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Caroline O’Connor Thomas

Grief Shorthand

It is a mournfully long train ride back to California from New York. The railways are remote. At night you float along the track in an interstellar and absent nowhere.

A nocturnal universe void of light.

In Omaha the conductor allows passengers off the train for ten minutes. Long enough to smoke one cigarette.

The passengers do not talk to one another beneath the rotting canopy of a once grand station.

My period bleeds through my pants as I sleep across two seats, their scratchy felted covers leaving a red landscape on my lower back.

In the dining car, a passenger claims he can teach me something about divine mathematics. The line bores me.

In Nevada, an unnamed town.

Someone has painted “You are here” on the only remaining wall of a building.

Later, “Ruby Mountain, NV” written in chalk on the umber side of a canyon wall.


A seasonal king tide pulses unusually lush along the stretch of coast from Santa Cruz to the Marin Headlands.

Low lying drains take gasps of saltwater, trash. The wet wind is unfamiliar and mildly catastrophic. Enough rain can rob the electricity from an underground train station, can rob a sleeping encampment of breath.

In San Francisco, the emergency alert system runs a test each Tuesday, at noon.

Some days I hear it, and a lucid shock courses through me. Other days the alert passes unworthy of acknowledgement. The crows, seagulls and pigeons swing as widely as the buildings allow.

Seismologists suggest that the Hayward fault line is more volatile than the famous San Andreas. I saw this in an article on a local news channel. I wouldn’t say I researched it.

I read from a shoddily drawn local map: Wide ribbons of neon separate one dangerous piece of fault from another, but only approximately.

                        I find no topographical or seismological representation capable of telling me whether or not my house would level me in sleep, if my door frames would rattle apart and collapse.


I bring someone a check. I send someone an image, two images, a poem.

Cards come in, cards go out. Food arrives, goes rotten. A bouquet. An edible arrangement. I hide from a never-ending receiving line in my grandparent’s basement. I see age on them.

It rains, the sun comes out. A warm wind passes, I feel pregnant. Everything so humid and impossible.

I order chairs, tables, tarps. I pour the water. Glass after glass of water at the Chinese restaurant on Hoosick St. with the ornate wooden designs the owner has been single handedly carving for years. The glasses sweat.

I pick out two dresses, neither of them black. A cousin dances with a childhood friend’s sister, her dress covered in a colorful bug print. The town feels small again, mine.

An ex-boyfriend sings from beside the jukebox, shaking out his nervous hands, one eye on me. Thick fist around a beer.

I write a bad poem. I write another. A single sheet snakes around my hips as I lay naked and belly down on the bed. I sleep like falling out of orbit.

Time stitches the distant and the immediate together, our actions overripe with meaning.

My thirst grows and I’d like to lick the sweat from the lip of the glass, but already I see my grief is observable to others.

I notice that the Hudson Valley has several artificially rendered treelines. Power lines and radio towers appear and then pass in tidy rows of three.


Golden hour sticks to my cheeks as I sleep in the blackout night. Ash too, warm on the pad of my index finger.

I stretch and perch coo in the daybreak for an invisible lover.                                         I squeak warning like the wing of the mourning dove, and when my friends aren’t looking,

            I piss into the same fissure the coyotes have chosen, find a rough outline of home and cross my legs to rest for a moment—

The granite droops in soft looking formations and folds. Like sex organs, like vulnerable fat, pocked and personal.

My name appears in the air, somewhere already distant.                     I know I am making them

                                        I gather up every rock with a quick kiss —

leaving an unnamed essential I don’t need to hold against my body to recollect.


The antennae and radio towers throw a mysterious language into the sky,                              in California

flat cactus paddles become nopales when we eat them.          We try to make new memories with the dead, an act of devotion and imagination.

I plot a point somewhere upstate, a last thread to sober living, a dull apartment beside a taxi dispatch.

Sometimes my father falls asleep in the back of a bar called The Woodstock, darts thunk thunk-ing into a neon bullseye. Or he falls asleep in the car while it overheats and devours the engine in flame first, then the dashboard, before the fire department comes.

Holding on to objects becomes difficult, rare. You are here.

The family assembles on a phone line, in a circle of uncomfortable plastic hospital chairs, or in the kitchen where we still love one another in our old ways and laugh.

I am already deep into my inheritance, a sadness problem.          In vinyl restaurant booths and in the back seats of cars, I grow especially silent.

As children we assemble on the back of a brown horse, its tawny back so gigantic beneath our thin legs, your face blooming with sun freckles. The photo helps me remember the uneasy yawn of stretching my legs so wide, but not much more.

We were so in love with how our eyes were the same color.                     They are, the same color.


Because my brother is romantic, he calls me from a rest stop payphone, instead of his cellphone. His voice is clear on the call, solitary and joyful.

In some way we are praying together on the call: Western state lines keep us from the embarrassment of being known.

This is the closest we have ever been, both decorated with the thrill of anonymity. I imagine him leaning against the phonebooth with its eternal fluorescent halo.                    Moths arc and panic at the edge
of the light, somewhere on a stretch of I-40.

He is further still. And somewhere further now.

As a child, I wrote this same poem, but it was different.

Our sudden proximity suggests that he drive to Northern California.            “Next time,” he says.

The Diablo winds arrive sidewinding and katabatic. I stand transfixed in my driveway, my laundry basket making a blush dent as it settles on my hip. The wood roses, concrete, and live oak all sway. This soft center of night. Something deepens in me, in the sudden quiet of Oakland, a shadow. Greater than shadow.

