Saturday, July 30, 2011

Saturday Musings, 30 July 2011

Good morning,

A spray of rain greeted me at the back door today, and I made it welcome. It brought a rush of warm air into the kitchen, against which I finally had to closed the door and retreat into my dining room with a cup of cooling coffee beside the sprawl of perused paper. Congress wrangles still; the President stands helpless; the partisan snarling resonates through the marble halls of our capitol. The world spins; the sun rises with its usual disdain for our shenanigans. As thunder ripples through the air, I note the ragged growth of vegetation in our side yard, raising unchecked fronds to the spray of water feeding its thirsty roots.

My week felt like a lumpy mattress. I negotiated a last-minute settlement in a troubling case, in which my client gave more than he needed to sacrifice -- once again, and for the good of his children. He did so with clear-headed reasoning, driven by his hope, as always, that his children would have a better life because he put their needs before his own. His hope echoes my prayer.

I sat beside my husband's mother at dinner this week, listening to her sweetly narrated story of her and her twin sister playing their respective pianos from distant rooms in their childhood home. Her eighty-year-old frailty touched my heart, and put me in mind of another twin, just as old, just as frail, whom I met a couple of light years ago.

Her name was Evalyn, and her twin had died long before I met her back in my prosecutor days. Because justice is never swiftly dealt, we had decided to record her testimony to insure that we would be able to use her words and have the jury see the shuddering, sweet vulnerability of her somewhat vacant smile.

A video camera turned its objective eye in her direction from the far corner of the room. The defendant whom we had accused of stealing Evalyn's money did not attend; she huddled, instead, in a jail cell, her bond deliberately set at a level that we hoped would prevent her from finding another elderly victim while we awaited the trial date. The public defender sat at one end of the table. Evalyn had eased her frail form onto the hard, unglamorous chair of a county conference room opposite him. My boss and I flanked her, I to the left, my boss to the right.

Evalyn had perceived the importance of the occasion, and dressed as she might have to attend a church service. A stiffly ironed lace collar spanned the short space of her small neckline. The soft wool of a sweater surrounded her narrow shoulders, fastened in the center by a single pearl button. She folded her hands in her lap, holding a white handkerchief. When she had gotten settled, she turned toward the public defender, and graciously signalled him to proceed.

My boss stirred. Since this was a deposition to preserve testimony, scheduled at our behest, she went first. She asked the series of questions that would establish identity and ownership of the account on which we believed the defendant had cashed a series of unauthorized checks. The camera did not pause once during the proceedings; its minder stood impassively behind the tri-pod as Evalyn acknowledged, with a barely perceptible tinge of confusion, that she was indeed the only authorized signatory on the account. My sister Edith used to share this account, she told us. But she's gone now.

She stayed on task through the predicate facts of the case. No, the defendant did not have her permission to write checks on the account. No, she had no knowledge of the checks in question, at which she gazed for a few troubled moments before casting them with discernible disgust upon the table. We held our breaths, my boss and I, as she chuckled over a few random anecdotes about the defendant, who had somehow come to live in her guestroom, by some trickery the details of which I have never understood.

Finally, the basic facts established and the vulnerability of the victim recorded for future jurors to compare with mental images of their own grandmothers, my boss ended her questioning. The three of us turned toward the public defender, a young man who has since risen to higher offices, one of which he still holds. In those days, though, he was a slender, dark-headed earnest but inexperienced attorney, whom everyone nonetheless expected to treat our witness with tenderness and care.

He did not disappoint. In fact, his voice held so little force as to be almost inaudible, and I smothered a smile. He tried, without success, to establish senility on Evalyn's part, to suggest to future triers-of-fact that permission had been given and then forgotten. I did not blame him. I would have done the same in his place, though I could never have defended his client myself.

The woman in question had left other depleted bank accounts. One belonged to a man whom she relocated from St. Joseph to Kansas City in an effort to avoid an imminent prosecution. Her victim had died before his statement could be taken. I met with the police detective who had investigated, and he had no doubt that our defendant should have been made to pay for what she had done to the poor decedent. On the strength of some circumstantial evidence, including the defendant's description to paramedics of how the St. Joseph man had collapsed just before dying in his Plaza apartment, we had exhumed his body and had an autopsy done. But too much time had past, and the likely agent of his death, arsenic, could not have survived the formaldehyde with which his body had been filled.

