It’s Not the Culture

By Mary Conibear

Taking the Trans-Siberian is like being in jail. But in a good way. Because you are on a train.

Each train car has a long corridor with cabins opening up like cells along one side. Glancing in, people sprawl out on narrow bunks, reading or sleeping or playing cards on the little table. They look up at you unsmiling as you head to your assigned bunk.

As the new kid, you step into your cabin with clean clothes and shiny hair and hope for a congenial roommate. The woman in the top bunk of cabin 9 doesn’t stir when you walk in. She is older, with short hair and wearing a t-shirt, shorts and bare feet, with one leg stretched out and propped on the ceiling.

The four bunks of the blue and grey cabin are arranged two up, two down with a shoe-width three-rung ladder that pulls out from the wall for the top bunkers. You dump your day bag on the bottom, number 21, and quickly stow your fat duffel in the cramped area under the bunk, beside the storage bin holding your pillow and pallet.

Your roomie has made herself at home with a pantry of food on the single formica table: six eggs, a loaf of rye, a bottle of water, and some of those wafer cookies that taste like paper that your mom used to hand out at Halloween.

The light through the open cell door is blocked by the female Russian attendant in full warden-style uniform. She tosses a plastic-wrapped set of sheet, pillowcase, towel and cover on your bunk and moves on. Underneath those you find another pack with paper slippers, toothbrush and tube of toothpaste thinner than your pinkie.

An hour later, another attendant comes by and barks “Chicken? Meat?” at you, tapping her foot. When you say “Chicken?,” she responds with “Fore!” which turns out to be the time you’ll receive your meal. Lunch is a TV dinner: glutinous rice, 1oz of grey meat, a puddle of sauce, and a sawdust bun that you eat anyway as this is your one free allotted meal for the 72hr stint you are in for.

There is one shared toilet stall per 36-bunk carriage, seat- and lidless until you realize they are simply securely fastened in the up position. You wrestle them free with some difficulty, resulting in the need for a band-aid, vigorous hand washing, and a tube of Polysporin. The toilet paper is industrial-grey one-ply. The water unpotable and cold. Your typical train bathroom.

The trip continues into the evening. Quiet, apart from the incoming-bomb whistle before a train rushes by in the opposite direction. Lights go out early and everyone settles in. The thick metal door clangs shut. The rocking is stronger than normal but sleep comes quickly if not deeply. Another person has joined your cabin during the afternoon and she gets woken up by the attendant in the middle of the night, and vanishes.

But in the morning, everything changes.

—–

For one thing, I’ve joined a gang. My stoic roommate thaws with two new arrivals that show up mid-morning and we introduce ourselves. Lyra and Natasha are smiley, with an impressive determination to chat even though we can’t understand each other. Natasha is missing an eye, which you don’t notice at first since her hair covers that side of her face.

Maria comes down from the top bunk and the three of them pull out container after Ziploc bag after carton of food that they urge on me. We have a picnic, huddled hip to hip around our little table where they feed me tea, cheese, meat and cucumber sandwiches on dense black bread, followed by hand salad – dry sprigs of arugula and cilantro that we munch like goats. They adamantly refuse my box of chocolates. I am the guest and not allowed to contribute. Besides, they have lots of chocolate that they press on me whenever I stop eating. We have a great confusing chat but I gather Natasha and Lyra are mother and daughter-in-law from Kazakhstan. Maria is from the Ukraine. They have various kids of indeterminate age and sex.

Now there is English-speaking in the corridors as other travelers from London, Australia, Minnesota and Denmark appear to get some air. A little Russian kid runs up and down squeaking and beeping like a reversing truck. He trips and falls flat on his face in front of our cabin repeatedly so we stop looking up.

I make my way to the dining car with an amiable Australian retired couple. We trade funny travel stories seated on space-age vinyl seats while we study the 25-page menu with all the usual comic translation errors. Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You plays on a loop.

Back in my room, with the help of a translation app, Natasha asks me a question about why I travel. I say that I like to experience the different cultures. She smiles and says, “No, Mary, it’s not the culture, it’s the people.” Lyra and Maria nod. I smile back at them. Maybe it’s not like jail after all.

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The Big “W”

By Maureen Dempsey

It is the middle of May and the weather is finally warming up enough for a trip down the Green River through the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. Named after a Shoshone work, “Sisk-a-dee-agie” means “river of the prairie hen”. Home to some 300 species of wildlife, the riparian habitat is a major migration route and nesting area for a wide variety of waterfowl and other birds.

