Published: November 1st, 2015
Susandale’s poems and fiction are on WestWard Quarterly, Hurricane Press, Ken *Again, Penman Review, Inner Art Journal, Garbanzo, and Linden Avenue. In 2007, she won the grand prize for poetry from Oneswan. She has two published chapbooks on the internet: Spaces Among Spaces by languageandculture.org and Bending the Spaces of Time by Barometric Pressure.
Check out Susan's poetry that was published on Howl!
Behind Every Rock
“She ran a stop sign and was killed instantly!” Maggie said on the phone.
Her voice was distant, seemingly oceans and continents away, instead of the seventy or so miles that lie between Maggie and her daughter, Lea: distant, as it was whenever Maggie conjured up Rita. Where should she place her son’s once-lover, who also happened to be the rival for Lea’s first love, David? Never being sure, Maggie tiptoed around Rita: David, too. She spoke softly, hurriedly.
Whereas, Maggie’s son, Josh, stayed behind in Sandusky, managing her restaurant, Four Horses while nursing the bitter wounds of losing Rita to David, Lea took another route. She rushed away so quickly and so thoughtlessly that she didn’t have time to reflect on where she was going, or from what she was running.
And now Maggie was bringing her daughter back to that sad, humiliating time. She so dreaded phoning Lea. Trembling, as she dialed, she was also wondering how she should tell Lea that David’s wife, Rita, was killed in an automobile accident. What words to use? What tone? Again, Rita and David would be consuming the moments. To Maggie, they seemed like flashes of lightening that illuminated the dark corners where the Kennedy’s often took refuge.
“The baby was killed, too,” Maggie added quickly while hoping that her dire words would somehow lower the red-hot flames, Maggie felt yet blazing.
On the receiving end, Lea was in Toledo paying her dues, so to speak: dues that began in sixties coffee houses in those days of flowing locks and gauze dresses. Her beginning days included Kerouac, tuning out, and protest marches. Day riffs were afternoons of flower children nibbling vegetable sandwiches and drinking coffee with more foam than caffeine: a couple of guitars were strumming in every group, and the drummers were high on pot. Night gigs she launched in college mixers, campus clubs, and/or fraternity-formal-affairs.
‘Ah, those first hours on my own: frightening, with few or none in the audiences with whom I could connect. What were they thinking when I walked on stage: all jittery, skinny knees bumping together?
Hollow inside, I felt lifeless, like a rag doll. Or no, like a puppet. Pull this string and she’ll sing the blues; pull another and it will be a jazz rendition of *Tea for Two.’
A fragile songbird, Lea. Sometimes, it was pencil-thin lights that danced lightly over Lea and her songs. Other times wide, refulgent beams glared boldly at her with uncompromising lights from which she could not escape. And the sea of faces that looked at Lea, saw her with the eyes of strangers: curious, restless, analyzing eyes: eyes younger than the eyes that looked back at them.
Lea was merely a pause in their interactive lives. Regardless, she kept moving to expand her territories. ‘Carrying my shoes, comb in hand, toothbrush in coat pocket, I rushed to piano bars and niteries, to engagement parties and bar mitzvahs. To weddings and anniversaries. Anytime, anyplace I could warble a set of tunes to find my footing, and to secure a place for me in the world of music. I began moving up to clubs and small theatres. But even in those celebratory settings, I felt that I was but an echo back and forth between the many intimacies that did not include me.’
In between gigs, she held over in budget motels. ‘a quick cup of coffee and a hamburger before the first set. A cigarette, cigarettes were common crutches in the sixties, and flirtations in between: Those light romances barely grazed me in interludes both trivial and brief. And today, only flashes of those connections surface and only now and then.
We walked around the Cedar Point Park after I finished up at the Ballroom, but he kept glancing over his shoulder. What was he looking for?
And what about that husky guy who loved to water ski? He brought flowers on our dates, and wore bow ties. The flowers quite wonderful: the bowties not so much.’
