by Geoff Garwick
I. The Abs.
A breath—that’s short—bikini brief short.
Chest rises. Chest Falls. Then our scene ends.
It’s curtains for you. A meteor is slower
When compared to a star’s orbit,
Than human life’s flickering trends.
Air twisting gymnast soars wingless,
Dwarfed by the towering high bar.
Floating weightless in the giant’s
Apogee for shards of a second,
Where the flyer lives lighter than a star.
Leaves float for hours, days, years,
Compared to the human pause atop.
Brains and muscles flip us higher,
Brave, amazing aerial displays
But in wink’s time, we--still—must drop.
II. The Skin and Drippy Nose.
In my chameleon-weathered homeland
We are amazingly well-seasoned:
Oregano, ginger, chipotle and cumin
Have nothing on us at all.
But merely calling the plunge “autumn”
Won’t dull the pain when we hit bottom.
III. The Scapulae and Wishbone.
Watch that well-greased first step,
You who, soon a little lower than angels
Formerly looking up to you,
Now clutch wings requiring glue.
You’ll miss the feathers most,
No longer a morning person,
Meteoring for uprushing
Ground, where, unfledged, you’ll be crushing
De-aeried favorite son,
Epaulets and pinions gone,
Blaze snuffed by exile’s pall
For long, lonely years you’ll fall.
Heaven’s best becomes its dreck
When the plucked throne hits the deck,
Now mortals must clean up the wreck
Of dull wings driven through your neck.
IV. The Rib and Teeth
PLUNGE FROM GRACE.
LOST OUR PLACE:
SWORD IN FACE.
The Eve of nude.
Sweat dropping, crude.
Birth pangs turn rude.
V. The Pelvis and the Femur
How many light bulbs does it take
To help a crucial bone to break?
I hear it requires only one
If a ladder guarantees the fun.
If you’re not yet drooled or mumbling
Begin the collapse by stumbling.
In a fall from gravity’s grace,
Smash at least one joint, then replace.
The down escalator’s rumbling
As you slouch toward further crumbling.
When legs slither after bones are burst
The crowd assumes your mental worst.
Abcess-minded bits of bumbling
Unleash mosquito stings of humbling,
In the mornings the geezer crawls
Until its damned London Bridge falls.
VI. The Midbrain and the Heart
Yearning and yearning, quasar-lashed,
Paired stars gyre about a new
Fulcrumed, formerly empty, point.
A jet of fusing synergy
Sweeps from the rotating partners.
Their center does not fold--
Not origami; tempered edge.
What chimera'ed beast measures self
By dear circumnavigations
Of the incoiled, twined other?
WE, screaming “now”, dive into love,
Seals lost, beaks gaped, talons flared,
Tearing hungrily into our
Own deepest viscera to feed
Ravening chicks of hopeful melds.
Sloughing off lost Jerusalems,
The universe drops pulled-out strings,
Which dared to exist outside of we --
Extruding what’s not Gemini,
The sad fey shadows beyond us.
VII. The Wrist and Phalanges
Dice play at
Through infinite games.
© Copyright Geoffrey Byron Garwick. All Rights Reserved.
MORE WHITTLING AWAY on “The MUDDLED MIDDLERS”,
AMERICA’S EMBATTLED & IMPERILED MIDDLE CLASS...
By Dr. Geoffrey B. Garwick
In the first of my three-part series on the dwindling and deprivileging of the USA’s middle class ( see The Diction Aerie’s Guest Forum, March 4, 2016 post ) I reviewed a few of the less-publicized indicators of this financial topsoil loss, an erosion that is producing a mammoth and engulfing Dead Zone in our national sense of community. In this essay I turn not to some shadowy figure of hope who never appears -- as in Samuel Beckett’s play, “Waiting for Godot” -- but to the ubiquitous phone menus we routinely wrestle with when calling nearly any business nowadays. Examining such supposedly beneficial time-saving systems, we are witnessing more of the thousand cruel cuts taken from the non-rich, whether they’re ensnared and likely forever lower class, or destined to be future lower class. Or even the would-be middle class citizens.
Albert Einstein in his relativity articles posited the amazing interchangeability of energy and matter. His equations also rested on the intimate intertwining of space and time. That same spirit of transformation holds when tycoons, balked by any strenuous or rote-work activity, complain that “time is money”. They mean, of course, that said tycoon – who like an Orwellian Animal Farm elite is “more equal than others” -- stands to earn so much money per precious minute that every stray second must be seized to harvest even more billowing income. This striving for time efficiency almost never seems to extend to the tycoon’s underlings, such as secretaries and servants, whose sole sad raison d’etre is to waste as many of their minutes puttering about to meet every whim demanded by said tycoon. A few examples are shared below of procedures and circumstances which waste the previous time of the unrich, particularly the middle class or those aspiring to fight their way toward becoming bona fide Middlers.
* THOSE @#$% VOICEMAIL MENUS: Phone menus are valuable for companies insofar as they replace or substantially minimize the need for receptionists or inquiry responders. However, it should be remembered that these eliminated phone jobs, if covered by people in the USA (not Mumbai or Manila) who are properly trained and empowered so they could be of maximum help, would go a long way to boosting the domestic inventory of America’s desperately needed lower-middle-class jobs.
