Grains of Golden Amber – Poem 4 of 30 for National Poetry Month

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She’s from the Baltic seaside
Where the green waves
Come from the west, from Sweden

The waves roll in, white-capped
Taller than everyone there
And crash onto the smooth, flat beach

On the wet sand, if you look,
She says you’ll find grains
Of golden amber

She lives here now
Flew here years ago
In search of something

She tells me
She found it
When she found me

Here near the Great Lakefront
Where the gray waves
Come from the east, from Michigan

The swells move in, gray
Taller than no one (usually)
And whoosh onto the pebbly, rough beach

Just under the wet sand, don’t look
You’ll find particles, I say,
Of black coal ash

But on sunny, calm days the Great Lake
Is turquoise-blue and jade-green
And beautiful enough

To remind her
Of Palanga and Sventoji
And her visits with her mom and sisters

Beautiful enough to get her through
The next couple years
Until she takes me with her

Back to the seaside
To be with everyone she loves
At the same time

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Sanctuary – Poem 3 of 30 for National Poetry Month

Light_-_Stage_Lights

The lighting’s kept down, here
Except over the stage
Where black cans beam down
Bright red, blue, and green

On a man with a hollow guitar
In a long, leather jacket
Under a leather, western hat
His face too, like leather

A face clean, but with lines
And the beginning of a gray beard
Dark eyes, understanding
And at ease

It’s sanctuary here
From everyone he knows

He presses the strings to the frets
And strums
Sings out his day
His month, his year

Sings about Man
The machine, the slave
Thrown into life
To work for food

Sings about Man
The being, the soul
Who needs to do something
And to tell someone about it

When he’s sung out
He steps off stage
And walks out the door
Onto an empty street

Where lamps beam down
Orange cones of light
That he walks through, alone
To his car at a curb

He drives away, alone
Into the dark
To tomorrow’s problems
To tomorrow’s songs

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A Sign That It’s Warm Enough – Poem 2 of 30 for National Poetry Month

The Robin

Evening drive home
Tollway, then divided highway
Then neighborhood street

The goal is to do it
Without stopping
Anything, not to stop

This evening I made good time
Less traffic
Since tomorrow is Good Friday

At my street
I pressed the opener
Then turned into the driveway

To roll
Straight up
Into the garage

But I stopped
About fifteen feet short
Not to crash into…

The robins
Three of them close together
In low-altitude battle

Flitting
Rising and falling
Then landing and scurrying

A sign that it’s warm
Enough to open the windows
For a while

To lie in bed and listen
To the frogs’ continuous croaking
More like creaking

Like the sound of a finger
Across the thin upturned teeth
Of a black, plastic comb

The frogs’ creaking
Carried my wife to dreaming
While I stayed awake

Listening past the frogs
To the far-off engine whine
Of a motorcycle

The sound on a highway
A rider leaning forward
Accelerating into the night

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Lenses – Poem 1 of 30 for National Poetry Month

eyeglasses

I see better
When I look through lenses made
For me

Way ahead, that street sign’s
White letters have edges
Straight and curved against the green aluminum

At home
The book’s black-ink letters
Rise from the cream-colored page

When it’s this clear
It goes straight into my mind
It goes right into place

Good for what I’m about to see
Now, to get something for
Everything else

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13-minute Video – Jim Janus Telling the Story, “The Land of Two Thousand Lakes”

Me

This past Thursday evening, February 12, I made my storytelling debut at Kenosha Fusion’s, Story Night.

Here’s the link to the video of my 13-minute performance, telling one of my own stories, “The Land of Two Thousand Lakes.”

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Land of Two Thousand Lakes

Lakes
This is a teaser for the story I will tell at an event on February 12 at Kenosha Fusion.

Her Uncle wanted to meet me. To size me up, she said. To see if I could handle her. Kamila and I had just married. It was the second for each of us. A month later we flew from O’Hare. To Chopin Airport, Warsaw.

