Metropolitan Homesick Blues

Southampton Stories & Other Stuff

Walking on Water

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Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand different circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will…whatever we may think.They flower spontaneously out of the demands of our natures…and the best of them lead not only outwards in space, but inwards as well. Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection.

These thoughts belong to Venice at dawn…

Lawrence DurrellBitter Lemons of Cyprus  

The train stopped in Padua to let off some locals. They looked in as they passed our compartment. 

“Touristi,” they said with self-satisfied smugness.

 Welcome to Venice. 

All we are at this moment seems suspended in time. We are carried forward on a journey with no apparent control. Our trip was to take just under three hours. It turned into five. The promised first class dining car must have been left in Milan. Lunch became rolls, plastic-packaged cheese and apples we saved from our hotel breakfast.

A long, thin isthmus of road and railway track attaches Venice to the mainland. Around us is the Adriatic. In the distance the picture book antiquity of the city begins to reveal itself through a haze. As we draw closer and look back through the smog we see a refinery on the other shore. There is no beauty in the contrast. 

Are we travelers or tourists? In our minds we are the former. To the people of the places we visit we are the latter. It is not hard to tell. Standing on the steps of Termini Santa Lucia trying to decipher the map in your expensive Guide Book brands you instantly. Asking locals for directions to your hotel in clumsy Italian confirms it further. If you are struggling with suitcases in the heat of the day, a tired, drawn look on your face, trying to move yourself and your belongings somewhere, but you’re not sure of where, you are marked. You are a tourist. You have not yet earned the right to be called traveler. Perhaps that will come later when you learn how to be invisible in a strange place.❑

Just outside Termini Santa Lucia, Ponte degli Scalzi spans the Grand Canal. 

There are steps on this arched bridge that force you to drag your luggage, bumpity-bump, up one side and bounce it down the other. Hard work on a hot day, especially when other tourists are watching. 

On the other side of the bridge, Santa Maria di Nazareth or as the locals call it Scalzi after it’s barefoot Carmalite Friars, rises on the bank of the Grand Canal. On its steps sits a wiry old man who is well into his wine. Dressed in a stripped gondolier’s shirt, ragged scarf, beads and a dirty captain’s hat, he happily berates passing tourists. Some walk in wide arcs to avoid him. Others pause to take his picture oblivious to the fact that they are being cursed for their actions in a language they don’t understand, but sounds beautiful just the same.

One reads a map of Venice like one reads a poem. Fondamenta, Calle, Canale, Campi, Salizda, Sestiere, Rio, Ruga, Riva; music in a maze of passages, a dialect of direction through a labyrinth of islands, the language of watery thoroughfares narrow lanes and slim canals allreflecting water and light. The meanings of the names are meant to make you feel the cycles of time and tides uniting, revealing islands of man’s design. And this is what makes Venice magical.

Away from the water there are slim walkways that never fail to lead you to a smile. Just when you feel you are lost, the claustrophobia pushing down on you vanishes in the open space of a simple, unexpected corte, shaded with trees, dappled with sunlight, beckoning with benches – a postcard moment. This is your cue to sit and do what every tourist is compelled to do, search your street map to find out where you really are.

The cries of vendors lead us to the fish market. Under canvass canopies neatly stacked on ice are all manner of seafood. Eels are pealed, stripped of their skin and stacked for sale. Shellfish, flat fish, fat fish, ugly fish, fish we have never seen before lie with octopus, squid and scampi. Our senses are assailed by smell, sight, and sound. Venetians haggle with fishmongers. Scurrying from stall to stall with cameras clicking, tourists shop for memories.

In contrast to the every-day reality of the market are the shops on the Rialto Bridge hawking blatantly obvious, obnoxious, over-priced souvenirs that must be an embarrassment to the Venetians. Yet the tourists are not embarrassed to take them home. They were probably made in China.

Piazza San Marco is packed with Tour Guides leading their cadre around with unopened umbrellas raised above their heads. Ragged, plodding lines of Europeans, Asians, students, even Italians, circle around the umbrellas when they stop at some site of historical or artistic significance. 

There are small ‘Palm Court’ style quartets at the four corners of the square with white-shirted musicians under canopies playing waltzes, music from Phantom of the Opera, The Godfather and cheesy Italian pop tunes from everywhere in Italy but Venice.

Relaxing on stone steps under a portico we take advantage of the shade and try to separate ourselves from the hordes of fellow tourists filling the square. A small girl throws pieces of brioche at persistent pigeons. The wings of the incoming make a whistling sound that sends the others scrambling as they swarm the crumbs. 

The corn vendors of the piazza are doing well. You can buy a bag and become a pigeon’s new best friend. Hold out your hand and you’ll have them eating out of it. Pigeons love tourists.

We go to Harry’s Bar to escape the congestion of the square. You would hardly find it if you weren’t looking. There at the end of Calle Vallaresso just before the Grand Canal is a simple door with the name etched in the window. The place appears small on the outside. Inside it is cozy with tables tightly laced together around its famous bar. 

Our table is next to a wealthy British couple that appears to be regulars. Behind us is a rich American couple. The gentleman uses a throat microphone to carry on a conversation. He sounded mechanical. Throat cancer? His companion who looks every inch the wealthy American socialite speaks Italian to the waiters. We eavesdrop as they talk of art galleries and exhibitions and who brought their ‘only adequate’ chef with them to Venice. 

The waiters are right out of Casablanca; white dinner jackets with white bow ties. They are attentive and obviously use to serving the rich and famous – which we are not. It is the most we’ve ever paid for lunch in our lives. 

San Marco is sinking. Could it be because of the weight of the crowds in the square? Actually the tide was coming in off the Adriatic, creeping up between the stones of the Piazza. Tourists were forced to walk around the puddles.

As we stood in line to enter the Basilica we had to step up on to a makeshift bridge because water was everywhere. It found its way into the foyer of the Church. You had to walk in it to get to the souvenir stand. There is something strange about the sight and sound of tourists sloshing around in a holy place. You would think St. Mark would petition heaven for some miracle to turn back the sea and save his church. 

Venice at night is another world. Watercraft are constantly gliding, a ballet of boats illuminated to be noticed, dancing on a dark surface. Water…walking at night its dampness finds you. The only lights, high on the corners of old buildings act as beacons as you feel your way across the wet, glistening cobblestones. Dampness diffuses the light.  

At night, Venice is sinister. The darkness hides faded street signs making them harder to read. Besides, they are meaningless since dark shadows mask anything that might be recognizable. At every turn you hesitate before deciding on the choice of directions before you. Listening to the echo of footsteps behind you, your only fear is not finding your way. Venetians pass you with a sly smile. They know you are lost and confused. If you asked them for directions their answers would be simple, but you still wouldn’t understand them. That’s your fault. Not theirs

In the tiny chapel of San Giovanni di Evangialista, Tinoretto’s Crucifiction looms large upon the wall. An old man given to the church looks into my eyes.

“You are Italian. I can see.” 

Offering his hand he speaks to me as if I am his son. I am only someone who will listen while he tells me every detail of everything he watches over, of its history and why the paintings are so. And of the stories the paintings tell. And of the reasons for the craftsmanship in the carvings of wooden pews and marble reliefs in the small church, on a small street in Venice. Not a Duomo, Basilica or Cathedral, but once the simple church of storied men, now in the care of a simple man who speaks to me in a language I should know because he believes we are the same. And that I understand.

I did not come to Italy to find my roots. I came because I was born Italian and grew up Canadian. Because I really didn’t realize what being Italian meant in any sense of reality. Raised as an Italian-Canadian, the influences of both cultures does not make either pure. Impressions during my Italian youth formulated some attitudes, habits and beliefs. People I grew up with, Italians I lived, worked and played with, all contributed to my personal concept of Italian-ness.

But, was it accurate? When this old man looked into my eyes and said, ‘You are Italian,’ his words resonated throughout the deepest reaches of my soul. Anima. When he smiled and offered his hand it was the connection I was looking for. And it was humbling. But, it was an affirmation. It didn’t matter that I spoke his language poorly. What counted was the recognition, the confirmation.

