Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Bathsheba Everdene

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you

Leonard Cohen

“In Gandalfian posture Robert Sund led the wandering troop down the midnight course of Morris Street, with Frodo-ish Jimmy and Hitch playing the part of all seven dwarves.”

At least that was Aurora Jellybean’s scenario, and she of course was Galadriel Queen of the Elves.

Hitch halted abruptly. “Jellybean, cut the Middle Earth crap.”

They walked slowly mid-street past Alan Pentz’s midnight newspaper office.

“My dreams are much better than Alan Pentz’s nightmares,” Jellybean said.

“For sure.”

Going several blocks more, they came to the edge of town, to the yellow beacon landmark – Boyd Zimmerman’s Shell station.

“It’s such a beautiful sign,” Robert said. “A seashell the color of daffodils and blood-red carnations.”

Boyd himself was home in his bed. But Bud Thein, his chief mechanic, may have fallen asleep on the couch inside the garage. Bud was always there, working for Boyd, pumping gas, moving slowly, the least ambitious man in all LaConner, not quite happy, and a bit weary.

The calm yellow Shell sign marked the boundary of town and not twenty feet passed it the cabbage seed crop lay in brown, crispy-dry furrows on Hedlin’s farm, and Hedlin himself, young Hedlin as he was known, slept very deeply with his beautiful wife Ilona in a white-framed house where had lived since birth. “I’ve never had a job,” he said. “I’m a farmer.”

Young Hedlin maintained the dike that his grandfather had built against the tidal surges of Sullivan Slough, keeping the salt- and fresh-water out of his fields, and, not in a small way, protecting the whole town of LaConner from floods, and at his own expense.

People treated young Hedlin kindly for keeping the floodwater out of town -- but he was raised to be modest about such things, as his widowed mother told him on the day of his marriage to Ilona, after she moved out of the big house and turned the whole farm operation over to him. “Don’t put on airs. Your father was a down-to-earth man who gave anybody a helping hand. This land is a gift and I expect you to keep it well.”

The troop walked by Hedlin’s field.

“I can see the zinnias and dahlias,” Jellybean cried out. Ilona kept a half-acre of flowers to sell by the roadside, by a rusting old tractor, half-buried under blackberry vines.

“It’s an old Ford, 1950s model, I guess,” Robert said, remembering his own farm days down by Chehalis. “That’s the great thing about having a farm, you never have to throw anything out, just park it in the field and let it rust. Funny how old farm equipment looks good that way. Old boats too. Everything decays and goes back to ground.”

“Yeah, Robert, real cosmic.”

“Why are we going this way?

“We’re going out to Fishtown.”

“But it’s past midnight. Do we sleep?”

“We sleep when we’re dead.”

They walked on to the low bridge over Sullivan Slough. The slough was all jammed up with old flood-borne logs and masses of cat-tails. You couldn’t even see the water, but this ancient arm of the Skagit River still flowed with the tide, now diked off to make fertile farm land.

Across the slough in the past-midnight hour, usually quiet and still, but not this night -- they saw a dozen headlights in Hulbert’s field. Pea viners never sleep, not in July, not when the pea harvest is on. They worked all day and the night shift worked all night, riding the harvesters, picking peas on a vast industrial scale, making a river of green as local boosters called it, harvested and trucked to the cannery – to be canned by Del Monte and the Jolly Green Giant, or frozen in huge cardboard lugs, and stacked by fork lifts in warehouses bigger than football fields by the railroad tracks – many thousands of acres of pea fields making many thousand tons of frozen peas, and the harvesters rode their giant rumbling machines all night long, going down rows slower than a walk, like friendly creatures from outer space come to land.

Past Hulbert’s fields, the troop, now led by Robert, drifted silently, almost bare-footed, almost invisible, ghosting like a faint breath, a half a mile on Chilberg Road, to the corner of Dodge Valley Road, by the farm and home of Bathsheba Everdene and Tom Blethen, a vast three-storied farmhouse built in the early 1900s when farm prices were high and the money was good for years at a time and the smart farmers sunk their money into grand houses with shining woodwork and Chickering upright pianos.

Bathsheba and Tom were laying a-bed that night. “Those pea viners are keeping me awake,” Tom said. “Let’s talk.”

Bathsheba, stretching, propping herself up on two pillows, looking over Tom’s shoulders, looking out the window to Hulbert’s field across the road, she said, “Who are those people walking down the middle of Chilberg Road? There’s four of them.”

“It’s the Asparagus Moonlight Brigade. They come every year at this time. They’re going to the Butterfly Ball,” Tom said.

“Tell me a story.”

“I was thinking about Charlie Swanson, where I grew up in St. Louis. It was in the seventh grade. We used to play basketball in the gym at recess and he was always better than me – could shoot from the side and swish it every time. Or he would get the ball and come at me dribbling and then do an eye fake -- shift his eyes over to the right and then dash to the left, and I would be standing there like a dumb ox. I never could figure out that head fake. Charlie would just do it again the next day and go right past me, and I kept thinking it wasn’t fair, you know, to act like you’re going one way and then go the other way, you know – fake.”

“But Tom, faking is part of the game.”

“I know. I never was any good at basketball. I don’t like faking.”


“On the other hand -- oh, now I remember why I was so mad at Charlie Swanson. It wasn’t the basketball game it was the candy bars. I used to steal Milky Ways from the supermarket. I did it all the time, and I always stole Milky Ways – three nickel bars. It was like free candy. So one time I stole the candy bars, had ‘em stuffed in my pocket and Charlie was out on the sidewalk because he lived near the store. So I showed him the candy bars and told him I stole them. He got mad and said he was going to tell the store manager and he said it would serve me right for stealing. Charlie was a rat! So then I really didn’t like him. And that was that, except a couple of months later his mother died. Mrs. Swanson slipped in the bath tub – a middle-aged woman in perfect health -- she slipped on the bathroom floor, banged her head against the bathtub and died just like that. We went to the funeral and I felt really sorry for Charlie that his Mom died and I wasn’t mad at him anymore.”

