@

IMG_0495Every damn day in Religion Class, Sister Anna Banana yapped about the Soviets revving up to start a nuclear war with the new president, Ronald Reagan. She said after the cities burned to Holy Hell, there’d be something called “nuclear winter” that would kill all the plants and food, and it would last a million years. I’ll tell you what, a little bad weather, nuclear or not, wasn’t going to make me go extinct.

I’m already semi-super strong and fast, and I’m the best fighter in the sixth grade. But once World War III kicks off, I’ll need to be impervious to the nuclear wind-chill factor. Even though I was a whole year older than him, my little brother, Jaggerbush, was already immune to freezing weather, drinking sour milk, and the Ten Commandments. I had to practice up. I had a cold war to fight.

Wild Mulattos Cover (New Blurb)Not long ago, at the beginning of this new century, I received from my maternal uncle a rather fateful phone call. I hadn’t spoken to Uncle Dalton in years, hadn’t seen him since my high school graduation, when he whispered that if I moved far enough away from my parents’ northeastern home, with my complexion, manner and intellect, I might pass for white. His calling surprised me, as did the frantic tone with which he relayed a curious adventure. He and some friends had been drinking and duck hunting in the Arkansas Delta, and through some sequence of events he could not fully explain, he got lost among the oxbow lakes, sloughs and uninhabited woods along the Mississippi River. For two days he wandered, convinced he’d die, with no map and his ammunition depleted from shooting at canvasbacks and trying to signal his companions. But on the third day, when he was making peace with God—in large part requesting forgiveness for the execrable treatment he’d given my mother for marrying my father—while falling to his knees he saw a slim youth in what looked like a gray sweatsuit, stepping into a gap among trees and thigh-high weeds. Stumbling forward, my uncle called for help, and the boy emerged, told my uncle to break his rifle, toss it to the ground and wait right there. In a few minutes the youth returned with venison jerky, a rough ceramic jug of fresh water, and a hand drawn map on homemade paper that steered Uncle Dalton to a gas station several circuitous miles down a dirt road. “And he looked just like you,” my uncle insisted. “Just like you.”

41bKsL5ED+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_OK, Goodbye

Let’s say the first time she tries to walk out she loses her car keys in the front yard at night. She’s sassy, maybe a little drunk. She tosses her keys in the air but misses them on the way back down. The next thing she knows, she and her husband and the neighbors’ kids are on their hands and knees on the front lawn, feeling around for keys. Wet pieces of mowed grass stick to her legs as she crawls in the dark. She’s cussing to herself and dizzy and hungry. She’d like to stay angry enough to leave once she finds her car keys, but she’s also tired.

Then there’s the scene outside in which the neighbors are loading their truck to move. It’s a hot afternoon, and Vivie says, “You probably won’t be here when I get back, so I want to say goodbye now and tell you how nice it was to have you as neighbors. I mean it—we won’t ever get neighbors as good as you,” and she starts to tear up.

Everyone hugs. They laugh and say, “Keep in touch.”

“You keep in touch, too.”

Vivie gets in her car and pulls away. She drives slowly and waves. They wave, and she honks and waves some more. At the corner she turns to go to the store, and they’re out of sight.

Pinkies-Cover_main

Miguelito

When my first wife moved out, she took the pictures of our basset hound and left the pictures of our honeymoon. She took the kitchen appliances we received as wedding presents. She took the bed we bought with our first tax return.

It was the end of summer. There were papers scattered around the front room. Our health insurance statement, our car insurance statement, and our homeowner’s insurance statement were in a loose pile where our desk used to be. I pulled the twin mattress from the guest bedroom into the middle of the living room. The dog sat by the front door, whining.

I slept with the lights on. The ceiling fan spun overhead, casting shadows on the ceiling. I woke up around midnight and let the dog outside. When I woke up again to his scratching at the back door, the sun was coming up.

I rubbed my eyes as he walked in the door, the fur on his paws and long ears wet with dew. He had never stayed outside all night. I figured he must have been waiting for my first wife’s car to pull into the driveway. “Sorry, boy,” I said. “I don’t think she’s coming home.” The dog shook the dew out of his fur and looked up at me, drool collecting in the corner of his mouth.

