Living Honestly

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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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Freedom Stream

Freedom Stream Color

In the year 2100 the Social Health Office sent a technician wearing gray scrubs to the one room apartment of twenty year-old Diego, and fitted him with a tiny receiver. By the end of the fifteen minute visit, as the technician gently sewed a single stitch into the back of Diego’s head, the Freedom Stream hit a milestone: Every resident of the city connected.

In his room with no desk or bookshelves, Diego smiled and called out, “Yes!” No more looking at the wall-screen or holding a blue-glowing device. Now, right into his mind streamed the popular songs, videos, movies, and shows.

Outside Diego’s apartment, traffic lights showed black. Since the second economic collapse fifty years prior, no traffic moved on the streets. Diego and most other citizens didn’t work. The city provided each resident with food, and a person rarely went out. The Freedom Stream deadened everyone’s curiosity about the real outside.

But the technology had glitches. And the next morning when Diego woke up he did not experience the relaxing wave sounds of the Stream. Instead he heard nothing. Silence, unfamiliar and unsettling, panicked him. So he immediately acted to restore the connection. Diego moved closer to the source which he knew to be atop the nearby, hundred-story, redbrick smokestack.

He left his unit and walked across the road, picked his way down the neighboring ravine’s brush and trees, and stepped over the abandoned rails to the lakefront. There Diego discovered a moored pontoon which buoyed a rust-colored steel container once used to transport goods. Its opened doors revealed attached shelves holding thousands of well-preserved books.

An unkempt, seventy year-old man appeared on the boat and looked at Diego, at his brown eyes of curiosity. The old man could tell that Diego’s connection to the Stream had been interrupted, that for only a few minutes the young man would be able to listen.

“Hello! My name is Amit. These books contain the unique thoughts of individual men and women. Each book is different. Each is a snapshot of the person’s thoughts at the time they wrote it. Unlike receiving the barrage of the Stream, reading a book is hearing a person’s thoughts in a way you control. Reading allows you to pause, to think about what you take in, to be aware of your reaction. The binding, paper, and ink let you feel the book, truly hold it.”

Diego stepped back from the stranger and thought of an excuse to get away. “Sir, I cannot read. They closed all the schools and libraries before I was born.”

Amit heard this from others. “I will teach you to read. And as important, I will teach you to write.”

“But today there’s nothing to write with. Nothing to write on.”

“I wrap twigs in foil and put them in fire to create pencils. I write onto scraps of paper. Seeing my thoughts in words amazes me. To have my own thoughts, to choose which ones I share, and to choose the words–that is human. The Stream takes that away.”

The Stream now crackled in Diego’s mind, the reconnection was starting. He felt unsure about the man and his offer. But he wanted to know more. Diego reached to the back of his head–for the stitch.

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Freedom Stream – A Very Short Story by Jim Janus

Selected as Winner of Waukegan Public Library’s 30th Annual Ray Bradbury Creative Contest (written-adult category)

Contest theme, from the WPL website

“Waukegan-native Ray Bradbury and author of Fahrenheit 451 understood the importance of reading, writing, and education to a successful society, saying “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Bradbury saw the slow destruction of books and the written word and was fearful. In Waukegan, not only do we see the rising popularity of eBooks, acronyms, and textspeak today, we live and work with those who do not even have the foundation of basic reading and writing skills in English or in Spanish. As the written word continues to disappear, the future of libraries, literacy, and free access to knowledge is uncertain. In your contest submission, please consider a future without the  written word. What would society look like? What would happen if your freedom to read and learn disappeared? How do you feel about banning books?”

Freedom Stream <— Click here to read the story

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Winter Poem

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The window pane lets through
A chill
And the scraping, thundering
Of the plow

Outside, the evening’s darkness
Is brightened from above
By the orange glow
Of one, sky-sized cloud

Which gathers the light
Of all the city’s street lamps
And sends it, collected
Onto the new layer of white

An amber light flashes
Atop the truck
Whose headlight beams
Light the back of the yellow metal plow

A scene like this
Triggered excitement, when I was a boy
For school to be put off
For more time with siblings and friends

I’m not in school anymore
I’m my parents’ age
And the fun
Is gone

In the morning, I force myself through
The frigid drifts of the yard
And put out seed
For the birds from the north

Black and white juncos
Smaller chickadees and purple finches
Blue jays, and red and brown cardinals
Flutter and feed

And before I go in
I drive a mile to the lake
To see how it’s doing
As ice

And to see again
There is so much more
Than just me
Than just the day-to-day

Back home my thoughts stay snowed in
I’m seeing everything the wintery-same
Gray sky and gray-brown trees
Gray-brown fenceway for the gray-brown squirrels

My desk is the same
And so are my bookshelves
The same books
In the same order

The window pane lets in
The buzzing, whining drone
Of the neighbor’s blower
All drives and walks now clear

Except mine

I don’t want to pull on boots
Nor put on a down jacket
I don’t want to tangle on a scarf
Nor fumble with gloves

I turn from the window
And slide out a book
Sit, and start to read
Page one, page two, page three

And my mind leaves the story
My breathing slows
I let my eyes close
Let hibernation take me

I don’t need
The weather forecast
The words snow and cold
Are clichés

I’d like a forecast
For inside me
For what’s on the way
Within me

Tomorrow the vortex will slow
The wind of worry will no longer gust
And there’s a good chance
For an accumulation of my thoughts

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The Village by the Sea

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Saturday morning in the village, the visitors appear from wooden cottages and sit at tables on porches or in yards to nibble on cold meats and last night’s bread, sip hot tea, and choose from soft pastries the wives just bought at the nearby stands.

