The 5 Up and the 5 Down


I am in a new town so I am on new transit. For job training I have to go to up and up to the north end of Minneapolis so I am riding the 5 up and the 5 down. It is early and chilly and dry here. September is ending and everyone is huddled tight and small into jackets. When I left without one I doubled back so I could slink into it too.

The 5 stop is a few blocks down, on an intersection of two large streets. Where I am couchsurfing there are a lot of Somalian stores just on the near corner, and on the far corner where that street ends there is a hip record store called The Electric Fetus; in between all that there is a Wendy’s. About mid-way through the walk there is an overpass that looks through a rusted iron fence at the Minneapolis skyline. The buildings are tall and wide and glassy, mostly new but for some odd eggs like the Foshay. The sky is very wide and very open. The wide and blue of it is caught and pushed out a second time by the reflective skyscrapers so that looking at the cars all pour seamlessly inward feels like slipping into an undertow. It stops me for a minute and I let myself fall in and get washed around in the noise and the scenery.

It strikes me walking down the sidewalk that everyone here is unfamiliar, but it starts to matter less after each new city. At first it seems strange and indecipherable to be in a new brand of hectic city but after a while the elements bleed together. Nothing is so like Beijing or D.C. but nothing is so unlike them either. That feels very refreshing to me – akin to relapsing into a Jones soda or catching up with a friend from a while ago; familiar and unfamiliar. It scares me to imagine rural living because I don’t even have a frame of reference – wholly unfamiliar.

There are only a few people waiting at the same 5 stop as I am and even fewer that I can remember the look and bearing of. It takes a little while for the bus to get there, but it does and the man in front lets me know, friendly and folksy, where to swipe the bus pass I am borrowing. I am not feeling fine and out enough to reflect that energy well.

The first leg of the trip is through the city proper, us going underneath big buildings and near large malls. People really come and go around here. Once we clear into the north that’s when people quit their coming and going for settling and sitting. North Minneapolis has its troubles from what I am told and I believe all that, but in the daytime it does not matter so much. Walking to a specific destination down a big street during the day isn’t asking for trouble or anything else. It is odd to me that people feel keenly otherwise – imagining maybe rioting streets or lawless gang rule – but my worries over rural areas are as irrational – imagining horror movie sequences and serial killers. It is just difficult to get a frame of reference – planted wholly in the familiar.

As we get out of downtown and more towards the near north a woman gets on and starts to talk on the phone with some kind of legal counsel. It becomes clear she is prosecuting a case against someone as she reads out a list of charges in a perfectly flat and casual voice. It is hard not to eavesdrop because of how her casual and informal flow grinds against the seriousness of the various charges. After a while, overhearing her just becomes hearing her and it starts to feel zen to listen to the manifold charges wind out calmly – almost in procedure. I feel less worried; that might be a backwards response. I figure you could read her words backwards or forwards but what you should do was not read them at all and let them just be hers. It was already too late for me, and now it is too late for you too.

When I get off the 5 I actually missed my stop by a bit and pulled the wire before we had even reached a cross street. The bus driver stops right away anyways and I get back headed the right way. Coincidentally the right way has a cool look and a load of interesting stores – including what I think was a gas station painted entirely over with this somewhat abstract mural that my mind grasps more for the colors and swirls than the shapes and substance. I think there might be a Wendy’s up here too – in between everything else.

 

On the way back down the bus is at first empty of any other passengers. I am feeling fine and out enough to squeeze a small conversation from quiet bus driver while we figure out if my transit card has enough money on it. A really trendy and smartly dressed young woman comes on and graciously waits for me to sort myself out. For a while there is barely anyone on the bus but as we near downtown, it gets more crowded. A pretty drunk or just bizarrely enthusiastic and loud man swaggers on board and instantly tries to befriend the quiet bus driver. After a minimal interaction he declares success, screaming, “This is my man! This is my brother!” about the bus driver to the rest of the bus. He eventually saunters over to the middle of the bus and his thoughts spill audibly out – about half the full portion of his head tumbling out in accidental volume spikes. When another man comes on and is taking his time to pay at the front, the (presumably) drunk man offers to cover the charge. The whole bus, he declares, is family. The man paying upfront, maybe not feeling like family or too much like family, refuses the drunk man’s help once, then twice, and then sternly. The drunk man returns to his seat but he still holds on to the family point for a bit.

