One Day in the Summer – a poem

Huckleberry Hound was a lazy pup
but rounded the corner with raving eyes
lathered and frantic, like he was pursued.

Said, “Mama, he went up under the house.”

“Go get him,” she said. Had to then I guess.

Hound-sized chink in the brick foundation
but if I reached one arm in tucked my head
could squirm through follow him into the dark.

She handed me a flashlight, said “Go on.”

This was something I’d never considered
the underbelly of the house its guts

squared onto a powdery dirt that for
all the age of the structure had not seen
the light of day. Dank dry dust and cobwebs
creepy and cool is why he’d gone in there.

It took a while but that had to be Huck
against the cool concrete wall of the porch.
Paired red dots way back there his trembling eyes
or was that just what my eyes were doing?

“Go on now,” she said. Well, alright then, ma’am.
On my belly toes dug in had to keep
from bumping my head on the kitchen pipes
then past them like diving under water.

Heard him whimper or again it was me
but closer now squeezing midway under
the dining room far up in there was a
private place like nowhere I’d ever been.

Hi ol’ Huck.

Eye to eye it was bad how he panted
neck strained teeth bared in a grin that scared me.
Way back in the day Mama said, “Get him.”
But this was my call. I said, “Hush, Mama.”
She didn’t like that. “Don’t you hush me boy.”

Who knows how long it took? Flicked off the light
dropped my head on my arms. I knew one tune
and sang it. Maybe you know the song, too?

Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Red and yellow black and white
They are precious in his sight
Jesus loves the little children
of the world.

I did that a while like a lullaby.
Then this moan shut me up a whole ‘nother
song that right now scribbling can hear it plain.

A lot of time in there to contemplate
the dirt to consider the ticking dark
nose pressed in things I hadn’t thought about.

When I dared to switch on the light again
Huck was different, ribs still, legs stretched out
like he was running someplace, eyes bugged tongue
lolled out and dry. So then what’s the hurry?
In that weird space I sang to him some more.

A slow drag then feet first for both of us
snot slimed to mud on my cheeks shirt rode up
and the rub of the dirt at my belly
press of the house like the flat of a hand
freaked out beneath the dangling kitchen pipes
desperate old drowning man flailing for air
little kid squirming dragging his dead dog.

At the hole, worked my legs out first, but then
got stuck halfway and yelled. Mama had gone
back inside. She had work to do no time
for my triflin’. That was a lesson too.
Sharp brick drew a long red scratch up my back
but wiggled out one fist around a paw
to finally drag him into the light.

Huck was heavy and stiff like all dead things
and dirt had kicked up in his startled eyes.
I said, “I’m sorry” and tried to wipe them
my thumb on an eyeball hard as marble.
Oh man, how I hated that scary hole.

Mama came out laid a rag on his back
and spread it to almost cover his legs.
Said “Huckleberry was a good old pup.”
Said, “Prob’ly old man Perkins and all his
durn chickens,” whatever she meant by that.

When Daddy got home my dog disappeared.
He mortared up the crawl space too but missed
the new one as fathers do opened up
in me where Huck and I to this day lie
flat in the dark far in and away right
up against the hard fact and singing
alone to each other as best we can.


She Said, He Not So Much – a poem

My father hardly spoke.

My mother never quit.

I’ve grown up with this yoke

all because of it.

You want to say it all

like your mama did

but then you get the call

to keep it all hid.

The trick is in the way

you sit the nest

of what you have to say

to say it best,

or if not best than better

than whatever comes to mind,

you try to say what matters

and leave the rest behind.

So thank you Mom and Dad

for the Spratt-like thing you did

in the way you got it said

all the days that you were wed.

Put one and one together

and this is what you get;

it’s just I don’t know whether

or what to make of it.

How to Carry Someone Who is Unconscious – a poem

Why would you want to do that?

Is he lying in the street or halfway in a door?

Do you hear gunshots?  Do you see blood?

Can you detect a breath

tickle the fine hairs of your ear?

Did you see him fall?  Are the two of you alone?

Don’t take forever with it – think!

It’s okay to drag him, if he’s big and you can.

But here’s how:

Roll her over on her back

then reach in at her head and push her up

to sitting.  Take your time with this, don’t hurt yourself,

don’t pull her arms, don’t tug, remember your back.