You have to be Italian to understand.

At La Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, La Orchestra di Venezia is giving a concert. Musicians in period costumes perform Mozart, Vivaldi, Pachelbel, Albinoni, Boccherini, on period instruments. From Il Balletto Veneziano two couples danced and a Comedia Del Arte clown played to the audience, trying to win the hearts of two young women with paper flowers. 

The acoustics in the long, cavernous Great Upper Hall of the Scuola are excellent. Thick drapery hangs heavy on the windows. Tintoretto was a Brother at the Scuola. His generosity is expressed in massive canvasses that cover every wall. In-laid marble floors, an alter of carved marble, frescoed ceilings and the long, winding marble staircase take you back to a time when all this was commonplace. When men wore wigs and danced with affected, feminine gestures that spoke volumes to those who understood, in salons and halls as grand as this. There was such a time. And it lived again for us, that night at a concert in Venice.

Next morning we wake to the sound of thunder. We can only imagine lightening over the Adriatic. We have to because our room is shuttered to the world outside. Rain in Venice. The sound of its falling comes to us from outside our window. Voices of children in their innocence rise up from the street. In these waking moments they echo through the liquid canyons of distance canals, speaking of far-away places. Only footfalls on the cobblestones are heard. No cars. That is the strange and wonderful sound of Venice. A sound that trails off naturally into silence the further you are from the Grand Canal. Water surrounds us, swallowing silence, giving back a sound its own. Water is the traffic noise we are unfamiliar with. 

This morning we are sailing for Salute, the Vaporetto landing across from San Marco. In Dorsoduro we walk quayside along Fondamenta Zattere. Looking across Canale delle Guidecca to the island of Guidecca the light of mid morning Venice plays at painting pictures. There is a pointillism that blends into portraits, constantly changing  with the movement of sun, sky, cloud, mist and water. Waterbuses crossing between shores appear as if in a Monet. Canal-side cafes artfully arrange themselves on the mind’s canvass. Weather worn facades of buildings become backdrops awash with the shadows of the day. Churches shape the horizon. Looking out across the water is like looking at a palate where light and colour are mixed, blended then splashed with buoyant abandon on the shifting scene that unfolds anew with each step you take. Transformations in time indelibly painted on your memory. 

With watercraft constantly gliding, a ballet of illuminated boats dancing on a dark surface, the canal is a light stream. Venice this evening is enchanting. We have no destination in mind. Sometimes you are content to follow a path wherever it leads. Discovery is our only goal. On this our last night we find ourselves in a corte well away from the tourist centre. Taking an outside table at a small trattoria we order dinner and settle in to watch Venetians hurrying by on their way home. The sound of shopkeepers closing up echoes in the empty streets. Their day is ending. Our stay is ending.

Train travel teaches lessons. Lesson one – arrive at the terminal hours early so you have time enough to deal with the little surprises that inevitably happen. Lesson two –  improvise on the surprises. Lesson three – refuse to be treated like a tourist. 

We hold tickets to Florence, First Class. This matters little to the bored, impatient man behind the glass who says the same thing to everyone. 

“Full.” 

It’s Friday. All of today’s trains to Florence are full. 

“Go to Bologna,” is the alternative he offers. Obviously pre-booked Eurostar tickets don’t impress anyone.

 “Go to Bologna,” meant we had twenty minutes to catch the Bologna train. Once there we had a mere ten minutes to transfer to the Florence Eurostar. 

As we run for the platform we pray that everything is on schedule. We are leaving Venice on a train of confusion, with as much uncertainty as when we arrived.

This underlines a truth few travelers realize…infamous Italian civil servants set your timetable. Whatever freedom of choice you thought you had is controlled by an indifferent system that always wins.  You only have to enter the Venice terminal to understand. 

Travel forces you to deal with discoveries about yourself. You have no choice but to shake off the established patterns of everyday life, as you know them. The stresses of travel leave no room for emotional baggage. On the road there is no place for undiscovered cracks in a relationship. A couple must be confident that their connection is solid. No one is ever sure what lies ahead, regardless of what travel agents, guidebooks or the Internet tell you. If your relationship is sound it will get stronger, deeper, richer, more mutually supportive with each passing destination. You are alone together. Travel gives couples time and opportunity to become what they thought they were.

There is some solace in talking to other travelers. But, train conversations last only as long as your next destination. In that time, though, they are full of stories, personal revelations, travel mishaps and recommendations. They end with smiles and best wishes, always-bitter sweet because you part friends, brothers and sisters of circumstance that will never meet again.

We leave Venice the way we came, on a train, crossing water, once again willing victims of circumstance.

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

February 14, 2021 at 11:46 AM

THE NIGHT EAGLE

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Dave didn’t want her watching him. 

As he guided his canoe over the shallow shoal, he saw her sitting on the dock and it angered him. He didn’t want to feel her eyes on him. He wanted to be alone on the water waiting for that moment just before sunset when the walleye start biting. This was his last night on the lake, perhaps even his last time. There was no need for her to monitor his every move. All he was looking for was solitude, some separation from the reality that forced this great sadness to come between them. Yet, there she was, like a shadow, hovering.

Dave cast his line. The whip-like swish of the graphite rod snapping forward sent the lure in a wide arc. A soft plop and short concentric circles of ripples told of the distance it traveled.  

Jane turned away for but a moment.  She stared blankly at the horizon trying to think of what to do. Everything so far had failed. 

Looking back, she saw Dave’s sureness reeling in the line, stopping to let the lure sink briefly, then jerking the rod up and reeling in again in quick repetitive patterns perfected over years of fishing. Out on the lake there was confidence in his movements. On water he was free. On land he was trapped. 

Over these past two weeks Jane could see desperation building on his face, seeping into his body. Normally, their vacation on the island brought them closer, like they were during those first playful years of marriage. Now, getting through each day was just hard work. Nothing could unravel the sullen cloak of self-pity he drew around himself. Jane hoped being alone together, in this their special place, would calm him. Hope, though, was replaced with hopelessness. And, his anxiety was beginning to infect her.

John felt a gentle tap on his line. With one deft move he snapped the rod upward and set the hook. The fish dove deep. Jane heard the whining of the reel as he let out more line. Then the sharp click of the bale stopped all movement. The rod sprang back and the line went slack. John sat there in disbelief. Looking over at Jane he saw her smiling the way she always did when he lost a catch. This time it made him angry. He had no idea why. But, he blamed her. He blamed her for the lost fish, for watching over him, for feeling sorry for him. 

When she saw the anger on his face she looked away. The last thing she wanted was for him not to see her holding back tears. She thought about what was waiting for them back in the city. The doctor ordered a last round of tests just before the start of their vacation. They would learn how far the illness had progressed after their holiday. The question of whether he would live or die, the realization of their uncertain future, overwhelmed her

A cold wind rushed in out of the North. Shaken by a sudden chill she stepped into the shelter of the boathouse. The smell of water logged wood, outboard oil and gasoline assailed her senses. Hiding in the damp darkness she heard his voice on the wind.

“Jane!” Her name carried across the water. “Jane, where are you?”

“Right here…where I’ve always been,” she answered softly. 

 A unexpected wind-change caught the bow of his canoe and turned it in a slow, deliberate circle. He put down his paddle and stretched out. Drifting with the wind was relaxing. He really didn’t care where it took him. 

Floating into the sunset, never to be found, he thought. Not a bad way to go.  Then he laughed. There were people fishing this time of night. Somebody was bound to ask if he needed help. And that would spoil this moment. 

His mind sifted through the uncertainties of the past year. He felt as though everything he had accomplished in life was slipping away. For a man who always had total control it was frustrating that he couldn’t control the very thing that threatened his future. His confidence was once his strong point. Now, hiding behind his bravado wasn’t the refuge it used to be. His body was his enemy. His will was no longer his ally. He saw no way of winning. And he knew he was losing Jane. 

Closing his eyes he gave himself up to the lake. All he felt was the wind on his face and the uncertain beating of a heart in a body he couldn’t trust. 

