Editors' Notes

Maria Damon and Michelle Greenblatt
Jim Leftwich and Michelle Greenblatt
Sheila E. Murphy and Michelle Greenblatt

A Visual Conversation on Michelle Greenblatt's ASHES AND SEEDS with Stephen Harrison, Monika Mori | MOO, Jonathan Penton and Michelle Greenblatt

Letters for Michelle: with work by Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, Jeffrey Side, Larry Goodell, mark hartenbach, Charles J. Butler, Alexandria Bryan and Brian Kovich

Visual Poetry by Reed Altemus
Poetry by Glen Armstrong
Poetry by Lana Bella
A Eulogic Poem by John M. Bennett
Elegic Poetry by John M. Bennett
Poetry by Wendy Taylor Carlisle
A Eulogy by Vincent A. Cellucci
Poetry by Vincent A. Cellucci
Poetry by Joel Chace
A Spoken Word Poem and Visual Art by K.R. Copeland
A Eulogy by Alan Fyfe
Poetry by Win Harms
Poetry by Carolyn Hembree
Poetry by Cindy Hochman
A Eulogy by Steffen Horstmann
A Eulogic Poem by Dylan Krieger
An Elegic Poem by Dylan Krieger
Visual Art by Donna Kuhn
Poetry by Louise Landes Levi
Poetry by Jim Lineberger
Poetry by Dennis Mahagin
Poetry by Peter Marra
A Eulogy by Frankie Metro
A Song by Alexis Moon and Jonathan Penton
Poetry by Jay Passer
A Eulogy by Jonathan Penton
Visual Poetry by Anne Elezabeth Pluto and Bryson Dean-Gauthier
Visual Art by Marthe Reed
A Eulogy by Gabriel Ricard
Poetry by Alison Ross
A Short Movie by Bernd Sauermann
Poetry by Christopher Shipman
A Spoken Word Poem by Larissa Shmailo
A Eulogic Poem by Jay Sizemore
Elegic Poetry by Jay Sizemore
Poetry by Felino A. Soriano
Visual Art by Jamie Stoneman
Poetry by Ray Succre
Poetry by Yuriy Tarnawsky
A Song by Marc Vincenz

Join our Facebook group!

Join our mailing list!

The Spa Owner's Family
by Dirk van Nouhuys

João Strelsky looked at the world by lowering his face to it, his large black eyes cordial, friendly, skeptical, suggesting a worldly wise dog. It was the lightening pre-dawn blue, the first day of Spring, and João lowered himself into a hot tub at the spa he operated, as he had done for something like twenty-five years each morning before the 110-degree water was diluted for the patrons. He was a wiry, tanned man in his late 50's with bulky shoulders on a slender frame and a weathered oval face with a disproportionately large nose and full lips. A skimpy blue bathing suit, sulfur-faded almost to the color of the quickening sky, hung loose on his skinny hips. The ring of the water's bright edge squeezed up his body and scoured him like a brush while the sulfurous smell leached out his sleep. He felt very much himself.

He leaned forward to push the water with his nipples as if leaning toward the oceans his forebears had crossed. He came from two stocks from the peripheries of Europe that had settled in Northern California a hundred years before, Russian and Portuguese. A few months before, his great aunt, Anna Kovensky, last woman of his grandparent's generation, had died. He had agreed with his uncles and cousins to accept many of her things because he had storage in the spa and motel he operated. Anna had come with her parents from the Azores to the valley and met and married a farmer, Michael Kovensky, who had a Portuguese mother and a Russian father, descended from the Russians who had settled on the coast to hunt seals and trade before the gold rush, before Alaska was sold to the United States.

João had driven up to the old farm house where she had died and spent the day loading and sorting with his lover, John Brownlee, a man younger than he, who was still sleeping in the apartment they shared over the spa office. Aunt Anna's house rested near a spring among three oaks half way up a hillside in a small valley in the Coast Range. The three-room house of drift-wood gray planks, all leaning, remained alone among old zinfandel vines half hidden like gnarly ghosts among golden green weeds as high as themselves. Now João, the man of business, was negotiating for the family for a good price from a trendy vineyard because zinfandel from old vines had become fashionable. The house would be scuttled, the vineyards made clean.

"Did you come here as a kid?" John Brownlee had asked as they stood looking at the leaning angles and the contour lines of plowing fading back into the hills. John was a fair man in his early 40's with straight, sandy blond hair and skin almost the color of his hair. His oval face came down to a rather prominent chin and, with his small eyes, suggested a crescent moon. He worked as a federal attorney in Santa Rosa, a larger town 30 miles south. Only two years before they had been moving his things into the apartment above the spa. João stood slightly stooped, his hand on a worn fence post, while John stood straight, his broad shoulders back. When he was with John, João felt wise in the ways of the world because the younger man saw things in the black-and-white obfuscations of the law while João worked his way though things, like parting branches on a path last traveled the year before. Their dog Oscar, a liver-colored retriever, whom they had adopted soon after John moved in, joyously bounded downslope toward wild blackberries that had bushed up like a pubic mound around the spring.

"Oh, yeah! We came here all the time. We'd come up her for ... I guess you'd call them picnics many, many Saturdays. There was a picnic table over there," he gestured toward a patch of flat ground under an oak tree, the tree marred with holes like ogres' mouths where bees came and went. "That tree was bigger then, the branches hadn't fallen where you see the wounds. The men, my father, my uncles would get drunk on Port and Tokay and yell at each other in Portuguese and Russian." He remembered playing with the other children under the table, seeing the trousers and boots of the men, and how the smell of the food would gradually give place to the scary smell of the wine, which threatened conflict. "We all grew up in a scramble of languages. Easter was a big celebration, and they would fight about the date."