And once when she sang, she stood close to a saxophone player who had eyes like David’s: deep and searching and topped with eyebrows that mocked. And though the sax’s notes were round and sure, Lea’s
voice kept tripping over the lump in her throat.
‘There was a tall Harvard man, who, after graduating law school, rented a cottage at Rye Beach
for the summer. We met when I was home visiting Maggie, and dated on and off for several months, but
when he looked at me, it was quizzically, as though I was what? A summer amusement, an enigma?’
Of those vague times, peopled with here and there figures, when only the physical part of Lea was present___ she recalled them later only if they were gutsy.
‘One guy confessed to being gay. In the sixties, being gay was seldom announced. Another loved to dance: a chunky guy so full of himself, he danced with three girls simultaneously.’
But Lea had been stripped clean from the spontaneity of youth: the daring and the surety that tomorrow would spring forth with sunshiny promises being fulfilled. David took that, too, when they were finished. He left Lea to move through her hours by reflexes alone: one foot forward and the other following. But though void and vague, her raspy voice rolled out effortlessly in melodious harmonies, as natural to Lea as breathing. Melancholy chords wrapped around her music, ‘so you’ve lost in love: so have I.’ Lea’s heartfelt deliveries connected Lea to her audiences: it was her magic touchstone.
However, there was one who grabbed Lea from the first, and she was yet hanging on: a rosy-pink seashell of a girl with arms circled in bracelets. Clinking, the gold circles raced up and down her arms while she was telling Lea that she was getting ready to sail around the world. Her voice was soft and cautious, and her hair wispy blonde, but not knowing which direction to take, it drifted around her face in confused halos. Perched on the edge of a bar stool, as though ready to fly off at any moment, the girl seemed to be talking to the multi-colored bottles on the shelves above her; that is where her eyes settled. Her words were hesitant: her voice stilted. Overhead, lights bounced off the bar’s bottles and on to her delicate features, like a Matisse painting: green across a cheek, red an oval on her chin, and purple highlights floating through her gossamer hair.
Lea was confused. The girl seemed more apprehensive than excited about the journey she was about to
‘Had she then run off,’ Lea later wondered. ‘Said “the hell with it,” and leapt from the pier to deep
waters, as did I when I rushed off to uncertain tomorrows, rather than stick around and wander through
the mazes of what might have been? And the others in those beginning days – where are they now?’
They could have become part of Lea’s life if she let them in. But too broken to initiate friendships, she
felt as though she was floating through her life and through her music. ‘Like I was drifting around my back-up groups and around my audiences like maybe cigarette smoke. Or sometimes I took refuge inside the trumpet’ tubes that carried my melodies.
More often though, I felt as frozen as the ice cubes the bartenders dropped into glasses while I sang: the ice cubes were my constant background harmonies, clink-clink all night long.
Oh, so lost was I in the fog of those long and lonely nights: a fog that lifted when the two a.m. lights popped on. Then the romance of it all was kaput. The chic clothes, the flirtations, the music, the neons: all suddenly pummeled by the glares of lights that sharpened reality. And those faces that were held in merciful darkness spiked into sharp lines and bloodshot eyes when the lights of ‘last calls’ illuminated them. Escapees from reality we were, and the audiences were being entertained by the fastest escapee of all: me. ’
When Lea drove past long rectangles of motels squatting on the outskirts of mid-west towns, melancholia moved in. ‘It is then that I remember waking up in rooms of Spanish décor: wrought iron lamps, and bullfights depicted on the wallpaper; it was the time of Hemingway’s ‘torero’ books. Capes and horns were all around me, and always the lurking silences of another lonely room. ‘Where am I?’ I wondered when I awoke. In heart-pounding panic, I struggled to know.’
Somewhere between the high-level bridge and downtown Toledo, Lea bid adieu to Mark and the
Marksmen: a final farewell to her one-time group. ‘Passé they were, same as Arthur Murray and hula hoops.’