In what feels like just an instant we get downtown and people pour the bus back up to full. A girl who sounds about high school age sitting behind me. A bit later another man comes onto the bus and makes some kind of loud noise for some reason – I had stopped paying attention. I had stopped paying attention at a bad time because the girl behind me says, “damn son!” so loudly and resolutely and naturally that a good chunk of the bus chuckles; a middle aged woman even giggles herself into tears. She laughs and laughs, gearing up so much that a second wind sweeps over me and the rest of the bus and we all laugh and chuckle and smile again.

“Oh thank you.” She says to the girl, “I needed that.” Afterwards the laughing woman reassures the man too, “we are laughing with you not at you.” Being a good sport about the whole thing, he agrees that it was pretty funny. I still don’t know if it was pretty funny, or if it was even a comedy at all, but it might have been better that way.

A few stops down the line another girl who knew the first one comes in and they both settle quickly into a conversation. The one tells the other how she got the bus to laugh – seeming as surprised by the whole thing as I was – and the other tells the one how she just got done with a fight.

“Well, you look pretty good for just getting out of a fight.”

“Yeah she didn’t even have time to hit me.”

It all feels very nonchalant, but energetic and excited at the brims and edges.

They both sound pretty young, but I don’t really know how young they are. They go on for a bit back and forth about how some neighborhood folk gave the second girl’s pregnant sister some trouble. The first girl notes how that should be out of line while an old woman in a pink overcoat, with thick black sunglasses sits down next to me. She smells faintly like cigarettes in a surprisingly pleasant way and we both make eye contact and smile at each other for a moment. This woman is the stereotypical picture of the urban old woman – covered in fuzzy pink, clutching a cane and a plastic bag, big hat and big glasses that leave only her little grin showing – but I don’t really know how old she is.

Not long after that the drunk man stumbles off the bus angered and with others around him encouraging him to get gone. In a little bit I’ll leave too and so I get up and stand by the exit door. A man gives me a hello so warm that you’d think we knew each other. He thinks we do; he asks if we had talked to each other earlier and I say no, because we haven’t. When we get off he wraps an arm around my shoulders and tells me that he’s a homeless vet named Lorenzo and ask for three dollars for a bite to eat and I say I used up the last of my cash on the bus fare, because I had. His lips knit into a tight and small frown and his arm falls limply off of me. I apologize and wish him good luck before slipping off, away from the bus stop.

Public transit can be one of the most interesting sights in a city but also one of the most dull. The lottery of it is as much part of the city character as anything. Flitting moments of realities far outside of all my self-obsession drift into orbit for a second. It draws me out like a spectacle but it isn’t one. The moments are not mine and so I don’t have to chase them down for completion or explanation or plainly owe them or have them owe me anything at all. The moments apply like a texture on top of the smooth, simple, scheduled rhythm of city transit and blend in with the other sensory memories on top of other buses and subways and characters of other cities until it is all this familiar and unfamiliar thing I feel like I’ve seen and never seen.

Between Two Homes 5: Airplane Bathroom


It is a few hours into the flight and I’ve just woken up from a very fitful sleep. When I woke up everything in the airplane was gentle with the quiet shifts of people in light sleep and quiet engagements that cut small shadows out from the soft light. My head had ran up against the arm rest and mussed up my hair pretty badly. For a while I did not notice but eventually my hand ran through my hair and something did not feel right. In the reflection of my phone I saw the full damage and quickly decided to go to the airplane bathroom to fix it.

The plane had no turbulence and no one but some flight attendants were paying attention. It crossed my mind that I could maybe just pat or comb the hair down in my seat and not draw any attention, but I was bored. The airplane was dim, littered only with little movements, and my long arms wanted to yawn large out on the open of the dark blue aisle carpets. I pulled out a bag of product and swiftly slipped out from my seat and into the aisle. My eyes flickered toward the attendants and a few other sleepless people to see if I was being noticed. I clutched my bag tight. My memory is spotty and sometimes I think some people looked at me, but only in that passive way that people use to track some new motion – besides, I wondered why it mattered anyways that I caught any attention.