A sensation both chemical and sweet, a cocktail cherry cheerily burst against my tongue.          So I imagine.


I wake in the night, the volume of my thinking fully switched on.

If untimely wakefulness is an apparition, it takes the form of a nausea so deep, my mouth fills with spit precursor to vomiting.

By the time I find myself in the bathroom, it’s gone. The spirit and the saliva.

Just being a woman, alone, in a hotel, on a road, anywhere is a kind of taunt to bodily danger. What messages could there be for me in the static of a top forty radio station, almost coming in from Bakersfield?

I almost remember a trip to Monterey:

A pen of horses somehow freed from their transport or field are now heading southbound on 101. With great effort and futility, several police cars surround the pack in a mechanical enclosure designed of their patrol cars.

Grief is just constant revision.

I train toward the ocean.                             Turn my headlights on when the sign in Watsonville tells me to.

Artichokes, unidentified berries, desalination plant, artichokes. Hot air bellows from the driver side AC unit.

You can go for hours, a day at least, without someone knowing where you are. This is kind of a prison, this anonymity.          To keep myself,

I listen to the songs I was named for, I think          How quickly does it happen, is it like blinking?


Useless dreaming in Cheyenne, WY.                                            The tent lazily un-staked - too tired to shower.

Wind ripples the polyurethane, lifts the corners until they are tucked directly against our bodies. It’s not starlight but safety lamps from the nearby chemical plant that dull the sky to purple.

A complicated net of heat white pipes mangles the horizon.

I don’t wake up, but am vaguely aware of my friends anxiously rising to adhere us to the ground.

I’m drifting.        We have sails.                  We have everything.

The night is cloudless and loud because we resist it: the tent, the chemical plant, the wind.                Don’t.

If you won’t let it carry us, let it carry me. To the widest lip of space. No waves of atmosphere to struggle against — just still thinning air.

I wake at dawn, my shoulders jammed and stiff, unnecessarily irritated by being forced between hardened ground and gravity.


Incredible wind binds the overhanging power lines of the Sunset together. The night is heavy with sirens.

I lie in bed that isn’t mine, listening to the whistle of busy night air. I say nothing when he says “This wind is crazy.” I pretend to sleep through.

The torn white curtain across his window is stuck together with red thread and goes ghost wild on its poorly attached metal rod.

In the morning, the sun is dull and dingy ash clings to the rearview mirrors of the cars on the street, collects at the wheels of the oversized recycling bins at the curb.

There’s a fire, somewhere.” I say to no one, as a gust heaves trash across the Muni stop. Pass it on. The air is metallic.


There are many nights I lie          listening for the foghorns, the street fights, the earliest birds turning sticks over in their hidden nests.

If I am lucky, the small engine seaplane I have come to know will hum from somewhere above.

I think of its unseen solitary operator, alone in the high night. Are they get jealous at the sight of a passenger plane, its cool stomach filled with glossy airplane magazines and crossed ankles filled with blood?

Or perhaps I think of the back of your neck. The wind licks that bare patch of your skin in the fog. I see it in crowds, particular to you. I won’t know you when once or twice, we cross paths.

Somewhere the fire, unchecked and refusing to wait, whittles rivers and swallows reservoirs into hot clouds.

All night, tremendous waves crack the coastline, foam cresting at fifty feet.

Names and shapes appear on the wall of my eye: I dream of the fish that live in a solitary bubble beneath the salted crust of an acid lake.                                                                Only needing a few gasps of water.

What is their name, I dream, and the new thing takes hold.

There’s a green flicker of parrots that scream and dive into the atmosphere, in some years becoming gaseous giants.                                                                                                    Rabbits and flowers crowd the brush of mind.

I remember what it was like to fall asleep in the early days.
                                                         The heavy silence, instinct cowed by how quickly you seemed to want                                           me, and how I’d believed that was all it took.

Soon enough, the phone will ring and rip a hole in my sleep.


At dawn I dump my brother into the sky. The coyotes heckle and yawp.

Just a little bit, I think. Then I am carried in the wind as well, and the whole bag goes - his body sifted into nutrient void pumice, bone dust. It rains on the sphinx moths, who busy their bodies chewing the burlap tough grass until they turn green. It rains on the paper bag bush, the chuparosa.

When we camped as a child I lay tucked between my brothers, their damp bodies in heaps, their breath rancid with Kool-Aid, marshmallow. They were afraid

our dogs trembling and left on thin chains would be eaten by undomesticated animals that only wanted to struggle through trash in the suburbs.                 But they sleep easily, both of them.

They insist on my being between them, two Taurus like parenthesis arched toward me, their small limbs collapsed as foals.

Their closeness is bothersome. Their dreaming too loud to allow for my own, so

this becomes an early one of many nights I lie awake in the world while what I love sleeps and sleeps,

and I remain seemingly unnoticed
                                                                               until now, because         until now, I’ve never told you.

Caroline O'Connor Thomas
is the author of Unusual Light Source, a chapbook from White Stag Publishing. In 2014 she received her MFA from St. Mary's College of California and following graduation attended the Tin House Summer Workshop as a Poetry Scholar. Her work has appeared in Salt HillTin HouseSixth Finch & others. She sleeps and writes in Oakland, CA. https://www.carolineoconnorthomas.com/