WSCOVERSummer

My sister is sixteen and she’s already at that stage in life where she’s bringing over guys that look like Fonzie or Vanilla Ice. Some have tattoos, some have scars, some smoke cigarettes and listen to music that sounds like it’s been ground up and shit out through a ripped subwoofer. You take a little walk one day, maybe down to the neighborhood park, and when you come back home, you find these dudes there with their t-shirts rolled up to show off their stupid tats, smoking cigarettes and kissing your sister on the front porch. Some have greasy hair, pulled back in a ponytail. Others have buzzed heads and goatees, and wear leather jackets and work boots. It is summer now, both parents at work, and my sixteen-year-old sister is too busy with her greaser on the porch to give a shit about what my brother and I are up to.

After Abel Cvrs Final“I have a special job for you today, Miriam,” Amma says. She woke me even earlier than usual today. Everything is black, the walls of our hut, the ceiling, and the sky outside that I can see through the doorway.

It’s hard to get out of bed so early. Usually, Baba is gone by the time Amma rubs my back until I open my eyes. Not today. Baba is standing right behind Amma when she wakes me, which is how I know this is important.

Baba holds up the basket that Amma has been working on for weeks. First, she sent me to the river to gather long reeds for her. She cut those up and wove them together so that I couldn’t see through them at all when I held the basket up to the light. After that, she carried it down to the river to line it with thick mud. That sat in our hut drying for days, but it didn’t bother me.

Snowblind_FINALDEAD TIL PROVEN OTHERWISE

Two am. Ann chokes off the alarm on her watch. Her bones ache, even the sockets of her eyes. She probes her flesh, groping for her moxie. How much does she have left? Yeah, and how much will she need? Half breaths of wind rattle the fabric of her bivy sack. Ha! One vertical mile of snowy Alaskan beast below the foot-wide sleeping ledge she’s chopped in the ice, and the beast is snoring. Ann unzips the hood of her bivy sack. Stars! Bright goddamn stars. And cold. Cold as a wage slave’s soul. Perfect. Day three, and her weather window has held. She’ll meet the sun on top of the mountain.

BarefootDogs.coverimage

It Will Be Awesome Before Spring

It is the year everybody’s planning to spend the summer in Italy. Tammy and Sash will take a photography workshop in Florence and Jen will take a cruise around the Mediterranean with her family, and mine will rent a house in Tuscany. We’ve already made arrangements to meet in Milan for a couple of days and perhaps drive to Portofino and hang out there for another day or two—Italian highways are the best, we’ve heard, and no one cares about speed limits there, same as here, but highways there don’t suck, so everybody agrees it will be awesome. Before spring breaks, we’re already taking Italian conversation over cappuccinos at Klein’s on Avenida Masaryk once a week with this beautiful middle-aged Genovese woman I remember as Giovanna but I’m sure that was not her name. She looks like Diane von Furstenberg when she was in her prime, only with much less expensive clothes. She wound up in Mexico because she met some guy in Cancún, and has been trying to make a living here since, teaching Italian and any other language to foreign executives, because she’s a polyglot. Whenever we want a break from class we ask her to tell us stories about her other students—she’s an avid raconteur too, so she can talk and talk for hours on end—and she comes up with the wildest tales. My memories of that year have started to blur and I can only recall the story of the Danish executive who’s taking English conversation and fashions a grinding, horrible accent, our teacher says, flapping her branchy hands over our cappuccino glasses as if they’re logs on fire and she’s trying to turn them into embers. Irregular nouns and verbs make this poor Danish lady crazy, Diane—let’s call the Italian polyglot that—admits with a frown that makes the crisp features of her face look worn rather than sophisticated, so every time Diane asks her to talk about her morning routine, the Danish lady says, “Well, firrst ting rright out of my bet, I torouffly wash my teets.”

10459009_10152214303511127_1046608401945286575_oIn a crumbling-stucco corner house off Frazier Street, lived a boy who believed he was nothing at all.  Nightly, his drunk father’s eyes glowed red, and he spit fiery words, but not until fists hailed down on his mother did the boy run for the space between the stove and cabinets. There he crouched crying, “Coward! Coward!”

He listened hard through screams and breaking for his mother’s breathing. Sometimes she went silent, and he wanted to be more than a boy hiding between the stove and cabinet. There he fingered the black abyss of a crack in the linoleum praying, “Fall in. Fall in. Fall in. Fall in,” and one night his father did.

our-secret-life-frontALL IT TOOK TO GET RID OF YOU

\ After Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky \

I thought I had woken up. Going out into the hall, I noticed that the front door was open. This was unnerving because I was living alone again after the divorce. The last time I had used the door was early the previous evening when I came home from work. Then I heard someone in the house, fussing around in the kitchen.

