Outline

I can still remember the outline your legs make. The way the light shines between them when you're standing tall. I can still remember the way your hair fell on your shoulders, curling up at the ends. I can remember the way you smell when I tucked my nose right behind your ears. The sweet spot. I remember the outline our hands made when we laced them together. You always had to change your grip, forgetting you were taller. Your shoulders are broad, yet dainty. Strong. 

I've heard your outline looks different now. I heard you stand a little taller. I heard you are a little more quiet. Meanwhile, I paint you in colors and lines on a canvas and easel set up in the back of my mind. I think I'm always painting, even when I don't know it. I know this studio has dozens of paintings and sketches of your shoulders, hips, legs, eyes and hair. 

It's easy to forget people who have died and gone. It's easy to start to forget the details of their face and their outline. It's difficult to mourn for someone who is still here, still full of energy, still stunning. So, I keep taking strokes. I keep tracing your outline for fear one day you may truly not be here.

 

Richmond, VA

You Never Know

Being a man of a certain age, experiencing notable chest pain and exhaustion, I made an appointment with a cardiologist. “Just in case,” I said to my Primary Care Physician.”
“At your age…” he agreed, a bit too quickly for my sensitive hide.

Two weeks later, I found myself shirtless (not a good choice after fifty), wired-up, heaving and hoeing on a treadmill set at the impossible level; the Alps.

Before I knew it, the short, frizzy haired technician slammed me onto the vinyl upholstered table as the beige haired ‘echo’ technician shoved a baby monitor into my chest. She pressed hard, rolling it to and fro. Occasionally winking at the other technician, she smiled; pleased she’d located the kink in my pump room plumbing.

A week later, under the hospital’s harsh fluorescent lights with my privates exposed for all to see, I lay facing heaven as two angel faced nurses shaved, prodded, pricked, and prepped me for surgery. 

“Don’t get your hopes up,” the surgeon informed me, his steel blue eyes dancing like a wolf’s when he’s cornered his prey. “Ninety percent chance you’ll need stents or balloons to unblock those arteries.” The three of them stood over me, bearing their dazzling white teeth with pride, confident in their scientific findings and abilities to right my wrongs. White sheeted up to my chin, I felt the shame and quilt churning in my gut.

“Hereditary!” my sister’s words slapped me back to reality. 

The operating room was sub-zero as they rolled me onto the icy slab to prepare me for a long winter’s nap. “An extra potent cocktail,” I begged the anesthesiologist as he jabbed a tube into my pick line. 

I find it terribly disconcerting when a person’s lips are covered when they’re talking to me. A masked avenger, with feathery eye lashes, hovered above, babbling on about the tube they were about to thread into the main artery to my ticker. However, I couldn’t hear a single word because I had upped the volume of the “La-la-la-ing!” I was belting out in my head.

Immediately, I turned to the ever reliable sheep I once counted as a boy to drift peacefully into ‘Sleepy Town.’ To my horror and dismay, the sheep had grown old, mangy, and weary. On shaky legs, they strained to push each other over the fence. Embarrassed for them, I pretended not to notice and immediately retired them to a grassy meadow were they could spend their last golden years with dignity. 

What was left? Blessings? Count blessings? “How Anne of Green Gables,” I scolded myself before I caved.

I counted the countless loves and great lovers of my life, those joyously mad adventures and scrapes I barely survived, and the precious moments with friends dear to my heart. I barely touched the first two decades of my life before my eyelids, hanging heavy, dropped defenselessly shut.

In the recovery room a few hours afterward, I awoke to the doctor calling my name. 
“Surprise!” he said as if he’d just uncovered Cleopatra’s tomb, “You didn’t need them after all!” He puffed his chest high and grinned.

My thoughts spinning and mouth twisted into a cockeyed ‘Q,’ I screamed inside my hazy head, “WHAT THE HELL?!” 

“You never know,” one of the angel nurses said as she slid a straw into a can Ginger Ale and wedged it between my teeth.

“You never know,” the other angel nurse relied, unhooking me from the monitors buzzing with news.

“You never know,” I agreed. “You never know.”

