Thursday, September 30, 2010

Thinking about Mary Frank

I've been thinking about Mary Frank lately. She was once wife of Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank, yes, but that's not what defines her. Not at all.

To me, the image at right, "Three Dancers: (1981), is quintessential Mary Frank--a glimpse of her preoccupations and (at least ephemeral) self definition. So too with the sculpture below, "Lover" (1977). In college, I made a few pottery projects in her spirit: slab pieces containing bas relief hands or skeletal fingers, vessels with belly buttons, slab-molded feet. Some of these appear in our flower gardens even now, a remnant of my semi-radical college-era sense of womanhood.
I voraciously consumed monographs about Frank's career and her life philosophies--not that she necessarily considered them philosophies. I remember that she felt a primitive power in dirt, and liked to put her hands into its warmth. I appreciate this. I know what it's like to lay seeds into warm soil, to pick potatoes out of dirt so black it looks like powdered asphalt and glitters with mica chips and flinty anthracite. There is certainly power in soil, something primal that makes things happen. Every homesteader can sympathize with this notion.

In those moments I would spend in the library stacks, taking a necessary break from studying for my biology or medieval history courses, I learned that she studied with Max Beckman (once my artistic hero) and Hans Hoffman. She was a serious artist. She was the kind of woman I hoped to become: uninhibitedly creative, self-assured in her craft, following primal pathways towards that creativity.

I feel more this way on the farm, less so in the city, where I pick up too many other sources of energy. You may think this is bizarre, but I feel energy from outside sources (and I think everyone would, if they were to become more conscious of it)--even too much traffic has a disruptive effect on me if I am walking alongside it for an extended period of time. After all, we're all made of atoms, which in solid form, vibrate with potential power.
But I have to, as John Wayne would say, put an 'amen' to this, since I have to head to the Writing Lab in a few moments and then to my afternoon class. There's much to think about here, and more to come in the next post.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Saturday: Mother Earth News Fair

On Saturday, Michael, my brother-in-law Glenn, and I went to the Mother Earth News Festival (MENF) at Seven Springs, a ski resort owned by Ogden publications.

<--My brother-in-law Glenn (left) and Michael (right) watch the kids responding to the draft horses.

We're interested in becoming first-time beekeepers next spring. And we're happy to report that bee-keeping is enjoying a resurgence, especially by those who want to prevent the perpetuation of colony collapse. There were two beekeeping informational workshops, both of which were packed with interested, ethusiastic people. We also learned an enormous amount about commercially produced honey production, which will keep me buying only from local and organic sources. Not only are pesticides and fungicides, which make the wax increasingly toxic, one the many problem confronting bee populations, the use of high fructose corn syrup (yes, high fructose!) to "nourish" the bees when the honey is harvested from their hives is incorporated into the nectar and changes the PH of the honey itself. This lowers the honey's natural antibacterial properties and necessitates the use of other chemicals to sustain the nests.

Together, Glenn, Michael, and I purchased an innovative, homestead hive design from a small, family-owned company located in the Ozarks, called Bee Landing. The hives themselves are more like a colonies' natural habitat, like hollow logs. This design not only disturbs the bees less when honey is harvested, it offers a more stable source of insulation against temperature fluctuations and humidity, which the bees must control in order to maintain a healthy environment.

In late April, early May, we'll be receiving one of these innovative new hives, and we will then be in the market for a swarm (and its all-important queen). We're hoping not to have to import one from the south, since moving colonies has proven to be another stessor because it requires the queen and her entire population to be regressed to a more natural size and adapt to a new environment. Instead, we hope to find some local beekeepers who would be willing to share with us.

These pigs (at right) were dreaming deeply when this picture was taken: their little muscles would jump and their lips would flap as they lay there next to each other, almost as if they were spooning. --->

<--Alpacas were big at the MENF. They seem like loveable little creatures with charming dispositions. This little lady could pass for a mammalian version of Big Bird. It's the mop-top that does it for me. More to come soon...I've got some Pittsburgh Small Press Fest photos and other things to update. Stay tuned!

Friday, September 24, 2010

This morning, West Virginia and Tonight, Pittsburgh

Good morning, West Virginia!

That's me, about fifteen minutes ago in the kitchen. Unshowered and unshaven. See the five o'clock shadow? I'm looking out into the backyard at the remains of our garden and the multiple painting projects that I still need to get to. The garden gate? She will be painted a sunny yellow soon--and not that flourescent business I bought from Ollie's on sale this spring. Yes, I agree with you. That safety orange was a little excessive. But we learn from out mistakes, do we not? Yes we do, and we also give the neighborhood something to talk about. Everyone's happy.