Now, getting down to the nitty gritty -- do the phone menus actually assist any folks who are calling? It is unclear if their often incomplete or overlapping categories ever help most customers, but they can be especially vexing, even infuriating, for first time users. Just sitting through a long-winded robo-recitation of all the categories which do not fit a novice’s needs can be time-consuming. But most galling are the times when what is required is a human being with flexibility and encouragement, virtues by which people possess key advantages over machines. Among the critical signals that a menu is designed as a token, not an aid, to customers are those damnable lists which never offer you some version of a “speak to a representative” option, or which by demonic frequency only offer a non-functioning or utterly incorrect phone number.
Who among us does not have to wrestle with phone menus? Answer – only those wealthy enough to hire minimum wage go-fers to call and wait on the line for them, or families in which someone stays at home all day. Who is most stressed by being dependent on such menus?: those struggling to reach or stay in the middle class, possibly working two or three adult jobs per family. They are often sleep-deprived, quality-time impoverished, and starved for recreation. For folks already time-poor, the two, three, four, or more minutes wasted on listening to idiotic useless categories can be unbearably painful ancillary indignities to the core frustration of never finding the info they hoped for in the first place.
* DAY CARE: There are basically two situations in which American families are able to afford day care: if it’s subsidized by an employer or the government, or if the family is already affluent. This means that some parents use relatives or non-working (and generous) friends or the two parents work different shifts to mitigate the need for day care. It is a given that unless you can afford to hire nannies, sleep and many other healthful activities are already endangered by raising children and having full-time jobs. The working poor cannot finance daycare on their own and may lose daycare subsidies when they start to earn an income above the starvation level. Until the price of daycare is subsidized at higher levels so that it does not eviscerate a poor family’s budget, child-raising for the middle or working class family often means that there is one less wage earner.
* HUMANLESS BILLING SYSTEMS: Recalling that a critical element of many financial communications is to make the use of “expensive" customer contacts with humans; bills whether online or paper often are designed to hide or dodge convenient access to those mythical creatures called “representatives”. As with phone menus, favorite techniques of human-avoiding bills include telling customers not to attach comments to payments, hiding contact information in small print on obscure back pages, or simply not supplying any phone numbers for customer assistance on the bills. Thus, the double whammy for both remnant or aspirant Middlers is first, the time-devouring irritant of problem resolution delayed and second, the tragic elimination of middle-class jobs.
* ONLINE “DYSCONVENIENCES”: Sure, if there is some activity you do repeatedly, the computerization of it can be convenient. But consider also the huge and continuing increase in required use of the online mode for many activities with which you may not interact often enough to ever become familiar. Such shifts in responsibility can be a great money saver for our towering tycoons, comfortably insulated from middle class stressors, but the bottom line is this: the middle class consumer today is expected to do a hefty amount of labor and take an ever-increasing responsibility for arrangements formerly done by workers in all sorts of companies, notably larger businesses. Big Biz is pawning off vast chunks of its labor costs back on the Middlers, whom they allegedly formed their companies to serve in the first place. Some of this shift in workload had been taken by relying on offshore workers, but perhaps now even that expenditure is resented. Meanwhile the rich can hire people to respond to this new time-burden, Muddled Middlers without personal assistants or their own bureaucracy simply cannot do it.
* EVER-CHANGING TIMES: With fewer well-paying jobs, it will increasingly be people in the later stages of their lives and careers who earn comfortable, middle class incomes. For such late-bloomers, instead of decades of middleness, it may be only the last ten years of their working days that they get to be real Middlers. If societal and technological change continues to accelerate, the reliance on humanless systems may well become even more onerous for the surviving Middlers, even if they are aging Millennials or other generations who were suckled on cyber-tech, and the Conquering Cloud.
In such a future’s Bereaved New World -- of constantly accelerating Mutatis Mutandis -- those lower and mid-Middlers who once ran the complex tech systems will eventually drop out or retire, usually with seriously strained financial resources. As new wrinkles enter the current tech systems, these once-in-the-know folks, as their knowledge over-ripens, may discover newer more vexing stresses – far worse than wading through a tortuously useless phone menu. These hapless aging Middlers to come will learn the future version of our present anguish – precious time lost while desperately hoping to speak to a real person whose annunciatory recording claims that “your call is very important to us.” (Yeah right.) All this from a company who finds us mere plebian Middlers apparently not important enough to hire enough (or pay well enough) to attract more expert question-fielders to answer our sincere calls politely and expeditiously.
* WAITING IN TRAFFIC: This maddening time waster often has been explored, since it is such a glaring example of the lifestyle limitations and costs of being lower middle class. Having toll roads or pay-for-use highway lanes may exclude the middle class or at least painfully pinch their budgets, but is merely one more trivial expense which the rich will readily absorb.
Lower middle classers, whose incomes have basically have been flattened for decades must add to their formidable pile of bills if they want to save some of the time of commuting with the help of these special lanes or roads. One of the benefits of mass transit, another alternative to sitting in traffic, is that it may allow time for reading, contemplation, or relaxation during the bus or train trip. However, most representatives of the rich do not want to pay for this “free” time for some Middlers or aspiring Middlers.
