Tuesday, October 31, 2006

an upcoming blogger panel

Got an email about a blogging/new media panel to be hosted by Candleblog's Bill Simmon and featuring 802Online's Cathy Resmer, The Carpetbagger Report's Steve Benen and Front Porch Forum's Michael Wood-Lewis. Promises to be an interesting evening. This Thursday. Spread the word.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

note re: latest post

Click here for my latest post. I wrote it out of order and had to back-date (normally a big no-no, hope you'll forgive me).

Also, I had horrendous trouble posting today, and lost one entry as a result; I've reposted but the comments are gone for good, apologies to alias802, chris d. and anonymous.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

ashes

Sunk in the grey dust were pale bits and shards – parts of a tooth? A rib? The ash was fine, like ash from a woodstove or barbeque grill catch. Not like kitty litter. This was Richard. He filled only two-thirds of the hard plastic urn. Rain hammered the roads and gusty winds whipped the thick drops against the funeral home windows. We put off the scattering. After the service, we ate at Denny’s Pantry where we sometimes brought Richard from the nursing home. Cheap breakfast-served-all-day kind of fare, torn vinyl seats, wide bathrooms, chubby waitresses. We are in no way affiliated with the Denny’s Restaurant chain! Richard waited in the car, in a red velvet box. Good thing. He’d be dismayed at the tip we left. He was a ten-percent man all the way. I’m not made of money. We drove back to Middlebury with Richard on the floor behind the driver’s seat. Next to the half-empty 12-pack of lime seltzer, Shea’s schoolbooks, my work bag, and Chris’ long knit scarf. I thought about his multi-clasp suspenders, his orange knit cap, his flannel shirt often dusted with crumbs. “You dress like a slob, Richard,” a customer once told him. With a self-satisfied look, he turned and answered, “I know.” The rain kept coming, our wheels humming on the wet asphalt, wipers whispering, each of us silently slipping beneath the hush.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

spaces

Inside the cardboard box, Richard was dressed in a pair of grey slacks, frayed and discolored at the hems. The pocket of his striped shortsleeve shirt sagged – stretched by the multiple notebooks he always carried for vacuum orders and payment notations. Into that empty space, we had slipped photos of his daughters and granddaughter, and a wild card from his favorite card game.

We stared through a viewing window into the sparsely outfitted incineration room. A single desk in the corner. Looks easy to clean, Chris said. Behind a blue curtain, hair follicles were plucked, a finger printed, a photo taken, a once-over for foul play. Then the medical examiner was gone, not looking our way. We went in.

The cardboard box could have held a bench or ironing board. I imagined Richard packed in foam peanuts. Chris ran her hand over the tan container, fastened with a black strap and tied in a bow. A few moments later, the crematory operator slid the box into the dusky mouth of the retort oven, propane fires roaring like engines but kept out of sight for now. The door came down. A button was pushed and the tiny round window filled with a bright orange glow.

Richard would take three-and-a-half hours to burn, at 1,400 degrees. Probably higher since fat and oils burn hotter and Richard loved doughnuts. At his prime he might have been a 2,200-degree man, but he’d lost weight since moving to the nursing home four years ago. In the morning, a magnet will be passed over the ashes to extract any metals. His 210-pound body will then fill an urn the size of a milk jug. For now, there was nothing more to see.

In the car outside, we turned back in our seats toward the small, non-descript building with the short smokestack on top – no smoke yet only a shimmer of heat burrowing into the grey sky. Chris rolled down the window, to breathe in her father one last time, opening up the deepest parts of her lungs. In the distance, a cloud had slit itself open and bled out the afternoon’s last light.

last call

It was a late October afternoon. The sky was thick with grey clouds. The mountain foliage had turned – dark oranges, rusted reds, muted browns. The tour buses, bicycle groups, motorcycles were gone. Rain speckled our windshield then vanished under a sudden break of sun. Chris and I followed the hearse from the funeral home in Northfield, Massachusetts, to the crematory in Troy, New Hampshire. Inside a cardboard box lay my father-in-law. A traveling salesman, Richard J. Vielmetti was making his final call.

We wound along many of the same roads Richard traveled decade after decade, his Ford pick-up loaded with Raleigh home products or homemade ice cream or vacuums or donuts. Lettered on a side panel: “Everyone gets a break. One leg at a time.” Route 9, Route 119, Route 12. Humble Main Street storefronts, peeling churches, hooded teens on undersized dirt bikes, gravel roads broken up with double-wides. His kind of towns.

