Bookshelf c. 2012

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This is a snapshot the bookshelf in the living room of the apartment I had after getting divorced, the first place of my own where I had a bedroom for both of my daughters. The shelf sat against a long wall that clearly had been designed for a television set. It was the largest thing in the room by far. The shelves themselves had been purchased for fifty dollars from an Iowa City boutique that went out of business. I think I paid fifty dollars. The shelf has a story of its own.

The bookshelf holds the keys to my entire life. The Seth Thomas clock my mother once snatched off the mantelpiece and hurled at my dad during one of their many drunken fights. The brown moonshine jug that the two of them bought in New England when they were newly married. An Argent lamp that was in my great grandmother’s bedroom when she moved from New York to Tombstone, Arizona in 1880. A stuffed animal my daughter made while we watched cartoons together. A wooden cutout superhero created by one of my best high school friends. A cartoon-faced clock I made when I lived in a huge loft in Portland that hung on the wall above many fantastic  parties. A framed 1928 campaign poster of Herbert Hoover I bought from an antique store.

And then there are the books. Stacked in random order, there are fiction and poetry and philosophy and pulp. Reference books I have had for forty years. Books that belonged to my father, my mother. Reaching in and taking one out at random is one of my great pleasures, for just holding it will usually lead me into another world. I can remember my father’s hands as he wrote the inscription in the Webster’s Dictionary he gave me when I went off to college. Dear Josh, The words are all here. Just put them in the right order. Love, Dad

I lived above a bookstore in a city famous for them, and was fond of trading odd jobs for store credit. I’d usually buy enormous art books I could otherwise never afford. I love thrift stores and the treasures they sometimes yield. When I hold a book from my shelf, I can tell you a story about where I got it, what I was doing, what I remember. Books I paid a dime for, books I put on a credit card, the countless poetry books I bought when I was drunk and was moved to weeping by a line or two.

Reading the books brings memories of another sort. Living in the Oregon hills and crouching in a garden shed by a glowing woodstove while the wind howled outside, sipping whiskey  and smoking while reading The Three-Day Blow by the light of an oil lamp. Or sitting on a train trying to get through The Sound and the Fury before Christmas vacation was over and realizing I could never in a million years understand it and then, as though passing through a gate, understanding it and reading it and seeing what it really is. Reading on stage at random from Outlaw Poetry  while two women acted out the words and a jazz duo improvised at top volume.

I sat on a trolley reading an 1893 copy of Thoughts by Marcus Aurelius. A student of 1895 had penciled notes in the margins and underlined certain passages. He was trying to improve his character. The book had been written in the first century AD and read by this boy in 1893. As I sat there it was 1998. Now it’s 2017. The thread of time wends through that book. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

These days I don’t read as much as I once did before I carried a computer in my pocket that could show me every newspaper in the world at a touch, display a kindle library of thousands of titles, play any  movie or TV show or song I could think of. I used to sit and lose myself in books in a way I no longer do.

I love this bookshelf. I love what it means and what I remember about it, the memories that surround it. Though  I still have all the items, this exact configuration existed for only a few weeks. Though sad, that is how it should be. At its best, a bookshelf is an organic thing, evolving and shifting.

So the next time you visit a friend (or better still, a stranger), take a  look at their bookshelf and see what it says to you.

About them, about yourself. Look for the familiar or the strange.

This is in response to The Daily Post’s request for collage.

My daughter Liv practicing her steps in front of the bookshelf prior to a dance marathon her senior year, 2013

She’s Still Here

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Standing at the back of the hushed hallway I  could only hear every other word the docent was saying. My husband craned his head to listen.

“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “Something about the woman who lived here and the widow’s walk. I guess the old ship captain died at sea or something.”

Little Herbie stood in the doorway looking across the velvet rope into the child’s room. The tiny beds with chenille spreads, a painted wagon perched on the corner of the hooked rug as though left in play.  “She’s still here,” he said, eyes wide. “She’s still waiting.”

 

Friday Fictioneers

Old What’s-His-Name

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For decades it seemed that time had no purchase on the old man, save for the barely noticeable graying of hair and beard.  He worked the bar of the White Horse six days a week, knowing each patron by face and preference, yet  universally cold and rude to all.

To the men of the town, he was a fixture like the city gate or the statue of Lord Nelson. He was familiar to them, but engendered no fondness. The old man was tolerated but not liked.

During a rare December ice storm, he had taken a bad fall, breaking his left leg under him. Bound to a hospital bed, the vitality drained from him like water through a sieve. A week was like a year as he lay there, his hair turning white then vanishing altogether, his skin like bruised fruit.

Yet he would not die, the tenacity of life long outlasting any reason for it. Years and years of wasting until the day he finally died, emaciated and almost unrecognizable.

The wake at the White Horse was remarkably well-attended, but within a year the old man was forgotten. There was not even a photograph to remember him by.

 

Sunday Photo Fiction

 

Rite of Passage

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Estéban loafed in the entryway, clearly nervous.

“You’ll do great,” I said. “Besides, what’s the worst that can happen?”

He gave a wry smile. We both knew the worst all too well.

Olivér came out of the back carrying two of the loose jackets he favored for working. “You ready?” he said, handing one to Estéban.

“Been ready,” he answered, shrugging into the coat. He took the baseball cap from the pocket and crammed it on his head. Olivér laughed.

“Like a cock before its first fight. Ok, then. Let’s see if you have learned anything.”

I watched them walk toward the Av Jiménez bus stop. Estéban looked almost grown up, though he barely came to Olivér’s shoulder. He was twelve now, old enough to be working. A skilled carterista  could bring home hundreds.

It was risky, but Olivér was the best teacher in Bogatá.

That was something, anyway.

 

What Pegman Saw

According to Lonely PlanetBogatá is  safer than it used to be, but they warn that traveling on the TransMilenio buses can result in getting your pocket picked. Thievery is high art in Latin America, and no skill is more difficult to master than that of the carterista, the ubiquitous pickpocket. 

 

 

A Reporter’s Notebook: The Bridge

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Steel Bridge, Portland Oregon. Photo by Thad Roan

I went to the Jungle on the east side of the river. As I suspected, Roughhouse Red was there, all too eager to share my bottle in exchange for giving me the low-down.

He took a long pull, the whiskey trickling into his grizzled whiskers. “Ooh, that’s good,” he said. “What was it you want to know?”

“I heard somebody died on the bridge last night. I wanted to see if you knew anything about it.”

He nodded, his mouth tense. “You heard right. Except it was two people. Kids, not sixteen year old.  Boy and a girl.”

“I thought the pedestrian walkway was supposed to end all that.”

“Yep,” he said, and took another swallow. He pointed his chin at the Steel Bridge, the iron girders studded with bolts making it look like something from a horror movie. “You see the way the bottom half telescopes up into the top? Used to be that a feller crossing on them lower deck rails could hear it when it was about to raise up. Happens automatically when a train comes, you know. No bridge-keeper. Once you heard it start you had about forty seconds to get across before you got mashed by the girders. Lot of guys got killed in the old days. But a few years ago they put in that walkway and them days was over.”

“So how come the two kids were killed?”

He held up the pint, mostly gone. “You mind if I polish her?” I shook my head. He drained it and wiped his mouth. “Lovers’ suicide. Made themselves  a double noose, then wrapped the middle around the upper girder  and jumped off together. Dangled there for hours until the Amtrak come through at 6:05 taking commuters up to Seattle. Bumped against the side of the passenger cars. Real romantic.”

I looked at the bridge, graceful and lovely but also curiously menacing, as though it had enjoyed the tale.

 

Written in response to The Daily Post: Bridge prompt.   Based on a true story.

Mrs. Jones

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It was like some giant had lifted off the roof and dumped in the entire contents of a thrift store.

The huge room seemed cramped and choked by teetering piles of boxes, furniture and other clutter.

Tall wardrobes bursting with clothes, cardboard cartons vomiting sheafs of paper onto the dirty floor, stacks of chairs missing legs, broken toys, soiled dolls.

