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Susannah Carlson

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If I Keep My Head Up, Looking East
By Susannah Carlson
Wednesday, May 07, 2003

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This piece recently appeared in Pierian Springs


On my lunch break I leave the office. I head east, across the freeway. I drive to the end of the road, and when my car can go no further I get out and walk. I walk here every day, in business suit and tennis shoes, like a San Francisco yuppie. The path I follow is concrete, with miles calibrated and staked out along the way, and a dotted line down the middle like a miniature highway. To the west, warehouses and office buildings shimmer in the heat and thrum their mechanical heartbeats. To the east a small creek, choked in cattails, follows the path. If I keep my head up, I don't see the path or the passing of miles; I see lizards on tree bark, tangled grasses and oak - and under the hum of the buildings I can almost hear the water flow. If I keep my head up, looking east, I see finches and scrub jays, turkey vultures and crows; and above the smell of asphalt I catch the sweetness of blooming things. The long hills roll away in waves, scattered with ranches, and shadowed valleys, dark with oak; crowned by jagged crags of red chert, greywacky, and serpentine. I watch a hawk riding updrafts swept off of those hills. When the sun hits it right its tail feathers shine like fresh spilt blood. Its wingtips spread like fingers, stroking the sky.

The path curves and leaves the street behind, and the grumbling buildings are replaced with a dieing orchard stretching all the way to Highway 101 - its lichen-crusted branches and sprays of pink, white, and red hide all but the occasional glint of chrome. To my right the creek opens wide, pushing the land out until a lake emerges. An old farm, looking lost in its corrugated tin and rotting fences, stands abandoned on the other side. Cottonwoods loom large along the shoreline, housing colonies of egrets, Snowy and Common.

Signs surrounding the little lake proclaim, "No Trespassing. Property of the City of San Jose." I brush the cold steel with my fingers as I pass. This lake is alive with trespassers: Snakes and lizards basking on the hard clay; ground squirrels jittering in dry leaves; black, snakelike cormorant necks cleaving the surface of the brown water, and egrets everywhere, heaving their long bodies through the air, or hunched like tired old men along the shore. I once counted forty-nine together here. Standing on the spit of land that bisects the reservoir, the spring sunlight fresh and hot on my skin, I face the distant hills that rise around me like the cupped palm of some green hand and pretend this place will last as long as I will.

To my left and right the murky water is littered with white wood. White signs on spikes, their blue lettering declaring, "Future Site of Orchard Park Luxury Townhomes," drifting amongst the grebes and mallards. I know them for what they are; the first tendril of the growing city reaching out to claim another bit of land. And I know why they are drifting, their whiteness such a shock against the brown water of this small oasis, and not standing sentry along the boundaries of the dieing orchard to which they are intended to lay claim. Someone else loves this place as I do. Someone not yet sapped by anger of the energy such anger brings. Someone else comes here daily, and in futile gestures proclaims her love.

Standing on this spit of land, my lungs full of the smell of blossoms and rot, I turn my back to the freeway and face the east where the hills roll off and away. I watch cormorants flying low across brown water, their sodden wings barely grazing the surface, and egrets on the far shore, preparing nests.

If I close my eyes there is nothing here but birdsong and sweet heat, and the soft sound of the freeway hissing in the distance like the wind.

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Reviewed by m j hollingshead 3/27/2004
well done
Reviewed by m j hollingshead 5/8/2003
Very nice piece, well written. Poetic imagery with a dreamlike emotional undercurrent. Loved the descriptive language.

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