Sunday, July 3, 2011

Something Like Forgiveness

What I will miss most of all, she said, setting down the tea, is his voice.  He used to read while I cooked. Every day. She looked off into a corner of the room where she remembered his voice to be. 

I turned, too, imagined him reading in his affected way: one hand holding the book out before him, pages rising with his voice; the other hand with fingers upturned, to urge the language higher.

Wait here, she said, slipped down off her stool, and disappeared down the hall into the guest room.  

The kitchen clock ticked away the hour, the silence. Steam rose  to the same height above both our cups.  I used my thumb to pat up the crumbs that had slipped from the plate of cookies. 

She reemerged holding a medium sized box.  The top was folded closed, the corners of each section bent upward.

She set the box on the counter and pulled it open. Dust rose with the steam. 

I want you to have this. It isn't a part of my life with him. I looked down into the box.  It was filled with photos. 

I peered down at the yellowed images.  Unfamiliar faces looked back. I reached in and shuffled the top photos aside to reveal more unfamiliar faces. I started to tell Carol that she had brought the wrong box, that these must be hers when I uncovered a photo I recognized.  It was a memory I had mistaken for my own, a moment from my dad's childhood not mine that I had remembered vaguely, sparingly. It was my dad sitting sidesaddle on a man's shoulder, feet dangling down across his man's chest.  The man's hand held my father around the ribs on his right side.  They both were smiling.

I pulled the photo from the box then looked at the box itself. I had no memory of the box. It was none of the many boxes filled with photos in my parents' closet that I had browsed through over and over to fill rainy afternoons when I was young. I flipped the photo over and only the year was written faintly across the top of the back. My father was not yet two.

That's your great uncle, she said, guessing at my voiceless response. The one you're named after. I peered closer at the photo, at the face of the man holding my father.  It  could have been my father when my father was young and newly married. Same build.  Same dark hair. Same smile. I gave a quick snort, realizing then why I had accidentally made the photo a memory of mine.

She leaned down to see my face.  I forced a smile. We stood this way a while: her leaning over, me smiling awkwardly. She nodded and rightened. Rested a hand on my arm. 

She looked at the box and reached in to pull a photo out, too.  She turned it to me for me to see.  This is your grandmother, she said, hopefully.  I took the photo from her, squinting into the image. She looked at me looking back and forth from photo to photo. She placed her hands on her hips.

Here, let me give you this, too, she said, snapping her fingers, and walked back down the hall, back to the guest room, her slippers shuffling over the hardwood. My gaze never left the photos.   

I doubt this will fit you she said, startling me as she entered the room.  She held my father's gown and hood draped over her arms. She looked at the photo in my hand, then at me.  She lowered the robe.

You know, she said, brushing a hand over the hood, this is new, actually. She draped both gown and hood over the back of the chair beside me.  She waited a second or two before she continued. The school asked your father if he would speak at commencement and introduce the English masters candidates the year he retired. He turned them down.  She looked at the photos in my hands. When I asked him why he tried to brush it off like he didn't care, but I could tell he was upset. She straightened one of the sleeves, though it already lay perfectly flat.  He later told me that he didn't have a hood, that he had been unable to afford one when he finished his PhD. It was very difficult for him to share this with me, to be vulnerable this way. She nodded her headI turned my gaze to the hood.

I called the the school, U of I, and ordered your father the hood.  I didn't tell him and let him be surprised when it arrived.  I raised my head in a knowing nod. She smiled at me, my gaze once again on the photos. We stood this way a while, she staring at me, me gazing down at the photos in my hands. 

Of course, I've no need for it now, she said, with the wave of her hand. In fact, I'm busy getting rid of all his things.  Goodwill's coming by tomorrow to pick his suits. You can have some of those too if you like . . .

I could tell this wasn't true. About the hood. Her voice gave her away. But I also knew not to turn down the gesture. Not for her sake.  Nor mine. 

This is the only recording I have of him, she said, breaking the silence.  She slipped the CD in to the portable stereo by the tea service. My father's voice filled the air.

Duncan Phyfe Table.  One extra leaf …

It's the valuation we did for the insurance when we first moved in.  I haven't listened to it since then. 

Silver service.  Set of eight …

Carol took her seat, and raised her tea to her lips. We listened to my father's voice rising from the kitchen, echoing from room to room, our gazes focused forward.

