Category Archives: divorce

Pretzels & Chocolate, a poem

jim-valvis

PRETZELS & CHOCOLATE

(rented room, cigarettes)

I am eating pretzels
and they are hard
but splinter into salty crumbs

with the merest bite
they only satisfy
part of my tongue

(rented room, cigarettes)

so I pick up the chocolate
greedy for it to melt
against my palate

sucking the firm square
feeling it mold to me
the way I imagine

my body molds to yours

(rented room, cigarettes)

retaining the character of sweetness
to complement the salt
to balance my mouth

I am eating chocolate
thinking of us
together

(rented room, cigarettes)

illustration mockingbird mimus polyglottos

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Kim Davis v. Pope Francis, an essay

illustration kim davis pope francis essay

Kim Davis. Pope Francis. Spirituality. Religion. Compare and contrast. I humbly speak of God to you as you may define him, or her, or them, or it… the way you, as an individual human being making important life decisions define what is good and what is bad… the way you, in your heart, define that force, that energy, that life-giving PRESENCE we have all, at some point in our lives, experienced with joy, or with wonder, or with fear, or with feeling all three of those things simultaneously. No religion carries with it a monopoly on definitions of ethical and unethical behavior!

Kim Davis, professedly a “Christian,” is literally crying with joy over unilaterally discriminating against LGBT people. While at the same time she professes to love “God’s people” with all her heart & soul! Who is Kim Davis to tell anyone, anywhere, whether they are one of “God’s people??” Tell me, what is the difference between Kim Davis & any other extreme religious fundamentalist — whether Zoroastrian, Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, Christian, Muslim, or Baha’i, et cetera? In my opinion, each and every religion spawns its own internal sets of believers who proclaim their personal religion to be the “true,” and therefore the “only,” religion!

For example, extremely fundamentalist Buddhists sometimes enclose themselves into a tomb to starve themselves to death, after spending the previous two years eating only the most rudimentary plant matter — I’m talking bark & leaves! While they are enclosed in that living tomb, they ring a bell every morning to communicate to the world they are still alive. When the bell does not sound, the remaining monks wait a specified number of days, before opening the tomb. Then the naturally mummified (from self-imposed starvation!) human bodies are exhibited as the bodies of saints, or whatever “saints” are called by Buddhists.

It is this sort of practice which has formed my opinion that extreme, literal fundamentalist religion is almost always horrible. It brings out the worst in people, not the best. “Zero tolerance” rules and judgments and penalties, when robotically applied to the human condition, create the opposite of love, the opposite of peace, the opposite of compassion. Extreme, literal, fundamentalist religion is, in essence, a form of necrophilia — summarily dictating to others that religion is dead, carved in stone, that religion cannot evolve, cannot change, when it must. And religion MUST change when faced with new, and undeniable, scientific discoveries, rapidly evolving technology, and physical, planetary changes — all three of which result in “earthquakes.”

These scientific and cultural and literal “earthquakes” bring with them frightening shifts in the primary causes of human suffering. Shifts which must now be dealt with using something more than ancient, beautifully written, but now outdated, and therefore “mummified,” religious, doctrinal texts.

Pope Francis is a good example of someone who is at the opposite end of the spectrum from an extreme, literal fundamentalist. He seems to be actually speaking out against the largest, most pressing, environmental and social evils we currently face. Kim Davis is an equally good example at the fundamentalist end of the spectrum — someone who is not, in any real sense of the word, a spiritual person. She seems to me to be simply an authoritarian, judging person who understands little about love, the human condition, our planet, the vastness of the universe, or the mysterious, ultimately unknowable nature of God.

And I, for one, am already heartily sick of hearing about her.

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Filed under adultery, baha'i, born again, buddhist, christian, civil rights, divorce, gay marriage, hindu, hypocrisy, jewish, kim davis, lgbt, pope francis, religion, spirituality, zoroastrian

Night-Blooming Jasmine, a poem

illustration night blooming jasmine

Night Blooming Jasmine, a poem

After dark, anything could happen – each

moment was disconnected from the last.

There was no logical progression to our lives:

most events had the dramatic essence of a car

accident. One evening, my mother decided

to sneak out my bedroom window when my

stepfather cut her off. He was drunk himself,

but for some reason decided she shouldn’t have

more Scotch. I remember her butt, in white

nylon undies, decorating the center of my open

window. I both fretted and hoped that she might

fall and hurt herself. Another night, my stepfather

decided it was time to throw all the pillows away,

including mine, because to him they smelled like

“horse piss.” My mother followed, protesting

loudly, wrestling him for the pillows. She lost:

the pillows went into the garbage cart. This

happened in our front yard, on a warm night scented

with night-blooming jasmine. I watched the two

drunken grown-ups, distancing myself from the scene.

I watched it like a T.V. show or a movie. When

I try to tell people about these things now, I can’t

keep a straight face. The laughter chokes me,

renders me unable to speak. I am silenced.

They’re both long dead now… but I’m still here.

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Filed under addiction, adult children of alcoholics, ancient history, anger, child abuse, child neglect, childhood, divorce, poetry

Lilies of the Field, a short story

illustration lilies of the field

Lilies of the Field, a short story

Harry: Boy With Car

In the picture, Harry leaned back on his car, his arms crossed over his chest, tautly, the muscles bulging underneath his white T-shirt. He wore sunglasses and his hair was blown back off his forehead, as if from great speed. The car was a ‘57 Chevrolet, bright blue, brand new. He’d just left his mother’s house to live with a girlfriend, not Joanna — he didn’t meet Joanna for another 10 years. For a long time, he subsisted off a series of dead-end jobs and girlfriends while masquerading as a college student. The women he lived with all had a few things in common: uneducated but bright, a love of dogs, and perky telephone voices. They leaned against him in the front seat when he drove fast and their hair whipped his forehead. He was confident in those days, nothing had ever broken him. He had not yet been given the gift of suffering.