And when the Holy Grail of traffic control finally arrives (if Elon Musk is right) within the next decade or so – the driverless robo car – of course only the rich will be able to afford it. Because in the Techno-Econo Animal Farm of post-modern America, “All drivers are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Back in the late 1960s, the British Invasion rock group, the Kinks, sang what could have been a prophetic dirge for today’s lower and mid-middle classes about being “…so tired, tired of waiting…”. There weren’t even phone menus back then and a lot fewer “pay way” lanes, but the Kinks’ sentiments nevertheless resonate through the middles waiting for help on the phone, for rises in real wages, for egalitarian transportation (maybe another day we can lament the airlines’ relentless attacks onlower and middle class flyers),for affordable education, or for human-backed billing systems.
If we wait and wait (and wait) long enough, will Godot or somebody like him, or at least middling respect, ever arrive?
Don’t hold your breath America. You might end up turning blue, minus the red and white stripes -- across your back.
© Copyright Dr. Geoffrey B. Garwick. All Rights Reserved.
Editor's note: Our indelibly progressive amigo de letras, Geoff Garwick, will continue raging against The Machine in a future post, coming soon to a website near you. Stay tuned. Or at least reasonably open-minded. But never look backwards. Sump'm might be gainin' on you.
(Special thanks to photographer Jim McIntosh of Philadelphia for his top photo of Bread Line Statues.
And warm thanks to Ryan McGuire, Ithaca NY for his evocative monochrome of Waiting Woman, below.
Another hearty 'n hale high five to the gifted team at Pixabay for their stellar cornucopia of art pics.)
© Evelyn Jane Bechtel. All Rights Reserved.
I have left you every place
You could not come with me…
Your initial gravely carved
Upon a tree along the trail
Or in the park
Or written with a purple Sharpie
( Must be purple )
Your color, gracing restroom stalls
All the highway rest stop stalls
Along the Eastern Seaboard.
Solemnly I wore your scent
( Sweet Pea )
And slipped shadowlike along museum walls.
It lingered there behind me
Something of your essence
As I wandered ancient Egypt
So that you might see it all
Through my own eyes.
At the ocean in this
Life of breath and bone
You never saw me
Draw your sign in the sand…
( Just peace )
And how I searched for shells, sea stars,
The husks of long-gone crabs
And tenuous sand dollars.
All that loot that
Currency of mourning.
I gathered it for you.
With face and flesh you did not walk with me…
And still I left you every place,
The places you were meant to be.
I BREATHE DUST TONIGHT
I am not okay.
I breathe in the space that is long and shuddering as dust
Feeling all the space between too heavy.
I can be sad now, easily… tonight.
Digging up the reasons why there is a vast open plain
That stands between me and that distance point defined by you.
It doesn’t matter that you made me smile…
Tonight I can be sad because dust fills the air;
It’s all that I can breathe; it’s all I know.
Meanwhile distant sounds,
Highway sounds abound and I know the way…
I know the road to go.
There is asphalt and the whine of tires,
White lines trace the need, the path to you
While I’m struggling with this space.
My fingers dig into cool earth to find a passage
Dark and way down deep; while dust
Becomes dirt inside the moist
Earth. I breathe it in again.
Did I mention I am not okay?
I can feel this filling me; the weight of scooped earth,
This space is a burden, pulling at every bone,
While darkness promises storm and shadow,
Beside my weak efforts… to breathe… air…
It is all that I think of -- close the space between us --
Just breathe air again.
Dust is far too heavy a burden in a space like this.
Sshh… just tonight… I breathe dust in the space that matters.
at the end the snows were deep they blew in drifts
settling in peaks around our homes our lives
we wondered at the possibility
of snow reaching rooftops
entombing us for days or weeks
nobody entering or leaving no sign of life
except the one we know inside these walls
encased in white.
virgin snow settles in silence
an alien landscape disturbed
by brave wandering feet
bound up tight in wool and leather.
I watch the tracks break through the crust
they lead away from shelter
past the iron rails and warning signs
to the vastness of an open field
that leads down to the tree line
with the water just beyond.
I know what lies there
limbs hanging heavy with snow,
small tree trunks laid over
forming bridges or barricades
winter’s bones exposed
a ghost is making tracks
breaking surface gently
headed east on down the road.
I watched her go I felt her breath
my skin half prickled with the nearness
once more aware of winter’s bones
your name comes easily…
I am not haunted while I grieve
and everything is covered up in white.
I COUNT EVERY BREATH
Some things are so beautiful I believe
they should belong to you.
My breath catches
I can stop counting now
I release it all to you
notes of music
skies & stars
(cast quietly in night or azure).
Everything of beauty belongs to you.
And you belong to me
of spirits – kindred.
But you never can belong “to” --
there can be no possessing
of all that is you.
Everything of beauty belongs to no one.
Beauty is free.
And now I count every breath with peace
Inhale one two…
© Copyright Charli Mills. All Rights Reserved.
September begins the empty nest season of northern Idaho.
Gone are the Winnebegos and the migrant osprey. The Peach Man has packed up his canvas tents like the circus leaving town. No more plums dark as garnets. No more yellow cherries with pits to spit. No more flat peaches shaped like donuts. If you are unattached to a tourist season, you might have a rare opportunity to visit Paradise. But the sun has to flare the temperatures to make it worth your while to explore the vacated places.
