The Age of American Decline

More often than I care to remember I have sought refuge in the 60’s. There is something so powerful and potent about the work that members of that generation were fighting for, and struggling with, that it’s hard not to be enraptured by their vision and energy now that more than fifty years have passed. Part of the reason I take refuge in the ideology and spirit of the 60’s is because I feel, and I think I share this malaise with others of my age, that my own generation and its philosophical movements fall short of being anything meaningful or powerful beyond self-interested attempts at “change.” Change for the sake of change is not, in my view, on a level with art for the sake of art, and for all its self-impressed bravado and narcissism, being a “hipster” isn’t quite the same to me as fighting for racial integration.

But part of this decline is, I think, attributable to something happening (and being documented with depressing familiarity) across America, a change in the demographic of the Nation. In this way I’m not talking about age or gender or race, but about locality. I am talking about the geographical spaces in which people are being born and growing up – and if the United States Census Bureau is to be believed, we are becoming a Nation of alarming one-dimensionality. According to a report by the Census, the number of Americans living in rural areas is only sixteen percent of the Nation’s population. This is in shocking contrast to the percentage that lived in rural areas in 1910, when such numbers stood at seventy-two percent. I do not cite to these numbers in an effort to play off of some ancient debate between city or country, or to exalt the wisdom of Henry David Thoreau over the relentless drive in American culture to innovation and achievement – both city and rural life offer something unique and meaningful for individual and social existence. But therein lies the problem – the possibilities of American life are declining, and as a result, we are a Nation of increasing singularity in both vision and practice.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with New York City, or San Francisco, California. They are both on coasts, and enjoy wide cultural attractions. New York City has been home to more poets – Auden, and Lowell (to name just two) than one could endeavor to catalogue, just as San Francisco (my birth city) produced the original Gary Snyder. Both localities have created national and localized poetics and innovations that have propelled America to vast degrees of wealth and prosperity. But, despite all of this, they remain New York City, and San Francisco, California. They remain, two places. They do not represent the frigid winters of North Dakota, the multitude of lakes of Minnesota, the deep rural traditions of Faulkner’s South, or the quietude of the mesas of New Mexico. They represent their particular places – and though they are distinct, and deserving of praise and place in the tapestry of American vision, they are limited. They are limited because they can only offer two geographical views – east and west, Pacific and Atlantic. Vast visions to be sure, but incomplete. That is because the great idea that is America is its diversity, and the ways in which we grow, live, and interact with the world around us. And that is, fundamentally, what drove the vision of the 60’s – a mission of diversity, an energy of change, and a collection of voices from all parts of American life. I don’t think the existential malaise of New York or San Francisco could have done that alone.

I think I can be personal about this sense of vision of which I speak. Having spent a good number of years in the Midwest, and in particular in North Dakota, I can say I know something of – what is often, and unjustly derided as – “rural” vision. I know what -40F feels like, and I know what snow and wind can do to chill the bone and rock the soul. In my time in North Dakota, and in my own travels (and at its root, all travel is essentially about this), I have come to understand myself, my identity as a San Franciscan, a Bay Area resident, a college student at the University of California, and all of the other cultural monikers we come to use as shorthand to quickly identify ourselves and others in conversations at airports and café’s around the world. But this deep enrichment of my individual self could not have happened without those conversations. I could not have truly understood myself, or rather continue to understand myself without a vision of life and world that differed or mirrored my own. Whether in Bismarck or Fargo or rural towns throughout the state, I have come to understand the shared otherness that unites us all, as Americans, as individuals, and as shared members of the human race. And more importantly, I could not then have formed a hybridized image of my soul as both a Californian and North Dakotan, and also an American. But something of this ability to recognize ourselves as individuals, and to see ourselves as integral parts of something larger and more diverse than our geographic spaces is seriously at risk in our Nation.

We are no longer – as the Census Bureau informs us – a Nation of small and rural communities. Instead, we are increasingly a nation of megalopolises – places with layered suburbs of similarity, where every convenience from 7-11, to Wal-Mart, to symphonies and poetry can all be found off of a quick interstate, and in the comforting light and city noise of traffic and language we readily know and speak – Starbucks, Target, and ExxonMobil. Rural communities are not immune to these things. They are conveniences there, too. But perhaps there is still some mystery, intrigue, and a new language and vision to explore on the vast and open prairie landscapes that haunt my soul and bring tears to my eyes, such as when I read Willa Cather’s My Antonia – an expostulation of such grand beauty and vision that anyone who reads it should be moved to leave the city and move to the country; or when I explore the rugged beauty and twilit landscape of the buttes of western North Dakota, or the simplicity of a setting sun over a small lake, with friends who accent language a little differently, and who grew up in towns of forty or fifty. This is not an attempt to overlook the narrowness and parochialism that can accompany rural visions (or city visions, for that matter), nor is it an effort to shirk the harsh realities that rural communities endure racism, violence, and economic stagnation on par with any we might see in divided suburbs in the city. Instead it is an attempt to see those problems, and those solutions, from a view I would otherwise not have had access to.

Let me also say that I am proud to have been born in California, and would not change the place where I am from, or where I grew up. None of us should desire that. It’s a part of who we are. But, it was a long effort, on the part of my ancestors, to get to that part of America, and they took some varied routes. Many of our ancestors did – and I think, too, that that speaks profoundly to the need Americans innately have for being shaped by diversity. But too often a diversity that is overlooked, and which is intrinsically a part of our National history, is one rooted in a geographic and regional diversity of profound implications. Part of this is of course relative – as all things human must necessarily be. I believe that part of what formed the Nation’s consciousness in the 60’s (that generation and movement I first spoke of) was the result of a discourse of diversity. I simply don’t feel a similar power or symmetry with that symphony of perspectives with the movements of my moment. As people take to the street protesting over money – either conservative or liberal – the movements do not seem to possess the same verve, or poetry that riding a bus to Selma, Alabama did, or taking the steps of Sproul Hall at the University of California, Berkeley to fight for the shared freedom of speech. In my reading of those histories there was a mosaic of music and life that seemed to flow in such effusion, that the movements themselves seemed connected with life. Of course this might be because every cultural moment imagines its predecessors to have been grander – but in this case, I suspect it may have been.

