To those who didn’t
from those who did
When we were barely still children, city limit signs sealed our fate. We saw our small town as either stable or irreversible. No one ever told us those words could be synonyms. When chemicals became solutions, we never saw the way out. We fucked like teenagers because we were teenagers. We bought and sold pot through drive thru windows, got in fights behind the bowling alley, and drove in circles around town. There was always a broken heart to help soothe, more often than not your own.
We ran out of distraction, and created it by burying speedometers on backroads with our headlights and sense of safety both off. Lost in cornfields and drainage creeks, all of us firefly gorgeous and waterbug quick. We saw smoke roll up from car hoods and cook houses in the twenty miles between each town, most of them less than a thousand strong and struggling to breathe through the fumes and harvest dust. BYOB strip clubs with loose I.D. procedures were the norm. Nothing shocked us. We snatched tassels from the tops of corn stalks every summer for two dollars an hour, ten hours a day, until we turned fifteen, then we made minimum wage or weren’t asked to come back. We dealt with the harvest brought every autumn by wronging rights.
Drunk on youth, the truth we might be trapped, and the cheapest alcohol in history.
For ten dollars you could get ten jugs of Thunderbird wine, or a dozen forty ounce Old Styles, or a fifth of something rot gut and a twelve pack, but no one had ten dollars. We passed the Friday night collection plate, bought booze at Sunset by the Wal-Mart because my cousin worked there and wouldn’t card me, then drove out into the darkness to beat down the crops and each other.
We all dated and cheated with and on each other and got caught or didn’t get caught and got married.
When winter came everything died and got cold.
Snow and ice broke powerlines and people,
Everything froze or was frozen, broke or broken.
We rarely felt whole.
Some of us followed the wind across the freshly planted rows in the spring right on out of town, past the curve of the earth we had never tried to see beyond. Some wanted more than a farm, factory, or pharmaceutical future and flew away from the breeze that blew our dreams from our heads.
Some never flew, never moved, still live in the houses their parents died in, they stayed still as soybeans waiting to be harvested, some got harvested and replanted into the same ground that birthed them, some jagged ugly sticks that keep the top soil from blowing away.
harvest the dirt (pt. 1)
The people are not easily broken. They rust slow, far slower than the tin roofs that dot the horizon. Clouds of dust hang over buildings and rain a dry moisture down on an expectant people that clogs the concrete roadside like lard. Combines harvest the dirt clods to feed the swirled monster of wind spun soil like the corn and soybeans it feeds millions with. It doesn’t stick to your throat as much as it clings to it like velcro. Suffering makes the crops taste better somehow.
The coffee shops are torn down. The old farmers go to the “Mac-Donald’s” inside the new Wal-Mart now to talk about the old pharmacy lunch counter arguments. They drive trucks that never carry anything except their own failed dreams, spare tires, or successful dreams that seem far more depressing. They never left, or never wanted to.
Football heroes now run car dealerships named after father’s they almost made proud on a Friday night twenty years ago. The head cheerleader stills holds his hand. She teaches sixth grade, smiles when she hears whispers of twelve-year-old misogynists, and visits her mother everyday after school. Her mother works at the Casey’s just over the bridge and begs for some attention or affection from the customers that she knows by name with free pizza. Free pizza is a small price to pay for love, love is usually free, and sometimes comes with free pizza.
Here, the tractors are sexy.
Here, the winter kills your spirit and most of the trees.
Here, the trees grow in rows like everyone does, to help block the wind. Everyone is just as afraid of the wind and winter as the trees.
Here, is not ideal. Ideas float here, they float on the wind, on the wind anything seems possible, anything seems possible here.
It has to be.
I guess it was trespassing.
The cool water, despite how dirty, seemed to be safe. We had ridden to the rice field reservoir on our bikes at the height of the July heat. We stared at the placid, glass-like top of the water, eventually dragging our toe tips across it, looked at each other with smiles and “I-dare-you” and “I-dare-you-backs” in our eyes, each thinking of the risk/reward factors.
I admit to being the first one in. The splashes from the others followed quickly behind after I surfaced.
Eastern Arkansas rice fields are thick with a snake the locals call “chasers.” The irrigation reservoirs are notoriously full of water moccasins. Farmers hate strangers tromping thru their fields and swimming in their reservoirs. At eleven years old, I knew none of these things.
