Down with the sickness

Name Game By Bill Pieper 

Heading back to your cell after a visit could be dangerous. Mike knew it, they all knew it. Just because he was pissed off, pumping his arms and walking stiff-legged, didn’t mean he wasn’t on alert. Once you got past the search and lock-in by the re-entry guards, good chance you’d be isolated in a corner for a few seconds, out of camera range, or be alone at the back of the common area in your wing.

So if someone had a beef—which you might not be aware of—and spotted you under reduced-staff, weekend conditions, you had to be ready for an ambush and maybe lose blood, whether or not you fought back and won. The guards’ batons didn’t care who started it. And forget anybody helping out or serving as a witness, not even your buddies, if you had them. All he had now was the sound of own footsteps in the long gray hall.

            But the most dangerous time was crowding up for meals. Less so in the jostle of coffee and bacon smells at breakfast. Most guys weren’t awake enough and organized that early. It was lunch and dinner that bred trouble. The hall was a good six feet wider than the cafeteria door, which always caused jams, the lighting was dim, and with everybody bunched together, the guards and cameras couldn’t really see.

If your attacker had a razor blade or ground-down spoon handle, and could elbow in while he was screened off, a quick stab to the gut or sickening slash to the face, like the one Mike saw last week, weren’t so hard to get away with. Revenge-wise, the perp would likely take a hit too, sometimes weeks or months later, but nobody would say a word then either.

Mike hated to worry Wes or Cass with any of that during visits. For them, just his being here these past months was worry enough. Today they’d worked it to stay a solid three hours, but by now must be outside again, under the wide-open sky Mike never saw anymore, where Cass would be starting Wes’s car for a return to Quincy. The saying goodbye part was the worst of it, though, and with the visitor setup at Susanville so much more hands-on and personal, tougher than county jail.

Tough to stay on alert, too, when your lady has left a cloud behind and you can’t get your mind off it. Without stopping, Mike swung sideways and kicked at the baseboard, followed by another one, harder. Turned out that last spring Beryl Watson, Cass’s boss at the ranch in Lamoille, had threatened her and basically run her out of town for refusing to have sex with him. The fat old fuck was even married. She’d already moved to Quincy and was settled in, so she said Mike ought to know the story, but urged him to just let it go. Wes also put an oar in about letting it go. They’d probably rehearsed beforehand.

Sure, good advice, easy to say, but at this point being locked up might be a plus, ’cause from the moment he’d heard, all he wanted to do was go to Nevada and bust the damn guy’s face. Morale-wise, how fucking strong was he supposed to be? And Christ! When he made the corner into another long gray hall, it sounded like footsteps behind him, but he looked and they were just his own echoes. Going out hadn’t seemed half this long.

The touch of Cass, the smell of her, walking together in the mostly cement prison garden or side-by-side at their visitor table, about made him crazy. Even the ordinary pleasures of playing chess, like he and Wes used to at the cabin, hadn’t seemed to work in the commotion of that echoing, low-ceilinged room—all the other families, their squealing kids, the heavily armed guards, the ka-chunk of the coke machine, and inmates in their baggy prison blues roaming the aisles like they were free.

Still, he’d never loved a man the way he did Wes, and aside from Cass wanting to marry him after Mike thought he’d lost her, Wes’s having figured a way to gift them the cabin up on Mineral Creek was the best news he could think of. How was it possible, after the crazy life he’d led, and his manslaughter conviction, that he could end up with not just a wife, but, in Wes, someone to look up to and replace that fake of a father who’d raised him?

 Day by day, picturing the cabin, its swimming hole and the mining claim that went with it was his go-to for calming down, because it meant he and Cass would have a place of their own—a beautiful place—once he got out. Sometimes the miracle of it about put tears in his eyes, which you didn’t dare do as a prisoner.

Mike paused and checked over both shoulders. OK, good. The last thing he wanted was extra trouble, and as he crossed the common area, its only two occupants, watching TV well toward the front, paid him no attention. He realized that his temper was mainly what had put him here, and with so much to lose by fucking up, he’d better rein it in.