All of this returns elliptically, however, to the decline of America. Often in the popular media this decline is depicted as the decline of “Rural America,” a harkening to the notion of the Buffalo Commons, where one day the entire Midwest will empty out and be restored to a place of ecological nature. But to my mind the decline of rural America is a decline of America itself. Our Nation is one compelled and triumphant – through both its failures and successes, its pathos and aspirations – by diversity, and chief in that diversity are the places we hail from. That diversity is exemplified through the shared dialogues we immerse ourselves in when we travel or meet those from other places, but it is a diversity increasingly stunted by the pursuit of the “city” life, or of “city” opportunities. There is nothing wrong with those efforts, but what I long to see, and what I ask of my generation, is a pursuit to create opportunities, and with them life, in rural spaces. To become a new generation of pioneers, and forge a destiny not mandated by the slick and easy realities of mass commuter transit, billboard advertisements, and smog filled traffic. I think that what will define my generation – if it is to be defined at all, and I suspect it is rapidly losing ground in an ever deteriorating narcissism of self – will be an effort to rejuvenate American culture and diversity by doing what the pioneers did: creating a self defined by a rugged spirit of individualism and also community (and in the process forging meaningful communities from the first brick), and doing so in spaces that aren’t frequented by air travel. There is something glorious, inviting, exciting, exhilarating, and terrifying about the openness and “emptiness” of rural space – but therein lies the possibility of creating a generational consciousness, that defines not just some limited poetic space of a city block (they have poetics enough), but rather that serves to inspire a way of envisioning America, and which embraces the rugged terrain and gentle prairies that mirror its infinite possibilities and variations.

Michael Lopez

Northern California and North Dakota

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One Fine Day

Marvin Torgerson wasn’t the sort to pickup hitchhikers but he was in a good mood today. He’d just picked up his 1946 McCormick Model W-9 tractor from the body shop in Dilworth and was thoroughly satisfied with its new paint job.

A man and woman hu

nkered underneath the exit crossover on Interstate 94 just west of Fargo. Marvin pulled his pickup and trailer onto the shoulder of the Interstate.

It was a fine fall day. The couple put their gear in the back of the truck and the woman, pretty smile and clean white teeth, shook Marvin’s hand and stepped up and slid over next to Marvin making room for the man, who Marvin assumed correctly was her husband.

“That’s a beautiful tractor you have back there,” the woman said. Marvin thought she was putting him on. “What did a pretty young thing like her care about tractors,” he wondered.

“You must be proud of it,” she said with wonderful sincerity.

Marvin shrugged then said the tractor belonged to his late grandfather who farmed with the tractor in the 1940s.

“It’s beautiful,” the woman said. “It reminds me of that poem by William Carlos Williams. You know the one about the wheelbarrow.” Marvin had no idea what she was on about. “Didn’t the woman know the difference between a wheelbarrow and a tractor for crying out loud.”

“Honey, how does it go?” Her husband was pale and his hands were white and thin and the black stubble on his very white face seemed unnatural and unseemly. Marvin thought the man looked very tired. “Honey, the William Carlos Williams poem you used to like so well, how does it go?” He shook his head without a shadow of expression on his face. He looked out the window not fixing his eyes on anyone thing.

“So much depends on, upon a red wheel barrow,” she said frustrated that she couldn’t recall the rest.

“Do you know it?” she asked Marvin so sweetly and genuinely that Marvin wished he did.

“I’m not much on poetry,” Marvin said.

“I just mean the color, the red color against the blue sky, it’s breathtaking, isn’t it? And a tractor is very much like a wheelbarrow. It’s solid, useful, strong like a tractor, you know what I mean?”

“Where you folks from?” Marvin asked.

“Detroit,” the woman said. Marvin fell in love with her honey-toned knees and her proper leather outdoors shoes and her very white socks that showed off her pretty, tan legs. “Just outside of Detroit, actually.”

“What brings you out her?”

“We’d always wanted to just up and take off, you know, hitch hike, and, so, when the opportunity presented itself we did it,” she said.

There were green combines in the fields finishing the wheat harvest.

“It’s lovely time of year,” the young woman said. “Don’t you think so, Honey? Isn’t it just wonderful, the colors, the cerulean skies?”

“It’s flat. It’s nondescript and forgettable,” he said. “I don’t get it.”

“Imagine it painted by Vermeer,” she said.

“Not even Vermeer could help this landscape.”

“Darling, you’re not being fair. Please be polite.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” Marvin said. “I hear that all the time. I don’t care. I don’t need people to like North Dakota to love it myself. But I think it’s beautiful. No kidding.”

“I do too. It’s splendid,” the woman said and Marvin believed her.

“I was telling this professor from the university in Fargo about how I really liked North Dakota and he said I was a statist, which is someone who really loves his state, I guess,” Marvin said.

“Are you sure he didn’t say sadist,” the man said, suddenly looking slightly cheerful.

“Stop it, dear. You’re not so clever.”

Passing the Wheatland-Chaffee exit the woman said, “Honey, look at that cloud. It looks like a sad crocodile, doesn’t it?”

“You’re being silly,” the man told her.

“I apologize for Jerome,” the young woman said. “He’s not himself.”

“Oh,” Marvin said. “What do you do out there?” Marvin asked leaning forward and speaking directly to the man who was picking at his scalp with his fingernails.

