Review: Adamantine by Shin Yu Pai

Adamantine by Shin Yu Pai
(Buffalo, NY: White Pine Press, 2010)
Paper, 96 pp.: $14.00 ISBN 978-1-935210-18-4.

 

Adamantine is Shin Yu Pai’s eighth collection of poems. Early in this collection, in her poem “Blind Spot”, we find the speaker at a crosswalk. After the signal has changed to green, the speaker looks back “at the man poised at the street // crossing, long after / the light has gone green” only to then see “the round sticker affixed // to his chest / I am deaf and blind”.  The speaker, who cannot even ask his permission, takes the man’s arm and guides him across the street: “… I / place myself between // his body & the hostile line / of humming cars queuing; // when we reach the other side / he’s ready for me to let go. // there is just this practice”.

Here, the reader – this reader – is forced to pause. What is meant by the heavily emphasized “this practice”? What practice is this? Later in the collection, we encounter another poem, titled simply, “Practice”:

my own practice:
carving holes in
poetry books w/
exacto blade & straight
edge, intervention as
design concept

a hole too uneven
a hole too big
a hole too ragged
a hole too small

every event a mirror
of mind & heart,

In carving holes into books of poetry, Pai “practices” an excavation of emptiness, and in so doing, we join her in the exploration of what that might mean. In spite of the inherent violence in the act of cutting, it is with compassion and a keen observation of human nature that we are led through these poems, and it is because we trust her that we follow, regardless of where they might lead.

Every poem in Adamantine is rooted in compassion, compassion that springs from Buddhist thought but does not dwell on it, instead panning between east and west. Even the title itself. Adamantine, as defined by Merriam Webster: Unbreakable, from the root word adamant, meaning “refusing to be persuaded or to change one’s mind”, which comes from the Greek, adamas — “untameable.” Adamantine. The hardest non-synthetic substance known to man, commonly known as diamond. And, incidentally, a word intrinsically linked to the particular form of Buddhism that Pai practices, Vajrayana. Often translated as the adamantine, or diamond, vehicle, the word vajra, from which Vajrayana is derived, references “a legendary weapon and divine attribute that was made from an adamantine, or indestructible, substance and which could therefore pierce and penetrate any obstacle or obfuscation.” It is one of the core symbols of Vajrayana, and is a metaphor for wisdom, specifically a “wisdom realizing emptiness”.

These poems, while far from empty, are indeed wise, and it is this wisdom, this weapon, that Pai turns toward her subjects, finding beauty in all things. What defines Pai’s Adamantine is a fierce looking-out, both literally and figuratively. There is a clarity here that is rare among poets. Pai observes, and documents her observations with an unsentimental, and at times unsettling, eye that allows those observations to speak for themselves:

At 82, Luciano Mares remembers
the night his house burned to the ground
and wonders:

Does a mouse have Buddha nature?

I had some leaves
burning outside,
so I threw it in
the fire, mouse
trap – the heat
loosened the glue

incensed,
the creature ran
back towards the house
where flames lit
the curtains &
spread up from there
destroying everything

Buddha nature. The potential for reaching enlightenment. Does a mouse have that potential? Pai, wisely, does not offer an answer.

Pai, a native of the Inland Empire, has lived in Texas, Massachusetts, Colorado, Illinois, Washington State, and Arkansas — and probably elsewhere as well. In a recent interview she states that she doesn’t consider herself a regional writer, but there is a definite sense of ‘place’ within much of her work, from exotic Asian locales to the unremarkable terrain of Riverside, California, where we learn that the local saying is “homicide, suicide, Riverside” (“The Diamond Path”). But where Adamantine is truly located is within the heart — a recurrent image throughout.

In these fifty poems that comprise Adamantine, what we find, contrary to what the title might imply, is not a study in permanence but an excavation of impermanence, of an existence that is simultaneously full and empty, meaningful and meaningless, intersecting where heart and stone meet; their steadfast refusal to burn.

 

Reviewed by Cati Porter

Don Lenik

Inlandia Creative Writers Workshops Feature – Idyllwild  Nominated by workshop leader Jean Waggoner


DIALOGUE With My Hair


ME:        Hey, hair? Yeah, you, on top of my head, why don’t you keep on growing the way

you did when we were younger? Listen, I want to sing that old radio jingle again:

 

Brylcream, you look so debonair.

Brylcream, the gals’ll all pursue ya;

They love to run their fingers through your hair!

 

HAIR:      Aw, shut up, you fool; I’m dying, most of my companions are dead, brushed off.

Leave us be.

 

ME:         Whatta ya mean, “Leave us be”? You’re supposed to go on doin’ your thing, keep

puttin’ out, the way the rest of my body is (well, almost…I wish).

 

HAIR:      Look, we, the few, the brave, we’ve got some distant wild cousins on your neck,

on your chest. That’s the best we can do. They’re weak, but they’re willing. So you’re

shiny above. Be happy! STOP COMPLAINING.

 

ME:         Yeah, but try to understand. It costs ten bucks a haircut – they call it – but all I

ever get is a trim. I’m being cheated. Also, people are blinded by the glare from my

forehead.

 

HAIR:      Forehead, shmorehead, you sorehead. Be thankful the rest of you is still

around; most of us aren’t. Ah, vanity, thy name is man. Wehhll…get a rug, you know,

a toupee. Or get a transplant. Go ahead. Hurt yourself. Spend the money. Cover your

ugly skull. Plastered on, whatever, we won’t mind the new neighbors. Comb us silly,

see if we care. Big deal, a little fuzz on the pate, HUHH.

 

* * *

 

Like Walt Whitman, Don Lenik worked as a journeyman pressman in the printing business. He tells an amusing story of when his first son came home from school after share-and-tell about what their dads did for work. The son complained that the kids had  heard “presser” instead of “pressman” and thought Don worked pressing clothes. Don and his wife Sheila (now deceased) moved to Idyllwild when he retired from his career in Los Angeles in 1994. That’s when Don began to share his life’s trove of story notes in various writing groups. He joined the first Idyllwild Inlandia Workshop in the summer of 2010. Don is the group’s most stalwart member and has kept many of the younger members [we’re all younger] amused with his zingers of homespun wit. His workshop leader especially likes his natural-sounding dialog.

About his writing, Don says, “I like a grabber for a title.” Sometimes he starts with a catchy title and builds a story he’s been thinking about around it. Putting something on paper is “a way of getting it out of my system,” he says. What he gets out may be meditation, diatribe, short sketch or completed story. Sometimes he writes in the voice of another – of someone with a body-piercing obsession or of the hair on his head. He says that what he writes first “doesn’t always make sense” and bemoans, “I have to revise drastically.”  Workshop writing, notes Don, “doesn’t come automatically,” as it seems for those “who write two pages while I have trouble with a half page.” Still, he says, he doesn’t bleed on the page, though he may sweat or cry, especially when he’s writing by himself and sad memories come back. “It’s a lonely business,” he insists.

Besides sharing his writing in workshops, Don keeps loneliness at bay by volunteering and participating in a number of other community groups, most notably the Garden Club, the Idyllwild Chorale and the Associates of Idyllwild Arts Foundation. He is a familiar face about town in Idyllwild. During the recent long drought, for example, Don could often be seen driving around with buckets and barrels doing “compassionate watering” of the flora in public spaces, like the ornamental cypresses at the Idyllwild Public Library. More recently, he served as a booster for the hill’s [Mt. San Jacinto’s] Lemon Lily Festival.

Nicelle Davis

Written in the Margins of, How to Turn Siren Scream to Song


 

It is cool. And I am tired.
Too tired to
start a fire, so I boil water.

If you were actually my
son, I would
not tell you such things—

but you are in the care of
another, so I tell
you everything. I met you

when I fist saw your father.
Odd. Yes. But how
else to explain—I broke his

ribs with the ease of cracking
open an egg. Best
night of sex I ever had. And

then you were in me. Now
it all seems
so practical, but at the time

I had mistaken vulnerability
for love. Sometime
your Dad would say he loved

me. I mistook his words for
a house, garden,
and the sound of your feet

down a hallway, frightened
by a storm,
your little self made quiet by

the heat under our family
quilt. I live all
of this, in my head. How

to tell you, No one can know
the extent of another’s loss. I
stir my tea and hear your feet.

Louise Mathias

Four Drives in the Heart of the Desert



Went out to the edge of my life. Tumbled soft,
by wind and by sun, by ocean, by elsewhere, Anza

Borrego—
Less of a schism

between man and sky; less democracy really.