She left them for good, even as she remembered with nostalgia, how excited she was when she signed
her first contract with them. Way back then, The Marksmen were in Lea’s star-struck eyes, bigger than anything or anybody.
‘Well, almost. More mondo, certainly, than senior prom and finals and more central than Rita. However, they were not as essential as David: no one was that important!’
A mystery of which Lea remained in awe ... ‘how did the combination of David and I supersede time
and space, so that when we finished and I figured only the residuals would remain, what stayed with me was that moment in time when ‘we’ ended. It was and it is yet a moment that shudders in shock, or in a grief that reappears without warning. I cannot put a name on that sinking feeling of finality that brings
me down without warning.’
But in the lean years, The Marksmen loomed large; of that there was no doubt. Moreover, Lea figured
that they would be going somewhere other than where they ended up: in motel bars on Saturday nights, only to fade away in petty bickering, and what is left after years of interfusion, which leads no place, but
to other motel bars on other Saturday nights.
Thereafter, Lea changed groups: some were innovative, some smooth, others forte and tinny - whomever was in the area and available. Through her agent, Sam’s connections, Lea was spared weary auditions, at least in the summers. Summer auditions were rare: summers were easy and laid back; Sam arranged the dates and times. Lea showed up and she sang.
Tryouts and rehearsals were winter fare. ‘An all-night, tic-toc clock ringing too early after singing the night before until two am in a club an hour away. I tumbled from disturbing dreams with tears in my eyes to feel sadness yet coiled in my stomach: dreams tell the truths I run from in my awake hours.
But, oh so quickly did I land on my feet: gotta’ get to try-out/rehearsal. Shower and dress before onwards. Suitcase in one hand, I scrambled for the lobby where sat the ubiquitous coffee pot. Holding a steaming paper cup in the other hand, out the door I flew. A hollow slam, and to my car where I sat
shivering in early morning chills. Not sure which direction to go, but going anyway … past sleepy winter
farms, heading towards the lights of gas stations, and the houses awakening. Pulling up to a dark hall, inside I went, only to wait while the musicians warmed up in off keys that jangled my early morning nerves.
Sam, Josh, and Killy came to see me religiously until Josh was drafted, and Killy returned to the
Indians Farm*. Hence, it was only Sam who showed up, and he at irregular intervals. He was off chasing the many possibilities popping up throughout the states. Music was spreading its notes in new and wondrous forms, and Sam was out and about flagging them down. In Midwest basements, he found promising high-school rockers with guitars and pony tails. He flew off to his old haunt, San Francisco, to scout out acid rockers, and he hung out for a few in The Village scavenging for folk hopefuls. Then d Rock hit like a torpedo, and in the blink of an eye, it inched itself up from high school dances into college clubs; folk was just catching on.’
Though Lea fretted, Sam was adamant. “Don’t sweat the small stuff, Lee. Jazz still has a sizable niche. Hang on to what you do best.”
Lea wound her way back home periodically; she didn’t stay long, however. Rye Beach and Lea were suddenly strangers to each other. The lake, as seen from distant shores, moved in currents that took away old friends and moved peers. Behind every rock was an empty space: spaces amongst spaces. Moreover, Lea was afraid of the joy in Maggie’s face when she showed up. Lea did not need her mother, as much as Maggie needed her. Lea managed to turn off her emotional needs, like knobs on the stations of her life: a habit that began when she and David were finished. She moved on without David, and knew him only in vague yearnings. She continued on without either Maggie or Josh, and without Danny and his troubles. Her father’s illnesses became Danny’s steady companions when more than twenty years of alcoholism took their toll.
No sooner did Lea unpack at the Kennedy’ cottage in Rye Beach than she was itching to go. That was
a part of herself that Lea did not want to examine; it was far too raw, and scary, too.
