` The only thing I’ve ever stolen – fully aware of myself, hot with greed and desperation – was a Yu-Gi-Oh card. Well, two Yu-Gi-Oh cards. The first time was a perfectly worthless card that a neighborhood kid refused to trade me. Just some hooded sorcerer with a special ability, and I could tell he refused to trade for it just to spite me. He was like that, your best friend one day and your bully the next.
It then became an obsession, not the card itself but depriving him of that smug expression. So after we finished dueling one day (he beat me) and he went in his house to use the bathroom, I ransacked his pencil box full of cards, found it, and took off for home. I avoided him thereafter, not even putting the card in my deck when dueling other friends for fear word would get around. We never discussed it and I felt proud of my victory.
But the second time I stole still kills me. I went with my family over to a dinner party of a bunch of their college buddies, all married now with children around my age. After eating, one of the older, cooler – and therefore crueler – kids got us swinging at fireflies with tennis rackets; he bugs would get stuck glowing in the wire mesh. The youngest, Louis, was nowhere to be found, and since we were buddies I went inside to fetch him. I found him upstairs in his room alone, playing with action figures.
“Lou! C’mon man, Ben showed us how to catch fireflies by swatting ‘em with tennis rackets!” I said, smiling and waving at the door.
But Lou suddenly looked hurt. “You what?!” He was about to cry. I looked up at the posters around his room: beetles, dragonflies, a praying mantis; I remembered how much Lou loved bugs.
“Oh, sorry. Never mind. What are you doing?”
He returned to his toys, still scared for the fireflies, turning back in on himself. But I’d brought my Yu-Gi-Oh deck with me – I brought it everywhere then – and pulled it out.
“Hey, do you duel?”
He perked up, forgetting the fireflies immediately. “Yeah! Let me show you!”
We went over to his parents room and he crawled under their bed. After some rummaging he emerged with a shopping bag in hand, reached in, and pulled out a tin of cards. Popping off the top he handed the box to me. Inside were the rarest of rare cards, every kind imaginable.
“Where did you get this?!” I almost yelled.
Lou smiled sheepishly. “Um, my dad went somewhere for business and brought it back. But mom doesn’t want me dueling or anything, thinks it encourages bad behavior. Plus she says their probably fakes, so…”
“Whoa! Are-are these the God cards? I’ve never seen them in real life.”
“Yeah…pretty cool, huh?”
Just then we heard a voice call up the stairs: time for dessert. He set the tin back into the bag, pushed it under the bed, and the two of us hurried to the stairs. But before descending I heard my voice say: “Uh, I have to use the bathroom. I’ll be down in a minute.” Lou went on without me and I did go straight to the bathroom, knowing at that point I could still turn back. Yet temptation took hold and before I knew it I was under that bed, in the bag, rifling through the tin till I found it: Slifer the Sky Dragon, the second God card. I slipped it into the middle of my deck. When I got home that night I looked at it. Although I couldn’t admit it then, the color was a little pale and the upper left corner was beginning to peal – indeed it was likely fake. But it was still mine, and after putting it in a protective sleeve, I locked it away in a red coin box in my desk drawer.
Years went by, I forgot about it, and eventually the box disappeared, probably given or thrown away by my mother. And to this day I think back on little Lou discovering it gone, and my pointless coveting, and how we never once discussed it, and how kids are willing to hurt each other over the most trivial of things: fake Yu-Gi-Oh cards. But Lou, I’m sorry nonetheless.
Do I sing?
There was ice and slush on the ground
And our faces frozen in smiles
“You’ve already asked me this,” I said.
“Well?” Eyes wide and teasing.
Do I? Do I dare sing for you?
Sing the song of myself, the barbaric yawp;
“Tell her that sang me once that song of Lawes”?
The body electric, the people’s drone;
Do I, too, sing America? Crooning to myself again,
Against the hard and soft light, looking over my shoulder
For those who are not there until I, too, am not there.
Oh I would sing, sing, sing for you,
But I can’t sing and you don’t want me to.
I have, though, oh I have.
But my throat is weak and awkward set
And only by drunken chance do I belt unbidden.
Written letters instead, didn’t want to wake you,
The shaky cursive coming through, something to relish and enjoy,
For why write a letter
If you don’t care enough to try out those old skills?
I returned midday and still you slept,
As I dared to hope you might; crawled in beside
But not next – that much was clear as I sighed,
Watched the ceiling fall, the songs of our separate selves trailing along,
And the note hidden in my desk drawer unread* and unsung
Like whispers of the lingered night:
“Went to class, but stay as long as you like.”
O! If only it were as long as I liked.
She says later.
Comes to me in bed.
The longest night yet
And in the morning she’s
About giving me
Needs to be
If only being with me
Could fill her with
And not such despair.
I once lived out Joyce’s “The Dead” the summer after Freshman year.
