Issue 62 — Susan Kerr, Michael LeBlanc
—Archway Copyright © 2014 by Susan Kerr
—Boats beside colorful houses Copyright © 2014 by Susan Kerr
—Lightposts Copyright © 2014 by Susan Kerr
—Sun on Venice Water Copyright © 2014 by Susan Kerr
Susan Kerr, a native Californian, lives in Old Town Alexandria and Venice, Italy. She is a writer, poet, painter, and photographer. Her work as a entrepreneur, speaker, and executive coach allows her the good fortune of learning the landscape of humanity's exquisite beauty. She enjoys bringing her love and appreciation of life to her photos, art, and work. Visit her at: www.advancinginspiration.com or at: www.susankerrinspiration.com.
On the eve of my 40th birthday, a heavy mood seeps into my bones, a mood of sinking into the past, and I find myself looking through old papers, a few stories and poems that I had written in college to fulfill my English degree. I sit at my cold, black desk in the basement of the house, wife and children asleep upstairs, and squint my eyes under the light of the green-shaded desk lamp, which gives just enough light to cast a semicircle around the desk and the rest of the basement in shadow so thick that the cat disappears a few feet from me as if entering an inky fluid.
I find one very short story that rivets my attention in the way it seems to echo my current mood, even though written 20 years ago. It reads:
—Driving on storm days, when the rain pauses below each overpass, the echo of the engine off concrete reverberates back to another time, a recurrent place in my memory, each overpass a skip on a broken record.
The family station wagon was going to a destination I cannot remember. I was a young child of maybe five or six. Plump droplets fell from the sky, over the car, something womb-like with all the water, the tight space and the muffled sounds of chaos outside. Warmth from the heater, a new-car smell I liked. I sat in the back seat with my brother, my mother in the passenger seat. She watched my father nervously, reminding him to keep a distance from the car in front of him. The radio was playing something gentle and classical. Sitting in the back seat, I had to be still, something I rarely did back then, so the car was one of the few places I had to sit in one place long enough to listen.
I had no words yet to fit the music to, no vibrato, concerto, coda, largo, harmonic fifth, or key of B Flat Minor to dress meaning about the notes. The child simply was the naked world, the music and the child's mind one and the same. Each moment promised to re-create myself, my spirit shaped by the unfamiliar without dread.
In that family station wagon, the whole family was squeezed inside ready to be born, rain murmuring of slippery roads, floods, deterioration. In the air, there was a strong mix of perfume and cologne. The shadows of slipping window water, delicate outlines, long impressions of pale rain light fell across faces shifting, deepening skin only a screen for the play of images of life outside us, movement with secrets. The music was somehow tied into the shadows of rainfall.
My mind fumbles back to these car rides with pangs of loss: if only each long, vibrating note, each smell of fresh rain, each taste of cologne-filled air were more like it was in that station wagon. Puddles I splashed bare feet in, trees I climbed to the top, blossoming orange sun rises I watched from the rooftop, I long for these. I feel a deep wound, the severance of an invisible umbilical that once made me ceaseless with the world, my present merely a watered down version of vivid childhood awe, the day a fading echo of the dawn, where poetic words about splendor in the grass reach back to become that time of just awakening when words were unnecessary.
I stop reading for a moment, a bit embarrassed, realizing I had read this precise romantic sentiment many times since. I pull a book of English poetry from my bookshelf beside the desk, and turn to William Wordsworth's Ode on Intimations of Immortality. It begins,
THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell'd in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more
Had I been reading Wordsworth in my 18th century English literature course at the time, and so absorbed this melancholic idea that I was simply aping his poem? I don't think so, not entirely. I think Wordsworth captured precisely how I felt leaving my parents— house for the first time, when I felt the weight of custom and responsibility as a kind of dying of the child in me. Wordsworth's words that "nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory and the flower" felt like my words echoed back at me, such is the power of poetry when the mind and spirit is ready for it. Like seeing a stranger across the room and raising a hand in greeting and having the sudden shock of recognition when the hand of the stranger rises at the same exact moment. One whole wall in this room is a mirror, and the stranger you were greeting is yourself. These uncanny moments of reflection capture the way the consciousness meets the words of a poet when a poem is working some of its strongest effects, blending so powerfully that self and other, reader and poet, become indistinguishable.
