Birthday

The landscape of my childhood is not honey colored or bright with rosy reds. There were stormy blues and sleepy yellows.  If I colored it with crayons, it would be the hues children leave in the box.

In photographs that have faded as much as memory, the fields around our old house are paler than boiler onions.  All the winter walks have become one remembered walk, our breath blowing out ahead in thin clouds, the ice on the bent grass crunching under foot.  Let the snow birds break the air, startled out of the underbrush. Let the dogs make chase, each cry bold and bright and startling.  They are a part of this magic and cannot disturb it.  But we would walk gently, let no words pierce the air.  If I want her to hold my hand, I need only to reach up and my mother will curl her warm, work-worn fingers around.  She will never be happier than on this walk.  She and the woods speak a common language.

I am mesmerized by the pine needles on the forest floor.  If I nudge them with my shoe, they open, but they are deep and never reveal the dark soil beneath.  Yet I know what lies under them.  I dig open the earth each spring, following the smell of the chives, hoping to uncover how it all works.  Where do the earthworms go when the thistle drops its head and the ice returns, first thin and white as powder sugar, than thicker and grayer toward the morose stretch of February?

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My mother has a rage that runs deep, a sadness that is darker than all the long nights of winter.  We children are what constrain her, what contain her and pull at her to rise each morning and try again.  We did not ask for the burden; she did not ask for her pain.  She erupts at times, when she is at her limit, and there is no creature that could barrel out of the shadow of the woods that would be any more terrifying.  The boar and the bear would fall back before her and, glancing around her, design their escape.

  ____________

When a parent dies, they leave a child.  The age of the child does not matter.  When my father died, his son had as much grey hair as he had brown.  In the wake of his passing, childhood has been opened again.  I thought I knew my past.  But the youth I thought I knew was merely one edit.  The original cannot be altered, merely viewed at different intervals, seen in another way by eyes that know more now than they did before.

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On a warm summer night in my thirty-ninth year, I lose myself in an argument.  This is not the soft rage I have known before, nor am I fueled by anger so much as fear.  We are two souls, deeply in love, but not seeing each other or hearing each other.  Blind and bitter and ugly, we are up the stairs and down the stairs.  We are on the bed and in the kitchen.  Words on words, voices climbing and falling, but never arriving.

Before this night, I have glanced around for something to throw, but I have never done it.  I have wanted to rend the air, but instead have gone away to cry, pleaded for pardon and hung my head in remorse the whole of the long, sad day to come.  It is never just my fault, but I imagine myself the keeper of the joy.  The impulse to cook, to keep things tidy, to find the wisdom and the humor in the things that go awry – these are a part of me, a magic that lets the boat rise with the storm.

On this night, this summer night, I pick something up and send it across the kitchen.  The noise is tremendous.  I pick up another thing and another, each missile thrown harder than the last.  Then he comes to me, startled from our strange spell, horrified by what I have become in this instant. I am horrified, as well, but surely breaking the silence is something.  Now the opening has been forced, we can work up and out of the hole.

I clean up my mess on my hands and knees, first with a little broom and dustpan, then with the vacuum.  I stop only to hold him because he is crying.  We are children parenting ourselves and our love.  He fears we cannot find our way back.  I think we’re halfway there.

As I have always done, I want to bring us back to safer ground.  I sent us into deeper shadows than we have probed before, but my wings are strong enough to carry us home.  And sure enough, we do find the healing words and though we will go to work the next day with a terrible weight, we will get lighter with each night’s sleep.  It is in us to keep loving, to keep the light.

The dent in the freezer door and the scratches on the floor remain.  No amount of regret can pop the steel or knit the finish on the tiles.  My rage left its traces on the surface of our life, but through it, the hearts beneath are stronger and closer.

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When there is too much happening inside – a terrible brew of sad thoughts, regrets, incomplete sentences, formless worries and dreams bent over on themselves – the explosion is the thing that must happen.  There is a better way, surely, and we hope never to see ourselves blow open that way again.  We will walk away the next time.  We will let our worries out in short, safe little puffs.

Since the night I went mad, I see my mother’s rages anew.  It is true, she could make a wild animal bolt when she lost it.  Now I know what her insides felt like. Before I only knew how she looked on the surface.  I knew the vein on her temple, the black cave of her mouth, the fire running over her cheeks and the white ice of her knuckles as her fist clutched the air.  She was alone with a despair that was killing her and this was the best she could manage.

In my thirty-ninth year I lost my father, which is a terrible thing.  Yet I have found something grave and golden, a lovely cold comfort.  I have found another well of compassion, deep waters connecting me to my mother.

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She never had to explain to me the thing about being quiet in the woods.  I knew it because she knew it.  We come out of the pines and pause at the edge of the pond. The banks are brown and muddy on this end.  We step close, but not too close.

