Archive for ‘house’

April 16, 2010

“Cloud Journal”

Illustration by Tim Durning

The cirrus is the coming or going of stormclouds, their vanguard or their echo. If the ground is wet, the sky was violent yesterday; otherwise it will be tonight.

August, so the smell of rain on hot asphalt lingered. An evening thunderstorm blew out quick, and the sky bled orange and purple through every window. You would leave for the war in the morning. I was afraid but couldn’t say so. I slammed the house door and the porch door and got goosebumps from the air suddenly chilled. I wanted to walk to clear my head. I walked all night. By the time I returned, the moon had risen and set. I fell asleep on the couch. Your car was gone when I woke.

A note on the kitchen table:


Went early to spare you. We’ll talk soon.

We live under the takeoff path. I ran outside and tried to find your plane flying over our house. All I saw were cirrus clouds marring an otherwise perfect sky. No trace of last night’s rain, no trace of your jet trails. I wondered if the cirrus were for last night’s storm, or one yet to come.

Cumulus humilis form in fair weather. They are light and fluffy, and abundant on idyllic spring days. Often found in the memories of young lovers and parents teaching their children to fly kites.

It was inevitable you would fall in love with airplanes. I don’t blame you, of course—we live by the airbase because I love them too.

Six years old, running in a dandelion-spotted field hidden in Virginia hills. Your mother and I felt young under the endless cumulus parade. We lied in the May grass and let our eyes hop from one cloud to the next, while you made jet noises and ran zigzags on the hill, your arms outstretched. You soared over and hovered above us, a sunlight corona around your head and shoulders.

Daddy, you said, can you fly airplanes?

I smiled. I used to, but not anymore.


I wanted to be with you and Mommy.

I want to fly airplanes too.

Your mother rolled her eyes. I leapt up and flew you around in my arms, and we made jet noises together.

When it seems as though the sky simply wants to deny you sunlight—that is nimbostratus. It looks gray all day but never rains.

Annapolis, twenty-two. The pictures never show a gray commencement—God knows mine wasn’t. The hats went up anyway, as did the cheers.

I was proud, of course, but anxious. I knew what came next: Pensacola, then San Antonio or Corpus Christi, then maybe home to Virginia. Oceana is where they fly the fast jets.

I’m gonna get those gold wings like my old man, you said.

I told you I loved you no matter what you did, but I don’t think you believed me. Somehow in your four midshipman years—and maybe in the years of daydreaming before—you had made those wings the only way to make me proud.

I was proud when you acted in the school plays, too. Or when you wanted to learn the guitar.

Anything you did would have made me beam, but you couldn’t see.

Cumulonimbus—the granddaddy of clouds. Towering, dark, sinister beasts so full of power they humble a man just to look at one. Pilots know to avoid these as best they can. But sometimes they come too fast and grow too big. Then you just have to punch through and hope you stay in the air.

Tonight’s storm has hail to it; you would love it.

I forgive you for leaving how you did. I know why. I’m sorry I couldn’t say what needed saying better.

The first deployment is always the hardest, but easier these days. Your mother and I will write you every day, and send you videos if we can figure out how to work the camera. Don’t forget how many people care about you here. Keep safe for them as much as yourself.

I won’t say anything about the job. You have plenty to tell you about that where you are.

This is going to be a long summer without you around. I already miss naming clouds and airplanes on our morning run. It will be a long fall and winter too. We just have to push through, as always.

If I were a braver man, I could say some of these things to you. There are old pilots, bold pilots, but no old bold pilots. Having lived to see you become you, I am happy to not be bold. More honest, I wish, but there it is.

You will not read this soon. It doesn’t matter, though—the clouds won’t come in different shapes then.

September 4, 2009


This is the longest piece I’ve posted here, and the first in some time. Enjoy.

Rain sheets over the natural wood roof, echoes on the walls’ marble. They are not tiles, but divided mausoleum slots. My grandmother’s dark mahogany casket slides roughly into the open slot, and we pallbearers heft a rose-quartz marble square in place, leaving her tiny corner indistinguishable from the dozens forming four high walls around us.

I know she would have rather been cremated, but I’ve kept that quiet to please the rest of the family. We are a small clan; I count five blood relatives in the seats as I return to mine. Maybe ten others are related by marriages former and present. Mine are the only dry eyes—even the priests are tearing up. This woman was loved fiercely.

