On Saturday, April 5th, 2014, ten PLWP Teacher Consultants and area writers gathered for an Open Writing Marathon to explore interesting places in Saint Joseph and to enjoy the writing camaraderie and community that marathons support so well. The event launched from the East Hills Library, and groups wrote in diverse places such as Mount Olivet Cemetery, Magoon's Delicatessen, and along the Missouri River.
Below are some pieces our teacher-writers developed from that day. Stay tuned to the PLWP listserv and social media sites for the next Open Marathon in April of 2015.
Magoon’s on 8th Street
The Boys in Blue on TV. Bottled beer sweating on coasters in front of the regulars posted up at the bar. A collection of used aluminum beer cans and empty hot sauce bottles ringing the large, open room. This is a bar that you can find in any Midwestern town—at least in ones that aren't hindered by that "dry county" label. Though the pace outside of this bar is none too fast, the one inside is even slower. The conversations inside are as lazy as the smoke making its way up to the ceiling. For some, this is reason enough to knock and discredit the Midwest, but that doesn't faze this cowtown anymore than the bad break fazes the men in back playing pool. They realize what a lot of other Midwesterners learn young: that a bad break—literal or figurative—is a small-time complaint in a long life.
Those men are only going to blame the pool cue or the tilt of the table or the dim lighting in jest because it's expected. But each is going to wait his turn, take another swig, then do his best to make up lost ground. It's this "never-say-die" attitude that gives us Midwesterners a quiet, often understated confidence, a conviction that doesn't rattle easily.
So many of us come from families who roll the dice every year and fight to make our livings by tilling the soil. Nobody has a direct line to Mother Nature, and she is a fickle woman who guarantees nothing. But when she does help provide, it is miraculous. Nearly. She can't take all of the credit. A good crop is also indebted to back breaking work, thoughtful planning, and sleepless nights.
Outsiders can tease about our pace and mock the drawl. Those remarks roll off like water off a duck's back. We come from good stock, like the ones that have been paraded around for the last century at the American Royal—and the namesake for our hometown ball team. That's why we faithfully cheer on our Royals despite just one winning season in the last decade. We're a people more concerned with legacy than with winning (though, no one will complain if those boys stretch it to two winning seasons in a row).
You can find a fault in anything. But where's the fun in that? Even the man nicknamed "Spanky," whose city council election signs litter this bar's windows and neighboring front yards, knows there's a chance he won't be elected. Instead of faulting the system or the voters, he'll pick up his signs, carry on with his job, and probably find solace among his brothers with a beer and a ball game.
Ben Magoon’s Delicatessen & Bar
St. Joseph, Missouri
Saturday April 5th, 2014
Imported Wines – Scotch * Buy Here & Save * High Grade Bourbon – Gin
Who needs to go to church when you can find salvation in the comfort of a stiff drink? Sit and stay a while. Sip your tainted concoction and loosen your inhibitions and maybe even your tongue. Converse with a friend or stranger. Discover and create new connections or even indulge your senses by observing your settings.
The smoke from the bar forms a thin film in the air and causes my eyes to burn. Surrounded by occasional laughter and conversation. Antiques clutter the shelves along the walls and in between the booths in the center of the historical establishment. So much to absorb. The soft red leather booths with white trim contrast strongly against the hard mahogany pews that I should be occupying. The matching barstools face patrons towards a large mirror that is lined with liquors for anyone who can afford the price.
Certain individuals in the tavern drink slowly and interact with those nearby while others sit emotionally alone surrounded by a crowd of people. An abandoned parishioner, whose only acquaintance is the bartender, eyes his drink. He raises the weighted glass from the coaster to finish it in one swig then taps the glass down heavily onto the counter for another refill. He never once looks up from the transparent glass to see himself in the smudged mirror before him.
The balls on the pool table toll each time a cue connects with its mark. Bustling bartenders attempt to appease the demanding clientele the way a pastor works to calm a troubled soul. Simple comfort and reverence found in a location where temptation runs wild and the deadly sins are always within reach. Sit and stay a while. Last call is hours away.
by J. Clark
This place was always my
afternoon before naptime.
