My Grandmother’s House
The bare bulb suspended over the ironing board where Ruth stood pressing sheets always puzzled me. In a house devoted to luxury and comfort, this was the only place without adornment,an oasis of commonplace necessity, and I liked to be there best of all. It was Ruth, of course.
Not that the basement held no other charms;things and places were living presences to be reckoned with: the big furnace, the forbidden coal room and coal chute, the hidden room under the stairs behind the washing machines, the mangle iron, my father’s wood-working shop, his cupboard full of gingerbread, the room where the canned goods were kept, and the room next to it that was always locked, but once.
Of course I got into it then, and found a treasure there: my grandmother Clara’s jewels, my father’s mother who died before I was born, for whom I was named. I held the
delicate filigreed silver and tiny garnets up to the light;a white stallion capered on the battlements, golden fish leaped in the moat. Pendants furled gloriously, trumpets blared. A knight in silver strode solemnly across the drawbridge bearing crimson roses, pearls from the orient,emeralds, garnets, rubies just for me.
“Princess,” he said softly, “you can’t play with these.” My father’s arm was around my shoulder; he took the necklace and put it back in its box. “Come on,” he said,
“this room is supposed to be locked anyway.” He led me out by the hand, closed the door and locked it. “Go on, little nudnik, run along and play.” I never saw her jewels again,
nor the inside of that little room.
For all its solidity and stability, our house possessed a certain reckless unpredictability. Things, important things, would vanish, like the piano in our living room. I loved that piano. It was so inviting; we were friends. We could make giants’ bellies rumble, dwarves march in the forest, elves and fairies dance in moonlit gardens. We could raise the winds to terrible storms, or become fledglings,chirping and fluttering in the nest.
Then one day, just like that, there was a card table in its place.
“What happened to the piano?”
“The movers took it.”
My mother’s answers were never very satisfying, and usually left me in confusion, not to mention resentment; but we weren’t supposed to talk back or question grownups’
arrangements. I clothed my challenges in sarcasm and wondered if they’d ever see through my disguise. This got me into a lot of trouble with my mother, and I never gave her
any peace. I know I loved her, though, because one day, when we were driving in the car with my grandmother and Aunt Rose back from an antiquing expedition, they quarreled over whose bosom was softest and lap most ample to make a pillow for my weary head. I wanted my mother more than anything in the world. I don’t know why I couldn’t say so; I wish I had.
We quarreled. I knew things I wasn’t supposed to know,like where babies came from. I broadcast the news to all my friends, and she was blamed for not keeping a muzzle on my big mouth. I embarrassed, perhaps humiliated her. She blamed me for taking things I didn’t take, doing things I didn’t do. I never forgave her for not believing me, and we never really trusted each other again. I took refuge in my companions at school, my box of crayons (I was in love with Prussian Blue), and the world of fairy, music and dreams.
And, of course, Ruth. After school, I’d run or skip or skate all the way home, come in the back (Don’t slam the door), run up the steps two at a time past my grandmother’s flat where the ladies would be playing Mah Jong or canasta, up to our floor where sometimes the “girls” would be playing bridge, but where usually, my mother would be lying on her bed or the chaise lounge reading one of the eight or nine books she’d take from the library every week. Sometimes, I’d go back to see her. She’d ask me if I had homework, did I want a snack. There were apples, crackers, peanut butter, milk in the kitchen. Don’t pester Ruth. She’s working.
But pester Ruth, I would and did. Not even my grandmother, singing to and patting the plump chicken she was cooking for dinner, or the sweet cinnamon smell of Schnecken wafting from her oven could draw me like that luminous corner of the dim and damp basement. I knew so little about her other life. Her husband was a minister,Reverend Feaster. She never used the word preacher, but there were rumors, or echoes of rumors, about the ecstatic worship of Holy Rollers, and I wanted more than anything to be among their company. So exotic it seemed and mysterious: the unspeakable luxury of wild abandon. Such a contrast to our sober services where new clothes, hairdos, and fiancés were the weekly revelation.
Ruth wore plain dresses and fasted every Friday all the year around. On the other days she worked for us, my grandmother, my mother, or even I would fix her lunch. After
twelve years of service, the woman, as my grandmother called her, still didn’t know her way around the refrigerator. This puzzled me too.
I drank the milk and ate the Wonderbread, grape jam, and peanut butter sandwich, closed the door quietly, walked softly down the first flight of stairs, then the second, and opened the door to the basement. I ran the rest of the way down.
“Hi, Ruth. Guess what we learned at school today?”
“I don’t know, child. Looks like something made you
“The water cycle, Ruth. All the rain fills the streams,the streams flow into rivers, they all run down to the sea.Then the water evaporates into air, fills the clouds up ’till they burst into rain again. Isn’t that the most amazing thing you ever heard? The most beautiful amazing thing?”
Ruth chuckles, smiles that radiance back to me, nods, sighs.
“Yes, child, that is very beautiful to know, very satisfying.”
“Why haven’t I heard about it before? Why isn’t everybody talking about it? Why didn’t they tell me?”
Ruth stops the iron, nods again, and smiles more gently.
“I don’t rightly know. Something that’s there all the time, but you don’t notice it. People have to make dinner,get the dishes done.”
“Ruth, I don’t every want to be a grownup. I don’t ever want to stop thinking about the water cycle.” Her laugh envelops me, releases me. I dance for her,sing for her, and pretty soon, I have to go and practice.
In my own room, I take the violin out of its case, tighten the bow, take the amber rosin from its midnight blue velvet pouch, and rub it until the dust makes me sneeze.
Then I tune. By ear, the ear Ivan Shapiro, my teacher, pulls for my father’s edification.
“Such an ear, Nate, such an ear.” He is a round and bald little man with too many smells to keep track of: rosin, mouthwash, aftershave, peppermint gum, and something old and musty. “Such a wonderful ear.”
I am learning the Brahms Violin Concerto, and I can’t read music. He plays a passage
and I remember. I don’t want to learn to read. I want to play the music with my eyes closed and hear what I play with my heart. I want to be thrilled by all that immense
enveloping beauty. And besides, I have more important business for my eyes when I’m practicing.I play the open strings, run through the scales, set the music on the stand, go to the bookcase, snag a comic book, and place it carefully on top of the music. I begin to
play. Something for my mother, so she’ll know I’m practicing, something for my ear, I don’t know what. E A G#…Something long and windy, like a road, like a river. Little Lulu
catches up with Tubby. Something minor, sad and haunting: B flat, E flat, E. Witch Hazel shakes her broom at Little Itch. Now Allegro, Molto Vivace: Witch Hazel chases Lulu down the forest path.
The door slams. It’s my brother, Danny. His room is next to mine. Clunk, clank, thud: baseball, bat, mitt. Long silence. A series of muffled sounds. He’s practicing too,learning to snap his fingers. Why is it so hard for him, who can do almost anything else? He can’t carry a tune either, but every night before we fall asleep, I hear him practicing his most familiar song: “My country ’tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty, Of Thee I sing.”He tries so hard. He’s so good. My mother loves him best, but my grandmother loves me best. They would deny this furiously. My dad and Ruth love us about the same. I don’t know about my Grandpa. He pinches our cheeks and calls us little Mumsers, gives us a dollar for every A on the report card, and promises us a car when we’re 21 if we don’t smoke.
A couple of nights a week, he and the men play Pinochle and smoke cigars in their den which is right below my room. I like to go down and watch them play.
“So nu, Siggy, wattya got, aces?”
“I should be so lucky.”
“Stock Market dropped a point today.”
I’m invisible there.
Not so in the living room. The ladies are playing Samba and discussing fur coats, lamp shades, meat loaf, Mrs.Footerfass’ new maid. Their perfectly waved silver blue heads all turn to me as I come in.
“Isn’t she adorable.”
“Look at the shape on her.”
“No, show them your teeth, Dahlink,” says my
grandmother. “Look, they’re ahbsolutely poifect, not even the dentist corrected them. Her own.”
“So tell me, how is school?”
“You have nice little friends?”
“Your Grandma thinks the world of you. You know that,
“Have a piece hard candy.”
After practice, I rummage in the sock drawer for the last piece of Blackjack gum, grab the skate key and run outside to play. I sit on the front steps, put on the
skates, coast down the driveway to our tree. The black tar still looks wet. I can’t reach the place where the tree doctor scraped and patched it. Poor tree. I put my arms around it and pat its scratchy bark with my cheek. Dutch Elm Disease. I make a futile effort to blow a bubble, try not to feel so frightened.
I skate up and down the driveway for awhile. I know every crack and cranny. I find a stick and listen to the pok pok pok it makes on the picket fence next door as I skate alongside it. A small compensation for the crab apple tree and swampy field where we built bonfires, smoked reeds and roasted pilfered potatoes in the coals…forbidden pleasures, anyway…if only the grump hadn’t moved in and erased our wilderness. “Progress,” my grandmother says, but he’s so mean, he won’t even return the balls lobbed over the fence by mistake. He must have a hundred of them. What does he want with them? He doesn’t even go outside except to yell at the paper boy. Back and forth I skate, up and down the block, making a song. “Raindrops making puddles,raindrops filling streams, streams flow into rivers, I’ll see you in my dreams.”
“Cahler, Cahler.” It’s Ruth calling.
“Your mother says for you to go upstairs now.”
“But Ruth,” I pant, out of breath from skating to her so fast,
“I’m not finished playing yet.”
“You know you have to mind your mother.”
I take off my skates and go in. I count to 20 at each step. There are 20 steps. I lookfor anything to distract me. Not even a spider web,
Ruth is thorough. By the time I get to the top, my mother is mad at me.
“What took you so long? How did get so dirty? Go to your room.”
She follows me and fastens the gate across the doorway.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, please don’t make me stay in my room.”
No repeal. She walks down the hall to the kitchen. It’s not staying in my room, it’s my father knowing I’ve been bad again. I go to my bed and take up Grimm’s Fairy Tales to read. Which one? “Snow White?” “Cinderella?”
At last, my father’s car pulls up the driveway, a 1949 Chevy, two years old.
“Please, can I come out now? I’ll be good.”
“Yes,” she calls, music, life in her voice again. Chicken cacciatore, her speciality, is simmering on the range. Enticing spicy aroma beckoning all the familial fragments back to the center. My brother, Danny, is in the kitchen at the table drinking milk and coloring. And there we all are in time for phew, phew, Dad’s home-from-work whistle.
The long hallway on our floor is where I learned to fly. It was easy. I would stand between the bathroom door and my brother’s door facing the laundry chute on the left
and the clear passageway to the right, lift myself horizontally by grasping the two doorknobs, and sail into the dining room where we were a family, the living room where grownups and occasionally Santa visited, cruise around the fat and scratchy armchairs, open the door and nose down the front stairs where I terrorized my brother with the little vacuum cleaner, down down and out the front door,down the stoop steps, and, upsoaring over the elm into the clouds (nimbus, cumulus, stratus-various) forget myself there.
Flying, like most things in my grandmother’s house, both charmed and terrified me. And like much of my experience there, came unbidden, inexplicable, mysterious.The laundry chute, for instance, was prosaic enough. You just opened the little door and threw in grubby jumpers and pajamas (swoosh, thud) or rubber balls (boinkety,boinkety bonk bonk bonk…bonk) if you wanted sound effects, or the glossy white balloons my father kept hidden in one of the drawers of his night table if someone were coming. But
once we found a rat there crouching in the corner ready to spring, or maybe it was the rat we saw in the road, walking to the library, transposed in a dream.
Sometimes at night, I could actually crawl into the chute and climb onto a ledge above the door, a passage unavailable in daylight. From there, I could climb and wind
upward, crouching, the space is so small. I pull myself a long and precarious way up onto another ledge, a platform which is my parent’s bed, the one they gave me in exchange for my twin beds; in the middle of the covers there is a hole through which I fall like Alice: down down down until I am outside on the grass. I run back into the house to the basement laundry chute and begin to climb again past my grandmother’s little door, past my mother’s little door to the place where I started, back onto the ledge.
Now it opens to a small room whose only furniture is the fascinating kidney shaped vanity table of my mother’s that evaporated from her room one day, for which I hunted in the attic to no avail. But here it is: maroon and lime green drapery, mirror, perfume atomizers, powder puffs, nail polish and the faint scent of her cologne: Nuit d’amour.I know I can’t stay here and open the door to an enormous room filled with glistening white stoves and refrigerators and look, it’s Bess Meyerson, my Grandpa brother Sam’s wife Rose’s second cousin on her mother’s side. She’s opening oven doors and closing them,explaining. I quickly find a path through the maze of appliances and hurry to the back of the room and open the door.
Oh my Thunder, it’s the ocean and only stepping stones to walk on. The door slams behind me, the wind picks up, howling. Enormous walls of water rise up everywhere around me, grey seas swelling dark,dangerous, mysterious and compelling. My shorn hair grows into long and flowing tresses whirling around my head. Embracing the wind, I stretch out my arms for balance. Dark terror ignites me. My feet move gingerly on the slippery stones (high wire, no-net bravura); on and on, my heart pounding, until I walk into the sea, splashing, rolling in the fluid depths, enraptured.
