the tree

In April my sister called to tell me that my mother’s tree was gone, that my father had toppled it.

That towering white pine dominated the backyard for years. It was grown from a sapling Mom had transplanted from the north woods. There’s the tale my dad tells of how, after the tree’s top was severed in an ice storm, my mom tied up one of the lower branches, and it grew to become the new leader as the tree grew straight and strong. That knee-high tree grew taller and fuller, just topping our heads as the fine-needled backdrop in one series of family photos.

mom's tree

Through the years after I was gone it loomed larger. The grass beneath the tree dwindled as the ground filled with dropped needles. My parents’ dog would go out and lie in the pine straw and come back covered in pitch.

I can understand my father’s fatigue of the thing. He lived closest to it, after all. Our resentment of his action is at a remove. We are only thinking of the story of it and of its loss from the skyline, as we walk around the corner from my sister’s house.


Denuding the Christmas tree is less nice than dressing it up in sparkles and bows.

Being emotionally naked makes those who are more cloaked uncomfortable.

The nude Christmas tree looms sprucely, and the writer lurches with a green pang.


The round tone of bells spilled across crop lines and fanned out over a low rise toward town. The spire of the One True Presbyterian Church nudged low-hanging cloud banks, and late parishioners slipped in across the granite stoop. Double doors folded closed as a final knell floated down and away. Chester sat crammed into the pew between Doris and Mother, each having claimed an arm to ensure his sinner’s pelt arrived on time and in place to sop up Pastor’s weekly catechism. Chester cast his glance over the backs of heads and well-dressed shoulders– the good folk of Host Town, scrubbed of workday grime and come to rouse the spirit with hymn. Chester thought with longing of his pipe back home in the workroom and sighed, shifting to find a more comfortable position on the hard wooden bench. Mother’s scowl pronounced disapproval on the periphery, and Chester sighed again.


He wore his nails cut short and clean but cuticles picked to ragged, scabby shreds. These holes he carved in his own flesh stemmed from a latent slush of anxiety no rites orthodox or arcane could assuage, a constant state of unsettled sensibility that scaled to every occasion, rigged with ready apparatuses of self-torment: fingernails and lips– an unclean predilection rife with taint of bacteria. No shame stink could halt the roving action of plucking fingertips against an uneven surface, so insatiable the compulsion to grade the human landscape and smooth the disorderly, only ever compounding the problem, peeling away strips of derma to sorer flesh beneath.

bucolic idyll

A farm rests on the horizon, bales across the slope like spools scaled for giant seamstresses, crop rows spokes of a great green machinery. Birds crow from a brow of trees, and cows lean into the view. A line of gravel road bolts through the landscape and hurls itself up over a hill to disappear into a sunset stoked with coals, vat of molten cumuli grazing the treeline. Crows stand along a telephone wire in loping Morse, poles screwed into the ditch at receding intervals.

Up from empty space comes rattling Chester, dusting down the country road on his vehicular contraption: an old Schwinn decked out with baskets and welded-on hooks and pulleys. Workdays he rides with tools and ladder suspended, but tonight he’s fleet and free, flying down the hill home from the diner sans encumbrance. As he passes, the crows lift up and away, croaking, and he takes aim with his index finger, one, two, three. Not that he’d shoot them truly, leaving it to neighboring farmers to take their potshots and hang black carcasses as cautionary exemplars at the crossroads.

The first time Doris saw the dead birds, she’d screeched, “Oh, my god. That’s just awful.”

Awful it was indeed–or offal, the carrion eaters themselves slung in a heap and decomposing. He knew corvids were intelligent birds, so he didn’t put the warning past them altogether, though who knew how far the hex extended. Farmers targeted crossings by their main fields of sweet corn, gruesome No Trespassing signs just for crows.


His gut canted, and something in his chest hung empty. He flung a dose of milk down his throat to slake it. The outer door squeaked open half a foot, but no one was there. His nerves jumped, and he grasped the booth seat with shaking fingers. He knew better than to believe in ghosts, but something evidently wanted in. Wind looped to sting his bare ankles, frost on the draft. Dank linoleum sopped up light sloping down from old overhead fixtures. The stitch in his belly hitched a notch tighter.

