Archive for the 'Short Stories' Category

The woman who attached herself to food with a string

August 10, 2011

Part I

It made no sense to spend the night driving from Ouarzazate to Agadir, considering that we would have to go through the Tichka pass with which neither of us were familiar. Besides, Paul wanted to take pictures and I wanted one last glimpse of the desert before reaching the coast. But another night at the Ksar Ighnda was not an option, and so we packed our bags and found an older room at a riad about two miles from the center of town.

We had no set schedule. We were itinerants addicted to the unfamiliar. And as such, we had to impose customs on ourselves within the confines of our peripatetic lifestyle. Where once our children and the daily grind of work and home dictated the entire structure of our New Jersey existence, now we were living gratis. We had returned to innocence, like free-floating kids without a lick of responsibility. On this particular night, like every other, Paul took his thé à la menthe at the café or lobby alone, while I stayed back in the room to read or nap or simply linger on my own mindlessly, doing nothing, save stare at the architecture and decor of the four walls surrounding me. At 10ish, I would join him for dinner at whatever restaurant the hotel offered. But the longer I lingered in our tiny room, the more apparent it became that the Hotel Nord offered little more than a bed, a broken air conditioner, and two open windows that looked out over the N-9 in Tabounte, a noisy suburb. I was restless. And so, despite needing the order of my alone time, I decided to join Paul early.

When I arrived, he was talking with an American, a man about our age, with grayish sandy hair and a peculiar, vapid smile–the kind you might see on a glassy-eyed, cultish Jim Jones, or Claude Vorilhon. He was dressed inappropriately for tea, and too wealthy looking for a budget hotel. He was in the midst of going on and on about the company he owned, Southern Bio Technologies, LLC., which improved bean and other crop production technologies in Central and Southern Africa. I didn’t have the patience to find out what he was doing in Morocco, let alone Tabounte, so I assumed he was here on business and like us, couldn’t find a better hotel on such short notice. I remained on the periphery of the conversation. Paul was such a good listener and so, it wasn’t uncharacteristic of him to get stuck chatting with someone he had literally nothing in common with. He was a small town, county attorney—think Atticus in To Kill A Mockingbird—kindhearted and fair like Atticus too, who despite making a good living for himself and his family, had never voiced an interest in bean farming, that I know of. And yet, to his credit, he genuinely found something interesting in everyone.

But, I was burnt out on listening, or for that matter, talking. It seemed to me that most tourists were not used to the isolation of travel and so when they’d meet up with someone who spoke their language, they would incessantly ramble on about nothing— superficial, braggy stuff—where they’d been, what they owned, how they managed, “knock on wood,” to stay afloat during the economic downturn, how many kids they had in what Universities, where they were going next. If we’d mention our trip to the south of Spain, they too had been there, plus the Canaries, plus Portugal. If we mentioned we had four kids between us, two of whom were at State Universities, they had five: two in Harvard, one in Princeton, another at MIT. It got to the point where I simply didn’t care to meet or talk to anyone anymore as a method of self-preserverance. Where once a stranger was a lifeline, now he was a source of encumbrance.

Instead of socializing, I kept my head buried in a book. While in Morocco I felt as though I had no choice but to read everything by Paul Bowles, and the Spanish author Juan Goytisolo. Presently I was reading Makbara, by the latter. A chapter entitled, The Cemetery—but still catching tidbits of the American’s pontifications.

“SBT disseminates technologies to and educates thousands of bean farmers all across Africa for the purpose of transforming their subsistence farms into local, national and potentially international-selling cash crops…”

I was bored with him, until, “One of my favorite charities that SBT is involved in at the moment is assisting the little guy in his endeavor to forge a relationship with the big guy.”

“For what purpose?” I asked, placing my book on the bar. “What would the little guy want or even need from the big guy?” I already didn’t like his arrogant tone.

“So that they can buy more seeds, more readily, so as to handle the increasing demands of their crop.” He smiled.

“So basically you help make it impossible for local farmers to feed their families because suddenly they can’t afford the cost of their own crop?”

“No, my dear,” his odd smile remaining, “We are improving lives.”

Paul interjected, “my wife loves a good conspiracy.” The American laughed and invited us to his place for drinks, just across the N-9,

“I’d like you to meet my wife,” he said, looking at me in particular. “I think you’d both get along quite well.”

I assumed he meant he had a house. It’d been a while since I’d been in one and so I looked at Paul, he looked at me, and we agreed. I grabbed my book and a sweater and the three of us  headed away from the safety of hotel life into the dark, unfamiliar street.


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Saponification

June 3, 2010

Eight months ago, after you left, I learned how to make soap. In fact, I uncovered the buried truth that adding any number of additives will not, after all, interfere with saponification, and that soap is actually a paradox. It takes oil to remove oil. And so eight months ago I came up with this recipe amid the desire to create something out of nothing not realizing it had already been done:

24 ½ ounces of Olive oil


12 ounces Palm oil


4 ½ ounces of Cocoa butter


6 ounces Canola oil


1 ounce Palm Kernel oil


6 ¾ ounces Lye


17 ¼ ounces distilled water

I made the recipe, but I never actually made the soap, which is my eternal problem. I start a project and then quit. The travel agency that I wanted to start but didn’t. The consulting business I wanted to go into but didn’t. The trip to Marrakech that I swore I would take but didn’t.  It was the same with you. The moment you moved in I wanted to quit. You told me, “You have a fear of commitment.” I was defensive. I admit it. I snapped back, “I don’t have a fear of commitment; I have a fear of commitment to you.”

I wish I could relive that moment now. I would come up with something better, like “I’m just afraid. Bear with me.” Or something like that.

Not that it would have made you stay, but…it would have been worth a shot.

So, like I said, I didn’t make the soap. Instead, I listened to DeBussy’s Claire de Lune while ripping the apartment to shreds, getting rid of every trace of you lest I forget for one moment that you were really gone. I sang Martha Wainwright’s “Wish I Were” lying on the floor of an empty living room, until my voice shattered into broken glass. I read Hills Like White Elephants and decided, eventually, we were better off going our separate ways. And I watched really bad romance movies like P.S. I Love You and Ten Things I Hate About You and The Notebook, my hand on my belly, feeling somewhat content that, even though you were gone, you left a part of you behind.

There are two things going on here. A birth and a death. And I still can’t wrap my mind around either.  I should have just stuck to soap. But eight months is long; a year even longer. We are only reminded of the length of time at the end, when we have the sensation that we are back there again, having come full circle; empty, where before we were full. Or should I say full, where before we were empty? Sometimes when it seems everything’s been lost, it’s an illusion. Nothing’s been lost. Everything is still there.  It’s just become something else in the process. And instead of darkening the soul with the burden of love, it washes it clean.

The Caribou Club

October 24, 2009
Kangerlussuaq is the Inuit name for Sondrestrom

Kangerlussuaq is the Inuit name for Sondrestrom

Nola tells me I’m it. The only female bartender in this place so I’ll be making loads of money. I nod.

“That’s good,” I say. “That’s why I’m here.” The wood paneling is crumbling in spots of her office, warped and buckling, in that 1960’s style. I look around and let my eyes course over the crooked black and white photos of old Base Commanders in salutary poses. She winks at me, a dystrophic eye blink, almost imperceptible, with an open-mouthed smile and I can smell the alcohol on her breath, despite the fact that it’s ten in the morning.

