About me

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Come, sail with me

Come, sail with me
Copyright 2008 Jim Penny
Word count: 1028

The student
She walked absently across the barely greening university lawn, patches of a late season’s wet snow still clutching to the shadowy edges of roots and walls. Her mind remained in study for the end-of-year and end-of-school exams beginning in a week. Her jeans were damp at the cuffs from the lingering, melting snow, and the chilled breeze discernibly warmer than last week passed unchecked through the open front of her jacket. She walked the brick-lined path in habit, following her custom to check her mailbox before going to supper, entering the ancient dormitory without knowing she was there.

Her feet followed the grey marble steps to the basement, the edges worn and rounded by the countless steps of others on a similar course. The warm air of the mail room drifted up the stairs, lifting a tendril of long brown hair to tickle her ear. She brushed it away as the long fingers of the other hand traced the brass handrail along the wall. The coolness of the metallic touch registered distantly in a mind otherwise occupied with focused analytical study. She nodded to friends passing through the doorway, one holding it open as she passed.

Through four long years she had received her mail in this one place. The combination of the mail slot, she knew in her fingers, the memory having long since migrated from brain to hand, leaving only the vestiges and shadows of letters and numbers too faint for recitation. The small door opened to reveal a single letter sitting corner to corner, top to the right, slightly bowed downward.

The letter
She recognized the writer by the shade of the paper, the script and style of the addressing, and the ancient seal of wax only he would use in this age of instant, and more reasonable, communication. She paused holding the letter in her hands, turning it from front to back, as though divining the words and message from the patina of the envelope, the spatter of the wax, the assemblage of ink flowed from gold nib onto cotton paper, and the wrinkles of too many days in transit.

She knew this letter would require solitude; they always did, and she retired to her room, delaying her meal, to open and read in private. She hung his moon, and he expressed that feeling with every breath, syllable, and word, palpable and serene, colored and profane, his life arising, as smoke from flame, in the pages he wrote and she held.

This was not to be a moment she cared to share; she never did. She never would. The envelope cracked and tore as she carefully opened it by the edge, taking care to preserve the stamp, always a stamp from God-knows-where, and a single page spilled to her lap, both page and envelope of an ancient form likely pressed by weathered hand, or so they always seemed.

Come, sail with me. A day, a week, a month, a season, a brief portion of our lives. Taste their food, drink their water, breathe their air, and forever a part of you they will be. Frame my sun and hang my moon. Count the stars, your eyes, reflecting in the sea.

The mother
“Why does he ask me such a thing now? He knows what I’m doing. He knows what I have before me. He knows where I’m going in the fall. It was his idea. They were partners. Why does he ask me now? Doesn’t he know? Surely he knows. This all started last winter when I asked him what he wanted for his birthday,” she went on to her mother, the two seated together at the kitchen table. “‘My silhouette in the moonlight,’ he told me, and we spent the winter break on the Gulf Stream. You had to pick me up in Bath because he won’t use the real harbors.”

“Yes, he knows what you’re doing, what you’re facing, and he might even know what he’s doing, but it’ll be a while before we can see it. You know he lives in a different world. Who else on God’s green earth, after funding half that university with grant money won on nothing more substantial than ‘I have a good feeling about this,’ would have recorded every full moon of the last two years? You know he ships those pictures to that lawyer in Raleigh for safe keeping. The storage alone costs a small mint, and what he plans to do with them remains a mystery to everyone with the possible exception of his Maker, but you also know he named that boat after you. The Lillian Rose, he calls it.”

The President
The unopened letter, incongruous with it’s surroundings, sat on the polished wooden desk before the university president. He read the flowing address, examined the weathered envelope, smiled over the indented wax. He didn’t need to read the letter to know the sender. They had studied, then worked, together many years, more than either cared to count, the theories of the one guiding the experiments of the other.

Walking across the creaking floor to the ancient cabinet used and left by the original president of the school, this president retrieved a dusty bottle of aged rum, poured a small glass, and stood before the window, toasting the setting sun he knew they shared. Separated by miles and now years, a convergence was upon them again.

He returned to his desk, retrieved the hand carved letter opener he’d received a year before with a scripted note on brittle paper indicating he’d have need of this one day, and carefully opened the envelope, feeling the captured tropical air waft across his face. Some brief time later, he took his own pen in hand to write.

Many opportunities face both student and university. This school has waited over two hundred years for you to arrive, and if you need, he needs, it can wait a day, a week, a month, a season, a brief portion of your life. We are ready, and we can wait until you are ready, whenever that may be. I, as he, have a good feeling about this.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A father’s discipline

A father’s discipline
Copyright 2008 Jim Penny
Word count: 883

In 1960, I was seven years old, playing in the yard one warm summer Saturday afternoon. Sitting barefooted by my sandbox mounded high with yellow sand gathered from the low spot in the road below the house where the creek threaded through a cracked culvert, rusting store-bought toy earth moving-equipment, and old discarded farm tools from another generation, I filled my world with the usual play of a young boy.

