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nancyflynn

MORE WRITING

CREATIVE NONFICTION

POETRY

Grace

The street was a scrim of ice, slow going,
our shuffle-walk to the party across the street.
The door opened, greetings, and she clipped in,
Calypte anna, her nest perhaps the wreath hung
from the bricks above the door. Enter her in
the sugar-water Olympics. First a dive,
then the tip-top star on the noble fir,
finally a chair-rail where she rasped,
her voice part crow. The neighbor
who makes birdhouses baroque as
Versailles missed no beat. Cupped
his hands, a cathedral around her.
Took one step then another as if he
was balancing a hymnal on his head.
As if all along he knew how this must
turn out: Every confessional open, his
hands an offering, the hummingbird aloft,
unscathed and, for that witnessed moment, saved.



Late Succession Deciduous

There were hostages in the news those days
after she fled, carrying the doll
one customer left instead of a tip.
For twenty years, she slept on beds in houses
owned by strangers. She was certain exile
bettered home, her home.
where the birch trees fought
to root on slag heaps, where church steeples
were all that reached for the sky.

Back for her father's funeral, she walks a trail
recently paved on the top of the levee. The wind
inside the metal walkway above the flood gate
is solitary as a flute. In a puddle,
a brochure advertises a new church,
Chapel of Hope, sharing the love of Christ
with the poor, forgotten, and hopeless of the Valley.

There stands a forest on both banks of the river.
The trees no longer birch
but hickory, maple, and oak. They move
like a great, green exhalation re-arranging
her memory, forcing her to revise
the way she tells the story
of what it was she ran from.


Voyeur*

I study her daily at dusk, one more
silhouette in a pane. Memorize
the poetry of her fingers, sudsy with soap,
the way she tidies her hair, an apostrophe,
behind each ear.
                    Light leaves the day
and it seems forever she waits.
She knows she’s got me cornered.
I watch as she raises her hand, jerks
a chain to illuminate a bulb that hangs
bare above the kitchen sink.

* Second Place, Members Only Category, Oregon Poetry Association Spring 2009 Contest


Origami*

Tea wrappers folded become cranes,
a dozen birds strung along floss and sold
for a dollar by the woman who runs
the food cart at Sacramento's Union Station.
Made by my daughter, she says. Our fingers
touch as she hands over my change.

A lost angle, I slump, fuse with the hollow
along the waiting room bench. I can't stop
this burning for the California Zephyr to bear me
nameless into the mountains. I'll hang the cranes
in my window and watch them swing with the miles
and me, below them, folded into my berth.

* Honorable Mention, Members Only Category, Oregon State Poetry Association Fall 2007 Contest


Caesura

Between the morning’s colony of bee-meets-sky
and earth the quilt of a salt water floor--
Between hat-tipping clouds and tip jars
and a trailer hitching to Route 66--
Between trapeze to the terra cotta pot
and water a spillway from the saucer beneath--
Between the cold metal deck chair and my
first flick of Illy’s Italian Roast--
Between the pound of rain on the skylight
and the ounce of air in flight from warm to cool
Between the photos mailed and the panoramic swoop
inside the house the way his sister found it--
Between the flutter that is my heart beating
and my heart braking--

       hummingbirds in the red begonia’s droop.


Stillness Until the Wind

Car tires on the road below us
speeding somewhere, maybe home
to the day as it leaves, white-blue,
the hundred-foot firs in silhouette,
bedroom’s amber lamp.
Until the wind comes up,
stillness accompanies the temple bell
to the whistle of midnight’s train.
Under a patchwork cover,
running stitch worn luminous,
we sleep with the window open,
the madrone at last light,
red.

 


creative nonfiction

Cut Off*

Okay, I’ll get what happened right out on the table: I put my hand into the Hobart vegetable-slicing machine when it was running—I was un-sticking a stuck lettuce wedge. I reached too far and the bowl was moving so, of course, away the bowl went with my hand and the lettuce—my right hand, the hand I write with—until the middle, ring, and pinky fingers were under the slicing blade.

What I don’t remember: if the machine stopped, if anyone else was in the kitchen, if the lettuce kept going with the rotating bowl, how I got my fingers out.

