Sundogs

Charlotte M. Porter

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A “sundog,” or parhelion, is defined as an “atmospheric optical phenomenon that consists of a bright spot to one or both sides of the sun”; or, as Aristotle and our narrator put it: “accidents of matter, a.k.a fuck-ups off-script.”

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Yolk began as an electric conversation around a picnic table in Saint Henri Square.

Our scruffy pioneer and present prose editor had previously approached each of us with an idea, a vision: We would establish our own literary magazine in Montreal. And so it was, or so it would be. After that original encounter, eight individuals devoted to the word resolved that they would gather bi-weekly, on Sundays, and bring something new into this busy, manic world—something that might slow its spin down somewhat and cause its patronage to say: “You know what, it ain’t so bad, is it, Susan?”

We are undergraduate, graduate, and graduated students of writing. Some of us learn our craft formally from accomplished authors in seminar courses, and some of us learn by looking out the window of the world and onto the streets that sing below. Some of us learn from screaming squirrels, old curtains, departed grandfathers, and bowel movements. We learn from old lovers, long winters, imperfect mothers, and from the deep internet where a musical genius remains entombed.

Yolk is cold floors on Sabbath mornings, home-brewed ginger beer in the endless afternoon, and downpours of French-pressed coffee in assorted artisanal mugs. Our first official gathering was scheduled for a duration of two hours; most of us remained for six, departing only to attend to the summons of our own beckoning realities. Together, with time suspended, we talked endlessly of contributing something to disrupt Montreal’s literary ecosystem. Something unparalleled, something true.

But what? There was nothing to discuss. There was everything to discuss.

We volunteer our time, hounding some elusive beast composed of combustible words and works. We are hopeful, truly hopeful, that we can give something new, a new way, a new light, and that if we cannot, we might at least uphold the traditions of our predecessors, cast star-wide nets to capture their echoes. We are a thousand decisions. We are a sanctuary for the orphaned word, the solitary writer, the cereal-eating artist who yearns for company, for the comfort of a like mind; we sit together with them at foggy dawn, it rains a baptism, with our arms and hands intertwined, we form an umbrella—underneath, they scribble madly, the perfect picture.

Yolk in no way presumes to be superior to its contemporaries, but its contemporaries should not presume yolk to be anything other than loud—quite, quite loud. We are yippidy jazzed to address the oh-so-technicolorful magnificence of the human experience, but we are prepared also to address the ugliness, to stare at its wet, hairy snout and into its square depth and to roar in return at the things that yearn to devour our skin, beset our ethos, and dig graves in our own backyards.

There’s so much to say, there’s so much we don’t know, but together, with you, we can placate that ignorance, render it peaceful, tolerable, and perhaps even, fucking beautiful.

And Susan says, “Amen.”

White trailer trash, I was suckled on cuss and bottle-fed curses. Dirty words, I quickly learned, rearranged like cars on a toy train, can mean anything—and nothing. It depends on how drunk the big man is. Or, how far the day’s freckle has strayed past the sun. Need a caboose? Add slob, sick, lazy, and girl. I’ll spare you more prize examples, if you’ll excuse my goof-ups. English might as well be my second language, you see. I’m not used to the glamour of grammar. Or respect, the flip side. But my kid brother Oliver, that boy could talk himself into flight.

At twenty-one, I was glad to fold up my parachute in the Middle East and come home to the Sunshine State—the greenness. After all the horrors of desert war, no one can call me nothing and walk away with front teeth. Once my brainwaves settled, I took advantage of the G. I. Bill to attend a commuter college. I just finished an intro course to Western thought. Hello, Aristotle. Meet Sundog, the human parhelion.

Here’s the take-home: prosperous homelands are now conflict zones. Oil talks. The cry? The U. S version of thought versus their thought. Don’t get me wrong—I bow to Aristotle (384-322 BC) and the School of Athens. Aristotle also mentored Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), the conqueror who predeceased him. Can trained warriors learn from old philosophers? I’m trying.  

Sundogs baffled Aristotle. His book Meteorology (III.2, 372a14) describes them as mock suns, akin to rainbows, accidents of matter, a.k.a. fuck-ups off-script. Others regarded sundogs as deities or paired solar rivals. I, for one, welcome sundogs, especially in the middle of nowhere, after a long dusty day in combat boots.

***

Growing up, my every fiber embraced conflict. At our pitiful home, Love and Hate were always at war. My mother’s Stone Age boyfriend fought dirty, with busted cinder blocks, pavers, and flower pots. Moving right along to the Cast Iron Age, he discovered the power of the skillet across the ribcage of a kid a third his size. I wanted to kill the moron. I didn’t care if he might be my biological father. He made me hate myself.

Well, you could bike to work and bag groceries, Mom says, to augment your allowance.

Augment? Foment. I fumed. Oliver was a word sponge, and he was translating lingo the live-in Nazi told our mother—too filthy to repeat. In fact, Oliver was the family spaz: he couldn’t catch, and tripped on his shoelaces. Tackle the tyke, and music spilled out. With song in his heart, everyone liked him. He sang his way out of crises. Born to solo, the kid was just that sweet. For his supper, all the turd had to do was sing. A song, hum, or even the warm-up tra la let him get ahead and stay ahead. Stout as he was, like a sundog, you couldn’t keep him down.

