Canada

Canada was an afterthought. Samantha and I wanted to escape the tiny hotel room in St. Mary. We’d seen what we came to see, and done what there was to do, so we drove across the border.

We were only in St. Mary in the first place because Samantha had heard about the big sky in Montana and wanted to see what was up with that. We drove for six hours to the Wyoming, and half a day more to reach real mountains. At Glacier, the geography captured us. Samantha said captivated, but I saw the fear in her eyes, too.

Albert Bierstadt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Albert Bierstadt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sky, what sky? Mountains is what there were. Jagged spears of planet on every side, all the way to the sun. Gaps between peaks like we’d fall into them and be swallowed, luckless Rockys and Bullwinkles forgotten as soon as the next commercial rolled.

So we went to Canada, crossed the border in the early afternoon, inspired by two packs of the very best beer in town. We knew, because we asked the clerk, a tired Indian woman who pointed to the refrigerator case at the back of the store.

About a mile from the border, we slowed up and pulled over. My old Mazda 323, gap-toothed grill and weary tires, might not look like the kind of tourist O. Canada would want, and for sure the empties in the back would not be looked on kindly by the Mounties at the crossing. We threw the cans in the garbage and made the car into a halfway respectable foreign ambassador.

For all that, the officer barely looked inside, waving us through with that kind of elbow rotation we got from one flag man after another on I-90.

There wasn’t much to see in Canada. More mountains, mostly. In the souvenir shop of a castle, Samantha bought me a key ring with a plastic red maple leaf on it, and I got her a Tee that said I Heart Canada. I made a plan to get a Sharpie with which I’d scratch out “Canada” and replace it with my own name, but I never did.

We wandered around inside the castle until we came to this huge ballroom. Chandeliers, a wood floor in a pattern that looked almost like a design in a carpet. A wall of windows looking out on more freaking mountains. Trees, endless trees. Like there’s nothing else in the whole damn country to look at.

On the far side of the room, a woman sat alone in an entire row of chairs. She was old, older than crap, dressed in a full-length fur coat, just sitting all by herself. I couldn’t imagine why she’d be wearing fur coat in the summer.

I wanted to look around some more, but Samantha said she felt funny, all of a sudden, us in our wrinkled Tees and cargo shorts, and that old lady so formal and forlorn. I said the woman didn’t even see us, she was staring at some nothing in the middle of the room. But Samantha shushed me, and dragged me out.

That was Canada. I wanted to find a place and maybe stay the night. Samantha said she didn’t feel like getting detained at the border just so I could say we’d fucked in a foreign country, and so we went home.

It’s a long drive to Nebraska when you’re not talking, but we were tired. When I let her out in front of her dorm, I asked her what she thought of Canada, and she said it was what she expected. We didn’t see much of each other after that, and at the end of the semester she dropped out.

The next January, I passed one of her friends on the sidewalk between classes.

“Yeah, she moved to Calgary,” her friend said.

We raised our voices to be heard over the wind, which screamed in from the north. It picked the words from our mouths like an osprey hunting trout in a river.

I asked her to tell Samantha to write me sometime. Her friend said that she’d pass it along, and that the winter was the coldest ever and she was late to class.

She passed by me, into the narrowing light. I yelled after her that there were two things in the world I’d never understand and Canada was at least one of them.

Grenades

He’s standing on the sidewalk of Lexington Avenue, addressing each person who hurtles past, but he’s waiting only to talk to you. He’s there, in front of the store that sells old televisions whose cathode ray tubes take minutes to warm up and show every image in a palette of grays. He reaches out as if to touch each passerby, each isolated person.

The wind resettles pages of old newspaper in front of him. They dodge the fire hydrant, grip his legs in desperation, then fall away, drowning sideways. He never loses his place or pauses the monologue, or pulls his collar up or wipes away the specks of dust that fly into his face.