What I do remember: the actual feel of the blade slicing into my fingers followed by numbness but no sharp, fire-poker pain. I remember taking my hand out and looking at my fingers, all five still there except three of them now cut and hanging, Homer’s wine-dark sea spilling from them. I remember thinking, I’ve really screwed up, there’s no turning back the clock, no easy fix for this.

I have enough sense to push out the swinging door from the kitchen with my shoulder or my hip. My left intact fingers around my right wrist, I place my injured hand, palm up, on the polished wooden surface of the bar. The bartender stands there—I have no memory of who he is either—but I know I say something like I’ve cut my hand and hold it out in all its red-sea glory so he can see. He looks pale like he’s sick to his stomach at the sight of so much blood. Then somehow I know to lift my hand while he slides a clean terry bar towel underneath. He wraps my hand up in the towel, tight like a tourniquet, like he knows what he’s doing.

And then this nameless bartender yells to the nameless cook, Cover for me, I’m taking her to the emergency room. Mercifully, it’s a brief drive to the hospital. He drops me off and I walk into the ER by myself. My injured hand is still in its bar towel, but instead of pulsing with pain, my hand beats, like it has turned into a heart cut out of someone’s chest. My chest. My heart.


It is the year after I drop out of college, the year of the Bicentennial with its patriotic hoopla, fireworks and rah-rah parades. I am back home waiting tables at Amigo’s, the first Mexican restaurant in that part of northeastern Pennsylvania. Lunch on weekdays is always busy—regulars from the supermarket across Anthracite Avenue, the doctors’ offices on the side street behind the restaurant, and staff on 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift at the hospital six blocks away. There are two waitresses for the lunch rush then one of us gets to go home and the other stays to get the tables ready for the dinner shift. Waitresses help in the kitchen, too, loading the dishwasher and chopping the tomatoes and iceberg lettuce the cook needs to garnish every plate.

At first, we chopped the lettuce and tomatoes by hand, but that takes too much time and the kitchen is always running out. Then Sal, the Mafiosi owner of the restaurant, gets a deal on a machine that he says will make our work easier. Now all we have to do is cut the tomato or lettuce into four pieces, plop them into the front half of a steel bowl, and flip a switch. The bowl moves counterclockwise and the tomatoes and lettuce disappear under a chopping blade at the back until they emerge, ready for a customer’s plate. Easy as pie, except when the lettuce jams up.


The emergency room nurse fills out paperwork and helps me onto a gurney between two gauzy white curtains. She starts to unwrap the bar towel; that’s when I cry. I am afraid that the tips of my fingers will stick to the terrycloth, no longer attached to my hand. The nurse shoots Demerol into my left shoulder, then phones the on-call orthopedic surgeon who’s on the golf course—it’s an Indian summer September day.

I lie on the gurney and stare at the ceiling. I try to follow my breath, meditate like Ed Nylander taught us in Hatha Yoga at Oberlin the previous year. The doctor arrives, his unbuttoned lab coat over a pale pink Izod shirt. He picks up a clipboard that dangles from a railing behind my head. “Why didn’t you give her anything stronger?” I hear him yell to the nurse.

That day is the first I ever used Sudafed—with its “do not operate heavy machinery” disclaimer—for the allergies just starting to menace me. I am also in a poor-judgment fog because I stayed up late the night before, beers with Hank at the Deep End until last call and then back to the apartment of some friend of his where Hank and I tangled our blankets on the living room floor before sleep. Hank must have dropped me off at work, kept my car—I remember the car, a turquoise Datsun 510 sedan.

The Amigo’s owner, Sal, picks me up from the ER in his Jaguar and drives me home to Meander where I’ve been living with my parents since giving up the apartment across the Susquehanna in Wilkes-Barre the month before. I must be on some good drugs—Percodan, I think—because the next thing I know Hank is in the small room on the second floor of my parents’ house where my bed is a thin foam pad on the floor, the kind you use for camping. Hank holds me and I cry. I’ve injured my hand, the hand I write with, I’m a writer who has no hand. I am convinced this accident happened for a reason, some Old Testament punishment I don’t yet have the wisdom to understand.

