Monday, December 23, 2013

A Gift That Sets The Stars Free

One night long ago in a once-upon-a-time world there was a little lost dog in a faraway forest. The dog was alone and hungry, and it was a bitter winter. The dog was settling into the den he had burrowed for himself in the snow around the roots of a tree, and as he curled up in the darkness he heard the distant shimmer of bells and, a moment later, voices carrying in the cold night air, a great many voices joined in some happy song. The dog had never known anyone to pass through the faraway forest, not once in his lost time in that lonely place had he heard voices like these, or the beautiful and wondrous stamping of bells.

The little dog crept to the edge of his den and sniffed, peering, in the direction of the music. A moment later, light from the many torches of the travelers swept creeping shadows into the clearing outside the den, then chased completely the darkness before them and  became full, hissing light. The dog watched in wonder as the brightly clad travelers –laughing and singing—paraded into view, enveloped in a moving cloud of steam and smoke.

There were tiny acrobats and a tall, thin fellow toddling on stilts and several laughing jugglers. There were five shy horses pulling bright clattering wagons, and interspersed amongst the parade were dozens of chattering clowns. At the very end of this colorful parade, lagging almost outside the very last of the torchlight, there was a small, limping clown, leading an old and slow donkey. As the dog crept from his hiding place, the happy songs and jangling bells of the travelers were already fading away into the distance and the darkness of the faraway forest. 

The dog trotted along after the parade and soon found himself beside the limping clown and the old donkey. When finally the sad-faced clown became aware of the dog’s presence, a look of surprise and happiness came over his face and he let out a cry that startled the little dog. The clown crouched in the snow alongside the donkey and clapped his hands and called out, and when the dog came into the clown’s arms the little clown began to laugh and the small, laughing clown held the dog in his arms, rocking him gently and murmuring. 

The clown –murmuring and giggling happily all the while—carried the dog in his arms as they brought up the rear of the noisy and colorful and clanking parade. 

They traveled that night until the torches had all burned down to darkness, and then they stopped and set up their camp along a frozen river. It had grown cold, and the travelers bundled together under their blankets beside roaring fires, with the horses and the donkey huddled stamping and steaming just outside the circle of jugglers, acrobats, and clowns. 

The clown had swaddled the lost dog in an old wool blanket, and he held the dog in his arms and rocked him as the others told stories and laughed and gradually drifted into silence and sleep. 

The clown’s name was Munch, or so he was known to his fellow travelers, and now he whispered to the dog in his arms, “I shall call you Beauteous Munch.” Together they sat up until the bonfire had faded to embers, and together they saw a sky above them where there were millions upon millions of bright stars. The clown sang quiet songs and interrupted himself at one point to say, “Look, Beauteous Munch, there goes a shooting star!  Sweet dreams, my little wish.”

And that night, as he lay curled up beneath the blankets with the little clown, Beauteous Munch was warm and slept without shivering for the first time since the long ago day when he had first found himself lost in the faraway forest.

There had been a time when Beauteous Munch was a puppy living contentedly with his mother and his brothers and sisters in a wooden box in a small town. One day a man and woman had come to take him away to live with them in their house. They were loud and unhappy people, and try as he might Beauteous Munch could not make them any less unhappy. The old man was impatient with Beauteous Munch and shouted at him often.

All day Beauteous Munch would sit at the window staring out at the children playing in the street and passing by his house. Then one day when the nights were beginning to get cold, the man put Beauteous Munch outside. It was raining very hard, and cry as he might and scratch at the door as he did, Beauteous Munch could not get the old man or woman to open the door for him so he could come in out of the rain. Beauteous Munch sat on the steps of the house for a long time that night, until he saw the lamp in the front room extinguished and it was dark up and down the street and the rain was beginning to turn to snow. That was the night Beauteous Munch wandered away and eventually found himself lost in the faraway forest.

That first night away from his home Beauteous Munch tried to sleep, but he was wet and cold and lonely. He missed his long ago once-upon-a-time life. He peered up through the big, wet snowflakes that were cart-wheeling out of the sky and he found a star there barely twinkling, a little star that looked lost and distant and alone. And as Beauteous Munch closed his eyes he wished upon that lost and distant star, wished that somewhere there was another wish lost and longing for a dog, and that attached to that wish was someone special with quiet magic in his hands and a soft voice and a smile that could wag a dog’s tail.

That same night, far away from the faraway forest, Munch the clown was bundled up in a blanket next to his donkey, listening to the laughter and the songs of his traveling companions. He was stout and not as graceful as the others, nor as skilled. Even as a clown his only real role was to lead the donkey and the horses around the ring, and to assist some of the performers with their stunts. He could not sing, and because he spoke with a slight stutter he was the quietest of the troupe, and tended to settle by himself into the background, talking quietly with the donkey and the horses. 

The little clown looked up into the sky and wished upon a distant star; he closed his eyes and showed his crooked teeth to the moon and offered only the simplest and most humble of wishes: Please, he whispered, Something Nice.  Something happy.  A small, happy thing.

 And so it was that on the first night he spent with Beauteous Munch, the little clown saw the beautiful shooting star tumble all the way down the sky and he thought to himself, So that is what happens when two wishes collide with one another: An old star is freed from the heavens and falls into a distant sea where it becomes a thousand bright and glimmering fishes. A wish come true is a gift that sets the stars free.

And that is the story of how Beauteous Munch came to live with Munch the clown. Together they learned many tremendous and difficult tricks; the little clown taught Beauteous Munch  to ride on the old donkey’s back and walk across a rope and leap through the tiniest of hoops, and all the signs the performers took around and posted in the towns and villages now said “BEAUTEOUS MUNCH –WONDERFUL SHOW DOG!” He was very popular indeed, and people would come from far and wide to see the amazing clown and his astonishing dog.

On clear nights, as Beauteous Munch and his friend the clown tuckled up and drifted off to sleep, they would stare into the sky above them and watch with drowsy wonder as star after star tumbled through the darkness and somewhere, they knew, a wish had come true.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Next Year All Our Troubles Will Be Out Of Sight

 A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark, mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
          --James Joyce, "The Dead." 
Sleep, lucky world.
A star is born.
No, sorry: A child.
The star was just an announcement
to this little light lost.

