That love…

Love sets your responsibilities. I find the phrase ‘falling in love’ intriguing. In a ‘saying the quiet part out loud’ way. When there’s nothing under you, we call it falling, but once you’re grounded, we just call it gravity. That constant nagging attraction our species has been trying to escape ever since we lost our first forest. We are the orphans of titans. Longing, and loss, are textures of our love. Strands within our braids. Should we leave one out when we weave our happiness, that stitch will fail. We fall in love, I know I did, and then we live with falling everyday, so that it becomes a peculiar particular gravity conjured up in the cosmic draw between all bodies. Stars are born out of the oscillating pressures and biochemical dynamics between us. Love has set schedules, and early morning alarms in neat fifteen minute increments, love forces you to obey at least one of them, love abolishes laurels, and hiding places, and high grounds. We climb in almost all external endeavors, be it power, be it corporate ladders, be it chakras within yourself, be it up on crosses or pulpits or podiums or high towers. But. But, we fall in love. I don’t know. I don’t know if I buy that. There’s got to be some middle-ground between always either climbing or falling, and if there is, it’s that incessant gravity. Climbing, falling, resolution. Sounds like a story. Perhaps that’s a more fitting phrase about the nature of love.

That love sets your story.

Yes. Today.

I’ve chased down a thousand things I called time to get where I am right now.
The front room of my grandma’s house wearing a winter parka over my pajamas.
I’ve chased a little boy I call baby because I am afraid for what I love to grow beyond me.
I wake up at four in the morning with no alarm set like an old man, like a grandfather
feeling chill crept in from corners and up from the window sills because the fire is low.
Coals grown cold compared to what they were when I first laid down and closed my eyes
like a young man, tired, forget that, exhausted, like a young father, indebted to the castle
he funded by the credit of his youth.

In a few years knees won’t work and back will refuse.
There had better be a roof over gray hair and a stout hearth propping up bloodless heels.

I’ve chased a thousand things I called after by tomorrow and promise and please.
I used my ideals like a carrot on a string to avoid being caught up to by so many things:
today, acceptance, settling.

There is a woman across the hall doing her damnedest to put up with me.
Whatever I have ever picked up, I have also let down.
Apology has become like a second language to me.
I have learned the differences between sorrow and sorry
are more difficult than ow or why. One is seated, settled, done, erasing.
And the other is chasing, searching, anything to keep from facing.

Truth.

I have learned, the hard way, the least productive use of the word yes
is yesterday.

Section from ‘Father and Son’

Up early working on a novel I’m really excited about, I call it ‘Father and Son’, for now. It’s an atypical journey on the Appalachian Trail, in which a son takes off on a thru hike without talking to anyone, and his father decides to put his career on hold and go after him. Dad and I mapped it out when he hiked with me the first 90 miles of my trip to NY, and I’ve been working on it, slow yet steady, ever since. Here’s a little piece:

“There is a free ride in pride, but not even a chance of one on a hike. You are going to carry yourself and everything you own for every single one of these miles, or you are going to call the endeavor by a different title. Stroll, perhaps. Good heart healthy, low impact exercise, maybe. A walk in the woods, for the short sighted and uncreative. But a hike. To call it a hike. To take a hike. It is not about valley views. It is not about making big miles. It is about needing to be someplace you aren’t already, and employing the cheapest mode of transportation available, your feet, as the principle vehicle to carry you there. The beauty of it, is that it does not get any simpler, or more complex than that. If you’re out for twenty miles, you’re on a twenty miler.

You’re only on a hike if your goal is big adventure.”

Bargain and Roll – One of my very first short stories

I woke up sweating while it was dark out. In a dream, I cracked open shell after shell pouring perfectly cooked scrambled eggs from them. With each orange yellow fluff my disbelief and doubt grew, leading me to another. When I woke I asked myself in a whisper why a grown man would dream about eggs. Then I laughed in my head for calling myself grown. I laid my head back on the pillow and solved all the world’s problems until I fell back to sleep. 

In the morning light I walked into the Carolina room and searched out the windows at the lake. The sun was dancing on water and I thought about our neighbor, swimming back and forth across it every morning even into his nineties. I made coffee. I sat and read a book in front of the window, distracted by crests of small, wind-blown waves throwing light off the lake. Jeremiah shuffled into the hallway from the guest bedroom and I thought I should have made more coffee.

“Dad,” Jeremiah said shortly.

“Make some,” I said.

“Good morning,” he said. I continued to read. “Want some eggs?” he asked.

“Not really.” I turned the page. Jeremiah set his plate down and returned to the kitchen to get his mug. 

“I made extra, we’re out of eggs,” he said. “When will mom be home?”

“Later.” I was staring at the first sentence of a new chapter. Jeremiah was being sarcastic.

