Hell and High Water

I have been writing poetry for years. I’ve read amazing lines that left me despairing of my ability to match the skill of my favorite poets, awed by the way they bare the truth with only a few words. Mary Oliver, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Pablo Neruda, along with so many others, taught me how to gut punch with the truth and a few lines.

I needed distance from my own poems before I was ready to separate and edit them, making cuts and looking for the most precise word. And I still might not have decided to share my poems. But, recently, I have been on a quest for any verses, any songs that capture the way I feel. And so much lacked depth. I began to wonder if maybe no one was in as much pain as I was. Living with PTSD can be isolating. PTSD on top of a pandemic made me feel singularly desolate. I’m especially interested in eradicating the lies we tell ourselves; in this case, it’s “I’m alone and no one can help me. No one else feels like this.”

Hell and High Water Cover 2So, I’ve decided to release the deepest and darkest words I’ve got. They aren’t pretty. They aren’t nice. They are concise. My poetry is a blend of Southern drawls, the fusion of science and art, and a whole lot of pain with a few glimmers of happiness. It’s not for the faint of heart. But I’m sharing it in case anyone else is on my dark path and thinks they are walking alone. If you’re heartbroken, read the whole thing. If you think you’re the poster child for PTSD, try “Fallacies” and “Ripples”. And then notice that “The Inverse” and “Benediction” follow those. I can’t hold everyone’s hand through panic attacks, but I can offer a sense of community and hope.

Hell and High Water will soon be available for pre-order and will be released on August 25, 2020.  (It’s a bit of a pandemic surprise for me, too.)

 

 

Where Angels Can’t Follow: Chapter 1

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”—Michelangelo

I trudged through the dilapidated street, balancing exertion and hydration in a shuffle common to all of New Orleans in July. Eyeing the angel statues guarding Saint Louis Number Three, I imagined them as they should be, not child-like cherubs, but stone warriors—Heaven’s answer to demons. Grass stained my knees, and my too large t-shirt was heavy with humidity and sweat. Everything in the thrift store seems made for obese people. Or people who at least eat regularly. None of it snugs up to a rail thin teenager. I’m not emaciated. Well, not anymore. Marge, my landlady and surrogate grandmother, might seem unfriendly and intimidating at first, but the wrinkles in her eyes get canyon deep as she stares at my baggy clothes and waves me into her kitchen for another round of fried everything.

I have a small room in the lilac colored shotgun house, a quarter cordoned off as mine. An efficiency apartment, I suppose some would call it. I know the truth. It’s just a closet of a room, with one corner pretending to be a kitchenette and another corner pretending to be a bathroom. For the record, I might be better off in a pop-up camper. But this place feels like home. Marge is just one wall over and would beat anyone threatening us with her rolling pin. It’s a cushion of safety that I can’t bring myself to leave.

The screen door announced my arrival, and I cringed as I heard Marge calling for me. “Nate!” I could just ignore her. “Nathaniel!” she insisted.

Turning away from my so-close door, the freedom to collapse on my couch mere seconds away, I stood outside the door to the main house and responded, “Yes, Marge?”

She was still in a shift, an oversized nightgown sack dress that matches the purple of the house, and worn out slippers sheath her toes. “Now, you know, I can’t reach anything. Who ever heard of putting lights so doggone far up on the ceiling? I need some help changing that lightbulb in the hallway.”

She looked up at me, as though I have an obligation to change lightbulbs. As though it were in our contract. Section 5b. Tenant must change light bulbs for little old ladies. No matter how much he really just wants to lie down in the air conditioning.

After my sweltering day, I didn’t feel like anything else, but I grunted as I yanked the door open and grabbed the bulb she offered. It’s not really a major task. The fixture is close to the ceiling, but it’s nothing a step ladder won’t fix. Still, Marge isn’t exactly lithe. As though I’ve been granted insight into the future, I envisioned her tottering to the side and tipping over, breaking her hip on the way down. The medics, of course, would look at her and ask, “Now, why were you doin’ a thing like this by yo’self?”

