Sunday, April 23, 2017

From Driven by the Trades, Now Available on Kindle

The Trade Winds

"21, go ahead." The older officer responded to the radio. There'd been nothing for him or his trainee for almost an hour. The joint city/county dispatcher was going back and forth with a sheriff's deputy about a robbery out in the Township, but Ann Arbor was being law-abiding or at least getting away with its crimes unnoticed.

"21, suspicious person, walking south on State, 2000 block, up near the buildings. Male, possibly black. East side of the street."

"Good example of the crap we get this time of the morning," the officer said, speaking to the young man next to him. It was 4:49 AM, according to the dashboard clock. "A guy's walking along in the rain, and somebody calls it in."

"Let's go see him." The patrol SUV turned south off the residential street where they'd been waiting for the morning's traffic accidents to start.

Along the west side, there was no way for a pedestrian to walk suspiciously. The university's athletic buildings and fields and golf course were more than adequately secured, and they butted right up to the sidewalk. The light at the railroad crossing was green, and they went on past Stimson Street on the east, then past the Produce Station and a sausage shop. A vacant lot followed, then a body shop, and finally, back from the street, a small office building.

"There we go," said the driver. There was a man walking along the front of the building, partly shadowed from the street lights by the second floor overhang. There was a driveway just beyond it, and they pulled in, effectively blocking the man's path.

They got out. The older officer, Kurt, greeted their subject. "Good morning, sir. You're getting kind of wet, aren't you?"

"Yes, sir," said the man. He was, in fact, African-American, and he looked old, almost elderly. "Naturally, it'd start rainin' now."

"We just wondered if you were all right. Someone saw you, thought maybe you might need some help."

"No, sir, no. I'm just walkin' home."

"Home? Where's that?"

"Why, up there, off Ellsworth. In the apartments."

"That's a long way."

"Yes, sir. It is. But I'm used to it. I work for the university."

"Okay. Any reason why you'd be walking up close to these buildings? Not out on the sidewalk?"

The man smiled. "Oh, yes, sir. Plenty of reason." He held out his hand, palm up, and the rain splashed on it. "Keepin' out of the rain."

"I see. Do you have some ID I could look at?"

"Oh, sure." His coat came about to mid-thigh, and instead of hiking it up in back, he unzipped it and pulled it open. "I'm just reachin' for my wallet, now. All right?"

The younger officer had stepped slightly sideways, and he could see where the man's hand was going. He said, "Yes, go ahead."

The driver's license the man produced was current, and the address was a street Kurt knew, lined with townhouses. Across from the city's main landfill, in fact. "That's what, two miles or something?"

"Well, more like a mile and a half, sir. I cut over on Eisenhower, go down to Stone School and get over the highway there. I do it every day."

"Okay. Well ... it's just going to keep on raining, apparently. Can we give you a ride?"

"Oh. Well, that would be very nice of you, sir. Very nice. I'd appreciate it."

The man got in the back of the SUV, and they took him home, going the formal, right-angle way, crossing the freeway on State, then around the traffic circle and east on Ellsworth. They dropped him off, watched as he went up to a door and opened it with a key.

"You know, Mike," the older cop said as they turned the vehicle around, "he had a UM facilities uniform, ID, and everything. Walking two miles home in the dark, ducking under awnings to stay dry. And somebody called him in as 'suspicious'. What if he'd been white? Think we'd have ever heard of him, let alone stopped him?"

"If he'd been a deer, we'd have had SWAT out here." The city had just gone through a nasty period of shaming and counter-shaming among citizens and council members over a project to reduce the whitetail deer population.

"Oh, well. At least we could give him a lift home." They turned right out of the complex, headed back west toward State. The radio woke up again.

In the next few seconds, the early morning collapsed away on each side, tunneling into a narrow path, smoothing and streaking and blurring at the edges. The important features were lights falling away behind them as they sped up, rain hitting the windshield with increasing force, drops smearing with the wind and smearing the world. Things became more of a shooting script than a narrative.

The view shifted to a higher point, looking downward at the SUV as it slid out its rear wheels going around the traffic circle. North on State, with the flashers making the Quick Lube a surreal red and blue work of public art. No traffic on the other side of the boulevard, ominously empty. They went through the light at Research Park, a car braking hard to let them by. A glimpse of the driver's startled face, tinted blue. The radio still babbling. A U Haul office snapping by on the right. Ahead, the road going up to cross the freeway. Cresting the overpass. "Holy shit!"