“That’s sweet.”

“It was rich. I mean I was in seventh grade and Mrs. Swanson died for no reason. You could die anytime.“

“So that scared you?”

“The opposite. When Mrs. Swanson died it put me on the road to freedom. Why stay home? You could die in your own bathroom if you just stayed home, so you may as well go out in the wide world and take your chances. That’s how I got to your farm.”

“That’s how you got into my bed.”

“You tried the old head fake on me, being your capricious female self, but I just held my ground.”

“You have good ground now.”

“I used to hang out in the bowling alley, it was near school. It was someplace to go when I was 12, me and Billy Anderson and Al Versino. Billy was a nerd – he started building shortwave radios in the basement and he just kept going --- became an electrical engineer, made a ton of money, but he never learned how to be nice to people. He only lived a block away. I would go down the alley and then cut through Martinek’s yard and cross Walnut Street and go to the back door of Billy’s house. He lived with his aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt. That’s the part I couldn’t understand. Everybody lived in a house with their Mom and Dad except Billy Anderson – but somehow nobody ever asked – Don’t you have a Mom and Dad? It was like that back then. Al Versino was my other friend. He lived two blocks away on Elmwood, a real athlete, great ball player and we went fishing together too. We could ride our bikes about one mile to the Mississippi River and fish from the banks of the levee. Al’s Dad owned the Bike & Sports Shop so he could get anything there for nothing – like his choice of three dozen gloves for baseball, or free fishing tackle. That was really cool. I used to make him laugh. Al laughed all the time. We just horsed around and had fun. But he grew up and married a woman who wasn’t kind to him and they divorced and he came back to St. Louis and took over the Bike shop from a sense of duty I guess. I haven’t seen him in years -- I don’t think he’s happy.”

“Are you happy?” Bathsheba said.

“You don’t mind if I’m talking like this – yeah, I’m happy. Farming didn’t come to me right away, I grew up in town. We had roses and peonies and I mowed the lawn. We had day lilies out by the alley and we had violets and lily of the valley in the shade. I picked flowers for my mother to make her happy. But nothing clicked until I was 16. I began working for Mr. Schaeffer. He lived down the street, near the school. He was a mail man, finished that job at 3 o’clock and then did some landscaping work for people up in Indian Hill where the big houses were. So he hired me to run the lawnmower while he pruned the roses and smoked his pipe. He had coarse grey hair growing out of his ears – it’s funny how you remember stuff like that. But he wouldn’t let me come near the roses. That’s how I got started.”

“Because he wouldn’t let you prune the roses.”

“Yeah, I got stubborn. Someday I’m going to prune the roses myself, I said, and that’s how I got started,” Tom said.

“I was going to marry old man Hulbert before I met you. He’s old and nasty, but he lives right across the road and you put his farm and my farm together and we’ve got the best acres in the valley.”

“You would have been a rich woman. But you have me and I’m not much more than a glorified hired hand.”

“I love you, Tom.”

“It’ll work out.”

“I’m thinking we should use that field for cabbage seed – that field we rent to Hedlin -- do the cabbage seed ourselves from now on. We’d get a fat contract price from the seed company. We could learn it.”

“Bathsheba, honey, it’s amazing you can talk business in the middle of the night.”

“Who are those people walking by? I think I know them, that woman, I’ve seen her in town.”

“It’s the Asparagus Moonlight Brigade. They’re on their way to the Butterfly Ball.”

“Explain that, please.”

“No explanation, but would you like to go?”

“It’s 2 o’clock in the morning.”

“That’s good. We’ll be early. The Butterfly Ball begins at 3 a.m.”

“And does it end?

“It ends before it begins. You save time that way.”

“That’s confusing.”

“You’ll love it. ”

“Things can get very complicated.”

“When is it simple? Listen, we’re not angels. The angels live forever. They watch over us and guide us, but they envy us. We have sex and we die. We make love and it changes everything, and the angels watch over us, but they really wish they could be us. I’m not worried about what’s going to happen, but I’m sure glad to be here now,” Tom said.

Outside Bathsheba’s elegant farm house, on Dodge Valley Road now, drifting by in the beginning of silence, the Asparagus Moonlight Brigade strode.

“We’re striding now, which is a little faster than walking, but much smoother than hiking or marching,” Robert explained. ”Onward to the Butterfly Ball.”

“I thought we were going to Fishtown to find about Lisa. There is a plot and a meaning to all this, isn’t there?”

The pea viners had finished the harvest on Hulbert’s field and gone on to Swanson’s place off in the distance. The night sky was starry and clear, and all dark except the night glare of lights from the refinery over by Anacortes. The fields were silent of sleeping frogs. Only the herons stood guard in roadside ditches.

Bathsheba Everdene and Tom Blethen came tumbling down the stairs buttoning their clothes, half asleep and wide wake, on their way to the ball, out the door, across the yard, under the stare of brown-eyed wide-looking cows and sleeping dogs, they fell in behind Robert and Jimmy and Hitch and Aurora Jellybean.

Charlie Krafft, coming up from Seattle on Interstate 5, driving his metallic green Kharman Ghia convertible with the top down, humming songs from Chinatown, bringing a stack of Aleister Crowley’s forbidden books, pulled off the Interstate at the Conway exit, needing only ten miles further to go, across Fir Island, across the North Fork bridge, down only a mile on Dodge Valley Road, on to the dirt track by Staffanson’s farm, and driving slowly past the raspberry field to the cabin where Marty Chamberlain hosted the Butterfly Ball, co-hosted by Leila, the Turkish Terror, adorned in glitter. “Welcome to the Butterfly Ball,” she said.