I would follow a star
like that if it was
the dead of night
and I was alone with a bunch
of shivering sheep.

Even, I suppose,
if I was a wise man
on some sort of inexplicable
no-girls-allowed walkabout
in the desert.

I think it was a desert.
I imagine it was.
I'm sure it felt like one.

Trust me, though,
beneath these ribs lurks
the heart of a true believer
with a big, booming drum
and a feather in his cap.

I'll believe anything if it can
make me feel like something
other than a disposable
razor or a pink, quivering
grub nestled in shavings.

For God's sake, people,
there is not one thing you
could ever say that would
convince me that I am not
the proud father of a dog.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Fall On Your Knees

It was a quiet horse, the color of gray corduroy, or those elephant slabs of damp clay wrapped in
cellophane. They delivered the horse to the pasture out back of my trailer, and it had taken four men to coax her from the truck. She didn’t kick or fuss, but simply refused to budge. I’d paid 100 dollars for the horse to save it from being put down. My old girlfriend had a pathological weakness for downtrodden animals of all kinds.

One of the delivery fellows kept referring to the horse as ‘daft,’ which I thought was an unusual word choice for a young man who couldn’t have been more than 25 years of age. I didn’t think the horse was daft, at any rate, just depressed. She tended to stand in one place out in the pasture, with her head down, and I very seldom saw her eat.

I’d never in my life spent Christmas alone. The day before Christmas Eve I’d driven into the nearest decent-sized city, a college town of maybe 70,000 people, just under a half hour’s drive from my trailer. The city was crowded with last minute shoppers from the small towns that were clustered in the long valleys throughout the mountains. I’d stopped at some cheap steak chain for lunch, and later splurged on a bunch of new CDs for myself and nearly fifty bucks worth of treats for my dog. Heavy snow was falling even as I made my way back out of town, and by the time I pulled into the half-mile gravel road that led to my trailer visibility had been reduced to next to nothing.
I stumbled through the blowing snow to the door of the trailer. My dog, a mongrel so strained as to look exotic, was waiting for me in a state of pitched agitation, and I opened the door and watched the dog disappear into the whiteout beyond the trailer.
That night I drank enough to feel genuinely sorry for myself, and almost managed to talk myself into flying out the next day to spend Christmas with my sister’s family in Colorado. 
The next morning, Christmas Eve, I woke up on the couch, as hungover as I’d been in years.The trailer was completely drifted in, and the wind was still tossing snow around and obscuring the range down the valley to the north. I’d left every light on in the trailer. The only radio station I could pick up in the valley was wheedling with Christmas carols, the signal drifting in and out –some choir somewhere, with a big echo effect that suggested a live feed from a cathedral.  I was determined to drink down some Alka-Seltzer and go back to bed, but I realized with a start that my dog was still someplace out in the storm. It was rare that I would allow the dog to spend the night outside in any weather.

I went to the door and called out into the blowing snow. There was no response, and I still could not even make out the gray horse in the pasture less than 100 yards away. I pulled on a pair of boots, parka, mittens, and a hat with earflaps, and ventured out into the drifts. My truck was almost completely buried. I tried to call out into the snow for the dog, but my voice was swallowed in the swirling wind. Wading knee- and sometimes hip-deep through the drifts I made my way around the side of the trailer and managed somehow to locate one of the fence posts from the horse pasture. I couldn’t see much, or far, but there was no sign of either the dog or the horse.
I crawled back into bed, bundled myself in blankets, and tried to take a nap. My head was throbbing, and as I lay there I kept imagining that I heard the dog barking somewhere out in the storm. I actually got up and went to the door twice, but there was no sign of the dog and no sound other than the howling of the wind. Even as I slept fitfully I was aware of my heart pinging in my chest like a sonar in an abandoned submarine.

I’d traveled so far from the person I had once been that the people I’d allowed myself to be close to, as well as those to whom I was conjoined by blood, had become mostly uncomfortable strangers to me. I had drifted out of touch. I had no axe to grind, no extravagant grievance or baggage, and it now seemed sad and even a bit shameful to think that my mother did not even know where I was now living or how to get in touch with me. I hadn’t spoken with her in over ten months. When my girlfriend had grown tired of the west and had moved back to Boston –it had been almost two years—I’d given up the apartment in Bozeman and taken the trailer in the valley. I was supposed to be finishing a set of illustrations for a children’s book, but hadn’t made any progress in weeks.
I’d been traveling further into loneliness and its odd, romanticized solace and pleasures. My girlfriend had been in possession of a more polished set of social instincts. She’d been an English professor at a local college, and liked to host small gatherings, enjoyed going out for dinner and shopping. Left to my own devices I seldom did anything that might be considered social. I had made few real friends in the years I’d been living in the west, and still hadn’t even bothered to have the trailer wired for a telephone. The dog was a perfect companion: a good listener, an enforcer of routine and a reasonable order in each day. It was also patient, even-tempered, and eager to please –absolutely companionable. That Man’s Best Friend business really was not overstating, not in this instance. It was unconscionable that I’d allowed myself to get so drunk that I’d left the dog outside in a raging blizzard all night. The poor animal could have strayed miles in search of shelter by this time. 

