Posted by: mgeisser | January 22, 2015

TO THE EAST

To the East

We took it as auspicious that our friends, Cindy and Spots, came down with the flu when we headed to their home in Virginia for a pre-vacation visit and to drop our Westy, Kosmo, with them and their herd of female dogs (Kosmo’s harem). Instead, Cindy came to the Quality Inn in Front Royal, VA, where we had spent the night, to pick up Kosmo. Spotswood drove us to Reagan International where we arrived with time enough to have a cardboard breakfast and hit the bathrooms.

The flight to Houston was uneventful, although Anna and I were both tense realizing we had just left our home for ten weeks to visit lands we had never been to.

We arrived at George W. Bush airport in Houston on time. I wish they had named it something else. All I could think about was how much that man had cost America in lives, treasure, and moral capital. After watching the shoeshine boy polish the cowboy boots of Stetson-wearing cowpokes for two hours, we boarded Singapore Airlines flight 61 for Singapore, via Moscow. As the Boeing 777ER lifted off for a ten and a half hour leg to Moscow, our hearts were full of expectation of all the memories we would be building, and the renewal of our friendships with people we haven’t seen for way too long. An hour into the flight, all settled in and having figured out all the buttons on our armrests, the captain came on the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, due to a mistake by the baggage crew, we are carrying luggage for a passenger who did not board the aircraft. We are now returning to Houston. Sorry.” The cabin stewards, young Asian women in tailored sarongs, were quite apologetic. One whom I engaged in conversation said that whoever had made the mistake with the luggage would be “chopped.” We wondered what that meant; nothing good we assumed.

Four hours later, having never left the plane, plied with endless champagne and munchies, we were on our way again to Moscow. We were flying business class and had seats that folded down into beds, although ‘bed’ is not quite the correct word—more like a rail-thin space that you slipped down into. But, with some practice, sleeping was possible without attendant aches and pains. The cabin crew was solicitous to the point of being too helpful. The food was quite good; my favorite was the shrimp with greens covered with a balsamic drizzle. The dessert I came to enjoy was vanilla ice cream with raspberry sauce and chocolate bits sprinkled on top. I had two after my dinner of steak, mashed potatoes and asparagus.

We were excited about our stop in Moscow, as the Kremlin had been making mischief lately and the Russian economy was reportedly collapsing. Upon arrival, we left the plane for the duration of the two-hour layover for refueling and provisioning, and found the airport to be worn and the service people surly and unmotivated. I bit my tongue against the urge to engage someone in a discussion about Vladimir Putin and how he has brought the Russian state toward ruin. We looked for something photogenic to snap, and finally settled on photos of the inventory of a nested doll kiosk. We were happy to board the plane for another ten and a half hour flight to Singapore.

Two movies, both of whose titles I have forgotten, kept the trip short and we arrived in Singapore Airport four hours later than scheduled, due to the luggage issue after Houston. On the way to get our bags at the carousel, we stopped often to admire the architecture and art installations that were ubiquitous. Overall, Singapore Airport presented a stunning tableau to introduce us to Asia. While waiting at the baggage carousal, our good friend Rich yelled to get our attention and we knew that all was well with our trip to this point.

By the numbers: thirteen time zones, 36 hours taking off in DC to landing in Singapore (28 hours in the air), twelve meals, and two happy but tired travelers.

The following photos were taken from the web, as we were too laden with travel gear to get to our cameras. These photos, however, don’t do justice to the incredible beauty of the inside of the Singapore International Airport.

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Posted by: mgeisser | June 20, 2014

A-1’s Son: Part 1, Chapter 1

PART ONE

CHAPTER 1

She could be dead, mused one of the bystanders who was watching Josie Barnes. She was sitting alone at a rickety table in Styx, a dark, smoky waterfront bar in Boxwood. The ancient watering hole was attached like a barnacle to the largest fish market on Holystone Island, whose smells trumped those of sweat and stale beer in the soupy air of the bar. Josie’s eyes were closed, her lithe body still as granite, head blessed by fine blond hair—almost white. The high cheekbones on her chiseled Nordic face seemed to be frozen with ennui. The onlooker knew she was alive, in a dream state. He wondered what world she was in, if he would ever be invited in. Many men there that night pondered the same.

Josie was the final female born on the island, fifty-two years ago, five years before the Quarantine was imposed. When she was young, she thought that her primacy was something to be proud of. She contemplated this infrequently now, but when she did, she became morose and picked at the small mole under her left eye, the one her husband used to kiss on the way to her plush lips on the nights they made love.

She was lost reliving a moment with her late husband, before the explosion removed him from the living: they were holding each other in bed, laughing—he had brought her flowers that had triggered an allergy attack in her. When she struggled to grasp the scene, it slipped away like a greased pig. She was not surprised; lately, all her memories fought to avoid being captured. Eight years, she thought: how much she had done, or hadn’t done, since then, how many opportunities had she missed to recapture a fulfilled life? She opened her eyes, looked at her hands; they looked fleshy and dry to her now, unlike when she rubbed his back after he returned from a day at the factory. He said they were like velvet, she remembered, hands that he would desperately cling to when they walked to their spot overlooking the sea on Sunday afternoons.