Though we differ on most issues, we were on the same wavelength now. She looked apologetic as she said, “If I fall, that’s the last thing my son’s high falutin’ wife would need to stick me in a home! She’d say I can’t take care of myself. And I ain’t goin’ to no home!”

I don’t like it, being the caretaker here, but I agree. No homes. She’d leave, and I’d be out on the street again. I pulled the ladder out of the garage, exercising an abundance of caution. If I break the little fixture, Marge will harangue me with her sharp tongue and hands on her hips, fingers pointing, and I really just want peace. I climbed up, unscrewed the fixture, changed the bulb, and reattached everything. Putting the ladder away, I turned to leave.

It’s never that easy though.

“You know. We got a strange delivery today. You know anything about that?” she asked.

I shook my head.

“This scary lookin’ man showed up, bald head, sunglasses, big muscles. He’s even a couple of inches taller than you! He had tattoos. The kind in another language. Now, why do you reckon people do that? They can’t know for sure that those people ain’t puttin’ cuss words on their skin.”

Time to get this conversation back on track, before we get the evils of tattoos lecture again.

“I know. I don’t know why they do that. Now, what about this delivery? Are you sure it’s anything to do with me?”

“Yeah. The baldie said it was for you. To make sure you got it. That you’d know what to do with it. And it’s big and heavy. I want it outta my garage, but it’s hard to move at all,” she complained.

A flash of annoyance rushed over me. Honestly, if she’d been able to move my package, she probably would have by now. And I was curious. No one ever sends me anything but bills, much less a package. Occasionally, I order art supplies, but I hover over the mailman when those arrive, worried someone will steal my precious tools.

“It was weird. It didn’t come off no FedEx or UPS truck either. Don’t you know ‘bout the UPS, son? You could be tracking them packages anywhere.”

For Chrissakes! Yes, I know ‘bout the UPS.

I pulled the door up, looking at the person-sized crate in the middle of the room. It’s on a pallet with casters, at least. I studied the box towering over me, looking for a label. “There’s no return address,” I admitted.

“Well, I know that. I looked. Wondering what you been buying. I know people buy crazy stuff on the internet.”

“I really didn’t order anything.”

I hesitated at the box. It’s too big to be anything but interesting. But it had to be a mistake.

“Well, c’mon. Open it up,” Marge prodded, shooing me toward the box.

I grabbed a crowbar from the tool bench and wedged it into the seams, shocked by the weight on the casters. I pried my mystery delivery open, until my eyes registered what was beneath. Marble. High quality marble. A full person-sized block of it. Statue sculpting marble. And a note taped to the surface, Nathaniel, scripted across the luxurious paper. I pulled the note off, and unfolded it.

“Well, what’s it say?” Marge chirped. She edged closer, reading over my shoulder. “ ‘Don’t be afraid of inspiration.’ Don’t be afraid of inspiration?! What does that mean?”

I shrugged as my eyes bulged at the extravagance before me in Marge’s dingy garage, and in spite of the note, I asked, “Are you sure they said this is for me?”

“Yeah. Baldie insisted. What you gonna do with this? Now, you can’t be leaving this in the middle of my garage.”

“I’ll figure something out. You want me to move it to one side for now?”

When she nodded, I carefully inched my marble to the side. Don’t tip. Don’t crack. Just smooth movement, with just enough force. It was terrifying.

“Now why would someone send you a buncha marble?” she pondered.

“I don’t know,” I answered quietly, “But I’m learning to sculpt. I just can’t imagine who’d send me that big a piece or why.”

“You sculpt?!” Marge squawked into the evening air. I nodded. “We eat dinner together half the time. How could you take up sculpting and not tell me?”

I watched my feet stamping at the floor, and my hand flew up to cool my burning neck as my cheeks burned. “I—I’m not sure I’m good at it yet,” I stammered.

Marge’s indignation vanished in her next deep exhale. “It’s not easy to have someone laugh at your newborn dreams,” she agreed, reaching up to make my eyes meet hers. “I can give up a little space for a while.”