“Rumor has it, honey,” Maggie continued, confidingly troubled. “That Rita and David had a stormy exchange before the accident occurred; Rita was in such turmoil that she failed to stop at that fateful corner.”
After a pause so brief, it was blasphemous, Lea shot back, “When’s the funeral?”
Struck dumb, Maggie gasped, and it was a while before she could find her voice.
At the onset of Lea fast-forwarding her life, she stunned even herself. ’How quickly I fell into such a
cowardly mode of behavior. If Josh would have been nearby, I would not have so quickly buried painful
incidents as I did. Rushing forward, I refused to look back. Versus Josh: he rages or rejoices at anything even remotely affecting him. Just being with my impetuous brother would have forced me to do likewise.’
But Lea was traveling solo then. And by herself, she mapped out routes for her solitary odyssey into music. Her travels began on an irrevocable night in a coffeehouse in downtown Sandusky.
Bruised black and blue and limping, David was first in Lea’s trinity of goodbyes. What he told Lea held her in a state of disbelief, so profound that it stopped the currents of time. Abruptly, time came to a screeching halt. Time grabbed Lea, and together, time and Lea headed off in new directions.
Next, it was Josh who stomped into the coffeehouse. Through the haze of her shock, Lea saw him with bloody arms and eyes swollen shut. Killy was last. Disheveled, with buttons ripped from his torn shirt, Killy seemed the last soldier in a decisive battle, as he tried, without success, to subdue an enraged Josh, and simultaneously comfort Lea.
And though paralyzed with shock and stilted with grief, somehow Lea managed to force from her mouth a half-sung, half-spoken song.
After Maggie hung up, Lea tumbled from her trance-like state into the mystifying present. She then canceled a weekend engagement at the Holiday Lodge. ‘I gotta’ go; for Josh’s sake, I’ll go. But what will I say to Josh, to David? It will be so hard to see their pain. David lost not only his wife, but a child, too. And no matter how Rita captured David, she should not have died at twenty-one. All she did was want David when he was with me: a love triangle, as common as breathing. And though David was all and everything to me, he was to Rita, much more; he was the father of her, well, their child.’
A spark of hope flashed for Lea, ‘maybe, hopefully, Killy will show up. I do so hope he’ll come; he’ll help to bring us together.’
But while packing, Lea kept pausing to stand paralyzed. ‘Rita being gone forever: impossible! I figured that Rita would and could defy anything in her path. She always did: me, Josh, David’s reluctance, and surely untimely death.’
Thus and so, Lea became acquainted with fate. When they shook hands, fate informed her that they’d be keeping in touch.
‘No, no: go away and never come back.’
But fate smiled knowingly, most evilly, and Lea knew he’d be back.
‘Never, ever again will I assume that I can get chummy with fate: that crack of doom. Fate, now there’s a fearsome creature: fangs and talons hidden until it jumps out at us from nowhere. Fate: it cuts us down without the first clue.’
Meanwhile, Old Thomas summoned Killy, his son, back from Florida. Killy, in the minors at the time, was pitching with a whirlwind arm, and flying on a hope that when spring rolled around, he’d be signed up as relief pitcher for the Tribe. From the Indians farm in Florida, Killy flew into Cleveland: reluctantly, however. Killy dreaded situations he couldn’t nudge with an irreverent phrase or two. Then, too, Killy knew Josh would be on a downer: down too low to catch up on news of friends and acquaintances, and too low to plan for their futures. But Killy could not imagine that Josh would be so despondent that he couldn’t even meet him at the airport. Instead, Lea did before she and Killy swung by to pick up Josh from Maggie’s diner: Four Horses. From the diner, the three of them drove directly to the wake, with Josh and Lea hoping that Killy would link them to David.
‘We feel so fragmented, and after all of those years of being as connected as hearts to bodies: but why?’ Lea wondered.
Later, she deducted that it was Rita who separated them even as once she connected them. A powerful force, Rita!