She once thought that being one of the four remaining available women in Boxwood would be a ticket to replacement love. She wondered why this had not happened, speculated that she was no longer pretty enough, or sexy enough, or . . . She picked up her glass and drained the whisky and ginger into her slumped torso.

She remembered when men would watch her strut, covet her lithe legs, her ethereal Nordic coloring. Suitors had said she looked like a spirit, a goddess, that her hair seemed to float around her head as fog hugs the ground. How many years ago was that, she wondered? How long since she had felt selfish wonder about herself?

Josie looked around to see if anyone was watching her. She caught two men staring; they coughed in embarrassment, looked away when her eyes hardened. She smiled with an underlying sadness as she returned to her drink. Those men weren’t anyone she wanted to share her table with.
Of the hundred or so patrons, only a dozen were women, and only two, including Josie, were unmarried. A ten-foot radius of clear space surrounded each of these single women. A visitor to the island might conclude that these two women were contaminated or had been ostracized from the community; this was the Safe Zone mandated by the Holystone Council—part of the Women’s Protection Act—enacted to blunt the unrelenting barrage of attention that the few unwed women were suffering under from the legions of single men on the island.

* * *

Ambrose Winslow sidled up to the threshold of Styx for the first time in fifteen years, felt the carpet of cigarette butts that had missed the can by the door squish under his work boots. The heavy door growled like a wolf when he pulled it open. He saw that the floor inside was shifting riotously, a festival of shadows in full celebration. Ambrose knew that he would have to step on some of those shadows if he entered; he didn’t like to tread on shadows if he could help it—one never knew what they would do in retaliation. His ribs grabbed his heart; he stepped in. Without looking down—he didn’t want to see what he was doing to the shadows; wanted to be able to claim his innocence by reason of ignorance if he made a horrendous transgression—he stravaged in the general direction of the bar, carried his forty-four-year-old body as if it held a great weight inside. For the past ten years, he had been regular at another bar in Boxwood, searching to find a way to live with the tragedy of a wife and only son who had died in childbirth. Tonight, he decided to return to Styx, could no longer bear the feeling of repulsion when he sat in his regular spot at the old bar, imagined mold would begin to consume him if he didn’t escape, thought the change of bars might lead him back to the man he once was, although he was not sure anymore whom he had been: faded memories of being a husband and almost a father portrayed a person that Ambrose no longer recognized.

Three male couples were sitting at a long table in the middle of Styx; one of the couples was kissing. The group laughed when one of the men kissing accidently knocked a beer onto his lover’s lap. Ambrose recognized the one who spilled the drink; he was the captain of a dragger that worked the shoals near Boxwood for flounder. Ambrose sidled over, bent down, kissed the man on the cheek; the man leaned his head against Ambrose’s hip in a show of affection.

“How have you been,” Ambrose said. He rubbed the man’s shoulder.

“Good. But I miss you, A-1. Sit down. Join us,” the man said.

Ambrose shuffled his feet. “Not tonight . . . Maybe another time.”

The man said, “I understand . . . Thanks for stopping.”

Ambrose walked away, meandered aimlessly toward where Josie was sitting. He laughed inside, saw his dead father bloviating from the grave against the overt homosexuality that was now common on Holystone Island. Ambrose began to construct the arguments that he would use to counter his father’s pique: that most straight men regarded homosexuality as reducing the number of competitors for the few single women remaining, that single women considered homosexual men as those who wouldn’t pester them for favors. It was a new world, concluded Ambrose: each year, as the ranks of available women got thinner, more straight men entered homosexual relationships to end their loneliness—or committed suicide. Ambrose shivered at this final thought; he had fought off self-annihilation many times since he lost his wife and son, and himself. The vinegary, metallic bile rose to his tongue. He looked at the floor to try to find a distraction; the shadows were faint here, undefined, offered him no path away from his unease. The only solution, one he had become familiar with, was to move into another light, another air, another reality.

Josie watched Ambrose drift in her direction. He seemed distantly familiar to her, as if she had met him years ago or had once seen his picture in the newspaper. She liked tall men and he was taller than most, but not tall enough to be the object of stares. His trim, solid frame carried a heavy head with curly, electric red hair, a bold, hooked nose on a wind-burned face. He reminded Josie of an old carpenter’s hammer: hard, worn, sturdy. Maybe, she thought, he was new to the town, came from another village to the south.

