Patricia Canright Smith writes fiction, memoir, and personal essays. Her linked stories feature human/animal intersections—condors, spiders, pythons, wallabies, rats, a feral cat, gnats—and consider the solace of the natural world. Or not. The essays explore problems, psychotherapy, nature, religion, and death. She also creates visual art in various mediums and sometimes images find their way into the narratives. Until recently, she practiced psychotherapy. Her work has appeared anthologies and journals including Short Story America (third prize), Jabberwock Review, and Catamaran Literary Reader, with new stories upcoming in Fourteen Hills and North Dakota Quarterly. www.patriciacanrightsmith.com
Me & The Toad
Question: If you accept that you have 83 problems and will always have 83 problems, how do you keep from giving up?
I arrived at my brother David’s fiftieth birthday party wearing the Shoulder Toad. You know, Mr. Negatory, that fetid little ear-hisser whose running commentary can suck the sweetness out of honey. Carrying Toad was getting old; I’d been in this funk for a while and I had no idea why. Still, I was happy to be at a beach party and happy to be in California, in the way only a Los Angeles refugee who has spent forty sodden years in Seattle is happy, almost unbearably happy, in that envious way, to be in California.
I skidded down rooty cliffs onto the seed-gravel sands of Monastery Beach, a mile-long shore across from the old Carmelite Monastery that skirts the picture-postcard southern cove of Carmel Bay. I had impulsively decided that this party would be the perfect opportunity for me to start on an art project I’d been thinking about. Why not? Away from home, I could be whoever I wanted, meaning I could be nobody, meaning I didn’t have to be the Therapist. I take it on faith that not all therapists feel this way, but it seemed obvious to me that everyone – family, friends, other therapists, the mail carrier – expected me to be – not behave, be – a certain way: healthy. As in: Is it healthyto get involved with that younger guy so soon after your divorce? (I hope so. I married him.) As you can imagine, this was a burden. Therapists can be as neurotic as the next guy.
Here is the Buddhist parable that had me fired up to do an art project:
A desperate farmer travels across Asia seeking the Healer. “Oh Buddha!” the farmer cries, “the drought stretches seven years, locusts swarm the fields, my wife – horribly stout, huge! – yet her cooking would stymie a starving man, and my six children lie, steal, and gamble. Rats pilfer my duck eggs, termites devour my house, thieves and mendicants swarm my village. . . .” Finally he winds down and waits for the words that will put things right.
The Buddha says, “I cannot help you.”
The farmer’s eyes pop – all this way he came!
The Buddha says, “Everyone has 83 problems. If you solve one, another will surely take its place. And some problems, like death, have no solution.” As the farmer starts to splutter the Buddha leans forward and spreads his hands. “It may be I can assist with the 84th problem.”
The farmer stops. He looks up.
“Your desire to not have problems.”
Assignment: Take a one-hour vacation. Pack only three problems.
To start, I figured I would need problems, so I carried a tiny spiral notebook and a pen. You would think procuring problems would be easy for a therapist. If psychotherapy is a barrel, wouldn’t problems be the fish? But I had a rule: no client problems. Client problems belonged in the office. Which meant I needed outside problems. Which meant I would have to collect, like the Anthropologist of my fantasy: observe, ask friendly questions, write stuff down. In the brand-new tiny spiral notebook.
And no solving.
I surveyed possible subjects: tanned, fit natives running like race-horses after Frisbees. I was squeamish about asking a stranger what his problem is. I don’t like to talk to strangers. I don’t like to intrude. Theoretically, this could render my job undoable, but not at all. My office provided the platform, my chair, the persona; I could ask anything. But a party is different. If a therapist at a party asks a person, oh, how they like their new watch, for example, the person will back away and say “Don’t psychoanalyze me!” Seriously.
I reminded myself that these people did not know me.
Finally I spied someone I recognized, Mickey, a wiry truck driver with golden retro curls whom I knew from when he lived in Venice Beach with David – two pot-smoking hippie musicians. I set my shoulders, sauntered across the sand, and sank down beside him on a driftwood log. We nodded through hellos, long times, so what are you up to nows. Then we sat and nodded at the sand, the sea, the sky. Gulls shrieked. Harbor seals surfed the breakers.
Finally, I braved the question. “So, if you had to say what your problem is – you know, just name some problem – what would it be?”
“I’m just collecting, you know, problems. For this art project I’m doing?” The effort to sound casual was distorting my voice, as though a tiny bot in my larynx was trying – and failing – to polish it up. I cleared my throat.
Mickey took a swig of Moosedrool Ale. He nabbed a twist of manzanita. Together we surveyed the fat amber glisten of bull kelp, rising and falling as if the bay were breathing. Mickey hurled the manzanita into a breaker. Another swig of Moosedrool.
“The problem doesn’t have to be deep or personal or anything,” I said. Mickey chuckled again and I burrowed my toes into the cold wet. Now I could see what a bad idea this was but I was stumped right along with Mickey – what to say to let him off the hook?
Road rage? My eyes slid sideways to see if Mickey meant himself, and like a machine my brain generated Mickey-to-Road Rage links – expression, gesture, musculature, haircut, body art. You might wonder: did I have my usual urge to probe, to try to help? Well, maybe, but that switch was off. I simply closed my mouth, wrote down road rage, closed my notebook, smiled at Mickey, and returned my gaze to the heaving Pacific.
Number one: Road rage.
Question: How can the Dalai Lama giggle when asked about China?
That Buddhist parable, stumbled across six months earlier, had inspired more than art. You know how most things transform in an incremental way, following a traditional pattern – egg to nymph to dragonfly? Not this time. When I happened upon the parable it was a conversion experience. You toil in the garden, nose to the ground, trying to eliminate every rock, bug, weed, day after day, rocks, bugs, weeds, and then one day something makes you stop. You don’t bend down, you raise your head. It has rained, and now the sun is shining, and everywhere – among the rocks, adorned with bugs, alongside weeds – you see parsley, lettuce, chard, chives.
See? Where once I saw problem, I now saw life. But what did it mean? How could I use this dazzling realization?
I started with sharing: friends, family, choir practice, dinner parties.
I told my clients: Imagine believing that we all have 83 problems, every last one of us, even Bill Gates, even Oprah. Then imagine rising up out of your bed of problems and getting to work. Not on your problems. On something else.
Maybe it confused them. It might have been a letdown, a breach of faith – to contemplate acceptance in the face of one’s problems. Or maybe it helped. One woman, catching herself in a litany of complaint, lifted her hands and lilted, “Oh, well, it’s the way of the world!”
At the beach, I set a chipped enamel pot of marinating chicken on the card table near the grill and headed back up the cliff. I worried about raw chicken in the sun, but there did not seem to be coolers, so I ferried supplies, set out cutlery, and speared skewers through possibly spoiled meat, mushrooms, onions, peppers and cherry tomatoes. Beer and wine were passed around, some pot along the fringe. As the pyramids of shish kebabs grew, I egged myself on: You are The Collector. Just ask anyone. I cracked a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
David’s wife, Anne, a trim, fit woman in khaki shorts and a white tee shirt, whom I esteem greatly – rock climber, writer, photographer, world traveler, book editor, and inspiring reader and thinker – joined me with her platter of glistening shish-kebabs.
She pointed at my little notebook.
“I am collecting,” I said. I explained the 83 Problems project.
“Ah.” She laid shish kebabs on the wire grate in neat, efficient rows.
“I’m lazy,” she volunteered.
“No, you’re not,” I said.
“Yes, I am,” she said.
“You are not,” I said. “Look at you. My god.”
“Well, but I’m not doing my own work.” Anne meant her photography, she meant her writing, which she did in fits and starts.
“Well, still – you’re not lazy.”
“So you won’t accept my problem? I thought you were collecting. Shouldn’t you be impartial?”
I studied Anne, her squinty, direct gaze. The breeze riffled her hair, which she calls dishwater – every time we get together she wants me to dye it red. She swiped at a strand with a quick backhand and laid another shish kebob on the grate.
“Okay,” I said. “But I don’t believe it’s lazy. Something is – .” Oops.
I smiled. Anne smiled. Lazy, I wrote.
Assignment: Write a story with problems as characters. Describe what they wear, their hair.
The parable had made me wake up, as the Buddhists say, but the parable had not made me happy. Oh, the idea of the parable made me happy, but something was wrong – and getting wronger – and I could not make sense of it. I had spent the last few years solving my problems: the difficult marriage, the move, the new office, marrying the younger guy – and something was wrong?
I wanted to accept my problem, but I could not figure out what it was.
Question: If you do not think about your problems, where do they exist? (Tree falling in forest phenomenon.)
At the beach, a tall, sinuous woman in black leggings and purple Converse high-tops sauntered up cupping a wine glass – not plastic but her own glass goblet. She stared at the grill.
“Do they all have meat?” she asked.
Without turning, Anne gestured toward the other battered card table and said in the manner of a person reading a phonebook, “You can make one with only vegetables, Louise.”
“Oh,” Louise said. Deadpan behind mirrored aviator sunglasses, she stared at Anne, and then at me, one beat too long. Then she said, “All right,” and sauntered off.
“Can I change my problem?” Anne said.
When he wasn’t slopping after bugs – or whatever toads do when they aren’t harassing you – the Toad waxed foul in my ear about my personal failings: too selfish, too loud, too sharp, and all those past mistakes. He especially sneered at my work, questioning its worth, inflating the flaws. It was getting to me.
I had become a therapist because I thought it was important to help people, because I am a natural cheerleader, because my brain likes puzzles (detect, assess, sort, assist), because I needed to make a living, because I was too self-doubting to test other talents, because I hoped to figure out why my mother went crazy, because everyone was doing it, because the workings of humans fascinated me (permission to stare at talking faces!), and because I had healing to do, though I did not know that then. I was good at it, and I liked that. I also liked the stories. I liked the people. I learned a lot, and they (mostly) used what I learned to make their lives better, sometimes much better, at times to my surprise, always to my satisfaction. On occasion, the work seemed sacred – something that arose of its own accord as I sat with souls whose pain and whose courage were awe-inspiring.
But practicing psychotherapy had never felt like a calling to me the way it seemed to for others, and I had wondered if I was deficient in some way, especially since, at the moment I decided to apply to graduate school, I had heard in my head, like a bell tolling, You will help other people do their things instead of doing your thing.
Well, what was that supposed to mean? What “thing?” True, when I was young I had played piano; I learned guitar; I sang folk songs like Joan Baez. But not for one nanosecond did I believe I should become a singer. We didn’t do that in my family. We did academic things. Anyway, I had performance anxiety. So I ignored the tolling bell of doom and over the years as I practiced as a therapist, I did “things” on the side: sang in a choir; took classes in drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture; joined a writing group.
Excuse me, Toad, but what about this was abominable?
Assignment: Even though you know another problem will take its place, go ahead and solve one. Yours or someone else’s. Big or small.
“I went for seductive, when I should have gone for lovable.”
A small, dark-haired woman in black crop-pants, a skinny black t-shirt, and round, pink plastic sunglasses had planted herself in my path. She tilted her head in a way that reminded me of a nuthatch stalking an ant. I glanced at the prominent knobs of her collarbones. I reminded myself, stop that.
“I’m sorry?” I said.
She squinched up her bony shoulders. “Anne said you were collecting problems.” She nodded.
I nodded back, transfixed. Her entire body seemed to buzz, electricity housed in translucent skin.
Enunciating as though my grasp of the language was uncertain, she said, “I said, I went for seductive – which didn’t work. He wasn’t into seductive. I should have gone for lovable.”
“Oh! Okay. Thank you!”
She hopped off. I set my beer on the sand, flipped open my little pad, and extracted my pen. It hovered over the paper. What had she said? I went for seductive when I should have gone for lovable.
I couldn’t see it. Not lovable? She was adorable, little bird.
Sometimes I would endeavor to explain why I did these on-the-side things as though someone were condemning my frivolity. Or my conceit. One explanation I believed in: therapists need art. Spending so much time in other people’s soup can dissolve you. Having “good boundaries” is supposed to protect – but what do you do with the sorrows of others? How do you not give your heart? One psychologist I knew worked in her garden on Mondays, painted on Thursdays, and saw clients the other days. Another became a master potter, spinning deep, delicate rice bowls of porcelain on Wednesday mornings and Friday afternoons. Five of the six women in my first writing workshop were therapists. The psychiatrist in my office was a poet. On the side.
Question: Are your problems better than mine?
Louise, whom I learned was a model-actress-screenwriter-realtor, was again staring at me, now over her vegetable shish kebab. I nodded hello, again. I asked her the question.
“Well, my mother, who has x-ray vision for the fatal flaw, rules out every man I date, or woman, too, though that goes without saying – but I mean, she doesn’t have to forbid, nothing like brute force, because once she’s pointed out the fatal flaw, it’s over for me, I can’t get past it, so I haven’t had sex for, I don’t know, forever – which might be the plan – and she’s even more critical of me, but then she gives me money and vacations and stuff – only when she wants to; she has control issues – which is actually hostile – ”
“I’m looking for, you know, just one problem. Maybe something recent?”
“Oh,” Louise said. She twisted her mouth. “Recent.” She raised her eyebrows behind the aviator sunglasses. I waited.
“Well, at that craphole, Esalen – I always sneak into the hot tubs on the drive up from L.A. – they pissed me off so bad that on my way out I drove into a wall out of pure spite and took the side off my new Toyota.” She brandished a bare arm toward the cars on the roadside.
Did I follow up with: “Why were you pissed off?” “So does this happen often?” “Would you say anger is a problem in your life?”
I did not. I nodded and said, “Great!” And I wrote Took side off new Toyota out of pure spite. Esalen. That was it. I was done.
Assignment: Tie Problem-Ribbons in your hair. Get a haircut.
I became rabid: Problems Without Pathology! Happiness does not depend upon their eradication! But if problems were not weeds to be pulled, what was I doing in the office? It could have been the Toad polluting my thinking: I was railing against complexes, diagnoses, proscriptions and prescriptions, ranting about the Tyranny of Mental Health as though mental health were a bad thing. I called psychology flat, final, reductive.
“We pin issues on people like identification tags,” I snapped in consultation group one day. “Susan Sontag called it the aggression of interpretation. What’s to say that a client’s struggle is rooted in a complex rather than, oh, I don’t know, hormones? Or genetics.”
The purpose of consultation group was to explore psychological knowledge, not genetics or endocrinology. Why did it sound like some ignorant, evil conclave?
At the beach, people handed me problems as if I were asking for spare change and they had fists full. Beerman Brian? Louise. Anne, again? Louise. Rose? Well, Louise. This suggested some problems are contextual. The sun flamed copper and then plunged into the sea while I recorded In-laws. My thighs. Raging sexuality. Rude people – no. . . how about, Upstairs neighbor is not a nice person. By the bonfire, one reveler belted the theme from “Rawhide.” I thought about whether it was a problem that he knew every word of the theme song from a 1959 TV show. I took down Too much fun. Fatal indecision. My willpower is not what I thought it was. Bruce the Winemaker, who was driving the wine table with two drunken buddies, interrupted his soliloquy on terroir to raise his chin to the sky and roar, I was raised by wolves. I wrote it down. Carry on, I wanted to sing. It’s fine. There is no being done with problems until you die. And for Buddhists, you’ll be back.
It was dark, without a moon. The breeze was gentle off the water, and cool; the bonfire was mostly glowing cinders. The last partygoers had settled into quiet clusters of twos and threes. Fiddler Will sat alone by the dying fire, a skinny denim scarecrow with superlative teeth – the cigarette stains did not detract – and clear plastic glasses mended with band-aids.
I joined Will. I asked him the question. He raised his eyes, he squinted his eyes, he closed his eyes. He displayed the rack of teeth in the manner of a dentist’s model, as though they might ward me off. He laid his cheek on his fiddle and sawed a creaky little jig. Then he dragged the bow across the catgut strings in a stretched shriek.
“Shy guy,” he whispered.
