Doing the Nantahala
With one hand
he holds his canoe at the edge of
She lies on the bank in the noonday sun
awaiting his call
The rush carries them swiftly down stream,
into narrow byways
of dangling spruce, then, rocks and rifts
She likes taking the path
of river rocks
He leans all weight onto sore knees
maneuvers against her
steers them toward
like sleeping cows
paralyzingly cold and shallow
While he struggles against the current
of an open dam,
she closes her eyes,
holds to the towrope
awaits the pull-out.
An Open Dam
Both natural & made w/ hands of men she comes to me this fall day running rampant & w/ rage I
have come to her w/ heavy eyes that have long ceased to cry & a heart caught with bone
Light hums before singing here in the mountains & I sense the sun a guide but his hush-a-bye tune
will not out do the sh‑ing of an open dam, loud and balling, a confession; here the boat is put in
This mouth speaks water & the more it says the harder it becomes to maneuver our relation‑
ship but she knows the path & stroke is rhyme & rhythm & she knows I often slip out of time
The woman I love is before me & she sees me chase that which folds upon itself & I feel as tho
she thinks I'm crazy cause my anger comes more than grace, but I am older & don't cry anymore
A voice behind our guide says jump toward the rock our raft will hit & this sounds so very odd like
when Jesus says offer the hitting man the other jaw; it just don’t make no sense, but works
Like on your bike when you finally figure it out that you have to turn your wheel into your fall
& somehow you begin not falling anymore but riding & you feel like you’re flying— the wind
I look at her now & think of how it can be that she is still running this river w/ me after all my fuck ups,
all she knows & don't know; how does she work on faith that I will remain in the boat
While her simple will to be here steers me toward our fall, down our path, I always try to think
things out & thru & forget that what she knows already internally, eternally, I know too:
That we are together in this river, that forgiveness is a hand not easily given, that nature & what is
natural is not easy as we believe— believe, that is, until we fall together, down a river, a life
I-81 Rest Stop, 6am
For Yang Fan
Morning clouds blackbird black
skirt the ridge like floating ships
along dreamy stout-dark shores
and two beaconed lights from
the shadowed range bore out
the early dark then fade into
the red glow of morning— I peer
into the failing veil of night, make out
mountain homesteads, invent rows
of families, beds of sleepy heads—
Behind me an Asian man stands behind
his four door Toyota, hands barged
into pant pockets, vesting himself with
a world in renewal— he peers above the
planted trees, above the carved out wilder-
ness to the cutlery of the dissolving moon.
He spans the two: between the softening
Lunar orb and the draping, dawny bloom—
In the blank winter maple, a nest
balanced between two rough-blown
boughs, a mother commits to her
genetic vows, feeding her starlings
worms against the electric clump
of yellow glows— caution lights
blinking blinking blinking
from the endless semi rows—
We three custodians of this morning emergency—
Light Men Birds
American-made: Explorers, Excursions, and Escalades. Asian: Highlanders, Pathfinders, Tacomas, and Pilots. They crowded the parkway like a herd of hungry cattle grazing stupidly, fattening themselves for eventual slaughter. Roy punched the gas of the Cavalier, zipping into line. Little Man who was leaning earnestly against the back window slammed against the backseat.
“Be careful,” Mary Jane demanded.
“I gotta get out in this traffic, baby,” Roy Mac said firmly. “I can’t get to your taffy shop unless we get on the road.”
Little Man clutched the stuffed bear by the neck and punched him in the snout. “You look like Danyul Boone in that coonskin cap,” Roy said to the boy. Little Man saw his father’s eyes watch him in the rearview mirror. “Looks like you’re whipping up on them bears like he did too.”
“Watch the road, Roy.” Mary Jane reached a finger to Roy Mac’s chin and pushed.
“Who’s Danyul Boone?” Little Man asked then punched the bear two more times.
“Ain’t you goin’ the wrong way?” Mary Jane questioned. Roy ignored her.
“Who’s Danyul Boone!” Roy shouted in mock amazement. “Why he’s the King of the Wild Frontier!” Little Man lifted his butt off the seat and stuffed the bear underneath him. He was now a little higher and he felt a little older.
“Wrong again,” Mary Jane said. “That’s Davy Crocket. ‘Davy Crocket, Davy Crocket: King of the Wild Frontier.’ My daddy used to sing that song to me.” And so she started humming the tune and then,
Born on a mountain top in Tennessee
greenest state in the land of the free
raised in the woods so he knew ev'ry tree
kilt him a b'ar when he was only three
Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier!
