Dear Charlie (to Charlie Baird)

Dear Charlie,

It has only been a month since you died. We all miss you very much. Sheila and Lorenzo and Don and Harold and Paul send their love.

I thought I would catch you up, as I need to believe that you are still connected to Earth. The wreath laying ceremony was interrupted by an intruder, a woman wearing a sash reading, Mrs. Congeniality USA. I kid you not. She told your Baird family and the Cisco family that she was an ambassador to Wreaths Across America, which, of course, she was not. I asked a woman friend, what grown woman wears a sash and poses like a model at graveyards. She replied, a teenage girl who lost the beauty pageant.

After we all left, the woman doubled back and posed for a photograph of her next to our historical plaque about our revered Tuskegee Airmen. Then she drove to the Confederate cemetery, picked up the wreath that had been laid there, and posed laying it again. She was a narcissist, of course, which made me think of the Narcissist in Chief. I have wondered what you would have made of this poser.

Charlie, you missed it. The senate is now 50-50, with Harris to break ties. Georgia turned blue. Huzzah! But that victory was short lived. Carpetbaggers Kelly Loeffler of Illinois, posing as a Georgian because she figured that state would be a pushover, and Josh Hawley of Missouri, who is not from Missouri, but he uses his sister’s Missouri address, and he is in actually, a Virginian, who posed in the Show Me state wearing a flannel shirt and jeans and sitting on a haybale because he figured that hick state would be a pushover for populism and it was… those two led the conservative chorus for overturning a presidential national election. Hawley saluted the protestors with a raised fist outside the capitol building. Loeffler and her colleague, Perdue both got rich using insider stock information, but the rural white Georgians did not blink an eye.

Then Trump went after the Republican vote authorities in Georgia, threatening harm if they did not change the vote count. The result was a Black and a Jew won the senate races and Mitch McConnell will no longer hold the senate at proverbial gunpoint. Oh Charlie, how I wish you had been here to see it.

Yesterday, December 6, 2021, thousands of armed Proud Boys and their acolytes stormed the statehouses of Michigan, Utah, Oregon, Georgia, Arkansas, Washington state, Kansas, and Texas. But—wait for it, Charlie—the Capitol Building, the people’s house was overrun by a mob, many carrying weapons. Four people were killed. Members of the house and senate were guarded in safe rooms as the violence spread throughout the building. Amy Klobuchar, who was tending to the wooden boxes of certificates of votes of all the states, ducked to the floor and was escorted out, leaving the boxes unguarded. Fortunately, a staffer grabbed the boxes and fled. Had the content of the boxes been destroyed by the white terrorists—for white terrorists is what they were—no one knows what fate awaited the United States.

The terrorists: People sporting t-shirts with “The Bible” and “Civil War” logos, draped in American flags which dragged the ground, old men wearing capes as if they were Southern Generals of the Confederacy, assorted thugs, bullies (in the old days they would have been the madding crowd at a Jim Crow lynching), miscreants, idiots, simpletons, little boys playing war, gun nuts, right wing religionists who must have thought they were headed to The Rapture.

The so-called capitol police did not draw their weapons, did not make any attempt to stand their ground. No less an authority than General Barry McCafferty contrasted the armed forces who kept the Black Lives Matter protestors at bay, and the woefully understaffed police from yesterday. Did the authorities deliberately stand back and let the terrorists—the white terrorists—attack? If they weren’t prepared to fight, McCafferty said, then the army should have been called in and fought with fury to defend our country.

The brilliant political guru James Carville, he of the deep Louisiana drawl, said on MSNBC that Republicans are meat and cleaver people who chop-chop in a fight. Democrats sit around a campfire and sing “Kumbaya.”

But Charlie, the most dramatic moment of all. In the chaos, white terrorists roaming free, a boy paraded inside the rotunda where John Lewis had recently lain in state, and inside the senate chamber, waving a Confederate flag. He was waving a Confederate flag, Charlie, the flag of traitors and the defeated, the fodder of Faulkner and Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor, the flag which represents lynching and slavery and the myth of the “white race.”

Sorry if I am unduly worrying you. Perhaps where you are is a quiet, contemplative place, and you no linger and bear the burdens of the world. Perhaps where you are is like an eternal TV news program where you and our beloved Ted Shobe sit together and mutter at injustice.

