Sunday, June 26, 2016

Paper Boats (Novel Excerpt Two)


In his room in the small clapboard house he shares with Binh Nguyen and his nephew, Thanh, An Lau lies sunk in dreams as the lightning-scarred sky rumbles above him like a beast mired in nightmares of its own.  

Once again, An is a boy, naked between the billowing clothes his mother has hung out to dry.  "The air in the provinces is always sweeter," she told him after his soldier father was killed and they left Saigon to join his aged uncle's family, "for see," she had said, "how the clothes smell of lime and coming rain," though there had been no clouds in the sky.  

In this dream, he plays where the winds nudge the moist fabrics to caress him, like pale lovers whispering against his brown skin.  His back arches like a dancer's as he offers his genitals to the moist licks and sweeps of the clothes billowing around him—until their edges are caught by a shear of wind that pops and claps the towels and shirts.  

Their corners lash at him like stingers before tangling around his legs as he twists and flails to be free.  Then carried on invisible wings to the top of a mast, he is caught fast in ropes and tattered sail-cloth.  Tangled there, he rocks back and forth across the earth's curvature like a human metronome ticking out the final moments of lives being bled out on the deck below. His sister's sleek black hair rides the wind up to him like a supplication, caressing his feet as the sea rises up to claim her.

When An finally struggles out of the dream, his bed is soaked with sweat and semen.  He rolls to the other side and lies shivering, even though the room is simmering in the close air of the Kansas summer night and he is burning up.  It wasn't like that, he whispers into the ears of the night, puzzled and a little frightened that his dreams are always wrong.  It wasn't like that at all.

He sits up, his back cooling as air touches the moisture there, and pulls on a pair of boxer shorts.  On his way to the bathroom he reaches out for the plastic crucifix the ladies of St. Paul's give each of the refugees when they arrive in Wichita.  Leaning his head against the wall, he turns his face and lets his lips rest briefly on Jesus' thin, gold legs and crossed feet.  It is the first kiss he's given in a long time.  He tries to remember when the last one was, far back before coming here to a second life, before the long wait in the camps in Thailand, the boat trip that cost everything but his life, even the two weeks in hiding as he waited for word that there would be an attempt, a fishing boat waiting to the south of Da Nang.  

There had been hurried partings the last trip to his village of Phnom Ky, where he had found only a young nephew and his dead sister’s friends who were caring for him.  Long before that, after one of the raids on their village, his lips had caressed his young wife's hands—one side of her face missing from the screaming metal chips that killed and maimed his people that afternoon.  A chunk of flesh had been torn from his own right arm that day and planted in the smoking underbrush.  He tries but cannot go any farther back this night—back to when air carried the rich smell of growing vegetation and smoke of wood fires, to a night when he'd had no way of knowing that was the moment of his last good kiss.

There is no sound from the room where Thanh and Binh are sleeping.  An tiptoes down the hall to the bathroom, closing the door before running his hand along the wall for the light switch.  He relieves himself, noticing that the toilet needs to be cleaned.  It is Binh's week, always bad news for An, because Binh is young and careless, while An is a tidy man, a man who prizes cleanliness and order.  

He would love to take a shower now, let the cool water flush the pungent smells of the restless night, fear even, from him, but he cannot risk waking the others.  They too have their night agonies—suffered in different ways, to differing degrees.  Not any one of his countrymen he's met since fleeing Vietnam has escaped unmarked, able to look ahead only, sleeping like babies through quiet dreams.  On the worst days, he thinks to himself that even their graves will be places of unrest.

An soaks a washcloth in cold water from the tap, feeling guilty as always in this new country at letting the water run freely down into the pipes.  Then he presses it to his face, breathing in, sighing audibly as he wipes the cloth over his neck and chest, up into his arm pits and around his ribs.  He rinses the cloth and fills it again, washes his buttocks and inner thighs, wraps his genitals, then drops the cloth into the plastic basket and stands there a moment longer, his shorts still down around his knees, while the night air cools his damp skin.

