The Scarlet Tanager

The Scarlet Tanager

Standing on the back deck, I absently looked up into

The yard; can I call the lush ever green, red and

White pines, Arborvitae, flaking bark Birches, Hem-

Locks, ferns, and now blooming Japanese Iris and

Other flowers galore a backyard? It is a myriad of nature

Domed with huge Choke Cherries, maples and then

The thirty-some goldfish in the pond refreshing themselves

Where the waterfall tumbles food from the upper pond into

Their mouths.

There on a branch of a birch is a stunning, brilliant

Red bird with a black mark on its wing.  I thought

I was in a photographer’s developing room seeing

The negative.  Is that a red-winged black bird, I’m

So accustomed to seeing?  No, it’s a Scarlet Tanager,

My wife says. Is that Scarlett O’Hara tired of the

Stress of today and thinking only about tomorrow

On the plantation as she closes the door? Am I Rhett

Butler saying,

“Personally, my dear, I don’t give a damn?”

When, in reality, I can’t believe how beautiful he

Is and how lucky I am to be seeing him. My wife

Has the bird book, page 232 in her hand and I shout

Across to the yard behind us, beyond the white pines,

The birches, over the heads of the gold-fish who go

On eating the spiral algae, which I understand is good

For us too, “Hey, we just saw a Scarlet Tanager.”

Bonnie, the neighbor

Working on her flowers, calls back, “A Scarlet Tanager?”

It was only then I thought, No, It’s Rhett Butler in all his

Glory cracking the whip on the backs of the horses and

Flying way.

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He Sets the Trap

He Sets the Trap

He sets the gray plastic trap, putting peanut

butter on the triggering mechanism.  Once

in a while he sprinkles bird seed on the butter

and leaves a trail of seeds up to the opening

of the entrance to the animals’ den.  Once in

a while from his back porch he hears the trap

trigger and once in a while the weight of the

butter prematurely sets it off.  But more than

once in a while, it’s triggered by the prey.

Friends call him the chipmunk killer or Valde-

mort, the evil slayer of Alvin, but he knows

Alvin and the Chipmunks burrow against

his seventeen thousand dollar rubber lined

pond and water fall and scratch and bite like

crazy to extend their tunnels of love. He carries

the entrapped chipmunks to the Hades

behind his house and with one swing opens

the trap and watches the critter fly in death

like he never did in life. One day he caught two

and left them side by side with a second accur-

ate toss. The next day he caught one and as he

was about to grant the postmortem flight to chip-

munk heaven, he noticed the two were gone.

Ah, ha, he thought.  Justification.  He no longer was

the vile killer of cute critters.  He was a scientist, a human-

itarian, a conservationist, an environmentalist enlisted to

affirm Darwin’s work on the necessity of the food chain

for balance and harmony in life.  It didn’t work on

his friends but the neighbors’ de-clawed cat purrs as

she rubs against his pant leg.

The First Spring Day at the Farmer’s Market

The First Spring Day at the Farmer’s Market

The farmer’s market opened today.

He walked and walked and made his way

Among the people with short-sleeved shirts

And short shorts, which are back (not) to stay

Because of the way they look. It hurts

 

His eyes to see the pink, white side

Which a mid-summer’s tan might hide

From all the veins and spiders and blotches

Standing out with a long winter’s pride

Of cellulite stacked like a gun’s notches

 

On the cover of a girl’s white Bible

Given at Confirmation and liable

To keep the boy’s black faux leather

In it’s own place on the coffee table

Of life, the meeting of two happening never.

 

He went home and got ready for bed.

He stood in front of the mirror naked and well fed.

Without his pajama bottoms, he gazed at all

The bumps and lumps where muscles had been instead.

It was then he felt ashamed which cast a pall

 

On his supercilious judgments of those in short shorts.

So he decided to wear long pants of various sorts

To the gym and to the market all summer;

He didn’t want those who then looked great in shorts

To look at his lumps and bumps and think it’s a bummer.

 

Some old guys just don’t get it.

At some point, long pants are really with it.

He was afraid they would judge him accordingly

But he could daringly wear the shorts that fit

and hope they would treat him mercifully.

 

 

And not laugh behind his back.

In the Warmth of Winter

In the Warmth of Winter      

It was cold and clear the night we walked down the rural Kentucky road.  We had parked the cars in the gravel driveway of one home, and after squeezing thirteen teenage and four adult bodies into the small, enclosed porch and singing three familiar carols, we were walking toward another home nearby.