He wears a black suit that was recently clean, narrow lapels and a thin, black tie. His voice is pitched high. It is a voice that skims above the surface noise of traffic, a jitterbug voice, a voice that pierces like shards of fiberglass.

The current of pedestrians flows around him, avoiding his eyes, short-circuiting his words. One or two people turn back and stare.

You sit at the table in the window of the cafe next door. Each time the door opens, his voice grows more distinct, then fades as the door closes. You hide behind your papers, no one can see your face.

You know how old his suit is, where it was purchased and how much it cost. You know when was the last time he slept at home, and where he’s slept each night since. You know by heart this speech he gives each day. Your mouth silently forms the words as he speaks them. It was your speech first, and if you could, you’d bite off your tongue and swallow it to keep from ever having said those things to him.

Two Small Stories about Death and the Afterlife

Runway

She walks with her grandfather along the fence separating them from the airport. On this side, there is grass, each blade straining for air and sunlight. Over there, waves of heat glisten wetly above the concrete. A small, white plane, wings tipped with green, sits on the apron, engines rumbling.

“Listen,” her grandfather says. He drops her hand. “Watch the wheels. Something is happening. Something is about to change.”

The sound of the engine grows louder, almost painful. The plane moves into position on the runway. Screaming, it fires itself down the center line.

The edges of the runway converge. At the point where the two lines meet, the plane rises, the roar of engines muffled.

“Parallax,” her grandfather says, answering a question she hasn’t thought of. “An illusion.”

She watches the horizon. The airplane dissolves into a dot in the sky and disappears.

Eggshell

The girl sits beside her grandfather, holding his hand. “This room is too white,” she says.

Machines converse with each other in mechanical sounds and beeps and flashing numbers.

“I was walking in the park today,” she says. “I saw a broken eggshell in the grass.”

Her grandfather opens his eyes. “Is it spring?”

“Yes, it’s April,” she says. “I have a riddle for you.”

He smiles. “I like riddles.”

“I know.” She squeezes his hand. “It goes like this. If the chick is alive in the shell,” she asks her grandfather, “what is the bird?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “What is it?”

“You know this,” the girl says. “All you have to do is remember.”

Bird by Bird by Bird

I read a Facebook post today that made me remember Anne Lamott, and her practical, humane and compassionate book on Writing, Bird by Bird.

It’s been a while since I picked up that book, and I’d forgotten how good Anne’s advice really is. In her chapter “Short Assignments” there’s this:

… All I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a on-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. … Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car — just what I can see through the on-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.

The next chapter, “Shitty First Drafts” is one I should be reading at least once a week, in order to remember that no one ever gets it right the first time.

All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her very much. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend, Tom, he said you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)

“For me and most of the other writers I know, she says, “writing is not rapturous. In fact the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

Not only a book of advice on staying sane, this is a real coursebook, too, with chapters on character, plot, dialogue and set.

Published in 1995, it’s still widely available in print and electronic forms.

Review of “Glass Animals” by Stephen V. Ramey

Glass AnimalsGlass Animals by Stephen V. Ramey

In the preface, Steve Ramey mentions that several of the stories collected in Glass Animals started at Show Me Your Lits. This reminds me how lucky we are at SMYL to read raw, fresh fiction every single week from a slew of gifted writers, none moreso than Steve. (It also reminds me how much we owe to Errid Farland and the others who started the site, and to Errid again for being the one constant presence and guide for the first three-plus years of its existence.)

So, having read many of these stories when the ink was wet, reading this book is an insight into the revision process at work. Or maybe I should say (using a Conversations-with-God-like hyphenism), re-vision. It strikes me that more has gone on than a coat of varnish, a patch here or there. No once-over edit to fix grammar or untangle tense. While I may not be able to tell exactly how much has changed in any particular story, each one resonates deeper, clearer than I recall the original. It is as if the author has played each piece like a guitar maker, listened to the sound, then returned to the workbench with it, to shave and reshape the sound board until the tone produced matches the sound he hears in his head.