In the kitchen, he pulls a can of Coke from the refrigerator, pausing in its cool vapor while he pulls the tab and lets the stinging foam run down his throat unchecked.  Then he takes a book from a shelf under the phone, spreads a thin cotton dish towel over the torn vinyl chair cushion, and sits down.  He begins reading in chapter four in the English for Speakers of Other Languages reader.  

His teacher doesn't know he has this book, that he sneaks it in and out of the Learning Center at the vocational school over the weekends.  It's one she herself held for him once, caressing the pages with her long, pale fingers to ease the book's newness, its resistance to lying open for him.  In his good dreams, the ones he controls—usually just before falling off to sleep or on weekends when the others go out, leaving him alone with his music—he has pulled those white fingers to his lips, run his tongue over them lightly.  

At the vocational center, he can actually taste her, the flavor of her hand cream and shampoo, even when she's several feet away.  This is because he has a nose like a dog, his older brother Lam used to tell him.  An could smell the lingering aroma of papaya on his brother's hands hours after the older boys would have devoured their ill-gotten goods, feeling it justified to steal from the stall-keepers in Saigon who were getting rich off the American soldiers.  

To An, America smells nothing like his own country.  There is so much concrete and steel spreading out across the land, and so many automobiles with their choke smoke.  The first indoctrination center he went to was in an old school administration building that smelled of aged wood and waxy buildup.  He had been afraid there because he knew no English—only "Where to find?" and "Tank you."   

When they were divided into groups, he thought that meant only some of them would be allowed to stay and study, to learn the language that would unlock the secrets of survival in such a huge land.  An worked hard, concentrating on the voices around him even when they sounded like no more than small hammers drumming on woods of differing hardness.  

Eventually, whole words began to emerge, then phrases.  He learned to read a little and scolded the older countrymen for talking in their own language while at the school.  An was one of the first of his group to be passed on to the vocational training center.  It was there he began to think that he might actually find a way to rebuild his life.  There was nothing of the old one to build on, everyone gone.  

Thanh told him once he was lucky to have no one left behind, no one to fear for, to feel guilty about having abandoned.  Thanh still has two sisters and an aunt living in the countryside, near what is left of their home.  Even if he earns enough money to get them out, there is no guarantee they will survive their escape.  So Thanh says An is lucky to be so completely alone.  Even his own company is like being with a ghost, An thinks, there is so much of him missing. 

He focuses on the pages of the book, whispers the words out loud, Mister Gomez comes home from work at six o'clock.  Mrs. Gomez is in the kitchen cooking rice and beans.  She smiles at her husband as he looks into each pot on the stove.  "Umm, smells good," he says.  "It will be ready soon," she says.  An is getting to know the Gomez family pretty well, especially likes the parts where they struggle with some problem, like leaky plumbing or their son's troubles with his studies.  Their normalcy seems almost exotic to An.  

He rests his forehead in the curve of his intertwined fingers and thinks of Miss Joy, her cool fingers and wide brown eyes, which sometimes snap with pleasure when one of her students makes or gets a joke in English.  The learning center—a small upstairs room once used for storage in the middle of the print shop—is a place of hope and smiles.  That is the unspoken rule of all who go there.  In that room, people from different countries but similar pasts come close to touching each other in their daily struggle to speak of the simplest things.  

It is just as well, An thinks, that he has not the words just yet to tell Miss Joy how he feels, how thoughts of her—of them together—fill the empty places all around him, inside him even.  The words that pour from her mouth—many of them still undecipherable to him—are like a stream of hope carrying him where he will go.  Added to his grief for what is already gone from his life is the new fear that something bad will happen to ruin this new life he longs to embrace.  

He looks at the new-words list at the back of the chapter, but is too tired to concentrate.  Leaning over the table, he cradles his head in his arms and drifts off to sleep as thin white fingers stroke his stubborn hair to one side, preparing his brow for a kiss.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Paper Boats (Novel Excerpt)

This amazing man became my mentor and inspiration while he was Distinguished Writer in Residence at Wichita State University from 1973 to 1982 and life-long friend and kindred spirit. I miss him every day (as he once predicted I would), and everything I write is inspired by him or something I wish I could share with him and laugh and/or lament over. 
My novel in progress, Paper Boats, covers my time developing and running a learning center in Wichita for boat people, but it was Bien who first taught me about exile and the palpable human hunger for belonging.

