Something to Hold

Listen: http://kylekimberlin.com/audio/something_to_hold.mp3%20%20%20size=1

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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Shining Leaves

Listen:

He always has a hard time facing his complicity with the world when things go wrong. It’s not his fault, being mostly just caught up and swept along. He gets out of bed and opens the blinds. The sun is up and he sees the window is dirty and spattered, giving him a sadly marred view of the old clothesline, the broken concrete patio, the budding plum tree. Any other day, he would deny his part in all of this. Not his fault that God insists on driving the rain at an angle to the glass, nor that the man who used to come and wash the windows died last year on a cot in the YMCA. But just at that moment of dawning denial, he remembers the day.

It is Saturday, and it is his birthday. And it is his custom, on this one day every year, to admit that he is, after all, the one guy who is always around when things go bad. Other people are around for some of it, and some are there for most of it, but when it comes right down to it, he is the greatest common denominator. He blinks through the grime and thinks of the Windex under the sink, and the paper towels hanging there.

What he really wants is to sit on the edge of the bed for two hours or three, watching the news, to see if he can find variations in the reports from yesterday. He always hopes that it will change, that he hasn’t already missed everything that is going to happen. But since it is a special day, he needs to get moving. He is burning daylight.

He eats oatmeal with honey and raisins, listening to a country station. Hears a song about a long haul trucker whose wife died home alone, while he pulled a long load of pipe through a cold Georgia rain. All the trucker had left was a photo in his wallet and the cat they found together at a shelter, who dozed in the sleeper while he drove and drove, trying to outrun his grief. Despite the comfort of oatmeal and coffee, he thinks he can relate.

With his face shaved, belly full and shoes tied tight, he feels damn near heroic. Fit to go forth and stand fast to the winds of personal responsibility. On the hall table, he finds his paycheck. He bends and rubs the dog’s ears and head, reassures her of his swift return, and goes out. And behind him there is commitment in the sound of the lock.

*   *   *

His dog wakes up. She gets to her feet in the space between the couch and the coffee table, where she feels safe when she is alone, and goes to the center of the room. She stands a moment to get her bearings.

It is day. The man is gone. I can smell him not here.

The sliding glass door is open just enough for her to go out and no more. There is a broom handle in the track at its foot.

Across the patio, between the potted bromeliads to the grass. She pees. Back on the patio, she drinks from her dish, turns around three times and lies down on her Astroturf mat.

The world is made of grass and birds, things to eat, and everything is full of sound. It all smells wonderful. There is the fence, and everything beyond it is suspect, a threat. It must be warned to stay away.

I like the park. I watch the birds and growl at other dogs.

For my food, I give the man a great and happy yelp.

A cloud moves across the sun and it grows cold in the place where she lies. From the barbecue she smells the meat that was cooked there last week.

When I was little there were toys and a ball. I went around with the ball in my mouth. I could run from the beach to the trees! Now I have water and food twice a day. I walk between the places where I sleep.

She rises and decides to go inside, back to her place by the couch. She stands and barks her loudest bark, just to hear her voice from the metal garden shed bounce back to her.

*   *   *

A small dark cloud moves across the face of the sun. He notices the dimming as he stands in line at the bank. A potted red begonia in a bright brass pot beside a desk, deep green and reflecting long fluorescent lights. His mother had begonias, roses, mums. She watered them and sang

I come to the garden alone
while the dew is still on the roses

She might have said these leaves have been polished for hours by an angel with a can of wax. His mother believed in angels, loved to cook. He thinks about corn and buttered baked potatoes, until it is his turn.

He hands his deposit slip and check to the teller. They both say good morning and she turns to her computer. That’s when the cloud moves on and lets the sun come out. He notices her hands as she types and lifts a receipt from a stack of blanks.

If he shaved very carefully, her hands would feel wonderful on his face. He looks away before she catches him staring. A young man with a red tie comes out of the vault.

It’s been forever since a woman touched my ears, he thinks.

She would be offended by his thoughts.

If I die on the road home, she’d never know. But if she knew I think her hands are beautiful, she would hate me forever.

 *   *   *

The clock in the tower of the school is five minutes slow. What a shame, he thinks, that no one cares. And another cloud is filtering the light, so that all along the gray-black streets the leaves are shining with yesterday’s rain.

