Jan 042014
 

Dad photo

“Saltwater Cowboy” is a sharply perceived portrait of an extraordinary father, a man who served in the Navy, served on ships, all his life and left his son an indelible image of competence, courage, devotion and panache. Joe Milan lives in South Korea; this is his second contribution to NC. It’s a wonderful addition to our growing collection of fatherhood texts (we have a series of set essay topics — see them all here at Numéro Cinq Anthologies).

dg

My father said his life started at nineteen, the moment he decided to join the Navy. On a muggy August afternoon, he was sharing a bottle of Jack Daniels on a porch with a guy everyone called Bud. About halfway down the bottle my father blurted out, “Let’s go join the Navy.” They roared down the country roads in my father’s 60’s Datsun truck with holes in the floorboard, over the low hills of houses and trees where there are no dogs – only hounds, between the square plots of soybean and cotton, and into town to the recruiting office.

The recruiter showed pictures of girls and oceans and beaches and elephants of the Pacific and had them take the test and sign the papers. Two days later, after his family disapproved and said they wouldn’t let him go – “try to stop me” – my father and Bud were on a bus to Chicago and boot camp. They stayed the night in a motel along the way, and in the morning when my father woke, Bud was gone. Bud went home.

My father always left out everything that happened before that moment on the porch. For me, scraping the memories for stories my father told me when he had too much to drink, the moment my father’s life truly started was in a break room in a factory. After dropping out of high school, he worked at a rubber plant, constantly bombarded by chemical dust that stuck to his skin like paint. Once in the break room during lunch, a co-worker, who had lived his entire life in town working at the rubber factory, stood by the punch clock for a long moment. He looked around the room at the men in overalls, then down at his timecard. He muttered and then dropped to the tile floor, dead. Stroke.

* * *

Bedtime stories for me were Navy stories. Often they started when I asked about his tattoos, the cross anchors on his hands, the ships at full sail and winking girls in scanty sailor uniforms on his arms and shoulders. “Well, I got this one when we were pulling liberty in…” I heard about Singapore, Subic, Perth, Bangkok, well before Washington DC or New York. Every room was smoky. Dust trailed the speeding jeepnies and tuk tuks. Gun shots rang off in the distance. Men with names like Dirty Dan, The Fighting CB, and Matta gulped burning whisky and broke the empties on the dirt road and howled at the sky. Men fought over pool games and threw each other out of windows that had already lost their panes.

“Why, Dad?”

“That’s what young men do, have a good time,” he said. “It was fast living, boy. Real fast.”

My father, adventuring through these places, was as mythical to me as a Hollywood cowboy. And like a cowboy, he told me about vastness of space – blue fields of ocean instead of the prairie. The ocean could be as still one moment and stampeding over the deck the next. My father lived in the thick of dangerous waters and tumultuous towns.

At work

If my father had faith in anything, it was that he could handle ships. There could be a twenty-knot wind out of the west, the port engine could die on the ship, the navigator could panic since the pier cleats weren’t where they were marked on the chart, and my father, looking out the window, could drive an eleven hundred foot carrier along the pier softly. “It’s what I do,” he would say. Within ten years of joining the navy, he had moved up the ranks from a sailor mop jockeying on the deck to a harbor pilot who docked ships into port and sent them out to sea.

Sometimes, when I was about ten, my father brought me to work. I rode the tugboats that dropped him off on Trident Submarines that he guided out into the dark tree-lined fjord of Puget Sound. When the job was done, the tugboat would come alongside the moving submarine and he would jump, without a lifejacket, back onto the tug as if it were nothing. As if one slip couldn’t send him under the icy water and the wake couldn’t suck him under to the propellers.

On the way back, my father would ask the tug captain if they’d let me on the wheel. I never wanted to be on the wheel. But soon I was grasping onto the wood handles, trying to not to hold my breath, steering the boat. “Just follow the wake of the other tugs,” he would tell me.

Advice from my father was always the same. On jumping from the high dive, “Just jump. Just go and do it.” On going to college, “Make it happen. Go and do it.” On becoming a writer, “Well, go and do it. Write.” Sometimes he added, “The worst thing you can do is overthink it, boy. Educated people sit around asking why the wind is blowing you toward the rocks. You don’t have time to ask. You just look out the window and react. Make a decision. Life doesn’t have time for you to worry it right. You just go out and do it.”

* * *

When my father retired from the Navy they gave him a party, a handshake and a shadow box filled with his service ribbons and brass plates recounting my father’s time in navy, most of it as a pilot. Piloting was what he wanted to do again. He studied charts, took tests and improved his maritime licenses. He applied for piloting jobs and flew out to Florida and Virginia for interviews. Each time he came back disappointed. And so we stayed near Seattle, not far from my father’s last duty station. Waiting, my father worked part time jobs, as a captain or a mate on ferries, tugboats, and science ships in the icy waters of the Northwest. There were a lot of days he didn’t work. On those days with a coffee in hand, he sat on the porch and watched the neighbor’s cat hunker behind the cul de sac sign and take a dump.

That’s also when people my father knew started dying. Bud was first, lung cancer. My uncle, my father’s brother, cancer. That one startles me even today. For the first and only time in my life I saw my father cry. After he hung up the phone, he clung onto my mother and me in the dark end of the hallway of our house. His face was hot and he heaved for air. My uncle died at fifty-four.

After eight years of trying, and waiting, he became a pilot again in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was an October evening in 2003, after docking a couple of ships my father came home and had his first heart attack. On the phone he talked about his cholesterol levels as he would with tide tables or how much draft a ship had. Only when he had a physical would he signal his worry with a sigh and a “I gotta go, boy.” On the next call, “Boy, have a drink on me. The doctor said I’m in better shape then those twenty year old skulls on the ships I pilot.”

My parents came to see me in Korea to find me battered in the hospital. I had flown off a mountain bike crashed into a tree leaving my chest and spine a tangled mess of rattling broken bones to be fastened back together with bolts and plates of titanium, and someone else’s bones. The doctors told me I was lucky and I was: I would walk. I was alive. My father sat next to my bed, quietly rubbing the tattooed cross anchors on the back of his hand. Finally, he struggled out, “Sometimes a man has to know his limitations.” A line from Dirty Harry.

Rope ladder

* * *

After my parents separated, my father told me about a dream he kept having about a ship he had served on before he became a pilot. My father had taken the old and mothballed ship out to be sunk for target practice. The ship went down, then his shipmates from my bedtime stories – the same ones from that very ship – started dying. Diabetes. Suicide. Heart attack. It wasn’t just his old shipmates. A pilot from a nearby port in Hawaii fell off a rope ladder while boarding a ship and was sucked under the waves. My father started wearing life jackets. My father hated life jackets.

“I keep seeing it,” he told me over the phone, “just like it was after we had hung off the sides and painted it. I’m there on the pier with my sea bag over my shoulder and I’m about to go up the gangway and the old chief stops me. ‘Sorry boats, Milan,’ he tells me, ‘not your time.’ I can see them, my shipmates, hollering at the seamen, getting them heaving on the lines, the boatswain whistles blowing. Then I see them all go, steaming away, leaving me alone on the pier with the seagulls dropping clams.”

Then came the skin cancer. Small spots like freckles on his bald head got radiated, leaving little pink scars. It also had burrowed into his ear canal. The doctors took it all out and covered his earhole with a flap of skin from his leg. “They might take my job from me. Might say they I’m not fit to pilot,” My father worried over the phone. I told him if that happened, we’d just open a bar in the Philippines and drink cheap wine. “I wouldn’t survive a week.”

The last time I visited him in Hawaii, we went shopping at a maritime store for fishing caps to keep the sun off his head. He would try a hat on and look at the mirror, shake his head and put it back. I said that we could get a sombrero. He could be the Mariachi Pilot. Then I asked him, “Do you feel like you’ve lost something? Like you’ve lost a bit of breath?”

 He caught me off guard. “I don’t know, I guess. It’s like I lost something I can never have back.” He picked up a yellow fishing cap and looked in the mirror. He looked pale. He looked scared.

* * *

In college, I worked in film production. After the movie sets were torn down, when the only remains of the spectacle were naked concrete and traces of sawdust and sand, I’d always get a feeling that I was tiny and couldn’t say where the props had really been. I got that same feeling at my father’s memorial. There was a photo of my father from the bridge wing of a ship, grinning while looking down at the camera. He looked so happy. Yet, before I noticed the grin, I saw the life jacket.

One day I sat down at my desk and wrote this:

As the last hours of streetlight sliced through the blinds, my father stared up at the ceiling. Old photos in clean picture frames look out from the shelves. His shadow box is gathering dust. After a few sips of Kona decaf coffee, he sat and took his blood pressure. The machine groaned and tightened. It beeps and he wished he could still hear it without the muffle. The numbers say it’s a little low.

The harbor’s July air is thick and full of salt and diesel exhaust. The roads were still black from the morning mists. The waters rippled off the piers and the docked ships. From the wheelhouse of the tugboat steaming through the channel toward the job, my father didn’t notice the Arizona memorial raising its flag above the sunken hulk. His thoughts were on the job, and the depths of the harbor, the draft of the ship, and the breeze from the northeast. 

A cargo ship deep in West Loach waited for him. It was a complicated job that would need all his focus. His strategy is to pull the ship from the pier with tugs, back slow and turn the ship 90 degrees, using the tugs, avoiding the other ships and the unseen shallows. Once the ship was in the channel he could drive the ship past the last turn and out to sea. The job was like moving a semi-truck  out of a full parking lot, on ice, without brakes, with ball bearings instead of wheels, and little go carts pushing the trailer to keep it between the lines.

As he climbed the rope ladder to the access hatch in the wall of the gray hull, he clenched his teeth. Men can fall off into the green abyss. Big ships like this give men heartburn. They can smash into the pier or run aground. Lines from the tugs could part and whip back onto the deck. Anything can go wrong; everything can go wrong.

The sun broke through the clouds and it was hot under his life jacket.

 On the bridge, my father smiled, and shook the captain’s hand. Harbor Pilots are faces of calm. The ship’s engines hummed and the crew checked the computer screens and hustled the lines. From the bridge wing, the tugs were small, as if they hadn’t grown up yet. He swallowed, keeping in the tension, focusing on the images burned in his mind of where and when each movement would begin and end.

The tugs heaved and the ship growled and shuddered as propellers started backing. Coffee brown silt swelled up staining the water. The ship had a deep draft and the bottom wasn’t much deeper. Lines moaned, water churned, radios crackled, my father’s forehead beaded with sweat. There was a knot twisting and tightening inside him.

For an hour my father crisscrossed from the port bridge wing to the starboard and back again, gauging distances, calling corrections to conn, and to the tugs. He fought sudden breezes, the ever-changing depths, the weariness of his body. Then finally, it happened. They cleared the tight loach and were moving toward the channel to the last turn and the ocean.

With the job essentially done, he looked down from the bridge, past the anchor winches and the stanchions of the deck to the dark green water just ahead. This is when he would laugh. A country boy from the fields of Tennessee had moved a mountain of steel.

But as the adrenaline faded, he didn’t laugh. When the ship made its last turn at Whiskey point, the point where the harbor opens up to the unending field of green then blue water of the Pacific, where the white caps clapped all the way to the line where the water splits with the cloud splattered sky, he looked up and knew he had gotten the ship out safely. And that was it.

Whiskey PointThe approach to Whiskey Point

—Joe Milan

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Joe Milan 3

Joe Milan has spent nearly a third of his life traveling and living outside the borders of the USA; his most recent landing is in Seoul where he writes and teaches at the Catholic University of Korea. He is a recent graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program.

Aug 112013
 

Jungle GirlJungle Girl: The author, age 5

One of NC’s Saskatchewan stalwarts, Byrna Barclay, sent in these nuggets that tell us you don’t have to write a tome to make an impact, to have panache and éclat. Here we have a photo of the author taken in a studio when she was five, the author’s delightful one-paragraph micromemoir of same, and a snippet from a novel-in-progress based on the incident. We meet the author, the author’s fictional alter ego, Annika Robin, and the amazing Grandmunch, the reallife and fictional Jesse Emma, grandmother extraordinaire.

The fictional fragment is taken from House of the White Elephant, the last of the series of Barclay’s Livelong Quartet (Summer of the Hungry Pup, The Last Echo, and Winter of the White Wolf have already published by NeWest Press in Edmonton).

dg

Memoir

When I had measles my teacher mother sent me to my grandmother, affectionately known as Grandmunch.  The daughter of a Judge and graduate of the Sorbonne, she had lived through two world wars, lost her husband and son, and survived the Depression by bartering her music — lessons in ballet, violin, piano, and elocution — for eggs, butter, chickens, whatever the parents could spare.  To commemorate my visit she took me to James Studio, stood me on a black box, draped the leopard skin she had brought from India over me, then dashed out to the green grocer to buy a banana to place in my hand. Just when the photographer, whose head had disappeared under a black cloth, took the photo the skin slipped and I gasped.  Jesse Emma chose that photo and had it air brushed to hide the exposed part of me.  Oh yes, even the frame was hand-carved in India at the turn of the 20th C.

—Byrna Barclay

 

The Jungle Girl

How well Jesse remembers the day she took Annika Robin down Central Avenue to James Studio.  She removed her clothes and stood her on a box covered with a black velvet cloth.  She draped her own mother’s leopard skin over Robin’s shoulders, but had nothing to fasten it.  She let down the child’s braids, and with her strong piano-fingers messed up her white-blonde hair til it was wild and tossed raggedly about her shoulders.  She stood back, like an artist with a vision yet to be drawn on blank canvas.  Something vital was missing; it lack the full effect Jesse sought.

She dashed out and down the street to the green grocer’s and returned with an overly ripe, motley banana that looked more like a plantain.  She thrust it into Robin’s right hand.  Perfect.  The photographer ducked his head under the black hood on the free-standing camera.  Just as the shutter clicked the pelt slipped and Robin gasped and bit her bottom lip, which gave her an impish expression in the photograph.  Never mind, the photographer said, he would air-brush the portrait, creating a shadow on the inside of the child’s thighs to hide her private parts.

When Jesse gave a copy to Linnaea, the loony Swede didn’t like it and was furious with Jesse: What are you trying to do? 

The portrait took Jesse Emma back to her own childhood in Calcutta, to stories her mother had told her about white girls lost in the jungle and raised by apes or elephants or Bengal tigers, tales that Jesse hoped would delight fanciful Robin who played Tarzan & Jane among the elms hand-planted along the bank of the North Saskatchewan River.

Excerpt from House of the White Elephant — Byrna Barclay

 

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Byrna Barclay

Byrna Barclay has published three in a series of novels known as The Livelong Quartet, three collections of short stories, the most recent being Girl at the Window, and a hybrid, searching for the nude in the landscape. Her many awards include The Saskatchewan Culture and Youth First Novel Award, SBA Best Fiction Award, and City of Regina Award,  YMCA Woman of the Year, CMHA National Distinguished Service Award, SWG Volunteer Award, Sask. Culture Award, and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit.  In 2010 she published her 9th book, The Forest Horses, which was nominated for Best Fiction for the Saskatchewan Book Awards.  Her poetic drama, The Room With Five Walls: The Trials of Victor Hoffman, an exploration of the Shell Lake Massacre, won the City of Regina Award.  She has been president of SWG twice, President of Sask. Book Awards, and Fiction Editor of GRAIN magazine.  A strong advocate for Mental Health as well as the arts, she served as President of CMHA, Saskatchewan, was the founding Chair of the Minister’s Advisory Council on Mental Health, and for twenty years was the Editor-in-chief of TRANSITION magazine.  Vice-chair of the Saskatchewan Arts Board from 1982-1989, she is currrently the Chair. Mother of actor Julianna Barclay, she lives in Regina.

May 122013
 

robert_day_baby

      

My mother always wanted to live in a French Provincial house–but the house she imagined was in Fairway Manor, Kansas not in rural France.  And her idea of “French Provincial” was not a southwest peasant Perigord but a Midwest suburban ranch.  A shake shingle roof, wide soffits, and something called “weeping mortar” could turn a Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie House  into a domesticated Mansard.  Decorate the inside in late fifties chartreuse drapes and upholstery, put identical lamps on identical tables on either side of a three cushion couch (with a matching “coffee table” in front–on which you never had coffee, and in a living room in which you did not live), and you were in my mother’s Midi.

“I don’t know why you have to leave America,” my mother said when I told her I planned to settle in France.  “How am I going to call you if I need you?”  We are sitting (for once) at my mother’s coffee table.  I have come on a surprise visit over a May weekend that has lifted the ban on the living room.

“I’ll write out all the numbers.”

“They’ll be in French,” my mother said.

“French numbers and America numbers are the same,” I said.

“You’re talking,” she said.  My mother had a way of teasing me that I was never sure about.

“I’ll call you,” I said.

“I’ll be here,” my mother had said.  “But write me as well. You can’t reread a phone call.”

“Yes, mother.”

“Do you speak French?”

“Un petit peu.”

“What does that mean?”

“ ‘A little bit,’” I said.

“You can tell me other French words when you call.”

“Five a phone call and after a year you’ll be speaking French,” I said.

“I should live so long.”

My mother was suspicious of Europe, especially of France.  Not that she was ignorant of foreign countries.  Because my father had worked for TWA, we traveled when I was growing up:  Paris.  Rome.  Venice.  London. And a few car trips as well.  I remember a long drive from Athens to Paris along the peaceful Adriatic coast of Tito’s Yugoslavia, complete with a two-day stop in Joyce’s Trieste.

And not that my mother was the “Ugly American” of those days.  She traveled with patience and modesty, and with the understanding that if she did not always appreciate the local customs that was more her problem than others.  Still, it did not suit her in Paris to eat hard rolls in the mornings, nor to drink wine at lunch, nor for the stores to be closed from noon to two–nor for dinner to be served at eight in the evening.

“It is bad for the digestion,” she would say.  “You’ll just get fat and lazy eating so much at night and then going to sleep on a full stomach.  And the lunches they have!   With wine.  And corks in the bottles. No wonder they have to take a nap.”  It was my mother who insisted that we book reservations at our Paris hotel restaurant for six.  We ate in lonely splendor.  And then took a long walk along the Seine afterwards.

“That’s better,” she had said.  “Look at Notre Dame.  The name means ‘Our Lady.’  The French are Catholic. Tomorrow we go home.”  Home was Fairway Manor, Kansas.  Weeping mortar.  A privet hedge.  Anne Page bread from which she made “French Toast” on Sundays.  And dinner at six, with wine–my mother drank Mogen David.  No corks.  My father had a Jim Beam before dinner.  A Coors afterwards. On Fridays two Coors while he watched the fights.

But even given her relative patience with foreign travel, my mother was still wary of it.  There was the water problem.   The money was difficult to figure. Venice had an odor about it.  In Athens they spoke Greek.  In Paris it rained.    There were menus to read and misunderstand  (in northern Italy she once ordered what appeared to me then–and even now in my mind’s eye–to be the stuffed intestine of a small mammal). The traffic was impossible.  Especially in cities where her assignment was to be the navigator to my captain father.

“We are at via Vicenza and Polizia,” said my mother as we wound our way in and around Rome one day in desperate search of our hotel.  We had just come back from a two-day trip down the Almafie drive.

“That can’t be,” said my father.

“Now we are at Via Vicenza and Gelato,” said my mother.

“’Gelato’ means ice cream,” I said from the back seat.

“’Polizia’ probably means ‘police’,” my father said from his Captain’s seat.  When under pressure my father would resort to understatement.

“There’s the train station,” my mother said.  “Does that help?”

“We’re looking for Piazza Navona,” my father said.  “Our hotel is just off the Piazza Navona.”

“We’re at Piazza Maggiore,” said my mother, looking up from her map, then down, then up.  “Take the first left.”  Which my father did, going a number of blocks the wrong way up a one-way street against a full orchestra of Italian horns.

“I don’t think this right,” said my father.

“Oh dear,” said my mother.   “Now we’re at Via de Serpenti and Gelato.” In Rome all roads lead to ice cream.  Or to the Polizia–who stopped us just as we exited into Roman sunshine of some fountained circle–and then waved us on when they saw that my mother was an American housewife lost in her map.

“Oh dear.”

“When we get to the hotel may I get an ice cream cone?”

“Just what are you going to do in France?” my mother had asked that May Sunday.

“Live,” I said.   How else to explain to her what I was not sure I could explain to myself.

“Not like the French, I hope,” she said.  “Promise me you won’t eat late.  You’ll just get fat and lazy.  Or drink wine for lunch.  And tell the truth when you write me, not like those stories of yours.  The things you make up.”

“I won’t promise,” I said.  “But by this time next year, you can come and see for yourself.  I’ll pick you up at the airport. You’ll be speaking French.”

“I should live so long,” she said.  “Now where is it you are you going to be?”

“Southwestern France,” I said.  “Far from Paris.”

“Do they still have those hard rolls?” she said.  “And what about the water?”

“The water is fine,” I said.  “And yes they still have the hard rolls.  But I eat pain au chocolate for breakfasts.”

“What’s that?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“You must eat cereal for breakfast,” she said.  “Even in France.  And remember cheese constipates.  Eat salads with dinner. Prunes will help.”

“Yes mother.”

“I don’t see the sense in it,” she said.  “Show me on a map exactly where you’re going to live so I know where to call when I need you.”

“Yes, mother.”

I got out the map of France and southern Europe I had brought along for her to see where Bordeaux was, and where St. Emilion and Castillion were, and where the tiny village of St. Michel de Montaigne was–for it was in St. Michel and on the former Montaigne estate that I had made arrangements with Armel, a friend of mine, to restore an old farm house in exchange for living there.  Until the basic work was done I would be staying in Armel’s guest house in the village itself.

“Have we ever been there?” said my mother as she looked at the map, and the place on the map I had circled.  “Did we go there with your father?”

“No,” I said.  “I have been there, but you haven’t.   However the three of us drove up through Austria from Athens, then on to Paris.”  And I showed her the route we had taken.

“Where did I order the inside of the possum?”  she asked.  “You remember the time I ordered the inside of the possum?”

“I do,” I said.  And I pointed to northern Italy.

“Do you remember the time in Rome when I kept telling your father we were at the corner of Via whatever and ice cream,” she said.

“I do indeed,” I said.

“Those were good times,” she said.  “And do you remember how your father took us to Alfrado’s after we finally found the hotel, and that Alfrado served me the pasta in his own bowl with those golden spoons.”

“Yes.”

“And when the violinist came to our table your father asked him to play Come back to Sorrento, because that was the day we came back from Sorrento and how scared I was of the road.”  She is looking at the map and with her finger finding these places on it.

“I remember that as well,” I said.

“Your father was very patient with me,” said my mother.  “Now tell me again, why are you going to France?”

“It is a doctor for you from American on the phone,” Armel says. It is the middle of the night.  He has come over to the guesthouse to wake me.

Over the summer I had made it my habit to call my mother every Sunday.  In this way I have told her of my life in France: How the water is safe to drink; that I have named the swallows nesting at the farm house I am restoring; and about Hooter, a Dame Blanche that flies out of attic each evening at dusk.  I have not told her that I drink wine with corks in the bottles.

She wants to know about the weather and if I am eating my cereal.  And salads.  And prunes.  I tell her about the trips I make with Armel in his Deux Chevaux, and that its name means “two horses,” and that the French word for ice cream is glace, and the word for street is rue.  I have written her as well, but not as often as I should have.  You can’t reread a phone call echoes in my head after all these years.

As summer faded and September came on, I tell my mother about the grape harvest, and how I am helping at the Montaigne estate pick the grapes that will be made into wine, and that I will have the owner sign a bottle for her that will be her present when she visits me next May.  I tell her that we will use Armel’s Deux Chevaux and ride to Castillion and have lunch at the Hotel des Voyageurs and drink wine from a bottle that had a cork in it–and afterward, we will have glace from a pastry shop I know down the rue were the ice cream is rich and smooth.

I should live so long, she had said on the phone the Sunday before Armel came to the guest room to wake me.

 —Memoir by Robert Day

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Robert DayRobert Days most recent books are Where I Am Now, a collection of short stories published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press, Speaking French in Kansas (short stories) and The Committee to Save the World (literary non-fiction) can be obtained through Western Books.  His 1977 novel The Last Cattle Drive was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and has seen multiple reprintings. Day is past president of the Associated Writing Programs and Adjunct Professor at Washington College in Maryland.

Mar 132013
 

Jonah

Jonah Glover contributes here the fourth in his series of romantic micromemoirs & stories about charmingly maladroit young men and their quixotic misadventures in the Land of Teen Love. These used to be called his High School Romance Triptych, a comprehensive title that no longer works for obvious reasons. Since the series now seems to be ongoing ad infinitum, I give up on the comprehensive title thing. See also “The I(r)onic Bond: A Chemical Romance,”  “Talking to a 17-Year-Old Girl, When You are a 16-Year-Old Boy” and the ever-popular “Calculust: A Mathematical Romance.” To get a complete picture of his dangerous mind, read his epic one-sentence anti-romance “The Eunuch.”

I was sitting across from a girl at the library today and, though I was supposed to be studying, was completely preoccupied with trying to figure out if she was attractive.

After many attempts to situate myself in such a way that I could see her entirely, I got frustrated and tried to think of a way to get her to stand up.

Whether it be was because I haven’t gotten much sleep these last couple of days, or because I am a human male, I chose the least discreet method to get her to stand up.

While making eye contact I reached across the table, picked up her pencil and threw it, maybe too far, away from the table. After staring for a few seconds, I covered up my actions by faking a stretch and yawning.

In a fury I quickly picked up my bag and left.

But not before tripping on the chair and knocking her books off the table.

— Jonah Glover

Sep 222012
 

Christy Clothier is a former student, a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts and a US Navy veteran with a story to tell. But her story isn’t just about the Navy; it’s also about the abusive family that nurtured her in its truly malign embrace, also about her courage to transcend her past and grow into the writer she is today and will yet become. NC has already published a segment from her memoir dealing with her arrival at a naval base in California where she worked as an air traffic controller. Another chapter, the one dealing with her near-rape by a Navy Seal, has been turned into a play called The Controller. Christy served in the US Navy from 1997-2003 as an air traffic control tower supervisor.

dg

——-

There are no pictures to show what happened, so I will create the images myself. At age twelve I stood before the princess mirror on my bedroom wall and leaned so close to my reflection that the contours of my cheeks, forehead and chin blurred into the flatness of a photo, an image I wanted to scratch away. I cut my face with cuticle trimmers, safety pins, razors—pain slid red down my cheeks like raindrops on a window pane. If I had paused, I might have seen my face bloody and bruised—and I could have backed away. But I didn’t want to. Once my appearance was distorted I had the confirmation I longed for: that I deserved it, “that pain is weakness leaving the body,” something I re-learned in boot camp. And I believed it. Because long before I donned the olive green military clothes of conflict, I had already trained my body to bear witness to what my mind had to erase.

An inappropriate poke. Oh, come on, Christy, it was just a joke! your parents say. Get over it. Your stomach’s wound tight, but they tell you it’s okay—ha ha—no reason to get upset. You hug them goodnight. Your adopted-stepfather’s hands rest lightly on your back. Sleep tight! You can tuck yourself in, you mother knows. No need to tell Daddy that Mommy made you watch her masturbate that afternoon while he took Jacob and Bret Jr. fishing. What he knows won’t matter: you’re not really his kid. He ignores the bruises — your mother’ll let him add his own, if he wants — “I don’t get involved in Domestic Disputes!” his favorite line whenever your mother bites her children. “Don’t worry, tomorrow’s the first day of the rest of your life,” she says, sending the words after you down the hall as you walk to your bedroom. She’s teaching you to forget.

The next morning starts with Jacob and Bret Jr.’s teasing. They point to the “artwork” your mother bought at a craft fair. A plywood plaque featuring a doghouse with a carpenter nail in the center of it. Alongside the doghouse sit five miniature dogs, each wearing a collar. It’s meant to be funny, only your mother took it seriously and scribbled everyone’s name on the “This is Cute” piece of crap. Someone has placed “Christy” on the nail.

You hang on a wall covered with history: your father’s family crest next to a gold crucifix (a gift from Aunt Linda — you’re only Catholic when she visits). The doghouse and Christ hang next to the military awards given to every male member of the family. And there’s a picture of you and your New Father. He’s stiff in his officer’s dress whites; you’re green in your Girl Scout uniform. Together you stand composed with badges and pins.

You catch your mother’s reflection in the picture frame’s glass. She’s been watching you. Hi, sweetie! She turns you around to get her morning hug. She’s hungry again. She presses your breasts into hers, pinches your nipples. Just showing you love, she says: a mother’s touch. She hasn’t brushed her teeth yet. Instead, she sucks on a cinnamon jaw breaker. The sour-sweet makes you want to vomit. But instead you pour French vanilla creamer into her coffee and spread cream cheese thick on her bagel. The rest of the family takes its assigned seats in the living room. Your father’s in his recliner. His fingertips turning black with newspaper ink. He reads a version of what he already knew yesterday before watching it again later on the news. Jacob and Bret Jr. watch your mother’s morning programs. They laugh anytime she does, nod their heads whenever she argues with the infomercial hosts. Your brothers sit on their hands, knowing your mother’s unjustified indignation is only the start of her daily rage. They won’t look at you, yet you know they are grateful that you take your mother’s blows; they know once you’re old enough to leave the house, they are next. They watch you to see how you survive.

You leave the kitchen. You don’t eat. In this family, meals are issued by rank, and Jacob and you remain the lowest. First your father, then your mother and their biological son get to eat. Then Jacob and you may have whatever is left over, so long as no one is saving it for later. When there is no surplus food, and neither Jacob nor you had enough of your own money to cobble a dinner from snacks at the gas station, you ask your mother what you should eat, already knowing her answer: Fend for yourself! You should feel lucky, your father reminds you, I put a roof over your head.

But you are hungry, so you climb the staircase to your room. You already know how to feed off the girl in the mirror your mother gave you—a gift from her father once she’d turned thirteen. Your skin buckles under your fingernails as you rip off your face. Your reflection changes into swollen, gouged, scared cheeks, chin, forehead and neck, and you’re sated. You walk to your window, curl one foot behind the other, and imagine a life under blue skies streaked white just beyond the orange poppies dotting Southern California’s hills. Past palm trees interspersed with silver dollar saplings on manicured lawns. Past older kids riding their bikes and skateboards along the wide streets that flow like an alluvial fan toward Santee Lakes. I’ll live like Karana, you decide, the main character in the book you know by heart.

Yet I do remember the day that I decided I would never live in the village again. The Island of the Blue Dolphins was my home; I had no other.