The other end is called the deep end.  Its banks are not dark and soft; they are pebbled with light shale.  It is easy to scuttle forward on that end, to slide into the water.  I don’t know how deep the deep end is, but I feel a sort of terror about it and seldom walk around to that side.

If she and I are careful, we can lean forward, holding hands to help balance one another, and we can peer at the gentle blue of the winter sky, mirrored on the surface.  But we cannot lean in far enough to see each other glancing up at ourselves.  If we fell in, the mirror breaks open and the cold water pulls us under.

Our Lady of Perpetual Snark

As she walked home, she thought first about a woman she wanted to punch, a woman with one front tooth that stuck out more than its mate, whose face went soft as pizza dough when she looked up at you with her mouth hanging slack.  Those thin lips were always gaping open, their owner saying something like, “That was mean, Hawkins.”

Then her mind drifted and she was trying to remember what she had in the pantry because it seemed like a soup kind of night.  Though there were still some leaves on the trees, the October twilight was cold.  The chill had chased people off the sidewalks, so she was alone for the twelve blessed minutes until she got home.

Image

Everyone at work called her Hawkins, which was her own rule.  She hated her first name.  It was a soft name that never fit her personality.  Even her mother once said, “If I’d known what a mean bitch you’d turn out to be, I’d have named you something like Myrtle.”

“Nice, Ma,” she’d said, laughing.

The two of them could always joke in that way.  A friend of hers once asked if it hurt her feelings and that was the first time she ever stopped to consider that it could.  She shook her head at the time, said, “No, that’s just how we are.  Honest.”

She had to explain that to Denise from human resources all the time.  It came up again today when she was called in to talk about the latest report Leslie had filed.  Leslie was the dough faced idiot who sat across from her, dusting her resin lighthouse collection with her dirty lunch napkin while she talked to customers on the phone, the wire of her headset vanishing into her neck fat.

As soon as she sat down, Denise adjusted her glasses and opened with a textbook question, “How do we find a way to coexist, since both of you have the right to expect a comfortable work environment?”

Denise was a pretty girl, always wore nice clothes from places like J. Crew or the Gap, tossed her hair-do around the lunch room like a Kennedy at a fundraiser.  Hawkins considered herself lucky not to be on Denise’s friend list.  If you were, she’d make you look at pictures of her latest bride’s maid gig. All those girls with thin arms and drunken eyeliner, captured forever trying to Dougy with some sass.  No, thanks.

Hawkins knew the drill.  She knew how to talk to people like Denise.  Clearing her throat gently, she put on her smooth customer service voice.  “Well, Denise, I think it’s common for there to be friction between folks in close quarters. I also think Leslie’s a bit hypersensitive.”

“She said you muttered…” Her eyes dropped as she glanced at the report.  “She said you muttered ‘ugly bitch’ under your breath when she looked at you.”

Hawkins laughed out loud – mostly because it was true and a little embarrassing, but also because she liked to see proper, swing-bob Denise using words like that.  She composed herself, decided the game was up.  “Look.  What you mutter is private.”

“Then why mutter it at all?”

“Because sometimes something is so true and so annoying, you have to say it out loud, but you know it’ll cause problems, so you mutter it.  Out of courtesy.”

Denise looked at her for a long while.  Her office was small, so the silence was condensed like soup out of a can.  Considering her options, Hawkins decided to throw in a little water.

“Well, she does have super good hearing.  I’ll give her that.  How about I go to the printer room the next time I need to mutter something?  Because I promise you, it isn’t in me to suppress it when I get that irritated.”

Whether or not she liked the suggestion, Denise seemed to accept it.  Looking a little flattened, she turned back to her computer and said, “Just try to remember why you’re here.”

The walk home took her along the expressway and she paused as always at Mt. Carmel Triangle to light a cigarette.  She leaned against the fence while she smoked, looking at the statue of the holy mother and child.  The Madonna had been painted badly so that her eyebrows looked like woolly caterpillars.  Still, her face wore the calm wisdom that comforted people.

Hawkins shook her head, said out loud, “Right, bitch. Motherhood’s a piece of cake.”

At home, her kids were staring at screens, hunting down gangsters and popping off hookers at a hundred and twenty miles an hour.  If she was lucky, the oldest remembered to empty the drainer and maybe, just maybe, wash the coffee pot for tomorrow morning.  It wasn’t likely.

“Wonder if Baby J ever got sent home for stabbing a girl in the hand with a pencil?” she asked the evening air.  “Maybe he had it coming.”

If her Grammy could have seen her talking to the two of them like that, she’d have made her cut a switch from the forsythia in the back yard and she’d have welted up her ass cheeks something good.  Hawkins glanced up into the glowering sky, but her sense of guilt was short-lived as something like a defiant smile played at her lips.  Still, she fished into her hip pocket and found some change, dropped it softly on the broken tiles at the feet of the Madonna.

