The Box He Carried

Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.

– Marcel Proust, novelist

No. Sorry, Marcel, but I’m not buying it. I don’t believe that it’s himself that the reader finds in a book; it’s not a mystical selfie. The best writing is a sort of tribal drum that calls us out of our isolation and into the firelight of the commonalities of humanity. Art helps us understand the suffering and hope that we share, not the machinations of the ego.

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The Things People Say

Someone once said that a writer is a person who observes the suffering of others and decides to take a few notes. Maybe it was me, because I can’t find it with Google. If you know the source of the quote, let me know. Unless it was me, then I don’t want to know.

Anyway, I was in a coffeehouse one day, as far as you know, and I overheard a woman say this to a guy. I imagined what it might portend and wrote this little flash fiction piece. It was originally in third person, but I think first person lends a greater sense of intimacy.

What She Said

“You have no idea how much you’ll miss me.  Just so you know, you really have no idea.”  That’s what she said.

I stood there in the bright sunlight, shielding my face with my hand and watching her where she stood in the shadowed doorway. I was trying to see, for the last time, how blue her eyes were. And I knew she was right.

I could tell you everything, from the first time I saw her in the park with her dog, wearing a pale yellow sun dress, no shoes. And how when I spoke to her, she took off her dark glasses so I could see those eyes.

As long as I can remember, my life has gone in the same direction. I’ve heard it’s possible to turn around, but I keep going the same way – mostly north, into cold country. Until that day in the park, when we stopped to talk about dogs. It was like I clapped my hands and everything changed. Or like she spoke and I believed.

Now everything has changed again, and of course she was right. I have no one to blame but myself.

My pickup was parked at the curb. As I turned and saw its faded green paint, it looked like a friend who knew I screwed up and didn’t care, who knew the roads where I might find hope, food, and a place to sleep.  As I passed in front of it, I felt the heat from the radiator, and I heard her finally slam the door.

Birds singing.  Dogs barking.  Maybe her dog, clawing its way up the back of her sofa to yell at me through the picture window.  A Cessna droned overhead, so I stood for a moment beside the truck to watch it go.  As a boy, I loved to lie on my back in the grass and watch the planes.  The sound of them could push me to the brink of sleep.

Merging onto the freeway, the growl of the engine working through its gears covers every sound but the rush of air.  Sometimes the right thing to do is right in front of you, but its impossible. The mind stands back and begs for time, and the heart defends its solitude.  I hate doing what I did and I know that I will pay for it.  She was right, and this will be a long road to drive all night.

When I reach the coast and see the sun go down in front of me, I’ll have to bear right at the junction and head north.

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Passing Trees

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“What time is it?”

Taking one hand from the wheel, he started to push back the sleeve of his jacket to see his watch, then stopped. He glanced over at her. She sat looking out her window through the rain, at the trees.

“There’s a clock on the dashboard in front of you.”

“Is it right?”

“Yeah.”

“So you won’t tell me?”

“What’s the use of having a clock in the car, if you always ask me anyway?” But now he did push back his sleeve and look. “The clock on the dash says the world is one minute older than the watch on my wrist. So I’m going with the clock. I’m feeling pretty old right now.”

She frowned and watched the trees, a dark wall and a dark road, a grim and rainy day. She did not look at him, or care about the time. It was only something to say, some excuse to conjure his voice out of the distance between them. It was a good voice, solid and deep, a comfort so often, and always in the dead of night. Sometimes she lay awake and whispered I love you, and he would answer in that voice, without waking. Love you too.

As they passed the end of the orchard, a field opened up. It was fallow, the earth broken and turned. Far back from the road was a brick house and a barn. The house was brightly lit, and smoke rose from the chimney. It was a stranger’s life sitting quietly surrounded by death, waiting to be swallowed by time and rain. She could not wait to get home, turn on lights and music, make tea, and pretend, like that house pretended, that the world was safe.

“I hate myself for leaving him there.”

He checked the mirror and said, “It’s a nice place.”

She turned at looked at him. “Nice? I hate us both.”

“Now, now. Yes, it’s a decent place, as …”

“And he hates us too.”

“… as such places go. Pleasant and homey.”

“Well.”

“He’ll come around. It’s very nice. He’ll get used to it, make friends, have activities. You saw they have a piano in the recreation room. And the courtyard will be warm on sunny days. We’ll visit and take him outside. He’ll be fine in no time.”

“He’s never yelled at us like that. Never at anyone, that I can remember. So angry. Like we’re Eskimos, shoving him out on an ice flow.”

