Heaven Song

heaven song (2)

We’d had no contact with Nazer for over two weeks. Still under cover of UNHCR, we were heading back to an area near Travnik, so we decided to visit the Marićs once more to try to garner information from them. This would most likely be our last visit. We should have started the haggling process to get them out a long time ago, I kept thinking, but we had no chits on our side. I had arranged to have Dorenberg’s new album and a CD player sent to me from the States and was amazed that neither were lost or stolen in transit. Now I could give them to Enesa in person; she just had a bunch of cassettes and listened to the radio when possible. This would be pure gold to her (along with the AA batteries). Just before leaving, we were told the village had come under shelling, and we were stalled for a day and a half.

When supposedly safe, Louis, Richard, and I drove in a Landrover with UN insignia through the frozen countryside and across the river to the edge of the village, Louis doing his strange driving dance that he had mastered (or so he liked to think), driving straight down the middle, zigzagging around any imperfection in the road. But Nazer and Enesa’s village was no longer there. The village had disappeared, like Brigadoon. But instead of a dreamscape expanse of moors and mist, it was all smoke and rubble and an overwhelming sense of things gone horribly wrong. Lou slowed down the car as we passed a body on the side of the road. “Shouldn’t we stop?” I said, picking distractedly at my ballistic vest, well after we had gone by.

“And do what?” Lou asked. “Get blown up?” I had never seen a dead body before and inanities looped through my mind—how a dead person was very different from a living person; how the ignominy of being dumped along the road seemed the worst thing to me, as if there was a more seemly way of being butchered; many other thoughts beyond the pale. When we drove up to the Marić’s house, my mind stopped. Getting out of the sanctuary of the car, I could not speak to Louis or Richard, or explain to myself what had happened here. I could only hear and smell and be aware of things small and near: the buzzing of flies even in this frigid air, our breath swirling out into a red-brown fog of fear, the scuttling and scurrying of vermin more imagined than seen, and the cold and the stench and the smoke of fires left burning unattended.

Louis and Richard went into the house ahead of me. They headed to the back where there used to be a small shed attached to the kitchen. The back of the Marić’s house was charred and crumbled, still smoldering, while the front remained intact. Every room was ransacked. I found Enesa’s mother lying facedown on the living room floor. I felt it my duty to cover her with something, but I was too afraid to look around or focus on anything too closely. I stood in the middle of their house determinedly not seeing anything, wanting to be anywhere but here. Anywhere on earth but here. I made a move toward the kitchen when Richard appeared in front of me. He put his hands on my arms and stopped me from going further.

Don’t go in.” Richard said. “Find Enesa.”

Richard pushed me toward Enesa’s bedroom. Halfway down the hall I stopped and could go no further. The sunset light streaming from her window through her open door into the murky hallway frightened me as I had never been frightened before, even more than when I was grabbed by the man across the street from the Port Authority. Then everything was permeated with a sense of super-reality; here this light was otherworldly. I knew what that man wanted; I didn’t know what I’d find beyond this door. I didn’t know what this would take from me. I stood still, swallowing the saliva flooding into my mouth, throat tightening, struggling to move for several minutes. I could hear Louis and Richard roaming around the burning ruble, hear Louis’s exclamations of disgust. I stood there in the hallway with the strange yellow light shining out through the doorway, and I knew that once I entered that room, I would relinquish something fundamental. I have no memory of walking in.

Enesa’s body was hunched over her desk, but her head was twisted, her eyes locked open looking sideways and up; by the strange position, I knew she was gone. I couldn’t believe it. My poor, poor Enesa. My darling Enesa. I started shaking and whimpering. I went over to her. Her hair was matted and bloody, her clothes torn and bloody as well; she had been beaten. Her diary with a piece of paper stuck in it was under her one hand. I pulled the paper out and unfolded it. ‘Dear Mr. Dorenberg . . .’ Enesa, Enesa, Enesa. This letter would have been sent to me to give to Evan, I was sure. She never did believe I didn’t have some sort of relationship with him, no matter what I said. I crumpled up the note and stuck it in my pocket. I stood staring out the broken window. More revulsion flooded through me and I bent down and looked under her skirt. The nausea came without resistance this time.