It seemed but a blink since Celia’d been a pup, all soft and rubbery, mouthing her toy bat and growling like a beast of prey until they fairly sang with laughter. He’d burnt her carcass earlier that evening in a pile of brush out back of the shed, the form of her flaring up impossibly bright and finally collapsing inward. He’d sidestepped the smoke and wept right out loud. When his tongue strayed, he still tasted salt.

ng-chrishandsDoris had scolded. She’d dearly craved a burial, just for the ceremony of the thing. But the illness that took the dog was quick and vicious, and he didn’t want to run the risk of contagion. Not that it was likely to jump species, but these days who knew, what with mad cows and bird flu. So he’d built up a dry pyre and lain her on it lovingly,  like he was laying her down on a featherbed. And then he’d struck the match.

It wasn’t his regular night for pie, but he’d needed to get away. Doris and Mother had been all over him, going on about the Clarks’ new shih tzu, how cute it was, and didn’t he think it’d be nice to have a little lapdog around the house. He could just see them, too, sitting there in their matching recliners, taking turns feeding treats to the fat little thing while they watched their afternoon stories. No, he wouldn’t countenance it. Celia had been family.

Tonight was French Silk. Ordinarily he was an apple or cherry man– Sundays and Wednesdays– with a cold glass of two percent. But here it was Saturday, so chocolate and cream. He knew that coffee would go best, but he’d be damned if he’d be up all hours. On second thought, why not– he still had some work to do on the new farm out SR35 on the model. When Carly looked up, he made a little sign like a tipping pot.

“Hey, Chester. How’s Celia?”– the question barely out before she saw his face crumple. “Oh, god. I’m so sorry.”

She busied herself with pouring coffee and checking the creamer while he mumbled, “Thanks.”

He cleared his throat. “Um. You know that photo shoot you did last fall? Think I could have some of the prints?”

“Sure. Of course. Let me just see what I’ve got. I can let you know tomorrow, okay?”

“That’d be just fine.”

Back when the leaves had been turning bright yellow and red, she’d come out to the house and taken a slew of photos of the lab prancing around the yard. Carly called them motion studies for one of her mural projects. Celia, just seven and still full of zip, had cavorted about, flinging the tennis ball Carly had brought out like it was the best, most novel thing ever. Not like there weren’t already a dozen such scattered around the house, rolled under chairs and wedged into corners of his workroom– but this one was new. Plus Carly had brought it just for her; it was a present and therefore of utmost excitement.

That afternoon was preserved as a mental image tinged with autumnal gold, and he sincerely doubted Carly’s black and white snapshots could improve on it. Still, they’d show the dog he’d so adored, alive and romping, so he could hardly wait to lay hands on them.

“I appreciate it,” he said, just to be sure Carly knew he did.

On her way back behind the counter Carly jack-knifed in her tracks and went and secured the banging door.

He had been right about the coffee: it settled what the milk had failed to quell, all that sugary froth of cream and chocolate. And as he thought about holding those photos in his hands, his sternum warmed. The sense of something wanting lightened just a touch.


The second hand ground down like teeth, tonight a clot lobbed into a stream of clear evenings. Without fur or fleece, he couldn’t be herded forward. The coast was spoiling for collapse, snarled with nets and racked with waves. A boat rolled stalled offshore, its sail aflame and drifting. The rig was singed, but rain cracked the sky open and spun the craft like a pill in a dish. The dock was all knitted up with barnacles and kelp, foiling hopes of a clean landing.


His jaw was crammed full of partly chewed apple when the waitress swept over and queried, “How’s everything tasting, hun?”

Half-gagging, he reflected on how much he loathed this new tendency of waitstaff to shove inside the dome of personal sensory experience. Forcing down the mouthful, he jerked out, “Fine,” and watched her move on to spill coffee into cups the next table over.

Coils of steam listed from the pot, kicking off a memory of smoke, and he dragged his gaze back down to the plate of sad fruit salad. Having already culled the best bits, chunks of apple and ripe cantelope, he now nudged halfheartedly through a silt of deteriorating orange and granular watermelon.

