Issue 1.6

Life Happens Over Coffee by dl mattila

Caught off-guard by what transpired one morning in a local coffee shop located in a rural, ultra- conservative, small Texas town, I began to capture, over the course of an hour, what three individuals, strangers, said to me in the time it takes to add cream, sugar, and a wooden stir-stick to a cup of black coffee. None were interested in extended conversation, so I said nothing, but what I did do was listen, which was all they ever wanted from me.

Customer 1

walks up and asks
’Scuse me, where’d ya find that?
says Gotta git one for mah wife,
she’s allers said she likes ‘im.
Causes hard feelins ’tween us ’n her kin,
but she’s give-up argyin’ agin ’em.

Customer 2

in bullhide hat and battered boots,
pours cream into his cup o’ joe.
No nod, no look in my direction though
his words are meant for only me:
Like yer sticker for the Prez.
Got one too, one that sez
Rednecks for Obama
but gotta lay low to stay
outta trouble, know what I mean?
We ain’t all alike, no ma’am, nowhere near.
Have a good one now.
Take care, ya hear?

Customer 3

pointing at my laptop’s lid,
says Hey, shor like that sticker.
Then stepping closer to confess
a social norm that he’s transgressed,
shares I’m an old one for ’im too,
but I tread careful with what I say,
then, tipping his brim, offers
Have a good day.

All this

where guys
in gun-slung trucks
blow past the billboard
down the road,
above the trailer park,
that reads:

Go Green
Cleanse the House of Libs
Impeach

where in a town known for Shiner Bock,
sits Another Old White Woman for Barack.

 

Pascagoula Pier by Jordan Sanderson

A whirling beneath the waves
Rises like a bruise into a trough.
Sand throbs beneath breakers.
On the pier, scales dry where
Fishermen have quartered croakers
For bait. Mullet ignore blood.
Hooks rest on the bottom,
Heave in the tide. Everyone wants
To walk out to the end of the pier,
Sure there’s something swimming
Just beyond the reach of lines.
A woman and man stand far
Enough away from each other
Not to get tangled when they cast.
Knowing the will to survive
Can be convincing, they use artificial
Lures riddled with hooks, twitching
Them so they look like wounds
In the sun-plated water. Sometimes,
Someone catches a red or a speck,
But it’s mostly white trout and hardheads.
There are recipes to make offal palatable.

The Pines by Jordan Sanderson

When my grandfather planted them,
He said we’d be the ones to cut them,
But he lived to thin them after Georges
Blew through like a bunch of wild hogs,
Wallowing and rooting, leaving bends
In them the sun could never straighten.
I thought I had outgrown the woods
Then, but now I can’t wait to turn off
The road and into the pines, where sunlight
Catches on needles and struggles to find
Its way to the straw-slick ground, where
Whitetails lay up during the day
And rattlesnakes coil in gopher holes.
The evergreen scent hangs thick as incense.
I’m going where the cold wind blows
In the pines in the pines
Where the sun don’t ever shine
I would shiver the whole night through,
Leadbelly sang, knowing the wild
Absolves all, stripping us of the warmth
Of blame. Blood courses its own circuit,
And the pines take you in and teach you
To move among them without a sound.

 

A Trip Not Taken by Susan Little (nonfiction)

It was a problem with the mule, and it started like this. We were having dinner, my husband Greg and I, at Seattle’s iconic Canlis restaurant with friends we had met two years ago on a barge trip in the south of France. After a sumptuous meal, Cliff, the group’s provisioner of excellence, supplied our table with a round of Macallan Fine Oak Thirty Year Old Single Malt Scotch. We sipped, taking turns reminiscing about old trips and imagining future ones. It came around to me.

“I want to go to the Grand Canyon.”

“You’ve never been?” asked Cliff. “It’s incredible,” and his wife, Martha, nodded as though entranced by the memory of the vistas, the mind-stretching geological splendor of the thing.

Cliff took advantage of a pause in the conversation to look at me over the rim of his glass. “You have to book your mule a year in advance, you know.”

I thought it was one of Cliff’s jokes, something to throw me off and make fun. But I was the only one laughing. Clearly he was serious. Clearly I had not thought this through. A mule reservation. A year-long wait.

“Oh, yes,” he went on. “We did it in 2006.”

