alphabetical by last name
Library Albert Goldbarth — directed by Patrick Donnelly
Rooms: Barbara Lucey
Wire to Wire: James Kent
Bras: Carolyn McKeown
The Garden: Rose Oliver
Did You Know?: John O’Connell
My Life with Words: A Reflection: Susan O’Neill
Upon My Sword: Liv Pertzoff
Chemistry and Man • Scenes from the Death of a Devout Man: Norma Sims Roche
A Mahogany Blossom: Ginny Rohan
Do not do as I did, one recent semi-tropical evening, high above the placid, flaccid, steamy dead-end shores of Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, and ask your assembled in-laws, gathered there from distant compass points to mourn the death of their father, if they have ever been seduced by the lure of the Abyss. If, gentle reader, you share the same fascination, I should warn you that your declaration will only provoke blank stares. Even if your assembled in-laws have been drinking beer or smoking a bowl, and even if they themselves have traveled around the sun sixty times or more, do not assume they will reinforce your firmly held conviction that yes, the idea of leaping off a balcony, or a cliff, or a rooftop, might at times seem irresistible.
James Cameron was so fascinated by the Abyss, he made a movie about it. He called it The Abyss, because that’s the kind of writer he is, and it was a really, really great movie. Until he ruined the end with this weird liquid alien thingy which is why it only gets a 7.9 rating on IMDB. It gets like 3.5 stars on Netflix, but I don’t like the Netflix 5 star system, I prefer a one-to-ten ranking, and besides, Netflix encourages any yahoo who thinks they are a Movie Critic to weigh in. Yahoo, by the way, uses neither method of ranking movies. I still love the movie though, and not just because James Cameron made The Terminator (a solid 10, in my book), Terminator Two (8.6), True Lies (7.2), Aliens (8.5), The Titanic (7.6, but 7 if it were up to me because his dialogue has the subtlety of a bag of wet cement.) Speaking of wet cement, if I had a bag right now I would toss it out the window at that yahoo neighbor who keeps yelling “Fishy-fishy” to his kids and distracting the hell out of me. I think it is well past his children’s bedtime. All they are going to do is grow up spoiled thinking they can play fishy-fishy all day and night and not think about ruining other people’s work and then they will need a new wing on their high school and I will be asked to pay for an umpteenth tax override, and in case you want to know umpteenth really is a number, it translates to a giggledty-fucking billion.
All of which brings me back to the subject of leaping off a balcony. Oh – wait there was one more thing about the Titanic. That boat was fucking awesome. So – ven do I first remember zis feeling, doctor? I was maybe in 10th or 11th grade, and I was scouting locations for a Star Wars movie. My own. My Very Own Star Wars Sequel, filmed on a super 8 sound camera. Those of you raised on fishy-fishy might not know what film is, because there is no such thing anymore. It is Gone With The Wind, like Mint Juleps and and Ma Barker and Bob Barker and Triple Crown Winners. True Story – I know Gary Stevens! He is a three time Kentucky Derby Winner who let me borrow a bunch of crap from his house to use in the set I was putting together for the character he played in the short-lived HBO series Luck, which is available on Amazon as a box set and is a 7.6 but should be at least an 8 (I don’t get any residuals, not one red cent, but if you buy it and review it, be sure to mention how the set decorator was really shafted at the Emmys last year.) Anyway, if you grew up like me, not playing any team sports, I would really encourage you to befriend a jockey, because they are really tiny, like Leprechauns. Some of them are even Irish, although most of them are Spanish. Disclaimer here – I don’t want any lawsuits because some idiot might misunderstand me and pounce on an Irish jockey thinking he has a pot of gold. That could happen – but the odds are so long I would discourage it. But they are all small, so you don’t have to feel intimidated. You can be hanging out with them thinking, don’t worry, little man. If someone tries to steal your riding crop I’ll give them a what-for.
Gary Stevens was retired from horse racing for seven years and then he came out of retirement at 50 to ride again. He came second in the Derby and a few weeks later he won the Preakness on a colt named Oxbow. And on that afternoon of the Preakness, I was this close to actually betting money on him to win. I had a feeling. I actually texted him and wished him good luck. Because I just know he was sitting there on his horse checking his cell phone every 20 seconds. Not only did he win but he won wire to wire. He led from the start and held off all challengers all the way around that long track. It was heart-stopping, it was breath-taking, and when it was done I texted him congratulations. And you know what? He texted back, the next day! He texted “Thanks.” Just that. Wow. Right to the point. These guys just get to heart of the matter, you know? They have incredible focus, just like I used to have. Right now someone is strumming a guitar. For crying out loud. I am trying to write here! HELLO? Fuck your override, you’re all going down, every last rainbow flag flying grease car driving coop shopping solar powered last one of you.
The Abyss. Oh – by the way – James Cameron made so much money off the Titanic and Avatar he built this submarine that costs a giggledty-million dollars and dropped seven miles into the Mariana Trench, just to sit there looking at his own magnificent reflection for an hour. The ultimate nyah-nyah. James Cameron goes deep. Richard Branson goes high. Branson is so rich he built his own spaceship to fly into the edges of the Earth’s atmosphere. The edges call us. The void calls to us. The deep, the darkness, the unknowable. When I was scouting for My Very Own Star Wars Movie, I stood on the edge of an eighty foot tall cliff, overlooking an ancient rock quarry, and I had this strange feeling of levitation, of transporting out of my body, and floating over the space. I felt compelled to take a step. I didn’t, but I wanted to, and I seriously thought I would not fall to my death, but instead would float on, out into — what? Who knows? All these years later, that feeling is still there. The more mortal I feel, the older I get, that feeling never goes away. That desire to merge into the void, to become part of something greater. I guess I am headed there anyway. I won’t have to take that leap into the infinite, the infinite will leap into me. And then I will know. Or maybe I won’t.
Chiromancy | Stephanie Gibbs
Remember Little Red Riding Hood, and wonder, how desperate the life of a wolf on the brink of starvation, the middle of the coldest, snowiest winter on record. No voles, no woodmice, no rabbits: a wolf at that moment has only one desire. He sneaks into the kitchen of an abandoned cottage, looking for any type of scrap. Perhaps Granny wasn’t even there, the winter had been long and cold and she had left her cottage to visit the warmth of another village, the wolf is caught, exhausted and ravenous, and snatches after Red Riding Hood’s basket. Even wolves know that humans are unsatisfying prey. It’s all in the point of view, whether justice is served or the tale skews in an altogether different direction.
Remember everything that you once forgot. Remember placing fists in a circle: one potato, two potato, three potato. Breath held, hoping, hoping not to be It in the game of tag. That’s the ending, there: note it well. It is evening, not yet twilight, summer stretching long ahead, endlessly, a game of tag about to begin, the first seeker unchosen.
What happened to bring all of this to fruition? There is a void, heaven and earth separate, atoms and molecules bond and coalesce and soon we can walk on land, and soon we leave the trees and walk upright, and then the rivers swell and all is water again, but we have forgotten how to swim. That, there, tragedy, so many lives lost, for not having gills and fins: the tragedy of the last surviving member of a tribe, having watched, in horror, desolation and drowning all around.
But remember the ending, a game of tag, a summer night.
More time passes. Men discover geometry, astronomy, trace their fates in the palms of their hand, wander lost in the desert searching for fig trees and wine, and, out of nowhere, the Crusades. The Crusades, the Black Death, kings and soldiers as pawns across the chessboard, the tragedy of ambition. Change the point of view, the pre-industrialized world filled with Venetian palaces and crystal goblets and a clear morning in a gondola, a tryst, a feast. Point of view is in the particulars: life, full of promise and beauty, except for the gondolier, whose wife died in childbirth, who has a household of young children to raise, whose extended family fell to the plagues sweeping across the country.
