Sunday, July 15, 2012

Corporate


     On my first day at the Cypress Park Market, my manager, Mike, handed me this ungodly green visor, you know the kind with the Velcro at the back, and told me that from now on I would wear it as if it were a princess crown – with that kind of pride. It had something yellow and decaying on its brim but I put it on and did a royal wave around the kitchen, which no one really found to be funny at all. The kitchen was small and cast from a pallete of gray shades: the dull steel appliances lined against the back wall, the scarred plastic work stations, the speckled epoxy countertop that customers leaned over to mutter their orders, all the while peering suspiciously into the fray.
             The way it works at Cypress Park is basically you start out doing the worst of all possible jobs, and move on up from there, with the best of all possible jobs being about a four on a scale from one to ten, with ten being just okay. Mike had me cleaning bathrooms and scraping congealed mayonnaise from plastic dishes for my entire first month. By July, I graduated to sandwich making. Sandwich making is thought of by the general population as sort of a lowly art form – any old Joe can slap together a satisfactory PB and J, right? Wrong.
            “Wrong, Aaron,” Yolanda would say. She always nicked me under the chin with one of her glistening purple nails while she was reprimanding me, and I always wondered about what kinds of rotting food products were stuck underneath those acrylic beauties. Yolanda was maybe thirty-four and very round through the hips, and she took great pride in her legacy at the Cypress Park Market. She had been working there for twelve years. Twelve. She enjoyed referring to the practice of sandwich making as “a lost gem dating back to the time of our ancestors,” but I was never sure if by ancestors she meant her archetypal housewife mother, or the hairy Neanderthals of old. Either way, she was a riot, and I took a lot of Yolanda’s phrases home with me.
            “Aaron,” my girlfriend would say, “when are you going to get a real job?”
            “Lisa,” I always kept my gaze level with hers, to impress how very serious I was. “Sandwich making is a lost gem dating back to the time of our ancestors.”
            I was twenty-two, a recent graduate of a quasi-competitive university on the east coast of our great nation. I spent my days crafting meatball subs with Yolanda and her fake nails. I was not unhappy.
*
            I’ve known Clause Hartmann since the fourth grade, when everyone made fun of him the second the calendar switched to December. To make matters worse, clueless Mrs. Hartmann really loved Clause in the color red, which meant that his sweaters, winter jacket, and backpack were all red. The poor kid barely stood a chance. Someone had to take pity on him, and I’ve always been a charitable guy.
            We championed our way through middle school together, and made the most out of high school (which really meant lying on my stomach on Clause’s bedroom floor watching him study calculus for hours on end, even on Saturdays). I followed Clause to college only by some miracle from the admissions gods, because even my parents told me that I didn’t stand a chance at any school of Clause Hartmann’s caliber. No thanks to them, I was not only accepted but also managed to graduate in four years.
            Clause has, since gaining independence from his mother, refused to wear the color red. After graduating in May, however, we moved into an apartment together on Red Maple Boulevard just north of the downtown, which I feel to be deeply appropriate, all things considered. Our roommates, Gordon and Sam, had also gone to university with us, and, like Clause, had real jobs. Lisa had a real job. My parents had real jobs, still, in their ancient and abysmal states of deterioration. Clause’s girlfriend, Candice, had a real job.
            Always, from all sides, “When are you going to get a real job, Aaron?”
            I loved this question, because the answer was so simple. “I already have a real job.”
            Back to Yolanda I went.
*
            “Aaron!” Mike emerged from his office, the door of which spelled MAN­­_GE_  in chipping letters. I was wrist-deep in tomato sauce, which was mushy and cool against my palms. I looked at Mike, eyebrows raised, and he paused for a second.
            “What are you doing?”
            I pulled my hands from the metal tub and said, “Just mixing the tomato sauce.”
            “With your fingers?” Mike hefted the waistband of his khakis further north, toward his bulging stomach. He let his hands rest on his belt.
            “I’m getting in touch with the art of sandwich making,” I said.
            Yolanda shouted, “Amen!” from the other side of the kitchen, and my latex gloves dripped red goop onto the counter.
            Mike exhaled with enough force to ruffle the order slips across the counter from where he stood. He said, “Watch yourself, Mr. Baker. I won’t tolerate buffoonery in my kitchen.”
            I offered a salute that splattered tomato juice across the floor. “I’ll clean it,” I quickly said, and Mike sighed again.
            “I came out here,” he said, emphasizing each word very carefully, “to tell you that your girlfriend called. She would like you to know that she’s stopping by in twenty minutes.”
            I groaned. This was about the most recent batch of resumes.
            “Look, Aaron,” Mike said, and rocked back on his heels with his thumbs still hooked over his belt. “I like you. But I don’t want your personal life playing itself out in my sandwich shop, and I don’t want your grubby paws in my tomato sauce.” He raised his eyebrows threateningly. “I don’t want to see or hear about either of these things happening again. Capiche?”
            “You got it,” I said, and he turned back toward his office.
