by Anthony Pearce
Anthony is a graduate student in Hispanic Literature at BYU.
Anthony is a graduate student in Hispanic Literature at BYU.
Rich Ives has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, Seattle Arts Commission and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines for his work in poetry, fiction, editing, publishing, translation and photography. His writing has appeared in Verse, North American Review, Massachusetts Review, Northwest Review, Quarterly West, Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, Virginia Quarterly Review, Fiction Daily and many more. He is the 2009 winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander. He has been nominated seven times for the Pushcart Prize. He is the 2012 winner of the Thin Air Creative Nonfiction Award. His books include Light from a Small Brown Bird (Bitter Oleander Press–poetry), Sharpen (The Newer York-fiction chapbook), The Balloon Containing the Water Containing the Narrative Begins Leaking-What Books) and Tunneling to the Moon (Silenced Press–hybrid)
Alexandra has always loved poetry, but she only recently began studying contemporary poetry. She is an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University. She spends her free time outdoors with her husband rock climbing and hiking and eating lots of bread.
Jonathon Todd Egan, DC, PhD, (BS – BYU ’98), is currently Dean of a chiropractic college in California. He is married to his wife, Heidi, for 22 years – and this poem (‘Gamos’) was written in honor of that anniversary: as both Jonathon and Heidi are 44 years old, the 22nd anniversary represented being married for their “half life” for both of them. Jonathon and Heidi have 5 children, the oldest of which just finished serving an LDS mission, and the next oldest of which is in process of submitting mission papers. Creatively, Jonathon has also released an album of faith and family centered alternative and progressive rock (called “Godspeed”) in 2016 with the band Bravery Test, available on streaming services and everywhere digital music is typically available. Jonathon served an LDS mission in Sweden, and has also served as Bishop and as counselor in Bishoprics, counselor in a Mission Presidency, Ward Mission Leader, Nursery Leader, and (most delightful of all) Primary Pianist.
I first read Gertrude Stein when I was sixteen years old.
She was one of the Modernists, a group of writers who sought to revolutionize the functions of grammar and prose, and a bunch of whom all moved to Paris and ended up knowing each other. My American Literature class and I studied their capstones: Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.” I was mind-blown. These masterworks taught me that good literature can enchant and entertain in the same way that good movies do.
Then we read Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. And I did not like it. I thought it was a dumb book and that Stein must have just been a historical accident, who only got studied because she had powerful friends. I quickly dismissed her as just another of the “crazy modernist lesbians.” (I am sorry to say that in high school I was not very nice.)
But Gertrude Stein kept coming back. The more I learned about Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Pound, the more her influence on them kept getting emphasized. She read their books and helped edit them. She probably edited The Sun Also Rises! Hemingway asked her to be his son’s godmother!
So when my professor assigned Tender Buttons for last week’s reading, I figured I might enjoy it this time around. But I was taken straight back to junior year when I got to this paragraph:
Book was there, it was there. Book was there. Stop it, stop it, it was a cleaner, a wet cleaner and it was not where it was wet, it was not high, it was directly placed back, not back again, back it was returned, it was needless, it put a bank, a bank when, a bank care.
(That paragraph is even more fun if you read it out loud.) Was I missing something? Did anyone else find this paragraph to be absolutely bananas? Were there people out there who would pay money for this kind of stuff? And even if there were, why are we studying it? Literature like this, though it often has critical and influential value, is simply not what I enjoy reading. I gravitate towards works of connection–ones where you feel like you’re there with the author, having a conversation. Rather than that sense of synchronization, Tender Buttons gives me the feeling I’m being largely ignored.
Next to Tender Buttons, though, in our anthology, was a small biography of Stein, and a picture, taken by Man Ray in 1922. In it, Gertrude Stein sits on the right, next to a portrait painted by Pablo Picasso. Of herself.
A lot of cool things converge in the picture. First, the obvious joke: Gertrude Stein is in a picture with herself. Because the image on the left is a painting, it seems like it should just be part of the backdrop of the photograph. But Stein is her own background, and Ray has positioned them to sit facing each other, as though they have just stopped a conversation with themselves in order to look at the camera.