There, summer is as hot as here, and sweat soaked through Uncle Janek’s dress shirt, which opened at the neck. He lifted our last suitcase into the trunk of his dusty Renault, and we were on our way.

As he drove us away from the airport, Kamila explained that Mazurskie, the region of Poland where we would stay, is known for its two thousand lakes.

In a few hours we pulled up to the hotel. New-looking. A red corrugated roof over rows of windows set into white stucco. After we checked in, we walked outside with Uncle Janek to the pier on a calm lake. He spoke to the young man at the row boats. Kamila told me he asked how much per hour. The man and Kamila looked at each other with familiarity.

On our drive to her cousins’ farm, I sat alone in the backseat, looking at the vast fields of wheat, the forests of tall pines, and the lakes–all as I pictured them as a boy, when I read The Teutonic Knights. Now, I was in Eastern Europe, and I listened to Janek and Kamila speak the language.

Before the trip, I studied. Each weekday, driving to and from the office, I listened to the CD of vocabulary. Now I listened to Kamila and her Uncle. He sounded upset. I heard him say the Polish words for ‘boats’, ‘high school’, and ‘boyfriend.’

In an hour we pulled onto the farm. I met Kamila’s aunt, and Kamila’s two grown cousins. Adam and Edyk came out–shirtless–each with a red face and big smile. Each holding a tall beer-can in one hand and a fishing rod in the other. Their eyes shined as they walked to a tiny, red car. “That’s the Fiat,” Kamila said to me. “They’re taking you fishing. I’ll drive.”

My second ride in Poland. Again in the back seat. But this time squished between Janek’s sons. Up-front he spoke directions to Kamila.

She pulled onto the two-lane highway and headed the direction of the hotel. But, ten minutes into the ride, Janek gave another instruction. Kamila made a hairpin turn to the right, leaving the two-lane highway for a, sort-of, frontage road.

We continued along a curve that carried us away from the highway and into a field. Kamila slowed the car as the pavement turned to gravel, and eventually the gravel turned to tire tracks with grass growing between. We could hear, and feel, the grass brushing the undercarriage. And outside, the tall grass grew above window level.

When we could see no more, I heard Janek command Kamila to stop. She put the car in park and looked over her shoulder at me. “You’re getting out here.” I got out with Janek and the cousins. She said, “I’ll be back in an hour or so.” And the roof of the little red car disappeared into the tall grass.

There I stood, in the eastern European countryside. Ready to fish. But there was no lake. All I saw was the great field of tall grass and a nearby line of tall trees.

At that moment I remembered a 1971 film Straw Dogs, in which Dustin Hoffman played a mathematician who moves with his bride from the U.S. to her hometown in rural England–and I remembered the scene where a few guys from the village take the mathematician into a remote field on a snipe hunt, while his bride’s old boyfriend stays behind to meet up with her.

Janek’s friendly call interrupted my memory, and I followed the in-laws through the line of tall trees.

On the other side, it looked exactly the same. Another great field of tall grass. Except, here stood a large piece of construction equipment. A backhoe. Yellow, with black tires. And next to it was a small pond, perfectly rectangular and no bigger than an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Certainly not deeper.  A pool of stagnant, black water created by a dig into a peat bog.

There, in the land of two thousand lakes, Janek and his sons took me to fish at this tiny, made-up one.

(Will be continued.)