Daughters, nieces and nephews, he took them all on his sales calls, tried to teach them the trade. His disorganization and bumbling was his charm. The plastic sleeves of vacuum parts flew out from boxes, his truck a jumble of vacuum bags and hoses and attachments. I’d lose my head if it wasn’t screwed onto my shoulders, he'd say. At one home, he absent-mindedly snapped a tablecloth into his briefcase and headed for the door, taking the setting with him. He still made the sale. And the next one, and the one after that. Fallen leaves swirled up from beneath the hearse and washed over our hood. Thank god stories don't fit into urns.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

the presence of absence III

We saw him hours earlier. He was flattened against his pillows, milky eyes fluttering, shallow breaths barely fogging his oxygen mask. Fluid gurgled in his lungs, his hands cold and twitching. The foam boot that had kept his diabetes-ravaged foot in place lay on a nearby chair, infection now feasting freely on the bone. He had no assets, no possessions, no teeth. Just a nursing-home johnny. He died yesterday at 7:21 PM. He was Richard Vielmetti. Child of the Depression, youngest of four brothers and a sister, World War II veteran, cross-country hitchhiker, ice cream maker, vacuum peddler, donut salesman. Chris was his middle daughter.

This morning’s sky was crystal blue and I saw Richard everywhere. In the frosted leaves in the driveway, in the lone goose peeling off from the line, in the rutted streaks of cloud that reminded me of the back roads he used to travel, truck loaded with vacuum bags and parts. Stenciled on the back window: “Lifetime guarantee if you promise not to live too long.” Many of his customers were poor and missed payments. He called on them at their rural homes and sometimes accepted a power tool or dinner instead. Richard grew up with nothing, the son of immigrants, his mother a one-lunged cripple. These were his people. Most everyone else thought he had a screw loose.

One of Richard’s favorite pastimes was Skip-Bo, a simple card game of sequence. He wore out deck after deck and passed them on to us. Richard and I once played Skip-Bo for six hours straight. Last night, Chris, Shea and I dealt a round in his memory. When we were done, we separated out one of the wild cards to tuck in his shirt pocket when he’s cremated on Wednesday. When Shea asked to play again this morning. I grabbed the lone card off the counter but Chris stopped me. “We should play without it.” She was right. It was a beautiful thing. The three of us sitting around the woodstove, dogs at our sides, none of us playing with a full deck.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

the presence of absence II

A limb from a giant box elder crashed into our yard the other week, brought down by stiff winds and rain. It was massive, a tree growing off a tree. Long thick branches covered in thinner leafy ones. The debris took up an entire corner, tearing down a scrim of grape vines. For a week, I’d watched the foliage turn crisp and die. I couldn’t put it off any longer.

Chris cut away the leafy branches. And I attacked the six or seven main limbs, each about eight inches in diameter, several as long as ten feet. It took me hours to saw through them all. Heart throbbing, lungs heaving. After a while, I had to break every few minutes to catch my breath and rest my arm. The blade kept sticking, my grooves misaligned, the teeth accidentally tore through my pants. A neighbor offered me a chainsaw. I declined. Mounds of orange dust were scattered about like blood.

I carried the sawed pieces to the edge of the yard and carefully placed them in the overgrowth, like fallen children. Sweat dripped off my face and onto my shirt, my shoulders numb. I stood for a while staring at my progress. No foliage, no limbs. Just a thick grey body, a beast humped with blond stubs. Rings exposed, dark pink centers. I decided to call it a day. To dismantle the trunk would undoubtedly mean a chainsaw. But I’ve come to love this tree, and often find myself at the kitchen window looking out at the yard, the blond circles seeming to float in the corner, orbitting each other, mourning their fallen host. I stare until I can see no more, afraid to lose sight, afraid to lose my understanding.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

the presence of absence

As Chris and I walked to the dirt road for our morning run, a blond man jogged by. It was cold and windy and leaves were falling. We exchanged hellos. As he passed, I saw that one of his black sleeves was flapping behind him. It took a moment to realize he had only one arm.

I watched him run up the first rise. He was fast and solid, machine-like, single arm sawing the wind, empty sleeve jerking and darting like a filament. I wondered why he hadn’t pinned it. Folded it into squares like veterans at a parade.