Joanna: The Queen of Grief

Joanna, in a state of grief and intoxication, returning from her grandmother’s funeral, sat in an automatic photo booth in Atlanta, eyes closed, lips pursed, head tilted back, her skin glowing white, her face blurred, too high to be captured on film. She met Harry in the local airport when she got home. He was intoxicated also, and was leaving to report to the Marines. She gave him her address and phone number and one of the blurry photos. He kept the picture in his wallet and called her every day, collect, from boot camp. She lay awake all night thinking about him, reciting romantic poetry into a tape recorder, then sent him the tape. She was disappointed in love before, but only by herself. She was cold and polite while others were warm and fumbling. How did one love another, anyway? She was, at heart, a hermit, but too much of a coward to live as one. It made for a tumultuous love life.

If Wishes Were Fishes

Harry sat in profile on the edge of a riverbank, his hair dripping forward over his forehead, his shoulders hunched, wearing red bathing trunks, and his black boots lying on his crumpled clothing. He refused to look at the camera. A pale straw hat had fallen off his head and lay directly behind him. The day was bright and clear. He was home from the Marines after 8 weeks, having been excused on medical grounds. He phoned Joanna upon his return. He lived in his car until he moved in with her. Harry said he despised her money and wished she were penniless. Secretly, he realized it didn’t hurt that all the bills were paid regardless of what else was happening. He took to collecting glass paperweights, and Joanna bought one for him everywhere she went. Gradually, Harry started to acquire her taste in champagne.

Woman with Drugs

Joanna stood on a wolf skin rug over a floral Persian carpet, in front of a lace curtain. Her dress reached the floor, white, with puffed sleeves, taken in at the waist by a narrow belt with a small bow. She held a sprig of marijuana in her left hand. Her hair was dark red, her lips painted scarlet. Her skin was only slightly darker than her dress and the curtain. Flowers were scattered in front of her feet on the wolf-fur. Harry was behind the lens, mocking the Impressionists. He admitted to himself for the first time that he was glad Joanna had money, though he would still love her if she were penniless.   He was the opposite of a snob — he made Joanna feel guilty that her family had taken advantage of his by accumulating more than they’d needed. The shadow of her money hung over them like a disused, rotting gallows.

Drawing the Line

Harry and Joanna were dancing. He had his arm tightly about her waist. She wore a red hat and looked away from him, over her right shoulder at the ground. He asked her to marry him, and she refused. He kept asking, and in a year she got pregnant and said yes. She didn’t believe in abortion. He began to ask her to put some part of her assets in his name, for the child’s sake. She refused. He accused her of frivolous spending and waste. She took an extended trip across the country with the baby, leaving Harry at home to care for the dogs. While she was gone, he brought a prostitute home and lived with her for a week. The prostitute wore all of Joanna’s lingerie and jewelry, but Harry didn’t let her sleep in their bed. When Joanna returned, Harry had drunk half a bottle of whiskey and vomited on the kitchen floor.

Acquisition

Joanna stood in the yard wearing a blue silk windbreaker. It was bitter cold and windy. Her hair obscured her eyes. Both she and Harry felt like he was taking her picture for a “wanted” poster. The baby screamed while Harry took the photos. In the beginning, Harry had wanted Joanna to make him feel real, rooted, and loved, to have all the accoutrements of material wealth without having to actually acquire them himself. To acquire material wealth, oneself, was such a tiresome prospect. After all, thought Harry, Joanna did not have to acquire it herself, she got it from her family. Now he’d be satisfied if she paid him with a bit of kind attention. She waited patiently for him to commit adultery, not knowing about last year’s whore. Meanwhile, their life in bed had dwindled down to almost nothing. Partly due to his drinking, partly due to her disinterest.

Disposition

Harry sat on a kitchen chair, elbows on his knees, and hands under his chin. He tried to look cute. Joanna pointed the camera at him and smiled, hoping to hide her inner revulsion. The problem was, they never fought about anything specific — they just fought. She wanted Harry to want her in a way better than the way in which she wanted him. A needier, nobler way of wanting — something that would take the whole heart, not just a sad, tacky corner of it, the way she felt wanting Harry occupied hers. Unfortunately, Harry didn’t seem capable of neediness and nobility, no more capable than she. How much money would Harry want, she wondered? She had an appointment with a lawyer in the morning. Joanna had been lonely when they met. If she expected comfort from Harry, she did not get it. It was too bad about the child, it was always too bad about that.

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Filed under divorce, fiction, mama, marriage, relationships, short stories

Inside A Red Heart, a short story

illustration inside a red heart

Inside A Red Heart, a short story

Ella’s life hadn’t always been like this. It was hurricane season, always the worst part of the year, but especially so this time. The cheap, post-divorce apartment Ella had moved to had flimsy sprayed-Styrofoam interior walls so thin she felt she could easily stick a pencil through them. The doors felt like balsa-wood, so hollow and weightless she couldn’t even slam them when she got mad, only sweep air currents through the frames. The rooms were carpeted wall-to-wall in a sticky celery-green shag which she could not bring herself to walk on barefoot. Hurricane preparations were meaningless in such a place, like diamond jewelry on a dying prostitute.

