…continued from yesterday…
Tim’s boots only got dustier with each step away from the farm, despite the damp soil and drops of dew that clung to the points of corn stalks poking out of the ground. It wouldn’t do to show up in Esther’s back yard like that, but the boots could be wiped off in the restroom at the train station where he’d stop anyhow to recomb his hair and wash his hands.
He tuned his ears to the sounds of the land as he walked. He wanted to take it all in, everything to be heard and then seen once there was ample light. It was his final chance to pack his sense memory, and it was as important to pack it as carefully as he had Slim’s Army duffle. A robin sang in a trilled tweet. There was the bluebird’s chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp, and then the squawk, squawk, squawk-squawk of the magpie. There was the low rumble of a tractor taking to a field. All of it was a chorus struck in anticipation of the sun soon to break the horizon.
The shuffle of his boots on the soil between rows soon formed a rhythm. His breathing fell in with the rhythm of the shuffle, and his heart beats followed. He felt a part of every living thing around him, as if a root system burrowing beneath the soil connected all of them, and that indiscernible strings and fibers from those same roots tethered even the birds in the sky and critters skittering among the trees. They all belonged to this place at this time; they all somehow made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. So immense was that greatness that it felt immeasurable. His thoughts fell to Iowa City, which laid in the direction of the rising sun but was too far away to fully reckon. What is life like when green veldts of gold-tipped corn don’t surround you like a blanket? What did late summer smell like there if not the sweet smell of corn rolling off the fields? Where was the inspiration among the limestone buildings and asphalt? It would come, wouldn’t it? He tried to clear his mind of all that was too far past the horizon to see, and focus instead on what was going to happen within the hour.
Once at the train station, he would purchase his ticket and ask Milt the ticket agent if he would mind the duffle for a few minutes. He would walk to Esther’s house, cutting down the alley that ran behind their property and come up the back yard. He would toss a pebble at her window. When she came down to the yard, he would explain everything, give her the poem from the last page of the leather-bound journal, and if nothing else, leave her with a kiss.
He had to be perfect. If he didn’t get this train, there was no way he would be able to see, much less talk, to Esther. The townsfolk would know he was leaving, and the news would spread like a brushfire. Some would make their way to the station; others would insist he wait for the train on their front porch or in the parlor. He’d be loaded with more food than he could ever eat or take with him. Esther’s ma and pa would be awake by the time the next train came through, and there’d be hell to pay if he tried something so bold as he was going to try within the hour. They were sleeping off their Saturday indulgence right now, so her pa was in no shape to charge into the yard again.
He would show Esther the thick stack of bills and explain its legitimacy. There was enough for him to establish himself in Iowa City and cover two years of expenses and tuition once the university accepted him. And the university would accept him. She’d have to trust him on that. Rising from the grass roots like this, it would be a great start for a poet, wouldn’t it?
He would find a job right away, maybe even on campus, and squirrel away everything he made. Soon, he’d send her a blank postcard and that would be the cue that there was a ticket waiting for her at the station the following Sunday morning. Once her folks gave in to their whiskey, all she would have to do is pack what she needed, and then slip out before they stirred. They’d marry right away so nothing and nobody could break their bond. Not ma or pa. Not the sheriff. No one.
She could do this, right? They can always mend fences later. But she could do this, right?
The full body of the sun had inched above the horizon by the time Tim arrived at the train station. He fished through the duffle and pulled out the envelope of cash and the leather-bound journal with the pink stationery tucked inside. He purchased his ticket, and then stuffed the envelope into the back pocket of his jeans. He handed the duffle over the counter to Milt the ticket agent, and then double-checked the train schedule. He had twenty minutes, exactly as planned.
He stopped in the restroom before he left and combed his hair and washed his hands. He wet his handkerchief at the water cooler and wiped the dust from his boots. Once outside, he felt a gentle breeze moving across the town. With any luck it would cool him as he walked and keep him below a sweat that felt inevitable.
He walked with his shoulders back and his chin up. It was an unfamiliar but quickly comfortable posture. He walked on the strength of his convictions. He was the only person still alive who believed this would work. It felt like somehow Uncle Slim and Aunt Joan were walking with him, and that Mom was watching from somewhere above. He strode to the rhythm of Aunt Joan’s words, you know you’re right for her… she knows it, too… don’t mind the rest. Don’t mind the rest. Don’t mind the rest.
Within a few minutes, he was standing at the edge of the Giles’s back yard. Sunlight was kissing the roof and working its way down to the darkened windows. It had already illuminated the top of the willow that hung over most of the grass. A cobblestone pathway led from the alley to the back door, cutting between a distended garden on the left and grass on the right. A tire swing hung from one branch of the willow, but the rope was frayed and ready to snap should someone try to take pleasure in swinging.
