Entries in USA (3)


The Angel in the Scrapyard, act 4

It seems that when I return to the USA, I often find angels whether I'm looking for them or not. 

Visiting the heart of the Mid-West I figured that a good steak in a quiet bar would not be hard to find. I was not wrong. I ordered the barkeepers' recommendation and sat back at the bar to wait for my food. The barkeepers' name was Kimmy which Kimmy told me at least twice, clearly and carefully.


Kimmy could have been in her late forties but the lines beside her eyes suggested closer to sixty. Her face had a still-evident softness. I say that because it was also care-worn. Her jaw was squared off, muscular at the sides and the lines in her face were few but deep. She had a carefully neutral expression, flat almost, from which a smile exploded from time to time. A long practiced and grooved smile not unlike the cooing of an old cuckoo-clock, slightly worn and rattling at the limit of its travel. She was blonde mixed with ash and silver. She reminded me of retired military women that I'd met who still worked in the military orbit. Straight and solid, with a well honed physique which would never go away. Around here, I imagined that she may have grown up working the land. Maybe she worked the bar to make ends meet in hard times. I decided that I might ask her, if I could find an opportunity without getting into all kinds of wrong-idea territory. I'm hesitant to start the tale by saying whether she was attractive or not, because that might also give the wrong idea. Instead, I'll say that her studied neutrality placed her at the perfect balance point between those two lethal pigeonholes. Perhaps they teach that in Barkeep 101.

A younger man approached the bar, looked at me, looked at Kimmy, looked at the Other Guy and sat down closer to him than to me, but closer still to the beer taps. He nodded at the Coors which Kimmy was already pouring. He was six feet tall and solid with a slack face and worn hands. Unlike Kimmy he was no longer solid. He sagged a little in his chair but not as much as the Other Guy. His physique was on course for a subtle rounding from a time when it was obviously square. He had tiny eyes which flickered a little in the tough facade. He turned to the Other Guy.

"Listen," he said and banged his forehead with his knuckle. It gave a dull metallic thud. "Whad'ya think of that?"

"Titanium?" Asked the Other Guy, breaking the word before the second 't'.

"Indeed it is titanium." He nodded. Stared at his beer.

"Iraq?" said the Other Guy. There was a long pause into which Kimmy poured loud squeaks from her ever dryer, ever cleaner glass.

"Sir, I wish I could say that but I surely did not. Hit a tree with my head is all."

The Other Guy nodded.  He was almost bald, with an attempt at a comb-over. Perhaps he hadn't always been fully rounded but any youthful fitness had been thoroughly buried. He wheezed a little. The tops of his arms stretched the holes in his polo shirt. His neck strained the one done-up button. He wore his shirt tucked into his big belt and it spilled over the top of his big buckle in a way that was almost impressive. His belly stuck out and up, perhaps held up by muscle, or perhaps held up by several consecutive days of steak dinners. He was physically imposing, but his shoulders sagged like he was trying to duck under everyone's gaze and get to where the menu was at.

Kimmy polished a glass.

"I assume there was a windshield involved at some point?" Asked the Other Guy.

"There was a windshield. Didn't last long." Titanium man raised his fist and delicately, like a yoga move, flared out his fingers with a 'foooshhh'.


"And yes I'd had liquor before you ask."

"Wasn't gonna. Been there buddy."

"What's your name since you know mine?"

The Other Guy raised a bushy eyebrow, wrinkling a mess of corn-fed wrinkles in his own forehead.

"Arnold, since you ask."


"Ah, I getcha," said the Other Guy. "Bud. Buddy," he explained to Kimmy, who nodded and reached for another glass.

"Oh. Yeah I getcha," she said with a neutral, swirling ream of the bar-towel.

Bud was working his way manfully through his beer, so that by the time Arnold ordered, Bud was ready.

"Sure," said the other guy without being asked. "Get him one too Kimmy."

"You know K?" Asked Bud.

"K? We just met and she's kindly going to be bringing me steak and taters." He nodded at me. "What's he having?" 

I was saved by the arrival of my steak. It also came with a side salad bearing a bowl of blue cheese dressing balanced on top. Then came, to my amazement, a plate of steaming green vegetables"

"Them veggies will kill you fella." Said Arnold. "Hold the veggies and double the ranch, K."

"Kimmy." Said Kimmy.

"Alright then K K Kimmy. Don't burn it like his. Show it some flames till it's stopped its mooin' and started boo-hooin'."

"I gotcha." Said Kimmy.

Bud leaned in. "He's having French fries? He's not from here."

"He don't appreciate a loaded baked potato," replied Kimmy. "But I ordered him some anyway."