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Welcome and Thank You!

Thank you, everyone, for all of your kind, insightful and encouraging comments and “Likes” for Lying To The Dog. It’s awesome to see one of my little pieces get such a positive response from so many creative people. It makes me want to keep writing!

Thank you, also, to Michelle at WordPress for finding the story and sharing it far and wide.

I’m looking forward to following the links from your comments and Likes, and checking out all of your blogs. So have a great week, let’s keep in touch.

Lying To The Dog

[audio http://kylekimberlin.com/audio/lying_to_the_dog.mp3]

If you stare long enough at that space between the trees – there, where the row of dry junipers leads the eye down to the field of baby’s breath – you begin to see water. It’s a lake, perhaps a sea, lying peaceful and cool, and not a field at all. You can hope that no one comes to cut it, plow it, leave it fallow for winter. That’s what she sees from the window each morning, when she rises and stands alone in the house.

The sun is just up, strikes the potting shed with its white window boxes, and shines on the hollow bones of the swing set rusting in the yard. There is a mourning dove on the crossarm of the power pole, cooing to himself. This was always her favorite time of day. So calming to stand by the window, looking down at the wet grass. The dog sniffs from bush to bush along the fence. She does not see the dog but watches the dove, as countless short and tiny lives wake to the daylight all around.

In the kitchen, she takes the pan and the plate from the sink – where he left them before first light without rinsing the greasy leavings of egg and black pepper – and puts them in the dishwasher, setting it to rinse and hold. And hold is all she wants to do; just to keep a grip on the life that’s casting her aside with centrifugal force. And maybe she could use a rinse of sins as well; a drop of detergent for her guilt and grief. If only he could help her find such things, and stop insisting that by God he’s tried, that she’s had time to get past it, to drag her heart from the shadows; as much time as he’s had, anyway.

The dog comes in and stops to drink from his bowl beside the pantry door, then comes up behind her where she stands at the sink. She hears him coming, nails clicking on the hardwood floor. He presses his nose to the back of her knee. Ignored, he goes to his bed in the corner and lies down.

It’s true she’s had time, and he’s had time. Time has passed. But two years or two hours is all the same to her, who is always in that afternoon of their child on her bicycle, just a little too big for her, with fat tires and a basket on the front – with books going back to the library – riding away. Always away. So small with the trees behind her, and the gravel drive threading into the trees, to where it turns to meet the county road. That’s where she saw her daughter go, around the bend and into the trees. But she never came back out again. She was supposed to come back. That was the promise. Come back from the library with a new book to read, to talk about. She’d suggested A Wrinkle In Time, which she loved as a girl. Just a little time, then home. Not this tearing away, this disappearing to another world.

I don’t know what do to, she tells the dog. She won’t come home. I told her, straight there, straight home. Be careful, don’t dawdle. But you know she’s followed her nose into the candy store – she can’t resist. Now why are you looking at me that way?

The dog knows. He was here and rushed the door, barking, when the officers came. They came in slowly, eyes down, holding their big hats. She shoved the dog in the hall bathroom and shut the door, and told him stay as if he had a choice. He knew at once. He could smell it on them, the pitiful sadness of it, the rough road ahead waste and shame of it. He could smell the coming grief of it; bitter, musky like a possum running down the fence. So he sat on the lime green rug on the bathroom floor and whined, and fought the urge to howl. The dog knows his lady is lying.

He should just leave us here, you know. We’d be alright, she tells the dog. My sister would come from Santa Fe and live with us. I could get a job. He doesn’t care about me and how my heart is broken. It would be good for you, too. She’s got two dogs and we have so much room, a yard that’s big enough for twenty dogs.

The dog digs with his teeth at the hair between his toes, stands and paws at his bed, then turns around and lays back down again. He’s watching her.

He doesn’t care. He only wants to leave. Just sell the house, drag up and go, he says. And how can I? You tell me that. How can a mother do such a thing? She’s much too small to be alone. The days are getting short again, and gray and cold. She’ll be hungry, tired from the ride. I have to be here when she comes.

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Painting The Barn

Listen:

When he notices the change of light, he puts down his brush and looks up. He spent all afternoon painting, and the sun is setting fast. He is finished finally, just in time. His hand is getting numb and there’s an ache down his back, along the left shoulder blade. So he rinses his brushes in warm water, and watches how the light plans to go on without him.