I joined the Navy just after I turned twenty, but I’d been heading for Naval Air Station San Clemente Island long before I knew it existed. By age twelve, I’d read The Island Of The Blue Dolphins often enough for the librarian to throw up her hands and give me the book. I never realized the fictionalized setting I’d imagined every night actually existed 75 miles off the coast of California. I followed jet exhaust like em dashes to a place so near to where I had dreamed that I didn’t know I’d been sleepwalking, unable to wake from my own fairy tale.

Now, at 35, a part of me still believes there is such a physical place, somewhere west where I can run and find peace. That same part of me still longs to rest on San Clemente’s porous volcanic rocks and watch the Pacific’s waves filter through them. I let myself go there whenever I need the familiar feeling of being trapped and free to reclaim what was promised and what was lost.

***

Is there anything more seductive than the illusion of safety? Senior Chief Petty Officer Ibsen directed Navy boot-camp Division 265 to march left, left, your left-right-left. A double-wide mass of eighty women—heads erect, shoulders squared, arms strong, hands fisted with knuckles pointed down and thumbs aligned with pant seams—march along the greasy-hot Chicago asphalt. I stared at the back of the recruit marching in front of me; her brushed cotton jacket provided no reflection, so I couldn’t see myself. I lowered my Navy ball cap further down my face and repeated Ibsen’s words to myself like a spell preventing me from thinking about anything else in case one thought led to another and reminded me of everything I knew, which I was certain would break me. I let the sound of boots carry me along in a wave of feet and fists that pounded the pavement until Ibsen commanded, “Division Halt.”

I and the other five-foot-tall recruit wearing a traffic-cone colored road-guard vest over her dungarees ran ahead of our division to “post” in the middle of the intersection. I rushed past the eighteen-year-old, with her short, dark bob; she could have been either the one sitting behind me at indoc crying over having to exchange her blue jeans and sandals for military-issue sweat pants and sneakers or the slender one who sat beside me quietly asking herself, What am I doing here? A month into boot camp, the only thing differentiating any of us was the last names sewn onto the fronts of our shirts, the backs of our pants. My long, dark braid tucked under my standard-issue ball cap, my dog tags bearing the surname of the man my mother forced me to marry at sixteen smacking against my chest under a white cotton tee, I ran into the street.

We had arrived a group of strangers. We filed out of Greyhound buses into a warehouse (it seemed) full of men’s portraits hung under multi-colored flags. I was sure, for some reason, that I was already in trouble. Screaming men in uniform demanded we identify ourselves by last name and social security number. That’s all I was: a name and a number I’d only recently memorized. My past no longer mattered. Only the fear of messing up, of saying the wrong thing in front of people who could tell me what to do, defined the present moment. I recited my most recent name before shouting out the number assigned to me at birth, and it sounded like it came from someone else.

The first few weeks of boot camp flashed by in a series of consecutive movements, as if each time I opened my eyes I was somewhere else on base, less and less myself, a new world widening to me like an eye after a blink. I relinquished all civilian possessions: my clothes, my wallet, the few dollars I’d brought in case of something (I don’t remember), blue jeans, tee shirt, tennis shoes, clothes I wore to do laundry or yard work in, clothes I was ready to be rid of. I was ordered to redress in a blue sweat suit with gold lettering spelling Navy down each leg and to tie on New Balance running shoes. Having shivered in the cold, seemingly unheated, cinder block building, I felt the new outfit as a relief. We shuffled into another room where barbers took their thick shears to many girls’ long ponytails. I’d been told by my recruiter that I’d entered boot camp during a trial phase when they weren’t forcing women to chop off their hair. But no one else had been told, and the Recruit Division Commanders in charge weren’t saying anything. I kept quiet and moved to the back of the room. At my height, it was fairly easy to disappear into the crowd. After one of the men with a pair of scissors in his hands asked, “Anybody else?” and no one stepped up to his chair, a man I’d never see again ushered us into a classroom where I waited to be assigned to a division.

The only vivid memory I have of the weeks that followed that first night, aside from getting “dropped” to do push ups, showing my teeth, getting my sight tested, having flu shots fired into my left arm by a gun, and penicillin so thick it was termed “The Peanut-Butter Shot” stung into my right buttock was the day we went to the military tailors. For two weeks, maybe even longer, my new division, Division 265, had marched and slept in those same sweat clothes, and I hadn’t even noticed. I never paid attention to what we were doing or when, though it was scheduled on a chalk board near the front door. I took comfort in the routine of waking, eating, walking, sleeping—getting yelled at; each day passed into the next.

That morning we marched past the other barracks holding thousands of recruits, past the large parking lot in front of the brick building we’d been dropped off at our first night. The streets were lined with trees and interspersed with grass islands dotted with park benches. It was like every military installation I’d visited as a child or any suburb I grew up in. I marched along, happy with my internal cadence of numb familiarity, happy with being ordered exactly how and where to walk. The tailors consisted of twenty seaman and petty officers—all women—working in a warehouse filled with identical uniforms folded in cardboard boxes stacked on metal shelves up to the ceiling. I stood alongside seventy-nine other women like auctioned cattle in line after line, as the tailors pinched, poked and pinned our uniforms to fit us perfectly. We received summer dress whites and a winter pea coat. We were issued combat boots, black wool socks, white cotton undershirts. We were fitted for bell-bottom dungaree pants and denim chambray button-ups. The women I knew only by their rank were so delicate with me, making sure not to stab me with a needle, that I began to feel like a doll, and I thought it was a trick—they’d poke me, once I relaxed, I was sure. I looked straight through their faces to the white cinder block wall behind them until my vision blurred and I found myself in a familiar haze.

“You have a beautiful daughter, don’t you?” your mother breathes to your New Dad. She yanks you into place and instructs you to stand “Front and Center.”

You look away from your parent’s four knees facing you as they sit on the couch leering over you in your pageant dress. You are a trinket, required to look and play the part before being shelved away to the bedrooms and backyards of your multiple childhood homes. Your mind floats. You make your way up the wall like a balloon knocking itself against the ceiling, having nowhere else to go.

 Since modeling school at the age of ten, I had been trained to stand and receive all the clothes I would need for my Girl Scout banquets, my pageant photos, my enlistment. I stood at attention, locking my knees in front of the tailors circling me, checking proportions and measurements, until someone finally had to ask me to move.

Within a month into boot camp, I sleep walked right out the front door. Before the overhead florescent lights woke eighty recruits from their racks with a 4:30 alarm, I was getting dressed in my uniform and heading toward the galley. My fellow recruits informed me that they had to keep putting me back to sleep. I might have thought they were joking accept that I woke up wearing my dungaree pants and combat boots. Apparently I so relished regulation that I began dressing even before the RDCs arrived and told us to. Or maybe I was just hungry.

Still, when the day came for the hundred-meter jump, I didn’t want to participate. By the time I realized my hesitance I was already standing on the diving platform. The arches of my feet cupped the cement ledge so that it would only take the flex of a shin muscle. The slightest pressure down toward the big toe and I would drop twenty feet (or was it 100?) from the high dive platform into the Olympic pool below. The RDCs urged me on, but they wouldn’t push me. Like the other pass/fail tests in boot camp, jumping off the high dive would have to be my idea. I could back down the two dozen steps I’d just climbed to the platform, but I’d be punished, made to do push-ups until I acquiesced or sent to CID (the Navy’s remedial training that made everyday boot-camp activities like jumping into a pool seem preferable).

I looked down. Under the glassy water divers waited for me, a pedestrian already committed to stepping into the street. Like patient drivers, they waved me on as though motioning from behind a windshield I was about to crash into. Go ahead — their movements exaggerated by the water — we’ll wait for you to pass, ignore the “Don’t Walk” sign warning the light change. By then I’d learned my stark black uniforms were to be called Navy dress blues, my ball cap was a cover, the beds were racks, the cinder block building a ship, and I was an airman recruit. There was no going back. I let myself fall.

I heard the bubbles form overhead as I rushed toward the bottom of the pool. My initial fear over jumping changed with the weightlessness that suddenly surrounded me. Underwater, I couldn’t feel my skin. Everything I had seen before the jump now blurred into abstract forms. I brought my arms together above me and pushed myself even deeper toward the bottom. I wanted to breathe in the pool’s silver-blue anonymity that refracted everything around me for as long as I could. Above water, my RDC Senior Chief Ibsen flapped his arms, urging me to surface. The divers began to advance. If they helped me, I would fail for not having risen on my own. I tilted my head back and rose to the top, expelling any last breath before breathing in new air.

“Keep going!” Ibsen coached, hopping with each syllable as though his own excitement could propel me. “You have to get to the end to pass.” He pointed to the 100-yard-swim marker, which I needed to reach in order to advance to the next month-and-a-half of training, make it to graduation day, through air traffic control school and then complete my six-year enlistment before I could spend the 30,000 dollars promised for college. Behind me, other recruits waited until I was clear before they jumped.

It didn’t seem like that big of a drop once I looked back at the platform from the water. I am doing this for myself, I thought. I stretched my arms out and swam a slow languorous swim, enjoying every last moment before I reached the other side. Looking back, I realize that more than wanting to stay in the comfort of a familiar medium, I, having jumped from one world, wanted to remain in a moment of sheer freedom before pulling myself out of the pool and into another.

After passing the last crucial boot camp test, I knew I only had to make it through each day, which got easier and easier as I learned what to expect. Other than attending shipboard classes I paid no attention to (knowing I was going to air traffic control school, it seemed irrelevant, even to the RDCs who didn’t make me or a few others headed to nuclear engineering school participate in the man-overboard practice drills) I lost myself in the daily marches, concentrating solely on the footsteps ahead and behind me. I felt invisible in a group that, after six weeks, seemed unstoppable, no longer even needing a cadence to follow. We marched perfectly to the drum of each other’s feet pulsing down the streets; we’d been broken down and rebuilt, always carrying with us the fear of getting in trouble, for me of being left behind.

Eventually our RDCs decided they could Division 265 to discipline itself through the night. That gave them the opportunity to sleep at home with their families. But then one night two male RDCs from another division stormed into our barracks, flashed the overhead lights on and demanded we answer the question “What are you doing in my Navy?” They insisted that women only joined the Navy to find a husband, and, to punish us, they interrupted our sleep: a 4-hour respite separating our twenty-hour days. Being female recruits, we were not allowed to strip down to our skivvies for bed; hence, we were already dressed for the occasion.

These men singled out Jaime, one of my shipmates. Jaime was a single mother struggling to raise her child in an inner city. She was strong. She would have to be because the RDCs forced her to stay in push-up position until her hips gave out. Weeks before, another girl had been cycled—exercised—to the point of a heart attack. When she slumped against the metal beds and asked for help, two RDCs taunted her until the ambulance crew arrived and confirmed her near-fatal condition. After that scandal, the prospect of another girl from the same division hospitalized for abuse was too much, so the two men who had burst into our barracks that night were reprimanded and no longer allowed near our racks at night.

I’d come to trust my division’s RDCs, especially Ibsen who tried to be gentle and almost never yelled, because they protected us from other RDCs like the two men who broke in on us. I didn’t think about the fact that we were the lucky few. Those other RDCs led other divisions where they were able to do whatever they wanted (in loco parentis).

I happily followed Senior Chief Ibsen from our barracks to medical, the drill hall or the galley. Two-by-two we’d file through red-and-blue painted bars along with the thousands of other sailors also headed toward the aluminum serving counters. En masse we moved toward other uniformed recruits doling out breakfast in equal portions onto identical plastic trays, ending the transaction by singing the only authorized communication between any of us: “Thank you, Shipmate.”

We weren’t allowed to look around at anyone else, but my short stature allowed me to watch the crowd without getting caught. Most recruits were nondescript. Newbies, called “Rickis,” naturally stood out: lanky men with long hair and unshaven cheeks; girls with streaking mascara and loose ponytails. They never glanced at us, and I didn’t much look at them; it was as though we didn’t recognize each other.

But there was another group that always stood out, those who had made it past the initial first week or two and showed up in the same blue sweat outfits my division had received. I watched them lovingly, remembering my own initiation. Freshly cowed, these new recruits knew to keep their heads down, their eyes glazed, and stare at nothing.

But then one day, across from me dressed in his “Smurfs,” stood my eighteen-year-old brother, Jacob. Both of us forgot our training and rushed to one another.

“Hey Christy!” he said. It was the first time I’d been called my name in over a month. “The food’s pretty good here, huh?” He smiled.

Actually, the food was disgusting. Disguised with the heady aroma of scrambled eggs, sausage links and sweet pastries, under heat lamps warmed the worst breakfast I’d ever tasted. Powdered eggs overcooked into a Play-Doh texture. Pancakes floated in mock syrup that had the consistency of olive oil, which did nothing to mask the metallic taste of excessive baking soda.

But I knew what my brother really meant. When we were children, strangers mistook us for twins, partly because of our similar features, but mostly because our mannerisms, tastes and experiences were identical. We both had our mother’s large hazel eyes, kept the same timing when telling jokes, and Jacob had been forced to join the military before he was a senior in high school, around the same age I had been when I was forced to marry Jerrod, 16. Like me, Jacob also grew up with a mother who sexualized everything, with an adopted stepfather that would lock the pantry, angry over having to feed a teenaged boy who was not his biological son, or would shove him into corners and slap him, goading Jacob to “Go ahead, hit me!” Years later, Jacob would earn a graduate degree in criminal justice and work as a prison case manager, doing everything he could to help ex-cons rehabilitate. But that day, he was my baby brother, his thick chestnut hair recently shaved off by boot-camp barbers, replaced with the red track marks of industrial clippers.

Without thinking, we gave each other a quick hug. The RDCs rushed toward us, screaming for Jacob and I to “Break!” They were as infuriated as they were stunned.

“What in the hell do you think you’re doing?” one asked.

“This is my brother,” I said, pointing to Jacob. He had our adopted surname on his uniform while I wore my estranged husband’s on mine.

“Do you mean your bro, like you guys are cool with each other?” the RDC asked.

“No, my brother-brother.”

“Look at them. They look exactly alike.”

Jacob nodded, confirming our relationship.

“Okay,” the first RDC said, “but you can’t talk to each other.”

Hours later, my division marched home amid the smell of over-saturated maple leaves holding the hot, moist air. We climbed the three flights to take our communal showers, stow our uniforms in the tiny metal footlockers, and dress in our Navy T-shirts and blue nylon shorts for bedtime when Ibsen, Sampson and Claude stormed the room with an urgency beyond what we’d ever seen before.

“Get dressed. You have five minutes,” Ibsen commanded.

We raced to prepare while spinning through the possibilities of what had gone wrong and who had done it.

Then the base lights began to shut off as Ibsen shepherded us to the ground floor, where we braced ourselves against what turned out to be the Lindenhurst tornado shrieking through northeastern Illinois.

I sat at a window and watched clouds. Some recruits buried their heads in their knees. A few cried. Others dug out paper and pens they’d kept hidden and wrote letters openly, realizing that the RDCs didn’t care. Ibsen, Sampson and Claude, separated from their own homes and families, watched over us, projecting their own worries out the windows by staring so hard at the storm outside it was like they were trying to control the weather themselves.

I told jokes. I relished being watched over during an emergency. I didn’t care if the RDCs ordered me to drop and “do twenty,” fifty, seventy, or more elaborate routines. We could get “cycled” by performing sets of exercises until our bodies collapsed, such as eight-count body-builders. We would stand tall then fall to our hands and feet on the tile, bring our feet up to our hands on the ground, and then push our feet back before jumping back into a stand—and that was one. We repeated the routine, up and down, to the count of eight seconds.

Often Sampson would order us to close the industrial windows lining the walls, shutting in Chicago’s summer air. Claude instructed us to “get into Battle Gear.” We stood in front of our racks, pulled our wool socks over the bottom of our dungaree pants, buttoned our long sleeve shirts to our necks. Then we were ordered to run in place for as long as it took for our body heat to saturate the room so that condensation would drip off the ceiling and back onto our faces, all the while the RDCs shouted, “Make it rain, make it rain!”

As far as I was concerned the RDCs could yell at me until their voices gave out and they needed to call for back up, because they never touched us. In boot camp, hitting was illegal. Unlike my parents, the RDCs would never stand by and watch while one or the other slammed my butt with a half-inch-thick piece of plywood fashioned into a fraternity paddle with the words “Board of Education.”  The RDCs could only make us hurt ourselves, something I was good at. With each pushup I performed, Petty Officer Sampson would kneel beside me and yell, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” I believed her because with exercise I became stronger.

But then graduation day arrived like a disaster. I stood in a blinding sea of dress-white uniforms (several divisions including mine), which reflected the sun sharply into my eyes. I fought tears throughout the ceremony, pretending I was trying to avoid the sun in my eyes. The day I graduated was perfect southern California weather, but after growing accustomed to Chicago, I preferred the rain.

Friends and family filled stadium bleachers to watch us parade, listen to speeches, wave miniature American flags. My relatives did not come. While everyone else embraced, I walked home to the barracks unclaimed. I walked past empty racks to the fire escape landing outside, where I had my first solitary moment in over two months. I took my waist-long hair out of its clip, unwound the long tight braid and let it fall loose over my shoulders, down my back and into the wind. Standing three stories above a prison-like cement courtyard on an iron ledge, I could have told myself anything, but I felt at peace for the first time in my life, having had consistent food, clothing and shelter, and I wasn’t ready for it to end. I left the fire escape for the bathroom. I didn’t bother turning on the lights: I didn’t need to see what I had to do having, suddenly, become aware I was once again alone. I stood in front of the mirror, thought about how my mother forced me to marry my boyfriend, Jerrod, when I was sixteen, and dug my fingernails into my face.

“I love you this much!” Jerrod squeezes your hand, but you don’t see it bloom purple-red. You don’t find the metaphor in the gift he mailed to you from the time he was in Army boot-camp only a few months before visiting from D.C. — the Army-brown chow-hall napkin with the words “You Are Mine!” penned in black Sharpee. You don’t know that he will consume you until you have nothing left but feet and knees and hands with which to crawl. You tack the napkin above your bed like a banner, a warning to your mother. Only he can touch you now! You shift the square into a diamond and wish on it like a star.

You are sixteen sitting next to your nineteen-year-old boyfriend who has visited from Fort Meyers in D.C. You have not learned to wipe your mouth, because nothing spills out for you to clean up after. In a Mexican restaurant, you pick tortilla chips out of a plastic wicker basket while your mother feeds your boyfriend of nine months from across the table.

She talks money, housing — but Jerrod hears family; he doesn’t really have one, either. She must get rid of you. He loves you. Your hands have done her housework for years, but now they are old enough to replace hers. Jerrod promises to take care of you.

Get away from your parents as fast as possible, your high-school guidance counselor warns you. She’s met them, knows that with the easy stroke of a cheap pen your mother abandons you to a man she’d eaten with twice.

At the Idaho State County Clerks Office, your mother’s signature is scratched across the  photocopied permission slip. You don’t know if there is a notary public. No one questions your mother’s intent. In the orphan’s court they assume you’re pregnant. Only your mother and Jerrod know you’re not.

Hand-in-hand, you stand with Jerrod inside a gingerbread cottage at the end of a trail your mother laid out. You want to be pushed into the oven. But he won’t let you, not yet, only later when children aren’t a possibility. He loves the sixteen-year-old with the huge green-brown eyes looking up to him with all the love she needed to give to feel real. Three years later when she breaks, he won’t recognize his “Baby Doll.”

So you suspend disbelief until you can no longer recognize the man who held you by the hand and repeated, “I Do.”

Once my face was covered with blood, I stood back and wondered how a mother could do such a thing to her own flesh and blood. I walked past Sampson on my way to my rack. She said nothing. I’d already graduated, and she was no longer responsible for me.

The next morning Greyhound buses idled to transport a dozen divisions to various technical schools around the country. I couldn’t walk straight while carrying my gym bag full of the civilian clothes I surrendered upon arrival along with everything else I had been issued. Ibsen turned back toward the end of the line of sailors streaming into buses and noticed my hesitant wobbling. I dropped my gym bag on the sidewalk. Ibsen walked to me, picked up my bag and helped me to the bus.

Hundreds of sailors watched out of bus windows as I sobbed like a child in Sampson’s arms. I gripped her like a buoy, hoping to remain within the cold cinderblock walls where I knew what to expect. I wanted the structured organization, every moment of my day scheduled in the hyper-strict atmosphere where felt safe. I wanted Ibsen to take my luggage back to the barracks so that we could continue to be Division 265, and I’d have a family. Sampson rocked me for a few moments before Ibsen took my hands.

“Christy,”  —he knew my first name — “you’ll be fine.” He swung my hands in his and said, “I felt the same way.”

I boarded the bus with the men and women I had lived among for nearly three months, and, for a moment, we all headed in the same direction. I was the only one from my graduating class to be attending Air Traffic Control School. Once my bus dropped me off at Chicago O’Hare, I walked alone to my gate. I felt awkward in my dress whites. I was too nervous to eat. But by the time my plane landed in Pensacola, I was ready to swallow anything they put in front of me.

—Christy Clothier

————–

Christy L. Clothier graduated with a double MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her recently completed memoir, Trail of Breadcrumbs: Why I Joined and Left the US Navy, follows a fairy-tale structure of a young girl wholly rejected by her “mother,” who believes she’ll find safety in the military, a world populated by men. Another chapter, the one dealing with her near-rape by a Navy Seal, has been published elsewhere and turned into a play. Christy served in the US Navy from 1997-2003 as an air traffic control tower supervisor. She writes short stories, research articles and essays that connect childhood abuse with military service and trauma. Christy’s writing has appeared in Inquiry and Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq, from which her essay “The Controller” was adapted for the play Coming in Hot. She teaches English to international war refugees in Colorado and lives with her dog, Jauss, named after a famous author.

Sep 062012
 

 

Sydney Lea has three books coming out, including his new essay collection A Hundred Himalayas (University of Michigan Press) this month. At an age when old dogs curl up before the fire and dream ancient dreams, Sydney is all spark and vigor which I find endlessly appealing and optimistic. Sydney is also the Poet Laureate of Vermont, and I guess poet laureates hobnob in ways that mere mortals don’t. He and Fleda Brown, recently Poet Laureate of Delaware, have been writing essays back and forth. As Sydney writes, “My friend Fleda Brown, lately poet laureate of Delaware but now escaped to northern Michigan, and I are writing a book together. She writes an essay on a topic (food, sex, clothes, houses, illness, and wild animals); then I write one on the same topic. Then I write one and she follows suit. Etc. It’s fun, though I don’t know who in Hell will publish it.”

Earlier on these pages I published the essay “Unskunked” which is part of this poet laureate interchange. In “Unskunked” we were treated to the image of the author running naked through the dark and dripping forest. In “Becoming a Poet: A Way to Know,” Sydney Lea waxes less overtly spectacular and delivers a lovely, wise account of his education as a young poet. He is a paradoxical intellect; part athlete, hunter and woodsman; part scholar; mostly a poet. This is the story of how these impulses somehow coalesced around his admiration for what we might call the New England old timer (in 2012, there aren’t many of these left). At the center of this is an idea of manliness (not macho posturing but old fashioned manly virtue — a good thing).

Sydney Lea is a great friend and former colleague from my early days at Vermont College of Fine Arts. It’s a source of deep satisfaction that he has found Numéro Cinq a congenial home for his work.

dg

———–

When I was young, who thought I’d choose poetry as my prime mode of knowing the world?

Not I.  It’s true that as a high school punk, despite my enthusiasm for football and my wilder one for hockey, despite my commonplace tough-guy posturing, practiced by so many of us guys at that stage of life, I did secretly like to think of myself as a bit arty too. I was a musician. I could sing. I even thought I drew pretty well. I was a big cheese in the dramatic club, as a senior playing Oedipus in the eponymous play (a lisping king, who addressed “generationth of the living in the land of Thebeth”).

But I don’t remember writing poems, save maybe the sorts that any person may have written, and that he hopes have long since utterly biodegraded: rants about being ditched by a girlfriend, just for the tritest example.

I was also a pretty good student. Indeed, had it not been for what would now be diagnosed as a mathematical learning disability, my GPA would have been of the very highest. My truest proficiency was foreign languages, a gift nourished by the best instructor I ever had at any level, Ted Wright, who taught French. I began to speak the tongue pretty quickly, and I recall how strange it was that the words and the grammar often almost seemed to be granted me by some power outside myself.

It’s a feeling I would later come to recall – if not as often, naturally, as I could wish – when I composed a poem successful in my own eyes.

It’s at once simple and weird: words and phrases, whatever the language, simply enchant me, seduce me, especially if I hear them. Things spoken in my presence, if they have a particular, inexplicable resonance, will lodge themselves in my mind for decades. For example, I lately remembered a friend’s describing the death of his farmer uncle, who fell dead in his tracks while shutting the tailgate of his truck on a calf bound for the abattoir. I heard that description, unremarkable in most respects, about forty years ago. I wrote the poem last week.

Like my exemplar Robert Frost, I want my poems to have something of the ring of actual talk in them. But that’s to get ahead of myself. The college I chose had no writing courses as we know them in our era of too-rampant MFAism. But somehow, on my own, I started to feel an itch to write, which I did, my only audience, really, being my roommates, who tended to think I was good enough, if they thought about my work at all. My genre was short fiction, and I wrote a lot of it in those four years; it seemed to keep me balanced somehow, while everything else – including the alcoholism that would plague too many later years – was doing just the opposite.

Ultimately, of course, graduation loomed, and I had to figure out what I might do. Yale had accepted me as a grad student in French, but much as I loved the language and the literature, something in me recoiled from living as a kind of literary expatriate. I never imagined applying to a place like Iowa, though quantitatively, my portfolio would have permitted me to. (Who knows about the quality?) I had barely even heard of any of the far fewer MFA programs that existed in those days. I never dreamed, either, of Being a Writer.  Professional writing, I assumed, was something other people did; there must be some secret to it, and no one had shared it with me.

I did not want to go to Vietnam, as one those roommates did, becoming one of the earliest casualties of that wrong-headed adventure. And so, because schoolteachers were exempt from the draft at that time, I elected to go back to my own private high school, having no credentials to teach in a public one.

I taught French and English, and came to understand how Ted Wright managed to be so inspired and inspiring a teacher. He simply committed himself to that end every minute of the day right through the evening’s class preparation. No one messed with Ted: he was a big, muscular guy, the football coach, a former semi-pro pitcher. At a mere 21, I didn’t have that sort of gravitas, and I devoted a lot of time to quashing the same sort of ill discipline I’d imposed on all my other teachers, now my forgiving colleagues, just a few years before.

Top quality high school teachers are, to my mind, the heroes of American education. They deserve to be paid a lot more, and college teachers (especially those at the sorts of “prestige” institutions where I myself have taught) a good deal less. To say it tersely, even after one year in a pretty cushy job at that level, I knew I didn’t have the endurance and commitment Ted did. In deed, I concluded there wasn’t enough money in anyone’s bank to keep me at his sort of work. Too hard, too demanding, too much time just being present.

So I did go to grad school after all, not in French, but not in English either. I did comparative literature, wanting to use my languages while I focused on fiction and poetry as fields of study. I was too naïve to know that comparative literature was just then leading such study in the “theoretical” direction that has made it unappealing to me and apparently –  judging from the radical shrinkage in literature majors at the majority of colleges – to most students.

Not that my dabbling in theory didn’t have its heady moments. I particularly recall a fabulous seminar on European Romanticism, presided over by the second best of my many teachers, Geoffrey Hartman. And yet Geoffrey became, quite unintentionally, a bit of a villain in my history. I had settled on a perfectly conventional dissertation topic, Frost and the Romantics, but he persuaded me to expand one of my seminar papers, an examination of several supernaturalist authors of the nineteenth century, most of them deservedly forgotten. Unlike my other choice, he averred, this would be “a real contribution.”

Contribution? What about nightmare? To indicate how sheep-like I’d been in acceding to my professor’s suggestion, most of my texts were written in German, the one major western European language I didn’t really command, which meant that I was forevermore rifling through the stacks for translations from the original into French, Italian or Spanish, few being available in my native tongue.

Good Lord…

In due course I took a job at Dartmouth College, without, however, having finished that accursed dissertation. Indeed, it would take me more than four years to do so.

There were no writing courses at Dartmouth in those days, any more than there had been at Yale when I was there. But a fair amount of clamor arose from students for that lack to be remedied. The result, in my second year, was English 70, an omnium-gatherum offering in which students could write fiction, poetry, drama, personal essays, what have you?

The heavies of the department, many of them good people and true, to be sure, were exclusively male – women adjuncts were referred to as “lady lecturers”! – and white and old, and at least marginally Christian. (These descriptives fit me better as I write this than they fit the people in question then; but such, in my late twenties, was my regard for them, one and all.) They assigned English 70 to me, of all people.

This was meant, though, as an act of kindness. Since in the eyes of those senior colleagues, such a course was not a “real” one at all, not the kind that demanded any genuine thought or preparation, I would have more time to complete my burdensome dissertation.

And yet a strange thing happened  (or perhaps not so strange). In teaching that course, ineptly, I’m sure, given my utter lack of credentials, I found that old itch returning. It had been suppressed for more than half a decade, but now I began to write again myself.

I began, though, to write poetry. Why? Well, pardon a detour to something very relevant: on my father’s side, my family has had a relation to a remote part of Maine that now goes back generations. In these times, my brother and sisters collectively own our cabin there. My time in the neighborhood had exposed me to certain notable characters, ones who would be 120 or so if they lived still. These were men and women whose early lives had preceded the advent of power tools, so that the male lumberjacks had cut millions of board feet by hand. And to call the females “housewives” would be downright laughable: they lacked all domestic conveniences we take for granted. Stunningly hardworking people, they quite literally kept the home fires burning, cooked in wood-fired ovens, slaughtered chickens, skinned game, cleaned fish and did whatever else was called for to sustain a homestead.

Because these people had no electricity, they of course had no radio either, let alone movie theaters or the great drug television. No, they had to make their own amusement, and as a result, man and woman alike were fabulous raconteurs. Their magical turns of phrase ring in my head every day: some get into my conversation, a lot into my poems, as it were, in disguise.

It seemed inevitable that, when I moved for my job to another part of northern New England, I sought out their Vermont and New Hampshire counterparts, who were equally eloquent, grammar and syntax be damned. And even at my young age, I somehow recognized mine was the last generation who would have known these precious souls.

I wanted to get their voices onto the page.

And yet I knew I’d prove no genius. I wasn’t Mark Twain. I wasn’t Willa Cather. I couldn’t resort to dialect without on the one hand sounding condescending, which was the opposite of how I felt, or simply sounding “off,” or both. I came to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that if I used poetry to tell their stories – or rather to tell stories suggested by their stories –  I might capture the rhythms and cadences of that old-time, entrancing speech without having to imitate it.

