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Greg's poems, stories and essays that are available online are linked to in the Publications section. On this page you may find works in publications that are out of print or are unavailable online.  All original copyrights remain.  Please request permission for publication.

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videos for individually published poems are listed in red (video) on the Publications page.
 

My Daughter, Learning Geometry in a Foreign Country” (Salt and Iron) posted for Easter

Fiction

 

From the novel Where Shadow Meets Water:

          "March 18, 1923.  Pas de Calais, near Arras,"  

Rusty Wilson is an American pilot who flew Sopwith Pups with the British Royal Naval Air Service in 1917.  He was badly wounded in combat and spent time in Craiglockhart War Hospital, a mental hospital for officers in Edinburgh.  In this chapter, Rusty travels from Florida to France six years later to fulfill a promise to visit his mechanic and friend, Bernard Lavallier. On his long walk from Calais to Bapaume, he is welcomed into a farmhouse for the evening.

     The grass, where it grew, had become green again in Pas de Calais.  I walked for four days by the time I came through Maroeuil.  The town had cleaned up and made some parts usable—cleared the rubble , knocked down walls already falling down, shored up the ones that seemed sound.  One side of the station had collapsed, perhaps from shelling and only the ribs of the roof shone.  Shellfire had finished many other buildings off so that some blocks where there were buildings that once shared walls, one building’s façade would sport the curved fronts of the 19th century while those next to them would be squarish, ungraceful things tossed up almost, it would seem, as placemakers for actual architecture that had been there before.  It was similar in a hundred towns throughout the  Somme.

     Most of the time, there was no longer the absence of  buildings—rubble, an interior open to the sky, something usable destroyed in a second by an artillery shell meant for soldiers but fallen short or long or just fired in the general direction of the combatants.  The buildings they put up in their place made no attempt to become what had been there before.  How could they?  How could you make a pretense of suggesting that throwing up the scrolls and facades which once suggested some sense of unity, humanity, the small life of purchasing, say, a rake or a hammer, a box of nails at a hardware store, make any sense at all?  Of course, people did so.  To build up their farmhouses, homes, to do what they needed to do, they put up something to replace what was destroyed.  They put on their coats and hats and carried their grocery bags and walked down the sidewalk in Maroeuil and said bonjour to each other and even to the haggard young man limping along with an old RNAS pack on a cool March day.  The farmers attempted to plough their fields and piled barbed wire and shells on the side of the roads. And sometimes the shells would explode and kill the man who’d come home from the trenches to plant wheat.  And still, they moved forward and plowed.  The fields I walked past were still brown with plowing though the grass was green.  What else could they do?

     And myself, what else could I do?  I had promised Bernard I would come to see him in Bapaume. The boat dropped me at Calais, further south than St. Pol, which I might have known a little, and I had caught some cars when they would stop for me. They stopped more often if I had my RNAS jacket on but mostly I walked alongside the road or followed a trail that wound sometimes through fields and sometimes along roads.  More people than I would imagine were walking the same path, as if they, too, had made a promise and had somewhere to go, someone to visit at the other end.

     In Maroeuil, I stopped next to the trail.  On a fallen tree trunk I gnawed a baguette, drank a little water and finished an apple.  There had been no cheese where I last stopped.  No wine, either.  On the boat over, people were talking about how Paris was now the place to be, where jazz singers and writers were all congregating--French, Americans, Brits, Spaniards.  They would go there and revel and talk about important things, I imagine, and drink too much and sleep with each others’ wives.  Bohemians, maybe.  I had never been to Paris.  I had been to St. Pol and Dunkirk and Bergues and Saint-Omer and Calais and some other small towns where we would go when there was a washout or when we would set down at another aerodrome.  At some of those places, we would drink too much and make passes at waitresses or girls on the streets.  I had been to Edinburgh and London.  But being in Maroeuil wasn’t like being in Paris where the artists and writers and musicians went and lived their important lives.  And I wasn’t a writer, just a mechanic who learned how to fly and got shot up.  I would not be thinking anything deep about this and no art or music would come of it.  I’m writing in this journal just to get it all down and get it right in my head.

               “Vous etes un pèlerin ? «  An old man with muddy boots had walked up on me as I was writing in my notebook.  Suspenders held up his trousers.  He hadn’t shaved in a few days and his face was stubbled with grey and black like a cut field.

               « Pelerin ? » I didn’t know that word in French but everyone had used it, almost since I started walking.  « Monsieur.  Je ne connait pas le mot pelerin. Je march de Calais au Bapaume voir un vieux ami. »  I am walking from Calais to Bapaume to see and old friend.  He cocked his head at my odd accent. 

               « Oui, les pelerins, ils marches beaucoups.  Ici est La Via Francigena. »  He pointed to the trail I’d followed.  What in hell was he on about ?  Perhaps I was on his property ? He pointed to a stone on the side of the trail with a little etching of a man with a pack and a stick.  « Pelerin, » he gestured. « Vous allez au Rome, n’est-ce que pas ? »     

               « Non, monsieur. Je vais au mon ami a Bapaume. »  No, sir.  I’m going to my friend in Bapaume.  Why would he think I was going to Rome ?

               « C’est la meme chose, » he said.  « Mangez vous cette jour ?  Seulement pain et pomme ?  Viens avec moi.  Mangeons avec ma famille.  C’est ma ferme la. »  He wanted me to come eat with him, convinced, I think, that I was headed to Rome, but that holy city was so far away.  It was getting late and I didn’t know where Bernard lived. I was hungry.

               « Merci, mon ami, merci, » I said.  I hefted my bag with the key on top and followed him up the trail to where I could see a farmhouse in the distance.  We walked along a field.   Half of it the old man had ploughed and the other half was cordoned off with rope and stakes.  Along the edge of the field, were piles of garbage or some sort.  As we neared them, I made out a rusted rifle with bayonet attached.  A shell casing.  A twisted bicycle.  Various bits of rusted metal I couldn’t identify.  An engine from something.  An entrenching tool, a metal plate.  Two big unexploded shells.  An English or Canadian helmet rent almost in half.

               « De la guerre, » he said.  « Ne pas bien pour la ferme. » 

               I nodded.

               As the sun dipped behind the treeline, the temperature began to crawl inside my clothes.  I was glad I would be inside for dinner at least.  The chimney suggested a fire inside.

               « Voici un autre pelerin, » he said to his wife as he stepped inside the door.  The warmth of the fire greeted us both and I made sure to close the door behind me.  I removed my boots and left them near the front door along with the ash staff I’d cut from the woods along the way.  The wife said something to the little girl, who looked maybe to be 10 and she said to me « venez ici, monsieur, venez ici » and motioned her hand.  I followed.  She took me into a room with a bath and a washbasin.