This trip is a combination birding and boating trip: a slow, leisurely paddle on flat water. We hoped to spot bald eagles, great blue herons and trumpeter swans along the way. Maybe we would see some moose or a beaver, or perhaps a porcupine.

We meet the group at the Slate Creek Campground on Friday evening, planning on going down the river on Saturday morning. We’ll have a choice of paddling eight or thirteen miles, depending upon the weather and the river conditions.

Our group is made up of men and women from Riverton, Casper, Green River, and my husband and me, from Pinedale. A few more folks from Rock Springs and Green River will be meeting us on Saturday morning. We have an assortment of boats: our river canoe, a larger tripping canoe and several sit-on-top kayaks. The group seems to have newbie and more experienced paddlers.

The plan is to meet at nine and do a shuttle. River shuttles are usually the most tedious part of floating a river, as it generally takes longer than you expect, but this one is mostly on paved or improved dirt roads, so I am optimistic. We are waiting on the folks from Rock Springs so we can do the shuttle.

It is now working on nine-thirty and the group shows up with a wooden kayak and a flimsy kayak you can purchase on the cheap. The kind that works great on small bays or calm rivers. One of the guys looks like a serious birder, talks about his new binoculars. The other guy is loud, somewhat obnoxious, but apparently knows this stretch of the Green. We all scatter to our vehicles and begin the shuttle drive.

My husband and I ride with three other people, visiting and chatting about some of the history of the area. Everyone is pleasant and happy to be finally running a river after a long, snowy winter.

The Green was flowing at 2500 cubic feet per second (cfs), about three times as high as normal, compared to recent years. Because of the heavy snowpack in the mountains north of the refuge, the Bureau of Reclamation was letting water out of the Fontenelle Reservoir upstream in anticipation of the runoff soon to come.

Higher flows mean a faster current, and obstacles that were once in the river may be covered or nonexistent. You never can really tell about a river until you float it first thing in the season. We haven’t been on this section of the Green yet this year, but a few of the other people say they were on it the previous season when the water levels were lower.

Driving back to the put-in at the campground, we’re treated to pairs of bald eagles hanging out high up in the cottonwood trees, red-tailed hawks soaring above, and a prairie falcon swooping down on its prey. It is an impressive sight.

Gathering with our boats at the put-in, the loud guy proceeds to scare all the newbies with stories of a diversion dam and some big holes further down the river. You can tell by the look on the new boaters that they are getting wary about this trip. My husband chimes in, “The river is too high, there won’t be any diversion dams.”

Silently, I nod at him, and we are then told to “stay together” and stop when people stop to birdwatch. Fine with this, we all get in our lifejackets and boats and take off. There is a truck at take-out eight miles downriver, and one or two at thirteen miles downriver. This gives people the option of floating all or part of this stretch of the Green River.

We soon discover our canoe is faster than the other boats, so we eddy out and wait while people catch up. Three golden eagles circle above the boats, whit-throated swifts zip around, and someone spots a cormorant. The one we see is all black with an orange throat patch, swimming and surface-diving for fish.

Birds flit in and out of the willows growing along the river, and someone spots some more bald eagles; the cottonwood trees are full of them perching together. Not surprisingly, we spot pairs of ospreys sitting by their massive stick nests built on the dead branches of some large cottonwood trees. They are easy to spot because of their white breasts and the noise they make. Their call is a loud piping whistle, getting faster and faster and then louder and louder, and then quieting down. I have always thought of ospreys as the outlaws of the river, with their dark eye stripes; a silly take on such a beautiful bird.

People travel in pairs or switch up and paddle faster or slower to visit with the other boaters. There are some serious birders in the group; our skills are about average. We usually birdwatch while doing other activities, so we don’t keep life lists or very good lists at all. Enjoying seeing them and studying up a bit each time seems like enough.

Breaking for lunch is suggested, and we all beach our boats where an outhouse is available, sitting down on the rocks to eat and enjoy the warmth. Toward the end of the half-hour or so, the wind picks up, as it inevitably does on western rivers.

Putting on another layer and my lifejacket, I climb into the canoe and we push off, heading down river. Because the river is running so high we have made fast progress even with all the stopping and looking at birds. The river is wide and straightforward, with no obstacles so far. Rounding a bend, we can see the first take-out, the one by the Hay Farm Boat Ramp. Everyone lands their boats and the wife of the other canoeist decides she has had enough, her knees are spent. A kayaker agrees to ditch her boat and paddle the canoe so her husband can go another seven miles downstream.

