The bullet

 

Bullet

“Dodged” a bullet. John Spade

I don’t often get reader requests for posts here on my blog, but after sharing an exercise on writing about your past —”When you look back at your life, what do you see?”— a phrase about my childhood home stirred some curiosity and I promised to tell the story behind it.

So if you read Dust motes and asked about “Bullet in the living room rug, in the floor, if you know where to look,” today’s post is officially dedicated to you.

To recollect these details, I had to submerge a good while in Long Ago. When this event occurred I was around eight years old. That part’s blurry.

The rest, however, is all too vivid . . .

Mom lifts the curtain again but there’s only blackness beyond the picture window. I know by her sigh that the street is empty. No sign of Deb. She has never been this late before. She’s usually here before supper but tonight we had to go ahead and eat, hours ago. Baby Aimee—Deb’s baby—is fussy because she’s ready to go to bed and can’t settle. Mom holds her on one hip, says “Shhh, shhh, you’ll be going home to sleep soon.” Something icy glitters in my mother’s black eyes as she looks out of the window into the night.

Aimee’s eyes are almost as black as my mother’s. Big and round. They make me think of Looney Tunes characters when they’re sad, how their eyes go all huge and dark. Baby Aimee’s eyes always look like this, huge and dark, even when she’s standing in the playpen staring up at me in the daytime when I get home from school. She can stand without holding on now but isn’t really walking yet because she’s only one year old. She hangs onto my mother, her cheeks pink and watery, her big eyes shiny.

Mama,” she cries over and over. “Mama.” And she buries her face in my mother’s shoulder.

I am sorry for Aimee because she’s little and doesn’t understand things yet. I am starting to feel sorry for Mom because it’s not easy to take care of someone else’s baby while they work all day and then don’t show up and you don’t know why . . . 

“Mom! What if something has happened to  . . . “

She turns on me, her mouth a tight line under those icy-hot eyes. “Shh!” she nearly spits.

And I know, I know why.

Mom’s afraid.

Just then headlights shine through the window. Mom snatches back the curtain. Her body softens like a flower in a glass of water. 

“Thank God.” 

She squeezes past the playpen—it takes up the most of our living room floor spaceand goes to open the front door.

I hear Deb’s laughter before I see her.

Someone is with her.

They come in.

Deb is short with shoulder-length reddish hair and glasses. She dresses in what teachers at my school call “mod.” Sometimes short skirts and boots or chunky shoes, sometimes vests and bell-bottoms. Deb smiles a lot but tonight she can’t stop laughing about something. Even when she says to Mom, “I am sorry it’s so late, had some car trouble…this is Ab. My boyfriend.”

Ab, standing partly behind  Deb, is very tall. His face is thin and white, his hair black, curly, reaching past his shoulders. He’s wearing a long fur coat. I’ve never seen a man in a fur coat before. He nods to my mother when Deb introduces them but he says nothing. 

Mom looks at me, hard. “Go to bed now.”

I know this really means “I’ve got things to say that you don’t need to hear” and so I head down the hall without a word—

—BANG—

—a flash of light, the loudest sound, thunder in the house, like a car hitting it, shaking it, rattling the windows—

a scream, not sure whose, my mother’s or Deb’s—

baby screams—

I run the few steps back to the living room.

There’s a funny smell, something smoky.

Pieces of brown fur, hundreds of pieces, floating through the air. 

Deb’s crying now, her screaming baby in her arms. Ab’s face is whiter than before. I stand, frozen, as my mother demands the gun he has in his pocket, or the pocket he had a minute ago, before he blew it to smithereens.

HOW DARE YOU bring a gun into this house, around other people, around children! To stand here with your finger on the trigger…Give. It. To. Me. NOW.”

And Ab places the handgun in my mother’s open palm.

As her hand closes around it he hurries out of the door, away from her, back into the night.

*******

After Deb and Ab were gone—and after she vacuumed up all the fur—Mom ran her fingers over the rug. She found the hole and the bullet lodged in the hardwood floor beneath. For as long as we lived in that house, I could find the bullet, too.

The house still stands, so as far as I know, the bullet remains there to this day.