“I ran an art gallery.”

“We ran an art gallery,” his wife chimed in.

“Oh,” Marvin said.

“It’s gone now,” the man offered dismally.

“Oh,” Marvin said.

“Burned down,” he said.

“No kidding. How’d that happen?”

“My son burned it down.”

“Our son burned it down,” she said.

Marvin lifted his eyebrows and took a deep breath. The woman became still and quiet.

“What did he do that for?” Marvin asked.

“I don’t know,” the man said itching the back of his neck.

“We don’t know,” the young woman said. “We just needed to separate ourselves from the shock of it all. It’s terribly wearing on Jerome. You know, the why, why, why.”

“How old is the boy?” Marvin asked.

“Just 17,” the woman said. “He’s a sweet boy. Has always been a sweet boy but somehow he’s drifted away emotionally, you know what I mean?”

Marvin nodded affirmatively but he had no idea. To break the strain on the moment Marvin pointed out that there was good pie in Tower City at the café and suggested they stop — “my treat” he said.

The husband and wife both ordered apple pie and coffee and Marvin ordered his favorite — coconut cream pie. He marveled at the flaky texture of piecrust.

“Man, that hit the spot,” Marvin said pushing the plate away.

“It was wonderful,” the woman said. “I shall always remember it.”

When they walked out of the café an elderly couple was admiring Marvin’s bright red W-9. The warm sun was on their backs and the woman listened intently as Marvin talked about the tractor and farm memories.

“My dad used to pull a tree-bottom Case plow with it,” Marvin said. “That tractor made our living.”

The air was soft and warm and a breeze fluttered across the back of the woman’s neck and it felt to her like the caress of an angel’s hand. An overwhelming sense of stillness and warmth came over her. Her mind was swaddled in a rare contentment and if she could have stood there forever she would have but she knew it was time to turn around and head back home and pick up the pieces of their life.

The elderly couple were on their way to Minneapolis to visit their son and grandchildren and they accepted the couple as passengers.

“They’re good folks,” Marvin vouched.

Before the woman got into the car she turned and kissed Marvin on the cheek. Those small, soft, cool lips. Marvin could think of nothing else the rest of the day.

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this big Saturday

at last, the rain, and it comes down heavy
this hot air, balloon summer, humid and sulky
I stood around outside for two hours just looking, shuffling,
spitting sunflower nutshells on my tombstone sidewalk

thinking of driving my motorcycle out to the farm tonight
out to where my wife and kids have been, thinking of
taking ‘em into town for the street dance

down here in this basement, smoking a cigarette, I hear that
train whistle blow again, for about the thirteenth time today,
this big Saturday, full of nothing

I untie my shoes, loosen the laces, pull ‘em off,
toss ‘em to the middle of the floor
I suppose the neighbor will be by sometime shortly,
suggesting we boil a pot of his fancy tea
I decide to scrape the pipe once again, smoke another bowl of
soot viagra

Posted in Books and Collections, Pipe Etchings, by Joseph Greenwood | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Billy was tired of lying to Harold.

&

He just wanted to tell him flat out “No!” But instead he made up excuses and later felt rotten about it. After all, why couldn’t he just give Harold a ride?

&

Then again, Billy argued to himself, if it were just a ride, he would be more than willing. But because Harold couldn’t walk so well, or use his right arm and hand, everything, even giving a simple ride was far from simple.

&

Harold farmed three quarters of land south of Avalon, North Dakota, for almost 20 years. Then his hands went to trembling for no apparent reason. In 1963 they found a walnut-sized tumor had taken root in the meat of his brain. The doctors down inRochestercut out a quarter of his frontal lobe, which left Harold half-paralyzed. His memory was impaired, too and he hardly knew who he was after the surgery. His self, the person he was, hard working farmer, joke-loving man, the person we knew so well, had collapsed and withered into an unsmiling shell.

&

His prognosis was not good. The doctor gave him two years, tops. Then an infection crept into the scar tissue on his brain and it looked like he wasn’t going to make it two more days. But guess what? The infection killed the cancer and Harold was cancer free though still immobile and housebound.

&

Billy actually enjoyed helping Harold in the beginning. Billy found a renter for Harold’s farmland, took him to the grocery store, helped him fill out his deposit slips at the bank, shoveled snow in the winter and mowed his ditches in the summer. Then one day he got a phone call. Harold had fallen down and couldn’t get back up. Billy raced over to Harold’s place and found Harold in a heap on the floor. His hair was a black mat, his T-shirt was wet from his sweat and his head lay in a puddle of saliva. When Billy lifted Harold he was astonished at how little Harold weighed. He was thin and frail, he felt no heavier than a gunnysack full of hollow chicken bones.

&

After that Billy didn’t want to help out with Harold any more. Maybe it was because he suddenly realized how vulnerable Harold really was and how much he depended on him. Billy couldn’t quite put his finger on it — was it fear, pure selfishness — but decided he had done his share of helping out Harold. “Where was everyone else?” Billy wondered. “I’m no kin to him,” he’d tell himself. “Where the hell is Harold’s kin?” Of course, he knew exactly where Harold’s kin were. They lived southwest ofEau Clair,Wis.Far enough fromNorth Dakotanot to do much good. Oh, a brother would visit once in a while, stay a couple days, then head out, but that was about it for family support.

&

Harold always prided himself on his network of friends. But those people were friends of the old Harold — the vibrant, ready-to-party Harold. The ravaged invalid Harold was someone else entirely and old friends became mere acquaintances that soon erased Harold from their minds without so much as a wisp of angst or remorse.