I straightened up and ran my hand over my face. I fumbled around for my bag and took out Evan’s CD and the disc player. My hands were shaking so badly I struggled to get the disc out of its jewel case and almost broke it. I could barely snap the disc in the player. I plugged in the earphones, the little foam cover things had already fallen off somewhere. I sat down on her bed and turned the player on; the disc spun round and round. I turned it off. I stood up and went over to Enesa, gently moved her hair away from her ears and put the earphones on her head. I put the CD on her chest as well as I could, close to her heart, and slid the tiny latch, my fingertips now stained a dark crimson, to the highest volume and turned the player on. The disc spun round and round. I stood there and became aware of her leave-taking. Leaving the wretchedness, the barbarism and stupidity, leaving the work of men who knew nothing of what it meant to be a man, what it meant to be human. Even though I could just hear hissing coming from the earphones, I could feel her departure, suffusing into the sunset glow, leaving on those soft notes and sweet voice. I became mesmerized by the revolving disc catching the light, throwing prisms toward the setting sun, and I stared into that light, gripping onto her.

Richard came into the room. The horror of what he had seen here and the guilt he felt for our part in bringing the attention, the visitation of evil upon the house of Marić was making this cautious, taciturn man wild. He turned his fear and anger outward at me, afraid of his own emotion, snatching the earphones off Enesa’s head and flinging them aside, trying to pry my one hand off Enesa’s arm and my other one off the disc player, ordering me out, “Let’s go. Go! Go!” I struggled with him, refusing to let go, and he smacked me hard across the face. The physical shock made me release my hold, and he pull/pushed me out of the room, down the hallway, out of the house and into the backseat of the waiting car. He got in next to me in the back and slammed the door. Louis drove off.

As I realized we were leaving Enesa there, exposed, alone like that, I lost it in the car, sobbing, grabbing at my face. The disc player fell on the floor and Richard, in his fury, stomped on it, smashing it again and again with his foot as if he wanted to wipe out anything beautiful, to wipe out anything that had any meaning. I screamed, “You son of a bitch!” and wrenched myself around in the ill-fitting vest, trying to lunge at him.

Barely able to contain his own emotions, my outburst just made him more abusive, and he caught and grabbed me by my elbow, pulling me toward him, continuing in his bullying, yelling in my face. “You didn’t sign up for this? You didn’t sign up for this? This ain’t no fuckin’ . . .‘

“Richard! Richard! Knock it off. Knock it off.” Lou shouted at Richard without turning his head around or taking his eyes off the road. He took a hard left. “Knock if off!” Again he turned the wheels hard to the left, sliding the two of us to the side of the backseat in a heap of rage and despair, and the Rover rumbled off into the distance, skirting Travnik, away from Enesa and Nazer’s village, heading east away from the setting sun, never to return.

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Star Gazer

bosnia scan

My warm and dreamy reflections on my lover are broken by the clicking and clanging of fork and spoon against dish and bowl, as in the other room my family scrape away at the last of the always too little food.

“Very dramatic, Enesa,” I said flipping the diary shut.

“It’s just the way I write,” she shrugged her shoulders. “Someday I’ll write a movie about me, about my life. Evan will star in it.”

“Well, he’s a singer, not an actor, though if you’re famous enough, they’ll let you do anything, I suppose. It’s annoying. Actors singers, singers actors. Do what you’re supposed to do, I say.”

“I’m sure Evan can do whatever he puts his mind to.” Here Enesa flicked her hair out of her eyes with her fingers, a slight look of annoyance passing across her face.

Enesa Marić was a fifteen-year-old girl living in a small village between Jajce and Travnik, Bosnia Herzegovina. Enesa Marić was a lover of language and music, and Enesa had been in love for years, it seemed, with the singer/songwriter, Evan Dorenberg. When she found out I had been at some of the same festivals with him when Jay and I were together, she grilled me for every last tidbit of information. I told her many times I had only spoken to him once or twice, but for her this didn’t matter. I had been photographed with him, so that was that. For all her self-proclaimed sophistication, her idea of America remained one of a bunch of rich, famous people all shopping at the same stores, all friends, all lovers. She didn’t understand the isolation or the bleakness that engulfed so many there as well as here. Only her world was streaked with grey and splotched with mud; America was all candy and smoke machines.

“Tell me again,” she would say.

So the few time I visited her and her family, I needed to repeat like a mantra, “Evan’s cool. He’s cool when he plays; all the women fall in love with him, and he’s funny.” She always tried to extract more from me than I had, but was ecstatic with what she got.

