Ah, you useful little “but.” You have been discussed at length in craft books, lectures, advisor phone calls, and, of course, critical essays. So much is embodied in your unassuming three letters. You can almost stand alone (and in French you often do: “Oui, mais…” [insert pursed-lip ‘pfffssst’ here]). You are king among conjunctions. You are worthy of an ode:
Oh, but, inherent contradiction,
You give my work such pleasing friction….
I won’t go on.
Recently, I looked at how but-constructions operate not just poetically or grammatically, but functionally, through the course of entire essays. I examined : Wendell Berry’s “An Entrance to the Woods,” which is about a two-day hiking trip into Kentucky’s Red River Gorge.
In “Entrance to the Woods,” Wendell Berry uses but-constructions to bring himself and his own thought patterns into the narrative. Out of necessity, he spends a great deal of time describing the landscape through which he hikes, but that landscape triggers his own musings on the interface between civilization and wildness. The essay, therefore, moves back and forth between rote descriptions of nature, such as, in the 2nd paragraph:
It is nearly five o’clock when I start walking. The afternoon is brilliant and warm, absolutely still, not enough air stirring to move a leaf. There is only the steady somnolent trilling of insects, and now and again in the woods below me the cry of a pileated woodpecker. Those, and my footsteps on the path, are the only sounds.
And more inward-looking sections that are essentially philosophical, such as, midway through the 2nd section:
Wilderness is the element in which we live encased in civilization, as a mollusk lives in his shell in the sea. It is a wilderness that is beautiful, dangerous, abundant, oblivious of us, mysterious, never to be conquered or controlled or second-guessed, or known more than a little. It is a wilderness that for most of us most of the time is kept out of sight, camouflaged, by the edifices and the busyness and the bothers of human society.
Thirteen times, however, Berry explicitly uses the word ‘but’ in very close conjunction with the personal pronoun. These could be considered “But-I” constructions. Some examples:
That sense of the past is probably one reason for the melancholy that I feel. But I know that there are other reasons.
And now, here at my camping place, I have stopped altogether. But my mind is still keyed to seventy miles an hour.
Perhaps the most difficult labor for my species is to accept its limits, its weakness and ignorance. But here I am.
And so I have come here to enact – not because I want to but because, once here, I cannot help it – the loneliness and the humbleness of my kind.
Notably, most of these thirteen instances even have sentences that begin with ‘but’. (There are two other instances that fall into this same “but-I” category but use ‘though’ as their contrast word.)
Berry uses “But-I” constructions to introduce a questioning, a lack of assurance, into the essay as a whole. It seems Berry is puzzling out the answer as he writes. Though he may be on sure footing with the calls of the woodpecker, he is communicating that he is less sure about the broader questions of wilderness in the context of human culture. In the above examples, note the use of ‘probably’ and ‘perhaps’ and ‘I cannot help it.’ These words note a less clear-cut view of reality and they appear in nearly every “But-I” circumstance. The use of “But-I,” therefore, especially when ‘but’ originates a sentence, signals an entry into Berry’s mind’s eye, where the answers are less sure.
In one interesting dual contradiction, Berry uses the “But-I” (in the 8th paragraph) to suggest confidence in his knowledge: But here it has a quality that I recognize as peculiar to the narrow hollows of the Red River Gorge. Several pages later, however, he introduces the construction again, to essentially contradict that confidence: But I am in this hollow for the first time in my life. I see nothing that I recognize. He even repeats the word ‘hollow’ in both passages. The second example introduces a philosophical section about the transience of his presence and doubt about the importance of his very existence: the lack of assurance, again.
There are, however, four instances where the ‘but’ is not accompanied by the first person. These happen in two pairs – one pair near the beginning of the piece, and the other about two-thirds of the way through. Both pairs deal with nature, but in different ways. Here is the first:
I pass a ledge overhanging a sheer drop of rock, where in a wetter time there would be a waterfall. The ledge is dry and mute now, but on the face of the rock below are the characteristic mosses, ferns, liverwort, meadow rue.
Five following sentences further describe the ravine into which Berry is hiking, concluding the paragraph. Then:
Finally from the crease of the ravine I am following there begins to come the trickling and splashing of water. There is a great restfulness in the sounds these small streams make; they are going down as fast as they can, but their sounds seem leisurely and idle, as if produced like gemstones with the greatest patience and care.
In contrast to the “But-I” constructions described earlier, these are far simpler. They include point and counterpoint within the same sentence. They further describe the natural elements at hand by establishing the contrasts inherent in them. What seems to be one thing is in fact another.
But there is another message to this pair (to use a but-construction of my own). These two passages signal the two inherent contrasts that Berry discusses throughout the entire essay. They introduce the two key themes of the piece. The first (about the ravine) references the passage of time. The ledge is dry, BUT was once wet. Berry deals with this theme in addressing the changing landscape. He begins four paragraphs later by saying the landscape he is in is “haunted” by the ghosts of “ancient tribesmen,” “white hunters,” and “seekers of quick wealth in timber.” Later, while on the high ridge the next day, Berry sees an inscription on the rock from 1903 and begins to imagine the history of the view he sees. He addresses the change (over time) in wilderness from being dominant to subservient in relation to human culture.
The second ‘but’ in the first pair (about the stream) references the pace of life. The streams move quickly, BUT they sound leisurely. Berry regularly brings up the contrast between the expressway and the woods, for the first time just six paragraphs later. Through the essay, Berry gradually transitions from the high-speed world of his office and the highway to the slower world of the wilderness, and he thinks at length about that transition.
The second pair of nature-centered but-constructions bring the discussion of the passage of time, the pace of the world, and the interaction between humans and wilderness together, thereby forming the crux of the essay (even though there are still pages to go). The text reads:
On a day like this, at the end of September, there would have been only the sounds of a few faint crickets, a woodpecker now and then, now and then the wind. But today, two-thirds of a century later, the continent is covered by an ocean of engine noise, in which silences occur only sporadically and at wide intervals.
From where I am sitting in the midst of this island of wilderness, it is as though I am listening to the machine of human history – a huge flywheel building speed until finally the force of its whirling will break it in pieces, and the world with it. That is not an attractive thought, and yet I find it impossible to escape, for it has seemed to me for years now that the doings of men no longer occur within nature, but that the natural places which the human economy has so far spared now survive almost accidentally within the doings of men.
There are a few things of note here. Though the first person appears in this passage, it does not appear in direct relation to the ‘buts.’ The contradiction refers to culture and nature, not Berry’s mind’s eye. There are specific mentions of time (“the end of September” and “two-thirds of a century later”) and speed. These, of course, refer back to the initial pair of nature-centered but-constructions.
Following this passage, Berry concludes a long paragraph with what can justifiably be called a rant. This is the height of the essay’s anti-civilization, pro-wilderness rhetoric, even concluding with the unusual (for this piece) mention of specific human evils: “the poison spray, the hugging fire of napalm, the cloud of Hiroshima.” The ‘buts’ that introduce this section are used to describe today’s wilderness by contrasting their former glory with their current demise. Long ago there would have been only crickets, BUT now there is engine noise. Once, man was enveloped by nature, BUT today it is, sadly, the other way around.
Interestingly, just as this rant is about to spiral out of control (at Hiroshima), Berry reins it in by using another but-construction – even though he employs a ‘though/still’ combination here instead of ‘but.’ After Hiroshima there is a section break, then Berry returns to the “But-I” technique to, as he has done throughout the essay, cast doubt on his own train of thought. That passage reads:
Though from the high vantage point of this stony ridge I see little hope that I will ever live a day as an optimist, still I am not desperate. In fact, with the sun warming me now, and with the whole day before me to wander in this beautiful country, I am happy.
Where the preceding paragraph was nearly devoid of the first person, instead delivering a treatise on the ills of civilization, the introduction to the next section, in which Berry returns to the pure happiness of being in the woods, presents the ‘I’ several times in rapid succession. And, to mesh with the dismal viewpoint right before, the contrast moves from pessimism to optimism, low to high. I am a pessimist, BUT I am still happy. From this point to the end of the essay, the mind’s eye grows silent, perhaps exhausted, perhaps indicating the author’s final transition to the wilderness. There is only one “But-I” construction left, and it deals with Berry being physically tired at the end of the hike.
In essence, then, the two pairs of nature centered but-constructions open and close the philosophical section (the opening two-thirds) of the essay. Within this section are numerous “But-I” constructions that explore both sides of the nature/civilization discussion. After the 2nd pair of nature ‘buts’ is a long denouement during which Berry simply revels in being in the wilderness. He lets his mind rest, seeing only nature as it is. He puts the ‘buts’ away.
Herewith a startling and idiosyncratically romantic Steven Heighton short story “A Right Like Yours.” Many of you know Steven from previous appearances on the pages of Numéro Cinq, including his lovely poem “Herself, Revised” (very popular here), his novel excerpt from Every Lost Country, his book of essays The Admen Move on Lhasa, which Rich Farrell wrote about here, and his handful of Horace odes in translation, which you really ought to take a second look at for their grace and intricacy. Of these odes, David Helwig wrote to me in an email: “They seem to me technically brilliant. And therefore moving.” (Remind me to ask him if I can quote him.)
A RIGHT LIKE YOURS
By Steven Heighton
He is short but he has shoulders and I think he wears the flattest shoes going, cheap sneakers of some kind, and that is attractive, that he doesn’t try to elevate himself in any way. His look is shy though, maybe cold, with green eyes that don’t meet your eyes but look at your mouth or chin in the same way as, when you’re in the ring, the other girl will stare a little below your eyes. So maybe he does it to practice. Always be in the ring, Webb Renton tells us.
I choose to think he is just somewhat shy.
It started because I was training for my fifth fight and my sparring partner had hurt that ligament in the knee that’s called, I think, cruciate but we just say crucial because that’s what it is. The other girls at the club are either on the little or the huge size and Trav is about the same weight as me, though he is shorter, and toward the end of a workout Webb yelled at him to get in there and give me a couple rounds. Trav’s face then—like someone told him to throw himself on a grenade. People started gathering ringside. Like I said, it was the end of the night, and I would have been interested too. I don’t think the coach had ever put a girl and guy in to spar that way.
Another Numéro Cinq What-it’s-like-living-here piece, this time by Shelagh Shapiro, a Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate, short story writer, author of that lovely Novel-in-a-Box Contest entry Infinity Falling, and producer/interviewer for her own amazing radio show Write the Book. Listen to her latest show, an interview with Richard Russo here.
What it’s like living here
From Shelagh Shapiro
The View From The Baby’s Room
You moved here – out to the country – nineteen years ago. One-year married and seven months pregnant, you slid the moving boxes around and directed other people where to carry the furniture. The mosquitoes got so bad with doors open all that day, you took to vacuuming them out of the air. When you first looked over the property, you woke up a raccoon in the barn. Groggy and comfortable, he didn’t bother you. That night, you and Jerry slept in the baby’s bedroom at the back of the house, because the water bed wasn’t filled yet in your room. (All the next day, the bed would fill, that sixty-foot hose snaking up through the bathroom window.) The baby’s room faced the pond—as it does still—and the peepers lulled you to sleep.
Alan Michael Parker is an old friend and colleague from my stint as the McGee Professor of Writing at Davidson College in North Carolina. (Coincidentally, we have two Davidson graduates who appear frequently on Numéro Cinq—Contributing Editor Gary Garvin and Cynthia Newberry Martin of Catching Days.) Among his many claims on my affection, Alan had the good taste to marry a Canadian, the painter Felicia van Bork. He is a prolific poet and a novelist, a poet-novelist, a wry, energetic presence with a gift for teaching and satire. His most recent book of poems is Elephants & Butterflies (BOA Editions) and his most recent novel is Whale Man (WordFarm Books) which is due out February, 2011. It’s a great pleasure and delight to introduce him to the pages of Numéro Cinq. These three excerpts are from a new novel in progress, The Committee on Town Happiness.
All Swimming Pools
No diving. No skipping. No three-legged competitions. No talking to the lifeguard from behind the lifeguard stand. No eating in the shallow end. No keys in the water. No unlabeled towels. No food dyes.
All swimming pools are to be skimmed daily with the use of skimmers attached to telescopic poles, those good ideas made better. All swimming pools are to employ regulation geometric symbols: triangles for fish, circles for rescue rings, squares for the Snack Hut, rectangles for chaise lounges, etc. Color coding may apply. Primary colors may apply, given the recent popularity of goggles.
No hiking boots inside the fence. No pets in water six inches above their heads. All swimming pools offering consumer services shall employ kitty corner entrances and exits—the latter through the gift areas, to encourage community. When we buy together, we are together. No indecency. No metal belts.
All swimming pools shall appoint a Wildlife Officer who shall successfully complete Level Three Wildlife Training. All swimming pools shall post the hours of All Swim. All swimming pools shall offer shallow ends and deeps, to remind us of our progress in life, with demarcations clearly marked in graduated units, to remind us of all we trust.
In case of emergency, all swimming pools shall be prepared to accept displaced persons; all Snack Huts must be equipped with sleeping bags and hurricane lamps. Sterno and a flare gun, safety cones. One torch per every three employees. In case of inclement weather, T-shirts may be awarded. “I Survived…” slogans are acceptable. No underwater lighting. No realistic inflatables.
The Marching Band
Petitioned by the Active Mothers in Support of the Marching Band (AMSMB), we considered previously undirected funds. Granted, the timing of the request seemed carefully timed, raising more than one eyebrow, our fiscal year concluding, earmarked monies marked for non-displaced expenditures and needing to be spent. We saw there were expenses, naturally: the unfortunate state of the glockenspiel, for example, and the need for eighteen sets of snap-on straps. No one mentioned the excessively woolen caps. Was it all so serendipitous? Is serendipity to be believed? We wondered, when the AMSMB was joined in an amicus motion by the Pre-Holidays Happiness Sub-Committee (M. Barriston, W. Weiss). Of course, every petition has petitioners, every dollar its admirers.
If only. In the subsequent filing period, the “cooling off,” due diligence and discoveries. Around the practice field, an empty trombone case, a bell. Two uniform shirts balled in the trash behind the former Sewing Notions store (now boarded up with cardboard, tightly X-ed with tape). Then there was the unfortunate bassoon that no amount of cleaning would unclog. And the note intercepted from the clarinetist: such antipathy between a first and second chair.
