A slick garter snake
glistening yellow and black;
rainy night highway.
A slick garter snake
A slick garter snake
glistening yellow and black;
rainy night highway.
She croons over the Karaoke boom,
voice as smoky as fresh-charred barrels of oak,
white lightning across the busy barroom,
both hot and sugary—whiskey cut with coke.
She is a rough woman weathered with age
and the seasons of dragging a heart on sleeves—
hollow-eyed, denim-thighed, veiled on the stage
with her auburn hair the shade of Autumn leaves.
She sings her Loretta Lynn like a dirge
for the Man in Black, lost deep in his cup,
her soul rising, fermented, in a surge,
dividing the hot whiskey from the syrup.
Winter, you always seem a mean old bastard
as you blow cold air to put in the last word,
blanketing the earth with your icy scorn
until the land is bleak and blank and forlorn,
killing the old year and wiping it all clean
with your chilling whiteness, so deathly serene;
but I know why you clear the old canvas
with thick snow and ice all around to span us
as if lathering on a coat of primer
to cover the old art of an old-timer—
you work hard for your granddaughter, the Spring,
so she may start afresh with her coloring—
growing new flowers, (after you allow it),
dabbing hues in abundance from her palette,
she’s a master at landscapes, form, and light,
and you, the craftsman, set the easel just right.
The Messenger (Dedicated To Kansas)
Like Ahab hunting the White Whale,
I chart a course and set the sail,
hunting the world’s end, the wayward edge
where oceans plummet off the ledge—
for I wish to know the point where I
am at the threshold of the sky,
following the stardust in the wind
to dare the waterfall to send
a message in a bottle out
to the silent void, roundabout
the land, the sea, this spherical stage
of Man’s drama, his scripted page
written within us, in our blood
and ubiquitous, like the Flood,
and thereby reach a god’s willing ear
to witness now this woe-wrought sphere.
Bound by binary brinkmanship
and life but a brief, fleeting blip
within Strings, between Venus and Mars—
we are but puppets of the stars
in the long venue of this place,
this empty theater of Space
where stars are spectators so quiet
that we oft wish them to riot.
And so this message to the void
afore, or aft, we are destroyed
is but a letter in a glass urn
reaching the point of no return.
A single soft-whispered word
rising gently as a bird
can destroy all that we love,
its wings blasting from above
like the giant Roc of old,
growing fat with each tale told.
Though born so oft Sparrow-small
and meek as a Robin’s call,
it can perch upon your tongue
and therefrom become far-flung,
though a Halcyon afloat
and so idle in your throat,
it grows bigger, breath to breath,
with nary a single death,
but rises upward once more
like to the phoenix of lore
burning with a ceaseless light,
its tell-tale feathers so bright.
With a Garroter’s deft finesse,
he pulled the angel hair taut,
strangling from the chord a scream
that crescendoed as a
silencing the cut-throat bar where
smoke swelled in suffocating waves
within the morbid gloom of a
killer evening show.
The ancient stag
was crowned in years of wisdom
knowing well by instinct
the Death Sentence that came
with dying leaves
He whetted the blade
of his sharp palette knife
to start his crimson phase
with the perfect still life.
Satan may not cause
innate sin, but he sure does
enjoy the profits.
Away from the County Fair and its bright lights in the center of the dark field—where children laughed as they rode the rollercoaster and the teacups and the Ferris wheel— farther across the field parallel with the interstate, and beneath the dim orange lampposts along the highway, the overpass was a soft clash of subdued orange light and a Summer’s night washed out with shadows and starlight. Two figures stood beside the railing of the overpass, beneath a lamppost, talking.
“That’s dangerous, isn’t it?” she asked. “I mean, people are always dying over there. They talk about it on the News all of the time.”
“That’s why I get hazard pay,” he said. “And it’s not that bad where I’m going. You’d be more likely to die from E Coli or dysentery than an IED.”
“But that’s still pretty bad,” she said. “It’s just so…so dangerous.”
The golden butterfly necklace splayed across the flat of her chest, between her shallow breasts. She wore a pink sleeveless dress and had her black hair cocooned-up into a retro-beehive which she thought complemented her 50’s soda pop shop pink skirt. Her eyes were hazel and green, like the woods before dark.