It was where the trees leaned down,
opened their palms,
waited just for me.
In their warm shade, there is
only an indentation of a memory:
the playground train engine
where children make-believed.
A lone patch of grass sits in its place, and
now, around it, is just
Hollow meaning to everyone but me.
On that engine, the kids around
me exploded into conductors and passengers
and soldiers and sunshine as I patiently watched,
under these trees,
until, eventually, after the others
had gone to become something different--something better,
I hesitantly tip-toed into the rust-encased train car
and became the conductor.
I became the leader.
I became you.
Now, sitting here, I don’t need to be inside
a playground train to
be reminded that I always was
talented at valuing empty space,
but you already know that.
The rumble of a real train in the distance
could remind me that under these reassuring limbs,
I once had adventures.
But instead, it only reminds me of your adventures,
and how they never coincided with mine.
Our adventures always clashed,
At least that’s what I told myself when
the other kids asked where you were.
To me, you were a deflated instant:
a forsaken “could be” that grew into
a compilation of abandoned moments,
still not enough
to stretch into years--into memories.
You were sand, and all I had
was my hands to mold you into who I wanted you to be.
I waited for lightning to strike,
to turn you into glass,
but even if it had worked,
you still would have shattered.
The trees looking over me
sigh and whisper, a signal.
I stand, turn.
The roar of the nearing engine
drowns out my goodbye.
Did driving those trains take you
where you wanted to be?
Etched on the Stones
by Joy English
With the sun shining, and the wind lightly blowing, I look around and see the various names and dates, some fading and worn with no dates, no label, no short glance of who they were. Does that not mean there was no one they shared stories with? Are their stories lost like some of the stones here among the others wearing away?
As the chirping birds seem to drift closer to this etched stone in front of me, labeled with the name Green, I’m reminded all to well of Grandpa’s favorite place to go, right by the sea where all the seagulls seemed to collect. Squalling and talking among each other welcoming a new incoming bird, probably making him feel at home during the holidays, with everyone chatting about what was new with them. He’d tell us as we got our fishing poles out that the birds tell you where the best fish are. We told him he didn’t know what he was talking about, but we’d catch fish every time we went. I still remember the time he caught the biggest one, which now hangs upon the wall along with the picture I took. No one would have known that would be the last one taken or the last time he’d visit that spot.
Now he lays never to visit that spot only in our memories. Memories are left like the flags and flowers continuing to be changed out, but what about those who do not contain a flag or flower? What kind of life did they lead, what was life for them, did they not leave stories behind for others to tell? I just hope in life I am able to leave behind stories like grandpas to my girls, where I am remembered and “Gone from ‘my’ home, but not from ‘their’ hearts.”
“Floating Along On A Virtual Writing Marathon”
By Kelly Lock-McMillen
While the PLWP Writing Marathon progresses, I’m home nursing some sickness that has grabbed hold of me and kept me from trekking about with a group of writers like I’ve looked forward to doing for weeks, but doctor’s orders are, afterall, doctor’s orders, so instead of meeting new people, hearing new writing voices, I’ve closed myself off in my room the room I took from my son the day he moved into his own house; I raised my glass of wine, welcoming the time I would now have as an empty nester and christened the room The Virginia Woolf. Every Saturday, I find myself here, making the claim that I am a writer, living the dream of finally having a room of my own where I can say what needs to be said. But despite the refuge these four walls offer, there is a torrent of loneliness that swells and pulls at me, making me question if I should spend so much time here writing. It’s a dangerous pull that a writing marathon can prevent from sucking me under. Today, I rely on Facebook and Twitter to buoy me as I follow the group first to a local cemetery where my memory of researching my family history summons the ghosts of the dead along with a few lines I can squeeze into a poem.
Now, someone Tweets that the group is at the river. There is a picture attached (pic.twitter.com/blGmJbkPad), and I know immediately their exact location. The Missouri River is just a stone’s throw from my house. If I were there right now, I’d be looking in the direction just west of the casino. The French Bottoms. The land now sits on the other side of the river, but before the flood of the 1950’s that land sat on the Missouri side. That land is where my family first settled when they arrived here with Joseph Robidoux 175+ years ago. If I was there with the writing group, I would write about the sun, the cold April air, the Missouri River flowing and what it carries as it moves southward. I would write about my family, trying to conjure what it must have been like for them to move upstream, what it must have been like to unload the women and children, sow crops, build homes and schools, and what it must have been like to hunt on the land where my house now sits.