Today ghost hands still push along the shore
my paper boat the shape of dreams 
which never went under in the flood 
that frightened me away.  
—Bienvenido N. Santos, Distances, In Time


The trees along the bleak Kansas horizon look like dandelions half blown away.  Startled by a flapping exodus of birds that have been feeding on the shoulder of the road, Joy grips the steering wheel more firmly and checks the speedometer.  The needle quivers between seventy-five and eighty.  

She lets up on the accelerator and glances over her shoulder at the kids in the back seat.  Cammy, just six, sleeps with her mouth open and her head vibrates against the window in staccato jolts.  Trey, two years younger, is scrunched up on the seat next to her with a pillow under his upper torso.  She cannot tell if his eyes are open.

It isn't worth it.  The phrase repeats itself in humming revolutions, like the tires against the highway.  Leaning over, she confronts her gaze in the rear-view mirror, rubs her fingers along the shadows beneath her eyes.  

It will help if they get to the hotel in time for her to shower and rest before going to the church to drop off the children for her ex-sister-in-law’s wedding rehearsal and dinner.  Joy has been invited, of course, the proper thing.  She has declined, not so proper, perhaps, but realistic.  She hasn’t seen any of her ex-husband’s family since the divorce. In that small gathering, her single presence would figure too prominently. 

As she leans back again, the highway rushes at her, and she wonders how long her attention has strayed from the road this time. There are few landmarks between Wichita and Hastings, Nebraska.  Silos and billboards swing by like cardboard ducks in a shooting gallery.  It isn't worth it, almost audible this time.

The message at the front desk tells her what time the children need to be at the church Friday evening for rehearsal and Saturday afternoon for pictures before the ceremony.  It is in her former mother-in-law's precise, diminutive script.  The room is just off the indoor pool and has been paid for, less a surprise than a relief.  

While Cammy and Trey fling themselves in and out of the pool, Joy keeps checking her watch.  Her new swimsuit is still in the suitcase.  She was to have worn it two months earlier in Las Vegas, lounging around the pool while Andy attended the R.E.I. national meeting.  It would have been their first trip together, but he learned that there would be several others going from his division and decided it would be awkward since her divorce had not been final then.  

Besides, the children might have learned of her being there with Andy, and Joy knew that they could not have dealt with that easily, especially Trey, who had taken to clomping around in his father's out-of-season hunting boots, and slipping into her bed early in the mornings, and whispering, "Is the divorcement final yet?"

Joy stands up, searching the surface of the water for the children, who have grown too quiet.  She walks to the edge and discovers them bobbing along the near side of the deep end, their fingers curled around the curved concrete ledge of the pool.

"What do you think you're doing?"  Her voice is a hollow broadcast in the moist enclosure.  She looks out through the trellised walkway into the huge hall with its impressive atrium under which the wedding reception and dinner will take place the following evening.  Two workers are parking a long cart stacked with chairs along one wall.  One of them, a Latino man in a crisp white coat, looks up, she thinks at her, but it's hard to tell from that distance. "Stay in the shallow end," she says, looking back down at the children, their hair sleek and glistening against their scalps, beads of water on their smooth, eager faces, "or you'll have to get out right now."

Cammy raises herself half out of the pool, her feet splashing the surface of the water.  "There's a mermaid down there.  At the very bottom." Trey grabs hold of his sister's shoulders, slips loose, then paddles back again, wrapping slippery arms and legs around her.

"Cut that out," Joy warns him.  "It's too dangerous in the deep end."  She watches them flail toward the buoy-rope and duck under, to the relative safety of the shallower water.  She peers into the deep end.  The image is imperfect in the wake of the children's waves, but she can make out the pale green body of the mermaid, a mass of yellow hair quivering like tentacles.

