I May Regret This

…but I felt like it. Rifling through my manuscript drawer has moved me to start typing some of my old stuff onto digital media, and more heinously, to share it here under the new tab “Short Fiction.”

First up, Confusion To The Enemy dates from 1978 when we were all going around with our hair quietly on end over the constant gamesmanship of the Cold War. Some of my earliest memories are of being taught how to duck and cover under my gradeschool desk and kiss my ass goodbye, so when we got perestroika and the Soviet Union fell and there was a peace dividend, I, like a lot of people, probably got too complacent. Anyway, here we are again, with everyone rattling their sabers.

If any coven members can manage this kind of thing in our advanced age of instant worldwide communications, tell me how to pitch in.

Advertisements

Timor Mortis Conturbat Me

It really seems goddam strange to be telling a dying man on pain meds that it is okay if he doesn’t feel up to mowing my lawn, but here we are.

Okay, so no one knows anything for sure, but when David went for more tests last week — the PET scans and whatever all else that probably ought to have been done months ago, and would have in a civilized nation that had proper health care for everyone — the answers were about what I expected, which is that the cancer he was treated for earlier this year just kept marching on. I knew that. The first symptom he described was what I recognize as an endgame development, and eight whacks of chemo beat it back, but I wasn’t sanguine. He’s got pain now, and he finally gave in to taking the drugs for it, and he and his wife still showed up this afternoon to work in the garden.

The doctors told him they wanted to start a very powerful, aggressive chemo. He recited a list of the side effects and explained he didn’t want any of those: pneumonia, for one. I think he was telling me that he would rather die of the cancer than the treatment. I hope that’s what he meant and not that he has some half-formed idea that prayer or vitamins or herbs might do it. I am all for vitamins and herbs but the right tool for the job is important. A long time ago when my late and ex was starting chemo, a radiation tech I knew from a past life gave me a little of his time and assured me that bashing the disease, even with crude weapons that break down a person’s body, could mean the difference between lots of pain and not much, even if that’s the best you get.

I told him I had a name from a client who loves her yardworker, and that if he didn’t feel up to mowing I’m covered. It’s been scorched and breathless here for weeks on end and the grass is twisting and browned in the sun, so it’s an academic question at the moment. He reminded me I still have a couple mowings left (I pay him for a dozen or so in advance) and I said that was all right, forfrigsake (which I didn’t say because he never swears), if he didn’t feel well that did. not. matter. to. me.

He thanked me. He went out back with Liliana to check the harvest. I don’t grab him by the lapels and say Fuck My Lawn because that would be like saying I know you’re done, you can go home and die. I think the life he has now comes from the smell of the hairy tomato vines, the saturating solar rays and the turned dirt.

He was always one of those people that you figured would live forever (like it or not) because he griped so much. (The more you complain, the longer God lets you live.) He’s always bitched about his health, peppers don’t like him, he got candida from all the years of drinking before the Lord took away the desire, he can’t eat this and that, for all these twenty years you would have thought he was ailing for everything to listen to him, and yet he would dig and rake and clear and sift and lever with crowbars, praying his year’s vegetables out of my dirt, brown and corded in the sun, always a little stunned-looking  but untiring. He walked everywhere (most likely his driver’s license went up in the flames of a series of DUIs decades ago). He would stand out in the yard working his three rows, weeding, watering, spraying (always with something organic, about which he discoursed at numbing length) — sometimes from nine in the morning till dinnertime. I never asked where he peed.

Liliana picks up the shovel now. He still carries his backpack.

I that in heill was and gladnesse
Am trublit now with great sickness
And feblit with infirmitie:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He spairis no lord for his piscence,
Nae clark for his intelligence,
His awful straik may no man flee: —
Timor mortis conturbat me.

The poem was meant as a eulogy for other poets — written in the sixteenth century in broad Scots, other than the Latin tag,  which is from the Office For The Dead. David has the literary sensibilities of a Roto-Tiller but the world will be poorer without him to describe exactly how long it takes to raise a tomato from seed. Exactly. Exhaustively. My yard’s his poem, and I can’t do anything for him, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t expect to go into the Lake Of Fire that his evangelical and slightly cartoonish God has ready for Sinners and Unbelievers, because he seems vexed and unhappy in about the same octave as when he had two lawnmowers break down in a year. But not afraid.