Still, I did not doubt that she had hastened his death. I stood in the cold, clean room in which the coroner performed the examination of his pristine, preserved body, my gaze fixed on a spattering of mold on the prayerbook in his hands, and the Rosary entwined around them. I watched without flinching, without gagging, so intent was I on prosecuting this woman for his death. The police officers assigned to record the event snapped photo after photo, until red spots drifted before my eyes, but still I stood, a willing witness to desecration in the name of justice.

Afterwards, I burned the dress I had worn, the same dress I had worn the prior year to my mother's funeral. I could not get the smell of decay out of its fabric.

But Evalyn had not been killed, and she sat between the two of us, her protectors, waiting for the next question. The defendant's counsel seemed to hesitate, and, finally, he violated the cardinal rule of questioning: He asked something to which he did not already know the answer. How could my client have gotten your signature so perfect, he inquired.

Evalyn's eyes sparkled. No one in the room doubted the intelligence with which she had navigated the world, as she lifted her slender, quivering hand to raise the proferred exhibit, a copy of one of the forged checks. She held it out, a few inches higher than her face, and turned her mischievous eyes toward the public defender. The same way me and Edith made our mother's signature, on our report cards, she told him. We snuck into her desk and got a letter that she had written. We put the report card from our teacher against a window, the letter behind it. And we traced our mother's signature onto it! As she spoke, she moved a bony finger and traced her own signature, loop after loop, line after shaky line. And everyone in the room could see her long-dead twin beside her: two gleeful, clever girls in pigtails and pinafores, forging their mother's name to a card full of bad marks.

The camera recorded the whole thing.

As I sat beside my mother-in-law this week, watching her sweet smile, listening as she remembered the way she and her twin did everything together, through childhood, through college, and in the early years of their married lives, I thought about Evalyn. She has surely died by now. She must be somewhere pleasant, sitting beside her sister, cackling about the pranks they pulled, and the chagrin on their mother's face when they were found out. As for the woman who probably killed that poor old man, and certainly stole thousands of dollars from the old people on whom she preyed, I can only hope that she served out her time and found no further victims.

The brief thunderstorm has spent itself. My old Mac has just two minutes left on its battery, and duty calls. The other sentient beings in my household are either still sleeping, or have fallen back into a lazy dream, the Saturday sudoku lying on the floor, forgotten. Nearby, the dog snores in her bed, while the old girl cat watches from her chosen perch on the little bench in the hallway.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Saturday Musings, 23 July 2011

Good morning,

The unbearable heat of summer lurks an hour from where I now sit, in a blond-wood rocker, on my porch, with my five-dollar estate sale table as a laptop perch. Beside me, the old porch chair abandoned by a departing law school friend sits with only an exercise ball for company. Its joints gave way a few weeks ago, and have not yet been re-glued. The plants on their stands seem happier for several days of excessive watering. The occasional neighbor listlessly wanders down the cracked sidewalk, getting in a few feet of exercise before the temperature rises. The gas man pulls into the driveway behind my Saturn, and the morning's activity begins.

But I have drift into the past, as I tend to do on these lazy days. My surroundings fade, and in their place appears a wooden porch in Winslow, Arkansas, built by a carpenter friend with lines that come to an apex in the middle of the highway. I appreciated the artistry, although natives often stood and wondered at the foolishness. Middle of the road, they mused, shaking their heads at the oddness of it. Huh, well, don't that beat all.

Heat surrounded me that afternoon, the thick, cowardly southern heat that flees at sunset with the sweep of the mountain's evening chill. With a glass of cool well water on the table and a book in my hand, I daydreamed about the life I planned to lead in my new home.

A year later, I would have erected a wooden fence on the property line and would not have been visible from the highway. But that day, anyone passing could see me idling away a perfect Saturday, and sure enough, someone did. An old Chevy truck, from the late '50s or early '60s, pulled down my gravel drive. As it slowed, I squinted, trying to see the driver. In those parts, in those days, most anyone would stop for most any reason, but usually I would recognize a neighbor's face.