After four, we could still hear the muted, brassy airs from far away, drums quick as a rabbit’s heart. Not that anyone would deny a child music, but. Who was that playing, considering the recent losses? The AMSMB appeared perplexed. So we voted, 5-2, to wait. “Maybe they can march in place,” quipped F. Czerniwicz, not all that helpfully.
Report from the Committee on Town Happiness
It would not have been feasible to keep adding members to our ranks, even though we had our feelings and our losses, so we voted, 4-2, not to open up the rolls (S. Avumito and W. Weiss abstaining, since they were so new). When the vote was tallied, we were wide-eyed. There was the outside prospect of a pall.
But on to business: the Committee on Town Happiness has been thinking about the Community Garden. All those mirrors of our personalities; who grows the cukes, who the cosmos, who the daffodils, who the ornamentals; who comes to dig at night rather than go home. Who composts, who sprays and with what. Who shares. We have voted, 6-1 (M. Barriston recused, due to her portfolio) that Community Garden plots shall hereby be awarded based on the applicant’s commitment to the Community Garden Market. We have voted, 6-1, to establish a Community Garden Market, staffed by volunteers who already work for the town. Not strictly “in this time of need,” although the phrase was entered into the minutes.
We think that growing and marketing vegetables and flowers together will bring us all together. Our bodies are what we have in common, after all. The organism business, the willingness to participate as people. We voted, 5-3, to recognize the relationship between togetherness and happiness—and maybe, as M. Espinoza said, the tightness of the vote was telling, but maybe not.
We, the Committee on Town Happiness, would like to thank the three representatives from the Community Garden who came so promptly despite the sirens, and who shall henceforth be recognized as the three representatives of the Community Garden Market. We thanked them formally, 8-0. The smiles accompanying our unanimity were what we most encouraged all to see.
Herewith an essay on the techniques for indicating thought and emotion in prose while avoiding the pitfall of sentimentality. Laura-Rose Russell is a former student and a recent Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate and a spectacular nonfiction writer. Please read her piece “Scented” in the Gettysburg Review and you’ll see what I mean. This craft essay is Laura-Rose’s graduate lecture at VCFA, a terrific example of the genre, at once fiercely intelligent and passionately engaged and packed with craft information, a lesson on reading, and a narrative of her development as a writer. She does something in this lecture I’ve never seen anyone try before. She actually takes an example text and strips out the representation of emotion, motive, etc. to further clarify the profound effect these techniques have on a piece of writing.
There’s a Reason They Call it Show AND Tell: How to Reveal Thoughts, Emotions, and Motivations Without Sentimentality
By Laura-Rose Russell
Sentimentality is an excessive expression of emotion, one that goes beyond what is warranted. The problem with sentimentality is that it actually diminishes the impact of events it is meant to enhance. Sentimentality also reduces the credibility of the writer or character that expresses such emotion. Debra Sparks says, “Sentimentality and coldness are falsehoods, two extremes of dishonesty. Sentimentality gives a moment more than it has earned, coldness less.” Sparks, in an article called “Handling Emotion in Fiction Writing,” points out that the word “sentimental” didn’t have a negative connotation until the 19th century, when it came to mean, not only excessive emotion, but emotion period. To be sentimental meant “to be governed by sentiment in opposition to reason.”
But when we say that writers should avoid sentimentality, we don’t mean they should avoid emotion altogether. Tolstoy says, “Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them” (qtd. in Sparks). What, then, is excessive emotion? Is there a chart somewhere that we can refer to? How much emotion am I permitted when I lose my car keys? How much when I lose a loved one?
We are all familiar with the advice to show rather than tell, and nowhere is this emphasized more than regarding emotions. “Good writers,” John Gardner says, “may ‘tell’ about almost anything in fiction except the character’s feelings” (Burroway, 80). Janet Burroway discusses how Stanislavski, the founder of “Method” acting, “urged his students to abandon the clichéd emotive postures of the nineteenth century stage in favor of emotions evoked by the actor’s recollection of sensory details connected with a personal past trauma . . . Similarly, in written fiction, if the writer depicts the precise physical sensations experienced by the character, a particular emotion may be triggered by the reader’s own sense memory” (80). “Get control of emotion by avoiding the mention of emotion,” says John L’Heureux (Burroway, 81). The message seems pretty clear: don’t name emotions.
But during a recent workshop I attended, Douglas Glover, one of the workshop leaders, broached the subject of explicit versus implicit information. We were debating whether a character in a student’s story was essentially self-serving and taking advantage of another character or whether the character was fundamentally well intentioned but seriously misguided. Glover interrupted our debate to ask us where in the text were we getting the information to support one argument or another? We would cite this line, or that phrase, and Glover would point out that these words and phrases were actually quite ambiguous; we were coming up with a wide range of interpretation regarding points that were pivotal to the story. “Isn’t this what writing is about?” we asked, “suggesting things and letting your reader ‘read between the lines’?” Glover said as writers we do not have the leisure to be quite so ambiguous. Is it any wonder why we were confused? We were trying so hard to follow the rule we had been taught: show, don’t tell; show, don’t tell; show, don’t tell.
For your edification and delight (while I do packets), here is a lovely new poem by David Helwig (um, who apparently has a new dog). I have introduced David before on Numéro Cinq so I won’t go on about our long friendship, his incredibly prolific career, his honours and acclaim. He has already published a translation of Chekhov’s story “About Love” and “La Rentrée,” a poem, on these pages.
By David Helwig
The puppy stares through the log corral at the tall
companionable horses ambling to the fence;
the hair of her ruff bristles, fear of these giants
stirring her, though the abrupt newness holds her gaze.
Her brain all imbrued with the complex perspectives
of perfumery and stench, she studies these odd
grand beings who interrupt our evening walk
while the air cools and the blazing October sun
sets beyond the toy farm on the empty road
of the toy village, time falling away from us
over the old graveyard as the black dog watches
with careful eyes these creature of the distances,
attendant to night’s stubborn bestial wisdom,
the galactic white blaze on her chest retracing
a sign out of some far genetic wilderness;
she is hearing wild dogs in the whine of the wind.
We read the graves, small histories inscribed on stone.
What more is to be said about them, the lost ones,
who are recalled tonight while all-stars-that-are come
in white fire to the observers? Morning will bring
starfish, oysters on the beach, the glitter of light,
in the house of love, new confusions of friendship.
The horses now stand sleeping under this tall sky,
the dog dreaming fear beneath the bright evening star.
Steven Axelrod is a former student, a painter of houses on Nantucket, an inveterate blogger on Open Salon.com. He also won the 2010 Memoir-in-a-Box contest with a gorgeous piece on the demise of a marriage. Herewith another in an infinite series of Numéro Cinq “What it’s like living here” pieces, in this instance, Steve’s elegiac homage to his adoptive hometown.
What it’s like living here
By Steven Axelrod on Nantucket
Closed for the Season
You walk around your island, stunned by the sudden fair weather, the giant wheel shifting the wind from north east to south west, the air like silk against your face, the town moving into full dress rehearsal mode for the coming summer: painters sprucing up the store fronts, renovations scrambling to completion, pot holes patched, grass cut, hedges trimmed, waiting for the first boats full of Memorial Day tourists, the first surge of Range Rovers and boat trailers as the summer people take their seats and the curtain goes up.
Your son Tom graduates from high school today, and you feel ambushed by your own emotions. For years it seems you’ve known every possible sentiment ahead of time, shrugging as they trundled towards you: this is going to make you angry, that will be fun; whatever. But this comes at you from too many directions at once. It’s strange and troubling to have a feeling you can’t identify.
You grasp just bits and pieces of it at first. You feel a tug of genuine suspense when your son was crosses the stage to pick up his diploma … as if something might happen to screw it up, as if the diploma itself might be blank. You know other people feel the same way: You make the joke with a few of the parents you know, and see the nervous smile of recognition on their faces. Then comes the relief.
You call your ex-wife and you talk for a while. Later, you say to your Mom, “No one else knows what this feels like.” And she says, “What about me? I’ve been through it, too.” You hug and you find that you’re crying. She says: “For twenty years you’ve been putting yourself last; now you can finally put yourself first. You can finally do what you want. But what is that?” And you really have no idea. But you feel like some huge changes could begin now; as if you had graduated, not your son.
But even that isn’t all. The graduation unplugs you from a whole community that you didn’t even know you cared about. You weren’t really part of it, in any big way: You didn’t volunteer, or chaperone or substitute teach. But you know these kids, and through them their parents and through those families the real life of the island you live on and the town that had somehow, almost against your will, become your home. Now that living connection is gone, too. The next bunch of kids will be strangers to you; the next crazy teacher won’t be your problem. So this rite of passage isolates you. It makes you feel your age. You finished my fiftieth year, your first real novel and your children’s high school careers, all in the same week. That’s a lot of endings.
Fiction breaks barriers people assume are sacrosanct. I was watching Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street the other night, fascinated mostly by the conceit of the world of dream invading the waking world of so-called reality and vice versa. Leon Rooke has a story called “Magi Dogs” in his recent collection The Last Shot in which a real dog walks into a painting.
I had no sooner finished my new painting, White Cottage with Green Shutters, when a dog poked its nose in the door, looked me over with only the mildest interest, then without further ado trotted up the painting’s cottage path, yawned, and at once dropped down asleep by the front steps. I was glad I hadn’t given the cottage an open door or the dog likely would have walked right inside.
The story develops in sections along several armatures but eventually returns to the painting and the dog.
The dog is pacing the cottage path, she turns and looks me over as I enter the studio, I draw fresh water from the tap and place the tin can on the floor, she quickly laps up all the water, wags her tail, then trots up and scratches at the cottage door, these deep whines in her throat. With chalk I throw in a few quick lines to open a makeshift door, the dog pushes through and runs straight to the divan.
For a long time I sit on the model’s hard chair looking at the dog, thinking that if one dog arrives this can only mean others may follow, which leads me to something else I have been frequently mulling over these recent days, Anjou’s insistence that from time to time the mind must be excavated, emptied, so that it may discover a solace fundamental to its journey.
What storytellers know is that grammar has nothing to do with truth, that the throw of grammar leads into the light of the imagination. Dreams can invade reality, dogs can take up residence in paintings (and bring their friends).
As it happens, besides being a great storyteller and novelist, Leon Rooke is a painter of brash, dynamic pictures on display at the Fran Hill Gallery in Toronto. There are homages here (obvious in the title), also bits of narrative, often ironic (also signaled in the titles), exuberant colours and bold eroticism. These pictures are exciting to see and ponder against Rooke’s words, his stories and novels which trend always toward that point where the mind empties and opens itself to “a solace fundamental to its journey.”
The New Quebec, 2010
oil/canvas, 24 x 48 in.
Collection of Sybil & Morris Fine
I wrote here previously about the introduction of characters, a topic that figures prominently in my own writing. I meet a lot of people. I’m (gradually) working on a book that involves significant scientific research, travel around the Midwest talking to farmers and land managers, and – just last night – hours in the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society poring through 150-year-old land survey notes. When I sent my first chapter to dg way back in packet #2 (are we almost to #4 already??), he raised the question of sources.
To quote briefly from dg’s packet letter: “This brings up a larger issue nudging away at me as I read through this chapter. How do you properly credit and integrate primary research and sources? I wonder about this reading Barry Lopez on wolves and John McPhee on shad and Mathiessen on snow leopards. How does one ensure that the descriptions one writes from the research become one’s own words and not just summaries or synopses of other people’s work?”
Hmmm. Good question. And I suppose you all know what’s coming next. “This might bear contemplating as a critical essay,” wrote dg.
Here is a poem by the prolific and amazingly energetic (I tried to count the number of jobs and teaching gigs she has but didn’t have enough fingers) Nickole Brown. Nickole is a Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate in fiction (I have been reminded that, in fact, she was in a workshop with me, yea, these many years ago). As a student and a graduate assistant, Nickole was a graceful, kindly presence on campus. I do recall her brightening my day now and then in the lunch line at Dewey. She worked for Sarabande Books for ten years. She’s made her way in publishing, teaching and as a woman-of-letters. She is determined, focused and persistent, qualities I admire. And it’s a great pleasure, after all these years, to still be in touch and to publish her here.
A Diet Plan That Works
By Nickole Brown
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
Do not buy like the nouveau riche: tin of black
caviar, sad plate of parrot fish,
marbled pink slab of exotic
meat served with expensive
and appropriately bitter
wine. Fill your cart instead with
things to make you feel rich: the oiled flesh
of artichoke hearts, the slippery vowels
of asparagus and arugula and asiago,
bread with an uneven
leaven of holes. Buy things
still teeming, invisible cultures
swimming in a cup, taut colors
soaked in sun so far from this winter
your palms ache with the bright hot
light of oranges. Display the carrots
with their full peacock
greens on the counter next to cheese
that glistens with a softness of slow
time. This is what you’ve worked for, leaving
behind those dim nights
nuked with infomercials, the florescent
maraschino, the milky dressing’s cheap blue
water. Let go a past of unwieldy portions,
perishables sealed in boxes and cans,
all those puffed, sugared, colored
mornings that tore
your mouth to shreds.
This is what you always wanted: the cool
fruit held to your face,
its sweetness given
to your hunger. Cherish it,
thank it, let your teeth
break the skin with a sound
that reminds you of weeds
pulled from the garden, a pop
that sounds like one sound
but is in fact made of many,
each white strand snapped
from the dark
a sound of letting go, a hundred letting
go’s, a sound of a thing
dying under your grip, yes,
but not unlike the sound
made by that stubborn
horse who refused the trail
for a moment to lean his bridled
head down to this earth to stop,
Herewith a sequence of poems from Steven Heighton‘s book Patient Frame. Numéro Cinq readers will (or may not) recall Steven from two earlier appearances on these pages (here and here). He is an old friend, a hurting hockey player, father of a daughter, and he published a book of poems and a novel this year, which is more than I have (probably you, too). He sent me “A Strange Fashion of Forsaking…” months ago for fun and it’s been biting at the back of my brain ever since, not the least because he refashions Horace after Thomas Wyatt, one of my favourite poets. I leave it to Steven to introduce Horace and these translations—which he prefers to call “approximations”—in his own words.