And then I would explain as well that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I’d tell her everything was bartering, money, commodities. I’d tell her the tale (her mother would banish me if she knew) of Howie yelling, ‘Welcome to the NFL!’ right in my face after a most unromantic grappling session in an Indianapolis hotel room.

“To say such a thing at sexual climax,” she would muse. “I don’t understand American football.”

Her love burned on bright and pure, untarnished by me or any brush with reality. Her brother, however, knew what was going on. He had worked at the Lipik stables for two years before becoming Richard’s contact. Nazer had been there during the shelling and bombing, had seen several stallions felled by the smoke, and barely escaped with his life. Back home now, he was working with us as well as he could without raising too much suspicion as we tracked where the Lipizzaners were being taken; we knew they were in Karadordevo, Serbia, moving northward.

I met Enesa when Nazer invited us to his parent’s home for tea with bread and olives. She had that one photo of Jay and me and Dorenberg and his date, lined up couple to couple, from some fan publication and stared at me until she figured it out and I admitted my past. Her excitement was charming. I stopped by to chat with her when I could, but it was becoming too dangerous. I knew these visits would have to stop. Our cover was not holding, and Richard was sure our movements were being monitored. When their village came under fire, the Marić’s front door would be one of the first to be kicked in. We could have gotten them out of there, somehow—possibly—but they were determined to stay.

Partly to assuage my guilt over befriending this girl, then bolting, I told her that once things were “sorted out” and life returned to normal, maybe I could arrange for her to visit me in the States, and maybe even meet Evan before one of his concerts. Whether or not I had the chits to do this was not clear; I felt I was being generous with things not my own, like taking some pretty thing off someone else’s mantelpiece, and announcing, ‘Here’s a gift from me.’ But it didn’t matter because I knew these promises would not be kept, these dreams would never happen. The cessation of violence, Enesa visiting America, Enesa meeting Evan; it was all pie in the sky.

But I pushed this fantasy along as the road looked bleaker and bleaker. Always the contrarian, Enesa seemed surprisingly hesitant about the whole idea, reluctant even. “Well, don’t you want to meet him?” I asked her one day. She gave me her look.

“It’s not that. It’s like staring at the stars and suddenly shooting up into space, flying though the blackness.” Enesa made a wavy motion with her hand. “So far away, and now close. And you would never want to come down. But you do.” She stopped and looked through her smeary window. “How could you go out the next night and look up at the sky? I am not brave. What if it didn’t happen again? What if it never happened again? Just memories . . .”

Sideline Doll

road america

I realized later that it wasn’t so much that Jay and I had fallen in love with each other, but rather that we had fallen in love with the same things: speed, motion, driving on the open road toward the vastness of no predetermined destination. No reason to slow down, no need to protect the motor.

Sometimes I traveled with him as Yellowbird rose in popularity. Often not; it was hard to determine the exact nature of our relationship. I was a girlfriend, yes, but not a permanent fixture, probably not the only one if I chose to think about it, which I didn’t. The first European tour was coming up and it was time to fish or cut bait. This particular weekend, though, I had to admit I was along for the perks as we were in Elkhart Lake at Road America for one of the bigger races. The band was playing two nights in nearby Milwaukee, and Jay, a big fan of NASCAR champion, Justin Mayers, was going to be taken around on the road course by Mayers the day before the race, complete with a publicity shoot.

I, too, would have loved to go in Mayers’ car and be taken up to speed, around up over the hill, but it was never suggested.  No one wanted a photo of me having a good time. I would stand on the sideline and say, “Oh, Jay, oh, Jay. How exciting!” But it was okay, I reasoned to myself; I was happy for him. He deserved this; he got things done. Jay did everything and loved the doing of it. I loved him because I loved those things as well. Because I did not do them, I loved the person who did. I loved his broad shoulders both literally and figuratively. His world was Road America, mine was Roadside America.

So, on Friday, before the traditional evening parade of cars from the town back to the race track, photos were taken of Jay and Justin at the course, Jay outfitted in a white racing suit and helmet. First, both men outside the car. Then both men in the car, giving the thumbs up. Shaking hands with each other. Shaking hands with sponsors. Justin signing one of Jay’s black Telecasters that would be auctioned off for charity. Finally, after an interminable amount of conferring among individuals with clipboards, and fiddling with the car’s innards, Justin smacked his hands together and said, “Let’s go, man.”