But today, Hurricane Naomi was 52 miles offshore, moving steadily along a stubborn, eerily direct path toward Ella’s apartment, when her father decided they’d better start getting ready, taping the windows. “They say this doesn’t help in the slightest,” she told him after finishing the first window, her arms already trembling and aching from reaching high over her head. She wanted to be an eagle, aloft without moving. “Even in a solidly built building,” she added spitefully.

“I don’t care what they say,” he said. “At least it’ll keep the broken glass from taking our eyes out.”

They finished taping over the second set of windows. She looked up at the sky; the brittle palm-fronds rattled and shook like frantic spiders. The bamboo rustled, probably full of rats. Tiny ants raced back and forth over the side of the house in some sort of military maneuver. Dropping hibiscus blossoms had stained the sidewalk red. A crushed bug was what captivated her attention. A sudden gust of cool air rushed over her neck, then after a moment everything stilled and the sun came out from behind the clouds. Against the dirty gray sky it looked abnormally bright.

“You look good in sleeveless tops,” her father said. “You should wear them more often.”

“Since when do you care how I look?” she asked.

“Is that how you usually take a compliment? No wonder you’re single. Forget I said anything,” he said. “Go inside and get the rest of the tape, please.”

 

Ella was mad about everything. Men especially, all the men she’d tried to get along with to no avail. Now, even strange men spitting on the sidewalk made her gag and retch. The phone rang — it was another man trying to sell her something. Listening to his voice on the machine, she decided she didn’t want any more goods or services, ever. She was fully capable of ignoring the outside world for weeks at a time. Finally, when her mailbox was stuffed so full nothing else would fit inside, she’d empty it and burn the contents.

After her divorce, she had refused to bring any of the old furniture from the house, not a stick. Granted, none of it was in such great shape, but she certainly couldn’t afford to buy new. Instead, she slept on a clammy air mattress for months, kept her clothes in cardboard boxes. Friends told her she was an idiot for not taking everything she could get from that tiresome lying hypocrite she’d married, but she just glared and shook her head, pressing her stubborn mouth against her teeth so hard her lips bleached white. Nobody knew how she managed to pay the rent or bring home groceries on what she made. Flying bullets couldn’t have been any more stressful than this, she thought.

There was a vague analogy between Ella and the rest of the world, that was all. She tried to understand men, but couldn’t quite manage it: they spoke, their lips moved, and sound issued forth, untranslatable. How was it they rose out of bed every morning so chipper? She was missing something they had. She navigated through her day like a ballerina dancing on broken glass.

When they’d finished taping the windows, her father poured a second cup of coffee for both of them. Breakfast consisted of coffee with plenty of cream. There was the long day to get through, then they were going fishing that night off the pier. They would stop at the bait shop for a bucket of shrimp and they would get ice cream cones — mint chocolate chip — and they would sit with their poles and wait for a nibble. Every now and then, without intending to, they’d sideswipe the truth.

He was visiting Ella for a week. He lived down in the Keys now, where he had always wanted to live; he loved to fish. Her mother had died three years ago, totally unexpected. No cancer for her, just a heart attack, plain and simple. Her parents had been happily married, but as soon as her mother died her father sold the house and went as far away from his past as he could get. Illness, for Ella, was something she would not allow time for, in that way she was exactly like her mother — though Ella wanted a good, solid tomb as a memorial when her time came to be one of the dead.

Her dog growled at her father as he moved his feet under the table. Ella’s crazy dog — he growled at everybody but he didn’t mean anything by it. He had long white whiskers and a moth-eaten coat.

“That damn dog,” her father said.

“I know, Pop,” she said.

“I don’t know why you put up with that,” he said.

“He’s harmless,” she said.

“I suppose he’s a good watchdog,” her father said.

“Not really,” she said. “He only growls when it’s someone he knows.”

“You mean he doesn’t growl at strangers?”

“No.” She laughed. Was he going to find a moral in this somewhere?

“Should I be flattered that he growls at me, then?”

“Sometimes he even growls at me.”

“I wouldn’t keep a dog like that.”

 

Since childhood, she’d loved to watch her father bait fishhooks. His long hands were careful and slow and the deliberateness of his touch delighted her. Not like her — she’d been falling over herself since puberty. Invariably she felt like a nuisance underfoot. She missed the neat quick grace of childhood. Whatever synthesis produced her from her mother’s and her father’s body, she couldn’t now imagine. Her father’s laughter was musical — her mother’s and her own like the braying of an ass. She secretly decided her mother had been cheating on him with someone else when she was conceived.

Until adolescence she’d been a precious little thing — then a hostile barrage of hormones turned her into somebody she didn’t even recognize: braces, knobby knees, confused skin, rebellious hair. To call her a girl was a misnomer of the highest magnitude. Something dark had entered the world along with her own blood the first time she got her period.

Once, in high school, her father had walked in her room without knocking and caught her masturbating; what a shame, he said, if you didn’t have so many pimples you might be able to get a boy to do that for you. His mind, like his body — like his heart — was angular; without softness; without love — he wouldn’t give her a second chance. The walls had zoomed in and out like they were breathing. She remembered the dress she wore, white with red and blue sailboats. Just like a ship being launched, only she kept running aground.

To this day, she wore only plain pearls, believing her skin too pasty to carry color. The only exotic thing about her was the color of her hair. Her hair was the color of rust; decaying iron. Growing up, her father never told her how pretty she was. But one night after a bad dream he took her back to her bed and rubbed her back.