There is an ominous-looking cloud gathering force, and the wind is picking up. There are high winds predicted for the afternoon, but generally, they come and go and you can wait them out. Another kayaker, whose truck is parked at the take-out decides he has also had enough. This is his first river trip, but I suspect he doesn’t want anyone else to drive his brand-new truck. I tell my husband, “I don’t like how those clouds look. Let’s get out here, too.”

Being a diehard, he thinks twice about it, but then agrees, albeit somewhat reluctantly. “Ok, we certainly have our share of stories of being on rivers and the wind,” he laughs at some memory, puts his arm around my shoulder. “We’re good babe, let’s load up.” The plan is to go back to the campground and get our vehicle and come back to the take-out and pick up our canoe. Because it is so lightweight, sixteen pounds, he ties it to a sign. About a half hour later we are back at camp, headed back down the road to pick up our canoe.

As we return to the spot, the wind has now really picked up. It is blowing at least forty miles an hour. It is all we can do to get the canoe on top of our Subaru and strap it down before it blows off. I am holding on to it with all my weight while my husband tries to get the wildly flapping straps securely around the boat. Finally, we jump back in the car and drive back to the campground. The wind is blowing so hard now that it is all he can do to drive down the road with the canoe on top acting like a lean, hard sail, and not run off the road.

Back at the campground, we are greeting by the sight of our tent collapsing around itself, yet still standing. The huge cottonwood trees are groaning and the wind is getting fiercer. The woman who decided not to canoe to the final take-out point rushes over, a bit shook up, worrying about the boaters who continued on downstream.

Thinking the gale will blow over, we attempt to get the canoe off the top of the car but it flies off instead, knocking off our side mirror and bowling my husband into a tree. Yikes! The three of us sit in the tent for a while, but the wind keeps getting stronger. We decide to try and load up, and back the car up to the tent, throwing things in the back in a wild way. Now for the tent. It is flapping around we stand on the downed part while my husband crawls inside and takes the poles out of their sleeves. It is now a big, orange mess but we jam it into the car.

After taking down our tent, we find rocks to put on some of the smaller tents still standing and think it might be a good idea to head to the take-out and see if the group needs help. We meet up with the guy from Green River, and share snacks. A Fish and Wildlife uniform walks over and tells us there are some kayakers that just got out and that our group is having trouble getting to the take-out. We head down a dirt road to see if we can spot them. We see the canoe has already landed, and one of the kayaks.

I wonder aloud if everyone is ok. One of the women drags her kayak to shore and tells me she is fine, no one is hurt. One of the guys, however, has lost his boat and stalks off, muttering, “Never again. I should have taken out when you guys did.”

Patting the woman’s shoulder, I tell her to get in the truck and we’ll load up the boats. She is shivering and thanks me. We help with all the boats and the guy that lost his kayak heads back to Rock Springs, seriously upset as his $1500 binoculars were in the boat. Apparently, he was having trouble paddling his kayak in the wind and tied it to the back of the canoe so he could help those folks get to the take-out. When he looked back, his boat was gone.

The Fish and Wildlife guy tells us the wind has been blowing at a steady 50 miles per hour, but there have been gusts up to 70 mph. We don’t doubt it, feeling everyone was lucky to have made it back unharmed.

Again, we head back to the campground and make a decision to head home to Pinedale as this wind storm doesn’t appear to be blowing over. Ominously, the temperature has dropped considerably. We are marveling that just this morning it was 70 degrees.

Putting on polar fleece jackets we walk over to the only woman in camp and tell her everyone is ok, they are headed back and that we will stay until the group gets back. “Do you want to sit in our car while we wait?” I ask her. She tells me no, as her tent is still standing, but as we look toward it, it falls down on itself, the poles bending. There isn’t much we can do, as her husband has their truck.

We keep her company and commiserate about river trips where the river gods have taken their share of gear, and occasionally, a boat. It’s true that every river has a certain character, but that character changes depending upon the season, the weather, the day.

Maybe that is why we run rivers…to be humbled and surprised.

Punk Rock Ballet

By Chelsea Dodds

This must be what drowning feels like. To sway with the waves of studded leather jackets and steel toed boots as I lose my footing. To float ever so slightly along the tops of other people’s feet, waiting for the crest to swell and surge and flatten me in between two people much larger than myself. To keep my arms tucked in toward my chest, one hand trying to hold onto someone for support, the other in a fist ready to punch anyone who tries to push me down to the ground. Then I close my eyes, unable to hear or feel anything but the thumping bass that has synchronized itself with the beating of my heart. Still beating. I pray that I don’t get swept up by the undercurrent and thrown beneath the feet of several drunken men decorated with tattoos and bruises, men who are too absorbed in making asses of themselves to notice me lying here on the floor.

