Sunday, April 23, 2006

Back Stitching...a short story

The past year was one in which I wrote a fair amount, mostly short fiction, some poetry. These days it's hard to imagine continuing that discipline the way I did...the time squeeze I've allowed myself to fall into has really taken me away from a few things that I really really enjoy, most notably writing and some regular physical outlet like tennis, golf, weightlifting...
All that being said, I feel Spring working on me. A good sign... as a friend likes to say, a good sight better than pushing up daisies.
So I'll give Spring a nod by posting a short, short story written last year. It is fiction, but folks close to me may be tempted to think otherwise. They (you) should resist that inclination...insofar as the ways in which they (you) would be wrong would be more significant probably than the ways in which they (you) might be right.
I've only barely shopped this story around, with no success, so it seems this blog might be a good place for it live for awhile... enough prologue.

note: click on image for a larger view.

Back Stitching
a short story
by Kevin Cahill

It begins with a rending. A million different circumstances can masquerade as the cause, but really they are all of two kinds. One is born of violence, the other of fatigue. A sharp knife-like edge bears in from the outside directed by chance or by intent. It tears into the flesh or fabric of life and leaves a gaping wound. Or. A movement so familiar, so often repeated, that it barely registers any longer as a conscious act and then suddenly the shockingly mundane failure to cohere, to hold together…but again the gaping wound. Were it not for such openings, nothing would find its way into the world.

Out of such a wound I came. No more children. That’s what the doctor told my mother after the death of my twin brother. It was a long time before I began to appreciate how much work I had to do. To repair what I had done by merely being born. To stitch back together what I had torn. Looking back I sometimes feel as though I was engaged in that work long before I became aware even of the wound. Even as a toddler it was as if I were being artfully wielded like a needle and thread by some cosmic seamstress to backstitch together the lips of that wound, that it might close again without complaint and with hardly a trace. Later, in my age of reason and discernment, I perceived that Life had become threadbare from so much wearing, from all the personal strivings, the marriages, the jobs, the adventures, and the children. It was, I think, the children, our children, my children that prompted the flood of memories, long forgotten. Strange to see them enacted again this time before my eyes. As if I were my own father. As if time’s arrow were really a blanket, folded on itself. Enfolding me in it.

So I undertook to imitate Her handiwork. I took up needle and thread and thimble and began the quiet and methodical work of stitching together the rent folds, the gaping lips. I learned the necessity of piercing that which is serviceable for the sake of that which has lost its utility, of drawing a slender alien thread forward and backward through the tissues of time and thus restoring a million disparate moments into the same warp and woof of life, all of them joined in a mystery of… simultaneity. Yes.

When I was 19 I finally committed to paper a memory that had, it seemed to me, become as permanent a fixture in my mind as the painting on the wall of our living room, the one say of a drawing of the Virgin tacked to a corn stalk in a cornfield along a lonely road in Oaxaca. Beth only just noticed it as we careened around a corner in our old VW. Backing up, we saw it, saw her, part avatar of fertility, part scarecrow, a highway accident waiting to happen. We snapped her from the car window. And now she hangs on the wall of our living room...more real than I remember her.

Just like my childhood memory. It came effortlessly and in perfect detail. A young boy of five exploring the entrails of a ramshackle chicken house at the most distant part of his parents’ lot. The chicken house has been converted to storage for old furniture and the like. Inside the dark and twisted labyrinth the boy loses track of where he is and then scrambles out through an opening in the floor. He crawls a few paces, scuttling under unfamiliar brush and suddenly finds himself on a green lawn. A few feet away he sees a small pond and beside it a boy his own age on his bare knees peering into the water. He gets up and goes to the pond. He kneels beside the boy who seems not to notice him. When he looks down at the pond he sees an enormous gold fish, floating languidly in the still water. The two boys remain thus for a few seconds, and then they see each other’s reflections and smile. My memory ended there, framed on either end by blank space. It was the happiest moment of my boyhood.

