Wild rye, slow decline, competing interests, crisp wrinkles, kicked pinecones, unfinished dinners, shoes and socks, old codgers, insurmountable distance & acts of submission.
Driving the two hours from SFO to Sonoma,
dull haze of smoke getting thicker and thicker
the farther north I go, past singed rows of grapevines,
charred oaks, scorched swathes of wild rye,
white gaps in the burnt landscape where houses once stood,
the muted reds and golds of late fall not beautiful,
I think of my brother
hobbling through the kitchen with his walker,
arguing with his wife, no doubt, over who will sleep
with who, not him with her, not ever these days,
but me with him.
All those summers I travelled to Reno
to visit Mom, it was him I’d go for, my good-looking,
fast-living big brother, slicked-back hair and bell-bottoms,
swaggering down Virginia Street any hour,
day or night, playing the penny slots near the sidewalk,
flirting with the showgirls in the gilded alleys,
skin ablaze in Reno neon.
Again I’ll be sleeping with him, my smallness, as always,
beside his largeness. These days he slumps in his armchair
and stares at the TV, silent in the face of lost hope,
failed love, or so I imagine as I pull up to their house,
see their porch light at dusk, too dim
to be Reno neon. These hunched clouds of smoke
are not from last year’s firestorms, but bigger fires
up north, where all of Paradise is burning.
Late November. A Thai restaurant.
I’m here with my brother’s wife and his youngest son.
We’ve ordered noodles with cashews, eggplant with pork
and spring rolls. They’re talking low, almost in harmony:
“We love your brother, but he wears us out.
Won’t walk. Won’t take his pills. Won’t eat what he should.
And it’s so blessed quiet when he does go out.
No coughing. No wheezing. No clanging walker.”
“He moved to Texas,” his son explains while the waitress
lays out steaming bowls, “fell from his pickup
and broke two vertebrae. I had to go get him.
Sullen and angry the whole way.
When he saw his own bed, he laid down and cried.”
“He was living with our sister,” I remind them
as the waitress pours us more tea. “All his life
she’s been trying to control him.
Can’t you let him do what he wants?”
“You don’t understand!” my nephew insists,
“We’re faced with coming home and finding him dead.”
“Like last year,” his mother adds. “He doctor-shopped
for pain pills. We found him on the kitchen floor.”
“That’s his way of rebelling,” I counter. “His best years are over
and he knows it. Let him make his own mistakes. It’s his
goddamned life anyway…”
In the searing light of this shopping-center restaurant,
we argue over what’s best for my brother, her husband,
his dad, till the waitress brings our check, asks
if we want a doggie bag for the spring rolls.
W hen he came here to recover from a hip operation,
my brother clutched his wife’s arm and moaned,
“I’m gonna die here, I know it.”
Maybe he was right.
This center for physical therapy
is also a nursing home. Death visits here often.
When I visit, there’s a guy who likes to stop in front of me,
look intently into my eyes, then shuffle off, laughing loudly.
And a woman who wheels up real close to whisper,
as if sharing a secret, “My son done left me here,
so long ago I can’t remember his name.
What’s yours, young man?”
Today his six weeks are over.
He’s at the reception desk, saying good-bye
to a nurse, the pretty one, who just leaned
and kissed him on the cheek,
the one who slaps old codgers,
ever so lightly, when they try to touch her breast.
He’s not telling me, like he usually does,
how his roommate, first thing each morning,
leans over his bed and touches his cheek—
“To see if I’m still alive, the bastard says.”
He’s not saying a word as we drive away.
He’s got that kiss.
My Brother’s Laugh
I’ve been thinking about his laughter a lot these days
as I watch him maneuver his walker, grunting and moaning,
banging doorways and sills, till he reaches his chair in the living room.
Raspy now, but it can still burst out, quick,
spontaneous, like a flare lighting up the dark. There are days
when all I want is that laugh, especially the mornings
he asks me to help put on his shoes and socks.
He can’t bend that far anymore.
So I kneel in front of his bare feet as if they were
some holy relic—white, fine as soft snow,
warm to the touch—slide his socks, first right,
then left, over slightly curling toes, soles
with thin, crisp wrinkles, gently curving heels
and ankles. Then, with a light flick of my fingers,
I tickle both soles, till he laughs and curses me.