The sun falls beyond the river, so that shadows move up the side of the gray barn. The last rays hit the eves from which he knocked an empty swallow’s nest with a pole. The building looks angry at his going, sad for his weakness.

The threadbare jacaranda in the field beyond the barn takes the dying light into its inner branches, becomes a skeleton. Before he can start the truck and drive away, it is haunted, beyond all hope.

*   *   *

Some nights, it just takes too long to get home. No matter where you start from, how clear the roads and whether, you just can’t get there fast enough. He stops at the market, buys a frozen chicken pie and creamed corn. He waits in line behind a woman writing a check, like she was transcribing Sanskrit from weathered stones.

He loves the night, when the world is drained of its color. All the heavy gradients, brush strokes, vast pallets of green and blue and brown recede to a diffusion of rippled pen and ink. He keeps the lights dim and settles in to watch old movies, surrounded by his walls of quiet swiss coffee.

At two past midnight, the angry gray barn with blue trim and languid shadows, appears in a dream and demands to be red again. Deep brick red, white trim, hinges and hardware stoveiron black.  It wants to stand on the hill in the sleeping hay all night, then command the sun to rise, compel the threadbare jacaranda to leaf out for full summer, put on purple flowers and clash with the cobalt sky. A barn to make the crows wish for clothes like orioles and cardinals and jays.  A barn to fade with happiness – tomato soup with too much milk – in time to lean against its many rust-red parts, and die on the hill.  Gaps between the sagging boards will give the wind a place to sing.

*   *   *

He leans against the fender of his truck at dawn, drinking black coffee, watching the gray barn and the tree as the sun comes up and washes over them. This is what the customer wanted: a barn to atone with the landscape, make peace with the hill. “I want it to blend in, look smaller, farther away,” the farmer said. “My wife thinks it’s ugly. Paint it gray.”

Now he leans against the truck and thinks this may have been a sin, though not his first and maybe not his alone to bear, this time. An ugly decision, a thing not itself.  But why should a barn get to be what it wants if he can’t?  What he wouldn’t give for a proud brightness, a rich red rightness, and a solid hill, room for animals and a tractor, nails driven in posts for hanging tack and tools.

Dammit, it was four days honest work and money earned. There’s half a gallon left of Driftwood Gray. He leaves the can on the farmer’s yellow porch, along with his bill for the job.

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On A Hill

Today was Easter and I hope it was happy for you. I had a good day. But on April 8 each year, our family remembers the passing of our beloved dog Stella.* It’s been 12 years, which is difficult to believe. Time has flown.

Here’s a flash fiction piece. It’s not about Stella, but about the furtive and fragmentary nature of memory. And there is a dog in it.

If you want to, you can listen to an audio reading of the piece.

On A Hill

There is no wind today, to stir the foxtails and fennel on the hill. There is just a muted fog, following a night of fog through a week of fog and rain. And a man standing on the hill, looking for the sunlight he believes is up there somewhere.

He loves the hill. When the wind is up, you might see three hawks, or five red-tailed hawks at once, standing in the sky as if hung on wires. Then one by one, they break and fall on field mice in the oat grass field below. The first time she let him hold her, they were here. And there where the trail goes through a stand of eucalyptus, their first kiss. They sat on a fallen log – close together – as the sun went down, and a great owl floated over, down the arroyo and away.

Or maybe it was not a woman but a dog. He grows confused. But yes, a young dog. They walked on this hill as the sun went down, into the ocean there, past that point of land. And the sun set with a lip of rose and a tongue of burnt orange.

He went with the dog another day – the sun high and bright – to where the trail falls between crags of volcanic rock to the pitch-soiled beach. The tide was out and the dog ran between the piles of drying kelp and back and forth to the ebbing foam, chasing a yellow ball he threw. No hawks then, but pelicans in their morning dives for food, lifting again heavy with fish.

Damn the fog. He can hear the oil crew boat come about and back through the swells to tie up at the pier. But he cannot see the belch of gray-black diesel exhaust from the stern, the men on deck pitching lines and tying up, and the scattering gulls.