She finished off her cigarette before moving on, glancing back once and catching the last of the twilight making a sort of magic on the statue.  They didn’t seem to mind her grilling them.  Maybe they knew how much her feet hurt by this time of day.  Or how annoying Leslie was in the morning, when her energy was peaking after a breakfast of sugary, whip cream covered coffee from McDonald’s.  The thing about people like Leslie that pissed her off was how they pretended that each day was a fresh slate.  She always parked it with a bright smile, saying good morning like today they were finally going to hit it off.

She dug her hands into her pockets, leaning into a cold breeze that cut over the island.  On the air she could smell garbage and spicy food.  It quickened her hunger and she walked faster.  Before long she reached their little house with the metal awning over the door, rusted and bent but still some comfort on rainy days.  The door was unlocked, like always, so she pushed into the warm hall without breaking pace.

Two of them were playing video games, little boxes of cereal open on the table in front of them.  The oldest was sitting in her recliner, Indian style, painting his nails carefully.  He glanced up at her when she entered.

“It’s not one you like,” he said. “You said this one chipped bad.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, princess, well that’s good to know.  I got a fancy dress ball this Saturday.  You mind picking up my diamond tiara from the dry cleaners?”

He laughed. “You have a good day?”

“You clean up in the kitchen at all?” she asked, sinking onto the sofa between the younger ones.  They peered at her quickly, then back at the screen.  She snatched up a cereal box and gave it a shake.  “You little fuckers hungry or did you already eat?”

“They’re good,” Shawn said.  “And I did clean up the kitchen.”

“Oh really?”

“Yep.  And Ru-Ru came by and dropped off a pizza, so I put it in the oven.”

Hawkins sat up, “You didn’t turn it up to high, did you?”

“No, Mom,” he said. “I know about the oven. It’s on three hundred.”

She shrugged, eased back into the flattened cushions.  As an afterthought she glanced at him, saying, “Well, thanks.”

When she was fifteen, she got pregnant with Shawn.  His stupid dad hung around just long enough to stick him with that name.  The other two came a good long while later.  Hawkins always said she was too smart to want another kid after Shawn, but now and again she forgot herself.  In a lot of ways, she and the boy had raised each other.   When the others came along, he helped a lot, always seeming to know how tired she was and that her fuse was short.  Sometimes he said something smart and it made her see herself.  One day she had to get around to thanking him for real, but not until he was old enough to get it.

Just in the last year, since he turned fifteen, he’d changed on her.  Most times he wasn’t willing to help anymore with anything.  She had to harass him to pick up the messes and get something on the stove.  And it took everything in her to make the little fucker go to school.  He said they were all calling him faggot and he didn’t need that shit anyway.

“Yes, you do, dummy,” she’d told him.  “You need to finish school and then you need to go to college.”

“I forgot about my trust fund.”

She heard him, but she pretended she didn’t.  It was true that she had no idea how she’d get him into college.  His grades were good, despite his absences, but that wasn’t enough.  Instead of arguing about that, she’d taken up the other issue.

“If you don’t want people calling you faggot, stop wearing girl’s jeans and makeup.”

That had made him cry and even though Hawkins liked to pretend nothing ever hurt, seeing his mascara running down his young face was like looking in the mirror when she was that age. It just about broke her into a million pieces.  She set her jaw.

“Anyway, why do we care what trash thinks about us?” she said. “When you’re my age, you won’t remember half the cunts you went to school with and whether or not you’re queer won’t matter anymore because by then you’ll have friends who like queers.  Get it?”

He’d given her one of his looks.  His eyes were exactly like her own, small and brown and really sharp.  Her Grammy always said she had a way about her that was worth more than gold.  It amused the old woman.  “You got that peppery stare that makes bitches sneeze.”  Hawkins never got the joke until Shawn got old enough to give her the look.  It always made her glance away.

Tonight, while they sat eating pizza in the little dining room off the kitchen, she found herself looking at Shawn now and again.  Under his eyeliner and his shaggy hair, he was as good-looking as his father.  He was tall and slender and had full lips that were quick to smile, but pretty even when he was sad or thinking hard.  Her boy was self-possessed like herself.  With him, you only ever knew what he wanted you to know.

In the silence between them, her thoughts drifted to the Mt. Carmel statue.  She wondered why she stopped there every night and looked at the mother and son.  It had seemed for a long time like it was the perfect place to light her cigarette, the mid-point on her walk home.  But since Shawn had started to change, she’d been studying the figures closer.  Some nights she had dreams about when he was as little as the Baby Jesus.  It was the kind of dream that was so mundane and so real, it felt more like a memory.  Maybe it was.