I was looking at Cliff, but my mind had flown home to a shabby box stored in the attic. Among the treasures within is a 2 x 3 inch black and white photograph of my grandmother in the early years of the twentieth century, a young woman, not long married, before the babies started to populate her life, seated on a mule in the Grand Canyon. A hundred years before Cliff’s trip into the Canyon, my grandmother rides sidesaddle in a long-sleeved, black taffeta dress, her button top boots peeking out from the 10” ruffle at the hem. On her head is a jaunty little black hat with a feather, not meant for protection from the sun, but to enhance her charm. She has left her husband at home in the virgin forests of Arkansas, where he labors clearing the land of timber to feed local lumber mills, to go off with her friends. Fourteen hundred miles almost directly west on a train through Arkansas, Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, and New Mexico to Arizona: a shocking thing to do. What is she thinking–a well-read, well-bred, music-loving, painter of china figurines? And who are these friends of hers?

I held this picture, turned it over in my hand and my fantasy, throughout my childhood. I wanted to be like this fancy-dress, sidesaddle-riding woman. To make my way down into the Grand Canyon on a mule. I even have one of her black lace dresses; maybe I could wear that.

Compared to many other trips I have taken world-wide, this one seemed a simple matter—just hop on a plane to Flagstaff, rent a car, drive an hour and a half to the entrance of the National Park, go to the counter, and get a mule for the day. Much easier for me than for my grandmother. Now, Cliff has injected doubt into my plan. I must do some research beyond gazing wistfully at Grandmother’s photograph.

NPS.gov links me to grandcanyonlodges.com, a private tour company’s comprehensive and appealing website. Just what I am looking for!

“There is no Grand Canyon adventure more rewarding or more unique than a mule ride. The overnight rides go deep into the canyon, staying overnight at Phantom Ranch. If you think the view from the rim takes your breath away, wait until you experience the Grand Canyon from within.” Oh, yes!

“The descent down the Bright Angel Trail is 10.5 miles and will take approximately 5 ½ hours. No worries, there are rests along the way. The ride back up is about 7.8 miles (5 hours)…. Our mules are thoroughly trained, and are well adapted to the unique environment and work situation at Grand Canyon. Although we have over 100 years of experience working with mules, they are animals and not always predictable. The restrictions we place on our rides are intended for safety and to avoid distracting or disturbing the mules.” Yes, I will be nice to my mule.

“There are always elements of risk due to trail conditions, other trail users, and sudden appearances of wildlife native to Grand Canyon. While serious accidents or injury seldom occur, risk is minimized by carefully following the trail guide’s instructions.” I most certainly would follow the guide’s instructions—but what about others in my group?

I’ve been on scary fairground rides with teenage boys. I know that ordinary people can become imbeciles with the right motivation. Witness this vivid illustration from Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. He describes the first-of-its-kind big wheel designed to celebrate the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and prove American engineering could out-perform the Eiffel Tower from the Paris Exposition of 1889. George Washington Gale Ferris gave the world his proof. Mr. Ferris’ Wheel would be 264 feet high and weigh just over 1000 tons. It would carry 2000 passengers seated in 24-foot long cars. Security of each car was assured by heavy screens, locking doors, and firefighting equipment. In each car rode a conductor to answer riders’ questions and calm their fears. However, none of these measures prevented this:

“On one ride a latent terror of heights suddenly overwhelmed an otherwise peaceful man named Wherritt. As [the Wheel] rose, he began to feel ill and nearly fainted…. Wherritt staggered in panic from one end of the car to the other, driving passengers before him ‘like scared sheep’…. He began throwing himself at the walls of the car with such power that he managed to bend some of the protective iron. The conductor and several male passengers tried to subdue him, but he shook them off and raced for the door…. Wherritt shook it and broke its glass but could not get it open…. A woman stepped up and unfastened her skirt. To the astonishment of all aboard, she slipped the skirt off and threw it over Wherritt’s head, then held it in place while murmuring gentle assurances. The effect was immediate. Wherritt became ‘quiet as an ostrich.’”

A woman much like my grandmother, it would seem.

I returned to the website, scanning for a list of “RIDER QUALIFICATIONS” for Grand Canyon mule trips. I did not see long skirts listed, but here are a few that caught my attention:

  • Riders must weigh less than 200 pounds, fully dressed. Check.
  • Each rider must be able to speak and understand fluent English. Check.
  • Long pants and broad brim hats are required. Check.
  • Riders should not be afraid of large animals. Wait, what?

Large animals? Is there a diagnosis for that? I’m sure I’m fine riding a mule, but what about others? Again, I have experience with individuals who accept a challenge for the sole purpose of denying their fear and then do what is commonly called “freak out!” Surely the wranglers can spot such people? Or maybe the mules can sense the Wherritts of the world.