 

Richmond, VA

A devoted fan and follower of Life In Ten Minutes

he had so much heart

I used to have tendrils of heart and soul coming out of my head
Unfurling from my curls and giving the world a hug
Suddenly, they dried up
The world cut them out like deadheading flowers
I felt every inch of it
Kids like me don’t go to college
Kids like me go to war
Every single day i would wake up and strap on my helmet
It protected my head which is now a T.V.
I am now made of clay
Sometimes i can hear you crying as i ‘sleep’
You don’t know it but i can
If i still had heart i would cry too
But now i cry only for me
Rather, for the death of me
For what used to be

 

Oakland Township, MI

Calvin and Hobbits

I grew up in the Presbyterian church where I sat beside my mother on a long pew with moss colored cushions. I rustled beside her like a tumbleweed from one of our favorite westerns until a crayon would somehow show up out of her purse that smelled of powder and wintergreen mints. With my single crayon, I drew looping pictures all over the bulletin, all over the names of the hymns. I drew all creatures great and small. They were wise and wonderful. When it was time, I stood and recited the Lord's Prayer and sang All Things Bright and Beautiful, a wind chime next to my mother's rich, sweet bell. I knew some things about Predestination and Grace and I was showered with benedictions. 

Later, I knew the Apostles Creed and on our quarterly communion Sunday, knew some of the Nicene Creed, but had to look at the hymnal for parts of it because it was way long. My mother was no longer beside me then, gone when I was just newly ten, blessings spoken over her as they committed ashes to ashes, dust to dust, even though she was my mother and it hurt to think of her like that.

But I found more things to believe in. Shamans in the desert, with mysticism in the sand. Native American beliefs and creation stories, their animals and totems roaming in my dreams. Shinto shrines, with spirits in moss covered trees and in the fog that draped over them. Incense and incantations. A wardrobe and a lion who roared like God in a snowy Narnia. And hobbits with their quest for rings. 

I believed in all of them. I believe in them still. 

And when the moon is full and its beautiful and disturbing light falls all over the trees and the yard and keeps me awake, I unwrap myself from blankets, look out the window and watch for Druids. 

Because we are all so small and there is wonder in pews and in the sands of New Mexico, in the shadows of mountains and on the white lips of waves, in lions and lambs and in the thin fingers of a mother who loved you and wanted you to be still, handing you a mint and a crayon and the beginnings of faith.

 

Ashland, VA

Mary Jo finds her energy when she's at a table writing with others and hearing their stories and voices.

She sometimes posts on her blog at flyingjewels.wordpress.com.

Am I a Person?

I am a person. I am a human being. I am not a politician. I don’t know everything and I don’t need to. Why do people expect so much out of me? I expect nothing out of myself. I hate myself. I said I don’t know everything, but really? I don’t know anything. I am stupid and proud of it. I am forced every day to wax political just to prove that I, as a transgender person, should be allowed to live. I once read of a family who was run out of town because they had a transgender child and people were trying to kill them because of it. I feel like this is where I’m headed. It hurts to leave the house. It hurts to leave my bed. I laugh at myself when I look in the mirror. It is a cruel laugh. A hateful laugh. I look at myself and I see the butt of a joke, nothing more. But really, I am a person. That is all I claim to be. I only want to be seen as a human being. Not as a joke or a stereotype. But that is much harder than it seems in my case. I sometimes wonder if I even am a person, really. I feel so separated from everyone else. I know I am different. It hurts to be different. When I see these kids spewing slurs at me at school I wonder what it must feel like to have this much power. I have no power. I am a sad little child. A pathetic child. Never will I feel that feeling of being on top of the world and not caring about what anyone thinks. I constantly have to watch what I’m doing to make sure I don’t look like a stereotype. I can’t do what I want the way the other kids do. Not if I want to be a person.

 

Oakland Township, MI

After All, Love Is Love

Separating from Jillian still feels like perpetually chopping off one of my legs, even after two years. Rarely at this stage of my life does love affect me on such a deep and pure level. Her friendship has indelibly tattooed my heart and soul. Nurtures and enriches me. Asks me to be a better and more trusting person. 

Such sadness I feel knowing the chance of our spending time together again is iffy. Yet that sadness is all mixed up with gratitude for a love that reminds me that I’m still capable of loving and being loved. Honestly, I rarely think of her without choking back sobs.