By the time Joy is settled back into the chaise lounge with a book, a family has joined them, settling their gear at the far end of the pool.  Their three children and Joy's two bob and paddle around in one another's orbits fairly randomly at first.  

Joy is sorry now that she didn't fix herself a drink before she left the room.  Eventually, the children's voices rise and blend as they adopt roles and design a watery game of  Star Wars.  She sees the mother of the other children looking over at her, returns her smile, and looks away, feeling alien.

Once back in the room, Joy mixes scotch and water in one of the plastic cups, and takes it into the bathroom with her.  She intends to take only a quick shower and then run the children to the church before going somewhere for dinner, but instead, she steps into a steaming bath. 

She sinks back, closes her eyes, and feels the familiar tension in her shoulders and stomach start to ebb.  The steam will undoubtedly frizz her curly hair, and there won't be time to tame it.  She will arrive at the church to drop off the children looking slightly undone. Reaching over to get the cup from the toilet tank lid, she takes another sip, then lies very still and feels herself drifting toward that safe little inlet that shelters her from caring all that much.

#writer #writerslife #writing #author #bienvenidosantos #boatpeople

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Rear Windowing

As Arthur Hitchcock fans will attest, being housebound with a broken leg gives one the license to spy on neighbors.

While I haven't spied any neighbors committing murder or mayhem yet, boredom has been somewhat alleviated as I've raised my father's field glasses to watch (1) fencing going up to the south and west (like watching grass grow), (2) the neighbor on the south (NOT the owner of the fence going up) planting bushes to disguise the new fence posts and field wire that will eventually house another neighbor's cows (humorous), and (3) the new house construction on the 20 acres directly across the road from us.

For those spatially challenged (I include myself), 20 acres in the city could yield a close-knit neighborhood of at least 40 families. Out here in the sticks, we're used to a lot more elbow room. If the wind is just right, we can occasionally hear our neighbor children's voices, but can't distinguish between shouts of joy and screams of terror.

So where is the young couple pouring their dream foundation on their gorgeous 20 acres with two ponds? Directly across from our driveway, I'd guess 30 yards back from the dirt road, the abundant dust of which is the only drawback I've found to living here.

Fortuately our view of their pond will be restored once the gravel and porta-potty are retired.

As I focus daily on their progress, or lack of it, questions arise--enough, fortunately, to keep a one-legged woman cogitating on a host of issues:

Why when you dig a huge hole for a new house do you need to haul in dozens of truckloads of new dirt?

How do men work all day in temperatures nearing 100 degrees?

How much money does the pudgy guy who parks his white truck in the shade and watches the others work get paid?

Why is their driveway to the far south when their garage is going to be on the far north end of their house?

Have they noticed me watching them yet?

Why don't the workmen wave back when I wheel myself onto our driveway and
coast down to the barn (I only yelled "whee" the first time).

When they've moved in and we cross the road to empty our mailbox, should we avert our eyes?

In the meantime, here's looking at you, kids.

#writer #writerslife #writing #author #rehab

Winter Sculpting

in a workshop in the land 
of redwoods and cool pine air 
he caresses the possibilities
of what might emerge
from the wood before him 

on the bench are knives, rasps
a mallet—deceptively heavy
because divining what has been 
long-buried is not light work

a laying on of hands and a long 
calculated cut begins the winter 
sculpting, smoothing and slicing
toward a vision of what awaits
the shape that draws him to it

on a train that slices through snow
tall buildings of concrete and steel
she fills a poem with wood smoke
the scent of pine, the way the sky 
reflects a silver ocean when 
the world turns upside down 
in a circle of Cyprus on the headlands
a hollow of tangled limbs 
sprawling vistas

beneath his searching hands 
her reflective images
the long-buried possibilities  
of their imaginings 
taking shape

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

It's a Balancing Act

In the early morning dark, awakening to a call of nature, I slipped out of bed, balanced on my good leg, spun 180 degrees, and sat down on the floor. Groping for the bedside lamp, I discovered that, instead of my trusty sidekick wheelchair, I had parked my energy-sapping walker by the bed. I had to laugh. (Once I checked that my steel-sealed tibia hadn't suffered a setback.)