Time passes. Venice sinks, Atlantis is lost and rediscovered and lost again, the library at Alexandria burns, a thousand ships sink in the stormy Mediterranean.
Time passes. Smallpox is exchanged for syphilis and tobacco and gold, the duck-billed platypus is discovered, there is no Northern passage, but everywhere, the wind blows into internal combustion engines, there is the cotton gin, there is the potato famine, there is a tax on printing, there is a banishment to a small island in the middle of the storm tossed Atlantic, empty and barren.
I have forgotten to tell you of the expression in the whale’s eye as it is separated from the pod, as it watches the harpoon’s lancing its calf, the ocean stained with blood, so much blood, an ocean of blood, so that oil lamps can be lit and corsets tightened. The sailor returns home, weary, does not recognize his daughter, grown tall from when he left for the Pacific so many years ago. On his way from the docks to his cottage, he passes the fashionable houses lit by candlelight filled with women, tightly laced, waiting for their futures to unfold. They, too, will die in childbirth, although not as in times past, hands are more often washed, doctors less frequently move from the cadaver to the lying in room without taking suitable precautions.
The sailor may return to sea again, where his ship may be torn apart in a monsoon, or he may remain ashore, too old to knot ropes and raise sails and throw a harpoon as he once did. He never believed in old age, and now that it is here, he isn’t certain what to do, unsure how to fill his day before the pub opens and after he wakes. His wife takes in laundry, her knuckles swollen, her hands raw and worn. She worries about her daughter, the dangers of the no-good lad that is making promises he’ll never keep, the very real possibility that there will soon be another mouth to feed and no money coming in.
Time passes. Lands change hands from aboriginals to explorers to the church to settlers to politicians to businessmen. Railroads fill the sky with the heavy smoke of coal dust as they cross as far as civilization extends. There are assassinations and revolutions and armistices and famines and fabulous wealth, underneath it all the pipe organs plays a counterpoint inflected Requiem as the Holy Roman Empire shrinks from all of Europe down to a neighborhood in Rome so condensed it can be crossed by foot in an easy afternoon’s stroll.
Remember, you know the ending: it is a summer evening, a game of tag is about to start, but whether this is comedy or tragedy, whether this is a play of one act or five acts: it’s all in the telling. Everything works out in the end, it all comes to a conclusion, but somehow I had forgotten how much bloodshed, how many deaths, how many broken hearts, lead to this point. Everyone who has ever lived has died. Everything that has ever lived has died. Whether the mountains are alive or dead I cannot say.
The scientists would like to interrupt and say that the mountains are almost certainly not alive. However, as the scientists have a long, long history of being very, very wrong about a great many things, I will repeat: whether the mountains are alive or dead I cannot say.
Time passes, the continents drift a bit further apart, volcanoes erupt, earthquakes rend, ships sink, and man grows wings and takes to the sky, soaring in trails of white above the clouds. Mountains are bulldozed and fields are cracked apart to inject heat into water which spins turbines and energizes atoms: when I press a switch the world is lit in a soft glow, even on a cloudy, moonless night. The whales begin to sing again, although they are much declined, but they have forgiven us. On an island, a family sets down its tools, walks away from a vineyard, boards a boat. Farms are tilled, cement is poured, a cloud erupts over a country we know nothing about, a country we have never seen and will never understand, and everyone stops breathing. This is the end. Newspapers circulate headlines in bold.
Except you know this isn’t the end, because the world can’t end yet. You know somewhere, up ahead, there really is an ending, an ending that has nothing to do with mushroom clouds or poisoned wells or armored tanks or dysentery in covered wagons or gangrene from battlefield wounds or blighted crops or drafted sons or absent fathers or a rat escaped from a trading ship carrying something that strikes in the dark of night.
There is an ending that doesn’t smolder in ashes or crumple on shattered foundations. Out of all of these lives and out of all of this time, molecules joined together to form the twisting chains of A T G C nucleotides winding through every convoluted system in the body, they survived, separated, recombined, separated, joined, twisted, grew, and then it is summer again. The air is filled with fireflies and the nervous held breaths of children, counting out one potato, two potato, three potato, four, a game of tag stretching across the yard, around the oak tree, down the street, children poised to scatter like dandelion seeds in the wind, as soon as their fists reveal their fate.
50 years ago
at this moment
we ate meatloaf.
My baby sister
squishing Le Sueur peas
into the tablecloth
twisting her thumb
into each little pea.
that my son, born
at this moment
27 years ago
developed a love
of meatloaf, which,
at this moment
he prepares with
his favorite aunt
steaming a can
of baby Le Sueur peas.
She Made The Sale
A fanatic at the door
selling environmental salvation
begs for money at dinnertime.
Not now, I say. Come back later.
But my wife appears,
morphs into a polite 80 year old widow
and nodding, let’s the fanatic talk
though spaghetti is on the table.
So, I eat alone
in full view
watching the 25 bucks
the fanatic’s smirking face
peering over my wife’s shoulder
as I twirl my spaghetti in anger.
1959 Dressing room bedroom, Franklin Street, Holyoke
1960 Victory Theater, Disney matinee
1962 Tea House, Wisteriahurst
1963 Ramona Foran’s kitchen, while she smoked
1964 Mrs. Frost’s fifth grade classroom, Kirtland School
1964 Millinery shop on High Street, which later became Shirl’s Record Whirl
1965 Plant conservatory, Wisteriahurst
1965 Diane Golfin’s bedroom, when she sketched
1965 Mausoleum in Forestdale Cemetery, with Diane: trying to get in
1966 Aqua bedroom, Franklin Street
1966 Aunt Ruth’s living room opening onto her terrace, Madison Avenue
1968 The Learys’ finished basement with piano, York
1970 Mrs. Wilson’s American History classroom
1970 3rd class hotel room, London, June
1970 Basement discotheque, London, June
1970 The chatelaine’s wive cave, Nuits St. George
1970 Her stone bedroom overlooking the vineyard
1971 Under the eaves on Endicott Street house, first time, Somerville
1971 Greer and Cathie’s Wren Hall dorm room with window seat
1973 Print room, shades pulled, Fogg Museum, Harvard
1975 Back bedroom, Liberty Street apartment, Somerville
1976 Main reading room, New York Public Library
1977 Window seat,Jeff Glassman’s 5th floor apartment, above 125th Street
1977 Bedroom in Amarillo Ave Eichler house, Palo Alto, with sliding glass door out to the backyard fig tree
1980 Kitchen, Coppola’s Broadway house, Pacific Heights, San Francisco
1981 Paloma Avenue studio with drawer-beds and closet editing room and kitchen sink with a view of the Pacific, Venice Beach
1982 Maid’s room, Production Assistants’ House, Tulsa, OK
1982 Bauke’s walled-in garden, deGenestett Straat, Amsterdam
1985 AREA nightclub, Hudson Street, Soho
1985 Lobby of the Ritz, Place Vendome, Paris
1986 Pascal Dauman’s bathroom, loft under construction, Paris
1986 Rented barge on the Seine, all-night party, August
1986 Chez E. Marty, Sunday after-church dinner with our parents, Paris
1986 The balcony of La Terre de Sienne, all alone, Cagnes Sur Mer
1987 Le Train Bleu restaurant at the Gare de Lyon
1987 Designer floor, the original Barney’s, 7th Avenue and 16th Street
1988 Barbara Schulberg’s loft, Lafayette Street
1989 Armand’s piano room, filled with scent from the dooryard apricot tree, Baulmes
1989 Cabin on Shelter Cove, south of San Francisco, with the 2 boy-filmmakers
1989 Biltmore mansion foyer, holding K.C.’s hand, Asheville
1990 Upstairs salon, La Terre, full of people, comedia del arte performance
1990 Carol’s living room, the first Thursday night
1991 Main chapel, Kripalu center, Lenox
1991 Maid’s room, Maureen and Jeff’s Flatbush house, Brooklyn
1991 All-white bedroom D.A.R. House, Easthampton
1995 Lady’s dressing-sewing room in house with big lawn on Pleasant Street, that we didn’t buy, Holyoke
2002 Main hall, Grand Central Station, January, Matty and Mark walking towards me
2006 Living room with view and new lamp, Main St. Home
My father’s head swivels toward the sound of metal wheels on cracked linoleum. He sits on the side of the cranked up hospital bed, hands demurely in his lap.
