A cloud is made of billows upon billows upon billows that look like clouds.
As you come closer to a cloud, you get not something smooth but irregularities
on a smaller scale.
July 4, 1973. I’m the guy driving the blue Ford Pinto
with the flammable hatchback and white vinyl top
which will give me cleaning fits for the next ten years
before it turns gray and I sell the car to a woman who will claim,
“A Pinto saved my life!”
Lucky for me,
she will be broadsided and not rear-ended in her combustible engine
soon after my buddy Bob (that’s him in the passenger seat)
and I celebrate college graduation with this trip to Maine.
That’s Indiana in the background.
You can tell it’s Indiana by the number of cars with Indiana plates.
Otherwise, it looks a lot like Illinois:
corn, soybeans, Howard Johnson’s.
I’ve seen every highway in the United States by now, and they all look alike to me.
In 1975, Benoit Mandelbrot will notice
that if you break certain geometric shapes into pieces,
the little pieces look pretty much like the big shape.
And if you break the little pieces into littler pieces,
the littler pieces look pretty much like the big shape.
And so on…
He’ll call the shape a fractal.
The road from St. Louis through Ohio is a fractal.
But I don’t know that yet. It’s still 1973.
Benoit is at IBM, busy figuring,
as Bob and I exit I-70 into a small Ohio town that—
with the exception of the parade we suddenly find ourselves wedged in—
looks like all the other Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio towns we have exited into.
This time Bob is driving.
That’s us behind the fire truck.
And that’s the melody from “American Pie”
carried haltingly by the trombone section
in the marching band behind us.
On May 19, 1979, I will stagger through mile twenty-six
and step onto a quarter-mile cinder track
with about fifteen other straggling runners:
a kind of sad parade.
“Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive,”
a cruel loudspeaker will sing
as I limp across the finish line into a canvas recovery tent,
where I will notice a slender, fair-haired girl
recovering from her run with the aid of a cigarette.
The beautiful girl will not notice me.
But in this parade the Buckeye girls who line the street
can’t seem to get enough of Bob and me, cheering wildly,
wildly waving as we pass—
the two of us doing our best parade waves
through the open windows of my Pinto, in return.
Clouds, snowflakes, certain animal-coloration patterns
(a leopard comes to mind),
Lungs, pulmonary vessels. Galaxies!
That’s Bob and me on top of Cadillac Mountain,
stuffed with wild blueberries we’ve consumed along the trail.
We’re looking at Maine’s coastline.
In a few years I’ll learn it’s a fractal, too,
along with ocean waves parading toward shore.
Lightning bolts. Also fractals.
But I won’t be thinking about that either—
after we descend Cadillac Mountain and the rain and lightning start for real
and we realize no way will our pathetic little tent protect us
like a cozy bar in Bar Harbor and a beautiful girl or two
who can’t wait to take us to their cozy home from a bah in Bah Hahba would.
What a magnificent coastline!
Here are some things I remember from that night:
1.) driving into Bar Harbor in a downpour;
2.) naming lobsters (Larry, Louie, Lonnie, et cetera)
swimming in a restaurant tank;
3.) watching paramedics revive a cook who inhaled
while priming a propane cook stove with a rubber straw;
4.) eating lobster (Larry) for the first time;
5.) deciding never to name another meal;
6.) walking into a bar on Mount Desert Street
and seeing a slender, fair-haired girl smoking a cigarette—alone;
7.) noticing the beautiful girl did not notice me;
8.) noticing the Bunyanesque, black-and-red plaid figure
who suddenly eclipsed the bar’s door frame
did notice Bob and me sitting at a table
with his slender, fair-haired girlfriend, Uta—
Uta having already described the ahgument
she and Little Jack had earlier that day;
9.) slow dancing with Uta to “A Whiter Shade of Pale”—
with Little Jack’s permission;
10.) a lava lamp.
Here are some lines from a poem called “Relax,” by Ellen Bass:
Your parents will die.
No matter how many vitamins you take,
how much Pilates, you’ll lose your keys,
your hair, and your memory.
Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles in a foreign hotel
and crack your hip.
Except for the hotel part, Ellen has me pegged.
Could we all be little pieces?
Chips off the Old Block?
Here are some fairly accurate lines from a bar in Bar Harbor:
Little Jack: One time th’ snow was so frickin’ deep
I stubbed my toe on th’ top of a telephone pole!
Me: No kidding.
Little Jack: One time we used a puhtato for a football!
Bob: No kidding.
Uta: These guys need a place to stay tonight.
Little Jack: One time I walked into a bah
and found two guys hittin’ on my girlfriend.
So I gave ’em a choice. They could buy me beeyah
for th’ rest a th’ night—and I’d give ’em a place to stay—
or we could go outside and settle up anathah way! Ayuh.
Me: Oh bartender.
I’m the guy who was driving the blue Ford Pinto
with the white vinyl top, the guy who followed
you and Little Jack home in what he called a “wicked pissah”
forty years ago. The other guy was Bob.
I hope you and Little Jack are having good lives.
(Perhaps there are Littler Jacks and/or Small Jills.)
More than likely your life has seemed a succession of small parades.
Chances are your parents have died and you’ve lost your keys.
Uta, does the world sometimes look like it’s slipped
on the bathroom tiles in a foreign hotel
and cracked into 7,173,302,544 angry little pieces? Anyway,
I just wish everyone could get along as well today
as the four of us did that night.
We skipped the light fandango, didn’t we, Uta? After all,
we want the same things: a nice meal, a drink or two, some music,
and someone to share the meal, the drinks, and music with.
Plus a dry roof above our heads. You might say
we are irregularities on a smaller scale.
A belated thanks, Uta. My best to you and Little Jack.
And if you missed something from your kitchen that next morning,
please forgive me.
Though it was Bob’s idea.
Sunrise: July 8, 1973. That’s Bob and me
waking up on Little Jack and Uta’s screened porch.
In Yorktown Heights, New York, for all I know
Benoit Mandelbrot is measuring broccoli florets in his sleep.
But in our sleeping bags, Bob and I are figuring the odds of a sober Little Jack
appreciating us as much on his porch this morning
as he did in his favorite bah last night.
Predictably, we rise.
Sadly, we sneak into the kitchen and snatch an orange.
In my Pinto, Bob peels the orange and asks me to slow down
so he can toss the rind into the harbor.
“For Larry’s cousins,” Bob says.
Bob breaks the orange in half.
We break our halves into littler pieces,
pop them, one by one, into our mouths
and drive away.
July 10, 1973. That’s my Pinto pulling out of Stuckey’s,
where Bob and I bought four Pecan Log Rolls
and two packages of Pecan Divinity—
to repay our parents for college educations.
Bob will marry Jeannine, a French tennis player.
I’ll marry DeeGee, the fair-haired runner
who will finally notice me and complete my parade.
But for now, that’s Pennsylvania in the background. From a distance,
it’s hard to say which guy is Bob and which is me.
—Mark Williams (Vanderburgh County)
This poem originally appeared in The Southern Review and is forthcoming in the anthology Poetry from the Midwest (New American Press).
Mark Williams is retired from the real estate business in Evansville, where he lives with his wife, DeeGee. His writing has appeared in The Hudson Review, The Southern Review, Indiana Review, Open 24 Hours, Nimrod, Rattle, and the anthology, New Poetry from the Midwest. Finishing Line Press published his long poem, “Happiness,” as a chapbook in 2015. New Rivers Press will include his short story, “One Something Happy Family,” in the anthology, American Fiction. In the meantime, his family is happy to see “Fractals” appear here.
Poetry Prompt: How Your Life Relates to a Theory, Trend, Principle or Pattern
Choose a scientific theory, technological trend, engineering principle or mathematical pattern that intrigues you and examine how your own life experiences support or oppose it. Explain the STEM element in a way that’s clear and entertaining.
Indiana Humanities is celebrating National Poetry Month by sharing a poem and prompt every day in April. Indiana Poet Laureate Shari Wagner selected these poems and wrote the prompts.