Friday, January 20, 2017

Learning to Breathe, Part I

When I read my work, I usually don't say much before I launch into a story. To explain something and then read it is counter-productive, or at the very least, annoying. I will have plenty to say once you have read this story about an imagined historic incident in 1939, when the U.S. was confronted with another fascist threat. Comments are welcome, as always.   

Learning to Breathe, Part I
Fiction in four parts
By Michael Shay
Until we meet again, my friends.
I breathe for you.
--James Doherty, 1938, In Spain, I Learned to Breathe
In April 1939, Ras Tafari blew into Cheyenne wrapped in a mighty dust cloud.
He rode in the back of a battered westbound Model T Truck. He stood tall, bound to the truck bed by thick ropes. His steady gaze looked to the east, back to Addis Abbaba and to Bath in England, his recent home. His hair was cut close and beard trimmed. A royal robe draped his shoulders and fell all the way to the metal bed, hiding his feet. The dust cloud swirled around him, swabbing the metal skin that stood in for Ras Tafari, Haile Selassie the First, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, Emperor of Ethiopia.
The beacons of the truck’s headlights poked through the afternoon gloom. The black man at the wheel -– his name was Weaver -- strained his eyes to keep the vehicle on the two-lane highway. He drove slowly, expecting some devil to rear-end him at any time. He’d passed bigger trucks all day before being swallowed by the churning Dust Bowl cloud. Now he just hoped that he got to Cheyenne before one of those heavily-loaded behemoths plowed into him.
 James Doherty rode shotgun. His sandy hair was cut short. He wore a jagged five-inch scar on the right cheek of his freckled face, making him look older than his 28 years. “See OK?”
“Hell no,” said Weaver.
“Want me to take a turn?”
“Hell no,” he repeated. “We stop and bim-bam-boom, we get hit in this dust storm.”
“I see what you mean,” Doherty said.
“Can’t be too far, right?”
Doherty nodded.
Weaver grabbed a cloth and wiped it across the fogged interior of the windshield. “You breathe too much.”
“In Spain, I learned to breathe,” Doherty said.
“One of your poems?”
“Want me to recite it?”
Weaver laughed. “I like your poetry as much as you like my driving.”
Doherty laughed. “OK,” he said, “no more driving tips.”
“And save the poetry for the enemy.”
“Sure.” Doherty pulled the cloth out of the driver’s hands and swiped it across the glass. He was new to poetry. One of his comrades in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Marcus Riddle from California, saw Doherty scribbling by candlelight. A poet himself, he took an interest in Doherty’s words. He taught him about meter and rhyme and stanzas. He got better, thanks to Marcus, who was killed at Guadarrama. There were bad days in Spain but that was the worst. He grieved for Marcus by writing a poem which he recited now to himself:
In Spain, many were without breath.
I learned to breathe for them.
Richard of London, lungs collapsed by pneumonia.
Marcus of Sacramento, heart pierced by a fascist bullet.
Paolo of Guernica, disappeared in the night.
Richard, Marcus, Paolo – hundreds of others.
I breathe in, breathe out.
Clouds form in the chill Pyrenees air
as I walk to France.
I see their faces as they were, scared, laughing, angry, numb.
With each breath, they float up and out over the sea.
Until we meet again, my friends,  
I breathe for you.
He began to see poetry as a tool, much like a rifle or a hammer. Anna, his woman, was the real poet. Around a fire, she selected words from the air and recited her poems in Basque and, sometimes, in stilted English. Doherty hoped she still was safe in France.
He tossed the cloth on the seat. He saw through the clean windshield that the gloom was beginning to lift. Doherty saw the outline of buildings against the lowering sun. “That’s it.” He pointed. “Maybe we’ll be able to meet the train after all.”
Weaver grunted and sped up.
Traffic increased. Gray shapes passed the old truck through a brown cloud. The gaunt faces of children pressed against windows, gawking at the Lion of Judah in the rear of the truck.
They reached the outskirts of the town. Doherty knew this place – he’d been a union organizer here. Another high plains cow town and railroad burg, this one bigger than most as it was the capital of the big square state that was his birthplace. Doherty gave directions to the driver. Left turn here. Go five blocks. Right turn, pass a stop sign.
The sun appeared by the time they reached the train station. A yellow orb floating in a vast sky. Off to the left was the tall spire of the station. The driver pulled into the parking lot and stopped.
“How’s our passenger?” said Weaver, gesturing to the rear.
Doherty peered out the truck’s tiny rear window. “Still there.”
“Take a look.”
Doherty looked at driver. “He’s there, I tell you.”
“See if he’s secure.”
Doherty shrugged. In the past decade, he’d worked with all kinds of people: American Negroes, Ethiopians, Jamaicans, Basques, Italians, and Jews -- his world had opened up considerably since his Irish-American boyhood in the hardscrabble mining town of Rock Springs.

To be continued...

Look for Learning to Breathe, Part II, on Jan. 2223. 

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