I can’t recall what became of Deb and her beautiful baby, Aimee, or how quickly after the bullet they quit coming to our house. I changed their names in case they’re still alive out there, somewhere. I wonder if they are. And what their stories are. And if I could stand knowing.

I really wonder about Ab.

All I know is that my mother kept his gun a long time. I’m not sure she ever gave it back. Or where in the house she hid it. Somewhere far away from children…

I think a lot about the darkness of that night, of a baby’s big, frightened eyes, of being completely at the mercy of others and their choices, not just sweet baby Aimee, long, long ago when I was still a child…but my mother, who didn’t drive, who babysat for many years to make ends meet, who accommodated other people’s schedules and whims, who was dependent on others to go anywhere or get anything she needed. Some might say powerless.

But they didn’t see her take a gun away from a strange man who towered over her, a man who, as far as I know, never darkened our door again.

I did.

The moment reverberates in my mind still. Lodged deep, so deep in my memory, lying there all this time, covered by layers and layers of stuff …

The power remains, if you know where to look.

 

Dust motes

Dust motes

Dust. ZoiKorakiCC BY

Last week I had the pleasure of co-facilitating my district’s third annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute. K-12 teachers were invited to deepen their sense of identity as writers, hone their craft, and experiment with form. Guest author Matt de la Peña led us through a series of writing explorations on Day One.

Here’s how it went for me as de la Peña used this exchange from “Steady Hands at Seattle General,” a short story by Denis Johnson, as a springboard for capturing images: 

“What about your past?”
“What about it?”
“When you look back, what do you see?”
“Wrecked cars.”

What might those two words mean, de la Peña muses aloud for the benefit of participants. 

“Wrecked cars?” Might they be literal or figurative? 

He goes on: Choose two words to create an image describing your past—when you look back, what do you see? 

At first I wrote ‘Christmas trees’. When I look back, I see them. From my grandmother’s all-silver, 1960s tabletop tree to my real Fraser fir decked in Victorian decor. Christmas trees mean another year is ending. That life and perspectives change continuously. To me they symbolize more than tradition. They mark time. Eras. Celebrations. Losses. Our children grow up; grown-ups from our own childhood pass away . . . between chapters of the unfolding story of life stands a tree.

When I look back, I see it all.

Suddenly I don’t want to use those words, Christmas trees.

In that instant, two other words materialize: 

Dust motes. 

I do not know why.

Except that I can clearly see the image of my childhood living room, a shaft of light between the drawn curtains of the picture window, the dust floating there, tiny specks of gold— 

He’s speaking, de la Peña. Asking if any of us would share our two words.

After a moment, I volunteer. 

“Dust motes?” he questions.  “I’ve not heard this before. I’m curious—why?”

Well,” I say, thinking as I speak, “it’s the image that came to mind, a shaft of light with dust specks floating in it . . . maybe because as a child I spent much time to myself, reading, in the stillness, in silences . . . when I look back, that’s what I see. Dust motes being partly your own skin. Shed cells. Pieces of yourself floating in that light . . . “

His expression is unfathomable. 

He says: “That’s fascinating and eerie. It lends itself to something really creepy . . .”

I consider this a compliment. 

De la Peña shares a model, “What Jimmy Remembers” from Jimmy & Rita by Kim Addonizio (2012):

Girls in white stockings and checkered wool jumpers, round white collars, red bows at their throats. Birds in Saint Christopher’s schoolyard—hundreds of them, black, spread out across the lawn in late afternoon. The brick wall of the steel mill on Dye Street he could see from the living room window, his father in there working, his mother in a shiny black dress coming in at dawn after singing in some nightclub, waking him for school. Shivering and dressing over the heating vent in the front hall. Dark-blue blazer and black shoes. A puppy that died of distemper, put in a shopping bag and into a can in Bushler’s Alley. Cotton candy on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, the barkers calling Hey bub, Hey sonny, Buster, Skip, You. . .The black hearse carrying his father through the snow, a semicircle of metal folding chairs. The green faces in avocado leaves smiling down at him. God in the clouds. Who art in Heaven. His mother, ghost now: wearing a stolen mink, flipping a cigarette from a deck of Lucky’s. His father moving toward her with a match, cupping his palms around the flame.