Hair is an odd thing. Recently I had got mine cut into a shape entirely new for me where the sides and back are short and the top is long meaning it requires some kind of product to maintain. I know that this is a pretty normal style but I have always cut my hair short then let it grow again. My hair is uncooperative generally, forcing itself to fall straight in one direction so that it sproings up against any product and challenges what I try to do with it so I was hesitant to have to make a working relationship with it where I actually asked something from it. Maybe two months prior I’d not known how to use hair gel and in the small space between then and now I’d had my eyebrows trimmed and a quick routine with hair wax down pat.

Hair is an odd thing because of how core it can be to identity. Even just a bit ago I’d had different standards for my hair; I hated for it to be dirty and coarse and generally wanted it hygienic and conditioned but I never dared step past cleaning; the path seemed treacherous and time-consuming – which at first it was. Now I was working with two tins of product and trying to make it stand in a way that wouldn’t hide my features and my hands plied fast to the management of the unruly strands. I dipped into one tin of styling clay meant to stem rebellion and swiftly after into another tin meant to style follicle society into something smooth moving and sweet smelling.

I used to simply not want another thing on my hands so I kept on an easy pattern with my hair that involved about as much laziness with comb as you could manage. To be fair, the adventure into styling is a bit risky and I feel unless you have the compliant wires of some kind of a celestial model shining in the disgustingly kempt way a distant star does you are bound to have a bad hair day at least once while learning the ropes. Hair products exist in plethoric abundance fit to all sorts of niches and designs. When you first wander into their aisles odd names strike out in italics laced fonts focus tested to get your attention – they say hello. You say hello back but it’s an abortive greeting – it is not exactly what you want to say! Who you are? What do the words on you mean to me? You’d ask all that but the words are upfront and ugly in front of pretty things.

At the start most folk only know about a sociable fellow named gel and that was my only point of contact too. Gel, if you’ve never made the acquaintance, is a nasty and formidable beast that can do perhaps more than you want it to – a creature that you know to seek out for the same reason others know to avoid and treat with caution. In my first reckoning with it I knew nothing of it but what it did to the aforementioned blazing celestial model bodies plastered on the packaging, so I smacked a dollop into my hair without even rolling it into a thin layer across my palms and fingers first; this is a recipe for disaster. I tried in earnest to spread the clear and heavy solution across the outer ends of my hair and lace it into something and it turned out a half-organized mess of lopsided strands hardened into odd directions. Only after a few hours eagerly listening to words of YouTube-based hair sages did I realize all the other strange materials you could spread in your hair – I picked up some conversation topics for when I returned to all the brand names; I knew how to cut the curves of the question marks so they were smooth. I realized there was a whole weird world outside of gel – which was good because even when spread right, my gel was a thick and all too forward kind of slime; even when my hair stood up just right, it felt wrong.

In the airport bathroom I felt confident in slicking the styling clays – that I’d come to know on my own and through mutuals – from root to tip across hairs and riding it all as it were a wave toward a tight end at the back of my head. In fact I had come to love the pure motion of it; there’s a pleasant smoothness to swishing all those individual threads into a single fabric with one loose pull toward an end. I’d always liked running a hand through my hair to feel the smooth sensation of several separate things entwining together and I had worried rightly gel wouldn’t allow that; gel does not allow it, but all the other shadowy figures and strange foreign names in the hair aisle do.

What still vexes me a bit is how I got here, to this conversation. It was a bit dizzying to jump from lowest effort hairstyles to one of these low cut back and side modern things that extend out from a wider whirl occurring deep beneath hair follicles. I could apply that same question to where I stand generally too. I’d picked up a lot of things I never worried about before – applying past hair; Collagen moisturizer for my dry shoulders that itch on winter nights showed up in my bathroom one day; right next to it a sleek and futuristic looking black and blue container repairs the damage done by facial cleansers and razors; my two blade razor had retired quietly and a fancy orange striped five blade one replaced it. Something behind all of these things felt curious and fun; I chased these things ultimately because I wanted to. Had I always wanted to? If so, what stopped me?

