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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

Into the forest.

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

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

Into the forest.

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