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This piece is about 9 printed pages long. It is copyright © Barbara Henning and Jacket magazine 2008.
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Barbara Henning:

Five Stories


Between Deming and Hatch, tumbleweeds are blowing across the highway and far off into the desert. Big black birds swoop down in front of the window as if pulled into a vacuum created by the car and then they back off, withdrawing upwards. Maybe they are playing with the wind. You don’t let your children play with scorpions do you, says the deep voice on the car radio. I see a little flash of white wing and then splat, swarms of insects flying into the white pavement and straight into the windshield. Crowds swarming across the mesa. Splat, splat, splat. I pull over. The radio announcer says Christians should vote for Christians. And I watch them landing down onto the highway, hugging the pavement. Listening to Leonard Cohen as I slowly drive along, the wheels of the car crunching the insects. Maybe less painful with speed so the car and I begin to accelerate. Later on the interstate, I pull over for gas. Big moths with tiger-marked bodies crushed, splattered and wedged into the grill. Then I’m daydreaming about a new lover, the hair across his chest, his silver hair, Cohen’s deep voice echoing in my lungs. Sometimes it’s good to wait until the other comes to you, they say, but still I speed along as if caught in the masterpiece. Along the side of the road, an abandoned car and rows of tall crosses, holding electric wires, the energy moving in between, and down the miles, the duplication and continuation. When I swallow I hear an echo and I look over to the side. The buffalos are back, four grazing on the side of the road just outside a tattered kind of middle America looking town. Cattle country, playing country western. A lone brown cow standing on the top of a ridge, a back calf playing underneath her, and the mother’s looking out over the plains. A tree a trailer a tree a trailer a tree a trailer a tree a trailer. Train. Mill. Pizza Hut. Down the hill. Elkhart, Kansas. What can you say when you pass through a little town with nothing much and then just as the fog recedes and the world begins to lighten, Dodge City appears looming behind a row of cars, a beef factory in the middle of town and the smell of animal carcasses. My little darling. A man left his baby in the backseat while he went down to get some cash out of an ATM machine and someone stole the car. The man was playing a Johnny Cash tune. If anyone knows anything or sees an orange Chevy with a white top, be sure to call the police. They call the side of the road a shoulder here because it doesn’t fall off too sharply. On the shoulder of the road there is a rest stop with a line of cars and then a mile or so later, a dead elk, lying on her side, her head twisted back, looking across the highway, eyes glassy, discontinuous. A big black bird is sitting on her back, across the road, feasting, his wings rising and falling down as the afternoon moon moves to the left under the cloud cover and we speed by in our cars.

Like a Stairway

The postman pauses in front of the house — big bushy shrubs, a spindly young maple tree, white curtains half opened, peeling grey paint, a wooden screen door and then a darker solid door with a little window. He stands still, searching through his bag and shuffling a few papers and then he passes by, heading up the street.

Behind the front door, you make a sharp left at the foot of the stairs and you pass by a Victorian style chair, covered with a dull gold cloth, bronze tacks, the wooden trim painted dark brown, and then a picture window with the young maple cutting through the view of another cinder block house. To the right, a foot stool with chipped gray paint, a big brown stuffed chair and a man with very large ears, sound asleep, his shirt unbuttoned and his armpits covered with perspiration. A checkered tie flops over the arm of the chair and half a pack of Pall Malls rests on the table. A fly buzzes around him. He reaches up and brushes it off his cheek, and then he promptly falls asleep. Across from him a low green scratchy couch and an end table. Sit down for a moment. The ashtrays are overflowing. In the corner there is a closet with a low rod for the young children and a higher one for the adults. A tv set and a turntable in a cabinet, painted with a mahogany stain. Three ceramic ducks are flying over the archway to the stairs, first the father, then the mother, then the baby.

A sculpted beige carpet leads into a hallway and a bedroom door with yesterday’s clothes on a hook and to the right, a dresser cluttered with loose change and an ashtray. On the pale green wall, two painted girls, light skinned and blonde on a turquoise background, little yellow flowers laced in their hair. A low dresser with a mirror, a lace doily, hairpins, a white jewelry box and another pack of cigarettes in a brown paper bag. A wicker rocking chair piled with clothes. And a thin woman asleep in the bed, the blankets rumpled, her head falling back into the pillow like a stairway falling down, down, and then the sound of her almost non existent breath, her young mouth open, behind her a print of Jesus with the little children. The branches of a lilac bush tap against the window, and the woman reaches up and pulls the covers over her shoulders.