Now, a picture of the front door because our late-growing blue morning glories--in comparison to the purple "Grandpa Ott" variety, which sprout first, bloom early, and croak by late August--are still in full bloom. Yes, sorry humming bird friends, I never filled your feeder. It sits still on the porch, taunting your little beaks with a lot of nothingness. You can plan an ariel assault on our heads when we sit outside the next time.

But seriously, "Ain't them flowers purty, Jim?"

"Well, Cecil P. Sloane thinks so." (<--who is this? Savannah also has no idea. She has simply made this name up. But she thinks it has a nice backwoods ring to it, no? She also digresses. However, today is her "day off", so this is entirely legal and perhaps even expected, just as making a loud exclamation of surprise and excitement when she saw, last night at Half Price Books, a William T. Vollman anthology with a foreword by fellow author and former Hobart contributor Michael Hemmingson--a noise for which she felt the need to immediately apologize as it involved a very unlady-like snort that reminded her of Jerry Clower's impersonation of his father's bird dog--was also warranted and perhaps even expected.)

Did you get all that? It was kind of confusing even to me while I was writing it. *shaking head* Where's my coffee? Oh, yes.

This weekend is Small Press Fest in Pittsburgh. And to celebrate this properly, we New Yinzers will be holding a special SPF edition of TNY Presents tonight at The Beehive Coffeehouse, which invited us to have an event there a few months back. I'm excited to have Burning River Press founder Chris Bowen back to read. One of his stories, the beautiful and resonant "How We Are Alone", will appear in the fall issue of The New Yinzer. Sunnyoutside Press' David McNamara will be coming in from Buffalo to help promote two of the press' authors, Micah Ling and Noel Sloboda, both of whom will read at tonight's event.

While I'll be manning the New Yinzer table at SPF on Sunday, I won't be able to make it back into the city on Saturday because I'll be at the Mother Earth News Fair with Michael and my brother-in-law Glenn, who has begun talking about beginning a colony of bees at the farmhouse (perhaps in part because I use honey for just about every sweetening opportunity that doesn't require more solid sugar, in which case, I use brown because it's got the iron content of molasses). Our homesteading increases every year, but we're waiting to buy animals. Personally, I want chickens, but my Mom reminded me that their feed tends to attract rats. Still, organic eggs and clean, antibiotic-free chicken meat seems to trump that concern. As long as we don't get rats like the one in my story, Revolutionaries, we're okay.

Okay, over and out for now. Expect pictures from the Mother Earth Festival and from SPF. For once, I've plastered the word 'camera' to every solid surface leading out of the house. I dare not forget it.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The All-Knowing and other snarky tales

While taking a break from grading papers last night, I began shopping for online journals that accept electronic submissions. I found a journal indicating on their submissions page that: "...And if you really want to piss us off, you should probably take a look at Joe Konrath’s “How Not To Write A Story,” and then go ahead and do everything on the list."

A rhetorical challenge, then? For some, the gauntlet would be thrown. For me? Um, no thanks.

I went to see exactly what constituted high annoyance for these editors. I had already determined the tone of the guidelines indicated that to submit to this journal was, ultimately, a set up for failure, and therefore, a waste of time. Why? Based on the word choice, why would I expect my manuscript to be read with anything but immediate disdain, and perhaps even disrespect?

Mais, non? Then prove me wrong.

I wonder, too, if these editors, who are likely also writers, have been treated this way by other editors and have learned to deal with it by passing this behavior on. Understand that I'm not intending this to be a snarky post myself. It's just something I've noticed, and it's a little disheartening and also reflects the attitude of the nation at large. Sure, there are a lot of people writing who maybe shouldn't, but does that mean we should make them the butt of snarky commentary? About a year ago, I was at a table with a group of writerly folk. During our chatter, one editor passed her iPhone around over our martini glasses and laughed about how bad the writing was. Of course, I wasn't the brunt of the joke, but it still hurt my feelings anyway. Someone cared about that piece of writing, and I felt for them. I could not laugh--even with half a Manhattan in me.

Here is the post by J.A. Konrath, a thriller writer.

And here was my comment. I spent more time on this than I actually had last night, but I felt somewhat better after sending it through.

"While these may be helpful points-- and, of course, I have not read the stories that were so abysmal (so that I might share your annoyance)--I suppose it makes me a little sad to see this kind of negative commentary on a professional activity that probably meant a great deal to the writers who submitted. While I respect your opinions on the subject, so much of editing is subjective: you like stories to start with conflict. I and a few other editors happen to like description and, figuratively speaking, a survey of the landscape. Sometimes these approaches aren't handled well, but it doesn't mean I would say to a writer 'don't ever do this--ever'. To create a list of ‘absolutely-do-not-do-evers’ seems to impose a narrow and (forgive me for saying this) condescending take on literary output. Naturally, as judge, this is your prerogative, but let's not forget that works like Orwell's _Animal Farm_ had animals as protagonists and seemed to be received fairly well. Granted, there may not have been any Orwells in the bunch, but maybe we can focus on the positives: what more successful approaches might you suggest instead?"