The voices are quieter and deeper as they retell what made them laugh not too many hours before, when each sat on moveable stumps–tree trunks recently cut and arranged around the fire–and ate and drank and sang.

After breakfast the visitors go inside, to put on bathing suits and fill their backpacks.  They come out again and walk in groups along the main street that leads them to the pines, and the narrow path that winds through them.

The scent of the green needles above and dry needles below confirms that the sea is very close.  Conversation becomes excited as the visitors reach the boardwalk which takes them to the top of the dunes and the open, far-reaching sky.  And then down to the sea, and to the wide, flat beach, bright in the sun, but cool and smooth on the sole, the rising waves coming at an angle, from the southwest, from Stockholm.

I don’t go anymore to the sea, like I did when I was a boy.  Now a man I spend mid-days in the village, sitting with my back to it.  But in late afternoon when many visitors are napping, the sound of the waves makes it here, and cool air touches my neck.

I sometimes sit across from the weathered garage where I used to work, and I peer over at the worn cars.  Visitors drove them here, three hundred kilometers from Vilnius and Kaunas, and they need repairs before the return trip can be possible.  Years ago, few of the villagers had the skill to replace a belt, or a radiator, or a wheel.  Now, men from other countries move here.  They work on the cars for less.

The owner kept me.  Each morning I would go there and sit.  I would watch the others arrive and begin on the cars.  They acted kind to me, let me deliver this or that.  They didn’t tell me to go.  I left without saying.  Stood from the bench and walked away.  Past their backs, their heads disappeared between open hoods and lifeless engines.

Each day I stop by the churchyard.  The nun there washes my clothes along with the rags she uses for cleaning.  I like to clip the grass around the wooden carvings of the saints.  Sometimes there a visitor will give me a coin.  Most days I accept enough to buy bread, or a piece of fresh meat, or a piece of smoked fish from a cart.

Yesterday while walking along the road in the direction of the bus station, a woman asked me if I had enough to eat, if I needed newer clothes.  She said I reminded her of her grandfather, my blue eyes and light hair.  She gave me these coins saying I might want to go to the city.

Tomorrow I will use them–to sleep one night here, in the smallest cottage by the sea.

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Cloud Ride

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When you tell your friend
Look at that cloud!
She probably won’t see it
Like you do

She won’t see its golden left
Catching the November sunset
Or its bluish right
Looking for the moon-rise

She won’t see its grey underside
Getting larger as it gradually comes down
Onto you, like a saucer in a sci-fi movie
The kind they stopped making

It’s the disordered dishes
And the unopened mail
The jumbled bed cover
And the bag that needs to go out

You say, Look again!
And she says,
In a few minutes
After I do these things

But you know clouds
Always moving, always changing
And before she’s done
This one has landed and taken off

And you’re up in the dark blue
Being carried southwest
Higher and higher
To the brilliant evening star

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The Robin

The Robin
He put the two spoons into the tray in the kitchen drawer, folded the dish towel over the oven’s handle, and turned to the living room.

“Thanks for dinner,” he called to her.  “Your vegetable soup is always excellent.”

She smiled and settled down into the loveseat, leaning her back against one armrest.  The sun brightened her as it moved lower behind branches and changing leaves.  She liked to watch the birdfeeder at the back.  Yesterday morning two faded cardinals perched on the corner post of the wood fence.  One peeping, as the other hopped to the feeder and back with the dark seed.

Now there were no birds.

She rested her hand on her stomach and looked at her ring.  Then she pulled up her knees and wrapped herself in a brown blanket, her lips straight as she looked again through the large window onto the yard.

He knew she wasn’t thinking about what was out there.  He called to her, “Will you go for a walk with me?”

She turned to him, relieved by the interruption.  “Of course I will, honey.”

He said, “I first need to check my work email.”

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In the laundry room each put on shoes and a jacket.  She asked, “Where do you want to walk?”

He chose a route he thought would get work off his mind, so he could think with her about what happened in the morning.  “Let’s leave the subdivision, and go to the farmer’s field.”

She took the flashlight from the shelf.  “We’ll need this for the way back.  It gets dark early now.”

They walked down the driveway into the cool, graying evening.  Before crossing the quiet side-street each felt for the other’s hand.  In a minute they turned onto the half-mile stretch of road that ran north, alongside a line of trees that screened the county bike trail.

He said, “I like this road.  The old trees on both sides, all the way to the end.  And I like that it’s straight, that it rises and dips a little, like a real country road.”

