In this issue, work by
How Is It Even Blooming?
Copyright © 2020 by Ken Barnett.
Cherry Blossom and Jefferson Sunrise
Copyright © 2020 by Ken Barnett.
Washington in the Spring
Copyright © 2020 by Ken Barnett.
About the Photographer
Ken Barnett, an incidental photographer, carries a camera with tripod, lenses and cable release, etc. while he is doing what he likes to do anyway which is biking and hiking. The beauty of this approach is that if no good pictures come out of an outing at least the hiking or biking will have been fun and worth the doing. His photography interest is the beauty inherent in nature and so landscapes, flowers, animals, and bugs are featured in his work. Biking in the Washington, D.C. area lends itself to beautiful cityscapes and other built-in environment shots.
Wanting to try something new and different in retirement, he took up photography in his mid fifties. It has proven to be a great retirement past time, and it has made the hiking and biking that much more adventurous and rewarding.
Visit his site: https://kenbarnettphotography.com.
The Policeman’s Son
We were visiting from Moscow, Idaho, at Christmas time, during the Snow of 1981. It was imperative that my father see his father in Seattle. I can remember looking at this man, this grandfather, seated in this lavish, polished rocker wearing a feed cap and pretending to watch television while the family rattled on around him. My grandfather was dressed all in blue denim—shirt and jeans—such as he had worn when he had been working at the door factory in the last phase of his employed life. By this point, the TV was presenting nothing but the Yule Log burning in the hearth of the Governor’s mansion, and my grandfather was fascinated by that flame, which turned blue and red, and by the changing lights on the highly golden firedogs in the shape of saints. “O Christmas Tree” came across from the 101 Strings Orchestra. All this in a small room in an early 1900s building for Senior Citizens—the third floor, off Roanoke Street, not far from the Seattle Broadway area. At twelve years old, I was beginning to feel that first sense that I had lived long enough to see someone age. There were gaps in my grandfather’s mind the way there were in gaps in the fire—the spaces were always changing. Much younger, he had been a policeman like my father, had been in Korea, and sometimes the recollected violence would come up suddenly and cause him to stare blankly—as if he had just been awakened. My father, in his capacity as a policeman, had shot and killed his first criminal two months ago. According to the police commentary in the newspaper, “he was doing as well with it as could be expected, especially for someone who had not shot someone before.”
My sister and I sensed we might need to vacate the living room if the right moment came up for my father and grandfather to talk. The electric table lamp, a cousin of a Tiffany, sent a heavy yellow brightness throughout the room, and seemed almost a spotlight for what was hoped to be a healing conversation. My sister Catherine and I were at sea because we also sensed we were supposed to be present and cheerful as “gifts” to my grandfather in this long meanwhile of the Christmas Day afternoon—that is, until things got important. Back in Moscow, Catherine had played a soldier (a rouged circle on each cheek while wearing a Cossack hat), a clown (green feathers in a pointed motley cap), and a waltzing flower in performance after performance of The Nutcracker in the high school gym, and she had much of her memorabilia in a little kit, so that she could show my grandfather. Sometimes he would be interested, sometimes not, and when he wasn’t, she would simply dance with herself, as space would allow, in front of the fire. 101 Strings served as her background.
You might think my mother would have something to do with engineering this detente, but, typically, she was having none of it. She was a large, broadly smiling woman—no nonsense, however—with an ancestry rooted in the Snoqualmie Tribe. She identified with the moon and burned quite cool. When we had left Moscow, Idaho, for Christmas, we had been in a snowstorm, and my father had gotten all shaken at the wheel, so she had taken over. On the two-lane Highway 195, she drove us straight north in an old Dodge Dart clear over a continuous sheet of ice, with intervening moments of complete whiteouts coming from the evergreens, windblown and snowy, on either side of the road. When we were stalled on Snoqualmie Pass, waiting for the automotive version of a ski plunge which would plummet us downward and within ultimate range of Seattle, the car had started sliding backwards, and she had remained in full possession of herself—like the moon, which was so associated with her native “Snoqualmie” and her tribe itself.
My grandfather said—clearly to my father, “You needn’t be worried.”
My father answered, “I am worried, about a lot of things.”
My mother was in the kitchen working with a Pepperidge Farm cake—lemon, and supposedly three layers. It had been advertised as “a slice of heaven.” We had delayed dessert for several hours.
“Those guys,” my grandfather went on, remaining completely relevant to my father’s situation, “if they’re trying to rob a bank, there’s no stopping them.” He did not leave off staring at the virtual hearth. His hands stayed on the arms of the chair, as if he could control the television that way.
My father, whom I would come to see as looking very much like the burly Daniel J. Travanti of Hill Street Blues answered as though he were speaking to a jury— “Yes, it was like that. He simply pulled out a gun and started firing. He was leaving the scene with money. I just got out of the car and fired back.”
Catherine and I looked at each other as though we should probably be leaving. This was the first time we had heard our father speak of the shooting. Catherine was wearing her purple crinoline skirt to show my grandfather what she had been like in the ballet, and nervously, she began to pantomime her steps that were at one with the hearth which now had purple flames.
