Ancestor terrain watercolor/gouache 1991 Tia Ballantine
Selected story, essay
What follows are several stories and a link to my essay about Beckett's NOT I, included here simply because chips of Beckett's bones are embedded in my skin. Too much stumbling about in the dark, I guess. "Shark Bait" and "Miss Liberty has an Orgasm" are excerpted from a larger work -- Spring Loaded -- tentatively completed in 1999 but begun decades earlier, somewhere in the shadow of a rainstorm with the radio blasting the blues against the background noise of gunfire and police sirens.
Living during the 1980s deep in America's worst ghetto, now a chic zone filled with dozens of corporate orphans happily slumming it, was bone chilling. Winters brought ice and despair -- Crack Annie huddled in any doorway she could find, muttering epithets at any who passed -- and summer made the walls sweat. On hot nights, I sat, knees to chest, in the window, hoping for a breeze while watching the crack addicts below dancing slow motion circles in the street, stripping off clothing as they danced. Shirts waved overhead like flags, skirts twirled like fans.
I kept my family fed doing construction work, schlepping sheetrock and plastering walls, and teaching mural painting in public schools. I kept my spirit satisfied painting and writing small stories and poems in blue-lined notebooks. Out back, I planted roses in a narrow strip of ground revealed when the concrete was sledge-hammered loose.
And then, someone shot out our car windows.
And then, my father died. That's my dad in the photo, c.1948 -- he mermaid with the sailor's legs. The mermaid's tail and the sailor's torso are papier mache.
And then, we moved first to the mountains and then to the sea.
And then my mother died, and I moved near where she was born in Northern California.
Dear Killer Boy was written while I was living at the edge of the sea in Makaha. I'm not there anymore. I still live near the sea, but gritty docks filled with diesel trucks lie between me and its sparkling waves.
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Miss Liberty has an Orgasm
To and Fro in Shadow: NOT I
joy watercolor on paper 1986 Tia Ballantine
Miss Liberty has an Orgasm
---This is what I use for ammo.
Joe reaches into his pocket and pulls out a tampon. Holding the black powder pistol in one hand and the tampon in the other, he uses his teeth to strip the paper from the cardboard tube, his tongue to pull the paper into his mouth and his thumb to release the tampon into the palm of his hand. It lies there--a motionless tadpole bleached white. Kicked from water, dead on demand. Night sky burns with exploding rockets. Fountains of red, white and blue sparks dripping to roof tops. Tonight all New York celebrates Lady Liberty’s release from bondage. No longer dingy, cracked or broken, she stands revealed in magnificent splendor.
I can’t tell the difference, although from a rooftop miles away, I don’t expect to see polished brass.
---So, now what? You going to pack that baby in the barrel and blow it into the bleeding sky?
---We’ll know we’re successful if we get a thunderstorm.
---Maybe it will come back to earth transformed to emerald green.
---Fuck you, Clare, this isn’t painting. This is orgasm.
---We’ve done this one, Joe. You think I don’t know about orgasm? What, it’s only a male gun thing? Shit, Joe, give it up. I have orgasms when I paint, orgasms when I look into eyes. I know orgasm in my flesh, Joe. I’m a fucking Reichian. Orgasm can sit in front of thinking--and sinks to bone. Life depends on it. And not only do I know orgasm, Joe, but I know orgasm and menstruation. You know when I have multiple orgasms? When I’m menstruating. There’s a little piece of info I bet you didn’t have. So, fuck you, too.
---You want to try?
---I’m not menstruating.
Clare sits on the edge of the roof. A huge rocket explodes overhead, a canopy of intensely white shivering sparks answered by green smaller rockets hissing in rapid succession two blocks away.
---So, shoot your load, Joe. The sky’s in multiple orgasm tonight, and she’ll need a few tampons at the end.
No one has paid any attention to earlier broadcast warnings about the illegality of shooting rockets from rooftops. No part of the sky blinks free. Everywhere spark waterfalls appear, collapse and reappear as color echoes and drains. Dying smoke puffs brilliant pink and green. She likes this. Noise, anarchy, exuberance. No way out. Nothing protects anything. It’s a stew easily swallowed, heat running down her throat.
Packed shoulder to shoulder across the roof, friends fall laughing against one another. With shiploads of monster rockets arriving on the Brooklyn docks from China, the city promised a massive display of fireworks. No one wants to miss this one, but I wonder if the main event can top the preliminaries. This light painted sky is enough for me.
Clare looks up and sees a young woman with uncanny balance, walking the ledge of the elevator shaft.
---Barry, who the hell is that up there? Tell her to come down. The last thing I want tonight is for someone to catapult off the roof.
--It’s Kapuahilihili. Leave her alone, Clare. She’s a dancer. She thinks with her body. She knows what she’s doing, and she needs to be on the edge of sky right now.
---Thanatos, Barry. She’s flirting with death.
---Look around you, baby. That’s the nature of the night.
He touches her arm, reminds her of necessary distance.
Not everybody lives in the same place.
Last year, on a quieter day with heat and sun, Kapuahilihili’s father had sat with them on the roof. No one said much. Keaokapu wanted sun on his arms, the wind to shed across his back. The days that passed had made him thinner. The blue between his ribs was a deeper shade, Clare thought, but that may have been because his skin had veered to yellow.
Look, man, he said, can I borrow your Kamakau? I can’t believe I never read him, but I have to now. I need to know more. I can’t believe they never taught us any of that. It was our land, our history, our place, Barry, and no one even told us these books existed.
When Keaokapu stares, his eyes take out distance.
Sure, man, sure. Borrow the Kamakau. Take the Kumulipo, my Malo, too. You gotta read Malo. He packs a lot into his book. You have to work hard to sort it out.
Sitting there quietly, spilling words onto each other, they looked past the harbor until Jasmine arrived. Jasmine changed the pace of any room, even one without walls. He knew how to expand sky, walked on his toes, and refused to stay still. When his body wasn’t moving, his mouth was. He was ceaseless.
