Patsy Smith left Rochester, New York on a sunny Saturday morning intending to drive all the way to California. But after three and a half hours, crossing through an Indian reservation, she got lost. On a long, straight road, where there hadn’t been a route number for many miles, there was a sudden break in the forest and she saw a small building with cars and trucks parked in front. She turned in to ask directions.
Pulling the door open, she smelled beer. She saw men with their backs to her sitting at the end of a room on bar stools, and close by, a few small tables and chairs that were mostly empty. The door snapped shut behind her and in the sudden darkness all she could make out were the neon beer signs. She stood still, waiting until her eyes adjusted. It was nineteen sixty-eight. Patsy was sixteen. She had an old car, a hundred dollars, a pillow, a blanket, a pair of broken-in lace-up boots; that was the total of her possessions. But it was all she needed.
The man sitting at the table closest to her was the only one who had seen her come in. He stared at the girl with bare feet, filthy pants, long curly hair, and a wide pale face that even at that moment in a strange place, had an oddly quixotic expression.
Patsy was remembering a fact from seventh grade New York State history. These Indians, the Seneca, were called Keepers of the Western Door. They were protectors. Maybe that was why she had chosen the route that went through their reservation, and now, having lost it, maybe that was why she felt so confident standing in the smoky room.
The men at the bar, a row of dark backs with dark heads, talked quietly. When her eyes adjusted, she saw the man sitting by himself at the closest table. A shaft of light, coming from a small window, settled on his shoulders and made the rest of the room unimportant.
Patsy Smith stayed by the door, covered in shadow, but lit up, inside, by the beam of the lone drinker’s attention. She had left her home in a rush and on this first afternoon that she was on her own, she could already see that when she was away from her family, she, as a separate and independent person, would matter. The man in the light was slowly standing up. He didn’t look at her, but she knew she was the reason he’d gotten to his feet, and not the bathroom or some peppery old geezer sitting at the bar.
“Help you?” he asked.
It was not a friendly face. It was too hard for that. But he looked at her straight on, the raw flat angles of his cheeks glistening.
“Did I miss a turnoff or something? Route seventeen? I think I lost it.”
There was a flicker of amusement at the corners of his mouth and he said very slowly but in a proud tone, “You most certainly did. This is the beginning of the end of everything you could call familiar. So why not stay for awhile?”
Her warning system had been defused long ago. So it didn’t make her nervous to be the only woman in a room of stoop shouldered old men with a younger one who spoke in riddles; in fact, it sent an excited shiver down her spine. She joined him at his table and had a beer. And when he asked her a question, she told him a few things about herself: that she was going to California, that she had major plans, that she didn’t know exactly where in California, but that was only a detail. He told her about Handsome Lake.
“He’s the prophet who saved the Seneca from the white man. His visions restored our people.”
“Handsome Lake,” she repeated, her brain foggy from beer on an empty stomach. “That’s not your name, right, that’s someone else?”
“Well I’m Patsy Smith.” She extended her hand, aiming all of her enthusiasm into his dark, simmering eyes.
“Uly Jojockety.” He said it softly and without any salesmanship, but he did offer his hand, and when she took it, she could feel the dry grittiness of his palm and realized how far she was from the land where people with soft palms named Smith ruled over her.
“So who is this Handsome Lake? Does he have a Bible, sort of, or a radio program?”
He laughed. “No, this was long ago, 1799.”
“You’re kidding.” The way he’d spoken she’d thought it was now. “So…how do you know about him?”
“You see, we’re not like you. What we have is a straight line that goes from this day now to his first vision in 1799. The now, the here,” he touched the top of the table, “it rests on what happened before.”
“That’s really far out,” she said, thinking to herself that you might want to remember old Indians, but old white men it was probably better to forget.
Sometime later, she left him to go outside to pee. And while squatting behind the building, her ass visible to anyone who might walk past the row of trash cans, she was startled by a crackle of leaves and looked up. There he was, looming over her, his face more craggy from the ground up. Apparently, a lady’s bare squat didn’t prohibit a man’s gaze.
