Prose: AV11-Prose

Prose


Falling Into The Arms Of A Dervish

Coming home from Turkey after living on the Black Sea for almost half a year, I feel like something’s missing, but I don’t know what it is. I keep looking and waiting for it to return in a flash of recognition in the oddest, most random and forlorn of places, on the bathroom floor under a rug for instance, in the wailing refrain of a garbage truck taking a corner at 20 mph, in heat waves rising off the asphalt or a smoker’s wracking body hacks, but so far it’s nowhere to be found. So I keep waiting and looking, glancing with shy and furtive eyes into fellow American faces as if I’m seeing them for the very first time, at the snaky blue vein-work of an old lady’s forearm at the grocery store, or the raucous laughter of tough-minded teenagers wearing their baseball caps hip-hop sideways, shoulder-dipping down the sidewalk. I keep waiting to see it or for it to find me, to grab me and clutch me with eager, loving fingers by the elbow and whisk me away to impart its loving secret, but it hasn’t happened yet. And right when I think I almost know what it is so that I can reach out and touch it, it vanishes and moves beyond me, leaving only the smoke of an ineffable longing behind.

And to not quite know the thing you are missing and to miss it at the same time with a joyful, keening, even madcap love and sorrow is a strange kind of double, even triple whammy, something I never could have anticipated upon returning home. I suspect I may not find it again no matter where I look or go, even if I return to that mysterious and beloved country that has already cast a life-long spell on me like so many sesame seeds sprinkled at the bottom of a simet seller’s basket. I know such powerful and primary experiences can’t be duplicated, nor would I have the heart or audacity to even try. All I can really say for sure is that the best and brightest part of me is still back in Asia and probably always will be, clumsy and fumbling around at the mercy of another culture and every passerby, knowing just a few spare phrases of Turkish and trying to understand and be understood, which I now have come to believe is oddly overrated. Something of precious and inestimable value happened while I was there, and not just to me: it was like the sudden flowering of an awakening that can’t be relegated to just one person, which no doubt partly accounts for the fairly hysterical tone and trajectory of this headlong essay.

What I mean to say and breathe out in a cooing sigh is that going to Turkey was like being spring-loaded and shot out of my life to be emptied and filled and turned inside out at the age of forty, going back to something I once perhaps knew as a child in the light of a doorway or the shaking leaves of a tree lit up in the glowing roadmap to heaven that still somehow got away from me over the years, something precious and outside of time that kept popping up its peek-a-boo head once in a while that I never could quite get a bead on. I mean that I came back to the states tenderized and fairly cooked, with faint wisps of smoke rising from the top of my head sizzler-style, that I cried and wept more tears of joy there than I ever have before at the simplest gestures and overtures I saw or encountered there, an old man moving beads through his fingers next to me on the bus, a young woman who took my backpack in her lap when I gave up my seat on the crowded dolmus. I kept finding myself suddenly flooded with waves of gratitude and wonder and something very akin to a heretofore unrealized and unarticulated hope—with gradually but surely the strangely insistent imperative that this somehow needs to be told, somehow communicated—not because it happened to me, but because it happened at all.

Because it seems what we mostly hear about nowadays is the heartbreak, mayhem and destruction that’s going on all around us, not to mention the division and suspicion between peoples and nations that keep breaking out into war and genocide: rarely do we hear how the world is mending itself one human encounter at a time, how it can and is learning even now how to love and respect all of its diverse elements from people to polar bears, that some motorists still stop on the side of the road to pick up turtles as they try to crawl across a treacherous highway, as I saw one woman do the other day in her stylish high heels. For whatever reason we just don’t often hear about these things: and when we do, they’re quickly drowned out by the seemingly more important and pressing issues of the day, which usually involves the din of imminent disaster or the latest tick-tock of doom’s comeuppance. Many of these same issues—from global warming to acts of terrorism—certainly do occur and need urgently to be addressed, but their very deluge seems to wipe out the reality of any other kind of exchange.