The chase at first felt a bit heavy, leaving dripping thoughts on the proper masculinity of moisturizers. Perhaps the roadblock was as plain as that. At this point I probably still give a damn how things seems, but a sizably smaller damn than I used to give; why not look the cashier in the eyes while I buy two flavored lip balms? What’s there that I can dodge? Would I dodge it by getting a ChapStick with MEN plastered all over it? That’s entirely more homoerotic… I had one of those flavored lip balms in my hand now and applied it easy, in that same smooth motion of pulling hair into place. The moisturized feeling is plenty fine and so is the shine that comes around the lips.

So how did that barrier go down? Masculinity is a tricky thing to wrangle. It’ll kill you if you aren’t stern and careful with it; I am genuine – it has sharp and phallic horns that penetrate and gore. My bisexuality’s a generic answer but not one I discredit; I can’t deny trends began changing when I started stating plainly to myself and others that I liked sex with men; first I stated that to myself and then spread the news from there where it felt natural – or just awkwardly obligated. There’s a bundle of nerves and oddness that goes in taking on that identity and it’s a bundle I’ll write on when I’ve untangled it (hey – maybe never). Even now it feels a little foreign to claim it – a social contact I definitely know but can’t quite tell what to call when I cross it on the corner. No matter how many alternating romantic fantasies of each gender I indulge, no matter how it goes in reality, it feels in an instant I could fall to either side of the line. After tipping over to a side I’d regret ever saying I straddled the middle line as I fed old sayings I’d heard: “rooting for the other team” “looking for attention,” etc. It is all tired words that make me tired too. Well, one thing I can say early was that something about slipping on the moniker made adding some trappings that went with it easier.

Adding the trappings was a somewhat unconscious action with only correlating relationships, which makes the precision of it harder to detect. I asked a gay friend why men put on the kind of lispy affectation – the stereotyped gay voice – and he said he didn’t really know. Now that I stood with an I-give-a-shit hairstyle and clothes that I had selected based on whether they actually match, I couldn’t say why any bit of gayness made that – or the pairs of paints that fit slicker to the long slimness of my legs – more compelling. Maybe it was always compelling but now it was easier to admit and become swallowed up in; maybe it was not even fair to lay it out in that way, with that kind of question to him or to myself. There is nothing inherently homosexual in a sleek and clean of a tight-fit image. All I could really say was that I made changes out of enjoyment, a sort of fullness of embracing outer as well as inner and I want to make more changes as the same enjoyment arises.

As I sized myself up and smoothed out my shirt so it could get crumpled up against the airplane’s seats again, I’d remembered what my Mom said. When friends asked about the new style or when I told it, I’d often blame it on the bisexuality. Only my Mom challenged that laziness in slipping into a generic thought. “It is also because you are growing up.” She said. And I realized how my haircut resembled my Dad’s, how he’d apply ChapStick in the car, or even employ a mouth spray; I remembered buying him cologne one holiday – though that’s always been a masculine read for perfume. If all this primping existed as a manly thing to hover inevitably toward, why did it feel so disguised? Was it just me missing the new issues of GQ? Maybe the memo was there in my inbox and I just never read it. It is obvious now as I grow up that apathy’s a great path to a crap end and you ought to put your image together for yourself if no one else; I am not exactly sure why it wasn’t obvious then.

Stepping out of the airport bathroom into the quiet airplane I felt unsure of exactly how I arrived at the conversation I was having but I felt as sure as ever of what I was saying. With my black flip comb stuffed neat in my pocket and a hand running along the swivel in my hair. At the end it boils down to the feeling of dragging all those hairs together, patching all that dry skin into one smooth surface – a feeling I like. In the end it is just the look and feel of things in the odd low-light glow of a sleepy international flight.

~Austin R Ryan

A Day in Yancheng Park: Youth


Probably for the best, there are two sides to my time in Yancheng Park. Once I was done reflecting on little random things inside the ancient side of the park I traveled back the end of it fitted with modern rollercoasters. I had a few hours left and thought I ought to spend them with my colleagues and students. I appreciated coming out of the quiet contemplation of the old park and falling into the bustle of an amusement park full of kids on a field trip. In a lot of ways that’s how China functions – all slices of humanity formed up into a dish with a taste of everything. Crowded and loud yields to quiet and silent, distrust and scamming turns to friendships and handshakes. The double-sided day caught the way things blend here, and since I am a pretentious sucker for thematically encapsulating things I liked it all a lot.