“Something strike you father?” he asked.

“This question,” I said. I was looking down at it.

“Easy. That question is the hard one,” Jeremiah said.

“Can God make a rock so big he can’t pick it up?” I asked. Jeremiah hummed and I looked at him. Moments like these set in stone that I had truly made him.

“Yes,” Jeremiah said. My eyes remained focused on his, but I lowered my forehead.

“How?” I asked.

“It already has,” Jeremiah said. I asked him what he meant and his phone started to vibrate loudly against the table. He picked it up and left the room. The sun was beginning to gain height in the sky and I knew by twelve the air would be too hot to work in. I donned my overalls and went outside. 

In my small, backyard garden there were high, green corn stalks with fat cobs getting fatter, squash fading yellow from white striped green, and almost certainly flesh and red colored potatoes no bigger than pebbles underground. I sucked in loudly through my nose.


 

As my father and I walk past the dollar store we see a man selling watermelons. Dad walks toward him but says nothing to me. 

“Morning,” the man offered us. He is a fat man, wearing a shirt with two front pockets on his chest, tucked into dark blue, denim Dickies work pants. I want to tell my Dad the strained buttons on the man’s shirt make sideways looking mouths where cloth stretched into arches struggling to stay connected while watermelon man’s mass pulls the fabric almost skin tight. I like him. His cheeks were red as the inside of his produce.

“Watermelon crop,” Dad says.

“Yessir, good looking too. Fifty cent,” the fat man says. I look up at my dad and see him touch his chin. 

Dad hums and we turn around. I do not know why, but I feel like crying. I don’t necessarily want a watermelon, but not buying one upsets me.

“Fifty cent isn’t bad daddy,” I say. Dad makes a little noise but never turns down. We walk into the dollar store. Dad examines, in his palm, a list written out by my mother. We walk the aisles, every single one of them, and approach the checkout. Dad shakes his head as he pays and I stare at his hands as he drops two quarters into his left pocket. We leave the store, pass the mustard yellow chevy truck, and slowly veer toward the watermelon man. I can see him shuffle his feet in the distance but I do not turn my head away. Dad faces him. I follow.

“Twenty five,” Dad says. He hands the watermelon man a quarter and me the melon. It hurts my hands but I can not stop smiling. When we get home mom scolds us for not needing a watermelon, and I never get a chance tell her what a bargain.



I tried to grow watermelons the summer after dad died and they never panned out fully. Jeremiah walked up from the backyard and stood beside me. He handed me a jar of water. I told him thank you and we stood silent for a few minutes.

“This looks good,” he said.

“I’d pay you to sit out here with your slingshot.”

“Probably shoot you.”

“Not while I’m out here. To watch for rabbits.” He told me I should get a good snake population going and I wondered what had made his generation so different than mine. I smiled though, and wanted to tell him I loved him. “Turn on that hose,” I said. He mumbled something around the phrase ‘turned on’ but I took the hose and watered my cabbage. Jeremiah went inside and I thought about my next sermon, which remained unwritten. The gospel was Pentecostal and I wanted it to be a hair raiser. I went inside at four thirty and Jeremiah had just showered. Judy was not home yet and it was all the same to me. I took a shower in my bathroom. Feeling fresh I sat down on the couch and my half Siamese cat Theodore curled up beside my knee. I could feel him purring and I stared in the direction of old television shows. Theo’s eyes half-closed and Andy Griffith carried me back to my childhood.



I love making music because it simplifies the equation. It cancels out my thoughts and forces my brain and hands to behave simultaneously; mouth vibrating, diaphragm stretched and shrinking, arm and limp wrist bent or pushing. The little black dots connected by thin black lines bring purpose and art to my rural soul. Playing my trombone makes me feel like even though I can not impress people every moment, I am doing something primarily unachievable to most. I do marching band and it makes me feel like an athlete. My peers remind me I am not. If I knew when to cry I would. But something powerful pushes me. When I play the horn, it works better than crying.



I was in front of my computer watching the cursor blink. I put a sentence down, then another, and soon I was done and off to bed. Judy only woke me when she first laid down. I kissed her face and slept again.

In a dream I saw my dad sitting at my table in the Carolina room, dark out, moon bright and greenish yellow. I saw my garden through the window, but the corn was even taller. 

“God built us a rock,” dad said. 

“Can he pick it up?” I asked.

“Too big.”

“What does that mean?”

“He can roll it though.”

“Roll it?”

“Along. But it’s too big to carry.”

“Can he control it?”

“Generally.”

“What about the bible? Church? Faith?”

“Well. One quarter’s a better bargain than two.”

