How it Works

As l left the Hotel Garnier, I straightened the line of buttons running the length of
my long denim jumper. At least I would look put-together. I turned the corner
onto Rue de Rome where the street buzzed with a crazy mix of traffic. Renaults,
Fiats, and Citroens raced in both directions. I fell in step with Parisians charging to
their next destination while the sun, nearly overhead, promised another steamy
day.

An edgy feeling jittered through me. It wasn’t just the city, the ten days of
touring the country with a dozen other people, or the fact that this was my first
time out alone. I needed an AA meeting. But this was my last day in Paris and I
had one chance to visit the Musee du Cinema, the only museum in the world
dedicated to movies. I’d loved French movies ever since I took a year of film
classes before settling on English as my major.

I headed toward the Metro station with guilt and purpose as sensation won out
over spirituality. I, who never missed meetings in the nine years since I’d quit
drinking, smoking pot, snorting cocaine, and popping pills, was skipping AA today.

Here I was in France, the land of wine, celebrating my college graduation after
three decades and three tries, the first clean and sober. Here, the wafting
bouquet of vin–the pungent trace of ripe grapes fermented just long enough to
give a glow or a headache–was everywhere. At sidewalk cafes where bright
awnings flapped in the summer breezes. At dinner where it could be had every
night. In the wineries of the Loire Valley where a 30-ft. high cluster of sculptured
grapes lingered by the roadside.

Wine had been my drink of choice. Even though I had dallied with mixed drinks at
times, I always came back to a sweet rose or a dry white wine. I tried to be a
social drinker, and I never drank much–I couldn’t hold much. But I could never
say no to a night out or a night in. And wine, along with a joint and good music,
was the best antidote for disappointments of the heart of which I had many. But
that was past history.

I slipped down the steps of the Metro station with a string of others, the sound of
our footsteps echoing off the concrete walls. A dank smell lay quietly in the
tunnels contrasting with our hustle as we hurried past the turn-styles only to wait
at the platform. No one seemed particularly threatening. A dark-haired woman in
a suit shifted from one foot to the other in her four-inch stilettos. A guy in hiking
boots sat on a backpack, smoking a cigarette and looking like he needed a hostel.
Two teenage girls giggled against the back wall. The others blended into the
shadows.

When the train rumbled through the tunnel and screeched to a halt, I was glad to
board the car with the small herd. The ripe smell of a swarthy-looking man who
held onto the center pole assailed me as I passed by.

I settled in a seat by myself under a large map of Metro routes and pored over my
smaller version like it was a holy document. Get off at Charles De Gaulle-Etoile.
Take #6. Get off at Bir-Hakem. Silently, I repeated my mantra as the Metro
hurtled forward under the streets of Paris, trying to distance myself from my
loneliness.

Of my trio of roommates, all of us returning to college in our forties, I had been
the expendable one. I wanted to blame it on the division of drinker and non-
drinker. But the other two were single with a different mind-set than I, who’d
remarried in sobriety. And they needed less sleep than I did. With the Epstein-
Barr virus threatening me with fever and fatigue if I didn’t pace myself, I turned in
early, missing twittering girl-talk and late night excursions to local brasseries for
drinks.

I joined the throng exiting the subway and walked under the Arc de Triomphe for
the next connection. Safely ensconced on train #6, I watched the station names
at each stop as the subway rumbled toward Bir-Hakem.

Street vendors, selling everything from sketches to wind-up dogs lined the walk to
my first stop, the Eiffel Tower. By the time I arrived, I was wilting. I leaned
against one of the iron pillars and swigged an overpriced bottle of water, amazed
that the base of the Tower was large enough for two football fields.

I hurried across the Pont d’lena, the bridge spanning the Seine. I found the
Musee du Cinema in the palace that housed it and other museums. The Musee
was closed for lunch. I waited with a dozen others on the steps leading down to it
and journaled while the rest talked and laughed.

As the chain across the entrance was removed, I queued for a ticket, nearly giddy
with anticipation. My excitement vanished the moment the tour guide spoke–in
French. I was lost in her rapid-fire delivery just as I had been in almost every
encounter on the tour.

I attempted to translate. My mind worked faster and faster as the guide led us
into the musty rooms. She discussed the Lumiere brothers’ photoramas and
Edison’s kinetoscope, all in glass cases. She directed us to costumes that hung
on the wall–romantic gowns and western chaps and spurs, a khaki outfit and pith
helmet from an adventure film She pointed out movie posters from Truffault and
Godard movies. Finally, I gave up, catching what I could and reading the
explanations–also in French.

When I emerged, my mind was in tatters. I trundled downhill against the advance
of tourists and settled on the first unoccupied park bench. Discreetly, I adjusted
a gap in the front of my jumper that had exposed a smidgen of belly-flesh for all
the city to see.

A continuous stream of sightseers flowed across the bridge and up the asphalt
walkway in front of me. As I rested in the shady arbor of overarching trees, I
watched the parade and obsessed about my return trip.

I needed all my wits about me to hike back to the Metro stop, navigate the
subway, shower, and meet the group for our farewell dinner at 6 o’clock. After
that, just one more day and I’d be home and safe.

I didn’t feel like using, but I was lonely and tired, half of the HALT syndrome:
Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. Add two more of the big stressors and my
defenses could crumble, here, halfway around the world from family and AA friends.