It was you in your running clothes. You looked hale and flushed, your breath heaving a little, like it did when you first started jogging. I had made fun of you then, thinking it wouldn’t last, but it was actually one of those minor changes, like listening to new music or suddenly acquiring a hobby like knitting, that heralds a breakup. What was strange about this situation was that the breakup had already occurred, we had agreed not to call or see each other, the old phrases like “space” and “needs” had been dealt and played, and you had no reason to return to our house. You didn’t even have keys anymore.

McLeodFrontFirst, locate a town in the upper portion of the Central Time Zone. Population circa 1990 should hover around five hundred. Median income should be not enough. Next, make sure industry leaves: the meat plant, the Wheat Growers, the regional K-Mart equivalent—all of these must go. Try to space the closings out over a decade or more; the effect you are after is chronic fatigue, as opposed to acute calamity. Make the pace of the obliteration glacial. Think slow burn. The Midwest is filled with distance and if you are going to start your own ghost town, it is important to realize it won’t happen overnight. Let the chain stores crunch their numbers. Watch them downsize, have sales, take losses, give up. See local business follow suit: The Hamburger Shack, the Tractor and Auto, the church thrift shop with its copper, polished bell above the door. It will be mandatory, too, to have your town’s high school incorporated into another’s; youth are often on the receiving end of mixed messages, but bussing them twenty or forty or sixty miles five days a week will make certain they understand it foolish to settle where they were raised, that their town is dying, that even education has left.

ByTheLightWeKnewOurNames_ValenteA VERY COMPASSIONATE BABY

Gerard finds he cannot take his baby anywhere. Once, when they walked into the Dairy Queen on McPherson, a teenager passed them on the way out and dropped his strawberry ice cream on the pavement. The baby watched the pink scoop fall woefully to the ground, then exploded into such unmanageable tears that Gerard and his wife had to bring him back to the car. Another time, when they took the baby to the park on a sun-filled spring day, the park crew was out mowing the grounds, and the baby leaned out of his stroller, saw the grass flying, weeds razed, dandelion spores whipping up and away on currents of violent air, and he cried with such deep sorrow that the sun couldn’t cheer him, nor the baby ducks swimming through the pond, nor the tulips blooming in the fields. They turned the stroller around and took him home.

See You in ParadisePortal

It’s been a few years since we last used the magic portal in our back garden, and it has fallen into disrepair. To be perfectly honest, when we bought this place, we had no idea what kind of work would be involved, and tasks like keeping the garden weeded, repairing the fence, maintaining the portal, etc., quickly fell to the bottom of the priority list while we got busy dealing with the roof and the floor joists. I guess there are probably people with full-time jobs out there who can keep an old house in great shape without breaking their backs, but if there are, I’ve never met them.

Helen86_Final Cover.inddLife Above Sea Level

patchogue 1968

“Sink or swim,” my mother’s brother says as he drops me from the side of a boat in the Great South Bay. Bobbing up, head above water, I can see the shore, see where my father sits in a folding chair, Times spread across his lap, head tipped back, eyes closed. Water fills my nose and lungs, and I am scooped out by a strong-armed uncle. Funny, they said, it worked so well with all the other kids.

Every summer my mother’s family piles into this house bought by a grandfather, great uncles, and an aunt. My mother’s family: police detectives, payroll clerks, and Brooklyn Navy Yard workers. Irish. This is a place where men come to catch blues, weekend fishermen after a perfect run. Where women wash clothes in ice-cold water, then hang them on long lines cast toward the Bay. Line-dried clothes, stiff and hard, that stink of bay water and don’t bend easily against skin.

DifferentBedEverytime(new)(large)The Wrong Sister

Okay. Say the reason you’re stuck here in limbo is totally unclear to you. Say you were a woman who cared about little but treated others basically well. Say you had a twin who was married to a doctor, but because you were so ambivalent, you never agreed to partner up, never liked anyone enough to commit or even give someone a real chance, to ever approach the situation where you might have to explain these feelings to another human being because you’ve joined to have and to hold, in sickness and in blah blah blah…