So, Charlie, we are at war. Your and my generation want to be left alone, sit back, and take photos of food and grandchildren and sunsets, and they will only fight from their recliners, TV remotes (what an ironical invention, the remote) their preferred weapons. In other words, cluck.

The young people blame the old people, and their version of a revolution seems to be graffiti, Tik Tok talent shows (do not ask), and Snapchat. Two principal things must be enacted: The elimination of all firearms in public places. Editing the ability of anybody saying any incendiary goddamn lie on Facebook. The revision of all history books to finally let in the truth of the slaughter of Indians and enslavement of Africans, to the benefit of white citizens of this country. Okay, that is three things. You know how I am with math, Charlie.

While watching the carnage yesterday and considering going after one of our classmates who attacked me on Facebook and disparaged Black Lives Matter (too easy, the combatant is a drunk), I suddenly thought of you, my dear friend, my brother. I cried, Charlie, I just cried. I miss you so. Please give my love to Ted.

With apologies to Bob Dylan: The times they are barely changin’.

 

 

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My Mother’s House

A two-story house in Chicago. My sister rocks in a wooden rocker, clicking her knitting needles but knitting nothing, chews on her cheek. She watches me.

A plump young woman walks in from the kitchen, runs toward me with open arms. I don’t know her, but I open my arms as she talks soundlessly—I can’t make out her words: omygoshmydad—pulling my head down to the crotch of her new blue jeans. I am horrified; I push her away. My sister rocking, knitting nothing and watching.

The doorbell rings. My mother, who died in 1972, glares at me, straightens her paisley dress, pushes her winged glasses up on her nose. She opens the door, smiles warmly and greets her visitor, an older woman dressed in a prim, long skirt, hose, and white blouse.

“How are you?” “Fine. “You?” “Fine.”

They start to climb the stairs, Mother leading the way.

I call out, “How long of a drive is it?”

My mother is annoyed at my interruption. The guest stops and smiles down at me.

“Oh, I’d say an hour and a half, straight west on the Eisenhower.”

“That’s not far,” I say.

“They send their hellos. They are waiting for you,” the woman says.

The women climb on up the stairs and walk down a corridor.

My cat runs into the kitchen. I follow her and watch her jump into the full laundry basket by the table screwing her body, sinking and burrowing under the clothes. I spin around and around, until I’m unable to stand. I fall against the refrigerator and onto the wooden floor, sending the cat food and water dishes flying, my brain in the vortex of a tornado.

And then I remember, I have got to get to the people in the country, waiting. I meditate myself along the expressway, sailing west over skyscrapers rising like jail bars then suburban houses in long rows, then the countryside, finally reaching the exit to the farm.

I float along the two-lane highway leading north, spotting the farm in the distance, the husband and wife and their little black-haired girl waving me in and talking all at once, excitedly, in tongues: heshereheshereheshere.

Their farm is the only building in a valley filled with winter wildflowers poking above the snow. I land and run toward them, my only true family, my loves, and they smile, all with their huge teeth protruding, all wearing ponchos and sombreros of gold.

And they smother me in darkness, and I feel them nibbling on me, the cat gnawing my right calf on the floor in Chicago, and I know that parts of my body are scattered in the stars, that I am everywhere and all. The plump girl in the new blue genes applauding, patting her groin, and saying silently, You knew it would end this way.

My sister rocking, knitting nothing, watching.

 

 

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A Day That Will Live in Infamy

DECEMBER 7, 2020: A DAY THAT WILL LIVE IN INFAMY
More people died today of Covid-19 than did the Navy personnel at Pearl Harbor in 1941.
We salute the brave men and women who today gave their lives for Donald Trump, the partiers and the wedding attendees and the barflies and the church goers and restaurant patrons and families who gathered at Thanksgiving and the brave and valiant armed Michigan rebels surrounding the Secretary of State’s house and at Republican rallies. Oh, the sacrifice for their country, for Freedom.
Never forget!
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Bellies

Stillness, Saturday afternoon, the river was still and the sky. Even the creeks were still, and a lone old man sitting on a bench, paunch-bellied and bald and sporting a Santa Claus beard, glared at me wordlessly when I wished him a good afternoon, his angry stillness like a mask. It might have been something he ate—or something he voted for.