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Living Honestly

0A-00
I drive away from the corporate tower
Brake, gas, brake–then all gas
Staying back from the speeders in front
Moving aside from the ones catching up
Another hour of life at seventy M P H

Radio says we’re sending troops
Thousands of miles away
To kill bad guys
And nothing about the good ones
To be killed living honestly

I swear for the last few miles
Even with the windows up
I can smell the trees
And the tall grass
Like I live in the country

At the kitchen table
My wife touches my hand
And we say a short prayer
The muted TV shows a hole in a school
With a caption about moderate rebels

The sun sets
Yet the evening stays warm enough
For a t-shirt and shorts
I sit on the deck looking west
Imagining time has stopped

But the Earth rolls me back
Under a deepening dusk
Under the same, first pinpoints of light
That awed children
Nine hours before

In my yard the nighthawk that swoops
Is just a bird
Chasing insects I can’t see
And the crickets with their trill
Try hard to make up
For the White Nights gone away

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August

August

The air arrives at the lake shore
From hours of traveling
Over the vast, bright blue
And a million white glints

It swirls the sand
And the hair of a boy
Stooped for a smooth stone
Blue-gray like his sweater

The air flows over
The dirty-white boulders
Where an orange and black butterfly
Flaps, then glides, into the breeze

The air moves through the grass
And the parallel tracks from the mower
Releasing an aroma that’s sweet
Like tobacco from a pipe

It sweeps the cuttings
From an open picnic table
And clears the painted-green top
For my notebook

Like the air knows I’m looking
For an outdoor-desk
And this, with a seat on either side
A choice of what to face:

Dogwood and green leaves
Where a bird
Greenish-yellow and black-masked
Flutters to steal dark berries…

Or the waves, and a single sail
Gray in a shadow
And at the tiller, a red speck
A man steering away

Or, my realization
That for the lake, and the sky, and the trees, and the birds
This weekday is no different
Than those when I was a child

But for me to see it the same
I first need the air
To rush through my mind
And to take with it—what’s there

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You Can’t Get There from Here (Installment #2)

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I checked my watch and saw it was almost seven o’clock, so I asked the old man, “Is Nico Park still around here?”

“Around here?” the man asked back. Then he straightened up and said, “You can’t get there from here.”

This surprised me. I expected a yes or a no, especially from someone in the neighborhood. And, until I told the man my stories, I didn’t realize how much I wanted to get to the park. I thought maybe I confused him, so with respect I asked, “Did they get rid of the park? Build over it?”

He smiled again, and his gray-blue eyes showed me he was enjoying our interaction. “They didn’t get rid of it. You’re off by one. This is Cleveland Street. You want Keeney.” He pointed behind him. “Turn right onto New England. You’ll see the park at the next stop.”

“Thank you, sir.” I turned to my car, but then turned back to the man. I said, “Just one more question.”

The man nodded.

“At first you answered that I can’t get there from here. What did you mean?”

The man stepped toward me, and patted my arm just below the shoulder. “Young man, since you described the park by telling me of your evenings as a teenager, I know that it’s not just the park you want to get to. You want that feeling back.”

He said more than I expected. And while I thought about it, he pointed to the crossed street signs, thin and green atop the post.

“From this corner of course you can get to the park.” Then he pointed to my wrist–to my watch–and emphasized, “But from here, from right now, you can’t get to what you described.”

I did want the feeling back. He was right. And visiting the park wouldn’t do it.

“Still,” I told him, “seeing the park could help.”

“I understand,” he said, nodding. Then he asked, “Is it only the park that brought you back this evening?”

“No. I’m headed to Skaja’s Funeral Home.” And then I looked down, toward a crack in the sidewalk. “One of the guys from back then passed away.”

The old man’s eyes became serious, and he moved his head from side to side. “Too soon. Sorry to hear that.”

“We weren’t close,” I explained, “but I want to see him this last time. He worked around here for one of the big companies. Worked there twenty-five years. A friend of his from work said one day he just stopped showing up. HR called him and left messages, but he never called back. His friend drove to his place one lunchtime. Went to his apartment and found him.

The old man stopped me. “You said he worked for one of the big companies around here. Was it TechCorp?”

“Yes,” I answered, “TechCorp.”

The man removed his glasses, pulled out a handkerchief that was clean and white, wiped one lens and put the glasses back on. He seemed much more alert, and red colored his cheeks. “In the eighties I was TechCorp’s vice president of data processing. About the time you were playing ball at the park.”