Since the park consisted of three circles I exited by taking the semicircular routes I had missed when coming in and got to see everything pretty cleanly after only a few hours. In the second ring there was not much to see on the return, but it was a quiet and pleasant walk. Crossing the bridge back to the outermost and largest circle, I saw a bunch of photographers working with two people – a couple, models, actors, I am not sure – who were dressed up to the nines. The man had an old western style suit with long coat tails and the woman was dressed a bit like a southern belle. Naturally I shamelessly took my own photos and caught the fellow resting in the grass after he and a cameraman grappled for five minutes with the tall rubber boots that clung to his feet.

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After that I looped through the other side. Without much attractions or distractions the trail back was another slow and ponderous trot alongside the riverbank. The sun had really come up, the smog had cleared out and in the distance I could spy the tall buildings sprouting up all around the park. In a short while I came upon the wooden riverside platform that I had seen an old man walking along earlier. It was clear why he had chosen that path. Not a noise distracted from the wide and sprawling blue sky now populated with perfectly puffy white clouds. The Sun’s beams shot clarity into the river’s water and in its reflection the sky came down to meet the earth for a fine afternoon. The reflection allured the treetops into the river and sat them right beside the blue sky and all its pretty white clouds until everything blended underneath the subtle veneer of sunlight.

The bridge that I had crossed to get here crested in around the bend and before I knew it I was back in the park plaza. All along the way I had met various students from other schools and my own (though not the grade I teach) that said hi just to practice some English. As I walked into the amusement park entrance I found a group of my students who greeted me with a cheer of “Austin!” Hearing it is always a bit gratifying even if it doesn’t necessarily mean much. I recognized the majority but only knew the name of one. I try to hold names down, but I have never been good at remembering them and I have around 400 total students who sometimes tell me their English name and other times use their Chinese one so remembering is quite a task. They tell me they are from class 5 and are happy to have me travelling with them for a while. They ask me some questions and try to speak Chinese with me, but I struggle with a lot of it.

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Our walk is ending and as I am parting the kids start giving me gifts. One hands me a bird made of hardened clay and says, “niao!” He says it a few times until I’ve repeated it right – not a bad Chinese lesson! The character for bird is always one I’ve liked: 鸟. Look close and it really resembles a cute little bird. Gift giving overall is very common in China and students love to give to their teachers. I have a little section of my coffee table dedicated to the small tchotchkies I’ve been given. The gesture’s great, but I often try to deny them because I know the kids could really get more from a little Thor doll, a toy car, or legos than I could. It doesn’t work most time – they are insistent!

After class 5 and I say our goodbyes I cross a bridge and catch all sorts of strangeness I couldn’t really photograph well. Mostly, they were water attractions like paddleboats dipped in neon and striped in the brightest shades of primary colors. I was tempted by a big translucent plastic hamster ball that you could get inside and awkwardly roll across the lake but I didn’t want to bother with the line.

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Just a few steps later I found a few students from my class 9 in a dimly lit emperor’s palace playing dress up with a bunch of fancy old costumes. One of my favorite students had a wooden sword and was eager to show it off. Another had a multi-segmented plastic blade that extended with the click of a button. Others were posing for pictures in their fancy garments. Plenty had some questions or words for me, which I did my best to respond too. It felt a bit awkward trying to rumble with my second language as well as a role of teacher I was not sure how to play. The two things both felt as foreign to me as my setting, but there was a way it all felt kind of like settling in. I know so many of these kids and some of the chaperones too and I guess they know me too.

Crossing a bridge led me into the area where some of the biggest rides are, as well as some kind of fake mountain that has the faces of five ancient Chinese men carved into them. Apparently an entrance in the side of that odd Chinese Mount Rushmore leads into a haunted house. Just outside of it there’s a little hill with a flat landing that cuts its slope right in the middle. A bunch of students from my school were resting on it, so for a while I followed suit and sat down. But it’s tricky to rest around any of the kids. They’re curiosity takes hold and they question me about all sorts of things, most of which I only half understand and have to work to hard to answer properly. In the plaza nearby a few people sit in these open faced cylinders that play music and roll around. At first they stuck out to me, but by now I have seen them in every plaza by every mall.

