Volume 1Spring 2001

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Reading Into the Picture
©2001 Nancy Conover

She's wearing a crazy, lopsided grin, as she leans into the camera, laughing. The white hair curls around her face, which thows off a shine in the humid Gulf Coast air. Her hazel eyes are alight with beer, or being surrounded by her brood, all in high spirits. It was one of those Mississippi family feeds over Bobby's picnic table, newspapers spread out to catch the juice as we sucked on crawfish heads and corn on the cob. A beautiful evening in May, after badminton in the backyard with three generations of women swatting gleefully at the birdie.

My mother's laughing eyes could be a sign of joy-nothing less, nothing more. Except for the hesitancy pulling downward at the corners of her smile, as if she fears we'll disappear any moment. And of course, she's right. We're only here for a brief visit, the California kids and their partners. After we leave, the daughter and son that live next door in Gulfport will surely be too busy to stop by her house. At least, that what I'll hear, when I ask if she's seen my Southern sister or brother lately.

But I can't help looking at that photo and seeing more than my mother's mirth, or the unspoken plea for longer visits from her children. Or even the exuberance mixed with the loneliness of a healthy, 70-year old widow freed up after years of living with a raging, sick man. Instead, the look on her face reminds me of the mental snapshot I carry from our few conversations about her childhood.

I can see the eight-year old, grinning at her sobered up father when he finally shows up at the house again. Maybe he's got a jump rope or jacks for his only girl. Maybe it was the second or third or tenth time he's left. The second to last time he'll ever come back. Or ever be allowed back, by her unyielding, God-fearing mother. Upright like the straight-backed chairs they'll be selling soon, now that they have to move into a one-room apartment to survive on their own. The little girl grows up fast, becoming an office clerk at 17, a young bride at 19, a new mother at 22. But before my sister is born, my mother's jolly Jimmy takes off for good, and Mom is abandoned again. So it's back to the Baptist mother, who's never really recovered from her own fun-loving man. And my mother is back to being an office clerk at the shipyards, where, years later, she gets set up on a blind date with my father. The man she loved, surely she did. And, decades later, after the shouting and drinking set in, the man she would never choose to leave. At least not geographically.

Maybe I'm reading too much into this photo. That disheveled hair, that happy-sagging grin, those "stay with me" eyes. Because, for that evening, we were all having a truly good time. And my mother was probably just smiling her own kind of smile. So, in my mind's eye, I'll remember the joy of that day. But one look at that photo, and I'm remembering too, what I wish for her again: that I could send someone to be with her today, to never leave her again.

Swimming Back and Forth
©2001 Nancy Conover

You know what they say about the Pisces thing, don't you? Two fish, heading off in opposite directions? Yeah, I know Gemini twins are divided too, but they're not pulled from the inside out like this girl feels. One half ecstatic and expansive as the clouds, the other half lower than the deepest despair. One side confidently taking on the world, the other side cowering behind a wall of insecurities. One bird itching for her next solo flight, the other bird looking for her place in the flock. One part itching for an endless, open road, one part yearning to be rooted to the ground. The hardest thing about that last split is that it's usually going on at the same time. Like two little fairies perched on my shoulder, each pointing their fingers and bitching at each other.

Settled Miss Suzie always starts up first.
"I can't believe you're 40 years old and you've never lived alone," Suzie scoffed. "You don't hardly even have furniture, much less a permanent place to put it. Not like me-I need order, structure. I want to settle down, create a home, raise a family, grow a garden."

"That's what I want, but I'm not really a nest-builder," Nellie admitted. "I need you to help me create my home. Trouble is, I want to plant my tomatoes, but I don't want to let too much grass grow under my feet. I need movement, freedom to grow myself. I'm afraid of being cast in cement."

"Yeah, that sounds like another one of your excuses for avoiding intimacy".

"Hey, I want to be intimate with the homey side of life. I just don't feel accepted by you. You're always putting me down for not wanting to be like you."

"That's because you're so frenetic. You're peripatetic. The music is always on, and you're always trying to squeeze in one last song."

"Well, at least I feel the need to sing and dance. You're so sedate, I can't get you to kick up your heels," Nellie practically whined to her other half.

Suzie took a big breath, and was about to let loose an avalanche of anger. Then she got quiet, as if she was searching inside herself for some truth. "I need quiet, and down time. I need to meditate, exercise, follow a schedule, and not try to be in two places at once."

"Ok, ok, I admit I cram too much in," Nellie agreed, looking down at her lap and nodding her head in assent. "I'm trying to work on that, I really am. But there are so many friends, so many readings, so much culture, so much poverty, and so many roads to ride. Maybe I just need to remove myself from all this external stimulation."

"It's called life, kiddo. You'd find too much to do in bumfuck Iowa. Why don't you just start saying no, sometimes?" Suzie queried.
Nellie knew her reason, but felt embarrassed to admit it. "I don't want life to pass me by. Sometimes it feels like I'm too afraid of missing out on those peak experiences, or those collective efforts that give my life meaning."