Then there’s the comment on the artistic moment. Picasso experimented with cubism and surrealism, which attempted to paint the heart of the thing, not necessarily how it appeared visually. His vision of Stein has an unnaturally geometric, oval head, and her eyes are two different sizes. Her face is lean and young, while Stein’s is full and weathered. But regardless of those differences, the resemblance between both Gertrudes is spot-on. The painted work sustains all of Stein’s dignity: her tightly-kept hair, her round, inviting back, and her soft, quiet hands. When people complained to Picasso that Stein did not look like her portrait, he responded, “She will.”
Still, though, something about the photograph is inexplicable. How did Stein feel when she got to see her own portrait? What thoughts ran through her head while Ray took this picture? She got to see herself as the Modernists saw her, and that floors me with jealousy. What would I have looked like to a Cubist? How would Picasso have painted me? What would Hemingway have thought of my notes?
You can picture them all standing there, behind the lens of the camera— Fitzgerald and Pound and Matisse and Hemingway and all of them—watching and smiling. The face of the painted Stein is curious and sly, like she knows the joke that’s going on but doesn’t want to talk about it. But the real Stein has a face of gravity. She knows the joke too, and she knows how important her group is. She knows what Hemingway’s next book is going to be about, and she knows the world of World War I. She knows that her book is crazy. She knows the artist’s burden, to create good art in the shadow of her predecessors. She knows what Hawthorne and Emerson and Rachmaninoff and Cervantes and Caravaggio and Shakespeare and Chaucer and Moses all knew. She knows Picasso. She knows what’s next.
In November the water at Newport Beach is pretty cold, but I still swim for a good half hour before the waves wear me out and my arms and legs start to chill and I walk-hop to my towel while the waves push me from behind. When I sit down I watch my aunt Chari, who’s still swimming in the ocean wile grabbing handfuls of sand, the grains sieving through my fingers. When a smooth-faced wave rises up, I can see Chari’s body shadowing the top layers of ocean before the pile of water comes crashing down and her body jolts to the sandy bottom. She stands up, shakes her head, slicks her hair back, spits a couple of times, and then dives back under the next wave to do it again. I watch Chari get pummeled to the ground again and again.
My dad told me that when they’d go fishing, Chari was the one who’d stay next to the river afterward, slitting open the fish from the tail to the throat and rinsing out their guts in the river to bleed swirling ribbons. I like to picture her, sliding two fingers between the flaps of skin and peaking in, like checking a patient’s chart before flipping it open. She counts the pulse of her patients, taking their blood pressure, and the muscles and blood and other organs slide down her fingers, back into the cool river.
When she grew up and she and her boyfriend, Steve, got pregnant and they got married and moved away from my dad’s family to Kansas City and had four children, Steve would spend all of their money and blame Chari for their problems because she hadn’t gone to college. Then he’d threaten to kill himself if she ever left him. But one day when he went to work, she packed up everything in their house into black garbage bags and buckled the four kids into their seat belts while they sucked on fruit snacks and she drove to her sister’s house in Utah. Steve was surprised when he came home and no one was there, so he kicked a few things and broke a few pictures and shouted and then he turned on the TV while he waited for her to call. But she never did. Instead, she went to college, got a nursing degree, they got divorced, and she married a kind man.
I think about this while I watch her because of, well, because of a recent break up. I felt I had learned how to compromise and to please and to give and what I got in return was an unexpected avalanche of white, salty water in my sinuses and kelp in my swimsuit. And the whole experience has been getting retrospectively worse. But as I watch Chari fall to the sand again, her skin slick and shimmering, she flops first like a beached fish and then stands, strong enough.
I have no memory of learning to ride a bike, but if my parents taught me, my dad would have played a dominant role. He would have been the one to secure my knee guards, helmet, elbow pads, then hold the handles and jog on both sides of the back wheel as I pedaled. I would have jerked myself out of his grip and fell. As I cried and ran back to my house, my mom would be the one to fart and then blame it on my brother to get me laughing.
