Night, Dawn, Day

When it’s time to paint, I paint. Flecks of the barn’s old red come off in chips on the roller and mingle with the new white until I get pink. I climb down the ladder, dip the thing in acetate, help Phil out with his nebulizer. His vapor mixes with the early morning fog till you can’t be sure it isn’t all coming from him. His machine pumps out medicine over hills, across lakes, past the stalks of corn in their ordered lines and rows. To heal him you’ll have to heal the whole world first.

So I paint, and Phil sits, in Grandpa’s old rocker, over the feed. The chickens one-eye him as they scuttle over–pecking once, twice, retreating. Some of them are afraid of the machine’s constant hum, the way it clicks and whirs. Phil says I missed a spot; Darth Vaders it between breaths. I’ve only laid a checkerboard square of white on the great expanse of red. I spin the roller to rain paint on my big brother. It lands in droplets like stars on the sky of his bald head. The cows come in to watch, or else get at the greener grass, depending on your perspective. Phil picks up a cow chip and frisbees it at me. It explodes on the rung under my feet. Tiny, oblong versions of me reflect in racing lines of white paint.

We break at noon, Phil with his arm around my neck. Like a chokehold. Like it’s not to keep him standing. Sandwiches in triangle halves on Mom’s doily plates, her not around to insist they’re for special occasions only. Us eating standing up, or at least Phil doing it till his lungs burn, then sitting. Dad’s voice used to collect gravel when he’d ask where my manners were, till “manners” came out as a growl. Phil would try not to laugh, always did anyway.

So we go to the barn. For old time’s sake. For forgetting tomorrow’s surgery. We find Dad’s chew in an old Altoids tin, the “oids” rusted out so it’s just “Alt.” As if there could be any alternative. The sickly smell of it as we pack boluses to the right cheek, then the left to get the taste away. Spitting it out and running to the pump, spit like mud, and washing our mouths out with water we once lit on fire.

We dig into cobwebbed boxes nailed shut, pull out the snowshoes we used to make the crop circles that summer, corn stalks crunching beneath our feet. Phil disappeared into our maize maze, left me to look over the map: crayon on construction paper. Dad came outside to two stalk clusters rustling on a windless day. Went in with his shotgun. Found me first. Kept it raised even after he knew it was only me. Wondered what in creation I was doing. Our crop circle stayed like that, half-completed, till harvest time. A botched landing we’d be reminded of for the next three months.

We stand in the barn, in isosceles light coming through the door. Phil’s wearing Grandpa’s uniform. The thing is ill-fitting now as then, now for a very different reason. Phil salutes with his bony arms, knocks out cannula from nostrils with a smile. Cough-laughs as I fix it for him. I take a pic and he warns me not to post it, insists he can still kick my ass, you know.

He wants something to break; something to shoot. We go out back with a box of pellets, the doily plates, Dad’s gun. The fresh paint’s at our backs. It leaches fumes into the air, even out here, with endless corn to soak it up. We’re losing daylight, so I paint between his shots. Spin plates into cloudless sky like UFO polaroids we used to fake and send to Dateline, Art Bell, anyone we thought might take them. Plate chips rain over dirt, and Phil’s laughing so hard it sounds like he’s surfacing after a deep dive. Risking the bends but not caring either way.

I finish painting at sundown; hurry back to the barn for what we need. Rip the “for sale” sign out of dirt Grandpa used to till, his grandpa before him. Lodge pellets into it, rapid fire, airborne, spinning fast: sign, post, sign, post.

We lay out the chairs. Set up the projector. Put on the old zombie trilogy, like we’re only kids on Halloween: Night, Dawn, Day.

button

Just Say Cheese

The best way to remember that trip is in Dad’s smile as the raindrops watered his phoenix hair. I say phoenix because after he quit chemo his hair was about the only thing rising from the ashes.

Or maybe it’s the glow of the Sterno under Dad’s chin; the way the light caught his eyesockets like all those childhood flashlight stories about child murderers who targeted kids who kept their dad up all night by farting in the tent and then laughing when he told them to cut it out.

The tent went up in pieces and then not at all. Dad took two breaks while I pored over the instructions (“just need a breather”), and each time his hand froze mid-grab for a pack of smokes he wasn’t allowed to have: an emaciated cowboy getting ready to draw.

Or maybe it’s the way the turkey burgers oozed through the griddle to sizzle on the flame, beef like so many other things off limits. And how Dad forked out charred chunks of it and piled it onto a bun. Drew and I tried for solidarity but only got like two bites in before relinquishing it to a pack of hungry squirrels.