The odd thing about the whole affair was that I’d seldom even gone into town without taking the dog along. I’d been made careless by melancholy and drink, and I would chew myself up forever with grief if anything had happened to him. As I lay there drifting miserably along the blurriest edges of sleep and hangover, I imagined being hounded to the end of my days by the ghost of that dog. In the two preceding years the only real highlights of the holiday season had been the long walks down the valley we had taken together on Christmas Eve.
I finally bundled myself up again and ventured out in what was left of the afternoon daylight to look for the dog. The storm had apparently lifted or moved on; I could see the last of the clouds departing down the valley. The odd and alarming new development was that not only was my dog missing, but there was no sign of the gray horse anywhere in the pasture. The sky had cleared to the point that I could see the entirety of the horse’s fenced enclosure, and the horse was nowhere to be seen. I waddled along the drifts that were built up along the fence line and inspected the gate. It was not only firmly latched, but drifted completely shut.  I walked the length of the road to my trailer, all the way out to where it intersected the main gravel road that led out to the state highway. I saw no evidence of any traffic whatsoever, no animal or vehicle tracks other than those from my own truck the previous evening, and even those were mostly obscured.
I managed to get the truck started and backed out to the turnaround.  From there the four-wheel drive got me through the drifted snow out to the gravel county road, which was in pretty good shape.  From there to the blacktop state highway, a distance of just under two miles, I saw no signs of either the dog or the horse. Once I hit the stop sign at the highway I decided to make another trip into town. I had no idea what I expected to accomplish there on Christmas Eve; it was almost five o’clock and already getting dark. The highway had been plowed and road conditions were fine. There were still Christmas carols looping on the radio station, and I made up my mind to attend Christmas Eve services at some church in town. I hadn’t been in a church in a half dozen years, at least, but I had fond memories of the holiday services from my childhood, and felt very much like a man who needed somehow to be forgiven. If God was ever going to grab me, I’d never felt so susceptible. 
In town I found a phone book and tried to call the local animal shelter, but got the answering machine and a deadpan voice wishing me a merry Christmas and encouraging me to neuter my dog. I walked around downtown checking telephone poles and bulletin boards where I thought I might find notices of lost and found animals, but turned up nothing that fit the description of my dog. In the empty Greyhound station I picked up a copy of the local newspaper and found an advertisement for Christmas Eve services at area churches. There was a six o’clock service at a big Lutheran church right in town, so I left my truck on the street and went off in search of the place. 
The service was packed with families, and there were dozens of scrubbed and squirming children. I had a tough time staying awake through some of the readings and much of the sermon, but I nonetheless felt somehow better for having gone. My heart felt lighter and heavier at the same time, a strangely emotional state that I have always associated with the holidays. As I walked back to my truck I was greeted warmly by at least a half dozen strangers. I remembered my late father coming in from a last-minute errand on Christmas eve long ago; the old man was rosy-cheeked, half in the bag, and happy as a clam. He was a man who loved special occasions, and as he came in with his arms loaded with shopping bags he had bellowed, “The whole damn town is lousy with Christmas spirit!”
All the way out to the trailer I tried to repair the years in my mind, to line up memories and freeze them in a place where there had still seemed to be so much time, all the time that had since carried me past dark off-ramps, dimly-lit intersections, and all the forks where I had chosen –or, unconsciously, not chosen—the direction that had led me to this road along which I was now driving. I’d basically always let each day shove me wherever it wanted, and when it stopped shoving I stayed put. I missed the old man, a guy who’d been a shover, a dictator in the best and most intoxicating way; he’d always gone his own way and dragged others along who were helpless to resist him, right to the end. After he died my mother had admitted that she’d been little more than one more of his tag-alongs. “He told me he was going to marry me,” she said, “and I believed him.”
Back at the trailer I stood out in the middle of the drifted-in driveway and called out to the dog.  The sky had been blown entirely clear of clouds. I stood and watched a jet make its way right through Orion’s belt in the east. It was already close to nine o’clock, and I went back into the trailer, mixed myself a glass of eggnog, and managed to nod off on the couch for a time. At some point I was awakened by what I thought were bells. I sat up in the dark and listened. All was silent, and then I heard voices. I pulled on my boots and stepped outside the trailer. It was a gorgeous night. I could see the Christmas lights twinkling from my neighbor’s yard across the valley. The trees at the farthest edge of my fence line seemed to be nested with glowing corposants. I walked around the trailer and there, a hundred yards away in the pasture, was my dog, sitting attentively before the gray horse.
The horse was standing perhaps three feet from the dog, and her big head was hanging directly above the dog’s, and their joint breathing had created a surreal little pocket of steam in which they seemed frozen. It was an absolutely clear night, eerily quiet. The horse appeared to be conversing with the dog, and as I approached the fence I swore I heard the words –clear as they could possibly be: “And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.’” The dog emitted what sounded like a hoarse, incredulous chuckle. From across the valley I heard once again the ringing of bells. Stars were stretched out above me, precise, detailed constellations, the clear, dusty clutter of the Milky Way. I was astonished to see fireworks bloom suddenly above the valley in the distance, and was inexplicably moved to see the dog and the horse raise their heads in unison to marvel at the display. 
I let out a belly laugh that snapped out into the cold air and was quickly swallowed up, and at that precise moment my dog turned and saw me. As he came bounding in my direction I fell to my knees in the snow, opened my arms wide, and braced for the impact.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Shaking The Shadows

The dogs had been put to bed. That was Nico's job now, the big boy, even though he had just turned six years old. There were three dogs left, old hounds that had belonged to his grandfather, and they slept in an old shed lined with hay out back.

Nico's grandfather had died on Halloween, sitting in the front room in his reclining chair with a book about flowers open on his lap and a rubber Frankenstein mask over his head.

His grandfather had stayed behind to hand out candy while Nico, his younger sister, and his mother went trick or treating in the neighborhood. When they had returned home the old man --who had loved God and science in equal measure, and who had given Nico a revolving globe of the moon that was his most prized possession-- was unresponsive, and Nico and his sister were sent to their rooms.

From his bedroom window Nico had watched as an ambulance pulled up their long driveway, its spinning lights carving up the darkness and splashing off the windows of neighboring homes. Nico saw small groups of costumed children and huddled adults gathered in yards and standing out along the road by the mailbox. It was a long time after the cart was wheeled out to the driveway, loaded, and driven away --the ambulance's lights no longer flashing-- before Nico's mother came to his room. She had changed into a robe and slippers, and sat down at Nico's little desk and absentmindedly spun his moon globe with her long index finger.

She told Nico that his grandfather had died. Peacefully, she said. He was mad about you, she said. You were the apple of his eye. Nico did not say anything. His imagination was whirling in a hundred directions, just as it did when he was excited, confused, or frightened. His mother eventually got up, kissed him on the top of the head, and said, "You're a big boy," which pleased him in some way he didn't understand.