Turn around and cut diagonally across the house into the kitchen, painted a deep yellow. An old oak table and four chairs. Two rows of cupboards with cans of soup and vegetables, and stacks of folded bags. A black wall phone in the corner above the milk box, a glass ashtray with cigarette butts covered with red lipstick, an address book on the counter, a white beagle curled up in a warm spot in the corner, and a child in a diaper dropping clothespins inside the furnace door, the rhythm right in tune with the dog’s tale thumping and the washer splashing. Out in back, a young girl, maybe ten years old, takes clothes off the line, white sheets in the wind, and the young branches of a pear tree are in the beginning stages of hibernation. A newspaper blows across the yard, resting temporarily at the base of the stairs of another gray cinderblock house.

When the dog turns over, the refrigerator starts to hum and the washer goes into spin. The golden rule is pinned above the door. Go back through the kitchen, past the sleeping man into the hallway. Follow the sound of a ball bouncing against a wall. Red plaid pajamas on the floor, a dresser with a fox hunt on top, three ceramic spaniels and a horse. In the bookshelf, fairy tales, hobby books, Great Expectations and the Favorite Poems of Longfellow. Big yellow sunflowers on the quilt, a toy fire engine in the corner, and the lone yellow ranger riding his horse across the curtains. The little boy bounces his ball at the wall, boing, back again to the bed, boing, hit a book, back again. Shut the door quietly.

In the bathroom, there’s a white sink with pink tiles, water is running, a scale behind the door, four toothbrushes in a ceramic holder, and a girl sitting on the toilet, chanting, I’m three, I’m four, I’m free. Her feet are dangling over the edge. Behind her on the wall is a medicine cabinet with a shaving mug, Old Spice, a whisker brush, on the wall a razor, an extra bar of soap, Pepto Bismol, and a tube of toothpaste. A big yellow wicker hamper overflowing with clothes, a scale, a bathtub with three pink rags folded into squares and placed into each corner. The little girl pulls up the stool and climbs on top of a telephone book. Water starts to overflow.

Remember you are not the babysitter. You are not the mother. You are just passing through. Go back through the living room past the migrating ducks and up the staircase, past this and that stashed on shelves — a music box, an old doll, and a green library book. Under the rafters, a closet, crawl throughs, recessed dressers, half built walls, and three beds. A little girl sits on her bed, cross-legged, carefully cutting up Dick and Jane and Sally. Their yellow hair removed, fluttering to the floor, little bits of this and that, a dog, a mother, something is starting to happen. The wind gushes into the room blowing papers all around. A comet, an eclipse, perhaps some star in the evening. A dusty cabinet full of books, an old set of rarely opened Harvard Classics and a worn collection of Dickens’ novels. An old painted dressing table with a cloudy mirror. Behind the walls, throw everything, all the scraps, throw the evidence into the darkness behind the walls. Then stand here, right here and look out the window, a panoramic daytime view of the sky and the yellow maple and oak trees, bare branches, and rows of houses, a block-by-block grid growing into the country.

Sometimes when I was a child and sound asleep, I’d climb up on the ledge, survey the horizon and then I’d jump out the window with my book under my arm — my skirt opening like a parachute, I’d land in the back seat of a black Chevy convertible. I remember looking back at the house the last time, at the lilac bush and the grey walls. My driver was wearing a black leather coat, his hair was slicked back — he made a fast u turn at the corner, screeching and then he took me far away — never to return — into the city of dark alleys and hidden stars.