To the left, at the westbound entrance ramp, two cars upside down. A third visible down the ramp, burning hellishly. A Pittsfield Township patrol car, sideways across the southbound lanes of State, both officers out with long guns. Fire trucks coming in from both directions. State police coming from the east on the freeway, bouncing over the shoulder and getting jammed up in the ditch. Our two officers out of their car, running in, side-arms drawn. A man weaving toward them, on foot, with his clothes on fire. In close-up, a woman standing in the rain, her arms over her head, and her face twisted into a grimace of sheer horror. Shouting. Sirens. And above all of it, rain, dark clouds, and a flash of lightening.

Two and a half hours later, Mac MacArthur set down his plate of toast and the first cup of coffee. He perched on a kitchen stool, got his phone out, and unlocked it. As he usually did, he opened the Detroit Free Press news site first. "Jesus H. Christ!" he said, aloud. His dogs looked up, surprised at his tone. Colleen MacArthur looked up, too. "What now?" she asked him.

"Look at this," was all he said, passing her the phone.

From Driven by the Trades Copyright by 2017 Joseph McConnell

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Waren Trust


In my small city, there's a stretch of land along the river. The downtown area surrounds it, but it's open and treated as an unnamed park. Someone told me that it belongs to the city, but the tables and benches in it are put there by businesses, and the gravel walk from one end to the other is likewise maintained by the merchants. It's not a long way from my apartment, and I go there on summer evenings to sit and write.

This week, I walked along the main street toward the open space, and there were two women walking ahead of me. The younger one was someone I'd seen before, a person with short, dark hair and black eyebrows. The older woman was new to me. She was speaking earnestly to the other one and sometimes making gestures with her hands. As we came to the entrance to the river land, they were joined by Airey, a man who was always wandering around in the downtown area, aimless and harmless, and usually with nothing to say. He simply dropped into step with them, walking along behind and eating from a bag of popcorn, one kernel at a time.

I took my usual place, on the town side, where there was a chair and a small table. I didn't want to be joined by anyone, so I left the long picnic-style benches to others. The two women sat down at a bench, facing each other. Airey sat down on the grass a few feet away.

In a few minutes, more people came in, either taking up seating or laying down towels or beach blankets to sit on. This was new, not something I'd seen before. If they said anything at all, it was too low to overhear, and the couple who sat down on the grass near me said nothing.

Then two men stood up and walked to the middle of the path. They stood back to back. Both were wearing khaki pants and white dress shirts, no ties, no jacket. Together, they raised both their arms and said "Waren Trust" in voices that carried. Everyone stopped talking except the older of the two women who came in with me.

I couldn't make out what her words were, but it was clear she was trying to persuade or influence the other person. The younger woman with the eyebrows said nothing for a moment, and then quite clearly said "Waren Trust". She made a finger-to-the-lips sign. The other woman raised her voice, saying "But Celia, please ..." Celia shook her head. The other woman got up, turned, and nearly tripped over Airey, then walked away, back up toward the street. Airey picked up the popcorn kernel she'd made him drop, ate it, and sat still. The two men on the path raised their hands again and said "Waren Trust."

As I watched, the men began to walk up and down among the other people, saying things that for the most part I couldn't hear. One came near enough that I heard him say "crisis of confidence". It seemed to be Celia he was speaking to. This went on for almost fifteen minutes.

Then two men came down from the street at the other end of the area. I stared at them, because they were both dressed in grey Edwardian suits and both had top hats. One carried a walking stick. The two leaders, if that's what they were, of the group saw them and moved to place themselves in their path. The newcomers paid no attention and as they got closer, I could hear that they were talking about the open area itself.

"Yes," one of them said, "it is strange that it's just here, left undeveloped."

"I know," said the other, "but apparently the merchants would rather have people here than more businesses."

" I suppose. But I did hear another story. About an asylum that was here." At this point, the group leaders stood in front of them, blocking the way. One of them said "Shhh. Waren trust."