—All images, fragments, this bit of microfiction.

“Now, using your two words as a title, take a few minutes to write what you remember from your past, but here’s the challenge: Don’t mention those two words in your scene,” says de la Peña. “Don’t worry about proper sentences. Just write . . . “

My pencil is already scratching away against the notebook paper: 

Hand-me-down corduroy Levi’s in baby blue, green, tan, cream. Ashtrays overflowing. Trips in aging Fords to buy discounted boxes of Salem menthols. Complimentary bubblegum cigarettes. A screen of smoke in the air mingled with chicken grease. Ivory Liquid suds in the sink, stiff, dry, stained with spaghetti sauce. Bathroom wall by the tub caving in where a soap dish used to be. The biting scent of Pine-Sol as it’s poured in the toilets, rolling white like smoke, clouding the water like creamer in coffee. Vaporizer in my bedroom, rattling, sputtering. The hallway, broom leaning against the wall, a gathered pile of gray lint.  Bullet in the living room rug, in the floor, if you know where to look. Books. Books. Books. Silences. Shafts of light through the picture window, beckoning from beyond. The wrought-iron lamppost by the concrete steps leading to and from the front door, the heavy, decadent fragrance of my mother’s gardenias in various stages of living and dying on the bushes there. Church carillon chiming, loud and clear, from several blocks away: Let me hide myself in Thee. The pungent whiff of crab from the factory, if the wind is just right. Salt. Salt. On my baked potato, tin foil too hot to touch, on my popcorn, on the wind. The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. All we are is dust in the wind. Words and words in my head and my heart, pouring onto stacks of pages that are always able to hold it all, and which never judge, which just absorb, and save.

There you have it. Dust motes. What I see when I look back, at least in part.

With apologies to Matt de la Peña, for while I didn’t use “motes” anywhere in my remembering, there was just no getting around “dust.” 

But also with deepest thanks to him for creating the conditions for this writing to occur.

Which is what good writing teachers do.

Coaching metaphor

During recent professional development sessions on “Coaching the Coach” at Ocracoke Island, the facilitator charged participants with finding a metaphor for coaching.

We were to take a photo. We would write to it.

There were no other parameters.

Ocracoke is a tiny place full of narrow, twisting roads, quaintness, legend, and mystery. It has around a thousand inhabitants. In tourist season one has to drive with extreme care as the streets become clogged with pedestrians, horses, bicyclists, golf carts, and cats (the island has a rampant feral cat population). The word island might as well be a synonym for enchantment or mystical; a sense of these hang in the air along with the salt. Sort of like expectancy.

When I first saw the grove of trees—predominantly live oaks—on the corner lot of a house converted to a bookstore, I thought: What a restful place. It has its own particular allure. While there are larger live oaks, individual, ancient giants, elsewhere on the island, these smaller trees grow together, toward one another. I read somewhere that live oaks focus their energy on growing out, not up; perhaps this is especially important in a place where ocean winds continually carve the landscape. These trees survive hurricanes. They flourish in salty places.

The early May afternoon was hot; the sun blazed overhead. I noted the profuse shade under the trees. They stand leaning inward, reaching to one another, as if intentionally collaborating to benefit all who enter their realm of existence. No one tree stands out. It’s a joint effort. I walked into their proffered coolness, this respite, this shelter, envisioning how their roots are deeply intertwined, that they draw collective strength in their mutuality. They are anchored together. That’s part of how they endure. A foundation from which to grow, branch out, and sustain their own lives and others’.

There is more, there is always more, to a metaphor, for it knows no parameters, either. It can keep on going and going, changing shape, developing new layers in new light. It’s supposed to, just like learning. Like life. I just choose to stop here.

For now.

Coaches, teachers

gathered

in rapport, mirrored

growing together

toward one another

is strength

and refuge.

For all.

Reliquary

A little copper box. On its lid, two seahorses free-floating in a bed of tiny, shimmering beads.

When I saw it in the island’s gift shop showcase, it spoke to me:

I was made for you.