A slight breeze caressed my cheek and ruffled my hair, soothing compulsion that
threatened to build. Behind me, a young couple lay on the lawn entwined in each
other’s arms.

My loneliness came and went while I people-watched: an English couple in hiking
outfits, a blonde Swedish family with lilting accents, several German students in an
intense discussion, some Americans, and others of unknown origins.

When a young Japanese family asked me to snap pictures of the four of them, I
felt useful. I was touched when they offered profuse thank you’s and bowed
before me. Upon leaving, the smallest of the two children peeked around her
mother’s legs and smiled at me, coal-black eyes dancing in delight.

In the file of travelers, I noticed a man in his 60’s with wispy, white hair sticking
out from under a beige snap-brim hat. Even though he struggled up the incline
with the help of a silver-haired woman, probably his wife, his shoulders were
square.

Cancer, I thought.

“Sit down here, Pete, and rest,” said the woman, as she guided him to the far end
of the bench on which I sat. “I’ll go on up and be back shortly.”

Wheezing, Pete sat heavily against the wooden seat and leaned back. “I’ll be ok,”
he said. His wife patted his shoulder, then turned and passed me, her short legs
working against the hill.

We sat in silence, Pete and I, while I drank in the fresh scent of green summer
grass and the woody smell of old trees. As tourists trooped up and down the hill
and the minutes passed, Pete’s breathing eased.

I took a deep breath and initiated my first conversation without the backup of
roommates or the tour group. “You’re American,” I said.

Pete turned toward me. His blue eyes were friendly and I knew I was safe. “We’re
from Texas–Garland,” he said.

“I’m from Ohio.”

A smile filled his handsome, lined face and he said his son was vice-provost at a
private university in Ohio. I told him my college story and plans for grad school
and creative writing. Pete said his wife Flo, a nurse, had just written a book on
geriatrics. Our conversation swung back and forth like a porch swing on a lazy
afternoon as the fiasco at the Musee du Cinema faded.

Without missing a beat, Pete said, “I’ve got lung cancer–had it for eighteen
months. When I went in for chemo I told them I wasn’t going to get sick–and I
never did.”

I felt a shadow of sadness pass over me. But I said, “Positive thinking,” meaning
it.

“It’s a higher power that gets the credit,” he said, laying his arm on the back of
the bench.

Something flickered within me.

“In 1982 I came in the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous,” he said.

The warm glow that comes when two AA’s connect began filling me from the inside
out. I leaned forward, listening with special interest to my new “brother.”

“I hit bottom,” Pete said, gazing across the lawn. “Flo divorced me after twenty-
two years of marriage. I ended up in rehab–my third try at getting sober. But
there was something different that time.”

His eyes focused on mine. “I surrendered. I turned my will and my life over to a
higher power and my life’s never been the same. After a year in AA, Flo and I got
remarried. And it just keeps getting better and better.”

Eager to share, I said, “I’m in AA, too. I came in May 30th 1986.” Although I
couldn’t voice the darker issues, they flashed across my mind: fear of dying after
being exposed to AIDS, still suffering mentally from a violent boyfriend.

“I wasn’t drinking much by then,” I said, “but I was tired of meeting men in bars
who forgot to tell me they were married. I lived in a room over a hardware store
with my fifteen year-old daughter and worked two part-time jobs to stay afloat.”

I paused, reflecting on the changes. “I remarried five years ago.”

“Is he in the program?”

“No, he’s ‘normal,’” I said, laughing. “Whatever that is.”

Pete and I chatted like we’d know each other our entire lives as more travelers like
ourselves walked up and down the pathway.

When Flo returned from sightseeing and discovered that Pete and I shared
sobriety, her dark eyes grew big and her laugh was full and rich. She scooched
Pete and I together on the bench and, brushing her hair from eyes, asked us to
hold out our AA tokens while she videotaped.

“Stay right there,” she said, as she whipped out her still camera and snapped
photos of Pete and I, our tokens still on display. She found an English-speaking
tourist to photograph the three of us, and we posed shoulder-to-sweaty shoulder
against the lush backdrop of the park. As we settled back on the bench, I
adjusted the embarrassing gap in my jumper that had now been recorded on tape
and on film.

Flo touched her husband’s shoulder and said, “You know, I’ve never left Pete alone
this whole trip.”

The three of us looked at each other, nodded, and smiled in understanding,
knowing that’s how it works.

As much as I wanted to stay with my new “family” in the timelessness that kindred
spirits share, I checked my watch. It was 3:45. I scribbled my address and my
phone number on a scrap of paper and exchanged it for Pete’s and Flo’s business
cards.

“I’ll send you pictures,” Flo said, holding my hand, as she and Pete stood before
me. The sun glinted behind them through the overarching trees lining the path.

Their warm hugs stayed with me as I walked down the slope toward the bridge,
my steps light and quick.

That evening my tour group met at a dimly lit restaurant on the Left Bank. Our
private room was more like a cave where stealthy waiters came and went. The
smell of vin was heady as a few sipped wine. The twelve of us toasted one
another and our magnificent trip.

Each time I raised my glass it was filled with my usual, water with lemon. During
the three-hour meal, I savored my favorite memory of France–my “meeting” with
Pete. With a sense of awe, I marveled at the orchestration that brought two
recovering alcoholics together, 4000 miles from home.