This one had nothing about it that seemed familiar. Creased lines on either side of a lean jaw, light brown stubble, home-shorn hair. I judged the man to be in his mid-30s. He stepped lightly across my yard, and stood below the spot where I had risen to greet him. Mornin', he ventured. I returned the comment, glancing over at his vehicle.

I could see a woman in the passenger seat, and a couple of kids peering around the rusty side of the truck. Small children, none too clean, and hungry-looking. I turned my attention back to their father.

The slimness of his face topped an even thinner body, but his arms looked strong and his shoulders square. I knew what would come next. He had not stopped to beg, but to ask about work, and I started thinking about what I could have him do that might allow me to give him a few dollars with which to feed his family. The '80s had been hard on country folk, with dogged droughts and a collapse of the free-wheeling economy of the '70s. These wanderers might otherwise have been working a farm that had been in their family for generations.

I did not have to wait long for the man's request. In a voice that did not tell of the pain it caused him to inquire, he asked if I had any chores that he might do. I thought about the rick of wood that could be re-stacked, the north plot of land that needed bush-whacking, a door frame that sagged in the unfinished addition. I nodded, and gestured for the family to disembark from the truck's dusty confines.

The woman showed herself to be in her late 20's, with a boy eight and a girl six. The children ran around the front yard while their mother and I made lemonade, and their father dragged my small tool collection out to get done what he could before the sun set. I found myself chattering to the kids with their silent mother alongside me, and my nephew's calico cat, George, whom I had inherited when my nephew developed asthma, running around with the boy chasing her.

I fed them grilled cheese sandwiches with thin slices of tomatoes purchased from a farm up the road. The man ate his while standing alongside the porch but the woman refused what I offered. The boy ate two and the girl one and a half, and when I had washed the few dishes, I came back outside to find the mother sweeping the floorboards of my new porch, while the children napped on the seat of the truck, and the man cleaned the blades of my mower.

I gave the man some money, more than the hours he worked might be considered worth, and silently watched as his wife calculated whether they would find somewhere to sleep on the strength of it. I put a bag of cookies into the woman's hands, the set of my mouth telling her not to protest. The man gently hustled his children into the bed of the vehicle, helping his wife into the cab, softly closing the door for her. I looked beyond the little scene, to the curve of the hill on the east side of the highway, and the line of trees that followed the mountainside to the neighboring farms. Those trees would sway with the mildest of winds, but they stood motionless in the heat of the late afternoon.

With his family secured, the man had only to turn and thank me. I folded my arms across my chest, and fastened a smile on my face. By thirty-four years of age, I had suffered my share of humiliation, and did not lightly visit any on another human being. I would make his task painless if I could. Thank you kindly for what you did for me today, I told him. You can't know what it's like, living out here on my own, being unable to do those chores.

He paused. The brown of his eyes met the grey-blue of mine. We heard a jay call to its mate, in the still of the afternoon air. A long moment eased between us. He broke his gaze, then, and glanced at the land to the north of my house. You oughtn't tell people you're alone, he said then. There's some might not have ought but bad on their minds. I conceded his point with a little shrug. Some mightn't, I admitted. He nodded, just once. Well, thanks for the food and such, ma'am, he said, finally. I put out my hand, and the slim one he put into it felt strong and cool. He met my eyes again, and nodded again. Might be, I'll be back this way, in a couple of weeks, and I'll check on you, he said, and then, with a smooth maneuver that raised very little dust, he pulled his truck back out onto Highway 7, and headed north, into Fayetteville.

The gas man has finished replacing our meter, and the heat of the Kansas City summer has settled around me. I pull myself back into the present, and watch as the worker backs his truck onto Holmes Street, and drives away, to his next appointment.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Saturday Musings, 16 July 2011

Good morning,

I'm standing In the warm, still air on my porch, gazing down the driveway at the new deck emerging from the rubble of construction at my neighbor's house. He's hustling to get this porch finished before a scheduled party this afternoon, having already laid a new flagstone patio to the south of his home. Looking at the debris of building materials in our shared driveway, I think about other wooden platforms on which I have sat, watching other summer scenes.