“I’ll help you, I’ll be your hand,” Hank said. “I’ll write for you, drive you, take care of you.”

I remember Hank’s arms around me. I remember falling asleep.

I am one day pregnant with Miles only I don’t know it yet


It’s Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. I am ten weeks pregnant and getting married that evening to the man who is the father of my child. I wait on a bench on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre for Hank and his best man, Becker, to pick me up on their way back from the state liquor store. They are late. My fingers are healed and I’m writing in a spiral notebook: “I wish I could crawl out of this body and into someone else’s life.”

I have begun the process of cutting myself off. Of crawling in shame into a reality that my smart, sophisticated friends from college wouldn’t recognize, let alone understand. Even as they dabble with dropping out to live in an Ozarks commune bought with some boy’s Bar Mitzvah savings or to take courses at Naropa Institute during its first heady years with Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, these best and brightest from their high schools are still on track. Many are backed (and banked) by parents, a wide safety net to catch them before they have a chance to fall into Albert Camus’s unforgiving existential abyss.

Even my friends from high school won’t recognize this new version of me. Once upon a time, I was one of the chosen few who got to escape our coal towns for a bright, sunny, far-from-anthracite future. I was one of the ones who were supposed to know better—no, best.

I decide not to tell anyone. About cutting my fingers, about getting married to a man I met a mere four months before, about Hank getting busted for selling hash to an undercover cop the day I found out I was pregnant. About my growing belly and the baby due in June, four years after I graduated from high school, second in my class, the month I would have graduated from college—if I’d stayed.

A few friends home for Thanksgiving call. They want to get together but I make excuses. After that, I cut off communication. I stop writing letters; I have no explanation for what I’m doing that makes any logical sense so why even try to tell it. My new life, going forward, making the best of the situation. It could be worse becomes my mantra. I recite it over and over, as if that will cast a spell to whisk me far and away from what’s awaiting in six short months.


In December, we move to the country, to a deconsecrated church owned by a hippie couple, neighbors of a friend of a friend. The couple split up and the wife is moving with her year-old daughter to Colorado to go back-to-the-land in a mining ghost town in the Rockies. The rent is cheap, $75 a month.

Hank works first shift at a factory in town, minimum wage ironing sleeves and collars on men’s pinstriped shirts. I stay behind and play house. Wash bowls from breakfast in the porcelain sink of the kitchen where the Coal Rain Methodist ladies staged suppers to raise money for Vacation Bible School or a new roof. I play the radio. One station makes it over the hills between us and town, the music easy listening; the DJ’s voice is like warm butter even when he reads the ads. On the bed, my notebook is open to lists—geologic eras, names for the baby, the edible parts of plants.

Before it gets cold, we sleep in the sanctuary on what used to be the altar. Every morning, the sun throws green and violet stained-glass stripes across Hank’s face. Since the snows started, we’ve been in the basement. Our bed is two mattresses on the floor, our dresser a tower of facing-out plastic crates. We have a maple kitchen table and two red-painted, matching chairs. The table came from my grandmother, the chairs, five bucks apiece at the Meander Goodwill. Most nights, we pull the chairs close to the hot air blower on the oil furnace. We eat soup from bowls in our laps and watch the news and “Jeopardy!” on Hank’s portable black-and-white TV. Anyone outside looking in would think we are refugees, huddled in our long underwear and our heaviest sweaters around a big green box instead of a fire. Some nights, when the temperature dips into the single digits, we go to bed in our clothes.

I’m twenty-one years old and a hermit. I spend my days alone, listening to Leonard Cohen and the Brandenburg concerti, reading Annie Dillard and the Upanishads and “Leda and the Swan” by William Butler Yeats.

In the woods behind the church, there’s a neglected graveyard. Tombstones crooked as teeth lean against a tree. On a walk one morning, I brush the snow from the face of one and read: Nancy, Beloved Consort of Henry, 1855-1876. I’m Nancy, born in 1955, and it’s 1976: I take this as another yet-unfathomable sign. I maneuver the stone, foot by foot, to the back door then deep-breath-lift it over the threshold and the two steps down into the basement to rest it against the wall across from our bed. The sun sets over the mountains before Hank gets home; some nights, if the roads are icy, he stays in the back room at the bar instead. The DJ says it’s the coldest winter in a hundred years.