“I’ve been over there before,” he said. “Three tours. But this is private contracting. That’s why the pay’s so good. I will be able to make a whole week’s worth of wages in one day over there. Three months on, a month off. If I stay after the three months are up then I get time-and-a-half. It’s good money. Great money. I can’t pass it up.”
He wore a green camouflage T-shirt, ready at a blink to disappear into the dark foliage of the distant woods rearing upward into the hills overlooking the interstate and Fairgrounds. His tan khakis were stained here and there with motor oil and dirt. No matter how much he washed his face, it always seemed a little dirty, but his smile— and his blue eyes—always shined through the grime.
“Just promise me you’ll be careful,” she said. She let her gaze fall to the railing, and put her hands on the steel bands, leaning. The pink frills of her dress revealed goose-bumped brown legs.
“I will,” he said. He grinned, and his dimples deepened.
She glanced up at his face, then looked away. She sighed.
“I don’t like it.”
He shrugged. “What else can I do? Go to college? I went for a year. Wasn’t for me.”
“You could stay here,” she said. “Become a car mechanic or something.”
His grin disappeared. “You’re going to Minneapolis. You’re not staying, either. It’s good that they accepted me because we can both leave this dead-end County behind. It’s a Win-Win for both of us.”
“Yeah,” she muttered. She kept her eyes on his nose because it hurt to look at his eyes. He looked at the slender arc of her neck as she inclined her head, trying not to look at her pouty lips.
“We both knew this was going to happen,” she said, more to herself than to him. “But today was really nice. All Summer’s been nice. I haven’t been to the Fair in years.”
“I just wish I could have won that pink elephant for you,” he said. He shook his head and his fist. “That air rifle was rigged. Two targets went down easy, but the third shot made less noise, which meant the guy had decreased the air pressure.”
She giggled and light came into her green-and-brown eyes; sparkling brighter than the headlights passing under the overpass.
“Sure thing, Rambo,” she teased. “Blame the gun. Still,” she said, considering, “two out of three ain’t bad.”
“Are you quoting Meat Loaf?” he laughed. “Miss Grad School over here, quoting Meat Loaf. I always thought you were a Bananarama girl.”
She frowned. “Meat Loaf? I don’t get it.”
He frowned also, scratching his blonde hair demurely. “Never mind. I thought you were making a joke.”
Crestfallen now— though she was not entirely sure why—her pale brow hung heavy and she leaned against the railing more heavily with her slight frame, looking like a marble statue swooning over a tomb.
“You could go to Minneapolis,” she said. “There are plenty of jobs there you could work. It’s a lot colder than Afghanistan, but it would be a lot safer, too.”
“I don’t know if it would be safer,” he said, “not with all of those college girls up there.” He leaned against the highway’s lamppost. “Actually, Afghanistan can get pretty damn cold,” he said. “At night it sucks. Especially in the mountains.” He watched the evening traffic pass to and fro, humming beneath the overpass. “I couldn’t do anything in Minneapolis except grind in place. I couldn’t make the money I would in Afghanistan. And I’m going to need money to settle down somewhere. Eventually. If I don’t go crazy from staying in place.”
“That’s the problem with being a Military brat,” she said. “Wanderlust. You’ll never be happy anywhere for long.”
“Look who’s talking,” he said, playfully. “Isn’t your dad a US Corps Engineer? My dad was just a grunt. And a drunk.”
The night sky was vaulted with cobalt, pierced with white-hot stars. To the North the vault was stained with the glow of the city. Down below, the headlights and taillights of the traffic cycled through the darkness. The Fair was an outpost of twirling radiance and swirling cadence in a field otherwise plunged in darkness. Here and there the moonlight gleamed on the windshields of the hundreds of cars parked around each other in the field, packed together like an immovable labyrinth of chock-a-block gridlock.
“Just be careful over there,” she said.
“You be careful, too,” he said. “Don’t party too hard.”
“I’m too old for that,” she said. “It’s all work from here on out. I’ll be too busy to party.” She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “What about you? You’re the party animal, aren’t you?”
“Not anymore,” he said. “I’ll probably just spend my downtime playing videogames and watching Youtube.”
