He walked with a peculiar gait. First, his knees would creak forward, then his feet would whip compliantly into place, frightened to be left behind, scuffing the gravel with each odd step. The rest of his body did not move, except as carried forward stiffly by his wayward legs. I can’t say I recall him saying much to us kids. There may have been the occasional grumble or dark muttering, but no actual conversation. Though he had trouble keeping a job, the years as a mechanic, hunched over and banging his knuckles on the cold metal under the hoods of Plymouths, and Fords, and Volkswagens with the damned engine crammed in the back, carried over into his posture. Even as a large man, his stature was lessened, carrying the weight of his defeat.
I had seen the wedding pictures, the smiling, petite brunette and the handsome man he had once been, standing tall, eyes alive with love, and with hope for the future. Now he wore a scowl, and a beard, grown in apathy, and lines on his face deep, much deeper than his years. It was the liquor that had aged him so quickly. His uncombed, reddish-brown hair was long enough to be carried on the wind as he walked. As he approached, people would inch away, giving him room to pass, pulling their children closer.
Kenny and Mark were their only children, nine years old, and seven, respectively. Both had the same haircut, long, but cut in a straight line at the back, and around the sides. Their bangs hung in their eyes. Kenny had Scoliosis. He carried himself with a hunch as well, but it wasn’t the spine curvature which pulled down on his shoulders, as cursed with a burden. It wasn’t a small bend in his back that made him struggle to smile. Mark still had a bit of innocence, just as confused, but Kenny looked out for him, so Mark could still be a kid, for as long as life would let him be one.
Their house was always dark. It was rare that any adults were home. And that was a good thing. If one were home, it might not be too bad. He would drink, sullenly, and not say much, or she would putter around the house, moving things around, attempting to restore some order to her world, though it never looked any different. If they were both home, the screaming would start.
Children don’t understand these things. They don’t understand when the only gods that they have ever believed in fall from the heavens, shattering, as broken mortals. They don’t understand the screaming, the anger, and the fear. They don’t understand the violence. They don’t understand one parent hitting the other with a car, and they should never have to understand such things. He survived the car incident. It would be an overstatement to say that he lived.
I didn’t understand either. My parents divorced around that time, and I moved back and forth between the two for a while. I lost contact with Kenny and Mark. I lost contact with everyone, including myself. On a weekend visit to see my mother, we were driving when we saw him walking on a road that no one would walk unless they had no car, appearing a way that no one would appear unless they had no home, his long, reddish-brown hair still carried on the wind as he walked with a peculiar gait.
We both saw him, and neither ever said a word about it; we barely spoke at all that day.
I recall it all, thrown into the blood-on-white chaos of the delivery room, the shrieking people and the beeping of man’s life machines, the stark light first seen through closed eyes. It was all so different from the floating, dark serenity of the womb, where my thoughts found the peace of patient solitude, where the murmuring world outside was but the whispers of ashen-winged angels as they held watch over me.
I’d a memory of having been here before, and a wish to know these souls newly introduced to my own, to one day shelter them as they would cradle me, in my infancy. Yet, there was a hunger, to find the souls I’d known before, and a ravenous need to find one in particular, one without which, I would always hunger, living and dying again, famished, impoverished, lamenting in the internal disquiet of unrequital, my soul becoming a vagabond, never knowing a home.
In the trees outside the window, a lone bird sang her morning song of grace, and of needful longing, and I knew then– that she was here in this place. I’d need only find her, again. I’d need only love her more deeply this time, as she’d deserved to be loved. As surely as I needed air that I may breathe, I needed her love– that I may live.
We lay basking contentedly in the drowsy-afternoon sun, the curtains drifting gently in the giving providence of summer’s breeze; her breasts, falling in curvaceous grace, bathed in the amber glow. Her eyes closed, she accepted me watching her, coveting her essence.
Determined clicking of sultry heels approached on the walkway outside my apartment door, and I said without needing to see who it’d been, “That’s her. Poor soul is adrift in an ocean of loneliness.”