            “You got an Italian Supreme and a Vegetarian Special comin’ your way, Aaron,” Yolanda sang from the front of the kitchen, where customers peered in over the small counter.
            On impulse I ran a hand through the top of my hair, and smeared myself with tomato sauce and whatever the hell else got mixed into the food tubs at Cypress Park. Yolanda bustled toward me with the order slips, her eyebrows screwing up to the top of her forehead.
            “What’s goin’ on with your hair?” She put the slips down in front of me.
            “I’m going au-naturale,” I said, and took off the soiled gloves. As I reached for a new set Yolanda let out a low whistle and turned away. “You kids, trying to be resourceful… tomato sauce as hair product, good lord….”
            I set to work on the sandwiches, hoping to have them finished in time to rinse out my hair before Lisa showed up in her usual physical splendor, her own locks long, brown, and sporting a permanent sheen.
            No such luck.
            I was halfway through the Vegetarian Special when from the corner of my eye I spotted her glossy hair spilling over the counter and into the kitchen as she pitched herself forward to try and catch a glimpse of me.
            “Aaron!” she yelped, and I dropped the banana peppers that I had been holding. “Come here!”
            Like a kid walking towards his mother for punishment, I dragged myself across the kitchen toward my girlfriend, whose eyes were wild with fury.
            “What kind of a game are you playing?” she demanded, without preamble. “I saw the resume that you submitted to Harper, Harper & Lee, Aaron. It was pure horseshit.”
            Lisa really was a sweetheart, in the truest sense of the word. She spent her summers in high school working with underprivileged families in Africa, and lived in China for a semester during college, volunteering at orphanages and hospitals. She had been an engineering major and now worked for a company that designed water purification systems for impoverished nations. She was a saint, basically, and expected similar holy acts from me, even though all I could produce was a Vegetarian Special, although maybe not even that if I kept being interrupted.
            “What do you mean?” I asked. I knew what she meant, obviously.
            “What do I mean?” Lisa screamed. The few customers sitting on rickety plastic tables in the dining room looked up, alarmed. “You didn’t even include your highest accolades, Aaron, or your charity work. Did you forget that you’re actually intelligent? A functional member of society?” Her hands were pressed into the counter. “Do you even want a real job?”
            “I have a real job,” I said.
            She rolled her eyes, “This?” Lisa spread her hands outward, and lowered her voice so that only I could hear her. “Aaron, you are so much better than this. Present yourself with a goddamn challenge. How long did you even spend on that resume?”
            Fifteen minutes. “I don’t know, Lisa, like an afternoon?” I watched her eyes narrow, and I added, “I’m sorry if I forgot a few things, okay? I’m sorry.”
            “Yeah, Aaron, I’m sorry, too.” She shook her head in disbelief. “I’m really sorry you’re wasting yourself like this.”
            I heard Yolanda’s heavy footsteps approaching from behind my right shoulder, and she carefully slid a plate across the counter. She had finished my Vegetarian Special.
            “Sorry,” she whispered, and then bellowed, “Veggie Special!”
            Lisa had pressed her lips together, and was watching me from what seemed like a long ways away. She looked kind of sad, or defeated, all of a sudden.
            “What?” I said.
            She shook her head, “I’m really disappointed in you, Aaron.”
*
            Clause was eating a spinach salad with salmon when I got home from work. He had made it himself, unsurprisingly, and was leaning against the kitchen counter as he ate, in his pressed gray slacks and a pale blue button-down shirt.
            “Hey, Aaron,” he said, and watched as I shuffled through the door. I was covered in condiments, as usual, hair still matted to my forehead and streaked with red.
            “Hey,” I said, tossing my balled-up apron and visor onto one of the couches in our living room. “Where’s everyone else?”
            “Sam had to work late and Gordon is at the gym,” he said, and took a bite of salad.
            The gym. Such motivated people.
            I opened the fridge and pulled out the milk to pour myself a bowl of cereal, and Clause casually said, “So I think I found you a potential job at my dad’s company.”
            I groaned, with so much force that it actually hurt my throat. “Can we actually not have this discussion today? I’m pretty sure Lisa is already composing her breakup speech so I would really like to just not think about my career right now.”
            Clause watched me move about the kitchen as I violently opened and closed drawers in search of a spoon. Once I had thrown myself into a chair at the table and started gulping down Cheerios, he joined me, and slowly said, “First of all, I doubt that Lisa is planning any sort of breakup initiative.”
            I snorted and said, “Well, you weren’t there to see her guilt-tripping me at the freaking Cypress Park Market surrounded by the dregs of humanity.”
            Clause took a bite of his salad and chewed pensively. Clause always looked pensive. He had these square, black glasses and a chiseled jaw that offset his flawlessly groomed hair, which I knew to be very silky indeed. Clause looked like the living version of one of those marble statues from ancient Greece. I slurped some more cereal.
            “Well,” he said, “I can imagine she’s beginning to worry.”