“No need to be embarrassed. Nothing new about a woman pissing.”
She pulled her jeans upwards, careless about what he might see, and he said, “but girls from Rochester, now I thought they only used toilets.”
She was stung by that word, girls. “Some maybe,” she answered, “not me. I’ve been doing this forever.”
She had her third beer leaning against the trunk of a cottonwood that was as ancient probably as the events he spoke of. He told her about the United States government stealing ten thousand acres of the most fertile Seneca land, river land that had been protected since 1794, in a treaty signed by General George Washington himself, how they’d removed his family and a thousand others. Just to build a dam that could have been built somewheres else. But no, Indian land was their choice. The good people of Pittsburgh, three hundred miles away, needed protection, by the US government, from the inconvenience of high waters in the spring.
“They burnt our house down, cut our trees, gave us a handful of dollars, and stuck us in a little white box with all the modern conveniences we didn’t want. They took it all. No more fish, no more fields, no more forests, no more longhouse. No wait,” he held up a finger, “let me be fair, they moved the longhouse. So then they said, what do you Indians have to gripe about? Okay? What do you Indians have to gripe about? And now do you know what they’re saying? They’re saying, wait and see, we’re going to lay route 17 right through your reservation and cut it in half. You saw how it stopped, right?”
“It just sort of disappeared,” she said. “And then all these little roads you were supposed to follow were really confusing and I got lost.”
“Exactly. That’s because we will not let a foreign government make a highway through our land.” With his hand on his chest, he intoned in a solemn voice, “I pledge allegiance to the Seneca Nation to frustrate the United States Traveler forever and ever.”
She laughed, happy to collude in such vehement anti-establishment feelings.
The sun was sinking. Rays of light were scattered by the leaves that laced the blueness of the afternoon. She knew she was drunk. But only partially was it alcohol. The rest of her euphoria was caused by the situation, the fact that her parents had no idea where she was, that she hadn’t had anything to eat since dinner the night before, and that a man with a kind voice and a long ribbon of hair, a man who was of people who had things worth remembering, was becoming her friend. Just then, his hair was brushing her arm, his full purple lips were parting slightly to ask, “How old are you Patsy Smith?”
“I’m old enough to know what you want. And I’ll tell you something, Handsome Lake, I want it too.” It came out just like that, one whole piece, smooth as something memorized. But she had never before said anything like it. She watched his face, gauging the effect, and then, with the same quiet authority the first violinist in the orchestra lifted the bow and laid it across the strings in preparation to begin the symphony, she raised her arm and set her long, pale-fingered hand on his blue jeaned thigh. Every Saturday of her entire life, her mother had gone to the Rochester Philharmonic. And so it was on that beautiful afternoon she was sitting in the audience, straight-backed and focused, as her daughter, who cared nothing for classical music, was sprawled on the ground a hundred and forty three miles south, orchestrating, with the same drama and promise, slender fingers on a stranger’s thigh.
But the Keeper of the Western Door leaned away. He sat back against the tree trunk and said, “There’s nothing special here. Nothing romantic. What we have is poor land and complicated weather. This is the place, Patsy Smith, where all hopes are destroyed, all expectations are lowered, and every vision of the future is worsened. I’m warning you. Anyone who survives crawls away injured. So do you really know what you’re doing? Because the only thing to recommend me is the before and the here, the this.” He put a lean hand on the ground underneath him. “But not the after. Clear on that?”
She loved the sound of his voice. She could just lie down and listen to that kind of poetry all her born days. Uly Jojockety was a teacher. He would teach her everything she needed to know. She removed her hand from his thigh, unzipped her jeans, and pulled them down, flinging them off with a heroic flourish. Oh, the terrible wrongs that had been done to him and his people!
