Monday, June 11, 2018

Greece and Poems

Normally when I travel I am under the delusion that somehow I will be "inspired" to write about new experiences. I'm always motivated to do so, but generally no poems materialize. In April, however, we Maya, Brian, Lora and I visited Greece - Athens, Santorini and Crete) - and upon my return, I really did begin to write.  I did not get very far on some of the poems, but these two I did manage to finish.  While they are too amateurish for a literary magazine, I thought they still might find a home in this family blog.


At Akroteri  Lighthouse

My daughter and I spider down the rocks
where wind-aged lava and the scent of the Aegean
bind us more strongly than any words possible.
Wedged in the boulders’ crevices I discover
a fragment of blue enameled pottery
perhaps a scrap of long ago Thera coughed up
reminding us that
then, as now  (the surviving murals tell us)
young women bore  hope in flowers
and fathers sacrificed  to family gods
for their  future.
But for all their prayers
the lava still came.
No bodies found.
Perhaps they escaped to these rocks
the westernmost part of the island
ships bearing them off.
It may even be that the destruction
was what they prayed for
the unchosen chance to leave behind
lives more fissured than the volcano.

We  descend to the beach now
where the sea pounds these rocks down
into red and black sand
the way time pounds all dreams down
into the sediment of daily life,
fragments that only sparkle
when seen from a distance.

***



Idyll

Davos and Mythos beer in a
bright  Chania sunlight
whose  lightness seems  to rise
above the ordinary day.
Aeolus blowing in takes us away
from reality for a while
to seas where Nereids still swim
shores where centaurs and satyrs bathe.
How good it is to float
above logic for a while to
not be circumscribed by
reasons rules or science’s
invisible chains.
Now even dreams are logical
dampened into a half life of decay
but the ocean is lapis lazuli today
and we are, after all on an island
where the blue fans out as far
as we can see.
Maybe we are after all just sparks
Ein sof  trapped in matter’s labyrinth
waiting for that shift the frees us home.

I welcome any comments.



Thursday, March 29, 2018

Good Friday Story


Apologia for Mere Movement

George sat in the front seat of his worn 1953 Rambler station wagon slowly sipping Old-Grandad, car door open, his legs hanging out to the side.  He didn’t want to go home.  The sunlight shining through the palm trees across the street from the parking lot did little to cheer him up.  He did not want to walk through that door and hear – once again – how the money he made as an office clerk was not enough.  He already knew it. Five children and now another one on the way.  It wasn’t as though the road he was following had been his own choice.  In marrying Velda, he had to sign a pledge to convert to Catholicism and raise all of the children resulting from the marriage Catholic.  That meant, of course, that any attempt to limit family size was a crap shoot at best.  If it hadn’t been that he’d spent the first years of marriage away at sea during the war and then another chunk of them gone when Korea came along, who knew how many mouths there might be now.

At the very least, he had to finish the bottle and jettison it before he went home. Alcohol was banned in his house.  It may have been the way that his father and generations of other Housmans had made coping easier in the backwaters of the Chesapeake, but it was a strategy closed off to the California branch of the family. 

When George trudged through the front door of the house from school, his brother Willie was waiting.  His younger sisters Sarah and Mandy were sitting on the floor crying. 
            “They found her in the river,” Willie said, turning his eyes towards the stretch of the Little Wicomico that wandered past the back edge of their house.  “About half a mile down.”
            George squeezed his eyes closed to hold the water back. Two already crying was enough, even if they were girls. “Who found her?” he asked, just to be saying something.  His mother had been missing for the last couple of days, but that was not unusual.  Since her husband’s death six months earlier it wasn’t uncommon for her to go spend a few days with her sister when she needed some time away. George’s older brothers, Pierce and Delbert were there to watch the younger ones; they had gone as far in school as they cared to and now worked when they could.
            “Raleigh Bryant,” Willie said.  “I was over at the fair, when he came looking for me.  I guess he couldn’t find Baylor.” Then he added, “I thought she was tougher than that but I guess she just couldn’t take it.”
            Sarah stood up. “Shut up with that. The stove was on and she was cooking jam. She wouldn’t have done nothing with jam on the stove.”
            “Maybe,” Willie said. “But her pocket was full of rocks.”

