I await two distinguished guests at my parents’ house. To kill time, several friends and I start tinkering with old toys. One sets up a car track, another finds a train set. At first it doesn’t look like the train will still run, but I twist the battery pack and the engine sparks back to life. Two other guests, a young man and his girlfriend, find a Scrabble set missing a few letters and proceed to spell out obscene words. The noise gets louder and louder and the scene is soon out of control.
One guest complains loudly of hunger and I realize there is nothing to eat. So I give my father some money for a nearby restaurant and tell him to bring back as much as he can carry. He is only too happy to get away. While he is gone, the two distinguished guests arrive. One wears the saffron robe of a Buddhist monk. Both are reluctant to cross the noisy threshold. Then my father appears in the doorway and the awkwardness grows even worse: the food he has brought back is full of meat.
In a large rec room, others and I are taking turns rolling bowling balls back and forth. The floor angles downward, so the balls reach a dangerous speed and threaten to hit those on the other side. Fortunately, the pins remain together. When the reset button is pushed, a pinsetter descends from a ceiling fan and wraps them all in plastic, like bottled water.
I have joined a volunteer fire squad. We are scheduled for a training session on the morning of Memorial Day. I start to load some gear in the pickup truck, then begin coughing. My father, a veteran member of the volunteer squad, shakes his head disapprovingly. I’m not sick, only a touch of allergies, I say. It’s not allergies, he says, then points.
In the distance are two huge fires. He races off in another car immediately. I have just loaded a dumpster in the back of the pickup but realize it is one I have borrowed from a neighbor. It will never make it back from the fire intact, so I pull it across the circle to return it.
While I cross the street, a flock of Canada geese fleeing the fire swoop low and cut me off. Then wave after wave of other animals pass, small ones first—rabbits, squirrels, raccoons—then deer, coyote, even a loping bear. By the time I make it back to my truck, the distant fires have cooled into two thick pillars of smoke.
In a thrift store, I see a beautiful wooden frame art piece designed to look like a modernist’s idea of a gumball machine. There is a lever at the top and some items encased in plastic bubbles inside: toy cars and boats, miniature houses, wedding rings, graduation caps and gowns, pets, and children. There is also an original gallery price of $1639 on a sticker underneath. Here, I know that the work is probably being sold just for the value of the materials. But before I can get up to the register to put in my claim, another customer prances over and puts up a “Sold” sign. She says that she will give out the toys as rewards to her kids at Sunday school.
My brother has come out to meet me as I approach carrying blanket and pillow. Another night spent at the pond. I just can’t seem to sleep anymore in the house. Into the kitchen, where I rinse off my dish from last night’s meal. The jet of water from the sink splashes everywhere, dripping down the counter and off to the side. My brother approaches to help, or perhaps to stop me from making a further mess. But I am already thinking back to the pond, and to the bright patch in the trees where the sunlight bleeds through.
lines and whorls
In the foreground is a family chapel where relatives have gathered for a service. My daughter and I fill in on the right. It is unclear who the recently departed is. To the left of us, against the near wall, people watch a projection of someone’s life flit over the screen as the celebrant intones. My teenager gets easily bored, so we depart.
We pass the mausoleum. Two round stones mark the burial spot of ancient relatives and are now worn smooth. But to the left and just ahead are rows of newer vaults and graves and some recently turned earth. I tell my daughter to look for broken seals on the tombs to see if any of our relatives have escaped. Near my Aunt Magdala’s plot are neatly folded clothes, a coat, and an umbrella. Magdala has been out again, I say.
We slip through the front gates of the cemetery to an old city neighborhood fallen into decline. On the corner is the former residence of my friend E.’s grandmother; a few houses down, his mother still lives. My daughter is not interested in these personal associations. She is more intrigued by the sight of a carnival Midway set up on the other side of the street. It mixes some color in with the urban blight. There are booths and games, and a rollercoaster curling off in the distance.
We agree to part company briefly—I to pay my respects to E’s mother while my daughter waits in line for a ride. When I return, I tell her that I fear the old lady is not long for this world. Without replying to me, she takes my hand and drags me to an art booth where a sculpture she has finished is just coming out of the kiln.