But I am not at the river. I am in my art room, my cat stretched out beside me as I sit on the floor, legs crossed, writing until another Tweet tells me the group has moved and I should switch the focus of my writing. Since I am here, I will describe my roomthough I wouldn’t mind writing about the time I jumped off a boat into the muddy Missouri, how the sand collected in every crevice of my body, but I’ll save that story for another time.
My room. Mine. It sounds so selfish, but I love my room. It’s slowly manifesting itself into my soul’s retreat. The large cubed bookshelves topped with thick plywood I painted bright white, making an art table on which I can paint, journal, write and research. Each cube is full of someart supply I’ve attempted to keep organized. A wall of shelves my husband hung is nearly fullalready. Mementos, photos, inspiration pieces, used and empty journals, stacks of documents I’ve collected to trace my family roots. In front of me, my greatgrandpa’s table where he used to paint by number. I do not remember him, but he visits me in my dreams. Once when I was 12, his voice said, “Get an education. It’s the only thing they can’t take away from you.” Last night, in fact, I dreamed of him and his Purple Heart, and I saw little toy soldiers pinned in a book, each one representing his stages through World War I. I suppose it’s fitting that I have his table since I’m the only other person in the family who seeks solace in watching paint come to life on a canvas. His room was the garage where he built this table, where he sat, painted, and withdrew from the world around him. I wonder if he would have approved of The Virginia Woolf. After all, he had strict rules on what a woman should and shouldn’t do.
The kitten has now pounced on the cat, and she licks his face, and he groans out of frustration. There are squirrels leaping from the limbs on the tree outside the window, and I can hear someone in the distance mowing their lawn. I’m thankful for this room, for the books that are on the shelves and stacked against the walls. I’m thankful for the technology that lets me track where I would be today if it weren’t for this sickness, and now the kitten is crying for me to hold her, and I groan in frustration knowing I should not be here; I should be at the river where my fellow writers are.
If I were there, I might read this aloud, and I know someone would ask about the time I jumped in the river. A writer cannot simply throw that kind of reference in a piece and not explain, but it is difficult to explain how a grown woman decides to jump off a boat into a river. Virginia Woolf ended her life this way, loading her pockets with stones and jumping into the River Ouse, but killing myself that day was not my intent. I needed something more than the unhappy relationship I was in, something more than grading papers day in and day out. I wanted to live, to do something a grown woman shouldn’t do. I took the life jacket, and instead of putting it around my shoulders, I pushed my legs through the arm holes and tied the nylon belts around my waist. I jumped from the side of the boat unsure of how deep I might go before my body was pushed up and out of the water like a jockey riding a horse.
For miles, I floated alongside the boat, passing logs, other boaters and fishermen, and as I floated, I felt the current pulling at my legs, the sand of the river’s bottom swirling like memories collecting in the tiny crevices of my mind. That day the Missouri River offered me freedom the same way it did my ancestors and in some strange sense the same way my room offers it to me. When I christened this room The Virginia Woolf I did so because of that freedom. Thestones of a mundane life are thrown aside each time I climb the steps, open the door, and sitdown to write. Writing allows me to make sense of the world, and years ago when I read Woolf’s words, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction" I knew that someday I would live them.
Today, I’m sitting crosslegged in The Virginia Woolf, and just a stone’s throw from my house, a group of writers sits on the banks of the Missouri River in the same spot my ancestors walked, directly across from the same spot where I leapt into the river, a life jacket my saddle of freedom, and I wait for a Tweet to tell me to end this story, to move to a new location in my mind’s eye. There are others floating right along with me, and I realize writing isn’t something I should or shouldn’t do; it’s something I must do in order to stay afloat.
By Megan Montgomery
The way the world organized itself
like used books on a messy shelf.
Rivers are simply waters that have slowly
cut their way through dirt.