Jasmine came bounding onto the roof, and Keaokapu lifted his chin in the direction of Jasmine’s shout, his face catching the sun in flat planes suspended across bone. Keaokapu’s skin was stretched so tight that every bone shone blue through the parchment cover--an x-ray penciled black. Chemotherapy had removed most of his hair, and what was left he had let grow long. Black hair lay on wind, thin banners pointing out to sea, eels escaping from his brain.
Headless snakes snapped to an electric sky.
Keaokapu was the only person Clare had ever known who stopped Jasmine in his tracks. No one said anything for quite some time. Finally Keaokapu stood, put his arms on Jasmine’s shoulders, and leaned his face into his, cheeks pressed and noses catching each other’s breath.
Welcome, brother, he said. I hear you are the man responsible for training the midwives who made certain our Kailani made it to this side. Mahalo. Mahalo a nui.
---I don’t know if this is going to help, but we can try.
Jasmine opens a leather pouch and removes a hard-shelled plastic box. When the top is lifted, acupuncture needles spark the sun.
---We’re going to try to open the energy paths of your body. Sort of create a secondary system, an assistant if you will, to help with the process of chemotherapy. Placing the needles doesn’t hurt, but you should be as relaxed as possible. Try to find the most comfortable position you can.
Beginning at the wrist and moving upward to the neck, Jasmine inserts the needles. Finding places near each ear, he continues down the other arm.
By the time Jasmine is finished, Keaokapu is a strange prickly creature with antennae to another world. He closes his eyes, stops talking and puts both hands flat on his knees. Jasmine continues his nervous chatter, but Keaokapu doesn’t answer. He is removed. As his breathing slows, his muscles, perfectly visible under paper-thin skin, melt. Thinking he’s asleep, Clare wonders if she should go downstairs and get an umbrella, or a tarp. Something to block the sun.
She looks across the harbor at sailboats circling Miss Liberty, flies to rotten meat. (I don’t think of the light flashing on the water as reflection, but as someone slicing waves from below.) Clare feels it on her back.
One after another, the needles in Keaokapu’s arm start to bend, lying down in the same direction as if a flood had left a field of meadow grass lying on the dirt, waiting for sun to raise it full again. Jasmine holds his head. Barry keeps his hands in front of him, and Clare looks past.
When the last needle collapses against Keaokapu’s skin, Jasmine pulls the first one out and lays it on the roof’s edge. He places the second one next to the first, until they all lie there, exact replicas one of another, perfect ninety degree angles, precisely and sharply bent. He picks up one and holds it into sun, tries to bend the angle back to straight. Each attempt is resisted by the angle. The needle is permanently bent.
Keaokapu looks at Jasmine and smiles.
Sorry, man, he says, sorry about the needles. I guess I am already on it.
Kapuahilihili has one hand flat against the narrow edge wall of the elevator shaft and one leg stretched to the back. With her white leotards, she is a fragile flower thread, the pistil of a blond crocus. Clare knows she means to turn a cartwheel on the ledge above the street. She hears Kapuahilihili’s voice spring loud, talking to her dead father on the west bound wind. Because she ran in circles around his legs when she was small, Keaokapu used to tease her, calling her Kapuahiohio. A whirlwind he could not stop. Now, she wants her legs in wind. He is too early gone.
Joe holds his pistol above his head and pulls the trigger. The flaming tampon shoots an arc above the roof; it’s black before it hits the ground. The harbor statue shudders red, lit by sparking chrysanthemums larger than Manhattan’s tip and wider than the harbor width. One fades, another blooms.
Winding out, Kapuahilihili turns and turns again, flips backwards on the roof, hands straight arrows to the sky.
compassion watercolor on paper 1985 Tia Ballantine
Cuba’s mother gives us a tear-drop trailer with UFW painted inside a green circle next to the door; the red enamel of the letters flaking off. We tow the trailer out to Colorado and leave it some feet back from the river’s edge. In the spring the river swells and overflows its banks, but we have no desire to float away.
After making a wrong turn somewhere in Ohio, we end up in Kentucky, and at twilight when the head-lights refuse to switch on, we have no choice but to pull into a graveled driveway next to a warehouse with corrugated steel sides and a bright royal blue door. Everyone has gone home for the night, and it is quiet, away from the highway, close to the river. As soon as we switch the engine off, the night turns on. Crickets compete with bullfrogs for space, and the milky way begins to hum some unrecognizable tune. Of course, instantly a high-pitched mosquito whine kills all that romance of river edges and crickets. We will sleep in the car, wait until first light, and then find an electrician in town who might locate the problem; we have no choice, but we need to close the windows to keep from being devoured by bugs. And it is hot. Already my lower back, my inner thighs, the backs of my knees are dripping wet.
Then, headlights, and a car door slams. Someone is walking towards the car in the dark—someone large. I can feel the distance between each footfall, hear the gravel crunch underfoot, almost painfully. The crickets pause.
---What you folks doing here?
He leans his palm into the windshield and aims his voice for the still open window. The moon disappears abruptly behind the wide curve of his left shoulder. He is saying something low and gutteral about this being his warehouse, and something else—something I can’t hear. The crickets are still silent, but I can hear him breathing and can see his hand curled fingers to palm, resting on the doorframe. He shifts his weight heavily onto one foot and uses his other hand to fish something from the pocket of his overalls. When he brings his hand back to the open window, there is a small click. Metal to metal.
I close my eyes and wait.
---Listen. There are beds in there, beer in the fridge, a coffee pot. Make yourselves at home. Towels in the cabinet under the drawing table and the air conditioner controls to the left of the fridge. Just slip the key under the door in the morning when you leave.