So why has respect and civility gone the way of the Do-Do? Are the submissions so plentiful and now so bad that they deserve a hostile reception? Granted, I've seen some doosies myself as an editor, but I would never denegrate them. So, should I be? What, to teach them a lesson in humility? If I were to do that, maybe it's I who would need a lesson in humility.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Upcoming Good Stuff

So this morning, my "day off", I really should be working on my Library Journal E-Reference Ratings, specifically the Biography resources, and yes, yes, I'll be getting to that in an hour or so, but first, a little writing/publicity work here, since I've been lax in updating and have been giving only those spit-and-a-promise posts, like the one about the music I've been listening to (in za post below, nanotchka). Yes, Savannah darling, everyone absolutely wants to know you finally took that Best of Skynyrd CD out of your player. Hurrah! Good for you, little girl.

However, I do want to plug a few things:
At the Beehive (1327 E. Carson Street, Pittsburgh) on Friday, September 24th between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., The New Yinzer will be having a Special Edition Small Press Fest reading, featuring Burning River Press founder Chris Bowen and Sunny Outside authors Micah Ling and Noel Sloboda. You can learn more about the readers by clicking on this sentence!

Also, New Yinzer Fiction , a weekly online installment of fiction and poetry, continues to develop. Read Adam Kavulic's excellent story "Rain".

Working dilligently on a story, revising and revising what had been a horror story and remains so, but is rooted more in reality than fantasy....I originally wrote it to be part of an anthology of Appalachian folktales and superstitions...believe me, there are plenty in this hilly corner of the world. Here's part of the narrative, which deals with a "Jetadore di Bambini" (hence the picture above):

"When he finally stood at the screen door, he surprised Buella with his pallor. His cheeks had a grayish concavity. He’d pushed his hat back so that the wide, pale plane of his forehead was on display. His hair, which she could see beneath his hat, was jet colored and slicked back with something that gave it an oily shine. His beard and mustache were trimmed with the same care gardeners paid the ornamental boxwoods Buella had seen around fine houses in town. And it was as black as bitumen, making his pastiness appear all the more startling. He smiled at Buella, and she unconsciously took a step back from the screen door. Her eyes went to the latch and saw the hook was in the eye. The man followed her gaze. "

And now, back to just that project before 'paying work' begins in earnest. Also, I'm baking bread, and I have to go check on that. First rise, baby.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Coming Out of my Truck Windows c'est ca....

Back in the Steubenville direction at 4 p.m. today...these will be on again. See, I was getting tired of Free Bird and Truck Drivin' Man. A new CD was needed:

Saturday, September 11, 2010

What Lies At Rainbow's End (Part 3)

(for Part II, scroll to the next post)

Gerald looked at the little man. “How do you know who I am?”

“Well, you got freckles and white hair. Who else could you be?”

“How did you get in here?”

The little man chuckled and indicated the curtained patio door with his thumb, “That was open.”
“But I didn’t see your car.”

“You wanna know what I think, Gerry? About Daphne? You seen her lately?”

Gerald moved to the sofa, cleared it of junk mail, and sat down. He absently shook his head.

The little man continued, “No one in town’s seen her either. I mean, maybe she cleared out, left with a trucker or a salesman. Who knows?” He shrugged his diminutive shoulders. “But strange, don’t you think, that no one’s seen her at all… not even leaving?”

Gerald put his forehead in his hand and looked at the soda cans and Styrofoam cups on the coffee table. “I don’t know what to think.”

Gerald could hear rain begin pelting the roof of the little house. It was an unexpected cloudburst. The little man rocked back on his heels and said, “Ah! Fantastic! My kind of weather!”

Gerald turned his face to look at the little man, who, with one hand in his pocket, was using the other to again flick the Zippo open and closed.

“So where are you from?” Gerald asked, forehead still in his hand. “The casino? The track? Don’t tell me the woman was betting on sports. She’s never had any interest in it before.”

The little man cocked his head, “She liked blackjack, but she was terrible at poker. Not a bluffer, that one. Mean as a feral cat, though,” the little man shook the coins in his pocket for emphasis. “I’m sure you can attest to that.”

“So how much of a hole does my son have to dig himself out of?” Gerald asked.

“Oh, Mr. Whitley, I really don’t think you can put an amount on what he owes.”