Ambrose stood behind a chair near the edge of Josie’s safety zone, his feet apart as if fighting a gale, one hand on a column fashioned years ago from the bottom of an old mast. His other hand held a triple whiskey, straight. He was staring into the glass, tipping it back and forth slowly as if following the beat of storm surf, watching the amber waves oozing down the inside of the glass, imagining his son as if he had lived beyond one hour, had grown to be a ten-year-old companion. “See that man in the corner bragging about his fishing prowess?” Ambrose whispered to his son, whom Ambrose imagined hung by his side, in awe of the scene inside Styx. “Don’t ever judge a man by what he says. It’s what he does that counts, son. And, see that man over there, the one with the big cigar and fancy boots? He’s a phony. Wouldn’t need to show off like that if he had something to give the world. Remember those lessons son. Come on. Let’s get you a root beer and find a table.” Ambrose reached out to take his son’s hand for their trip to the bar, grabbed air, thought for a moment that his son had wandered away. When Ambrose turned to find him, a metallic-blue bottle fly careened into Ambrose’s ear. Startled from his fugue, he glanced around to see if anyone had seen him talking to himself, his move to grab a phantom hand. He caught Josie turning her eyes away, shook his head as if trying to clear it of debris, took a deep breath. When the whitecaps inside his gut had stilled, he took another draw on his whiskey, turned his gaze to Josie. She looks tired, Ambrose thought, but quite beautiful, ethereal, like a photograph left in the sun. He wondered what it would be like to kiss her, make love to her, feel her white, almost translucent skin on his lips. Ambrose smiled when he imagined her skin melting like sugar under his moist lips. He was distracted from exploring Josie’s body further by the memory of his wife laughing as he nibbled the jade earing on her left ear. The right ear was unadorned: she only wore one earing because she wanted others to see her natural side. Ambrose realized that his image of her was losing its definition, its flesh. His head slumped onto his shoulders. He took another swig of his drink. His neck muscles retightened when he concluded that he would never again have the family life he had had, the family life that his parents had lived, that the generations of Winslows going back into time had had. The Quarantine. “Shit luck,” he whispered to the air.

Josie felt a pulse fire through her when she caught Ambrose’s deep-set, hazel eyes looking at her—that electric feeling: something within her had calculated that he was a potential lover. What caused it? she wondered. His eyes, the same color as her departed husband’s? The way this newcomer moved, like he was lost but not scared to be somewhere new? Who cares, she concluded. The trigger had been pulled; that was enough. Josie took a heavy swig of her drink, gathered her resolve, thought about what her first words to him would be.

Ambrose glanced at her. Their eyes locked; he didn’t look away as most men on the island would from their embarrassment at being reduced to beggars for female affection.

While Josie was still considering how to open a conversation with this newcomer, she blurted out, “Care to take a seat?” as if her mouth had a mind of its own. Her face turned red.

At first, Ambrose thought she was talking to someone behind him; he turned to see an empty corner. In shock, he took a step toward her, thought that maybe this was a trap, asked, “Can I enter your zone?” in a loud voice that startled him.

Josie gave an exasperated exhale, said, “Permission granted.” She knew that the zone of safety was enforced to ensure some peace of mind in her life, but at a cost. She saw her now-deceased husband strolling across the parking lot at a clambake twenty years ago—they had never met before then—putting his arm around her waist, boldly telling her he wanted to marry her. There was no zone of safety then to stop his advances, to dull his ardor, deflate his pride. Her daydream grew dark as coal when the vision of his dead body entered upon the stage of her consciousness, the body that had been torn apart in an explosion at the fish packing plant. She felt again the heavy weight of the terror that filled her as she cowered for months in her shadowy bedroom, saved only by her belief that she was in a nightmare that would end with her husband’s morning kiss. She remembered his kiss: such warmth, such gentle faith that she would respond to his lips. Another world. She sighed.

Ambrose sat down in the chair across from Josie; the nearby standees became quiet, leaned toward the couple, almost imperceptibly. Ambrose’s narrow lips remained comfortably pursed as if they were used to holding words in. He leaned back in his chair. The sleeves on his green, plaid shirt were rolled up; he had massive, calloused hands.

Josie’s sky-blue eyes gazed onto Ambrose’s laconic face. “I’m Josie. New to Styx?” she said, still unsure of whether she had met or seen him before. She thought about extending her hand, pulled back on the impulse, which surprised her.

“Yes.” He lighted a cigarette, blew a rope of smoke to the ceiling, pushed the pack across the table to her. Ambrose knew that he could be fined if he overstepped his bounds, but he was tired.

“No thanks,” Josie said, surprised at his comfort with her. “Fisherman?”

“No,” Ambrose said, took another drag, flicked the ash on the floor. “Barge pilot. The Silent Lady. Out of Washeroot Marina.”

“Should have named it the Silent Man,” she said with an unsure chuckle.

He didn’t smile.

“Don’t you worry I’ll choke on the flurry of information you just threw at me?” Josie said, hoping this humorous parry would break through. Odd one, she thought. A bothersome shiver ran through her.

Ambrose cleared his throat. “Sorry. Not used to talking. Spend my days thinking, not talking.”

“Well, what are you thinking about now?” Josie said. She leaned toward him, waited for his answer. Several of the nearby men who were listening-in stirred.

Ambrose thought for a minute, remembered how he could always tell his wife what he was thinking, never regretted doing so. “I’m thinking that you are beautiful. Mind if I hold your hand?” Ambrose took it without waiting for an answer. Josie could claim a major violation of the Women’s Protection Act; some men in the crowd gasped. He gave the skin on the back of her hand a short caress, held on, was surprised when a space opened up inside him to hold the sensation of her hand.

Josie wanted to feel his rough skin continue across her hand, over her wrist, up her forearm . . . Her incredulity at his nerve overcame her desires; she yanked her arm away. Josie saw how his forearm muscles bulged when he reacted to her pulling free, how those muscles formed sharp creases on his tanned, freckled skin, how his red arm hairs put some of those creases into shadow under their bronze flickers. She wondered what type of lover he would be. With the ratio on the island now better than ten single men to each available woman, she believed she could have him any time she wanted. So far, no man had broken through the thick memories of her beloved husband for more than a night: how he used to make her coffee each morning, put a little heart-shaped cookie beside the cup when he brought it to her in bed; how he would often crawl in with her, take her to new places with his hands, his iron body. She fantasized bathing again in his heat, the release of the week’s tensions through him, tensions that now drove her here, to Styx, its whiskey. She took a deep breath, tossed down the rest of her drink.

