10-Line Tuesday

October 8, 2019

Eight, forty-two, seventy-five

Yes, of course, take the path to the far cove. Walk the trails called Evergreen and Maple.
Visit the lighthouse and beneath that, the cemetery. By all means, avail yourself
of the lobster at the inn restaurant, caught fresh just that afternoon. Stop at the spot
where the remains of a shipwreck tilt on a salad of seaweed and salty boulders.
Pick the small apples downed from last week’s storm. Buy a postcard, or earrings,
or a hooded sweatshirt in a color you don’t normally wear. Just don’t ignore the sign
push-pinned against the library door, the one that reads “High Stakes Bingo.” If you do,
you’ll miss the sunset that stopped the fourth round, and the huddle moving outside
to see it, and how it felt like every sadness you’d ever carried fell away, and the giddy
return to the game, and how the numbers suddenly sounded like blessings. 8. 42. 75.

October 1, 2019

Syracuse sushi

We were hungry after the long day. There were reasons why someone couldn’t 
do Italian, and other reasons why burgers were off the table, and so on and so on, 
and so there we were, seven travelers in town for just the one night, finding ourselves 
at a window table at an improbable sushi restaurant in downtown Syracuse, wondering 
if we were in for a regrettable meal. And I remembered an afternoon in Brady, Nebraska,
when a man calling himself a “cowboy poet” stood up from his luncheon seat, recited, 
by heart, a piece he’d written years before, how his eyes grew wild and young again. 
It is easy to dismiss a paradox, shun one aspect of ourselves in favor of another, 
dull the gleam in the pavement to blend in with a neighboring sameness. The poems
were hardly beautiful. The food wasn’t exquisite. But these are the things I’ll remember.

September 24, 2019

train will not whistle at crossing

It would be nice to have signs. A cloud parting in two, say, and an arrow of sun
pointing. It would be lovely, at the fork of any unbearable decision, that a path 
with equidistant, perfectly round stones would unwrap at your feet. Haven’t you waited
at certain corners, squinting at maps? Haven’t you held a damp finger to the sky,
gauging the wind? Haven’t you searched the bottoms of tea cups, scattered feathers, 
tipped your ear against gravel, shaken dice, placed hands palm-up on a table
at a county fair, made bargains with a stop light, a sidewalk crack, a dime, a daisy?
Haven’t you held a deerskin pouch against your chest and counted to 10?
It would be nice to have signs, but mostly, the train will not whistle at the crossing.
You must stand at the empty tracks and decide.. You must be that arrow, and point.

September 17, 2019

the message

The front from South Dakota shifted east. In certain zip codes, the flooding caused
a sharp alarm to sound on cell phones. In others, a flock of clouds never coalesced
into actual rain. Elsewhere, everything stayed exactly as it was, and the rides 
of the county fairs maintained their cadence and no one was disappointed 
they’d driven all that way. If you were in it, the apocalyptic sky might have mimicked 
your distress. If you were not, you may have felt a beam of euphoria make a spotlight 
of your face. Either way, the weather is going to shuffle out of your clutches,
its metaphors flirting shamelessly, and you’ll keep trying to map your fortune
to this ficklest of muses when all the while, the message stays precisely the same: 
”But are you taking good care of each other?”

September 10, 2019

Nebraska corn

The first time, it’s a battalion, a rash of fresh recruits, a startle of verticality
against an edgeless, mushroom-hued sea. The second, it’s a record on repeat,
the scene from that movie when the main character fumbles into the same mishap
day after day, forgetting the lesson. The third time, your car nosing through back roads,
you find yourself stiffening against the visual cacophony, the rank and file of rows, 
the arch collars of husks, and that toughness follows you all the way up Route 91, 
then 70, then 14, then 20, old byways that still bear the echo of train whistles.
So it’s only on the final miles before the state line, the traffic swelling, your foot
cramped from all that pressure on the gas, that you notice, squinting at the fields,
how the stalks look as if they might be waving,