The men in costume stepped around the leaders and the one who'd been interrupted continued. "There's something about being able to hear the voices of the inmates, still speaking." They continued their stroll. As they passed me, I heard one say "Gibberish, it's supposed to be. Just nonsense phrases." They strolled on, up and onto the shopping street.

A drop of tree sap fell close to my notebook, and I got up. One of the leaders looked at me, but I ignored him and walked away. Airey got up and followed me out.

The next evening the sky was supposed to be clear. The sunset would make glowing red light on the water and, as the sun dropped lower, on the backs of the stores. I went down to the area again. This time, my usual table was occupied, but I sat at the end of one of the benches. Shortly, it began to fill up with the same group that had been there the night before.

The difference was that the leaders had brought another man with them. He was a very large person, dressed in jeans and a horizontally-striped T-shirt, like a matelot. He wore a dark sport coat over it. When the leaders began their "Waren Trust" announcements, he said nothing. He just stood between them on the path, looking around.

Just as the leaders began their circulation among the group, the Edwardians returned. Their conversation grew louder as they approached, and the one with the cane was swinging it at the heads of dandelions as he walked. The topic was investments, something to do with exchange-traded funds and a shift of investor confidence toward corporate and away from municipal bonds. They ignored everything but each other, even when they came up against mister striped shirt. He held his arms wide, blocking their way. They sidestepped him and came together again on the path.


The big man then moved up behind them and took each one's collar in one of his hands. He lifted them up to tiptoes and gave them a quiet, professional bum's rush down the path and out of the area.

One of the leaders came by the bench where I was sitting, said something meaningless to one of the people, and then stopped across the table from me. I turned my notebook to a page where I'd written a rude phrase in large letters, showed it to him, and made my departure.

I wasn't pleased with the way things had gone, and I considered staying away, but by 5:30 the next afternoon, my curiosity took over. I bought a sandwich to bring along and went back to the place. This time I was early enough to get my chair and small table, and I quickly took possession. The group gathered as it had before, and the leaders brought their large colleague with them again. For almost a half an hour, nothing unusual happened. Then the consumed pair returned. This time, as they strolled side by side, discussing some regulatory topic, they were followed by two municipal police officers.

As the little parade reached the center of the path, the big man stepped in front again. The leaders walked up behind him. The Edwardians halted, still talking, and the police came around from behind. One of them placed his hand on the striped chest and pointed toward the exit behind him. One leader came forward, but got the same treatment from the other officer. The two gentlemen paid no attention. They just kept talking about property tax abatements. Everyone else sat very quietly, watching the proceedings.

The big man and one of the leaders turned around and began walking away. The other leader said something to the police and tried to push the officer's hand away. In a series of dance steps, he was spun around, handcuffed, and almost carried off, back the way the police had come. To my disappointment, he didn't complain as he was taken away, not even to say "Waren Trust."

Since that night, the group hasn't shown up, nor have the Edwardians. The only thing of interest is Airey, eating popcorn and watching the ducks on the river.
Copyright 2017 by Joseph McConnell

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Of Marginal Interest



Doctor Erlen Meijer, he thought. Adjunct Professor Doctor Erlen Meijer. He picked up another book from a pile and put it with others in a box. A young man with a newly-published dissertation can expect to do a lot of moving, and Erlen was packing up his efficiency in Newport. Over the eight years he'd spent in one school or another, he'd acquired a facility for living lightly, making kits of essential gear, the cooking kit, the clothing kit, the technology kit. Instead of an old car, he had an eleven year old pickup truck with a cap over the bed. With that and a few reused boxes, he could move out of or into a small apartment in less than a day. Travel was likewise codified. When he had to fly, he took a backpack and a shoulder bag for his laptop. One went under the seat ahead and the other overhead. His residences were bare of decoration, but he was as ready to depart as a fugitive. The only flaw in the logistical schema was the books.

He was a literary academic, and the equipment of his profession was almost as bulky as that of a biologist or a physician. His dissertation discussed an obscure aspect of D. H. Lawrence and the New Mexico period. It was built, of course, on published material, and what Erlen saved by streamlining his physical life, he spent on books, journals, and reprints of articles. He kept track of things he had on hand, and he always referred to his list before he bought anything else. The list, at this point in his career, had 328 titles in one physical form or another, not to mention 204 digital documents. It occurred to him, usually late at night, that instead of coffee spoons, he'd measured out his life in volumes of literary criticism and technique.