&

Billy hated and admired those people. Hated them for abandoning Harold in his time of need and admired them for having the balls to break clean from Harold and all his inconvenient neediness. He wished he could do it, too; be one of the impenitent, and carefree, but chronic guilt plagued his thoughts. Sometimes Billy thought Harold knew he was susceptible to guilt and manipulated him, which made him angry at Harold and this anger at Harold and his anger for all those who had forsaken Harold, helped him to rationalize his desire to be free of Harold.

&

One morning Harold called Billy and asked to be taken to the hardware store. He needed some nails, he said, to fix a loose step board. Billy immediately wondered who was going to help him actually nail down the board once he got the nails. But he wasn’t going to ask, that would only get him more involved than he wanted to be, so he lied, saying he had to pick up his son from school and wouldn’t be able to take him down to the hardware store.

&

Harold never challenged Billy’s excuses. He could have asked why Billy’s son, Phillip, wasn’t coming home on the school bus with the rest of kids. He just let it go. Perhaps Harold knew he was in no position to argue. He was truly dependent on Billy and anyone else he felt comfortable enough to call on, and that list was short and getting shorter. He couldn’t risk saying too much for fear of forever ending any chance of ever calling Billy again.

&

Guilt stalked Billy. But he never called Harold to see how he was doing. Worse, he stopped picking up his phone in fear of it being Harold on the other end. Billy couldn’t stand making any more weak excuses. He was sick of himself lying. He was sick of Harold and his constant needs. Sometimes he secretly wished Harold’s cancer would return and kill him once and for all.

&

The anger, guilt and self-loathing began to wear on Billy. He always thought of himself as a good man; the guilt he felt was proof of that. A man that did right by others; a man that believed in God; believed God was good to those who lived right; and believed God could be righteous and wrathful to those who strayed from the path. He believed in a divine reciprocity.

&

So when the transmission in his Buick suddenly went out, he wondered if God was trying to get his attention. When he tripped on a piece of barbwire and fell into a patch of poison oak behind the barn he was sure God was punishing him for neglecting Harold.

&

Blistered and in pain he swore to God that once this blasted scourge left his body he’d help Harold with a free, loving spirit. But he didn’t keep his word.

&

One day the phone rang. He was tempted to answer it, but couldn’t bring himself to pick it up. This was his chance to redeem himself but instead he let it ring. The phone rang and rang. “What was it Harold wanted? A carton of milk, some more nails, or had he fallen again?” Then the phone finally went silent.

&

That was a warm March day and the heavy winter’s snow was melting. Billy loved the hopeful smell of spring. Billy was eager for the school bus to pull into the yard. He wanted Phillip to help him get the John Deere 830 ready for spring plowing. Phillip was a natural mechanic and Billy enjoyed working with him.

&

But it was almost 4 o’clock and the bus hadn’t come by. It was only 10 minutes late at that point so Billy didn’t get too excited but at 4:20 he began to wonder if something hadn’t happened to the bus. Billy hopped in his Ford pickup and drove down the muddy township road towards the school. He speculated that Eileen Torgerson, the bus driver, had lost control of the bus on the greasy roads and ended up in the ditch. But the school bus wasn’t anywhere along its route so Billy drove the full 6 miles to the schoolhouse. When he got there the bus was parked toward the back and the hood was up.

&

Eileen was sitting on the bottom step of the bus with its doors open.

&

“Spose you’re looking for Philip?” she said.

&

“Yeah, I got to wondering. . .” Billy mumbled.

&

“Decided to hoof it, I guess,” she said.

&

“What’s wrong with the bus?” Billy asked.

&

“I don’t know. My husband thinks it’s the clutch plate, but it could be anything, you know?”

&

“I didn’t see Phillip coming down the road,” Billy said. “You don’t spose he’s tramping across Miller’s bull pasture?”

&

“Could be,” she said. “I know he called home for a ride but no one answered so he set off. No harm in it. It’s beautiful day. I have half a mind to go for a little stroll myself. Such a nice day after such a terrible winter.”

&

Billy slowly drove back towards his farm and craned his head to the west to see if he could spot Phillip but saw nothing. When Billy drove back into the yard it was already a little after 5 o ‘clock. He walked into the house expecting to see Phillip in front of the TV but he wasn’t there.

&

Billy became unnerved. He was half-angry that Phillip wasn’t home yet. He imagined he was goofing off out in the pasture pretending to be a solider or chasing gophers as he was known to do. He was half worried Phillip might have crossed paths with Zeke, Miller’s dangerousHolsteinbull. That bull had a countywide reputation for running down unsuspecting hunters and anything else that came within a quarter mile of him.

&

The thought of that ugly bull bearing down on Phillip prompted Billy to get back in his pickup to find Phillip. This time he drove across his land and headed towards the fence line between Miller’s land and his. Standing water, mud and snow made the going tough and he had to stop and lock in the four-wheel-drive hubs. When he got to the east edge of the Miller pasture he got out of his truck, crossed the barbwire fence, and walked in the direction Phillip should be coming from.

&

Crossing over the highest hill on the horizon, Billy was fairly shocked when he looked down and saw that a rush of water was running full, wild and high down Elbow Creek.

&

Immediately he was worried that Philip might have tried to cross it. He ran down the hill, then ran along the wild creek but saw no sign of Phillip. Then something on the other side of the creek glinted and caught his eye. He looked long and hard then realized what he saw was one of the chrome snaps from Phillip’s backpack. His backpack was caught on a tree branch and was sloshing in the current.

&

Billy jumped headlong into a full-fledged panic. “Please God, no,” he said. “Please God, no. Please let Phillip be alive.” He couldn’t help but think that his disregard for Harold was now coming back in spades.

&

He ran downstream stopping every 100 feet or so to peer into the water for any sign of Phillip. He went along like this until he came to where the creek boiled into theCedar River, which was still covered with ice and snow in some places. By this time Billy was exhausted and consumed by the devastating notion that his son, his only son, had been taken from him.