In fact, it’s impossible for me to separate this love from the deep love I feel for others. After all, love is love.

Those I am no longer able to touch, Michael, Winson, Lolo, the Beast. Those still within my reach. Kathy S. and Jannie, who nourish me in one way or another every day. Carmen, Peaches, Sparky, Michelle, Court, Connie, Yvonne, Tex, Annie. Even you, Johnny boy, you who thinks he doesn’t love me. And most recently, my writing sensei. 

Love requires more forgiveness than I’m sometimes capable of. But the incredible thing about love is that it always allows room for improvement and growth. Stretching. My abiding friendship with Kathy S. is testament to that. 

Forgive this crude analogy, but there are times I miss Michael so much I could vomit. And he’s been gone almost 20 years. We taught each other the meaning of having one another’s back. We could always lean in and stay as long as needed. 

I think the reason Jillian touches me on such a deep level is because she embodies the soul of a nurturer. She and Jannie loved me daily through cancer. That’s a boatload of nourishment. 

When I was 11 years old, after being sick and throwing up over an extended period of weeks, my mother, annoyed, scolded me threateningly. “If you throw up one more time, I’m going to take you to the doctor.” Of course I did throw up again, she did take me to the doctor, who announced that I had viral pneumonia.

That was the extent of my mother’s nurturing capabilities. 

All my life I have been starved for that nourishment, often expecting too much from any one person. I have an image of myself as one of those desperately isolated, untouched monkeys in a lab cage. That reeks of self pity, but the truth must be acknowledged. Keep in mind, with spiritual guidance, and noteworthy faltering along the way, I went out and discovered what I needed. You, my loved ones. 

P.S.: Kathy S., Jannie, Johnny, and especially you, Beast, our stories have not yet surfaced, but rest assured, they will.

 

The South

The Coal Dried Up

It was supposed to last forever, 
I guess. 

The town was once booming, 
a place of dynamite and drinkers,
the money flowing–
accounts for the name.

Now the town is a locust’s hull
The people mostly buy drugs now, or drink, or both. 
They watch static-filled screens. 

It seems like everyone has an alcoholic in the family. 

One of the boy’s many uncles filled this needed role, 
occupying a mobile home by a small pond.

Science fiction VCR tapes, the stale smell of smoke,
many brown bags.

The boy’s grandfather carried a perpetual hump
because one time, in a ride to work at the mines, 
he was riding in the back of a pickup truck. 

There are no rides in the back of trucks
without this hump arriving in thought.

The driver was going too fast, hit a slick spot –
grandfather went flying. 
Who knows where he landed? 
But the landing was not good.

By the time the boy was born, coal was dying. 
They still call for it. 
Give us our mines, they tell the politicians. 

But the mines aren’t working much anymore,
the sink won’t be fixed.

The coal lords would rather save a dime,
close a mine, I guess, 
than do the right thing. 

So, the miners go home, blaming high-minded
elected officials that want to save the sky and rivers.

Blame the coal lords.
Blame them for this greed.

Do they care if the mines come crashing in
or crashing down? 
I doubt it, as history has taught me.

 

Tennessee 

I have a blog where I review books and post interviews with authors at dehartreadingandlitresources.blogspot.com.

Really!

She missed out so terribly - longing with an ache that curiously masked itself; but, she knew it was there. Pretending it didn't exist changed nothing. Telling herself 'water under the bridge" and that equally unhealthy lie "that was then - this is now, just move one" didn't dethrone the elephant in the room.

The pachyderm thrived invisibly large and looming, nodding its' head quietly, all the while sweeping "it" under the carpet with it's long reaching trunk. Only for "it" to pop out again & again, like a taunting game of hide and seek. There was nothing she could do about it - true enough, in her minds' eye anyway. The capturing a new future despite "it" was the real crisis. She'd mourned the loss for quite some time, multiple times and in many different fashions, throughout the seasons of her life.

Here she was in those golden years, supposedly old enough to be beyond letting the past continue to haunt her. Nonetheless, the tired & saggy elephant came in slowly and quietly, taking its' seat in the corner of her mind. Patiently and quizzically waiting; occasionally interjecting the worn out question "what are you going to do about it?". Ending the waltz with the same age-old flourish, "you should talk to them, let them know how it feels".