Suzie threw up her hands. "What can I say? I think you miss more meaningful moments just rushing around from place to place. My way of life isn't about doing things, it's about being. Being whole to myself. You know-

"But life isn't just about yourself!" Nellie broke in. "Oh, I know you don't really think that, it's just sometimes it feels that way, living with you. What I meant to say is I really admire your self-sufficiency, your sturdy foundation, your four walls. Most of all, I admire how you know what you like, and go after it, step by step. But I'm not that planful-never was, never will be. I'm the ocean, you're the shore. I'd like to be more grounded, but I don't want to lose the wild dolphin in me."

"Well," Suzie said, "have we finished our soliloquy yet? Actions speak louder than words, my dear. You might say you want to settle down, but you're never willing to take a chance and plant yourself first."

"That's it-the chanciness of it. It all sounds pretty risky to me," Nellie mused. "What if I pick the wrong plot? What if it's not fertile and I shrivel and die?"

"Your whole way of thinking sounds scary to me," Suzie answered. "Kinda like-'Since I might make the wrong decision, I won't make any decision at all'?"

"Ok, but admit it. You do get stuck in the mud sometime. I mean, you say you wanted to travel, but it took you 40 years to leave the country."

"I couldn't afford it," snapped Suzie. "Besides, I was busy getting established, and settling down."

"Well," Nellie began, searching for some calming words. "Don't you think, well, couldn't it be possible, that we're two sides of the same dream? That we might need each other to keep balanced?"

"It's hard to feel balanced around you," came the reply. Then, begrudgingly, "But you do open my eyes to the big world out there, and that's not a bad thing."

"And you, my dear, keep me looking at the universe within, and that is a very fine thing. What do you say we let down our guard, and embrace each other?"

Nellie looked over at Suzie, who was starting to back away. "Ok, how about just accepting each other?"