At the time that the Kennedys’ and Killy arrived at the funeral home, the line to pay respects
rounded an entire block. Upper crust and old Sandusky mingled with the masses; all were united to decry the dark intruder who ravaged what wasn’t his to take.
But where was David? The rumor going around had him hiding away in his cottage at Cedar Point: a wedding present to Rita and David from Rita’s father when they married. Thus and so, to the cottage the three of them headed: down single lane roads bordered by rocks on one side, and a stormy lake on the other. Icy crescendos slapped the shores; charging, white-foamed beasts, they swirled, one into the other to cross over themselves and pummel the roads that Killy slipped and slid down. Killy drove while Josh sputtered the entire way there. But when they got to the cottage and David, Josh was brooding and quiert. The three of them struggled to find words indignant enough to express the outrage of Rita and her child being killed outright. Rita meant something different to each of them. Therein, lie the problem. If one expressed what would be missing from his or her life with Rita being gone, then anger would emerge from another. Inadvertently, they knew that now was not the time to bring up their stormy pasts. There was more than enough blame to go around. Consequently, they trailed off to uneasy silences.
Whereas, David’s orphan background prepared him for the effects of loss, Killy, Josh, and Lea weren’t acquainted with mortality; they were just learning the language of life.
Because Killy had the least connection to Rita, it was he who moved to comfort David. Crouched in a corner with legs wrapped in his arms, David wept while Killy consoled, but their words were lost to the foreboding squalls howling down the chimney. In gusts and gales, the winds told of the many ways and times that David had been cruel to Rita. And the shadows that had been drifting around David for most of his young life, firmly attached themselves to him. Forever after, would he walk with shadows.
To combat this dark night, they sat around grim, and pretty-much quiet while drinking Jack Daniels by turns of sips and slugs.
“If Old Thomas knew we were having an Irish wake, he’d been out here yesterday,” Killy quipped.
Inadvertently, the four of them hovered close together. Shoulders bumping, they clutched hands. Their tremulous bodies sought refuge … for far more powerful than the links of their troubled pasts were the winds’ dirges, and those foreboding shadows: widening, spreading, deepening before clinging to David.
When Killy and Josh passed out, Lea and David staggered from the cottage to an edge of the lake where they stood shivering on the icy sands of a sinister night. David wrapped his arms around Lea: for protection or for warmth, neither of them knew.
Of a sudden, his hands flew from her shoulders. “Whomever, whatever these hands embrace will self-destruct,” he prophesied.
Turning on his heel, he ran along the water’s edge, rushing off towards some dark unknown.
And as he ran, he was leaving behind footprints in the sands to be embedded in Lea’s heart.
Pummeled by winds and sleet, she shivered by herself on the lonely shore-line while contemplating – wondering so many things. ‘Why did David rush off? Where is he going? What lies ahead for him? For me? For the four of us?’
Gazing across the lake to distant horizons, she was searching for answers to her troubled thoughts, and searching, too, for their ‘morrows. But the answers to Lea’s wonders and their tomorrows were far-off and shrouded in ice and mist.
The next morning the alarm rang late. The three of them awoke suddenly, painfully, and felt as though a train ran over them. But where was David? None of them knew.
“What kind of a low life doesn’t go to his wife’s funeral?” Josh growled.
“He’ll show up any minute now,” Killy said.
But he didn’t. Regardless, they had no time to look for him. Only forty-five minutes before the bells of Rita’s requiem would be chiming her off to forever after. Hung over and filled with gloom, Lea voiced her premonitions in a tearful voice.
But Josh was sorry he had come at all. He demanded they leave, “You, too, Lea. Especially, you.”
They vacated soon as they could get themselves together, and began by taking showers. Even the water hurt when it hit their alcohol-riddled bodies.
Numb, they shut the door on an inexplicable night, on David, and on a romantic but darkly troubled past that came to end here. Killy drove them again down the beach shore, now quiet, and stilled from last night’s rollicking, crashing billows.
