Conglomeration No. 6
Conglomeration No. 6
When Abundance Comes
It figured that when I could finally face the beginning of spring, it was the year the flowers came. It was the year of the great storm and the hundred-year bloom, when everyone in California looked to the skies and said, “Oh for God’s sake, again?”
During that winter of El Niño, the rain came in sheets, never seeming to end. One Sunday, as yet another thunderstorm pounded the roof, the rector of our church proposed using the adult education hour to hold classes on How To Build Your Own Ark. A ripple of nervous laughter went through the room. The novelty of weather—real weather—had put people in good spirits, until everyone, even those of us who didn’t live in places like Malibu, began seeing mudslides.
From my balcony, the landscape began to look more like Wyoming than the scrubby hills of Santa Clarita. By February every mountain between Piru and Acton was covered with snow. The skies cleared for an afternoon, and then another storm blew in, this one warmer than the last. The Tehachapis vanished for another week behind a wall of clouds. When they reappeared, much of the snow was gone. But then the flowers came.
What I expected to see amid the spring grasses was our state flower, the California poppy. And there were a few, here and there, but what emerged in abundance was lupine. Along the freeway, field after field of stalky blue shoots sprang up almost overnight, as if a truck had spilled seven miles of ice-blue carpet along both sides of the road. On rare afternoons when the skies cleared enough for the sun to peek through, I thought: It looks like Texas. And then I pushed the memory away.
By the beginning of March, the wildflowers had made headlines. I never saw any of the features on World News Tonight or the NBC Nightly News, but suddenly everyone was talking about the transformation that was occurring out on the Mojave. Out of town relatives called: Had I heard about Death Valley? People who wouldn’t recognize a flower if they camped out all night to see the Rose Parade were suddenly experts in high desert botany. The word ‘miracle’—which, in Los Angeles, often refers to tortillas and images of the Virgin Mary—got used a lot that season.
One morning at work, I was quizzed about the state of flora in my area by one of the bosses. Yes, there were wildflowers, I answered for about the twenty-thousandth time; no, not many poppies. I said nothing about the lupine, half-afraid that I might forget myself and speak of Texas. She then asked, as everyone did, if I had heard about Death Valley. “I saw it on the news,” she said, her voice full of awe. “There are flowers blooming out there that haven’t been seen in a hundred years.”
“Are you going?” I asked.
“I can’t just drop everything,” she answered. “Who would take care of my babies?” In her spare time, Amy ran a kind of oddball animal rescue, sharing her Culver City tract house with six squirrels, eight possums and a live-in boyfriend who resented having to compete with rodents and marsupials for attention. She didn't dare leave him alone with the fur children, and given the nature of her menagerie, finding a reliable pet sitter was a challenge.
When she left, I looked out the window at the dripping skies. Could anything be that great? For so many people to be talking—the whole world, apparently—it had to be something. Modern life, after all, is so short on miracles.
A once-in-a-lifetime event shouldn’t be experienced alone, I decided, and began scouting around for a traveling companion. First, I tried my friend Mary Ann. The year before, we’d driven together to Albuquerque like a pair of sorority girls on spring break, to the disapproval of her husband. “Oh great,” he said as we packed the car, “just what America needs—Thelma and Louise blazing across the Southwest.” Listening to Carl, you’d think I was knocking over liquor stores instead of driving backroads with a camera.
Time, however, had taken its toll on Thelma. “Are you kidding?” she asked. “I can’t sit in a car that long. Think what it would do to my back!”
Next on the list was my friend Marc, who always described Death Valley as an intensely spiritual place. So it came as a surprise when he flatly refused a lift.
“But I’d miss the film noir festival at the Cinemathèque!” Mr. Spirituality protested when I called. Evidently seeing Cape Fear eighteen times hadn’t been enough.
Then, I did what most middle-aged women dread: I called my mother. There was a long pause as she considered whether or not she could spare the time. “Well,” she answered, “I’ve got these scrapbooks.”
Ah yes, the scrapbooks. Compiled of family stories and photographs, each one a work in progress that weighs more than the Gutenberg Bible. She has assigned herself the job of making one of these behemoths for every member of the family—fifteen in all. There is no sign of ever seeing them finished.
The pronouncement finally came. “No,” she sighed, “I’ve got to work on the books.”
There were other people, and other excuses. In the end, I gave up. Being alone didn’t matter so much, but it was that bad time of year, and I’d wanted to be distracted from the memories that poleaxed me every twentieth of March. At least, in a different part of California, I’d forget about all those damned blue flowers.
