A Seat at the Tableaux

Somewhere in the bowels of my mother’s house sits a sturdy coffee table of deep, black wood carved in ornate patterns and iconic rural Japanese dioramas wrapping up the legs and around the 48” x 18” perimeter of the tableau, itself an intricate relief. The tabletop is covered with a quarter inch sheet of tempered glass. The table is museum quality.

I have marveled at this table my whole life.

When I was a boy it sat in my Grandma B’s home. Grandma B was Grandmother Barnett. She was my father’s mother. She was Grandma B as opposed to Grandma Nunn, my mother’s mother, and I guess why it was B rather than Barnett was because there was always a new dutchy toddler learning to talk and B was easier to say.

The table—we always called it the monkeywood table—was probably the nicest thing my grandmother ever owned. My father bought it for her when he was in the Navy, during the Korean Conflict, long before I was so much as a twinkle. Shore leave in Japan. Dad was just a boy, himself. He joined the Navy at 17 never having lived anywhere but the flint hills of Leavenworth County, Kansas, and I can only imagine the culture shock experienced by a Midwestern kid loosed upon that Asian island with a shipload of other young Americans, money burning holes in their pockets. I remember 17. Mostly because I took notes. And had I been in a similar situation I would have found volumes to write about!

Somewhere amidst the shore leave revelry, navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of women and bartenders looking to relieve young American sailors of their scrip, he took time to choose a present and ship it to his mother halfway around the world. Dad was devoted to his mother.

The elaborate carved table stood in marked contrast to her otherwise humble abode. George Reeves playing Superman on the black & white television sitting on a TV stand. Plastic icons, statues of the BVM and others of her darling son in His crowning moment. So to speak.

The Matzeders are Catholic. That is, the Matzeders who came here from Bavaria in the late 19th Century were Catholic, and many of them still are. Grandma B became Catholic and raised my father the same. He spoke of Catholic School and troubles with the nuns and always quipped how strange he should grow up to marry one. To which my mother, née Nunn, always responded, “Ha, ha” sans exclamation, her voice thick with running-gag sarcasm and Ozark twang. Her family were various breeds of Protestant stretching far back into history, so that’s how we were raised, but Dad never lost his inner Catholic.

I am a Baby Boomer, and one of the things all of us Boomers have in common is our parents lived through the Great Depression. It was the last big bust of Boom’n’Bust Capitalism that lowered the boom and persuaded a nation if we didn’t want to be communist or haul out some guillotines we were going to have to regulate some of the worst excesses of said economic system. Everybody was poor, and the ones who weren’t were dirt poor. Our parents weren’t joking when they told us they walked four miles to school. Barefoot. In the snow. Uphill. Both ways. My father made sure we knew he grew up too poor to have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. I’m not sure when chamber pots went out of fashion. I know Dad’s family—his mother, grandfather, and himself—didn’t have indoor plumbing. Grandma still had an outhouse long after my father had moved away.

Grandma worked as a server at the Ft. Leavenworth Officers’ Club. In the middle of the Great Depression they were living on tips. His grandfather, who like everybody those days picked up what work he could, planted a vegetable garden out back.

I can only imagine the delight Grandma felt as the crate bearing her only son’s precious gift arrived from the exotic Far East. There were no cell phones and snail mail crawled aboard the “slow boat from China” so even had he thought to write and tell her to expect a package there would be no guarantee the letter arrived first. I can imagine some neighbor with a hammer helping her to pry the crate open, and then empty the pre-plastic packaging of straw that held the smells of cargo liner holds and Japanese port-side shipping fish and salt and Shinto incenses escaping as the lid pried back to yield a treasure far beyond her wildest imaginations. I imagine her running her fingers over each curve and angle of the carving, every nook and cranny, savoring the workmanship the feel of exotic wood. I see her polishing that wood and washing the glass top to glistening transparency. It was and ever would be the best thing she ever owned.

Grandma B wanted me to have the monkeywood table. She told me, when I was a boy, and all my life, whenever it came up in conversation we knew that one day I would receive this gift my father gave his mother for my own.

Grandma B died the same year my daughter was born. Dad had traveled from our home in Virginia to Kansas City, to tend to his mother in her final days. He was always devoted to his mother.

He brought home some small mementos. And the monkeywood table.

“Oh, my table,” I said upon seeing it.

“I’m going to keep it for you,” Dad said.

Dad “kept” the table for me. It was a running joke between us as I went through a succession of jobs and marriages and residences without ever seeming to find that blossoming niche.

For a man who had spent my entire youth hopscotching US military bases all over the world, my father looked mighty askance at my own vagabond lifestyle. Maybe because it wasn’t attached to any kind of career. Maybe it was because I had so much potential and he expected so much more from me.

There came a time, in the early days of the 21st Century, when my sister Lisa and I were sharing an apartment with Dad and we would all set our beers atop that table. It sat in the middle of his living room, which like most American living rooms was arranged so families could watch television without interacting with one another.

“Are you taking care of my table?” I’d ask.

He’d say he was. “When am I going to get this, anyway? Grandma always wanted me to have it,” I’d tease.

“You can have it after I’m gone,” he’s say, and neither of us were eager for that. But the day came.