Then men come along to deepen the trench.
The shallow waters reaching far and wide collapse into a smaller stream.
Then men come along and use the water for travel.
Other men come along and take up residence.
Other men come along and start a business.
Cities are born.
Then men come along and build up railroads.
Now the cities are connected again.
Then men come along and begin building automobiles.
Now we are all connected.
Urban, suburban, rural--it doesn’t matter.
We can get anywhere, fast.
No slow ride down the river.
No long trips on a train.
Then men come along and create nature centers,
so children might get a vague idea of the landscape in its original form.
Then children come along and step off of buses .
Teachers shew supervised groups indoors.
Other teachers check in and buy tickets.
Mothers quietly chaperone and keep order.
They way we organize ourselves,
like stiff, fake books on shiny shelves.
By Elisabeth Alkier
Playgrounds always remind me of my father. Unlike the dads sitting on the park bench nearby, my dad wasn’t a casual observer of my childhood. I see many fathers nowadays who sit back and watch their little girls in their pink shoes and princess dreams. My dad wasn’t that dad. When we had time together, “together” wasn’t the distance between the playground and the park benches.
Montages of memories bring my seaside memories to surface. I think about legs stuck to the grey-blue plastic seats of the old car, the windows slicing through the hot summer breeze. The smell of the salt water and asphalt mingled in the hot fuzzy blur raising up from the road. Each summer, right after school dismissed for the season, my dad and I headed to the docks.
In the murky waters of my hometown on the east coast scurried legions of blue crabs. Small, grey backed beasts that we learned about in grade school. Their legs sky blue, the tips of their claws teemed in red. Every summer we took to the docks to pull them from the water in tiered circled nets of white twine. Clamping their fiery claws to the slimy raw chicken at the center of the crab net, they'd fight against us as we pulled them one by one out of the sun-speckled waves. But before joining the other captives in the ragged old blue cooler, the crabs went through a rigorous inspection. My father and I would go over the rules, peering at the plated white bellies of the scrambling, wriggling bodies.
“We can’t eat the mommy crabs,” I’d say upon seeing the pyramid on the female crab’s belly, repeating what we’d learned in science class, “in case they haven't had their babies yet.”
Hovering by a single, angry claw, we’d pry her from the meaty gush of the sodden raw chicken. After she clamoured back down onto the dock, soggy foot prints forming beneath the many legs, she stared at us angrily, bubbles foaming from below furious little eyes. With a little coaxing, however, I sent her scrambling to the edge of the dock.
The scientific name for the blue crab is callinectes sapidus-- beautiful swimmer. In reality-- a blue crab’s descent into the water was certainly not beautiful. When you throw back a fish, they dive back in and slide through the water. When you throw back a crab, they belly-flop, all legs swimming unsuccessfully through the breeze and slapping against the surf. Once back in the water, their backs the color of the marsh mud below, they’d vanished, each leg working in tandem , propelling the beautiful swimmers back into the depths of their natural habitat.
With boys it was different. Once we saw the lack of the pyramid, we’d measure the width of their shells-- hoping the increments on the cooler were inches since we’d forgotten the ruler again-- and try (sometimes unsuccessfully) to avoid the angry pinching claws that would soon taste so good with baked potatoes, soupy butter and a squeeze of lemon. Once tumbled into the confines of their new prison, all the big “daddy” crabs would scratch at the sides of the cooler, searching for a way out, only to be lulled to sleep in a dark cavern of ice and plastic.
Between the catching of the crabs, there was plenty of time for silliness. When it was just dad and me, caution was often thrown to the wayside. The suffocating life vest of 1990s pastels was left in the trunk, and I was unrestrained to explore our surroundings with complete freedom. I’d dangle my eternally bare feet over the edge of the doc, stretching the tips of my toes precariously towards the calm crests of the summer waves. I’d lay on my belly, carefully avoiding the dock’s rusty nails, big brown eyes peering into the dank, engrossing world underneath the dock. My dad would kick at my feet.
“Don’t fall!” he’d say.
I’d giggle and throw up my arms like I was flying off of the edge. I knew he wouldn’t let me.