And before I had a chance to thank her, she was heading off to the kitchen. But I knew better than to follow.  She’s still surprised, but eventually there will be a litany on sculpting. I don’t know what she’s going to harp on for certain, but somehow I know it’s sure to include sculpting for God’s glory and how people were meant to be wearing clothes.

I was pushing the mower through the dense air, already soaked at 9:00 AM, when I first envisioned what the marble block could become. I nearly ran over Mrs. Delaney’s day lilies I was so lost in reverie.

A tall, muscular woman with wings. A woman with wings? An angel. But she didn’t look like Michelangelo’s angels. She was thin, but curvy, and she didn’t have a toga on. Don’t all angels have to wear togas? Or be naked? Isn’t that a rule? She wass wearing tight fitting pants with sheaths strapped to her thighs with blades stuck anywhere they would fit and a clingy chain mail shirt, the outfit finished off with combat boots and her hair wrapped up in braids. Her wings were huge, spanning from her head to her knees, and I could see we would be eye to eye if she were real. I tried to shake her from my mind, but she sprang back. She hardly looked angelic. She looked…fallen.

I’m impressed that my idea is so detailed—like Michelangelo’s David—I could see her eyelashes, her veins. But I couldn’t easily imagine her in color. I only saw her in marble, and I ached with the need to see what she’d be like in color. I imagined her as a blonde, a brunette, a redhead as the day passed in a haze of grass clippings and sweltering heat. I was so drawn to her that I want to walk away from the lawns, from my one source of income, and sketch her, make the plan to bring her to life. Because, by the end of the day, there was no doubt in my mind that she was meant to be sprung from the marble.

I clenched the handle of my push mower. I am part of a sad, two-person lawn crew, but I’m doing what I can with this one little mower and a beat-up truck that barely wants to haul me, let alone the equipment and accessories. Unless you want to mow lawns forever, you have to keep moving. C’mon, Nate. We can sculpt later. We can draw later. I tried to talk myself down because I can hardly keep it together—stretching out my funds to attend art classes, pay Marge for utilities, and eat. Marge doesn’t require much, and I think she spends what I pay her feeding me again later. So, I can’t let her down. My rational side knows best, knows I have to make a certain quota, but the muses were riding me hard.

“What the heck are you doin’, Nate?”

My head jerked around as I loaded the weed eater back into the metal monster. I looked down at the gear and cans of gasoline, wondering if I was doing something stupid. I’m usually not, but you have to wonder when somebody leads with that.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I saw you nearly take out the flowerbeds three times in one yard!” Kiah growled.

My partner in the great lawn cutting business is an unlikely girl. We were both hungry, sweaty, and covered in grass confetti. She wore shorts, her legs impervious to the pelting we took as we mowed. I don’t know if you can get leg callouses, but if it’s possible, Kiah’s done it.

She looked like she might still slap some sense in to me, a feat that would take a step ladder, but it was in her eyes. Kiah might be a foot shorter than I am, but she’s meaner, and she’s the one in charge of our aggressive marketing campaign and interacting with clients. Her wild curls were going into near-afro mode, her hands on her hips.

“I’m sorry, Kiah. I don’t know what’s gotten into me,” I made excuses as I rubbed my palms down my face, looking for a dry spot to wipe sweat.

“You sure it ain’t that hot chick that keeps waving at you from the pool next door?” she retorted. I turned to look. There’s a hot chick waving at me next door? Sure enough, Ms. Pink Bikini waved at us as I looked.

“Maybe she’s waving at you, Kiah. I think you gotta be wrong. I didn’t even notice,” I placated as Kiah looked ready to slap the back of my head. I heard her muttering.

“I can’t even get a girl to look at me—someone who would definitely notice—and you can’t see them fawning at you! Honestly, if the pink bikini ain’t your problem, then why are you trying to run our business into the ground today?”

I let a breath out because she wass not going to like my reasons. The pink bikini would be more relatable.

“I got this weird delivery yesterday, and I keep thinking about it.”

“If it ain’t for you, you’re supposed to return it, idiot.”

I grinned at her straightforward advice. “It was for me. The delivery guy apparently insisted.”