It was a cold and dreary DC day when my family watched his brothers-in-arms consign my father’s remains beneath the earth of Arlington. It was the first time in decades all my sisters, brothers, and myself were in the same place at the same time. We had scattered to the four winds and swirled about like leaves in autumn eddys. It’s how we were raised.

Though one or another of us has lived in Mexico, California, Texas, Canada, Kansas, Missouri, Alabama, Florida, New York, and London, most of my siblings have gravitated back to the Virginia town where we were reared. We grew up within three hours of Washington. Most of the immediate family could caravan in their sedans or minivans up 64 to Richmond, then 95 to Washington, but my youngest sister, Mikki, and I had to fly. She flew in from JFK and I from MCI.

I usually number myself among those forty percent of Americans who could not possibly scrape together $400 in an emergency. My father’s funeral might certainly count as an emergency, but I was able to afford the round-trip tickets, possibly because it I had eight months to finagle it after he died. Arlington Cemetery has so little space remaining and so many veterans die every day that there is a backlog that long to inter ashes. A traditional casket would have taken longer.

Despite affording my flight, I still piggybacked off a family member’s frequent flier points to get my foot in the door of one of the perhaps too dear hotels within the city limits whose rates serve to remind me of the chasm between the people for whom it’s chump change and those for whom it’s mortgage. I shared a room with my lifelong partner-in-crime, my sister Lisa, who has the distinction of being the only person who can live with me an extended period of time without wanting to kill me in my sleep.

After the different groups of friends and family members who came to see my father off had checked out of their rooms, and gassed their vehicles, and started back along their own schedules, my mother took Lisa and I out to eat before I had to fly back to KC.

When I film it, or slip it in the pages of a novel, I will create a setting for this meal which you, reading, will be able to taste and smell and the setting will weave with various threads of history and for all I know the shade of Wilkes Booth will join us at the table as a metaphor for living in the shadow of your father, but my memory is a bubble with my mother, Lisa, and myself around some harried waitress’s trey, sharing a meal on Mother’s credit card because it was Lisa and I, the Underachievers, the Black Sheep, the charity case.

For all I know it was in National Airport and they were dropping me off.

Wherever it was we naturally exchanged stories of our memories of Dad.

And I asked about the Monkeywood table.

“Oh, I’m going to give that to Abigail,” she said. Abigail’s my daughter. She and her husband had come down from New England.

“Mom!” Lisa exclaimed.

It was like a knife straight into my heart, but I didn’t say anything. What could I say? She was right.

“What?” Mom replied.

“That’s not fair. Grandma wanted Mark to have it!”

“I decided Abbey would give it a more stable home. And it would still be in the family.”

And it was settled. Just like that.

I’ll let it be a metaphor for childhood dreams and youthful aspirations. For as long as I remember I’ve been convinced I am going to die homeless. Better Abigail should have it than it end up in a pawn shop or a roadside dump.

At least this way I might see it once in a while.

Advertisements
Posted in Musings | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Random Acts

No one knows when Rebecca Silverspoon Bourgeois first came under a geas of performing Random Acts of Kindness. Perhaps it was when her Ladies’ Book Club read that book Oprah hailed for milking anecdotes of the Inner City Poor. Or perhaps it was after a yoga class conversation about how many beggars clogged the Metro corners this time of year. Or it might have been the winter when her daughters’ Sunday School camped beneath a frozen tarp to raise money for Union Mission. But a geas it was and she could no sooner refuse it than she could refuse to empty her bladder.

As she stepped inside her Cinderella’s carriage, her sparkling white minivan without so much as a random splattered bug gut after its weekly detailing, she knew that day she would do some Good, pay it forward, bless someone.

She kept her eyes peeled all day for the opportunity she craved.

She was on her last run of the day, coming home from her salon with her platinum blonde hair elegantly coiffed without a hint of root, on her way to a soiree–though if it was in the afternoon wouldn’t it be more a tea, she wondered. Her girlfriend called, “Can you be a dear?” The girlfriend was caught in traffic coming from the office. She was supposed to bring a dessert that, would you believe it, was only available in that cheapo grocery, you know the one, would you mind dropping in and bailing me out? I’ll pay you back. Mmmm-wah!

So she pulled into the parking lot on the east side of Troost Avenue. It was right on the way.

Back in the Day, as they say, back in the day, when Kansas City was a magnet for magnates, when a generation of hucksters and entrepreneurs erected their alabaster city on the hill, gilding it with art and architecture as befit their precious Paris of the Plains on the bluff overlooking the mighty Big Muddy, back in that day they began the process of stitching together the crazy quilt of Kansas City neighborhoods designed from the beginning to separate the rabbits from the goats, the colored from the white, the working class from Quality.

Some called Kansas City a cowtown, but it also had commerce, and baseball, and jazz. At the turn of the Ragtime century it blossomed with Kessler’s City Beautiful and though the flood of Aught-three had swamped that lunatic asylum in the Bottoms they called Union Depot, a new and glorious railroad station made the tiny metro a crossroad hub of commerce for all of the US.