I am transported back in time, in place, in space, to the top forty but one, on Reynold's Mountain, in Newton County, Arkansas. August, 1986, and I had been persuaded to camp, something that I had not done for decades. With a slight nod to my city sensitivities, my companion conceded that we would pitch the tent on a wooden platform that he had built for such purpose, in the thick of trees, barely in sight of the rough road that led us to his land.

I stood, in cut-off jeans, a spaghetti-strap tank, and a man's work shirt, gazing around the span of wilderness. I was called upon to hand him things that we had hauled from the vehicle -- a back pack, a duffel, the sleeping bags. As I waited for him to finish assembling our temporary quarters, I glanced about, wondering if I could endure the heat, the bugs, and the absence of plumbing facilities.

After our gear had been stowed, we walked a bit, along a crude path, through a heavy growth of old trees. Through the still of unblemished nature, I heard the resonant voice of my companion cautioning from behind that I should watch out. . .for flying snakes.

I stopped, and he nearly crashed into my back. Flying snakes? I assumed this was a cruel joke. He shook his head, and I gazed upward, beginning to rethink the wisdom of this rural odyssey. We started forward again, though I repeatedly stumbled over vines and fallen branches, since I couldn't tear my gaze from the heights where these snakes must dwell.

Towards evening, we got the car from the crude parking spot between two spindly second-growth trees, and traversed the backside of the mountain to Thomas Creek, an old commune at which the original member now lived with his new wife. As the crickets and cicadas raised mild alarm in the distant reaches of the compound, I helped the wife assemble dinner, making salad from ripe home-grown tomatoes, the cool sweet corn of an early harvest, and crisp leaf lettuce plucked outside the kitchen window.

Are there really flying snakes around here, I asked, with a city slicker's hesitation at showing ignorance. I saw an eyebrow twitch. Did he tell you that, she wondered. When I nodded, she shrugged. There's lots of critters here, she conceded. I wouldn't be surprised. She turned away, and bent to pull a hot pan from the oven. I had no idea whether my fears had been assuaged or confirmed.

That night, we slept between two outstretched sleeping bags in the pup tent. My companion fell into an instant slumber, innocent and deep. I lay awake and listened to the sounds of the mountain -- a mild rumble, which I could not identify; the occasional distant rustle in the uncleared acreage; an owl's gentle hoot.

I awakened with the frightened jerk of one who has not noticed falling asleep. I was alone on the wooden berth, behind the small zipped flap of the narrow tent. I struggled to emerge, shaking the hesitance of a lingering dream and working the stiffness out of my limbs.

I did not see my companion. I glanced over the rise, and noted the continued presence of our vehicle. With care, I lowered myself until I sat on the edge of the decking, with my feet to the side, and there I perched, wishing for coffee.

In the underbrush around me, I heard sounds of a critter stirred by my careless, noisy rising. I judged it to be fairly large and quick, but could see nothing of its contours. I glanced above my head into the trees, thinking of the warning. Flying snakes.

I sat, unheralded by anything or anyone, while the sun began its quiet climb to warm the air around me. My mind shimmered, deprived of its normal chemical stimulant, and I felt my shoulders droop.

A sudden noise snapped me to attention. Surely it came from overhead, in the verdant billowing branches. I heard it again, to one side, but certainly above me. I began to wonder how large a reptile could be that lived in the trees and crossed the air between branches. I thought about what it might eat, and whether it required poison to snare its prey. The sound repeated, louder, closer, lower down, and I sprang to my feet. I felt the sweat rise on my brow and the blood rush, my heart pounding, my hands trembling.

And then, from the bushes, emerged my companion -- holding a thermos in one hand, and a long slender stick in the other.

Our eyes met. Neither of us spoke. He held out the coffee, which I took, and in a few minutes, we sat side by side on the aging wood, sipping the steaming liquid from tin cups, while we chatted about the people whom I would meet at church that morning.

A year later, after he and I had married, his daughter and his niece came to spend the summer in Arkansas with us. We lived down in town, and had a sleeping porch that looked out on the Buffalo River. Here the girls spent their time, giggling, talking, reacquainting themselves with each other after years of separation.