But then, as his body moved over hers, cutting out the light, there was a moment that dropped out of the progression. She knew she would remember it. It was before anything happened, when she was still a girl from a suburb of Rochester escaping difficulties at home. And then, as those rough hands discovered her, she watched herself become someone else, someone she hadn’t met before, someone who was outspoken, a woman who would be comfortable in her life, who would feel for others. She’d say, sweetheart, honey, baby cakes, announcing her affection for whomever it was she spoke with. That person would take over. She would lead her from one sorry man on the earth to another, moving from Salamanca, New York to Olean, Batavia, Buffalo, always keeping to the clouded western side of the state until she’d had enough of other people’s troubles. The wisdom was hard-earned. And when she was in her fifties, having been through it all — children, booze, narcotics — her body would cease its raging.
But that was the future. It would take thirty-seven years to get there.
Listen to Megan Staffel’s reading of “Saturdays at the Philharmonic” below…
Megan Staffel explains that this untitled painting by Annabeth Marks feels connected to her story because it “expresses female sexual longing.”
Father Jed’s head was stuck in Lent. He said these words to himself as a kind of talisman. Otherwise, his head would have split in two. He sat on the chancel with Father Benedict, the assistant pastor, up on the priest’s seat. Why was he so torn up on the night of the Easter Vigil? It was the most joyous mass of the year. The choir, the drummers, the brass ensemble, the woodwind players, the readers: everyone had been preparing for this night since the doldrums after Epiphany. The church was dark, completely dark. It gave Father Jed a thrill to think of one of those perpetual latecomers stalled at the vestibule. The dark made things scary. The dark made the first reading, the story of Abraham and Issac, scary. The dark made the second reading, the story of the Red Sea parting, even scarier. What kind of God would exact such a price on humans? Father Jed knew that doubt was acceptable. Doubt was of a piece with faith. You could not have faith without doubt. Faith was active, dynamic, but doubts on the night of the Easter Vigil? It was unseemly, as unseemly as the young men from Our Lady of the Martyrs, who hefted the cross of Good Friday on their shoulders across the Safeway parking lot, knowing full well they were in a Jewish neighborhood. Father Jed couldn’t see any of the faces of the people. Their candles were snuffed out. The Chilean wine palms shadowed the windows from outside, purpled, ghostly. Then the lights went on. Sister Ray was incensing the chancel and transepts, with the bowl she held high, her troop of six dancers behind her. They were leaping, reaching, turning, flashing through the smoke. Their gestures said, Our God is a good God. Our God is a friend to the stranger. The incense stung his eyes. It was so strong in the air that he tasted it on the back of his teeth. Someone coughed. The dance had seemed like a good idea back in February, long before the saguaro had bloomed by the front doors. Dance always had something of risk about it. Maybe this time someone would fuss to Bishop Ren, which was exactly what his parishioners wanted, something to get riled up about. And yet Father Jed wanted to slide down the priest’s seat, cringing in embarrassment for everyone assembled. Had the dancers listened to the readings? Had the people? Apparently not, as everyone facing the sanctuary looked hot with delight. They were so ready to sweep the rigors of deprivation aside. They were so ready to get out of that desert, though most of them had chosen to live in one, air conditioned. It took everything in Father Jed not to leap out of his seat, dash into the sacristy to turn off the lights. What would Sister Ray and her dancers do if they couldn’t see the seats? He imagined the startled gasp, the strangled cry. Now see who your God can be, Father Jed thought. He gripped the arms of the priest’s seat. Had he said those words aloud? He couldn’t tell outer from inner anymore. Oh God, dear God.
By the third reading, God said, “I am taking you back,” and Father Jed felt his eyebrows crisp as the responsorial psalm wended its way toward E minor. What had he been thinking? Had those ghastly thoughts sculpted his face? He looked out at the parishioners he was closest to—Juan Fernando in the second row, Daisy two rows behind Juan Fernando, Dean all the way in the back, face half-concealed behind a column—for reassurance, but none of them looked back. Surely his friends would let him know, these friends who had shared everything with him from their Xanax dependencies, to their breakups, to their bitter little affairs late into the evening as they walked along the arroyo. But none of them looked back at him. They were looking at the feet of Father Ben, which were just slightly off the floor. He was giving the sermon. He was doing his usual, linking Terminator 2 to Flannery O’Connor to one of the psalms, and managing to connect them with bleak, expert joy. Everyone was looking, as if by sheer looking they were keeping his feet in air. Father Benedict did not look down. He did not know what was happening any more than he knew what he was wearing on his feet, one shoe black, one shoe brown. The mismatched shoes didn’t appear to matter to anyone, which might have been why Father Jed got down on his hands and knees and crawled across the carpet toward Father Ben, with his own black shoe in hand.