Take for example, “Cee Cee”. I remember thinking when I read this at Show Me Your Lits that it was humorous story about a woman obsessed with the letter C. It was sweet and somewhat poignant, intimidatingly well-written (as Steve’s first writing almost always seems to be). But now there is a depth that I didn’t note the first time. Cee Cee is a convenience store operator whose light-hearted humor masks a pervading sadness. She’s had troubles and she’s wounded, but a random encounter with a customer restores a glimmer — perhaps not of hope, but of the hope of hope. Steve knows better than to offer a quick fix. The pair engages in a brief flirtation, but Frank is married. What changes in Cee Cee’s life is not that someone found her attractive enough to talk to, but that he saw worth in what had been discarded, a light that is more than a flash of glitter.

Now, I don’t know if Frank was present in version one. But I am sure that the purpose, the direction of this story has been righted and trued through the process of re-vision, and through the medium of the characters.

This is the constant in the stories here. Steve cares for his characters enough to listen to them, and to speak truth on their behalf.



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The Bread of Life

So let us pray for some redemption
for all those souls whom we here mention
that they may find their way to heaven,
and crusty bread from four to seven.
– from “The Blessing of the Bakery Section”

I have been told by a well-to-do aficionado that my trouble with cigars is that I could not afford a genuine experience. This may be the truth, as it reflects my life in other ways. So many things we try are fumbled imitations of something we’ve seen or heard another person did. Lacking either means or map, we follow faded signs and washed out footprints, searching for something real, winding up instead at a tourist trap.

I fared better in the world of pipes, if only because I came to it by way of a gift. The woman who gave it to me paid dearly, sacrificed her meal money for a week, living on bread purchased at a bakery thrift store, the loaves tagged with an orange label meant to draw the eye to a bargain.

This woman, named Lilli, who was older than me by six years (more than a quarter of my life!), gave me at the same time a leather pouch filled with cherry-flavored tobacco. It was October, and we were walking down a quiet street lined on both sides with cottonwoods, large trees that, in their brief lives, blanket their environments with hand-sized leaves, unremarkable in color but magnificent for the sound they produce when waded through.

“Stop the noise for just a minute, will you?” she said, putting her hand on my shoulder. “Here, this is for you.” She handed me a box. “Something for you to try.”

“It’s beautiful, Lilli,” I said, taking it from its wooden case, turning it over, balancing it in my palm, feeling the weight of the bowl. The polished grain bowl was streaked with variegations of red. It looked like a piece of sculpture carved from a single tree, shaped by removing the pieces that didn’t belong. “But why a pipe?”

“Don’t you like it?” She watched me, her gaze moving between my eyes and my hands, an expression of impatience on her face. “You say you want to be a writer. Well, writers smoke pipes, all of them. Look at Lewis –”

“Sinclair or C.S.?”

“Sinclair, I guess. I don’t know. Or Hemingway.”

“He smoked cigarettes.”

“Alright, how about Tolkein. Look, if you don’t want it, I’ll take it back. I just thought it would … maybe you would grow up a little bit.” She looked away.

I had thought I was doing pretty well in the growing up department since I met Lilli. But apparently not well enough.

“No, no, Lilli, I do want it. I do. Maybe I will become an intellectual.” I propped my elbow against the base of a tree and held the pipe to my mouth, attempting a faroff gaze, imagined myself thinking big thoughts about the state of the world. Conjuring up metaphors involving oranges and the smoke from an abandoned campfire.

Lilli rolled her eyes but laughed. “You’re hopeless,” she said. “That must be why I like you.”

The truth is, I never really believed I was a writer, and certainly not an intellectual. If anything, it was sounds, rather than ideas, that I collected in my mind. It was Lilli who suggested these might be a kind of story, that maybe I should simply listen, and the meaning would eventually come.

“I am listening,” I said. “I’m listening. What am I listening for?”