“You fire back,” my grandfather told him. “That’s what you’re paid to do.”
“It’s true, it’s true, it’s true,” my father said.
“It’s true,” my mother called from the kitchen, her back still turned. “That’s what I told him.”
“But if it is true,” my father said, leaning forward from his chair, with all his muscular, weighty force, “then why are they still conducting an investigation? I need to get back next week in order to give them more ‘facts.’ It’s very important to them for me to remember exactly when I got out of my car. The District Attorney wants to know.”
“They want to know,” my grandfather said, “so that they can cover themselves.”
“This man, this man, this man,” my father told him. “This man who was shot. He had so many aliases, had stolen so many people’s identities, they had to list him as ‘John Doe’ on the death certificate. He had changed his name and Social Security number in Nebraska, in New Orleans, in Mobile, Alabama. Every time something went wrong, he started over fresh by coming up with a new false name. I wonder sometimes how I could think I had killed anybody when I basically shot this invisible man. It was like I had stepped on a chameleon.”
“Pepperidge Farm!” my mother called from the kitchen. “For better or for worse. I think it’s just about unfrozen itself. Mick, come here and get this for everybody.”
I was glad for this interruption. It led me to the kitchen window, which presented a slightly snowy and sleepy Seattle two hours past dusk. The snow seemed merely decorative compared to what we had gone through over the Pass—compared to what we had now in Moscow. The Christmas lights in the evergreens fronting the houses seemed like those in the Kodachrome prints of the 1950s, caught through slow, painstaking time exposure. They glowed in extraordinarily large halos of yellow, red, green, and blue. One door, with six small panes of glass in its top, bore a wreath of luminous bulbs. I could have stayed standing there for minute after minute, for lately, my mind had gone into retreat. A few of my friends had referred to my father as someone who had done “target practice with a human being.” These were the kids whose parents had been former hippies and took part in non-violence demonstrations along with letter-writing to newspapers and congressmen
“You don’t make any progress,” my grandfather told my father, “by wishing things different. You get up and move on. You went into this job with your eyes open. That’s what I did. And when I got tired of shooting at people, when I got tired of scouting out incidents, I stopped. I figured working a planer in a door factory was better for my well-being.”
Seeing that this could hardly be any comfort to my father, I gave him the largest piece of cake (I insisted on carrying in three) I had. The pink peppermint stick ice cream was the biggest on his plate as well. I touched his shoulder. “Thank you, Honey,” my father said.
“I want to go forward,” he went on. “I want to get back on the force. But they’re insisting on this hiatus. It’s what you do in a hiatus that’s the problem.”
“Tell me about it,” my grandfather said, looking over from the fire. “A long hiatus is what they call retirement.”
“As to that,” my mother put into my grandfather, “we’re working on getting you out of here and over to Moscow. We’ve got a home for you over there, all picked out. If we can get the Medicare and Medicaid to help in your behalf.”
“Yes,” my grandfather answered. “We’ll see about that.”
My father had already confided in me the fishing and skiing trips he could take with my grandfather if he lived with us. “The man may be skinny but he’s also darn sinewy. A real trooper.”
“It would be great to have you, Grandfather,” I said. “I saw the room they’ve picked out for you. You’d love it.” The chosen rest home looked out on the Palouse hills, brick- and sandstone-colored in the autumn, with alternate lines of evergreen. The blue and orange clouds in the distance were a perfect reflection of the terrain below. In the spring, the wild pink roses came up, came up, now that Mount St. Helens had blown a year before, in the gray volcanic dust, which waved in clouds along the Old Pullman Highway, which used to run stagecoaches.
That night, back at the Guild 45 Motel, my father was occupied with calling the Highway Patrol, to see if we could possibly get back tomorrow. “Call again in the morning” was the answer. “Right now, we drive a snowplow through there from Colfax to Pullman and the blizzard just closes everything up behind it.” He repeated this to us. But next day, we did get out. The same officer over the phone told us the storm had relented early this morning, so we drove on out on over the powdery Aurora Avenue, which looked like something of the set for the choral singing of “Silver Bells” in the 1950s black-and-white Christmas movie. Going east over Temporary Interstate 90, we had a miraculous golden view of Ellensburg, sunk in snow, and with steam rising off the creeks. My father, now less shaken, was driving, with my mother and sister sleeping in the back. When we came to Moses Lake and the whole highway turned to ice, my father said, “Don’t awaken them,” as the hills became more and more covered with snow and the sunset dropped a line of orange across the glaze. My mother awoke long enough to ask, “Do you want me to take over?” and then dropped back to sleep again. Her composure seemed enough to guide the car. The Spokane radio station, coming on, said the temperature would plummet to minus eight degrees tonight. Just before our heading south on Highway 195, there was a long, absolutely fantastical line of sunset-colored trees and when we arrived at Colfax, it seemed as if a mammoth dump truck had unloaded snow on the entire town. Flares lit the road, showing the stranded cars which had skidded on the absolute ice. Moments had come when, because of the blown snow, we had been in complete whiteouts. My father had asked me what I could see through the windshield. “You’re doing fine, Dad,” I said. My father seemed proud that he did not have to waken my mother for reassurance and composure, and she and my sister awoke just as we approached our gingerbread home—round windows—which was stacked to the eaves. We could not get back to our old wooden garage, because the driveway was walled up. We could only trudge up to our front door because the next-door neighbor had kindly used his snow blower on our walkway.