One morning, as I stood in the kitchen frying eggs, I heard a long stream of whispers from the porch where I thought they still slept. I paused, turning my good ear in their direction, with the cautious suspicion of the de facto parent of two pre-teens.

He told her there were flying snakes, I heard one of them say to the other, following which, they both snickered. Flying snakes, get real! the other answered. She never believed that, did she?

Indeed, she did. I finished making breakfast, and called out the front door for my husband, and through the back room for the girls. We assembled. Grace was spoken, as grace is spoken at every table at which I serve food. The girls glanced at each other, the occasional smirk passing across their faces, while I handed round the eggs and bacon. What's the joke, my husband asked, with all the innocence of every charming, handsome man. Their stifled laughter erupted as they surrendered to their amusement. I set my coffee cup down and slid my eyes in his direction. Flying snakes, I told him, and watched as he held a single breath, before his own laughter burst forth.

After a few seconds, I could not help but join them.

More than two decades later, I watch my neighbor start the last phase of the work on their deck. My cats loll on the porch, and a squirrel skitters along the parkway, before shimmying the height of our maple. The morning has grown too hot for me. With a last look at the boards lying on the broken asphalt, I go into the house, to start my day.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Saturday Musings, 09 July 2011

Good morning,

A pleasant rumble in the distance heralds the impending arrival of the truck that will haul my neighbor's rented dumpster from our shared driveway. We have taken our allotment of space in the wide blue receptacle. My husband and son swung sledgehammers and wielded long pry bars to dismantle the old, unused ramp, slinging the rotting wood posts over the rusted edge of the dumpster. My neighbor tore down his decrepit deck, and we all hauled broken chairs, obsolete machinery, and the shreddings of weeds accumulated over the winter in our respective backyards.

My week brought an unusual amount of stress, and I am slow in unwinding from the press of it. I feel as though I have been lying on the broken asphalt with the full trash container resting on my bones. I've managed to settle a difficult case, finish a troubling trial, and manipulate other hearings and conferences to maximize my clients' positions. But my professional accomplishments this week have been at considerable personal cost, in lost sleep, aching muscles, and the undue shifting of burden to my husband's shoulders.

As I sat at a small restaurant yesterday, awaiting the opening of the courthouse, I watched a man struggle down the sidewalk outside of City Hall with the recognizable sway of a lawyer whose attache case has been filled beyond its normal capacity. He trudged with a familiar determination, south, towards Jackson County's tall edifice, without a smile, without an ease to his shoulders, a quiet determination claiming his features. I sipped passable coffee and glanced at the translated foreign novel that I had tucked in my handbag, letting its pages drift closed, having little appetite for its disturbing passages. Morning, Kansas City, the end of a work week.

I gathered my own heavily laden bag, slugged down the last of the cold coffee, and tucked my cell phone into a side pocket of my purse. I started down the sidewalk in the path of the man whose dogged steps I had observed. Ahead of me, a thin secretary hobbled on stilted slingbacks, a swirl of smoke coiling around her head. She reached to press the button to activate the cross light and started out into the street before the signal changed. I hovered behind her, balancing my load, watching the slight swish of her short skirt, listening to the snap of her heels on the surface of the street.

When the light alerted me to the prospect of safe passage, I started out, seeing that the girl ahead of me had already started east, across the next road, in a hurry to begin her work day. I tried to discern, from the way she tossed her spent cigarette to the curb, whether she liked her job or not. She glanced back, and the set of her jaw settled the question. A slight wind ruffled the edges of her hair and she smoothed it down with a brisk, annoyed gesture. I smiled, but she had already turned away and started up the ramp to the courthouse door.

An hour later, I learned that the mother of my client's son had left the jurisdiction on the heels of a positive drug test. The guardian ad litem held the evidence out for her attorney, me and the judge to see. We had already stipulated that the results would be admitted, after the first day of trial when each parent accused the other of addiction. My client's test came out clean. His ex-wife's did not. I had put months and hours into the case, and had already presented a half-day of grueling evidence. In the interim, I had prepared the rest of my case with hours of tedious effort. But her cowardly run for a shelter out of state put an end to the controversy. After an hour's additional consultation in chambers, and a brief spate of testimony about the rehabilitation program that I devised and the guardian approved, the case ended. I saw it as a hollow victory; my client already had his son, and now that son had lost his mother. Mid-day, Kansas City, one step closer to the weekend.