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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Asparagus Moonlight

Tuesday, July 20, 1982, the Day of the New Moon.

When poet Robert Sund greeted his visitors at the door of the Boom Shack, he looked over their heads to Swinomish Channel flowing in a falling tide. He saw flotsam drifting and cormorants diving. He looked up higher to the Swinomish shore where the rusting shake mill was closed for the day. Shake packers, splitters and sawyers still worked in 1982 on the last of Skagit Valley’s old growth cedar. On the same shore, loaders parked for the evening in the Dunlap towing yard amid towering piles of logs, sorted and stacked. To their left, from what Robert saw at the front door of the Boom Shack, rose the blue Swinomish totem pole. Bob Joe was chairman of the tribal village, where Landy James lived after coming home from his job as coach of the LaConner Braves, the high school football team. Landy had a famous loud-as-brass voice, and he could yell from the sidelines at a fumble-footed quarterback until even the goal posts were shaking, bringing the boy up short for lack of effort, scolding him in front of the whole town, and yet it was always kind. Landy James lived a stone’s throw from Roger Cayou who was the father-in-law of Earl James, a Canadian-born Indian who married his daughter Rosie. Earl worked at the rusting shake mill and smiled when the day’s work was done.

On the hill in LaConner, pharmacist Fred Martin was consulting the Farmer’s Almanac after a late dinner with his wife, Margaret. “Margaret, it’s the New Moon this evening. We should think about planting some winter vegetables, spinach, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, that sort of thing. I think we should start them from seed in the egg cartons we’ve saved. It makes sense to plant by the moon, and it’s interesting that so many romantic people declare that the moon rules the emotions. In fact, there is nothing more regular and predictable than the rising and setting of the moon. The almanac says that the New Moon will set at 8:23 this evening, if you make the adjustment for local time. So it is time for planting the fall vegetables.

“Margaret, I don’t mean to say that I prefer lunar regularity to romance. You are the love of my life, it would be a dull existence without you. I am not a poet, these words do not come to me easily, but I feel them in my heart. We have such a good home, and we made it together.”

In another home on the hill, not quite in the shadow of the United Methodist Church, Tom Robbins enjoyed a cup of peppermint tea on the couch with Cindy Sibanda, the African Queen.

“Cindy, if I keep loving you, there will be nothing left of me. And that is what I wish, to love you until I am done with myself.”

Cindy gave her brightest gap-toothed smile. “But I will be leaving you. I am going back to Zimbabwe shortly. My family needs me, there is a great illness going around. I have children to look after.”

“I thought….”

“Tom, what you think is of small importance. My family is large and I have many children. My Aunt Margie is a nyanga, a traditional healer. She is calling me home. This word nyanga also means ‘moon.’ That is the same in three African languages, in Xhosa, in Tswana, and in Ndebele. The nyanga means moon and it also means witch doctor, shaman, ob-gyn, or whatever bothers you. You can see the sun setting and the moon goes down with it, the moon is dying as we say in Africa. If I am your sun, and you are my moon, then you will go down with me and be dying in my flames.”

“Such a sweet loving and dying it would be,” Tom said.

At the door of the Boom Shack, Robert Sund spoke to his visitors. “Come in. Sit where you may. Seats on the floor, seats on the ceiling, be at home. The tide is falling, the heron stalks in the marsh, I have cheese and crackers for unexpected guests. It is time to begin talking as we meet this fine summer evening.”

“Bringing beer for everyone.”

“And I have several bottles of plum wine.”


“No, on the shelf, for one and all”

“Robert, are you a poet?”

“I am indeed. I don’t work, I sing, and who’s asking anyway? Jimmy, you’re a failure in the eyes of many people. You may have redeemed yourself to some degree because you rescued Keith Brown from an act of great violence. You may be celebrating an increased stature in the eyes of the townsfolk, but only by degree. You are still an object of ridicule. You must understand, people like Fred Martin and Roberta Nelson, our town mothers and fathers, have the greatest kindness and patience in dealing with your ilk.”

“Ilk? I’m an ilk?” Jimmy objected.

“A Roosevelt ilk, like they have in the Olympic Peninsula. My Uncle Roger shot one last year. We had ilk meat all winter,” Hitch said.

“Ilk, schmilk. I’m just sayin’ don’t be a fool.”

“Look who’s talking.”

“This calls for a round of drinks. Jimmy, pour the plum wine for me, and I for you. And Jimmy, what people say about you, that you can be somebody, that you can be real -- that is your trial.”

“Geez, Robert, why are you getting all bossy? You’re worse than Barbara Cram. That’s how she talks.”

“Did you ever wonder if Barbara Cram is related to Sam Cram?” Jellybean asked.

“No,” Robert explained. “She is a Cram of entirely different provenance. Her family comes from Forks where it rains loggers. Let me explain the LaConner begats, at least a portion of it. Pat O’Leary came here from Oak Harbor as a young man. He bought the Puget Sound Mail and published it every week for many years. He married a woman from Texas – I’m not sure how that happened – but they wed and soon had two daughters, the lovely O’Leary girls, Mary and Sally. Now Mary wedded Jim Lam and Sally married Herb Cram, who is the son of Sam Cram. You see? It rhymes. Mary Lam and Sally Cram. Now Mary Lam is the mayor of LaConner and Herb and Sally Cram live over on Whatcom Street, and Sam Cram rides his bicycle into town most mornings to talk farming at the Round Table . And none of these people are related to Barbara Cram.”

“Because she’s from Forks,” Jellybean said.

“But, getting back to things here about Jimmy. It’s a matter of expectations. No, that’s the wrong word. Let me stumble around a bit to see if I can get it right. Jimmy, you hope and you fail. You try and you give up. Everybody likes you and nobody cares.”


