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We had a little shindig this past Sunday. Had some people over. It was mostly for the kids. We rented a big inflatable waterslide that costs an arm and a leg and we invited some neighbors, some of Arle’s family, some parents/ some youth. Some people came and other people did not. A few said they were coming but never showed up. There’s likely a variety of reason for this, many stemming from mental health issues, especially anxiety. I get that. Others, I think, are beholden to strange forces that may or may not be directly (or indirectly) linked to mental health stuff. In the end, I looked out over the yard and smiled.
Fuck it, I thought to myself. They don’t know what they’re missing.
Which is stupid, of course. Obviously they don’t know what they’re missing because they are not here, dumbass. Besides, there is an element of their consciousness that actually does know what they’re missing. At least when it comes to the bones of the situation, you know? Like, they know what these things consist of. People forcing conversation half the time/ talking through liquored-up lips the other half. Bbq smoke and distant music from a tinny speaker and the sound of children laughing or crying or both at once. It’s all supposed to be ultra-relaxing for adults but I think maybe that’s not always the case. Not everything that doesn’t involve work or whatever is a picnic in the park. People who have been around the mental block a few times know this. They understand that a simple gathering in someones yard will be easy for some people and not for others.
And for the one’s it is not so easy for, there is basically fuck all to be done about it. There are no monuments out there for the uneasy picnicker. There are no songs about it as far as I can tell. Maybe ‘Whip It’ by Devo but the jury is still out on that one, I guess. There are no talked-about indie films or hot new limited series streaming on Netflix or HBO that feature the loneliness of the long distance IPA drinker. Poets, or what’s left of them anyways (poor bastards), they ignore the specifics of the suffering and the exhausted/ the talked-out Dad with his dad bod jiggling around in his Walmart Purple Rain t-shirt/ the seen-it-all-been-there-done-that mom of tweens whose smile is mortally wounded Gettysburg artilleryman meets broken-hearted 1966 drunk American prom queen. The goddamn garden is rich with fat fruit for the artist who wants to paint The Potato Salad Eaters, that majestic breathtaking masterpiece depicting the subtle nuances of strange undercurrent ripping through summertime gatherings across the land. But no one cares.
There are no underground champions of the torn-in-two summer invitee. No one to bottle the gravitas beneath their paper thin smiles. Happiness, so natural for so many, she plays tricks on others. She leaves them wishing they could have a good time/ she finds them hoping no one knows that they feel as if they are standing in the slow-rolling search lights.
How are there no champions of these people? How are there no cul-de-sac graduation party Walt Whitmans??!!/ no country road toke-n-smoke (weed and ribs!) Thomas Hart Bentons ??!! / no South Philly prison yard hibachi Bob Dylans??!!/ no riverside park family reunion Aretha Franklins??!!
How do we miss so much when it’s right there in front of our faces?
Maybe not showing up is the new showing up/ I don’t know.
I cooked chicken thighs on the new grill I got. The old one rusted away; the bottom fell out when I opened it this spring to gauge the winter damage. I don’t cover my grills because I don’t believe in it. I believe that charcoal burns better inside a stressed-out coffin. It adds smokey flavor, seasonal pain does. Maybe that sounds nuts to you but you never had one of my cheeseburgers off my old grill. Grillie Nelson, I called it.
Now it’s gone. I hauled it out to the trash a few weeks ago. Me and Arle had spotted some off-brand barrel grill in Rural King for half off. $75 instead of $150. I took the bait, splurged for it, and put it together one recent sunny Sunday morning over the course of like 3 hours and various be-bop records on Spotify for which many magnificent artists (or their estates) were paid not shit as I glommed onto all that joy.
That’s the way the cookie crumbles though, dog. Motherfuckers get robbed while people like me turn screws/ tighten bolts/ plan to do a whole pork loin marinated in olive oil and lemon and fresh oregano at some point this summer to really christen this Made in China puppy.
Rural King, my ass.
Rural Chinese King, you mean.