               « Maman dites que le pelerin doit se lever apres le diner. »  Soap and a towel were on a small wooden stool.  There was not much else in the small room and almost everything seemed in shades of white except for a brightly-colored bisquit tin on a shelf.  There was a mirror.   How long had it been since I’d looked at myself ? My beard had grown out, black and dark brown.  My hair looked greasy.  My clothes were road-soiled.   I had lost weight.  How long had I been on this trail ?  Since the coast, perhaps a week ?  Since I first left for Calais ?  Since I’d seen my men wounded ? Since I’d first killed ?  It seemed forever.  I stripped my clothes and was aware than I smelled of my own body.  I hadn’t bathed in a long time.  There was a knock on the door.  I pulled a towel around my waist.  The wife came in with a tin bucket and poured hot water into the tub.

               « Faites attention.  Oui ?  Tres chaud. »  She pointed to the water steaming in the bath.  « Un moment. »  I waited.  She returned with another bucket of steaming water and the little girl, giggling, hefted a bucket of cold water.  She struggled to hold it while her mother poured the hot water in the bath.  I held my towel with one hand and took the bucket from her.  She smiled.  I set down the bucket and she looked at my leg.  Without my pants on, it was clear that the bone hadn’t set straight.  Anyone could see the mass of shiny and twisted scar tissue left by the bullet and the spar and the surgeries.  « Regarde sa jambe, Maman, » she said.  The mother shushed her and began to push her from the room.

               « Attendez, » I said.  Wait.  It’s okay.  « Ça va. »  I sat on the stool and held my leg where they could see. The mother had a look of anguish and averted her eyes.  The little girl came up to me and looked into my eyes and then down at the leg.  She reached out her hand, then stopped and looked back at me.  « Ca va. » She ran her hand down the crooked bone, over the smoothness of the scar.  Except for doctors and nurses, no one had ever touched me there. 

               « Lisse, »  she said.  I didn’t know what that meant, but she didn’t act like it was bad.

               « Vous etiez un soldat, mon fils ? » the woman asked.  You were a soldier, my son ?

               « Un pilot, » I said, making an airplane of my hand, « dans un avion.  Pres d’ici en mille neuf cent dix-sept. » 

               « Pauvre fils, » she said and took the girl by the hand and led her back to the kitchen.  They closed the door and I could hear the girl talking with her mother. 

               The water cooled some.  I added some from the bucket and climbed in.  The soap was there on a little wooden shelf, but I let it be for the moment.  This was the first time since I left Dunedin weeks ago that I had been in the water.  I’d washed, but never bathed.  The farmer brought in some more water which wasn’t steaming so much.  After he poured the water in, I floated just enough to lift up off the bottom of the tub.  He closed the door and I stayed that way, not on the earth and not in the air.  If I sat up just a little, I would stop floating.  I closed my eyes and things were quiet for once.  The family was going about the business of cooking and whatever they do, but, for me, things were quiet for once in that little room. 

               I smelled food.  How long since I’d eaten something, something beyond bread and fruit ?  How long since I’d shared a meal with another human ? With the Father a few days ago ?  How long since I’d really had a meal, since I’d eaten to share a meal with others, like a family ?  I sat up and washed.  I washed the dirt of the road from my arms, my hair.  I scrubbed through my beard and took the oil out of my hair.  A tin can was there for rinsing.  I poured water over my head and felt it cascade down my back, down the hair on my chest.   Maybe something could change.

               After I dried, I saw that they had taken my clothes.  On the stool were a pair of rough pants and a cotton shirt.  A simple suit jacket hung on the wall.  Three years ago, I would have thought that they were too small for me, but they fit my frame.  Only the pants were a little short.  They smelled of soap.  I combed my hair and beard and walked out.

               « merci, » I said, and gestured to the clothes.

               « Ah, » the wife said.  « Vos vetements ont besoin de‘un lavage. »  She was talking about my clothes.  Lavage meant wash. Perhaps I would wash them tomorrow.  They were still working on dinner.  The little girl was setting plates and silverware on the table.  The farmer gestured to one of two chairs next to the fireplace and I sat.  He poured something from a cognac bottle into a small glass.  I could see it wasn’t cognac—clear and more viscous.  « Votre sante, » he said. He tossed his back.  The smell from my glass was in my nose before I could even taste it.  Some sort of moonshine.  « Cognac de la ferme, » he said.  It had been years since my days of tossing back glasses of brandy at aerodromes. I raised my glass and tossed it back.  It burned down my throat and landed on a fairly empty stomach.  Almost immediately, my head was swimming.  The farmer laughed.  The wife called us to the table.

               The table was set with bread on a wooden plate, a bottle of wine without a label, small glasses, and large flattened bowls made of a beautiful china with little red flowers.  The wife brought a large serving bowl made of a sort of stoneware.  The man ladled the stew onto each of our bowls.  They bowed their heads and folded their hands.  As I had learned to do, I followed.  I had gone to church in Dunedin, though the best part of a Sunday was earlier than that, with the sun rising over the bay and the quiet of the water and the redfish and birds feeding.  Grand-mere took these things seriously when we were in Wisconsin as a kid and we would go to the Catholic church which Grand-pere helped to build and I would try to sing along in French.  They had their festivals and holidays which meant we would have a big dinner with everyone over. It was good in France in 1917, too, where early patrol meant we would be up to watch the sun coming up over the Somme.  At the aerodrome, the Brits would have the Anglican chaplain come in for Christmas and Easter and whenever there was a particularly brutal push on.  He would set up in the mess on Sunday mornings and Hinton and some of the enlisted men would go to hear him while the rest of us slept.  The French squadron had their priest at the same times.  I had the memory of the Gulf of Mexico, red-shouldered hawks, the early mornings.  Here, today, the farmer said his prayer quickly and in French and ended with something about pelerin. 

               The stew was thick, with some sort of meat, potatoes, pepper, canned tomatoes, a sort of creamy gravy.  We passed the bread around and then there was butter in a stoneware tub.  The little girl poured wine for all of us, including herself.  “A votre sante, Papa!” she said with her slightly-filled glass, “et a vous aussi, Monsieur Pelerin!”  We drank.  I smiled at her.  The fire was warm, as was the stew, and the bread was fresh.  The red wine was rustic and good.  The woman cleared the table except for the wine and the little girl lay down in front of the fire to read a book, leaving the three of us there.  The man poured more wine.

               “Whose clothes are these?” I said in English and pulled at my shirt.  The woman looked at her husband.  “Cette chemise . . . de qui?” I tried.  This shirt. . . of who?  The woman’s face turned and she put her hand on her husband’s powerful forearm.

               “Mon fils,” he said.  My son.

               “Ou est?”

               “Il est mort, dans la guerre.” He died in the war.