For some time, I had felt the pangs that spoke of a need to visit the bathroom indoors (the outhouse had been retired by then), but as many boys, I ignored the call as the cramp passed, thinking I’d have some additional time to play before needing stop and to step into the house. Finally, the urge was too great, and I stood.

Five steps towards the door, a terrible thing beyond a boy’s control happened, and I filled my shorts. This is a bad moment for any boy, and it was not the first time I had waited too long, but it would be my last.

As I entered the house, my father recognized my condition, and he was not amused. He stopped me in the doorway, and told me to strip on the porch, which I did. He spread old newspapers in the middle of the living room floor, and told me to stand on them. He described that if I was going to act like a dog, then he was going to treat me like one.

There I stood, shifting on my feet, hands hanging pointless to my side, naked to the world, while he read his paper and listened to the baseball game on the black-and-white Sylvania TV in the corner of the room. The smoke from his ever-present cigarette curled above his hand, rose over his head, drifted through the screen of the front door, and dissipated into the yard where I had just moments before found escape in childhood innocence.

A very few minutes into this scene, the gravel and sand crunched in the driveway telling of arriving company. My father commanded me to remain where I was, and his aunt and uncle, Addie and Tink, both as old as the dirt on which we lived and both the very definition of over-educated fool, walked into the house.

Daddy explained what he was doing, and the both of them nodded in knowing, inhuman agreement as they sat on the couch, taking up a conversation regarding the farm and this year’s crop as though the now motionless spectacle before them was as common as a mockingbird singing at sundown.

It was at that moment that I learned to become invisible, to stand alone, to stand naked, humiliated, uncaring, a beaten dog with untrusting yellow eyes, and disconnect myself from the tortuous reality of a cruel world and its unthinking people.

I do not know how long I stood there. I do not know how long Tink and Addie visited. I remember nothing more of that day beyond the sounds of my mother working alone in the kitchen. My memory of the hours beyond that point forms a blackened chasm, a pit with no bottom or light, from which not an echo arises.

Twenty years later in our last conversation before our estrangement, my father, sitting with me at the kitchen table, recalled the event with regret, asking if I remembered, looking away from my darkening countenance as the tormenting memory clouded my mind, saying how he felt that one moment represented a defining change in me, placing a distance between us that we would never bridge.

He was correct. I never cared to win his pleasure again after that Saturday afternoon. I learned to abrade him obliquely, taking my pleasure in watching his anger rise, knowing that in time he would break, grab me by one arm, and beat my ass with his farm-calloused right hand while he and I danced in ever-growing pain, anger, humiliation, and planned retribution.

A half-century beyond that sunny afternoon, I have made a certain peace with my father, or at least his memory, as I find him lurking within me more with every passing day, especially in the recognized seeds of self-destruction I carry, sow, nourish, embrace, and slowly exorcise. I wonder which of those demons I have passed to the next generation.

Yet even with the cold peace we’ve made in the certitude of death, yet even with the blessed absence of the nightly dreams in which I hold him by his gnarled and aching feet while flailing him to a bloody pulp on the trees and rocks of our shared hell, yet even with his ashes buried in the sand behind Providence Presbyterian Church where his father once preached, and yet even with the mentholated cigarettes I’ve buried by his granite marker, I can’t help but think this now ancient scar still pains me as a broken bone, healed, only to ache anew on a cold morning, precluding a step forward into the warmth of human intimacy, the intimacy that makes us functioning human beings worthy of standing on the simultaneously cursed and blessed soil of the American South, and face unblinking the glaring sun that warms our seed and parches our skin.

By the way, he hated mentholated cigarettes.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Lunch with Mama

Lunch with Mama
Copyright 2008 Jim Penny
Word count: 908

First, I need to clarify a word, that word being “lunch.” I have never eaten lunch with my mother. We have breakfast, dinner, and supper; we never have lunch. The only exception to the use of that word was the school lunch menu, which she would read with me, the both of us giggling over snicker-doodle cookies.

My last mistake with those words left me dining alone one evening, and her being miffed that I had stood her up. It was clearly my mistake, and I needed to apologize for it, which I did profusely. To this day, I still perform mental gymnastics when speaking of the noon and evening meals, lest I blow it again.

As usual, I called yesterday to see if she was planning to have dinner today. We often have dinner on Saturday at Toots, a home-style buffet in Garner that has more trouble keeping it’s sanitation rating up than does Waffle House. If you saw it, you would understand completely. Rather than describe the restaurant in detail, let me just say that the always have fried fatback on the bar, and on Sunday, you will find chitlins. I think you know where we eat now.

