The Beacon

I drove north on route 309, through towns that don’t matter, each with a gas station and a bar. The hills rose up, and around them dark forest, and my headlights illuminating less and less through the thickness of night. There is an eeriness about northern Pennsylvania. It’s like once you cross the mountains, there’s this looming presentiment that people don’t really belong here. There really isn’t much to suggest otherwise; old farmhouses with English ivy growing over the roof… shutters unhinged… cracked fading white paint…. A dense, lingering fog and beyond it a sea of dense undergrowth. It’s been this way since the coal and timber played out.

Near Hometown I stopped at the Beacon Diner, a non-distinct eatery that already had Christmas lights up in early November. I got seated near the back and the waitress brought me coffee. She was an old woman, and as plain as the place where she worked.

I was surprised to see the place so full of people on a Friday night. There were entire families sitting down to dinner; broad men with stubbled faces and tucked in flannels, submissive housewives tending to misbehaving children. But, it seemed I came in at the tail end, as more and more of them finished and left. It was quiet before Lindsey even showed up.

Lindsey and I had met in Vermont. She had lived in Burlington, down near where the Winooski River barreled over a man-made waterfall into Lake Champlain. I had been working in the woods, and would go to Burlington at the end of the week to get drunk. I was drunk when I met her, and she thought, somehow, that that was charming. We would cross the bridge into Winooski and drink at Misery Loves Company, and I would stay with her until I had to return to the woods. I was surprised to find out she was from Pennsylvania too… from an hour north of where I grew up.

When I left Vermont she took it hard. She felt that we had had something; wished I would find a way to stay. But, there were no jobs in the winter, and I left. By the time she called me, months later, I had forgotten; I had moved on. She told me she would be in Pennsylvania to visit her parents. I felt, with so much time past, it would be good to see her… as old friends….

*

When she entered the diner, I saw her look around and, not seeing me, she nearly got another table. Finally I waved, and after a moment of looking blankly in my direction, I could see that she recognized me. She hurried over, she was flustered… this was her normal state.

“I’m sorry I’m so late,” she said.

“I don’ mind, I’ve been people watching.”

“People watching?,” she asked, her face turning quizzical.

“Yea, you know, there are such interesting people here. Rural folk,” I said.

“Oh yea,” she drawled, “this is nothing. There are some real critters in my town.”

I didn’t doubt it. Much of Pennsylvania is made up of a cultural void… people who’d rather eat grits from a Waffle House than visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a conscious preference. Like giving up the Dixie Chicks when they said, “Fuck Bush.”

Living in the area for so many years, I’ve always felt apart from these people. I used to think they were good people, just living differently from me. That belief has been challenged too many times now. These were not my people, I would never belong here… I was not their people either, and on occasion they let me know it.

“How was the drive down from Vermont,” I asked, trying to find something to talk about… something harmless.

“It felt longer than I remembered. But not bad, no traffic.”

“I wouldn’t imagine,” I said. “What do you take? 87?”

“No… no, that would put me too far east. I cut across New York and down through Scranton.”

“Ah, yes, Scranton…. That area’s always seemed pretty off to me.”

“Yea, it definitely is. I mean, when you stop in a graveyard in those towns, all the last names are the same. Explains a lot,” she said.

“I remember, when I was living in Philly… I was at a party and this guy from Wilkes Barre came in. He was already pretty drunk. Not like party drunk, but like we should all keep an eye on this guy drunk. He was yelling at everyone, ‘Wilkes Barre Represent!’ and throwing up the west-side hand sign. I mean, it was all a bunch of white kids, but still, it was Philly…. It seemed pretty ill-advised. Everyone was relieved when he passed out behind the couch in the living room, until it became clear he pissed himself. I recall someone rolling him up in a carpet and putting him out in the backyard, where he slept the sleep of the innocent.”

“You put him outside?” She was laughing, but still seemed disturbed by my indifference.

“I mean, I didn’t… but I didn’t do anything about it either. I guess because he was so obnoxious. I figured it was, somehow, natural consequences.”

“Wow, I mean, throwing up gang-signs at a white kid party is pretty lame,” she made a tough guy face and made a ‘W’ with her hand. I gave a half laugh, trying to think of something else to say.

“I brought you something,” she said and smiled. “I figured you don’t get the real stuff down here….”

“Well, then it’s got to be beer or maple syrup,” I said, feeling embarrassed by the gesture.

She reached into her oversized bag and pulled out a half-gallon of “Vermont Fancy Grade” maple syrup.

“Thank you,” I said, “you really didn’t have to.”