My dad continued to play a protective, dominating role, especially in whom I dated. I remember one of my first dates. A sixteen-year-old boy, was taking me to get ice cream. My dad insisted that I shouldn’t go. He followed me around the house as I got ready. He had disapproving creases on his forehead. My mother jokingly yelled from the other room, “Have fun, bring me back a beer!” I laughed and wished my dad could ease up. As I ran for the door when my date’s car pulled up, my dad screamed an elongated “Beee gooood!” out the front door.
My dad offered his opinion so much that I began to rebel out of spite, and soon I didn’t know what I wanted. I fell in love with boys, my dad would offer his harsh opinion of them, and I found myself quickly out of love with them. I didn’t know what to love anymore. I resented the power he had over me, yet I leaned into it to ask for advice often.
. . .
I woke up early and made eggs and toast. I packed energy packets, gummies, and granola bars into a small bag that I crunched under the metal rack above my back tire. I looked at my phone; the GPS bike route was already pulled up. The next four hours and 47 minutes I would be cycling 59.4 miles through eleven towns. It was my first long ride. My ex-boyfriend Josh, the one who got me into cycling, had always talked about riding his road bike from Provo to Salt Lake City in Utah. I laughed at him when he said that—it seemed ridiculous to ride that far; why would anyone want to do that?
Now here I was doing it without him.
My new friend Vaughn was waiting for me by the bike racks of our apartment complex. We had met only a few weeks earlier at a neighborhood gathering. When we discovered our common love for cycling, we planned this trip. He was wearing thin black shades and had a professional red and white cycling helmet. This was his first ride on a road bike, and I was excited to be the more experienced cyclist. The day before we had went shopping and bought cycling shorts, the black spandex kind with a sewn in pillow under the bum. I felt professional, even though I had been cycling only four months. I was surprised to see him with red basketball shorts on. “Where are your new shorts?” I asked.
“I’m wearing them under these one.” He said.
I didn’t understand. “Vaughn you’re going to get really hot. Why not just wear the cycling shorts?”
He laughed and said, “I’m not ready for that yet.” I laughed right back at him and we started to ride.
Fifteen miles in, we finally got off the roads and onto the bike trail that would take up three fourths of our journey. Vaughn and I would shout when we had something entertaining to say, but mostly we were silent. Most of the times we stopped, he tried to twist his foot out of the bike’s pedals, unsuccessfully, and he would fall. I helped him as much I could but eventually found myself laughing.
As I rode on the trail overlooking the Utah valley, I continued to think of my dad. He had disapproved of me buying a bike, and I hadn’t asked his opinion about cycling 60 miles. Occasionally, Vaughn and I would pass a couple longboarding or some morning speed walkers. A fit cyclist passed us going at a ridiculous speed. He had a red light flashing under his seat, telling me that he had started his ride before the sun rose. I envied his speed and form; the competitor inside me called to Vaughn, “Let’s keep up with him.” Vaughn nodded, with his huge smile, and we pedaled harder. I pulled the little metal switch between my handlebars and shifted gears. I moved my hands to the curved lower handlebars, letting my back become almost horizontal, so I could slice into the air. I had only had my bike for fourth months, but already I felt more freedom with her than I had in most other relationships in my life.
. . .
On the day I bought my bike, my ex-boyfriend Josh was trying to find a robin-egg-blue Bianchi road bike. They were adorable. “They’re not adorable, they are classic,” he would say. He would also say things like, “It’s not a seat, it’s a saddle” and “that’s not a sprocket, this is a sprocket.” I then mumbled at him, “You’re a sprocket.” He laughed so loud, like thunder, so surprising and exciting. Many things I did or said were purely just to hear his thunderous laugh. It wasn’t a deep, sexy thunderous voice; it was a high-pitched crack through the air—and I loved it.