First Date, from the Inside Out
©2001 Nancy Conover

She crosses the busy street from Diesel Bookstore, trying not to stumble in her new suede clogs. Despite the casual corduroys and leather jacket thrown over her arm, Chris is feeling anything but unruffled. In fact, she's afraid of completely losing it on her first "blind date," set up by her running buddy, Terry. He described his friend Deena as intelligent and humorous, someone who loves kids and animals. Someone, he adds, with no neurotic tendencies, although Chris doubts Terry would be such a great reference point in the mental health arena. Halfway across College Avenue, Chris catches herself in mid-analyses, chuckling at her readiness to plan out her life with a woman she hasn't laid eyes on yet. No wonder they say lesbians bring their U-Hauls to the second date, Chris thinks. The first one is so damn unnerving.
Chris pretends not to scan the outside of Café Rustica for the person meeting Terry's description. A short, slender woman by the door is going through her own dance, casually taking in everyone who walks down the sidewalk. Their eyes meet when Chris reaches the sidewalk, and she raises her hand in greeting.
"You must be Deena"; she spoke directly to the hazel eyes and the hesitant smile. "I'm Chris."
"I figured so. Not too many other tall blondes leaving the bookstores just now," Deena teased, as she brushed the brown curls away from her face.
Chris laughed, realizing that Terry had filled Deena in on her book passion. Who knows what else he had mentioned?
A short discussion about Terry ensued, which gave Deena a minute to check out this Chris. He had described her to Deena as "the perfect match" to her own opinionated self. But in other ways, his description had prepared Deena to meet her opposite-tall, athletic, and outgoing. As she strode across the street, with her sandy hair falling to her shoulders, she seemed to personify the "western girl"-someone born to ride the range. Deena was intrigued by her wholesome outfit, down to the leather bolo tie cinched around the neck of her tailored white shirt. The rolled up sleeves showed off her deep tan, a calculated move on Chris' part. For herself, Deena couldn't be bothered with clothes. It didn't really matter, since everything looked so stylish on her. Today, after rushing home from her office, she had pulled on a loosely fitted sweater over her black leggings and chunky-heeled sandals. With her multi-hued scarf and leather shoulder bag, Deena looked like the worldly urban woman she had once aspired to be.
Some back and forth conversation followed, before they decided to head for a table indoors. Although they spoke about the need to get away from the chilly evening breeze, they both wanted the protection offered from prying eyes. Or even worse, any friends who might happen to be walking down the Avenue.
As they took their seat at the table next to the window, any friend or stranger approaching would catch this scene: Two white women in their early forties are making small talk. They chat and listen to each other intently, as if trying to butter someone up before asking for a donation. They hold back from interrupting, and politely answer each other's questions while slipping in a self-deprecating comment every now and then to break the ice. The waiter comes to get their order, and returns with two soda waters. The tall blonde squeezes her lime in the glass and takes a big gulp, with the look of someone who's trying to relax. But the short brunette actually looks more relaxed, and laughs from time to time. After about 20 minutes, the waiter returns with a deluxe pizza that fills the table, and the blonde woman eagerly scoops out a piece for each of them. She shakes out chili peppers over her own piece and hungrily chews it down with scarcely a break in the conversation. She has swallowed the last piece of crust before her dinner mate has hardly begun. She picks her head up, leans back in her seat, and takes another long drink. The smaller woman chews slowly, as if each artichoke and dried tomato were a treasure to savor. She listens intently, leaning forward a little toward her companion while bringing her napkin up to her mouth. At that moment, the other woman reaches for her napkin as well, only to find it fallen on the floor between her legs. Seen from the outside, it would undoubtedly appear to be a casual dinner between friends.
But inside that blond woman's head, a different story takes place. Fishing around with her foot for the napkin, internally she's kicking herself for eating so fast. 'Why, oh why, can't I act cool and collected like Deena?' she asks herself. Whether from chili peppers or self-consciousness, she yearns to fill her deep thirst with a cold beer. But having been told by Terry that Deena doesn't drink alchohol, she doesn't want to look like a drinker herself. She catches herself in the middle of a story about her dog, realizing she's been dominating the conversation. She yearns to hide herself in the bathroom, but instead holds to her seat. "So, tell me about life with your cat."
"My cat-well she's pretty possessive," replies Deena. "Calypso curls up in my lap whenever I'm sitting down, and gets pretty snarly when other animals come near her. Of course, she's pretty spoiled, since she's the only pet around our place. I only rent out the other half of my duplex to people without pets."
"Hey, as a lifelong renter and dogowner, I resent that," Chris protests jokingly. She stifles the real question on her mind-Hasn't Deena lived with a lover who had a pet?-asking instead for Calypso's age.
"She's five. Six next month".
"Oh, so are you the kind of cat mom who celebrates birthdays?"
"OK, so I am a little doting on her.
"That's nothing," responds Chris. "For Buddy's fifth birthday, I threw him a big barbeque party, and invited all my friends with their dogs. It was right after Patty moved out with her two cats," she added, wanting to make sure Deena knew her dog had co-existed peacefully with cats. Or more importantly, that she had co-habitated with a girlfriend. Not always so peacefully, but that was another subject.
But Deena asks no questions about Patty or her cats. The conversation continues along the line of cats and dogs in general, with only oblique reference to lovers from the past. Meanwhile, Deena makes her own mental notes. She enjoys the banter, but wishes she could match the confidence she hears in the quick repartee from Chris. 'It sounds like she's had a string of live-in lovers,' Deena muses. 'What must she think of my introverted self?'
"So, I hear you're a singer", Chris is saying, taking Deena by surprise. Chris feigns deep appreciation for the great art of skat when she asks Deena about her jazz choir. Deena feigns interest in Chris's lesbian soccer league. But they both launch into books with obvious relish. Favorite authors, best reads of the year, funniest stories.
"You've read Ruth Ozeki?" Deena exclaims. "Wasn't she great? I thought My Year of Meats was the best!"
"Yeah, wasn't it wonderful?", Chris chimes in, suppressing her surprise that Deena's booklist included such raucously riotous reading.
As their plates are being cleared, Chris braves a question.
"Opal Palmer Adisa is reading at Cody's Books next Friday. Would you like to go hear her?"
"That sounds good, but I might have an extra rehearsal. We've got a little performance coming up," Deena explains.
"Okay," Chris says, trying not to sound disappointed. "Tell me about your gig". She listens, not all that well, as Deena describes their upcoming benefit for the striking hotel workers. Instead of labor solidarity, she's thinking of her own-probably lost-cause. Maybe Terry would go with her? Maybe Deena wouldn't want her to attend. Maybe she wouldn't care. Probably Deena has written her off by now.
"But I can confirm our schedule at rehearsal Tuesday night", Deena says, interrupting Chris's thoughts. "If I'm free next Friday, I'd love to go to that reading."
Chris can't help raising her eyes in surprise, and grins back at Deena. "Hey, wanna go check out the new books at Diesel right now?"

*************

Two Faces of Mardi Gras
©2001 Nancy Conover

To the clang of the streetcar
With the push of the crowd
To the jump of the rhythyms
Carnaval gone too wild.

The hot blast of music
Faces flower wild colors
Sweating beer, cajun crawfish
Dancing light, grit and sparkle.

Leaving behind St. Charles
Jasmine, urine, cayenne steam
Cacophony of plastic
Community insane.

To scurry past shirtless dancers
Cross the park, gulp to breathe
To soak in the sweetness of riverbank mud
Watermelon mush between the toes.

To collapse in a stupor
For a moment, no more
Until the anger of difference
Fills the space with remorse.

Beating to different drummers
Trudging home in separate worlds.
Sharp shards breaking strings
Music shunts off unshared.

Fat Tuesday-how disgusting.
Drunken orgy overload.

Mardi Gras-flying fish
Leaping rainbows mad delight.

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