She shot back the same tired answer - "Now is not a good time". The elephant whispered "It never is" and then swept the broken pieces back under the carpet for the gazillion'th time.

 

Highland Springs, VA

Lambs

My parents did the best they could with the limited tools they had for dealing with life. They were teenagers when they married. Both products of the Great Depression and WWII. Fear guided their path. They came from generations of the blind leading the blind and this is what they brought to their children. The blind faith they had in their religious leaders left them bereft of independent thought. All decisions had been made for them, and as a result, life could be measured strictly in black and white. 

They were heirs to a genetic predilection toward alcoholism and mental illness. Codependence was the accepted norm in their world. It was of utmost importance to go to any lengths for the world outside our door to see our family in the best light. Woe be unto thee who thought of this as anything but a priority of the highest order. 

There are often times now as I enter my eighth decade on this earth that I want to cry for these two children who went on to have a boatload of kids. They provided us with regimented discipline, but not guidance. With clean clothes and regular meals, but infrequent affection. With religion, but not spirituality. I understand now they didn’t have it to give us.

There are other times when I have wanted to shake them because they settled for this—for being led like lambs to slaughter, rather than thinking for themselves. But they were limited and not to blame.

 

Richmond, VA

A Toast to My Father

Well Dad, you would have been 74 years old today. I'd drink a shot of George Dickle for you, since it was your favorite, but I can't stomach that shit. You've been gone a while now, but I still think about you sometimes. I've come to realize you did the best you could while you battled your demons and for that I suppose I should thank you. 

I have three or four memories of you that overpower all others. The most profound was when I was 12 in 1976. You had stole a car to come to Chesapeake to see mom and us and you brought me back to Richmond to stay with you for a couple of weeks. I was the spoils of war. You had wanted to bring my brother back but he was only eight and couldn't stay by himself while you went to work. I'll never forget how you left me alone in that shithole trailer off the pike for two or three days at a time with nothing to eat, and when you did show up you were drunk. I'll also never forget what you said to me that one night, "Johnny, I love your mom more than I love you and your brother or sister. I only brought you down here so I’d have an excuse to take you back and see your mom again." I never told them that. It was bad enough that I had to hear it.

I felt sorry for you dad. I already felt sorry for myself. I had demons too, but you and mom never noticed. It"s OK tho, after that, I knew I was on my own, it's good to know where you stand in life. I never really put much faith in you or mom after that summer. I reckon you got me to "man up" after all. Yeah, I remember that conversation too, I was nine and you were an asshole for that.

Another strong memory was 1984 when I was in the Army, stationed at Ft. Gordon Ga. We were driving the back roads half drunk and you threw that little plastic clock out the car window and said, "Time fly's when your having fun". We laughed and laughed. We really were having fun. We had a lot of fun in those years I was in the Service. Probably the best we ever had together. Figures... I hated the Army.

The last ten years of your life we got along ok. It was my wife of course. You loved her so much. She could do no wrong. If I hadn't married her, you and I would have parted ways long ago. Of that I'm sure. I remember taking you to the hospital one Christmas morning and begging the doctors not to cut off your leg; to no avail. Those weeks long drunken binges cost you didn't they. 

The last two years of your life, I remember coming by your place every couple of mornings with coffee and breakfast. We'd talk, while I cleaned up your kitchen and dumped those little buckets of piss, it was nice. Not dumping those buckets tho....that was fucking nasty.


The last year of your life. Stage four lung cancer they told you. We knew it was over. Won't nothing for it. End of the road. You moved in with my brother and he did good for you, y'all were two peas in a pod. That last night of your life, after we got you settled down for the evening I knew it wouldn't be long till your tormented soul would finally be free. As I was saying good bye for the night, I told you I loved you. You and I never really said that very much to one another. I wanted to say more. I wanted to hold your hand. You were so scared. You were looking away when you said, "I love you too son", it was one of the only times I believed you. You didn't hardly look my way when I left. I got the call you had died about three hours later.

So tonight I'll throw back a few shots of tequila in your honor. I know how much you hated tequila.....

 

Richmond, VA

I’m just a face in the crowd. A name in a phone book no one uses anymore.