That Saturday we were exploring a vintage bike shop. I test-drove a silver road bike. A Bianchi from 1980. It was lightly raining, and there was that delicious smell in the air that rose from the wet cement. I squinted to see; the steel frame wobbled under me. The seat was so high that I had to awkwardly curve my back to reach the low handles. There were brief moments of exhilaration. I felt like I was floating. The bicycle was so light that with the slightest adjustment of my hands, it would smoothly turn. When I clenched the brakes to stop, there was a moment of terrifying teetering, I didn’t know which side I would fall toward. After we got back in the building, I told him, “I can’t buy it, it’s a road bike! I’ve only ever rode mountain bikes. And I can’t ride on the roads.”
“Mountain bikes are for tools. And they are like ten pounds heavier.” He told me about the amazing rides we would have, he told me of the thrilling feeling of cycling. I had heard this passionate thread many times before. He always had a way of assuring me. By the bold way he talked, I really believed he knew everything. Even when I knew he was wrong, he said things with such confidence, that sometimes I felt better being wrong with him than being right without him.
But I was persistent, because buying this bike was a big commitment. I knew I would have to pay for tune-ups, and ride it on roads. “I have a weak back though, this might kill me,” I said. “Maybe,… maybe I am just not be a biker. I mean, I’m saving up for a car.”
He was a few inches taller than me. He looked down into my eyes. “It’s not a ‘biker,’ it’s a cyclist, and this will make your back and core so much stronger.” He looked down at the bike at his side. “We can find nice neighborhood roads you can bike on. You don’t have to ride the busy streets.” He stroked his hand down the bike’s frame, petting it slowly. “It is such a nice bike.”
. . .
Thirty minutes after we accelerated, the cyclist in front of us became a distant red light in the foggy morning. We were riding past the large homes in Lindon, with their backyards full of horses and corn. I enjoyed the smells that came, some that I would not normally have enjoyed. I smelt fresh cut wet grass lying in piles, and brown meshy earth under old men’s work boots. Smells took me back to the time that I had ridden on this trail before. Josh had brought me there only weeks after we’d bought my bike.
. . .
I had watched Josh “dance” as he called it, with his bike, Francesca. I tried to mimic him; standing up and swinging the bike side-to-side under my body as I pedaled fast and hard. I would often swing the bike too much to the side and make wide curves on the bike trail, unbalanced, and fumbling.
I named my bike Luna because she is silver and Italian made. As I gained balance and a love for Luna, I began riding her everywhere. I rode Luna up the hill to work; it took fifteen minutes. I would rest for twenty minutes before I clocked in—that’s how long it took for the burning legs, jumping heart, and occasional nausea to go away. I learned what a derailleur was, and why a bent tire rim would ruin a ride. I paid even more so that Luna could ride smooth. I was amazed at her obedience. With the slightest movement, she followed.
Each day I could get to work in a little less time; the game was exciting. My heart began to enjoy sprinting. I felt a heavy burn in my thighs about the time when my breathing became audible. That’s when I pushed down the little metal gear that was in between my handlebars. I stood, swinging Luna under me as I pedaled. My breath was deeper now, loud. There was a point when moving the pedals became almost impossible, so I sat and gave my thighs a breather. On the ride home, I would try to make my back as flat as possible, avoiding potholes, letting my hands rest on the curved bars under the brakes. I knew if I needed the brakes, it would take a moment more to reach them from this position. The wind wrapped around me and whipped the zippers on my backpack, and I could hear them tap the fabric.
I began to ride Luna to school. On the days after Josh and I broke up, I found myself crying less. It seemed weird that such a trying event would stop tears and not wield them. On the days that getting out of bed became hard, it was often the anticipation of the ride that got me up. I could feel the eyes of walking students glued to my back as I sped past them, on my other side cars galloped by me, but I didn’t care.
She understood me and I understood her. Don’t shift the front gear up, she’s broken there, it irritates her chain. She followed my hip sway and the turn of my wrist. I learned how to fix her tires when they went low. My fingers became accustomed to her grease. I learned how to break a nozzle off the tube (she forgave me for that). The tube still hangs on my wall. I even taught Vaughn how to fix a tire. That was the night we learned what it’s like to explode a tube by pumping it too much.
Eventually I stopped taking the neighborhood roads and took the main route to campus. At times there was no clear bike lane. Yet I felt that I belonged there. I merged to wait in line with the cars to turn left, as I had seen many cyclist do. When the light turned green, the adrenaline shot through me. I stood and began to dance the silver-moon steel frame under me.