Remembered the terrible theatre

of the rental car, that summer, my father
turning slowly into lava. This is the country

they say, where no one can live. Shed it

like shale. Where stars will refuse

to fasten themselves to the sky,
will stream down in contrails

& stammer.

Samantha Lamph

Bougainvillea

 

     After he had done the thing, he threw the shovel down, spit out his cigarette, and walked away from the mound of dirt. He had already moved past it. The guilt was momentary, gone as quickly as her last muffled breath. Her wriggle and whine already somewhere distant in his consciousness. What could she have meant to the world at six or seven years old? Not even a pair of front teeth or a menstrual cycle to show for herself. The living would forget her soon enough, and then, it’d be a wonder that she had ever walked and breathed among them at all.

     Wayne stood and stared out at the night surrounding him. Only the stars still awake to blink back. It would be morning soon enough. For now, though, Wayne needed the silence, the sleep of everyone else around. He had watched them all swarming around the neighborhood, throughout their small town of Pilsky, looking for her. For the past three days, his neighbors had walked the streets in groups, taping the fliers on neon copy paper to any available surface. Her face stared out from each one. Light poles and car windows became mosaics of lime green, bright orange, bubblegum pink. Terribly inappropriate, Wayne knew. News vans and police cars took up all available parking on the street, as if nobody else could be expecting company. That pretty young anchor woman from Channel 4 had even broadcast a plea right from the asphalt of Lindora Avenue. Wayne watched her stern, serious gaze and her silent, moving lips from the bathroom window. They stayed all day and he could not finish the work he had started while under the watch of the sun.

     Wayne had waited until now, at three o’ clock on a Monday morning to cart her, or the sum of her parts, out to the backyard. To be as inconspicuous as he could be, he had dumped her into the old wheelbarrow. He threw a tarp over it as he rolled her out to the farthest corner of the yard, breathing loudly through his mouth, trying to avoid choking on the rancid stench emanating from the load he pushed. These extra efforts had proved to be unnecessary. Nobody had strolled by on a late night walk as he had feared. Even if they had, it really wouldn’t be so strange to see Wayne working in his garden at such an early hour. It’s all any of the neighbors ever saw him doing, at any other hour of any other day. Ninety-three minutes was all the time it took to lay her under the warm dirt of Arizona in the summertime, to discard the little girl forever.

     Wayne was not like her. He still moved about the earth as he pleased. When he had made it back to the sliding doors, he kicked off his boots and walked through his small house. Inside, the heat was almost intolerable. Even when the swamp cooler was working, it never seemed to cool Wayne, or his walls, down. As he made his way to his shower, he peeled himself out of his dirty clothes. The stench of dry sweat hung heavy around Wayne’s flannel shirt, the threadbare jeans. Once in the shower, Wayne’s tightened muscles began to relax. He let his head hang under the showerhead for a while, rinsing out as much of the dirt, sweat, blood and dandruff as could be expected without the aid of shampoo, which Wayne hadn‘t bothered to buy in weeks.

     As the hot water ran over him, Wayne thought about what he would say if the cops came later in the day, what story he should rehearse.  He could play dumb and pretend that he didn’t know about the missing girl from his own neighborhood. That he hadn’t been outside, read a newspaper, or turned on a television since Thursday night, when she was still safe and tucked into her frilly, lace comforter. That he’d been sick, barricaded in the bathroom for the better part of the week. They wouldn’t buy it, he knew. Maybe he should act disinterested. Like this shit happens every day. My kid brother was kidnapped in the sixties, he’d lie, but nobody made a big old carnival about those things back then.

     But Rosie was a little girl, Pilsky’s little princess. Being too insensitive regarding her case would not be smart. Wayne should pretend that he was one of those assholes who had taken it upon himself to find her, by walking through every empty field in the city and scouring it for clues. But, he knew that there was even greater risk in seeming too eager, too willing to help. He’d just have to play it by ear.

     After his shower, Wayne whistled his favorite song, a classic Neil Young tune about a cinnamon girl, as he strolled into the kitchen, ready to continue with the rituals that comprised his daily routine. He fried two eggs, started a pot of coffee, and opened up the newspaper from the day before. She grinned at him from the front of the local section. Even Wayne, who had never had children of his own, and had himself been out of school for some forty years, could tell that it was her class picture. Her auburn hair was intricately curled and pinned. Obviously the result of her mother’s loving labor. Wayne imagined the young mother towering over the living version of little Rosie Carpenter, curling iron in one hand, can of hairspray in the other. A routine of their own, he imagined.

     The headline was desperate, in bold letters. Futile. By the time they had printed it, she was already gone, just sitting in a pile in Wayne’s bedroom. Her violet sundress balled up in the corner next to her. Her plastic jewelry and barrettes tossed haphazardly on the carpet. He shook his head as he considered all the ink that had been wasted on her behalf. He read the article. It was really the least he could do, Wayne felt.  They didn‘t say anything Wayne hadn’t anticipated. Pleas from family, friends and estranged relatives who, in all likelihood, already knew in their hearts, without much doubt, that Rosie was already decaying in some dumpster, in some neighboring town. Still, they spoke their piece and hoped aloud for her safe return. Wayne expected nothing less−and nothing more− from them.

     Wayne hadn’t been a stranger to the Carpenter family. Every Halloween, Rosie would stand expectantly at his front door, as a bouncy, yellow bumblebee or a smiling little princess, a plastic bag, already full of candy, wide open in her arms. Wayne would smile and throw handfuls of candy into the bag as he watched her mother, tall and slender, still in her work outfit. Her black slacks and smart blazer contrasted sharply with her bright blue running shoes. She stood further back on the lawn, talking to other mothers of trick-or-treaters. Rosie would yell her thank you and run back to her chaperone. Wayne wouldn’t retreat back into his house until Rosie and her mother were out of sight.

     Many times, Wayne had watched Rosie and the other neighborhood children playing tag, kickball, or hide and seek from his lawn chair on the patio. He was contemptuous of their energy, of how carefree they were. Nothing they did or said could possibly matter in any significant way, to anyone. Wayne did not understand how they could manage to inspire the unconditional love of the adults waiting for them back inside their houses when he had failed to do this even once within the span of his sixty-three years.

     After Wayne had finished the article, closed the paper, and eaten his greasy breakfast, he stretched himself out on his couch for a nap. Before drifting off to sleep, he thought about what he would do once he woke up, with his brand new day. A trip to Home Depot would be necessary, of course, for some gardening equipment. Definitely a stop at the Vista Verde Nursery, Wayne’s favorite, for something living to hide what he had made dead. Azaleas could work, but Wayne was tired of them. He longed for sunflowers, but he knew they would call too much attention to themselves. Bougainvillea would be best to swallow her up. Fast-growing. Expansive. Hot pink like her tiny barrettes.

 

     Hours later, Wayne returned home with a truck full of the magenta-flowering plants. Driving down his street, he felt like he was presenting an immaculate float at the Rose Parade. When he had parked on his cracked-cement driveway, he jumped out of the white pickup and began the unloading. As he threw down a large bag of planting soil, Wayne caught a glimpse of his neighbor,

     Brian Freeman, approaching from the street. He had his daughter Lizzie in tow. Around the same age as Rosie, Wayne could see.

     Her hair was pulled up into pigtails that swung to and fro on either side of her head as she skipped toward him. Wayne turned toward the father-daughter pair and crossed his arms in front of his chest.

     “Hello, Wayne.” Brian nodded.

     Wayne stared at the stack of brightly colored paper in Brian’s clenched fist. More of those god damned fliers.

     “These flowers are beautiful,” Brian smiled, “I’ve seen them before, but I don’t know what they’re called. What are they?”
Wayne turned back to the truck and pulled down another bag of soil.

     “Bougainvillea.” Wayne answered.

     Brain shifted his weight and cleared his throat.

     “I suppose you’ve already heard about Rosie.”

     “Rosie? Am I supposed to know who that is?” Wayne asked, pulling up the corner of his gray t-shirt to wipe the sweat from his forehead.

     The wrinkle lines on Brian’s forehead deepened as he frowned at Wayne.

     “She’s a little girl that lives in this neighborhood. In that house.” Brian pointed at the house directly in front of Wayne’s, on the other side of the street. “You’ve probably seen her around.”

     Wayne nodded. “I’ve seen a lot of kids running around this neighborhood. Making a racket. Tearin’ up my garden sometimes, too.” Wayne shot a look of disgust down at this new little girl.