Horace, or Quintus Horatius Flaccus, was a Roman poet. During his lifetime (65 BCE – 8 BCE) he served briefly as a military officer, as a functionary in the Roman treasury, and as a writer, producing satires, epodes, epistles, literary criticism, and poems. He was a highly versatile poet, both formally and thematically; his Odes comprise work ranging from personal lyrics to moralistic verse, and from private, occasional poems to public, ceremonial verse. Horace’s words survive not only in Classics departments and in translation (David Ferry’s The Odes of Horace is deservedly respected and widely read), but in common parlance: the phrase carpe diem comes from one of his poems.
In approaching these four odes of Horace I’ve stuck with my usual practice as an amateur translator, giving myself the freedom to make each approximation as “free” or as “faithful” as the original inspires me to be. So “Pyrrha” sticks close to the untitled original in its structure, imagery and level of diction, while “Chloe” has morphed from an unrhymed twelve line poem into a short-lined sonnet. “A Strange Fashion of Forsaking” is inflected and re-gendered by way of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s famous poem “They Flee from Me”, while “Noon on Earth!” has gone from a linguistically formal eight lines to a highly colloquial seventeen.
Robert Kroetsch once observed that every poem is a failed translation. What a translation can’t afford to be is a failed poem—or at least an uninteresting one. My aim in approximating a poem that I love is, of course, to make a compelling counterpart in English—something to entertain you, startle you, pry you open—while in the process entertaining myself: sitting up, by candlelight, with dictionaries and a glass of Douro red, the house silent, even the bats in our walls asleep; reciting the original lines aloud, in some cases two thousand years after their conception; weighing how best to re-conceive those cadences in English; serving as a kind of stenographer to the dead, a medium at a prosodic séance, an avid collaborator, an apprentice always learning from the work. And for me, the most mysterious, engrossing work lies in finding a way into old or ancient poems and making them young again. Hence Horace.
I’ll conclude by quoting the middle section of a poem I translated several years ago—a poem by the contemporary Italian writer Valerio Magrelli, which suggests some of the addictive bustle and exertion of the translator’s work. (The unquoted opening lines introduce the metaphor of the translator as a one-man or –woman moving company.)
I too move something—words—
to a new building, words
not mine, setting hands to things
I don’t quite know, not quite
comprehending what I move.
Myself I move—translate
pasts to presents, to presence, that
travels sealed up, packed in pages
or in crates . . .
The final unpacking, of course, is the task of the reader.
—SH, Kingston, Ontario
What slender elegant youth, perfumed
among roses, is urging himself on you,
Pyrrha, in the fragrant grotto? Have you
bound your yellow hair so gracefully
for him? How many times he’ll weep because
faith is fickle, as the gods are, how often
will the black, sea-disquieting winds
astonish him, although for now
credulous, grasping at fool’s gold, he enjoys you,
hopes you’ll always be calm water, always
this easy to love. Unconscious of the wind’s wiles
he’s helpless, still tempted
by your gleaming seas. But high on the temple wall
I’ve set this votive tablet, and in thanks
to the god for rescue have hung
my sea-drenched mantle there.
Chloe ( i, 23)
You flee from me, Chloe, a young deer
urgently in search of mother, lost
in lonely, high forests
tremulous with fear
at the mountain’s slimmest breeze, or
springtime’s delicate revealing
of leaves, or a leafgreen lizard’s spring
from thickets. (What terrors seize
the fawn then!). But Chloe, I’m neither
a tiger nor a lion, intent
on savage appetites, or upon
causing you any pain. Forget
looking back for your mother
it’s time to love a man.
“A Strange Fashion of Forsaking . . .” (i, 25: via Thomas Wyatt)
The wilder girls hardly bother anymore
to rattle your shuttered window with fists, or
pitch stones, shatter your dreamfree sleep, while your door,
once oiled and swinging,
nimbly hinged, hangs dead with rust. Less and less
you wake now to ex-lovers crying, “Thomas,
you bastard, how can you sleep?—I’m dying for us
to do it again.”
Seems to me your turn’s long overdue—solo
nightshift when, like some codger in a cul-
de-sac, you’ll moan for all the women (scornful
now) who one time sought you.
The cold will be what finds you then—northeasters
whining down in the gloom of the moon, and lust
in riddled guts twisting you like a stud in must
who has to stand watching
his old mares mounted. You’ll know then, the desire
of girls is for greener goods—such dry sticks
and wiltwood, blown only by the cold, they just figure
who has the time for.
Noon on Earth! (starting from i, 11)
Why trouble wondering how long
breath will last, how long your eyes
will still bask in the heavenshed
lucence of noon on earth. Horoscopes,
palmistry, the séance gild pockets
but confide nothing sure. We have to take it—
the future’s shrugged whatever, that weather
of uncertainty—unknowing whether gods
will grant us the grey of further
winters that’ll churn the sea until the sea
gnaws, noses into the littoral
of our lives, eroding whatever is
so far unclaimed.
Better open the red, pitch the cork, toast
our moment—tomorrow’s an idle
nevering, ghost of a god
unworth such wasted faith.
—Translated by Steven Heighton
Steven Heighton, born in 1961, is the author of nine books, most recently the novel Afterlands. His poetry and fiction have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including the London Review of Books, Poetry (Chicago), Europe, Tin House, Agni, The Independent, the Walrus, and Best English Stories. His work has been widely translated, has received a number of prizes, and has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium Award, a Pushcart Prize, and Britain’s W.H. Smith Award.
It’s a pleasure to introduce my former student (and Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate) Jill Glass to Numéro Cinq. Jill lives in Los Angeles, writes about Los Angeles, thinks about Los Angeles and even seems to like it there. “The Use of Moralized Cityscape in Los Angeles Literature” is a marvelously intelligent essay on the use of place in fiction, the moralizing of place for fictional purposes (a literary effect called paysage moralisé) and, in particular, the way authors like Joan Didion, Gavin Lambert and Nathanael West re-imagine Los Angeles as a literary universe unto itself. Make sure to look at the notes and bibliography which extend the reach of the essay far beyond its topical orbit. This was Jill’s critical thesis at Vermont College, one of the best I’ve seen.
THE USE OF MORALIZED CITYSCAPE IN LOS ANGELES LITERATURE
By Jill Glass
“I look at the writers who came, when they came, why they came, what they found and how they responded to the city. I am interested in the way the place—in all its apparent oddity—shaped the writer’s imaginations and how their imaginative renderings shaped the city, structured it in image and myth as the city of dream, desire and deception.”[i]
–David Fine, Imagining Los Angeles.
It was failure that brought Nathanael West to Los Angeles in the mid-1930’s, after his first novel, The Dream of the Balso Snell, was little read and poorly reviewed and his second, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), was not the breakthrough many anticipated. Critically praised, the novel seemed poised for success when West received news on the eve of release that his publishing house, hit hard by the economic depression, had declared bankruptcy. Months later, when the book came to market, it had lost all momentum. In an unexpected development, Twentieth Century Fox bought the film rights, and West followed his novel to Hollywood to oversee its transition from page to screen.
The Depression had been good to the film industry. Americans, desperate for diversion, crowded the theaters where they were fed images of Los Angeles life as one of material comfort, escapism and eternal sunshine, the locus of the American Dream. This was not what West saw when he arrived. His Los Angeles was “a grotesque half-world of outcasts and hangers-on, misfits and freaks, exotic cultists and disillusioned Midwesterners,” a jumble of incongruous architectural styles—pagodas and chalets–stacked side by side in rugged canyons, a fantasyland gone awry, the lines between movies and reality badly blurred, a city devoid of cultural or literary definition.
Heightened and distorted, this became the central imagery for his seminal work, The Day of the Locust. The book was published in 1939, a defining year for Los Angeles literature. Raymond Chandler released his novella Red Wind, elevating pulp crime fiction to an art form. His Los Angeles was “a big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup…no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.”[ii] John Fante published his second novel, Ask the Dust, the first book to focus a tender eye on the down-and-outers, the immigrant denizens of the city’s downtown flophouses and cafeterias. “Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.”[iii]But the Los Angeles of West’s imagination was a bleaker place, a moral black hole–the embodiment of what he saw as the spiritual and material betrayal of the American dream during the years of the Great Depression, a city where people “realize they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment…Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have saved and saved for nothing.”[iv]
With The Day of the Locust, a black, surrealistic, social satire, West created his own genre—Hollywood Apocalypse. A short 126-page novel, the chapters range from one to eleven pages in length. Written in third-person omniscient, past tense, the story is told from the point of view of Tod Hackett, part moral-innocent, part artist-prophet, a recent graduate of the Yale School of Fine Arts, who has temporarily set aside his aspirations towards serious art to work as a set designer at a second-rate Hollywood studio. As he takes in Los Angeles, he marvels at the blatant artifice of the architecture and the inhabitants. He dismisses the masqueraders, people who parade the streets in costumes that belie and disguise their social standing, but is fixated on the migrant middle-class Midwesterners who “have come to California to die.” He plans to use them as the subjects of the masterpiece he will someday paint in the style of Daumier or Goya, a fantasized catastrophe he has titled “the Burning of Los Angeles.”
He falls in with an assortment of oddballs–a veritable laundry list of Hollywood clichés—an over-the-hill Vaudeville clown, a child actor, a cowboy, a dwarf, and Faye Greener, a scheming, untalented extra with delusions of stardom.
Tod becomes obsessed with Faye, joining her circle of suitors, a group of misfits and has-beens, including Homer Simpson, a sickly Iowan newly arrived in Los Angeles in search of a health cure. It is a losing proposition. Faye makes it clear that Tod has nothing to offer her since he is neither wealthy or good-looking or connected. Her rejection fuels his depraved and lustful fantasies, and after an evening of group flirtation at a Hollywood Hills campsite escalates into violence, Tod chases Faye into the woods with the fantasy of raping her.
Faye’s father dies and she moves in with Homer Simpson in an arranged relationship–food, lodging and expensive clothes in exchange for her companionship. She takes advantage of Homer’s vulnerability and manipulates him into letting two of her other suitors move into his garage.
Tod determines to break off with Faye. His desire for her makes him feel as desperate as the people he is trying to paint. He turns his attention back to “The Burning of Los Angeles,” searching the churches of Hollywood for new subjects. He is disturbed by what he sees—fanatical congregations worshipping false-prophets.
Diane Lefer is an old friend and former colleague at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Many of you know her. She is what you want a friend and a colleague to be: forthright, hugely funny, smart and a passionate moral being. The last time we ran a workshop together in College Hall, one student called it (in her evaluation) “the Doug and Diane Show.” I do believe we had a lot of fun, and the students had fun, too (and incidentally learned something, a couple anyway). She’s a fierce and kindly person. “The Tangerine Quandary” originally appeared in the Santa Monica Review, Spring, 2010. Here is Diane’s gloss on the photo above. “In 1999, Duc Ta was arrested at age 16 when he drove the wrong kids home from school. One of them fired two shots out the window. No one was hit or injured. Duc was tried as an adult and sentenced 35-years-to-life. I’ve been advocating on his behalf ever since. We did get his sentence reduced to 11-years-to-life making him eligible for parole but he is still locked up. This picture was taken in front of the backdrop in the visiting room where you have to stand if you want a photo taken while visiting. We call it Jail Break.”
The Tangerine Quandary
By Diane Lefer
Theo watched the Orthodox schoolgirls at the corner, long-sleeved shirts, skirts below the knee, high socks in the 80-degree heat, and hoped they were there for him. One reached with both hands to do something with her hair, her water bottle tucked between her thighs so it stuck out like an erection with a blue head. Then the light changed and they crossed and caught up to the girl who stood absolutely straight as she dribbled a basketball. What are they doing on a basketball court, he thought, but there they were, going to the park, and he to the bookstore, and damn but they would have made an interesting audience.
What was wrong with him that he was still too shy to approach a gaggle of teenage girls and say, “Come here. I’ve got what you’re waiting for.”
He’d come by bus and wandered a while, trying to figure out how to enter the mall itself rather than the car-park structure, then found himself on fake cobblestones, rolling his carry-on bag amid the crowds and the burbling of recycled water in the fake stone fountains, then past the multiplex theatre and the clothing stores. Pigeons huddled beside the decoy owl on the bookstore roof, unafraid, and taking advantage of its shadow.
He studied the posters in the window. So many photos, so many names, so many famous people he’d never heard of. His own claim to the Walk of Fame: a $15 bunk in the hostel on Hollywood Boulevard. Inside the store, the air conditioning hit him, less a greeting than an assault. Not as bad as the BBC interview of course, being called a bottom feeder, a canker worm and parasite. The Brits do have an abundant command of entomological and ichthyological invective. The presenter never even worked his way up to anything warmblooded. Here he finds piles of books on display, not his, more posters and book covers and faces, not his. People should have heard of—he wouldn’t presume to name himself—but they should have heard of, cared about, come out to honor her. Anne.
If people would only ask the right questions, such as: Why here, why now?
He’d answer, The Savior would have to appear among the most despised people on earth.
But she’s an American.
“I’m Theo Carlisle—” and the clerk looked right through him. Even Shmuley had turned himself into a celebrity now—or, depending on your point of view, an embarrassment, really, a Hasidic rebbe writing the joy of kosher sex! But if anyone should have appreciated Anne Easley, once upon a time it would have been Shmuley.
Now Barnes and Noble welcomes Theo Carlisle, Oxford University scholar and the distinguished author of Amber and Fur.