My earliest poems, consequently, were in the main quite specifically narrative ones. And although I have drifted away from overt story-telling in my verse, I have never quit believing in certain narrative values: even if plot remains implicit, I want my reader at least to know who’s talking to whom, and where and why. Character, setting and dialogue: why should we poets have ceded these endowments so readily to the fiction writers?

To this day (and I am old enough now to be indifferent about what the Smart People think), I want whoever encounters a poem of mine to know some literal truths when he or she first sees it. I want to make him or her aware of who the actors are, perhaps especially the one named I. If I can make allies of my readers, I’ll be pleased – and genuinely grateful to them. To these ends, I feel I owe them a welcome. A good poem will be complex, no doubt, but that’s a different thing from complicated. Those who are willing to consider it shouldn’t be taxed to figure out the plain facts of its matter.

Back to the academy. One of the department elders – a man whom I greatly liked from those days up to his fairly recent death – was chairman at a critical juncture. He approached me one day and said, “People are starting to regard you pretty favorably around here, but you know the saying, publish or perish. I’m glad it didn’t apply when I was your age, but without some scholarship in print nowadays, you have very little chance of tenure.”

Okay, then… I liked where I lived. I particularly liked the landscape and that access to the old story-tellers, and since in those days one did not have to publish a book, but rather a few articles, to pass the publish-or-perish test, I thought, well, I’ll just take a chapter or two from my dissertation (a screed still incomprehensible, even to its author) and try to stick it somewhere.

Mind you, I had gotten lucky with my poetry pretty quickly. I’d put poems in The New Yorker, the Atlantic, The New Republic and a slew of high-end lit magazines. But however different things are now at Dartmouth, in those days publishing poetry was not “real” publishing; that my first collection was under contract cut no ice, then.

I took the dissertation over to my library carrel, opened it up, and felt as I sometimes have upon looking over a shear precipice. My head spun, my stomach knotted, and I uttered aloud, despite the fact that I was in my thirties: “This is not what I want to do when I grow up.”

I closed that dusted-over tome, vowing that I would go on writing poetry and let the chips fall where they might. I did not of course get tenure, but was fortunate enough as almost immediately to be hired by Middlebury College, where the tradition of writer-professors had been fairly long established.

I now ponder that cri de coeur of mine, and I wonder why scholarship should not have appealed to me as something to do as a grown-up; why it couldn’t draw me more than it did or does. Understand, after all: nothing I say here is intended as an attack on scholarship. The contrary. I have benefitted enormously from other people’s labor in scholarly endeavor. It’s only that it isn’t for me.

Or not to the exclusion of other things. Oh, I have done a few genuinely scholarly articles since, copious annotation and all, and have even enjoyed doing them. But something always seems missing when I finish. It’s the missing something that’s provided by so-called creative writing, especially the writing of lyric, though I must struggle here and elsewhere to name that element.

For me, poetry is another mode of knowing the world, one that is different from the either/or, syllogistic one whereby people (myself included) generally conduct their business. Nothing wrong with that: if Shelley claimed poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, from what I’ve seen of them (myself included), it’s likely a good thing that their legislation does go largely unnoticed.

In any case, the lyrical approach is largely divorced from either/or, is in fact an approach well described, the way Carl Jung did in another context, as either/and/or –which is to say that it enables the writer (and ideally the reader) to see and feel from multiple angles simultaneously. To choose a hyper-obvious example, with the fairly recent birth of each of my grandchildren I have felt an indescribable surge of joy contemporaneously with numbing despond to imagine the world they may inhabit: over-heated, desperate for drinkable water, fratricidal, on and on.

It is this either/and/or quality, I believe, that John Keats famously called Negative Capability: the capacity to be  “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Any number of perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and so on can exist in a poem at the same time, including ones like the above, which are evidently contradictory of one another. In these respects, poetry’s path to knowledge, more nearly than any other, seems the path my mind inclines to follow.

And of course there is again the matter of language. All those voices, old and new, anglophone and otherwise, that reverberate in my skull and, more importantly, in my heart. To abandon myself to what I called their rhythms and cadences, to let the words and phrases, as it were, bear me along like a tide to such enlightenment as I’ll ever have – that feels, and not just slightly, like a self-abandonment (allow me) to something divine.

— Sydney Lea

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SYDNEY LEA is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, will be out from U. of Michigan Press in September. In January, Skyhorse Publications will issue A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife, and in  April 2013,  his eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is due from Four Way Books. His most recent collection of poems is Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems, from publishers Wipf and Stock. His 2011 collection is Young of the Year (Four Way Books).

He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. Of his nine previous poetry collections, Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The preceding volume, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner, and the book is still available in paper from Story Line Press. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont and Middlebury Colleges, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. He lives in Newbury, Vermont, where he is active in statewide literacy and conservation efforts.


Aug 212012
 

Harry Marten writes here a lovely essay on rivers, river books (Huck and  Ratty and Mole) and cancer, the beauty and whimsicality of the one and the grim treatment protocols, anxiety and dread of the other. Born in the Bronx, Marten has spent most of this life living next to the Mohawk River a few miles from where it drops over the falls at Cohoes and joins the Hudson (so he is practically a neighbor of mine). We have also gorgeous paintings by Marten’s wife Ginit Marten of the river that is so precious to them both. Marten is the Edward E. Hale, Jr., Professor of Modern British and American Literature at Union College in Schenectady, also a Conrad Aiken expert which endears me since Aiken has been a teacher and inspiration to me since I cracked open The Divine Pilgrim at the feet of the two-story reproduction of Michelangelo’s David in the library reading room at the Loyola campus of Concordia University in Montreal in 1975.

dg

Mohawk River, Niskayuna

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Living on the river was nice and easy./People on the river just take their time. / The wind in the summer was warm and breezy. / Wind in the winter, it cut like ice. (Folk Song)

There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about by a river. (A.A. Milne, play version of The Wind in the Willows)

Some childhood things just stick in the mind. Water Rat from The Wind in the Willows, for instance, forever confident, offering words to live by: “’And you really live by the river? What a jolly life! . . . .’`By it and with it and on it and in it . . . . It’s brother and sister to me, and aunts, and company, and food and drink. . . .  It’s my world, and I don’t want any other. What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing. Lord! the times we’ve had together! Whether in winter or summer, spring or autumn, it’s always got its fun and its excitements.’”

But despite Ratty’s words of wisdom, read to me by my sweet father before I had many words of my own, my life remained essentially riverless for more than five decades.  There were plenty of ponds, lakes, oceans, even a reservoir or two, but no river contact to speak of.

For a boy in the 1950s Bronx, the river – East or Hudson – seen through the back window of the family Plymouth driving south to visit aunts and uncles in midtown, seemed to confirm Ratty’s enthusiasm. The shining water was lovely and beckoning. But up close, it was a free flowing garbage dump and a danger zone, home to muggers and addicts. Well known myth had it that even putting your foot in the river was to risk rot or worse; and to walk the shoreline after sunset meant becoming the crime written up in the morning Daily Mirror headlines.

There were always satisfying encounters with imagined rivers, growing in number as I ambled into adulthood  – Marlow’s voyage  into African darkness, Huck’s raft on the Mississippi, Lewis and Clark on the Columbia and Yellowstone, Thoreau’s Concord and Merrimack.  But when it came to actually looking at, touching, smelling the thing itself, I found that I had little desire to muck about by or in, or with or on any river.  Even when I lived near the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri for six years, I hardly ever looked up from my work of teaching and paper grading to notice their majesty. When the tropically hot St. Louis summers oppressed our young family, my wife and I followed Huck’s example and lit out for the territories – but not on a river. We were looking for a lake or a beach. We never tried float tripping on the Missouri, the proscribed summer get-away activity for locals; it just wasn’t part of our sense of how the world worked. Instead, we drove hours south to the tacky Lake of the Ozarks, and days north as far as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, to find a plop-down beach and cool water. For all the impact America’s great rivers made on me, I might as well have been living in the Mohave Desert.  Which is why I was surprised to find myself well into my fifties living alongside a river and liking it.

More than half a dozen years ago, having decided that we’d better do it soon if we were ever going to move from our clattery but comfortable city neighborhood in upstate NY where we’d been just about long enough to pay off our mortgage, my wife and I began to spend our weekends with a workaholic realtor. She showed us suburban ranches in lawnville, country estates where I could pretend to be a small-scale Rockefeller, woodsy cabins ripe for improvement, and upscale colonials crammed with enough electronic gizmos to light up the darkest nights. But nothing clicked until the house on the river  swung into view.   For all practical purposes the deal was struck before I’d even finished locking the car.

My wife and the realtor had gone inside while I stayed back on the driveway for a minute to enjoy the late spring sunshine before following along behind. It was as close as I’d ever come to a Sunday Times Magazine kind of place, skylights and windows filling each room with light and air. The vaulted ceilings were a plus; and the huge two-sided brick fireplace with coppery arched doorways was a knockout. But it was the view that did it, the house set high above the Mohawk River, with a wetland at the base of the river bluff. Along the back of the house, every window, every door, looked out toward the water. I loved the idea of “my river.” That afternoon it was brown and placid, moving slowly south and east toward its grand finale with the Hudson a few miles down the line.

Filled with desire, we bargained badly, pushed ourselves to the limit of our money, said yes, we’ll do it. We hired Mr. Sandman to awaken the gloss of the hardwood floors. We had the place inspected, the shale-driven radon gas remediated with a pricey vacuum system. We tried to persuade our grown sons that we weren’t abandoning their history or their boxes of comic books, vinyl records, Star Wars figures, Transformers, old Tin Tin stories, secret diaries, stuff they could neither use nor throw away. We moved out and moved in, leaving our three story urban Victorian in order to discover a new domestic world in the semi-tamed water wilds.

The blur of the first months became the blur of the first years. Boxes filled the basement and garage, waiting to be unloaded while we lived without really settling in. We went about our business of work and play, noticing the river and the wetland in passing when a big boat went by, or when a heron landed to feed and preen down below our windows. We kept binoculars hanging in the kitchen so we could spy selectively on river life. But for the most part the river neither demanded nor commanded our steady attention. Until the late winter of our fourth year, that is, when normal became abnormal and routine stopped dead in its dull and predictable tracks.

 There was nothing unique about the moment, which had to have happened many times that day and every day on the east coast and the west, in the breadbasket middle of the country, in faraway places I’d never visited or thought to visit. It wasn’t even a first in the family; but it was a first for me and it changed things. Though my wife had had three cancers in ten years, this was my turn, and it came as a surprise.

The clue, I suppose, was the doctor’s office calling to give me the last appointment of the day — “so you and Doctor can talk,” the receptionist said.

“Why do they always call them ‘Doctor?’” I groused to my wife – “like they’re the only one of their kind.” Of course I was nervous and showing it, but I’d really had no negative vibes. My PSA numbers weren’t very high, though they’d been slowly and steadily moving up and lately had jumped. The obligatory biopsy had been humiliating, but painless, and Dr. R., an experienced surgeon even if he looked younger than my children, had told me that this was just a precaution. He didn’t expect cancer, and if he didn’t, I didn’t.

The last appointment of the day takes you out of the examination room and into the comfy chair room, the office with leatherette chairs, lamps instead of neon, a grand oak desk. Everyone, it seemed, had left for the day except me, my wife, and Dr. R, who was quiet, serious, kind, as he explained that much to his surprise the biopsy had been positive, and not only that, my “Gleason Score” – the way of measuring the irregularity, and therefore the aggressiveness, of prostate cancer cells – was near the top of the scale. I had “It,” and a particularly dangerous version of it to boot. With the February evening turning cold and dark outside the office window, Dr. R offered a sobering pep talk. For someone my age, he recommended a radical prostatectomy, surgical removal of the offending organ, as the procedure with the best survival statistics; but he urged me to take my time in deciding what action to take.

There were plenty of choices, from radiation to cryotherapy, leaving me with bizarre echoes of Robert Frost’s world-ending visions of fire and ice spinning round in my literature professor mind. The one option that Dr. R. refused to sanction was the one I wished for:  do nothing now, simply watch and wait. Maybe all of this would take care of itself, turn out to be no big deal after all. I knew better, of course, and handing me a “Prostate Cancer and You” pamphlet, and a list of books I could find at my local Barnes and Noble – everything from Surviving Prostate Cancer by the grand Pooh Bah of Urological Surgeons, to the Prostate Cancer entry in the Dummies series – Dr. R urged me think it through so that I felt comfortable in my decision. The books would clarify, he said.

“Take your time,” it turns out, means take up to four weeks if your Gleason rating is 9 on a 10 scale, hardly a blink when contemplating actions that might leave you incontinent, impotent, or, in a worst case scenario, dead as Marley’s ghost. Not to mention that second opinions typically come from doctors who are booked out months in advance, not weeks. The decision-making tied me in knots – everything that followed was simply a predictable, and therefore manageable, misery.

Too tired and too wired to go home for dinner after the diagnosis, my wife and I ate at our favorite family Italian restaurant. I won’t say that it had become a kind of ritual meal for the condemned, but pasta is powerful comfort food, and we had gone there after my wife had gotten her first cancer report. Then we had been profoundly shocked and disbelieving. Now, ten years and three other cancers down the line, our reaction after the first hour was “OK. Now what do we have to do?” That answer, at least, was clear: like the old Fred and Ginger song said, you’ve got to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again. The problem was that only we could decide where to start and how to start this time through.

Oddly enough, one of the things I most remembered from our first encounter with the disease was a trip to the MOMA in New York to see Willem de Kooning’s late paintings. The old man, his disruptive, alcohol-fueled creative rage replaced by a growing calm that came, sadly and ironically, with the onset of dementia, had in the 1980s produced paintings that were fluid ribbons of bright color, objects of great beauty that seemed to offer openness, simplicity, and movement as an intuitive response to gathering darkness. On a weekday afternoon, the museum almost deserted, we’d walked through the show contemplating the sense of sadness, but also the wonder and freedom at the end of life.

A gift from an unexpected source, I thought, next morning, standing in front of the show’s poster that hangs alongside a cactus many feet taller than I am on a second floor landing of our house. Below a large arched window looking out to the river, de Kooning’s ripples of color and light seem to speak to the always moving dark but sparkling water down below.  And that’s where my eyes and thoughts turned those first weeks of decision-making – gliding past de Kooning to the river in winter.

When I wasn’t making arrangements for time away from work, seeing to medical consultations, or discovering in my stack of “how to” cancer books that the subject turns from treatment options to survival statistics when the text shifts to cancers at the top of the Gleason scale, I found my attention drawn to the waters below the house.  While my world seemed to be uprooting, as if slowly tilting down an embankment, the river stayed firmly horizontal, always changing yet visibly stable. In February’s sharp light, unobstructed by leaves or cat tails, the river seemed a study in contrasts.   Blocks of ice capped by mounds of snow formed great uneven ridges across the channel between our street and “Riverview Road” across the way.  But the surface of the water seemed uniformly dark in the early morning, then mirror-flat and shimmering in the cold afternoon sunshine. Contemplating the water, I tried hard to keep my own surface appearance steady in public view, masking the surges of fear and stress that pushed me into turmoil.

My days were filled with a new language, words I’d lived happily without for six decades—abstract, scary words that were hard to grasp because I was bent on forgetting them as soon as they reared up into my consciousness:  bladder neck contracture, external-beam radiation, laparoscopic pelvic lymphadenectomy, neurovascular bundles,  surgical margins. Some of it was military:  there were “zones,” “invasions, “blockades.” Some of it sounded like a collision of Freud and up to the minute sociology – all about “urges” and “dysfunction.” At its best it was a distraction, a chance to practice my standard coping mechanism of irony. At its worst, it was an open sesame into a world of pain and diminishment. Unable to concentrate on pop medical books with catchy chapter titles like “Diagnosis and Staging” and “What Are My Options,” half-hiding, reading as if I was holding my hand up to my eyes, fingers spread wide, so I could see and not see at the same time, I found myself looking more and more toward the steadying river that in its indifference to its surroundings, its regular unflustered downstate movement past my house, never failed to calm and clear my mind.

The Mohawk travels roughly 150 miles from its start as a tiny stream 35 miles or so north of Rome, NY, flowing generally south and east across New York’s  Mohawk Valley through small towns and cities that mix Indian and European names – Oriskinay (“the place of nettles”), Canajoharie (“the pot that cleans itself”),  Alplaus (“eel place”), Schenectady (“across the pine plains”), Niskayuna (“flat land where the corn grows”) – down to Cohoes Falls where it spills some 70 feet down into the Hudson Valley. My own slice of the river, looking full left and right as far as the eye can see from the dining room window without precipitating neck spasms, is about three-fourths of a mile.  The mystery of the unknown, both upstream and down from my window on the watery world, absorbs me. Often my puzzling extends no farther than wondering where that log that’s floating past me broke loose, or when will the ice be breaking up again with its loud and sudden rifle cracks. But faced with my sudden awareness of time’s limits, a  standard subject, of course, for the novels and poems I’ve been teaching for decades but which I seem not to have absorbed viscerally until just yesterday, I find myself wondering too about the history of the place where I’m standing – fifty years ago,  one hundred, two hundred.

On their ways west, how many may have casually looked up to exactly where I’m standing? Did they continue far beyond the bend in the river, or did they stop nearby, set down roots, raise families? Remembering my grandfather who once was a Canadian fur trapper, I think about the European traders who worked the river, and the Indians who were displaced. Remembering the old bridges I’ve driven across lately, I wonder if there were wooden bridges before iron and steel.  What happens to old things along the river, no longer useful, no longer wanted? Do they simply rot and crumble, finally drifting away, never to be seen or thought of again? Will any of the riverside construction I see each day be here when my grandchildren are old enough to notice it? What about the roads now jammed with workers headed into and out of the city? Or the Country Club a river’s width away, that fires glorious tracers into the night sky to celebrate weddings, graduations, and our national independence? The apple orchards down the road, a delicious autumn destination? I’ve no capacity to think in geologic time, of the slow dance of glacier melts and deposits tens of thousands of years ago. Of course I understand that things are always starting and ending; but I know, too, that for all practical purposes the river continues, which is, during these days of uncertainty, a comfort.

Two weeks after my sit down with Dr. R.  I have an appointment for a second opinion. The Head of Oncological Radiology at the hospital is a slender, confident, middle-aged guy, whose office lies deep within the bowels of the building.  To get there, my wife and I are instructed to follow the color coded stripes painted on the floor. Like Hansel and Gretel we keep to our trail of breadcrumbs, which takes us eventually to Elevator C and then to who knows what witch’s house in the windowless basement.

Though he must have a version of this conversation many times a week, Dr.S. is polite, attentive, unhurried. He reads through the chunky file of my medical history, sits forward in his swivel chair, leans into the conversation. He pulls out a yellow pad and begins to draw what he figures is going on inside my body. He talks about clinical “staging,” writes out a dizzying assemblage of numbers and letters that are used to indicate how virulent and how far along a tumor might be, offers a preliminary number and letter for my version of the beast – the bad news being my Gleason score; the good news being the likelihood of this being an early discovery of the tumor.

He explains what radiologists do:  3-D conformal radiation; intensity-modulated radiation therapy; proton beam radiation. Like the good student I have always been, I take notes like crazy, filling up pages of my notebook with fragments of techno-talk. As far as I can tell, all the radiological options do the same thing, burn and destroy tissue, trying to keep to a minimum the damaging of healthy cells while killing the killers.  Then the risks and side-effects part of the conversation:  inflammations, burnings, itchings, crampings, blockages, bleedings, strictures, pain that won’t quit, various diminishments and/or collapses of body functions. This fills up 20 miserable minutes, escalating to anecdotes about worst case scenarios, like the one about a man who has been compelled to use a Foley Catheter for more than a year because he has lost the ability to urinate, before Dr. S. tells me that he simply wouldn’t recommend any kind of radiation for a patient like me – strong enough to tolerate surgery, young enough to expect long life after a procedure, early diagnosis, likely for various reasons to have urinary “issues” after any sort of  beam treatment.   It’s hard to argue with a man who turns away business.

After extravagantly praising Dr. R’s surgical skills and reputation, he talks about my surgical options. The more he explains, the more anxious I become. Though I need to understand what’s coming my way – it is, after all, why we are spending our “second opinion” afternoon together – what  I suppose I’d like to hear from him, though I’d not admit to it,  is “do it this way, and do it now.”  I’d resent and distrust his certainty, but I’d be able to get on with my planning.  Instead, covering the same ground that Dr. R. and the books have mapped, he explains my two options. There’s the old way, traditional open surgery with the surgeon’s hands doing the cutting and in the body, and the surgeon’s senses of touch and sight immediately engaged; and the new way – robotic surgery performed by working a robot from behind a computer screen. Both procedures take you to the same place – removal of the cancerous organ and the cancerous tissue that may surround it.  But the robotic is initially less invasive, less traumatic.  The hospital stay is likely to be shorter, initial recovery quicker.

It seems a no brainer; less pain never loses its appeal. Until he begins to talk about survival statistics, which are generally good for the old ways and “too soon to call” for the new. He says we just don’t have enough data to know if robotic surgery is as effective a treatment as open surgery. Maybe in ten years everyone will be dancing with robots, but now, in this part of the country, it’s only a few, and they’re finding their way as they go. “Want to be part of their learning curve?” he asks,  pointing out that Robotic surgery might well add three to five hours to the time of an already long operation, and every hour under anesthesia comes with the risk of brain cell damage. “How many cells can you afford to lose?” he asks?

The issue of being on the “cutting edge” has never taken on so precise and troubling a meaning. Dr. R practices the old tried and true method and has done many hundreds of these surgeries, a statistic that both pleases me and makes me cringe. Does it matter that I’ve known and liked him for years, and if I switch to the latest technology I’ll just be encountering another surgeon for the requisite 6-8 hours of the procedure – being asleep for much of that time anyway? Should it matter? Am I comfortable with a doctor behind a monitor, a position that he probably hasn’t assumed all that often before seeing my inner organs in, I hope, vivid Technicolor?  Working all my adult life with metaphors not numbers, I’ve always been likely to come down on the side of Disraeli’s “there are three kinds of lies:  lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  But the stats I have before me speak to the possibility of my living or dying, and the debunking quote suddenly seems too cute and coy. Pondering my Gleason score again as I gather up the diagrams and my scribbled notes to leave,  trying to untie the tight knots in my stomach, I find myself hearing the explosive frustration of that other Gleason, Jackie, delivering Ralph Kramden’s  Honeymooners line: “one of these days . . . . one of these day, POW, right in the kisser.”  But is it my POW or my kisser?

If I could just leave the sickness books and notes behind, I think, even for a day or two – take a walk along the river, looking downstream toward the nearest river lock, letting the water and winter sky clear my view of things while all the accumulated information simply moves through me, like river tributaries, I’d know what to do . But the February freeze holds into March, and the ice and snow along the riverbank makes walking impossible. All I can do is look out from the safety of my cliffside perch to the uniform gray of the scene below, hoping to be able to differentiate distinct shapes.

With a smile, my brother-in-law tells me about a busy CEO who picked his treatment and his doctor by finding the place and practitioner nearest to his weekly staff meetings. A friend, snipping the grape vine, recommends a doctor that another has told me to avoid at all cost.  A colleague tells me that in Europe they rarely cut, just wait. Gotta die of something, he says. I make and break an appointment for yet another medical opinion. Time’s running along, and  caution or confidence, I’m really not sure which, keeps bringing me back to the place I began – the doctor I know best and the operating technique that has been around longest.

Much to my surprise, by the time I look up from my intense preoccupation with next steps and survival strategies, the seasons have shifted.  Ice jams have broken, and the surging river is carrying its usual early spring load of winter detritus – wrecked trees, beer cans, even an occasional abandoned cooking grill and kitchen appliance – down toward the falls at Cohoes.  My own stumbling rush to determine and set up my procedure –carrying its full load of fear and other psychic waste suddenly released into turbulent flow of my thoughts – has bumped to a halt against the reality of the surgeon’s schedule and operation room availability. Now knowing more than I care to about my body and the state of prostate cancer treatments, I spend the next month ducking thoughts of pain, disease and death, until finally I’m summoned to unload my medical history and get clearance at a series of pre-op appointments. My internist confirms that except for this disease I’m basically fit to go.  A cardiologist says, yes, my heart is beating. I’m scanned and screened, listing again and again the meds I take, other illnesses and surgeries I’ve had, including childhood miseries like mumps and chicken pox. They ask if there’s a history of cancer in the family, but what can it matter now that I’m not a statistic of possibility but an actual happening?

The admissions clerk who takes my insurance information tells me that she once had a parakeet named Harry. This bird, she says, was remarkable – talkative, with a large medical vocabulary, given to eating table scraps right off the plate, sleeping right on her shoulder during the early evening TV news broadcasts. It flew out the window one summer morning and she hasn’t seen it since. It’s probably dead, she figures, giving me a hard stare as if I were the bird reborn. Sad news, I say, wishing I could fly out the window with my namesake. Good luck, she says, chirpy.

Next morning at the hospital I’m banded like Harry the parakeet, ready to be tracked. Outfitted with a flapping hospital gown and a green hair net, an IV tube that will travel with me for days, I climb up on the gurney that will be my bed for the day. I’m attached to a host of machines that monitor blood pressure, blood chemistry, heart beat. A nurse asks me how I respond best to indicating pain – visually, with a series of smiley and frowny faces that will mark my threshold? Numerically on a 1-5 basis with 1 equal to no pain and 5 as cataclysmic? With actual words like extreme, moderate, mild? I opt for words, as they seem to me to offer the best chance for maintaining dignity. I have one final go at the toilet, a first and last conversation with the anesthesiologist, a jokey exchange with Dr. R about how well rested we both feel, then surgical oblivion.

I wake to nurses flowing around me, like quick water round a floating tree trunk. One leans in to welcome me back, to ask how I’m feeling, to tell me that Dr. R. has already come by and that all went well, though I remember nothing of that and can’t really focus on what it means. He has explained it all to my wife, she says, who’ll be coming in from the waiting room any minute now. Slowly I understand that I’m in the recovery room, fuzzy headed, tightly and heavily wrapped around my belly with some kind of surgical bandages, and, oddly, down near my ankles, fitted with pulsating leggings that rhythmically squeeze blood through my legs and thighs to prevent clotting. I seem engulfed by a spider web of tubes – some, like the catheter and drain, will be my unwanted constant  companions for many days; others are just for the post-surgical moment,  part of testing and measuring my return to the world.

I seem to have questions, but the words I form disappear before they can get from somewhere inside my head to out my mouth. I feel muddy and sluggish, and when my wife comes in, she simply sits, her hand on mine.  Later, when I can listen, she tells me the news – no apparent metastasis, margins and lymph nodes clean. The downside is that given the aggressiveness of the cancer, not all of the nerve bundles on either side of the prostate, the nerves that enable erectile function, could be spared. What I know is that I am still in the world, a doped but recognizable version of myself. The rest, for now, is abstract – issues for some future recovery time.

The nurse who greets me in the place where I’ll be parked for the better part of a week is efficient and cheerful. She demonstrates the morphine drip that I can use for pain control. Just squeeze here, she says. It won’t do more than two jolts every twenty minutes, but that should be plenty.  If you need assistance, she says, just press this button –it’s what I’m here for. I’ve got the room to myself, though a plaster Jesus hangs above me on each wall, watching.  It’s part of the ambience of this Catholic Hospital, the trade off, I suppose, for having private rooms available. His repeated presence on the cross, wracked with pain for all our sins, speaks to my physical discomfort, unsettling the room. The body is what preoccupies me, not my spiritual well being, and if I could move, I’d take him down. Maybe if I ring a nurse she could take the little Jesuses away.  Within minutes, drifting in and out of sleep, I hardly notice them.

The nurses, arriving and departing, mark the minutes and hours of my new days. Every half hour they come to write out the statistics that represent me. When chills and fever flash through me, they shift the cocktail in my IV drip. When my catheter bag is full, they drain it, measuring my urine before they carry it to the toilet. They change my sweat soaked sheets and gown, barely disturbing me. Some are chatty and playful, some quiet, a few somber, cheerless and put upon. With all of them those first few days I try hard not to be a bother; my goal is not to be noticed at all.  Perhaps I’m guided by an instinct of appreciation and cooperation. Or maybe it’s just a way of fooling myself into feeling that I’m not really helpless. The puzzle that no illness guide books prepare you for is just how to give over with grace to being suddenly needy after a lifelong habit of independent action and coping.

As if to throw that question at me, a man I can’t see, but who is clearly in his own world of pain across the hall, screams his discomfort constantly in a voice that can’t be calmed or ignored.  “Nurse, Nuuuuurse, NURSE”—he  shouts it over and over – “Help me.” It comes in waves slapping against the walls of my room, and every room within reach. It kills sleep.

I try to picture my vocal neighbor, frightened and shocked by a kind of pain that’s completely new to him. I want to walk out into the hall, grab the first nurse I see, guide her into his room. “See,” I’ll say, “this man needs you. Do what you can for him. Do what you should for him.”  But for now the best I can manage is to be still, somewhere between lying down in a heap and slumped up in bed. “What’s going on over there,” I ask when a young nurse stops by to run a magical thermometer around my forehead and the side of my face. Not to worry, she says, they’ll get him sorted out. But the wailing goes on, endlessly. Later, when my wife comes in, she shuts the door behind her to dampen the noise. Next time it’s earplugs all around, I say, half smiling. Maybe it’s the morphine haze speaking out of my mouth, or my own pain answering his. Or maybe it’s the real me coming out at last under duress.  I’d like to choke him, I think, Duck Tape his mouth – just enough to bring peace to the surgical recovery wing.

Ever accommodating, Dr. R. manages a room change for me. But to my surprise, by mid- afternoon of my second day, I hear loud and clear from just across my new stretch of hallway, “NURSE. NURSE, Can’t anybody help me?” – as steady as Ticktock in Oz, as shrill as a dentist’s drill. My neighbor’s twin in pain? The man himself, moved down the hall too, so he can keep me awake? This time, laughing in helpless disbelief, I float away on it, the white noise of another man’s discomfort lapping round my head.

