Marc Harshman

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Thunderstorm and Valentine

     
   

  He loosens his fists, cracked knuckles like his father’s, hands knotted and strong  … and inside this wooden box, the size of a large loaf of bread and as brown, with dove-tailed corners and gray mold an eighth-inch thick on its underside, he begins to forage.   Among mortgages and tax certificates, warranty deeds, assessment notices, and the German Baptist Tri-County Mutual Protective Association scroll, among all this dust, all this old script from the last century there must be something.  He sneezes.  The scales on his scalp are itching again.  He needs the cream Mother used to get from Doc Warren.  The sun comes out about the time he reads where the Belgian mare went for fifty-one dollars and twenty cents and the pole auger for seventy-three cents, the sausage grinder for a buck-fifty, and the harrow for a quarter.  "Must not have been much of a harrow," he remarks to James Whitcomb, his pearl-gray Tom.  Three school children are whooping down the alley outside, oblivious to history, untroubled by allergies to dust and mold.  He had never known there to be any special secrets in the family until he found the box, but seeing it there, lying in the open door of the attic, seeing its afternoon shadow stretch across the disheveled room, it suddenly seemed to him that there must be a secret, and that the secret would explain all his misery. All the work and all the debt. Somewhere inside would lay the answer to the lengthening torment of his seventy years.  He had laid the box on the linoleum tabletop and gotten lost.  Now he gets up, opens the window.  The lilacs are in bloom.  Is there more than dust and old bills and the conundrum of seven and twenty-hundredths of an acre, more than sheriff's notices to evict, more than the mortgage foreclosures, bankruptcy settlements, more than hard times?

  He settles again to his task, finds report cards with grades for penmanship, Christmas tags, obituaries from the Times-Gazette, holiday cards, poems in Grandmother’s tiny, crimped hand. He remembers:  the black murk, the bleeding throat, the lace collar, carrying her coffin.  Little piles of curled papers now litter the tabletop, a few with confettied edges from mice scores of generations deceased. He should see if the oil lamp will light.  The radio crackles away behind him.  Tornado watch.  The air feels close.  The heavy blue cup has sat untouched for hours - just now he remembers it.  It had been Uncle Ray's shaving mug.  They used to leave them in a row on a shelf at the barber’s with their initials on them. 

A nighthawk screams somewhere.  He is surprised to hear it.  Suddenly a breeze through the screen door lifts one of those old obits and flings it against the mantel clock and, under its fragile embrace, the ticking slows to a stop.  The wick shivers inside the sooted globe and curtains of light waver above him.  Then, among all the detritus of his evening’s explorations, one card shoulders aside the others.  Despite a century's fading, this Valentine suddenly shimmers, luminescent, and from it steps a Victorian girl with ringlets and an ornate mandolin - faded pastel shift embossed with flowers, lavender and yellow.  She begins to recite: 

 

To my Beloved:  Side by side / or far apart, / Dear as life / to me thou art; / May I dare / to hope from thee / Even one loving / thought of me?

 

 No name for the beloved, no address, no envelope—unsent.  

Artillery shells thunder in the distance.  Bright flashes show the line of the advancing front.  He thinks he should write a letter, explain what he can . . . about the children in the alley, about short deeds and long forms, about shaving mugs and lilacs, about work and debt and what it means when the skies darken green and yellow.

 

     
           
 

Pink Ladies

     
   

Three red roofs crown a gray hill.

The moon is ringed by an opalescent halo     

within which a single, red star, shines.

A girl in a polka-dot shift has just lifted herself from her bicycle.

She has cut her smile from a photograph of her cousin, the sexy one,

who sees a different boy every weekend. 

It will get her into trouble if she’s not careful.

Jim, who loves puzzles, goes to work daily where, under the factory’s shadow,

he awaits his reprieve from destiny.

It should be easier than this.

But his parents loved him and did most of the right things parents should do.

Monday, he doesn’t go to work but cups his mother’s ruby in his hands     

and remembers how she had had a polka dot shift

with a little black ruffle under the bodice.

The girl rides by just as the whistle blows. 

He feels the breeze of her passing.

He remembers the way the breeze blew by when he had raced home from school to find

his father dead, almost asleep, peaceful, a quick stroke with no regrets.  His father had loved Pink Ladies, a sharp, sweet apple that grew on his uncle’s farm.  