     “Yeah… well, you see, Wayne, she’s been kidnapped. Nobody’s seen her in two days. I was just letting you know. Just in case you saw or heard anything notable that night.”

     Wayne nodded and turned back to the truck bed without another word.

     Brian led himself and his daughter back onto the street. They had been out now for over two hours. Sweat covered his entire body like a sticky layer of Saran Wrap. His blue t-shirt was soaked through. It clung to random patches of his chest and back. Brian hadn’t thought to put on sunscreen or to take a bottle of water with them on their three hour suburban trek.  They were paying for it. All the exposed areas of Brian’s skin were red and hot to the touch. He could already feel the damaged cells peeling away from him. Luckily, Brian had worn a hat and was able to give it to Lizzie to wear when the intensity of the sun became evident. Her nose and cheeks were rosier than usual, but Brian didn’t think it was a bad enough burn to end in a peel. Once Lizzie had started complaining about the heat, Brian began to regret taking her along. He knew his wife would not be happy at the sight of her sunburned daughter. Feeling guilty, Brian promised to walk Lizzie to the community pool, just a few streets away from their own.

     As they walked through their familiar neighborhood, Brian looked at each house they passed. They all had the same basic design. Two stories, two car garage, a symmetrical lawn. Some of the neighbors kept better yards than others. Jerry Coller, whose wife had left him a few months before, had done a pretty terrible job of keeping up with the landscaping. The grass was yellow and overgrown. The hose had been strewn across the driveway all week.  Most of the patios were empty, because all of the neighbors were gathered in small groups at random places in the street. Huddling together like opposing football teams planning their next play. As he passed them, the entire group would fall silent and turn toward him. Smiling or nodding in approval when taking note of the fliers Brian had obviously been distributing. They were doing their part. He sure as hell better be doing his. Brian noticed their sad smiles as they shifted their focus from him to his daughter. They had been so used to seeing the two girls together; Lizzie couldn’t help but remind her neighbors of the girl who was so much like her, but with so much worse luck.

     Brian knew there really was no hope for Rosie. He had known from the moment her heard she was missing that she hadn’t a chance. Margaret Carpenter had come over herself to let them know. She had remained composed as she told Brian about waking up, feeling that something was wrong, going up to her daughter’s bedroom and finding it empty. Lizzie and Rosie had been playmates, she wanted Brian to take extra care in protecting his own daughter until they had this thing all cleared up. Brian had placed his hand on her shoulder, looked knowingly into her swollen eyes and offered his sympathies. Margaret didn’t want anything to do with those, though. She shrugged his arm away from her, smiled awkwardly and said she’d appreciate any help he could offer in getting Rosie home as soon as possible. She had a science project to finish, a dance recital next Saturday. Brian nodded and stared dumbfounded as she walked away from his front door.  Brian knew it was hopeless. She must have known it, too.

     Brian prayed every night that they would find her. The past two mornings he had woken up two hours earlier than usual so he could post fliers before work. He had attended the community meeting and sent a care package to Margaret. Brian didn’t do these things because he thought they could find or save Rosie. He did them because he felt obligated to. Just like everyone else with a heartbeat and a human soul felt obligated to help. Brian helped because he had a daughter of his own, and he knew that if it had been her who had been kidnapped, he would be doing the same to find her. Because there was really nothing else that could be done.

     Brian wanted to be optimistic, but how could he really maintain much hope for the safe return of a missing little girl? No matter how much Brian longed to see Rosie wander back down Lindora Avenue smiling and unharmed, swinging her jump rope at her side, it was just not something he could envision happening in the world he had come to know.

     When Lizzie looked up at Brian and asked him where her friend Rosie had gone, and if she would be okay, he hesitated to answer. How would he tell his daughter that her friend was gone, that she would never see her again? He looked away from her face and squinted into the sun, as if it could give him the right answer.

     “Nobody knows where Rosie is. We all hope she’s okay.”

     “Well, are the police gonna find her?” Lizzie whined.

     “I don’t know, Lizzie. They might.”

     “Will what happened to Rosie happen to me?” She asked as though being kidnapped were a normal childhood experience. Like losing a tooth. Spraining an ankle. Falling off of your bike.

     “No.” Brian answered quickly, inadvertently tightening his grip on her hand. “Never.”

     Once they had arrived at the pool, Lizzie ran straight into the water, forgetting in her excitement to take off her sandals. Brian sat on the grass and watched the children of his town play and splash in the sunlight. Small kids, big kids, chubby kids, skinny kids of all different colors and shapes. All smiling. Happy. Unaware that every day, one of them, somewhere in the world, was snatched away from their families. Tortured, beaten, raped, killed. They had all heard about Rosie, sure. But right now, playing in the shallow end of the sparkling, blue pool, they didn’t think about her.

     Brian was glad.

     He watched as his own daughter, the person he loved more than any other in the entire universe, climbed out of the water and walked, dripping, to the diving board. Her baby-toothed smile white and wide. She looked through all the parents, sitting on the same grassy hill as Brian. When she caught sight of him, she waved big and proud. She ran forward, and sprang herself from the board high into the air. Her body appeared just as a silhouette in the moment it imposed itself in front of the sun. Her arms up above her head, each finger extended into a tiny exclamation point that insisted that she was alive.

     Back on Lindora Avenue, Margaret Carpenter washed the dishes that had been piling up since Rosie had vanished. She smiled mutely as she scrubbed away at the dried macaroni and cheese which had been Rosie’s last meal at home. It had adhered itself to the plastic plate and no matter how much dish soap Margaret poured on top of the plate and regardless of how fast or hard she scrubbed, she could not get it to lift. Calmly, she walked over to the trash can, and dropped the plate in with all the sappy condolence cards.

     Margaret wasn’t ungrateful for the concern and support of her neighbors and friends, but she did not find such displays necessary. She did not appreciate their fatalistic attitudes, their eagerness to dismiss Rosie from the earth. Especially since Margaret knew perfectly well that her daughter was just fine. She would be returning safely any moment, any hour, any day now.

     It was just a matter of time. Margaret knew.

     She, of course, hadn’t been so cheerful that first morning. When she walked upstairs, into her daughters’ bedroom and found it without her. The bed empty. The lamp from the nightstand broken on the floor. Within a few hours, though, after she had swallowed a cup of chamomile or two, Margaret began to think more positively.

     Of course her daughter was fine. Rosie was the most energetic child Margaret had ever known. So patient, too. Margaret could already envision their reunion. As the kidnapper returned Rosie to her, they would comment on her good manners and lively disposition. Thank her for raising such a beautiful and well-behaved child.

     “It was a pleasure spending this short time with her,” the kidnapper would smile. “Let me know when she has another dance recital.”

     “Thank you! Oh yes, isn’t she wonderful?” Margaret would beam, “Thank you for bringing her back to me. Thank you for bringing her home.”

     Margaret walked over to the front room and stared out from the window. Across the street, she could see her neighbor Wayne, over his fence, working in his backyard. On his hands and knees, he labored in the soil. Rooting the most beautiful plants. She recognized them. When she was a little girl, Margaret’s mother had spent many hours tending the bougainvillea that stretched over the fence in their own backyard. Margaret couldn’t help but smile at remembering hot summer days in southern California spent helping her mother with the yard work. After they had finished for the day, they would lay together underneath the newly trimmed plants and stare up at the clear sky, through the magenta flowers.

     Rosie would love the bougainvillea, Margaret knew.  Margaret began to cry as she thought about how wonderful life would be once Rosie returned home. When they could stand in front of this window together. When Margaret could watch as both the bougainvillea and her little girl grew and bloomed together, thriving vibrantly on Earth.

Rebecca K. O’Connor

Homecoming

 

     “The flutter of blue pigeon’s wings, Under a river bridge, Hunting a clean dry arch, A corner for a sleep—, This flutters here in a woman’s hand.”

– Carl Sandburg

     On the year anniversary of Nathaniel’s death, I opened the door to the loft and set his pigeons free. The old pigeons bustled out the door, springing into the air without hesitation, perhaps without thought, a few of their progeny following in trust, others lurking at the doorway peering into the unknown. I propped the door open and stood watching.

     This shed of cooing conversation and whipping wings held a change of guard, a generation come and gone. I had done little more than feed them and give them fresh water, but the mechanisms of life in the loft ground on even without their pigeoner. Things had evolved in here, while outside my moments remained so raw that Nathaniel could have died yesterday, the cordless telephone still slick and fever warm with terrible conversations.