A sudden thud on the bow jolted him awake. “Damn, I’ve drifted into the dock,”  

A full moon dominated the night sky casting a silver glow that clearly illuminated jagged granite cliffs rising perpendicular to the water. Shadows of ridge pines slid out from the rock edge and over the still, silent surface. There was no wind. Sleep quickly left his body. He realized he was lost.

 Breathing deeply momentarily chased away the panic. Closing his eyes he tried to visualize exactly where he was. In his mind he rose up over the lake and looked down, trying to find a reckoning. All of the familiar landmarks were nowhere in sight. 

He guessed he drifted deep into the South end; a part of the lake no one ever bothered with. The locals considered it dangerous; nothing but sheer rock, dense forest and a labyrinth of hidden bays and inlets. They said it was like trying to navigate your way through a maze. Only the native Shamans were familiar with its secrets.

When he looked at his watch and saw it was two in the morning, panic returned. He was trapped by a semi circle of cliffs embracing a small, tight bay opening out to the vastness of the lake. Brilliant moonlight revealed stone walls surrounding him. He considered climbing the rock face to the forest above for shelter, but quickly realized how foolish that was. Paddling along their edge he searched for somewhere to rest for the night thinking he could either head out in the morning or wait until Jane, or someone, came looking for him. 

A shadow glided in effortless circles skimming the surface of the lake. As it floated closer the moon’s light defined its shape, its varying shades of brown, its white throat feathers. Its wide wingspan gave it complete control as it moved silently towards him. Round eyes fixed on him. The sight of this strange creature highlighted by moonlight hypnotized him. The great bird tilted its body and swept past him in a rush of air, grazing the top of his head. He ducked. The canoe rocked dangerously. The bird flew directly at the rock wall and disappeared.

He grabbed his flashlight and searched the water’s edge. Nothing. Then he noticed a thin sliver of stone darker than the rest. When he focused the light its dark surface revealed a small slit in the rock.  John sighed with relief – a cave. Shelter for the night.

The predator watched John tumble into the blackness of the cave. Irritated at the sight of this intruder, the large tufts at the side of its head went flat.  But as John stumbled, cursing in the dark, the tufts relaxed moving upright with curiosity, then acceptance. It made no sound. It didn’t move when the flashlight strayed to its face. Its large eyes blinked once then fixed on the man in the shadows. John stood as motionless as the bird. He held the bird’s steady gaze. It was peering deep into his soul,  he thought, penetrating his dark world of pain. John forced himself to look away. 

He spotted the remnants of a shallow circular pit ringed with stones. Wood and grass lay loosely piled next to it. He realized he wasn’t the first person to spend a night here. He immediately built a fire. Through the dim light of the flames he noticed crude pictographs on the walls. Although faded with age he recognized the outline of an owl, like the one that was now staring him down. One drawing depicted a man sublimating himself to the bird beneath a full moon; another pictured the man wrapped in the bird’s wings. Another showed the owl in flight with the man in its talons. 

Dave guessed this was a sacred place. Shamans. These were drawings of their spirit creature. He had heard the stories Natives told of The Night Eagle

He laughed quietly. “I won’t bother you. I just need to sleep,” he said to the bird standing sentry-like watching his every move. 

Smoke crept up the walls and into every corner like a fog rolling in off the lake, before arching up to a natural vent high overhead. As the strong scent of sweet grass and cedar filled the cavern, the fatigue of the long night clouded his mind. His exhausted body demanded sleep. Arranging some boughs on a small ledge he lay down. 

Just before he closed his eyes he felt Jane’s presence. She appeared in the smoke watching him with that patronizing look he had come to hate. Her face shone with the silver hue of moonlight then suddenly flashed with a brilliance that blinded him. When the light subsided he saw her shape shifting into that of the owl. Spreading it’s wings it hovered above his body wrapping him in its shadow. Ancient chants echoed throughout the chamber. The great bird lowered itself slowly over him its claws digging into his chest. 

Dave felt no pain, He sensed the wisdom of another power telling him that hope is all you have when all else fails, For the first time in over a year his anxiety vanished. The soothing touch of soft feathers brushed across his eyes. The chanting stopped. He felt the essence of the Night Eagle flowing into him. A deep, welcome sleep came easily.

The whine of the outboard echoed across the calm lake. Jane made a sharp turn at the sight of the smoke and pointed the boat’s bow into the small bay. She had never been this far south. Her first view of rocks rising perpendicular to the shoreline made her nervous. She had been searching all night. The panic she felt at Dave’s mysterious disappearance, the fear of losing him, or worse, kept her awake and alert. 

Last night a North wind came out of nowhere and something told her to follow its direction. If he was out here she swore she would find him. If he was alive she promised herself she would change. Even now, at this very moment, she knew she was a different person.

When she spotted his empty canoe bouncing off rocks she throttled down. Where are you David? she whispered focusing on the smoke coming from high on the rock wall. Following it down she saw the cave opening. 

“I knew it was you. No mistaking the sound of that old motor,” shouted Dave, standing in the entrance, smiling.

David!” was all she could say. Jane cut the motor and the boat’s momentum carried her closer. He looked as though nothing was wrong.

“I’m sorry for last night.” The unexpected apology caught her off guard. She stared at him.

There was no look of desperation on his face. And for someone who spent the night in a cave, there was not a hint of exhaustion. His voice was calm. The sound of his words relaxed her.

“How did you find me?” he said taking the boat’s bowline from her.

“Dave, I…” She couldn’t finish. Fear and fatigue from the night’s ordeal finally overwhelmed her. Jane felt his arms surrounding her. David remembered the softness of the owl’s wings embracing him. He held his sobbing wife with the same tenderness.

Dawn gave way to the light of day creeping above the tree line. With the canoe in tow the boat cut cleanly through the rising mist on the water leaving a wake that framed the diminishing bay. Jane watched him guide it through the narrows as if he had been in this place many times before. He sat erect, smiling. She felt a renewed strength flowing from him. On his face was the look of confidence she had not seen in a while. It was the look he had lost when the illness found him. 

Glancing back at the retreating bay Jane saw a large bird launch itself from the mouth of the cave. It flew towards them, then banked gracefully, gliding up to the Jack Pines on the high ridge.

“Did you see that?”

 “Yes,” said John without looking back.  

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

August 25, 2020 at 4:39 PM

Posted in fishing

THE FERAL

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The Feral was awarded Honourable Mention in the 2008 Dorothy Shoemaker Literary Awards Contest and published in The Changing Image by the Kitchener Public Library

The Feral

He sat on the edge of the porch stoop – waiting. It was almost four o’clock. That’s normally when she would cautiously raise her head above the notch in the trunk of the willow and leisurely scan the perimeter.

The old tree’s canopy covered the entire front yard of the boy’s new home. On hot summer afternoons the willow’s welcome shade extended from the edge of the driveway to the porch at the front of the house. Taller than the farmhouse, the great sweep of its drooping branches provided safe haven for birds. The tall grasses around its trunk sheltered small animals. But, they all stayed well away from the deep hole in the notch of the trunk. That’s where she slept for most of the day.

Disturbing her resting place meant trouble for any intruder. The boy experienced this the first week he arrived. In the morning, while waiting for the school bus, he looked back at the willow and plotted the best way to climb it. That notch was just a few feet above the grass. It would be a simple to get a leg up to the main cross-branches and an easy path to the top. Later, after school, instead of homework, he began his conquest of the willow. 

Just as he placed his foot on the notch, a low guttural growl came keening out of the hollow darkness. He tried to peer inside but the high-pitched wail coming from deep within had the voice of imminent danger. Retreating a few steps, he picked up a fallen branch and poked in the direction of the unholy noise. A serpentine hissing and slashing of leaves by invisible claws sent him running to the safety of the porch. 

Something in that sound resonated deep in his memory. Staccato flashes unreeled a loop of incessant screeching and squealing synced to unfocussed pictures of a car on a rain-drenched mountain highway. He put his hands to his face trying to block the flashing light behind his eyes. He did not want a replay of that vision strobing in his mind. It was too painful. He pushed it deeper into his subconscious.  