Ambrose was silent, finished his whiskey.

Josie looked at him. “Time for another?

Ambrose pondered his glass, thought that he heard a young boy calling his name, realized how tired he was.

“Not tonight,” he said, grabbed his coat and left.

Josie tensed in her chair, heard the murmurs of the men who watched Ambrose leave. They leaned closer, hopeful. “Who wants to buy me a drink?” she said while looking at the chair Ambrose had vacated.

Ambrose stumbled across the street and sat on the seawall, facing the slowly pulsing sea, cigarette hanging between his legs to hide it from the languid breeze. He was stunned at how many of his memories had been stirred up by Josie, kicked the wall with the heel of his work boot to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. He gazed out to sea in the direction of the mainland, thought he saw a faint light twinkle in the distance, dropped his chin to his chest as if defeated, thought of Josie’s hand, shifted his legs to allow him to gaze back at the bar. After a minute, he said, “Nope,” into the night air, jumped off the wall and headed home. In bed, he tossed and turned, felt he had made some huge mistake that night, was unable to parse what. He took comfort when the familiar wave of discomfort from being alone in bed washed over him.

Posted by: mgeisser | June 20, 2014

A novel in process – Working Title: A-1’s Son

PROLOGUE

The town of Boxwood hugged the northeasterly coast of Holystone Island, extended from the craggy, gray slate at the sea’s edge, to the beginning of the thin-soiled flatlands that were forced to grow potatoes and wheat and oats. The streets were empty in the middle of a summer weekday, strangely quiet for a town of thirty thousand souls. The only sound in the center of this seafaring locale, the main town of the island, was the relentless thrum of the surf jostling with the murmuring wind. A worn, wooden skiff that a fisherman had been repainting blood-red lay up on shopworn sawhorses in the hot sun, unfinished, the crusted brush resting in a can of linseed oil; its owner, the mayor of Boxwood, absent. The usual cohort of coffee drinkers in front of the general store was missing, the rust-speckled wrought iron tables and chairs on the porch empty, except for some thick, white mugs that still held dregs and brown lip marks. Brick-red dust, which usually blew everywhere from the traffic in the streets, now a quiet, faint layer sleeping on everything.

On the western edge of town, a large group of men and women congregated near the entrance to the dilapidated, cedar-shaked public auditorium. Several school-aged children were present; toddlers and babies were conspicuously absent. Two men who had come from the southern tip of Holystone Island, some eighty miles away, jabbed their cigarettes at each other; angrily agreeing that they wouldn’t stand for what they had heard was coming. Their work boots dug into the carmine dirt as they turned to enter the building, which was shivering from the commotion inside.
The hall was full of residents from throughout Holystone Island, an isle of about sixty thousand souls, some saved, some damned, some not yet branded by fate. Those from each of the three, main towns on Holystone Island knew their neighbors, if not by name, by sight; if not by sight, by reputation. Farmers were there alone; their children and wives stayed home to husband the animals and tend to the crops. None of the farmers knew anyone but a few neighbors from the brown, grass covered plains where they eked out a living. When they met, big men in galoshes grasping the hardened hands of smaller men in overalls, backslapping soon turned to angry talk about the rumors that had reached them in the fields.

Mothers held their children close while speaking with others. Only a few men wore dress clothes; Holystone Island was a working place, the home of seafarers and farmers, their families, and those who supported them. A smattering of tourists from the mainland, in colorful shorts, sunburned legs, stood by the door, worrying amongst themselves about when they would be able to return home. Tobacco smoke lazed in blue layers, hiding the wood-framed ceiling and giving the hall a cavernous, underground feeling. The smells of fish and sweat stewed with the smoke.

The Commissioner, a desiccated, local lawyer representing the International High Commission, slinked to the podium and adjusted the microphone to meet his short stature. As his dainty hands bent the gooseneck down to mouth level, he glanced out through thick eyeglasses, thin lips pursed and dry. Above the smoke, he saw a field of signs on poles that hovered menacingly over a sea of angry faces. The tallest signs, block letters on white signboard, proclaimed ‘Quarantine = Death to Islanders.’ Others, handmade from flimsy tan, box cardboard, trumpeted ‘Islanders Aren’t a Disease.’ A smattering of short, lime green signs ringed the crowd as if an afterthought, ‘No Quarantine’ scribbled on them in black marker.

The Commissioner swallowed hard. When he pulled a white sheet of paper from the inside pocket of his gray, wool suit jacket—highly inappropriate for the summer season, obviously worn as armor against the crowd—the din increased. Some voices were furious, flung personal attacks at him, called him a traitor. The threats unnerved him; the paper fell from his hand. He watched it flutter to his feet. When he bent down behind the podium to pick it up, some in the crowd, thinking he may have succumbed to their assault, fled, roared a victory cry, pressed toward the stage. When he rose back to his position at the microphone, the surge quelled. He placed the paper on the podium, cleared his throat. With a furtive glance out to the attendees, many of whom he recognized—he struggled to avoid eye contact with those—he shuffled his feet into a defensive position, began to read.