. . .
I could sense that Vaughn was watching me dance with Luna. My hands were grasping the fleshy gold-tape crescent moon handlebars. Wind was rippling over my fingers then and sliding down my forearm, and rolling off my bladed shoulders. I rode flat as an arrow. No one had told me that hills and talking are a bad combination unless you like the taste of bugs. Perhaps it should’ve been common sense; but eventually Vaughn and I had got it and stopped talking. It was in this silent time, that I felt something unique. I was filled with an indescribable power and sense of freedom, that no relationship or sport has ever brought before. We were pedaling near the point of the mountain, where two towns, Lehi and Draper touched. The highway was on my left, cars going 70 miles-an-hour were only 50 yards from me. I briefly glanced at some colors in the sky, paragliders. I wondered how they felt up there, was that how they felt indescribable power and freedom? Bringing my eyes back to the downhill trail, I saw the Salt Lake valley unveiled below me. Canopies of green trees were sporadically placed in the valley that was guarded by dangerously tall mountains. Past the frozen valley beneath me, I saw my destination, thirty miles ahead—Salt Lake City.
I held my body low so that I was diving into the air. I was invisible. The hill leveled out and I became vertical again, letting myself glide, breathing in the valley, inhaling God. For weeks after I wanted to tell my whole family about this place. I wanted to buy them bikes and take them here.
. . .
I left the bike shop that Saturday and sat in the car with Josh. I called my dad and told him about how I wanted to buy the bike, about how it could save me money, how I would always wear a helmet, how it might be a good thing for me, but that I was just a little scared, and asked what he thought. My dad reacted the way that he often reacted.
I could hear his eyes pressing close and his hand rub his worried face. “Oh, honey, I don’t think you should get it. Those things are really dangerous. I just don’t trust it. I heard about a biker just last month that got killed on the road. Bikers just aren’t meant to be on the road.”
Cyclist, I thought.
I looked at my Josh’s face, it told me, just get the bike.
My dad said, “Just save your money. I really don’t want you getting hurt, honey.”
I thought of going home without the bike. The air was gray and rain was breaking on the windshield. I decided to get it that second that my dad was waiting for me to respond. “Dad. I appreciate your opinion. I’m going to buy the bike.” I heard a sigh on the other end.
. . .
Our muscles were begging for rest, so we stopped a ways down the hill once we reached the neighborhoods. I leaned Luna on a church fence and ate a granola bar. Vaughn stretched reached his hands up his red shorts to readjust his cycling shorts, jumping and laughing. There were birds screeching, awful, loud noises above us. I looked up: two eagles flew in ovals in the sky. I looked in the distance and saw two more circling the valley. I said, “Vaughn are those eagles?”
He looked at them for a moment and continuing to stare at them, he said, “Yeah. That’s crazy.”
“I’ve only ever seen eagles in a zoo.” We watched a while longer, sensing this moment was special. Squinting over the valley, my eyes lowered and noticed a field in front of me. Wood-like antlers were hovering above tall grass. “A deer!” I screamed without thinking. As I said “deer,” the buck raised his head to look at me. I gazed into his black eyes.
“He is so close!” Vaughn said quietly. Vaughn’s words seemed distant. The deer and I were glued to each other. I felt that this moment was sacred, yet I didn’t understand why. Moments later the buck broke the gaze and turned. His body was broader and taller than I had anticipated. I admired him even more. “Well, let’s keep riding?” Vaughn said. I agreed and mounted my bike but kept looking at the buck. He’d turned once to look at me, then continued.
We found that sitting was too painful when we reached South Salt Lake, fifteen minutes from the cafe that I had always loved. We rode, standing, past the kids getting out of school. Braids twirled in the wind as girls chased one another.