 


Rita Coleman
graduated with a BA and an MA in English Literature with a Concentration in Creative Writing from Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio. Her poetry has appeared in For All That is Our Life, a meditation anthology, Science of Mind magazine, and Women’s Center Review of Antioch College. In addition to poetry, Rita writes short fiction, memoir, and children’s books. She lives near Xenia, Ohio with her husband Frank Baxley.

There’s Poetry in the Kitchen

According to my New American World Dictionary, copyright 1974, a handsome blue
leather bound edition, the phrase “cock of the walk” refers to “a dominating person in
any group, especially an overbearing one”. This definition is reiterated by my battered
red canvas 1979 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. It’s always good to double check
sources. Of the two, on this occasion I prefer Webster’s because it has quite a nice
rooster illustration diagramming both the “main tail”, #1, right through to the “lesser
sickle feathers”, #28. There is no such drawing in the American World, though on the
same page as “cock” is a very elegant cockatoo image. As Mama said, you gotta shop
around.

Having grown up on a farm, my father having been an egg peddler, I really don’t have
this overbearing description in mind when it comes to roosters. I also don’t recall
roosters calling at the crack of dawn so much as at sunset, but perhaps that had
something to do with the feed. If anything, I remember the hens. They were skittish,
certainly hard to catch, and often one hen in particular was the bossy one. In any event,
I prefer the root of the word. Roost. The idea not only of a perch, but of settling down
for a rest.

On the farm there was a rooster weather vane standing vigilant and pelican style at
the apex of an old red barn. I can still hear the creak of its oscillations in the wind, still
see the gleam of its silver mirroring the sheen of a nearby silo’s dome. A talisman of
protection and hope, the mahogany rooster ever-alert in its watch while the other
animals nestle.

From the small kitchen where I write this passage, it is by the light of such a noble
fowl, a carved rooster lamp. I found it abandoned in the closet of yet another apartment
I was moving into. Finders, keepers. Its wiring works fine and its original yellow shade
creates a brown rustic glow, the glow of nostalgia. Home, it says to me, lent pizzazz by
gold and emerald foil stars winding around its brass pole before trailing off into the air.

There’s a bit of Mercury in that, an allusion to good tidings. Beginning with the
rooster and ending with the window, a sort of stretched out tabernacle is formed on
that entire left side of the room. This illusion is aided by the fact of an oblong mirror
placed horizontally against the wall at the back of the work counter. Across its top an
ivy garland acts as laurel.

Isn’t true cooking the art of a scholar? As far as that particular talent goes, I’m still
in Special Ed. This is why I hold in such high esteem those who can actually cook. Who
seem to enjoy both the science of it, and the sharing of its results. Very rarely do I
attempt to inflict my concoctions on others any more, except for my partner. He is a
master chef himself, but comes here with antacids and remains a good sport. One of my
last, dismal attempts at preparing a meal for more than two people involved a lasagna
recipe which included sun flower seeds. OK, sounds interesting. But the instructions
didn’t say anything about shelling them. I figured they’d just soften up in the stove. In
any case, it made for a very crunchy meal with guests surreptitiously spitting in their
napkins and trying to be polite.

I learned a valuable lesson from that. It’s not good to play Dr. Frankenstein with
food. My kitchen, nevertheless, still tries to pay humble homage to some galloping
gourmet ideal.

My kitchen also aims to express my country origins. Colanders and measuring cups
line the ceiling. Resting on the counter are wicker baskets of spices, bottles of olive oil,
canisters of utensils, and an assortment of flower printed crockery kept scrupulously
full. This last isn’t very hard to accomplish since I rarely open them.

Being a retiring gentleman from the old school, not entirely sure I belong in
surroundings of distressed wood cupboards and micro-waving and gadgets that
percolate, I much prefer the old west campfire. In other words, I have a can opener and
some lovely tin or other, and one great black metal pan that I repeatedly use. There is
something cosmic about it. Constellations of small white specks printed in an onyx sea
of iron. Not only does it match the faux speckled granite of the counter, it reminds me
of cowboys and pioneers, of a life not of simplicity, but of necessities basic to surviving.

Sometimes while I’m washing that pan, I think of my Ex, an alcoholic. Of those valiant
spells when he worked at staying sober. He learned from a woman friend in AA to take a
pan or a cup, and wash it over and over, scrubbing it more than spotless, keeping the
hands busy ‘til the urge for liquor subsides. I also remember a scene from a PBS special
about an elderly poet. In one scene, he’s washing potatoes at a sink, working spots off
the russet skin, the clear water a blue geyser. As he washes there is a voice over,
scotch and honey toned, reciting his poetry. The poem is about potatoes, the sanctity
of cleaning them, how at the end of one’s day, the end of one’s life, to be able to do
such mundane acts still, with love, is enough.

Having once been so much less comfortable with, and confident about, my own
solitude, I find solace in thoughts about the commonplace being sacred and grand.
Having worked in health care, I’ve learned a great deal about the blessings which disease
and aging can rob us of. I also have a partner who still does home care and shares
glimpses of his patients lives with me. So I feel an affinity with shut-ins, those bound to
dwellings or within the confines of their own paralytic bodies while the brain and the
spirit remain active. Of course homelessness isn’t necessarily any great shakes either.