I saw the first snake at the exact same moment I heard the “chu-chuk” of the shotgun. Not seeing the snakes, my friends piled out quickly. Pulled themselves over the metal lip at the top of the buried water tank turning the dust around it into small melted glaciers that the hardscrabble dirt was too dry to absorb right away, and stood in the sun with fear running down their faces along with the water that pooled at their feet.
I stayed in the water, treading slowly, afraid to move and afraid not to move. I stared at the snake while the farmer glared at the back of my head. The South dripping like tobacco spit off his tongue, he screamed, “Turn ’round here, and y’all git! Git on outta here!”
My, “Sir, I…” cut off by his angry roar.
I saw all around me that the snake had friends, while I had none. All of mine had run away holding their bikes and shoes. They ran next to their bikes, trying to jump on them and peddle barefoot while steering with dirty white gloves that had been their gym shoes last school year. All of the snake’s friends tried to ignore me. Mostly so as not to notice my fear, panic being awkward in all social situations, not just ones involving humans.
“Sir, I…” again cut off by an even louder,
“Snakes!” I yelled, tears and water in my eyes and my voice screeching thru puberty, “THERE ARE FUCKING SNAKES EVERYWHERE!!!”
That was the first time I ever said the word “fuck” in front of an adult. I felt as tho I had crossed some sort of hillbilly milestone that even the farmer acknowledged after he set the shotgun down and leaned forward, his hand extended. As he pulled me out, he looked at me like I was becoming one of the men.
The anxiety and confidence of that moment play out in my head almost every time I hear the word FUCK, and I remember how cool and refreshing that water was.
Every Mother’s Day my father’s side of the family all gathered to celebrate. It was like Christmas with moms instead of Jesus, which still makes more sense to me than the way things actually are. There were gifts from kids to grandmas, grandmas to moms, moms to grandmas, dads to moms, grandpas to moms, dads to grandmas, and every combination in between. Usually, when money was good enough (it was never good, only sometimes good enough), there was one big gift that everyone chipped in for to each respective mother. Sometimes, school macaroni art projects were the only gifts anyone received and those years ended up being everyone’s favorite years.
My mother always felt uncomfortable at these because her side of the family lived in eastern Arkansas, a nine hour drive from northern Illinois thru some of the flattest land and bumpiest highway in the world. “Your dog could run away and you could watch him go for three days,” I’d heard the old timers say. My father’s family seemed to treat my mother like a country bumpkin, which she was, but so were all of them.
She made everyone blankets by hand anyway. Patchwork things with loose themes and looser stitching. Knitting and sewing with the supplies my father got from his third shift job at a yarn factory in her downtime, which was always. She had a disease that enlarged her heart so much it pushed her lungs into balloons that could pop at anytime. Her big heart was killing her, and made it so she couldn’t work. She was attached to oxygen machines all the time, but could still breathe on her own and would tell me, and only me, “never let a machine breathe for me,” which I understood from the first time she said it. I also understood that there was only one way I could help if a machine was breathing for her.
One Mother’s Day, after all the food was eaten and the gifts were given, the wind picked up across the corn and soybean fields and the skies turned black trimmed in a smoky green. Before the hail started the older kids and younger parents rode the wind on plywood pieces or unfolded cardboard boxes if they were thick enough.
Some gusts took them ten feet or higher then sent them crashing to the ground in a pile of new bruises while we all watched cheering and smiling with images in our head of them being sucked up into a funnel cloud and away from us before gently landing in the soybean or corn sprouts, but they never did. They just fell.
My mother was laughing as hard as anyone. She danced in the lawn chair and clapped her hands, smiled Mississippi River big, all teeth and freckles.
I ran out to try my hand at it. I was apprehensive due to a lifelong fear of heights and thought I would never come down if the storm got worse. I grabbed the largest piece of cardboard and held tight on both sides, turning myself into the cross pattern that makes kites work. I was a cardboard kite with no string.
My cousin stood next to me, tall and straight. The wind pulled her up like God’s invisible hand plucked her skyward and let her go before she got to heaven. She was giddy on the way up and looked sad and worried when God let her go, like she should have, and she landed safely in the flower bed laughing with all the family.
I stood solid and leaned into the wind like I saw the other do, and fell on my face. No pageantry, I just fell on my face, never catching flight. I giggled awkwardly and stood up to try again. The moment I did, a straight line wind blew low across my feet and knocked the cardboard against my legs. My face smashed into the grass and knocked me unconscious for what I can only assume was a split second because when I looked up no one had noticed. I got to my feet embarrassed and locked eyes with my mother who was no longer smiling and looked concerned. I grinned and shrugged my shoulders to calm her and turned back to become a kite again.