These just aren’t the whole story nor ever were or will be, even if we as a species end up blowing each other into smithereens. And sometimes I think people don’t really want to hear about love, especially between people of very different cultural backgrounds; they don’t want to see it in each other and see it in themselves for a whole host of painful, legitimate and bogus reasons. They don’t want to see it because then all the walls and flags would come toppling down—they themselves would come toppling down. Because I know for a fact, for example, that there are several bus drivers in Turkey that I will meet again in the afterlife for the kindness they showed me time and again, for the brief, radiant views they offered me behind their drivers’ seats with the whole city of Samsun in front of the windshield like some kind of sweeping, seas-side panorama inside the flashing interstices of overpasses, a kindness that happened to me so many times that I started to suspect a subtle, even cosmic and beneficent sleight of hand, a little divine tomfoolery masquerading as public transit. Many of these drivers wouldn’t allow me to pay the fare for reasons still unknown to me, perhaps because I looked so obviously foreign. So they let me ride for free, like any wide-eyed guest under the auspices of a host’s sudden hospitality.

I know they were doing the work of angels and were gritty angels themselves, that no suicide bomber or green house gas can mitigate the quiet, gentle light coming out of their faces or the way they took a corner cranking the man-hole sized wheel in their hands. I know they weren’t rich and that they worked long hours, that they didn’t have to be kind to me or make me feel like such an honored if somewhat bewildered guest. And though it will no doubt come across as a bit over-the-top, one of the most important things that ever happened to me was riding on a packed and crowded bus seated on the steps of the stairwell because there was no other room as the driver and I tried to communicate between stops, then coming up to a red light and boulevard awash in sunlight where a city worker was watering a median of tulips atop a fire-truck’s turret inside the enveloping and misting arc of a dazzling rainbow, as beautiful as any dew-drenched dawn.

I thought then, even as I think now, it was more, much more, than being a foreigner in a strange and distant land—more than being the first American the vast majority of these Turks had ever seen or talked to, or being the only westerner anyone knew of in a city of over 700,000: rather it was like the peculiar timing and circumstances of this place and people served to open the doorway to the person I never knew I was or ever had the chance to be back home, which is one of the most astounding realizations of my life. I could have gone my whole life without going to Turkey, lived out the rest of my appointed days as a born and bred Midwestern American, faintly troubled sometimes perhaps but basically happy and fulfilled nonetheless with a very comfortable and privileged life, and I never would have known or experienced the most basic but also mystical kind of human connection that exists between people of any culture or ethnicity, walking down the street day after day arm in arm with my appointed tutor or hoca named Kadir, a young master’s student who tried to teach me Turkish though I proved to be a woeful student, or running into the arms of friends in a parking lot just to greet them or say hello or goodbye in the course of another day as a guest lecturer at Ondokuz Mayis University teaching American literature: I was always running into someone’s arms the whole time I was in Samsun, like the late college basketball coach Jim Valvano looking for someone to hug after North Carolina State pulled off a most improbable upset over a highly favored University of Houston team in 1983. I don’t mean to suggest that this trip was not without its serious bouts of loneliness or struggles or comedy of errors and rife frustrations (any westerner who has spent in the Middle East will probably have their own experiences of this, i.e., whatever you think is going to happen, happens in a way you could never quite anticipate), only that these kept giving way time and again to a vast but personal embrace that at times reached out to encompass the entire world.

And this sense of imminent embrace followed me everywhere I went in Turkey so that I never felt truly isolated or alone for long but usually just grateful and full of a sense of possibility, ready to reach out no matter who or what was before me, which was always changing and swirling before me. Everywhere I went someone was waiting to take me into their arms, from shopkeepers, friends and colleagues and people in the streets—everywhere around me I sensed an almost delirious love closing in, the kind of love that has nothing to do with nationality or gender, nothing to do with distinctions at all: like some grand and immense tipping point of which I was just another small part of a huge and sprawling human chain.

I don’t even expect this to be entirely believed because there are some moments, cynical ones it is true, that I wonder about it myself, and wonder furthermore if I wasn’t just lucky to catch a particular human wave at a particular time whose very timing made it a one-and-done deal, never to be repeated again. But then I remember, No, that’s not true: these things really happened, really touched me: I still feel the after-imprint of so many bosoms pulling away. Part of me wants to sing and shout about this above anything else I have ever known, part of me wants to announce in clarion call that whatever people are doing to each other or about to do or afraid of what the other will do, it’s not so bad, even though it may in fact be terrible—that love still somehow manages to flourish in the most unlikely of places between the most unlikely of peoples and always has and always will. And here is my humble, if somewhat crazed dispatch as an imperfect testimony.