The car fishtailed out of a standing start, then straightened and headed down the track and out of view, a Doppler echo the only clue of the engine’s continuing rpm’s. Then nothing, then you could hear it coming back. Mayers appeared again over the hill, on each lap going faster and faster. I stood on the grass in front of the bleachers, rising up on tiptoes, whooping it up each time the car passed by, my eyes following after it with envy, with dissatisfaction with this whole sideline shebang. Show nothing, I told myself; have some pride. A scene from a book I read as a young girl glittered in my mind : a young girl releases her father’s prized mare out of its paddock and lets it escape. When her father—furious, incredulous—demands an explanation, she refuses to speak. But I knew why she did it. I understood why she let her run free. Sideline girl, sideline doll, thumbs up, faster, faster, each time they came up over the hill. Don’t screw up race car driver, don’t screw up. You don’t screw up, doll.

I returned from Road America suspended in a state of irritation, but did not care to explain why. The band was back in New York rehearsing for the upcoming tour, but I decoupled from the departing train and immersed myself in the affairs of my shelter. One of the cats brought in had been horribly abused, and I was the only one who could comfort the poor thing and get him to eat a little bit. I’d smear the tiniest bit of baby food across his mouth and he’d have to lick it off. It was more than I could explain or bear. The violence inflicted upon this creature, whom we called “Sugar,” and the unfathomable reasons for it stabbed at me every time I sat with him after his surgery. Why haven’t these destructive forces wiped us out by now, I would think. The power of them sweeping across the centuries unabated surely should have done us in by now. How could we still be here and not have turned into some gigantic wasteland, happiness and beauty gone extinct like the great dinosaurs, and—I was afraid in our lifetime—the tigers, the rhinos as well. I sat next to Sugar’s open cage as he lay on his old towel, a creature comfort a few days earlier impossible for him to imagine. He looked at me as if to say, ‘I knew there was love somewhere and here you are.’ It broke my heart. On the one day I couldn’t be there, Sugar died, and the cruelty of this seemingly deliberate mistiming haunted me.

I sat in the tiny courtyard with the garbage cans at the back of the shelter. I sat there for the better part of the next two days, unable to move, unable to go forward. There were two overturned large plastic buckets permanently there, where people came to sit and smoke or cry. It was getting warm, and there was an unmistakable stench of things best not thought about. Late in the afternoon of the second day, Jay appeared in the doorway. He gave me a look, then came over and sat down on the unoccupied bucket, silent, but I knew he was here for me. He lit up a cigarette.

At last I said, “It’s sweet of you to come when I’ve been acting like such a jackass lately.”

“You put me through my paces sometimes, baby.” He drew on his cigarette, then exhaled. “This whole thing—everything—it’s messed up. Funny, you tell yourself it’s not going to be how you think, but still it’s not what . . .”

There was a long silence, both of us thinking our own thoughts.

“Sometimes I want to throw the guitars in the back of the van and just go, you know. Hey, you and me. Just drive, stop at some bar and play for our supper. Good, bad; we’d have stories to tell. We’d come back now and then . . . the road will always call us back, though.” He looked down at the ground, flicking his cigarette. “You up for it? Would you do that? Do that with me?” I turned and looked at him. Maybe I wanted to ride around in a van; I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it with him.

He took the cigarette out of his mouth and threw it on the ground. “Let’s go. What the fuck is wrong with you, sitting out here with this shit.”

So Jay and Yellowbird flew off to Europe for three months while I ended up at the dentist’s office with a nasty abscess in my bottom left molar. My punishment, I suppose, for being a fair-to-middling doll. My penance for Sugar. My sentence: working in New York during the hottest summer on record, trudging up 6th Avenue, running the gauntlet of flyer pushers, root canal throbbing, swelling up the side of my face.

Struggling along through the humidity, I passed by the restaurant that employed the most aggressive stringers and met my match in determination. A man stood there holding an armful of take-out menus, immaculate in his white short-sleeved shirt, dress trousers, and ambition. He was determined I would take his flyer, I was determined I would not. Our eyes met for a second as I turned toward him, but I looked back straight ahead and continued on my way. Not to be dismissed in this manner by a mere girl, the man followed me down the street stabbing the paper take-out menu at me behind my back like a sword, shouting, “You take! You take! You take!” I was concerned he would follow me all the way to the corner, but he finally spun around, swearing loudly to cover his retreat. A triumphant grin flickered across my face, lighting the fuse that exploded into a flash of pain shooting up through my damaged tooth that made me see stars.