“I know, but I know how much you love the stuff. When you were there you practically lived off that and beer. I thought about bringing you both, but I figure you needed this more.”

“It’s amazing I managed to live through the last year without contracting diabetes.”

I stirred the remainder of my coffee nervously. The plain waitress came around and filled my cup, but I could tell they were trying to close the place for the night. She asked in a suggestive tone if we needed anything else, while the busboys scrambled back and forth collecting dishes and wiping down tables. Lindsey became awkward and silent as we waited for our checks.

“Do you want to get a beer somewhere?” she asked, sheepishly. I could tell that, what meaningless conversation we had managed to have at this diner was not satisfying. I could tell she had something important she wanted to say.

We closed out our bills, and I followed her into Hazelton. It seemed all the bars were already closed, but we finally found one that was open. We parked up the street on a block that was now devoid of buildings, but looked like it had not always been. The bar itself was a strange sort of place. There appeared to be a private lounge in the front, and in the back there was a dancehall blaring Latin music. We must have been two of maybe seven people there, and were clearly out of our element in every way. We sat down and ordered beers, the selection of which ranged from domestic light beers to domestic lagers. There were more choices of liquor, but mostly of the plastic bottle variety. The room was full of mirrors and lit only with red lights.

We tried to talk, but the music was too loud. Even small talk was impossible. We sat ever closer, shouting in each other’s ears.

“How are your housemates?” I asked.

“What?”

“How are your housemates?”

“Good. They are good.”

“What?”

“Good.”

“Jesus.”

“What the fuck is this place?”

“What is what?”

“This fucking place.”

“It’s fucking impossible. Do you ever look back on your life and wonder, how the fuck did I get here?”

“Oh my god yea.”

After a while my voice became hoarse. All the inflection of tone, the subtext that actually informs conversation was lost. But, I enjoyed the complete absurdity of it. I didn’t belong here, I would never be back. It was funny. I started to laugh, maybe more heartily than I should have.

“You have a strange sense of humor,” she yelled.

“I know. I don’t even get it myself. This is all hilarious to me. I can’t tell you how many times in the last year I thought I must have died and gone to hell. This is proof of it. I’ve been trying to pin point the moment. I think it was in the car, with my maniac boss in Vermont. We were driving north on 7, towards Rutland. She crossed the double yellow to pass a slow car. I think she thought it would impress all the young men she had as captives in her car. We were all so tired of her trying to be flirtatious and she was desperate for attention. I closed my eyes when she passed that car, because one of those big, lifted, diesel pick-up trucks… you know, with the Cummings engines… one of those was barreling towards us. She didn’t back down. I closed my eyes and waited to hear that dull and yet sharp smashing sound… that sound that is unique to car wrecks. I waited and it never came. I think that’s the moment I had died.”

Lindsey was laughing, but also had a confused look, like she had caught maybe half of what I said.

“I think I am dead now,” I repeated. “I am dead and this place is hell. That’s why they have all the red lights.”

“You are definitely right about the lights.”

“I want to be witty, like Oscar Wilde. You know, when he was dying, he said ‘Either the wallpaper goes or I do,’ and just died. That’s nothing on Dylan Thomas. His last words were, ‘I’ve had 18 straight whiskies…. I think that’s got to be a record.’ Then he just collapsed on the pavement in New York City, out in front of the White Horse Pub. I’ve been there. I’ve drank there. I wish I had died there. But, that’s not the point…. The point is, you have to imagine him saying the words with his Welsh accent. It makes sense. I’d want to have something like that to say, right now, in case I died. But, as I’m already dead, I’ve missed the chance.”

I took advantage of how loud it was to just say the absurd things I usually kept to myself. The things that nobody really finds funny, but will laugh at if they have to…. I didn’t care, and I knew she could only hear half of it, and would laugh because she was in love with me. But, it made things worse. I was not in love with her. I didn’t want her love. I wanted her to go back to Vermont, and to live happily with somebody that deserved somebody nice.

She tried to be absurd too. To prove, I guess, that she could hang with my own madness…. But, at the end of the day, she was a nice person, not a crazy person. I had no desire in pulling someone else over to my side. There are enough cracked fuckers in the world, let there at least be a few nice ones too. I had seen too much to be nice. I think that’s the difference. The more you see of life, the shittier you become… to yourself, to others. It doesn’t matter.

“This reminds me of Tim and Eric,” she said.

“Who are Tim and Eric?”

“It’s a show. Look at the couple dancing. He just, like, passed out in her arms. She is holding him up. Is she saving face? For us?”

