A letter to my sister


Tree tops ( and other things you’ve yet to discover)

Tree tops

So your poem comes
when mine drums itself
against my thighs and
opens the eyes of old men
who remember the day
when they heard her voice.
She sang a low, soft song
meant for no one else.
Who can say what means more
my voice, my melody, or
your dirge, your droning
your awful berating verse.
This is not why we live.
We do not live for death.
He is nothing but an end,
a sweater to mend, a soul to rend.

So your verse withers
while mine grows from seed
across a network of vines and
surprises the mind of a child
who never thought of elephants dancing,
or zebras chiding cheetahs,
and things you’ve never considered.
With them we sing a silly tune
of sand dunes drifting
into the paths of kings and queens
who expected velvet things
and learned instead to love laughter.

So my voice echoes eras
bygones and begorras
when I mean nothing more
than a greeting and a cuppa
for a stranger I’ve known all my life.
How I’d welcome you.

How to be bored with survival

The intersection of lives, not forced together, only randomly falling into places – it enriches us, or stagnates us, or makes us wonder and ponder. A population of college students and college-aged people trying to figure out what to do next, mixed in with a few odd middle-aged people, occupied the apartments and houses down at the end of McGregor Street in Willsborough. If you stayed in one apartment for more than a year, many of your neighbors left and you would meet new faces in the autumn in typical college town fashion. Transience: we know our time together will only last a short while; how we spend it together matters – each segment of our existence we spend freely and value later.

My tiny cottage sat on the high side of what I later realized was a ridge that sloped down to where the power plant hummed. The low decibel sound waves pervaded the air and whispered into our ears until we no longer noticed, but the neighbors and I always suspected that we had mild headaches because of the power plant. My cottage was one of three that sat in a row at the ends of driveways that also served a row of larger, multi-unit houses with roadside curtilage. The tenants and I might have joked about living in the servants’ quarters, but probably not. April, on temporary hiatus from school, lived in the cottage next to mine with her boyfriend Erik, an easy-going guy who was not on the lease and who practiced the wake-and-bake religiously. Next to them lived Andrew and Katharine. Katharine’s family had lived in Willsborough for many generations. Andrew’s family was from somewhere similar. He reminded me of men from the silent film era. His body and face were full of bones that railed against his flesh. It looked painful, but he moved gracefully. Katharine defined a paranoid nonchalance, with slender, symmetrical fingers and pale glances. She rarely acknowledged anyone unless acknowledged first and she had a way of letting people think that she did not long for their company. On the other side of Katharine-and-Andrew’s duplex lurked Angela and her chronic series of roommates. I never asked why her roommates did not stick around for long, but I suspected Angela’s untidiness did not encourage extended stays. She’d wear the same clothes for up to a week and would leave half-eaten meals to decorate the flat surfaces of her apartment. She was also brilliant.

Often, in the gloaming of a weekday we’d all gravitate to the sunken common area that lay between our row of cottages and the larger units at the curb. Someone had long ago dragged logs around the space to define it. Tenants had donated lawn furniture over the years. The space always filled up with fallen leaves that cajoled the earth into a rich humus. But for the sweetgum balls, it invited barefoot walking. Andrew and Katharine had made a suggestion of an alligator out of one of the logs. They’d sip port, orbited by Angela, while April and Erik drank craft beers. April had installed an orange couch that nearly stood up to the weather, protected by the houses and trees. She and Erik would curl up together on it and spread positive energy around the circle. I usually sipped coffee on a cast iron bench, sometimes with a spot of Kahlua or Frangelico to flavor me. Our conversations, thankfully, did not involve too much of what I would call “small talk”. Most of us would arrive to the circle with book in hand ready to discuss the merits or shortcomings of the books or their authors. As the buzzes would build, silliness and quick quips might erupt. If Andrew engaged too deeply in conversation with April or me, Katharine might retreat to her cottage – the signal for Andrew to wrap it up and lurch after her. April’s warmth (and tiki torches) kept the rest of us going well into the darkness when the temperatures allowed. And lest I forget to explain Angela, her halting, cautious contributions to the conversation would usually spur long debates. She had trouble detecting her own brilliance.

One afternoon I wandered into Katharine’s cottage and noticed a simple and gorgeous painting of a salamander, signed in a quiet corner by Andrew. After several moments of fawning over it, I half-jokingly requested that he paint me a plain, white, diner-style cup of black coffee on a stark, white background. “Would you…?” I smiled awkwardly as my words trailed off into his pained expression. Maybe he always had a countenance of a man with a toothache, his skin aching and pulling over those sharp bones. Part of me knew my mistake, but it did not stop me from unleashing my tongue to make the request. Katharine threw a strange glower into the room, diagonally at Andrew. I think some of her blight landed on my shoulder and someone changed the subject. I seem to recall that she handed me a glass of port with her dramatic fingers and averted eyes. Someone began talking about Portugal and I remembered taking the train from Vigo to Porto. Little old ladies wearing kerchiefs to cover their hair piled onto the train with shopping bags loaded with market goods. They spoke Portuguese in a way that reminded me of Russian. I kept this recollection to myself, but volunteered my relevant port wine cave experience. The awkwardness from earlier dulled and I forgot about it.