The wall is sealed, the flowers laid. Umbrellas open as we leave the mausoleum and negotiate the muddy cemetery paths to our cars. Tim, my best friend places a hand on my shoulder. It’s the biggest show of empathy I’ve ever seen from him. And I’m not even hurting. Not from her death, anyhow.

“It must be easier that this happened now than say, a few months ago,” he says.


“Well y’know, now that we know about the soul. The Metaphysical Fabric and all that.”

I turn to look at him, shaking my head. “Doesn’t mean she’s where she wants to be.” He quickly retracts his hand.


I was excited too, when the news exploded across the planet. It sounded like something out of Clarke or Asimov: rogue scientists discover the existence of “spirit.” They called it the Metaphysical Fabric. Every news network had a different talking head explaining the concept with complicated graphics, charts, 3-D animations, and so-called experts on this new and ludicrous discovery. My favorite involved a group of middle school students encircling a rainbow parachute, holding it up by the edges.

An on-scene correspondent stands apart from the rainbowchute ring, telling the audience that the boys and girls holding edges represented the entire world. I wondered briefly if the students had been sifted and sorted for the appropriate ethnic diversity, and assigned a particular stripe of the chute’s nylon to clutch—should the Asian girl the hold yellow, or would that be too cheesy?

“Sentient beings,” says the reporter, “create a metaphysical field…a fabric, if you will, between each other.” Close ups of smiling children trying to stay still, trying to smile through boredom and forcibly-combed hair.

Back to the reporter. “Our emotions and actions send ripples…” Cue a boy, somewhat late, making a big wave in the parachute, forcing the opposing side’s arms to raise. “…across the fabric, affecting the entire human race. And sometimes, large-scale events…” A girl walks over to the parachute circle holding a dodgeball. “…can affect us all at once through the fabric.” The ball is tossed, landing in the center of the chute, sending concentric rainbow ripples out to the photogenically giggling children.

Close up on reporter. “Some scientists, now calling themselves ‘metaphysicists,’ believe that moments of sensitivity to this Fabric explain otherwise inexplicable clairvoyance, empathy, and perhaps even the appearance of ghosts. If a person were to make a strong enough ripple at the time of death, their effects might be felt after the time of their passing or until the metaphysical disturbance they created had been neutralized. Ghosts may be our final ripple in the Metaphysical Fabric. For Action News, this is…”


Everyone latched onto the ghosts. Paranormal sightings skyrocketed in the weeks following the birth of “Metaphysics.” Nobody seemed to care that the term already referred to a branch of theoretical philosophy. This, they argued, was real. It mattered more, so it won the name. The old Metaphysics just became “Advanced Epistemology.”


            My grandmother deemed the whole affair nonsense. Actually, she called it a load of bull. About a week before her heart attack, we had tea on her patio. Her favorite time of year, as August betrayed its true allegiance to autumn, letting the tips of oaks and maples redden, and sycamores to surrender green altogether. Even in her eighties, she sat with perfect posture. Even her walker appeared positioned genteelly by her chair. I asked her why she couldn’t believe in a link between all people.

            Why would something so vital to human existence, she said, be almost impossible to discover?

            It was a good point. I wondered if we had lost our attunement to the Fabric millennia before. Could Metaphysics explain the magic of ancient religions? Secretly, I hoped so.

            A breeze blew across the table. It was afternoon, and the table sat in the shade, and the wind came colder than I expected. She pointed to my goosebumps.

            “See? That’s how we deal with the world. Five senses—no more.”

            “So no ghosts?”

            She shot me a wry grin as she leaned in. “If any family has ghosts, it’s this one. But I’ve never seen anything spookier than an evening fog. Once you’re dead, you’re dead.”

            “You don’t believe in any kind of hereafter?”

            “Nope. And when I go, I don’t want any kind of religious burial either. Your mother will want a Mass and all that. I want to be cremated, not even buried. Promise me you’ll do that.”

            “I promise, Mom-Mom.”


            The death hit my mother the hardest. Mom’s one confidant in the world had been ripped from her. She went back to drinking, becoming more reclusive each day. I expected this, but not the insistent pleas that I come visit her. Whenever Mom went back to the bottle, she usually didn’t let anyone by her house. But this time, even at her most incoherent, she begged me to come by. A day or so before the funeral, I did.