               “Oh,” I said.  “J’ai regret.  J’ai regret beaucoups.”  All I could say was that I was sorry.  She brought two pictures.  In one, the young man was in a French uniform and smiling with two friends.  In another, he was younger and standing in a field with a small hunting rifle.

               “Vignt ans.  Vignt ans.” She said and sat down, her head in her hands.  Twenty years.  I was not much older when I was flying here.  Maybe 23.  She was mourning, but there was so much mourning to go around.  I didn’t know how they could stand it, knowing so many of them had lost sons, fathers, brothers, and the town still in ruins.  I went to my pack and found one of the cigars I had brought.  I was down to about four.  Good Tampa cigars.  I gave one to the farmer.  “Pour vous, monsieur.  Merci pour tout.”  I fished about and found an American penny and hid it between my fingers.   I went to the little girl, who stood up.  “Voici,” I said, “you have something la” and pointed to her ear and then pulled the coin from it.   “Un centime d’Amerique, mademoiselle.”  She laughed and held it up for her father, then took it off to her room.  I didn’t have anything for the woman.  “Et pour vous, j’ai regret, madame.  Je n’ai rien.”  She smiled at me and held my hand and said something quickly to her husband, kissed my hand and then left the room.

               “It is okay,” he said in halting English.  “It is for her like seeing Rene once more.”  I nodded.

               “Monsieur.  I have to tell you, I am not a pilgrim.  Je ne suis pas un pelerin.  I am only looking for my old friend Bernard Lavalliere.  He was my mechanic at St. Pol.”  The man shook his head a bit.  “Seulement, je cherches mon ami Bernard Lavalliere, un mecanicien des avions a St. Pol.”  I am only looking for my friend Bernard who was a mechanic at St. Pol.  I held my hands open.  “Ne pas un pelerin.”

               “Ah!”  The man stood and went to the fire and lit his cigar with a brand.  He drew in and sat back in his chair.  “C’est bien, ca!” he said.  “I know a M. Lavalliere, qui est mecanicien. He went to Bapaume past two years.  Will send you tomorrow.”

               “Merci . .. “

               “Mais,” he said.  “I know you are no true pelerin.  Vous n’est pas un vrai pelerin, mais vous cherchez quelquechose, n’est pas? You look for something more than only your friend.”

               “No,  monsieur . . .”

               “Oui, I think this is the truth.  And by the time you arrive in Bapaume, it will be Paques and you will have a feast with your friend and you will find something.”  He continued smoking his cigar.  The wine and moonshine helped me to sink quietly into the chair.  I was tired from a long time walking.  The food was good in my belly and this place was warm and safe.  I woke with the man’s strong hands on my shoulders and him saying “monsieur, dormez la.”  He led me into a small room where the pictures I had seen were on a desk and the hunting rifle was on the wall.  I lay down on the bed and fell asleep almost immediately.  When I closed my eyes, I didn’t see anyone screaming at me.  No one was burning this time.  I thought briefly of Emma, but that night in the hotel in London was long ago as well and I didn’t need it anymore to not be afraid.  I fell asleep as easily as I did in the hospital with morphine and ether, as easily as in the abbey or auberge.

 

*   *   *

               Someone was yelling.  “Aaaaaaah!  Aaaaaaaah!”  Where was I?  In a bed.  There was a rifle on the wall.  “Aaaaaaah!”  It was coming from outside.  Bleating.  I got up from the bed.  My leg was stiff again.  Outside—goats.  Yes.  France.  I spent the night here.  Yes.  Sun was just coming up and the rest of the house was still asleep.  I put on my shoes and found the outhouse.   On the way back to the house, there was the stack of firewood, a big stump and the axe for splitting.  Maybe I could do something small for them.  I pulled the axe from the stump and set up the small logs and began splitting them.  They had had a chance to season a bit and they split easily.  It was good working up a sweat like this, good to be up this time of day without having been up all night waiting for dawn.  I stacked the wood I’d split and carried another stack inside.  I put it next to the fireplace where I saw my clothes had dried on a rack.  I went to my room and put them on.  When I came out, the woman was boiling coffee on the stove.

               “Merci beaucoups, madame.” I pointed to my clothes. She smiled

               “Café?”

               “Oh, merci.”  The coffee was hot and fresh and strong as Bernard would make it.  Perhaps that was a local talent.  There was some milk and sugar.  Drinking the coffee was almost nutrition by itself.  I pointed to the milk.  “Ou est votre vache?”

               “Ce n’est pas une vache.  Chevre.”

               When I raised my eyebrows, she bleated.  The farmer came in with milk from the goats and washed his hands.  The little girl came out rubbing sleep from her eyes and when she saw me at the table, she said “maman, Rene!”  The woman turned and looked at me for a moment, then said “ooooh” and hugged her daughter and said “non, non, le pelerin, rapelles-toi?”  The little girl said “oh, oui” and sat down.  She looked at me in her brother’s clothes, then up at my face.  How old would she have been when he died? Five, maybe?  When her father came to the table, we had a breakfast of bread, jam and goat’s cheese.  Then the woman dressed the girl and they left for school.  The milk was fresh and still warm.  The farmer gave me directions for the road to Bapaume.  I could follow the pilgrimage road, Via Francigena, all the way there.  “But you are in the zone rouge now.  Be very careful where you walk.”

               “Oui, monsieur, mais qu-est ce que c’est le zone rouge?”

               “Where the bombs are still hidden.  Where there is poison.”

               “Oh,” I said.  “Oh, I see . . .”  I had been home in Florida for years where our only damage was in the men who came home and the hurricane.  France had been trying to heal itself.

               “Soyez benis, pelerin,” he said and handed me some bread and some goat cheese wrapped in paper.  Bless you, pilgrim.

Apalachee Review 68: 19-27  All rights reserved

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Deer Hunting in the Everglades  (creative nonfiction) 

    Growing up in Key Largo, I learned late about hunting.  In 1968, my parents were caretakers of a weekend house owned by a Miami bank.  My mother would clean the “big house,” wash the linens, dust, clean the floors, make the beds, and get it back in shape after the reveling or relaxing of the past weekend.  She would cut the weedy grass that grew out of the rocky yard there.  My father had a job putting up antennas.  With the stipend they got from cleaning the house and keeping watch on things and my father’s paycheck, there wasn’t a whole lot to keep things going for a couple with one toddler and a new infant (my sister).  So when my father took me fishing, it was for food.  We rowed out into a Florida Bay more pristine than it is now, and we would catch snapper and grunts and my father would filet them and freeze them in bags of ice.  When he got a boat, I fished with him far out into the Gulf Stream, where I landed a big kingfish when I was eight.  As I grew up, I grew to know the ways of fish, how fish ate one another, how crabs and scavenger fish would clean the carcass of the dead, how birds would carry away anything that floated.  I learned all this with so much subtlety that there was never any sort of initiation into fishing.  I was thirteen before my father took me hunting.