I don’t care. Trust me, I really don’t. The Chinese can come down my road tomorrow and I probably won’t even notice. My head is in the clouds. I’m 51 years old and I’m just trying to find that delicate balance between the flashing glimpses of true grinning I pull up on at times these days and my old familiar friend, Fuck Off.
It isn’t easy. It’s not motivated by obvious things. I don’t get too fired up about politics or sports or any of that amateur shit anymore, man. I left that stuff in the dust long ago. My plight is different. Deeper, if I may take the condescending liberty to say so. Standing there at my new grill, waiting as long as humanly possible to resist the temptation to tong the chicken before the skin is lightly- perfectly!- charred/ like a house fire cat/ I look into the flames with the searching eyes of a true woodland witch and the twitchy stroke-y gaze of an aging Uncle Tupelo fan.
As others speak, passively/ conversations speckled with laughter and peppered with over-complimentary niceties or else straight-up fucking one-sided self-obsessed domination (some people are DYING to speak about themselves at length to someone… ANYONE), I speak to flames and the heat and the dripping fat of a dead bird. What could be more beautiful than that, you know? To actively climb the walls away from the chattering masses in favor of listening/ intently, mind you/ to the hissing poetry of the burning flesh of a creature who would probably give its left chicken nut to trade places with you right now. Even if you are some kind of weirdo self-reflective fat Anthony Bourdain wannabe zoning out in the shadows of the one and only maple tree on the entire planet that you can rightfully lay claim to.
Old dog OWNS this motherfuckin’ big ass tree.
Old dog flipping that meat with the mouth-watering char.
Old dog spacing out down in the white hot coals (not match-lit).
Old dog looking up at the kids over on the water slide in his own backyard.
Old dog saying to no one in particular, for the thousandth time today, We didn’t have shit like this when I was a kid.
Old dog waiting/ patiently/ like a Jedi/ to flip them golden thighs.
Old dog finally flipping the first one.
It’s way burnt.
Old dog missed it.
Old dog wishes he could wiggle underneath the waterslide and drink some wine in the hot, hot silence of the oddest place.
Last night, I tell Arle that I will work on the fire pit. Come out and hang with me, I say to her, and she says okay. She’s tired from a new client today. A new old person. A lady, 90 years old, who grew up on a nearby farm and still lives there. I find it fascinating, this six degrees of separation thing that gets compressed so much when Arle moves on to caring for a new person. A new human in her world, and thus- indirectly- in our world. But new in the most obtuse way. Because they are new only to Arle and she is new only to them. Otherwise, they are hardly new to anything, you know?
The farm lady is very, very old. She has lived through so much. And Arle is less than half her age yet still, she has lived as well. Both parents (Arle has five kids/ the woman has 9). Both married and then not married at points along the way. Both spending their lives in the valleys between these Appalachian Mountains, surrounded by nature/by beauty/ but also always surrounded by other shit too. Illness and dysfunction and cruelty and fear and money problems probably too.
Arle doesn’t talk much about her first day with the lady though, even when I try to nudge her towards it. I can’t tell if she likes the work or if it makes her sad. The people inevitably die or are shipped off to a home and that’s that. You can become attached to them/ to someone you have just met who is in the final stages of their really long life/ and that is a tricky thing to reconcile. Or you can choose to remain distant, I guess, as many do. Show up/ do the work/ paste a smile on your face/ but wear the thickest armor possible so that old age cannot pierce you like it might have done before, the time you did let your emotional guard down.
At the fire pit, I kick the old burnt-up, crumbling portable pit away so that I can work on these bricks and sand and stones that I bought not long ago. Arle said she really wanted an in-ground fire pit: the kind that look fancy because they are fancy as far as these things go. The kind of fire pit that says to 51-year-old dudes passing by: now THERE’S a pit I could drink some delicate October porters around while we crank some newgrass.
I ask about the old lady and the farm she’s on, but Arle seems tired. Her day was long and when it’s the first day with a new old person, it’s compounded by so much, I figure. It’s a human/human dance in which one of the dancers might drop off into a nap while you’re talking to them.
