A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I looked out my window after brushing my teeth this morning and saw a tree blazing with white blossoms! It was startling, like a gulp of whiskey. I looked again and saw gobbets of snow on each branch, luminous as nickles. Oh well. Winter will have six more weeks of amnesia before we can sniff the pungent breath of thawing soil. Patience. Go slow. Drag your feet a little. The only fragrance in the house is last night’s ashes in the grate.
Snowplows drag their blades down the road under my bedroom with a teeth-gnashing sound I haven’t heard since my father slept in the bedroom across the hall. He had terrible teeth, and he ground them down to stumps. The dentist rebuilt his whole mouth with gold crowns, and he would yawn with all that metal twinkling like daisies after rain. He would slurp his coffee and look around with big, sleepy blue eyes, tired from poring over government documents the night before. He was a wintry old cuss at fifty years, but there was some molten lava in his soul that would glimmer like the sparks from his mower after hitting a buried pipe. We’re all hungry for spiritual food, but manna was not plentiful in this sleeper community in Virginia. But you kept looking out a window at the monotonous brown grass and wondering if some bolt of lightning would bring miracles. It never did. Just flurries of white butterflies hovering over a privet hedge, which turned out to be huge flakes of snow falling from the sky.
I grew up wearing out canvas book bags as they rubbed against the front tire of my English bike. The mud would creep through a gap where my lunch box rattled. I had to wash off the crusted clay before going into the cafeteria. I was always late and all the in tables were filled with the popular kids. I had to sit far away where the rejected kids ate, each holding up a sandwich in wax paper and chewing indifferently. The teachers eyed me, hoping I would try to go outside and feed the dog with my ham sandwich. I knew better. I would throw the soggy bread and mustard-slathered meat from a window over the stairs. Even the custodian had to admire my skill, and my careful evasion of the vice principal’s piercing eyes. I was young, and I had years to burn.
When it began to darken around three o’clock and liberation in the overheated classroom, it was just a snow cloud drifting in at two o’clock and letting snow dribble from its gloomy folds. Pigeons crowded under the eaves and I could hear their guttural conversations as I sat there. I hadn’t learned a single thing in school in months. I was learning how to stifle yawns and make it seem I was smiling at something the teacher had said. She kept her eye on me. Everyone did. I was a born pariah and each day I earned my leper’s bell and beggar’s rags by something I said or didn’t say. Snow made the world softer, like some down-filled pillow puffed up under my head. I could relax with the snow falling, with the tiny black birds swirling around like so many crumbs falling from my cookies as I ate in front of the TV. My vigils after school consisted of a fifteen-minute program featuring Jimmy Dean and his Texas Wildcats, followed by Alan Watts’ fifteen minutes of Zen wisdom. “Amos and Andy” came on next, and if I was lucky and it was a Thursday, I would catch “The Lone Ranger,” “The Cisco Kid” featuring his pal Pancho. Behind me, outside in the half-frozen yard with a blurry gray chain link fence and some parked cars, snow would be drifting sideways and sticking to the Stop sign at the corner.
It was too slushy to ride my bike, so I sat there turning pages from Lin Yutang’s “The Light of Asia.” I would feel sleep making my eyes water and fade, and I would turn a page and lean against the sofa, where the cat was purring. I smelled dust and the stale odor of bacon from the morning. I imagined myself on the deck of a sailing ship as it sliced through the gray waves far out at sea. I was twisting hemp into rope and coiling it on my shoulder as the ship leaned to the left or right. The sails were luffing, and the captain was angry that an old drunk at the wheel had forgotten to turn a few degrees. We were headed for a squall, and already the flakes of snow were stinging my cheeks. I heard a girl laughing below, in the galley, making supper. I wished she liked me and would remember my name. She was beautiful, her cheeks flushed like the last rose of summer. But she was sleeping with the first mate and dared not let her large brown eyes drift from her cutting board. The snow turned the sea into a vast paisley print of tin-colored patterns. A fish breached the water and turned halfway before splashing down again. That was the only spectacular event for miles around. I was glad I was only imagining this journey and could turn away.
Snow had fallen on my mother’s dyed-black hair and was beginning to thin out her rage to stay young. She was singing in the kitchen as she put on a pot of water for soup, and looked out the kitchen window. The radio was on, and an audience kept applauding everything a man said in his low, gravelly voice. The plunks of a ukulele perforated the silence that followed, and then someone began singing a love song. I heard my mother join in with her low hum, and I was sure she was dancing with the refrigerator door. There were voices in the neighbor’s yard as kids were gathering to build a snowman. It was growing darker and a few lights came on in the windows of nearby houses. I was supposed to do my homework, but my hands were holding a broken telescope and I was trying to get the plastic lens to seat itself in the little socket. I couldn’t do it. I heard my mother say it was time to do my math, and I saw the book bag slung in the corner with its muddy tear. I knew the pages of the geometry book were wet and soggy, and smelled of mildew. I couldn’t bring myself to open it and copy out some problem to be solved. I had to breathe some more and let my head rest against the cushion where the cat was washing its face. Time was slowing down and beginning to labor under the thickening flakes of snow. It was winter and the heart of the cold was growing into a vast white mountain over me. I had nowhere to go, nothing to do. I was turning into a glacier. I had forgotten who I was.
When my mother came in with a plate of cookies and set them down on the coffee table in front of me, I made myself open my book and stare at the parallelogram with its dotted lines and letters at each corner. I had to figure out the area with my formula, while I crunched the edge of a cookie. The sound of my teeth biting was exactly the noise my galoshes made as I walked on new snow. Everything rhymed. The eggs in a bowl rolled around and sounded like chickens clucking in the yard. The starlings mimicked the squeaks of the old wheelbarrow my father pushed out into the garden on Saturdays. The static on the radio late at night was the same hiss as the hose made when he watered the roses. The only thing that didn’t rhyme was the snow, which fell in a deaf world, and landed like the last discarded breath of someone who had died. Rest in peace, old soul.
Ghosts wear snow in the early morning hours and walk around like debutantes at a ball. The wind lifts the hems of their long dresses and there is nothing beneath but a few dog tracks. How lonely it must be to be dead. No one ever knocks on your door or rings you up on the phone. You just drift from one uninhabited moment to the next, fixing your hair, tucking in a ribbon, gazing absently at the world that let you slip away. You don’t even know what time it is or care. It’s always day or night, but you prefer the inbetween when dusk softens the blunt reality of the living and you are unnoticed as you step over a fence. The snow follows you like a bridal veil, a gauzy echo of your departed life.
My mother’s radio plays a thinly diluted music of the old days, and she is up there in the kitchen preparing supper, singing along. Snow buries her emotions under a cloud of uncertainty. She looks down and doesn’t see me gazing at her as I adjust my book bag and settle the bike between my legs. I’m off to school again, my hair frosted with a halo of fresh ice, my nose red, my eyes searching hungrily for her affection, which keeps disintegrating into snowflakes, six-pointed stars of mysterious beauty. My father never held one in his hand, though I know he loved her.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who lives in Vermont.
Copyright 2021 Paul Christensen