The 1920s were roaring with moonshine and jazz, except Boss Tom scoffed at the idea his town would be dry. Business was booming and architects of the Chicago School were in town making the city of fountains in their own image and likeness. Developers worked hand in hand with the fathers of the city to draw the zoning ordinances that would shape the face of the city for a hundred years and more. One of the features of that face was a demographic line that runs along one of the oldest roads threading the Jackson county hillsides where 19th Century planters and merchants migrated once Congress decided to let slave-holders settle Missouri.

Once upon a time a trail ran north along these hills, from a cluster of skin-draped longhouses where Ni-u-kon-ska hunters carried game and canoes along the natural dips wending between trees, between hills, past the bluffs down to the Pekitanoui, the old Muddy River. That trail ran past the Reverend Doctor Porter’s 400 acre fruit plantation. Or, we should say, Porter platted his acres to the westside of the trail.

Rev. Porter was a Methodist circuit rider who came to Little Dixie from Tennessee with a household that included 40 enslaved people. When Rebecca allows herself to think of it she is amazed so many so-called men of God in the 19th Century Anno Domini in the United States of America–for chrissakes–called themselves “owning” other human beings. The whole rest of the world had evolved past the concept of slavery by that time except only the United States and her peculiar institution which let a handful of rich planters control the destiny of a continent with fortunes built off free labor. She didn’t think about that. She didn’t think about how every aspect of US History and Society and Economics and Culture, how every drop of ink scratched into parchment in Philadelphia was purchased with the wages of white supremacist ideology, interests of which still compounded daily coming due late into the 21st Century.

As geography and chance would have it the Americans who settled in these hills improved the path, widened it, hardened it, and named it after Benoist Troost, a Dutch surgeon who pitched in to buy the Prudhomme estate that grew into Kansas City. Troost Avenue eventually stretched from south of Brush Creek nearly to the Missouri and became a border as tangible as the Kansas state line less than two miles to the west. A road runs along that border, too, with Kansas the southbound lane and Missouri the north. Along Troost since at least the turn of the last century whites lived west of Troost, non-whites lived to the east. That this demographic fault line has begun to change is less a function of civil rights and desegregation than it is of gentrification.

So Rebecca was much more comfortable turning into a parking lot on the east side of Troost as her mother might have been 50 years before. She wouldn’t drive very far to the east, but right off the highway was fine.

She knew only one cashier was ever on duty at this particular grocer, though if lines backed up into aisles and there was a stocker or watchman available they would open a second. She didn’t know, because this stop was not part of her routine, that today was the day government benefits of one kind and another appeared in EDTs and families and seniors across the neighborhood ventured out to fill their coffers for another month.

She got in line behind a mother with her young son and a basket stacked with meat and produce. A cute little black couple whose shopping cart seemed to double as a walker and  looked like nothing so much as a pair of desiccated mummies reanimated and sent to town for groceries got in line behind her. She wondered how often they made the trip. The rail-thin old man’s movements reminded her of the variety show comic who made his reputation on a parodied dotard.

Rebecca flashed her straight and pearly whites at the cute couple and exchanged pleasantries about the weather and the Chiefs and the Royals; though, honestly, this year the Royals were nothing to write home about, and wasn’t that a quaint expression, anymore, considering everyone has their texts and emails.

She had a casual air about her like some French lesser duchess in the days before Bastille, an anachronistic ante-Bellum Princess of the sort Faulkner and Williams peppered their pages, a woman whose life story you might learn, if the grocery line were long enough, the sort who would extract your biography from you, if you’d let her, though Miss Ada was like pulling teeth, having never had no good come from no overdressed white lady, regardless where it was she met them.

Still, Rebecca learned Miss Ada Reynolds had haunted these neighborhoods for ninety-two summers. Her husband, Bertrand, had been here ninety-five. Bertrand was a teenager when Bird jammed with Basse, but he wasn’t the Bird, yet, not by a stretch. They had lived here on the east side of Troost their whole lives. They were born into homes where what their daddies could do to earn bread were mostly low-skill labor jobs and mostly those white folk wouldn’t do, though Miss Ada would never be so im-polite or -politic to say so. Back then the Irish ran things on the west side of the street and you knew where you could and couldn’t be when the sun went down. Everyone was poor back then, but some folks even more so, and even after Roosevelt rescued white America from the Banks gains lagged behind for men of color. If you don’t mind my saying so.

Miss Ada chatted more than her husband, though both were hard of hearing and conversations with them was an adventure.

Rebecca leaned in sotto voce to tell the cashier, “Let me know what their bill is. I’ll take care of it.”

“Excuse me?” He rang up the couples’ groceries, placing each item in a cart.

“I want to pay their bill.”

“Oh. Okay.” His brow furrowed.

“I am committed to performing random acts of kindness,” she confided.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“It’s the least I can do. To give back as I have been so freely given.”

“Yes, ma’am.” It was obvious the young man didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.

Miss Ada was busy troubling Bertrand for the reusable grocery bags they had brought from home and Bertrand was retrieving them from their cart and handing them over to Miss Ada with all the speed of that legendary comic of old and Miss Ada was flustered with exasperation though they did this once a month for more years than either of them could recall.

“How much do I owe?” Miss Aida asked the cashier.

“Nothing,” he told her.

“What?” Miss Ada insisted.

The cashier pointed at the ghosting Rebecca as she crossed the short space to the automatic exit with strides as long as her high heels allowed her. “She wanted to do a kindness,” he said.