I’m reading a magazine on the couch. Tess, my four year old daughter, walks past me. As she does she declares matter-of-factly. “If I die, you have to get a new girl.” She continue past me on her way to her bedroom. I look up at her and can think of nothing to say except, “Alright.” I consider adding something like, “But she won’t be the same girl, not the same as you.” Or. “Why would you die, sweetie?” Instead I stand pat with, “Alright.” Tess looks back at me from the door. She seems satisfied that I have listened. I offer my hand, hoping to draw her to me so that I can hold her, but she wheels and enters her room. Alone again I look at the magazine as if it is a treasure map. I wonder where lay the wellsprings of her words?

Two weeks later I am telling Tess a bedtime story. Colm, who is two, lies nearby in his bed and eavesdrops. It is tale of unicorns, Starlight and Sparkledust, and their half brother Seth. There are dragons, painful separations, tokens of magic, adventures and reunions. It is a long, rambling serial tale that has occupied the better part of a winter season. This night we have begun to recount the previous episode’s ending when our new cat Jasper jumps up on the bed. Tess breaks away from the story to grab Jasper and pull him over to her side. He is a big docile tomcat who seems tolerant of just about any kind of manhandling. Perfect for the kids. About a month ago a friend had offered Jasper to us. She was simplifying her life, getting down from nine pets to one or two. Jasper was a good match, she thought. She was right. He purrs and kneads the comforter. Tess strokes his fur carefully. I lie back and bide my time. I think about tonight’s episode. What crisis will I invent that will send Tess sliding under her sheets in fear, and what surprise will bring her out and remind her of the world’s goodness?

The next morning I wake up. Beside me, between me and my wife, Colm lies asleep on his back, his arm slung out across my chest. Sometime in the night, in the dark, he made the journey alone to this spot. Something is heavy on my feet. It’s Jasper. Gently I nudge him off the edge of the bed. I hear him land on the carpet. It’s strange to have a pet again. Our last pet was an exuberant, knuckleheaded chocolate lab Chesapeake mix named Muddy. We shipped Muddy off to some friends in the country a year ago after the second time she inadvertently knocked Colm down a flight of stairs. It so happened that our other pet, a cat named Zephyr, passed away about a month later. We buried Zephyr in the back yard under one our apple trees. Later that summer we would also bury there, Pesca, the children’s first goldfish. As I lay still half asleep in my bed next to my wife, these facts and impressions paraded rather lazily through my mind when my daughter’s words appeared again. “If I die, you have to get a new girl.” I saw in an instant the ground under the apple tree from which those words had sprouted. I marveled at the length of time they had gestated there, dormant for six seasons until they had burst forth in all their starkly arresting truth. Eighteen long months, nearly half her life, had been stitched together into a synaptic and luminous moment. Then her lips parted as if she were some oracle. It had taken me two weeks to grasp its startling symmetry. Jasper and Zephyr. Life and Death. Tess and a Father’s desire to have his little girl forever.

A few minutes later Tess comes into the room in her underwear, her hair disheveled. She climbs wordlessly into bed next to Beth who has quietly lifted up the blanket to let her in. I can feel the languor settling over all four of us. It is as palpable and as luxurious as a down comforter. Soon we are all going to be asleep together here in the same bed. Even as I drift off, I wonder if I am the last one. I wonder what future incident is already stitched to this moment and being drawn tight, and by what thread, by what hand? Where, I wonder, is Jasper?

When I showed what I had written to my parents they both smiled. Even though I was in college, it seemed very much like a reenactment of me bringing home work from fifth grade. They each read it together. My father reading over my mother’s shoulder, both of them reading slowly so as not to turn pages before the other was finished. They remembered the chicken house. “What a nice story.” said my mother.

I corrected her. “It’s not a story. It really happened. I remember it.” I can see from my mother’s eyes that she has already decided not to say something so I say, “Who was he?”

