[I know this is a week late, but it was a STUMPER. Hope you enjoy…]
Ray Bradbury Twist: … “In today’s challenge we’ll ask you to write a new post using some nouns from various sources.”
Once, during a summer vacation in Greece when Russell was nine or ten, he had just placed a row of twelve Greek coins along the railing of the balcony off the family’s hotel suite. He stood back a bit, in the open doorway, to take a look—mesmerized at the sight of the gold-colored disks, all fired-up by the sun against an impossibly blue sky. Then, hearing the laughter of kids just below, he went to the railing and saw two boys very nearly his own age, Greeks, chasing a skinny dog with a stick. They weren’t hitting the dog, Russell could see, just playing. Maybe a game of fetch was about to begin?
The taller boy noticed Russell watching them and called out to him, spoke, happy and encouraging sounds Russell didn’t understand. Were they inviting him to come play? Russell retreated into the shadows at first, but then moved back into the sunlight… and further still. Then, as he leaned over the railing a bit—with a vague hope of communicating or connecting somehow—he accidentally knocked four of the coins from the railing to the ground below. The boys abruptly stopped their play then; even the dog froze. Everyone stared at the coins.
Russell allowed the memory to play itself out in his mind now, as he often did, knowing that it would restore him to his preferred frame of mind. He and his wife, Melody, were on their way to his mother’s house, where she was throwing an elaborate baby shower for their expected. He could already see his mother scrutinizing the offerings, poking around for gift slips. His throat tightened.
Most people, in Russell’s experience, were generally good, often generous — cool about most things. And Russell was often perplexed by the generally suspicious and paranoid attitudes many people displayed toward others. His own parents were his earliest and most enduring examples. His father, Ernie, who had been an FBI agent for decades before becoming some kind of securities consultant, had seemed convinced that Melody, Russell’s wife of five years now, had married him for something other than the usual reason(s). He’d never come out and said it, but Russell — everyone — gathered it from comments that were so embarrassing to Russell, not only because they seemed completely unfounded to all who knew the couple, but also because they were in such bad taste, stupid, made his dad look like a total dumb ass (and himself, he feared in the moment, by extension).
It started when they were dating, comments to Melody: “I don’t know why a nice kindergarten teacher would choose a UPS delivery guy for a boyfriend. I guess he’s got a nice package.” Ernie repeated some version of this “joke” during the wedding toast. And this was basically the same way he talked about Michelle, Russell’s mother. He often alluded to her undying passion for his bank account and lusty glances at the bulge in his pocket: “my wallet, that is! Ha ha ha!” And when she introduced him to anyone as her husband, he’d say, “I believe that’s pronounced ‘Has been.'” To be fair, Russell understood his father may have had some reasons for feeling this way about his mother, but why had he stood for it? Why hadn’t he tried for something better, with her even. Maybe things could have been different, but — thinking of Michelle now, Russell had to admit — probably not. In any case, finally he came to see that his dad was a child and woman hater to boot. He could and would leave the old man behind, not long after his mother did.
Michelle was a rarer case, much harder to figure, march harder to ditch. For whatever reason, she had tried to school Russell from a very young age in the art of hiding, expertly, just about anything—including himself, if needed. “Whatever it is you have, there’s always going to be someone, somewhere, who wants it,” she’d explained on many occasions. “And more often than not, they’ll try to take it if they think they can get way with it. This doesn’t make them bad, just human. People are like this. Don’t try to kid yourself into thinking otherwise. Don’t be a fool — that’s the very, very worst you can do with your life: live like the world was the way you wish it was.”
Back to Greece…. Before Russell could utter any of the few Greek words he knew, the boys, who Russell understood even then to be poor, ran to where the coins lie shining on the dusty ground and scooped them up. Each boy, holding two coins in his hand, looked at the other and after an almost imperceptible nod, the taller one smiled up again at Russell.
“Thank you, thank you,” he said in English, pointing to the other boy and then to himself, and then to Russell also—followed by something in Greek and laughter. But it was merry laughter, Russell always recalled, nothing dark there. They took off then toward the market square with the dog running close behind, leaving their stick where the coins had been.
“Thank you,” the boy shouted again from a distance. Both waved their hands, then both their hands, and then both their arms with such enthusiasm, their whole bodies whipped about, their feet seemed briefly to leave the ground.
Russell waved back, smiling too (to himself? maybe …). He felt happy, even though he guessed maybe they’d sort of gotten the better of him. He imagined what they would do with the coins, which he knew were worth something, the foods they might buy in the market, and the story they’d tell over a special meal that very night. What he would give to be there, even to watch from nearby or hear about it the next day — just a small piece of that warm, noisy scene he imagined would have been enough.
Russell’s mother suddenly appeared in he door way. He wasn’t sure what she’d seen, but judging from the way she was looking at him, he guessed not much.
“I’m going to take a picture of you and your coins,” she said, setting her cigarette in a tray. “Stand with your arm out above them, like you’re giving us a peek at what’s hidden in your cape.” Russell did as directed but shuffled sideways a bit to obscure the actual number of coins, just in case his mother had been keeping track.