 

            While I had certainly been blooded by fishing early on, cleaning my own fish by the time I was eight, I had no idea about hunting deer.  When I was twelve, we visited my grandparents’ farm on my mother’s side and, while we were there, they butchered a heifer.  I watched as my uncle, grandfather and my dad loaded the .38 and walked out the door.   I was a gentle kid and loved animals, but I wanted to watch, probably just to be with the men.  But my father—wisely, I understand now—made me stay inside the little house with my mother and grandmother where I listened for the gunshot.  The men weren’t happy or sad when they came in.  They were businesslike, doing the gruesome work of a farm, but there was some dark kinship among them.  Maybe it was with some memory of this that my father called his friend Bill Waddell the following year and planned a deer hunting trip to the Everglades.

 

            The week before the trip, we went to look at Bill’s guns.  Bill had served in the army at some point, in something talked about only in hushed tones, perhaps Special Forces.  From his closet, he took a big, dangerous-looking black .45 automatic, dropped the magazine, cleared the chamber and let me hold it.  It was not the same experience as I’d imagined as I saw Sgt. York or John Wayne brandish the same weapon.  I placed the heavy gun on the bed.  Then Bill pulled a lever action .30-.30 like cowboys used, a pump shotgun and a carbine like they carried in Combat! on Saturday afternoons.  I was to carry the carbine, which Bill placed in my hands.  I wrapped my hands around the wood of the stock, made sure the safety was in place and gently fingered the trigger.  I sighted down the barrel to a lamp at the edge of the room.  I knew a little already about guns.  I owned a Daisy air rifle and had, to my credit, had shot dozens of tin cans and the first rat discovered in our garage. In a suicidal display, the poor thing walked out of the clutter and stopped immediately below the bulls eye I had painted on an old box.  I lowered the rifle and fired, leveling the animal.

 

            Every night that week, I talked with my dad about hunting deer, about where to shoot, about what it would all be like.  I imagined Dan’l Boone sorts of scenes, of my picture next to a hanging fourteen point buck.  The day came when we loaded the guns and the sleeping bags and cans of Dinty Moore Beef Stew into my dad’s Ford panel van and we headed north to the Everglades on a Friday afternoon.  The road into the hunting area was mostly a rutted limestone path used by Jeeps and other four-wheelers and the van bounced uncomfortably until we finally found a place to camp.  We heated the stew over a little fire and drank coffee with dried creamer in it.  After dinner, I stood outside with my dad and Bill while they passed a flask filled with Wild Turkey.  It was cold out there—close to freezing—and I stamped my feet like they did and took a sip of the whiskey which my dad said would keep me warm but which burned even before I could taste it.  They laughed and slapped me on the back.  As dusk faded, mosquitoes began to come out in earnest.  More than just slapping one or two, they came in swarms like in The African Queen.  My father said something to Bill about his smoking keeping mosquitoes away.  Then, my father, who had quit a heavy smoking habit cold turkey ten years ago, lit up one of Bill’s cigarettes in order to keep the mosquitoes away.  With the cigarette in his mouth, my dad looked far off at something as he drew the smoke into his lungs.  He looked like someone from a movie of who he was before he ever had me, of who he was when he was an Air Force policeman in Reno, maybe, when he was single a long time before me.  Then he turned to me and blew a steady stream of smoke from my head all down my body.  The mosquitoes lifted from me for a moment and he repeated the act until he had finished his cigarette. 

 

          It started to drizzle and the longer we stood in the cold, the more the drizzle turned to rain that ran down my ball cap.  We escaped into the van, where we dried off and swatted the mosquitoes that came in with us.  We bedded down on the musty olive drab sleeping bags and I drifted to sleep, listening to Bill snore loudly, the rain on the metal roof, and automatic gunfire and growling swamp buggies in the distance.  I dreamed of fleet brown deer.

 

            In the morning, we had more coffee and the men primed me on how the hunt would go.  They would fan out to the sides and I would walk down the middle.  If a deer was flushed, I was to have first shot and to be careful what I shot at.  The paths we walked were wet, and we stepped on chunks of limestone.  The rising sun burned the mosquitoes away and soon we could no longer see our breaths. 

 

On the rocks, we walked up on pygmy rattlesnakes coiled and working hard to wring whatever warmth they could from the rocks and the rising sun so they could go on their own hunts.  I expected my father to warn me about them, or to tell me to shoot them, to say something.  He had always warned me from danger or from being a danger to other people, but now I only sensed him waiting behind me.  Bill said nothing.  It seemed like the Everglades was listening while I stood there with my carbine, more lethal than I had ever been.  I waited for them to rattle or bolt as we came near, but they only lifted their heads a bit.  Venomous enough to kill a boy or old man or put him into the hospital, they were now cold and helpless.  I hadn’t yet killed anything.  I thought of rattlers I’d seen skinned out and made into belts or hatbands.  I eased the safety and nudged one with the muzzle of my rifle.  It moved its rattler weakly.   I re-set the safety on my rifle and, instead of stepping around the rattler, I stepped over it, and it remained coiled.  I stepped over the others there on the cold trail and the men followed, said nothing.  As far as we walked that day, we saw no deer and no other game. 

 

            The van had sunk to its axles in mud the night before and needed to be pulled out by Jeep.  When even a passing Jeep couldn’t free it, my father walked to the nearest bar and hunting lodge for a swamp buggy.  While he was gone, I fired Bill’s .22 pistol into a paper plate target.  That was the only gun I fired that day.  I hadn’t killed anything.  On the way home in the van, I drank coffee with the men and carved a deer out of a piece of wood I’d found, making a totem of the lesson I thought I’d missed.

All rights reserved

 

Reprinted with the permission of Odet and Chapter Two Press  (First published in Odet. Winter 2017: 29-32)

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Circular Reasoning (Fiction)

            Stalled in my truck at the intersection of Corey Avenue and Boca Ciega Drive, I had a front row seat to the accident.  An old man on the beach bike lolled through the intersection. A blue Toyota pickup whirred around him, horn blaring.  It swerved around him the way you walk around old people in St. Petersburg malls, muttering about being impeded, about why the old folks don’t stay to the side , or stay at home.  I thought this old guy was going to stay out of the way, or at least keep riding in a straight line; then he bounced off the bed of the Toyota.  Even now, I’m not sure how they collided.  Maybe the truck and the bicycle moved towards one another.  Maybe only one moved.  There wasn’t enough meaning, enough purpose, enough something about the whole thing for it really to have happened.  But it did.