“As you all know, the International High Commission has been in consultation these past six months with representatives of the various nations of the world, which includes the governments responsible for the wellbeing of over 90% of the inhabitants of our planet. The purpose of these meetings has been to decide what, if any, action should be taken to counteract the problem here on Holystone Island.” Someone near the dais shouted, “We are not a problem!” The crowd roared its concurrence. The Commissioner, after using the interruption to gulp some water and take a deep breath, continued, his schoolgirl voice cracking at times, “As you know, the last birth of a female on Holystone Island occurred just over five years ago. The International High Commission has studied the problem and recently confirmed that it is caused by a virus of unknown origin that, unfortunately, the islanders now carry. Unless a cure is found to eradicate this virus, the population of Holystone Island will plummet to zero within less than one hundred years.” A female voice yelled, “You’re gonna make it a hundred years of hell!” A small, brown bag broke across the front of the podium, speckled the Commissioner’s arm and his paper with putrid, chicken feces. He took a moment to try to control the deep shiver that had taken over his legs. “All of this is common knowledge. As a measure to protect the rest of the world from contracting whatever the residents of Holystone Island are suffering under, which could very well lead to the extinction of the human species on our planet, the International High Commission has determined that it is justified to immediately implement a strict quarantine of Holystone Island.” The crowd erupted into a frenzy of boos and epithets. A flurry of pint whiskey bottles and small stones showered the Commissioner, who ducked behind the lectern until the barrage ceased. He rose, wiped his pink forehead with his suit jacket sleeve, which left a glistening, dark smudge on the soft wool. “Therefore, effective immediately, all physical contact between humans on Holystone Island, and humans of the mainland is hereby prohibited until such time as a cure is found or devised.” Someone shouted, “You’re turning our island into a prison!” The crowd began to press against the stage. Not wanting to lose his momentum, the Commissioner continued. “As a first measure, a permanent line of fast attack boats is, as I speak, ringing the island to stop anyone from leaving Holystone Island.” The crowd gasped, became silent. “The International High Commission will take further measures as needed to protect the inhabitants of the rest of the world.” He stopped to gather his breath. “Let there be no mistake, any action taken by the International High Commission has and will continue to take into the account the health and welfare of the residents of Holystone Island.” A chorus of derisive laughter arose, almost drowning out the Commissioner’s final words. Several young voices shouted, “The High Commission is a farce.” The crowd pushed against the stage, causing the flimsy structure to wobble, shook their fists, began shouting threats. The Commissioner, realizing that the throng wouldn’t stay confined to the floor much longer, sped up his delivery. “I know that these orders by the International High Commission will undoubtedly lead to hardships and, more importantly, heartaches for the island’s residents.” He saw the furor building at his feet, heard the roar begin to mount, raced to the finish. “However, the safety of the world is at stake, and drastic measures are called for. Thank you for your interest in the work of the International High Commission, and may God save the people of Holystone Island.” The crowd rushed the stage. Several persons yelled, “Get him!” as the Commissioner ducked behind a curtain and was gone.

Posted by: mgeisser | May 28, 2014

THE MOMENT

A successful writer knows that each moment in a story has the potential for an infinite number of stories to follow from that point. This can be both terrifying and liberating.

Posted by: mgeisser | February 18, 2012

RETURN

It has been forty years since I trod this ground. I look up and see trees I once knew, then down at the pine straw that my feet are scuffing into little piles, inhaling the scents of pine pitch and the musty humus. Through the branches, I see glimpses of the old house, a glorified cabin really, and slow my pace. It has been our family retreat since 1946, when my grandfather and his ‘boys,’ newly returned from the war—“God protected them,” my grandmother always said in her stern voice—built the house on a derelict colonial foundation deep in the woods of Northern Rhode Island. My father once told me that they cut and milled the wood themselves from pine trees on the property. I wonder if any of them wrote a message on one of the boards for posterity, or dropped a coin into a wall as it was closed. The property is rarely visited now; my family is scattered and too busy to make the trip.
As I approach the clearing around the house, I see the grassy spot where my grandmother used to plop me into a large galvanized tub filled with cool well water up to my belly button. This was my swimming hole on those sizzling, August days. I don’t have any memory of what I did in that tub. I wonder why and then realize that it was not a place to do, just a place to be: to feel the sun warm my white, fat toddler body.
I remember the grass around the house as emerald green, sweet and cottony soft on my tender soles, like the blankets in my crib. The lawn looks coarser and browner now, with little tufts of gray thatch poking through, and many medallions of weeds.
I pat the old cedar tree next to the tub spot. Its branches reached to the sky back then, cast a safe-harbor shadow onto the grass next to my tub that promised to protect me when the sun got high and strong. When my grandmother, the boss of the family, decided that it was time, my grandfather, the rock of the family, would ease my tub into that haven with me in it with his giant hands. I smile as I see myself giggling, and slapping the waves that were sloshing around me. The tree doesn’t look so tall now. It is tired and strained. More clumps of its greenery have brown in them than I remember, and its trunk seems grayer, its muscles less pronounced.
I wander over to the dug well that reaches down into the arteries of the earth. The ‘boys’ and my grandfather found it caved in, a relic of the last resident on this land. My father once proudly told me how he singlehandedly removed the boulders clogging it, and used them to rebuild the shaft to its original shape. I search in vain for the blueberry bush that grew next to the well, the one that made me feel like a pioneer when I gorged on its perfect fruit. I put my hand on the well cover, which I remember as an expansive, neat concrete disk, comforting in its strength and hardness amidst a forest I then saw as chaotic and mysterious. The cover now seems small and softer, mottled and pitted from the relentless attacks of weather and pollen, burdened with patches of moss and lichens.
I look at the pitcher pump sprouting out of the center of the well cover and notice a small patch of forest green paint surviving at its base. I remember how the first thing my grandfather would do in the Spring was to repaint the pump with that lush green paint, to hide the rust that had broken through during the winter, return it to its ‘proper’ condition. I see myself as a young boy, struggling to work the pump’s brawny handle that was almost as long as me, using all my weight to move it. I want to hear the squeals of the rusty parts rubbing against each other again, to command the stream again. I grab it and pull down with a heave, but it is rusted frozen.
My brow is now covered with beads of sweat. I pull a water bottle from my belt pouch and unscrew its plastic cap. The container feels out of place in my hand here, too shiny, too contrived. I take a swig of the water. It is flat and tasteless, no sign of the robust tangy, minerals of the well water I am imagining. I begin a slow walk toward the house.