She was sitting on her mother’s sofa late at night.  All the lights in the apartment were out, except that the Christmas tree was lit.  In the rainbow glow of the lights, she could make out her baby in the bassinet near her knee.  She was drowsy and he was sleeping peacefully.  The two of them were all alone and outside you could hear the traffic on the expressway and you could hear the wind.  Howl.

Photo Bin

In the junk shop, the plate glass opens a flood of golden afternoon light onto a bin of old photos.  Each snapshot is a quarter.  Some of the pictures are faded, others spotted with dried food.  Once upon a time, people passed these around the dinner table, saying things like, “Doesn’t she look like her daddy there?” 

The women pick through them side by side, purse straps pulling unnoticed, the weight a part of them at least as long as motherhood.  Today they are just each other again, the best friends of lost years, the keepers of secrets, the ones to laugh at jokes no one else ever knows.  The kids are with their fathers, one set in Idaho, the other in Maryland.  Sticky kitchen floors and unfolded laundry seem impossible facts on the streets of New York, easily and deliberately forgotten for three days of escape.  In this musty junk shop, the only things that are real are dirty baby dolls and battered night stands, the feel of being together again yet again.

One could take all the paint-by-numbers on the floor and hang them together on a wall.  About halfway to the back, under a stack of record players, there’s a flowered sofa that would look okay with a pair of green chairs up front.  The coffee table with the finish bubbling off at the corners could work at the center of the grouping, an assortment of candlesticks brothered up on the glass.  The pair of plaster lamps on the counter might slide in with shades taken from other lamps.  And if someone ran down to the corner store for bulbs, there would even be light. In the end, scrambling through the dusty and the dismissed relics of all these other lives, a strong back and a quick mind could make up a room, comfortable and maybe too familiar – kitsch and even a little witty.  Yet there is a joy in letting the puzzle remain just the pieces.

Outside the shop, on the street above, the two women are perfectly framed in the window over the photo bin.  Wrapping the bottom of the window are stickers for bands, posts for concerts that already happened.  The colors are faded and the paper is curled.  Holding up photos for each other now and again, they laugh quickly, their fingers seeking out the next.  They could never explain exactly the photos that will come home with them, the sets of four worth their dollar.  Maybe none will come home, but that isn’t really the point of the moment, whether they know it or not.  Above their heads, reflected in the glass, the brick of buildings and the blue of the sky are impenetrable unless you stare through them a long time.

Car Pool

She beat that road every day to work, the years flying by like the blurred scenery.  The White House changed hands three times, her sisters got married and her best friend moved away.  In all that time, her job got easier to bear or else she just got numb. One thing she knew: it only ever paid enough to get by and not a dime more.  When the fridge broke or the car started to overheat, her guts twisted like she was passing gravels.  A long time ago – it seemed – she’d thought this life would be temporary.  She’d move on, move up.

Yet time made the route into the routine while her ass got bigger and her eyes dulled from blue to a quiet grey.   Most nights she pulled into the drive and couldn’t remember anything about the drive home.  She was so anxious to get there, she’d put off stopping to fill up the car.  The red light on the dash would stare her down all the way to the gas station the next morning and she’d just about go crazy worrying about making it there.  She told her mother this once and she said, “Why the rush to get home, Carmen? You ain’t got no one waiting for you unless you count that dumb cat.”

ImageJust after New Year’s a new girl started at the plant.  Her name was Emily.  There was a soft, sexy quality about her, like the bombshells out of old black and white movies.  She talked a lot and because she was so young it was mostly about guys.  She changed her nail polish every Wednesday night.  It was always something colorful and a little weird.  Still, Carmen found her eyes seeking out the new look each Thursday at lunch.  At least once a week something looked different in that ugly ass break room.  One day they discovered they lived on the same road.  Emily suggested they should ride together sometimes.  Carmen told her she’d think about it.

Emily’s suggestion came up when she had supper with her folks one night.  Her mother said, “Carpooling would be a good idea.  Just make sure she’s not a meth head or something first.  Once they know where you live, they’ll steal your TV to get a fix.”

That was her mother’s talent: finding the thing to be concerned about.  Carmen kept mulling it over.  Something had changed since the girl brought it up.  No one from work had ever lived near her and so it had never been an option.  But now that she could imagine having someone to talk to on the ride, it made her notice the silence of her drive all the more acutely.  She wasn’t really sure she wanted to talk to someone every day, but then again, it hadn’t seemed so lonely until now.  Maybe it was the drab winter countryside.

One February afternoon, she unwrapped her tuna fish sandwich, stared down at the soggy bread for a long while and somehow came to a decision.  She glanced over at the girl.  Today her nails were black with red hearts, five a hand, exactly fitting each square oval.

“How about we ride together every other day at first?” Carmen said.  “See how it goes?”

“Okay,” Emily agreed without pause.  “I can drive tomorrow.”

“I’ll drive.  Just give me your address before we go home.”

“I’ll text it to you.”