     There were thirty-one birds in the loft; a dozen were young birds that had never tested their powerful wings against the breadth of the sky. There were six that had died of mysteries, perhaps old age and two others by the taloned reach of a starving young Cooper’s hawk, fishing desperately for morsels. In the failing feast that heralds the end of summer, the pressed predator could do little more than jam her foot between the bars of a tempting storehouse, withdrawing feathers, skin and blood, little more than a taste, a wish. I found the hawk dead in the yard, thin-keeled and stiff-legged. I buried her with the two pigeons that had been destroyed by her unsated hunger, uncertain which or who should claim the moment as their tragedy.

 

     Shooing the shy dawdlers out the door, I entered the loft to top off their food and give them fresh water. I could have withheld their meal yesterday, drawn the experienced birds back in with the taut line of their hunger, but I wanted them to make up their own minds. I imagined the whirl of grey, white and brown wings spiraling upward, flashing out like sparks from the chimney, blown out and away for good. The idea that the pigeons could leave was potent and hopeful. Still, I raked the gravel, pulling piles of droppings out from under perches and into the well-fertilized flowerbeds edging the building, tidying up for their return.

     The loft clean and prepped, buttoned up and mostly safe from predators, I opened the landing platform. Testing the bobs to see if they would give way under the weight of a pigeon, free of rust and resistance, I shoved my hand through the one-way entry. The metal curtain pushed in and plinked back against the frame of the platform, a muffled wind chime, a promise of a feather-evoked breeze.

 

     He had only been gone two hours when the phone rang that afternoon. Who would have expected that crushing news could come so swiftly and to a person so angry? Even when the steady contralto asked to speak with Mrs. Joyner, my anger didn’t falter. No one referred to me as a married woman. Everyone who still spoke with me knew that Nathaniel and I were barely married, despite the four year mark of our vows. And even though I recognized the clipped and careful speech of authority, could visualize the uniform that had so often arrived on my doorstep, a harbinger of bad times, I clung to my rage.

He had done it. I had hit him first, but my nose had just stopped bleeding. I was sure he had broken it. I was certain I was going to press charges this time, not because he had struck me, not even because the pudgy brunette with the huge eyes who had shown up at the door had insisted he was divorcing me to marry her.

     I had thrown a potted lily at her, called her a cow and an idiot to think she was the first. I had screamed at her with all the sound I could draw from the depths of my gut, yelling to get off of my property, that she would never have him even if he left me. This scene, the neighbors darting quick looks between blinds, the dogs next door howling along would have been enough to rectify my honor if it hadn’t been for Nathaniel’s solemn whisper to the woman.

     “I told you she was unstable, darling. Why did you come?”

     I had halted. The game had changed and I didn’t know how to play.

     “Get out of here before she does something stupid, Ann. Let me take care of it,” he said. “Just a little bit longer.”  The woman had fled and I had turned on Nathaniel, feral and spitting, my claws and words sharp.

     It doesn’t make a difference what I said. I always knew what to say to push enough to make him push back. He had taught me well. He had never been faithful. He had never been kind. There was only passion and pain and the extremes of our relationship bound us tight and locked us in. I had always thought I would get out someday. I never thought it would be too much for him first, but now I wonder. Maybe he drank just enough tequila so that he wouldn’t tense and curl tight, protecting his fragile parts as the motorcycle flew over the guardrail and plunged away from the mountain, racing for the earth.

 

     The pigeons expanded and contracted like a thought, their wings smacking together, feathers singing as they traced the boundaries of the property from the air. They were dropping their altitude, drifting like dislodged maple leaves. I had hated the loft, the hours Nathaniel spent smoking pot and daydreaming over birds. Now standing beneath them, imagining their escape, I had to admit they were fantastical in flight, a means of extending yourself above and then reeling your senses back in. I wished I was high.

     Young birds had broken away, panting and perched in the pines, too overwhelmed to keep up, but following the progress of the falling flock with bobbing heads. It was them I found myself watching now. Their eyes were wide with disbelief, a lifetime of experiences blasted through tiny brains in one explosion of flight. Their parents were too fast and strong to catch up to and for the first time in their lives they were alone and unsteady. Yet I didn’t think to be afraid for them until we all startled under the shadow of a red-tailed hawk.

     The adults plummeted, diving for safety and rushing though bobs into their cloistered loft, but the young birds had never ventured in and out. They had yet to learn that there was a way back in. They scattered, some in desperation, some for cover, and one in confusion. The juveniles heading for the horizon were never coming back and the one sitting on the rooftop had tempted fate.

     The hawk, in a twist of red and the faint percussion of airy bodies struck, carrying the pigeon in silence up into a pine. On a sturdy branch, she settled in just moments and a gentle shower of feathers began to rain down on the yard as I caught my breath.

     “I’m sorry,” I said, my eyes tracing the spinning fall of a grey tinged primary, but I felt no guilt.

     I counted five pigeons still out and visible. Letting a few adults back out to hopefully lead them back in, I knew I would spend the rest of my afternoon waiting and watching, but that there was no guarantee.

     I made myself a pot of coffee. I had given up booze when Nathaniel died and I had never like drugs. I had thought I should begin new, do better, honor his memory, but the best I could do was to stop drinking. Most nights I worked at Johnny Russo’s and imagined the spices I could add to the bland sauces if I owned the joint, coaxed the chefs into making something different for regulars. Mostly I worked, smiled and ignored the sad “isn’t she the one?” looks, came home to read another novel and started over again. Nathaniel had hated that I read classics and accused me of making him look like an idiot with my “fancy” words. He had said it was ridiculous to think I would own a restaurant. I had wanted things once, but I now I wasn’t so sure.

     “Love is enough reason, Gram,” I said, certain that no seventeen year-old had ever needed more of a reason and that no adult had ever fully understood. I was turning eighteen in two days and I was going to California.

     “If you leave with that man, don’t come back,” she said. “After all that I’ve done.” She added this as afterthought and I thought our conversation couldn’t be more scripted. How many times had this exact exchange flown across two generations? I imagined I was in a poorly written play.

     “I didn’t ask her to leave me with you. I would have asked you to love me though, but there was never any hope of that, was there?” I said. I didn’t believe this, but was certain it was my line.

     “Can’t you see?” she asked.

     That he was five years older? That he had me crawling on my knees for his approval. That he was dangerous and I was in danger. Yes, I saw this. I rolled the suitcase down the hall and didn’t flinch when she slammed her bedroom door.

 

     Giving the phone a considering look, I imagined calling my grandmother to tell her that Nathaniel was dead, that I was coming home. This was something had I imagined often in the last six months, but with five silent years past, it seemed pointless. I had left my friends, my gram, shut everyone out. Every new relationship had been sabotaged by the poisonous one that had my full attention through what had passed of my adult life. Occasionally some Samaritan tried to “save me” and suffered for their kindness. I had been too busy fighting and making up, nursing my pride and my desire to be any good to anyone else. Now I missed that, damn him.

     I poured myself a cup of coffee, watching the five pigeons on the roof of the loft. A young bird considered the path of an older hen, perhaps its mother, putting herself away. Following, the bird with the thin body and wobbling wing beat, found the platform from which she had disappeared. It poked its head through the bobs, withdrew and then plunged back to the safety of home. I nodded in approval.

 

     Of the twelve first-time pigeons I had released only six made it back inside their first trip, a week later I was down to four and had lost two of the more experienced birds. I never saw another one caught, but the red-tailed hawk that lived in the neighborhood began to make an appearance whenever I walked into the yard. She positioned herself in the tallest pine above my loft and waited for me to let out breakfast. I didn’t think red-tailed hawks were known for their bird hunting prowess. I thought they consumed clumsy earthbound creatures like rabbits and squirrels, but she seemed to be making a fine living on my flock. I started calling her “The Red Queen”, my admiration for her equal to my irritation even as I refused to lock my pigeons in.

     I wasn’t giving up, not until there were no pigeons to fly. I was addicted to the rush of wings beating in the froth of early light. They got stronger, spiraled higher, whipped their wings faster every day. And I needed them to fly. Perhaps this was cruel.
Would Nathaniel have locked his pigeons in had the Red Queen arrived and begun the methodical thinning of his flock? I doubted it. I remember the loss of very few pigeons. How had he kept them safe?  I shuddered and imagined him drowning cats and shooting hawks.

     In two months the flock leveled out at twelve birds that refused to be caught and I felt a little sorry for the Red Queen. She would just have to wait for the next batch of inexperienced pigeons to shape and she wouldn’t have to wait long. They had begun courting. Then one pair laid eggs that in 17 days hatched into boneless naked impossibilities, instead of pigeons. Yet from the soft clay of a squab, they sharped and hardened into birds in a matter of weeks. They were just beginning to peer over the edge of their nest ledge when the black pigeon came back with my flock.

