Category Archives: Short Stories

Swamp Music

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I was born in the Northeast, but, my family moved to the South and then re-migrated northward.

My childhood was a game of hopscotch across the Mason-Dixon Line.

And, consequently, my personality can appear as the fractured quotient from an algorithm of long division.

After college, I gravitated toward the South, because my heart longed for the stories and the languid landscape; the gentle speech and the proverbial Southern Hospitality.     South of The Border Neon Signs

Plus, I loved the hell out of being called “hon” and “darling” by total strangers with syrupy accents – mostly women who worked in cafes and stores.

Even though they called everyone by terms of endearment, I secretly felt special. I felt mothered in an immediate and anonymous way.

My spirit is such a greedy little orphan, she’ll grab at any cloak of love to snuggle in!

And now, inspired by my Southern root-tendrils, here’s sharing a tale about a boy from the bayou whose hidden gift just couldn’t stay quiet .  .  .

Swamp - Foggy Day with Log Cabin

My name is Clarence Hazelwater and I play Dixieland jazz in a band that’s as old as the swamp gas. I play many instruments – the teeth of alligators, the scales of snakes sunning and draping in the bayou trees, the rippled wood of bog oak – but – my favorite musical tool is the baritone saxophone. It first caught my attention when I heard the rhyme of its name: something with melody built into its name is bound to have endless rhythm.

So, as a child, I sold crayfish to the tourists boating around the swamp. Those people with the binoculars and cameras and braying laughter like a mini burrow. You know those folk? Crazy ass rich people with nothing better to do than rent a boat and glide through the bayou at dawn. Well, these folks are good for somethin’. I saw advantage to take . . . and I did. People from the North, they want to try local foods and learn some local patois. So, I’d go down to the banks each morning with a burlap sack of fresh crayfish and summon them with a little dance. I’d find a sunspot near a gator on a knurling log, and, sure enough someone always caught my movement in their lens. They were intrigued, they’d come closer, I’d call out like a fishmonger and hop into a rowboat – meet them half way. Sure as a goose lays eggs, they’d want to buy my entire catch and talk a bit. Ask a lot of questions about life in the backwater. They’d pay me well for stories – so well, in fact, that after about a year, I had enough money to buy me a baritone saxophone at Bartle’s on Beale Street. The best music store around.

I was ten years old when I bought my first sax. She was lovely. All shiny brass and curves gleaming in the mid-day sun. Heavy, too. And tall. Almost as tall as I was. Kinda hard to carry round, in fact. So, I found a wagon in the local junk yard, padded it with a threadbare Navajo blanket and used that old, faded red wooden wagon to haul my precious piece from home to the river, where I’d blow and blow until the crows scattered for good.  Saxophone - Vintage

My tunes weren’t so good. Deep and husky, they bellowed through the Spanish moss, circled round and came back to me. I liked their depth, but, there was no rhythm in them sounds. I knew then that I needed to find me a teacher. Knew I couldn’t pay for lessons, but I needed to learn to caress this somber snake of a horn. I wanted more than anything to coax it to talk to me, to soothe my ever-loving soul, to lift me up to heaven and back and give that gift to others.

I walked back to Bartle’s and asked who the best baritone sax teacher was. The owner, Mr. Bartle hisself, wrote down a name and address on the inside of a matchstick cover. I thanked him and stuffed the wrinkled cardboard square into my back pocket. Once I was safely outside and hidden from the eyes of drifting folk, I opened the cover and read: Mr. Travis Wilson. 88 Sycamore Street.

That was a questionable part of town. Half white, half black, part rich, part wannabe artsy, part genuine creative. I wasn’t sure if I’d be welcome, but, I decided to take a risk. After all, a serious musician needs to pay his dues and my sax was worth any chance that could be taken. I needed to play that thing and make it sing. And if Mr. Wilson was the best, then I guess I owed him a visit.