            I knocked on the back door—the family door—expecting the worst. Mom drunk meant a fight, meant opening old wounds. She came to the door, motioning for me to come inside. I shook my head. It’s the house I grew up in, but I don’t return if I can help it.

          Mom opened the door. “Come inside,” she said. No slur in her words, and her eyes were fully open.

I cocked my eyebrow. “Why?”

“I need you to see something.”


“Just come in.”

“Fine.” I sighed like a teenager.

Mom led me into the TV room. Instinctively, I check the tables and counters for glasses half-full of liquid that didn’t look like water or fruit punch. No glasses at all. Curiouser and curiouser, I thought.

She stood in the center of the room and pointed to the velvet high-backed chair beside the sofa, the one Mom-Mom always sat in when she visited. “Look, she said.”

“Look at what?”

“The chair. What do you see?”

“A chair.”

Mom dropped her arms in a huff. “No, you don’t see her?”

“Mom, do you see someone in the chair?”

“Your grandmother’s here.” She said it through tears, but joyful ones.

I looked again. “Mom, I don’t see anything.”

“She’s here. She looks good. Healthy.”

I went to my mother’s side. “Mom, how long have you been seeing…ghosts?”

“Since about a week after she died. I’ve been trying to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen.”

“Mom, I’m sorry, but I don’t see her.”

She looked crestfallen. “You should. I mean, we know they’re real now…”

I shrugged. “I’m sorry.”

Mom took a deep breath, and tried to shake off her disappointment. “Well, since you’re here, I have a few questions about the funeral arrangements. Reading selections, that sort of thing.”

“So we’re doing a Mass and funeral—the whole shebang?”

“Of course. Father Franey—you remember him?—well Father Franey has agreed to come back to celebrate the Mass. Wasn’t that nice of him?”

“Wow. Yeah.”


Poring over selections from the Old Testament on the sofa, I saw her. She was poised as ever, hands folded on her lap. I recognized that look, even half-manifested and transparent—Mom-Mom was disappointed. She made no noise, but mouthed two words over and over. I knew what she would say even before I processed the shape of her lips.

You promised.

“I’m sorry. It’s for her.”

My Mom walked in from the dining room. “Who are you talking to?”

“No one. Just reading passages aloud to see how they sound.”

“Oh, that reminds me—will you do the eulogy? I don’t think anyone else will be able to keep it together long enough to speak.”

Mom-Mom’s gaze darkened.

“Sure. It won’t be long, but I’ll do it.”

“Thank you.”

Once Mom left the room, I turned to give the ghost a helpless shrug, but she had vanished.


That night, I tried in vain to compose six hundred words summing up my grandmother’s life. Nothing came to mind. You can write through happiness, through sadness, through depression and elation. But guilt? It’s all-consuming. I went for a walk around the neighborhood.

An hour later, I found myself by St. Helena’s Catholic Church, where I had attended Mass as a child. St. Helena’s, whose threshold I’d never seen my grandmother cross in life, only to be dragged across it in death.

I couldn’t tell Mom about seeing the ghost. That was the damnable thing about this Fabric madness: it was as though the world had given validation to everyone’s private mysticisms. Madness and blind wishes, fluke happenstance and old-fashioned hoax all became natural miracles of Metaphysics. If I told her about the ghost, it would grant license to her self-indulgent pity, and send her deeper into the bottle. There were enough emotional ghosts in that house without genuine phantoms adding torment.

As I walked the shortcut home through the St. Helena’s cemetery, I worried I would see a misty figure over each grave. I saw only one, outside the mausoleum building where my grandmother’s body would rest.

You promised.

“I know! I’m sorry. It’s not up to me. Mom wants the Mass.”

You promised.

I threw up my hands. “There’s nothing I can do. She needs this.”

You promised.

I said “I’m sorry,” once more, and ran home.


The end of Mass came soon enough, and Father Franey motioned for me to approach the lectern. “Now, Regina’s grandson will say a few words.” Mumbles. Nods. Teary smiles.

It doesn’t matter what I said. I said lies. Placations for a family who needed thick memories of the woman. Looking out into the begging eyes of those assembled, I realized why my grandmother wanted to be cremated. She wanted to be let go, and these people who so fiercely loved her would not release her. And every word of the eulogy was another fracture in the promise I had made her.

