On Forsaking the brethren

Concerned relatives warned me not to

but I grew tired 

like a tree 

falling in the forest 

when no one is around to hear it

each time left with less

 than I started with

until now there is nothing 

but the absence of sound.

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Fallen

I’ve been here before.

But I was younger then

and ricocheted off the concrete.

Now, I lie like a stone

and calculate the risks

in standing back up,

of leaving the permanence of pavement,

and joining the long line of feet

walking over me, on top of me,

towards that unknown horizon.

 

 

 

 

 

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On not being Dutch

 

Taped to the sides of their metal desks

lists on pink post-its written in sixth-grade-girl-bubble-hand 

names of golden-haired girls all starting with Vander

Vanderzee, Vanderbaan, Vanderbeek, Vansomeren.

The friend list I never made

having hair and eyes the color of earth

and a last name that forms deep in the  throat like mucus,

something that must be spat out in order to be heard.

When I complained, my mother told me

 how she used to hide her lunch in her lap 

so they wouldn’t see her dirty-wop-sandwiches

made with the thick dago bread

Grandma punched in with her own brown knuckles

the kind she can’t quite reinvent with her bread machine.

But back then, she lusted after their white, poreless slices of wonder.

 Later, I learned Vander wasn’t a blessing doled out from Nordic gods.

It simply meant from the.

The golden haired girls were not from the heavens.

They were from the hills, from the creek, from the swamp, from the earth.

From the same dust and clay as me.

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Protected: Objects of Pleasure

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Temporary Attractions

In August they appear,
shimmering in the highway haze.
Metal caravans refracting the sun.

They set up in plain view.
In parking lots or
the rented dirt of fair grounds.

By nightfall, they’re up.
Red lights running.
The kind of cheap attraction
built to go up as quickly as it comes down.

The crowds wander in
looking for a late night thrill.
They wait in long lines
for the chance to take their turn,
to lose their breath
in that slow grind
up-up-up to the top.

They pay a heavy price
for a moment of weightlessness.
Lose their place on earth
in that second of suspension,
before plunging back down to the ground.

In the morning there is nothing left but trash. Empty containers, paper wrappers. Used then discarded.

Things that once held a purpose
thrown away, for somebody else
to eventually have to pick back up.

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The Good Day

mirror

I found my grandfather’s funeral program in the junk drawer, looking for batteries to put in the remote-control car my son had just unwrapped for Christmas. I found it underneath the Chinese take-out menus, phone books and old coupons; he was Xeroxed on the front in black and white, a young 18-year-old version I had never met with a full head of hair in a Navy uniform. The duration of his life was scrawled underneath his picture like an expiration date—good from 1926-2004.

My grandfather—William Mark Adler the third—died five years ago from prostate cancer, three days after Adam’s birth. His death was expected, like a long-awaited foreclosure on a house. Cancer had been a ruthless landlord, cutting the last of his cognitive abilities off like lights, evicting him from his body one day too soon; so that when my wife, Lydia, laid his two-day-old grandson on his chest, he didn’t even respond. He just stared blink-less at the ceiling, his mouth hanging open, his lips dried and cracked.

My grandfather was always in the background of my life growing up, like a familiar wallpaper pattern, bald as long as I could remember. His skull was a fragile globe; liver spots mapped it like faded continents.  As a child, I watched with envy as he ate ice cream off his stomach, perching the bowl on top like a table—not even having to hold it. He was quiet compared to the rest of us, as if my grandmother’s loud Italian genes had swallowed up his docile ones before passing down to the rest of us. At every family function, he would always end up in the living room, sleeping through endless nature documentaries in his lazy boy, his glasses sliding to the end of his nose and his mouth hanging open like a cavern. He would occasionally wake up when his glasses fell off and mumble, wup, wup (an abbreviation of woops as if he were too lazy to pronounce the entire word.)  It became a joke, my brother and father often doing impressions of him bumbling around the living room, hitting their heads against things. Wup, wup, wup. He walked around with cuts on his head all the time, his skull vulnerable in its hairlessness—like a thin-shelled egg . As I got older, I avoided being caught in the airless vacuum of spending time alone with him where all conversations eventually dried up into the same tired questions: So, how’s school, Billy? What grade are you going into this year, Billy?  My grandfather stretched for words, not having the skills to connect with a child.