“This base has been here since about nineteen-forty but the bar wasn’t built until the late fifties.” She blurts out random historical facts about Russia and the Cold War like a person who didn’t pay too much attention in history class. “The DEW Line is about seventeen miles from the base, and all the radar DYE sites are still out on the icecap. Most of the guys work at the airport radar tower now though.” She chuckles. “Thanks to Reagan, the DYE sites are closing. Ain’t much need for the U.S. Airforce up here no more.”

“I thought I was hired because the base was doing so well,” I say.

She corrects me, “The bar is doing well, honey. Not the base. The base will be permanently closed in a matter of two years. You’re here to support the base’s only profitable outfit, the Caribou Club.”

It’s November. I am in the arctic. I am in Greenland. I am at that spot in the northern hemisphere where the Earth’s axis of rotation meets the Earth’s surface. The Terrestrial North Pole. And I am alone. I won’t see the sun for two months, and I already begin to think in terms of the fact that I am punishing myself by denying my skin and eyes and soul the light of day. Noonday shadows glaze over the earth for two or three hours. After that, dawn meets dusk. There is no careless lingering of light in between, only the dimness of twilight and mydriatic pupils. It’s space here. Cold. Almost weightless. Constant moon. Deep pool of stars. Endless, dimensionless, borderless reality. It’s pre-dawn, primordial, ice age, nothingness. It’s smooth hills and shallow parabolas. It’s the edge of the world. It’s emptiness.

Nola pulls out a welcome package for me and sits it on her desk.

“Here’s your military issue parka, boots and long johns. A key to the Caribou Club. A key to your dorm room. Someone over in Building C will show you how to get to your room.” She passes me a thick folder of paperwork; more contracts, more legal stuff to sign. There’s a few brochures on safety in there too; appropriate attire, a map of the base, a list of emergency contacts. I flip through, agitated, and place the folder in my bag. I’m not thinking safety. I’m thinking that at the end of six months, I’ll have forty-thousand dollars in my pocket, not including tips. I’m thinking what the hell does anybody do up here for fun, anyway. And then it hits me. I’m the fun. I’m the Marilyn Monroe of the Arctic, here to boost the morale of the servicemen with my smile. I was hired to chat. Laugh at bad jokes in a myriad of regional accents. I’m thinking I’m here for the same reason any civilian bartender comes up here—to be at the center of a party every single night, surrounded by people who are alive and drunk and looking at me as a sort of hero; a paragon of all that is living, breathing, moving, becoming. A direct link with the outside world. Someone who doesn’t have to do much to earn her money but pour a drink a little stiffer. Listen to a few sad stories of a cheating spouse or a jilted lover? Break up a fight and win in the end? Life is bright.

“Here’s some advice,” she says.  She’s got what’s left of a Texas drawl, that hasn’t mingled with its own kind for years. She leans over her cluttered desk, coughs a liquid smoker’s cough and says, “You’re pretty much trapped for the next six months up here, honey, with only two choices: the bar or the church. Ain’t nobody gonna save you but yourself. So, if I was you, and Lord, I was twenty years ago, I’d make the best of it and consider this bar here your sanctuary, because there ain’t nothin’ else.” She winks again, not smiling. “Besides, it’s a hell of a lot more fun. You know what I mean, honey?” Just hand me my stuff, I think. I’m ready.

“I’m not scared,” I say, “if that’s what you were thinking.”

“Well, that’s good to hear,” and she reaches out for my hand.  “Welcome to Søndrestrøm.”

I race across the frozen field of rock and powdered snow to begin my midnight shift at the Caribou Club. It’s a windowless, aluminum entombment, built on permafrost. One heat wave in the summer and the foundation collapses. There’s an old metal sign on the wall at the entrance that says: The Miami of the North! Coolers, Collins, Rickeys, Fizzes… I can see through the rough darkness, the airless blue ice and black skies. The dry rock and blue-cheese-colored landscape. I inhale and choke on clean, frozen air, lung-burning, tropospheric lightness. Before the door closes behind me and seals me in, I look over to the frozen tundra beyond the hills, how it stretches out to meet the sea at one end and the deathly blanket of ice and meltwater torrents at the other.  Mint Juleps, Gin Bucks! We Serve Them Colder Than an Eskimo’s Shiver.

It’s a circular bar with me on the inside, in charge of what’s known by the locals as the North End. Billy, an Airman from upstate New York, mans the South. There are usually about a dozen regulars who sit at my side of the bar, no Americans, mostly Danes. Howling. Whistling. Waiting for me to serve up at least four drinks each. But tonight there are about fifty old men waiting to see Nola’s new female hire. Collectively, there are about 100 drinks in queue. I start placing glasses in a row in front of each man. I add ice. Then I frantically start to pour shots. Billy comes over and re-stocks the pilsners and fluted glassware that I’ve been pulling out and placing on the rubber mat.

“Don’t pour every drink. If they’ve got one or two in front of them, start giving them coasters.” He points to a huge stash of Caribou Club coasters under lock behind the bar. “You’ll get the hang of it.” I quickly modify my plan and start passing out coasters.

“American dollars only,” Billy shouts from his end, “they’ll try to pay in Kroner. Don’t take it. And here’s a tip…” Everyone’s got a tip for me. “…Always make sure they got a drink in front of them. At least two. They’re cranky bastards if they have to wait for a drink.”

“Fuck you, New York.” An old man with a white beard and a red fisherman’s cap yells at Billy. It’s customary that the Danes call the Americans by their State. If there are two Americans from the same state, they’re known for their city.

“Sit your grumpy ass down, Cornelius.” Billy tells me that it’s only a matter of time before I’m known as New Jersey, and that my real name makes no difference up here.  “Nobody cares,” he says. I make a mental note and go back to pouring for some, while dishing out coasters to others.

Søren, a Dane, introduces himself to me. He looks to be about thirty or so, still with some hope in eyes of becoming the man he set out to be, not as weathered as the others. He informs me that no one should sit at the bar without at least one drink, one back up and a good view of my smile. I give him a girlish nod and pour shots of Glenfiddich, Jagermeister, Absolut, and Gammel Dansk. The tips pile up, and I’m suddenly aware of the difference between my tips and Billy’s. Søren is a civilian contractor, like most of the others who end up at the bar at the end of their shifts. And like everyone else, he’s never without the same empty grin and furrowed brow, the same glassy, drunken eyes that don’t really stare at me as much as they do through me. A few Inuit from Nuuk and Sisimiut work around the base, but their presence at the bar is almost non-existent. In fact, I wonder more often than not, where the “Eskimos” are.

More advice from Billy: “Nobody gets flagged. There’s a bus that picks these bastards up, so there’s no chance of drunk driving. And even if there was, only thing to hit is a musk ox.” When it’s slow, I’m able to laugh and listen to Billy tell story after story of drunks at the bar. By midnight, two Americans and a Dane have passed out, face down on the bar. A Swede has given me a $50 and a few Kroner to come to his room. Jensen the banker is in the men’s room stall, his face buried in the toilet. Two in the morning and we still have drunks fighting for another round. A U.S. military cargo plane from California on its way to Denmark is refueling, staying the night. It’s two in the morning when twenty or so new, young airmen crowd into the place as I’m ready to shout, bar closed. But Nola rounds the corner from the back office where the waitresses are cashing out and grabs a new bottle of Stolichnaya from the well.

“Welcome to Sondy, boys,” she shouts, and those left hovering around the rim bang their glasses on the wet bar, relieved that newcomers have extended the hours. By three in the morning, the Base Commander has joined in.