Good Friday, George remembered.  He’d promised Velda he’d pick up candy and baskets for the kids.   He got out of the car, tossed the empty bottle in the trash, and lit a Pall Mall.  Even Mickey, his oldest and almost a teenager was so excited about Easter that he wanted to believe in the Easter Bunny once again.  He pictured their smiles as he walked into the house with baskets, jelly beans and chocolate rabbits, then remembered that he would have to keep them hidden until Sunday.  Well, maybe the thought of how happy they would be when they woke up and saw them was enough to sustain him.  And this year they could have an Easter egg hunt.  For the past three years they had lived in apartments or Quonset huts where anything like an Easter egg hunt had been impossible, but for the past eight months, since his discharge from the Navy and move up to Santa Ana, they’d been able to rent a house with an actual backyard. Whether they would be able to continue to pay the rent on it was an open question, but at least for this year, he would be able slip out to the backyard just before dark, hide the eggs, and watch the children all scramble to find them on Sunday morning. That would be special. He took a final drag on the cigarette, tossed it onto the parking lot blacktop and climbed into the car.

Baylor called George to come down to the pier at the back of the yard and help him fold up the nets that he had been using for crabbing.  George could smell the alcohol on his brother’s breath a body length away.  After their mother died, Baylor had moved with his wife and year-old daughter into the Houseman family compound. The family needed a woman in the house and though she helped out, Sarah was still in school during the day. If she could graduate, she’d be the first in the family.
            “Buddy,” Baylor began.  “I’ve found a place for you.  I know you’re too young to get a job like Pierce, Willie and Delbert, but you’re twelve years old and you can earn your keep.  Millie and Leroy Granger said they would take you in.”
            George looked at the ground.  Words wouldn’t come.
            “Come on, Buddy” Baylor said.  “It could be a blessing in disguise.  You’re the damn smartest one in the family and Leroy is on the school board. He’ll make sure you get a education. Just do your chores before school, then help them out on the farm when you get home.  Me, Pierce and Willie are getting by and Delbert – well,  you know with being blind and all – but you might get the chance to make something of yourself. Sound like a plan?”
            George looked out at the water, the same in which he had been baptized and where his family made its living, feeling for the first time the indifferent motion with which it carried everything to the sea.  “Yeah,” he said. “Sounds like a plan.”

George drove across town and pulled into the Sees parking lot.  Peanut brittle was Velda’s favorite and even though it was overpriced he figured he might as well dig the whole deeper and pick up some for her as a surprise since they couldn’t really afford the Easter Candy in the first place and it wasn’t like he could put it on lay away. 
            The store, which normally sold chocolate candy in fancy boxes, was taking full advantage of Easter to add to its income.  As he walked through the door, he saw temporary shelves full of candy Easter eggs in every imaginable color and size. Some were in cellophane bags and others already in pre-packaged Easter baskets.  There were chocolate bunnies and crosses, yellow peeps chicks, and cream-filled eggs in tin foil. He grabbed five colored Easter baskets, making sure to get a pink one for Jenny, then piled on a variety of candy and took it up to the counter.
            “Anything else?” asked the clerk.
            “Give me a pound of peanut brittle.”
            “I’m afraid that ship has sailed,” the clerk said. “We sold the last box about two minutes ago. We should have some more coming in about an hour, though. If you want to give me your name, we can set one aside for you.”
            George weighed his options -  wait around and get home late, try to find an excuse to leave the house and pick the candy up, or just look like he didn’t care. Don’t fight the current.  “I’ll just take what I got.”
            He looked back at the clerk, “You take checks, don’t you?”
            “As long as you have a license.”
            George pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and fished out his license.
            “Is that Houseman?” the clerk asked, peering at the small print on the license as George wrote out the check.
            “Housman – no e.”
            “I always hate to ask,” the clerk said. “But you’d be surprised what some people try to pull.”
            “I don’t doubt it,” George said as he picked up the candy. “It takes all kinds.”