Best case, an attacker would be caught and thrown in solitary, what they call SHU, but anyone fighting got the same, no matter if you went to the infirmary first. Then came the other restrictions, like no visitors, no training perks and time added to your sentence.

You were doing well, in fact, if you could even trust your cellmate, and Mike’s, a very reserved twenty-something named Frank Torrantes, seemed  like a maybe. A beanpole of a guy, with no visible tatts, unusual for an inmate. Even Mike had an old-fashioned gold pan on one forearm. And if you could trust a couple of more guys, better yet. Mike wasn’t to that point but there were candidates. Spreading trust too far made you a fool.

Susanville was officially medium security and not for the hard-core, which made it less subject to gangs than places like High Desert or Folsom. Mike himself was on an SNY—Sensitive Needs Yard—where they put lower-grade first offenders, assuming there was room, along with guys who were scheduled for release, medically fragile or needed protection, like the child molesters inmates called short-eyes. Since gang allegiances followed racial/ethnic lines, mainline yards were segregated. SNYs weren’t. Everyone here was vetted to weed out gang bangers. Even so, gangs recruited moles to monitor the flow of contraband.

Razor blades were prized, drugs fairly available and pre-paid, burner phones most prized of all. Mike kept himself away from that stuff, read books, mainly, but it was still prison, still being penned in week after week. The rest of his two years just needed to be survivable somehow, with the hope that fire-fighter training, when it started, might give him something useful to do.

            Approaching the turn into his block, Mike heard high-pitched whimpers, then a muffled, “Please, please!” Then a hushed baritone, “Shut the fuck up!”

            Around the corner this rangy six-foot guy, a new transfer named Clay, had wimpy little Daniel pinned against the wall, his hands pressing Daniel’s shoulders and his knee between Daniel’s. “Hey!” Mike said, pissed already, and this pissed him more. “Cut that shit out!”

            Daniel’s face and lips were contorted as though he’d cry if he weren’t so terrified, and his saucer eyes and pasty skin completed the Three Stooges look of his weird, parted-in-the-middle haircut. Poor bastard had an IQ of ninety, tops, and prison might be the only place he’d been except his own bedroom, jacking off to a computer screen. The towel draped over his underwear said he’d probably run into Clay while headed for the shower. His cell was next-door to Mike’s, and as a short-eyes, he bunked solo. Down near Oroville, at his parents’ house, the neighbors had caught him finger-fucking their nine-year-old daughter after luring her upstairs one afternoon.

           

Clay turned to Mike and glared. There was an Iron Cross tattoo under his left eye and a bunch of others on his arms, beneath thickets of strawberry-blonde hair, same color as the buzz-cut inch on his head. “Fuck off!” he said. “This creep’s gonn’a blow me. If I say so, he’ll blow you too.” Daniel loosed another round of whimpers.

           

From two steps away, Mike closed the distance fast and ripped Clay’s arm off Daniel’s shoulder, partway yanking Clay around. “Leave him alone!”

Clay’s other arm pushed Daniel aside along the wall, made a fist and swung at Mike’s head. Mike extended an elbow, blocked it, then lunged into Clay, immobilizing him on the wall where Daniel had been.

But Clay shot a knee into Mike’s nuts, which hurt enough to force him back, letting Clay regroup. Piece of shit, Mike thought. Since this now just had to happen, bring it on. And who he saw in front of him was Beryl Watson as much as Clay, but Mike had twenty pounds on this Beryl, twenty pounds of muscle, dating from the high school wrestling team. Grab a leg, take him to the floor and game over. Choke-hold, fuck his face up on the concrete, and maybe break his arm. It’s what goddamn Beryl deserved, and Clay too.

Besides, Mike knew the type. About thirty, loved to play Mr. Big against the weak, but probably convicted for a pathetic meth habit and a garage full of stolen car parts. Daniel, meanwhile, his towel barely around him, had collapsed to his knees, still whimpering.

            Mike feinted with a left and was on the advance when a blur of motion arrived from the right, wedging between him and Clay. “Mike!” it said. “Don’t!”