I don’t know how long I have been here, maybe twenty or thirty seconds, but it feels like it’s been hours. The last thing I remember is Fat Mike announcing that NOFX would be starting their set with “The Decline,” an eighteen-minute explosion of rapid, brash punk rock, and not even halfway into it I’m on the ground. I’m lying on my stomach hugging my glasses to my chest, unsure if they are already broken but trying to protect them from any further damage. I feel dizzy, that wobbly feeling that lingers around in the forehead before one passes out, and it takes effort to swallow. I cannot breathe in air—only bile, booze, and evaporated perspiration—that is, when I can find the strength to breathe at all. Outside there is snow on the ground, but inside my body is soaked with sweat, nauseous and writhing on the ground in the closest thing I have ever experienced to Hell. There are boots stomping on my back, the heels pressing down into the grooves of my spine, and I am truly afraid that I am going to get trampled. I am going to die.

Some people just call it dancing. Everyone likes to dance, so it’s safe to say that. People dance when they are happy, so even calling it “hardcore” or “slam” dancing doesn’t sound too menacing. Few claim that they mosh—what happens when uncoordinated punks let the music take control of their bodies. When they clear a circle and then run around its circumference, unnaturally banging their heads and half-skipping along the way, kicking their feet out as far as they will go, bent over all the while like a hunchback. When they fill in the circle with neon mohawks and begin to push, shove, kick their way around. They punch their fists triumphantly in the air when they hear their favorite line in the song, then down at the invisible punching bag on the ground. They spin around in circles, arms flailing like propellers, or tornadoes, ready to destroy everything in their paths. They climb on top of other—often times smaller—people, pulling hair and grabbing shoulders to lift themselves up and over the sea of bodies, floating toward the stage, surfing the waves of the monstrous pit.

I try to sit up while being kicked repeatedly in the back and on the head, and I notice that I am mostly surrounded by males. Beer bellies and bloodstained shirts and bulging biceps. Males all capable of killing me, whether or not intentional. Girls are sparse in the pit, and those who are here are all protected by their boyfriends, a barrier to separate them from being blown across the venue. Those without this protection are forced to fend for themselves, to stand with their arms crossed so as not to accidentally grope someone, or worse yet, be groped. I came to this concert with three boys, and they are nowhere to be found. Greg and Jared successfully pushed their way to the front of the pit as soon as we arrived. I tried with all the strength in my skinny seventeen-year-old body to hold onto Ethan’s sweatshirt, but he didn’t notice me struggling, didn’t see the defeated pallor in my face as I began to sink into the whirlpool. I like him, an unrequited crush, and he doesn’t think to save me. But I am still a girl, still vulnerable to the black hole swallowing the middle section of the venue, and they don’t care.

People die this way. It is absurd and sickening, but many have met Death in the mosh pit. Concerts with an attendance of as few as five hundred people can result in several injuries, and as I sit here in a building with a capacity of nearly three thousand, I wonder how many other people are in the same situation, how many are sprawled on the cold concrete feeling as though they have been slaughtered on a battlefield of head-banging hoodlums. And it isn’t just the bigger shows where violent mosh pits occur; I can recount numerous concerts I have attended at American Legion halls, church basements, or people’s garages where I have been stepped on, punched in the face, and have come home with an assortment of bruises and sore joints. In those instances, the perpetrator isn’t engulfed in an ocean of other bodies; it is much more obvious to the wounded who has crashed into him or her, but I have never once received an apology or even an acknowledgement after being hurt.

Some bands will stop playing in the middle of their sets to address excessive moshing and out-of-control crowds, advising moshers not to crush people who are smaller than themselves. As I get tossed around on this grungy ocean floor, I wonder why others don’t do the same. Where are the Ian MacKayes, who stop playing until audience members not only stop hurting one another, but also apologize to whomever they have hurt? Where are the Cedric Bixler-Zavalas, who refer to chaotic crowds as robots and sheep and baa several times into the microphone to get the point across? But it has been years since any musicians gave memorable anti-moshing speeches, and decades since moshing first became popular in the 1980s hardcore scene, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Fat Mike is more concerned with mooning three thousand people than reminding a bunch of drunk assholes to respect the people around them. The band loves it though. They love seeing all these people interact with their music.

