Category Archives: manhood

Giant Redwoods, a poem

illustration muir woods 2

Giant Redwoods

(Statements in italics taken from Ethics, by Baruch de Spinoza)

Look farther and farther toward thin blue sky, until the green feathery tops of the trees are like the northern pole on some dream planet.  Put the anger back in its bottle. These trees are generous.  Hatred can never be good.

Your carsickness from the ride up the mountain begins to fade, leaving behind a breathless, weepy echo not unlike your first religious fervor.  Hatred is increased through return of hatred, but may be destroyed by love.

When have you not been afraid?  The random can be scrutinized for meaning, the puzzle solved, when surveyed long & carefully enough.  Anything may be accidentally the cause of either hope or fear.

These trees have plenty of time.  As a child, you stared at Jesus’ sad face for hours, wishing you could marry him  — wondering what it was that made him love you.  Could you sacrifice yourself for the sins of the world, if it was that simple & necessary? Cathedrals turn us small and vulnerable again, for reasons both blessed & cursed.  Devotion is love towards an object which astonishes us.

Vague, starry eyes like yours feel at home here; the air is weighty, burdensome & solemn. You’ve loved trees before; this is different.  These trees have plenty of time – more time than you.  If we love a thing which is like ourselves, we endeavor as much as possible to make it love us in return.

Your nerves are suddenly frozen, by the unaccustomed richness of perfect light.  Your guide is tall & slender, hesitant to speak.  Her mother has the tattooed forearm of a Polish Jew of a certain age.  The knowledge of good and evil is nothing but an idea of joy or sorrow.  Sorrow is [a hu]man’s passage from a greater to a less perfection.

These trees have plenty of time.  She touches your wrist, and for a moment, you, too, want to grow taller, leaving the surface of the earth behind forever.  Shyly, she picks up a tiny pinecone, smaller than a toy.  You both laugh when she tells you this is their seed.  Joy is [a hu]man’s passage from a less to a greater perfection.

These trees have plenty of time.  And all around, their wise, fallen, hollow bodies litter the ground like the bones of saints.  Childlike, you understand a wish to die here, never to leave this hush.  They’re only trees – your neck bent back as far as it will go; only trees, yet wondering if the giants can hear your thoughts.  Love is joy, with the accompanying idea of an external cause.  Love and desire may be excessive.  When the mind imagines its own weakness, it necessarily sorrows.

Is there anything we have less power over than our own tongues?  These trees have plenty of time, growing wise as the Buddha, in their silence.

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Surveyor in New England, a prose poem

Surveyor in New England, a prose poem

And so, since there were no detailed official maps, he named small lakes after himself, solitary hills, even shy, dusty lanes marked only by the great thumping hooves of his horse — a patient, taciturn beast, dun-colored, remarkable mainly for the seven white spots on its flank, arranged like the constellation Ursa Major.

Back then, a hundred years ago, electrical-survey men like him sweated gracefully during summer, their cheeks burnt into dark Scotch grain, their hairlines preserved white as milk under the dimpled felt of U.S.-issue hats. Though he was the youngest of the crew, his moustache grew enviably broad and full, waxed close at the tips, bowed under his classical nose like the extended wings of a pigeon.

Reining to a stop, as he slid down, he pulled from the saddle-bags yet another wooden stake flagged with a length of wrinkled red muslin, kneeling to pound it into the rocky Vermont ground, leaving it there for eternity.

As he rode on farther north — past the tall flowering weeds around Lovell Pond, the drunken bees bouncing off his boots — continuing along the route he’d laid out for the electric poles to follow, he thought of his mother: the way her fierce blue eyes glittered on foggy mornings, the way his father caressed her wrist at the dinner table, and, above all, how skillfully she ironed, gripping the rag-wrapped handle, fluttering the heavy, blunt-nosed tool over the damp white cotton of his shirts in rhythms as comforting and certain and lovely as the slow tick of a butterfly’s wings as it feeds from the bright center of a blossom.

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If You Seek It Like Silver, a short story

illustration if you seek it like silver bohemian rhapsody freddie mercury.jpgIf You Seek It Like Silver

My father was evasive on the subject of ancestors. Emigrating, as he did, from the dark heart of Bohemia, he must have understood that some mixing of races was inevitable. Otherness was part of him — visible in his eyes, in his cheeks, in the reluctant way he wore his necktie. He forced himself to stand still and proper his whole life — in due time even Anglicizing his name — but try as he might, never managed to forget who he was and where he came from. That was why he ended up erasing himself until all that was left with a pen & ink silhouette.

My mother was not evasive about anything. Or so I thought. In fact, she was so brutally honest, she admitted to my father that her idea of “socializing” was to invite everyone in the neighborhood over, once a year, for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres (whore’s ovaries, she called them). Other than that, she kept our family as stiff & guarded as Alcatraz. My father seemed to be quieter, to drink a little more, to sit a little longer in front of the television. Then one day my little brother came home dirty, sweaty & crying, from his very first day of school.

“They all called me a dirty Bohunk,” he sobbed.

“Well, why do you listen to the stupid, mean kids?” my mother grumbled. She sat at the dining room table hand-tinting my little brother’s most recent black-and-white, artsy portrait photograph. In the picture, he leaned against a Victorian-style porch railing, his blond curls glinting in the studio light, caressing a large sailboat. “Quit complaining about your feelings. Feelings were made to be conquered.”

My little brother and I were eight years apart, and were nothing alike. I was tall, angular and dark, and had a talent for rages that seemed to be sudden, but were slow-developing and complex in origin. He had inherited the large-boned, pink-and-ivory glow and the sound, dreamless sleep of my mother’s family.

“But I want to have friends, Ma,” he shouted. His chest, like mine, wheezed & he coughed

“You’re there to get education first,” she said. “In two weeks they’ll have forgotten all about your last name. They’ll go on to other games.”

“No they won’t. They’ll never forget. They’ll keep saying it until I die.” He turned, running out of the room, and then we heard him clatter down the porch steps, banging the porch door behind him.

My mother frowned and stared, as if waiting for me to go after him; instead I began setting the table for dinner. “He’ll get over it,” she said, turning around. “Just like you did.” No, I thought; he’s going to learn to ignore his feelings; just like you; disgust. The last thing I wanted to be was anything like my mother; who freaked me out; who wasn’t comforting; who scolded her way into your brain like a hot branding iron. Imposing her will; all over the place; over your spirit. Branded spirit; oppressed spirit; dying spirit.

My little brother wasn’t gone very long, but upon returning, got into his pajamas and went straight to bed, refusing to eat. This had never happened before. Daddy went up and sat on the edge of his bed. I watched from the hallway. Wake up, I thought; wake the hell up!

“Don’t you want something to eat, sport?” Daddy asked. He hadn’t cared so much about my feelings when this had happened to me. Then, he’d been silent, letting Ma handle the whole thing. I suppose he felt it was different for a boy — when a boy cried, it mattered. You too, Daddy, I thought; you need to wake up, too; ignoring things; postponing things; assimilating yourself into your life rather than creating your life; quit playing possum; get up out of that chair; change the channel; yourself.

I was surprised when the next day, Daddy told us what he wanted to do. So was everybody else. My mother most of all. I had never seen the two of them like this. My stomach fell into some icy, limitless abyss in the universe; I had to get out of it, immediately.