The Light is Light

A man wanders around Paris in a long black coat, searching for a woman, while thinking obsessively about Henri LeFebvre’s life, an old literary magazine Luna Park in his pocket. The pigeons perched on a lamppost and then gone. There’s another story I start about a dentist. A few pages later though I begin to drift, put the pen inside the book on the page where I am, set it on the window ledge and my glasses next to it and then I turn off the light. On my left side, then my right, then my left. The light is light. Not drifting off anymore, I stretch out naked on the bed, looking for a woman, the sheet pulled half way over my body. Unless I am naked, I can’t sleep, need a stack of books and magazines, too. And then I think about eating something. Maybe later. I think about Dimitri at my desk back in my New York City apartment typing with his back to me. I’m gone from there, too. But then someone reaches around me, turning toward the light, we turn toward each other. I can’t see the center of his eyes, but maybe later. A woman behind us on a chair, a puzzle, a pose in a magazine. Two others join with arms and legs. Now I am lying still, longer than before and someone touches me on my arm. How will I sleep at my aunt’s house on Friday? I wonder. She’s gone, but she lived there for thirty years and after she died, her magazines are still piled in the corner. My suitcase is on the floor, half packed and light. When I’m there I won’t think about the emptiness of women carried away and wandering around the house, reclusive and distant, later elegant in her seventies, like an aging model, later forgetting everything. Almost gone when I sat by her side and she reached up and touched me. That’s my breast, I said, moving her hand away. Are you a man? No a woman, your niece. Oh shit, I was hoping you were a man. We both laughed. And then gone. Maybe tomorrow night when I’m sleeping there, I’ll wake up and hear the bedroom light click on. Please help me, help me. But her bed will be empty and tonight I’m still here in the desert, the sun glowing a rose color through the tunnel of my books and magazines and the swamp cooler chirping like a bird. I call Michah on the phone and talk about maybe coming back to the city. You won’t like the light here, he says. I’m in a restaurant on 7th Street and it’s raining. Later when I’m eighty — Wait, don’t hang up. Later, much later, will you come for me and carry me home, carry me up the stairs, like a leaf in the palm of your hand, not a heavy woman, just a page torn out of an old literary magazine, carried around in the pocket of a long black coat — she’s out so late in the blue early morning light, wandering up and down Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn.

Two Big Yawns

Bye now. Her knees keep giving out on the way back to bed. A B C D E F G. What comes after G? I want a drink of water. She reaches out for my arm, and says, “Mama! Mama, help me!” All of a sudden I look up and see her foot come over the edge of the bed. What are you looking for? I’m looking for myself. Please, please — Would you quit rubbing my arm. Would you quit walking so slow. I’m your best secret. I’m dreaming of a cute man. Hell if I know who he is. Who are you? Are you a guy? No? Boo hoo. Sigh. So it’s just you and me. Take me away from here. I don’t want to ever forget you. I got you babe. Water, please. Where did you come from? When did you grow a beard? She lifts her head up by reaching around and pulling on a handful of gray brittle hair until her head lifts off the pillow. I am alive. I am alive. I’m going to die. I’m going to die. I am a good girl. I am a good girl. Am I a good girl?

The orange sun is hidden in the mist. At first I thought it was the moon.

I knew that we were ruled by fate and that we would all drown in the storm, and I knew that only the cleverest, myself certainly not included, would stay afloat much longer.*

This morning I feel a little bit of sadness floating like a leaf in a puddle. Hypertext is now ordinary and the norm. A little baby bird fell out of the palm tree in front of the house. The ants are busy devouring it. I’m eating a carrot and watching sparrows and doves pecking here and there, singing or maybe they are complaining but we like the sound so we call it singing. One comes close, backs off, comes closer, approaching the end of the hose, where he finds a few drops of water.

I put elastic bands around my calves to hold up my pants. Pack a little bag. Put on my straw hat. Push it down on my head so the wind doesn’t carry it away. Sit upright on my bicycle, adjust my spine and coast down Norris Street, turn right on Third, join a crowd of college students as we cross over Campbell Avenue. My hat is rolled back so I can see. My pants are bunched up around my knees so I can pedal. I am sitting upright. I look over and a twenty-year-old guy leaning against a lamp post is looking at me and laughing.

Outside in the yard in the sun I am holding a load of laundry in my arms, wondering if I can absorb energy like a plant does. I remember when I used to open the door of my nyc apartment and look out at Seventh Street and everything lightly covered with snow. Like a blanket of white across the horizon, not the sea, but a strip of cirrus clouds.