I guess the pipe didn’t have much to work with, though I did try and even came to believe that the burning tobacco tasted as good as it smelled, that the smoke flooding my lungs was stimulating, not suffocating.

We stayed together for a brief time, which I recall whenever I encounter the scent of burning leaves and baking cherries. Lilli, it turns out, was thinking of another man, twice my own age, barrel-chested where I was skeletal, hairy as a bear when he answered her door that night. Behind him, the room smelled of vanilla and tobacco, and smoke curled and puddled near the ceiling, circling around the dim light.

I opened my mouth to speak but no words came out. I turned and walked away, pretended I didn’t hear Lilli calling to me, telling me to stop being such a child. Back in my room, I ran my hand over my own bare chest, wondering whether I had already set in motion a disease that would one day fill my lungs with fluid, making every breath an exercise in controlled drowning. I imagined the first painful pricks of emphysema, like a knitting needle, prodding me from the inside out. At that moment, my dalliance with the pipe appeared as an affectation, a lie told to myself about who I was and where I was from.

I got up, emptied the pouch of tobacco into the sink and turned on the water. I let it run for an hour, knowing that I could not afford to pay for the water I was wasting. Then I took the pipe and slammed it against the floor, breaking the bowl in two, bloodying my fingers. The pain felt genuine. I let a few drops of the blood fall onto the pieces of the pipe that I gathered, thinking at the time to send them to back. I never did.

Ben Franklin said that experience is a poor master but a fool will learn from no other. It is my experience that love can be the harshest teacher of all. Looking back, I believe that I learned what I could from my time with Lilli, came to appreciate what was good, took with me what I desired, discarded what was untrue.

From Lilli I gained the love of candles scented of vanilla and orange, of autumn afternoons. I learned to listen more than talk, especially when walking. I learned to be my own tape recorder so that I would remember the sound of leaves crunching beneath my feet and the whine of the spring on a screen door as it opens. Sounds of children on a playground blocks away just before sunset, when the air is most thin and cold and sound travels farthest. Women laughing softly at a bawdy joke whose words I could not make out, only the laughter, and it was not unkind.

Eventually I found my way to the bakery, and to my true life. There I learned that there was a kind of teaching in the yeast, that kneading was a form of meditation, that perfection was a product of the best ingredients, but even then could not be reached without the waiting. Bread, before it enters the oven, must endure a period of solitude, of rising. There is a science behind this, a chemistry in the interaction of ingredients that is disrupted by deadlines, by expectation.

In the bakery, the outside world began to blend with new sounds. Car horns, shouts and sirens gave way to the hiss of steam escaping from a baking loaf, the rhythmic clicking of a rolling pin traversing a pile of dough. For hours, the only sounds I noted were the internal hum of my own thoughts as my hands repeated the lessons they’d learned: how to turn the dough, to twist it into shape, the way a loaf should feel. I would turn, startled at the greeting of an old customer, and find that half the morning had vanished.

It was at the bakery that I met a woman whose name means Joy. While I will always be an apprentice, she is a real baker. Her hands never make a spare movement as they work the dough, never apply an instant more force or pressure than the task demands. I will die a happy man if the last sounds I hear are Joy singing quietly the songs of her childhood and the gentle slamming of the oven door.

Together we’ve kept the business open for forty years. Only in the last few have we begun to lose trade to the supermarket. It is a matter of economics, our dwindling group of regulars tell us. We bake a superior loaf but it is too expensive for everyday. Still they will come here to supply the special days and the sacraments. There is something, they tell us, in our bread that cannot be named or even described. It may just be a product of experience.

Outdoor Café

A pigeon takes one dainty step onto a slatted table of golden wood.  Bits of granola and French bread make an ordinary breakfast, but on a nearby table, that pastry box is the color of cinnamon, and it must be full of something wondrous.

A brief glide, landing on a nearby chair, gazing at the woman sitting there.  Jerking its head to the side, asking “You gonna eat that?”