“Oh, are we starting already? Yes. Well, since there are so few—” He tells himself Salman Rushdie once read to an empty hall. Security was so tight, no one got in. Theo wonders if he actually read or spoke. To the security guards, perhaps? Here, there’s a girl, slim and dark; Mr. Gray Ponytail in a peace sign T-shirt, probably doesn’t even know it’s the symbol for phosphorus; middle-aged woman with an amber necklace, obviously has no idea what the book’s about; and the only one who looks like he’ll understand the science, probably from CalTech given the smug look on his face as he pushes his glasses back up his nose, he’ll be able to make a life in science, unlike Theo. Even the woman who introduced him has walked away. And he’s supposed to read from the book but he’s put his reading glasses somewhere and there’s something unseemly it seems to him to start patting himself, reaching into pockets. More likely it’s in one of the pouches of the carry-on. Yes, yes, he put the glasses in one pouch, the gun in the other, but he’s not sure which and mustn’t chance opening the wrong one. So:
“As the Bard—Shakespeare—tells us, There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. Those words occurred to me directly I came upon a 1956 journal article by Dr. Anne Easley who was then pursuing her research at Los Alamos National Laboratory.” Without the damn glasses, he’s got to improvise. “Here was someone who was mindful of even the smallest, who found the great in the simple.” Not bad, he thinks. “She moved us closer to unlocking the secrets of the universe by rubbing glass with human hair, and rabbit fur with amber. She took us into the future by looking back to a study that was abandoned by the end of the 18th century and for her efforts, she paid a great price.”
The woman with the necklace stands and leaves. Acknowledge her departure or not? He could say We know matter is neither created nor destroyed. Therefore—if more people are being born than are dying, either people today have less matter to them, less substance, hence the shallowness of contemporary life—Then, with a chuckle he would correct himself: That’s a misapplication of science, of course. Let’s not confuse physics and metaphysics. You Americans have the notion that a Hindu or Buddhist has an intuitive understanding of particle physics. Trust me, in India, one learns the maths.
“Yesterday, I was in Las Vegas,” he says, “a city proud of its role in the testing of nuclear weapons,” where, he might add, people think redemption happens in a pawn shop. “As though weapons of mass destruction give the place legitimacy, you see, it’s not just gambling and sin, but gravitas, a serious place—and it is serious, you know. Monumental architecture. Fascist architecture. The place frightened me, and what keeps us stuck here if not gravity? Something keeps us stuck.” For a moment, he is stuck, uncertain what to say. “Those white condominium towers going up near the Strip—they look just like the white shafts over the underground nuclear test sites. This is not what Anne Easley was about.”
What she is about, the words he wants to speak aloud, the selling point of the book though obviously it is not helping sales, the most controversial claim—somehow he can’t. If only the Orthodox schoolgirls had been there.
The peace shirt ponytail speaks: “Isn’t it possible she focused on the 18th century because she wasn’t intellectually equipped for the theoretical physics of the 20th?” The man is smirking as though thinking don’t even try to put one over on us with your posh accent. They never get it, thinks Theo. I’m not posh. I’m from New Zealand. And how is it possible to be both claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time, but that’s exactly how he feels, trapped underground in a high-ceilinged tunnel, no air but endless space, he’s a speck in all that tight enclosure, trapped inside walls he cannot reach in a world without end. He thinks the single atom you cannot even see contains such power. As he does. Stephen Hawking can keep his Equalizer, the computer program he uses to communicate. Theo’s gone him one better. He has the great American equalizer. Amazing what you can get in Vegas, hand over the cash, no questions asked. You do need a permit for a concealed weapon in Nevada and he’s not a resident so he probably couldn’t get one which wouldn’t be valid in California anyway, but if it’s concealed in your luggage not on your person it’s not a concealed weapon. Language lies.
The slim dark girl isn’t looking at him but rather at her hands folded over her purse. The world is killing all of them slowly. Climate change. Toxins. Disappointment. But now She is come. At any rate, that’s what he has written.
Earlier, on a plane being held at the gate at Logan, her seat belt fastened, carry-on stowed beneath the first class seat in front, Liza took a calming breath, then another, telling herself it was a chance to call home while cell phones and other electronic devices were permitted. “Victoria, it’s Mommy,” while the woman in the next seat seemed to be watching, judging: This mother has learned appropriate behavior but it doesn’t come from the heart. It was none of her damn business, though Mommy in such a brisk tone of voice, even to Liza’s ear, rang false. She couldn’t help it. The tone came from work, no different really from Janine next door who simpered in adult conversation after a day of teaching second grade. Liza never could bear being spoken to as if she were a child and she would like to believe that Victoria felt the same. Her daughter insisted on being called Victoria, not Vicki, though probably only because Janine’s brat had been calling her VapoRub. And I’ll have to stop calling myself Mommy, but mindful of the passenger beside her, she said, “I miss you already, sweetie,” and tried hard to simper.
I love my daughter. I love my aunt. OK, it had been seven years since her last visit but who paid for Aunt Anne’s upkeep for God’s sake! And that was uncertain now, not because of their argument, but outsourcing. Downsizing—what they now called “right sizing”—Orwell would love it. And what do you, Ms. Investment Banker, know of Orwell? I’m an educated woman! And right now she’d taken time off and the markets were doing god only knows what—“capsizing” would be the word—and Anne refused to take her own situation seriously. “Your sister is upset about the book,” Liza had warned her on the phone. “Oh, has she read it?” “She overheard people talking about it at the Symphony.” “Oh dear! Not during the Mozart, I hope!” Anne turned anything about Patrice into a joke. How on earth had they come out of the same womb? Embarrassed, Liza corrects her own thought: same home.
It’s getting hot, even a seat in first class is uncomfortable till they turn on the power and, with it, the air. At least she can remove the jacket of her St. John suit without banging her elbow into this judgmental—or so she’s judged her—woman in the next seat. She pulls, she shrugs, she hears the lining rip. Her stomach falls. She was about to phone Mother, but not now, she can’t hear that voice now, the voice of the mother who for whom any broken toy or soiled clothing stood for Liza’s fallen nature, tantamount to sin. You could disagree with Patrice—and Liza did, you didn’t have to believe what she said—and Liza didn’t, but the words still lodged inside, solid as rockhard fact. Oh, Mother! There are other ways to live. That time in Dubrovnik in 1984—apologies, Mr. Orwell! And why apologize, why is she always saying excuse me to someone, what, really has she done wrong?, there to hear the pros and cons of emerging-market currency floats. During a break, she’d walked the cliffside and was suddenly surrounded—momentarily alarmed—by what seemed a mob of young Turks. Computer science students from Istanbul, explained their professor. He spoke good English and told her he brought a group each year for an international conference that also served as a rite of passage. He led them each time to this very lookout point above the beach where they could gaze down upon the European women sunbathing nude. The boys watched the women, Liza watched them—those sweet smooth-skinned Muslim boys. Thunderstruck at their first sight of a woman’s body, all at a sweet clean distance. They stood against the sky, nothing lascivious about their posture. Stunned, in awe. Their upbringing even stricter than her own and she’d thought, What if this were the truth about the Garden of Eden? When Adam and Eve first become conscious of their bodies, instead of being ashamed, they are stunned with their own beauty. Instead of mindless enjoyment of the Garden, for the first time, they appreciate what they have. And they are not driven out by some angry god. They hurry off of their own free will, excited by the desire to see and know the whole world and protect all of Creation from harm. Oh, fuck it. Her jacket slithers. The lining bunches. The damn book has her thinking theologically. Sit still, she tells herself as she wants to squirm, to remove the jacket, straighten it out, sit still, she might as well try to hold back a sneeze. She takes a deep breath, another, counts her breaths. Aunt Anne could have saved her from this, from being the control freak’s neurotic daughter—she knows neurotic is no longer a diagnosis but so useful as an adjective. If only, in her life, someone had looked at her the way those boys looked at the women on the beach. Before Yugoslavia was torn apart by war. Before terrorists decided the lovely Turks were too secular. Before Liza met and married the man who was not in awe of her body but was, most of the time, her best friend. Now her aunt has brought trouble on them instead of solutions. My fault, Liza thinks. If only I’d been there for her she would never have been taken in by this—this—she doesn’t know what to call him. Exploiter. Charlatan. My fault, she thinks, I was taken in too.
Anne didn’t feel like getting up. Ordinarily she wouldn’t have to. The advantage of being old—not so old—and infirm—not so infirm, it comes and goes, and yesterday she was quite ambulatory. Today? Well, you never know. And she used to think MS happened only to disagreeable people.
Je suis fatiguée, she said aloud. A person gets tired doing nothing. All her fault that the world was in such disorder, her being the Savior and all and not having the energy to bother. Poor Theo. And if she wanted a cup of tea—she did—she’d have to get up and make it herself. She couldn’t abide the communal dining room. Today at least with Theo and Liza en route, she wouldn’t be bored. There might even be fireworks. Not quite Destroyer of Worlds, but still…
Of course at the moment, it was only Iraq and not the whole world we were destroying. A little more than a year of the grand experiment, to see if we could kill as many civilians as died with the bomb she had not helped to develop. Theo wrote she’d been a pacifist and she most definitely was not though she’d probably like herself better were she a good enough person to be one. At least he got the science right. Which isn’t easy.
He made you feel important, Liza accused her on the phone. No, that’s a young person’s need. He made me feel useful. There was so little pleasure left in living but she hung on. It was years since she’d had anything to contribute. It could only be greed then, plain American greed, the habit of demanding and expecting more more more.
Right now the largest possum she’s ever seen is scrambling along the wall just beyond her window. Its naked tail curls around the sickly green wrought iron that tops off the cinderblock. The advantage of a small room: you can see out the window without leaving your bed. And thank you, Mr. Possum. Today, she thinks, I don’t mind facing the wall instead of the courtyard. Something terrible has happened to the animal. It—no, he, she sees the heavy scrotum—has a bloody gouged-out area near one eye, another through the brown-gray fur at the top of its head and then she sees another on its—his, she corrects herself—flank. And the poor creature is trembling. An ugly thing really. Pink snout checking the air, naked tail curling, claws scrabbling on the wall looking like they belong on something reptilian or prehistoric, not on a creature with fur and with blood that’s all too obviously red. He sticks his head and part of his body through the fence, then changes his mind—they do have minds, they think—and slithers back to lie along the wall. A hummingbird hovers less than a foot from that snout, getting Anne’s attention but not Mr. Possum’s. At Lake Bled, with Marius—thank God Theo didn’t include Marius in the book, at Lake Bled as they took coffee on the balcony, she’d watched the hummingbirds dance among the geraniums. Marius laughed at her—large brown moths, not hummingbirds at all. There are no hummingbirds here and she lost that much respect for Europe—old Europe, as Bush would say—how can you love a continent that has no hummingbirds? “Do you object to being called possum?” she asks the creature. Oh, the dining hall. If she ate there, Meriah, the know-it-all would correct her: opossum. We who’ve lost control of our lives need to impose our will somehow, Anne thinks, but I’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime. And Liza, little Liza, coming to visit at last. On the phone, a mosquito hum of complaint vibrated beneath her words, here’s hoping she hasn’t taken after her mother. “Mr. Possum,” she asks, “are you in pain?” Does he even know he’s injured? The shaking might be a mere physiological response. I love you, ugly creature, and the stoicism of animals. In New Mexico there were prairie dogs and coyotes, but they never came right up to her doorstep like the magpies and the skunks. Out alone one night, she lay down on the breathing earth and lay so still, a marmot crept up and lay upon her breast. A marmot, mind you, hardly a totem or a power animal. Theo has brought back her past. The three-legged cat she once had, rescued after he’d been hit by a car and the shattered limb amputated, who stayed jaunty and alert and ran as fast on three legs as some on four. He jumped and hunted and seemed oblivious to the fact that in human terms he was disabled. This possum is surely the largest she’s ever seen. “Why, you look like an alligator,” she says. Dipped in glue and covered with mousy fur.
There was a time when finding a bird’s nest could take her breath away. The thrill of finding a sky-blue egg. But the child’s wonder was destructive, wanting to possess, which usually led to taking apart, smashing, crushing, opening, killing something in order to know it. Maybe that’s why scientists make their greatest discoveries when young. Even if things had been different, my best years were probably behind me, she thinks. The young. They haven’t yet developed the ethical sense, the reverence for life. If adults could only keep the child’s eyes, she thinks, but restrain the wicked hands.
The possum’s head disappears on the other side of the wall, the fat body follows, the tail, curled for one moment more around the wrought iron is the last to be seen. All that is solid melts into air. Some know-it-all she’d turned out to be, losing her security clearance for those seven words. Former colleagues afraid to be seen with her, not even returning her calls. Somehow Theo got wind of none of it.
Over the years, from time to time, there would be one of those feature articles or books, even a panel by the American Association of University Women—they, at least, should have remembered her, celebrating overlooked women of science and so many times she’d let herself think well, maybe—and she’d scan the list thinking she might be included. Nothing. Then Theo appeared.
Time to get up. Out of bed, old girl, she tells herself and laughs. She is risen!
Theo watches a very dark black man in an orange vest hoeing some mixture of asphalt and tar into a crevice in the roadway—a very useful job but how often does anyone acknowledge him? Theo says, “Thank you,” and the man looks up, surprised.
“Wouldn’t want you to trip and fall,” he says, and on the sidewalk the homeless woman with at least a dozen plastic roses blooming from her cart mutters, “He’s happy today. Look at him smiling, pleased with himself.” The workman, Theo wonders, or me?
He crosses to the park. Boys have claimed the basketball court, the Orthodox girls are nowhere to be seen. Theo scans the ground, because he remembers being three or four and how he’d found and picked up a smooth capsule-like object, a small round white thing. It was like a tiny egg with a very soft shell. It looked like a tic-tac though in those days tic-tacs perhaps did not yet exist, or at least not yet in New Zealand. The ground was littered with them. When he crushed it, the white layer broke to reveal a lively green sprout within. He’d picked up one thing after another, squeezed them between thumb and index finger, slit them open with fingernails, anxious to see if there was green inside each one. There was. He found, picked up, opened and to his great satisfaction found that green sprout again and again and then forgot all about them until one day, all grown, he remembered. Since then whenever he’s out walking, Theo looks for his little botanical tic-tacs but he’s never seen one again.
He sits on a bench, takes out his mobile, and waits for the radio interviewer to call. The BBC still rankles. On top of it all, the presenter introduced him as a “confirmed bachelor.” Eligible bachelor, if you please. He’d even harbored hope, getting out from behind the computer, he might meet someone.
Anne. He says her name aloud. Mother of the unmothered. Shelter to the dispossessed. Anne of the supernal radiance. And yet…Lie down with a dog, he thinks, get up with fleas, and he had been to bed, not literally of course, with a failure.