In the weeks that follow I meet Ray, an American traffic controller from Alabama, Trog, a Texas engineer who works on the cargo planes that fly in and out of Sondy, and Scot, from Carlisle PA who is the only one stationed up here by choice. He had come home one night after working the late shift at his home base down in Lackland and found his wife in bed with another man. He put in a request for a remote and in a matter of a few weeks, was on the next flight to Greenland. I also meet Una, an Irish girl who’s under contract like me, and one of the only other women employed by the base. There are about 300 men to 30 women, and half the women are Inuit. That leaves only about ten or so “white” women; Americans, Danes, English, Irish, and two Swedish prostitutes. During off hours, when there’s no money to be made, Una, and the Americans and I sit in the lounge in Building C, wondering why the only crap up here to eat is pork belly. We talk about the aurora borealis, the icecap, hunting caribou and missing home. It’s usually then, at the mention of home, that I get up and walk away, unable to offer anything to the conversation, nor wanting to.

“Hey, where you going? You don’t have family back in Jersey?” Trog asks me as I wander back to my room. I hear him say, from the hallway, “that’s the only thing that keeps me alive up here. Knowing that my family is back in Texas waiting for me to come home,” and a sharp pain shoots through me as I try to visualize the concept of someone waiting at the door for me to come home.

I go back to my room and lock my door. I move a chair in front of my window. Gray clouds tumble shadows over gray hills. The gravel is silent, too heavy to be blown by the air. There’s a coffee machine in my room and so, I make a pot from a can of Maxwell House I bought earlier at the Base Exchange. From my window, through parted black curtains, I can’t see much but the church Nola mentioned, in the distance. It’s a tiny wooden church, painted red, with a white steeple. Its lights flicker through tiny flakes of dry snow, and there is a Christian, Inuit pastor somewhere inside offering the hope of God to a small, sober flock.  To the right of the church, there’s the hotel, “Kangerlussuaq,”  a post office, a base exchange and a chow hall. I can’t see the Caribou Club from my window and decide that’s a good thing. Farther from sight is the airport and runway, and beyond that, is a bridge that crosses the fjord and takes you to the Danish side. To left of the church, are the cold, treeless hills and ancient burial grounds of nomads who prayed to the Great Spirit a million years ago, and I can’t help but wonder how they even survived past the age of thirty.

Time has very few natural markers in the arctic. The dark days all look the same and so, the only way to gauge time is by checking off boxes on an American calendar. Thanksgiving came and went, then Christmas and New Year’s, with little consequence. But the weeks after the New Year are anything but still and peaceful at the Caribou. Everyone is restless and spirits are low, which means more business and crankier customers. I’m dishing out coasters instead of drinks, like casino chips, otherwise drinks get watered down by sitting too long on the bar. If a drink gets watered down it’s like a crime was committed and I’m the one who committed it.

“I can’t drink this shit! Make me another one.” It’s the random but constant call of the alcoholic. So, I try to depend more and more on coasters.  There’s this never-ending motion of spherical cardboard shapes sliding down the bar, traded, cashed in, dished out.  When one of the North Enders is ready for another, he places a coaster on top of his glass, and I hustle. Pour. Serve. Cash it in.

I’m making small talk with old men.  I ask Jensen if Rasmus is an Eskimo, the only one of his kind at the bar. Rasmus is the dark-haired, older one who sits in the corner, Buddha-like, and never speaks. Jensen orders his drinks, takes care of him. And when Jensen’s not around, which is very rare, Rasmus nods at me, meaning, Yes, I’ll have a vodka with ginger ale.

“He’s a Greenlander,” Jensen says. “He don’t like being called Eskimo. Nobody like being called Eskimo here.” Rasmus is one of the only Greenlanders working on the base, and when I ask Jensen why he isn’t in Nuuk, with his family, Jensen replies, “Because he’s smart.”
 He says there’s no jobs in the capital. That the Greenlanders have to kiss the past goodbye if they want to survive. “And kiss the ass of the Americans,” he says, and laughs.

“Much like Danish contractors?” I add, reminding him of his own situation. Jensen is a DAC, a Danish American Contractor. These guys are mostly ex-prisoners who were sent here from Denmark to start a new life.  Petty thieves. Drug addicts. Minor felons. They unionized, and in their clannish way, became bitter and suspicious of anyone above their rank. That includes the “Yanks,” and the Danish elite who only socialize and drink at their bar on the Danish side. The DACs. Tribal boiler-room repair men. Clanish taxi drivers. Plumbers and electricians; the blood-brother kinsmen of the North. I imagine their forefathers as ancient Viking warriors who carried pagan runes in sacks while hunting, pillaging and raping women. Cloaked in musk ox fur and leather mucklucks.  Jensen, though, is soft-spoken. He’s a watered down version of his brutish ancestors and though he doesn’t appreciate my humor, he takes it. I ask him why he’s here and he replies, “to escape.”

“To escape what?” I say. I can’t imagine coming to this fresh hell to escape anything. This is the kind of place you’re sent, as punishment. This is prison. But Jensen doesn’t answer my question and I don’t chase after an answer. Instead I wipe up the ring of condensation around his glass and look to Rasmus. He’s holding his drink. His eyes are fixed on the far wall of the bar with the overhead TV on channel five. Bay Watch. Jensen says Rasmus loves blondes. That he’s going to California some day. But I know he’s not. Ever. It’s a lie he tells himself to get by.

Soon, the north end of the bar fills up and the near-dead hum of voices floods out the sound of joyful noise.

“Hey, girly!  Hey, New Jersey! I want vodka juice.” It begins like that.

Søren usually starts on me first. The dinner hall closes and the bar opens and there he is, still drunk and groggy from the night before, even after a day of fixing the boilers throughout the base, bloated and pulpless. On Sunday, it’s worse. He’s tapping into the blood of Christ.

He wants to buy a round of drinks so he throws twenty-five American dollars on the bar. He tips me nothing tonight because I water-down drinks.

“You were smashed, last night, Søren. Drunk as shit.” I tell him that he fell asleep with his head on a coaster. “You can’t just wake up at closing time and have another drink.”

“I can do what I want!” he says, pounding his fist on the counter.
 But I laugh at him, right in his face.  He’s a loser, I think.

“So can I,” I say, pounding back. “That’s why you got water.”
  He gives me a hard look that I don’t take seriously and he moves to another side of the bar, as if losing his business sends me some kind of deeply consequential message about the meaning of life. It doesn’t. I plaster on a smile instead, and start pouring twenty, eight-ounce glasses full. Nine vodkas, seven rums, a couple whiskies, a Carlsberg and a chilled Baska Droppar for a Danish pilot who just flew in from Copenhagen. Keld wants to buy a round too, so I start making another twenty.

“You make me vodka ginger, baby” Keld says. I do.

Keld is already long gone—pickled. He’s a fat, bloated, redheaded Viking, about 35 years old. Ugly, too. I can smell the acid of his breath across the bar. He reaches out to grab my wrist, to tell me I made his drink wrong, but I pull back quickly and avoid the clutch of his thick, weathered hand.

“There is no vodka in my drink, bitch.” 
He talks like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Dorta, his girlfriend, laughs. She stares at me and waits to see how fast I repair the damage. I feel slightly humiliated by her, until I recall that she’s one of the prostitutes Una told me about. I tell him to chill out and yet, I have to be careful what I say. Anything can set him off.

