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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Goosebumps

By Chris Dankovich

The yard was empty, except for maybe one or two other people, as it always is when it's cold and rainy and during dinner when we can either go outside or eat. I walked alone, merely thinking, daydreaming. It was a blessing; in prison, there is seldom time to be alone with one's thoughts. There is the old prison cliché, "You have nothing but time. ...", but that time's value is different when you lack control over most of it, and the remainder is seldom uninterrupted. A feeling of solitude, of personal space, of quiet only comes along once every year or so (many people purposely get themselves put in the Hole occasionally for this very reason).

I was thoroughly enjoying my private walk around. The feeling of the cool mist gently caressing my face, cooling me down after my run, but without a breeze to make it unpleasant. The slight whiff of exhaust from the nearby highway on one side of me slowly merged and became overtaken by the woodsy smell of the swamp and trees as I neared my favorite part of the yard. There I could see the three most magnificent oaks I have ever seen, their branches looking powerful, twisting, prehistoric. I could peer into the unknown of the darkness of the woods, imagining what lay in the shadows of the trees, seeing images in the light and shadows of the leaves. There I would see wildlife, at times a deer, a groundhog, even a bald eagle, once a small wolf or coyote. Some animals I had never seen before. Some I had. How I have dreamed of being like them, able to fly, to run away.

As I slowly walked further around the half-mile track of what was for the brief time my prison yard, I saw movement up ahead. It was no inmate, no officer, but still was within the perimeter of the fence. Treading carefully towards it, my eyes focused and registered what it was. A goose! Oh how I longed to be a bird, even a goose. That bold animal which foretells the coming seasons, which bravely lands and rests inside prison walls, probably taking the yard that encloses us to be a bordered meadow for itself. Such an animal was a very common sight for us, but now thrilled was I to be able to see it without any other distractions, perhaps even to get close to it!

As I got closer, single-digit number of meters away, the goose (a most noble specimen, possibly the largest I have ever seen) flapped its giant wings (at this point, surely the largest I have ever seen) and propelled itself, feet still skimming the ground, closer to me. There it stopped, in the middle of the track, as if it willed me to gaze upon it. Closer I neared, and as the meters of distance shortened to a single-digit amount of feet, I smiled at the goose. The goose, however, returned my smile with the most curious noise . . . a hiss, like that of a snake!  And the strange animal then started flipping its head repeatedly at me, as if sticking its nose up at me. I did not know what this animal was doing, but it did not seem like positive, friendly motions aimed at me, so I stepped a few feet to the side in order to give it a wider berth. As I did, I received a honk that seemed to acknowledge my presence, and in good fun I chose to do my best impression and honk back.

Apparently, while I have attempted to hone my writing skills over my time, my inter-species linguistic abilities have failed to improve, and my goal of fun communication apparently enraged the large animal. It began honking wildly, after which I stepped further to the side, now onto the grass, to give it space. At this point it put its head down and charged me.

As the enlarged, enraged goose came closer at an astonishing speed, I could not outrun it, though I've also learned growing up and in prison that running from an aggressive individual generally invites further aggression. So I put up my hands to protect my face, all the while asking myself, “Am I really about to have to punch a goose?” Standing my ground, the goose stopped about a foot away from me, still honking wildly, though looking stunned that I had not ran away. I looked at it with the utmost respect, and kept walking, trying to demonstrate to it that I meant no harm. But my cautious flight provoked the mad goose further, and again I found myself raising up my hands and responding in a defensive position to its desire to fight. As it charged me again, I asked it in a loud, clear voice, "Is this really what you want to do, Goose?!” not expecting an answer (but, with the strangeness of its behavior, expecting possibly a physical response).

Again, the goose, madly honking and gnashing its bill, stopped merely a foot away. My adrenaline rushing from being attacked by a large bird on the prison yard prevented me from enjoying this very rare, very close encounter with wildlife. At my feet now, still honking, my foe opened its massive wings, and I felt the tearing of the wind from its wings as it rose off the ground like a demon out of Hell. Flying into the air, it hovered menacingly at the height of my head, honking --growling-- and snapping its bill. I stood my ground and covered my face, ready to swing, hoping that I didn't lose an eye in what seemed like an inevitable fight. Hovering for a moment, just out of arms reach, the goose-out-of-Hell twisted around, the breeze from its wings blowing my hair back, and took off over the fence.

My incident with the goose over, I continued on my walk alone. As I did, I pondered the other possible outcomes. I would not have struck the goose-fiend unless it first had made physical contact with me, but I can imagine the possible end results. In its initial attack, I very well could have ended up damaged in a very sensitive area, based on the height of its head when it charged me. Having taken flight, should it have broken through my boxers-like defences, its fearsome beak (more like a vicious falcon's or eagle', I say!) could have potentially blinded me in an eye. Short of that possibility, an equal amount of damage could have occurred to my reputation.

"Hey Dank, how’d you get that giant scar across your face?" Someone would undoubtedly ask.

"I . . . uhm. . ." I'd mumble before manage to blurt out the truth” I got it when I was attacked by a goose."