Frank Torrantes, his cellie, something Mike sensed before seeing. Newly back from the shower, Frank wore only the standard string-tie blue trousers, with a towel hung across his chest and his shoulder-length dark hair, rumpled and damp. He also had no particular muscles and stood half a head shorter than Clay or Mike.

            “Stay out of this you crazy fuck!” Clay shoved Frank into Mike, knocking them away.

            Frank planted a foot and whirled back to Clay, voice low and hard. “You don’t want to mess with me, bro! You’re not messing with my cellie either!”

            Clay laughed, squaring up in front of Frank. “I’ll snap you like a fucking toothpick!”

            Frank stood his ground but now had an ice-hot look to match his voice. “Seriously, bro, you      don’t want to do that. Mike, let this drop. He ain’t worth it!”

            Clay seemed to think for a moment, then put on a leering grin, just as the large, black, interior-lineman body of fifty-year-old Vernon Stivers slid in to lay an arm across Clay’s chest. “Hear me, Clay. If you expect to live out the year, back off on Torrantes.” His voice was calm and clear. “I’ll fill you in, but there’s way more here than you know.” He lowered his arm and gradually disengaged.

            The rapid pounding of boots sounded from the common area and a pair of guards in blue-gray, prison-cami fatigues charged around the corner. Their looped belts were studded with weapons, one had his baton out and the other a canister of pepper spray. “In your cells now!” the baton guy yelled. “All of you! Move!” As they drew closer, the pepper spray guy demanded, “Stivers, what’s this about?”

“A little disagreement is all,” Vernon shrugged. “Just words. Done now, and nothin’ to worry about.” Amid the turmoil, with additional thudding footsteps approaching from the other direction, Daniel had already slunk into his cell and Vernon placidly followed Clay back toward his own. “You’re on lockdown, assholes!” baton guy said. “This whole wing, effective immediately.”

Half an hour later, Mike lay in his bunk trying to decompress, something he’d never been good at. He was too tense to read and knew how close he’d come to really fucking up. Images of the creek and cabin wouldn’t stay with him either, and the deep breathing Cass believed in made so much noise that Frank had asked for quiet. With nothing but a soft pencil, the guy could draw super well, and he was currently parked in a front corner, butt on the floor, shoulders against the bars and a sketchbook propped on his knees.

The September sun would be up for hours yet, but the dim, grayed-out light in the cells was never much affected. From his time in county jail, Mike had come to hate the color gray, and he hated the fucking raw concrete this whole place was made of. Everything except the metal bars of their freak-show cages, which were that same damn gray anyway. It felt as though his hair and skin and fingernails would turn that color before he got out.

Finally, Mike couldn’t stand it. “We’ve got to talk,” he said. “First off, you saved Clay’s ass, not mine.”

            Frank lowered his pencil. “Gonn’a end up with a great profile of you here, my man, above the waist and all sprawled out. A present for your lady if you want. And fuck Clay. I don’t give a shit about him. You saved that perv Daniel…why, I can’t imagine…and I saved you… from the warden…and from SHU, but mostly from yourself. Don’t be startin’ shit.”

            Mike sighed. “For a minute,” he said, feeling he had to push back, “looked like I’d be saving your cocky ass, barging in how you did. What the hell’s Vernon talking about?”

            “Might be better you don’t know. I never bring it up…with anybody.”

            “Too late,” Mike said. “If you don’t tell me, Vernon will.”

            “Huh,” Frank grunted. “OK…at your own risk. My uncle, Esteban Torrantes,” he spoke as though Mike would know what this meant, “founded the South City Cobras.”

            “South what city?”

            “LA…Compton area. Something had to give the Latinos a voice.”

            “Never been there,” Mike said.

            “There is here…and everywhere. Uncle E they call him. My father, my mother, all my brothers, most of my cousins, and even Uncle E, once, have been in and out of jail and prison for thirty years. High Desert, Pelican Bay, New Folsom, Corcoran, Soledad, you name it. Drugs, mostly…coke, meth, weed…using and dealing and whatever else it took to take care of our own.