Shy guy, I wrote. I resisted the impulse to draw him out. I could not resist the impulse to pat his arm.
Question: Why does it make you feel better about your problems to hear about someone else’s?
It was exhilarating, collecting. Exhilarating, relating to people without the Therapist mantle. I felt free. And when I came home, I could think again, and I began to sort out what my problem was. I speculated about what I might want to do about it. I had been railing against Psychology as though Psychology were bad, but Psychology was the same as it ever was. My problem was: I did not want to practice Psychology anymore. I hadn’t realized it earlier because, apparently, Quitting the Practice was against the Rules.
Or maybe I lacked courage. What would I have said if someone had asked at a party, “What is your problem?” Toenail fungus? The Toad on my shoulder?
Yes, there was self-interrogation – I mean, isn’t it always exhilarating to be on vacation? Don’t you always come home a new person? How could anyone decide anything, let alone something this big, because of a beach party? But I knew it was right: the Toad seemed to be off somewhere.
At our next office lunch, after murmuring through the usual – kitchen, scheduling, clients, consultation, kids – I apologized for how cranky I had been.
“I thought I might be depressed, but that’s not it. It’s just – well, I’m still interested in people. I’m just interested in thinking about them in a new way. You know, that is more, I don’t know, literary.”
“I love how writers make their characters so vivid.”
They didn’t get it. “Yeah. . . ” Because I hadn’t said it. “But – I think I’m tired. I think I’ve done what I have in me to do.” My heart was beating hard and my eyes felt like Basset Hound’s – sorry. “I think I’m going to quit psychotherapy.”
Nothing happened. No Hand of God knocked me flat; my mates did not turn me out. In fact, they beamed – That’s wonderful, Patricia – and we moved on. My officemates, my consultation group, my colleagues let me go. It was not shameful that I did not want to practice psychotherapy anymore. It was not a betrayal of my work or my clients. It did not negate what I’d done. Psychology was not a religion, where once you lose the faith you are officially a non-person. But I had treated it as though it were. I had believed that I had to do this work, had to keep trying, and every year, it cost me more. There is no doubt a psychological explanation, but I did not need to work it through. I just needed to say I’m done. Not so easy when what you’re done with is not only how you earn your keep, but, if not your actual “thing” (which, let’s face it, you may never discover your actual “thing” because “things” may not even exist because they are human constructions), it’s still your ”identity.”
But here’s the deal: How can you solve the new problem if you won’t allow for its existence?
Assignment: Build a little Problem House. Hang it in a tree.
That was a couple of years ago. It took time to say good-bye. Yes, I gave people two-years’ notice. It’s not regular life, it’s therapy.
Meanwhile, I have been working on the 83 Problems project. Besides collecting problems, I am making 83 ceramic heads. I like the number 83. Because I am a literal person. Which I accept.
First, I crafted one out of clay – well, I crafted a few, but I kept the one I liked, which I modeled on Adam Sandler because I like his nose. I got stuck on the ears – somehow, that took one entire August. When I figured it out, I made four separate molds and I started cranking out Adam Sandlers. (Not that anyone recognizes him.) I gave them different expressions. People usually assume each represents a particular problem but it doesn’t. I figure it’s up to the viewer to supply the problems.
Now that I’ve got the ears, I can’t figure out the body. The heads need to be posted on some kind of body so the viewer can be eye-to-eye, but I don’t like the prototypes I’ve tried – blocks, sticks, branches – maybe because every time I come up with something, I think about making 83 of them. My latest idea was plain rebar – industrial and man-made, just like problems – but heads on rebar might look like a Cannibal Thing. Can’t have that.
And I want the piece to be interactive but I don’t know how. Should I include the Parable, the Collection, the Questions and Assignments? I want to show the work outdoors: Green Lake, an urban lake in Seattle which people walk around talking about their problems. But I’ll need permits, helpers, a way to haul the heads. Maybe I should just research galleries so the piece can be up for longer than a day. Actually, my dream is to take the heads on the road and photograph them in different locations, not to mention spread the word about everyone having 83 problems – the mandate of the work, after all. But if I don’t have the gumption to install them at Green Lake, what will I do in Omaha?”
It is not fun, being stuck. I have to argue with the Toad – yes, him again – who is questioning the work’s worth, inflating its flaws. Not to mention harping on the never-ending past mistakes. Thank you, Toad. Also, please shut up. I’m working here.
Assignment: Make a little Problem Doll. Do whatever you like with it.
Christine Stewart-Nuñez is the author of Snow, Salt, Honey (2012); Keeping Them Alive (2011); Postcard on Parchment (2008); Unbound & Branded (2006); and The Love of Unreal Things (2005). Her piece “An Archeology of Secrets” was a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2012. Her work has appeared in such magazines as Arts & Letters, North American Review, Prairie Schooner and Shenandoah. She teaches at South Dakota State University.
Marriage and Marble
Before you and our three-year-old son joined me in Prague, I worked in Poland for two weeks without you. The separation from your hugs, from your sleep-filled breaths, from your chitchat over an evening meal, from your gourmet cheese omelets, from your memorized punch lines, from your presence in my bed, electrified my desire for your touch. You wouldn’t walk the St. Charles Bridge with me at dawn – you preferred to sleep in – but we watched fog lift from the Vltava River, drank beer in low-lit pubs, toured hill-cresting castles, and followed a guidebook’s scavenger hunt. “Like geocaching with art,” you said. You led us down winding, cobbled road after winding, cobbled road until we saw all the listed David Cerný sculptures: babies crawling up the Žižkov Television Tower, a statue of St. Wenceslas riding a dead horse, the two “peeing men” outside the Kafka Museum.
Cerný’s “Hanging Man” – Sigmund Freud dangling by one hand from a four-story building – took the longest to find. I would’ve missed the intersection of Husova and Skorepka streets if you hadn’t scrutinized the map. How bleak Freud seemed there, suspended from the building, its burnt-orange pipes and gutters like veins against the building’s buttercream skin. “It represents the human need to make the decision to live life or let go,” you read aloud.
The sculpture that drew me in adorned Prague’s park on Petrin Hill, a height to which we ascended via cable car. It wasn’t one of Cerný’s. The male figure supported the female figure’s shoulder with one hand, the other cupping her cheek; her arms wrapped around his neck, she’s sinking into the embrace, marble skirt pooling around his feet. They kiss as if nothing, not even the green lawn with its handful of strolling, rain-drenched tourists, existed beyond them. Do you remember kissing me in a deli the October weekend you met my parents? We’d finished our sandwiches and chips, were still sipping sodas and chatting with my mom, when you slipped your arm around my waist, dipped me back, and kissed me long and deep in the middle of lunch rush.
Grabbing your hand, I pointed to the sculpture. I wanted that kiss. You wouldn’t lean in. Not even to peck my cheek. Not even when I asked. I wondered if you loved me as this sculpted man adored his beloved. Now, I see that love’s end emerged here in the ways we moved, spoke, kissed, danced – or didn’t.
“I feel like we’re spinning away from each other,” I said after we returned from Prague, and I found the words. You sat on the deck stairs that hot July day, and I stood in front of the ornamental crabapple tree, many of its branches barren. Even though I lopped off those I could reach, from across the yard anyone could tell it was dying.
“You’ve been pulling away from me. Even before the trip. Hours playing video games, watching movies alone, checking your email until midnight. What’s going on?” I grabbed a few leaves off a low branch, studying them for blight. None were curled or frayed. No leaves displayed spots or clusters of mold. I couldn’t tell why some branches refused to bud, as if immune to the pull of summer’s heat.
Your expression hardened. “What exactly do you want?” you asked. I didn’t have the courage to say to feel loved again.
“I want to spend time together. Go on dates. Go dancing,” I said.
I waited a few seconds, imagining you’d say, “Let’s go out this weekend. I’ll find a sitter.” Instead, your eyes narrowed, gazing into the chasm between us.
“Nothing I do seems good enough,” you said.
In Russia, I visited the Fallen Monument Park in Moscow with my colleagues. The park was started after the collapse of the Soviet Union when Russian citizens toppled statues of Lenin and Marx, workers and peasants, and dragged them to rest – haphazardly – here. Usually curators shape the gestalt of the viewer’s experience by making deliberate choices about how to place statues and metal sculptures in relationship to each other. And in the newer sections of the sculpture park, I could tell that the curator had considered the dynamic architecture of landscape; how, for example, each piece in the newer section conformed to a hedge’s bend, a hill’s slope, a boulder’s angle.
You often sought such direction from me. You often said, “Just tell me what you want me to do” about cooking, tending the yard, planning a date night, whatever. So it went. If I asked you to clean the bathroom on a Tuesday, I’d spend three days ignoring the toothpaste speckles on the mirror and the grime lining the toilet bowl. On Saturday, I’d interrupt your videogame campaign. “When will you clean the bathroom?” I’d ask. You’d march off, emerging ten minutes later with the toilet, sink, and mirrors sparkling. But something would always be left undone. I wouldn’t notice that you skipped the shower until the next morning when I’d see the ring around the porcelain tub. When I’d tease, “I think you missed a spot,” you’d sigh, your gaze narrowing.
In the newer areas of the sculpture park, I found myself studying couples. One piece, “Minuet,” depicts two Victorian dancers, arms held up and locked, hand-over-hand. Such fine-chiseled costumes: the woman’s fancy handkerchief and the man’s detailed pockets. When I followed the gaze of each dancer and observed a neglected park – litter tumbling between installations, grass nine-inches long sprouting tufts, weeds creeping up pedestals – it was clear the groundskeepers didn’t share the curator’s meticulous care. I never wanted to map out the long-term dreams or daily directions for our married life; I wanted us to curate together.
Remember when you bought me dance lessons as a Valentine’s Day gift the year we got engaged? Swing, salsa, foxtrot. I loved watching you pivot and step, your body’s muscle memory retaining the poise and fluid motion from years of martial arts training. You had perfect posture – head up, shoulders back, elbow right-angled. Lean and muscled, strength swept you across the dance floor. You just needed to learn the dance sequences and how to communicate your intentions to me with pressure from your hand. Even when you looked away – toward the instructor, toward the door, toward the parking lot – I was supposed to understand your intentions by the turn of your hand. When you forgot to signal me, I anticipated the movement of your hips.
From the angle I snapped the photograph of “Minuet,” I notice the woman’s arched eyebrows, her lips drawn into a pout. I can see only the back and side of the male dancer’s body. Without his face, I can’t see the hard gaze of disinterest.
“Do you want this life?” I gestured to my body, our bedroom.
You were angry because I’d asked you to help me plant my garden before I flew to Russia. You hate being outside, sweating and dirty, and I know this, but I asked for an afternoon of digging so we could enjoy fresh beans, tomatoes, carrots, and squash. You gave me four hours on Saturday, but for the rest of the Memorial Day weekend, you avoided me by staying up late and slipping away to run errands. Exasperated, I confronted you.
From where I stood next to the bed, I could see the garden, the spiral structure for herbs at its center. Our five-year-old had helped me lift the concrete squares to form its base, and he hugged armfuls of dirt to fill it in. In the following weeks, we watched our sculpture sprout basil, dill, oregano, cilantro, chives, parsley, tarragon, rosemary, and sage. He cut sprigs for salads, and he remembered how we planted the sand-sized seeds. You always forgot what we grew and returned from the store with herbs sealed away in plastic containers.
“Yes,” you answered. “I want you.”
For two years – since that Prague trip – I heard words come out of your mouth that your actions contradicted. Yes, I’ll go to the street dance, but you sat on the side, even when other men tried to dance with me. Yes, I’ll go to the parade, yet you listened to a podcast on your iPod and leaned against a tree, unable to hear our son’s excited chatter, unable to see the happiness on his face as he caught Tootsie Rolls and Smarties thrown from the floats as they passed.
During a break from walking in the Fallen Monument Park, I sat on a bench across from a twenty-something couple – close to our age when we met. I chuckled because I knew you’d make fun of their matching clothing: white t-shirts, white shorts, black sandals. The woman lay across the red-slated bench, head on his right thigh. She clutched his hand, as if she dreamed she needed to hold on tight, as if she felt his attention spinning away. On his left thigh rested a mini-laptop computer; his left hand pecked out words. They fit into the park, as if planned. The man attended to the computer screen as a dance instructor would study the alignment of a student’s heels and bones or scrutinize a dancer’s plié to see if her scapula lay flat. I don’t remember when you started to choose screens, two-dimensional games and movies as an easy way to pass time. I wanted to approach the woman, to pull her to my bench and warn her, “Be careful, be careful.” Instead, I photographed them.
When I saw a pair of marble figures beyond a smattering of shrubs in Moscow, I still believed work and creativity could renew our relationship. From a distance, one figure had long hair, curls flowing as if in defiance of the form. She knelt in front of a seated figure, his head in front of her hips. An intimate kiss. My breath quickened and my heart softened. I walked closer to see the expression on her sugar-colored face. From this new perspective, I could see that the male figure was kissing her smooth torso, and I recalled your lips against the stretched skin of my swollen, pregnant belly. Even heavy and tired and scattered by hormonal surges, I floated from moment to moment with you, the sharp edges of our lives rounded out. At night, with your arm over my hip, I felt an intense dimension of love – love triangulated with this person we’d created together. The shift in evening sunlight brought me back to the figures and my new understanding of our muted love.
A few weeks after you say “divorce,” I sort my photos from Russia. I realize I photographed more than pairs. Among the couples, Alexander Pushkin sculptures, and busts of Stalin, are three singles: Child Hugging an Object, Man Alone, and Woman on a Bench.
I scrutinize them. I wonder what it means that I photographed these statues. Was I trying to tell myself something? Face your fear. Admit your family is broken, so broken that its elements can’t exist in the same piece of art. A wave of panic seizes my heart. Where another viewer of Child Hugging an Object might see the child’s chubby arms, full cheeks, and smooth, bald head and say “adorable,” I obsess about his posture: he kneels, sitting over his thighs, and he hugs a pillow almost his size; his eyes are closed, his lips drawn to a pronounced pout. Is this our son, heartbroken? No. Child Hugging an Object represents the past when our unhappiness burdened him. The future will free him, too.
Man Alone’s arms hug his knees against his chest. His curly beard and longish hair age him beyond your years. Cottonwood seeds blanket the green blades of grass around the statue like snowflakes. Sunlight filters through the branches and leaves making shadows on the statue’s back and casting his face in darkness. You say you want to live alone. I can’t imagine this means happiness for you, now or ever. I finally understand that you don’t curate life experiences. You live them.
I’ve sat the same way as Woman on a Bench, arms resting on her thighs, elbows drawn into her body as if she’s cold. The sculptor carved her from rough-hewn rock and placed her on an unadorned pedestal. To her right, the bench is empty. Her face turns away from the space, chin resting on her shoulder. Her eyes are closed, lips frowning. She grieves the emptiness beside her. Yet the evening sun warms her face and the left side of her body, lightening the cement-gray stone. Her toes are pointed like a ballet dancer’s. She’s ready. All she needs to do is step away from the space into a new rhythm.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Milkweed Editions, 2013 ISBN 10: 1571313354; ISBN 13: 978-1571313355 390 pages, paper
Review by Sue Ellis
Braiding Sweetgrass has the feel of a bible, and the essays that make up the chapters are like sweet psalms that gently admonish and instruct with practical advise to help us save our environment. That a good many of us haven’t made the connection between the earth’s health and our own is at the heart of the problem Robin Wall Kimmerer addresses. And it becomes clear within a few chapters that she’s uniquely qualified for the job, writing from the perspective of botanist and professor of plant ecology, and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
She begins with the Native American perspective on creation, how Skywoman fell from the heavens like a maple seed, and finding earth covered with water, stepped onto the back of a turtle. Soon aquatic birds and other water creatures began to dive below the surface, searching out mud for the woman to build upon. Skywoman spread a precious handful of their gift across the back of the turtle, and then began to dance in celebration, causing the earth to grow and grow. It was then that she shared the gifts she had brought with her – plants and seeds to provide food and shelter for all who lived upon Turtle Island. The exchange of gifts was an act of reciprocity, the importance of which is stressed throughout the book: people must learn to give back rather than always taking from the earth.