Somewhere amongst all the flailing limbs, an anonymous hand reaches toward me. It belongs to a boy, this much I know, because it is bigger than mine and strong enough to pull me up to partial safety. I return to being a member of the whirlpool, never seeing the boy’s face, never being able to thank him for saving my life. I push my way through the vicious crowd until I reach the back of the venue. Free and alive. I watch everything from the outside, all the choreographed chaos to songs about anarchy and alcohol, politicians and wayward punks. Their motions take on a Stravinskyan quality, a twenty-first century version of The Rite of Spring, a twisted ballet that will not reach its conclusion until someone has been seriously injured, until some virgin of this human vortex has been sacrificed in its core. It’s a ballet for the outcasts, for the kids who never found anything to be passionate about besides power chords, for the kids who just don’t like the music that is on the radio and want to identify with something different, something real. Tonight I went to see the band that got me into punk rock. It was supposed to be the highlight of my senior year—way more important than prom. Instead I am going home with bruises on my back and arms, clothes covered in other people’s sweat, and bent glasses that no longer fit on my head, though I am lucky the extent of the damage isn’t worse. I am going home with a different view of the music scene that has held so much importance to me throughout my teenage years; the world that once seemed so warm and accepting from the outside is nothing more than a pit filled with too much testosterone and self-absorption. I want to feel like I belong here, to swim amongst the other fans, but I don’t know how to stay afloat in this realm.

A Bear Is Not Just A Bear

By Diana Elser

1
In Denver a big, blue bear
five stories high
stands upright,
carved paws braced
against the glass
convention center wall,
peering through reflections –
looking for The New West
he’s heard about.

I rise tall on my only legs,
sniff the wind like he does,
seeking some translation
of past to present,
myth to circumstance,
looking to balance
losses of family and land
against what’s left to discover,
setting myself against
a bleak wind
shaking the house,
loosing memories
into sky and space,
where storms boil up
on a long horizon,
and there’s room to feel small.

It’s what isn’t here
that counts.

2
I invite Bear for a drink,
tell him I’m buying,
we need to talk.
As long as I don’t have
to sit on a stool, he says.
I get him drunk
on honey and ginger martinis
and tell him I wanna’ hang out.
Being drunk, he says sure
and we ramble off, discussing what
might make a good a roadtrip
theme song. He likes
On the Road Again
while I’m pushing for Take It Easy.
We have a lot to do
I tell him, and he says yup,
I’m hungry again.
That’s not what I mean,
but he says we’ll talk–
after dinner.

3
I tell him that wherever
fence goes up
to keep the buffalo
where someone decides
they have to stay,
he and I will cut wire,
let them run – that
I halfway wish
they’d thunder over our bones.
Speak for yourself, he grunts.
Bear mainly wants
to eat better, and often.

We’re bringing back
the wolf too, I say.
Bear says I’m crazy,
he doesn’t need
that kind of help, says
the trouble with you is,
you don’t sleep long enough
in the winter. He thinks
I ought to roll in the dust
more often, learn to flip
trout one-handed, help him
get berries and grubs,
since me and mine owe him.

4
Then he catches me
collecting inedibles, again –
remnants I explain, of shapes
I’m sure I see,
hovering in blue mist
over curling rivers.
I confess to Bear I pray
for our diminishment,
my species, I mean,
and Bear says
you need to talk less.
I point out talking
is the only thing
that’s saving his tribe
from extinction.
He huffs, swings his head
side to side, lopes off.

We didn’t speak for a long time.

Upside Down

By Charles Halsted

Hell

Upside down in fast moving current, my death but seconds away:
boulders below, the demons who’d break my bones,
branches above, the harpies who’d end my day. 

Eyes fixed on a bank-side bloom, I’d pulled the wrong oar,
while fishing on the wide Rogue River alone.
My pontoon boat had flipped when it met the shore. 

From deep within my soul came a voice without a sound
that broke through my terror, as if in a dream:
“If I can keep my head on straight, I will not drown.” 

I jerked the cord to inflate my vest when I was far downstream.
Breaking the surface upright, survival became my only aim.
I gained a foothold, breathed deeply in, surveyed the scene. 

Purgatory

Waves crashing on the rocks below implied my death by maiming,
but the river above me flowed calmly as my very own
capsized boat and one oar floated down. My life could be sustained. 

I swallowed my pride to have fished the river alone,
recanted all audacity remaining in my soul,
grasped the oar and boarded my boat, though it was upside down.

