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don’s liquor store,
a homeless woman kisses my hand
my heart swells and i’m a one second saviour
her husband bows as if in reverent prayer
i gave him 3 dollars on thanksgiving and
he probably drank it all but he’s still alive
so he must be eating
i see them and now every time
hope that the shelter opens soon and
i know it will and they’ll be warm at night
and less dirty
she’s red in the face
with the swelling of skindrenched
in alcohol and relentless sun
but her spirit’s intact
and she kisses my hand
i’m her one second saviour
and they’re happy to see me
Intro to The Jungle:
My best explanation for this piece is that Ventura, California has it’s own version of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row just to the north of town.
by philip scott wikel
On the ragged, sandy, and windswept edge of a town at one time immersed in oil, is a swath of land that, from a distance, seems just a river bottom. It’s framed on its northern border by a trestle bridge, on one side by a levee, on the other side, by a stand of dubious eucalyptus and tattered Monterey pines. A sandspit beach serves as its Southern border and, in summer, when the flow of the river is low, a lagoon encompasses one-eigth to one-third of the entire area of what many of the locals call “Hobo Jungle.” The jungle is home to ducks, cormorants, sandpipers, pelicans, squirrels, stray cats and a dozen or so human-beings. You don’t often see the human inhabitants of this mini paradise as they are, for the most part, hidden from sight by the tall Arundo donax that grows like wildfire, an unwelcome, reedy, intruder in a sensitive habitat of saltbush, narrow leaf cattail, and California bulrush. Hidden works two ways in this case; as safe refuge for those not wishing to be seen and, as a veil, for those who would rather not see them.
After church on Sunday I decided to surprise my son with a trip to some tidepools up around Carpinteria. I was a little wary of telling him where we were going because I had agreed with him the day before that we would go to Target to get a new game for his Playstation. I was worried that once he got his new game there would be nothing else in the world to him and that a trip to the beach to look at crabs and starfish would pale, profoundly, by comparison.
He thought about how beautiful the river was with the sun coming overhead and shining on the water. It struck the light grey rocks on the side as well and the combination of the light on the rocks and on the water turned this part of the river into a dream-like sequence of slow-motion nature, with their figures and the dragonflies blending together into a moment of peace; the river symphonizing the scene with music fit for the coming of Christ.
These moments, whether they knew it or not, were why they came. It was not so much for the fish. They didn’t need to catch fish for food and, though catching fish was something you could tell your friends about, the honor of being a sportsman was far outweighed by this communion with God and with one another. Being men, big and small, these things were not easily put into words. But these moments came, and though they might not seem to be done justice with words, there was a quiet knowing that the communion had been achieved. Some might say that this going fishing was like attending church, but this could only be part of the story. In going to church we’re guaranteed to find the word of God, provided our priest, pastor or preacher is speaking it. In going fishing, we take the chance that God Might find us. And He almost invariably does and we return home to mothers and sisters who can see that we’ve been with him, whether we caught fish or not. Neither experience of God is better or worse, it just might be that the one to one, experienced beside a river is perhaps clearer. And perhaps that is because there are no words to interpret, just what is felt in one’s heart. Jesus gave us that.
“Above the rapids and the fast water there’s a waterfall with a nice deep pool. That’s probably where your brother is. Why don’t we head up that way?”
The kid had drifted off again, watching the little pool in front of him. In it were crawdads, freshwater clams, and snail-like things that retracted into their shells when poked at with a stick. The leaves at the bottom were dusted with mud and the kid wondered why they hadn’t dissolved. Along the shore there was poson ivy and “sticker bushes” and wild berry bushes. You had to be careful fishing here and the kid watched as his father cast his line time and again and avoided getting snagged.
“Not really catching anything down here?”
“Naw… I had a few bites but your brother has a better sense for these things and I’m sure he’s pulling’em in left and right.”
The father reeled in his line and started up the path. The boy fought with the sticker bushes to get the net free then turned and ran to catch his father. As they walked northward along the river thay began to hear the sound of the waterfall. While a waterfall might seem just an interruption the the level flowing of water, when one is close to it, there is there a sense of power. The river is that much more alive there and one is inclined to stand in front of it and watch as sheet upon sheet and molecule upon molecule flows over and down and spits and splashes. And all the spitting and splashing combines together into a roar that, from a distance, is as soothing as the sound of the waves in the sea.
The brother was pulling in a big one as they approached and the smaller brother ran to make the assist. He had what appeared to be a fifteen inch Brown and it was putting up a considerable fight. Big brother pulled away from the water and the kid ran in with the net forgetting and not caring about getting wet. He scooped the fish into net and turned in the direction of his brother, smiling wide-eyed and seeing the same expression on the face of his brother.
“Right on bro,” said the big brother.
“Look at that!” said the father.
“Got two more just like it in here,” said big brother, patting his creel.
“Yer like an indian,” said the little brother.
“He definitely has a sixth sense,” said the father.