            When I didn’t say anything, he continued, “It is September, Aaron, and you haven’t even landed an interview with a reputable company yet.”
            I let out a slow exhale, and placed my spoon gently into the cereal bowl.
            “Look, Clause,” I said. “Not a single one of the applications that I’ve turned in has been for a company that I found on my own, the reason for that being, I don’t want to work for these kinds of people at these kinds of places.” I raised my eyebrows at him. “I know that you and Lisa are super determined to make something of my life, but what’s wrong with it now? I’m happy, man.”
            I picked up my spoon and began to eat, and Clause said, “Aaron—”
            “Mm-mmm,” I held up my hand, palm facing him. With cereal in my mouth I said, “I’d rather work with Yolanda than those pretentious suits who spend half their life in rush-hour traffic.”
            “Let’s just look at your resume,” Clause said, low and steady. He was never worked up; he could manage anything, even me. “We can do it tonight. I think you’re missing a lot of really key things, Aaron, that make you a great candidate for the position that I found.”
            I shook my head and chewed.
            “Come on,” he said. “Do it for me. And Lisa. She loves you.”
            Lisa. I paused for a moment, mid-chew, and watched her stand at the end of a runway in my mind, with the wind blowing her hair. Lisa could have been a Victoria’s Secret model if she hadn’t had higher aspirations. She could have given up on me, the flat tire that kept dragging her over to the side of the road, ages ago. She could have chosen a much more driven boyfriend to begin with, and she was going to change the world, with or without me. When we were freshman in college, Lisa told me that she had known right from the start that one day I would be her husband.
            “Make yourself someone who deserves her, Aaron,” Clause said. “She wants what’s best for you.”
            We were silent for a moment, watching each other from where we sat at opposite ends of the table. “What is best for me?” I finally asked. “Doesn’t the world need sandwich-makers, too?”
            Clause shrugged, “I think you could find something to do that would be much more intellectually stimulating, and much more financially realistic. Do you really want Lisa to pick up the check for the rest of your lives?”
            I glowered at him. I glowered at Lisa from inside my mind. I glowered at my parents, tucked away in Wisconsin, probably dialing their cell phones right that moment to ask me if I had found a real job yet.
            I sighed. “What’s the job?”
*
            When I got the PR job with Hartmann Magnetics, Lisa was so happy that I almost didn’t recognize her. After an entire summer of gloom, she was almost a schoolgirl again, clutching at my hands and kissing all over my face and wanting to go out to dinner and breakfast and for coffee and to pick apples.
            She also wanted to go shopping.
            “We can start at Saks,” she told me, and reached for my hand as we cut across the parking lot toward the shopping mall. She was glowing. “We’ start with pants, at least five pairs to get you through the work week, in neutral colors. And from there we can move on to shirts, and then the best part, ties and cuff links.”
            She leaned her head onto my shoulder. Her hair always smelled so good.
            She said, “I’m just so proud of you, baby.”
            This was nice, but I didn’t say anything. Would she still have loved me if I made sandwiches for the rest of my life? The word unconditional popped into my mind, but some questions are better left unasked.
            Clause had submitted my amped-up (and admittedly, more truthful) resume to his father’s company in the middle of September, and I had been offered an interview within two weeks. My interview had not been with Mr. Hartmann himself, but somehow, I had still gotten the job. (“I told you you’re smarter than you think you are!” was Lisa’s squealed justification).
            I would start on the first of October.
            As Lisa pulled me forward toward the racks of suit jackets and pressed pants, I couldn’t help but feel that I was leaving something behind. A small but clamorous part of me was keenly aware of the smell, here: clean and crisp, not at all reminiscent of banana peppers and tomato sauce.
*
            My cubicle at Hartmann Magnetics was the size of my bedroom at the apartment, but in terms of quality, this space was significantly lesser by comparison because it did not include my bed. I missed Yolanda.
            “So we abide by the general workday standards of approximately nine am to five pm, five days a week,” my quickly balding co-worker, Frank, explained. He hefted a box onto my empty desk and said, “This is some paperwork that you can start with today. I’m right next door if you have any questions, Aaron.”
            I blinked and he was gone.
            I sank into my desk chair, a decently comfortable piece of furniture, padded in a faux black leather, that wheeled so that I could zoom from one corner of my space to the other in times of crisis. I turned on my computer and watched it boot up. I rocked back and forth in the chair. I put my feet up on the desk. I tried to stretch my arms out behind my head, but the white and gray pin-stripe shirt that Lisa had chosen for my first day at work was too restricting to allow for much movement.
            The computer turned on, and a message flashed across the screen: welcome to hartmann magnetics. please enter your login key and passcode.
            I opened the box that Frank had given me, searching for the right paper to reference, and typed in my username and password.
            The screen changed, and a new message appeared at its center: welcome, aaron baker.
            I had been absorbed into the machine.            