“Is there no way out of the mind?” Sylvia Plath once asked, and I can understand her
beseeching desperation having been fickle about suicide by gas, pro or con, on more
than one occasion. The sense of being cornered mouse, a rabid hamster trapped in its
wheel, magnifies emotion claustrophobically in the skull. Obsession and compulsion can
beat this state, however, If you open the oven door and there’s really a great deal of
grime in it for instance. It would be a shame for that be the last thing you see on the
face of the earth, particularly at a time when you’re feeling pretty grimy yourself. Better
to clean it first, and then maybe stick around awhile trying to feel proud of the results.

Still the stove surely has a link to the Primitive, something reassuring and real in the
coils and rings on top. I once tried to photograph the yellow-indigo nimbus issuing up
from a burner through the view of the glass frying pan, the way it sighs up, a moth of
flame, to create a circle, a miniature cauldron. Those who practice Feng Shui believe in
the myth of a well functioning clean stove, a metaphor for sustenance and a means to
acquire it.

The snapshot did not capture that essence. It came out pretty bland compared to
the original inspiration and its intent. That’s often the case with photos. In the
meantime I try to remember that all of consciousness, and dreams too, are just another
kind of film.

 

 

Stephen Mead is a published artist/writer living in northeastern NY. A resume and samples of his artwork can be seen in the portfolio section of Absolute Arts.  Stephen’s book “Blue Heart Diary” is scheduled for release in 2005 from Stonegarden.net.

Still-Life with Man

STILL-LIFE WITH MAN

Today your mouth is a sepal scar,
your face, smooth peach
because you went and shaved it,
knowing I might comment,
knowing I might hold it
in my hands and tell you.
Yes, I like your presence.

I am afraid a still-life
is all I have to say.

I read about Cézanne last night
and dreamt about his apples,
the way their skin reflects the light,
a bowl of little moons. You do that,
you who made the bed,
the coffee while I wrote this.
Each pear becomes an ampersand
when you walk in the room.

 


Lissa Warren
holds a B.S. in English Education from Miami University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Bennington College. Her poetry has appeared in such publications as Quarterly West, Oxford Magazine, Black Warrior Review, and Verse. She has worked in the publicity department of several prestigious Boston publishing houses including David R. Godine, Houghton Mifflin, and Perseus Publishing, and is currently Senior Director of Publicity at Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Her own book, The Savvy Author’s Guide to Book Publicity, was published by Carroll and Graf in 2004

In Assisi

https://i1.wp.com/www.ninetymeetingsinninetydays.com/images/tuscany_photo.jpg?resize=320%2C241

italy defeated equador
in world cup soccer today

with each goal
collective cries of evviva  resounded
from our rose limestone acropolis’
trattorias & gelatrias

jupiter & venus
aligned over lush fragrant
hills of tuscany tonight & I
after nine years of abstinence
perhaps you can tell
drank two bottles of vino rosso

tomorrow
I will climb mt subasio
kneel down in his shaded grotto &
begin

 

 

Thomas Stein was born in CT. He received his Masters degree from Boston College and has spent much of his life living and traveling abroad. He is currently an assistant professor of English at Bismarck State College in North Dakota.

Deep Breathing

The lady is the last to board the plane, and you see her heading your way.

There are several empty seats, but you see her looking at the window seat next to you. Damn. She looks way too perky. “Excuse me,” she says looking at her ticket, then stretching her head over your lap to look at the seat number. “That’s me.”  

You realize she’s expecting you to stand up and help her.

“Here, will you put these up there for me?” she asks, handing you her heavy briefcase. You shove it in the overhead and return to your seat.

“I shouldn’t drink this coffee. I’m trying to give it up,” she says pointing to the super grande sized cup of coffee.

You just nod your head. You don’t have time to say anything.

“I try to drink half decaf in the afternoon, but I need to make my own then. Starbucks only sells it all decaf or all caffeine. You’d think there’d be plenty of people out there like me wanting half and half.”

“Can’t you just fill your cup halfway with each coffee?”

“I need a latte or mocha, not just coffee.  At home, I drink just coffee, but not when I buy it.”

“Hmmmm.”

“I used to drink about eight cups a day, but some of the people at work complained I was getting too edgy, too nervous, and suggested I cut back.”

“Ah.”

“I don’t eat meat.  Read a book once.  Changed my life.  You probably don’t want to hear about that.”

You’re probably right, you think, but she carries on about the book in great detail.  You’re on a small puddle jumper plane and the more she talks, the more claustrophobic you feel.  Talk talk talk.  “My ex-husband liked meat.  Part of the reason we divorced.  He’d fry bacon.  Bacon of all things.  He’d do this when I was waitressing. Never when I was home.  But I could smell it.  Bacon!”

“I like the smell of bacon.”

“You should read..”

For once, you cut her off.  “I like the smell more than the taste.  I get hungry whenever I smell my neighbors grilling meat.  I love the smell of barbecued meat sizzling on the grill.  I rarely light the grill.  Rarely cook,” you admit.

“I love to bake.  I love sweets.  Guess it’s true about vegetarians replacing meat with sugar.”

You sigh heavily.