     My racers were mottled, grizzled, blue bar and white. They looked like mutts because they were. Nathaniel was only as serious about his pigeons as he could be about anything else in his life. He didn’t breed to compete or to show. He simply possessed.

This black pigeon, tall with her regal head and sleek lines was a pedigree. Everything about her looked carefully planned, except for perhaps her destination. Someone around here had a loft. I imagined it had concrete floors and running water, each bird with a carefully notated record, hers matching the green numbered band on her right leg. She wasn’t mine and she didn’t belong behind the rotting wood of my unkempt loft, but I wanted her.

     I let my pigeons back out, hoping she would follow them back in. Instead, a brown and white pigeon, with a short tail and bulging crop met her on the roof. He paced, pushed his chest in her direction, spun and sang. She sidled away, but not too far, looking away but leaning toward him. I understood then, that he had somehow found her, luring her down from the carefree and thoughtless heavens and I didn’t want to watch anymore.

 

     “You’ll come then,” he asked.

     I hadn’t answered, just smiled and took another sip of my Bacardi Breezer. He knew the answer. I toyed with the glass rose between my fingertips, the one he had impulsively plucked from the plastic cup next to the register at the gas station, adding it to the Doritos, six packs and the cigarettes. He had handed it to me with a flourish, down on one knee saying, “My lady.” I knew it was a cheap classless gift, but sometimes presentation was everything. The lady behind the counter had sighed.

     “How’s that alcopop?” He raised an eyebrow at me and smirked. “I can’t wait until you’re old enough to drink the real stuff with me.” I rolled my eyes at him. Then he asked, “It really doesn’t bother you that I’m so much older?”

     “Please,” I said. How many times had we had this conversation? Had he never met an eighteen year-old boy? I had a lot more to say to a twenty-three year old man. He and I could stay up all night talking about our dreams for ourselves, for each other, for the world. He looked younger with the olive skin and etched features of model flaunting a Rolex or maybe standing in front of a luxury car. And I looked older with my a-line blonde bob and long legs. We looked like we were the same age. We looked like we belonged together and it felt wrong when we weren’t. When he was forty and I was thirty-five, how much difference would it really make? We had the rest of lives to close that tiny gap of five years. And I couldn’t wait.

     “As you wish,” he said, again with a flourish of his hand and a bow of his dark head.

     I rolled my eyes again, but I didn’t mean it.

 

     When the black pigeon began to sit on a nest, keeping the longer night shift and leaving afternoons to the male, I began wonder who she really was, what breed and from where. Another pigeon had stopped at my loft, tall and exotic like the black only bronze and capped with white. She wasn’t drawn in and she didn’t stay long. With the image of them both though, I was able to decipher that they were Persian high flyers and that someone nearby must have a flock. Who?

     Did he spend solitary mornings, warming his hands with his breath as he watched his birds fly? Maybe they were his father’s birds and he flew them to remember. Could it be that he was wondering after the black hen? Maybe he shot the hawk he thought had eaten her. Beneath the morning flights I imagined my counterpart. I changed the gender or the age or the circumstance but always envisioning the pigeoner’s neck craned toward the sky.

     Then one week at the feed store, a 50 pound bag of pigeon seed balanced on my shoulder, I started to ask Mr. Sampson, the owner, about my Persian high flyer. I said, “I was wondering,” but stopped. The cracking and rusty sound of my own voice startled me. In my imaginings the other pigeoners and I had begun to talk flock in the mornings, but in reality my voice had been untested that day.

     The old man nodded, motioned for me to sling the bag on the counter and adjusted his glasses. His expression was kind. Sampson had been in this town for fifty years, his wife gone for five. His home was overrun with grandchildren, but he knew grief and was expecting it from me.

     “My husband’s pigeons.” I pronounced the words carefully, expecting a jolt in my chest or a change of expression from Mr. Sampson, but neither happened. “They brought home a friend.”

     He nodded his head like he approved of this discussion. “A roller?” he asked. I knew he asked this because rollers so often lost their way, but I didn’t know why I knew this. Something Nathaniel might have said.

     “A Persian high flyer,” I said. “Persian high flyer, same thing. Do you know who has a flock around here?”

     “No,” he said. “Beautiful birds.” Then he noticed my disappointment. “You’ve got some thief blood in your flock then. Maybe you can catch a couple more.”

     “Thief blood?”

     “Never heard of Spanish thief pouters? Casanova of the pigeon breeds. They are selected for their ability to romance and draw a female in. It’s sport with that breed to capture the hens from another’s loft. All thief pouters can do it, but the originals come from Spain.”

     “He tricked her?”

     “Well, she came willingly, but she wouldn’t have come if he hadn’t of called and if he hadn’t have been good at it. He’ll likely bring you another or his sons will.”

     “I see,” I replied and absently paid for my feed.

     I had been home for over an hour before the flashing light on the answering machine caught my attention. I held my finger over the playback button and then pulled back. I found the handset and scrolled for the last caller. I recognized my childhood phone number.

     Far in the back of the refrigerator there was a bottle of Newcastle and on top a bottle of tequila forgotten behind cereal boxes and bags of tortilla chips. It took some time to find the bottle opener buried deep beneath wooden spoons, tongs and wire whisks. I popped off the cap, poured myself a shot and pushed play.

     There was a pause, my grandmother clearing her throat and then the short message. She said simply, “Come home.”

     I swallowed the tequila and nodded, trying to convince myself, but I didn’t think I could.

 

     The next morning, I watched my thieving pigeons take flight, apologizing for their bad blood and rough upbringing. Then just as they were winking out of sight, I saw a flashing of bronze and black wings crackling through my flock like fool’s gold.

 

     Before it was light the following day, I slipped into the loft and grabbed the black hen. Her chicks, both young hens, were now feeding themselves. They were upright and feathered, and consumed the nest space. The hen was sitting on a perch off to the side. She didn’t grunt or coo when I snatched her from her roost and she barely struggled against my palms. I tucked her into a cardboard box and set it on the passenger seat of my car.

     When the dawn began to break, I let my pigeons out at the usual time and then jumped in my Camry, which was already running. I crawled the car through sleeping neighborhoods, grinding gears and peering through the windshield past the trees. Twice I caught glimpses of pigeon’s wings, but both times they were other flocks, a flock of racers another of rollers. I found this heartening and unsettling. How many pigeoners were staring into the morning sky?

     I kept driving a grid and hoping for the best, wondering if I would have to make this drive for weeks before I pinpointed the swirl of the Persian loft barreling in for their breakfast.

     I had never really thought about how many houses, how many people even in our small neighborhood. My world had been not much bigger than my street and the drive to my job. This old neighborhood, some houses nearly a hundred years-old, each unique, a thousand hidden lives all different from mine. Who was this man with Persian pigeons? Was he very old? Maybe widowed like me? Were there other pigeons seduced into his loft as well, leaving him to ponder a world much bigger than and not nearly as inclusive as he imagined? What if he were looking for me? How would he find me?

     I realized that if I were him, I would get up in the hills adjacent to our neighborhood, a quick drive, but high enough to glimpse a larger vision. So not far from where Nathaniel’s bike skipped over the guardrail, I parked the car and scanned the air above the pines, juniper and chimneys.

     And then I spotted them.

     It wasn’t a big flock, maybe twenty and they were gathering like an unorganized storm over a grey house with a tile roof. The colors of the birds wings were so uniform, their movements so precise, I was certain, my pulse quickening as I headed in their direction.

     It wasn’t a grand house, kept up better than mine, but not fancy. It looked like it belonged to someone conscientious and proud. I pulled over two houses down and saw that there were three people in the driveway. I had imagined one person. I had wrestled out the beginnings of a one-on-one conversation in my mind, but to me this was a crowd. I left the engine on and felt my face flush.

     Then the man with a coffee can that likely carried a scoop of seeds, shook out a promise and began to beckon in the birds. He stepped through a gate to the back and left a woman in a flowing wrap and a little girl in a sunflower yellow dress in the driveway. The little girl danced a circle around her mother, pointing at the sky and her mother lifted her so she could point higher.

     The birds spiraled down into the loft behind the house, their color and heavy bodies making them obvious kin to the bird tucked in the box beside me. I reached for the keys to turn off the ignition and then let my hand drop. I had made up my mind. I pulled away from the curb, driving us back home.