“What?” Miss Aida repeated.

“What?” echoed Bertrand, who hadn’t heard a solitary thing that had happened.

“She did a kind thing,” the cashier repeated as Rebecca stepped into her sparkling white chariot sitting crosswise between two parking spots in the lot and drove to her home in a mansion in a neighborhood that flirted with the Kansas-Missouri state line.

“That was quite a Blessing,” said a stranger behind the couple.

“Yessir, it was a blessing,” Bertrand answered.

Later that evening Rebecca could impress her cocktail and canape compadres with humble-brag stories of her single-hand efforts to alleviate the world’s suffering while never disturbing the infrastructure that causes it.

 

Posted in story | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Phoenix Rising

 

As we roamed off path through the park I came upon some lovely white toadstools sprung among the lovely languid emerald blades of grass beneath a copse of trees.

“Hold up!” I told Leon, and turned on my camera, switching the setting to Close-Up to take mugshots of each individual specimen. He tried staying out of the way as I dropped to the ground, bracing on my right hip to frame my shot at the first forest fungus near me–one unlike all the others, flat, like a table with the edges curling upward and inward. Then I swung my lens to the next and the next, most standing long and lean like one of the Guards at Buckingham Palace, some with a fat, bulbous head and others more tapered at the top. I moved from one to another, framing, focusing, shooting.

Leon moved into the circle, nibbling at some grass among the fungal arc. “You’re photobombing, again,” and he backed out of the way. I finished shooting and stood. That’s when I realized we had stumbled across a nascent faery ring.

“Hold up.”

“I thought you wanted to walk?”

“Was that a Faery Ring?”

“You tell me.”

“Does it have to be a complete, uninterrupted circle of mushrooms?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Who ever heard of such a thing?”

“I’m just asking.”

“You’re the one with all the books.”

We walked to one of the black, metal park benches that wait along the concrete parkway that ribbons through the park. It was the furthest south we had ever come together. It was near where Col. James McGhee’s Arkansas horsemen charged up Wornall to disrupt a battery of Colorado cannons laying fire against Shelby’s flank. Captain Curtis Johnson’s E Company of Kansas cavalry, counterattacked to save the guns and the centaurs of war crashed against each other. Bang, bang. Shoot, shoot. Johnson and McGhee each recognized the others’ office and drew their sidearms, aiming the notoriously inaccurate revolvers from a charging horse toward a charging horseman. Officers and Gentlemen, it was the purest form of chivalric combat that side of the Great War aces in their Folkers and Sopwiths. They unhorsed one another with a single shot apiece, and some said the Rebel knight had died, but ‘tweren’t so.

Sometimes events like that shimmer through the Veil of the Temporal that obscures the truth that past, present, and future are illusions, but not everyone can see it without a lot of practice. Sometimes events like that shine through the veil of time, but not this afternoon. Maybe some other Time. Inside joke.

I made a note there was a curtain I need to peek inside.

“We have to get back to the koi pond.”

“Okay,” I replied. “Let me stop by the faery ring.”

“Don’t dawdle.”

We strolled through the grass, returning to the place it thinned beneath wide, deciduous canopies and I made my way to the center of the Circle, which I could see as plain as day, though the toadstools were mere whispers.

I stood inside the ring, wondering how long it had been there, wondering how long it would remain, realizing I was nowhere near centered enough to tap into any axis mundi. Not today.

He only let me stay a moment, calling up St Elmo tingle from the energy of time and space, before insisting, “We have to get to the koi pond.”

The whole, man-made pond is a koi pond, and Leon knows that as well as I do. There was no water here that day those soldiers crissed and crossed the fallow cornfields and stomped their hoarfrost surfaces to bloody mud. Sometimes their shades still march across the surface, walking where dirt was so long ago. Sometimes it’s just ducks.

When we talk about the koi pond we mean the island on the north end of the pond, over a gently arched wooden footbridge where the goldfish and the waterfowl panhandle for daily bread.

So he dragged me from the majik circle and led me over the first of the bridges between us and our goal. He walked past a father and son bonding over ice cream and Sporting KC. The father said, “Good looking dog,” which Leon and I both take with however many grains of salt. We know we look like hell but it only means we’re survivors.

As I thought thus I caught a glimpse from the corner of my eye of some small bird. At first I thought she was a robin. I saw red. Not robin red. Not cardinal red. The way the light hit her when she moved made her seem a Phoenix, made of burnished copper that flashed red light each time she raised her wings to fly.

She flitted, short spurts, to catch my eye. First she landed atop the low stone wall that bermed a hillside once cut to make the pond and fountain. Then she flitted with another flash of red to a spindly young tree some arborist added to the landscape with wooden stakes and guy lines. Then she flitted red to a low evergreen hedge, then again to the earth beneath as I approached.

We stopped. She jumped into the heart of the hedge, out of sight.

“Do you have a message for me?” I asked, perhaps a bit loud for a public park. I looked around. No one was within hearing distance.

High above Brother Raven started laughing. “What makes you think you’re the only wizard in the park?” he asked.

“I never claimed to be a wizard.”

“If you weren’t a wizard you wouldn’t understand me.”

“What about Dr. Dolittle?”