Pushing me aside, she rose purposefully, pulling the white silk negligee across her body, though only part way. Answering the door herself, she quickly dispatched the hopeful bones of the other with insistent whispers, words which I dared not know. I was only able to distinguish the slow-scuffle of dispirited heels echoing, diminishing in retreat as the door was closed. Red, I’d assumed.
Returning with a simpering smile that masked a murder, she said nothing of the visitor. The silk fell in a sigh of wilted ivory, and she pushed me down, taking what she hungered of me. Then we slept, the peaceful sleep of lovers without weight of doubt; we slept until the setting sun gave way to the darkness of a starless summer-night’s haunting misgivings.
“I’ve been here once before,” she said as we pulled into the lot, “Would you like to know with who?”
“I already know,” I returned.
Reggae music wound and pivoted, the bass thumping down my spine from the speakers behind me, luring me to islands, but it wasn’t working. The lights were too bright, and tho yellow, it wasn’t sunshine. The beer didn’t even taste right, tinny, like the tall can in which it’d been delivered. The waitress’s smile was a practiced effort; in another place, at another time, she’d be huddled crying, and somehow she knew that I could see her truth. She she didn’t linger.
We talked about ghosts, old loves, people who’d danced into our lives but who hadn’t stayed for the last song, becoming haunted-waltz memories. They gathered as we talked, wishful apparitions watching us from over her shoulder, tho she’d been unaware, each and all still wearing their dancing shoes, and then they danced with each other, cold skin pressed against frozen hopes, tho still watching us, imprisoned behind pale-yellow bars of light.
I have wine. I might post some things.
I was a boy, lost in the wonder of small things, fallen in the shadow of larger things, aware, but unaware. Surely, the widening shade falling over the creek was from the trees, towering in watchful silence.
It was a corrugated-pipe muddy-shoe oasis, running under a forgotten road, known only to the local children, the explorers, a tractor, or car, passing by on occasion, aware, but unaware. Between the rumble of wheels, beneath the road’s crown, another world teemed and trickled, its only tides– Upstate New York’s summer-storm floods.
It wasn’t easy to see them at first, their grayish-brown shells blended well with the gray sediment twisting in watery cyclones as the crayfish retreated beneath the stones. Finally, I caught a few. Curled upon themselves in defense within my clenched hand, you’d think they had encountered a human boy once before.
Something red caught my eye, as red things always have, something moving to my left, crawling on a stone. I’d never seen one before, except in books, and on the nature shows I’d watch with my father. It was a small salamander. Tossing the crayfish back into the creek, I shifted focus. I was the great salamander-hunter, though I’d forgotten my safari hat and camera crew.
They were faster than one might expect for such small things, and they had strange skin. I was expecting their skin to be more moist. Managing to collect a handful, as they writhed, I realized I’d nowhere to keep them. Into my pocket they went, squiggling in the blue-denim lint and rustling in the bubble-gum wrappers.
I mounted my bike, which had been laid down by the roadside, and I rode back home, salamanders squishing in my right pocket with each crank of the pedals. I didn’t live far away from the oasis, but the world is bigger reflecting in the eyes of a child and the few minutes seemed like hours.
No one was home. My mother kept the spent plastic butter containers in the cabinet. I procured a red one with a with a white lid. It said “Shop Rite” on top. A few holes poked in the lid with a bit of grass ripped from the backyard tossed in seemed a perfect habitat for salamanders. I was proud. If I were a salamander, I’d like to live there.
A few had survived the trip in my pocket, although I hadn’t considered what sort of internal injuries they might have. The others were tossed out my bedroom window, landing in a gooey red mess somewhere outside. I shuffled the others into the butter container. One did wiggle loose, while I was fussing with the others, disappearing into the shady sanctuary under the bed. This was also where monsters were known to live. He was a goner. Nothing could be done to save the wayward amphibian now. I shrugged my shoulders.