No one doesn’t want to be loved and appreciated wherever he or she goes—no one wants to go it alone in the desert that we are sometimes called to wander in that may be our very own lives, sometimes for years and decades at a time, sometimes as long as we’re alive. I just had no way of knowing before going to Turkey that this same desert happened to consist mostly of my own beloved Midwestern America and all that it entails, a region and country I can’t help loving even if I tried—and that this same desert was all I had ever really known with a few brief stints to other places. But after just a few weeks in Turkey I came to realize that I’d been swimming uphill for most my life in Nebraska and Michigan, as a person and as a writer, swimming against an invisible current so pervasive and overwhelming that I had no way of knowing it was there until I was briefly air-lifted out of it, looking back over my shoulder from a vantage point 7,000 miles away. There’s nothing original about any of this, no one to blame, no good guys or bad guys: just the sometimes shocking and bracing clarity that certain kinds of far-flung travel can sometimes illuminate leaving behind their own wake of epiphanies like so many spendthrift jacks thrown from a moving van, as I became increasingly marinated and then grilled—I don’t know how else to put it—by the warmth and affection I experienced in Turkey.

It was like I kept falling into the arms of a dervish in the form of this or that person, and it never let up while I was there, that for whatever reason and impetus I was being embraced and embracing back for all I was worth, realizing more and more that, like Rumi instructs us in one of his poems, “Live in the nowhere that you come from, even though you have an address”—my truest and deepest home is no place or single culture at all but each and every person I meet along this mortal journey. And I also came to realize that being at the mercy of others, especially those from a very different background, is a very important and necessary thing to do—perhaps the last hope of this world in the twenty-first century. I put myself again and again in their hands—I had no choice—and I must to report that this same vulnerability opened floodgates of love, wonder and awe.

To my shame and consternation I haven’t been able to realize this in America and I’m not sure why: I don’t know what it suggests about me or where I come from, or how these mysterious and poignant things come about. But maybe it comes down to something as simple and radical as the willingness to walk arm-in-arm down a street with a person of the same sex, and not fear that such touching will somehow be misconstrued. I do know it wasn’t a fluke, just the truest, deepest thing there is for someone on this earth, the sense that he or she is both deeply connected to everyone he meets and also an individual, that such embraces can happen any time, anywhere, and are in fact just waiting for us to welcome them. The truth is I’m a stranger in any country I visit, even my own, but it no longer matters that much where this strangeness takes or wherever it may it may lead, as long as I claim no greater allegiance than an open and vulnerable human heart. Such contradictions are where people live the deepest, richest and most agonizing parts of their lives; it’s in these same contradictions that one’s soul is somehow forged and honed and meted out in the extensions of its own unattainable longing. I’ve always had this longing to a painful, even excruciating degree, which hardly makes me special or unique.

But for some reason this longing found some resonance and even partial fulfillment in Turkey unlike any other place I’ve ever been, and in such simple and even hilarious ways it was like an embarrassment of the ordinary. I still don’t know why so many Turks break into a run or what catalyzes such sudden movement, why before one class the students broke into a round of sudden applause and stopped almost as fast, how Kadir could tell me with great earnestness that he was starting a diet only to take me two hours later to a baklava place without batting an eye. The mysteries of code and conduct, ritual and manner exert their own beguiling influence that I’m coming to learn can’t be predicted, turning every earnest visitor into a wondering child once more. And maybe being a strict minority of one was the key; maybe by being so obviously other and at the mercy of others is the one of the ways to truly realize this for oneself. Because each one of us becomes a witness, finally, only to our own becomings, and ourselves which can occur in our own backyards or very far away. I couldn’t disguise my blue eyes and sandy hair, couldn’t fake my accent, I was marked and branded for exactly what I was, an American abroad with no 7-11 to walk into.

You can go years ever so slightly out of touch with something of ineffable value—you can watch TV and cry at movies and laugh with your friends in a bar, and still not come close to understanding who you really are. I know, because this is has happened to me. I was living my life as a relatively well-off American, teaching at a small college, working on books and essays, which remain my abiding concerns. But as a person I never could have anticipated what Turkey would do to me, like someone or something took my soul and turned it inside out, and not just for kicks either: I started to see in all the people I met there a kind of shimmer, a kind of peace and afterglow, some kind of ineffable brightness that poured out of their mouths as we walked down a busy street. I kept getting swept up on some updraft current of human affection, with someone always seeming to be singing a Turkish folk song in the background, almost all the way to the vortex of a hope and brightness I’ve never experienced anywhere else. And now only the odd, but pressing and almost keening question comes again, Now what? What am I to do with the fact of all those embraces? I don’t have any answer, just the burning dictate of a charge that commands me to say, Yes, it happened this way: Yes, I am, you are, everyone is love incarnate whether we choose to recognize it or not. Yes, we are home-stung and wandering, yes, it is always time to fall into another’s arms right now this very second, whoever they are and wherever we may be.