The essays are too numerous to list, each filled with both Native American folklore and scientific facts that pertain to the natural world. They cover such topics as the making of maple syrup, the preservation and harvest of black ash trees for basket making, and the many uses for cattails.
There is an essay about Lake Onondaga in New York State, the most polluted lake in the United States. It describes the industry whose lack of consideration for the environment led to the lake’s pollution. It also tells the story of a man who planted patches of grass in the shape of letters spelling H E L P upon a section of the lake’s ruined shoreline. And help did begin to arrive in the form of concerned citizens, scientists and ecologists who made headlines by banding together to find a solution for the lake’s distress. Meanwhile, unlauded, Mother Earth works to renew herself.
My favorite essay is about the Pacific Northwest’s Nechesne people. Their management of wild salmon runs in the glory days before wetlands were leveled out and filled to make more pasture for cows is a masterpiece of lyrical prose, and a human history deserving of Kimmerer’s eloquent telling.
Toward the end of the book, Kimmerer describes Windigo, the Native American version of the devil, who seeks to destroy all that he touches. Here’s an excerpt describing her fantasy about curing Windigo of his evil ways by making him drink her handmade, medicine – after she’s rendered him manageable with a kettleful of poisonous buckthorn tea:
He lies spent in the snow, a stinking carcass, but still dangerous when the hunger rises to fill the new emptiness. I run back in the house for the second pot and carry it to his side, where the snow has melted around him. His eyes are glazed over but I hear his stomach rumble so I hold the cup to his lips. He turns his head away as if it were poison. I take a sip, to reassure him and because he is not the only one who needs it. I feel the medicines standing beside me. And then he drinks, just a sip at a time of the golden pink tea, tea of willow to quell the fever of want and strawberries to mend his heart. With the nourishing broth of the Three Sisters and infused with savory wild leeks, the medicines enter his bloodstream: white pine for unity, justice from pecans, the humility of spruce roots. He drinks down the compassion of witch hazel, the respect of cedars, a blessing of silverbells, all sweetened with the maple of gratitude. You can’t know reciprocity until you know the gift. He is helpless before their power.
His head falls back, leaving the cup still full. He closes his eyes. There is just one more part of the medicine. I am no longer afraid. I sit down beside him on the newly greening grass. “Let me tell you a story,” I say as the ice melts away. “She fell like a maple seed, pirouetting from the autumn sky.”
I was impressed enough by this beautifully written book to hope it will become required reading in schools, serving as a guide for environmental awareness and the conservation of natural resources. Braiding Sweetgrass shines a light down a narrowing path, if only we are wise enough to follow.
Sue Ellis is a sock knitter, soap maker, gardener, and retired postmaster who lives near Mt. Spokane in Washington State. Some writing credits include Christian Science Monitor, Prick of the Spindle, Wild Violet, The Cynic Online Magazine and BluePrint Review.
Scott Russell Morris is a PhD student at Texas Tech University’s English program. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University. His essays have previously appeared in Brevity, SLAB, and Best of Mormonism 2012. He is currently working on a food memoir about a winter in Kazakhstan.
On Whom Things Are Lost
If I should certainly say to a novice “Write from experience and experience only,” I should feel that this was rather a tantalizing monition if I were not careful immediately to add, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!” -Henry James
I am not one of those people. Things are lost on me and by me all the time.
For example, I lost the first draft of this essay. No joke. Given the nature of this essay, I am pleased that it worked out this way; it’s perfect, really, that I should lose an essay about losing things.
I started the essay in March, and had written a fairly thorough draft, probably eight or nine pages. It was a rough draft, to be sure, but I was pleased with where it was going. As is my general habit, I didn’t touch the essay for several weeks. I like to let essays sit and settle so that I have a fresh perspective when I return to them. When I tried to come back to the essay in early June, I couldn’t find it anywhere. I checked every folder in my computer twice, including the recycle bin; I searched for the word “lost” with the computer’s search feature (in the process discovered the manuscript of an award-winning ghost story I’d written as an undergraduate, which I thought I’d lost years ago, which has the phrase “lost at sea” in its critical moment); I checked and double-checked my portable hard drive and both of my flash drives; I checked my laptop; I checked my work laptop; I checked my email to see if I had sent it to myself. I couldn’t find it anywhere. Gone.
I spent hours smoldering quietly and rummaging through the electronic sinkhole that my computer had apparently become before I gave up the search and started a new draft, almost completely from scratch. I felt the loss of that first essay keenly, though it was a delectably laughable loss. With any other essay, I might have just given up, but after the initial frustration, I got back to work, now with both less and more material.
And yet, this is not the same essay it would have been; I’ve forgotten the witty way I mentioned the TV show Lost without actually mentioning it; the connection between salt which has lost its savor and books that I can’t find; the genius tie-in to the Beatles’ lyrics, “We were talking about the love that’s gone so cold and the people who lose their soul and gain the world,” which I think is how I began thinking about the love that was lost on me. I am not the same person I was then, either. I’m married now, learned to love, but when I started that first draft, I was still weeks away from meeting the woman I would marry. And even as I started this the second first draft, that was only a flirtatious friendship. Every time I tweak this essay, it becomes a new draft, it reflects a new person, becomes a palimpsest of personas.
* * *
I’ve lost sleep; confidence in myself; the lens cap for several of my camera lenses; time; my mother, my grandmother, and both grandfathers; car keys, house keys, work keys, bike-lock keys, pretty much any key ever given me; computer passwords; shoes; the remote shutter control for my camera, only two weeks after getting it for Christmas; books; money, both literally and figuratively; games; weight; opportunities; a yellow tie with a blue-checked pattern; my flash drive; my train of thought.
* * *
Because of the very nature of writing, you’re not getting the whole truth of these stories. For example, in the story you’re about to read about me losing a shoe, you will get only the details I’ve included, which will mix with your own memories or imaginings of the place, and then you will have your own version of the story. Your image of my mother standing on the banks of the river will look one way, and my image another, and we’ll both be right for our own sakes, but neither of us will grasp the truth. Even as I remember it, I have lost details, remembering my mother older than she was at the time, her hair color slightly off. David Shields quotes Patrick Duff to tell us: “All memories are predicated on loss. . . It’s through the act of remembering that we bring these forgotten experiences back from oblivion. . . . Our memories are filled with gaps and distortions, because by its very nature memory is selective.” The act of writing and recording those memories is equally selective.
When I was young, my family twice stopped at Zion National Park and hiked a trail called the Narrows, which followed a series of shallow side-winding twists in the placid Virgin River as it creates a beautiful chasm of high canyon walls with sandy beaches and smooth stones. I remember water snakes gliding along the surface; I remember areas I was frightened to go in because the water reached up to my thighs; I remember a particular bend in the river where the sandbar was widest, where a single tree glowed in sunlight. Where the water was deepest, my older, more adventurous brother Michael took off his shirt and dove off the canyon wall into the pool. I remember this spot in particular because on both occasions, I tried to swim with my brother and I lost a shoe both times. I remember peeling off my shoes and feeling how the gentle river tugged the shoes from my fingers; I remember the way my mom tried not to laugh and the way my dad’s eyes flickered when he learned my shoe was gone.
* * *
Here is another story, which was true when I first wrote it, but that truth has been lost by time:
In that summer after I lost the first draft of this essay, a friend told me that she loved me. In fact, she said “no other girl in the world” loves me the way she does. Which, as far as I could tell, was probably true, but I had no feelings for her. We were friends, and I welcomed the friendship, but there was nothing else. What is a man to do when a woman calls him Prince Charming and pours her heart out to him, but there is nothing in his heart to return to her?
“Why don’t you love me?” she asked. “Is it because I’m not smart enough?”
Her intellect is actually quite impressive. And she always gave me handmade perfect gifts, like the squirrel camera bag, the squirrel collage, and the painting of a squirrel at Delicate Arch. I lied: “There isn’t anything in particular.”
There were in fact some rather particular things I didn’t like about her: the way she sometimes talked down to my socially awkward younger brother; the way every little drama sent her into a flurry of emotion; the way she didn’t talk to me for three months when she found out I had asked an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in almost a year for a date; the way she frequently asked if I was mad at her though I never was. But I wasn’t about to expound on what I thought her faults were. If we had been dating, a discussion of such things might have been appropriate, but we weren’t. I tried to change the subject. And I acted like I didn’t notice how much she was hurting.
Besides, those things I didn’t like aren’t important. I am her friend anyways, her faults are not who she is, and though I had no desire to date her, I liked having her as a friend. But I confess that I was not always as good a friend to her as I might have been. I kept hoping that she would become less interested – there were times when I intentionally didn’t laugh at her jokes; didn’t smile too big when I saw her; evaded those good-bye hugs that are commonplace in my other friendships; avoided sitting next to her in public; occasionally didn’t invite her to outings with other friends; made sure to talk about her in a way that people would know we were just friends, especially when I was otherwise complimenting her and giving her high praise: all this as a way of hoping she would get the hint. I feel a deep sense of guilt for treating her badly, but most especially for not treating her well.
What bothers me is what I lost in turning her down. We were still friends, but no longer as close as we once were. She no longer laughed so much at my jokes; she didn’t smile so big when she saw me; she no longer requested good-bye hugs, though she still gave them to my younger brother; she made no special effort to sit near me in public; she didn’t invite me as often to outings with other friends; she still talks about me but only in the casual way a friend mentions another friend. Sure, she had gotten the hint, but what did I gain by my callousness?
“Why don’t you love me?”
Were love rational, I believe I could have convinced myself to love her in the way she wanted. But if love were so fickle as to be persuaded by mere reason, there would have been other girls whom I might also have fallen for – those beautiful women who have crossed my way through the years. Women I shared intimate moments with, women I watched B-movies with on rainy Saturday afternoons, women I ate Waldorf salads with and then did the dishes with in a quiet kitchen where the only sound was the swish of sudsy water. Women who thought they loved me. Women I ultimately disappointed or grew weary of.
It is difficult feeling obliged to love someone. It is especially difficult when you do love that person, just not that way.
The most amusing or instructive companion is at best like a favourite volume, that we wish after a time to lay upon the shelf; but as our friends are not always willing to be laid there, this produces a misunderstanding and ill-blood between us. -William Hazlitt
Did we get over our disagreements? Yes. We are friends again, quite close even. My wife and I had dinner with her and her new husband last night. But even knowing how it has all turned out, I still think back with a sense of regret. Not a regret that we didn’t date, but regret for my silence, for causing pain. For being at a loss for what to do when she trusted me, and for letting her down no matter what I did.
* * *
Lost, depleted, used up, drained, exhausted, gone, given up, wasted, forgotten, forfeited, failed, fallen, fell short, divested, misplaced, passed up, missing, off-track, disoriented, irrevocable, lacking, strayed, vanished, absent, absorbed, adrift, astray, bewildered, overcome, perplexed, spellbound, misled, unredeemed, wayward, without, took a beating, took a loss, took the heat, kissed goodbye, came up short, wiped out, went out of business, bombed it, fell between the cracks, away at sea, down the drain, fell on deaf ears, blew it.
* * *
Wordsworth said that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recalled in tranquility.” In my experience with writing, this seems a contradiction. The second first draft of this essay, when I sat down to rewrite the written pages but instead began to write about my friend’s broken heart, was not written in tranquility. It was written after the thoughts had persistently bothered me for several days. And when I returned to the essay again, months later, the powerful feelings were gone. The parts I wrote as a “spontaneous overflow” and the ones I recall in tranquility are at differences now, but both truths resound in their time, even if neither tells the complete story.
* * *
Having lost the first draft of this essay, I consider this a second chance to record my losses. What you are reading is not the second draft, though. Nor is it the third, or even the fourth or fifth, but some bizarre mixture of the past and the present that are, somehow, all the present. It still has parts of the first first draft: the story of Zion Canyon was there from the beginning, as was the list of things I have lost, though I don’t think everything on the original list has been accounted for. There have been losses from the second first draft as well. For example, the second first draft had quotes from the Bible: parables of lost sheep, coins, sons; nothing is lost to Christ or God the Father; be ye therefore perfect. I took those out because I couldn’t get them to flow evenly with the rest of my thoughts. The messages of the apostles seemed too full for the small net of my imperfect experience.
Also lost are the things that I don’t remember that I don’t remember. I have no idea what I have completely lost, only a knowledge that there must be something I’m missing. When I try to remember what I have forgotten, there is only a quiet place in my mind, a cemetery of thought where even the gravestones have worn away until they are indistinguishable from river stones, the grass has died to a yellow shag carpet, and the gate rusted down to nothing.
In a sense, all memories have been forgotten. -Duff, via Shields
Naturally, I pull these thoughts and experiences from my own mind, from the fragmented pieces of my own memory, where the lines are blurry and dull, the colors muted, even if I try to recall them vividly. Even though I have described these memories to you, you will not actually feel the coldness of the sun-drenched water that swept my shoes away, nor experience the delightful frustration that spread through my body when I lost the essay, nor will you taste the bitterness of the words in my mouth when I told my friend that I didn’t love her.
* * *
All essays are written in the present, but as they explore the past, they become bridges between memory and loss. Just as old drafts and new drafts combine to form a current draft, perhaps with deleted fragments from other files, so, too, essaying mingles present and recalled emotions, making a new view, a new person. Montaigne has said that he did not make his book so much as his book made him, and now that I am writing this essay – revising this essay – I find myself coming closer and closer to a truth.
These first drafts are like sourdough starters: still brewing, but if you let them sit for a while, occasionally stirring and shaking them, adding flour and sugar until at last they have fermented enough and you can add the rest of the ingredients, you can be confident that they will come out as loaves. But even with sourdough, you don’t use the whole starter. You have to leave some on the side, food for your next batch of loaves. This remainder is, essentially, the first draft of your next meal. Well, there was a first draft of the conversation with the girl, too.
Almost two years before the conversation above, there was a party at my house. She stayed after to help clean up. I knew why she was helping. I dreaded a private conversation with her, but I took comfort in knowing that my roommates were close at hand. Eventually the plastic cups were in the trash, the dishes in the dishwasher, and my roommates in their rooms. Of course, she asked if we could talk.
I sat in the corner of the large sofa; she sat on the coffee table, directly in front of me, cornering me. I knew what was coming, because I had known she was interested in me for a while. I also knew that I wanted nothing more than friendship.
“I like you,” she said, then surprised me by bolting to the door, fumbling with the bolt. She half tripped as she tumbled into the darkness, then turned, her hand still on the knob, her feet on the steps below.
“Like, really, really like you,” then she closed the door and was gone, her words lingering like a glass slipper on the steps, an invitation to pursue.
And how did Charming react? He set his precedent for silence, and said nothing to the girl about the incident. He let the whole thing stew, and she didn’t bring it up again for two years. And what did he do with the glass slipper? He laid it on the shelf where he kept the dusty others, where he could muse on them while he thinks about the girl he’s hurt, while essaying to account for his losses.
* * *
Here is the rest of the story, the details I’ve essayed around, avoiding because I thought their absence would protect people I still cared for:
The girl, Laura, is one of my close friends, even still. And when I said that I had dinner with her and her husband, I meant that I had dinner with her and my brother, because it turns out that an awkward nerd was exactly what Laura needed.
I could tell you more about Laura, about our relationship past and present, or more about how she fell in love with my brother after I scorned her. I could even tell you more about lost shoes, lost keys, and lost love, but these essays can’t contain everything, even though, like Montaigne, I continually revise the essay, adding new material. But even with the new material, the story will never be true, though it was true once, by which I mean that the events actually happened, and I actually did feel this callousness. Now, I no longer do. I’ve lost the edge on the regret, the main impetus for including Laura’s story, and where I once felt guilty for her unrequited love, now I feel guilty for exposing her pain and my lack of interest. When I first started this essay, we hadn’t yet had that second conversation. But when I was trying to recover my thoughts, it was fresh and new, and so it took over my thoughts, and all I could think of was myself. Now, two years later, that first essay completely swallowed up, this present essay is true of a lost self, and thoughts that are now past thinking. We’ve both lost the people we were then, lost them to time, to new relationships, to a kind of forgiveness.