I surface, pant for air, swim steadily, rhythmically until,spent and weary, I swoon away. I don’t drown. I awaken: In a dim room filled with music and books, a gently blazing hearth. It is a solitary, remote, familiar, heartening.
But I am really in my own bed, in my own room,awakening. Sunlight and bird song, robins, sparrows and wrens. The haunting wail of the morning train stirs me, Pan piping to the dawn. So early. I doze and flutter between the worlds, a moth on a window pane.
Coffee aroma tickles my nose and the commanding smell of bacon, the only permissible part of the pig in our house, propels me out of bed. The toilet flushes. It’s Saturday. I
am going shopping and out to lunch with my Grandmother. I dress and run downstairs to see if she’s up yet. His egg and needle are already on the stove. She boils them together,why waste the pan? Grandpa has diabetes. I go down their hall past the family portraits, children in black and white, the grandchildren in color, to their bedroom. Grandpa is in the shower; Grandma’s getting dressed. She already has her corset on and is rolling her stockings.
“Good Morning, Dahlink.”
She greets me sweetly. I love to watch the fascinating ritual of her dressing. It’s so elaborate and complex. I admire, too, her wrinkled flesh,especially the droop of her upper arms that wobble as she works. She fastens the stockings to the garters, takes the shoe trees out of her beige Enna Jettic pumps, and puts them on, careful of her bunions. She sings a little, asks me if I’ve had breakfast and goes to her mahogany dresser, top right drawer. This is it. Mystery of Mysteries, the Torah of the Ark: her Falsie. She had her breast removed 20 years ago before I was born. She didn’t die of it. Then she goes to her purse, brown alligator, and takes from her wallet three one hundred dollar bills, two twenties and a five, unzips the falsie and wads them in. Just like that, the most natural thing in the world. She doesn’t notice me watching her, captivated. I’m privileged to this intimacy. What does a child know?
Still singing, she positions this other fount of mother-love in her brassiere, an architectural construction made by whalebone. What do they do with the rest of the whale? Not an exactly uplifting quandary. Perched on her maroon velvet hassock, I fiddle with the shoe trees, mulling this over. I don’t say anything. She would kiss away my tears, but she wouldn’t understand. My grandmother has no sympathy for animals. She says I can’t have a dog or a cat.
“Sha, Dahlink, they bring doit into the house.”
God forbid. This confirms my sense that grownups are ninnies and my determination never to become one. We are not entirely pet-less, however. My brother has a tank full of tropical fish: neon tetras black mollies and guppies. The fish are boring but the scum-eating snail
fascinates me. Thinking it was eating the fish, I once took the brass pestle from the mortar and bopped it one. I had a stomach ache for a week, wouldn’t go into the living room, and was expecting the S.P.C.A. to come and take me away any. When I finally got up the courage to confront the tank, there it still was, and I sobbed inconsolably.
By now, Grandpa is out of the shower wearing his navy silk bathrobe and soft leatherbedroom slippers that scuff as he walks. Thermometer in mouth, he is toweling his hair, white tinged with a peculiar yellow. Some schlemiel Miami Beach barber spruced him up. He doesn’t like it either. He sees me and smiles. “Vas machst Du, dahlink?” he asks
without removing the thermometer, and without waiting for an answer (Is there an answer?) he shuffles down the hall. By now, Grandma has her dress on and asks me to zip her up. Then she puts on her poils. He puts on the Paganini violin concerto on the record player in the living room. Grandpa is crazy about it. We know it by heart.
I am going to be the world’s greatest dancer when I grow up, and have every kind of dog there is, except bulldogs and Chihuahuas, they’re ugly, and thirteen white fluffy cats and thirteen sleek black ones, and a leopard cub, a parrot and a monkey. I will ride Camels and donkeys and elephants. I will keep my rainbow-colored tutus in a big trunk pasted with ports of call stickers, and play a lot of shuffleboard on deck. I will make friends with the natives and dance around palm trees with them by the light of the moon.
On Sunday nights, aunts, uncles and cousins come to my Grandmother’s house for dinner. It’s always the same. Herring, chopped liver and rye bread are munched in the living room. Aunts and uncles drink Scotch, Grandpa schnapps, the cousins tomato juice (Be careful. Don’t spill it on your dress). Gramma and Uncle Benny drink tomato juice too. Uncle Benny is a surgeon. He doesn’t smoke either.Uncle Clarence is the lawyer. He can smoke and drink if he wants to because when he operates on people, his hands don’t have to be so steady. Aunt Blanche is beautiful. Aunt Lila is smart. My mother Mildred is the best bridge player. My dad, Nate, is a haberdasher and the only one who doesn’t belong to the country club. Uncle Clarence says he isn’t executive material, but he is clever with his hands. In fact, he’s an amateur magician. After dinner, he takes us down to the rec room, and delights us with card and rope tricks, vanishing golf balls, and other wonders. Spellbound,we watch him turn quarters into dimes. “Typical,” says Uncle Clarence when we tell him of this feat.
Gramma puts three leaves in her dining room table,covers the mahogany with linen and lace, and we set it with her good china and sterling silverware. Aunts toss the salad, put the Kugel and peas in serving dishes. We all come to the table and Gramma carries in the prime ribs. When everyone is served, Grandpa gives the benediction:
“So Nu, Eat, Already. The roast beef lies you should eat it,”
and we begin. My cousins on either side of me pass me their peas under the table. I’m the only one who likes vegetables, and we all have to finish our plates. The children are starving in India. None of us has any idea what that means. Sometimes Ruth comes in to serve and do the dishes. She wears a uniform and eats in the kitchen. I think she might be lonely in there all by herself, but my mother says she’s not. I’m glad she’s here anyway, and kiss her warm brown arm as she serves me the Kugel.
Some Sunday nights, Grandma and Grandpa come upstairs for dinner. We eat different things at our house. My mother is a good cook. It doesn’t matter what she makes except liver and onions or canned spinach. When that happens, I only pretend to eat. I wipe my mouth a lot, transferring the inedible morsels to my napkin. When the plate is clean and napkin full, I ask to be excused and dump the mess into the toilet. I’d rather be hungry than to have to gag it down.
After dinner, the grownups drink coffee. My dad steps into the living room to turn the radio on, to have it ready in plenty of time for Edward R. Murrow. I like to go in and sit in the big chair next to the console and listen to the crackle and hum of the set warming up. I can watch the incandescent pink glow of the tubes growing brighter from the hole I poked in the speaker’s webbing. Pretty soon the humming and buzzing turn into organ music, very dramatic. It gives me goose bumps. My show is coming on: “The Greatest Story Every Told.” It’s about this guy from Bible days, Jesus Christ.
“How can you listen to that Chazzerai?” asks Grandpa.
And at regular intervals of this week’s absorbing installment, he offers his commentary.
“And then he came and spoke unto them…”
“My father’s house has many mansions…”
“I am the light and the truth and the way.”
“Oy veh ist mir.”
My brother and I take a bath every night after dinner in our bathroom. We like to blow bubbles through washcloths and splash very carefully. My mother will kill us if we soak the floor again. I have magic powers in the tub. I submerge myself completely, and come up as Janet Oesterreich, a girl in my class I most admire. Once, when I had been invited to her house, we saw slides of their trip to Austria. I fell in love with the picture of Janet in a Viennese garden surrounded by blossoms. She looks so beautiful, like a fairy tale maiden. I want to be that slight figure with rosy cheeks and curly hair in that garden, wearing that dirndl. My body is chubby. My bangs are too short.
Sometimes I like to go to my parents’ bathroom and take a shower. One afternoon, as I’m leaving the steamy little room, my mother looks at me in a peculiar way, and tells me
there’s a book in the living room on the card table she wants me to read. I can ask her questions, if I have any, after I read it. I put my clothes on and go to the living room. It’s not a book at all, but a mimeographed pamphlet, entitled: “The Facts of Life: A Girl’s Guide to Menstruation.” It’s so obscurely worded, I can barely understand it. I’d rather be reading the Bobbsey Twins. At least something happens in those books. This is a dumb story about blood: it’s not going to happen to me anyway.
Sometimes my mother makes me so angry, I hate her. She talks to me as if I had no sense. This exasperates me, and one day I decide to get even. I write: “I hate Mildred” one hundred times on little pieces of paper and scatter them from my bedroom window to the backyard below. Now everyone is going to know.
If it weren’t for their evenings out, I don’t know what I’d do. A few minutes after they leave, when the baby sitter thinks I’m already asleep, I sneak into their bedroom and put the radio on, very softly. I don’t want to be caught. Fibber Magee and Molly, Life with Luigi, and the Great Gildersleeve are OK, but the shows I really love are Mr.and Mrs. North,Suspense Theatre and Lights Out. It isn’t just the thrilling excitement. It’s the way they really talk to each other. You can actually figure out what’s going on. They don’t know I’m listening, so they don’t have to say the interesting stuff in Yiddish. It’s very clear and straightforward, and I wish I could live there all the time. I wish Mr. and Mrs. North were my parents, or maybe I could be their midget maid. I could help them solve mysteries while making the sandwiches. I bet I could be a great detective. They even have a dog.
Life goes on like this for a long time. Change is so slow, it’s imperceptible. I can’t imagine it otherwise. Well, we grow out of our clothes, and I give up skating for bicycling, but that’s different. One day, I come home from school and Ruth is in the kitchen. “Cahler,” she says as I come in. She pulls me to her and hugs me, then kneels down.With her hands on my shoulders, she looks in my eyes.”Cahler. It’s your mother. She’s very sick. Your Grandmother came back from Florida to be with her. You be very quiet when you go in there.” My heart starts pounding as I tiptoe down the hall. My grandmother, in her traveling suit, sits on the needlepoint chair watching my mother. She doesn’t even see me as I come in. My dad, in shirt sleeves, crouches by the bed, holding a basin for my mother who is very pale, very ill. No one says anything. I feel this moment etching its way indelibly into my life. They will stay this way forever. I feel frightened and don’t know where to go. My room is too close and too small to contain me. I go up to the attic.
I open the door to the standing cabinet next to the stairs, and touch the long, satin dresses with buttoned sleeves, high necks and bustles. I am not to play with them. They belonged to my grandmother’s mother, all that’s left of her in this house. I don’t even know her name. I feel creepy and shut the door. I go back to the woolen closet, put my nose to the keyhole and smell the cedar wood. Then I go back to the rows of empty suitcases, lie down among them and go to sleep.
No one ever told me she was dying, no one said anything at all, but the day I came home from school and found the ambulance there, I went to the living room window and watched them carry her down the stairs and tuck the stretcher in (she looked so small and far away). I knew she would never come home again. The sound of the doors closing startled me. I didn’t see my father go in there with her, but he must have, because he wasn’t anywhere else. I waited for the siren’s wail, but they drove away in silence. My mother is going to die, I whispered, not daring to believe my own ears, words, knowledge. She died a week later. I was in Sunday school. Helen, my mother’s friend, came to pick me up and drive me home.
She parked across the street. “Go right upstairs, your father wants to see you. Don’t stop at your Grandmother’s. Go right upstairs.”
I open the door. He’s right there. He takes me by the hand and leads me down the hall to the den. He sits me on his lap (I’m goo old to sit on his lap) and tells me: “Mommy’s gone to heaven.” He starts to cry. I don’t want him to say it like this, like a story. I want him to say she died. She’s dead. He cries. I don’t cry. I don’t know what to say, to do. He takes out his hanky and blows his nose. I hug him and pat his back, a feeble gesture. Poor Daddy. We go downstairs.
Everyone’s there. In the living room, the dining room, the den. All day long, people come and go. My grandfather sits in an armchair. He never moves or says a word. My grandmother is the chief mourner. Her weeping fills the house. People embrace one another and cry. I’m not sure why I’m there; no one says anything to me for hours.
Only Aunt Blanche takes me in her arms and whispers, “You poor baby.” Then Helen is there again, and tells me I’m coming home with her, to bring some clothes for the funeral tomorrow. When we get to her house, all her kids are outside playing. May I play with them? I really don’t know if she’ll let me, but she does. It’s like a reprieve. I don’t want to think about it, not yet.
Helen takes me back to her house. During dinner, I begin to sense the real alteration of my life. Helen says, as she’s handing the chicken around, “You’re probably not hungry. You probably don’t want to eat anything.” How can this be? I’m ravenous. We’ve been chasing the ball and running around for the last three hours. “That’s OK.” I say, helping my self to salad, trying to look normal, inconspicuous. But I think there’s something wrong with myself for enjoying the meal. I feel shamed for not mourning my mother, for being hungry. I don’t finish my plate. FOOL, I say. That’s what a grownup would do. It’s a lie.
Helen puts me to bed in the guest room, alone, instead of with Ellen in her room where I usually stay on a sleep over. I’m just falling asleep when she comes in with an enormous box of Kleenex.
“You’re going to need these,”she says. “Goodnight.”
I am? Oh, yes. I’m supposed to cry. Millions of mothers are sleeping. Millions of mothers are dead. I have a million pieces of Kleenex in a box beside me in bed.
It is a crisp cold October morning, grey and overcast. I look out the window as I dress, watch the wind stirring the branches of the big maple tree, watch the red and gold leaves cascading down. So many falling leaves. Thunder rumbles in the distance. It’s going to rain. Perfect weather for a funeral. I shiver, put on my grey wool skirt and sweater. Imperfect clothes–I don’t have anything black.