“Dinner,” I announce.
He smiles at me, the vacant, resigned smile he’s adopted for rehab. The family calls this nursing home a rehab as if a euphemism can make him well. It’s beatific, my father’s rehab smile, his cherubic, Zoloft, ‘look how good I’m behaving – get me the hell out of here’, smile. His easy smile. I don’t mean easy for him. These days I’m not a good judge of what is easy and what is hard for my father. I mean he’s trying to make himself look easy, compliant, a person easy to live with and care for.
And it is easier to sit with him and listen to the stop and go rattle of the food cart as it makes its way toward room 220. Easier than his morphine and Haldol rants in the ER. Easier, but less interesting. What kind of daughter finds her father’s pain and fury interesting? Well, break- your- heart interesting. Exhaustingly interesting. Terrifyingly interesting. And funny. Father’s glorious, funny rage.
He rubs his hands together.
“Cold?” I ask.
“Little bit.” He smiles. I drape his gray wool cardigan over his shoulders. The slack softness of it, the warmth without friction, comforts me. Right now it seems to comfort him. I’ve seen the same sweater clutched at his chest, tight as a straight jacket.
My father rages in two categories. The first is the “Old Bastard” rage. The “Old Bastard” is what he calls his body, as if his body were someone else, someone he can yell at like a school kid to make behave. It surprises me that when he yells he often takes the Lord’s name in vain, something he never did when he raised his voice to us as kids.
“Jesus Christ, give the Old Bastard something to stop the pain.”
His cursing against his back, his heart, his kidneys, his coccyx, don’t surprise me as much as his profanities against The Church. The man who taught me that the Pope is infallible, and that a wafer on the tongue during communion really does become the actual flesh and blood body of Christ during communion, rails like a condemned witch against Catholicism.
His most persistent complaint is The Church’s “piss poor” job of dealing with pedophilia. He is most troubled by the litany of French Canadian names associated with the abuse.
“Levigne, Pelletier, Dupre, Jesus Christ.”
It hurts him to spit out the names of his countrymen. It exhausts him to speak of, “These God damn hypocrites.” Before his illness he was not a man who had much practice ranting, certainly not against his beloved Church.
The food truck stops outside the room. The tray is placed on Dad’s bedside table by a sixteen year- old girl who doesn’t seem to like her after school job. I pour milk from a waxed container and am relieved beyond reason when he eats the whole meal.
He pushes the food tray away and lies back. As I crank down the bed he says, “I’m not going back to church until Priests can marry.” I don’t argue the implied cause and effect of this statement. There is no church in rehab.
The next day is not an easy day. My father lies at a forty-five degree angle in a hospital bed in an open cubicle in the ICU. We are all there. My mother, myself, my three siblings. The morphine, and the rant, and his bitter complaints, that the doctor won’t let him drink and the nurse has stolen his ginger ale, have knocked him out. His eyes are closed. He looks dead, mouth slack, lips slightly blue, tubes in his arms, tubes in his nose, oxygen, heart monitor, the whole shebang. I’m squeezed between the IV pole and the bed holding one of his hands. My mother is pinched between the heart monitor and the bed holding his other hand. My sisters and brother are at his feet.
The Priest walks in. The Priest, dressed in white collar, vestments, and prayer book, with his decanter of holy water swinging on a gold chain. It is time for extreme unction, the last rites, which, lately, we have been instructed to call the sacrament of the sick. But you can’t fool my family with a turn of phrase. We are gathered for the last rites
Daddy has had last rites how many times since January? So many times that when I catch my brother’s eye we grin and look away. It has become funny, this dying, this lack of dying. We’re starting to believe “The Old Bastard” will never leave us. What kind of children experience their own father’s last rites as a recurring punch line? We love him. There is no doubt we love him.
The Priest is a very black man with a Jamaican accent, probably not French Canadian. A serious, but smiling man, whose large eyes easily take in the six other bodies in the small room. My father is looking deader by the moment. The Priest hurries with his ministrations. The family of my youth hold hands around Daddy’s deathbed and the black priest in his black suit with his white collar and sash mumbles in Latin.
And I do feel the spirit. We all feel the spirit. And my daddy lies so still. And the priest shakes the water over his head, his throat, his solar plexus, his thighs and feet.
And again, up to his head, swinging the holy vessel. And I swear by the God of my childhood, my Daddy’s mouth pops open, like a new-born sparrow, and the holy water rains in and he grins and says,
“It’s about time you gave me something to drink.”
“Beau Pere,” Rock and Sling, Rock and Sling Press, edited by Susan Cowger and Kris Chritensen, volume 3 issue 2, Fall 2006.
The first time my new boyfriend told me about what happened to him that night in the lab, he didn’t tell it as a funny story—after all, he still has the scars on his knees. Tom is a retired physical chemist, a cautious, soft-spoken man who once worked as an OSHA inspector. But he’s no different from most men when it comes to playing with fire. From the neighborhood boys who used to scare me with cherry bombs, to my dad overdoing it with the lighter fluid on the barbecue, to Tom and his buddy with their annual quest for a brush-burning permit, they all seem to have a thing for rapid oxidation.
It wasn’t until Tom introduced me to his best college friend Jake that I heard the whole story of that night in the lab. As we sat in Jake’s living room getting acquainted, Tom and Jake described how they’d first met, at a summer program for the top high school chemistry students in their state. How’s that for a great idea—find all the boys in the state with the most knowledge and interest in making dangerous chemicals and put them together in one building! “I remember telling this one kid how I’d been mixing gunpowder,” Tom recalled. “I was so proud of myself, ‘till he showed me his formula for gelatin dynamite.”
In the early 1960s, Tom and Jake had found themselves majoring in chemistry at the same college. Jake settled into the sofa as he turned the pages of their yearbook for me. “Here’s the fraternal society of chemistry students in our senior year. I was president and Tom was secretary.” I looked up from the photo of the serious-looking young men wearing suits, ties, and crew-cuts to the two comfortable older gentlemen sitting next to me, one big and bearded, with a twinkle in his eye, the other still slender and serious, with a slight wince passing across his face. Something told me that putting these two in charge of anything must have meant trouble.