“Jimmy, you’re too sad. Stopping looking at your shoes like a bashful Swedish farmer.”

“I ain’t Swedish, I’m Dutch.”

“And you are stubborn enough to build dikes and hold back the Skagit River, but sooner or later the river will rise and the flood will come. Can you swim, or are you just stubborn on the ground?”

“Barbara Cram told you to say all this, didn’t she?”

“That doesn’t matter – maybe it comes from some faraway northern galaxy.”

“I don’t like all this attention.”

“I’m done. More wine?” Robert poured and looked at Aurora Jellybean. “Princess, the moon is down. There is a different light in the sky this special night, the night of Asparagus Moonlight, and we shall go a-walking in the fields after midnight, striding across corn rows until dawn, then resting our heads on soft pillows of summer grass. Asparagus Moonlight is the sweetest night of the year. Will you come with us?”

“Yes, very much,” Jellybean. “Is Charlie Krafft coming out tonight? He is such a good boy. I wish to love him.”

“Oh Charlie, Oh Charlie,” Robert cried in dismay. “Many a maid has held his hand, but he is a strange one.”

“Well, he sniffs glue,” Hitch said. “I never tried that.”

“Never mind, Hitch, and as I said earlier, you are an indigenous sham.”

“Like Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. My Uncle Roger used to sing that song.”

“But you pretend when you could be real.”

“Real is your problem, white man.

“But I know your life. I know your secret.”

“For a long time I was a mouse. Living on the Res – people were killing me. They have spirit death over there and I was getting scared. They laughed at me – mouse, mouse, mouse! So I went over to the Sand Spit where people don’t know me.”

“We know you.”

“I ain’t a mouse now. I’m something else. We’re going tonight for Asparagus Moonlight, so maybe I’m a hawk.”

“The hawk ate the mouse.”


Jimmy looked up now, not at his shoes. “Robert, if you’re a Buddhist, that’s a joke. You start feuds with people. You make enemies. You don’t talk to people. You turn your kindness on and then turn it off. You are a goat. Fighting with people like Paul Hansen. He used to be your friend, now you get all huffy if someone even mentions his name. Fighting over nothing. It’s like if I have been hanging out with Paul Hansen, then you don’t want to hear about it. Then he says shit like you’re an egotistical drunkard and a burden on society, so I try to change the subject. Now you want to get on my case about my wasted life.

“Only because of this night, which is special, Asparagus Moonlight is a night of trial and error. Now as we drink the plum wine and the beer, we face our accusers. That is our trial. After the trial comes the error – that is, round about midnight, we go a-wandering and make as many mistakes as possible.”

“And Charlie is coming?”

“Aurora, darling, many people are coming…..More wine?”

The evening passed, a late summer night descended and the stars came out to play.

Down the street, down two short blocks to Morris Street, and turning right, Morris Street went away from Swinomish Channel, and going east toward the farmland, and toward Mount Vernon, the county seat, ten miles in the distance against the foothills of the Cascades, where Interstate 5 coursed from San Diego to Canada, slashing south to north across the Skagit Valley, linking Mount Vernon to the world. Mount Vernon was where you went to go to the dentist, or to pay your auto insurance, or pay your property tax, or go to court, or go to Sears and JC Penny’s.

Except for the shopping, you never went to Mount Vernon but for doing something tedious, ugly and necessary, and all this was subtly embodied in the reality of Morris Street, which pointed westward to Swinomish channel, to the Reservation and beyond to Snee Oosh Beach and Skagit Bay, and outward past Deception Pass, the San Juan Islands, the strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Pacific Ocean – to freedom and the wildest beauty -- going westward, which was the deepest yearning of all LaConner’s European descendants, in pursuit of that rainbow of happiness.

But Morris Street mainly took you the other way, eastward to drudgery, to Skagit Valley Hospital, home of death and disease, to the Skagit County jail, food stamps, and the welfare office. Well, you had to take care of business somewhere and the people who lived in Mount Vernon were common folk and friendly enough.

That was Morris Street, the main automobile entrance to town, tainted with reality, and who was Morris anyway, and why did they name a street after him? But nobody cared, because nobody cared about Morris Street, it just got you where you were going, turning right from North First Street and the Boom Shack, past Nasty Jacks Antiques, past the Alligator Palace and At’s-APizza, to Blade’s Chevron gas station, and across the street to the home and business of Alan Pentz, editor and publish of the Channeltown Press, LaConner’s sole surviving weekly newspaper now that the Puget Sound Mail, founded in 1873, and published every week from that date until some dismal day in 1981 when it went out of business after 108 years and 5,616 weekly issues.

Alan Pentz’s Soliloquy

“Goddam it,” Pentz said, coming out of the dark room in the back of his print shop late that evening, almost midnight, “these photos are fuzzy.” He had front-page snap shots of the Keith Brown roof-top standoff. A breaking news story was so rare in a small town like LaConner.

These are crummy photos, but it’s still my newspaper, he thought. You die a slow death at a weekly newspaper. Deadlines every Tuesday night, pecking you to death. Bad things happen. I put them in the paper and people get mad at me. I write sweet stories about pretty children with balloons and they still get mad at me. I can’t win. They hate me, but I keep putting out this newspaper and they’re hooked on it. My only pleasure is smoking Marlboros and playing cribbage with my mother upstairs.

I’m not a booster like Fred Martin. He goes rah-rah and let’s build a better LaConner. God, that makes me sick. You couldn’t pay me to join those phonies at the Rotary Club.

I’m not a corporate insider like my cousin Lloyd Tafton. Lloyd works for IBM, makes a ton of money and all he has to do is show up- every day and make nice with some other useless corporate know-nothings in a tall building in downtown Seattle. He’s my cousin – but he’s still an over-paid fake.