            “I was the baby of the family,” Frank went on, “and the runt. Had seizure disorder most of my life and grew up in foster homes. But Uncle E protected me, and told me to prove a Torrantes could live straight. That if I ever went wrong…unless he asked me to…he’d turn me in himself.”

            “You’re here for armed robbery. That much I know.”

            “Would it surprise you if I wasn’t guilty?” Frank said.

            “No surprise you’d say you’re not. Like everybody in this place…except me.”

            “Look, inside or back home, the name gets noticed. I won’t deny it. And I’m used to hanging out with criminals. Who else do I know? My two roommates robbed a cab driver… and never told me…roughed him up with a hand gun…didn’t fire it, but you can leave scars other ways, and my phone was at the scene. I’d loaned it to Raymond the day before, and as soon as he had cash he called his dealer. I was back at our place, smoking weed and drawing. Later, the cabbie identified my roomies and thought he’d seen a third guy standing watch. Cops knocked down the door, busted all of us.”

            “Truth?” Mike challenged.

            “With you, would I waste breath on a lie? At least I’m in SNY instead of High Desert, ’cause of the seizure meds I’m on.”

            “So they nailed you as an accessory. Carries what, five years?”

            “Normally. For me, fifteen…on a first offense. The DA said Raymond’s gun was mine and the judge ran with it. You can guess why.” Frank stood, moved toward Mike and nodded at the bars and the corridor. “But Uncle E can always use another pair of eyes.”

            Every damn inmate Mike talked to made him feel lucky. He’d thought his background when he was arrested was so fucked, not to mention that he’d killed somebody and fled, but his sentence was nothing compared to Frank’s or Vernon’s. The capriciousness of it broke guys, sank them in grievance and self-pity. Those feelings could sneak up on Mike, too, especially after saying goodbye to Cass. But from day one, Frank never showed a sign of it. Describing his conviction, his voice had stayed as smooth as an altar boy reciting psalms.

            “Hey, take a peek,” Frank said, handing Mike the sketchbook.             “I throw out most of ’em, but this one pops. I’ll even sign it. Might add value someday.” His attitude suggested some kind of inside joke. “Prove you actually knew a Torrantes.”

            So Mike was suddenly facing himself on paper, his features and his upper body better looking than in real life, with his sometimes brooding expression, which Cass had teased him about ever since they’d met, rendered in a way that didn’t fit how it usually felt from within. There was restraint to it this time and more hope, apparently, than anger. But Frank’s pencil had perfectly caught the gray of the place, more perfectly than any oil painting would do.

The Deranged Grackle-by Jonathan Montgomery

 

For a couple days there were a lot of Common Grackles on the big tree outside our building. The shiny purple-headed, yellow-eyed blackbirds were on every branch making their typical cacophony of squeaky gate sounding calls. It was migration season, and soon they all vanished… except the deranged one.

 

The Deranged Grackle had one red eye and was always on the ground. It seemed easily agitated and would make a particularly loud “squeakygate” noise. It stayed close to our door, and we figured it wanted to come inside.

 

“What an adorable anomaly!” we said and let it in.

 

“Squeakygate,” it said and made itself at home.

 

We viewed ourselves as little deranged sometimes and figured we’d be able to relate with the creature. But it didn’t take long before its “squeakygate” did not sound good to our ears. It got in the way of things we’d rather listen to like music and the rain and our thoughts.

 

When we tried to ignore it, it flew in front of our face. When we tried to chase it out, it flew just out of reach. Eventually it said “squeakygate” enough that peace seemed hopeless.

 

“Fukkinbird!” it made us say.

 

But saying that just made The Deranged Grackle “squeakygate” even more.

 

“Alright, let’s reason this out...” we eventually hadta tell it. “Your species is not supposta be inside an apartment, is not supposta stay in the region this time of year, not supposta make this much noise, nor have a single red eye. It’s unacceptable to us, and you need to change.”

 

“Squeakygate!” it answered, “squeakygate!”