Much less poetically, mind you, but
Yes, I remember well
How deep I longed and tensed,
With tumescent confusion and empty house awaiting,
After a silly faux-Thai dinner and literary ramblings
Of Salinger meeting Hemingway - the usual crock,
Tired as it always was.
Twas the end of summer when all hopes were high
But old realities squandered between Clare and I:
Curious, Glancing Eyes Over Clumsy Noodles.
Outside: no, she would not like to come in.
You’re a great guy, she says, I hate to say this.
And suddenly I’m all smiles, cursing myself, laughing
At my foolery, no condom anyway you dolt, what did you think would happen?
Here she is, saying what I should have expected, me thinking
The one thing that’s all too predictable: it’s our last chance!
No better than the rest.
Yes, I said, I know. We’re going to different schools, I agree, of course.
I knew, I knew this was the end, why didn’t I expect the end?
But I felt a terrible weight lifted, light as a feather, even if leaden
With dewy, lonely grief. Reacted too easy, though, too happy.
Surprised, she kept asking if it was alright, if I’m sure I’m alright,
A little disappointed almost.
I asked for one last kiss because I thought it would mean something
But of course it didn’t, wet and limp like soggy toast,
I wished her a good night, clinked the car door shut, watched her drive off.
Went inside my empty circus tent of a house and drank a few beers
To convince myself I was heartbroken; listened to Chet Baker croon
Cheezy jazz ballads and sat in my dining room dark.
When the boys finally came over I was pretty screwed, ambled together to my back porch
One last time, the summer night milky cool,
Laughed with them till I forgot the poorly laid brick in my chest.
North Bay boiled in the heat of relentless summer. Flies fat and buzzing, cherry orchards ripe for early harvest, the water level as low as ever and waning with each passing year. What fish there were feared for their lives, either escaping to the waters of Lake Michigan or baking in the languid bay. Those left behind soon died, leaving the shore fetid with scales and slime. If fate gifted a breeze it would only be from the peninsular inland – hotly billowing over the tops of conifers crowning the bay – and not the cool lake wind from the North-East that Wally recalled with longing. He sat on the second-story windowsill overlooking the shimmering expanse, admiring how the water could look so inviting despite its fallow dormancy. He came here to think, or not to think, and it was already working. He slurped the rest of his cereal from the bowl and didn’t mind when warm milk rolled down his chin and bare chest, dotting his cotton boxers.
The sun was already high-set and he wondered what time it teetered upon. But it was a rule of his never to satisfy such compulsions while he was here; timelessness is a fragile thing. Either the day would wait for him or he’d welcome the night with open arms. Such freedom! It loosed him with loony ideas. He strode from the windowsill – over the mural of an accurately oriented compass painted in the center of the floor – and opened a drawer of the large oak desk beneath the opposite window.
All sorts of knick-knacks and mementos lay inside: keys to nothing, a tattered pirate flag flown over the pier at times, a pair of reading glasses, a few bottle rockets and sparklers left over from bygone fourth of Julys, arrow heads and fossil fragments, old maps of the peninsula, a collection of pocket knives with hand-carved hilts, and further relics of the past. Hidden deliberately, like treasure amongst squalor, Wally found it: Grandpa’s pipe. It still, after all these years, smelled like Grandpa Bellman’s unkempt beard. He supposed it was the other way around – that the beard had smelled stickily of the sweet pipe tobacco – but Wally liked to believe that that rough patch of hair was immutable and original in its own right.
He grabbed his backpack and resumed his seat at the sill, opening an orange med container and wafting in his own pungent scent to contribute. He glanced up at the bed adjacent to the desk; Allie was still sleeping there and she actually managed to look peaceful for a change. She was a little crazy, not at all his type, but for some reason she clung to him and her boisterous company was better than being alone – usually. But he also had to admit he liked getting into trouble, and since he didn’t have a knack for it, he appreciated girls who did. Many a story had been written from her example.
Looking back down Wally stopped for a second, wondering if what he was doing could be considered…sacrilegious. This chunk of expertly crafted wood, with a schooner carved around the curve of the bowl, was quite the family heirloom. But he figured Grandpa wouldn’t need it anymore, and went on packing the green flecks.
When it was fully prepared he took a hit, listening to a wood pecker and the hiss of cicadas. Then he got another loony idea, swinging his leg out of the sill and onto the roof of the porch below. The porch wrapped around the front of the lake house and around its right wall, allowing a panoramic view of the bay. He’d always wanted to relax out on the roof while his family went about their business below, but had always refrained for fear of being caught. Now, however, without them dallying about, he sat cross-legged on the mossy roof shingles and took another hit.