The next day, despite the coming and going of many people, the house seemed almost unbearably silent. The visitors tended to congregate in the kitchen, talking in hushed tones to Nico's mother. Each time Nico would creep down to the kitchen there would be more plastic- and foil-wrapped plates and casseroles lining the counter. Later, after everyone had finally gone, his mother had Nico move all the food to the back porch, which was unheated. And there it sat.

His grandfather's funeral, which was held several days later, was the first that Nico had ever attended, and he had sat through it in a sort of trance, not understanding a word that was said. Even when people were clearly talking about his grandfather Nico didn't recognize the man they were talking about.

That night, alone in his room, he sat at his desk in the almost dark, the only illumination provided by the moonlight through his window and his little night light. His fingers explored every inch of the beautifully contoured and cratered surface of his moon globe. He imagined his grandfather up there now, wandering with a pack of his dead dogs and looking for frogs or salamanders. Surely, Nico thought, some of those who went to heaven were allowed to visit the moon. It must be so close.

But now it was late. It was Christmas Eve, and the moon in the sky looked like an abandoned boat in a big, dark sea filled with bobbing stars. The dogs had been put to bed, and Nico had sat with them for a time, stroking their bellies and finding something comforting that he did not yet recognize as trust in their eyes.

Afterwards he trudged back to the house through the snow, lunging occasionally in an attempt to either lose himself in his shadow --to merge with it-- or to shake free of it. He couldn't do either. On the back porch the plates and casseroles, still untouched, were exactly where he had left them almost two months earlier.

His mother was at the kitchen table, sitting as she so often did at night, smoking a cigarette and staring at a piece of paper on which most of what she had written had been crossed out. She was wearing her robe and slippers, and as Nico passed by she reached for his hand and brushed it briefly against her cheek.

Nico's sister was in bed, and he changed into his pajamas. As he was brushing his teeth in the only bathroom in the house, which was located between his mother's bedroom and the room where his grandfather had lived after he came to stay with them when Nico was very young, Nico heard his mother's voice from the front room. It was his mother's angry voice, which he had not heard often over the last two years.

The toothbrush still in his mouth, Nico moved to the doorway between the bathroom hall and the front room, which was dark. As he craned his head around the corner he could see his mother in the front entry, blocking the half open front door and shouting. She was shouting at Santa Claus, who was standing on the front step, his glasses fogged over and puffs of his breath swirling in the porch light.

"You must be out of your mind," Nico's mother said. "The kids are asleep and there's no way I'm letting you in this house." And with that she slammed the door.

As he usually did when confronted with something troubling or inexplicable, Nico sat at his bedroom window for a long time that night, his moon cradled in his arms, thinking until he ceased to think and began to imagine. It wasn't hard to do.

And the next morning, when he came down the stairs to discover that Santa Claus had indeed arrived after all, he was able to dismiss the previous night as nothing but a dream.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

September Song: Part Two

That night, after she had finished correcting papers, she had lain awake wondering, trying to think her way back to the last letter she had written him. Had she somehow given offense or written something that had turned his heart from her?

There was no sense in it, and she had resolved the very next morning to put it away from her and to live her life out from under what she refused to think of as anything but the bright and happy interlude their time together had represented. The memory was worth honoring, but that was that. Her life would have to be other things. She had never met a man like Richard, and would accept that she was unlikely to meet another. The woman who lived next door had lost her husband, and her own misfortune --and it was terrible, really, to even think of it as such-- was such a small thing in comparison. It was a pity, was all. She understood herself, and this understanding was the arrangement that allowed her to live with the way things were.

She lived quietly, saved her money, and built her small and private life around her. She bought a little house in the neighborhood and filled her fenced-in backyard with a garden and flowers. She had a string of dogs, each of them dear to her, and each of which managed somehow to take on her own quiet, reserved personality. She enjoyed sitting in her yard with her dogs, surrounded by her flowers, reading; she loved travel diaries and British novelists. She stayed in the same job for almost 40 years, teaching high school students social studies and history. She considered herself a good teacher, capable and interested in the lives of her students. Over the years she maintained correspondence with dozens of her former students --always one-sided affairs; she gave little of herself away, to anyone, but she was patient and a good listener, and for several generations of her students she had served as a confidante for all manner of dreams, frustrations, and fears. Not one of those students knew the first thing about her life away from the school, and that was exactly the way she preferred it. She made few close friends, and had little social life away from work.

There was a lake near her home where she could walk with her dogs and reliably expect to encounter present and former students and their parents, and to engage in pleasant small talk. A full-service grocery was also within walking distance of her home, as were a number of other stores where she could do most of her shopping. She had never owned an automobile, and was largely content to do her traveling through books. Over the years she had attracted the apparent interest of a number of men, and she had had what she supposed might truthfully be called dates, but none of these men had been able to push through her reserve or overcome their own obvious discomfort, and there had seldom been a second invitation.

It wasn't as if she had been expecting to catch lightning in a bottle a second time --but, honestly, she would think to herself, was that what she'd imagined she'd done all those years ago? Catch lightning in a bottle? No, it was nothing like that. Life wasn't a movie. The truth was she'd always been fussy and private, even before Richard came along. She wasn't interested in wasting her own or anyone else's time, that was all. She certainly hadn't spent all those years fretting over the fact that there was no man in her life, and there was no one around to nag her about such things as marriage and children. She had quite enough of children with her job, and was always grateful to have summers away from her students. There were though times --very few times, really, when one considered all the years that had passed-- when she'd see a couple walking together at the lake, for instance, when she would briefly entertain the thought of what her life might have been like if things had not gone wrong with Richard, but there was no regret attached to such thoughts. She'd didn't like to think so, at any rate. It had been a decent life, full of small satisfactions. There was no point wasting time with idle speculation over what might have been.

She liked to believe that she was someone who recognized that every moment of every day had offered her options and opportunities that might well have changed the direction of her entire life. She hadn't avoided anything, but she also wasn't one to go looking for change for change's sake. No, she had made do, and the bigger world had tempted her not at all. Yet...she'd had her blue spells, there was no point in denying that. The world was such a changed place, and her own neighborhood was more and more populated with strangers who couldn't be bothered with a civil hello. Hers was the only garden on the block anymore.