            But that wasn’t all.  When the old man bounced off the rusty blue of the truck bed, he was thrown off his falling bicycle and spun around so that he was traveling backwards.  It all looked like a rodeo stunt:  the cowboy spinning up to land backwards on his horse,  something this old man might have seen on Saturdays at the movies.  After that it was clear that he was going down.  Still traveling backwards, arms useless at his sides,  he fell, his head gaining on his body until his grey-frosted skull met the warm rock of the pavement.  A woman in a green polyester dress said Omigod.  A man yelled at the truck to stop.  The old man lay still except for a little movement in his arms and legs.  A couple yards down Boca Ciega, the young woman driving the truck pulled to the side and looked over her shoulder through the glass, still not sure what had happened.  While her face, eyes and mouth all went round, the suntanned blond man next to her opened the door and ran to the old man.  The blond used his t-shirt to catch blood and skull.  I ran to the Corey Five and Dime and called 911.

            When I came back to the intersection where the old man lay, there wasn’t much to do.  The old man poured his blood into the young man’s smooth hands.  The old man’s right hand scratched his shirt in an awkward way.  The left hand gripped the shirt.  Being on the left side, I put that hand in mine and held it.  Blood came out of his ears.  The blond kept saying “you’re gonna be okay,” but the old man couldn’t hear him.  He held my hand tight.  He couldn’t see now.  His eyes rolled back and then he let my hand go.  I retook the hand in a macho handshake, locking our thumbs.  I remembered lying on the gravel after a traffic accident in high school, craving the motherly feel of a hand.  The other hand stopped scratching and shook.  The one I held began to give.  Blood eddied up gelous and dark in his ears, and then lighter and more viscous on the ground.  The hand I held palsied.  I dropped it and waved down the paramedics.

            The paramedic with the tackle box  shouldered me out of the way, saying nothing, checking the man’s eyes for dilation.  And then the man on the street was not mine anymore.  He was blood and biology and heart rate and trauma.  I walked to the post office to join the other watchers.  Across the street, the girl stood beside the truck, the tips of her fingers touching her chin.  It would be a good shot.  My camera was in the truck, which was stopped at the intersection with the emergency flashers on.  Wilson would make it page one tomorrow in the Beach Gazette.  She lives, down here, I thought, .  I’d seen her somewhere before, I was sure.  The shirt she was wearing.  No, I didn’t know.  Wilson would want shots of the paramedics and the old man’s face  and the broken bicycle.  How could I do that?  I would have made a great picture, too, holding the old man’s hand, the other guy holding his head.  Since when did I become a picture?  The sorry bastards who got themselves in those positions always fit right in my viewfinder.  People getting themselves in fights in front of the Beachcomber, traffic accidents, Mayor McKoskey getting all red and mad at the environmentalists, even the sixth grade PRIDE awards at Boca Ciega Elementary with all the goofy, teary-eyed, proud parents: those were always mine, my shots.  The Nikon had a roll of 400, thirty-six exposure, only six shots used that morning on those pelicans sitting on top of the fish house next to the big mullet sign.   They’ll use that one on page three, facing the edit page, or maybe on the back if they’re short.  The Minolta had 200 in it, fresh roll of 24? 

            The blond guy tried to console her, both sitting on the curb, she not yet crying.  Shadows cut across them, though.  I could get behind them, put her in the foreground watching the medics load the old guy into the truck. 

            There the old man went.  Oxygen mask, backboard, IV.  Hand still moving a little.  What was that cop saying to the girl?  When did the cops get here?  Driver’s license and registration.  Blond had it for her, looking out for her. Brother?  I can hear the cop say something like if he dies, there could be a manslaughter investigation, homicide, something. That got to her:  she was crying.  She’ll greet mortality like a tourist, like death was something that only happened to old people, the result of disease, nothing that involved her.   The whole business must have been as incomprehensible to her as bicycles to people driving cars.

            Why didn’t I get the camera?  The cop moved away.  I walked over to the girl.  The blond looked at me.  I ignored him and said “I know how you feel.  I don’t know who hit who, but he should have been more careful.”  The corner of her mouth curled in thanks.  Then I knew who she was.  She waited tables at Sneaky D’s.   She didn’t remember me from lunches, I guessed.

            The cop came back.  “You a witness?”  He wasn’t involved, really.  He was just doing his job.

            “Yes,” I told him.  I knew I shouldn’t talk with her, but I played dumb.  I didn’t know this cop.

            “You should not talk with other witnesses.  Walk back to where you were and I’ll take a statement.”

            “Oh,” I said.  “Sorry,” and walked back to the post office. Everything had gone back to normal there. People were going back home, forgetting that the ambulance had come.  The new onlookers, who didn’t see the event, wondered what the cop was doing with the girl.  Speeding ticket?

            There was something attractive about the was she cried, about her terror of having killed someone.  I must have shot that look a hundred times at accident scenes, but never really noticed it.  She was there with her fingers on her chin, sobbing slightly, worried about what?  Taking life?  Going to jail?  The lady in the polyester dress who said Omigod was watching her, too.  The lady and I shared her crying, but without liability.  Our licenses would not be revoked.  We would not go home and worry that night. 

            The cop came back and I reconstructed the whole thing for him. I gave my phone number.  He told me to move my truck out of the intersections.  I got in and turned the flashers off.  Cameras were still there.  When the light changed, I turned left and went down two blocks to the Beach Gazette office.  Wilson met me at the front desk. 

            “Did you hear that accident on the scanner?  Some old drunk on a bike got nailed.  Serious maybe.”

            “Yes, Wilson,” I said.  “I was there.  Happened right in front of me.”

            “Good scoop.  We’ll re-sell some photos to the Times.  Give Jenny the details and she’ll write it up.”  He looked up.  Something in my face told him I didn’t get any shots.  “Leave your bag at home?”

            “No.  I helped.  I held the old man’s hand.  I saw the blood come out of his ears.”  I put the bags with scanner and film on his desk.  “Here’s the scanner, and six shots of some pelicans on the bait house, near that big plywood mullet.  Fluff stuff.  It’s all I have that belongs to the Gazette.”  He watched me drop the stuff.  He wasn’t even mad, as if he expected people to be inept.

            “Well, pick up your check on Wednesday.”

            “I’ll shoot the Junior Miss thing at the high school if you want.”

            “No,” he said.  “I have a stringer who’ll take over.”  Before I could say something apologetic, before I could explain about being there this time, about being part of it, about the man’s hand, Wilson had disappeared into the layout room.  He had work to do.

            I drove to Sneaky D’s for a beer, took the ethics book from under the seat of the truck, and read while I sat at the bar. 

It shall be considered a breach of ethics for a journalist to involve himself in civic disturbances.  This can bias opinion and slant a story or a shoot.  A reporter should stay well outside the emotional realm of the event, recording as many facts and observations from witnesses as possible.