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

So Many Beautiful Things


There are heavy nights, still, that end with you—
My eyes open to the dark, the drone of city buses
Through the window and the breathing of the air conditioner
Not quite loud enough to muffle you out;
I’ve forgotten the way you form words, the sound of my name in your mouth,
But some nights still end in you, tuneless whispering.

Part of me still sits on a leather couch in summertime
With the sun and green filtering in from your backyard
And my legs smooth, your hand cool on the skin;
Part of me is still settled in autumn, that feeling after a shower
With the sheets pushed back and your shoulders bare,
The TV on low and the night spread before us, infinite enough for now.

There was a time when you were sure of me—
There was June, cap and gown over the crook of my arm
In a convention hall with people everywhere
And your brother beside you; it was loud and I was leaned into your chest,
And even with him there you kissed me full on the mouth
And said, “I’m always going to love you.”

I can’t do justice to the mess that’s been made of things
But I am sad, my darling, for everything that’s slipped away,
Like all those nights I spent picking the bean sprouts from your Pad Thai
With you smiling sheepishly, fingers warm and curled over my knee.
My love, things are going downhill,
And I don’t know that I believe in too much anymore.

Maybe I should’ve listened to my father on that park bench in September,
My throat tight as he said, “I was raised to put the woman I love first,”
And he isn’t the type to talk about these kinds of things;
I told him, “I recognize how I don’t deserve to be treated,”
And he shook his head, “Don’t wait too long to pull the trigger”—
But of course I did; you know I have so much trouble giving up on people.

It was an empty, emaciated December,
Head in my mother’s lap on the couch watching White Christmas;
The skin around my eyes turned red and peeled away
While you were still in North Carolina, changing into the type of person
You swore to me so long ago you would never become,
The type who could say so many beautiful things without meaning any of them.

It’s an ill-fated, twisted world sometimes;
I’d venture to guess we’ve both learned that lesson
In our separate respects, because it is spring, now,
But I haven’t heard your voice since December,
And you are sick in the scary, incomprehensible way—
Some mornings I still wake up in disbelief at where providence has left us.

Things start to feel heavy when I think of the people that we were
Four years ago when this all started, fifteen years old—
So young, how could we have known that it gets to be this hard,
Growing up? Everything was weightless, you used to make fun of me
For the way I shiver in movie theaters, used to fill in silences with your jokes,
Too nervous to hold my hand. Maybe you don’t remember, but I do.

I saved all the words we wrote to one another since June,
After graduation when I bought myself that new phone,
When everything felt warm and full and right, when you felt safe—
But you were in Florida with your friend, talking to those girls  
That I didn’t know about then, but do now.
You know, their names still ring in my head, like the reverberations of a gong
Beaten too hard, beaten too hard, beaten too hard.

