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.
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
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.
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
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.
I was walking in the woods on this gorgeous fall day and looking for a sign from the gods. “Inspiration,” I cried, ignoring the old saw that inspiration is perspiration, “come forth!” But then it arrived just before I emerged from the trees, and yes, I was perspiring.
A dog-eye sulfur butterfly, the color of butter, flitted by me. Dog-eye sulfurs are my favorites; they are the last to leave in autumn. They gather in flocks in mudpuddles and extract nutrients. They’ve got Bette Davis eyespots.
Then in a flash a streak went by me like a bullet, a diving tufted titmouse trying to catch the butterfly in flight. The titmouse missed and landed on a branch, and the butterfly dropped to the ground. Then a second titmouse came by, also missing. The first tufted titmouse then dove again, scooping up the hapless butterfly and swallowing it.
I might have written a poem about the butterfly. I have written poems about cute tufted titmice eating sunflower seeds at my feeder. Nature has but a single law, the cute being devoured by the cute, the fierce tearing the fierce limb from limb. It is about survival—period. Humans are “apes with angel glands” (sorry, Leonard Cohen, but apes are peaceful creatures; chimps are murderers), and so far, the animal gene has won out.
Do you get it? Tufted titmice are Republicans. Butterflies are Democrats. You can love both but one of them will gladly eat you.
Did you see those old people standing in Mitch McConnell’s yard with Ruth Bader Ginsburg signs in their hands? Did you see Kentucky bank robbers and con artists Mitch McConnell and his wife Sleazy Elaine Chou peeking out from the curtains and laughing until snot ran out of their noses? Hear them chortle as they discuss whether or not to go outside and urinate on the protestors.
Did you hear Nancy Pelosi (who probably saw Errol Flynn as Robin of Loxley in “Robin Hood” as a child) announcing that the House will use “every arrow in our quiver,” to fight the Supreme Court nominee? Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell and his band of merry gunsels are loading clips into their Glocks.
Democrats are shooting bows and arrows in a zombie gunfight.
We liberals and liberal Democrats deserve religionists burning us at the stake. We deserve every fucking nutjob with a Trump sign in their yard. We deserve back alley abortions. We deserve being spat upon at the grocery store by the rebels. We deserve racial inequality, and we shouldn’t be surprised if proslavery comes back as a topic of discussion or even as actuality. We deserve clods and sycophants forming education policy. We deserve fire and flood. We deserve sexual harassment. We deserve poisoned water and nuclear waste dumps and plastic.
We endorsed them all—we endorse them all. It started with Al Gore getting gang raped by that Rick Scott Florida cabal. Not only did we not fight, Al Gore didn’t fight. Chuck Schumer recently compromised with Republicans, greenlighting unfit conservative judges with pea brains and Clorox damage to their lungs.
What can we do? Mr. Aristotle tells us, in effect, sitting in easy chairs (inaction) and doing nothing is de facto action, an endorsement of every bad thing that happens.
Literally, all that stands between us and a Supreme Court filled with Crispy Cremes and rat-fucker zealots, is the hope that Collins and Murkowski and Corker and Romney will just say no to their own drug cartel. Are you kidding me? Those are the four musketeers? Chuck Grassley is backup? Pull down your pants, stick some Vaseline up your ass and wait for your super colossal Republican dick ass-fucking.
A dog-eye sulfur butterfly, the color of butter, flitted by me. I ate it.
The pensive woman walks
With a butterfly on her palm,
She says the orange-spotted
Beauty is dead
But I see no torn wings,
The great spangled fritillary
Rests, waiting for the sun
To pump fluid into its wings,
And the smiling woman sets it
On the earth, and a wing stretches.
A yellow orb spider injects its
Poison, the speckled butterfly
Shocked, painted lady frozen
In death (its last frantic breath
Blaming me for not saving it),
Its dazzling beauty drained–
Body of Chrysalis, orb baby
Feast served with cricket parts–
Its afterlife skyward and in tales
Told by mourning painted lady cousins.