"A goose? What is that, some kind of gang or something?" They'd say (other gangs call Crips "Crabs," and white supremacists call black people "crows" or "ducks").

"No, it was, like, an actual bird. I actually got attacked by a goose on the yard." 

And I could respond "Well, you should see the goose," but in the end, nobody wins a fight with a goose. Because like a fight with the law, one can only lose such a fight.


Chris Dankovich 595904
Thumb Corrections Facility
3225 John Conley Drive
Lapeer, MI 48446


Thursday, June 23, 2016

A Drink to Forget

By Thomas Schilk

Before my father left, I remember how he would sit on the couch every night to watch TV and drink his beer. He especially liked to watch movies about the war. The right end of the couch was his and no one else was allowed to sit there. Next to him was an end-table with a lamp, placed towards the back, which sat on a small round lace doily. On the front of the table there was a small, square, clear-glass ashtray that also was his. I remember that the ashtray started clean every night then filled up with crinkled Pall Mall butts as the night wore on. Closest to his hand was his beer glass, which looked like it was made from the same glass as his ashtray. His beer glass sat on a round cork coaster that he replaced every night. The coasters were advertisements for Piels, Blue Ribbon, Ortliebs, or some other beer. My father drank Ballantine’s. He got the coasters for free from one of the many local tappies that crowded our neighborhood. Most nights, my brother Joey and me would lie on our thin carpet, in front of our father, and watch TV. Not that we always wanted to. I remember that all the lamps would be turned off and the scenes on our black-and-white TV flashed through the living-room like blue lightning. We weren’t allowed to make any noise, so we lay frozen as the bombs dropped and the bullets whizzed by. Some nights, he would say, “Here, you want some beer?” and I would take the clear glass with both hands and drink a little of the warm, sour liquid. Joey always drank more than me. Although I can’t remember the first time that I took a drink, I remember it tasted like something that had gone bad.

A while after my father left—I was ten years old—I remember Joey and me came up with the thirty cents it took to buy us a quart of Ortlieb's beer on New Year’s Eve 1969. Even though I drank less than half—Joey drank the most—I got sick and vomited in the alley behind our house. When I was twelve, I drank a whole quart of Bali Hai wine on the loading dock of Masland’s Dura-Leather right around the corner from our house. It was a fruity pink syrup that cost a dollar and was worth just about that much. I remember laying flat on my back and experiencing my first case of the spins. I vomited so much and made all kinds of promises to God that I wouldn’t keep. I remember, throughout my teens, Joey, me and our friends would put our nickels and dimes together to buy cheap wine. Boone’s Farm apple was a favorite because it only cost ninety-four cents a quart.

When I was sixteen, at a Christmas party over the McMenniman's house, I drank almost a fifth of Seagram’s lime vodka and I remember holding my new leather coat away from my body as I vomited on the pavement. I remember the molten heat that filled my chest after downing shots of Ron Rico 151 at Michael DeComa’s house and all the nasty hotdogs that I ate afterward. In my early twenties, Mary and me would smoke copious amounts of weed and then make all kinds of sugary concoctions in our Waring blender. We'd mix Bacardi Silver with strawberries, pineapple, kiwis or other fruits with crushed ice and always Goya crème de cacao. The best part was licking her sweet sticky lips. I remember the darkness as Mary and me drove in the back of a van to Jenkintown with her pretentious friends. I remember the musky taste of the Puna Butter sinsemilia and the crisp, dry, bite of St. Pauli’s Girl that they handed back to us. I remember all the watery bottles of cold Miller’s that I drank while waiting in some dive-bar for whoever my connection was at the time. And I remember downing shots in the hushed silence of a bar on Esplanade Boulevard in Metairie, Louisiana right before the FBI caught up with me. From my late-twenties until I was thirty-five, I remember tasting a lot of vinegary jailhouse wine that I would cook up and sell for cop-money. I remember about eighteen years ago, when I made my final gallon of jail-house wine from two pints of sugar, fresh orange juice, one sliced potato and five days’ worth of impatience. It was my last drink and it tasted like something that had gone bad.

Now I’m fifty-three and still I remember most things. I remember lying in my cell and wanting to die night after night after night. I remember all the trips to the hole. I remember when I first came to prison and how the cell-block seemed to go on forever. I remember the crackle of the match against the striker and the smell of sulphur when I cooked up the dope. I remember my body shivering on that cold December night when I found out that Mary was gone forever. I remember my clothes stinking of the stale smoke from all the dive-bars that I half-lived in then. I remember my Ohaus triple-beam scale and the weed and the baggies and the rush of the hustle. I remember the power I felt when some sweet young thing shook her ass at me while George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” throbbed out of the jukebox in Tellup’s Bar. I remember the taste of Mary’s lips and how her hair looked spilled out on the pillow. I remember being afraid she would fly and the purple bruises on her arms when I held on too tight. I remember the limp Christmas decorations that hung on for way too long the year we lost Joey. I remember the Roger Dean artwork on the cover of the Yes album that I cleaned my weed on. I remember not eating hotdogs for almost ten years. I remember how good I looked in my three-quarter length brown leather coat. I remember all the promises that I didn’t keep. I remember how the fake fruit taste of Bali Hai was strong enough to cut through the bitter taste of vomit in my mouth. I remember when Ortlieb's went up to thirty-five cents a quart. I remember finally, really believing that my father wasn’t coming back anymore. I remember the rough feel of the threadbare carpet against my bony knees and elbows as I laid on the floor and how hard it was to stay still. I remember Joey’s eyes looking into mine as I drank the warm flat beer and the crack of the belt. And I remember he yelped as we watched a blue soldier take a round to his chest and the precise curve of his fingers as he clutched his jacket and fell to the ground.