Tim found a pebble, tiny and smooth and perfect like it had grown in a field. He walked across the lawn and tossed it to Esther’s window. It dinked the glass, fell to the roof, and rolled to the ground. Tim picked it up and cocked his arm again. Before he could fire, the curtains in the window parted and Esther appeared. Her face lit up and she waved excitedly. Tim waved her down. She drew the curtains, and the window was again expressionless. The sun was almost touching it.
Tim imagined Esther tip-toeing through the house. She padded around a squeaky floorboard, eased her long legs over a footrest, and impetuously scratched the cat behind the ears as she passed. She would emerge in a moment, beautiful even with her sleep-saggy face, her blonde hair mussed but still lovely in its imperfect state if only because it was her hair. In his mind, he jumped ahead to the indeterminate time when she would step off the train in Iowa City in her lavender church dress, her powder blue sweater on her shoulders. He would sweep her in his arms and inhale her heavenly scent, feel her warm cheek against his, and for the third time kiss her.
She emerged from the back door, but stopped to gently place the door back in its frame. She wore jeans and a red Henley with the cuffs rolled to the elbows. She carried a small suitcase in her right hand. How could she have gotten ready so fast? She stepped quickly to him, reading the puzzlement on his face. “I knew you were coming.”
He pulled the envelope of cash from his pocket and showed it to her. “I know,” she said, covering the money with her hand on top of his. “Ain’t nobody seen you in the fields. My uncle’s been downright giddy. He told pa everything. Didn’t count on me hearing it. I asked him why he was so danged happy, and he was all smug. He said, ‘A man can just be happy, can’t he?’ I figured a girl could, too.” She giggled with her hand over her mouth, and then stopped to catch her breath. “I knew you were going somewhere. I just wanted to make sure I was ready. Call me crazy. Or a romantic. You’re heading to the train, right? It’s the only way out of here. Let’s get there. After that, I don’t care where we go.”
Tim looked at her, and again the words wouldn’t come. A smile broke across his face as bright and fresh as the sunlight that was washing most of the town. Esther took him by the hand, his feet again not really touching the ground. She looked into his eyes and pressed her mouth to his. When she finally released him, she looked into his eyes and giggled again. “Let’s go. It’s going to be fine. Don’t mind the rest.”
…continued from yesterday…
It had been five weeks since Aunt Joan died. Life looked a heckuva lot different than it had before her passing, and Uncle Slim’s passing last year. This is what Slim meant when he had told him that things rarely work the way you plan them, but you have to deal with them anyways. Tim understood now what it meant to be on his own. Like it or not, he was his own man, beholden to nothing and no one. There was no saying that he had to get on that train, or see Esther before he did, or even sell the farm to Mr. Giles. He could have held his ground and kept that land like a postage stamp in the corner of Giles’ tracts until Kingdom come.
Inheriting the farm, though, meant recognizing it was going to collapse sooner rather than later, which Mr. Giles knew but waited to remind Timmy until a week after Aunt Joan had gone to the Hereafter. Giles knocked late Sunday afternoon and requested a conversation. He was dressed in a dingy white shirt and faded overalls, which passed for formal enough for a late Sunday talk with a neighbor. His face was ruddy and sun-beaten. He had wet his hair and combed it back. Karl the banker stood behind him and peeked over his shoulder as Giles blocked the width of the doorway.
Mr. Giles sat at the kitchen table with his elbows on his thighs. His enormous gut sagged between his knees. He laid his notebook open on the table in front of him and poked with a crooked index finger at each point he had written down when he read it aloud: “Your farm is too big for one man to handle. It’s also too small to generate money to hire help. You and Slim could hardly handle it as he was getting on in years. It’s hard, hard work, and it put Joan…” Mr. Giles stopped and looked at Tim. When he seemed confident that he had his whole attention, he told him, “Timmy, you’re young, and as strong as any man in these parts. But you’re not always going to be like that. You think about the last year. You’ve been lucky to get the crops in and keep things up. Your whole life has been on these acres. This place is going to wear you down. You’ll be old before your time.”
Tim sipped his coffee and nodded. His hand slipped into his pocket and felt for the piece of folded pink stationery he had been holding onto for the past week. His fingers rested on it as he thought about Mr. Giles’ words. They were the naked and unperfumed truth, and weren’t unlike thoughts Tim had in the last year but had pushed out of his mind. Joan had seemed to want to broach the topic since Slim’s death, but admittedly couldn’t say the words for fear they’d become the truth. Instead, they carried on their duties both for each other and out of respect to Slim’s legacy. Things remained that way up until ten days prior when the rooster didn’t wake Joan and Tim found her cold in her bed.