Maybe he has something to teach the poets.

 

 

 

Order and Chaos

I have never really been able to decide which side I’m on. (Yes, I know there are really no sides and we need both, otherwise how would you get forex John Donne stuffing himself into the sonnet form and then banging it out of shape from the inside with a spanner, to magnificent effect? But I digress.) Sometimes I want to be the God Of Shenanigans that upends everyone’s stale and prissy expectations. Sometimes I want to be the White Tornado that puts shit away in the closet already and cleans the countertop and organizes socks by color.

Anyway I had a week to myself owing to the Engineer going six time zones away to nearly murder himself with watching plays day after day, a story for another time, but of course these are the times you roll up your sleeves to do projects, so naturally the Monday after he got back I actually did the last one I had on my list.

IMG_0608

I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil, though nothing from earlier than my middle school years survives. Some of that shit was not bad. Actually I often wonder what adult was using me as a medium to write it. I tried thinking about what I wrote in college and it wrecked things for several years, so the novel I wrote in my graduation year is not in this drawer. Everything else, however, had been in a state of total disorganization for ages, with labels drying up and falling off of folders and a piece of dream fiction (it literally came to me in a dream, like Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, all but entire) jostling an attempt at psychological criticism of Ian Fleming. There seem to be three collections of my poems and a half inch thick reboot of a novel that I never figured out how to bring to a conclusion and can’t remember rebooting. I have to make some time to read it.

Anyhow it’s now all in some sort of order. I even tried to get a sort of receding chronological organization. I really hate mess, but when I’m writing I can’t think of anything but that, so stuff ends up put away however. There’s another row of novels (and attempts at them) in binders on the bookshelves, but I couldn’t rise to more than labeling the spines. I love labels. They give me almost the same level of Zen tranquility as folding washcloths so that only the folded edges show at the front of the shelf.

I may put some of the shorter ones up here alongside the poetry selections, if my extensor muscles hold out.

A Fan

I have been feeling a little dispirited, what with everything, and I decided to cheer myself up by making a new sign. It is a little like buying a hat except you need a yardstick and Sharpies. The snappy professional-looking IMPEACHMENT IS PATRIOTIC placard that someone left at my door, under cover of night, lacked a reverse side so I gave it one.

IMG_0607

I am in a Not A Morning Person phase lately, and the traffic is livelier in the late afternoon than at any time during the morning commute, so I took up my post wearing a vivid yellow ITMFA shirt and holding my NO RUSSIAN POTUS sign in the other hand, with a small plastic flag attached by a clamp. It immediately snapped out into the stiff breeze, which threatened to turn me into Mary Poppins and deposit me somewhere in the median or possibly the nearby State Department campus, so I was concentrating on remaining earthbound when I realized the pickup that had just passed was parked at the opposite curb and the driver was busily photographing me.

I was only a little apprehensive as he crossed toward me. Even less so when I saw his apparent tan was a very light African American complexion.

“Thank you for what you’re doing,” he said. I thanked him for supporting it. A pickup swung by as if on cue, an arm snapping out from the driver’s side window to a shout of “Trump 2020!” I swear there is only the one person doing this; that’s been shouted at me four times in exactly the same timbre and cadence — of course, it’s a young white guy — and I gave my standard response: “Have a blessed day, sir!” Incidentally, this phrase means “Fuck You.” But with class.

“We’ve never seen an America like this,” said my new fan. I considered that he had already probably seen a much different America from the one I’ve lived in for sixty-five years — it’s a daily wrench to realize how racist this goddam country still is — but he’s right, of course. And it’s still worth putting up a fight. Which, he said, he was doing too.

He took a step back but paused before turning into the crosswalk. “The strength of you standing out here cannot be denied,” he said in the resonant tones of an AME preacher, a phrase that doesn’t quite scan for meaning but chuffed me anyway considering as the signs were reaching liftoff again. So far as strength, this gives me a bigger pump than three sets of Z-bar curls. “Someone has to!” I answered, and he dashed between the glurts of traffic and got into his truck.

My wrist feels like I’ve been arm wrestling Godzilla, but that was a good day.