Mortimer

One of the strangest interludes in my life was the time Lucia and I spent with the child, Mortimer, a singular boy of five with a voice like gossamer. Lucia had once wanted children, in the years closely following our marriage, but after an era of failed attempts and sterilized hospital rooms and many cups of ginger tea this dream was loosed into the firmament, and she reconciled herself with our quiet life. Lucia was the editor in chief of a much acclaimed periodical in the realm of academia, and she worked very long hours in a large office with windows that opened to the spread of the city. I oversaw construction and development projects for a major international retailer, from behind a desk in a similar office with similar views, several blocks away. Lucia and I often met for dinner around eight o’clock, for Lucia never cooked and did not know how. Some evenings she would travel home with me, but as deadlines drew near she was frequently required to return to the office after our meal, and I would not see her until very late, having shifted in bed to find her fast asleep beside me. We were mutually consumed by our careers, I understood, and so it was with great surprise that I came to know Lucia’s desire to adopt a child. 
            It was a Saturday morning in the spring, and sunlight filtered in through our kitchen windows to cast bright squares across my newspaper. Lucia was reading for her book club, something dense and hard-covered, and as she turned the pages she sipped coffee from the delicate, white mug that we had purchased as part of a matched set. I was meandering through the editorials when she put her book down on the table.
            “Darling,” she said.
            I looked up with the paper still poised in my hands, and Lucia aligned her silverware on the table before her in a very self-conscious fashion before saying, “I would very much like to be a mother.”
*
            I am not loath to admit that the process of acquiring Mortimer was a long and arduous one. It was transparently obvious to me that having a child would not serve us well; how could it? Neither Lucia nor myself were home more than ten hours on any given day, and the better part of these were spent in sleep. In response to this, Lucia revealed that she would quit her job with sincere pleasure if given the opportunity to raise a child instead. I remained thoroughly and in every respect unconvinced of this venture, and in time was able to persuade Lucia that it would be wise to first become foster parents. Similar to a test drive, I told her. Lucia did not prefer this particular phraseology, but by and by agreed.
            Months obliterated by reams of paper and signatures on thin black lines culminated in the frigid winter day that we collected Mortimer from a child services depot in the city. A black woman of ample proportions accompanied him into the lobby where we stood in wait, and he shuffled along at her side with an unpleasant expression on his face, reminiscent of a small delinquent. Lucia had worn her pearls.
            “Well, Mortimer,” the black woman drawled. “This is Mr. and Mrs. Reeves. They’re going to be looking after you.”
            The child looked up from beneath a fringe of inky black hair, and his penetrating eyes darted back and forth between us. He held a small, brown suitcase that appeared to be near empty and wore a dark cable-knit sweater and jeans that were loose on his hips; the long tongue of a tightened belt hung haphazardly from beneath his shirt.
            “Please,” Lucia said, and knelt on the floor’s filthy tiling so that she was at the level of Mortimer’s gaze. “Call us by our first names. I’m Lucia,” she placed a hand above her heart before looking up at me and signaling in my direction, “and this is my husband, Samuel.”
            The child locked his eyes on my own, unblinking, and finally murmured, “Okay.” His voice was dusty and fragile, paper-thin. I did not trust him. Lucia placed her hand over the blades of Mortimer’s shoulders as we exited the building but he did not look at her or speak.
            “Samuel,” she said softly, beseeching me with bright eyes, “take his bag, darling.”
            I reached for the suitcase but the boy tightened his small fists around the bag’s strap so that his knuckles became white. He glared at me and I continued toward our car in silence. I did not look at Lucia, but as we drove home she sat in the back seat with Mortimer. When I glanced at them in the rear-view mirror, he was invariably staring out the window, and Lucia watched him as if unsure of how to proceed.
            It was as Lucia prepared Mortimer a grilled cheese sandwich later that evening, and he still had yet to speak one word, that I began to wonder how much of my wife I was to lose to this child. He was silent in his new bedroom and Lucia and I stood in the kitchen, evening dark through the windows and Lucia’s hair falling loosely across her face as she peered into the pan, spatula poised in the long fingers of her right hand.
            “He is too quiet,” I said.
            Lucia turned her face toward my own, and she looked at once betrayed and terrified.     “He’s only shy, Samuel; imagine how scary this must be for him.”
            Her voice shook as she spoke and I knew that she had not convinced herself entirely of this being the case. Mortimer was not what she had been anticipating on the nights that she had kept herself from sleep, poring over parenting magazines and web pages. The child was eerie.
            Lucia and I watched Mortimer eat his sandwich noiselessly, and once he had finished he asked if he might go to sleep. It was seven-thirty, and Lucia helped him find the pajamas she had purchased, and our first day with Mortimer ended in silence.
            Lucia enrolled Mortimer in a private kindergarten program that devoured a ludicrous portion of our salaries. She reduced her work hours so that she could pick him up from this school at three in the afternoon, however we no longer met for our eight o’clock dinner, in spite of the new flexibility in her schedule. Lucia was learning to cook, with paltry results. Mortimer did not eat much, so I doubted that he was a great deal bothered, but I began to resent the child with vehemence for this lamentable change to my diet.
            During parent-teacher conferences, we were told that Mortimer was struggling to make friends. He just did not communicate well with the other children. He did not participate in or contribute to the classroom environment. Mortimer’s classmates were scared of him.
            “He’s strange, Lucia,” I told my wife as we drove home from the school.
            “Samuel,” she said, immediately cross, “we have got to be here for him. He is struggling and we are all he has.”
            “I am here for him,” I said. “Two-thirds of my paycheck is here for him. My home is here for him, my food, my wife, my—”
            “That is enough.” Lucia’s voice sliced icily through the remainder of my protest. “He’s our child, Samuel, and you should speak of him as such.”
            “He is not our child,” I said.
            Lucia did not speak to me for the remainder of that evening. Not as I paid the babysitter, nor as I cleaned the dishes in the kitchen sink, nor as I settled into bed beside her. My life, then, was complete silence, silence from all sides.
*
