I was born in the winter of 1982. A week later, my father transported me and my mother from the town hospital back home on a wooden horse cart. The unrelenting snowflakes oscillated from the dreary sky and soon smothered the blanket under which my mother cuddled her infant daughter. Many years later my mother confided, or complained, that my father grudgingly hauled the cart choosing broken road and stones for the wheels to roll over to declare his vexation at having another girl.Read more.
Afternoon. A mist of not-quite-rain. Stacking wood by the side of the shack. River Gum, bought in to mix with the bush wood. Admire its deep desert-red, its dense solidity, its promise that winter has its comforts too: this is the only wood that knows how to burn hot and slow and all the way through to the morning.Read more.
At the entrance of the yurt, Larry pulls a large group of keys from his pocket; one key for the door of the yurt, one to the gate above the entrance of the lava cave, one for the lightbox, one for Tom’s mansion, one for his car, and one for his bike lock. He’s always loved the perfect circle of the yurt. There are no hidden corners, no set-aside spaces, everything can be taken in, in one sweeping look…Read more.
What To Keep
One hot summer day twenty years ago, the day after my father died, my brother and I placed a few sheets of four-foot by eight-foot plywood in the center of the attic at my parent’s house, the same house I live in now with my wife Anne and our three boys, the house we are selling. Putting the boards in was hard work that required twisting and bending and lifting, and it strained our muscles. Dust motes and pink asbestos particles clung to our sweaty skin, and splinters pierced our fingers; I enjoyed the work, more from the pleasure of my brother’s company than the job’s inherent value or purpose.Read more.
Jimmy is proud to have lettered in basketball. But he has come to think of his Saint Ambrose high-school varsity jacket as a private and public symbol of his life. It is a sort of Scarlet Letter of taint and shame for being sexually abused as a child and a bold blue A rating from the Health Department like at the zoo food stand where he works for appearing safe and clean.Read more.
Big Tiny and Polly owned a neighborhood grocery store with two Conoco pumps out front and rarely more than three customers at a time inside. No TV or radio played in the background, no beer or cigarettes sold, and they didn’t bother with a cash register. A narrow counter ran from the front window almost to the back door, two aisles opened perpendicular to the counter, and shelves lined the walls. Other than a well-stocked cold drink box and an old Hotpoint refrigerator filled with dairy products, that was it. I worked as the store’s only employee in the summer of 1963, when I was thirteen and secretly held Cassius Clay as my hero.Read more.
Another Kind of Kindness
It was no secret that I hadn’t seen or spoken to my father for many years prior to his passing. A fact which fascinated a great number of people – literary aficionados, academics, biographers and journalists. You don’t achieve that level of professional success without your personal life coming under intense scrutiny. In that respect, I cannot even begin to recount the number of interviews I have declined over the last decade. But my desire to tell my story now has nothing to do with appeasement, or of trying to set the record straight. Nor will it be sensationalised nonsense penned purely for financial gain. I want to write about my father to try and understand our complex relationship and work out exactly how I feel about him today.Read more.
The Hunchback of the Flatiron
It didn’t look like a New York kitchen. It reminded Bern of a Cold War California ranch house, a long, slender space showcasing massive appliances (an old electric Kenmore sheathed in bacon grease), linoleum tile floor and Formica countertops, blind storage corners and a sink cabinet as big as a washtub. Tentatively, he tested the stiff buttons on the soap-encrusted old dishwasher.
Just a week ago, he’d rented this small apartment on Perry Street. The bulky kitchen overwhelmed the rest of the place (actually, a single open area partitioned by bamboo screens); poorly ventilated, it disseminated years of liver and onions, garlic, and black-eyed peas throughout the apartment; and the too-big window above the kitchen sink overlooked a grimy brick wall next door.
The phone was vibrating, short spurts of three vibrations at a time accompanying Simple Plan’s “I Won’t Be There.” Kira reached blindly for her phone, face still pressed into her pillow, and succeeded only in knocking it off of her desk.
“Shit.” Kira groaned, lifting herself up from the bed just enough to feel around on the ground. Her fingers finally wrapped around the phone and she collapsed back onto bed, swiping right to answer the phone. “Hello.” Her voice came out scratchy, so she cleared her throat and repeated her “Hello” in the same monotone.
“Honey, you have to get up,” her mom chirped. “It’s after ten. If you were public schooled, you’d be three hours late already.”
When I am young, I dream that I die. In this dream, I am sitting cross-legged beneath the dining-room table. In front of me sits myself in the same position. I am both selves at the same time, though sometimes I am just one. One of my selves – I am not sure which – has been poisoned. I know I am about to die. I know it both as a fact of my body and as a kind of empathy. The me that is not dying is filled with self-pity and begins to make small choking sobs like a caught zipper. The other me makes the same noises but does not feel self-pity.Read more.