&

Finally, a stream of reason cut across his anguish and he decided to get back to the house and call the sheriff as well as his neighbors to come help him find his son.

&

He drove into his yard, the wheels of his pickup spinning and throwing mud, then jumped out of his truck and, without removing his muddy boots, ran straight into the kitchen and started dialing the phone.

&

Before someone picked up on the another end, Billy heard the screen door slam. It was Phillip.

&

“Phillip,” Billy shouted. “You’re here.”

&

Phillip saw the mud tracks across the carpet and the fading terror on his father’s face.

&

“What’s wrong?” Phillip asked.

&

“Where’s your school bag?” Billy asked.

&

“Oh, I must have dropped it on the way home,” Phillip said.

&

“Goddamn it, Phil. I thought you drowned or something,” Billy said. “Why didn’t you call if the bus wasn’t running?”

&

“I did. You must have been out in the shop. No one answered,” Phillip said.

&

“Jesus, Phillip, you put a scare into me.”

&

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean . . .”

&

“I know you didn’t, son, I know you didn’t.”

&

Right then Billy wanted to pull Phillip to him and hug him deeply and tenderly but he didn’t. “Damn it to hell, you put a scare into me,” he said.

&

In Billy’s personalized brand of Christian mysticism, God had just given him a huge break. “I got the message,” he said in his prayers that night. “Please forgive this selfish man.”

&

Billy promised God that he’d never shirk his duties to his fellow man, and that included helping Harold out when Harold needed help. So when the phone rang, Harold picked it up fully expecting and half hoping it would be Harold needing something. Billy was eager to make amends to Harold and to God. But it wasn’t Harold. In fact, weeks went by without Harold calling and Billy began to wonder if something might have happened to him.

&

So one Sunday, after church, Billy and Phillip stopped by Harold’s place. Billy noticed the front door had a fresh coat of paint on it. He knocked and middle-aged woman with thin brown hair came to the door with a paintbrush in her hands. She read the confusion on Billy’s face.

&

“Spose you’re looking for that guy what lived here before, huh?”

&

“Harold’s not here?” Billy asked trying to look past the woman.

&

“Nursing home inMinot. Didn’t he tell ya?”

&

“Well, I hadn’t talked to him in a while,” Billy said.

&

“I’m just renting the place,” the woman said blowing at a wisp of hair on her forehead.

&

“Oh,” Billy said. “Looks like you’ve been busy.”

&

“You wouldn’t have believed it,” she said. “I’ve seen cleaner hog barns.”

&

“Well, Harold was, you know, disabled. Cancer kind of left him half crippled,” Billy said.

&

“Yeah, that’s what I heard. I can’t believe they’d leave someone out here alone like that.”

&

Anger swelled up inside Billy. He wanted to tell the woman to mind her goddamn business. “Who the hell was she to be all high and mighty?” Billy thought. “Hell, it’s easy to take a superior air, when you were never called on to lend a helping hand.”

&

On the drive home Billy’s thoughts raced back and forth. “At least I did something. I did my bit. More than a hell of a lot of others.” And by the time he pulled into his own yard he had almost convinced himself.

&

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Billy was tired of lying to Harold.

He just wanted to tell him flat out “No!” But instead he made up excuses and later felt rotten about it. After all, why couldn’t he just give Harold a ride?

Then again, Billy argued to himself, if it were just a ride, he would be more than willing. But because Harold couldn’t walk so well, or use his right arm and hand, everything, even giving a simple ride was far from simple.

Harold farmed three quarters of land south of Avalon, North Dakota, for almost 20 years. Then his hands went to trembling for no apparent reason. In 1963 they found a walnut-sized tumor had taken root in the meat of his brain. The doctors down inRochestercut out a quarter of his frontal lobe, which left Harold half-paralyzed. His memory was impaired, too and he hardly knew who he was after the surgery. His self, the person he was, hard working farmer, joke-loving man, the person we knew so well, had collapsed and withered into an unsmiling shell.

His prognosis was not good. The doctor gave him two years, tops. Then an infection crept into the scar tissue on his brain and it looked like he wasn’t going to make it two more days. But guess what? The infection killed the cancer and Harold was cancer free though still immobile and housebound.

Billy actually enjoyed helping Harold in the beginning. Billy found a renter for Harold’s farmland, took him to the grocery store, helped him fill out his deposit slips at the bank, shoveled snow in the winter and mowed his ditches in the summer. Then one day he got a phone call. Harold had fallen down and couldn’t get back up. Billy raced over to Harold’s place and found Harold in a heap on the floor. His hair was a black mat, his T-shirt was wet from his sweat and his head lay in a puddle of saliva. When Billy lifted Harold he was astonished at how little Harold weighed. He was thin and frail, he felt no heavier than a gunnysack full of hollow chicken bones.

After that Billy didn’t want to help out with Harold any more. Maybe it was because he suddenly realized how vulnerable Harold really was and how much he depended on him. Billy couldn’t quite put his finger on it — was it fear, pure selfishness — but decided he had done his share of helping out Harold. “Where was everyone else?” Billy wondered. “I’m no kin to him,” he’d tell himself. “Where the hell is Harold’s kin?” Of course, he knew exactly where Harold’s kin were. They lived southwest ofEau Clair,Wis.Far enough fromNorth Dakotanot to do much good. Oh, a brother would visit once in a while, stay a couple days, then head out, but that was about it for family support.

Harold always prided himself on his network of friends. But those people were friends of the old Harold — the vibrant, ready-to-party Harold. The ravaged invalid Harold was someone else entirely and old friends became mere acquaintances that soon erased Harold from their minds without so much as a wisp of angst or remorse.