Listen to Paul Lisicky’s reading of “Lent” below…
Well I’m not supposed to see you looking
I’m not supposed to stare straight into your eyes… – Lucero
Let’s say Philadelphia’s a city constructed entirely of door knobs,
one great opening, one endless turning into something new.
Your voice is on the phone, love, is a rocks glass overflown
with whiskey and burning. Your thumbs slip from keypad
to six string, your thumbs are the teeth of wild city cats.
I’m only ice. I’m inanimate without your mouth. I’m cracking.
Let’s say New York does me in. This city’s riddled
with pothole metaphor, with stay. These streets are slipping
in upon themselves. Everything is so hungry. My legs
stumble under all this – give in. There was a plain precision
to your hands, and each was a thousand and each owned
a fist of hunger.
I say there was a night we swallowed the city in cobbled slices
we took the city in, one sharp sheet of glass and scaffold at a time
and our drunk breathing and the frost on the sweet gum trees.
Your hands were a thousand and then they were only two.
I was a dozen women or just this one. I was a woman
you were missing. You were all night and all of a day even after
we pulled the city down, even after all the rest of you
was trembling, even after all the rest of you was gone.
Doubt seems to be in.
The worry drill whirs
where the dote is.
Where the face was
a vacancy. And yet
the ear is occupied
waiting, for there are
other root canals, so you (mis)heard. No doubt the fire’s hunger whirls
its roar and weather down your
ear while eating sky and licking
daylights off dry trees. Just as
you think you get the picture a
huge sun puts tongues in cheek
and pushes its round belly from
your table. Sets awhile. Your
breath is rising. A tree that you can feel leans toward a mountain. It is
still. The mountains sleep just now. Their dark breasts. You breathe.
In the night above these mountains, the tiny plane your son is flying
lifts. It lifts on air you breathe. It disturbs the air ahead of him and
then the air you think you just breathed out, not him. You breathe.
The phone’s still silent. Breathe.
Listen to Muriel Nelson’s reading of “Lift” below…
After Louise Glück
Somewhere, my brother is traveling—
The right side of his head
a red-clawed tulip
swallowing the cold.
Where to look—
down the long expanse of each train car
rocking through a dimly lit tunnel
dark buckling around me
as the car rises up above a city.
When did I last hear my voice?
What was it like?
Fast, bright—tinfoil between my teeth
And then nothing—for a while.
Listen to Mary Lou Buschi’s reading of “Spell I” below…
Michelle Butler, “Transfiguration” (2012); encaustic on board
Mary Lou Buschi’s poem influenced this encaustic painting by Michelle Butler. The artist explains: “The poem struck me as a moment of transition, so I wanted to represent the push- and pull-forces… beyond our control when we are in transition. The… ominous grey of struggle [is] gently pulled into turquoise — a color that universally symbolizes healing. The movement of the pigment in the wax and layers is evident so you can see and literally feel the journey.”
Sunshowers spit-shined the shark’s
tooth that gutted Kansas’ only diamondback.
You were just a puff adder feigning rattles—
scavenging rat droppings with field mice
in bales of switchgrass.
I want tallgrass.
I want a thunder god with flashes of ego—
a two-storied sod house near an artesian well—
Wall clouds that squall more than hook echoes.
I want storms made out of water—rain that doesn’t flinch
at dust—ballsy wheat—flaxen—fully-headed—two fresh
holstein heifers, & slow-churned farm butter.
I want forty ripe acres of Amish maize—two mules,
& a bullmastiff named Shep who eats corn snakes.