I ran toward the wind and jumped into it. God didn’t pick me up. Instead shoved me, hard, backward. My shoes brushed lightly along the grass as I slid twenty feet or more holding the cardboard like it could save me. I came down on the back of my neck in a very violent way, but sprang up to save face or cover my pain and realized that not a single member of my family had seen a thing.
My mother had fallen over in her chair. The last gust had taken her breath causing her to have a stroke. Her body fell victim to the storm and tried to hit a reset button her heart wasn’t strong enough to handle. An ambulance would’ve taken too long so her, my father, and an aunt piled into the truck and tore off for town while I stayed behind to cry and worry as usual. The storm calmed.
When my uncle drove me to the hospital after we cleaned up all the plywood and cardboard. The doctors said her heart had stopped beating for almost a minute before it started again. That whatever was happening… stopped happening. That God let her go before she got to heaven, and she landed safely in a hospital bed with a new bruise on her heart and was laughing with all the nurses.
Self Portrait #12
It is always harvest time in Northern Illinois. Northern Illinois has an eye to the autumn all year long. All year long the summer is met with worry. With worry comes the rain. The rain can overstay it’s welcome. Its welcome in the spring.
I have always been the rain.
My scars keep strangers at arm’s length,
move mothers and children closer together in public.
My scars are powerful.
I was powerless when I got them.
My scars appreciate in value.
They were free. They are priceless.
My third wife took everything but the scars.
She was too generous to take them with her.
My second wife gave me everything she had.
I gave her a child and an excuse.
I was too selfish to burden myself with them.
My first wife passed away fifteen years after we divorced.
She was kind enough to let me move on before she died.
When I was asked if I had ever been to jail, I tensed tight at the idea of honesty. The look my hesitance caused showed my answer was irrelevant. A new jury pit suddenly popped up in front of me. I was my own bailiff. The cuffs closed slow around my wrists. I could hear the click as clearly as the question. I had been judged as harshly as possible. I shrugged my shoulders and smirked, my finest attempt at being smug, and I never answered. I am ashamed that I was silent.
I let the chaos breathe for me some days. Chaos has perfect, happy lungs. They rise and fall on a controlled regular basis. Order is essential to proper breathing. Chaos delivers breath despite itself. My lungs are chaos.
If my heart skips a few lubs or dubs, no one notices. I am the only one who listens. Doctors say my health is my fault. It is. My heart has only it’s best by me and I have broken it or stopped it too many times to count. My heart beats chaos.
My brain has no regulation, is a free spirited teenager. Naive and swears to know enough to get by. When the real world floods chemtrails across my frontal lobe, I lose time. I forget myself. I am all shook and sway and fall without music or prayer. I am uncontrolled bladders and stiff armed nightmares and record skips. Epilepsy is the devil in a padded room. The sheets strangle dreams, pack twitches behind eyelids half open.
My brain breeds chaos. My body is chaos. My motorcycle boot spine is an unwatched documentary. These stories are written with skin. They fade, but never go blank.
Harvest The Dirt (pt.2)
By late Autumn everything is dead or gone in the Corn Belt. The cold wind comes during the harvest, lurks at the fence row, and waits for the dust twisters to dance across open plowed fields. The fields hug the earth around every small rise and fall. When the corn is gone, the land curves away where it touches the sky, looks like it never ends. When the corn is gone, everything is dirty beige before it goes grey and lifeless. Every child knows a ghost story about their hometown. It writes itself on the back of bedtime eyelids that are half closed. When the corn is gone, the wind blows monsters from behind doors, under beds, or along window sills that smell like corn liquor.
When winter hits, hope hibernates beneath white dunes, waits for a thaw that never comes when it is supposed to, nothing happens fast here, even the thaw. Here, there is little shame in drunk driving, here, they think “snow tires are for pussies,” here, there is little entertainment in waiting and everyone gets bored sometimes here. The most trusted person here is the banker, the least trusted is the priest, most people fall somewhere in between. Everyone an open bible and the highlighted passages will explain everything you need to know about a family’s history. Everyone is work glove tough and rusted metal grit.
Every spring is a surprise. A sign that there is work to be done that is etched across every green blade of grass. “If you read it proper, you read the harvest,” the old timers say. They are always right.