Woken in the middle of the night like that, he was a different person, wordless and gentle. He’d held her so tight she couldn’t inhale. His silent, bulky warmth radiated through her and she wasn’t scared of anything. Everything in her room was painted either blue or green — how was painting any different than telling a story? He started rubbing her arm below the elbow; she was his. She wanted him to touch her underneath her nightgown but he didn’t. It made her feel awful to remember that now.

 

The TV was on with the volume turned down, and she was tracking Naomi on a grocery bag chart. She perched stiff on the couch, uncomfortable in her ragged cutoff shorts. Her father took a chair from the dining table and sat on it turned backwards, leaning toward her, his big perfect hands hanging over the chair’s back, his legs spread out like a cowboy’s. The dog growled from under the table.

“If you died right now,” he said, “you would go straight to Hell because you haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior.” Pop loved his simple theories. He loved his cut-and-dried formulas. From the time her mother had died, her father had become born again and worried far too much about the condition of Ella’s immortal soul.

“How do you know?” she asked. “Isn’t God the only one who can judge a person?”

“It’s very simple,” he said. “Right now you’re a Nonbeliever. Nonbelievers go straight to Hell.”

“Says you,” she said.

“Says God,” he said.

“So according to you I could break every single one of the Ten Commandments, but as long as I accepted Jesus one second before I died, I wouldn’t go to Hell?”

“God’s grace,” he said. “His gift to us. Ask, and you shall be forgiven.”

Her father was telling her to ask for forgiveness! Selling all the gifts he’d ever given her and frittering the money away with nothing to show for it appealed to her. The flowers he sent for her birthday always wilted immediately, anyway.

“So God will forgive me for whatever I’ve done,” she said. “But will you?”

“First, you have to ask,” he said.

 

Hurricane Naomi wouldn’t arrive until tomorrow or the next day. Though at first Ella had looked forward to fishing off the pier, dusk arrived too soon; the coming darkness was like a funeral shroud. Her father drove his old rattletrap pickup truck towards the beach like it was a priceless antique. At the bait shop, they stood in line behind a girl, about 10 or 11, and her mother, also buying bait. The girl got into a silly argument with her mother about what they should buy, what sort of bait. “Shut up,” the girl said to her mother. Ella recoiled. Was there ever a place to be, truly, anonymous?

She remembered a time she’d told her own mother to shut up. Upon hearing, her father had slapped her across the face and broken her glasses. Her skull buzzed for a long time afterward, her jaw aching where the heel of his hand connected. She didn’t believe she’d been the same person at all back then.

She almost never cried in front of him, and especially not then, not about being slapped: she flat-out refused her tear ducts the indulgence. Nothing physical he did could get her crying — he had to use his voice, his drawling sarcasm, to knock her senseless enough for tears. She’d be so ashamed to cry in front of him like a big, blubbering idiot.

But then, getting her fishing pole ready over on the pier, a hook jabbed her finger. She’d been stabbed with hooks before; she didn’t remember it hurting so much. Was the air pressure from the coming hurricane making her stupid? She sucked blood out of the puncture. Her eyes started to sting, her throat to burn. She froze, her body paralyzed by embarrassment. She couldn’t help it, she started to cry, the convulsions shaking her.

“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Is your finger that bad? Let me see.”

“It’s not my finger,” she said, still in the grip of the horrible tears. He took her hand and held it close to his face, peering.

“Doesn’t look that deep,” he said.

“It’s not,” she said. Her nerves were strung out, yes, aptly put — as if her spine had been stretched, her entire body hanging off it in tiny sections which at any moment might start whirling away in terror.

She grabbed his shoulders and stood on tiptoe, leaning into him with all her weight. She kissed him full on the lips, pressing the whole length of her body against him the way she had when she was still too young to know any better, and for once he actually let her. She kissed him as though her life depended on being kissed back. And it did. And he did.

 

He had never told her she was pretty until after her mother died. Family tradition was for the parents to wait, remote icebergs, for warm currents of love to reach them from their children. She didn’t see the harm in that. The truth was, she had always wanted him as much as he wanted her. Tall and silvery-blond, his pool-water blue eyes fringed with gold lashes, he was still handsome for his age. He only smoked those awful cigars when he fished. Since her mother died, he hadn’t so much as looked at another woman, romantically speaking.

Even her ex-husband had been jealous of her father. He, her husband, was smaller than her father in every way measurable, emotionally as well as physically. Her ex-husband was such a small man. He had mewled incessantly about his boundaries, his boundaries — which didn’t keep him from stalking her and her post-marital lovers whenever his feelings were hurt. But if she read his journal, she was guilty of a great crime. What were boundaries, anyway? Even her ex-husband’s new wife was commiserating with Ella now about his smallness.

Too late, Ella had figured out she only got excited by what was forbidden, by a body’s unfamiliarity to her. Anybody like her who chose to marry was making a mistake. Once a thing became familiar, that took all the life out of her desire. She and her string of relative-stranger lovers ate Chinese takeout in bed, soy sauce dripping on their skin, which added another flavor to their mouth play. Fried rice, hot and greasy.

What neither Ella nor her father talked about that night on the fishing pier or any other night was how, way back when, she had left the back door unlocked one day and the baby, Ella’s little brother, had gotten into the backyard unsupervised and drowned in the canal. The water had seemed too shallow for anyone to die in. She was eleven — the next day she bled on her underpants for the first time. She wondered which was the bigger reason her father never looked at her the same way again.