“Nothing by mouth,” the sign at the foot of my bed says in scribbled block letters, like a hasty judgment at last on the quality of my communication skills.  It’s one more instruction, of course, about care and feeding, but despite that, I’m given the daily menu which lists grandiose sounding entrees for some, chicken broth, apple juice and jello for others. I’m headed for the clear liquid diet in a few days, and surprisingly in a rush to get there, since I can’t even begin to be considered for release until my digestion is up and running. Before 7 AM of my second morning, a polite and enthusiastic man stops at the bed to collect the menu. Apologetic but optimistic, he assures me that any day now he’ll be there to take my order.  By the time “any day” comes round, “clear liquids only” has replaced my end-of-bed instructions, and Carlos, the food man whom I’ve gotten to know pretty well from his three times a day stop-bys to drop off or pick up menus, seems genuinely pleased to have me moving into his sphere. At lunch, he offers a grand flourish as he whisks the cover off my main course, a bowl of broth, then unveils a hunk of orange jello, my dessert. He wishes me “Bon Appétit,” and he means it, as proud of his presentation as if he were delivering at a four star restaurant.  A sweet man, I think, images dancing in my head of the “poor Chinese baby,” who, lacking a spoon, struggled to discover the flavor of his wiggly jello, and Bill Cosby cooing to his enraptured TV audience about how there’s always room for J-E-L-L-O.

The theory seems to be that when you can eat, you can move – your digestive system, your foggy brain, finally your feet, all ready for essential action. This is beyond sitting up, or transfer from bed to a reclining chair, which happened early-on with a nurse’s persistence and my wife’s help. It’s about walking, the sooner the better –my ticket out. And now that I have full access to a gruel that would make Oliver Twist cringe, but which I’m pleased to call my own, I’m encouraged to try.  Light headed and leaning hard on my wife while a nurse stands at the foot of my bed poised for emergency action should I stumble and fall, I begin with a small shuffle, imagining Fats Waller’s voice declaring “Come on and walk that thing! Oh I never heard of such walkin’! Mercy!”

My first effort gets me out the room door and to the nurse’s station down the hall, clutching at the seams of my absurd gown in a futile effort to maintain some dignity, my IV drip wheeling along beside me, my urine bag flapping against my leg.  In seconds that feel like minutes I’m back in my reclining chair, worn out and sweating, leaking fluid from under my bandages where a drain has pulled loose, and from the edges of my Foley catheter and a partially detached bag of saline solution. I feel wet and swampy, an unwieldy boat stuck in a mucky stream. But it’s a start. Throughout the afternoon and the morning to follow, I float myself out into the stream of hospital traffic, marking my path with repeated trips. Right turn at the door, slow motion to the desks at the end of the hall where the nurses are chatting and collecting meds to give out  to the residents of  the surgical recovery wing,  circling to the other side of the hallway and back to my dock, leaning hard against my wife’s steadying and steering arm.

Trying to be chipper, visibly earnest, well behaved and full of unquenchable optimism, I feel instead like a visible voyeur, aimlessly peeping into rooms as I drift by on my way up the hall to health.  In each I see versions of myself,  exhausted and probably worried men and women too weary to read the magazines, newspapers, books their friends have brought, too tired or drugged to manage more than staring out a window, or channel-flicking through the day’s infomercials or soap operas. But I’m ahead of the game, worthy of ridiculous pride and praise, up and about and not climbing back into bed until I’ve shown the staff and myself that I have enough get up and go to be up and gone.

Fats Domino forever has his walkin’(“yes, indeed”); Nancy Sinatra has her boots made for walking “all over you”; and I have my non-skid hospital slipper socks. By the third day, I’m able to get from C wing all the way into B wing and back. I ache everywhere with it, and sometimes need to stop to breathe; but getting out is a powerful motivator, and by the end of the day I’m told that “if everything still looks good” I should be back by the river tomorrow.  I’m more dependent on my wife and nurses for encouragement, energy, support for all simple tasks, than I can bring myself to face. But the idea of home has taken on huge proportions and every hour I stay in the hospital makes me more fretful and peevish. Home, I think, is the place where I can look out at the sun and water surrounded by my things – feet up on the blue couch,   Paul Simon or Rostropovich on the stereo, Dickens or Tin Tin in my lap – anything’s possible in the right space and place.

Here are the hospital exit questions. Get them wrong and you’re going nowhere: Are you running a fever? Can you keep food down? Any unmanageable pain? Ten on a ten scale? All frowny faces?  Any bleeding?  Any discharge or red streaking around the incision?  Can you pass gas? No need for bowel movements, just plain old American gas indicating digestion in process. This one is make or break, and while modesty suggests restraint, necessity demands rudeness.  If you can fart you can fly. And late in the evening before my possible departure date, my body rewards me with everything I need for a ticket of leave.

Trying to dress for the world out there, I discover that in four days my pants have ceased to fit.  Swollen from the insult of the surgery, and gauze-packed from belly button to groin, I can barely pull up my chinos.  With a loose shirt over me, I just leave the zipper and button alone.  Bending to tie my shoes is out of the question, but my wife laughingly tells me to relax into helplessness while she wrestles on my gold toe crew socks and slips my sneakers over them. I try for nonchalance but physical dependency is a hard swallow. “It’ll be better,” my wife says, “just flow like a river.”

The metaphor is soft, but the drive home is hard, full of bumps and bounces that I’ve never noticed before. “Oh for cripes sake, the car’s not that old,” I complain to my wife, “what ever happened to the shocks?” Though my wife’s driving with exquisite care, each jerk and jolt says hold on tight, steady yourself, you’re not who you thought you were.

Finally, as if returning after a long trip, we turn up toward the house, familiar yet suddenly surprising.  I push myself out of the car, slowly. And up the stairs to the second floor, slowly. Into the queen sized bed with its extra firm mattress, so high off the floor that it hurts to climb in. Weary, worried, but home to heal at last,  dragging along my stiches and aches, my urine tube, catheter bag, hydrocodone tablets,   unsettling memories of the hospital, and Dr. R’s emergency number, I slip off to sleep as my wife shuts the blinds. So this, I think, is my new beginning.

The initial changes are not subtle. Though some only last weeks, some hang on for months or more. Some, it seems will be forever. I learn to sleep on my back to accommodate the large urine drainage bag I’ve come to think of as my new-age piss pot. It sits squat in a large green plastic bucket on the floor to my right. Sometimes the tube that feeds it gets tangled or pulls loose, making a mess that my wife has to clean up since I’m still unable to bend to below waist height. During the day, where I go, my bucket goes, as if I’m constantly looking around for a floor to wash; have bucket will travel. I remember once hearing Odetta sing “there’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza” and I suppose I should be grateful that this one is whole. But these days I feel Sisyphean, bound to the thing with no end in sight. If I want, there’s another way, a small bag that ties to my upper thigh – my dress bag. But as I’m rarely out and about these days, and the bag is unstable – leaking onto my pants leg rather than into the wash bucket, and needing to be changed often, it’s usually put aside for a “special occasion.”

“Oh, there’ll be some dripping for awhile, don’t let it bother you; it usually passes, ” the hospital resident who gave me my discharge papers had told me, as if I’ve become a faucet that needs tightening. But when the catheter comes out after three full weeks in place to allow the bladder to heal, I present a flood not a slow leak.  And like the overflow of the Mohawk in springtime, there’s no controlling it.

“Do your Kegels,” Dr. R tells me when I call in a near panic at the addition to my pile up of pain and indignity.  He means the pelvic squeezing exercises common to pregnant women and the rapidly aging of any gender. I might as well try to stop a runaway express train by holding out a raised arm or by simply willing it to slow down.  “Be patient,” he tells me. And in the meanwhile, get yourself some pads.”

They come in all sizes, these dams of human effluence. I shopped for them when my mother’s dementia stole her independence and I know the drill, from Super Plus Absorbency to Light Day Ultra Thins, but I’ve never thought of them for myself.  It means new larger underwear to accommodate the bulk; a new intimate relationship with the vagaries of  what I’ve begun to think of as the time bomb that is my body; and a new fretfulness at the prospect of potty re-training.  Depending on my Depends and trying to stay as empty as possible so as not to overwhelm their wick away capacities, I sit through hours at home that became days, then weeks, usually with a book in my hand, but mostly staring out at the river world beyond our house in a kind of trance- like waiting.

Friends phone and stop by, bringing news of ordinary doings from “out there.”    But as nothing stops comfortable conversation like the feeling of the body emptying while visitors sit by unaware of the secret interior drama, and nothing disrupts congeniality like sudden and frequent trips to the nearest toilet to change urine soaked pads, it’s always a relief to regain the quiet of the empty house and the river beyond it.

“A half a day’s journey from the Colonie, on the Mohawk River, there lies the most beautiful land that the eye of man ever beheld,”  Arendt Van Curler wrote in a 1643  real  estate developer’s sort of letter to Killian Van Rensselaer in Holland. There used to be a marker of the spot he meant at one end of Schenectady’s downtown river bridge to Scotia.  Two centuries later, the river was still flowing sweetly in the local imagination, celebrated in the sentimental ballad of “Bonny Eloise, / The belle of the Mohawk vale.” “Oh sweet is the vale,” the song goes, “where the Mohawk gently glides / On, its clear winding way to the sea, / And dearer than all storied streams on the earth beside / Is the bright rolling river to me. ”

But the human history of the river is darker than that, cloudy and roiling enough to make me feel a bit like Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott as I sit by my window on the world contemplating health, an observer “sick of shadows” but fearing a reality that can “come upon” me as “a curse” of recognition of things as they are. The Mohawk that eases me into a mood of recovery with the promise of energy and change in its flux and flow, and stability in its often unbroken surfaces, can fool me with the mirror of its glassy impenetrability that hides entangling weeds, twisting currents, eddies downriver of where I sit.

The word itself discomforts. “Mohowaug,”  the name Mohican Indians gave their enemies, “eaters of living creatures.”  The Dutch made it “Mahakuaas”; our New England forefathers and mothers called them “Mohawks” conjuring up birds of prey, killers of the sky. And killing defined life along the river for hundreds of years.

Along its banks, Father Jogues was murdered and martyred, fingers burned and crushed, flesh cut from back and arms, head lopped off and displayed in plain view, his body thrown into the Mohawk.  Here, as decade passed into decade, war passed into war – involving all river dwellers – French and English, Dutch and Palatine Settlers, Tories and Patriots;  Huron,  Seneca,  Oneida,  Mohegan and Mohawk.  Slaughter in battles bloodied the Mohawk Valley – at Wolf Hollow, Oriskany,  Mount’s Clearing, Fairfield, Stone Arabia,  Beukendaal, Klock’s Field, Herkimer.  It’s one of the first things you learn about the place. At what used to be the North Gate of the stockade in downtown Schenectady, a sign marks the massacre of 1690, when, in the hard February cold of 1690, two French lieutenants with the sweet civilized sounding names of Le Moyne de Saine-Helene and Daillebout de Montet, and the Mohawk Chief Kryn, led a force of nearly 200 into a sleeping town, burning the city to the ground, scalping families, old and young.

Sir William Johnson, Joseph Brant, John and Walter Butler and their destroying Rangers, mythic heroes and bogey men to frighten children, left their shaping marks on memory and imagination along the killing grounds of the river’s fields and flood plains.  Destruction followed the water, yet renewal did as well – the making of forts, farms, outposts and villages, cities, leading finally to houses like the one I’m sitting in.

The river shaped the places built alongside it even as it offered the promise and vision of next places.  Bateaux and Durham boats, eventually Erie Canal barges and packet-boats, carried goods and people east to the heart of commerce, and through the Appalachian Plateau to the unknown continent beyond.

This river mattered , as all rivers matter, because it moved people, things,  stories, along its currents.  But the cost was high. By the early 1900s the river east of Utica was officially declared dead, victim of its many users and abusers – tanneries, factories, sawmills and gristmills, oil and chemical barges spilling into the water at canal transfer stations. The stink was potent until the last quarter of the last century, when New York’s Pure Waters Act sought to undo the disaster, enabling a natural recovery, bringing back the water I watch, as if newly made to wash my eyes each day as I settle in for viewing.

One morning our heron is back.  He comes with the early summer fishing boat that parks from 5 to 7 a.m. each day near the wetlands below our house.  Bird and man are both patient, waiting for underwater movement before flashing into motion.  A few weeks after, snapping turtles, some nearly two feet in diameter, begin their long climb up the river bluffs, stumbling around in the scrub grass of our sandy back yard to find a place to lay their eggs, before falling back over the cliff edge to flip and tumble back to the water.  Dozens of them, their hard work done, climb out on fallen tree trunks in the tidal pond to sun themselves.  At night, red foxes tear up the nests, devour the eggs, but some hatchlings survive to reach the river and enter its protective flow.  Red, green, and yellow canoes and kayaks begin to dot the waters. Silver crew-shells flash by in early morning and late afternoon.   Grand lumbering cabin cruisers push slowly west and east, white caps ruffling in their wakes.  Gulls circle, and now and again a red-tailed hawk or an eagle floats on a big wind, gliding high above the watery world.

That the river is finally unknowable and unconquerable is its saving grace, and my own.  Moving outside me, it returns me to myself, reminding me of the mystery of my own flowing veins, arteries, the twists and turns of my life, always moving, even in what seem to be moments stalled in pain and diminishment.  Months after diagnosis and surgery my wife and I walk together down to the river shore. By now the grass is head high, the ground spongy under foot. Kneeling, I put my hand in the cold flow, pull out a few stones ground smooth by the pressure of the water that embraces and then parts for my hand. I listen to the hush and surge of the water, hear the river’s voice from past to present. Hold steady, it says, for the wild ride to come.

Morning Shadows by the River

—Text by Harry Marten & Paintings by Ginit Marten

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Harry Marten has written a memoir (But That Didn’t Happen to You, XOXOX Press) and books on Conrad Aiken and Denise Levertov. His work has been published in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, The Gettysburg Review, The Cortland Review, The Ohio Review, Agenda, Prairie Schooner, New England Review (and NER/BLQ when it was called that), The Centennial Review, Inertia Magazine, other magazines and journals. He taught at Union College, Schenectady, NY, for decades, retiring at the end of August, 2012. “Healing Waters” is part of a book-in-progress concerned with life along three rivers: the Mohawk (NY), the Ouse (UK), and the Corrib (Ireland).

Aug 082012
 

This is an essay about fathers and flyfishing (and the fierce competitiveness of fishermen), about the gray aura of death, about nature and love, about coming back to the beginning of things, and about (even if tangentially) becoming a writer. David Carpenter is an old, though (unhappily) seldom seen, friend from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (where dg was a once newspaper copyeditor at the Star-Phoenix, yea, these many years ago). In an essay on humor published in my collection Notes Home from a Prodigal Son, I use one of David’s books as a example:

Between the twin horrors of love and the loss of love, it often seems there is little opportunity for satisfaction and happiness. So that comedy’s two faces, Janus-like, are a kind of voodoo, at once recognizing and evading the truth we fear.

David Carpenter has written a novel called Jewels about a homosexual librarian from Saskatoon. In a wonderful sequence of scenes, a jealous husband barges into Julian’s apartment accusing Julian of having an affair with his wife; Julian rushes out, leaving his gay friends and the jealous husband to sort out their sexual misunderstandings; he takes a lonely walk by the river, and then retreats to the darkened library only to walk in on the wife and her paramour in the act of love. This is a deliciously stage-managed comedy of errors that deals out pain and laughs in about equal proportion, and the laughs are a spell against our feeling too directly the utter wretchedness of Julian’s life.

Aside from the “utter wretchedness” part, this is about as good an introduction to David Carpenter’s writing as I can imagine — he’s a gentle, witty, generous and very human author.

dg

———-

One June morning in 1968, while wrestling with a stump, my father had a heart attack. He was sixty-two. My mother packed him into the car and drove him to the hospital. That night she phoned and told me to meet her at the cardiac ward the next morning. I saw her standing just outside his room. She had spotted me coming down the corridor, and when we made eye contact, she shook her head. No, she seemed to say, he might not make it.

Dr. Flanagan had a different take on father’s condition.

“Your father is very lucky we got to him when we did.” A moment later he added, “But yes, your father is a very sick man.” I tried to put this very bad, good news together: a not quite massive heart attack. The next week would be crucial in determining his chances for recovery. My father wanted to talk but he could scarcely whisper. I knelt down to hear him.

“It’s amazing,” he said, “in here, how they fix you up.”

We visited with my father and consulted with his team, and I wrote to my brother not to worry; there was nothing he could do but wait for further developments.

After a few days of guarded hopes and worried looks my mother said, “You may as well go fishing with your friends. Not much is going to happen this weekend.”

The doctors claimed that my father was stable, and he did seem to be rallying in small ways. But he’d been thinking about his mortality in the way that first-time heart attack patients do, and he was clearly depressed. He looked gray.

§

There is a cabin belonging to the Anderson family that sits on the shores of Lake Edith, which in turn lies almost in the shadow of Pyramid Mountain in the heart of Jasper National Park. At one end of the lake, a small feeder stream winds through the gloom of a forest of ferns, thick bush and Douglas firs. It bubbles up from beneath the massive roots of an old fir and murmurs its way over the gravel and into Lake Edith. The lake is shaped like a pair of sunglasses, front-on, and it would have been two small lakes but for the presence of a shallow channel connecting the two bodies of water. The water is absolutely clear. From the shallows to the depths, this lake covers the spectrum from pale green to near-purple. The rainbows that spawn in the tiny stream, and in the spring-fed beds of gravel out on the lake, are pampered by a sumptuous array of nymphs, bugs and minnows. The rainbows of Lake Edith, when I was a young fly fishing fool, grew bigger and fatter than any other trout in the Park. Right at sundown the big ones would cruise the shallows for emerging insects a few yards from shore. The water is so clear and placid in the evening that you could see them coming a block away.

§

My father was a practical man and a family man. He never crossed the line on such things as drunkenness, womanizing, gambling or anything of an obsessive nature. He taught me and my brother about fishing, but he could never have predicted how easily I would become addicted to flyfishing. I read Outdoor Life and Field & Stream and stocking stats and fishing guides with the devotion of a literary scholar. Writers like Roderick Haig-Brown or Isaac Walton had conversations with me in my dreams.

On the subject of politics, my father always said, Don’t get carried away. On the subject of idealistic quests, my father said, Don’t get carried away. On the subject of various girls, he said, Don’t get carried away. On the subject of flyfishing, he said, Don’t get carried away. On the subject of saving my money, he said, Now you’re talkin, son.

I learned how to cast flies with my friend Hyndman one winter when I was fifteen. Every Wednesday night we would take the bus to a school in Edmonton’s east end. We would practise casting under the tutelage of an old Scotsman, whipping flies beneath basketball hoops at target patterns on the gym floor. Our guru never tired of telling us, Laddie, y’kenna catch a fesh if yer line’s no in the water. By the end of the winter we could cast a straight line forty feet or more and tie a few basic flies. I remember a streamer we called the Kilburn Killer, which imitated a minnow about two inches long.

My father paid for it all. My first fly rod, my subscription to Outdoor Life, my membership in the Edmonton flyfishing club. Have fun, but don’t get carried away. At fifteen years, I was the monster he created. Thank God my friend Hyndman was just as obsessive as I.

§

The Andersons’ cabin at Lake Edith was a social, psychological, spiritual, piscatorial, culinary smorgasbord of conviviality. When I arrived on the evening of opening day (always June 15th in the Park), Lynn Anderson (lean, tall, a hiker, and incurably sociable) threw open the door. Credence Clearwater Revival was celebrating their love for Suzy Q and everybody was dancing. We were in our twenties. Lynn and I were schoolteachers. She had yet to become a fulltime artist, her boyfriend Lloyd had yet to become a lawyer, and I had yet to become a writer. Anything was possible. That’s what Credence Clearwater was telling us as we danced. That’s what the wine was telling us, what the month of June was telling us: Life, opportunity and Suzy Q were ours for the asking. We were, I’m sure, getting carried away.

The plan was to party till four or five in the morning and then hit the lake. There would be a prize for the biggest rainbow. Perhaps only a few of us took the contest seriously, but I was one of them. My arch rival in this endeavor was Scot Smith, another victim of flyfishing addiction.

Maybe a dozen of us left the party before dawn and went down to the water to cast from shore or troll from the Andersons’ canoe or fish from some other boat. The water was calm and so was the fishing, and then the sun rose, the insects got going, and friend Scot had a hit, and Lloyd got a hit, and one of Lynn’s brothers got a hit and I got a hit, and all over the lake, eager voices, mostly male, were calling out I got one or I lost the (expletive) fish or I just saw a monster or you’ve just crossed my (expletive) line again or I got another one.

By late morning, Lynn was barbecuing a rainbow that was, if I remember correctly, just shy of five pounds. It was one of Scot’s fish, so the bar for the biggest fish had been set.

One by one, weary anglers all over the lake retired to their sleeping bags and their cabin bunks, and when at last I brought in a five-pounder and claimed the prize, Scot was the only angler from our party left out on the water. Before long, perhaps late in the afternoon, he came in with a fat silver rainbow so clearly bigger than mine that I knew my labours had only just begun. I grabbed my waders and set out for the other side of the lake, the shaded end where the little feeder stream flowed in, wearing for itself a shallow channel that dropped steadily off into the deep water where the lake followed the spectrum from pale green to blue to purple.

This was where the last of the ragged ones patrolled the shoreline. The spring spawn was over now, so these ones were legal to catch. Their numbers had dwindled to about a dozen from more than a hundred. When I arrived, these last ones were nosing through the shallows like the last revellers to leave a party. They made half-hearted runs at their rivals and continued to circle past the redds as though caught up and exhausted by the perplexing mysteries of love that Credence Clearwater still sings about.

There were no fish remaining in the feeder stream. The rainbows in the shallows were rolling past in about three feet of water in front of me. They seemed to prefer the gravel here to that in the little stream, where they would have been vulnerable to predators. They all looked pretty big to me, but one dark male seemed longer than any other fish in that exhausted band of spawn-fraught rainbows.

I waded in and stripped some line from my reel.

§

It is fun to imagine my father watching this moment of intense concentration from the beach, or reading this little adventure of mine in a magazine. He would approve. He would say, That’s real living, son. He wasn’t exactly mad about my books. My writing about self-deluded drunks, gay librarians, libidinous women, doomed victims, godless womanisers and reclusive intellectuals probably left him wondering where he had gone wrong. These things were absolutely uncarpentarian. But writing about the sporting life was okay with Paul Carpenter. It was something he could show his friends without embarrassment. He was like most fathers of his generation. He wanted his son to have a good job, a good marriage, and if he had to do this writing stuff, let it be a hobby. Let’s not get carried away.

A few of my friends from that summer were married, and most of them were paired-off and likely entering their own bouts of intense spawning with their partners, so the month of June, up at Lake Edith, had for them even more than me, a sweet and urgent tumescence with which the rainbow trout, decked in their deepest greens, reds, pinks and blues, seemed in tune. Or no, perhaps it was the other way around: my friends, besotted in deepest desire, were in tune with all those pink-sided cupids sweeping their tales in slow, exhausting circles over the gravel beds and ever so often thrusting their bodies into the silted bottom of Lake Edith.

Why did I do this? Was winning a prize for the biggest fish so important that I would disturb this last bout of spawning? Was this done for bragging rights? Or, in the absence of any spawning in my own life, was I simply sublimating into something over which I had some control? Socially at that time, and sexually, romantically, I was a fish out of water.

Enough of this. The fish are still gliding by and I need to tend to them.

I waded as close as I dared to the action before me and sent out a cast that went beyond the school of circling trout.

All day long I had been thinking about my gray-faced father in his bed at the cardiac ward, and how surprised he would be at the sight of a huge trout. I would catch it for him. Well, no, I would catch a big one for me and then present it to him. He’d get a kick out of it and maybe stop looking quite so gray. I wanted my father to be proud of me.

And I was getting carried away. When you want your father to be proud of you, you are probably wading through uncertain waters and unlikely to inspire pride in anyone–until you get over this need to impress him.

I let my line sink to the sandy bottom and began a slow retrieve. The fly I had chosen was my big Kilburn Killer, a streamer fly I’ve never seen in a store. It ploughed through the sand and gravel like a somnolent minnow with a death wish, an inebriate who showed up at the wrong party and risked becoming part of the menu.

When the great dark rainbow came back my way, I pulled the stickleback up from the gravel and drew it towards me in short irregular jerks. The big rainbow went right for it. He mouthed it, I raised the rod, and he was on. He bucked around in slow motion sending the other fish outwards from the spawning trenches in a wide explosion of silt. He moved off to my right, changed directions, flopped around, kicked up a mighty spray with his tail and took off for deep waters.

“Verrrry nice,” someone said.

I couldn’t recognize the voice and I couldn’t turn around. Perhaps he was a cabin owner or a conservation officer. I heard the click of a camera, an expensive sound, an authoritative slide of the shutter.

The old rainbow fought stubbornly, but never once did he jump out of the water or do a high-speed run to take my ratchet into the upper registers.

“If I had a cottage on this lake,” the voice said, “I would not go swimming out there. Not with guys like that in the neighbourhood.”

“He’s a big one,” I said to the voice.

It did not sound like a fisherman’s voice. It was lisping and pedantic, and mildly sarcastic, even when opportunities for sarcasm were unavailable.

“Rots a ruck, buddy.”

This is the point in the story where the angler gazes down on the dark bluegreen back, the wide band of deepest rose on the side, flecked with dark spots from head to tail, and he sees his fly protruding from the corner of the kiped jaw, and he is overwhelmed by the beauty of the old trout. He bends down, detaches his fly. He holds the trout by the tail and moves its body back and forth, opening and closing the gill-covers, reviving his old adversary, and sending him back to spawn again.

That didn’t happen. I brained the old rainbow with a piece of wood and held him up for inspection.

“Do you think you could kind of clean it up for me?”

I looked into the face of a man with a notebook. The mystery voice with the Daffy Duck lisp belonged to a newspaper reporter. Another man, a quiet fellow with a camera, stood beside him.

These two had come all the way from Edmonton to cover opening day for the sports page of The Edmonton Journal. The cameraman shot me and my trout from several more angles while the man with the notebook asked me questions. And then with a rush of purest joy and more than a trace of vanity, I knew how I would give my father a boost.

§

My mother was sitting in a chair by my father’s bed, reading a section of the newspaper and occasionally looking over in my father’s direction. He had gone through the front section and the business reports and the editorials and made it at last to the sports page. He pulled a straight pin from the top pocket of his hospital gown and began to cut out an article. Did other people’s fathers do this? I don’t know. He handed the article to my mother with the usual comment.

“Something for the boys.”

My mother perused the picture and the article, which she had already read, and handed it back to my father.

“Remind you of someone?” she said.

Perhaps my father’s eyesight had been affected by the heart attack, or perhaps he hadn’t been wearing his glasses. Or perhaps he’d become preoccupied with his own mortality. But perhaps as well at this moment my father would have heard a note of mischief in my mother’s voice. He looked once more at the trout in the photo and this time he read the photo caption.

“As I live and breathe.”

 §

As I live and breathe. Coming from a man who was so recently on the critical list, these words seemed well chosen indeed. My father’s recovery dates from the day he saw a picture of his son in The Edmonton Journal. It’s one thing, I guess, to catch a big fish; it’s quite another thing to have it celebrated for all to see. The Carpenter family witnessed a tiny miracle that summer.

I had decided on the shores of Lake Edith that my father needed a homecoming gift. I took my frozen rainbow to a taxidermist. The process took longer than expected, so I presented my trophy to my father on his birthday, more than a month after he’d returned from the hospital. It was attached to an oval mount made of stained maple, a twenty-seven inch stuffed male with all the original spawning colors shamelessly enhanced by the taxidermist. My parents decided to hang it in the den.

A time came when my parents sold their home in Alberta and retired to the gentler climate of British Columbia’s coast. They had to downsize drastically, so they gave me back my rainbow trophy. They did this rather easily, as though the value I had attached to it was in excess of their own sentiments. This makes sense to me now, because if my father had caught the rainbow and presented it to me while I was convalescing, I might do the same.

I hid the stuffed rainbow in the basement of my house in Saskatoon. I suppose I did not want anyone to think that I made trophies from the fish I caught. It seemed, by that time, disrespectful to the fish.

Honor, my girlfriend and a visual artist, agreed. She had been photographing the mounted rainbow in the following way:

Shot #1, the head of my fish just up to the gills; Shot # 2, the tail of my fish; both shots in black and white. She framed the head shot on the left side of my study window and the tail shot on the right side. Missing in the middle, of course, was the body of the fish. An entire window separated the head from the tail.

One winter night in early 1985, Honor said, “Why not return your fish to that feeder stream?”

At first this suggestion seemed like a bleeding heart gesture. But the more I thought about it, her idea gained an aura of atonement, and it took hold. The following August we drove west to the Rockies and found a motel in the Jasper townsite. The next morning we drove out to Lake Edith, and for the first time, Honor saw the Anderson cabin, the view of Pyramid Mountain, the two sections of the lake and the small feeder stream.

There were very few people around the lake and there was no evidence of fish. The Park had stopped stocking many years earlier, and a very small population of trout remained, perhaps the progeny of those few that had managed to spawn uninterrupted in or near the feeder stream.

Honor and I had work to do. The light was fading rapidly as it does this far north in late August. We had brought a hammer and a sturdy five inch nail. We rolled a large log over to a tree we had selected, a black spruce that perched above the feeder stream. I climbed onto the log so that my boots were a good three feet off the ground. I detached the trout from its maple mount and drove the spike through the middle of the trout and into the spruce tree. We rolled the log away, and as Honor photographed my rainbow, I had a last look at him. It was drifting above its creek, pointed upstream towards the pure source of his water.

I was thinking about my father, the man who taught me to fish, but who never made time for himself to learn flyfishing. He had taken me and my friend Hyndman fishing on many occasions when he might more happily have lazed around the back yard, resting from his labours. Now he was an old man living with his wife far from the prairie of his youth, and unaware of this hairbrained scheme cooked up by my girlfriend and me. My father, who didn’t die after all. I was thinking that this moment by the creek, with the sound of Honor’s camera reminding me of another camera from many years ago, was an appropriate ending to our story.

§

But a story doesn’t end until someone writes it down. Honor and I got married in 1990. I had lost that fish-out-of-water feeling of being the odd man out. Oh yes, and she loves to flyfish.

It was time for my annual drive out to British Columbia to see my parents in their apartment. To get there, we had to go through Jasper, so once again we got a motel and went for a drive near Lake Edith. A man was fishing close to the feeder stream, and he noticed Honor and I looking for our old friend the rainbow up in his spruce tree.

We found the tree that had been his resting place, and the spike that had impaled him up there, but the rainbow was gone. We approached the angler, who was not a tourist but a local man.

“Bet I know what you was lookin for.”

“What?” said Honor.

“You was lookin for that Jesus big fish.”

We played dumb. “What fish would that be?” I said.

“Up there, over there, used to be a old rainbow trout, nailed to the tree. Huge thing.” He spread out his hands in that hyperbolic way of anglers. “No guff, it was three foot long. Musta weighed twenny pounds.”

Six pounds would be closer to the mark, several ounces lighter than Scot Smith’s biggest rainbow from the summer of ‘68. From having recently spawned, mine was a lean fish.