There might have been five or six salamanders remaining. It was difficult to count them while they were sheltering beneath the grass in the butter container. I closed the lid, checking that my holes were large enough to give the little red critters some air, and then placed it on the windowsill over my bed. It was still early afternoon. There was more playing to be done.
As I tucked into bed that night, snuggled up in my blue Huckleberry Hound sheets, I thought about my happy salamander friends. I had no idea what they might be doing in there, playing, or reading comic books maybe. I realized that I hadn’t given them any toys, and what do salamanders eat anyway? Well, in the morning there would be time for all that. I was tired.
Morning came and went. Afternoon arrived, and as I played in the backyard, something red caught my eye again, as red things always have. I could see the red butter container sitting in my window, almost glowing in the sunshine. Remembering my new friends, I went upstairs to check on them, bringing Regina from next door with me.
I creaked the lid open slowly, careful not to let any escape. I let Regina look first. She gasped, presumably in amazement, and I swelled with pride.
Then I looked. The salamanders had all dried out!
They were completely flat, and split apart, like cracked red stains petrified to the inside of the container.
“Get some water, quick!” I shouted.
She brought back a dixie-cup from the hall bathroom, spilling most of the water on the floor while running. Only a few drops dribbled out of the cup.
“More! Hurry, Regina!”
This time she brought two dixie-cups, carrying them carefully. We dumped both cups into the container, filled with a child’s hope, and then watched as the salamander bits floated in the water, now becoming tangled and wedged in the wet hay which had been grass yesterday.
We had a small funeral for the salamanders, with only two in attendance. Dumping the contents of the red container into the toilet, we both genuflected as we’d seen done in church, and then I pulled the gleaming silver handle. Twice, just in case.
“Let’s do a challenge. We’ll write poems. What topic would you like?”
“There’s this line along your inner thigh. It curves inward splendidly, and the sun caresses the shadows there.”
“You can’t write about that.” she’d reprimanded.
“Why not? There are little hairs there, barely there, and I can almost feel them brushing against my cheek.”
“Stop. Be serious. Here, choose between these three topics: ADHD, Heaven, or Salamanders.”
I stared, blinking. “What about chickens?” I’d suggested, spotting a book about chickens with odd plumage on the bookstore shelf.
She didn’t reply.
The sun was still drifting in the window, coveting her, and still lighting up that small, inward curve on her inner thigh. She’d tried to cover it up, switching positions, fidgeting, though unaware, and I’d wondered if that spot was getting warm from my thoughts. I’d wondered if I might make it hot.
She peered at me over her reading glasses whenever she’d hear me stop typing, and whenever her thigh would become warm. I’d caught her fanning herself, discreetly.
Music was piped in through the bookstore’s speaker system. Flamenco guitars played. I’d imagined us touring Mexico, shopping in dust-road villages, buying turquoise silver and wood-inlay guitars. She speaks Spanish, I’d remembered. We’d drink tequila, and dance, and make love during Mexico’s hot evenings, and I’d trace the curve of her inner thigh with my tongue, placing a cactus-tattoo upon her skin with each nibbling kiss.
Old stuff, tho by some miracle I only changed one word.
“How about this one, Dad?”
“It’s a bit wet, still green, but you’ve found a good one in that same gathering. Look to the left, past the thorny bush.”
And it was a fine log, a large branch, really. Dry, and small enough for him to carry, but dense enough that he’d build some confidence and pride in carrying it back.
I balanced a long log on my shoulder and asked him to fill my arms with more wood.
“How do you do that? That’s huge, Dad!”
“Balance just requires that we find the center of things.”
Some of the wood we’d collected was still damp from the recent rain. The fire flickered unconvincingly, smoldering, and he seemed disappointed.
“It’s ready.” I said, rolling over two of the logs, pushing them close to each other.
Within a moment or two, the logs gave birth to large flames, filling the rusted ring, leaping toward the sky, tho never quite reaching, and in silent-moment’s worship, we gave evening’s convergence its due.