After it cools, I examine the sculpture. It is a smooth black slab, hand-sized, with one cut-out corner. Inset in the corner, painted a bright earth tone, is a beautiful seal of lines and whorls.
I am a new work study student in the English Department, cultivating a new image by wearing a kind of pirate head wrap. A guest speaker is giving a talk. She is an elderly woman, quite celebrated, with waist-length white hair. Students in the class have been implored to arrive on time, or not at all. Of course, I show early to help set things up. The speaker is there, holding up two pages of notes in numbered grids. She hands them to me and asks the event organizer, a bit snobbishly, about the quality of copies made on our office machine. Soon I am dispatched, taking the “short cut” of a river trail that winds through the center of campus. I jump along the rocks, occasionally crossing over to the other side, bandanna flying. But I have difficulty finding the office building since I am new. Then I look down: the precious notes I have been entrusted with are soaked.
A neighbor, an old bachelor salesman, asks my wife and I to pick up some lost luggage for him at the airport. His suitcase had been missing for years. My wife and I accept, although we haven’t gotten along with each other for awhile.
We are coming back from our errand, successfully, winding our way through a group of recently-deplaned passengers. Most of them have arrived on an international flight and look like they have not breathed fresh air for days. One woman turns and doubles back against the flow of passengers, towards me, looking like she is about ready to throw up. Reflexively, I raise my sweater toward her mouth, but she shakes her head no.
I am carrying the sweater because what had started off as a cool morning en route to the airport now feels like early spring. My wife bounds on ahead, in a springish mood herself. When I get off the escalator and walk through the concourse, I find that I have completely lost sight of her. But I walk on, carrying old man’s suitcase.
Ahead, a door leads outside. It is the kind of early exit that fools you—it doesn’t lead to the terminal, but out to a surrounding field. Today the door has been propped open, and the light and fresh air streaming in are just too tempting, so I head out, as do several others ahead of me.
Outside, a wide path leads along the tarmac. Some travelers laughingly complain that they now will have a long hike to baggage claim, but this laughing seems like part of a cure. They roll up their sleeves and continue on. I don’t see any signs of my wife ahead, but keep on walking anyway. It is too nice a day to turn back.
Off to the side of the path is a small wetland area. I veer off course a bit, attracted by spring smells. A few lilac bushes bloom by the side of the trail, and I pull off a minute purple sprig and place it into my nostril like snuff. It is so pungent that I am taken aback. I see a pick-up truck rapidly pull away from a creek bank. In the truck bed is a row of shrubs that the driver has uprooted from this public area.
The creek current is powerful with spring run-off. I can’t help watching it for awhile though my wife is nowhere in sight. No doubt, she has navigated the airport successfully and is now far ahead of me.
She may feel somewhat guilty for skipping ahead, enough to wait for a reasonable amount of time by the car. Then she will grow impatient and leave me to take the shuttle. I look down at the ancient suitcase, bound with leather straps and covered with stamps from foreign countries. I wonder if I should open it.
sweetening the deal
I send off a very outré piece of fiction to an editor along with a bag of candy (gummy hearts). Both come back to me in the mail. I am more upset that the editor has not sampled the candy than that the submission has come back. I consider shipping back just the candy along with a note saying, Try it. It’s good!
three men on a bus
We stood there holding the bar, reticent. Outside, the scenery changed from urban to rural and then swamp. Still none of us moved to ask the bus driver if we were going the wrong direction. It was my friend Jimmy, my brother, and I. This was a standoff worthy of the Old West.
It turned dark outside. Finally, I could stand no more and drifted toward the front of the bus. I had seen a middle-aged woman get up from her seat near the front to chat with the bus driver and hoped their conversation would reveal our destination. She was anxious about catching her next connection to the city—openly so.
The bus driver told her that the next bus left north for the city in seven minutes. I immediately bowed out of their conversation and snuck back to the boys with this information. Perhaps we had taken the long way on our afternoon’s errand: it no longer mattered. We knew we would never speak of this again.