“I know. I talk too much. I need to stop.  Guess I’ve had too much coffee. I made a pot before I left home.  Then I stopped by this coffee shop for another cup on the road. It’s a long drive to the airport.

And I knew I shouldn’t buy this cup at the airport.”

You think of yourself as a pacifist, as mellow, but this woman is pushing you to the edge.  You fantasize throwing her out the airplane window, imagining her floating through the clouds, rambling incessantly about her coffee, oblivious to the fact that no is listening.

“I’m really addicted to caffeine.  And sugar. Really.  I need to quit.

I can’t sleep at night.”

The stewardess frees you from listening to the woman’s chatter when she offers her coffee.  You wonder if the stewardess has it out for you.  Can’t she see this woman is flying high on caffeine?  They wouldn’t offer a drunk a drink.

You breathe heavily again, trying to will away these thoughts.  This woman is really getting to you. You wonder if you’ve ever been like her.  No, no, no wine for me. Then started ranting about how you love wine.  How you can’t stop at one glass. Rant, rant, rant, though you were only offered a drink.

Then it hits you. You know you’ve been like her.  It’s the most troubling realization.  You wonder how often you’ve been like her, why no one stopped you, pulled you aside and said just saying no was enough.  You wonder if this is why you’re getting so few dinner invitations.

You look at the woman and hear yourself speaking.  It’s like these words are coming out of her mouth, but it’s you doing the talking.   I can’t drink wine.  The people at work said I was getting too edgy. Said I had to cut back.  Said I wasn’t being  nice.  Said I wasn’t being productive.

The woman keeps talking about when she gave up meat, and how she can’t understand why she can’t give up caffeine when she can give up flesh.

She makes your head spin.

You wave to the stewardess and ask for a Bloody Mary.

“That looks good,” the woman says.  “I get too weird when I drink. I’d need celery,” she says when you just get the can of juice and tiny bottle of vodka.

You pour the vodka into the cup and can’t believe you’re doing this.

You haven’t had a drink in two years.  You look at the woman, the drink, your hands, the window, imagine her body floating, then remember that prayer, that AA give-me-the-strength-prayer, those meetings, the people who talked all the time, the stories they told, how they made you feel more like drinking than before you arrived for the meeting.

You look at the woman, the drink in your hand, and wish there was some way you could speed ahead in time so you could figure out what will happen next, and then, what will happen after that.

You smell your drink.  Really smell your drink.  You put your nose above the plastic glass and inhale deeply.  The woman looks at you with disgust.  She, of all people, the woman who has gone on and on about loving coffee can’t stand to see you inhaling the vapors from your drink.  You inhale again.  And again.

The woman calls the stewardess over to take her coffee.  Like you, she knows. She looks sickened.

You hand the stewardess your drink.

You take a deep breath. The woman takes a deep breath. Finally, there’s silence.

 

 

Diane Payne, her daughter, and several critters live in the humid, hot Delta region where everyone must be singing the blues.  She recently published her first the novel Burning Tulips and has completed a short story collection still looking for a home.

When the Rains Came Down

When the Rains Came Down

The first shower usually stutters, is uncertain.  This time
it unbuckled its load.   The skies are clear this morning.
I can see Jenin to the east, and the monastery
on Mount Tabor.   The rains have tamed the place
softened my olive tree that was dusty and aging,
polished begonias and added height to radishes
planted from seed.

I count cyclamens forcing through,  ferns
stretching in the shade. The garden seems bigger now.
Scorched patches have come alive.
Lavender, just planted, trembles.  Oregano
is in the air today, and mint.  Olives spin
from the tree,
black and ripe.

I want you to know about this morning.
For months the earth has twisted
from the sun.   The crust opens now,
trusts again, accepts.
This I would tell you also:
The rain’s intrusion heals,
can bring dry bones back.

 

 

Rochelle Mass was born in Winnipeg, Canada, grew up in Vancouver,
Canada and moved with her husband and daughters to Kibbutz Beit HaShita, in the
Jezreel Valley of Israel in 1973.  Today they live in a small community on the
western flank of the Gilboa mountains where they cure and press their olives and
harvest lemons and figs.  Ms. Mass works as a translator and editor.  Ms. Mass’ most
recent poetry collection is The Startled Land, Wind River Press, 2003.  Her work has
been nominated for the Pushcart prize, shortlisted by the B.B.C. for Middle East Stories
and shortlisted again by the BBC for a Radio Play.  She won first and second prize in
the Reuben Rose Poetry Competition.  She has been widely published and we
are grateful to have her among our contributors.

You Can’t Switch Moods

You Can’t Switch Moods

You can’t switch moods
you’ve got to stay put
remain at attention.
A hamsin has struck today: drives sand in, confiscates air.
No matter how far you move from the center
you get sucked in.

There’s no signal.  Suddenly bands of heat drop like party streamers.
Gardens shrink from the hostility, space cowers.

As if it has no history, the hamsin comes at you
isn’t attached to yesterday, doesn’t know
where you were before.  No questions asked.
It spins you into yourself, cracks your faith
that anything else can happen.
Your plans are delayed. Energy withers, it is so dry.

Not a hurricane, nor a tornado so what’s a person to do?
You feel expelled from your own yard
pressed up behind shutters.
Isn’t shaped like spring, doesn’t sprawl like summer,
The last days remain a blur, the only evidence
dust on every table.

