Archive for ‘vignettes’

November 26, 2010

Good Neighborhood

Photograph by David Villareal Fernandez

Now that I live on the Main Line, near the Old Money, I am often embarrassed by my car. It’s an old 90’s American four-door, built in the days when all American cars were embarrassments.

I cringe when smoke slips from under the hood after a long trip. I inevitably park next to a shiny German sedan, impeccably polished.

She hit me broadside, behind the rear door. I was only a minute or two from home. I spun out and went over the curb. The airbags blew when the front smashed into a lightpole. Glass shattered, the horn blared.   I bled from my hands, but not profusely. I could feel my legs; they weren’t pinned. The seatbelt released, the door creaked open, and I fell out. There was more smoke than usual. It smelled of oil and something sweet—antifreeze?

When I could stand, I made my way over to her car. Luxury Japanese model. Through the empty windshield frame I noticed leather seats. She was pounding both fists on the crumpled hood.

“Are you okay?” My voice was shaky with adrenaline.

She glared at me. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I…excuse me?”

“You hit me!”

“You ran into me.”

She snorted. “Right.” She went into her purse and retrieved her smartphone. She flipped the screen up to reveal a keyboard and asked me my name and phone number.

“I have my information in the car. The insurance stuff too.”

“I don’t want you giving me anything.”

“Why not?”

She pointed to my hands. They were still bleeding, pools of blood on the ground beneath them. She found a number on her phone, dialed it, and waited impatiently for the other party to answer. When they did, her voice became a machine gun.

“I was just hit by some guy. In my car. No, I didn’t call the police yet. Of course he hit me. Can I sue? Hold on.”

She turned to me. “What do you do for a living?”

Her voice sounded far away; as did mine when I answered that I was a teacher.

She returned to the phone. “He’s a teacher. He said teacher, not professor. Right. Right. Not worth it.”

After she put the phone back in her purse, she turned to me. “You are so lucky, pal.”

“Could you call an ambulance?”

“You don’t have a phone?”

I remember mumbling something about my hands.

I awoke on my way to the local hospital. The EMTs had gauzed my hands. They said I was going to the local hospital, but they could transfer me to someplace closer to home.

I told them, between winces, that this was my home.

Huh, they said. They didn’t think I was from around here, driving that kind of car.




October 24, 2010

Classical Mechanics

An object at rest tends to stay at rest, until acted upon by an outside force.

Fifteen minutes late, still no sign of lights on the tracks. William wipes his runny nose, rubs his hands together to keep the blood flowing. He would put his gloves on, but then he could not annotate the stack of midterms on his lap. Undergraduate Physics, marked in red where the freshmen have forgotten their formulas. Some say red is too harsh a color for grading, but for William no other color will do.

He hates the cold. Cold is a lack of energy, and he prefers energy to surround the moment.

For a man like William, what discipline but Physics could satisfy? Every motion in the world perfectly described, every vector calculated. Nothing without purpose, everything with a specific consequence. To understand Physics is to understand absolute justice.

She never understood that kind of precision, nor his obsession with it. Presumably, that is why she left him for Allen.

A body subjected to force accelerates directly proportionally to the force.

The morning class is almost fully marked when the train comes around the bend. The tracks hum with transmitted vibrations. William carefully slides the papers into his backpack. He stands and slings his pack over both his shoulders. He will need full mobility. His legs are somewhat stiff. He bounces up and down to warm them.

The train screeches to the stop, releasing brake pressure with a piercing hiss. First the conductors debark, then the bundled, still-warm passengers. They descend the stairs from the platform. William keeps his head down in shadow, careful that no light from the orange sodium vapor lamps can reach beneath his cap’s brim. He knows the optics angles precisely; his face is unrecognizable when Allen passes him heading for the stairs.