Hank wants to tell his family in person. Alone. It’s March and he’s behind schedule. My belly bulges above the waistline of the secondhand fatigues I found at Keefer’s Army & Navy and my navel has already turned inside out. We stand in the vestibule of the church. Hank leans up against the heavy double doors and fiddles with one of the iron rings bolted into the oak instead of a doorknob. The car is in front of the church—in the lone parking spot we’ve managed to carve out of the accumulated snow—the engine running, the defroster on full blast. The heater barely works.

Hank unrolls the folds of his turtleneck all the way up to his chin. He snaps up his goose down vest. There is a hole in one of the pockets where a mess of feathers pokes out. I pull the sleeves of my sweater down over my hands. I’ve already said I think the turnpike to Philly is crazy to drive in this weather and Hank’s already assured me that the roads are perfectly clear.

Hank opens one of the doors. Weak rays of sun shine from behind a low bank of clouds, the piles of snow sparkly and pink. Beyond the car is the road with snow banks on either side, its single lane sporting Hank’s definition of clear: two narrow stripes of ice-encrusted tracks. The wind—wind that had rattled the stained glass windows in the sanctuary the night before—blows snow into the vestibule and over the toes of my brown suede clogs. Hank picks up the backpack that sits on the floor next to my feet and brushes my cheek with his lips. He pulls the door shut behind him. I hear the car’s wheels spinning, the engine jump, and then Hank is off.


In April, there are still feet of snow on the ground. The tunnel we shoveled to the car back in October has crusted over with a brittle skin of ice. I’m seven months pregnant and my hair is now as long as Hank’s, all the way to the small of my back. Hank’s hair—what drew me to him, maybe keeps me with him—is thick and black. When he lets it down, it covers his shoulders, a hot obsidian river flooding his spine.

Hank’s court appearance to plea-bargain his way out of a mandatory sentence for selling the hash is the following week. He sits on one of the kitchen chairs, a towel like an old lady’s shawl around his neck. I have scissors and no idea what to do with them. I am cutting off his hair.

We work the system. Reverend Percy, the minister from my childhood church, vouches for Hank’s character, begs the judge to see how Hank has turned his life around since that oh-so-unfortunate afternoon when he was caught by that undercover narc. He points to the little wife—me—in the first row of seats in the courtroom and that’s my cue to play my part in what must be a highly unoriginal melodrama for the judge. I stand up so everyone can see my belly. Hank looks dashing in his perfectly pressed, borrowed suit. The judge is convinced, cuts off further testimony, and rules for special probation, no jail time given the fact that I’m delivering in less than two months. We have no money and have to work out a schedule to pay Hank’s not insignificant fines.

By now we’ve somehow finagled to be on public assistance. That means we have Medicaid to pay for my pre-natal visits and even our drug-free, Lamaze-inspired birth. Hank’s no longer working at the factory in Coal Rain. Instead he subs, under the table, late shift for Mugsy and Rick at the bar.

It keeps snowing. I spend more days by myself. I make and freeze casseroles and listen to the radio and look at the snow piling up outside. I’ve just finished Tolstoy and Madame Bovary and have moved on, for no particular reason, to Sons and Lovers. Most of the time I feel like I’m living the life of a character in a novel, but not glamorous Anna K. or Emma B. No, some tawdry welfare protagonist instead.

The month before I’m due, the church is sold and we move back to town into a house owned by one of my relatives, $50 a month, with a coal furnace in the basement, a coal stove for cooking, and a bathroom small as a closet behind the kitchen sink. It’s the middle of May and, at long last, the snow is gone.

I stand on the sidelines and watch Hank and his friends carry what little furniture we have and boxes of Hank’s records and my books into this new house that I suppose will soon become home. The first things I unpack have to do with the baby’s room. I haven’t had any kind of baby shower but the woman who owned the church and moved to Colorado left her daughter’s crib behind for me. I unwrap the music box mobile I found at the higher-end thrift shop run by the Wilkes-Barre Junior League. Hand-painted wooden characters from the “Hey Diddle Diddle” nursery rhyme dangle from thick blue string. After Hank finishes setting up the crib, I hang the mobile on one of the corner spindles and wind the key that makes the music play. The cat, fiddle, moon, and spoon move only so far before they jam up and the music stops.