The estate was nestled within a thick forest of pine, but on the left side of the house there was a clearing for his extended family’s numerous cars to park. Currently it was empty save his 1993 teal station wagon, as old as him. But as he sat there, listening to the lazy lap of waves, increasingly dumbfounded with contentment, he heard the familiar crunch of gravel and tinder as they bore the weight of tires down the drive. It was a Monday; none of his family would come up during the work week, surely. Oblivious as to whom this could be, his curiosity kept him planted there, unable to put down the smoking pipe let alone jump inside to put on some pants.
A blue Mazda, a car he didn’t recognize, pulled up to the left side of the house. Wally stood up to watch it approach, peering down with narrowed eyes. A man stepped out slowly, almost with pain, and looked up to Wally. His head, oblong and close-cropped, hung atop his slight and hunched frame like a boot buckling the back of a fishing rod. The chin and cheeks were corroded with stubble, speckling a sallow complexion, and his expression was blank save for sullen and sunken eyes.
“Gil? Is that you? What are you doing here?” Wally called down him.
“Huh. I’d ask you the same thing, Walther,” the long-lost cousin answered, averting his eyes to the slime-sodden shore.
“Oh, ha, I- uh, say, did you come all the way from Chicago? When the hell did you leave?”
“Yeah…I woke up in the middle of the night, couldn’t really sleep. Just had this impulse to come I guess, so I drove all through the morning.”
“Damn!” Wally chuckled a little too much.
With pressed lips his cousin Gil looked around the place for second; frowned at the jaundiced water down on the bank. Then he rolled his gaze back up to Walt. “Is that Grandpa’s pipe?”
Wally, still chuckling, looked down as if discovering it for the first time. “So it is!”
Allie suddenly stuck her upper half out of the second story window behind Wally, rubbing a crusted eye with her middle finger. Her sandy blonde hair was barely neck length and rather disheveled; below, her unbuttoned blue-green blouse failed to cover small, pale breasts. She half-sung to her unclothed companion: “Waal-ther, you talking to me?”
Before he could answer she looked down past him at Gil and yelped in surprise, jumping away from the window frame. Wally turned back to his guest and said with a shrug:
“Haha, sorry about that. Um…meet you in the kitchen?”
Wally leaned against the sink, still in his boxers but with the addition of a button-up summer shirt. Gil took a seat at the small kitchen table, eyes wandering, waiting patiently as a child awaits lecture.
“So…” Wally said with a grin, rubbing a blood-shot eye, coughing up piquant smoke.
“Allie will be down in a minute, she’s just…freshening up.”
“She’s great, you’ll definitely dig her. Scared her half to death though.”
“Ha, yeah, same here. So your folks know you’re here?”
“Yeah, they know I am.” Wally motioned to the still empty doorway. “But, uh, Allie’s friend works up here in the summers, so she hitched a ride yesterday to give me some company. But hey, what the helluvya been up to, man? It’s been a while.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Gil looked in Wally’s direction. “Are you in college by now?”
“Gonna be a sophomore, actually.”
“Last time I saw you was Christmas, maybe six years ago? I was still in middle school!”
“Yeah…a lot happens in six years.”
“Any good stories?”
Gil closed his eyes, teeth clenched, exhaling through his nose. Allie slipped into the room then, the blouse fully buttoned and modest shorts covering her thighs. She took a seat across from Gil and smiled with mawkish delight. “So! I finally get to meet another one of the Bellmans!” She extended her hand and Gil, looking away, shook it limply. “Would’ve made breakfast if we’d known you were dropping by…” She looked to Wally, who promptly walked over to the fridge.
“Well, no reason we can’t make some now. I’ll get the bacon,” Wally said.
Allie stood. “Well I need some coffee, I don’t know about you two.” She walked to the decade-old coffee pot on the counter behind Gil. “So,” she started again, “how long were you planning on staying, Gil?”
“Well, to be honest, I hadn’t really done any planning. I just kind of came, so…I have no idea.”
“Oh,” Allie said, looking over her shoulder at Wally.
“Thing is…” Gil continued, staring down at his hands, “a friend of mine just died and its-” he stopped short, shaking his head.
“Jeeze, I’m sorry to hear it, man. That’s terrible,” said Wally, returning the look Allie gave him.
“Thanks. I’m working through it. But, um, I don’t want to intrude…” Gil said, locking eyes with his younger cousin. Wally hesitated, but returned to the bacon.
“Oh, no, no of course not. You’re welcome as long as you like,” Wally assured. Allie glared at him from her post by the coffee.
“Thanks man.” Gil sighed, looking at the sizzling bacon with disdain. “Actually, I’m not all that hungry, but thanks again; you two have at it. I think I’ll bring my stuff in and then go for a swim.”
“Oh, uh, okay. Talk to you later,” Wally said as Gil stood and walked out.
“Nice to meet you!” Allie called after him. She turned to Wally: “We need to talk.”
Suddenly Gil poked his head back in and Allie yelped again. “I’d like to borrow Grandpa’s pipe, if that’s alright.”