“Yeah,” she said, tucking a strand of black hair back behind her ear. “That sounds like you.”
Their shadows were nailed down to the overpass by the lamppost overhead. She came away from the railing, and stepped toward him, but stopped. He glanced toward the bright lights of the Fair to keep himself from looking at her wet cheeks. His lips twitched restlessly.
“I love…I love that you’ll be doing what you love,” he said. “It must take a lot of brains to become a Pharmacist.”
“Pharmaceutical Scientist, actually,” she said, laughing through tears. “Yeah, it’s all about Chemistry.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s all about Chemistry.”
Her laugh died, but he did not miss a beat.
“Chemical reactions, right? Or am I being dumb again?”
“You’re right,” she said, wiping her eyes. “Medications and how the body reacts to them. Kidneys, lungs, heart…”
“And penis medication,” he said with a laugh. “Boner pills.”
“Yeah,” she said, grinning painfully. “It’s a growing branch of medicine.”
They both laughed, their tremulous voices swallowed by the empty night overhead and echoing in the underpass down below. When the last echo faded, only a sad silence remained. The silence swelled— no traffic passing for a long, anxious stretch. It split open and bled with the chiming alert of her cell-phone.
Fumbling her fingers in her purse, she pulled out her phone. Little strips of paper fell out as she withdrew her phone, scattering everywhere. They were cinema stubs and fortune cookie slips and the wrappers from the bubblegum she chewed after they ate out, all obsessive-compulsively folded and refolded again and again, spilling out across the highway and opening slowly as they tumbled, like chrysalises hesitant for inevitable change.
She read the text, her brow crinkled with emotions, and then shoved the phone back into her purse. She could not gather up all of the paper slips. They had fluttered away in a rising breeze.
“Shit,” she said.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“She hung her head to one side, staring up at the night sky at an angle, letting the glare of the lamppost blind her. She then looked at him; him and his blue eyes.
“Some friends want me to go with them to a bar,” she said. “Last night out before I head to Minneapolis.”
The Ferris wheel slowed to a jerking halt in the distance, its light-strewn buckets swaying. Slowly, it let its riders out, one bucket at a time.
“I can take you there,” he said.
“You can go in with me if you want,” she said.
“I’d like to,” he said, “but I can’t. I have to pack my things. I’ll be leaving for training camp early Monday morning. Two weeks in Fort Myers and then I’m off to the quagmire.”
“Oh,” she said. “At least Fort Myers is nice. My family lived near there for a while.”
“So did my family,” he said, “before the divorce. We bounced around everywhere after that. Then again, we were always bouncing around.”
“So were we,” she said.
He glanced over at the field where many of the cars were starting, headlights flashing on and engines rocking to life.
“It’s a good thing we parked at the gas station,” he said. “It’s going to be a mess down there. It’ll make leaving so much easier.”
“Yeah,” she said. “And I didn’t mind the walk. It’s nice outside tonight. Everything was perfect.”
“Yeah,” he said, “and a perfect Summer, too. Hard to top it.”
“Yeah,” she said.
The Fair was closing, its small city of lights blinking to blue-blackness; bulb by bulb, bit by bit. They looked at the Fairgrounds and watched the maze of parked cars line up to leave. It was a disordered nightmare with no sense of reason or patience. Slowly they walked toward the gas station with a sense of relief and sweet sadness. The crush of traffic fell far behind them.
It was a moonless, starless, lightless night, and the old wizard slouched in his leatherback chair, dozing in the old cottage, chin to chest, with a cup of lemongrass-and-ginger tea on a small round table beside him, its steam a wispy trail floating thinly above its chipped ceramic rim. There was no sound except the grumbling blaze in the stone hearth, and the heavy rain muffled upon the thatch roof, and sloshing in the grass, forming rivulets that trickled downhill to the surrounding forest beyond the summit.
The old wizard wore a faded green robe with an expansive hood— large as a potato sack—and it enveloped much of his hoary head, keeping off the chill of the rain as it breathed faintly through an open window. He had a long, distinguished nose, as wizards sometimes did, and from his snoring nostrils there spilled hair like whitewater, curling down either side of his pale lips, the confluence gathering again at his chin and jaw, then tumbling down as a waterfall beard that cascaded over his shallow, heaving chest.