She was a mocking bird on an early spring morning, atop the crest of a barn. Clear and precise enough to rouse even a drowsy mind. Her song surprised Roy, but he didn’t let on. She turned to look at Little Man who showed his teeth and pumped up and down pretending to keep the animal from escaping his clutches.
“Get ‘em in a sleeper like this.” Roy stretched his arm around Mary Jane’s neck and pulled her to him— her face planted in the valley of his armpit.
“Stop it,” Mary Jane squealed, jerking her head out of his loosely locked arm. “Are you ever gonna turn around?” She flipped the sun-visor down and opened the mirror and straightened her hair. She turned, looking at Little Man who still sat on the bear and repositioned his cap looking at his reflection in the rearview.
Roy gunned the Cavalier, whipped the car into the left lane, cutting off a black Cadillac who laid on the horn. “You’re daddy hates being wrong,” she said to the boy. “And he’s dangerous on the roads. It runs in the family.” The boy giggled and pressed his head hard into the window. His nose and lips flattened against the surface. Roy turned into the crossover, hardly stopping, then nudged into the traffic heading for Gatlinburg. The turn threw Mary Jane heavily against the door. When she wrenched herself upright, her nose wrinkled and her eyes became thin and piercing. She stabilized herself with her right arm firmly against the door; her other clutched her stomach. She stuck her tongue out.
“Better put that back in your hole ‘fore I bite it off,” he said. Roy’s eyes didn’t veer from the road. The tongue retracted.
Turning away from him she said, “you’re gonna hurt somebody, Roy, you just don’t know.” She licked her lips.
Roy laughed until he coughed. He fingered his breast pocket snagging a cigarette.
Mary Jane stared at the gift shops, restaurants, and hotels. Their signs were big and bright and sometimes flashed. She recited the words on the signs in her head. Roy lit the Poker that hung from his lips and rolled the window all the way down. The wind whipped into the car; Mary Jane’s straight black hair danced in it wildly.
He offered her a drag. But she was not paying attention to him. She still had her eyes on the world outside. Roy heard her mouthing signs. “Why you read what we pass all the time?”
“Why you smoke all the time?”
“Ain’t the same thing.”
“Both of ‘em habits.”
Image after image, word after word flew into her mind then out of her mouth. She repeated the ads softly, watching the images: Elvis, Dolly, Elvis, Alabama, Elvis, Dolly, Elvis. The forms attracted her. They clicked by like she was switching channels on the TV. There’s Dolly, she thought to herself, with her red lips and blond hair and big breasts. “ A Great Smoky Mountain Adventure,” Mary Jane said aloud.
“What is… Dollywood,” Roy answered.
She’d heard that Dolly’s hair was a wig and she wondered how fake everything about her was. Did she have a boob-job? A face-lift? Another billboard showed Dolly’s body. It looked unreal. But she still wanted it. Can you have what’s not real? she thought. She understood the thinness of her waist, the blondness of her hair, the redness of her lips, the length of her lashes, the smile, even, on her mouth was make-up. All of it combined to make her up. Dolly smiled, towering above the cars, the shops, the restaurants. Ya’ll come back now, ya hear, Mary Jane whispered under her breath. She wondered about Dolly’s thinness. Liposuction? She looked down at her tummy and imagined how fat she’d become. This ‘un will be the last, she thought. I can’t have no more kids or I’ll be fat forever. Her mother used to be beautiful. She knew from old photos. Thin as a sugar cookie. But now she was short and fat and made deserts all the time—pies and cakes and cookies. She brought them in carloads to her and Roy. Mary Jane decided then that her mother was jealous and spiteful, pushing those sweets on her to watch her grow fat with age. Small’s a pretty waist, she thought. Big’s beautiful breasts. She wondered what life would be like once she quit her job. Would Roy leave her when he found out she was pregnant? She thought about abortion. No one would know, she thought. No one has to know. Make it up. She wondered how Dolly had done what she did, gotten out. She marveled how things seemed true and false all at the same time.
“Didn’t somebody in your family grow up next to Dolly?”
“Yep. Next to MacMarks.”
“Why don’t you try for a job at Dollywood. She hires family there, don’t she?”
“Don’t know her.
“You know some of your family, still. Uncle Buck, right?”
“Good ole Uncle Buck,” Roy said sarcastically. “Will’s kep’ up with Buck, I know.” Roy suddenly paused and pondered, then said, “Would be nice to see them boobies for real.”
“Hush that talk.” Mary Jane said. “Good thing Will’s coming to visit, then.” Roy didn’t respond. “Would be nice to get free tickets to Dollywood.”