I, my father, my father’s father, his father and so on, all shared the same name—William. An endless succession of Bill, Billies, Wills and Willies, like a long line of photocopies, each one more faded than the last— copy of a copy of a copy, until you wonder what the point was; who was the original William, somewhere back in the 1800s, and why was he so important that generations had to be named after him? That’s why—to the chagrin of my parents—I named my son Adam.

I smoothed out the funeral program and set it aside and returned with the batteries. The whole family, including my father and mother, had come over for Christmas. My father had taken on his usual role of Santa Claus, wearing a red and white Santa hat and doling out presents to Adam and my nephew, Willy. My mother sat on the couch talking to my wife, Lydia, who was eight months pregnant with our second child—another boy. My brother, Mark, sat in the armchair, ripping large pieces off of a fruitcake he had just unwrapped and stuffing it into his mouth. He was alone this year. His wife just left him and was spending Christmas with her family.

Mark was fourteen months younger than me.  We didn’t get along. As children, we loved each other—were inseparable. But something happened under the firm grip of adolescence. While I got taller, leaner and more muscular; he became softer, thicker and rounder—pear-shaped like my mother. I excelled in sports, always making first string. He never even made the team but refused to stop trying out. Every day after school, he’d insist I practice football with him then trip me, or rush me from behind and knock me over when I wasn’t looking. He’d laugh and call me a pussy and say he could kick my scrawny ass. A fight would usually ensue, which would end with me holding his head in the dog’s water dish or better yet—the food bowl— not relenting until he took a bite. As the years went by and I acquired girlfriend after girlfriend and he was rejected by all of the female species that inhabited our school, a rift grew between us, vast and yawning as the quarry outside of town we used to swim in as kids after dark.

His jealousy extended to the attention of my Dad. My father had always been a guy’s guy—a macho man. He played semi-pro football in college but had to quit from a knee injury that never healed.  He came to all my games and threw ball with me every evening after dinner. He made Mark sit on the steps and retrieve any balls that flew over my head. I tried to make Mark feel involved at first but the barbed comments he threw at me from the porch about my form started to seep under my skin. I started to gloat, started to hold my athletic ability high over his head. I would throw the ball at him hard and yell, heads up! then laugh when it bounced off his soft stomach or clap if by some miracle he actually caught it. That’s when my trophies started disappearing. I knew he had done something with them but he would never admit to it, even when I held his head in the toilet.

I heard yelling one day coming from upstairs when I got home from football practice. I ran up and peeked through the door of my brother’s room to see him standing against the wall, his pants around his ankles. My father was cursing him and lashing him with a switch. My father had not spanked us since we were little and now my brother stood there at the age of 13, naked from the waist down, his pubic hair tufting out from where he held his hands over his penis. He didn’t even whimper. Just stood there staring at the wall, only wincing as the switch came down again and again.

My father yelled, “You think just because you’re a lazy piece of shit and your brother isn’t that you can destroy his things behind his back like a coward pussy?” He lashed him across the legs. “He worked his ass off all year-long for that trophy while you sat around on your fat ass and did nothing.” He lashed him again and I saw my brother’s eyes glimmer wet. “I want an apology! Do you hear me? An apology Goddamnit!” Mark remained silent, his mouth pursed into a small hard knot.

Something shiny caught my eye and I saw my MVP trophy I had earned that year in football on the floor, its head bashed in with a hammer sitting next to it. My chest filled tight with rage. Mark stared straight at me, his chin quivering. He didn’t say anything, just lifted his face defiantly as Dad continued to beat him. I could have stopped it. I should have but I didn’t. I just softly closed the door so my father wouldn’t see and went to my room. I laid on my bed and stared at the ceiling. I feigned sickness when Mom called me for dinner. Nothing had been good between us since that day.

I put the batteries in the car for Adam and he and Willy took off after it around the corner. Mounds of wrapping paper and bows littered the room. My grandfather, a frugal man having survived the Depression, used to insist on saving wrapping paper. Opening presents was a painful process—everyone waiting for him to carefully loosen each piece of tape so the paper wouldn’t rip, as if he were dismantling a bomb. My father tried to carry on the same tradition with us but we revolted when we became teenagers. He finally gave in, but still cringed when we wrenched off the bows and ripped open the gifts. He still picked through the debris later for reusable ribbon.

“Well, I guess that’s it,” I sighed. I stood up and stretched, surveying the piles of gifts by everyone’s feet. “How about some more coffee, everybody?”

“Wait,” my father said, “I got one more present for you, Billy.” He went into the guest room and came out with a large, heavy box.

“Oh jeez Dad, what’s this?” I took the box from him and set it at my feet.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to give you for a long while, son. I thought this Christmas it was time.”

I unwrapped it— a large cardboard brown box. The scent of mothballs leaked out the sides.

“Oh honey, you’re going to just love it,” My mother said, smiling and rubbing her hands together in anticipation.

I opened it to reveal what looked like hundreds of old notebooks. “What’s this?” I asked, taking out one.

“It’s Granddad’s journals,” Dad said excitedly. “He wrote in them everyday of his life, from the time he was eighteen up until he couldn’t write any more. There are even a couple of his father’s journals in there too.

My mother smiled at me, her eyes watering. “We thought you should have them, Billy, you being a writer and all.”

“Oh, wow,” I said, peering at the date on the cover—1935. “Wow,” I said again. “This is unbelievable. Just imagine all the history here.”

Lydia came up behind me and picked up one of the books. “What a wonderful gift,” she said, leafing through it.

“Yup,” my dad said, clapping me on the back. “I thought you’d like it. We found them going through your Granddad’s storage unit. Merry Christmas, son.”

“Thanks. Thanks so much. This is great.” I smoothed the leather-bound notebook with my hand, wanting to start reading it right then and there. My Dad wasn’t sentimental or emotional that often. The only time I ever saw him cry was when I fractured my leg freshman year of college in the semi-finals. It wasn’t because I was in so much pain either; but because he was, seeing his dreams of me making the NFL snap in two like my tibia that burst through my skin on impact like a nail through a tarp.

My brother sniffed loudly and sat down next to my mother on the sofa and crossed his arms. “Well, I hope you were planning on giving me some of those as well. He was my grandfather too, you know.”

“Of course you can have some, honey,” my mother said, touching his arm. “Right, Billy?” She looked pointedly at me.

“Sure, I guess, if you really want them.” I couldn’t help but add, “Didn’t you get his violin though?” My grandfather had played fiddle in the Navy when he was young and my father had given it to Mark after he died. Mark played violin six months tops in elementary school before he quit but he made a big deal about how he should have it, when Lydia—who loved my grandfather more than all of us and took care of him in the last weeks of his life right up to her delivery—played violin her whole life. When I had protested, she quickly agreed that Mark should have it, not wanting to cause problems.

Lydia—the constant mediator. She lost her parents when she was eighteen in a car accident. She moved in with her older gay brother in Boston where we met in college. When I took her home to meet my family, they fell in love with her—especially my grandfather. Lydia said he reminded her of her own father and they became quite close.

“Yeah, so what if I got the violin?”  Mark said, looking at me as if he smelled something sour.

My wife nudged me as she stood there, pretending to leaf through one of the notebooks. I sighed. “Nothing Mark. Nothing. You can read them whenever you want.” I mumbled under my breath, “Not that you ever will.” I knew he didn’t want to read them, just wanted the right to read them.

“Hey, what’s the big deal?” Mark said, “They’re just journals. I don’t care if you have them now, just as long as they get passed down to Willy.”

“Why, Willy? What about Adam? He might be a writer too, you know. He’s already very articulate.”

“Because Willy is named after him, you idiot.” He stared at me indignantly, as if I had just suggested that we bequeath them to the family dog.

“What the hell does that have to do with anything?” I asked, involuntarily clenching my hands into fists.

My mother covered her hands with her face and sighed. “Will you two stop?” she said from between her fingers, “For just one day. For the love of Christ, will you stop? It’s Christmas, Goddamnit!”

My brother snorted. “Hey, there’s no rivalry here. Keep the damn things. I don’t give a shit.”

“Your mother is right,” Lydia said, putting the journal back in the box and sliding it under the tree. “It’s Christmas. Let’s make it nice for the kid’s sake, okay?” She gave me a pointed look and nodded towards the kitchen.

I followed her eyes and saw Adam standing in the doorway, holding his car as Willy tried to grab it out of his hands. He looked back and forth between us with wide eyes, concerned over the loud voices and bad words. “It’s okay Adam. Everything’s fine. Go play,” I said. Willy jerked the car from him, laughed and ran off. Adam slowly followed him, still looking back at me over his shoulder.

Lydia went up behind him and patted him along. “It’s okay, honey. That’s just what brothers do sometimes. You’ll see.” She rubbed her round pregnant stomach then turned to us. “Okay, who’s up for some breakfast?”

Lydia and I made pancakes for everyone. Mark piled them high on his plate, shoving forkfuls into his mouth.

“Mark, slow down,” my father said smiling at me, “This isn’t a competition. There’s more.”

“Shut up, Dad. Just let me eat. I work out more than you and Billy put together.”  He shook his head and took another bite.

My mother gave my father a warning look which he ignored. He snickered under his breath as Mark shoveled in another mouthful of food. “Look at him! He’s eating so fast he’s sweating. Son, you’re sweating! Slow down, boy!”

“Bill!” My mother said, slamming down her fork.

“Alright, alright,” Dad said, winking at me. I wanted to laugh. He was sweating, his face blotchy and red as he focused on his food. Lydia gave me a sharp look, so I bit the inside of my lip and focused on my own plate.

Willy pitched a pancake across the table at Adam and it hit him in the face. Adam started crying.

“Hey! No throwing food!” I said, jumping up to Adam’s aid.

“He’s okay,” said Mark, “It was just a pancake, not a rock. Chill out.” He turned and looked at Willy. “Dude, no throwing food. You know better than that.” He looked at my Dad and gave him a slow smile. “He’s got a good arm on him though, don’t he?”

My Dad grinned and clapped Willy on the back. “You gonna play some ball when you grow up, Willy boy? Just like your grandpa?” Willy nodded dumbly and smiled.

I frowned as I scraped syrup off Adam’s face and tried to console him. Little ass, I thought, watching Willy make a muscle for my father. My father feigned a gasp as he felt the tiny bulge of his bicep. I never liked Willy. Most kids had at least one endearing quality, but Willy just wasn’t cute at all. He was a whiny little brat that always had to have his own way. Just like somebody else I know, I thought, watching Mark give Willy a high-five.

“Daddy, stop! You’re hurting me!” I looked down. I had been scrubbing Adam’s face too hard with the napkin, leaving a rosy spot on his pale cheek.

“God, Billy,” Lydia said, frowning and coming up behind me.  She picked him up from his chair and walked to the sink.

I sat back down, watching Lydia dab at the corners of Adam’s mouth. He looked up at her, his face a fragile pale moon, his skin almost translucent with delicate blue veins underneath.  Adam was in the lowest percentile range for height and weight for a boy his age. I worried about him. His legs were spindly and bowed slightly. When I watched him playing with other kids, he was always struggling to keep up with them, his skin pale against the robust glow of theirs. When we went to the playground, I noticed the way the other parent’s eyes would linger on him as they talked, stopping for a moment in their conversation to take him in like a barely noticeable stutter in a sentence. Lydia told me I made too much of a big deal over it, that he was fine and he’d catch up to the rest of the kids when he hit puberty but I still worried.

He’s the runt of the litter. I could hear my Dad’s voice when I was six. I cried, trying to stop him from drowning one of the puppies our bitch, Meg, had given birth to. Stop now, Billy! This runt won’t survive anyhow. It’s how nature works. The weak die off so the strong survive. He threw me off of him and chucked the black wriggling plastic bag in the pond behind our house.  I laid there and waited until he stalked back to the house then waded into the pond and dove for it, searching through the muck with my fingers until  I finally found it. I  pulled the puppy from the bag but it laid limp and lifeless. I buried it under a tree and put a little cross over it. I learned that day my father was a hard man.

Adam was born premature with his lungs not fully developed. Lydia and I didn’t leave his side in the hospital for months. I was entranced by him. He was so tiny, like he wasn’t even human, covered in tubes and wires. He fit into the palm of my hand.  His hand couldn’t even close all the way around one of my fingers. After what seemed like a century they let us take him home. My father and mother came over to help out because Lydia and I were exhausted, too scared to sleep, afraid Adam would stop breathing in the middle of the night and we would find him blue and dead in the morning. I remember my Dad wouldn’t hold him. He was afraid he was so tiny that he’d hurt him. My mom had shooed him aside and took over, cooing and talking to Adam in a voice I had never heard her use before.

Even now, my father didn’t know how to handle Adam and seemed uncomfortable talking to him.  He loved my nephew Willy, wrestling him to the ground and pinching him to make him squeal with laughter. He tried it once with Adam, but Adam squawked like a frightened bird and ran from him, hiding under my legs.

I tried buying Adam footballs, baseballs—anything sports oriented that I thought might pique his interest, but the few times I took him outside to throw a ball around, he’d just stand there with his hands held out and his eyes squeezed shut, letting the ball bounce off his chest when I threw it. His initiation into sports ended when I made him run out into the backyard-end-zone for a long bomb and nailed him in the face, bloodying his nose and sending him  scurrying back into the house, wailing.  Lydia wouldn’t speak to me for the rest of the day. When she finally did talk to me, she insisted I stop pushing sports on him. She made me promise to sit down and find out what he was interested in. I gave in and that evening I invited him into the living room for a chat.

“Adam, do you know why I called you in here?” I asked, sitting next to him on the couch.

He looked at me; his wide brown eyes stood out against the white of his face like bruises. “Because I didn’t catch the football?”

“No son, it’s not because you didn’t catch the football.” I took a deep breath and said in a voice that I hoped sounded sincere, “I don’t care about football. If you don’t want to play sports you don’t have to. Okay, buddy?”

Adam looked at me with his eyebrows furrowed together. “Really?”

“Yes. Really.” I chucked him under the chin. “Now I want you to tell Dad what you are interested in. What you want to do, no matter what it is. Okay?”

Adam looked down at his lap and played with the cuff of his sleeve. “I don’t know.”

“It’s okay, Adam. You can tell me. I’ll sign you up for anything you want to do, okay? Even if it’s—you know—skate boarding or swimming…or even soccer,” I added hopefully, “Whatever you want.”

Adam looked up at me and said in a small voice, “Really?”

“Really, buddy. You can tell me. It’s okay. Now what do you have in mind?”

“Well, I kinda think I know something I can do.” Adam looked at the ceiling fan.

“Okay, great! What is it, buddy?”

He tilted his head and twisted his lips to one side in the same expression Lydia used when trying to decide what to order at a restaurant. “Well…,” he said to the ceiling fan, “I was kind of thinking, maybe, you could sign me up for Madison’s class.”

“Madison?” Madison was our six-year-old neighbor that Adam played with. “Okay…what class does Madison take?”

Adam grinned, revealing the gap where he had just lost his front tooth. His freckles stood out like pin pricks. “Well, Daddy, it’s a dance class. Madison goes every Wednesday with her Mommy and she gets to get all dressed up in a pink fluffy skirt.  It’s called a tutu, Daddy. Isn’t that funny! And she told me that they teach you to walk on your tippy toes. I tried it, but it’s too hard. Madison said you have to have special ballet shoes.”

My stomach clenched into a hard knot, thinking of my son pirouetting around in a leotard. “No, Adam. I don’t think so.”

Adam’s face fell. “But, Daddy you said I could. You said anything I wanted to do.”

“No, Adam. Ballet is for girls.”

“But, Daddy,” he whined, “Madison said boys can do it to! She said I can buy a special outfit just for boys, and I can still wear her tutu when I come over to practice at her house if I want to. Please Daddy! Please! You promised!”

An image popped into my head of Adam running into the house from Madison’s with a  pink tutu on—my father, brother and Willy all standing there laughing and pointing at him. Before I could stop myself I shouted, “Over my dead body!”

Adam’s face crumbled and his chin started wobbling, “But Dad, you promised,” he squeaked, tears filling his eyes. “Why can’t I? What’s wrong with dance class?”

“You heard me!  You’re not putting on a damn tutu and prancing around with a bunch of girls and that’s that!” I got up and walked over to the window and pinched the bridge of my nose and squeezed my eyes shut. I heard Adam run out crying to our bedroom where Lydia was reading.

A fight of monstrous proportions ensued. Lydia called me an overbearing, homophobic ogre and I called her a flaming, liberal, feminist. She threatened to take Adam and move in with her brother so that he could take ballet, violin or even damn basket weaving if he wanted to. I told her divorce papers would be served before he got one little toe into a ballet slipper and that I’d rather lock him up in the house for the rest of his life than see him turn out to be a faggot like her brother. Lydia took her shoes off and threw them at me and stomped from the room, slamming the door. I hated how hard my voice sounded, but I couldn’t stop myself. She went and got Adam, marched past me without a word and went out to the car. I watched her from the window as she buckled Adam into his booster seat and then took off—Adam’s face a small pale dot in the back seat.

That night, I stayed up late and watched TV on the couch, glancing out the window every time headlights came down the street. A commercial came on showing a little boy and his father in matching boxers sharing a tender moment in the bathroom. The little boy mimicked his father shaving, their faces covered in shaving cream. The touch, the feel of cotton, the fabric of our lives. I felt rotten. I fell asleep on the couch and didn’t even hear them come in later that night.

In the morning, Adam woke me, still wearing his Spiderman pajamas, his hair sticking out all over the place. “Daddy?”

I rubbed my eyes and looked at him. “What is it, buddy?”

“I don’t want to go to dance class. I was just pretending.” His lips trembled as he spoke, making my chest contract with guilt.

“No, that’s okay, Adam. If you really want to go, you can,” I said, surprising myself. I tousled his hair. “It’s okay, buddy. Daddy was wrong.”

Adam looked at his toes. “No, I don’t want to, really. Dancing is for pussies.”

I sat up. “What? Where did you hear that?”

“Willy told me,” he said to his feet.

“Willy? You saw Willy last night? Where did Mommy take you?” I tried to control my voice.

“To Grammy and Grandpa’s,” he said, looking scared.

“And Uncle Mark and Willy were there?Of course they were. Mark had Willy on the weekends and he didn’t want to take care of him by himself so he went to Mom and Dad’s.

Adam nodded his head, his eyes wide.

I laid back down and put a pillow over my face. Adam padded off down the hallway.

I don’t think  Lydia realized the gravity of her betrayal until the Saturday I finally relented and agreed to go to my parent’s house for Mom’s birthday.  Mark kept slipping ballet references into the conversation then snickering. My Dad hid a smile behind the newspaper. I wanted to rip their heads off but Adam was sitting there putting a picture puzzle of kittens together, unaware. I had to content myself with shooting Lydia dirty looks.

“I hear the Nutcracker’s holding open auditions for snow fairies if you know of anybody that wants to try out,” Mark said to Dad.

Adam held up the last piece of the puzzle up to me then  fit it neatly into place. I  gave him a tight-lipped smile then turned to Lydia and let out a long, loud sigh. We left early. Lydia refused to argue with me about it on the way home, not wanting Adam to think we were fighting over anything that had to do with him. Adam took up tap dancing that fall. I didn’t protest.

That Christmas afternoon after my Dad gave me the journals, my mother and Lydia took the boys outside to play with their new scooters. My Dad and Mark wanted to watch the  Patriots game highlights I bought them for Christmas.  I made popcorn and put it on the big screen TV which they both promptly fell asleep in front of.

I watched my father sleep, his stomach swelling in the Lazy boy, a bowl of popcorn balanced on top of it. His glasses slipped down to the end of his nose. His mouth hung open like a cave. He had visibly aged since Grandad’s funeral. He looked so much like him now,  completely bald. What was left of his hair wisped around his ears; gray tufts  sprouted out of his ears and wiry black ones from his nose. Brown age spots dotted his hands and skull. Deep lines mapped his face. I looked at my brother snoring softly on the couch, popcorn sprinkling his shirt. His hair had started receding early at the age of twenty, like a small invisible army had marched up his forehead and started clearing it like lumber.  I had always teased him about it but stopped when Lydia pointed out a thinning spot on the back of my head last year.

I pulled out the box of my grandfather’s journals and sat down to read them. They were meticulously cataloged by date. I opened the first one.  1939. Grandad had been around eighteen, right before he had gotten shipped off to the Navy. His handwriting was tight and cramped just like my father’s. It was hard to make out the writing.

This journal documents the life of William Mark Adler the third. I am going to Europe to play fiddle in the Navy.  Today it was cold outside, about 45 degrees. I ate dinner with mother and father. The green beans were very good.

I smiled and turned to the next entry.

Today was even colder. 42 degrees. Nettie birthed a heifer calf last night. Mother made a good stew.

            One after another, I read the entries. They were all the same dry accounts of the mundane. He never said anything personal, revealed any hidden meaning to his life. I started going through my great-grandfather’s journals. They were the same, copies of the same monotony my grandfather chronicled, just in a more faded elegant cursive. Cleared the back field today. William Jr. cleared the ditch. Nettie made a ham. Cold evening. Cut extra wood.  On holidays, like Christmas, he left a brief commentary—It was a good day.

            Was that it? Was that the totality of their lives? Documenting meals and weather changes, the only social commentary—It was a good day? No hidden code buried inside the records of everyday plowing and ditch digging? I scanned through them as if on a mission to find something more, something buried in between the lines of daily activities, of deaths and births, but found nothing, only the occasional commentary—It was a hard time, it was a pleasant evening, it was a good day. I put the last one back in the box and closed it and sat back and watched my father and brother sleeping. Was this all there was then? A gentle passing off of faded DNA, a futile attempt to write yourself into the fabric of time and pray your molecules won’t fade as they are copied and passed down through the genes of your descendants? The only proof you ever existed an obituary cut from a newspaper clipping and taped into the back of a journal—hope that time and mutations of genetic code won’t wear your memory smooth from the mind of generations to come like an ocean on rock?

I thought about the puppy drowning in the plastic bag at the bottom of the pond. How I was too late to save it. I looked at my brother, remembered the feel of holding his face in the dog bowl, making him eat the wet, smelly meat. I could see his defiant chin and wet eyes staring back at me as Dad whipped him.  My stomach tightened, remembering the ugly, hard, sound of my voice when I yelled, Over my dead body!

A movement caught my eye. Lydia was out in the cul-de-sac, patiently helping Adam try to keep his balance on the scooter while Willy zipped around them in circles on his.  My mother snapped pictures.  Lydia…she was always in the background, like a foundation holding us up, a compass guiding our family through the monotony of the everyday.  I think I understood why Lydia loved my grandfather so much. He was soft like her, often overlooked in the loud theater of the Adler family. For the first time I felt the loss of him, somebody I never took the time to know.

Adam fell off his scooter. Lydia walked over to him and brushed him off as he sat on the ground crying. She crouched down. Her belly hung heavy between her legs as she talked to him. He stared at the ground, listening. After a while he looked up at her and wiped his face. She took his hands and pulled him to his feet. He got back on the scooter and pushed off. He tottered for a minute then straightened out and glided down the road. Lydia cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted something encouraging. Adam raised up one fist in the air. He wobbled, almost as if he might crash again, but managed to straighten himself and keep going. I could almost feel the smile on his face.

I looked back at my brother and father, like twins sleeping in their lazy boys with their mouths open. I watched them for awhile and drifted off into a light sleep until Lydia and the others came back inside. They peeled the layers of snow clothes off in the foyer.  I watched Adam tug at his boots, a puddle already forming around them from the melting snow. Lydia bent over and helped him, barely able to reach over her stomach. She stood up and placed her hands over her swollen abdomen and stretched her back. She noticed me looking at her. She looked back and smiled, then bent back down to pick up the clothes Willy and Adam had strewn all over the floor. I watched Adam pull his socks off then put his naked feet into Lydia’s heels she had left by the door. He teetered over to the Christmas tree in them and bent down by my father’s feet and pawed through Lydia’s presents. He found the necklace I had given her for Christmas with his birthstone and his brother’s in it. He looked at me and smiled as he slipped it over his head. I watched him fingering the sparkling stones.  I picked up the new journal my mother had put in the box for me and opened it. I walked over to my Dad and slipped out the pen he always kept in his front shirt pocket. He didn’t stir. I walked back to my seat and poised the pen to write.

Adam wobbled over and looked over my shoulder. “What are you doing, Daddy?” He asked, still holding the stones between his small fingers.

“I’m starting a journal.” I said.

“What’s a journal?” He asked, squinting at the notebook.

“It’s something you write things down in.” I said, putting my hand on the delicate curve of his neck.

“Like what?” He asked, leaning against my shoulder.

“Things that are important. Things you want people to remember.”

“Oh,” he said. “Like where Mommy should put the car keys?” He scrunched his nose up at me, searching my face.

“No, not things like that,” I laughed.  “Things you want others to remember about you. Like what a good kid I think you are.”

He smiled bashfully and looked down at his toes. I pulled him up beside me on the couch. He took off the necklace and held it up and watched it sparkle in the light. I traced the contour of his translucent ears and followed the blue map of veins down his neck with my finger. He giggled and pulled away. I turned back to the open journal in my lap. My father stirred in his chair and woke. He asked my mother to make some coffee. I watched him take his glasses off and lay them on the side table then eat the rest of the popcorn from the bowl on his stomach. I picked up my pen and began.

 December 25thit was a good day.

 

Posted in Parenting, relationships, short stories | Tagged , , , , | 18 Comments

The Composition of Dust

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On Saturdays she stays inside

to wipe away the residue of the work-week

covering every surface of the house like dust.

She scrubs and scours every seam

in between feeding machines

cycles of dirty then clean.

All the while she knows.

In the kitchen

fruit on the counter

is going soft in spots.

Dates threaten to expire.

In the freezer things are beginning to burn.

On Saturdays he stays outside 

in the circumference of the yard,

slicing limbs off bushes and trunks of trees

He hacks back foreign vines 

threatening the fence line. 

Piles their carcasses high on the burn pile.

But all the while he knows 

weeds are sneaking into their beds

unseen insects tunnel underground

searching for holes in the foundation

 to lay their larvae in.
There is no end to the week.

Things left too long untouched

harden and cling to surfaces.

Even soap leaves behind a scum.

At the end of the day he comes back inside.

Pollen particles float from his clothes

and mix and mingle with the everyday

molecules of skin, lint and hair.

Then, for a second in the sunlight

streaming through the open door,

they see the invisible become visible.

filling the house,

   already 

        falling down

           over every clean surface.

 

 

Posted in poetry, relationships, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments