A clearing. A thousand mountains between me and there. No plan to day except foot in front of the other. Touch tail to leaves pass over and turn them. Leave a little trail always the shell. Always walk well. Slow. And intention. Clawed toes and hooked mouth and eagle’s eyes and rock skin.
Twenty year start to stop dead tree fallen mountain. Hook a flake of bark with a flick of keratin, lift the legs that carry home with them. A hiding place we leave behind. A safe space grown out hollow plates to part my spine. Foundation. Inside and outside and left behind eggs in the ground. Our first experience of shell. Of home. Of womb. Of a room. For only one’s self. Not a thing a being easily leaves behind.
Dropping unconquerable height behind me like scat. To be sure, by the moment they know where you are, you are no longer. To the clearing. Nine hundred and ninety nine mountains between me and there. Eternal. Seek every day to extinguish the flame of the day, and pray, a new spark arises in your eyes tomorrow. This is how you train your soul to do the same. And I am but a singular hard shell heart living between two miles in an accidental forest. Learn eternal same as a dream in sleep. All that is required is to lay down and keep your eyes closed a minute. Not an easy endeavor. With a clearing nearing. Just up ahead. And I, am supposed, to lie, down exposed, eyes closed, in order, to move further, than otherwise, even if, I had kept, walking.
Is that enlightenment, clearing, parting in the mist, clarity in unknowing, shelter with legs to carry it? The measurement of what you give up to get up. A recipe of all the things you never want to eat that still goes in to every meal. The roots beneath feet. Bumped up into mountainous obstacles before me. Walking slow. Burdened by home. Just how much of it I could manage to carry. A full day yet from the clearing. And when I reach you, God, I will be a full day yet from where I started.
Hunter – Short Story Excerpt #2 (not sequential)
“What was Korea like?”
“The people were great. Where we were, far outside combat range in a little town with a little population of some of the sweetest folks I have ever come across. Honest.”
“Not that I distrust you, I really like that detail, but what was it that made them so nice?”
“Oh, everything. These little girls would carry up sacks of food from their carts, mostly to get us to consider following them back and buying more, but still very polite and free. And if I ever needed to supplement rations I knew where to look. Although I hardly ever had to. The Army handles herself pretty well.” I made a note that his service was in the Army, in case I had not caught it already, and continued writing words as his jolly face continued spilling them. I noticed smooth rows of coffee-stained tan teeth shining and straight, a mouthful, framed by rose shaded cheeks and nose, and wide soft pillows like hammocks hung below round, old gray eyes. “Like I said, we had absolutely no contact, ever, with any enemy, and I suppose the town folk held us responsible, keeping ourselves safe really, but with them lumped in. Most anyone would be polite.”
“True. Did the fighting ever affect your post though?”
“Oh sure, of course, flows of shipments, what we needed and what would have to be obtained on our own, constant casualties and wounded persons, American and Korean alike, young and old. We knew when some serious stuff had gone down anywhere in the country. We counted the losses.” I thought to myself, there are not going to be any lighter, more pleasant takes on this article. Even where guns were not going off daily, the tragedy and devastation of war touched everyone close. I felt in my gut that something I had desired to be simple, a relief, could pluck a string of sadness too, guilt, even in small doses, for having thought Jerry unscathed by death. “There is not a way to avoid it under such circumstances. Just make the best. That was my job in so many words, to make the best of war. Without food, medicine, equipment, there would be no life to speak of before you died, or waiting, some food cooking or a made out bed afterward. I see something in your eyes. Hunter, you want to ask me something?”
“Was it similar in both countries?”
“Excuse me?” Jerry asked.
“Vietnam compared to your post in Korea.”
“It was, matter of fact, quite different, for different reasons than you’d suspect. And mostly the people were different. The way they looked at us, General Infantry, still with wide eyes, expectant, eager, but more obviously to make that buck. Or whatever it was they were after. I don’t know if you want me to go too deep into that.”
“Now we’re getting into some movie quality details.” He laughed before he spoke.
“Right. Fishing is paying off I suppose. That’s what those girls were doing, fishing for the few of us guys who would go along with it. Only it was sex they were after. Didn’t share a word to tell a story by, but a mouth, I’ll tell you.” At this I laughed out loud, and lowered my forehead to a mildly embarrassed tilt, turning eyes away from his round gray stare. “Well, like my wife Eve says, I have gone too far. But I have to tell you, the marijuana they had in Vietnam was fine.”
“Really, did you use it frequently?”
“You recording this? I’m not been caught or anything have I?”
“No sir, I just mean, was it a memorable part of your time there?”
“I’m a kidder guy, don’t you know? It was just there. Thought I’d mention it. What I remember most on that island were the children, everywhere. In states we were ashamed to acknowledge, dirty, hurt or sick some of them. And knowing where the parents most likely were. Fighting us or dead by us. So much American fire fell from the sky over there, before we came and after we left, if you can make sense of that.” I released a tone that communicated I was listening, and reacted appropriately to a violent detail. “Want to know something? Over there, they call it The American War. And I agree, not that it was wrong, bad or good and right, but those people would have fought anyone who came by after the French. Christ himself would have been greeted with hand grenades and mortar fire.” I hummed. “Left you speechless guy.”
“No, I was just recording your expression. I liked it.”
“I didn’t. It was a God awful, downright frightening place. Leaves my skin bumpy just to think on it.”
Hunter – Short Story Excerpt #1
An older man is led into the room in front of a stern faced nurse who had scolded me earlier. I am polite, greeting and speaking casually with him, not scribbling the pen or ignoring him. Just know I am acting and conversing normally, writing down as much as I can while we go along, and catching you up as opportunities arise. He is well dressed, as most of these guys typically are, ruffled and flustered in the mind but with shirts tucked neat, creased by sober black suspenders and silver copper clips, hair combed and hand flipped from one side completely to the next, like it only grew long on one half. His face was plump, red cheeks and bright, reactive expression. All indicative of good health and some time yet until the end, especially the plumpness. Holding weight, as stigmatized as culture tries to make it seem, is a good sign of healthy appetite and cognizance, a machine still in need of fuel and capable of consuming. He is polite, southern, warning me he will not have as long to talk due to schedule mishaps, meaning my tardiness, and wants to know what my specific intentions are with the piece. I will write dialogue as it occurs and seems useful. Some will be omitted.
“What are you hoping to accomplish? Just a pile of fluff?”
“That depends,” I say and pause before continuing, speaking through a smile, “on what you give me to work with.” My expression is weakly reciprocated without any added humor.
“Well, sometimes fluff is good.”
“Yes, fluff can be enough.”
“Oh,” he said with the most excitement yet. “Poetry.” I nodded. “Write poetry?” Before I could answer he continued. “Much, cause you should.” He hummed and leaned back. “A good poem.”
I asked him in that moment if he had ever written poetry. He said no, that he loved to read the stuff, said a few last names I did not recognize, but producing verse was not for him. He was not artistic. I asked him to state his full name with rank and branch of service.
“I stayed a seaman in the Naval forces during World War Two, and my name is Walter. Walter Ralph Bailey.”
“What year did you enlist?”
“So that makes you eighty years-” I began, and Walter finished.
“Eighty five, and I don’t mind you asking. Its damn close to being a hell of a century and I intend on getting there.” I looked at his face, smiling largely compared to his measured, mild greeting. I could see every year. Most of the passing days that had worn him down etched lines into loose skin, fallen over into wrinkles juxtaposed by pristine, pressed, probably even a little starched shirt and jacket, clean pleated pants ironed, classy white sneakers immaculately laced. I tried to imagine him young, a little straighter, dressed in a uniform, moving actively according to orders on some island-sized vessel roaring with planes taking off or landing, internally churning engines pounding, perhaps the continuous surge and deep gurgle of choppy water, salt and moisture carried in the air to smell, taste, stinging his young, open blue eyes. “Almost never got going. I was sixteen when I signed up, volunteered in brash like most others, to have Germans or whoever else it pleased shoot at us. There were loopholes for that sort of thing then.”
“To get you into the service younger than eighteen. Keep up reporter.”
“You can call me Hunter.”
“For a good reporter, that’s the same thing.”
Quick Responsive Regrowth
by Jeremy Trent Homesley
Why am I even writing about this man? He is just sitting on the couch, unmoved, pointing his plastic controller at a glowing box. A real window is illuminated behind his head, from particles of light crashing burning waves. Each dot of energy, of radiation, has flooded existence for over a hundred thousand years. Why not stare there and leave this couch dwelling, screen watching, captive twenty-three year old alone? Common sunlight inspires more interest and development than this planted, want-to-be farmer.
Common sunlight. I can not write such a pointless phrase in a careless argument lightly. Why the impulse to consider what appears in mass, altogether enlightening, common? I do not know. The yellow pouring in broken by a window’s ribs and painted spine, hinged frame and copper lock, falls consistently, steady, more predictable than rain. But an aesthetically pleasing spider plant near the window changes that common sunlight into sugar. Feasts on it, nourishing curled, trapped roots. Outside the dull character’s window, a forest is feeding on the same substance that burns his skin and keeps him hidden inside. Sunlight takes on forms of all kinds: branch burdened trees explosive in the sky, down into dirt with root tangled darkness, interwoven with the foundations of ferns dining on breezes, tough white carrots under Queen Anne’s Lace thick in rows beside endless tracts of Canada Thistle. And of course, persistent colonies of tall, amber grass.
All sunlight. Aglow in a realm our bored subject had never been given a controller for. Not like the hypnotic scene possessing his attention, which came standard with a wand of remote control. Omnipotentish power by pressing a button. The other realm had the tendency to cause the character to sweat, smell, even turn red in burnt flesh shed in a week like a snake.
The tools of power in the world of light are shovels, garden hoes, rakes, equipment that completes a job only after teaching the worker just what sort of tool the human body is. These tools are wisdom. Teaching technology is no longer advancement when its growth happens in place of our own. They are not self-serving. Not the parasitism of depending on a complex machine to replace walking, or digging, gripping. The least inspiring mechanism in this story is the only one who would read these words, believe enough in black ink and stacked shapes to follow each line like a path. This man alone may be uninspiring. But he is our destination. And each literary step falls like destiny beneath his distracted vision. Not knowing all of his components, the shaped symbolism in his being, he sits, watches, a vehicle of high speed consciousness who prefers to be parked in a paved lot.
His tools are collecting dust. Some stacked leaning in a barrel, with various sharp-toothed and flat-edged iron heads sunk on grooved wooden handles. Several shovels. A tomato hoe leaned neatly against the side of the house under an overhang. Left scattered, each set in place at the end of some chore, forgotten. The couch denter seldom goes out to work through his garden anymore, afraid to tour rows of unplanted, unintended. The continuous lesson that a farmer’s favoritism will be exploited by a world of other plants, whose champion is grass. The dull character’s mind thought grass was the worst. Tougher and more difficult to cut, thicker and much more stubborn about being removed. For a while he beat the earth, tearing clumps of explosive green, only ever managing to cut out a half foot section or so, always leaving several feet of grass behind. There had been a few thirsting tomato plants, let go along with the garden, cut from trellising wood spines and yarn and fallen, still throwing up green thumbs that will never bear fruit again. I mean, why walk out to witness the corruption of all this effort?
At this point, I will share his name. Michael. And I swear he has not moved off the couch. The exact spot. Back facing an open window. Stared at that empty box closed off by a reflective screen, not to filter out anything, more intended to retain. Secrets. The fact that reality is at your back pushing a breathy breeze. And this box contains only facsimile. Michael is by himself. He has a cat he calls Emjay, named after Marijuana. He is alone, has been for a short while, with an eroding engagement accounting for most of the weight anchoring him to his divot in the couch. Her name is not particularly vital to this story, but not inaccessible. It is a name shared by hundreds of women, girls who appeal to a boy like Michael. Less like an authentic individual female, more like some imaginary stereotype of Venus. He had glimpsed her planetary shape reflecting shimmers from far away, a closer figure to his orbit than most others, with thick and impenetrable clouds, which Michael painted paradise beneath, hidden below pink-tinged tufts was a terra of jagged mountains and rolling green, full colonies of alien trees and plant life, imaginary fauna in never before seen colors. It seemed plausible, after all, Venus was three quarters his size, had an atmosphere about her, and similar conditions very likely could be contained within. So after two years here sits our character, burnt, lonely. Learned in short time that the glow of Venus, like the moon, is altogether reflection. Her clouds are acid, bursting in lightning-cut storms. Concealed from probing eyes is a landscape of active volcanoes, yellow-traced vents spouting poison, valleys cut by vast rivers of lava. His ex was far off again. A relatively nearby yet distant mistake. And he thought it had broken his heart. Michael thought because he could not know, and intent on never learning why he was hurting, he refused to turn off the television shows.
Their meeting and splitting had been like two orbits temporarily caught up, making them appear to slow to a stop, until that sudden confusing retrograde and her gone. Michael allowed it to keep him seated. There was work to be done, always, he just wasn’t up for it. Even if a chore was searched out, no energy for the labor could be found lingering in the deep empty orbit that harbored him. The media kept coming like endless streams of day following day, sun frowns and stars smiling. So many pass him by it is harder to count them with numbers than by blades of grass. The sun and rain had pulled up more in the recent weeks, coming out of an extended period of dry arid days. Patches of sand and exposed clayish soil, sporadic throughout the yard that surrounded Michael’s house, expanded in these dry periods, so that when it rained water carried dirt easily, leaving tapered trails of heavier grains like sand. Once rain grew steady, grass quit receding and set about the task of recording sunfall, tallied away in fat arched blades and cat-tailed whips, random, thin-streaming clumps of blue-green thick enough to choke out a push mower. More so than by a clock, summertime was being measured in Michael’s yard, and in others, by the weeds. Seeds planted by his hand in softened ground, pulverized by his tools, mostly recorded a summer of extremes. Constant complaints submitted about too much sun, and not enough rain.
But those wild, unplanted bursts of grass and green stalks topped with flat bouquets of wilted flowers bore no complaint, soaking up the too much sun, and quenching thirst on too little water. Michael had been working in the garden, carrying filthy, brown, soapy liquid in sloshing buckets, and angrily attacking unwanted growth with the dull metal edge of a hoe. He adamantly did not want to buy food. He wanted this thirsty patch of ground to yield, but Venus was the one who made the money, and the plans. Michael kept the hunger, with his hope buried in hungry land. It belonged to his mother. A portion of her inheritance she had not found desirable, including the emptied house her parents had built there, full of dust-covered memories from her childhood. Parents canning constantly throughout summer, birds hatched beneath her eyes having grown throats slit. None of it had been her choice, so none of it was chosen. Whereas Michael discovered the house and land abandoned, devoid even of a single mature memory involving the people who had lived there. His grandparents had been quiet, polite, for the most part. They died when Michael was only seven.
The house was on the left side of a dead end road, surrounded by several acres of woodlot owned by Michael’s mother. Neighbors lined the other side in pristine cut, manicured lawns, isolated patches of foreign plants and flowers, and figurines mostly in the shapes of animals that would be considered pests and eradicated if not concrete. One particular neighbor had a decorative windmill flaccidly turning in the center of a ring of unfamiliar, cactus-like plants. That neighbor, Michael had never met, but his mother recalled him from her childhood. She warned that he had been an incorrigible grouch then. He had altogether avoided these neighbors for many reasons, most of all, fear of explaining that the woman living with him was not yet his wife. Just fiancé, engaged to be married on an undetermined date. This had been the home of his grandparents, and mother. These people had been their neighbors also, and he was afraid to be judged just shy of measuring up. It could be seen in their yards, their expectations. Expectations Michael’s own grandfather had probably helped set, with a precedent of kempt, controlled lawns and intentionally shaped bushes, property lines and hedges traced by single file daffodils, uprising messy patches of rebellion after so many summers ignored.
The riding lawn mower, dusted from years in the basement, roared right back to life, not easily, but rolling and cutting none the less, chugging nervously slow mowing the thickest places. It was a loud, splatty mechanism Michael cried begging to operate as a child, same as he pleaded to shoot the old single shot twenty-twos and twelve gauge. The experience was explosive and thrilling. The feeling was power over power. Squeezing slippery triggers or grinding gears under levers topped with repurposed golf balls. No part of the powder or hammer was controlled by the child, neither was the ancient processed fuel clogged lines or black-crusted unknown engine parts. None of it was truly owned by Michael’s gripped, shaken hands. And the revelation came when purchasing the fuel or replacement parts or for labor, the shells and bullets a child could never make. Paying that cost deflated the thrill, reminded him of the bruise on his shoulder. Michael found himself phenomenally bored mowing the yard, doing no more than considering the heightened cost of each repeated lap, and the quick responsive regrowth of each cut blade of grass.
The cord snapped twice, and after the second time, the engine never quite turned all the way over again. It cost roughly twenty-five dollars each time for a new coiled pullcord, and Michael knew engine work and endless part replacements would entail costs that finally struck the death blow to the magic of the mower. He was bored with the job, aware of the cost, tired of this unending task. What a dull, lame chore. To cut flat what was tall and colorful, only to feed its rampant growth, back in a week, thicker, taller, that much slower and duller to mow. Anywhere Michael walked often enough formed a natural path beneath his feet, and he could reinforce it in five minutes with a sling blade. Cutting grass was not bad, or a nuisance, just dull, and to him, not very useful.
The tallest grass he knew grew throughout summer in rows, full of excitement and perked up ears. Michael labored for this grass as if he could taste it. It was selected, protected, put at risk through favor like an eager student, treated as an example for the teacher’s whim, to show that raised heads can be leveled too, sometimes first. Corn, brown and crunching in fringes along leaves, burned easy, slouched low in the thirsty days of short drought. The elegant blonde hairs scraggled soon after sprouting, trimmed in messy clumps by round reflective beetles. This particular breed of grass had been called out, tested by the professor time and time again, after every lesson. Humans touched the plant like a cooking fire, already hungrily eying the boon of its example, held to a harsh standard of predetermined mates like arranged marriages, irresolvable conflicts with pests and disease, given insurance in roaming, genocidal clouds, chemical meals touched by just enough taste to wet a humble appetite. When a nuisance arrived, new to the class, the bully’s eyes fell first the teacher’s pet, and with strong jaws and beating wings, nature always introduces us to a brand new pest.
In a lane Michael had prepared, corn is spaced openly, with feet of bare soil between root sprouting bases of green, and endless masses of short flowering growth of what Michael thought of as weeds. These plants, quiet students seated in the back of the classroom, had never taken a given lesson from the farmer. Instead readily devouring every failure, every flawed trait of our character, and flipping it. These lowered lives witnessed the pain and fate of the chosen, watched inches of soil wash away from each one of the farmer’s mistakes. The sudden death and quick, explosive return of legions of hungry, revenge-seeking insects. Corn was never allowed a tool of its own to fend off the swarm, mixing pollen and thoughts only with other chosen ones, no defense offered them, all the while holding out these wildly massive, yellow ears. No weapon. A simple calling out on the world, beckoning to be consumed. Regular grass, shorter and without even an inch between blades, left no space untangled by buried webs of roots. Gave no quarter. No foothold. The sharp lesson of spinning blades and chugging motors are answered by a prank. Weeds make fools of workers, looking slowly over a military buzz cut, a flattened, controlled patch, conquered, kneeled, a world that can be held under a heel. Take the good feeling home, smile it over steaming plates, and brag about it to the kids. Outside, in the yard, pranksters drink deep the pain of your labor, burn it in bowls and inhale, and laugh, learning, growing. In a week there you will be again, groaning, unintentionally suffering to reteach grass their own vital lessons of rebellion.
Michael had given into a bored, anxious feeling twisting his gut at every passing hour and repetitious television show. A short bout of work in the garden was his solution. The rows of corn had already given quite a few ears to him and his freezer, and without much purpose, he resolved to level the row bare, taking down brown stalks with a sling blade. It was easy. The plants were mostly dead, spaced wide apart and weak. The character stood with both hands stacked on top of a handle of worn wood, looking over what had been a sparse green wall about five feet tall, fallen, covering the ground. Michael thought about the purpose of what he had done, and rediscovered the same anxiety he hoped to leave behind dented in the couch. Another attempt still twirling smoke up from the coffee table. The job was inessential. Michael felt inessential. None of this mattered. He had worked calluses thick on his palms to get the corn this tall, helping squash plants resist simple swarms of powder-gray insects he called stink bugs, and yet the plants he competed with boomed, bloomed with excited growth, beside rows of his slouching crops.
Corn is a grass. How could everything be so well and huge, unencumbered by beetles and fat green worms, until he attempted to grow it? Michael swore he could try to farm dandelions and probably fail, just because he tried. Who is responsible for all these other plants he wondered, and when clear-cut land was let go, what hand replanted the pines and buried the cap-wearing acorns of oaks. Who saw to them growing tall, crooked, trellised into sunlight? Who poisoned each leaf against pests? Each flake and grain of seed placed perfectly by curled fingers, gingerly, having studied the packet where it read quarter or half inch depth, was covered over to within the millimeter, not a rock or clay clump close by. After a week the lines where seeds had gone were bare, empty, other than countless peeking eyes of clovers and sparse, stringy green hairs of wild onions. Nothing of the tender weak seed bought and planted. It could not have been right, Michael thought. The soil must be infertile. Or the weather, a prophetic forecast hidden within the canonical pages of a farmer’s almanac, mistyped, or the seed, maybe it was cheap, sure, but it came in an envelope marked guaranteed. Guaranteed. On his hands and knees staring, trying to discover if the broccoli he planted recently had come up, and Michael could not tell, but none had. The guaranteed reluctant to sprout, surrounded after a couple days by eager, wild plants that persisted throughout every harsh condition, without help, and still achieved respectable results. It was not just me, Michael thought, what have all of us been doing wrong?
A muffled song played loudly from Michael’s phone somewhere inside the house. He exhaled, slouched, and turned. He missed the call but recognized the number, first on a long list of missed calls, absent a name. They had not spoken in a week, and lastly agreed conversations should cease until the arguing stopped. It seemed to Michael both of them had fallen too quickly into the idea of one another. The way a person who enjoys cut flowers might construct a greenhouse, learning just after filling it with plants that all these pretty clean flowers grow out of dirt. The smell of the rose remains, soft folds and textures like flesh. It’s the fingers holding stems and red lips close enough to kiss that have dirt beneath the nails, calluses worn like thimbles, stealing sensation out of fingertips and rough-hewn palms chipped, cracking, dirt caked in the lines. Who knew there would be so much digging for flowers. There were benefits of course, it was, after all, labor tainted by results, but good results can still be resented, still rooted to the cost. At that point, Michael deduced, it was either worth it or wasn’t. The phone pressed tightly to his ear rang, broken by quiet, and waiting, and her voice sounded polite, gentle, contained no energy. He felt spoken to like a stranger. Loved no longer.
“Hey.” Michael waited. “Need something?”
“Not really. How are things at the house?”
“Uh huh.” Michael rolled both eyes up and gently back into his head, and said nothing.
“Cut the grass?”
“Yep.” She paused a moment before speaking.
“No. Sorry, I was thinking of corn.”
“What does that have to do with grass?”
“Nothing. I just cut down some of the old corn.”
“Okay. Well you should mow the yard. It would look good.” Michael stared out an open window as he spoke. His fist pressed the phone against a tilted head, watching the low lying clusters of white dotting the ground with living bouquets of tiny yellow-centered flowers, pushed by a breeze. The tallest tree, closest to the window, was a tulip tree, a poplar, raining yellow petals in an ever-growing layer on the ground. He hummed into the phone. “Any luck finding a job?”
“No. Haven’t really been looking, just farming.” She laughed into the phone and caught herself only after the first breath.
“But you don’t sell anything, or have the right equipment to even consider a table at the farmer’s market.”
“Exactly. I’m trying to feed myself, no one else.”
“And how exactly do you grow money to pay the power bill? I know you haven’t turned off that television.” All the loosest petals had fallen. The sturdy, healthier ones still clung in tiny, upturned cups with chipped yellow edges. The fallen, those submitted easily to gravity, colored the entire area around the tulip tree like yellow carpet.
“I don’t. You’re right. I’ve done nothing but watch television. Mom is helping me keep up with the power bill for a while.”
“Well, I didn’t need to know that, but thanks for the confession.”
“That’s about right. What is it that makes people ask questions, I mean, openly ask, and deny asking for something when they get an answer?”
“I didn’t ask for anything, damn Michael.”
“I’m not angry, it’s not just you, but you did quite literally ask me something.”
“Right, not for anything.”
“And yet that is what you get. You set out to mend one little thing, accomplish some puny task, and end up leveling everything.”
“All I did was ask about money?”
“And deny my answer. Let me explain this to you, just because.”
“You asked me with a tone, in a way meant to tease, prod me I suppose, in a direction, but not for my betterment.”
“No, to feel better about leaving me here. You’re not the kind of girl that gets her hands dirty and quits, right? So this is how you feel better about doing that. Fucking someone over and not even telling him why. That is who you are.”
“What makes you so sure I only asked about money-“
“To make myself feel better? Wouldn’t it accomplish both, help you along and let me know you’re taken care of.” Michael hummed again into the phone. It was a familiar sound. She let it go.
“I want to explain why that is wrong. I think I have it. You give charity and feel good, and I live a while, and then you don’t feel good about it anymore, and that charity goes away.”
“Is everyone who cares for you supposed to pay your way, and if we do it once we owe you for a lifetime?”
“I was being more abstract than that. You wanted to work, I mean you actually said you would not be happy if you weren’t making money, and your job was close enough for me to stay home and farm. Sustainable agriculture was my major, you used to like that. Why all the sudden pretend I believe you owe me, or expected something from you that you didn’t originally offer, a living situation that we both agreed on, that you insisted on?”
“I guess it sounded like you were demanding help, or saying I was wrong for being concerned, just to feel better.”
“Right, the standard thing. I am wanting to talk about something I really believe but actually I’m attacking you. If your intention was to help, there is no way you would have responded to my answer the way you did.” This time she hummed, and Michael was too into the conversation to notice. He had been alone around the house for over a week. “I am not angry, I swear, just call your intentions what they are. You’re allowed to feel better, if not, what am I doing watching television constantly. I don’t pretend to really be writing a novel or groundbreaking essay on corn cultivation in the Southeast. I just sit, stare, measure time in twenty minute shows and three minute commercial breaks.”
“I really want you to be okay.”
“Hear it the way I do, ‘I really want’. Be aware of the subject of your concern.”
“Is this fighting?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“But it is like we could be fighting, the same words and ideas back and forth, but instead of beaming one another with each word there’s give and take.”
“I have to be honest, what have I been given?”
“There it is again, your expectation.”
“Expectation? I asked a question. You have no answer and are already arguing I must expect something. If I am incorrect, respond to my concern before attacking.”
“You receive the knowledge that I still wonder if you’re all right. You have everything I paid for.”
“Is that not a beam?”
“It is possible to think you’ve given everything to someone and have actually given them nothing, like spoiling children. No one forces a parent to keep buying stuff, and it does not at any point add up to love, or respect.”
“So you don’t respect me?”
“This really can’t go on. It appears I have expected something in you I never should have. It is very much my fault.”
“Right, I can’t imagine what expectation I didn’t fulfill, but it’s okay. It was both our faults. For the most part.” Michael hung up the phone, probably coming off as pissed, but truly, he was regretful and hurt. He ended a conversation to preserve himself. She may not have known, but her words burned like rain from clouds of acid, shaken loose in thunderous bursts of lightning that never reach the ground, just traded this way between clouds, blow for blow, word for word, hurt for hurt.
Michael had always prayed that the mysteries hidden below her thick, impenetrable pink weather were purposeful, like his. Where his temper crashed down and touched ground, burned up clouds of smoke, broke down the old and dying to fertilize the strong and living. Trees that inspire fauna, roaming packs of playful wolves, mountains with frozen white caps tearing holes in the sky. He could hurt and scathe, bear teeth over curled buried claw, but there was purpose to his madness, wisdom evolving in those hills, hands raised in worshipful branches, shade and burning bright, rain like clean pure manna falling from the sky, rolling over kneaded land, quenching the thirst of any life willing to stoop to knees and take a drink. But these were not dreams shared by the burnt, explosive nature of this particular planet. Her full, voluptuous clouds poured rain so bitter crops faded away and rotted, planted in molten, acid washed soil, roots boil and pop, sizzle before seeds even crack, and mountains, rock spires upholding malicious, cloud-choked heaven, spat fire from peaks, washed out and scourged pale quivering hope with flowing rivers of melted stone. A baptism not of water, or spirit, but of vast and malignant heat. The scene is only hell when a man finds himself there in search of heaven. When the weight of every expectation is carried heavily strapped to the back like a pack, it makes even the ridges and valleys of paradise a pain to hike. Michael felt responsible. Her nature was nowhere near being beyond redemption, in fact, she was on the brink of it, and leaving him this way may have been a step over the edge. He honestly hoped good things were waiting to catch her.
Michael still felt cut, burnt, helpless and trapped in a place where he needed others. And as he stood and contemplated this, the other reason he had abruptly ended the conversation continued to grow. A strange sound penetrated the front walls of the house, meeting Michael where he stood. It was familiar, yet eerily off, betraying his recognition by coming close, too close. Not a lawnmower in the front yard. The blinds tapped when each panel touched, stacked, collected in a growing thick layer travelling up, revealing the answer to Michael’s concern by pulling on a string. A plastic curtain lifted to a cloud of dust hovered behind a man seated, gyrating on the springy throne of a riding lawnmower, five feet into Michael’s front yard, cutting rows as if it were his own. After Michael hurriedly put on a shirt and shoes, he went outside and shouted. It was an older, shirtless man mowing grass at the other end of his yard. The engine coughed out, and Michael approached the man, who stood slowly from his seat preparing to face the advancing shape.
“What are you doing? This is so disrespectful.”
“Listen here fucker, you’re disrespectful. Your yard is a disgrace. This happens to be the right of way for the road, and I’m cutting it.”
“Excuse me, you think this is a mature way to talk about this?”
“Let me tell you about mature, be a man and cut your yard. Pathetic. I used to cut this for your grandma, shit fucker, what went wrong?”
“What went wrong? What’s wrong with grass?”
“It’s ugly. Looks like shit. Makes the whole neighborhood look bad.”
“Look bad? Did you see the flowers? The amber color?” The man was shorter than Michael, apparent as much in the way his body communicated as marked by his limited stature. His exposed, sweating skin was tanned, stopping at his waist where a tight belt held denim snug to his hips, and ended with the legs of shorts just above bare knees, where tan and sweating picked back up again, down to exposed feet in white plastic thong sandals. The fear oozed like sweat from his face, caught, not aware he was even doing anything questionable, and whether or not the neighbor agreed, he was not about to be taught a lesson by this younger man, known to be lazy just by being home this time of day. Work time. Where the neighbor had spent every day of his entire life at this time, working, and Michael, clearly, did not. It could be seen hanging low in longish brown hair framing an unshaved face, walked boldly out of his house shouting at the man helping cut his yard. And to mention respect, maturity, outright, a man he already deemed unworthy, a boy really, unfit to bear his grandfather’s name, let alone stewardship of his home.
“That’s just queer. It looks like shit and that’s that.”
“I farm and cut the yard for green hay, for chickens and my goat.”
“You farm? Bullshit. I used to farm sixty birds, you don’t farm.”
“Everyone starts somewhere. I have a lot of work to get where my grandpa was.”
“Your grandpa grew a lot of corn. He and I talked all the time. He used to let me go up and pick blackberries under the power lines. I remember watching your mama grow up from just a little gal. I sure as hell don’t know what went wrong.”
“Nothing went wrong. You’re the one trespassing.”
“This is the right of way fucker, for thirty feet on both sides from the center of the road.”
“No. The property line ends on the other side.”
“Look it up. This is the right of way, and I’ll be cutting it until the day I die.” Michael exhaled loudly, obviously, realizing this was a stubborn and painfully ignorant human, who valued control, power and dominance above all else, and right or wrong, would not leave this yard cowered, head stooped, humbled and apologetic. Whatever words, slurred, cursed, and desperate, which could be mustered and spat out with a bit of slobber, sufficed, provided a dense screen of angry rhetoric to conceal a proud, frustrated retreat.
“No. You won’t.”
“Oh, you live in a shitpole. I’m doing you a favor.” Michael’s chin wagged left and right while the sweaty man climbed into his lawnmower’s seat, cranked the tired, wheezing machine and started forward, completing the row and straight line of leveled grass he had paused in. It was too much, completely too perfect, too right, rift with pain and undeniable uniformity. He cried, wept, and sat on the ground in the center of the neighbor’s path, tears streaming down his face. The engine, turning four wheels slowly, spinning a blade rotating quickly, tossing dead severed chunks of wet, mulched grass, headed back in Michael’s direction, closing the short distance between the loud, explosive motor and a seated figure, head tilted slightly toward the steadily approaching machine, braced, prepared to be cut completely, entirely leveled, if necessary. For once this dull, boring character would not move but with purpose, remain, with a productive sensation of defiance, hidden from nothing. Prepared to meet his greatest threat head on.
The angry, fuming neighbor veered his exhaustive mower at the last moment, only a few feet before harming Michael. He was gone up the road to park the mower at his house, and head inside to tell his wife of the lazy, unappreciative boy down the street, wearing long hair and a beard, with no job, and certainly not enough respect. Michael was left seated in the front yard, the tall grass on his right the burnt color of amber, and wild. While the other side sat leveled, cut entirely to within inches of roots, for the very last time.