In the air at last Liza falls asleep. In her dream, she has her period and cannot find a bathroom. A man—sometimes Keith—reaches for her, his lips on hers, he begins to remove her clothes. Her mother interrupts before he can enter her body. She is hungry and a table is laid before her but the food snatched away before she can eat. The flight attendant wakes her, offering lunch, and Liza’s eyes fill again with tears as she says thank you.
“Are you all right?” says the woman in the seat beside her and Liza can’t make out whether she’s expressing concern or passing judgment. She reaches to her pocket for a tissue, the silk lining bunched up behind her, and hears the Velcro-rip sound of damage just made worse.
“Yes, yes, I just—”
On top of it, Liza hates to fly. Who doesn’t these days? And how can she not think of Muslim boys every time she has to board a plane? The jitters she can barely distinguish from attraction. Even Patrice, ranting as she watched the evening news had suddenly stopped, silenced, when Muammar Qaddafi appeared on-screen. Liza was so young when he was the number one enemy in the headlines. Patrice whispered, “He’s aged well.”
The woman in the next seat has a perfect manicure. French tips. So does Liza only hers are not perfect at all. She bit her fingernails as a child to keep them short for piano lessons. As an adult, she hates herself for biting not just the nails but the cuticles, too, down to the quick. It probably counts against her at work. Poor Liza, not quite put together right, and now, a laughingstock. She has always tried to do the right thing. And no one has ever looked at her like that.
Saddam wasn’t attractive, except maybe in an Anthony Quinn or Charles Bronson kind of way. And Muslims weren’t dangerous. They were innocent. Full of passion not yet expressed. They were like her and she’d thought Keith was like her too, waiting for his chance. Patrice hadn’t approved of him, but then she approved of no one. Aunt Anne always thought he seemed a bit on the pink side, “or do they say lavender these days? Not that I hold it against him.”
If he’d just come out and be gay, maybe he’d be more fun. What a pair they made, she with her chewed-up fingers, he with his shoulders slumped. They made a good living, though. No one could deny.
She asks the flight attendant for a Bloody Mary. She’ll really want a drink later, but in the assisted living, no alcohol allowed. It does seem unduly restrictive, it’s not meant to be a sober-living facility but the administration is right to be concerned what with all the medications people take. The only part that is not sensible is that Anne chooses to live in California when it’s a medical fact her symptoms worsen with the heat. Of course there’s air conditioning. And Liza does appreciate the way Los Angeles gives her someplace to look down on. Growing up in Boston, she never had the luxury of feeling superior. One looked to Europe. That summer when the little French girl came to visit? They’d had a cookout. “Is that the sauce?” Claudy asked when Liza reached for the ketchup. “Mais, non!” she’d said. How she could sit with a real French person and refer to such a plebeian concoction as sauce? Now along comes Theo thinking just because he’s been to Oxford he can take advantage. Oh, the days are past, my boy, she thinks, when an American faces Europe with humility.
But what was she, what was Keith, so afraid of? For one thing, the cold eyes at work when she raised questions about risk. Of course there were risks, that’s why there were rewards! And never say what you want, never say what you plan. If you don’t achieve it, Patrice will be there asking Why not? The assumption, always, you did something wrong. Maybe this was why people found religion a comfort. Not because you believed God loved you. With Satan, Hell, damnation, you could give the dread a name. You had rules to help you defeat it. And Theo hadn’t played by the rules. She should have hung up the phone. Instead, she’d answered his questions and he twisted her words entirely out of context. That summer in Vermont when she ran a fever and Mother put her to bed on the screen porch. The jar of dead flowers by the bedside. And when she woke, Anne was sitting beside her and the flowers all in bloom. You see, she could tell the woman sitting beside her, My mother resented Aunt Anne who never walked into the cottage without an armful of wildflowers and I’m crying because I’ve torn my jacket and because it’s easier in the long run to give my mother what she wants, always has been, and that’s why I’ve neglected my aunt. Mother stopped inviting her. She told me I bored Aunt Anne to tears, that I bothered her, kept her from her work. I knew it wasn’t true, but—
Her aunt should have been persistent. She should have reached out for me, thinks Liza, if she missed me, and she must have. I believe she did, but her aunt had no patience for sentiment. I love you, Aunt Anne, and she got in return: So you do have a heart, like an olive has a pit! When Anne’s closest friend died after what the obituary called “a long battle with cancer,” what was it she had said? I knew she was living with cancer but I didn’t know they were fighting. Her aunt was always that way: the airy unconcern, that refusal to acknowledge pain.
They land two hours behind schedule. Liza breathes, breathes again, makes the call. “Mother, I’ve just arrived. No, it doesn’t matter. We don’t see the lawyer till tomorrow.” Oh, just listen to yourself, she thought. Negativity! I could have said We are seeing the lawyer tomorrow, but with her it’s always been about don’t, can’t,no. Until now, her Yes, go see your aunt. Yes, go see my sister. All the rancor in her voice should have burned a hole right through her throat. Upset as Liza was, too, she wanted to make light: It’s a cosmic joke really, with her being an atheist. Aunt Anne with her arm full of flowers. Liza had told the writer, “I thought she’d brought them back to life.”
She flips through the book, to the pages she’d marked with sticky notes. Where was it, what that man had written about her and Aunt Anne and the resurrection of the lilies. Wildflowers, not lilies! Even the simplest facts he distorted. Instead she found, and wondered why she’d marked it:
Stephen Hawking once believed—but believes no longer—that as the universe contracted, people would grow younger. Time would reverse and all living things including us would realize the dream, disappearing back into the womb. But even Stephen Hawking can be wrong. He admits it. And so we must move forward, in stately progression, even though we now move toward the end of Time.
The sun slants through the trees dappling light on families with their picnic baskets and Theo thinks again of Shmuley, of those Sabbath dinners in Oxford, world leaders asked to share the simple meal amongst select company. Remarkable for the simplicity. Trestle tables, folding chairs, paper plates and Shmuley’s wife and the other women carrying out platters of roast chicken from the kitchen. Shmuley had a wife, put upon though she might be. Stephen Hawking who couldn’t walk or talk without the Equalizer had a wife while Theo, Theo, Theo is still alone. Still, he was invited to attend. Thrilled and honored. Not even Jewish—or anything, really, his own religious training at that time being sketchy at best—and yet he was included. Of course Shmuley was just wheeling out the Rhodes Scholars to impress Hawking, and then the other motive: You have a publishing contract? Yes, Theo did, with a NY publisher, though all costs subsidized by the 21st-Century Last Things Study Council. In those days, Shmuley’s writing circulated in newsletters and emails. Theo could not have guessed where the rebbe was headed: friends with Michael Jackson, writing a book people actually wanted to buy. Theo walks on a path beneath the magnolias. The Orthodox celebrate four New Years, he knows. Tu B’Shevat is the New Year for trees. If the year renews itself four times, what does that due to Time’s Arrow? He steps on a fallen yellow leaf expecting a satisfying crunch. It gives way, soft, as though he’s crushed a caterpillar. Shmuley wouldn’t think him worth inviting now. Theo paid his own way to New York to lunch with his editor, or rather the editor who replaced his editor. He waited at the reception area, not allowed back to her office, and he imagined word being passed down the hall—writer on board—and doors slamming closed. Dominoes falling. She picked at a salad, distracted. He, too self-conscious to eat. Well. Well. Not the right time for women in science. Feminist angle? We’ve seen too much. Yes. Well. And the religious angle. Was not what we expected. When Donna signed the contract. Donna who quit, or was let go, and went to work for Greenpeace, taking on Japanese whalers—admirable, of course—when she should have been defending him. It was Donna who suggested “Messiah” rather than “Second Coming”—more inclusive of Jewish readers. Those people, she said, buy books. No, he’d like to tell her now, they play basketball.
A pack of boys in oversize white T-shirts passes, sunglasses worn upside-down on the backs of their heads. Should he be afraid of them? He’s out of his element in this country where people lie stretched on the grass and you can’t always tell who is sunbathing and who is homeless and now a child body slams him and doesn’t even say pardon. Children run from one striped tent to another screaming Please, Mom, please! It’s a cat adoption fair and in this he sees not coincidence, but the Hand, and so he goes from tent to tent looking at torties and tabbies and calicos. Anne won’t be allowed to keep it and he certainly doesn’t want to so, inspired, he asks, “Do you have one that’s dying?” A large white man confronts him: “What are you? Some kind of Satanist?” He tries another tent and speaks to a woman who wears what appear to be rabies tags around her neck. “Have you got one that’s dying, about to be euthanized?” He ducks as her face turns so red he expects her fist. “I want to take a sweet creature no one else wants. The stone the builder rejected.” “Why?” she demands. “It’s for my aunt,” he says. “I won’t be able to take it back to New Zealand after—” He swallows hard. “—after it brightens my aunt’s last days.”
The late afternoon sun blinds Liza momentarily. She’d taken off her dark glasses when she checked in at the desk in the main house. But now she’s in the courtyard with the bees drunk on pollen and sunlight and she fumbles for the glasses as her heart speeds up a little. Aunt Anne is bound to be stubborn. She doesn’t respect me, Liza thinks, and I do still love her. You were different as a child, she’s said. Intricate. You played the piano, beautifully, with feeling. Overnight it seemed you became hardheaded and pragmatic. I discovered Ayn Rand. We all read Ayn Rand. That’s what you do when you’re young, but even then, you have to realize the only good parts are the people having sex. The prose style and the philosophy are deplorable. Deplorable. What was it with the Easleys and formal speech? We don’t talk like Americans. You spoke French, her aunt recalled. I remember you shouting out, C’est moi! Patrice taught her to say It is I. Never It’s me and how can a child go out into the world and be accepted by other children if she says It is I? Deplorable. Lamentable. Knock knock. Who’s there? C’est moi. Liza sits for a moment on a stone bench and tries to calm herself with the sound of the water plashing in the artificial pond. Yes, I enjoyed talking to him, her aunt had said. Theo speaks my language and you don’t. I could never tell anyone in the family what I was doing. You’ve never wanted to hear about my work either. You do something financial. It’s not interesting enough to understand. But Liza remembers once upon a time Aunt Anne did share her work. Subatomic particles, invisible to the naked eye. It made so much sense to a child who felt small and secret with so much going on inside her. Outwardly obedient. So much turmoil. And she imagined herself shrinking down, entering the atom, cavorting, whirling madly with the electrons.
Now she’s biting off an annoying bit of chipped and broken nail and facing the six-story building that houses the people who are not expected to ever leave their rooms on their own. Aides bring them their meals on trays. “Cell-fed,” is how Aunt Anne put it. Clinic on the ground floor. Funny how the bougainvillea has two colors on a single bush. Not so funny when she gets up, goes closer, and sees the pink turns a gingery orange as it withers. The artificial pond gives off a scummy smell. Some kind of algae or the effluvia of the carp and turtles, dozens of them, plashing and paddling, a few lying in the sun, further ornamenting the ornamental stones. Liza turns away and there’s the maze of rose bushes and bottle brush trees and jacaranda and the rows of attached one-room cottages for the ambulatory. She did a good job finding this place when it all happened so fast, Aunt Anne carried off the ship returning from Alaska, with a flare-up, an exacerbation, whatever they call it, she’d flown out at once. “You can’t live alone anymore.” In the main building, there’s the dining hall, the game room, computer room, music room. “I’m not alone,” her aunt had said. “I live with a very companionable cat.” Minou had been with her almost 17 years. Then—sad, but unavoidable. No pets allowed.
The sun reveals the dirt on the windows, like smudged fingerprints as though someone has tried to get in or, Anne thinks, this prisoner, me, was trying to claw her way out. Of course there’s the daily van for shopping—under guard—the aide who’s always alert, lifting the box of tea from her basket: Do we really want caffeine? and Anne, only occasionally defiant enough to say yes. The facility arranges excursions, hours on the bus to Vegas listening to inane chatter, Hilda in the seat beside her announcing she’d always been sickly because her nose was too big for her body. I take in so much air through my nostrils, my lungs can’t handle it. The doctors never figured it out, the word doctors said with a sneer, clearly directed at Anne. I’m not a medical doctor. I’m a Ph.D., and then of course she had to deal with that health aide, just the reverse: You claim to be a doctor but I know you’re just a Ph.D. Anyway, she’s not a gambler. Vegas. Those frightening hotels with their landscaping, flowers, tropical foliage. What poison do they use? Not a bee or bug to be seen. And stay with the group! when she wanted to tour the test site. She’s in her armchair, Theo’s book on her lap. He got the science right. Not bad for a popularizer. She thinks she couldn’t have written it. All those years teaching science at the junior college, a come-down not so much in status as in self-esteem. She was a terrible teacher. Which didn’t stop J. Edgar Hoover from investigating her course—Science and Ethics—when what the hell else can you teach girls who’ve never learned calculus? I just wasn’t any good at it, she thinks, something she has thought so many times before. But the science bits aside, Theo certainly took liberties with the truth. That one absurd sentence. Just one, but enough to make Patrice and Liza blow their gaskets. Well, why not? Her own life had changed with seven words. It took Theo—she counts them—44. It will not have escaped the reader’s notice that certain reported incidents in the life of Anne Easley strongly suggest that this humble woman, now languishing in a modest assisted living facility on the outskirts of Los Angeles, is in fact our long‑awaited Messiah. I’m not humble, she thinks, this place is hardly modest, though this room way too small for a human being with books and papers, computer, and drawers enough to hold all the damn pills. Compazine, prednisone, what else have I got in here that I avoid taking? She doesn’t dare skip the Lioresal, not with company coming and in fact she needs to get herself to the bathroom, now. Being carried off that ship! The shame of it—bladder and bowel, and the terror, her legs not working, body beyond her control. But it was the fear, not her body, that did her in. She gave up her freedom out of fear. Now she lives in a place so damn cramped, closet too small to hold the wheelchair—even folded—and the walker which thank god she rarely has to use. Fluctuations hour to hour, like the weather. Don’t even try to measure my rate of decay. Vertigo? I can take a pill or wait for it to pass. And I’m not exactly languishing. Certain reported incidents. Tony Banerji in the lab when jagged strokes of lightning cleaved the air and he saw me emanate a supernal radiance. True enough. I got him straight to the emergency room. Detached retina. So yes, I saved the sight of the about‑to‑go‑blind. My own episode of optic neuritis, she thinks, in retrospect probably the first manifestation of disease. As for the rest, she’ll have to calm Liza down. Look: it will not have escaped the reader’s notice—that’s echoes of Watson and Crick. It escaped your notice, but the whole thing is obviously a parody, a spoof. And aside from the ridiculous claim, he got almost every personal bit of it wrong. Some of which was her own fault. She flips through the pages. That bit where he has Edward Kohl saying Why would I hire a woman who won’t have sex with me? I might as well hire a man whenwhat he really said was he wouldn’t hire a woman he wasn’t interested in sleeping with. Vanity had urged her on. To avoid repeating that humiliation, she hadn’t set Theo straight. La plus ça change. In spite of the book and the bizarre claims, no one has come to her door. No phone calls, no interviews, no curiosity. No outrage, except for Patrice and Liza.