“I could be the Tennessee Tornado operator,” Roy said.
“I think they’d make you up to be a rovin’ hillbilly in one of those country skits. Greetin’ guests with a corn-cob pipe and jug of shine!”
“Shit, girl, you don’t know nothin’.”
Mary Jane cackled like a hen. “Oh, Lord,” she chortled. Roy kept driving, swerving in and out of traffic like a NASCAR driver on the Bristol half mile.
Roy was thinking about Will. He hadn’t seen him for seven years.
Two weeks ago, he called and told their mom he’d be flying in for a visit, that he had time between jobs. His mama said she’d try to bring Will up to Gatlinburg and meet them at the Candy Shop, but Roy hated the idea that he had to go through his brother to get to Uncle Buck. Getting on at Dollywood was one thing; getting a spot of land from Buck was another.
Mary Jane was looking at herself in the visor mirror, watching her hair flip in the wind. She gathered clumps of it and tied her long strings of black hair into a loose knot and told Roy to slow down. She liked the way she looked right now. She rubbed her stomach again. She thought Dolly might be ugly without a mask. She grinned mischievously.
“Wild Woody’s, Fiddler’s Feast,” she said. Roy flicked the nub of his cigarette out the window. She turned to him. He looked at her and blew smoke out of his nose. Roy’s eyebrows jiggled pretending desire. She looked back to the roadside attractions. “Fantasy Golf, Adventure Golf, Pancakes: 45 Types, Country Candy Kitchen.” Her voice grew sexier with each phrase, making the sounds drip thick and honey-ed from her mouth. “China - Emporium – Bazaar,” she said. She stared at Roy; he ignored her. “The Ultimate Perfect Moment Wedding Chapel.” Roy Mac looked at his wife. A string of black hair fell into her face. Her chin lowered, angry that he was not responding to her humor: “Maybe if we’d got married there we’d have the perfect marriage.”
“Instead you got the perfect man, baby girl.” She sneered. “Now if you were the ultimate women we’d have the ultimate perfect marriage.”
“Hammers. Guns. Golf.” The words rang high, shot from the back to the front.
“I’m the best thang you ever had.” She glared.
“Tools. Tack. Leather,” the small voice rose louder from behind them.
“You’re second best.”
“Who’s better than me?” Roy glanced into the rearview.
“Magic Mountain Putt Putt. Live the Movies. There it is, Live the Movies! I wanna go Live the Movies!” Little Man jerked up and down in his seat chanting, pointing at the building as they passed.
“I want to ‘Live the Movies’ too, Little Man.” Roy looked to the road. “Ya know, be Rocky Balboa, kick some ass. Nun-na-nuh, Nun-na-nuh-na… But your mama needs some candied apples. You like apples don’t cha?” Little Man pulled the bear from beneath his butt and held it in the air. “I do but this Honey Bear don’t. He don’t eat much of anything at all.”
Mary Jane smiled at her boy then slipped shades over her eyes. “Let’s read the signs out loud, all together— like a family.” Soon, a cacophony of advertisements filled the cab of the Cavalier. Roy Mac drove down the Parkway, speeding faster with every falling off of another car. When they reached the edge of Pigeon Forge where stands of sycamore, poplar and hemlock replaced a forest of revolving billboards, flashing store signs, and hotels, their calls trailed off one by one as the world of commerce slipped from view. The place they inhabited became suddenly darker, colder. Empty even. Roy sat erect, one hand on the wheel, the other cranking the window up. Mary Jane leaned on the headrest and arched her back with palms flat on her stomach. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. In the back, Little Daniel Boone, still in the coonskin cap, pulled his legs to his chest, wrapped his arms around them, and put his eye sockets in small knobby knees.
