Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Before Your Time

In the days before plastic, all the buildings were made of glass. They called it the Prism City, and it gleamed like a crystal from the bottom of the valley.

It was an estate city, where the barons of industry built their dream homes, where their philosophies became architecture. They were great men, men with no secrets, no shame. They ate their dinners, trimmed their toenails, made love to their wives--all in plain view.

I was a young man then, still waiting for my own greatness to emerge. I survived by polishing away the streaks; I made that city glow. I would stand on the edge of town with my scrub brushes and suds bucket, watching the boats float down the river. Sooner or later, one would pull ashore and an estate holder would hand me a map and keys.

It was the first time I saw my own reflection.


Miss Nolan’s class has a lizard, an iguana named Toby. He looks like my Uncle George, without the glasses. He sits very still on his driftwood perch, opening and closing his mouth. People say Toby is sighing, that he’s tired, that it’s hard being a reptile, but he doesn’t look tired to me. His eyes are glossy and quick. I think they have laser beams behind them.

When Bubbles the goldfish died, he turned yellow and floated to the top of his tank. Miss Nolan said it was okay, that he had looked at the big clouds outside and his soul became so light that it jumped from his body to the sky. Miss Nolan says there is a heaven for fish, and for puppies and dead leaves. The garbage man buries our old tires and televisions in the ground and we get new ones. But white milk cartons come back as chocolate ones, and broken glass makes mirrors, and puddles go to heaven for one second then come back as raindrops. I wonder what happens to iguanas, because they are evil, unlike goldfish and puppies and even broken glass, which can’t help being broken.

Toby is evil because he’s a reptile, and reptiles are natural born killers. At least that’s what I used to think. I wrote Miss Nolan a note that said so. It said:
Dear Miss Nolan,
Iguanas are reptiles and reptiles are evil. Toby is an iguana. Therefore, he killed Bubbles.

I put the note on her chair during lunch, under a book with pictures of dragons on it. The dragons looked like Toby. This made me think, “Wait just a minute.” Miss Nolan knows how to make things very small. I am a big boy, my mother tells me so, but when I forget to raise my hand or whisper to Victor Chen in class, Miss Nolan says my name in a slow, deep voice. At times like this, I am smaller than a mouse; I want to crawl inside my own pocket and hide there forever.

Maybe Toby was big once, too, a big dragon with purple wings and orange fire and his own castle. Maybe he yelled own the answer during times tables or made a face at Priya Skinner. Maybe he’s not evil at all, just confused, a big soul in a small body, in a box, on a table, far away from home.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Cold Shoulder

The bus smelled like tar and spoiled milk. He was holding his breath when he first saw her. She was like a firefly, a speck of grace, floating up the steps. The driver bellowed, but it didn’t faze her, nor did the flying spitballs.

“What’s your name?” he shouted as she swished past, silent.

Her ears were tiny plastic machines.

© 2008 J.L. Steinhoff

Waiting for Rain

The wind is the only one with a temper worse than my own. It whips through the foyer, leaving a trail of crooked picture frames and slammed doors in its wake, then swallows itself so quietly that one wonders if it was ever there in the first place.

Like the wind, I cannot sleep, I cannot eat, I cannot change for the better. I crave disorder, bursting through wood and glass, sometimes with rain and thunder, making the children scream and take cover. I break skin, toys, promises: that which is seen and that which is hidden. It is who I am but not who I want to be.

Some people call it a curse; others say it’s a calling. I am called to destroy, I think, summoned by a rain dance of sorts. Johanna is the prima ballerina of rain dancers, and she doesn't even know she's dancing. Sometimes she dances with her mind, sometimes with her whole body. Sometimes just her eyebrows do the dance, or the hand that clasps her cigarette. Her body, stamping and spinning, melts and oozes, a collage of feathers and fur. Her silent stare, like a dog whistle, is musical, calling me to action. I heat up like a kettle of blood, and something bigger than myself takes over.

When my temperature rises, my mind swirls as if it is not my own, as if I am a force of nature. Sometimes I think I am a god, in denial of my flesh and its weight upon the earth. I see into the chambers of others’ minds, longing to destroy the sickness. I do it for their own good; I can see it but they cannot. I level what I have built, shooting barbs of electricity and rattling a half-century of foundations. Then I shrink back to earth, back to this stump of skin and bone, too weak to move a single stone from the rubble.

Johanna tells me to wake up, that I am out of control, speeding toward a certain end. Though she is saying stop-stop-stop, she is dancing all the while. It is she who cannot stop. She is the one who oils the pistons and sets the wheels in motion, enlivened by the crash at the bottom of the hill.

Something has changed, though. Perhaps the hill is not as steep as it used to be, eroding each year until one day it becomes a valley. And the flame behind her eyes, once so constant, bends and flickers in a strange breeze. I wonder if she will stop praying for rain, dancing that beautiful dance. Her movements grow slower, softer, tamer, and she no longer sees what lies beyond the clouds: the calm, perfect eye in the center.

© 2008 J.L. Steinhoff

Music Man

He thought about what he had become.

He had a gift--his mentor had told him so--but when he stepped onto the stage, the talent melted from his fingertips. Everyone stared. Even the black and white keys were like eyes, sleepy and reproachful.

The cash register keyboard was his new instrument, but he would never play it as beautifully.

© 2008 J.L. Steinhoff


He is telling a story, but it is not his story; it is my story. He stands on the porch like it is his porch, like he owns it, but it is the porch I built. Our friends all notice the spark, the magic, when he walks by--it awakens them, flatters them--but they still don't know my name.

© 2008 J.L. Steinhoff

Head of Elk

His expression was as blank as that of the head of elk that hung above him, the empty look of the lifeless.

If only his wounds had occurred in the wilderness, he thought, in a battle of life and death, survival of the species. His only connection to the forest outside was the paper cup he filled with coffee and sugar, his only tribe the wreath of twisted men who surrounded him, their wizened hands becoming carbon, fingers made of matchsticks.

He rubbed his hands together, appreciating the warmth of the friction, and wondered who knew how to start a fire these days.

© 2008 J.L. Steinhoff