Thomas Schilk AS0255
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Liberating Yourself from a Dark Past

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By Rosendo Rodríguez III

Lately, one cannot turn on a radio, a TV, a smartphone or pick up a magazine or a newspaper, and not hear something about, or see, the exodus of refugees who are streaming into Germany. At first glance, one might simply dismiss the crisis as par for the course when it comes to the world socio-political scene or merely something that would serve as filler for the various news outlets.

But when I actually sat down, poured a cup of coffee and mulled the situation over, I asked myself a question: If an entire nation like Germany can be move d to liberate itself from its dark past, can we all not do the same at the individual level?

When we look at the nation of Germany, there are a number of factors we have to consider in regards to its size and population.

First, Germany has a land area of 137,828 square miles (356,974 square kilometers) and has approximately 90 million people living within its borders. From an American viewpoint, it isn´t a very large nation. To put it in perspective, you could fit the square mileage of Germany within the state of Texas (my home-state) almost 2 ½ times. Germany´s population, meanwhile, is equal to the entire American southwest, from Texas to California.

Now, bearing these statistics in mind, I ask that you further consider the following: Germany will absorb 800,000 refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, and will do so by giving them language classes, housing, food and a monthly stipend of 390 euros ($390.00). This is done not only willingly, but with a hearty “Willkommen!” (Welcome!) by cheering crowds of Germans who warmly receive bus and trainloads of weary refugees.

So then, why, you may ask, would Germany spend so much of its money and resources on complete strangers? Strangers, mind you, who are about religiously, culturally, and ethnically apart as they could possibly be from your typical German?

The answer becomes clear when you realize that, at their height during the second world war, the various Nazi concentration camps at such places like Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka, just to name a few, were executing and then incinerating 20,000 people a day during the Holocaust.

The current generation of young Germans have been taught to bear the shame of their grandfathers and to not respect the mistakes of the past. By donating clothes, home-made food (so much that German officials kindly turned people away after being inundated), by offering refugees shelter in homes, apartments and office buildings and giving them jobs; by handling balloons and teddy bears to exhausted Syrian children at train stations, Germany made the choice to liberate itself from its dark past. What makes it all the more amazing is that within one generation, 70 years, from 1945 to 2015, they are accomplishing it.

When we reflect upon this act of atonement writ large, we should ask ourselves how we can, on an individual level, either in the outside world or behind bars, liberate ourselves from our own dark histories.

Well, if you are out in the free world and are reading these words on this website, then you are on the right track. You´ve taken the time and effort to peruse this site and listen to the voices contained herein, so take the next step and correspond with someone who is incarcerated. Becoming involved in the life of one of us behind bars can have the benefit of not only enlightening our lives as well as yours, but also of cleansing yourself of past misdeeds that weighs heavily upon you. (Speaking as a man who has served in the Marine Corps and attended college for five years at Texas Tech, I have learned a hell of a lot more from my neighbors here on death row than I ever did in the military or on a university campus). One does not need to be religious to absolve themselves of their sins or past mistakes, by simply reaching out to those of us inside these walls would be enough to suffice.

If you are behind bars and wish to liberate yourself from your own dark past, then just take a look around and use the resources at hand. Learn a new language or skill and assist those around you who are unable to help themselves. You have a unit library and by extension, an entire world of knowledge within reach; check out a legal dictionary and a copy of your states´ code of criminal procedure and begin teaching yourself, then later teach others, the law. If you can paint, fashion crafts, draw, tailor clothes, or perform any other beneficial skill in prison, then put forth those efforts to helping the people around you.

I know that not everyone in prison is guilty of the crime of which they are accused, but everyone has things in their past for which they can atone.

In closing, there is a thought that I would like to leave you with: A German public broadcaster, ARD, released a poll on September 3rd, 2015, that stated that 88% of Germans would donate clothing and/or money to refugees, or have already done so, while 67% of those surveyed said that they would also perform volunteer work for these refugees who are in the most dire of circumstances. After being questioned why they would do so, all of the respondents replied that these acts would be an atonement for the darkest chapters of their nation´s dark history. It is my earnest hope that those of you who read these words will be motivated to do the same.

Rosendo Rodriguez 999534
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Greetings, my name is Rosendo Rodrigues and I grew up in Wichita Falls, Texas. At 18, I studied political science and history at Texas Tech University and I served in the marine corps as an imperial storm trooper for the US Government.  I speak English and German.  I enjoy reading science fiction and playing Dungeons and Dragons and love finding hilarity wherever it may ensue.  I currently reside in a gated community on Death Row in Texas.  Schreib mir auf deutsch, oder, write mein English.