The next few days are initially obscure to my memory, for they belong to that time before we went back to school. The morning after getting back into Moscow, my father said he was so tense, he needed to go for a workout at the Y. Would I like to come? It was then I realized—feeling I had no choice—that I had been consistently taking care of him. After a session in the weight room, with my father in yellow shorts that exposed his muscular but white and vulnerable-looking legs, we shot hoops in the gym while the winter wind picked up its momentum outside. The temperature still hung at zero. Playing one-on-one, I put up a very determined and sweaty defense, wanting to give my father a challenge so he would relax and forget. In fact, the smell of sweat was everywhere, coming from the players at the other end of the gym who were playing one-court. On the sidelines, you could hear all the talk about the new University of Idaho coach, who was leading the basketball team to triumph after having endured an earlier history of humiliating defeat at some other university.
“The new coach,” my father said, toweling off in a pause. “Now there’s a man who started over.”
I didn’t answer.
My father added, “Just give me one good reason to go back to Seattle and I’m gone. John Doe started his life over with a new name every time he got into a jam. Why can’t I just try a new place? And I’m on the side of the law.”
“Let’s go get a steam,” I said, using a towel myself. And as we walked into the cavernous room at the end of the shower, my father kept looking at a thin, well-built man who had followed us out of his basketball game on the other court and into this place of mists.
“John Doe’s brother,” my father whispered.
I said nothing as we sat down, wreathed in steam. There were four or five others who talked of nothing else except the new basketball coach and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which now played every weekend at midnight at our art theatre called the Micro Movie House.
“You know what,” one of the devotees said, “some people are trying to infiltrate us regulars. Dressing up like Rocky and Little Nell and Janet and Brad and Riff-Raff. We need to find a way of keeping them out. It’s our party after all.”
Amidst naked chests, biceps, and legs, John Doe’s brother said, “Yeah. And if they don’t listen, try shooting them,” with a significant look at my father. “Some people think that’s the answer to everything.”
My father got up and went into the shower and then started putting on his clothes. This time, he didn’t hand me my jeans and shirt the way he always did before.
Nevertheless, throughout the Y building, with its Renaissance fluting on its outer brick, with gnome-like faces above the eaves, peering out, now snowy—relics of a time when the place had been a dance hall—there was a general state of zaniness, a post-holiday “going-for-all-the gusto,” with the staff still in Santa’s caps. Quinten, the janitor, with special needs and scarcely out of his teens, would always sight my father, hunt him down and chat him up. He interrupted his spraying of the mirrors and came over.
“Well, what did you think of shooting that man? It looks like it wasn’t right to rob a bank, was it? That’s what happens when you take money, you end up dead on the sidewalk.”
My father bore through the storm of this—and even through the continued glare of this brother who had joined us on the next bench over. The brother remained naked.
“I don’t think well of it,” my father said. “It just happened.”
Just then, the stark man walked over to our bench and just stood there. Taking him in, I could well imagine his Joe Doe brother lying in the parking lot or even in the morgue.
“’It just happened’ is an easy explanation,” the brother said. “Easy for you when there was nothing to lose. He was my brother.”
“There was everything for me to lose,” my father replied. “You have no idea.”
“Yeah, what do you know?” I heard myself saying to the man.
“We don’t have to be answerable to him,” my father said. “We don’t have to talk to him at all.”
Eventually my father would be allowed to return to the police force, and eventually this man would turn his back on us and go back to his seat in front of his locker, still naked. But I always would remember these times when I felt this strong man had to be taken care of.
Copyright © 2020 by Henry Alley.
About the Author
Professor Emeritus of Literature in the Honors College at the University of Oregon, Henry Alley has written five novels, Through Glass (Iris Press, 1979), The Lattice (Ariadne Press, 1986), (Breitenbush Books, 1988), Precincts of Light (Inkwater Press, 2010), Men Touching (Chelsea Station Editions, 2019) and a collection of stories, The Dahlia Field (Chelsea Station Editions, 2017). For nearly half a century, such journals as Seattle Review and Virginia Quarterly Review have published his fiction.
My Little Italy
I find myself floating, over the hospital
where a green light dances “the Death”
with your heart. Over the hill, echoing
revolutions, you with a biker jacket, pressed
rubber spurs, too hard against the earth.
Planets move quicker than thought.
You slid across the pavement leaving
a soon to be uncovered artifact: a tinted
golden horn from a now previous life.
Such an unreasonable expression, a realization:
I am to you barely visible, a black particle
in an infinitesimal light. At night, a deep abyss,
spiraling down, to the place wondered about,
the place where you are. A jungle without ground
filled with vines that move when I reach. Hush.
From behind a thicket, your voice struggling
in between, like the letters that fall as anchors
releasing my grounding, pushing me upwards.