I don’t write poetry. I’m not some mooch on society like Robert Sund. He comes in here with a handful of stupid words and he argues with me on supporting the “arts.” Take your precious twaddle down the road, buddy. Hey, the arts don’t support me, so why should I support the arts? Your poems don’t even rhyme. Get out of my office – go to Mount Vernon and trade your poems in for some food stamps.

I never get a break. I could starve to death on what I make with these $3 classified ads selling used bicycles. The tourist people think I should hire a graphic designer and make my paper prettier -- with whose money?

The only people that are any good in this town are the volunteer firemen.

But not those pretty people selling trinkets to tourists. They act so precious but I keep my mouth shut. That’s why I smoke Marlboros -- to keep them away from me. I could not face their hypocritical phony lives. Smooth talkers, cheese eaters -- worse than hippies.

There’s only one artist around here that I have any respect for and that’s Charlie Krafft. He understands the reality of it – that nothing makes any sense at all. It’s a big joke and we all die in the end.

The phone rang. It was Brian Healey. “No……. Brian, do not involve me in this. I am no party to this. Stay away from Fishtown. Go to bed. It’s late. Keith Brown is in jail.”

The hours passed nicely at the Boom Shack. Robert played on his autoharp, with Aurora Jellybean on her jingle bells singing the old-time religion and folk songs from the ancient lands. The wine flowed. Jimmy and Hitch became very happy.

At midnight, they left the Boom Shack and began their wandering in the cool and quiet of a late summer evening, past Nasty Jack’s and around the corner, down Morris Street, past the Channeltown Press officer where Alan Pentz worked late putting his paper to bed in a cloud of cigarette smoke.

Fred Owens
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Fred Owens
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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Robert Sund's Soliloquy

Guiding a stray bee out of the house—enough work for one day!

The sun was still high in the sky, but the air felt like evening. Robert Sund came inside the Boom Shack and went over to his stand-up writing desk. He picked up a small book of his own poems and looked them over.

It is time for the ink to spill this summer evening, he thought, and make more poems.

If I make a dot of ink as big as a dime, I can almost see my reflection in the glossy surface. I could see the future or past lives if I was interested, or the Jersey cows back on the farm where I grew up. I can see many things. And then the black ink dries and dulls as it settles into the paper, going to a charcoal matte finish, which does not reflect, and leaves no image, but for me, I can even peer deeper into ---- into what? I see a merry old man sitting by a small river under a blossoming almond tree. If I look closer – ah, the old man is drinking plum wine, he shouts in a drunken glee, “I am a fish. I am a golden diamond fish. I am the husband and the wife and the child. I drink this plum wine and I become a family of wild creatures.” The old man stood up, stripped down and jumped into the flowing river, waist-high, roaring with pleasure, scattering the ducks.

That’s how I find my poems, from this ink bottle. I see the old man sitting by the river. He is as real as my own thumb, but does it make a poem? Are the words right? And is it true? More than anything a poem has to be true.

It wasn’t like this when I was a school boy in Chehalis writing on Big Indian Chief tablets, that rough paper with light blue lines widely spaced for young hands to try their pens. I often smeared my long-sleeves into the ink when I was in the third grade.

My mother would scold me when I came home. Her scolding was so light it was almost a pleasure, if I could only make myself not smile at her. If I smiled at her she would have to start all over again, “Robert, you made a mess with the ink. You must be more careful. I have to scrub your shirt now so it won’t stain.”

Then I would bow my head and wait a little, and then I could smile warmly at her, looking up. She was only a little taller than me.

I came to the farm in Chehalis as a bundle in a blanket, to this Swedish home with cedar rail fences and a pasture leading down to the river, full of old stumps. It was 1929, Herbert Hoover was President, and I was a baby in a blanket, and much loved, but even then somehow I knew I was a replacement for my brother Don who had died two years earlier from diphtheria. Don was buried in the church yard not too far from our farm and my mother and father never ceased to mourn. I was supposed to make them happy, and I almost did. I wished I could sing for them or do something to make them happy, but I was only a baby and my mother gave me a warm bath every day, until I grew up and ran in the fields and became a school boy.

My father, he knew how many beautiful August evenings surround an ear of corn.

And my mother, she knew that without love of Earth there is no love of heaven.

That’s how I wrote about my mother and father, with tears in my eyes. They loved me as much as they could, as much as I needed, but I felt different just the same, and the sorrow never left our home, like a dampness in the corners even on the driest, hottest days of August -- the tears and the dampness were only put away for a while. I smiled and chattered and played with small stones in the yard, making stone diagrams of houses and forts. I took fern leaves from the bushes and made fern railroads coming up to the houses in this tiny Swedish village where I daydreamed of lingonberry syrup on pancakes. In my play village the people were truly happy. I could even hear the sound of light laughter.

I worked hard enough in later years on the farm, doing chores, but it was never going to be my farm. My father knew that, he never said it would come down to me. He knew that I was not his true heir and he would not force me to be what I could never be.

It was a good home but it was sad. I loved them as much as I could, but I was only a replacement.

Is this too simple to say? I watched the Chehalis River flowing and wanted to go downstream to Grays Harbor, leaving this farm. I knew I would never come back.

I found poetry at the University – I began to keep a small book and put words together. I left school and went over to the Eastern Cascades, to the Palouse, to work on dry-land farms under skies that never ended. I bucked hay in the heat and dust. I loaded wheat in the silo and almost died in an explosion. The farmers understood me – who I was and why I was there.

I came there to learn from the farmers because I thought I was special, and they taught me in the wheat field that I was only dust in the wind. They were true Buddhists. No reason, no meaning, no hope, and no chance of heaven. What a relief!

I returned to Seattle and lived in Cloud House. I married a woman because she was kind to me.