I walked and walked until my feet were blistered by my old canvas sneakers. Sneakers - Old & MuddyThey were so old, I thought all their life had left them, but, they proved to have some sassy in ‘em.  I finally reached Sycamore about late afternoon. The sun was lowering in the sky but the air was still hot and moist. Sweat was beading on my forehead and I had only the back of my hand to wipe it off. I didn’t want to meet Mr. Travis Wilson looking disrespectful, so, I picked a few fresh leaves from a bougainvillea bush, wiped my brow, tucked in my checkered-cotton shirt, tied my tattered sneakers and said a little prayer.

I knocked on his front door. It was tall and wide, made of a dark mahogany with tiny sculptures of people in the center. They were all playing musical instruments – five older men and one tall woman in a long dress, her back curved like a marsh reed. I knew this was the right house, because the wooden people were inside the loops of two 8s. Like two infinity signs, holding these folks captive. If infinity can be a prison, that is. I didn’t know. If it were, though, these cats were playing and dancing and making merry. They sure could make hell look like fun.

As I stared at the carved figures, the door opened and startled me. I’d forgotten for a moment just where I was. But, I soon recovered. I smelled Mr. Wilson’s mothball-scented jacket, and I saw his dress spats glossing like gangster hair in the sunlight. The mahogany of the door continued inside. It spread out all across the floor, that dark, musky wood with a history of something. And there was music in the background. A soft jazz that soothed my jitters.

Mr. Wilson looked down at me and half-smiled: “What do you want boy?”

“Well, Mr. Travis, I’m looking for the best baritone saxophone teacher in town and Mr. Bartle gave me your name.”

“Now son, them’s mighty nice words. What’s your name?”

“Clarence Hazelwater.”

“Do you have an instrument, Clarence?”

“I do, sir. It’s back home. It’s a little heavy to carry so I pull it in my wagon. But I thought I should come alone to meet you.”

“Well, Clarence, that’s mighty respectful of you. A young man like you wanting to learn the saxophone – that’s something special. Why don’t you come on in and tell me about yourself.”

So I did. I sat in his parlor in the acorn-carved arm chair by the window. armchair I can still feel the softness of that upholstered chair. Velvet, I believe. I folded my hands in my lap as he sank down in a floral loveseat. It was room right out of the 1920s and 30s. The walls were covered with raspberry-colored, striped paper and on them hung hundreds of photographs of Mr. Wilson as a young man, as a man playing in a jazz band with a woman singing. I could hardly keep my eyes from wandering around the room. I wanted to know everything I could about this magic man who’d played in a band called The Whippoor Dixies and traveled round the world.

Mr. Wilson saw me gaping at the pictures. I’m sure that my mouth hung wide open and maybe even some drool started to dribble, because when he spoke I jolted like I’d stuck my finger in a socket. When my eyes met his, he was smiling. A soft, grandfatherly smile that relaxed my fear.

He talked kinda slowly and mellow – in something like baritone speech: “Would you like to hear the stories behind those photos, Clarence?”

“Yes, sir, I would! I mean, if you have the time, Mr. Wilson. I know you’re a busy man.”

“I was a busy man for many years. Now, I’m an old man living a simple life and sharing my love of jazz saxophone with the younger ones. Hoping that some will carry on where I left off. How about we have a little lunch, Clarence? Get to know each other. Then, we’ll schedule a time to meet next week. You bring your sax and we’ll jam a bit. Practice some basic scales. Read a little music. But mostly get acquainted with improvisation.”

“Why that’s mighty nice of you, Mr. Wilson. But, I don’t really have much money to pay you. I spent almost everything on the saxophone. I’d need to sell a lot more crayfish before I could take real lessons.”