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After I climb down the hill and wander toward the cafeteria the teachers were meeting at I run into a few fifth graders who attend a little English club I hold at the school. They are a bit of a breath of fresh air, them being able to speak a lot more of my own language. Then my class 2 – the students who I had boarded the bus with – come back into vision. I am happy to see them because we are actually trying to find the same person, another English teacher named Aillen, or Shi Lingling. Before we really get to searching the students have plenty of strange candies and toys to show me. Two students have bought a few masks and re-enact the Sichuan Opera in front of me. Just like in the Southwestern styled drama, two kids put on multiple masks and one by one dance around in stilted and jaunty steps. Once one of them comes to a sharp halt, they turn an about face and stare at me as they fling off one mask in the deftest motion they can manage and reveal the other underneath it. The first kid really impressed us all with a solid mimic, and the second made us laugh with the bubbly energy that tripped him up some.

Leading a troupe of 9-10 year olds into the cafeteria goes better than I expected in that I don’t lose anyone, but we are quickly shooed out because the place is closing up shop. Aillen shows up just a second later and talks with the kids in Chinese for a while. Aillen is the head teacher for my grade and one of the staff on campus that makes sure I am adjusting alright. After meeting up with her we head to the new teacher hang out. Once we get there no one really converses much, most of us just checking our phones or relaxing in some way. Aillen and another teacher quickly become engrossed in a historical TV drama playing on a tablet. The two of them sit at the edge of their seats with a headphone each. It is a bit of a humanizing thing to see the head teacher cheer for her favorite characters. For about an hour I lean back and browse my messaging apps on my phone while snacking on some food I got as gifts from students.

The only part of the park I have not seen yet is the entrance, so with an hour of time left to explore I head back to the front to see what I missed. First there are a few gift shops full of children’s toys and sweet stands – the most popular stand twisted orange syrup into wild patterns which then hardened into a kind of lollipop. The very start of park is a winding path through the history of philosophical and metaphysical thought during the Spring and Autumn period. The Spring and Autumn period is a hotbed of activity in Chinese history that led first to the Qin dynasty and then to the Han dynasty a bit later. For over two centuries feudal states in what is now China warred to establish their power over each other, sparking a number of great thinkers across all kingdoms to consider how to bring peace back to the country. Most all of the big names in traditional Chinese thought came from this period, including Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism, and plenty more.

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Every big and serious thinker and the camp of students that surrounded them earn their own statues and plaques in this park. Every statue aims to capture the thematic impression of each philosophical camp, so that the display far exceeds a bunch of boring depictions of robed old men. The philosopher sits at the center and all around him forms up a sort of garden of other things to complement him. Sometimes the surroundings don’t seem to fit, though. The “strategist school” philosophers are surrounded by caves and overhanging green when I would have assumed a more militant theme. Other themes fit quite well. The Legalist scholar that focused heavily on strict enforcement of the law stands in front of a giant, extended scroll of old characters – presumably a kind of decree. Another metaphysical school focused on Yin, Yang, and the traditional conception of Heaven has a plaza emblazoned with a giant Yin-Yang symbol and all of the hexagrams from an old mystical book called the I-Ching used to divine the will of Heaven. Unfortunately my favorite school – Daoism – was sectioned off for construction.

Yet if any of those statues and their surroundings sounded impressive and fitting, they paled in comparison to Confucius’s depiction. Standing as tall as the fake cliff he’s fused into, Confucius towers over the park with his hands crossed like an x. Beneath him a legion of scholars sit on a giant scroll, reading smaller scrolls in their hands. Each scholar has a different expression and engages with whatever they are reading in a different manner. Some are ecstatic, others look bored, plenty seem interested but among them some seem challenged and others relieved. It is not a far cry from my experience as a student or a teacher.