Just now her father’s lips had tasted like his cigars, sour and sweet all at once, when she kissed him. Ella removed herself from his arms only after her skin against his grew slick with perspiration. The two of them finished up their bucket of shrimp after that, but they spoke little and caught nothing worth keeping. Back at her apartment with its ridiculous taped windows, her father began packing his small suitcase. The bellicose dog lay on the armchair across the room, for once not growling. “Damn hurricane,” he said. “Maybe I can get all the way home before they evacuate the island.”

“Are you crazy?” she asked. “You’ll have to leave again as soon as you get there.”

“I don’t think I can stay here tonight,” he said.

“You’re blaming me, aren’t you?” she asked. “Like you always do.”

“It’s not that, Ella,” he answered. “It’s got nothing to do with that.”

She touched his arm, and he flinched, then caught himself. “It was all my fault,” she said.

“No, it wasn’t,” he said. “If you’re asking, I’m answering.” He looked up from his suitcase, and for the first time all day his eyes looked old and tired. “Please don’t ask me to stay,” he said.

 

At midnight she sat awake, wondering what would happen next. Nothing good, she imagined. She didn’t know how she’d become such a curiosity. She was looking for what had gone wrong with a vengeance. Rooting through out-of-date phone books, through cards and letters she’d kept packed away since college. Excavating her past life, like an archeologist, was a great haven of sanity; as soon as she opened the first box, she felt safe from the present, it was suspended from happening, nothing more would ever happen to her until she straightened out all the previous mistakes. A pale blue chiffon scarf of her mother’s was folded underneath a stack of them. She was perennially accused of wanting to rehash the past. But it hadn’t been properly hashed over the first time, couldn’t any of these dolts see that?

A spider laid in the bottom of the box, its legs curled tightly. Though clearly dead, she worried lest it should somehow jump on her. A handmade Valentine’s Day card stuck out of the jumble like a sore thumb. The card was unsigned, but she recognized the handwriting. It was hers. She’d drawn a picture of a naked man inside a red heart. Her first boyfriend, a creative type, had insisted they make each other cards. How had she ended up with all this stuff? Ella flung herself back onto the bed so hard her teeth snapped together and she bit her tongue. Her bones ached. Her desire was killing her; she didn’t even know what it was she desired. She had to get out of the house for a bit, hurricane or no hurricane, or she’d go nuts.

She dragged her quivering dog — not so crazy after all — out to the car and drove over to her parent’s old house through Naomi’s outer fringes. Thunder rolled above her along with heavy sheets of rain like pronouncements from God. The dog cowered in her lap. She turned the car engine off and got out, the dog in her arms, hiding his head in her armpit. She stood searching the horizon, letting the rain wash over her face. It was the same whenever she made love to a man, she made sure to shower afterward.

Behind the house she’d grown up in, behind the canal her baby brother had drowned in, sat the northern edge of the Everglades. A flat, wet landscape — one she never tired looking at. Dun-colored saw grass, rippling under the steady currents of wind, stretched as far as she could see. Her mother’s chiffon scarf, monogrammed with her maiden initials, was her new good-luck charm. There was, as usual, no witness to her actions.

At least I’m brave enough to come back here, she thought. Her hair blew into her eyes and she held the dog tighter. She was startled when from behind her headlights moved over the undulating saw grass; she turned to see who it was. Squinting against the light, she saw her father’s tall figure get out and stand next to the car, calling and waving — she couldn’t hear much of what he was saying over the wind but she could tell he was crying. Like a flag on a pole, her mother’s scarf whipped in the wind around her neck, causing her to lift her chin and stand taller and straighter than she had for a long time. She could feel it. Her life was going to change.

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Filed under childhood, compassion, daughters, death, development, divorce, ella, eternal, father, fathers, fiction, forgiveness, girls, health, heart, hope, justice, karma, kindness, life, love, marriage, men, mortality, mourning, mysterious, personal responsibility, regret, relationships, short stories, soul, spirit, women

Catalyst to a Potato, a poem

illustration catalyst to a potato 3

Catalyst to a Potato, a poem

 

Can I perform the miracles of earth, sun, water?

Can I be the warmth that gently pries open

eyes, that coaxes forth pale shoots, that causes

 

hardness to soften to green? If I throw the potato

against the wall again and again, will I ever cause

the potato to change? For so long, I tried to form

 

myself in the potato’s image. I tried to become

round, dense and heavy with stability, I tried

to protect myself. It did not work, it failed.

 

Now all there is left is her, one small girl alone

in the world. Her lips are redder than mine ever

were. Her shoulders are strong, she is not fragile.

 

You were the potato, the one I could never change.

Lobbing you again and again brought no result,

no visible difference. Yet in your eyes I am

 

the one who remained indifferent. I am not

ashamed, yet I am the one who needs to change.

You want only to rebuild. Take stock of your

 

small garden, not everything there is sound.

There is no such thing as healing. There is only

covering over, sweeping under, tamping down.

 

You know we will never love each other again,

yet you do not weep. This time I will not do it

for you. I am finished with praying for miracles.

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Filed under ancient history, anger, apologia, compassion, development, divorce, earth, heart, justice, karma, logic, love, marriage, maturity, mea culpa, mourning, mysterious, nature, personal responsibility, poetry, regret, relationships, soul, spirit, spiritual, truth

Eat Or Be Eaten, a short story

illustration dog alligator suit

Eat Or Be Eaten, a short story

Annemarie often sat within the bright sobriety of the campus coffee shop down the street from her and Roy’s house. The air there was filled with academic fulmination and the evaporating mists of senseless arguments, much like the state of her marriage. She was acknowledged by the college students as one of those bizarre, florid creatures from the 80’s, and they let her go about her pursuits, unfettered but slow.