Finally, the Gilboa mountain
fills the sky again
with pine trees and pocked boulders.
Reminds me of its contour.
The horizon has returned
the hamsin gone.

 

Rochelle Mass was born in Winnipeg, Canada, grew up in Vancouver,
Canada and moved with her husband and daughters to Kibbutz Beit HaShita, in the
Jezreel Valley of Israel in 1973.  Today they live in a small community on the
western flank of the Gilboa mountains where they cure and press their olives and
harvest lemons and figs.  Ms. Mass works as a translator and editor.  Ms. Mass’ most
recent poetry collection is The Startled Land, Wind River Press, 2003.  Her work has
been nominated for the Pushcart prize, shortlisted by the B.B.C. for Middle East Stories
and shortlisted again by the BBC for a Radio Play.  She won first and second prize in
the Reuben Rose Poetry Competition.  She has been widely published and we
are grateful to have her among our contributors.

Purple Toothbrush

Purple Toothbrush

      after Gluck

I like watching you brush your teeth
with your teeth in your hands. Your hands are
my favorite part of you, the part that
self-consciously covers your mouth when you

smile without your teeth. If you brushed
your teeth more often when they were still
in your head, you might still have them today.
That head should give some thought to the way

you have been doing things all of your life,
like squeezing that tube of toothpaste from
the top down, night after night, when you should have been
pinching it upward from the crimp, avoiding

waste. Watching you now in the bathroom with your
purple toothbrush in one hand, your teeth in the other,
a perfectly good tube of toothpaste in the wastebasket,
I think you are an ugly toothless wasteful thing

and I wish you would just hurry up and die
because I know when you are gone I will finally
start loving you properly, fully and completely,
and probably not before.

 

Paul Hostovsky has new poems appearing or forthcoming in Free Lunch, New
Delta Review, Bryant Literary Review, Visions International, Nebo, Slant, FRiGG, Driftwood, Heartlodge, Rock & Sling, ByLine
and others. He works in Boston as an Interpreter for the Deaf.

Greenhouse

Greenhouse

My Aunt Ellie lived in a green-
house. This was in Irvington
New Jersey. A Jew alone
is a Jew in danger, her husband
said. Their daughter, my cousin,
wanted to go where she wanted
to go. They said it was a big
mistake. In a greenhouse you
cultivate certain delicate
non-indigenous plants. The house
was green and my cousin fell
deeply in love with a black man.
When she married him her father
sat shiva for her, meaning that
he mourned her for dead. But
she was only living over in East
Orange. She had two beautiful
daughters who never knew
their grandfather on their mother’s
side. Because she was dead to him
until the day he died. That was the day
we all went over to Aunt Ellie’s house
where she was sitting shiva. We met
my cousin’s husband Toe, for the first time,
and their two daughters, Leah and Aleesha.
And we opened all the windows in
the greenhouse on that day, for outside
it was a beautiful spring day and we
broke out the expensive delicate china
from Germany which they kept locked up
in a glass breakfront in the hall.

 

 
Paul Hostovsky has new poems appearing or forthcoming in Free Lunch, New
Delta Review, Bryant Literary Review, Visions International, Nebo, Slant, FRiGG, Driftwood, Heartlodge, Rock & Sling, ByLine
and others. He works in Boston as an Interpreter for the Deaf.

Origin

https://i2.wp.com/www.ninetymeetingsinninetydays.com/images/Garden.jpg?resize=187%2C281

At a time when crazy making caused my mother to start coming out of my mouth just as she had been previously sprouting out of my widening hips, superfluous thighs and rounded tummy, I thought of the words of my mother, “I’m grown get your own damn kids if you want to tell somebody what to do.”  Then she’d say “shiiiit” with an elongated I and I still don’t know how it takes a monosyllabic word five or six seconds before it finished getting said.  Well, I chose to adhere to the woman who had taught me crazy and finally get my own damn kids.

I was all like, “I am grown woman.  I am wise.  I am thirty.  Gather ‘round younglings and listen for what nugget I may have for you to digest today. Many a year I have traveled through my own personal wilderness and now I have arrived at my own personal promised land.  Please come and sit by me.  I have something to share. I have heard what it is to be grown from Mother God Herself.

The Battle Hymn Republic served as white noise to my marching about the place.  My ventures often do begin with blessed assurance, and my fears are usually dealt with in the same manner, I write them out of existence.

For years I’ve been writing things down to get them out done and over with in order to put things to rest the way you do with the dead or things that are no longer useful.  For the most part, the end result is peace, or sometimes complacency in the guise of peace.  Whatever it is, at that point I am done with it.  The dirt of my youth has been excavated and re-laid to look like the prairie-lands.  My youth did not kill me like I thought it might.  I was never pushed off the rooftop of our fourteen-story building.  I didn’t get it in a drive-by.  The boy that I slept with is just a memory and did not leave me with any ailment or child.  I came out of the whole daughter of an impoverished single mother status smelling rather like Ivory Soap.  Instead of dying, I turned thirty.

To commemorate this, I decided that the focal point of my existence will no longer be the child that I once was, but the mother I wanted to become. It is like the aphorism from 1970’s black empowerment movement.  Perceive it, believe it, achieve it.  It is number one on my list of Top Ten Ways to Avoid Becoming a Victim of One’s Life.  Alas, I recognized the maternal gene has been revealed because I have some guilt behind not being able say to my child, “The good Christian woman you call mother, waited for your father before doing the deed.”