“The boy behind our house. Who was he?”
“There was no boy on our street,” she said.
“Nor a pond,” my father added.

It was unthinkable to me in that moment that my most companionable memory was a fiction. Part of me privately decided that my mother was lying to me.
The goldfish buried beneath the apple tree in our back yard was named Pesca. He only lived a couple of days. When I was a kid my goldfish was killed when my younger sister poured red KoolAid into the fish bowl. That’s not how Pesca died. I came into the kitchen to find both Tess and Colm gently stroking Pesca’s side as he lay mouth gaping open in the palm of her hand. We put him back in the bowl but he was probably dead before he hit the water. We never got another fish after Pesca. Part of me didn’t want to bury the memory of one fish beneath the remains of so many subsequent others. Not to mention the one that had come decades before.

It's Spring and I'm lying in the hammock in the backyard. Colm is only three months old. The fine hairs on his head tickle my chin as I look up through the pruned branches of our gnarled apple trees. Since we lived in Mexico years ago I've become partial to hammocks. In our previous house we also had one under an apple tree. That tree, though just as old as the one I'm under now, was never pruned. It was a home for birds. It's unruly branches extended far beyond the reach of any ladder. In autumn you had to watch your head; the fruit came down from high above. But in spring it made a dazzling white mottled canopy of blossoms against the blue sky. I remember one day lying there with my guitar on my chest. My eyes were closed. I was close to dozing. I felt a puff of breeze on my cheek and then the faintest tone of the fat E string...I could have easily mistaken the sound for a memory or a pure imagining, but when I opened my eyes I saw a single white blossom lying across the strings. Colm breathes silently, his little chest expanding and contracting in turns. Against the blue sky I see the dark, backlit rough bark of the tree. Sprouting incongruously from this aging and tenacious thing are delicate white blossoms.

Some day perhaps Colm will tell a story about a fish he once had. Perhaps his story will resemble the one I just told you, but experience tells me that I may well not recognize it. I may not have the presence of mind at that age to connect the dots. It’s funny. People say things without realizing they might as well be broadcasting grass seed. Like the doctor who never could have imagined a younger sisiter whose birth would not kill my mother but whose life would ultimately kill my gold fish. Like my daughter whose affection for a cat and intimations of mortality pierce my heart this morning. Like me and my tales of dragons and a little boy whose reflection in the still waters of that fish laden pond must have looked more like me than I did to my own mother.

For awhile, a good long while in fact, it seemed like I couldn’t help but watch Life rush past, draining out of the hole I had left behind me. But lately, I feel a pull. It’s as if I’m being drawn up. Not out of this world exactly, but drawn up next to something, closer.

Succor Creek cont...

A penny for your thoughts, Piper...
Livin' large in their cowboy hats...

If there was a beach and a palapa to the left you might think this was Baja...

... instead of Succor Creek

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Succor Creek in April

The idea was for Beth and Tanya to take all the children (Tess, Colm, Ariel, and Piper) on a camping trip to Leslie Gulch on the Owyhee River. About a 4 hours drive.
This spring has been the wettest in recent memory. The result...water, water everywhere.
They were traveling together in Tan's van pulling the camper trailer. When they hit Adrian they heard rumors of roads washed out, nothing less than a four-wheeler would make it.
Tan and Beth pressed on going real slow on the gravel road. They flagged down the first truck coming out. The guy driving didn't even wait for a question. He shook his head.
"I don't think so," he said.
Our travelers persisted. What about the state park?
He turned and asked the two women riding in the back seat, "Was that big mud hole on this side or the other side of the campground?"
Silence. Then, "The other side."
The man turned around and looked at Beth and Tanya and said, "The campground...but that's it."
So they's the proof.

Easter in the backyard

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Southern France

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Note to readers posting comments

It seems that the comments are finally working properly. Now I have to get in the habit of checking them...this blog thing does not yet come second nature to me...a few times I've had to try several times just to publish a single post...usually a problem with photos...I look forward to a time when this is as easy and second nature as making a diary entry. Until then bear with me...and thanks to Jer, Doug and Shari, Liz, and Erin and Tim for responding so far.