It had fallen to the officers of the chemistry fraternity to organize its rite of initiation for new members. The ceremony required a dark room, so they covered the windows of the basement chemistry lab with black tarpaper. Jake described the plan. First the pledges would be given a pompous speech telling them they were about to be admitted to the underworld to learn the secrets of alchemy, but that if they failed the test, there would be no return. Then Jake, silent in a black hooded robe, would lead each pledge into the basement, where Tom, playing the part of Vulcan at his forge, would pull a glowing hot poker out of the lab’s gas-fired metallurgy furnace and present it to the hopefully terrified freshman.
“What would they have to do?” I asked. “Would they actually have to touch it? Or just think they had to?” I couldn’t imagine these guys hurting anybody, but I’d heard some pretty creepy hazing stories.
“I think I had two pokers,” Tom explained, “and somehow I was going to switch the hot one with a cold one.”
“But you never got around to practicing, did you?” said Jake.
“My problem was,” Tom explained, “I’ve never been good at memorizing. So I wrote my speech in chalk on the tarpaper over the window, so I coud read it behind the kid’s head, and I moved the furnace a little closer to it.”
“Which, of course, was cranked up as high as it could go,” said Jake.”
But, Tom explained, as he was changing into his Vulcan costume, the tarpaper came loose and fell off the window, and the furnace ignited it. He called out to Jake, “I need a fire extinguisher!”
“I thought, good idea, Tom,” said Jake. “We probably should set up an extinguisher in there. Then I saw the flames leaping up the wall and realized he meant NOW!”
But the fire extinguisher proved futile. Tom made a heroic dash behind the furnace to turn off the gas, receiving spatter burns on his legs. “So there I was,” he recalled, “on those big stone steps outside the chemistry building, in my shorts, listening to the fire sirens in the distance as a crowd began to gather.”
The firefighters confined the blaze to the basement. No one else was hurt, and the fire was ruled accidental.
“But, wasn’t there an adult anywhere around during all of this?” I asked.
“Oh, we had a faculty advisor,” said Jake.
“Well, what was he doing?”
“He was running around the lab grabbing the secret scripts and the costumes, shouting ‘Hide the regalia! Hide the regalia!’”
Bill Hannah was a man with a square jaw, wore his grey fedora back on his head, stood as if his two feet were grafted to the ground.
He was the first one out of church. Sat in the back pew so he could get to the vestibule, out the door and down the steps before the singing stopped.
Bill Hannah planted himself under the far maple. There were four of them along the front lawn of the church with thick green canopies in the summer, turned golden in fall. He stood under the far one and lit a cigarette. No one else lit up and no one minded if Bill Hannah did.
Men holding the elbows of their wives or mothers, guiding them down the steps, then placing them under the shade of the maple nearby, tipping their hats to the other women who gathered there, women waiting for the talk to begin.
Young girls, ones who just started wearing stockings and high heeled shoes, stood together noticing each other, and at the same time they watched the boys run behind the church, near the gate of the old cemetery, a safe enough place to tell their stories.
The men stood in their own cluster, waiting to walk one at a time over to Bill Hannah. While they waited they measured crop failures and successes with each other. Some talked about the softball game at the Legion Hall the night before. Others guessed the war would end soon.
Watching from a distance, each man approached Bill Hannah, said a few words to him, shook hands, said a few parting words, then walked away, collected the family and left the church grounds. Next man would walk up and do pretty much the same thing. Then the next.
Reverend W. W. Woulker stood at the top of the steps outside the church vestibule, shaking hands with parishioners hearing their thank yous and goodbyes.
The good Reverend noticed Bill Hannah out there under the far maple, holding court, receiving the men of the congregation. He was curious of course.
Reverend W.W.W. thought he might ask Bill Hannah about it, but he was always slow to question, not wanting to tramp on any man’s privacy. The congregation liked it that way.
The Reverend had visited the Hannah farm after the funeral services for their only son, Bill Hannah Jr. He joined the Air Force right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. His parents were proud. Then he was shot down somewhere in Africa. The Reverend couldn’t remember the date exactly, but he knew there was a stone over there in the cemetery with the dates. It wasn’t that long ago.Mrs. Hannah no longer came to church. Couldn’t talk now after her stroke. Sat in a wheelchair most of the time. The Reverend reflected, “That can’t be easy for the man.”
Then one Sunday morning while looking out at his parishioners on the grass W.W.W. saw a slip of paper fall from the hand of one of the men shaking hands with Bill Hannah. Bill picked the paper up quickly.
The Reverend watched the next man more closely. Yes, again he saw paper of some kind. There was a white flash. Something transferred from the man’s palm to Bill Hannah’s hand.
The next Sunday, Woulker watched again. He believed he understood now why the men, week after week, were paying their respects to Bill Hannah in the way they did.
His hunch would have pushed most preachers to give a moral lesson in the next week’s sermon, but W. W. W. held off. He lived through the Depression with these families. And now World War II was coming to an end. His flock wanted to live and let live.
Bill Hannah wasn’t the only one who lost a son in the war, but he was a man who showed his grief differently than most. Drank at the taverns on the other side of the river, near the steel mills. Met some Pittsburgh men there.
The Reverend guessed right. Bill Hannah brought a city game to the country. Numbers running. These were the days when some telephones still ran on party lines, the days long before state-supported lotto, powerball, before computers or texting.
These men who never traveled far from their farms wrote three numbers on a small slip of paper with the words “boxed” or “straight”. They put a fifty cent piece or a dollar bill with the paper into the trusted hand of their fellow church-goer. With a handshake they were part of the big-city action.
Reverend W.W. Woulker , who knew the sentiments of his flock and the range of their sins, shaded his eyes from the sun as he stood there on the top steps of the church. He blinked at what he saw, then turned and closed the doors to the sanctuary.
While walking through Washington Square Park,
I pause to watch a man in a black fedora, dancing
with a full sized mannequin attached to his feet.
His hand on her short-skirted bottom moves her
In time to the latin music playing from a speaker.
There is something real about her hips twitching
and her hair flopping, but there is something phony
in the way her knees don’t bend.
I was raised in the ballroom dancing era,
but I never learned how to dance properly.
I had what my sister referred to as a “following problem.”
I couldn’t let the man lead.
What I need is a male mannequin.
A crinkled petal of magenta gauze fell from between the pages of Three Cups of Tea. I didn’t recognize it for a moment. And then I knew. A mahogany blossom fallen from the high branches I walked beneath each morning in Key Largo. I don’t remember ever picking up one of them from the walkway. I do remember seeing them swept away each day by the brown woman’s broom. Their presence in the tree branches, neighbor to the palms and bamboos, seemed always startling, remained unaccustomed.
This disorientation was deliberately fashioned by the gardeners, I was told. Line the walks with bromeliads on each side because no one would expect to see them there. Create a faux rain forest with real plants to alarm your senses.
Yes, it was overwhelmingly beautiful; yes, I was stunned just as someone carefully planned I should be as I walked over the little teak bridge, climbed up and over it, crossing into this wonderland, leaving life and its cares behind.
Was I jaded enough, tired enough, cold enough to enter this new state of being? Was I pliant enough to slough off the attachments I felt to what was left behind in the parking lot, back home, up North? Or did I cling to my old ways, the self curious about the world I brought with me in the pages of that book, enamored of the grit and resilience of the mountain people of Pakistan?
I can ask these questions because my mind allows me to be in two or three places at a time. I can toy with scenes from a world I’ve experienced in the flesh—the bubbling warmth of an orchid surrounded pool—and almost simultaneously rest in the reeking warmth of the animals, the yaks and the goats, stabled beneath the family’s living space, that I know only because some other mind has brought this space within me.