Mortality

The tomato with the yellow longitude lines connecting its stem and its blossom end is a Green Berkeley. It is ripe, though it’s still almost entirely green. David explained it to me. The small round capsicum, shaded in 1970s colors of olive green and gold and autumn orange, tiny enough to be concealed in a closed hand, is sweet. The long and twisted one is spicy.

The cucumber is probably the last we’ll get before the beetles start to eat them. The squash is ripe.

The hollows in David’s cheeks are not just the mark of the weight he always loses in the summertime, bending and tilling, loading up my compost trolley with weeds and spent stalks, drying in the sun faster than he can empty the two insulated kegs of water he always brings. They are the signature of mortality.

He told me in the spring, when he explained he had been getting chemo for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, that he trusted in the Lord, who, so far as I can tell after these twenty years of him raising his garden on my back lot, is the Lord of Chick Tracts, a complicated person who loves everyone but sends people who don’t love him back into a lake of fire. The shit list of David’s Lord, if he buys into the line of shirtpocket comics which supplies his annual Yuletide enclosure (a very potted version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol), is long, and includes Jehovah’s Witnesses, Masons, people who have sex before marriage without repenting (which always results in AIDS and pregnancy), and queer people generally.

He has a Venezuelan wife who I sometimes think of as the brains of the operation, a cheerful, sturdy woman with elderly relatives in the home country who want to come here, if they can. Tough times for that. She drives the car, because I think he lost his license back when he used to drink. She can start a seedling from the remains of a farmer’s market heirloom tomato. In the spring she eats the cherries off my tree with a mischievous smile as if she is a young girl stealing fruit.

He came to the door with the tomato, the cucumber, the capsicums and said he needed to tell me something, that Liliana had had to take him to the emergency room on Monday, and the awful pain he had wasn’t the gall bladder thing they initially thought, but the coiled bastard of cancer that the chemo hadn’t dissolved, and he wouldn’t be able to mow much longer and he was telling all his customers, and no one had even proposed a treatment, and they were going to do something called a PET scan and a biopsy. He didn’t seem very sure about what either of those procedures involved.

“Here, let me show you,” he said. “I just remembered.” He retrieved his wallet from increasingly baggy jeans and  showed me, rather proudly, that his Medicare coverage started today, August first. Early, because of his health.

“They said there was something else I might be able to get, some kind of Medicaid, and there’s a charity,” because of course there is, because I live in the richest country in the world where for decade after decade people have been insisting that we can’t do what every other civilized country has done and find some way to give everyone decent medical care. I’m not sure he even knows what the Affordable Care Act is. I once asked him if he had signed up, and he said he would rather go to the Free Clinic when he got hurt, where they know him.

He said some fucking insane thing about refunds for mowing packages he couldn’t honor and I told him gently to shut up and wrote out a check in the amount of this month’s disposable receipts, coming, really, to little more than a carryout order for every year he’s mowed my lawn and raised his vegetables in my yard.  I take one or two every week of the harvest, a cucumber now and then, a beefy pepper, a fat misshapen tomato.  He likes to explain all the varieties. He likes the Lemon Boy tomato better than the Golden Girl even if it doesn’t bear as long. The ones he gets at the big box store aren’t as hardy as the independent garden shop’s. He can declaim upon these topics for hours of optical glaze.

There’s a memorial for one of his seven or twelve siblings next week, and he’s not sure if he’ll be well enough to go, and his daughter came to visit which is why he wouldn’t let them admit him to the hospital, and he could be back in his apartment but he would rather be here and sit in the Adirondack chair under my cherry tree and work as much as his body will let him, in the crazy sea of staked and vining plants that he has coaxed out of the ground for these twenty years since he first came to me with his hat in his hand and asked if I would consider letting him plant some tomatoes, the sun here was so good, and I didn’t use chemicals on the grass. He didn’t trust chemicals.

The cancer he has is common among people who work around agricultural chemicals. Some of his customers are just in love with that stuff, he says.

The doctors wanted him to eat lots of meat and ice cream to put on weight. His health books all say that feeds the cancer, so he eats eggs. I gave him a Tupperware container of bodybuilder protein. I doubt it will help much. You just have to do something.

For twenty years he has been driving me out of my skull talking everything to death twelve and twenty times. This time I let him do it. When I left for the gym he was under the cherry tree, his water keg on the table by his elbow.