I hadn’t walked for five days. My right knee has deteriorated to the point that I have to take breaks. A year ago this very day, in Atascadero, California, I was playing pickle ball with my friend Dave and his pals, and I stepped back to make a shot, and my foot planted, my right shin hyperextending at the knee, and I fell and yelped. It’s been downhill—no pun intended—ever since.

The temperature was in the mid-40s, just low enough that the packs of motorcycles which deafen hikers along the river trail weren’t out and about. Perhaps distended Thanksgiving bellies relegated the noisy to stillness and multiple naps.

Flocks of robins chatted in the tree and bluff tops (the biggest bird myth I know is about robins flying south), and a pileated woodpecker worked a high dead tree trunk and granted me permission to stand and watch. Chickadees and nuthatches held court and a blue jay called around for relatives, but none answered, perhaps burdened with pie bellies.

Me, I have cookie belly from eating a thousand peanut butter cookies over three days. I considered but declined, to take my weekly Shadow picture because the Shadow is fatso.

Two young couples walked ahead of me, the women annoyed with their men, who tossed the old pigskin up and down the trail and whooped like they were Green Bay Packers, only the men had gravy bellies—and maybe wouldn’t have girlfriends by the end of their walk. Young men believe they shouldn’t be still under any circumstance, which makes them boring as a class of people. Young women, even the worst boors among them, have glorious, god-given derrieres. This is their saving grace.

A man with a walking stick, his belly showing no sign of excess, passed by me. His name is Tom, Alton High Class of 69, though he looks much older, wearier. He walked these woods when he was a kid, before there was an asphalt path. Before him came escaping slaves and before them Indians forged the first path about six thousand years ago, long before Cahokia Mounds was settled. Their stone artifacts lie under the surface of the farm fields on the north side of Route 3, Rocky Fork Creek the northern boundary.

The stillness on the return hike was broken by leaf blowers. It had warmed up enough that gadget people were compelled to bring out their gadgets and annoy the hell out of everyone else. One man, facing the bluff above him, leaf blower at the ready, had to balance his ginormous belly forward, to keep from rolling backwards into the Mississippi River. I was rooting for the river.

The motorcycles were sure to follow.

 

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Dear Mr. Baldwin

Dear Mr. Baldwin,
    We have received your application to replace Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. While we laughed at your comment, “My left testicle is smarter than Betsy DeVos,” other aspects of your resume troubled us.
    To the questions: 1. Have you ever taken drugs? 2. Have you ever committed a crime? 3. Have you ever cheated on a test? 4. Have you had impure thoughts about Kaleigh McEnany? 5. Have you ever sung along with Andy Williams to his record, the “The Little Drummer Boy?” you answered: 1. Yes-yes-yes, mushrooms yes oh yes. 2. Uh-duh. 3. Oh yeah. 4. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh yes—hate the K. but I’d do her. 5. Well, yes, but I was young.
    Mr. Baldwin, your answers alarmed us, what we would expect from a Republican and a man who got his MA, from pardon my smirk, DePaul University.
    Your comment, “Joe Biden is the worst, weakest, weeniest, wishy-washiest, waste-of-space-est, weak-eyed, wonk-fuck since Democratic candidate Walter Mondale,” was, while truthful, indiscreet.
    We regret to inform you that we will look elsewhere for our Education Secretary. We do have openings for our janitorial staff. Please let us know if that would be acceptable.
Sincerely,
M. Pecksniff
Transition Coordinator
Biden for President Committee
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Symbiosis

Brushing my old lady cat

is a sensual thing,

she turns on her right side

switches to her left, electric

purring creeps up my arm,

tail tip whip-cracking

and I gather up fur detritus

into a ball on the oak floor,

 

Open the back-porch door,

cold fresh air knifing in

from the soaked timbers,

wind from the southeast

fogging the storm door,

and behind the porch rail

a carnival of chattery dyed birds

 

Ride the bare sticks of forsythia:

Carolina wrens and cardinals

saturated in ice droplets,

flailing spray from their wings,

and I toss the woven cat fur

on the dirt-streaked porch table,

and go back inside, towel off

and watch through the storm glass

 

As a song sparrow lands,

gathers the skein of fur in its beak

and white-streaked cheeks,

and wing-rises to the rafters,

stuffing the treasure into a crack

puffing its body ball-shaped

head upraised, belly vibrating,

and it sings madly, reedily,

a hymn to treasure:

St. Louis Post Dispatch:

Man bites dog/Feline donates to avian cause

 