Maybe you end up on your knees

so your whole front is like a seat back

for this insensate person.  I mean,

you have to understand, this is an intimate maneuver.

But you’re only just beginning, so.

Slide your arms under his and clasp your wrists at his chest.

Make your arms a belt around him, like a big old bear hug.

Then if you can do this, here’s a place where you need to be sure,

get up on one knee, then you and this person

you are hugging tighter than you can believe

use your legs not your back your bodies really sandwiched

you both yes that’s right come to a stand.

This is no joke.

Because now you’re committed. 

Now you could both go down.

It’s like a dance, a kind of shuffle

where you squeeze her even tighter

while you shift your position

sidle around to her side somehow

you really have to practice

and her sleeping arm you need to duck under

so it’s hanging out there zombie-like across your shoulder

but what you’re going for is to block her knees with yours

shove them up straight and locked

so for the first time you see how tall she is

in this high and doddering precarious place

where you’ve arranged yourselves.

But that’s not even all.  Are you ready?  Get ready.

Because now comes the switch.  No, seriously,

this is how you do it.

It’s the weak link in the procedure.

You have to quit the bear hug

while you ease around to his front

and grab his floppy wrists

(it helps to lean forward and crouch

so he sort of drapes across your back)

and then here we go, alright, this is it.

Get in right under her armpits

pull her arms over your shoulders like a shawl,

bend those knees, stick out your butt

(her head may loll or knock onto yours)

and take a tentative step.  You’ve got him.

You can shuffle off to what you hope is safety,

to help, to some kind of better place. 

Maybe his legs are long and drag behind,

toes drawing lines from there to here

if you’re in sand.  People may see you

and not know what to think.

But let me say this.  There is a rule

that we all follow and will hold you to.

Oh yes we will.  If she is unconscious and you touch her.

If you dare to move her sleeping form.

Until you get her the help she needs and can

do this whole thing we just rehearsed

entirely in reverse,

until that moment when you step back,

unkink your knees and spine,

wipe at your shirt and bend gasping at her side

until then — because you touched her —

you own what happens.  You are the responsible

party.  The Good Samaritan. 

In ways you must decide to bear

that is your burden too.

So this.  It helps to be ready, to have a clue.

It’s not for everybody.  I get that.

There are these risks involved

if you dare to cross that line, if

you stop and bend to touch.

You would hope if it was you.  But

I’m not here to judge.  Which is

why we practice.  So here.

A little rude but I call it

try before you buy. 

Blackberry Missive – a poem

July in Virginia

our father skips lunch

to stride the dry pasture

in work brogues

to that thicket

where blackberries

sprout like purple

polkadots and

wades into the briars

and bees until

sweated out

with knuckles

and forearms bleeding

he’s filled two gallon

buckets.  Why? 

Because we love cobbler.

One of the things

the war took out of Daddy

you’d have to guess

was trust in saying much.

So what if he never

told me that thing,

I mean, what’s the worth

in words when you

can taste it like that?

Faerie Book Gifting

So, I read about this thing where writers leave their books for people to pick up and read wherever, and thought it might be fun. In Charlottesville yesterday, followed the trail that the characters in The Coal Tower make, and left a copy of the novel at the Downtown Mall bus station, where Dr. Cannon holds his Hollywood-inspired party. In the book, I imagine this party on the rooftop of the bus station, giving the attendees views of a concert in the Sprint Pavilion next door. Couldn’t, of course, get up there, so left the book on a seat inside:

Would you party on that roof?
Leaving my lonely book behind…

Then went up to UVA, but the Jeffersonian pavilion where the good doctor relieves himself (after his slo-mo streak) was wrapped in scaffolding. So left a book on a rocker in front of one of the student apartments.

Finally, sought out the old coal tower itself. In a driving rain, came upon a dramatically different scene than the one in the novel. Where there once was a field (where the teenage lovers Chloe and Lucas end their daylong traipse around the city), there now stands a long row of condos and brightly painted storefronts, the apartments running right up to the edge of the coal tower, with more on the way. Once completed, the complex will bookend the old tower, which I guess is just too sturdy to tear down.

But the train tracks that figure in the story still run along to the right of the picture, the Sally Hemings dress frame structure (that the book’s character Sid thinks is an antenna for cosmic aliens) still tops the tower, and at least until they finish that new row of condos on this side, I think you can still imagine the climactic drama from the novel. Too wet to leave a book – next trip!