The Serpent Papers: Headed to Babylon
There are things I’ve never told anyone, secrets hidden away in a vault with the doors clanged shut, forty years ago or maybe fifty, in the deepest recesses of my head. Secrets not previously told because they might have jeopardized my future by branding me a pot fiend, a beer hound, a left-wing radical or a white pointy-headed bigot. But I’m older now with a dwindling future, and the story is ready to be told.
Everything starts with the seed, and then come the roots.
She Was A Child
Baltimore, May 1832
Virginia Clemm sits with Cousin Eddy on the small stoop in front of the little brick house in Baltimore, Maryland, in the Republic of the United States of America of which the president is Andrew Jackson, known as Old Hickory, slave owner and Indian killer. The street is unpaved, but a slave on the other side sweeps the dirt with a long-handled broom because his mistress says he must. A brown and white dog sleeps in the wagon ruts, and he will be run over if he doesn’t move; drovers are hauling produce to market in their rattling, trundling wagons.
The Year of the Rat
What woke him was the sound of a fist on the front door, a thumping that signified in its speed and its impertinence that his landlord was coming to collect the rent again.
The scar tissue wasn’t healing well, so he was constantly in pain. Clad in just boxers and a vest, Bill winced as he took the five steps from his bedroom into the living room, crouching and running his hand down his uncovered leg, feeling the bristles and the indents, soothing himself.
“Barred from Every Pub Even the Burrito Place,” “Reverence” and “Heathen. Expat. Hometown Girl.”
Teddy carries what he deems of importance
In an old trolley cart padded with terry cloth.
He holds congress with Johno and Frank
And two other silent boys in the town circle.
Their guitar looks nice on you
It is a rare occasion—
So you sing for them.
“Hello Dear Visitor,” “Puddles Caressing My Skin” and “We’re Just Cordial Friends”
I deserted a place labeled as a home,
with outlets popping out from their cables,
an oven that I needed to light manually,
and a floral couch that creaked no matter the weight put onto it.
I still have that picture of you resting softly,
sinking into the cushions,
with a long tear at the top
“Underwater,” “Locked” and “Don’t Tell the Women”
The naval admiral’s shallow body
Is smaller than I imagined
In the nucleus of a nuclear submarine
Elusive to then Soviet fish spawning
On the sides of a metal ship
“Familiar Cycles,” “Cloudless” and “Sand Walking”
Late August bears canicular days.
Vertical rays beat down.
My head bends forward,
seeking the shade of my own shadow.
Once luminous eyes now fading,
Fight oﬀ the unequaled glare of the most radiant star.
“Imagining 42 Tiny Scuba Divers,” “Drifting” and “Sandcastle”
Bubble rings like misplaced
angel halos arise within
my teardrop from tiny
scuba divers the size
of pinpricks swimming
about aimlessly with salt
coating their masks,
and high on painkillers.
“Aches and Pains,” “Timber Tantrums” and “Chicago Sunset”
There is an indigo ripple in my eye,
sending me backwards through time
on cresting waves that roll into themselves
Tightened by their energy,
these droplets form ropes
that flay my memory
“My Chair” and “That Hat”
Where I sit is not my chair
but on my bones stacked up my back.
The me is from shoulders down for air,
chin up for sight and speech.
Though toes curl the chair legs
for balance, my feeling is, has always
been, that life is in my hands.
The track meet ended late in the afternoon that day. She and a handful of her teammates in victory blue track uniforms gathered around the front of the high school waiting for their rides. She was fourteen, a freshman. She didn’t know then that she would be the last one left.
A steady stream of cars, turning off the well-traveled frontage road, rushed up the hill and into the U-shaped driveway to pick up their athletes. One by one, they went home with their parents. Gradually, daylight faded and the adjacent parking lot for administrators, teachers, and seniors emptied.
The Beauty of Authenticity
Early one summer evening, my mother and I are sitting side by side on a glider in my backyard, sipping glasses of wine and chatting, staring out at my native garden. At the edge of the patio, square-spotted blue butterflies are laying eggs among the buckwheat’s pompoms of cream-colored blossoms. A mockingbird is in the elderberry, inspecting clusters of ripening fruit. Above the flowering wands of white sage, hummingbirds are skirmishing, dipping and diving, scolding each other with intense chirps as they duel for nectar.Read more.
I went to China to hug a panda.
When I first learned that the Sichuan province in China is the only place on the planet that allows physical contact with panda bears, I knew immediately that I had to go.
My decision to visit the birthland of the giant panda had nothing to do with a vacation from my busy schedule but everything to do with a connection to a world that was raw, genuine, and innocent.