Like a mother calling home lost children, the sun radiates a burst of desperate heat. She’s already casting a lower trajectory with shorter days and nights, but the angle of her persistence fills my office with unexpected warmth. September is for school and firewood collecting and letting the garden go wild. It’s too hot to linger inside, too hot to join the beetles and zucchini outside. A few late osprey and Canadians or Californians might be straggling behind the summer exodus and unsure how to respond to a summer day when the summer is over.
It’s a gift, you see. Take a drive to the Pack River.
Although your GPS-guiding system might tell you otherwise, there are directions to Paradise on the Pack. Go south past Elmira Pond three miles to Samuel’s Corners. Put $20 worth of gas in the tank of your truck – it must be a truck or else everyone will know you’re from California -- pick up a 6-pack Mike’s Hard Lemonade (Black Cherry) and turn right out of the station to follow the winding road through the forest of tamarack and pines.
Your GPS might fail to inform you, but the air will feel cool and your body will start to relax. Follow the narrow paved road three more miles north. Here you’ll cross the Pack River in Edna. Your GPS won’t know it’s Edna, but if you cross the bridge and see ramshackle cabins, you’re there. Drive slowly. You might hear whispers of memory or smell the ghosts of tavern hamburgers past.
Turn off your GPS at this point. You don’t want to miss glimpses of the river and Selkirk mountains. Count out three miles using the odometer (it’s located on your dash board). Or don’t. Distance is relative. You’ll drive until pavement abruptly turns to gravel. You’ve crossed county boundaries, but it doesn’t matter. It’s mostly Forest Service land. Start counting dirt roads that turn toward the river. Never mind discarded paper-plate signs from vacated campers. You want the fourth turnout. You will appreciate your truck when you descend to the river.
As you did with your GPS, turn your motor off. Now, step away from your technology.
Paradise on the Pack is near. It gurgles over metamorphosed rocks, a sound like welcoming laughter when no one is the butt of a joke and all are invited to guffaw. The late summer secret of Paradise on the Pack is the pool glittering gold in the sunlight. The water level is low, yet the grainy-bottom pool is deep enough to swim. The campers and locals who know of this swimming hole are gone. Alone in Paradise on an unexpectedly hot day is a gift.
Strip down to your bare soul and take a dip in Paradise.
Jerome pops the tab off his can of Rainier, slurping foam. “What did I tell you Donnie? Best swimming hole ever? Better than those on the lower Pack, that’s certain.”
“Not bad, kind of cold, pretty.”
“That describes the woman I’m in love with!”
Both men laugh and sit on riverside boulders, water droplets glistening on hard bodies honed in youth on the hardwood basketball courts and maintained as young sawyers tipping trees for the Forest Service.
“You’re a damn fool, Rome.”
Jerome slides the circle of the tab on his pinkie and wiggles his hand at his friend. “Going to marry that wisp of a Civil Service gal.”
“Uh-huh. When? Before or after she drafts you to Korea?”
“She wouldn’t dare. Not with my leg.” A fresh axe wound recently relieved of cat-gut stitches runs like a red line the width of lipstick down the back of Jerome’s leg. He props it on his pile of clothes on a lower rock. The friends finish their six-pack, gather clothes and head for Donnie’s truck. Jerome limps, his tendon will never fully heal.
Viola types silently, listening in on the office banter. She focuses on reports, issuing train and meal vouchers for the latest recruits to be shipped to Spokane. She worries about her sister left alone in their one-room apartment on Alder Street. The girl has one more year of high school. One more year. Then what? Viola tries not to think about the drunken woman who pounded on their door last night, slurring their father’s name. She tries not to think about the derelict who fathered the two of them. Good memories are worse. Loving parents, baking bread, hands dirty from hilling potatoes, cows calling from the pasture. When mother died, father left, too. Never mind, Viola tells herself. Just type... she wills her fingers meant for other things she’ll never get the chance to do.
A commotion at the office door and a handsome rake on crutches hobbles in and passes other desks to stop at Viola’s. She doesn’t stop her typing.
“Draftee Jerome Walsh reporting, General Miss.” He cracks a half smile. Steely gray eyes turn up to his Irish blues. Hers widen in surprise.
“Are those crutches?”
“Why yes, these would be my crutches.”
“Since when did you have crutches?” She glances at the paperwork she’s typed. Then at the clock. This smart-ass is not going to make her late. She promised her sister. And in order to take her to the high school concert in neighboring Priest River, she’d have to steal their father’s car from the Eagle’s Club.
Jerome scratches the back of his head. “Purt-near a month now.”
“But I signed you up last week.”
“At the Pandida Theater. Honey, I was sitting. How would you know I had a bum leg?”
“But you let me take all your information.”
“I wanted to get to know the pretty gal who rounds up young men.” Jerome smiles, full and toothy.
Viola thumbs the papers. His are already typed. She has to get home to her sister. “Walsh? Congratulation, here’s your paperwork to report in Spokane. Train leaves Thursday morning 7 a.m.”
“You can’t seriously draft me. I just want to get to know you.” She grabs her coat and flees.
Along the Pack River an abandoned beer tab once dreamt of being a wedding ring.
A grizzly bear once got a beer tab stuck on his toe. It pissed him off and made him cautious of the two-legged meat snacks that stole his fish from the river. Eventually it healed, his flesh closing up around it. The floppy silver part wore down until not even the keen-eyed raven could spot it.