The plan had been to leave at daybreak, but the coyotes decided otherwise. Normally content to prowl the Santa Clara riverbed across the road, on this night they were camped out beneath my bedroom window like a band of scruffy mariachi singers. Once the howling began, sleep was impossible. That left two choices: toss and turn for another three hours, or drive off into the night.
Everyone has dark moments of the soul, and mine always seem to come between the zombie hours of three and five a.m. on Pearblossom Highway. For weeks I’d been out of sorts, and it wasn’t just the onset of spring. Stewardship season had raised its ugly head—that time of year when our rector put the squeeze on his parishioners for more money. This year, one of the rah-rah girls was a friend of mine, and her pep talk left me depressed. “Once you start giving,” she told us confidently from the pulpit, “abundance will come.”
When? I wondered as she spoke, and wondered now. It was fine for her—it’s easy to talk about abundance when you’re in love; you both earn six-figure incomes, and you live in a restored Craftsman in the Arroyo Seco. My annual pledge to the church, paltry though it was, wouldn’t be paid until December, if then. I wanted to believe that things would get better: that the money problems would let up, that my company wouldn’t downsize me out of a job, that I wouldn’t be alone forever. But when forced to take stock of things, I had to admit that only once had I even come close to any kind of abundance.
It was all because of Texas, of course. It was because of Texas, and spring, and because someone had forgotten to pack a dose of common sense along with the toothpaste and shampoo. My life changed forever because I got on an airplane and someone was waiting for me at the other end. Being colleagues, we weren’t supposed to be seeing each other at all, let alone staying together on the company tab. But that spring, we were both feeling reckless.
“I have heard so much about you,” Jerry said when the boss brought him around for introductions. This was at once flattering and worrisome, for experience had long taught me that anonymity was the safest course in office politics in particular and business in general. But my heart was zapped from the moment of that first handshake.
At that time in my life, I was big into horse racing, and the man who took my hand in his warm grasp reminded me immediately of a slightly upholstered Bob Baffert. His face was relatively unlined, but his hair had gone white early in life, and he had the good taste to not tamper with it. The resemblance ended there; unlike the brash trainer of War Emblem, Jerry had a quiet demeanor, but his shy smile and wry humor were catnip to me. Before long, we’d broken half the rules in the employee handbook. We’d see each other and fall into a kind of spell, lingering over coffee breaks and looking at each other a moment too long after every conversation. That might have gone on forever, had he not been handed another assignment; after two years in our office, he was offered relocation to Seattle. “I have very mixed feelings about this,” he said the next morning, stirring non-dairy creamer into a cup of French roast. After all, Seattle was his hometown; he could be near his sons. Between us, however, an unspoken sense of urgency began to develop. If something was going to happen, it had to be soon, or else we would evolve into people who exchanged Christmas cards and nothing more.
It was an accident that we were both scheduled to be in Dallas at the same time. My trip was already booked—a genealogical mission in which I’d annoy distant relatives with questions about events that happened sixty years before. Jerry was going on a blitz of Texas cities to represent our company at a series of sales meetings. It seemed like a wink from the gods. Upon hearing the news, I said, “I’m driving from Dallas down to Houston that weekend. If you need a ride…” The offer was thrown out with elaborate casualness, as I leaned in the doorway of his office, not expecting him to cancel a flight but curious to see what effect it would have.
The plane landed in Dallas, and that night marked both the beginning and the end of things. It was the start of an extravagant happiness, while we were coming to the end of what was familiar: our predictable, day-to-day working relationship, each of us aware that we were taking a dangerous leap into the unknown. I was somewhere between sleep and wakefulness when Jerry stirred next to me. “I’m supposed to fly to Houston in the morning,” he said quietly.
In the darkness, I felt his hand caress the top of my head. “Is your offer of a ride still open?”
My answer was to move over to his side of the bed.
The next day we headed south, leaving the interstate as soon as we escaped the spider’s web of freeways that crisscross Dallas and Fort Worth. We both liked backroads and had the luxury of time; neither of us were expected in Houston until the following morning. Jerry was behind the wheel, the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up and his hair flapping in the breeze. Looking over at him, the sun shining down on his tanned arms, his eyes shielded from the brightness of the day by a sporty pair of sunglasses, I felt glamorous, as if I were motoring with Ralph Lauren. Open country, pocked with small towns and wood-framed Baptist churches, stretched out before us. Back in California, the flowers were still thinking about coming out to bloom, but on this first day of spring, the fields of Texas were cobalt—it was bluebonnet season. People said that it was a lousy year for wildflowers, but to us it looked remarkable.