A perennial cowl of fryer grease wrapped the back wall in dinge of spore and dust. He tilted his head and squinted to read the clock. Through a hole in the blinds the moon gleamed a spoke of cold light peripherally. He nodded. Nearly time.


When young I identified with the sound of my own name, Sarah–common enough, surely, but particularly mine. Sarah signified me tonally, instinctually and in a multiply evocative array of associations accruing over time. In those early years I felt myself called into existence by the very word, owned by pronunciation, as much possessed by as possessed of a two-beat fluid melody of consonants and vowels.


As a girl, I liked to play with names on notebook paper– a typical schoolgirl rite of passage, linking your first name with last of the love object and concocting fanciful monikers for offspring unborn, nicking them this way and that in elaborate slavic panoply. Some girls keep running lists of baby names down through the years. Some never outgrow a fundamental preoccupation with the nominative.



today I’m liking using navelgazer’s scrolling slideshow as an associative mosey back through the texty archives– so here’s another one, to consider, to reconsider, down the drafty internet eons from the heady Topic Project days of yore

May 1, 2005


The only carny I ever met was set up on a side street in Lower Manhattan—Ring Toss or Pea Wheel or what have you—Lorelei and I had run down to Pearl River for me to pick up some last-minute gifts/trash care of the Chinatown importers before my flight back to Iowa. I’d spent the week in long braids, littler clothing than I can fit into today, and had run the gamut of a line-up of metropolitan dates—at that stage I was chomping at the bit to flee my landlocked midwest life, feeling oppressively single, lonely, and questioning every last choice, not least of which the choice stemming from seeming inertia to continue on with the whole debt-incurring business of graduate school toward the ultimate, and long distance, goal of acquiring a Ph.D.—not to mention in a social science field when I knew myself to be a humanities girl through and through. Lorelei had moved east mere weeks before and had been living amid the musty waste of a dead or institutionalized old man’s West Side apartment, lining up his oddball and in places ingenious art collection for sale. Trying to keep the orphaned lapdog from shitting all over the place or driving the co-op members to action with its barking. New York. It all sounded good enough to me—intriguing at least if distinctly urban gothic—and I’d been shopping the New York Public School System’s web site for possibilities. I figured under the declaration of general literacy emergency even an MFA in poetry just might slip into a position at the front of a high school classroom. So this was intended as my initial, reconnaissance trip. Plus I’d been keeping myself busy with the dates lined up ahead of time online—somewhat flakey and sleazy across the board, but farmland beggars get down off their high horses and quit being so choosy after awhile. In any case, I felt just fine, sporting my particular exotic brand of pseudo-rural persona, done up in overalls with the tiniest of tshirts beneath and braids aided by sparkly little-girl butterfly clips—working that I’m-in-the-big-city-and-young-enough-and-desirable-enough-and-the-horizon-stretches-wide-before-me swagger—when that horizon literally split itself open with thunder a hundred feet outside Pearl River’s exit, and we dashed down the first side street and under a handy striped awning. We noticed then that the thoroughfare was closed off to motor traffic and lined with a series of such tented mechanical midway contraptions as make up a carnival these days—convertible trailers that uncollapsed to reveal a variety of culturally regurgitated Fun: Balloon-a-Rama, Spinna Winna, Hoop Shot, Rising Water, Frog/Turtle Pounce, Spill the Milk, and the like. Cheap plushies strung up swaying in the blowing rain. Hawkers leaning against their respective rentals each with the compulsory cigarette curled in a fist. Our guy shot us a lazy smile, invited us to try our luck, and, receiving a negative, proceeded to regale us with tales from The Life. In fact I’ve lost the details to the intervening years and doubt my own powers to reimagine the specific flavors of ramble and sawdust—chintzier and grittier than our wide-eyed romantic notions of carny life comprehended—but that tang of modern gypsydom—free agents contracting their chosen midway specialties, packing ‘em up and driving on to the next town in caravan with all the rest—or maybe packing in for a couple months to surf or hike should the notion seize—it smacked essentially of freedom to fresh-sprung workshop poets. And as we walked away, headed for the subway back uptown, Lorelei and I marveled together at the sheer weirdness of the world’s, and by extension our lives’, scope of possibility.