Posted by: mgeisser | February 18, 2012

INSEPARABLE

I see the wire and I glide in and land like Fred Astaire. My mourning dove claws grasp onto the wire and I instinctively balance and face into the wind. We birds always face into the wind, ready to fly away at the slightest flick of strange noise or image, one that is not programed as ‘friendly.’ He lands next to me; he always follows me wherever I go. He is my mate, which means we are tied together for life. It also means that I can’t play with other mourning doves, the younger ones with the new plumage and the strong legs. My mate has given me seven clutches of hungry mouths since we decided to mate, a decision that I think I made when I saw his dance and puffed up chest, although in some deep place I think the decision was made for me. Each time he jumps onto me in the Spring, when everything is renewing itself, I want to say, “Stop. I want to just soar for a while. Eat bugs and berries without having to depend on you for what I eat.” When he brings back food to our chicks and me, I don’t get to choose what I get; sometimes it is a damaged berry and I think that he has eaten all the best ones, and I get angry. I adjust my feet and then jump into the sky, begin to flap my wings, and head to what I believe is a better vantage, one where I can watch the waves and think of what I might have become without him. He struts and jumps into the air right after me, driven by some chemical signal to stay near. I land in a soft clump of leaves on the roof of a house and he lands right behind me. Then, to my intense consternation, he waddles over in that signature mourning dove strut, and slides onto my back. He is heavy but I like it, the feeling of closeness, the dominance of him. He wiggles and I feel him enter me. I freeze—I don’t know why, but I must—and let him continue until he shudders and becomes quiet. It is then that I want him off, wish to be alone for a while. When I move, he falls off and I sidle to the left and become quiet and sluggish, sleepy. He doesn’t move and I wonder if he is dead. A sharp sound, probably one made by the two-legged groundlings or one of their contraptions, flushes us out of our dozing spot, and I bolt for cover at another spot. He is following me again.