I think I might be able to do that too, but that’s another story.
I build my little colosseum then. I smash into the dirt and uproot earth chunks. I toss whole fresh scalps of grass over into a big blue bucket. Arle mentions that she bought the bucket for her son Piper’s first birthday party many moons ago.
I put cold drinks in it, she tells me. With bags of ice.
After that I let the dirt slide into the bucket real easy like because I don’t want to crack the plastic.
We are interrupted at times by kids. Milla shows up and is feeling talkative. Piper swings by and wants to use the pick axe I am swinging. I let him even though he has bare feet.
Don’t cut your toe off, dude, I say, flatly. We will never find it in all this dirt.
The adult conversation suffers in these kinds of situations, of course. Getting anywhere with things we say to one another is continually dropped overboard like a knife-slit beer can. The words we were sharing/ they sink away. Thoughts disappear into the dark of an unknown deep. Sometimes they are found again, but more often than not the groove of discourse is ridden off the tracks. A kid shows up and they take things over. It’s not really a question of discipline or whatever, although I guess either one of us could tell the kid to get lost. But we try not to, it seems. Rather, we let our words fall away as the kid approaches. Private thoughts we wish to share with our partner are slipped down into the lake. Arle smiles tight smiles of acceptance at the child’s approach. She engages with them, especially if the kid is hers by blood. If the kid is mine, I do the initial talking.
Either way, all attempts at getting somewhere together tonight are more or less lost. Last night, this happens several times as I sweat all over the dried grass and Arle sits there sipping her beer in the fading twilight.
Kids cut her off as she tries to speak.
At one point I cut her off too, unaware in my same old stupid ways. I’m impetuous at times/ driven to interject with gushing thoughts while she is still trying to express her own. I get it from my family. From my DNA, I guess. We are a family of interrupters. Listeners only to the degree that we are constantly agitated while quiet/ the urge to spout out our own thoughts held back by the awfulness of the etiquette that says we have to hear someone out/ and maybe even comprehend what they’re saying/ before we blast in with our latest must-hear comments, most of which- between me and you- are Bielanko bullshit.
As the dark descends, kids head back inside, and I notice that Arle has grown silent. The laughing and back and forth banter that we had earlier is gone. In its place is a woman giving off a vibe that is hard to understand but impossible to miss. I don’t get it yet at that point. I don’t honestly grasp the fact that I had cut her off at one point right after her kids both cut her off on multiple occasions. It doesn’t dawn on me what is wrong, I just know that something is wrong.
She will tell me before long, inside, at the kitchen table. She will tell me to my face that she feels like no one listens to her words. That she is cut off more than she is heard. She will say that she is tired of that shit.
I don’t say anything mostly. I usually try to fix it or argue it or whatever, but tonight I don’t know what to say. I just let her explain the way she is feeling. Then I go out back and drink a can of beer by myself while she talks to Milla in the kitchen.
The forest fire smoke from way up in Canada makes me cough on the step.
I can make out their voices behind me but I’m too buzzed to tune in.
Ducks quack at each other off in the night.
The air conditioner up in our room hums like a jet engine.
The streetlight back in the church lot lights up and then goes out, over and over, for no apparent reason. It’s so stupid. I think about shooting it out with a BB gun. I imagine I would miss it. I imagine I would never ever get it right even if I stood there forever, firing at the bulb, never hitting nothing but the stars up in the rising night sky.
I keep finding discarded cans around the yard. Pineapple seltzer crushed in the ferns. Dr Pepper over by the peonies. By the grill I spot a Coke can, all classic red and white, and I lift it up and it’s empty. But the top is unopened. The kids had poked holes in the bottom and shotgunned sodas at the end of the evening as our Sunday party was winding down.
I hold it in my hands, turn it over a few times. It looks whole but it’s empty. I’m not used to that around here. They must have seen it on YouTube. One of them must have watched a video about how to shotgun a canned drink and then shared it with the rest of the gang. Or maybe one of these other kids who was a guest brought the intelligence and shared it between hot dogs and slides and all.