My dad meets me at the funeral parlor door and takes me in. There are already sixty or seventy people there milling about or seated in the chapel, the whispered chatter a drone of bees. I feel lightheaded. They didn’t think I could eat breakfast either. We go to our seats, front row center. After a long time, there is silence. My grandmother comes in, supported by my uncles. She is furred, veiled, and like everyone else, dressed in black. She sits next to me, looks at my mother lying in her coffin, and begins to cry. The Rabbi begins too. I can’t understand what he’s saying, my grandmother’s sobbing is so loud and upsetting. We sit, we stand, we go through the motions, and then it’s time to pay our last respects. My grandmother approaches the bier, falls onto the coffin, hugging my mother, crying and talking to her in Yiddish.
“Mother,” says Uncle Benny, “the car is waiting.”
They have to drag her away. And then it’s my turn. Her hand is so cold. I’m sorry, Mommy, I’m sorry I was so mean to you.
After the ceremony at the cemetery, we go back to my Grandmother’s house. I wonder where my brother is. I haven’t seen him in two days. The house is full again, all the large crowd of her acquaintance paying condolence calls. My Grandpa resumes his silent sitting. Women bring food to the table. I sit down in the midst of plenty. While I’m eating, Ruth comes in the back door. She looks around and and asks what’s going on. Someone tells her, and she begins to cry.
I’m aghast. Someone called her in to work without telling her. I go to the kitchen to comfort her. She puts her arms around me and we hug a long time. Don’t pester Ruth; she’s working. Don’t pester Ruth; she working.
The Azerbaijani Madonna
I think she must have walked a long time, just to comecross the border. They walked in long files, not speakingmuch, putting one foot in front of the other. Aside from theplodding feet through long stretches of dry grass, therhythm of migration rang in the abrasions of copper pots,brass bells, candle sticks, mortar and pestle, not merelyrelics or emblems of home, but home itself. Scattered likewheatberries shot from the threshing machine, they gatheredtheir cloaks around them, laid their toughened courteoushands on the grey heads of the old grandmothers and receivedin turn the gift of hands on heads and the deep thrummingwail of departure, the rent in the fabric, in the old songsof the village in which the community found its face.They stopped at the waning of the light and made theirfires. The dragon was overhead and the archer whose wingswere pinions of cold light. Water and oil they carried ingoatskins. The wine and flatbread were long gone. Cheese anddates and figs were now as remote as grape-leaves in thearbor under the soft skies of summer, nights suffused withthe fragrance of jasmine. They ate their lentils and huddledas cattle do in the northern plains, awaiting the cold dawnand the slow plodding rhythm of going.And suddenly they were at the outpost on higher ground.The soldiers made crude jokes of welcome. Children flew awayfrom their mothers’ sides like crows sweeping away from theunderbrush to run across the border, to mark in raucousgabbling cries their arrival.
But Marina drew her baby inward to her breast and fedher the first milk of the first day, her face as quiet andremote as a tutelary goddess, Artemis in Anatolia, givingsuckle to the Ephesians. Soon they would make their lives ina strong stone hut, plant vines, send the small ones intothe hills with the herd, mark evening with milking, morningwith the kneading of bread, stacking sieves and pans ofcurds and whey for the fat balls of good cheese, and in timesit under the spreading fig tree, imbibing tranquillity,succor of the Great Mother.
But a night and a day and another night under thewheeling stars brought them to the cypress trees, the stonehuts, the large houses, the grand public buildings, hotelsand cathedral. In the oldest part of the city where theystopped and stared and looked at one another in numb reliefand with the quivering spasms of hunger and memory thatjostled mute tongues to speech, sharp need to make asettlement; they heard the mewings and whickerings of beaststethered in their stalls, not as herd animals but theindividuals or pairs belonging to each family in penscontiguous with the houses.
In the morning, Marina, and several other womeninquired after the well which was, they said, in the centerof the cathedral square in the shade of the great cypress.She wrapped her daughter to her, nuzzled the soft cheeks ofthe sleeping little one, took the two clay jars, and walkedwith the others in silence.
But you see, my love, I cannot tell if she entered thecathedral, and walked in the splendid ambience of dustylight filtered through the high vaulted beams from thecrenellated windows, or saw the blaze of candles at thealter, or heard the black-draped crones intoning Ave,Ave…or saw even one of the frescoes pulsing in saffron andocher and indigo and gold…
Her body began to vibrate, louder louder dissolving ina deafening tumult, shock after shock, in waves and crashingstone. Under the rubble she awoke to the chalky air so thickit was hard to breathe, and to the whimpering of the childstill close to her breast…whom she did then feed and feedagain, a day, and a night, and another, pinned under thegreat silent stones amidst the intermittent groans of thefaceless wounded and dying and the cooing of pigeons, thesoft sound of wings settling, as they looked for bread.And then the milk dried up. She hunted in the smallcell of their confinement with her fingers, inch by inch,until she found a sliver of glass, and therewith pricked herfinger and gave the baby to suck her own life-blood whichsustained them until the afternoon of the fifth day, whenthey were uncovered and drawn into the throng of Armenianrescue workers whose excited faces and gentle urgent handsbrought blood to her pallid cheeks again.She was thirty, beloved, the following summer, when shesuffered a heart attack, and now, convalescing, stillnursing her baby, she has been staying, gratis, at the largehotel. After the earthquake, all the innkeepers opened theirdoors to the displaced, kinsmen and refugees alike. But thatwas a year ago, and things begin to return to normal. Theygrow restless for the clink of the coin in the till. And sothe story goes.
1. Between the Walls
It began suddenly the Wednesday we began to renovatethe upstairs. We planned to take down the walls that dividedthe cubicles to make a large and pleasant room. What wehadn’t counted on was finding all the abandoned nests in thedust and plaster, bespeaking generations of small denizenswhose rhythms and pace of life made a hidden and silentcounterpoint to the slower mammals who inhabited the largerrooms. But that wasn’t the really striking find. Among thedebris, we found an odd metallic cylinder, reminiscent ofthose old tubes used in department stores to send bills upto the cashier’s office and change back down to thecustomer.
I began fiddling with the latch and by inserting mythumbnail and giving it a little jab, managed to open thetube. I could see the encapsulated paper, but I was much toodusty to examine it. Besides, there were several hours ofdaylight left and much to do. I put the tube in the backpocket of my coveralls where it made a comfortable clinkagainst the back of my leg as I bent and stretched, pullingdown the old boards.
After a hasty meal–I was far too curious about thecontents of my find to perform my elaborate nightly ritualover the cooking fire–I washed and settled into a comfychair to examine my treasure. The tube snapped right openand I picked out the contents carefully, my heart racing. Ifelt like a gawky kid in the possession of an unfathomablemystery, both timid and eager to unravel the thread ofexperience.
What I found was a manuscript. The paper was neitheryellow nor frayed, but remarkably fresh or well-preserved. Iread it several times. Although written in our nativetongue, the language was dense and opaque, the stylearchaic. I say archaic, but even I, no inconsiderablehistorian, could not be certain. Clues about its origin wereconsistently obscured and there was no gauge to reckon whereand when it was formed. It was a first person narrative (aletter, a confession, a memoir?) of a consequential,seemingly fated encounter, a sort of dragon-quest, set in apeculiar shifting dimension. I had the oddest sense thatwhat I possessed was a document not from the past, butfrom…the future, or a plane of time simultaneous with ourown, but not of it–rather like the mice carrying on theirflurried lives in the space between the walls. Preposterous,I know, and worrisome, like the bit of skin-flap on achapped lip.
Setting aside considerations of time and place, I readthe story again. Story I will have to call it, chronicle orfiction, and made it welcome at my hearth. We are so inuredto our fear of the strange and unpredictable, what we tellourselves is the certain treachery of the unknown, we haveforgotten the old custom of welcoming the stranger as anhonored guest at our table, proffering the host’s gift ofgenerosity. No. Now we engage in the pitting matches ofadrenalin with each dangerous stranger: defense, offense,offense, defense. But you know how it is…how hard todispel this consuming channel of experience. And you knowhow each channel takes over our awareness, commands ourattention, obliterating other channels: experiences,interpretations. Adrenalin Games. Oh yes, the rush, thediversion. My God, the diversions we make for ourselves.Amazing the seductions of the Fast and Easy which makeus skim over anything that requires patient digging. Isometimes wonder if our faculty for contemplation isatrophying. The lure of instant gratification has worn sucha rut, we may no longer be capable of the sustained effortit takes to penetrate the word veiled like a bride. Havingentertained ourselves astride the surface, we no longerremember the interior.
The story seemed a kind of Rosetta Stone to a lostworld. I admit it was my profound desire to enter and fathomthis Terra Incognita as well as an itchy curiosity about thenarrator that made me humbly empty myself of resistance tothe alien elements and press myself into the heart of thisworld, into the central chamber, hidden, of all places, inthe bowels, the guts. Worlds within worlds.
It took some time. It wasn’t until the sun went downthat I gave myself over to the unraveling of the tale, whichwas in itself a kind of journey. It became my (other)occupation for nearly the same span as the remodeling of myhouse. So marked, it forms an era of my life, an epoch. Isoon grew accustomed to the strange landscape, entering, asthough in a dream. I find myself profoundly affected by thenarrative I now set before you, whose elements seem to bleedinto, infuse my own. Does it not seem my words have beeninfluenced by this text? Diction, point of view, an elusivehold of a slippery reality…ad infinitum. I leave it to youto ponder, to wander through.
2. Severing Ties
This happened around the time I was promoted to theLost and Found department. The work was not difficult,though the days were long and the tasks arduous. I found thework satisfactory, and some of the maze-work, down those dimcorridors, was not without a certain curious appeal. I foundthe caves with their runic inscriptions rather interesting,in a, I was going to say, grim way, but that isn’t anaccurate enough description. There was always a kind ofhyperkinetic charge to the arched, domed caverns, an almostpalpable current in the clean air, perhaps emanating fromthe salt deposits where those who had trouble with breathingwere rumored to come, as to a refuge from the dusts andmolds of the upper air. These would have been runaways fromthe sanatoriums, the official outposts for the terminallyill who had nothing to lose. That is why, while in thecaves, you could often hear the baying of the bloodhoundsand the howling of the wild curs drawn into the pack bytheir call.
There was an altogether eerie sensation, the hairrising on the back of the neck, in response to the staticcharge in the caves, however calm and preoccupied with thesearch a seeker might be, an impersonal involuntaryresponse. But coupled with the night music of the rovingdogs, the effect was disquieting…not altogether unnerving,but one couldn’t fail, not even I, to take note of it.
It was quite possibly winter. The trees had long sincelost their leaves. You know how they stand about, limbsaskew, awkwardly naked, quaking in the least consequentialwind. I could never rid myself of the feeling ofembarrassment I had for them in that ridiculous posture theyperforce and foolishly endured. The tunnels had been closeda long while, too, so there was a kind of timelessness tothat Aeon, a cessation of the regular patterns, and but forthe erratic and changeable weather, there seemed to enswatheevery dimension and plane a profound torpor. There was anold story about a sleep-drenched realm they told theunfinished ones in which even the flies on the wallslumbered for a century, as time was reckoned then.There was an intermittent flurrying of snow, a swarmingof frozen particles and a cold glint of silver through thepronged stakes and bare boughs on the particular day. I nolonger remember which quest I was on; there were so manyinterlaced with the jobs of transcription andtranslation–so much so, that the days seemed a web of eventand circumstance, the details spinning out as the odd bitsof straw in the baling do, or the dry husks of beetles aftera spider finishes her meal. Out of that web, spun from thespindrift, perhaps even born of that web, there emerges asingular occurrence, obdurate as the obsidian walls of thecentral cave, sharp as the thorns we carried for our darkpurposes.
I think of a bare stage in a large amphitheatre and asolitary actor seated on a high chair under a flood of lightso excruciatingly luminous and exacting, that a thousandshadows fall from his frame on the ground around him whileobscuring the whitened features of his face. It could beanyone sitting there. It could be anyone but it isn’t. Istand, make a deep bow in majestic silence, and cross to thefootlights which I snuff in rapid exhalations of dartingbreath. In silence and darkness, I descend through theorchestra pit, weaving through the empty chairs and three-legged stands, into the narrow hall leading to the greenroom backstage where I gather my portable torch, ink pot,and keys. Behind the long row of costumes in the ancientcarved wardrobe, there is a door that leads to the pneumaticelevator which I summon by a particular sequence of gruntsand quavering cries.
There will be only one stop, at a level not far beneaththe one I enter from, before the shoot sucks us down throughthe branching runnels to the cave that is my destination.The capsule slides into the platform, a velvet approach.My companion and partner in these little expeditions,Harry, is waiting for me, tail aloft, whiskers twitching insalutation. He rubs against my leg and settles into thatcomplacent hunkering, looking very much like a broody henregally installed on her nest. We know each other so well,no word passes between us. None is needed. We understand oneanother perfectly. With only a small shifting of internalgears, we align our purposes to one accord. We are ready todescend.