“We’ve been over this. Can you really pretend we’ve been thoughtless?”

“Do they even do that, did they ever?”

“What?”

“The Eskimos.”

“I don’t know.”

“He said we’re going to hell.”

“Oh God. Everyone is on their way someplace, but not there. And we’re only doing our best.”

“No. We could do better. We should bring him back. Fix up the spare bedroom.”

“Honey.”

“Rent one of those hospital beds. I could take care of him, I know it. I could quit my job, we’d get by.”

“You couldn’t. You can’t even lift him. Neither can I.”

They passed the end of a narrow road that broke the blur of idle land and disappeared toward the hills. She saw that her hands were resting on her lap palms up, waiting to be filled by something only God could design.

“You know him better than me.”

“Yes,” he said.

“Since the hour of your birth.”

“Jesus.”

“So I hope you’re right. But he’s already haunting me.”

There was another line of trees close against the road. Almonds, dark and full of rain.

3347975-prunus-dulcis-flowering-nonpareil-almond-tree-branches-001

 

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A Summer of Strange Dust

Today was my grandfather’s birthday. We called him Papa though, and he’s in heaven now. And this isn’t about him – or me – but in honor of … inspired by … 

A Glass of Cold Water

The sun rises slowly so that everything – the light, the birdsong, the smell of cooking food – is a long and tender hug. The musicians sleep until noon then sit about the plaza singing dirges as the day gets hot. He remembers his Papa would send him to the kitchen for a “glass of good cold water” on every summer day like this. Then he would take out his pocket knife, with a warning for it’s sharp little blade, and send the boy out to pick tomatoes for lunch in the amazing heat. He grew up with memories of water and fruit, but he still arrived at here and now, and there is no remedy for that.

It has been a summer of strange dust and barking dogs, and the music in the streets is flat. The players strum and knock their guitars with heavy silver rings to keep the beat. They sound like horses walking on stones in the shade. The trees drink all night from somewhere deep beneath the town, and put on clusters of yellow blooms. Any breeze will blow the flowers down around the fountain, to be swept away.

He works all morning, eats too much at noon and by evening he knows that he will never leave this place in all his life. He has an orange tree, clean shirts and a place to sleep in a room in a house that’s a cluster of rooms the use of which he has forgotten long ago. Except the ones for eating, bathing and sleep. All such things he does alone, and cuts many flowers for the dead. He has the music as the day goes by.

His room is hollow, a hollow room in a hollow house. Like living in a musical instrument, a sounding box for playing the noise from the freeway and the breath of the night wind. He sits in it after the sudden slow day, drinking cold water, letting the night play every song it knows. Everything vibrates, trucks brake for merging traffic, and the sun comes up softly again in the dust.

Life has few expectations, makes no demands, in a town this size. Just the little things, kind words and a gentle touch. So he made her breakfast the way she liked it, waited a moment and went out. Every day the same, and the summer ended and the oranges got ripe. The days got long again and he couldn’t keep her anymore. He offered her food and water with ice. He tried holding tight and letting go. Couldn’t think of a prayer except no and no. Which has never stopped the angels from their work.

He wakes up late and finds the blanket kicked to a heap beside the bed. The sun on the shutters is already hot and the horses in the plaza drink from the fountain, stamp on the stones. Or the players knock their rings in the singing air. He sits naked on the bed and wishes it was night again and not so far from here to where she went. Not so much bright and hazy world to search. Maybe he’ll try the closet where she kept her pretty things, or part the air by the trees like a curtain in the heat.

He could slice oranges and lemons with his Papa’s knife, leave them for the birds, for an offering of his solitude. Bittersweet. And a glass of good cold water.

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Pony Rides

The signs out on the county road and on the side of his barn say Pony Rides, but they’re not really ponies. What you have here are donkeys. Most of the kids don’t know the difference. The grown-ups don’t care, so long as the kids are happy. So he can stand on the porch overlooking the barnyard, watching the sun glint off his old windmill, knowing the distinction is pertinent only to God. He is a man without pride, in the midst of humble beasts.

Today he feels tired and sore, like the hot shower wasn’t enough to wake him up and warm his bones. The mug of coffee he grips in both hands is warming them, but as he drinks it in loud slurps, the rest of him aches for the sun to get up and get busy. The damned thing is dawdling in the tops of the cottonwoods, no help at all to a man with things to do.