But the pain of the tab remained deep and stabbed with every step.
Deer often complained that the two-leggeds’ metal containers were dangerous. Why the deer stood in the treeless paths until one of the contraptions struck was beyond him. He could hear the rumbles far away, and feel the packed dirt vibrate as they drew near. The odor of those containers was sharp like a burning forest miles away. He could judge the distance from sound alone, moved by the time vibrations irritated his tabbed toe, and was nowhere near their passing once the fumes hit.
He wondered why deer were inattentive.
Such were his thoughts as he grunted and left piles of his excrement on the contraption paths. The two-leggeds often claimed his territory down by the long pool of water where the trout hid beneath the rock shelf. They deposited their own markings among the trees, sometimes leaving white flags to back up their claims. These he ignored. After they dove for fish, never catching any without the use of their long sticks, they’d consume food from a can and litter those blasted tabs.
Chattering squirrels and the occasional raven picked up the shiny objects. The grizzly understood the attraction – an item glimmering like the belly of a trout must be something important. Not everything that glitters is food. He spoke this truth to others while hiding the wound that gave him such wisdom. Squirrels continued to bite the tabs and ravens often added them to nest collections for purely aesthetic reasons. The deer had no use for the things, and continued to stand contraption-struck in the paths.
Like a quiet rebel, wounded by an enemy little understood by his peers, the grizzly marked another path.
© Copyright Martin Brett. All Rights Reserved.
Peg Magner and her family tumbled from a rotting ship onto the dock at Ellis Island, and thanked their lucky stars to be alive. It was a miracle they’d all survived the journey, while so many others, who had not, bobbed in the frigid waves between here and Ireland. That was until she spent two weeks in the dusty New York City hellhole called ‘The Five Points’, after which she thought a quick death at sea might have been preferable for them all. That was time aplenty, well enough to convince Peg that her family needed to find some place better to live.
Philadelphia was growing beyond all constraints and expectations in the year 1876. The city was burgeoning from a waterside town into a modern metropolis. Week after week a seamless flood of immigrants streamed in from the harsh boroughs of New York. So when they joined that migration from New York to Philly, Peg’s husband Sean worried they would starve on the roadside before the journey was complete.
However, the ragged family never had to walk one mile, thanks to a deal Sean made with a kind old steamer captain. Sean and the captain made friends over a couple tankards of ale one evening after work, and that proved to be a fortuitous bond. Sean agreed to load and unload cargo, as well as pay a small fee, for which four miserable Irish wretches could sleep on deck among the casks of whiskey at the close of the day’s labors. Even though the fee was small, it represented nearly half the family’s worldly wealth.
By the end of loading time, the palms of Sean’s hands, the insides of his fingers, were the color and texture of old minced brisket. When the day was all but gone, the boat slipped its mooring, and the smokestack belched dirty coal smoke into the night air. Sean staggered over to where Peg and the kids were huddled and dropped on one knee to the deck, then sat and slumped to one side.
“Sweet Mary above, what have they done to you my dear man?” Peg said, seeing the bloody palm prints on the deck, and smears from the ends of his trembling fingers. Peg bandaged Sean’s hands with strips of cloth torn from her underskirts, and let him rest on her lap. He soon fell sleep over the warmth rising from her body.
Soon she felt the first small waves raise the nose of the boat, and a fine sheet of spray whipped across the deck. Peg gathered the children to her and wrapped her shawl around them all, like a mother hen cloaking chicks against an autumn rain. The journey from New York City took nearly two days. The passage was mercifully calm, which Peg took to be a happy omen for their new home in Philadelphia.
Peg and Sean were blessed with twin girls, now four years old. The girls loved the boat and delighted in playing tag among the stacks of barrels. Their names were Aishling and Aine, two cherubs with flaming red curls and faces full of freckles.
On the afternoon of the second day, the ocean swell relaxed dramatically as they entered the Delaware River estuary, but that was the only indication they were making their way inland, so huge was the waterway.
“Sean, is everything in this place so huge? Rivers as wide as the sea; land you couldn’t walk if you lived to be a hundred; and so many people?” Peg pondered, shaking her head after Sean had explained they were now steaming up a river. A few hours later the banks closed in on either side, and they could make out buildings beyond the growth of trees from time to time. Soon the buildings multiplied until there was no bank left to see. A fog of city smoke hung over the docks as they moored in Philadelphia, dulling even the strong October sunlight. Sean braced himself for the pain his already raw hands would bear during the backbreaking task of unloading the boat. Peg had cut pads from her only jacket to cover his hands, to give him a little more protection, and she hoped, to stave off dangerous infection.
“Ah Peg, you’ve gone and destroyed your coat! Winter is coming, and you will need that more than I need these,” her husband said when she presented him with the stitched wool pads.
“I’ll need a husband with hands able to work, to bring in a living for the four of us,” she replied, pressing the cloth pads into his hands and prodding him gently toward the gangway.
While Sean labored at the docks all day, Peg and the girls went off in search of lodging. Wherever she looked there were signs declaring, “No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish.” It was a mantra she’d encountered often in New York City and it cut deeply. Her wanderings brought her further and further, deeper into the city. Soon she came across a section of clapboard houses, thrown up so shoddily they leaned over the narrow lanes, blocking nearly all view of the smog-stained sky above.