I return to the question I asked before, when I was essaying about Laura the first time: What have I lost by my callousness?
It seems, now that we are so far removed from the event, that I’ve lost nothing. I’ve gained a great deal, in fact, in terms of relationships. Which isn’t to pardon my own misbehavior – I still know I treated my friend poorly. Here’s another detail: when she told me she loved me the second time, we met in the street because I was walking to pick up my date for the evening, an evening which Laura, my brother, and I had planned to spend together. So, no, I don’t excuse myself; I see now that my childishness gained me nothing, but also that so very little was lost. Like a child’s shoe in a vast river.
Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes is a Queer, Latina, scholar, writer, artist, and activist. Her performance, creative writing, and photography have been seen in places such as San Francisco’s SomArts, Galería de la Raza’s Lunada, the Mission Arts and Performance Project, the SICK Collective, the Mixed Race Queer and Feminist Zine, Brown and Proud Press, Skin to Skin, Harvard’s Queer, and others. She also has work forthcoming in Wilde, and The Progressive. She currently resides in Brooklyn.
On the Question of Your Grandfather: A Letter
I remember your grandfather’s hands. When we sat there together at the diner escaping the New Jersey winter chill, fumbling for conversation, did you notice how the Question lived in his hands? Had you seen it before? Twice, I caught it, and perhaps it could not have been detected from where you sat beside him, but only across from him, where I was. The first time I noticed, it was illegible and I let it pass through me as some gestural quirk. And then later, as the words came out of his mouth, “It’s a possibility,” and he shrugged, I saw it. His fingers traced out the unmistakable line and dot of a question mark. I could see it lingering there in the air, as if there was a window between us and he’d drawn on the glass, half out of habit, not realizing, but sure that the only sure thing was the Question of it all.
I sat there and contemplated the poetry of it, the words he repeated through the day: “It’s a possibility.” Then a shrug, and he’d draw the question mark with his fingers, the question of possibility, and the possibility in the question. I could not help but wonder when this habit began, for I noticed no other symbols at the tip of his fingers through the day, (which isn’t to presume he has none) and I thought of the procession of those who came before him, generations of Romanian Jews whose faith would not have been unfamiliar to, or unbounded by, the Question – that small but politically dangerous spiritual, grammatical inquisitive that may be the substance of G-d itself…
Throughout the day, I watched your grandfather trace the ribbony, snake-like curvature (oh, the snake and the question are no strangers). Those moments, which each time lasted perhaps three seconds, have played over and over in my mind. What residue is this, what years and books and forgotten memories now contour this single finger’s aerial ballet, the invitation to foray into another territory, into the question of the possible? As if speaking what could otherwise not be spoken, as if, in between the atoms in the air, he articulated his own exile: the diaspora that ever defers his knowing, and your own knowing, of who you and who your family are and were and will be. The expulsion of any certainty, the fragile wanderings of his generation, of Yiddish itself as the tongue that binds them, and every generation’s wonderings: “Will we survive?”There was simultaneous joy and sadness in Murray’s shrugging cheeks, rising up against years of gravity, in sync with his eyebrows as they too stood back to ponder the wide open unknown future. Over and over, he revealed the Question, and its attendant invitation to the meet the unfamiliar. It was never doubt that scraped at the back of his throat, but potential, chance, the unmapped, unnamed secret that lived on his tongue, and endured at the tip of his finger: the Mystery of all mysteries, faceless and bright, the radiant brilliance of the World to Come.
“But it is a mere gesture,” some might say. Mere indeed! Would we really be so bold as to believe it is ever, only, merely that?When thousands of years live, like residue, like a psychological tattoo, like a map of time engrained into our bones, infusing our marrow, pulsing through our blood? Could this be another iteration of what it is to be haunted? And doubly so, for it is not only the Question that haunts your grandfather’s index finger, but the question of the Question. . .
I wish I could replay the moment for you, the scene in my mind’s eye, with all the details around us: the décor of the diner, dark and dated; the sports game blaring behind me on the television to which your grandfather remained fairly attentive; the clink-clank of dishes; the hostess and waitresses and waiters; the desserts on the bar at the front; our plates half empty, the blinds drawn to block the glare of the sun; the empty seat and table-setting next to me, space we’d saved for Elijah, or the ghost of Edmond Jabés, or perhaps a stranger; you sitting a bit nervously across from me, and this stream of sunlight glinting through to touch the persistent two-step of Murray’s single digit, as if to spotlight it in the theatre of its own inheritances.
Maybe you have seen it a thousand times before. But it was new to me and worth every bit of consideration.
Ken Lamberton’s first book, Wilderness and Razor Wire, won the 2002 John Burroughs Medal for outstanding nature writing. He has published five books and hundreds of articles and essays in places like Orion, Los Angeles Times, Arizona Highways, Gettysburg Review, Puerto Del Sol, and The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2000. In 2007, he won a Soros Justice Fellowship for his fourth book, Time of Grace (University of Arizona Press). His latest book, Dry River: Stories of Life, Death, and Redemption on the Santa Cruz, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 2011. This essay is from his next book, Chasing Arizona: One Man’s Obsession with the Grand Canyon State, forthcoming by UA Press in 2014. Visit his website at www.kenlamberton.com.
Kitt Peak National Observatory. Elevation: 6880 feet. Founded: 1958. Population: two dormitories of sleeping astronomers on any given day.
On the afternoon of June 5, 2012, I wait on the rugged desert peak which the indigenous O’odham people call “Ioligam,” or “Red Stick,” for the twisted, iron-stemmed manzanita shrubs that grow here. A raven tips her dark wings to the white temples of the mountain, riding the wind with the effort of outstretched limbs. Raven is “curocu” in the tongue of my Native American friend, Phoenix Eagleshadow.
I look south toward the lifted thumb of Baboquivari, sacred peak of the people who have lived in its shadow for 2000 years, and think about the last time I visited there with Phoenix. She had wanted to offer her hunting bow to I’itoi, creator spirit and elder brother of the O’odham, and I agreed to be her companion for the long, sun-blasted day of hiking and ceremony. She said that she chose me because of my dusty smell. “You remind me of a hill I like to sit on where I can sing to the wind.” That was exactly nine years ago, and proper bathing practices still mystify me.
We left Tucson at 5 a.m. and drove to Sells, then south on Indian Route 19. Phoenix – whose middle name is Psyche – chatted with her brother, who rode along in the back seat. I couldn’t see him because he was a spirit. I couldn’t see many of Phoenix’s relatives and acquaintances. Around this time, she was seriously involved with someone named Gabriel. “Psyche,” I asked her, “is this a person I can see with my eyes?” It was a question I asked her often, and this time I wanted to know because she said they’d recently gotten married. “Probably not,” she said. “He’s one of the warrior angels, the sexy dark one. Gabriel, the archangel.”
We had just graduated from the MFA in creative writing nonfiction program at the University of Arizona. Phoenix’s writing often included these kinds of stories, for which some of her professors and fellow students criticized her. They thought she should switch to the fiction program. They couldn’t understand that for Phoenix, there was no line between nonfiction and fiction, between reality and myth. I learned to never doubt her stories. Too often she showed me the truth in them.
We climbed a trail among blooming coral bean, skyrocket red against the chlorophyll-wrung grasses and oaks. At I’itoi’s cave, the smoke from votive candles blackened the rock ledge above them. People had left other offerings: photographs, prayer sticks, colored beads, silver trinkets. Phoenix collected mugwort, which grew around the cave entrance, bundling together the gray leaves. Under the pediment of Baboquivari Peak, she strung her bow, then took out an abalone shell holding cornmeal and pollen, shaking the fine mixture to the four cardinal points.
I watched in silence as she handed me a feathery sprig of mugwort. “In thanks for strength,” she said, her dark eyes shining, and then sat quietly facing south and burned the remaining herb with dry sage, the smoke clinging to her skin and smelling of High Mass (some might say ‘high school’). Next, she used a rounded rock to knap an obsidian point, placing it in a black medicine bag tied around her neck. After rubbing the bow with mugwort and sage, and casting more cornmeal and pollen to the wind, she laid the bow on the ground, sprinkled it with water, and began to sing.
Ravens answered from the mountain. Phoenix greeted them in her language as they winged around us, sending love and blessings to someone she called Grandfather Raven. Listening to her that afternoon, I thought: I have no ceremonies in my life. I have no faith in anything.
“I’itoi’s got himself a very fine bow,” she said, after placing it in a juniper tree (only the dead leave bows on the ground). “That is, if a raven doesn’t come and steal it first.”
Near the center of the O’odham world, Kitt Peak rises into the thin blue air at the center of the astronomical world. Here, the planet’s largest collection of telescopes – twenty-three optical and two radio – tug at, unravel, and follow the singular threads of the universe’s story. Today I’m participating in an event the tale of which has been told only six times in history – an event that has ended the careers and lives of astronomers who’ve sacrificed everything for the chance of witnessing it, a story that established the very shape of our solar system – the Transit of Venus.
In her book, Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens, Andrea Wulf follows the adventures and misadventures of a score of eighteenth-century scientists from six countries as they travel to remote places on the globe to measure the passage of Venus across the face of the sun as predicted by Edmond Halley in 1716. The British astronomer calculated that on two dates, June 6, 1761, and June 3, 1769 (transits always occur in pairs), Venus would appear as a black circle moving across the sun’s disk. Knowing he wouldn’t be alive then—unless he lived to be 104—he called on future scientists to join in an endeavor to record from both of earth’s hemispheres the exact time and duration of the transit, achieving, Wulf writes, “what had hitherto been almost unimaginable: a precise mathematical understanding of the dimensions of the solar system, the holy grail of astronomy.”
Andrea Wulf’s book explores the personalities, rivalries and obsessive passions of men in knee-britches and powdered wigs – scientists like Sweden’s Pehr Wilhelm Wargentin, France’s Joseph-Nicolas Delisle, and America’s Benjamin Franklin. It’s quite a tale. Catherine the Great, wanting to recast Russia as an enlightened nation, ordered eight expeditions to cover the second transit and included naturalists, taxonomists, hunters and painters along with her astronomers. James Cook sailed all the way to Tahiti, only to have his telescopes stolen while building his observatories. The British Royal Society and the Académie des Sciences in Paris, whose two countries were at war, sent their astronomers into the path of cannon fire.
My favorite story of Wulf’s is the one about a “not very well-to-do” Frenchman with a very long name that I’ll shorten to Guillaume Le Gentil. A member of the Paris Académie, the thirty-four-year-old minister-turned-star-gazer was the first in the transit race and the last to return from it. His destination was Pondicherry, India, but after more than a year of trying to reach it, monsoon winds and the Seven Years’ War left Le Gentil to attempt measurements in the Indian Ocean on the deck of a rolling ship. It didn’t go well.
Undaunted by the failure, Le Gentil decided to stayin India and wait eight years for the second transit. A true naturalist, during the interim he studied the region’s geography, flora and fauna, stars, winds, and tides. He built an observatory at Pondicherry. Then, when June 3, 1769 finally arrived, so did the clouds. That day, Le Gentil wrote in his journal that he had risked everything “only to be a spectator of a fatal cloud which came to place itself before the sun at the precise moment of my observation…”
Deeply depressed and suffering from dysentery, he returned to Paris empty-handed, only to find that his heirs had declared him legally dead. They had “enthusiastically” plundered his estate, his wife had remarried, and he’d lost his seat at the academy of science.
“That is the fate that often awaits astronomers,” Le Gentil said at the end of his eleven-year odyssey chasing Venus. It could’ve been worse. Another Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Chappe D’Auteroche, observed the first transit in Siberia but never returned from seeing the second in Baja, California. Only one member of his party survived an outbreak of yellow fever. It’s no wonder astronomers don’t sleep at night.
“Great title,” I tell Andrea Wulf when I catch up with her at the visitor center where she will be speaking about her book. “I’ve been chasing a few things myself – I just caught the solar eclipse at Grand Canyon.”
“I’ve never been there,” she says with an English accent. “I have a few days in Arizona. Where should I go?”
“North Rim, if you have time. But the South Rim is amazing, too. Everyone hikes the Bright Angel Trail, but I like the Hermit Trail for a day hike.”
Andrea was born in India but grew up in Germany before moving to Britain, where she studied history at the Royal College of Art. “I don’t own a telescope. I’m a historian,” she says as we step outside to where observatory staff has set up filtered binoculars and telescopes.
We’re minutes away from the start of the transit, and dozens of people have gathered at the viewing stations on the patio outside the visitor center. “We’ve set up a hydrogen-alpha telescope at the McMath-Pierce Solar Observatory,” a docent tells us. “There’s a prominence right where Venus will appear – be cool to see that!”
I leave Andrea with the group, and take off toward the McMath with a guy from New York named Elias. Baboquivari Peak rises at my right shoulder. Three people stand inside the white dome housing the Meade Solar Telescope Array, and as we arrive one of them calls, “First contact!” I look into the eyepiece and see a black fingernail notch in a boiling red field at the two o’clock position. Fifteen minutes later, Venus slips completely inside the disk, a black pea against the sun’s glowing softball. I’m watching an event that won’t recur until 2117 – not in my or any currently living person’s lifetime.
“I’m very excited to be here during the transit of Venus,” Andrea Wulf says at the beginning of her presentation, pushing a long strand of blonde hair behind one ear. “Normally, I have to explain what the transit of Venus is…but I don’t think I have to do that here…” I settle into my chair to listen to her talk about men in knickers who, for the love of science, chased the only planet named for a female, the goddess of love and beauty.
Later, our group crowds a spit of rock called Sunset Hill to catch the last images of the sun as it sets over O’odham lands with Venus in transit. Some peer through scopes while others cluster to talk about the region’s geology or the clear view from here to Mexico. Nine visitors find seats on a rocky outcrop, each wearing solar glasses, the reddening sun on their faces. Sweatshirts appear from backpacks.
“Oh, look,” a green-shirted staff member named Geronimo announces, and points to a swiveling dome. “SARA is waking up. Some professor is working from his laptop.” SARA, Geronimo explains, stands for Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy, a consortium of institutions that remotely operates the .9-meter telescope and its sister telescope in Chile. With a depth perception gained by having two eyes separated by thousands of miles, the SARA telescopes allow astronomers to accurately measure the orbits of asteroids, including and especially those that cross the orbit of earth. “In my opinion,” Geronimo adds, “SARA is the most important telescope on the mountain.”
After showing us the Belt of Venus, a rosy band above the eastern horizon with the curving shadow of the earth beneath it, Geronimo gives us a walk-in-the-dark tour of Kitt Peak’s observatories. We wander from the most prominent, the 4-meter Mayall, a 200-foot observatory that I can practically see from my home in Bisbee one hundred miles away, to the RGT, what Geronimo calls the “Rich Guy Telescope,” the only privately owned telescope on the mountain. I hear a string of superlatives – the “sharpest,” the “world’s largest,” the “greatest,” the “most,” and several claims of “the first ever to…”. Kitt Peak really is the hub of the astronomical world.
Finally, Geronimo’s radio comes to life. “Where are our guests?” a voice asks. We’re overdue to report to the visitor center.
In the gathering darkness, observatory domes brighten like moons breaching the peaks. Motors pull on steel cables and metal gears moan – Pythagoras’ new music of the spheres. Like the nine-headed Hydra opening its many slitted eyes, the mountain is awakening.
Kitt Peak is named for Philippa Roskruge Kitt, the sister of George J. Roskruge, our first Pima County Supervisor. I had driven past Roskruge School in Tucson earlier today on my way to Kitt Peak. The marquee out front had caught my attention:
In Loving Memory
Ray Bradbury died today. On the day of the transit of Venus – on the day of a once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime celestial event, the man who, for me, brought the mythical heavens to earth, passed on at the age of 91.