Billy hated and admired those people. Hated them for abandoning Harold in his time of need and admired them for having the balls to break clean from Harold and all his inconvenient neediness. He wished he could do it, too; be one of the impenitent, and carefree, but chronic guilt plagued his thoughts. Sometimes Billy thought Harold knew he was susceptible to guilt and manipulated him, which made him angry at Harold and this anger at Harold and his anger for all those who had forsaken Harold, helped him to rationalize his desire to be free of Harold.

One morning Harold called Billy and asked to be taken to the hardware store. He needed some nails, he said, to fix a loose step board. Billy immediately wondered who was going to help him actually nail down the board once he got the nails. But he wasn’t going to ask, that would only get him more involved than he wanted to be, so he lied, saying he had to pick up his son from school and wouldn’t be able to take him down to the hardware store.

Harold never challenged Billy’s excuses. He could have asked why Billy’s son, Phillip, wasn’t coming home on the school bus with the rest of kids. He just let it go. Perhaps Harold knew he was in no position to argue. He was truly dependent on Billy and anyone else he felt comfortable enough to call on, and that list was short and getting shorter. He couldn’t risk saying too much for fear of forever ending any chance of ever calling Billy again.

Guilt stalked Billy. But he never called Harold to see how he was doing. Worse, he stopped picking up his phone in fear of it being Harold on the other end. Billy couldn’t stand making any more weak excuses. He was sick of himself lying. He was sick of Harold and his constant needs. Sometimes he secretly wished Harold’s cancer would return and kill him once and for all.

The anger, guilt and self-loathing began to wear on Billy. He always thought of himself as a good man; the guilt he felt was proof of that. A man that did right by others; a man that believed in God; believed God was good to those who lived right; and believed God could be righteous and wrathful to those who strayed from the path. He believed in a divine reciprocity.

So when the transmission in his Buick suddenly went out, he wondered if God was trying to get his attention. When he tripped on a piece of barbwire and fell into a patch of poison oak behind the barn he was sure God was punishing him for neglecting Harold.

Blistered and in pain he swore to God that once this blasted scourge left his body he’d help Harold with a free, loving spirit. But he didn’t keep his word.

One day the phone rang. He was tempted to answer it, but couldn’t bring himself to pick it up. This was his chance to redeem himself but instead he let it ring. The phone rang and rang. “What was it Harold wanted? A carton of milk, some more nails, or had he fallen again?” Then the phone finally went silent.

That was a warm March day and the heavy winter’s snow was melting. Billy loved the hopeful smell of spring. Billy was eager for the school bus to pull into the yard. He wanted Phillip to help him get the John Deere 830 ready for spring plowing. Phillip was a natural mechanic and Billy enjoyed working with him.

But it was almost 4 o’clock and the bus hadn’t come by. It was only 10 minutes late at that point so Billy didn’t get too excited but at 4:20 he began to wonder if something hadn’t happened to the bus. Billy hopped in his Ford pickup and drove down the muddy township road towards the school. He speculated that Eileen Torgerson, the bus driver, had lost control of the bus on the greasy roads and ended up in the ditch. But the school bus wasn’t anywhere along its route so Billy drove the full 6 miles to the schoolhouse. When he got there the bus was parked toward the back and the hood was up.

Eileen was sitting on the bottom step of the bus with its doors open.

“Spose you’re looking for Philip?” she said.

“Yeah, I got to wondering. . .” Billy mumbled.

“Decided to hoof it, I guess,” she said.

“What’s wrong with the bus?” Billy asked.

“I don’t know. My husband thinks it’s the clutch plate, but it could be anything, you know?”

“I didn’t see Phillip coming down the road,” Billy said. “You don’t spose he’s tramping across Miller’s bull pasture?”

“Could be,” she said. “I know he called home for a ride but no one answered so he set off. No harm in it. It’s beautiful day. I have half a mind to go for a little stroll myself. Such a nice day after such a terrible winter.”

Billy slowly drove back towards his farm and craned his head to the west to see if he could spot Phillip but saw nothing. When Billy drove back into the yard it was already a little after 5 o ‘clock. He walked into the house expecting to see Phillip in front of the TV but he wasn’t there.

Billy became unnerved. He was half-angry that Phillip wasn’t home yet. He imagined he was goofing off out in the pasture pretending to be a solider or chasing gophers as he was known to do. He was half worried Phillip might have crossed paths with Zeke, Miller’s dangerousHolsteinbull. That bull had a countywide reputation for running down unsuspecting hunters and anything else that came within a quarter mile of him.

The thought of that ugly bull bearing down on Phillip prompted Billy to get back in his pickup to find Phillip. This time he drove across his land and headed towards the fence line between Miller’s land and his. Standing water, mud and snow made the going tough and he had to stop and lock in the four-wheel-drive hubs. When he got to the east edge of the Miller pasture he got out of his truck, crossed the barbwire fence, and walked in the direction Phillip should be coming from.

Crossing over the highest hill on the horizon, Billy was fairly shocked when he looked down and saw that a rush of water was running full, wild and high down Elbow Creek.

Immediately he was worried that Philip might have tried to cross it. He ran down the hill, then ran along the wild creek but saw no sign of Phillip. Then something on the other side of the creek glinted and caught his eye. He looked long and hard then realized what he saw was one of the chrome snaps from Phillip’s backpack. His backpack was caught on a tree branch and was sloshing in the current.

Billy jumped headlong into a full-fledged panic. “Please God, no,” he said. “Please God, no. Please let Phillip be alive.” He couldn’t help but think that his disregard for Harold was now coming back in spades.

He ran downstream stopping every 100 feet or so to peer into the water for any sign of Phillip. He went along like this until he came to where the creek boiled into theCedar River, which was still covered with ice and snow in some places. By this time Billy was exhausted and consumed by the devastating notion that his son, his only son, had been taken from him.