If I confess to the daydreaming cat

I am a cold heart, a traitor,

if I confess to the bird

I am a vile feline enabler,

so, I confess to the iced naked trees

stripped of finery, all their vanity,

old ladies, winter-scoured of makeup,

somnolent, and not much caring

about irony

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Halloween

The sun comes put
And the fields are gold
For five seconds
Then the clouds slash back
The sky eerily masked
Brown fields grey and black
Five days of gloom
Five seconds of light
And unrelenting rainFall
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Proton Therapy

Protons

It was the fifth day without sunshine, the fifth day of wind that crawls under your pant legs and stabs you and boils your face, the fifth day of cold rain, a day of wet squirrels and outdoor cats, and feather- and beak-shaking birds.

Farmer Orville and Quilt Queen’s old, raggedy, yellow barn cat lay on a towel under a lawn chair under the carport. The sidewalk was littered with crushed walnut and acorn husks. To the east, a neighbor’s Trump flag tried to blow off its pole. I was tempted to help it do so.

The couple were sitting in the kitchen and watching Dr. Phil, and Beverly was making toast and microwaving Jimmy Dean sausage. A huge canister of Pepperidge Farm Cookies was set at my place on the table. Mint Milano, there was my personal addiction. So, I sat and drank coffee and ate cookies and sausage.

Orville was filling my coffee cup at the counter. To the question, how are you? Quilt Queen said, “Oh, you know,” and pointed to her husband’s back as if to say, he’s not well. It has been a long eight months for those two, fear of Covid-19, fear that Orville might not survive his proton therapy, fear that the two of them were getting too old to deal with their land and buildings, fear that the astronomical cost of Orville’s cancer medications might ruin them financially.

“I should have my own talk show,” Quilt Queen said. “I’d know what to say to those broken kids on Dr. Phil.”

To hear her talk, you would assume Bev was born and raised on a farm. Her childhood was a nightmare, living in a St. Louis tenement, with cockroaches and rats and mice crawling in the walls. A newspaper showed a photo of little Beverly pointing to her lip where a rat had bitten her the night before. She has an irrational fear of rats and mice.

A subatomic proton is yin to an electron’s yang. A concentrated beam of it is an alternative to X-ray radiation. The jury is out on its efficacy.

To Orville, proton therapy involves lying naked and restrained in a tube for an MRI which shows where to fire the protons, and every once in a while, feeling a nurse’s hands lifting or moving his testicles around and or inserting something “up my ass,” which makes him uneasy. “You know.” Afterward, it is common to feel exhausted and have burns on the area affected by the treatment.

The universe is composed of atoms, and we are atoms “glued” together, and imagination plays a huge part in our reality. There are no new atoms being created; we literally borrow existing atoms and glue ourselves into us. Sir Arthur Eddington posited that the universe is composed of ten viginsextillion atoms. I just like saying “viginsextillion” and “sex.”

The reality today was a warm kitchen and trust—that the three of us were okay in each other’s company. Quilt Queen suffers from seasonal effective disorder, SAD, as do I, and weeks like this one do not help. We caught up on each other’s lives and shared photographs. They saw pics of Scout the cat, known recluse, for the first time, laughing at my cat asleep with her paws in my slippers. In the several years Orville cat sat for me when I was traveling, he never saw the cat.

The word for the day was not proton but death. Coming soon. Returning one’s atoms back to the universe so that someone else, some thing else, can gather them, glue them, and re-form. That’s me the existentialist talking. I wouldn’t mind coming back as a bird.

Orville and Quilt Queen are on the heaven train.

 

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NARCISSUS

Styrofoam cups, a plastic 7-Up bottle, a beer can

And red and gold and orange autumn leaves

Roll along the highway’s shoulder

Gaily tossed by gusts of wind

 

What would fall be without Americans

Tossing their detritus out car windows

A child’s canvass shoe here

And there a crumpled slipper

 

Baby’s diaper bye-bye

Schnuck’s plastic be gone, Aldi’s “Shop different”

A highway is another word for landfill until

We run out of room and bomb the mountains

 

America, once beautiful, once verdant

Now a trash flash mob throwaway

Now McDonalds Burger King Taco Bell

Jingle all the way

 

Give me leaf trash, bits of broken bark

Stream-split granite shards and sandblown glass

Shriveled iris petals and worm casings

And shed blue racer snake skins

 