I left my wife in Seattle and moved to Shi-Shi Beach. That was my time on the wild ocean shore. It was so much bigger than the river. I sat there long enough -- it took years – but I sat and sat in a shelter under the wind until all of my poetry dissolved into nothing. Then one day a raccoon told me I was getting lazy. He stole my last handful of Cracker Jacks. I chased him out of camp before I realized how much he was disturbing me. Oh, Raccoon Teacher – what were you telling me?

Telling me to leave Shi-Shi Beach and go back to town. It was time to listen to those busy town voices. So I came to LaConner and lived in a room upstairs at the Planter Hotel. I had no money. I made calligraphies on expensive paper. I sold one or two. I played pool at the tavern, I kept making poems and I refused to work.

No money for rent! Hunger! The Muse pays so poorly, but she is so lovely. She lulled me to sleep in the early hours before dawn.

But I suffered. I was lonely. I was bitter and proud. I hated the world of success spinning all around me like jets flying overhead. I got drunk. I laughed but it was forced.

I know I am worse than anyone. I am guilty. My poetry is all lies, but I never tell this to anyone.

Now I have this small cabin in town, courtesy of Nelson Hardware. My poems amuse the Nelson family. They let me off easy for the rent, which I haven’t got anyway. Why do they trust me? I am a fraud. I owe money all over town. I clutch these papers and say this is my work and it has great value. The days are hard, but late at night, when the moon is quiet and bright, I see it all coming true and beautiful.

That’s when Jimmy and Hitch and Aurora Jellybean showed up slinging cold beer on their shoulders. “Hey Robert. Hi-ho. Are you thirsty?”

Note: Words in italics are from Shack Medicine, one of the Robert Sund’s chap books of poetry.


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Friday, August 10, 2012

11. Mr. Grobschmidt Smiles

Chapter Eleven of the Untitled Saga of Jimmy & Hitch will begin in just a moment, but first a word to all Frog Hospital-dom.

There might be two or three dozen people following this story. The rest of you might wish for a return to the usual smash-up of political commentary and small stories about real people -- but you will have to keep waiting, because the story is getting too good to stop. The boys finally got to the Frog Hospital and later the same day they will begin heading out to the Butterfly Ball on Dodge Valley Road and then out to Fishtown.

Meanwhile real people, such as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, are running for President of the United States. I belong to the faction, quite large I expect, of Democrats who will vote for Obama all the while complaining loudly about what a disappointment he has been. I am very unlikely to budge from this position. Obama, when he had the Congress in 2009, should have focused on jobs and putting people back to work. He could have flooded the zone with stimulus money, laying it on extra thick in Congressional districts that were in play in 2010. Supposing he had done that, and gotten the unemployment rate down to 6 percent or lower -- many voters would have been very happy about that and he would have kept the Congress in 2010 and gotten a general vote of confidence. With that success behind him,with a strong majority in Congress, he could have passed a good (that is, less complicated) health care bill.

But he did it backwards, and the result is a 2,700-page health care bill that this Democrat, along with Justice Scalia, will never read entirely, and which created a furious opposition that might very well undo Obama this November. Meanwhile the jobless rate maintains its stubborn pace of over 8 percent and many people are simply discouraged.

Out-funded by Romney so far, Obama still has the immense advantage of incumbency and he has something even more important -- luck.
His greatest luck is having Romney for an opponent. Nobody likes Romney, not even his dog. Obama, like many of our Presidents, inspires people -- some people, some of the time. That's an important quality in a leader. In contrast, Romney is a complete dud.

I would say that Obama wins it by a nose in November, but the Congress is up for grabs.

Meanwhile my luck holds, because I will be spending Friday night in Manhattan Beach, which is the epicenter of Beach Volleyball and where it all began. Misty and Kerri are coming back from London with Olympic gold medals, coming to the real beach and the real sand. This is a very happy day for Southern California. Jan and Dean rolling down Ventura Highway! I wish they all could be California Girls.

Chapter 11 -- Mr. Grobschmidt Smiles

The crowd, of up to a dozen and more, slowly dispersed after Keith Brown was arrested. He looked somewhat noble as he perched in handcuffs in the back seat of Larry Yonally’s police vehicle. In America, you can be on the front page of the newspaper if you commit a felony or a heroic deed, either one. And this was Keith Brown Day, officially and forever in a small town the size of LaConner. People don’t get shot at in LaConner too often, or get arrested on multiple counts of attempted murder. He would be on the front page of the town’s weekly newspaper, right alongside news of the Kiwanis Club pancake breakfast, which pharmacist Fred Martin did not attend because he belonged to a rival fraternal organization, the Rotary Club.

Barbara Cram could buy a carton of Marlboros now, and know she had enough phone gossip to take her clear into October, like who was there, and who said what, and what drove him to it, and who is to blame, and did Lisa ever really exist.

Lisa became a debatable topic. She was Keith’s psychotic illusion, his dream girl, his blow up doll on lonely nights on the river with only the wind to keep him company. That’s what people said – nothing wrong with a little make believe, but when you start to think you’re Christ Almighty with a message to save the world….

Jimmy, Hitch and Aurora Jellybean had their own quiet celebration after coming down from the roof of the Lighthouse Inn and after wishing Keith Brown good luck in his new life at the Steilacoom Institution for the Criminally Insane.

Jellybean testified, with no effort to persuade her friends, “As you know, I am no longer a real person. I have become a character in a Tom Robbins novel, so I have to say, in an imaginary sense, that Lisa is very real to me. We are figments and we stick together.”

“So you think Lisa is in trouble somewhere,” Jimmy said.

“Not at all. Lisa is alive and well out in the river and she is very glad to get Keith Brown off her back. He was harassing her – it is possible to harass an imaginary woman, and that is wrong.”