I grew up with Ray Bradbury. Not in person, but with his books. Bradbury’s first book was a sequel he wrote to Burroughs’ Gods of Mars. He was twelve years old and a student at Roskruge Grammar School. Burroughs liked to end his John Carter books with cliff-hangers, so it’s easy to see why a budding science fiction writer might be inspired to complete a favorite story. I did the same in grade school – stories about the first people to visit Saturn who discover that the rings are composed of previous space travelers, or about a misfit geek who builds a spaceship out of schoolyard trashcans and stolen plumbing and launches himself into space to escape his tormenting peers. Mrs. Tream, my eighth-grade English teacher at Canyon Del Oro Junior High, once wrote on one of my compositions: “This is the way Ray Bradbury got started.” I like to think that Ray Bradbury had a Mrs. Tream – maybe the same Mrs. Tream; she seemed ancient to me! – who wrote on one of his early stories, “This is the way Edgar Rice Burroughs got started.”
As a boy, I imagined a future when the entire human race would one day look like Ylla, the golden-skinned Martian with eyes like yellow coins. Only yesterday I read in The New Yorker how he said The Martian Chronicles wouldn’t exist except for the impact the John Carter of Mars books had on his boyhood life. Bradbury was influenced by the science fiction stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who had been influenced by Percival Lowell, drawing his Martian canals while staring through his Clark telescope on Mars Hill. “I would go out to the lawn on summer nights,” Ray Bradbury writes about his childhood in Tucson, “and reach up to the red light of Mars and say, ‘Take me home!’”
Welcome home, Ray.
This place is the navel of the world, according to the O’odham. Near here is the opening in the earth from where the people emerged, wide-eyed like John Carter, into an inconceivable world. The heavens feature prominently in O’odham cosmology. Elder Brother gave them spectacular desert sunsets simply for their enjoyment. First Born made the sun to light the darkness and the moon and stars for the people to follow. Coyote created the stars of the Milky Way galaxy after stealing a bag of white tepary beans and scattering them across the sky.
One thing universal among humans is that we create stories to explain our existence and the nature of our reality. Out of dust we are made, says the book of Genesis. From the mud of the earth, Elder Brother formed the first people. Philosophers and poets say we are stardust, recalling what scientists say about the elements in our bodies having been forged inside a long-dead star. Some call this myth-telling, others – scientific theory. And still others choose not to draw lines.
Geronimo showed us a telescope that first revealed the spiral shape of our home galaxy, the Milky Way – Coyote, apparently, liked to chase his tail. Geronimo then pointed out another telescope which astronomers Vera Rubin and Kent Ford used to discover firm evidence of dark matter. The Dutch astronomer Jan Oort had suggested in 1932 that only unseen “dark matter” could account for the orbital velocities of stars in our galaxy. A year later, Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky came up with the same idea of a dark theoretical substance to explain the missing mass in the orbital velocities of galaxy clusters.
Dark theoretical stuff. Matter and energy. Mystery that shapes our world. Ninety-five percent of what fills the universe is invisible. We can’t see it or measure it except for its effect on what we can see and measure. The theory of dark matter explains why the universe behaves the way it does. In the same way, people use story to explain the unexplainable. Myth sometimes is reality. My friend Phoenix would say that what Rubin and Ford discovered on this mountain more than thirty years ago was the handiwork of I’itoi.
Tonight, Kitt Peak astronomers traverse holy ground to gaze upon the handiwork of awe. And awe, writes the poet James Galvin, is the only thing that makes life worth living. This high mountain allows us multifaceted glimpses of the same mystery – and perhaps an answer to the oldest question asked by humankind: Where do we come from?
Steven Sher is the author of 14 books including, most recently, two new poetry collections: Grazing on Stars: Selected Poems (Presa Press, 2012) and The House of Washing Hands (Pecan Grove Press, 2013). A native of NYC, he currently lives in Jerusalem. Find out more about his work at stevensher.net.
Giving Up Trees
“It appears you’re ready to give up trees.”
I was in New York for my father’s unveiling, another emotional visit “home.” His death the year before is one of those turning points by which I measure my life, a yardstick of almost indefinable inner searching and change. During this visit, I was moved to call on the rabbi who had married my wife and me fourteen years before. I now told him about our considering a move back East, perhaps returning to Brooklyn, where we had lived as newlyweds. The idea had burned in us for as long as my father’s battle with cancer, as if in rekindling that connection to the East we might provide an antidote to physical distance and to illness.
My wife and I were feeling a genuine dissatisfaction with our separation from family, and had become exasperated during my father’s year-long illness and his passing, not unexpectedly, during Pesach (Passover), a time of year I had always associated with family gatherings of a more joyous sort. At the heart of our discontent was our search for a more observant Jewish community.
Yet give up trees?
“If you’re ready to come back, I’ll be glad to help,” offered Rabbi Fund. “There are trees in Brooklyn, too.”
When I think of giving up trees – giant redwoods, spruce and Douglas fir – I admit they are not the lure that they once were, some quarter-century ago, though the Northwest’s rugged beauty is still just as appealing and I will always feel its pull. It says in Pirkei Avot: “Know from where you come and where you go.” Already my soul is scouting out the step ahead, preparing for the journey.
Growing up in Brooklyn, I was a product of change, born of rabbis and garment makers on my mother’s side, socialists and musicians on my father’s: two families that had crossed an ocean in search of something new. Raised in a largely Jewish community in East Flatbush, I later embraced the ‘60s counterculture, turning my world on its head, seeking spiritual and communal answers. And not necessarily from Judaism.
It was then that I saw the Northwest for the first time, traveling with three college buddies – all of us with long hair and guitars. At once, I knew I would head West some day to live. The space and pace appealed to me. Friends had spoken of buying land, communal life. For me, the dream wouldn’t easily subside.
Oregon seemed at first an ideal place to settle, and to return, as far as I wanted and on my own terms, to a meaningful Jewish life. I found a context that was informal and empowering, yet foreign from anything I’d known in New York. It was like receiving manna in the wilderness, enough to sustain my spiritual hunger.
Yet over time I felt displaced among the trees, too much the outsider – Easterner, big city kid, missing familiar culture and tradition – too much connected to my past to keep resisting an inevitable return. You climb this far out on a limb and you will land where you began the slow ascent.
Those “old world” notions I had put aside when my generation pursued its radical course had thankfully remained intact for when I’d need them again, for when I’d have a family of my own and want to draw upon my past to face, and thereby shape, the future more ably.
If I can live anywhere, why the West? When I consider that I spend most of each week’s precious hours at home – enjoying family time or at the computer creating verse or in the kitchen cooking vegan fare or in study or in prayer – it’s apparent to me that I’ve chosen to live within narrow parameters, in direct contrast to this vast land, this open space where the continent comes to an end. I have built a necessary fence around my life, at first to light a holy spark and protect it from the steady secular wind, and now to contain renewed observance as it glows, the spirit growing in intensity. Again I’m living in the holy Brooklyn of my youth, though far removed from Brooklyn. Surely, if I pursue this path, as I go deeper, I will be back where I began. But physically this is not an easy transition.
Several times my wife and I have left the Northwest, for good we thought, only to return, still not having our fill of giant trees and precipitous ocean views and snow-capped peaks, a landscape that surprises and inspires. First, Kentucky and back. Then North Carolina. Back again. Only now, after moving across the country several times, can I finally understand what is at stake, just where we stand. We don’t simply live in the here and now, but in our memories and traditions, and in the hopes of previous generations, a family’s dreams. Susceptible to constant winds, I bend like a tree testing each direction till I find the one for me.
How fragile, how rare, is Jewish life out in this vast, indifferent land, this wilderness beyond the American pale, out where the trees and peaks compete with God for our attention. And the soul, though we know enough to nourish it, is fed no more than what we see and what we feel, the most easily attained exhilaration. What I want is so much more, and harder to achieve.
There are images from my childhood that call to me, reminders of a lifetime searching, images as foreign to the Western mind as New York’s skyline is to the small town. Poet and Jew, I dare to see the world from the perspective of the spirit, through the language of the soul. But to risk thus is to live. New York taught me this. Somehow I learned to carry a portable homeland, portable dreams. And though I seem to welcome impermanence, nothing is as solid, or as real, to me.
So, give up trees?
I’m revived, as if from a whiff of my father’s smelling salts on Yom Kippur, when I consider the trees of my childhood. In Borough Park, large maples stretched over the second story porches of the brick row homes where my grandparents lived, where I sat and watched how people went out in the world through the sun-dappled patterns of shade and light. There is comfort in this memory, these trees that stand untouched in my mind, guarding the block where I first lived, like golden cherubs guarding the Ark. Again, I’m standing in shul with my grandfather, surrounded by davening men as if lost in a forest, every tree swaying in unison, the wind of devotion driving them toward the East – this wind has been blowing in my soul, providing comfort, for as long as I remember. The haunting songs echo in me still.
Lucky to be touched by such grace and awe at so young an age, I consider my children – worry about the images that shape their lives, about the kind of world that will be left to them. I worry about their growing up in Oregon, despite how beautiful and livable it is, so far from the heart of our people.
My daughter, our eldest, speaks wistfully of visits to New York, of spellbound walks through the old neighborhoods, past countless shops with Hebrew lettering, exotic promises and crowded aisles, more children like herself. I’m reassured that she hasn’t forgotten the family gatherings of the times we traveled East, the many smiling, doting relatives, the holiday foods and festival observances.
If we intend to give up trees, then we must be sure we plant something in their place.
Yvette A. Schnoeker-Shorb’s work has appeared in The Broken Plate, Foliate Oak, Sleet, Spectrum, Epiphany Magazine, Dark Matter: A Journal of Speculative Writing, Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments, Pedestal Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review, Poydras Review, The Blueline Anthology (Syracuse University Press), The Voices Project, Science Poetry (a Canadian anthology edited by Neil McAlister), Entelechy: Mind & Culture, Concho River Review, Midwest Quarterly, Spillway Magazine, The Meadowland Review, and other journals and online forums, with work forthcoming in the anthology 200 New Mexico Poems (University of New Mexico Press), Kudzu Review, 300 Days of Sun, and others. A recent Pushcart Prize nominee, she holds an interdisciplinary MA from Prescott College and is co-founder of Native West Press, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit natural history press.
Mouse-Rat, Kin, Kind, and the Rodent Mind
We conclude that male mice have some . . . neuroanatomical features thought to be unique to humans . . . .
-G. Arriaga., E. P. Zhou, and E. D. Jarvis
When we first moved into our house, the odor was unbearable, drifting thickly through the wall that separated the bedroom from the main hall bathroom. The nausea-inspiring scent of some decaying thing that used to have life before it fell and became trapped inside the wall prompted us to call a friend, one with a respirator, to retrieve the remains, and thus relieve us of the reminder that something had died in our new home. Often awakened in the middle of the night by the scampering of tiny feet in the attic above the bedroom, we assumed that the dead thing found would be a mouse or a rat.
Tearing into the bottom of the bathroom wall where the scent was strongest, the friend pulled out the decaying body of a chipmunk. Upon further exploration of that area, our friend excavated the skeleton of a rat and no less than eight mice carcasses in various states of decay, as well as a few complete mouse skeletons and some that were merely skeletal parts. After patching the lower wall, he and my husband went up into the attic, where they found and sealed off from the inside a small hole in the roof. Without this unintended invitation to rodents to come in to explore, particularly seductive in the colder seasons, we now hoped the opportunity for fatal falls into the “deathtrap” would end.
In addition, we called a pest control service to see if the experts could enlighten us as to how to bait and trap alive those beasts who were already inside when the roof entrance was sealed off, and who were thus still using the passageways up in the ceiling. The pest guy supplied us with a wire mesh trap, into which we placed sunflower seeds. We set the trap in the upper crawl space of the house. We also bought a similar trap of our own, which we placed in the garage near a possible entranceway to the attic. The pest guy said to check the traps every few days, which we did. Experience taught us, however, that we should check the traps every day. We found, two days after the traps had been set, what looked like a grasshopper mouse in one of the traps. He was, to our dismay, not releasable. He was dead. We assumed the creature had died from lack of food and water, or possibly from exposure or shock. The other trap was still empty, but the door was down and the seeds gone.
We reset this trap, replenishing the seeds, and found our efforts rewarded the next morning. A small, light-colored deer mouse was frantically trying to sniff his way out of his predicament. We carried the little beast into the forest and released him, watching him scamper away into the scrub brush as if he had expected his freedom all along.
But a few nights later, we were awakened by the sound of tiny feet scurrying around above us. And then, silence. Since I was awake, I decided to make a nocturnal trip to the bathroom. Once there, I could hear it – the soft sound of gnawing directly above. I tapped the wall, and the gnawing stopped. The sound of scampering feet replaced the gnawing. The next night the same thing happened. I could tell by the gnawing that the persistent little rodent was unaware of, and more importantly, dangerously close to the “wall of death” drop area.
Terribly task-oriented, by the third night, the beast accomplished what I had feared. I heard him fall. Then there was the pathetic scraping of claws along the bottom of the inside wall. This sound occasionally switched to scurrying – back and forth, back and forth, the tail sliding against the wall each time the mouse came to the end of the small space. Then the vertical escape attempts in the form of jumping would begin – a thump, then claws scraping the side of the wall, thump, claws scraping, thump, scraping. At some point in the morning there was a brief silence, very brief, before the whole clamor of desperation began again.
I didn’t know before I actually saw his nose whether he (if it was a he) was a mouse or some kind of a small rat, so I referred to him as “Mouse-Rat.” This is how I addressed him in our one-way conversations while I pondered what to do about his imprisonment. I listened and talked to Mouse-Rat during his trauma of being caught within the wall.
I could somewhat determine his size as small. He did not sound as big as the pack rat who dwelled in the shrubbery-adorned hole beneath a prickly pear cactus a few yards from the back deck steps. Nor did the little rodent sound as big as the huge, feral, white rat (no doubt someone’s ex-pet) who lived in the garage, and whose home consisted of newspapers, old financial records, and stashed dream journals taken from stored boxes and recycled in a way that we had not planned – shredded and formed into a large, cozy, urine-scented nest. No, Mouse-Rat, relatively speaking, sounded tiny compared to a rat.
Absolutely unwilling to tear the bottom of the bathroom wall apart again, I noticed that a weak part in the replaced plaster, caulk, and wood at the bottom of the wall had started to give way. This was no doubt with the help of Mouse-Rat’s continuous gnawing and clawing. By early that evening, an extremely small piece of the wall bottom had fallen out. The dark hole behind it was now filled with either the point of a little, grayish pink snout with long, thin, front teeth (hard at work, I might add) or the tip of a paw with its tiny, black claws pushing through. Mouse-Rat had offered a solution to our problem. Given time, he could dig himself out, and the hole, being of an economical size and causing hardly any damage to the wall, could be easily patched again with caulking material. All I would have to do is supply Mouse-Rat with food and water for strength, and supply myself with the trap for when he successfully accomplished our joint mission.
Armed with the trap, as well as sunflower seeds, whole wheat bread crumbs, broken raw peanuts, and an old eyedropper filled with fresh water, I walked into the bathroom, closed the door, and sat down on the bathroom floor. Setting the trap aside, and noticing the rodent’s teeth protruding through the tiny but growing gap in the wall, I attempted to see if Mouse-Rat would allow me to be his accomplice. I offered the tip of the eyedropper and felt a sudden pulling and vibrations caused by what felt like chewing. At first, the water level of the dropper didn’t go down, but once Mouse-Rat figured out what was being offered, he accepted the drink.
When enthusiastic chewing on the dropper edge resumed, I took that as a sign that Mouse-Rat was finished drinking, and I removed the eyedropper. The tip of his furry, pink-tipped nose (temporarily minus any sign of teeth) pushed through the hole. I offered a slender, blackoil sunflower seed. The seed was pulled quickly from my fingers, followed by the clickity sound of the shell being removed – and, no doubt, dropped on his side of the wall. For almost an hour I was Mouse-Rat’s servant, feeding him seeds and crumbs and peanuts, every so often offering him water in case he grew thirsty.
