When I was nineteen
I stood in a field among crows
and I counted chimneys
two chimneys per barracks,
sixty brick partitions
one hundred and eighty ribcages pressed together
wondering where is the coal
for the two chimneys
Three tier bunks
Four hundred souls
When I was nineteen
I stood by the railroad tracks
where they converged and ended at
Two tumble-down buildings
Four ceiling supports
a school bus full of children
wearing Israeli flags like Superman’s cape
stared at the ashes still on the ground:
I sat at my computer
I counted the tents
than to the next election
Your hips are a drumbeat
Chasing meter across a linen staff
the high clef of your throat
sings as sweetly as your voice
And we’re looking for the coda
finding ad infinitum
da capo or dal segno
never quite the rock and roller’s
I meant a waltz;
you swung me around
like a fox
trotting home to its burrow
I remember this tune
or at least the countermelody
though I’ve never played it before:
half a harmony – the seventh, the minor
I’m tearing away again the winter-soft vines of the
rose garden I didn’t grow; the blackberries where the cat
chased last summer’s chickadees; the skeletal lavender,
the heather and rosemary. I’ve pruned back the nightshade that
creeps up on the balusters and tangles the barberry.
And down in the soil I hear the systolic thump of spring:
the heartbeat of rising sap and the way the finches know
just what sort of twig to find, a nest-building memory
encoded in hollow bones.
I’m pulling away the last
dry vestiges of the rose I pruned back to naked roots
and testing the dogwood tree to find the surviving limbs
that made it through last year’s sun, a blistering that laid waste
to garlic and broccoli. Last summer the ash flies ate
the Brussels sprouts to the stem; we found them in crimped-up leaves
and among the flower buds, a plague that seemed Biblical
and yet somehow well-deserved, that year when the ashes fell
and all California burned.
But under the shelter of the Oregon grape I find
a tender fresh sprig of beet: the plantings I’d given up.
The onions are starting to thrust up from the bark and the
blueberries have new red twigs; the lavender didn’t die
and one confused iris is extending a slug-chewed leaf
to greet me right here on the
edge of a wet winter’s day.
I’m hosting this piece for Lisa, who’s “experiencing technical difficulties” this week. Enjoy!
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.” -Helen Keller
October 3, 2002. Stubborn orange, red, and yellow leaves dangled from stiff branches all around the parking lot of the YMCA. I thought, as I scurried to the front door, how beautiful death can be when it’s just foliage and not someone or something you love.
I slipped the disk into the CD player hoping the music would get me–get us all–in the mood to move. Step aerobics had had its heyday but I still managed to keep a faithful few coming to my classes each week.
Just outside the open doors of the group class studio was a room full of treadmills, all lined up like metal soldiers ready to do as they’re told. Two TVs hung from opposite corners of the room–both blaring the news from different channels, both reporting the same story. Police were searching for a white box truck they believed was being driven by a person they nicknamed the Beltway Sniper. He had already ended the lives of six innocent people in two days using a .223-caliber Bushmaster XM-15 rifle all within a 10-mile radius of my neighborhood, four that very morning.
I couldn’t hear the news over the music but I could see the room was empty, which was unusual. There were always at least two or three people running or walking or both. I guess the regulars felt the same way I did–unsure whether to leave the house or not. My thinking was that I’d be safe at the YMCA because the other victims were all shot outside–pumping gas, mowing the lawn, in shopping center parking lots.
Class ended and I went up to the locker room to change. On my way out I noticed the treadmill soldiers were finally able to follow orders of at least two people, a man and a teen walking side-by-side somewhat slowly, eyes fixed on the TV screens. I waved and smiled a smile of solidarity, like “look at us, we are brave, we will not be held hostage by some crazy man with a gun.” One of them, the older one, looked me in the eye and nodded.
As brave as I felt, I still zigzagged to my car so as not to be an easy target. Parked next to me was an old, blue Chevy with New Jersey license plates and the oddest looking hole in the trunk. The only thought I had was how the car just didn’t fit in with the other, newer, nicer cars in the parking lot. But, then again, who was I to judge?
Later that night another victim was gunned down walking down the street, while I ate dinner safely sequestered at home behind closed blinds and drawn curtains.
Over three weeks trained sniper John Allen Muhammad (41) and his young accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo (17) killed 10 people and critically injured three in an effort to cover the crime Muhammad really wanted to commit, which was to kill his ex-wife who had taken his children and fled to where he would not find them. He thought police would not be smart enough to link a serial killer with someone who simply wanted his wife dead and his children back.
During that time period they often went to the YMCA where I taught, to take showers and watch the news.
The two were finally caught sleeping in the old, blue Chevy with New Jersey license plates at a rest stop in Maryland by a random citizen who had seen a lookout broadcast posted about that vehicle and license plate.
This year marks 10 years since Muhammad was put to death for those and other murders committed across the country. Malvo was sentenced to serve the rest of his life in prison without parole, although there are currently lawyers working to ameliorate his sentence.
Perhaps Hellen Keller is right, security is an illusion. Perhaps my quest to be more secure is a fool’s errand, a way to feel more in control. I don’t know. What I do know is I believed I was safe that day as I taught people how to dance around a disembodied stair. It was the letting go of fear that allowed me to feel free enough to do what I loved. I’d like to remember that feeling as well as I remember that day.