Little house on the wall
of hours, with hands knitting minutes
into a one-sleeved sweater
of sorrow. I threaded longing
into a sickly twining, and went flat out
stir-crazy in—Itinerant as the day
was long, crossed into a glossary
of sounds—A stick running the picket
of my ribcage, bees making a racket
behind wood-paneling. I was sure his
eyes hid under the diagonal stairwell,
hid under the bed, like the sleek new bra
lost behind a door. The glitch
to waiting?—Waiting is the wind, the force
that pushed a pin into my skin—
The stuffed toys held dust,
bellowed secrets: luggage departing
on a train. Then the rabid hour took
aim, an arrow, a long shadow drawn
back to his bicycle, a voice lost to the horns
and traffic— his last word a dirge, a drum,
a clapper in my aching heart –
The bird paying rent with song.
Cynthia Atkins is the author of two collections, Psyche’s Weathers (CW Books, 2007) and In the Event of Full Disclosure (CW Books, 2014). Poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, BOMB, Caketrain, Cultural Weekly, Del Sol Review, Le Zaporogue, North American Review, Tampa Review, and Verse Daily among others. She is an assistant professor of English at Virginia Western Community College and Associate Poetry Editor of MadHat Lit and lives on the Maury River of Rockbridge County, VA. www.cynthiaatkins.com
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: The archaic word ‘des·ue·tude’ which addresses things that are in a state of disuse--intrigues me lately. I have been thinking about objects that have fallen away from our daily lives, one like a cuckoo clock. So much a part of my childhood memories and psychological connections. It was magical to have that bird sing when an hour struck. In the poem, I associated my first teen-age crush with this clock—first love and all of its joys and aches. des·ue·tude, formal, a state of disuse. "the docks fell into desuetude"
The strangest thing so far about my grandfather passing away is that my dog, Gorby, isn’t here with me.
Of course I couldn’t bring him: Boston to Chicago to Cedar Rapids to the farm, and then the same itinerary reversed four days later. Even if I could get permission to take a large White German Shepherd on the plane (at 12, he’s too old to be placed in storage), I’d be exhausted with stress and worry by the time we arrived. But Gorby would be happy to be rolling around in the grass like he always does and happy just to be near me.
Hell, I’d even bring him to the funeral.
Despite having landed in Iowa only a day ago, I’m starting my sentences with “hell.” That, or with a long drawn-out “why” that is followed by a phrase that expresses compliance with the Universe’s ways. “Why, when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go. Why, you just never know when your hour is going to come. Why, God works in mysterious ways, I tell you.” We recite these mantras back and forth to one another, nodding our heads in agreement like they mean something.
The good people of Iowa have a certain way of accepting life’s hard knocks. Or, as my father puts it, we go “belly-up” in the face of God. We don’t complain about, try to control, deny, fight against, or grieve wildly over the inevitable. When your crops (aka livelihood) are at the whim of tornadoes, droughts and floods every year, your outlook shifts.
This is why I’m silently berating myself for lamenting the temporary absence of my dog. It seems ridiculous. But I can’t stop thinking about the way Gorby follows me to the bathroom every time I get up during the night to pee, stiff and limping close behind, or the way he rests his chin on my shoulder when we’re sitting on the stoop together, or how he nudges his wet nose into my hand when he needs attention.
Even worse, since I’ve been here, I can’t help but think about the permanent absence of my dog. I can even see it: me slowly shuffling to the bathroom in an empty apartment, leaving the door cracked out of habit. No one will be waiting for me to finish and come back to bed; no one will be waiting for me to get up and go outside. So why get up? Thinking like this while mourning the loss of a grandfather feels all too masochistic.
Yet, the reason that these thoughts about Gorby are coming up at a time when I’m with my family to remember and honor my grandfather is not just because the thought of death is lingering over everything. It’s also because of the fact that I’m here alone. I am officially the only one.
Here come all my cousins and their families: Jessie and her hog breeder fiancée, Whitney and her pharmacist fiancée, Chelsey and her farm insurance provider fiancée, Todd and his horse-riding girlfriend. Eric, his wife, two kids; Josie, her husband, two kids; Kate, more liberal, her male “partner;” Aaron, more private, his female “friend.”