The house reeked of damp mildew, cat piss, rotting food, spoiled milk.

Basted over everything was a sickly artificial scent I later learned came from hundreds and hundreds of dryer sheets Mrs. Jones scattered over the piles to discourage the vermin.

 

 

Friday Fictioneers

A Call to the Stasi

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“This is Hauptmann Shulz.”

“Guten Tag, Hauptmann. I would like to make a report.”

“Go ahead.”

“It is about Herr Nordmeyer of Bänschstraße 33, apartment 12.”

“Yes? What about him?”

“Well, he is constantly receiving visitors in his apartment. Usually women. Many of them are from the west.”

“And?”

“I believe he is planning to travel to West Berlin sometime soon. He will not return.”

“And what is your source for this information?”

“He told me personally.”

“He told you that he was planning to defect to the west?”

“In so many words, yes.”

“I see. What is your relationship to Herr Nordmeyer?”

“I am an– an old friend.”

“A lover?”

“Pardon me?”

“You and Herr Nordmeyer. You were lovers, yes?”

“Why would you ask that?”

“We do not ask. We only confirm. You were lovers.”

“Well, yes. We were lovers. Years ago.”

“And what is your name?”

“I prefer to remain anonymous.”

“Of course.”

 

What Pegman Saw

In the excellent 2006 film The Lives of Others, an East German filmmaker is put under surveillance by the Stasi, East Germany’s  secret police. The story explores the crisis of conscience faced by the agent in charge of the operation.

In truth, most of the Stasi’s extensive recordings were never even listened to. Instead, the Stasi created a culture of informants where any citizen could call and inform “suspicious activity” to the police. The resulting paranoia bled into every aspect of society.

Pushing

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The plane is rolling back from the jetway. Pushing, they call it. We’re going to push.

I watch it, the chill ash of my heart drifting down to fill my entire body like snowfall into an upturned barrel.

I remember my grandmother telling me that it’s bad luck to watch your loved ones leave. “You should say goodbye and then go back to your life.”

My life. What life? My whole world had revolved around my sons. Even after I found out about the cheating, I tried to keep the marriage together for their sake. When that fell apart,  I borrowed fifty thousand dollars for the lawyers and still lost custody. The courtroom drama was bitter and endless and in the end I had my ass kicked.

The plane is on the runway now. They’re probably sitting by the window, waving at me, crying. I can’t cry anymore.

It’s as though I have lost the ability to feel anything but emptiness.

 

Written in response to The Daily Prompt: Delta. The gender has been changed to protect the innocent.

The Gate of Horn

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We strolled through the Old City  past soldiers carrying machine guns at the ready.

Pops didn’t seem to notice, intent on educating us.

“This gate only looks old,” he said.  “Ottoman Turks built it in 1898 so the Kaiser didn’t have to walk. Wide enough for a carriage.”

An armored car idled in the square, its bristling guns lending it the appearance of a dangerous insect.

Pops walked past, talking. “Homer wrote that dreams pass through gates. The Gate of Horn is for true dreams. False dreams pass through Gates of Ivory.”

I heard a distant explosion roll across the rooftops.

 

Friday Fictioneers

 

Just Gone

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The sheriff stood with his arms folded, dead cigar dangling from the corner of his mouth. “Dogs been all over the damned forest. Not a trace.”

The mayor sighed, ran his hand over his weary face. “Well, we gotta keep looking. That’s all.”

The sheriff shook his head. “It’s been almost three weeks. I think the parents are reconciled now. At least the father is.”

The mayor watched the dog handler  loading the bloodhounds into wire kennels in the back of a truck.  “What about the boy, then? The witness? Is he reconciled too?”

The sheriff stared a second, cleared his throat. “Well, no. He’s sticking to his story. Tells it the same way every time. Gets mad when people don’t believe him.”

“Why should they?” said the mayor, his voice hot.  “We ripped up the stump. There was nothing there. No tunnel. No fairy people. And no missing kid. Just a big muddy hole in the ground.”

 

Sunday Photo Fiction

 

 

Photo by Eric Wicklund