When he felt calm return he looked back at the willow. That’s when he saw her. They looked into each other’s eyes as if searching for some touch point that would connect them. But it was a long, languid stare full of menace and unspoken warning. 

A slight disturbance in the grass caught her attention. Without a second look she jumped down. She was hungry. It was time to hunt.

The boy watched her slip quietly into the high weeds. “It was just a cat. Thinks she owns the willow,” he told himself. Behind him the screen door squeaked open.

“I see you’ve met the feral,” said his grandfather with a chuckle.

“The what?”

“The cat that lives in the willow. You best leave her be. She can be a mean one if you get too close.”

“Yeah. I saw that,” the boy replied, turning to acknowledge his grandfather’s presence. 

“Feral cats are loners. This one’s no different. She won’t let you near her.”

The grandfather looked directly at his grandson and reached out to put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. With a shrug that spoke volumes the boy shifted his weight in a way that made the old man hesitate and pull back.

“No, you just can’t get close to her,” he said looking directly at his grandson. It was a summation of the problem between them. 

For weeks now, he and his wife had tried to unravel the solitude the boy had spun around himself. They felt his sadness. They shared his grief. They lost their only child in that accident. With the death of their daughter and son-in-law there was no one else to take the boy. At a time in their life when the stamina and concentration required to raise a child had long left them, they were faced with doing it all over again.

 Children were supposed to outlive their parents. Burdened with the fatigue of old age they only had enough energy to care for each other. Privately, each wondered if they had the will to get through the uncertain years ahead. But, there was no other option. 

Money wasn’t a problem. Most of the farmland had been sold off. They kept the house, the barn and a few acres of forest with a stream running through it. Their plan was a peaceful life of leisure with now and then visits from their grandson. Raising a young boy on their own unsettled them. It was never part of their vision.

His nightmares disturbed them the most. Every night since he arrived they found him standing at the foot of the bed, arms outstretched, reaching for someone or something he desperately wanted to hold. On his face was a pleading look that brought his grandmother to tears. To wake him she softly spoke the name his mother gave him when he was a baby. 

“Adie, I’m here,” she would say gently touching his hand. He would blankly stare at her, then wordlessly return to his bed. The morning after the first incident they asked if he could recall his dream. He looked at them with the same blank stare of the night before and slowly shook his head. They never asked again.

The feral could feel the cycle of her day changing. As it grew warmer she slept longer avoiding the afternoon heat. It was usually well after four o’clock when she climbed out of the cool darkness into the late afternoon light. Satisfied that everything was as she had left it, everything including that young boy watching her from the porch, she sniffed out the remains of the mouse she buried the day before and devoured it. Hunger satisfied she was off to patrol her hunting grounds. The hunt would take her mind off that meddlesome boy. She felt that she had warned him away for good.

Sniffing the air the feral stopped in her tracks. Her muscles tightened and she pressed her body close to the ground. Her fur puffed out catching what air currents and motion she was sensing. Although there was a slight breeze ruffling the grass, she shut her eyes and listened for the high-pitched sound mice make when hunting. Low to the ground, stopping every few steps, she stealthily crept closer to her quarry.  Feeling the distance was right she sprang. The mouse, sensing danger ran. In midair the feral suddenly changed direction. Her instincts were right. With one swift pounce she bit the mouse at the top of its neck, raised and swung her head, breaking the helpless creature’s back. As quietly as she came she left with her prey. 

When she returned to the willow she was startled to see the boy standing there peering into her lair. Instantly hair prickled all over her body. Pupils dilated into slits of anger. She flattened her ears and furiously swished her tail. The mouse fell from her mouth as her low guttural growl let him know he was trespassing. 

The boy’s tentative steps forward infuriated her. Backing up against the willow she flattened herself against the trunk. When he took another step forward she flew at his legs with a fury. But, he was just as quick and jumped back before her claws could find their mark.

“Adam come away!” His grandfather’s voice broke the tension. 

As the boy turned, the feral disappeared into the hollow. She felt safe in the darkness. She knew he was gone but her anger stayed. Sleep finally drifted in and crowded out all the thoughts that were upsetting her tight little world. Her willow was not for sharing. Surely the boy knew this.

Breathing hard Adam stared at the dead mouse. He felt a need to pick it up. He could feel its warmth and noticed a small trickle of blood at the back of its head. The feel of hot metal shot from the dead mouse searing his palm. A flash of memory. He dropped it. Adam stared at his hand. There was nothing there. Still shaking he grabbed the dead creature by the tail, tossed it into the notch of the willow and ran.

Thunderheads towered high in the evening sky. To the North rolling thunder resonated continuously. Sporadic lightning illuminated the dark gathering clouds. Adam was sitting on the porch when he felt a chill cut through him. The willow’s branches swirled helplessly in the roaring wind. Closing his eyes he tried to shut out the familiarity of that sound. Somewhere in the back of his mind a night such as this was waiting to replay the fragments of a painful memory.

“A cold wind always blows before the rain.” 

Opening his eyes Adam saw his grandfather.  Over the old man’s shoulder lightning danced in the sky. A deep rumble of thunder announced the beginning of the evening’s storm.

“We’d better get ourselves inside.”

“Can I stay and watch for a little while?”

His grandfather remembered how his daughter loved to sit on the porch swing during a rainstorm. There was something in a storm that fascinated her. Rain, wind, thunder and lightening dancing in unison seemed to carry her away to another world. He wondered if that could be the reason she lost control. Had she been hypnotized by the storm that night? 

“Can I stay?” 

Reality brought him out of his reverie. With a gentle warning that Adam must come in when rain hit the porch, the old man stepped inside to find his wife. She was probably thinking the same thing.

The feral stirred not wanting to wake from her deep sleep. Sniffing the air she sensed the change in temperature. Above her branches twisted in the wind. Thunder echoed in her hollow chamber. Curling up tighter she tried to make herself invisible as rain fell hard outside her lair. There was protection enough deep in the hollow. Overhead, branches thick with leaves would keep her dry. Breathing a deep, uneasy sigh she closed her eyes content to wait this out.

Lightning lit up the darkness in the yard. With each flash Adam saw the tree’s branches bending back and forth as if an invisible hand held the trunk and snapped it like a whip. Lightning and thunder struck as one all around him yet he stood stoically, mesmerized by the hypnotic repetition of light and sound.

In the fleeting brilliance of each flash his mind began replaying a vision – a car speeding through a night just as this. Heavy rain drenching the windshield, wipers whipping back and forth like the branches of the willow. Without warning lightning seared the night, lighting up fallen rocks in front of the vehicle and just as quickly shrouding them with darkness. In the minuscule moment between light and dark, life and death were decided.

Adam felt himself flying. 

He saw himself standing beside an overturned car staring in at the faces of his mother and father. A nauseating aura of helplessness overcame him as he struggled with a car door that would not open. Tears mixed with rain on his face. Grabbing a small boulder he smashed the window shattering it into small crystals that fell on his hands and arms. Brushing them off he felt the pain of glass cutting into his hands.

“Adie, don’t cry,” he heard his mother say as everything around him receded deep in to the darkest recesses of his memory.

Still heavy with sleep the feral wasn’t sure what was happening. She felt hands close around her body and the lightness of being lifted into space. When the rain hit her she screamed. Obeying her first instincts she dug her claws into the hands holding her and bit down hard. Twisting her body she brought her hind legs up against the pressure and scratched fiercely until the grip on her torso loosened enough for her to squirm away. Landing in the wet grass she looked up and saw the boy standing over her. As his bleeding hands came towards her she ran. 

In a flash of lightning Adam saw her disappear into the deep grass. After the thunder he heard the creaking sound of splitting wood. In the darkness he felt the willow’s branches brushing his body. As he lay on the wet ground he heard his grandfather calling him. With the weight of the branches holding him down he could not answer. 