Nicelle Davis

Written in the Margins of The Recipe for Sirens


 

For convenience, they had me birth you
in a common house—thin white walls
blocking sight, but not the sound of mouths
coming up from wombs. I heard your first

cry, as though it were waves on a shore at
night—pitch black, but present. They took
you and left me with a rag full of ice—told
me to rest until I needn’t rest. I refused to lie

down. Looking for you, I woke in a gutter
holding a goat. A joke. Blood on my thighs,
I walked home with the animal. With a knife
to the billy, I tried to bleed out the past—to

empty the memory of your elbow rolling
beneath me—I tried to forget how it felt
to be two doors hinged atop each other—
to be pulse upon pulse.

Nicelle Davis

Circe Reads from, The Recipe for Sirens



The body is two doors hinged atop each other, designed
to swing in opposite directions. To change someone, you
must enter from their back—keyhole below left ribcage—
tickles a bit—unlocking. Inside, use a bird for a needle—

embroider the face of starvation over the peephole, then
exit from the front. Surface to a world where fish sprout
wings and appetites for harm; let them suck marrow from
a man’s center—drown them in fat. If they beg for mercy—

try to be patient—most can’t see you have already given
the what they ask. To remedy the inconvenience of sound,
we recommend turning siren screams into song (See page 7).

Kate Anger

Digging

 

     Oliver Scott stood across from the woman who nine years earlier he had vowed to love forever.

     “Shoes, please,” Charlotte said, indicating that he should remove his.

     He looked down at his worn-out tennis shoes. “Maybe I’ll just wait in the car.”

     “And let our son think that I’m making you feel unwelcome?” she said, stepping aside to allow for his entrance. “You are welcome, welcome, welcome. We need to have at least ten minutes household-transition time.”

     That was a phrase she’d picked up from the onsite counselor they had seen during their lunch hour. They worked at the same behemoth software company, Infinity Mapping. Oliver was a programmer. Charlotte was hired (as a newly graduated computer science major from Wisconsin) to write how-to manuals. After they married, she got a column: “Map Rap” that ran in the company magazine. Oliver noted that this was when her hair got blonder and her makeup more precise. She started power walking. Now she was lean. Too lean, Oliver thought, making her sharp around the edges.

     “I already fed Lionel some lunch,” Charlotte said, nodding in the direction of their son.

     Oliver took his time undoing his shoelaces hoping that Charlotte would leave, but she stood there, sentry to the house they’d bought together, gatekeeper to his child. For this reason, and this reason only, he faked a sheepish smile. “I’m not wearing any socks.  Sure you want me to take them off?” Charlotte had a thing for socks after their son supposedly got a teensy case of athlete’s foot at Oliver’s place.

     Oliver followed her into the kitchen where she set the timer on the stove for exactly nine minutes.  She proceeded to clean up the lunch dishes; on the counter sat two mostly-eaten bowls of toxic orange macaroni and cheese. Oliver stared at the congealed mass. Didn’t she know she was killing herself, or worse, their son?

     “You can get that without all the preservatives,” he said.

     “I can get it, but Lionel won’t eat it,” she said.

     “He eats it at my place.”

     “He doesn’t eat it.  He moves it around on the plate. Then he comes home and eats a huge bowl of cereal.” Charlotte scraped the contents of both bowls into the sink.

     Was this true? Oliver wondered. Was Lionel just pretending to like whole-wheat macaroni to please him? Or was Charlotte a spiteful bitch, hell-bent on stripping their son of any nutritionally sound foods? Oliver would find out: “Lionel! Lionel, can you come in here?”

     “You probably haven’t exercised in like what? Two years? But you’re gonna go after my pasta?” Charlotte said.

     “For your information, I’ve started biking.” This was absolutely not true, but it rushed through Oliver as just as effortlessly as if it was. Maybe he would take up biking. Maybe the lie would give rise to truth.

     “What kind of bike, Oliver?”

     God, she knew him well. He was saved from composing an answer by Lionel’s entrance. At seven, their son was small for his age, just as Oliver had been. Charlotte would probably have said that Lionel was in need of a haircut, but Oliver loved his over-long locks, the way they hooded his large brown eyes. Under the eyes and across the nose, Lionel had a smattering of freckles. He also had big front teeth he hadn’t grown into yet. That’s my boy, thought Oliver. Oliver loved Lionel so much that sometimes he had the urge to squeeze and squeeze him. He was just a little afraid he would squeeze Lionel so hard that Lionel’s internal organs might get pushed out of their intended spots and land somewhere new. His spleen in his knee, his stomach up in his neck. When Lionel was a baby, Oliver had a similar irrational fear of taking a real bite out of him. He loved him that much.

     “Hey, buddy,” Oliver said. “Your mom here seems to think that you don’t like the macaroni I fix for you. The healthier kind.”

     “It’s okay,” said Lionel.

     “Your dad wants you to be honest with him, Ly. Or else he wouldn’t have asked. Right, Oliver?” Charlotte turned to Oliver and held up the empty blue and orange box. “You want to buy Lionel this kind of macaroni if that’s what he prefers, right?”

     “Uh…right,” Oliver said not quite understanding her plan of attack.

     “Okay, I like that kind,” Lionel said, pointing to the box in his mother’s hand.

     “Anything else?” she prompted. “The hummus? Do you want to tell your dad about the hummus?”

     “I don’t like it,” Lionel said to his dad. “And could you get different cereal at the regular store ‘cause I’m collecting the bobble-heads.”

     “Sure,” Oliver said with resignation. “We’ll go to the store now, just grab your stuff.” Lionel trudged off in the direction of the bedrooms.

     “So, did you get in touch with a realtor?” asked Charlotte.

     “Looking,” Oliver said.

     “You should check out those condos off Parkland. Prices have really dropped and they’re less than half-mile from here. It’d make it a lot easier on Lionel if you lived close by.”

     “How about here?” he said, hating himself even as he said it.

     Charlotte stopped wiping the toaster. “Do you have amnesia about our marriage? You weren’t any happier than I was.”

     “I never wanted a divorce though.”

     “Then you shouldn’t have cheated on me.”

     This was true.  He had slept with Stacy from accounting on one occasion. She had reminded him of the old Charlotte: wholesome and pasty-white, her body slightly Rubenesque. They’d had sex on her double bed while a Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animal watched from the headboard.  Oliver had gotten a migraine headache right afterward. Charlotte put cold washcloths on his head that very evening; even drove him to Urgent Care for an injection of Imitrex. He regretted the infidelity, yes, but he regretted the confession even more. There was no point to it, no catharsis for either of them. He should have lived with his guilt, made peace with its gnawing presence.

     “I still wanted to figure it out together,” he said.

     “What’s to figure out? You wake up, you take a deep breath, and you live. Some days are better than others. It’s not that complicated.”

     And then she smiled, a sad little smile that said “I-know-you-don’t-have-a-bike-and-I-feel sorry-for-your-compulsion-to-lie.”

     The timer on the stove buzzed. Transitional time was over. Oliver felt the loss of those nine minutes. A portion of his life delineated and cut. Of course it was complicated. There were layers and layers she didn’t seem to see.

     “Wake, breathe, live,” Oliver said.

     “That’s right,” she said, not taking the bait.

     “And wear socks. Socks are important.”

     She stared at him. He loved her. He hated her. He wished she would slug him. He wanted his hair pulled, his cheek shoved, his chest beaten with her hard freckled fists.

     “Goodbye, Oliver,” she said, calmly rinsing the macaroni pot in extremely hot, germ-killing water. The steam rising up around her made Oliver think of how she had looked naked coming out of the shower, naked and full of Lionel. How her body that way had made him—for brief moments—believe in God.

     Pulling away in his truck with Lionel beside him, Oliver found it hard to believe that he had ever agreed to buy a house here. The front yard was ten by sixteen feet. That wasn’t a yard. That was a suggestion of a yard. He hated this whole neighborhood: East Highland Ranch, at the base of the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains. Long ago the area had been citrus groves, probably an actual ranch or two. Now the top of the hill was covered with a rash of custom homes on half-acre lots, some with plywood covered windows, fluorescent orange No Trespassing stickers, yards returned to hard-pack earth—the downturn opening the way for the desert to reclaim its own. Next down the hill came their division: smaller lots, but not necessarily smaller homes with pockets of houses similarly abandoned. At the bottom of the community boundary were the condos. He passed them now on the way back to Redlands, where most of the East Highland “ranchers” worked and where Oliver was currently renting..

     By the time they reached the old industrial neighborhood at the cities’ shared border, Lionel had already emptied his backpack unto the seat and was busy constructing a flying submarine. On Monday, Oliver would make an appointment to look at houses. Real houses. A boy needed a yard, something to mow, some place to plant a garden. Or maybe Oliver would move to the mountains thirty minutes away. A lot of people at work did that. Or he could move in the other direction, to the high desert..

     He and Charlotte had an agreement that until their son was eighteen, neither one would move farther away than sixty-five miles from the other. They laid a map on the dining table where they had eaten so many dinners together and Oliver drew their circle of geographic possibilities with a compass. The circle looked like an organ, a heart or lung, all the roadways their shared veins. Before Oliver lifted the sharp anchor point of the compass from the thin map, he dug it into the table just a bit. Sometimes when he stopped by the house, he took secret pleasure in touching that gouged spot.

     The pick-up’s windshield was filthy and the sun coming in made it hard to see the road. There was something up ahead. A box? Suddenly, the box moved directly in front of him. Oliver hit the brakes hard, his seatbelt locking his upper body tight, his hand flying protectively to Lionel’s chest, Legos flying into the dashboard.

     “You, okay?” Oliver whispered, stunned by the mere thought of injury.

     Lionel sat transfixed as he watched “the box” move back to the side of the road. “We almost hit that dog, Dad.”

     From the side passenger window, Oliver could see that it was a dog, not a box, a dog the color of cardboard and rather squarely built. Oliver pulled over next to the wash. The closest business was a tile manufacturing plant about an eighth of a mile up ahead. There were no houses here.  Not even much traffic.

     “I’ll just make sure he’s okay,” he told Lionel.  Oliver got out of his truck and approached the dog cautiously. He didn’t think he had hit it, but felt morally obligated to make sure.  The dog’s eyes were yellow, wide-set and wary. Oliver slowly stuck out his hand for the dog to sniff. He was a squat thing, size of a beagle, but with shorter legs.  His head looked oversized on his body, ears hanging like little pieces of curly lettuce. The dog seemed okay; end of deed. Only Oliver knew that he was supposed to do something more, knew Lionel would expect it. He should take the dog to a shelter, call a pet-rescue organization, something. He knew the wash was a dumping ground for all kinds of things. From where he stood he could see an old blue sofa and two tires in the silvery brush across the street.

     “Daddy?” Lionel called from the truck.

     Crap. Why’d he have to pull over? As a rule, Oliver was not a dog person. Maybe that was his problem. Wake, breathe, live was probably the philosophy of dog-people everywhere.

     “Can I pet him?” Lionel said, starting to get out of the truck.

     “No! Stay there.” Just then a big rig rattled by causing the spooked dog to run back out back into the street. “Hey! Here, boy! Come here!” Oliver called in the direction of the street. “Stay, Lionel! Stay!” he hollered towards the pick-up. The yelling and name-calling seemed to paralyze the dog. It froze as if trying to recall what “Here, boy!” and “Stay!” might mean. Just then a yellow Volkswagen coming down the road at a good clip caught the dog on its back end, spinning it like an ice skater.

     Miraculously, the dog limp-ran itself back to Oliver. Once at his feet, the dog turned in nervous circles, whining frantically. Oliver looked up to see Lionel framed in the back window; his boy’s mouth a frozen “O.”

     “Your dog all right?” the Volkswagen driver asked.

     “It’s not my dog,” said Oliver, but even as he said it, he knew it was a lie. Of course it was his dog. For whatever reason, it just was.

***

     “That will be three-hundred and seventy-nine dollars,” the receptionist in the Emergency animal clinic said.

     “Do you take checks?” Oliver asked.

     “Cash or credit only,” she said pointing to a large and obvious sign. “You need to give him this antibiotic twice a day for fourteen days. Here are his x-rays.” She handed him a manila envelope. “Oh, and apparently he’s got a pretty bad case of worms. They’ve de-wormed him, but you want to make sure and dispose of the feces carefully.”

     “Worms?” Lionel said.

     “Can you hold the X-rays, buddy?” Oliver asked partly to distract him. Worms. Yuck.  Oliver couldn’t help but picture a city of worms existing inside the cavity of the dog in his arms. For a moment, he wanted to toss the wounded animal to the receptionist and run, run, run. Swallowing down the sweet spit that precedes vomiting, Oliver collected himself. With one hand he managed to take out his credit card and sign the slip. Lionel used his whole body to hold open the clinic’s heavy-glass door while Oliver gently carried the dog to the truck. From behind the bench seat they found one of Lionel’s old Thomas-the-Tank-Engine towels and laid it down for the dog, getting in on either side of him like a pair of bookends. Lionel pointed to the blank line on the X-ray envelope where it said “Pet name.”

     “We’ll have to think on that,” Oliver said.

     When they got to the duplex, Oliver made a bed with an old sleeping bag, but the dog ignored it, preferring to curl inconveniently in front of the back door. Lionel sat next to the dog like a patient nurse. He colored quietly and ate the all-natural puffed-rice cereal without complaint. “We need to stay here and watch him,” he said when his dad offered to take Lionel to the grocery store.  He didn’t even want to watch Happy Feet that night, preferring to play Monopoly Jr. on the floor beside the dog.  “Waldo,” he exclaimed, seemingly out of nowhere. “We should name him ‘Waldo.’”

     By the time Oliver was ready to take Lionel home on Sunday afternoon, the dog was drinking and eating a little.

     “Can we bring Waldo to show Mom?” Lionel asked.

     “He’s still a little weak, Bud,” Oliver said.  He slid on a pair of flip-flops.

     “When he’s better?”

     “Sure,” he said in a non-committal tone.

     Oliver headed back up to East Highland, retracing their route, half-hoping to find a new “Lost Dog” sign. There was nothing of the sort. No trace that the dog had ever been here, no sign that his presence was missed. Oliver crossed Baseline and headed up into the Ranch. Turning onto Parkland Avenue, he saw the large “Condos Available” sign. The buildings were the color of sand with the ubiquitous red-tile roofs. There was a lawn that bordered the front of the place in a thirty-foot deep expanse then flowed down the middle of the complex like an inlet, broad and green and empty. What a waste. All that thirsty grass when they were in a drought condition several years running, all that lawn for people who never go outside. He continued up the hill, making a right into their division.

     Lionel threw open the front door. “Mom! We got a dog!” Oliver admired the deftnes with which his son took off his shoes in a swift heel-toe pull before running inside. “Mom!” he hollered again disappearing into the house.

     Oliver entered and carefully set his flip-flops just inside the door.

     “What’s this about a dog?” Charlotte said, coming to the door.

     “He was hit, a stray… I—we had to take him in,” Oliver said.

     “So you don’t know anything about him?” Charlotte said.

     “He’s brown,” Lionel offered.

     “He hasn’t attacked us or given us rabies so I think we’re okay,” Oliver said.

     “What’s rabies?” Lionel said.

     “You shouldn’t just bring a stray dog”—Charlotte’s voice grew softer as she turned to their son—“into a house when—” Something stopped her cold, her voice changed again, “Oh my god.  You are covered in dog hair.”

     She pulled off Lionel’s T-shirt in a single motion and marched out the front door with it. On the porch she turned the shirt right side out. In the sunlight, Oliver could see the hair. It was as if it had been purposefully applied. Charlotte shook the shirt like a starting flag, but even Oliver could see that it did little to dislodge the thick, straight strands.

     “Did you check him for ticks?” she said.

     “The dog?” Oliver said.

     Charlotte shoved the shirt under her arm and grabbed Lionel’s head with both hands. She gently moved her hands across his skull like she was reading a contour map, looking for a volcano. “Ahh!” she said nearly breathless. Then she exhaled. In her hand was a part of a sunflower seed shell. She flicked it away. “Ticks have been known to paralyze children. Kelly—in advertising sales—sent me an e-mail about it. Neurotoxins are excreted from their salivary glands.”

     “His name’s Waldo,” Lionel said. “Daddy saved him.”

     Charlotte released Lionel and went back to his shirt, pulling at the individual hairs with her slick acrylic nails. Oliver imagined all ten of them pressing into his back. He had never made love to a woman with nails like these. He wasn’t even sure he had ever been with the woman in front of him. How long does it take for all human cells to re-grow; for him and her and Lionel and even Waldo to become all new creatures?

     It was time to go. Oliver leaned towards Lionel: “Give me a kiss.”

     “A hug,” Lionel corrected, but allowed himself to be kissed anyway.

     This was the hardest thing about what Oliver had done, the daily loss of the physical presence of this boy. Oliver slipped his sandals back on. “I’ll be sure to brush the dog next time.”

     “Thanks,” Charlotte said, her eyes as green as the lawn on Parkland.

***

     A month passed. The dog slept a lot.  Maybe a paralyzing tick had bitten him.  He wasn’t very active. This was fine as far as Oliver was concerned because there was less pressure concerning their interaction. Waldo required only food, water, a walk to go to the bathroom and an occasional pat on the head. Actually, the pat seemed entirely optional.

     Lionel, on the other hand, saw Waldo in a completely different way, freely inventing an entire emotional landscape for the dog:

     “Poor Waldo was so sad. He didn’t like those bad people who threw him away. Waldo wishes he would’ve bitten them.”  Or:

     “Waldo’s happy cuz he doesn’t have to take his anti-botics anymore. Huh, Waldo?”

     Lionel could go on and on. The dog’s expression remained neutral. Lionel tried to get the dog to play catch or fetch or even go for a walk, but the creature declined every time. At first Oliver reasoned that it was because the dog was still recovering, but after four weeks, it was apparent that it just wasn’t in the dog to play.

     Lionel adjusted accordingly: “I really like it that Waldo is mellow, don’t you, Dad?” “I’m really glad Waldo doesn’t jump all over us. Cory’s dog scratches like crazy.”  “Waldo’s such a good dog, Dad. He never runs away.”

     Lionel’s flexibility gave Oliver pause. Look how this child adjusts, he thought, like water, this boy, moving around the rocks in his life with gentle acceptance. Are all children like this?

     “Ly, it’s almost time to take you home. What do you say we take the dog with us and get an ice cream at the drugstore next to Sport Time? I need to run in for some new socks.”

     “I’ll have to ask him.” Lionel whispered into the back of dog’s neck. “He says that’s fine. You might have to pick him up and put him in the truck though cuz he’s feeling a little tired.”

     In Sport Time, Oliver bought a bag of socks. Lionel got tennis balls: “Maybe Waldo likes this kind.” Then they both got ice cream at the drugstore next door. They ate their cones in the shade of the store’s overhang, their backs leaning against the scratchy stucco surface of the building.

     This was the very drugstore where Oliver and Charlotte bought the home pregnancy test kit that announced Lionel. It was a Saturday morning in May. The air was clear and the surrounding mountains begged to have their picture taken. They planned to eat cones there, but they were so excited once they had the actual kit in their hands that they got a take-home carton instead. He still remembered the taste of Charlote’s cold sweet vanilla mouth; the way he was physically unable to keep his hand from her stomach, sure he could detect the change in landscape. Recalling that now, he fought the urge to cry. That’s the thing about living in the same place for a while. You run into your own ghosts.

     “Look,” said Lionel, pointing. Each time his Blue Bubble Gum cone dripped, the dog licked up the spilled bits. “Bubble-gum’s Waldo’s favorite, Dad.”

     Oliver had to admit, it was the most animated he’d ever seen the dog.

     “Mom puts a marshmallow in the bottom of the cone before she puts the ice cream in. That way it never leaks out,” Lionel said.

     Waldo was still in the car for the Lionel drop-off. Lionel insisted that his mother meet the dog. Reluctantly, Oliver put the leash on Waldo and carried him to the porch.

     “That’s a pit bull!” were the first words out of Charlotte’s mouth. “You picked up a pit bull?”

     Oliver knew that pit bulls were vicious dogs with clamping jaws. Waldo was… well, not that. Oliver lowered him to the pavement.

     “He’s not a pit bull, he’s a mutt. The vet thought maybe he was part lab, some terrier.”

     “A pit bull is a terrier!” she said, her words clipped and furious.

     “You are such a bitch!” roared in Oliver’s head, but instead of giving voice to this clear and compelling thought, he cleared his throat and took a deep breath through his nostrils before speaking. “We’ve had him a month. The vet okayed him. He’s not a pit bull. He doesn’t have paralyzing ticks. Lionel loves him and I don’t need your permission to keep him.” He tried to leave with a flourish, but when he tugged on the leash, Waldo refused to follow.

     “He likes it here. Can he come in?” asked Lionel.

     “No!” the parents responded in unison.

     Oliver kissed his son on the top of the head and scooped up the dog. As soon as Oliver got Waldo settled into the car, he took off his socks. It was too hot for socks. Who wears fucking socks in the desert?

***

     Oliver and Lionel started taking Waldo in the car for all their short trips. Oliver even started taking the dog in the car when Lionel wasn’t there. Sometimes at stoplights he found himself resting his open palm on the dog’s back. He started getting an empty feeling in the car when he was without the dog’s companionable silence.

     Oliver found a realtor who printed him a long list of properties in his price range. He entered the property listings into his company’s residential mapping system and printed out pages and pages of starred roadways. He and Waldo drove all over, focusing on one three-mile square grid at a time. Oliver’s favorite time to look was at dusk when—in the occupied houses—the windows were illuminated. The people looked like shadow puppets, like the shadow profile of Lionel he’d had done at the Orange Show Fair, the one Charlotte had insisted on keeping. He loved that simple black cut out, how in the most elementary way it captured what was essential about the boy. A few months after they’d separated, he’d snuck that framed profile out of the house in Lionel’s backpack. Propped against his reading lamp now, it was the last thing he saw when he went to sleep.

     The realtor left several messages on his answering machine: “If you don’t look inside anything and consider putting in a bid on anything, then I can’t really help you.”

     Two months into his adoption, Waldo seemed to slow down even more. His never-hearty appetite dwindled. “Maybe he wants a new kind of food,” Lionel suggested. At the grocery store, after choosing a box of Frosted flakes (with the agreement of banana slices on top), they went to the pet food aisle and selected one can of every brand of dog food.

     When they got back to the duplex, Lionel lined up all the various, colorful cans in front of the prone dog. “I’ll see which one he sniffs. That’s the one we’ll try first,” Lionel said.  But Waldo didn’t sniff any of the cans.

     By Sunday morning, Waldo wouldn’t get up at all. Oliver called the vet’s office, but they were closed. “I’ll take him in first thing tomorrow morning,” he promised. Together, they wrapped an old Mexican blanket around Waldo for warmth and Lionel kissed the dog on the top of his head before leaving for home that afternoon.

     Oliver checked on the dog several times during the night, but in the morning, the dog was dead.

     Oliver drove to the house with the news later that morning. Lionel answered the door. “Waldo died, honey,” Oliver said.

     The boy’s face remained perfectly still but tears ran down in uneven lines, like rivers on a map. “I miss him,” he whispered.

     Charlotte came down the hall in the robe Oliver had bought her two Christmases ago.  All of the sudden, Oliver was washed in panic, his chest hurt, he couldn’t catch his breath, maybe he was going crazy… or having a heart attack. He plopped down on the tile entryway and put his face between his knees.

     “You all right?” Charlotte said.

     “Waldo died,” Lionel explained.

     “Oh,” she said, “Lionel, why don’t you go get your dad a glass of water.”

     Lionel went off towards the kitchen.

     Oliver could feel the tips of Charlotte’s nails on his shoulder, could smell her ripe pajama smell. He wanted to climb inside that robe and begin again.

     “Oliver?” She rubbed his back in small, slow circles.

     After a minute, the grip on his lungs was loosened, his heart stopped racing. He could breathe slower, more purposefully. Lionel brought him a glass of water in a cup shaped like a rocket that he drank in one gulp.

***

     Oliver left work early that same day and picked up Lionel from school.

     “Can we bury him?” Lionel asked, getting into the truck. “I think he’d like a funeral.”

     Before he’d left for work, Oliver had laid one bag of frozen peas and two blue ice containers on top of the dog to prevent immediate decay. When they got to the duplex, Lionel approached the body reverentially. He poked it gently with his index finger to confirm that Waldo was really dead. Then he poked the warm bag of peas.

     They loaded the dog—still wrapped in the Mexican blanket—into the back of the pick-up truck. Oliver pointed his truck towards the mountains and the wide, rocky creek bed that lay at their base.

     Lionel and Oliver took turns at the shovel, Lionel’s slight body struggling against its weight. Watching those small arms at work, Oliver thought about what an elemental thing burying was. How father and son had been digging these sorts of holes together since humans were walking upright. How all these tumbled boulders everywhere had once been part of an even bigger mountain, how nothing can prepare you for death but the digging. Oliver put out his hands and with great effort, Lionel handed him the shovel.