Posted by: mgeisser | December 8, 2011

CHILD BOMBER

I let go of the rusty chains and jump off the playground swing, yelling “Bombs over Tokyo!” and begin my flight. I draw the words out to fill the few seconds in the air perfectly.
My father sent me out to play. If he calls for me, I can hear him from here at the school playground, and I can’t get lost going home from here.
I don’t know where Tokyo is on a map, or even Japan, or any other country besides the United States. I just know that Tokyo is where my father said the enemies lived, the ones that he fought in the war. The word ‘Tokyo’ sounds exotic to me, like the name of a dark nation on another planet in another galaxy, a place certainly deserving of my bombing. My mouth feels good saying “Tokyo.” When I say it loud and drag out the ending, like Toe-key-oooooooo, I can feel my words echo off the brick walls of the school next door to the playground. This makes me feel that my bombs are powerful.
I see bombs exploding noiselessly on Tokyo in the black-and-white documentary newsreels I watch with my mother and father at the Gilbert Stuart Theater every Saturday morning. My father wants me to see them so I will know about war, but he doesn’t want to talk about what we see after it’s over. I sit spellbound as bombs send dirt, branches, and fragments of guns and trucks and buildings into the air. From seeing the fireworks on the Fourth of July, I know bombs make a noise that hurts my ears and shocks my insides when they explode.
It is all a game of tag—find the enemy and bomb them and win. I don’t know that the ‘enemy’ is comprised of dads and moms like mine, and kids like me. Or that bombs shred legs and heads and eyes, and leave blood and other gooey body parts on walls and in the dirt, and even on other people. I don’t know that bombs can kill or make some people live in so much pain that they wish they were dead.
I pull myself up onto the hard wooden seat of the cockpit for another bombing run, wiggling into position and clamping my hands onto the chains. I am happy being in the sun, without adults nearby, although they are within shouting distance if I need them.
I pump my legs to gain height, feeling like a bird that is about to take off on a long journey to Tokyo. I don’t know that my father had helped liberate a camp in Burma where he wished he could fly over the bodies he had to step on to rescue the almost dead. I heard my mother tell her sister about it on the phone. I don’t think he has ever spoken a word of it to anyone but my mother. When I heard my best friend’s dad ask him about it, my father said, “Another time,” and turned and walked away.
I approach the highest point of my swing, thinking I could touch the sun with just one more pump of my legs. I feel like a king about to create nightmares for my kingdom’s enemies. My father has nightmares. I hear him scream terribly some nights, like the sounds a wolf makes when being attacked by a bear on TV shows. I hear my mother trying to sooth him. I imagine her rubbing his head like she does to me when I skin a knee or squash my hand in a door. I don’t know about my mother’s fears of him killing himself and maybe all of us, too.
As I arc back to earth, I think about how proud my father would be if he saw me killing the enemy. I wish I could have fought next to him. This thought makes me put on my fighting face and yell as loud as I can.
I hit the dusty ground and make as loud an explosion sound as I can, like the nasally roar of Niagara Falls, and the enemy is vanquished. To demonstrate the force of the blast, I tumble across the dry dirt onto the playground’s brown crabgrass. But I am unhurt. As always, I am invincible.
I stand and dust off my flannel-lined jeans, the ones my mother bought three sizes too big so I could wear them for more than one year. Mom doesn’t mind scrubbing playground dirt; it’s oily stains she hates. I wonder why my father can’t get rid of what is haunting him by scrubbing his head in the shower. Maybe it’s an oily stain. His Army uniform hangs spotless and crisp in a bag in the basement. I once asked him if he would put it on so I could see what he looked like as a warrior. He got kind of quiet—I thought he was going to yell at me—and said, “Maybe when you’re older. Now go outside and play.”
I rush to the back of the line behind my playmates to make another flight on the swing, wishing I didn’t have to wait my turn to rain further destruction down on Tokyo. I don’t want to know that my father has just broken a sweat when he remembers seeing his best friend cut in half by a mortar round on an island near Japan. I like how my father is the head of our clan, the one my mother and I listen to for answers, the one who gets the first helping of the main course at dinner.
I hear my mother calling me to come home for lunch. I begin to run toward our prim Cape Cod house, across a field and a brook, through neighbors’ yards, dodging bombs and bullets, making explosion sounds as I swerve and dive, my arms outstretched. I imagine gliding into my home airfield, where my fellow airmen embrace me and pat me on the back. I am their hero.
I run into the kitchen, letting the screen door slam behind me. I am unaware that it is good luck that has brought me to this moment, that I am one piece of bad luck away from losing my carefree life. I know that if something bad did happen, I would run into my parents’ arms and they would protect me. I don’t know that this won’t always be the case, that I might be in a real war some day and my cries for my father or mother will get drowned in the cloud of other screams around me.
I wrestle into my chrome and Naugahyde chair across from my parents and bow my head for grace. I peek at my father’s hands and admire how strong they look with their callouses and scars. I wonder what they have done to the enemy, if they still have the blood and scent of the enemy on them. My father catches me looking at him and I feel like a thief caught red-handed. My face breaks into a sheepish grin and he says, “What’s going on? What’s so funny?”
I feel trapped.
I look to my mother for help.
She glances at my father with a tired face, and says, “Let him alone. He’s just a boy.”

Posted by: mgeisser | October 2, 2011

THE DOCTOR’S TABLE

My memory of that day is darkness, a one-year-old at the doctor’s office. Was it because the lights were low, or because terror shrouded my eyes? The lightest part of the image, the visible part, is a doctor’s table that is plump and simple—chestnut brown leather, worn shiny in the middle. No other image intrudes; everything else is trapped within the darkness. I was not alone, I’m sure, but no one ever joins me in my memory. Who was holding my hand when the needle pierced the tender skin on my forehead, when the sutures pulled my cut closed? I can’t remember being on the table, the doctor, or the procedure. It’s as if I peered into the room but never entered. I rub my scar, hoping clear memories will pop up, like a genie from a lamp, but the entire image remains a burned snapshot. Yet, the memory of that darkness is still knife-edge sharp.

Posted by: mgeisser | October 2, 2011

THE COLORS OF GUNSHOTS

It is wartime in Disneyland,
“Where Dreams Come True”
“The Happiest Place on Earth.”

Slogans provide no cover
From the hissing bullets,
The acrid wisps of smoke.

The crack of the shot
Turns Pluto’s honey day
To rusted iron.

A phalanx of colored shards shreds his canine skull,
Spewing metallic confetti out
From the holes into the sky.

Azure ads for summer getaways pour from his mouth.
Breathing has no reason anymore,
Except to whistle, “Fly the Friendly Skies.”

The melody enchants
Children on the midway
Hunting for Mickey Mouse.

They cheer the fireworks display of Pluto in decline
And rub their faces in the paisley puddles
Around the rides.

Mickey pumps an extra shot
Into the head of Psycho the Weasel,
Minnie’s old beau.

Thick brown mud oozes
From Psycho’s final wounds,
Slimy, like spit-out Gummy Bears.