Now, though, he was past two milestones. He'd completed his doctoral work and found an actual faculty job, and he was prepared to part with some of the library. The near term task was a move to Michigan, and over 30 of his old books were going into a box that would not be going with him. It would go only as far as an online sales service. Soon, these books, some well-used, some barely explored, would go back into circulation, and the few dollars he got for them would pay for some of the gasoline the drive would burn up.

He picked up a hardbound volume, a leftover from an undergraduate Humanities class. He realized that he'd been carrying it around ever since, without once referring back to it. He was near the end of the culling and packing process, and he spared a moment to flip a few pages. He noticed at once that it was annotated. The sections that were covered in the course were covered in the book with notes in his handwriting, and he was first surprised and then amused at his early reactions to what the author had to say. 

The book was Konstanza Eueler's Surreal Film: The Narrative of Non-narration. In his Sophomore year, it had been au courant in film school circles, and Erlen had paid a little less than fifty dollars for a new copy. As it turned out, his interest in film and the reputation of the author waned at the same rate, but at the time, he'd worked his way through the book, carefully underlining things and writing, as he thought you were supposed to, things like "Wow!" or "Hmmm?" in the margin. As the text went on, his comments gained greater weight in his undergraduate self-estimation. He added references to other writers, even managing to bring Susan Sontag into it and inserting a gratuitous reference to the Catholic liturgy. 

Today, as he read through it, he began to be embarrassed by what he'd thought of things, all those years back -- or, he realized suddenly, by what he'd thought he was supposed to think, the not-insightful insights he'd borrowed, and the obvious pretension of it all. The gerund posing came to mind, and if he'd been familiar with it, so would the meme imposter syndrome. He closed the book with what was nearly a shudder, dropped it into the box, and folded the flaps. Time to go.

Eight years went by. Erlen was almost completely absorbed by his young career. Positions in the humanities were thin on the ground, and the amount of work, far removed from study and analysis, was by itself enough for a full job. On top of the departmental administrivia came teaching, counseling identity-crisis-stricken undergraduates, and always, always, the struggle to publish, present, and be noted. The quarterly accounting of funds and grants and stipends would have made Luca Pacioli hesitate.

The environments – the departments -- were hierarchical in a way that nationalistic governments could only admire. Still a young and relatively new academic, Erlen existed in an environment of sweetly expressed passive aggression. The old joke about the psychiatrist who says "Good Morning" and the colleague who thinks "I wonder what he meant by that?" was a remarkably apt touchtone. Erlen accepted it and even found a space within it. So, although each passing year made it harder to think about another way of making a living, he scraped out a tiny den in a shrinking wilderness. He wasn't aware of any serious failings or false steps or blots on his escutcheon. And so a discussion, one on one with his department Chair, was not unusual or especially frightening. Sitting across a desk from her, he nodded at the right times, offered a few suggestions he knew would be acceptable, and saw the clear signs of the meeting coming to an end. He stood up.

At this point, the Chair leaned back, thanked him, and then picked up a book. It was a hardcover, worn a bit at the edges of the binding, dark blue with white titles. "I can't stay out of book stores," she said. "I was in Atlanta this week, and I wandered into a place just off campus. I saw this, and I just had to have it. Very dated, of course. The text itself is funny enough, but the comments someone's written in it are a scream." She turned it around and pushed it across the deck. There, in text larger than the title, was Konstanza Eueler. The black and white picture of her, wearing a beret and standing in front of a pillared university building, struck Erlen like a swastika spray-painted on a door.

Oh my God, he thought. Every look, every slightly stiff greeting from the Chair, every laughing conversation he'd seen her have, far down a hall, with someone else appeared like captions on a screen. My God, my God, did I write my name in that book?! 

He picked it up, opened it to the inside of the cover. No name there. He turned a few pages. "Oh, yes," he said. His mouth was exceedingly dry. "I ... I see what you mean." He pretended to look for more notes, scanning for anything that might give him away. "Oh. Oh, yes. I see. Very funny." He put it back on the desk, glanced desperately at his watch, and made some papier-mâché exit line.