And these are just my immediate cousins. There are dozens of extended cousins and aunts and uncles and whoever else who all have “settled down.” More importantly, tomorrow at the funeral, I’ll have to face my sister – my only sibling, whom I’ve been on low-level communication with for years – her husband, her in-laws, her two toddlers and her newborn twins who I haven’t met yet.
To cope with all this, I’ve secretly adopted a persona for myself: “The Lone Pallbearer.” My conservative grandfather surprised us all by insisting that his granddaughters also take a place at his coffin, so I’m ready to play the role. I imagine her dressed in all black denim, black cowboy boots and sporting a withdrawn, rugged personality. She doesn’t need a family; she doesn’t need nobody.
Maybe, if Gorby were here, I’d drape him in a black cloak that ties around his thick neck, Zorro-style. We’d strut in together – my partner and I – although this would probably make me look less rugged and more fitting of what people around here think happens when a girl moves to the big city.
Everyone experiences loss differently. Although the funeral is being held tomorrow, I have attended enough funerals in Iowa to know what the mood will be like. Tears will be dabbed away with tissues, hymns will be sung, a wise pastor with a sense of humor will tell stories of my grandfather’s life that touch on his personality traits: stubborn, straight-laced, tough, hardworking, but boy, was he not an extremely giving man who was proud of his family and his country.
And he was.
The grief that we all feel about his death is real, and I miss him already. It’s difficult to be in the spaces that a person once inhabited, and to view the objects that make up a person’s life. The mini replicas of John Deere model tractors on the desk, the WWII medals hanging on the wall, even the tube of denture glue in the bathroom. All of these things take on a different meaning now, something sadder and more precious.
But we all smile, and hug, and pat each other’s backs, and say that we are fine because we are, I think. Treat others as if they are fine because you are fine too: this is the Midwestern Golden Rule.
Earlier, I recalled something Carolyn See wrote about being a writer that went something like this: if you don’t feel like a writer, then just pretend you’re a writer. Pretty soon, the lines between pretending and being become blurred, and eventually you realize that you actually are what you thought you were not. And in that sense, I guess, I’m fine.
I’ve asked my mother to recollect for me the final moments before my grandfather’s death three times now – once on the phone two days ago and twice since I’ve been in Iowa – which means I’ve probably reached my maximum capacity for asking. The story she tells me is beautiful though, and it gives me strength that maybe losing someone very close to you is not as desperately sad as I envision.
In the clean and bright hospice room, my mother, aunts and grandmother all circled around his bed, listening to his labored breathing, knowing that he couldn’t possibly hang on much longer. He tried to open his eyes, but they kept rolling back in his head, and he seemed to be struggling to say something. Finally, at the last moment, his face expressed a sense of clarity, and he looked directly at my grandmother who was sitting by his side. My mother said that it was the most elated expression he’d ever had. She said it was a thousand mile stare. And then he took his last breath.
By the third time she tells me this story, she gets through it without her throat tightening, she’s even smiling, and she puffs herself up and then releases a sigh when she’s done. In half a minute, she’s up off the couch, boiling water for tea, finding a place on the rug to do her “yoga stretches,” and chatting excitedly about a weeklong tour that she’s taking of London in a few weeks that she’s been planning for five years. I admire her tenacity, her decision to be fine. And I know if I bring up my grandfather’s actual death again, instead of his focusing on his life, it will make me appear silly and dramatic. It’s best to move on.
Losing a dog is hard, but boy could things be harder. I know that, but it still terrifies me. Sometimes I’m afraid that I’m lacking the typical Midwestern fortitude, although I put a lot of work into hiding it. Perhaps, if I had stayed here, I wouldn’t feel so flimsy. Everyone else has put their roots down in Midwestern soil and I can’t help but wonder if this is part of the reason that I sense much more weakness in myself than anyone else around me. Maybe this is why I need Gorby so badly.
In the small, shaky plane that I took from Chicago to Cedar Rapids, I stared down at the farmland that is so reminiscent of patchwork. Perfect squares and rectangles of land outlined by fences, cut through with thousands of parallel lines of tilled earth and planted crops. What I like to look for are the stands of tall trees that circle nearly every farmhouse. They protect the house and barns from strong winds that rip across the flat land. I think of them as a family: formidable, secure.