“I’m going to change our family name,” he announced. “I should have done it long ago. I should have done it before we were married.” My mother sat in her chair, breathing in short gasps, as if she’d received a sudden whack to the chest. Finally she spoke.

“But it’s my last name too,” she said. “I think it’s ridiculous!”

“It’s not just for him,” my father shouted, slapping the newspaper against his legs. “It’s for all of us. I’m God-damned sick and tired of having everyone get our name wrong. Every time we order something, open an account, write a check, we get these asinine comments. Life’s too short for this. I’m changing my name, and the kids’ names, and that’s that.”

“That’s not a choice,” she hissed, “and you know it.” She kicked her pumps off, throwing them against the floor. “You’ve allowed me no say in this.” Now she was all for individuality; feelings; identity; spirit; it’s always just a question of whose ox is being gored by someone else’s ox. I felt like an ox, dragging my dysfunctional family along. Get out of here, I thought. Get out of here and find something to laugh about; or at least smile about.

And what on earth would I tell people at school? Somehow, facing the teachers with a new name seemed even worse than telling all my friends. It was just like my mother and father to ignore the fact that this whole thing would be the hardest on me. They were already grown up, and Dennis was just a little kid. I was the one stuck in the middle. I sat there examining my nails, not wanting to see their faces at this moment. Fox-holing my soul, stuffing it into a warm, soft hidey-hole; as safe as that icy abyss had been dangerous.

***

The name change happened at the end of summer. On my last day before joining the WASP tribe, such as it was; white bread; vanilla ice cream; whipped potatoes; roasted meats; sugar cookies; freshly squeezed orange juice. The day was bright and sunny and dry; my best friend and I were out in the backyard, perfecting our variety show. That day I was the emcee, she was the sponsor, and we each did half the guest acts. We had tap shoes, and purple and yellow shorts from gym class, and a small piece of plywood to serve as a stage. She also had a fringed felt skirt of her cousin’s and a pair of black kitten heels, for the commercials. Nothing else mattered until tomorrow. Stranded on a desert island, nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide; naked but for the protective coloration in my mind. No one outside the family knew about our imminent name-change.

In an attempt to make peace, Daddy let Ma choose the new last name. She picked one which sounded horrible at first, but gradually became appealing. I begged Ma to send out announcement cards to my friends’ parents and to my teachers, but she just closed her eyes.

“You’re going to have to tell them yourself,” she said.

“She’s just scared to tell them she’s not going to be a dirty Bohunk anymore,” said my little brother. “I’m not scared.”

“What do you mean?” I yelled. “Don’t make me laugh. You’re the most scared one of all. You’re so scared, you’re the whole reason we’re doing this stupid thing.”

“No he isn’t,” said Ma. “Don’t blame your brother. Now go find something to do, both of you. I don’t want to hear any more fighting.”

“I bet you like being a Bohunk,” he whispered as we walked down the hallway toward the front door. “You’re stupid, not me. You’re a stupid Bohunk girl.” He ran out the door, ducking my attempted slap with an expert sideways twist.

When he appeared in the backyard, jeering and laughing at my best friend and me, pointing at us and smeared about the face with dirt and grape soda, I picked up a large rock and threw it at the fence where he stood — to scare him. The rock, being inanimate, didn’t understand, and so, obeying the laws of physics, bounced obediently off the fence, then into his head. A large egg-shaped lump sprang out instantly, right in the middle of his forehead. The skin swelled bigger and bigger before my eyes like a balloon. He swayed and fell down on the ground right where he was. Without even looking back at my friend, I ran — out of the yard, down the rear alley, and out of the neighborhood. I ran till my breath burned in my windpipe, then kept on walking.

***

Our house was five and a half miles inland. I walked all the way to the boardwalk in my tap shoes, the metal taps tapping and grinding against the sidewalk with every step. Blisters formed on my heels, but I kept on, walking slower, placing my feet against the sidewalks with more care. The wind had begun to pick up; the decorative streamers on my favorite ice-cream parlor puffed and snapped.

The boardwalk was crowded, as usual, with transient peddlers. Amid the portable push-carts was a large, gleaming Airstream trailer. Its bulbous surface reflected the milling crowd like a funhouse mirror. As I approached, drawn like a magpie to the smooth, shiny aluminum surface, I noticed a young woman sitting at a folding display table in front of the trailer. She was missing several of her front teeth. Other than that, she was beautiful, her eyes large and clear, her skin like velvet. The dumpy baby in her lap was drooling and babbling like any ordinary kid. My heart leaped inside my chest suddenly, for no reason.

The brand-new Airstream was hitched up to a horrible-looking pickup truck: scabrous, multi-layered paint, rotting fenders. I stood, my legs trembling, examining the large array of beaded purses on her table, and also peeking in the side window of the trailer — the built-in furniture inside was pale pink, and sheathed in plastic. I picked up one of the small purses, completely covered with tiny glass beads, sewn in a dark Oriental-rug pattern. The beaded bag was sinuous and heavy in my hands, like a living thing.

“Can you tell me my fortune?” I asked the lady, my heart pounding against my chest like a small fist.

She stared at me for a moment, then laughed, causing the baby on her lap to startle, his small fat arms jerking. But he, too, smiled after a moment, a toothless grin that matched her own. The baby grabbed at her long hair, stuffing a large handful of it into his mouth.

“No, I can’t,” she said, shaking her head. “But if you dance,” she said, pointing down at my dusty tap shoes, “I’ll give you something.”

“You mean right here?” I asked. “In front of all these people?”

“Sure,” she said. “I love tap-dancing. I’ll give you that purse, if you want.”

The purse’s beading was dark purple, amber and bottle-green. I glanced around at the people strolling by, wondering what they’d think, whether they’d laugh. But it didn’t really matter, did it? I had stepped across some invisible line: tap-dancing on the beach was nothing for a Bohunk like me.

“Okay,” I said. I moved away from the table and raised my arms, spreading them like stiff, flightless wings. Nodding at her, I began my spring recital piece, the one I did wearing a silver top hat and spats. Though the sound of my taps was muffled by the rough-laid planks of the boardwalk, I knew my form was perfect. I finished, and she brought her baby’s hands together with her own, holding his wrists and slapping his tiny palms in mock applause, but then she stopped and smiled, and I knew she’d been pleased.

“Take it,” she said, gesturing toward the table.

“Thank you,” I said, letting the prize swing from my fingers, the beaded loops of fringe rustling against my arm like the curious touch of a stranger. I stood for a moment, noticing her eyes, which from a distance had appeared dark brown, edged in black: surrounding her pupils were small featherings of blue, green, yellow, brown and gray. “I think I killed my brother,” I told her, starting to cry.

“No you didn’t,” she said. “He’s not dead. You can go home.”

“How do you know?” I asked, clutching the bag to my chest. The baby snuggled against her, leaning into her generous breasts, sucking his fingers and blinking his eyes slowly, falling toward sleep.

“You dance too well to be a murderer,” she said, frowning. “Go home to your… fortune.”