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Thursday, June 9, 2016

Man From Far Away

By William Van Poyck

Bill Van Poyck was executed by the state of Florida on June 12, 2013.  This story was submitted by his loving sister, Lisa, and we consider it a great honor to be able to share it with you

While clearing out his closet on the day he was to leave his home forever, my father, momentarily alert, unyieldingly stoic, and eighty-eight years at it, offers me an ancient brown leather satchel. “Do you want it?”

My smooth fingers trace the cracked, brittle edges, hesitating while my memories catch up. In the kitchen I slide the contents out onto the old oak table, sorting them gently, the net sum of an ordinary man’s life. A stack of old photographs. A small jeweler’s box. A key. His journals.

My mind reaches back to a time when I was just beginning to understand the nature of things. I was eight. My mother, a quiet woman who saw things squarely as they were, was explaining to me, and my brother and sister, that Father was fine, that the changes we noticed came from his wrestling with demons from the past. Things he had to work out on his own. But, she assured us, on balance the changes were promising.

Up until then my father was a solitary, distant figure who seemingly lived far away. He was taciturn, undemonstrative; I hardly knew him at all. A writer, he needed his space, free of intrusion or responsibility. So he sat alone in his special room, alone with his thoughts, his demons, and the growing mound of rejection slips Mother quietly slipped under the locked door. Then, he began to change.

First, we saw him more. Father became open, outward looking, spontaneously engaging in animated conversations while the family cast questioning glances at each other. He appeared more alive, as if finally participating in life itself. He began reading and quoting poetry, sometimes even singing under his breath. He spent considerable time in the county library, lugging home stacks of books each night. Father seemed at peace, yet strangely restless at the same time. Perhaps only I noticed.

The family welcomed the changes, but I recall a vague uneasiness, for even at that age I recognized the terrible power of strange forces that could rise up and push a man over the precipice, alter a man’s entire personality, the essence of what he was. I saw, too, that some part of my father stood forever apart.

Father became increasingly possessed of a love of nature, which inexorably waxed and mounted like a rising tempest, like the hurricanes which occasionally thrashed our homestead. Even simple things of a natural order, such as the serene beauty of a blue winter moon reflecting on a still, cattail-fringed otter pond, could suddenly move him to tears. With an earnest, perhaps manic, compulsion to meticulously record everything he encountered, Father began writing in his spiral-bound journals. Only later did I understand that his focused power of scientific observation was rooted in an essential isolation. My father’s passion for nature grew, flourished, multiplied, until one day it burst forth when, like a divine revelation, he stated that it would be his life’s greatest misfortune to die without having seen the whole earth. The next day he was gone.

Four days later I place the satchel in the passenger seat of my new convertible, put the top down and start southward, away from my soft world of investment banking, towards the old homestead, a place in my heart as much as on the map. Panama City. Apalachicola. Tallahassee. I am traveling into Old Florida, the big bend area wrapping around the Gulf of Mexico, a place of tall, knobby pines, palmetto bushes and shaded live oaks luxuriously draped in Spanish moss. I settle onto Highway 98, a backward country road really, more two-lane than four, watching the familiar signs and sights slip by. Wakulla Springs. Adams Beach. Jug Island. Time appears slower here, life according to a deeper rhythm, a more measured pace. Fish Creek. Steinhatchee. Manatee Springs. The names resonate, striking chords stained with the residue of uncertain shadows. My meandering mind docks at the banks of an unrealized Eden doused with memories of homemade turtle traps, hog killings, tobacco barns and fresh roasted corn.

I reflect on the contents of the satchel. The photographs, I know, are from Father’s decades-long travels throughout the world. The Gobi Desert. Sumatra. New Zealand. Venezuela. The Congo. Iceland. Father preferred the edges of the world, traveling until he finally faced the limits of his talents and he became an exile from his own mind. To me the photographs bear witness, framing the pathos underpinning his peripatetic wanderings.

One day, as suddenly as he vanished, Father reappeared, carrying only his tattered leather satchel, insisting with a stolid stubbornness on entering our lives again. It was clear that his mind was not well, strained by his uncertainty of his place in the universe. He had been declared legally dead. Mother was remarried. Angela, my sister, had died. The homestead lay forlorn, abandoned. Father moved back into the homestead, thereby becoming the family Gordian knot. And though, in my quiet moments, I sought him out to interrogate his solitary abstruseness, I was unable to put Alexander’s sword to the knot, and it remains a riddle still.

I cross the Suwannee River, passing Manatee Springs State Park, where frigid, crystal-clear water boils up from limestone bedrock. I speed past the turnoff to Yankeetown, then cross the Withlacoochee River. On impulse I pull over, nose my car through some fern-covered scrubland and pull up to the water’s edge. It is a land of great stillness and beauty. Elemental. Fruitful earth and generous water. The river unravels through the landscape like a lime peel, hemmed in by dense thickets of greenest trees. From my car I watch mossy-backed alligators glide across the surface like tokens on a cretaceous pinball machine. White herons patrol the riverbank, while turtles sun themselves on logs. The rich, fecund smell of organic matter weighs upon my senses. A pensive quail whistles out its lonesome bob-white call against a backdrop of buzzing insects. A curious squirrel inspects me from a treetop. The very air seems heavy with promise, laden with life. I am no longer a visitor, but a resident once again.