“Can you at least give me some kind of round number, Mister…Mister…”

“Mr. Geldverleiher. And uh… pleased to meet you, even under these regrettable circumstances,” he put up a hand, waving it once. “Funny,” he chuckled, “I come from a long line of moneylenders, Mr. Whitley. Hence the last name. It’s German, would you believe? A bit like Rumpelstiltskin!”

Here, the little man laughed harder, as if he’d made a joke. Gerald did not see the humor. “So is there any numerical amount you can give me, Mr. Geldverleiher?” Gerald asked again.

The little man ignored this, changing the subject. “Left pretty early this morning, didn’t he? I got here at 5:30 and already Mr. Whitley, The Younger,” he included in an affected British accent, “was gone. Been waiting in this stench for hours now. And Gawd,” He slapped his foreshortened thigh, “has it ever been appalling! The man lives in filth!”

“We’ll try to pay the debt, whatever it is,” Gerald continued. “We’ll do the best we can to help Jeff overcome this.”

“Mr. Whitley, I really don’t think you can help him now,” the little man was now tossing something into the air that occasionally caught what little light there was. It looked like a gold coin. “Invariably, you’ll be forced to make a sacrifice to this terrible mess…but can I estimate it in round numbers, you ask?”

Gerald nodded, leaning forward. “That’s all I want to know. Let’s put a number on this, so we can start paying it down.”

The little man stopped tossing the coin and gazed towards the ceiling, tapping his lips, “I’m not entirely sure if I can put a numerical value on what’s owed. You know, Mr. Whitley, the tragedy of all this is that so many people are involved. There’s your son, of course, but there’s also the youngster… oh, what’s his name?” The little man stopped, exasperated that he must suspend his monologue for such a detail, but then suddenly, he lifted a finger, as if inspired. “Oh, right! Right! Gunter. It’s sad for little Gunter, too. What a sacrifice he has to make because of the sins of the fathers… and, in his case, the mothers. What an awful shame.” The little man now shook his head sorrowfully.

“Please, Mr. Gelverleiher, just a ballpark number. Can’t you even give that? I know it will be a lot, knowing Daphne, but we need a figure or at least something to start with.”

“Rain’s letting up,” said the little man, pointing to the ceiling. “Why don’t we go back to the farm? I’m sure I can shed some light on things there. And since, Mr. Whitley The Younger will be there…well, that will certainly aid in the computation process.”

“All right,” Gerald, nodded eagerly. “Yes, let’s get this worked out, so we can move forward. I don’t have any remorse that Daphne’s gone. She dragged that boy down from the first. Now he can make some progress, take over the farm a little more.”

The little man did not acknowledge Gerald’s hopeful consideration of future plans, but instead turned and first negotiated opening the front door and then the rather steep front step, neither waiting for nor expecting help from Gerald.

When the pair finally stood outside, it was humid and the sun shone again in sharp, stabbing shafts. The little man, who was not squinting despite his passage from the dark house, pointed towards the sky, “Ha, ha! This is what I’ve been waiting for!”

Gerald turned, shielding his eyes, to see a rainbow. It was vivid, each color visible, and it seemed to hover over the little house. The little man was at Gerald’s pick-up door and said, “Shall we? See what’s at the other end? It’s bound to be revealing.”

Once inside the truck, Gerald looked side-long at the little man sitting on the bench seat next to him. His hair, he now saw, was coal black, and he could see the individual comb marks that had been pulled through the hair’s coarse glossiness. The little man even smelled of lime-scented pomade, a bouquet he hadn’t noticed in the fetid odor of the house. The man’s tiny feet stuck out in front of him, not even clearing the edge of the seat. He wore, Gerald now saw, white kidskin loafers.

“What are we waiting for, Mr. Whitley?” the little man said, looking up eagerly at Gerald.
Gerald started back to the house. As they bumped over the rutted farm lane, the little man kept ducking to see the rainbow through the windshield. “Quickly, Mr. Whitley. We don’t want to miss it.”
Gerald was going to stop the truck near the house, but the little man waved him on. “No, no,” he said, “not here. The pasture.”

“It’s too muddy. We’ll get stuck,” said Gerald.

“Then,” the little man looked up at Gerald and smiled, “we’ll have to walk.”

Gerald gestured towards the man’s white trousers. “But… your pants… your shoes…”

“I don’t suppose you’d consider carrying me,” asked the little man.

Gerald looked at him. “I’m 67 years old. I’ve had two hernias now. Really, I don’t think I can.”

“I didn’t think so. Well, no bother,” the little man said, opening the door with his diminutive hand. He swung his legs out and landed with a muted splash. Gerald saw his face, but he registered no displeasure. However, white feathers began to erupt around him. Gerald heard clucking.