When I sat down, my mother whispered some words of compliment to me. I was focused on the cemetery outside, on the mausoleum.


My grandmother stared at me from the mausoleum’s doorway throughout the funeral, her gaze never faltering. Mom kept looking back and smiling, knowing she was there. Everyone else looked toward the casket and the work of the pallbearers. When we processed out, the ghost had vanished again.


As I get to my car, I hear Mom shout. “Look! She’s there, by the door!” There she is, again, staring at me and only me.

Everyone turns back to the mausoleum, gasping as they do. They all see. They all believe.

“I thought I saw it before, but I wasn’t going to say anything.”

“I saw people looking back during the burial, but I didn’t want to be rude.”

“We’re all feeling her ripples in the Fabric…”

You promised.

I throw down my umbrella and bolt to the mausoleum door. “Enough!” I shout. “There’s nothing here to see. Look at yourselves, torn up by grief. I miss her too; I miss her terribly. But she’s gone. She’s gone.” I look to my side. Mom-Mom smiles austerely. “Let her go. There’s no such thing as ghosts.”

The wet, black crowd before me nods slowly. I hear murmurs of assent; I see people wipe the tears and apparitions from their eyes.

“Of course.”

“No such thing as ghosts. It’s nonsense.”

My grandmother fades slowly, mouthing different words to me before we all let her go.

Thank you.


The funeral procession drives off to a restaurant; I remain behind. They might still believe in ghosts, but not this one. Promise kept.

 My shoes are caked with mud, my pants soaked through. Alone without even a ghost looking over my shoulder, I let fall my first grieving tears. They splash in the puddles by my feet, but the rain wipes their ripples from sight and memory.

December 10, 2008

“The Mesa–Part III”

We both slipped on the unpacked soil along the steep path up the Mesa, but we always managed to catch each other. I felt stronger every time I had to support you, as if my arms responded to your need. My steps too, became more solid as the trail proceeded, although the climb never eased until the Mesa’s roof.
The path took a sidewinder’s way to the Mesa’s top; by the time we arrived, dusk approached too closely for my taste. You never want to be trapped out in the desert at night, especially in a place where the usual rules of wind no longer seem to apply. We both staggered to the cliff’s northern edge and sat with our legs dangling.

So, what now? I dug my hands into the loose soil by some brush.

It’s beautiful here, you said.

It was. The setting sun cut long shadows across the mesa and the valley below. The pink shades caught on the high contrails left by a few jets first, and slowly, worked their way to the lower nimbuses blowing in from the southwest. They would stop here, if the surface winds were anything like the currents at cloud level.

No stars tonight, I sighed. Perfect.

You rested your hand on mine, in the soil. Have faith, you said.

On cue, the crested blue phainopepla flitted between us, perching on our hands. He chirped his one-note chant, over and over. Up, up, up, he seemed to say. We looked at each other, wondering if we should listen.

Up, up, up

What do you think?

Up, up, up

I shrugged. I guess we should.

We stood up. Immediately, the phainopepla took off and hovered between us. Strange, since flycatchers—including our blue friend—could not hover. He chirped his order again, and darted backward into the currents rushing up the cliff face. In and out of his spiral patterns he spun effortlessly, always calling Up.

So where’s this meaning? I asked.

Your brow furrowed, then released with a bright smile. I think he wants us to join him, you said.

Excuse me?

Join him. You pointed with your chin. Up there.

We’re not birds.


We can’t fly.

At home we can’t fly, you said. We have to climb old towers. But here, maybe here we can. He could hover; why can’t we fly?

I shook my head. It just doesn’t make any sense.

You grabbed my shoulder and chin, fixing my gaze. To do this thing, we have to suspend our reason. And you have to trust me.

Trust you?


Why would that—

You pirouetted about the dusty Mesa floor and I swear the sand swirled independently about your feet. You say time is meaningless here, right?


What else is meaningless? All I see are heaven and earth. I’ve never heard heaven say we can’t fly here, nor earth. So the only laws standing in the way are ours.

Honestly, I found the reasoning poor. Beyond poor—insane. But the way you danced in the dusklight, the way your voice lilted with the possibilities…I had to believe. I suspended reason for the night, and gave in to the sacred Mesa.

If the winds can come together beyond reason to make this place special, maybe I can go beyond too, I said.

