits in the internet café and rubs the mouse like a magic lantern and a genie appears.

“What may I do for you?” the genie says. Around his head and in a column to the right, popup ads try to distract the man on the short red stool, who pushes them away, ghosts that they are, and forces himself to focus on the genie.

“Genie,” he says, “I want tobacco and ganja and hard wood with nice grain, and a knife that will never dull, and a wife with no voice, and children who will make me rich. And I wish for riches, horses and palaces and cheeses and wines and mistresses, and I wish to have power over the religious men and the politicians.”

“Okeedokee,” says the genie. “That’s it, then, and have a nice day,” and he disappears into the dissipating fog of three wishes granted. The man on the short red stool stands up and looks around him. He is surrounded by wealth: beautiful fine grained wood, a knife more splendid, shining and sharp than anything he’s ever seen before in his life, a wife who places a heated cloth on his tired shoulders and leans against him: she smells of sandalwood and patchouli, and he is aware that his hardwood is harder than he’s ever known it to be. He blushes, and the sky is a hot blue with white sand and red light streaking across the sky where the carrier jets pass, where they will land and collect his goods, his wood carvings, grown larger now, complex, some as big as a city street, and he is overcome by visions.  Hours pass, then days and weeks.

One day, finding himself alone in the garden where the heavy fruit is ripe and the afternoon is sleepy, he steps outside of his house, his palace with the ornate hand-carved hard wood gates and he begins calling for his wife, over and over again, as the sun goes down.  She does not answer: without a voice, she does not pray; without a voice, she does not sing to the children; without a voice, she does not lean against him; without a voice, she does not lay the warm cloth on his tired back. After many hours or days or years of looking, he finds himself lying in the dark, waiting for sleep to take his wishes away.

Junkyard rhapsody

“Ta-da” I say and shake-shimmy my little sequined heinie onto the makeshift stage. Gramma and her old dog, Rasputin, sit out in front of the velvet curtain suspended between two oil barrels. Gramma applauds wildly, like she’s an audience of 1000.

I sing her a song made up on the spot, about agony and love and winning the most important game of all time and saving the world. More wild applause from the packed theater. I can see smoke rising up from the candles in the orchestra pit, I can hear the bass players tuning up, grumbling in their beards. The violinists are all bald, thin and dyspeptic, and I can hear them tuning up too, making a shrill shirring like bees whinging past my ears on the way to the show. I sit down and flip the pink tulle of my tutu out of the way and crack my fingers like I’d seen my grampa doing when he tested out the piano the day he moved it in.

Gramma’s never seen me play for real. She’s still thinking of me as some 7-year-old little frizzle fart showing off for her and grampa back behind the shack where we lived for the first ten years of my life, when she and grampa still owned the oldest junkyard in Whynot Texas. Grampa died, shot or poisoned maybe, I never got the same story twice from Gramma and all I know is one day we packed and moved and kept on moving.

Even now I dream about that junkyard. About the things I found and lost in there. The pillows with fancy embroidery on them, only just a little stained. The chocolate-scented lotion that almost even tasted good. The beard trimmer. The defibrillator that scared the bejesus out of gramma when I tried it out on her foot while she was napping in her best Adirondack chair in the screen porch grampa built up against the shack. The shack. I didn’t strictly know it was a shack at the time, I can say that. But looking back on it now I can see it. A small wooden shack, with tin roofing, a little loose, that was held in place with old tires in case of hurricane or tornado. We had electricity, strung over the fence and jimmied in by my grampa or one of his cronies so we never had to pay a dime for it. No phone, water from a faucet and a hose in the yard, but no running water indoors.

I believe now I would have to say that we were living outside of time. That I was performing as a child star in the imaginary world of Mark Twain and backroom poker, sometimes in the crazy twenties, before the robber barons and Black Tuesday and the dustbowl poverty that made everyone, absolutely everyone, suspicious and sad. I lived in a time and place that did not exist anymore, through its castoffs, through its junk.

The smells of a junkyard are more varied than you might think. A junk yard is not a dump. The smells are of other people’s lives. Other people’s cologne, in fancy Avon bottles. The smell of spray starch on someone’s old cotton sheets. The smell of boots and mixed auto parts souring things up a bit, but even that just seems like an accent. I close my eyes and smell starlight and surprises in the junkyard at midnight.

Gramma and grampa took me in when I lost my mother. When she lost me. They gave me my first piano, and were my first audience. Gramma was upset with me when I went off to that Jew-yard to study, wanted to know what the hell I was thinking, family’s always been Baptist girl, even if your mother did turn out wrong. Which maybe she did; I’m not saying she did or she didn’t.

