Poetry and Prose from the Center for Writers
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by ANDREA SPOFFORD
* WINNER, POETRY *
Chaparral as street sign, as dust mote, as ancient ring. The dust is not open space, is not broken branches, stiff twisted creosote. The dust is chaparral, buckeyes, low desert dwellers bent into the sand wind. Mojave, Sonoran, Chihuahan. Mountain above desert. Californicum, Californicus, California. Because I am not the only one. Because I remember straight branches, yellow flowers bursting and unscented, like water in a glass, like dry tar crumbled, like linoleum. Larrea tridentata in ancient toothed rings. Because I remember hydraulic mining and empty red hills, places like Malakoff, Pear Blossom Highway, Llano del Rio, colonies of creosote in rings around ruined bricks. Larrea tridentata as incantation. Repeat. Larrea tridentata. The Spanish, the teeth, the governess of water.
(Placer County, CA)
The rain was oiled green and purple, roadsides
slickwet in winter. Red mud slid down golden hills
and the grass was green briefly. This was the house on Armes Lane
with gnarled, bent, low-branched pear trees.
An orchard. Six of them mottled brown.
This same winter the floor of the house collapsed,
not from mud sliding, oiling. A collapse
of old boards, potbelly stove, termites chewing, audible from roadsides.
I was always tempted to throw rocks at the windows of the brown-
shingled building locked from the inside. I sat uphill,
thought about the crash, glass in the mud. There were chairs inside and the trees
were full of fruit, remnants of larger farms on the lane.
There were no lawn chairs at the end of the lane,
no inhabitants, no idea of when the house was built, no remnants of pre-collapse.
When the mud first slid downward through the empty floorboards it pooled around the trees,
chair legs and rugs drawn up alongside the road
swept into the flow. A train ran pre-dawn on the hilltop,
tracks to town. The only change was in the pears, the way their skin went from green to brown,
first along the edges and then toward the center, green first, brown
spotted along the stem. The pears were sour, unripe, eventually falling onto the lane
to rot. I climbed behind the house, or took the horses, horse, hill
all parallel, leaning into the incline. The train ran until the bridge collapsed,
old railway ties and rusted nails larger than my hand. It didn’t matter. The train ran roadside
instead, louder than before, whistle no longer muffled by the trees.
There were so many—pine, maple, heritage California Oak Trees
measured in endless rings, protected by statutes and declarations. These tall brown
bastions of golden hills, forbidden to fall, ran alongside roads,
through roads, cities built around them. Armes Lane
itself built around oak and pear trees, the street as guard against their collapse,
Placer County: alluvial deposit. Valuable mineral. Gold in the hills.
Mid-stride, a horse ate a pear from the tree,
chewed once, spat the collapsed
fruit onto ivy and grass. The inside was brown,
fermented, thick smelling, but sweet, the remnants of Armes Lane
Pear Farms, like wine turned to vinegar. Water washed the pear onto the road.
When the house across the street collapsed, slowly, it was more than the floor. The hills
rushed into the building, the road became a sea, the house froze, briefly, and the pear trees’
brown limbs were shaken of leaves. Red mud swallowed everything, the entire lane.
When the sun sets everything lingering before it disappears—a rock, the trees, you—outlined by black, orange against gray. Bats flash in the dim light.
At Frenchman's Flat on Piru Creek there are large flat boulders.
If you jump into the water stones will hit the arches of your feet and you will buoy back, light.
In Texas river country bats flock at night, cover bridges, rush from mouths of caves,
chase remnant sun.
Sometimes I think about the tall grass along the river and warm beer from the bottle,
the dirt road Tiki Motel where we listen to cowboy songs, curtains open to neon.
Mexican free-tailed bats pour from Bracken Cave, clicking softly, swirling upward toward shadow branches in heady swarms. They cover the sky, fracturing light.
There are thirty one kinds of bats in Texas. In California only one, a small colony, snub-nosed like dogs, nests in the rafters of my porch. They eat felled peaches, fly just past daylight.
I would like to tell you about sinking ships—Andrea Doria, Monitor, RMS Rhone.
I would like to tell you about black holes, Cueva de la Boca, twenty-million bats in darkness.
We never see bats. We go to Frenchman’s Flat and sit on the rocks, but the water is cold.
Instead of swimming we lie on the stones, prone to light.
