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Deborah Fries

  

Leaving Whitefish Bay

                Isn't there a way to feel at home within the                   
     Confines of this bland, accommodating structure                   
  Made of souvenirs and emblems, like the hammock                   
       Hanging in the backyard of an undistinguished                   
                 Prairie School house in Whitefish Bay.   
                                              
— John Koethe                         

This is where Steichen took the trolley to the end of the line,
waded through wetlands to photograph the morning light

off Lake Michigan as it moved through the trees, glowed
in a shallow pool.  Those straight, native trees that predate

the planted canopies of elms that once arched over every street
in Whitefish Bay.  His trees always looking as they did in 1898.

This is where my daughter's classmates, airborne on an icy hill,
slammed head-on into an elm and died, having skipped

French and other classes that afternoon.  But not sex-ed,
which Wendy Shalit, Class of '93, refused to take and later worked

into more than a snit, a book about modesty, something to talk
about on the Today Show, years after the boys were dead,

stopped eternally at age fifteen.  So many return. 
I think they come back to find a time rather than a place. 

Some meaningful chapter.  But it feels like it is a place you are missing,
I know.  And the life I once had might not have been possible

anywhere but there, where I was once a young mother, picking wild
grape leaves along the bluffs at Klode Park, watching the giant moons

that rose over the lake in the fall, wanting to live in one of the Tudors
the doctors owned.  Maybe with one of the doctors.

In those days, when we lived in the center-entrance colonial
on Ardmore, and our marriage was breaking up like whitefish flaking

away from the bone,  I did not yet know that life could get harder,
that in a few years the bluffs at Klode would be unrecognizable,

terraced with white rip rap from the deep tunnel projects,
that some of the bussed-in children with names like Oris and Sabrina

had no futures after Whitefish Bay, that the Buffets would make a grand arrival,
set up a New Age studio in their baronial beer mansion, then split.

I was no good at leaving Whitefish Bay.  Even when I left the first time,
took half a house of old furniture and a half-time child with me

into the city, I came back, settled for a small Cape Cod.   For my child,
I told myself.  So that we could belong to the JCC and life could seem

normal: the deep snows, consumerism, the breathless sexiness of suburbia. 
I loved those post-War houses with their milk chutes and crown molding

and bright casein colors.  Was infatuated with that house on Larkin, seeing
a new man in revisited rooms, seized by the familiar imprint of his floor plan.

This is where I lived before I left for good: in an undistinguished
house on Diversey Boulevard, where one night a transformer blew

and showered my lawn with sizzling oil and bits of fire, where
I planted mallow and cosmos and day lilies after the cleanup;

where I lived next to a woman who told me the story of her uncle,
a German, who left Whitefish Bay to be a Nazi and disappeared forever. 

He told her to wait at the beach, that one day he would return from the sky,
posted home in uniform, a crisp package carried by a clean, white parachute 

who'd come back soon, gliding lower and lower over the dark blue bay,
landing in the sand at Klode, greeting her in English as if nothing had changed. 

 

Alone on Más a Tierra

Immediately our Pinnace return'd from the shore, and brought an
abundance of Craw-fifh, with a Man cloth'd in Goat-Skins, who
Look'd wilder than the firft Owners of them.  He had been on the Ifland
Four Years and four Months, being left there by Capt. Stradling
In the Cinque-Ports; his name was Alexander Selkirk.

                                                                  — Woodes Rogers

Imagine the turquoise horizon.  Days you saw a lozenge of grey, thought it a sail,
knew better.  No one would come.  Alone on Más a Tierra, you were everything
to yourself:  grocer, governor, butcher, tailor, surgeon, shepherd, pastor, lover. 

Imagine the loss of language.  Years without speaking, not even calling the cats
to supper:  Ben Feet, Ol' Soot, Cap'n Cook, No Whiskers, Johnny Boy, Ratso. 
The motley kittens with no names sleeping against your face.  And in dreams,
old friends speaking without words.

Consider the beach after the storms.  Bits of ships that never reached you. Mounds
of shellfish and kelp. The blue French bottle you thought a jewel. The groves
of broken palms and a good white goat floating in the tidal pool.  No one to clean up
but you and God. 

Consider the animal you became.   Faster than the others.  A quick and clever
carnivore without salt or bread, sugar or silver.  A man who took a goat,
and then another.  A man who whimpered in his sleep, dreaming
of the chase:  the green forest, the flashes of brown and white and grey.

Remember the nights you went out of yourself and looked down
at the island, ringed with phosphorescent spawn.  And back again
in your dark shack,  tried to recall music and the smells of tobacco and soap
to forget what would happen when the Spaniards found you.

Remember the cabbage and pimento trees, the yellow snails and parrots;
the hot, white sun. All this beauty is mine, you thought.  A Scottish mind
abandoned off the coast of Chile.  You colonized the cats, governed the goats,
made linen shirts, grew rich and brown.   The gentleman.

Imagine the day Woodes Rogers arrived.  England had come for you.  And without
words or fine clothes you needed England to understand how you had made
Más a Tierra home.    Tour guide to your house of skins, the hoards of cats,
your worn Bible, the gracious uses of a common nail.

Imagine the stories they would tell.  Peculiarities of your ordeal: the man
who had forgotten ale, waltzed with tabbies,  run down prey.  A character,
and bigger still.  Even as guest, sharing Christmas goose and sherry, they would see
you as the story man:  voracious, unclothed, indifferent to a well-set table.

   

Deborah Fries works in multiple genres—including poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction. Her poems and poetry reviews have appeared in numerous print and online journals, including Cream City Review, North American Review, Cimmaron Review, Valparaiso Review, and Terrain.org, where she has been a contributor since 2000. Her first book of poetry, Various Modes of Departure, was published in 2004 by Kore Press, Tucson. Her second book, A Field Guide to Temporal Habitat, will also be published by Kore. She is the editor of the online publication, New Purlieu Review.
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