            “Hey, George” Ruby waved as she broke away from the rest of the graduating students.  “Let me sign your yearbook. I heard you’re joining the Navy. I better sign it while I got chance.”
            “You’ve got a while.” George grinned handing her his yearbook.  “I don’t report until October.”
            Ruby opened the book to the first page. “Well, look at this. ‘To George, the most dependable student I’ve ever had. Best of luck at college. – Mr. Rodney Shaw, Principal.’ I guess you’re not just the valedictorian, you’re the principal’s pet.”
            “That’s just because he gets me to drive all his messages into Heathsville so he doesn’t have to do it,” George laughed.
            Ruby tilted the year book towards her as she wrote, closed it quickly and looked up at him. “How come you aren’t going to college like Mr. Shaw wrote? Everyone knows you got that scholarship. Why do you want to go into the Navy?”
            “Can’t afford it. The scholarship won’t cover everything. How am I going to pay for food and a place to live? Besides, the war is coming and...you know, it wouldn’t be right for me going off to school.”
            “And...”
            “And I’ve just got to get out of here for a little while.  You know what I mean. Before I settle down like my brothers. Sarah’s up in Washington, DC with her husband, but I’ve never been farther than Richmond County. I’ll just go for four years, see the world a bit and come back.”
            “George,” Ruby’s voice grew quieter. “You know if you leave, you won’t be back.”
            George smiled. “Of course, I will. Hey, you want to hear something funny?”
            “What?”
            “All of my life I’ve been spelling my name wrong?”
            “What are you talking about?”
            “Well, when I went to sign up for the Navy, I had to get my birth certificate. Now you know my last name is Houseman, spelled H-o-u-s-e-m-a-n, right?
            “Yeah…”
            “But on my birth certificate it is spelled Housman, without the e. The enlistment office said I had to use the name on my birth certificate.”
            “That’s a stitch. So who are you now?
            George paused a minute, “Damned if I know.”  Then he added, “The strangest thing is that I drove up to Richmond County afterwards and looked at my Grandpa William’s grave. His last name is spelled Housman, too.  My whole family is messed up.”
            Ruby smiled, “Well, whoever you are, George, don’t change. We’ll miss you.” She handed his yearbook back to him and moved back into the crowd of graduates.
           
As George walked out of the store, he spotted a pay phone and started towards it to give Velda a call letting her know he had picked up the candy and was on his way home, then thought better of it. He’d be home in a few minutes anyway.  It was Friday, so that probably meant tuna casserole.  His eyes furrowed as he remembered last week’s meal. 
            The kids had all gathered around the table for dinner when Velda set the hot casserole dish down in the middle. 
            “Tuna casserole again?” Charlie complained with all the indignation a ten year old could muster.
            “You eat what’s served” Velda said, “It’s one of your Dad’s favorites.”
            “Not exactly,” the words slipped out before George realized he was saying them.
            Velda looked at him, “But you like it a lot, don’t you?”
            “To be honest,” George said. “I don’t care for it much.”
            Velda’s expression changed; in her eyes George could see genuine hurt. “You mean I’ve been making this for fifteen years and you never said anything. Why didn’t you tell me if you don’t like it?”
            All George could think of to say was, “You never asked.”
            George unlocked the back of the station wagon and set the baskets and candy down. The check would bounce but there would only be a small charge for that. When he got paid next week, he’d go in with cash to Sees and apologize for the mistake.  There would still plenty of money in the bank…And then it hit him, a growing nausea in his stomach that crept up into his salivary glands as though he would vomit.  The car payment.  He hadn’t made the car payment this month. How could he have forgotten? He sat in the front seat with his hands over his head.  In his twenty years in the Navy, he had been seasick only once, in a storm off of the Aleutians that threaten to sink the destroyer he was on, but now in the front seat of the car, he recognized the feeling. They’d lose the car or the house or both. He couldn’t face Velda. He couldn’t. He sat in the front seat of the car, his hands shaking.  He’d survived Pearl Harbor, but he was drowning now.
            He lifted his head and out of the corner of his eyes saw the distant glow of a Budweiser sign, radiating light to lure in beach goers and partiers even on this bright California afternoon.  It was not the sign that The Saved were looking for on Good Friday,  but it was one George understood. The only life boat in sight.  He headed for the light.
           
The violent shaking knocked George and the others on the USS Case out of their bunks.  Sunday morning but sirens were screaming and everyone scrambling, running up to the deck.  Ships were burning. Men were in the water floating dead or drowning.  The Case had not been hit but it was firing back at the planes rising back up overhead rising from their attack on the carriers.  George looked back to where the USS Shaw was burning and sinking into the water.  It was where the Case had been assigned to come in for dry dock, but at the last minute bumped by the Shaw and pushed further along the harbor. Being booted out had saved it.