“Case in point!” Raven screamed. “You don’t think Polynesia was a medium?”

Leon tugged on me to go. The cardinal, for that’s what she was, ascended from her hedge into the golden boughs where Raven waited.

“I see you,” she said.

“I’ve heard about you.” Raven sounded dismissive.

“Come on!” Leon tugged.

“What if she was supposed to give me a message?” I asked. “I mean, why else did that just happen?”

“”If it’s meant for you she’ll find you.”

We walked toward the car.

“I should go back,”

“It’s time to go.”

We drove home, south on Wornall, east on 55th, following a trail a century old and more though it has changed a thousand times in that hundred years and not necessarily for the better.

Later, after we ate and the afternoon was fast waning, I stood on the back landing, watching the sun set through the treetops and Victorian gables of Rockhill Ridge.  A lady cardinal swooped in, the low slung sun glaring off her feathers like burnished copper.

“Oh, there you are,” she said. “I’m Sinead. I’ve been looking for you.”

Posted in story | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When Nature Claims Her Own

Gaea, the goddess of all the earth, is trying to kill me. I don’t know what I did. I’m on her side, for crying out loud. I’ve always known the Trees are going to win. I’m on their side. But the planet’s got it in for me. This time, it’s personal.

The first time Mother Nature tried to kill me I was just eight years old. It was springtime in Cherokee County, Kansas, and a million trees were blooming upwind of Riverton Elementary school, where I was finishing out a rare unbroken school year waiting for my father to fly home from Vietnam and transfer his squad of children to our permanent duty station. My third-grade class was frolicking at recess, that totally unstructured half hour when elementary schoolmarms let their charges blow off steam.

It was still jacket weather, despite the greens bursting through the earth and along tender branches all across the Ozark foothills. The air burned in my lungs. No. That wasn’t right. The air abandoned my lungs. My chest was tight. I clutched at my ribs and struggled to wheeze air into them.

Terrified, I gasped for air.

“I can’t breathe,” I gasped to my teacher.
“Well, go inside and lay your head on your desk.”

I did so. Maybe going inside got me out of the pollen. Nothing ever came of that incident.

Weeks later it happened again.

I was at my grandparents’ house after school.  Picking through pieces of childhood memory, assembling the jigsaw trauma half a century later, the picture emerges of my 14-year-old aunt babysitting my sisters and me when Nature shoved a pillow over my face. It was the during halcyon days of black and white portrayal of Saturday Night Post, of Better Homes and Garden, before middle-class white women took jobs outside their home. It would be years before my mother entered the workforce. She and my grandmother were in town with the toddlers, ‘town’ being Joplin or Baxter.

With Dad stationed in Saigon, we stayed in a brick rancher my grandfather had built on a slice of land catty corner from his own home. We’d cut through Grampa’s pasture to get between the houses for Sunday supper or entice Grandma to dote on us.

That year glitters in my memory as the happiest of my life. For one precious solar circuit I experienced my own cliched small town childhood in the bosom of an extended family. It was a glimpse of the lifestyle my father’s service protected, the lifestyle of civilian children in public school hallways whose lives I slipped in and out of as the Pentagon shifter tin soldiers around the board. It seemed idyllic to me.

Riverton is a speck on a map astride Route 66, which cuts a short arc through Kansas from Missouri like Quantrill’s partisans on the way to Oklahoma. Riverton is an unincorporated town, cluttered around Empire District’s hydroelectric plant where Grampa worked, the World Famous Spring River Inn, and a Dairy Creme ice cream stand. Our house was across from the First Baptist Church we attended and Pastor Jones invited me to supper with his family and his son, a year my senior, was a playmate.

It was small town by any definition, but it was hardly rural. Not farmland. I thought I lived on Green Acres because my grandfather had a garden where he grew their vegetables, and a corrugated metal barn in a pasture where a red cow named Sally grazed with her calves before offering them up to our deep freeze and table. The milkman delivered bottles to our doorstep and sometimes I rode to with Grandma to buy fresh eggs from a Columbus farmhouse and her vintage sedan left a dusty contrail in our wake along the long and gravel road.

That Kansas dust was part of the problem. So were the pasture grasses, and the crepe myrtles, and pet dander, and the household dust mites lingering in carpets and drapery, and a couple dozen other allergens whose ubiquity tortured me, but we didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was I couldn’t breathe. It was as if Sally had lain on my chest. I felt like Giles Corey at Salem.

Giles called for more weight but I clutched my chest and whined piteously: “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”

Aunt Marie was at her wits’ end. This was long before cell phones, before pagers, even before answering machines. We had a telephone but no way to reach my mother, no way to reach my grandmother. At fourteen Marie kept an eye on me and my sisters before. This was a million years ago, remember, before the world went bad.

Every time I tell this story Marie reminds me she was frantic, so I’ve folded that detail into my labile memory, though the detail is probably more annotation than memory. My memories of that day are shrouded in fog. I wasn’t getting enough oxygen to my brain.

After what seemed an eternity Mom and Grandma returned. They rushed me to the emergency room in Joplin. The doctors diagnosed an asthma attack and put me in an oxygen tent for a week to recuperate.