He clicks the key once more against the door panel and then passes it easily through the open window. The crickets sing again, but then, they probably had never left off in the first place. There are clean sheets and two apricot Danish for breakfast. The coffee is French Roast.
I open the letter to a watercolor of columbines. Inside three typed lines:
Dear Tia, Happy New Year; I miss your letters. I put you in for a Pushcart: did they write. I gather you’re thriving? God bless.
He signs his name as he always signs it—three fast letters.
The sun is a siren on my arm. I want to peel it back with my teeth.
There is one other piece of mail—a postcard from Madrid. Antonio Saura, Cocktail Party 1960.
Before she leaves the islands, she gives me two things—a hand-woven jacket embroidered in cross-stitch with hard round buttons and button holes made of bound satin threads, and her phone number. When she leaves Texas, she gives me two phone numbers, one for the program director and one for the cottage where she will sleep and write. When I call she says: It’s cold here, but this place has high ceilings, and you are my first call. I just walked through the door this very instant. I just set my suitcases on the floor. You are my welcoming committee.
The sepia photograph arrives in a green vellum envelope. She has her hands spread across her breasts, her belly round and large, and she is radiating. I put the photo on my board next to the snapshot of my father looking surprised, reading to a stuffed rabbit balanced on his knee. I attach the first photo carefully, not wanting to disturb its silvered surface. Now I want to know if the baby is born. I am glad she has De Koonings and Stellas on her wall and a rose garden large enough for a glass-topped table and four wrought iron chairs. I am glad she lives with early morning fog and blue lupine.
Last night, someone left a box of macadamia nut chocolates on my chair outside the front door. There was no note. I don’t think it was the same person who occasionally leaves old unread copies of the NYTimes, but the same concrete pot with the aloe plant was used to keep the wind from blowing the box-top away. Whoever it was must have waited for some time. When I opened the box, two chocolates were missing.
She sent the black jet pendulum from Yelapa, packed it in shredded yucca fiber stuffed into an empty Tampax box with a note scrawled on thin blue paper saying that she found this "magic" stone (her word not mine) on the beach, tangled up in seaweed—without the ribbon, of course. And no, she didn’t drill the hole through the narrow end. It was already there, but clogged with sand. Holding it under the bathroom faucet flushed out most of the sand, but she had to push the tiny green shell out with a sewing needle. The red velvet ribbon she found coiled in the back of the kitchen drawer backed into the beeswax candles. The pendulum was too heavy to wear around my neck, but I liked rubbing my smallest finger across the flat polished facets. The tiny green shell was crushed to dust, even though it was wrapped in layers of bathroom tissue.
She writes: Shades of moss on wonderful world of walls, hedges, labyrinthine lanes. A few cherished Autumn moments before back to that other Emerald Isle. On the other side of the card—a picture of Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker, Samuel Beckett, and a stamp—two wolves, one with an open mouth, on a yellowing moor.
After she dies, I look in her bathroom drawer for the rosewood box with Kokoshka’s cigarette wrapped in pink tissue, but after thirty years in salt air the cigarette has melted to brown stain.
When she calls, I don’t want to tell her that I have been crying for three days and have kept all the doors and windows shut. Maybe she knows anyway. She reads me her poem about the red snake crossing the road in slow curves, its tail snapping at one edge of the road, its narrow head pushing against the ridged sand on the other edge. I ask her if the snake is red because of the setting sun (she always walks in the desert at nightfall.) No, she says, it stays red, even in the moonlight; the man in the gas station told her the snake is a red racer.
He writes me a letter that takes apart my world.
ten watercolor/gouache 1990 Tia Ballantine
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Nightfall didn't come creeping in this dark alley. It just happened, unannounced. It was not an event. The sky turned from one shade of yellow grey to a deeper shade of apricot, and the shadows emptied, becoming thinner, graceless. Maybe the traffic on the street slowed, maybe it increased. It didn't matter. One thing changed, and Clare could see that. At night, after the sun set, after the sky shifted in shade, she could sit on the step outside the storefront and drink a beer, and no one ever noticed. After sunset, she fell to shadow.
"We might have a violet sky tonight." She drained the last of the beer from the can and crumpled it. She set it carefully, next to the open door and leaned back, peering into the hollow dark of the storefront. "Barry, damn it, come out here. You missed the fucking sunset."
She could hear him, moving about inside.
"Come on, Clare, you act as if this is some sort of god-damned beach or something. What do you think? That you are sitting on some sort of rock, dabbling your tippy toes in the god-damned waves? There is no sunset. There's no sunrise, and I'm not coming out."
Clare sighed the kind of sigh that she hoped might fill the air at the very same moment that Marilyn Monroe's face filled the screen and then leaned back until she was lying in the doorway, trailing her fingers on the tile floor. If she turned her head just slightly to the right, her long red hair fell over one eye and she could see Barry. He was sitting on the floor, leaning against the brick wall, erasing the drawing that he had been working on all day. He erased slowly and methodically. The oil lamps were lit, and she could barely make out the stack of bare canvases in the corner, barricaded by a stack of unpacked boxes and a mattress, tossed on the floor without commitment, close to the window and nearest to the door.
They hadn't been living here for very long, if they were living here at all. They stayed occasionally, some nights, when things got too crowded in the loft downtown, or Joe got too crazy. Sometimes he was hard to take, all that talk about the Mekong Delta and the whites of their eyes. The night Joe shot the glass out of the skylight, they came up here to sleep, bringing only their sleeping bags and a change of underwear. It wasn't such a big thing really. No one was hurt. The glass in the skylight was safety glass, and it came raining down in hard little crystals. It was sudden and complete, as short-lived as a hailstorm. When she shook out the sleeping bags, the pieces of glass dropped harmlessly to the floor. There were no shards or splinters, only the light from Joe's flashlight, landing on the empty space, catching the square crystals in quick flashes before they fell. Joe was laughing and Barry wanted to go back to sleep. Ghosts of the Mekong, he kept mumbling, pulling her back to the floor, but she was too nervous. So they left and came here to sleep.