The little church a few blocks from her home, where she had been attending Sunday services faithfully for more than 40 years, had lost so many members over the decades that they were now forced to sublet space to a daycare provider, a driving school, and a Zen center. There had in recent years been a constant shuttle of ministers, young people just starting out, mostly, or older men with personality problems of one sort of another, men who were nearing the end of their careers. Most Sundays anymore there weren't more than a couple dozen worshipers in attendance, mostly older people who lived in the neighborhood.

Her faith was important to her --it had been instilled in her by her mother-- but she was not given to zealotry; nor was she interested in any flights of fancy or talk of dark recrimination. It was no one's business what anyone else believed, and she had no patience with people who spent their lives trying to force their own ideology down the rest of the world's throats. The tenets of her own faith were mostly constructed from common sense, and prayer for her provided a necessary unburdening at the end of each day. It was meditative in the best and most satisfying way, and quieted her mind.

After her retirement she relished the open-endedness of her life. She read constantly, walked more than ever, and volunteered at a local animal shelter. It was a bit strange to her, but she didn't miss teaching, not for a moment. It had taken what it could from her, and vice versa. She still occasionally received cards and letters from former students, but they were all now scattered in so many directions, and pulled in so many others that she could no longer relate to or truly sympathize with.

One morning she was sitting out on the little porch off the back of her house, reading the paper and drinking the first of the two cups of coffee she allowed herself each day. She had just turned her attention to the obituaries, as she did every day, when she was startled to see a tiny photo of Helen, the old department store girl from Richard's hometown. There was no mistaking her --as they so often did, someone had chosen a photo that was many decades old; it was, in fact, Helen just as she remembered her from that terrible afternoon on the bus. A big horsey smile and an outrageous over-sized hat. So startled was she to encounter Helen's photo that she may have let out a cry. And there in the small print beneath the photo was the corroboration of what she had long suspected: "Survived by her loving husband of 43 years, Richard, of Minneapolis."

Yes, the same last name. She hadn't even noticed that. It was a unique name she'd never encountered elsewhere. What an awful feeling, she thought (not I feel awful; she still had that distance, that control of her emotions). She read through the obituary several times, more slowly each time, the rush of blood slowly receding from her head. Three children, two girls and a boy. The service was to be held that morning at a church not six blocks from her home.

It didn't seem possible that he might have returned from the war, married that woman, and raised a family, right under her nose, possibly even in her own neighborhood. She might even have taught his children. She had resisted the temptation all those years to look up his name in the telephone directory. She didn't wish to be troubled by such knowledge and whatever foolish speculation it might have aroused in her. But now, nearly 50 years later, she felt she could at last allow herself this one indulgence.

He was there, of course, right there where he had probably been all those years. And living not ten blocks from her home, a stone's throw from the high school where she had taught. She was overcome by what struck her as the strange impropriety of her interest; she had tried so hard not to think of it for so long. There was no denying that she felt suddenly awful, to have this shadow that had apparently been following her since that long-ago bus ride suddenly catch up to her, and now standing right before her.

She wondered: Is that what it was, after all? Is that how it was? Had she allowed the memory of that man to keep her pinned down in her quiet life, afraid to ever again expose herself to such a vulnerability? No, she would not say that. She could not.Yet she imagined striking out with her dog, right that moment, to find the house where he lived. Perhaps she would catch a glimpse of him.

She realized with a start that she was crying. Such a silly thing, really. All those decent years and here she was, crying over that handsome and funny man for the very first time. It was the thought of him bereaved, she told herself, perhaps feeling some version of the thing she had not allowed herself to feel since that long ago Once Upon a Time. And then she realized that she was praying, resorting to that almost unconscious, ingrained habit that she believed had sustained her through all the disappointments and uncertain years, and suddenly the old, nearly forgotten questions were now being reformulated as desperate and wholly inchoate requests in her folded and trembling hands. With considerable effort she extracted one hand from the other, called the dog to her, and pulled his head into her lap. Her lips found the soft spot behind one of his ears.

"There, there," she said. "There, there. There, there...."

Friday, October 4, 2013

September Song: Part One

He was still the one fellow who had ventured furthest into her heart, the only one, really, who had so much as set foot in the puzzling place (she knew it was just that, even to her). It had been such a long time ago, but she had sometimes wondered if he had kept some tentative map of her heart stashed somewhere in his head. When she was younger she had wasted time wondering if he might have retained some traces of it in his own heart.

She honestly believed that he had not hurt her. No, he'd just left her confused (that puzzle again). She knew that in the relatively brief time that they'd known each other he had shown her possibilities that she'd never even suspected. But she'd been young, and she also knew that she shouldn't have needed a man to show her such things, or, lord knows, teach her anything. Still, she had missed him all those years, the way, she supposed, that she missed things from her childhood.

She had never married, never again had anything she would even have called a relationship with a man, but it certainly wasn't as if she'd spent her life grieving over him or torturing herself over what might have been. She'd gone ahead and had her life without him, and a quiet life it had been. I would have been noisier with him, she felt sure of that. It had been, noisier, that Once Upon a Time that dreamers liked to talk about. He'd been such a handsome man, bright, and sure of himself. It wasn't that he made scenes or played the fool, but he didn't mind being the center of attention, and had the charisma to carry it off.

She'd met him at a community event, a fundraiser for a local library. She'd just gotten a job at the neighborhood high school, and was fresh out of teacher's college in a small town in Iowa. She'd never so much as visited Minneapolis before she took the bus from Omaha to interview for the position. She hadn't been in town for even two weeks, and the library was just up the street from the little house she was renting in South Minneapolis. On one of her first walks around the neighborhood she had volunteered her services for an ice cream social in a park adjacent to the library. He was playing trombone in a Dixieland band that had been enlisted for the event. The members of the band all wore straw hats and matching vests, and there had been lots of exaggerated mugging. He was tall, dark complected, with a head of almost unnaturally black hair. When the band took a break she had found herself cornered by him. He was from South Dakota, he told her, also new to town, and was working for the city's streets department. At the end of the afternoon he had sought her out and asked if he might see her again.