Mr. Giles continued, “The tractor needs overhauled. Anybody who’s heard it can tell you that. And that truck isn’t going to last. This is to say nothing of the regular repairs to this house.” His eyes left Tim and darted around the walls and ceiling, surveying who knew what future repairs. He reached into the breast pocket of the dingy white shirt he wore beneath his overalls and pulled out a thick stack of bills. He set it on the table and pushed it to the middle. “This will be my only offer.”
He referred back to the list, again with the crooked finger. “It beats a broken back. Empty pockets. The bank at the door. No place to go. This way, you got cash in your hand and you can do what you wish. What kind of man wouldn’t take that?”
Giles looked to Karl, who looked to Tim and spoke softly. “He’s right, Timmy.” Karl managed a weak smile. He fidgeted with his string tie. “I know this isn’t a good way for things to end, but think of it like a beginning. You can make yourself a whole new future. It’s the practical thing to do. I think Slim and Joan would have told you the same.”
Tim hitched his thumbs into the bib straps of his overalls. Slim had told him he could trust Karl, and don’t be fooled if it seems he’s going against you. Karl knows the angles, and you gotta believe that he has things figured so they can work for you. He’s an honest man. He helped keep the family on the farm in some of the lean years.
Karl’s eyes darted to Mr. Giles, and then rested back on Tim. “Timmy, you ought to know that I talked to Slim a couple of times about the best way to provide for you and Joan when the unthinkable happened. He knew it was going to. A man carries a wound like that, he knows it’s going to take him eventually. Thank God he hung on like he did. He told me that when the time comes, you’d know the right thing to do. I think this is what he meant.”
Giles closed the notebook and stood up from the table. He pushed his sleeves up his forearms, and then stuffed the notebook into a back pocket. He turned to face Tim, pointing his gut directly at him. He produced a bandana and wiped perspiration from his forehead. Finally, he spoke. “Son, I’m going to leave here in one flat minute. You will never again see me on this property so long as I don’t own it.”
Tim rose and looked directly into Giles’ eyes, surprising even himself at how tall he was. He was one of the few men in the county who could stand so tall as to look directly in Giles’ eyes. It occurred to him that with Giles’ bloated body next to his tall, slender self, they looked like the number ten debating itself. He stifled the thought. He spoke. “Mr. Giles, I’ll take your money. But I have conditions.”
“Conditions?” Giles snorted. He looked to Karl. “Do you believe this? He might as well be Slim’s own true blood.”
Tim stood still, his thumbs still hooked in his bib straps. “If you have even a shred of respect for Slim and Joan and all they did, you’ll listen.”
Giles gave him a stern look up and down. When his sagging jowls relaxed, Tim knew for the first time that Giles, or anybody for that matter, was measuring him as a full man. Giles stuffed his handkerchief into a pocket and crossed his arms over his chest. “Go ahead.”
It took less than a minute for them to settle that Tim would accept the reasonable compensation for his inheritance. The money also bought him one month to remain on the farm and the promise of silence about the deal so he could tend to his affairs without being bothered. They shook on the agreement, the power in the grip of Mr. Giles’ clammy hand matched by the young hardness of Tim’s.
Tim studied the beaming face across from him. The stoutness of it and the shallow widow’s peak high on the forehead didn’t match at all with Esther’s slender cheeks and small chin. There didn’t seem to be an identifiable through line from Mr. Giles to his brother Pa Giles to his niece Esther. All Esther had must have come from her mother’s side. She was lucky not to be shaded so directly to her father, whose face Tim had last seen a year ago. At that time, it was as red as Indian corn. Beads of sweat blotched the bulbous nose, and his mouth spewed chaw as he yelled, “My daughter ain’t marryin’ no goddamn dirt farmer!”
He had barged into the moment when Tim and Esther stood in his back yard and kissed for the first time, hands-in-hands, facing each other, staring into the other’s eyes. It was almost ten o’clock. He came stumbling out the house with a double-barrel Winchester broken open in the crook of one arm and pointing menacingly at Tim with the index finger of his free hand. You’d think that nobody had seen young people in love. What did they think was going to happen at a dance?
Everything happened so fast that evening, like a dirt devil sprung up in a barren field before a storm. He had never been to a dance and there he was at his very first, the graduation dance. She had approached him, the quiet girl from the back of the room in literature class. Maybe she had smiled at him once or said hello.
She was smiling and biting her lower lip. She said, “I’d like to dance, Tim.” She grasped his hand and took him onto the dance floor. How could feet that were steady and reliable in the fields and barn be so clumsy on the hard wood of the gymnasium floor? An hour later and he felt what must have been intoxication from the floral scent of her perfume and the softness of her lightly starched cotton dress.