Thunderstorms are welcome guests as long as they don’t bring tornadoes. Tornadoes are a drunk cousin at a family reunion who wrecks the place when fighting with the helpless uncle who lives in the trailer park. Tornadoes hate trailer parks, have a mean taste for soybean fields, and bowl over corn rows like popcorn. Tornadoes are expensive, will eat you out of house and home.
Summer slides in all but unnoticed. Draught is a four letter word you can’t say on Sunday. Carnivals swarm small towns like a pestilence of celebration, all firecracker hair down vigilance, as close as the locals will ever come to Mardi Gras. Every farmer has a limp and a smart mouth, every adult has a survival story that writes itself on the back of bedtime eyelids; the blizzard of ‘79, the heatwave of ‘95, the flood of ‘93, all carved into good night kisses from birth by worried parents or sunk into each happy birthday wish, but always anchored in every moment. They don’t lose things here, they get lost. They don’t forget things here, they get forgotten
The blood stains on the barn walls are too scary
to put a third grade halloween party metaphor on.
Dried blood turns dingy yellow first,
then burnt orange, then dark brown.
The amount of churches per state and meth labs per state
have the same regional spike in number.
The closer you live to the center of the Bible Belt
the bigger you think it is.
The closer you live to the center of the Meth Belt
the smaller you think it is.
“Same difference” works as an explanation of
ignorance and acceptance.
‘Round here, a family bible page bent where hills hide behind
the feeling flatlanders find comfort in.
Corn stalks talk swift whispers.
Tassels whiplash, intertwine in an anxious soft conversation.
They have conspiracy theories about combines and farmers
and anhydrous ammonia fumes from across the field.
They won’t talk much to outsiders.
Soybean dust storms swirl,
then fall like a fine snow.
The dry precipitation clogs noses and throats for miles and hours.
It will eventually feed millions.
For now, we all choke.
Life Lesson 1280 or
“The Five Things I Learned in an Oklahoma Bar Fight
on my 22nd Birthday”
When the glass breaks over your head,
notice the flash of white that takes over the whole world.
The blood will seem like an afterthought,
the afterbirth to your newborn concussion.
Stand up, leave the bar in a bolt of confusion while
the other patrons turn spirits into ghosts.
Never be anywhere with so much hate.
When you get outside, light a KOOL, and smile.
Do not get angry when the tears streak down your face,
curl off your top lip, and snuff out the cigarette mid drag.
When you wipe the tears away and realize it is blood,
thank the cigarette for the warning and the cancer, throw it on the ground.
Never smoke anything laced in blood.
When you notice the police officer
noticing you fall towards your truck,
show him your keys, unlock the door,
show him your keys again, throw the keys
to the other side of the parking lot,
climb into the cab of your truck,
wave to the police officer,
lock the door,
lay down and sleep until sunrise.
When the sunrise does not provide you with sobriety,
go back to sleep.
Sleep until noon.
Never drive while you are bleeding.
When noon re-wakes you and you notice you are still bleeding,
mumble in a way that scares the birds while you look for your keys.
When you find them, smile for the little victory.
Stumble to the hospital, while pedestrians only
gasp at the sight of you, and do nothing to help.
Never go to the hospital unless you have to stumble to get there.
If the woman behind the emergency room desk
does not seem to care about your bleeding head,
or your broken heart,
withhold your disappointment.
Do not blame her,
simply pass out in a sweaty, bloody heap of self-righteousness.
That will show her.
When you wake up alone in a hospital bed,
examine the scenarios that could have
led you to a less stressful evening.
Always rethink your life when you wake up alone in a hospital bed.
I hope my son never grows a Hulk Hogan mustache.
Turtle likes sweet tea, watching the same movies 7 times in 2 days, and turning strangers into fast old friends. He grabs pizza slices with both hands, shoves bites the size of his face into his mouth, somehow, chews eyes wide open and focused.
A modern day copy of a man he has never met, minus the mullet, and add a thick New England accent.
He love basketball, Elvis, Waylon, ZZ top, BB King, cornbread, fart jokes, poetry, and people. All equally. These are things I taught him as my father taught me. I hope my son never grows a Hulk Hogan mustache. I hope he is just like my father.
He thought he was wrong once. He was mistaken. He’s mistaken almost always, wounded by banshees and band mates, been handed empty promises a bunch, and driven drunk more times than anyone ever has in history. HE IS DRIVING DRUNK THIS VERY SECOND SOMEWHERE IN ARKANSAS. Everything has almost killed him.