I looked over my shoulder. There was a middle aged couple. He had a pleather jacket on over a flannel and blue jeans. His eyes were closed, and his body appeared to be half-slumped over, resting its weight on the woman’s shoulder. She was heavy-set and wearing a mini skirt. She was rocking him back and forth to the music. The pair looked like something you’d see in a Wal-mart at 1 am.

“Oh she is saving face alright,” I said. “She has been waiting her whole life for the perfect moment to save face.”

For a moment we didn’t speak. I started a starring contest with my beer, wondering when it would start. When there would be serious talk. I imagine I made a rather morose sight, because she tried to put her arm around me. I don’t know if it was an attempt at being romantic or just her way of trying to cheer me up.

“Please don’t,” I said.

She stopped, looking shocked… like I had just stabbed her in the stomach. I could see her eyes welling up, but she tried to control it. She looked ahead. Now we were both morose.

“Look,” I started. “A lot has changed since the summer.”

“I know,” she said submissively.

“I can’t do that now. I mean, you live in Vermont for one,” I tried to reason.

“Let’s just go,” she said. She was right, this was no kind of place to have any kind of serious talk. We settled up and went out into the cold. There was a north wind blowing in our faces and even an occasional flurry fell. It seemed fitting…. The whole town looked like it could fall over. The streets were desolate. You could tell it used to be some kind of Main Street at some point, but that people left…. There were empty shop windows and a boarded up movie theater, and the big, open, empty block where our cars were parked.

“I could move back, you know?” she said.

“I wouldn’t advise it.”

“Why not? I used to live here before.”

“Why would you want to live here?” I asked incredulously. She looked at me like a lost puppy dog, her eyes welling up again. This time she started to cry. “You can’t move back, there is nothing here. I promise you it’s better where you are.”

“I know what it’s like,” she said. “I used to live here. I know what it’s like.”

We stopped at my car and looked at each other. I knew this was it, whether she did or not. I went to hug her and she gripped me tight. I could feel her sobbing, her whole body shaking. When I pulled away she hesitated. She moved like she was going to kiss me, but I stopped her. “I can’t,” I said. She pulled away from me, turned and ran to her car. I stood there, motionless… transfixed. I watched her get in her car. She sat there for a while, crying, I imagine.

After what felt like a few minutes, I turned, head sunken, and walked the rest of the way to my car. I got in and waited until I saw her drive away.

 

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The Silence (older story)

The phone rang from the kitchen. I heard it ringing, but pretended not to. When it stopped there was only silence. I sat alone with it in the living room. The ringing began again, wrenching the silence rom the room. It was Marie. I could tell before she spoke. She was wimpering and when she did finally say hello she sounded uncertain, as though the word were a question.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Frank is dead,” She said. Then the silence returned. I never knew what people wanted me to say. It seemed like an expected inevitability.

“Are you okay?” I asked. “Do you need anything?”

“No.” I assumed she meant it for both questions.

“How did it happen?”

“They don’t know. He was fine one day… then…. It had something to do with the tractor. They found him with the tractor overturned.” She started to cry. I was tired and didn’t say anything.

“I just can’t believe it. It isn’t real,” she said.

Perhaps it never would be, I thought. I waited for years for my grandmother’s death to seem real. I waited a long time and it never happened. She just slowly disappeared, and memories became benign.

“I feel like I’ve lost part of myself. He taught me who I was,” she said, as though she had now become something else. Maybe she had. I suppose death will do that.

I had stopped worrying about the dead long ago. Instead, I carried the silence with me. It’s a lucky thing for all those who can cry it away in one momentous outburst, or those who could drink it away. But I had to carry it around….

It never much mattered to me when one man died. Then he became like every other man. There is nothing to distinguish one dead man from another…. And that’s what I’ve carried around. That, and I knew it was never far away from any of us.

 

Marie was drinking. She said it helped to numb the pain…. It helped her to forget more quickly… because nothing is ever as painful as remembering.

“I have to go and see him,” she said. “I wish you were here. I wish you could go with me.” Then she asked me if I thought it was okay for her to take off from work.

“You’ll have to,” I told her.

She told me about how they had found him there in the field… alone. Kathy, his wife, kneeled down beside him and whispered, “I lost the love of my life.” I could only think that I should be so lucky when I died.

When we hung up Marie was still crying, but she was calm now. I knew that it was the alcohol. In a few hours she would be inconsolable.

The silence filled the room again, and I was alone with it. The cat was begging for food. He looked orange in the lamplight. I have always been able to deal with it when people go, I thought. That was life. But I couldn’t imagine being without my cat. He left during the day and came back each night, and we were both happy when he would curl up warm in my lap.