The man reeled in a gob of worms and a bobber and checked his bait for signs of predatory behavior. Then he stood and launched his wormy delight far out into the lake.

“Yessir, they’re in here.”

Playing dumb to the end, I asked him, “How did this monster fish get up in a tree?”

“They say it was some kind of a … like a totem, eh? Indian guy?”

I asked him where the fish was now.

“No one knows,” the man said, lounging next to his cooler. “Figure somebody took it.” He looked up at me. “For luck, eh?”

I still have Honor’s black and white photographs, the ones of the tail and the head separated by the window in my study. It’s the big space in between that draws one’s attention and invites one to imagine just how big that trout was. So it’s no longer a trophy, a vanity, a thing to make my father proud of me. It’s just a reminder now of that summer when my father looked over the edge but didn’t get carried away.

— David Carpenter

————————

David Carpenter was conceived in Saskatoon and born in Edmonton, where he grew up on Saskatchewan stories. He moved to Saskatoon in 1975 and began writing the following year. He spent 4 years working on a novel entitled The Loving of Michael Goggins, a modern version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His main characters were a Titania-like young woman, a pudgy Bottom-like man, and an homme fatal disc jockey. It was a story of ill-fated love, despair, romantic disenchantment and all those youthful, fun emotions. He finished the novel in 1980 and it was rejected in 18 days, a Canadian indoor record. That same year he finished his first short story and sent it to Saturday Night. They phoned him one evening when he was in his kitchen standing beneath a high beam. He had often tried to jump high enough to touch this beam, but he could never quite reach it. The editor told him that Saturday Night would like to “buy” his story. He had never heard that sentence uttered before. The editor asked him if $2,000 would be all right, and he told the man yes, that would be all right. Carpenter gave this reply in a tone suggesting that this sort of thing happened with boring regularity. When the phonecall ended, he leapt up into the air and slapped he beam above him and returned, very slowly, to earth. His novel Niceman Cometh was his 10th book, a story about a Titania-like single mom, a pudgy Bottom-like dreamer, and a flesh-foolish disc jockey in the Saskatoon of the 1990s. He launched a new book of fiction in the fall of 2009, a collection of novellas entitled Welcome to Canada.

       Carpenter is currently at work on Volume One of The Literary History of Saskatchewan. He also just finished working on a nonfiction book, A Hunter’s Confession, about the rise and fall of hunting as a pastime in North America.

       Carpenter’s writing credo is as follows (and it may not apply to poets): Most writers must learn to make a pact with dullness. Not boredom, or lack of imagination or passion, but dullness of routine. Keep your daily appointment with the computer screen and keep your ass on the chair until you’ve reached your daily quota. However rich your inner life may be, seek also the dullard within.

Jul 122012
 

Herewith an excerpt from Edouard Levé‘s Autoportrait, translated by Lorin Stein and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  On first encounter you might feel reluctant toward Levé’s prose since the sentences tend not to work together as in a standard narrative. The rhythm of his “I like,” “I have,” “I would,” I + verb will pull you along, though.  Also I’ve tried to choose a section with some of the more humorous (note: darkly) lines.

A few months ago, when The Paris Review ran a pre-publication excerpt of Autoportrait, I experimented with writing in its style because it looked too easy, too random.  It proved more difficult than expected.  A page or two was all I could muster.  I felt too exposed, too vulnerable. Also, to my surprise, the truthfulness of what I’d written started to feel rather shaky.  It’s extraordinary that Levé extents his self-revealing for 117 pages, and at times it’s painful. He lays out so much about himself that he seems to disappear in the bluster of his statements, a kind of self-erasure through self-exploratory prose perhaps meant to showcase his life. As he writes: “If I look in the mirror for long enough, a moment comes when my face stops meaning anything.”

Author photo via The Balloon Journey.

— Jason DeYoung

I reuse grocery bags as trash bags. I separate my recycling, more or less. Drinking puts me to sleep. In Hong Kong I knew someone who went out three nights a week, no more, no less. I believe that democracy is spreading in the world. The modern man I sing. I feel better lying down than standing up and better standing than seated. I admire the person who thought up the title The Last House on the Left. A friend told me about the “Red Man of the Tuileries,” I don’t remember what he did but the name still gives me shivers. The pediatrician my mother took me to humiliated generations of children, including me, with this riddle: “If Vincent leaves a donkey in one meadow and goes into another meadow, how many donkeys are there?” all said in a measured voice, and then he’d say, “There’s only one donkey—you” to any child, that is, every child, who didn’t answer “One.” I want to write sentences that begin “Ultimately.” I can understand “It’s the end,” “It’s the beginning of the end,” “It’s the beginning of the end of the beginning,” but once we get to “It’s the beginning of the end of the beginning of the end of the beginning,” all I hear is a bunch of words. I have sometimes annoyed an interlocutor by systematically repeating the last word he said. I never get tired of saying La fifille à son pépère (grandfather’s darling). One of my friends earns the admiration of some and the indifference of others by knowing the name and number of every département in France. My cousin Véronique is amazing. I sometimes think of the witty thing to say an hour later. At the table, I excused myself for splashing food on the spotless shirt of a friend by telling him: “You got in the way of my juice.” I take no pleasure in others’ misfortunes. I do not bow down before a metal idol. I am not horrified by my heritage. I do not till the earth. I do not expect to discover new marvels in classical music, but I’m sure of taking pleasure until I die in the ones I already know. I do not know whether one can improve on the music of Bach, but one can certainly improve on the music of several others who shall remain nameless. I admit to being wrong. I do not fight. I have never punched anyone. I have noticed that, on the keypads of Parisian front doors, the 1 wears out the fastest. I have sometimes turned my interlocutors against me by an excess of argumentation. I do not listen to jazz, I listen to Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday. I sometimes feel like an impostor without knowing why, as if a shadow falls over me and I can’t make it go away. If I travel with someone, I see half as much of the country as if I traveled by myself. One of my friends likes to travel in certain Middle Eastern countries where there is nothing to see but airports, deserts, and roads. I have never regretted traveling by myself, but I have sometimes regretted traveling with someone else. I read the Bible out of order. I do not read Faulkner, because of the translation. I made a series of pictures based on things that came out of my body or grew on it: whiskers, hair, nails, semen, urine, shit, saliva, mucus, tears, sweat, pus, blood. TV interests me more without the sound. Among friends I can laugh hard at certain unfunny TV programs that depress me when I’m alone. I never quite hear what people say who bore me. To me a simple “No” is pleasantly brief and upsettingly harsh. The noise level when it’s turned up too high in a restaurant ruins my meal. If I had to emigrate I would choose Italy or America, but I don’t. When I’m in a foreign country, I dream of having a house in Provence, a project I forget when I get back. I rarely regret a decision and always regret not having made one. I think back on the pain of affairs that never took place. The highway bores me, there’s no life on the side of the road. On the highway the view is too far away for my imagination to bring it to life. I do not see what I lack. I have less desire to change things than to change my perception of them. I take pictures because I have no real desire to change things. I have no desire to change things because I am the youngest in my family. I like meeting new people when I travel: these brief and inconsequential encounters have the thrill of beginnings and the sadness of separations. I wanted to write a book entitled In the Car, made up of remarks recorded while driving. To take pictures at random goes against my nature, but since I like doing things that go against my nature, I have had to make up excuses to take pictures at random, for example, to spend three months in the United States traveling only to cities that share a name with a city in another country: Berlin, Florence, Oxford, Canton, Jericho, Stockholm, Rio, Delhi, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Mexico, Syracuse, Lima, Versailles, Calcutta, Baghdad. When I decide to take a picture of someone I see in the street, I have ten seconds to notice the person, decide to take the picture, and go ask, if I wait it’s too late. I wear glasses. In my mouth, time moves slowly for candy. I have deeper to dig in myself. I see art where others see things. Between the solitude of the womb and the solitude of the tomb I will have hung out with lots of people. While driving a car past some meadows these words came to me: a tractor chicken and an elephant tent. I wish treatises were article- not booklength. In the United States I came across a village called Seneca Falls, which I mistranslated Les Chutes de Seneque (Seneca’s Falls). I have seen an ad for a vegetarian vehicle. I would like to see movies accompanied by inappropriate music, a comedy with goth rock, a children’s movie with music from a funeral, a romance with a brass band, a political film with a musical-comedy sound track, a war movie with acid rock, porn with a choir. I make fewer and fewer excuses. After I lick an envelope I spit. I don’t want to die suddenly but to see death slowly coming. I do not think I will end up in hell. It takes five minutes for my nose to forget a smell, even a very bad one, this doesn’t go for what I perceive with my other senses. I have weapons in my brain. I have read this sentence by Kerouac: “The war must have been getting in my bones.” Although I have always translated Deer Hunter as Chasseur de cerf, I still hear the echo of the mistranslation cher chasseur (dear hunter). I remember what people tell me better than what I said. I expect to die at the age of eighty-five. To drive at night through rolling hills by moonlight in summertime can make me shudder with pleasure. I look more closely at old photographs than contemporary ones, they are smaller, and their details are more precise. If not for religion and sex, I could live like a monk. My last and first names mean nothing to me. If I look in the mirror for long enough, a moment comes when my face stops meaning anything. I can stand around in several dozen different ways. I have carried women in my arms, I have not been carried by them. I have not hugged a male friend tight. I have not walked hand in hand with a male friend. I have not worn a friend’s clothing. I have not seen the dead body of a friend. I have seen the dead bodies of my grandmother and my uncle. I have not kissed a boy. I used to have sex with women my own age, but as I got older they got younger. I do not buy used shoes. I had an idea for an Amish punk band. Only once was I the first occupant of an apartment. I got into a motorcycle accident that could have cost me my life, but I don’t have any bad memories of it. The present interests me more than the past, and less than the future. I have nothing to confess. I have trouble believing that France will go to war in my lifetime. I like to say thank you. I cannot perceive the delay in mirrors. I don’t like narrative movies any more than I like the novel. “I do not like the novel” doesn’t mean I do not like literature, “I don’t like narrative movies” doesn’t mean I don’t like movies. Art that unfolds over time gives me less pleasure than art that stops it. The second time I walk the same route, I pay less attention to the view and walk faster. I let the phone ring until the answering machine screens the call. I spend two hours talking to one friend, but it only takes five minutes to end my conversation with another. When I’m on the phone, I don’t make any effort with my face. If I put off a phone call where something is at stake, the wait becomes more difficult than the call. I am impatient when waiting for a phone call but not when I have to make one. I have more good memories than bad ones. When I’m sure I like an article of clothing I buy a few of the same one. I do not wish to shine.

— Edouard Levé, translated by Lorin Stein

———-

 

Jun 132012
 

Author photo credit/copyright to Charlotte Lehman (lehmanc@garnet.union.edu)

“The Battleship of Maine” is a sweetly elegiac memoir of a father, a family genealogy, an homage to old American folk music, and a glimpse of a forgotten upstate New York universe. Jordan Smith is a fine poet and an old friend (see a selection of his poems published earlier on these pages)  also a musician and a story writer. He teaches at Union College in Schenectady, has won fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and has published six books of poetry including An Apology for Loving the Old Hymns (Princeton University Press) and Lucky Seven (Wesleyan University Press). His newest book, just out, is The Light in the Film  (University of Tampa Press). It’s wonderful to have him back.

Author photo credit/copyright to Charlotte Lehman (lehmanc@garnet.union.edu)

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I was driving on the New York Thruway from Rochester to Schenectady, and I was listening on the iPod to a compilation by The New Lost City Ramblers, which may already tell you more than you want to know about me. The song was “The Battleship of Maine,” about the Spanish American War, originally recorded by Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers, and it reminded me, for the first time in years, that my great-uncle Harry St. John had been a doctor in the army during that war. He had lived on South Avenue in Rochester, a few blocks from Highland Hospital, where I had just been arranging hospice care for my father, about to be discharged with what would surely become respiratory failure, although no one knew when. My father was ninety-three. Great-uncle Harry had also lived into his nineties. I hadn’t managed to spot his house on my drives to and from the hospital, but I remembered the oak floors and frames around the doors, the window seat, the hair-drier chairs in the back room he rented to a beauty salon, a chest of toys. Best of all, I remember that he and my great-aunt gave me the run of the place, although I was only seven or so, talked to me as if I were an intelligent and responsible person, and always gave me books for my birthday. I couldn’t have loved them more. And I remember, or think I do, seeing his uniform, a cap and a dress sword and maybe a jacket. I wasn’t old enough to know the questions I should have asked.

I’ve traveled—hitching, in my college years; driving cars, from a ’68 Rambler American to a Prius—across western and central New York over and over, on the Thruway, on Route 31 (“Pray for Me, I Drive Route 31” was a bumper-sticker I spotted on a truck once), or the pretty roads, farther south, that make up New York Routes 5 and 20. Whatever road I’ve been on, it has always seemed more like a journey through history than like driving to a destination. There were the yellow and blue historical markers that the state put up, and where my father would sometimes stop for a quick lesson in what had happened here. There were old locks from the Erie Canal, the decorated mansions of the solid nineteenth century and the equally distinctive plain houses of the canal towns, there were parking lots where battlefields had been and a tree at the site of a massacre. Though my father was the only son of an only son, there were branches and side-branches of his family all through the Catskills, where they had worked on the New York Ontario and Western Railroad (the “Old and Weary,” known for poor maintenance, sloppy management, and train crashes, some featuring my ancestors), taught school, farmed, joined the DAR, ran a country store, played the mandolin. I didn’t have much of this in narrative form, only in brief anecdotes, so recalling it was like looking at the box of nineteenth-century photographs in the cellar and wishing someone had thought to write the names on the backs.

The next song on the cd was “We’ve Got Franklin D. Roosevelt Back Again.” My father would have approved of its anti-prohibition sentiment, but he never, to put it mildly, approved of Roosevelt, and I learned better than to speak highly of the New Deal in his presence. My politics came from what we’ve come to call in my family “the big red history book,” a pictorial history of America with cartoons by Nast, maps and woodcuts, Hearst’s front page announcing the explosion of the Maine, photographs of the American invasion of the Philippines, Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick, FDR at Yalta. It also had, I realized when I reread it later and when the ideological work had already been irredeemably done, a distinctly leftist, or at least liberal Democratic cast, and reading it set me at variance with my father, probably for good. My mother had bought the book, but I think it pleased her because a family friend had once met the author (or was it his father?), and because it was printed on the thin, going-to-yellow paper of the years after the world war. I am not sure what her politics were, exactly. Like my father, she always voted Republican, but she entirely repudiated the prejudices that were part of his heritage.  Over his strong objections, she worked as a volunteer at the Baden Street Settlement House in the Joseph Avenue neighborhood. Once the home of her German family, and then Jewish, it had become the heart of the African-American community, and it would explode, like similar neighborhoods in other cities in the long hot summer of 1964, events that fired my father’s racial anxieties. She took me there once, along with an older boy, to play trumpet duets for her preschoolers, and she enrolled me for music lessons in the Hochstein School a few blocks away. When my father drove me there on Saturday mornings his tension was palpable.

It would not be fair to talk about my father’s reactions to the black faces on the sidewalks and in the newspapers without saying how much of this was due to his upbringing and how much to the combination of anxiety and depression that sent him to the state hospital on Elmwood Avenue, that cost him his job as a test engineer working on sophisticated vacuum coating devices, and that left him nearly immobilized for much of the next decade when he wasn’t working on grounds crews or as a high school janitor. When effective antidepressants became available, and when he got out of the guilt-driven therapy of the Freudians and into the care of a doctor who knew how to help him, he calmed down about many things, race and politics included, and he came to realize that the time when such attitudes had seemed normal was long gone. But he didn’t ever mellow about Roosevelt, and I never understood why. My father’s family was not wealthy, and they never stood to lose anything from the New Deal. They weren’t likely to benefit from repeal of the estate tax or to suffer from regulation of the banks. They were charitable and sympathetic to those in need; my great-grandfather, a trainmaster on the O&W, insisted that his wife feed any tramp who stopped by their back door, and he was known for generosity to the men who worked for him. But, on a tour of Roosevelt’s home at Hyde Park, I found a clue. One of the last stops was the servants’ quarters. I recognized the furniture there immediately. Dark brown stained wood cabinets, with drawers and little doors, and marble tops, it was the furniture from my parents’ spare bedroom. What my family had used and saved and savored, the Roosevelts had cast aside or bought as second-rate in the first place. The Roosevelts were patroons, as far as my father was concerned, and they had assumed authority as some kind of family right. That they might wish to appear benevolent in their use of it meant nothing. He had no objection to the wealth of others, but he had no tolerance for noblesse oblige. Its moral imperatives were too close to taxation without representation; its protestations of concern and understanding too close to condescension.

The mp3 player had shuffled to an anthology of classic American folk tunes from the Smithsonian, and the song was called “Policeman.” Shoot your dice and roll ‘em in the sand, says the singer, who earlier had bragged of getting the drop on a cop with his .44, I ain’t going to work for no damn man. My father worked most of his life for one damn man or another, and he took pride in doing his work right whether he was an engineer or a janitor, but I don’t think it was in his nature to have any master but himself, or to feel himself measured by any standard other than his own. When he retired, when his depression had receded, and when it no longer mattered what he had been, but only what he had done or would do, he was able to be free of almost everything except his affections.

History was one of these, especially the history of the Hudson Valley or of railroads. Before reading became too difficult, he was working his way through a biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt. If anything, he preferred a scoundrel. Though he liked what Charles Ives could do with a hymn tune and always loved Sousa, he didn’t share my taste for old-time country, and I don’t think he’d have much enjoyed hearing “Battleship of Maine,” unless I told him that it made me remember Great-uncle Harry and our visits to South Avenue. I wish, before they started him on the morphine, that I’d asked if he remembered the dress sword and cap, or if that was my memory making it up. Either way, it would have pleased him that I cared to remember this, when there was a good deal worse to recall between us.

School kids learn now that there was nothing glorious about the Spanish American War, a trumped-up colonial power grab with a first-rate publicity machine, that led to appalling cruelties in the Philippines, and from which we’ve apparently learned nothing. That’s history, the gift that keeps on giving. So why am I so pleased to have visited, all of seven years old, in the parlor of a tall, thin, white-haired man, a doctor and a soldier, in wire-rimmed glasses who paid me the almost frightening compliment of looking at me with the kind of intelligent appraisal, frank and welcoming and discerning, that, now that I think of it, seems as rare as a just war. I didn’t know anything about how or why he fought. I didn’t know anything about how hard my father, sitting beside we, would have to struggle to find himself changed in a world whose authorities he had every reason to distrust. I didn’t know that I’d grow up by way of books, and my mother’s absolute refusal to discriminate between those who might benefit from her kindness, and my father’s purgatory, to remember the awe I felt, without understanding, in the presence of history, suffering, and healing.

 — Jordan Smith

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Jordan Smith‘s sixth full-length collection, The Light in the Film, recently appeared from the University of Tampa Press. His story, “A Morning,” will be in the forthcoming issue of Big Fiction. He lives in eastern New York and teaches at Union College.

 

May 082012
 

This is a follow to the Christmas murder story Jean-Marie Saporito wrote about in her first “Letter from Taos” in January — intimate, intense, minimalist memoir, Chekhov crossed with Barry Hannah but telling the truth, with a female sensibility that is sassy, unafraid of her own peccadilloes and desires. What was wonderful in the earlier piece and still holds here is Jean-Marie’s ability to create a dense weave of narrative vectors: murder, femme fatale, sobering up, a cowboy lover, an indiscretion, and the words of historical cowgirls. Jean-Marie is a former student of mine at Vermont College of Fine Arts where she received her MFA. She lives in Taos. For her first “letter” she wrote, “If you want, you can add to my bio that I’m dating a cowboy. You know what a cowboy is? A man who can handle cows — ride, rope, herd. I’m learning a lot.”

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I saw the femme fatale of the Christmas murder at my friend’s party. Let’s call her T. to protect what little may be left of her privacy. The papers had graciously kept her anonymous. T. is 17, a child I’ve known since my son and she were in kindergarten. I had heard that the girl had hid in the closet and listened while Charles shot Dylan and that she’d since sobered up. So when I saw T. at this intimate party of recovering women junkies and drunks, I knew, without asking, she was the girl who’d hid in the closet that night.

At this party we played a raucous game of Cowgirls Ride the Trail of Truth. This board game, which the hostess, M., created several years ago, is a version of Truth or Dare, only the dare is to tell the truth. On the front of the cards are quotes from cowgirls like R.C. Jonas (1904) — “To have courage is to have the life you want.” On the cards’ backs are different categories of questions — family and friends, experience and history, sex and body.

My turn from the sex and body category — “What would you do if you woke up one morning and discovered you had a penis instead of a vagina?”

“Fuck the first girl I could!” someone shouted, another, “Masturbate!” We screeched and laughed at our unseemliness. I noticed T. smiling.

I left the party to see my cowboy. We fought over my admitted indiscretion with another man. My cowboy had a violent past, now many years behind him. Still, I considered the game I was playing.

On Valentine’s day, at a burlesque show at the local solar station bar, I saw T.’s mother. I was there with friends, having refused to see my cowboy lover. Maintaining the pretense of T.’s anonymity, I mentioned to her mother that I had seen her daughter recently, that she is such a sweet girl, that she remembered me. I didn’t have the courage to tell T.’s mother I don’t think the Christmas murder was her daughter’s fault. Instead of taking her hand and lamenting motherhood’s travails, I pretended that nothing had happened, and smiled, commenting on the show and the sweet bits of cake we were eating.

A few days later, my cowboy gave me my Valentine’s presents — jewelry, flowers, and a box of condoms.

From the cowgirl, Kathy Willow (1881): “Everything has a meaning, but sometimes I just can’t figure out what it is.”

 —Jean-Marie Saporito

 

Apr 272012
 

My grandmother’s house was next thing to a museum warehouse, crowded with antiques and heirlooms. Every object had a story, a genealogy and a book of memories attached. At the drop of a hat, my grandmother would recite provenance and price, and tell the stories attached to the silver water jug, the diamond-glass breakfront, the drop-leaf table. My mother does the same today. Always to me, this seemed like a mysterious form of female knowledge, a special sort of lore — a distant male cousin was a collector, but collecting doesn’t derive from the same impulse, the impulse to meld object and memory.

Dawn Raffel has the gene, she could have been a blood relative. The short essays or vignettes in her gorgeous illustrated memoir The Secret Life of Objects wrap translucent memories, character and an appreciation of tactile beauty around a litany of possessions — in the following essays excerpted from the book, an Oriental rug and pottery seconds (or a moonstone ring in an essay published earlier on NC). The objects function psychologically as mnemonic devices; they function structurally to motivate narrative; and they function aesthetically as symbols — they are an ancient form of knowledge, deftly resurrected and deployed in a contemporary setting. They remind us that memory is absence, that the ultimate meaning of the objects is their capacity to temporarily contain some vestige of what has been left behind, the melancholy texture of life lived —  beautiful and achingly poignant.

The Secret Life of Objects is forthcoming in June with Jaded Ibis Productions.

Dawn hosts a discussion page at her web site. She hopes readers will take the opportunity of posting their own objects there.

And there will be a book party in New York on June 13. Watch her web page for more information.

dg

 

 

The Rug


My maternal grandmother liked elegant old things and she would go to auctions to find them—end tables and porcelain urns and pretty rugs and lamps. By the time my grandparents were moving from the apartment where they’d raised my mother and uncle to a one-bedroom, my grandmother had amassed a collection of real Oriental rugs that she couldn’t take with her.

My mother didn’t want them. She liked everything modern: white leather, white carpet, chrome and glass. And so the only rug that stayed in the family was a tiny oriental rectangle that sat under my grandmother’s tea cart at the mouth of her galley kitchen. The cart was used to hold dishes to be brought to the little eating nook or to wheel demi glasses of tomato juice with lemon out to the metal folding table set up in the living room for Thanksgiving dinner.

My grandmother loved to cook and bake—from that cramped kitchen emerged paprika chicken with mushrooms and rice, lamb chops with jelly, key lime pie, lemon meringue, pineapple strudel, sponge cake and chocolate cake, layered and frosted and studded with walnuts. She would feed us and fuss, and each time we said goodbye, tears welled in her eyes. Sometimes she would mail us food she’d made.

My mother put cooking in the same box as old furniture and religious ritual—something oppressive, from a generation where women were subservient. She liked to remind me that her own grandmother had died of a heart attack while standing in a hot kitchen making Rosh Hashana dinner. She would point out her mother’s ankles swelling over the tops of her shoes as she stood at the counter chopping nuts or over the burner boiling dumplings. My mother wanted out with the old—the old country ways, old habits, obligations, dark and heavy furnishings, things that looked traditional or, worse, antique. Still, after my grandmother died and my grandfather moved out to California, my mother brought home that tiny rug, and she often lamented that she’d let the others go. She brought home her mother’s monogrammed purses (her own initials, always, not those of some designer), her gloves, her pinned hats. Her glassware and dishes, although they were heavily chipped. Her ornate gold watch, which my mother never wore (“After I die,” my mother said, “take it to New York and sell it.”  But my sister wanted it, although she never wears it either.) I believe those rugs were the only things she had given away and wished she’d had back. The sole remaining one went in my mother’s downstairs bathroom—there really wasn’t any other place for it in her white/glass/chrome suburban townhouse. It got threadbare.

Emptying my mother’s desk and dresser drawers after her death, I found notes everywhere, addressed to me and to my sister, having to do with what she wanted done with her possessions. Some of these notes must have been 20 years old, judging by the faded ink and by the fact that they referred to people long deceased as if they were alive. Some were more recent. All where handwritten. One of them instructed me to take the Oriental rug.

I had given that rug no thought at all and had no idea what to do with it. But here was my mother, dead, and still talking to me. I didn’t dare leave it, didn’t dare give it away. Right now the rug is under the desk in the office where I write.

 

 

Seconds

 

When the children were small, almost every night when the weather was good, or simply good enough, I used to meet three other women in the park. We met around 7, after work. Our husbands were working later than we were—two were chefs in restaurant kitchens half the night. Exhausted from babies and toddlers and jobs and laundry and dishes that did not end, we’d heave our kids into the baby swings and push them and push them and pull them out—Brendan’s toddler cowboy boots would catch in the swing’s leg holes—and help them up ladders and into and out of wide plastic tunnels and chase them as they chased after fireflies across the open lawn. These weren’t the alpha moms who would soon appear in town, angling their $800 strollers into the new Starbucks. We dressed in sweats and leggings and oversized Ts. No one worked in publishing, as I did, or trafficked in words. These were women who, had my children been born in an ever so slightly different time or place, I would never have met: a chef, a chef, a caterer/potter. I think they saved my life.

We’d stay until well after darkness fell in the park or else leave to get what might have been the world’s worst pizza (fake cheese, tasteless—but the owner tolerated, with minimal dirty looks, our noise and detritus). One Christmas eve, two of the women, with their husbands, who were, for once, not working in restaurants, converged at our house. (Imagine the pressure of cooking for that many professional chefs—in an act of cowardice, I let my husband do it.) The five kids under six didn’t last long at the table, seized as they were by the kind of anticipatory frenzy that is usually only possible in the very young. I’m sure there was a great mess and that we were dead tired but what I remember are the children shrieking in delight. I also remember the other two women, trained in restaurant kitchens, converging on mine like a SWAT team; I have never seen anyone deep-clean anything so fast.

What happened in the following year was school. Boys played with boys, and girls with girls. We had homework now, and sensible bedtimes. C, the potter, moved farther than walking distance, to a house where she had her own kiln. Little by little, the park nights stopped.

The other three women are now divorced. K left town. T, I see rarely—we wave when we pass. Every so often, though, I hang out with C, the potter whose skinny boy is now a well-built, tall young man. We lost a mutual friend last year, at 50, to cancer, a woman whose son is the same age as ours. C still throws in her kiln-equipped basement—bowls, vases, and dishes that she sells in Manhattan. I’ve bought several of her graceful blue and green serving pieces. But C knows the ones I like best are the $5 seconds—the ones she can’t sell in stores: The glaze has dripped and bubbled, the clay shows in patches, the color, when baked, turned wonderfully strange. Perfection is sometimes the enemy of good. Besides, I like a lucky accident.

— Dawn Raffel

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Dawn Raffel’s previous books are two story collections — Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In the Year of Long Division — and a novel, Carrying the Body. She is the books editor at Reader’s Digest and the editor of The Literarian, the online journal of the Center for Fiction in New York.

“The Rug” was previously published at The Milan Review.

 

 

 

Apr 252012
 

 

My father and I used to go to the movies together. I am thinking about the time when I was nine and we saw The Pink Panther Strikes Again. I am thinking about the antics of Peter Sellers as the French detective Clouseau and of his ambushing major domo Cato, played by the actor Burt Kwouk. Pure hilarity ensued each and every time the bungling Chief Inspector returned to his Parisian apartment. Bedecked in a tweed trilby hat and trench coat, the mustachioed Clouseau would enter his flat en garde, stalking the seemingly empty rooms poised for battle with an unseen foe. When at last Cato sprang from the shadows, a veritable tsunami of destruction followed as the two men wrestled for primacy. Bookcases and chandeliers fell. Porcelain teacups crashed and shattered. Their combat moved from room to room, overturning china cabinets, snapping tables in half. In slow-motion action, a bed frame crumpled under the weight of the mock-pugilists, now poised like lovers on top of another. Then, at the height of this pitch-perfect bedlam, with uncanny comedic timing, Clouseau’s telephone rang. All pandemonium ceased. On screen, swirling plaster streamers—the aftermath of pitched battle—fell from the ceiling like snow.

Clouseau stood and collected himself. He pulled his silk robe straight, smoothed over his rubble-laden hair in an attempt to restore dignity, and searched for the ringing phone in the fallout of his once pristine bachelor pad. As he picked up the receiver, its fuse-like cord dangling into the debris, Clouseau snapped his heels and popped to attention. This was the movie’s call to action. And Clouseau, in a voice brimming with exaggerated confidence and a buttery French accent, accepted it. But before the scene shifted, in a climactic masterstroke of comedic genius, the incompetent but charmed detective took a final swat—a death-blow sucker punch—at the unsuspecting Cato, rendering the hapless servant unconscious or worse.

Clouseau

This ritualistic gag between Clouseau and Cato never failed to satisfy. It never failed to elicit anything short of guffawing appreciation from my father and me. In no small way, the film oriented my relationship with my father, a tunneling of inside jokes based on the shared experience of watching a movie together. Those tunnels remain open to this day, shored up like a vast catacomb of oft-quoted lines resurrected again and again across time and distance.