Tuesday, Jim finds an orchard near Romney and buys a peck of old apples,

pink, blushing.

He’s holding one in his hands and dreaming about love.

Wednesday night, late, as he walks the dog, he looks up, finds himself encircled

by the moon’s rising, and a single star, glinting its ancient red light, 

and in this mist, well, almost pink.

Tonight the world will come to an end once more and he will rejoice to think

he has this much with which to start over. 

Already he’s planning a village where the men are all honest and the women love to sing,

and like a toy train lay-out he’ll have all the roofs                                                                 painted red.  Almost pink.  And the girl will grow up and be called Persephone

and some day come home to love only him.

You wait  – everything will work out just fine.

Jesus will climb down off the roof, his nail apron honest and dirty

as he holds the ladder for the others. 

And the kisses she gives as she looses her pink polka dots, one by one,

will set fire to the darkness, will be yours and yours alone, sweet as apples.

     
           
 

Almost 1980

     
   

With the simple whisper of your voice

                                    a delta of honeyed light filled the yard.

Sunsets were cheap, like memories.

But you, even now, leave out the details.

A cheap ranch, the walls blackened with mold,

                                    the roof leak, cat piss, kerosene.

Beyond the yard, fields and freedom.

Rats chewed wires in the siding.

Kept sister awake for years after.

We knew cold suppers and early nights.

Father spoke in straight sentences, straight as any furrow.

They took the farm away from most everyone he knew.

To live here now means punching the clock

                                    and feeding the line.

One year it was assembly, another

                                    the paint crew – cigarettes and fumes.

I looked once beyond the machine --

                                    for only a minute --

                                    and when I looked back

                                    my window had filled

                                    with an horizon of loading docks and semi’s.

My balls ached. Call it real.

The music pistoned into steam.

I believed rocknroll had come to save me.

                       

Fields of corn glisten green.

We made love in there.

Our nest of sweat and seed.

Next year might never come.

Children, we were touching each other,

                                    coming alive under a stolen sky.

One of us cries out; the other sighs.

Soft and open, hard and hungry.

This is what we have to get by.

It works until we get caught

and then….work works on us.

And, if we’re still here tomorrow,

we work some more.

     
           
 

No Hurry

     
   

Coming down the hill, the trees scatter their green applause.  The flamingo, anchoring the bed of canna lilies, utters her sinister innuendoes to a choir of sparrows  who have strung what’s left of the sky between their bills and are gulping it down.  He still has the tickets in his pocket and glances overhead as if he might wish himself there where the plane slices away great sheets of tomorrow.  His grandfather had set these stone steps, planted these trees, manured these flowerbeds.  Remembering made everything harder, all those expectations that it must somehow get better.  Why had he married?  And her?  And this flamingo!  Jesus, he hated it.  All of it.  But especially the gossip behind his back.  The whole neighborhood must know by now.  Every nano-inch of every universal building block that held the world together must know.  But what was to hold him together?  He wondered sometimes if it was possible, somehow, to have been left out of the plan.  If only he knew, he might suddenly declare himself free and go somewhere else.  But was there somewhere else?  He picked up one of the old bricks, stamped AO for the old brick works in Amsterdam, Ohio, shredded his tickets, placed them upon the worm-holed impression the brick had left upon the soil, and then re-set the brick on top.  He didn’t know what this might mean, but it felt like a start.  He could still catch his flight, but—he wouldn’t hurry.

 
     
           
 
   
     
 
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Marc Harshman has served as the poet laureate of West Virginia since 2012.  His full-length collection, Green-Silver and Silent, was published in 2012 by Bottom Dog Press, Ohio.  He has authored four chapbooks including All that Feeds Us: The West Virginia Poems.  Periodical publications include Shenandoah, The Georgia Review, Appalachian Heritage, The Progressive, and Roanoke Review.  His poems have been anthologized by Kent State University, the University of Iowa, University of Georgia, and the University of Arizona. His eleven children’s books include The Storm, a Smithsonian Notable Book.  His children’s books have been translated into Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Danish, and Swedish.  New children’s titles are forthcoming from Eerdmans and Macmillan.