He offered to walk her home to buy more minutes of her company. Their silhouettes moved between houses whose front rooms glowed by candle light or whose front porches were lit by lanterns. The soft lights radiated off Esther’s skin. Had his feet even touched the ground between the school and the four blocks to her house?
The kiss had been a desperate ploy because he could not find the words to express the unexpected feelings. He was stuck in the wake of unexpected romance even after Pa Giles chased from the back yard. He was sure he wanted to live with his lips pressed to hers.
Slim and Joan picked him up in front of the school ten minutes later. By the time the truck rattled and lurched back up the driveway on the farm, he had found the words and laid the whole story out to them. The cab of the truck glowed in a strange light that must have come from the grins on the faces of his aunt and uncle. Slim switched the engine off, and the three of them sat in silence. Finally, Joan asked, “He said ‘goddamn dirt farmer?’ That’s just not right. He doesn’t feel that way about his own brother, does he? I’m tempted to march right to their house the next time we’re in town and ask him.”
Slim patted her thigh. “It’s been an eventful night, but my hip is certainly screaming. Let’s sleep on things and see what the morning brings.”
They walked to the end of the driveway at first light. Slim more leaned on Tim than walked with him. “Pa Giles gets some funny notions,” he said as they ran a chain around the end post of the fence and through the frame of the gate. “Same as Mr. Giles sometimes. It don’t help that their cousin is the sheriff.”
They clicked a padlock on the ends of the chain. Tim backed away and admired the effectiveness of their simple task. He couldn’t stifle a grimace.
“Enjoy these days, son,” Slim told him. He, too, was smiling again. The grin was so wide across his face that it was falling off the edges. “You ain’t done nothing wrong, and no sheriff is gonna make a deal about it.”
Tim ran his hand through his hair and shook his head. “Thanks, Uncle Slim.”
“You’re welcome. Don’t ever let no man intimidate you, Timmy. Always deal fair with ‘em, but don’t back down when you know you’re right. That’ll take care of most of your problems.”
They walked back to the house together, Slim with his arm around Tim. He was still plenty strong enough to walk with a little help.
They sat on the front porch and waited for breakfast. Aunt Joan brought out scrambled eggs with ham, biscuits with apple butter, hash browns, and whole milk. The thick scent of coffee hung on the porch even after they had finished the meal and were sitting quietly, surveying the front lawn and the barn and letting the day’s chores wait for a bit longer. It was quiet for a long time, until Aunt Joan spoke. “You know you’re right for her. She knows it, too. Don’t mind the rest.” She repeated the last part in a cadence. “Don’t mind the rest.” She paused, and then said again, “Don’t mind the rest.”
Slim nodded and pointed toward the road at an angle far to the left, where the sheriff’s truck was rolling towards the driveway. Dust billowed in its wake. Once he reached the intersection, the sheriff parked the truck and got out. He walked to the gate and leaned his forearms on it. He waved and yelled out, “Can you come out to the gate, Slim? We need to talk. Bring the boy.”
What followed was the longest walk Tim ever remembered taking to the road. Sure Slim’s hip was bothering him, but it felt more like he was taking a walk to nowhere in particular and enjoying the scenery along the way. He paced himself slow and easy, like the front porch swing of an evening when he’d sit there with Joan. Was Slim chuckling as they walked?
The sheriff sighed heavily when they finally stood before him. He tipped his hat and propped his boot on a gate rail. “Pa Giles said Tim was disturbing his property last night after the dance. Said he took liberties with his daughter. This true?”
Slim unhooked his arm from around Tim’s shoulder and stood on his own. “The way I heard it was that Tim here walked Esther home. Looks like the two of them favor each other. Did Pa Giles tell you the part about bringing his double-barrel into the yard and making threats?”
The sheriff took his hat off and wiped his arm across his forehead. He grasped his Sam Browne belt on both sides of his hips, and gave Slim a long look.
Slim continued, “When a man tips a bottle and carries on like that, that’s your disturbance.” He didn’t move, only stood there next to Tim and returned the sheriff’s look.
The sheriff stared into Slim’s eyes. Finding no weaknesses after what felt like a full minute, he spoke. “Pa Giles says for Tim to keep off his property and away from his daughter. Let’s make this the last we speak of it.”
He turned to walk back to his truck, but Slim froze him in his tracks. “We respect the limits of the law, sheriff. We expect you to do the same.” The sheriff half-turned as if to reply, but changed his mind. He climbed in his truck and went back the way he came, dust again billowing behind him.