That bright, clear day when the dog ran here, the boats came in just so, engines revving to control the approach. The dog lay down in the damp sand, afraid, ears flat against her head. He went and held her in his arms as blue herons floated over, wings still and silent, caught by light.

It’s hard to be of comfort in the face of dread, of nightfall, and looming grief. That summer he was young, and the woman was young. They left the hill and walked through the stand of trees in the falling dark, to the thicket of bamboo by the railroad. The world was dark and loud, with the tracks close by and a freight train passing, eighty cars or more.

He held her and worried how it all might end, as the world roared by too close. He counted the gaps between the boxcars defined by moonlight, by final twilight maybe. The number grew impossible until the last one passed, dragging the clatter and roar of it away beyond the hill.

Now he is alone in all this diffused, ambiguous light, with a dog’s collar in his pocket for comfort or for luck. And the sun – he thinks possibly – finally burning through.

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A Decent Interval

A flash fiction piece.

Listen to an audio podcast of this story, as you read.

Today I slept until I was sure that the sun was on the house and it was warm. Even then I stayed in bed, staring up at the white ceiling. I stared at the frosted dome light etched with peacocks, gray with dust. Then I read for a while from The Book Of Untroubling Thoughts, which I keep in a drawer beside the bed. Then I was not troubled, even by the men feeding branches to a chipper down the road, so I got up and made tea. While it steeped, getting darker and stronger in the heavy brown mug, I sat by the window in a maple chair, and listened to the birds. It occurred to me that birds have a lot to sing about, so much that I could never understand. But I was not troubled by this.

I have never been easily troubled; in fact, some people are amazed at how steadily I take things in stride. My husband went out one day to play golf and had a heart attack, and never did come home. I just kept on going. My friends expected me to fall apart, to resolve into a dew as it were, perhaps because I’m rather small. And we were very close. We did so many things together. We always went to church, and the traveling, art classes, swing dancing. He loved to dance. So when the insurance came through, I just stood up and went away. There was a cruise to Alaska, then one to Italy. I know what people thought. They whispered about a decent interval of grief. But he wasn’t getting any deader while I sat around. He would have wanted me to go, and I loved to watch them paint Venetian masks.

My husband died on a day like this, bright and dry and still. But he comes to me mostly at night when the moon is dark behind clouds, or dim in its first sliver, so that he is hard to see. Then I think that he is standing in the yard, where he would often pause after setting out the trash cans for the truck. He liked to stand and simply listen to the night.

The birds sang a long time; long enough for me to drink the tea, and have a dish of applesauce and peaches. My husband was fond of peach ice cream, you know. He would microwave a slice of pie and have it a la mode. He was a man of simple pleasures, brief, uncluttered thoughts. He said there’s no good way to die but many fine ways to live. He lived to play golf in the sunshine and eat as well as possible. I think one or both – golf or food – may have betrayed him, but I try not to be troubled about that.

There is a path from here that runs across a weedy field and through a copse of trees — sycamores, he told me once, I think — then breaks through a cleft in a rocky bluff and drops to the edge of the river. I like to walk that pathway when I can. But the trail is steep and he rarely walked that way with me. He was afraid of the current, that it would sweep him off a slippery rock and carry him away, fast and furious, and grind his bones for parts of rocky banks and gravel beds. Or worse, he said, that the river would do this to me. But I like the trail to the river from our house. The neighbors ride their horses, the animals nervous and wide-eyed for the way the trail begins to drop through the oaks and deadfall firs. But I can walk it pretty well. I take my time to come back up. If I were naming things I’d call the best, most wooded part The Mushroom Glen, for all the yellow fungus on the stumps and fallen logs. It’s peaceful, cool and green, and I can lose my sense of passing time.

My husband was a man with focused fears of death. So we walked up the hill, to where the conifer shade gives way to a field that’s often in the sun, with wildflowers growing there. He would always pick some for me to carry home. And I would stand next to him, watching as year to year his back grew narrower in a light blue or gray checked shirt – he would wear nothing else outside of church – as he aged and shrank. And then there came that day when he completely disappeared.

My mother left a set of alabaster vases that I love, but I don’t need to use them anymore. I wrapped them all but one in felt, and put them in the closet down the hall, behind the light bulbs and her box of recipes. Just one I keep in the center of my table in the kitchen here, with two silk poppies. They don’t require water, or a walk up the hill to pick them, and I’m much too busy now for picking flowers anyway. You know how it is.