Monday, May 2, 2011

New Amsterdam, by Beth Harrison

This would have been the year I was born.

There’s a photo, a different photo, of a man on a riding mower in a wide field, a bassinet nearby. That’s him, and that’s me.

Beyond him, beyond us, is a pond. He placed the pond intentionally, starting from the catfish rock, what would become the catfish rock. He surveyed the site and dug it out and stocked it with bluegills and largemouth bass and catfish. This was before he built the rope swing he was the first to take a turn on and before he planned the gardens where he planted the elderberries we would all come to wait for.

And this was before even that.

I’m not sure how many acres the whole property was besides a lot, and it’s since been sold so there’s no longer any way to count. The closest neighbor was a dairy farm and we would watch the cows do their nothing-much all day, and even with binoculars they were not exactly what you would call close.

Behind you, if you were looking at the man and the bassinet and the cows as if they were in a photo, not this photo, but another one that you happened to be holding in your hand right now, one I have given to you because I really want you to see all this now, because I really want to see all this again myself -- behind you was the house.

But before we get to the house we have to get you there. From our house it was an hour and a half drive straight south. If you looked on the map you’d see nearby towns called, improbably,  Cadiz and Lisbon and Minerva and Mingo Junction and Amsterdam. The turn-off to the house you found by feel. If it was early in the spring, the house had to be opened, a rite that involved the sliding back of bolts and latches that secured the heavy winter doors, the unhooking and peeling back of shutters that had kept most of the snow from forming perfect curves of snow on the screens inside, and then a surveying of whatever benign mess the local kids had left the last time they broke in.

He had helped design the house, if design meant looking for and gouging out and carting home river rocks for the floors and fireplace, if it meant making rough sketches of the tiny stained-glass windows that would go here and there. The house was built into the side of a hill under a stand of pines so that you could open the sliding-glass doors in the big bedroom on the second floor and, before anyone else was awake or after everyone else had gone to bed, you could walk right out into the woods and keep walking.

He’d take me out to look for mushrooms; he’d say which ones not to. He showed me how pine needles made a bed, and they really did. We took the empty green beer bottles from our pockets, the ones we’d brought from home in big cardboard cases, and filled them with water from one of the several springs that ran through.

If you were a friend, and there would be no not-knowing this, you would be welcome to use the house any time you liked and your friends would be welcome too. There was a brown leather book with heavy empty pages next to the fireplace. Someone would be designated, maybe you, to write down the names of everyone who is there in the house with you right now, and the names of everyone who is down at the pond or off on a walk right now. You can also write something else in the book, whatever you want, if you want to. Such as, what the weather is doing right now and what it was supposed to have done, what is in what state of blooming in the garden right now, who caught what fish and how big was it and did they hook their own finger trying to untangle a casting-back that went too far into the trees and did they have to get stitches because of it and if so how many and did they cry.

But before we fish, we need grasshoppers. He showed me where to find the best ones, the not-too-small ones, big-enough ones so that I didn’t hook my own small fingers. He showed me how to bait the hook and where I might stand on shore and what I might be looking for in the water and how long I might have to wait there for anything to happen and when to jerk the line and when to pull. He showed me how to wet my hand in the bucket that was at my side because I could hurt them if I didn’t do this, how to slide my hand over the fins front-toward-back and how I could hurt myself if I didn’t do this, how to watch its breathing and go slowly enough so that the fish could actually help me pull the hook from its mouth. He showed me how to carry everything -- the catch-heavy bucket without spilling it, the no-action bamboo stick for a rod, the now-empty lunch sack and bait jar -- back up the hill toward the house, which is in front of us now; we are looking at it. But before we get to the house, we stop halfway up at the water pump and he shows me how to prime it until the water runs hard and clear and how to stun the fish sharply on the large flat rock he has put in place for just this purpose and how to clean and scale and gut all the fish after watching him do just the very first one.

And the light is growing dark now and everyone is waiting inside for us and so we should start again toward the house again.

Beth Harrison is the editor at Spinning Jenny

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Finding Balance

The wind crept into us off the ocean.  We pulled our bodies around us tightly. We all shivered anyway. Despite our hats and scarves and sweaters. Despite the sun, the walking.

We had been waiting patiently for spring. It's why we came. On the promise of warm weather. Even the dogs were unsure, stopping to kick the sand from their paws, a step here, a step there, looking heartbroken each time.