I reversed my steps and hauled the heavy briefcase back to my car. I slung my jacket to the back seat, and pulled out a protein bar. I knew that I had already passed the mark for a full day's charge in the city garage, so leaving held no urgency. I quietly chewed the only sustenance that I had yet eaten, and thought about the grim look on the faces of my client and his wife. Neither felt that they had won. Both understood the overbearing sadness of the day.

As I sat in the handicapped space on Floor six of the garage, looking south over the grunge of downtown, I contemplated the ways in which the day should have been a happy one. Twenty years ago that day, my son came into this world, and he entered laughing. His happy arrival followed 34 weeks of good health for me, the best physical shape that I had ever found myself enjoying, before or since. I disdained coffee and alcohol, ate a balanced vegetarian diet, and avoided places where people smoked. Despite an annoying weight gain caused by an unfortunate medical reality -- I had miscarried my son's twin, but my body produced enough amniotic fluid for two -- I was able to walk without pain medication, aided only by the occasional use of a cane and the T.E.N.S. unit for which Blue Cross had shelled out big bucks.

I munched the Zone bar, in the car, in the parking garage, at the end of the morning's appearance, and thought about the many times my son tried to enter this world far too early. I experienced labor the first time during a hearing in Louisiana. The second time, I was moving from my country house to a rented apartment in town. Later, I felt twinges that came hard and fast, two days before his scheduled birth by primary Cesarean six weeks before his due date. My mid-wife decided to let me labor, as the delivery would be occurring so soon anyway, but when midnight rolled round, I demanded that she stop the process. His absent father's birthday was July 7th, and I would be damned if I would spend the rest of my son's life celebrating on that date. She relented, and the birth took place as planned, at 1:50 p.m., Monday, July 08th, 1991, at Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

I got the usual advice during my pregnancy. One kind soul suggested that I give the baby to a real family. Real? I asked him, holding the phone to my ear, shifting the discomfort of my growing girth. I don't think it gets any more real than this.

By "real", of course, he meant a family with a father and a mother. Fresh out of fathers, I quipped. He did not answer. I wonder now, two decades later, if that well-meaning person regrets his advice.

Another friend told me that being a single mother at thirty-five would be difficult. Oh good! I gushed. The first three decades were sheer hell; difficult will be an improvement. She didn't think so, but kept the rest of her thoughts to herself. I haven't seen that woman since my baby shower. She divorced her lawyer husband, who, it turned out, liked a little too much hanky panky. Difficult, I'm sure.

The mid-day sun poured into the parking garage as I started my car. I checked my cell phone, sent a text to my boy, and an e-mail to my office. I put the car in reverse, and started down the ramp. Earlier in the week, I had exited the same parking garage at the same time as the entire week's jury pool, and had spent 35 minutes in line, waiting so long that I nearly ran out of gas. I exited without incident this day, easing my car past the kiosk after paying, and merging onto Oak street.

Another day, another dollar.

Five hours later, my son, my husband and I entered the Kansas City Artists' Coalition gallery to see a juried show in which my son's godmother and my dear friend Penny Thieme had a painting exhibited. Seeing the other works and the many gathered guests, I realized what an honor the acceptance of her piece had been. I watched my tall, slender son stand beside his aunt Penny, shoulder to shoulder with his quiet, smiling stepfather. I sat in a chair next to a broad, puzzling painting of a woman's profile, and listened to the murmur of the visitors to the show. Evening, the River Market, another Friday, another weekend.

And now the warmth of a Saturday sun caresses my bare leg, as I sit on my porch and watch the neighbor build his fence. A middle-aged man drifts by on a bicycle, and a worker with one artificial leg backs a truckload of rock onto my neighbor's lawn. My American flag waves above me. In a little while, my family will come home from the various pursuits that have taken them away for the morning, and I will think about lunch. I shout a greeting to my neighbor and her granddaughters, and call out an admonishment to my whining dog. Then, I close the lid of my computer, and go into the house.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Saturday Musings, 02 July 2011

Good morning,

The fragile truce that I cultivate with the vagaries of my flawed humanity disintegrates and I lie awake. Heady tones of a philosophical conversation echo around me. Before sleeping, my husband and I speculated on the cultural significance of art and its intrinsic worth. What do you value most, I asked him. Within the context of our ruminations, he understood that I was not angling for a compliment, and he answered honestly: Freedom.