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This kind of grandeur in an amusement park focused on a seminal moment in China’s ancient past should be expected. What I did not expect was how deep the park would run with the theme, as it took on old stories and transformed them into 3D displays. An emperor’s hunting party came to life in a green garden with tall statues of generals on horseback aiming at stone deer. In another spot I found a troupe of musicians sitting and playing a woodwind instrument for a high lord. In their center one musician looked really into his performance as the player next to him gave him a hard side-eye. At first it seemed incidental, but the sculptures were telling a story of a man that snuck into the court of a high lord and pretended to be able to play instruments to get by. The side eye and the emphatic fake performance all made sense.

All of the children there loved the statues too. They liked to skip across the scrolls in front of Confucius and admire his height. Some of the kids fancied the generals in the hunting party and climbed up on the horses to get a closer look or just take a rest. A teenager used a gossiping court official’s scroll as a coaster for his coke bottle. My own students found the giant depiction of China’s old feudal political borders before I did. It was filled with tiny, light rocks that the kids used to throw at each other and giant totems and a wide tree they clung to for higher ground.

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For the last fifteen minutes I spent my time with them answering questions and taking some group pictures. Before I knew it the day was over and we all filed back on the bus to head to school again. Confucius saw us off as we headed home. From start to finish the energy was boundless. Swords were still held high, voices were still raised, and adventures were still being sought even as the park faded even from the rear view mirror. Aillen and I each fell far back into our cushy charter bus seats. Surrounded by the consistent chatter of little words and movements, we both let out a wide and long yawn at near exactly the same time. We had to laugh at that. The older things get the sleepier they seem, but it’s lively all the same.

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~Austin R Ryan

Pointless Stories: Whispers


Did you miss me? Well, I haven’t been gone for long and I have got places to go so listen in for a few whispers I have of my spooky old home. It’s short, I promise not to keep you too busy.

I grew up in an old house that speaks in creaks. It whistles little secrets through air vents and tells tall tales in drafts. Every time I go away, I drift far off and forget about the whispers of an old home. When inevitably I return, the noise always catches me off guard.

Underneath the dim glow of the living room and the kitchen addition, the ceiling fan shakes at its base so hard that it clicks at me. The bathroom has an AC fan and it hums heavenly. Five years old, I stumbled down our rickety stairs. Half the steps are sturdy underneath the press of pounding children. They don’t complain much. The other half groan with a love for the melodrama of their lives, spread on longer than any of their residents’. It is dawn, maybe 5 AM. Young and up too early, it feels like a dream but I’d always swear it wasn’t. A voice radiates from the corner of the living room. At that time the ceiling fan did not shake so hard. I chase it down out of a half awakened hunger. It seeps out from the almost closed bathroom door, the sonority of sweet hums layer over the AC units breathing at my back. In the silence between falling beats, the wood planks creak. “Mom?” I ask the voice to identify itself, but it just keeps humming. Our family is so tone deaf, even at five years old I found it hard to believe it was one of us. “Mom?” I ask again half in disbelief. I pull open the bathroom door, nothing’s there and the voice is no more. Just evidence of how an old home never empties.

The memory entered in through my ears in whispers. I stayed up late that night not minding the slight sound one bit. The groans of old homes have the stuff of half formed urban legends told by anxious kids. Little bits of lore form up in the etchings on walls, words leftover from former tenants. It’s a narrative waiting to be made. Boy, did we make something of it.

My mother tells us – when the topic of ghosts are broached – that when she and my father thought to move, the house made quite a racket. Cupboards closed hard on their own, doors slid shut without a nudge. My second sister and I grew up afraid of the dark. She said once that a little girl popped up and looked at her when she was in the bathtub. When none of my sisters owned up to it, she refused to take baths alone for a while. On my end, I just had a rash of nightmares, saw strange shapes in trees and turned the formless noise of those whispers into something sinister. I had a dream once where a little girl who looked similar to what my sister described, forebodingly demanded I go up to the addict with her. Both of us thought she looked like my youngest sister, if we had seen the same girl at all.

Once two wild wiccans came to our home and said they sensed a spiritual energy. They whipped out a Ouija board and asked to phone home. My sisters obliged, finding something funny in the odd fancy. I would too. The wiccans felt a foul energy on that board and fled. Depending on who you talk to, the Ouija is an ancient occult board game gateway to the ethereal or a cheap piece of wood given a ghostly narrative to spook up sales. Either way, we still recall the odd incident and laugh about it.