Thomas Wolfe, the lyrical and lanky Southern author, once wrote of seeking “the great, forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven.”  For my father and me, the movies, especially comedies, offered up a private language—an argot of quips, bawdy put-downs and one-liners—which provided us a flickering glimpse into Wolfe’s paradise. Whatever threadbare conversation we’ve sustained over the years, so much of it has been held together by the patchwork of the movies we once watched.  We have recycled laughter and eschewed life’s complex realities in favor of roustabouts’ banter.

“Which of us has looked into his father’s heart?” Wolfe asks in Look Homeward Angel. “Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?” How much easier it is to dwell in laughter than to ponder such questions.

In my mind, it was a Saturday, at the start of those glorious two weeks of winter vacation. The theater sat at the intersection of Southbridge Street and Main Street in downtown Worcester. Constructed in 1904, in the very infancy of moving pictures, the building first opened as a performing arts center in the already decaying heart of the once vibrant mill town. In 1967, two years before I was born, the theater became a Cineplex. For the next thirty years, it showed movies on the silver screen before closing and falling into disrepair, only to be remodeled and reopened as a performance theater again in the last few years. I might have held my father’s hand as we walked through the lobby that day. Surely we stopped for popcorn and Cokes at the snack bar.

Stepping inside the cinema’s massive interior, lined with ornate plaster work and red-velour carpets—hints of a more formal past—it felt like the opening act of a dream. I remember the balcony seats and brass railings, the way the air smelled of butter and boot soles, licorice and lemonade. I remember feeling contained by the place, enveloped by its grand ceiling, its massive chandelier which dimmed as the giant screen slowly emerged from behind the parting ceiling-to-floor red curtains.  It was unlike any movie theater I’ve ever seen since.

In his short story “Behind the Blue Curtain,” Steven Millhauser describes the near-holy ritual of a boy going to see a movie with his father. “On Saturday afternoons in summer my father took me to the movies. All morning long I waited for him to come down from his study, frowning at the bowl of his pipe and slapping the stairs with his slipper-moccasins, as though the glossy dark bowl, the slippers, the waiting itself were a necessary part of my long-drawn-out passage into the realm of the dark.” Though my memory is wintry, and though my father wore Converse instead of moccasins, and smoked cigars instead of a pipe, Millhauser perfectly captures a young boy’s fascination. The occult memories of such a day linger, a spectacle right up there with trips to Fenway Park and Christmas Eve Mass.

 

That December day, my father told me we were going to visit a priest after the movie. Even then, this struck me as odd. Dad wasn’t a churchgoer. He attended only under pressure, usually from my mother. The original Christmas Catholic, he never spoke about his beliefs. On those rare, rafter-shaking occasions when I saw him in the pews, he looked uncomfortable there, acting in a role he wasn’t meant to play. Why on earth would he be taking me to visit a priest?

After the movie, we emerged from the dark theater to a world transformed. A thick blanket of snow had fallen in the two hours since we entered. White powder covered gray sidewalks and swirled in the air. If there is a more purely magical event in life than that of a sudden snowstorm, I’ve yet to find it.

We walked along Worcester’s busy Main Street and the movie echoed in my head. Clouseau had again defied the odds, defeated arch criminals and laser death rays. He emerged the hero, riding a wave of dumb luck and opportunistic incompetence. His certainty buoyed me as we headed toward the rectory at St. Paul’s Cathedral, as though my life too could be organized along these lines, with laughter, bon temps and predictable outcomes.

It was only a short walk from the theater’s lobby, a block down Main then left on the now-snowy Chatham Street to the cathedral. A layer of snow coated the ground. Steam rose from grates on the street. From a nearby restaurant came the thick smell of frying food, a carnival smell, a delicious odor somewhere between fresh donuts and golden French fries. It made your mouth water, made you want to rush inside and order everything on whatever menu promised such delight. Life seemed, in that blissful moment, archetypically divine.

Dad and I crossed the street, stepping though slush trails from passing cars, and reached the gate of the rectory at St. Paul’s. I must have been thinking of Christmas presents. I must’ve been anticipating the bounty of two weeks off from the trenches of fourth grade. The snow had coated everything by then, an inch at least, maybe more. The snow fell as big flakes and varnished the ground in a heavenly white. That warm, greasy-spoon smell was so strong that my stomach roiled with anticipation.

Then, just before my father rang the rectory doorbell, I saw something that has stayed with me for almost thirty years.

A man was in the alley adjacent to and behind the movie theater. The man’s dark clothes were tattered and layered thick. Everything about his face looked strange somehow, like Clouseau in the wrong costume, his disguise gone grotesquely awry. The man’s hair was wild, long and filthy. The exposed parts of his skin—his face, his fingers, the back of his neck—flushed red from the cold. Snow dusted his shoulders. He stood hunched over, perhaps sheltering himself from the cold, or perhaps the posture was just a result of life on the streets.

I watched him for a while, standing next to my father who saw him too. We were waiting for the priest to buzz us into the rectory. The man moved between one trash can and another, always carefully replacing the lids as he went and bowing, almost as if in prayer. It seemed such an oddly polite gesture, almost gentle. What was he doing? The realization seemed to come slowly, but the entire moment couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds. The man’s soiled hands were rummaging through trash cans. Lifting the silver lids and diving in, he pulled out food wrappers and placed them to his mouth.

He was eating the trash.

The diffuse, savory air suddenly went sour in my stomach. I wanted to run. I wanted to run away from everything, from my father, from the rectory we were about to enter, from the snowy Worcester streets and from this abject misery. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t move.

It was as though I’d been ambushed. As though something sinister had jumped out of the shadows and knocked me down. I wasn’t prepared for it. I hadn’t entered this scene the way Clouseau would have, en garde, ready for the attack. I wasn’t engaged in mock-battle with my faithful manservant. I wasn’t play-fighting on a mirthful stage.  It was as though the script had been rewritten, the farce between Clouseau and Cato had suddenly turned, as though their combat had turned deadly and their play-violence had become macabre. It was as though Clouseau was thrust onto the scene of an actual crime and his incompetence revealed.

In a single flash, the laughter stopped. There would never be a one-liner to make this image go away. In front of me was a man eating trash. It pierced my soul.

Of course I felt none of this then. I felt only a tug, the merest pinprick of sorrow and pity that could just as easily have passed and been forgotten. How could the boy I was that snowy day know that he would carry this feeling for the rest of his life?

The rectory door opened and we stepped inside. The man eating trash disappeared.

As I think back on this day, I wonder if it was real. I wonder if the events really happened the way I’ve reconstructed it. I want to ask my father about it. I want to ask him if he remembers the movie, if he remembers the man on the street. I want to ask him why we went to visit a priest that day thirty-five years ago.

“Do you remember the time we went to see that Pink Panther movie?” I ask. I live on the opposite coast now, but we talk several times a week.  “Do you remember when we went and visited that priest?”

My father laughs.  He has been drinking. I hear the way his words seem to lean in his voice, as if they are holding on to some invisible rail, about to stumble off the edge of a cliff. I can tell within the first eight seconds of any conversation with my father how much he’s had to drink.

“Father Mahan,” he says.  He knows exactly what I’m talking about, even after all this time. “He was a good guy.”

“How did you know him, Dad?” I ask.  I’m careful not to delve into the real questions, into why in the world we would have gone to the cathedral that day when my father never went to church.

“Oh, he was a nice man,” my father says. His voice pitches higher under the strain of memory and the distilled sugarcane vapors of his now-preferred Puerto Rican rum. “He was just a good guy. I’d take you there after the movies and I’d have a drink with him.”

There is something bumbling about my father’s memory, made maudlin by years of hard-drinking and the ravages of time. I only remember going to the rectory that one time, though my dad speaks of it as if it was yesterday. The narrative of his memory often doesn’t match my own but the salience of those experiences remains undiminished.

He tells me that Father Mahan was killed in a car wreck a while back, but we don’t dwell for long in these somber places. We never do.

“I’d take you there sometimes,” he says.  “After the movies. I’d have a few beers with him. He was a nice man.”

My dad laughs, but his laughter suffuses with sadness. “He was such a nice man,” my father says again.

His voice drifts. Rather than digging deeper, rather than pressing about the priest, rather than asking him about the man I saw that day, I steer the conversation back to our script. I won’t allow my father’s boozy sadness to leach into my own loneliness. These are long-standing rules. I realize, somewhat reluctantly, that I am as much responsible for maintaining them as he is. I’m not going to ask him about the man in the alley. I’m not going to reveal myself to my father. Instead, I return to what has sustained us.

“Does your dog bite?” I say, quoting Clouseau.

Our ritual of repeating lines can be maddening at times, but it also acts as a salve. Decades ago, when we watched the movies we now quote, they were happier times, before my parents split up, while my dad was still young and athletic and the future still hopeful. What has passed in the intervening years is simply life: pain, sorrow, estrangement, divorce, death—happy things, too, but far less comedic than what we must have expected that day. What we share now, what we hold like some sort of tentative cease-fire, is a mise-en-scène dialectic. Our conversations are heavily scripted. There is hardly an ad-libbed line anymore.  We have developed an unwavering system of keeping the peace, of never dredging too deep. I work as hard at it as he does, never leading the scene astray. When it gets too heavy, too emotional, when it teeters on the edge, like it is now, we go back to the cue cards.

“That is not my dog,” my father says in perfect Clouseau echolalia.

We’ve got a million of ‘em.

 

Inside, the rectory was warm and bright. Amidst crucifixes and grim oil paintings of saints and countless depictions of Christ’s all-too familiar suffering, Father Mahan shook my hand and smiled at me. I remember him being a big man, with red hair and a ruddy face. We stayed longer than felt comfortable. I want to say that my dad and the priest shared a beer, but I don’t remember. I doubt they spoke of spiritual matters. My father was certainly not one to open up, especially not to a priest.

How such a triangle ever existed—my faithless father, that Irish priest and the homeless man—remains an utter mystery to me. The day re-forms as but the thinnest shell around a glimpse of a vast and unknowing emptiness. There is a haunted divide between what I feel and what I know. Then, like now, I must have wanted to ask my father about what I’d seen.  I must have wanted to ask the priest. I must have wanted one of those men to put a context on what I’d witnessed, to frame it for me, in a way that reassembled my cracked world. Surely these men knew. Surely they could offer an explanation. If only I had asked. But I was terrified of giving voice to what I felt. I was probably terrified of even feeling it.

On the phone, I don’t ask my father about the man eating trash. I don’t ask him why he visited the priest that day. It seems enough to share the simpler memories, of the movie, of a few lines, though sometimes I wonder what would happen if I could step past my doubt and fear. My failure has always been silence. I feel that deeply.

Decades have passed. Peter Sellers has died and The Pink Panther has been remade with Steve Martin. Father Mahan is dead. My father survived a bout of cancer and heart surgery and has begun to encounter the rocky shoals of an old age. I, too, am a father now, constructing memories with my own kids, wondering what they will take away into their lives. Almost certainly that man rummaging through the garbage cans has died. Almost certainly he is buried in some Potter’s field, or perhaps, on a more hopeful note, he was reclaimed by family, a lost son brought home, and, at last, restored to some dignity in death.

Comedy is festooned with deep truths. We laugh, often to avoid crying. We pepper our consciousness with simple-minded heroes like Chief Inspector Clouseau in order to shut out the grimmer realities of what wanders along at the margins of our lives. It is one way of coping.

My father and I forged a deep bond that day at the movies. We acquired vocabulary for the common language which we continue to speak. Though the gaps between us have widened, the connections remain strong, sustained by revisiting the various films we once watched together. The movies revealed a world at once marvelous and impossible, ridiculous and haunted. In time, as it must, the sublime slapstick gave way to more harrowing realities. The laughter from those memories remains a less lyrical though no-less vital descendant of Wolfe’s homeward looking angel. We are only offered glimpses into the mystery, flickering frames viewed from the balcony of an old theater, but they have to suffice. Soon, the final credits will roll, the lights will come up and it will be time to go. But for now, we enjoy the laughter.

—Richard Farrell

Richard Farrell is  the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including fiction, memoir, craft essays, and book reviews, has been published at Hunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq, and A Year in Ink anthology. His essay “Accidental Pugilism” (which first appeared on Numéro Cinq in a slightly different form) has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  He lives in San Diego with his wife and children.

Mar 302012
 

Herewith an essay on Mormonism, diverse spiritualities, marriage, and a contemporary quest to repair a damaged heart. Phyllis Barber is a dear friend and former colleague from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s also a Mormon, a product, as she says, of that “all-encompassing culture,” and an adventurous soul. She is the author of seven books: novels, stories and memoirs, including her delightful early reminiscences in  How I Got Cultured: A Nevada Memoir and her most recent book Raw Edges: A Memoir. Lately she has been working on a new collection of essays, entitled Searching for Spirit (from which the essay below is taken), about her twenty-year hiatus from Mormonism when she traveled the world and participated in many religious and spiritual experiences with shamans in Peru and Ecuador, Tibetan Buddhist monks in North India, Baptist congregations in South Carolina and Arkansas, goddess worshipers in the Yucatan, with African American congregations, and diverse megachurches. The theme of Mormonism is interlaced with these narratives as well as the belief in the Mormon teaching of a personal God. As Phyllis says, this her “attempt to come to peace with co-existence and reiterate the idea of religious tolerance—God being found in the faces of strangers.”

dg

 



Part One – 1985

My three sons bolt out the side door, late for school, scraping their backpacks against the door frame which is already scarred. I avoid looking at the pile of breakfast dishes. Cold egg yolk. Blackened crumbs. Drowned mini-wheats. I can’t help notice, however, the specks of yesterday’s cake mix, flipped from the wire arms of the electric beater, dotting the kitchen window above the sink. Later for that. Inside the refrigerator where I turn to find inspiration for tonight’s dinner, an amoeba-shaped puddle of grape juice jells on the glass shelf. I close the door covered with magnets and photos of boys with the-orthodontist-needs-to-be-visited teeth. I leave this messy kitchen, this reminder of my ineptitude which will depress me even more if I think about it much longer.

I need to talk to someone. But who wants to listen? Who would I tell anyway? Maybe I should get on my knees and talk to God but I need to move more than I need to stay still. I need to feel my body alive—arms stretching up and out, blood speeding through my veins. Mid-step in the front hall where family and visitors come and go, I’m struck with an idea.

I turn the corner to the family room. It’s filled with furniture, but because I feel compelled to dance, I’m suddenly an Amazon woman. I push the wing chair to the wall. The sofa as well. Now there’s space, enough space, and it feels as though it might be possible, instead of praying to God, that maybe I could dance with Him somehow, that He could take me in His arms. Today. Right now.

I thumb through my stack of albums until I find Prokofiev’s “Concerto No. l for Piano & Orchestra, Op. 10,” lift the record out of the sleeve, and set it on the turntable. Aiming the needle, I find the first groove and wait for the ebb and flow of the orchestra, the in and out. The three beginning chords cause my arms to pimple with goose flesh. I take two steps to the middle of the room and raise my arms above my head in a circle, fingertips touching.

I move, slowly at first, one foot pointed to the right as if I were the most elegant ballerina in the most satin of toe shoes. At first, my right leg lifts poetically, delicately for such a long leg. The other knee bends in a demi-plié. But as the music swarms inside and splits into the tributaries of my veins and vessels and becomes blood, things become more primitive. I stamp the pressing beat into the floor. I bend to one side and then the other, my arms swimming through air. I’m a willow, a genie escaping the bottle, the wind. I’m the scars in the face of the earth opening to receive water that runs heedlessly in spring. I’m light. I’m air. The magic carpet of music carries me places where I can escape—to the Masai Mara I’ve visited on TV, where bare legs of tribal dancers reflect the light of a campfire and beaded hoops circle their necks, or maybe to the Greek islands I’ve seen on travel posters with their red-roofed white houses stark against the cobalt blue sky and water. The music lifts me out of this minute, this hour, this day. I’m dancing to the opening and closing of the heart valves, to the beat of humanity, dancing, giving my all to the air, giving it up to the room. Whirling. Bending. Leaping. Twisting. Twirling and twirling to the beat. Yes. Dancing. Getting close to what God is, I suspect.

After a dizzying finale where the chords build to a climax until there is no more building possible, the release comes. The final chord. The finale. The sound dies away, as if it had never been there. The room still swirls, passing me by even as I stand still, panting, trying to return my breathing to normal once again. I’m dizzy. I steady myself in the middle of the Persian rug and wonder why Prokofiev had to write an end to this concerto. I can hear the tick of the needle on the record in the black space left on the vinyl. I stand quietly until the room stops with me, until the sense of having traveled elsewhere fades away.

I look at this sky blue family room in our home in Salt Lake City where my husband David and I are raising our children—the family pictures on the wall, including one of Geoffrey, our first son who was born with hemophilia and who died at the age of three from a cerebral hemorrhage. I look at his quizzical expression looking back from behind the picture glass. It’s as if he’s asking, “Why, Mama?” I pause, wanting to speak, wanting to answer him, but words have no meaning. Maybe they never did. My eyes shift to the framed copy of David’s and my college graduation diplomas; the Persian carpet with its blue stain where our son, Chris, spilled a bucket of blue paint when he was two; the sandstone hearth where our son, Brad, fell not once, but twice, and split open his head which had to be stitched together in the emergency room. Everything slipstreams in my peripheral vision: the bookcase with its many volumes of books, psychological tomes, religious scriptures, all of which are supposed to have answers; the leather wing chair peppered with the points of darts thrown when I, Mother, wasn’t looking and before I, Mother, hid the darts in a secret place; the wooden floor which I’m supposed to polish once a week with a flat mop and its terry-cloth cover. I, the Mother, stand here looking at the things which verify my place in the world and also at the evidence telling me that I haven’t always been watchful at the helm—I, the Mother who is supposed to make the world all right for her husband and children; I, the Mother, the heart of the home, the protector, the nurturer. I think I should dance again, turn the music loudly before my mind chases me into that place where I feel badly about myself again.

I learned dancing from my father who loved to polka when Lawrence Welk’s Orchestra played on television and at dance festivals sponsored by my church when I was a teenager. We danced the cha cha, tango, and Viennese waltz. At age twenty-one, I danced myself into a Mormon temple marriage and made promises to help build the Kingdom of God here on earth. I gave birth to four sons whom I dressed each Sunday for church meetings. I tried to be a good wife. I canned pears and ground wheat for bread, I taught Relief Society lessons and accompanied singers and violinists on the piano, I bore testimony to the truthfulness of the gospel countless numbers of times. Yet dancing seems to be my real home—the place where I can feel the ecstasy of the Divine, this dancing.

Last night as I twisted and turned in bed with my newfound knowledge that there’s another woman in my husband’s life and with the realization that things are changing in my marriage, which I thought would always be in place and always be there for me, I felt tempted to jump out of bed, open the blinds, and search the night sky for the letter of the law burnished among the stars—a big, pulsing neon sign that said, “Thou Shalt Not Endure to the End.” Except that’s all I know how to do: persist, endure, keep dancing. Things have to work out, don’t they?

Mormons are taught not only to endure to the end, but to persist in the process of perfecting themselves: “As man is now, God once was; As God is now, man may be.” Lorenzo Snow, fifth president of the LDS Church, penned the often-repeated couplet after he heard Joseph Smith’s lecture on this doctrine. I’ve tried for perfection, but maybe I haven’t thought that word through to its logical conclusion. Maybe I haven’t wondered enough about who is the arbiter of perfection.

Perfection. Freedom from fault or defect. Is that possible? Perfection is a nice idea, but that definition makes the idea of becoming like God stifling. It’s tied to shoulds, oughts, and knots that bind, rather than releasing one to live a full life and to dance the dance. Even Brigham Young said, “Let us not narrow ourselves up.”1 Trying to be perfect when the world and David have no intention of complying with my notions of perfection is killing me.

I hear the telephone ringing. I don’t want to leave this room just yet. I want to bring back the music, to keep God here with me, even if he has places to go, things to do, and I, too, have my responsibilities. But, I think, if God is my Father, then I am his daughter. I need to trust that he’ll always be with me somehow, that there will be a next dance.

Ignoring the phone, I think of something William James said in The Varieties of Religious Experience about how a prophet can seem a lonely madman until his doctrine spreads and becomes heresy. But if the doctrine triumphs over persecution, it becomes itself an orthodoxy. The original spring of inspiration dries up and its followers live at second hand in spite of whatever goodness this new religion may foster, stifling the fountain from which it drew its supply of inspiration.

Why am I thinking about William James right now? Do I suspect I’m caught in the web of orthodoxy? Am I inflexible and is my spring dry? Am I living at second hand—unwilling to consider any other options to my parents’ teachings and my Mormon upbringing? But I don’t feel inflexible when I dance. I’m the fountain that bubbles, even the source of this fountain—the water. I raise both arms to the ceiling as if to lift off, hoping I can stretch into the heavens. “Don’t leave me,” I want to call out, though I don’t say that out loud. “I am with you,” I hear him say, though he doesn’t say that out loud either.

Daylight pours through the windows, exchanging the light in this room for that of the day. My hands press flat against each other in front of my heart, “Thanks for the dance,” I whisper. “Thank you,” I think I hear him whisper back. The telephone has stopped ringing. A floorboard creaks beneath my foot. I can hear the refrigerator humming down the hall. Commerce and industry, motherhood, and wifehood, with all of their demands calling again.

 

Part Two – 1991

One particular Bedouin catches my attention. He’s carrying plates away from our feast, preparing for after-dinner entertainment. Omar Sharif, I can’t help but thinking. What else does a first-time-in-Jordan, U.S. citizen know—those molten eyes and their hint of “the Casbah?” Of course, this is my movie-acquired understanding. He could be a thousand things, maybe a Muslim appearing for tourists to make ends meet, to feed his children, maybe the leader of a motorcycle gang, or he could be, plain and simply, a wanderer or a gypsy. But it’s useless to care about definitions this evening as we gather in this tent in the desert, two small groups of tourists wanting a glimpse into the mysterious life of a Bedouin.

One week before this night, my husband David and I had sailed down the Nile hoping to understand a portion of the ancient wisdom of Egypt. But the Sphinx and the gargantuan pharoahs carved into stone were hugely silent. We could only guess with our clichéd bits of Egyptology—King Tutankhamun, Cleopatra, Rameses, Isis, Ra the Sun King—and our memories from our Sunday School Bible studies: Joseph with his coat of many colors, Pharoah’s dreams, Potiphar’s wife, and Moses, of course Moses.

At nights between visits to Luxor, Edfu, Aswan, on board our sailing vessel, our lively crew, their lithe bodies swaying like river reeds, pulled all of us by our hands to the middle of waxed floorboards. Ouds thrummed; doumbeks pounded. And we danced: a lightening of bones and a suspension of time. We turned and swayed on the boat’s deck until I felt lost in my body—released from my neck, no brain to run the show, swept away by the flow of the unconscious in my flesh and in the other dancers. Nepenthe. A release of cares, such as the fact that David’s and my marriage was on its last legs.

At the end of our Nile run, we boarded a tour bus and headed toward the Sinai Peninsula. We were excited to see the place where Moses parted the Red Sea with his staff, found his way through the impenetrable clouds covering Mt. Sinai, and camped out at the top for forty days and nights, all the time waiting for inspiration. On a cold morning at 4:00 a.m., we laced our hiking boots and set out for Mt. Sinai’s summit, hoping to climb back into the Bible before the Bible was the Bible. Just as the sun slipped over the horizon, we reached the top. With a crowd of tourists speaking every conceivable language, we looked for signs of charred ruins of a bush or crumbled bits of stone tablet. But instead, the mystery seemed to be embodied in the purple, fog-like clouds that bubbled out of the crevices and danced in the valleys between the multiple hills below us. The clouds shifted constantly—a cauldron of mist and fog. David and I agreed this was a superb place for anyone to talk to God.

By mid-morning, we were back to our own exodus from Egypt, heading toward Jordan, our tour bus crossing the Sinai Desert. An hour into this leg of our journey, one woman in the group who had fallen victim to the dreaded tourist’s gambu, shouted at the bus driver to stop, then bolted for the door, telling us she’d be right back, don’t interfere. While we waited for her return, someone caught sight of movement on the wind-shaped, sandy horizon. It looked like the rising of three small ships from the sea. Everyone made their guesses of what this was until we could see three Bedouins riding camels, their heads wrapped in scarves, their feet covered in soft leather.

Bedouin—the word with mystical, romantic properties. My lips formed the word again: “Bedouin,” as several of us climbed off the bus, partly to distract the newcomers from our hapless tour mate who’d hidden on the other side of the bus, and partly from curiosity. I held a packet of pencils in hand, something I’d brought to give to children instead of money or sweets. In broken English, one of the Bedouins asked if we needed help. No, we’d be fine, we answered. The wind teased the fringes of the man’s black and white tribal scarf. I stood in the awkward gap after his offer and our “no,” then took a step forward and handed him the pencils. “For your children.” He swooped low from his seat on the camel’s hump, his hand touching mine.

I wanted to stop time at that touch: me in this frame of Bedouins, the desert gypsies whose heads were swathed in bold scarves, the camels with haughty faces and strong smells. But the bus driver had said, “Time to go.” Reluctantly, we said, “Shukran,” and “Ma’assalama,” and climbed back on the bus to drive off in a black belch of exhaust to the shores of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aquba our front door.

The next morning, the gigantic sun rising red on the water, the women decided they needed to blend into this exotic setting somehow. Because I’d studied Middle Eastern dance and had mentioned the joy of moving like a W-O-M-A-N rather than a reluctant maiden, they asked if I’d teach them a dancing lesson, these six women-of-all-sizes. Of course. What else did we have to do in the hours stretching before us? After passing out a paltry collection of scarves gathered from everyone’s private stash, we all stood shoeless in the sand where I demonstrated how they could make a figure eight with their hips, snake their arms, and twirl the scarves in the stiff sea breeze.

“Let your scarf be your guide,” I shouted into the wind. “Follow it. Over your head, behind you, to the side of you. Forget who you think you are. Forget about Me, Me, Me. Surrender to the exotic, to the beautiful, to the unconscious.” And for a moment, everyone danced—children opening their arms to falling stars.

When we stopped to catch our collective breath, the consensus was definite. Yes, we needed to perform for our partners tonight. Yes and yes, those we all loved should see the sylphs of the Nile gliding through the sand by the Red Sea. In preparation, we asked our guides to take us to the bazaar where we could buy jingling coin belts, necklaces, finger cymbals, and, of course, more and more gauzy scarves.

The high anticipation of our performance that night was made complete when we noticed two of our Muslim guides peeking through the splits of palm fronds. But the appearance of the Touring Seductresses of the Sinai was short and sweet. We made a dramatic entrance to the accompaniment of a tinny tape on someone’s boom box, clanking our cheap finger cymbals that weren’t well enough made to ring clearly. We didn’t care about perfection, but we did care about something we suspected was possible. In unison, we began with the step/thrust-hip move we’d practiced that carried us across to “center stage.” Then, each woman took her turn soloing with her scarf, turning on the sand, and stretching her arms and herself toward the night sky. The scarves were magic—the way they made willows out of the women who’d been sitting on a tour bus for too long. The transformation almost happened. We almost made it to something worthy of diva status. But the fifth woman to take her solo—a woman who struggled with her considerable weight—lost confidence in both herself and the dance. She stopped. She dropped one end of her scarf into the sand. We coaxed her to continue. She wrapped her hand in one turn of the other end of the scarf, then she giggled. All six of us dissolved into laughter with her. The spell of the dance evaporated. Poof. But laughter had its magic, too.

Afterwards, everyone was in a glorious party mood. We strolled the beach where light from a crescent moon striped the water and a velvet breeze caressed our skin. Each couple slowly returned to their cabanas in the settling darkness. As David and I walked through our open door, however, the interior space felt sterile after the silky night and the laughter. Silence opened its mouth. We’d been trying too hard to solve our differences, both at home and here in Egypt. Trying to renegotiate the ground rules of marriage, neither side giving ground, we’d lost our way. It seemed that we’d worn each other out after thirty years of marriage and that there was nothing more to say. If only I could have revived the seductress in me and spun a thousand-and-one-nights story to leave him wanting more; if only he could have turned to me and said, “My beloved, you are the Only One for me. There is no other.” On that exotic night, we opted for the sound of the ocean lapping at the shore, and the sight of slanted moonlight on the cement floor.

Where was the mystery of the dance now? The mystery of the dissolving self, that sacred place where petty arguments and obsession with other options were nothing. Why couldn’t we reach across our differences and melt into our dance? Instead, beneath our courteous surfaces, we both clung to our stubbornness, recalcitrance, petulance, “It’s my way or the highway”-ness.

Now, as we sit on cushions in a circle in a Bedouin’s tent in Jordan, I watch the man who has cleared plates tuning his bulbous-backed oud and another one warming the reed on his nay. I feel my blood rising in anticipation of music, sweet music, and maybe dancing.

And then there is music. It sounds much like the recordings my teacher had used in Middle Eastern dance classes. Surprise. Out of the blue, it seems, a thin, high-heeled woman wearing a pink linen pantsuit, a gauzy scarf wrapped around her hips, a dangling necklace of metal beads, and an exotic jingling bracelet to match, a woman not traveling with our group, steps into the center of the temporary dance floor and begins to move in the style of the belly dance. To my eye, she knows almost nothing about the dance, maybe one brief lesson in a bar one night, if that, but she’s definitely making the most of her daring. Though she’s flirtatious enough and the object of much attention, there’s no roundness to the undulation of her hips and stomach, no soul to her dance. She doesn’t understand about giving herself to the music. Seduction without the seduction.

It could be a competitive urge, but I think it’s more about my need to say, “Wait, this isn’t what dancing is all about.” I stand up to join her. David watches me rise to my feet. “Go for it,” he says. He claps his hands in time to the music. “Oompah,” our tour director Shirley says, clapping her hands. “Yes. Oompah!” She’s the one who arranged this evening in the Bedouin tent where we’ve broken bread with these men in scarves and robes, our tour group sitting cross-legged, eating hummus, pita, and skewered lamb with another small tour group from England.

I borrow the scarf hanging around David’s neck—the black and white tribal scarf I bought for him at the market near the Red Sea, the one usually worn with a black cord for keeping. Goddess in pink, move over. Twirling the scarf over my head and behind my hips, I commandeer a major portion of the space provided for dancing. Maybe I’m pushy, rude, and self-obsessed, but I’ve heard the call of the dance. I lose awareness of the woman in the pink pantsuit and everything else, then suddenly, I see that “Omar” is swaying with me, his fingers clapping the palm of his left hand, his sinuous torso reminiscent of carved sand dunes changing shape. I toss the scarf back to David who watches with curiosity.