I want to break a green feather bed with a Dundee man.
You wake up in the future and realize that everyone has evolved. People now have the head of a blue jay and the body of a shiny machine that whirs softly as its insides spin. You see two bird heads that look like your parents, but, of course, that is not possible.
When they see you they cry and shake their heads slowly with disappointment because you are not like them. I’m sorry, you say, your voice rough and hard from one thousand years of sleeping. We are all dying, they sing, their voices like glockenspiels.
Below, watch Gerardo Mena’s original video for “The Dangers of Time Travel”…
Something had to be done about the moles;
labyrinths stretched from the garden
down to the hollow. Give moles an inch
and they’ll burrow up to your door.
So we dug holes in their paths and filled
them with old coffee cans. Bleary eyed,
dirty noses raised, down in the can
they’d be covered in silt like coal-miners
pulled from a cave-in. If you weren’t cruel,
you carried them over to the woods
to knock them out of the cans. Mad as piss,
they’d shovel off in the light to other pastures.
Listen to Matthew Haughton’s reading of “Moles” below…
Boy in a field understand The lame
Hearted go to him mouth filled
Broken He brings the horses
Of his grandfather His hands wheat
Heavy I have seen him Monster himself
With river-sickness and a girl His mother
Maybe as a girl It is hard to say
Her story Tell it He is afraid The lame
Hurt too Hearts in the coal filled even
The horses’ lungs He will bring them
I have seen him afraid of himself
His river-sickness Bring him
Horses Tell her story The girl broke
His wheat-heart It is hard to say Why
He is afraid Maybe a girl hurt too
Go mouth filled Black lung-wings
He will bring the lame I have seen
Him monster himself I understand
Why Tell him I love Bring him
Listen to Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick’s reading of “Boy in a Field” below…
Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick took this photograph and chose to pair
it with her poem because it embodies “a sense of abandonment and
at the same time, anticipation for things not-yet-lost.”
We rested on a blanket by the water
where I combed the sand and spoke your name gently
You slept but I was not tired and never have I studied
the fullness of a back not even of the dying
propped on their sides as I did yours then
I tried to mimic your breathing though I did not close my eyes
at least not for long instead I kept a kind of vigil
swatting for you what seemed a thousand nameless insects
See it was afternoon the ocean warm to boredom
boat oil and pelicans and I thumbed through a book
while I waited for you to stir to apologize but for what
for disappearing for leaving me to distinguish alone
my desires to want you or want to become you
Wake up please wake so that I might tell how it is
I can for you sit all day in a field of sand
Listen to Allison Seay’s reading of “Town of the Beloved” below…
When Esther is pouting and knows I am bored with her
she asks if I am having one of my Days,
and I say What? meaning no, meaning yes
I am, and she says again and louder, “Are you having
one of your Days” and the word Days is like a string
of beads she pulls from her mouth,
a long accusatory sound (like feign or blame).
We gossip to kill time though she thinks it is only
any good in a town where people hate (as in hate) other people.
For instance, Hazel Hamilton was dead in her house three days
before anyone went to see her, mostly meaning well.
If I had tried, I could have spied her in the wingback
through a slit in the curtain. Sometimes when I have a Day
(as in Hazel) I spend the afternoon in the yard
and imagine her nest of white hair
peeking over the other side of a mouth-high fence,
ivy draping either side to keep in or keep out
whatever needs keeping. Esther reminds me
about being unkind
lest I die alone and unfound in a chair by a window.
It is such an example, she says, and I say of what
and she is in her pouting way on the paint-flecked glider
I think you know
as though it is a secret between us
(what secret there are no secrets).
Listen to Allison Seay’s reading of “Gossip Town” below…
I have no charms. Admittedly.
No gold comb can move through
This mane. My skin is not translucent.
It is not soft. Mine is a tail to fear. I know.
But from this goat’s body,
Up from my wood-smoke lungs, from
The milk of me, comes a song, a melody
To open your wounds, then lick them clean.