Waxy orange, poison, neon flower gull-bait:
the five crawls South-bound,
inches along borders, gravel to grass,
heart rate bleats, goat-like, melts into cliff sides,
the foam-drowned snap of waves. Citrus
orange the wax flower bows heavy-petaled.
Delicately grounded, a web of leaves
planted along roadsides, marching,
scattered. Cupertino to Azusa, Atwater
Village, Cerritos—names like:
poppy, pronghorn, Palos Verdes Blue.
Inside the haze of fall burning the butterfly
wings blue on the orange poppy, a short-lived bloom.
Daisy and Violet Hilton -- San Antonia's Grown Together Girls!
We were lonely.
We were very lonely, sometimes.
It’s nice that we’ve always had each other
but sometimes we wanted more than that.
I think that’s understandable.
As do I.
It would be difficult to judge such a request.
Yes. We wanted a picket fence, really.
A nice white one
but a nice white one all the same. I don’t know that we were asking for too much. We don’t know if we wanted children.
We never really found out.
As if the opportunity came up, the opportunity to raise one, to want one.
We never actually thought about it too much. I think maybe we
would have wanted one. Given the child every opportunity we didn’t have.
School. A normal
life. Something to look forward to.
We should have saved our money.
Should have, but we didn’t. No use
in crying about it, I suppose.
Oh, Daisy, why
didn’t we do things differently? We shouldn’t regret.
We really shouldn’t.
We have our health.
And a nice little house.
Yes, and the dogs.
But it is quite lonely sometimes.
We’re always attached to one another, we’re never actually alone,
but I think we can both agree
it really is
quite lonely sometimes.
Big Baby Bunny - An Aside
Corn-fed, spoon-fed—years ago my mother skimmed cream from the milk with a silver spoon, poured it into my waiting mouth, churned sugar into the butter, sweetened chocolate with brown molasses. She fed me. In 1912 she died in her bed, wrapped in a green and white quilt. The boss found me, paid me—I slept with the big cats, listened to them purr, smelled their meat, brushed maggots from my pillowcase. He fed me day old ham with honey and pineapple, strawberry cakes and white powdered sugar. In starlight I wore lace garters, dresses of green silk, danced in the cooch show, held a special audience after, held another audience after that. They lined up to pay. Sometimes, later, I’d sit on my trailer steps, churn my butter, lick the spoon. At night I set a pot of cherries on the front porch. On special nights, I set a pot of cherries on the front porch and waited for them to come. II I fed him. Every morning I made him pancakes with real butter and diced bananas, black and overripe, bursting from their skins. They were thick in my hands. I sucked honey-maple syrup into my mouth, asked him to kiss me when I finished, to lick it from my lips, to taste my honeyed tongue. He caught my lip in his teeth. He was the beetle man, arms so slim middle finger met thumb around them. Cricket man in his costume, he sat on the platform, legs folded, sequins flashing and shook hands with a girl child hesitantly. He was made of glass, had mirror-piece eyes. His fingers wrapped around hers and he winced as she grinned. I watched him from across the stage. The bearded lady laughed at us. III We were married on the midway in June. Tickets cost two dollars. People paid to see. He wore his costume and borrowed the boss’s top hat. When he said “I do” he let loose three doves. We ate marzipan filled cake, whipped-cream frosting. There was a tiny glass bridegroom and a round bride, sixteen sugared roses. The cake had five layers—taller than him. We posed for pictures. They asked me to smile, I did. They asked him to smile, he did not. They asked me to lift him and I could not. That night there was sweet strawberry jam sticky with seeds. He traced my new name on the inside of my thigh with his fingers. I licked them clean, one by one. IV I couldn’t have children. I cried myself to sleep every night. He said nothing. I’m not certain he wanted children. He said their hands were too small, their faces too sticky. He just watched me. I don’t think he understood how painful it was to see the girls, all the girls, and all the babies, one propped on the hip of each. V When he died the newspaper didn’t mention me. I was there. I was in pictures with him. I loved him, my beetle man. I don’t if they knew me, the public, and I don’t know if I care. His sisters contacted me. They sent me flowers, daisies, and boxes of chocolate. There were sandwiches and cheeses at his wake. They sat untouched in my icebox for days afterward, the bread growing hard, and then soft, green mildew creeping along the edges like ice against glass.
