Nance Van Winckel
Shortly Before the First Time My Nephew Went to Jail
His last semester had briefly floated towards him and then away. As he watched the enormity retreat, a spring wind hurled the finally-dry fall leaves at his face.
I called him inside. I was a heavy beam he’d have to pass by to get through the doorway.
“You’re always high, your teacher says. She’s not passing you.”
He’d turned 18. I was as good as dead to him.
He ducked by and punched the teacher’s note out of my hands. The wind slammed the door on us.
We had two more weeks in this house—before the sirens, before the deep relief inside my dark ache. Driven off, he hadn’t even glanced back at the dead one who’d outlive him.
One of My Cousin’s Photos from the War
I took it to the U-Frame Shop, and although I was supposed to do the work, mostly I just stood and watched as the shop guy’s toy-like hammer tapped at the worries of corners: joists and joins.
A mat of mustard yellow proved stunningly perfect. A Windexed glass slid into place and I helped cinch the hanging wire tight.
Then, before he wrapped it, the boy paused a moment to admire what we’d framed: the huge grey clouds above a temple in ruins, a scorched riverbank, and, floating in the harshly lit foreground of the river, a bronze helmet, glinting. The boy’s eye moved to it and rested there, briefly. His face took on the look of someone who’d just been sent forth on a trail into a dense forest, and his eyes reflected his keen sense of what a labyrinthine trail it was. The helmet sat like half a boiled egg atop the water.
I’d been the only customer in the shop for the whole long half hour, and the boy had seemed perfectly content making the frame, having something to do besides stare out at the rain.
I’d paid him with the correct change and then handed him an extra five.
“Oh,” he said. “No, I couldn’t.”
“Yes, you can,” I told him. “It’s okay. I’m sure of it.”
He smiled, shook his head again, and began folding thick brown paper—two sheets—over the picture. Shyly, he asked me then about the photographer. “Dead?”
“No,” I said, “he’s still alive. He used to cut trees but now he builds log houses. Up in Alaska.”
“Wow, that’s far.”
“Yes, quite far,” I said, recalling how it’d been twenty years since I’d seen that cousin and forty years since he’d pushed me on a swing. I kept having to promise to hang on. I am! I shouted. I will! He’d swung me higher, bending his knees to throw his whole body into each next push. From my distant lofty trajectory, I could see his green Army uniform and his toothy white smile. Then I plummeted toward him and heard our two sharp exhalations as I flew up again, giddy with fear, squinting, moving inch by inch toward the fiery dome of the sun.
I was a college student rushing to class. I’d overslept, had no coffee, and was dreading a pop quiz in Organic Fucking Chemistry. Ahead of me someone else was rushing, too. A blind girl. She tapped a black cane in front of her, first on one side of a building’s column, then on the other, and then bang!— she smacked right into it. .
“Are you okay?” I hurried to her.
“Dang it,” she said, still standing, rubbing her forehead. “What is this?” She touched the column, marveling at its porous texture and girth.
“Dang it,” she repeated when I told her, then walked carefully around it, and on.
I was in my last year as a premed student, finally accepting that I would never go to medical school. Apparently poetry needed all of me. I worked 3-11 in a hospital, got up early, and went to classes. I loved my life. And felt guilty about that. Why should Ibe happy? My sister had been put on a plane and flown to Dallas for a “miracle” rheumatoid arthritis cure our father had seen advertised in The National Enquirer. The cure involved massive doses of hormones and steroids. Returning home three weeks later, she was fifty pounds heavier. The miracle doctor had been “dismissed” from the hospital staff while she lay there bloated, sore, and wondering why her.
I loved my life. I was away from them. But in random moments—in the shower, taking a pee, eating a yogurt—I worried about them. My life. It seemed to have grown a shape, a thing I didn’t hold but one that held me, moving me in and out of the enormous, bustling world.
Over the years, the image of that blind girl’s collision often returns. I see the cane tap so perfectly to the sides of the column and I feel my later self trying to wake up my early self, to make her shout, “Hey, look out!” But the words still stick. I’d been walking through the world but I wasn’t in it. The girl goes forward. The girl smashes into the thing right in front of her.
Mom: “How long have you known me?”
Me: I say my age.
Mom: “How long have I known you?”
Me: I say my age again.
Mom: “That’s a long time.”
Me: I smile and nod.
Mom: “Do you think you’ll remember me after I’m gone?”
Me: “Yes. As long as I can remember anything.”
Mom: “I’ll remember you, too. After I’m gone.”
Nance Van Winckel’s ninth poetry collection, The Many Beds of Martha Washington, appears in July 2021 with the Pacific Northwest Poetry Series/Lynx House Press. She’s also published five books of fiction, including Ever Yrs, a novel in the form of a scrapbook (Twisted Road Publications, 2014) and Boneland: Linked Stories (U. of Oklahoma Press, 2013). The recipient of two NEA fellowships, the Washington State Book Award, a Paterson Fiction Prize, Poetry Society of America’s Gordon Barber Poetry Award, a Christopher Isherwood Fellowship, and three Pushcart Prizes, Nance teaches in Vermont College’s MFA in Writing Program and lives in Spokane, Washington.