Books lay open in every nook and cranny of the room, or else were closed and piled high in tottering stacks on the floor, and atop these tomes were amphoras with skinny necks and large bellies full of strange liquids. Runes were scattered here and there, made of faintly glowing stones, and charts and maps and drawings of various creatures spread themselves lackadaisically upon the old oak table, and between the stacks of books; all forgotten after zeal had run its course and given way to lethargy and exhaustion. There was a rusted bird cage hung from one corner of the cottage, long abandoned to disuse, the droppings gone to dust and the dust carried away by the winds alongside other dust— mountains of dust from a mountain of discarded ages.
All was still in the world, save for fire and rain and the wind through the window, and all was restive.
Suddenly, there was a gentle knock at the door, as if by someone patient and measured, with endless days ahead and all of the time in the world. The wizard was roused but by half an eyelid of care.
“Come in, if you must,” he muttered.
In stepped the sunrise, or so it seemed, as the lovely young lissome lady entered, illuminating rain and cottage and wizard alike. She was golden-haired, and a youthful bloom of cherry flush betook to her cheeks, and her radiant garb was of golden gossamers. Within the spiraling tresses of her hair sat a diadem that rainbowed its golden triangles above her childlike forehead.
“Hello, Wagnard,” the young lady said.
The wizard opened his eyes a little more, flinched at the luminosity, and pulled at his overlarge hood, squinting painfully from behind its sheltering shade.
“Haven’t you some place to rise over today?” he muttered.
“Always,” she said.
The wizard snorted, then shifted uneasily in his chair. He sighed with fatigue and irritation. The young lady came to his side. The teacup’s steam was a ghostly strand.
“I wished to see you one final time,” she said. “Many times have I smiled upon your works, Wagnard, and, even unto the end, you always did well by others where others would have done well only by themselves.”
“It is easy enough to do,” the wizard confessed, “when it means they should cease their whining. I cannot abide that, you know. It is like shepherding a bleating flock of sheep.”
“And yet you aided them in their times of need,” she said.
The wizard waved a dismissive hand. It was knotted about the knuckles, like the boles of a tree, and veined blue through the paleness of his mottled skin. “As you say.”
The radiant lady came nearer to him, still, leaning over him and his hood. He stubbornly turned away from her, and yet she nonetheless snatched at his hood with deft, albeit, dainty fingers and pulled it back, thereupon planting a girlish smack of lips upon his wizened forehead. When she released his hood, he pulled it over his head once again to shield his eyes from her bountiful radiance.
“Thank you, Wagnar,” she said.
She headed toward the open door— blazing more brightly than any hearth or dragon’s fire.
The wizard roused suddenly, his eyes wide. “Wait!”
She paused at the threshold, turning toward him with a sad smile. “Yes?”
“In my youth,” he said, “I loved you most of all.”
She nodded. “I know, Wagner. I know.”
Beyond the threshold, she receded over the horizon to some other place in the world.
The door somehow closed, now, the wizard fell asleep once again.
The rain continued, generous as ever, and the fire blazed on, ever so warm, but the teacup’s steam narrowed to a strand like spider silk, wavering in the cold wind. The wizard’s snore became a labored wheeze. His shallow chest trembled as it rose and fell beneath his green robe and waterfall beard. The wind through the window became colder, promising another Winter in due time.
There was an assured knock on the door, as if by someone who had accomplished all they needed to that day and was sure that whatever remained undone, there would be time for it tomorrow. Wagnar did not hear the first rapping. The second rapping roused him reluctantly.
“Come in,” the wizard said, “if it please you.”
The old oak door opened and in bounced a buxom madam in a crepuscular dress. Her hair was dark auburn, like the wooded shadows at dusk, and held her freckled fists to her wide hips, her arms akimbo.
“It does please me to come in,” the woman said. “The question is, ‘Does it please you?’”
The wizard squinted at the woman in the dark evening dress, but whether in irritation, or in wry amusement, he did not himself know.
“Your company was once a pleasure,” he said. “So, I suppose, at one time or another it pleases me to have you here.”