→ 2 ←
“Amber and Fur,” says Liza. “Even the title is distasteful. Vaguely S&M.” Then, when she says “Disgusting,” she knows she sounds just like her mother. What a relief the room is so cold with the A/C she can keep her jacket on. No chance the torn lining will be seen. But that shouldn’t matter here. This is Anne, not her mother. “We’re seeing the lawyer tomorrow.” She takes a sheaf of papers from her briefcase. “Letters for you to sign.”
“I’m not seeing a lawyer.” Anne thumbs through the pages. Thomas Curwen. Gina Kolata. Scientific American. The Atlantic. “You’ve left out the journals.”
“I don’t know the journals.”
“You’ll find them all around my room.” Because she kept up, exercising her mind though she hadn’t worked in years. It was her functional capacity and she had to use it, just as birds rejoiced to sing. The very first time she saw a robin pull a worm from the earth, she’d screamed with delight. There is something fulfilling when you see a creature do exactly what you’ve been prepared to know it will, by its nature, do. That might be what brought her to physics: the desire to see the invisible—the quarks and muons and all the rest—behave just as predicted. She sees Liza has left out Margaret Wertheim at the LA Weekly, not to mention K.C. Cole at the LA Times. “Do you really want me to send letters to the editor stating, Just to set the record straight, I amnot God?” She says, “Liza.” And Liza’s eyes fill with tears. “This foolishness is probably the fault of the marketing department. He’s really a sweet boy.”
“It’s just a bit of nonsense. It’s not harming anyone. Not like your president who lies to get us into war. He and the Christian Right are undermining any sort of legitimate science.”
“We’re not going to talk politics!”
“Of course not,” says Anne. If her niece is an idiot, she’d rather not know it. “Don’t forget, my relapses may be brought on by stress.”
“Anyway, he’s not my president,” says Liza.
“I’m sure you voted for him.”
“No one I know has the slightest respect for him. But he’s cutting taxes and regulations so we’ll all do well. Longterm prosperity, Aunt Anne. That’s what matters.”
To have to listen to such nonsense! Anne sighs. “This is where I could use a smoke. Of course with my luck, on my way to Golgotha, a stranger will step out of the crowd and hand me a cigarette and—damn!—menthol.” Her right leg cramps up. The damn elastic stockings. She keeps asking herself why she wears them.
“What are you talking about?”
“Golgotha.” She tries massaging the leg. “Surely you’ve heard of Golgotha.”
“Are you all right?”
If I were, would I be here? “The Stations of the Cross,” says Anne. “You really don’t know? Entirely uncontaminated by religion. My sister did one thing right.” Though they both know Patrice merely found every faith she tried way too lax. Fundamentalists, Orthodox Jews, Mormons. Never enough rules for Patrice! Besides which—no god but the mother who gave you birth!
“I have some basic knowledge,” says Liza.
“It’s actually the vinegar that interests me more,” Anne says. “Christ is carrying the cross, on his way to crucifixion on Golgotha Hill. He’s thirsty, and a man gives him to drink. But it’s not water, it’s vinegar.” This is something Anne’s always wondered about. Vinegar could be a mercy, not a cruelty. Not as pleasant to drink, but it puts an end to thirst much more effectively than water. A kindness. “Be kind and turn on the radio. It’s time for Theo.”
For a moment Liza can’t move. This is worse than she’s imagined: he’s on the air.
“Please, Liza. We’re missing the start.”
—Easley overlooked because she was a woman? I suppose I identify with her situation, being a Kiwi. From New Zealand. We, of European descent, we’re called Paheka—it means Other. While the indigenous people—Maori, you see, just means normal, ordinary. The whites may be in the majority and control the money—just as women make up the majority in this country and control the household finances—but we’re still marginalized.
Isn’t that a bit like white women saying the oppression they’ve experienced is equivalent in some way to what black folks—
We don’t call the shots anywhere in the world. Unlike the Australians, New Zealand didn’t send any soldiers to Iraq, but you see my face, my skin—It’s hard to appear to be part of the most powerful class of people in the world and actually have none—power that is.
I wonder if the Maori would agree.
To be a white male without power,
Yes, I suppose, yet when one doesn’t face a struggle over basic comfort and necessities, that’s when one feels the spiritual needs.
Who cares, Anne thinks, about New Zealand? Even now, in the interview about me, I’m not even mentioned.
Compare our national anthem to yours.
And Theo sings:
May all our wrongs, we pray, Be forgiven So that we might say long live, Aotearoa.
Anne is moved in spite of herself. We have not done penance, she thinks. She’s never gone with head bowed to Hiroshima, not that she had any part in that, but only because she was born too late.
You’ve said she fell out of history.
Yes, and it happens more easily than you might imagine. You see, it was Anne Easley who argued that the word “force”—particle physicists then referred to the “nuclear forces”—the “weak force” and the “strong force”—Dr. Easley argued that the word didn’t accurately convey what happens on the subatomic level. When she suggested, instead, the word “interaction—
—a less macho approach. Interaction not force. So gender played a role?
Or her convictions as a pacifist.
“I was not!” says Anne.
The idea caught on during the Sixties and proved to be one of those paradigm shifts that so fruitfully opens every era of scientific progress.
Now wait a minute! I interviewed Murray Gell‑Mann not long ago—for our listeners who missed that broadcast, I’m referring to the Nobel Prize laureate, Father of the Quark—and he talked about the strong nuclear force.
“A better prepared interviewer than I would have expected,” says Anne.
Yes! That’s just the point! Advances were made and then the word “force” came back into favor. The paradigm shift yielded knowledge and then was forgotten. This is how a person’s contribution becomes invisible.
Read us a bit, will you?
Of course! I did bring my reading glasses—
Anne Easley’s downfall began with a cat and a simple attempt to amuse a little Pueblo Indian girl.
Depending on cultural perspective, Los Alamos was, in those days, the end of the earth or else its very center. Sage grew low over light brown curves of landscape like body hair of the earth—
“Oh, please!” says Liza.
—and just like a body, in the intoxication brought on by desert air, the earth seemed to breathe and to sigh. At night and in the cooler afternoons, the scent of piñon smoke brought tingles to the soul. All around, indigenous people continued with their ancient rites as scientists pushed the boundaries of Man’s future.
“I think he’d sell more books if he didn’t read from it,” says Anne.
In the United States, the suppression of Native languages and culture were a part of the genocide against the First Americans. But in the magical desert of New Mexico, the drums still worked a beat beat beat to activate the white as well as Native heart. Anthropologists and artists had extolled the Pueblo way of life, and repression halted at the border of the Land of Enchantment.
Anne Easley had magic of her own.
In New Mexico she briefly feared she’d lost it. This was the woman a colleague in the lab had once described, as the reader will recall from a previous chapter, as emanating a “supernal radiance.” The woman who, as the reader has already seen, resurrected lilies for a sick—and soon to be healed—child.
“That’s enough!” says Liza.
But ever so fatefully, one night the Indian janitor’s young daughter peeked in Anne Easley’s window as the woman of science was sitting down to her solitary meal. Who is to say whether the little girl was frequently on the premises, or this was the first time, or whether merely the first time she ventured to the home of one of the great minds of science? The child of ancient lineage crossed paths with the woman—a relatively young woman then—and their eyes met. Dr. Easley’s mind instantly shuffled through the memory cards of her life and recalled her own niece Liza—
“I truly am sorry he included you, dear—”
—and how she used to amuse the girl—
“—since it’s so poorly written.”
—and so Dr. Easley spontaneously picked up her spoon, rubbed it with her napkin, and pressed the concave side against her nose. How many times had it transpired in the past that Dr. Easley and young Liza would let the spoons hang from their noses until Liza’s disapproving mother would enter the space—
Why did I ever agree to speak to him? thinks Liza.
—and the two miscreants would momentarily maintain composure only then bursting out into merriment and letting the spoons fall! But on that fateful evening in the Land of Enchantment, the spoon did not adhere to Dr. Easley’s nose. The little girl, seeing only a white woman with very bad table manners, walked on, unimpressed, never knowing her profound contribution to scientific thought, and Dr. Easley could only turn to her supper in silence.
Why why why did the damn spoon not stick? The problem preoccupied her highly evolved mind. Then, Eureka! A hypothesis! The desert air was just too dry. If she first breathed on the spoon, the condensation from her breath was all that was needed to make metal adhere to skin. But this was only a beginning.
And this was where it ended, thinks Anne.
Was she romantically involved with a member of the community?
Of course she was, thinks Anne. Lennon and McCartney didn’t invent sex, you know. We had Kinsey. We had Elvis, not to mention Margaret Meade.
Was that why she’d worn the amber necklace inherited from her grandmother?
Something worth mentioning to Liza: the Kinsey biography is full of distortion, too, sensationalized nonsense.
Anne Easley spent the night alone—except for her cat.
Yes, the affair was over. Damn you, Theo, why are you making me remember? Lying beside John in bed, just entered into the state of post‑coital intimacy, he whispered, “Anne, do you consider yourself Nobel Prize material?”Not that she’d never had the fantasy but—”If you’re not that good, go home and have babies. Science doesn’t need you.” Men! Only Marius had been different.
The feline lay in her lap. What thoughts, what dreams of fulfillment, what realities of frustration played through her mind and heart—at this time as human as yours or mine—as she stroked the pet? Static electricity tingled against her hand, and the amber pendant brushed against her fur and it was a thunderbolt. The triboelectric sequence!
Anne reaches for Liza’s hand to keep her from biting at her cuticles. How tell her how frustrated I am, stagnating here, when she means so well? An ordinary apartment, that’s all I want. I could manage with my Social Security and pension. Take my chances. A little more difficulty than here, a bit of risk, but the worst death is from boredom.
Since the Greeks we’ve known that when amber is rubbed with fur, the electrons go from the fur to the amber.
“But what does he mean ‘go’?” asks Liza.
Much more so with rabbit fur than cat. Rabbit’s fur, glass, quartz, wool, cat’s fur, silk, human hair, cotton, and so on, in sequence.
The phenomenon functions much like a magnet but without any metal. But no one has figured out how to make it useful which, in contemporary terms means how to exploit it for profit. What after all is to be made of a piece of amber that gains the property of attracting lint? Benjamin Franklin flew his kite and frictional electricity was no longer worth the bother. The triboelectric sequence fell into the dustbin of history.
As I did, thinks Anne. But not the way he tells it. She’d believed them when they told her Marius was politically suspect, that she had to stop seeing him. Oh well, a European man, he’d cheat on her sooner or later, she’d thought, but science would always be there for her. Until she became suspect too. Maybe Marius would read the book? Maybe—but if he was still alive, he was probably driving around in a sports car with a 20-year-old. She gave him up and lost her security clearance anyway. Don’t feel sorry for yourself, Anne Easley. They persecuted the Father of the Atomic Bomb, why should they show mercy to you? She’d done nothing wrong, merely followed her thought where it led: Even Einstein’s universe was a bit of a machine whereas she’d become fascinated by unpredictable change. Made the mistake of publishing her musings, first about randomness, about causality and chance, those naive little notes about particles and her doubts.
As though he’s read her mind:
What is to be done with a particle physicist who loses her faith in particles?
And Anne remembers: All the measurements and all the theories, all based on the notion of building blocks, of elementary particles, of entities so small they were indivisible. Unfortunately, they never seem to act that way. There were smaller and smaller subparticles to be found inside them. And worse, they would decay and transform, one thing apparently becoming another. Popping in and out of existence. Every notion melting away. Nothing stable. She gave her article an epigraph: All that is solid melts into air. The words she thought were Shakespeare’s turned out to be from Karl Marx.
Dr. Easley’s work was impressive, groundbreaking without a doubt, a precursor to chaos theory—
In Christian theology, “precursor” means—something Anne will not mention to Liza.
—but that’s hardly the reason we are compelled—required—to take time away from our daily pursuits and turn our hearts and minds to Dr. Easley, or why I’ll be making a pilgrimage to her side later today.
“He’s coming here?” says Liza. “Did you know he was coming here?”
→ 3 ←
He stands sweating in the doorway with a canvas tote on his shoulder, rolling luggage at his feet, cardboard box in his arms. Outside, someone is playing music. Someone is grilling meat. Late afternoon sun shoots through the trees and Liza squints. Theo doesn’t look like a fanatic. He looks, she searches for a word—fuzzy.
So this is the niece, he thinks. Dr. Easley had warned him she’d be visiting. And she is not happy about the book. “I’m afraid I’ve brought discouraging news about the ozone layer,” he says, “but Dr. Easley—”
Anne is beaming—light. The two people she loves most. Well, she does love Liza. And perhaps she shouldn’t use the word “love” for Theo, but she does care about him. Over the last three years, there’s no one she’s talked to more.
“—you look radiant!” he says.
While Liza stands there with cold gray eyes and what is she so upset about anyway? The poor boy, Anne thinks, is just trying to get by. He was never at the top of the class, and how many jobs are there in the entire world for a particle physicist? Theo’s no genius, but he’s bright enough to be passionate in his interest. Teaching high school, even college—it’s an honorable career, but no one knows better than she herself what it means when you’re in love with science. Without colleagues—especially those more brilliant than yourself, without that sort of stimulation, being in the center of it all, a part of you dies. He’d attached himself to her to stay alive.
