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Safe Harbor

The only shelter in Amherst houses 28 guests. The Exit sign shines constant in the wide basement of the Baptist Church, fixed like a false, red moon above a door that no one enters. Its light spills across the linoleum, parting the cots on either side, 20 in all, filled with men anchoring to unmoor. Some twisting, some turning from time to time, snoring that is like boat motors, sputtering then falling silent drifting through uneasy sleep. The smell of human exhaust, sweat and exhaustion fill the room.

An unreliable partner in rest, at some point through Night’s long lease each man gets up and shambles, crooked mast, listing and or limping to the bathroom. A man falls asleep in the bathroom. Staff wake him but he falls asleep there again, and again, and again, not leaving the bathroom for more than an hour.

One man snores like a hand saw ripping through wood with each rapid inhale. The pace and volume of his breathing makes me anxious, but no one else seems to be any more than annoyed. Those who have had something to drink seem to sleep better. Anyone who is awake is witness to semi-anonymous farting, sighing, moaning, calling out mid-oblivion in the dark.

A late entry sails in, slim and dark even in the blackness, gliding silently between other sleeping men. He runs a hand over the surface of the cot to clear any debris, then applies both sheets, the pillow and then the blanket making sure each corner is even before turning in. For a time his face is lit cold and blue by phone screen. The lines of his face appear impossibly deep.

With no privacy everyone is fully clothed at all times. Each cot has two sheets, a blanket and a pillow. Meals are provided by the University of Massachusetts and Hampshire College. With one paid overnight staff, three overnight volunteers and one late night volunteer this arrangement is too expensive to keep the shelter open for more than six months every year.

Edge

It was like a kettle set on a stove, I didn’t notice the arguing at first. It seemed like some commotion between squirrels or songbirds (not really, I’m just making it prettier so you won’t be so depressed as to turn away) had broken out on this clear, cool late April morning.

When I heard my dad yelling, I mean, I think that’s the point I knew the kettle had boiled over like never before. What he was yelling I don’t recall, but his voice, masculine, full of rage yet ragged with sorrow round the edges with a rasp of decades of drug use, kept on, which was very odd.

From one foot to another, shifting my weight carefully from one stair down to the next into the kitchen. The door to the back porch wide open, the ceaseless yelling, loud chaos, from brook to rapids.

Turning the corner I found my father naked, holding a bottle of rubbing alcohol, continuously projecting his rage at my mom who was standing in the driveway, sobbing, naked. Police cruisers lay in wait across the street. White with blue of the Northampton PD, navy and cerulean of the state police, and even white with green of the sheriff, which I had never seen before.

My father couldn’t do much more than yell given the audience. So I asked to bring my mother her bathrobe. I slipped her keys into one of the pockets, a large ring of steel that only nurses and jailers might use.

After she drove away my father announced he would drive my brother and I to school. All the long way, about 0.7 miles from North Main at Bardwell to Florence Grammar, a cruiser followed directly behind our van like a shark slowly circling a fishing boat. We arrived about 90 minutes before school opened and my father asked if we would like to stay and wait or return home for awhile.

I thought to stay, perhaps spend my time drawing lines in the dirt. But my younger brother, who to this day remains as luminous, wanted to go home with dad. So home we went, cruiser in tow.

When we arrived my dad and brother went upstairs to take a nap together. I waited. It was unlikely my father would allow us to go to school. He had for years told my mother how he would kill her first before ending her children, even pointing to the spots along the wetlands he would hide her body as he drove her to work each day (which was not a long drive at all). So if he let us go to school he would lose his only leverage. I could have left the house in that moment, but my brother would likely die and my father would never stop chasing me.

I waited. The sound of cars picked up, washing the house, which rests mere feet from Route 9, in the high tide of traffic noise. Anxious and hyper-aware I let my heart sink down below that noise, let it conceal my footsteps, my throbbing heartbeat.

I withdrew a steak knife from the kitchen drawer. I chose the largest for the sake of leverage, I think. Or maybe because it resembled the knife you always see in movies? Step, shift weight, breathe out. Step, shift, breathe in. The knife in my left hand, and with my right hand I reach for the door to my father’s bedroom.