The couple sat on two of the porch’s many whicker rocking chairs watching Gil lie belly-up in the shallow water, arms and legs spread-eagle and drifting aimlessly, the pipe resting on his bony chest. Above them two sailboat masts were slung close to the ceiling, spanning the length of the porch. They belonged to two of the family’s boats of course, which were tarped and stored in the boathouse and had been for the past five years since Grandpa Bellman’s death, something Wally resented for no good reason. You could no longer sail on North Bay.
Gil had drifted out further and further, and Walt wondered if he would fall asleep out there; pictured him drifting out to sea, doddering in the expanse of Lake Michigan for days, finally washing up back home in Chicago. He chuckled at the look on Gil’s face as he awoke on Montrose Beach, smacked in the head by someone’s Frisbee. Wally was still thinking loony thoughts.
“Are you listening to me?” Allie asked, flicking his arm.
“Yes! Of course! I mean- what?” Wally rubbed his eye some more.
“He’s not really staying here, is he?” Allie asked.
“I dunno, who are we to say he should leave? He’s got just as much reason to be here as I do. More reason than you have, really.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Oh come on, you know what I’m trying to say. Look, he’s obviously going through a rough time, and he came all the way from Chicago. I can’t just tell him to leave.”
“Alright, I get it. But this isn’t exactly what I had in mind when you said ‘Week of Splendor’.”
“We’ll still have a good time. Gil’s a great guy, though. He taught me how to sail when I was just a wee little one.”
“Jeeze, you’re weird when you’re high, you know that?”
“It’s crazy that he just turned up like this.”
“I wonder if anybody else even knows where he is?”
“Yeah,” Allie said under her breath, “we’ll have a Grand Ol’ Time.”
The afternoon went on with uneventful languor, with Wally reading Steinbeck from Grandpa Bellman’s bookcase and Allie growing increasingly restless from the lack of WiFi. All the while Gil soaked in the sea and sun, trudging through the muck. He mostly hung on and around the recently beheaded pier, whose white-washed timbers and red-shingled roof were declared unlawful by the county bureaucracy after 50 years of inoffensive permanence – the uncles had had to remove the enclosure with saw-zawls. Now all that remained were wooden planks leading from the rocky shore to a large brick of concrete incased in wood and steel, the size of a small room, standing like a deserted castle upon a valley of moat, a bastion against the fleeting sea. The family had once docked boats there; now the surrounding water wasn’t even ankle-deep. The flag pole in the pier’s far corner still stood, however, erect and barren.
Gil wore only his white boxers, which appeared almost like a loin cloth, and with a summery tan beginning to develop he seemed a Midwestern Buddha gallivanting through the stolen depths, sometimes nearer, sometimes farther, sometimes out of sight up or down the shoreline, but always around.
“I’m bored,” Allie moaned. “I can’t watch this guy slosh around out there all damn day.”
Wally looked up mid-sentence. “This is like, the best part – I get so much reading and writing done up here. You just gotta enjoy the silence…”
“Well shit,” Allie said with a yawn, walking back to the kitchen, “guess I’ll start drinking if there’s nothing else going on.”
They ate a dinner of burgers and beans, and it wasn’t until they were halfway through eating that Gil returned, pruned and exhausted.
“You’ve emerged! Care for a burger?” Wally asked.
“No thanks, I’m actually vegan.”
“Really? Man, I remember when we used to have brat-eating contests.”
“Yeah…things change.” He still held the pipe, and his drenched, white boxers didn’t do much to conceal his crotch. He walked past them and up the stairs.
“He better put on some clothes…” Allie said with disgust, downing the rest of her beer.
Gil returned shortly wearing faded jeans and a white t-shirt. “What happened to the pier?”
“Oh, that’s right. You’ve been gone,” Wally began. “Some county assholes said it was unlawful, that we had to bring it down or they would. It was a lot of bullshit; Uncle Joe is still fuming about it.”
“What did they do with it?”
“With what? The roof? I think it’s all in pieces behind the barn. Why?”
“I’ll dispose of it properly,” Gil said without hesitation, walking out of the kitchen towards the barn.
The couple returned to their seats on the porch, beers in hand. It was quite a show, Gil loading all the white timbers and fragments of roof shingles into the wheel barrow and dumping them in a pile on the far end of the pier. He quickly sweat his shirt through and dirtied it with must and wood chips. When all the debris was gathered, he descended upon the desecrated roof with an axe from the barn in hand, breaking down the support beams into sizable chunks. And on the porch, over-looking the frenzied energy and the sunset slinking away beyond, the two could do nothing but watch.
“This isn’t healthy,” Wally concluded. “We should say something.”
“I’m not saying shit to this guy while he has an axe in his hand…” Allie said, giggling. “Say, I found an old bottle of rum upstairs, want to take some shots?”
“I’m good. I think I’m gonna go talk to him.”
“Suit yourself.” The bottle in her hand tipped back once, twice.