I found myself, one evening clear and warm and flooded with northern summer light, on the deck of the Statendam, off the coast of Alaska. But in that moment, I had no idea where I was. Suddenly, the world went blank. Even my name was gone, and everything – the ship, the coast, the sea – was overwhelming, huge. I froze in place and couldn’t even cry or scream or ask for help. But finally they took me to my room. The doctor came with valium and said it was my nerves. Anxiety. I needed rest, he said, and he was right. I slept and everything was fine. I slept all night and I was right as rain, as my husband used to say. Except that the day, the several hours before my episode, were gone. My memory of Hubbard Glacier never did return. I have the photos though.

My friends come by from time to time. We sit and talk over coffee, and watch the breeze in the tree by the bay window there. It has pale yellow blossoms and long seed pods. A strange tree; Australian, I think. Or we meet for lunch at the café in town. The place with the old exposed brick walls, and framed sepia photos of dead settlers. Families on buckboard wagons, men in large hats. I like the spinach quiche and raspberry iced tea. They serve those little sourdough rolls in baskets lined with linen towels. My friends talk about their grandchildren. It’s all so nice and very calm, with the clink of silverware and the murmur of a friendly day. Impossible to be in such a place and still feel troubled over anything at all. I know you understand.

And you see why I have to go down to the river, through The Mushroom Glen and down and down, with half a dozen switchbacks and glimpses of the river below through the brush. Finally, the grassy bank, the rocks along the edge, and water rushing fast and cold. I hope that the river will take him now, carry him out to the headlands and the sea. It’s for the best. I have to go because of what I heard in church, that an angel went down into the pool and troubled the waters, and whoever went in next was healed. And that’s all I want, to be healed, set free, sent home. To go and tell no one. Go and sin no more.

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Wizard of Rain

He drives into the garage with such impatience that the radio antenna brushes the bottom of the door as it goes up, and makes a cartoon sound: oing oing oing. But he has no sense of humor to enjoy such things tonight. He is a man with responsibilities.

Moving automatically, he turns on just enough lights to find his way to the bedroom. He throws his suit on a chair, changes into sweats and a hoodie, and goes to make tea in the kitchen. Then he turns the lights all out again and stands looking through the glass doors at the rain drumming on the balcony, and at the lights of the city below.

“Well it is dark and it is raining. It will be a long night for us all.” This he says aloud as though praying; a spell of faith in the night and the storm.

He sets his cup on the glass table near the door, beside a brass elephant the size of a fist, slides the door open and goes out. He stands in the rain, lifts his face to it, fists clenched against his chest and says:

“This rain began at sundown, as rain always does when it wants to seem portentous, prescient. It imagines itself with tidings of solemn work or grief. But men know the rain is blind and deluded. Man builds his own sorrow, stick by brick, and calls down rain to wash it all away.”

He leans out over the balcony’s drop – 30 feet into wet scrub oak and weeds – with his belly against the railing, arms spread wide.

“I want to give up. I want to retire from wizardry, this calling down of storms, dispensing clouds with my arms. My shoulders are hills of dark forest and it causes me terrible pain.” Relieving himself into the canyon, he says, “here’s what I think of the rain.”

The storm moves on to Bakersfield, San Bernardino, and falls as snow on Bridgeport while he sleeps. It’s Saturday and he rises late, puts the sweats on again. Standing in his bedroom, he sees the light is gray on the drapes but there is no drumming of raindrops on the roof. He feels empty, an indehiscent husk. It takes an hour of CNN and three bowls of Cheerios to make him feel human.

Shaving, he sees his face as from a satellite, all deltas and estuary. His forehead drifts like noon on the Salton Sea. His eyes are wetlands full of wild birds. He feels better, knowing his father before him faced a mirror just like this, and his grandfather too. We face ourselves early in the day to get the hard part done, move on.

He tells the mirror, “I am a man. I know the wind blows cold.” And zipping up his jacket in the hall, he says, “I am not afraid.”