In the afternoon, we stopped at a country cemetery to stretch our legs. Clouds like giant tufts of cotton candy gamboled across an endless open sky. I wandered around, looking at headstones—veterans’ graves with anonymous service markers and newer granite stones that would last through the apocalypse itself if it came to Milam County. The springtime grasses hadn’t been mowed yet, and wildflowers waved in the breeze, a field of blue beneath the post oaks. On this day, at this moment, I could ask for nothing more.
Back at the car, Jerry was waiting for me, a bouquet of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush in his hands. “I will always remember the first day of spring,” he said, smiling as he handed me the flowers.
I would, too, long after we went our separate ways. It was the distance that got us in the end. After chasing each other for a year and a half across North America, something had to happen, and something did. The unraveling of our lives took place over the telephone. “This isn't a good time,” he said from a thousand miles away. My flight to Seattle was the next morning.
I was folding a pair of slacks, the phone cradled awkwardly on my shoulder. “Why? What's wrong?”
He thought before he spoke. “I don't want you to come all the way up here just for me.”
“Why else would I go to Seattle? To have lunch with Bill Gates?”
I could hear him let out a heavy sigh. “You don't understand.” But all at once, looking at the half-packed suitcase, I sat down on my bed and understood all too clearly.
They had been a part of each other’s lives for years, he said. It was complicated. There was a lot more, but there was no longer any point in listening. It wasn’t the first love of my life by any means, but I had let my guard down and was unprepared for what happened. In the months that followed came anger, then grief, and finally, hollow depression. In my off hours, I took to driving far and fast across the desert, half-hoping that the car would overturn at seventy and bring the pain to an abrupt end.
One of those drives took me up the Owens Valley—that dry, forgotten corner of California where the Sierras rise fourteen thousand feet to form the backbone of the West Coast. Tired of running, I stopped for a break. In a roadside café, an elderly waitress brought me a cup of coffee I didn’t remember ordering. Wrapping my hands around the mug, it occurred to me that loving people seemed so pointless, and so did nearly everything else. Checking out, though, wasn’t an option, and sooner or later it would be time to rejoin the living. Beyond the windows, the mountains glittered beneath a dusting of new snow. My spirits were still low, but it was pleasant to sit in the tall wooden booth, watching wisps of clouds play across the granite peaks. The rounded shoulders of Mt. Rainier were no match for the glittering, sharp lines of Mt. Whitney and Lone Pine Peak. I knew then that I was home and wouldn’t be leaving.
The Hopi say that the land is medicine. Perhaps there is something in that, for at that moment in the Pines Café, with the Sierra Nevada shining brightly in a sudden burst of midday light, my damaged heart no longer mattered.
Dawn broke over Barstow. Rain had become a memory; now there was only sunlight streaming down upon the Mojave. The desert was strangely disorienting; its upturns of land green with the waving fingertips of creosote bush. A silver sheet of water filled the dry lakebed near the jumping-off point for Death Valley; I couldn’t remember a time when there had been anything but alkali deposits in this place.
All the hype had prepared me for hordes of sightseers, the roads clogged with cars parked along gravel shoulders and the open spaces spoiled by careless people tramping over fragile blossoms. But north of Baker, there were only two other cars on the empty stretch of highway that winds its way through mountain ranges and sand dunes. Even here, tiny blades of grass tried to push through the sand. But there were no flowers. This was just great, I thought. I had been lured to the middle of nowhere for some huge cosmic joke that all of America was in on but me.
The road climbed and fell through crags of clay-colored rocks. Had it not been for the familiar earthen hues, they could have been the mountains of the moon. Beside the road, flowers began to appear, but sparsely—white wisps of desert chicory, and here and there, a strange purple thistle. Curiosities to those armed with field guides and close-up lenses, but hardly worth a four-hour drive.
The highway dropped toward its destination of salt flats and badwater. There was a broad curve as the road rounded the bottom of Jubilee Pass, and then I finally saw what everyone else had wanted me to see.
Everywhere, as far as the eye could see, the earth was ablaze with color. On all sides, on every hill within my view, the ground was the color of gold. I pulled over and walked into a forest of yellow daisies. The plants were taller than me, and walking twenty feet from the road, I could no longer see any sign of civilization. There was no sound except for a whisper of wind, the breeze sharp with the bitter scent of desert sage. The land is medicine, after all. Abundance doesn’t come to us in the forms we might wish for. But on that morning, spring in California was all that I could imagine ever wanting.