“Gil? You okay, man?” Wally said from the relative safety of the planked walkway.
“Dandy,” Gil replied between axe swings. “Just dandy.”
Allie stumbled down the path and slapped the planks behind Wally, the echoes carrying across the water. “Calm down man, this is a vacation!” she said to Gil. She wrapped her arms around Wally’s neck and hung over his shoulder like a coiled snake. “Drink a beer and relax!”
“How old are you?” Gil asked quietly.
“We’re in college,” Wally insisted, “You know how it is.”
“So you’re underage?”
“Hell, our parents were drinking when they were our age,” Allie said with a chortle. She turned into Wally’s ear. “Who the hell is this guy?”
“Yeah, I’m sure they’re great role models…” Gil said, swinging away.
“Hey.” Allie spoke low and brusque. “My dad’s dead.”
“Exactly my point.” Gil kept swinging at the dry scraps of timber, a blow per word: “Death. Death. More. Death. Lay it on! Pile ‘em up!”
“Fuck you,” she said, loud enough to be heard over the crack of metal on wood.
“Now you sound like my dad. Act like him too.” He kept hacking, watching the wood splinter, the blade occasionally glancing off and chipping the hot cement below.
Allie, panting, trying to stand on her own, turned around and poked Wally hard in the chest. “I’m leaving! Give me your fucking keys!”
“Allie, you’re in no condition to drive…” Wally said calmly. “You remember last time, don’t you?”
“Do I look like I care?” Allie hissed, flinching with every swing of the axe. Suddenly the blows stopped.
“You know how he died?” Gil asked the scattered wood chips, holding the axe high over his head.
Allie turned back to him: “What?”
He slowly lowered the axe, deepened his breaths, and looked her in the eyes for the first time. “Would you like to know how my friend fucking died at 29?!”
All was silent save the lapping waves. Nodding, he raised the axe high. “I didn’t think so,” he said with clenched teeth, and resumed his gruesome task, slamming the metal blade directly into the concrete with no pretense of aim, the cracking wood and rock muffling his shouts of heartache. The two could do nothing but watch him. He paused to catch his breath. “Just-just leave me alone,” he said with his eyes closed, face soaked with tears and sweat. He raised his axe high and the savagery continued.
Allie stared at this man possessed before casting her gaze down, around, and out to the sun nearly set. She began to teeter and almost stumbled, turning around. “Wally…I’m sorry.”
He held her arm gently, looking across to Gil’s tortured frame. “It’s okay. We should go.” Wally glanced over to his cousin one last time before leading her away, back down the gangplank and into the house.
At last Gil stopped, arranged the roof fragments neatly, and picked up a can of lighter fluid from the wheel barrow. He doused the remains and with a final flick of the wrist, struck a match.
When Wally returned he found Gil sitting cross-legged in front of his cremation, smoking the pipe. The sunset had faded but the heat remained with them, and an audience of stars paid solemn respect to the crackle of their memories. Without saying anything, Wally went to the flagpole and hoisted Grandpa’s tattered Jolly Roger above the flames. Gil, smoking, spoke as Wally took a seat next to him:
“I remember when I was a little kid, the water was still high, and we’d actually climb on top of the roof and jump off into the water. I bet you can’t even imagine that, can you? Seems like a world away now.”
Wally just nodded, waiting. Gil looked from the flames to the flag, to the pipe, and finally to Wally.
“I’m a little fucked up, man. Little spiteful, too, I guess. See, Tim and I would come here same as you two, during the week, the place to ourselves. No judging eyes, no schedule to watch, not a care in the world but each other. We even smoked Grandpa’s pipe, same as you this morning.” He looked down at the smooth wood and ran his thumb over the schooner. “But of course it lost that smell.”
“His beard?” Wally ventured.
“Ha, yeah, his beard. I couldn’t stand it, reeking of weed and not Grandpa. So I scraped out the res and scoured the peninsula for that particular brand of tobacco. It’s all I’ve smoked in it since. I guess it’s my own little way of keeping the past alive. Did the same thing this afternoon. Here.”
Wally took the pipe and breathed in. Sure enough, it was the same strong scent he’d smelled that morning. “Sorry for, you know…”
“It’s alright, I did the same thing. We all make the same mistakes, I suppose.” He handed Wally the lighter. “I’m sorry I ruined this for you two…I really don’t care if she drinks. I’ll apologize.”
“I understand. She does overdo it. And I’d be right there with her if you weren’t here. We’re still figuring it all out, I guess.”
“Yeah, temperance is a hard thing sometimes. I’m well aware. Tim had, well, a reckless way of betraying his sobriety, to put it straight. I wasn’t really yelling at her earlier, you know? ‘Don’t worry, I’ve driven hundreds of times…’ he used to say. And now, well – that’s that.”
“Jeeze, I’m sorry man,” Wally said, puffing the pipe slowly and passing it back. “So, were you two-?”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah.”