Calmly, William follows behind Allen. He puts his gloves on before reaching the bottom of the steps.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

They are alone in the tunnel underneath the platform when William comes up behind Allen. William has measured each of their velocities precisely so they are in the midpoint of the tunnel—the farthest possible point from escape. One hand goes around Allen’s mouth, while the other drives a blade deep into his back. Allen’s eyes widen, but he cannot struggle. His spinal cord has been severed by the wound. He can only collapse to the ground, gurgling against William’s glove.

William feels the heat of Allen’s blood flow over his gloves. Diffusion dictates that warmer air would slow the dissipation of energy from Allen’s blood into the atmosphere. William had hoped the temperature would be higher to lengthen the moment, but it just wasn’t in the numbers. One does not argue with a universe of order and justice.

The knife pulls away from Allen’s limp body as quickly as it entered. William takes a plastic bag from his pocket, and places the knife, one glove, then the other inside. He seals the bag, then swings his backpack off one shoulder to deposit the package in the large zippered compartment. A single drop of blood trickles onto the freshman papers.

But that is alright. William grades in red.

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 2, 2008

“Marching Cadence”

The grass trembles like a note wafting from a virtuoso’s violin. It shakes me too, in time. Allegro. But I can’t say that out loud—you married me for my strength.

“Is there where the shooting started?” you ask. You point to a spot as if I’m going to remember, as if I had marked it to tell you in later years. The shooting started everywhere in the field at once, like rain. I have no idea where the bullets began to pour.

“More or less,” I say. I want to say more—coming here was a mistake; I can’t explain what I saw, what I did; you should have let me keep some secrets. But you married me for my strength.

You pull me over to the thicker grass, where rotted rifles and rusted bayonets still lie. Bones and uniforms decay faster, thankfully. I was afraid you would ask if I recognized them. Instead you ask how many friends I lost.

“Too many.”

“How many?”

“I don’t remember.”

“How do you not remember?”

I shrug. Numbers are not the things that cling to memory from the grasslands—colors, scents, sounds. A bullet exiting a torso next to you, the blue sky hazing gray from gunsmoke, a canteen covered in red mud, and your throat so dry you drink from it anyway. These I could say, but instead I walk back towards home. You call after me to stop right there, mister.

But you married me for my strength.

August 9, 2008

“On the Bay”

Not that anyone ever reads this, but here’s the deal. For the last eight months, I have been pursuing a commission as a Naval Flight Officer. On Wednesday, I dropped from the program at Officer Candidate School. Bottom line: the military is not where I belong. I’m a writer, a teacher, a martial artist. But not a soldier. So, back to writing.

On the bay, the clouds hang low. A storm comes, wall clouds and shelf clouds slipping under the white wisps closer to space. Soon they’ll hammer us; they’ll rinse us.

We wear our white shirts, all soiled from an honest day’s work on the island. Our eyes lock on the coming clouds.

We chose to come to the island, but many no longer choose to remain. But for now, the choice isn’t ours. So we wait for rain in our white shirts. The wind picks up, covering our arms in goosebumps. It’s so rare to feel anymore.

All in white, but none the same. There is the boy who loves the island and all its rules, abiding by them even when he no longer has to. He’ll stay as long as it takes to earn what was promised him. His eyes are deader than mine to the rain.

There is the boy who saw the future, what would come after the island. White turned to red, and even the rain was red. He hopes the storm will clean his heart, tortured by red.

There is the girl with every reason to leave the island, but still she stays. You must understand, the island promises dreams. She has left behind two sons for the promises. The rain helps her forget things outside the island; the rain focuses her.

Here is the boy who dreamt great adventures, unaware how hard it is to leave home. His old forests call to him even now. In the rain there is something of the scent of home. He will breathe it in deep, and wait ‘til he can finally depart the island.

Thunder cracks, seagulls flee. We in our white shirts turn our eyes skyward, feeling the cold reminders of ourselves splash on shirt and skin. The stains fade, and for those who wish it, so do memories.
I can smell home.

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