It’s you or me,
so I lie. I can’t stand
to see you smile –
I laugh when you cry. The beer’s
no good. I twisted
The horse who’s last
is best of his kin. Slow, comfortable,
and dim. With no testament
or time—like pairs
at poker. Not three of a kind.
Today I saw my Dark Ages—the kite
that was mine. The breeze,
lifting it up—red—
thin. Now I drive home drunk,
women in labor,
Giving Sex Advice to Friends
Gingkos are my favorite
she reflects, a leaf barely
bigger than her thumbnail soft
on her palm. Too simple
for me, I think. Too modest
and dense with green. I asked him
to do it she says. I know but I don’t
know what to say. You know,
choke me. I grab
the leaf from her, run
a thumb over the surface, wait
for more. I never would have
had the guts to ask, had you
said nothing. And I nod
because this is good
for her. Say nothing
because anything but
the truth is off
limits. I want her
to appreciate roses the way
I do. The gingkos
shudder in the wind.
Clearly I’d have numbered among the peasant mass straining at the mud-churned crossroad to glimpse (perhaps to snag) the impenetrable, enviable gaze of the lone daughter aristocrat, that neatly retained, powdered blonde ensconced in the heavily gilded carriage…
Why should she stop counting her days?
“Focus on the figures Goya crowds within his canvas. What can you tell us about the crockery seller, and any implications pertaining to commerce and class?”
Well, Prof. Ewing, I can’t ignore the lurking. Indiscriminate influenza casually snapping its hinged blade. I do not wish, I do not hope for, I little ache for speech. I’m mildly inclined to set her in the sky under Cassiopeia. How equate wealth with virtue…
This might jolly up—win a point or two from Prof. Ewing (Jurassic gerund).
During the chase, Apollo forgets he is a god. He never catches Daphne ideally.
Spell me. I fly my colors upside down, no one comments. I can’t tender these eyes. How can an angel anymore know intent? She pressed my leg, eager to advance. I advanced her twenty dollars and quit the room. Well, father…
I have it all written out and nearly all by memory. Clearly I’d have numbered among the peasant mass straining at the mud-churned crossroad. But (mirror, mirror) I lean to the left, by habit, by an almost imperceptible curvature in my spine and repeatedly mistime the pauses. No hints, no notecards. Like Goya, I deal in futures. Only one pearl that can lethally distract me, second seat, third row.
Start again. “Explain for your classmates the significance of the sleeping dog.”
Rodent shame that gnaws my intestines. Must I admit I’ve harbored Gretchen (not that she lent herself easily), drawn on her nightly, under sheet, sans sucre, until sleep endorphin-induced…
Avoid the Brillo gaze, unbearable association. Prom, short for what? promotion? provocation? A dance in the eleventh hour of high school, little pride that flared up and named you, that you could be seen with her, arms briskly interlinked, navy blazer, matching corsage slipped over her wrist, it didn’t matter that your feet screamed the second you jammed into the sheer leather, you couldn’t dance, footloose, no spins, no crazy steps, but you’d enter the converted space, fractured light, and maybe they’d see you, her clutching your hand and they’d have to admit—just once…hobbling bass dampening conversation, instantly elevating all talk, reducing all to cheap commentary, sniveling remarks, the planning committee (good job), pastel streamers, pretzels, fruit punch on a plain white spread desperately concealing a folding table in a corner near the back of the gymnasium and who had already arrived that you knew? the coveted ones, the unblemished couple who would enlist surprise and delight accepting the plastic crown in a few hours and they wouldn’t suspect (or maybe they did) that that’s it, this the most they’ll come to and after all the makeshift stage is only six inches off the floor, no one tells you to gear up for the downhill slide, brakes wearily ineffective, that there’s an age, nonage, a time that’s mostly indistinct and (fortunately) no less clear with hindsight, memories no longer formal, segregate, not simple routine memories—but truly adhering, remarkable…those that define you presently (indefinitely) you reset them vividly without the slightest prompt, cigarette smoke perfectly exhaled through grandma’s nostrils, jade teacups, sugar cubes, solitaire (Klondike) pasted on the recently cleared kitchen table, sparrows jostling for scattered birdseed, everything tight and close and cozy—how she had to go on, recklessly generous, into an early death raked with diabetes and a worn heart…rattling of degraded leaves yet the stiff unwelcoming fabric of her pink dress that twilight evening—as friends only?—her decision already sealed and delivered: that she preferred the familiar embrace of a former boyfriend and this such a waste of time, your feet painfully pinched and blistering and it didn’t matter, neatly sustained, her choice not yours, and you had worked so hard to win her and whatever it goes, finis, spring relentlessly warm and humid but your hands timid, clammy, your father shouldering his own grief, though he tried, he did, chauffeuring to the dance, extinct before it started, her back in rival arms and I’d get out, east to west, then back to graduate and finally northward to Syracuse.