The sponges of Eden did not write

About the trees the seas the leaves the serene breeze

They lived and soaked up sun and water

And saltily brushed the first oral

 

And then Man came along a wrote and wrote

Epics word songs and poems jazz birds and bees

And then Narcissus saw himself in the water’s mirror

And threw the first Kleenex into the stream

 

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The Fifth Little Girl

They were in the downstairs church bathroom, the five girls, preparing to don their choir robes. They all had walked to the church that September 15 Sunday morning, and the weather was hot, so they “freshened up.” And you just know they gossiped. Denise, 11, and new teens Addie and her sister Sarah, Cynthia, and Carol.

Sarah was standing to the side of the sink as Denise asked Addie to tie the sash on her dress. Sarah said recently, “When Addie reached out to tie it, that’s when I heard this sound, boom, the bomb went off.”

A dozen or more sticks of dynamite had been planted underneath the church outside stairs, the blast destroying the bathroom wall, killing four of the girls and leaving Sarah standing upright in the rubble, her right eye blasted from her head and glass shards in her left eye. Leaving Sarah, who had dreamed of being a nurse, alone and blinded, standing in the gore that was left of her sister and friends.

Somewhere that day, four white man, members of the Ku Klux Klan laughed and joshed one another and crowed that they had struck a blow for the white people of Birmingham, Alabama, for the cause of white supremacy across the land. The FBI quickly identified the suspects, but J. Edgar Hoover quashed the files. Hoover then, is the fifth murderer.

It was the George Wallace era in the South, Wallace vowing “segregation forever” and encouraging white people to be violent. He got his wish. Years later, Wallace, paralyzed from a would-be assassin’s bullet, was wheeled into Martin Luther King’s Montgomery church and asked the congregation for forgiveness.

One of the Klansmen was tried in the 70s and convicted. After Bill Clinton became president, the FBI files were reopened, and U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, now senator, successfully convicted two more of the men, the last survivor dying in jail at age 82.

Sarah’s lawyer has petitioned the State of Alabama to grant her reparations for her stolen life. Republican Governor Kay Ivey—after receiving a petition from Sarah’s lawyers, citing the fact that while the State of Alabama did not kill four girls and maim a fifth, its governor (Wallace) had played a role in the deaths—is considering whether or not to grant the request. Ivey is not known for racial sensitivity. She failed to attend the recent openings of the museums dedicated to the histories of lynching and slavery, saying she hadn’t been invited.

I visited those museums two years ago. Knowing about horror, about man’s inhumanity to man (and the planet), does not prepare one for the emotional experience of walking through acres of sculptures and photographs commemorating the lynched (46 from Illinois). Nor does it prepare one walking the downtown streets, with every block featuring a plaque telling visitors of slave auctions held in those places, for beating hearts and wobbly legs. And then there is the shocking statue at the top of the state capitol steps honoring Dr. J. Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology,” who did his research on slave women, operating without anesthesia. The Nazis were fixated with white supremacy. It is said that Dr. Mengele was influenced by Dr. Sims.

The photos. The two men who murdered Emmet Till, arms around each other, laughing, knowing they will never pay a price for their crime. Till’s mangled body in his casket. The “strange fruit” of thousands of lynching victims. The white women and girls spitting on little Ruby Bridges as she enters a desegregated school. Martin Luther King lying on the motel balcony. The charred cross on the Rock springs golf course, across the street from the Conley family’s house, Elijah Conley having had the temerity to file a lawsuit to get his kid into a desegregated Alton school. George Floyd in the last moment of his life.

It is all coming back around. I saw it—the future—a few years back. I had struck up a Facebook friendship with a columnist for a Northern California newspaper. We shared a love of the Southern Gothic novelist William Gay. The Californian pissed off a lot of people in his area, and I’d like to think I’ve stirred the Alton pot (I’m proud to say that a prominent local artist attacked me for commenting on racism in Alton). But then he fell in love with Trump. He suddenly looked at himself in the mirror and decided he was an endangered species. White men were going to be destroyed. I called him and gave him the courtesy of telling him why we were through. He hung up the phone.

Sarah Collins Rudolph, the fifth little girl of Birmingham, deserves all the bags of money in the Alabama coffers. It won’t bring Addie Mae back; it won’t replace Sarah’s eyes. It will, it will, it will be a step toward justice.

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