On one particular day, however, it wasn’t me who would go flying off of the edge.
As was typical of my childhood-- and adult-- self, waiting often lead to impatient fidgeting. My mother was (and is) particularly adept at diagnosing this impatience and finding ways to divert my attention. My father, on the other hand, was often diagnosed alongside me. The time in between fishing up the nets was excruciating, so I found ways to entertain myself. This time it was with the spare net.
With the ragged green stringed arm dangling precariously, I fished around for things in the dark murk below me. The tide was rolling in with an oncoming shower of chilly raindrops and gusts of wind, but as long as I held the net at its farthest reaches, I could skim the top of the waves in hopes of catching something while I impatiently waited to pull up the crab baskets a final time. Startled by an unexpected splash of saltwater into my eyes, the net slipped out of my hands and into the water. It floated inches away from my fingertips-- just far enough that I wasn’t willing to risk the fall.
“Dad! The net!”
In an instant, my father turned and did exactly what he’d always told me not to do. He jumped into the water after the net. I panicked. Fumbling around in the rapidly accumulating waves, he reached for the net. Suddenly terrified of the edge of the dock, I stood-- crying hysterically-- in the middle. Like in most ridiculously emotional movie scenes, the rain seemed intimately connected with my feelings. As I cried harder, my chest pounding, the droplets began to meld into an impending deluge.
My father pulled himself up onto the dock, slamming the wet net into the my incessant tears mixing with the rainwater on my hot cheeks, he tried to console me. He walked across the dock, dropping the net, his arms out for a hug. I began to giggle again in between the sobs-- knowing his hug was just a ploy to coat me in the cold water that was pouring from his saggy t-shirt in a soggy tsunami. Mushy footprints began to form below his bare feet. But his footprints didn’t leave silhouettes of dark, wet sea water. They left smears of sticky crimson.
The tears gushed from behind the overtasked levees that were my eyelids.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. I pointed, stunned and speechless, to the pools of blood slowly emanating from his soles. In an instant, the pain registered on his face. The oysters on which he’d caught himself had sliced his calloused bare feet so clean that it hadn’t registered yet. It’s funny how sometimes the body doesn’t really recognize pain until you’ve seen it. But to my 7 year old brain, all I saw was the gushing blood caused by my carelessly dropped fishing net.
“It’s ok!” he said back, inspecting his feet with contorted facial expressions of pain and feigned ok-ness.
“But it’s all over the dock!”
“Good thing the rain will wash it away, then!”
Bandaging my father’s feet and packing up our supplies is one of the blurs that’s slipped my memory as a result of tears that shared those same moments. We hobbled to the car, and I sat in the back with our sleeping dinner. Once a shaky-breathed calm returned on the drive home, in between my father’s wincing taps on the brake and accelerator pedals, I sheepishly voiced the question that children asked when they’ve done something collaboratively stupid with a family member.
“What are we going to tell mom?”
I looked to my father, who stared at the traffic through squeaky windshield wipers.
“We tell her what happened,” my dad replied. “You dropped the net, and I jumped in after it. Neither of us were really thinking.”
“But your feet?”
“My feet are fine. You don’t need to worry about my feet.”
At that time, and many others, I took these gestures for granted. People-- even parents-- aren’t bound to pacts of guaranteed forgiveness when they begin a relationship with someone else. It’s all a choice. It’s like measuring the crabs and following the rules. We could have kept every single crab we caught. But we didn’t. If you keep them all, then there’s nothing left to catch when you return to the docks the following summer. The dark brown waters would be as empty as they appear to be.
When you catch the mistakes-- the ones that aren’t meant to be captured and subdued in the blue cooler-- you need to throw them back. To watch them slide and jerk awkwardly and angrily as they plummet towards the ocean-- beautiful swimmers stuck in thin finality of air, mouths bubbling and frothing. They scuttle angrily, hurriedly along a path of little footprints waiting to fade into the heat of summer. Flipping-flopping off of the dock, into the water these beautiful swimmers slip away and fade into the vastness of past shed tears without the possibility of return.
St. Joe their resting place.
Some with portraits
Weathered by time
we have, really.