Years later, Oliver told me he wanted to go pro as Santa, ringing bells and singing Jingle Bells in a flying sleigh. We lived in a shit-hole trailer park. Our Christmas was a lousy white plastic tree, drunken fights, and sloven relatives. But Oliver was happy to share pretend toys loaded in a pretend sleigh. He’d sing Away in a Manger, and loaded adults cried into their beer.  

***

At that time, I raged with a fury Aristotle dismissed as a sorry accident of matter. According to him, I was an incomplete male, and my demons were freakish tailings of my druggy mother. Think syndicated birthmarks on the brain. Guy or gal? Your guess.

I wanted to exit, but couldn’t with songbird Oliver. How to fledge the little darling? Make a wish, I told him, and you will fly.

The first time Oliver jumped from the shed roof, he yelled out fries, as he fell to the ground unhurt.

Wrong food group, I chided. Choose greens, Oliver, and try again. Change your wish. Think healthy and you will fly.

The kid dusted himself off, climbed back onto the shed roof, and jumped. This time, he sang broccoli, broccoli, in operatic fashion and flapped his clumsy arms. His body dipped . . . then rose, no lie, up, up above the treetops. Holy cow, the kid was soaring.

O, the grip of jealousy. If Oliver could fly, so could I. Broccoli! Broccoli! I hollered, as I dove off the shed in a glory arc and crashed into a fire-ant mound. Talk about an accident of matter. My skin was burning.

And there was Oliver, perched in our tree house crooning Whitney Houston songs—Funky noise the in-house boyfriend banned.

Furious, the goon wrenched my arm behind my back and hose-whipped my legs. More welts before he laughed and, being the nice guy, hosed me down to cool the burn. The fire-ant blisters.

Dickhead, he roared, did you really think you could fly?

Well, that brilliant remark got around school. Kids clucked when they saw me, or flapped their arms like wings too chicken-shit to fly.

The next years were hell. In and out of trouble, I didn’t steal things, I destroyed them—windows, pickets, doors—stuff in my flight path. At sixteen, I dropped out of school, chugged power drinks, and bagged groceries. Out of spite, I shoved the empty carts in long nested platoons. Good thing I didn’t have access to a loaded gun. I was ready to take out the parking lot grackles as target practice for the boozer boyfriend. Kill or be killed.

***

On my seventeenth birthday, I shaved my head and joined the Marines. Bruising, ready to pulverize, I crawled through twelve killer weeks of boot camp. The good news was the sisterhood of women recruits. Wow, the Amazons kept me safe. As long as I toed the line, they covered my ignorant backside. Combat fit, I ditched my demons in somebody else’s life story. I didn’t need the pissers wetting my pants.

Meantime, Oliver charmed his way tuition-free into music school. His career path was about to soar. Paratrooper, I was jumping out of airplanes over enemy territory. Broccoli! Broccoli! Great bird’s-eye view, but war is slow to push the hands of time.

I did not arrive stateside in a flag-draped coffin, but I might have after four years of active service. Home sweet home, someone had tossed the white plastic Christmas tree and a burnt cookie sheet out the front door of the trailer. And there they were—a dingy flock of demons waiting on the rusted wire fence. I saluted and kept on walking, past their feathers, dung, and broken eggshells. Past the pizza boxes, beer cans, and booze bottles. Past the collapsed shed.

I called my mother from the bus station. Trashed on painkillers, she asked me if I was dead and hung up. I’d left the poinsettia I’d bought her in the restroom—Season’s Greetings.

Oliver and I eventually reconnected in New York City. I don’t pretend to understand celebrities any more than sundogs. I do love my brother’s blaze on stage. He makes me feel tall. But, sometimes, standing lonesome on a hotel balcony, broccoli, broccoli, I’m tempted to jump.