They saw each other frequently right up until the beginning of the school year --movies downtown, dinners and dancing, walks around the lakes, and an outing to the State Fair. Once school started she had needed to adjust to the demands and routines of the new job, and so had felt the need to put the brakes on what felt like it was becoming a serious relationship. By Christmas, however, they were back to seeing each other at least two times a week. She'd realized even at the time that she had opened herself up to him in a way that she never had before, with anyone. She'd also never known anyone quite like him. She came from quiet, unassuming people; they didn't let themselves go. When she had left home for college she had never danced in her life, and had never seen her parents dance. There was never music in their house. It wasn't religion; it was reserve. Her parents worked hard and kept a quiet house. It was something of a shock to her, then, to have a young fellow spoil her with attention, even affection. He was very free with his money --"You can't take it with you," he'd say. He taught her to dance, and she supposed that had been the most fun she ever had, dancing to those bands at ballrooms and gymnasiums all over the Twin Cities.

Their time together lasted through her first year of teaching, and most of that time --since the Christmas holidays, anyway-- she had known there was a rival for his attention. He'd never been dishonest about it. There was a girl, a family friend, new to the city from his old hometown. This girl, he always claimed, pestered him; she didn't know another person in the city, he said, and couldn't find her way around to save her soul. They had known each other most of their lives, and had attended high school together. He was always going off to help the girl find her way someplace, helping her get settled in an apartment, find a job, even shop for groceries. He complained about all the demands the girl made on his time, but he was good-natured even in his complaining. He was simply a kind-hearted fellow, and didn't have it in him to turn away anyone who might need something from him. This, of course, was part of his charm, but she couldn't deny that she grew impatient with the time he was spending with the other girl.

Then summer came around, and she learned that he was being called up to the military effort. He'd known it was coming; the war had been escalating for more than a year, and they had figured it was only a matter of time. Before he left --it was in late June-- they drove to the North Shore together. They'd had a wonderful time, and she'd never seen anything so lovely in all her life, and would never forget her first view of Lake Superior. In all the time they were to spend together not so much as a cross word passed between them. He was the most easy-going fellow she'd ever met, and his natural extroversion was the perfect antidote to her own shy reserve.

She'd seen him off when he left for the Service, and for six months they'd exchanged letters faithfully and regularly. Once he shipped off for Southeast Asia, however, his letters stopped coming entirely, and for a year she had worried about what might have become of him. It pained her to think that she really didn't know enough about him; she had no idea how to get in touch with his family, and didn't even know any of his co-workers. It was the girl from his old hometown, in fact, who was to provide her with the first news of him in more than a year. She had met this girl on several occasions before he'd departed for military training.

Coming home on a bus early one evening she had found herself seated across from the girl from his hometown; Helen, the girl's name was, and Helen had always struck her as a plain girl who tried to hide her plainness with fancy clothes and bright lipstick. She knew it was uncharitable, but she could not bring herself to like Helen, who was loud and chatty and worked at a department store downtown. She also could not bring herself to ask the girl if she had any news. It was Helen, in fact, who inquired, "Have you had any news from Richard?"

No, she said. She had not. Not for quite some time. She would not admit that she had been worried about him, or even wondering. "What do you hear?" she did ask, as casually as possible.

"Oh," Helen said. "I tell him he should write books. He writes such wonderful letters, and has such lovely penmanship. It's awful, really, the stories he tells. You feel as if you're right there with him sometimes. He has such a level head on him, though; you know how he is. Can you imagine? One of the fellows from home has been with him much of the time, so that's a comfort. To have someone you know so well. The war is, of course, a terrifying thing, but the way he tells it they're all holding up just fine. He says he misses things just terrible, and I just keep telling him how happy we'll all be when they're done with the whole mess and back home where they belong."

She sat there listening to this silly girl Helen prattle on and all the while she felt as if her heart were taking on shadows and the truth was drawing her stomach in tighter and tighter. As she got off the bus Helen had offered the cruel assurance: "I will write him that I've seen you."

Something had gone terribly wrong. She would never understand it. That was the way she was and the way she had always protected herself; she moved directly from "I do not understand" to "I will never understand," and then she went on with her life almost as if nothing had ever happened.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Keep It In Front Of You: D.W.Z. (July 15, 1933-August 14, 2002)

Those days were an iron wagon loaded with rocks that we dragged through muddy fields with our teeth.

You were a magnificent burning boat that would not sink.

We were as prepared as anyone could be who was facing a long night like that. We had, at any rate, been preparing for it for decades. There had been tests --test after test, many of them grueling and sprung on us almost completely unawares-- and drills and close calls and false alarms.

We were all familiar --achingly familiar-- with that urgent walk through the darkness and humidity of nights just like that one, from which we'd finally emerge, perpetually stunned and blinking, into those long hallways of brutal light and blinding white walls, into the maze of that place, a maze that seemed constantly to be shifting and expanding and spiraling ever higher.

On nights like that, that building, that complex, would feel as vast and silent as a library in the worst and most inscrutable sort of nightmare, yet there were reminders everywhere of what the place was up to and how crowded it was with battered pilgrims in all manner of distress.

It was always astonishing to me how a place so full of suffering could be so hushed. The rising and falling of helicopters was a dull thrumming that you felt mostly in your feet. The hallways were zealously lacquered to such a sheen that you'd find yourself almost tip-toeing like a cat burglar to avoid the squeak of rubber or the clatter of heels.

Sometimes, like that night, that morning, it felt like a holy place. There were saints everywhere, plaster mostly, with disturbingly abject or imploring looks on their faces. The image of Jesus strung up on the cross repeated itself again and again; again and again you encountered the grief of Mary.

Most of the sufferers, hidden away behind white doors with whispering pneumatic releases, were in the hands of the most reprehensibly competent sort of unbelievers.
That night, that morning, you were somewhere in that maze, wired and plumbed like a man who was going to be electrocuted and saved in the same instant.

We knew when we once again retraced our steps that morning that this time we would not be coming back for you. We knew that you were ready –even if we were not—for a long journey, a journey for which you would require no shoes, no wallet or driver's license, no comb, razor, or shaving cream, none of the things, in fact, that we would carry away with us in plastic bags.