Your papa is here, melting into pools of plasma,
breathing slowly, giving you every other breath.
There is no laughter, just circling gauze, the ever
growing chasm between what was and now is.
No one told us you would be leaving, bambino,
your life, at nineteen, a series of so many machines.
Was previously published in Kaleidoscope: Exploring Disability through Literature and the Fine Arts, 2005.
Circling towards the ships,
whisks turned to turrets,
burst of sand
over the bodiless trucks
titans waiting to come to life
staring out at the harbor,
brown from exhaustion.
The officer can’t find his coffee,
or the payphone behind a
billboard about bail bonds.
The bag is speaking with the wind:
circling in its memories,
of peaceful nights, between obligations,
more miracle than revelation. A paper bag
thrown from a car window, how
a thoughtless gesture can come to life.
Copyright © 2020 by Richard Dent.
French paintings, the body shampoo
shaped like a hook, warm and steamy
the water runs, as the television pumps
the latest updates that clog the truth;
until everything you once knew has overflowed
onto magazines, the ones that say go to the gym
no matter if they are closed, no matter how you feel,
no matter how many questions remain unanswered.
Run. Next to the man who after twenty years
is finally grunting and flailing, a sporadic syncopation
trying to take over your mind. Those hapless stares,
one television after the next, on the walk home;
They are circling, above the freeway shooting, relief
a quivering exhale or distant sirens or panicking lights
before the check-out line, where the cashier
still can’t figure out how to break a roll of quarters;
until the city is a maze of blinking signals,
an orchard of body bags; a tempest of rain
waiting for the sun to dry through the earth,
a new presentation of whatever it was
we thought we knew.
Copyright © 2020 by Richard Dent.
7th Street/Metro Center
Motion. On the other tracks.
A bridge, from this part of the city to the next.
Maybe that’s what it is
that I was never good at.
The new liberal chatter.
The new end of the world.
What do they know,
in their little circles on the surface above?
Down here there are Hebrew letters.
99 cents store milk.
from one station to another.
Nothing explains it.
The suicide hotline listed
next to the emergency exit.
That feeling, that whenever the doors are closing
even the strongest of us are taken
from once place to the next.
Copyright © 2020 by Richard Dent.
About the Author
Richard Dent is the creator of the graphic novel Myopia (Dynamite Entertainment), which was nominated for Best Writer and Best Artist in the 2019 Ringo Awards. His poems have been published widely, and he teaches in the National University MFA program and at Cal State University, Los Angeles.
Eric D. Goodman
Dustin prepared the horses for another day of riding. The sun had barely risen, but he’d already put in a few hours. Earlier, he’d made breakfast—eaten three eggs, bacon, toast, and gravy—and brewed a pot of coffee to fill his Thermos. He went to the stables, loaded the horses into the trailer, and hit the road from his home farm in South Shore, Kentucky, to his job across the river at Shawnee State Forest in Ohio.
Once at the state park, he went to the riding stables, set the horses out in their individual stalls, made sure they had plenty to eat, and turned the sign on the post from “closed” to “open.” Then he kicked back in the wooden rocking chair, crossed his boots on the split-rail fence, and drank the last of his coffee from the plastic thermos cup.
It was just after seven when his first customers of the morning came along. He set his coffee cup on the wooden side table and approached the family of four: man, woman, teenaged girl, little boy.
“Howdy.” Dustin tipped his cap.
“Morning.” The father of the family looked about forty, clean cut, business part in his hair. Looked like a talking head on the news, only he wore a flannel shirt and blue jeans. The woman looked about the same age, maybe a little younger, with wavy blonde hair and makeup that made her look too done up for a camping vacation. The girl giggled, already petting the horses tied up to the split-rail fence, talking to them in a syrupy voice that he imagined she once used on her dolls, or might use on a man in a few more years. And the little boy stood behind his sister, looking at the horses like they were some kind of wild animals, not quite sure about them. Dustin smiled.
Beyond his initial “Howdy,” Dustin didn’t say much, just stood there and waited for the man to talk. The man was reading the sign and the sign pretty much said all they needed to know.
Horseback Riding: 45 minutes, $50
1 customer per horse, Must be 6 years or older
Your guide today is two-time national rodeo champion Dustin Coomer
Dustin looked down at the dirt and turned over a rock with the toe of his boot. He waited for the tourist to say something. Finally, the man opened his mouth.
“So, you’re open?”
“We’d like to ride, I think.” The dad mentioned it as though he hadn’t been sure half a minute before, as though they hadn’t come all the way out here knowing that they wanted to ride.
Dustin looked at the man from beneath the brim of his cap. “All right.”
“Can my son ride with me?”
“Nope. Only one person per horse, like the sign says.”
“But he’s little, and kind of uneasy about riding a horse.”
“How old is he?”
“Well, then, he’s plenty mature enough to ride his own horse.”
“Do you want to give it a try?” the dad asked. The boy shook his head and backed away.
“Ain’t nothing to it,” Dustin said. “When I was your age, I was riding and roping cattle. You can ride. We can put your horse between your mom and dad.”
“It’s safe, isn’t it?” the mom asked.