“Ho ho!” the woman said, the wide smile making dimples in her round cheeks that glowed like a full Harvest Moon. “Ever the wit, my dear, even by a whit!”
She bustled over to him, knocking over books and maps and things with her womanly hips. He did not seem to mind the mess, for his sleepy eyes were entranced by the pillowy expanse of her bosom. His head slumped toward her cradling chest as she leaned over him. She was a large woman, with welcoming brown eyes that were warm as a fireplace after a long day in cold woods. Her freckles reminded him of falling Maple leaves— blazing orange and lovely on dusky skin tanned by years of toil in fields and fens and forests alike.
“I remember your many evenings of study,” she said, “and the many evenings when you laid aside your frets and surrendered yourself to my embrace. But I also remember the aching evenings when needs meant your pulling away from me and braving the cold and the rain and the snow to see to the care of a sick child, or a woman in labor. You are a good man, my beloved Wagnar.”
“Am I?” he said. “I did what I did to stop them from pestering me, and much of the time wished to be left alone, especially in our evenings together.”
The woman smiled sadly. “But you sacrificed your own peace for the sake of theirs, and did it with a committed heart.” She twirled the curls of his long beard with her meaty, calloused fingers. “Even if you masked it with a quarrelsome mouth.”
She leaned down and kissed him deeply on the lips—as a wife would her husband–then held him close to her broad bosom, his wrinkled face relaxing amidst her cradling cleavage. When she withdrew from him, he swayed, half-asleep again. She walked to the door, less swagger in her hips; her stride hesitant and slow.
Wagnar sighed tremulously. “I looked forward to you most,” he said, “in my manhood. After a day’s work was done and I could relax and smoke a pipe, or lay with my loves, and be content for an evening. After the struggle was done and the embers of the day cooled in my heart.”
“I know, my dear,” the auburn-haired madam said. “Now rest. It is well-deserved. You always deserved a rest.”
A gilded tear in the outer dark revealed a dusky horizon, and she sauntered through that tear, mingling with the dusky gold of another place, and another time.
There came a hush upon the rain, and a silence to the the grumbling blaze in the hearth, and the wind at the window was less than the husk of a whisper. The steam from the cracked lip of the teacup was a wobbling wisp, like a pinch of frail cobweb in a billowy breeze. There was no knock at the door. The door simply opened and the old crone stepped in, cloaked like midnight, her withered face and wintry white hair veiled with a shawl of shadow. She said nothing as she approached his slumped body. Her tread was silent, as was the sway of her black garments as they swept the dusty floor. The cottage was cold, but he did not feel it.
“So it is time,” the wizard said, his eyes unmoving behind their lids. “Time for rest. Time to let go of the worries of this world.”
The old crone said nothing. Her face was illegible behind the veil.
“I feared sleep when in my youth,” the wizard said, “lest I miss the busy world and all that happened within it, and, in my manhood, I thought sleep welcome, but also a bother, commanding so much of my time that I could have employed otherwise— with more work…more studies…more efforts in bettering the earth. But now…now I welcome you more than the others. My bones are brittle. My lungs are frayed. My heart hesitates at times, doubtful that it should go on, and my mind is not a bright candle, but the melted wax with a drowning snub of a wick. Take me. I go willingly to my final sleep.”
The crone said nothing, but covered him with her deep, dark shawl, pressing her lips to his. He sighed, but whether in peace or surprise or restive resignation, it was never known. The steam guttered out and the tea went cold. The rain and the fire and the wind carried on.
It was a rainless, shadowless, cloudless dawn, and the birds sang loudly in the crowns of the trees while the squirrels chattered and chased one another, gathering acorns for the coming Winter. The old wizard lay in his leatherback chair, in his old cottage, unmoving and dreamless and untroubled. His hearth was but black ash and his scattered runes but cold stones upon the cold floor. His door remained open, and the dawn smiled brightly upon him, reaching her light inward upon his many tomes, and the evening moon, too, was increscent with love for him, her milky glow gleaming upon the fat amphoras, and the nightfall embraced him and all about him, as had all nights for millennia before when he had fallen asleep after a long day of selflessly serving the troubled world beyond his magnanimous doorway.