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Additional reading

White trailer trash, I was suckled on cuss and bottle-fed curses. Dirty words, I quickly learned, rearranged like cars on a toy train, can mean anything—and nothing. It depends on how drunk the big man is. Or, how far the day’s freckle has strayed past the sun. Need a caboose? Add slob, sick, lazy, and girl. I’ll spare you more prize examples, if you’ll excuse my goof-ups. English might as well be my second language, you see. I’m not used to the glamour of grammar. Or respect, the flip side. But my kid brother Oliver, that boy could talk himself into flight. At twenty-one, I was glad to fold up my parachute in the Middle East and come home to the Sunshine State—the greenness. After all the horrors of desert war, no one can call me nothing and walk away with front teeth. Once my brainwaves settled, I took advantage of the G. I. Bill to attend a commuter college. I just finished an intro course to Western thought. Hello, Aristotle. Meet Sundog, the human parhelion. Here’s the take-home: prosperous homelands are now conflict zones. Oil talks. The cry? The U. S version of thought versus their thought. Don’t get me wrong—I bow to Aristotle (384-322 BC) and the School of Athens. Aristotle also mentored Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), the conqueror who predeceased him. Can trained warriors learn from old philosophers? I’m trying. Sundogs baffled Aristotle. His book Meteorology (III.2, 372a14) describes them as mock suns, akin to rainbows, accidents of matter, a.k.a. fuck-ups off-script. Others regarded sundogs as deities or paired solar rivals. I, for one, welcome sundogs, especially in the middle of nowhere, after a long dusty day in combat boots. Growing up, my every fiber embraced conflict. At our pitiful home, Love and Hate were always at war. My mother’s Stone Age boyfriend fought dirty, with busted cinder blocks, pavers, and flower pots. Moving right along to the Cast Iron Age, he discovered the power of the skillet across the ribcage of a kid a third his size. I wanted to kill the moron. I didn’t care if he might be my biological father. He made me hate myself. Well, you could bike to work and bag groceries, Mom says, to augment your allowance. Augment? Foment. I fumed. Oliver was a word sponge, and he was translating lingo the live-in Nazi told our mother––too filthy to repeat. In fact, Oliver was the family spaz: he couldn’t catch, and tripped on his shoelaces. Tackle the tyke, and music spilled out. With song in his heart, everyone liked him. He sang his way out of crises. Born to solo, the kid was just that sweet. For his supper, all the turd had to do was sing. A song, hum, or even the warm-up tra la let him get ahead and stay ahead. Stout as he was, like a sundog, you couldn’t keep him down. Years later, Oliver told me he wanted to go pro as Santa, ringing bells and singing Jingle Bells in a flying sleigh. We lived in a shit-hole trailer park. Our Christmas was a lousy white plastic tree, drunken fights, and sloven relatives. But Oliver was happy to share pretend toys loaded in a pretend sleigh. He’d sing Away in a Manger, and loaded adults cried into their beer. At that time, I raged with a fury Aristotle dismissed as a sorry accident of matter. According to him, I was an incomplete male, and my demons were freakish tailings of my druggy mother. Think syndicated birthmarks on the brain. Guy or gal? Your guess. I wanted to exit, but couldn’t with songbird Oliver. How to fledge the little darling? Make a wish, I told him, and you will fly. The first time Oliver jumped from the shed roof, he yelled out fries, as he fell to the ground unhurt. Wrong food group, I chided. Choose greens, Oliver, and try again. Change your wish. Think healthy and you will fly. The kid dusted himself off, climbed back onto the shed roof, and jumped. This time, he sang broccoli, broccoli, in operatic fashion and flapped his clumsy arms. His body dipped . . . then rose, no lie, up, up above the treetops. Holy cow, the kid was soaring. O, the grip of jealousy. If Oliver could fly, so could I. Broccoli! Broccoli! I hollered, as I dove off the shed in a glory arc and crashed into a fire-ant mound. Talk about an accident of matter. My skin was burning. And there was Oliver, perched in our tree house crooning Whitney Houston songs—Funky noise the in-house boyfriend banned. Furious, the goon wrenched my arm behind my back and hose-whipped my legs. More welts before he laughed and, being the nice guy, hosed me down to cool the burn. The fire-ant blisters. Dickhead, he roared, did you really think you could fly? Well, that brilliant remark got around school. Kids clucked when they saw me, or flapped their arms like wings too chicken-shit to fly. The next years were hell. In and out of trouble, I didn’t steal things, I destroyed them—windows, pickets, doors—stuff in my flight path. At sixteen, I dropped out of school, chugged power drinks, and bagged groceries. Out of spite, I shoved the empty carts in long nested platoons. Good thing I didn’t have access to a loaded gun. I was ready to take out the parking lot grackles as target practice for the boozer boyfriend. Kill or be killed. On my seventeenth birthday, I shaved my head and joined the Marines. Bruising, ready to pulverize, I crawled through twelve killer weeks of boot camp. The good news was the sisterhood of women recruits. Wow, the Amazons kept me safe. As long as I toed the line, they covered my ignorant backside. Combat fit, I ditched my demons in somebody else’s life story. I didn’t need the pissers wetting my pants. Meantime, Oliver charmed his way tuition-free into music school. His career path was about to soar. Paratrooper, I was jumping out of airplanes over enemy territory. Broccoli! Broccoli! Great bird’s-eye view, but war is slow to push the hands of time. I did not arrive stateside in a flag-draped coffin, but I might have after four years of active service. Home sweet home, someone had tossed the white plastic Christmas tree and a burnt cookie sheet out the front door of the trailer. And there they were—a dingy flock of demons waiting on the rusted wire fence. I saluted and kept on walking, past their feathers, dung, and broken eggshells. Past the pizza boxes, beer cans, and booze bottles. Past the collapsed shed. I called my mother from the bus station. Trashed on painkillers, she asked me if I was dead and hung up. I’d left the poinsettia I’d bought her in the restroom—Season’s Greetings. Oliver and I eventually reconnected in New York City. I don’t pretend to understand celebrities any more than sundogs. I do love my brother’s blaze on stage. He makes me feel tall. But, sometimes, standing lonesome on a hotel balcony, Broccoli! Broccoli! I’m tempted to jump.