I point to the drink still sitting on the bar. “There’s a full ounce of vodka in your drink, Keld. It’s the same every night. I’m only allowed to put in an ounce. Just drink it and shut up.” I try to say this playfully, but it comes out stiff. I turn away to busy myself slicing lemons only to turn back out of curiosity to see why Keld hasn’t retorted.            That’s when he grabs the drink with his dirty hand and inhales it, swirling it around in his mouth, sucking it through his teeth and, as his friends watch him and I stand there like I’m watching a movie or something, he puffs out his cheeks and the liquor shoots straight into my face and down the front of my shirt. I stand there soaked with saliva, alcohol and sweet ginger ale sticking to my skin. This, of course, causes a crowd. My eyes water, mixing with the cold spit and vodka on my face. The South End of the bar watches the North End as I take a bar rag and clean myself. A crowd gathers while Billy covers for me and scoops up tips, real ones that don’t lead anywhere but his pocket.

“Now, fix me a real drink, sweetheart,” Keld mutters, “And this time I want vodka.” Everyone laughs with him, at me. I fake a smile but my face is burning.

I remake the drink in front of him. New glass. New ice. I pour the clear Stolichnaya over thick chunks of solid ice and watch it stream from the thin, metal spout into the glass. A group of DACs has formed behind Keld and they all start chanting more, more, more. I try to stop at an ounce, but the Viking reaches over and forces my hand to keep the bottle in its upturned position.

“Pour, bitch!”

Finally the glass is filled to its rim with the Russian spirit. Keld and the others cheer like they’ve won their first round of King Shit. He grabs the drink off the wet bar with one hand and my shirt with the other and pulls me close. I stumble inward, and as I try to turn and move away, he lunges forward and pulls me over the bar by the back of my shirt. My stomach and chest drag across the wet, dirty countertop and as I’m half way from being pulled complete over the bar into his lap, I feel the stinging hot slap of his hand on my ass. Before I can react, he clamps down my shoulders and back with his arm and pins me. I can’t breathe. As the numbing sensation of a laughing crowd buzzes in my ear and as my eyes catch sight of the closeness of Keld’s red wool jacket to the point where I can see flecks of multicolored thread on his pockets, I feel his fingers digging between my legs, squeezing the delicate flesh of my inner thighs, nearly breaking through the fabric of my jeans. I scream, and it’s over. He drops me back on my side of the bar and leans over the counter with a smile. His teeth are yellowed and cracked.

“Don’t come here with your stupid, American ideas and try to change us,” he says.  “This is the way we live. Get used to it or go the hell home, you stupid cunt.” He roars and swallows his drink, shattering the empty glass against the wall and drawing a crowd of twenty or so out into the night to party somewhere else.  I’m numb. The deep, steady reverberation of Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams” rises above the din of a hundred drunken voices as I collect my broken self from the floor. I know now that Nola gave me the right advice.

On Monday the bar is closed to fumigate for roaches. Nola’s exterminator is stuck in Thule due to arctic storms. A few other waiters and I are volunteered to clean up the mess. And with rubber gloves and bandanas covering our noses and mouths, we sweep thousands of dead and half-dead insects into trashcans and plastic bags. The bar opens Tuesday for business to an irritated, shaky, half-detoxed crowd of regulars that I irritate even more by playing an old Prince and the Revolution CD. 
I can’t help but think the fumigation didn’t entirely do the job.

Yukon Cornelius, sitting in the corner, says, “What is this shit?” I don’t answer. I hitch toward the stereo and turn it up. “What’ll you have, Cornelius?” He asks for a whiskey coke. The North End is quiet. The few drunks still at my end mumble about the hope of my leaving soon.

“Three more months,” Søren says, “and then goodbye, New Jersey.”

It’s then that I am called into the office. Nola tells me to take a seat. Without looking at me directly, she smiles and asks me how things are going and tells me that she heard about the incident with the DACs. She hasn’t been around lately. Her twenty-two-year-old boyfriend flew in from the Keys, about a week ago, along with Sondy’s yearly supply of pork and the bar has pretty much been running itself.

“I hear your tips have gone down,” she says, smile still there. I agree.  “The other bartenders are giving me slack for it. It’s not like you don’t realize tips are pooled.”

“Just doing my job.”

“Are you?” she says, lighting a cigarette, “I’d say the opposite is true.” I look off to the wall and focus on a framed picture of the current Base Commander, Lieutenant Colonel so and so, I never knew his name.  We always call him Georgia. Trog, Billy and Ray told me over lunch one afternoon in the chow hall that he was sent here as punishment for crashing two vehicles carrying missile parts within the span of one year. They didn’t have the heart to fire him because his son died shortly before all his mishaps. The photo was taken over on the runway. You can see the dark hills of Greenland in the distance, and there’s Georgia, wearing a flight suit in front of a C-74 Globemaster. He looks content; happy almost. Like he hopped off the plane and though, I’m finally free.

“So maybe if I sucked Keld off the other night my tips would go up and then everybody would be happy,” I say. “Isn’t that right? And your advice to me is just turn the other cheek—literally—the next time I’m spanked and groped by a fat Dane so that the bar can still make its money? Bullshit. Obviously I’m a bigger fool than I thought for having an ounce of trust in the United States Air Force.”

“Watch your language, honey.” She remained steady on her swivel chair, despite looking at me uncomfortably. “Don’t think I don’t know what goes on up here. What gets overlooked. What us women have to deal with from some of these animals. I been on duty at Sondy for one year, seven months and twenty-seven days now, and don’t think I don’t count down every day like the prison term it is. Hell, I seen shit. But girl, there’s a bigger force at work up here than the one you brought with you from your world back home. Different rules apply. This is the arctic. There is no consciousness, logic or right a mind. This is the wild. And for the love of Jesus, you need to try to make peace with these people if you want to survive.”

I sit trying to make sense of the senselessness. Trying to dig my mind into something sturdier than my own groundlessness. Wondering why I am so bound by this place, as if I’m punishing myself for a reason. Punishing myself, perhaps, for an inability to feel compassion towards humanity.

Nola inhales and the smoke nestles in her lungs before filtering through her nostrils and out, into the confined, open space. She’s so ugly, I think. Everyone is. Inside and out.

“I think,” she says, “that you just don’t know the meaning of family. I mean, that’s what we are up here. One big family. And we all need to get along.” She rotates around on her chair, dismissively, and scurries through a pile of papers.

I get up. “I want out,” I say, for which Nola looks back at me intently and replies, “you’re lucky you can make that choice, honey.” And in that moment, I feel sorry, not for me, but for her because, unlike her, I can make that choice as a civilian.

As I move to the door to head back to the bar, she rises from her chair. “One last question,” she says. “You sure you’re done with this place? You do realize that if you break your contract you will lose half your pay.”

I nod with a tinge of remorse. I’ll be losing a lot. “Yes,” I say. “I’m done.”

By the time spring reaches the Arctic Circle, the sun remains in the sky past midnight. Although still cold, the purple-flowered willow herb just begins spotting the hills and the small routes connecting the base to far off spots like Lake Fergusen, Sugar Loaf mountain, Black Ridge or “Kelly Ville” open for transport. Flights to and from McGuire reopen too and I’m given the OK to head back on a Monday. I go early in the day, before work to the BX on the Danish-side. Now that spring is here, they’ve restocked the shelves and I spend what’s left of my money on pickled herring, lutefisk, caviars, chocolates, and cookies. The routes from Nuuk and Sisimiut are open too, so, dozens of Inuit women bring their handmade masks, seal skin boots, tupilaks, Inuit fabrics, musk ox fur coats and kamiks. It is here that I feel some sense of peace. A connection to the world. I touch the soft furs and fabrics and forget myself in the blues, red, yellows and greens of a wool sweater, a beaded purse. As I peruse the shelves and wander through the aisles, I see a young Inuit woman I don’t recognize selling jewelry. Wrapped around her arm is Rasmus from the bar. It’s the first time I’ve seen him in daylight, not sitting at his spot at the North End. And in this light, he looks real, human. There are lines so deep and wide on his face that I can’t help but think each one was made by the cutting brightness of an arctic night.  I nod hello to him and ask the woman to buy one of her bracelets. Rasmus smiles at me in recognition and thanks.