 

But it didn’t try to change and seemed to not be listening at all, and that made us feel helpless, and that made us feel angry.  And feeling angry made us want to get as close to its red eye as possible and scream things at it like, “CHANGE CRAZY BIRD, CHANGE CRAZY BIRD, DON’T BE DERANGED ANY MORE!”

 

But it only screamed back, “SQUEAKYGATE, SQUEAKYGATE, SQUEAKYGATE!” all night long.

 

The script repeated almost every day, except sometimes we’d scream louder and longer and use different scream-words, but the bird would always scream “SQUEAKYGATE” just as loud and long. It was a real stalemate, you could say.

 

Then one time these psychologists came to my job at the college to tell all the teachers how to deal with deranged students.

 

“Whenever they seem to be living in The Other Universe,” they said, “just use this.” Then they handed each of us a stuffed Koala Bear wearing an undersized T-shirt that said “mental health.”

 

The Koala Bear had such a cute pudge-belly. It had such a cute, oversized black nose. It had such cute, little circle-ears. Why not use this at home, we thought.

 

So we put it in front of the Deranged Grackle, and the bird was screaming “SQUEAKYGATE” like usual, but the Koala didn’t scream back or cover its ears. It just took it with a permanent-stitched smile the whole time. In fact, its plush exterior seemed to absorb the sound, each scream becoming quieter and quieter until it there was silence. Finally, the Deranged Grackle went over and wing-nuzzled the Bear, and everything was alright.

 

“New strategy,” we said, “always use Koala.”

 

And when we did it helped us Love the Grackle and realize it couldn’t be anything but its Deranged self, and we felt hope.

 

Although for whatever reason we couldn’t always remember where we put the doll, or what it looked like, or even where the continent of Australia was.  And we’d end up screaming again even tho it didn’t work.

 

“FUCKING CRAZY WRONG BROKEN BIRD FIX YOURSELF NOT FAIR FIX YOURSELF BE NORMAL EVIL AWFUL THING YOU ARE SUPPOSTA BE NORMAL BAD BAD BAD IM NOT THE PROBLEM YOU ARE YOU CRAZY DERANGED FUCKING GRACKLE!”

 

“SQUEAKYGATE, SQUEAKYGATE, SQUEAKYGATE, SQUEAKYGATE, SQUEAKYGATE, SQUEAKYGATE, SQUEAKYGATE, SQUEAKYGATE, SQUEAKYGATE!” the Deranged Grackle predictably responded.

 

Sometimes strangely in the middle of it all we’d suddenly remember where the Koala was, but before giving it to the bird we’d hafta first smush it firmly against our own faces and scream our own repetitive cries deep into the soft stuffing until we calmed down enough to say, “We’re sorry. We promise to do better next time.”

deranged grackle.JPG

Issue 1: Lawyers, guns and money

Poets, Poems, and Poetry- by Jonathan Montgomery

 

1

I usta drive cab for a living, and one good part was I got to meet people who had jobs I didn’t know anything about.  Like lawyer.

 

One night a lawyer got in my cab, and he was hammered.  Someone hadta help him in the door, they hadta plop him down flat on the backseat, and then they hadta tell me where to drop him off. 

 

At first I thought he was just another puke-threat drunk, but then in the middle of the ride he suddenly popped up and said, “Hey… I’m an attorney.”

 

He handed me his card, and it had the scales of justice on it, and his credentials, and contact info.

 

“If you ever need legal assistance,” he said, “call me.”

 

“Thanks,” I said, “but I don’t make money.”

 

“Pro bono.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Cuz I appreciate your line of work.”

 

“Alright.”

 

“I know what you’re thinking… and I am an alcoholic… but only to cope with the stress of my job. I’m always sober in the courtroom.  In the courtroom… I’m a wolverine.”

 

I liked the sound of that and made sure to keep the card.

 

Not too long later I got pulled over for running thru a red light even tho I didn’t.  It was gonna cost $100.  Shit, I thought, poverty and principles are gonna make me hafta fight this thing.