At dawn on a June Monday, I go into labor. It’s muggy and I’m wearing a hand-embroidered peasant smock and cut-offs open at the waist, nothing else. Before the contractions crescendo enough to send me to the couch, I wash dozens of diapers and pin them to the pulley clothesline that goes from our back porch to the end of our fenced-in yard. Then I sit on the steps and watch them fly like white flags of surrender hung out to dry.

We don’t go to the hospital until evening when the contractions are five minutes apart. I have another eight or nine hours to go. It’s hot in the birthing room and I take off my hospital gown, decide it’s better to experience birth the same way my baby will come into the world. I hold my own legs, too. Once, in that tiny heartbeat of rest between contractions, I remember looking down and seeing my fingers. They hold so tightly to the skin below my knee that the scars have turned a ghostly white. Hank catches the baby when it—he, it’s a boy—comes out, slick with amniotic fluid and a sheen of blood. He cuts the cord. The nurse takes photographs with her Nikon. The doctor shows up late, delayed by an emergency Caesarean, barefoot and slightly drunk—the rumor is gin. He stitches me where I tore when I pushed out the baby’s head. He doesn’t use anesthetic; I don’t feel a thing.


I think my barefoot ob/gyn knows about Immaculate Deception, a fringy book about the growing interest in rituals like tree planting and placenta soup to properly honor birth because when I ask, he just nods his head. The nurse slides the placenta from the stainless pan where it lay—gelatinous and massive as an oversized liver—into a blue plastic bag she knots with a rubber band and stuffs into our Little Playmate cooler. At home, I make room for it in the freezer. In no time, ice cube trays of homemade baby food tower and brick it in.

The book doesn’t say how long you should wait after the birth to bury the placenta and plant the tree. Only that you are supposed to stand in a circle, join hands with family and friends, and sing “Turn, turn, turn” to your man and your beatific baby in the center, serene and asleep on the crib-sized patchwork quilt that you, of course, have sewn by hand.

On a mild November evening, five months after I gave birth, there’s no circle, no sapling, and the man’s gone, another night playing in the dart league at the bar. The baby I failed at nursing keens in his bassinet. I’m on my hands and knees pawing through the previous tenant’s garden, the frozen placenta on the ground beside me, one with its blue plastic skin. Suddenly, urgently, this ritual can no longer wait.

I touch the plastic, wish I could see inside to the filigree of umbilical loops that lashed this marvel of oxygen and blood to me and the baby until the doctor did a flat palm push on my belly and out it slid with a rip and a squish. I rain a thin layer of dirt over the placenta and set a spongy potato on top of the soil, eye to the sky. Sculpt dirt around the potato until all that’s left is that stubborn yellow sprout, a beggar for sun, and I become my red-faced Irish ancestor, poking her finger through the rot, tying clothes into a kerchief, walking the ramp to a ship, desperate for any new world.


And it arrives, the longed-for change—off-kilter and frantic, faster than anticipated or expected. First and in my mind, I cut Hank out of the picture, fashion a narrative that’s just the two of us, Miles and me. I talk to myself about moving somewhere I can go back to school. I talk about being able to live on Aid for Dependent Children if I’m officially divorced. I send for applications and financial aid forms, fill them out in secret, and mail them off with money orders to pay the fees instead of checks from our joint account so there’s no paper trail.

Hank now regularly disappears sometimes for weeks at a time, supposedly to Philadelphia, supposedly for work. I never know for sure and have nipped in the bud any feelings that might be seen as caring. By this time, all of our conversation happens around and about and through Miles. When Hank’s gone, I start to lighten the load. I sell stuff I no longer need—drawers of sweaters and preppie blouses I wore in high school, crocheted doilies inherited from a spinster aunt, books from every intro class freshman year—at the Saturday flea market in the abandoned lumber yard between the railroad tracks and the dike.

