Some of these pieces began as "translations" into prose of certain older poems that had never found their rhythms. I had an intuition –whether accurate or not is for others to judge– that those poems would do better if presented in the more supple format of prose.
Whatever the case, if these attract you, go to my web site, www.sydneylea.net, for ordering information.
Storytelling at the Res
Joe hopes he’s a good guy now, but by jollies he wasn’t a good one once. He says he even stole his own wife’s hairlong jewelry to pay off a deal.
I have to smile: hairlong.
If you need a drink or drug, Joe continues, believe me, you’ll take what you got to take. Go ahead and rob your buddies or, like he just said, even your very own folks.
Outside, cold rain is coming steadily, but it feels so warm indoors I’m afraid I’ll doze, even though I’m not exactly sleepy, and Joe’s story isn’t boring. Not at all.
There was a time he worked a big saw, he says, and the whole while plastered. It’s a wonder he never got himself or somebody wasted. There was a lot of days like that, and a lot in the joint too. Once he broke a white cop’s arm with a tire iron. The cop and his pals didn’t like that, you can bet.
Joe wears a raven feather in his hat, which he jokes about, telling how it shows he’s gotten better, because it sure isn’t no war bonnet. He tries to stay humble is what he’s saying, just that one feather. He prays all his war days are done for.
Anybody else got something? he asks now. Everyone nods, but afterwards most just look shy and keep their mouths shut, except one guy in the room whose tribal name is See-Quickly, but people call him Jesse. He wears braids and has half an arm missing. He speaks up just enough to say he’s glad he’s out of prison. Again. I hear some scattered applause.
They’s a bunch of other people not here, Joe says, some of them clean and sober for years. Then they disappear, and then you hear they’re locked up, or else dead.
What about you? Joe asks, looking at me, one of the few white guys. What you got?
I try to say something, but it seems too hard to come up with anything but that I’m happy to be here, which I guess is true.
No, no, don’t nobody feel on the spot, Joe continues, shaking his head, which makes his jowls shake too. He’s just a guy himself with some habits. Like check out this gut– too many doughnuts.
But doughnuts don’t make you lose it. I want to say that, because we are all in this place for being crazy once.
You got something more, Jesse? Joe asks. Let’s hear about it. Once you put stuff right out in the open, see, that helps you get it out of your system. You start in with that, then maybe you can get some healing.
Jesse says, I don’t even own no hat, never mind some bonnet. I ain’t got shit.
Joe calls that God’s will for now.
So when I chopped off my arm at the mill, that was God working his ways on the res? Jesse asks Joe, but he isn’t pissed off; or anyhow he smiles.
Joe knows Jesse didn’t mean anything bad. What happens, whatever it is, is what happens, he says. You might as well think there’s a reason for it. I mean, check around here. Joe nods his head at everyone in his seat. I look down at the floor when his eyes get to me. We’re supposed to be where we’re at. I just call that a God deal, even when our asses get throwed in stir, maybe even if we’re killed. What do I know? I don’t know what God is, except He ain’t me.
I wonder if what he says next might not just be right, and it could include me: we all went to different schools together.
My trouble is, I want a story, and not just any story, but a knockout like Jesse’s. The fact that I keep looking for that sort of thing means maybe I’m not so much better than I was when I was using after all. I have to be a lunatic or just a fool to have wishes like that, to believe I haven’t been beat up enough to be interesting.
The blue tattoo on Jesse’s stub shows only the top halves of letters; I can’t make out the word they spell.
The world swelters, even at twilight on this August Sunday. My great love naps, her hair lank and humid across her forehead. The blunt protrusion of an empty wine bottle from last night’s party, which all day we have forgotten to clear away, bobs above the scratched rim of a bucket, its ice long gone liquid. How tempting it is for me to laze here too in the dank present.
It must be jelly, ‘cause jam don’t shake like that. Big Joe Turner’s figuration from my ancient turntable, the volume low, recalls not some erotic encounter but a dawn from years and years ago, which might seem to urge, Hurry back. I remember mornings then, the streets’ tar not yet a-shimmer with heat. Our family was passing two weeks in a rented seaside cottage.
Just a little boy, I’d race every day to the tide-washed beach to gather jellyfish, which lay bright as jewels in the sand– perfect, intact. I’d carry them home in a bucket, store them down-cellar until dark, then haul them up at about this very hour, stashing them under my bed. It made no sense, except that it did, to me.
Just under my bedroom’s floor, each night I’d hear my father rocking my mother in the bamboo glider. Soon, suddenly and mysteriously, their lively chatter subsided to indecipherable whispers. My crisp sheets wilted; cicadas droned; headlights circuited the walls.
While I slept, those parents drained my treasures into a canal beside the house. I wouldn’t learn they had done that until much later. It seems that the stench from the pail grew pretty awful by ten o’clock. They’d fill the bucket with water from that rank canal, explaining how jellyfish dissolve once they’re out of the sea.
An inexcusable lie, I suppose, but a dispiriting one. Every day, the same dreary routine: dissolution, vanished particularity. It all seemed tragic but unavoidable.
Since then, as for anyone, of course, experience has leached the glitter from other ruses as well. I have at times responded to all that with the same old disenchantment, as if most of what we men and women value will always trickle back to a native, general ocean. One assembles hopes or objects or affections or memories– and they all dissolve.
Yet some things are not so fugitive after all. I note the gray in my wife’s full hair, the slack of her jaw as she slumbers, and each appears a feature of the most beautiful creature I’ve ever imagined. Her length of limb and neck strike me as nigh miraculous.
My senses stir: a breeze comes in, stiffening from northwest now, and the day’s stifling vapor lifts. Outdoors, there is no miasma of mudflat, teeming canal, old fish; I hear no soporific hum of tires on pavement; I whiff the spice of evergreen, the deeper one of dark earth; the comical drone of a bullfrog reaches me from the pond.
I’d felt as though my very flesh were liquefied. Now, as that gathering wind caresses the curtains and my sweat dries, I stand and put a match to a candle on the table. Its slight flame leans inward. I imagine sharp stars. My love’s ring-gems glitter in the subtle light, as drops might on a window screen after rain. She seems a girl in such illumination; her eyes have that star-like glitter too, familiar and dear, as she wakes and smiles.