Snapshot of Adolescence II

The school bus drops me off at the barn after school, and I clean stalls and horses until it is time for my lesson. The manuals and experts measure each animal hand over hand from ground to the tips of its ears. But I measure each creature by how close to flying it feels to ride atop its back. How fast we can go without me screaming, as I cling to the scratchy wisps of mane that run up the horse’s neck. When I find myself gliding through the air and coming into contact with the dirt for the first time, I lie still for a long moment. The gray gelding that tossed me bends his head in my direction. His large, soft nostrils flaring to take in my scent. Then I am laughing, sucking air, and the other young riders stare like I’m crazy. Later, when I am cleaning stalls again, an old mare will step on my foot. And all 1200 pounds of her will press into the bones that make up my toes, snapping those of the longest one. Later, my father will tape it to the others, and I’ll slip my boot on the following day. Sit astride that same mare and clutch her withers as we glide through the dust of a mild October evening.

Snapshot of Adolescence I

During the summers, we canoe in the lakes, rivers, and streams of Ontario — just above those boundary waters of Minnesota. We campers exist without electricity or running water, air conditioning or toilets, televisions or the internet. It is something like dreaming, or so I feel as I carry the food pack on my shoulders. Hike the winding, rock-strewed trail between where one lake ends and another begins. We play euchre in the tents on the days it rains and thunders. And paddle our way across the waters lined with cliffs and firs on the days when skies are clear. Keep course on a blue and green map that I lay across my thighs as we drift, finger forever tracing across the expanse of miles and miles and miles of wilderness. Full-grown bull moose wade in the shallows, dipping their heads in and out of the water which drips from the massive rack of antlers perched atop their skulls. Their hardy jaws work, lake grasses and weeds between their teeth and watching us guardedly as we glide by in our canoes, quiet and still as hunted mice. A great northern pike is slick in my hands as I try to grab the hook sticking out from its lips. But he bends and strikes, his long serrated teeth clamping down on the fleshy place between my thumb and index finger. Moments later I watch one of the boys fillet that pike, slicing the blade of his knife into its belly. And the fish will still be alive, gills gaping open and closed, large liquid eye rolling in its head. I do not look away, as blood runs through the bandage I press into the open wound of my skin, dripping through the fabric and my fingers like rain.

Ship to Shore

I am lost,

how to comprehend —

how to construct,

piece together,

a framework

out of that which

remains incomprehensible —

that which lacks any semblance

of structure,

which can never make sense,

cannot and will not

take on a shape

we can gaze upon

and give name to,

and then move on.

It stays formless,

and undefinable,

and we are

fragile ships,

each of us,

spinning ever more quickly,

succumbing to

the current — caught

in the tide of

a single long moment —

filing one by one

towards the core of that

whirlpool

which has torn a hole

through our pretended peace.

And we can no longer

live as if

everything,

every act,

each gesture,

each word uttered,

actually meant something.

We are going down,

and the shore has been

swallowed from sight.

Local: Best Friend (Part II)

Her best friend was there too, with the couple, at the bar on those long and rowdy Thursday nights. She’d be close to the girlfriend — who was always at the center of attention — trying to join in the fun. The best friend knew the girlfriend’s routine with the crowd of regulars and assorted others, and she could, at times, enjoy the occasional attention being the best friend might bring. She smiled and laughed with them all, beer near her constantly drumming, ticking fingers. Sometimes she was acknowledged — they all knew who she was — but it was most often as an aside, and she was left to her own shy devices. The best friend was pretty, even more so than the girlfriend, but she lacked the charm, the social ease the other woman possessed.

Every now and then, when the festivities amped up and the jukebox came on, one of the men would ask the best friend to dance, and maybe that was out of pity, convenience, or good-natured regard — she was never sure — and her suspicious nature made the exchange more awkward that it needed to be, so that the men always got the wrong idea and sauntered away, annoyed and pride injured. So she’d end up on the fringe of the crowd, where, admittedly, she was more comfortable anyways.

At the end of the night, the boyfriend would rise from his place nearby and steer the girlfriend towards the door, and the best friend would follow. She’d take the sloppy hug from the girlfriend and let the boyfriend take her bike out of the trunk of the car where it’d been held in with a few bungee cords. It was an unspoken agreement between the best friend and the boyfriend that she’d take herself home, cycle the mile back to campus on her own, find her way along the gravel-cluttered streets and over the bridge spanning the gorge before riding swiftly down the shallow crest to the little house on the edge of town, the few lights left on at that hour blurring and streaking in her periphery.

The best friend would quickly store her bike in the garage and enter the house, into the living room, where her stoned roommate was in a passed-out state on the couch, feet hanging over the arm, and the cherried pipe still warm and glowing on the coffee table. The best friend would take the last hit, dragging long and slow, nodding to herself. There were times when she’d even talk softly to herself too, scrolling through her memories of the entire evening at the bar, chiding her own actions or inaction. Her gaze would be somewhere far off, eyes pointed towards the window as she exhaled thinning smoke into the room. She’d cash the bowl and turn off the low-volume television. Sometimes the roommate would wake up and slump off to her room with a muttered greeting and other times when she’d sleep through all the proceedings.

Then the best friend would walk through the little house and turn off all the lights, making sure the doors and windows were locked, before going to her bedroom, where she’d unclothe and lay herself heavily on the mattress in the corner. In the warmer months, the window was open and the curtain swayed languidly near her head, as she let sleep pull on her consciousness, and the process could be swift. But there were also nights when unconsciousness was distant and slow to come, and the best friend would lie among the sheets and just wait, eyes on the dimpled white ceiling above her for a long while that seemed to last til dawn was sure to arrive.