Heather, Tanya (exquisite lace you set me rummaging), Calvin (nice try)…I’m looking for a road that’s all road, only road—minus driveways and intersections, revamped gibbet, severed heads on pikes, rotting bodies nudged by persistent breeze, only begin and end, alpha and omega…gorgeous superfluity.
Assignment due: tomorrow. Clearly no go…
A Sonnet to the Mermaid Snow White
Padlock on her belt loop, half shaved head, reluctant
Over the hills far away onto the placid enough teaming element frowned
Over the stretches of each of those are a most of the dramas to contain
The part of what is mounted to the realized sumptuous has ever taken on
The reaping can be a smooth passion for the hideous allowable stable downed
One can be the so lurid as to awaken her into a cautious sleeping sustain
What can become the murderous stopping much is the ailment for a blonde
Upwards into the hideaway was a looping sustained not always there to
Break up the yearning ailment went much to her flapping was the lucid lock
Anyhow for the misconstrued is the frightful tangible anger from which compels
The latest is of the not so watchable fragrance was pathetic to strike at two
Which is the moderate not much taken to contrive the honest pedigree mock
What is how they amuse the rampaging is a pure insidious not the least impels
The loss of love.
Fall lands were burning.
Graffiti poetry by Benjamin Wagner, The Stairway to Heaven; .. - ... / -- .; & If You Sit with Death
Benjamin Wagner is the author of two illustrated books of erasure poetry, Nightlight and Race the Sea (Jonny Knüppel Press). His poems have appeared in Isthmus and Vaidapé. Based in Berlin, he creates installations of non-invasive graffiti poetry around the world.
Essay by Linda Critchfield, When Abundance Comes
Linda Critchfield does most of her writing in hotel lobbies while waiting out traffic. She enjoys Anglican bell ringing and tea in old English churches on rainy days. She is a civil servant and lives in Southern California.
Poetry by Craig Greenman, March Madness; Dark Ages; & Sounds
Craig Greenman teaches philosophy at Colby-Sawyer College. His short stories have been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and he was a finalist for the Walker Percy Prize in Short Fiction. His philosophical work includes Expression and Survival: An Aesthetic Approach to the Problem of Suicide and various essays. He writes songs, some of which can be found on YouTube, has made a short film, Solipsism, with Abhineet Kumar, and draws a comic strip, Charger, based on his academic experiences. He lives in New Hampshire.
Poetry by Laurel Paige, Giving Sex Advice to Friends
Laurel Paige is a graduate of the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte. She's intimidated by social media and talks constantly about her dogs, Lady Blackbeard and Madam Poe. Because they're just that awesome. Honestly. Laurel lives in Madison, WI, where she works at a software company and gives readings at Meaderys. Her work has appeared in Firefly and is forthcoming at Semicolon.
Fiction by Nathan E. White, The Parade
A giant bending his ear, Nathan E. White is the author of Apparent Magnitude (Aldrich Press).
Poetry by Lenore S. Beadsman, A Sonnet to the Mermaid Snow White
Padlock on her belt loop, half shaved head, reluctant
Lenore S. Beadsman lives in Pittsburgh, PA. She is an accountant by day and poetess by night. She believes that eternal truth lies in literature and music. She has written three cycles of sonnets: Witch, Goddess, and Siren. A number of these have been published online and in print. She is currently working on a cycle of mermaid sonnets. When not writing, Lenore enjoys driving fast cars (à la Danica Patrick) and listening to the music of Mozart and Bruckner. @BeadsmanS
Two-line poem by Margarita Serafimova
Margarita Serafimova was shortlisted for the Montreal International Poetry Prize 2017 and Summer Literary Seminars 2018 Poetry Contest, and she was long-listed for the Erbacce Press Poetry Prize 2018 as well as the Red Wheelbarrow Contest 2018. She has three collections in Bulgarian and work in Agenda Poetry, London Grip, Trafika Europe, and more. Connect with her on Facebook.