“Clarence, you go ahead and make as much money as you like. But, as far as lessons . . . well, they’re free. You’re a resourceful young man and I appreciate that. I like your motivation, the passion I feel from your heart. So let’s just think of this friendship as one in honor of the muse of music – the beautiful, beguiling Eleanor. She’s the lady in red brocade, with the waist-length pearls, and the skin as silky as coffee and cream. She’s the lady who put words to my horn and gave them passage to the Milky Way and back. Now let’s have lunch, Clarence, and afterward, I’ll tell you a tale about how The Whippoor Dixies met each other, and, how we met Eleanor. . . the witchy woman who transformed our music, and our relationships to God and each other.”

Mr. Wilson chuckled to himself. Kinda let the sentence drift off to find a sandbar and drop an anchor. I wasn’t sure exactly what he was talking about back then. I mean, he did use a lot of big words. And I didn’t know much about women, or pearls, or the Milky Way. But, I was excited to hear stories and learn as much as I possible so I could have a muse one day.

“Thank you, Mr. Wilson. I sure do appreciate your kindness.”

“My pleasure, son.”

Small Towns, Ghost Towns and Abandonment

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Main street in american townI have long loved small towns, even though, or, perhaps because, I grew up in cities and metropolitan regions.

There is something very nurturing to me about life in a small town. It’s gentler and calmer. And even when small towns lose their people, I love their remnants. A ghost town or a partially-abandoned village coaxes out my maternal instincts. I find myself wanting to adopt them, love them, color them with many shades of grace. Nelson Ghost town

So after my divorce nine years ago, it was perfectly appropriate that I move to a tiny village in the middle of miles and miles of New Mexican prairie. And since the town was abandoned in sections, I felt at-one with it because I’d also been abandoned by love.

For three+ years I lived in The Resting Place, as translated from Spanish, and rebuilt a house, my soul, and my creativity.

In honor of this sacred time of my life, and, primarily in homage to the very special and solitary barn owl who adopted me, I’ve written a short story.

Barn Owl

    A FEATHERED MIRACLE

I’ve been conflicted about barn owls for quite a while.

Why barn owls? Well, they’re beautiful, stealthy, mysterious creatures that allure me. But, one killed my newborn kitten, China Blue, years ago in the backwoods of Virginia. And that left me queasy.

I’ve since changed my heart dramatically.

Let’s fast forward three decades. The year is 2007. I’m suddenly and traumatically divorced. I’m living out on the high plains of New Mexico in a tiny village. I’m hiding out for a spell; for recovery. I’m hiding primarily from men. Because I’m wounded, I want the warmth of women around me. I swear I’ll never date or marry another man. I want only friendship with men – and that’s friendship with no benefits.

During the first year of cloistering, I spent much time rebuilding a house and remodeling my soul. Prayer and meditation and journaling were daily ablutions. I was living in self-imposed isolation and beginning to feel like a saint in a shanty, or, perhaps, a monk minus a monastery. Whenever reclusiveness transformed into desolation, I’d go out for a walk. Commune with nature. Breathe deeply that sacred air of open space.

On one of my wanderings, I walked down the gravel driveway, following the scalloped edges of decorative bricks that outlined a row of Siberian elm trees. When I wasn’t staring at air, I often gazed at the ground. The dirt, as fine as talcum powder, fascinated me. The botanical beauty that survived despite such lean resources awed me. So, in this frame of mind, I was watching my feet crunch grey gravel, when, abruptly, I almost stepped on a large, oval-shaped, tobacco-colored ball. At quick glance, it could have been dog dung; on second inspection, I noticed the smooth, dry coating. Cigar-like in texture.

With a stick, I poked and prodded until the shell fractured and revealed a huddle of tiny bones – even a skull – all the size and shape of a mouse. That’s when I thought: Raptor. So, I looked directly upward, through the elevator shaft of leafy branches, right in the top “V,” and met a pair of eyes staring at me from the soft beauty of an apple-shaped face.

Oscar, Well Camouflaged in His V, with Eyes Shining a Transcendent White Gaze.

Oscar, Well Camouflaged in His V, with Eyes Shining a Transcendent White Gaze.