I remember my grandfather and father planting baby trees around the farmhouse, lining the pines up perfectly and making sure they dug the holes far away enough from each other so they wouldn’t crowd. When they were just babies – no more than four feet tall – the space between each tree seemed absurdly wide. I ran intervals from tree to tree, back and forth, wearing myself out after a few turns. Now, standing far taller than the roof of the house, the dark pines have thick intermingling branches that you have to spread apart with your arms in order to pass through. They cast huge shadows in a place where large shadows are mostly man-made: silos, barns, and houses. The rest of the land is open and vulnerable.
As I collected the things to take to the apartment of my friend who agreed to watch Gorby while I’m away, I nearly started to cry. I couldn’t believe it, but then again I’d never had to take stock of all of his things before. I kneeled down to hug him, run my fingers through his fur and kiss his bony head. Gorby, as usual, kissed me back. Then he flattened his ears against his head, his mouth chattering a little now; he’s nervous because I’m nervous, and he follows me around the apartment, whining. In the three years since I adopted him, I’ve only spent two nights away from him, and not once has he had to go stay with someone else. Not once have I had to go through his doggy belongings in order to pack up an overnight bag.
I couldn’t believe all the objects that make up his life. There’s the dog bed in my room (the one he sleeps in at night), and the dog bed in the living room (the one he sleeps in during the day). There’s the box in the hall closet that’s filled with his fur brush, his toothbrush, his doggy toothpaste that’s flavored like peanut butter, his cans of wet food. Then there’s the other box with the spare leash, the plastic fur remover roller and the replacement roll next to it, the car interior fur remover glove, the old tags from years past that I’d saved for some reason next to his old spare collar. The blue handkerchief, the red handkerchief, the tea tree oil I use for his dry skin, the itch reliever cream, the first aid ointment, the nail clippers, the bottles of glucosamine tablets for arthritis, the bag of dental sticks, another of rawhide rolls and still another of bacon-flavored treats. In the kitchen: the bag of dry food leaning against the kitchen pantry, the yellow ceramic food bowl, the aluminum water bowl, the doggy placemat with a paw print pattern.
And there’s more.
Under the bathroom sink: the bottles of doggy shampoo, the undercoat brush, the flea comb, the big plastic cup with the picture of the giraffe on it that I use to dump water on him to wash the shampoo off. To the wooden crate in my bedroom: the ragged tennis balls, the tennis ball thrower, the pink rubber squeaky ball, the stuffed red bird toy, the stuffed black bear toy, the stuffed orange fox toy, the scarf with the lilac flower pattern I tie around his neck, the big blue towel I use to dry him off. In the bottom drawer of my desk: the adoption records, the medical records, the vaccination records, the state registration records; the award from the dog show I took him to at a rescue center once that says, in gold lettering: “Best Smile.”
All of these things constitute the possessions I keep for my dog.
How the hell am I going to throw these things away?
After the funeral tomorrow, we will all return to the farmhouse not just to visit and eat and share memories of my grandfather, but also, as my grandmother has requested, to “clean house.” My initial reaction was that this seemed quite sudden, but as we are all doing fine, I suppose it’s the natural next step to take. She has already brought out the boxes that were in storage in the garage. We will all go through each room of the house, filling boxes with things that we’d like to take back to our homes, to have for our families, to keep as a memento of my grandfather. As each room holds things that all together make up ninety-one years of life, the task will be enormous. Yet, I sense that it will also be cathartic. We’ve already begun laughing about who will take the kitschy porcelain pig statues, or who will have the Republican National Convention signs from the 1970s to the 1990s hanging on their wall.
And for me, who arrived in Iowa with only an overstuffed carry-on backpack, and who has no established home or family to take things back to in Boston…what will I take?
“The Lone Pallbearer” would take nothing, of course, but my mother insists that I should pick out bowls, plates, silverware that my grandmother no longer needs that she can ship to me later, “once I have a family of my own and will need them.” My father already gave me something to take back that I gratefully accepted: a handful of acorns that he’s been collecting for me on his walks. And the thing that I’ve already secretly taken: an unopened bag of beef jerky from the cupboard, smoked with no spices, the way my grandfather liked it, which I will feed to Gorby with pleasure once I return.
Hell, I can already see him there by the door, waiting for me, happy, smiling.
Paige Towers earned her B.A. from the University of Iowa and her MFA from Emerson College, where she also taught Creative Writing and Composition. She currently lives in New York City, teaches writing at Monroe College in the Bronx, and is at work on a memoir about ASMR. Her work has appeared in The Baltimore Review, McSweeney's, Catch & Release: the online literary journal of Columbia University, So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art, BioStories Magazine, Our Iowa Magazine, Honesty for Breakfast and Spry Literary Magazine.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I was surprised at how easy it was to write this piece until I began to (manically) list all of Gorby’s doggie belongings. I couldn’t even see the screen by the end because my eyes and nose were running so hard. I was, as they say, a “hot mess.” Now that Gorby is gone – he passed away a little over a year ago – I can tell you what happened: I eventually threw most everything away. I had to. The only thing I kept in memory of him is the stuffed red bird. It sits by my sunniest window. I can’t tell if it looks happy or sad.
You would think his mother had ideas of grandeur when she named her son Potus. But in truth, she had overheard the name on TV and liked it. It came down to that or Brutus, which she thought sounded too aggressive and she didn’t want to raise a bully. So, she named him Potus. Potus Peter Murphy. And without her even knowing it, her son – acronymically speaking – was already the most powerful man in the country.
So it was not really a surprise when, despite a nervous stutter and some rather un-presidential notions, the unintended prophecy was fulfilled and ginger haired Potus delivered his first State of the Union address. Behind him, a quilt his mother had made. Fifty squares; one for each state. On the back, only those close to Potus knew, was a map of the District of Columbia. At 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, there was a red X. Next to that, carefully hand-stitched, You Are Here.
Upon walking into the Oval Office, Potus had announced that it felt more like a box, and set about changing its shape. When we heard about this, we knew it would be a different administration. During his campaign, Potus had run on a platform of anti-partisanship, stressing cooperation, and championing the arts. His slogan: Four Years For Ideas. With Potus' New England accent, it rhymed: Four Ye-ahs For Ideas. Now he was introducing the first of those ideas.
Three months after Potus' address, we stood in the cherry blossom morning outside the White House, the early spring air chilling the tips of our ears. Frenzied excitement ran up and down the line of thousands like the wave at a football game. We brought our own brushes with the intent of making our stroke unique; for our contribution to stand out, and we clutched them dearly. The official din escalated as the time approached: the thwump-thwump of helicopters overhead, the buzz of reporters, the sotto voce cadences of security officers talking into headphones. The collective buzz was intoxicating. We may not all have voted for him – he was full of kooky ideas, said dissenters – but we were enthused and inspired by this endeavor.
The Committee for the Preservation of the White House wasn't impressed, however, and said as much pontificating where they could.
“Not since Truman –”
“It's sandstone! It simply should not be painted.” But, we the people – we were thrilled. The President invited us, all of us, to take our turn to paint the White House. We laughed. We marveled at the audacity. We thought it a hoax. Then we came. One person. Then another. A whole family. Hundreds, then thousands. In the end, millions. If we didn't have our own paintbrushes, one was provided, and under supervision, with regular visits from Potus himself, we were directed around the edifice. Most of us gave a single ceremonial flourish, some delivered multiple haphazard strokes and still others a precise and artistic application of the thick paint. Less than a year after Potus' declaration, the final swipe of the brush was delivered by the President himself.
We had hoped to have our brushstroke stand out amongst the others. But in the end, you couldn't tell. The sandstone looked like sandstone. The White House remained white. You couldn't tell. But you knew. We all knew. At the next election, we would have voted for him. We would have filled in the circle next to Potus Murphy, checked the box, clicked the button. But we didn't. Potus didn't run for a second term. He said he had run Four Ye-ahs For Ideas. And he did.
Jennifer Fliss is a New York raised, Wisconsin and California schooled, Seattle based writer. She holds a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin and a certificate in Literary Fiction from the University of Washington. Her writing can be found online and in print with publications and websites such as Brain Child, Stratus, Blotterature, Foliate Oak, Praxis, The Belltown Messenger, Daily Mom, Behind the Book, BookerMarks, and The Well Read Fish.