I contemplate this notion as I struggle to keep my mind from fully awakening. My effort having failed, I rise, and ease the tortured muscles of my crooked back down the steep stairs, onto the main floor of our home. My son's cat yowls at his bedroom door, and I nudge it open enough to let her gain entrance. He greets me, taking ear buds out and pushing aside his laptop. Are you hungry, I inquire, though it's a silly enough question most of the time, especially so in the witching hours.

A few minutes later, I hand him a make-shift vegetarian taco salad, brush off his thanks, and return to the kitchen to let the dog back into the house. I notice that the ambient temperature has only slightly dropped. I pause on the back porch long enough to mark the distant sound of fireworks from the east and the rumble of a helicopter overhead.

Yesterday afternoon, my son and I sat without talking through the long crescendo of The Tree of Life. In the soft darkness of the Tivoli, I felt a flood of memories overwhelm me -- the twitch of fear at the raised voices of my childhood; unbearable love engulfing me while I huddled in my mother's determined embrace; later, stark shock as I clutched a telephone receiver to my ear and asked, which brother? The movie's narrative followed strikingly familiar contours, mirroring in many ways the tumbled path of my life -- uncanny, unreal, unrelenting and astonishing.

I am transported back in time by one scene of the movie in particular, in which the family celebrated the 4th of July. I feel again a small line of sweat trickle between my narrow shoulder blades, in the heat of an Independence Day decades ago, long forgotten. I see the shadowy angles of my brothers' faces, as they wave sparkler after dazzling sparkler high above their heads to slice through the summer night. I press against the brick wall on my mother's porch, far away from the blazing flare that my father has jammed into the ground. Its crimson flames shoot straight into the inky sky. A rush of terror floods through me; delicious, delirious. I grip my brother's arm. Firecrackers burst, brief and furious.

Hours later, I lie in the bottom bunk bed in the room that I share with one of my sisters, and listen to my parents arguing. My siblings sleep. Alone, I huddle under a thin cover in the stifling heat. The air stirs only when the oscillating fan spans in my direction.

My father's voice rises as my mother's tone descends. I cannot breathe. I wrap my arms around my chest, and squeeze my eyes more tightly closed. I will them to stop the dance that never ends for them. I bargain with God. I doubt that anyone hears my promises, but still I make them: Don't let him hit her, I pray, and I promise I will be good for the rest of my life. I fall asleep, still holding myself close, still murmuring my endless litany of shame.

In the morning our yard is strewn with the litter of our festivities. I rise before anyone else, before my mother, before my father, before my seven brothers and sisters. I slip into a pair of sandals and go outside in my pajamas. I gather the trash and dump the bucket of water down the driveway. I stuff discarded wrappers, spent whirligigs, and the rubble of flares and sparklers into a brown paper bag, and cram that into the steel trash can. I sweep away the ashes of snakes that my brothers lit at the top of the cement stairs in our front yard. By the time my mother shuffles into the kitchen to start the percolator, I am back in the house, sitting on the sofa, reading.

She greets me in her most quiet voice, the one that she uses when she does not want to disturb my father. I answer her in kind, and she lowers her body to rest beside me. Happy 5th of July, she tells me, and I snuggle against her frail form. I couldn't sleep last night, I admit to her, and I feel the tension in her response. It's okay, she assures me. Everything is okay.

I believe her because I want her to be right. As the smell of coffee rises around us, I bury my nose in my book, and she lights a cigarette. Our whispered pact binds us together; our lies keep us chained to our place.

The house falls silent around me now. I hear the occasional burst in the distance, as others who do not sleep salute our nation's independence, or their own wild natures, or, perhaps, just use the holiday as an excuse to strap small, discarded toys to firecrackers and destroy them. I think about freedom, as my husband sleeps, and the country girds itself for an onslaught of unbridled celebration.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

The Missouri Mugwump™

My photo
I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.