Omar and I circle each other: boy meets girl, boy circles girl, girl weaves the web as her arms snake through the air. Surprisingly, I feel shy as a country girl fresh from milking a cow—something rural in my ancestral memory carrying me back to the condition of bashfulness. But his eyes don’t leave my face. They instruct me to stay. To be here. Now. This dance is beginning to feel intimate, as though it shouldn’t be watched. But gradually, I raise my eyes to his and meet his gaze which isn’t frightening or boorish but rather direct and unflinching. I can almost feel the back of a fingernail brushing slowly across my cheek.

Maybe, because of his unexpected tenderness, I stay with his gaze. As we dance, our feet became unnecessary. I hear the beat of the hand drum and the exotic melody on the oud—someone making love to the strings. This is not child’s play. This is not the awkward teenager with slumped shoulders hiding her new height, being pushed to the center of the living room floor at a family gathering to demonstrate the latest move from her ballet lesson. This is not the one who laughs nervously, then rushes to sit back down on the sofa between the safe shoulders of her brother and sisters.

This is a call to The Dance. It’s a call to be still inside, to be calm, and to listen to every sound outside of the self. There’s no room for the self here. My body is fluid, all parts working together, and our eyes become something besides eyes, something unsolid, more like slow lava rolling over the lip of a volcano. The pounding of the drum inserts itself with a 7/8 beat that mesmerizes in the way only a 7/8 beat can mesmerize, something so foreign to our multiples-of-two or 3/4 rhythms in the West. The dancing. The drum. The plucked strings expand the sides of the tent until the night comes in to dance with us, its stars slipping beneath the flaps.

Maybe that’s how it was in The Beginning when atoms whirled to spark life into being: the creative magnet exerting its force, the female responding. And for a moment, God isn’t up in the sky. He isn’t sitting on a throne in a faraway heaven. He’s here, looking into my eyes, assuring me of the glory of being a female, the one who brings form to God’s ideas. So many times I’ve hidden in that place where I can’t show myself—a snail so bare and squishable outside its shell. But this night, this Bedouin, this man who’s one sliver of God as I’m one sliver of God, speaks silently that there is nothing beyond, outside, or above this moment. No you. No me. Only the now. Maybe we are making powerful love with each other, even though our fingers don’t intertwine, our hands touch only air, the space between us remains open and yet filled at the same time.

Early in my study of Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese discipline of meditative movement, I watch and imitate the form as demonstrated by the teacher a thousand times at least. Having learned a lifetime of dance routines, after all, I imitate what I think is being shown: another dance. But one afternoon, after seeing these moves again and again, I suddenly understand I’ve never seen them at all. I’ve been watching the external movement of the teacher’s arms—the positions, the choreography, the curl of the palm of her hand and fingers. What I haven’t seen is how she works from the center of her body, her chi, her life force, her particular vitality.

* * * * *

After the break-up of both my first marriage and a five-year rebound/dead-end romance, I make yeoman efforts to get back on track again. But, like glue on paper, vestiges of sadness still cling to me. When my friend, Joy, invites me to travel with some Park City, Utah, women to Peru for a visit with a shaman, she also invites me to join her and her husband Miles afterward in Ecuador with another group called Eco-Trek. Thus begins my six week journey to Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, undertaken not only for the purpose of meeting with shamans from the indigenous tribes of the Andes and of being taught by their 5,000 year old ancient wisdom, but with the subliminal hope of receiving a healing. Maybe shamans can heal me.

After spending a week with a remarkable shaman in Cusco, everything is anti-climactic when I join up with the Eco-Trek group in Quito. As our eight-person group drives up and down dusty roads between the capital city and Otavalo to meet with various shamans, I feel lukewarm about the perfumeros, paleros, and the tabaqueros we visit. I don’t feel connected in the dark rooms where they preside over tables (looking suspiciously like borrowed school desks covered with sacred implements and lighted candles) and wear headdresses of upright parrot feathers. Feeling more like a curious tourist adding notches to her exotic-travel belt, I half-heartedly participate in a group healing one night where all eight of us stand naked in a darkened room on the bottom level of the shaman’s house (situated next to a room where cattle are kept for the night). Using their mouths, the perfumeros spray each of us with flower water. This healing feels more like a dimly-lit, murky, dankest-dungeon dream where nothing emerges into clarity. What am I doing here, sniffing cattle dung and being sprayed with scented water from someone’s mouth? Why are we submitting ourselves to strange healers who don’t know any of us from Adam and whose bankroll will be substantially fatter when we leave? Do I have a center of myself which is mine alone and which recognizes a boundary?

Things change, however, when we drive to Quilajalo the next morning. In broad daylight, I shake hands with Alberto Taxo, a shaman living with his wife Elba at a retreat nestled in a valley surrounded by the Imbabura, Mojanda, and Cotacachi mountains. First I see a man dressed in an open-collared, pale blue, long-sleeved shirt, and a turquoise blue pair of cloth pants, no shoes. His long, graying hair is fastened in a pony tail with a hand-woven tie. He has a six-inch mostly white beard and clear blue eyes. I’m reminded of Sunday School paintings of Jesus. Even though sunlight flits through the overhead leaves and casts moving pictures on our faces, light radiates directly from his.

“If you wish to have a healing,” he announces, “please wait in the communal room.” He points to a tall building—a thatched-roof lodge built of thin branches and spindly trunks of trees bound together with hemp rope. The others wait outside—having had their fill of healings for the time being. Five of us file in, remove our shoes, and find a seat on the concrete rim circumscribing the hard-earth-floor-in-the-round, fire pit in the middle. Waiting for Alberto, I pray to whatever God will listen that my sadness will lift. Visualizing, as someone has suggested, I gather my sadness into an imaginary burlap bag with a Spanish label and toss it into the fire with the hope it will be purified. I’ve spent enough time with painful teachers. Bastante.

When Alberto appears near the fire burning in the pit, three large feathers in hand, I shift on my sitz bones, unconsciously looking for a soft spot in this concrete. Through the haze of drifting smoke, I witness the individual healings of four members of our group. I watch the long feathers in Alberto’s right hand tracing patterns in the air and the trance-like state of his face.

When it’s my turn to stand by the fire, Alberto looks at the whole of and the extension of me. We don’t speak. Using his large condor feathers and carefully chosen herbs and incense, he begins a ritualized healing, the same as he’s done with the others, circling and humming at random. Then, he stops. He looks at me more carefully. He squints his eyes.

Setting aside the large feathers on a table made from the sawed-off stump of a tree, he moves directly in front of me. Out of nowhere, it seems, he gathers a handful of barely-there downy feathers similar to fluff from cottonwood trees in early summer. He closes his eyes. He raises his head, chin up. While I stand there in hiking pants, yellow T-shirt, and feet free of hiking socks and boots, he circles one hand in front of my heart. I feel exposed in a way I hadn’t been when I’d stood naked in the dimly-lit room the night before. My toes dig into the hardpack to preserve my posture, my dignity, my mask hiding my frailty.

A cloud uncovers the sun’s face above the spacious room, floats past it, away from it. My eyes lift to catch pieces of light piercing the high ceiling of woven grasses, then squeeze shut as, suddenly, I feel an intense pressure against my chest. The bottled-up sadness trapped inside pushes against my skin and toward the open air where it can run free in every direction. I feel scared. This pressure might swamp my heart. But, then, suddenly, it evaporates, poof—a bubble on the surface of a mud pond. I feel boneless. A rag doll.

chi in place of the stagnant water that has been standing too long. Alberto tosses the baby feathers into the fire, nods to me, and walks toward the open door of the lodge into the day. Except I can’t remember him passing through—this man of breath and Spirit. It’s as if he evaporates into thin air.

* * * * *

The noisy, single-engine plane noses through a barricade of clouds. Bold slashes of blue attempt a takeover of the thick, gauzy skies, but the grayness is winning.

Mira,

Un volcán.”Christine, our group leader who sits in the co-pilot’s seat, translates. All eight members of the Eco-Trek tour group strain forward to catch sight of something in our wildest imaginations we never thought we’d see: massive, roily, dust-filled clouds of darkest gray belching out of the earth’s interior; molten magma embellished with lines of fire oozing over the volcano’s lip. But then, too quickly, it fades in the distance behind us, and the pilot points the plane’s nose downward toward the Miazal Jungle in Ecuador’s Oriente. We sink into a sea of even darker gray clouds, drop into a clearing, skid onto an underwater field-of-grass, and plow through mud. Christine pulls a battered rubber sack toward her, then opens it to a disheveled assortment of black, knee-high, rubber boots.

“Always wear these,” she instructs, sorting them into pairs, handing them out.

Most of our feet slip around in the boots, one size too big, but who’s going to complain when we’re about to cross a terrain with who knows what creatures we might surprise?

“Members of the tribe are here to take you to the village,” she says. “The Shuar were a head-hunting tribe until about thirty years ago, but there’s nothing to worry about. I’ve been coming here for a few years now, and I still have mine.” She smiles a mock-satisfied smile. “But remember. They’re a proud people. It’s an honor for you to be here. Show your utmost respect. I can bring you here because they trust me.”

Recalling scalps from Old West movies, my memory sifts through horrific images of shrunken heads—scalps hanging on a branch on a tree next to a tribal village. Fires. Smoke. Frenzied drums.

“Things have changed,” she says. I laugh nervously to myself, wondering if the medical student next to me is taking silent measure of his neck, too.

“One more thing,” Christine adds. “Women, don’t look directly into the eyes of the men as they’ll mistake that for an invitation to go with them into the jungle for big passion.”

“Big passion!” The five women in the group arch their eyebrows at each other. The men cover their smiles. Big passion on the floor of the jungle in the company of ants and tarantulas?

When we climb down the airplane stairs to greet the tribesmen who are approximately 2/3, if not half, our size, and who crowd around us, these thin, small-boned men, wave their hands and shouting in a language I can’t understand as the tropical foliage creeps toward the airstrip. Tarzan. Swinging vines. Question-mark snakes wrapped around tree branches. Nevertheless, we follow them at a quick clip on grass-covered paths, across a line of cutter ants, into dugout canoes, across two swollen rivers, through thick sawgrasses, until we reach a clearing with a compound—a lodge built of thin branches with a precisely-woven palm leaf roof. The natives show us to our rooms with cement floors, well-brushed corners, and the smell of fumigants keeping insects at bay.

The healing I received from Alberto Taxo is alive in me still. Some unyielding place in myself—some useless fortress wall—has crumbled. And so, after we settle into our rooms, four of us hiking on a well-worn path through the jungle that feels like a sauna and arriving at a clear, shallow, broad river, I can’t help myself.

“Are there any piranha in here?” I ask Christine on a sudden whim.

“No.” She eyes me suspiciously. “Why do you want to know?”

Feeling impulsive, I flop back into the clear water to let the slow current carry me. I’ve always felt at home in this element after taking Red Cross swimming lessons in Lake Mead as a child. A tadpole. A frog. A creature of water. Maybe I want to be re-baptized, to immerse myself from head to toe, to be cleansed by water and celebrate the way I’ve been feeling since Quilajalo.

Through the drops of splashing water, however, Christine looks at me with ill-masked horror on her face. She dives in beside me. Suddenly, remembering she’s responsible for any breaking of the tribal code and that maybe I’ve done just that, I think of stopping time and reversing the action. But we are both in the flow of water, floating next to each other, the sound of running water in our ears. Soon we arrive at a widening of the river, a sandy bank, and the shores of the compound. After searching the bottom of the river with our feet to find a secure place to stand, we both shake off water and push wet hair out of our eyes. Gratefully, she’s kind enough not to berate me in front of the two Shuar staring at us curiously from the edge of the river. Anything could have happened, her effort at silence says. You need to respect where we are. I cringe at the thought of my foolish insensitivity, not only to jungle etiquette, but to the natural elements.

That night, my first gaffe behind me, the eight of us are treated to a traditional dinner at rough-hewn picnic tables set on a cement slab. After dinner, more members of the tribe join the dinner staff to demonstrate the old ways of the Shuar people. “Some of these practices are still continued today,” Christine explains, “though mainly by those wishing to preserve tradition.”

Dressed in wrap-around cloth rather than the bare-breasted jungle wear often seen in National Geographic, the members of the tribe portray how they used to greet each other with a complex choreography of spears and how they entered each others’ homes to drink a brew called chicha. “This is made by the Shuar women from manioc root and saliva, which they spit into the mixture and allow to ferment,” Christine continues. “Chicha was carried with them whenever they went for a visit. And still is.”

Before we are sufficiently prepared to think up a gracious way to decline, two of the women approach our table with half coconut shells full of chicha in hand. Saliva. Fermented saliva. Save me, somebody. Their faces suggest they’re fully expecting our pleasure at sharing a drop of their strange brew. In their honor, members of our tour group pass the shell around and partake of this sour concoction with subtly pinched nostrils.

After the chicha, gratefully, two musicians appear with a guitar and a reed flute. They play music from the Andes (the jungle being an extension of the Andes, Christine tells us). Several of the Shuar men walk up to the women in the group and ask them to dance. When a rather minuscule, older man with bones more appropriate for a bird, approaches me, I remember the caution about eye contact. In the light of four inadequate floodlights shining from each corner of the dance floor, I concentrate on his feet while moving my own, and spend much of our dance together laughing internally about how this protective measure defeats the purpose of dancing. When he asks me to dance again, I can’t deal with counting his toes anymore. Impulsively, I reach across to him with my palms up and gesture for him to clap them. It’s a game I used to play with my sons: 4/4 rhythm, clap your knees, clap your own hands, then trade claps with your partner. At first he’s confused, but after a few more demonstrations, he finally claps my hand back. Then the other. Both of us laugh and hop around in a circle. Except, maybe I’m being a disrespectful tourist by playing loose with the natives. I don’t know all the rules here, except I don’t look into his eyes.

When the party has been cleared away and the Shuar disappear, Christine stops me with an amused expression on her face. “Do you know who you were dancing with?”

“No,” I say, raising my innocent eyebrows.

“That was Whonk. He’s the most powerful shaman in the Shuar tribe.”

“Oh.” I panic. “Really?”

“Really.” She smiles and turns to go to bed, leaving me there to stew in my mental juices. The most powerful shaman? Have I done something irreparably wrong by touching the hands of the shaman? If only I’d known. Maybe I should have been more careful. But maybe, intimidated by his title, position, and power, I’d have kowtowed or bowed, or worse yet, avoided him. What does it mean to be a shaman? Is he sacred? Untouchable?

As I pull down the sheets of my bed and search for insect invaders with my flashlight, I think about the word “sacred.” What does that mean to me? Respect? Awe? Veneration inspired by authority? Is sacred always something external to me—a higher being out there somewhere, a holier place than the one where I’m standing, an intermediary between myself and God? It’s good to be with these shamans. Good to drink chicha even if it is fermented saliva. It’s good to dance with the most powerful shaman. It’s also good I didn’t know Whonk’s position. I’d have worried, always concerned with the sacred code of The Other. But, respect aside, what are the things that matter to me and my integrity? I’m only trying to make meaningful contact with strangers.

The next morning, I see Whonk speaking to our translator. In the daylight, I view him with greater clarity. He seems less old, more agile, his skin more honeyed-chestnut brown. I can see strength in this man with small bones, a different kind of strength, a vitality I hadn’t been able to discern in the dim light on the dance floor. He’s no longer a tiny man, delicate as a bird, but powerful in his serenity, with his chi, with his at-homeness in the world.

“Please tell him he’s a good dancer,” I speak up, emboldened by the beauty of the day. “I enjoyed dancing with him, but tell him I apologize if I seemed disrespectful.”

The translator laughs a belly laugh at what seems to be a mammoth joke. “He was just telling me what a good dancer you are. What a good time he had.”

I look at Whonk, even at his eyes that wrinkle into a smile on his sun-worn face, two missing teeth suddenly evident. I smile my orthodontically-corrected, American materialist smile, but at this point, I’m okay with the way my culture has mandated straight teeth. I’m okay with my place in the cosmic order. He and I clap our hands together one last time and laugh as that’s the best language we can speak. This is my most important healing: to have connected to a holy man, not as an acolyte on bended knee in the presence of a sacred totem, but as a partner in the dance.

When I attend Whonk’s ceremony that night, I decide, for the first time during my six-week trip of visiting shamans, not to participate directly in yet another ceremony for healing. I’m not a woman trying to right herself with the world anymore. In the candlelight in the dark of the Miazal Jungle watching other members of my group participate in the last ritual before we leave The Land of the Condor, I know the whole earth is a holy place, maybe know this for the first time even though I’ve heard it said a thousand times. On this night, listening to the sound of Whonk’s chanting, I feel “sacred” at the center of my being, radiating from my life force, my particular vitality. It is Spirit dancing.

—Phyllis Barber

———————————–

Phyllis Barber is the author of seven books, including Raw Edges: A Memoir (The University of Nevada Press, 2010) — a coming-of-age-in-middle-age story. An earlier memoir, How I Got Cultured, was the winner of the Associated Writing Programs Prize for Creative Nonfiction in 1991 as well as the Association for Mormon Letters Award in Autobiography in 1993, and earned her an appearance on the NBC-Today Show in 1997. She has been anthologized extensively, the most recent occasion being Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction (Zarahemla Books, Provo, Utah, 2010). She has published in many literary journals, including Agni Magazine, Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, Crazyhorse, North American Review, Dialogue, and Sunstone, among others, and is one of the founders of the Writers at Work Conference in Utah. She lives in Denver.

1.

Feb 082012
 

Patrick J. Keane pens here a gorgeous, dense, trenchant memoir that manages to combine literature, childhood, horrid illness, aging, God, death, and friendship. All memoirs are tragic in that they serve only what is gone. But the trick with a memoir is to do what Pat does here and fill it with feisty, vivid, ebullient life, with caring for friends, with loyalty, so much so that we forget the underlying premise, that all this is passing. I’ve already read and reread this essay. It makes me think better of myself, reminds me of my friends, brings up memories of youth.

dg

 

1

February 1, 2012: the scene, Skidmore College’s Surrey Inn in Saratoga Springs. This event, arranged by Salmagundi’s Marc Woodworth, was one that actually deserved to be labeled unique. A celebration of William Kennedy’s new novel, Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, the evening combined readings from the book with reenactments of the novel’s lavish use of piano music and song. Marc had asked me to read a passage as part of the festivities, and I had come over happily from Syracuse to participate.

There was much to celebrate. This book had been a long time gestating and it was not an easy birth, coming almost nine years after Roscoe, one of the best novels in the great Albany Cycle that had begun with Legs. A few years back, after delivering the first of a series of daylong readings from Moby Dick as part of a Melville celebration in Albany, Bill had taken my friend Pernille and me to the flat on Dove Street where, in 1931, Jack “Legs” Diamond had been gunned down, shot through the head. Now, though they lived in a large house outside Albany, Bill and his wife Dana maintained the flat for evenings in town, and as a memento of the most glamorous of all Prohibition gangsters.

The new novel, when it finally appeared, was even more pulsing with life than Legs, a vitality all the more remarkable considering that Bill, having recently overcome serious medical problems, is now in his eighties. Then, too, Skidmore and Saratoga owed much to Bill Kennedy, whose generosity with a portion of his MacArthur Award had made possible the New York State Writers Institute, its month-long summer program based at Skidmore. Appropriately, the atmosphere in the Surrey was festive, with most of those present dressed as if we were in the Floridita bar in Havana, where Hemingway famously held court. In one scene of the opening section of the novel, set in revolutionary Cuba, the protagonist, Daniel Quinn, converses with Papa and witnesses him punch out an annoying tourist: a Floridita scene reenacted as part of the Surrey celebration.

The passage Marc assigned me was one I might well have chosen myself: part of the day-long meandering of George Quinn, Dan’s father, now a victim of dementia, but whose selective memory constitutes a mini-history of Kennedy’s beloved Albany. It is the day following the shooting of Bobby Kennedy, and Albany is trembling on the verge of a full-scale race riot. Oblivious to most of what is happening around him, George wanders through the streets, a disoriented Odysseus or Poldy Bloom. Principal among those he encounters is an old flame, Vivian, who, getting him off the dangerous streets, invites him back to her flat with nostalgia and romance on her mind. She tells him about the time, long ago, when he took her dancing, and the trolley ride back from Electric Park to Albany. They have another drink, and they dance again, this time waltzing in place. Only waveringly certain of her name, he says, “Let me call you sweetheart.” “You can do that,” she responds. He sings to her; he touches her breast, kisses her mouth. “There’s something about a kiss,” he concludes, “that you can’t get anyplace else.”

After the readings and the music, I spoke for awhile with old friends, Bob Boyers, the founder of Salmagundi, and his beautiful wife Peggy, whom I first knew as a Skidmore student and who is now a distinguished poet. I made a date for breakfast with Bill and Dana, once a dancer and still a stunner. And then I turned on my cell phone and stopped smiling as I listened to a voice mail that changed my plans for the evening.

There would be further festivities back at Marc’s house: a variation on a familiar theme, the exodus of writers performing at Skidmore back to the home of Don and Judy McCormack to talk, drink, and laugh for hours. This night I was staying with other friends, Dick and Ann Haggerty. They had come to the Kennedy celebration, but left after the main event, assuming that I would be going on to Marc’s with the other “performers.”  But after playing and replaying the voice mail, I decided to skip the extension of the evening. Though it was a couple of miles to Dick and Ann’s house on the outskirts of Saratoga, and the wind had made the night cold, I felt the need to be alone, and to walk.

.

2

The message on my cell phone was from Jim Cerasoli, one of my two closest boyhood friends. We had gone through much together growing up in the Bronx, including getting into what a 45th Precinct policeman once referred to, alliteratively enough, as “a shitload more than our share” of trouble. We were part of a large crowd, twenty or so boys and girls. All the guys in the crowd, except Jimmy and I, had married the girls we grew up with. He and I had married outside the crowd, and we were the only ones to get divorced. A lesson there. We are all now in our early seventies, and for many years now, we have gotten together in the Bronx or Long Island at least once a year. More recently, though that may soon end, it has been twice a year: a change prompted by a terrible accident that had befallen one of us, my other closest friend, Warren Cheesman, and Jimmy’s being stricken with a particularly cruel form of terminal cancer, multiple myeloma.

As the long-retired Borough Engineer of the Bronx, Jimmy has excellent medical coverage and he’s needed it. Since the first diagnosis some five years back, he has survived a long and often excruciating ordeal of marrow transplants and blood transfusions. His physical strength has always been remarkable. I was with him the first time he ever picked up a barbell. He was about 15 and he amazed a group of older guys by military pressing his own bodyweight. He was as quick as he was strong. None of us had ever seen him lose a fight; in fact, it seemed unimaginable. But, to judge from the message he had left on my phone, he felt he was finally losing this one.

The message was somewhat rambling. Jimmy had been compelled to attend a Democratic political event he’d organized and the voice mail was unusually frank since it was late and he’d obviously had plenty to drink at the affair. No wonder. His doctor had just informed him that he now needed a prescription that would cost $8,000 a week. No matter what insurance he had, that seemed off the charts. On a few occasions in the past, Jimmy had expressed guilt about being a burden on the health care system. Why should he get treatment that most could simply not afford? I’d always urged him not to feel that way as long as the quality of his life was as good as it seemed to be. At times, when he said he’d accomplished what he’d wanted to, and no longer had any “project” worth living for, I’d chastised him with the example of Warren, who had struggled through a long, painful, and necessarily incomplete rehabilitation, yet continued to make the most of his life despite ever-diminishing physical capabilities. Jimmy agreed. But now, the voice mail suggested, given the slow but inexorable progress of multiple myeloma, and faced with this almost prohibitively expensive drug, he had reached a crossroads.

Aside from its final expression of love, and the characteristic admixture of humor and self-deprecation, the message was, obviously, deeply disturbing. I had felt certain for some time that Jimmy had no intention of letting the cancer play out to its end. If he felt the final stage coming on, he would simply choose to stop taking any medications, old or new, accelerating the inevitable rather than submit to slow deterioration, the horrible endgame of multiple myeloma. Had he reached that point? It was far too late to call him, but as I walked the dark Saratoga streets, I reminisced about our long journey together, including a walk on a similarly windy night almost sixty years earlier.

It was a melodramatically stormy evening, and we were walking through a wooded area in a then rural section of the Bronx. We were engaged, with all the seriousness of fourteen-year olds, in a cosmological-theological conversation: a discussion that has gone on ever since, often centering on the infinitude of the universe, the mystery of origins and endings, and on a crucial double-question: “Does God exist and, if so, does he care?” When I expressed religious doubts, Jimmy pointed toward a tree shaking in the wind. “Tell that tree you don’t believe in God,” he challenged. I found I couldn’t.

We have come a long way since then. We’ve both had bouts with cancer, mine as nothing compared to his; and we have both become unbelievers, evolving if not progressing from the Catholicism of our boyhood. Unable to square the traditional concept of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God with the challenges presented by evolutionary biology and by the sheer amount of suffering in the world, much of it undeserved, I have become an agnostic. Jim, a science-minded engineer conversant with the workings of quantum mechanics, has also pursued an amateur but scholarly interest in the Bible. The result is that he is, and has been for some time, an atheist: a conviction unaffected by the fact that he knows he is dying of an incurable disease. Though perhaps no one can be utterly fearless in the face of death, Jimmy is freer of that fear than anyone I’ve ever known. As a philosophic materialist, he has taken to heart the argument of Lucretius in On the Nature of Things: after death “we shall not feel because we shall not be.”

When I talked to him the next morning, he was, marginally, less despondent, and, as always, funny. But, as William James famously says in Varieties of Religious Experience, no matter how we ignore death, try to forget about it, or even laugh in its face, “still the evil background is really there to be thought of, and the skull will grin in at the banquet.” I felt that image vividly at the end of the exuberant event honoring Bill Kennedy, and even more on that chilly walk back to Dick and Ann’s.

.

3

The next morning, before breakfast with Bill and Dana, and after talking to Jimmy on the phone, I found myself flooded by memories of our crowd growing up in the Bronx. Those thoughts, in turn, triggered recollection of a more recent Bronx adventure—this one part of the aftermath of another event honoring Bill Kennedy.

This was the First Annual Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award, a glorious affair held at the Manhattan Club. New York City’s Irish community was out in full force. After a gregarious open bar, I found myself sitting for the speeches between the actor Gabriel Byrne and the playwright John Patrick Shanley, unmistakably born and bred in the Bronx. I had just seen the film version of his play Doubt –starring Meryl Streep, who had also played a lead in the film of Bill Kennedy’s prize-winning novel, Ironweed.  I mentioned to Shanley that my mother loved his Moonstruck, and would have enjoyed the scene in Doubt set in Parkchester, where she had lived for years. When I congratulated Byrne on his performance in Miller’s Crossing, he insisted that “the dialogue the Coen Brothers had written” for that film was “so good that a trained seal could have delivered the lines.” I doubted it, but appreciated the self-effacing wit.

Understandably, Bill was deeply touched by the O’Neill Award. After his warm and funny acceptance speech, and a few more rounds of communal drinks, he whispered to me: “Pat, I haven’t had a bite to eat all day. Dana, Brendan, and I are going around the corner to Gallagher’s for a steak. Don’t say anything, just slip out quietly and join us.” After a few necessary farewells, I went to the checkroom and discreetly retrieved my raincoat, a garment bag and a satchel. I had come down to New York on Amtrak, not only for the Kennedy honors, but to spend a week in the Bronx with family and to attend one of our now biannual crowd reunions. I lugged my goods to Gallagher’s, and settled in for drinks and laughs with Bill, his wife, and their son. We were soon joined by others.

The next two hours were so convivial that I forgot that I had to make the last Express Bus to the Bronx. I offered apologies for what became a sudden departure and headed across town at full tilt. I thought I’d be able to make it, but hadn’t calculated on the extra minutes I’d need, burdened as I was with two bags. I got to Madison Avenue just in time to watch the last bus to Throgs Neck disappearing in the rainy mist. No cab would take me to the Bronx. That left me with a single option: the last bus to the Bronx, headed, as I recall, to Morris Park Avenue. I clambered aboard and asked the driver to drop me off anywhere in the Bronx where he thought I’d be likeliest to get a cab to Throgs Neck.

He may have taken my “anywhere” literally. Whether through mistake or malice, he deposited me in a section that resembled nothing so much as the desolate postwar setting for The Third Man. There I was, at 1am in the morning, hauling two bags, rigged out in a suit and London Fog raincoat, and carrying about $1,000 in cash in my wallet. No cabs, no cars, no lights, no stores open. Having grown up in the Bronx, I shrewdly recognized this as a less than ideal situation. To add to the absurdity, it began to drizzle more heavily, and the wind picked up, whipping my raincoat like a defeated flag.

I set off walking, another of the nocturnal trudges that seem to have become a motif in these reminiscences. I walked for several blocks, the drizzle turning to rain, the mist thickening. It was beginning to approximate a scene on the fells, with the Hound of the Baskervilles looming in the wings. Finally, I glimpsed lights haloing what appeared to be a door. As I approached, a voluptuous young woman beckoned me in. What I at first took to be a brothel turned out to be a tavern. In retrospect, I detect a resemblance to the scene I was assigned to read at the Surrey Inn celebration.  Just as Vivian had saved George Quinn from the dangerous streets of Albany by inviting him into her flat, this buxom beauty had saved me from the potentially dangerous streets of a rundown section of the Bronx, shrouded in windblown rain and mist, and altogether unfamiliar to me.

I went in. The place was warm, colorfully lit and packed, the customers primarily Puerto Rican, and exuding good spirits. The crowd was young: attractive women, amply breasted and with even bigger hair, accompanied by dates, most of them with tattooed, impressively muscled arms. I shuffled to the bar, dragging my luggage, wet and seriously overdressed for the occasion. I might as well have been an alien, a man from Mars blown in by the night wind. I smiled at the lovely bartender, tattooed but decidedly female, wiped the rain off my face and ordered a beer.

As I was sipping it, a distinguished looking fellow who turned out, unsurprisingly, to be the owner came up to me and engaged me in conversation. We retreated to a corner, and kept talking. He got the next round. We continued talking. By the time we’d shared several more beers, we knew a good deal about each other. I asked him at one point how he managed to maintain such good order in a crowded bar in an obviously tough neighborhood. I don’t know if he’d read Elmore Leonard’s novel or seen the film version of Get Shorty, but he said, as Travolta does in the movie, “Look in my eyes.” When I did, the warm blue turned to ice; an impressive transition.

But it was only with the arrival of closing time that I got the full measure of the man.  As his patrons filed out, they invariably offered their farewells with a mixture of affection and respect. I thought for a moment that my new friend must be connected. But, growing up in the East Bronx and working at Breezy Point Beach Club to put myself through Fordham, I’d seen plenty of gangsters. None of the Bronx loansharks or bookies I knew had anything resembling this guy’s class. And only one of my members at the beach—a charismatic guy who used the cabana owned by Joe Profacci, and who turned out to be that don’s main button man—had the commanding presence of this fellow. But my beach club member, charming in a Legs Diamond sort of way, was a professional killer. The man I’d just spent two hours with was a tough-love entrepreneur who respected his customers: a man who knew how to run a bar offering a convivial atmosphere, a clean well-lighted place and a safe oasis in a rough neighborhood. He was treated accordingly.