Stroking hard to escape the demon rocks, I paddled my pontoon
across the river with strength till then I’d never known,
and reached a place where I could turn it upright, a quiet lagoon. 

Paradise

I spied two fishermen in a boat not fifty yards below.
They rowed to me with a second oar, a rescue from my plight,
since the journey to takeout was still a mile-long row.

I drifted downstream hearing songbirds singing, watching ducks alight.
A treetop eagle spied a reckless fish that soon would pay its cost.
Deer bowed their heads to drink while geese soared over in flight. 

Making landfall at last, I was met by a fishermen host.
With outstretched hand, one said: “Here, take this cold beer!”
I’d reached a grace I vowed would never again be lost.

TETON VISIT

By Jeris Hamm

I fly
Roller coaster euphoria
Blue lakes winking beyond undulating hills
Snowy peaks piercing the sky, pricking my heart

I drive
Cowboys guzzling ten gallons
Hikers trekking, heavy-soled solace
Hills bursting blooms, elk shedding sharp bone

I cross
Snake River gushing
Teton Pass cracking open
Shy daisies nuzzling granite

I risk
Glancing sideways
Dangerous, distracting beauty
Soaring mountains siphoning my breath

I dream
Triune peaks beckoning
River flowing, alfalfa bending
A thousand acres surrounding a solitary home

I ask
“Does anyone ever cry?”
Precious water sprinkling the earth
My companion guide smiles, nodding

I worship
Manifest love
Thanking the Eternal
With Whom I am breaking bread

FEATHERS

By Stephen S. Lottridge

P. 1

I collect feathers.

I keep a basket full of them on top of one bookshelf.

I’ve stuck a few of them behind the thermostat by the kitchen.

I insert them in vases, glasses, cups.

I find myself unable to walk past one of them on the ground without stooping,

No matter how much my back is aching,

And at least picking it up for a quick greeting.

I show them everywhere,

So it should have been no surprise, I guess, when one day,

Just as I was just starting the car,

A woman walking by gave a sort of sidelong look,

Stopped, came right over, stuck her arm all the way in through my open window

And asked, pointing to the sheaf of feathers

Hanging from my rear-view mirror.

“Does that make you more aerodynamic.”

My eyes tracked from the feathers out along her tan arm to her big old baby blues

And sank into them for a couple of seconds

Before I smiled, reached up and flapped her full, warm arm playfully up and down

And said, “Sure does.”

And we both laughed.

I could feel her breath, warm and damp on my face.

Then she pulled back her arm, licked her glistening lips long and slow from one side to the other,

Gave me a big old brassy wink, stepped away

And swang her hefty hips on down the line.

And that was it.

P. 2

Nothing much.

A spicy little flirtation on

A sweltering August day

In a crammed parking lot with

The heat blasting in stinking waves off the pavement

At an anywhere shopping mall in God-knows-where, America.

But then, as I felt the weight of my aching, caving body

Sag into the seat

And the pimples of rank sweat pop on my skin,

I got to imagining.

What if I did have feathers?

I mean, what if I grew them?

What if my bones were porous, hollow?

What if I slid out of this seat belt slick as butter and

Floated out the window, soft as a chuckle, free as a giggle

And wafted up and out, past the acrid air,

Light and full-feathered?

Oh, no cadging pond duck I,

No pecking puff pigeon

No dumpster-diving magpie,

No mere canny kind of parasitic popinjay

Living on the detritus of homo sapiens,

But a sapient avian,

Free-flying, far-flying, high-flying

Wind drifter, thermal catcher,

No longer geostatic but an aerodynamo.

P. 3

They say dreams about flying are sex dreams.

Well, let me tell you, this was orgasmic.

Bye, bye Gaia; hi there Heaven!

Up I float, where the air’s cooler, cleaner.

Where I can stretch and rustle my pin feathers,

Where my joints are oiled and I don’t weigh anything at all.

Best of all, where I have perspective.

What, maybe an arctic tern zipping pole to pole twice a year?

Could be a white pelican, flying so high you can’t see me without a good pair of binocs.

Or, hell, maybe just an everyday raven, black and shiny and smart,

Hanging out easy up there, above it all.

The raven is my totemic animal on one of the Native American medicine wheels.

So I’m toteming away up there,

Somewhere else entirely and happy as nobody’s business

When, whomp, down I come, heavy and flailing and bewildered

Achy, strapped in, sweat pouring, stink of fossil-fuel exhaust,

To find some guy pounding his knuckles on my hood,

His Dodge Ram Charger double-back-wheel diesel spewing death behind him,

Screaming red-snouted through my windshield,

“Hey, Mac, we ain’t got all day, for Christ sake, you pullin’ out or what?”