Carmen nodded and gave the girl her number.  The black tipped thumbs moved like lightning as Emily plugged it into her contacts.  The young ones handle their phones like part of their body, Carmen thought, feeling old not for the first time.

Emily lived in a plain brick rancher with beige trim, bearded with shaggy evergreen shrubs all around.  On the carport, someone had started to take apart an old Mustang and had never got around to putting it back together.  Spider webs draped the yawning hood.  She had barely stopped when the side door flew open and Emily barreled across the yard, bent against the cold, looking younger than ever under her fluffy hood and baggy coat.

She slid into the car with red cheeks.  “Good morning.”

“This your place?” Carmen asked, backing carefully out of the drive.

“No.  It’s my grandma’s house.  I live with her right now.”

“You’re lucky.  I never knew my grandmother.”

“Oh,” the girl said.  “Grandma’s sweet.”

As they drove along the highway, she was surprised that Emily didn’t talk her ears off as she had thought might happen.  Instead, she found herself doing the talking.  She heard herself asking if Emily was allergic to cats; she had vacuumed out her car just in case.

“He’s hardly ever in here – just to go to the vet – but I thought maybe there might be some from my coat or something. He likes to sleep on my coat if I throw it over his chair.”

Emily blinked at her and smiled. “I’m not allergic to pets.”

She asked the girl if she minded the radio and the girl said she liked anything but talk radio. She didn’t like all that political stuff.  Carmen told her the only talk radio she liked was an AM program about conspiracy theories.

“But just for laughs,” she said.  “You know the type I’m talking about?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Well, maybe I’ll subject you to it sometime.  You’ll either love it or hate it.”

Then Carmen remembered that this was just an experiment, them driving together.  Her own idea to treat it like a trial of sorts.  Why was she doing so much of the talking? This was not her way, usually.  She tuned in a pop music station and it seemed like in no time they were pulling into the parking lot at the plant.

“That seemed quick,” Emily said.

“It did, didn’t it?”

On the way home, Emily was just as Carmen had first imagined.  She chatted about everything under the sun and Carmen realized she was probably not a morning person.  It didn’t bother her as much as she thought it would.  When she stopped for gas, she glanced now and again through the window, watching the girl texting friends on her phone.

She asked herself if she’d ever been that young and decided at least not at heart.  Maybe there was something a little psychic in the air, because when they got back on the interstate, Emily asked, “How old are you, Carmen?”

“I’m thirty-seven.”

“That’s young,” the girl said.

Carmen snorted. “Do I look a lot older than that?”

To her surprise, Emily turned to study her, taking the question to heart.  What was it with these young people?  The way she was raised, you always lied and said people looked younger than they were.  It was a courtesy.  A no brainer.

Emily said, “I don’t think you look thirty-seven, but I’m not sure what that’s supposed to look like anyway.  I think you’d look younger if we changed your hair a little bit.”

She considered being offended.  She picked it up and put it back down again.  Instead she heard herself let out a sigh.  “I’ve been thinking about doing something different with it.”

“You’d look good with bangs,” the girl said. “The kind that sweep off to one side.”

“You think?” She shrugged. “Maybe you can show me something on your phone tomorrow. I’m open to suggestions.”

Emily smiled at her, but just as quickly her smile faded as they turned onto their road.  She pointed to an old farm house on the corner, one that had been abandoned and falling apart as long as Carmen could remember.

“Doesn’t that place just make you sad?” Emily said.  “I always wonder why it’s so alone like that.”

Her voice was so sweet and wistful, it made Carmen study the place closer.  She hadn’t noticed it in years.  Vaguely she recalled that she used to feel the same way Emily did about it.  It was good to have someone to make you notice things.  She felt relieved that the carpooling wasn’t terrible after all.  At least, not so far.

When she let Emily out at her house, she watched her dash across the yellow lawn before backing out onto the street.  She was smiling a little bit, thinking about bangs that sweep off to one side.  Then she remembered that tomorrow would also be a new nail polish day and she found herself chuckling.

“Carmen, you old ass,” she said into the car.  “You’re gonna paint your nails tonight.”

Sharp, More

We’ve been strolling for about twenty minutes when we again circle the benches at the fountain.  This time when Sharp raises his brows in the question, I nod in agreement, so we stop and take a seat.  He sighs in contentment as he settles in.

Sharp looks good today – relaxed and even a little dashing in his jacket – so I make the mistake of telling him.  He looks away with a scowl that does little to hide the smile that almost lit on his features.

I squint up into the sky.  “Well, you look as good as a guy like you can look, anyway.  Your hair is at least combed and I don’t see any mustard stains on your shirt.  New lady in your life? Something you’d care to discuss with the group?”

“Some group. Me and some shithead.”