This teeter-totter of buildings housed hundreds of people, all thrown together by circumstance and poverty. Whole families living in one tiny room shared a single privy if they were lucky. The less lucky slopped out piss buckets into the street, and just made do. A meal a day was like riches for most. Here, the mud clung to Peg’s boots in foul smelling lumps, but she did her best to clean them before climbing the steps of one house after the other.
At last, she agreed to a lease on a dismal little room. She paid in advance for a month with what was left of the family’s savings. The Magners were one of the few white families living in this part of Philly, which sat in a no-man’s land between Seventh and Lombard streets. When Sean had finished unloading the steamer, they carried all they owned on their backs and moved in one go to their new home.
It took a while but Sean found work at a tannery on the docks, moving stinking piles of horse- and cow-hides covered in lie and tallow. Every night he washed in the freezing water of the Delaware before making his way home. Even so, the smell of rotting animal hides could not be flushed off his own skin.
But there was a bit of cheer, some light in every day. It wasn’t all bad in their new home. Peg soon found what she thought of as a little bit of Ireland in the shape of a small square of green named ‘Star Garden Park.’ The paths were lined with majestic ash, oak, and maple trees, some of them two centuries old. Someone had hung a rope swing from a low-hanging bough which the girls loved to play on. Aine found her mood rising and soon was a right whelp, always giving her mother the most terrible frights by hiding, and refusing to come out until she was found.
On the last day of October, Peg and the girls were in the park as always. Aishling and Aine were taking turns on the swing, while Peg sat on a nearby bench and fretted over the looming rent. It could have been a minute, or it could have been five, before Peg noticed the chatter of little girl voices had stopped. She looked up and Aishling was alone on the swing, gently swaying over and back.
Peg jumped to her feet and walked over, calling for Aine to come out, to show where she was hiding, but she didn’t. Peg checked all the bushes and trees, but her little Aine was not hiding behind any of them like she normally would. Dread filled Peg’s whole body like a dark drenching liquid. She grabbed Aishling from the swing, dragging her along as she searched every inch of the park, yelling herself raw.
As a last resort, she ran back to the tenement, hoping against hope that Aine had come home by herself. But the tiny room was empty. Her unnatural cries of worry rang through the neighborhood, and soon drew a crowd of black faces to her open door.
“My baby is gone. My baby is taken,” Peg wailed at the gathering crowd. One slim young woman pushed a hole in the crowd and ran away down the stairs. It was only minutes before she reappeared, shadowed by a huge-breasted woman as dark as a starless night. The crowd parted before this woman like courtiers before their queen.
Her face was a patchwork of long-healed welts, raised years ago by an expertly laid whip. Her eyes were deep brown, with yellowed whites. They looked neither left nor right, but took in everything on all sides. Her pillowy lips were pursed and the flesh of her neck wobbled a little as she walked. The crowd fell back, respectfully bowing their heads, silent.
“Lady, Lady,” said the thin girl, shaking Peg by the shoulder in an attempt to break through her hysteria. “Dis be Mama Tess, she is come to help, Lady.” The elderly woman squatted low on creaking knees. She roughly grabbed Peg’s face between two paddle-like hands. When Peg continued bawling, one hand lifted a few inches, then landed a thunderous slap. The sound caught Peg in her chest and her eyes finally fixed on the dark gaze floating inches from her face. Holding Peg’s chin, big Mama Tess drilled into Peg’s mind with ageless eyes. After a second, the old black woman looked away, fixing her gaze on the tiny red-haired sister cowering in a corner. At last, the huge woman spoke, her voice deep and melodic, the words like a tongue from another world. The thin girl translated the strange dialect for Peg’s benefit.
“Mama say it's not too late, the bond between such girls is strong. Yo' daughter can be found, but you muss take us now to way she an' dat little one were last together,” said the young woman who translated. Mama dragged Peg to her feet with one powerful hand, while lifting Aishling in the other. Peg was pushed, not unkindly, into the still gathering crowd. The frightened mother’s legs were numb as she walked, while her mind struggled to cope with what was happening. Then they quickened the pace to a run. Peg reached the Star Park swing ahead of anyone else.
Collapsing to the ground, she threw her arms around the plank of wood her daughter sat on not an hour past. She was then pushed aside by Mama Tess, who placed a shocked Aishling onto the seat. Mama knelt, face to face with Aine's sister, then she began rocking over and back. From her huge chest a low hum of noises gathered strength; soon the air was filled with wild female hunting sounds which made Peg’s head just spin. The crowd following the hysterical Peg had swelled now to more than fifty, but none approached big Mama Tess, whom they clearly held in awe. Mama Tess was chanting words with eyes half-lidded, like a lingering spell.
As the huge black woman stroked Ashling’s cheeks, her words grew in volume, and speed. Aishling’s eyes glazed over, Mama was now nose to nose with the child, peering deep into her eyes. A second grew into two, two into an age. Peg and the crowd held their collective breath.