I had to laugh because I'm an optimist . . .

Because I daydream of once again dashing about Four Mile--hauling hay bales into the east stall so our rescue horse Saul can bunk with Travis and Skipper in the west wing of our 86-year-old barn.

I plot how we will put up more fencing to create a dry pen for the horses to keep Travis, our "easy-keeper" roly-poly Tennessee Walking horse, from equine obesity.

I fantasize mornings in the round pen directing 1200-pound pets at a walk, a trot, a canter, quick halts, inside turns, and long, trusting backings.

And I look forward to once again being in the saddle, looking out over our seven acres with gratitude and awe and the knowledge that I am incredibly fortunate to have landed here. (Maybe not the best word choice.)

But first, I need to master wheelchairs and walkers and getting to and from the bathroom and managing my expectations. I have to laugh. Seriously.

#writer #writerslife #writing #author #rehab

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

When Women Were Birds

Many thanks to Marsh and Carol Galloway for the rehab reading: When Women were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams. Anne Lamott found it "Brilliant, meditative, and full of surprises, wisdom, and wonder." I concur. It recalled me to Tillie Olsen's Silences, another marvelous meditation, but on the absence of women's voices.

Among so many notable reflections in William's book, these are some I suspect have found permanent purchase in my own head-heart:

"Beside a well, one won't thirst; beside a sister, one won't despair."

"There are two important days in a woman's life: the day she is born and the day she finds out why."

"Not the lotus without the mud."

And as a writer . . . "Empty pages become possibilities."

#writer #writerslife #writing #author #terrytempestwilliams

Friday, June 10, 2016

Just One of Those Things

I wanted to write something funny today
but my daughter threw up
tomato soup on celery-green shag
the tile-and-floor man finally came
before I could dress
and poke holes in my hair for my eyes
and nobody kissed me
the whole damn day

#writer #writerslife #writing #author

Wednesday, June 8, 2016


LetterPoem to Linda Gracen

my last morning in Mendocino 
I see red rose petals scattered through 
a Cyprus grove on the headlands
velvety bright surprise, like finding you again
at Ten Mile, perched above white water
a vista as spectacular as your smile 
and the amazing capacity of your heart 
that cradles the walking wounded 
their stumblebum migration to mental health
not unlike my own return each year 
to my abandoned heart, all those 
still beating along the coast that speak to me 
of braver choices than my own
even the glazed-eyed highway walker 
pad-padding to and fro in her flip-flops
relentless in her unfathomable quest
and dusty Spencer in decade-old dreadlocks 
forever hitching rides between Mendocino 
and Fort Bragg, and I wonder what if I’d stayed
what if I returned, what if I rediscovered
the rhythm of a heart not lost but merely 
misplaced like our friendship along the 
many miles I’ve traveled away and back again 
always yearning for what gets left behind 
on this meandering trail going no place much
after all

#writer #writerslife #writing #author

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Expecting the Milky Way

He's almost afraid to meet her again,
he laughs into the phone,
especially in the nowhere-to-hide 
flatlands of their youth.
He wonders will she see beyond
the graying hair, face creased with 
the harsh march toward middle-age,
to the lean, light-hearted lover
curved over car engines and red beers
and her own velvet awakenings,

yet their voices meld into the old cadence,
surging like sparks along the wires 
that reconnect them as they reminisce 
about cars and mutual friends,
and what she's remembering is
the sweet searching of his tongue 
circling  just inside her lips,
his hand a subtle curve under her breast,

and she too wonders 
if they can meet again
to talk of roads taken and not,
of children and jobs and obituaries,
and not the dreams that bloomed like moon flowers
under star-encrusted skies of the heartland
when hopes were so bright they could blind
and young hearts kept expecting the Milky Way
to shower down stars like an anointment, 
blessing them with the impossible—
a future without sorrows,
life without regret.

#writer #writerslife #writing #author


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