We had this thing where Drew, Mom, and I would gather firewood while Dad chopped. After Mom died, Drew and I would grab double our usual haul, gnarled sticks and kindling spilling from our arms and leaving a wooden trail. Dad showed us the angle necessary to cleave the wood at max efficiency, citing old boy scout lessons. He could only get halfway through the first log before he had to stop this time. Drew waved me off when I tried to take the hatchet.

Or when we finished our s’mores, my marshmallows of the barely-touched golden variety and Drew’s and Dad’s blackened beyond recognition. When Dad went to shut off the Sterno, how it fell from his shaking hands and tumbled, down a hill and into a ravine, still lit, pilot light streaking flame onto errant branches, the only word Dad knew then being “fuck.” How I remembered that only you can prevent forest fires.

Or maybe it’s how I slipped my concern in while the three of us peed on trees: Dad a captive audience, me insisting the clinical trials looked promising. That it wasn’t like it was when Mom passed. And the way he looked at me after he zipped up, like we’d just met and I’d insulted his mother. Eyes trailing over the burned-out hole where the Sterno was, after the rain drowned out the fire. The way he said he couldn’t waste away like her, his voice calm and quiet as if he were coaxing me to sleep.

Or Drew and I playing War with our old childhood deck. One of the Jokers in there with “oker” sharpied out to stand in for a Jack long since lost. Eating scrambled eggs with our hands out of plastic cups notched for alcohol: mine a shot and his a full cup. Me amassing a pile of Drew’s cards and Drew watching the way the cardinals dip in and out of view, under pine boughs and into the light of the morning. How Drew said he gives up. How I said he couldn’t, that we’d see the game through to the end.

Or even the damn fishing. Dad going bobberless because he wants to “feel it,” me using one and reminding Drew of the time we discovered that Poké Balls were just a ripoff of these things. How we used to turn every caught fish into a Goldeen, or a Gyarados if we were lucky. How Dad would sit for hours, his only sustenance watching the pull of his line across the water. And the way I kept asking Dad if we were through, with “just a minute” as his go-to for the next hour. Me swiping through my feed so I didn’t have to see him hunched over on a rock, chest caving in on itself. How Drew kept casting out with him.

Or his smile when he brought the sturgeon to shore, like his composite parts had been scattered and only this fish could return them, could put them back together again.

Or the way he goaded me to get in the frame for a pic outside the bait shop. How we all needed to get a hand under it. To feel the weight of this thing together. How it’d make a great shot.

And me flanking Dad, with Drew on the other side, wondering all the time if I should laugh, or cry, or just say cheese.

button

Whirling in a Bottle

With your hand above water, the bottle’s a spaceship leaving home with a crew of sand grain people who climbed aboard when the lip scraped bottom.

When I open my eyes underwater I see only the shadow of you, like the you is implied somewhere else I can’t see.

The stars are flashlights held by impossibly faraway children, shaking when they laugh.

We swim like porpoises but maybe not so graceful.

The water sloshing in our spaceship doesn’t look the same as the lake at night from satellite view.

When they drain your lungs for the first time it won’t look the same in the IV bag as it does from the probe’s camera where we can see the polyp growing larger by the day even though you’ve never smoked.

I’ll take you out where water meets sand so you can watch your feet melt to stumps, errant grains of sand sticking to the cool sickles of your calves.

When you pick them off, your painted nails will be rubies that don’t last.

It’ll be a time so innocent I’ll think your cough is the beginning of a summer cold.

If we look carefully at the screen, those cells are just another harmless part of you.

Grains of sand whirling in a bottle.

We’ll be in a room way up high, a room with a satellite view of the lake.

The little lights of your machines will be stars dancing in impossibly distant, impossibly tiny hands.

There’s something to be said for seeing the way the waves break and chasing after them anyway.

For holding your breath underwater, legs kicking.

For dumping bottled sand out neatly on the shore when we get back.

And the way the tide takes it out.

Out.

Way out.

Farther than we can see.

button

Something High and Flying

Where we’ve pedaled to there’s salt leaving dried white trails on the canyons of the earth and of our skin. The night sky is a womb or a room, it’s hard to hear you over the ripping of the wind. It could be either. It could be both. One of my soles is split. It collects canyon dirt and my foot turns it into canyon mud. Our tinkering shadows look like mechanical bugs over the heap of our bicycles. There is dirt on my face and your face and we kiss over our open packs.

Life can be different things growing for different reasons. We snuff out one growth to support another. Your womb and your breast are my examples. So we pedal to places we’ve never seen before, do things we’ve never done.

I don’t want this to be a cancer story so much as a growth story.

You trace for me an 8 in the dust, but I want it to be something else, so I turn my head sideways. Questioning the artist’s intent. And all that. In the sky there is a shooting star or a satellite or a UFO. Something high and flying. You trace its trajectory in the dirt and I try to keep up with a line of my own but the wind blows it out and leaves yours.

I have magnesium for the fire but you say if our ancestors didn’t need magnesium then you don’t either. I can’t smile so I say you’re a pain in the ass and you get it. The blisters on your hands are pillows for tiny people. The fire makes the branches fall into each other like they’re drunk. I lift your shirt so the half-moon of your belly’s lit and you sketch the way your veins must look to our child, like lightning spun by a spider.

The marshmallows I’ve stuck become spacecraft burning up in reentry. I blow yours out before brown turns to black but mine I let burn for a while. Mine I let char. You tell me it’s ready, time to put it out, but I let it burn. You try to take my stick with your dirty hand but I grab it, kiss it till the canyon dirt sticks to my lips in spots you say look like negative stars. I let it burn till coagulated marshmallow goo spreads down the stick and hardens in the breeze.

When it’s time to sleep I ask if you want the fire out.

You’ll stay up, you say. You’ll put it out when it’s time.

button

Big Old Bald-Headed Momma’s Circus

Big Old Bald-Headed Momma’s Circus was what it’d be called. Lula could change the name when she came of age, but then Lula could keep it the same too, was BOB-HM’s line of thinking. BOB-HM was first M, then BOM when her thyroid died and she put on pounds. A thyroid was a thingy in your throat, sweet pea. The cancer made her BOB-HM, and the acronyms would stop there.

Here:

They cut open the teddy bears not fit for the circus and excised some samples and BOB-HM dyed the stuffing orange and glued it to her head because that’s what the ringmaster’s supposed to do. Lula had a tutu, and that was fine, and blankets were stitched together: comforter, baby, quilt, then carpet, bath mat, shower curtain, old long johns, socks, every fabric they could find for the Big Top.

When BOB-HM’s Henry/Lula’s Dad left he left the ladders, and the scaffolding, and the funny thing that could change the lightbulbs that were so high up. Lula thought Henry/Dad might need these things, but BOB-HM propped the tent up with them anyway. BOB-HM could be so mean sometimes.

For the floor they tore off shingles and threw them to the trampoline that was meant for the monkeys. The monkeys would be trained squirrels, sweet pea. Beside their house was a grand esplanade and beside the esplanade was sea that went way out, to all lands known and unknown. That’s where their customers would come from, in great big ships, so numerous they could be stars in negative space. The ships would be oared to shore and all the men would have stovepipe hats and moustaches and the women would have dresses that glowed even in the night. They’d be led by horse and buggy to the Big Top, real fancy. The horses would be shelter dogs and the buggies would be radio flyers, sweet pea. The mayor would come and everything.

When BOB-HM coughed up blood she had to climb a ladder to the Big Top to wipe her mouth because they stitched their towels into the tent. BOB-HM would turn the blood into water that fountained from the flower on her shoulder and Lula would laugh till snot came out. Lula would have to climb a ladder for that, too.

When the nights stretched their legs and the willows dropped their fronds onto the esplanade, Lula would collect them in great big piles and BOB-HM would wheel over in her clown car (not a wheelchair, sweet pea). The fronds became confetti, streamers, tickets. Anything but fronds.

BOB-HM perfected an animal whisperer whistle, because that’s what the ringmaster’s supposed to do. I wish you could’ve seen it. Bunnies crashing in like waves on the esplanade. Squirrels as numerous as ants. An avalanche of doves, finches, geese. Bears ambling out of the woods on their hind legs, waving both paws the whole walk over. It was quite the whistle.

BOB-HM had to rest so much because that’s what cancer made you do, so Lula held rehearsals. The birds thought they were better than the squirrels. The squirrels demanded more nuts. The bears wanted to eat all the bunnies. Lula set them all straight. The bears learned to dance. The squirrels perfected a juggling routine. The birds sang gloriously.

The night of the show, Lula gave a ringmaster’s whistle. Real loud and clear. She listened to its echoes carry through the woods, out to sea, the willow fronds billowing all the time. BOB-HM would’ve been proud.

Monkeys came–real ones, and elephants, and tigers, and ships gathered on the shore like grains of sand. The moustachioed men escorted their glowing dates, filing out in the thousands to see the show, under the bright red-and-white Big Top, the finest equines to lead them by gilded carriage, past the rows of elephants harmonizing with their trunks, the monkeys atop them waving and smiling big, toothy monkey smiles, past the bears tossing real confetti from the tops of trees, the birds dragging a triumphant banner–the triumphant banner, slicing the bright blue sky with it, the words in big bold letters that everyone everywhere could read:

“Welcome to Big Old Bald-Headed Momma’s Circus!”

So come one, come all, and enjoy the magic that life has to offer here, under the Big Top, at the show to end all shows. You won’t want to miss this one.

button