The boy looked to his brother with admiration. He’d taken all that their father had taught him and reached great heights. He was an accomplished athlete, good in school and an ace fisherman. He thought about how he was not like his brother. He hadn’t begun to play sports and didn’t even know yet how to swim. He was pretty good in school and spent most most of his time riding bikes with his friends or just goofing off. He’d taken an interest in books and spent a lot of time alone reading. He didn’t feel he was quite the “All-American” that his brother was but he was becoming who he was and slowly but surely he was seeing that he didn’t have to be a great baseball player like his brother to be recognized as an accomplished person. He liked baseball and sports and would one day be a pretty good soccer player and even learn to swim, but for now, he was mostly a quiet observer and this, he would find later, would be one of his greatest strengths when it came to writing stories.
“You guys ready to eat?” his brother asked.
“I’m hungry, how about you dad?”
“I could eat, yeah… let’s climb to the top of the waterfall and eat there.”
There was a flat rock with water flowing underneath at the top and they set down all their gear. The father pulled the sandwiches from his knapsack and poured a cup of tea into the top of the thermos and then looked to big brother and asked if he had the other cups.
They ate heartily, like farmers who’d risen early and had already managed to plant the entire field.
“Did mom make the sandwiches?” asked big brother.
“Yes… yes she did,” replied the father.
“There’s something about ham and cheese made by mom,” said big brother.
“Your sister made the cookies,” said the father.
“What a feast,” said the little brother and they all laughed at how corny and, at the same time, how right on his statement was.
“The river is really amazing from up here,” said big brother.
“It is,” said the father.
“It’s already been quite a day,” said the brother, turning toward his little brother, “maybe sometime you could write one of your stories about this.”
The sun shined into his face as he spoke and in his hazel eyes the little brother saw a certain green light that he would never forget.
Following is the first half of my story entitled “rivers.” As a child, my family and I didn’t attend church on a regular basis. As I recall, Easter Sunday was the only day we might be found there with any regularity. However, having said that, my brother and my father and I, did do quite a lot of fishing on the rivers of upstate New York, Northern California and Western North Carolina. And it was on those rivers that we communed with God, or maybe, just something greater than ourselves. Not unlike the characters in Norman McLean’s novel, A River Runs Through It, on our local rivers and, through the sacred act of fishing, we found our connection to a higher power and to one another.
Perhaps it was because of my father’s experiences as a child in a Catholic military school, or perhaps it was just from some strong internal impulse, my father saw it as very important that my brother and I spent a goodly amount of our weekends roaming the Catskills, the foothills of the Trinity Alps, or the Eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I hope you will enjoy this story and I hope it is a shared experience. And if it’s not a shared, I hope it will be one that inspires you to find a similar connection in your own life. In my mind it’s these kinds of experiences that define our existence on this little blue planet and make it all worthwhile.
rivers (part one)
by philip scott wikel
The South Fork of the Trinity…
… the Delaware…
Calicoon Creek, the Sacramento, the American, the Shawangakill and the Neversink.
Rods, reels and creels, deep pools and morning’s rising.
Risen, the conversation turns to fishing trips long past and recent tips on the best bait and the assurance that the night crawlers dug from the garden will be the best bet.
Eggs and bacon and the layering of Pendleton’s over t-shirts. Jeans and boots and the sound of the car igniting toward the new day.
The getting there is, as always, one of the best parts of the journey. It’s autumn and the trees around the old highway are alight with the season.
“Strung it with ten pound test,” one says.
“Browns have been hitting pretty consistently,” says another.
“Mom’ll have to use the biggest pan tonight,” adds yet another.
Morning’s light streams through birch, pine or hickory and we trudge through the distance from trailhead to stream. Wet leaves, rocks covered in lichen and moss; leaves as deep as knees and we wonder if waders were made for this. The dew is heavy everywhere and threatens to soak through but we’ve worn our best wool socks and waterproof matches ensure a fire if the wetness gets through.
“What do we have for lunch,” says the smallest of three, thinking already of mid-day and a picnic in the sun atop a dry rock jutting from the river bank.
“You can’t be hungry already,” says the father.
“Well no, but it’s good to know.”
“Ham and cheese and chocolate chip cookies, do you have the net?”
The smallest struggles for a moment, sleep still heavy in his head. He reaches around his body and finds the net bouncing against his back.
“It’s around my neck,” he replies.
“As soon as soon as we get near shore with one, do your best to be there.”
“I will dad,” he returns, thinking his is the most important job. A fish will often let you think it has him until he gets close to shore. It seems it’s always then that he manages to break the line and swim away.
The trail rolls over and heads toward a gorge. The three catch their first glimpse of the river and it sparkles like a liquid necklace of jade and turquoise, with saplings rising at her edges like charms given by a close friend. In sync, all three think “this is God’s country” and give silent thanks for such a wonderful day.
The sun is still low but is slowly rounding it’s way toward the tops of the trees, each leave kissed with its fire. In places where the sun touches the ground, rocks and leaves begin to steam like newly kindled coals. The chill air gives way to the coming warmth of the day while spiders and beetles and skier bugs begin their busy business and the air is filled with the richness of the forest that is forever composting; feeding itself with all that has fallen.