Dustin chuckled. “Ma’am, riding a horse is a lot safer than riding a car.”
“No, I mean out here, with all the animals.”
“Ain’t no animals gonna hurt you,” Dustin assured. “Safer here than a city.”
“All right then,” the father finally committed. “Four.”
“That’ll be two hundred.”
The dad had it counted out and folded up in his pocket already, like he’d already known the price, had already seen the sign by the park entrance or looked it up on the computer. Dustin sized up the four of them and selected the best horse for each.
“I want this one.” the teenage girl stood before the big black stallion.
“That one’s mine.” Dustin gave his favorite a playful swat. “That’s Romeo. You’ll get Smokey. He’s more suited to your pretty little frame.”
He walked over to the father. “Daddy, you get Charger. Mommy, you can ride on Buttercup. And son, you get the best horse of all. You get to ride Wild One.”
The boy didn’t look thrilled. Dustin was tempted to tease the boy a little but decided against it. Better not to lose two customers since the mom would probably sit out with the boy, wouldn’t think to let her baby out of her sight unsupervised for an hour. Dustin needed the money.
A few minutes later, they all sat in their saddles (with a bit of help) and began riding the trail up into the treed hills.
The dad took in a deep breath of fresh morning air. “It’s beautiful country out here.”
So, this one’s going to be a talker. “Yup,” Dustin agreed. “Between the rivers and the mountains and the woods, it don’t get much better.”
“We’re from Cincinnati.”
“That was the plan. But we decided to get a hotel.”
“Guess that’s more comfortable.” Dustin smirked. These city slickers probably couldn’t figure out how to pitch the flimsy tent they bought at their local mall.
Dustin led the horses. They were not tethered, but they all knew the path and only deviated once in a while to grab a mouthful of grass or weed. The horses climbed the path of dirt and gravel up the hill, up the side of the mountain, the trees all around them. If not for the gravel, the path would’ve been too muddy to navigate—for tourists—and he’d have closed down for the day. It had rained all night, but the sun shone bright now. He looked behind him to make sure everyone was in line. The dad followed Dustin, then the girl, the boy, and the mom.
The dad asked, “So, you were in the rodeo?”
“Yup.” Dustin wrote it on the sign to impress people, to let them know he wasn’t just a stable buck. He used to be a living legend. He’d been somebody before starting his own business. He’d had status before trading it in for security. “Kentucky State Champion three times, rode the circuit about eight years, two-time National Champion.”
The dad’s nod bounced with his horse. “Guess there aren’t very many older rodeo stars still working,” the guy said. Dustin took this as a way of asking why he’d quit the rodeo instead of making a life out of it. Dustin was accustomed to such questions.
“Broke my legs twice, pelvis once. After I broke my pelvis, I had to take it easy. I can still ride, love to ride. But I can’t do the tricky stuff no more. You don’t see very many daredevils out there much more than thirty.”
“What did you do? In the rodeo, I mean.”
“Oh, a little of this and that. I roped steer, rode bulls, did some bull fighting. It was a bull that broke my pelvis.”
“Wow,” the dad said.
“Wow’s right,” Dustin said over his shoulder. “Two thousand pounds of rodeo bull crashed down right on top of me. I’m lucky to be alive.”
Dustin made light of it, but truth be told, when it happened, he didn’t think he would live through the ordeal. Riding the bull, fully expecting to be thrown but not expecting the bull to fall over with him still riding, not expecting it to crush him beneath its flexing muscle and kicking legs. Dustin was used to the bucking, but it was unusual for a bull to fall over. During those seconds, as the hide-brown ground came toward him, as he still straddled the muscular bull, Dustin counted himself as good as dead. When the bull finally stood and Dustin was still conscious, he found that he couldn’t stand up himself. He couldn’t move or feel his legs or anything from the waist down. He’d expected the bull to come back for him, to trample him, and lifted himself to his arms, trying to drag his useless body off to the side. He knew he didn’t have the strength or time to make it, that the bull would be on him before he could cover two feet of dusty distance. But the rodeo clowns got to the angry bull first, some of them distracting the bull, others pulling Dustin out of harm’s way. His doctor told him the same thing he’d told him after past injuries: that he should hang up his rodeo hat. This time, Dustin decided to listen.
His own dad hadn’t listened. His dad was a rodeo star, too, and had taken Dustin with him on the circuit as far back as Dustin could remember, back when he was four or five. By the time Dustin turned six, he was riding alongside his dad. By the time he reached ten, he worked in the rodeo himself, in solo acts without his dad. When Dustin was fifteen, his dad got killed by a bull.
Now a dad himself, Dustin had a boy of twelve in school. He didn’t want such a risky life for his son. That’s why Dustin opened his own business, taking tourists out for rides. He’d conned himself into appreciating the beauty of a slow trot across the forested mountains instead of longing for the thrill of cowboy stunts. When he started, he enjoyed the peace and quiet of Shawnee State Forest, the beauty of the mountain paths, river views. Truth was, sometimes he longed for a little more excitement.
“Ask him about the animals,” Dustin heard the mother saying to her husband. The husband cleared his throat.
“So, how about those animals?”
