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Detail of "Congregation" by Linda Rzoska


Maureen Kingston



From When a Poet and a Geographer Got on the Road Entry #1402


A clear summer day. Our plane’s on final approach to O’Hare. “Think of it,” he says.  “Think of one city not built on a river.” A typical moment in our marriage. He says something offhandedly, no doubt prompted by his view out the window, something he won’t remember in an hour but I’ll gnaw on for days. It’s a torment. Marital sport. Look: my just-the-facts Joe Friday’s already moving on, fretting now over his seatbelt lock.  Why can’t I do that? Move on. Stopper the onslaught of associations. Too late. Here they come. Huck and Jim lighting out. Johnstown. Helicopters buzzing the Mekong Delta. John the Baptist. The sidewalk thump of Beale Street. And what’s a river anyhow? Would an arroyo count? The cemented L.A. River? I hate him sometimes. I really do.



From When a Poet and a Geographer Got on the Road Entry #1


Our first important date. College break. Winter Carnivale in Quebec City. Sipping bowls of café au lait on snowy brick streets, peering at ice sculptures of Frontenac and moose and a ten-foot maple leaf. The way I saw romance in your every move. Screaming with delight as you crossed three lanes of traffic to chip a chunk of Canadian Shield from a roadside ledge. And the way we stood hand-in-hand, in frozen awe, of the St. Lawrence River’s thick current emptying into the Atlantic. Our shared love of all things north and the quiet drama of glaciers and rivers in any form required no speech that weekend.  We were in unison.


The gauzy pogonip mists of our northern experiences were short-lived, however; evaporating just miles into our second trip the following summer. That muggy July we headed west for the first time together, tracing a trip you’d made dozens of times on your own.


From Vermont we ventured onto the Trans-Canada Highway, drove through Ontario’s vast marsh-belly, then slipped overtop Lakes Michigan and Superior before descending finally into the Mesabi Range to meet your Minnesota mining-camp clan. A tidy itinerary.  Clean, as all itineraries are, forecasting none of our trauma; how this damned interminable trip might doom our love affair. The fresh croissants of Quebec City became the unwitting shape of our future: curled, crouched, flaking with disappointment, two fetal adults, who, at the first sign of trouble, retreated to their separate puffed pouches.


Our decay began almost at once. I started it. An innocent observation about the environs just beyond the international border got the ball rolling, set your nerves on edge. “What’s with all the Christmas trees?” I asked, and you growled. How was I supposed to know that evergreen would be the only variety of tree we’d see for a thousand miles? And later, when I inquired queasily about the continuous hills, you launched into lecture mode, using a teacher-voice I despise to this day, to inform me of moraines and muskegs and boreal forests. You even finger-jabbed their landscape symbols in my atlas.


For you the material had been covered, the matter settled. I, on the other hand, was unbelievably pissed. Okay, so this spongy landscape keeping me in a constant state of nausea had a name, had a few names. Big deal. You hadn’t told me the one thing I was dying to know: When was it going to end?


This was the first twist of our relationship noose. There were others on the trip. Like when you shrugged off the black fly bites on my thighs and ass cheeks, the ones I’d acquired from peeing along the side of the road. And your indifference when I reported that everything I ate, including the bacon on my breakfast plate, tasted like diesel: a consequence of sleeping overnight in the car between idling semis at truck stops to save money. How could you not comprehend that a girl might not want to smell like diesel or suffer horrendous burn when she peed?


To be fair, I wasn’t much better with your attempts to entertain me. Your 200-mile buildup of an “incredible” roadside attraction I “just had to see,” fell worse than flat. The World’s Largest Pile of Logs was the monumental attraction. No joke. The World’s Largest Pile of Logs. I thought you’d lost your mind. No need for conversation. Like you, I finger-gestured my thoughts.


Later, outside of Sudbury, I did try to make amends, chitchatted about what I supposed was a safe topic, the stunning green and maroon hue of a river in the distance. You told me nickel slag was responsible for those colors; that smelting nickel for artillery and silverware had killed all the native vegetation in the region. You seemed so proud to drop this morsel of horror at my feet. Who does that? Who would take pleasure in announcing such a thing? I stared at the atlas page, fuming. The next big-city stop was 700 miles away. Thunder Bay. Still in fucking Ontario. I wanted to go home. I wanted my mama. I never, ever wanted to marry this man.



From When a Poet and a Geographer Got on the Road Entry #103


Upstate, NY. Another one-year teaching gig. You think if you work hard enough they’ll keep you on permanently, let you join their college club. I’m from the East. I know they won’t. They dazzle you with dinners at their bungalow and Victorian homes; with old jazz recordings, fussy gardens, food you’ve never heard of. Marzipan. I almost laughed out loud when they served you this for dessert. You had no idea what it was or how to eat it. They’re amused by your Midwestern naiveté; exploit your work ethic. I want to protect you, but you don’t yet trust my blue-collar wisdom. Too charmed by their attentions, I suppose. So I’m leaving. Like the Mormon missionaries we’ve shared our hovel with for the past two years, our time is up. I never thought living together was a good idea until today. Better a break-up, a lesson learned, than a divorce.  



From When a Poet and a Geographer Got on the Road Entry #106


Downstate, NY. The private boarding school. A multi-million-dollar enclave I hesitate to name. I didn’t know anything about such places but your enthusiasm on the phone swayed me. Fucking-A. The free housing swayed me. We were broke. Weak. When I met the Headmaster for the first time I could see he wasn’t expecting his blonde-wonder-boy-who-can-teach-math-social-studies-coach-anything-new-hire to have a brown-skinned wife. It was hate at first sight. I was tolerated as an appendage for the duration. An ignored lawn jacquée. A terrible start for our new marriage. I spent most of my time in town, crying in a diner booth, where the waitresses eventually took pity on me, embraced me. More so when I told them my mother was one of them. The best day of our marriage? The day we left this place.



From When a Poet and a Geographer Got on the Road Entry #2589


Her long, agonizing death from pancreatic cancer. Her Catholic husband holding on and on. We hope we’d be different in the same situation but don’t really know if we would.  Because she was just a few years older than we are: that’s the reason we’re here on this beach, in the Virgin Islands, paying $15 for a beer, $20 for a stale plate of nachos.  You’re letting go, growing a beard, not a map or an itinerary in sight. I can’t decipher the poetic scribbles I made on the ferry to Trunk Bay, give up on the note-taking enterprise altogether. We switch roles on this trip. I gather brochures; ask the jungle guide a thousand questions. You silently point to poetic moments, to the similarity between the brown pelican’s empty, flapping pouch and the pinking underarm skin of the North Dakota baker sitting beside us; how paradise makes even loose skin seem wondrous. We’re changing. Our ambitions are changing. We’re no longer interested in any abstraction except time; take pleasure in being in its presence, in just being with each other for the first time in our married lives.




Maureen Kingston is an assistant editor at The Centrifugal Eye. Her poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in Apeiron Review, Big River Poetry Review, Blue Earth Review, Gargoyle, Gutter Eloquence Magazine, Sleet Magazine, Stoneboat, Stone Highway Review,, and The Untidy Season: An Anthology of Nebraska Women Poets. A few of her recent prose pieces have also been nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart awards, and named to Wigleaf’s Top 50 (Very) Short Fiction list.

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