“—and I’ve come bearing gifts from—” A helicopter overhead drowns out Theo’s voice. He thinks he should have brought something for Liza. Not that she seems easy to win over. She should be glad the general belief in publishing is that in wartime the public needs uplift. Otherwise, they would have wanted a pathography. Instead of a redeemer, her aunt would have had to be deviant. A legitimate way to get attention—perception is all about deviation from the norm—but he would never have written anything negative about Dr. Easley.
He puts down the carton and from the tote produces a bouquet of irises.
“Oh, Theo! Thank you! The vase you brought last time is in the cabinet. There.”
“And more!” he says. A bottle of wine.
“Alcohol is not permitted—” Liza says, but her aunt cuts her off, laughing.
“Liza, when he took me to dinner, he kept asking for Cab Sauv and the waiter kept bringing club soda.”
“And one gift more,” Theo says.
“Frankincense!” says Anne.
“Damn! I knew I’d forgotten something!“
“But you’ve brought the myrrh?”
“I would have done, had I any idea what it is.”
And I would save him, thinks Anne, had I any idea how.
Liza’s stomach churns. So it’s all a big joke to him, too. She doesn’t know which explanation she hates more: Theo’s book as mad delusion or as hoax. “You should know,” she says, though it might be better if he didn’t, “we’re seeing a lawyer tomorrow.”
“If I knew the person’s name, I’d cancel the appointment right now,” says Anne. And what would save Liza? Moving thousands of miles away from Patrice for starters. “Calm down, dear. Theo, meet Liza. She’s not always hostile and litigious. In fact, she’ll find the crackers in the cabinet and maybe even some cheese. The fridge is that box beneath the sink, looks like the mini-bar in a hotel room. The sight of it still fills me with hope, but, as you know—”
Theo makes do with what he finds—two juice glasses, one coffee mug—as he uncorks and pours the wine. Liza arranges cheese and crackers on a cutting board. Anne leans on her cane and as she feels the curved top fit her palm, she thinks of a shepherd’s crook and then—this will get Liza’s goat, or lamb—a bishop’s crozier. Ha! Or a vaudeville hook to pull someone—which one of them?—off the stage.
“And now my third gift!” she says.
“No! Not yet!” Suddenly Theo regrets all. He has no idea why he’s done what he’s done. Bringing her a dying animal, buying the gun. Impulse and yet— Hasn’t he done these things precisely because they make no sense? Thinking, he thinks, took him only so far. “Later,” he says, and unfolds the wheelchair waiting in the corner. He seats himself and likes the way it feels. He could be Stephen Hawking as he rolls himself over to retrieve his glass of wine: “To Dr. Easley.”
Anne lifts her glass and sips. Liza glares.
“Liza?” Why is she so difficult? Bob Dylan’s biographer years ago called him the Messiah, and then that Harvard professor wrote about alien abduction. No one was about tarring and feathering them. “Believe me,” he says, “I had no wish to cause you or your family any pain. Dr. Easley is brilliant. I’ve got the knack for explaining complex concepts simply. I thought together we—”
Liza’s eyebrows arch. “I didn’t find the science parts of your book all that easy to follow. Everything being one thing. Really? By the way, is it Dr. Carlisle?” she asks, knowing very well that it isn’t.
“If I were to take a movie of you running, and look at it frame by frame, suppose I label you Liza when your left foot is off the ground, but Hedgehog when it’s your right foot—” And on he goes when she only said it to jab at him, not to invite a lecture. “What about when you run past the frame and we can no longer measure you? Do you cease to exist? Isn’t it absurd to define you frame by frame, and just as absurd to identify the film with you? We can repeat over and over again that we’re merely tracking your movement, the traces you leave on—”
“I don’t get it,” Liza says.
“These concepts aren’t easy. That’s why I worked so hard on—”
“What I understand is that you misrepresented. You humiliated. You lied.”
Liza in her armor with torn lining. Theo of the pale lashes, his arms covered with a light coat of hair. Anne, glittery as an addict scheming for a fix.
“Not a lie, Liza. A model of reality.” Though models, he admits to himself, in being mere approximations are always lies. That’s the dilemma. “Just for example,” he tells her, “every child who grew up in the 50′s must have seen the Walt Disney image of atomic energy hundreds of times. All those ping pong balls—or maybe they were billiard balls—“Dr. Easley, do you remember?”
“Ping pong, I think.”
“So what?” says Liza.
“Lots of small white balls colliding and setting off a chain reaction and that picture of little colliding white balls is deeply embedded in each and every head of millions of people alive today, most of whom can’t even tell you what kind of ball let alone explain what it means. One must choose one’s metaphors and images very carefully. It’s what I call the tangerine quandary. In grade school, the teacher’s just finished telling the children the earth is round, and then you’re made to study a two‑dimensional map.”
“Maybe it’s a tangerine in New Zealand. I was taught an orange.” Liza, oppositional still. “If you take the peel from a round orange and flatten it, you’ve got the Mercator projection.”
Anne shakes her head over the things they tell children.
“Orange, yes. Orange is the standard, the original ideal image from which the tangerine is derived. But getting an orange peel off in a single piece suitable for flattening isn’t easy. If one believes the students will experiment, one might be advised to use the tangerine as the example.”
“I can peel a tangerine,” Liza says, “but I doubt I can flatten it out to look like a map.”
“Splendid observation!” Theo says. “So perhaps even when you admit the possibility of direct experience, you lead the children to frustration and failure. Perhaps it’s best to tell them the orange, and have them accept your way on faith.”
“They should use their imagination to picture the peel flattened.”
He stares at her because this, precisely, is the problem. How does one believe in a God one can’t see? Only through the imagination, but how is it possible to imagine a God who could turn his back on concentration camps. On Pol Pot. On AIDS. On war. On so much suffering. Invisibility, he thinks, equals impunity. For too long God has been afraid to show his face.
“The Mercator projection does not look like an orange peel,” Anne says. “Furthermore it distorts the globe and its proportions for all purposes except for navigation.”
“There’s the quandary,” Theo says. “How to teach, how to convince. One bends over backwards to make the truth accessible and what happens? People go bit by bit ever so much further astray.”
“Einstein did it all in his head, didn’t he?” says Liza. “Actually, I don’t think I can peel a tangerine in one piece either.”
“If I had one in the refrigerator,” says Anne, “we could be empirical about it.”
The world is not a tangerine, thinks Theo, but we reduce it to the peel of a fruit to understand it. Now it seems he’s failed, at least with Liza. And why? Because he didn’t want existence reduced. He wanted people to see it’s bigger, bigger by far. “I tried to explain our lives by making them bigger.”
“The evidence of things unseen,” says Anne. “We offer tangerines when what’s called for is faith.”
“And Liza’s upset because faith is what I offered,” says Theo. He’d invited people to try what he had done: surrender his rational mind in order to be receptive to—something. “Complementarity, Liza.”
“Another concept I did not understand.”
“Neither do most of the scientists who rely on it,” says Anne.
“Take incompatible premises,” says Theo. “No way to reconcile them.” You and I. “Science. Religion. You can fight over who’s right, and yet neither model accounts for all phenomena. So Bohr said, each is mutually exclusive, but the whole truth only exists when you accept both. What do you say to that, Liza? Brilliant? Or intellectually dishonest? Just a way to keep everyone happy?”
“Absolutely dishonest,” she says. “And your publisher knew it!”
“My publisher understood I was writing something rather like the Bible.”
He really is mad, she thinks.
“A book my sponsors could take literally while to the general public it would read as metaphor. Poetry.”
“But the Messiah!”
“It is a book about physics.”
“No, it’s about my aunt!”
“In particle physics, one refers to charm and color and up-quarks and down, but it doesn’t mean color or charm or direction. One assigns an old word to do a new job, to denote certain properties, or intimations of behavior. And I do admire Dr. Easley an awful lot,” he says.
“I’ll draft a document for you,” Liza says. “Just acknowledge what you’ve told us. You were paid to make this claim and you know it’s not true. Sign that. We’ll drop the lawsuit.”
“There will be no lawsuit!” says Anne.
Liza stares at him, trying to remember why she is angry. With righteous indignation. But what is righteous about it? Self-righteous, really. Why does Aunt Anne see it as a big joke while she experiences it all as shame?
The irises are in a vase, the vase still sitting in the kitchen sink, and Liza goes to the sink to get them. The flowers look like the open beaks of baby birds. There’s a fuzzy yellow stripe like a caterpillar asleep inside each petal. She forces herself to touch one and sees her aunt carrying wildflowers into the cottage. The anger she’s felt for days—is it really her own or is she merely casting a proxy vote for Patrice? What sort of person can’t tell whether she is feeling a feeling! Liza picks up the vase. “They’re beautiful,” she says. “Thank you.”
“I want my third gift now,” says Anne. “Whatever it is.”
It’s a mistake, thinks Theo, but he carries the carton to her and from it lifts the gift. Anne looks into the greenest eyes she’s ever seen before Theo lays the cat reverently on her lap.
The flowers are lovely, but Anne thinks there’s nothing more beautiful than a cat, and what’s more beautiful still, her mere presence makes him purr. He’s the perfect lap cat. No squirming, the front paws crossed neatly one over the other on her thigh, content to be with her. Thank you thank you thank you. “Does he have a name?”
“Hasn’t anyone been feeding him?” The fluffy fur hides it, but he’s scrawny. When she strokes him, he’s all skin and bones. “Sweetheart,” she says. She lifts and kisses the little black head. Oh, those green eyes. She has never seen eyes that green. Anne strokes the fur. She scratches the ears. “Liza, come pet him.” The girl grew up deprived. To Patrice, all animals are dirty.
What a shame, Liza thinks, that she won’t be allowed to keep him.
Shadows dance outside on the cinderblock wall. “We’ve got the evening wind,” says Anne. “Theo, be a dear. Turn off the A/C and open the door,” and in comes the scent of star jasmine. Birdsong. “And the windows.” An automatic garage door going up sounds like her hard drive does when she fears it’s going to crash.
Liza strokes the cat. “He isn’t moving at all,” she says. “Shouldn’t he be—?”
Anne pinches off a bit of cheese and offers it. Caesar shows no interest. “Theo, did you drug this poor creature to keep him still?”
“The cat is dying,” he says, but they don’t understand. “Caesar purrs because he thinks you can help.”
Anne’s voice comes out, hoarse. “Take this animal away from me,” which is not what the Savior would say. Not at all.
“The green eyes are too brilliant,” he says. “Cancer of the liver. Jaundice.”
“Liza, take this—”
“While I was at Oxford, my mother died,” he says. And no one moves. The cat remains on Anne’s lap. “I didn’t even know she was ill. She was buried before anyone told me.” And he’d gone to his tutor and his seminar and he walked around going through the same daily routine, wearing the same clothes, looking indistinguishable from the Theo of the day before. A person passing him on the street could not have known.
“I’m sorry,” Liza whispers.
She doesn’t understand.
“My mother,” he says. When she was gone—she was the origin, and without her, it was though his very existence was thrown into doubt. He experienced the emptiness of matter. He’d be sitting on a chair or walking down a street, and suddenly feel himself plunging through empty space, spinning in the vacuum. Lost in the absence between atoms.
“All that is solid melts into air,” he says. I’m not crazy, he thinks. I am not mad. “I discovered your notes, Dr. Easley, and I felt not just reconciled, but emboldened.” He’d gone down to London and walked and walked and realized he had no way of knowing what was carried in the hearts of the people he passed. Any one of them might carry some terrible secret grief. They all looked so fragile then, like little bits of vivified matter trying to stand their ground against the void. His mother’s death had taught him this and so he treated people more gently. For a while. It wore off, as it would have to do. “I met you. A simple glance at you does not reveal your radiance. And I thought for the first time, what if someone among us carries not pain but a secret hidden glory? What if we must treat each and every person as if he or she is the One?”
“Each and every person, Theo,” says Anne. “You as much as I.”
“No,” he says. It was her vision: interaction, not force; unity, not broken discontinuities. Her supernal radiance, the flowers. “What if you are?” he asks. “I mean, of course, you aren’t, but—”
“Theo,” she says.
“You refused to develop weapons!”
“Oh, please. I was a mindless little patriot. If you’d known me—It just happens that curiosity led me in another direction. Just as your curiosity led to the book.”
“It led you to the Truth,” he says.
“To a hypothesis. And what you’ve written about me is not true.”
He hadn’t really believed it—had he?, but given the world they lived in, was it so wrong to long for the advent of the Prince of Peace? Hope may be as difficult to sustain as grief but surely, he thinks, they sustain each other.
Theo closes the door. Locks it. With the A/C turned off, it’s already hot in the room, the sun still filtering through dusty glass as he tries to remember what the gun in his luggage has to do with compassion.
“Sometimes I can’t bear what I see,” he says. He crouches by his carry-on and unzips the pouch. He tries to look into Anne’s eyes but his own eyes blur a moment and then he takes out the gun. “If God were here, in human form,” he says, “I would hold this gun to His head.”
The steel feels so cold in his hand, as if refrigerated. For a moment he believes he’s holding the gun to give it comfort, to warm it. He thinks of all the sensationalized crimes of passion, the woman saying Yes, I had the gun, but I never meant to use it. How false her words, her bewilderment always sounded, until now.
Liza, breathe in, breathe out, keeps her eyes on him as he imagines firing into his own head, the bullet flying between the atoms, missing every bit of matter, as Anne thinks, yes, it was always clear I moved into this room to die. She says, “Is that thing loaded?”
“Only one chamber,” he says and still can’t imagine how he got here. He has made himself a vacuum in order to be filled and then the words come: “It’s a tangerine.”
“Mais non,” says Anne and then, to Liza’s horror, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”
No, he thinks, tangerine is an excuse, an explanation, a way to stop this from going further. And so he talks of accidents, contingencies. Things that occur that need not have occurred. “Oxford is done for me. The book’s a failure. I’ll never write another. There’s nothing left but to teach schoolchildren.” He talks of predictions, trajectories, the unique structural signature of the barrel. The six chambers. “A lesson in probability,” he says.
Liza can’t stop herself: “You’re not actually planning to take that into a classroom.”
“Just to get their attention,” he says. “If I spin it, point it— Am I more likely to fire if it’s pointed like this—” He aims the gun at Liza. “Or like this?” He holds the gun to his own skull. Lowers it. “It may only appear that I have a choice.” He shoves the barrel into his mouth. Then removes it because if everything is one, what does it matter that his mother’s dead? “The shallowness of contemporary life,” he says, because Anne, only Anne can understand him, but he doesn’t complete the thought, unable to criticize the shallow earth she’s come to save.