When the time came to leave, my new friend got me a cab and had my bags carried out by an employee who refused the tip I offered. I got to my aunt’s house in the early hours, having thoroughly enjoyed two events in the one evening, the second of which might have ended very differently. I could imagine the headline: “Retired professor and active buffoon found mugged and murdered in the mean streets of the Bronx.” If Hemingway, tossing back a daiquiri at the Floradita, had come across the headline, he might have remembered the frozen carcass of his leopard on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and added, “no one knows what the lunatic was seeking in that neighborhood.” The next day, when I saw Jimmy, I told him the story. He laughed—as did Bill Kennedy when I repeated it to him a few weeks later at the urging of my friend Judy McCormack.

 

4

Oddly and quite innocently, Bill Kennedy figures in both these juxtapositions. The recent Surrey Inn celebration will always be darkened for me by the voice mail from Jimmy; the Eugene O’Neill presentation by the potentially dangerous, but finally delightful and Kennedy-esque, aftermath in the Bronx. But then, when one gives it more than a moment’s thought, all the adventures and joys of life seem circumscribed by darkness and threat, with death the ultimate reality surrounding—haunting and enhancing—the transience of life. That explains, not only the mingling of vitality and nostalgia at the heart of William Kennedy’s life-affirming novels, but of much else in literature and life.

Art is long, life short, but in life as in art, we are moved by chiaroscuro, the play of light and darkness. Aside from scholars, who now reads the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Venerable Bede? But there is a reason men and women have remembered for more than a thousand years Bede’s vivid comparison of human life to the “swift flight of a sparrow,” coming out of rain and snow, to fly through the king’s festive and fire-lit banquet chamber, only to quickly disappear out “the other door.” While the bird is within, he is “safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space” of warmth and light, “he immediately vanishes out of sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or of what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant.”

As I, along with my friends, come ever nearer to that other door, I become more and more acutely conscious that, for all my reading and experience, I am as utterly ignorant as I was when Jimmy made me stare at that tree shaking in the wind more than half a century ago. One of the few things I am sure of is the strength of the bonds established all those years ago in the Bronx. As I was typing these thoughts (I am not making this up), an e-mail arrived from Warren Cheesman. Knowing that Jimmy rarely reads e-mails, he was responding to my sharing with him and with two other of our lifelong friends, John and Elsbet Wallace, this latest news about Jimmy. Like Elsbet, Warren was crying when he responded, but, along with offering to contribute substantially to alleviating the cost of any medication, he pointed out that Jimmy was part of the “experiment” offered by this new medication. Beyond that, he wanted me to tell Jimmy that “the longer he can endure, the greater his contribution to the world, and to us, his friends.” However dark it may seem, however cold the night wind and all that it portends, there’s something about gathering around a communal fire, and, especially, about true love and friendship, that you can’t get anyplace else.

—Patrick J. Keane

——————————————————————-

Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

Feb 032012
 

I met Samantha Bernstein in 2009. She had just completed research for her Master’s thesis on youth movements, epistolary narratives, and autobiographical literature. She told me she was writing a memoir. Then she casually confided that she was the youngest child of Irving Layton, the legendary and leonine poet who shook up the conservative Canadian literary scene in the 50s and 60s. Layton described himself as a “hot-blooded Jew cavorting in the Canadian drawing room, kicking out the windows to allow fresh air to enter.”  Leonard Cohen once said, “There was Irving Layton, and then there was the rest of us.”

Tightrope Books will publish Samantha’s memoir, Here We Are Among the Living, later this spring. Quill and Quire calls it “a confrontational coming of age story.” The book is composed of email exchanges—the epistolary mode; because, as Samantha explains, “writing letters to friends is a vital part of many people’s development, and because of the form’s association with self-reflection and social criticism.” The excerpts that follow are, in Sam’s words, ”the clearest contemplations” on the relationship between ethics and aesthetics. “I think that even if for middle-class people like me politics always are in some way aesthetics,” she explains, “our predilections can help us better understand the world, and live more ethically.”  Of course, literary inheritance is an important part of this, for as Sam admits, “Irving is hovering ’round here:  coming to terms with his belief in the poet as prophet, this frighteningly powerful faith in art that governed his life.  Coming to believe that creativity need not be tied to destructiveness in the way it was for him.”

You can also read Samantha Bernstein’s gripping short story “The Neighbour” at The Broken Pencil’s “Deathmatch V; read it and vote before February 5th.

— Cheryl Cowdy

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We’ve All Gone to Look For America…

(from Here We Are Among the Living, Tightrope Books, Spring 2012)

By Samantha Bernstein

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We’ve All Gone to Look For America…

10/ 15/ 2002

Dear Eshe,

Tonight when I came home from taking Joe to the airport Mom was yelling into the phone, at Baba of course.  Okay, so?  You always were miserable, so you’re still miserable.  I’m very sorry, Mother.  Tse maisse frum drek, e medaf lecken de finger. (The world is a bowl of shit and you have to lick your fingers: a favorite expression of Baba’s grandmother.)  That’s right, Mother, if all you do is sit and worry, then you’re going to feel sick.  Mom rolling her eyes on the couch amid a sea of newspapers, TV on silent.  Walking in was like being pushed from a height in a dream, my futility ringing in my ears as I plummet.  For six days when Joe was here I felt young, beholden to no one; suspended in the melancholy peace of his eyes I was just a long-haired kid with a car and a pack of smokes, music blaring and adventure everywhere.  I imagine that’s what it felt like to be young in the Sixties.  When being young was what was going on, and your jeans, weed, music all signaled freedom, all meant infinite possibility, radical choice, the indescribable magnitude of Right Now.

In that spirit, Joe and I hopped into the car on Friday night and, to Mom’s distress, headed for Detroit (Oh, you have to go look at the poor people?  Smiling rueful love as we nodded and laughed.  Oh well, she said, Joe’s with you, you’ll be okay).  So off we went to find the ghost of America’s golden years, though we got lost on the outskirts of Buffalo, where the all-night gas station clerk laughed at me and said the fastest way to Detroit was back through Canada.  But we didn’t mind covering a lot of road.  I drove as long as I could stay awake through the subdivision-sown fields, Joe horrified and fascinated by the size, the immense pre-fab impermanence of millennial Ohio.  On a dark misty patch of highway, a deer appeared and we watched its beautiful, terrified head vanish into the bushes at the back of a strip mall.

Approaching Detroit, Joe balanced his torso out the sunroof and took pictures of the skyline:  the city ahead, and to the north a pile of mangled industrial shit that looked like the steel skeletons of a thousand dinosaurs.  We parked beneath an empty building – a miniature castle – and started walking.  I got a shot of Joe by a boarded-up garage that someone had spray-painted, in green, WITH OPEN EYES I.  If I were going to get a tattoo, I said to him, That’s what I’d get.  The sun very white reflecting off the dirty building, Joe squinting at me, legs apart, hips slightly askew, a portrait of suspended motion as always.

I took another shot of Joe standing in the middle of a six-lane road by a steaming sewer grate because we thought it would be iconic, but the street was too sunny and leafy for what we had in mind.  Still, it looked as sad as we expected as we got to the heart of downtown.  Everywhere garbage, boarded-up department stores, forsaken restaurants, ornate hotels ghostly as sacked palaces, the tattered remains of awnings flapping from their rails.  The sunshine making strangely sweet the dirty bricks and flaking gilt shop-signs, we had our flitting visions of post-war American families congregating outside diners on a morning much like this one:  ladies in hats entering department stores, bright, chrome-rimmed cars rolling down the streets, a war just won, factories a continuous hum except on Sundays.  You can still feel what it must have been like.  American cities seem to have changed less, there’s a thicker residue of decades past; downtown Toronto feels so deliberately polished in places.  Scrubbed so meaninglessly clean.

What is the meaning of looking at dirt, that’s a question.  Driving home at twilight, looking at the ragged fields I wondered what stories I am always looking for in dereliction.  History, sure, but there’s something else, too, and less disinterested.  The desire to look feels cruel, like taking pleasure in pain; but is wanting not to look more ethical?

Anyway, my dear Eshe, it was good to be on the move again, even for two days, what with that post-trip travel bug still gnawing at my gut.  Though it’s excellent to be in school, learning new things.  I’ve had moments taking notes on maquiladoras or discussing the causes of bi-polar disorder that I am so completely happy I actually smile to myself.  Just being a proper student, taking in facts, ideas.

We missed you at Thanksgiving.  We did a colossal thing, must have had forty people over the course of the night.  It was a little maddening at times – for awhile people were constantly coming and going, there were plates, bags, shoes everywhere, the phone unceasing with people needing buzzing up.  Of course it was a buffet, people perched on sofa arms, cross-legged on the floor, leaning against the kitchen counter, but that was rather satisfying – it seemed people were eating for hours, in every corner of the apartment.  As usual the preparations were all stress and horror at how much everything costs, Mom harrumphing into the fridge wishing she lived in a big house with a big proper fridge, muttering about how when Baba had the house there were two fridges but she had to go and sell it….  But when people arrive Mom is rosy-cheeked and beaming, perfectly in her element bearing massive trays of turkey, ladling out steaming sweet potatoes.  A basic, primal thing, to feed and be fed.  The ritual of shared food.  I’ve always particularly liked Thanksgiving; Mom first decided to do Thanksgiving dinner when I was maybe nine, and I remember being so excited, making little place cards for everyone, acting the cheery sprite of a child I wasn’t by nature but desired to be.  Which I suppose means I was naturally that way in some sense, but I had to work at it; at least, I remember pondering the lives of Pollyanna and Josephine March, those lessons in feminine virtue, in gaining strength through hardship.  I realized it made me and others happy when I emulated them, bustling around in a little apron, humming a little tune, arranging gourds in a basket or tidying the house.

Though I always knew, giving thanks at the laden table, that it wasn’t the same as in olden times; that bounty meant something different since I had never known real scarcity.  We’d bought this food like we’d buy anything else, from the ever-full supermarket; there were no winter stores being put by, no cellar full of pickles and preserves for the lean months.  Arranging store-bought gourds in the wicker cornucopia I adored, I knew that image – food tumbling from a cornucopia – had become purely representative for us, not quite false but fundamentally unmoored from the original meaning.  Nonetheless it always made sense to me to take the opportunity of Thanksgiving to thank the earth for what we have, though I’ve never so much as harvested a tomato.  So that is what we did.  Mom’s work friends talking shop on the couch as Bri carved her tofurkey, Flo gave Joe a back-rub, and Ty rolled joints and hollered gleefully about anatomy.  Wonderful Franceszka washing dishes, insisting Mom sit down, putting things to order in her bossy, smiling way.  A properly modern, haphazard celebration.

 Tell me when you’re coming home for American Thanksgiving, maybe I can pick you up from the bus.

Love always,

Sam.

                                    *****************************

The Truth of Beauty

06/ 05/ 2003

Dear Joe,

Hooray for New Beginnings!  I think social work is going to be perfect for you; you’ll be mired in all the hard-living stories you could ask for while trying to do some good in the world.  Though I understand your concern that it could all be aesthetics – your draw to people on the skids, the desire to enter into their troubles and tragedies.  I’ve always wondered about the same thing in myself – why on earth did I love to watch World Vision ads when I was four years old?  What drew me to those swollen bellies and tin shacks?  I remember trying to explain to Mom when I was about seven, saying, It helps me remember how fortunate I am; but even then I knew it wasn’t the whole truth, was aware of something unsettling in my interest that I couldn’t pin to words.  It’s a kind of voyeurism, of course, and guilt at having the luxury of wanting to look in.  But also a sense of being something I could not understand, part of a world I didn’t understand.  What can we do?  That was where my first instincts, my childhood desires took me, and ultimately there’s no way to say why I found poor people interesting and not rich ones, no more for me than for you.  Of course there are reasons – you can and should analyze your desire to help the underprivileged – but in the end it will still boil down to the fact that you and I and people like us are compelled by the powerless, the people getting gored by the bull of life rather than doing the goring.

What makes it disquieting is that we’re not alone in our curiosity; lots of people want to know how dirty life can get.  I remember when Trainspotting came out, watching fascinated as those emaciated, sexy junkies revealed the scummy lives of poor Scottish kids – that’s when I first noticed people’s fascination with the poverty and violence we’re supposed to fear.  How to know where the moral aspects of the impulse to look give way to the immoral?

Surely, knowing which forms to file in which offices to procure basic necessities like food and shelter – being able to convince people to fill out those forms – must be a good and true use of the interest in others’ pain.  I have no such certainty about my ability to justify my early compulsion toward Ethiopian famine victims.  How does it help the Iraqis for me to envision their bombed-out homes, their dead children?  And yet I’d rather do that than see Paris Hilton’s titties, or take a TV tour around Jude Law’s home; those images are not compelling, but a shot of an Afghani man drinking from a shit-encrusted puddle is.  It feels like looking is a charm against blindness – like if I stare hard at what threatens my tidy white middle-class life, I’ll ward off the cataract of righteous self-interest.

Speaking of aesthetics, and of having no fucking idea why we do the things we do, I’ve been accepted into the Creative Writing program!  (Part Two of the process:  there’s an introductory year, then you apply for the full-on program.)  At first I was very sure I’d be accepted – there can’t be that many people all that serious about writing anyway.  But then I started thinking, only 25 people out of more than 100 get in; there might be people in the other classes that are way better than me.  But now my worries are over; I got the letter yesterday.  So it looks like Mom was right, and York is the place for me.  Why study creative writing?  Who knows.  Possibly very silly, possibly a familial tic, possibly all sorts of things.  Nonetheless I’m very excited.

Indicating other forms of progress, good old Chrétien, that savvy crook, has allowed some law to lapse because of a medical marijuana case; so at the moment, pot is in legal limbo.  Not that this affects in any way my behavior, but it does give me a little smile to know, when I walk down the street with my joint, that there’s nothing anyone can say about it.  Mom is very funny; she still doesn’t really believe I won’t get busted.  She cannot get past the fear that if the cops see you with some dope, they’ll throw you in the paddy-wagon like they used to do in her Yorkville days.  We were discussing this walking through Yorkville in fact, headed to Baba’s apartment earlier today.  Watching the Porsche parade, the Botoxed and bejeweled passengers glistening in the sunshine.

Every Saturday night! she said.  Every Saturday night there they’d be at the corner of Hazelton and Yorkville, herding the hippies into the paddy-wagon.

            Oh the times they are a-changing.

            Maybe so, she said, But I still think it’s best to be careful.

I blew smoke toward a tanned middle-aged man with a thick gold bracelet, who caught a whiff and walked past us with a twinkle in his eye.

What irony, Mom said, That I’ve always loved this neighborhood, and your grandmother who never gave two shits about it is the one living here.

Well, I reminded her, It was an excellent deal for what she needed, this apartment.

Yeah well, remind your grandmother of that when she starts going on about wanting to move.  This place isn’t fancy enough for her, she has to be at the Renaissance. She can’t afford to live there, those are like million and some dollar apartments.  But I constantly have to hear about how this place, this Yorkville apartment, isn’t good enough.  As if I were going to move her again, after what I went through getting her out of the house.  I don’t even want to think about it.  Look what a pretty day.  This is where the Mynah Bird used to be (pointing at a brick structure probably built in the eighties.)  There used to be girls, go-go dancers, in cages outside.  Can you believe it?

I thought of Mom on this street thirty years ago, wearing sandals and panhandling.  (“Panhandling!  she said to me recently.  You see, I wanted out of my parents’ house so badly I was prepared to panhandle in the street.  I asked her why she didn’t get a job.  I got a job, she said, My father fired me for being late.  No, I said, A real job, like a shit job, any job.  I don’t know, she said, That’s a very logical question.)

What fascinates me, I told her, happy to turn the conversation away from Baba, Is that a lot of the same people are here now as then.  The same people who were here forty years ago barefoot and stoned are who’s in these cars.

Maybe so, said Mom vaguely.  I hadn’t changed the topic as well as I might have.  I knew she was contemplating the wealth by which we were surrounded, wondering how she’d missed out on her piece of the pie; wondering, too, what happened to her generation, that this is what it became.

And I flicked my roach into the gutter wishing I could defile this whole carnival, sink it like a tent.

xo

                                           *******************************

Howl, or Robert Johnson Blues

 03 / 10 / 2005

 My dearest dearest Joe,

you know what fucks me up?  “Howl” fucks me up.  The first time I read it, I cried over its beauty, over the intensity of this era I missed.  I just re-read it now, and cried because no work of literature will ever unify people like that again.  Imagine what it was like in that room in San Francisco, this wild gay Jew making gorgeousness of a generation’s gore.  His hearers “digging” that this poem, this moment of the poem’s arrival holds the possibility of changing art, and perhaps society, forever.

We have no certainty like that of our ancestors.

Today my half-brother was informing me about New Spain.  As often happens, our conversation has left me feeling young and stupid – run down, as Ginsberg said, by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality.  David reads so much, provides example after example to prove that everything I think about the world is simply ridiculous.  Predictable bourgeois lefty bullshit I’ll grow out of in ten years; less.

We went to see Capote, which begat a good discussion about writing and ethics.  From the theatre we went to some swish bar in Yorkville where David is clearly a regular.  Walking over we were arguing about Hotel Rwanda, which we had debated seeing but the timing didn’t work.  He thinks it’s grand they’ve made a movie of it; I think it’s perfectly indicative of our twisted culture that we’d do sweet fuck-all about the genocide, and then appease our consciences by watching a movie about it.  Oh the heroism, the good one man can do.  Let us applaud him.

David said, Well would you rather it was just not an issue?  You might appreciate this film as a kind of progress, because historically people haven’t really given a fuck about the death of people in some far-off country.  And maybe, Samantha, maybe if enough people go see Hotel fucking Rwanda, next time there’s a genocide about to happen, people will step up and call for intervention if that’s what you want.  Not that it’s necessarily a good idea – you might remember, for instance, what happened when the States tried to intervene in Somalia, which was a different situation but you see what I mean.  Or the intervention in Bosnia which the Administration was given so much flack for.  But at least you can’t say they were idle.

Are the options really bomb the shit out of a country or let it destroy itself?

Well that’s a whole other issue.  We’re talking about Rwanda and if what you want is for people to give a shit, Samantha, then here you are, people give a shit.

It’s not a sign of people giving a shit.  It’s a sign that people feel bad about not giving a shit.  And not just about things in far-off countries we can’t really affect, but about stuff in our own society.  People are stepping over homeless people to line up for Hotel Rwanda so they can bury that twinge of guilt they had stepping over a person.

I was happy walking through the narrow Yorkville streets having this rancorous conversation with my brother.  He was waving his arms and smiling belligerently as he made his points, always seeming a little like he was taking the piss out of me but always eloquent, delightedly ignoring the stares of the neighborhood’s patrons.  Settled on the bar’s heated patio he bought the drinks and told me about Cortes and those two brothers whose name starts with a P.  Who conquered the whole of Central and South America by sheer will, brawn, fearlessness and ruthlessness.  You see Samantha, he said, That’s what human beings have always done, that’s how this world we now enjoy was built.  You have to respect what’s been accomplished, even if you despise the means.  Humans are violent animals.  So you want a world with no more genocide well, sweetheart, I hope you get it but I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.

My mind is a petrified havoc of images.  I think I opened Ginsberg to read someone who cares desperately – thought he might remind me of the potential good in looking hard, even with reverence, at awfulness.

But what do I see?

Empathy – the word keeps surfacing in my brain like a water wing.  This clumsily bobbing hope that there is a moral purpose to these visions of people suffering which crowd my brain during political conversations.  That to feel sadness and anger for the fates of others – to refuse consolatory resolutions – is part of believing we can lessen our travesties.  I hold these hopes even as I know my mind is reproducing images created to inform me about the world, and my place in it.  As one who watches, who is informed; who is learning what my brother knows, that This Is How The World Works.

I feel there is something wrong with David’s explanations, something defensive and predictable in his proclamations about humanity – but my feeling itself seems defensive and predictable.

Michael says if I can believe in anything, I must believe in love; the drawing toward.  And I want to, unequivocally, but then too love can seem a lousy trick, a crossroads deal:  You shall know beauty and make it live, tend it chained to a bone jutting from your plot on this mass grave.

We can trick the devil, though; win out on the bargain.  Chained to ugliness, we sometimes carve the bone beautifully – make it a flute.  Stare at our compulsions and hypocrisies until they can be wrought into instruments that conjure our better selves.

xo, Sweet Joe

 – Samantha Bernstein

Jan 202012
 

 

The Parkinson’s Diaries

By Steven Axelrod

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Leaving the Breakers: Escape from Assisted Living

 

My mother had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease ten years ago. Still ambulatory in her late eighties, she was now living in a retirement community in Long Beach, California, on the fifth floor of a beautifully restored hotel from the golden era of Hollywood called The Breakers. The ceiling of the lobby floated twenty feet above the marble floor, with intricately worked plaster panels that put the tin ceilings of Greenwich Village cafes to shame. The peaked red tile of its roofs and turrets lent it a Mission revival feeling, and the top floor restaurant, the Sky Room, earned its name with a spectacular panorama of the harbor, while retaining  a heady whisper of old time movie glamour. The staff was charming and helpful, the suites themselves were spacious and sunny, sparked with period detail in the moldings and baseboards, with high ceilings and water views. The dining room was spacious and congenial, the other residents friendly and patient. You couldn’t ask for a more pleasant and professional assisted living arrangement.

And I hated it, with every fiber of my being.

I hated the way the impeccably courteous, and hard-working staff treated my mother and the other residents as a separate, feeble race, inferior but privileged like hemophiliac dwarf royalty, simultaneously catered to and patronized, deferred to and dismissed. I hated the smell in the hallways, some tragic perfume of disinfectant and decay – the sense, so much like the sense you get in a hospital, of a world where human volition and dignity have been sacrificed to the mechanisms of medical technology and routine.

I also hated the dining hall food, tasteless and generic as if the management actually calibrated how many of the residents had no working taste-buds left and arranged the meal preparations accordingly. I hated the weak coffee and the fuzzy sausages, and the cardboard pancakes, the sense that the particular texture of life, the look and feel and taste of things, didn’t really matter any more.

Continue reading »

Jan 182012
 


In this brief, trenchant memoir, Jean-Marie Saporito combines four elements—an ancient native religious rite, a fatal shooting, a mink coat, and a cowboy—and contrives a haunting and mysterious effect in a style as terse as Hemingway. Jean-Marie is a former student of mine at Vermont College of Fine Arts where she received her MFA. She lives in Taos, New Mexico. She wrote, “If you want, you can add to my bio that I’m dating a cowboy. You know what a cowboy is? A man who can handle cows — ride, rope, herd. I’m learning a lot.”

dg

 

Letter from Taos: Too Horrible, Too Beautiful

By Jean-Marie Saporito

 

On Christmas Eve, The Procession of the Virgin, a Tiwa tradition, takes place at the Pueblo. After Vespers in the San Geronimo Church, The Virgin, a statue with dark hair and Indian looking features, is paraded through the Pueblo’s plaza, amidst firing rifles (real bullets) and two-story high bonfires. I attended Vespers and then the spirit moved me to follow the Natives out of the Church, and join in the procession. Yes, I was wearing my mink coat. I sang what must have been prayers, along with the Tiwa choir. Hundreds of people from Taos, along with tourists, gathered to witness the procession, the massive bonfires, the drums and singing.

Several hours later, early Christmas morning, my son’s friend, the drummer in their teen-age band, shot and killed another boy. I say boy — the dead boy was 21, and Charles is 19. Charles will be tried as an adult. The cause of the shooting was a girl. When my son got the call or more likely the text from one of his friends, I was skiing at our ski valley with my cowboy lover, whose kisses I was avoiding, because of his entanglement with another woman.

Continue reading »

Sep 142011
 

Read this as a lament, a keen. It was written, to start with, for Numéro Cinq‘s series of “Childhood” essays. But this is no island idyll. It’s not even poignant; that’s too mild a word.  It is sad beyond sad. It is a trip to the heart of darkness. It is also beautiful and rich and generous to that which deserves generosity. In places it makes for nearly unbearable reading. And yet it demands to be read. Years ago, I took a chance on an unknown writer and included one of Kim’s stories in the annual anthology Best Canadian Stories which I edited at the time. In the intervening years she has proved out my intuition, growing deeper, more complex, more heartbreakingly open.

Kim lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (she chronicled her move there from Toronto for NC with two lovely “What it’s like living here” pieces).  She is a writer and artist who grew up in Bermuda and earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her watercolours have been exhibited in galleries, and her writing has appeared in Best Canadian Stories, The New Quarterly, RoomEvent, upstreet and other journals. She recently completed a memoir, The Girl in the Blue Leotard. She is a Founding Member and Editor of Red Claw Press and leads an annual retreat to Bermuda for writers and artists. The next Writers’ Workshop in Bermuda  retreat will be held March 26 – April 2, 2012.

dg
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We Flew Kites

 by Kim Aubrey

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I was born and grew up in Bermuda where my father was born and grew up, and a few generations of Aubreys before him. Photos show me as a baby, sitting in a laundry basket full of oranges, fruit as bright, round and juicy as the world must have seemed back then.

Next to the plump oranges, I looked pale and thin. My parents worried I wasn’t gaining enough weight. My father bought me goat’s milk and fussed over me, helping me to sleep by bouncing me in his arms every evening when he returned home from selling jewellery in his shop on Queen Street.

Kim in the orange grove

As a toddler, I was so slight that my mother had to cross the straps of my overalls twice—first on my back, then across my chest. When a big wind rushed in from the Atlantic, she held onto me so I wouldn’t blow away. I loved how the wind pushed against my face, pressing my mouth open, promising to take me someplace new. But I loved the island too—the oranges dangling from their leafy ceiling, the crabgrass tickling my feet, the warm Bermuda earth, red-orange with iron.

When I was six or seven, my parents rented “Rocky Ridge,” a blue bungalow on a cliff overlooking Harrington Sound, where my mother taught me and my brothers, E.R. and Mark, how to swim. We’d run across our backyard to the grey limestone steps, which led down to the sea through a hollowed-out cave, its sandy walls the colour of cream. We’d rub our fingers against the crumbling limestone, stare at the small holes that seemed drilled into it, looking for the creatures that had burrowed there. Sunlight filtered through the cave, cast arcing shadows over its bright surface, enticing us to follow it out into a world of light and water.

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Aug 202011
 

This is the copyediting desk (the rim) at the Montreal Star in 1976, probably just before 8 a.m., the paper has been put to bed and we're just hanging around. I am across the desk on the left. Peter Leney with the long hair is next to me, The gray-haired gent is Walter Christopherson, the copy boss. Barry Johnson would normally be seated on my right, but most of the sub-editors appear to have momentarily disappeared.

I just discovered this obituary from the Vancouver Province. I worked as a copyeditor (we called them sub-editors) at the Montreal Star in 1975 and 1976. We worked the graveyard shift, midnight to 8 a.m., putting the paper to bed around 6 or so, then often adjourning to a bar across the street for a morning drink. Barry Johnson, a handsome, florid-faced old-hand, usually sat to my right on the rim, no doubt placed there to keep the new boy out of trouble. He had been trained as an air force pilot, but he knew his grammar and punctuation inside out and could amalgamate a dozen wire-service reports into a gorgeous 10-para story with nothing but a steel ruler, a ballpoint pen and a gluepot (these were the old days, let me tell you). He had stories to tell: how he got his nickname Precious, his career as a foreign correspondent, his sideline in the movies (spaghetti Westerns in Italy, a part in a TV mini-series on Casanova in France), his rather hasty escape from Greece in obscure and unseemly circumstances. Barry was a legend, a man bigger than life, but his star was falling, age was creeping on him. Sitting next to him as the newspaper technology changed around us (we were dinosaurs of several varieties), I was always in a spin, in awe and yet aware of the ache of loss, time moving on. I soaked up his stories, while at the same time incubating an idea for my first (published) novel Precious.

Years later, the Star shut down and Barry went through a bad patch. He ended up in Toronto, unemployed, scrambling. My book was out. I didn’t know if Barry knew how much he had influenced me. An old friend from my newspaper days (we worked at the Peterborough Examiner and the Montreal Star together), Mal Aird, arranged for us to meet at the Spadina Tavern. It was a stirring thing, handing Barry a copy of the book. It meant a lot to me; clearly it meant a lot to him. Now both he and Mal are dead. Time eats her children.

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Former Province reporter and copy editor Barry Johnson died peacefully in hospital after a long illness Saturday night, with his wife and sister at his side.

He was 74.

Johnson, who was known as “Precious” to his many friends, had a long career in Canadian newspapers, with stops at the Montreal Gazette, Montreal Star, Globe and Mail and Calgary Herald.

The former jet pilot jumped into journalism in the 1950s after a stint with the Royal Canadian Air Force. His writing career also took him to London, Greece and Rome.

“He’s been everywhere,” his sister Patricia Holland recalled Sunday.

Regarded by many as a lovable scoundrel, Johnson inspired Douglas Glover’s 1984 murder mystery Precious, the tale of “a boozy, burned-out reporter with an embarrassing nickname and a penchant for getting into trouble,” according to Glover’s website.

via Barry Johnson: A precious one gone.

But see also Barry Johnson obituary with more life details here.

From Precious:

            I stayed where I was a few minutes longer to see the hands lock down the last plates, hear the warning bells, and watch the freshly folded newspapers flooding off the line. Twenty years had fled. I hadn’t listened to Uncle Dorsey. When I got out of the air force, I had my wings and a ticket to a gold mine. In the early sixties airlines were offering a million bucks, fifty grand a year, to ex-servicemen who wanted to fly passenger jets. But the thought of turning into a glorified bus driver at the age of twenty-five chilled me. And somehow I thought the money would always be there.

On a whim I took a job covering the police beat for a small city daily not unlike the Star-Leader. Inside of a month I was hooked on the steady rhythmic surge of the deadline, dropping Dexedrine tablets and working eighty-hour weeks, drifting through my free Sundays in the company of chain-smoking, liverish veterans, their hoarse endless talk echoing in my ears and dreams. I got married; I got divorced. The years accumulated like spent butts in an ashtray. When I finally pulled my nose out of the rat race long enough to grasp the situation, when I finally realized Dorsey had been right all along, it was too late to change and too late to kick.

Twenty years.

But, as the French say, even the most beautiful woman cannot give more than she has.