“I can’t stand that place,” Roy said. “I don’t see how you can sit there day after day.” His comment, for her, aptly illustrated how unaware he was that her main occupation while there was mulling over whether or not to file for divorce.

“It makes me feel wired,” Annemarie said.

“You can say that again,” Roy said.

“Why don’t you meet me there for coffee sometime?” she said.

“Things are too crazy at the office right now,” he said.

One such crazy evening, after dinner, the air was busy gossiping with itself — Annemarie could feel it fluttering along her cheeks inquisitively, and the moon rose early, bouncing light off the red tiled roof. She put on her ratty ski jacket and then poured herself a tiny refreshment of Scotch, which she imbibed cautiously. Her small thick hands, gripping a kitchen chair like death, were chalky at the edges. The clanking emptiness of the room — of her life — created a milky haze over her sight. For what seemed like the hundredth night in a row, she invited Roy over to the lake on campus to see the alligators. For the first time, he said yes.

They rambled along the verdant avenue and before them flitted two zebra butterflies, as if teasing Annemarie to fly. Her husband, his blank, uncomprehending eyes, was at once her soul and her shame. It was horrible to have people such as him think ill of you, think you were wrong. It was small and ugly and soul-shaking. You felt as if you were coming apart like a cheap paperback, pages from your head fluttering to the floor every time somebody breathed on you. She wasn’t much for men herself — she never learned how to tell a sweet one from a poisonous one and besides, she’d never been convinced there was much difference. But a truly radiant woman never hustles off through life unaccompanied.

A small crowd was gathered on the boardwalk over the water — a leather-skinned old German couple, a tall skinny man with a pot-belly holding a toddler, three young college women with lush clouds of permed hair and tight little asses. A little girl came up with coral roses in a bucket balanced on her hip. The German people spoke softly to each other in German.

“We saw a wild boar on the highway back in the mountains in Kentucky,” said the man with the blond baby. “I thought it was a dog lying on the side of the road. Then I saw its tusks.”

Annemarie’s future, single life would be simple like this, among unpretentious people like these — she’d come see the alligators every night before dark with the out-of-towners. She would hear the gators’ mating calls, the deep bellows in the late spring. She’d appreciate the real elegance of nature. Roy appreciated only his new $60,000 car and his tax-free municipal bonds.

The alligator for this evening was a good seven-footer. It floated perfectly still on the surface of the water, the scales on its back pushing through like a miniature mountain range. Its fat front paws hung limp in the clear lake water. It seemed only a little threatening in the smooth summer light. The gator had a large sly grin.

Roy was from the North – he’d never been around alligators before. Florida was alien territory to him. People from the North always freaked out about the gators. Annemarie wanted to give Roy a thrill. She wanted to overwhelm him with her earthy, sensible, swampy ways. She rubbed his hand humbly and forgot to play the grouch.

“They like marshmallows the best,” the tall, chatty man holding the toddler said. The boy wore a short jumpsuit appliquéd with giraffes. The German couple nodded, the old man pushing his fluorescent yellow golf cap back on his forehead. “Let’s see what I’ve got in the truck,” the man said.

“That?” the little boy said, pointing.

“Alligator,” Annemarie told him. The boy nodded and bit his forefinger.

“Teeth,” he said.

“Yes,” she said. “The alligator has lots of teeth.”

It was strong, it would eat her if it could. That was the way to be, she thought. That was the new simple way she would live, with or without a husband. Eat or be eaten. Roy hadn’t the slightest affinity for animals. Annemarie wanted to live a simple life. She didn’t want to be angry, ever again. Mostly, that was it. She could not afford any more to be bored with living — she didn’t have that kind of time. Her husband had become accustomed to disagreeing with her almost all of the time, as a method of entertainment.

The man with the baby came back with a vending-machine package of peanut butter cheese crackers. Annemarie shivered. Suddenly, she wasn’t so sure about feeding the thing. What if it came up on the bank? She had read how alligators could run 40 miles an hour over short distances. The man threw a cracker in the water near the alligator’s head. The animal whipped its head sideways and took a big gulp of water, inhaling the cracker. They all got a nice view of its teeth. The gator pumped its jaws, as if savoring the peanut butter, and the water clouded with dissolving cracker. Roy stood apart from the group, his face dark and tense. Annemarie leaned on her elbows, hanging over the railing of the boardwalk.

“Did you know it’s against the law to feed the alligators?” one of the young women with big hair asked. Her sharp voice made Annemarie jump.

“Really?” Annemarie said.

“Is that so?” the tall man said.

“It’s a felony,” the young woman said. “And there’s a fine.”

“How much is the fine?” asked Annemarie.

“A thousand dollars,” the young woman said.

“Really?” Annemarie might be afraid of the alligator but she wasn’t afraid of this young woman, with her elaborate hairdo and her half-pound of gold jewelry. This was the kind of woman Roy would marry next, she was sure. This kind would give him a lot less trouble. This kind would have no desire to feed reptiles of any sort. She directed herself to see marriage for what it was, not its tedious demonstration. The pretty young woman flipped her perfect locks over her shoulders and glared at the man with the peanut butter crackers. He threw another cracker to the alligator and laughed. His baby laughed too, throwing his head back so his fine pale hair waved in the breeze.