You and I had driven across the country together, east and west, and across Canada. We once drove a thousand miles with an eight-track of Lou Reed's The Blue Mask stuck in the deck and endlessly looping, and the entire time I waited for a protest from you that never came. We'd sat in the bleachers at spring training ballparks. You were always so happy, so eager, so utterly prepared to be amazed.

Now that's a pretty swing.

That is one beautiful bird.

Isn't that something?

We stood together one night on a dark beach in Florida, where astronauts had recently been blown from the sky. We saw the lights of boats in the distance, trolling still for wreckage. You shook your head and said, "It's hard to even imagine," but you were already a marked man, and the way you said it I could tell that it wasn't, in fact, so hard for you to imagine at all.

If you could see me now --and I like to think that you can-- you'd know that I've already lost so much of what you gave me.

And you'd know --I know you know-- that I'm going to get it all back.

I hope that your voyage, wherever it has taken you and whatever it has entailed, has been as eventful and full of wonder as the life you lived, and that the muffled clanging of that battered bell you lugged around, rattling behind your ribcage all those years, is now just a receding memory. I like to imagine you've seen some astonishing things, and that you are living now in some version of one of the old comfortable stories that you believed in so passionately.

It gives me pleasure to think that you are at peace, and even greater pleasure to know that you lived, so fiercely, so gently, and that you were mine and ours, and that I belong to you still, and always.

By the time you were my age you had four children, a bunch of grandchildren, and a literally broken heart.

You did what you could.

You taught wonder.

I used to sense you coiled like a discus hurler behind every one of my best intentions.

Your blood was the blood that called me back to this world each time I crawled away disgusted.

Yours were the words of forgiveness I was always surprised to find crouched at the back of my tongue. The tenderness, unexpected, that seized me when I was in the presence of suffering or helplessness, that also was you feeling through me.

A thousand times you looked me in the eyes and said, "What's going on in that head of yours, B.D.?" And I always told you, and you never flinched. Every time you said goodbye you kissed me, and called me Precious.

My biggest dreams were yours.

You pointed out the stars, and taught me to appreciate the gorgeous example of upholstery that is a baseball mitt. The short trigger, the hatred of condescension, the intolerance of cruelty, your compassion and affection for the little guy and the underdog, all those things you gave me.

You could not, unfortunately, give me your unbridled optimism, your undying faith in human goodness, your stiff upper lip, or your genuine willingness to just let the world be the world.

But your capacity for love, your sense of loyalty, your appreciation for a good road trip, the easy way you laughed, and your eagerness to play the fool --What can I say? I am your boy.

You showed me again and again how to live.

So often lately I've sat up in the middle of the night, half expecting you to knock on my door.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

This Is Not My Beautiful House

At some point --I suppose it was maybe fifteen years into the mess-- I looked around and said out loud, "None of this shit was my idea." Elaboration was requested, and elaboration was provided. I'd had a few belts on my way home from the office, and maybe a few more once I got settled in on the couch in front of the TV.

My wife was in the bedroom just down the hall, reading some daft book club novel. There were fucking angels all over my fucking house.

"How come every one of these fucking angels is a grinning, fresh-faced toddler?" I shouted. "It looks like a fucking toilet paper advertisement in here."

I'll admit that this last remark gave even me a moment of puzzlement. Toilet paper advertisement? Were cherubs enlisted to sell toilet paper? I guess I had some memory that they were, but maybe it was fabric softener I was thinking of. And maybe it was just babies, not resurrected babies. I didn't care. The angels got on my nerves. I didn't buy them. I didn't put them all over my fucking house. And I didn't want them. It occurred to me that I hated them so much that I had repressed them. On the rare occasion that I did notice them I would experience a brief alien pang --How could this possibly be my fucking life?-- and then I would turn away in disgust.

There was a pillow at my elbow on which some slave orphan in Southeast Asia had embroidered the words, "Mi Casa, Su Casa." Did I buy that pillow? I did not. Did I want that pillow? I sure as fuck did not. Did I have anything to do with that pink breast cancer bear that was propped up in a junky, presumably 'antique' high chair next to the fireplace? I assuredly did not. And the faux-rustic sign that read "Dreams Spoken Here," which was painted on an old scrap of barn wood and hanging above the bed I slept in?

It wasn't mine. It just appeared one day.

Did I put that bow tie on the dog? I did not. Was the dog in question even a sturdy enough creature to fit my own personal conception of a dog? It was not.

The house I lived in always smelled like a combination of Fruit Loops and lavender.

One day I came home and my wife had bought a fondue pot. She had set out all these little plates of little pieces of wholly incompatible foods. When I told her I wanted to eat and not play with my food, she told me I could eat someplace else. Which I did.

The memory of that incident caused me to shout from the couch the same words that I recalled shouting on the fondue night as I slammed the door on my way out to the garage: "This is my goddamned house!"

I shouted those words. Twice, if I'm not mistaken.

There was no response from the bedroom.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

From The Dialogues Of Bobagorus: Cinema Purgatorio

Tell me, Meers, does time go backwards or forwards? Does today get folded into tomorrow or swept away with yesterday?

I sense, Bobagorus, that it goes out and something else comes in.

Goes out like a candle? Or a patron exiting a theater?

Yes, sir.

So it is, then, both extinguished and disgorged?

Extinguished, I should say, most certainly.

Time dies?

Oh, yes, time dies. I feel certain of that. Millions upon millions of small expirations every year.

But are there as well large expirations? And out and out extinctions?

Without question, Bobagorus. Time itself has shown these things to be true.

So you are saying, Meers, that time is also like a magician, or a jeweler who displays his wares?

A magician, yes, and perhaps also a bit of a jeweler.