Like villagers from separate villages in the old days, one person brings new light into a stranger’s home and the world shifts a little bit. Things change slowly, but surely, as it goes.
I toss the can back down into the dirt by the pile of pine branches I need to burn once I get the fire pit happening. There’s always so much I need to get done, so much I’ve yet to accomplish or see through. Sometimes I feel so inspired to tackle it all at once. And then other days I just look at it, all the possibility there down in my hands, just to loosen my grip/ let it fall from fingers to live another day.
My shirt smells like chicken smoke.
It’s the same one I wore the other day.
I dig it.
Random Things I Loved This Week:
Fellow Survivors by Al Maginnes. Stunning poems/ brilliant poet.
Peaky Blinders (Season 6).
bald eagle flying around out back our house two days in a row
incredible gift of Civil War books from my friend, John Macko. (Thank you, dude!)
Miss Americana (Taylor Swift documentary from 2020).
baby ducks that were born in our yard came back to visit.
‘Looking for a Way Out’ - Uncle Tupelo (essay coming)
watching Arle garden barefoot in our yard
‘Good as Hell’- Lizzo.
the Canadian smoke drifting up my nose/ everything is temporary/ remember.
Do you like the ‘Random Things I Loved This Week’ feature I’ve added to the end of the past couple of essays? Let me know what you think!
We earth men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.
- Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles
Hey there. Thanks for reading this week. I wanted to mention that the comments that readers leave under my essays (or beneath my social media essay shares) really help. They help other folks consider my work more intensely/ think about it deeper and longer/ see that others are reading Thunder Pie as well. Somewhere down in that mix: a flickering sense of community is born, if you want it. Like fans of any indie band, people who dig the same unknown writers share a feeling of being in on something. At least that’s how it ought to be. But here’s the strange part. Of the hundreds of subscribers I have, only a handful ever hit the Like or leave a Comment.
So maybe consider adding your 2 cents now and then?? Even just a simple “I really liked this one” means a lot to me. And it brings us all a little bit closer by letting other readers in on the fact that they are not the ONLY person on Earth reading this shit. Constructive criticism is welcome as well!!! I have received a lot of that lately and I find it invaluable, even if I don’t exactly change my writing style accordingly. The very fact that someone took the time to write it means the world. And I do carefully consider every angle of the input, believe me.
And look, if public commenting isn’t your thing, I get it. In that case send me an email. It will just be between us, I promise.
Speaking from my deep heart for a sec, I just cannot find the words to tell you how much this Substack project means to me. Lately sometimes I feel like I’m dying inside (and definitely outside/ I’m an aging motherfucker), but having this outlet - because YOU subscribe to it- gives me the reason to want to write/ this thing to look forward to.
And it fucking saves me, man.
Like: actually: SAVES me from eating a gun. I’m not saying that as some kind of weird obtuse brand I’m trying to create (GunEaterWriter) either. Fuck that. In these essays/ in my weekly writings/ I have found a way to speak to myself honestly about the true life I recognize myself living even when my superficial daily life mucks up the poetry/ dirties the waters/ blows sand in my eyes/ blows me off course from the beauty and truth and honor and immense joy that are the bones and guts of this existence I have.
And I know my writing means more to me than it could ever possibly mean to anyone else. I understand that and it makes sense. I’m the one staring at the gun/ not you. But still, you’re here. And that means something. At least it does to me. And it’s that ‘something’ that I want to thank you for. Even if I’m gone tomorrow/ that ‘something’ that people gave me here with Thunder Pie was everything.
Fuck brands and hashtags and all that shit.
This is way bigger than that to me. And I just want you to know how grateful I am.
Anyway, I need to shut up. I’ll slip back into the hedges now.
Thanks for being a big part of my life. Have a cool weekend.
Edited by Arle Bielanko
Photos/Art: Serge B.
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