Drenched and angry the feral watched from a safe distance as a beam of light swept the grass with an agitated sense of urgency. When the beam moved up the willow she saw her home, just above the hollow, charred and still smouldering in spite of the rain. A large branch lay on the ground with the boy beneath it. She shook to rid her fur of the water and watched the beam of light come to rest on the boy.

s “Adam.”

“Mom?”

“Adie, I’m here.”

“Grandma?”

Gentle hands brushed leaves and rain from his face.“He looks OK,”Adam’s mind raced.  Where’s the car? Are my mom and dad safe? What are my grandparents doing here?

Confusion. His mind wildly processing visions, memories, and questions emerging from a buried memory into a startling reality. 

“Adie take my hand, “ said his grandmother. 

Slowly he stood up and allowed himself to be cradled in his grandmother’s arms. 

“Your hands and arms, they’re scratched and bleeding,” said his grandfather. “I sure hope that feral realizes you saved her life. Not that she cares.”

“I remember the accident,” the boy said.

Silence surrounded them. A look of relief passed between his grandparents.

When the rain stopped, the feral cautiously made her way through the tangle of fallen branches to the trunk of the willow. Looking up at the notch she guessed that her home was still habitable. She sprayed so everyone would know, lightning or no lightning, this tree was still hers. Leaping up to the notch she was startled by the strong smell of burnt wood. Gingerly she stepped past the gash left by the ripped branch and into the damp hollow. She circled a few times, kneaded the remains of her wet bedding and curled herself into a tight ball. Sleep is what she wanted. Come morning the sun would dry everything. Life would return to normal. 

And somehow she knew that the boy would not bother her again.

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

April 5, 2020 at 1:38 PM

Penny For Your Thoughts

with 4 comments

Something about our last conversation bothered me. Something in your voice – the way it trailed off – those long pauses – your vagueness. You sounded uncertain. And I need to talk to you again. I try to call, just to be sure, but now my cell is showing No Service.

The Northlander is two hours late leaving North Bay. This I know because I kept telling Siri to hit their Info Line every 10 minutes on the drive down from the lake. Your train isn’t arriving until 2:00 AM and it’s just gone past midnight. Where do you go with two hours to kill in Temagami at this ridiculous time of the morning?

A few cars and trucks are in the station lot. It looks like people are trying to get some sleep until the train arrives. Me? Im just standing here watching 18-wheelers rumbling south leaving dust, infused with the stench of diesel, swirling waist high above Highway 11. One after another they race through town with impunity. Toronto bound. So much for the speed limit. All they care about is hitting the 401 before the morning rush so they can make their destinations without penalties. The OPP could be making a fortune right now. Too early in the morning or too late at night for them, I guess.

I know the Legion stays open late on Friday nights. They’re supposed to close at 1:00 AM. But no one in this town pays much attention to things like that since the Ministry has fire-fighting crews in the county. Besides, the guys need a place to let off some steam. And the locals are not above earning some extra cash.

There’s probably a pay phone there. A landline will me get through to you. If we talked again before you get here, you might tell me what’s on your mind. Then I would be ready. I could prepare myself for whatever is coming.

I wait for a gap in traffic and race across the highway. It’s kind of like playing chicken. These big rigs don’t slow down. All these guys do is lean on their air horns and smirk as they blast pass you.

Walking down to the Legion I’m a little concerned because the building is dark. The front door is locked. I make my way around back. There are a few pickups in the parking lot so I figure they can’t be closed. One solitary light bulb is burning above the back door. Inside, on the wall, an arrow with the words Blue Room stenciled on it points me in the right direction. When I walk in the stench of cigarettes and stale beer hits me hard.

Five guys are sitting at a table next to the bar laughing and loudly talking over each other. They all need a shave. Their unkempt hair sticks out of their truckers caps. Pitchers of beer, empty chip bags, butt–filled ashtrays and crushed, empty cigarette packages tell me they’ve been here a while.

When they see me they raise their glasses and call me over. They have no idea who I am. But, single guy in a bar, late at night…kindred spirits. A newbie to buy the next pitcher and retell all their stories too. Why not. 

One guy starts to pour me a beer. I look around and spot the pay phone on the wall beside the bulletin board. I give them the universal thumb-and-baby-finger-phone-sign. They all give me that look that says, hey, right, go make your call –  join us when you’re done

I call your apartment. No answer. So you have to be on the train. You never could read on anything moving. Upsets your stomach you said. So, fine, you’re probably sleeping away a boring couple of hours on a not very comfortable seat in a run down coach. I’ve taken the Northlander before. I can accept that. 

You’re not leaving me much choice though.  You have to understand how I feel when I can’t get through. Why isn’t your cell on? Not being able to reach you is starting to bother me. If you’re not on the train, where could you be this time of night?

There was no point wasting any more quarters. It is late. There isn’t much else I can do. I can’t imagine you not coming. You and I alone on the island; the perfect place for us to talk about us, as you so mysteriously put it. That was the plan. We agreed on it yesterday. 

I sure don’t like this feeling. Strange isn’t it, what with cell phones, e-mail and texting, how we panic when we can’t reach someone? 

Maybe a few beers will calm me down. It will do me good to just sit and forget about you and this notion that is gradually moving from the back of my mind to an uncomfortable place of prominence. These guys are a welcome distraction. At least for a couple of hours. 

We talk about sports, work, women and what it is like to be out of touch and away from everything familiar. Fighting forest fires keeps these boys on crazy shifts 24/7. They’re missing their girl friends and family. They’re tired of wasting their off-time drinking in The Blue Room. When I tell them I’m meeting you at the train station they all smile that smile guys get when girls are involved…the one you hate so much. 

They are jealous. I can understand that. Each one of them wishes they were in my shoes. Little do they know. When I get up to leave they give me the kind of advice a guy about to meet his girl friend that he hasn’t seen in a while doesn’t really need. I won’t tell you what they said.

Back at the railway station people are leaving their vehicles; stretching out the kinks from sitting too long in a cramped space. Moving to the platform they arrange themselves in haphazard little clusters along the tracks. People like to try and guess where the railway car carrying the person they’re meeting will stop. Blind anticipation. It’s an emotion that keeps you from knowing whether or not you’ll be happy until the last moment. 

Tonight it is really playing with my head. 

As I walk down the tracks away from the station I turn my cell on.  Searching for Network lights up the screen. When the bars finally jump to full I hit your number and hold my breath. Still no answer. What gives with you? 

I feel kind of good that the train is only about 10 minutes out so I don’t bother trying again. A young boy is placing pennies on the track against his parents’ wishes. I remember how, as a kid, my friends and I used to do that. Once the train ran over them you ended up with pennies flatter than communion wafers. Now and then, depending on the engine’s speed, the pennies flew off in every direction. Sometimes you had to search between the railway ties and gravel to find them.

A blast of the Northlander’s horn announces your arrival. Bells clang and barriers fall across the road. A beam of light coming around a curve slashes across the station house. The sound of grinding steel on steel slowly brings the train to a halt. 

Finally. 

Anticipation is making me crazy…I’m singing to myself as I watch the conductor unfold his portable stairs. The few sleepy passengers drag their bags and themselves across the platform. Those haphazard clusters now swallow up their loved ones. Hugs all around. Smiles. Kisses. Hand shaking. Arms around shoulders. Small units of happiness making their way back to their cars.

But there is no you.

I don’t know how long I stood there after the train crept out of the station and disappeared into the darkness. You’re doing the same, aren’t you? Creeping out of my life and leaving me in darkness? 

I’m not sure if I’m angry or upset. Confused? Yes. Puzzled? Yeah. Anxious? How else should I be feeling? Really. The worst of it all is that you’ve done whatever it is you’re doing without saying a word. No explanation. Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye. I hear Leonard Cohen singing that song in my head. And you know what its like when you can’t get a song out of your head.

Damn you!

I’m barreling down Highway 11 in the slipstream of 18-wheeler hauling a full load of granite; probably for landscaping some monster home in North Toronto. Remember the truck stop just north of North Bay? That’s where I met Al the driver. He wanted to know which rig in the parking lot was mine.  I laughed. Bought him a coffee and told him my sad story.