Once we got settled at Fort Monroe, my father drove me to Walter Reed in Washington where Army medics scratched a bunch of poison into my back to discover my sensitivities. Turns out I have no right to be alive.

I read an article once, a habit picked up from my mother, whose propensity to clip stories

tangent to her children’s interests we hold in fond amusement. Even today, when print journalism has become so anemic I worry for my future hobo bedding, I open envelopes from home and find the confetti of her concern and encouragement stuffed inside. My file cabinet bulges with yellowed newsprint my daughter will one day toss in a dumpster unglimpsed. I read a newspaper article when the word ‘asthma’ caught my eye.  The writer suggested a psychological component to asthma, a child’s reaction to the helplessness of circumstances swallowing him, and I remembered that spring when the most idyllic year I had ever or would ever experience collapsed at the tail end of a school year, ripping me from extended family, from my friends and classmates, even from the concept Home like the cyclone sweeping Dorothy Gale into the flying monkey horrors.
Such a mind/body correlation goes almost without saying, even when there are other factors, like a plethora of allergies that modified my parents’ lifestyle. My mother cleared our home of carpets and drapes. My father made a point to smoke outside. My father considered cigarettes one of his few pleasures in life, so smoking on the porch may be the most loving gesture he ever made to me.

Smoking outside beat rushing me to the dispensary for a shot of adrenaline to counter asthma attacks. Even with all their precautions they made frantic drives to the hospital several times every spring until I was well into my teens. My body regularly tried to kill me.

After the diagnoses from Walter Reed we squeezed a regimen of biweekly allergy shots, every week, for years. It was a burden on the family but would have been impossible without the Army’s health care benefits. That level of medical care was a privilege I could not comprehend when I was a boy. I understand it is not most people’s norm. “It’s ironic,” my uncle observed, “that the most socialist organization in America is the one charged with fighting world socialism.”

And it makes me wonder.

After some years passed the biweekly shots tapered to weekly and eventually … ended altogether. I seemed to have outgrown my asthma for the most part, though in some seasons and locales the tight chest flared again. I sometimes treated it with an over-the-counter spray. They don’t make that spay anymore. Too many fluorocarbons. I learned other tricks to deal with infrequent attacks. Local honey is a natural treatment for pollen allergies. A scalding shower makes a sauna of a bathroom, melting loose mucus stalactites . Strong coffee opens my bronchial passages.

Most of the time I don’t need to remember those things.

Late last week a cannonade of thunder rolled in from northwest, sheeting rain across the Missouri and splashing the city from downtown to uptown thence midtown, washing over me. A red cow crawled in my bed and plopped her wet, musky bulk squarely on my chest. I woke with a start, gasping for air. All the pollen of the upper Midwest coagulated my quarters.

I struggled into the kitchen to brew strong coffee. Gasping. Wondering if my suffocating circumstances accounted for the attack, missing the socialized medicine of my youth. As a starry-eyed youth I expected the US to have caught up with the rest of the Modern World in health care.

Gaea’s trying to kill me and I don’t know what I did.

Posted in Musings, story | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Crow With a Machine Gun

What’s black, sits in a tree, and is very dangerous?
–children’s riddle

It was sometime near the Solstice because that’s when quirky magical things occur, even if the rest of you are too beguiled by the agents of empiricism to perceive them. I was convening with my ally, my accomplice, my partner-in-crime, Kali incarnate warrior princess, fiercely beautiful, beautifully fierce two-spirit poet Machine Gun Sally. MG, really. MG Salazar.

“What’s the MG stand for?”

“Machine Gun,” with a wink and a nod.

We met in Other World, in that place without time, then recognized each other when I moved above The Skullery Maid on Troost. TSM is a vintage clothing, curiosities, and oddities shop. As an editor for the Desolate Country poetry anthology MG recognized my essence in my submission “Guernica.” We saw each other when our landlord introduced us over the wary Gazpacho, fierce warrior pooch who’s a sweetie once you know him. Unless you wear a hat. Shortly after meeting we bonded while rescuing the baby birds that kept dropping in our yard and parking lot–back when we still had a parking lot–a tale recounted in “The Brief Life and Tragic Death of Starling Witt.”

We saw each other every day last summer. All I had to do was walk downstairs. I was useful for whiling away long stretches between customers. MG was useful for human interaction.

MG moved The Skullery Maid to Walnut Street, near the Art Institute, so now I make a special trip instead of wandering downstairs on a whim. I miss our proximity. I try to drop in the store a couple times a week.

This was one of those times.

“I’ve got a story I’ve been dying to tell you!” I said. “No one else could appreciate it.”

“Oh, this I’ve gotta hear.”

“You remember I go to that poetry thing every other Friday night–”

“Midnight Poetry?”

“Used to be. They moved it up. No one’s 20 anymore.”

“Right.”

“Now they call it ‘Not Quite Midnight Poetry.'”

“That’s hilarious.”

“I know. Anyway, I read from Finding Zen in Cow Town–”

“That Kansas City anthology?”

“Yeah.”

“You were in that?”

“No!” I hammed my exasperation. “Ryborg even asked me if I had any KC poems, but I didn’t at the time.”

“I didn’t even know it was coming out until it was at the printer,” MG scowled.