“The alligators get tame and that’s when they start eating dogs,” the young woman said. “And small children.” She was businesslike, her voice chilly with authority. The mystery of feeding the dangerous beast was lost on her, thought Annemarie. It was exactly the sort of thing Roy would say. Annemarie’s neck began to tingle, blood fury gathering in her cheeks. The tall man grinned at the snotty college girl and slowly pushed his glasses up with his middle finger.

“Then they have to shoot them,” the girl added. “So it’s really not a good thing to feed these animals.” The young woman had her nose up. Literally had her nose up; her voice resonated with indignation and righteous anger.

Annemarie pushed her arm against Roy.

“Maybe she’s right,” Roy whispered. He sounded reasonable, the way he always did.

“Oh, Christ, what’s the harm?” Annemarie said. She was still leery of the alligator, floating, for the moment seeming as harmless as a large rotting log, but she was enraged nonetheless. The hell with all of them, Annemarie thought. What do they know about right and wrong? What do they know about anger? What do they know about eating or being eaten?

“Great attitude,” the young woman said to Annemarie, shaking her head. “Come on, let’s get out of here.” The three lithe girls walked off, whispering to each other in disgust.

“Throw one of the crackers up on the bank,” Annemarie told the man, now her partner in crime, her body trembling. They were all standing on the wooden boardwalk over the water. She decided this animal was a deserving gator, nothing to be afraid of. She would bring it whole chickens, she decided. It would be her personal ritual. Her wants and needs had boiled down to nothing. It was amazing what she could do without, now she had decided to end her marriage. She would take one pot, a frying pan, and a wooden spatula when she left. That was all she needed. That was all anybody needed. Let him have the expensive cookware she was always cleaning improperly.

The man with the little boy threw a cracker onto the muddy bank. The alligator turned its head sideways and tried to pick up the cracker. Its teeth grazed the mud, making deep tracks. The cracker wouldn’t budge. The animal hauled itself onto the bank and took a mouthful of mud with the cracker. The man threw another cracker on the bank, and the gator swallowed it down. In the fading light, its teeth glowed pure and white. It did slow pushups on its meaty little forearms. Mud clotted its elbows, and the man threw more crackers. The German people oohed and aahed.

“I’m not putting you down,” the man said to his baby. The baby writhed in his arms.

“Teeth,” the baby yelled. “That!”

“Don’t put him down,” Annemarie told the man.

“No kidding,” the man said.

I could do this every night, Annemarie thought. Hang with the simple folk and feed dangerous wild animals like a crazy woman. She imagined the alligator getting angry, running toward her at forty miles an hour. She’d leap onto the railing of the boardwalk. She’d grab hold of the gator’s jaws and hold them closed with one hand, like the Seminole gator wrestlers at the orange groves she’d visited as a child. Reptilian rage was what she’d become practiced at. She had Roy to thank.

She remembered how all the muscles in an alligator’s jaws were for closing the mouth, not opening it. You could hold a gator’s mouth closed and flip it over on its back, and it would black out. The great beast would lie there, paws twitching, flabby white belly quivering. She still remembered one particular Seminole wrestler’s shiny black hair, slicked back off his forehead. He was lean and brown and his stomach muscles cast shadows upon one another. Her family had always watched the gator wrestling and bought rough sacks of tangelos and navel oranges. Annemarie had liked to squeeze the fruit and strain the juice, and think of the man’s bronze skin against the harsh concrete of the wrestling pit while she drank.

Now, Roy had never seen a gator wrestler in his life. He thought life was all harmless monkey jungles and parrot gardens and butterfly habitats. Annemarie knew better. She wanted to live on the edge, she wanted things out in the open. She didn’t want her problems hiding in the shadows anymore.

Annemarie stood against the wooden railing of the boardwalk and watched the alligator scraping the mud of the bank with its handsome teeth, trying for one last cracker. “Throw some more,” she told the man. Reflected light shone out of the gator’s dark eyes.

“Are you sure this is safe?” Roy asked. “That thing is huge. Didn’t you say a dog got eaten here last week?”

“Of course it’s not safe. That’s the point.”

“What’s got into you tonight?” Roy said. “Are you coming up on your period?”

“What kind of question is that?” She went rigid with black demented wrath.

Roy shoved his hands in his pockets and stared at the ground. “Sorry.”

A black-and-white pulled off the main road, crunching over the loose gravel. “Police,” the German couple murmured. The two old people scuttled to the benches at the end of the boardwalk and sat down, removing their hats. The tall man stuffed the half-empty package of crackers into the pocket of his shorts. Car headlights flashed over the surface of the lake, then Annemarie was blinded by police flashlights.

“They’ll have to search me,” the tall man whispered.

“We got a complaint about someone feeding the gators,” said the first cop. He was short, and plump, with a dark bristly mustache. His partner was tall and black and stood several feet behind him. He held the flashlight while the white guy spoke. “People, this is a third-degree felony. You’ll go to jail.”

“Crackers,” the baby said. “Crackers!”

“Did they shoot that gator that ate the dog?” the tall man said.

“No,” said the white cop. “That might be it right there.” His partner shone the flashlight on the alligator. Its pupils contracted in the glare. It raised its chin above the water and smacked the surface. Annemarie felt water splash her legs. “It’s breeding season,” said the officer. “They’ll come at you at the drop of a hat.”

“Who was feeding the gators?” said the black cop.

“None of us,” said the tall man. The little boy grabbed his nose, and his father pushed his hand away. “There’ve been people coming and going for half an hour.”