To make that date for dinner at Toots, I always make sure Buck, my stepdad, is on the line. Mama is sliding deeper into dementia with every day. Some days are better than others are, but the downward spiral into darkness is indisputable. The doctors prescribe medication to slow her progress, but nothing will stop it. She knows it, and she asks Buck to not tell the boys.

How he lives with it, I cannot understand. My short hour on occasional Saturdays is nearly unbearable. I remain in recovery from the Saturday afternoon in which I had to introduce her grandchildren to her, and I will likely remain so for a very long time.

Like most sons, and especially the Gay ones, I do not view Mama as an ordinary woman. Our mamas love us when no one else will.

We do not know her age because her birth was not recorded, not even in a family bible, just in the memory of the one sister who testified at the Smithfield courthouse when Mama decided it was time to file for Social Security. I suppose this is what can happen when siblings are counted in double digits.

The family sent Mama to the orphanage in Middlesex at the age of three. Her mother had died. Her father was overwhelmed by all the children, and the rest of the family rejected the children because they really didn’t like the father. His apparent sin was riding a white horse to the house while wearing a military uniform, sweeping my grandmother up to the saddle, and then taking her off to marry. The rest saw him as uppity on that horse and in that uniform.

Mama learned to survive at the orphanage with the better part of her dignity intact, though at times it cost her. The girls were forbidden to use nail polish. Doing so is a sin, you know. Mama painted her toenails red and wore socks. Is there any question as to why my own toenails are often purple?

Mama tells the story of the day some old rich woman from Raleigh came to the orphanage to give all the children a silver dollar to spend at the State Fair. Such a magnanimous act, it was. The children, gathered in the dining hall, were bouncing the coins on the tables, making a big racket. The housemothers called for silence so the generous old rich woman from Raleigh could speak.

Mama told this story as true, and I have no reason to dispute her.

There she sat in the hard dining room chair after making breakfast biscuits while standing on a pile of drink crates at 5 AM, silver dollar in hand, thinking to herself at the tender age of five that she came into that orphanage with her dignity, and she would for damn sure leave with it that way.

Her words, I assure you.

She raised her hand in the silence and dropped the coin. The plinking sound riveted all attention on her, and the coin with it’s included trip to the fair was lost. Years later, she always made sure that we went to the fair on opening day to eat foot-long hotdogs. I still have recurring dreams of those visits, $25 in hand.

So today, I leave the apartment early enough to stop for flowers on the way to Toots. I selected a dozen yellow roses with a slight pink tinge. Yellow was always her favorite color, and the yard was always full of yellow roses in various shades, purchased on a Saturday afternoon from the nursery in Angier near the IGA where we bought groceries.

Along the way, I was thinking about Mama and her flowers. She was always took forever to throw out any bouquet, and I knew this dozen would sit on her table for weeks until the last petal fell, if not longer, and even then, she would be slow to throw them out and sad when she did. No matter how withered, she would speak of how beautiful they are.

Then, as though seeing the mysteries of the universe unfold before me on Highway 70 South, I understood. She does not see the flowers as they are; she sees them as they were.

And there, I believe, is how I have to see her as she slips into darkness.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

To join again the waiting sea

To join again the waiting sea
Copyright 2008 Jim Penny
Word count: 354

He leaned, propped by arms tanned from five decades of outdoor labor, on the polished metal of the sloping hood. The reddening streaks of sunset teased the curling grey hair spilling across his weary shoulders. The fading sunlight splashed the same colored hood, reflected into the low hanging willow, and was lost to human eyes. The humid air drifted through the sedge from the tree lined creek he couldn’t see, its brown water sliding without ripple along the unmeasured length of meandering valley, too shallow to deserve the name. The stream evaporated faster than it flowed, and neither the distant sea nor the enveloping atmosphere slowed their immutable and fathomless pace to reckon with any human certitude the accumulation of the droplets unseen.

A younger man by twenty years lifted himself with straightening arms, reaching the curved lip of the right fender, finding his seat by the other. He pushed his bare legs forward, the tender arches of his narrow feet framing the setting sun. He turned the soles forward, the red glow spilling through his flexing toes. The pale light streaked his freckled knees, racing along his outward turned elbows, finding its fate in the eternal shade of the drooping willow. His sun-streaked hair pooled as he arched his back. He cast closed eyes to the waning glow of the ending day, breathing deeply the sweet wet air of this after-work, with-him, before-night evening.

The final light of day flickered beyond a distant pine, and time was gone, leaving the space no longer filled by day and not yet filled by night, a moment passing unseen to the eye cast forward in anticipation, or behind in worry. Yet a moment missed not this day and not this night and not by these two, this one, who by common breath captured, safe for the now, this fleeting moment that shims the penetrating light of day from the all-absorbing darkness of night. Brotherhood slipping one measure further along an unfettered progression, the breaths of the two becoming the breath of the one, warmed air expanding, forming a cloud unseen, drifting timeless toward the waiting sea.