White Center

My father drove in silence. We were off familiar roads, now. What houses there were stood back inside deep black groves. It felt like the country, even though we had just left the city. Everything was dark except for those occasional house lights that shone like coyote eyes in the trees.

We were going to see one of my father’s friends. I really never thought of my father as having friends. He had golf buddies and drinking buddies. He said he would teach me to golf “next year.” There would be a lot of next years. For now I was a caddy, walking the course with his work friends, his golfing and drinking buddies. They were a tight group that had little to say but swore a lot. They smoked and hacked and had their individual twitches and ticks. It didn’t seem much like a sport the way they played it. They tossed cigarettes on the side of the fairway to make a shot and picked them up again and kept on walking, and they all looked like candidates for heart attacks.

“She’s got a son your age,” he said.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

He was silent for a few moments. Then he said, “I don’t know.”

The apartment building was on a cul de sac. But there were no other homes around. Three forlorn lights lit up the upper walkway. I could see the glow of the television sets behind the curtains of every window. One street light illuminated the street with a gloomy yellow light.

My father pulled up, his headlights strafing the lower rooms. He came to a stop and turned off the engine. He turned to me and smiled and said, “Well, here we are!”

Yep, we’re there all right. A fine mist was floating around. It looked silver as it entered the light of that one streetlamp. The ground glowed black.

I followed him up to one of the doors. Her apartment was on the lower floor. There were two little brass numbers, 11. It seemed odd that 11 was on the first floor. Were there underground rooms? There was also a little brass knocker, but my father just put a hand on the doorknob and pushed open the door. “Hey, there,” he called out. He had been there before.

It was kind of a dump, but I made no judgments in my mind, really. It smelled like fish. The brown couch was velour and it was crushed smooth on the arms and the center of the seat cushions. A TV was going. Jeopardy was on, and Alex Trebec was asking some impossible questions with that smug look, like he didn’t have all the answers written in front of him.

She was cooking something. I could smell hamburger and onions. She came out from the kitchen, which was just a separate space to the right side of the living room. “Hey, sweetheart,” she said, and she threw her arms around my father’s neck and wrapped herself around him and gave him a big kiss and dropped her head on his shoulder. She stayed that way a long time.

When she finally pulled away, she looked over at me. She smiled mechanically. I knew the difference. I knew what this was about. “And you!” she said. “I’ve heard all about you!” And she came over to me and put her arms around me and pushed her body against mine as though I had no personal space. Her rose perfume was strong. Her hair was white, bleach white, and it fell across my face. I’d heard my mother refer to this kind of hair as bleach bottle blond.

What had she heard? I couldn’t imagine my father talking to anyone about me or my sister. Not unless he could get something out of it. When she pulled back, I saw her face. From a distance she would have been pretty. Up close, her make-up was thick as putty. Her smile was a fracture in the mask.

“Hello,” I said.

“So you’re in the….sixth grade?”

“Yeah.”

She looked over at my father and said, “He’s the splitting image.” That’s exactly what she said.

Her teeth were big and yellow.

“Hey,” she said, still holding me by the shoulders. “Go say hi to Zack, my son. He’s been looking forward to seeing you all day! He doesn’t have any friends out here…”

She pointed to the hallway, the only other way to go in that space but out. My father smiled, nodding, waving me back down the hallway. And looking at him, I just thought, who are you?

I went down the hallway. The walls were white. The ceiling lights were bright, glaring. I went into Zack’s room. There wasn’t much to see. It looked like they had just moved in. The walls were bare. He had no furniture except for a bed. He had a few clothes in the closet and a few toys on the floor, legos and plastic cars and a little plastic pirate ship, but that was about it.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey.” He was sitting on the floor, his back against the bed. It was the most dismal thing I had ever seen. We didn’t say a word to each other after that. I sat down and pushed a matchbox car around for a while. We were like a couple of inmates, waiting for a prison meal.