“Fuck you,” I think, but I got no fight in me, so

I nod, roll up the window where this all started,

Poke my trembling index at the A/C button, my heart whacking my ribs,

And I damn near kill the engine bucking out,

Hoping the ass hole doesn’t smash one of my windows as I lurch past.

P. 4

The Buddha teaches us that we create suffering for ourselves when we believe that our happiness depends on things being different from the way they are. Fair enough, all well and good, can’t argue with that, profound, multi-millenial wisdom and all. At the same time, my teaching to you, based on those five minutes in that otherwise terrible day, when things were different from the way they are, is: If you ever get a chance to be a bird, take it, because some part of me, all the rest of that day, soared feathered and happy, somewhere else.

Love Handles

By Jeff Lowder

(Excerpted from Dirty Shorts: True Stories of Sex and Bad Judgment at Work)

Surrounded by a dozen flickering TV monitors, hospital Safety and Security Director, James Halstrom, and I sat focused on the screen labeled, “Park Gar/2 LL.” Jim had refused to tell me in advance what to expect, but I was pretty sure I knew this was most likely video evidence of an employee’s car falling victim to another smash-and-grab burglary—I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The screen displayed a black and white freeze frame. The image was dark and grainy, but I had no trouble recognizing the star of this short subject, the “perp” as former cop Jim likes to say. “That’s Helen Barrett!” I blurted.

“Yup.”

Helen was a Senior Buyer with twenty-plus years in our Supply Chain organization. (Don’t ever call it Purchasing.) I never knew the details of their feud, but for almost six years, Helen had been the Moriarty to Jim’s Sherlock Holmes.

I’m no shrink, but passive-aggressive is the term I think best describes Helen’s behavior. On an almost monthly basis she would make a formal report of some breach of facility safety and/or security, real or imagined. Her complaints ranged from “deadly” icy sidewalks to feeling threatened when “a rough-looking guy with gang tattoos” passed her in the hallway by the E.R. And every whiney email included “Cc: Hospital Administrator.”

Jim sat at the controls, finger poised over the Play button. “Are you sure you’re ready for this, Jeff?”

“What? Cut the drama and roll it already.”

What followed was something my son would call “a major WTF moment.” Helen took a few steps into the parking garage and stopped at the driver’s side of a dark colored car, probably a Honda Accord. She looked to her left, then right, presumably to make sure no one was watching. Then—and I saw it with my own eyes—she bent over and gave the door handle three long, wet licks.

I let out an involuntary groan.

Jim paused the video, obviously upset. “Did you see that?”

“Looked like Helen gave that car’s door handle a tongue bath. But why would—”

“Watch this.” Jim unpaused the machine.

Helen stepped around to the passenger door and gave the new handle the same wet treatment—at which point I lost it. Tears were literally rolling down my cheeks before I could finally stop laughing.

Jim, on the other hand, was pissed. “Hey, this is not a laughing matter.”

“Then . . . I . . . don’t know . . . what is,” I responded, still short of breath. “What was she doing?

“Licking the car, you said it yourself.”

“Yeah. But what the hell possessed her to do that?”

“I think she’s trying to kill me.” Jim sounded totally serious.

Kill you? Come on.”

“That was my car, Jeff. I think Helen’s trying to infect me with aids or something.”

My laughing spell started up again. “The only way you could get aids from a car door is if you tried to open it with your— ”

“Yeah, yeah, very funny. Maybe not aids, but . . . something. Anyway, you definitely gotta fire her.”

“Fire her? For what? There’s nothing in the hospital’s policy manual like, ‘Licking coworkers’ cars will be grounds for discipline up to and including termination.’” I gave my earlobe a contemplative tug. “Let’s assume for a moment that Helen’s motive for licking your door handles was something slightly less sinister than attempted murder. What’s another logical explanation?”

Now it was Jim’s turn to laugh. “Logical?”

“OK, any possible explanations?”

“Maybe her doctor called with the results of the blood test—and her road grime levels were dangerously low,” Jim muttered.

For a minute or so I looked down at my interlaced fingers, deep in thought. “We need to talk to Dr. Vogel.”

“You know I was kidding about the road grime, right?”

“Vogel’s a psychiatrist I’ve worked with before. He might have some insight.”