Finally, a stream of reason cut across his anguish and he decided to get back to the house and call the sheriff as well as his neighbors to come help him find his son.

He drove into his yard, the wheels of his pickup spinning and throwing mud, then jumped out of his truck and, without removing his muddy boots, ran straight into the kitchen and started dialing the phone.

Before someone picked up on the another end, Billy heard the screen door slam. It was Phillip.

“Phillip,” Billy shouted. “You’re here.”

Phillip saw the mud tracks across the carpet and the fading terror on his father’s face.

“What’s wrong?” Phillip asked.

“Where’s your school bag?” Billy asked.

“Oh, I must have dropped it on the way home,” Phillip said.

“Goddamn it, Phil. I thought you drowned or something,” Billy said. “Why didn’t you call if the bus wasn’t running?”

“I did. You must have been out in the shop. No one answered,” Phillip said.

“Jesus, Phillip, you put a scare into me.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean . . .”

“I know you didn’t, son, I know you didn’t.”

Right then Billy wanted to pull Phillip to him and hug him deeply and tenderly but he didn’t. “Damn it to hell, you put a scare into me,” he said.

In Billy’s personalized brand of Christian mysticism, God had just given him a huge break. “I got the message,” he said in his prayers that night. “Please forgive this selfish man.”

Billy promised God that he’d never shirk his duties to his fellow man, and that included helping Harold out when Harold needed help. So when the phone rang, Harold picked it up fully expecting and half hoping it would be Harold needing something. Billy was eager to make amends to Harold and to God. But it wasn’t Harold. In fact, weeks went by without Harold calling and Billy began to wonder if something might have happened to him.

So one Sunday, after church, Billy and Phillip stopped by Harold’s place. Billy noticed the front door had a fresh coat of paint on it. He knocked and middle-aged woman with thin brown hair came to the door with a paintbrush in her hands. She read the confusion on Billy’s face.

“Spose you’re looking for that guy what lived here before, huh?”

“Harold’s not here?” Billy asked trying to look past the woman.

“Nursing home inMinot. Didn’t he tell ya?”

“Well, I hadn’t talked to him in a while,” Billy said.

“I’m just renting the place,” the woman said blowing at a wisp of hair on her forehead.

“Oh,” Billy said. “Looks like you’ve been busy.”

“You wouldn’t have believed it,” she said. “I’ve seen cleaner hog barns.”

“Well, Harold was, you know, disabled. Cancer kind of left him half crippled,” Billy said.

“Yeah, that’s what I heard. I can’t believe they’d leave someone out here alone like that.”

Anger swelled up inside Billy. He wanted to tell the woman to mind her goddamn business. “Who the hell was she to be all high and mighty?” Billy thought. “Hell, it’s easy to take a superior air, when you were never called on to lend a helping hand.”

On the drive home Billy’s thoughts raced back and forth. “At least I did something. I did my bit. More than a hell of a lot of others.” And by the time he pulled into his own yard he had almost convinced himself.

Path:

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She existed only under the neon swirl of Broadway
Between 42nd and 9th a super billboard of iconic luxury, she was the freckled faced  beauty of Ralph’s Americana
College cute; the world is safe in Polo Dreams and monogrammed elegance
Her blue ribbon smile cut with Woodberry pluck and her cinema  curls sprayed with Nantucket goodness, but underneath the fried stench of food stamps and microwaved tacquitos and the real face of Broadway slits  through.
Her face was ripped with open scars and pitted sores, she tried to hide them with drug store make up but the powder cake couldn’t hide those lines of swollen sorrow, like rotting worms feasting on poision. She wore white  ankle socks slutted with tide marks, and thrift store shoes, limp with no heel they were two sizes too small hammering her toes purple, and raw making them appear like bulbous Dandelion heads. Sometimes she would take them off to let them breathe dried scabs forming a line of leeching crusts across her toes.
In the rain all you could see was an overhang of boiled pink flesh like a Holiday Ham burnt on the rim. She wore a flimsy cotton dress well, 50% cotton and the rest Polyester, it was dank and moist and smelt of rotten milk and amonia . She couldn’t do anything about the yellow sweat stains that gassed the arms but to avoid people’s stares and protect her tiny dignity, she would clutch her hands in front of her. She had oversized calloused hands used to fend off revlusion and pity the kind of pity meated out at a distance the kind of pity she detested.
Frank was her sweetheart then Jimmy and Johnny T ridding the grease pole with fangled  hope she lost count of all the promises they made then lost time, then she lost everything that mattered, hers was the underskirt of a Pepsi Kiss with no saccahrin left to coat her sordid panorma.
She had forgotten when her birthday was either May or June, she blanked out all the good stuff – like a bomb she had exploded into nothing
She didn’t like thinking about who she was and how she got to scraping the alleys of life  for bottles and 10 cents cans.
On bright days when the sun was bleaching the buildings with an oily glare and the hiss of fried dirt she wore fake Ray-Bans and Ronald McDonald lipstick, she was  the Betty Jones of her ghetto tableau; her pork belly folded over three times had a mushroom hue and was sagging with resignation.
She existed on the fringes of a twilight world – just a living corpse  a study in beatnik angst; material for an Allen Ginsberg wannabe  her eyes leaded with grief and hammered with pain the kind that’s punched into you leaving her numb and ripened with hate.
Four a.m., underneath the candy pink glow of Times Square lie the skewered remains of Jane Doe, a mottled portrait of gloom fracturing the Manhattan skyline
As smoke rings circle the frost bitten air and  police sirens switch blade the dawn, party hipsters rubberneck the scene there’s nothing to say it’s  too ugly for words, but mostly too ugly for life.

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Here is a submitted poem by Bill Kirk, “dedicated to the runners among your readers but especially to the long-distance, ultra-marathon runners who push their endurance to the limits.”