The Coal Tower is all about the tensions, misunderstandings, and disparities in families and community in Cville. Along the way, though, I paused before this corner, marking the place where the city exploded beyond anything I could have imagined just two years ago. What are we all going to do about that?

Post-Reading Glow

Visiting the Outer Banks this weekend to hang out with son Nick, who’s ocean rescue life-guarding for Nags Head again this summer, and still feeling the glow from last weekend’s reading at Book People in Richmond, VA. David, the owner, played gracious host, friends (counted among them six occupational therapists – hey, birds of a feather!), family, and the occasional casual shopper dropped in. Paul Witcover, my best friend and a constant inspiration (he’s a well-published SF author – here’s his website: https://paulwitcover.com), drove all the way down from New York; one of my pals from high school, Doris McGehee, drove in from Palmyra, and my son Stephen, who designed the covers for both my books, took pictures and made a video of the reading (not yet edited, but soon, he says).

I read a two page section from The Coal Tower drawn almost autobiographically from my childhood, when Grandma Glass, our next door neighbor, would impress her fingers in a “foldover sandwich” made from Nolde’s white bread and her own homemade blackberry jam. Here’s a paragraph from that passage.

Fun to sign books (David had set out copies of The Coal Tower and Last Rites for people to purchase). The whole afternoon just so fun! Thank you to all who came, to all who wanted to come but ran into obstacles along the way, but mostly to David for being the most caring, personable, open-hearted bookseller in Richmond. Go visit his shop, if you don’t know it. It’s at 536 Granite Avenue, in a cottage. He’s got easy chairs to sit in, a Keurig machine at the door, and a nicely curated collection of new and used books, including a shelf of local authors, often discounted. Here’s the store’s website: https://bookpeoplrichmond.com.

My next reading is scheduled for New Dominion Book Store on Charlottesville’s downtown mall on Wednesday August 28 at 7 pm. What’s so cool about this: a lot of the action in The Coal Tower occurs right outside the doors of New Dominion on the mall, and the whole novel takes place on Game Day, Labor Day weekend, the same week when I’ll be giving the reading! In my book the UVA football team plays Penn State that day. This year they’ll be playing Pittsburgh. Close!

Catch-22 Revisited: A very short review

Joseph Heller’s timeless World War II novel Catch-22 first came out in 1961, but I ran across it in 8th grade. 1970 was the year I first started reading real thick small-print adult novels (that year was made for hooking a reader, with The Godfather (and that lady’s troubling but intriguing sexual dysfunction solved by Sonny Corleone as only he could), and the big trio of war novels all arriving in paperback (Slaughterhouse Five, MASH, and the Heller classic). In another post, maybe, I’ll go into the other paperback that rocked my world that year — Dr. David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask — but for now, suffice it to say that I became a reader for real in 8th grade.

Of the novels, Catch-22 was my fave. It was absurd, tragic and funny in a way that made sense, and when I bought a copy for my son Nick two weeks ago on his 22nd birthday, then got lost for a while in the first 100 pages before wrapping it, I was surprised by how well I’d remembered the story, still just as gripping as before. Some of its tropes — not just the old famous catch-22, but the one about measuring your age by how close you are to death, the Snowden’s of yesteryear, Milo Minderbinder as a type of the wheeler-dealer con man, etc., — had long been part of my mental library. The book stuck.

Of course, when all the movies based on these books came out, I went, and because the 1970s were the golden age of American films, I became an avid moviegoer as well. MASH and The Godfather were better than the books, but Slaughterhouse Five was best remembered for Valerie Perrine’s nude cameo, and I had my first film watcher hissy-fit, I think, over how little of Catch-22 made it into a 2-hour movie. Yes, Mike Nichols’ film came out the same year I read the novel. I pouted as only a working class country boy redneck with a subscription to The New Yorker can (ask Beth, I actually did subscribe back then).

So anyway, loved the book hated the movie, blah blah. And then last week Hulu released a mini-series Catch-22. At last, the novel would be done justice, all its characters and subplots included! I signed on for free just to watch it. Then, with that 100 pages I’d just re-read in mind, I saw that Amazon Prime had put up the original movie as well. So, what the heck, school’s out, I pulled that up, too. So here all those years later is my last and final review.