The stars were all over the sky, but the moon must have headed south for the winter.  The faint light emanating from the stars wasn’t enough to illuminate the road ahead, so we groped along by memory and by the sound of our shoes striking the recently laid macadam.

The young people weren’t as cautious as we adults were, and I worried that one or two of the more rambunctious youths would twist an ankle running off and on the road or would dart into an unseen barbed wire fence and tear a new winter coat or, what’s worse, some tender adolescent skin.

I also kept my ear attuned to the sounds around us in the hope that the shrill bark of a farm dog would not pierce through the sounds of the incessant giggling and periodic shouts of trumped-up, young, male bravado.  After riding my bike over country roads and being chased seemingly for miles by huge, farm mongrels, I had developed not only respect for but a dreadful fear of those dogs.

Walking behind the teenage voices, which served as a directional guide, I ventured a prolonged gaze at the moonless, December sky.  It was kaleidoscopic.  As I turned my head, the black and white patterns seemed to change.  I was taken back in time to the warm summer nights when, as a teenager myself, I worked as a church camp lifeguard and recreation director.

After all the campers and counselors had gone to their cabins and were asleep, I would leave my trailer, walk up a treeless hill next to the camp custodian’s house, lie back in his chaise lounge and stare into the heavens.  The winter sky was as magnificent as I remember that summer sky to be.

A number of years had passed since that camp experience, and I wondered why I had never really taken the time to explore and study the astronomical sights above me.  How little I knew of God’s universe.

The porch light directly ahead signaled the next stop on our winter’s pilgrimage.  As we all gathered at the side door of that small, old farmhouse and began to sing, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” an elderly couple came to the door and stepped coatless into the cold night.

I wiggled my now numb toes trying to get some circulation going, pulled back the top of each glove and blew my moist, warm breath over the palms of my hands down to the freezing fingertips.  The old couple wasn’t even shivering.  He put his arm around her delicate but stooped shoulders and she snuggled against his once strong but now aged chest.  Their eyes were rimmed with water and as a tear fell upon her cheek, I wondered if it would feel cold on her face as the night air blew against it.

We stood there no more than a few minutes.  When the songs were over, the carolers waved, shouted “Merry Christmas” and, now that they were more familiar with the contour of the land, began to run back to the cars.  I walked up to the couple and, in silence, shook his large and still calloused hand and then leaned over and pressed my lips to her soft, tear-moistened cheek.

As I walked back to the cars with the other chaperones, I felt very good and very warm.

The Feature of the Day

The Feature of the Day

Yahoo’s feature of the day was the U-tube

Video that went viral about a cheerleader

 

Whose mistake could have been very costly

To her physical well-being.  The video frame

 

Showed her just about to begin her cart-

Wheel.  Oh, my, how did this end, he wondered

 

To himself. The promotional line to tempt the

Viewer into clicking the play arrow in the mid-

 

Dle of the photo was the tease about how bad it

Could have been, but wasn’t, except that it

 

Was bad enough.  He felt like a Roman citizen

At the coliseum waiting to see the Christians

 

Torn apart by the wild animals and thinking

Maybe one would survive without one leg and

 

One arm and a skull half exposed to the bone

And still kill the beast forgetting the Christians

 

Were pacifists back then. And so the devil and

The angel sat on opposite sides of his shoulders.

 

“Aren’t you sick in the gut over the appeal to

Voyeurism splashed all over the gory media?”

 

Angel whispered in his left ear. Wasn’t she

Supposed to be on the right side, he wondered.

 

“Oh, you know you want to see the tumble, the

Crash, that which should have, for all practical

 

Purposes, crushed the cheerleader’s upper-

Most vertebrae rendering her immobile in her

 

Extremities for life, but from which she

Would get up and laugh it all off. You know

 

You want to flinch and reel back at the crash,”

The Devil whispered, seductively in his right

 

Ear. And so after a moment but not too long

He clicked the back button and not the play arrow

 

And it felt pretty good.  It was a little victory, in

The battle of pretty significant Realms, but

 

Victory nevertheless. It was like the time in high

School when the really bright girl sitting next to him

 

In physics innocently (or maybe not) exposed her

Answer sheet and he didn’t look. Seventeen to sixty-

 

Seven and a few more times in between. He’s going to

Go to his fiftieth class reunion felling pretty good –

 

Pretty good, but he also knows that pride goes be-

Fore the fall and he imagines some old classmates

 

Would just love to see him doing a header and then

The splits, splayed out on the floor, writhing in pain

 

And then one hand on his head the other on his crotch

Screaming in agony while being carted off in a fetal position

 

On a gurney to the school nurse while everyone in the

Cafeteria roared. Then he thought that maybe he would just

skip the reunion.