I didn’t want to be at home with the silence. Somehow it felt too heavy, and in it I couldn’t turn off my thoughts. Outside it was cold, and the dim, orange haze of the arc lights lit up the wrinkled fall leaves. I could see them shiver when the wind blew through them, and I could hear them shaking and falling to the ground.

On 19th street the lights were on at the theater and across the street in the cafe. I went to see what was playing, but there was nothing. I went across the street, sat down and ordered pernod. There were only the waiter and the maitre de. They talked quietly while I sipped the drink. I sat at the window, but nobody was passing in the street. I had another pernod and paid up. I could see the waiter and the maitre de closing when I left.

The silence followed me out into the street. I could feel it following my steps, even as I passed down the alley. It was dark and the arc lights threw hard shadows across the ground and the red-brick walls. There was a dog barking somewhere far off, but it only barely broke through the silence in the autumn wind.

I found myself on Tighlman Street, outside of a bar. A man coughed. He smelled drunk. The cold started to chill me. It was a penetrating cold and hurt in my bones…. I kept thinking I was lost, though I knew I’d been there before.

I walked home and thought of Marie. I felt badly for her. She was taking it badly. She could not take the silence, it reminded her of how close it was.

In the house there was nothing. The door creaked and the sound echoed against the empty walls. There was the sound of rubber treads drifting across the floor…. There was nothing in the living room. I sat down in my chair. A pattering sound crossed the hall. The cat turned the corner and trilled sleepily, shaking his back leg as he brushed himself against the door frame. He leaped up into my lap, and I watched him as his eyes closed. He grew warm and soon he was asleep.

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CMOS (Prose)

Be more aware of closed circuit television. It’s everywhere… Beware…. It’s on every street corner, where old tired hands shake change cups, and grizzled throats gurgle out, “spare any change?” along steam vents…. It’s watching on the elevated train as the city rumbles past in brown-gray streaks…. A thousand tired, empty faces, clamor here and there, in the hours that make long shadows along the gray, paved sidewalks…. Is anybody watching?

 

Inevitably we are the product of that which surrounds us. It’s hardly any wonder, then, that we’ve all become such shameless exhibitionists… voyeurs…. Just the other day I saw a young man sitting out in front of Tuttleman Hall, with sunglasses on, and his collar  popped, reading Simone De Bouvoir… holding the book so that all and sundry could read the cover…. Like he meant for everyone to read the cover. I couldn’t help but imagine that he’d posed this way. Did he know he was on television? Was he projecting his best self for the cameras? Do they have a whole channel, somewhere, of such things? Drifting… Plotless… Reading and smoking a cigarette… Withdrawing twenty dollars from the ATM on Broad Street, then buyiing a hot-dog from a street vendor…. Waiting on line in the unemployment office…. Sitting in traffic on the Walt Whitman Bridge, watching the sunset behind the dark, silver buildings.

 

I get this terrible feeling that, if it weren’t for all those cameras everywhere, I’d have disappeared long ago. That perhaps I’d have disappeared already…. Only I can still see my reflection in the plate-glass out in front of the National Bank, looking like some pale ghost against the gray, steel monoliths, and City Hall with all its statues of men on horseback, and Benjamin Franklin always watching the crowd pass under the archways, and listening to William Penn’s clock tower striking the  hours. It’s six… I’ve been sitting here for three hours, watching the lifeless, soulless bodies, drag along the pavement, eyes hollowed out, as if the life had been beaten out of them. Nothing left…. Just the reticent, mournful glances of those looking into a future, which looks exactly the same as the present, and is yet so distinguishable from the Plutonic dreams one had had of it in the past. And all these bodies will go on boarding trains in the hours that make long shadows… and scheduling… and measuring out the endless mornings and afternoons, until evening comes with restless sleep… All of it like a snake ingesting its own tail.

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Rezanoff Drive (edited)

I can no longer remember certain things about the past. Faces dissolve…. A gentle touch… gone… like a candle blown out by the wind. There are still shapes in the fog…. A sort of lingering form in the darkness. I can still remember the disjointed rattling of the el train as it passes by my window. I can still remember the sensation of familiar voices in the street… scenes of sidewalks buttressed with snow, and cars buried underneath… smoothed over by the dim orange street lights. These things remain with me.

The time is gone to me now… beyond reach. Yet, its remembrance is suffused with rich melancholic hues…. It all seems better, or at least easier, to forget. Ideas, like pages ripped out and cast into flames, have dissipated… their effect no longer distinct, their totality lost. Only corners… disjointed corners remain. But, I still feel their importance… with all the desperation of one caught in a flood.