In the kitchen, he rinses his cup and sets it in the sink. He takes the teaspoon from the counter near the coffeemaker and drops it in the cup, so that it won’t slide down into the disposal and get beat all to hell. These little things matter now. His wife ordered their silverware years ago, from a catalog. Now that she is gone and he is old, he means the set to last the rest of his life. He will buy no more spoons or dishes, towels, sheets, doormats, wallpaper. He is finished with the replacement of things that have any hope of lasting; he buys nothing for the sake of something new.

The radio on the shelf above his spice rack – salt and pepper, basil and thyme – says the day will be sunny with wind soft from the east. The radio was hers as well, redeemed from the Green Stamp Store, years and years ago. It’s held up better than any of their cars. Some things do.

Out in the barn he follows his shadow as it falls ahead of him — cast by sunrise slanting through the big doors — down between the stalls where a dozen animals are awake and waiting. They’re hungry and he feeds them. He always wonders why they are happy with the same food every day. They’re happy to see him too, as he speaks to them, calls each one by name, and rubs their ears as they bend to eat.

In the last two stalls are Sweetpea and Louie, a mare and her colt. Sweetpea has carried the children for years, turning in her circle slow and patient, with love for her burden. Laughter settles on her back like sunlight. But at night she dreams of a field. The grass is green and the man is not there.

He needs to train Louie to walk in a circle steady and calm, to carry children carefully. These animals are bred for the work, but no one has ridden this colt yet. Louie is the only thing new on his place, the one concession to legacy and the years that roll on beyond the trees that border his land.

He opens the gates to the paddock and corral, and lets the animals out of the barn to play in the sun and drink from their trough. He mucks their stalls, spreads fresh hay, and takes the long training lead out to tether the colt to the center pole.

“You and this pole might as well get acquainted now as later. Don’t let it spook you, boy. Soon enough, it’s like the whole world turns in this barnyard. But it’s not a bad life, I think.”

He fills again the cup he left waiting in the sink. He stands drinking his coffee, with cream and sugar, watching Louie test the limits of the rope. Then two men come walking through the gate and up the path from the road. He sets the cup on the porch rail and hurries down from the house, as they enter the corral and untie Louie from the post.

“Hey now, what do you men suppose you’re doing with my donkey there?”

They look up at him. The sun is fully in the barnyard now and one man says, “The Lord has need of him.”

Soon the sun is full and bright, and the man and his animals are warm in the spring air. Sweetpea takes some consolation in his petting of her long ears and stroking of her neck.

“He’ll be back,” he tells her, and the old windmill shudders and turns in the breeze that was promised.

<<<<>>>>

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Something to Hold

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It didn’t hurt at all, you know. In case you’re wondering. He stepped out of his house on a Tuesday morning, with the sky mostly sunny but for a line of light gray clouds over the hills, with a core of darker gray keeping it cool.

He stooped to pick up the Times by the lace begonia in its iron pot, meaning to tuck it under his arm. Instead, his body landed on the brick sidewalk. His nose was crunched and his glasses broken, but by then his spirit was already here in the garden, walking slowly – a little stiff and tentative from the jump – but with a sense of mission.

Everyone arrives here looking for something. For everyone a totem, a touch stone of the world that fades away becoming bone chips and tree roots. God knows what the thing might be. They hold it a moment to remember, then forget, then they can move on.

A coat, a cup, a bicycle, a ring with a stone of lapis lazuli. A doll. Something that meant the world to them down there. I remember a woman who came and found an orange tree she ate from as a child.

Well, he moved through the garden, beginning to loosen up and find his pace. I was sitting on a rock, just watching, and thought I would give him a hand. Like the guy in the parking lot after the late movie, who just happens to have jumper cables when your car won’t start.

Morning, I said.

He stopped and looked at me on my rock.

Are you looking for something? I asked.

My box.

Really? Tell me about it.

Well it’s about this big, for holding pencils. But that’s not what I kept in it. My Dad made it for me when I was in fourth grade.

What did you keep in it?

Just junk. Couple of hot wheels cars, Indian head nickel, magnifying glass, a pen to write in four colors, a blue ribbon from the Veterans’ Day parade.

So you’re looking for the box, not the stuff inside?

It had my initials carved in the lid.

Right.

I left the rock and moved to him. I handed him the box. He looked at it, held it, opened it to see that everything was there. He held it and believed.

 

 

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Just a House

For Dia de los Muertos

 

It’s a hard thing to make such a trip, we know. Such a long drive, but finally you see the first signs for the town, twenty miles now, then the gas stations, fast food. You cross the river, which in August is nearly dry. From the bridge you get a glimpse of stumps and boulders under water half the year.