I can feel myself pulled into the computer screen, the skin and effort tightening into a kind of concentration, two deep lines in my forehead above my nose. The train horn is blowing, a mile and a half away. Take a break and pedal in the dark, past the Modern Language building, past the Social Science Building, past a tent with a sign, Families. Suddenly the pathway is blocked by an entire marching band with trombones and cheerleaders. I cut around them, feeling my whole body engaged in the cycling. Go past the trombonists, across the avenue into the dark side streets, over the sandy spot and back up my drive. Lock the bike on the porch. Back in the house and it’s so quiet. I like it here just like this even though my family is elsewhere. You live your life as a result of past decisions and actions.

These little patches of wiry grass are in fact baby palm trees. When I start digging, the roots go on and on, maybe, a foot and a half and still rooted. Ready for bed, I stop and think, “Didn’t I just climb in here a few minutes ago.”

Flooded with blue and gray sleep. Out on the motor boat on Otsego Lake with my father. While he fished, I sat still. The rocking of the boat from the little waves. Looking back at the shore, the tiny dock and the little cabin we had rented for the week.

Fifty-nine on Friday. Yellow flames in San Diego. Wild fires burning down an area as big as New York City.

*Joaquin Font in Roberto Bolano’s Savage Detectives.

What We Need Now

Did I do something to you? the man on the car radio wonders. From the start I was hopeful until they held a cigarette to my forehead and then quickly I confessed. I turn off the radio, pull over to the side of the road, take a left turn into a gas station. Miss, I ask, where can I buy produce? What’s that? She’s reading a gun magazine. I’m standing next to an aisle of beef jerky. You know, fruits and vegetables. The woman is startled. She looks at me like I’m crazy and then tells me to go down that road. Great stuff at Walmarts, tomatoes and everything. A man comes into the station, carrying some wood beams while I’m secretly placing little toy soldiers on the shelves with stickers: Bring me home. Bring me home. Then I’m back in the car, swooping down into a valley when the phone rings again. It’s Esther. You won’t believe the despair in Kabul. What will they do next?Something’s going on outside, the sky is so dark. You just missed a tornado in Kansas. It looks like the end of the world here. I’m thinking the same thing. Nothing but storms everywhere. The trees are blowing sideways. I would have called earlier but there wasn’t reception. A big truck is weaving across the road. Oh great, I can’t see now, so I pull over. Don’t worry, it will blow over soon. And then we start to talk about the delicacy of organs, the fragility of human life.

A few days later, I’m on the street in the city in the early morning, the air cold and heavy and I’m talking on my cell phone. In India, I’m saying, there are gangs of bandits who worship Kali, doing blood work for the great goddess. It’s hard to keep a loving focus when you’re part of a crowd or even a couple. I miss you but I don’t want to harm you. The KKK praying and burning simultaneously. Even so I would like to climb inside your shirt, a kind of narrow tunnel. A truck almost hits me, though, like nothing was there when I was standing in the intersection and you laughed. Standing on a corner shivering under helicopters and skyscrapers. I started out this morning with three hoods and a scarf wrapped around my head. I don’t see anyone I know and I used to eat out in this restaurant three times a week for twenty years. I order something, but it’s not what I used to eat and I don’t remember what I should be missing. There isn’t anything in the entire country I want to buy now. I’m so tired of buying things. At the next crosswalk, there’s a short stocky Chinese woman inside a long down coat with a grey hood tightly drawn around her round face. Excuse me, I say, if I were living here, I’d buy one of those. Seventy percent, she says, that’s just what you need.

Barbara Henning

Barbara Henning

Barbara Henning is the author of two novels — Black Lace and You, Me and the Insects — as well as several books of poetry, including Detective Sentences, Love Makes Thinking Dark, Smoking in the Twilight Bar, In Between and a series of photo-poem pamphlets. Her most recent book is a collection of sonnets, My Autobiography (United Artists, 2007). Thirty Miles to Rosebud, prose and poetry, is forthcoming from Spuyten Duyvil. Recent work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Talisman, Hanging Loose, Lungfull, Not Enough Night, Reconfigurations, Imaginary Cities, Matrika Yoga Magazine, Dispatch Detroit, Zen Monster, Eoagh, and House Organ. In the 90’s Barbara was the editor of Long News in the Short Century. She was born in Detroit, relocated to New York City in the early eighties and has recently moved to Tucson. Presently, she’s teaching workshops for the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center, as well as in Naropa’s MFA program. She is Professor Emerita from Long Island University in Brooklyn.

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