            Months passed. Mortimer spoke very little, and smiled even less. He spent most of his time seated at the small desk in his bedroom, hunched over a weathered photograph of his biological family. Lucia tried to talk to him about them, for we knew the tragic story, but Mortimer had no interest in indulging her instinct to comfort and nurture. He hid the picture whenever one of us entered the room, and refused to speak on the topic. It had happened three years ago; he couldn’t have remembered much of them, but perhaps it was the imagining that so absorbed him.
            Mortimer turned six in April, when the first flowers were pushing up through the beds that Lucia had, this year, insisted upon mulching herself. Lucia asked over dinner one evening if Mortimer would like a birthday party with his friends from school. Unsurprisingly, he would not. It was a warm spring, and so Lucia decided that to celebrate Mortimer’s sixth year we would take a camping trip to the mountains. Neither Lucia nor I had ever been camping. Mortimer did not want to go.
            As we were cleaning dishes in the kitchen later on in the evening, with Mortimer tucked soundlessly in his bedroom, I told Lucia that I did not think this was the finest of her ideas.
            “Oh, Samuel,” she said, and handed me a plate to dry. “You’re so full of negativity these days. It’s going to be fun.”
            “We don’t know the first thing about camping,” I said. “The boy won’t even want to be there.”
            Lucia leaned on the rim of the sink, hands supporting her and dripping soap into the basin. She was silent for a long time. Finally, she looked up at me and said, “Samuel, please.” Her voice was fatigued and sorrowful. “I’m trying.”
*
            We left for the mountains that weekend, in spite of my best attempts to persuade Lucia out of this ridiculous fantasy she had of our family bonding over a trip into the vast outdoors. I packed my Mercedes with a collapsible tent, bear-proof food tins, everything that the man at the sporting goods store had convinced Lucia she desperately needed. Mortimer did not come out of his bedroom until Lucia told him that it was time to leave, and even then he looked thoroughly unenthused. He watched through the window as we drove the three hours past the city limits and all of suburbia up into the mountains, small hands folded in his lap and mouth pressed firmly shut. Lucia had bought a children’s book on tape to entertain him for the duration of the ride, but he gave no indication of paying the slightest attention, and so I was left listening to the story of Abe the Great and his Magical Cape without even the dismal reward of Mortimer’s gratitude.
            When we arrived at the site I was delegated the task of setting up the tent, while Lucia walked with Mortimer down to explore a nearby stream. She was wearing brand new hiking boots and khaki-colored shorts, her long hair tied at the back of her head beneath a baseball hat. I hardly recognized her, and as she moved away from me with her hand curled over Mortimer’s shoulder something tightened at the very bottom of my stomach. Lucia’s ponytail swung as she walked, her head dipped to speak to the boy, a bright smile stretched over her lips. She loved him, impossibly, unthinkably, against all odds. I let out a long breath of air, and turned to begin work on the tent. 
            We spent the day hiking, Mortimer shuffling along the dirt trails and stirring up dust as he jabbed at pebbles with the toes of his new black running shoes. Lucia kept up a constant stream of prattle, her voice high and thin: “Look at the blue jays, Mortimer! Oh, what beautiful flowers.” He did not lift his gaze from the trail. The sun was beating on my shoulders and the crown of my head, unbearably hot. I was sweating through my shirt, and felt that I must have been an unsightly mess. We were all miserable, I am convinced. Even Lucia, with her coos and feigned awe at the wonder of nature’s beauty, must have felt the utter failure of this venture. We returned to our campsite in exhausted irritation, famished, with blistered feet and sunburned forearms.
            We spent a sleepless night trying not to crowd Mortimer in the tent, for he requested a reasonable distance between Lucia and himself before promptly turning away from us and shutting his ghostly, black eyes.
            “This is insane,” I muttered as Lucia pressed me into the tent’s left wall, struggling to leave Mortimer sufficient space to roll about.
            “Hush, darling,” she murmured. “He’s trying to fall asleep.”
            I hushed, the earth flat and hard beneath me, and waited for Lucia’s breathing to slow, for the thin morning light to creep beneath the zippered opening of the tent.
*
            Our second day of family amusement and adventure followed much the same pattern as our first, with Mortimer shambling dejectedly behind Lucia and I through the sweltering forest. We walked until our blisters ruptured and bled, until our sunburns deepened to a frightening hue that verged on purple. Lucia’s hair was wild and she looked completely worn through, used up, and yet still she carried on about the foliage and caterpillars, as if this was the finest vacation of her life. Mortimer was unimpressed, and in my complete and utter exasperation, I was equally so.
            Lucia had planned a bonfire for our last evening of the trip, so that Mortimer could roast marshmallows before we returned home. She sent me into the forest to scrape for firewood while she retrieved the food and lighter from the car, Mortimer in tow. When I returned with splinters in the pads of my fingers and a meager pile of wood stacked in my arms, Lucia was aligning graham crackers and chocolate bars on a red, plastic plate so that Mortimer could easily compile his s’mores. She stood to pass the plate to him, where he sat with his legs crossed in the grass, and said, “Here, sweetheart.”
            I watched him look up at her, his expression closed and tranquil, and, ever so quietly, he said, “I don’t want any.”
            Lucia’s entire face fell, the corners of her eyes creasing, the lines of her mouth curving downward so that she looked defeated, wounded, ruined. I moved towards her, the wood tumbling from my arms and into the grass, heat flaring beneath the skin of my face.
            My voice rose rough and loud from my chest, “Mortimer.” The boy turned his gaze, slowly, to meet mine, and I said, “Do you even care about being a part of this family?”
            He was silent for what felt like a very, very long time. I could hear Lucia breathing behind my shoulder, could almost feel the fear on each inhale, the anticipation.
            Mortimer blinked, long black lashes casting spiders’ legs shadows over his pallid cheeks. Finally he looked up at me, his gaze unwavering and uninterested, and he murmured, “No.”
            The breath caught in Lucia’s throat, and I reached for her hand but she snatched it from my reach, her voice choked and feeble as she whispered, “Damn you, Samuel.”
*
            A woman from the child services office came to fetch Mortimer on Monday morning. He did not hesitate in going. I bade him farewell with the very fullness of my heart, but to my poor, sweet Lucia, who had sacrificed and hoped for so much, Mortimer said nothing by way of goodbye. She wept him away, wept as the car carried him from us, wept as I led her slowly back into our home.
            We re-painted the child’s bedroom a dark color, a blend of purple and black, the precise shade of skin at the center of a day-old bruise. 