Not bothering to correct her, we sit watching as the pup digs, pulling, tugging at the juicy roots she finds until each is freed its dusty grave.
I lean over, sharing a thought, telling the boy, “Somewhere, on the other side of the world, there’s a guy in China who’s swearing in Chinese and can’t figure out why all the plants and small shrubs in his garden keep disappearing, pulled into the ground.”
He thinks for a moment, and then giggles– a laugh free of pain and doubt, free of pale-gray thoughts of who will go and who will stay, and of who will love us, and we both forget for a little while on a sunshine day.
Truth burns in the afternoon campfire, each flame bearing a realization, fed oxygen, given passion of belief. Tho each moves– climbing the wood’s jagged Zen mountains, changing shape, truths– themselves, changing, as relinquishing, each passing hope to the next, until all are extinguished as the fuel is spent, reduced to coals and blowing ash. I watch as glowing-ember worlds come and go, hissing in smoky protest as deceased, lost to the conflagration’s ire.
I’d be an Anarchist, If I believed we wouldn’t become once again the savages we were born.
I’d be Socialist, if I believed there were fairness in governance, if I believed that rulers didn’t hunger to rule us.
I’d be a Nationalist, if I believed the blood-won barb-wired lines in the sand didn’t mark kingdoms, ownership of resources, and of the citizenry.
I’d be a Christian, or a Muslim. I’d adopt a religion, if I thought that each, beneath the headdresses worn by its ruling core, didn’t love war– more than it loved compassion.
I’d be a Capitalist, if only I believed that financial success didn’t come at someone’s expense.
And I’d be a martyr, if I thought it would save him from all this.
The boy returns from his adventures on his bicycle, and I tell him it’s time for us to go.
“You’ll never catch me, Coppers!” he shouts, turning around in a skidding spout of dust and gravel, a brazen escape– as he disappears into a playful horizon.
I let him ride a bit longer, freedom billowing in his open-button shirt.
“Yes, I hope they never do catch you, son.” I whisper, pushing the coals back together, birthing a new flame.
I awoke from my nap to find that the neighbors on either side had put up so many Christmas lights that my house, in the center and without a single light yet, looked like an expectant runway at an airport. The boy with the musical corduroy pants was hungry, so we left for the Chinese buffet before any jumbo jets taxied into the living room, destroying his Lego dinosaurs, and before he burned the house down from his corduroy legs rubbing together.
The waitress wasn’t Chinese. The young blonde, was eleven or twelve feet tall. I shouted our drink order into her navel hoping it might reach her brain, somehow. Music played through speakers in the ceiling and Corduroy Boy sang along. I didn’t know the song. The radio in my car only picks up what sounds to be the decades-old transmissions from Sputnik, so I never turn it on. Corduroy Boy knows all the songs.
At the buffet, we speculated about what it might be like if buffaloes really did have wings, and what a mess that would make of car windshields, and how people would need to wear helmets and heavy raincoats all the time, if buffaloes really could fly. The wings were boiled, as best I could tell. I didn’t complain; the Chinese have trouble with their “R’s”, I understand. The shrimp was good, and we peeled and ate, making large piles of shrimp shells as the couple next to us stuffed chicken and sliced steak into bulging baggies under the table like felons.
Both tired from having built a lean-to in the woods behind the house earlier, we took turns pulling each others heads out of our plates of pork fried rice as we dozed, heads nodding. It had been man time. Swearing, karate-kicking branches, breaking them to size, leaping over streams, and pissing on trees in the woods made us remember that we were manly men, tired manly men.
When the fortune cookies arrived with the check, I learned that something good, although it remained a mystery what it might be, would happen soon. I looked around furtively, careful that my fortune not fall into enemy hands. I discreetly ate the slip of paper, washing it down with fizz-less diet soda. Corduroy Boy laughed, showing a mouthful of teeth, tho one or two missing, the rest still covered in chewed chocolate chip cookie residue.