From the leather satchel I remove the jeweler’s box, idly stroking its velvety surface. Inside, I know, lie father’s war medals. A purple heart. A bronze star. A silver star. Some campaign ribbons. A large, ornate medal from the Philippine government. I drop them onto my palm, feel their weight, the coolness of the metal. Another object catches my attention. I study it, prod it with a fingertip until I realize it is a large caliber bullet, spent and disfigured from impact upon flesh and bone. A machine gun bullet.

A sudden noise makes me look up, and after a moment a mother manatee and her baby calf come into view, bobbing on the surface, gently frolicking. I recall as a boy swimming with the gentle giants, which seemingly possessed a sad wisdom far beyond my ken. My father dearly loved manatees. I remember the tickle of their stiff whiskers, their curious, snuffling snouts, the feel of their thick hide which they so enjoyed having stroked. These two are at peace. The mother munches on water grasses while the calf rolls and sports in its slow, clumsy way. After a while the mother turns slightly at the calf’s nudging, allowing it to feed at her teat. I feel the powerful universal bond of mother and child, a love grounded in the very genes. I think of my own mother. Then, I see the deep, wicked propeller marks across the mother manatee’s back, vicious scars that make me wince. I feel amazement that she survived.

I know the basic facts behind the medals, having learned them not from Mother or Father, but from old newspaper accounts dug from the basement of the St. Petersburg Times, and from the Freedom of Information Act requests I filed in Washington, D.C. In early 1942, Father was trapped in the Philippines with Generals MacArthur and Wainwright. The jungle fighting was brutal, savage. Badly outnumbered, forced to retreat down the Bataan peninsula, then onto the island fortress tunnels of Corregidor, the men fought, alone, the world seemingly oblivious to the drama, dying mightily, until they exhausted all ammunition, medicine and food. They shot and ate their mules and horses. The aerial bombardments and artillery barrages were constant, pitiless, day and night. Some wounded were evacuated by submarine, and a few of the starving, trapped men found ways to be wounded, praying for that sub rendezvous. When Washington, D.C., ordered MacArthur and his staff to be evacuated on the last submarine the fate of the troops was sealed. It was left to General Wainwright to arrange for the surrender of his diseased, starving men, his ragtag army. Father, though, refused to surrender. Perhaps it was his first indication of mental instability. Considering what followed perhaps he was the smart one.

Father escaped into the jungles, living off the land. He followed the notorious Bataan Death March as the Japanese relentlessly marched Wainwright’s gaunt troops and haggard civilians, mostly America army nurses and Filipino orderlies, back up the jungle peninsula, raping, shooting and bayoneting any wounded or stragglers. From the forests, paralleling the march, Father watched. It must have been horrible. I try to imagine myself watching the brutal, arbitrary executions, hearing the screams. Did Father watch as friends were murdered before his eyes? I wonder if I, with my soft hands, would have had the courage to do what he did. . . . Father fought alone, picking off occasional Japanese stragglers. He joined up with Filipino resistance fighters, organized raids. Was wounded. Captured. Somehow escaped. Survived the war. He returned home to Mother a silent, stoic, one-armed man. They moved into the Florida wilderness, built the homestead. Raised children.

I remember back to when I was six or seven, how I had secretly memorized a little ditty I found in a history book of the war. I comb my memory for the words, and they come:

We’re the battling bastards of Bataan
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces
No pills, no planes or artillery pieces
And nobody gives a damn!

I recall how I had planted my little feet and proudly recited it to my father, expecting his praise. I can still see his stunned look, still feel the sting from his slap to my face. He looked around wildly, then broke down and wept before me.

I look back to the river, searching for the manatees. The mother, a survivor, has vanished with her child. I glance at the journals in the satchel, then start my engine and return to the road. I take 345, then 24, down to the coast, where pine trees and palmetto give way to needle weed, cypress and salt marsh, into Cedar Key, a somewhat quaint fishing village, unlike the tough, working man’s fishing town of Steinhatchee. I suddenly recollect an old, decrepit billboard which once hung near the county line, warning any and all Negroes, in no uncertain terms, not to be caught in the county after sundown. Only, the words were not so polite. I remember asking Father about it, trying to understand, and how he told me that, well, some men are just born with hate in their hearts. But, he said, most are taught. Shortly afterward someone burned that sign up and it never reappeared.

I nose the car around, drinking in familiar sights, breathing in the salt air. I’m reluctant, I know, to proceed. Back on 98, I pass through Homosassa Springs, then continue on until I see the familiar turnoff, still marked by the red reflectors I nailed to the Australian pines decades ago. They’re a lot higher up now. With twice-burned hesitation I look down our rutted road, feeling a brooding, inchoate pressure bear down on me. Gunning the engine, I turn the wheel and proceed.