You could be a ghost of the Mekong, too, she said after they locked the door on the yellow light of the street and collapsed into the dark of the storefront. She supposed the Barry shrugged, but she couldn't be sure. She could feel his body next to hers; she could hear his shallow breath even as a heartbeat, but the windowless black was too dense, too humid, for her to see his face. She spent all night lying in a tense, narrow stillness, listening to the rats moving across the empty arc of space. Once she was sure that she felt a light body race quickly across her feet, and once she felt a dampness move next to her face. A sound of chewing, small teeth gnawing on something hard, kept her awake until it seemed that it must be morning. The next day they brought the oil lamps, and two days later they moved most of the boxes and all of the canvases from the loft downtown.
"Barry." Clare reached back and tossed her empty beer can across the floor.
"Cut it out, Clare." Barry shook the paper, casting a cloud of eraser into the light of the kerosene light. "I'm almost through, two more inches. That's it."
She had given up asking him why he erased everything that he drew. She could never be satisfied with his long meandering replies about ego and the impermanence of life and couldn't understand why he considered it a monument to all those who had died in Vietnam. She argued that it was a contradiction in terms. Monuments, after all, endured; erasures evaporated. They disappeared, end of story. Something that didn't exist couldn't be a monument.
She couldn't say that Barry smiled when she said that. He just turned away and muttered something under his breath, something about existence and betrayal. She said that she thought that memory was about reconstruction, and she thought it was pretty strange to create a monument through destruction. Even if you called it deconstruction. It didn't make any sense. How could you possibly remember anything if you took it all away? He said that was the point and claimed that he was allowing his ego to die by erasing all that he created.
At the same time, he kept an accurate account of each drawing destroyed, recording each one with a number and a name in a tiny spiral notebook. He kept the notebook in the breast pocket of his coat. He said that he would stop erasing when he had one drawing for every person that he saw die, one for every body dragged through the swamps. She said, that is real ego, thinking that his drawing could equal lost life, and who was he to think that he could so easily erase memory. When she refused to stop asking questions, he stopped answering. He just kept erasing.
Sometimes he would stop speaking to her for days, days when he talked only to himself, or to Joe, about the war and the light and the smell of death, a stench of blood and piss and fear and death. He never stopped making the drawings. She would say things that she didn't mean, impatient things, trying to get him to stop erasing, he let her words drop.
"Barry, I'm saving this beer for you."
Outside the door the street was filling quickly with the stagnant heat of night. Clare could feel the sweat running in thin streams between her breasts, under her arms, everywhere clothing touched her body. Only the tile floor and the cool breeze blowing from the darkest corner of the storefront felt cool, ancient even. She was hoping Barry would come out, hoping that they could sit outside the night, hoping they could go back downtown and take a shower. Joe had been unusually calm when they went back for the oil lamps and was almost apologetic the day that they move the boxes. They had been back often since, to eat, to bathe, even to sleep. Joe always pretended that they had never left, even though they had taken everything, and when they slept there, they slept on the couch under borrowed blankets.
"A gun in every toilet. That's what America needs." Joe lifted up the back of the toilet and showed Clare where he had put the gun after emptying it into the skylight. "At least it does some good there. Saves water. Save water. Reduce the arsenal. Kill two birds with one stone."
She thought about it now, the gun, lying mixed up with plumbing parts, cold and blue, a genetically altered shark in a crystalline pool. It waited as easily as the sand sharks as the aquarium waited, pressed up against the glass, their eyes empty shadows, answering nothing. It was the fact that it was there that terrified her. After she had seen the sharks, settled in their depth at the aquarium, she never wanted to swim at Coney Island anymore. It didn't matter that the pollution was more of a threat than the sharks. She knew that they were there, waiting in the clouded waters. She wondered how long it would take to rust. It was always there, whenever she looked, and she always looked. It lay there, blue steel, a precise butterfly captured by the clarity of the water, never aging. She wondered if Joe ever oiled it. She often heard him humming in the bathroom, singing to himself with the shower running, for what seemed like hours. Afterwards the bathroom would smell like a machine shop, even with the window open.
Barry had lived in a machine shop before she met him, and before they had moved in with Joe. On one side, he stacked the blank canvases, squeezed between the heavy machinery and the open space of floor. On the other side, he built a towering barrier of empty cat food cans, arranged in alternating columns and pyramids. She never did figure out just why the men who ran the machine shop agreed to rent him that five hundred square feet of open space smack in the middle of their shop. She didn't think that it was generosity.
It might have been curiosity, or simply an admission on their part that, as machinists, they were no longer considered to be desirable neighbors in a building that was rapidly filling up with artists who paid higher rents and demanded quieter days. Maybe by having an artist in their shop, they felt unified, justified somehow, a part of it all , so to speak. Maybe they related to Barry's piles of rubber erasures, swept neatly at the end of each week into even piles that edged the border of their space and his. Maybe they reminded them of their own piles of thin blue scrapings of hardened steel, their own removals, made them feel like artists, too, turning out the nuts and bolts of society. Maybe they liked it when those two piles touched, ashes to ashes; summer moving into fall.
Maybe they just liked the idea of having someone there, day and night, long after they had gone home to their quiet homes with wide green lawns on Long Island. It didn't seem to matter. They never complained about Barry's old tom cat; they were glad to have the mice gone. Barry never complained about the constant slamming of the machines. He was solitary and eccentric enough not to interfere with their business. They explained to their customers that he was a caretaker, and he explained to his cat that landlords were always strange, always demanding, and never perfect. It seemed like a perfect marriage, until Clare moved in.
"Barry, honey, bring me another beer out of the cooler when you come out, will you?" Clare rolled her T-shirt up to her breasts and blew softly on her naked belly. "Bring one for you, too. I drank yours."