The man grew smaller, pulling farther ahead. His balance seemed unaffected. Could I still run with one arm? No arms? Running required a mental tenacity that often felt more threadbare with every mile. But he looked unfazed, moving in a perfect rhythm, iPod buds in his ears, free sleeve snapping like a banner. I’d never seen him out here before but he seemed part of the surroundings. Then he crested the hill by the farm and was gone. In his wake, I could smell horses and turning crab apples, a necklace of geese in the sky.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

a silent rebel yell

There’s a tree in the Marble Works complex whose foliage has turned, the deep red leaves starting to curl at the edges. Except for a single limb whose leaves are still thick and waxy, a cluster of proud green medallions. It refuses to budge. Admirable resistance despite overwhelming odds. Year after year, same old bullshit. I’m out, godammit. Such rebellions often end badly these days, and fewer seem to take place. But I will come back tomorrow. And the next day. Cheer that motherfucker on.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

a memory orphanage

On the glass cabinet across from the circulation desk at the Fletcher Free Library sits a small clear box labeled Lost & Found Photos. Inside is a short stack of snapshots -- a birthday party, three guys in a restaurant kitchen, a high school football game. Improvised bookmarks forgotten in library books. Now memories without context, strangers thrown in together. For a week or two, they did their jobs, moving from page to page, handled by warm fingers, perhaps reminisced over before taking their place between the sheets. No mere album-dwellers, they had purpose, saw action. The football game moved across white fields of type, the embarassed teen blew out her birthday candles without getting older, the guys slept in that cavernous kitchen night after night. Each had but one responsibility -- to secure a page number. Which they did flawlessly. And this was their thanks. A glass cage. Like unwanted pets. I studied the photo of a baby girl at a portrait studio and put her back. When I stopped by today, others had been added -- two dudes hamming for the camera, brothers playing in the snow. But the baby was gone. The older ones are always so much harder to place.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

an antidote

I'm pleased to add the Young Writers Project to my blogroll. A dynamic local initiative for school-age writers. And the perfect antidote to this pessimistic post from last May:

The empty calories of middle school prose
Tuesday, May 23

My stepdaughter is being taught in eighth-grade English that a paragraph must consist of at least four sentences. Not three, not two, not one. This absurd quota means students will be tempted – as my stepdaughter has – to fill their paragraphs with extra sentences regardless of meaning and relevance. She’s also being taught to conclude her essays by re-stating the “thematic statement” using synonyms. I suspect such rules are created so that prose – something that lacks universal form – can be broken down and the parts assigned calculable value for ease of grading. But along the way, Generation Next is learning to be a repetitive, fatty, appearance-driven communicator. Another overweight American in a belly shirt. This ill-conceived approach to nascent writing mars clarity of thought and stymies creativity. It’s not Instant Messenger we need worry about. In fact, that method of communication is more than a little wondrous – the code, the brevity, the efficiency. It is creative, in flux, without rules. I turn to Charles Bukowski who once wrote, “as the spirit wanes the form appears,” a seven-word sentence that can sum up a human life. Bukowski means that when a writer or artist, or any human being for that matter, loses touch with their inspiration, they cloak that deficiency with structure, with form. In the case of the instruction my step-daughter and her classmates receive, “as the form appears the spirit is retarded.” These are 13- and 14-year old kids. The future.

Also, check out this feature on YWP and student blogging, originally published in The Burlington Free Press.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

a pet resemblance

We have an eight-pound Chihuahua, the runt of the litter. His white coat is marked with miniature continents of black, like a Holstein hide. The spawn of a cow and a sea monkey, I tell people. He loves the street but is frightened of most objects we come across – hula hoops, recycling bins, shopping bags. Strangers call him “killer” and ask whether he runs on batteries. I smile like I’ve not heard these jokes before.

At night, he burrows deep under the comforter, along with several toys. Whenever I lift the covers, he’s in a different position – curled into a ball, stretched like a pork loin, upside down on his side. Each time at different spot on the mattress as if moved by some unseen force, a cosmonaut free-floating through space. His miniature tennis ball and stuffed bone orbiting him everywhere he goes.

I was like him once, decked out in another animal’s clothes, in love with streets that frightened me, seeking out the dark under blankets. But I never mastered tumbling through space. Only down sidewalks I no longer recognized, hand shaped like a bottle, satellites long since spun away.

Friday, October 06, 2006

our sad anthem

Read this poem at today's Writer's Almanac. What we've become in less than two minutes.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

five-cent review #3

(reviews in five sentences or less)
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Father-son survival tale set in all-too-real post-apocalyptic America. No one writes like McCarthy – spare and vivid, like reading a ghost. His stunning images bleached of sentimentality: “... the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.” Every word obeys, some do tricks. Pity the next book on your nightstand.