As I turned to leave, I saw a handsome boy in a vivid yellow windbreaker watching me from the boardwalk’s edge. His lean face was sculptured, his cheekbones and chin jutting out. His mouth was open — not a smile — and his teeth were square and white. As my eyes met his… his face benign, expressionless… he made his hands into tight fists, arms stiff and straight at his sides, and began nodding his head — forward and back, forward and back. Yes, he indicated. Yes.

“Take your new purse and go home,” the woman said again, turning to look at the strange boy. “But first give the baby a kiss, for luck.” So I bent down, kissing the baby’s drool-wet cheek, struggling with the impulse to dry my lips on my sleeve as I turned away.

***

By the time I got home, it was dark. A police car was parked in front of the house. As I tried the front door-handle and started to knock, it opened and my mother stood to one side, holding the door, as I walked into the foyer. She reached out, as if to embrace me, but at the last minute changed her mind and pushed me away. I don’t care, I thought. I don’t fucking care. For a moment? I hated her with every cell in my body. Then Daddy grabbed me, squeezing me so hard around the ribs I couldn’t inhale.

“Are they going to arrest her for throwing rocks at me?” asked my little brother from the top of the stairs.

“Certainly not,” said my mother. “Go back to bed.”

***

The next day was hot — the smog so thick it dimmed the sun’s rays. Somehow, that weird half-light made the air seem even hotter than the real temperature. We toured the marble-floored courthouse downtown, meeting our lawyer outside the judge’s office. The secretary ushered us in. The judge had a lot of fluffy white hair and a waxed, curlicue handlebar mustache that gave me the shivers. As I walked by him, he winked.

He asked us if we had any dishonest or criminal reasons for changing our names — then asked us if we were all sure it was what we wanted. I wasn’t sure — I saw my mother start to say something, too, but the judge didn’t notice. He looked at me.

“What about you, young lady?” he asked. “Do you want to change your name to something that everybody in the U.S. can spell?”

My heart felt like a fat frog, quivering, and I couldn’t speak. The judge didn’t wait for my answer, just started chuckling to himself, then he signed the sheaf of official papers with a judge-like flourish and changed me from a Bohunk into an American.

***

I went to confession that week with a lot to say. The new priest had a strange kind of beauty — artfully shaped eyebrows, large protruding eyes, fleshy but precise lips, dimpled chin. His English was faintly accented. I liked to imagine he was in love with me, but too saintly to break his vows — he twisted and turned each night upon his hard, narrow cot, praying in vain for relief from the tempting visions of me. In the booth, the words came easily.

“I almost killed my brother,” I told him. I waited in the hot, breathy silence. “I committed perjury.” Still nothing. “I looked on a man with lust,” I said, remembering the taut face of the boy on the beach. Now tell me I’m evil, I thought. Tell me I’m going to hell, talk to me about the pit of fire, the writhing serpents.

“Do you fear for your soul?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered. “Everything has changed. I’m not the same as I used to be.”

“God knows what’s in your heart,” he said. “Sometimes being ashamed is the most important thing. It’s the first step to changing.” He cleared his throat.

“I’m supposed to be changing? Does changing your name count?” I couldn’t help laughing — then wondered if laughter in the confessional was some sort of sin.

“Changing your name? You mean by marriage?” He sounded shocked.

“No, my family — we all changed our last name. Because my father was ashamed. Because no one knew how to spell it. Because he didn’t want anyone to think we were — strange.” I waited; his silence was interminable. I heard him sigh.

“A name can be very important for the peace of the soul.”

“But nobody asked if I wanted to change.”

“Your father did what he thought was right.”

“But I can’t stop being angry,” I said, almost crying.

“Pray for your anger to be taken from you,” he said. “Pray for guidance.”

But wasn’t he supposed to give me that — guidance? Where was his usual sympathy? I felt weak, dizzy.

“Yes, Father,” I said, though tears had started. “I’ll pray for guidance.”   Pushing the booth’s wooden door open — so hard it knocked against the outer wall of the adjacent confessional — I felt Father startle and jump inside his half of the booth in the second before I slipped my shoes off and ran out of the church.

***

A bunch of us freshman girls journeyed to the first school dance of the year as a dateless yet hopeful group. As we stood talking and laughing — eyeing the large group of stag boys near the gym doors — we fussed with our hair and rattled our charm bracelets. The tall, good-looking boy I’d seen that awful day at the beach approached, and invited me to dance.

“Did you get married over the summer or something?” he asked, tossing his forelock out of his eyes as we twirled out to the middle of the floor.

“Married?” I said, peering up at his face in the dim, dance-floor light. His eyes were large, round and brown, and his lower lip full so that even his scowl had a goofy, angelic quality. “Are you kidding or something?” I asked.

“Well, last thing I knew your last name was different.” He smiled and tapped my name tag with one finger. “So, I figure either I’m going senile, or you got married.” He winked. “Odds are, I’m not senile.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, smiling.

“Well, sometimes I wonder.” He laughed, caressing my back softly as we danced.

“My father changed our last name over the summer,” I said. “Tired of having it misspelled, stuff like that.”

“Well, this one will attract less attention, that’s for sure.”

“Yes, it will,” I said, and then the fast song was over. We stopped, standing together for a moment, then another song began, but we didn’t resume dancing.

“Would you like to go get a soda?” he asked.

“Yeah, sure,” I said, nodding. We went out to the main entry hall, where some members of the student council were selling refreshments: Cokes, brownies, small bags of popcorn.

“It’s hot in there. Let’s walk around the courtyard for a minute,” he said, holding the cold green bottle against his forehead. He held out his hand to lead me, and I noticed it trembling. We sat down on the edge of a concrete planter, hidden from the dance behind its large circular hedge. The music sounded tinny from out here, but a slight breeze was blowing, and the air had a clean smell. He took a long swig of his soda, then put the bottle down. “You’re so beautiful,” he whispered, sounding like he might cry. He put his hand against my breast, squeezing me as though caressing some exotic fruit, and then, upon discerning no obvious resistance, he leaned forward with his lips pursed. As he kissed me, his hand kept on moving, pulling at the buttons of my blouse, sliding around under my clothing and tugging at the hooks on my brassiere like a small inquisitive animal.

***

My feelings over the next few days were a dizzying combination of exhilaration and despair. I’d let him touch me, and it had felt good — but the fact that I’d allowed it to happen disgusted me. It was part of my body that had betrayed me — some fundamental weakness — a new aspect of myself I’d never be able to get rid of. I kept looking in the mirror: the dark circles under my eyes seemed worse, and my complexion got hazy. My hair seemed altered, losing its shine, its color. I felt suddenly younger and older at the same time. Ma and I were shopping for groceries when I felt caution melt away inside me.

“Did anybody ever try to touch you under your blouse?” I asked her, in the frozen food aisle.

“What do you mean, touch?” she asked.

“Like on a date or something,” I said.

“Of course,” she snorted, throwing half-a-dozen packages of peas into the cart. “What do you think, that’s a recent invention?”

“What did you do, then?”

“I kept their hands away,” she said. “I made them stop.”

“Well, what about Daddy?” I asked. “Did he ever try? He must have.”

“I’m not going to go into the specifics with you,” she said. “Just don’t let things go that far.” She turned and stared at me.

“No, of course not,” I said, feeling the blood heat up inside my lying cheeks, my lying neck. I knew she noticed. No way out.