France photos

Gare de Lyon with Alissa; ruins at Nimes; coast near Cassis; Nice

France au printemps...

There were 28 of us total including a couple of very nice people from NY and our tour guide, Alissa. It rained (hard) the first day in Paris, but after that not so much. We arrived on the day of a general strike which forced us to change hotels from the Latin Quarter (ground zeo for the demonstrations) to the Montmarte are near Sacre Coeur.
We enjoyed a variety of sights and activities, some guided others improvised. The students became quite adept at using the metro and getting around the city. They did their best to support the local shops and street artists...the euro is not cheap these days.
On day 4 we were scheduled to leave Gare de Lyon on the TGV (bullet train) for Avignon but we ran into an unannounced "manif" where about 1,000 students blocked the train tracks leaving the station forcing a complete shutdown of the station and stranding hundreds of travelers (including us). It was somewhat chaotic although most people seemed to take it in stride. There were students handing out homemade pamphlets making their case against the labor law (CPE) in question.
Some of us perused the newstands to get some idea of the situation. One funny item involved Sharon Stone, the actress. Apparently she had come to Paris and joined the protesters. There was a cartoon of her wielding an ice pick and charging the French police who were beating a terrified retreat...apparently "Fatal Attraction" still has some traction in the popular imagination here. Most impactful, I think, was the sight of police in riot gear trotting down the platforms to confront the protesters and also the military who were called in to secure the train station and prevent people like us from wandering down to take a look or to try to board a train.
I got a chance to chat with a few soldiers...nobody seemed to uptight. I asked one of them how long the demonstration might take. He smiled at me as if I were an innocent and he said, "Ca depend sur les etudiantes." As it turned out it took 3-4 hours. Too late for our train. It was interesting to see a poll that claimed that 80% of the French wanted to see the CPE either revised or withdrawn altogether.
Even so, I don't get the feeling that the French are as unified or as deeply engaged by this as that poll number might suggest...there is a kind of middle class quality to the issue and there remains apparently some fairly significant divisions within France over how to promote more jobs and how to address the marginalisation of immigrant populations whose unemployment numbers are very high.
Nevertheless, I find it interesting to observe a culture where the bias tilts in favor of the worker and where the burden of proof of goodwill and responsiblity rests with those who would like to employ those people (for profit of course). They seem to be reluctant capitalists in France...I'm not so sure there isn't some wisdom embedded in that predisposition.
Anyway, there was some drama for our little group of travelers at Gare de Lyon. We had to find lodgings that night in Paris and we had to book another train the next day. I say "we" but really it all fell on Alissa's shoulders. She was amazing. At first it wasn't clear what the ramifications of the demonstration would be...we held out hope for our train...Alissa was on two different mobile phones talking to EF Tours, talking to bus companies, talking to hotels, all the while keeping an eye on us as we staked out our little turf against the wall next to a platform.
The stations was filling up with people, everywhere you looked there was a sea of people. The bathrooms were out of order. Occasionally an announcement droned overhead, incomprehensible usually, but the large electronic travel board told eveyone all they needed to know....every train "annule'". Eventually the uniformed people standing between us and the trains began shouting at everyone to evacuate the station. The effect was a bit startling for some of our group who were closest to the soldiers, they looked anxious and prepared to leave, but where, the people further back, on the far side of the station were out of earshot of these calls and oblivious or unconcerned about any calls to evacuate.
After a few more such calls, Alissa took us outside. Again we established a little beachhead on an island in front of the station. Taxis were streaming in, carrying away little by little the swelling numbers of people standing curbside looking for someplace to go. I lead a couple of groups of people to a nearby bar where they could use a toilet. Meanwhile Alissa was in full emergency mode. I came back from the bar and saw her holding a phone in each ear...there was a young man (a rookie tour guide for another group similarly stranded it turned out) was pleading with her even as she carried on two phone conversations. finally she waved him off with her very expressive italian hands, the poor guy looked utterly defeated as he left.