I laugh right out loud.  It’s fun to get his goat and I long ago decided he can’t tell it’s a kind of flirting.  Sharp is a brilliant man but he has his blind spots.  It’s clear he isn’t going to tell me if he’s dating someone.  We sit without talking for a while, studying the other people, listening to the music of three jazz musicians standing in dappled light.

It’s Sunday in Washington Square, warm for this late in October.  Cardigans have come off and are tossed over elbows or knotted around waists.  The leaves are all stained glass and back lit.  This is an impossibly beautiful, Hollywood kind of day.

Sharp taps my shoulder, says, “Look.”

He has spotted a woman and her son arguing near the fountain.  The woman is yoga-and-kale-juice thin, wearing one of those dresses that looks like bicycling clothes.  Her blond hair is short and messy and something about her looks familiar.  She might be an actress I should know about.  Her son has stylishly disheveled hair and wears skinny jeans rolled up to show off striped socks and rugged little boots.  Peeping out from under the jacket he is twisting out of is a vintage-looking Blondie concert tee sized for a five year old.

“What do we think of that shit?” he asks.

“Well, I think it’s dreadful.”

“Dreadful,” he mocks not unkindly. “I agree.  You know you’re a little Victorian, don’t you?”

“Dreadful has been retired?”

“Eh,” he says.  “Looks like mamma wants Timmy to keep his jacket on.”

“Well, Timmy’s winning,” I say. “There should be a rule. Until you are pretty much a teenager, no one gets to dress you up cute and trendy.  You just wear some old shit off the rack at K-Mart.”

He laughs. “Then when you get your first pube, someone throws you a bone and takes you to a J. Crew outlet in Jersey.”

“Yeah.”  I ponder it a moment more. “I guess it’s annoying because you know that kid is going to be such an asshole.”

The boy we’ve named Timmy has wrestled free of his jacket, leaving his mother holding the sleeves with a frustrated and slightly astounded look on her face.  Sharp shrugs. “Looks like he already is one.”

I laugh, warming to the theme, and say, “Timmy’ll be that guy who always knows exactly the right new bands to mention at parties.  Bands you haven’t heard of yet.”

“He’ll quote Camus incessantly,” Sharp says, not missing a beat.  “One by one, his traits will be perfectly fine – almost admirable – but collectively, they’ll make him the absolute worst.”

But now I’m bored with making fun of Timmy. He’s fallen and he’s crying while his mother checks him over.  He’s become just a little kid again and it’s time to let up.  Sharp must agree because he has an old couple in his sights.  They are sitting on a bench on the north side of the fountain.

“You name them,” he says. “I did the last one.”

“But you call all little boys Timmy.”

“Your point?”

I study the old woman, who is scribbling in a Sudoku book with a purple fountain pen.  She is tallish, you can tell, with hair that hasn’t been taking calls since Carter was in office.  It’s flame red and curls stiffly against the popped color of her tweed blazer.  Her slacks look expensive but slightly high-water, as if they refuse to meet her curious choice of huge white tennis shoes.

“She is definitely a Marion,” I say.  “Or else something romantic and feminine that never suited her.  Like Gwendolyn or Genevieve.”

“Genevieve,” Sharp says. “But then he’s given her some big red nose of a last name that totally wrecks it.  Like Rosenblatt.”

“Genevieve Rosenblatt.”

We laugh.  Sharp taps my arm, “You’re not done yet.”

I squint at the man now.  He sits far enough from her that a child or a small person could plop down between them.  His hands are empty, loosely woven together on his lap.  He is shorter than his wife and not just because he’s so old – this guy was always shorter than her. You can tell.  He dresses exactly as bad as Norman Fell on Three’s Company, so I take the easy way out.

“Stanley.”

“Stanley and Genevieve Rosenblatt,” Sharp says. “I can buy that.”

“You know she has a prolapsed uterus.”

“You say that about every woman over sixty.”

We’re silent a moment more.  The breeze has shifted and you can smell food from the neighborhood: briny franks, spicy gyros and something a little like brown sugar and butter, too.

“Let’s get brunch,” I suggest.

As we stroll along, I return to the subject of the Rosenblatts.  “You know, I have this thing where I always imagine older women having prolapsed uteri but being unable to talk about it to their doctor.  Like it embarrasses them so they won’t get treatment.”

“What is this? A fucking PSA?”

“No.”  We step around a small man in Daisy Dukes, tugging the leashes of three dogs. The littlest dog is a shih tzu and the biggest a great dane.  I dig my hands in my jacket pockets, wishing I’d worn only a t-shirt and jeans.  I’m only ever happy in a t-shirt and jeans.  Anytime I try to add another component, I live to regret it.

“Can’t you just see her daughter coming over and saying, ‘Ma, you’ve got to go to the doctor about this.  It’s going to get infected, you know?'”

“Now I can,” Sharp says, wincing.  “How come your version of her daughter sounds like Rhoda?  Whenever you do a New York woman’s voice, it’s Valerie Harper all over the place.  Don’t look, but your suburbia is showing.”