Looking out at the lake, Lea saw it as a glass sheet of reflection.
But Killy’s gaze stretched out further: out beyond the ice floats: out where he saw silver currents shimmering on a sun-lit horizon: mysteries and excitements to come waited under layers of ice. He saw those, too, and looked up to see last night’s moon: a lazy sliver tucked behind passing clouds: a moon that didn‘t care that she overslept.
But Josh saw a frozen sun: white with no warmth. Josh‘s sun was as remote to him, as that long-ago time when all of them were connecting to be together.
They stumbled into church, even as the requiem was paving Rita’s path to eternity. Then they drove to Rita’s final foray. The sojourn to Rita’s resting-place was fathoms beyond the sweetness of their young lives. Up, past a rim mounded in corn stubbles, they trudged to Rita’s burial place. It waited on a crest, high, to meet the winds that would carry her off to forever. Lines of cars parked discreetly amongst tombstones, and the saints frozen in marble serenity while car lights splintered January’s icy mist. A reflective white and a deep quiet enveloped them while a sleepy owl hoo-ed a melancholy lament.
But David was nowhere near the funeral tent. He was, instead, hovering by himself against the trunk of a majestic oak whose branches shadowed the new snow of a new morning. He was freed now of anchors, and feet cemented in tomorrow. But free was not what he imagined it to be. Free was his heart shattering in his chest, such a heavy weight in his stomach, and the long silences stuck in his throat.
His face of crevices and indentions, shadows and eyes, all eyes, was pale and anguished: the color of his Indian-copper skin suddenly vanquished.
‘Stolen,’ Lea supposed. ’By one of old Thomas’s many hobgoblins: maybe a thieving gremlin who deigned to wrap himself in its bronzed glory for a long while, which is only a moment in the eternal tricks of the fickle gods of fate: those invisible beings continually moving us like chess pieces to their directions.’
Josh managed to squeeze inside the tent; Killy skirted the edge. Everyone else huddled outside to form refuge in the gloom. “Eternal rest grant unto her, oh Lord,” sang out the priest’s plea.
“And let perpetual light shine upon her,” echoed back to him.
The remorse that stalked David all night was getting ready to close in. His now-pale face
cracked with the lines of knowing replacing the shock stare of disbelief.
Lea grabbed his hand; she held tight. As long as she was there and hanging on, he couldn’t be
spirited off. ‘Once I let go; look what happened! This time I will hold him close in my heart.’
It was time, and so they said goodbye to Rita. She was the golden part of their youth, like a blinding-bright sun that shone once on their carefree yesterdays. Rita was before they knew; they had to leave her here; they had to go on. When they hugged before departing, they clung tightly. Aware that the journeys they would be taking from here on would be traveled without each other, they left, each to their own destinations. They were leaving behind a time that lingered and ran off simultaneously: these hours and days that could neither be calculated, nor understood were never to return. It was a time that was suspended in the moments they dare never mention again, though it often reemerged in their thoughts. Many lifetimes would lie between the beginning of them, and the varied endings they would come to. But for one more time, indecipherable time had again tangled the four of them in the webs of Rita and of each other.
Killy flew south to Florida: struggling and sweating, pitching and catching, dodging and running, wanting with everything in him, to make the final cut.
And after tender goodbyes, Lea dropped off Maggie before she drove back to Toledo: returned to the lonely chambers of motel rooms, and to the riffs and gigs moving her on up.
Josh drove Killy to the airport, and stayed to watch his plane angle up and onwards. “First, Lea,then Rita, now you, Killy. Goodbye, all,” he whispered to the silver streak winging towards the heavens.
And Danny, always reverent when coming face to face with mortality, trudged back to his apartment, a postage-size room with bath, then above a theatre. Moreover, David returned to a foreign, far-off place that, until then, they hadn’t heard of: Viet Nam.
___________ *Tea For Two composed by Vincent Youmans
___________*Cleveland Indians Baseball Farm