In due time the homestead appears, old and neglected, but more or less as it should be. It is late and darkness comes quickly out here. As if to confirm my thought, an owl hoots nearby. Taking the key out of the satchel, I bundle the journals under my arm. The key finally opens the lock but the door, warped in its frame, refuses to budge, so I force it, hard, splintering the jamb. There is no electricity so I gather firewood. With a fire blazing in the big fieldstone fireplace I lie back to read the journals.

The journals recount my father’s travels and adventures. Some volumes are apparently missing. Carefully pressed between some pages I find strange leaves and flowers, along with meticulous hand-drawn renderings of exotic insects, reptiles and mammals, followed by detailed descriptions of anatomy and behavior. Other parts contain musings on religion, philosophy and the larger questions of life. No mention of his wife or children. The writing is sometimes trenchant, incisive, powerful. Other times it is beautiful, poetic, transcending. The balance reflects a seriously deluded mind, paranoid, borderline psychotic, torn with psychic trauma a reader can only guess at. At some point I fall asleep, seduced by the crackling fire.

I awake with a start, instantly alert, covered in darkness, the silence like a blanket. The owl hoots again, as if to reassure me. I get the fire going again, open a warm beer and stare into the distance. The owl hoots again, three times. Something makes me look at the stack of journals and I pull one to me, one that appears somehow different. I open it up and read.

This journal is different. It recounts my father’s war years, the parts not found in the official reports. Written after the fact in a concise, clinical style, it leaves to the reader’s imagination the most horrid parts. Much of it I am familiar with, but the parts I am not grip my heart. He describes being shot in the jungle, hunted, eventually captured. His right arm amputated, his writing arm. Tortured horribly by the Japanese in a Manila prison for many months. Then, herded onto a rusting transport ship with over two thousand other prisoners. Americans. British. South Africans. Australians. New Zealanders. I read of the voyage south, across the Coral Sea towards an island concentration camp. I learn of the air attacks on the convoy by American navy warplanes. The ship explodes, breaks into pieces, sinks. Men scream, cry, burn, die. My father, with one arm, hangs onto refuse in shark-infested waters for two days and nights until washing up on a small island off New Guinea. He knows cannibals, real cannibals, inhabit these parts. I read how father explores the island, finding little wildlife and less fresh water. He is starving. He comes across three surviving Japanese sailors, stalks them, kills them, one by one. He eats them.

I close the journal, trying to make my mind wrap around what I have read, the images in my mind. I consider my father, whose earnest persistence to write was compromised by a spirit marked by sighs. I think of the private silence in which he lived, enduring his own solitude, writing by the light of his own quiet spark of courage, while shackled by memories too dark to illuminate. I think of the father I knew, and the one I never knew. After a very long time I fall into a fitful sleep.

The next morning I’m out the door wearing only shorts and sunglasses. I pad out to the end of the old cypress wood dock, sit down and dangle my bare feet, skimming the water. An osprey soars overhead. My mind frames difficult questions but provides few answers. Perhaps my questions say more about me than about my father.

I hear a soft chugging sound, then see, coming slowly around the river bend, an ancient glass-bottomed boat with a bright canvas awning top. I recognize Rainy, an odd, eccentric, red-headed woman who lives upstream. I want to be alone, but it’s too late to hide. She sees me, so I wave. She peers at me, then turns the old boat towards the dock. As a youth I once had a wild crush on Rainy, though she was like an aunt to me. She had always possessed an instinctive insight into my father, too. Decades ago, Rainy had appeared with Lloyd Bridges in one of his “Sea Hunt” television episodes, shot at Silver Springs, and she came away from it with one of their glass-bottomed tourist boats. Rainy cuts the old, single-cylinder diesel and expertly glides up to the dock.

“Hi.”

“Hi, back,” I reply. I feel shy, like a boy again, embarrassed at not having seen her in so long. I never wrote.

“Whatchya doing?” She looks around pleasantly.

“Father died,” I explain after a moment’s hesitation.

“Oh.” Rainy watches me. “Did he?” She stops, looks away. “How did he die?”

“Just died.” It was true. “On top of everything else, he had Alzheimer’s. I kept him as long as I could. 
Then I had to put him in a home. I had to. It was a nice home. The next day he was dead. That was five days ago.”

“Wasn’t your fault,” Rainy assures me.

“I know.”

We talk. I tell her about the journals, though she does not seem that surprised. I tell her about the sea cows I saw the day before, the mother and baby.

“There’s a herd of ‘em up there,” she says, jerking her thumb backwards. “Your dad sure loved those old suckers. He saw something special in them.” Rainy smiles.

An idea creeps up to me. Sometimes we do things that don’t seem particularly appropriate until we actually do them, and then you just know it’s right.

“Wait here.”

I go down to the creek bank and gather up handfuls of water hyacinths, then carry them into the house. I return in five minutes, the wet, bulbous lily plants bundled in a stuffed T-shirt.

“Let’s go see the sea cows.”