September 3, 2019

puzzle pieces at the 7-11

It is a stop for gas, a restroom, a bottle of water. The cars seem oversized, the drivers
focused but distant. The temperature is climbing toward 95 degrees; the asphalt
undulates with heat. The smell of French fries spills from a nearby McDonald’s. We
could be anywhere. We are in Idaho or Utah. We are in an alternate universe that is
these mountains, this interstate, this time zone. And then I am looking down at my feet,
where four pieces of a jigsaw puzzle are scattered. They are faded, frayed at the edges
where the exhaust from countless travelers has touched the cardboard. I imagine
a child in some backseat miles from here is wondering where the remainders are,
the ones that would complete the picture in her lap. Don’t worry, I want to tell her.
And I put them in my pocket, because you never know.

August 27, 2019

burnt ends
for the Jones sisters

You will have to get off the highway. You will have to slog through a lumpy stretch 
where the street has slid into disrepair, where the parking lots have abandoned 
their frenzy of commerce, where the view has thinned and paled like a ghost. You will
have to lean into your basest instincts - hunger, hope - to light your way, to let 
whatever warm glow they might cast catch the pavement. You will have to hold 
your gaze to what you can’t see yet. You will have to erase from your mind 
the signs you thought would be there. You will have to ask for what you really want. 
You will have to sit at an empty chipped table and wait. You will have to know 
the difference between meat and bone. You will have to use your hands, 
and when you do, the sweet, peppery stain of your work will follow you everywhere.

August 20, 2019

on the drive home

Pop songs with ubiquitous slant rhymes—“time” and “mine, “move” and “love.”
Nathan’s hot dogs and Aunt Ann’s pretzels. An overpass lined with flags. 
A compact from Quebec. A semi from Indiana. A horse trailer. An Airstream.
Signs that say “Thanks for visiting.” Signs that say “Welcome.” Signs that say 
“Express Lane” and “Exit Left” and “Divided Highway.” Signs like fortune tellers, 
like a shake of the cookie jar, like diamonds. A silver water bottle. Cold red grapes.
A bookend of apple trees. The smeared remnants of a squirrel. Deer, unperturbed,
grazing a stone’s throw from the shoulder. The unshakeable metaphors of departure
and arrival. Mileage like a promise. A sky you can almost feel.
The foot, steady on the gas. The hands, tender at the wheel.

August 13, 2019

the sideliners

They are not taking the stage. They’re shy of microphones, slip like young deer
toward the vicinity of an exit, where they are comforted by the hard shape of a door.
Whoever they meet will immediately forget their name, their line of work, what color 
their eyes are. They will shift imperceptibly when the room crowds, narrowing
their already tidy real estate. They will exhibit an infinitesimal patience as the jostle
of bodies rubs the veneer of jubilance thin. And they will listen. They will pay
delicate attention. They will sense the colliding perfumes of ambition and mishap. 
They will memorize the creases of loss. They will name the gleam in the eyes of lovers.
They will feel the nodular geography of disappointment, the slopy turns of desire.
They will carry these stories home. They will tell them to no one. 

August 6, 2019

sorry not sorry 

That I took an extra candy from the office bowl, leaving butterscotch and peppermint.
That when I spoke to the rabbit at the wild strawberry patch, I did so in a baby voice 
I normally loathe. That I snapped a sprig of thyme into a pair of eyebrows, 
just for the photograph. That I didn’t read all the sad poetry in that
expensive literary magazine I subscribe to. That I slipped over the gate that warned
”Do not enter.” That I need room to dance. That I stay a little outside conversations.
That I still believe I will find my lost boot the next time I drive through Minnesota.
That I didn’t finish that lunch in my grandmother’s Florida kitchen 42 years ago. 
That I left. That I stayed. That when I tell the truth, it can be hard as cold plums. 
That I still say goodnight to my dead father. That I pretend he’s answering back.