“My father says thank you for buying a bracelet.”

Her name’s Greta and she speaks broken English. She has black hair, moon eyes and long arms, yet I have trouble recognizing her. She works for Mittarfeqarfiit, the Greenland Home Rule airport authority that’s taking over this place after the Americans leave. Her brother hunts polar bear and her sons make kayaks. Yet I can see the marriage of old and new in her soul. She’s the epitome of the new Greenlander. The Inuit who holds on to her traditions and reaches out toward the acceptance of few, if not many Western ideals.

“I know you from your first day,” she says, “from the plane.” I am slow to recognize her but then I remember. The faceless body, the thick hooded fur of army green parka, the rushing upward of outstretched arms and thick snow and dust. I fell into her arms, out of the warm hum of the belly of the C-141 Starlifter and glimpsed the weathered beauty of her soft face. She was the very first person I saw when I landed. Like I was being born. And the foreign, unknown curves of her face made me forget home.

“How you like the life here?” She asks a disappointing question.

“It’s different,” I say. “Very cold. And it’s too dark in winter. Gets me a little depressed.”

“Well, you go home soon,” she says, “It’s nice to visit here, but for Americans, this not a good place to live. Home you have so much. Big cities. Mountains. Shopping. Big Cars. Friends. Family”

I lower my gaze. “Yes, family,” I say.

She translates what I say for Rasmus, who’s standing still holding on to his daughter’s arm for balance. He says something in Greenlandic and Greta nods.

She wraps my bracelet in paper and hands it to me.

“Rasmus says, ‘family is a gift. You can put anything in family, even your own suffering.’” Greta comes around to the front of the counter and hugs me. I can smell the perfume of the earth on her skin, and as I walk away, I know that behind me, Rasmus is still there and always will be. The one constant. And long after this American base closes down and sinks into the fjords, he will be there with his people, with his family. I think too of my family, what is left of it. Of who I left behind for this place, and why. It doesn’t matter anymore.  The anger. The regret. What matters is that I’m going home.

It’s my last night and Nola asks me to man the south side. I’m wondering why I won’t have my regular North End, but I don’t ask. Nola looks at me and then down at her paperwork. I know she’s not telling me something but I brush it off as her drunken body language. Unreadable. At this point it doesn’t really matter. I’m on a plane back to McGuire tomorrow at noon. Besides, I’m happy, for the first time. I place my counted cash drawer in the register, say hello to the semi-circle of new faces and start pouring drinks. Odd things. Things I don’t normally make, for customers I don’t normally serve. A McCallan with a drop of water. A white-wine spritzer. A Pernod. I notice a strange phenomenon. No one is on the North End. It’s empty. And those who I’m serving on the south are unrecognizable.

Una comes in to get a mint julip.

“Where the hell is everybody?” I ask.

“Jensen is dead,” she blurts out. “Everyone’s over at the Chapel for service.” Her tone is so matter-of-fact.

“Jesus. What happened?” I’m a little shocked.  “I’ve been around all day. Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

Una grabs the mint julip and adds a sprig of mint. “It’s no wonder they tell you nothing. They all hate you.”

I could feel my face flush with embarrassment and humiliation. It was true, they all hated me. But Jensen? He was so quiet, he was probably the only one that never gave me any trouble.

“How did he die?” I ask. “Hell, he was just sitting right there last night.” I point to his customary spot at corner of the bar. “Him and Rasmus, as usual. Drooling over Pamela Anderson. Drinking vodka gingers.” And then it hits me. He was drunk.

“He drowned last night on his way home, trying to cross the fjord, in a boat.”

“He tried to cross the fjord? In a boat?” I repeat the question to make sure it’s clear.

She nods.

No one does that. It’s like the river of death. Especially at night. One chunk of ice can come out of nowhere and chop your head off. There’s warning signs all over the place. Fences. Barbed wire. I don’t care how drunk you are. Everyone knows to stay away from the fjord.

Una pulls her hair back into a bun and in her low, raspy Irish voice she says, “It was suicide. That’s how they do it up here. Jump in the fjord. Done.”

I stand there stunned and ask the stupid but inexorable question that most people ask when confronted with self-inflicted death. “Why? Why’d he do it?”

Una shrugs, unsure of the answer herself. “He had nothing, New Jersey. He had no one. Isn’t that why anyone kills himself?” She walks away, back into the restaurant, away from the bar. And from where I’m standing, I can see her place the mint julep and a a Cabernet down, one in front of the other, for a Danish officer in his suit whose wife is making a conjugal visit. The two at the table smile, raise their glasses, lean in and kiss each other so deeply, that it seems to last much longer than it should.

I just stand there for a good long while and watch. It’s the first kiss I’ve seen in four months, since I arrived. And along with the kiss and the clinking of their glasses I can hear damn near anything in the Caribou Club that moment because for the first time, I’m actually listening. I can hear the easy hum of the generators, the quiet, courteous discourse of gentlemen sitting around the bar discussing politics, law, culture and religion. Even Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares for Me, is playing softly without much consequence, until it does the inevitable and forces me to remember what I don’t want to remember; what I came here to forget: the bluesy refrain of a life no longer mine and a note on the fridge that said, Goodbye, I’m leaving you, written by the hand of the only man I ever loved. I’m paralyzed, and realize that I didn’t get it right. That I ran away, just like everybody else. But what else is there to do? What does anyone do to escape and numb the hurt of that kind of big, ugly pain? I simply assumed the cold would do me good.

I come around from behind the bar and run out through the double doors of the Caribou Café, to the cold, white night, and I can hear the bong of the only church bell in Sondy toll for the dead. It’s like a cleansing. And I scream until my throat hurts and my hands freeze and I scream into the empty space of Greenland and think, There. Take that. It’s all I’ve got. And with each resounding strike of the bell, I scream. I scream at the top of my lungs, as loud as I can because I know what’s in a scream; not the peace of God or the refuge of a drink, but the chaos of life, and the only tool we have against the cold.

Oacoma

September 20, 2009

Upland Sorrow by StateSealKeeper

You are listening to Weird by Clem Snide, driving through Indianapolis. The sun keeps playing tricks on you and the landscape changes like a slow twirling kaleidoscope, reconfiguring the horizon with sparkly newness the farther west you drive. Indiana sinks behind you, back into itself- into its own drabness, and you’re glad to be rid of all 275 miles. You think about how everything forward comes from nothing. The Chicago beltway; the strip malls of Madison, Wisconsin; Winona, Blue Earth, Luverne.

You are driving and driving, through Minnesota, then into South Dakota, a few bumps, but mostly flat land, miles of green field. Just like when you and Angel took this same road. Out of the blue, right here,  the landscape changes. You hit this drop off I-90 and the earth falls away like nothing- it’s right around Oacoma—and you’re left, undone, every time, holding onto the steering wheel for dear life, blown away by the unexpected sweep of a view that’s right there in front of you. You can’t miss it. And so you make your way down and pitch toward the bottom of the hill, and there it is. The river you’ve been waiting for. The spot where you recognize just how much you’ve missed.