Some say shut all that out. Be within. Breathe. Only breathe. Be now. Only now. Not then or there, only here, where you are. Yes, how pleasurable, how safe, how calm. Pay attention to the blue berries on the bamboo. Enjoy only their presence. Don’t let your mind travel to pandas, to China, to the mountains of Asia, to K2, to Baltistan, to a girl with a head scarf holding her first book close to her chest. Fight the drift, the pull.
The mahogany blossom here now on my bed speaks loudly, calls me away, says no. Says come.
I hate shopping for bras. I hate shopping for clothes in general. I hate trying on clothes. I hate stripping down in dressing rooms. And I hate trying on bras, not knowing where they might have been before they touched my skin. I had needed to go bra shopping for months but there was always a reason to put it off. We were going on vacation, returning from vacation, planning a vacation, cleaning the house, grocery shopping, or the weather was too nice. I was at the point where I had to do laundry every few days to avoid wearing bras that were ripped, torn, saggy and stretched out, or that I was in danger of putting a finger through while I fastened them. I was afraid an underwire would pop loose and stab me at an inopportune moment or my bra would simply burst open in the middle of a meeting.
The last time I overhauled my bra collection was years ago. All the underwires had become bent to the point where I couldn’t get them back to their original shapes and they had become quite uncomfortable. Unable to face the racks at a department store, I went to Gazebo hoping for a quick in and out. I told Judith Fine that all my bras had become too mangled to wear. She asked what size I was wearing. “Well that’s the problem.” She said when I told her. “You need a 36D. Have you gained weight recently?” I admitted that I had. “Whenever you lose or gain 20lbs you should always be refitted.” She said, pulling out some bras for me to try.
“How can you possibly tell what size I am?” I asked. It was January. I was wearing a winter coat, a sweater and a turtleneck.
“I’ve seen a lot of breasts.” She said. “Try these. I think you’ll be much more comfortable.”
I was shocked to discover that the bras fit perfectly. When had I gone from barely filling an A to rounding out a D? “Don’t look so upset.” She said. “I’m a 36D too. It’s not a bad thing.”
I bought three bras and did laundry every couple of days. Eventually I went back and bought more. Now I was in Gazebo’s computer. All I had to do was walk in, take whatever color they had in stock and I was good to go. Colors were limited for D wearers. As, Bs and Cs came in pink, purple, blue and green. They came with flowers embroidered on them. The Ds came in black and white. They had three rows of hooks instead of two. They looked like grandmother bras.
Whenever an underwire broke or a bra got too worn out to wear in public without risk, I went to Gazebo and bought a couple more. They added pink to the D rotation and shrank the wide straps down to two rows of hooks so at least they didn’t look like old lady bras.
Last weekend I ran out of excuses. Rich was power washing one of his rental houses and I was lounging on the deck feeling guilty, though power washing really is a one person job. I decided to pick up some bras and bring him lunch.
The clerk looked me up in the computer. “I’ve lost over 20 pounds.” I said. “My non-ripped bras still seem to fit but maybe I’m not a 36D anymore.” She looked at me skeptically.
“We don’t have any of your bras in C or D.” she said. I began to panic.
“Do you have anything similar?” I asked. She began pulling gigantic bras out of drawers. One had straps that looked two inches wide. One had padding like a pushup bra. “No padding” I said, handing it back.
“I already have plenty of my own.” The bras covered more ground than the shirts teenage girls wear today. “Those look way too big.” I said as she ushered me to a dressing room.
I tried on the two inch wide strapped bra. Not only did it fit perfectly, it was really comfortable. The sales woman peeked around the curtain. “Yup – you’re still a 36D” she said. I sighed. “Don’t look so depressed!” she said.
I’ve never given much thought to bra comfort. If they don’t dig, pinch or poke, I don’t give them another thought. I tried on another bra with ugly flowers appliquéd to the tops of the cups. It was one of the ugliest bras I’d ever seen but it, too, was really comfortable. The third bra was average. Tasteful with a vague attempt at femininity. I decided to get all three and get more after I decided which one I liked best. I looked at the price tags as I set them on the counter. $30, about average for a bra; $27, not bad. Something made me take a second look. It wasn’t $27, it was $72. “Holy shit!” I said. The third one was $76.
“What do you think?” the sales woman asked.
“I’m suffering from sticker shock.” I said. “What makes these bras worth $76? Are the underwires made of gold?” She shrugged. “They’re good bras.” She said.
“I would hope so!” I said. I weighed my options. Bras with huge tears, laundry every three days, average bras, more bra shopping or $148 for two bras. “They are really comfortable…” I said.
“But are they really $76 comfortable?” she said. I’ve never had a sales clerk try to talk me out of a sale before. I went back to the dressing room and tried them on again. At least it was summer so I didn’t have lots of layers to take off. They were really comfortable. Supportive and just snug enough in all the right places. No rolling, pinching, digging or poking. I don’t think twice about nearly double that for a pair of Birkenstocks, I thought. Aren’t my breasts worth as much as my feet? Then I remembered I had a $50 gift Visa card. I brought the bras out to the counter. “You’re going to go for it?!” the clerk asked. She was clearly not a D cup. Probably a B – a C at the most. Comfort was probably not an issue.
“I don’t identify as a large breasted woman” I told Rich. “Do I look like a large breasted woman?”
“Well”, he said. “You don’t show them off. You tend to hide them.”
“And I’m tall” I said. “Maybe they get lost in my height.”
I’ve gone several days without doing laundry this week, though I am tempted to do it more often just so I can wear the Rolls Royce bras. Perhaps it’s a good thing that I haven’t changed sizes so I don’t have to replace all my bras at once at $76 a pop. At least my Birkenstocks don’t need to be washed between wearings.
Did you know that the failure rate for second marriages is 70%? That the average medical school accepts only 5% of its applicants? That the typical MFA program in creative writing accepts only 5-10% of its applicants? That the world of poetry and literary fiction consists of too many writers chasing too few readers?
That drug and alcohol treatment programs are, by any statistical measure, almost a complete failure? That the chances of full remission from bipolar disorder are less than 3%? That breast cancer survival rates have barely budged since the advent of recent high tech treatments? That the average outdoor cat lives only eight years? That the divorce rate for white Southern men with only a high school education is 60%?
That forty four million Americans rely on food stamps, greater than the population of Canada or California and four times the population of Cuba? That the next President in 2013 is likely to be a right wing Mormon, thanks to the 9% unemployment rate? That the United States has less upward mobility than most other advanced industrial democracies? That its health care system is generally considered to be the worst in the developed world? That half the world’s population lives just above or near starvation?
This is the part in the narrative where you shift to the positive. That every day someone sees a beautiful sunset or survives being the best man at his brother’s brutal wedding. Or you could go sideways. That almost every guy you see in the science fiction section at Barnes and Noble fits the stereotype of the guy you would expect to see in the science fiction section at Barnes and Noble: Thirty something, overweight, in faded jeans and a Green Lantern tee-shirt, probably still living with his parents, mumbling to himself as he flips through a Robert Heinlein novel. That those who have heard Santayana’s remark about history are doomed to repeat it (I stole this line from Wilfrid Sheed). That I’ve lost twenty pounds on Weight Watchers and am so hungry I could eat this paper and drink the ink from this pen.
Or you could just keep going downhill, sadness reigning. Did you know that resentment of those who have hurt you and done better than you can annihilate your dignity? That obsessive compulsive disorder, untreated, can lead to psychosis? That the closer you come to a long held goal, the more your anxiety spikes to stratospheric levels? That elevated anxiety in bipolar disorder is often a symptom of mania, not depression? That the incidence of mental health has worsened since the injection of high tech antidepressants into the population? That three months, or even three weeks or even three hours of mania can permanently undo the benefits of decades of therapy and medication?