You smiled wide, and ran to embrace me.

We approached the cliff’s edge again, hand in hand, our grip tight. You were fearless, so I was fearless. Night had fallen, and the galactic band shone like runway lights. There was no trace of clouds.

I remember the wind tickling my nose as we hung our toes off the cliff’s edge.

I remember how tight you gripped my hand, and how we both breathed in deep before our feet left the ground.

I remember you laughing as the wind engulfed us.

I remember hearing the phainopepla chirp Up, up, up.

December 9, 2008

“The Mesa–Part I”

I thought for this one I’d try something new: break up a longer piece into smaller episodes. Here is the first.

We told the neighbors who saw us packing that we were headed to the Mesa for hang-gliding. Oh! they said. Then their eyes would drift from us to the car we stood before. We watched friendly smiles drift into confusion when they saw no sport rack on the car’s roof, no metal tubing or colorful folds of nylon stuffed in the back seat. These explanations became almost too awkward by the time we departed down the straight road into the desert. In truth, we had no idea how to explain this sojourn. Explanations, after all, have reasons, and it’s like you said: to do this thing we had to suspend our reason.

When you saw me absentmindedly doodling intricate, chaotic spirals on the morning paper, you tried to stifle a gasp. I asked what was wrong, not so much conscious of the question as reacting instinctively to the sound of your distress.

You don’t usually doodle, you said.

Huh. Guess not.

You took the paper, staring hard at my scribbles. Turning them to me, you asked if I had ever doodled those shapes before.

I shrugged. Don’t think so. Why?

The paper flew off the kitchen table as you rushed to your bag. You tore out your notebook and shoved it under my nose: the same spirals, in the margins of notes on Etruscan pottery.

Weird, I said.

It means something.

Might just be doodles. I spoke it into my coffee cup like a trumpeter mutes his horn. And you pulled my cup down from my face, gazing with a force only your will could summon.

Then we will make it mean something.

I never pretended to have any strength over that gaze. I never wanted any. I took your hand in mine, and your smile sang what wonders we might conjure from doodles.

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September 23, 2007

"Silent Island”

Silver-backed gorillas roamed here. Because they liked the willows’ sweet young limbs, I think. By night they crept up to the umbrellas of the willow leaves—silently, as if we minded their prunings or their presence. Marie and I looked on from our glass watching room, built specially to view our island. When the moon was full enough, tiding the sap to the surface of the trees, the gorillas would hum as they ate.

Marie hummed with them—alien melodies in unnamed, unventured scales. Lazy Saturday mornings we sat together at the piano, trying to recreate the gorilla music. We never got it quite right, as though the correct keys lay in between the ones on the keyboard. The gorilla music always fell through the cracks.


I was fishing, she gardening—tending her jasmine. She asked why the sand was beet red.

High iron content, I said. Or some volcanic thing; you know how it is. Probably good for the plants.

Are we safe?

The gorillas seem to think so.


Winter approached, and the gorillas’ songs got higher, shrieking. Marie and I stopped listening to the awful noises outside. We stayed towards the middle of the house where the beasts’ howling couldn’t reach. One morning we found bloody scratches on the southern side of the house.

I bought a hunting rifle.

One night got so horrid, the noise forced Marie into the bedroom to throw a pillow over her head. They all sang at once, a devil’s choir. I feared the watching room windows might crack.

For the first time, a gorilla came up close to the watching room window. He stared at me, eyes wild and wide, staring through the storm of noise. He did not look angry, but took two steps back and lowered his head at the glass wall. I aimed my rifle and fired. The next morning I replaced the one pane of glass—the only broken item in the house. Even on full moons, the gorillas were silent. Marie and I returned to the watching room.


In the spring, we noticed the birds didn’t sing. I saw none in the mornings during my daily stroll. I caught no fish.

And the jasmine wilted.

And the floor shook

And the ground opened

And the house fell

And Marie howled

And I howled

And the island went silent again.


The glass in the watching room is all shattered, sharp angles. Broken like the branches leftover from the moonlight willow feasts. Fronds curl under the window border and into the frame of the room, as do grass and sand and water. The walls ought to be white, but terrible forces have driven the white away. Only the island’s true colors remain.

Marie sits on the watching room sofa, humming the gorilla’s old tune.

Why are you humming?

It’s too quiet.

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