At the exit, you peel away alone, sorry to leave the companionable flow of traffic. You shared so many billboards with them, and all were signs of hope: clean restrooms at the Exxon, the best steak and eggs in California, air conditioned rooms with cable TV at the Best Western. If only you could keep moving too. But you must let them have all that, even the frigid motel room with blackout curtains, towels on chrome racks, little soaps and obliterating sleep. This is your exit. And none of them, not even the truckers and farmers, can imagine your destination.

You roll up slowly in front of the house, not sure for a moment it’s the one. But there’s the sycamore towering behind it, and the red brick chimney. … Oh, look at the grass. Wasn’t someone paid to keep it alive? And the eaves of the house, always crisp white, are cracked and faded now. The mailbox leans in the weeds.

If you park over the oil stain left by their last Buick, you won’t step out and get it on your shoes. In fifty years, he parked five cars right here, all stout and practical Americans. He believed in oil changes, good tires, power windows. He believed in opening doors for ladies, buckling up, keeping the radio low. When you showed up after college with that Datsun hatchback, he was appalled. He tried not to show it, but you knew.

You hold the screen door back with one hand, and use the key. No use knocking: they can’t be home if they were called away. We can’t stand it either. We share your shock at the rooms stripped of furniture, the shampooed carpets, the nail holes in the walls patched and painted. Intolerable, the empty closets – a few wire hangers – and the echoing silence. It’s sad, the refrigerator open, unplugged, bearing only baking soda through the long hot afternoon.

Or maybe the dog on the rug wakes up and runs to you, licking your hand. You rub her ears as he wakes in his place on the sofa, where he’s nodded off watching the Dodgers and reading the paper over and over again, waiting for you. He’s happy to see you and relieved. You shake his hand as a grandson does, and see his cheeks are just a bit more sunken than before.

He hates to think of people coming down through the pass and all the wrecks there have been.

Trucks lose their brakes you know, and some folks won’t slow down in that bad wind.

I know Papa, but I’m fine.

Did you make good time?

Yes. Traffic wasn’t bad.

You say traffic was bad?

Not bad.

Oh. Well. Your Grandma’s in the kitchen I think. And there’s a rumor we’re going to eat lunch one of these days.

She’s there by the stove in the light from the window. Singing. … Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, Calling, O sinner, come home! … There’s a pan on every burner and the oven working too; cold water running in the sink and ears of corn rolling in the pot. And you know there’s iced tea in the fridge – brewed in a glass jug on the porch in the sun – with maybe just a little more sugar than it needs. But nothing’s too much or too good. You hug her and she holds your hand.

What time did you leave home?

Oh about seven.

That’s early.

Not too early.

Did you have any rain in the mountains?

No, no rain.

It’s pretty up there when it snows.

Yes it is.

We’ve been up there when it was snowing. You remember?

I sure do.

You remember the snow blowing and traffic jammed to a stop. A man knocked on the car window, trying to sell the watch off his arm to buy gas. It was a hard night, but exciting for a kid.

Well, you can put your bag in the guestroom and wash up if you want. We’ll have lunch directly.

You set your suitcase on the four poster bed with the quilt that she made, and look at the walls. We see photos of aunts and uncles gone to God or far away. Your mother forty years ago, with a lace-collared dress, smiling. There’s one of you and your brother, with Easter baskets, and one of your Dad leaning on a car.

Down the hall, you peek in their bedroom, with their separate beds and nightstands covered with bottles of pills. A strong odor of Ben Gay and a long acquaintance with pain. And in the bathroom, you look at the shelves with niches full of empty blueglass bottles; small ones that once held possibly perfume, and glass figurines of animals and birds. The framed print over the toilet depicts a woman washing her child in a tub, in the days before plumbing.

They never use the parlor but for company. The hard candy in the dish on the table is fused into a mass, a year or more beyond hope. It’s just for show, like the wax apples in a wooden bowl you made in shop class. And the yellow silk roses in a basket on a stand beside the window, which looks out on the street where now the realtor is parking a silver Toyota.

Nothing again, nothing, and no matter how hard you listen, you can’t hear the baseball on the TV anymore, or Papa telling the dog how good she is, or Grandma singing Shall we Gather by the River, poking the pot roast with a fork. There is only carpeting and paint and hot stale air in the room with you. The dog was good indeed, is long since buried by the barren orange tree, down at the bottom of the yard.

Of course we understand, we pity you. We should have stopped you going in. But the offer coming up the walk must be accepted. It’s just a house.

 

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