The little man looked up at him over the bench seat, “Lovely flock you got here. You should see all of them. What a bunch of beauties!” He looked down, clucking gently, as if in reply, and then saying, “Hello, darlings. Hello. So nice to see you.”

Gerald turned to look and saw that, apparently, Lena had left the chicken house door open, and they had quickly congregated around the truck, moving steadily towards the little man’s feet. He saw, too, that Lena was standing on the stairs of the summer porch with Gunter held protectively in front of her. The little boy, in turn, was clutching her fingers. Lena said nothing, but simply pointed towards the pasture, where the cattle usually grazed. Gerald could hear the cows crying. He was now very nearly five hours late in milking. Still, he followed the direction Lena pointed and saw the silhouette of his son in the field. It may have been an optical illusion, but it looked like the rainbow ended at his feet or very near them.

When Gerald got out of the truck, finally, Lena said loudly, “I called the police, Gerald. Jeff was hugging Gunter so tight, it was like he was trying to suffocate him, so I called. I called, and now they’re coming. Whoever that is out there, it’s not my son.”

Gerald could see, in the merciless brilliance of the sun, tears gleaming at the rims of Lena’s eyes.
Gerald looked out towards the field again. The little man was moving towards Jeff, chickens following after him, even through the more treacherous patches of mud that pulled at their feet.
Jeff was on his knees. Even from where Gerald was standing, he could hear the sound of his son’s sobbing.

“Come on, Mr. Whitley!” the little man cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted. “Let me show you what’s at the end of the rainbow!”

Gerald followed, nearly losing a boot to the mud, which had grown even more challenging. The little man, however, was not dirty at all. His pants, which should certainly have been splattered with manure and wet soil, were still pristine. His kidskin loafers were neither waterlogged nor caked with sludge but a supple, brilliant white. Even the poor chickens, which followed him like children behind a Pied Piper, were splotched with brown, their little legs caked with muck. Still, they continued at his heels, undaunted.

When the little man reached Jeff, whose red eyes and flushed face were creased with anguish, Mr. Geldverleiher put his hand at the back of Jeff’s head, gently, in an affectionate gesture one might show a child. Hens walked up to the little man’s trousers and nestled against them. He seemed unfazed by this and continued stroking the tousled hair beneath his small hand.

“Oh, Jeffery,” said the little man, “the things that have happened.” He shook his head remorsefully.
Breathing heavily, Gerald finally reached the pair. He first saw how the chickens had flounced down around the little man’s white trouser cuffs and over his shoes, while other hens nestled as close as circumstance would allow. Gerald also saw the looming miasma of multicolored light hovering by Jeff’s mud-caked knees. When Jeff saw his father, he began crying anew.

“It’s all right, Jeffie,” said Gerald. “Please don’t cry. I know everything now.”

The little man turned to look at Gerald. His forehead furrowed with compassion. “Oh, Mr. Whitley. I don’t think you do.”

He pointed to a patch of wet mud in front of Jeff’s knees. The bright haze of polychrome light ended there. Gerald adjusted his glasses. He said, unconsciously, “Good God.”

Visible in the dense mud and wet clay were clotted strands of bright platinum hair, hair Gerald always felt looked like cotton. Mud had caught in the delicate, darkening roots near the scalp and smeared the purplish forehead. That was all that could be seen, but it was enough to understand. Claw marks appeared on and around the area, both from Jeff’s burrowing fingers and apparently an animal’s claws. Cloven hoof prints made a circular path near the exposed hair and forehead, suggesting the cattle had also taken an interest in what was hidden beneath the soil. Perhaps, Gerald thought, they’d even helped to uncover her. He now understood why Jeff had insisted the cows knew why he was so unsettled.

Gerald’s shoulders fell. He removed his glasses and wiped his eyes with his forearm. “Why, Jeffie? Why did you do such an awful thing? A horrible thing? We could have gotten out you out of debt. Now…now, I don’t even know what to say.”

Jeff turned and looked at his father, his face still leaking tears. He said, “Daddy, she sold our son.”

Gerald staggered backward slightly, shaking his head as if struck. “Sold him? To who?”

Jeff’s eyes shifted to the little man whose hand still rested on the crown of his skull. All three of them began to hear sirens. None of them seemed to register it.

“To me, Mr. Whitley.” The little man turned his head to consider Gerald. “I believe I mentioned that I couldn’t put a numerical value on the debt the lovely Miss Daphne owed.”

Gerald looked back at Lena and saw that Gunter was leading his grandmother forward, by her gently resisting arm. She followed his lead, but only reluctantly, still not understanding what lay ahead.

The little man turned, and the chickens all got up and shook themselves into composure and readiness. “Believe me,” he said, “I can appreciate the irony that, at the end of the rainbow, there was no pot of gold, but only a set of platinum locks.” He chuckled at his witticism. “Truth is often stranger than fiction, Mr. Whitley.”