Unless you have traveled in this fashion, not thecleverest most precise and evocative description will makereal for you the nature of this journey. Imagine yourself aplatelet, coursing through the capillaries of a mastodon, orsap rising to the outermost twigs of an ancient oak, and youmay have a sense of what it’s like. Who yet knows if thoughtlocalizes anywhere in the branching fronds of kelp or thecalcareous forks of coral?
At the precise but imperceptible juncture where systolebecomes diastole, inhale, exhale, our car came to a stop.The door receded. I flicked on the torch. Harry yawned. Westepped out upon the living filaments that are the cavernfloor. It takes a few moments to adapt to this new element.It requires gaining one’s sea legs, so to speak. The floorsand walls, semi-permeable membranes, were breathing hard aswe entered. No one is more sure-footed than Harry, but evenhe was having trouble finding the still point, getting insynch with the odd and enticing rhythm.
I was sure we had never entered this vaulted cell before, but there was something in-born and familiar here, a place I had left long ago, to which I had returned periodically throughout my lengthening span. On the near-wall, somewhere just off center, there began to glow one of salutation. He rubs against my leg and settles into thatcomplacent hunkering, looking very much like a broody henregally installed on her nest. We know each other so well,no word passes between us. None is needed. We understand oneanother perfectly. With only a small shifting of internalgears, we align our purposes to one accord. We are ready todescend.Unless you have traveled in this fashion, not thecleverest most precise and evocative description will makereal for you the nature of this journey. Imagine yourself aplatelet, coursing through the capillaries of a mastodon, orsap rising to the outermost twigs of an ancient oak, and youmay have a sense of what it’s like. Who yet knows if thoughtlocalizes anywhere in the branching fronds of kelp or thecalcareous forks of coral?
At the precise but imperceptible juncture where systolebecomes diastole, inhale, exhale, our car came to a stop.The door receded. I flicked on the torch. Harry yawned. Westepped out upon the living filaments that are the cavernfloor. It takes a few moments to adapt to this new element.It requires gaining one’s sea legs, so to speak. The floorsand walls, semi-permeable membranes, were breathing hard aswe entered. No one is more sure-footed than Harry, but evenhe was having trouble finding the still point, getting insynch with the odd and enticing rhythm.
I was sure we had never entered this vaulted cellbefore, but there was something in-born and familiar here, aplace I had left long ago, to which I had returnedperiodically throughout my lengthening span. On the near-wall, somewhere just off center, there began to glow one ofthe inscriptions that give this place its name. I had neverbefore noticed how the characters changed, so that thelegend was not a fixed cluster, but a swirl of evocation andchallenge. Little glyphs sizzled and smoldered and faded. Ineeded a magnifying glass and one-pointed intent topenetrate the shifting riddles, as well as a translucentemptiness I had been trained to surrender to, in order toreceive the coded messages.
We directed our steps inward, bounding really, alongthe breathing floor, past all the gates I had previouslyencountered in similar caves. Guided by the flaming coupletsand in silence, punctuated by an occasional lapse inprotocol, an effervescent purr from Harry, pleased to be onthe prowl by my side. I turned the torch up a notch and thenhad to crouch because the distance between ceiling and floorwas attenuating into the funnel.
We went on this way some time and I could sense my ownbio-rhythms attune to the pulsations around us. Gradually,the passage widened and when I could again stand erect, Ifelt something altering inside myself, as if here, too, Iwas adjusting to some new environmental command.We were now in the mesogastrium of the region and inthe first mesentery. I began to feel the grumbling in my ownstomach that arose to greet the grinding walls. I lookeddown at Harry who returned my wink. We both knew howabsolutely awake and attentive we must be.
Passing into the second mesentery without incident, Isaw before me, rising and falling on the gastropods, thedouble-headed axe that sent out its filaments, drawing me tothe handle, which fitted like a second skin. Eureka, purredHarry, who settled himself on his eggs, out of harm’s way.No sooner done, then the giant appeared, right onschedule. I hadn’t gone looking for him, nor had I expectedto find him. But the moment he materialized, I knew this wasthe battle I had long awaited. This was the oak that hadgrown from the acorn of a kiss planted on the back of myneck. You may remember what a grievous insult and injurythis was, the breaking of the first taboo, the refracting ofinitiation that renders the recipient inefficacious, avictim. Now I did battle to uphold the first laws, to redeemthe stolen child, to reclaim the status of solvency.
It is enough to say this creature was blood of my bloodand I of his. It is enough to say I wrenched away from thethrobbing beat of the blue chamber, asserting the crimsonpulse of my natal center. How can I describe the hulk beforeme, everything strange, everything familiar: odious,adorable, a piercing pungency–the strength and pith of oldcognac, an insipid brew of tepid tea. What was his presenceto me: menace or inconsequential nuisance?
He loomed but neither uttered nor made to strike.
Looking at the wall of his being before me, knowing by thesurge of acrid protest welling in my gut, that all coursesof action had dwindled to one alone, I threw down my torchand hoisted the axe in a circular swing and cleaved the headfrom the body of the beast: no more, no less. Panting.Bellowing. The walls? My own gnostic eruptions? I couldn’tsay. The walls glowed and sighed. I saw a small tablebeneath which my torch had rolled, upon which stood a plateof cake and a mug of ale.
After the battle rhythm subsided and Harry again stoodby my side beginning to purr and weave himself into thestrands of my breathing, insinuating his friendly self intothe focus of my gaze, I partook of the simple feast preparedfor me, sharing the best morsels with my boon companion. Thewalls hiccoughed.
It was enough and time to transpire. Was I relieved ofmy onerous burden, made new and whole again? Did I walkwith a lighter tread, wake with gladness in my heart? Icannot say, for a long darkness fell upon me, a tiredness sogreat I must fall into it, in order to dream my waking onceagain, to take root into the heart of the living, in thegray-green oasis I knew we were journeying to….
This evening, I lingered in the garden, kneeling amongthe new lettuces, marveling at the soft rich greens, thestrength and delicacy of their leaves, their cheeks I wantedto say. The dinner greens awaited in the raffia basket. Abottle of new wine stood uncorked on the kitchen table,breathing. My companion was probably lowering the flameunder the soup kettle wondering what was keeping me, butstill I lingered breathing in the tender May air, fragrantwith lilacs and roses. The house is finished now, more orless, the odd corner awaiting the finishing touch, a happyfind, a welcome gift. But I am happy there, just as it is.Secure in this fertile haven (we are definitelyexpecting children to flourish here), I have begun totranscribe stories of childhood, tales of a collective pastthat had for that long and miserable winter chilled us tothe marrow, pulverized our small lives into disjointedsplinters. But you remember…or a part of you will…theslivers of ice planted by the Ice Queen, thatnightmare…that rude kiss on the nape.
I planted the cylinder, by the way, a few rows up nearthe tomatoes. I don’t know, why. It just seemed like theright place. I made copies of the manuscript soon after Ifound it and that was fortunate, because the ink began tofade and the pages yellow and eventually crumble. Odd, butno more mysterious and inexplicable than anything else,really.
For some time now, we have been coming out at night togaze up at the stars. There was a time when people couldread them, know by their position and time of return what toplant and when. I expect we will, too, if we sit here longenough. I don’t mind being swallowed up in this immenseloveliness.
I wish it weren’t so, but things bother me…all thetime, which is why I gave up reading the newspaper. Butsince I somehow got into the habit of listening to themorning and evening news on the radio while I’m cookingbreakfast and dinner for my kid, what’s the difference. Itall filters in just as it did before, and I have to admitI’m depressed most of the time. Lately, in between littlebursts of spring fever which hits me every year about thistime, I’ve begun to forget my resolve to be forever on myown.
The love topic? It’s a sickness! But despite my betterjudgment and firm resolve, I get suckered in, just like therest of the fools and go around for weeks, moping andpining, languishing, wallowing in longing, in a green fever,hot as the tropics before the monsoons. Groan.So between swamp woman and carrier of the world’sburdens on my admittedly wide, but never-the-lessstaggering-under-the-burden-of-shoulders, I don’t know ifI’m coming or going and have a hard if not impossible timefocusing on the big plan to overthrow the meanies in oneswoop with no blood shed or further loss of sleep. I mean, Ihave a plan.
I’m a closet chemist. No one but my daughter knowsabout the basement lab, and I know a few things about her Iswore never to tell in exchange for secrecy on her part. I’mwilling to tell my story now, because I’m about ready to letthe cat out of the bag, anyway, to unveil, or should I sayuncork my secret weapon. But before I do, I’ll tell you howit all got started, a business in itself, but what the hey.I used to like to chew gum, mainly because it kept mefrom eating. My interest in chemistry, obviously stems frommy love of and interest in cooking, a subset of chemistry,which comes of loving to put good things to eat in my mouth.The problem with putting a lot of butter drenched toast orcreamy pasta down the craw is that waist, bust, hips, andthighs expand exponentially. Input, output, onput. Hence,the interest in chewing gum, an otherwise juvenile or atbest adolescent activity. I was sick of the same old hohumflavors or repelled by the toxic magenta and orange of thenewer, designer gums, or the sugarless, but possiblycarcinogenic kinds. Why, I wondered, hasn’t anyone thoughtof more interesting flavors, like ice-cream options–doublefudge or burnt almond or pistachio. Now there’s a flavor Icould get into. If not now, when? If not me, who? I wasafraid that if I gave my ideas to the big companies, theywould laugh in my face and then, on the QT, open up themarket in a big way. I’d rather start a company. We’d go upslowly with one or two natural flavors like peach or blackcurrent or kiwi-lime, then build up to a crescendo of highculture featuring every nut, fruit, and root, and perhaps avegetable or two, like celery…then collapse into franticcompetitive decadence: tomato soup, ham and eggs, pear withgorgonzola, spaghetti carbonara…back where I started from.That’s how I got into chemistry. There were plenty ofwater and heat sources as well as outlets in the basement.All I would need would be pipettes, beakers, and a Bunsenburner. I figured I had enough retorts already withouthaving to resort or revert to pyrex. I went downtown tohospital supply, first stop. I know I could have let myfingers do the walking, but I wanted to get in the mood, inliving color and three D. Since there were no chem-labmaterials and outfitters listed, per se, I thought I’d makehospital supplies for home-care nursing the jumping-onplace.
I could tell you a thing or two about the rarepossibilities for torment and torture, old-fashioned patientabuse, I gathered from the display cases. Were theseimplements of or impediments to recovery, or just plaininstruments of torture? Or maybe it’s just the other sideof the do-gooder in me coming out, to construe perfectlyinnocent nurses’ helpers as Machiavellian devices forsubduing an irascible, possibly incontinent old-timer or anauto-crash victim with brain damage in the stage of recoverywhen he or she realizes what has happened and is furious, orsomeone you don’t like very much, who used to have theupperhand on you.
However, be that as it may, I was looking for glasswareand rubber tubing…I hadn’t actually designed theexperiment yet, so I didn’t really know what I was lookingfor or going to need, but I wanted to get the lay of theland to get in the mood. Plus whatever I would buy wouldprobably be a good investment. From all the chemistryexperiments I observed in high school, I knew about thebasic materials and equipment. I couldn’t go wrong.Turned out there was a lab supply outfitters in thesuburbs, so I hopped a number 39 bus and transferred twice,the limit on one fare, and then walked three blocks. And ahalf. And an alley. Called a mews. But believe me, this wasno two-cars-in-the-garage, 2.7-kids-in-the-rec-room suburb.This was the industrial part of town, with a pungent if notunpleasant smell of rotten eggs, sulfur dioxide, no doubt,wafting around the neighborhood.
I found 33 Rand Avenue, opened the glass and metal doorby the bar and proceeded up the cement stairs. My footstepssounded hollowly and echoed in the close and narrow passage,up, up, and up some more. Best exercise I’d had in months,so who’s complaining. The store was filled with metalshelving, floor to ceiling samples on the first seven oreight rows, and about three times as many rows with boxes,presumably containing, in quantities, the samples displayed.I browsed. I bought. I returned home, burdened by my fragilepurchases, and went directly downstairs to set out theequipment for my burgeoning lab and possible gum factory. Arush, let me tell you.
All this before the kid came home, and I slipped out ofmy superchemist duds and turned back into mild-mannered,myopic, mainly drab and daffy Mom. The chemistry plan forthe evening would wait while I engaged the pots and pans ina little prandial pasta manufacture and the inevitableaftermath of dirty you know whats in the sink again.To make a long story short, the gum experiment flopped,went belly up, came to nothing: Nada, zip, zilch. I becametoo preoccupied by world events again: this war, that war,these people deported, over-run, disappeared, struck-down,burned out, scorned, rebuked, reviled, abandoned, rejected,let down, let go, and left out…and my own soul cringed anddwindled and my cheerful wisecracking self moved out andEEyore moved in and threatened to take up permanentresidence. Pathetic. That’s what it was. Pathetic.Good morning, said my darling daughter. If it is a goodmorning I said, which I doubt said I. I don’t do anything byhalf measures and a thousand gypsy violins spieling andsobbing over old days in Roumania before the end of humankindness (May the Nazis never rise again), couldn’t outsingthe strains of mournful melody that welled up from mylugubrious, dolorous, mournful, and melancholy soul.And then, one morning, I awoke, matter-of-factly, andannounced, that’s enough of that. I knew I would not, couldnot resume any sort of life until I found a way to act, tohelp, to alleviate the suffering and misery. But what to do?Dr. Schweitzer already did his act in the jungle and MotherTheresa and the Dalai Lama had shuffled on and off the bigstage, as had Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., LennyBruce, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Whoopi Goldberg, and LiliTomlin/Jane Wagner et al.–the humanitarians and comedianshad all done their part, one after another, had put an armin the dike while the sea of troubles threatened tooverwhelm us again and again and again. I’m not complaining.But there it is.