I am saying that anyone raised in other people’s stuff is likely to get a taste for adventure, a taste for novelty, a taste for things that, discarded by one child, make a bright and shiny path into the future for another. A path that might be followed, if the distractions that surrounded me did not take me somewhere else, where velvet curtains and audiences of thousands might be obscured by other images, more quiet, maybe a little dusty, where gramma and grampa might be sitting in the front row still, clapping and nodding, smiling while I say “ta-da” and spin in my little girl tutu before sitting down at that upright piano to play my first song.

All I remember

All I remember is how I forgot my keys that morning at least three times and had to go back in the house to look for them. And your eyes, how they rolled, and your sighs. Three sighs.

All I remember is how I got a cup of coffee at Java Jill’s on the way to work, and they put a chocolate covered espresso bean on the lid and said nice to see you again.

All I remember is getting to work and parking next to Maria, who usually gets there after me and I was surprised. Today is different, I remember thinking. I looked at my watch.

All I remember is working all day, stacks of paper, reams of e-mails, phone calls, a little lazy surfing, a little unnecessary texting from my children who don’t say much unless I can’t see their faces, their eyes. Even in person, their hair, hanging down, hides their eyes, their thoughts covered by a curtain that reminds me of something, I’m not sure what. Texting their truncated personal dramas to me during meetings. There is a code that says what starts texted stays texted. No discussion. That code is broken now.

All I remember is dreaming that night of the sun shining through my hair, my hair, hanging in my eyes, swinging a silky curtain over my secrets. In the dream I am looking through that curtain, and I can see my mother, looking out the kitchen window, calling me to dinner, and my son, lying still and quiet with his hair brushed back out of his face, except for where it’s been neatly shaved off around the stitches.

All I remember is his pale forehead, and how unfamiliar it looks, like something I’ve never seen before, or like something I’ve unexpectedly forgotten.

Reverse alchemy

Under the hill we performed reverse alchemy, turning gold into lead, ascension into descent, descent past sun through clouds to trees then grass and under the hill, six feet under, planted only a mile from where we married, two miles from where our children were born.

We performed reverse alchemy, turning gold into lead, fire into ash, water into dust. Like movie stars, I guess, traveling fast, dying young, more like a teenage tragedy song I might have listened to once. This reverse most likely to last, 2cool 2be 4gotten. Here lies Ned Hall, you and me babe, so I buried the Harley with you and think that some day you’ll come get me whether I want you to or not.

What’s it like to be a widow at 22, you are wondering? Some kind of break-up, like you pissed me off messing with some other girl so I dumped you, only then you were just gone, not with that girl, she’s just a phantom hanging with you at the graveyard while time holds tight onto me, arms around my waist, keeping me on top of this hill with you, feeling like a complete fool.

So eventually I got tired of being the widow and left – of course I did – you know I always do – and one day woke up single, not a trace of you left. It’s not in any letter, I had the headstone removed, I bought a Volvo wagon, and I never thought about you ever ever again.

Monastery on Minor and Pine

buddhist sunset

When I ring the bell at the red iron gate, Li Po crosses the dining hall on soft cotton feet. Brown robes brush cracked linoleum; she smiles and allows me in. I enter, smell incense and silence, read the songs hanging in red and gold scrolls where someone has translated no selfishness no greed. We bow welcome, Amitaba, and around her Cheshire smile the peeling paint fades in the shadowed hallway. 

 Big Gwoli warms my meal in the microwave, prayer beads click as I eat. We light incense, eat oranges; my hands are sticky with juice, and I wash them in the kitchen where mice dance unworried on the kharmic wheel and the countertops. 

 Through the classroom floor we hear chanting, bells chime Amitaba for compassion, Amitaba for Guan Yin. My hands are covered with chalk dust, hair smells of smoke and sweet herbs. I set aside lessons, ask my students to read The Cat in the Hat instead. Little Gwoli laughs, startled at the sounds of sense and no sense. I see that Heng Sheung has the scars of repentance burnt into her arms, onto her bare scalp, and I wonder what is the desire she battles with white coals, how strong is the will that lives in this crumbled brown building. Across the street, the nodding junkies disfigure the bodhisattva spirits of the city no less than she with her bracelet and crown of guilt. 

 In the classroom, voices stagger drunk outside the windows, clatter against the chanting below, rattle the cage of detachment. The afternoon light catches dust and smoke; Heng Sheung is transformed into a lighted mind vivid with struggle, English rhythms and hard edges ache in her jaw, leaving dharma in a heap behind Dr. Seuss. Later, when pleasure has hardened to guilt, she will rock on her knees in prayer, calling Amitaba for compassion, Amitaba for Guan Yin. 

cat in hatAs I leave, I close the red iron gate behind me; undetached, unrepentant, I sing us Amitaba for compassion, Amitaba for Guan Yin, Amitaba for the sweet madness of the wheel dance that shakes the belly of every Buddha who has ever laughed in exile.


© 1993 Teresa Phillips. May not be used without permission.




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July 2020