He’s got a CB, so he knows where the O.P.P. are. We’re making good time. I’ll be in Toronto by morning.

I’ve stopped calling because I know you’re avoiding me. But, I still don’t know why. Which is the reason I’m coming into town. You owe me…something. 

Before I left I found one of those flattened pennies on the platform. The kid never came back to pick them up. His parents wouldn’t let him. Probably not really that important to him anyway.

I thought it would be a good idea to give it to you when, and if, we talk. You know. A penny for your thoughts?

This story won third prize in The Alice Monroe Literary Festival Short Story Contest in May of 2008. I earned $50.00 for it. The money wasn’t a big deal. I was happy to be among the winners of a Festival bearing Alice Munro’s name. But I realized that writing for a living wasn’t really realistic – for me. I’ve written a lot more since then and entered a lot more contests. You win some. You lose some. Enjoy.

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

March 22, 2020 at 1:25 PM

SNAGGED

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He takes an old plastic pail from the back of his Chevy Silverado, flips it upside down and twists the open end into the sand and gravel shore close to the edge of the river. He returns to his truck and briefly rummages around in the back, mumbling to himself until he finds what he’s looking for – a well-worn red cushion with duct-taped corners now split from wear and revealing fraying foam edges. He gently places the cushion on the top of the pail, shifts it around searching for what he feels is the right angle.  He pats it twice just to make sure that it still has the support he needs for a long day of sitting. 

He leans his rod against the pail and opens the lid to his tackle box. It doesn’t take him long to rig his line. Flipping back his rod he casts out over the muddy brown, slow-moving water. The lure traces a high arc before plopping down in the middle of the river. The bobber surfaces and floats uneasily with the current. Satisfied that he hit a deep enough spot he slowly lowers himself on to the cushion.

“Now we wait.” A slim smile cracks his normally stoic face. He lights a cigarette and looks up at the traffic heading in and out of town over the long concrete bridge spanning the river. 

“They’re going somewhere.” He exhales a long, thin stream of smoke. “I ain’t going anywhere but here.” 

He knows there is nothing better for him, nothing more that he wants to do other than what he’s doing right now. Sitting. Waiting. Watching. Willing the fish to his lure.

His wife is at home, reading, as she does when he goes fishing. It’s a good thing the town has a library, he often says to her, otherwise we’d be broke if you had to pay for all the books you go through

Aren’t you the lucky one, then. She is happy to get him out of her hair. She prefers to have the mornings to herself.

He can’t stand her kind of doing nothing. Even as a boy he was always outside, wandering on his own…exploring…letting the world pass him by. To him solitude is a state of grace.

It is cold down on the river shore. The slow rising sun isn’t warming things up yet. That’s the way he likes it. He squints into the stubborn early morning light. A small breeze sends ripples across the water’s surface moving his line back and forth, so he has nothing to do but light up another cigarette and wait. He doesn’t mind if the fish ignore him.

Out of the corner of his eye he notices a young man setting up a folding chair just down shore from him. The old man smiles when he sees what the fellow is wearing – ball cap, jacket and pants with more zippered pockets than needed and boots, all in that dark green and beige camouflage pattern you see a lot of come deer hunting season. When he sees the fellow arranging a thermos, cooler, iPhone and ear buds, and one of those big, plastic, multi-drawer tackle boxes neatly beside his chair, the old man just shakes his head and smiles.

When the young man starts casting out his line and reeling it in repeatedly, the old man senses something that he’s familiar with. With each cast he the feels it building inside. It’s a frustration the boy should be feeling, not him. But, he can’t help himself.

“You ought to let your lure just sit a bit so they can get at good look at what you’re offering them. Doesn’t look like the fish will be chasing bait this morning,” he says in a loud voice. 

“What?” The young man doesn’t look up. He keeps casting and reeling in. 

“I said, relax, the fish don’t seem to be in much of a hurry right now.”

“What makes you the bloody expert?”

The tone of voice surprises the old man. He didn’t expect that kind of response, but he was familiar with it. Since his suggestion isn’t welcome he turns away, content to stare at the water and take shelter in his own thoughts.

He never did deal well with confrontation. Whenever he came up against anyone with strong opinions he would shrug and allow that they had a right to what they were thinking. This was his way of avoiding arguments. He didn’t like conflict. To him, people who put so much effort in wanting to be right all the time didn’t have a sense of peace about them. 

His wife said he was always in retreat, that he had no spirit for a good argument or discussion. Her gentle criticism didn’t bother him. Throughout his working life he wanted nothing more than to be left alone to do his job. Those he worked with saw him as a calm, easy going, but private individual…what they called ‘a good worker’. He managed to survive, retire well and still feel good about himself. 

“Are there any fish in this river?” The young man is shouting at him.

True to the person he’s always been, the old man doesn’t respond. He looks away, drops his cigarette into the sand grinding it out with the heel of his boot. In his own time, on his own terms, he might get around to answering.

“Do you ever catch anything off this shore?” There is a tinge of agitation in the fellow’s voice.

The old man sighs, shifts his weight on the cushion and slowly turns to him. “Sometimes. Sometimes you just have to wait them out. Sometimes you only wait a few minutes. Sometimes you wait all day long. Sometimes you wait for nothing.” 

“Thanks for the advice.” The fellow puts as much sarcasm into the words as he can. 

The old man hears it, but isn’t bothered. It isn’t his fault if this fellow doesn’t see the truth in his answer. If this young man could put his impatience on hold for a second and listen to what he was being told, he would understand. He’s like most of the people the old man dealt with throughout his life. They were all in a big hurry. Expecting a quick solution. Demanding satisfaction right away. When they didn’t get what they thought they deserved he could see how it diminished them little by little. 

The old man stands up and reels in his line. It takes less than a minute. He knows that he’s being watched. He can see the fellow swaying from one foot to another. From the body language the old man can tell that this young man is annoyed with him. The realization that he is getting under the fellow’s skin makes him feel good…makes him bold.

“Son, what is it you want me to say, exactly?”

“You could answer my question straight up.”

“I did. You just need to listen more. It isn’t my fault if the fish aren’t biting.” 

He paused a moment deliberating whether to keep talking.

“It certainly isn’t my fault if you aren’t catching anything. I’m not either. So, really, what is the problem?”

 All he is doing is trying to communicate the reality of the moment. If this guy isn’t prepared to deal with reality, then fine. He isn’t prepared to let him upset his morning. 

Toying with someone like this isn’t something he’s done very often. It comes as a surprise that he can bring himself to this point. He knows he is deliberately taunting the fellow. If his wife were here she’d say this was certainly no retreat. Finally found some spirit is what she would probably say. He laughs softly at the thought.

The fellow ignores the old man’s last comment and casts his line down river. He turns his back to the old man who stands watching, serene and satisfied…doing what feels right to him…enjoying this moment. 

As the young man reels in, his line goes taut. His rod bends and moves in the direction of the current. He jerks it back quick and hard to set the hook and turns to the old man.

“Looks like sometimes is right now for me,” 

There’s a look of triumph on his face. His rod bends even more as he struggles to bring in his catch. With each turn of the spool he looks in the old man’s direction and lets out a short, high pitched whoop. About a minute passes. Nothing happens. Nothing moves except the river.

“Looks like you caught bottom,” says the old man.

Ignoring him, the fellow whips his rod up, down and sideways trying to get free. His face grows red with frustration.

“You keep pulling on it like that, the hook’ll only set deeper into whatever you snagged.” 

“Got an answer for everything, don’t you old man.” 

“I’m just…”  

“I don’t need you to tell me what to do.”

It  feels as if the wind off the river is blowing these words into the old man’s face, collapsing the moment, forcing it to fall in on him. He doesn’t have control of this situation like he thought he did. At this point his will gives way to a crushing weariness. For years he has unconsciously given in to a fatigue so palpable, so deep that it weakened his spirit. He suddenly realizes how exhausted he is.

The old man closes his eyes, trying to shut out this feeling that he has known all his life.