 

I wanted something ferocious to defend me, so I dug out the lawyer’s card and called the number.  I left a message that The Cab Driver needed to get out of a jam.

 

I heard nothing for a couple days and called again.  And then I still heard nothing.

 

I didn’t know what to do, and I mentioned the situation to the poets at the open mic that week.

 

“You don’t need a lawyer,” one poet said.

 

He was a guy who’d been in his fair share of legal trouble and even prison.  He wasn’t bad; it was just that poets can’t easily fit into society.

 

“Here’s what you do,” he said.  “You go to court, and when they ask you what happened you look them in the eye and say, ‘I didn’t do it.”

 

“That’s all?” I asked.

 

“Yup.  The burden of proof is on them.”

 

I took the poet’s legal advice, and he was right.  A lawyer, a cop, and a judge all looked at me very suspiciously in the courtroom that day, but none of them could prove I was guilty of driving thru a red light.  And then I owed them $000.

 

2

As someone who currently teaches for a living I’m always aware of the threat of a mass shooter.  For every location on campus I hafta imagine an escape plan.

 

In some locations I clearly see a door and run towards it, and I’m so amazed at my speed.

 

In some locations I’m able to find a perfect hiding place, somewhere very dark, behind something very thick. 

 

In some locations I lay on the ground, pretend they’ve already got me, and pray.

 

In other locations I fight back with my fists and adrenaline, and I’m a hero who dies.

 

My favorite location is where I stand face-to-face with the shooter, draw a poem, aim it at them, and fire.  The poem uses tremendous metaphors and flows with an undeniable rhythm.  The syllables sound like music and the imagery is clear and relatable.  And it has just the right amount of ambiguity that one can interpret it however they need.  The shooter interprets it as meaning everything will finally be alright now and decides not to shoot me or anyone else with their gun.

 

3. 

Sometimes I’m a poet for a living…

 

I’ve had bartenders comp me a drink after a good reading.

 

One time I performed in a tutu and a woman stuck $10 down the front.

 

I can sell a couple chapbooks during the release party.

 

But I don’t expect much more than that.

 

Recently I surprisingly had someone pay me $500 for one poem. 

 

He’s a guy who has his own company, digs my work, and wants to live in a world in which poets make money too.  I would’ve given him the poem for nothing, but I didn’t resist the offer.

 

He cut me a check and the 500 went straight into my bank account and blended with all the other money in there.  There was no way to tell which was the poetry money and which was the other.

 

But I pretended anyway.  And for the next $500 spent I imagined those goods and services were exchanged directly for the poetry.

 

The insights of my heart for vending machine peanut M&M’s

 

Linebreaks for gas

 

Hyperbole for new Gold Toe dress socks

 

Irony for 24 pack of Charmin Ultra

 

Alliteration for barista tip

 

Rhymes for pen recycled from plastic bottles

 

Wordplay for sales tax

 

Cadence for Audubon stuffed animal birds with real sound

 

Emotional courage for Domino’s large pineapple-pepperoni pizza and 20oz Fanta

 

The title for Capital One credit card interest

 

The last line for late fees

 

The linguistic expression of my soul unfolded, smoothed, and fed into change machine for laundry quarters

 

It all felt good.

 

And it made poets, poems, and poetry seem really powerful for another brief moment.

Issue 0: Prelaunch

Cotton Candy- by Rebecca Blandon

 

The past clings like filaments of cotton candy: sticky threads melding to warm flesh.

New beginnings are illusions. Candy pink threads momentarily forgotten or ignored, we claim we are beginning anew, launching into the unknown. Threads ignored at our own peril.

I began again at 40. Acknowledging some threads, ignoring some and unaware of others, launched into finding a partner once again. Former loves and their hydrocarbon threads imbedded in my flesh, unseen but not unknown sending fuel to known neural pathways triggering memory, action.

I did not know I was looking for him. Unconscious to threads stretching back, past my exes, past my birth, reaching deep into my history I sought his face.