But as a relatively stable woman, the shame that I once felt has turned into something else, something dead or no longer useful and so I am done with it.  I know that shame is the shortest distance between a point and the psychiatric unit. I am about forward motion carrying what I can and leaving behind whatever is just too damn heavy.  So there I left it, back in Brooklyn with the rest of the crooks.  I step out now in the land of prairies and lakes, a woman, a wife, a student, a counselor, a friend.  I am your every day black middle class, educated woman who is suddenly seeking motherhood and I am basking in the glow of my new demographic.

It is like that scene in Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X.  It is at the very end of the movie and Malcolm has been shot.  I’m sitting’ in the theater with Gene, who was then my boyfriend.  I must have been twenty or twenty-one.  I’m just crying and crying unable to move, I got no tissue, and I’m just sniffling and carrying on.  Anyway, Nelson Mandela is in a classroom of South African Children and one by one these children would each stand up and say in their South African dialect.  “I AM Malcolm X.”  It was something of a battle cry.  Just like Spartacus.  My new battle cry has become “I Am Mother.”  It goes back to perceive, believe, achieve.  I will achieve motherhood for I have come on the other side of youth for some purpose and this must be the purpose.

Yet, all it takes is a faint whiff or a muted sound of something smelled or heard before and there I am there again walking slowly into my home of origin, amazed at how little has changed, feeling again its narrowness that closed in on me as I grew.  I’m sitting on the same couch and watching the same black and white television with the wire hanger sticking out of it.  I’m walking along the same linoleum floor, torn and taped in some spots and the edges curling away from the walls.  Mice travel in between the chipping plaster and the bend in the linoleum.  They scratch about with speed and certainty of their environment.  It was my first home of little frill.

The reverberations outside of my mother’s first floor apartment are all so identifiable, only a great deal more pronounced than they once appeared.   I hear the three o’clock bustlings of active children just let out of school.  The lobby carries their noise like an amplifying tunnel.  I hear Jay from 111 who sold the Daily News each Sunday morning, floor by floor until he reached fourteen.  He’d sing Neeeews Paaaaper!  The echo reached my mother’s door and she’d scurry for change and a tip.  “What a nice boy,” she’d say pulling out the coupon pages as I dug through for the TV guide.  Mrs. Dockery would come knocking eventually to give us a pan of her apple stuffing.  Jehovah’s Witnesses would come knocking with the latest issue of Watchtower.

Outside, traffic moves west toward the Brooklyn Queens expressway or east toward the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Bridges and highways, vast government subsidized buildings, city parks with graffiti adorned handball courts, it is the landscape of infrastructure and the uninterrupted presence of people, pushing or pedaling, sitting on benches in contemplation or conversation.  Sands Street craves its inhabitants just the way mountains and prairies crave theirs’, whatever theirs’ may be bears or butterflies.

Some faces may have changed but mostly they are the same.  But, what is this thing that is strangely unfamiliar?  I think that I’ve become unfamiliar.  I am not who I thought I would be and to some degree I find myself in sad reflection of a misplaced dream.  Of course, I have an affinity for black women with dreadlocks, big jewelry and something acutely honest to say.  But what I am begrudged to admit is that I never became what I revered.  I never locked my hair and for years I have not been unequivocally honest.  What I have become is tempered.  Tempered by the Midwest, tempered by marriage, by age, by middle-classdom, by religiosity and my new longings for small houses and station wagons.

I am not even sure if can call this newer place that I live home.  I have grown with cement not wildness.  Now I live with formless raspberry bushes of which I do not pick and of which I cannot destroy no matter how determined I get, and I live with rhubarb transplanted from someone’s country garden.  I know nothing of these matters.  I planted day lilies in the shade instead of in full sun.  I dropped grass seed on a patch of dirt without watering and wondered why the grass did not grow.  I cannot distinguish marigolds from carnations.  I am afraid of bunnies.  In good weather I go out for duty sake, not love.  Attempt to make things pretty.  Fail.   My husband threatens to pave the back yard.

I’ve had the audacity to ask southern ancestors who worked the earth without pay to help me find my agricultural roots.  That has helped me as much as asking my dead Cuban grandfather to help me earn an A in intermediate Spanish.  I begin to wonder why we didn’t we buy that townhouse instead, and then I remember.  We bought this house for outdoor birthday parties, for carrying pitchers of punch to a picnic table after Little League, for playing tag around the big oak tree that hinders the afternoon sun.  We bought this house for the same reason that we bought our blue station wagon.  Why else would anyone buy a station wagon, blue or otherwise?   Pulling out of the driveway I look back for safety sake, sometimes noticing the emptiness of the vehicle, and what feels like a spasm pulls at my chest, and I remember that I have once again become a person in longing.  Dreams have gotten me this far, far away from my home of origin.  Why not dream some more however it may twinge.  Pain has its reasons for being.