Jamboree


            The celebration started just as Maxwell was falling into the pool, limbs akimbo, face all screwy with shock. This kid was thirteen and he didn’t know how to swim.  We were halfway into the second “birthday,” all of our mouths open in the shape of O’s, and one of the aunts screamed, “Maxwell!” and put a right damper on the joy of the song. The family stampeded away from the cake and toward the pool like a thundering herd of wild bison.
            This kid had managed to fumble himself smack dab into the deep end, and he was flapping about in a mad panic with his skinny arms groping everywhere. There were no lifeguards around on account of its being a privately rented party, but good old Uncle Herb with his hair all combed-over made the valiant leap into the pool with his shoes still on. All the aunts started screeching bloody murder when the splash from Herb’s gangling jump sloshed up onto their Bermuda shorts, but he was paddling towards Maxwell like a hippo on a mission and I’m disinclined to think he noticed it a bit.
            There was a general ruckus as Herb lugged the kid over to the side of the pool and all the aunts and uncles schlepped him up onto the deck. Maxwell just laid there for a while clutching at his chest and thrashing around, spitting pool water all over the place like some kind of savage. The aunts were all in a fuss trying to hug the kid and find him a towel and a glass of lemonade. Poor old Herb looked like a soppy dog come in out of a rainstorm and he had to go find his own towel, with his swamped sandals making squelches across the patio. Maxwell was all in a dither the rest of the day and couldn’t even get down his portion of Aunt Gem’s famous German Chocolate cake.
            Quite frankly I feel the kid deserved it for not participating in the singing of the birthday song. 

The Last Frontier


They had established themselves at adjacent washing machines in entirely unconscious coincidence, so that as she lifted a mud-encrusted red camisole from her laundry basket, he hefted an armful of jeans from his own in a mirror of her movements. Around them the air was moist and heavy, warm enough that his hairline grew damp with the weight of clothes from basket to machine, basket to machine. Her shoulders were bare. At the same moment they pushed closed the circular front-load doors and pressed the red buttons for colors, and each exhaled a weary sigh. He looked at up at her.
            She was short and small, with narrow shoulders dusted in freckles like cocoa powder over a latte. Her hair was brown, straight, and tied in a practical way at the back of her head so that the tip of her ponytail just brushed the nape of her neck. When she turned to look up at him it caught in the fluorescent overhead lighting and shone, just for a moment, golden. She was surprised to find his gaze level with hers. They both looked away, embarrassed.
            A small child further down the row of machines clutched at its mother’s legs and squealed, attracting both of their attention. The mother lifted the child onto her hip, and poured detergent through the open mouth of the machine before her, murmuring in hushed tones of a language that was not English. He looked back at her, hesitant, but again found her gaze. He cleared his throat and said, “So, do you always do your laundry here?”
            This was an endearingly clumsy introduction. She smiled.
            “I’m not from here.” He was tall enough that she had to tilt her chin to look up at him, and his eyebrows, brown and thick, arched a little. “I’m on vacation. We went hiking yesterday and I slipped in the dirt – I just wanted to wash my things before heading home.”
            “Oh,” he said, and shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. He was curious about we. “Where are you from?”
            “Florida,” she said, at once unaccountably ashamed of how foreign it sounded.
            He let out a low whistle, and rocked back onto his heels. “Florida. You’re pretty far from home.”
            They were still standing in front of the washing machines, spin cycles whirring, empty laundry baskets at their feet. She said, “I guess.”
            “I go to U of A Anchorage.” His tone was half disappointed. “So this is home, dirt and all.”
            “Hey,” she said, “it’s beautiful.”
            She was beautiful. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other and he said, “Do Floridians like coffee? There’s a really good place next door.”
            She glanced at her machine, 38 minutes remaining, and up at his face, open and relaxed, and down at her left hand, where the thin gold band still felt cold against her skin. He followed this progression and let his gaze rest on her hand for just a beat too long, so that it was still there when she said, “I’m Grace.” His eyes came up to hers and she extended the opposite hand toward him, “I do like coffee.”

            The cafĂ© was friendly and felt, to Grace, very Alaskan. There were skis nailed to the walls, and aged, grainy photographs of laughing women in over-alls, with their arms around one another and surrounded by towering trees. She waited at a table in the corner for the boy to come back with her coffee; this was, she told herself, what he was – a boy. Grace reasoned that he couldn’t have been more than twenty-two, though he looked older, sun-worn and seasoned. His name was Peter.
            “I don’t know what you like,” he said, extending to Grace a handful of sugar packets in several different colors. “So I brought everything. I put milk in it, though, I hope that’s okay.”
            Grace smiled, and Peter sat down across from her. The breadth of his shoulders eclipsed the cramped corner of the room, and he hunched into himself as he carefully tore open a packet of brown sugar and up-ended it into his paper cup. Without looking at her he said, “So when do you go back to Florida?”
            Grace slipped her left hand beneath the table and onto her lap. “Tomorrow morning.”
            “Is your husband here with you?” Peter lifted his gaze from the table to Grace’s eyes, and her cheeks flushed. For a moment that expanded like an inhale in both of their chests the question hung in the air, unanswered. Finally Grace said, “This was our honeymoon.” She looked away and added quietly, “Is, I guess.”
            There was nowhere, really, to go from there. Peter blinked, his eyes dark and shiny like the onyx necklace that Grace had been wearing the day she’d met her husband, in the Florida sun when she was twenty-two, not so long ago. Peter said, “Tell me about the Atlantic.”
            The time they had moved through them, transient, as genuine and as fleeting as any truth there ever was. Grace breathed Peter into her like alpine air, his bright eyes, the laugh lines that framed his mouth, the length of his fingers laced together on the table. Peter sketched the contours of Grace’s face onto a brown paper napkin, the slope of her nose, the surprised arch of her eyebrows, the sorry regret in the tension of her lips. She kept the drawing in the folded pages of a book, and Peter did his laundry every Saturday, pressing the red button for colors, the yellow button for whites, the green button for delicates.