Enough of that.
I once had a friend at work, a high powered corporate lawyer, who confessed to me that she almost never read a book unless she absolutely had to and admired my promiscuous reading habits. So we would play a game we called Book Chat. She would interview me about recent books I’d read and ask me to summarize the one or two things I most remembered from them. Kind of like a speed reading version of C-SPAN’S Book TV. So with that, here’s a list of some books I’ve read over the past few years and what most stands out about each of them.
Fateful Choices, by Ian Kershaw. That Hitler lost the war in part because he had poor allies—Mussolini going disastrously into Greece instead of assisting Hitler in Africa, the Japanese going into certain doom against the U.S. in the South Pacific instead of confronting Stalin in Russia.
Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy, by David Stevenson. That if you’re antiwar, it puts things into perspective to learn that there was very little meaningful public opposition to the mass slaughter, which was incomprehensively worse than Iraq.
Postwar by Tony Judt. That the Paris 1968 revolts, unlike most of those elsewhere in the world that year, were largely peaceful. (I also remember a New Yorker profile of the poet Jorie Graham that said she was expelled from France afterwards for her role in the uprising, along with her paramour, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the leaders.)
101 Semesters, by William Chace, former President of Wesleyan. That schools like Wesleyan minimize the financial cost of need blind admissions (i.e., admission without regard to financial need) by carefully recruiting in mostly affluent areas, thus rendering the policy something of a joke.
The Big Test, by Nicholas Lemann. That there was an actual person with the unbelievable WASP name of Endicott Peabody, who founded the Groton School.
Ho Chi Minh by William J. Duiker. That the literacy rate in Vietnam was 90% in the late 1800s when the French entered and that the illiteracy rate was 90% in the 1950s when they left.
The Cultural Cold War, by Frances Saunders. That almost every courageous and independent thinking anti-Communist intellectual in the U.S. in the 1950s was on the CIA’s payroll.
McMafia, by Misha Glenny. That the biggest and most profitable organized crime syndicate in the world today is the British Columbia marijuana trade, run by the Hell’s Angels.
Medici Money, by Tim Parks, about the Medici banking family of fifteenth century Florence. That the word for bank comes from the Italian word for bench; the original Italian bankers would sit across from their borrowers with a bench between them, conducting business in the town square.
Hopes and Prospects, by Noam Chomsky. That Chomsky no longer supports a binational secular state in Palestine because it’s not in his view even a remote possibility, a reflection of the cold realism at the heart of his allegedly utopian thinking.
Touched with Fire, by Kay Redfield Jamison, about the link between bipolar disorder and creative genius. That perhaps 50-60% of poets in the U.S. and the U.K. are bipolar, a higher percentage than for any other artistic group.
A Savage War of Peace, by Alistair Horne. That De Gaulle issued pardons to French Army officers for war crimes in Algeria in part because he thought the students were going to turn violent after all and overthrow him, and he needed the military’s help.
Sara tied back her hair with a piece of frayed string. Her gray hair surrounded her head like a steel halo. She folded the laundry, and the towel corners met precisely. But when she got to the sheets she fumbled. It’s not easy making things meet end to end when you’re alone.
The word widow—how could she be what she envisioned a widow being—bitter, sad, envious of those whose spouses were still alive. She was, after all, only 50.
She sighed and looked out the window at the garden, Sam’s favorite place. Sara was practical. If she had her way the garden would have been all vegetables. Sam created beauty—a foliar tapestry. There were roses that merged and mingled with day lilies of luminous hues, and plants that Sara knew only by their common names—Cat’s Ears and Mule’s Ears.
You could grow anything in Mendocino, and Sam did. There was French Broom, Bramble, and Coyote Bush. In the garden there was a small teak bench where Sam and Sara spent many evenings conversing quietly over a good local vineyard’s chardonnay.
Sam was gone now six months. People had stopped months ago asking, “How are you, Sara?” Her friends were oddly avoidant, as though grief were contagious. The loneliness was not the worst part. It was the expanse of time, the endless mockery of the ticking clock, the lack of a voice to respond to hers—the silence.
Sara tried, after Sam died, to maintain the garden, but it was useless. She said the plants hummed a death march as soon as she bought them at the nursery. But the roses continued to bloom, the scarlet American Beauties attracting hummingbirds.
Sara didn’t tell anyone what she saw a few weeks after Sam died. She could swear she saw Sam in the garden, his bald head gleaming with sweat, crouched, weeding. Her friends were full of platitudes:
“Life goes on, Sara.”
“He’s in a better place.”
“He’s with God. He’d want you to get on with your life.”
My life—it used to be our life. Sara’s eyes smarted as she recalled Sam saying before he died, “Sara, you have to finish our lives.”
Sara was not one to mope, but there were days when her arms and legs were leaden, when she wanted to close the shutters, close her eyes, and just drift back to the time of her life with Sam. Separation, Sara thought, is amputation.
She gazed out the kitchen window as she folded the last of the laundry, at the garden she could not properly tend. She saw the sunny orange wings of a Monarch butterfly folding and unfolding, and she stopped trying to make the corners meet.
My hands are an enlarged version of a lady’s hands that in Victorian literature might have been described as “long-fingered if nicely formed.” When I was younger I’d expected my fingers to become replicas of my mother’s when she was the age I am now–arthritic knuckles the size of small walnuts and nails professionally manicured like wizened apple dolls with bright red lips.
But this didn’t happen. My fingers are straight and strong, except for my index fingers which lean slightly and I believe affectionately into their adjoining fuck-you neighbors.
For nearly twenty years I wore bandaids on my fingers. I lost the tip of my left pointer when I was carving a turkey. My mother had been visiting. This must have been the sixth or seventh night. She only lived three hundred miles away but she visited infrequently and her sojourns were Chekhovian in duration and style. I was carving the turkey and she was still yakking—the woman never shut up. I took a swig of single malt and in a heroic sacrifice to save my mother’s life, I deflected the knife which was heading toward her heart onto my own finger.
I needed the ER. My car was manual which she couldn’t drive, so I sat behind the wheel with a towel around my hand, motor running, headlights aimed toward the hospital, waiting for my mother. She emerged at the front door to ask if she could wear my mink because it wouldn’t show blood if any sprayed onto the passenger side of the car. She’d arrived in something white, no doubt endangered. “Wear the mink.”
My hands are richly scarred—two brown spots from the morning I hurried bacon for my father-in-law’s breakfast. An inch-long silvery rope on the palm of my right hand from falling off my bike, my big sister’s hand-me-down Western Flyer with balloon tires which had perpetual slow leaks making the bike dangerous to maneuver.
There is a thin scar on the side of my right pointer. I’d been quarreling with my husband while fixing dinner, standing at the kitchen door halving an avocado while he lounged on the sofa. My voice was getting shrill because I was working myself up into a homicidal lather. Suddenly Mr. Wonderful stopped his side of the noise and said, “Look at what you’re doing. Aren’t you right-handed?” I stopped short, too. Blood was dripping into the avocado I held in my right hand, halved with a knife I held in my left hand.
That marked the end of the bandaid years, the end of my “murder turned inward” self-mutilating psychiatric disturbance, the end to ER visits and stitches.