One evening, after a particularly succulent supper,after I washed up, I found myself walking down the stairs tothe basement. I turned on the overhead, and there it stillwas: my lab, my incipient and potential place of manufactureand low-tech industry. The light bulb came on, quiteunexpectedly and undeniably, lighting up the confusion anddarkness generated by the collective dimming of heart andsoul, our standing by, seemingly powerless while decency andkindness took a back seat to corruption and greed. Now Iknew what to do.
The first step, as always, was research and paperwork,trips to the library, inter-library loans, a trip to thechemistry department at the state university in a nearbycity, but mainly reading, reading, and more reading, andnote-taking, then sketches, then a bona fide 3-D, Bunsenburner, retorts-at-the ready experiment.It worked. But my new odorless, tasteless, mood-altering, well-being-inducing happy gas made an ephemeralimpression. I wanted permanent results. And I’m almostthere. Before long, the world conference on human happinessmeets, and members/envoys from every nation in the worldwill come to my lab and bring the gas home for distribution.I selected members by hand, on the basis of theirselfless work in fields that further human harmony andcontentment. One by one, they agreed. Lone Ranger, Zorro,move over. Dr. Feelgood has come to town and is just aboutopen for business. Oh, I admit, I’ll put myself out ofbusiness after the one and only delivery of the goods.Malcontents, miscreants, and malefactors, havoc-wreakers, mulish makers of malfeasance, corrupters, bigots,seducers, murderers, thieves, used-car salesmen, insuranceagents, and the lawyers (“The lawyers, Bob, they know toomuch”)….translated, in a wink of an eye, to perfectlydecent, kind and friendly, handy and helpful, open-minded,open-hearted, open-handed men and women, paradise on earthand all we have to do to smile and laugh and kick up ourheels…is breathe.
And breathe easy, for once that’s over and done with, Ican get down to solving the real problem of life: finding asweetheart and having some fun.
The Fish That Got Away
During the decade I had a passion for photography, Iwas no Diane Arbus filling up my attention and my soul withimages, bizarre and grotesque, with the quiet and shockingreality of the monsters that she perceived. Monsters notbecause they were hideous or deformed, but because they weredifferent from the standard issue of the middle AmericaMadison Avenue appealed to, because they bore thedistinctive, seemingly distorted expressions of individualsin pain, their true faces, which the rest disguised withpancake make-up, face-lifts, or even nose-jobs. Different orout of scale were the giants and dwarves, anomalies whosestrangeness made those of us who did not flinch and lookaway, look inward and wonder about our own refractions, oursecret shame of self that twists the hale soul robbing thespirit of efficacy. For if the face we present is not theone we own, we are fractured beings, bound to a quest forwholeness or oblivion. The sickened self harbors its secretsongs of unworthiness, while outwardly conforming to thepublic measure, what’s in, what’s OK. Thus diminished, theego’s outer need for status and rank increases, and theheart is vassal to the head, not the head servant to theheart.
I recognized and honored the genius of Arbus’ vision,yet I was afraid to fill my own soul with images of thenight, for I become what I create; my spirit enters into mywork and vice versa: cooking, words, garden, the images ofthe fleeting, enduring, phenomenal world embraced in theheart, that I felt compelled to record. I came upon a cow ina field, a black and white holstein in a field of tall blue-green grass the wind was moving through. Her belly wasdistended, not big with life, but her four legs were rising.She was upside down, erect and stiff in the late afternoonin the lowering light. When I saw her there, I lowered mycamera and thought of Arbus who would not shrink fromincluding in the record this as well as every lovely,blossoming that. I was too much a smitten lover, embracingevery living leaf and twig and tree, too much a celebrant ofthe everywhere-I-looked beauty of the natural world…. Ican see that this cow or the hapless gull snagged in thebuoy in the middle of the bay, expiring there as we cameupon it suddenly, on a perfect summer day in a small boatpainted with an eye on her bow, are also images of life, butI who had just returned from the borderlands, the twilighttime of reclaiming the fractured pieces and mending (“Fornothing can be whole or sole that has not been rent”), wasafraid to look too closely at the face of death. Though Idid not record them on silver nitrate, I’ve kept them in myheart, fixed in memory as precisely as on film.They did not get away, even though I thought that notpressing the shutter would release these images, woulddispel them, and they would be nothing to me, have no rootin my being, as if death were not already there, as if theembryonic seed had not already begun to stir, as if I didnot already feel his hot breath over my shoulder, compellingme to flow into my purest form, most authentic self, to saywhat ails me, palely loitering…to say and do and beunrefracted, unfragmented, unskewed by fear or spite ortimidity. These fish remain.
Other fish eluded me… the biggest ones, of course:
the great moments of breathless beauty uncaught because Iwas not wise enough or quick or ready. Rebecca at the Well:a maiden, her shining long hair parted in the middle, haloand crown to her clear and open face, bending to scoop waterfrom the spring in her cupped hands, her Boticelli cheeks,the eloquent grace of her hands holding the wiggly clearliquid, and she bends, hair falling around her, a cloak,while she drinks. And I, seeing the eternal caught in amoment of time, seeing, as Van Gough said, that whichdoesn’t change in that which does, fumbled in my back-pack,quick, hurry, pull out the camera, tear off the lens cap,advance film, set shutter speed by blind guess, hurry, notime to take the measure of the light filtered throughbracken and fern, quick, focus…and what was there beforemy eye in the viewing screen? The mortal adolescent girl,cheeks flushed with the effort of the climb, beads of sweatlining her brow, a smudge of dirt on the bridge of her nose,wiping her mouth on her sleeve. That one got away, but Iremember and aspire: readiness is all.
Another big one got away in Mexico in the early
Seventies, when such a shot would have made my fortune. Downa dusty road in Palenque, a large and grunting black andpink porker was mounting a sow in front of the little shackof a police station, Officio de Federales. Verdad. HolyFrijole, man, Dos Muchos!
And recently, in the panoramic sweep of the tendergreen hills after the rains came and broke the drought, inthe little hole in the far distance between the green of thehills and the greeny boughs of the billowing trees, a bigred and white Wonderbread truck appeared, en route, aperfect conjunction of the mother’s splendor and her child’sfolly. Wonder Bread, not the bread of communion, this mybody, but the holy staff of life caricatured, denuded ofnutrients, bleached to look pure and refined: bland bread,form without substance. Such is our lot. So many goingthrough the motions, so many refractions, so many lostfishes.
Is what we make what we become? Are we not like thedinosaurs? Too big for our britches, too greedy our eating?Big appetite, little brain, we lay waste and despoil,fouling our nest, degrading materia through ignorance,folly, and greed, without heeding, taking into account,consequence.
Sometimes I imagine the gods feeding on the souls ofthe dead as we munch on peanuts: some are quite tasty andsome are so rotten and bitter they (we) must be spat out atonce.
Evolutionarily speaking, at least from the span begunin the garden (from the stories germinating in this matrixof time within and without), are we not imbued with noblepurpose? Are we not the inherent possibility of the givencoupled with the effort and industry of the made? Isn’t thecovenant between mortal being and the creative a joint work?We, who labor without spirit, are charged by the profitmotive, rather than inclined by nature, or moved, stirred bycompassion and the tenderness of the heart–are like whitebread without the germ of life-giving nourishment, becomingshadows of our selves. We, puffed-up ones lording it overall creation, become, thereby, diminished, dwarves ingiants’ clothing. And if we are created in the image of thedivine, as Agatha Christie has read into this mystery, weare made so by our labor: when we work and see that what wemake is good. Certainty it is possible to become good bakersonce again. Otherwise a lot of salty tears in which we swim away.
It’s Only Life
Mother gave me another rotten lunch today. I don’t meannot to my persnickety taste. It was rotten. Green meat,moldy bread, and a blue orange–blue, the color of a copperpot gone off. I hate to think of what was in that thermos. Ithrew it away. Not that I am careless or can’t make the timeto wash the dishes and recycle. But if the sandwich and thefruit…
And it’s not that my mother has it in for me, either.She likes me. Thinks the world of me and so forth, but. Shehas a little problem with her memory. Nothing serious. Shekeeps the house OK. and finishes her sentences, mainly, butshe worries she will forget to make me lunch in the morning.She’s foggy from her dreams, so she makes them the nightbefore and puts them in a good place she can find right away(only she doesn’t) so I won’t go hungry. Ma, I say, how boutthe fridge? That’s the first place I think of when I’mlooking for something to eat. It’s not that I can’t make myown damned lunches, but she wants to do it, says it makesthe day come together, you know, a project she can buildaround.
It’s the third rotten lunch this week. I might start
making my own lunches on the side, though where I’m going to
stash them is a problem. If I put them in the fridge, she’ssure to find them, and then worry about whether or notshe’ll remember where they are in the morning and take thebag out, for Pete’s sake, and we’re back to where westarted. A real pain in the butt, but what can I do? If Igot my own place, I’d spend half my time in the car or onthe phone, checking on her. No, thanks. Cars are exhausting,no pun intended, and the phone? Forget it.I don’t have the heart to put her in a home. I meanwhat for? So somebody else will take care of her? Uhuh.Nothing doing. When I think of all the messy diapers she hadto change, all that middle of the night swaying around thehouse when we were teething or sick. I just couldn’t farmher out the way other folks do. Like they do with babiesnow. I can’t see why people are so fired up to have babiesin the first place if they farm them out right off the batand don’t even get to know them. They’d call my way ofthinking backward and impractical. People have to work–avery convincing argument. I can’t find any holes in it, as amatter of fact, and there’s no point in arguing. It’s just agut feeling I have and you can’t quarrel with that, either.Or you could, but I wouldn’t listen.
Did I tell you what my mother does in her spare time?
She reads the obituaries. Not that she’s morbid–far from
it. She says this is the best way to get to know people in
the community. You get to know more about them in three or
four condensed paragraphs than you would in a dozen years of
idle gossip at the checkout counter or in front of the postoffice or waiting for the bus. She’s probably right. Anyway,that’s what we talk about every evening. She likes to keepher hands busy, so she’s always got a pile of mending orknitting piled up. She likes darning the best, but that’swhen the conversation gets the flakiest. Shh, she’ll say,right after she’s revealed some fascinating data in the lifeof one of her new friends. Curious, I ask her for moredetails. Shh, she says, I’m concentrating.She has a little wooden egg for the socks which hergrandmother’s mother gave to her daughter all the way downthe line, but the egg stops there. I don’t intend to spendmy spare time darning. She’s probably the only one left inthe country who mends socks for fun. It keeps her institches. Me, I like to joke around. It takes the pressureoff, but you can’t really plan on anything in the humorline, you know? Sometimes wisecracks fall out of thin airor pop up like gophers in the garden. But it’s chancy, likebeing in the right place at the right time.
Last week after charred chicken and twice cooked peas, we sat out on the back porch because it was such a pleasant evening, and she began telling me about a young man she had met that afternoon. Good looking, but not showy-off goodlooks with a me-first and let me tell you all about myincredible self, I can do anything better than you attitude.
Uh uh. This was a guy with a look of self-contained innocence, but not so shut up in himself he wouldn’t travel half way around the world if he thought it would do somebody any good. A prince. Well, she was carrying on so, she evengot me interested, ready to ask for his day-time phonenumber, you never can tell.
So young, she said, didn’t even have time to buildhimself a proper life. No wife or kids or big career, thoughhe looks like he could have made something of himself. Heplayed the guitar in a Rock and Roll band. That surprisedme. I didn’t think mother would be impressed by a rock androller, let alone a musician. But that proves her point.Spend your entire life with a person and not even know whatshe values or thinks important. What’s his name, I ask, moreto keep the conversation going than to find out. It’s toodamned late, for Pete’s sake. Pete, she says. You’ve got tobe kidding, I say. Pete, for Pete’s sake? Just kidding, shesays. His name is Happy. He was a high school drop out, buthe played all kinds of music, not just rock and roll. Do youlike rock and roll, she asks me. Do I? Do hens lay eggs?
I started thinking about Happy and how much I like him,from what I know of him, from what my mother told me, from what she read in the paper. I wonder why he died or if he would have died if he had only met me in time. We would have been perfect. Of course, I haven’t actually seen hispicture. Mother wrapped the mending in it to let her knowshe had already done it, and put it in the dresser in theattic where we put everything not in use or in season. Idon’t have the energy to go up and rummage around, so I’lljust have to take her word. Plus my imagination.She wrote down the cemetery where he’s buried so we canput roses on his grave, as soon as the roses bloom, that is,if she remembers where she put the address and so forth, ifwe remember him at all, by that time. And by then, therewill be so many others–future beaux who will nevermaterialize, already engaged in the reverse process, ifthat’s not too gross too mention.