He opens the door just before my hand touches the knob. Instinctively I throw the knife which somehow doesn’t make a sound landing in an open closet.1 My father is 6’5″, I am 12. He looks down at me and says “I’m going out to find your mother.” I never see him again.

Part 5 of Owl Orchard

A forest. A ghost. A teacher.

  1. Impact, journal
  2. Relic, journal
  3. The Star, hiking
  4. Wright-Patterson Air Force base, 1968, poetry
  5. Edge, journal
  1. Fall Schwarz, Bubbe’s Unquietude.

Wright-Patterson Air Force base, 1968

Albert Sparks. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, 17th Bomber Wing, Strategic Air Command.

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, 1968. Young black male in uniform proudly raises his fist in a gesture for Black power. Behind him a barracks for Strategic Air Command, 17th Bomb Wing.

In this you are a man, finally able to stand tall and breath, fist raised, eyes straight, floating just above the high-tide of hopelessness, humiliation and horror that was, and my still be heritage and inheritance of any black orphan left to the cotton fields of South Carolina.

In this your uniform’s creases are as sharp as shards of glass exploding in the chair where your wife had been sitting. Some minor transgression met with maximum force. Threat credibility maintained, balance of terror restored.

In this you were never abandoned like trash. Never disposed of as the burden black children, to this day, are told they are even by their own.

In this you were never beaten with a stick for playing outside near dark. Never bruised, bloodied, body trembling in the blackness mere feet from your abuser sleeping on the dirt floor of the shack.

In this you were never the boy who kept the tops of his only socks so no one would know how desperately poor he was.

In this you were never the baby a mother would abandon at 3 months old. Never the man ravaged by asking why his whole life.

Part 4 of Owl Orchard

A forest. A ghost. A teacher.

  1. Impact, journal
  2. Relic, journal
  3. The Star, hiking
  4. Wright-Patterson Air Force base, 1968, poetry
  5. Edge, journal

2016.11.11

The door creeks as it swings
and latches when it slams.

Float and fade to white
above the flood twisting floor.

Hollow and whole,
this moment is mine forever.

Deliveranceville

Approach. Deliveranceville.

Shadows trick the eyes, letting the cave feel deeper than it is. The air is cool and pregnant with humidity, touching the skin with a delicate but sudden embrace. The cave is relatively small for what I imagine the mouth of a quarry to be and appears to be shaped like an ‘L.’ The length hugs the Gallery, its short leg abuts the Skylight. The cave… if I should call it that, aperture might be more appropriate since it is merely hollowed space between outside and the Gallery, is a broken place. Pools of water stand perfectly still reflecting light rays from the Skylight. There are pieces of rock, there are large cuts into rock, the ceiling is at times smooth and clearly cut, and at other times seems shattered. It seems more disorganized than I would have imagined an industrial complex, even an old one to be. It is hard to imagine working here, it seems earth itself abandoned the mine some time ago leaving rock and water clutter like furniture and paper left in an abandoned building… deep irony.

We come to stand before the Gallery, the main artery for quarry operations. It bores through the earth to unknown depths, disappearing into darkness and is completely submerged in feet of water. Peering with our flashlights we couldn’t find the bottom. Some junk to the side where the Gallery is more shallow seems about four feet below the perfectly clear surface and it makes me think the center of the tunnel is submerged in at least ten feet of water.

To our right through the cave large facets of rock jut up and down at angles, some easy enough to walk up save for being a little slippery, and beyond these sunlight pours through dramatically making the edges of rocks seem even sharper. The scene is something out of mythology. Where the ceilings are smooth however, where the rock above head is cut at angles that betray something of how dreadfully heavy the mountain stone might be I find my caution.

Graffiti throughout the cave is striking and appears to have accumulated over decades. One tag read “’62” as in 1962, another endorses a current presidential contender. We make our way through the cave pointing out and taking pictures. Scattered around are little bits of evidence from the cutting operations. A (industrial) diamond rope for cutting granite, the ends of heavy metal rope to lift and belay slabs of rock.