The Sauna, the Water and the Nakedness of It All.

The Sauna, the Water and the Nakedness of It All.  

Finnish men sit naked in saunas and pour water on hot

coals to get the steam going.

 

They leave their pinstripe suits, white shirts, ties and under-

ware behind and sit with other men of all ages.

 

They look forward at the hot coals not at each other, those

bodies that are, in the case of some young men, rock hard

 

with firm muscular chests and hard abs and in the case

of older men — fat, soft, supple, protruding breasts and

 

large nipples. They sit there scooping water, throwing it

on the coals and then pouring the rest over their heads.

 

In their nakedness, they speak of war and fear and the

death of one twin while tears pour down their faces.

 

They pour more and more water over their own and

each other’s heads like they were being baptized.

 

Then they all put on their underware, white shirts, ties,

and pinstripe suits, form a choir and in a cold, cold,

 

stainless steel, plastic and glass building sing wonderfully

warm words of life.

How Embarrassing

How Embarrassing

He was talking about a minor adjustment to the order of

worship with some people at coffee hour.

 

He had been told that his suggestion had been tried on the

immediate previous Sunday when he was out-of-town

 

and it didn’t go over very well, in fact, they said it was a

disaster.  He wasn’t there so he had no way of judging.

 

He was griping about the fact that they only tried it

once when the incredibly talented pianist heard him

 

griping at coffee hour and slammed him down hard

in front of every body and then took off for the sanctuary

 

for a while. The pianist re-emerged and went for the safety

of the kitchen, where everybody knows you are safe just like

 

mamma’s kitchen, but the guy who had the issue

followed him to the kitchen and signaled and

 

whispered that the pianist should come aside to work it out.

The pianist waved him off which bugged the guy who

 

only wanted to express an opinion and he said, “The

peace of the Lord be with you,” and the pianist

 

looked him in the eye and asked, “Any other zingers?”

The pianist refused to talk and they took it outside.

 

After an innocuous repartee, the pianist disappeared

and when he reappeared the guy who had been talking

 

about the minor adjustment to the order of worship met

him on the street and offered a sincere apology for

 

unintentionally offending someone who had such

an important part of the worship service.  The pianist

 

accepted the apology while the one giving it wondered

why he had to offer it and then that same  guy who offered

 

the suggestion in the first place had to ride home with

his wife who gave him the silent treatment all the way

 

and then admitted upon questioning that she felt like

she had to put her hands over her head to get out of the

 

coffee hour after being so embarrassed by her husband’s

behavior only reaffirming the truism that no good deed goes

 

unpunished.

Front Page News and the Handwriting on the Wall

Front Page News and the Handwriting on the Wall

Front page news: Get ready for a cat on a hot

tin roof of a summer, forest fires, water shortages

 

across New Mexico and Arizona. Large SUV’s

with distracted drivers on cell phones scream down

 

the interstate; twenty-something boys in oversized

pickup trucks speed their way to the  construction

 

site and after work to the bar for the end of Happy

Hour.  This spring tornadoes chased Snow Birds

 

through Texas to Nebraska into Iowa toward Wiscon-

sin leveling towns in their path.  Rains keep coming

 

from Chicago to Detroit with stops in Grand Rapids

and Lansing.  It’s going to be 90 tomorrow in Montague,

 

Michigan and 109 in Phoenix today and it’s only May

18th.  The owner of the gas station/auto repair shop

 

leans against the side of the new Mustang turbo-

charged five liter while pumping four-dollar and

 

eight cents premium gas into the seventeen-gallon

tank, blankly stares at the dollars flipping round on

 

the pump and offers his opinion to no one in particular,

“Nope. No such thing as global warming.”

 

A Social Evening

A Social Evening

A social evening, appetizers, three gourmet cheeses

left over from a family get together the

day before, were added to the host’s

salmon pate,

inexpensive but passable pinot grigio for the family

except the sommelier brother who

brought the three cheeses.

He spit,

they laughed and the next day took the remaining three

bottles to the social along with the three cheeses.