Annemarie said nothing, leaning over the railing, her arms cradling her breasts, droplets of sweat rolling down her back. Roy stood at the other end of the boardwalk, his cigarette glowing.

She remembered the first time he had ever touched her. Roy’s fingertips had moved slowly back and forth over her forearm, the same way the gator’s paws now rocked in the water. His fingers had brushed against the side of her breasts, that was all. She had wanted his touch on her, back then. Where had it all gone?

“We could call the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission right now and they’d come down and cuff you,” said the white cop.

“I’m sure they would,” said the tall man.

“Teeth!” his baby boy shouted. “That,” the child said, one small finger pointing into the darkness of the swampy bank. “Hungry!” the boy squealed. His father shifted his weight from one foot to the other and back again. The police officers feigned disinterest and strode nonchalantly down the boardwalk, toward the German couple. She couldn’t hear what they said, but she saw how they shone their light into the old man’s eyes.

“Well, I’m going to get this little guy home to bed,” said the tall man, looking at Annemarie and smiling.

Annemarie nodded. “Let’s go,” she said to Roy. They walked toward the parking lot.

The policemen waited for them at the entrance to the boardwalk. “We have two witnesses who said they saw you feeding the gator,” the white one said. The old German couple huddled together on the bench nearby.

“Then you’ve got two liars,” Roy said. The German man patted his chest and looked at the ground.

“They both said it was a white male with a blue shirt.”

Roy’s shirt was blue, long-sleeved, covered with little paisleys. Annemarie had given it to him for Christmas. The man with the baby had on a blue T-shirt saying, “Eat Oysters, Live Longer.”

“There’ve been a lot of guys here with blue shirts,” Roy said, shrugging. The policemen took a few steps toward him, shining the flashlight in his face. Roy held his cigarette to his lips but didn’t inhale.

“I don’t like it when people lie to me,” said the cop. He touched the grip of his nightstick. Annemarie moved closer to Roy.

“Shit,” Roy said under his breath.

Back on the bench, the old German woman coughed, both hands over her mouth.

“I’ve been with my husband the whole time,” Annemarie told the officers. “He wasn’t feeding the alligators.”

“Care to sign a statement?” asked the black cop.

“Why can’t you just leave us alone?” Annemarie said.

“This is our job, lady.”

“Pretty messed-up job. Hassling people.”

“Is that right? Would you care to empty your pockets?”

“I told you, we weren’t feeding the alligator.”

“Maybe we think you were. Maybe we’re getting ready to arrest you and your husband here.”

“You do that and you’ll get slapped with a lawsuit.”

“So sue me. You’re under arrest.”

“What?”

Roy held his hand out. “Now, wait a minute,” he said.

Annemarie heard a rustling in the reeds behind her. She felt something slither over her shoes. At her feet was a tiny alligator, six inches long. Nobody else seemed to notice.

“You’re under arrest,” the officer repeated, his words to Annemarie slow and drawn out as though he were talking to a foreigner.

“What for?” Annemarie asked.

“For feeding the alligators.”

The big gator on the bank bellowed, its pale throat pumping like a frog’s. The German couple shrieked and ran down the path toward the parking lot. The cop pointed his flashlight toward the noise. Out of the reeds swarmed dozens of baby gators.

“I told you people it was breeding season,” said the white cop. The reeds rustled again and this time Annemarie heard a loud croaking sound. The big gator stood there, raised up on its forelegs, its jaws hanging open. The pink fleshy gullet pulsed in the flashlight’s beam. The teeth were dull yellow at the roots, gleaming pale ivory at the points.

“Holy shit,” the black cop said, grabbing Annemarie’s arm.

“Get the hell out of here,” shouted the white cop.

“I am,” the other cop said. He started toward the car, yanking hard on Annemarie’s shoulder.

“Leave me alone,” Annemarie said. She watched the animal while the officer struggled to pull her away. She went limp, buckling at the knees and kneeling on the ground. “Just leave me alone.” She wasn’t angry anymore, not at anyone or anything, especially not at her soon to be ex-husband. The spirit of her rage had gone into the animal. Pure reptile.

“Are you crazy?” screamed the cop.

The big gator sucked air and croaked again. It raised and lowered its head. The babies scuttled back toward it, milling under its body and peeping loudly like baby chicks. The alligator’s thick tail whipped back and forth through the reeds, and finally the cop ran off, leaving Annemarie in the mud. Why had she been trying so hard? Who had she been trying to fool? This was how it was. Eat or be eaten — the end of one angry life marked only the beginning of another. She closed her eyes as she heard the roar of the gator coming closer.

Roy knelt beside her. “You don’t want to do this,” he said.

“Do what?” Annemarie said.

“Get this alligator shot,” he said. “It’s not going to help.”

He was right. The alligator had never done anything to her. She looked at Roy. He had not been shattered by any of it. His eyes begged, but for once he wasn’t judging her. For once, maybe for the first time, it seemed like he understood her. Life could be so simple, once you got rid of all that confusion. She realized that there was no telling what would happen after today.

“Come on,” Roy yelled, grabbing her arm and pulling her to her feet, and his hand against her skin felt better than she remembered. She ran behind him, her feet sliding over the muddy gravel, not afraid, but laughing like a madwoman. Let everyone see me for what I am, she thought. Let them observe my fiery trail from a safe distance, and weep for their own. Roy glanced back at her as they ran, but Annemarie’s lips did not move — she ran honestly, tripping across her own feet. She could feel the sea moving around inside her head, and she laughed.

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