I raised my glass in salute.

"Drinking wine too, I see," said Bud, with a touch of contempt. "I been to England. I was in Hannover for two hours in 98. Can't say I could hear a word out of that accent."

"That happens a lot," I said and set about my steak in what I hoped passed for a manly fashion in these parts.


Bud turned as Arnold's steak arrived. So did two more beers.

"Thanks, Arny." He chinked their glasses together. "Did I mention I been to county?"

Arnold's fork shivered for a moment and then continued on its way. Blood ran down the tines.

"Nope." Said Arnold as he chewed. "You surely did not mention that."

"Yes sir. Can't say I deserved it but the cops had it in for me. But, well, full disclosure and all."

"Uhuh. Appreciate it."

"A year in the hospital. Another year doing rehab and they came for me when I could stand properly again."

"Tough break."

"Uhuh. Two plates in my head actually. Repair jobs on four vertibras. Ribs. All kinds of stuff. Damn near took my knee off too, but hardly noticed."

Bud stared into his puddle of suds.

"We'll take another. You want one stranger? I ain't payin for wine though."

"Thanks but I'll pass," I said. "Long day tomorrow."

"I find it helps personally," said Bud, "with the long days and all." He turned back to Arnold. "Wanna know why I went to the big house?"

"He's going to tell you anyway," said Kimmy.

"I reckon so."

"It was on account of the other person hit the tree. She didn't make it. Big tree. Little person."

Arnold's fork stopped for good this time.


"Yeah. They said it was my fault."

"Was it?"

Bud turned toward Arnold. Arnold was taller, in fact, but Bud dominated him.

"As a matter of fact it was, truth be told. That bother you, Arnie?"

"Arnold. As a matter of fact, it does, truth be told, Bud. How small was this person?"

"Five years old."


Kimmy picked up another glass and polished it again. It shone like silver.

"You eatin' that?" Arnold slid his plate over and Bud started to eat the steak. Blood pooled in the corner of his mouth. "Anyway, wanna know why we she's called K?" Bud paused, scanned eyes, but not Kimmy's. "It's her stage name."

Kimmy stopped polishing the glass and put both hands on the counter-top, leaning in, but not saying anything.

"Kimmy is too long to chant see? K-K-K. That was her stripper name. She had some moves I'll say that."

Arnold's gaze turned to Kimmy and took an altogether more liberal and convoluted path as he re-appraised her.

"Well that hit the spot," said Bud, "I'll get my check."


Facing the till, she had to cancel and correct whatever keys she was pressing a number of times. Her jaw was set, but the steely eyes weren't so steely.

Bud and Arnold left at the same time, but not together.

"Shall I get your check too?"

It didn't sound like a question.

"Thanks, Kimmy."

She gave me a gracious, wounded smile which left me emptier than the big deserted bar. 




Patterns in the Deep Cold

A couple of years ago, I seemed to spend a lot of nights in London on different trips, as though some strange harmonic had imposed itself temporarily on my life. Indeed, I haven't spent a night there since. A few weeks ago I left the Night Planted Orchard in the grips of February warm spell and headed for Minnesota. Minnesota was deeply cold. Cold and dry to the point that the night air scratches at your scalp and stings your lungs. There was deep snow on the ground and the temperature never rose above minus five centigrade. Long icicles formed all over the car, a thing I don't recall ever seeing in the fens.

I came home expecting to find spring. Instead I found it equally cold. Unnaturally cold for England. We had the same snow on the ground. The air scratched at me and burned me when I took a breath. Icicles grew on the car. It was as though I had physically moved from one place to another, but someone had forgotten to change the weather. 

A most strange symmetry.


The Corpse-like Copse

There is something about a grove of quaking aspens that makes you look twice. Perhaps it's the striking pale bark against the dark interior of the forest, or the uniform ranks of trunks like a small, tall army. They seem somehow apart from other trees. They meet in huddles, like gangmembers, huddled together but each individual stiff and erect. Close up they have a corpse like sheen, white touched with yellow-green, slashed with black scars. In bright sunshine their bark has a touch of white gold, or perhaps another, rarer metal. Their broken-off lower branches are framed in smooth ridges which make them look like eyes. The growth ridges on the trunks look almost like the tree is wrapped in bandages, like a mummy in a black and white movie. Saplings push up from the mountain earth, rising from a single root system. A thousand trunks, one tree, making this the largest organism on Earth and one of the oldest too. Groves last tens of thousands of years.

A quaking aspen is rightly a white poplar. Near to the Night Planted Orchard there is a grove of native black poplar, vanishingly rare now.