Dustin looked around them for evidence. “Oh, we see some deer out here pretty often. Squirrels and bunnies and chipmunks. Once in a while you might see a bear or fox. Wolf or coyote.”
“No, I mean Chillicothe.”
Dustin swatted at a fly on his neck. “Chillicothe?”
“Haven’t you heard? It’s all over the news.”
“I ain’t seen the news since yesterday morning.”
“Oh my God, he doesn’t know.” The woman’s nervous voice grew higher in pitch. “We need to go back to the car.”
“Don’t worry,” the dad assured her. Then he addressed Dustin. “Some crazy guy let loose a bunch of wild animals in Chillicothe. Just last night, around five o’clock.”
For the love of God. Dustin sighed and took a look around them. The new park ranger, in charge of notifying recreation vendors, always seemed to forget about him and his operation, forgetting to tell him about things like early closings and severe weather conditions. But there’d never been news like this to share before.
“They couldn’t have made it this far, right?” The woman’s voice didn’t sound so sure. “It’s safe out here, right?”
“Don’t worry, ma’am,” Dustin comforted. “There ain’t never been any animal attacks out here.” But Dustin was a little worried at this news and considered cutting the ride short as he tried to do the math in his head. Lions . . . tigers . . . leopards . . . panthers. He didn’t really know his wild animals that well, but based on what he did know, he figured some of them could travel from Chillicothe to this area in twelve, thirteen hours. Perhaps paranoia was playing tricks on him, but he began to consider it likely. Shawnee State Forest seemed a welcoming place for such an animal to hide. Away from the city, lots of open space, trees and brush. “Just to be on the safe side,” Dustin suggested casually, “let’s go ahead and mosey on back.”
He heard the woman worrying aloud as he turned his horse around and passed them all. “Oh, it’s not safe, is it? You think they’re out here?” His horse now stood next to the woman instead of the man.
“Everyone just pull on one side of the reigns and turn your horse around. We’ll just mosey on back, nice and easy. Ain’t nothing to worry about. Nice and peaceful out here.”
Dustin wished he could have turned the whole train around, so the man rode at his back instead of the woman. She sounded worried even when she wasn’t making a noise. But he didn’t say anything to upset anyone. He tried to ride casual, looking about him for signs of unusual life. He convinced himself he was just being paranoid—just another ten minutes and they’d be back to the stalls. No predator in its right mind would come to these parts to attack people when there was an abundance of wild animals. “Almost back,” he assured the family.
Shawnee State Forest was quiet. Songbirds chirped in the distance. He heard two deer scurrying out of the woods, crossing the trail behind them, then leaping back into the trees on the other side, down toward the river.
Then, he heard the snarl, the feline growl, heard the leaves and tree branches rustle, then not rustle, as though the animal had left the surface. Dustin looked behind him and saw beyond the terrorized faces of the woman, the teenaged girl, the little boy. Their father had fallen off his horse—or rather, had been knocked off by a large, spotted wildcat.
“Help him, help him, help him!” the woman screamed.
“Dad!” His daughter cried out in a shrill voice that Dustin hoped would drive off the cat.
“Kill it,” the boy cried. “Just kill it!”
The dad flopped his arms beneath the leopard, apparently hoping to hit it, but not focused enough to aim as the cat sat on top of him. The leopard looked up at the screaming people around it and growled. The horses all broke into a frightened gallop—fortunately in the direction they were headed, along the path.
“Stay on the horses,” Dustin yelled to the family as he jumped off his. “They’ll head back to the stable.” Dustin ran to help the pinned man. The guy grasped around him with one hand, as though for a stick or rock to hit the cat, while his other hand was beating the leopard in the skull with the palm of his hand to no avail. The cat had a grip on the man’s shoulder and was clamped down. He opened his jaw every few seconds, then clamped down again, as though to get a better grip, or to cause more punctures, more damage, perhaps seeking out a main artery for a quick kill. Dustin saw a large branch on the ground near the path. He took it and beat the cat across the head with the blunt branch. The leopard backed off just a bit, just enough for the man to scoot back, crawling crab-style on his hands and feet out from under the cat and off the path. Dustin beat the leopard on the back and across the face, but the wildcat didn’t back down. Dustin tried ramming the blunt end of the branch into the leopard’s face, which seemed a little more effective than swinging. Dustin stepped slowly back, putting distance between him and the cat. Then Dustin charged, ramming the leopard in the face again. The leopard swept up the tree in a flash, regaining its strength on a high branch about the same size as the one Dustin held in his grip.
Dustin kept the branch close to him and his eye on the leopard, but he walked over to the man. “Can you get up?”
“I dunno,” the stunned man said, as though he didn’t even know what he was saying. Dustin helped him find his feet. The city slicker had lost a lot of blood; he looked as pale as a dead man.
“Let’s walk back.” Dustin dropped the branch and draped the man’s arm around his neck, pulling his limp body along.
“Tell . . . Karen . . . that I . . . love her . . . tell the . . . kids that —”
“Enough of that.” Dustin didn’t have patience for dramatics. He was scared for this man’s life and his own. Dustin looked back every few steps, knowing that the leopard was fast and could be on their backs without a second’s warning.