You get out of the car and you’re standing at the edge. And you’re looking for god on the hills. In the clouds. Not really ready. Hoping something out there will save you. That this is the spot where you’re going to let it go. Because all you’ve got are these weird, bulbous pea green yellow bluffs and hills that make no sense.  Even the air out by Oacoma is different. And you remember being at this same spot, that’s why you’re here, but not with such exactitude, because you weren’t paying attention the last time. You don’t remember the river being here seven years ago and you certainly don’t remember the bridge. You flew by it and never noticed.

Yes, you flew by it and never noticed because you were listening to the radio and that’s when Angel must have said, “Look, Mom, a river,” and so you did, but not really. And you just said, yes, yes, yes, baby. I see. But you didn’t see anything. You were listening to some song a hundred times, thinking about wanting to smoke cigarettes again and if you would get laid in LA once you got there and other meaningless thoughts that drivers driving long distances think when they’re alone.

But you weren’t alone.

Your son had memorized that spot and even when it was gone, he remembered it and told you about it many times, long after it was gone. He would shout it at you, “Mom! Are you listening?” Yes, yes, yes, baby. I’m listening. But you weren’t listening.  You were wrapped up in following your dream to be a poet, you were pinning postcards to your cork board, you were busy chatting online to Paolo from Argentina. You were waiting for Angel to take his nap.

A few days ago you weren’t driving at all. You were sitting. You were standing too. And pacing. You were in the waiting room of Virtua Hospital, waiting to be told if your son would live or die. You were there, but not really there. And you said fuck about a million times into the wide open gray space because you thought you knew the answer. And when the doctors pushed through the double-doors you even thought you knew what they were going to say. They were going to say I’m sorry, Mrs. Monroe, there was nothing we could do. And so you braced yourself, helpless. And you waited. And you asked only one question, of no one in particular, or maybe god: Do I get a second chance? As if confronting god with your mistakes would help you win some points. But there you rested for a while, arms wrapped around yourself, caught between the empty space of questions and answers.

You took Angel out west to celebrate your new life. You were finally free. You left your son’s daddy.  And there was this inner-calling to finally know space and distance and movement. And you didn’t want to stop. The farther you went the safer you became inside. Safe from ugly, bad, miserable, lazy, painful muck. You were safe from nights of hiding under bed covers, only to be forced awake. You were safe from burning up with hate each time he slapped a bill, a plate, a child’s toy on top of the counter and said, “Here, you deal with this.” You were safe from the man you wish you never knew and so was your son and so you kept moving. “We’re like Lewis and Clark,” you said, and you tried to sell him on the adventure. You packed up the car with suitcases and plastic bags of gummy worms and gameboys and music, and you drove. And you sang and got cranky and you made a million pee stops, and sometimes you both slept in the same bed because the hotel only had a King. But you loved the warmth of each others’ skin after twelve hours buckled safely into a seat.

When you finally hit Moab, it was then Angel said, “I want to go home.”

And he was right. You’d gone too far. The landscape was like a soul, pulling you in, once you reached the canyons. The deeper you went, the less you knew of yourself.  And that’s what you wanted. You wanted to not know and you thought the desert would do it. Near Moab, the land gives you this second chance. You see these hills and valleys of empty, orange rocks. You see negative space in the blue sky, and in the horizon you see Windows and Towers and the Devil’s Garden. And you can’t help but feel the tug and lure of something you don’t really understand.

But you promised Angel you’d turn around, and so you did. And you said goodbye to the promise of California and red rocks and getting laid and being reborn and all that crap. And you kind of  found yourself too. But you didn’t realize it then. And besides, you did it in an ordinary, unremarkable way, the way most mothers do—in their daily sacrifices to their child, in the mundane, in the hours spent making lunches, cleaning clothes, tying shoes. This going West thing that you thought would change you– didn’t. And so you and Angel went back to New Jersey and back to the man you wish you never knew.

But a few days ago you weren’t making any sacrifices like you did back then—or at least you didn’t think you were. You were pacing and worn and praying while an officer told you that your son had been in a car accident. His seventeen-year-old lungs had been crushed by the dashboard, doing the best they could, expanding and contracting surreptitiously under the cracked ribs of his strong, youthful chest. You had your flash: you yelled at him that morning to take out the trash. But it was more than that. He wouldn’t get off the computer. You were angry about that too. At times, you had to dig deep into his character to find something you loved, and you hated yourself for that. You wanted to remember the parts of him that you loved when he was little. The little guy who craved the open road or playing with legos or smiling up at you while you wiped jelly off his face. Just hours before you had had it with him, actually.  Fucking teenagers, you said.  And regretfully, you told him so. You didn’t normally do that. But you were fed up. And sometimes, it happens. You forget the boy when you start to see the man. You told him, I’m sick of this shit. What about me? Are you going to be twenty and still expect me to clean up after you? Look at your room? It’s disgusting. Clean it, for Christ’s sake. And he kind of laughed at you under his breath. His usual. You saw him do it, and by this point, you knew to pick your battles. You should have picked your battle. But, instead, you turned to him and said the only thing a mother can say to a son she thinks will have a lifetime to forgive her: it’s your fault I’m still here, you said.

And that was your mistake.

You saw his mannish posture wilt. His face lost its playfulness. You fumbled under his gaze the same way you did with his father. You hated that feeling. It made you feel less of a person. It made you doubt yourself.  So, you tried to dissipate the wave of emotions that would have ensued, the only way you knew how.

You sent him to the store for bread.

But, when the doctors came in, pushing their way through the double-doors, you were  staring the truth right between the eyes and you thought  you were right. But hoping against all hope that you were wrong because you’ve never loved anything more than that boy. You thought they’d say, I’m sorry, Mrs. Monroe, there was nothing we could do. Becasue it would have been a punishment. And by all accounts, you should have been punished.  The world works that way. In the movies at least. The kid runs out the door after a fight with his mom and gets killed, and she lives with the guilt the rest of her life.

Isn’t that the way of life?

But you were wrong. He would make it.  And as the doctors lead you to his bedside,  you wrap the boy in your arms.   You think, foolishly, that everything will be OK. But  he’s no longer a boy. It’s a man, not a boy who will force a lifetime of amending upon you.

So, you’re standing at this river in Oacoma, South Dakota. The Lakota name for the “space between.” Just you and your thoughts and you remember the day you took your son out here.  You’re looking over a bluff with a seventy-foot drop. The source, the sink. Yes, yes, yes, you see it now—the railroad bridge, throwing shadows over the big Missouri, pulling at you, gratuitously, to see it for the first time. Like the only route off a battlefield that’s burning to the ground. It speaks and says, here’s your ticket forward. And it’s at that moment you ask a question. This time you ask it of God. Am I forgiven? But there’s a quiet in the west Easterners do not know. There’s an expanse of land so wide, questions go unanswered. Besides, you know the answer. You know that the only god out there who’s listening is the one who can’t save you from yourself.

Summer

August 18, 2009

Bedroom Window


It was late August. She lay down in bed for a long while in the morning with Henry, feeling the start of the day already heavy with heat and humidity. The cicadas were singing their summer song in a woosh through the trees. It was a perfect day for the cicadas; still and warm, and laden with the quiet tick of timelessness. Hers and Henry’s bodies tingled with the reverberations of the night before as they listened to life through the open windows. “I love the sound of the cicadas,” she said. “I wait for it every summer.” Henry smiled back. “Me too,” he said,  ”Year after year.” He crawled closer to where she lay, kissed her softly and said,  ”I love you. For whatever it’s worth. For however long it lasts.” She looked up at him tenderly and nudged his warm skin with her arm. It was early, but it was hot enough that if they lay too close, they would stick together.

A year ago she sat at a table out on the lawn with a man named Jack that she’d been dating for several months. They talked about Hindu “pain religions,” elephants, monkeys and the Temple of the Rats. She had experienced her own religion of pain back then but didn’t realize it; chanting Om to the numbing sensation of shallow, pretend love; the kind of love you force upon Ken and Barbie when you’re a kid. That simulated, dress-up love that feels real and fun at the time, but then one day just disappears when you grow up and stop playing with toys. She had had a conversation one night with him. She asked him to tell her the truth. “I only want to know the truth,” she said. But he looked at her like she had asked him the mystery of life. The truth, it turned out, was something as illusive, if not more so, as the love they were trying to create with their plastic, doll parts.

A year before that she was following George around his front yard, watching him water and mulch the trees they had planted the previous year. She felt connected to the seasons then. She knew when the blueberries would ripen on the vine. She knew when to expect the abundance of the harvest in the fall.  And she knew that when the frost of winter came nothing would grow and George wouldn’t be able to water or plant anything until spring. She knew that they’d lie stale and frozen too, until something came along and thawed their cold, tired selves. Something extraneous and fleeting, that neither of them could grasp on their own. When the tall grass was cut, they tried to make love under the shade of the big maple, but it didn’t work. It never did. She would kiss him and he’d push her away. And his response was always the same: “The love between us is so much deeper than that, baby.” And so she wrapped her arms around herself in frustration and believed him.

She thought of the past as if it were something she possessed, whether she liked it or not. It was part of her. And she kept it with her, despite Henry asking her if she wouldn’t enjoy life more if she let it go and live in the moment. But it seemed to her that if she did let it go and move on, she would not recognize herself. And that scared her. And yet, she was certainly not content knowing that over the past five years there was no permanency to her life whatsoever. She hated the fact that she had several different lovers after her divorce. She hated that there were no patterns created, no traditions built upon the previous years, nor anything remotely related to Time to convince her that she was secure in this life, with this man, or that she would be.

By noon, while she and Henry lazily fumbled for their clothes, the cicadas stopped chirping.  She wondered if the little bugs went to sleep, or if they were like those insects that only live for a day. Temporary. Only on earth to serve the menial task of chewing up deciduous trees. Or to mate. Nothing more. This thought seemed to disappoint and leave her feeling empty. What, if anything, was the purpose and beauty of a life if only lived one day? By late fall the cicadas would be gone.  All of them. Lovers, friends, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. Someone new would crawl up the trees to take their place. The singing would start again. But the song would be the same. Carried by voices that grew into summer for only a season.

She shook out the bed sheets to cover the bed and fluffed the pillows, ambling around the room so as not to create too much energy in the early afternoon heat. Henry collected his things from the floor; his shoes, his shirt, his suit and tie, leaving behind, as he did each time he’d visit, another piece of clothing for her to wash and place in the spare drawer she had offered him when he first started spending the night. It became a sort of running joke between them. The first time he slept over he left behind a t-shirt, then two, then three and so on. He said to her one night, early on, “It’s all a part of my master plan!” and she laughed at his quick and lighthearted sense of humor. But after she finished covering the bed, she eyed the undershirt and socks he had placed atop the hamper, well knowing that they were two more items of his to add to the growing pile.

“Not sure if you realize this, baby, but you now have two drawers, not just one.”

He turned to her and looked in humorous disbelief. “Two drawers?” His mouth was agape as if in shock. She laughed and opened the dresser drawers for viewing. Each of them was filled with Henry’s socks, underwear, t-shirts, shorts, books, CDs and so on. Seven months of stuff.

“Two little worlds,” he said, “That’s all.”

“And expanding,” she added.

She walked him to the front door and kissed him goodbye in a playful, housewifey way. Her children would be coming in soon from their father’s and she had lots of mindless tasks to do.

“If it makes you happy, I’ll clear some of that stuff out of here when I come over next,” he said.

She paused and looked at him; searching for something less irreparable to say than simply yes or no. “Why don’t we wait till the cooler weather,” she said. “It’s too hot to bother with that now.”

The Diner

December 16, 2008

Abbie tasted the red on her lips. When she was nervous or excited she’d bite down, puncturing the skin and cause bleeding. She remembered hearing that the Egyptians used their own blood as make-up to lure potential lovers. But, when he entered the diner where she stood taking orders at the counter, holding a hand that was not hers, she wiped at her wounded lips, took their order, and skirted through the double doors to the kitchen. “It’ll be alright, darling,” Billy said to her from behind the line, “we’ll spit in their soup.” And as Abbie readied the bowls, she wondered how many drops of love would pass unnoticed into the Fasolada.

The Wild Horse

December 8, 2008

This is a very old story that I wrote in my mid-twenties. I felt the need to exhume it from its place on a dusty shelf in the attic.

It rained that night in April, so much so that the torrential din compelled me to wake and go outside. The backyards were flooded and all sound was muffled by the steady crash of rain on rooftops. I was restless, unable to sleep, and when I had finally roused myself from the security of my bed, I went down to the back porch in nothing but my pajamas and the overcoat I keep at the bottom of the steps. I was afraid the flower beds I’d planted would wash away and nothing more than that was on my mind. It was pouring cold, directionless rain…heavy and hard, and I could see nothing but the tiny resemblance of fire lilies and tiger lilies and forget­me-nots, floating, helplessly atop the fury of waves that crashed through my backyard. I went around the side of the house to check on the morning glories, and that is when I saw her; the shadowy figure of an enormous beauty of a horse, breathing smoke and stuck between the low, twin trunk of the only historical oak tree left in Mason County. I was shocked, to say the least, witnessing such an absurdity, and I couldn’t imagine how a horse had managed to get stuck there. But there she was, black and wet, her belly lodged between the two huge trunks– as if she’d been dropped from the sky, haphazardly, losing the reins of some chariot. I thought about this and crept closer to the scene, still unsure if I was fully awake; my bare feet stuck in the cold mud like poles in quicksand.

She was obviously a wild horse, most likely from Beaufort; black, untamed, ravenous with life. Her hooves, which could barely scrape the surface of the earth, kicked, diligently, in a desperate attempt to free herself. Every few minutes her enormous body would slump into the cradle of the two trunks, and there she’d remain until another gust of emotion would overtake her, her body contracting again and tightening as she’d fight once more to escape.

The rain wasn’t stopping – it was torrential and by now the Lowes and the Brickners awoke also, migrating to the scene. In sing song unison they said, “Oh my!” and I suddenly felt as if I’d been caught doing something inappropriate, standing along side of my house half dressed, watching a horse try to free itself from a trap of my invention.

“Why doesn’t someone call the fire department?” Mrs. Brickner shouted from her back porch, her dog Happy under her arm.

I didn’t understand why, but I never actually expected firemen to come out when it rains. It just didn’t seem like common sense. At any rate, I had to believe that firemen could do a fine job at setting a wild horse free, with their long ladders and thick ropes. At the moment, common sense seemed grossly distant anyway.

Ray’s cousin, Winifred, also came trudging through the muddy rivers of backyards and the tiny streets of our development, once the rumors spread that I had a wild horse stuck in my tree. And by the time she arrived, so then did the firemen with their whistles and loud blinking red and white lights that glowed through the dim haze of morning fog and rain.

“This is miraculous!” said Captain Radcliff, whom I remembered from grade school when he gave a speech on house fires. “Stop, Drop and Roll!” he’d shout and being a bit overweight, we snickered aloud when he attempted the drop and roll.  “How long has she been there?” he said, looking at me and I wondered if he too, remembered the mockery two decades ago. I answered but it was difficult to speak now because the wind began to whip and blow the rain into a cloud around us. I ran in for a moment to get an umbrella. When I returned I repeated; “It must have been an hour ago that I woke and found her there.”

“But what time was it that you’d gone to bed?” he shouted.

“Ten or so, I’d say, no later than half past.”

Up behind the houses facing East, there crept the dawning of a solemn and weary glaze of indistinct light. It looked as though the storm from the West was on a collision course with one coming in from the East, and by day break, the sky would burst. It was only six, but I knew the day would be colorless.  The horse in the tree seemed to get blacker and blacker as the water seeped through her slick, oiled hair. I wanted desperately to touch her, to calm her; not so much because I knew about animals or horses in particular, but  I merely wanted to run my hands across her wet skin because that’s what seemed the right thing to do. To touch the animal. I wanted her to know that we would try our best to set her free, but that at the moment, things looked dim.

Seven of the fire men began to slide a sturdy cloth under the horse while she reared her legs and snorted and squirmed. The mud lapped hungrily at their rubber boots and I watched them persevere through the heavy, muddy task. They tried hoisting ropes around the animal, but to no avail. The animal protested in an uproar, retaliating each time she felt a cord tighten around her underside. They tried hooking the cords up to a pulley, which hung from the top of the fire truck ladder, hoping that they could lift the horse into the air, instead of sliding her out. But the branches of the tree wrapped around the beast like an over-protective mother, keeping the horse encaged and immobile.

By seven-thirty in the morning, the crowd, now at about thirty or so, expected that the rain would clear. But the sky was still ominously dark and the wind hoo-ed and woo-ed through the branches of  budding trees. The mud encased our legs like undried cement and I too, began to feel a bit trapped like the wild horse who no one seemed able to free. I wanted to go inside because my skin had become saturated and I began to feel the chill of cold, early April through my bones. The morning was giving birth to a most unpleasant day, and as I stood  barely sheltered on my side lawn, I felt the eerie timelessness that surrounded myself and the crowd of onlookers. It was as if I’d never moved at all – but that I’d just been there, all along – barefooted, and chilled by miserable weather, flooding, and an empty, black sky.

I’d been no-where and I’d be going no-where, and such thoughts scared me because on the whole I didn’t let thoughts like that ever get to me. I kept to the flower beds in the Spring; grew tomatoes, cucumbers and beans in the summer; pruned and raked in the fall; planted bulbs in the winter. And yet, the simplicity of my life seemed catastrophic under the weight of the storm. I felt my legs buckle beneath me as the burden of my bones, skin and wet clothes became heavier and heavier. It was as if I were forced into realizing that I hadn’t done much with my life. And what I had done was washed away by God or nature in one brief moment.  As free as I was, there I remained, waiting for a sign or movement. Waiting, perhaps, for someone to scream, “it’s over!” and the horse would no longer be in the tree but instead be on the outside, running away towards something, anything. Just running towards life.

But that was not the case. Instead, Warren Wexler from the Exxon station, with no teeth and a membership in the NRA shouted, “Not so wild now.”

A few more hours passed and the poor beast was paralyzed, still, and looking lifeless. One of the Bowmans’ teenage sons suggested cutting the tree with a chain saw, but Mr. and Mrs. Brickner and the Lowes protested because they knew, as we all did,  it was the only historic oak left in this town and if it were destroyed, the Sheriff wouldn’t put up that plaque he’d been promising for the past year. That’s when Mr. Garcia, the veterinarian, came plowing through the crowd and said that the horse would die soon because the trunk was cutting into her organs and she was losing blood. By that point I looked down at my legs, which were shin-deep in muck, and in the pallid haze of the stormy day, the ground looked red and savage. I knew that it was only a matter of time now, before the rain would cease and we’d all be able to go back inside and get warm and dry again, and that when you think about it, storms never last as long as they seem to. Things grow back.  It’s the way of life.

The Brickners were still chatting with the Lowes and Mr. Garcia smoked a wet cigarette with Winifred and the firemen. Happy got loose and rolled freely in the mud only to incite Mrs. Bricker to chase the dog and scold it for being recalcitrant. I stood alone, watching the horse’s stomach contract like a dying balloon. The firemen had given up. No one had any new ideas. It seemed we were all just standing around, distrait, waiting for the inevitable. I wondered sadly, how the firemen would get her out after she died, and then the miserable thought occurred to me; they would cut her in half and remove her piece by piece. Of course that’s what they would do, because the tree needed that plaque and the town needed their history. And I felt seriously ill; not so much for the horse, but for us, who stood in our backyards, chit-chatting in the rain with umbrellas over our heads and wet cigarettes, watching something wild die, so that maybe our lives wouldn’t seem so miserable after all. And in that instant something overcame me and I drew my thick muddy legs out of their casts and I made my way to the tree and I did what I felt was the only thing to do. I climbed up on the slippery branches of the big oak, the branches that hovered over the V-shape of the trunk, and I felt the surprised eyes of a disapproving audience upon me. Winifred gasped.  The firemen dropped their cigarettes. Mr. Garcia shouted, “Stop!”

But what did it matter? The damage was already done.

I looked away from the crowd and shinnied up the tree. She was brilliantly hot when I finally touched her. Her skin felt like silk but she barely moved. And I knew I would scare her but I tried to be gentle. She shuddered like a sleeping old woman being roused by a nurse’s cold hand; her energy, once enormous, strong, wild, had now faded. But, before she died I had only one hope for her; that she would be, for just one moment more, wild and free again. And then, as my arms clung feverishly to the limbs above me, I lowered myself on to her back and let go of the branch. All of my weight was on her now and in one last angry and abandoned attempt to be alive again, her magical body bucked and kicked and heaved and galloped. And I held on to her mane for dear life as if I were riding through a crazy forest of danger and of life. Though it didn’t last. Maybe five minutes. Maybe less. But soon her body slumped within the tree, lifeless and tame. And I could feel the hot gush of blood on my legs and I knew that her heart was finally gone.

In the murmuring distance between subsiding rain and hollow wind, the voices of my neighbors murmured words of disbelief and disgust.

“What a spectacle!” I heard, through the trickle and gale and I was sure that it was Mrs. Brickner who finally caught up with Happy.

“There was always something wrong him,” someone else said. “He’s just not right in the head.”

But that was the worst of it. One by one they disappeared, retreating back into their homes to dry their hair and warm their feet, and I knew they would all be filled with the lifeblood of the story for months to come.

And then, as I slid off the dead body, I thought again how she got into such an odd predicament in the first place. It seemed very possible to me that she did drop from the sky and that perhaps because of the storm, she’d lost her way and had had an accident. I thought about this for what seemed a good long while, my flesh no longer shaking from the chill of the wet day. The only sound left was the drizzle of intermittent rain through the drainpipes of everyone’s houses and the soft whimpering of a yard full of dead plants. And then, Captain Radcliff wrapped a blanket around me and told me I’d better head indoors. “Fine,” I said, and  ascended the back steps of my porch. I was tired. And as I wearily closed the door behind me, out of the rain, I heard the chain saws buzzing and the crack of bone from my warm, dry kitchen. It would be a year before I would replant the flower garden again. I would wait until next Spring. But by god, the whole yard would be covered. Only this time, I would plant wildflowers.