Local: Couple (Part I)

He didn’t drink much, but he was there when she did — one of her palms flat on the smooth, worn wood, the other propping up her swaying head as she laughed into the shoulders of the other men at the bar.  He sat quietly and watched her reddening cheeks and sloppy, flirtatious grin, he even watched her dance with them without changing his position, back against the wall, legs straight out before him, boots crossed at the ankle.  By the time she would have owned a couple pitchers by herself and a few shots of whisky, he had finished his first and only beer and knew when to rise to take her gently by the arm and begin to lead her away.  She‘d protest, stumbling and chortling, the crowd at the bar raising its collective voice to agree with her objections.  She was their clown, the one who drew laughter like air from their lungs.  Once she was gone they would have to make their own talk, their own laughter, and they protested at the idea.  She was flattered each time, but she always let him lead her away.

His eyes would meet Stella’s as she stood behind the bar, hands working to fill another pitcher of watery tap beer, and she’d smile knowingly and he’d nod before turning back to the body next to him and begin his way out the door.  He’d help her into the car, careful to make sure both her legs were inside before he shut the door and went to the driver’s side.  Her slurring words hummed in his ears as he drove the few miles back to the apartment above the laundromat on Theodore Avenue, a short block from the bridge spanning the gorge.  They’d drive by its yawning blackness, the lights from the other half of town spreading their tails of soft neon orange, yellow, and red behind.

Sometimes she’d still be talking, a chattering, excited four-year-old dancing up the stairs so that he would shake his head slowly as he followed her upwards.  Other times she had fallen asleep in the passenger’s seat by the time the car was parked in the gravel lot of the alley; he’d go to her door and reach over to release the seatbelt he made sure she always wore before lifting her to her feet.  One time he carried her, teetering awkwardly on the steep steps so that he almost fell backward when she shifted her weight in his arms.  Most of the time, he simply pushed her gently up, hand on her shoulder blade to steady her swaying step.  He’d unlock the door and they’d enter the darkened apartment.  She often nearly tripped over the cat as it rubbed its small body against her legs in greeting, tail curling about the calf and she’d put a hand against the wall as she made her way to the bedroom by way of the short hall.  He’d go into the kitchen to get some ice water and listen to her stop in the bathroom, sound of her bladder releasing loud as she groaned in relief.  There were a few times when she’d get on her knees before the toliet bowl and throw up, and he’d go in behind her, holding her hair back from her face as she wretched and trembled with drunkenness.  Then she’d place her head on the porcelain seat and smile apologetically with heavy, swollen lips. 

Eventually, she got into the unmade bed, after which he’d follow and draw her boots off her feet as she laid on her back, eyes closed, murmuring softly and he’d pull off her jeans before stripping himself down to his boxers and sit on the mattress beside her.  There were times when she rolled to him and pressed her chest to his, fingers feathering down his hip.  He relented to her desire and she’d open her mouth in long, low moaning, her sweat and his own moistening the sheet beneath them.  Or she’d be asleep, breath light, head turned to the side so that her face was away from him.  He’d watch her chest rise and fall, placing a warm hand on her shoulder.  Sometimes he’d prop himself up against the wall and smoke quietly, waiting for sleep to begin tugging at the corners of his consciousness.  The cat came in, jumping on the bed and curling against her side because it was her cat and liked her better, but he’d pet it, scratching beneath the chin so that it lifted its small head, eyes thin slits in its face, purring softly.  She talked in her sleep sometimes, and there were only snatches of phrases or lone words that he could make out.  If it was warm outside, the window would be open, breeze whispering through the screen, rocking the raised blinds up and down.  He’d exhale smoke in its direction and sit in silence, no matter what things slipped from between her lips that might make him curl his fingers back into his palms.

Ataraxia

We walk the abandoned canal path,

bodies close in the deepening night,

watching the thousands of tiny lives flickering

in and out of the shadows of trees and brush.

Leaves green beneath a sky more

black than the deepest sea.

A wind that ascends to the treetops, 

cadence of an evening storm to come.

Monsoon season speaks softly over horizon.

Pebbles that once were the mountains of an ancient ocean

press into the flesh of bare feet soles,

threatening and sharp.

Voices whisper, lending weight to spring buds

gently squeezing open beneath multiplying stars.

And the 10pm train sounds out of the dark,

its headlight breaking the calm, setting ablaze

The silent eyes of feeding deer in the sprouting corn below.

Your border collapses, disintegrates

Beneath my hardened toes and fingers,

prints left cannot be washed free.

I always knew that we would never be

more than a slow-witted disaster.

Desert Sun

We lived close to the earth

there, amongst the dirt and

sand —

heated by the

constant presence

of a sun

whose rays remained

unfettered by clouds

and unblocked by anything

that grew.

They often say the sun “bakes”

the air,

everything it touches,

and this it did there —

felt something like

an oven on even

the mildest of days,

so that everything

boiled,

even our blood, caught

within

the casing of our skins,

making us ripe

for fighting —

desperate acts

came readily there

where the heat

scrambled us,

our brains.

Nothing was off-limits,

no one thing that a man

could do to another

was more than a

hair’s breadth

from reality —

with that heat

that rested like

hands around

the throat,

waiting

to tighten,

just biding time

until squeezing.

Only a tic,

a sudden gasp

away.