“Fuck off,” I say.  “In my dreams, they do all sound like Rhoda.”

We stop on the corner of Waverly and MacDougal while the traffic moves against us.  He grins at me, saying, “This still about what happened to your sister?”

Sharp remembers everything you tell him.  His mind is a steel cage.  I laugh as I recall the story my sister told me.  She said she went over to our mom’s house to check on her one Saturday.   Mom was in the shower when Julie got there so she made herself a roast beef sandwich and then threw herself over Mom’s bed, looking through a magazine and eating the sandwich.  When Mom got out of the shower, she said, “Julie, I want you to take a look at something.”  Julie got up and stepped into the bathroom, the roast beef sandwich in one hand and the magazine in the other.  Our mother was standing in front of the bathtub, toweling herself dry with her legs about shoulder width apart.

“Look at this, honey,” Mom says.  She lets the towel go and points to herself down there and where her legs meet up, there is something that looks exactly like a huge wad of chewing gum – that weird color called burple – blown into a bubble and then stuck there, half deflated.  “It’s my vagina,” Mom said.  “My insides are coming out.”

My sister said she literally threw up.  She puked the roast beef sandwich right out over the bathroom floor and some of the throw up splashed up on both her and my mom.  Then my mother, now as shocked and grossed out as Julie was, pukes in turn.  And this puke, as Julie tells it, had walnuts and Craisins in it.  “You know,” she added. “Those dried cranberries. But now they were reconstituted, so they just looked like normal cranberries.”  She said it was the grossest thing that ever happened to her and I bet she’s not lying about it.  Of course I called up Sharp at the time and told him first.

That was last year, when Sharp and I were in the thick of our friendship.  We’d only been friends a year or so at that point and, his divorce over and him shy about dating again, we spent a lot of time together.  That was back when I was a little bit in love with Sharp.  The night I figured it out, we were walking back to my place from a bar.  It was two or three in the morning, but we weren’t really that pissed.  We’d been drinking slow and talking all night and we’d never switched from beer to liquor, though we talked about it.

I saw a mirror on the sidewalk someone had thrown out.  It was cracked in one corner, but it had an interesting frame.  Sharp could tell I liked it as soon as I paused to give it a look.

“Want me to carry it?” he asked.  It was a big mirror and he is a bigger guy than me, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t manage.  Maybe he could see I was a little peeved that he offered.  He said, “Or we can take turns. It’s still five blocks.”

“Okay,” I said.  So we took turns carrying it back to my place.  He held it when we got to the apartment door so I could get out my key and let us in.  The hallway is small and its easy to stand too close to someone in it even when there isn’t a mirror pushing the two of you together to get through.  I could feel the heat coming off his body he was so close to my side.  It made getting the lock a clumsy task.

When we got inside, I told him to throw the mirror up on the mantle shelf.  The chimneys have all been bricked up, so the mantles are just relics now.  He put it up and turned to face me, his stupid face a little red from coming up the steps, his eyes shiny and dark, the only bright things I could see at that moment.  He was smiling at me warmly, as friends do in those rare moments of quiet we allow ourselves.  I knew in that instant how much I had come to rely on him for feeling happy and it just kicked me in the stomach. This was a real pain I’d felt once or twice before in my life.  I turned away with a cross brow and said flatly, “Thanks, Sharp. I think I’m gonna go to bed, so you need to go home.”

He left with a scowl on his face and I cried myself to sleep.  But that was a year ago and since then I’ve folded those feelings up until they fit our particular box.  It was that or no Saturdays like this one, where we walk and talk this way, opening up strangers and deciding we know the shape of them on the inside.  We’re very clever, we like to think, and that is how Sharp and I work.

Becky Stories

There is history to each old house rotting along the byways, peering out from under the stringy grip of the mad kudzu.  My aunt Becky knew lots of stories, about the living and the dead.  Some things she knew because she was a court reporter who spent hours looking up things in town records.  Yet some of the best tales she told were just things she knew because they were woven into the very countryside we called home.  And because she was the oldest aunt, she’d lived through the most stories. You could point to any old home place on our road and she knew who had lived there and how they died.  We always loved the creepiest tales.

ImageShe lingered on the telling, feeding them to us in bits while she made supper.  The whole family came to eat the Sunday meal in the house Aunt Becky and Grandma kept, so once a week there was a pretty big audience for storytelling.  As the other kids gathered in the living room or out on the front yard to play and to bicker, I would find a place to disappear in the kitchen so that I could hear the telling.  It wasn’t hiding so much as just blending in.

In the world of my childhood, you watched TV most nights.  In those candy bright living rooms, toothy bell-bottom wearers gave each other high fives while canned laughs told us it was all very funny.  But on Sunday evenings, the best stories to be had came from Becky.