“Oh, this is going to be really cute. I’m going to caption it ‘Russy’s treasures.’” She went on: “Those are your treasures, just like you are mine: my gold coin, shining in the sun.” She kept her eyes on him, smiling, waiting, he thought, as she struggled to replace the lens cap without looking down at it.
“Thank you,” Russell finally said, quietly, shifting his gaze to the lens cap.
“You betcha,” said his mother, clicking the cap into place, and then shifting her attention to her own long arms. They had become a rosy brown in the days since their arrival. “This sun likes me,” she said dreamily, but then suddenly, jabbing a finger toward Russell’s coins, her new bracelets clinking together: “Before I forget: make sure before we go to dinner that you hide those coins like I showed you.”
Russell said he would. But when the family was eating, he remembered that although he’d carefully collected the remaining coins from the railing, he’d neglected to hide them, leaving them on top of his dresser instead. When the family returned, the room was tidied, the beds were made, all was fresh again, but the coins were gone. In a momentary panic, Russell considered stealing a necklace from the market square at his earliest opportunity so that if his mother asked about the coins, he wouldn’t need to reveal the disappointing truth, could say he spent them on a gift for her. But it passed—the panic, the trip, the rosy brown tan. She never asked about the coins. And life brought more treasures, an endless supply of new things to hide, Michelle would say, while Russell continued to do a pretty crummy job of hiding them. Ahhh, well.
As Russell and Melody pulled into the driveway where a spot had been saved for them, they both laughed to see Artie, a teacher from the school where Melody worked, as he clowned with the large package he had just hauled out of the trunk, pretending to struggle beneath its weight Buster Keaton-style. So many friends had made it out to the island for this special day — it was hard for Russell not to blush a little, a life-long habit he’d tried to rid himself of through a variety of techniques including hypnosis and others he’d never admit. The blush faded when he spotted Michelle, the only reliable cure, immaculate in her immaculate surrounds, perfect in a simple pale blue sheath that probably cost more than Melody’s car.
Bored of the guests already, he supposed, but far from through with her surveillance activities, she stood arms folded squarely to the side of the door, which her “new friend” Francis opened and reopened for the guests after she herself greeted them, thanked them for coming. She would remember any who had been there before to visit with Russell in the summer, the exact year and month, and mention a charming detail or two. But her eyes remained otherwise locked on Russell’s little family, alone, as they made their way closer: her treasures, her gold coins shining in the sun.
There is always “burn” here now.
There is always “burn” here now.
Door knobs burn in my hand as I turn them, so I leave the inside ones open. Even the floor burns the bottoms of my feet, so: shoes, but they burn also. These words too, all words, whether I think or say or read them, they all burn now. Sometimes./
To hear them, these ones here, spoken aloud in this room today — w/ no one aside from me listening, no music playing, nothing baking — to hear them without burning, what I would give for that! To be back there, here but back then, in my dream of life again, where it was plenty warm enough, what I would give./
There were times I’d think I must have come from there to here through someplace really cold. I’d think, could I have died that day? That day I “wakened” to the smell of all my pies burning and you knocking as loud as you could on the door. “What’s burning? Are you okay? What’s going on with your hair?”/
We threw the pies into the garden, laughing. You cut my hair in the kitchen to help fix me back up as we aired the place out. “What happened, though? Did you fall asleep? Since when do you bake pies and for what?” I opened you some wine and we spent the rest of the day together./
But I watched the pies slowly disappear alone. It took weeks and then one downpour finally carried the rest away./
Today, I know I came through someplace really cold to get here. Why else, how else, could touching these now — these plastic keys — burn me so? So that the plainest words/thoughts, uttered as plainly as I can manage, are birds barely escaping a flame and then at the very last second returning or just stopping, letting it happen, letting it wrap them and hold them in its hot hands until they turn to ash?/
There is always “burn” here, but I’ve begun to wonder if it might be okay for a time./
After all, crying now is like climbing a tree—but on another planet. Crying: Why? How? It doesn’t happen here, I don’t think, but I’m not completely sure (having learned about evaporation so long ago). I do know it’s not okay not to cry ever./
I know too that today nothing is baking, no music is playing, and no one knocks or doesn’t knock at the door. And I know I didn’t die that day. I am being still and quiet, no more words aloud for now, dreaming of when I was “just warm enough” and wishing I could cry, here or on some other planet, any planet (except Mercury, Venus)./
And yet. Even though these words, my memories, the door, the floor, the bottoms of me feet — ALL of it burns, all of it is burning me — I begin to think it could all turn out all right, that one day I will be just warm enough again.
THIS is a repost, thanks. I’ve been gone from here for SIX long months. I consider it a bit of providence that I log back in tonight, after several days (weeks? months?) of thinking about this blog AND THIS POEM especially, and find that BURN is the one-word daily prompt. Today. When I log back in … But so, I have nothing new here now, I don’t think, am exhausted, but I jump back in to this — everything — holding the hand of my 47-year-old self from two years ago. I trust no one more.