We climb into the mahogany-framed boat, then chug our way back upstream at a leisurely pace. When Rainy cuts the engine we drift placidly over a platoon of manatees, some of which seem to grin up at us through the glass bottom. I close my eyes, say a simple prayer, then quietly slip over the side. I dive down, play and frolic among the trusting beasts, a small boy again. I look up through the glass at Rainy, blowing bubbles up at her. Then I surface. Hanging on the side of the boat I tell Rainy that I have sprinkled my father’s cremated remains among the water hyacinths. She smiles, then hands me the stuffed T-shirt. Underwater, I feed the grazing cows, again feeling their whiskers tickle my hands. They crowd around, nuzzling me with curiosity, but asking no questions, demanding no answers. I hand out the last of the plants, pat the last snout, rub the last belly. When I climb back on board Rainy laughs like a little girl, claps her hands, and I, too, laugh, for the first time in weeks. Then, I ask Rainy to take me home.

Bill Van Poyck with beautiful Lisa


Thursday, June 2, 2016

Ambivalence Over Roast Beef

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By Michael "Yasir" Belt

I didn´t invite her.  Why the hell would I? Since I´ve been home all I´ve done is avoid her, but now here she was, sitting right across from me, smiling, like everything was okay, as if nothing had ever been wrong. But so much had been wrong, and it´s been so long, but now she was here.

Who the hell invited her?  I doubted my mother did.  Mom knew exactly how I felt about her.  How I'd done everything possible to never be in the same room as her, or even in the same house.  I´d tried to never be in the same zip code as her, and that part´s the hardest.  Her mother and her grandmother both have houses less than a block from my mother´s, where I´m always at.  So, when she came back to the city, it was kind of hard to avoid her.  But I did.  Religiously.

Maybe it was my baby sister.  Maybe she wanted to see her nephew, who´s a year older than her, and my oldest son and his mother came along for the ride and free food.  It could´ve been my youngest brother, thinking he was doing the right thing. Or was it my little sister wanting to enjoy watching me squirm?

I don´t know.  She could´ve invited herself for whatever veiled propitious reason of her own.  The only thing that mattered now was that the old gang´s all here, gathered around the dinner table, chomping and chatting away, ignoring tensions just like any other happily broken family.

There had been no warning signs either.  No Facebook updates, no tweets. Somehow her GPS had been deactivated so I hadn´t even received an alert when she´d entered the city.  One time I´d been asleep and almost missed it.  I woke to a beeping reminder showing that she was two blocks away, heading in my direction. I rolled out of bed into a pair of shorts and sneakers and grabbed a t-shirt out of the dirty clothes hamper on my way out of the room. I hit the back door and ran down the alleyway just as the GPS put her within 50 feet of my mom´s front door. I kept running all the way to the gym, three miles away from the house.  I had to since it was below 40 degrees outside and I was damn near naked.

That was one long day of working out my stress while fighting hunger pains with no wallet. But today I couldn´t run.  I was caught off guard with my hand in the pot, literally, cooking Sunday dinner for the family when the doorbell rang.

I didn´t pay it any mind.  I thought my daughter had come back from the store with the eggs and lemon extract.  I was oblivious to the fact that someone let them in, with no warning. The only alert I´d gotten was from my baby sister, who´d been standing in the kitchen doorway, screaming out my youngest son´s name.

“Shit,” was the only thought I could muster.

I closed my eyes, squeezed them tight, begged God that she was mistaken, playing, just yelling out random names, for it to be my youngest son somehow miraculously by himself, for me to be invisible, or have a brain aneurysm, maybe abducted and probed by aliens, just not to be there at that exact moment.  But God doesn´t like me.

I finished my prayers and opened my eyes, and the figure at my peripheral was taller.  The hairstyle was different, skin lighter, boobs were actually boobs and not buds.  I knew the sharp jut of that chin, the pout of those thin lips, the wonder-filled gaze of those beautiful brown eyes. I hated them all.

“Hi,” she´d said.  “Die,” I thought.  And everything I´d tried to keep out, all that I´d tried to forget, things I´d forbidden my consciousness, all the emotions, the memories, the pain, the sorrow, the regret and longing, hate, love, contrition and impetus to be moribund.  It all came to shore like a tsunami and my mind was waist deep in the sand.

I remembered how much I’d loved her, how long I´d loved her, the amount of time I´d spent continuing to be in love with her, even after our divorce. A letter she´d written me while I was away came to mind. “My dearest husband,” it started, “I will not let you divorce me.” Then she’d done everything in the months to follow to convince me to divorce her.

I´d Jedi mind-fuck her into divulging her insidious endeavors.  The revelations weren´t pleasing to me but I need to know.  Then one early morning I called her.  It wasn´t a normal time for our calls but I was missing my wife. That was the day I just couldn´t take it anymore.  I´d caught my wife crying because her boyfriend was upset who she´d had lunch with another man she´d been seeing and was in love with.

And, now, here we all were, eating and being merry.  My daughter looked away from her big brother long enough to give me a wink.  Everyone was smiling and talking between mouthfuls of tender roast beef, Moroccan style lamb chops, green beans with smoked turkey butts, some weird yet tasty fried rice with cashews and raisins that my daughter had made, and some soupy noodles my sister called baked macaroni and cheese.  All were enjoying this moment.  All but me.  The food was good, I think, though I couldn´t really taste it.  Every morsel tasted like regret to me, each bite filling me with remorse.