When the Meanie Boy Didn't Love My Sister Anymore


            Charlotte used to be not-so-quiet, used to sit at the table less and dig flowers in the backyard more. Before she would only have the dark smudgies under her eyes in the morning time but now they’re there a lot and look like bruises – like when I fall off the tire swing Daddy built outside except on her face and a lot of times she rubs them and then breathes loud. She still reads me Green Eggs & Ham but she doesn’t do the voices as good anymore. I told Daddy about it and he said Charlotte is tired and don’t tell her about the bad voices because it might hurt her feelings. I asked what’s she tired for? and he said life makes grown-ups tired sometimes when things happen. Charlotte doesn’t sleep a lot is another thing and I told him maybe if she goes lights-out earlier she won’t be so tired and have the bruises. Daddy said maybe.
            After school on almost all of the days Charlotte is at the table in the kitchen holding a cup of her special tea, and she always asks if I want some but I say no thank you to be polite because that’s an important thing even though I think it’s gross. Her voice comes out all quiet-y like playing secret agents except we’re not. She sits there a lot of the time all day looking at the window but even when I try and look in the yard too I can’t tell what’s out there except the tire swing and her flowers that are mostly all dead now anyway.
*
            Today is Saturday which is my most favorite of the whole week because one, no school and two, Daddy makes pancakes on Saturday. Charlotte is already in her chair when I slip-slide into the kitchen on my socks and I say “GOOOOOOD MORNING!” in the big Saturday voice but she just sort of looks at me and moves her mouth a little bit, almost smiling except not. Daddy is standing in front of the oven and he says, “Good morning, Ethan,” and he smiles actually. I climb up in Charlotte’s lap and she puts her hands around my belly so I don’t fall off on the floor.
            “Can we go to the park today?” I ask her.
            Charlotte looks at the window and so I put my hands on her face and make her look at me instead. Her eyes are all red on the corners.
            “Please?” I say.
            Charlotte does the loud breathing and says, “Maybe Daddy will take you, E.”
            That’s not what I want because Daddy doesn’t play pretend as good as Charlotte and he can’t fit in the hidey places at the park like the tube slide and under the big blue rocket ship.
            “No,” I say. “I want you to go.”
            Charlotte tries to look at the window again but I start holding her face tight and she says, “Ouch, Ethan, stop that,” and pulls my hands off of her. “I don’t feel up to it today, okay?”
            My eyes start stinging like when Daddy cleans off my scrapes and I say, “You never want to do anything anymore!”
            “Ethan,” Daddy says in his serious voice. “Leave your sister alone.”
            It’s not fair and I say, “Why do I always have to play by myself now and leave Charlotte alone even though she’s not doing anything? I just want to go to the park!” My face feels all hot and wet and I can’t see Charlotte that good anymore but she picks me up off her lap and puts me back down on the floor, and then she stands up and leaves.
            I look at Daddy and he’s making the pancakes and not watching Charlotte walk away.
            “It’s not fair!” I say again because he isn’t listening to me.
            “Ethan.” Daddy turns around, and then he does the loud breathing and closes his eyes for a minute. When he opens them he says, “Charlotte is sad right now, and you need to be more understanding, okay? I know it’s not fair.”
            I’m sad too is what I want to say, but I don’t because Daddy is already making his pancakes again and so I just leave and go to my room to play by myself because even though it’s my best day Saturday I don’t feel hungry anymore.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

View of St. Lazare Railway Station, Paris


Steam rises as trains exhale sweat
Through a thin skin, a product of exertion
And the heavy charge of bearing
Entire towns and cities of souls
To the lives they will lead,
Of shouldering their burdens and beings.

He wore brown leather boots, for the sky
Foretold rain, and she pulled ribbed
White stockings over her kneecaps, smoothed
Lipstick the color of crisp fall apple skins
Over her mouth, and spoke in the thick
Velvety drawl of blackstrap molasses.

A carriage trundles past, kicking up
Gravel and dust that coats the beetle-shine
Of their shoes; his lips are on her ear,
So soft that they shiver down her spine,
And he whispers that tomorrow will come,
The next day, the next, until he is back in Paris.

The city wakes up, breathes in –
Morning spreads its fingers to the corners
Of collective conscience, and with the slow
Rising of the sun comes the parting
That will ache in the woman’s bones
For many weighted mornings and moons.

Here under somber sky over rusted rails
They are wrapped in arms and weeping: Farewell
For now – though can we ever foretell which is the last
time? Farewell to red lips, to leather boots; farewell
To the whispered shiver off a devoted promise:
Bearing forward, the heavy charge of lives to be led.