The little man smoothed his lapels and adjusted his white carnation. He bowed with a little flourish of his hand, which he afterward held out to Gunter, who willingly took it.

“Now, I’ve previously spoken with dear Gunter, and I believe he’s ready. This exchange of a first born child absolves you all of Daphne’s outstanding debt. I thank you all. You’ve been most accommodating!”

Lena at first shouted, “No! Gerald, don’t let him!” and then was struck mute.

Gerald tried to step forward, but found his feet had sunk deeper into the mud than he’d realized. He could neither pull them from the earth nor from the shoes themselves.

“And don’t be too concerned, Mr. Whitley. You’ll be able to move as soon as we’re gone.”

Jeff, too, had been immobilized. The entire family now heard the sirens and police radios very vividly. The uniforms were making their way towards the pasture, their hands on their still holstered weapons. They were shouting Lena’s name, since Lena had been the one to call. Lena could not answer. This lack of communication made them draw their weapons.

The rainbow was considerably faded and with it, went the boy and the little man to a fate, Lena, Gerald, and Jeff could not (and did not want to) imagine. The chickens remained, but cocked sidelong glances at where the little man had previously stood. They walked around in broad circles, looking to one side then the other, apparently searching for him. By the time the police reached Lena, the rainbow, the dwarf, and the grandson were all gone, and Lena’s inability to speak lifted. The emotion-filled words that had backed up in her consciousness, awaiting pronunciation and escape, suddenly came pouring from her mouth uselessly: “Stop him! Stop him, Gerald! Do something!”
Gerald’s arrested step unbalanced him, and he fell forward, while Jeff’s attempt to stand upright worked.

The police misread all these cues and precipitously raised their weapons. Before anyone realized what happened, Jeffrey Whitley lay next to the remnants of Daphne, bleeding into the claw marks he’d made in the mud.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

What Lies At Rainbow's End (Part 2)

(for Part I scroll to the previous post)

Finally, Gerald said, holding Jeff’s eyes with his own, “Jeffery, what’s going on? The girls are riled up and you don’t look so good either.”

Jeffery turned and walked back towards the cattle, saying, “Sun’s coming up, Dad,” as if that would explain things.

Gerald followed Jeffery to a side door that looked out over a side pasture the cattle often grazed in.

“I saw somethin’ this morning, Dad. I saw myself die.”

“What?” Gerald stepped around Jeff so he could see his face. He grabbed Jeff by the shoulders and shook him a little. “Good God, Jeff. You’re not right.”

“I’m as right as I could ever be! Dad, it was so clear to me! It’s all figured out!” Jeff was unconsciously clutching at the threadbare button placket of his plaid shirt, which, Gerald now saw, was almost worn thin in the front.

“What’s all figured out? Jeff, please. I don’t understand you.”

Jeff turned and threw out a hand towards the cattle. His eyes were still wide, showing whites threaded with red. They seemed to be protruding slightly, as if under pressure from inside. “All these cows know what I’m talking about! Don’t you, ladies? Yes, you do!”

The projection of Jeff’s strange energy in their direction made the cows uneasy and again, they threw their weight against the sides of the milking stalls.

“Jeff, listen to me. Listen,” he held onto Jeff’s arms, and spoke directly to his face, which was still turned away. “Where is Gunter?”

Jeff stopped and looked at his father and then around at the floor, as if the boy were a contact lens that might have fallen from his eye. “He was here,” Jeff said. “Right here! He was here, kicking the straw up. We were kicking it up together!”

When Jeff became distracted by the thought of kicking the straw, his feet unconsciously lifting with the memory, Gerald held his wrists and spoke again directly to his face. “Jeff, this is important. Where is Gunter now?”

“Here! He was here! Just here! Gunter!” Jeff began shouting. Gerald let him go, and he ran around the barn, shouting his son’s name and eventually leaping in long strides across the concrete like a ballerina.

Gerald shouted, “Jeff, please, just stay here. Stay put. I’m going to get your mother. All right?”

Gerald knew it would not be all right. He had no idea what to do, but he needed Lena’s help to subdue him. He began calling for her from the barn door.

When Lena came out of the chicken house, Gerald couldn’t read the look on her face, but there was something funny about it. “Do you know,” she said, “that not one of these chickens laid eggs?”

“Leave that,” said Gerald irritably. “There’s something wrong with Jeff. You have to help me get him settled. He’s gone nuts.”

In the barn, Jeff was lying unconscious on the concrete. He was clammy. Lena lifted his eyelids and looked at his pupils. “Well,” she said solemnly, “I do think he just passed out, and I don’t think he hit his head, thank goodness. But I believe he’s got a fever.”