He works relentlessly. Breathes the same breaths as bad men and broken brilliance, often in the same day.
His time clock sits chest high in front of him, and then he winds himself from truck wheels to porch to computer desk, leaving a trail of nicotine, methane, and beer cans in his wake. He wins small wars in smaller towns everyday that the sun decides it has the strength to shine or be seen.
Building roads isn’t always a metaphor. When some people build roads, it hurts their back, knees become rubber toys left in the sun by the work that makes hands bloody.
My father’s hands are always bloody.
Funerals are Family Reunions or The fortune cookie monster speaks a 21 gun salute. (for Uncle Phil)
No fortune cookie he gave me ever warned of his heart stopping on an Arkansas two lane highway. No soft tan crack ever told him to be cautious driving alone. Fortune cookies can not really see the future. Fun desserts can not save your life.
Not being able to say goodbye is a tornado on the horizon. You can feel the rumble and sorrow on the surface, but have to wait out the storm.
When a loved one dies, family become lightning rod safety for the shock of loss. That is what keeps your house from burning down.
Most families say, “Mother-in-law, Brother-in-law,
No one ever says “Uncle-in-law.” My family refuses all of this. We are a “Family-in-love.” Warts and all. My family is a wart covered witch capable of the most beautiful toothless magic. From racist whites, to albino blacks, we are a checkered past, and zebra stripped future. We do not need your approval.
At the funeral, five generations sat together on a couch. Eighty years apart and hundreds of relatives in common. No one thought to take a picture. A voice behind me said, “this is real tough, but god help us all when the old man goes,” meaning my Grandaddy. At a certain age, “if” becomes “when.” Some of us are born at that age, some never reach it.
Some people collect guns for protection, others for ego, others out of anger. Uncle Phil collected guns like a collects toys or baseball cards. For fun. A racist anarchist who paid his taxes, he was a patriot with no concept of borders.
Arkansas breeds better fireflies and mosquitos than cotton. Illinois breeds better fireflies and mosquitos than corn. Most families are fireflies, my family are all mosquitos.
I hugged a cousin whose name I couldn’t remember. I hadn’t seen him since a 1987 wedding. Funerals are family reunions. There are times to be thankful for death.
I handed a copy of my newest book to a different cousin. There was a poem about her, but no true acknowledgement of who she was in the book. I felt like a plagarist. I felt like an irresposible child. I’m sorry Shonda.
Illinois and Arkansas are the only states with a silent “S” at the end. Boom, metaphor.
Living 1,600 miles from your family is the easiest long distance relationship you will ever have because the opportunity for sex has been removed from the equation. Hopefully.
At least two members of my family have been married to someone they were related to before the wedding. Those are the confirmed cases.
It wasn’t me. Although, I did have confusing feelings about a cousin once.
My family will probably not talk to me for a while after reading this poem, but will forgive me because they are my family and already know I’m an asshole. (Besides, half of them can’t read and the other half will be too busy pointing fingers about numbers 12 and 13 to be all that angry.)
My family deals with loss through bad jokes, pot, booze, and arguments. All of us larger than life itself in each other’s eyes. When one of us dies, the ruckus will be as loud as the love was.
When Uncle Phil died we partied for two days. We shed tears and hangovers like skin. We rode motorcycles, fast, and prayed like hell if we did get pulled over it would be by a member of the family and not some regular cop. Most of us had warrants, broken hearts, and a pretty good buzz. A less than healthy combination for driving an unregistered bike, but perfect for a funeral or family reunion.
I loved my Uncle Phil
My Uncle Phil loved me.
Once, when I was eight or so, Uncle Phil took my parents and I out for dinner while he and Mama’s sister, Aunt Patti, were up for a visit. Chinese food. He saw how much I liked the fortune cookies and bought an extra dozen to take home. The cookies were meant for all of us, but in the morning, while the adults slept, I snuck into the kitchen and ate them. I denied knowledge of the cookies when asked, no doubt crumbs on my lips and little white guilty verdict paper slips falling from my pockets like little white lies. Uncle Phil dubbed me the “fortune cookie monster.” He called me that until the day he died. Everytime we saw each other he bought me fortune cookies. Sometimes, they were chocolate covered.
Family is a gift that I have not always remembered to cherish. There are people who are always on my side, even when I’m wrong.
Especially when I’m wrong.