Four friends of faith gathered to celebrate

Mother’s Day

as an excuse just to be together because the only mother there

wasn’t their mother.  Her son was off for three-month

training in another state.  The host, the mother,

the mother’s

husband and the third guest, those four and no more, all

with years under their belts and now dry behind the

ears. Over pinot and pate, they chatted and the ever so

important talk

of discovery and self-awareness and after that self-acceptance

unexpectedly, almost spontaneously began, like this

was their chance, after all they did have all

those years

which collectively added up, so maybe even unconsciously

thought time was running out on getting things

out and it just came along. Casually,

it seemed,

willingly even, stories were told of this attraction and that,

from the budding erotic to fully expressed love found

and lost.  Conversation over the beef stroganoff and

pinot noir,

was much more mundane, about things at the church and

what to do in the interim. One guest who so touch-

ingly took the others on her journey had to leave.

The husband

walked her to the car because it was dark by then.  He

looked in the back seat and saw a ball glove.  Are

you left-handed, he asked?  Me, too,

he said.

He had played in high school and college. She said she

loved playing women’s softball, but when she

was a young teen, her mother had said no.

He asked

if she were on a team.  No, she said, but kept it handy just in

case she could ever get back in the game.  He nodded,

gave her a hug and said he would see her

in church,

then he went back to the host’s apartment to finish up

the creamy blue, the Asiago and the buttery camembert

from his sommelier brother-in-law, before he and

his wife, the Mother’s Day honoree

went home.

The Big Bay Window

He kept waiting for his dad to come home,

to walk down the street, 144th Street to be

exact. Actually, his dad had never done that be-

fore to the best of his memory. His dad drove

just about every where, but for some reason,

the seventeen-year-old, senior in high school,

stood in the living room staring blankly out the big,

bay window expecting, hoping, desiring, crying

out in a stone, cold, silent way to see his dad,

his dad walking

home.  His dad didn’t do that, nor did his dad do it

when the son slept dreaming that his dad would walk

down 144th street on the man’s way home.

His dad didn’t walk down the street and he didn’t come

home, the dad’s home, the son’s home, their home.  His dad

wouldn’t ever again sit in the chair by that big, bay window

smoking his Chesterfield non-filter cigarettes pulling

deeply on a draw and exhaling with utter satisfaction

while he told his son never ever to start the filthy habit.

His dad would never again lie down on the

couch under the big, bay window with pains shooting

down his arms, saying to his son when he walked in

the room after school one day that he needed to be driven

ASAP to the hospital because his dad really wasn’t

feeling very well at all and the boy knew that it must be

pretty serious. His dad came home from the hospital two

weeks later in a really weakened state after the son

had visited him only twice during that time because

it was the boy’s senior year and he was really busy

with which whatever it is that seniors in high school

are busy, not to mention never ending a sentence

with a dangling participle no matter how awkward

it makes the sentence his teachers had always told

him. His father lived another year but didn’t work

much and every penny that his father made from his

work came in to keep things going and if he didn’t

work, it didn’t come in and it weighed  heavily on his

dad’s mind, ever so heavily and the boy knew it.  So

one evening when his dad was feeling up to it, he

left the house to make house calls to sell head stones

to those who had recently lost loved ones or to put it

more bluntly, who had loved ones die. The son was

napping on the couch and his father’s words  as

he walked out the door were that the boy shouldn’t

sleep the evening away and that he should get up and

do his homework.  Next thing the boy knew the phone

was ringing and it was a call from the police station that

his dad had stepped in front of a train and had been killed.

The son thought the officer actually said that his dad had killed

himself.  The boy said it was a joke. The police officer officiously

said no. The boy called his married sister and they picked up

their mom from her work as a sales person in a women’s dress

shop. They went to view the body, that is, his brother-in-law, his

sister’s husband actually viewed the remains and said he

would never, ever speak of it again. And so, for a long time

the son stood looking out of that big, bay window for his dad

to walk down 144th Street, and then after the house

was sold and he and his mom moved and then moved

and moved again, of course, the son couldn’t look out

the big, bay window waiting for his dad to come home,

but he couldn’t stop dreaming that he was standing in

front of that window watching and waiting for his dad

to come home.  Through college, graduate school,

marriage, birth of his son and daughter and mov-

ing to another state, and then one day he realized

that he didn’t dream that dream any more and that

he just remembered being a seventeen-year-old wait-

ing for his dad to come home.