One of her stories was about Rosie Hawkins and Duck March, whose name might sound like an annual event in the natural world.  Yet to us it had a terrifying connotation.  If older cousins wanted to scare you in the yard at twilight, they paused and looked into the woods, whispering, “Was that Duck March?”  The story Becky told was about something that happened a long while back.  This is how she told it.

Rosie Hawkins was a spinster who lived all alone on Loop Road.  One Sunday evening, after she missed church supper for the first time in all her life, they found her swinging from a tree outside her house.  It was said she killed herself, but there was blood on her dress.  Doc Holiday said it might have been her virgin blood.  Someone else asked how she got up there; they found neither ladder nor chair under the tree.  Rosie wasn’t spry enough to have climbed up and jumped down.  Besides, the branches were all high.  Everyone knew how tidy Rosie kept that yard.  Every tree a proper soldier, arms up to salute the starched little general that was then the Hawkins farm house.

And Roy Sealock made a good point, too, which was about her church cakes.  Why would a woman who was planning to kill herself make three of the prettiest cakes you ever saw, lined up just so, with the basket she usually used for taking things to church supper sitting there beside?  Though they would never write it up as a murder, everyone agreed nothing made sense.

Becky knew something else, too.  She had written an article for the paper once, just a couple of years ago and long after Rosie Hawkins was laid to rest, about a psychic who came to live in the area.  The seeing woman told Becky she lived in these parts when she was a child, but her father moved them all to California back in the fifties.  She asked Becky about a sleep vision she once had far away in Santa Monica when she was a teenager, that she always felt had something to do with their old home in Virginia.

In this dream she saw a woman being raped on the floor of a small, whitewashed kitchen.  She was stout and had thick brown hair in a knot on top her head.  The man was wiry.  He wore his dark hair a little like Hitler, but his face was whiskered over thickly.  The story gave Becky pause, because the man sounded like Duck March, a local mad man who was attributed to some other unsolved murders.

Then the seer frowned with another thought and added that the man was missing a finger on his left hand.  She thought it might have been the pointer finger.  Then my aunt knew it was Duck.  The woman told her she saw the missing finger because she saw him making a noose.  She said the woman was already limp when he slipped it over her head; he’d broken her neck when they fought in the kitchen.  He climbed up on a ladder from the barn and dragged the rope over a tree branch, arms straining, until she was hovering well above a perfect carpet of grass.  In her dream, she was able to follow him back to the barn and watch him put the ladder away.  Then just before he bolted into the woods, he turned suddenly as though startled, and she had a funny sense that he was going to look straight at her through her dream.  She woke up in a cold sweat.

Becky said she didn’t know how she felt about psychics, as a rule, but the woman seemed sincere.  And telling the story left her visibly pale and unhappy; she was certain the thing she saw had really happened.  Becky had come to write about a psychic returning home, a light enough little piece to hold down the back page of the paper.  She could not and did not write the story the woman told her.

My aunt always saved a good detail for the last.  She’d get up to stir something on the stove while we mulled over what she had told us.  The other grownups started along side roads that stemmed from the tale: what ever happened to the Hawkins farm; did they every find the person who finally killed Duck March; was it true that when they found his body, his parents rolled him over and took his wallet?  Becky would answer each question in good time, but first she turned from the stove and added the delicious last stroke to her Rosie Hawkins masterpiece.

When she was leaving the psychic’s house – that little place with the blue door out on Airport Road near the animal shelter – the woman smiled at her and said that the queerest thing about visions was the details she sometimes remembered.  Like with the rape she saw in that prim little kitchen, she’d never forgot, there were three cakes with white icing sitting all in a row on the table.  They were perfect cakes, just so cakes, the kind you smoothed patiently with a cold wet knife.

Roosevelt

The force of the train rumbled the soil as it pushed into the mountain and back out of it again.  And the bridge carried it out over the water, tight and patient, though the steel burned from the heat.  In the shadows of the water below, the fish and turtles would not stop the work of living. The ferns in the wood stirred but the deer and the squirrel paused until the chugging storm passed.

  Image

Industry was the bumper crop of the clever and it seemed no drought could cause it to ebb.  Far away in the steel towns, the women rose before the men that coffee and biscuits would be waiting.  The day opened with pink Easterly light.  Hours later the men came home in charcoal dusk, themselves as grey as the shadows cloaking their little brick houses.  The pay of it made rent and food and sometimes clothes and less often shoes.  Just the same each year, by December the cash became oranges and candy and gifts to anchor a wistful Christmas tree.  Their sleep was so heavy it was often dreamless, but in the wakeful hours, their eyes strayed again and again to their little jam-sticky broods and something hopeful, something like Roosevelt seemed to think might work, kept them rising to grip the hours ahead.  Everything they made, the train took away, but at the other end, there were people who needed it.