It was Mama who broke the spell by bounding to her feet and dashing off towards the far end of the park without a word. The crowd sprinted after her, like hounds on the scent of a fox. For an older woman, and an ample one, Mama Tess showed astonishing speed. Even Peg, who was driven on by fear, found it hard to keep up. Mama Tess tore out of the small park, heading for the river. Down streets and lanes she led the still growing throng, now a couple hundred strong, and Peg at the head of them all, with Aishling pressed to her chest as she ran.
Without warning, Mama Tess stopped at the door of a back-alley tavern. She flung it open with such force she split one of the planks in half. Inside sat a group of rough-hewn mountain men from Appalachia. They wore wild beards and their clothes were sewn with animal gut that stitched together pelts of bear and beaver. Mama Tess approached the group and pulled the one sitting nearest her to his feet. She grappled with the man, yanking him close as if he were as light as a feather. The man struggled in her grasp, lashing out and landing several heavy blows.
He might as well have been beating his fists against the trunk of an oak, to dare such an impudent assault on Mama Tess. Without warning, her voice erupted in a fountain of gutteral sounds, chilling noises that froze the crowd in their tracks. Her clawed hand carved a symbol in the air, and the wild man she held in one hand shuddered. Mama’s voice grew louder.
White foam rolled from the man’s lips, his eyes bulged and filled with blood. With a tremendous groan, Mama grabbed something like a ball of air above the man’s chest, grasping at a thing only she could see, before tearing it away with an alien smacking sound. The man gurgled, then crumpled to the table. He was dead. The rest of the mountain men stood rooted to their spots with shock, as vomit, blood and beer ran from the table onto the floor. Mama Tess reached out and grabbed another raggedy man. This time her words were nearly English as she said, “Way’s dat girl chile? Way she at -- you low down dawg?”
Mama Tess let the man loose and watched him scurry like a furtive ferret to the far side of the tavern. He shoved a bench away from the wall. Beneath it was a tiny trap door. Mama Tess strode over and hooked the door with one meaty finger of her right hand. She threw it open and revealed a head of bright red curls that rolled back to frame a wan little face, etched in fear.
Peg howled a primal sound, from somewhere so deep the crowd was robbed of breath for a moment. It was a sigh of utter mammal joy that any mother on Earth would understand. Peg rushed forward and plucked her precious girl from the hole in one swift reach. The little thing was bedraggled, smudged and limp, but alive. The neighbors clapped and shouted, slapping each other on the shoulders.
"The girl's been found; she is fine!" they cried. The message fanned out from the core of rescue, where a mother fiercely held her daughter, like ripples in a still lake where a big stone is lobbed. Murmurs in the crowd began to fade and they slowly shuffled back to their block, forming a flying wedge around Peg and her two little girls, closing in around them like a buffalo herd will shield its wobbling newborn calves. The people flowed like one big organism, weary and relieved. In an umber orange stain of the setting sun, that splashed through clouds for a moment across Peg’s face as they rounded the final corner, her neighbors saw what seemed like a trace of a smile.
Tomorrow would come soon enough, the mother thought; and thank ye Lord above. But now tonight I have my girls -- both darling girls -- in Philadelphia, City of Sisterly Love.
© Copyright Melanie G. Mills. All Rights Reserved.
Do we always land
where we began?
Baby steps, the toes
so fat they seem
platonically related to the body,
water glass-beaded grass
leaving tender prints.
through tall grass --
leaping then lying down
for rushed love-making
before they are discovered,
getting chiggers where
chiggers should never be.
Autumn has turned to winter,
I look upon straw rotting in the field
with the Reaper’s breath a whisper away.
Is this where I am going,
or where I have been sent?
MORNING POINTE REDUX
That nurse with
keeps staring — as if I should feel the guilt
she is daggering my way.
You and I are turning to stone,
I could supply a thousand reasons for my absence
but they would be Hera’s empty echoes.
I can’t watch as each of your cells
converts to just another pebble
and I become a forgotten statue.
I wheel you to the garden --
you adored flowers once,
their smell a taste of yesterdays.
You stare at something,
a God perhaps,
that I can’t see in a cloudless sky.
You're just an alfresco effigy
who breathes on occasion.
I’ve lost you to a wind
that erodes you as I watch.
At least you won’t remember
all the times I wasn’t there,
when you weren’t there either.
It was there —
my Dad played fetch with me as the stick.
Over and over he threw me in for the dog
to retrieve when I went under.
I learned to swim.
It was there —
I learned the difference
between boys and girls,
practiced kisses behind the concession stand.
like cotton candy--
sweet but transient.
It was there—
I saw my first ghost:
Jimmy Wilhoit, pale and shaky,
more alcohol than courage,
slip off the edge of the cliff,
split his head like a watermelon on the rocks below.
There were more along the cliff and in the water,
gurgling while going under with a gasp of disbelief.
It was there--
I learned to leave the ghosts behind.
If I discovered
while walking along the bank
that the river had spit you out,
I would gather you--
sleek and pale.
I would rub you
for strength if I were feeble
and luck if I were frantic
and cherish you every time
I held you,
in my hand.
© Copyright Geoffrey B. Garwick. All Rights Reserved.