Focusing on the pavement just a few feet ahead of me, I wrapped my pain around me like a veil, shrouding myself against further abuse, and in this self-pitying state made my way to my mother’s office. I arrived at my corner victoriously flyerless to be met once again by the girls I knew but did not know. They emerged from their mustard-colored building—today three, no, four of them—in the form of some unbreachable sisterhood, used but seemingly untouched by men, men unseen at least. Truly, I was sick of men. Men who raced cars, men who rode sidekick with men who raced cars, men who introduced you to the world of the NFL, men who insisted you take what they were offering. These seamstresses seemed to belong only to each other, while I belonged to no one; I just walked and walked endlessly up and down the avenue, not looking, not seeing, one foot in front of the other, going on and on until I dropped. These girls had elevated themselves to a higher plane through no visible effort of their own, and the pain in my jaw egged on my anger toward them. They were smug; I disliked them. I hated this city. The weight of the world was pressing down upon me. Why was I forced every day to see these stupid girls? What did they know about anything; what did they know about being at a loss in this world.

Cat Rescuers & Seamstresses

sixth avenue (3)

The first time I saw Jay, I was wearing sweatpants and smelled of burnt chestnuts and urine. The smell of New York. I was sitting in the reception area of my mother’s office, just delivered from the police precinct station where I had been brought in for questioning on an attempted mugging—not my mugging of someone, of course, but of someone trying to grab me. Freida, my partner in lunacy, and I had been out and about in the early morning hours, wandering through the garment district and up across the street from the Port Authority, have-a-heart traps banging against our legs, looking for strays among the debris, the abandoned reclining armchairs that served as people’s beds; avoiding the chiffoniers and city gypsies, keeping an eye out for the mentally troubled and criminally inclined. We thought both our industriousness and the lazy habits of this population would protect us from harm, but we were the victims of our own prejudices.

Our plan was simple and free of any practicality: saved from wanton cruelty or the research labs, the captured felines would be carted off to our veterinary student friends who would neuter and vaccinate them, then take them to the shelter to find homes. Their “forever homes.” This phrase, though admirable, meant nothing to me. Forever stretched off into the distance for me. How long is forever when you’re young? How wide is the ocean when you’ve never been abroad? I was eager to move time and set sail. My mother could not stand this humane sideline of mine; she said it was a nasty streak of self-righteousness that ran through the family reaching its pinnacle with her sister, Jean. Mom was ready to push off my boat and wave from the shore.

Mom and Dad divorced while I was in college. Mom moved to New York and Dad stayed in the sticks. She always hated the country, and I was brought to wonder sometimes why they got married in the first place. After graduating, I moved in with Mom to make my way in the big city. Mom went into PR and ended up a management consultant in the entertainment and sports industry. She was right at home among the high achievers and go-getters. They possessed something Dad and I lacked.

So that’s how I found myself seated in her reception area that day when she walked by with Jay Burton, frontman for the rising roots group, Yellowbird. Why he was awake and here at such an hour, why Mom had not gone instead to see him, following at heel like a bird dog, I later found out had something to do with morning radio. Mom saw me sitting there, but ignored me; Jay turned to look at me a second as I’m sure I stuck out sartorially, but instead of looking through me as expected, a puzzled expression flashed across his face, replaced with the slightest of amused stretching of his lips, then he was gone. This glance lasted all of ten seconds, but it was enough for me, even in my agitated state, to post two thoughts in his favor: one, he was not half bad-looking; and two, he had not yet lost his mind.

On Mom’s return, I was called in to tell my story: Freida and I were in the lot across the street from the Port Authority. I had gone around the corner of a nearby building and was lifting up old, wet, half-deteriorated boxes when a sense of dread flooded over me so strongly I straightened up, senses on full alert. I turned around to see a large man—much larger, so much larger than me—about six foot three, drunk or stoned or both, blocking my way. I often wondered what I would do in a situation like this. Well, I froze. I couldn’t move or scream. This is it, I thought.  Right here in this ally.

Seconds of inaction passed, then the spell broke, and I casually tried to go by him, saying calmly, ‘I’m just going to go out here,’ but he grabbed me and put me in a choke hold, ripped open the Velcro of my fanny pack and took my wallet. I was pressed hard against him, struggling, rubbing against his filthy, stinking body. Freida, seeing this, dropped her cages and took off in the opposite direction. He jammed his hand down my jeans, trying to pull them down, but I had both my hands clutched over my belt buckle, holding on for dear life. What would have happened if an off-duty detective on his morning run hadn’t seen this struggle and chased the man away, I could well imagine.