After they loaded him into a wheelbarrow, got him to the house, and settled under a blanket on the living room rug, Lena called Daphne, who, as she suspected, was not home, or at least wasn’t answering. Lena put the phone down, angrily. “I bet that hussy is in town somewhere, drinking her whiskey sours and playing video poker. Of all the times not to be home!” Lena hissed.
After checking the barn for a quarter of an hour, Gerald found Gunter crouched in one of the milking stalls, absently petting the leg of one of the younger cows, which had licked the boy’s hair into frothy red-gold swirls. Gunter would not speak. When he looked into Gerald’s eyes, tears fell from his own, effortlessly, as if a valve had been tripped. His face did not contort with anguish. He did not sniff. He cried freely, even as Gerald picked him up and carried him into the farmhouse.

“Maybe,” said Lena, “we better call a doctor.”

“If Jeff starts acting up again,” said Gerald, “they’ll commit him.”

Lena considered this and nodded.

By 9:30, the sun was bright white, piercing in its brilliance. Lena drew the curtains and put cold compresses on Jeff’s forehead when he began to mutter and turn his head against the pillow she’d put underneath it. She turned to Gerald, who was sitting and stroking Gunter’s now stiff, strawberry-blonde hair, and said, “Why don’t you go around Jeff’s house and see if Daphne’s actually home.”

* * * *
When Gerald got to the double-wide, it was clear no one was there. The grass had already begun to grow rapidly and was half an inch away from being rangy. Trash bags lined the side of the house and their contents spilled into the yard. Gerald began to feel a strange sensation come over him, a lightheaded nausea. He unlocked the front door and inside was assaulted by flies, which either buzzed against the windows or made a break for the open door. When he got inside, he saw movement. “Daphne?” he said, waiting for his eyes to adjust. He nose pinched at the smell of something foul, something sweet and cloying.

“No, Mr. Whitley. Daphne’s been gone for awhile now. I’m surprised your son hasn’t told you, but I suppose, under the circumstances, it’s to be expected.”

“Who’s there?” shouted Gerald, still unable to see detail in the dim interior light.

“You’re looking too high, Mr. Whitley. Down here.”

Gerald swatted away flies that buzzed around his eyes and saw, standing a yard from him, a man approximately three and a half feet high, perhaps slightly taller. Had he been standing next to Gerald, he would have come up to Gerald's belt buckle. The little man flicked open a Zippo lighter, a bluish flame jumped upward, and Gerald could suddenly see him very clearly. He was wearing a pair of pristine white slacks, neatly creased and cuffed, and a smart black jacket regularly lined with white pinstripes. Beneath this was a black velveteen vest with silver buttons. A matching watch chain spread across his abdomen. Issuing from the buttonhole in his lapel was a white carnation.

“What the hell is this?” said Gerald, his mouth open. “Why are you in my son’s house?”

“Well, I’m here to collect on a debt.”

“A debt?” Gerald looked at the man, whom he did not take seriously. “What the hell kind of debt?”

The little figure closed his Zippo and slid it audibly back into his pocket where there must also have been change. “Well now, it’s not so hard to believe Daphne was throwing away your son’s money in big handfuls, is it?”

“Debt,” Gerald said absently, looking at a floor he couldn’t see very clearly. “But how do you know Daphne’s gone?”

“Look around you, Mr. Whitley. It seems pretty clear to me a woman couldn’t live in this mess. Even Daphne had standards. Stinks, doesn’t it?”

Gerald nodded.

“And now your son’s cracked up, Gerry. I’d say that’s a problem for everyone.”

more to come....

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What Lies at Rainbow's End

What Lies at Rainbow's End

Gerald Whitley woke for the 5 a.m. milking. His wife, Lena, was not far behind him, pulling at her loosening perm with crooked fingers and fumbling with the cord of her house coat. Usually, once she reached the kitchen, she made coffee in the old Corning percolator, and this was the task she set to as Gerald put on his boots in the green fiberglass summer porch.

Between Lena’s red checked curtains, Gerald had seen the light on in the barn, the naked bulb swaying back and forth on its yellowing string, moats of straw dust floating upwards. Gerald expected that his son Jeff was already inside, dousing udders with iodine solution and rolling out the wheeled milk tank. Jeff often did that: beat his father to the barn even though he lived a mile away. He would be there, squint-eyed and slow to respond, a 24-ounce minute market coffee somewhere within reach because his wife Daphne was never up early enough to make the boy a proper mug for traveling.