Concerning Daisy and Violet Hilton
In cases where a set of twins are born conjoined, the question of separation is often raised. The possibility of separation is dependent on the area, and type, of union. For some twins—those that share major organs or blood supply—separation is impossible. For others, it is a risk worth taking. First, are both twins separate beings? If it is established that both twins are distinct individuals, then the physician separating them must account for both lives. If it is established one twin is a parasite upon the other, then the parasite is disposable and the active twin’s life becomes more valuable. Second, what are the psychological implications of separation? Conjoined twins are conditioned since birth, by a myriad of outside influences, to see themselves as different. If the twins are separated, how will they adjust? And, if one twin is deemed parasitic and perishes during the operation, how will the surviving twin cope?
For Daisy and Violet Hilton the possibility of separation came and went quickly. If they were to be separated, they most certainly would have been like amputees, experiencing the phantom limb of their twin long after the separation was complete.
Would Daisy have been pinpricks in Violet’s skin, a sleeping limb painful and present? Perhaps they would have felt the phantom tingling of the other’s life, the spark of electrical impulses firing through the other’s nervous system, the rush of blood from heart, to lungs, to heart, to body and back again. Perhaps, if the breeze was right, Violet would have imagined the breath of her sister.
When Daisy and Violet Hilton were twenty-three years old they met with a lawyer, Mr. Martin J. Arnold. They were charged with stealing a man’s affection from his wife, a trumped up statement if ever there was one. When they arrived at the lawyer’s office he told Sir, their guardian, to leave. At that moment Daisy and Violet grasped their chance at freedom. “We’ve been slaves!” they exclaimed, begging Mr. Arnold to help them. They pulled silver coins from their shoes. The coins had lain dormant for months, their small shape rubbing blisters upon each girl’s foot. Daisy and Violet had been saving, had been waiting, for a chance to escape their willed guardians. The girls explained themselves, explained the signature of “Love” on an autographed photo. “We’ve been lonely,” Violet said, “rich girls who were really paupers, living in practical slavery.” Mr. Arnold put them up in a hotel; they drank cocktails and smoked cigarettes. When their case was decided, the courtroom awarded them agency.
Daisy and Violet opened a snack shop in Florida. Their departure from show business was brief. A short time later the twins were back, burning through managers and projects. They had been in the business since birth; they simply returned to what they knew. When they were left at a drive-in—part of a failed promotional endeavor designed by their final manager—Daisy and Violet ended their public careers. They worked in the produce section of a grocery store in Charlotte, North Carolina, rescued, as it were, by the grocer and his wife.
V: The Oranges
They weighed the produce standing back to back. One afternoon a child started throwing oranges. They burst on the wall, orange juice everywhere. Daisy bent to pick them up. They were sticky in her hands. The child threw more. They hit Daisy and, later that night, bruises blossomed. The child laughed when the oranges hit. He taunted. The father returned with a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, and a steak. He laughed with his son. The child kept throwing the oranges. Daisy did what she could. She kept her face hard. There were no tears, though the oranges hurt. Violet did what she could, too, but Daisy’s hand was on her temper. “He’s only a child,” Daisy said. Violet had no sympathy. She took him by the arm, held him on her knee. The father stopped her. Daisy stopped her. The child threw oranges. They hit Daisy. The father offered no payment for damages incurred. They both left the store, the father and the son. They refused to pay for their purchases. Violet had held the child, briefly, perched on her knee, her hand ready to strike.
They hurt, the oranges.
When Daisy and Violet Hilton fell in their popularity, they didn’t fall as shooting stars. There was no exploding light, no fanfare, and very little notice. In fact, when Daisy and Violet Hilton fell, they fell quite suddenly and quite silently. It wasn’t anything they had done, really, because they were still the same performers they had always been. They looked younger than their actual age, they still wore rhinestones and fur, and they could still dance. Rather, it was a transformation of the American public. What Daisy and Violet Hilton could provide—a rare glimpse at conjoined twins, above all else—the American public no longer desired. People had moved on to motion pictures and television. Circuses began to slowly disappear, and the American appetite started to find freaks distasteful. They pitied these people; the catharsis of the freak show, the novelty, had run its course. If they were stars, if they were shooting stars. They landed in a pond, their sparks sizzling onto lily pads, their fame disappearing into croaking bullfrogs and still water. No one noticed when they disappeared.
Andrea is a native Californian transplanted to the South. Her most recent work can be found in Battered Suitcase.