The cave curves left. On the left side is another entrance to the submerged gallery. To the right side is the Skylight, a tall face of rock cut right out of the mountain and an ideal repelling spot. All along the face are symmetrical lines from mining granite. My associate takes a look around and points out how the overhang at the top of this wall means that most of the 150 feet would be repelled in midair, without any contact with the wall.

More graffiti, back to the gallery, from this angle it looks not only submerged but abysmal. The fog is a constant fixture, almost like a creature itself, never sleeping, only waiting here and everywhere in the untold depths of this place centuries on end. My friend points out a dome in the ceiling. He says it was likely formed by water long before the mine.

impact

Just beyond the range of lights, between segmented yellow lines, lies my mistake, motionless. My car, a black steel metronome of hazard lights flashes help, help, help. I did not hear, nor feel a thing, but I knew.

I stand over you, wings only part way folded under your body. Talons blacker than the pavement, I know if you are not dead I may lose my eyes in this. I move slowly, breath deeply and lift. You are lighter than I imagined, delicate in ways. I place you down on a bed of fallen leaves beyond the edge of the road.

Suddenly black eyes flash open, beak wide, wings flap, drunken step forward. Silence. You flounder forward again as another car comes up the road. “Are you ok,” she pulls along to ask. She looks at me, then at you. “Shit.” Her blue minivan has a white magnetic sign: Northampton Animal Control.

Post Script

Post Post Script

Midnight, two weeks later at the very same place a barred owl swoops down 30 feet in front of my car and lands beyond the shoulder on the opposite side of the road. I saw the wings streak by my windshield, again, and when the owl touches down, calmly folds its wings and turns its head to look right at me I go from yelling over the steering wheel to hiding behind it.

Part 1 of Owl Orchard

A forest. A ghost. A teacher.

  1. Impact, journal
  2. Relic, journal
  3. The Star, hiking
  4. Wright-Patterson Air Force base, 1968, poetry
  5. Edge, journal

Lake > boob

Tara at 6 months old

6:34

We talked work as we made our way up. The trail had tire ruts, but I didn’t notice tracks any newer than last season. Dark Mud sat where streams often crossed the path. New greening, last season’s brown and stone walls here and there. We came to an impressive ruin of the foundation of a large structure, perhaps a house, at least that was what I remembered hearing from someone who lives close to the trail.

7:12

The lake itself was quiet and calm. I only saw a few mosquitos. A few pairings and a small flock of birds played in the near distance. Straight across the lake I could just make out the small dancing light of a camp fire, and the shifting shadows of at least one person walking around. It was hard to make out anything more than that.

When baby saw the lake she couldn’t seem to take in anything else. Not even boob. Astonished she stared in one direction, twisted around in her harness and stared in another direction.

7:33

Trip back was quiet. Nearing dark the height of the thin trees somehow become more notable, more amazing or perhaps daunting. Evergreens and evergreens and the occasional birch.

7:45

We discovered there are two parallel paths close together. The interesting thing is how we didn’t know we were on a different path until it became hard to pass. The woods are the same, the landscape is the same, the paths look similar but one may not be visible while on the other. When coming back down we found ourselves on the secondary path without knowing it until a stream cut more deeply into the dirt, making it harder to cross. This presumed consistency followed by abrupt change was momentarily alarming, like the woods had changed while we were at the lake or we had somehow gotten lost. My GPS, when zoomed in, did show the two paths side by side and it was easy enough to just walk over to the other.


Late Afternoon

cold coffee
and French toast from last night’s baguettes
splash of bad wine just to finish the bottle
sunglasses shield souls worn open
simmering with scents of
leaves first fallen stirred
in soup thick fog
pouring through that hair of yours
threading Berkshires to Taconic ridge
in the midst of your raising
and the heart of your fall
ride with me.

Sit next to me

tell me the places your heart has been
so I might know my own

Walking

Rain does not touch you, fearing it could never stop.