This was underlined in red.  I had underlined it.  What if you were a witness?  Professor Lewis said that a reporter in that situation should treat himself as a reliable witness and remain emotionally uninvolved.  “The helping,” he said in Ethics in Journalism JOU 3500, “has to be left to the others on the scene.”  I know this because I was the one who asked him.  Then he recalled the story of the photographer who climbed into a burning car, shooting with the autowinder in one hand and rescuing the little girl with the other.  He had shots of himself rescuing the girl.  Crazy bastard.  I looked at the book and left two dollars for my beer under the conch-shaped salt shaker.

            The truck didn’t start, once again, so I decided to take a walk.  I walked a few blocks towards the post office.  At the intersection where the old man had fallen, everyone who was there before had left the scene.  The only people milling around were the lunchtime people picking up their mail.  The only evidence of the accident was a patch of sand the cops had laid down over the blood.  The bicycle leaned against the side of the Five and Dime.  The cops had forgotten it, or were coming back for it.  I didn’t look much at the bike after the old man fell, but now I saw that it didn’t seem to be damaged.  HOMICIDE INSPECTION tape was wrapped around the handlebars.  It was a basic single-speed bike with a pedal brake—nothing special.

            How did it feel to ride this bike?  It was years ago that I last rode a bike, probably when I bought the truck so I could drive to photo shoot assignments.  That was when I rode the bike to the University from my apartment.  Could I feel the old man’s hand in mine still?  I looked down at my hand.  I looked around, then put my hands on the handlebars where his were.  No one seemed to pay any attention.  A man with a couple loaves of bread in a bag nodded to me as he came out of the Five and Dime.  I swung my leg over the seat and put my feet on the pedals where his were.  He was about my size.  Of course, I could ride better than he could.  I pushed the pedal and the bike moved forward.

            Soon I was pedaling down Corey Ave, beyond the Five and Dime, past Sneaky D’s where my truck sat dead in the parking lot.  I slipped past Corvettes sitting in traffic, under the mirror of a big four-wheel-drive Ford.  I felt damn near invincible.  The bike rode pretty well. I cruised south on Gulf Boulevard to the Weaver Tract, a blank piece of beach that had been set aside as a public park.  No showers or parking had been added, just sand dunes to control erosion.  The fat tires bumped over a curb, churned through the sugar sand. I climbed up a dune (where I was not supposed to be) and then sped down the other side and just kept spinning down into the salt water of the beach.  Is this where he was headed?  To the warm water that stings your eyes and makes you young always?  The bike labored in a foot of water and I got off and walked it back onto the beach.  I pushed it between the dunes and then rode back to the Five and Dime and left it where I found it.  It was wet and sandy but still just fine.  I gripped the foam handles hard before leaving it.

 

            I walked down Pass-A-Grille and watched the head boat unload her cargo of tourists, grunts and snapper.  At the Hurricane Lounge, I drank another beer, dawdled around the art studios until invited to leave.  I spent an hour talking to a kid from Michigan who was fishing from a seawall.  I was worthless now. Out of work.  A pedestrian.  I would sell the truck, be rid of the stalling a sooty coughing of the thing.  Ralph had told me I needed to get rid of it, to get a decent car.  Dad said “listen to your brother.,” so today I’d listen to my brother and keep the money in the family.  It lurched sometimes when the clutch slipped.  I could hit some kid crossing the street like that someday.   Too damn dangerous.  I walked back to Sneaky D’s to get the truck.

            I took the key from under the seat and cranked.  Rurh.  Rurh. Rurh.  Sput.  Rurh.  Rurh.  Sput.  Buzzzzz.  The battery had run down again.  Alternator must be shot.  Fuse.  Something like that.  My jumper cables were still in the bed but the guys inside the bar were cooling off after work, drinking beer, playing pool.  It would be hard to get someone to come out.  I tried to start it again.  Rurh.  Rurh. Buzzzz.

            “What’s wrong with it?” said a woman wearing a Sneaky D’s t-shirt.  Rurh.  Rurh. Buzzzz.  I was looking at the dash, trying to see if something explained the problem.

            “Battery, I think.  This thing’s a piece of junk.”

            “Got jumper cables?” the shirt asked.

            “Yeah, but nothing to jump from.”

            “You wait here,” the shirt said, and I looked up and saw a shirt with a blond ponytail and short shorts walking away.  Another minute of cranking and wearing the battery down and the girl from the bar pulled her Chevy Nova in front of my truck and popped the hood of her car.

            “You hook it up, Sugar.  I gotta get back inside in ten minutes.  I just came out for a smoke and a short break.”  I opened the hood of the truck and brought the jumper cables.  They had seen a lot of use.

            And then I recognized her. The eyes, her ponytail, the narrowness of her face. The girl from the accident.

            “I didn’t think you’d be working today,” I said.

            “Yeah,” she said, somber. “I went home but boss says I gotta work.  Trudy’s out sick.  I could use the tips, especially now.” 

I clamped the cables onto the batteries.

“What happened to him?” she asked.

“I don’t know.  He didn’t look too good.”  I didn’t know what else to say. I fiddled with the cables.  “Going okay in there tonight?”

“Oh, yeah,” she said, and brushed back a stray hair.  “All ‘cept the cash register.  You gotta program everything into that gadget. Turn the key first, then enter your special code, then code for beer, imports, whiskey, food orders.  Food is another story, let me tell you.” 

The register I remembered, the one that had been there forever, in its spot under the cheaply-taxidermied tarpon, was one of those antiques with a hand-crank.  It was all brass and little numbers words popped up when you hit the keys.  It was one of my favorite parts of coming here.  One of the only places where I enjoyed paying the bill.

“What happened to that old brass one?  Finally die?”

“Naw,” she said.  “New boss from Atlanta.  Says the old one don’t keep inventory and sales tax accurately enough.”

“The guy with the 300ZX?”

“Yeah.  Real asshole.  He took me out last night, all over the place dancing, driving, listening to the CD player in that car.  He was always touching the buttons on that thing, but that’s the only buttons he tried to touch that night.”

I stopped working with the cables for a second and looked up at her.  I thought she blushed a little.

“He looks pretty hot but he goes down to Pass-a-Grille a lot.  You know, to the Rainbow Bar?  Try it again,” she said, motioning towards my truck with her cigarette.  It cranked over and I snatched the cables from the batteries.

“Does your truck have a stereo?”

Why did she have to know?  Afraid I was like The Asshole and just hid it better?  I had almost four hundred dollars of stereo equipment hidden under the dash, thanks to Downtown Stereo Sound.

“No, just this little transistor thing on the seat.”

“Hey,” she said.  “You were real nice to me today.  Tell me something.  Don’t I wait on you at lunch?  Ain’t you a reporter?”

“I’m the grouper with a side of fritters instead of fries.”