“I’ve started a couple since then. One that starts with John Calvin McCoy carving Broadway down to the Les Freres Chouteux to save two days off his trip to Independence. I may have bit off more than I can chew. But I do have “The ATM at Brookside” in Rogue’s Galley–”

“You read a poem?” Focus, Mark.

“I read Bill Peck’s piece.” We both knew Bill. He was one of the first Kansas City poets I met. William Peck had been a stalwart of gritty KC poetry for most of a score of years. For a while he had hosted Midnight Poetry in his penthouse loft overlooking Broadway at 36th, across from what is now  apartments but in the heyday of the Pendergast machine running wide open was the upscale Ambassador Hotel.

Bill had run Metaphor Media out of the space where MG ran TSM on Troost. He had lived in the apartment upstairs.

“So, I got up to read, and before I began the host asks, ‘Who’s the poet?’ And I said, ‘You’ll know when you hear it.’

“And I began reading ‘Kansas City Nights’ which is quintessentially Bill, saturated in deep draughts of Tom Waits. Allen immediately nodded, saying ‘Bill Peck’ … and it was funny, and all. But I got to the part about him going home to face himself alone in the mirror, walls peeling paint, the fucked-up ceiling …”

… with that hand rolling ‘go ahead’ gesture …

“And I realized … that same hole’s still in the ceiling.”

“That’s fucked up.”

“Yeah.”

“That’s hilarious.”

“I know.”

Posted in Musings, story | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Brief Life and Tragic Death of Starling Witt

Monique found a fledgling Sunday, hopping at the bottom of the basement stairs behind her shop.

Monique is the poet, artist, Standing Rock veteran, and all-around bad-ass Latinx dynamo behind The Skullery Maid, a vintage furniture and clothing shop on Troost Avenue south of Rockhurst. My new apartment sits above her store, one of two nestled in the second story of a line of century-old brick storefronts. It’s part of the charm.

“What do you know about birds?” she asked as I returned from Mass by way of the grocers with sacks of essentials in my fists.

She recounted how she and Gazpacho—her rambunctious shepherd-lab mix—arrived earlier, as usual, opening the front door then letting ‘Pacho out the back so he could take care of his business as she puttered inside the store.

It was not long before Pacho’s incessant barking drew her out of the store. Now, Pacho is no Rin Tin Tin. If he were a human child some school psychologist would have long since prescribed Ritalin. But he normally quiets the barking when Monique scolds him. Two or three times.

This morning no scolding was stern enough to quell his bark. Exasperated Monique stepped out back. Pacho stood over the basement alcove, looking down, mounting a valiant final defense. Monique looked among the few dead leaves and discarded tarp littering the concrete landing in front of the basement doors for the source of the dog’s agitation. And there, at the very bottom of the stairs, stood a petrified ball of gray fluff, beak skyward.

It stood like a statue. It was so still she thought it must be surely dead.

It peeped.

Monique descended the steep concrete steps to scoop up a very-much-alive fledgling bird. She brought it up the steps and turned six-years-old, with the baby bird we all rescue when they fall from their nests somewhere civilization has made inhospitable. She fetched an empty box from the store and brought it out back for the bird. She put it on the ground. She put a bit of water in the bottom of a pot for him, too. Maybe she could raise it until it was big enough to fly on its own. People do it all the time. Just look at Buzzfeed.

When I got there I wondered why she hadn’t put a handful of grass in the box. I was nine.

Her description of finding the bird sounded familiar.

Much earlier that morning, Leon and I had taken our walk around the neighborhood. It had been a delightful stroll, with Leon satisfying his curiosity about what other critters—wild or domestic, human or otherwise—had passed that way since our last circuit, and me marveling at the birdsong ringing from the verdant dome spreading over the quiet street one block over.

When we returned home Leon plunged headlong beneath the other tenants’ van, tail wagging like a whirligig. He couldn’t squeeze his rear haunches under, but not for lack of trying.

“What are you doing?” I asked. “There’s nothing under there for a puppy.” He was not dissuaded. I looked to see the object of his obsession. There was something under there to interest a puppy. Silhouetted beneath the undercarriage was a tiny chick, beak pointed upward. It was immobile. I thought it was dead.

“Leave it alone, Leon. Let’s go inside.” He followed, pouting.

I realized the foundling Monique showed me must have been the same bird. He was older than a chick, with immature feathers rather than down, and a garish yellow beak like an Emmet Kelly mouth. When he flapped his wings they seemed just flimsy membranes jutting out of his spine.

Fledglings always look like ‘raptors to me. Velociraptors, not birds of prey. We were pretty sure this one was a starling, which is far from my favorite bird. But this one was a cute little fella and I was willing to do what I could to help.

Doing a quick web search for advice on raising baby birds—there are, after all, a million YouTube videos—persuaded me our best course was facilitating a family reunion. The sources told me parents will be looking for a lost fledgling, that they can hear one crying for food within a two block radius and respond. “They say to put it on a branch and leave the area, that the parents will find it.” Monique seemed disappointed. I admit it would have been more fun to raise him to full starlingdom and have him bouncing around behind us in the yard.

“I’m gonna call him Starling Witt,” I told her. (There is a local artist/musician named Sterling Witt who pops up in the Venn diagram of people Monique and I know.)