The striped tomato is a Green Berkeley. The yellow squash is ripe. Cook it tonight or tomorrow. It is mortal, and won’t last.

 

Graphic Upgrade

Apparently I have a secret Santa. Possibly someone is going to own up eventually but right now I got nothing.

IMG_0604

Tomorrow will begin the fourth week I have been out at the main road with my signs. No one I know has joined me yet, or so far as I know tried it around their own ‘hood, but someone decided to do something. I stepped out into the battering heat a few hours ago, headed for the (not sufficiently) air conditioned gym, and this spiffy, professionally printed sign was leaning against the Rudbekia. The same motto is on one of my hand lettered signs, which gets a lot of honks from passing drivers (I’m running easily five to one in favor of this exercise in daily witnessing). It must have grabbed the imagination of someone who saw it. I’m guessing a client or friend. I try not to be obvious about going between my door and the pop stand.

The polish is a little jarring. I feel challenged to uphold the graphic standards.

Updates as I get them.

The Missing Man Formation

or, The Paragon Of Cats

1. October, 2007:

“You’ve got a bush full of Fergie!” the Engineer exclaimed as he bounded up the staircase at something like seven AM, full of manly energy and the exhilaration of biking from his old place to mine. This is not as rude as it sounds. The bush in question was the enormous American Holly (the girl one) that occupies the southeast corner of my house, close to the cellar stairwell and dining room window. In recent months, it had become popular with the stray white-and-ginger cat who had taken to loitering on the property, contesting a dish of outdoor kibble with a wholly Satanic-looking yellow-eyed black longhair visitor and, so far as I could tell, usually coming off the worst of the dispute. Fergie, as I dubbed the ginger, was not the alpha-est cat on the boardwalk, but did persist — one of many feline virtues I would be privileged to observe.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I had been trying to lure the cat closer since July, not long after the quiet and lethal tuxie Patricia Twinkle had left us. Without her, considerations of sentiment aside, I had only the slightly doddering Apricat Beezler in residence, and every winter there was an influx of mice, which she had neutralized with extreme prejudice and no remorse — strutting the house, after incidents like the Saturday Night Mouseacre (the extermination of an entire nest that without my knowledge had been established behind the stove) like a four-legged Emma Peel. Apricat was losing his eyesight, arthritic, and had never been able to catch a cold on his best day. “Oh, God of Cats,” I had cried to the heavens, “send me a mouser.”

And there was Fergie. I couldn’t get close enough to guess the sex, but figured an iconic redhead like Sarah Ferguson was a good namesake, and if not, our local candidate for Clerk of the Court, one Paul Ferguson, would do nicely.

Long-legged, personable, and a bit of a ladies’ man in his day, or so I was told. It turned out I was right on the money.

The infestation of my holly bush inaugurated a dance of circling ever closer to the house until, one December afternoon — Pearl Harbor Day, as it happened — I looked out into an eerie, snow-coated landscape saturated with sunset light angling orangely through a cloud cover, and saw the cat leaping from limb to limb.

I took a dish of food, waved it under his nose, and backed toward the porch door, then ever so slowly inside, until I could slam the door shut, causing the cat to do a one-eighty — exposing an impressive set of nads — go airborne in a straight line, his thought balloon reading “OH SHIT!” and  scarper under the porch furniture.

I came down later attired in a puff jacket and a pair of oven mitts to take him to the spare room. But he was a perfect gentleman and the defensive gear was superfluous. He went right under the guest bed and stayed there.

The next night he came out, took an epic dump in the provided box, leapt up on the quilt next to me and proceeded to roll and plaster himself upon me as if trying to perform a Mobius-strip application of all his surface to all of mine at one time. I was to learn that he would never give up this attempt.

Within a couple of weeks he had displayed his audition mouse at the foot of the stairs, for my examination and approval. “Allow me,” he seemed to be saying, “to present a representative sample of my work.”

Not a mark on the poor little bugger. Never knew what hit him.

Honestly, I’ve been meaning to tell this story for years.