 

 

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Wizard of Rain by Kyle Kimberlin
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Something to Hold

 Here’s a little flash fiction piece I’ve dragged from its slumber in my notebook, to rework it. It imagines the touchstones of our lives and wonders, what if there was something we could find again on the other side, something to hold?

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. 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.

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.

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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Something to Hold by Kyle Kimberlin
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The Apples

This is a flash fiction piece by me. For more information on the flash fiction approach, click the link above.

 

Sunset_watercolor_for_apples_f
Here we have a man on his front porch, sitting and watching the traffic, the sunset ochre in the haze of an Indian Summer afternoon. He holds a pair of clippers that belonged to his father. A beautiful day, warm enough to drive the sparrows to the birdbath in the morning and under the hedges by lunch. He drove into town and drank iced tea in the colonnade, wetting his fingers in the condensation on the glass, to turn the pages of the latest Time.
His father left him all his tools: channel-locks and hammers, socket sets, files and screwdrivers, power drills, tree saws, sewer snakes, leaf rakes and boxes of nails. Everything a man might need. Now he holds the shears, working them on the cooling air, as on the thinnest branches of his trees. And wonders how he came to own one pair of black shoes for everyday, and one black pair for Sunday. And somewhere in a closet are a pair for hiking, which he never does.
Time goes slowly in the afternoon, then suddenly the day is gone. It doesn’t linger at the door, with promises to visit soon or call about the holidays. You do not hear its tires wheezing down the driveway and pausing at the street. So when he puts the clippers away in the dim garage, and hangs his picking ladder on the wall beside his truck, the sun is gone.

It’s time to eat, but nothing sounds good. Nothing in the cupboard but boredom. The day was just too wonderful; who can think about food? Well, maybe a salad. Spinach tossed with olives and balsamic vinaigrette. Or these Gala apples, just picked and washed and drying on a towel. He takes an apple, polishes its surface on his shirt, and goes out.
There is just a last lip of purple light beyond the stand of sycamores, and then the town and the slow canal. He closes his eyes and listens as a semi shifts down and makes for the hill beyond the tired, dusty trees. He takes a bite and sighs. So many memories in apples.
Like the time they drove to a farm in the mountains, where the fruit was just an hour off the tree. He rode in the back of the pickup with his brother and the crates of apples, and he can still see his own hand reaching out for one that ran like watermelon down his chin. His mother made pies.
He remembers the apples were red, not green, but gave him a stomach ache and later made him dream he’d lost his dog; that he found the front door open and running saw her wagging her tail and running down the steps; that his family stood in the yard frowning into the distance and could not help; that running in that hopeless, sodden way of dreams he saw her turn that corner that he knew was grief, pause to around look for him, and disappear.
So many memories in apples.

The Wind Has Gathered Words

I’m surprised to find that I’ve never shared this flash fiction piece on Metaphor. I like it, not just because I think it’s unique and passable writing but because it was a lot of fun to write.

It had its public debut at my Fused Realities reading with Joseph Gallo in Santa Barbara.

The Good Story

He always tried to be a good story. Through the years, as paragraphs drifted by and settled on his shoulders, he offered no protest. As the wind has gathered words against curbs and gutters, against chain link and picket fences, caught in the weeds that persevere, he simply put them in his pockets, moving on. He is a work of small phrases but that has been his job, to collect these little things and keep them cleared away. He has done it carefully, without complaint. But to take up all of it was just impossible; so much was left behind. It’s not his fault. He’s just one simple story, after all.

It started well enough, and happily, though he was born on a day when it clouded suddenly, rained and stayed dark, and everyone said it was much too late in the year for that sort of weather. They said the ocean seemed to be thinking about something, deeply. And that maybe someone would go out for abalone, dive down and be caught in one of those thickening blue-black thoughts, and not come home. It was that kind of day. The divers saw it and stood on the dock for a long time drinking coffee and shielding their eyes with their free hands, watching the ocean think about death. Then they put their gear away and tossed the dregs of their coffee into the water and went home.

Looking back on it now, he sees they must have known that he was born that day, that he was probably the context, if not the point of view, of all that earnest brooding air. So he’s been held to blame. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

As a child, he learned to put small things together, line them up. Subject, object, verb. And it was all predicated on time, which he saw laid out before him in great galleys, on a table in the morning sun. He wandered here and there through phrases of melody, past periods when everything seemed to stop. And taking a breath, he would rise and fall again. He was a child on a slide that stood shining in damp grass – the sun was barely even up! – and anything was possible if he followed rules, dropped nothing that was given him to hold or let it

    break away too soon. That’s not so much responsibility. 