That's all good and fine, Meers. I appreciate your answers. I am, however, going to ask you to imagine something which it is my great hope you never have to actually experience. I have reason to believe that time is, in fact, nothing less than the world's most confounding cinema. At all times in this cinema films are being projected on both the front and back walls, and on the side walls, on the floor and ceiling, and in every nook and cranny; different films projected at different speeds. One simply cannot hope to take it all in, and even more impossible is the fact that each of these films is composed of millions of films, one superimposed on top of another. For does not each of us have an utterly unique relationship with time? Do we not each have our own histories and dramas, each with its own pace, incidents, and cast of characters? Then, of course, there is the shared course of human history and life on this planet. There is the past. There is this moment. And there is the future. And every one of these broad concepts means something different --and many different things-- to each of us. In effect, then, what you have is a sprawling cosmic cinema that is constantly and simultaneously screening quiet dramas, great tragedies, news reels, crime sagas, comedies, love stories, documentaries, action adventures, and science fiction.

The projectors never stop. They run at different speeds, and some of them are ceaselessly rewinding immense rolls of film. All of these projectors are time machines, and the images on those screens represent memories and dreams and the most wretched nightmares, the horizons of the past and the future, with the one-way Autobahn of the present straddling or connecting them. We all live in this theater; it's a version of the world, but the only people who can see, or are aware of, what's transpiring on all of the screens are a special class of ingrates and squanderers.

Nobody truly wants to see or know what's happening on all of the screens. To be able to view all the layers is of course a curse. I've been provided with brief glimpses of individual screens and layers, and there is nightmare enough in that experience; to live in the layers, with the fast forward and rewind and infinite transpositions, would be torturous. I have been told that there are literally countless brief sections of these films that are more than any sane human could bear --broken dreams, embarrassing and regrettable moments, grief, atrocity, myriad surrendered futures and bland compromises, rash words, hurtful actions, unspeakable cruelty, heartbreak and hope, birth, death, suffering, unbearable tenderness and innocence, shattered illusions.

The people who can see all the layers and who cannot escape the theater --they live with the projections wherever they are-- are doomed. They spend their lives queasy and cursing their fate. There is a special loop of their own suffering, recurring episodes from their cursed lives, so they cannot even escape that misery. They are trapped not just in the history of the world or personal memory, but in the history of human consciousness and dreams. One can certainly understand how crippling this must be; these poor wretches are pure spectators, ceaselessly tormented and utterly unable to act. They are paralyzed, as it were, in a theater seat that is revolving 360 degrees --sometimes very, very slowly; at other times with wrenching speed-- just as is the theater in which they are captive; just to make things even more insufferable, the seats and the theater itself spin in opposite directions.

Many of these spectators live in a state of perpetual nausea that has characteristics of both vertigo and sea-sickness. There are, as you might imagine, instances where people gouge out their eyes, and few are able to endure long sentences as spectators in this cinema. There are, however, rare cases --mostly failed screenwriters and novelists-- who actually seem to enjoy the experience.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Soundtrack: On Listening, In A Dark Time, To Barber's Adagio For Strings

It sounds like a ship is sinking in a great storm.

It sounds like an elderly man asleep in his armchair with a shoe box full of neatly organized medical bills in his lap.

It sounds like a brokenhearted man walking through the Luxembourg Gardens in the rain as the leaves fall from the trees.

It sounds like a black hearse making the turn onto a gravel road and disappearing into the fields as the camera pulls up and away and eventually reveals a desolate stretch of countryside and a farmhouse down a long driveway.

It sounds like an old woman with a garbage bag in her arms, walking slowly, slowly, slowly out to her car in a hospital parking lot as winter darkness falls.

It sounds like a man who has just lost his job, his wife, his future, sitting out on the front steps and running his hand again and again through his hair.

It sounds like a woman in an empty classroom, slowly erasing an immense blackboard on which she had written the one great dream of her childhood.

It sounds like a man who lives alone dismantling a baby crib and hauling it down to a storage space in his apartment building.

It sounds like a dog pacing in an apartment and waiting for the arrival of someone who is never coming back.

It sounds like a young man staring at photographs of his childhood and unable to identify or remember the smiling man with whom he is time and again pictured.

It sounds like an old man alone at a kitchen table, moving photographs around with his trembling fingers as if they were chess pieces, or like another old man in his basement, sitting in the darkness and watching home movies of laughing children.

It sounds like someone startled awake in the middle of the night by the memory of a betrayal, a lie, an act of cowardice, a child who no longer remembers the sound of his voice or his laughter.

It sounds like a taxi scattering leaves as a procession of mute solitaries creep along the sidewalks beneath umbrellas.

It sounds like a man alone at the edge of a forest, watching as one after another the last fireflies of the summer disappear back into darkness.

It sounds like a shattered boy and his dog, walking along a frozen river outside a small Midwestern town.

It sounds like the last hour of the last happy day of the last happy year.

It sounds like a quiet hospital room, a cluster of silent people huddled together at a bedside.

It sounds like buildings falling down, again and again and again, in slow motion.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Dreams Of Failing, Etc.

Why don't you begin by telling me about the dreams you said have been troubling you?

I'm locked out of my house and can't find the keys. I am walking around in an unfamiliar city and everyone I encounter is speaking a language I can't understand. I look in the mirror and I don't recognize the face that is looking back at me. I'm moving through a huge crowd with my family and friends and when I turn around they've all disappeared. I've lost my way in a dark forest. I'm being swept away in an avalanche. I'm falling from a great height. I'm in a little flooded boat that is rapidly being carried far out to sea. I am drowning. I'm being suffocated, strangled, smothered, buried alive. I am trapped in a burning building, aboard a sinking ship, in a car that is spinning out of control. I open my eyes and can no longer see. I open my mouth to speak and nothing comes out. I put pen after pen to paper and discover that words have utterly forsaken me; I am no longer capable of making sense. I place the needle down on record after record and hear only silence. I wake up one morning naked in an unfamiliar room and there is a pile of blood-stained clothes next to the bed. An inquisitor I can't see makes impossible demands of me, and my failure to satisfy these demands will result in my banishment from the kingdom that is my life. Returning from work one day I discover that my address no longer exists; the house I live in and everything in it has disappeared. I drive around and around for days at a time and never find my way back home.

This is a rather exhaustive --and exhausting-- inventory. Anything else you'd like to add?

(Hesitates briefly) Again and again and again my father is throwing a can of corn across the kitchen at my crying and cowering mother....