I then sat quietly for another half hour, listening to him work on the escape hole and watching the size of the hole increase ever so slowly. Fixing the trap so that it was placed directly outside the hole and ready for Mouse-Rat when he crawled through, I left to tend other things. Later that night, as the hole became large enough for him to come through, I checked the bathroom often, and even more often in the early morning hours. Both my husband and I were anxious to see what kind of mouse he was.
But by morning, although the hole was large enough to easily accommodate Mouse-Rat’s escape, the trap was still empty. All was quiet within the wall. I gently tapped against the side. This provoked a sudden scampering, the tail of the startled creature slapping the wall. Mouse-Rat had been sleeping. We waited a couple more hours, but the rodent seemed more interested in returning to sleep than to freedom.
About mid-morning, confident that the trap would hold Mouse-Rat when he chose to come through, we decided to let him be, and left to run some errands. Upon our return, we were discussing the best place to release him when we noticed that we had left the bathroom door ajar. Upon entering, we found the tipped-over trap, as well as pieces of sunflower seed shells that had evidently been connected by cobweb dust to Mouse-Rat’s fur and had rubbed off as he fled.
So, I never got to see what my rogue rodent-friend looked like, as he never made an appearance anywhere in the house. However, there was the sudden presence months later of two young, cream-colored deer mice who showed up, looking extremely innocent, in our living room one evening. We watched them as they went about their business, chasing each other around the bookcases, through the air slots in the bricks of the unused fireplace, underneath the couches – occasionally looking up at us with an “Oh, it’s just you” glance. The young mice were indeed innocent in that they were just going on with life as usual; they had obviously seen us before and did not consider us a threat. They didn’t know that we had not seen them until now.
Upon closer inspection of the bottom side of the smaller of two couches in the living room, we realized that the cute, big-headed, little youngsters had been dwelling with us probably since their birth. The corner of the bottom of the couch was ripped, and a pocket was filled with an accumulation of bird seed and an assortment of papers – shredded, of course.
My husband and I each got a small, empty wastebasket and chose our respective creatures to catch. Upon sensing that we were trying to get them, the little mousy things would crawl, not very quickly, and hide under furniture or behind books. When we became still, they would crawl back into view as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on. Occasionally, one or the other would stand up on its hind legs, awkward and wide-eyed, looking around. Then, once again, the light, furry underside would shift from vertical to horizontal, as the little mouse came down on all four ready-to-scamper feet. We began the chase again and, when they weren’t too occupied chasing each other, they would stop to indulge us in what seemed to be a hide-and-seek game to them. The young deer mice were too distracted by each other to take our attempts to catch them very seriously. Eventually, we captured the youngsters and took them out into the dark night air to the far end of the backyard, where we released them together under the cover of scrub oak, manzanita, and skunk brush. We then went back into the house to clean and repair the bottom of the couch.
Sometimes, our house seems like a kingdom of rodents. It is humbling to know that there will always be some enduring creature here besides ourselves that creates its own place as well. Whether we want this type of neighbor or not. I often wonder, particularly with Mouse-Rat and his kin, if the rodents’ sense is that we have invaded their dwellings, and that they grudgingly put up with the humans who are infesting their territory.
Terry Barr’s essays have appeared in Hamilton Stone Literary Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, Tell Us A Story, Construction, Melange Press, Sport Literate, and is forthcoming in Compose. He lives in Greenville, South Carolina, with his wife and two daughters, and teaches Creative Nonfiction at Presbyterian College.
Harvey: “My Burden Gladly Bearing”
I’m standing in the showers of my freshman dorm on registration day. Naked, vulnerable, soapy, and alone. There are twenty spigots mounted in regular intervals along the tiled walls of the rectangular bath. Nowhere to hide. A radio perched on a nearby sink plays a forgotten song as I wash my hair and anticipate a long day of placing myself in the right lines, the correct buildings, the most suitable foreign language class. Latin or Spanish? Such dilemmas, but at least they’re normal, straightforward.
Unlike the sound I hear now.
“All right!” With finger-snapping.
I open one eye. There’s a grown man standing in the shower doorway. I rinse quickly.
“All right!!!” He’s louder this time, and now that I can look at him clearly, I see he’s middle-aged in that way eighteen-year-olds have of perceiving anyone from thirty to sixty as middle-aged.
“All right!” His right finger is in the air, and he’s smiling broadly. I wish to God that I knew what to do, and I don’t want to think about what I might have to do.
But then my survival instinct kicks in.
“All right?” My voice is hesitant and shy.
And with that, he grins even more widely and exits the shower room, exposing me to my first taste of college life.
At lunch, I ask the guys at my table if I should report the pervert in my shower, and if so, to whom? The Dean of Men? Campus Police? The Bursar?
“I mean, other than staring at me for a while, he didn’t really do anything,” I say, my words belying all my shaken feelings.
“Wait a minute,” a seasoned sophomore named Rick says. “Don’t you know about Harvey?”
Do all institutions have their Harveys?
In my childhood, they were called “Buford” or “Elijah,” or maybe even “Harry Smith.” They cleaned up messes, were present from sunrise to sundown every day the doors of the school, church, or grocery store opened. In some cases, they wandered through nicer neighborhoods pushing popsicle or hot tamale carts.
In the worst cases, they just went walking. Holding a steering wheel taken from some rusted-out vehicle, they made puttering sounds and walked past your house on late July afternoons heading for distant highways that only they could see.
I never knew that particular “driver’s” name, where he stayed, who made him put down that steering wheel, or who calmed his motor at night.
“He’s just simple,” my grandmother would say. “But don’t go near him!”
Of course I didn’t; I wouldn’t. Soon he vanished from the streets of my childhood, only to reappear during my high school years when my friends and I gathered at Pasquale’s, our local pizza joint. One Friday night, he came driving up in one of those mail carts, the single-occupant kind with both sides open so the carrier could hit right and left as he traversed the streets and country roads. On this night, though, we watched through Pasquale’s windows as there emerged from the zippy cart, not a mail-carrier, but the same “simple” man I had seen all those years before, only now he had donned what his tortured mind considered an official uniform: police-style cap; off-kilter tie, gun holster, and some kind of cardboard badge affixed to his formerly white trench coat. He looked sort of like me, actually, in those days when I pretended to be a “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” On his cardboard badge someone had written in crayon-drawn script: “Protect of people. Doonot dissturb.” He carried a pipe as he wandered into Pasquale’s and took his seat at a front booth without ordering anything at the service counter.
After he had completed whatever business he had in this cheap Italian bistro, he exited as if he had another pressing assignment elsewhere, another locale to stake out. My group of friends and I didn’t hesitate. To a guy, we followed him outside, but much too closely. He heard us, saw us, and turned toward us. We got a good look at his eyes then: yellow, swollen, unsimple, and so very mad. And his teeth: ugly, misshapen, and few. He replaced his pipe in his front coat pocket.
He was looking at all of us.
“Arrest,” my friend Donnie asked. “For what?”
“Spicion” was right, for even an insane man can detect the sadistic nature of high school boys. Donnie started laughing then, as we all did.
And then, he pulled his gun on us.
Not since my days of playing Secret Agent had anyone pulled a gun on me. And no stranger ever had, especially not a stranger with swollen, yellow eyes.
Strangely, in that moment, I wondered again just who had outfitted this former steering wheel driver? His getup was part school crossing-guard, part garbage man, part military. Was one of us about to die at the hands of a man who had at best only a cloudy notion of who he was?
Our laughter evaporated into the night air, and all grew still as we fully absorbed this gun. We accepted that it was swiveling from heart to heart, and it seemed for a few seconds that although this wasn’t High Noon, one of us would have to move.
And then, one of us did. For after the surprise of that first, gun-drawn moment, we saw the gun for what it was. Not even a cap pistol, it was one of those toys that you might find packaged on the novelty aisle at the local Rexall. Donnie started running in widening circles, and while the rest of us laughed even louder, the “officer” pursued his quarry in similar circles around the parking lot of the pizza joint.
I left our ensemble then because I could, and while this evening made a good story to tell my parents on the following morning, I figured that was all it would ever be: a story, a laughing moment from my high school adventures. I never imagined then that I would continue seeing this simple man – that he and others like him would play a recurring role in my reflective life.
So when I really saw Harvey – saw him for what he was – I began wondering at my own circles: how I moved in them, in what order, and according to what time.
What are we supposed to do with life’s “simple” men?
What will it take, Harvey, to really make things all right?
He wasn’t a large man, maybe 5’6” tall, 180 pounds. But he was solid, even chunky. Rectangular. That’s the word I think of most when I see Harvey. Rectangular, thick-lensed glasses that seemed to distort his eyes into long, slitted openings. But instead of madness, Harvey’s eyes showed an innocence that gave him, I believe, a completely undistorted view of his world.
He cuffed his blue jeans in rectangles as neatly as I’ve ever seen. His pants size must have been 38 x 26, for his legs, sturdy and thick, looked like dwarf-legs, with his feet splayed out against the ground so that when he walked, he kind of bounced or hopped in a steady, rectangular rhythm. It’s as if his people danced polkas or Cossack high-steps somewhere in their glorious past. Or maybe they were all simple Appalachian buck dancers.
Harvey wore baggy flannel shirts in all seasons, well-tucked, and again, rectangularly folded at the elbows, showing off his massive forearms, though I’m sure Harvey never knew that showing off was an option. Each shirt, too, was checked, but sometimes when it turned too warm, he’d hang that shirt on a doorknob and finish mopping in his clean and tidy t-shirt. Then you’d see his biceps, rectangular muscles that came not from dumbbells, but from Harvey’s life.
In fact, the only part of him not rectangular was Harvey’s domed pate: a spectacularly bald top-head with gray-black stubbles around the lower sides. As I see it now, his head wasn’t so much shiny as it was glazed. But maybe it’s only my memory that’s glazed, searching for what it really shouldn’t remember.
Harvey wasn’t shy, so you’d hear him coming. His baritone voice would echo through the halls, singing the church hymns he loved. His voice, as I hear it now, reminds me of Andy Griffith’s – especially in that episode when Andy and Barney are sitting on the front porch in Mayberry early one Sunday evening, singing “The Church in the Wildwood”: “O come, come, come, come, come to the church in the wildwood, O come to the church in the dale. No place is as dear to my childhood, as the little brown church in the vale.” For Harvey’s voice, after you got used to it, was Mayberry-soothing. So soothing that you might go with him to his little brown church. If he ever asked.
He did his job well. Like the “white tornado,” the halls, bathrooms, and foyers, would be “Spic n’ Span” once Harvey finished. But even while he worked, he always made time to talk to the guys, his boys of Napier dorm. He never said “Hello,” or “How’s it goin’?” His greeting was the same, winter, spring, summer, or fall: “All Right!” Never a question, and never a statement of his own well-being, though you might presume that he was claiming to be “all right.” Not exactly a statement of environmental conditions either, because if it were going to rain or turn cold, Harvey would report on that after his greeting: “Rain coming later. Yep. Bring umbrella!” I don’t know if he kept up with the world via a farmer’s almanac on his bedside table, or if he listened to the morning reports on a kitchen radio. Maybe he posted a school calendar near his front door, or maybe he could tell the days and conditions just by the look of the world when he’d exit whatever front or side door contained him during the hours when he simply didn’t exist for the rest of us.
But whenever he was with us, Harvey was our internal register of all things external.
On Wednesdays, ubiquitously and forever, after “All Right,” came this: “Hump Day!” What did Hump Day mean to him? Did he long for Friday as we students did? How did he spend his off hours on those two weekend days, and were they as precious to him as they were to us?
Also, any day of the term, you could approach Harvey and ask, “Hey Harv, how many more days to winter break?” Without pause, Harvey would turn to you and announce, “53 more days,” or “22 more days,” or “7 more days.” And then he’d smile that rectangular grin as if he knew just what it was like for us to face research papers, 8 a.m. Algebra classes, or Thursday afternoon labs. Or final exams. Sometimes I’d see him as I was carrying my suitcases out to whatever ride I was getting home. “All right,” Harvey would shout, “Christmas is coming. Two more weeks!” And I’d shout back, “All right, Harv! Merry Christmas!” And that’s the last I’d think of him until after I returned to the dorm, weeks later, to see him sweeping the halls as usual. Like he had never left.
In those Alabama winters, Harvey would don a tweed sports jacket, one he’d surely worn for decades, and a houndstooth hat with a feather sticking out of its right-side band. I’d see him occasionally on his way to the cafeteria for lunch. When my friends and I first spotted that hat, bouncing along with Harvey up the main cobblestone street leading to the cafeteria, my friend Dan pointed at it and laughed: “Look at that!” We all laughed then, out of range of Harvey’s hearing. Or so I like to believe.
He’d make his way into the cafeteria and sit at one of the square tables in the center of us all. His tray would be full of chicken and mashed potatoes and Crowder peas and coleslaw and at least three rolls and four glasses of sweet milk. A piece of chocolate cake or cherry cobbler for dessert. He ate well for his $1.50, but he always ate alone.
I wonder now what Harvey thought about while he ate – what he observed about us, if he observed anything at all. I know he didn’t judge who we were, what we did, how much we left on our trays. I know he didn’t have such powers of discernment. But at least he never needed a steering wheel or makeshift badge to get on with his life. Above everything else, he just seemed happy: happy to eat; happy to hear us; happy to get back to work when his half-hour break was up.
In fact, I’m trying to remember now if I ever saw him unhappy. Did he grumble at the trash pile left for him at the end of hallways on Monday mornings? Did he groan at the state of the urinals, paper towels occasionally stuck in them? At the commodes which boys left slopped and stopped with their private business? Did he mind that the garbage dispenser in the bathroom doorway might contain anything? And I mean ANYTHING.
Lurking in the back of my mind is a scene in which Harvey is sweeping our hall. He’s angry, not smiling at all. In fact, there’s a sort of scowl on his face. What could be bothering him? Spoiled food containers? Puke in a urinal? Something scratched on the bathroom wall?
Or maybe he’s not feeling well. Maybe he has that horrible stomach bug I caught in the winter of my sophomore year. Guys were always marching off to the infirmary, leaving Harvey to disinfect whatever bacteria remained in their wake. He never wore a mask or gloves. And to my knowledge, he never missed a day of work.
But that’s the problem: my knowledge. So maybe I’m seeing an anger that wasn’t really there, just as after I moved out of Napier Hall in the middle of my junior year, Harvey quit being “there” for me, too. Oh, I’d see him in the cafeteria from time to time, especially when I made it for Sunday lunch. There he’d be in his Sunday coat and tie and matching slacks, houndstooth hat perched in its accustomed place. As usual, Harvey would be eating alone, and I could be wrong or wishful here, but his face seemed just a bit different on these Sundays. Just a bit beatific, which makes more sense now, given what I’ve learned about him.
But after lunch on those Sundays, practically right after I noticed him, my mind and body would move into a different rhythm, a higher circle, and one that never had space or calling for Harvey. I forgot him as quickly as I dumped my tray in its proper receptacle.
We assume so much about the people on the periphery of our lives. Or maybe it’s worse than that. Maybe we don’t assume anything at all. Did I really never wonder back then, back in my liberal college days, what his home life was like? If he lived alone or with his people? With any people? Was his place an old family home, an apartment in a duplex south of town? A room over a hardware store?
Did he “go home” for Christmas like I did?
Unlike that steering-wheel man from my hometown, Harvey didn’t live entirely in his own fantasies. He carried with him, was guided by, the weight of his responsibilities for cleaning our dorm. Of course, he could guide himself only so far. I wonder who got him the job at the college? Who paid his bills? Did he foresee the day when he’d have to retire? Did he daydream, and what were his night dreams like? Did he ever wake up in a panic? Did he know what to do for a fever? Did he think about sex? Did he even know what it was?