The last drop gone, George knew what he had to do.  As the clerk of the three-person business where he worked, George often had to open the office and had the keys in his pocket.  As the de facto bookkeeper of the business, he knew where the payroll checks were kept.  He drove back to the office and unlocked the door. Everyone had already left for the holidays.  The checks, already written, were where he expected them to be.  He carefully pulled his off of the stub and went over to his typewriter.  If anything the twenty years of being stuck behind a typewriter in the Navy had taught him, it was how to navigate a piece of paper.  He slipped the check behind the roller of the Smith Corona and turned the wheel.  Pulling back the arm of the typewriter he moved the check into the exact position where he needed it to be and in front of the sum reading 202.13, he typed a 1.
            The teller at Bank of America was just walking over to lock the door when George trotted up to the bank door.  He sensed that she was disgruntled for having to be the one to stay late, probably the lone Jew sentenced to work all the Christian holidays, but he had brought an empty Easter basket with him and held up his check, pointing back and forth between them.  Shrugging, she opened the door and George explained that he’d been kept late at work and had not had time to go cash his check to buy Easter candy for his children.  He’d only be a minute.  She let him in. Trying to keep his distance and his bourbony breath away from the teller, George quickly filled out the deposit ticket.  It would be sufficient to cover the candy, rent and car payment even after keeping out enough for fare for himself.  He wished her a Happy Easter as he left.
           
George did not want to see his mother in the casket, but Baylor insisted. They had to tell her good-bye. He hung at the back of the line behind Mandy.  When his turn came, he stared at his mother. Her eyes were closed, but she seemed calm with an expression on her tired face that said, at last.  George leaned in to kiss her cheek.  As he did, his lips moved towards her ear.  “Why did you leave?” he whispered. “Why did you leave?”

George drove to the Alpha Beta and parked his car in the middle of the lot where it could be easily found with its Easter baskets visible through the back window.  He debated leaving the keys in the car but he didn’t want it to get stolen, and Velda couldn’t drive anyway.  The sun was lowering in the sky. He could almost hear the Pacific lapping ten miles away.  At home they would already be starting to wonder where he was. 
He checked for his wallet, locked the car and started walking toward the bus station.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Pickled Pigs Feet



I’ve just finished reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, possibly the best novel I have read in years.  On the surface it has to do with the lives of various characters connected in some way to music or the music industry. In its larger sense, it is a meditation on identity and existence as creature of time.
Pickled pigs feet. I haven’t thought of those in a number of years but this morning as I was thinking about Egans’s book, they popped into my head.  I think they are one of those foods  like chitlins and scrapple that if you are not raised eating them, you have no desire to try.  They really belong to a different time and place, to a different you.  As a boy I can remember my father bringing home big jars of pickled pig’s feet.  When the jars were opened and a pigs foot was pulled out a sort of gelatinous mass clung to them.  It was not a pretty sight but the vinegary taste and crunchiness as you chewed the meat off of the bone was addictive.  The thought of them still invokes  the ghost of those memories on my tongue.
The pigs feet were a calque of my father’s boyhood like those words that crept into his speech from time to time from a mysterious time and place that I knew little about, somewhere in the tributaries of the Little Wicomico.  Words like “gunny sack” and “doggone”  joined words for food such as hominy, fried green tomatoes, poke and squirrel.  I’ve never tasted squirrel myself and, I don’t think as an adult my father had either - he said it was good but a bit greasy. Egan begins her novel with a quote from Proust to the effect that when we re-enter memories of the past we are trying to recapture something of that self we were at the time and that it is a dangerous journey.  It is certainly true as a scientific fact, that every atom that constitutes my body now is different from the ones that made it up when I was a child. In that sense, you can never go home.  Whatever we were then, is not what we are now.  Even so, in looking at those residues of childhood in our words and foods, we can get some sense of the landscape that formed us.
I don’t know what my father’s childhood was like.  His parents were both dead by the time he was eleven.   But the foods that he liked were a form of transmission. Something that carried over.  When I unexpectedly hear pickled pigs feet come into my mind, I recognize without knowing it that I am a carrier, too.   Words fill my mind of the foods I once ate that I doubt turn up on any of my children’s menus: tongue, oyster stew, Cool Aid, Navy beans, mapeline syrup, liver and onions…   I wonder if when my children search their minds they feel the same;  those forgotten foods of the past bringing to life once more some aspect of the past and of themselves that they have forgotten.  Proust is right, it is dangerous to try to reclaim an Eden that perhaps only exists as such in our minds.  Our lives are composed of many selves.  Even so, those clues about what we were at one time are tantalizing and in some ways still a part of us.  As a matter of fact,  there is a certain item that I would like to add to my shopping list.