I wondered how long I could keep Kiah waiting for details before she’d explode, wanting to know who’d send me a package and what it was. I was dead certain that she couldn’t make it to the next yard before she insisted on knowing.

I didn’t have to wait long. “So, are you gonna tell me what you got?” Her eyes flashed.

“Yes, Kiah. I was just waiting for you to ask. Wasn’t sure you were interested,” I teased.

“You know we ain’t got nobody to send us packages but the Hatters, and they ain’t gon’ send anything. We see them all the time.” I smiled at Kiah’s use of the nickname for the trio of old ladies who’d adopted us, a name bestowed in part because of their attempt to join the Red Hat Society and in part because they’re mad like hatters.

“Okay. Get this. I show up from work, and Marge is driving me crazy about changing a lightbulb. Then, she springs the package on me. It’s huge and sitting in the garage. This gigantic box on a pallet with casters. It’s the sort of crate that could house a body or a dinosaur skeleton. Anything really,” I narrated with excitement. Kiah hopped from foot to foot.

“I slit the sides open, and I can tell the thing’s got heft, you know? And there’s a note taped to the block. It has ‘Nathaniel’ written neatly on top with some bizarre advice inside. It said, ‘Don’t be afraid of inspiration.’ It’s a huge chunk of marble. Statue making size.”

Kiah’s jaw dropped because I can’t make this stuff up. Who sends a cash-strapped art student a slab of marble? And why would I be afraid of inspiration?

“So, what are you gonna do with it? I mean, you’re in Sculpting 2. You’re good, but you’re not Michelangelo yet.”

“I know. And at first, I was horrified. Afraid of inspiration. That’s laughable. I’m afraid to touch the marble at all. Or at least I was. Until I was gettin’ this idea while I was mowing.”

I wasn’t ready to share yet, and I knew that Kiah would worry at my idea like a scab if I didn’t take evasive action.

“So, I heard a rumor that the Hatters are gettin’ together Thursday night at your house. Now, I haven’t been invited, but I heard that they invited Delia Moore, the head of the local Cotillion Society. I don’t know what they might be intendin’, but I’d be willing to bet it involves shoes you can’t walk in and one Hezekiah Esther Craft being announced at a ball.” I made sure to use my imitation of Mrs. Grace as I said the full name.

Kiah’s eyes widened, and she stepped back like a skittish colt. I knew she was already making escape plans. Kiah can wrestle rattlesnakes, change oil on any machine, send spiders running in fear, and stare down men triple her size. But ballgowns and people using her full name are panic-inducing. I’m an awful guy for bringing it up, but Kiah wasn’t thinking about my sculpture anymore. She was layering her defenses until she was more impenetrable than the DMZ.

Finally alone and on my way home, I thought about the way I joke that I’m a landscape sculptor, shaping grass and hedges to my patrons’ whims. But people think I’m a sculptor like they think janitors are “sanitation engineers”. Still, I needed stone beneath my hands like junkies need their next score, and I pressed the pedal down on the old F-150. It was more embarrassing to drive this old monster than it was to just walk. The squealing belt let everyone know I’m coming for miles away, and I turned the volume up, letting the radio drown it. “This is Terri Salinas with The Underground News. We are sad to report the Bayou Beater has struck again, leaving two new victims on the city outskirts. Police are still investigating, but please stay safe, folks.” I mulled the news over, wondering how many victims the Bayou Beater could take before New Orleans got scared. Was that 6? 7?

Some of the tension left my shoulders as I pulled into my spot. I didn’t bother unloading my gear. I was somewhat sheltered here behind the house, and I walked toward the side entry garage door. I’ve never been nervous about the unlocked garage before, but I was anxious knowing there was nothing separating a miscreant from my marble but a rolling door.

I breathed deeply when it was still there. And I couldn’t stop myself from reaching out for it, my eight-foot slab. I felt her beneath the marble, a pulse beneath the surface.

I jerked my hand back. Marble doesn’t pulse. It’s rock. It’s not living. I talked myself out of backing away. I’ve just had too much mowing and not enough water. My hands are still jittery from the mower. That logical thought reined in the others, and I went to fix this dehydration-induced hallucination.