I went with the detective to the local station to report the crime. Detective Cunningham said there wasn’t much chance of anything being done, and if I ever decided on doing something so stupid again, he would run right past. He let me call my mother from the phone on his desk and gave me cab fare to my mom’s office even though it was just a few blocks away. All I wanted to do was go home, take the world’s hottest shower, and curl up in a blanket, but Mom was hysterical at first and needed to see her girl alive and in one piece. Her relief at my survival had turned to anger by the time I went into her office. As with Detective Cunningham, she felt the responsibility for this upheaval of everyone’s day rested solely with me. Why wouldn’t that man want to attack me? That’s what muggers do. No more rescue work for me. From now on I could work in her office, filing photos as they came off the wire, and satisfying any higher calling by volunteering at the shelter.

Weeks passed, the seasons turned, but I never did regain my sense of normalcy. I just tried to stay out of everyone’s way. Every day I’d get off the train at Penn Station and walk to my mom’s office, up out of the fur district, dodging the men with their rolling racks of furs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, past Macy’s, up Sixth Avenue ignoring the public altercations that always seemed to be taking place between some man in a suit and someone who probably didn’t own a suit. This was also the era of the flyer, every shop or restaurant employing some poor soul to thrust its advertising at passersby. I took it as a point of pride that no one could make me take one.

Just before I turned the corner to my office, I would pass a mustard-colored building; there were always young women going in or coming out. The women were Asian, but I could not place them more specifically. Sometimes one of them would emerge by herself, but mostly they traveled in groups, and on the rare occasion I could overhear their conversations, it was in a language I couldn’t identify. Maybe because I was lonely and unsettled, I was drawn to these women. I wanted to know who they were. I fell into stereotypical thinking, seeing them emerging onto the street like a flock of graceful birds; I romanticized them, thinking they carried a sadness in their faces, a sorrow in their posture, though I realized reality was likely much harsher and grittier. Over time and repeated crossing of paths, I was able to recognize a few of them as individuals, and they seemed to recognize me. Though we never smiled at each other or looked each other straight in the eye, eventually there came to be some understanding, some acknowledgement as we passed that, Yes, there you are; we’re both on schedule, then. I came to the conclusion that they worked either in a brothel or a sweatshop. Given these two hard choices, given my recent fleeting brush with unwanted intimacy, I hoped to God it was the latter.

Last Days Before the End of the World

khmer dancer

The spirits were hard to conjure that April, the link between heaven and earth fractured. The dancers were assembled with their master teachers. The kben was wrapped around the waist, then twisted and pulled through the legs to form the practice leggings. Hands were stretched and arched, expressive with the face serene, but harmony with the gods was not obtained. An unease had settled in and hung tandem with the humidity; these were the last few days before the end of the world.

Fifteen years earlier, the terror now advancing on the city was launched out of deserted boxcars in the railway center of Phnom Penh: the first Party Congress of the Workers Party of Kampuchea held in that empty train in secret. The Khmer Rouge—Angka—would leave the capital and hide in the northeast hills and later battle Lon Nol’s forces in the border sanctuaries and throughout Cambodia before returning victorious but eerily noncelebratory on April 17, 1975 to rid Phnom Penh of every vestige of the Old World, every person and everything to become a victim of the black pajama psychology of ultimate revolution.

The sound of rumbling trucks, of honking horns and motorcycles steadily grew louder and louder that day, pushing through the walls and music until these outside forces could no longer be ignored. The Khmer Rouge had descended upon the city and soldiers were ordering everyone out onto the streets, barking through bullhorns at the confused populace to leave their homes and shops. The Americans were about to drop bombs on Phnom Penh. Staying would be dangerous. No need to take anything; everyone could return in a few days.

The rehearsal hall emptied. Music books and instruments were left behind to be destroyed; headdresses and masks were abandoned and lost. Costumes were snatched up, and hastily hidden in hems and secret pockets, or folded and placed against the small of the back under shirts and blouses to eventually fade, erode into mere fibers, ruined by sweat and dirt and fear and time. The ballets and their movements, never written down but transmitted from teacher to student, now survived as memories in the minds of the palace dancers and their masters as the royal company was flushed out onto the boulevard.