Gerald didn’t like Jeff’s wife. He felt that a woman who dyed her hair the color of cotton and had her nails pasted on at a salon was not the kind of girl you married, but Jeff had. And Gerald accepted that fact with the same quiet resignation he’d met most of life’s disappointments with. The woman’s only redeeming quality was that she had had a child, Gunter, shortly after the couple’s first anniversary. The little boy’s strawberry-blonde hair and freckled face confirmed that he was indeed Jeff’s child, and for this, Gerald and Lena mutually sighed with relief. They hadn’t known exactly what to expect from Daphne. Behind Daphne’s back, Lena referred to her as Lilith. “Will Lilith be eating with us tonight?” Lena would chuckle as Gerald came in from the barn on the nights Jeff stayed for supper. She knew the answer, but she felt the joke had not yet gotten old.

Gerald would say, smiling tolerantly, “Now, Lena, dear. You know better. Lilith doesn’t like Eden.”

Eden, of course, referred to the farm, its fields and animals, and all the responsibility it entailed. Daphne, they’d quickly learned, was not a worker and certainly not a practical mate for a farmer. By contrast, Lena, who did not suffer from laziness, vanity or lust, made bread, cheese, butter, and jams, preserved the summer harvest, tended the chickens, and kept Gerald and his intermittent farmhands fed three times a day.

Daphne, on the other hand, did heaven only knew what all day long in the little siding-covered double wide that stood two pastures and a cornfield northwest of Gerald and Lena’s house. They rarely ever saw her at all, and Gerald and Lena suspected that, frequently, she was not even home because Jeff often brought Gunter with him. And Gunter would follow Lena around all day, quietly watching everything she did. He was a silent little boy, who revealed nothing significant about his home life, even when questioned directly. He would simply shrug when asked about his mother. Gerald and Lena felt sorry for him, and even worse for Jeff, who, at only thirty-five, seemed careworn, his edges dulled by constant uncertainty and probably also suspicion. “How’s a man to live with that kind of stress,” asked Gerald rhetorically one night.

Lena was now in the doorway near Gerald, putting on her thin-soled canvas shoes. Gerald knew she was going out to get eggs from the hens. This meant that when he and Jeff were done, breakfast would be on the enamel-topped kitchen table, like it always was. And it would be a man’s breakfast: sausage, eggs, fat triangles of knife-sliced toast on the rim of his plate, big square pats of homemade butter. He thought about those eggs as he laced his shoes, the perfect yellow sunshine of yolk into which he’d dip his toast. Lena left the summer porch before he did, a wire basket over her arm.

It was early April and the pathway Gerald had made during the winter, traveling on foot between house and barn, had gone soft. Water lay in grayish clay deposits, which pulled at his boots, making them catch at his heels. As he expected, Jeff’s truck was parked near the barn, and Gerald could hear someone—was it Jeff?—spinning the dial on the barn’s cordless radio.

Even from where he was standing, Gerald could perceive the cows shifting in their stalls, their heavy girth moving uneasily against the makeshift wooden slats intended to hold them for milking. Whoever was dialing across channels paused first on a Spanish language station, skipped quickly through classic country, and then stopped on a channel that Gerald immediately recognized as religion from the speaker’s histrionic vibrato. The volume went up.

“Revelations 10: 1 says, ‘And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire!’”

By this time, Gerald stood in the doorway, looking into the barn. Of the dozen cows that stood before the central trough filled with timothy, none of them were eating. They were agitated, their black eyes wide enough to show yellowish whites. Having registered Gerald’s presence, they pulled at their ropes and rolled their eyes back to consider him. Gerald heard only radio static now, the auditory snow and piercing squeals of a tuner seeking a station.

“Jeff!” he called. “Jeff! What are you doin’ with that radio? You got the girls all upset.”

He looked at the first cow, Gracie, a white-nosed Jersey whose butterfat he boasted to be close to 5%--a source of great pride to him. She was quivering around her flanks, an uncontrollable twitching that continued in short ripples up her loin and across her ribs. Gerald laid a hand on her to calm her, and she turned her head to look at him, lowing once, softly.

Gerald walked back towards the milk room, where the big tanks were. Along the way, he noticed that straw had been roughly brushed aside, as if someone had purposely kicked it out of the way. Inside the milk room, which was several degrees cooler than even the barn itself, the light shone blue on the vertical stainless steel cooling tanks. Still, Jeff was not there.

However, when Gerald turned around, he stood face to face with his son, whose gray eyes were wide, the pupils the size of pin pricks. Gerald felt his heart lurch. Jeff’s brownish-red hair was tousled, as if he’d been fighting with someone. His face was no more than two inches from Gerald’s, but Gerald could feel his son’s warm breath, which smelled like coffee rather than liquor. There was a much deeper, almost rank smell of animal panic lifting from beneath his clothes. Neither said anything for a few seconds. They just stared at each other, frozen.

more to come....