prose writing

Their home

They walked down a path that led to the house by a lilac bush and a lamppost, where he’d buried his first cat. It was no longer their house anymore, it was their home, the new people who bought it. He drifted off, remembering that first house: the look of the light coming through the kitchen that overlooked the alley, the plumber’s little parking lot. The color of the wood floors, original, old wood. Wide floor boards. Coved ceilings, nice bright light. House plants, a patterned rug. This is where they’d started their family, when it was their home. He lay in bed drifting off to the sound of the kids in the driveway, they had just returned home. It was cold, coming on December, and they were still kids. And he was still young for a time too. He thought about running the generator to keep the battery from going, and thought about getting a tree. There was nothing but sun today. And all the life they had to live still, in their home.

Image by Albert Neuhuys, ‘A peasant family at lunch,’ 1895


Reserving the giblets

By Carstian Luyckx (1623–1657)

I drank an ale and made the gravy. The gravy was to be made over several hours the book said. Outside it was gray and Dawn said look at that rain. It hadn’t been raining before, it just started, so I looked at it and then went back to the gravy. I put the neck in first and then the gizzards, though it was hard to tell which organ was which except the heart, which slapped when it hit the pan and then sizzled inside itself. And then I thought about Alan, Heidi’s British husband: the time we met in Germany that Christmas and he showed me how to make the gravy. He was dying of cancer but still smoking, smoking in the kitchen, my mom’s kitchen, though he kept the window cracked and did his best to keep the ash out of the pot. He remarked about the blood and looked sinister as he did, said it’s important you add that. The blood was darker than you’d imagine but it all combined with the unpeeled onions and herbs and then later the broth, and soon the house was full of cheer: the scent of rendered fat and caramelized root vegetables, mirepoix. The same Christmas the door blew off the oven, mom ran out in the kitchen to see what happened and then slipped in the grease, fell on her ass.

I finished my beer and called to Dawn, time to get Charlotte (early release day, 1:45).  The sky was a theater production of scene changes with no one in charge. Now it was puffy clouds and filtered sun, but we were under an “atmospheric river” they called it: that general malaise of fall that makes it so you can’t even enjoy the sun, it just makes you feel damp, sullen.

I lay on my side in the den with the sound of the laundry machine, the dryer, the spin cycle, something slapping, something turning, and it was just past 2 when I looked outside and thought it’s about to start raining again.


November spawned a monster

"A simple truss"
“A simple truss”

Rainy Thursday morning, Thanksgiving at the lake, all to myself. The level’s come up to the rocks, nowhere to sit. Ginger has a private crap somewhere in the trees. The rain makes a pattern across the surface, little black dots rippling, disappearing, followed by more, repeating. I think there might be something special I’ll see like a blue heron or eagle, but it’s only the ducks. I think about Alan, Heidi’s English husband over in Germany, that year we met and I kept him company in the kitchen while he made the gravy. He smoked right up until he died I think, some kind of cancer, and that was his last Christmas. He handled the turkey gizzards like they were jewels, almost a precious way he laid them out in the frying pan and stirred in the flour, balancing a cigarette in his lips and wincing as he stirred, the blood and the flour turning brown.

I met him once and that was it. He had a bad complexion and long, black hair. There would have been that scene right before we ate we all had our dishes served and held each other’s hands or made a toast and Alan smiled, and we started.

I took the gizzards out of the bag and laid them in the pan like the recipe said, and when the neck was cooked and cooled I stripped what meat I could from it, and used the knife like I was sharpening the tip of a wooden spear.

The last time I wrote in the cook book it said the year with an exclamation point, 2006, pointing at the roast turkey recipe, the James Beard preparation where you cook it on 400, remove the turkey from the oven three times, carefully flip it so it roasts evenly on all sides, a kind of manual, rotisserie effect.

And we touched on that year briefly but I don’t think Dawn or her mom wanted to talk about it much, it was the last one we had with her dad before he got sick, it was the best Thanksgiving because it was just the four of us and Lily, who was only 1, in our little house in West Seattle. The first time I roasted a turkey like that, and it came out so fast it was still light out when we carved it.

Beth said she heard about families not getting together for Thanksgiving this year because of political differences. It made me think of Orwell, of turning people against one another, that divisiveness, and how sad.

But as I walked back from the lake with my dog and the rain kicked up, I realized I was happy as hell, air drumming, thinking about a Morrissey interview my friend Kevin sent (it’s with Larry King), where they talk about Morrissey’s depression, the fact he’s OK when he goes out on stage, Larry gets him to admit he’s even happy performing: Morrissey nods and says yes he is, half-smiles, even.

travel writing

The story of the mason’s apprentice, portrait or landscape

Arrived in the dark last night at a castle near a port town on the southwest coast of Scotland, woke to the sound of an owl stirring by our window so close it sounded like it could be in the house, in the walls, or human. When it was morning and we could see where we were I raced from window to window looking out each of the rooms, with bands of blue, pink and grey in the sky: the moon going down one side, the sun coming up the other, lochs on either side of us, one called Black Loch, the other one White – a clock on the stone archway stuck on quarter to five that didn’t seem right.