Dustin could see the stable ahead, just a hundred feet away, and he could see that the woman had locked herself and the kids in their car. She screeched into the phone, undoubtedly to the police. Dustin wondered whether this tragedy would get him shut down. Would blame fall to him, or to the nut in Chillicothe who let these animals out? He wondered whether he’d have to give up the business and sell the horses and find another way to make a living and support his wife and boy. He wondered whether he’d live to do it.
Instead of looking at the stable and wondering, he realized he needed to look behind him. When he turned to look, he saw the leopard drop out of the tree. It sprinted in their direction. Dustin saw it looking at him and the other man, sizing them up, determining the easier meat. The leopard leaped—seemed too far away to have begun his leap—and then flew toward them. He almost looked like he was going to soar over them. As though he had rudders to control his altitude, the leopard adjusted his path as he came down on them. The leopard targeted the weaker, injured man. The dad fell to the ground with a scream, and the cat snarled and clamped his jaw around the man’s shoulder while standing on his back.
Dustin pulled out his hunting knife. He jabbed the cat in the shoulder and it flinched, turned to face him, then dug his claws into the lifeless body beside him. The leopard turned away from Dustin and proceeded to drag the body toward a tree, as though it planned to pull the corpse into the safety of the branches. Dustin wasn’t sure whether the man was dead or alive, but he knew he didn’t want this cat to go free. He stabbed it again with his knife, in and out of its right front upper leg, then he stabbed it in its face. The cat let out a snarl and batted a paw at Dustin. Dustin jumped on the leopard, wrestling it away from the still body, and sliced the blade of his knife across the cat’s throat. After a few moments of struggling, of avoiding the cat’s sharp claws and large canines, the cat went limp.
Just like the man.
The woman and the kids were crying, hyperventilating, not believing what just happened before their eyes.
Dustin knew what it was like to lose a father to an animal. “I’m so sorry, ma’am. I tried to . . .”
The woman screamed at him. “You should have stopped it! You should have told us it wasn’t safe!”
“Mommy, is Daddy gonna be all right?” the little boy asked.
“I killed the leopard,” Dustin offered. But, of course, no one gave a damn about that.
“Can’t believe you didn’t stop it!”
“Mom.” The daughter wrapped herself around her mother.
“Is Daddy gonna be all right?” the boy asked again. Dustin wanted to pick up the boy, but he knew it wasn’t his place.
The ambulance arrived from Southern Ohio Medical Center, and the Portsmouth police came minutes later. By the time police arrived, asking Dustin to relay the story, the medics had already put the man into the back of the ambulance and rushed away. One of the police drove the family to the hospital—the wife was in no condition to drive—and Dustin figured that he’d end up delivering their vehicle to their hotel or a shopping center or something, because he knew it would be too traumatic for the woman to come here again. Dustin took the officers to the leopard.
“Get Chillicothe on the horn,” said one of the officers—Heaker, according to his metallic tag. “Let Roscoe know we got one of the leopards.”
“What else is out here?” Dustin asked.
“We’re not certain.” Officer Heaker looked him in the eye. “But they’ve got animal experts tracking them. Said there could be two leopards and a tiger coming in our direction.”
“That don’t sound good.” Dustin looked at the dead leopard.
“We got the good end of the stick.” Heaker looked around them, into the woods. “They think a black panther and a whole pride of lions are headed up to Columbus. And Chillicothe’s just crawling with wild beasts.”
“Hard to imagine.” Dustin lifted his cap and wiped the sweat from his forehead.
“Yeah, don’t I know it. I’d get my horses barned up if I was you. And stay inside with your family, if you got one.”
“Yep,” Dustin said. “Be a good idea to close shop for a few days, I reckon.”
As Dustin prepared the horses for the ride back across the river, he thought of his son. He decided to pick him up early from school. He couldn’t help but thank God it was the other father, and not his son’s father. Not a nice thought, but an honest one.
Copyright © 2020 by Eric D. Goodman.
About the Author
Eric D. Goodman is the author of four books, including Tracks: A Novel in Stories (Atticus, 2011) and Womb: a novel in utero (Merge, 2017). “Nightmares at Daytime” is an excerpt from his new novel, Setting the Family Free (Apprentice House, 2019). Learn more about Eric and his writing at www.EricDGoodman.com.
Outside the Box; Contemplating Nested Challenges
At the beginning of March, 2020, while riding the Corona chairlift at Eldora Ski area, I caught the bug. No, not “that” bug (some joking on the lift notwithstanding). I was re-infected with the love of wild winds, deep snow and the greens, whites, blues and greys of the Rockies. The slopes were almost deserted, affording me a lot of solitary time to contemplate. But the remarkable, thrilling day also energized me to think hard about matters that put us all in great peril and also to see some lights at the ends of those tunnels.