I wouldn’t mind the idea of dematerializing so much, ifI could believe we materialize somewhere else. I rather likethe idea of molecular transportation. Beam me up, Scotty.There were never any problems with it on the Enterprise, butremember what happened to the guy in The Fly?…(Help me!)Where do we go when we are energized, between the time wewere, you know, who and where we first were, and the timeand place we resume our characteristic form? I mean,suppose a chair got in the way? Would a personrematerialize with an armchair arm instead of a human one,or a stem protruding from the top of the skull if you gotmixed up with a cherry? Not that I expect to find ananswer, but I keep checking the human interest and sciencesections of the paper for developments.
My mother only reads the obits, to keep her company, while I’m away at work. As far as I’m concerned, the paper’s a pain in the butt. You can have their damned wars and nasty horror stories of everyday life–fatal crashes and so forth. I’d rather read about new inventions and discoveries, the nice things people do for each other, something on the up side. I once wrote one of the big networks, back in the days when we watched TV, demanding equal time for uppers. Everyone reads the downers all the time. People get so sickat heart, they drink and smoke and eat themselves half todeath, just to numb the pain of what they read so they cango to sleep at night. I never got an answer, though I thinkit was a pretty good idea, the jerks. Anyway, I never couldstand all the damned commercials–two minutes of intensemoving drama and then fifteen minutes of beauty queensdraping themselves all over sleek and sassy cars. Autoeroticism, if you ask me.
I haven’t missed it much, though sometimes I kind of miss the adrenalin rush that floods your whole body when you get so riled up you couldn’t cross an eye or dot a tee. Before we finally pulled the plug, half the human population expired right here in our living room. Every ten seconds or so, a new corpse would turn up, and I guess, people all over the country are sitting in their living rooms and dens right this minute, watching bridges and innocent bystanders being blown up, cars with once living, breathing passengers, bursting into flames. Gorgeous girls, gone wrong, putting
out without love or choice or dying from an overdose supplied by their so-called managers in Seven hundred dollar suits and wing-tipped shoes. I’m sure I don’t have to repeatthe ghoulish and gory catalogue of prime-time terror,mayhem, and murder for you. It’s sickening, if you ask me. There’s enough trouble in the world without having to manufacture more and call it entertainment. Little kids get the idea that shooting people is as humdrum and commonplace as going to the bathroom.
And then we’re surprised at real violence in real streets?Monkey, see. Monkey do. Life imitating art, my fart. Kidsknow better, for a while, anyway, while they still possesstheir own souls, before their spirits are broken and theycave in, just to get a little love, just to survive.Pathetic, but that’s how far our big brain has gotten us.Ever notice how time expands when you shut off thetube? Seems like evenings go on, forever, now, on the porchif it’s warm enough or near the fireplace when it’s not.
Sometimes, I make popcorn. Mother allows that a fitting chore for offspring, a suitable supplement to her own culinary efforts, such as they are. I like sitting in the old wicker rockers. They are scruffy, I’d have to admit, but they’re still comfortable–made when designers kept the human anatomy in mind. Don’t you love the changing light and colors of the dusk? Twilight. Day bleeding into night likea bridge over water. An in-between place. Twi Light.Settling into the quiet, letting go of busyness and plans,unwinding and watching the stars emerge, one by one, andpiecing out the constellations, my mother tells of all thepeople she got to know today. Every so often, we just sit incompanionable silence and watch the galactic pageantry.Colder nights we build a fire. I like the pitchy smellof pine swimming around the room and the snap and cracklewhen the sap ignites. Sometimes we light the lamp andsometimes we enjoy the fireworks in the hearth in the dark.Sometimes the wind stirs in the trees in a certain way and Iremember the stories Mama used to tell us in the eveningsafter we got our homework done, and our clothes put away,and our teeth brushed, and our faces scrubbed clean.
Once upon a time, on a cold winter night, there livedin a snug little cottage in the deep dark woods, two beautiful daughters and their hard working widow-mother, not grumpy and careworn and bitter, but gentle and kind. The wind is howling in the trees and at first, they don’t hear the tapping on the door. Finally, the mother hears and sends the girls to open the door and welcome as honored guest whoever seeks shelter at their door. It’s not a weary woodcutter, as you might think, or a wayfarer, someone who needs a place to sleep on a night too cold to spend outside. Then, who? A great bear, that’s who. And the rule of hospitality is so strong, they have to overlook his scary, unpredictable animalness, overcome their own fear and repugnance–I mean what do bears smell like? Gamier than socks, I bet–andlet the poor cold creature into their cheerful, cozy parlor.
It’s a long story, believe me. It’s only partly abouthospitality, like the stories in the Bible, when Goddisguises himself in order to test the qualities ofrighteousness and kindness, to see who’s generous and whoisn’t. This one’s a love story with a moral. Young girlshave to put up with hairy beasts if they want husbands.That’s how I remember it, anyway, as we sit by ourselves,two dotty old women, well, one not so old, staring into thefire, listening to all the eligible young men my mother hasdug up for me in the daily news.
My heart isn’t in it anyway–looking for beaux, Imean. That last war took care of all the ones I cared about,and you know, sooner than sneeze, they’ll go and startanother one. Life is too hohum and flat, too boring and dullon the home front. What with all that raging testosterone,the desire for action, sneaking around enemy territory incamouflage, crawling around on their bellies in the dark istoo damned much fun to turn down, too exciting to pass up.And do what, instead? Sit around a grey office all daystaring at actuarial tables? Horse around a used-car lot orstick their noses in the business end of a truck? Think ofall the poor saps down a coal shaft, stuck in chickenprocessing plants, or squirting solder into TV circuits asfast as they can, doing piece work. Bivouacing in the junglehas to be a bigger draw, if you haven’t shut down entirely,if you have any romance left, any sense of adventure. But.My brother, Jimmy, couldn’t resist. We don’t talk abouthim much anymore, not much else to say. But we keep up hisroom. Mama says I could bounce a quarter on the bed shemakes, go ahead and try. There’s not much in that room butthe dust she misses, rising in a shaft of sunlight in thelate afternoon, dancing around–a miniature galaxy, starsand planets spinning every which crazy way, with no patternI can detect. The scale is too small. I love my mother asmuch as I do because of Jimmy’s boots. They’re regulationarmy, all right, high-topped and black as pitch, but she’sleft them unlaced, tongues askew, just as he left them thelast time he took them off, what his hands did. They mustget in her way when she pulls those sheets and blanketstaut, but she doesn’t move them from where he left them.Died from the effects of Agent Orange. That’s what our G.P.said, though the army won’t hear of it. How the hell can yoube all you can be if you can’t even put together simplecause and effect? Don’t get me started. I bet she keeps mylunches under his bed.
My dad didn’t have a very big shelf-life either Something like black lung disease–working all those years with fiber glass and that nasty synthetic resin, not to mention a three pack a day habit. Who knew? And by the time we did, it was too damned late. But he thought he was suaveas hell, just like Bogie. He was, too. Next year, he’d say,we’re going to move down to Florida and raise orchids. Orchids and oranges. But you know how next-years always go up in smoke…like most dreams, anymore.
I’m not a virgin. You wouldn’t know for all the companyI keep or don’t keep, more to the point. But I had asweetheart–in Jimmy’s platoon. I don’t plan on telling youa thing about him. It’s all between him and me. I will tellyou he’s pushing up daisies too. A casualty of war. A directhit while doing his duty for Uncle Sam. Some say God andCountry, but any g.d. god who gives his blessing to thebattlefield is as demented as the rest of them and won’t geta capital G from me. Uhuh.
Well, that’s about all the downers I can stand. Did I tell you what I do for work? I’m a clown. No kidding. I work the preschool and kindergarten set. I used to entertain at older kids parties, but they’re too smart-assed and cynical, if not out and out snotty and rude… That’s not your real face, Bozo. Are you so ugly you have to put on a disguise? Nice…. But, I don’t really blame them. They get it from TV or from their nincompoop parents who don’t have time to teach them manners, to behave themselves, to treat other people with respect and consideration. Common Decency, for Pete sake. I just don’t go to their houses anymore. Butthe little ones are too sweet and naturally kind to mistreatanyone nice to them. I’m not saying they don’t squabble overwhose turn it is on the trike or swing. That comes with theterritory. But they’re all heart, big eyes and smiles when Ido my routine and fool around with them, doing silly tricksand stunts, playing leapfrog and such. I love to hear themlaugh. It fills my heart to the brim, makes up for all therotten lunches. I wish I could keep them little, always,like perpetual puppies and kittens.
It was the summer before the winter of the epidemic.I had begun riding the stationery bike daily, pushing and
pulling the flabby biceps into definition, pumping thegenerous flesh of calf and thigh as fast as her short littlelegs would carry her–I tended to think of my self in thethird person, a character in the play I was composing sottovoce, the lead, naturally, with side-track adventures intofairy tale and allegory because those were the realms I feltmost at home in, where virtue triumphed and the pure ofheart, rather than the lean of body, were rewarded.On the more mundane and ordinary stage, in the romanticscenes, at any rate, I was, however large I loomed asheroine in my own drama, usually a walk-on extra or seateddemurely in the orchestra pit, morbidly scraping out thedescant part with the other second strings.After twenty minutes of tedious peddling, my skin beganto flush and tingle, my breathing grew deeper, and littlebeads of sweat rolled down my brow. I could think of othermore appealing ways to achieve this effect, and it was tothis end I labored.
There is nothing thin or meager about me, not even anaquiline nose. Roundest part of perfect was the consoling euphemism improvised by one who loved me, my mother, for heaven’s sake, the only one, it seemed, whoever would. Round bosom, buttock and thigh, so favored by the Greeks, Reubens, and Renoir were clearly out of fashion and those of us who most nearly resembled the Venus of Willendorf, however lofty our aspirations, lusty and soulful our longings, sat on thebench while the thin girls waltzed smugly in their princes’arms.
I could have pedaled and pumped till the end of time,and like the Innuit and Polynesian women, like all thelittle squaws and peasant girls built for hard work andendurance, I would still remain round, round, round.The man I loved was no different from the other swainsof this period–devoted to a narrow range of beauty,utterly indifferent to any but the thin. The rounder therest of us appeared, the more invisible we were. Only to beexpected, squawks the pragmatic observer. Plump hens wereever objects of derision and scorn…when seen and judged bystandards.
Objects, indeed. My spine still bristles. Treacherouseyes to supersede the tender approbation of the heart,making women objects, symbols of status, accessories. Really, I should have decamped entirely, taken up with women as some of my cronies had done, or moved to Hawaii where my every pound would be pinched with pleasure. But the heartonce given is hard to retract, and I was thus stuck for sometime unable to draw near, unable to retreat. I should haveremained in this impossible posture forever had not natureintervened.
It is useless to deny the unseemly and sanguine pleasure I took in the unexpected and catastrophic course of events that ensued. At first it was only a few who sickened and died–the scrawny and malnourished waifs who nobody ever paid much attention to–the most unsolid souls living on the margins….scraggly clothes, dingy hair, festering complexions…no one would miss them at all, more’s the pity. So no one foresaw the general danger or the magnitude of the plague that was eventually to carry away the loveliest, the leanest, among us, the great beauties so prized and desired for their insubstantial figures, the thin ones with no extra meat on their bones to carry them through the ravaging of flesh, the decimation of disease. We allgrew ill by turns. But only some of us survived…sheddingat last the extra pounds that made us pariahs.So now we were the beauties in possession of the rightdimensions and the breath of life to boot. The man I so muchadored began to notice me at last, to seek my favor. Butthen, so have the others. Tempting it would be to sit on thethick carpet of grass under the midsummer moon, heartswinging aloft among the Pleiades, pulsing likefireflies…fervor and devotion tenderly bestowed. Ah, sucha dream…and perhaps in time our fingers will entwine, willtingle, our lips sweetly meet at last…but first I thinkI’ll let him pine and mope while I grow warm in thelimelight and play the field.
Let My People Go
Oddest of all, the authorities–petty officials,bigwigs, top dogs and the brass–never even noticed thetrend: the rising number of travel visas and passports, theadditional ships and planes assigned and reassigned to makethe long passage, the delays and other complications ofoverloaded schedules, even the unusual number of chartersover the course of a year. It was attributed, among the people, to the mole eyes of the marshmallows, and everyone chortled and guffawed, and thoroughly enjoyed this tasty bit of folk humor, wellpleased by the certain knowledge that no one was ever anylonger obliged to please anyone except for purely personalreasons.
Preparations for the Exodus had begun many years beforethe year of departure. Perhaps all migrations begin withdissatisfaction with present circumstances, of lifeconditions grown intolerable, or an itchy inclination to goon to untried places, to begin life anew. Perhaps these aresimply different sides of the coin. In any case, the dreambecame an aspiration became a weighed and consideredpossibility became resolve, became the plan.
Begun in theyears of calamitous unrest and disease, it finally becameclear to enough of the people–I dare not say criticalmass, though that is indeed the term that indicates a shiftin the balance, because I do not ever again want to reduceany of us to the level of the heap whereby objects, thingsare collected, scattered, swept away, admitting an agencyother than individual inclination and will, an agency thatsubsumes, organizes, controls, devours. It finally becameclear to enough of the people that they were dealing withself-serving dunderheads. Simultaneously sentimental andcruel, mired in the emptiest of platitudes and generalities,they were wedded to logos and dry rationality. They wereclosed off, insulated from anyone other, anything at allforeign or different, uncustomary, or out of the way. Theywere, in fact, hermetically sealed and suffering from oxygendeprivation in that sealed chamber, suffocating on theinhalation of all the noxious poison of their exhalation.