The tap water tastes like it had fish in it at one time and probably did. There’s more firewood than we could ever burn here but we’ll try. I drive to town for food, to survey what they have for Thanksgiving – greens called Cavalo Nero, unsmoked Gammon ham joint – and get blown off course driving home, trying to rely on instinct, spool off a roundabout the wrong way by the sea on a road I didn’t remember coming in on, blasts of ocean rain blowing through the street lamps turning umbrellas into cocktail toys, everyone wincing, bent against it; the navigator draws a purple arrow with me in a little white car and guides me back to London Road, estimates my return time in four minutes, and I can watch myself move through time and space just like I’m on a screen in a plane going home, counting the miles and minutes until we land.

And after the coarse language of drunks that starts outside our window around one every night in Edinburgh, I lay in bed in this old stone flat in the middle of nowhere marvelling in the silence, the brilliance of our plan to come here a few days for that bucolic calm you can only find in the country — and just as I’m feeling smug about the quiet the owl starts, and it’s a sharp, exaggerated, in-and-out breathing like he’s going to climax but never will, just keeps going, almost a braying sound, or a whinnying like he’s dying, or crying for attention, trapped in the walls, giving birth: and I go in and out of dreams with the owl, now a roomful of them with me in the centre, a kind of trial scene, and then I’m in a theatre in a conference centre for a Starbucks ceremony of some kind where everyone’s talking about the company, how long they’ve been there, crying and hugging – and wake to remember the busts of owls in an exhibit somewhere near Crater Lake in Oregon where you press a button to hear the sound different ones make and my kids do it like it’s a video game, and the sounds are just like the ones in our back yard back home, they kill by puncturing the vital organs of their prey we read – and outside Stirling castle they let us touch the marks in the wood on the castle door from the 16th century white witches who made symbols there to ward off evil, and they look like marks made by a claw or talon, and we rub them because they’re real.

DSC_0007And I think about my memoir, what to put in or leave out, the ultimate cropping exercise, how much is real or distorted – and the story of the mason’s apprentice at the church we stopped at earlier today, the Apprentice Pillar: the same chapel visited by Dan Brown, inspiring The DaVinci Code, the intricate crossroads of history, religion, mysticism and lore: the story of a pillar the mason was commissioned to construct but didn’t feel he was ready, he needed to go abroad for inspiration, and while he was gone his apprentice, barely a teenager, dreamed the design for the pillar and asked permission to do it himself and did, and it was so beautiful and perfect that when the mason finally returned home from his travels ready to start his work and saw it had been done by this boy so effortlessly, who “dreamed it,” a sign from God they thought, the mason flew into a rage and struck the boy dead with his mallet in a single blow. And he was hanged for his crime, with his face carved into a corner of the chapel ceiling to look upon the apprentice’s pillar as a kind of eternal punishment to remind him of what he’d done, with the visage of the apprentice in the other corner, smiling.

And when they began to restore Rosslyn Chapel the glass windows were gone and the interior over-run with moss and vines, and our guide says they truly couldn’t tell the difference between where the carved, ornate vines in the stone had ended and the real vines from nature had begun, they were intertwined. The story of the mason’s apprentice, the fact that all that art and vision was inside him, the same as the scenes played out around the insides of the chapel depicting all man’s virtues and sins, all we’re capable of. How the past is like that too, how we depict it ourselves when the glass is blown out and the building looks to be crumbling: the stories we create by piecing together what’s inside everyone of us, what’s real, made up, or somewhere far away.


Cooking the carcass

Thanksgiving falls so late this year, it’s like two dinner guests turning up at the same time who shouldn’t, making things awkward. Neighbors were out putting up lights before Thanksgiving even started, and I found myself doing the same.

The landscaping crew was here, strategizing how to tackle each area of the yard, speaking in stern tones as if a military campaign. Torch this, torch that…cover that with visqueen, burn it out.

I got out the manger scene and asked Charlotte if she knew who the baby was, and she did. I placed the wise men and the camel and the others at the right angle so their eyes all looked like they were focused on the center, on the baby. It always brings out the vandal in me, a dark need to corrupt the scene by swapping out the baby with something irreverent, like Yoda.

We sit on the couch in the morning with bed head and Lily picks the glitter out of my beard, like a family of baboons.

I hold the raw turkey heart out at Lily and say look, that’s the heart: then toss it with the vegetables in the bottom of the pan. The turkey has been air-drying in the fridge longer than it should because I jumped the gun with the whole brine setup.

It fills the house with the scent of roasted vegetables, pan drippings, butter. The setup is always better than the delivery. We stuff the carcass in a bag in the fridge and I’ll cook it down this afternoon.