I woke up sweating. When I preached later that morning I could see Jeremiah’s eyes.
He never looked away. I love my son, and he drove back to college right after church. Judy and I ate lunch out in town after the service. That night, when I undressed, I unfolded the bulletin that had been in my pocket. On the back, in blank space, I had written the words ‘bargain and roll’. I thought about my sermon and wanted to quit my job. But I looked at Judy, snoring softly, and fell straight to sleep.

Poem from before Roan was

My son is set to be born.
I feel no insecurity in informing you that he will never, not ever, not even once

be yours.

There are so few places like that on earth.
Where belief becomes so close to being fact.
I call something that can’t be owned my own.
Which is another way to say
I’m someone’s dad.

I get to choose

My grandpa only ever knew me as a little boy. I only knew him as an old man. But every day I work on his land, I stand under his trees, hold his soil in my hand and watch it drift away in the breeze, he knows. He sees.

I’m no longer a little boy.

The old man is buried beside a church in town.

But when we pick up antiques and put them to work, when we give our backs to what we’ll never get back, we can no longer call it memory.

Eternal life might be secondary to eternal use.

That’s why I prefer stories to memories.

Anytime I get to choose.

No One Hears It

My mom says I love you with her hands.
She spells it out for us. With her smile. With her eyes.
My mom doesn’t say anything unless she believes it is true.

Mom walks out of her room in pajamas at nine thirty on Sunday morning
we all know what it means.

Like a brim that wiggled off the hook but kept the bait.
We sleep in the results of the decisions she makes.
Answered prayers. Skipping church.

My mom has climbed into every trench with me chucked a grenade overhead
and charged the enemy inside me. There is no moment in existence more poignant
than when your parent looks at you honestly afraid and asks ‘what’s next?’

Life. Robin. The early bird who could not wait to get to us. Robin.
Egg cracked many months too early. You knew to hurry and get to her.
You carried her to us like a robin fills the little yellow triangles chirping in her nest.

My mom is her mom.
My mom had to also be my grandma.
Before she was ready. She was handed a burden
I will never in my lifetime be strong enough to bear.

Because my mom is here.
She fights for it.
She outpours it.

She says I love you with her hands. Some fingers bend and others straighten.
She spells it out. My mom shouts I love you across the room.

And no one hears it.
But her children.

Like family

When heat tumbles through skin and knit cloth,
like stifling, sun-warmed mists rising up to the occasion of a morning,
I feel so like the earth.

When jungles of oil-darkened hair frame a face,
crowd sky blue, dusty vision, tickled behind ridge dotted ears,
spreading rashes down a sun-red neck, when feet hurt,
when towering spine stiffens,
heat gets up to blood bathing the brain
and causes a nerveless organ to undergo the experience of feeling pain,
I am truly the naked mammal child of my planet.

And in these many moments,
the languages of elemental parents and grandparents,
great aunt the sun and granddaddy moon,
wind and water table cousins,
close kin and friends who pass over like rain,
stirring and kicking in the swollen bellies of clouds,
are familiar to me.

I hear their words clear, but understand only faintly.
I believe the world is telling me that I have lived here
like a stranger long enough. Now, we,
the earth and me, will be like family.

When fresh eyes are needed.

Family has become something very different.
Not just from previous years or decades or generationally segregated nostalgia,
but in the way family influences our genes, the daily development of our minds,
the very temperament of our lives. All creatures, us included, are products
of the physical and social relationships of our species, and more specifically,
our immediate families. Products, and yet with every glitch and malfunction
the manufacturer is seldom contacted.

With therapists, friends, coworkers, neighbors sometimes,
we talk openly over bar stools, leaned on counters in office lounges,
even hosting weekly barbecues with entire streets and blocks of familiar strangers,
whose faces are known well, but whose hearts must remain dark.
Even with our closest oldest friends there is a line drawn, in life,
through memory, where we can no longer walk together,
and one must be led by the other.

Family, however, hosts no line, no fence, no division,
like in a forest, the sapling roots have been tangled
with mother and father’s foundation,
competing on equal terms with brother and sister,
in good seasons and dry. In family,
we all lead and follow sometimes,
even the old behind the children.

Family – Old Journals

Once a remedy,
aid in the face of a struggle-based environment,
has moved away.

The landscape is differed. Changed.
Organizations of humans far off from kin offered to take the gap,
a cat hole formed at the base of the family tree, and fill it in.

When hardship was equal, beneath tiered economic heights,
rooms higher up stack heavy on molded basements,
before the promise of insured amnesty,
healthcare aimed like automatic weapons only at symptoms,
before upper, middle and sad desperate foundational,
before widespread acceptance of ambivalent modern calamity,
sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts, fathers, mothers,
grand and great and twice removed too,
friends scattered intermittently,
before government or society,
people turned to community.

In ever-changing environments that provided no immunity,
creatures of all kinds fell too hard into family.