I made a simple mistake,
around the wrong corner
of the wrong street
in the afternoon traffic jam,
and somehow I couldn’t picture
just what I’d done wrong,
much less what I needed to do
to find Nancy’s spine surgeon.
I wanted to pull over
to look at the street map.
Somehow, Nancy started yelling
directions I couldn’t follow.
Maybe I yelled first,
though I don’t think so.
Just shut up and let me see the map.
I need a picture in my head.
By the time we reached the parking lot,
Nancy was waxing apocalyptic.
I was crying, sorely tempted
to leave her there and go home.
Her appointment was endless.
It was one of those days
Dr. Spine was hours behind.
Nancy was somewhat calmer
when she finally came out again,
but gave me granite silence
for a hundred fifty miles.
At least we don’t live together.
I can leave her at her apartment
and go home to my own peace.
A long slow fadeout
stretching through most of a year,
rain through burning heat.
Exchange of apologies,
boring Saturday visits.
Now I’m forced to sit
and watch home improvement shows
in her apartment.
With spring, she comes to my house
and pulls weeds from the garden.
I’m cutting fir trees
from an orchard that never
makes many apples.
We’re coming apart without
the glue of intimacy.
Goodbye kisses come
without us ever looking
at each other’s eyes.
Sand the dull brown of dirt,
granite boulders marbled gray and cream,
a river dull bluegreen sparkled with sky.
Sudden flutter of wings,
a fleeing silhouette.
White noise of rushing water,
moving and standing waves more crisp
with the sun hidden by the mountains.
Summer twilight long and slow,
the brisk breeze suddenly stops,
making the dark feel warm.
I’ve wondered who I am so many times,
I really ought to have this
figured out by now.
There are no roads climbing up Mt. Whitney,
highest peak in the lower forty eight.
We follow the road uphill from Lone Pine
as far as it goes, to a crowded parking lot
between thunderous tumbling streams.
Whether the trail from here is hike or climb,
it’s too much for me. My heart needs to pound
a little bit, every now and then,
but I don’t want a panic in my chest.
Turbulent splashing water cools the air.
fighting with the desert valley heat,
white noise overwhelming conversation.
Tourist children move from rock to rock,
silent as eight millimeter film
running on a noisy projector.
The wind blew hard all night and the creek roared.
Sunrise in the clouds over the dry mountains to the east
brightens from rose to peach to yellow.
To the west, the highest peaks of the Sierras
are modeled with orange light and blue shadows.
I’m watching direct sunlight creep down the mountains.
Our cottonwood’s about twenty feet tall,
one of ten at the campground offering any shade.
The gray clouds over the dry bed of Owens Lake
look brown in the yellow light of sunrise.
The Alabama Hills, heaped up light brown boulders,
look like a weathered lava flow,
but the signs say they’re a granite intrusion
newer than the Sierra batholith.
I’d better get my hat from the car.
The sun’s almost reached the picnic table.
While Rusty and I obsessively videotaped
a black fence lizard near the barbecue grill
at our campsite in a nearly empty campground,
the man who’s in a trailer with his daughter
went down to the creek with his fishing gear.
While the lizard blinked in the viewfinder,
more or less refusing to move at all,
the man started cussing at the fish,
then yelled, “I got you,” over and over,
then, “I did it! Ooh rah! Ooh rah!”
Ooh rah is the military guy
equivalent of booyah, Rusty told me,
what you say when hitting enemy targets.
And so, a seven-inch terrorist trout,
slender, silver, dangling on his line,
made a worthy addition to his breakfast.
We went out to Lone Pine for groceries and gas,
then drove back up Whitney Portal Road a bit.
I realized we could see more of Mount Whitney
and that odd cleft to its immediate south
from farther away, so I chose a view from
the yellow ochre Alabama Hills, which meant
sitting in the sun for an hour and a half.
My watercolor was a bit less watery.
The paint often dried on the brush before I could
get it on the paper, which caused a certain look.
The foreground rocks and sagebrush are not portraits,
though the mountains and hill rocks are accurate.
This bothers me some, but with the heat
and unnoticed flaws in the pencil drawing,
this is the best I can do.
I was planning to paint the mountains
near route four, and route eighty-eight,
but thunder threatened, clouds closed in,
we had to go to Carson City for gas.
We hurried north, through the Central Valley,
hoping to stay somewhere near Mount Shasta.
Fowler’s Campground was completely full.
So much for seeing the McCloud River Falls!
The next one, Cattle Camp, was nearly empty,
but Shasta was hidden under clouds and rain.
Late next morning at the northbound rest stop
where I once made a ballpoint sketch of Shasta,
I watched the shifting white clouds, wondering
if a bit more sun might burn them off.
I drove around side roads without a map,
always looking for a mountain view.
I found a yellow field, a tree-lined creek,
a pair of foothills, sparsely wooded,
the great volcano lightly dusted with snow.
This time the colors almost mixed themselves.
Paint the mountain while it’s visible!
With my smallest brush, I drew bits of gray,
negative shapes between the fields of snow.
Then I layered the bluegray sky of storms,
yellow hills peppered with oaks and pines,
a stream behind a thick grove of bright green,
flowing into the open on the right,
a wide channel of dark gray gravel.
The painting looked so nice, I shouted, “Ooh rah!”
feeling like the Tuttle Creek fisherman.
an ambiguous embrace,
is this dusk or dawn?
At the North Country Fair
I saw the woman I wanted to see,
ran toward her and gave her a big hug.
We tried on tiedyed clothes together,
looked at pottery and listened to music,
sat on the bench eating fair food.
A year ago, she seemed all eager
to tear me away from my old lover’s arms,
but now that those arms aren’t holding me enough,
these arms are suffering all kinds of doubt.
Through this season of persuasion and secrets,
I must measure every word, while trying
to remind you how nice my fingers feel.
You want me to tell her everything.
I don’t think I can handle the drama.
We don’t live together,
see each other often,
or even get along very well.
Sooner or later, something will happen
that offers a good excuse to break up.
copyright © 2009 Carl Miller
Painting, “Mount Whitney from Alabama Hills”: 2006, watercolor on paper, 9 x 12 inches, detail 7.5 x 9 inches.