Christmas 1980

A child’s eyes waiting for mom, who will never come home, abandoned to cotton and Crow at 3 months old, just beneath blooming breathing inferno, flash to fury in an atomic second. Dim apartment is a breathless skeleton, the brick and beam will manage to contain the unsayable for a time.

Spent

the floor does not spin
or sink, another inch
of ashes
spent sleepless shaking
bone-thin, thin skin

boiling, cracking, opens

and I am whole.

Shock scar

Where regrets lay down, relax and drift off for awhile
casual & confident in the right to be
indifferent to the soft, souring bodies
cluttering, complicating, contriving half-truths

excusing, explaining and too easily

forgetting flash-frozen

silence, soft sobbing

obedient smile under
shades over

black and blue and tears over

scarf covering bruises
driving me to school, sleepless.

Lightbringer

hot pepper laced prayers
blessings condense, fog windows and fall
my heart waters and wells
adoring, pleading, needing
our long walks and full moon picnics
your eyes unsheathed in the dark

The Star

The Star

This was our first outing together in years. Lifetimes ago this tunnel had been an initiation of sorts. We went over some of the details we remembered, talked about how much more information was available these days, and how we had only seen a train come through on Youtube as we stitched together country back-roads on a cool early autumn night. The first fallen leaves pushed aside by the draft of car. We saw a shooting star, my colleague commented that it had been a long time since he’d seen one, always busy or working when a meteor shower made its way to our corner of the solar system.

Upon first entering the tunnel we were greeted with the sounds of falling and running water. Coming down from the ceiling and running along the side of the tracks. Though there was only a single set of tracks, the tunnel was clearly wide and high enough to support two. There were scars on the top of the ceiling where it had been expanded. The smell was more than faintly toxic. Diesel soot covered all surfaces. Mixing with the humidity and water it becomes a fine silty mud which appeared gray by our flashlights. It was cool and wet enough to be a little uncomfortable.

This world of gray is punctuated by occasional trash and rail related debris. Mostly empty beer and soda cans which were reflective enough to stand out. Occasionally the jagged rock face of the cave was interrupted by a brick facade, some which appeared to be in good condition and cleaner than I’d expect. In other places the brick was crumbling and shattered, as if some parts were new or newly repaired while others were thought to be beyond help. On either side of the tracks is gravel mixed with soot mud, giving way to more mud. The most efficient means of traversing the tunnel is along the middle of the track where sediment has built up almost high enough to bridge the gap between rail ties.

The journey was drenched in silence. After the water at the entrance fades the only sounds are those of walking and breathing. Foot strikes consistent like a low dull drum upon water logged rail ties covered in gray, modest echoes on faceted gray rock walls. Time and distance blur down there. You simply walk and keep walking until you arrive, there are few landmarks or distinguishing characteristics to gauge how far you’ve traveled. I had not thought to research the numeric markers on the wall before going, so I couldn’t tell how far we had come or had left to go. It became warmer as we made our way through the depths, and this added comfort made it easier to turn inward. Much of walking was done without conversation. Though our lights were effective at illuminating distances I found myself consistently concentrating on stepping on the next rail tie.

PHONE CALLS FROM THE DEAD

At regular intervals rail phones were installed on one side of the tunnel. These were placed reasonably far apart and illuminated by fluorescent lights installed inside the top of the cabinet each phone was housed in. Each cabinet door has a window, so of the perhaps half of the phones where the door was closed some dim light would bleed out into the dark. For the other half where the door was open the cold light spilled across the tracks and on to the opposite wall. In either case the light was dim in comparison to our flashlights and could only be seen at a distance when we turned our lights off.

The phones were artifacts I clearly remembered from years ago. The silence was broken by reminiscing about those days, trading stories and jokes. I recalled how we had gotten our name. Though for me the asylum had come years before, as an organized group this tunnel had been our first real expedition, and it just so happened that we had convinced a group of ladies from Smith college to join us for that first outing. Obviously this raised the stakes to our collective pride considerably, so we chose a modest title to illustrate the values of our fledgling collective. I made a note to get pictures of the phones on the way out.