Two of the younger dancers panic and resist; they can’t leave without their families. They are frantic, but a soldier is pushing them along with the butt of his rifle, shoving it first into one dancer’s back, then the other’s. Their teacher runs over to try and calm them and plead their case, but other soldiers come and grab the girls by the arms. They are taken away and hoisted onto one of the trucks in the convoy that has rumbled into the capital. Their teacher is dragged to a nearby tennis court, made to kneel, then shot dead.

It will be a long time before the gods can be summoned again, before harmony between heaven and humanity is restored.

My Only Glory

the power of dreams

The train was made to work. Henry jammed himself on, ran the diesel engine, and the train chugged round and round the field. Daniel, leaning over in Maggie’s lap, sunk his teeth into the boxcar’s wooden edge and, looking down, watched the tracks as the train jounced along. The three laughed a lot. Soon other kids stopped by, begging for a ride. Someone from the next town drove over and brought his little girl who rode around with her silent mouth wide open. The barn and field became something of a local gathering place. Kids were devoted to Leo and Tod, particularly a “horse-phase” gang, who ignored the makeshift railroad, each girl taking her turn standing on a stool to elaborately braid one of the great horse’s mane. Happiness woven iridescent by the summer damselflies filled Henry’s days. On weekends Maggie would bring Daniel over with Claude—momentarily stunning Henry, as if he had forgotten that her husband existed—but he used the sound of the brass train bell ringing, the sight of the tanned, lithe limbs of his charges all akimbo as they piled in behind the engine as blinders, and it was too easy during these times to not face facts, too easy to ignore that one particular fact that any misstep would land him deep in the abyss of envy and despair. He believed in the power of his dreams.

But those dreams were his high water mark. He never did kiss Maggie, although he might have on one or two occasions had he risked it. Come September, a month he always hated with its hard blue skies, the humidity lifted and most of his riders vanished back inside their schools. Then the weather turned; it rained for days and Henry did not see Maggie or Daniel for over a week. When the sun re-emerged and the sky became a still blue bowl once again, the pair did not reappear. Henry walked over to the Nelsons’ house and stood on the opposite side of the street, waiting for he wasn’t sure what, but there was no movement within that he could perceive. He got his answer at the post office a few days later when he overheard the Miller sisters talking about the Nelsons, Irene Miller saying with a knowing air that the boy was in Saint Luke’s for ‘God knows what,’ as if to say, for those like Daniel, suffering was his lot and the way of the world, and she understood that.

My uncle walked every day past the Nelsons’ house hoping to somehow discern some kind of reason, to distill information from the thin air if need be, until one day the answer came in the form of a For Sale sign planted startlingly upright in the Nelson’s lawn, like a flag staking territory for fear and pain. Daniel had died over Thanksgiving, and the Nelsons were fleeing their memories.

Henry retreated to his shed and stayed there a good part of the winter even though it had no heat; he most assuredly drank heavily. My father went several times to talk to him, Dad’s face on returning dark and troubled; he never spoke of these visits to us. When Uncle Henry emerged from his shed, he came out a different person. I liked to imagine people as colors and shapes, and my uncle—wiry and strong—had always seemed to me like a green vine, all loops and curvy tendrils, but his sorrow changed that. When I saw him next the only image conjured was one of ruble: rusty iron, crumbling concrete; no  grace or movement left.

The kids still wanted to ride the train, and sometimes he’d accommodate them, sometimes there’d be no answer to the small knock on the shed door. The barn became verboten territory for children of the more suspicious and anxious parents in town, though most snuck in there with their friends anyway. Leo was put down due to old age and was replaced with a smaller, dapple grey mare, Marisa. Sometimes I’d look at my uncle as he watched the kids in the barn with Marisa and Tod, and the look in his eyes made me advert my gaze as if I was spying on something sacred, and there’d be a catch in my throat and a sharp pain in my chest. He remained in limbo until the summer I graduated high school. Then he heard she had married someone else and he stopped running the train.

Maggie, Maggie, Maggie … my love, my train, my only glory, he would think over and over and over. When he died from holding on for far too long, the train was left standing in the field in the rain, then the snow, then the sun, the grass growing between the rails, the dark metal of the engine powdered with dirt, and rust, and bird droppings until it all stood desecrated, all love long gone, emanating a despair so solid and so steady that people would walk by that field quickly, never stopping, and kids would dare one another to run over and touch the engine, then run away again, because it was “spooked.”