This answer of the man’s also surprised me. I had not thought at all about his past.

“Are you retired now?” I asked him.

“I am. But I still try to keep up with how technology is evolving. I’ve a tablet that my kids bought me. I’m familiar with it enough to get to articles I need to read.”

“So do you live on one of these streets?”

“I used to. But the downturn that started in 2009 was pretty tough on me and my family.”

“So where are you at now? Do you need me to give you a lift?”

“When I get up to Waukegan Road I just need to head north a block. I live at the retirement home you used to work at.”

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You Can’t Get There from Here

Nico Park

This is the first half of a short story. I got the inspiration during an outdoor writing workshop with the Kenosha Writers’ Guild. We were given some prompts to use if we wanted. The prompt that interested me was, “You can’t get there from here.”  This is just the first half, so I apologize in advance for stopping in the middle. I’ll post the conclusion once I write it.

That evening the sun was far from setting, as on any June evening. Its glare came through the passenger-side windows of my car. It’s heat did too, even though the windows were up and the dashboard vents directed cool air.

The rush-hour traffic wasn’t bad, so I got into town earlier than I expected. The wake wouldn’t start until seven o’clock. So before I reached Oakton Street I slowed the car, waited for a break in traffic, then turned left off of Waukegan onto one of the side streets. The previous time I drove down that block–was thirty years ago.

The trees were a lot taller, but the homes which lined both sides of the street looked the same as they looked back then. Brick, one-story, with low, shingled roofs. Each with a front lawn, green and square, divided by a straight concrete walk. Each with three, wide, concrete steps up to the front-door. To one side a large front-room window. And to the other side a smaller, bedroom window.

I drove slowly along the quiet street. A few cars were parked on each side, and I weaved through to the end of the block. A little before the stop sign I pulled over, stopped, and turned off the car–to remember.

At the end of one of these streets there used to be a park. That’s why I turned. To see the park again. I was about to start the car to drive to the next block over, when I saw an old man walking on the sidewalk. He had just come around the corner ahead.

I lowered the passenger side window and called to him. “Excuse me sir. Is Nico Park nearby?”

He stopped, and stooped a little so he could see me.

I said, “I’ll come out.” And I got out of my car and walked up a lower driveway to the sidewalk.

I explained to him, “In the eighties I used to work near here at Waukegan and Caldwell. At the nursing home. In the kitchen. In the summer a group of us who worked there–we were all in high school or starting college–after our shift we’d drive to the park for its baseball diamond. We played sixteen-inch softball there. For fun.”

The old man cocked his head a little and looked into my eyes as if he did not understand.

I went on. “There were usually about eight of us. Enough for each team to have a pitcher, third baseman, shortstop, and outfielder. Kosta–he could hit the ball way out into left field, over the tall chain-link fence and into the tennis court. And Shimmo–he was a lefty. Whenever he came up to bat, the outfielder had to run all the way over to right-field, before the pitch. Shimmo could hit the ball beyond right-field and into the backyards. Sometime a neighbor would yell at us.”

The man listened.

“We liked when the girls played, but most of time Kathie and Debbie sat on the bleachers, and talked to each other and giggled.”

The man’s lips and eyes turned into a gentle smile.

“We’d play until it was too dark to see. Then we’d walk to our cars. The ones our parents let us drive to our part-time jobs. We’d lean on our cars and talk. No matter what we’d been doing–playing ball at the park, or having ice-cream at Dairy Queen, or dropping our quarters at the arcade of Par-King–those evenings in June we had nothing to do but to stay up and stay out. We’d lean on our cars and talk.

We talked about the girls we liked at work. Talked about the movies and music videos we’d seen. We talked about going to college, turning twenty-one, and how great it would be going to bars. We talked about what our real jobs might be.

The man’s smile started to go away.

It was almost seven o’clock, so I asked the old man, “Can you tell me how to get there? To get to Nico Park?”

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