The problem comes with wanting to grow, to take on more of self and life, to be an  important story of substance, tinted with green flecks of meaning that glitter across the room. He wanted to be a work like that, a tale to turn heads, drive conversation at parties, be mentioned more than now and then. “Yes, but you really must read …” and they would know his name. So he grew, and took on height beyond a single page of pretense and prefigurement.

As he grew, he took on heaviness and years. He had to slow down from a dance to a trot, then to a less readable jog. Before he learned he had to walk – that the only way to make it through, to find a happy way to end, was to lean back in a comfy chair and take his time about it all – a worse thing happened.

His voice changed. Just a little. You probably wouldn’t have noticed. He didn’t reveal his narrator, or anything so bad as that. But he found his vowels creaking now and then, and when he stood and tried to speak, what rattled out was tinged with grief. He had learned to pick up bits of memory, and use them here and there to start a scene. This is something stories do. It can’t be helped, since future tense is conjectural at best.

So he turned one late spring windy afternoon and went to see his grandfather, who had been a long novella about work and holidays and dogs. Grandpa had been built on backstory himself, so he had so much good advice to give: Keep your lines clean and sharp, stand up straight, and always leave them wanting more. And one last thing, boy. Tell the truth.

It helped. It really helped a while, I think. He tried to going on living well. One word after another, that’s the key to happiness. And if you block, just say the next right thing. But all that doesn’t pay the bills, not in a town this small, not for the long and heavy haul, not on page two of any life that drifts through drafts like this. Sooner or later, everybody makes stuff up.

Like the time he met the unformed ghost of no one in particular, which rose up from a warped and dusty hardwood floor and came at him, and moaned. And how he screamed and hit the screen door at a run, and fell out into the yard. The house stood like a dull and dying thing made of trees in the August heat and laughed at him. A story should be more fun than that, and brave enough to stand and face the unseen world in which it lives. I know that you agree.

He wanted peace. He grew weary of page after page of getting up and eating life, then lying down. He knew what everyone thought about him, that he was the story of a rainy day and the pensive sea and how the men could have died, their bodies swept away, dissolved, digested by the churning engine of the world. He knew it was useless to change the subject after all, that it was carved on his synopsis, and it would mark his grave in fading ink.

One day he got up late, after all the writers were gone for espresso and scones, and their computers were idling with screensavers of lost and knotted pipes. He climbed to the top of the hill; the hill that is bald on the top, weedless, a scorched and freckled pate of rock. He stood and looked down on the harmless, mostly useless town. There were no factories, no feedlot, no winery or mill. What do those people do all day? Just the houses and the school where he started, waiting in line to climb the slide.

I am not a story of the sea, he roared, and the birds scattered from the trees below and all around. I am not a tale of sad weather, not anymore. I am a story of children at a carnival, with a teacup ride and a Ferris wheel. I can tell you about cotton candy and getting sick in the grass, and ring toss games that aren’t quite fair. I know about going from ride to ride with your father, and him buying your ticket for the carousel. I have seen his face grow bright and brighter, every time you come around. And what about the dogs? I could be a story, damn you all, about dogs and how they eat and sleep and play. I could show you a little dog, running in a dream.

We know that that’s not going to happen. We knew from the second paragraph how things would all turn out for him. No easy death, no publishable adventure, no bright turn of phrase to give the reader hope. He’s not that kind of guy. We read near the end of the story Rust Abides. He doesn’t understand the phrase, but feels persistent truth in it, a sense of doom, an unremitting entropy.

We writers have a place for things like him. It’s not an envelope addressed to the big city. Why pay for the postage, just to buy rejection slips? It’s certainly not the wicker waste can by the desk. He’s maybe just a shade too good for that, with all he’s learned and all he’s suffered stoically. He understands what happens now, and you can help by stepping back. Just watch, as he stands and brushes the crumbs of consonants from the front of his shirt and from his jeans, and slips himself quietly into the drawer.

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The Good Story by J. Kyle Kimberlin
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