“We need beer,” Hitch said.

“I think we ought to head out to Fishtown and take a look around.”

“Beer first.”


“We can saunter and sally forth.”

The trio headed northward, down First Street, passing the Pier Seven building. “This building gives me the creeps,” Jellybean said. “I see a bloody knife. Do you see it?”

“Jellybean, turn off your X-ray vision, we’re going for the beer,” Jimmy said, going past Pier Seven, and then past Pearl’s shuttered warehouse and oyster bar. Pearl was passed out on the grand piano inside, dreaming of Othello, Xerxes and Captain Bligh, humming well-loved operatic arias in her drunken sleep.

Past Pearl’s, they came to the Frog Hospital itself, in a Quonset hut, owned by Mr. Grobschmidt. Clyde Sanborn said Mr. Grobschmidt looked like a frog, so it only made sense to call his grocery store the Frog Hospital, because that’s where the beer was.

“Do you think he looks like a frog?” Jellybean said.

“Well, they say he disappears on spring nights when the air gets soft – goes out to the marsh to sing with his brothers.”


“He’s too fat to hop and he’d sink a lily pad. Ever see him eat a bug?”

“He sells Schmidt’s beer, 12-packs, icy cold, the cheapest beer in LaConner – God bless the frog man.”

“How we going to pay?”

“By being one with the now. By clearing our minds of all doubts. Beer is us.”

“Then maybe we can go to the Boom Shack and hang out with Robert – he would like some.”

“He would like it all.”

“So is double mooching all right? I mean if we mooch the beer off of Mr. Grobschmidt, is it all right for Robert Sund to mooch the beer off of us? That’s a double mooch.”

They entered the Quonset hut, under a round roof with blinking fluorescent suspended lights. Mr. Grobschmidt, at the cash register, hailed them. “Yes, the magic trio, greetings, I am highly jovial this fine summer evening. I have risen above the petty profit motive of a small-town grocer. I extend to you a one-time offer, meaning once only and never, never ask me again, but you each may select the beverage of your choice, and it will be on the house. Now you have sent Keith Brown packing. All is well and life is good, until the next trouble comes.”

“And fried chicken?”

The room darkened.“Food? I sell food, I don’t give it away,” Mr. Grobschmidt said.

“We can owe it you.”

“All right. Fried chicken for three, plus home fries and a container of ranch-style dressing. I can fix you up tonight because of your loyal service to the town of LaConner. But I must tell you how it is. Jimmy? Maybe you could start working for a living. And Hitch? Get a boat, go fishing, stop coming in here for free food. Jellybean? You live the lush life and you will die alone. Think about that. Now, get out of my sight.”

Mr. Grobschmidt labored his fat belly off the stool by the cash register, whistling his song, “Tis money for food, and food for money. And the people will always be hungry for more.”

Hitch, Jimmy and Jellybean continued north on First Street, past Nasty Jack’s, past Nelson Hardware, to a tiny lot with a tiny house – the Boom Shack, dwelling of Robert Sund, Swedish poet, pool shark and provocateur. The evening began.


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Sunday, August 05, 2012

Shot At

“Don’t get shot at,” Jimmy said. “Look, I can go on and bullshit you about Lisa. I don’t have the style to make up a story. Just let go of this. I gotta tell you -- there is no Lisa. No Lisa. Keith, nobody believes you.”

“They’re going to believe this bomb,” he said and stood up like Atlas rising. At arm’s length he held his backpack out from him with one hand. His off-hand reached in and he brought out the device with a digital readout and a small raft of wires.

People in the street crouched suddenly. Larry Yonally squared up. Fred Martin backed off a few feet. Barbara Cram put out her cigarette. Amy Hahn scrambled behind the bench and ducked. Hitch and Jellybean held hands and she said, “I wish for the roses.” Brian Healey squinted in front of the Pier Seven building and wished for violence. Lane Dexter stayed still, looking through the shrubbery at the Garden Club. It was an easy shot.

Jimmy got to his feet pretty slowly, trying to think, trying not to think, being a four-foot distance from his dangerous friend, feeling the gravel on the roof crunch under his sneakers.

Keith showed him the digital read out. “When I press this button, it goes into a five-minute countdown,” he said smiling, showing his brown-stained teeth and his squinting eyes.

“You don’t want to do this, brother,” Jimmy said with blue-eyed clarity. “All this beautiful town, man.”

“Lisa loved me. I had a 1962 Ford Fairlane, four door, pale yellow, I picked her up after work when we were in Tacoma. She talked to me. Nobody ever talked to me before. It was a fine thing we had going before they kidnapped her. I waited for years to hear from her. I wrote hundreds of letters to cops and prosecutors and Congressman. That’s when I discovered their plan about world domination. I began to read and make connections. You can see the signs everywhere if you know where to look.

“They were coming to kill me. That’s why I’ve been hiding out in Fishtown all this time. But I can hear Lisa screaming at night. It’s when they began to torture her. I found my instructions in the old Bible, in the book of Jeremiah. So I built this truth machine. It’s ticking for four minutes. You better tell the truth now or we’re all going to die,” Keith said, standing rigidly.

Jimmy sagged a bit and looked at his shoes, but he took a deep breath and thought to hell with it. “There is no Lisa.”

“You have three minutes now,” Keith said. “This ain’t a game show on TV. You know I’m going to do it.”

“Keith, you just need help, that’s all.”

Larry Yonnally un-holstered his weapon, but did not aim it. Lane Dexter, up at the Garden Club, drew a bead on Keith’s hand.

The sky, blue all the way through, crackled like a storm. A sea gull squawked out in the channel. The noise distracted Keith – he looked over to the water, away from the street.