***

“I don’t know why I bother,” she said, stirring a pot of tiny meatballs in sauce, her hair coiled in gleaming pin-curl clips. “No one invites us back.” My mother was more cranky than usual about her annual cocktail party.

“That’s not why you give the party, is it?” my father asked, laughing. “You wouldn’t go to most of these people’s houses, anyway. No, you just want them to be in your debt.” He patted her. “Just like me,” he added. People were trickling in when one of Daddy’s friends brought up the name change.

“When I got the invitation, I was stumped for a minute,” he said. “I thought, who do I know who changed their damn name? If you’re trying to lose the bill collectors, you forgot the most important thing — get the hell out of Dodge!” He threw his head back and laughed; a braying ass. My mother felt the same way and poured her drink on his shoes. For once, for one blessed moment, I agreed with her completely on something. Common ground. The beginning of our real, far deadlier arguments.

“I don’t care what you think,” she said, waving her arms over her head. “Any of you!” The whole group fell quiet, and after a moment, people who had just arrived began moving toward the hall closet to get their coats.

“Now, wait a minute,” my father said. “He was just kidding!”

“Gee, so was I,” she said. “Couldn’t you tell?” She kicked off her shoes, then ran up the stairs; I watched, then scrambled up after her. In her bedroom, she flopped down on the bed, heedless of the starched, organdy collar and bows on her black dress. She jerked her legs back and forth, back and forth, and her stockings hissed against the satin of the bedspread. “I knew from the day I met your father we’d never be soul mates or anything,” she said. “But I was hoping for something better than this.”

“I’m sure he was hoping for something better, too,” I said. “Do you know how horrible you can be? Do you?” I wasn’t going to end up like her, or like him — or like anybody in my family. It didn’t matter what my name was. “If Daddy and I hadn’t been there watching, you wouldn’t have poured that drink on the man, would you?” I hate you, I thought. And you hate me, too. Own it, you fucking cunt.

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” she snorted, throwing her arm across her eyes. “You and your theories. I was just mad, that’s all.” She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, live for long outside her locked, electrified steel cage of rage, I realized.

She shook her head, and her hair, pinned in a loose bun, fell free and tangled in a soft cloak around her neck. My own breathing became the most delicate of rhythms. I closed my eyes and stood next to the door, swaying in place. She was absolutely right: her daughter was a rebel both by nature and by choice. Too much Order… too much Chaos… then back again, a beautiful, inscrutable figure eight. Ma kept on talking, talking about the right way to do everything, the petulant sound of her voice changing inside my head into a soothing, abstract blur, like river water over smooth, flesh-colored rocks. Grief and guilt flew out of me: sharp arrows of silver, or cobalt glass. My own insatiable needs burst their seed casings; moving shapes cast their inscrutable dark shadows against the walls of my secret cave; I fell in love with the light of my tiny, disobedient candle. I kept on nodding and nodding; pretending to listen; planning my escape.

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How Art Thou Received? (a prayer for refugees)

How Art Thou Received? (a prayer for refugees)

Imagine: suddenly, without warning (because that is how war arrives) you are a war refugee! Simply running away from being murdered. And how are you received when you can finally stop running, when you are out of range of the guns, the bombs, the blood? No countries to take you. No one to feed you. You are a skeletal pawn in a skeletal game.

Embalmed corpses declare war on the living and fight for their “territory” against other embalmed corpses using armies of young people; embalmed corpses feeding on fresh, young blood.

I know something is very wrong, somewhere. It must be addressed, and addressed properly. Our prayer, our incantation, our spell to heal, must be more powerfully crafted, more distilled, more essential, than was the horrid spell we are trying to break: a tradition of might over right, strong but wrong, a spell of ignorance which has caused so much harm, and is trying to do more… powered by the love of power, the love of control over people.

The scarred parts of the heart can be replenished; the broken parts, glued; the weak parts, strengthened; the fear assuaged, the pain relieved. But the desire to change, to truly alchemize oneself, spin that straw into gold… the gold of the sun… the silver of the stars… the red planet… the North Star… primal navigation by looking not at the ground, but by looking up, to the sky… that kind of desire doesn’t visit often.

If you want to know where you are going, be sure your map is accurate, or at least doesn’t kill you. Migrating birds know this. Power & Liberation. Slave & free. Joy & Suffering. High & low.

Craving slaves, some are trying to roll us back to serfdom, only they can use our own science & technology to rape us! Serfdom: tied by birth to land. You are a pawn, a source of income; in thrall to your Lord and Master. Freeing serfs is always a struggle. Brute force arm-wrestles the human race, and brute force often pins people to the mat, but… you cannot keep people down for long. The oppressed will continue to spring up and defend their inalienable human rights. All people are created equal: including our ancestors, who existed long before the self-anointed first “private property” owners. Human beings are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, yes? The earth cannot belong to any one of us. Period. We own this planet. All of us.

 

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The Nearness of Heroism, a short story

illustration the nearness of heroism cracker-jack-eversillustration the nearness of heroism

(Originally published in The Paumanok Review)

The Nearness of Heroism, a short story

They tell me he was the first man I ever saw nude; that when I asked him, pointing, in my high, three-year old’s simper, what “that thing” was, he didn’t even flinch. He stood in the big tiled shower stall, holding the door ajar with one hand, toweling himself off with the other.

“I’m a little teapot,” he sang, in his exuberant tenor. “Short and stout. This is my handle, this is my spout.”

They say I stared, and then frowned, running out to demand of my grandmother on the spot — I want to be a little teapot! Show me my spout! Where is it? Where is my spout?

Where, indeed? If only the gulf could have been reduced to those dimensions. Am I wrong to feel we would have been closer, had I been a boy? Would he have loved me more, or less?

***

I liked to sneak up on him while he used his glove, just out of the shower, a white towel tight around his waist, his hair slicked back, parted precisely. Even from my earliest memories, the old baseball glove was missing one or two fingers, the ball deprived of whole sections of its leather wrapping, worn through to the string-mended core in several spots. Both glove and ball had darkened to the color of cured tobacco, carrying a sheen of sweat-polished grime that lent a gleam akin to the finest shellac. Arms moving, hands a blur, he would move in automatic rhythms of meditation, pounding gloved fist with clenched ball as his lips moved, the words inaudible, his gray eyes focusing up and out at an angle, viewing a corner of patterned plaster, seeing something I wanted to share but couldn’t.

Then he’d notice me. He’d stop in mid-pound, his mouth open for an abrupt chuckle, too embarrassed to be embarrassed. “Hey there, lady,” he’d say, the broad vowels of his Brookline childhood making his words seem exotic.

He kept the glove and ball on the highest shelf of his closet, a level I couldn’t reach, not even with a step-stool.

***

He was, in fact, the only male presence in my life, even after I started to dwell on the concept of boys, the one I ran to in the early morning — crawling into his bed, burrowing deep under the covers, where he sang the old songs he’d learned from his Irish mother and held me in his arms, my nose burrowing into his soft feather pillow, into his wrinkled cotton pajamas, seeking out his bitter-tea-with-lemon smell, seeking out his body’s distinctive shape and radiating warmth, which possessed a steely eloquence no less comforting than my grandmother’s padded torso. Since he was home with us every day, having retired years before I was born, I didn’t realize he was different from other men, other fathers, who were defined not by their presence but by their absence.