I confide my plans to my sole friend—Ellie, also the wife of a druggie, also the mother of a young son. We spend many afternoons having heart-to-hearts over tea while Miles and Donovan play. One of these afternoons, we’re talking about the lives we will again and somehow, miracle of miracles, have when Hank shows up unexpected and unannounced. He is jealous of my friendship with Ellie and flies into a rage about something idiotic—the boys have pulled one of his Coltrane LPs off the shelf. He picks up one of Miles’s shoes from the floor and aims for me. It hits Miles instead.

Hank moves out the following day. I file for a $100 Legal Aid divorce. Miles is twenty-two months old; I am twenty-three.


Then it’s the summer of the shortage, 1979, gasoline every other day depending on whether your license plate ends even or odd, and Skylab is going to fall. I’ve been accepted to finish my bachelor’s degree at Cornell University. We live nowhere because, maybe soon, we’ll be moving somewhere, Ithaca—once I find out about financial aid.

Until then, the car is our suitcase, packed with Tonka trucks, Big Bird, and a tin of those miniature animals that come free in boxes of Red Rose tea. Dirty clothes are separate from clean ones and stored in plastic milk crates temporarily borrowed from the Woodlawn Dairy. The back seat is piled with pillows and blankets and a sleeping bag we open, as needed, at night.

We’re supposed to be living with friends, a married couple, in a stone cottage on a twenty-acre airstrip a mile from its millionaire owner’s estate. It is harder than they thought it would be to have a terrible two-year old in a tiny, one-floor house. We are already in the habit of leaving after breakfast—Who haven’t we visited this week?—to spend afternoons by backyard wading pools with other hippie moms. Some evenings, if we get lucky, we spend the night with the man I believe I now love.

The man climbs trees, juggles oranges, teaches Miles to pee standing up. We eat pizza on his porch. He talks about where he’s most recently been (London) where he’s going next (Ladakh). In the neighbor’s yard, there’s a clothesline filled with laundry, a fire escape filled with garbage, a sky filled with stars.

Days we can’t get gas, we wait. At Social Services where we stand in line for money. At the Post Office where we stand in line for mail. At the Laundromat while our single load dries—it takes longer when you cram too much in.

On gas days we pretty much live in the car; Miles adapts to naps on the back seat while I drive, out of town, past the strip mines and deep into the hills where we sometimes stop at the first grassy field and spread my grandmother’s wedding ring quilt. I swat flies, sunbathe, more killing time. We pick berries we find along the road. There often isn’t extra money for lunch.

One day we stop at the Bloomingdale Cemetery and walk across mounds of former people, some of them my own flesh and blood. Later at a mountain lake, Miles digs on the beach and searches for bugs on the rock where I sit.

I wash clothes all the time—Miles isn’t toilet-trained. On the lucky nights, I bathe with candles on the floor around a claw-foot tub, then pull a lace-edged slip I found at the Goodwill over my head and join the man in his futon bed. Miles calls from a mattress on the floor in the adjoining room. He’s thirsty, can I bring him a bottle of juice?

I have bad dreams. Many involve clothes. Miles is lost. Kids playing volleyball across the street tell me they saw a naked child run into the woods. With their help, I find him in a pile of clothing that fills a rusted fountain, the centerpiece of a courtyard fallen to ruin. In another dream, we live with the man in a farmhouse in the middle of a field. The porch is a mess of broken chairs and, in the parlor, a piano with ivories separated from the keys. I pull elegant flapper silks from a trunk and toss them in the air. I find a baby in a dark, mysterious room. Pick it up, hold it close, kiss it before I tell the man there’s no way it can be mine and hand it over to him.

One night, the man does t’ai chi under the apple tree in his yard. Miles watches, copying moves, then turns to play with his animals, lined up on the bumper of the car. He talks in complete sentences; everyone assumes he is older than two. “What’s the matter, bunny? What’s the matter, piggy? Tired? Better go lay on Mommy’s bed. Where is Mommy’s bed?”

We put oil in the car and drive to the ocean with the man, singing along with the polka station on WNAK. We pitch a tent in a campground and sneak to the beach at night. It’s low tide, the Milky Way is a stranger, and those yellow lights aren’t Skylab but sailing ships far off. We sit in the wind on the lifeguard’s chair then build a fire in the sand to roast potatoes and corn. We watch the sunrise. I worry, what kind of parent keeps a child up this late?

Miles learns hot and cold, on and off, and how to hit a balloon in the air two or three times. Everyone’s waiting for Skylab and the car’s leaking oil, needs repair. I spend our last dollar on ice cream. It takes most of the day to walk to the man’s house and no one’s home. Miles licks his cone and stacks empty cardboard boxes left behind when the downstairs neighbor moved. He’s playing his game of making a city, this one named Ithaca after where I’ve told him we might move. I sit on the fire escape. There’s a purple iris in a green bottle next to the door on the topmost step. It’s dusk and the wind sounds like a moan. A moan is what I long for. It never comes.

The man gives his heart to another. He tells me it was Miles he fell in love with not me. After six years in orbit, Skylab falls to Earth. Hunks of metal sink in the Indian Ocean near Esperance on the coast of Western Australia. Luckily, no one is hurt.


After that, I cut off memory. I cut off contact. I cut the photographs from the album that I never make, the one I once believed I needed as a record of that time of my life. I cut off my hair. I cut short conversations. It’s all about going forward—mistake, dreadful, over—and no looking back. Moving on as if this—whatever this is—never happened. The letter arrives with news of enough financial aid for at least two semesters. Maybe, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, you can’t go home again. But you can leave again and I do, this time with a battered heart and a voluble toddler in tow.

We head north on I-81 to the exit ramp for Ithaca. I take the shortcut, a potholed road along the river that misses the speed trap with its trooper predictably in wait outside the town of Whitney Point. I turn left at the light, cross the bridge, and follow N.Y. 79 twenty-eight more miles—through Lisle then Richford then Slaterville Springs, past the turn-off for Brooktondale and down the steep, brick-paved hill into town, my exile a clean blackboard washed with a spanking new sponge, an unsuspecting boy-child to witness it all.

Our car is a suitcase filled with trucks and toys, blankets and bedding. With clothes that still fit, and dreams that don’t.

* First published in VoiceCatcher 4, Portland, Oregon, 2009. Nominated for a 2010 Pushcart Prize.


FICTION

from Personal Effects: A Novel

The best time in Meander was at night, after the bars closed and the traffic lights stopped changing and switched to blinking yellow instead. The storefronts dark, the sidewalks empty, you felt like you were nowhere, or maybe in a new place. A place where no one who'd known you since you were seven would stop and ask if you were Helen Malloy's granddaughter, the one who'd moved away and since come back and all the while you knew they knew every detail of what had happened because they rode the bus to work with your second cousin Joan.

Howard and I walked in silence, past the library with its window display of Betsy Ross flags and fifth grade readers about the Constitution, past Fainberg's where a posse of lounge chairs circled a big-screen TV in the center of the showroom floor. Past the Mar-Cee dress factory where there was a fire ten years back and the owners, a company from New Jersey, never got around to tearing the building down and now a yellow plastic sheet covering the burned part of the roof flapped, in shreds, over the rust-stained entrance sign.

Howard's face looked droopy and tired. He rubbed at the skin under one of his eyes. "Craig certainly hung around tonight," Howard said.

"He was waiting for Jackson to finish the pots," I said. "Plus he had a rough week, starting Sunday when he helped his brother roof the Wasserman house."

"Honestly, Irene, I don't know what you see in him," Howard said. "I mean, can he string a noun, verb, and object into a coherent sentence and make conversation? Or is he just another boyfriend-of-the-month?"

Howard pulled a plaid handkerchief from the side pocket of his black-and-white houndstooth chef's pants. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and his neck. "You have to watch your back now that you're back living here. I should know."

"It's not like that, Howard," I said. "I've known Craig since high school."

Howard folded the handkerchief in half, then in half again. "But you didn't really know him, you only knew of him," Howard said. He slipped the small, tidy square back in his side pants pocket. "Didn't we establish that fact, the morning after your night of too much wine at the reunion and a joint in the front seat of his car at, when was it, three a.m.?"