“Oh my god, that’s hilarious.”

The Middle: Lost & Found Again

I went to an open mic Sunday night. The Skullery Maid closes at 8. When I got home I had a message from Monique. She had placed Starling on a branch a couple times, but he kept falling off.

I went downstairs and walked around the back hard, neither finding nor hearing him.

I sighed. It had been a long shot. Nature works the way nature works and most of the young of most species die before maturity and that’s why so many are born. Because nature weeds us out. Still, it was disappointing.

Monday Starling made a reappearance. Monique spotted him at the bottom of the stairs. I retrieved him and put him on a low branch. He toppled onto the ground and waddled toward a patch of ivy. It’s hilarious watching flightless birds navigate a suburban back yard. Starling wasn’t laughing.

Once he was alone in the yard a cautious adult starling flapped to a landing with food in its beak. Maybe he would make it after all.

Monday evening he was missing again. Hiding from the humans, probably. Even hippies and Water Protectors are alienated from Nature, despite our best efforts.

Tuesday morning Starling was waddling around the fire pit. One last time I lifted him to a low-hanging branch. He clung tight to it with his little talons. He held on well over an hour. I went back upstairs, to give his folks a chance to take him home, sporadically looking out the back door to monitor his progress. The last I saw he was still clinging to the branch.

That afternoon I asked Monique if she had seen him. “No.”

“Maybe he managed to fly away?”

It was Pacho who discovered Starling’s lifeless body on the grass, insects swarming over it. We exhaled our final sigh of disappointment.

“Should we bury him?” Monique asked. “We named him, we should probably bury him.”

“We could build a pyre.”

“You think?”

That’s what we did: piled dead twigs and branches in the circle of stone that makes a backyard fire pit, placed Starling’s body atop it, and set it aflame. The twigs caught and the fire burned and the last earthly remains of young Starling Witt returned to the cosmos.

Monique started to sing. It was a beautiful rhythmic melody. The words were First Peoples’.

The words’ vibrations permeated our tiny circle.

“Where did you learn that?” I asked.

“At Camp. Standing Rock.”

“How does it translate?” knowing that translation is always imperfect and some languages have words impossible to translate.

“It’s an ancient Lakota prayer. Invoking the ways of the Grandfathers. Right Spirit. Right Path. That kind of thing. I don’t really know a funeral prayer.”

It seemed a fitting send-off.

*proofreading edits: ‘Latinx’ spelling corrected, ‘the’ added to 6th paragraph, errant ‘/’ removed after Standing Rock at the end

Posted in Musings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bards & Other Liars

Do characters in literature recognize when their chapter has come to an end? Once upon a time I thought I wanted to tell stories.

This morning I sit looking out my window at rain-slick Troost Avenue cutting northward through the city, slicing like a two-edged sword, severing Kansas City by class and by race and yes that happened a long time ago, but the wounds are bleeding still. It’s springtime, and my apartment sits up above a retail space so the canopy of an ash splay light-green leaves outside my window. The tree is bursting through a patch of ground between the sidewalk and the street where it was long ago planted to shade the walkways now buckling above its roots.

That may be the end of a sentence. That may be the end of a page.

At Langley we learned that all stories had a beginning, and a middle, and an end.

That’s Samuel Pierpont Langley Elementary School. Not Langley, Virginia, of spy thriller fame. I am no more former CIA than Chuck Barris was.

Those early lessons in literary structure might well have been learned at Benjamin Syms Junior High or Poquoson High School, and I am certain literature classes reiterated those lessons at each step along the way: stories need exposition and conflict and resolution. That conflict might be with the environment, other people, or even one’s self, but the whole point of Story was ever and always the protagonist’s triumph over the object of conflict.

Story can be inspiration for mere mortals or cautionary tales for the overly adventurous.

Whether novels, short stories, epic poetry, folk tales, or Mythology, the narrative arc is the normative reality. Stories lend a sense of meaning to a meaningless universe. Stories erect order upon the quicksand of chaos.

We see it through ten thousand years of potshards and tablets and crumbling scrolls. Every encounter we moderns have with preliterate cultures suggests that stories conforming to this pattern are established at the essence of our being.

This is why I sit at my window, ransacking a collection of literary metaphors for the newest twist in this tale told by an idiot. Turning over a new leaf? Writing a new chapter? Turn the page? (Oh, God, no.)

Everything I try to say comes out hackneyed, trite, cliché.

At an age most men are approaching retirement and others are wondering how they will possibly scrape by on the crumbs that fall through the security net, I am taking my very first apartment. After a life living with roommates and spouses and family and friends I have a copy of a lease where the only name is mine. It feels like a big thing. Like the start of an adventure.

It has been my experience it is a mistake to try grafting a narrative arc over one’s own life. Besides, from Beowulf to Willie Loman, guys my age tend to make their literary mark by dying in an unpleasant fashion.

There is a passage in Breakfast of Champions where Vonnegut indicts “old-fashioned storytellers” for “mak(ing) people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end.” He diagnoses contemporary angst as stemming from the public’s efforts to live like fictional protagonists.

So maybe it’s not a new chapter, not a new page, not the start of a new adventure. Maybe it’s just a little plot of chaos where I can kick around for a while.

Posted in Musings | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment