Sing It

Since the beginning of Covid time, four or five days a week we take this walk. And every morning a song visits me, unbidden.  

This morning it’s the theme from “The Odd Couple.” Where did that come from?  Yesterday it was “I Think I’m Going Out of My Head,” which, for sentimental reasons, I was totally okay with. The day before that I was stuck all morning with The Captain and Tenille, “Love Will Keep Us Together,” which was almost more than I could take. 

Human beings, the study of evolution tells us, are unique among creatures in a couple ways. We use fire. We make (and take) pictures. And we make music. Susanne Langer suggests that humans may have been musical even before they became verbal. So those songs, I guess, are coming to me from not just the eighth grade, but also from somewhere old, somewhere deep in my primordial memory.

Also, laughter sets us apart from other creatures. Yes, I know, hyenas. And there are chimps that can be crackpots and seem to have a great sense of humor. But man laughs. He chuckles, chortles, giggles and guffaws, snickers, titters, and horse laughs.  “Laughter is the property of man,” writes Rabelais, echoing Aristotle.

These mornings, when these songs fill my head, I’ve learned to keep them to myself, even when they make me laugh. They give me pleasure, pleasure my wife does not long share when I hum, whistle, or sing the same phrases over and over. A song like “Love Will Keep Us Together” is guaranteed to drive us apart. On Pine Tree Trail, when we pass the house with the Real Estate One sign out front, I inexplicably want to sing “Let yourself go to Real Estate One” to the tune of “Let yourself go to Pizza Hut.” I’m subject to ditties. I think that’s funny. Three days in a row I strike up that tune.

Not today. My wife is not amused.

Smoke Signal

We’re facing east on Lone Pine Road when my wife asks, “Are you going to take a picture?”

I could take a picture, yes. At 7:00 a.m. the sun is rising in the east. At the end of the road, just above the horizon, the sun is sandwiched between two stands of trees. The sun looks like a peeled nectarine, psychedelic pink, brilliant, beautiful. Also definitely and tragically the wrong color. On my social media accounts last night and the night before, were astonished reports: “Wow!” “Amazing!” “You gotta see this!” along with smart phone photos of the sun setting, with its odd, ravishing color.

Red sun at night, something’s not right.

Red sun in the morning, mankind is screwed. 

It feels that way these days, because right now the whole west coast is on fire, and here in the Midwest the smoke has arrived in our upper atmosphere, between 15,000 and 30,000 feet, not a cloud in a sky that should be blue this morning. It’s not. Our sky is airborne-disaster gray, the sun an over-ripe fruit. 

Every morning I take pictures–of trees, berries, leaves, flowers, fungi, of the deer if they let me. I want this picture of the sun, I really do, almost as much as I don’t want it.  We’re not supposed to see a sun that looks like this. It’s not natural.

28065 Nights, a review

Sometimes I look down at my hands and I see yours kneading the dough. I would choose this if I had a choice.

The prose poems in Kate Manning’s collection, 28065 Nights, written for her deceased grandmother, Wanda Faye Henson, are rich and evocative snapshots. The title refers to how much love accumulates in 76 years on this earth. How much love? A whole lot. 

Titles are invitations. Scan the table of contents in this collection–“Your Death Explained in Birds,” “How to Use Vanilla,” “How I Measure Your Body,” “I Haven’t Eaten Fried Bologna Since You Died,” “I Sniff Your Socks,” “I Wore Your Pink Shirt Today”–and you’ll want to dive in.

In “I Was Afraid It Would Be Empty” Manning describes a notebook she gave her grandmother as a Mother’s Day gift, with a request that she write about her life, so that the stories of her grandmother’s youth, which Manning had heard recited, could be captured and collected. Finding the notebook after her grandmother’s death, Manning observes that it was blank, that “the first page was torn away.” And so begins, in real time, the task of writing down the stories her grandmother could not find the words for.

Some of the stories are funny, like how her granny’s panties saved her; some difficult, like the memory of a lost baby and Manning’s realization that she never asked her grandmother the baby’s name (Thomas Anthony). Throughout there are references to objects charged with meaning and her grandmother’s body of work. “Your body of work is other people’s bodies: children who made children who are still making more children. You built these bodies with bread and beans…your body replicates itself in brand new bodies–your nose, your feet, your rogue blond head in a family of brown.”

The theme of how one life echoes another plays out. Also the theme of renewal. Manning holds a newborn nephew at her grandmother’s funeral, “my body swaying to keep from falling, his body so small and so new.” These are loving acts, loving words. Reader, you will be touched.    

Published by River Glass Books.

Tender Cuts, a review

In “Tender Cuts,” the title story in Jayne Martin’s collection of flash fiction, a little girl dressed for her first beauty pageant awaits her moment to shine. It’s the Little Miss Soybean Pageant. Her mother is keen on her performance, more so than the daughter, Julie Sue, who feels the pressure to perform, knowing she will have to raise her skirt and show some flesh to win a little prize money the family needs. When the music starts, “Mama pushes her onto the stage.”

These thirty-eight short pieces find children and adults, both men and women, at precarious, resonant moments, on the threshold of pain or already deep in it. In “All Hallows’ Eve” a homeless girl makes rounds with all the begging children; it’s the one day when she’s like any other child. In “The New Kid” a bullied fifth grader who stutters puts his hand on a gun. In “Zero Tolerance” the reader is given a glimpse of a detention center, where a child’s flight and degradation are quickly captured: “His body is still not found by the time we must flee” (father), “Ramon gives himself up to the del Cartel de Juárez so that mama and me may pass (brother), and “at the border, they tell Mama they are taking me for a bath.”  These are cuts, all right. Many of them not so tender.

In a few paragraphs Martin captures the exhaustion, hopelessness, and terror of ordinary life. There is mordant humor, titles that invite–”I Married a 1985 Buick LeSabre,” “A Lobster Walks into a Laundramatt,”–as these stories shift from first to third person point of view, from the lives of children to adults. 

Framing the collection, in three pieces Julie Sue and her family grow older, and, of course, things fall apart. “Final Cut,” the last story, begins, “The odor of charred wood hangs in the air as I pick through the remains of the garage. Most of this stuff had been Julie Sue’s.” Told from the point of view of Julie Sue’s daughter, who is now an adult, the story takes us into her mother’s chaotic world, a woman suffocating in domestic life who would walk into the woods and disappear for hours. Part of Martin’s gift is the ability to transport the reader in a few carefully chosen details–these stories are brief and incredibly tight. Another part is her taking us to revelatory conclusion, which usually detonates, as is the case in this story.  

I read and re-read these stories, loved them for their craft and for their life. 

Tender Cuts is published by Vine Leaves Press

Let There Be Beans

My wife and I are beanophiles, pure and simple.  And could there be a food more pure and simple?

Time was, I bought navy beans at Kroger, plastic sacks of old dry beans grown who knows where and who knows how long ago.  I soaked them, and they woke up from their long sleep, and we made beautiful music together (that is probably not the expression I should use).  They were very okay.

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You Gotta Have Peas

No one is neutral on peas.

In England for a conference a few decades ago I was taken to dinner by a local guy who ordered something the English like to eat. It came with a side of mushy peas (mushy rhymes with bushy). To the eye the peas looked like they had been cooked 2-3 hours, then stored away to languish in  cans for 2-3 decades. They were the color of bile, more texture than taste. 

Aside from a few summers I was sent out to the garden to pick peas, and unpodded them and ate them on the spot, I do not have warm memories of peas.

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The Missing Girl, a review

Jacqueline Doyle’s collection of stories The Missing Girl is beautifully written. And it is, in its own way, a harrowing look at what happens to girls–girls who go missing, girls who become women, girls who become women and are haunted by their memories of what happened, or what might have happened to them, when they were girls.

There is in many of the stories in this short collection an air of inevitability. The boys and men are predators. They are treacherous, they are duplicitous. The women, most of them just girls, have unstable identities, with names like Eula, and Early (“I just bet the boys have called you pretty, Early”), and Molly (who plans to change her name because “she has bigger things in mind”), and Nola (who prefers names associated with gemstones, like Sapphire, Ruby, Topaz, and Amber). These women will be brutalized by boys and men, and will have to reckon with the consequences, if they live to do so. Violence will happen. Like Beryl in “You Never Know,” they live close to danger, in the vicinity of disaster.

Along with inevitability, there is an air of uncertainty in many of these stories.  What really happened? Who did what? Who said what? Is that what he–or I–really said?  In “Hula,” the narrator, named Lucy, tries to sort out what actually happened in a bar in Hawaii.  “He says his name is Philip and he tells you he’s from New Jersey.” That’s what he says, but is it really true? He says he likes 25-year-old blondes. “Already you’re grossed out, thinking it’s loud in the bar, maybe that’s not what he said.” And later, when he says something infantile and coarse, “you think he says [that], but you must have misheard him.”  When she tells him her name, she’s not sure he’s heard. Lucy. Nothing is lucid, or clear, in these stories where men and girls smash together. Nothing except the cost, in unspeakable hurt.  

Eight stories, four from the female characters’ point of view, three from the male point of view, one that’s a combination. Doyle has an unfailing ear for these characters’ voices, for their yearning (“she was used to wanting things she knew she wasn’t going to get”), for their stumbling toward violence (“once you start lying you don’t know what’s going to come out”).  

This is flash fiction at is best, not a wasted word or extraneous detail. These are stories that will leave a mark.         

Do Not Go Fractured

At the edge of our driveway, next to the rosemary bush in our herb garden, is a flat rock, suitable for sitting on. We call it Aunt Fran’s rock, named for a dear soul who used to perch on it when she looked after our three-year-old son.

I was sitting on that rock a few days ago when our six-year-old grandson started showing off his hoverboard. It’s essentially an axle you stand on, powered by an electric motor with a rechargeable battery. Next to each wheel is a flat pad where you position your feet. A couple green lights blink when the device powers up. It emits a series of friendly, robot-y beeps. 

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