The walk back to the porch was significantly shorter than the walk to the road, and it seemed like Slim’s hip felt so good that it was like it had never bothered him in the first place. He never said a word about it again. Two weeks later, Tim found him slumped on the ground by the chicken coop. He lay atop of bucketful of seed that had spilled when he collapsed. The leg that extended from his bad hip was curled beneath him in what looked like one final attempt to protect his vulnerability.
Tim would see Esther over the course of the next year if by chance he passed on his way to the hardware store or the post office or wherever an errand might take him. If he happened to pass the Giles’ house he might see her staring out the front window, looking for something. Maybe she was sitting on the front porch stroking the cat on her lap. She’d wave and manage enough of a smile to warm him inside. They’d see each other at Sunday services, and if they were situated just right they could sneak a sideways glance or a smile. There was always the hope they could talk in the courtyard after service as the congregation filed out and exchanged pleasantries, but without fail Pa Giles would clutch Esther’s elbow and walk her home without a backward glance.
She hadn’t been at the funerals. Not even death and the showing of one’s respects trumped the importance of keeping the girl away from the dirt farmer. She had been able to get him a note, though, which Mrs. Gunderson gave to him at the luncheon the church had put together after Joan’s funeral.
Esther had used a piece of pink stationery and had folded it in thirds with clean, exact creases. She wrote with purple ink in neat, precise cursive that could have been a model for a penmanship primer:
Dearest Timmy: I’m sorry about your Aunt Joan, and even sorrier I can’t be there. My parents forbade me, the same as they did with your Uncle Slim’s funeral. They can’t forbid my thoughts, though they would try if they knew how often you are in them. Love, Esther
Tim folded the note in half across the width of the tri-fold and kept it in his pocket. He had found himself holding it at times over the past month or running his hand in his pocket to assure it was still on his person. He finally laid it between the pages of the leather-bound journal to keep it safe from the rigors of the move.
Like most writers, I wax poetic about love at times. I try not to for the most part since it’s soooo overdone, and I ban my students from writing about it for most of the semester in Creative Writing, but it still crops up. Such is the case here. I started this story four years ago in the middle of a bike ride. I was off the saddle for a few minutes, had a tiny journal with me, and started to write about someone walking across the cornfield that ran right next to where I was resting. It didn’t start as a love story, but became one after I figured out where Timmy was going, and why. I put the story aside for quite some, but decided last year that I liked it enough to keep at it. Pretty soon it became practice in plotting a piece of fiction, so I kept at it for practice sake. I sent it to an anthology about “love on the road,” (take that as you will), but they politely declined. I know why it didn’t get published, which is why I haven’t sent it out anymore, but it’s good for Valentine’s Day. ~ Jeff
Don’t Mind the Rest
The rust-pocked hinges on the barn door creaked as Tim opened it. Light from his lantern cut into the black spaces inside, illuminating them at an hour so unusual that a few chickens clucked nervously and at least one pig snorted in alarm. “It’s only me!” Tim called from behind the light. “Good morning!” He circled around to the chicken coop and past the pig pen. He worked his way outside to the fenced-in yard behind the barn to show himself to any creatures who might have been sleeping in the cool summer air but who now might be alarmed. Once he felt calm settle back into the barn, he set to his chores.
He sat the lantern down on a block of wood, and then walked through the awkward shadows to drag a bag of chicken feed from the tack room to the coop. He scattered the mixture of wheat, barley, and corn in generous portions, clicking all the while to the chickens to bring their awareness to the food. When they had more than enough kernels to peck at, he primed the pump and filled a pair of buckets with water. He took it to the pig pen and refreshed their supply, and then dumped more slop into their trough. The sow watched him through the corner of her eye as she lay on her side with her snoring piglets snuggled to her belly. Tim bent down to pat her side and scratch her snout. “Alright, momma. Be a good pig. Goodbye now.” He scratched her for another minute while she quietly grunted.
He refilled one of the buckets with water and was about to leave the barn when an idea came to him. He went back to the tack room, grabbed a fragment of steel fence post, and dug the jagged tip beneath one of the horseshoes nailed to the wall. He pressed against the post, and the rusted nail yielded with a sharp squeak. He grabbed the horseshoe and yanked it. The nail popped out of the wall and fell on the dirt floor. He slipped the horseshoe into his back pocket, grabbed the bucket and lantern, and returned to the house.
He spent the next hour moving around the kitchen and dining area in the dim light of the lantern as he prepared to leave for Iowa City. His first task was to iron the dark jeans and plaid cowboy shirt he would wear. He bathed and shaved himself with the water from the well, combed his hair, trimmed his fingernails, and splashed on the final drops of Uncle Slim’s cologne. Finally, he packed the last items that would fit into Slim’s Army duffle, including the horseshoe and an empty Mason jar.
He had packed the duffle tight. It was anchored by a few other pairs of pants and shirts, his denim jacket, and his union suit. On top of all that was a bible, a family scrapbook, several journals, a set of spoons in a velvet pouch, and a folded American flag. At the very top was a small cedar box containing Slim’s service medals and ribbons and an envelope bulging with cash. Every other practical item in the house and barn had ended up at the Methodist church late yesterday afternoon. Tim had been able to coax the truck into town one final time and drop off a flatbed and trailer full of things without attracting attention from anybody but Pastor and Mrs. Vollmers.
Tim started to draw the string to cinch the top of the duffle, but stopped. He reached inside and dug around blindly until he grasped a leather-bound journal. He pulled it out and removed a folded piece of pink stationery he had tucked between the pages for safe keeping. He held the stationery between two fingers as he thumbed through the pages, finally settling on his mother’s inscription inside the front cover. He read it for the hundredth time:
Timothy: These poems are for you, each brought about in some way by the joy that has been raising you. When you hold this book, all of my greatest creations will be contained in the space you occupy. I’m leaving you in the only hands left, and I’m leaving these in the best hands I can imagine—yours! Love, Mom
He flipped through the other pages of crisp parchment. All save the last had been marked with black ink in his mother’s compact, high-looping script. That final page was now marked by a printed stanza in blue ink that he had written especially for Esther:
The Seed, Once Planted
to suckle morning’s dew
pushes its way through
this heartland soil.
How well it knows the toil–
the same as you and me
dreaming to become we.
He had said all he could in the best manner he knew, and if it was the last thing he ever gave Esther, that would be just fine. There was nothing more he could think to do with the poem, and certainly no more time if he thought of anything else.
He returned the pink stationery to the middle of the journal, confident that it would remain safely pressed there until he had need for it. He placed the journal back in the duffle, drew the string at the top, and sat the duffle next to the door. He made one final pass around the house. He swung the lantern in each tiny, barren room to assure that he had closed all the windows and hadn’t overlooked any stray items. Once he was certain, he returned to the duffle and hoisted it on his shoulder. He extinguished the lantern, stepped through the front door, and pulled it closed for the last time.
He set off towards the back of the property and felt more than saw the incline of the land as he walked in the dark. It took him ten minutes to reach the top of the slope. Once he reached it, he placed the duffle on the ground between the rows, and fished out the Mason jar. He took a knee and scooped a quart of soil into the jar, and then screwed the lid back on. Once it was tight, he put the jar back in the bag.
Still kneeling, he looked to the horizon. The sun was an hour away, which meant he had an hour and a half before the train to Iowa City arrived. A few more steps and he’d be in Giles’ fields, which he’d cross, then the Gunderson’s, and then he’d break the city limits and be at the train station. He’d buy his ticket and be on his way twenty minutes later. The thought of what he had to do in those final twenty minutes in town was enough to make his heart thump.
He stood, slung the duffle onto his shoulder, and moved his gaze to the farm sleeping below him. There was no turning back now, and nothing to turn back to. He had to move on.
It turns out I wasn’t the only one inspired by the blizzard last Sunday. Something about the 5th-largest snowfall in Chicagoland history also struck a cord with Herb. You remember Herb, right? He’s a long-time follower and sometimes contributor to The Seeker. He’s been making a lot of poetry in the past year, and passed this piece along. I thought it was a good thematic companion to “Lake Shore Drive, February 1” and asked him if I could put it up here. He was cool with that.
So here ’tis. Enjoy.
Super Sunday Blizzard by Herb Ramlose
This blizzard today
Seductive and enticing
beautiful and sensuous
Like a woman whom
one cannot resist
But nonetheless we must avoid
‘cause she touches just to burn
but not to satisfy
A beauty exists in her enigmatic countenance
a haunting in her illusive allure
a fascination in her mesmerizing manner
Much like a Siren
to which we are drawn
but to which we cannot avoid
try as we may
The danger drags us closer and closer
and yet we cannot care not
As there is a luxury of exquisiteness
in that allure
A treasure sought but not to be discovered
yet something keeps us searching and hoping
that like the blizzard
We will be overwhelmed
in the ecstasy
of the moment of revelation
Consumed by the luxury
wallowed in the moment
of the unimaginable beauty and power
Uniqueness and grace
and special phenomenon
I was reading the Henri Cole interview in The Paris Review this morning, and was struck by something he said. The interviewer noted that Cole’s poems give readers access to certain kinds of pain and grief, and then they leave us there. Cole responded:
I don’t want the reader to experience comfort—I want the opposite. A lyric poem presents an X-ray of the self in a moment of being, and usually this means dissonance.