“Cool. I would’ve liked to meet him.”
Gil took a large hit, nodding, and exhaled through his nose. “Say, I saw you reading Steinbeck earlier.”
“Yeah, man! ‘Winter of our Discontent,’ just finished it. He gets me every time. I also really enjoyed Grandpa’s scribbled notes, and yours, too.”
“Ha, that’s right. So, uh, you know the ending then? When he’s sitting in his secret hiding place under the pier but the tide’s coming in, and the frigid Atlantic waves are pummeling him?”
“Yeah, heart-wrenching stuff. What of it?”
Gil took another large hit of the sweet tobacco. “He’s trying to reach into his pocket for the razor blades, you know? But instead he finds that rock, talisman – whatever it is – that his daughter slipped in there for him. And he suddenly wants to live, if only to give it back to her.”
His eyes began to tear up as he reached into his own pocket, pulling out one of the many hand-carved pocket knives from the collection in the drawer, tossing it on the chipped cement. “That damn pipe, man. If you hadn’t been sitting there, smoking it…Hell if you hadn’t been here at all…” He set the pipe down next to the knife and laid himself back, locking his hands behind his head.
Walt watched the roof remains burn down to coals. “I’m glad I was,” he finally said. Without the orange light of flames he couldn’t tell Gil’s expression, but he heard a sigh. Wally lay back to join him.
“It’s gorgeous out here at night, you know? You can see everything,” Gil said, wiping his eyes. “You have to be careful though. If you look at one spot for too long the sky loses its depth, like some two-dimensional ceiling. You have to keep turning your head, looking up and down and side-to-side, just to remember what you’re looking at. It’s edgeless, you know? Just smooth, round infinity, and us here to wallow in it.” They lay there together for some time, arching their necks up and around, listening to the hum of night.
Up until now my posts have only been writing as a rule, and sparse at that, because, like everyone else, I don’t write nearly as much as I’d like to. But I feel I’m not getting nearly as much out of this brilliant means of social media as I see the rest of you are, and I’d like to change that.
I find the people I enjoy following the most are the ones whose personalities are ever-present; who relay their thoughts and fears and loves with unabashed honesty, and I envy that. So while of course I’m going to continue posting my stories and scribblings, I’m also going to try sharing my thoughts, and by extension, myself. Which is to say I’d like to join in the madness, instead of playing it safe on the sidelines. And of course I’d love to hear what life is like in any of your corners of the world. Cheers.
P.S. Where does one go to find cheap clothes in Minneapolis? My wardrobe is getting tiresome. The one thing I wish I had money for…
The fog would not leave that night.
It snaked about boughs,
Pooled into bowls,
And blinded the bay, stifling it’s breath.
Amongst the prickled pine
and rotting sumac, eroded
Muddy moats of run-off,
And chilled, dirt-strewn floors,
We hid in bed.
The iridescent shocks began, unyielding,
Electrifying the icy air,
And for eternal moments it was day.
We saw the pier, forlorn and stranded
In the ungodly white hue
Of stricken fog shuddering.
And although I was too old to cry,
I wished to. For as
The little ones moaned, and
As we crooned and caressed,
The thunder came
And we could help no more.
Words come and go
Like thoughts of you.
Attempts to pin both to a page
Come away shivering
through and through.
Winter is nigh.
I hum and cook with ease
but eat alone with chokes and sighs.
My palate is stiff
with want of truth.
It’s been too long
Without words from you.
There’s nothing to it,
it seems. To sit
And transcribe a scream.
I count the days,
the many ways to turn a phrase
“Would she like this?”
“Does it matter?”
“So this is it, eh?” she asked with her back to him, hands on her hips. A verdant and flourishing garden bloomed before her, snug between the house and garage. He stuck his head out the screen door and admired her figure from behind for a moment: downy, red-brown locks lofted upon a white blouse, with sleeves rolled and shirt ends tucked neatly into the shortest of denim shorts. Loosely hung around one of those pale wrists was a yellow ribbon, like a necessary, colorful afterthought. Her legs were pillars of muscle bound by supple skin, and altogether she seemed as plush and inviting as sun-struck bedding. For all the years he’d known her, he’d never truly seen her until now.
“Yep, this is the porch, my private little sanctuary,” he said as the screen door slammed behind him. He maneuvered two folding chairs between them and sat on his. “Hey, watch your step!” he said with a grin, leaning forward and poking the fleshy back of her exposed thigh. “Don’t stand so close to the edge.”
She turned back and gave him a look, her ribboned hand shooing away the ghost of his finger. “Well why on Earth don’t you have a railing?”
“Dad never got around to it. But it’s just perfect, right off my room and whatnot. Here, have a seat.”