That is what I think. They are apparently uneducable, or maybe they are forever disinclined to acknowledge the rights and needs, let alone entertain the premise of a shared humanity with the people, and you could go on hitting your head against the brick wall from now until Doomsday, and all you could ever hope to accomplish from indulging in thisexercise is to give yourself a big headache. Though they hadtried.
Particularly the elders, the meek, the humble ones inservice to the higher wisdom, to the Divine, always workingfor a better day for the children, their grandchildren, ifnot fruit and flower, then twig or branch or trunk or greatunseen network of roots runneling into the earth herself,for sustenance for those unknown, unnamed, to come…therighteous ones whose generous spirits overflowed toforgiveness, who recognized in their oppressors the self-induced torments, largely unnoticed, of hard and coldhearts, lives without simple joy, the liberating andsufficient-unto-the-day pleasure in simply being alive.For the blind and foolish, arrogant and cunningoppressors, if a thing didn’t cost a lot, it couldn’t beworth very much. Consequently, the best things in lifeescaped their attention entirely and were left to the peoplewho relished the evening breeze or thick gusts of wind andrain, the seasons of the sun, the cycles of the moon.
No one I know remembers how and where the plan began in what visionary mind conceived, in what beating heart born. Some say one, some another. Everyone agrees that once in the air (an idea whose time has come), intention wasborne aloft a fortunate, penetrating current and spread likecontagion, like a plague–microbes scattered everywhere–and everywhere infecting–ending in a universal quitting ofa wretched existence. The happy turn, the twist is, thepeople would not be decimated, would not die, but, rather,begin anew in a more hospitable, even welcoming land, acontinent all could claim as place of origin as well asdestination, native soil, home.
I myself did not get wind of the plans until they werewell under way, the first ones already packed up and gone. Icouldn’t go myself, although I would have liked to, fortechnically, if you were to assign kinship, relatedness,placement in group according to the most superficial andfoolish criteria, as the oppressors do, I was, technically,an oppressor, although I am grieved and ashamed that this isso, not only because I was raised and loved by one of thepeople (loved and accepted and understood as none of myblood-kin could have done), but because I have beenmercifully granted the simple sight of the people and knowhow to see what’s in front of me. Naturally, my kin think mean idiot, useless.
No matter. My chum, my pal, my best friend was leavingand leaving me behind. Eva was going with her large andextended family, along with everyone else who was not tooold or infirm or addled or kissy-faced with the oppressorsto want to go. I gave her my ring, all I had left from mymother who died when I was little, and Eva gave me herguitar, not at all a fair exchange, but I had nothing elseof value. What I gave was only precious by association, butwhat she gave me, her gift! A way to go on. How else endurethe aftermath, isolation, the questions, the hiding. Whoknows what will come? The face of the future is remote,serious, unbidden. I shall not want.
Her family was one of the last in our region to go, andall the week before their departure, when her mother didn’tneed her, Eva and I sat out in the park through the twilighthours and long after dark picking out the songs we loved.She would not write to me. She told me so. They were leavingfor good, no loose strands, no ties to a past they wouldjust as soon forget. So this was the only flowering of ourfriendship. There would be no other. It was very sad. Andyet, it was not. I was happy for her, for all the people,embarking on a new life, full of hope, the main chance tolive equitably, fairly, kindly…without the constant andinsidious fear, night terrors, the never knowing who wouldbe stopped and detained, brutalized, and disappeared. Theconstant vigilance, never letting the guard down, neverknowing for sure who would come home at night.I followed Eva to the docks this day of setting forth.
Sunday morning under a brilliant sun. Shadows everywhere in the heat and glare. Everyone walking silently, quickly, not stopping to pull out handkerchiefs to mop the beads of sweat from foreheads, the soft and gleaming and then sparkling and glittering brows. The Angela, Martin, and Malcolm Livesbanners fluttered as they walked. The church bells rang,echoing in the harbor district. Eva and I embraced for thelast time. Her mother laid her hands on my head and blessedme. You’re going to need it, was all she said.Eva said she would wave her bright blue scarf, so Iwould recognize her. They mounted the gangplank anddisappeared in the crowd. I waited a long time and, finally,on the top deck a small brown speck of a person and astreaming blue cloth appeared, the last image left to me. The big ship creaked and stirred into life. A great horn bleated. The gangplank was pulled up. The vessel slowly backed away from her mooring. Surrounded by the chaperontugs, she entered the channel to the deep water and sailedaway forever. I knew, as I watched them disappear, we hadlost the heart and soul of our country. From now on, it wasgoing to be dry bread and water, and there wasn’t a damnthing left to say or do.
Taming of the Birds
In an age when human beings stopped loving each otheraltogether–the process having begun long before–a slowattrition of enthusiasm, a growing lack of empathy, and, forthat matter, any feeling at all, the richer of the numb oneswith more leisure to ponder their condition–those, at anyrate, who did not narcotize themselves entirely–began tomiss something, want something….
It began, as these things do, in vanity. How one longedfor a little indulgent attention, recognition that one wasworthy of being petted, fussed over. How one longed foradmiration, and dare I say it? Adoration.In the books bound in another time, there were recordsof extraordinary devotion and unconditional love, notbetween humans, of course–even then, such a thing wasvirtually unheard of, perhaps even impossible–no one couldsay for certain, but bestowed upon the human master by thecanines and rarely, but not unnoticably by the felines, amore discerning and less love-addled species.As we know, the smaller furry mammals had been drivento the brink and then over the edge of extinction–youremember the long years of drought and famine succeedingthe plastic age, how the cookery books were reissued toaccommodate the new, shall we say, ingredients, and thestage at that period was inundated with, what were theycalled? dear me, yes…Pelt Operas, tales of interspecieslove, loyalty, and betrayal. Oh and the Legion of Moralityhad a field day, then, too, when it was suggested, whenhumans actually considered their own offspring wereeligible for the table on account of their size and availability.That brought about the terrible caste wars, of course, andthe glut of learned treatises in the learned journals aboutthe desirability and particular succulence of the smaller,rounder, browner, ah, specimens. But in the end, it was thepets who were regretted. Some crumbling photos anddecaying pelts in the museum cases were all that remained,but what persisted in the night-fire-stories, in thewhisperings in the market square from mouth to ear wasrumor, then suspicion and surmise of devotion and besottedlove granted, without expectation of return to the humansby their pets.
Helio Megalopolis, the last scion of the lumber trustwhich held the Lignum Vitae forests in the tropics, was aplutocrat with a penchant for the dust of travel. He was, ofcourse, sneered at in some circles, openly jeered in othersfor his mannered affectations, they said, his havingpilfered the old life hermetic-display centers, and lifting,droit de Seigneur, various articles of apparel andacquiring, as well, a certain snaky reputation and a callousdisregard for The Past. In short, he wore a pith helmet andcarried a sort of walking stick that sheathed in itsinterior, a sharp needle -like weapon with two sides, calleda rapier.
Helio requisitioned a sailing ship, and went, himself,to survey his territories, to supervise and adjudicate thetaking of the last trees. Useless to repeat the well-knownportion of our history, everywhere available in the night-fire assemblies. Suffice it to say that it was Helio, by nomeans observant or even particularly cognizant of hissurroundings–prescience and sentience having longvanished–who first noticed the birds standing about,petulantly, morosely, in such a remarkable range ofattitude. They portrayed, what was the term? yes, emotion,feeling. They brooded. They drooped. Helio was enchanted.He began to watch them secretly, while listening tothe trade-chiefs and bureau-folk summarizing and declaring.His eyes, invariably, began to wander from the foregroundassembly to the far-distance groupings or solitary beingsstanding silently or wilted, sitting. Occasionally one ormore of them engaged in the display of pecking, but thecall song of each kind was or appeared to be irrevocablymuted. Helio imagined he could hear the barest flutter of afeather ruffled by the low winds, the winds that sometimesrose to gale force, leveling the remaining encampments,unleashed as they were by the absence of the mediatingfire-sticks, the vanishing trees.
Something akin to curiosity, perhaps even the remotestglimmering of pity assailed his solar plexus, lodged in hischest. He found it more and more difficult to avert hisgaze. He harumphed and coughed at what he thought weresuitable intervals in the daily assemblies, but hisattention inclined to the melancholy birds, no longertenants and nesters, but vagrants idle and without purpose,disoriented and blue.
Drawn to them, nay, obsessed by them, he wanted themto notice his own splendid self, unseen by the humans,preoccupied as they were, by motive and fact. But before hehad an opportunity to do more than desultorily wish to benoticed, he was recalled to the temperate center where therewas much to protect and defend, which required hispresence at once.
In the First Caucus, upon his return, Helio’sassociates remarked the change. Perfunctory in deed andspeech, he was more remote than deemed seemly and polite.Little wistful expressions occasionally played upon thesurface of his face, and now and again, little warbles ofinarticulate speech erupted from deep in his gullet, whilehis head shakings and far-away eyes betrayed an interiortrack not parallel to the accommodations of discourse to thepresent company.
At the New Year, he put the matter before them, the menof the first circle, the ones who mattered. He called themto his own lodge, for a night-fire gathering, an unusual,even provocative summons. What were they to think? In theintervening weeks prior to the gathering, inner-circle eyesmet in the street, and silently, the men communed theircuriosity and reproach. But at the appointed hour, no onehung back. Everyone who had been scheduled arrived in thehour of gloaming swathed in deep folding cloaks against theoncoming chill.
Helio’s men had built up the fire, and the joints weredone to a turn, bubbling and crispy. Goblets of ale passedaround the assembly and then the flesh and then the breadand then the ale once more. After the last belch and thetowels used to wipe hands and faces clean were returned tothe water vat, just as the stars began to emerge, Helio roseand stepped before the assembly. He cleared his throat, notonce but several times, before he began his tale.I wasn’t there, of course. It is only because mygrandfather chose and entrusted me with the records that Iknow and can tell you what there is recorded. I do not knowexactly how he exhorted his partners into agreement withhis scheme. The inscribed text is blurred. We only know thatbetween the time he cleared his throat and the time the sunappeared in the Eastern Quarter, a longing, perhaps even alust for petlove had been rekindled in the breasts of themen, and they were resolved on expedition.Those, unlike Helio, who were unaccustomed and notespecially predisposed to travel, swallowed theirreservations and mounted resolutely the small galleons thatwould bring them to the land of the languishing birds sothat they might espy and stalk and tame their quarry, inorder to bring home the greatest prizes, creatures who lovedthem. Never mind the green visage of sea passengers, theabrupt churning and queasy-making crash of waves. Anyinconvenience and distress was born with stoic fortitude,for these were men who could stomach any means to achievethe end, a seed so firmly planted by Helio, there was noneed for night-fire songs of reminding.At length, the small boats landed one by one, and thegrey and weary humans disembarked with the pangs ofdislocation and the need for rest. They fell upon the beach,of one accord, wrapped themselves in their cloaks, and slepta day, a night, and the better part of the following day.One by one they began to stir late in the afternoon,refreshed and hungry. After a meal from their ownprovisions, hardly any morsels had been touched on thevoyage, they looked around to see if there were any of thebirds to be seen.
Helio advised a joint expedition in the morning in thefull light, for there were many places the lugubrious aviansmight be. They murmured expectation and desire throughthe long smokeless night, a murmuring as of nesting birdsin a privet hedge or thicket of berry brambles. Finally, thedawn crept out of the Eastern Quarter and one by one, menarose and began to hunt their prey. Each one harboredstratagem and cunning ploy, certain of their efficacy, aswith charms and potions from the long and vanished timesbefore the fires had all but extinguished traces of the lostpast.
How shall I tell you what next befell those eagerspirits, those pining-to-be-admired specimens, those haplessmen? Every where they looked, anywhere they crawled,looked under, stood on top of, waded through, there wasnothing but empty space and the soughing of the wind. Nobirds. Not anywhere. Not a one.
Helio was the first to capitulate, to return to theships empty-handed. In clumps and pairs, the rest staggeredback balefully, woefully, cognizant of the full extent ofthe calamitous outcome of their expedition. Helio sighed.And then, to the amazement of the rest, he began strokingthe air above his other forearm, cooing to the phantom bird,nuzzling the small and invisible beak. The others lost notime in mimicking this charade, well satisfied their painshad not been for nothing. And so they, thus, returned to thetemperate zone, armed with their companions–birds nolonger dolorous, safely nestled in their masters’ keep.
“Oh,” said her mother when Mollie put the matter before her. “Hmmm. What is real and what is true? Ordinarily, a thing is or it is not. Here is your hand. Here are your fingers,you’re little piggies,we used to call them,remember? We can see ,touch and feel that dear little thumb. We know its presence through our sesnses.” She paused for a moment and then on an impulse, tickled her daughter. “Oui,oui,oui,all the way home.” They both giggled,but the serious weight of the matter sobered them both,while Mollie protested,”No tickleing,no fair.” You’re right,of course,my sweet. It wasn’t fair. I”m sorry.” “That’s okay . I kind of like to be tickled.It makes me feel little again,which I can hardly remember. I do remember Piggies and all the gigglies. I like to remember. What were you saying?”