2. May, 2008 and Onward:

I suppose the next development was inevitable. My vet at the time, after castrating him — a pressing necessity, since he had sprayed all the long gowns and skirts in my closet — remarked that it really seemed sort of a shame to do it, however requisite. “If it’s not weird of me to ask,” I said, “how large are feline testicles anyway?” “Oh, sort of like frozen peas,” she said, “at least mostly. But these were like small grapes.”

His name was finalized when I made the appointment. The desk lady at the vet’s asked for it and I hesitated a bit before saying “Mister Ferguson.” “That’s very formal,” she said. “Well,” I replied, “I figure you’re about to do something like this to a guy, you at least address him with respect.”

The good news is that the intervention left him shooting only blanks, though he still went through the motions of spraying. The other good news is that when I took in Nickel Catmium, the Rechargeable Feline Battery and resident Crazy Bengal, he let her chase him until he caught her — at one point performing a seven-foot parallel leap between two tall shelves that inaugurated the expression “Air Fergie.”

It was a match made in heaven. Apricat, grandfatherly and sedate, wanted nothing to do with Fergie’s invitations to a good invigorating rassle, and they eventually worked out a sharing of their snoozy hours.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But he needed a playmate. And, well, apparently, a mate. And not in the British sense of the term.

They worked it out… so much that there is still an album on my hard drive titled the Catma Sutra.

He was almost as affectionate with my clients, though not in such a testosterone-driven way. Apparently you can separate the cat from his nuts, but you can’t really take the nuts out of the cat.

A decade later, they were still humping on top of me at one in the morning, directly over my surgical staples from having both hips replaced. Apparently the uncomfortable position this forced me to lie in made an especially attractive theater for their disports. Cats are no respecters of personal space.

3. Supervision:

As an exemplar of all the catly virtues, Fergie managed my business office with elan, gravity testing everything on the desk and observing and directing all projects:

Elevations became a specialty.

His star turn was giving me (and the Engineer, after he moved in) a heart attack prancing along the upstairs banister over a ten-foot drop, with his always smartly curled tail conspicuously not balancing him in the way that cats’ tails are meant to do. Somehow, he never fell.

He told every cat in the house how to behave. He schooled his little wife in proper litter box etiquette, refereed her quarrels with every cat who was not her beloved husband, and explained to Mystery, the Engineer’s tubby yellow moire tabby, that “I bite you head!” “No, I bite you head!” is a game for ruffians. While Apricat was still alive, and increasingly prone to widdle on the bathroom rug, Fergie was always there to huff indignantly, slap him on the flank, chase him from the scene of the crime and yell “Mom! He’s doin’ it again!”

We referred to him as the Paragon Of Cats.

4. July, 2019 — He Fell

“He doesn’t want stair food the last night or two,” said the Engineer, referring to our practice of placing dishes of canned food on successive steps to reduce competitive eating, especially after we had to start slipping a nightly medication into Fergie’s food for a malabsorptive syndrome that left him skinny but nonetheless vigorous. Suddenly, he didn’t want any, going straight to the strong tasting kibble offered in the kitchen.

The next night he would only eat the soft treats the Engineer uses to give his cat Lilly Bast her thyroid pill — I never met a cat who wouldn’t eat a whole bag if he could get them.

The next morning he wouldn’t eat those.

I took him to Dr. Cohn, who’s looked after my cats for ten years, and when he called back with the test results I could hear his tone pleading with me to not, not put my cat through treatment for what was apparently one of the most aggressive kinds of feline cancer. “Use the appetite stimulant we gave you,” he said, “and his other meds if he’ll take them, but not if he hates it.”

He ate for three more days.

He jumped up on the platform on the porch to watch birds and rabbits, until he didn’t.

He went in the closet.

He didn’t want to come out.

When I fished him out his head nodded with every breath. I petted him for a long time, then called Dr. Cohn’s practice. There’s always someone there.

I don’t know what to tell the Widow Catmium-Ferguson. At least, not in language she would understand.

This evening we put out food on the stairs, and Mystery, who always stands looms over other cats waiting for them to finish so he can eat the rest of their food, ran to the dishes, and took up a spot on the step above the topmost dish, as if Mr. Ferguson were still there to eat from it.

“It’s the feline equivalent of the Missing Man Formation,” said the Engineer.

He brought out a bottle of French brandy.

“The Paragon Of Cats,” he said.

Awesome Bed 2

His last morning