"The date of Easter?" John said wondering.

"Oh, yeah, those guys hung in with what their fathers did." He paused, shook his head like a dog, and then said," Damned if I can remember what the issue was, but sometimes we had two Easter celebrations. The side that wasn't celebrating that day looked pissed through the whole thing and ready for a fight. We kids were all afraid they'd fight, then we'd hide from them and have our kids' fights to stand up for our dads against our uncles."

"Jesus, you guys," said Brownlee, who had grown up in a New England family that tracked itself back to the revolutionary war, "If I'd ever seen my uncles fight I would have... I wouldn't have known what to do. Once again I envy you." He made a mocking little bow patting his stomach with his left hand.

João punched John on the shoulder affectionately. "Hey, guy, don't sell your ethnicity short. We did have some fun, I mean us kids, but really it wasn't. We all felt kind of scared when we came up when we were just little kids, and angry at the men when we were older. You would deal a kid a better hand than that."

It was after they had been at it several hours in the still heat and had taken off their shirts, after they had cleaned out the living room but before they undertook the kitchen, that they entered the bedroom. It was about ten by ten feet, fading brown spotted wallpaper with what must have once been a pattern of rose trellises, no molding, the ceiling bellying down at the center, plaster working loose, no light fixture, two items of furniture, an armoire with peeling veneer and worm holes, which meant it must have crossed the Atlantic, and a single bed with a metal frame, a coverlet, and the sunken mattress where Anna had died. A four-pane window with a long-raised shade let in silvery light, which fell across the failing bed, almost reached the feet of the armoire and highlighted the dust on the bedding. John touched João in the small of the back with a gesture that suggested they make love. João punched him on the shoulder and put him off, "Later, guy, it's too dusty here, too many dead people."

In a shoe box in the peeling armoire he found a packet of papers written in Portuguese and tied with twine. He did not open them, but took them home and put them under his computer desk, where they lay for several weeks until he had to search behind it one day because a guest had asked for toys. He half remembered some had been stored there. He found no toys but, feeling safer away from the stream of memories evoked by the old farm house, took a break and leafed through the papers. The slips of paper were mostly in his aunt's neat, simple hand: lists of small debts or money owed her, lists of farm supplies needed. Some were envelopes addressed in blocky letters. João puzzled though the openings and closing of a few of them. His Portuguese was not facile. He found occasional letters from his great aunt to relatives who had been away from the area during her life. Apparently she had copied each letter before she sent it, or perhaps they had been returned to her. Some were letters she had written for other relatives who were illiterate. They were all in Portuguese; she had never learned to write English or Russian although she could speak a little, and João always thought she could follow them better than she let on. There was something in one letter that had made him tighten his jaw and lift it to one side. He put the anxious letter just in the middle of the pack, retied them, put the shoe box back under his desk, and returned to tell the girl in the office he could not find any toys.

No, it was nothing, forget it. He stood, sulfurous water running off his chest, meshed his fingers, turned his palms out and stretched them away feeling much himself.

John passed by, waved, and shouted to him that Oscar was waiting for his walk, which João perfectly well knew.

Yet it was worrisome.

No, nothing, forget it. Yet some question might be asked of him. It was a sentence in a letter written in the 50s from Anna to her husband, his uncle Michael who had gone down to The City to work in those days.

Then her cousin, Rosa dos Santos, and Rosa's brother Peter, who was later killed in an accident, they would have been six or seven, were staying with her because their parents had gone ... where? João could not remember.

It was just a letter.

He decided he would call his cousin and ask her about the letter. Rosa had left the valley. An energetic student in high school, she had gone away to Berkeley to have stormy twenties, the only one of his generation to go to college, and João had lost touch with her. She'd gone to—Chicago was it?— married and divorced a man who had lived off her while pursuing an unsuccessful career as a musician, come back to The City, as they used to call San Francisco, because, he supposed, then it had seemed like the only city, while now with television and jet planes the world was full of cities, became a social worker and married a bank manager who had recently retired "with all the changes in banking." They had no children. Rosa continued to work, now an administrator managing a public health agency. Rosa and he had been fond of one another as children; she had been the first relative he'd told he was gay and she had told him she had a therapist. She had provided an image of someone in his family accepting him and had run interference for him with his father before he told the old man. Rosa and her husband came up to the valley and stayed in his spa two or three times a year, usually unexpectedly, but João had not been to The City since John had moved in with him.

But circumstance seemed to delay the call from day to day. One day the best massage girl quit because a customer had groped her, and he had to spend the morning with her and her boy friend talking her back. He promised to install a button hidden in the padding under the rim of the table to signal for help. It would sound in the front desk, but also in his office in case no one was at the desk. Another day the pipes in the mud bath room broke and spewed sulfurous water, which ran out into the front office. The water from the mineral springs had corroded and blocked the iron pipes. He replaced them with heavy-gauge PVC, which had not been on the market when he first laid them, back when, an ambitious young man, he had bought the land with the spring and begun building the spa, only a few rooms and a hot tub at first. The plastic would last better than metal, outlast him probably. Another day he found the time had melted away fiddling with the programs that kept the image of room occupancy. Somewhere in the data base a corrupted record persisted and prevented him from seeing some of the retrospective, overall views and summaries.

Click to Continue