But what ARE you? I wondered. A curiously small trinket box? 

Then I saw the inconspicuous card in the shadowy showcase corner—as if it had just materialized.

—Reliquary.

That is when I knew.

“Ahem—can I please see this little box?” I called to the shopkeeper. Once the enchanting object left the glass case it would never go back.

The shopkeeper, an older lady with shoulder-length sandy hair, a friendly face, and a bohemian air, chattered happily as she withdrew the box and placed it in my open palm. One of a kind. Handmade by an artist. A reliquary.

A work of art, I thought, tilting the box in my hand. The beads in the lid shifted like grains of sand; the seahorses drifted over their pearly sea. Meant to hold relics. Something special. Something holy.

I had no idea exactly what. 

I only knew it was mine as soon as I saw it.

Or that maybe I belonged to it.

First of all, the seahorses. A symbol I love, one I’ve adopted as my writerly motif. Hippocampus. There are two in the reliquary lid; there are two in the human brain. They help new memories form. They are tied to learning and emotion.

A glimmering of blue against rolling quicksilver . . . I begin to see, to understand, a little.

Whatever stirs in my brain, in my heart, finds its way onto a page. My notebooks are reliquaries. My blog is a reliquary. They hold my learning—they often reveal my learning to me—as I write. They hold my emotions, my memories, bits and pieces of my existence. My relics. Words.

On a metaphorical level, that is what the box represents. My writer-soul, poured out, made visible, received in a keeping-place.

On a physical level, the box is quite real, tangible, and empty, waiting to hold something worthy. It will come. I will know it when it does. For now my reliquary sits on my dresser. Whenever I pass by, the hippocampi in my brain flutter at the sight of the hippocampi on the lid. For in the vast currents of living, of thought, grains gather one by one to form something solid. Somewhere in the waiting lies an invitation, expectancy, a sudden discovering. A work of art, ever and always developing—because, in truth, we are all reliquaries.

 

Walk with me

“Jerusalem” donkeys live in a pasture near my home. They are so named for the cross formed by black stripes across their shoulders and down their backs. The donkey is a symbol of peace, for they are peaceable creatures, although farmers know they will protect livestock by driving away coyotes.

The donkey currently plays a significant role around the world with the observance of Palm Sunday and Holy Week. The Gospels of Matthew and John both proclaim the fulfilling of Zechariah’s prophecy that the Messiah would come to Jerusalem humbly, riding the foal, or colt, of a donkey. In Mark and Luke, Jesus directs his disciples to a colt “on which no one has yet sat.” Only Matthew records that the unbroken colt doesn’t come on this mission alone: Its mother walks alongside as it carries Jesus through the shouting crowds in the streets of Jerusalem.

It is the image of the mother walking beside her colt—her child—as a calming presence amid chaos, as a needed coach in fulfilling the sacred duty, that suddenly pierced my heart and inspired today’s post.

 

Walk with Me

My world is confined

to the home that I know

until strangers come

to lead me away

—please, will you come with me,

walk with me?

I know not the destination

only that it’s far

beyond what I can see

and I can’t go it alone

I need you by me,

to walk with me.

The crowds, the fervor,

what can it all mean

 but that I’m not safe

in this place of screams

don’t leave me now!

Just walk with me.

Such heavy burdens in this

untamed human world

some worthy, some not.

What’s the difference?

—Show me, I am watching you

walk with me.

A step and a step and a step

at a time,

I find I can carry on

as long as you are here

—because you don’t fear

to walk with me.

It is new to me, 

my burden; but it is light

despite the shadows

you are at peace

—and so am I

for you walk with me.

I know, somehow,

you’ll see me home

when this day, these cries,

this purpose, are done

—so walk with me

walk with me

keep me ever close 

and

walk with me.

Jerusalem donkeys

Mother & baby Jerusalem donkeys. Barbara BresnahanCC BY-SA

Inspiration comes on wings and paws

I saw her a couple of times across the convention center lobby. She wasn’t deliberately calling attention to herself. With her flowing blonde hair and elegant bearing, she couldn’t help standing out in a room full of people. 