I once dreamt of cobblestone blocks lined with old trees and three story brownstones with black iron railings and arched an ornate doors, with one button to push with my name next to it and an intercom for me to holler, “come on up!”  I dreamt of living close enough to my home of origin to conduct Saturday morning arts and craft at the Farragut Housing Projects Community Center.  My daydreams have escaped Sands Street, though my night dreams still hover there.   Dreams of my deceased brother Victor always take place there.  I have one reoccurring dream that I knock on my mother’s door. He answers opening the door wide and saying, “Where have you been?”  I just stand there and wonder if I’d been mistaken about the everything, the wheel chair, the hospitalizations, the morphine, the weight lost, the height lost, the life lost, the cremation, the ashes sitting in my father’s apartment?  My brother who played high school and college football, MVP… jock who was also smart as hell, and somewhat cocky, who had my father’s gift for debate, the only Williams kid who didn’t take shit from anybody, happened to be the one who would die too young when cancer began to break his bones one by one, determined to show this force of a man who was in charge.  And my brother fought against the menacing disease for eight more years after the doctor had given him three months to live.  But, when I dream of him… he is whole again, broad shouldered, bowl-legged and still somewhat cocky.

Other dreams occur there, dreams of me holding babies happen there.  I had my first baby dream when I was sixteen.  I gave birth to a baby that looked more like a velvety red hair-bow.  Now, I dream of real screaming babies flaring tonsils at me demanding to be fed.  Not long ago, I dreamt of my earliest love.  He and I were too young to know when the affair ended.  It ended with summer like many good things do.  It ended with the fall chill that creeps in quietly in late August.  I stood two inches taller than he, though he was two years my senior and already in second grade.  I once thought he was as permanent as the Brooklyn Queens Expressway.  Later, I would return home for winter break from college and find him still standing or sitting on Sands Street always with a forty ounce bottle of malt liquor wrapped in a brown paper bag.  We would always be sincerely kind to one another.  How are you Derrick?  I’d ask and he’d say, “Well you know, livin’ livin’.”  I would notice how I never stopped growing long enough for him to catch up to my height and how I still loved him.  I loved him like summer.

He was my brother’s best friend, and together they were Eric and Derrick, small, but dominant point guards on the courts on High Street, with mutual affection like Magic and Isaiah who kissed each other’s cheek before games.  But Eric never kissed Derrick, I did.  It happened the day that I told him that he was my boyfriend and he said okay.  I was five, but the memory survives and is stored where first memories are kept, in the illusory bones and muscle tissue of the soul.

I dreamt that Eric, Derrick and I were together again.  We were sitting in my mother’s living room, furnished with the same navy couches, now covered with navy slipcovers.  Outside of my mother’s window were beautiful gardens with orange, yellow and purple, brushing against the billows.

“Great job on the Garden.”  Derrick said to me.  I was unaware at first, but soon realized that the garden was my doing.

“It still needs work,” I responded with false modesty.  Inside I was lit like a firefly.  We drifted in the color and I imagined myself a lilac bush swaying rhythmically at the will of the forgiving breeze.  All that botanical life astounded us and it was right there in the center of our projects just outside my mother’s first floor apartment, amidst the rumble of the B37 bus thumping over steel planks that covered the potholes on Sands Street.  I could have not been more satisfied.  Eric gave us peanuts and we ate with joy and laughed just like we did during hot months undisturbed by things to do.  The night dream merged my worlds, and in this new creation I new how to garden.  I awoke from my dream and cried for the first time after learning that Derrick had died.  Eric said it was his liver.

In my wake I have learned that I only wished that my arms had carried more of   Brooklyn to the midland.  I thought that I would be like the visitors I knew as a child.  They would return to their home of origin with mustached husbands and fat babies.  They’d be dressed in trench coats and pumps looking like somebody’s black girl-Friday.  “Where you been?”  One of the elder women would ask.  “Oh, I moved to Queens or Virginia, or I’m stationed in Germany.”  They’d have grand white smiles, enhanced by true red lips.  I would gaze at them as they passed by and greet me by my older sister’s name.  I’d correct them and they say, “girl you got big, how old are you now?”  I’d say seven or such and they’d say, “ Boy, how time flies.”

I never became one of the women who came back.  People don’t come back anymore.  They don’t pat the children on the head saying “My have you grown.”   They’re afraid of the children. They don’t mess the coat of puppies and old tired dogs too stubborn to pass on.  The pups and the old dogs now have jaws that lock and are perfectly capable of removing one’s hand from one’s body.  What we do, however, is sneak in inconspicuously to visit aging mothers and dart out towards planes, trains or automobiles to flee the disaster our home has become.

I wonder how I have come to a sense of homelessness and of wondering where to land full flesh to the ground.  As I watch my husband rake last fall’s remaining leaves, I am struck by the lack of people I see in the street.  The few that I see are busy with the upkeep of their own personal patches of green; trimming, mowing, planting in diligent attempt to have the land submit to human wills.  They don’t know that I’m watching, or don’t care.  I survey our own patch of green and notice last year’s day lilies are trying to grow again in a location not meant for them.  When I get the inclination, I will move them out of the shade and replant them in full sun where they belong.

 

 

Sherrie Lynn Maze relocated from Brooklyn, N.Y. to Minneapolis, MN in 1994.  She has taught Creative Writing at  Bethel College.  Along with writing, her two children, dreaming grand dreams, and sharing the healing properties of  writing with others are among her many passions.  This is her first appearance in the pages of R-KV-R-Y.