January 4, 2016

Fiction By Nels Hanson: "Can You Tell Me Now?"

Nels Hanson grew up in California’s San Joaquin Valley and has worked as a farmer, teacher and writer/editor. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and Pushcart nominations in 2010, 12, and 2014. Poems appeared in Word Riot, Oklahoma Review, Pacific Review and other magazines and received a 2014 Pushcart nomination, Sharkpack Review’s 2014 Prospero Prize, and 2015 and 2016 Best of the Net nominations.

Symbolism Sketch & Study "Profile" By: Odilon Redon

Can You Tell Me Now?

When did these things first begin, or when was the first time I noticed them?
At 15, at the Fresno Fair, when I got separated from three friends? Alone, walking across the high-ceilinged garden exhibit among tall ferns, out of nowhere three pretty girls ran up, surrounding me so I couldn’t move.
“Bobby, you breaking up with Cathy?” the first girl asked eagerly. “Last night at the party she was alone.”
The blonde girl leaned toward me, asking, “Are you stag again?”
I didn’t answer, I’d never had a date at the country high school 20 miles south. I’d taken a lot of teasing, called “Ears” and “Nose” and once “Peanut,” when I was the shortest boy in seventh grade.
“Huh, Bobby?” The first girl’s nose and lips nearly touched my cheek, then sharply pulled back. The three girls stared, now the brunette said, “He’s not Bobby.”
“He isn’t?” “No.” They turned and quickly walked away, one turning back for a final look. “He looks just like Bobby, just like him! Like his twin!”
I envied Bobby, his popularity and attractiveness, his wherewithal at a big city high school, charming all the in-crowd girls. Why hadn’t I played along, I asked myself, said, “I’m free again”?
Three years later, the hay truck broke loose above the university parking lot at the college in Santa Cruz. Without a driver it had left its tracks in the brown grass, wildly swerving across the fall pasture’s long steep hill a quarter mile, finally crashing barbed wire and fence posts and among 400 parked cars hitting just one.
My red car was pushed into the middle of the gravel aisle, a note taped to the windshield: “Can’t you park in your space?”  
“Who are you?” I wondered then.
One late night, drunk at 22, visiting from a cabin in the mountains where I was trying to write, I stumbled down a former teacher’s dark outside staircase, to my white Volkswagen station wagon that wouldn’t take my key, hard as I tried. I climbed back up to sleep on the sofa in a soiled down bag. Next morning, hung over, sweaty, half sick from trying to eat the surly wife’s runny eggs, I found parked side-by-side two white cars, identical, my jacket in the unknown driver’s passenger seat.  
“Maybe someone’s there,” I thought gratefully.
In mid-summer of ’76, on the family small farm in the San Joaquin Valley, that gentle evening the phone rang, just as I walked out to the patio in my new white Mexican shirt with embroidered butterflies, to read James Wright’s poem about the Evening Star?
It was the hospital calling: someone had to come right away, to claim my grandfather’s body. He died at 86, four minutes before my marriage in the garden, oldest grandchild and first to wed.
Why? Who are you?
Separated from my wife for six months, heartsick and drinking, I was chosen to fly to Athens, to bring back a brother to save his kidney. Home again and shaky, in the backyard in noon light I watched a great-horned owl swoop and grip with three-inch talons the top rail of the fence, six feet away, staring eye-to-eye with me a full five minutes at least and like an Indian I waited for the owl to call my name.
Do you recall that Montana town, where the old man with my name jumped into the Clark Fork of the Columbia River, his obituary in the morning paper?
At school everyone thought I had died, though he was 80 and I was 25. The river had frozen and until the thaw when they found his body I’d got his calls for doctors’ visits, each receptionist adamant I make up all skipped appointments for heart and eye, blood exams.
“Don’t kid us. You know you’re overdue.”
We left that school when the alcoholic prof sat at the Edgewater’s bar, drinking through
my thesis oral. I quoted the line by the Grateful Dead, about “what a long strange trip it’s been,” but that all in all, “I still call him ‘friend’.”
On the way out of town we saw a five-ton dump truck, its forgotten silver hydraulic ram raised high, the heavy slanting bed 15-feet in the air, rocking back and forth as the driver drove 50, raising a dust storm and nearly tipping over on the dirt side road.
I floored the old Chevy pickup with a camper and looking back saw the truck strike the power line, the cable falling just behind our bumper, tall poles falling like dominoes two miles, back to Missoula that faded in the rearview mirror, my last glimpse of the Big Sky.
Who are you?
Why one sad November birthday, with nothing and with nothing coming, I leaned to the asphalt in the lot, for a canteen case riders clip to their bicycles and a young neighbor must have dropped – inside lay a glass pipe and marijuana.
“Happy birthday!” I cried and home from the grocery store I was happy, broke but stoned on the day I was born.
Or nearly five years ago, when I got a call at six in the morning – my wife wasn’t going to be released today. Instead, her blood pressure was at 60 and falling fast and I was urged to hurry to say goodbye.
I barely got the thick frost off the windshield. Later it snowed, April 7th, in coastal, sunny San Luis Obispo, California.
“If she dies again, do you want us to revive her?”
My wife hovered all the cold day between life and death, after the idiot doctor had given her Vicodin, after I’d warned him she was allergic. I waited in the family room, her heart restarted three times, ready for an emergency pacemaker, when a pink-smocked volunteer plopped a fresh newspaper on the chair beside me.
I saw a closed-eyed woman in what appeared an open coffin, spread across the front page, and looked away in terror.
“Who or what are you?” I thought. “The Devil?”
As I had a smoke in the breezeway that afternoon, a nurse walked by, smiling so happily, a stack of Tribune-Telegrams in her arms, then stopped.
“Do you want to see my picture?” she asked.
“Sure,” I answered and she pointed at her comatose face in the photo.
The casket was a six-sided stretcher, the kind helicopters use to lift the injured. She’d played the stricken patient, for the hospital’s practice air rescue, and said I had pretty eyes.
The morning my cousin’s young wife passed away a new Die-Hard car battery I’d bought the day before instantly went dead and couldn’t be recharged.
Forget other times we both remember, if you do remember – just  yesterday I daydreamed for hours, about a large silver ball the size of a bowling ball, on the lawn at the old cottage on the farm.
No one could lift it, or dig underneath it, as if it had dropped from some heavier planet.
Today, when I took my wife to the retina specialist, the doctor and his staff weren’t there. We waited in chairs and as I reached for a magazine, I saw balanced on the coffee table two giant, perfect replicas of a child’s six-pronged, bulb-ended jacks.
One was gold, one silver, made of pot metal, ready for a colossal girl of six to pick them up and play with the platinum ball that weighed a ton.
Why? Who are you? Why this, why that, kind or cruel, dead serious and playful as a child?
Chance or Fate, God of Nemesis, of Grace, Nothing, Both, Hidden Messenger or None, secret friend and adversary, tell me who I am, and who you are, and if there is a story, what story and where it leads, to new birth, stranger end.
Please, can you tell me now?
~Nels Hanson

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