“Free Bird” wafts from “It’s a Small World,”
Heroin is mixed in the ice cream;
Every war needs tribute.

Pluto’s memories of gristle and steak sauce
Burrow between the grains of sand
Under his splayed paws.

There is a lull in the firing.
Reality can’t cope with the spinning color wheel.
The festive hues settle into one metal-gray stain.

The children’s memories—
The colors, jingles,
Cordite smells—
Become black
Silent
Eternal

Posted by: mgeisser | October 2, 2011

THE PHONE BOOTH

I pull off the road and park on the broken asphalt, facing the old phone booth. After I turn the radio off, I sit in silence for five minutes, staring at the cowering box bolted to the pavement, lost in thoughts of when you and I were together. Before our plans were interrupted by the war in Viet Nam, before you said you would wait for my call to say I had returned. I don’t remember what our plans were, but I am here because I know your Stephen is gone, as is my Gail, and I miss you. Perhaps you miss me.

What I remember as a shiny booth, inviting and warm, is now leaning away from the road as if trying to escape its noise and dust. Swirling graffiti laces its outside, giving it a cheap, festive look. The bottom panels are dull with grease; one is cracked in a starburst pattern around a bullet hole. The panes above are covered with scars from graceless encounters with callers. I also have wear and damage from the years. I don’t think I could still chase you down to the shore like I did that August day in Maine after we had made love on the moss, when you threw my favorite hat into the sea.

My legs twitch in anticipation of the short walk to the booth, but I am not ready. I think about driving away. After another quiet minute of fingering the change in my pocket, I turn off the ignition and get out of the car, stiff from sitting still for so long.

Once I have entered the phone booth, I give the door a flick and it returns to an almost-closed position. It never fully closed for me. The aluminum floor creaks. Its once gleaming surface is now almost hidden beneath a matted mush of litter and dirt.

Although it’s still daytime, the overhead lamp is on, struggling to escape the bug-filled plastic dome. I take a deep breath and imagine I smell the citrus of my old aftershave breaking through the musty air. Did I ever tell you that I put it on before I called you to make it seem more like we were together?

I finger the stainless steel counter where I used to arrange my quarters in a circle, feeding one to the extorting slot every twenty seconds to avoid the dreaded interruption of an operator. The counter is colder than I remember, and covered with a camouflage pattern of road dust and cigarette ash.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see a young boy playing with a hacky sack, which triggers my memory of how you loved to turn everything into a game. My phone calls to you were no exception. I would call at our pre-arranged time. You would pick up after three rings and remain silent. I would say, “Hello?” You would wait for several heartbeats and say, “Hello to you, too. What a wonderful surprise.” Then we would laugh like children. I never told you, but that game became old as I moved from base to base toward going in country. It seemed that you couldn’t see how scared I was, how I needed more than games.

A circular stain from someone’s drink reminds me of the many cool Budweisers I perched on that shelf, getting warm while we talked about things like how you had been practicing your favorite song on the piano, which I never had the courage to tell you I hated, and how you wanted a house with a big backyard where you could grow tomatoes for us after I returned. The beers tasted so refreshing after we hung up, a reward for my hoarse throat. I think of the matchbooks from every club in town that others have opened on this shelf since then. I wonder how many of the numbers that were written on them led to calls that ended something special or just left something hanging, like us.

I settle against the back wall trying to get my nerve up, and my reflection stares back from the chromed face of the coin vault. My hair is gray now and my skin appears sallow and wrinkled in the green light. I wonder what the years have done with you. After a moment, I realize it doesn’t matter. Your face is what I see when I hear the word ‘soft,’ and sometimes when I hear someone screaming madly. Your eyes, the color of the winter sky, always carried your smile in them, even when it was not a time to smile. I don’t remember if your hands, those iron hands that pulled me into you and held me there until I was done, were soft or not. They were always too busy grasping to be there for me to hang onto. I feel a momentary urge to run, I don’t know if it is to you or away from you, but it has something to do with my memory of you.

I still know the number I dialed to reach you on those nights when we couldn’t get together. I called to prove my fidelity, I guess. Or was it to hold our place until we could lose ourselves into each other again?

My trembling fingers release the coin that has been poised in the slot for thirty years. I drop another and the dial tone triggers a memory of your laughter after I stumbled over a root on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, when I broke my ankle. I remember berated you for that. As I poke the numbers with my index finger, I recognize the tune. At first I am elated at its familiarity. That soon turns to a strange bittersweet taste on my tongue.

While I wait for the connection, a wave of fear washes over me, and for a moment I want to hear, This number is no longer in service.

The sound of the other phone ringing raises the hairs on the back of my neck. My hand tightens on the receiver. After three rings, someone picks up but I can’t hear a breath or any other sound. After a long moment, I stammer “Hello?”

When several seconds of silence have passed, I hear a voice and my heart stops. “Hello to you, too. Who is this?”

The voice sounds too young to be yours, yet the timbre, the timing, the pitch are the same. I stutter while searching for the right words, finally saying, “I’m sorry. I must have dialed the wrong number.” I place the handset into its cradle and release my hand carefully, scared that it will call you again if it is jostled. After taking a deep breath, I throw the door open and burst back into a world I am sure of.

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