All these places have merged in my remembrance…. An alleyway, still cobbled, at the edge of the black-top, in Philadelphia… or San Francisco. A motel room, the walls yellow from smoke, the TV glowing with white noise… somewhere in the north woods. An apartment looking over Broad or Main Street. A bar, caddie-corner, where formless crowds mill about smoking cigarettes. A path in the woods… up some New England mountain or other… gnarled tree roots, bent, jutting out from the eroding earth… Brown leather shoes, pacing inflexibly across the ashen grey sidewalk, casting long shadows across the illuminated pavement. I cannot remember, anymore, if this is me.

I have rest my weary head too many places. They have all become the same upon waking, and I no longer know one from the other. Each seems unlikely… too much like a dream… and I am troubled by the lost time.

I am restless now, and I wish to repeat certain things… if only to be sure they are real. I don’t know how much longer any of this may go on… how much longer I will be taken with these visions. After all, it was ten years ago, perhaps…. I’m no longer sure… perhaps it never was. It seems a ghost to me now….

 

*

 

I had been living near the ocean… at the far end of Rezanoff, near Fort Abercrombie. For weeks on end it would rain. I can still see the dense fog, the mountains lost behind it… the eerie, constant turning of the wind turbines on Barometer Peak… the puttering engine of the 4 pm plane coming in.

Kodiak was an isolating place. Only really Coast Guard and fishermen. I would walk up Rezanoff to the bar, drizzling rain ever falling… the wide streets illuminated by the sickly, overcast white-nights. In the square, ancient looking Alutiiqs lined up around the welfare office… faces neither menacing nor friendly… almost amorphous in the shiftless fog.

The bar was filled with dim light and bearded men lining the counter drinking pints. The fishing ships hadn’t yet put out for the late summer salmon runs, and all the men got drunk while waiting.

When the fog broke enough, from the wind coming in off bay, you could just make out the blue domes and triple crosses, of the Church of the Holy Resurrection. It’s one of the oldest Orthodox Churches in the United States…. A reminder of who got here first. There seemed to be a lingering presence of the Russian Empire on the archipelago… hermetic cabins, deep in the woods, emblazoned with the triple cross…. Monks in long robes and Rasputin beards pacing the grounds. The only thing truly American were the sailors.

Somehow, Aida was always present at the bar. She was 22, with dark hair and fair, freckled skin. Her eyes were light blue, almost grey like the fog. Her husband was a fisherman. I kiddingly asked her once; “how do you put up with the smell of dead fish when he comes home.”

“He stinks like money,” she said.

She was the kind of woman who had grown up around men, so she tried to be tough like the men. She would cut firewood in her husband’s absence, even refusing her father’s help. She was fiercely independent, in a way many people only pretend to be.

 

Growing up in Alaska was a tough life, I gathered…. Once, while we walked the trails on Near Island, she told me about how her father had been a fisherman. While out in the Gulf of Alaska, his boat was capsized from a stiff, high-pressure wind. This was common. Overnight the cool air would build around the Chugash mountain peaks on the mainland. The chinook winds would channel down the steep hollows, blowing across the gulf at over a hundred miles an hour. All the fisherman knew this; they said you could see it a long way off…. But, by the time you’d see it, it was too late…. His boat got caught, nets in the water, with a heavy load on the wrong side.

The coast guard called Aida, asking if she knew any reason why his emergency beacon might have sent out the signal…. “Some reason that would not be an emergency, you mean?” She asked the dispatcher. She suggested, strongly I imagine, that they mobilize the search.

For three days, she didn’t know whether he was dead or alive. When he came home, he didn’t bother to buy another boat. He became a welder. The only one on the island.

 

She was standing in the background, on the other side of the bar, talking tough with the sailors—most of whom, it seemed, knew her father. When she noticed me, she smiled and waved…. She was wearing the kind of knee-high rubber boots the fishermen wore at sea, a thick gray sweater and a beanie. I had remembered seeing an old photograph of Ernest Hemingway dressed the same…. I waved back but didn’t go over. When she finished the conversation, she came around the bar to where I was sitting.

“Why so glum, chum?” She joked in a hoarse, raspy voice… patting me on the back the way working men do.

“I’ve decided to leave,” I said, almost ignoring her attempt at humor, but cracking a half-smile to let her know I had caught the attempt.

“I can’t say I’m terribly surprised,” she said. “But why are you sad then? I thought you wanted to go home…”

“I always get sad leaving,” I said. “Circumstances don’t matter. It’s like all the things you take for granted, or fail to fully appreciate, remind you they’re there….”

“It’s not like you’ve been particularly happy here…. Won’t it be better?”

“Yes, I’m sure it will be…. Once I get over it.”

“Tell you what, I’ll write you letters so you can remember how much this place sucks!” We both laughed, and I took a long drink off my pint.

“It’s been nice to have you around,” she said, looking at me over her glass, which she held in front of her face with both hands.

“Bullshit it has,” I scoffed. “I’m a regular ray of sunshine….”

“No it has. But I understand… You miss your old life… You miss…”

“Yea… Caitlin…. I do miss her.” It was a sore spot. I didn’t really want to talk about it, so I stuck only to what was vaguely true. “Don’t you miss Sam when he goes away?” I asked.

“I do… But I keep myself busy. I don’t let it get me so upset. But, then again, he isn’t 3,000 miles away.”

“No, but what he does is pretty dangerous. Don’t you ever worry that what happened with your dad could happen with him?”

She looked suddenly distant when I said that, and I felt immediately that I shouldn’t have brought it up. It was a journalist’s question… one of disinterested fascination.

“Sorry,” I said.

“No. It’s fine. I just try not to think about it. It’s kind of a way of life around here. If I had a penny for everyone I’ve ever heard of disappearing in a float plane, or not coming back from sea…. But, you get a thick skin… You have to.”

“Yea, I guess so.”

“When do you leave?”

“Tonight’s my last night…. Tomorrow I leave on the 4 pm.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Yea…” I said. I suddenly felt drunk.

I motioned to the bartender and settled up. Aida settled up too. We went out of the bar and wandered around somewhat aimlessly in the fog. I felt nervous somehow, like so much wasn’t being said… like a lot of it shouldn’t be. Sometimes we walked in silence. I could feel her standing next to me without looking at her. It felt strange.

We walked past the church. I admired its Russian domes, all carved of Sitka spruce. “I’ve always liked this place,” I said.

“The island?”

“Well, the island’s nice, but I meant the church. It’s been standing in this place since we were fighting our revolution, bottled up on the other coast. We hardly even knew it was here.”

“It still feels that way sometimes,” she said.

We walked up Kashavaroff and back down Rezanoff towards Mill Bay, where I lived. There was a fog horn resounding somewhere off in the harbor. It reminded me of the Presidio in San Francisco…. All of that seemed so far in the past. Years past.

 

*

 

It was a long time before we came to the house. It was a drab-brown chalet style house, with a wraparound porch and a large window facing the ocean. It appeared to blend in with the Sitka spruce and alder that surrounded it, especially in the fog.

We were shivering and wet. I invited Aida in, to sit by the stove while I packed. She came in and sat down on the bed. We talked intermittently.

“It almost doesn’t seem right,” she started, “that they brought you all the way out here to do a story on the oil spill.”

“What do you mean? Somebody had to write it.”

“Yea, but for three months? That’s long enough to start a life… to start to feel like you belong somewhere.” She drawled the world ‘belong’, as though it held some special significance.

“It’s part of what I do,” I said.

She thought about that a moment. “You don’t ever start to get attached?” She asked.

“I do, but only once I’m about to leave. It has nothing to do with the amount of time…. I’ve missed places and even people after a day with them. Most of them I’ve never seen again…. But, I’ve been doing this for a long time…. I’ve lived in just about every city at one point or another. While I’m there, I never really feel like I belong, per se. I just feel like an interloper…. It’s only right when I’m leaving… then I start to miss everyone…. Before they’re ever even gone really.”

“Have you ever tried to keep in contact with anyone?” She leaned back against the bed and stared up at the ceiling. It seemed like a loaded question.

“No,” I said, kneeling on the floor, fussing with odds and ends… shoving them into my suitcase. “Keeping in contact makes it worse. You’d start to regret where you are and where you have to go…. You’d just wish you were in that place again. I try to only feel that way as long as I have to.”

“I understand.” She said.

She seemed to be somewhere far off…. Thinking of Sam on some boat somewhere, I imagined.

“If you actually did write me, I would write back,” I said, somewhat sheepishly.

“No, nobody writes anymore,” she said. I got up off the floor and sat at the edge of the bed, feeling worn out.

“I have appreciated my time here… even if it doesn’t seem like it.” I said. “It’s weird to say. It would’ve been harder if you hadn’t been around… Just a young man trying to talk to a bunch of old fisherman.” A long silence passed between us. The gulf seemed unbridgeable….

 

“I think I got married too young,” she said. “It’s part of this place… part of living here. But then you can’t ever leave.”

“This place seems so much a part of you, I can’t imagine you leaving.” I said.

“I mean it is home… and it’s a hard place to get back to. So I just stay.”

“It must be nice to feel grounded… like there’s a place that’s definitely, solidly home,” I said, trailing off.

 

“What’s Caitlin like?” She asked abruptly, out of the silence. She was still looking up at the ceiling when she spoke, as though she weren’t really talking to me.

“She’s fine,” I said.

“Fine?” she screwed up her eyes a bit… like she couldn’t quite place the remark. After a moment she said, “You seemed to miss her…. Isn’t she the reason you’re such a miserable bastard?”

“No, honestly, it hasn’t been that exactly.”

“You don’t miss her?”

“I do, in a way, but I don’t even know if things are working out,” I said, not really grasping the weight of it. “But, I feel like I should be there… whatever that means.”

“To try and fix it?”

“No…” I said, trying to find the right words. “To try and end it. To try and start over from scratch… find a… place that feels like… home….” I must have sounded a bit cruel, but I had put a lot of thought into that. Things were not going well before I left. They hadn’t improved while I was gone. I wrote her letters, but never got any in return. I started to feel the distance.

“I don’t know, at your age, that you can just find a place that feels like home,” she said. “It doesn’t really work like that…. It takes having had the time to attach all your memories to a place. You don’t get to just make one….

“I grew up here as a kid. All of the sensations of childhood are attached to real places here. I fell in love for the first time here. I had everything happen around this place. I get why not having one would make you feel adrift, but you have to put in the work… and maybe it’s not even work….”

“Sometimes I get to thinking I feel that way about my town, but then I get there and I wonder what the hell made me so homesick. I always think I miss my friends, but none of them live there anymore, or they have jobs and don’t have time anymore…. The things I idealized to myself are all gone. I’ve been to a lot of different places, and none of them felt like home either. I keep hoping one day I’ll just have that feeling, you know? Like the nostalgia you get for a place when you’re idealizing how it used to be. I imagine that to be what home feels like.”

I stopped to gather my thoughts. I didn’t really know what I was talking about anymore. I knew what nostalgia was, what that felt like, but that was it.

Aida was no longer staring at the ceiling. Her eyes had closed, but she wasn’t asleep. I gently touched her shoulder, pretending to try and wake her. It seemed like the best way to break the silence. She reached up and trailed her hand along my arm, until it reached my shoulder. She pulled me towards her. I stiffened and pulled away weakly. “What about Sam?” I whispered. She pulled me more urgently and kissed me deeply.

 

*

 

In the night, she left while it was still foggy. I wanted her to stay until I had to go, but I understood that she wouldn’t… or couldn’t. When the light came up, I went to the café for the last time, and watched the morning plane come in. I decided to climb Barometer one more time. It was early August, but already it smelled like fall. There was a persistent chill to the air. The peaks, which remained snow-capped year round, had received a fresh coating overnight. I got up to the snowline, and it became difficult to walk in the slushy wet snow.

From the top you could see all of Old Womens Bay. It was a clear-blue day. The blue was punctuated only by the white-caps, which went on as far as you could see. Out past the town there was nothing. No roads, no houses… just mountains, alpine meadows and stunted Sitka spruce. Looking out at it was like looking at the farthest reach of civilization.

 

*

 

The plane came in on time. I watched it swing around the mountains, wobbling back and forth on its wings. I had hoped Aida might come to the airport to see me off, but she didn’t. I knew there wouldn’t be any letters. I just hoped to say goodbye. To stamp something firm and final on the whole thing.

The plane took off at five. I took a seat by the propeller, so I could watch that tiny island disappear.

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Solitude (prose)

Solitude. What a thing… So rare it has become amongst us. And, yet to say that I have missed you, old friend. I would not say that…. No, and yet, your  presence is not a thing so foul is it? At times I would even argue that you are necessary in a man’s life…. But… if it weren’t for the nasty, heavy and worst of all silent sadness you seem to keep in your  company…. But what would I know of company. I am only company to… excuse me… accompanied by my madness. I’d have give into my despair. I’d have…. But no, solitude, at this hour… go… you are not welcome in this house. Such a terrible and awful thing you are to me now.

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Three Poems

  1. THE WORKING MAN IS DEAD

The working man is  dead.

His grave is marked by the empires of steel and gray slabs of highway, stretching on into the horizon.

He beat his iron helmet into the ground on the shores of Manhattan, and cut out of town on the Staten Island Ferry: $5 Transfer.

He saw the twilight glimmer in the gray, ashen coal fields of the Panther Valley, and collapsed under his own weight in the rusted heaps of Carnegie mills in Braddock and Pittsburgh.

His wheels ceased to grind against the miles of abandoned track in Altoona, where Carter thrust his hands into the air, shouting Bon Voyage.

He perished in Detroit, amid rumors of a Japanese takeover.

He was run out of air traffic control towers in D.C., and replaced on the docks of Baltimore by the mechanical crane.

He was speculated out of Texas oil rigs and drowned before he reached the shores, where Washington timber fell no more.

He got beat out  from the Nebraska divide and the Oklahoma dust bowl, by tractors that felt the land with neither hands nor feet, but rolled over it with cold indifference.

Now the hollow skeletons of factories adorn the cities, and valleys, and shorelines…

Emptied out,  where invisible men once walked…

Rusted,

Falling in,

With vines rising up out of the foundations,

And the epitaph on the walls of Bethlehem Steel…

“NEVERMORE…”

 

 

2. EMPTY PROMISES

The threat stood

As it were…

An empty promise.

Veiled, like a funeral drone

A death hymn.

We stood before the wall

I naked and she clothed and adorned with wreaths.

Still, perpetual.

The dawn lingering

Like heavy smoke…

My eyes reddening and like glass.

 

3. NIGHT

I want to have nights like that

Walking the streets in silence

Listening to the snow fall

Waiting for everything to disappear

Waiting for everything to be covered.

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The Vacation (An older story)

They drove for a long time through the hills, along a steep, winding road. The young woman drove and the young man dozed in the passenger seat, watching fields of feed corn and cow pastures drifting lazily past. It was afternoon and the overcast sky had grown threatening. By the time they had come upon a place to stop for lunch, there were already drops falling on the windshield.

“It might be good to stop here,” the young man suggested. “Maybe then the rain will pass.”

The woman said nothing, but scowled at the sky.

“Is something the matter?” The young man asked.

“No.”

He looked forward and scowled too.

“It will ruin our trip,” she said.

“What?”

“The rain.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, as though he half meant it. She threw a viscous glance at him, but he turned away to look out the passenger window. “Can’t change the weather.”

“Isn’t there somewhere else we could go?”

“Let’s just have lunch.”

 

It finally started to rain. It was a heavy, sweet-smelling rain. The kind that falls as the seasons change in early autumn. They went inside, where there was a small cafe and a sleepy waiter who showed them to their table.

“I don’t like our waiter,” she said, when he went away.

“He’s fine,” said the young man.

“I think he’s lazy.” She eyed him suspiciously.

“Perhaps.”

“Where are we going after this?”

“I don’t know. Maybe the rain will stop.”

“What will we do if it doesn’t stop?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Well, we can’t go home,” she said.

The young man looked down at the floor. “Where do you want to go?” He asked.

“I wish we could just go home.”

“But it’s our last night.”

“Why can’t you just come and stay with me?” She asked.

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I’m going to the service.”

“Damn the service.”

They sat there a long time in silence, she staring at him, he staring at the floor. They said nothing until the waiter came for their drinks.

“I don’t like this place,” she said.

“It’s fine.”

“I don’t like this whole place.”

“Where do you want to go?”

“Anywhere else.”

“It’s the only place I know.”

“I know, but I don’t like it.”

The waiter came back with the drinks and the man looked up and thanked him. He took a long drink and went back to looking silently at the floor.

“What about after the service?” She asked.

“I don’t know.”

“And you want me to just wait for you?”

“You can do what you’d like, but I’ll wait for you,” he said.

“Well, then, what about after the service?”

“How can I know about that?”

“Will you come to live with me?”

“I will try,” he said.

“How?”

“I don’t know.”

“This will never work,” she said, exasperated.

“Maybe not.”

“And aren’t you upset?”

“Yes, I guess so.”

“You guess so?”

“These things happen.” He said. He looked out the window, where the rain was letting up and the sun was now shinning low over the distant mountaintops. They didn’t talk for some time. At last he said, “It’s clearing up.” The young woman didn’t reply. “We can go on with our trip,” he said.

The waiter came at last with their food. Again the young man looked up to thank him. By this time there was another couple who had come to eat. They were older and the waiter seated them across from the young man and the young woman. Both couples were silent, and the young man and the young woman ate their food without conversation. When they left they could see the waiter yawning as he took the older couple’s order. The car was wet, even as the sun beat down heavily over the red paint. Without speaking they got in and drove away.

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