How can these be the feet of the boy who walked
barefoot on gravel, kicked pinecones and rocks and, once,
another boy’s face? He makes me stop sometimes,
hunching in pain from his hip and back. There’s rage
in his eyes some mornings, harsh glances at whoever else
might be in the room. Still I push and twist
his sneakers over clean white socks, tighten down
the Velcro tongues and, when I’m done, tickle his calf.
Gladness fills my heart as we laugh out loud again,
tears sliding down my cheek. I could stay right here,
kneeling forever, a good servant caring for his master,
or a mother pampering her child, in this act of submission,
this gesture of love, this prayer.
They all see me, through the picture window, coming up the walk, and get up to greet me—my brother, his wife and two sons, his son’s wife and two children. Hugs and nice words all around, then we settle into sofas and armchairs. Soon enough, someone will lean and whisper, to me or whomever, about the way she dresses, how he brags too much, how she’s raising the grandkids all wrong, and he, though he’s studying divinity, is faking his religion. Dinah’s showing me pictures of the roosters she raises, grand champions, though she’s only ten. Levi, her brother, is playing beside her on the sofa with a row of boats. Larry’s watching a game. Ev, Matt and Kacey are in the kitchen. “Come and get it,” all three call out, and we, as we enter, see platters piled high with turkey, white meat and dark, steaming bowls of mashed potatoes, shiny gravy boats, plates of cranberry sauce, two different kinds, baskets of biscuits and cornbread—a crescendo of aromas as we lean to fill our plates. Larry slides his walker, counter to counter, pointing out to Ev what he wants, while I dollop potatoes onto my plate, make a hole in the middle—a volcano of pleasure as the gravy overflows—then return to the living room, to the table set up in front of the TV. For now we don’t scrutinize, bicker or complain. We work at keeping the conversation light. I ask Kacey about her job, how the kids are doing in school, and she asks about my trip, how many flights, how many hours in the air. Matt and Ev are trading sauces, Levi is dropping bombs onto my plate from a big plastic boat, laughing each time I sound out an explosion. Larry’s happy his team is winning. Nate’s giggling with his daughter, showing her something on his phone. No need to say anything more than what we do: “Perfect,” “Splendid,” “Wonderful.” And if you, passerby, snuck a look through our big picture window, you’d think you were peering through the pearly gates at some heavenly banquet. If we only knew.
M y brother sits all day watching game-show reruns.
He likes the flashing lights, the jubilant contestants,
the hope he feels before each door opens,
each wheel stops, each countdown hits zero.
Last night his wife asked him again if he wanted
to sleep with her, so I wouldn’t have to sleep with him. “No,”
he answered, so quickly it frightened us. So much anger
between them, so little trust, all they can do
is fight distance with distance, a TV in each room.
Bob Barker, can’t you make them dream again
of waves lapping the long, warm shore
of the other’s body? Gene Rayburn, can’t you say, “Get up
and go to her. Don’t say a word. Just hold her
till you feel her body moving with yours”? Bob Eubanks,
please whisper, “All night, his lips, your breast.”
Each night she chooses three cats and a queen-size bed,
and he, an overstuffed chair where he can fall asleep
to loud cheers, new winners, all the right answers
even when the questions are wrong.
Report from Limbo
N o explaining the chasms of love,
how my brother in his armchair,
voice cut by phlegm,
can call out each night to his wife
going off to her own bed, “Love you, Ev,”
to his son a little later, “Love you, Matt,”
each one walking away in silence.
Larry says once he gets his mobility back,
he plans to move out. Ev tells me in ten years
she’ll retire to a trailer park, a double-wide
with bright new appliances, a door for her cats.
When his parents are gone, Matt intends
to turn this house into a perfect
Airbnb, live in the garage.
Of course they’ll all
stay right here,
going to bed each night in silence,
but for Heaven’s distant drone.
M iddle of the night, in the glow of the hall’s dim light,
I see feathers strewn across the carpet, Smokey
in the corner licking his paws. Kneeling to gather
the small, grey-white tufts, I imagine some poor,
broken-winged pigeon fallen to the driveway,
shivering in fear. Behind the bathroom door,
something else: a hard, round object, sticky, vaguely warm,
some organ Smokey couldn’t swallow. Rolling it in my fingers,
I’m sure there’s no augury in this egg-shaped ball
wrenched from that pigeon’s innards, though indeed
it might be something more, a thing torn
from an avian’s inner world. Consider,
as I hold it in my palm, Smokey’s quick claws
tearing at that bird’s soft underside. Consider the anguish
in its eyes, wings beating furiously as it scuttles
sideways across the lawn, in complete futility.