We arrived at the cafe and found an empty table on the terrace and left Luna and his bike on the fence next to us. I felt the bones popping in my back as I sat down, my muscles were tingling; they felt like cold liquid running through my taut legs. I felt empty; I’d eaten all my gummies. There was a hand reaching from the depths of my stomach and clawing at my skull behind my eyes. Vaughn was tired too, we gave each other a high five. We told the server what we’d just done, but didn’t really have any other words. So we were silent and drank our water from the tall translucent glasses, then poured and repeated this until our meal arrived.
The server brought the order fast and gave us a free dessert. Chicken Panini’s with potato chips and a slice of marzipan. The food was not as delicious as I remembered, yet it was the best thing meal I ever had. We inhaled it. I felt a sensation expanding in my chest, almost overflowing into tears as I ate it.
My grandpa lived through the Great Depression. He didn’t talk about it much, but he carried the evidence in his house; when he dragged his way out of those dusty, gritty years, he came with a bitter smile and the incessant need to surround himself with things. He built a nest in his basement: a mixture of canes, posters, records, doorknobs, chairs, pipes, screws, and everything else. Oh, and golf balls.
Oh, the golf balls.
My family likes to tell a story about the golf balls. He had boxes upon boxes of them—and not shoeboxes, either. Big boxes, like the kind you pack up TVs to move in. They were all organized, too. By make and by number. “Titelist 7s” one box said. “Carroway 9s” was another. I’d estimate over a thousand golf balls, ferreted away in that basement-nest.
The story is the story of how he lost his glasses. He was out on the golf course one day, as he always was. (Not golfing. He just picked up after the golfers to add to his collection.) And he saw a golf ball. As usual. When he bent over to pick it up, his glasses fell off of his face. But when his hand went to reach for his glasses, he saw another golf ball. So he grabbed it. And then two feet away, another golf ball. So he walked over and grabbed that. And then another. So he walked a few more feet and grabbed that. Pretty soon, he had wandered so far away from his glasses that he was left standing in the middle of the golf course, arms full of golf balls, with not a clue where he had left his glasses.
The story of how the golf balls had made him walk away from his eyesight and he was always embarrassed when we told it.
For his eightieth birthday my mom and her siblings took my grandpa to San Francisco. Not because he was born there but because they thought it would be fun. I remember thinking that he wouldn’t like it there. There were no golf courses in the city. How would he get to enjoy his favorite hobby?
But apparently it was fun. He loved it and I used to wonder why.
I took a trip to San Francisco the summer after my twentieth birthday. I hadn’t really meant it as an homage to my grandpa, or as a pilgrimage to the golf-ball-less city that he had enjoyed so much. I just wanted to walk the pier, take pictures of a few bridges, and eat a lot of expensive food.
As soon as I emerged from the dim subway station and into the light of Market Street, I was overwhelmed by the sudden barrage on my senses.
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Everywhere I looked there were sleek fashions, beautiful women, and clearance sales. This was culture; the advertisements were the veins that pumped blood through the city. I reveled in the sensationalism that was Market Street, and I had the feeling that my grandpa and I weren’t so different. There weren’t any golf balls but the city wasn’t holding back. It was still so full of things.
When my grandpa died we had to clean out his basement. His nest. There just wasn’t anything to do with most of his things besides throw them away. I remember, during the purge, asking my mom why my grandpa had kept so much.
“Did he have plans to do anything with this stuff?”
She was going through a box of wing nuts with a frown on her face. “I don’t think so.”
I watched her sift through them. “What are you looking for?”
She didn’t even bother to look up from the task. “Something valuable.”
“Are wing nuts not valuable?”
“Not a box of old wing nuts. These are pretty much just junk.”
And I sat there, in my grandpa’s basement, wondering why he felt happier when he had surrounded himself with “pretty much just junk.” I thought of my grandma, who had died early on in their marriage. I thought of my aunts and uncles, who moved out of the house so early. And I thought of my grandpa wandering through that empty house and filling it with “pretty much just junk.” With things.
The golf ball boxes were the last thing we went through. The whole family gathered in the basement and stared at all of those boxes. I remember my Uncle Eric asking the obvious question:
“What are we going to do with all of these golf balls?”