It was then the waves rose higher.  Fell harder. The sand held our steps longingly. 


It all felt like a dream she had, she said.

"It was this," she said, one hand holding down her hat, the other spanning across the horizon. "All of this. The people, too." We all nodded, because it seemed reasonable. Like we, too, had dreamt it, or that we were dreaming it only then, or that we had meant to dream it once before.

We followed the water’s edge around the bend.  There, the stones sat heavy against everything: the tide, our spirits, both breaking slowly in the cold. There was no other way across. Our shoes barely gripped their slick backs.

R and A drifted away over the rocks to the smooth sands on the other side, never looking back. The dogs ran even further ahead than that.

She looked up but once to calculate the distance trailing behind them that was growing before her. Otherwise, we looked down, troubling the stones with our brand new ambition. 

The first rocks we lifted were inarticulate. Small, oddly shaped.  Each marked the end of an idea.   I dug deep, lifted with my legs. My arms burned. This one fit perfectly on its end.  The next one did too. Together, they rose like an arm reaching out its hand to be held. Together, both rooted and free.


Castle hill rose high above, beside us. A path on the other side of the stones would take us to the top. Loop through the marshlands.  Bend back to the bay.  Shroud us with tree cover.  Some snow still rested in darkened corners behind rocks and under newly felled trees. Some trees still held leaves. Above it all, the sky, blue.

“We would take a boat through here,” she would say then, pointing to water snaking through the marshes.  A recent history.  Not ours. I would imagine it.  I would try not to.  But it would be in trying not to that does it. In a moment, it would pass.  But, in a moment would be too late. My silence would plow at the trail before us. Our steps would slow.  The trail would muddy.


The last rock was not as balanced.  Three tries later, I still held it in my hands, cradled it, brushed my fingers over its uneven terrain, sought the point where the weight shifted, pulled the rock down.  On the fourth pass, I found it, let the stone rest in my cupped fingers.  The edges were abrupt.  Not round and smooth like the other two. I was surprised by my choice, by the contrast, that it felt wrong to set it down or to find another.

She looked at me and nodded, a smile courting her lips, working through the cold. Her hat lay low over her ears. The wide brim waved in the wind. Her jacket stood stiffly. She waited with me. Hands folded before her. I placed the rock atop the others, sliding it back and forth slowly, seeking balance, seeking the perfect juncture, where stone against stone would hold.


The rest of the trail to the top would be quiet. We would stop at the top.  Rest on a low wall at the back of the Crane mansion. Gaze across the grounds out over the treetops. It would be much later that she would take my hand.  It would be after we circumferenced the house.  It would be after we made the long rolling walk to the edge of the greens at the very end of the property to look out over the water, to Plum Island across the bay. It would be after the walk back through the puddled lawns to the path that promised to take us back to the road, to the lot where we had started. It would be at the fork in the road where the path either led back to the house or back to the beach.  And her hand would be warm despite the cold, her fingers sliding through and into mine.

When we would drift from the path to the road, our arms would be swinging, our hands locked until passing cars forced us on to the shoulder.  Single file. No longer silent. I would follow her back to the lot, back to the car, back to the place where we began. R and A would be behind us. The dogs would be behind them. The gravel would be loose beneath our feet.  The cattails would bow as we passed.  


When I lifted my hands, the stone stayed.  I lowered my arms, tentatively, my hands still contoured to weight of everything the earth could yield to me without me having to let go, and looked out across the water.  The wind was strong, but the stones would stay. They would stay with each step across to the sands on the other side of the rocky terrain. They would stay with each step closer to the path along the marshland.  They would stay once we crossed the barrier between beach and grasslands along the river way.  They would stay until her hand found its way to mine through the silence. They would stay until we climbed back in the car, dogs and all, where the seats were warmed by afternoon sun, where we loosened scarves and hunched shoulders from around our necks, where the vast improbabilities between where we were and where we were headed were all at once abundant and manageable. And, without a word, we headed that way.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Long After the Laughter, by Josh Gilb

The music swells, the lights come up. The floor rises from the dark, becomes solid.
The emptiness around you fills with faces.


At the back of an old lot, through a hole in the fence, down a hill to the broken pavement of the parking lot. Past a low, loose board, into dark and the smell of rot. Puddles, mildew, dust, dirt. Past rows of empty shelves, broken equipment, empty boxes. Up some stairs to the lobby, down the hall and into the main room, carpet worn flat and creaky under our weight.