When my friends would head over I’d unleash all the stories I collected over the years. It was a means of bonding them to me and my home while adding a luster to this slice of Middle America. Sometimes I did it just because I loved the paranormal. We used to have this old pullout couch crammed tight with a terrible mattress. When I was small enough to fit in its unfolded cracks, I’d climb under with my childhood friends, cover the entrances with a blanket, flick on the flashlight and read something from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. The pictures in those books looked too surreal and wild to be for children, which was why I loved them. Friends, relations, and in-laws that visit say they feel something off, but everyone admits it may just be that we’ve given these whispers a booming voice with all our stories. Who knows?

When I got older I wanted to know. I have always been a night owl. I like the quiet when everything but the house and I have retired. In the dead of the night I’d feel cold sensations sit on the small of my back and spread up across the shoulders like the sweeping of hands and I always wondered if it was just the draft. When I went on the internet for answers the search results were inconclusive. Paranormal forums and boards had plenty of stories but not so much insight.

Years later in college I would sleep in brand new dorms and apartment buildings low on cracks, creaks, and speeches filled with the wisdom of age. At first I did not sleep as sound, but maybe that was just because I was settling in. I felt alone for a few months. Sophomore year was not so bad, save some episodes of sleep paralysis after some between-class cat naps.

When I returned home around Sophomore year the house was full with the components of our growing family, the husbands of sisters. As the youngest people make so much of how you grow, but time seems to work faster for your elders. I was back in the tiny room I had slept in as a kid. In those days I did not get along with that room. The feud went on for longer than I like to admit, pushing me at first to sleep with my parents and then with the couch and TV downstairs. What riled me up, I think, was how small it was (no bigger than a garden shed) and how far down the hall it was (all the way the opposite to my parents and the bathroom).

I had revisited the room a few times before Sophomore year, but not often and not when I had the choice. Bygones had gone by, but I still preferred something more spacious. The night I returned to the room had been cold and I came to bed as late as 3 or 4 AM. I pulled the full set of sheets all the way over my head, balled up, and fell into deep sleep. An hour or two later, heat punctured my whole body and made me shove off the blankets. Then came a burst of icy feeling bubbling in my center and pushing out toward extremities. The heat shot back again as soon as I grabbed for the blankets. The hushed murmur of voices entered through the slight opening of my door. Thinking them to be from family up early, I rolled over and did my best to get back to sleep. Then the murmuring grew louder and louder, voicing in the tones of people I did not know. The whispers packed themselves in denser and denser, each word scrambling faster as time wore on until the air around me felt crowded with conversation I did not opt in to. It burst my tired eyes open and I flew back to the couch in the living room without much hesitation.

I have come back to that room plenty of times when the house got crowded. Ever since then I have hardly heard a peep, at least nothing past the usual hemming and hawing of the old abode. Truth be told, the room I count as my own is much noisier. Various woodland creatures have set up shop inside the walls and some nights they scratch like crazy until you smack a surface and tell them to stop. It drove my second sister out of the room once, but I mostly find the animals funny. In the room across from mine, there’s always a bird nest right next to the window-installed air condition unit. Ours is a home for more than humans and their ghosts.

This time I have moved back in, though again not for long before I am off to a foreign shore. I am back after bidding goodbye to my college life and looking on to see what’s next. By now, I have come to love the little whispers of my old home. I settle in at night, later than I should be up, and I hear the familiar history of this place. The same floorboards greet my feat even as I try to step softly. The same steps crunch and crackle at my approach. Cars whizzing by our dark neighborhood pull apart the night air outside. Sometimes I even think I hear a voice. As I strain to catch it, it slips my grasp like an auditory sleight of hand. It was probably never there, but I don’t mind wondering.

When I go to bed with my fan and my TV blasting white noise, these little whispers comfort me. Sometimes they bring me back to the narrative I have always treasured. Other times they assuage the kind of loneliness that even seeing friends and family can’t resolve. Mostly they remind me that – transitory as things are – they don’t disappear, they just fade.

Thanks for listening in, and sleep tight.

~Austin R Ryan