Control Your Horses

uncle henry

The Nelsons, a young married couple, never shed their mantle of otherness, due to the fact that few people ever moved to town and because their only child, a troubled boy, was given to fits so severe he would struggle for breath and fairly turn blue.

The boy was called Daniel, never Danny. The man’s name was Claude, a sturdy man with pale skin and dark hair; late in the day, the blackness of his stubble against the whiteness of his skin was hard not to stare at. He was kind to his son, but embarrassed by him, picking up every flicker of pity, every tic of disdain on the part of the home-towners. He was hard on his wife; the more forgiving her response, the more compassion she showed, the angrier he’d become. She put no distance between her son’s plight and her emotions, and there was no room for him. There was nothing left for him. Her name was Marguerite. Henry would later call her Maggie because it was too much trouble to say it full out. Maggie was light on her feet and extremely quick—one minute she was beside you or in the room, the next, she was gone. Except when weighed down by her boy.

My uncle’s barn sat within town limits, set back off a road that curved around sharply then ran downhill. Marguerite would walk this road with Daniel at times, struggling with him in tow, not an easy process, and if you got close enough, you would notice he was strapped into a harness—out of view under his checked shirt—a leather lead line strap attached to the belt of his corduroy pants. The pair drew Uncle Henry out of his shed. He’d work in the front yard hoping to catch her going by. They’d smile at each other and nod at first; eventually Maggie stopped and talked. She had a warm, ready response for everything he said, and the first time she looked at Henry and gave him a sweet, sad smile of apology for her son’s outburst, it was as if someone whacked him across the head with a two by four. He was never the same. Life was never the same.

Henry asked if Daniel would like to see the barn—to distract him from his furies—but the massiveness of Leo and Tod frightened him, and it would have been impossible to maneuver him in and out of the old red and blue ride car. The only thing the boy liked was the train engine. He would grab at it, press his face against its hard surface, hold on and be still. Within this stillness he obtained a dignity, his brown eyes fixed afar and wondering, beautiful like his mother’s. In these quiet moments, it was easier to understand how someone could love him.

And Henry loved Maggie. Loved her in silence, though at times the way she looked at him gave him hope, and he had seen her turn her gaze on her husband, her eyes hard and cold. He hated her husband, with his suits and his youth and his prerogative, hated her thin gold wedding band that, even in that thinness, was able to catch the light and flash its possession like an intruder between the two of them though it was Henry who was the third party.

He’d sit in his shed and question himself; he could drive Leo and Tod with just as much male bravura as the young carnival ride operator whom all the girls fancied. He would weigh and wonder at the evilness of his bitter raging against the bonds of moral values and matrimony. Bonds he’d be willing to break. This was his chance for happiness. His despair at times was so strong it gave him incredible perception, and he could sense the despair of others, like a kindred spirit, almost see it rising up from the ground like steam off wet pavement hit by a sunlight shaft.

Things went on pretty much the same for several months until, one night in late June, too much humidity and too much alcohol sent Henry to the barn. He couldn’t sleep. He took a sledgehammer and shattered the old ride car cab; he took some surplus barn siding and broke that down as well; he hoisted an armful of abandoned train track off its stack by the salt lick blocks and went out to the field. He had an idea to reconstruct—on a more modest scale—the underappreciated carnival train ride for Daniel; between the dry grass, and the alcohol and cigarettes, it was a wonder he didn’t set the place ablaze.

Over the next several weeks he built an open boxcar carriage out of the barn siding and red and blue cab. The train engine was pushed back onto the old door, dragged out to the field, and attached to the carriage. It didn’t run; he would have to work up the diesel engine later. And then he laid the tracks. This was harder, to secure them, than one imagined. And he didn’t have any help. When he couldn’t sleep at night for the longing, he’d go to the field and work on the track, smoking and drinking, laying the rails.

When he was finished, rails secure to the ground, carriage attached to the engine, he brought Daniel over one muggy morning. Maggie and Henry put him in the carriage. It was deep enough that he could safely sit it in it alone without fear of falling out. Soon the train would take him around the field, Henry told him. “Whoo, whoo,” Daniel cried. He was able to sit for long periods of time in that carriage, happy as a clam in its wooden crate-box shell, leaving Henry and Maggie free on the field’s border. When he leaned on the fence rail and talked quietly with Maggie, watching her as she watched her son, it was so big for him—even though it was still far from his dreams, dreams in which he was confident, she was willing, and he held her tight and kissed her hard.