Inspired from a visit at Mount Olivet
April 5, 2014
Who are you Patricia that your unknown sister chose to immortalize you with a statue of a woman carrying a bouquet of flowers?
Who are you Albrecht that an art museum is dedicated to you but locked me out and led me to concentrate on God’s canvass outdoors?
Rushing water over rocks led me to sit.
Looking over sleeping murky water
I found some kindred spirit, aka barely moving koi.
Of winter sleep, to Lenten time of reawakening.
Inspired from a visit to Albrecht Art Museum
April 5, 2014
Shelves lined with dust collectors:
cans of beer, bottles of spicy sauces.
There have been no renovations here,
Step back in time.
Tile floor from the 40’s maybe 30’s.
How did it escape the fate of other buildings
in this quaint town by the river?
Framed picture of morels
chuck wagon lunch box,
Paul Revere Thomas Jefferson Liberty Bell
trombone, music stand, ice box, meat grinder
digital clock, flat screens.
Smoking still allowed.
Inspired by a visit to Magoon’s Deli
April 5, 2014
awakened -- ready for surprises.
Marathon: running—out of breath,
pain on my side –
not for me.
Writing: deep breathing,
Cinnamon swirling along
aromas connecting. Dendrites growing.
Inspired by sitting in Story Time section of Rolling Hills Library
April 5, 2014
11:50 a.m. Mount Olivet Cemetery
Writers in the Cemetery
with their backs against
graves warmed in the sun,
journal pages flicking in the breeze.
Squirrels watch behind stones
while plastic flowers nod,
waving frayed ribbons
across the hills.
There should always be
writers in the cemetery.
Just in case.
Like battlefield priests,
writers could be on hand to
comfort the wounded,
call for medics,
Like Old West telegraph agents,
waiting with their headphones
in the lantern light,
there should always be
writers in the cemetery.
Just in case
the dead decide to speak.
1:20 Ben Magoon’s Delicatessen
Our table of writers sits below an array of dusty hot sauce bottles nearly toppled from overhead by a giant blue Marlin, a framed photo of morel mushrooms, and a Boulevard beer pub sign with a familiar Lewis and Clark silhouette that says, “To those who make maps. Not follow them.” Next to it is a neon-rimmed Gibson guitar with the Jim Bean logo across its body. Below it a trombone props up the corner of the storefront window with a plastic golden sun resting in its bowl. Next to that is an old-fashioned music stand, a four-foot tall glass bottle filled with green liquid, and a large golden lamp in the shape of a Greek goddess. She’s lifting up the lamp shade and standing on a Schlitz sign, and she is adorned by a single strand of green beads.
Over my shoulder, I can hear the easy laughter and storytelling rhythms of the usuals at the bar, punctuated by the sound of pool balls thunking each other and rolling into their pockets. The bell on the door clatters, and then there is a small chorus of greetings for someone named “Tom.”
Above it all, the waitress is cheerily explaining the specials for the 40th time today: hot ham and cheese, your choice of bread, with chips and a pickle. Chicken poblano pepper is the soup of the day.
At the three small tables we’ve pushed together for lunch, seven writer heads now bow silent amid the bottles and cups, pens moving, my keyboard clicking. Ashleigh is crossing something out and then pondering, the pen moving in her hand like a priest working a rosary. Her brows furrow. Mary is grimacing, then writing, then grimacing, then writing. I can feel her brain trying to separate out the bar conversations behind us, pulling them into poetry.
To my left, the “Regular Weekly Music Schedule” taped to an antique icebox announces that on Monday, Colby the Human Jukebox is playing from 6-9, with Double Happy Hour and a Discount for Service Industry with Server’s License. Behind me is a giant green banner proclaiming that the Ancient Order of the Hibernians has declared Magoon’s the BEST BAR ENTRY in the St. Joseph Saint Patrick’s Day Parade.
I want to sit at this award-winning bar for the rest of the afternoon and listen to the music of this cool, weird town, my new home. Last night, Mary challenged the First Thursdays crowd at Norty’s to write Odes to St. Jo for the next Open Mic. I might start with this place, humming right along in the clatter and warm dust.