Barry appeared suddenly in the doorway, one arm holding a large piece of paper at arms length from his body. He stepped over Clare's outstretched arm and sat on the narrow doorstep, slipping his long legs into the shadow.
"You want to see it? It's done."
He covered Clare's stomach with the paper and, in one motion, she sat up and held the drawing into the yellow of the street lights. The entire paper seemed to be virginal, excepting a pale blue line that encircled the perimeter, the original line that marked the border of the drawing. She could only detect a few dimples, and one obvious scar, where the pencil had intruded with greater vehemence than expected, where the line could not be completely erased. Aside from these deviations, it was impossible to find any clue as to what the drawing had looked like before he had erased it. The paper appeared unused, casually scarred.
"I'm giving this one to Joe. It's about him, you know."
Clare pretended to look surprised, and, in a way, she was surprised. She was amazed that he would tell her just what he had drawn, something that he had never done before, and she was amazed that he was drawing now for survivors of the war. She was glad to be surprised, genuinely surprised, as she did not want him to know that she had seen the drawing. She had peeked over his shoulder earlier in the day, when he was so intent on drawing that he had not heard her come in. She stood behind him for nearly ten minutes, watching him work. He never looked up. She wanted to reach down and touch him, to move the long hair off his neck and kiss the soft down that grew there at the base of his skull. She reached out once, but she stopped, inches from the skin of his neck, unwilling to break the spells, unwilling to stop the methodical rocking of his hands.
He moved the pencil up and down the drawing, adding line after line, until Joe's eyes flashed from the paper, staring to the farthest distance, opened to a capacity that seemed jammed by memory, looking around a corner, a corner so far behind him that he would have to walk blocks to find it. There was a tiger with its mouth open behind him and the barrel of a gun pressed against his temple, covering his ear. The lower half of his face was obscured with shadows of palm trees bent against the wind, so she couldn't see if his mouth was open or closed, but she could tell by the set of his eyes that, whatever he was doing or saying, it was in silence. She watched until the beads of sweat began to form around the edges of Joe's eyes and drip through the shadows of the trees behind. Then she turned and left the room with an even quieter step than she had come.
"I know that he'll like it. He doesn't have any of your work." Clare tilted the paper toward the blue neon lights of the bar across the street, watching the shadows shift from sour yellow to electric blue. "He'll love it."
"Oh, Clare, sweet, sweet Clare." Barry buried his face in her thick red hair and ran his fingers lightly down her back. "Sweet Clare, with the waterfall hair, where would the world be without you? Where would I be?"
"Why did you. . ."
She wanted to ask him to tell her about the drawing, about Joe, about the moment she had seen that afternoon looking over his shoulder, the moment that had passed years ago, the moment that he had erased today. She wanted to know about the shadows, the gun, the sweat that mixed somehow with tears. She wanted to know about the hand that held the gun. She wanted to know.
"Funny," she said, "I got something for Joe today, too."
After she had left the room, startled by the click of the door latch, she walked to Canal Street. She wanted to walk to Chinatown and pick up some bok-choi and beansprouts to take downtown. She was thinking about making stir-fry for dinner, cooking on the roof, balancing the wok on the stack of bricks that was Joe's make-shift barbecue. She might even get a few shrimp to sweeten the pot. Before she bought the cabbage, the beansprouts and then some mushrooms, while she was still thinking about it, she was stopped by a tiny old lady with a spider's face.
The old woman waved a quick hand at Clare as she went by and yelled, you, you, you come buy. Clare might not have stopped if she hadn't turned, startled by the bird-like cry, and caught a flash of the woman's eyes and thought instantly of the drawing that she had just seen, of Joe's eyes, and the gun, lying in the crystal water behind the toilet. In that one moment of hesitation, the woman darted in front of her and stopped her cold.
"You buy. You buy." She held two huge bloody fish steaks above her head. "These good, real good. My son, he caught this morning. Real fresh. Real fresh."
The old woman waved the fish steaks about her head, shaking them like soundless rattles. Clare didn't know what to say, so she stood there and watched, trying to remember the few words of Vietnamese that Joe had taught her. She felt that she needed a talisman of some sort to break the spell.
"This big shark. Good meat. Best meat." She slapped the steaks together, and Clare stepped back to avoid the watery spray of blood and juice. "The shark, he don't forget. He don't remember. He been here so long, he can't remember. He know too much so he can't forget either. You buy. You eat and you have what he have. You can't remember. You can't forget. That good."
By then the old woman was wrapping the fish in newspaper, and Clare was digging into the bottom of her bag to find change. She never went any further. She never bought the bean sprouts or the bok-choi. Somehow it didn't seem sensible to walk along Canal Street with only three dollars and six pounds, at least, of shark under her arm. She went home, watched the sunset, drank a beer and wondered if they had any charcoal.
"You ever eat barbecued shark, Barry? I bet it tastes like tuna or swordfish or something. I was thinking we could barbecue it. Maybe pick up some tomatoes and parsley at the bodega." Clare tipped her head into Barry's shoulder and drained the last of the beer into her mouth, hiccuped once and smiled briefly. "What do you think?"
"Sweet Clare, sweet, beautiful Clare." Barry moved the drawing from her stomach and rested his fingers on the damp surface of her skin. "I think I want to kiss you."
"Come on, Barry, this is the street. You know, public place, man. What about that guy over there?"
Clare gestured briefly towards a man moving unsteadily from the open doorway of the bar, his arms held at abrupt angles, clawing the air, searching for invisible support. "I mean, would you want to lying here, making love, when the cops arrive to take away that body? That would be kind of harsh, don't you think, even with all this soft romantic streetlight."
She started to laugh but ended choking, spitting her beer in the street.
Barry turned and watched the man stumble and fall against a late model Cadillac, parked halfway down the block with its engine running. He saw him grab the door handle, hesitate for a short moment, yank the door as if falling, and then pull it again, only harder this time. The man howled two unmistakable words and pounded his fist into the top of the car. Barry sighed and ran his fingers through Clare's hair.