That’s when Dirty Biter burst through the roof hatch and put on his fiercest growl. A five-year-old small brown dog with a twisted front tooth that gave him a reputation for mean-ness which he never had – just the gnarled tooth and a habit of hanging out downtown begging for restaurant scraps -- owned, more or less, by Suzy and Bobby Racanello, but truly a “town dog” in the old sense of it -- Dirty Biter was coming to make a difference in this drama. LaConner was his town, and damned if Keith Brown would blow it up. So he snarled.

“How the hell did he get up here?” Keith said. “Go on, git!”

Dirty Biter advanced, seizing Keith’s pant leg with ferocious growls. Keith began to lose his balance. Lane shot at him and hit his hand. Keith dropped the bomb, fell to his knees, screaming, “You will not win. The truth is here. I cannot die today.”

Jimmy stood there like an idiot for long seconds, but he realized what he must do. He picked up the device, found the digital display, and pulled out the wires. Then he walked over to the water side of the roof and swung the package wide and wider, letting it go – it sailed out forty feet into mid-channel, splashing, floating, Jimmy staring at it, not hearing the cry from down below “Jimmy get back, get back, come down the hatch.”

Dirty Biter kept growling at Keith, the blood flowed from his hand.

Then it was all a confusion. Keith was shortly disarmed and subdued, with some difficulty, getting him down the hatch, gone limp, to safety, handcuffed, into the police car, and Larry drove him off, at least to around the corner and a few blocks away to catch his breath and get a handle on things.

Keith held a rag in his handcuffed wounded hand, bleeding slowly, moaning, “I’m very tired.”

Larry turned around to the back seat. “Keith, you’re going to jail for a long time now. Nobody made you do this. You can talk like you’re crazy all you want, but when you try to hurt people in this town, that’s it with me.”

“No one believes me. I only wanted to save her. She really is…she really is in a lot of danger. I’m not lying. Go out to Fishtown.”

“Keith, it’s over.”

“I mean it. Go out to Fishtown. There’s things you don’t know. Go out to the river.”

“Be quiet now.”

“I’m really tired. I just want it to be better.”

Jimmy stood on the roof scratching Dirty Biter’s head. “You’re the hero, You’re the champion dog now. Someday they’ll put up a statue of you” Hitch and Jellybean clambered up through the hatch. “I figured Dirty Biter was the trick to all this, so me and Jellybean coaxed him over, then I put his front paws on the hatch and he got up by himself. I guess that worked – me and Jellybean.”

“But Jimmy, you’re the hero, you stayed up there,” Jellybean said.

“I don’t know. At least we ain’t dead.”

Lane crept away from the bushes, around to the front and casually entered his parked car and drove off. Don Coyote stood up, revealed himself for first time in memory to the crowd below and gave a howl. They thought it was him that shot, but he would never tell anything yes or no.

“Well, Cindy, honey, what do you think about our life now?” Tom Robbins said, sitting on the bench on the Benton Street stairs, He squeezed her waist and she asked, “Why do you have a bomb in America? In Africa we kill someone and it’s done. No noise except for the screaming, unless we give him the necklace. Have you seen it? When we catch a thief we tie him up. Then we put an old tire over his head and pour him with gasoline and light the match -- the man burns to death and we all laugh at him. We kill him for stealing, but in America it gets to be trouble – you kill him for telling the truth. This man is very crazy, but you need to listen to him. Why don’t you listen? I will read your Tarot cards later tonight. Take me back to your house now.” She stood up and shook her hair, which were extensions, the kind the African women favor. It took her twelve hours of patience to have her hair so skillfully woven in tight braids, encircled with small sea shells and drilled turquoise stones. Tom paid for this gladly. “You are my umfazi wami.” Tom pulled off his sunglasses and smiled very happily. “And this is our town. Our town. It is time for a tuna fish sandwich. Cindy, what card of all the Tarot cards has my name on it.”

“You card is the Tower, because of all this craziness and energy,” she said. “But only for right now. Tonight you will be the Fool, in my bed.”

Roger Cayou and Chico Narkowitz, looking from a distance from their bench in front of the LaConner Tavern, may have seen the gunman as a quiet shadow in the bushes up there by the Garden Club. “I think he was up there, from where the shot sounded,” Roger said.

“You old Indian, you think you can see through walls and big trees, but the shot you heard was only the echo. I think I saw someone on the top of the pilothouse of that Dunlap tugboat out there in the channel. I think he had the rifle – shot Keith, good aim too,” Chico said.

“Nope,” Roger said, folding his arms. “It was up there,” pointing up at Don Coyote yelping.

“Well, sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you,” Chico said.

“What bear?”

“Let’s get a beer.”

“You buying?”

“What was your favorite Abbot & Castello movie?”

“Duck Soup.”

“Oh yeah, that was really funny.”

Amy Hahn gave Barbara Cram a big hug. “I’m so glad you were here. This was the coolest thing. I’m experiencing something like a big flash of understanding, like the air is charged with ozone.”

“Don’t be such a hippie,” Barb said


“No, I mean it. It’s all about truth. Keith wasn’t lying. Don’t you see? We have to find Lisa.”

Brian Healey put his hands on his hips and decided it was over for now. He went back into the Pier Seven Building and got on the phone. “They shot him in the hand. They got him under arrest. He kept yelling about Lisa. I don’t think anyone believed him, but we have to cover our tracks. I need to get a message to Atclew – he’s out on the river someplace. Tell him it’s not over. Tell him that it’s getting hot around here. He’ll know what to do.”


Subscriptions. We need your help to continue this story. Please go to the Frog Hospital blog and hit the PayPal button with your $25 donation. Or write a check for $25 made out to Fred Owens and mail it to 35 West Main St., Suite B #391, Ventura CA 93001.

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My blog is Fred Owens

send mail to:

Fred Owens
7922 Santa Ana Rd
Ventura CA 93001