After some time I began to hear the low moan of an engine. My colleague suggested that it might be the vent, our destination. Distilled in the dark the sound of this or any other machine was not particularly welcomed, and this was not something I remembered from before. As we got closer it became clear that this was indeed the vent fan, it is simply such a massive apparatus that it does not sound like any other vent I had heard.

I pulled myself up on a thin rope while trying to get footing on the wet slanted rock face covered with diesel soot mud, now black rather than gray. My colleague was considerably better at this than I, and preceded me on the ascent. After perhaps 15 feet another thicker rope, what appeared to be 11mm shock cord made for better going.

At the top of the rock platform, still quite far below the vent opening and machinery we paused for a break. It is the bottom of a drain for diesel fumes and rain with broken bits of wood and junk scattered everywhere. This was exactly as I remembered it, a wreck at the bottom of a hole straight into darkness where and for which many lost their lives.

THE STAR

After gracelessly sliding down most of the wall and beginning the trek back I looked up from the rail ties I had been trying to walk on. I saw a distant gold star. My heart broke in silence, then my terror jumped up, turned off the flashlight and kindly turned around and pointed it out to my colleague. He suggested it may have just been a phone. This could not be, as fluorescent lights do not project forward and the types found in the tunnel fluoresce cold whites and pale blues, nothing close to gold. This light had to be incredibly powerful for me to see the star pattern of the end of the beam profile. I was not able to hear any sound from what it might be attached to, meaning it was very far away. Such a light, especially for a incandescent (given the deep gold tone) would have needed to be driven by an immense power source. It could only be a train.

Lights to dim, running back. I felt sluggish and out of shape. Had there been a clear exit I’m not sure I would have made it. He thought we might be able to make it to the vent. I disagreed, not knowing how far away the train really was or how fast it was coming. We decided to hide on either side of a phone booth, as the shadows of its light would make us difficult to detect, especially from a moving platform. We shook hands. “It has been an honor.” Then I told him no matter what you do, do not fall asleep.

Sitting down I was certain that I was choosing the particular spot of my last moments. We had begun to hear the engines. We waited as the rumble, the vibrations, and the light slowly grew to impossible levels. I felt the train through the rock I lied against and through my bones. As it got closer and louder the less and less I could hear my own thoughts, the less that I had any thoughts to hear. My last thought was how fatefully funny it was that I would die like this. My dad committed suicide with Carbon Monoxide, I guess I always thought I had made better choices than he had… By the time I saw the front of the first engine there wasn’t any me left inside my head. Holding my breathe I was pushed outward in a trance, just taking in the sights and sounds of my death.

The train was the most beautiful and vivid thing I had ever seen. The main lamp was blinding brilliant. The other lights covered the tunnel with yellows and reds. The engines as clear as the heartbeat of god shook the world. I think there may have been three to five engine units. The cargo started to pass by, box freight containers, then coal hoppers some with graffiti, then flatbeds loaded with truck trailers. At some point the train started to move much faster. It had come down the tunnel at around 5 mph, but then sped up to nearly 40. I assume that once the engines cleared the tunnel the conductor wanted to be on their way. For which we were and are quite thankful.

As we were near the vent most of the exhaust simply went up and out rather than sticking around. Had we been further from it the fumes may not have vented fast enough. Had we been in the vent itself we might have been overcome by the concentration of fumes. The train seemed to be quite long, so when it accelerated it pulled in considerably more fresh air from outside like a vacuum. It seemed to have even pulled in part of a fog bank. When the train had finally passed the tunnel was covered in mist that smelled like the river. At the end of it we were left in silence and fog laden darkness.1

Part 2 of Owl Orchard

A forest. A ghost. A teacher.

  1. Impact, journal
  2. The Star, hiking
  3. Relic, journal
  4. Wright-Patterson Air Force base, 1968, poetry
  5. Edge, journal
  1. The following morning I attended an event at what I would come to call the Owl Orchard. The significance did not become clear until later.
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