"Look's like he is in some pain."
The night air was thicker now with the cries of the man and the damp of the day settling, without wind, without the slightest breeze, on the still warm sidewalks. No lights turned on; no windows opened. No heads turned. there was no one to bother. A middle aged man, slightly heavy around the middle, flushed from drink and still dressed for a Wall Street day, pounded on a late model Cadillac parked in a dark alley with its motor running. Barry looked at Clare, and Clare looked at Barry. They both shrugged simultaneously and laughed at the mirror of their motion.
"OK." Clare flung her empty beer can through the open doorway and stood up. Cupping one hand to her mouth, she howled the howl of a threatened coyote in the direction of the raging man. Instantly, there was quiet, uninterrupted silence. "OK. Talk to us, Mr. Man. We live here, you know. If you want to beat up on your car, maybe you could do it on the next block. She doesn't seem to want to go with you."
The man stared at Clare and shifted his bulk onto the hood of the car before leaning back and shouting across the distance separating them. He didn't smile.
"I...locked..my...keys...in the god-damned car." He said each word with a flat precision and gestured at an odd angle into the shadow. "It's going to run out of god-damned gas and then how in the hell am I going to get to god-damned New Jersey?"
"Do you like to eat shark?" Clare took three steps toward the car, dropped to her knees and fell to the cobblestones. In an instant she sprang to her feet and twirled around, facing the running car and the man, still standing alone, now with one arm raised. "Just kidding. Seriously, Mr. New Jersey, this isn't really a problem, not a problem, not at all. It just isn't. This is minor, Mr. Man, minor. All we need here is one genuine metal coat hanger."
It didn't take long to find a coat hanger, and it didn't take long to bend it into a hook. It didn't take long to spring the lock, and it didn't take long to open the door. If Barry had bothered to record the time, he would have remembered less than five minutes, but he didn't record it and he didn't remember it. He had given up breaking the day into hours and had forgotten how to isolate minutes. He did remember, weeks later, that before the man heaved himself, damp and trembling, into the car, he went back into the bar and came out with an unopened bottle of whiskey. He pressed it into Clare's hand with a sweaty wordless gratitude. Barry tasted it and spat it on the sidewalk. He declared it rot-gut and washed his mouth out with beer. Clare tasted it, licked her lips and smiled before she whispered, shark bait, sweet dear shark bait. She drank it all and forgot everything that he remembered.
She forgot that after draining the last drop, she threw the empty bottle in a high arc. She watched it slow at the top of its pass, three stories high, and hurtle downward, flashing blue and orange as the neon lights flashed, until it exploded against the cobblestones again and again in a repeated echo. She laughed then. Barry forgot that but remembered that she climbed to the top of a forty yard dumpster, abandoned in the front of the empty building across the street, scaling its flanks with the agility of a mountain goat. It was still and hard and dry, hot to the touch, with none of the cool damp of a rock face. He thought so then, but forgot it now. She forgot that she stood, teetering on the crumpled edge of the dumpster, yodeling and snorting, her arms outstretched and her hair dripping into shadow, yelling about fledgling eagles and meteorites crashing down to earth. She forgot that she jumped, without considering the distance, thinking only of the emptiness of space and the grave and sudden support that comes with absence, arms flung to one side, fingers webbed against the dark, mouth open without sound. She remembered thinking about the palisades that towered above the beach and the sound of a freight train, traveling non-stop to San Diego, mixed up with waves. She thought about the Washington Monument and her own indignation with the passing of time. She remembered the glass raining down from the skylight while the sound of the explosion was still echoing. She forgot that she was falling.
Barry remembered watching her body, turning between itself and electric blue, the shadow of flashing neon lights, disappearing into light only to reappear more distorted and distended than before. He remembered throwing his arms toward the cloud of red hair and seeing only fire and palm trees and smelling the stagnant smell of the swamps. He remembered how white the space between her fingers looked and that her eyes closed slowly as she fell. He remembered that she yelled out three words, light of dark, just before her body careened into his, and he felt his knees crumple with the impact of her body. He forgot that he could not catch her, and that when she fell against him, he could not hold her. Her body slipped away from his. He remembered that he tried to keep her head from hitting the cobblestones, but that it had bounced like a half inflated beach ball before he caught it and held her, tangled in her hair and the thinness of her arms. He could remember that the night smelled like steel, blue and hard, without a pulse. He did not remember sweating, and he was sure that he did not cry out, even once. He forgot that it was August and that there were meteor showers somewhere out beyond the apricot skies that stared back at him as he lay under her motionless body, back against the cobblestones. He remembered that he gathered her completely in his arms and kissed her sagging open mouth and then pressed her lips together between his forefinger and his thumb. He remembered holding his ear against her chest and hearing the steady beat of her heart and the ragged edge of shallow breath.
She forgot that he carried her, folded and unconscious, past the gaping shadow and the empty beer cans and laid her gently on the mattress, kissing her over and over and over again, before covering her with a single blue cotton sheet. She remembered waking once and seeing a rat run, tail whipping behind like a jungle snake. She remembered that the flame in the oil lamp was turned too high and that the globe was turning black with smoke. She felt the damp of the rag as he cleaned the yellow vomit off her face and the blood from the cut above her eye. He forgot the shark steaks, wrapped in newspaper, left them lying on the sidewalk next to the door. It was understandable. She remembered that only because she found the newspaper, ravished and empty, the next afternoon, smelling of rotting shark's blood and gasoline. It was blowing with no speed or distance in the gutter, not far from the empty lot. She felt a sharp pain in her head when she bent to pick it up.