Life Is (Ultra) Good
By Bill Kirk

She wakes early,
Before first light
And slowly makes her way to the kitchen
To start the pre-dawn coffee ritual.
Her footsteps are muffled by thick wool socks
Pulled on out of habit—
Even in summer.

The house is quiet
And will be for another hour,
Except for the occasional creak or pop
In floors, ceilings and walls,
Just as old bones are also sometimes want to do.
It’s odd those noises always seem to be
Upstairs or in the next room—
Present but never proximate,
As if the house wants the attention—
Letting you know
It should not be taken for granted.

What makes those noises anyway—
In bones and boards?
Do people act like houses as they age?
Come to think of it,
Old ships are like that, too,
What with their snaps and cracks
From movement on the water
Even when safely sheltered.

She feels that way sometimes—
Just an old girl with ancient ribs and joints
Making noises as all the pieces and parts
Settle and resettle into place.
But not this day.

Today the noises don’t matter.
She has no time for feeling old.
For on this day, she has fifty miles ahead of her—
On foot; uphill and down,
Over rocky, narrow trails carved out through
The heavy underbrush of ancient forests
By pack mules, horses and pioneers.

Today, she will join the company
Of comrades, both past and present,
Once again, experiencing a level of
Anticipation, pain and exhilaration
Shared by few.

But now in this quiet moment,
Like no other in its simplicity,
She savors the first steamy sips
Of rich, dark coffee laden with
Fresh cream and sugar—
The resonant warmth radiating from her core.

Cradling the comfortable old mug in her hands,
She closes her eyes, thankful for this day.
Then, as if in prayer,
She imagines her long day’s journey.
The steady cadence stretched out
Over ten hours and 80,000 foot strikes,
Each one leaving its own transitory
Yet enduring mark on the trail—
Each one, the next first step
Of the rest of her life.

It’s almost time to lace ‘em up.
Life is good.

Bill Kirk is a children’s author and freelance writer living in California, and a UND alumnus (1969).  Please visit his website for more about his work and background, at http://www.billkirkwrites.com. online gambling

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A death.  A body amongst leaves on the sidewalk, found by passersby, the young couple walking their dog.  An old man, you’d expect natural causes, but there’s a pool of blood amongst the leaves beneath his coat.  Was he shot or stabbed?  Why?  By whom?

Blackwood Press wants to hear the story, and many more like it or unlike it.  We’re putting out a call to artists for submissions in a wide range of eclectic, dynamic media for publication on our website.

Our central focus has always been the written word, yet surrounded and complemented immediately by all the combined, mixed media we can produce.  Traditionally that’s meant printed chapbooks and small-run audio compact disc duplication, as well as an occasional full-length book; but today we’re traveling digitally and online, first with our glorified blog of a website, followed by ebooks and other digital editions, and still, we hope, with an occasional full-length physically printed book.

Blackwood Press is small, independent, and powered by creativity.  All forms of artistic expression will be considered for publication on this website.  Artists retain all rights to their work outside of initial publication.

Please submit inquiries and manuscript materials to the address listed below, or use the online form to upload your work. Submitted materials will not be returned unless prior agreements have been arranged with Blackwood Press.

Send manuscripts and materials to:

Blackwood Press
P.O. Box 12121
Grand Forks, ND 58208-2121

Or email us:  blackwoodpress@blackwoodpress.com

You wouldn’t expect to find such a thing in an ordinary place like that. canadian online casino

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Radiohead plays as I write in my new home

Radiohead plays as I write in my new home
I love it here, pros out way the cons
as much as the con is terrible
the absolute beauty here is undeniable
and now I have to shit
I should of thought of that before
I walked down here
now I’m forced t

o walk back to the main house
no big deal but it always seems to creep
back up by the time I get there
needless to say I look forward
to settling into a routine
now that I think about trading my
orange diamonds for white
do I need it? don’t know but
I’m willing to rely on a crutch
for a while
maybe I should just shit in a plastic bag
I have ass wipe
maybe I’d feel a lot better
maybe then I could concentrate on poetry
instead of this semi-autobiographical
account of boringness
ughhhh! so much better
aside from a few squito bites on my ass
today will be a day of cleaning
sorting the ‘Ranchita’ and pushing
dirt around giving the
aesthetic of cleanliness
we need a shop vac and washing machine
a propane stove and water heater
I think right now all we have is cold water viagra

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Home or Something: Big Sur, August 19th 2003

my second day descending
Big in the Sur
the cabin isn’t as small as I remembered
and we found out there is no money
for an addition, no biggie
I worked yesterday my first day
helped set up and put in
a 500 gal. water tank, hoo-wee fun
got to

learn about building surveying
learned how to plumb a bit
and of course
putting in the water tank

this morning drinking my morning tea
up at the main house I noticed
every morning I’m here,
I wake up to inventory
inventory of the itches
is it mosquito is it spider
but always…is poison oak
I made a solid effort whilst working
to avoid any at all costs
but this morning I found
that I miserably failed
failed again, and failed forever
so now I realize I’m faced with a year
a full body year
of fanatical itching and
low grade irritability waking nights
scratching till bleeding
feeling like I want to
extract the first three layers of skin
with a razor because the sting
is easier than the itching

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We’re Here!!

god damn my ass is numb
and now I see some flowers

such a place of paradise
to line highways with flowers

the way he flips me birds
makes me feel so at home

even though she’s there
I manage to still feel alone

but only on Tuesdays

tonight I’ll sip scotch
to ease the synaptic rush

closer to the life of the earth
the life of the ocean

my nose ceases to bleed
tonight I’ll feast a’ la’ yuppie

Cali-cuisine but fuck, it is so beautiful
maybe too nice like call me home

calling me names and throwing its own stones viagra pillen

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