“And I like the rabbits,” she said.  She pointed to a gray-brown, furry lump.  It was still, and facing into the trees by the trail.  “He thinks if he doesn’t move we won’t notice him.”  Then she called sweetly, “We see you!”

She added, “I like the trees too, especially now with the colored leaves.  But the mailboxes.  Why are they on the trail side?  The people have to cross the street to get their mail.”

“I never thought about that.”  And he smiled knowing that what he’d say next wouldn’t satisfy her.  “Maybe the village wanted the boxes on the same side as the telephone poles.”

She liked when he made up answers for things.  But she let him know when he didn’t come up with a good one.  “They’re simply on the wrong side.”

Behind them the whisper of a car’s tires on pavement came closer.  They moved over to the narrow strip of gravel.  The car passed slowly and continued on.

“At least there aren’t many cars,” he said.

They became quiet in their own thoughts.  He looked toward an open garage with tools covering the inside walls.  She, at fall flowers in a garden near the road.

As they continued to walk, he said to himself, “Telephone poles and mailboxes.”  Then out loud, “It’s easy here to imagine it’s the seventies.”  He started to daydream and said, “Simpler times.”

They passed a house that, like the others, sat far enough back from the road that a group of old trees could spread their jagged limbs over the large front yard.  A long, gravel driveway bordered one side of the property and gave some weathered, undriven cars a place to be.  The small house’s front door was on a cement stoop.  Next to it stood a tall aluminum pole.  At the top the American flag drooped motionless, faded.

After the house he saw the mowed grass of the park-district baseball field.  No one was there.  In a far corner, a flat area of sand marked the infield.  The tall, chain-link backstop drew his gaze.  Behind it a line of trees screened a two-lane county route that ran the same direction as the road.  From there a high pitched trill of a squad car came and went.  It woke him up from his slide into home-plate.

“Those times seem simpler to me,” he corrected himself, “because I was a boy then.”

She looked at him and smiled.  “I’d like to have seen you as a boy.”

“A boy,” he repeated in a whisper.  Then he spoke in the serious voice he used when talking about his job.  “They’re cutting costs again.  I won’t get the new position.”  Then with a gentle voice, the one he used to ask her for help.  “Why do I stay at that place?  Twenty-five years under fluorescent lights.  My back to the window, the kind that doesn’t open.  Each day is the same–the building won’t let in the season.”

She wanted to say something, like if she owned a company he’d be CEO.  She knew he did well at his job, and hoped with him for a position where he could do more.  But she also liked that he came home at dinner.  She squeezed his hand and said, “I’m sorry, honey.”  And after a pause, “Maybe that new position would have been too much.”

On other walks they wouldn’t hold hands the whole time, but this time they did not let go.  His hand stayed warm because she was holding it.  And at that moment he thought only of her, that she cared for him, that she encouraged him to appreciate family, that she encouraged him to pursue his creativity.

She went on, “Today Agnes asked me to take her to the club.  Years ago she’d pass the time there since Joe was putting so much into his career.  They never had children.  She said they didn’t want kids.  Now there’s none to look in on them.  They need me to take them to the doctor, to help them around the house.  I cross their street to bring in their mail.”

He thought of their being old one day, sitting together at home.  No doorbell.  No ring of the telephone.  Emptiness.

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At a half-mile they reached the road’s end, the T at the east-west street.  They crossed to the field.  It was lined with stubs of dried cornstalks.

He looked up slightly, into the distance as far as he could.  Low in the west, pink wisps of clouds glowed in front of deep blue.

“The sky,”  he said, “It’s so big here.  So open.”

She too liked the view there, especially after sunset.  “It’s beautiful.”

He looked into the field.  “Last Saturday I saw them having a bonfire and hayride over there.  Boys and girls laughing and screaming.  Really having a good time.”

She smiled.  “Makes me think of when I was a girl.”

A group of robins fluttered among the top branches near the trail.  She looked at them and forgot the rest of what she was going to say.

He’d never seen her pay attention to robins.  She would look for birds that were harder to find.  “What is it?” he asked.

“I just had a memory,” she answered.  “When I was a girl, I would walk with my older sister to and from school.  One time it was spring and we were going along the path through some trees.  On the ground I found a tiny blue egg.  It was cracked and empty.”

He started to say it’s not unusual, but stopped.

“When I stood up, just a little higher than me I saw the nest.  And poking above it, I saw the head of the mother.  I remember her eye, round and black.  She was staring at me like she knew the egg was gone, like she knew there was nothing she could do.”

He put his arm around her.  She rested her head on his shoulder and he could feel her shaking.

She sobbed.  “I told the robin that everything would be okay.  I told her she would have others.”

He hugged her and listened to her cry.  And he began too, in his chest and throat and eyes.  He swallowed.  Then he said quietly, “We’ll try again.  Like the doctor said.”  They held each other for a minute as the sky became a deeper blue.

A single screech of a young great horned howl came from the trees.  Then, overhead, the silhouette of the mother’s outstretched wings glided silently into the woods.

He said, “Let’s go back.”  And before crossing the east-west street each felt for the other’s hand.  She felt hers become warm, because he was holding it.

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