The weather grew colder and the alligator pit, as we came to call the area between the houses, grew lonely while we holed up in our cottages keeping warm and being less social. Getting to Winter Break always made me anxious. I made little time for visiting my neighbors and focused on 1) exams and 2) getting out of town. Willsborough had charmed me at first, but the underbelly of politics of a college town soon disenchanted me. With only one semester left, I geared up to graduate and depart. April and Erik began having problems and she made plans to move away at the end of spring. Angela moved out one day without a goodbye and her roommate stayed behind with a dog that must have been the offspring of a bona fide wolf that mated with a German Shepherd. She named it Harley. Harley began marking its territory in the alligator pit, dropping its wolf excrement everywhere and tearing up the furniture. Spring found us all too preoccupied to care about the pit, anyway.

A man began to follow me home from school one day that spring before graduation. He would park his car beyond the power plant that gave us the mild headaches. He told me that the trees talked to him. I’ve heard trees creaking from their branches and I think he heard something else when the trees did that. He heard complaints and judgment, maybe. The man went to school with me and wanted to be my friend, but I did not have time for that. He took to following me. The neighbors on the front row noticed and called him “Weird Dude”, a name that lacked creativity. Woodrow, the Weird Dude, heard voices. Sometimes he would yell in the hallway at school and accuse everyone of something. Once I heard him yell in the halls, “I know what you’re all thinking! I know! One day you’ll know!” The trees always creaked when he walked by them. Maybe they knew. The radio reported a shooter in Willsborough as I drove back from a job interview in the capital that day. That day I instantly thought of Woodrow as the reporter monotoned the death of students and the arrest of the shooter. When the Willsborough Police Department confirmed what I knew, I shivered to think of how many times Woodrow had shadowed my journey home. College towns, the places we go to learn about ourselves, should not foster that kind of violence – any kind of violence. Knowledge should breed peace. I don’t know if people are capable of peace for too long.

A couple of weeks before my graduation, I stopped in for a visit at Katharine’s to find a painting of a plain, white, diner-style cup of black coffee on a stark, white background adorning her wall. I eyeballed it and may have breathed out something like, “Oh, cool,” or maybe nothing but air. Whatever my reaction, Andrew caught it. He looked a little sheepish, or maybe I only imagined he did. They left McGregor Street that summer and got married at Katharine’s family home in Willsborough. They invited me to their wedding and I could not help but note how carefully someone had planned every little detail. I tried not to break anything. A little later they had a baby. Later still, they divorced.

April married a man she met in Virginia. Their wedding was a warm and friendly place to dance and eat. They have two daughters as warm as April.

I think Angela moved westward.

The last time I saw Katharine, she nearly walked past me without a pale glance. Of course, I hailed her and she exhibited a genuinely mild interest in greeting me and gushed something about how we should get together for lunch with Angela soon. We didn’t exchange numbers before we parted. Andrew and I sometimes click on each other’s posts on social media.

Sometimes I find myself in Willsborough, but I never have a reason to go near McGregor Street. The mild headaches I used to have ended as soon as I moved away. Most days, I don’t think about the people from McGregor Street. I hear that Woodrow asks the court every year for a permanent release from the hospital, a return to society, and that the court rejects his request. As much as I try I cannot dismiss him from me. He intersected my life just as Katharine, April, Erik, Angela, and Andrew did. I like to think that time does not move in a linear fashion. I like to think that I can access those moments in the alligator pit, those moments in the fading light when the next moment had not occurred to us. Most of us will not take too much from the world before we go.

In Memoriam

My fingers are covered with ink. And I had to dig up the yearbook that contains the page with his photograph and name “in memoriam” because he died before the school year ended, before the town’s first integrated prom – which took place very late in the town’s history, so late even for Arkansas. How can I forget a name lost in such a way, with details left hanging like bodies from trees, swaying in a thick, summer breeze like it was the 1950s? “Died of exposure,” squeaked the coroner from a tiny mouth with thin, scaly lips, a man waving clammy hands dismissively. Others said they found him in the field – don’t think it was a cotton field, but it could’ve been. We had lots of cotton growing around us.

They told us he was lying face-down in the rich soil. They told of tire tracks all around him, gouged by big tires – the kind of tires you put on trucks, the kind of tires with thick, knobby treads that don’t get stuck in the mud. They told us there were boot prints inside the ring of tire tracks in the rich earth – the cold earth where they found him face-down. They told us there was one boot mark on his back, one muddy boot print. Yes, he died of exposure to something he never should have met.

I had to find the yearbook with the memorial page to remember his fucking name, but I had kept his face in my memory. I hadn’t forgotten that.