It was mid-afternoon and the sun lingered in a cloudless sky, lonely for company. They’d come from lunch and now reclined in quiescent gratification. He was glad for it, as their earlier conversation had been an enjoyable but exhaustingly rapid back-and-forth of mundanities and vagaries – whims, thoughts, fancies, complaints – nothing reserved, nothing tempered. But now they sat in the gaze of a lass lorn sun and loafed in silence, at once exposed and private.
“So…” She smiled at him.
“What scares the hell out of you?”
He hesitated. It was usually he who asked those peculiar, unanswerable questions for the sake of conversation. He’d always have his own answer prepared well in advance – the asker always does – so that, when the asked individual finished his/her response, he could jump into his monologue with impressive eloquence. He was never prepared for a reversal of roles.
“Uh, I-I dunno.”
“Oh of course you know. And don’t say spiders.”
“Gah!” She slapped his arm playfully. “What a lack of an imagination.”
“Oh I have plenty of imagination, just for things I care to imagine. Why? What scares the hell out of you?”
“Disappointing people,” she said, playing with the ribbon.
He grinned. “Oh, like me?”
“Haha, no. Like me. Disappointing myself.” She withdrew from him for a moment, before returning with vigor. “It’s like, all I am right now is potential, and every day ought to be either fulfilling that potential or taking a step towards fulfilling it, you know? But most days don’t.
“Imagine,” she gave him another look, “you’re a concert pianist weeks before the greatest performance of your life. You know you have to prepare and keep up a rigorous practice regimen – otherwise you’ll disappoint not only the audience but the critics and your fellow musicians and your friends and family…just everyone. But then the time comes and you get to the premier – and not a single person is in the audience. You get on stage anyway, in your tailored tux, hair and mustache slicked to perfection, a gorgeous smile on your face; and you play the most spec-tac-ular performance the world has ever known.”
“Um…are you a guy in this fantasy?” he asked with a smirk. She scowled and slapped his arm again.
“I’m talking about you! And me; anyone. Does that make sense?” She shook her head to herself. “Yeah, I know, how could it? I can barely play ‘Row Your Boat’ on violin, haha.”
“No, I get it. Just, what’s this ‘greatest performance’ you’re preparing for?”
“Hell if I know…”
“Well, that’s a way better answer than mine,” he added.
“Shyeah! Heights? Please. Although, I’ll admit, spiders do freak me out.”
He chuckled again. She was perfect and he knew it. She knew it, too, and there’s nothing more dangerous than someone aware of their own perfection.
“Say…” She smiled that smile again. “Speaking of heights, you ever tried jumping over to your garage?” She pointed to the roof directly ahead of them, which sloped to the left and right at 30 degree angles. Separating them from it, however, was an eight foot span of air. He laughed, shaking his head.
“Oh no, not this again. Every time I bring someone up here they wonder if they can make it.”
“Well, have you?”
She stood up to take a better look at the gap. “I could do it.”
“You say so now, but look behind you. Maybe a three foot running start.”
“Not if I open the door and start from inside the house.”
“Yeeeah, it’s that kind of thinking that makes me sure one of these nights John or somebody will get drunk enough to actually try it.”
“Haha, I’m serious!”
“Alright, well do me a favor and don’t kill yourself just now, the weekend has just begun.”
She sat back down in a huff and he, watching her, crossed one leg over the other, leaning back in relief. “You still want to see that show tonight?” he asked.
“Oh, that’s right! I completely forgot. It turns out my cousins are in town, so my parents want me home. So sorry! You should still go though.”
“Damn.” He regrouped quickly. “Yeah, I’ll probably go anyway. Then I can tell you all about how amazing it was.”
“Whatever, you know it won’t be that good without me…”
He breathed the hot, humid air deep and sighed, wiping some sweat from his brow. “Well hey, my mom made some lemonade before they left; want me to get you some?”
“Sure, thanks! This sun is getting treacherous.”
Once downstairs he saw the pitcher in the fridge. Sitting behind it, however, were a few expensive English beers his dad must have forgotten to take on their trip. He looked at them a while, but decided to save the unexpected treat for later. In the mean time he poured two glasses of lemonade and hopped up the stairs, through the hallway, into his room, out the screen door, and back onto the porch. There she was, smiling that smile, legs dangling over the edge, struggling to look composed despite her heavy breathing, drenched in sweat and adrenaline, eight feet away on the angled lip of the garage. He nearly dropped their lemonade.
“Toldja I could do it!” she said amid her panting.
“What the hell! Why? I-I can’t believe you actually…okay, come on, climb down. You made your point.”
“What? No, I think I like the view over here.”
He shook his head, suppressing a smile. “Well, how am I supposed to give you your lemonade? I can’t throw it. And you look awful thirsty…” He drank some of the lemonade and smacked his lips.
“Guess you’ll just have to jump over here after me!”
“I-I’m not gonna jump, be serious. Besides, the lemonade would just spill anyway.”
She rolled her eyes. “Fiiine, I guess I’ll just jump back.”