We found the electricity. We coaxed it on. We drew it through the wires, over gaps, like water. Long after the laughter, the flickering lights, the terror, the fear, the music, the panic, we crept in one by one and filled the seats to stare at the big blank screen. Some drank, were drunk, others slept or confessed, yelled or whispered, each from their own favorite seats and sections, out from the darkness and into the light.


They didn’t even show movies downtown any more, but we showed movies downtown. It was the Paramount. The Majestic. The Orpheum. Some derelict from before streaming and data and bytes and noise. From a time when the sights and the sounds were physical, of one thing rubbing against another. Elemental. We romanticized a metaphor, became those elements ourselves- touching, scraping, creating. It was our outlet, and our escape.

For some of us it was a shelter- a place to hide, a place to withdraw, but there was more to the magic than just having a secret place to be. There was a vulnerable level of trust like we’d never experience anywhere else, all the rest of our lives. We never talked about it, never referred to it. We kept it in its dark place, we got giddy with anticipation. And even then, we tried not to make a big deal out of it.

We sat in those seats, calling scenes out to silence. Pausing as we imagined with our shared mind, and then- reaction. Cheers, groans, some commentary. Then darkness, and quiet again. Attentions drifted. There were conversations, gossip. But we were never restless, we never wandered far. We chose to sit still, within that perpetual twilight, and watch pictures in our minds cross the dark.

We did it while water dripped in some far away corner, plaster fell from some high-up place. We talked until the credits rolled. Our projectionist for the night called out the last of the lines, and we craned our heads back in our seats as that big chandelier light rose to luminescence out of the dark. We followed it like a buoy to the surface. We rose with it from the ether, fully formed.


We would meet up, crawl down through those loose boards in the back, go up the stairs blindly, our hands at the splintery rail, into the light of the lobby. The worn, musty carpet pulled loose where the walls met the floors, and the boards sang songs under the weight of each step as we crept inside. The projectionist chose the films, acted as conductor to set the tone, called out scenes, spoke the most memorable bits of dialog, and we chanted along in low voices. Our celluloid shaman, painting the pictures we all saw, leading the vision, the mass hallucination.

Tonight, Apocalypse Now. Another night, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Something like Star Wars had the greatest cross-crowd appeal, but it didn’t screen much, though Raiders would occasionally show. There were a few potential projectionists each night. They presented their films and we deliberated. For something to show, it had to have spaces, something we didn’t need to follow too closely. In action movies things were always happening, and you had to pay attention. But something like Apocalypse Now- you just needed to know where the big scenes were. Thirty-four minutes: Charlie don’t surf. Fifty-five minutes: the tiger in the jungle. Two hours, nine minutes- the horror… the horror. There was a lot of time between those scenes, well paced and dramatic. And in those in between times we would talk, or sleep, or explore… argue, excavate, break-up, and make out. We watched classics. Iconic stuff. We needed to know them backwards and forwards. Modern movies were driven narratives. There was too much to keep track of, too much to remember. Foreign films worked well. Eastwood’s old westerns.

It was cooperation unlike in any other aspect of our lives. When you’re young, the paranoia’s real. Someone is always watching you. But not there, not in the dirty, velvet grip of those old seats, leaky pipes, crumbling walls. We might spend every second outside watching our backs, but inside that space, we didn’t even think. The projectionist called out the cues, and we all concentrated, pulling from our collective memories. We filled the screen with ourselves. We projected.


We never broke anything, stole anything. We cleaned the place up, made it comfortable. We may have each had our separate reasons, but we all needed the place. And more than that, we didn’t want some other thing to take it from us, or to tell us it wasn’t ours. There are some things you only understand out of focus. You revisit them during the silent, solitudinal moments, between each flicker of the light of your future life. They will never leave you, but haunt you endlessly.

Rain on the roof. Wind at the walls.


We drift down like smoke through the aisles. We sit in groups, we sit alone. The scenes glide across the screens in our minds until we all see some version of the same thing. We remember the details a little differently, but we all watch the screen, and we all see.
We sit in silence. We sit in the fog of each others’ low murmurs, voices that drag and crawl, laughter that drips and falls, holding on.

To each other, across the dark.

josh gilb has a stack of notebooks full of half-finished stories and other such fluffery. he's also woefully behind on his photblog- he apologizes profusely, but insincerely.