“Oh, you dirty little devil,” he’d sing, “Does your mother know you’re out? With your hands in your pockets and your shirttail out?”

I would hear my grandmother fuming from across the room, not speaking but moving the various brushes and trinkets around on the glass-topped surface of her dresser with snappish clinks and taps. At other times, whenever he knew she disapproved, he’d make disrespectful rubber-faces behind her back until my face couldn’t keep a secret any more, and, looking at me, she’d see some sign of what was going on, then wheel indignantly, catching him in some fish-lipped, pouting impersonation of her, their demeanor so ridiculous, so upside-down, that for a moment it seemed that he was a small boy again, no one’s husband, and she his strict governess, no one’s wife.

***

He was related to me by marriage, not by blood, something that seemed to bother him a lot more than it bothered me, especially near the end of his life. From the very beginning, I had pledged my allegiance to him, had given him that affirmative declaration of the heart, and for a short time, during childhood, it seemed that he had pledged the bond in return and accepted me as his own. Not even in dreams did I measure him any differently than I measured his wife, my grandmother. As I grew older, however, and he grew more and more frail, the absence of an actual cell between us appeared to chip away at his feelings. “I don’t have any family of my own, you know,” he’d say, gazing at me as if for sympathy, never knowing how caustic the mild-sounding words were to my ears.

“I’m your family, aren’t I?” I asked him, the first time he brought it up, but he shook his head, smiling at me with a thin-lipped yet dreamy smile.

“It’s not the same,” he answered.

***

On various occasions, as his health became less certain, I promised him one of my eyes, one of my ears, one of my kidneys, half my heart, half my liver, half my stomach: everything and anything he needed to survive, anything he might need to be comfortable, which I swore to give to him when he got “old.”

***

In my last year of college, I had a boyfriend who got physical with me on several occasions. Nothing serious, no marks: a thump on the head with one knuckle, a scuffle in the yard, pushing matches. One day I reacted badly, bolting my apartment door and calling home. He answered on the first ring, but, having expected my grandmother, I found I couldn’t stop the tears. His voice deepened, becoming rough around the edges as he interrogated me. An old man, on six kinds of heart medication, he swore he’d drive the four hundred miles and teach the boy a lesson.

“No, Grampa,” I said. “It’s all right. I’m breaking up with him. Don’t worry.”

“Call the police if he comes to the door again,” he said. “Have him arrested.”

This reaction, despite his often-repeated joke: “Never hit a woman,” he’d say, shaking his head, staring at my grandmother’s back. “Use an axe.”

***

His fourth heart attack came only days before my wedding. He managed to walk me down the aisle anyway, spiffy and broad-shouldered in his plain black dinner jacket, a single pink rosebud clipped to his lapel. Since both my parents were dead, he was “giving me away” to my fiancé, a practice I found offensive on feminist grounds, because it seemed to exclude my grandmother from the giving. So we compromised: when asked by the priest, “Who gives this woman?” he was to answer, “Her grandmother and I do.” Except, when the moment came, he said only “I do.” My grandmother, standing in the front row in her baby blue satin lace and picture hat, whacked the prayer rail with her wedding service programme in frustration. The sound echoed off the front wall of the small church and stayed with me for the rest of the day.

Later, at the reception, he was critical of the music we had selected without consulting him: a wandering string quartet. “All your guests are leaving,” he said, after his fourth or fifth glass of champagne took hold. “Why didn’t you have a real band? Some dancing. It’s like a funeral in here.” I trembled all over from the exertion of holding my tongue. Only if I had screamed at him, my face reddening under its halo of white silk flowers, would he have been happy.

***

I was home for a long-overdue visit when the last battle came. Semi-invalided, by then, Grampa moved only from the bed to his recliner, spending the day reading the paper in a slow, deliberate rustle. The television blared for hours each evening, his expensive hearing aids — the same kind Reagan used, he’d told me — plucked from his canals and discarded, tossed into a dainty porcelain ashtray: hand-painted with a rising, twisting phoenix, it was the only memento he had kept from his service in Germany during the war.

He didn’t like going to bed at night, waiting until two or three in the morning to call for my grandmother to help him to his room. Arising no earlier than noon the next day, he’d swear he hadn’t slept a wink. “He snored like a baby all morning,” my grandmother would whisper.

His appetite was slight too, and then one day, nonexistent. Supper waited out in the dining room: over my grandmother’s objections I took him in a bowl of ice cream. He lay against his pillows while I spooned it into his mouth, noticing how he lipped the spoon as I withdrew it, sucking it like a baby. The bowl finished, he thanked me, his voice hoarse with exhaustion. Turning to leave, I heard him start coughing, a deep cough that seemed to come from his gut, his eyes widening under the thick cataract glasses, his cheeks bulging, seemingly an imitation of his old comic fish-face. For a moment I laughed, thinking it a joke, but he put his hand over his mouth and made as if to hold his lips together with his fingers. He was trying to keep from throwing up all over the bed, I realized, running for a basin, almost too late.

After Gran and I cleaned him up, I felt his forehead. It was hot, dry, but the rest of him was clammy and covered with an oily sweat. As I took his temperature, Gran called the doctor, who told us to get him to the hospital right away. When we told Grampa where we were taking him, he shook his head. “Now what’d you go and do that for?” he said.

He looked so small and frail laying there it was a surprise to find I couldn’t carry him — what remained of him was deceptively heavy, as if his bones were filled with lead. It took both of us to get him out to the car. Each step seemed so difficult, so impossible — by the time he lowered himself clumsily into the front seat, he was glistening with a symmetric pattern of droplets, the sweat beading his skin like opalescent sequins.

***

At the hospital, an orderly dressed in green surgical scrubs helped Grampa from the car into a wheelchair. The orderly was tall and long-limbed, and moved with an ease, a lean fluidity born of professional indifference. His arms were the color of imported chocolate, warm coppery highlights underlying the pigment. His arms were like a god’s: so full of life and possibilities, I held my breath as he lifted the skeletal, ashen old body of my grandfather out of the car. I couldn’t say what the orderly’s face looked like other than that it was — like the motion of his limbs — devoid of both pity and scorn. His eyes remained downcast, looking only at Grampa in the chair — and I wanted to speak, but nothing came to mind, only regret at not being permitted to be similarly borne away, out of my own uncertainty and into a place defined by someone else’s ministrations.

The young man’s arms, in that moment, seemed to emit forensic signals, speaking without words to a pain I hadn’t realized was there, the arms themselves justifying birth, justifying suffering, justifying death: paying for perfection all over again — skin so smooth it looked hairless, poreless, as if it smelled of allspice and cinnamon and blood and salt. The arms were immaculately sculpted; the bones just long enough, granting a perfect inertia between muscularity and leanness. The miracle of such arms and skin held my attention like a time-release dose of whatever manna makes heaven heaven, and so it was that I found myself spiraling into an upward-rushing eddy of panic when the orderly left, forever, just seconds later, rolling my grandfather to the admitting desk like so much cargo, then vanishing into the angular whiteness and pulsing fluorescence of the hospital corridors.