During my trip I went to the corner of Haight and Ashbury. They say it’s where the Beatles first smoked weed—where they first learned to transcend the material world and access their true potential. I went to admire the shrine: the flowers, the cards, the photographs. As I stood there a woman—overweight, dirty, and decked out in full hippie regalia—started picking at the shrine. At first, I thought she was just going through the gifts to choose what she wanted to take home; how could anyone pass up free roses, free signed posters, free, free, free? But then, I saw her pulling out dead flowers, rearranging multicolored afro wigs, and picking up the litter. I realized she wasn’t picking at the shrine; she was pruning it. Showing her respect by taking care of it.
I was already touched by her devotion. But upon even closer scrutinization, I saw something that I will never forget. I saw her pick up a letter—“To the Beatles” typed in bold across the top—and rip the bottom piece off. I furrowed my brows and leaned just a little more forward to see what was written on the scrap. “Love, your friends, the staff of Barney’s Grill.” Their hours of operation might also have been typed there. She crumpled up the scrap and moved on to the next letter. From that one, she pulled off the business card and crunched it in the same hand as Barney’s ad. On and on, with meticulous diligence, she cleansed the shrine of each token of advertisement, until I thought John Lennon would rise from the dead and embrace her. She was a rebel, fighting against the worship of things.
And I couldn’t think of a better form of devotion that that simple, quiet act of defiance.
I don’t remember much about my grandpa’s funeral; people spoke, I’m sure they told jokes and everyone got to pay their respects. What I do remember were the golf balls. My uncle had grabbed an armful from my grandpa’s basement and had brought them to the funeral. Maybe in an attempt to be funny, he had put them in a little drawer in the casket. When the pallbearers lifted the casket, you could hear those golf balls rolling around in the drawer. When the hearse drove the casket to the plot, there was that unmistakable growl of plastic-polymer on wood. When the casket was lowered into the ground, all I could think of were those golf balls.
And I wonder: would he have been happy, knowing those would follow him to his grave? Can his soul be at peace, knowing that the same golf balls that littered his nest, that took his eyesight, that filled that hole in his Great-Depression-heart are nestled under six feet of dirt, keeping him company as he turns to dust? Or are they just another awkward gesture, another testament of things, from those of us who can still draw comfort from cold plastic in our hands?
I wonder if that woman would see them as some sort of sign of respect. Or maybe she would come into the graveyard late one night, dig up the casket, and meticulously remove each one of those golf balls and let my grandpa decay in peace.
Last summer, I was sitting by a pond on a hill, reading about warfare. I heard some crackling that sounded like fireworks. At first I thought it was thunder or an explosion, until I saw a large branch from a cottonwood tree slowly rip itself off its trunk and crash into the foliage below. The sound of the impact was so loud that the ducks from another pond on the other side of a nearby stream started shrieking and fleeing, their whole world having been shaken and terrorized by an ungodly force they could neither see nor understand. It might as well had been a bomb that fell from the sky. The falling branch caused a much slimmer tree standing next to the cottonwood to collapse soon after. This second fall sounded as an echo of the first, merely rustling through the other branches during its descent.
I set my book aside and headed down the hill through the bramble of trees to investigate and saw the splintered stump on the trunk where the branch used to be. Perhaps it fell due to the weight, having grown too large and too thick to hold onto the trunk. It was the size of a small tree, smothering everything beneath it. One large stem stuck into the dirt like a knife in a wound. Leaves and twigs were scattered everywhere like the shrapnel from a cannon blast.
I felt the wood beneath the bark at the broken end of the branch, which stuck out like a compound fracture. It wasn’t hard and dry as I expected wood to feel; it was succulent and soft like the inside of a melon. It felt like flesh. I realized then that the branch, like the tree, used to be alive. Water ran beneath its bark like blood and trickled from the wound. I had just been reading about how wounded soldiers with detached limbs often think that the limb is still there. It made me wonder if the old tree was conscious of one of its members breaking off, and if it had felt anything akin to pain.
I hiked back up the hill as the dust began to settle and the birds began to quiet down. Peace had been restored. The water in the stream kept flowing and nature kept cycling as if nothing had happened at all.