The older brother is quiet, on a mission. His day of fishing is a quiet meditation. The river is his canvas and with it he will paint a portrait of the mountain men of legend. His eyes are already searching for the places fish will likely be. He is a fish, and knows where he would go.
At river’s edge the older brother turns north, upriver, saying only, “See ya around lunch.”
The father turns to the small one and says, “Come on kid, we’ll look around down here, then make our way back up.”
“What’s in the thermos dad?”
“Hot tea, you want some?
“Yeah, my body’s a little cold.”
They stopped and he took a drink, burning his tongue with the hot liquid. He could feel the tip of it gone dead and started running it around against his teeth to wake it up.
“Burnt my tongue.”
“You all right?”
“Yes,” he replied lisping as he continued to test his tongue.
They rounded a bend and came to a point in the river where it slowed and where there would likely be a few fish. There was a long branch of a willow extending over a small pool and the water was swirling slowly below it. Along the river bank the water headed back upstream and it was in this place that the skier bugs did their dance. Here they could scoot across the water without fear of getting caught in the current and here the kid crouched down and watched them while his father prepared for the mornings first cast.
“Hey kid, could you hand me a few weights from your creel?”
The boy was startled, having quickly become mesmerized by the bugs and the swirling. But dad had said “your” creel and this implied ownership which meant that dad’s creel had become his creel and that he was now a fisherman of means and part of the club.
“Daddy won’t you take me back to Muellenberg County/down by the Green River/where Paradise lay?”*
This song began to play itself in his head as he reached for the weights. He grabbed the weights and handed him to his father and looked him full in the face. His dad had the look of an old Lumberjack and though only thirty-five years old he had an air about him of an old soul. Sometimes his dad seemed more like a grandfather, wise and full of stories. It seemed to him that his father had really lived, lived enough for two people’s lives or maybe even three. It seemed there really wasn’t a question he could ask that his dad didn’t have an answer for. And if he didn’t have a specific answer, he was always willing to venture a guess that seemed to make perfect sense anyway.
“I’m having a good time dad.”
His father hesitated and seemed overcome. Dads being dads and loving their children and doing things like fishing with them and having their kids enjoy these things made dads swell with joy.
“Me too kid,” his father replied with a hint of a cry in his voice, “me too.”
“I love you dad,” said the kid feeling this was the right moment to say this.
“I love you too kid,” his father said with tears in his eyes, “you know you’re really growing up kid, you’re mother and I are very proud of you.”
“You really don’t have to say that,” the kid replied, “I know you do.”
“Even so, it’s important to say it.”
This struck the kid deeply and he felt very loved.
“Why don’t you get your pole ready and cast your line?”
The kid thought about this and he thought about how he’d rather be there for the assist. To him there was a great glory in being there at the right moment to make sure the fish got ashore. In this moment his father thought maybe he hadn’t heard him and asked again, “Why don’t you get your pole ready?”
“I’m just gonna watch you for now dad… but I’ll be ready with the net.”
(To be continued tomorrow)
This was my entry for the 2009 Ventura County Reporter’s Short Fiction Contest. The only requirement was that it be 100 words or less. It received an honorable mention.
by philip scott wikel
In Menton on the cote d’azur there’s a youth hostel on the plateau st. michel. You must climb 1,000 steps to the auberge de jeunesse. A sign above the door reads “egalite’, fraternite’ liberte’.”
by philip scott wikel (originally published in SALT magazine)
I was to meet Dunby at the harbor at 7:00 for a day-sail to the islands. A bit of forethought had prompted me to set up the coffeemaker for 6:00. Upon waking I was greeted by the sweetly bitter fragrance of “french roast” brewing in the kitchen.
Outside the day was warm and still, the kind of day you don’t usually expect until late June or early July, but when it comes in March, it’s more than welcome. It’s the kind of day that, after a long rainy winter, reacquaints you with summer and the promise of the sun. Read the rest of this entry »
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Intro to Not Holy Faith
Here’s another from my childhood. It’s about letting go and growing up; growing up in the best sense of the phrase (not the growing up that makes you hard and cold), but the growing up that embraces change and looks forward to the freedom found therein.
As always, your comments are welcome.
Intro to That Sonoma Autumn:
This is a true story from my youth. My family and I had just moved to Northern California from New York in 1976. We lived for a few months on a horse ranch in Sonoma County, 18 miles from Cazadero, and more than an hour from the nearest hospital. Uncle Rex, the local sheriff, had just lost his best friend in a bank robbery/gun shootout and was hitting the sauce pretty hard.
I re-wrote this piece for Ticket to Ride and it is now part of Morgan Blake’s childhood. He relates this story to his therapist in the latter part of the book.
As always, your comments are welcome.
Intro to The Jungle:
My best explanation for this piece is that Ventura, CA has it’s own version of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row just to the north of town. Few know the reality of it, and even fewer want to. In this piece I was looking to acquaint readers with the sad reality of being one of the jungle’s denizens. The environment and politics of the place are of equal importance.