What these large straight-fingered and finely-formed hands can do besides mayhem is make things. They can throw pots on a wheel, knit Aran sweaters, notate canons, stitch Ukainian tapestry, rescue weak gravies, invisibly mend, plait blonde hair, copy any color in paint, and compose a pretty thank you note. They’ve more than redeemed themselves. They are by no means terminally lethal.
He’d played the organ at 7:30 Mass for as long as most of the other retirees could remember. When the small white man with thick white hair stopped showing up, there was no music for a while. The man’s friends explained, “His heart’s going. He’s 94, after all.” The priest found someone to play the piano, which nobody liked. He promised to keep looking for another organist.
At home, the man grew weaker. Everything he did took more and more effort. The day a neighbor found him still in bed at midday, she called his daughters. His good daughter flew south the next day and took him to the doctor. “Your heart’s going,” the doctor said. “There’s nothing more we can do.”
His daughter set up Hospice care for him at home. The Hospice doctor stopped all the expensive pills: the Lasix, the Plavix, the Vitamin E. “There’s no point to them now,” the doctor said. The man put away his pill organizer with the slots for each day of the week. There was nothing more to remember.
His bad daughter, the one who’d left the Church, flew south to join her sister. They brought their father his favorite foods, but he wouldn’t eat. “I just want to die and be with your mother,” he told them. They asked the priest to come and see him. “God will call you when he’s ready,” the priest said. “He chooses the time, not us.” Then he squeezed the man’s hand and said, “Don’t be afraid.”
The man could no longer stand without help. He was going back to childhood, not only becoming more dependent, but losing his sense of time, waking and sleeping at any time of day or night. When he called, or more often, when they heard him trying to get up by himself, the daughters both jumped out of bed, usually the good one first. Eventually they put a mattress on the floor in his room, and took turns sleeping there, so that each would get at least a few solid hours of sleep.
A Hospice nurse came every other day to take his blood pressure and pulse. “You’re doing a fabulous job,” she told the daughters as she left to see her next patient.
The man tossed and turned and called God’s name, and murmured something that sounded like “my sins, my sins.” The daughters asked the priest to stop by again. They put their father’s hearing aids in, then stepped out of his room, just in case he had something to confess that they shouldn’t hear. After a while, the bad daughter heard the priest’s and her sister’s voice in the living room. The priest greeted her. “I was just telling your sister about our renovation plan for the church,” he said. “I know your father would want to be part of it.” He named a sum of money. Her jaw must have dropped; she wasn’t good at keeping her face blank. But she didn’t want to offend the priest or her sister. “We’ll have to talk about it,” her sister said.
The dying man seemed more and more restless. “Maybe we should leave him alone for a while,” said the good daughter. “I remember when my kids were little, sometimes they wouldn’t go to sleep until we left the room.” They each had a glass of wine and they watched TV, a marathon of M*A*S*H reruns. They didn’t look into his room for five episodes.
The Hospice nurse said it was time for some pain relief. The morphine had to be delivered by the pharmacy. The nurse couldn’t bring it with her. “If word got out that we were carrying that kind of stuff,” she said, “we’d get robbed at every stoplight.” The pharmacy courier called, and said he was on their street, but couldn’t find the house. The bad daughter went outside with her cell phone and stood there, but she was invisible to him, and his red van was invisible to her. A neighbor saw her and came out of his house. He took the phone, and determined that the courier was on a street with the same name in another town.
A friend who was a lay minister came by after Mass to give the man communion. She said to the daughters, “You girls are saints.” No we’re not, they thought. We’re not girls either, thought the bad one. Saints wouldn’t talk about their father in his presence as if he couldn’t hear them, even though he couldn’t. Saints would know when to sit by the bed and hold his hand and when to give him some time alone. And they wouldn’t get his legs tangled up and hurt him when they rolled him over in bed. Saints wouldn’t resent being away from their grandchildren for so long, or wonder how much they could get for the house.
The priest came one more time. He gave the man confession, communion, and the last rites. He absolved the man of his sins without his having to speak. He began the consecration of the host. “Jesus took bread and said to his disciples …” His cell phone rang.
He answered it.
“No, I’m sorry, it hasn’t been scheduled yet. Call the office tomorrow. You’re welcome. Bye.”
He continued the consecration where he’d left off. Then he melted a piece of the host in a spoonful of water so the man could swallow it.
They all waited. It was quiet in the house with just the three of them. On Halloween, the good daughter bought candy and handed it out to the kids that came to the door until it was gone. Between doorbells, they watched their father breathing. Was his breathing pattern more erratic? They weren’t sure. They wanted it to be over, but still hated the thought of his dying on Halloween.
The next morning, the good daughter woke her sister and went to get ready for 7:30 Mass. The bad daughter took her place in her father’s room. She gave him his morphine and recorded it on the chart. Soon he breathed more comfortably, though not easily. The radio was playing organ music, so she turned it up. It was a program of sacred music for All Saints’ Day. As the stately chords filled the room, she saw that her father’s breathing had paused, for longer than she’d seen before. Then he breathed again. Then a really long pause.
The good daughter came in. “I think he’s gone,” said her sister.
She felt for a pulse. “There isn’t one,” she said.
They hugged and wept for joy, as if they’d all been planning an escape and he’d just made it over the border.
Suddenly there were lots of people around. They all talked about the devout man ascending to heaven on wings of organ music on All Saints Day, at just about the time he would have been sitting down to play at 7:30 Mass. Even the bad daughter, the atheist, repeated that story. She didn’t believe such stories literally, but she could see why people didn’t want to live without them. She wanted to remember what she’d seen of death, as unpleasant as it was, because it was real, and because it was what she’d have to do some day, but rituals swirled around her, words designed from the beginning of civilization to make her forget, so she did.
In my first home, words were functional, used to set limits, underline rules, bark orders. ‘Get the dinner going, clear the table, do the sweeping, finish your homework.’ Words were bound to duty, parsed out to deal with obligations. There were moments of soft words, affection, moments when words made us laugh, moments of silence when we desperately needed words, like when Tommy died. Overall, words became like their use—they were functional. Not personal, not curious, not beautiful. I never knew words could open doors, or take me down a rose-colored hallway to discover the jewels in the bureau. I was not familiar with words’ capacity to mystify, to hover over a situation and find a way out; I did not know how words can echo, sound, or bounce.
Church time gave me a lot of Latin words that I did not understand, words attached to smells of incense and flowers, words that were harsh, sometimes words that offered comfort. Church words hinted at something powerful. They came with music, bells and organ, choir voices melded into a word experience fuller than the sparse words at home. That held promise for me. That drew me in.
These word experiences began to feed my soul hunger. But over years I found that the Church words were essentially like soldiers who bore arms, ready to shoot if you missed their point. Their battlefield was full of hidden minefields. My soul hunger swallowed soul murder not knowing that their words were held sharp like a knife. They cut, bled and scarred inside.
Then, I found words to speak and hear the pain. Words that healed, caressed and loved the scars. Now, I seek words that lunge into truth, words that open the hollow of recognition, words that seed dreams.
I want words to make me flesh, alive, alert. I want words that pump with energy, that require engagement, words that do not allow a cut off, a shut down, a turning away. I want words that cajole and seduce to birth a new word event. My soul is always hungry for these tastes.
I want to live in a Woody Allen movie where all the women are beautiful, even the old ones. Most of the men are successful. The few failures tell good jokes.
Ah, to be in Woody’s world where no one works. Have you noticed that in his movies? They are being writers, artists, doctors, dentists, but when we see them they are at play, in love or in trouble. No one goes to a job. Instead, these men have contacts. They call people.