A car passed, slowed, the Meander Borough police in a sporty car with a hood that sloped down in the front. A kid who looked like he was barely Jackson's age sat behind the wheel, his neck craned forward to see if he could make out who was standing in front of the bank. Howard waved, and the kid cop waved back, then gunned the car's engine and raced through the blinking light.

"Let's go home by way of the dike," I said.

We crossed Main Street and walked the short distance down Ferry, a neglected stretch of asphalt where potholes had taken over and turned the road to gravel and dirt. It was cooler down by the river and the smell from the sewage treatment plant across the river was almost spicy, nutmeg or mace. The moon a little less than full made a circle of white on the dark of the Susquehanna-like the curtain had gone up and we were waiting for the first act-its light on the water the only way you could tell the river was moving at night.

There were a few buildings still standing at the end of the street, next to the spot on the dike where what was left of the Breslau Bridge- wrecked 29 years before in the '72 Agnes Flood-joined the street. The ruins of Shawnee Lumber: a small square building covered with fake brick shingles, the roof fallen in and the building's back wall leaning up against the dike. Behind the showroom, in what used to be the lumber yard, colossal objects wrapped in dirty gray tarps sat in front of open shelves where 2 X 4s used to be. A hand-printed sign FleA Market Sundays Vendors Well-CoMe hung from the rafters on the side of the building that was closest to the road.

Hank and I once screwed on the bridge. After it was closed, it must have been the year after the flood. We walked out into the middle in broad daylight, stepping over holes so wide you could see the crisscross of metal rods originally laid to support the bridge's asphalt surface, and the rush of the river down below that. What patches of pavement were left had been covered in graffiti, spray-painted hearts, initials, crude drawings of an erect penis and a woman with bowling ball circles for tits.

We did it against the railing. I was wearing a skirt with nothing on underneath. Hank lifted the hem and I felt a whoosh between my legs, then my back against the railing and Hank thrusting up. There was a look on Hank's face I'd never seen before, the flashes of light usually in the center of his eyes gone as if they'd burned out. I remember thinking even then that what he really wanted to do wasn't fuck me but throw me over the railing, a failsafe way to get me out of his life.

Howard and I turned down the narrow path worn smooth as the favorite cut on a record into the top of the levee. We passed the concrete workings that kept the river from flooding, the valves and levers padlocked with heavy chains. Below us, a row of houses, each one the same as the one next to it except for the color of their aluminum siding and the different clothes hung on clotheslines and the different-sized backyard pools, the above ground kind with rickety pressure-treated decks clinging to their sides, places for diving off.

"Do you think I should replace the chicken noodle tomorrow night?" Howard said.

"It does get boring," I said.

"The real question is: is Meander ready for my chilled tomato bisque?" Howard said.

Heat lightning lit the sky over the river and the sound of a loud foghorn, two long bleats followed by a pause then one more.

"Twenty-one," Howard said. "Isn't that Nottingham Street?"

"Twenty-four was ours when we lived in Albert's house on Blackburn," I said. "I have no idea what mine is now."

"Same as mine, fourteen. Or rather, one-four," Howard said. "Anyway, it's probably a false alarm."

The foghorn sounded again, another two-one, and then a siren, and then for some reason, even though it was a hot summer night, I felt a sudden chill. I touched Howard's arm. The soft blond hairs on his bare arm were standing up. "Hey, I didn't even notice. Who were you tonight?" I said.

Howard stopped walking. He put both hands on his hips and pushed his chest forward so I could read the name embroidered in shiny blue letters above the pocket of his bowling shirt.

"Buster Y.," Howard said. Howard turned to display the monogrammed name of the team across the back of the shirt.

"Chacko's," I said. "They closed after the flood."

"The Salvation Army on Hazle Street in Wilkes-Barre," Howard said. "Two dollars. Tomorrow I get to be Raymond. The good news is Raymond's already pressed. Thank God for Alastair. I love a man who irons."

Howard reached for my hand and squeezed. I rested the tips of my fingers in the smooth hollows between Howard's knuckles.

Maybe this was what I came back for.

Howard.

My oldest friend.

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