He feels the fellow’s anger flow into his body on some invisible conduit. Tension grows tighter in his head as he watches the young man struggle to pull his line free. He feels the fellow’s frustration pressing down on his chest. Like the line that is caught on an unknown obstacle deep beneath the surface he feels hooked to some unfathomable reality laying deep in his soul. He can’t breath. An unseen snag at the bottom of his brain holds him fast and won’t let go…won’t let him surface so he can suck in a lung-full of air. He squeezes his eyes shut hoping it will all go away.

Something snaps inside like a switch, releasing feelings he’s resisted for too long. Pain burns momentarily across his palms. 

Opening his eyes he finds himself standing beside the young man, holding the remnants of the fishing line in his bare hands. 

The young man looks at him not realizing what happened. He lifts his rod, free now from the hold of the river. Wind catches the severed line. 

The old man walks back to his pail and sits down on his tattered cushion. He looks at his hands and sees a thin trace of blood where the line cut into the skin of his palms.

There is no pain, just a feeling of liberation.

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

December 16, 2019 at 12:45 PM

SLEEPLESSNESS

with 3 comments

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At 4:00 AM – when sleep won’t come – I sense a stirring in the darkness.

The night begins to weaken – loses its grip – and allows hints of grey to appear.

The change of light awakens the crows and they begin to call to each other as if to welcome – or at least encourage the sun to appear.

Come 5:00 AM night is almost gone.

By 6:00 AM the light brightens.

And I begin to understand

How slowly up the darkness daybreak climbs.

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Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

January 17, 2019 at 4:10 PM

THE OLD JACKKNIFE

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Memories sometimes fade.

The events that spawned those memories become vague

as years grow on you. One ember of memory rekindled itself

when I found his jackknife at the back of a drawer.

 

My father was a bricklayer.

He was the only one of his crew allowed to raise the corners. As he crafted a perfect pyramid of bricks, he sang “As Time Goes By,” under his breath thinking himself Humphrey Bogart. The others watched and waited.

With line and level he laid out precise right angles as a guide for each course to come, a leads for the others to follow. When done he would stand back and throw down his trowel, the point thunking into the mortarboard. The other bricklayers took this as their cue to raise the wall to the exactness of his corners.

After a brief moment he would smile, spit in his hands, grab the hockey-taped handle of his trowel, and with one smooth, powerful motion scoop up mortar, spread it straight, and slice a crevice down the center of the cement with the point of his trowel. At the same time he grabbed a brick with his free hand, tossed it into the air so that it turned to the right surface, caught it and placed it deftly at the start of another course.

“Ragazzi,” he would shout, “Guardi un vero muratore al lavoro.” Hey boys, watch a real bricklayer at work. The exchange of good-natured insults kept coming until he was ready to raise the next corner.

Sometimes he hockey-taped his hands and fingers. Mostly when he was handling solid sixteen-inch blocks, laying the foundation of some larger building. The black tape protected the calluses that had grown thick over the years. As a child I could feel their roughness when he grabbed my wrist when I misbehaved. His vice like grip was unbreakable. Although he was a small man, he had the arms of a bodybuilder.

Over the years arthritis stiffened his fingers. His health began to fail. His skill followed. Even though he taped his hands, he took to wearing leather gloves to keep the calluses from tearing with the coarseness of the brick

All the bricklayers he worked with realized what was happening. When he began letting others raise the corners they knew he was done, as did he.

One night he came home, dropped his tool bag on the landing at the top of the cellar stairs, and left it there.

“Non ne ho piu bisogno,” he said. I don’t need these anymore.

I bring him fresh peaches from the corner fruit market. We sit at the kitchen table, his jackknife in front of him. He takes the peaches out of the bag, one by one, weighing each in his trembling hand, gauging their firmness. Those that are too ripe he sets aside.

“I like to slice them and dip them in wine,” he says. The anticipation brings a smile to his face.

As he tries to pull the blade open, the knife falls to the table. He can’t control the spasms in his hands. Transparent skin is drawn tight making the tendons prominent. There is a slight shaking in his movement. But he clasps his fingers together and raises his hands to his chin as if he’s praying and it disappears.

His frustration quickly changes to anger as he stares at the knife as if it too has betrayed him. Staring out of the kitchen window he lets out a small sigh.

Magenta veins bulge on the back of the hand that pushes the knife toward me. “Lo prendi,” he says. You take it.

“It was my father’s knife.” He places his hand on mine. “Now I give it to you.”

The jackknife’s stag horn handle is worn thin from use. On one side, a slim silver plate is engraved with a barely visible name. Each blade unfolds easily. One must have broken some time ago. It is less than half the length of the main blade. You can see where it was ground down to a sharp point. The cutting edge has a deep half-moon curve in it from constant sharpening. Along the back, a corkscrew fits snugly in an indentation in the bone. Beside it rests a needle-like awl. Between them, running the length of the knife is a steel shaft that hooks over the end. Its purpose is still a mystery to me. Two grooves, one on each side, are cut into the bone end. They are empty. I can only guess that they held removable needles or picks that were lost over the years. With the blade fully extended the weight of its steel forged decades ago gives way to a delicate balance.

As I slice the peach cleanly, the knife has never lost its edge.

I still have it. I’ve never used it since that day.

Joe Nanni

Remembering you on Father’s day, Peppino.

 

 

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

June 18, 2017 at 6:00 AM

BRUCE COUNTY BACKROADS

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Side roads. Concession roads. Hardtop and hard-pack gravel. Graded and ungraded. Rutted and rain-eroded. They can get your car dust covered or mud caked depending on weather and which road you’re on. They are Bruce County two-lanes leading you everywhere and not necessarily where you want to go.

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We often drive these Bruce County back-roads. She is looking for birds. I’m looking for pictures. I don’t care much about shooting birds. My meager 250 mm lens fails in comparison to some of the big glass that other shooters carry. Most times, birds are just too far way to capture anything decent.

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I’m OK with that. I’m more interested in what was…the abandoned barns and farmhouses, the fences, the fallen in roofs and stone foundations…the what’s-left-on-the-land from times gone away.

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The structures that faced years of winds and weather, that struggled to stay upright and remain proud of what they provided to their hard-working owners…structures of shelter and warmth, places, markers that families once called home.

Some markers are different.

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This pockmarked weathered stone, its carved inscription unreadable, sits solitarily, a sentinel overlooking a vista of fields un-ploughed or planted. It seems out of place. More often than not you’ll see clusters of resurrected tombstones sitting on the side of secondary roads salvaged from some long forgotten cemetery to make room for more farmable fields. This one stands alone.

Cloud shadows silently drift across the fields it watches over. Why is it there? Is there meaning in its placement? Or is it just a photo-op for a wandering amateur with a camera? I doubt if I will ever know. But I take the shot anyway and move on.

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There is a great deal more to discover and capture on these roads.

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So we drive on.

NORWAY AND SORROW’S END

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The Spitsbergen’s thrusters whine into full power and gently push us away from the dock. In mid-harbour the helmsman takes advantage of the ship’s momentum and deftly executes an arc that turns the bow towards the channel markers. The main engines take over and we move, dead-slow, to the waiting open water just beyond the towering, treeless granite mountains standing on each side of the harbour mouth. Angry crags of rock dark from cloud shadow are sucking what sunlight they can into their crevices before the dark night clouds roll in.

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With the sun sinking behind us we are outward bound. A certain sadness sails with us.

September 19 – 3:30. On a soft, sun-filled afternoon Alice left us. She hadn’t the strength to fight any longer. Alzheimer’s had robbed her of her mind. Now it wanted her spirit. We were with her. She knew because she held Norma’s hand tightly. It was one of those late September days that borders on autumn but is reluctant to cross over. You know this because you can see the light changing – loosing its softness – the colours becoming vivid and taking on a harder edge as the sun prepares for the oncoming fall.

She was days away from her 94th birthday. We were days away from our trip to Norway.

 There was little time to grieve. Just time enough for us to stop in our tracks and think about what just happened. Time enough for arrangements and lawyers and wills and settlements and a multitude of phone calls and of course, packing and travel needs. In the midst of it all we realized that we would have to pack our sorrow and take it with us as we sailed the coast of Norway.