My initial musings went viral, and not just because of the Corona lift. When news of this epidemic first broke, I had been in the middle of the book, The Plague, by Albert Camus. As Coronavirus spread and as I continued reading, I was struck by how relevant this 1947 book was to the present-day contagion and so much more. The Plague offers insights into aspects of human nature that intersect with catastrophe of just about any sort. If you don’t want to read The Plague at this particular moment in history, perhaps check out the Wikipedia article: (Wikipedia site) as it does the book reasonable justice. And, for some thoughts on how the novel can speak to us in any age, see this 2015 review: ”Albert Camus’ The Plague: A Story For Our (and All) Times” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/jan/05/albert-camus-the-plague-fascist-death-ed-vulliamy).
The author writes “Like every good metaphorical or allegorical work [The Plague] can represent beyond its intentions; including pestilences both moral and metaphorical that have happened after Camus’ own lifetime.” I agree and will consider three of these pestilences in this essay. But I”ll also offer a few rays of hope and a way we might address all three of these challenges at the same time.
Back to the slopes . . . as the exhilarating sensations of flying down the mountain were juxtaposed with moments on the lift contemplating The Plague, I began to feel, viscerally, the loss of freedoms that might accrue as society tries to control a voracious disease. Those losses are now mounting in our real lives every day. But, having finished the book, I could also imagine a time when life will begin to return to normal as well. The Plague instills the horrors of lives lost and permanent pain for many, but also the restoration of freedoms and almost rapturous joy of heavy burdens lifted as the contagion subsides.
On to pestilence number two. I also recently re-read the book, 1984 by George Orwell which describes a plague of a very different sort that could threaten our lives and freedoms just as surely as a potent virus. 1984 is another sobering, even stultifying classic that you may have read (but, if not, check it out on Wikipedia). When I read it first, during a period of relative social calm, it seemed somewhat abstract. Over the past couple years, though, I’ve had a looming sense that we are headed towards an Orwellian world in which almost all freedoms are lost to an authoritarian state. A quintessential line from 1984 helps capture the dark world we could face— “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” This line is part of a savage diatribe delivered to the protagonist, Winston, by his captor and torturer, O’Brien, who pontificates that “The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy—everything.” This kind of terrifying world could easily be just a few political decisions and inactions away.
If you are skeptical of this analysis or think I”m just a worrywart, do a couple things. First, consider how we are now actually in the midst of a surreal emergency that would have seemed unimaginable until very recently. Then Google “1984, relevance today” and peruse the 82 million or so sites that come up. A large number of these websites have been put up in the past 3 years—there are, indeed, flashing red lights all around us warning that we could be heading towards an Orwellian world. It’s being built, brick by brick, even in the midst of our COVID-19 challenge. Watch any presidential news conference on the Coronavirus and contemplate the ongoing lovefest with our leader no matter what he says. Our President”s constant self-aggrandizement and breathtakingly vindictive behavior and revisionist statements in the midst of this crisis are rivaled only by the fawning deference and praise heaped upon him by everyone around him. Having grown up in South Korea, this strikes me strongly as the kind of language and behavior that North Korea”s “great leaders” have demanded and gotten for decades, and it feels to me like we—re heading in that direction. Our President is steadily removing as many checks to his power as he can in an obvious attempt to consolidate power. Its progressing so rapidly that it’s hard to keep up. As of this writing, one of just many stories is that the President is “considering taking the unprecedented step of adjourning both houses of Congress in order to make recess appointments to fill government posts, citing the emergency created by the coronavirus outbreak.” See this link:
I’m not writing these lines to antagonize anyone or because I hate President Trump. I’m writing them because the trends that emerged before the pandemic already portended looming authoritarianism and we’re still on that path now. These are my sincere and respectful opinions and I would sincerely and respectfully engage with anyone who worries about my motives. We’re heading down this dangerous path together. No matter in what shape we emerge from the Coronavirus emergency, the real prospect of totalitarian rule will still remain a colossal threat unless we take steps to head it off. Since those on the right traditionally value freedoms in America, if you identify yourself as such, I hope you’ll be on the lookout for and stand vigilant against such possible loss of all freedoms. Those on the left bear equal responsibility to prevent a slide into an Orwellian World. See how it is coming to pass under our very noses. Then vote and tell others to vote. Don’t discount this threat. I’ll leave you with one additional quote from “1984” and leave this second pestilence at that:
“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
It may seem strange or even dour of me to have been so preoccupied by great contagions and pangs of an Orwellian world while in the midst of stunningly beautiful surroundings and enjoying the luxury of flying unfettered down a mountain. Well, it didn’t feel that way to me. Quite the opposite. Just being outside anywhere is a much healthier setting in which to contemplate problems—whether one’s own or the world’s—than on a couch, in front of a computer or otherwise cut off from the forces of life we have evolved with. In this case, the heightened forces of Nature matched and surpassed the tempest of apprehension and bestowed an uncanny calm. The wonderful winds were change embodied. The brilliant colors—those greens, blues, whites and greys I so dearly love—balanced the dark deliberations my brain was entertaining. The skyline of ancient rock and the guttural calls of ravens playing on the gusts provided an ancient backdrop to the current state of affairs. It’s true. I write these lines not to poetically rationalize gloomy ponderings but to encourage a perspective that will allow us to wrap our minds around the third and biggest “plague” we will have to deal with.