Roy turned on the stereo, easing the volume up. “More classic rock on 103.5 WIMZ.” The distinct ching of a cash register rang out and then a bass line in time with it. Roy Mac’s head bobbed in rhythm, two beats down, one beat to each side. The strum of an electric guitar expanded the space between the high pitch of the cash machine and the low resolve of the bass. “Money,” the voice strained, urgent and steady. “Get away. Get a good job with good pay and you’re o-o-o-kay.” “Money,” Roy sang in time, more urgent but less steady than the voice that came out of the radio. “It’s a gas. Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.” Mary Jane raised one eye then closed it again. Roy listened to the song as it filled the Cavalier. He slowed the car to the pace of traffic. Clicked his seat back a notch. He peered to his left and down to the river that flowed against his direction. Tree trunks shot down into the riverbanks, some making striking white figures, their branches stretching like eager arms. Their tips reached for the ends of other trees. But the tips never touched, frozen forever in that tiny but infinite space where two objects almost meet. “Money, get back. I’m alright Jack keep your hands of my stack.” Roy saw a rock wall rise to his right, topped to the peak of the slope with a million greens, colors and shades he had not seen before. With both hands, he pulled himself close to the steering wheel, looked earnestly up and out of the windshield: a sky streaked blue and white, but the sun hid behind a fluff of clouds. A hawk glided, circling, on the high wind; it’s wing tipped upward then vanished for a second—“Money, it’s a crime”— then the hawk arched back into view: “Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie.” The car in front of Roy pumped the breaks, its red taillights blinking. “Money, so they say…” On and off the red lights went seeming to rock in time with the music. “Is the root of all evil to-o-o-day…” The road curved. Mid-day became darker as the sun got blocked behind a crowd of clouds. “But if you ask for a raise it’s no surprise that they’re giving none away.”
Roy turned the radio down, the only sounds were tires speeding across the paved road, the high pitched echo of cars. Roy thought about the thirty-dollars in his back pocket. He knew he had to get a house somehow, find a piece of property to put it on. He remembered a picture he saw of his daddy, with Will sitting on his lap. He smiled holding the boy. He wondered where his father had gone. Why he left when he did. How was he going to get a house? He only needed a double wide and some land. Uncle Buck, he thought, Uncle Buck has all his daddy’s inherited land and he must get a hold of some of it. But Will was the only one with the kind of money to buy it off Buck. But Roy understood the gulf between them, even though he pretended the gap was not there.
A car behind them laid on the horn, jerking Roy out of his thoughts. Roy had slowed down and backed up traffic. In his rearview, he saw a line of cars. Alongside him, an older couple drove in a Lincoln Town Car. Together, they were damming the flow of traffic. Roy started to put on the gas, but when he did, a Mitsubishi behind him laid on the horn. Roy let off the pedal. He wanted to see how long they would wait on him. He rolled the window down. Wind wafted through the car, startling Mary Jane and Little Man from slumber.
“I’m hotter ‘an hell.” Roy Mac said. “Roll the windows down, Little Man!” Emanuel didn’t hesitate. He clasped the handle with both hands and turned until the window wouldn’t go any farther. He unlocked the safety belt and slid across the back seat to turn the other window down. The wind blew through the car. The line of cars behind Roy began to blow their horns. He was creeping at a mere twenty-miles an hour and getting slower. “Slow Ride,” he said, and clicked his seat back another notch. Mary Jane looked over at the elderly couple oblivious to what was going on. She shouted, “What in the world are you doing, Roy?” Little Man laughed and jostled ecstatically, pounding vigorously on the headrest with his hands. “Slow Ride,” the boy yelled. Roy Mac laid on the horn letting it blow in long, even spurts. The boys laughed while Mary Jane attempted to grasp the strings of hair that blew about her head. Roy was driving at a steady pace of ten miles an hour now; the couple in the Lincoln were leaving them behind, opening a gap for the other cars to zip through.
As each car sped through the gap, the people shot birds or stares or curses at the MacMarks family. The boy in the backseat was suddenly frightened; he dipped down into the floorboard. Mary Jane angrily peered straight ahead. Roy shot back the birds, stares, and curses one by one.
“What’d you do that for?” Mary Jane hurled the question while jerking the rearview in her direction. Roy stared straight ahead and didn’t speak a word.
“Emanuel, roll those windows up. And Em, please don’t copy your daddy, or you’ll stay about as old as you are now.” She said all this with remarkable calm while fixing her hair and touching up her make up.
“They deserved it,” Roy Mac finally shouted, his eyes quickly shifting from his wife to the road.
“Who are they, Roy? Who are they? Just people trying to get to Gatlinburg with their families, just like us. Trying to have a good time, until assholes like you get in their way.”
“I’m not the asshole! They’re the Assholes! Just ‘cause I can’t drive damn fancy cars and buy a house on a hill don’t mean they’re better’n me.”
“Who said anyone was better? Who?”
“Them horns said it.”
“Their horns told you to get out of the way.”
The two were silent.
“I’m hungry,” Roy Mac said with sharpness.
“I want KFC,” the boy shouted, still crouched on the floorboard.
“I think I’m gonna throw up,” Mary Jane said. She put her palm on her forehead and leaned on the headrest, slowly rolling her head back and forth. Roy cranked the stereo to make up for the awkward silence.
No one said a word until they got stuck in Gatlinburg traffic and Roy announced he’d take the back road to the Kentucky Fried Chicken.