Alissa, to her everlasting credit, did not crack. She had found a hotel, Pierre Vacance in Porte de Versaille, no address just a name and neighborhood. We would have to take taxis there. The line for taxis extended across the full front of the train station. We moved our group and all our baggage (this was a time to be grateful that we had packed light) to the end of it. Alissa told me that she was going inside to book our train for tomorrow. She left and we waited.
After awhile I began to perceive the rate at which we were advancing toward the head of the line...I began to wonder about Alissa. Her absence and the advancing line began to appear to me as a kind of collision in the offing. The collision wasn't what worried me, it was the near miss. What if we got to the taxi and Alissa wasn't there. People in our group were looking a bit stressesd. It had been four hours.
The taxi line stretched back as far as ever. the thought of going back to the end seemed terribly sad. I decided I'd try to find Alissa while we still had some time. I dashed inside the station. I'm not sure what I hoped to see, but all I could see were hundreds of people. All the people who had left had been replaced by new ones it seemed. It was bedlam. I tried to cut through the crowd passing by the ticket windows but it was useless. By the time I got back out front our group was within a dozen people or so of the head of the line...unfortunately Alissa wasn't there. What to do?
There was a uniformed man in charge of the line, placing people into taxis as they cruised up for their fares. He was trying heroically to hustle people into cars, to keep people in line, off the street and out of the traffic. I walked to the head of the line, trying as I walked to clarify exactly what I wanted to ask him. What I wanted, I thougt, was to know if Pierre Vacance Porte de Versaille was enough information for a cab driver or did we need an address?
I stood just behind him as escorted an elderly lady to a cab, waved it off and waved in the next cab. I tapped him on the shoulder, purposefully not looking at the people at the head of the line, trying not to imagine what they might be thinking about me at that moment. He turned to me, I asked him,"Do the cabbies know this hotel?" Without a pause he went to the cabbie and asked him. I saw the driver nod yes. Then the man in charge waved me over, gesturing for me to get in the cab. I understood at once that this was going to be unpleasant for both of us.
No, no, I said. It's not for me. I have a group. We... before I could finish I could see the anger in his eyes.
Why are you wasting my time. He turned away from me disgustedly and ushered the next person to the cab.
My group was inching closer...still no Alissa. I persisted with the man, trying now to explain the full situation. He listened as best he could while still moving people and cabs in and out. I told Beth and the other parents my intentions, we would take cabs only if they knew where the hotel was...even if Alissa wasn't there.
I repeated the name of the hotel and the area...Pierre Vacance Porte d'Orleans...Barbara, the woman from NY interrupted me, Porte de Versaille, she said. What? I said. Porte de Versaille, she repeated. Right, I corrected myself to everyone in earshot, Porte de Versaille. Privately I was dismayed by the thought that I might have already given the wrong name to others in the group. Suddenly the prospect of getting all 28 of us to the same hotel, a hotel that none of us had ever heard of in a part of Paris none of us had ever seen, seemed a bit dicey.
Caution would have been advised at this point; instead I pressed on, determined to take advantage of our spot in the line when we arrived. How much is the fare? someone asked me? I ran over to a cabbie and asked him. He shrugged as if to say, what do I look like a calculator? I ran back to our group and said, Look, four people to a cab, make sure your group has money. No groups with no money.
How much? someone repeated.
I don't know. I grabbed a number out of thin air a number which in retroospect should have proven to everyone there that I knew next to nothing about taking taxis...a hundred euros, I said. People's faces blanched. A hundred euros? Maybe a hundred twenty I said.
We were next in line. It occured to me that we didn't know exactly who would be travelling with whom, how many per taxi...and where by the way was Alissa? Before I could figure how to settle this, it was our turn. The man, who be now was painfully aware of our group and our destination, went to the cabbie. I saw him ask about our hotel...the cabbie frowned and shrugged.