The novel still works, boy does it. In the current absurd, cruel, comic, and terrifying world we live in, there may be no better road map. Every character in the book has her/his match on the political stage, and their dilemmas match up, too. So if you haven’t yet, read it. If you read it as a kid like I did, re-read it.

The movies: Let me just say this, my snitty 8th grade know-it-all film critic self was wrong (surprise surprise). The 2-hour Catch-22 is brilliant. Somehow it hits all the novel’s key themes, and does so with a beautifully orchestrated chaos of one liners, flashbacks, fully lived performances (even the cameos), and cool sneaky easter eggs (pay attention to the photograph of FDR on the wall of Major Major’s office). It is in every way at least 100 times better than the slow, by the numbers GQ photo spread that is George Clooney’s Hulu show.

That is all.

Book Signing Event

Book People Book Shop at 536 Granite Avenue in Richmond, VA’s West End is hosting my first ever book signing (and reading) on Saturday June 1, from 1-3 pm. It’s a busy day for readers in town, with Poetry Society awards, James River Writers day in the park and more. Hope folks can come by – David at Book People is one of the nicest book people there is, and if you don’t know his shop, you should. I’ll have copies of my debut novel The Coal Tower and of my story collection Last Rites, both published in the past six months, and ready for your summer reading beach bag.

I Hear America Singing (the Blues)

An appreciation of Joshua Dudley Greer’s Somewhere Along the Line

On April Fool’s Day 1996, my bride of exactly one day and I climbed into my little Ford Probe in upstate New York and headed west on a yearlong honeymoon, gigging as traveling occupational therapists.  We lived in Los Angeles, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Raleigh, North Carolina for 3-4 month engagements at nursing homes.  On weekends we explored the surrounding area and in between gigs for weeks at a time we meandered across the American landscape and back again.  What we learned on that long sojourn changed us and has stayed with us ever since.  We drove and hiked and swam and flew and marveled at and studied this whole wide continent.  In our work, we got to know people of every ethnic and racial background, people who were indigent and people who were wealthy, all of them broken and seeking healing at our hands.  On our travels, we saw more of the same, but also began to imagine the landscape itself as a fantastically varied and torn, sometimes even ruined, expanse.  But one that seemed, let me be maudlin here for a minute, to have a heartbeat and a soulful yearning to heal itself, to explain us in some way, to shape itself into a whole where we might fit. 

Here’s an example.  We were headed back East, crossing the broad and unpeopled plains of Wyoming, and arrived late one night in a town called Green River.  The next morning I woke up, stepped outside my door at the back of the hotel, and nearly fell over in the shadow of a looming moonscape we hadn’t known was there.  This sort of thing happened over and over on our yearlong journey.  The continent’s shocking presence insisting we attend.  I say all this as an introduction to the photographer who made this picture. 

Joshua Dudley Greer – Green River, Wyoming
in his book of photographs Somewhere Along the Line

I saw it today in a review of his new book, and instantly zoomed back to that moment in the back of that hotel, coffee spilling from my cup. 

Joshua Dudley Greer, the review says, spent a year doing what we did, minus the therapy gigs but plus a genius eye for the beautiful, harsh and puzzling truths one finds along the highways of America.  You can see more of his pictures just by Googling, but I’d recommend you do what I just did, and purchase his book Somewhere Along the Line.  Every picture, as Rod Stewart sang, tells a story, but these do way more than that.  They speak directly to that troubling, inspiring experience Chris and I shared on our yearlong honeymoon.  They throw you up against the landscape, the individuals who – like us – try to make sense of it, make use of it, find themselves in it.  They hit hard at the ways we’ve uglified it, yet they sing of the ways it resists degradation, at how it shapes what we do and who we are, despite ourselves.

I’m rambling, and I apologize for that.  Clearly, I have a lot of work to do in coming to grips with this trip taken nearly a quarter of a century ago.  Greer’s photographs can help, I think.  Not as nostalgic travelogue, but as a Whitmanic yawp that says it’s all still out here, it’s all still just as profound and insistent as you found it.  What have we done to ourselves, to our land; what is it doing to us?  Come see.  You’ll be better for it.

By the way, the moving Washington Post review by Kenneth Dickerman that turned me on to this book is here.