I hadn´t been the best husband before I went away.  Not the most available, emotionally or physically – timewise or otherwise.  I wasn´t the most patient, the greatest relater of my love, the best interpreter of signs, feelings or emotions, nor the most faithful.  And, for all of that, my punishment was its reciprocation at the worst possible time and the inability to appreciate joyous moments of fervor.

Somehow I made it through dinner with few spoken words and without my soul imploding and erupting from my body´s cavities like confetti.  I made the plausible excuse of having to run off some of my indulging in order to maintain my physique’s impeccability and excused myself.  There were a few rolling eyes, maybe even a lascivious pair, but no one seemed to pay me any mind. I changed clothes and headed out of the door.

I needed to get my Vivian Green on.  You know, run my three miles to clear my head.  Less than a mile in though, I knew it wasn´t going to work.

I couldn´t breathe.  It felt like Mount Vesuvius was trying to spew through my chest.  Its lava rose into my throat and poured itself out of my tear ducts, blinding me.  I slowed, stumbled.  My legs felt like decaying trunks of weeping willows, unable to bear the burden of their upper branches.  Somehow, my fingers entangled themselves into a chain-link fence, saving my face from the rising concrete.

I have no idea how long I was there, knees on the ground, clutching the fence, gulping down air, my thoughts raced away from me at super-sonic speeds.  I could see them different color streams, wave by wave, shooting back into the direction from whence I´d come from.  One, bright red and beating, halted in mid-air, turning back, looking at me, waiting, urging me to follow.  When I didn´t rise on my own, it launched itself into my chest, knocking me to my feet.  I could feel it coursing through my burning veins, and heard its word as the infected blood reached my brain.

“Go!”

I broke into a dead run full speed back to the house. I´d no idea why, or what I was going to do once I got there.  The only thing I´d knew, the only thing I could feel or that made any sense was for me to be in that place at that time.

No one was in sight when I walked through the front door.  Laughter and the blaring of a T.V. came from upstairs in my mother´s room, the traditional after dinner movie.  Someone turned on the faucet in the kitchen.  And, somehow, I knew.

I stormed towards the kitchen, blindly, with no clear intention.  With every step, my consciousness tore further away from my body.  I was watching myself, the narrowing of my eye lids as they locked on my target, the clamping of my teeth and the clenching of the jaw on a face painted with contention.  She froze with fear, wrist deep in dishwater as I was bearing down on her.

My hands shot out and gripped her shoulders, propelling her backwards.  I pushed her up against the wall; not hard enough to hurt but forceful enough to let her know that, at that very moment, I was in control, and there wasn´t a damn thing she could do about it.

My hand traveled to her neck, and I realized I was whole once more, face to face with my demoness, my tingling fingers tightened ever so slightly around her throat.  Her eyes were wide-open, mouth agape, looking up.  I leaned in, a rat tail´s width between our faces, sweat dripping down my bald head.  My chest heaved up and down, the scent of Victoria Secret´s Love Spell invading my nostrils.

I – wanted – to - die! 

Her eyes became slits.  She licked her lips slowly, then bit her bottom one.  I´d forgotten how much she´d enjoyed this type of thing in the past; or had I?

She placed her wet hands on my chest, pulling me in closer, our cheeks grazing past one another.  Her breath began to burn a pleasant hole through my neck, lighting a fuse at the top of my spine, setting off tiny explosions at every vertebra down my back.

I wanted to run. I did run.  I made it to the kitchen´s threshold when some force began dragging me back.  It was too powerful, too strong for me to fight against, too compelling to resist.  I turned back to see what could be so irresistible that I could not flee it and I saw myself still being held in her grasp.  After one more fleeting attempt at evading enamoring, I resigned myself, drawing deep within.

There was so much I’d wanted to say to her for so long.  But now I wasn´t sure whether I wanted to speak my piece or to get myself a piece.  So, I withdrew further inward.

She should know why I hate her.  I want to give her a vivid description of what it felt like to be ripped apart from the inside with nothing but time to dwell on life, a life without her. How I´d gone through the thralls of pain year after year.  She should  know I´m still in love with her and how my next wife will hate her even more vehemently than I do, having to nurse wounds that will never heal.

Should I start with how sorry I am?  Sorry for leaving her by herself, susceptible to the perversions of the cruel world?  For giving her every reason to leave me?  Should I start with words like “It´s my fault, I made you do it?”  Tell her I´m not mad at her?  How I´m in fear of her ability to hurt me more than anyone?

No.  I needed to be myself again.  No backing away, no avoiding, no running.  The power would once again be mine alone.  I needed to show her I would be fine without her.  That my heart would, one day, be intact; whole again, and functioning independent of her.

Yeah, that´s it.  And then maybe I´ll die.

With all of the courage I could muster, I shot to the surface and touched my lips to the tiny, fair hairs that lining her earlobe and whisper one word.

…..

I was awakened by the chime of an alert on my phone.  There was a message from my daughter.

“Hey Dad.  Dinner on Sunday? I´ll make a lemon cheesecake!”

My reply: one word, “No.”


Michael Belt KU8088
SCI Houtzdale
P.O. Box 1000
Houtzdale, PA 16698

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