The man turned and asked for the next fare but our group was so large that he could not easily see where we ended and the next fare stood. Now he was perturbe all over again. He began to wave our group over to the side. I saw that he wanted to put us in a kind of holding area, but our group was like a very large a very lethargic python. The more he gestured the more moribund it seemed our group became.
Finally we mangage to create a small space between ourselves and the rest of the taxi line. Some of our kids seemed shackled to their bags, slouched in the drizzling rain. A couple of them had that faraway stare, they were no longer with us in spirit only in body and baggage. One of them was too far out in traffic. The man barked at her to move back. She didn't respond. He approached her sternly and with a hand moved her back. That gesture engendered in her the kind of sullen and aggrieved look that I occasionally associatte with teenagers.
Now we were a group apart, the other taxi riders looked at us as if we were some curiosity. It gave me time to try to organize riders. 4 riders per taxi. One adult per taxi. Suddenly we had a cab. I called for a group of riders. The first group got in. I got in the driver's face and confirmed the hotel. They sped off. I wondered what we would do if something went wrong...there was no plan B, nobody had a phone number to reach me or Alissa. They were gone.
The next cab came, without my noticing it, two adults got in. Mothers and their pronouncement about one adult per cab had no authority in the face of maternal instincts. The looks on their faces was one of determination not to be separated from their offspring, come what may. What was I doing?... I thought to myself.
Pretty soon there was a cab with only students getting in. They betrayed not the slightest apprehension, I took heart from their sense of adventure, I only hoped that it wouldn't be an adventure in the strictest sense of the word. At last there was only three of us left...and then Alissa appeared. The four of us (all adults) got in the cab and took off.
The cabbie surged off into the parisian traffic. It was reassuring somehow to be in his hands even as he seemed to entrust himself and us to some force or aura that enabled him and every other vehicle on the road to sense each other's presence and to somehow swerve and careen safely away and around each other. It was as if the skin of every car was magnetically charged with the same charge and so gently repulsed every move toward contact.
I thought of the others. I wondered who their drivers were. I heard Alissa draw in a sharp breath. There can't be, she said. What, I said. Two hotels by the same name in the same neighborhood. I felt at that moment that I would rather have faced a firing squad than confront the accusing looks of the mothers if and when we were ever reunited...but then Alissa was laughing again...the two hotels were right next door to each other. Who ever heard of two hotels by the same name right next to each other, she laughed.
Indeed. I had heard enough to last me for a good long while. The cab swerved deftly in and out, there was Notre Dame... later the Eiffel Tower...we had already seen them the day before...what was I doing here?...we were headed out of the city it seemed, on the autoroute passing into a concrete land of overpasses and cloverleafs, vaguely I worried if the driver had confused Porte de Versaille with Versaille, a town about 20 miles away...impossible, I thought...I was tired...Alissa was chattering on with the was good to have her back with us.

We were the last cab leave and the first to arrive so we had about five to ten minutes of suspense...where had those cabs taken our friends? Then, one at a time they arrived. We hugged them as if they were returning war heros. (our fare was 20 euros; the others ran as high as 30 euros...a good day for the parisian cabbies) At dinner that night I tried somehow to convey to the mothers how much I appreciated their anchoring presence, how suspicious I was of own impulses to make things work, to beat deadlines, to take things as a challenge. I could see that I was forgiven, but only because we were all still together...not even waiter's faux pas with our order could dampen our sense of well being. It had all worked out...better sometimes to be lucky than good. Still I'd like to be a little wiser next's always good to be good, at least that's what I tell myself.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Bus

1982 VW Westfalia camper van 205,000 miles
motor - 35,000 miles

We bought it from a neighbor three years ago.
He installed the engine, an electronic ignition
as well as doing general maintainence and upkeep.

Three prior owners before him.