Consider too Smokey’s pride as he licks
the last bits of blood from his paws. And then
consider what’s left—this organ, its blunt physicality
beyond the prey’s terror, the predator’s prowess,
a talisman of sorts, what refuses to be forgotten.
When I drop it into the toilet, it glistens and bobs
as I flush. And flush again.
It’s still there.
W e’re sitting at the kitchen table, my brother and I,
talking about our mother, a light rain drumming
the windowpanes. “How quickly the dryness comes,”
she used to say, no matter the season.
And it’s true.
When a dry spell hits, grasses wither, stumps
appear in empty fields, everything collapses
into itself. Then the fires come.
Like her, my brother wants his ashes dispersed,
not across the forest floor near the mountain town
where she was born, but into the Truckee River,
from the bridge where as a boy he’d go fishing.
She always lived in mobile homes, a double-wide,
remote inside herself. Each night, after work,
she’d sit in her slip at the kitchen table,
counting the day’s tips.
She’d stack them neatly, pour the stacks
into thin paper rolls, tamp them down, seal them tight,
then put them into her purse
to deposit the next day.
Sometimes she’d say, no matter the season, “By God,
we really need some rain.” “Let it come,” I’d say
if she were here right now, since rain, not fire,
is what the heart really needs right now,
heavy, cleansing rain, slapping windowpanes,
tearing at branches and leaves, pushing through roofs,
into basements, flooding up through floorboards—downpours
so endless they’ll wash us all away.
If she were here right now, she’d sit at this table
all by herself, tally up her losses, make a list
of all she has to do,
get up and do it.
He shuffled down the driveway just past dawn,
leaned his walker against my rented car,
gave me a long, deep hug, a quick kiss, told me
he loves me, made me promise to visit more often.
Now I see him in my rearview mirror,
hobbling back up the drive, his face almost golden
in the slanting light. I may never see him again,
I think, as I pass the market, the gas station, turn left
and I’m gone. Can I keep the heartfelt alive, memories
from slipping into shadowy oblivion?
Surely I’ll remember last night, helping him from the bathtub,
his soft, pale skin scarred from operations, accidents,
fights in his youth, cuts and lumps from his years
in restaurants and construction, one or two self-inflicted.
His body in that harsh bathroom light is white
as marble, Pentelic marble, used by the ancients
for statues, temples and sarcophagi.
Keep driving, I tell myself,
past the scorched barns, the dead live oaks, the bigleaf maples still bare,
past the houses burnt to the ground, the stacks of debris still waiting to be carted off.
It’s clear that Hell has come to stay.
So limping dogs pick through ash, clutches of chickens peck at pale stones.
So this need to go deep into this blackened landscape,
to see every branch that blazed up, every house that collapsed in one final gasp,
to feel again my brother’s despair, his wife’s and son’s.
I want to carry them all in my heart,
since I know there’s no way back to a life once lived.
So I keep going,
past foals in a charred corral licking raw stubble,
past rows of new fenceposts and freshly poured foundations,
past leaves budding on scorched grapevines stretching all the way to the vanishing point,
two hours north, the charred gates of Paradise.
So I keep driving.
Born in Reno and raised (mostly) in Fresno and Sacramento, Don Schofield has been living in Greece since 1980. During that time he has been writing, traveling extensively and teaching at various universities—Greek, American and British. Fluent in Greek, a citizen of both his homeland and his adopted country (or, more precisely, the country that adopted him), he has published several poetry collections, including The Flow of Wonder (2018), In Lands Imagination Favors (2014) and Before Kodachrome (2012), as well as The Known: Selected Poems [of Nikos Fokas], 1981–2000 (2010) and Kindled Terraces: American Poets in Greece (2004). He is a recipient of the Allen Ginsberg Award (US), the John D. Criticos Prize (UK) and a Stanley J. Seeger Writer-in-Residence fellowship at Princeton University. His first book, Approximately Paradise (2002), was a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award, and his translations have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the Greek National Translation Award. Currently he lives in both Athens and Thessaloniki. This collection was a finalist in Nowhere’s Fall 2019 Travel Writing Contest.
Lead image: Kerry Rawlinson // Unsplash