“Is that you, Nathaniel?”

Who else, Marge?

I’m still not up to letting my landlady experience what a smartass actually jabbers inside my head though. So, I replied, “Yes.” If I happened to sound a bit longsuffering, well, I’d had dehydration-induced hallucinations already.

“I was just makin’ sure nobody was sneakin’ in to steal that chunk o’ rock.”

My heart nearly stopped as I saw that she was holding an old revolver. Little Marge, who can’t change a light bulb, was prepared to shoot me to kingdom come.

“Were you gonna shoot me?” I gasped, my voice rising an octave.

“Not you. Just anybody that ain’t s’posed to be here.”

You think you know somebody. And then you find out they have revolvers in their housecoats.

And she shoved that gun back in the pocket of her floral print gown and pushed her glasses up on her nose, which crinkled when it registered what landscape sculptors actually smell like in New Orleans heat.

“You reek! Now go on and wash up. I’m makin’ some fried okra and cornbread. Might scrounge up some chicken or pork chop in a minute. Come get some real food. Nothing you can cook in a microwave is gonna be worth a damn.”

I had to agree.

He Doesn’t Get a Book

I am so damned proud of this stack of paper. You might be thinking, “C’mon, Jessi. You write novels, and it’s a novel. Why is this one standing out?” This one is standing out first because it’s poignant. It’s got a mix of mythologies, generation gaps, Southern flavor, fights to embrace sexual and racial identities—all while packed with laugh-until-you-hurt moments.

It's real when it's all printed in front of me!

But I’m also damned proud because I had so much trouble getting back to this novel to edit it after I wrote it. I worked on it while I was in a very abusive relationship, one that culminated in nightmarish domestic violence. It’s not an autobiographical novel at all, but I wrote it in spite of my circumstances. And everything created in that time felt touched by it. I remembered what I was going through when I penned different scenes, when I tried to edit and stopped.

I am proudest because I have taken my novel back. You can’t see it, but I know I not only had to write it, I had to wrest it from an abyss of panic, anxiety, and doubt. My abuser does not get a book, much less the best one I’ve written so far. I want to share it with you all far too much. I’m living with this stack of paper for now, putting on finishing touches and recording audio soon. You’ll get a native Southerner for the drawl of New Orleans! And I am excited to share both the drawl and the story.

Years That Ask Questions

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” –Zora Neal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

I have been through what felt like years of questions and some brutal answers since I penned the ending to Where Angels Can’t Follow. In the last year, I’ve used my powers of the pen in the technical arena, and I have used my writing to empower victims of violence to not stay silent, to be screaming loud. My home was broken into a few months ago, and I was attacked quite violently by someone I was close to. It has given me perspective and deep gratitude for my village. But none of those people could have helped if I had been cowed into silence.

I still felt like I briefly lost my voice, the one I speak with and the one I write with, when I was stuck in hellish flashbacks. It’s not the kind of time loop one wants to be in. I discovered from reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk that research indicates one does indeed literally lose activity in the part of the brain responsible for speech when reliving traumatic memories. I am grateful to my caving community and every friend who reached out. You helped me find my voice again when I could barely find the air to fill my lungs.

I can think of quite a few literary greats who struggled with loss, depression, anxiety, and pain. Though it’s a hell of a crucible, the pain makes us great; it makes empathetic people who can get at the heart of any struggle with accuracy. I have my well of pain now to pull from as I write. And it’s a comfort to know that all I have been through the last couple of years will be instrumental in creating powerful new worlds and characters with depth.

Where Angels Can’t Follow is in some final editing phases now. I’m nitpicking the word choices and filling in the gaps. This one will be done this year so that I can make room for the other characters that keep trying to push their way to the front of my mind. Thank you all for waiting so patiently. And thank you to my friends who are not so patient, too. (I needed the nudging.) I am looking forward to sharing my mix of New Orleans, voodoo, archangels, classical Renaissance art, and generational differences with all of you.