Oh my goodness, it was a barn owl, perched just ten feet from my house.

Was it a temporary visitation or a permanent resident, I wondered. Having raised a variety of birds in my life, I knew instinctively it was a male, and it felt strangely protective. Almost as though he’d arrived by divine decree.

I inspected the ground each morning for a week, found a daily cluster of “bone-balls,” as I called them, and made contact with staring eyes from above. By this time, I knew he was a permanent installation. I also knew he had a name. We locked eyes and I uttered “Oscar.” He telescoped his head slightly farther forward, in approval or recognition it seemed. We connected.

I had wanted no male interruption, but, Oscar was stunningly gorgeous and calm and faithful. He hunted every night and I inspected his catch every morning. By the quality and quantity of his bounty, I knew he was a great hunter. And he was also solitary. So many other owls around town were coupled, but Oscar wanted to be alone in the “V” of this one particular tree, so he could triangulate me.

Potentially eerie, but, his steadfast presence brought such nobility and peace to my life that I relaxed. I accepted him as a holy gift and a mentor. When my heart was especially troubled, I’d stand at the base of the tree and talk with him. I’d ask him to share his wisdom and guidance. He did so faithfully. After every “conversation,” I’d feel an inner tingling; a quiet little voice that whispered an answer.

This amazing relationship continued to grow. Some of my neighbors noticed me talking to a tree and stopped by to inquire. I’d then introduce Oscar, and, invariably, they’d smile and a new conversation would begin. I actually came to meet humans and develop friendships. Gradually, I loosened my grasp on reclusion. I even had men come and work on my property. Oscar scrutinized each one with grave caution. It was a silent battle of testosterone, and I was intrigued by his perceptiveness. The more macho the man, the more distressed Oscar became.

I knew I could trust Oscar’s instincts, so, when I dared myself to enter the dating game, I carefully watched for his assessments.

One man, who parked his truck and camper in my driveway, received a hailstorm of bone-balls on his vehicles. After two dates, Lee and I decided that friendship was our best option for connection. Oscar ceased pelting.

In 2009, I began dating a man who was brawny and manly, yet very sensitive. A strong balance of male and female energy. Oscar nearly lost his balance trying to stretch out far enough to examine Ron. I could tell Oscar was more interested in this man than any male who’d set foot on my property for any purpose. I asked Ron to step over to the tree and meet my feathered friend. He did so with delight, and Oscar was so serene and sweet toward him. He reacted with gentleness every time Ron came by, and they developed a little bromance.

By October 2009, Ron and I had decided to marry. I had to sell my darling cottage, and I was heartbroken to say goodbye to Oscar. I explained the whole situation, gave him directions to our new home, and asked him to join us after the honeymoon. He listened with deep compassion every day, until I finally had to pack my trousseau, and head to Las Vegas for the wedding.

By this time, I felt my bond with Oscar to be unwavering. I was convinced he’d wait for my return and travel the 30 miles to the new house. I picked out a tall aspen tree in the front courtyard that I thought he’d love. It was right next to the house, and surrounded by fifteen acres of hunting ground. He listened intently, seeming to memorize the flight pattern.

Ron and I returned ten days later from our honeymoon, and my heart sank when I scanned the baring tree and was met only with Oscar’s absence. No fresh bone-balls were at the tree’s base. I watched and searched for weeks, but, he never reappeared. Once settled in the new place, I called him from my heart. But our aspen grove remained owl-less.

Trying to Summon Oscar by Practicing Yoga in the V of a Tree

Trying to Summon Oscar by Practicing Yoga in the V of a Tree

To this day, the mystery of Oscar haunts me with a sweet sadness. I miss his perpetual presence, but, I accept that he fulfilled his divine mission. He coaxed me forth from solitude, and back into the world of dynamic interactions, happiness, and spiritual growth.

He will always be my coach, my confidante, my wisdom-guide, and my messianic miracle.