***

We left Grampa there, in the midst of a cotillion of duly licensed strangers — what choice did we have, not knowing, not wanting to know, not capable of that knowledge? By not speaking, we maintained a positive attitude. His room seemed comfortable, his nurses kind. His glasses glinted, the reflection obscuring his eyes, as we waved goodbye from the doorway.

By the next morning, he had been moved to the intensive care unit. He was comatose, hooked up to a ventilator, stripped of his pajamas, gleaming plastic tubes invading his throat, his nose, his bladder, his veins — his heart had stopped in the night, from the pneumonia: the doctors speculated he might have had irreversible brain damage before they got it going again.

Machines everywhere, whirring, beeping — my grandmother and I couldn’t even touch him. His chest shook under the ventilator’s control, his whole body quivered. The vent itself hissed, clicking, coaxing his reluctant breath, forcing it when it hesitated. Pushing his lungs in and out without his body’s permission. The respirator had a device to allow him to breathe for himself, if he could, like training wheels on a child’s bicycle, and sometimes he did, but even that primitive desire for oxygen would vanish, and the machine would kick in to bring him the next breath.

We were there when the respiratory people had to change his breathing tube. With the most well-meaning, tender sort of violence, they ministered to the tubes, his whole body curling into a fetal position with the deep, gaglike coughing that resulted. They couldn’t say if he’d ever wake up, or whether he’d come off the ventilator. His arms were twisted, contorted, the hands grasping at nothing with a desperation that made my shoulders quiver in an involuntary spasm of sympathy. I bought him a tiny teddy bear, uncurling his stiff fingers to place the bear against the taut, unyielding palm. His other hand appeared to relax once the toy was in place, but perhaps it was only my imagination.

***

My grandmother and I, without speaking, understood our own feelings clearly enough. We wanted him gone; this kind of life was too painful to watch. We wanted it to come:   but at the same time felt wicked and evil. Who knew what he himself would have wanted? In the end, she signed the thick sheaf of papers authorizing no further “heroic measures.” Each place for her signature was marked with special red removable tabs.

***

In a sort of minor miracle, in several days he did awake, and they removed the intrusion of the ventilator. He was himself, more or less, and knew who we were, but underlying that surface was a terrible confusion. “How’s Jessie?” he asked me calmly, the name of my great-grandmother, dead long before I was born. His memories suffered no restraint; no contradictions existed in his inner flow of time. “Seeing you’s the best present I could have gotten,” he told us. “I’m going to take us all on a vacation when I get out of here.”

He seemed better than he had in years: I left for home, knowing it wouldn’t last; for the first time not wondering whether he would live or not. Later that day, I called him at the hospital from a thousand miles away and let him speak to my husband and my daughter. Say I love you, I told them. Say I love you, Grampa.

***

The next day he slipped back into unconsciousness, gently, easily, as a bar of soap floats downward in warm water. Notwithstanding the papers, the hospital wanted to put him back on the ventilator. No, Gran told them, no ventilator. No more.

***

I asked her what he had looked like, at the end. He lay on his side in the bed, she said, breathing shallowly. He didn’t seem to be in pain. He panted a little, she said, not moving, his face smooth.

I feared perhaps we had decided it the wrong way. Grampa’s doctor, without saying anything, seemed to look at us as if we were bad people, as if we cared more about ourselves than Grampa himself. As if we were selfish.

***

It wasn’t until a couple months after the funeral I thought to look for his glove and ball. I searched his closet first: most of his clothes and things were already gone, and the closet seemed a different space, altered by no longer containing him. When I couldn’t find them I didn’t panic — I knew Gran had put them away somewhere safe for me.

“Where’s Grampa’s glove and ball?” I asked her, not wanting to reveal how much I wanted to have them, now that he wasn’’t there to keep them away.

“What, those old things?” she asked, incredulous. “You wanted me to save those?”

I gaped at her then. The floor under my feet got soft; my knees turned into grating stone stubs lashed together by rusted wire. She was right, in a way, since at the last the glove hadn’t been a glove, just a thumb, the ball not a ball, either, but a roundish wad of wrapped string, its leather covering gone. That was all he’d had left, all I’d wanted: a piece of him I’d thought I was entitled to.

I would have kept them in a little box and looked at them every now and then, touched them with my finger. Maybe, if I was feeling daring, I would have taken the glove thumb and slipped it on, holding the ball in my hand, sliding the brittle thumb piece back and forth over the grimy string. I would have smelled them: a few tentative whiffs of the powdery leather.

***

I didn’t yell at her, there was no point. It was over. In spite of my outward act of forgiveness, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps what Grampa had said all along was true — maybe people did reserve the deepest sort of caring for their own blood, maybe that kind of caring was inseparable from cells, inalienable from life. Gran hadn’t cared as much about his feelings about the glove as she had about mine, for example. Or was it just that she didn’t care as much about the archival, historical things as I did? Whatever the explanation, it was done: she had not even understood enough to realize the issue existed.

“Why didn’t you tell me not to throw them out?” she asked later. “Why didn’t you tell me you wanted them?”

It was simple: I thought she knew. “I just assumed you’d keep them,” I said. “They meant so much to him.”

“They were ratty old things,” she said. “Just pieces, really. They were unrecognizable.”

***

I told myself that perhaps it was a good thing that the glove thumb and string ball were gone. I’d wanted them for the wrong reasons. I’d wanted something I didn’t deserve. I felt hungry — empty — but without focus, without specific appetite. He — damn him! — was leaving me all over again, and for the third time: the person I’d wanted him to be; the person he’d been; the person I’d wanted him to remain.

I thought of all the other useless things I already had in my personal archives, from my father’s crocheted baby blanket to clothes worn by my mother in college. I thought of letters they’d written to each other before I was born, airmail letters on thin blue tissue, drawn in irregular strokes of faded ink. I thought of brittle brown paperbacks and the curling edges of photographs. We are naked in our mourning, we cannot speak, and we cannot touch.

Grampa was gone; the glove and ball were gone; I was still here. The hell with it — I didn’t want to know, I didn’t want to hear what the dead had to say anymore. Only in dreams would the dead be able to seek me out again.

The dead never say much, anyway, not even in dreams. They look into my eyes, mainly, their own abrim with a solitary sort of gentleness, hoping to inoculate me against what they know is unnecessary sorrow — unnecessary love? — hoping to protect me from whatever it is that only they can see: all the while, nodding their heads in a slow, assured rhythm, a rhythm nearly invisible to the unaided eye.

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Weightlifting, a short story

illustration weightlifting 2illustration weightlifting

Weightlifting, a short story

Laurel stood in the alley beside the entrance to the Flower of India’s outdoor patio, and the stifling, smoggy Burbank sun was so hot she could feel droplets of sweat rolling down her back and her ribcage and between her breasts, soaking her nurse’s costume. She was hemmed in by a dented maroon B210, a smelly green garbage dumpster, and by the presence of her spurned lover. Jason had drawn himself erect to his full 4-foot-9-inch height (a foot shorter than Laurel herself) and was trying not to tense his neck — specifically his sternomastoid muscles — because he knew how much that pissed her off.

“Jason,” she said. “It’s not worth this. We should both calm down, O.K.?”

“I am calm,” Jason said. “I’m completely calm. I’m just confused. You’re very confusing, Laurel. Maybe you could go over it one more time?”