“I demand a sign,” he says. “Reveal yourself.” His mind has gone somewhere it ought never to have gone. “Save the cat,” he says.
She can’t speak. She cannot enter his delusion. She feels the warmth beneath her hand, the electric purr.
“What are you afraid of, Dr. Easley? It can be a bitter cup, but you mustn’t draw back. When you were a child, didn’t you know you had a mission here on earth?”
Yes, and all children do, she thinks, Liza, and Theo, too.
“You withdrew from the world. You abandoned us. But you can’t keep yourself remote from the suffering. You can’t ignore this creature before you.” He has risked everything and for nothing unless he can force her out of hiding. “Show your face. Your power.”
Anne strokes the black fur and says, “I have no power. Liza, please. Get this animal away from me.”
“Unleash it,” he says to Anne. “Like the atom. The world is going to hell and you won’t even try! You—could—make—things—change.” He holds the gun to Anne’s head and says, “I anointed you.”
Anne pushes Caesar off her lap. The cat lands with a soft mewling cry and a thud.
He says, “I believed you could stop me.”
“Theo,” cries Liza, “you wrote a really good book.”
He could kill her for that. He fires.
The room shakes as Anne pitches forward from her chair. Legs numb, she falls.
On the floor, she gathers to her lap the ruined body of the cat and Theo is frozen a moment by the sight—the Pietà—before he runs.
“We should call the police,” says Liza.
“No! Treat him gently.” Is he dangerous? Anne can’t predict. Out the window, on the cinderblock wall, she sees a large mouse-colored head come out from between the painted wrought-iron spikes. A naked tail curls among the morning glory vines. Remarkable creature and Theo is every bit as remarkable. Iliked him, she thinks. I still like him.
“Why isn’t anyone coming?” Liza says. “I thought this place took good care of you. They must have heard the shot.” They listen for sirens. A dog barks in the distance. A car alarm.
In the courtyard, Theo drops the gun into the artificial pond, startling a turtle that drags itself up upon a rock. He sees the jewel-like colors as it stretches out its neck to lay its head on another’s sun-warmed shell. He sits on the bench and waits for the police but no one comes. Where will I go now? Where will I lay my head?
Liza is trembling, exhilarated and terrified. Just don’t let Patrice find out. She’s had a gun aimed at her head and the worst of it is she’s more afraid of what her mother will say. How ridiculous. Liza starts to laugh. Her aunt is making sounds, choking, stifled. Liza helps her to her feet. There’s feline blood now on her St. John suit, and her aunt is laughing and holding up her hands: “Theo left too soon,” she says. “The stigmata!”
Anne sways her way to the bedside table where Liza left Amber and Fur. “You should have had him sign your copy.” She carefully opens the cover, presses her bloody palm print on the title page. “There. Patrice can put it up on Ebay.” She makes a joke of everything. She starts to cry.
Liza wants to go to her and hold her. Instead she gets the basin and a towel and washes the blood from her aunt’s hands. She could be cleaning Victoria’s sticky fingers, or murmuring the way she once did to calm Minou, when she held the cat to keep it from squirming as her aunt clipped its nails. She feels sick with dread, not at the blood, but the memory of how her own child’s dirty fingers had repelled her. She’s dizzy for a moment with longing—for Victoria, for Keith.
If an extraterrestrial were regarding us from outer space, Anne thinks, would we be tiny dots, or a barely detectable shift in energy?
He had asked her: “Do you believe in extraterrestrials, Dr. Easley?”
She’d answered: “Do you?”
“I want to,” he said. “I need to believe that somewhere in the universe there’s something better than us.”
“You have a car,” Anne says. “Let’s go out to dinner. Somewhere nice.”
No feelings, Liza thinks. And she’s the good sister. “I have the Zagat guide,” she says.
Anne thinks if I had the power, I would have saved him. She thinks of all the medical tests she’s been through, all the X-Rays, all the imaging, and yet no one has ever seen inside her.
“Come to Boston,” Liza says.
“Tomorrow I want to look for an apartment. Not in Boston. Here.”
“For a visit.” Liza studies her aunt’s fingernails, short and unpolished, almost unnaturally even. “I want Victoria to know you.”
Seven years of suspended animation, thinks Anne, passed now in a flash. What a sad old marvelous world it is and now she’s going to see more of it, free to stumble as she makes unsteady progress to the end.
“We’ll find you an apartment before we go to Boston,” says Liza, “A landlord who allows cats.”
Theo’s gift: this unforeseen result.
“Thank God,” says Anne. “In a manner of speaking, of course.”
–By Diane Lefer
See Diane’s nonfiction at LA Progressive. She is an associated artist with ImaginAction. See her on Cynthia Newberry Martin’s blog Catching Days, and an interview in Taco.
This is a gorgeous, heartbreaking nonfiction piece by my former student and Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate Natalia Sarkissian. Read it, admire it, and send her your thoughts and best wishes.
Thanks for your email. You ask about Milan. What it’s like living here. You ask for descriptions, for photos…. Enclosed please find my views :
“Duomo” means cathedral.
A Gothic version wrought with grimacing monsters presides in central Milan. Recently renovated, the marble shines a bright white in direct sunlight, blushes at dawn, or grows ruddy in the gloaming of nightfall.
Pickpockets roam the piazza spread out like a large, bumpy placemat beneath the Duomo. Their glittery black eyes home in on the naïve tourist. Hand to your pocket, or arm firmly over purse, please. You have treasures to lose.
Merchandisers sell Inter, Milan, Juve soccer scarves—blue&black, red&black, white&black—from small wooden kiosks; marketers ring the perimeter with fluorescent neon in pink and blue that exhorts purchases of Gucci, Prada, Sony. Close your eyes to (un)subliminal messaging. Times are tough. Save your dough.
Pigeons squat on the equestrian bronze of King Vittorio Emanuele. White streaks drip from his greened shoulders. Hurry past, head hunkered down.
Seven o’clock shadows lengthen and grow violet while the sun sinks. Cut across the cobblestones of the piazza, wind through pickpockets, tourists, merchandisers, marketers, and pigeons. Climb the steps, enter the Duomo through tall bronze doors, choose the side altar where the Renaissance panel of the Virgin and her Son hangs. Light a candle below the image. Kneel. Even if you’re not Catholic, even if you’re not religious.
The smoky sputter of burning wax. The golden light ringing bowed heads like glowing halos. The sting of incense wafting from the main altar—hundreds of yards away—where evening mass reaches a crescendo. The intonation of millions of prayers, seven hundred years’ worth, reverberates in the cavernous, vibrating enclave.
You listen, knees against the stool, fingers laced together on the rail.
Dive in, again today, as you have every day since disaster struck. Add to the swirling mix.
When you finish, fall back into your wooden pew.
You remember that John Ruskin hated the aesthetics of this place. That Oscar Wilde called it monstrous in taste. But that Mark Twain, like you, scoured the thousands of niches decorated with statues of saints, and bugs and birds, and all of nature, and knew here, in the Duomo, he wasn’t alone.
“Salsamenteria” means Sauce-eria.
A new one, near the recently-opened Abercrombie and Fitch, waylays the hungry in a narrow street not far from the Duomo. Salt-cured pig haunches hang from hooks on the walls and rafters in the ceiling. Brown paper mats plaster square oak tables. Kegs of cheaper wine sprawl on a hutch to the left of the bar, bottles of finer wine march across a shelf.
Study the menu taped to the window.
Coppa, it says. Prosciutto, Culatello di Zibello. Tortellini, Ravioli. Lambrusco. Bardolino. DOP–the best of the best. 5 Euros. 6 Euros. 10 Euros. 3.5 Euros. 2 Euros. 4 Euros. 3.9 Euros. Eat. You need to eat. Mangia. Mangia. Keep your strength up.
Take a break from your vigil. Enter. Choose a table for one near the door.
Black eyes, black hair, brown skin. The waitress from Kenya, poised to serve. Pencil on pad.
Order a sandwich. Select some wine.
Pink slabs fall from thick slices of peasant bread. Green sauce—made from parsley, capers, oil and anchovies—glistens in a finger bowl on the middle of your table. Unkegged Bardolino fizzes in the white ceramic bowl the graceful Kenyan girl serves it in.
Dip your sandwich into the oily green, slurp the slick red.
Forget while you eat and drink. Listen to the clinking in the kitchen, the tap of forks against ceramic plates. Watch the girl glide and whirl.
And when wine splats on your blouse like blood (drops of crimson on white gauze) blot and wipe in the room with the skirted stick figure on the door.
Hurry out to evening mass at the Duomo.
“Ca’Granda Policlinico” means Hospital.
Designed in the Renaissance by Filarete, the Florentine, with perfect courtyards, graceful loggias and brick fretwork, the first Ca’Granda is where the ill of the city was nursed back to health. Now university students occupy Filarete’s harmonic spaces, while the Ca’Granda has migrated across the street to become the Ca’Granda Policlinico and occupy dozens of buildings of eclectic styles and dubious periods.
Rush your teenage boy here one ill-fated Monday. See how he is classified code red.
Tell the doctors: He’s healthy. Nothing like this has ever happened before.
Tell the doctors: His heart’s fine. But then listen to it beat 200 times a minute.
Wait, sitting on linoleum lit by neon.
An orderly changes rumpled blue sheets on an abandoned gurney. An infant, red with fever, cries in its father’s arms. A small pink girl in a wheelchair, her broken wrist held to her chest, fusses at her gold-jewelry-laden-black-leather-jacketed mother. And a blond boy lies down the hall, behind closed doors, in intensive care, monitors hooked to his chest and fingers.
Wait, sitting on linoleum lit by neon.
Relatives of the injured arrive. One, with stiff gray hair and sturdy brown pumps, holds the infant so his father can go to the men’s room. The pink girl’s burly grandfather bellows into his cellphone. The mother in black and gold lights a cigarette beyond sliding glass. Soon, her exhaust curls up through the night.
Your husband calls. He’s home, caring for your youngest. How is our boy? He asks.
Ask a nurse, How is my boy?
Then wait, sitting on linoleum lit by neon.
“Parco” means park.
A nineteenth-century park—the parco Sempione—sprawls around the Castello Sforzesco, the imposing castle that was built in the early Renaissance where Leonardo da Vinci frescoed rooms for Ludovico il Moro. The parco encompasses the Triennale Art Museum too, and DeChirico’s beach house sculpture.
On sunny autumn afternoons boys bring their dogs to the happy corners of Parco Sempione and run. Disks of red plastic spin through the air, dogs fetch, their pink tongues curling and flapping.
Don’t worry about curbing your dog here—no one does. But check your shoes—wipe them on the graveled walkways—when you quit the grass.
On sunny autumn afternoons boys play soccer on the grassy knolls of Parco Sempione. Under the elm, off to the side. And here, one boy, a teenage boy with blue eyes and a chipped front tooth who plays soccer in autumn crumples one graying afternoon. His chest thumps at two hundred beats a minute—like a golden hummingbird’s—while the parco fades into black.
Call 118 when this happens. Climb into the wailing vehicle. Bump over old, winding streets, ancient alleys, circular passageways, through centuries of urban sprawl and nonexistent urban planning. At rush hour.
Say faster, please faster, as you watch your boy’s lips turn blue.
Hold his hand, whisper a prayer when you see his eyelids twitch.
Plan to light a candle at the Duomo every evening until he wakes.
It’s a pleasure to introduce Stephen Henighan (pictured above in Cairo in August for the feast of Ramadan) to the pages of Numéro Cinq. Stephen is a prolific author, world-traveler, critic, translator and polemicist, a man who lives by his words or in his words. I put him in Best Canadian Stories when I edited that annual anthology. That’s what I think of his writing. Over the years his commentaries on Canadian literature and writers have been acute and revelatory. You should look him up. This story was previously published in the venerable Canadian literary magazine Grain.
AFTER THE HURRICANE
By Stephen Henighan
For thirteen hours, from the time the plane lifted off from London, crossed the Atlantic, landed at St. John’s, Antigua, then travelled the final hour over the Lesser Antilles –visible out the window as a trail of dark green bloodspots flowering on the translucent pale-blue slab of the sea– up to the instant they landed at the little Cuban-built airport with a bump that woke the passengers who had lapsed into an alcoholic stupor, Philip waited for Doreen to speak. She had uttered her last words in the departure lounge. When a flight attendant brought in the barrell kids –small children going home to visit their families, their names written on bibs that hung across the fronts of their pink pinafores and white dress shirts– Doreen exclaimed: “That was me! I grew up travelling like that. Except for me it was between Toronto and Jamaica.”
She remained silent as they picked up their luggage from the carousel and found their way outside where a beaming German couple held up a sign that said Philip & Doreen. “Mitzi,” said the attractive wife, who looked older than her wiry husband. “This is Fred.” She smiled. “When people book on line, you never know what to expect.”
Doreen met his eyes.
They knew this reaction: the exuberance that camouflaged nervousness when people were uncertain how to respond to an interracial couple. As they climbed into the back seat of Fred and Mitzi’s jeep, Philip sensed Doreen’s disappointment.
The vacation had been her idea. She had persuaded him months ago, when they had realized that their business trips to England would overlap, that they should take advantage of the cheap deals available from London. She had overcome his resistance to package vacations by finding an on-line offer for a remote lodge: three holiday cabins on an isolated point overlooking a tiny bay on the island’s southeast shore. With the bright-eyed girlishness she revved up whenever she was openly trying to twist his arm, Doreen enumerated the advantages: the private beach; the outside world accessible only via a forty-five-minute vertical hike up the coastal mountains to the highway; a stash of tinned food strongly recommended; free airport pickup; a low price for a week’s accommodation on the condition that they tell their friends about the place when they got home.
He dozed against the door as warm air flooded the jeep. Fred was driving through deep gulleys where a dozen shades of green vied for the sunlight. Tall, droop-leafed coffee plants grew close to the road. As they climbed, houses on stilts bobbed up above the vegetation at the tops of the ridges like gravity-defying cubicles rising towards heaven.