Who took care of him when everything wasn’t all right?
Not that these questions plagued me in the immediate years after I graduated. I’m sure I saw other “Harveys” roaming the streets of my grad school campus and in the towns I moved to after that. But I never lived in a dorm after college, and in my pursuit of a doctorate and then a teaching position, I was much too focused on Faulkner seminars and detailed resumes to worry about the hallways and bathrooms of my institutional life.
After all, I was a well-adjusted, normally self-absorbed young man.
Sometimes on TV, a Harvey-figure would steer himself into my periphery. One of the best was “Benny,” the mildly retarded errand clerk in the hospital of “St. Elsewhere,” back in the 1990’s. Benny’s troubles sometimes seemed almost normal. And he was always endearing. But Benny couldn’t do Harvey justice. Harvey wasn’t an invention. Nor was he a stock character, a cliché. For Harvey wouldn’t have known what a cliché was, though in reality, he saw plenty of us walking, and showering, around him every weekday. Plenty of us who’ve forgotten, or maybe never even noticed this man and what he did for us every weekday. What he bore, and what we didn’t.
Harvey died on January 31, 2005. I don’t know if he died alone, in a hospital, or where, because the obituaries don’t say. He was survived by his sister, his nephew, and by “a host of friends.” That makes me feel a bit better, but I keep wondering: were they there when he died? Or before? Did anyone explain to him what was happening? Did he understand that his body was wearing out? Did he ever wake up in the morning or in the middle of the night wondering why he felt the way he did: not as strong, not as able?
Did he ever stop saying “All Right?”
I hate to imagine his eyes roaming the walls of his room, unable to comprehend what he was seeing or wasn’t seeing. I hate to think of him crying out in the night for comfort, for calming, for the pain to go away. For someone to hold him.
I hate to imagine all of these scenes, but I do. I can’t help it. Because Harvey cleaned up after me for several years, and he never said an unkind word to me. And he saw me naked. There aren’t many, or even any, others whom I can say this about.
Sometimes what seems so simple is the most complex and troubling thing in the world. I don’t pretend to have the answers, or the right questions regarding my own doubts about this world and what, if anything, comes after. Of course, many people have told me that believing in God or not is a simple choice. In fact, one day in my college cafeteria, maybe even near where Harvey was sitting, a guy I knew from our Social Work classes together casually approached me:
“Terry, you know your eternal fate lies in whether you’ll be going to Heaven or Hell,” he advised.
“You know Mike, I just don’t believe that a loving God would consign anyone, especially not well-intentioned doubters, to a fiery hell. Or any place like that.”
“But Terry, where’s your faith?”
“My faith in hell?”
“In God’s plan!”
“I guess when it comes to believing in hell, I just don’t have that kind of faith.”
“Well. GOODBYE!” He didn’t mean “See you later” either.
But it’s a strange thing to me, and even more troubling, that neither he nor I, none of us – believers, non-believers, doubters – took any time to see Harvey when we had the chance. To find out about his life. To help him if we could, or even to make life just a bit easier for him. But here I am assuming again that somehow, his life wasn’t all right.
Just like I’ve always assumed that mine is.
But here is something that gives me comfort on the nights when I lay in bed thinking about Harvey: in a 2009 article in the Shelby County Reporter – home county and paper of my college – a gathering of the Montevallo High School class of 1945 remembered their fallen friends. Friends like Harvey Lee Riffe, who “read the devotional almost every morning” and whose strong voice captured the essence of that great hymn, “How Great Thou Art,” for which he “sang his soul” on Sundays.
Harvey was born on January 5, 1923, and is buried in Shady Grove cemetery, in Bibb County, which, I assume, is his home county. That sounds like such a peaceful ending.
And one more thing. From what I’ve read and from what I remember, I am sure that whatever else Harvey did or did not understand about life or the intricacies of Scripture, he believed in God, in Jesus Christ.
While I myself understand so little.
“How Great Thou Art” was my grandmother’s favorite hymn. She was a devoted Christian woman, too. But I didn’t follow her religious path. I attended her church for many years; however, I never accepted Jesus as my savior. And even today, if I believe in God, it’s not the one that governs my Christian or my Jewish family.
Like my Christian grandmother, toward the end of her life my Jewish grandmother began praying to her God, and then urging my father to go back to synagogue, which he did. Now, I believe that when I envisioned Harvey lying alone in bed, sick, dying, and unable to comprehend himself and maybe not even his Maker, I was thinking of my Dad in the last year of his life, when he was becoming more and more incontinent, saying his nightly prayers; being helped into bed by my Mom and me, tremors in his arm and leg from Parkinson’s palsy. I felt glad in those moments that he was safely in bed – that my mother could still tend to him. That maybe he could forget about, or relax from, his own dementia for that night at least.
Did God watch over him? Did God allow him to suffer? I don’t know, but from down the hallway, I could hear his murmuring prayers. Did he believe in God despite what was happening to him – the God that had allowed or even caused it to happen to him? And if God was truly taking care of my father, I wonder where that leaves me? What will God do with me in the failing light of whatever last space I’m in?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, and I still don’t share my father’s faith. Yet, I’m happy that he had it during his last days if it gave him comfort. I say “if” because I saw my father’s eyes before he lost consciousness for good. They were restless and wild. Some might even have called them “mad.” But then I can’t really know what my father was seeing as he lay in his hospice bed. When his eyes did close in his last hours, he looked at peace. When I whispered to him that he could go now, that everything would be all right, I believe that my words gave him comfort. And for that, I am deeply happy.
Just as I am deeply happy that throughout his life, including, I hope, his end, Harvey thought his God was great. That he believed in Jesus. And that his body and mind are at rest.
All right Harvey, while I’ll always remember you, I can set you down now, gladly, and leave both you, and me, in the quiet and peace of our fathers.
Work by Patti Crouch has appeared in various journals, including Stone Highway Review, Pilgrimage Magazine, Bellingham Review and Damselfly Press. She teaches in Tacoma, where she lives with her husband and two sons.
Imagine a volcano glowing white against a blue bruised sky, against a scrim of magenta clouds. As the first sunbeams pierce the horizon, a shadow streams above the summit – a huge inverted cone that looms like great angry arms. Driving to work, I watched for the mountain between buildings as I listened to the radio. In the darkness that morning, a SWAT team trailing a desperate path through snow had found a body in an icy creek. At work, colleagues call this a “good death,” take grim satisfaction that a fugitive purported to have “survival training” had died in a teeshirt, one tennis shoe lost, killed by the mountain he’d desecrated. Two days earlier he had shot a park ranger, held off rescuers at gunpoint as she died, fled on foot into the snowy woods. Though news photos showed a muscular, bare-chested soldier brandishing weapons in each hand, his friends speculated he had sought Mt. Rainier as a refuge, having camped there as a child.
That evening, I tell my husband of the fiery clouds, the massive shadow, the imagined cry of retribution. He’ll have none of my foolishness, explains the angle of sunrise behind the mountain at New Year’s, the basic science of rotation and shadow. My sputterings of sentience and justice are silenced by the ding of an email – first one, then a flurry. In Montana, an old friend, who had once led wilderness trips with my husband, has died while backcountry skiing. A conservationist beloved for his intelligence and charisma, he had dedicated his life to protecting habitat for grizzlies and wolverines. In his last moment as he saw the avalanche break, he called a warning to his wife, who clung to a tree as the wall of snow swept him away.
Rainier haunted me that January. When I read the account of the ranger’s memorial, I cried for a woman I’d never met. I cried for her young daughters singing “Jesus loves me” with perfect conviction, for her minister father sermonizing through grief, for her ranger husband who, within months, would transfer to mountains a thousand miles away. Just days after the service, a series of storms slammed through the region, trapping hikers and climbers on the snowfield below Camp Muir. From a city encased in snow and ice, I followed the updates obsessively. The mountain’s tally seemed a jumble: four lost, three rescued, including a grandfather who’d been assumed dead as soon as darkness fell. He burned his money and marched in place till dawn. A middle-aged couple dug snow caves and hiked out after three days, before anyone knew they were lost.
My obsession with the mountain was hardly new. Having grown up in the austere beauty of the Rockies, I still turn to mountains the way a needle points north. Though my childhood church gave me a creed, the land – its wide sagebrush valleys, steep ridges, boulders tumbled down hillsides – taught me reverence. I had no illusions that nature would take care of me. The hollow eyes of winter-killed cows made that clear. Yet then as now, the wilderness evoked a porous sense of awe that I’ve taken as divine. Often I would stop, hold my breath and turn in every direction, as if by looking at the wild land and vast sky I could glimpse the face of God.
Years ago, standing on the train platform at Birkenau, surrounded by acres of chimneys beneath a leaden sky, I wondered if I would ever pray again. A line of serene poplars, planted by prisoners, glowed green with early buds. The spring hope they offered seemed obscene. As a child I was taught to pray, told that all would be right in heaven, and I believed. As an adult I see the ash mound of Majdonek, the frozen bodies at Wounded Knee, stacks of shining skulls, and I can’t imagine what power was watching. What was promised of heaven remains invisible; what I see on earth breaks my heart. In my reflexive prayers to God, I seem as guilty of magical thinking as in my longing for a natural world that lives and breathes with the human spirit. Both seem futile, yet beauty remains.
In Rainier’s northwest shadow is a campground severed from roads by the 2006 flood and left to crumble into the trees. Now only vague outlines remain: patches of asphalt and parking barriers encased in moss, half-circled by the hiss and rattle of Ipsut Creek. Beneath massive firs, the campground seems suspended in perpetual green twilight, beautiful and desolate as a forgotten graveyard. Camping there with my family, I found myself speaking in low tones, walking through the undergrowth with the reverence one would use in a cathedral.
The local tribes call the mountain Tahoma, Mother of Waters, say its gleaming peak is sacred. Geologists call the mountain one of the world’s most dangerous, a mass of rock and ice barely containing its molten core. They warn of earthquakes and lahar, a mile-high wall of ash and mud coursing through suburbs all the way to Puget Sound. But today Rainier is sublime, a refuge of mountain goats and wildflowers, where snowfields roar with spring runoff, glaciers pitch into scree, icy streams churn through rocks. Weird lenticular clouds swirl like UFO’s above its summit. In its wild beauty, danger, and heart-breaking indifference, the mountain seems divine.
Sometimes, in the tiny stone church near my home, I think of the agrarian people who built the great religions. As refuge from lives ruled by nature’s implacable rhythms, they created harmonies, colored windows, seasons codified and tamed by ritual. Through dogma and art, they contained God within a space that was hushed and shadowed and safe. In a modern life lived mostly inside, our greatest threats lie not in accidents or famines but in the illnesses of plenty. We need nature to show us the wild face of God.
Paul says we see through a glass darkly. I say through a pinhole, our faint perceptions projected inside a darkened box. My glimpse of the divine – inverted, grainy and nearly colorless – looks like mountains, crashing waves, the vast splash of stars across an endless sky. I can’t believe in nothingness, so I choose to believe in mystery. What seems unfair, indifferent, blood-soaked or evil, comes from my inability to perceive beyond the box. Perhaps laying down childish things means releasing the expectation for answered prayers, for understanding. With the reverence and quiet fear of traversing snowy peaks, crossing rivers or skirting wave-splashed headlands, I seek God in the dark place where danger and beauty intertwine.
Eric A. Gordon is the author of the first biography of composer Marc Blitzstein, and co-author of the autobiography of composer Earl Robinson. He earned his undergraduate degree in Latin American Studies at Yale University, and a doctorate in history from Tulane University. For fifteen years, he served as Director of The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. He is Chair of the Southern California Chapter of the National Writers Union (UAW/AFL-CIO). His most recent book is a translation from Portuguese, Waving to the Train and Other Stories, by Hadasa Cytrynowicz.
Memoir of a Mattress
Rick and I brought our new queen-sized mattress in a van from New York when we moved to Los Angeles in 1990. We set it down, beatnik-style, on the carpeted floor of our oceanfront apartment on Ozone Avenue in Venice.
The persistent cough began in late 1991. By early 1992, Rick had a diagnosis of pneumocystis pneumonia, familiar to our generation as one of the first indices. I slept alone on our mattress the week he spent at Cedars-Sinai getting through that fateful transition from HIV+ to AIDS.
At the same time, the publishers of my first book remaindered it. My agent advised me to buy up every available copy – they’d come in handy. Indeed they did: Rick had trouble getting up from our mattress, so we built a platform of twenty-five identical book cartons, and placed the mattress neatly on top. For a year, Rick ricocheted between the mattress on Ozone and those in the AIDS ward.
In January 1993, Rick and I had sex for the last time. Safe, of course. On that mattress. Even at his weight of a ghastly 135 pounds, he could still give me the kisses I lived for and, surprising us both, he achieved a satisfying orgasm.
We lay in bed together. I asked him, “After you’re gone, will you watch over me?” He said, “You know, I don’t really believe in that.” I answered, “I know, I don’t either.” And we both melted into tears, holding each other as we had never before, the one conversation I consider our truest, most intimate farewell. We stood at the precipice of the Great Unknown, maybe more so for me than for him, for he had a clearer view of the future than I did. Every time I see an opera like La Traviata, or the musical March of the Falsettos, with their drawn-out deathbed scenes, I remember Rick’s suffering as an inextricable part of my autobiography.
Toward the end, Rick entered that final phase of dementia that precluded logical conversation: In early February he asked me, “Are you one of the people who work here?” He hadn’t a clue what month it was. Apropos of nothing but his certainty of imminent passage, he said, “I think I’ll die on the 14th.”
“Oh, Rick,” I said, “please don’t. It’s Valentine’s Day and you’ll spoil it for the rest of my life.” On the 21st he lay in his final coma. The Ativan he had taken a couple of days earlier was wearing off and he began convulsing uncontrollably. Hospice recommended crushed morphine around his gums, which I administered. It calmed him down, and he died an hour later, at the age of thirty-seven. On our nine-inch mattress from New York.
I attended ten weeks of a bereavement group that spring. We talked about papers, notices, estates, clothes, bequests, acknowledgments, feelings. No one mentioned mattresses.
My astrologer friend Debbi advised disposing of the mattress as a necessary act if I wanted to move on and find a new partner. I remembered a Puerto Rican friend who told me how mortified her family had been when an aunt of hers on the isla actually took a neighbor to court, accusing her of casting a fufú – a magic spell – with a bundle of herbs hurled against her door. I thought how ridiculous it would be for me all of a sudden to embrace such mystical gibberish, the very stuff of voodoo and superstition. What was wrong with my comfortable mattress, only three years old, that in any case held many precious memories? Why discard it and spend hundreds of dollars on a new one? My rational, practical sensibility won that argument hands down.
Years passed. I slept soundly on my nice, firm, familiar mattress. I welcomed new lovers into my life, and into my bed, but no one else appeared who would have watched over me forever if he possibly could. When I bought my house in 1999, the mattress came with me. Now I purchased a respectable bed frame and box spring for it. Every time I closed the door behind a lover, Debbi’s advice came back to haunt me. Could the mattress have put a curse on this new relationship before I even got around to mentioning that my former lover had died on that mattress? No, I said to myself, I’m in my fifties now, way beyond the modern gay man’s acceptable age range. And suddenly I was in my sixties, and getting more set in my ways. And living with HIV myself.
I had known the singer-songwriter Blackberri decades ago. I reunited with him in San Francisco in June 2012. I hadn’t known that he’d been to Cuba to train as a santero, a priest of santería. As the afternoon progressed, filled with stories of his practice, I felt the need to share my mattress problem with him. He said, “Give it to Goodwill!”
On July 6, 2012, twenty years since Rick’s last birthday, I went and purchased a new combination coil-foam mattress, fourteen inches high, and the accompanying box spring, new sheets and pillowcases, mattress protector, even an anti-bedbug casing. I spent that last week on our mattress, awaiting delivery of the new one on Saturday.
Blackberri reminded me to smudge the new mattress with sage. I mumbled a few promising words of fufú, to summon the watchful spirits.