I close the website and think. My earlier, sketchy imaginings are colored in with information now, as well as stunning photographs taken from the rim trails and the descent into the Canyon. I can place my body and mind there in time and space, but I cannot imagine how my grandmother got her trip planning information. I wonder if she wrote letters to the National Park Service. Did she telegraph to reserve a mule a year in advance?

Now, only one thing holds me back.

A few months ago I began to experience bursitis in my left hip. I learned that it is caused by a tightening of the iliotibial band which puts pressure on the bursa. A medical definition sounds like this: “a fibrous thickening of the fascia lata that extends from the iliac crest down the lateral part of the thigh to the lateral condyle of the tibia and that provides stability to the knee and assists with flexion and extension of the knee.” Fancy words for misery. Torment. My doctor volunteered the information that this condition is not specifically age-related. Many young women, especially runners, suffer from it. Why is she telling me that?

The good news was that it is sometimes alleviated by certain yoga poses. Ticka-ticka and up comes a website showing I T band stretches, among which: the peacock pose. I am familiar with that one, so I put myself into it, hold for 30 seconds, and release. Are you kidding me? Instant relief. I did this twice a day for two days and—behold the beloved peacock—my bursitis seemed cured.

Of course, it was not gone for good, but now I could make it go away whenever it appeared. Unless.

What if I were three thousand feet down a narrow trail into Grand Canyon, seated on my mule, with other riders, a total of ten, on other mules behind and in front, a wrangler leading the way, magnificent vistas all around and my I T band tightens? Understand that this is not a mild discomfort, not something easily tolerated with the application of a little discipline. I would liken it to a muscle cramp which intensifies relentlessly if not attended to. What could I do in such circumstances? Something like, “Halloo, Mr. Wrangler Man, could we pull up the train for a moment? And, by the way, I need someone to assist me dismounting because I can’t put weight on my left hip to get down.” (Remembering my grandmother, I thought that if I were to ride sidesaddle, I could just slip down from the saddle, relying on my good right hip.) “Then, I need you to please hold my reins while I step aside and assume a peacock pose? It won’t take long, really. Oh, there’s no room to dismount, you say? And, even if there were, there is nowhere to stand and pose? What he says is true—narrow ledge. Very, very narrow.

If I can’t be assured of being able to stretch my I T band when I need to, I just can’t go. Not on this particular trip.

The unfortunate truth dawns in me: when Grandmother rode into the Canyon, she was probably 50 years younger than I am now. In spite of my doctor’s declaration to the contrary, I know that my bursitis is at least partially attributable to age. My body has never before inhibited my traveling when and where I wanted, in order to do whatever was interesting to do when I got wherever I was going. It has never been even a consideration. Who knows what body part is next to fail me? Who knows how effectively I can adapt to limitations as they occur? Not every ailment will respond to an easy peacock. I am at a crossroads. I flip through my mental Rolodex of places I’ve always wanted to go, find the first card past the “Gs” and turn to my husband and say:

“Hey, Greg. Let’s go to Istanbul.”

“What, now?”

“Yes, now. No more waiting.”

About the Contributors

dl mattila is a linguist and poet residing in the Greater Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area. In addition to national and international print and online publications, her work appears on the Maier Museum of Art 2011 Ekphrastic Poetry webpage and at the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. She holds an MA in Writing (poetry) from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of Quietus, a collection of poems.

Jordan Sanderson earned a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. His work has appeared in Fiction Southeast, Oklahoma Review, Georgetown Review, Birmingham Arts Journal, Valley Voices, Bird’s Thumb, and other journals, and he is the author of two chapbooks, The Formulas (ELJ Publications, 2014) and Abattoir (Slash Pine Press, 2014). Jordan has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize a couple times. He currently lives near the Gulf of Mexico and teaches at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.

After a successful corporate career, Susan Little left the business world to become a spiritual counselor, sacred dancer, and writer. Her book, “Disciple: A Novel of Mary Magdalene,” was published in 2010. Her work is forthcoming in “The Writer’s Workshop Review” and has appeared in “Tikkun Daily,” “About Place Journal,” “Goddesses in World Culture,” and others. She has been interviewed by Jennifer Haupt in “Psychology Today.” When Susan ventures away from her Seattle garden, she spends her time traveling and being inspired by her extraordinary grandchildren.

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