“Well,”said her Mama, “We were speaking about knowing something is because we can touch it. Like piggies. But what about the things we can hear but not see,like music. That’s real,isn’t it?” “Yes,Mama,very real.Some of the most beautiful things I know in the whole world are the songs I play on the piano, Some of the notes are so sweet and sad,they make me cry.” “I know what you mean,” said her mother. I feel so much more real and happy when I hear music I love . And what about the haunting sound of a train whistle wailing in the distance, out of view. We know the train is there even if we can’t see it. You know,when I was little,we heard bells calling people to come to church on Sunday mornings. That was beautiful and very real..even if we couldn’t see or touch those sounds.” Mollie sighed deeply and climbed onto her mother’s lap and took her mother’s face in her hands and looked at her square in the eyes. “But Mama, she said, “What does this have to do with you know who?”
Now her Mama sighed a great big sigh and stood up,careful to keep hold of her daughter. “I’m too big to carry,”shrieked Mollie.”Do you want me to put you down?” “Well,no.” “Well,okay,then. Let’s go to the window,to see what we can see. Okay? “Okay,ohkay. Don’t drop me,though.” “Hmph and horsefeathers. I won’t drop you. Let’s sit here.” They both wriggled until they were kneeling backwards on the sofa,with their arms on its back,perched this way so they could look out of the window. “Perfect,”said her Mama. “What do you see?” “I see the sun going down way over there behind the elm trees.” “What else do you see?” “I see all the colors in the sky–pink and green and blue, and all the puffy little clouds and Mr.Jameson’s chimney and everything. It’s so nice.” “It is nice,the colors of the sunset,the evening sky,the soft air and stillness of twilight. “But,”she said,drawing herself up out of reverie, how do you know it’s real?” “Well,of course it’s real,” Mollie spluttered,shocked her mother could even doubt for a moment the existence of what they were seeing.”Of course,it’s real.” Now her mother sighed again and laughed a quiet laugh that was like the soft nickering of horse breath,that was like velvet. “But we can’t touch those colors or hold the sunset in our hands. How can you be sure it’s real? “Because it is,” said Mollie,somewhat indignantly.”It just is. and you see it and I see it. And even if one of us or even both of us had our eyes closed, it would still be there. Her mother was smiling now,grinning,really, like the Cheshire Cat. “And what if we did close our eyes for a few minutes, what would we see when we opened them? Would the puffy clouds and the sun and the pinkbluegreensky be the same or even there?” “It wouldn’t matter,”said Molly. Things change in a sunset. Things are always changing.”
“Well then,” continued Mollie’s Mama, more than a little smugly, “is the sun,which we cannot touch but can only see, still real when it sinks beneath the horizon and we cannot see it any more? Or feel it as we would on a warm sunny day?”
“Well of course it’s still real,silly,”said Molly ,giggling like a little brook. When the sun goes away,it’s night.”
“Suppose,said her Mama, you didn’t know anything about anything,which of course isn’t so. You already know a lot about a lot of things. But just for a minute,pretend you didn’t. And let’s say we were looking out at the night sky and I say, there’s really a sun out there,too, but we just can’t see it. What would you say?
” Mollie didn’t say anything but she drew up her right hand next to the side of her face and started inscribing circles in the air. Then she said:
“Cuckoo, Nuts,Looney tunes.” They both laughed now and Mollie’s Mama reached her hand out to touch her daughter lightly with one soft finger under her ear and then stroked her curly hair .
“Curiouser and curioser,” said her mother. If we didn’t know it was there,we wouldn’t be able to understand there was a sun. We don’t see that it’s real or that someone who says it is there ,is speaking the truth . Right?” “Uh huh.” But if we did know it’s there, even when we can’t see it,when it’s out of sight, then when someone says there is a sun,even though we can’t see it, we know that person is speaking the truth. Am I right?”
By now, it was dawning on Mollie what her mother was really saying, and she ventured in a very quiet voice,”You’re not speaking only about the sun,are you ? You’re telling me about Santa.”
Doing Time in the Commander
My daughter, away at Vet school, bought a house with what she inherited from her uncle, my brother. Supervising the reconstruction, of the dowdy and runty cabin to make it livable to anyone with a sense of beauty and grace and which, with any luck, I shall one day call home and inhabit, I am currently illegally domiciled in a camper on the property. The Commander, be it ever so humble, has all the festering charms of country living: The Mongol Hordes of the ant people invading the not quite crumb free surfaces of the galley, a large rather hirsute spider- setting up shop in a corner unquestionably close to the pillow upon which I toss my head, the chamber pot closeted along with incense and smudging sage, the subtle yet repulsive eau de propane emanating from the one place we have not yet managed to locate, bickering tabby cats who cannot fathom why we have given up our ample palace of comfort for such a, well, smarmy little hovel, however charmingly appointed with all the accoutrements of civilized living whittled into the bare minimum: item one wine glass ; one candlestick; one cork-pull. Item one garlic press, two cat bowls and so on.
There are now few surfaces upon which two elegant felines can drape themselves and both have taken to standing upon my chest in the very moments before dawn when I have finally fallen into the kind of sleep that promises rest and restoration. Only I can fill their bowls and release them from the implacable gnaw of hunger. Only I can open the door to release them into the mother world where real life is: rodents lizards birds. Much of the night, a woman of a certain age arises, hour upon hour, to make a visit to the euphemism.
By day, when I have the luxury to be at home, there are the hovering workmen, one who out of courtesy picks up my paper which I would rather fetch myself and delivers it to my door. But really, what can a woman do? Out of consideration and courtesy, I dare not mention, I’d rather do it myself, but this small privation wrankles and I feel small indeed. Freud was right about civilization and its discontents by which he meant the relinquishing of the id impulses, our wants and desires …at least some of them … to be able to live as social beings. WA N T ! My two year old self is alive as the cookie monster and if my larger life were more on keel, I suppose I wouldn’t be sweating the small stuff. Even keel? The camper is listing to port. The ground apparently shifted after the winter rains and the sideways slant means I shuttle from higher to lower ground wherever I step when I step in side.
I do not feel steady. So much gnaws. It is unsettling to live in reduced circumstances if not diminished capacity. I know this is consequence of a grasshopper life, living in the here and now, much touted in exclusive seminars and weekend workshops, extolled by Joseph Campbell as a way to find the eternal in the ordinary humdrum…and indeed I have. I have followed my bliss in a kind of pyramid scheme of hopes and desires, high and heady aspirations, shooting for the moon that finally culminates or, at any rate, in any event, currently transpires in this corridor of inconvenience and thwarted desire.
Moi-meme, I am flailing about, disconcerted, disgruntled, disconnected, at odds with deep powers I am trying to summon. Living in a camper cum ant invasion , chamber pot, eau de propane, bickering tabby cats, and small infinitesimally small inconveniences, I am well aware… But all I must endure with a good grace, stiff upper lip and a wholesome cheerfulness to keep my life steady, on course ,so that when my daughter calls with the frustrations of memorizing body parts, and tracking neurons peptides hormones in the tropic torpor of a third world country without benefit of air conditioning or buses that run on time to get to classes that do, I am her rock, her solace, and wise counselor.
I want to run away and during the rains I did. Once more to the Goodwill, dear friends, for the lure of cashmere linen silk 4.99 on the ticket but orange and yellow half price. The closet abounds with every garment woman could want, but “the world is too much with us late and soon. Getting and spending, we soon lay waste our powers, a sordid boon.”
We soon lay waste the contents of our wallet as well. broke broken and on empty. a fine pickle a swell mess, a hearty stew. Sit. Eat. The voices of the Calvinist culture: I reapeth what I seweth. The voices of the perennial wisdom: Karma.
And somewhere in and among all of this, there is the voice of sanity. The corridor of discomfort and inconvenience is a kind of birthing canal, but this laboring to vivify the emergent self who has grown too. I am flailing, haven’t been able to summon the strength and sap and focused concentration, the one pointed intent desired required for the creation of a piece that matters. I cannot emit puerile drivel and anything less is, well , reason to pick up a broom and sweep the streets and take in washing to earn a crust of bread.
Now there are so many essays to read, now that I still have work at Sonoma State. This week, the English Department let go all the adjuncts, but three, of which number I am one. ( The adjunct faculty called temporary part-timers, many of whom have been there for ten years and more have been dismissed, sorry about the budget cuts, so no loyalty or gratitude, sorry, can’t be helped, pass the breast of lark, Arnie. ) Next fall, I have two rather than four classes and in some way, this is a good thing because I have two at College of Marin. And teaching 6 classes last fall sapped all my strength and gave me no time or will for ought else. But there’s nothing at COM in the Spring and who knows what will happen then at SSU.
On the days I am not home, I drive to a university where I am ally and mentor to a hundred fledgling persons who count on me as a model of rectitude and stability, a fount of wisdom, information and equanimity. I am mainly unflappable, but once in a while, a rascal pulls a chain.like the kid who came to class potted stinking loaded flat out drunk on St.Paddys day.8 am. Who can drink at such an hour? It is the arrogant and ignorant and entitled I find hardest to teach let alone forgive. Ergo, as an ox, one who pulls the cart, I dare not dither or repine and yet I must. I do. I am. But of course I have the wit and sagacity to be grateful for my lot, as constrained and discommodious as it certainly currently is. There are throngs of mortals not nearly so fortuitously placed and provisioned as I and to these benighted souls I owe the courtesy of shouldering my burdens in a seemly manner, fair and square and not grumbling over the inconsequential inconvenience and discomfort of living in a small space for a short while. But it is not the constraint of space that grutches . It is the pinch of want, the lack of cash flow, the ways and means, the dinner out, the matinee ,the full caff full fat latte, the new Tony Kushner play, the latest Kronos or well who knows what golden oldie or brand new great work released. Have you heard Joanie Mitchell’s remake of Clouds? Mmm-mmm. Books on tape cinema verite all require the where-withall, the dough-re-me. And I do desire to know and hear and see and feel what our artists are saying.
The wheel has been spinning fast and loose these days. I suspect the wheel of fortune is kick started by id….most of us are still driven by the two year old cravings :COOKIE! Cookie monster the archetype of all our craven cravings and gnawing longings hungers and thirsts. Ours is a culture whose multitudes support the war, poor ninnies…their very decency being used against them…they can’t for one moment believe their leaders would lie to them, that corporations to whose brands they swear allegiance, have anything but their best interests at heart, providing them the very best that money can buy, never mind the profit motive or the bottom line: fiscal impact and not human welfare. These are folk not given to the precepts of Buddhism, the noble truths. In this country, who doesn’t interpret desire as entitlement ? Are we rewarded and punished with regard to motive and intent, by what we do and don’t do At one extreme are the guilt makers ,the Calvinist perfectionists : the rigid the anal the damned. Whatever you are currently experience is the direct outcome of past attitudes and behaviors like the correlation of your pant size and how many carbs you ingested.
Like the law of Karma… we are all talking about karma whether we think this is real or not because, honestly, who has an f-ing clue? Besides karma is cool. and Sure there are the budget cuts the war, the careless attitude of corporate managers who can’t take every bleeding heart story of a family to support to heart, the stone cold place under the wallet sheltered in the Brooks Brother breast pocket.
I am ill paid, my job insecure. But really I have no one
to blame but myself for having persisted in indulging my self in small things, in living as I chose without heed for the morrow, without setting by storing up for the time and era of declining energies. I thought I would be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat , a play . a novel, a performance, a work of sufficient scope and magnitude …and impact to bring me what I need, that I might earn sufficient wage through the labors of creative work…. Many are called. So far I have pulled no conies from chapeaus , no bunnies out of beanies berets or burkas, no hares out of hairnets.
I’m afraid. There’s an insufficient safety net. I’m on a high wire without a net, juggling hatpins and balloons. Even after a decade of teaching…. still temporary after all these years.
But it is useless , a feckless fatuous and futile effort to blame Arnie for the constraints and fears, if not the follies of a life squandered in trivial pursuits or even serious and noble enterprise if it toucheth not the soul. Or if there is sufficicient guilt and there is. Guilt? I majored in it. Got my phd….piled higher and deeper…the manacles of shame, the stocks of censure and blame. Ah the matter:
God ? Fate ? the universe’s disposition rather than mine ?
me found wanting and upon me inflicted detention in the realm of inconsequence. Purgatorio! moment before I cowered in, dreading the endurance, languishing in the land of limitations, powerless to resist the feeling of powerlessness, to ward off vexations arising from the spinning of the wheel, seeing no way out, feeling rightfully discarded, paying in guilt for omitted and committed transgressions. Or was that merely a disguise… a span, a chapter, an opportunity until I gained sufficient strength to rise up from the bottom of the ocean where in the depths I have been languishing.
In short, I am up against the wall and must invent a life to match all I’ve been given. So much is at stake and I begin to see the erosion of my enormous powers and how much life I have foolishly wasted, squandered, piffled away on trifles. Well it’s hard times for us all. I hope for us continuing great strength in adversity and as much pleasure in the beauty of the deepening spring as we can find. To bear with whatever befalls nobly and gallantly is sometimes all a woman can do.