“I’m late for work,” she said. “I told you I only had an hour for lunch. I don’t know anything I could add to make it clearer. How many times do you want me to say I don’t want to see you anymore?”

Jason stared up at her. Without realizing it, he tensed his sternomastoids, his neck vanishing in the thick round cords. Jesus, Laurel thought, there he goes again!

He blinked his eyes. “I’ll be home tonight. Could you please call? Please?”

“Oh, God,” she said. “All right. If it helps. I’ll call.”

Jason nodded. His neck relaxed. He looked more normal, but not completely normal, never completely normal. That was one of the problems. He looked like an an eleven-year-old in an inflatable Halloween “muscle” bodysuit. People stared at him everywhere he went; and stared at Laurel when she was with him.

In the beginning, she thought she’d be able to handle it. After all, his face was beautiful, startling eyes, neat brows, and strong chin. The proportions of his body were perfect, if you viewed him from a distance. And the physical side of the relationship was fantastic. He was a perfect little doll: an expensive toy, like from the Black Licorice Whip on Santa Monica and Sunset. But she was wrong. She couldn’t handle it.

“Bye, Jason,” she said.

She started to move, edging her body through the narrow space between him and the dumpster, but she didn’t do it fast enough. Jason reached out. He wanted to embrace her, sweep her back in his arms, and carry her off like Clark Gable with Vivien Leigh. But nine times out of ten he didn’t have the leverage; he had the strength but not the right angle of lift. If he’d tried, he would have toppled Laurel into the open dumpster.

So all he could do instead was hug her. His nose rested atop the shelf of her breasts; his breath caught a little in his chest and he inhaled deeply, almost a sob, and that was his big mistake. Through her costume — today she was a bit player on a soap — through the thin white material, he smelled her perfume, the heavy frangipani oil she got at Mrs. Gooch’s in Redondo, and when he smelled that oil he couldn’t help himself.

He plunged his face into her breasts, and though he felt absurd he couldn’t stop himself; it happened and he could do nothing, not even after he remembered that this was one of the things she really hated. His face snuggled into that frangipani scent, into the soft flesh of her bosom, and his head wiggled back and forth like a rooting newborn.

Laurel stood, her chin resting on his head, tangling his straight, silky blonde hair as his head moved back and forth at her breasts. She had an urge to rise up and smash him on the crown of his head with her chin. She had read somewhere that you could kill a person with your chin, supposedly it was one of the hardest bones in the body, but, no — maybe that was the elbow. Anyway, this was all her fault.

“I’ve got to go,” she said.

He untangled himself and stepped back. His eyes were red and his face was red and his thick hair was wild.

“Goodbye,” he said. And as soon as he saw her car drive off toward the studio, he attacked the wooden fence of the restaurant’s patio with his bare fists. Then he went home, and spent an hour peroxiding his hands and pulling splinters out with an eyebrow tweezers Laurel had left at his apartment, on one of the rare occasions he had persuaded her to spend the night.

***

Back at work, Laurel went to the makeup room. The hair lady pulled one of the hot curler sets over and started re-rolling Laurel’s hair. Laurel closed her eyes, and let the brushing and tugging lull her.

Jason was an actor, too, and in her heart Laurel had to admit he was much more talented than she. If he’d had maybe two or three inches more in height, he could have been cast in a slew of parts. But as it was, being 4-foot-9, he was shut out. Oh, he got a few far-out costume alien roles, and the occasional little person job, but the irony was that he was actually too tall for the best of those parts. Like when they were making that Star Wars sequel and they needed people for the little fuzzy things, the Ewoks, Jason wasn’t even called to audition. Too tall. Laurel had just met him then, and she never forgot how he reacted.

He got totally bombed — must have drunk at least three six-packs of beer. Being as small as he was, relatively speaking, that was probably enough to have killed him. He showed up at Laurel’s apartment, the third-floor place in West Hollywood with the center courtyard and pool. He danced around like a maniac in the open-air hallway outside her front door. Laurel literally peed in her pants when all of a sudden he vaulted over the railing. She ran to the edge, feeling the iron grillwork vibrating from his push off, but by the time she looked down she’d heard the blessed splash. She ran down to drag him out of the water.

This white-haired biddy on the first floor had screamed at her as she tried to half-carry, half-drag the semi-comatose, muttering Jason upstairs.

“Is that your son?” the crone yelled. “I’m going to report you to the welfare department. Letting a little boy jump off a third-story railing — he could have been killed. You should have been watching him better, lady!”

Laurel got him up to the apartment and put his head in the toilet and told him to throw up. Then she put him on the couch and covered him with a blanket.

The next morning, when she awoke, Jason was already gone, but there were flowers everywhere. He had gone around the corner to Lucky’s and bought their entire cut flower stock. Every pot and pan and glass she owned was stuffed, crammed, overflowing with flowers.

***

Laurel opened her eyes and saw Freddie standing over her, ready to touch up the makeup. She leaned her head back, he tilted the chair, and then she could feel him brushing her lids with fresh eye shadow.

Today was the fourth time in eight months she had tried to break it off with Jason. She had to make it clean, this time, otherwise it was going to take both of them right over the edge. Usually, Laurel was better at this sort of thing. With Jason, though, the relationship had lingered on her doorstep like a yowling, starving cat. She’d get to a certain point, then Jason would suck her in with his green eyes; her courage would fall away. She would backtrack; afraid she was making the wrong move. For a few weeks, she would be filled with hope. She would think, maybe Jason and I can make ourselves a place in the world.

“Open your peepers, darling,” Freddie said.

“You’ve given me eyes again! And lips. Too bad I can’t have you come over to my house every time I have a date.”

“You flatter me, honey,” Freddie said. “Nothing here that nature didn’t give you. Just me and Max Factor helping out a little.”

Laurel went off to her dressing room to look over the script. This morning she’d spoken two lines, this afternoon she had three. In this afternoon’s scene, she had to cut ski pants off the legs of the character of “Sue Roper,” after a tragic fall on the slopes. Her three lines were, “Hold her down while I remove her pants,” “There’s a lot of bleeding here,” and “We need to get this young woman to X-ray, pronto!” If the director tried to “direct” her today, with this garbage, she thought she might bite his hand off at the wrist.

***

After work, she went to dance class. She wasn’t with it; the teacher kept coming over and fussing with her arms, her legs, pushing her hips down, tucking her butt under. When it was her turn to do a solo, she almost forgot the routine. Snapping her head around for the turns, she nearly lost her balance.

Leaving class, she shivered as her tired rump touched the icy vinyl of the car’s upholstery. At Ralph’s, she bought one single-serving Chocolate Supreme frozen cupcake. As she opened her front door, she noticed the message light on her machine flashing. The light flashed one-two-three-four-five-six-seven. Seven calls! She hoped they weren’t all from Jason.

She kicked off her shoes and dropped her bags, pressing the Play button.

“Hi, Laurel. Oh, are you working? This is Katherine. If you want to eat, I’m meeting a bunch of people at El Coyote around eight, hope we see you?” Click. Beep.

“Uh, this is The Strand Bookstore. The book you ordered, uh, the poetry book, is in. Thanks.” Click. Beep.