His thoughts struck a cord with me, and I flipped to a writing app on my notebook to write a few lines about how pale my skin gets in the winter, and how I feel like I wash out given that I’m bald, too, and why now I’ve decided to regrow my goatee so I have at least some facial features. My warm-up set was to do a few lines about my immediate setting, including some notes about the nasty weather we are getting just now. I never made it past the warm-up, and was having so much fun that I spent the next half hour shaping this poem. It makes a good companion piece to last year’s entry, Faculty Lot, January.
Lake Shore Drive, February 1
The weather map looks like
the Old Man smacked a bruise
across the Midwest. He screams
his spite outside the window
and spits snow at us, each
flake a tiny needle
cracking against the glass.
It looks like I’m going to the school board meeting again Tuesday night. I went last month, too, which itself is unusual. Two in a row? Unheard of. These are for Warren, my local district, which I’ve written about before herein. In fact, the subject of school boards is one of the first I ever wrote about in The Seeker, and I’ve revisited school board issues on occasion. We do things out of necessity, though, and what has transpired recently with a local school board member is a call to action.
The local press first picked this story up and reported it: Local idiot Liz Biondi got herself elected to the school board as a write-in candidate (she only got thirty-some votes), and has subsequently used her platform to do little more than showcase how much of a moron she is. Lack of preparation, ignorance of technology, and paranoia have been a few of her calling cards—and those are the words of her fellow board members at the last meeting. Now, she can add bigot to that list. The district is searching for a new superintendent, so Biondi exercised her First Amendment rights by declaring that they should not hire someone who is gay for fear that the person would be fighting more personal fires than superintendent fires. The outrage in Gurnee has been significant from all quarters of the community and beyond. A full hour was spent at the last school board meeting with people speaking to the board in opposition to Biondi.
This is not the only case against the school board system. Blatant displays of ignorance by school board members have become the norm in the northeast corner of Lake County in the last few months. Perhaps the most publicized one came out of Waukegan. The community endured a month-long teacher strike in the fall. Nothing could seem to break the deadlock until Victoria Torres decided to take on all comers at a school board meeting. The video went viral, and within two days the strike was over. People are going to remember her outburst more than they will recall the issues that led to the strike, especially when she’s up for re-election. I’m going to venture to guess that she will not be a school board member in the next term.
Things aren’t necessarily much better in another Lake County district with which I’m familiar that shares borders with both Waukegan and Warren, which makes me think the stupidity is contagious. In this case, the school board president had moved out of state, yet held onto her position. That’s a violation of her school board oath and the state law. It wasn’t until her ex-husband posted pictures of her license plate that anybody really paid attention to the situation. She quickly resigned, but there has been plenty of speculation that she lived out of district for quite some time before someone did the right thing. This is perhaps the most egregious of the three issues herein; this woman perpetrated her deception and lack of ethics in secret, all the while effecting budgetary and hiring decisions, and no doubt continuing to favor programs run by faculty members with whom she has carried on an unprofessional relationships. She didn’t come out until she was caught, which only supported what many of that district’s teachers have known since they went on strike three years ago: She demonstrates profoundly poor judgment and cannot be trusted.
I’m interested in seeing what happens with Liz Biondi. I can’t fathom a low-level elected official being able to withstand the justified vitriol spewed at her over the last few months. It seems all too often that the clowns who run any particular school board lack common sense and a sense of decency, and remain voluntarily ignorant to what is happening around them. The result is poor leadership for whatever school district they are influencing. I have to share the blame in this, too. I’ve never voted for my local school district, so I’m partly responsible for Biondi getting in the door. I’ll vote in the future, though, for whomever a friend of mine who works in district wants me to.
The onslaught against Biondi has been led in part by a Warren English teacher who established on online petition that helped galvanize the community and bring further awareness to the situation. He spoke strongly and eloquently at the last school board meeting, and I can’t help but think that as a fellow union member and teacher that he is grinning ear to ear at being able to fulfill every working man’s dream: To speak out in the strongest terms possible against one’s boss, and to actively (blatantly!) lobby for her removal without fear of repercussion.
So say that all three of these school board members will be gone in the near future. One is already gone, which is a good start. This won’t solve the problem of school board incompetency. If things have to be so public, if people have to rise up and expose wrongdoing and still not be guaranteed any satisfaction, then the problem has already gone too far. Too few people pay attention to what is going on with their local schools. One explanation is that many people in any given community aren’t vested in the local schools because they don’t have children attending them; they have no direct stake. That leaves a minority of people interested in what is a huge cash cow for any community, so it makes it easy for an out of control or incompetent school board member to divide and conquer. I’ve seen this happen for twenty years now, and these aren’t even the worst instances I’ve endured. One school I worked at featured a board member who managed a parking lot as his full-time job, and another member who hadn’t even graduated high school. It’s hard for people like that to win the respect of well-educated teachers, and their lack of education makes many of their decisions seem dubious at best.
It’s a shame that “dubious at best” encapsulates far too much of the school board system, especially in Lake County.
I’m turning in a poetry chapbook Wednesday. This all came about unexpectedly, but I’ve rolled with it and it’s turned into a quality writing experience.
Most people have heard of National Novel Writing Month. I could be considered a bit shallow since I’ve never having participated in it based mostly on the abbreviated name and how ridiculous it would sound to tell someone that I’m heading over to Starbucks to work on my Na-No-Wri-Mo words for the day (the goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in the 30 days of November, which comes to a little under 1700 words a day). Plus, it all sounds like a gimmick to me. Many novelists say that 500 words a day is much more reasonable when you consider 500 quality words and not merely a 500-word spurt. Forget about it with a 1700 word spurt 30 days in a row.
What I didn’t know was that November is not exclusive to Na-No-Wri-Mo. Writers Digest has put up the Poem-A-Day Chapbook Challenge for the past six years. I stumbled upon it November 2 and blithely accepted the challenge to write a poem each day of the month. They supply the prompts on a daily basis. Contestants have the time from the end of November to January 7 to edit and shape their poems, ultimately compiling them into a chapbook that can have no more than 20 poems. I have ten squared away and ready to go.
I learned that I can write every day. I had never done that before, not even when I was under pressure to produce a lot of work. It didn’t matter to me that it was “just” a poem. I was putting pen to paper each day, sometimes more than once or twice. I wasn’t trying to write a poem each day. That’d be ridiculous, much like trying to write 1700 words a day. But I was developing ideas from the prompts and getting some thumbnail sketches of what I could do with a poem based on whatever prompt I was considering. There were plenty of nights when I was lying in bed and responding to the prompt was the last thing I did before lights out. There were other times when I woke up and attacked the daily prompt right away before even getting out of bed. More frequently than either of those were the days when I woke up at my regular times and wrote the prompt down right away. Sometimes it wasn’t touched until 14 hours later, but I was usually writing it in my head throughout the day.
Also, I soundly kicked the ass of my internal critic who consistently whispers in my ear that some of my ideas are too stupid or uninteresting, or that some ideas are great but will take too long to develop. He also asks why I’m writing certain passages–what the hell am I thinking? Sometimes that other-worldly voice booms, sometimes it whispers, but it is almost always chattering in some way or another. But what I found out is that the voice will shut the hell up if I’m consistently working, literally day by day, no matter what is coming out of the pen. I muted the voice by developing an understanding that maybe today’s prompt isn’t going to generate much, or that whatever is done will be revisited and reshaped later. It’s not about being perfect right off the bat. It’s about producing. You can come back later and revisit some of the work. I ended up writing some completely unexpected and even inane passages that I never would have written before because of the damn inner critic. Some of the them have made it into my chapbook.
By about November 18th, I was ready to type out several weeks worth of bad or partially-developed poems. Not poems, exactly, but prose passages that I would continue to winnow and distill until I could start to find line breaks and stanza breaks. I set up a document on Google Drive and added to it every few days. When November was over, I printed the thing out. I ended up with thirty mostly awkward and ugly pages and set to the task of weeding out the ones that weren’t holding my interest or that were just plain inane. I followed my gut most of the way. If some poems didn’t look good upon a second draft, I shuffled them to the bottom of the pile. Some were better than I remembered, so I kept them for redrafting and continued shaping. Some nagged at me or popped into my head at strange times, which was a blatant signal that I needed to keep working on them. Pretty soon I had about fifteen poems I liked and knew I would have fun with as I continued drafting them. This meant that I had effectively flushed my poem slamming George W. Bush, another philosophizing about The Wild Bunch, and another about insights into ending romantic relationships. I kept ones that included insights into buckets, clever and lusty flirtations between couples, and reflections on mortality.
There were other considerations to make as I approached the finish line. I had to look for some themes or recurring ideas. I had to decide on quality so my best poems are at the top of the order. I had to decide on a title. Actually, a title came to me early on. That didn’t stop me from combing through my ten poems and extracting catchy lines or phrases, one of which might have made a good title for the book. That was fun to do, but it didn’t serve to change my mind about the title.
So will Jeff Burd be the chapbook contest winner? Yes. I firmly believe he will, but the (imminent) failure to claim that title will only result in greater effort. The wrestling team at my school encapsulates their work ethic thusly: Pound-pound-pound. After writing every day in November and working diligently the past five weeks to redraft and shape, I think I know what they mean.