Tom Leskiw lives outside Eureka, California with his wife Sue and their dog Zevon. He retired in 2009 following a 31-year career as a hydrologic/biologic technician for Six Rivers National Forest. His research, essays, book and movie reviews have appeared in a variety of scientific and literary journals. Awards include The Motherhood Muse (1st place contest winner). His column appears at www.RRAS.org and his website resides at www.tomleskiw.com.
Lithic Voices: Honoring Those Who’ve Come Before
Droplets of sweat fell from my dad’s face as he leaned over to pick up another rock. Grunting, he placed it into the trunk of our 1960 Pontiac Catalina. Shadows lengthened. The day expired, yet the heat clung. The housing tract was of 1962 vintage, an extraordinary crush year for California’s Santa Clara Valley. Landscaping was absent outside the new house we’d just bought, so we were building a rock wall – one that would hold a raised bed – along the back cinderblock wall. The sawtooth pattern of the bed required that we obtain enough rock to build a wall 150 feet long by about fourteen inches high. That’s a lot of rock. So, as we’d done many evenings before, Dad, my brother Larry, and I made our rounds of nearby housing subdivisions, searching for rocks unearthed by backhoes excavating for foundations and utility lines.
Despite these numerous collection forays, we ran out of rock a mere sixteen inches shy of connecting the end of our wall with the existing cinderblock wall. So, we had to use a single cinderblock to complete the structure. The presence of that single cinderblock still bugs me, even though it was faced with rock and no living person shares my secret. But, I can’t get this transgression out of my head: we cut a corner; we compromised the purity of our craftsmanship.
Fast-forward twenty years. My friend Duane and I had decided to take a break from the Pacific Northwest’s winter rain by fleeing to backpack Kauai’s Na Pali coast. The trail, built long before the advent of explosives and heavy equipment, never lingered on level ground, but was forever heading steeply up or down to avoid rock outcrops. Hawaiian legends speak of a race of hard-working beings called the menehune. At night, away from the prying eyes of humans, the menehune built the trail, blazing a route into this region of dazzling sea cliffs and spectacular waterfalls.
We strayed from the main trail, intent on exploring a side canyon. Here, our progress was slow due to dense jungle and slippery rocks. We crashed through the last bit of brush to behold a towering waterfall slicing through a notch in the basalt cliffs. At its base was an immense plunge pool. Jungle fragrances – the perfume of flowers, overripe fruit, damp vegetation – wafted to us on air currents generated by the waterfall.
We pulled off our sweat-stained clothes and slipped into the water. It was refreshing, surprisingly cold. After our swim, we poked about the undergrowth. In the dim light, I paused to let my eyes adjust and permitted myself to slip into a well-worn fantasy: I am the first person ever to stand in this spot. A sapling grew at the base of a small rock outcrop. I studied the area a bit more closely and realized that I was looking at a stone that was but one of many stacked together to create a rock wall about four feet high. We now saw that the portion of the wall we were inspecting was just a short segment of a lengthy, interconnected network. I leaned over and sighted down the length of the top of the wall, surprised to discover that it was level. The mortar-less, narrow joints indicated high-quality rockwork constructed by skilled craftsmen. Finally, it dawned on me. These were retaining walls, built to create fields that were then flooded to grow taro.
Talk to me, I implored the rocks. How many people lived here – and when?
Me, the first person to stand here? Not by a long shot.
Four years later, I supervised the construction of some large rock structures of my own. Seizing the opportunity to transfer into the fisheries department, my first task was to inspect the placement of 1- to 2-ton boulders in California’s Willow Creek to benefit salmon and steelhead restoration. Laid in a downstream V-pattern, the purpose of the structure was to slacken the water’s velocity just enough to allow gravel to drop out immediately upstream of the rocks during floods. Hopping from rock to rock while wearing waders, I’d check the elevation of each rock and give a thumbs-up or down to the excavator operator. On that particular project, not wanting to wait for the next flood, we placed clean, washed gravel into the stream.
That year, the rains came early, calling the Chinook salmon home. It seemed as though the raucous echoes of the excavator had scarcely subsided before my colleagues and I glimpsed the first returning salmon slaloming through gaps in the boulders, the females depositing their eggs in the gravel we’d imported, closely followed by multiple males, jousting with each other for the chance to fertilize the eggs.
Last year, my wife Sue and I traveled to Santa Cruz, California for a concert. On the way home to Eureka, I convinced her to detour to my old neighborhood in the Santa Clara Valley. The orchards had long ago drawn their last breath, moments before bulldozers uprooted and piled them for burning. In their place were endless subdivisions and the gleaming, multistoried castles of the semi-conductor industry. We pulled up in front of the house I had lived in between 1962 and 1968.
I climbed familiar steps and rang the doorbell. No one answered. Was the rock wall still there? I made a quick calculation: 1962 from 2012: 50 years. Fifty years. . . Had the wall meshed with the plans of its subsequent owners, the ebb and flow of changing landscaping motifs? Slipping into the backyard was just too audacious. What if the residents returned? Hello, Sunnyvale Police Department? We have a problem…
The home Sue and I live in was built on an old log landing – a hillside area scraped level by heavy equipment. Behind the garage stands the deepest cut: about sixteen feet. The previous owner had landscaped the yard into a series of raised beds and terrace walls, all constructed from rock. Several years ago, I needed to replace 150 feet of rotten wooden retaining wall. I hired a backhoe operator to place the boulders, some of them weighing more than a ton. After the project’s dust settled, I took stock of the job. I realized that the stonewall will long outlast the wood house. Many years after our home’s 46-foot-long roof beams are reduced to cellulose compost, this imposing structure will remain, the rocks whispering seductively to future archeologists. Who were the residents of this place? What endeavors filled their days? What things did they deem important?
I’m reminded of lyrics from a 1960’s Jefferson Airplane song, “Life is change. How it differs from the rocks.” However, rocks do change: mountains are upthrust, slowly weather to fine sediments, are then compacted, then upthrust again. It’s the rate of change that can be so slow as to be rendered imperceptible. A number of factors – water-aided transport, freeze-thaw, gravity, and rain creating a weak solution of carbonic acid – conspire to make little rocks from larger ones.
This process has aided a new tradition of Sue’s and mine, the collection of “memento rocks” that are displayed along the rim of our solstice site. During our travels, we try to collect a good-sized but transportable rock from a location that has special meaning for us. Each has a story to tell – a partial stratigraphy of my life. It might be from a beach hike with friends the day after Thanksgiving dinner, or perhaps a black-capped rock that I spied minutes after seeing my first Black-capped Vireo. Rock #22, a conglomerate that I collected from a cobble bar along the South Fork of the Eel River in California, was collected on June 21, 2002 – the Summer Solstice – near a cabin owned by the Naylor family, our hosts for a camp-out. I collected Rock #22 during a spirited, but ragged, rendition of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that we performed in honor of the 41st anniversary of the cabin’s purchase by the Naylors.
Studying Rock #22 more closely, I see pea-gravel-sized nuggets of varying shapes and colors embedded in a dark gray sandstone-like matrix. Some are round or oval, whereas others have sharp corners, indicating a shorter transport distance in the stream prior to the conglomerate’s formation. I pulled out some textbooks to brush up on the exact definition of a conglomerate rock: “A clastic – accumulated particles of broken – sedimentary rock containing numerous rounded pebbles or larger particles. Clastic, from the Greek word klastos: broken.”
Conglomerate rock is formed by the wedding of broken and dissimilar pieces of rock into a unified whole. It’s an apt metaphor for my life. Rock has forged connections throughout my life, weaving together seemingly disparate strata: as material for walls built both by hand and with the aid of machines, and as elements imported to or rearranged in streams during the decade I spent improving salmon habit. Rocks have served as portals into native cultures, as trinkets that serve as benchmarks along my life’s journey, and finally, as mnemonic devices to remember family and places.
To Native Americans, the term “all my relations” refers to both animate and – what we newcomers might consider to be – inanimate objects. A Lakota medicine person may address a stone as “Tunkashila,” meaning grandfather. When I work with stone, I think about its mass, its permanence. I believe that the act of its placement is a way of honoring those who’ve come before. I find myself reflecting on those who’ll gaze upon these rocks in the future. And, in so doing, acknowledge those who have come before. . . and on and on to complete the cycle.
From time without
there in the midst of the paths
in the midst of the winds
covered with the droppings of birds
grass growing from your feet
your head decked with the down of birds
in the midst of the winds
Epilogue: The housing tract that contained my parents’ home in the Santa Clara Valley had a furnished “model home” to entice prospective buyers. My parents ended up buying a number of its furnishings, among them two light brown marble-topped end tables. Gazing back in time, I can see my mom in the living room. It’s after the divorce. She’s sitting on the sofa, flanked by the end tables. She’s smoking a cigarette, taking a break from the never-ending duties of a working single mom with four children.
My mother died thirteen years ago this spring, shortly after entering a nursing home. My brother, two sisters, and I gathered at her house to sort through her belongings. At the end of a long weekend, the end tables had not been claimed by any of us.
“Our house is too small,” Sue and I agreed. “Would anyone be offended if we just take the tops? I know I’ll find a use for them.”
No one objected, so we did. For several years, the marble slabs waited in our garage. Then, eleven years ago, while connecting a loop trail on our property, I encountered a steep bank that required several steps. The slabs worked out perfectly as risers to the short staircase. Now, when Sue, our dog Zevon, and I take our daily walk around our property, I detect a new murmur among the lithic voices.
1. From the Omaha people. Kenneth Lincoln, “Native American Literatures,” in Smoothing the Ground: Essays on Native American Oral Literature, Brian Swann, ed., (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).
Carly Sachs teaches writing and yoga at Kent State University. She is the author of The Steam Sequence and the editor of the anthology, The Why and Later, a collection of poems women have written about rape and assault.
It’s crowded for a Wednesday night and a man with headphones slips into the only open seat at the bar. “Sauvignon Blanc,” he says, without taking off the headphones. I drop a napkin in front of him and nod. When I return with his drink, he still hasn’t removed them.
Occasionally, I’ll joke with some of the after-work patrons who are on their Blackberries, that I should just get their email addresses and ask via mobile device whether they want another drink. That comment usually gets a chuckle, until their phones buzz and it’s a call, or email, or text that ends our conversations. Once, I approached a woman on her cell phone and offered her a drink menu. She held up one finger and stared hard. I backed away and made myself busy wiping down bottles.
Sometimes I wonder what our world was like before we were all online all the time. And I know I can’t judge because I keep my phone behind the bar. I tell myself it’s so I can look up restaurants and directions for the hotel guests. But really, I know it’s so I can keep up with my emails while working, and text friends who may be in the neighborhood.
I smile at the man with the headphones when I catch him glancing over at me. It’s a bit late for work, but maybe he’s listening to a book on tape. Some people love to read at the bar: a newspaper and a martini; a novel and a glass of wine. Perhaps it’s a signal: Don’t engage me in any useless chatter. I’ve come here to be by myself. So I leave him alone.
I was working a cocktail shift when I found out that my cousin Meredith had passed. She had been in the hospital. I read the email about it before I heard my mom’s voicemail. I was sitting in the stairwell where I kept my purse, the marble steps cold against my bare legs. What was I thinking, wearing a skirt in January?
Along the back of my thighs, I could see the veins, the same purple-indigo, Meredith’s favorite color, that swirled into the marble. When I told my manager about Meredith’s death, she told me to go home, but I finished the shift. What else could I do? I moved glasses from bar to table, brought more when needed. This is how January feels, I thought, looking at the few patrons and the candles flickering. Most of the velvet chairs were vacant.
It’s March now and there are tiny green buds forming on the trees along the avenue. Only a few months ago, they were lit up in white. We were getting emails every day about Meredith’s condition. I know that because they would arrive around four o’clock, one hour before opening. I’d look out the dark windows in the quiet moments during the shift and think about my cousin, how much I knew and didn’t know about her. I’d wonder how her parents and sister were doing, sitting around in a waiting room while I was making drinks. I would ask, up or on the rocks, and pretend like it mattered. I convinced myself that if I could just move from one end of the bar to the other, for ice or scotch or wine, things would move along for Meredith in the same manner. Over the weeks, different people went to visit Meredith in the hospital. The names of family friends and high school acquaintances turned up in the emails. We’re lucky, her father would write. When I said Cheers to the patrons, I was thinking Go Meredith, which is how cousin Billy closed his email updates. Most days, I wrote something small to her father, noticing something witty about his writing, or expressing my gratitude for taking so much time and care to keep us all informed when every day he slept in a strange bed and looked at his daughter hooked up to IVs.
I’m putting ice in the shaker, feeling that something is about to happen. The patrons next to the man with the headphones are trying to inch their stools away. He’s singing “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.”
I skate over and make eye contact, “James Taylor, right?”
He looks up at me, amazed for a second before a wave of embarrassment hits. “I was singing,” he says.
“You were,” I smile.
He puts his headphones back on, holding one finger up to his lips. The other patrons relax a bit and go back to their conversations.
I want to tell him that James Taylor was one of my cousin’s favorites, but I know better than to talk about Meredith. People come here to meet friends and unwind before their commute. Talking about my cousin wouldn’t be fair. Besides, I’m the one who is supposed to wear sheer black clothes, pour what is asked of me, and do all the listening. I look out the window and watch clouds roll across the sky.
The next time I look over at Headphones, he’s twirling a wedding ring on one of the long black straws he plucked from the napkin caddy. I move over and touch his arm. “Hey, James Taylor,” I say, “you okay?”
He sighs and takes off his headphones but keeps on spinning the ring. “You would have liked this one,” he says. “It’s a good one.”
For the first time he looks directly at me. The ring lands on the bar’s inlaid glass top. “Not you,” he says, “my wife.”
I don’t know if I should play along.
“Remember when,” he says, and I know he’s talking to his wife again.
“Will your wife be meeting you this evening?” I say, hoping to reel him in a bit.
He stops twirling the ring and tosses it up in the air, trying to catch it in his hands. When he misses, he leans back on his chair and tips over. By now everyone is staring as the man recovers himself and gropes the floor in the dark.
Luckily, he finds the ring. I move away, letting him regain his composure and offering some time for the heaviness of the moment to pass.
But in a minute, he’s flagging me over, pointing to his empty glass.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “but I don’t think – ”
He drums his hands on the bar, “You know, my wife died. A year ago today.”
“I’m so sorry. My cousin – ” I start.
He looks down at the bar. “Breast cancer.”
I nod. I don’t even know his name.
“Can I get another one, dear?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. You see, I think maybe you were drinking before you got here, and since I’m the last person who served you.” It just doesn’t feel right – explaining dram shop laws to a grieving and already somewhat intoxicated patron.
“What I mean is,” I try again. “Is there someone I can call for you, to get you home, or maybe a cab?”
He puts a ten on the bar and turns up the headphone volume.
After he leaves, I think of all the things I could have said to him, or to Meredith’s husband Brian at the funeral, and I wonder if anything would have made a difference. As I’m walking to the train after the shift, I look for Headphones in the windows of the bars on 36th street, hoping that I’ll see him and be able to say the right thing. I see men my age drinking with their friends or girlfriends, and I think about Brian, home with his infant daughter and most likely asleep by now. I zip my jacket a little tighter.
When my best friend Suzy lost her baby the weekend of her wedding, everyone surrounded her and her husband Eric asking how they were, what they wanted or needed. I was the one who cut fruit, cleaned the kitchen. Years later, I apologized for not doing the right thing, for maybe not connecting with her enough.
“But you did,” she said, “you were present.”
Riding the train home, I wonder about Headphones and think of him waking up tomorrow in sheets tangled by another restless night. I wonder whether he’ll notice the light coming through his window and feel less shaky. Maybe his feet will meet the hardwood floor of his apartment, gently landing him in a quiet but budding present. I think of Suzy and her husband back in Ohio, and Brian in Minnesota, and wonder if any of the trees there have begun to show the first signs of a new season.