"There goes the barbecue," she said, "up in smoke."
tomatoes ink drawing 1976 Tia Ballantine
Dear Killer Boy
I am writing by the light of the moon and inside a fierce wind rushing out of the valley mouth. I figure must be some kind of wild storm on the other side of the island if a wind this strong is slamming over the mountains and rushing out to sea with such force. It’s cold – cold enough for heavy sweaters and socks, and, I suppose, if it’s only cold enough for sweaters and socks that might seem warm to those who are battling snow in the dark lands of the north but here in the Pacific we don’t appreciate cold winds even though we expect them especially at this time of year, which is November, but I am getting ahead of myself and I am running out of breath. The fact of the matter is I don’t have a sweater and I sure as hell don’t have socks. I’ve been out here on this end of the island living in a tent on the beach for the last six months or so and nobody knows I’m here. I mean nobody who counts for nothing, like my sergeant, that gung-ho platoon leader, who couldn’t shut up about how many Iraqis he killed and how many more he intended to kill. That’s you, killer boy. I got so sick and tired of listening to all that crap running out of your mouth that I just packed my gear and left the day before we were scheduled to leave for Iraq. I decided I’d had enough. I wasn’t going to kill anyone.
Wow, that was one helluva a gust of wind. Glad I have my tent tethered with boulders not just rocks. Smart move, Jerrycan, smart move. As you might guess, that’s not my real name. After all, I’m officially AWOL, gone fishin’, out to lunch, outta town. But that’s what I call myself. Not like “jerrycan,” the thing, but like “jerrycan,” the verb, jerry can do, jerry can go, and jerry did go. Wasn’t that hard actually. I picked up all my army issue hardware and walked out behind the barracks, way out into those dry scratchy weeds. I had a shovel and meant to dig a deep hole, throw all that junk down the hole and bury it, but I got lucky. Somewhere out back, somewhere we never went, not as a team anyway, I stumbled over what was either an old bore hole or one of those lava tubes my buddy Keanu was always talking about. I threw some rocks down inside. I never heard one hit bottom so I began to throw the ammo in, bullet by bullet, but don’t worry. I made sure it wouldn’t explode. I dipped each bullet into this gallon can of roofing tar I had lugged out with me, coated each one in sticky goo and then tossed it down. I suppose that’s not very ecological but what’s better, live ammo or dead ammo? I always say the only good bullet is a dead bullet. I’ll say this too. I never heard any explosions when I tossed those bullets down the hole even though they must have fallen far enough to pick up quality speed, as we say, so I suppose my little plan worked. After I had “unburdened” myself – ha ha – down the hole with all those little death machines, I sat down on this huge lava rock worn as smooth as the palm of my hand and took apart my gun. When it was in pieces – tiny pieces – I went back to base and walked around, putting one or two pieces in every garbage can I saw. The can outside the officers’ mess hall got the trigger. Let them have it.
Then, I found my civvies – the jeans and t-shirts I had brought with me from home – and stuffed them in a plastic garbage sack. But no socks. No sweater. The minute the plane set down in Honolulu, I took my socks off and stuffed them in that Agriculture Amnesty bin, joking with my buddy Steve that Hawai`i’s agriculture boys would have some fun sorting out Missouri’s fleas. I didn’t figure I’d be needing any socks in Hawai`i. After all, ain’t this place paradise? Hey, hey, hey, I know what you’re doing, marking down the names of my buddies, noting my home state, figuring that’s how you’ll find me, but give it up, killer boy. Do you really think I would put real info like that in a note like this? No way. Keanu? Not his name. Steve. Nope. He answers to some other moniker. Missouri? Never been there, but I am mainland. Yup, me and how many other thousands. Go figure. You’ll just have to guess.
I can see you rolling your eyes, muttering to that guy with the stone chin and all those stars and bars decorating his chest that I must be really dumb, that I somehow forget all you have to do is check out who left, who disappeared. Yeah, you go ahead and do that, killer boy, but what you and I both know is that the whole platoon took off. Yeah, yeah, I’m not just a wild renegade fed up with the kill-kill-kill mentality of the US Army. We were all fed up and we planned this mass exit. Together, killer boy. A joint effort. Took us months and you know the funny thing is, our little plan actually worked. Nothing like a good old patriotic holiday like the Fourth of July to provide cover for departure. Nothing like “bombs exploding in air” to shield a meltdown. You can drag me out of my flimsy tent, killer boy, and shine your high voltage lights in my eyes, pour water down my throat, but you won’t get more from me than I’m telling you here. I don’t really know where the other guys went. They just melted off into the night. Oh say can you see. The thing is nobody did see. Hell, they haven’t been seeing anything for a while, a good long while. Born on the Fourth of July. That’s me, reborn anyway.
I’d mouthed off to the sergeant that morning so I was on garbage duty, which was fine with me, made the garbage bag for my clothes a-okay. I never made it down to the festivities, just walked off base and hopped the bus to Wai`anae. Been here ever since. Nobody’s looking for me and I’m not looking for trouble. Ya see, killer boy, you know and I know, the guys with the stars and the bars don’t want the American public to know that a whole platoon went AWOL, not good publicity for their nasty little war games. Might damage morale and all that. So they’re keeping the whole thing under cover, but I know our plan worked. We can all feel good about doing our bit for our country, staying out of war, not gun country but people country, mothers and babies. I hear from some of my buds now and again. They’re here there and everywhere, melting back into the stewpot, I guess. Most just checked out of Hawai`i, went down to the docks and boarded yachts waiting in the dark. You’d be surprised, killer boy, how many folks are not for war, how many are eager to help soldiers escape the killing road. Just like way back in the days of Vietnam, a bunch went to Canada, but I can tell you that SK’s working in his cousin’s day care center somewhere in the middle of Nebraska. TJ’s paving roads in NJ, and KP’s out here with me. We’re building a fishing business.
Yeah, Vietnam, Canada, the South Seas. My dad was a Vietnam vet so you might say I never really knew him. I mean, he tried to be good father and all that. On his good days, when there was light in his eyes, he took me to ball games, taught me how to fish, how to build a fire that would light with one match, but usually he was absent somehow. At least that’s what I remember. He died when I was twelve, and I know that memory is sometimes a curtain covering the stage so don’t quote me, killer boy. Can’t tell how much of this is 100% accurate but I do know that the main points are. In the winter, Dad sat for hours staring through the window at nothing but snow spiraling in the porch light. Odd. It’s not that the never-ending snow spirals weren’t fascinating. They were. One night, I sat and watched them for a while with him. I let my mind fall into the swirling snow until I was a universe forming. It was awesome. After that night I had a great deal more respect for snow staring, but I couldn’t tell him that. Well, I might have, but he might not have answered. Most days, he never said a word. One January afternoon when the sun was glaring off the piled snow, my sister climbed in his lap but he didn’t even put his arm around her. He just sat there staring. I heard my Mom talking on the phone with her sister the next day. She called Dad a “living monument to war,” said he should be installed in D.C. instead of that polished black slab carved with all those names. Nothing polished about veterans of war, she said. Hers, she said, was filled with holes. I guess, in the end, it was the polish of that monument that shattered his own bronze exterior, let his heart out, left him dead.
Every year in July – always July – he would take to the road. Usually he drove north. Mom told us he needed time “alone” (as if he was never alone in our house) to think. She tried to explain to us about the war without being too graphic, but I got the picture. Thatched roofs on fire, kids running down dirt road with flames on their backs, mothers dead with babies bleeding in their arms. She said Dad being there, seeing all that, had made him silent. All that death was still inside his heart, that’s what she said, and sometimes he just needed to go deep into the woods and let it all out. I asked her why he didn’t just go into the backyard and yell at the pine trees, and she laid her hand on my cheek and said in that soft musical voice of hers, almost like humming it was, that she didn’t know, but she did know that he couldn’t. He couldn’t cry here in his home in front of her in front of us. Here he had to be strong, a monument to war, steel and stone. Well, he’s not here now. I miss him. I miss my Mom. I miss her hand on my cheek. I really wish I had known my Dad better, really wish I had better memories than him staring out at snow. Sometimes, late at night when me and the guys are sitting down by the surf, telling stories, I think I see Dad, sitting out there, cross-legged on the waves looking at me with those empty eyes. I know he wants to tell me something. I like to think he’s glad I threw all those bullets down that hole.
I’m getting ahead of myself again or falling behind, can’t tell which. Anyway, one July Dad threw his duffle into our broken down Camaro, and we all knew right away he was off on one of his “fishing” trips. When the car pulled out, I kicked the porch rail so hard I think I jarred it loose. I was mad. More than mad. I was furious. Dad’s little excursions always upset our household, but this summer both my older sister and my Mom had jobs and I was the star pitcher on my Little League team. My sister was working at the Dairy Queen about four miles down the road and Mom had a job right near the baseball diamond at the other end of town. I told my sis that she could use my bike to get back and forth from work, that I would drive to the ball field with Mom and come home when she finished work. It was a good plan, and I felt like a real grown-up thinking it up, especially the part about the bike. The plan worked. At first, our days were seamless, but when Dad powered up the Camaro and took off in a cloud of smoke, I knew what it meant. Yeah, sure, Dad would be gone for a few weeks, but we were used to that. After all, like I said, he was more absent than present most if the time. Actually, truthfully, our house got livelier when Dad took to the woods. We all laughed more, or so it seemed. Then, anyway. The problem was that he took the car. Mom and I would have to be on the bus, and the bus route was one that required changing buses midstream, waiting for what always seemed to be an hour for another broken-down bus to come chugging up the road. My practice schedule would be shot to hell. As far as my pea brain knew, those taillights turning the corner, heading to the highway, signaled the end of my illustrious pitching career in the majors. I was so pissed, I put my fist through the screen door, and I have been swimming through that hole ever since.
Dad never came home from that fishing trip. He didn’t get lost in the woods or blown away by the tornado that set down miles away from his fishing camp that week. He never went to the woods. He drove instead to D.C. and got lost in the shadows of another forest thousands of miles away, a rainforest on fire, and I can tell you this, the tornado that hurled him into the ground was on no one’s radar screen. We learned later was that Dad had gone to the Vietnam Memorial, that slick polished stone, so dark it swallows any reflection, and made rubbings of the neatly carved names of friends killed in the war. Then, he went back to the motel and wrote the details of their deaths on tiny slips of paper that he sewed to the rice paper rubbing with pieces of red cotton thread. That’s the part that I can’t seem to forget. It still lives in my heart – Dad’s fingers pulling a needle and thread through the thick rice paper, attaching each tiny tab, all those little flags of life fluttering on that paper tomb. Markers. Imagine this. The police actually rolled the rice paper screen up and presented to my mother – a sacred testament of war, more commandments than ten – but by then, it was so covered with blood that we really couldn’t read most of the names or many of details of death. Those little warning flags were glommed one to another. Blood brothers still, I guess. After Dad fleshed out those names with details of life and death, he took his hunting rifle out of his duffle bag, rigged up a way to pull the trigger, put the muzzle in his mouth and blew his brains all over his own Vietnam memorial.
Well, killer boy, I could end my letter there, I suppose, but I don’t want to. The sun is coming up. The wind is dying down and the roosters across the street are getting louder by the minute. Pilahi has two hens in her second tent and I think those old cocks know it. Keanu has the propane stove fired up, steam rising from the pot. Tea soon. The sea has a good chop on it this morning, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be fishing. I can feel those nets swelling with fish, but you, killer boy, you can cast your net just as far as you want but you should know your net has just as many holes as it has bells and whistles. We made those holes. We know they are there. None of us fish who escaped your trap are swimming back.
* * * * *
Believe in Peace. Work for Peace. Live for Peace.