“Come on, there’s no need to tempt fate.”
“If I did it once I can do it again…”
He sighed and shook his head. “You’re just incorrigible, aren’t you?” He set the drinks on the ground, their glassy coolness sweating in the sunshine. When he looked up she was already running, starting from the back of the garage roof. Her white legs gleamed sinuous and muscular in the high heat, toned from years of unbridled cross country, soccer playing, and competitive swim.
As her feet slapped the roof shingles she thought of a few things: that the sun was in her eyes, how there was actually a drop from the porch to the roof that would now work against her, how her throat was indeed parched and aching for lemonade, how it’s terribly difficult to get up to your full speed traversing an incline, and lastly, a dull, creeping fear. When she’d jumped before it was with the elation of tackling a new challenge; now all she had driving her was the fear of failure, her own pride. In those split seconds she approached the edge of the garage and the sun hid behind a neighbor’s tree. She saw his face, struck with awe and yet contorted, her own fear seeping into him; below that his arms held outward to catch and embrace her. Her right foot reached the edge, she saw the span before her, and she hesitated.
That’s all it took. Momentum still carried her over the void, but the hesitation cost her inches she desperately needed. Moments before she’d foreseen it all so easily: her leg arching up and forward, hurtling over the one-story chasm, a pointed toe touching down gracefully on the other side – but fate spurned any such whimsy. Forward she flew, yes, but down she fell, and – after eight feet of sailing through innocuous air – her stomach slammed into the lip of the roofed, railing-less porch. Before she could ricochet off and plummet toward the brilliant green below, he dove and grasped her outstretched hands in his own. Only by throwing his whole weight backward did he manage to pull her flailing lower half up and over. She collapsed atop him, gasping for air and buckling into the fetal position to cradle her battered diaphragm. He rose quickly to his knees and brought her face to his.
“Emma! Emma, oh god, are you okay?” He steadied her by the shoulders.
She nodded, winced, nodded again. “Fucking superb,” she said with a wink and that winsome smile. They both burst out laughing, tears beading in their sun-stricken eyes. But another wince of her pain interrupted the laughter, and she rubbed her abdomen gingerly. When she looked up to him he saw in her an odd vacancy.
“I made it though, didn’t I?” she asked.
He gazed upon this strange girl and answered her entreaty with a wan, formless smile.
“Yeah, you made it.”
Later that evening he decided against going to the show. Instead, he sat out on his private little sanctuary and watched raccoons fight for survival in the alleyway; watched where her legs had dangled hours earlier. He hadn’t noticed before: she had tied that yellow ribbon of hers to a low branch of the neighbor’s tree, which draped protectively over the garage like a concerned lover. The ribbon bobbed there in the evening wind, a monument to her. He polished off another bottle of that dark English ale, retreated into his room, and stood in a far corner for longer than he should have. Maybe she really was with her cousins. The shadow of the ribboned bough played across the floor, its figure cast in negative by the warm glow of an alley light. Somewhere a raccoon screeched and hissed. At some point he remembered where he was, fired every piston in his young, prideful soul, and came hurtling through the threshold into the night – he leapt without hesitation.
It’s truly a shame this EP has just now arrived in the throes of ominous August, for it would have been a memorable soundtrack to this sun-struck and, for me at least, glorious summer. It’s one to drive around town with, the windows down, hot inland air on one side and a refreshing lake breeze billowing in through the other – your hometown neighborhoods of yore will never look so gorgeous and true. Especially if that neighborhood happens to be Bayview, the title of the first track, which overlooks the Midwest’s private, salt-less sea of Lake Michigan. The opening riff is indelible in its simplicity, and the lyrics slip inside it, sparse and complimentary. At once bands like Surfer Blood and their contemporaries spring to mind, but Pale Girls isn’t so easily pegged. At seven tracks, “Sun Poison” is just a few songs short of a dynamic, full-fledged album, and as a debut effort it is brimming with potential. Equal parts surf, psych, basement, and pop, they allow for an ever-changing pallet of motifs.
With the seminal combination of drums, bass, rhythm and lead guitar, the instrumentation allows for thick and powerful builds as well as soft, interweaving interludes. Pales Girls’ songwriting is all about variety: sometimes explosive (see “Cicada”), sometimes dreamy (“Monsters”), and always with a touch of melancholy. Three of their four members sing as well, and by using simple harmonies and top-of-their-lungs choruses, the vocals keep you guessing. It so happens that their voices are similar enough in range and style to all be instantly recognizable as Pale Girls, yet still different enough to illicit repeated listenings. They do have a tendency to overuse doubled vocal tracks, and their exaggerated style of vibrato – inspired by Devendra Banhart – may not be to the liking of all, but these idiosyncrasies also set them apart and work more for than against them. Overall it’s a rollicking good start for this Madison-Milwaukee band, so stay tuned to hear them keep up the good work.