“But are you a reporter?”  People get nervous around reporters. Around photographers, they hid their faces.

“I was.  I’m recently out of work.  On vacation.”

“Well, I tell you what, Sugar.  I’ll snatch a six of Bud from the bartender tonight if you’ll drive us down the beach in that truck.  Ever watch the waves from the tailgate of a truck?”

“No, I never really noticed them.  Not from the bed of the truck anyway.  Why don’t we take your car?”

“I hate driving more than I have to now . . .”

“I’ll drive,”  I said. “I’m getting rid of this heap in an hour.  You know Pinellas Motors?  That’s my brother’s lot.”  She didn’t look as enthusiastic.  Maybe she liked driving that truck today, at least some of it.  “I’ll get wheels of some sort,” I said.

“Maybe.  You show up around one and we’ll see.  What’s your name, anyway?” 

I had her at an advantage.”Libby” was printed on her nametag.

“Bill Cayson.”

“Cayson.  William Cayson.  Haven’t I heard your name around?”

“The Beach Gazette, maybe?  I shot photos for them for a while.  Maybe you saw my credits.”

“You know, I think you’re right.  I remember when that kid tried to jump the drawbridge.  You too the picture of the smashed-up car and the cops cutting him out, right?  I remember because they gave you special mention and had a picture of you and all.  It’s all coming back. You rowed out to the side of the bridge and climbed up a rope to get to the scene.”

I remembered it all too well.  That was in the days when I followed Professor Lewis’s wisdom like it was a new religion.  They had closed the road to everyone, but I rowed out against the current, climbed a frayed piece of old rope and took my pictures.  There was a bubble of shattered glass in the windshield where the kid’s head impacted it.  They carried him out with a neck brace on and put him in the rescue chopper. Scooped the St. Petersburg Times on that one.  They did a story a year back on how he’s doing at the community college.  He rolls around campus in his little motorized chair and no one takes pictures of him.

“Yeah, that was me.   See you at one a.m.”

“Stop in for a beer if you come earlier.”

I slammed the hoods to both cars and saw her hustle inside in my rearview mirror as I headed out of the parking lot, towards Pinellas Motors.  My brother only coughed up $800 until I told him he could have the stereo, too.  He added another hundred.  Big deal.  He’s a cheap bastard.  I had him drop me off, cameras and all, at Bill’s Beach Bikes.  I walked in with $900, two cameras and no wheels.  The salesman cruised up from the back, looking lithe and businesslike in his lycra bike shorts.

“If you’re here to take pictures of that bike, it’s over there against the wall.  Before we could pick it up, some idiot must have taken it for a joy ride into the Gulf.”  The bike I had ridden earlier still leaned against the wall with the HOMOCIDE INSPECTION tape still wrapped around the handlebars and sand in the chain.

“That tape on the handlebars must not be too good for business,” I said.

He said, “what?” then walked over and took a closer look at it.  He yelled towards the back room.  “Jeff, get out here and take the tape off those handlebars will you?”

“But that’s not what I’m here for.  I just want to buy a bike.”  He looked disappointed.  Maybe someone from the Gazette had called him. He showed me beach cruisers with fancy green and orange paint and speedometers and seat the pink color of his lycra pants.  I was watching an old red bike whose paint was faded to powder.  The tires were wider than the others there.  It looked in some ways like a 1950’s Buick.  Something in the lines.  The seat was black.

“What about that one?”

“Oh, Bill picked that up at an estate sale.  It rides fine.  We repacked all the bearins and I checked it out this morning.  It’s no Boss Jamis Cruiser but it rides okay.  Give it a shot.”  So I did.  The fat tires rolled over curbs, rocks, parking stones, abandoned tires.  The old black seat was wide and soft.  Sweating, I walked it back to the showroom. He had left my cameras alone, it seemed.  They were still in the same spot.

“How much did you say for this?”

“Fifty-five plus tax.”

“Fifty-five bucks for an old bike like this?”

“I can go forty-five, but that’s all Bill will let me discount.”

“How much are those beer holder things on that bike over there?”  I was thinking about drinking beer and watching the wave with Libby.  Or drinking two by myself.

“The RocknRollin beverage holders are cast aluminum with full swiveling motion.  Twelve ninety-five each.”

“If you can put two of those on now, I’ll take it and pay cash.”

“Done deal!”  They rolled it to the back and it appeared fifteen minutes later with the cast aluminum and foam rubber beer holders clamped to the handlebars out by the grips. The guy beeped $75.86 on the cash register.  I gave him four twenties and walked the bike out the door, the cameras strapped over my shoulders.  I rode home and dropped the cameras in the apartment. I fell asleep and slept for longer than I thought, dreaming of Tom Mix and Roy Rogers, the episodes where there were cars around but Tom and Roy still rode horses.  Through the spokes of the bike, I saw the TV buzzing with the evening news.  The Bucs had lost again.  I put on a t-shirt and a pair of cargo shorts to ride down to Sneaky D’s.  I found a flashlight with good batteries and taped it to the front fender with electrical tape.

The air felt good on my face as I rode the dark Thursday streets on the beach.  At the bar, I brought the bike onto the deck with me. Some rich tourists hade docked a Donzi there and sat drinking maragaritas. The powerful boat sat low in the transom with the weight of the big motor. They were acting too much like they were on vacation. They talked about their day fishing and how they just got drunk all day before on rum runners and Polar Beer.  Libby came out with another pitcher of margaritas for them.

“That guy live here?”  This one guy in a fish shirt gave me the stink eye. She looked over at me and rolled her eyes. She must have been waiting on these guys for a while.

“Yes, sir. Used to be a top photographer for the local paper but drinking too much rum around the docks has spoiled a once-great man.  Oh, he’s sober now,” she said.  She winked at me.

“Could we buy him a beer?” another guy, wearing a Hawaiian shirt asked.  “I mean, would he mind?”

“I think that would be okay,” Libby told him in a loud whisper.  She took the evening paper from another paper and showed them the back page with the pelicans on top of the fish house.  They laughed at the pelicans next to the six-foot-long plywood mullet, funny only to the very bored or the very drunk.

“He’s still got a sense of humor,” one of them said.

I saluted them with my beer when it came.  I told Libby thank you.

“They’ve been here since sundown.  They want me to come midnight swimming with them in the bay..”

“Geez.”

“It’s okay. Tips.  “Hear what I told them?”

“About me being a rummy?  How’d you know that?” I joked.

“Now they think you’re a third-rate Jimmy Buffett with a camera.”

Behind us, they cranked up the Donzi’s eight loud cylinders  and pulled away, the boat spitting water, the men spilling margaritas all over the deck and the pitcher in the had of one of them.

“Sooome-bitch!” she said, marching over to the table. “That comes out of my pay!”  But they had left three one-hundred-dollar bills on the table that covered their bill and fifty for Libby. I finished my beer and waited for her to get off her shift.