All night, he was awake, turning over and over in his mind the ways that his childishness might be traced back to him. On one hand, he argued, if she'd known, why would she have shown it to me? How could she know? And why would she want to confront me with it? He tried to imagine something he might have done or said to offend. It wouldn't have to have been to her; it could have been with someone else and they reported it

What are you saying? he'd ask. What do you mean, 'reported' it? This isn't the Soviet Union. There's no KGB here. But the memories kept coming back: the foolish, naive, self-assured youth he'd been and the callow, received ideas he'd betrayed . And then, near dawn, the real horror descended on him. That was only one book!

He could see, as clearly as if he were back in that Rhode Island apartment, the box of books. He drew in a deep breath as he realized that he'd deliberately selected things from his early years, purposefully gathered up titles in which he might have written anything! And if one obscure and long-forgotten piece of the nineteen-eighties had surfaced, where were the others? And in how many of them had he fatally recorded himself as an owner?

He got up, walked to the window of his bedroom, and raised the shade. Even in the dark, the shape of the town was laid out in streetlights. Up a hill, though, the University itself was a darker rectangle, framed in the external lines of bright roads. The reality of the situation closed in and made itself a comfortable home. This was a personal issue. All of the time spent learning, following, and re-learning the rules, all of those uncomfortable meetings, interviews, starched-stiff social events, all of those petty, uninformed, cavalier comments from reviewers ... all that he'd endured to be here, clinging to a crack in the cliff face with just the edge of the summit of Mount Tenure visible ... all of that was at stake.

He turned around and went to the small second bedroom. There was a desk, and his laptop was on it. In a couple of minutes, he was looking at his long book inventory list, sorting it by date acquired, and scrolling through to the items marked as "Sold". In a second window, he brought up a browser. One by one, he began working his way through the list of entries, searching used book sites. How long will this take me, he wondered, and how much will I have to spend to destroy the evidence?
Joseph McConnell, 2017

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Leader Dog Blues


Wake up in the morning,
She puts my red vest on.
We wake up in the morning,
And she puts my red vest on.
Pick up the harness, Mama,
We're down the street and gone.

I'm a leader, baby,  I'm a leader dog.
I'm a born leader, baby, I'll lead you anywhere.
I'll steer you through the traffic,
And I will get you there.

We go down the subway,
And we ride that train.
We go down the subway,
Waitin' for the train.
Go shoppin' for the groceries,
And we come home again.

Nappin' in the sunlight,
Rest my head upon her knee.
Nappin' on the sofa,
My head is restin' on her knee.
I'm just a leader dog, baby,
That's how it is with me.
 Joseph McConnell 2013

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Proceedings Set to Waltz Time

My eyes are sore
From the air conditioned air
And from having to stare
At words on a screen
    Twenty feet away.

Six hours ago
We knew this wouldn't go.
That dog won't hunt.
    And the answer is no.

But still we kept talking,
And no one was balking,
It's what the users want,
    Words to and fro.

And now we're done
We didn't do
    Anything
But time is
    On the wing.
And we thank everyone.

Now we're leaving the room
And returning our calls
As the evening falls
    And the pay's the same, anyway.
    And the pay
        Is the same,
            Anyway.

Joseph McConnell 2016

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Our 2016 Resolutions: How we did
  • Not to vote for anyone who even knows what "GOP" stands for.
  •   Keep on advocating a foreign policy of ridiculing and mocking our enemies, worldwide.
  • Fifty-four forty AND fight! (Walt Kelly)
  • Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!
  • Begin work on a Sigourney Weaver / Paula Poundstone candidacy in 2020.
  • Write a "what-if" novel in which Abraham Lincoln is elected president on a platform of forcing the South to secede.
  • Bribe Donald Trump to run for the presidency of North Korea, instead.
Well, we nailed the first one.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Poetry: Replacing a tree


A short, brittle, deciduous shrub,
Here when we bought the place,
Was finally winter killed.

I am no more a man who
Cuts down trees or digs large holes.
We bought an evergreen
And had it delivered and installed.

The man who came was
Nineteen Seventy itself,
Paper white beard and long hair,
Black wrap-around sunglasses;
My age, give or take a few.

In twenty minutes he was done,
Old tree gone, new spruce in place.
"I won't charge you for removal,"
He said. "Didn't take any time at all.
Take care, now."

When was the last time a man
Your own age made you feel old?
Copyright 2015, Joseph McConnell