Jim looked skeptical. “A shrink? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just ask Helen what she was up to? Give me thirty minutes with her, and I’ll—”

“Beat it out of her with a rubber hose?”

Jim rolled his eyes in response.

“Let’s start with Vogel,” I said. “You and I’ll probably end up talking with her before this is over.”

Two days later I punched Jim’s extension into my office phone. Skipping “hello,” he blurted, “You talk to your head doc yet?”

“If you mean Dr. Vogel, yes I did.”

“And?”

“And he wants to see the video,” I said. “He can come down at two tomorrow afternoon.”

“Tell him to bring popcorn.”

I arrived in Security five minutes early. Jim had the video cued, ready to roll. Vogel arrived promptly at two. A slight man, maybe five-six, Dr. V. was only forty-five-ish, but a prematurely white beard seemed to endow the good doctor with wisdom beyond his years.

After a brief introduction, Jim started the video. Vogel stroked his chin and watched intently. During the two-minute clip his expression changed from mild surprise to a knowing nod and back again at least three times.

Jim hit Stop, then practically yelled at the psychiatrist, “Bet you’ve never seen anything like that before!”

Vogel remained calm. “Actually . . . I have.”

Jim was still energized. “Don’t know if Jeff told you, but that’s my car she’s licking. I think she’s trying to poison me.”

Another knowing nod. “Interesting.”

“So, Dr. Vogel, any ideas about why Helen’s doing this?” I asked.

“When can I talk with her?”

A week later, Jim and I waited for Dr. Vogel in his opulent office. Jim paced nervously. I put on a calm demeanor, but could hardly wait to hear if Vogel had broken the code on the infamous handle-licking incident.

Dr. V. came in. After introductions, he took a seat and commenced stroking his snowy whiskers with one thumb. “First, you should know that Helen has signed a release giving me permission to talk to both of you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Jim said. “She was trying to kill me, right?”

Vogel allowed a tiny smile. “No, Jim. She had no idea that the object of her affection was your car.”

Object of her affection? For some reason the words leverlingus and autoeroticism popped into my mind.

Vogel continued, “Helen Barrett is not homicidal. She has a plain old garden variety fetish.”

“I knew it—a total nutjob!”

“Not at all, Jim.” Vogel paused and tilted his head a little left. “Although . . . most people fixate on shoes, skin-tight latex, and the like—not car doors.”

Jim looked befuddled, so I translated. “She gets off on licking door handles.”

He looked more confused than ever. “So . . . how dangerous is she, Doc?”

“She’s just embarrassed . . . and frightened people will find out.”

“Didja tell her to just stop it?” Jim asked.

“No. This little quirk probably helps calm her and control her anxiety. But I did strongly suggest that she confine herself to licking her own car doors in the privacy of her own garage—she was actually fine with that.”

“Whew! Thanks for your time and insight, Dr. Vogel,” I said.

“Glad I could help.”

“I’ll admit to being relieved she doesn’t just hate me,” Jim sighed.

“Oh, she does,” Vogel said matter-of-factly. “She despises you with every fiber of her being.” Then he added, with a distinctly un-doctor-like snicker, “But . . . you’re on your own with that one.”

No Dog this Time

By Bryan Nystrom

Hungry for symmetry he walks railroad tracks to the far
corn field, double barreled twenty gauge cradled
in the crook of an arm, hard as the October sun is cold
in his face. No dog this time, only dry gravel, wind, the shortening day,
the coming dark. Two iron rails long rusted run west, those two
parallel lines some sad geometer claimed never touch, yet never
diverge, run out to infinity, that land of imagination, mathematics,
love and longing. A remembered ache, the future ache, deep as bone,
but today the smell of rusted steel, creosote, cinders, fall rot,
thick black loam. Life smells different without a dog.
Row upon row of dry corn crackles a breeze.
Like the answer to a prayer he forgot to say the cock pheasant
explodes into flight and the shotgun lifts itself to his shoulder
and the safety is off and the bird flies into the sun
and he lets it fly and the tears dry on his face before he can recognize
the tangent of his life. He walks and begins again,
the old worn out proof, the surprise of the inevitable conclusion,
the unexpected turn towards home.

Dog Days For Peace

By Connie Weineke

Sirius does not rise
in the dark, liquid sky
the month of February,
sky solid with remorse.

Nobody wants to forgive
these dog days for peace.
Hands and hearts can only
be expected to embrace

so much prayer. When
the fox screams across
fields, the sleepless moon,
the night lean in to listen.

from Homer’s The Illiad