July 30, 2019

exodus from the Dollar Tree 

Before I arrive, I am frothing at the thought of the store’s refrigerated aisles,
respite from a heat index that has been tipping the scales for days. Once inside,
bright star-shaped signs announce the week’s specials. It turns out a slim stack of quarters
can net me an off-brand ribeye steak, a five-pack of flea collars, 
a tower of party glasses festooned for a bridal shower. Musak floats overhead,
and earthward, the squeaky third wheels of shopping carts and the sounds of plastic
heaped on top of plastic. The shelves are full; the sales slapdash, almost desperate 
with appeal. The paper towels look threadbare; the birthday favors, saccharine.
The oasis I’d dreamed up is a glut of frigid cheer.
Whatever I wanted, it turns out, was never here.

July 23, 2019

stars

The house is old. The driveway, fissured with weeds. A basement beam appears
to have wilted at the center, giving the room a sad, sagged look. We cross our fingers 
when the plumber comes, fumbling with the nomenclature as he taps the walls 
and speaks of the pipes threaded there like veins. There is always some brokenness 
whose origin we are aiming to identify, wielding the rubber handles of tools like
kid soldiers. When that fails, we scrub the lid of the washing machine until its gloss 
returns, tighten outlet plates, straighten picture frames, water the cactus in the window,
sink into the wicker porch chairs with some cocktail we’ve fashioned out of our
salty disappointment. Meanwhile, our bodies keep churning their countless engines, 
scouring and sloughing while we lean back and watch the stars come out one by one.

July 16, 2019

a brief inventory 

In pink report cards, Mrs. Carlson’s glowing remarks have trailed me like comet tails 
for 40 years. At the onset of every move, I reunite with her bubbly cursive extolling 
various virtues—a mastery of the weekly spelling test, a growing social competence, 
an aptitude for math. I have an enthusiasm for learning - she writes - 
that makes it a pleasure to teach. Now, decades from the shiny, cacophonous halls
of Wenonah Elementary, I can still slip myself into the hard plastic desk two rows 
from Mrs. Carlson’s gaze, still hear the chirp of her morning announcements, still spot 
that wide, uninhibited grin, still feel the soft, grey paper with the faint hash lines
cocooning my efforts, and the flourish of checkmarks beside every word I got right.
Did she know even then I’d still be here, tilting my head, listening for her footsteps?

July 9, 2019

Scotch
for David

The peaches, holding court on the market’s rustic tables, look infomercial-perfect, 
bathing in a humid July morning that has already sapped us. We glance, drowsily,
at the slatted baskets. Had the season advanced so far already? The day before, 
we’d gotten a call we couldn’t have predicted, news of a man who slipped away 
while a Yankees game wound down its last innings in his living room. I thought of him, 
still enthralled by his home team, settling back in a chair as if it were an old friend, 
a finger of Scotch to his right, as I reached into my small canvas bag and made space. 
Maybe the peaches wouldn’t be at their sweetest, their skins hiding a subsurface ruin, the pit
rutted with quiet disease. Maybe David should’ve skipped the game, or opted out of that Scotch.
But who can blame any of us for taking any swig of summer we can get?

July 2, 2019

let’s not sit this one out

It’s hot, as our fathers used to say, as blazes, the signs pointing ardently toward caution.
They are not without reason, our faces already reddened by the first wave of effort, 
and the forecast unrelenting. But the opponents are in it for the kill, lungs sustained 
by the kind of fire that spares nothing and leaves claw marks in the dirt, as if Earth 
were being dragged against her will. They rush to the field in droves, so it’s tempting 
to do as our former teachers once advised, swivel our cheeks away from trouble, 
turn a deaf ear to the theater of taunts, and exit the stadium untouched. They didn’t see 
this coming, those sanguine purveyors of stale graham crackers and Dixie-cupped juice, 
but they were wrong even then, our flimsy defiance a poor cousin of courage. 
A film of char remains from any silence. We cannot make this same mistake again.