I smiled at first glimpse of her: A service dog. 

And such a beautiful one.

I suppressed the urge to go over to her, knowing that service dogs are on duty. I briefly wondered if the man she accompanied had impaired vision or special medical needs and whether this throng of humans had the animal on heightened alert.

Instead I focused on my upcoming break-out session. For the second year, my colleague and I were sharing the effects of my school’s Harry Potter club with attendees of the North Carolina Reading Association. It’s a fun and meaningful presentation centering on the sense of identity that develops among diverse learners in third to fifth grades; many students find it such a place of belonging that they ask to be in the club semester after semester, even if we are reading the same stories and making the same crafts.

The best part is how excited teachers are to attend this session at the conference. Never underestimate the power of Potter . . . as my colleague and I set up the slideshow, the room filled quickly with participants and an air of festive expectancy.

Then—in strolled the service dog! Her person took a seat near the front (he wasn’t vision-impaired; he read the welcome slide and made eye contact in conversation with others). The dog immediately lay on the floor alongside his chair, flat on her side, utterly still. Her gleaming dark eyes gazed toward the front of the room.

What a gentle face. I looked back at those sweet eyes for a lingering second, my curiosity thoroughly piqued with regard to her service role, as my own role of presenter began.

—Here’s hoping you like Harry Potter, little canine friend. 

There she lay throughout, even at the conclusion when teachers came to the front of the room to select materials for making a craft like the club kids do: A clear ornament filled with strips cut from pages of an unsalvageable, falling-apart copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a feather pen, a pencil broom, a flying key. 

The dog’s person chose to make a flying key. When I went to check on his progress, he introduced me to his canine companion:

“This is Palmer.”

Her big eyes considered me benignly.

“Hi, Palmer. You’re a beautiful dog!” I desperately wanted to stroke her lustrous yellow-white fur.  

“Want to see what she can do?” asked Palmer’s person.

“Sure!”

She does tricks, then? Do service dogs actually DO tricks?

I had no idea what to expect.

Couldn’t have predicted . . . .

Her person stood. Palmer instantly stood before him.  Her person produced cards with words on them. As he displayed them one by one, Palmer did exactly what the words on the cards said. Sit, lie, stand . . . her trainer—as that’s clearly what he was, now—even shuffled the cards behind his back, held them up again, and Palmer still enacted the word on each card. Accurately.

At this point the entire room was agog: “The dog’s reading the cards!”

Her trainer smiled. “Palmer helps kids at my school learn to read. Especially first graders with sight words.”

I blinked back a sudden welling of tears, envisioning the children with this dog in the classroom, the joy of it. “How wonderful.”

—”Want to take a picture with her?”

I recovered myself: “Oh—absolutely! I’d be honored!”

So Palmer posed beside me at a table, her paws resting on top. Her trainer held out his newly-made winged key: “Hold it, Palmer.” 

And she took it, ever so gently, in her mouth. She held it for all the photos.

Which, to me, holds great significance.

I always think of the winged key as a symbol for unlocking problematic doors in reaching an important goal, as it did in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I think of it as a metaphor for inspiration, as in flying above and beyond learning obstacles, especially with regard to challenges that some of our Potter club kids have faced.

And here is Palmer, herself a symbol of meeting social-emotional needs, for I have since learned that she goes above and beyond motivating young children who are learning to read. She also helps children at her school attain their behavioral and academic goals. If they need extra encouragement while working on math, or the comfort of a warm, benevolent, stabilizing presence close by, Palmer is there for them. She is a key to overcoming whatever challenges they face. 

—I can think of few things more magical and inspiring. 

Palmer, Educational Assistance Dog.  April 2, 2019.

 

Trust is a reflex

Trust is a reflex

when eyes can’t see

when a presence passes over

and mouths open

anticipating sustenance.

Trust is a reflex

when others draw near

when in their shadow

minds open

to positive intentions.

Trust is a reflex 

perhaps, more than a choice

that the proximity of others

portends benevolence

not harm.

Trust is a reflex

a silent cry of the heart

believing that somehow

someone is near enough 

to hear.

Holy

It is dark, I cannot see.

—Wait a bit, there will be

light.

I  don’t see You, but I’ll trust.

—I made your eyes, they will adjust;

I gave you sight.

So much I see, that should not be.

Be still and leave this all to Me;

it will be right.

 I fear most to see inside of me.

Fear not. Even there I’ll be

to drive away your night.

No darkness is too great for Me.

This I know. It sets me free.

Toward Your light my soul

takes flight.

Dichotomies

Dichotomy
Dichotomy #3 by Abdulaziz al Loghani. Brett JordanCC BY

Our greatest national resource is the minds of our children.

—Walt Disney

When they are hungry

who would give them rocks

When they cry for a spark

who would spew water

When they strive to see

who would deploy smoke and mirrors

When they would fly

who would clip their wings

When they desire to go further up, further in

who would confine, constrain

When they crave autonomy

who would demand automatons

When their differences resemble a separate peace

who would distill a disparate piece

When the lengths they must travel are not equidistant

who would mistake equality for equity 

When they carry fragile fragments of hope within

who would build a diehard dystopia without

When they begin to perceive diversity as a gift

who would wrap it in sameness

When they aren’t the same

who would construct uniform boxes

When they would breathe

who would affix a lid

When the scraping of the adze and the hammering cease

who will hear the sound of fingernails

from inside

the casket of our dichotomies? 

 

Note: If you read “they” as children, try reading with “they” as teachers.

*******

Literary allusions: Matthew 7:9-10 and Luke 11:11-12; The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis; A Separate Peace, John Knowles; Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell; The Giver, Lois Lowry; To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee; As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner.

The gazebo

Gazebo at Night. Lori L. StalteriCC-BY

At first he thought he never wanted to see it again, the little gazebo on campus.

How perfect it was when he last saw it.

He couldn’t have orchestrated things better than they’d played out: the June sunlight just beginning to wane after dinner, shining in a deep, golden slant through the magnolias, the fragrance of the last blooms heavy in the air.

And her.

At last, and again, for they’d broken upon once. This time he knew it was meant to be. Side by side they sat, and he gave her the ring.

She started to cry.

“Will you marry me?”

She wiped her tears, laughed, hugged him. “Yes!”

Perfect. That one afternoon, in the whole of his life, was perfect.

In two weeks she was gone.

Not ready, she told him. They were too young.

That’s it then, he told her. Not now, not ever.  

His friends consoled him: “You ARE too young. Just enjoy life before you worry about getting tied down.”

Trouble was, he didn’t know how.

For days, all he wanted to do was sleep. He slept the rest of the summer away. He ate his way through autumn into the winter until he decided (while standing on the scales) that enough was enough.

He started walking, counting his calories. He lost seventy pounds.

He reconnected with old friends.

One asked, “Whatever happened, exactly?”

He told her all of it, just as they were driving past the campus. On the spur of the moment, he said, “I’ll even show you the gazebo where I gave her the ring.”

It was getting dark. He parked the car. They got out, walked the magnolia path. Lights in the lampposts flickered on. It was chilly; he hadn’t thought to wear a coat but he hadn’t planned on strolling to the gazebo tonight, or any night. He shivered as they stepped into the clearing . . .

The gazebo wasn’t there.

For a minute he thought he was dreaming. He looked every which way—yes, this is where it was. This is where it stood.

It’s gone!”

“Gone? How could it be gone?” asked his friend. “Are you sure this is the right place? That you haven’t made a mistake?”

“I made a mistake here, all right, but it wasn’t forgetting where the gazebo is. Was. I even used to ride my bike past it when I was little. Right here.” He scratched his head. “This is like something out of the Twilight Zone.”

His friend laughed. “Well, it’s twilight anyway. And maybe that gazebo didn’t disappear. Maybe it never existed at all, and maybe you never made that mistake because it’s been erased. It just never was.”

To this day, he hasn’t asked anyone who might know what happened to the gazebo, because, as far as he’s concerned, his friend is right.

Although he still occasionally checks, when he happens to think of it, which is less and less often.

It’s not there.

As if it never was.

*******

(True story)