I was at a rebuilt bar in Siren, Wisconsin last year and I saw a guy at the bar point a photo of a group of men in front of the old bar. A Black Lab lay in the middle.
“See that ol’ mongrel?”, he asked, using his thumb to move up the brim of his John Deere hat on his bald spot.
“That dog had seventeen litters of pups. 119 in all. Half were dead by the time she died the night afore this photo here.”
A girl at the next table caught my eavesdrop and told me the story. The man was her uncle. The dog did have seventeen litters of pups. 119 in all. Forty had died before her and almost everybody in town had one of her pups. The last few litters were just numbered names. The dog was in the photo on account that they were having the softball team picture the day after she died. She always went to the bar, so this uncle just brought the dead dog to the photo. The niece talking to us had number seven.
I stand close to brick walls sometimes to hear the whispers and shouts they’ve absorbed over the years. We’ve got a nice side door into an alleyway from our railroad flat and I sneak smokes out there and wait for the day in the too early morning. I look close at the mortar between the bricks and run my fingers in the rough ridges. The bricks are so cold in these spring mornings and all the sounds feel like sighs.
When I lived in the old nineteenth century knitting plant flat across the street, I had a deck. I used to go out there all drunk and talk to the stunted elms that grew between my building and the next. I thought they were the direct Greek Gods talking to me.
I first heard stones sing in Krakow, Poland on a cold November morning in 1995 and sleet was slicing. A group of old babushkas sold me a sweater for five dollars. It was huge on my small frame, but I was grateful to be warm and snug. I was lost on the walk home after a night with some local university students and had used the castle as a landmark. I could see it barely up ahead through a haze of fog when a small terrier pup rustled up to my leg. Just weaned, he was a happy sort, all tail. I looked around but the fog had dropped, so I picked up the pup and walked toward the castle. It was later than I’d thunk and some tourists were mulling around a cardboard box in the park yard. Eleven replicas of various colors of the pup I’d just gathered bounced around. No one noticed me put the pup back and continue on my way.
I lit a smoke and sat on a stone bench with a beheaded statue of Stalin hanging over me.
I was cold and I let the smoke dangle from my lips as I pulled my hands deep into the sleeves of the sweater, folding over the ends. The pup meandered up again, tilted head, puppy breath soft. An old guy in flannel with a handlebar mustache came in tow and scooped the pup up. He started speaking to me in Polish, but I could only understand a semblance of the little Czech I knew. Often as travelers in foreign countries adapt, I tried to shake or nod my head at the appropriate times. Just as he was ready to leave, his wife came up. She was an old Romany and she pointed to me and then the dog. She yelled at the man and he brought the dog over to me and set it on the bench. I Ushered an emphatic “NoWay!” I half stood up and the Romany woman smiled. She looked me all square and said,
”This your dog. I keep him safe for you.”
“Okay” I said and smiled. Walking away, past the castle, I felt it sink the ground a little into the cobblestone road and the wake billowed between my feet. I turned around and saw fog tune a fork on the road..
A couple of years ago I started to unwind. Those around me saw it as more of an unraveling but the string I left behind was going straight into the sky. I wasn’t sitting in my closet tying knots in it or anything.
I was on a cave tour in the middle of Laos and a girl ahead of me cut the trip short after slicing her leg on a jagged rock. We all rushed back to our Tuk Tuks and sped her back to “town”. I happened to catch the ride she was on and was horrified by the six-inch gash on the inner side of her right upper thigh. Her leg was wet from falling into the water of the cave, so the blood thinned as it came out through the deep wound. My grip on the roll bar tightened. We pulled onto the main drag and parked next to a restaurant where a few old Lao guys were playing cards and drinking the high alcohol lao lao. They all looked at the wound and one tipped over the bottle right into it. The girl screamed and her boyfriend white knuckled her hand. I walked to the pharmacy next door and bought three ten mg tablets of valium and a bottle of water. I put two in the guys hand and popped the other as one of the Lao guys pulled out a giant fishing hook and tied a line on with an eye closed..
I don’t mind walking through cemeteries. I like it. I like to think of the lives all the people lived and the good and bad things they did. I wonder who they loved and what their claim to fame was. I listen to the silence and grieve at the plastic sun bleached flowers that no one ever left.
One night, my parents were fighting and I snuck out of bed and crept down to the top landing to peek through the banister rails. I could hear my parents' shouts bounce out from the kitchen and I thought my father say that I wasn’t his son. I looked at his hands the next day and then at mine and I knew I was.
I like to listen to the spring birds sing and all the eager loving they burst with. The best part is hearing when the birds don’t sing. Waiting to listen to their song.