June 25, 2019

advice for the newly hatched
for C.

Later, you will admire the tree you came from - its artistic notches, the flourish 
of branch and bark, the sweet density of leaf and blanket of shade, how the view 
often tilted in your favor - skyward - where clouds drifted into whatever shapes 
you wanted them to be. You will tell stories of your past in the way of myth,
each vignette pearlescent as dew. You will pluck good fruit from the old stems,
and the skin will still be soft and yielding. For now, though, offer your betrothal 
to this strange, quaking new body. Admire the heated voltage of your fear, your blood 
circling the drain. Remember you are merely at the outskirts of your own ballast, 
that the swaying will go on for awhile, and then it won’t, and then it will again.
This is and isn’t the beginning. This is and isn’t the end.

June 18, 2019

homage

Who knew these cookies still existed, Dutch Cocoa from Archway, 12 to a pack, 
that a New Jersey grocery 3,000 miles and 37 years from when I last ate them
would carry, at nose-height, a whiff of my childhood, that when I reached up, 
they’d return me to the San Luis Obispo Kroger’s on a weekend run with my father,
after a ballet class I wanted to love but couldn’t because all the other girls looked like 
flamingos, one preening embellishment after another, while I stubbed my toes 
against an unforgiving barre. It didn’t matter. I floated through the bright aisles
at the helm of the cart while my father plucked a cellophane bundle from a high shelf,
a dozen sugar-dusted disks peeking through, then slid it behind the bread and eggs,
and we glanced at each other like twin defectors, a quiet rebellion glowing in our eyes.

June 11, 2019

thirds

No one cares where the second-tier towels are kept. The ones we take to the beach
are rolled up like fancy cannoli in the canvas bag a few steps from the back screen door, 
and the dark grey ones bought to match the new bathroom are slung intimately 
on the hooks of bedroom closets. But in the dankest basement corner, 
beside rusty curtain rods and old paint, an assemblage of orphan linens jostles for space 
in a tiny cupboard. It is the picture of neglect and privilege, an extravagant remnant 
of houses traded up for newer models, the castoffs we keep lugging to the next place.
Yet these are the ones that do the dirtiest work, dabbed at muddy hatchback floor mats,
wiping up metastatic kitchen spills and the desperate leavings from an incontinent dog.
They bear the marks of error, a carcass rimmed with birds. I fold them into even thirds.

June 4, 2019

the softball team is thriving

A hard loss to a longtime rival might have pummeled their spirits permanently, left
the girls to sputter their season to a close. But at the sharpest pinch of disappointment,
something steered them away from the abyss and here they are in the headlines
of the local paper, glistened by four straight victories and a spot in the conference
semifinals. I could envy their luminous statistics - the muscle that gave the outfielder
her three runs, or the senior shortstop who clocked in a homer and four RBIs -
but instead my gaze pitches toward a field cross-hatched with cleat marks, the earth
bearing a balance of joy and heartache as the bleachers sway with revelers.
Aren’t we all carrying some measure of mutiny against our unbeatable odds,
our hands creased with resolve and our blood clotting willfully with hope?

May 28, 2019

between seasons

After the cherry blossoms disappeared, a certain malaise lingered, a feeling of being
between seasons. Every few days, the brief revving of a lawnmower could be heard,
as if someone were simply testing the engine. In the produce aisle, tomatoes still held
the strange waxy pallor of winter, and - as if to rekindle the spirits of the shoppers -
boxes of California strawberries had been placed strategically between rows of
demoralized greens. We were all trying to get somewhere, such was our impatience -
no, our disdain - for this ellipses of waiting. Our mouths were watering for change.
Later, we’d try, and fail, to remember what were doing in the weeks before
summer sank its syrupy teeth in and fall came tumbling after. We’d say, “It’s all
going by too fast” as beneath our feet, the soil churned every loss into gold.