When she finally came out the back door, she had the t-shirt in a knot around her waist, making a kind of halter top of it.

“Been waiting long?” she said, a six-pack of beer in her hand.  She handed me one of the cans she’d opened and looked around the dark parking lot. “Well, where is it?” she took a pull of her beer.

“Where’s what?”

“Wheels.  A truck, jeep, car.  You said you were going to get some wheels for tonight.”

I faced my bicycle.  “Right here.  Little cups to hold beer, big tires, like an old Buick.”

“Uh-huh.”  She shifted her weight onto one hip and looked at the bike. “And where do I sit?”

I patted the handlebars.

“Oh, no.  Not that.”

“C’mon.  Handlebars.  Didn’t you do that in high school?”

“I’m not in high school, and I only rode handlebars in middle school.  If it’s so wonderful, why don’t you sit on them?”

 

 

She wove the bike in and out of the streetlights on Gulf Boulevard as we rode down to Pass-a-Grille Beach.  The handlebars pressed into my butt, and I tried to put as much weight as I could on the pegs down by the front wheel.  The little flashlight bounced along on the fender. A heron stood perfectly silent in the shallow wave-wash down on the beach.  I sipped and kept my balance while she pedaled with her strong legs, pedaling stronger than I would.  I like to look back and watch the muscles in her legs, and the shape of her long, tanned legs as she pedaled.

“Do you think he died?” she asked quietly.

“Soon, if not already.”  The big wheels rolled quietly beneath us.  “He was pretty banged up.  Head injuries.”

“He was an old drunk,” she said.  Why would she say that?  Maybe he was a drunk, I don’t know, but the guy had hit the pavement. Struck it hard and bled and probably died. She was here, living, drinking beer.  Wouldn’t she feel some remorse?  A tear?  Something in her voice, maybe?

“He used to come in afternoons and get shit-faced and look at my tits.  He would look at my name tag and say ‘you’ll like  it, like it, like it,’ like that commercial for Libby’s.”

“How’d you get that name, anyway?  Libby?”

“You thought it was the name for a fat lady?”

“No. I just don’t see it much.”

“Mom was Cherokee.  Dad was Italian.  They named me Liberty.  Don’t you dare tell anyone.  I don’t know why Mom would go along with that, but that’s what they did.”  And then she was silent.  We wheeled along the road by the beach, watched the waves ride in, crash into the sand and roll back out again under a moon that was young and would grow old again in a month.

She steered the bike onto an old concrete dock and we stopped at the end where the Gulf of Mexico surrounded us. We sat on the edge, our legs hanging over the side, just to the point where the spray of the waves reached our feet.  We drank our beer and looked out to sea.  I watched her face. She might have been looking at something, but it was too dark out there to see anything. The moon was so new that it appeared only as a sliver behind us, illuminating nothing. Out where she seemed to be looking, the sky was dark and impenetrable.  Somewhere out there, the horizon formed where the black sky met the colorless Gulf, but we couldn’t see any difference from where we sat.

Libby set down her can of beer, gathered the hem of her shorts and held onto it.  My hand was empty and I pushed it into her clenched palm. She held my hand tightly out there in the dark and would not let go.

The Siren, Spring 1997

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Color in Tirana  (creative nonfiction)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

          To live in Tirana is to live among contradictions: the former grey communist buildings and the way they were painted in lively colors after the transition from communism in the early 90’s, Chanel and other posh shops where even we “rich” Americans couldn’t afford to shop and the poor and outcast who begged on streetcorners or sold sunflower seeds in little paper cones.  The almost-excessive hospitality of middle class Albanians who would not let me pay for coffee and the children who begged so stridently that they would sometimes attach themselves to my leg.  The richest of the rich drove Mercedes and BMW’s while the poorest poor were so poor that when we visited Venice we laughed at the beggars who were wearing clean running shoes.  This was our experience when my family and I lived in Tirana, the capital of Albania, while I taught creative writing at the University of Tirana in the spring of 2011.

          On a long walk one day, I found where the poor people live.  In America they would be called homeless but in Tirana they are allowed shacks on the outskirts of town, between the amusement park with its little ferris wheel and bumper cars, the water park and the new condos.  I walked through a humble neighborhood and then out between two soccer fields then turned left where I usually turned right down a dirt road.  Other people were walking along, too.  An old man, married couples.  Ahead, a man sold popcorn from a tricycle with a popcorn machine mounted where the seat and basket would be.  There was no chain to drive the rear wheels.  Near him, three children about five years old played in the street.  Their skin was a little darker than most Albanians and the adults they belonged to seemed nowhere to be found.

          I quickened my pace as I approached the Gypsy kids, hoping to outrun their begging for Leke but they dashed up to me, the boldest one with his hands outstretched and upraised in an overdramatized supplication, saying in Albanian “Oh, pleeeease, Sir, Oh, puleeeaze!”  Instead of answering with a sharp “NO” as I had planned, I laughed and they laughed along with me as they saw themselves reflected in my blue mirrored sunglasses.  We’d shared a strange joke.

As I passed them, they waited for the next person to come along and I could see their houses to my left across an empty and weeded field.  Shacks, covered with any variety of plastic, building material.  Green, orange, white, blue, all woven together somehow like quilts and snuggled into the trees.  This was where some of the people I saw on the streets everyday came from.  Most of them do not seem to sleep on the streets but disappear to their own small neighborhoods, colorful in their own way, an ironic version of the buildings all around Tirana which were painted all sorts of bright colors in a response to the greys persisting from the time of communism.

          Three weeks ago, my class at the university had to meet at a different time than usual and we somehow couldn’t find a room.  We ended up sitting outside in front of the university where students congregate between classes.  As we gathered in a circle and I began to lecture about imagery and revision in poetry, a Gypsy girl about ten came close to us and I asked her to sit down, which she did, even though her little brother played at kickboxing behind us.  But she sat quietly, listening even though I’m sure she didn’t understand English.  When her patience ran out, she joined her brother in making noise and my students shooed them away.  It was only a day or two before that two children about the same age accosted me on the street in front of the parliament building.  The girl went beyond just asking me for money and, even though I told her No! in Albanian several times, she wrapped her arms around one of my legs so that I had to stop and remove her hands.  It seemed her best performance but money wasn’t what she needed.  I don’t know really what she really needed but I gave her two small coins I had in my pocket.

          It’s never really the coins that we need, is it, but we hold on as tight as we can and beg for just one.  We beg and plead in our great halls and kitchens and dining rooms, in our offices but we don’t know what we’re pleading for and the ones we’re asking don’t really know what we need.

reprinted with permission of The Manila Envelope.  (first published in The Manila Envelope, Fall 2012)

All rights reserved.

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