I only realize it now, years after, when I look back. This lover has his lips. That one, his fingers. A third, his hair. My unconscious spotted glimpses of him in the faces of others but they were not him. They became misdirected paths, mistakes I left, more cotton candy clinging to me.

The recognition wasn’t instant, not exactly. Something about him made my mitochondria sing when we met. I did not know why, but I knew I had to talk to this man. Energy and light I had not seen in more than a century was so familiar, so right.

Paris, 1860.

He lived in a small, dark flat in Paris. The bed, barely larger than a twin, rickety iron headboard, chamber pot underneath, I would recognize it anywhere. Cold in both winter and summer. His clothes were kept neatly in a small wardrobe.

He was thinner than. We all were. I met him, sitting in a small café. He was scribbling in a small notebook, every page covered in that familiar handwriting. Verses of love and liberation. He sipped coffee and watched Parisians jostle their way through the day.

-          Its crowded. May I sit?

-          Yes, yes please.

I sit in the thin chair, place my demitasse on the table. Sip it quietly, not wanting to interrupt his work.

Even one hundred fifty years later I know that smile. True enjoyment spreads on his lips, his eyes are full of light. We talk. I have seen more of the world than he. Tell him of India, of walking in the Alps, of finding Paris.

There was a freedom to being a man. I felt safe talking to this poet.

We made our home in that dark flat. Light comes through curtains I fashioned at some point. Filtered light falling across his shoulders, his collar bones. It does the same today. I have the same sense of belonging in his arms all these years later. He smells the same.

Threads of safety and happiness follow me through time and over oceans.

America, 1953.

He dabs my brow drenched in sweat. I lay in a hospital bed, one I won’t ever leave.

-          I am so sorry. I didn’t want this.

-          Shhh. Save your strength.

He blots the sweat away.

-          But our children…

-          They are fine. I am with them.

The guilt of dying early, polio, and leaving him with three children to raise clings to me through time. We were happy. I left too early.

California, now.

The first night he held me, I knew it was him. Quietly I thanked him. Thanked him for traveling through time, across oceans to find me. Thanked him for the cotton candy threads of safety and happiness. Mitochondrial happy dances made my light buzz with joy.

Candy treads still cling, for better and worse. Wrapped with layers of sticky confection, my mind searches to understand the happiness we once had. The threads have woven into a blanket, insulating me in doubt and distress.

He works to dislodge the unnecessary sweetness. Kindness, tenderness, trust slowly dissolve the threads clinging to me. Slowly penetrate the suffocating despair I have wrapped myself in since we parted in 1876. Slowly.

It is not a new beginning in the “clean slate” manner. It is new this lifetime. First connection with a soul mate. First partner my DNA knows it can trust fully. First light, at least on this rotation of the wheel of life.

He removes the old threads, working his way back to the ones we formed in Paris. Back to the point of happiness, safety and freedom. We begin the begun.

The Unreal Place by H.J. Vanderiet

 

I’m not sure how many times I’ve imagined myself walking through the hallway that leads to death.

 

There’s a brilliantly bright light at the end, so bright that I cannot see what is in the room beyond it, if there is anything at all. But this hallway; oh, this hallway. I run my hand along its walls.

 

They are cool against my fingertips, and smooth, so smooth I think to myself they must have been paved by a builder with the steadiest of hands. All along the walls are framed pictures of people I’ve loved, and still love. People who have walked this hall ahead of me, and people I’m leaving behind. My Mema is up there, who used to ask me how my play was going, who told me stories of when she was in the Campfire Girls. Who lost her way in Dementia, and who thought for an afternoon that I was my father’s new wife.

 

I loved her.

 

My ex-boyfriend: who set me free during a time when I yearned for freedom, yet who later would not commit to a life with me, yet who later didn’t want to let me go, yet who turned ugly when I stopped speaking to him.

 

Who I sometimes wonder about.

 

My flesh tingles against the light bathing it, and all at once the answers of life and death, and the questions of the cosmos fill me deeply until I’m certain that nothing can separate me from them. Fear ceases as I reach the doorway, and smile at the sight.

.