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There is nothing as exasperating as travel to take your mind off everything else. Caught in the computer labyrinth of check-in and customs. The lateness of flight departures. The guaranteed jet lag. The stress of tight transfer timelines. The unknown of arriving sleep deprived in an unfamiliar country. Some would say this is the down side of travel; taking yourself out of your comfort zone – trying to create a new “now” even though it is only temporary but must be mastered, quickly. Lawrence Durrell in “Bitter Lemons” described it well: “Journeys…A 1000 different circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will – whatever we may think.”

A new level of determination is needed because it is ‘travel’ – a personal challenge – a unfamiliar situation where you willingly place yourself – where the puzzle of logistics – the unfamiliar of an unknown place – the solving of ‘the way’ is your task. Maps, guidebooks, Internet recommendations don’t accurately deal with the new reality of location, language and customs. Hauling belongings. Running for trains. Searching for streets with unpronounceable names. Fighting fatigue. Lost in the din of strange words. Your best currency is your wit and your intelligence.

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When I was young. When I was dreaming dreams of traveling the world, I dreamt of sailing to strange places on a tramp steamer or a cargo ship crewed by misfits and lost souls running from their past – escaping from themselves. We would put-in to strange ports, drink rum in some noisy quayside bar, off-load cargo then sail on to repeat the same process in yet another port many nautical miles away.

I read stories of people who left their lives behind or vacationed recklessly as passengers on a rusty, creaky ship for months at a time seeking solitude, anonymity and the peace of just being themselves without the bother of having to be a tourist. This trip would be something like that only more civilized.

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The Spitsbergen is a supply ship for 200 travelers that stops in small ports up the coast of Norway, past the Arctic Circle turning at the Russian Border and heading back down again…a working ship with cruise ship amenities, but none of the luxury liner nonsense. It would be twelve days on the Norwegian Sea, time enough to move through the silent sorrow that was traveling with us.

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Lights creep towards us. As they come closer, they flash revealing a bigger ship approaching. Our bridge lights come full on. A blast from our ship’s horn startles us. Now the bridge lights of both vessels illuminate the darkness. Spitsbergen’s sister ship rushes past lights flashing as if waving. We rock with its wake. With engines full now we race ahead into the night of dark water.

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It was on this day that I learned of Henry’s passing. Henry had been a close friend since grade school. The loss of a childhood friend brings on a completely different feeling of grief than that of the loss of a family member. What is taken from you is a close relationship forged independently of family prerequisites. It is something deeply personal. A friendship founded on a sharing of intimate life-moments and experiences that infused your personality and contributed to your independence. And this independence let you leave your family; so to speak, so that you could become the individual you are now…the individual that only your friends would understand because they were there most steps of the way. Henry was one of those friends. But, like Alice, he left. And now we are sailing with the memory of them both.

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As we sailed this rugged, rocky mystic coast with its cliffs, crags, snow-capped mountains, mist, fog and fiords – this shrouded landscape with steep scree strewn slopes that slide straight into the Norwegian sea – where rain clouds chased the light until they both blended into a kaleidoscope of colours – where stars dominate the night skies and the aurorae dance to the unheard music of the universe – we realized this is the perfect place for remembrance:

 But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 30

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On a cold rainy overcast day, in an old wooden Sami church in Trumso, we lit a candle for Alice and a candle for Henry. And then we got on with our journey.

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Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

November 13, 2016 at 3:13 PM

RIPRAP

with 2 comments

Lay down these words before your mind like rocks placed solid by hands in choice of place, set before the body of the mind in space and time. Solidity of bark, leaf or or wall…riprap of things.  Gary Snyder

If you’re a scribbler, you tend to record your experiences, your encounters, your thoughts and impressions on whatever scrap of paper you have handy. Then you stuff it in a file, in a pile of stuff on your desk, in a drawer or between the pages of a notebook, which when full, gets shelved and, no doubt, forgotten. I was searching through such things the other day when I found this folded up scribble on a torn-out page of a diary. Such discoveries always spark memories. This one takes me years back to a time when summer always meant two weeks on a small island in Lake Anima Nipissing. We left the world behind when we were there. There was very little to do…so we did very little. Each day set its own pace. Here’s what I wrote back then.

Jennifer Harvard…thanks for the shot

Jennifer Harvard…thanks for the shot

A Sunday in August – 1987

My daughter and I search for crayfish along the rock-strewn shoreline.

As we wade in the water we come across random piles of slate, granite and limestone lying on the bed of the slim, shallow channel that stretches some twenty feet between our cottage and its diminutive island neighbour. Haphazardly piled one on top of the other, the stones look like a crude underwater foundation for a rock bridge. But, their span doesn’t make it all the way across.

“Looks like someone tried to fill in this channel a while back,” I said.

“How can you tell?”

“From the riprap, there, just under the water’s surface.”

She turned to me with that child’s stop-talking-to-me-like-a-grown-up look on her face. “Riprap? What’s that mean?”

“It’s the loose rocks that they lay down as a foundation,” I explain, trying not to sound too pedantic. “Riprap…”

“But islands are never supposed to be joined, are they,” she says trying to show me that she has a fundamental grasp of geography. “They wouldn’t be islands then, would they?”

“Not necessarily,” I answer as she wades in carefully. “But maybe these stones were meant to be built up so they, natives I guess, could walk across. They chose this spot because the water is shallow and easier to build a path across. Which is good for us.”

“But, not for the crayfish, I hope.”

I was glad she came back to our reason for being here. “Do you see any?”

“No,” she says shading her eyes with her hands as she peers into the clear shallows.

“Then it is good for them because they think they’re safe.”

Intent on finding her first crayfish, she pays me no attention.

“They hide underneath…in the tiny spaces between the rocks, safe from your evil, clutching, human hands.” That makes her laugh.

She continues staring into the water, straining for a glimpse of her prey. The day is slightly overcast. There is still enough light filtering through the clouds to keep the surface transparent and free of cloud shadows.

“Their colour and markings are rock-like…perfect camouflage under water. That’s what makes them so difficult to spot. You have to concentrate.”

Gingerly lifting a stone she finds her quarry. But it is quicker than her young reflexes can manage. The crayfish propels itself backwards skittering under another piece of slate. She moves its new hideout aside but the elusive creature is gone again before she can grab it. There follows a flurry of splashing from stones yanked and thrown helter skelter, muddying the water and taking away any advantage we have.

“Easy,” I said. “You’re not thinking about what you’re doing.”

“I am. I’m gonna’ keep looking under the stones.”

“You won’t find crayfish if you stomp around like that. You’re driving them deeper under the stones. We need to stop and let things settle.”

We move on shore to wait for the water to clear. I look at her sitting there innocently hugging her legs, resting her chin on her knees, eyes straight ahead. I sense her frustration with me in every loud breath she takes.

“You have to be patient.” I say softly, “Crayfish are kind of like people. They back away when they feel threatened. They look for someplace safe…something to hide behind”

“People don’t hide under rocks.”

I can’t argue with her logic. She is testing me. My analogy is obviously too obtuse for her to understand. I can see she has no idea of what I’m talking about. In trying to get through to her I just dig myself a deeper hole.

“Looking for crayfish is a lot like trying to understand people,” I say. “You have to let them know you’re not going to harm them so they’ll show themselves to you. And just like you peel away people’s defenses to find their real selves you must gently lift away the rocks without disturbing the water to find the crayfish.”

With a deep sigh she reaches down and carefully picks up a small piece of flat slate. A crayfish sits there not moving. I am surprised at the speed with which she grabs it.

“He had no other place to hide,” she says happily dropping the helpless crayfish into her sand pail.

Pleased with herself she takes a bigger pail, fills it with water and throws in a few small rocks. “I’m making him his own riprap,” she says with that mocking tone of voice all kids have.

When she pours the crayfish in she looks at me mischievously “Do you think it feels safe now?”

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

October 23, 2015 at 12:41 PM

Posted in Uncategorized