“Class warfare” and “income inequality” are now common terms among progressives, and even some conservatives, but it needs to be noted that only in the last two years or so have these terms been bandied about by national and state political candidates. The more socially acceptable code for these perspectives is “protecting the middle class”, a phrase focuses on the victims of sweeping economic shifts since Reagan, as opposed to emphasis on the victors, via phrases such as “the One Percent” or “the Billionaire Class”. As a proud non-economist, I would like to remind us briefly of what I see as eight signs largely based on of the financial disempowerment of the “middle” -- which are only sketchily acknowledged by the so-called experts, and are evident even in relatively successful locales within the stable and (most-often) liberal state of Minnesota in which I live.
1- YOU DON’T GET PAID FOR SAVING UNLESS YOU’RE ALREADY RICH.
Admittedly, 5% is neither a breathtakingly rapid nor hefty return. For many years after World War II, you could be a risk-taking speculator if you wanted, but even a child, a disinterested saver, or a forgetful accumulator could earn that noticeable, and sometimes significant five percent return on savings. Nowadays, we middles are supposed to try to search for 4/10 versus 5/10 of a percent, and that’s only if we’re lucky. Sure, you can get big bucks by trading in securities and junk bonds or even in the housing market, but multiple times in the last 25 years, we’ve seen all of these arenas go bust. Don’t make me laugh at gold, but I’ll be happy to underpay you for yours.
2- PAWING at a PAWN’S BELONGINGS.
There are two separate etymologies behind that curiously loaded word, “Pawn”. When you are a “foot soldier” with little control over what happens around you (whether spelled “peon” or “pawn”, which have the same derivation, Latin ped for “foot”) you are low person on the trading board. Period. “Pawn” as in “pawn shop” is from Latin’s pignus meaning “pledge” or “security for a loan”. I always thought, perhaps due to being a speaker and researcher on sexology, that the three yellow balls or circles of antiques pawnshops looked like diagrams of reproductive human organs, perhaps reflecting what happens to many folks who have to pawn their stuff. In any case, I see pawnshops multiplying and enlarging. Look around, how many pawnshops does your community really need? They supply some helpful services, but they are signs of economic despair and disability increasing. Communities which rely on pawning are displaying an increasing number of economic pawns.
3- USURY, PAYDAY LOANS and OTHER FEES.
I recently read in the popular press that in Minnesota, at least one big pawnshop owner is also a proprietor and ardent advocate for barely regulated payday loans. When former middles find themselves ensconced in such services, their pawn status is clarified, and certified abysmally. The usurious rates many credit cards are able to charge in our deregulated times are extraordinary historically and not much different from those exorbitant payday loans. Middlings who are paying only interest or minimums on their credit cards are teetering on the brink of leaving the Middle and dropping into the abject Poor, while clearly serving as pawns to big organizations. In a similar pawn-spawning category are the tricky and frequently bulky fees that the cards (Big Plastic), the banks, many stores, and even utilities throw about. The banks are wriggling around in their usury-dispensation wallows, striving to reformat some of the lending practices recently outlawed. But they are not interested in using this same ingenuity to start raising the interest they pay – which is eminently fair and just -- as the Federal Reserve increases their own bank rates.
4- DOLLAR STORES and RUMMAGE STORES.
Like pawnshops, they provide a service, but what was wrong with charitable groups such as Salvation Army or Goodwill running these stores? Dollar stores are basically glorified rummage shops; and they are beloved by many, but how many of them do we truly need in an economically healthy community? Do they support a strong middle class or merely confer some scant supplies and solace to the “De-middling” Legions? Perhaps, but they in conjunction with the other symptoms listed here are ominous when in numbers like we see today.
5- DISCOUNT MALLS.
I’m not sure how many any metropolitan area needs, but such malls are generally celebrations of brands and big name franchises, not local businesses which may have middle class owners and connections in the community. My impression is that these malls are another place for Middles to desperately seek lower cost goods, but it’s not clear that the costs are substantially lower or the selection better.
6- COLLEGE CUT-THROAT LOANS.
This fundamental attack on middles and their values has been well-publicized, with special places in hell for all those conservatives who have pulled the rope ladders up after themselves if they used public colleges or GI loans to get their own tidy little degrees. Again, those at the higher reaches of the middles may be able to repay loans or otherwise finance college, but it is those at the lower reaches of middling whose children are excluded or whose families are too impoverished to enter wholly into the great American Dream of equal opportunity – in education, then jobs.
7- BLACK THURSDAY / FRIDAY and WORKING HOLIDAYS.
They didn’t work so well this year, I’ve heard from insider pros in the retail game, but I assume such strategies will continue. Shoppers who must rise at unusual hours, go store-visiting instead of hanging around with family on Thanksgiving, or who endure desperately crowded struggles for bargains, may just enjoy the hunt, but in many cases these forays are forced forays for items they could otherwise not afford. Those who must battle for bargains and those who must work on holidays are displaying another form of pawnism.
8- RESPECT for the MIDDLE CLASS by the YOUNG.
As much as I insist on the absolute necessity of having a prosperous and burgeoning middle class, it is a sign of troubling, even pathological economic debility when our own youngsters must campaign for the future of their own middle class, which by all that is right and decent, they should eventually inherit anyway. It is far more hopeful for our society when the young and restless feel comfortable enough about the future to critique the bourgeoisie and lambaste their parents’ materialism, rather than live in fear of losing their … birthright Middleness.
-- G.B. Garwick, Ma.RS, Ph.D, L.P., FAAIDD
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