But on the brink of 40, I have lived through my father dying five years ago, his back broken and body crumpled, on the ceiling of his upside down car after missing a stop sign. I see hazily my own end approaching, as if I have reached the peak of a steep hill, and I can now see through a mist the bottom of it at the other side. I walk through my yard now in early spring when the azaleas are in full bloom across the front of my house, asserting themselves loudly with their urge, the candied puffs of white, red, pink, and purple seem obscenely excessive, a grand exhibition of vegetative genitalia, the plant version of swagger. But I don't feel anymore that I have lost some intensity or directness of experiencing this. Nature is throwing its vibrant life into my face, and the beauty of it claws at me. If I lost some innocent fascination somewhere along the way, I have gained something in my awareness that I will only see this outburst from the azaleas— how many more times? Maybe thirty, maybe forty, if my life isn't cut short like my father's. The awareness of the impending end intensifies things, even sweetens them. By overemphasizing the power of childhood, Wordsworth was blind to the power of death. I continue the story,
—In that family station wagon, rain outside, my father says glancing over his shoulder at me as he holds the wheel, "Do you want to see some magic?" the side of his face streaming with tears of light. I don't speak. He smiles and raises his hands off the wheel in a stylish gesture like a conductor, and my mother shouts his name. He limits himself to one hand that twirls in the air and snaps. He stops the storm around us. The music turns to static. All that's left is the sound of the road, a hum that soaks through the swelling of the instant that my father holds in his hand. I can stay here not knowing how long the years are how short, the road passing beneath us but life inert, held in a gasp as a droplet quivers before it drips. With a second snap of his fingers, he releases us. My senses fill anew. The air tastes electric passing into me, radio on again, rain pouring with its shadows. Mystery in the dark wrinkles of his smile, my father winks. My brother yells, do it again, again daddy. Later, father says.
Those were the last words written. The story seemed unfinished. I lift my gaze from the paper and my gaze settles into the black void around me, looking for some recognizable shape in the larger basement, but encountering only deeper layers of shadow. The ending of the story is supposed to be some aha! moment, when the narrator describes the day he realizes that his father would just snap his finger under a particularly long overpass. Is this story even plausible? Could a radio ever really stop playing like that, because I haven't recently noticed even larger overpasses stopping a radio signal? I can't even remember if I really experienced this. I seem to remember this being a story a friend told me about his father. But at this point, even though I don't think my father ever did this, reading the story makes it feel like a part of my past.
In a strange irony, the story truly became a part of my own past when, about a year ago, I tried the same trick on my children. The rain was blinding and loud and I had to turn up the Beethoven symphony on the radio just to hear it. I told my six-year-old son and two-year-old daughter to watch my magic. As we approached an overpass, I fanned out my fingers and rotated my wrist to mimic the way the father from the story created a sense of drama. I sensed that my own father was there, protecting the magic of childhood, just out of the field of vision on the ceiling above me, body folded up boneless and rubbery, winking at me. I snapped my fingers and stopped the rain. The Beethoven symphony on the radio boomed out in the sudden silence. I snapped again moments later to turn the rain back on, the sound of rain again pounding the hood of my car. I glanced in the rearview mirror expectantly, and my son was shaking his head. —That's just the overpass, dad,— said my son. I don't know what I did wrong. Maybe my son was already too old. Maybe I didn't sell it, didn't give it enough flair or confidence. Or maybe it's just a story and the magic of it dwells in the gaps and faults of our memory where it expands and becomes something enchanted and glittering as distant water—perhaps a mirage, perhaps not—seen through the heat waves of the desert.
I turn off my desk lamp and make my way carefully up the hard basement stairs in the shifting darkness.
Copyright © 2014 by Michael LeBlanc.
Michael LeBlanc is an assistant professor of English at Montgomery College-Takoma Park/Silver Spring where he teaches composition and fiction. He is currently Literature Coordinator for Program Development, whose responsibilities include developing programming around the writing arts and promoting literature and creative writing coursework. He is also an associate editor for Potomac Review and an editor, webmaster, and layout designer for The Sligo Journal, a literary and arts journal for Montgomery College and its community of Takoma Park and Silver Spring, Maryland.
He holds a Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from the University of California, Riverside, an MA in Fiction Writing from Florida State University, and two BA degrees cum laude in English and psychology from the University of Florida.