Men and women belong to families, some good, others not. Some clans are as large as the mafia. Others small enough to fit around the dining room table at Passover.
Being around the table is big. In Woody’s world everyone eats. Food is important. The actors are witty at meals. Wittier as they drink fine wines. And wine is always there as they arrive for dinner, wine at dinner, after dinner. More wine before sex, during sex and after.
Sometimes the hero will have a headache, but a headache is never just a headache in a Woody Allen film. It’s a tumor or someone going blind. But we are not to worry. There is a person in the family who is a surgeon, an optometrist or a therapist, and by the last act the stricken one will either recover or will dance their way off stage with a friendly apparition of death itself.
Another happy thing about Woody’s world. There are no small annoyances. There are only happy children or no children at all. Odd considering all of the hours his men and women spend in bed. No annoyances from pets, plumbers, computers, lawn mowers, no one has bad teeth. The small annoyances in life are replaced by Woody’s big questions.
People in his movies embrace those universal questions most of us recognize as important, but don’t know the answers.
Is there a God? If there is a heaven will there be mayonnaise and white bread when we get there?
Will we be punished for our sins now or in the afterlife? Is there justice in eternity or should we bring a lawyer?
In life and love will we get what we want? Will we want what we get?
Woody creates a world in which his actors chase these big questions. Even if there are no answers, the movie ends well. That’s why I want to be there, the happy endings.
Betweens | Stephanie Gibbs
It is often reported that, deep in the woods, lurks a being so foreign and so forlorn, so passed over by evolution and by civilization, that all it can do is shake its shaggy head and bellow, bellow at the unfairness of the universe to pass it by and leave it alone in the woods struggling to communicate with beings of too fragile a construction, too rapid a lifespan to ever be peers or companions.
Some say it resembles a giant elephant, some see a creature closer to a bear, some an aquatic variant, some a human thought to be closer to a Neanderthal, some a tiger, and some don’t believe it to be anything more than a fairy tale, the figment of imagination of a people whose own lives are so isolated as to create fantastic stories to explain what they cannot understand. They are wrong, undeniably, unutterably wrong, all of them, although none of them will accept this.
There is a creature, of course; there is a whole host of creatures, who live in world parallel and simultaneous to our own, who occasionally become lost in the woods and slip down the wrong hallway and suddenly find themselves in a world that doesn’t quite fit, the food isn’t nourishing, the beings lack grace and subtlety of movement and communication, and these lost visitors become panicked at the difficulty of making their way back to their own reality, the reality of if onlys.
If only God had created the world in two weeks rather than one. If only the Ark had been a slightly larger ship. If only the flood had lasted 40 millennia rather than 40 days. If only the Crusades had been settled with a round of charades, best two out of three, and a chess match, winner takes all. If only Marco Polo had traveled to Brazil. If only Magellan had sought the North West Passage. If only Ponce de Leon had recognized the fountain of youth when he found it, instead of allowing his horses to drink deep but not even filling his canteen, for the water was cloudy and filled with spiders, and he was eager to find cities of gold. If only France had kept Louisiana, if only Napoleon had been content with Josephine and without Poland or Russia, if only Mussolini had taken a moment to reconsider his actions, if only Lord Elgin had left the marbles in place, if only my violin teacher had survived her heart attack, if only I had used my turn signal.
In this world, this parallel reality of choices not made, decisions and alternative outcomes from thousands of years worth of consulting the stars, the fall of tea leaves, the intestines of sacrifices, the i-ching, the dictionary, in this reality of the alternative ways of being ramble creatures of unimaginable beauty and dexterity, flying, running, swimming, skittering through five or six dimensions, where their unusual size is no hindrance and they sing in a tonal scale unintelligible to our ears.
Whales take opportunities to dry out their wings on land, spending years on top of mountains before returning to the ocean. Bears have marsupial pouches that provide incubation chambers for premature kittens of tigers, and in return the tigers charm fish from the streams, left in baskets woven of rope like silk at the entrances to caves deep in the desert, many days’ journey from the forest.
Humans, too, inhabit this land, humans who decided to live in a world without reconsiderations or recriminations, a world where death, disease, discouragement are accepted without fear, sadness, or God, a world where neither the vacuum cleaner nor the pressure cooker are employed at house parties, a world where roses and Johnson grass are grown in pots on windowsills and aspidistras are tended with loving care and weekly fertilizing along borders of gardens of knotweed and clover. When the sun sets and the moon rises and the skies turn indigo and coral, small children play hopscotch with tree frogs and elephants beat out announcements of local news.
It is not that they are any more content or less full of existential anguish than we are in this world, it is not that they saw advances in Calculus and particle physics as treasonable offenses to be followed with a month in the stocks and a broadside of bad poetry; it is not that the speed of time moves a quarter turn for each of our rotations; but each of these developments reflects something deep in their psyche, reflects a love of the smell of the ocean before a storm, a voice which echoes the wail of the wind through bare trees, a foot that is designed to paddle a boat and climb a tree, a hand which holds tigers still and peels the bark of trees, a heart that grows heavy with longing at the full moon, and a soul that nurses an ambition to remember how to float as easily on air as it still can on water.
There is no sense of betrayal or of waste, for as the day slowly grows into a week, a year, nothing changes, and nothing is remembered. Everything is immediate, the past forgotten, the future inconceivable.
One day the nursing kittens awaken to discover they are tigers, not bears, shake hands with their wet nurses, and leave the desert for the forest, where the echoing emerald replaces the windswept brown they once could recall with perfect clarity.
The whale tumbles from the mountain after a drunken evening of spring water and racy limericks, forgetting to use its wings for propulsion, and falls back into the ocean, seduced by the cooing of mermaids and the promises held by the oysters, promises hinted at but never revealed, the sweet nothings of the mermaids never developed into stories, the whales not aware of any depth beyond where they lie, as the sun drifts down through the ocean.
Sometimes someone from our world falls into the world of parallel possibilities; rarely do they survive the transition from height, width, depth, and time to a world of other facets, other dimensions of which they previously could not even conceive. They are stretched, flattened, twisted, torn, taunted, spun about, and finally placed in a chrysalis of mango leaves to await their rebirth as a sentient being who can communicate tonally and float on the eddies of time, who trades memories and expectations for reverberations of instances of the now, without question or judgment.
Often, beings who survive the initial plummet scream, scream and yell and curse and shout in tongues, begging to be placed back in their home of Sunday roasts, Monday laundry, Tuesday casseroles, Wednesday meetings, Thursday spaghetti dinners, Friday cocktails, Saturday lawn mowings, a world of logical ordered sense rather than this chaotic, random, unprincipled kaleidoscope they’ve fallen into. Often, they are drowned, put out of their misery for their own good, although sometimes the mermaids play mischievous games with their memories before their dying breath.
It is the very young and the very old who best survive the transition, those who have not yet formed prejudices and those who have lived long enough to forget their prejudices. These are given a woven chrysalis of mango leaves, a month of silent feasting on twenty four carat goldfish and the effervescent waters of eternal youth, and when they hatch at the conclusion, they are transformed beings who shimmer and reflect the depths of the secrets of the universe in their eyes, being who have grown tails or gills or wings or all three, beings whose formed and forgotten memories are translated into the roar of the ocean and the explosion of volcanoes, whose heartbeats are earthquakes and whose stories are myths.
On dark, moonless nights, deep in winter and at midsummer, their songs can be heard, in the silences between the beat of butterfly wings and in the hesitation before a tadpole sprouts its tail, and there is nothing like it that you will ever hear again, anywhere else.