“Laurel. I’m sorry about today at the restaurant. I’ve got to see you tonight. Please call.” Click. Beep.

“This is Dr. Petersen’s office, calling to confirm an appointment for Laurel Bragg on Wednesday, the eighth of December, at 3:30 p.m.” Click. Beep.

“Hi there. Remember me? I’m back from the Oregon festival, it was terrific. Give me a buzz; I’ve got a nice script sitting here with your name on it.” Click. Beep.

“Laurel. I’m sorry. I’m waiting for your call. I’ll sit by the phone all night.” Click. Beep.

“I know we can get through this. I have faith.” Click. Beep.

Faith. What a crock, Laurel thought. What did Jason have faith in? Did he look at everything in his life the way he looked at his weights? Did he think if he pushed hard enough, if he pushed enough times, that he could push them both into a happy ending?

She unwrapped the frozen cupcake. She nuked it, poured herself a glass of milk, and sat cross-legged in the middle of her living room. Three calls. She would have bet on all seven. Maybe this time, he knew. Maybe this time they’d both be smart enough to let it die with a little dignity.

She finished eating and lay down, staring out the window at the wispy gray clouds passing over the full moon. She pulled her knees up to her chest, feeling her aching spine crack. Then she heard a knock at the door.

“Who is it?” she said.

She could barely hear his voice; looked like he was in one of his whispering moods.

“It’s me,” Jason said.

She dragged herself up and looked out the peephole. The top of his head was just visible through the dirty lens.

She opened the door: he looked down at the ground, staring at his feet. He wore his leather jacket with the sheepskin collar, the one from the little boy’s dress department at Magnin’s. Wound tight around his neck was a red and black striped muffler with long black fringe, but the jacket was open all the way; he didn’t have any shirt on underneath. His lips were turning blue.

His eyes were bright, the whites clear, but the rims of his eyelids were deep red. “Can I come in?” he said.

A chest-bursting sigh heaved out of her; she clicked her teeth together in her jaw. He looked like he was going to crumple up in a heap on her doorstep.

“Sure,” she said. “I’m just tired. I had a depressing dance class. Come in. You must be freezing.”

She sat down on the couch. He closed the door, leaning against the wall with his hands in his pockets. Well, what’s it going to be tonight? she thought.

“Laurel,” he said. He sat down next to her. Reaching up, he pulled her head down to the center of his bare chest and held her like that, bent over, her face chilled by the leather and the cold zipper of his jacket. Her cheek was against his smooth chest — not a hair on it because he had it waxed, and she could smell the soap he used, Jesus, he was always so damned clean. Then she felt drops on her face, warmish drops, first one, then another, then drop-drop-drop-drop.

He let go and stood, pulling her to her feet; sometimes she forgot how strong he was. All he needed was the proper leverage and he could pick her up, carry her. Not the Gone With the Wind scene again, she thought — I don’t know if I can take it.

He picked her up and kissed her; his lips were pale and cold as he opened his mouth, pushing his tongue past her lips, over her teeth, moving it back and forth over their sharp edges. For a moment — as he held her without effort, as she felt his body through the thick leather and the canvas of his jeans — she imagined that things were different, that when they went out together nobody gave them funny looks, nobody gawked at her like she was a pervert or a dwarf-hag or a pedophile.

He lowered her legs and her feet touched the ground. She straightened her legs and stood. He craned his neck back to look her in the eye, and she saw that his eyes were dry, but the whites weren’t clear now, they were webbed in red, matching the inflamed edges of his eyelids.

“All I want is this, Laurel,” he said. “You don’t have to go anywhere with me. I won’t expect anything.”

She looked down at his face. “What are you saying? What have you come down to? There are ten thousand women in L.A. who would be good for you. Can’t you see it’s not worth it?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t see much of anything. I curse you all day under my breath, I bad-mouth you to my therapist, and I have a dart board with your picture on it. But at night, it’s not like that. Then, it’s like nothing bad has ever happened.”

He turned his face away and she stared at the top of his head. I can’t believe this groveling, she thought, this is really bad, sick, and pathetic. I can’t believe I have robbed another human being of so much dignity. It isn’t Jason who’s being weak here, it’s me, I’m the weak one who can’t do what has to be done.

“Jason, I’m sorry,” she said. “This isn’t any good. You don’t really want to slink in here after dark like some criminal.”

“Yes, I do,” he said.

“Well, forget it,” she said. “Believe what I am saying to you. This thing cannot work. This is the end of it.” His neck tensed, his sternomastoids swelling and rising until he looked like an alarmed turtle. There he goes again, she thought. Will he ever stop?

Jason’s eyes got shinier, water building up inside his lower eyelids, about to spill out, over the edge. Suddenly, his hand flew up; he leaned in towards her to follow through with the swing; his open palm connected with the center of her chest and her body bounced off it. The thud of the blow and the echo throbbed in her sternum, in her breasts, in her spine; her teeth snapped together and she bit her tongue, tasting blood, as her knees gave way, sending her to the floor.

“I never wanted to tell you this,” he said, “but as an actress, you stink.”

As she bucked and heaved on the rug, trying to force some air back into her lungs, he was moving out the door, slamming it as he ran; the wall of the apartment shook and the brass guard chain rattled back and forth; tick-tick, tick-tick. Jason was right — she’d chosen the wrong line of work; the wrong life. She went to sleep for the night where she had fallen, rolling atop her rumpled satchel, in her sweat-stained leotard, the remains of Freddie’s makeup job smeared over her face like the greasy ashes of a penitent, and though the next morning she couldn’t remember her dreams, she knew that they had been filled with a great heat and a great darkness, and most of all, the sensation of a relentless, unforgiving gravity.

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Heads of Caracalla, a poem

illustration 1 heads of Caracalla

illustration 2 heads of caracalla

MC 0464

Heads of Caracalla, a poem

There are three of the ancient busts on display
in the Louvre.  Poor soul:  he only controlled
his great empire for six years.  I’ve been married
for seven, and though it isn’t like ruling Rome,

it’s hard enough.  Thus, I can’t imagine how
he managed, even if he could imprison or execute
at will.  Maybe stress did him in at twenty-nine.
True enough, during the heated third century

after Christ, the common man was too often dead
by thirty, teeth rotted away to stumps,
complexion scarred and worn, creased deep
like pegged and scraped hides drying in the sun.

Surely Caracalla’s own hands were soft,
languorous and pudgy, with those meticulous
shiny nails?  Perhaps he was afflicted
with diabetes, or simply poisoned by his lovely

but illiterate wife.  Will anyone wonder
what carried me off after a thousand years —
or even ten?  During three decades on earth,
sculptors recorded all his secrets:  first the pretty

baby, innocent and round-cheeked as any three-year-old,
blunt-cut curls springing away from his tender forehead
like the petals of an iris.  Around the time
of his ascension, he had become sullen, his eyes

impenetrable, glassy, his torso clumsy, thick-necked,
his full, full lips bowed with palpable cruelty.
I must admit, by the year of his death, he’d grown
into his flesh — he looks wise, even kind,

and his drilled marble eyes are lively, holding
a gleam of curiosity for something outside his own
imperial body.  I place my finger against the hard marble
cheek, hearing my own frail life tapping its brisk heels.

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