During dinner, neither Zack nor I spoke. My father and his girlfriend kept up a conversation, or rather she did. She talked a mile a minute. She mostly talked about men she had dated. She told stories about people like most people would tell, but they were all about men she had dated. One was a guy who loved horse racing. She was living in Florida when she knew him. Another was a garbage inspector who did sample analysis at the transfer station. If she mentioned Zack’s father, I couldn’t tell. My father just nodded and grinned like an old wolf.

After dinner we watched television. Well, Zack and I did. My father took off his leather jacket and got down under the kitchen sink. He was fixing the garbage disposal.

“You are such a lifesaver,” she said, stacking dishes into the sink. In fact, the sink was full of dishes from a couple of past meals, and she didn’t look like she had any intention of cleaning up right then. She sipped wine and ran her fingers through my father’s hair when he came up from under the sink and gave him this half-closed eyes look and grinned and said, “I’ll make it worth it. Do you think I can make it worth it?”

She didn’t think I heard, of course. But she was already drunk.

After the kitchen sink, my father got up and headed back towards the bedrooms. “Gonna fix a light switch,” he said as he went down the hallway. She stood for a moment at the back of the couch, wine glass in her hand.

“Whatcha boys watchin’?”

Zack sat there like a stone. I looked up at her, but she had already looked away, and I knew she wouldn’t hear me if I spoke. It looked like Zack was used to this routine, his face fixed in the glow of the screen. Then, she just drifted down the hallway, catching herself once by reaching out to the wall. She went into the bedroom and closed the door and they were gone for a while.

Driving home in the dark, my father draped his hand over the steering wheel so that it hung over at the wrist. He turned on the radio to a late night blues station. That’s about all he listened to. I wasn’t sure exactly what roads we had taken to get out to his friend’s place, but I knew we weren’t going back the way we had come. We were heading down a two-lane highway in nearly pitch black darkness. Occasionally we passed through an intersection with a gas station or a Mexican grocery. We were pretty far out of town. A half-moon cut through a cloud. My father drove right through a red light, but I kept quiet on this ride. He seemed happy and he was humming along with the music and once in a while he slapped me on the chest with the back of his hand. “A good night, huh? You’re not tired, are you?”

“No.”

“Yeah, me neither. Mind if we just drive for a while?”

“No.”

“I like driving at night, sometimes, when the roads are clear. No one out here. You can feel the dark. Can you feel the dark?”

I nodded.

We pulled off next to a field near the airport. The land looked familiar, meaning I sort of knew where we were. Red guidelines hung down over the highway, leading up to the runway. My father stopped the car and just sat there for a moment. I could hear the engine ticking. What was he waiting for? But he just sat there with his eyes closed and his head moving a little with the music. I thought he might be waiting for a plane to come. Maybe he was, because eventually a plane did come howling down over us so loud we couldn’t hear the radio. I could see its underbelly as it passed over us, big, silver white with lights blinking on the wingtips. And just then, my father opened the door and jumped out and shouted back at me, “Come on!”

I froze for a moment as he ran out in front of the car. It looked like he was chasing the plane. And then he kept on running. I got out of the car and started to follow him, but I couldn’t see him. He was way up ahead.

“Dad!” I shouted. I ran across the uneven ground, my knees buckling as I hit the low spots.

“Dad!”

But like I said, he was way out ahead of me. He couldn’t hear me, so I stopped there in the middle of the field. Looking back I could barely make out the car and the road. Looking ahead, I saw nothing at all.

“Dad!” I shouted again. And then I just stood there waiting.


Seventy

When I was younger I thought when I was older she would be closer.

Older I only remember when younger how very close she was.

Under the maples, with her little black bible.

Writing in the margins, beside the stanzas.

Lilac air, bell skies.

Come, she whispered, we must hold on to the day!

She was so, what is the word.

This morning what I thought an explosion just grackles going up into the trees.

Inviolable.

The trip to the interior, so long ago now.

Flying in an airplane.

Safari shorts, the vest with many pockets, pith helmet.

Without a guide or even an interpreter.

In the plaza, hat in hand, finding a driver.

Returning on that treacherous road.

The sky bleached, drained of color by a white sun. I was afraid night would never come, and I said so, but my driver admonished me.

We continued in silence. We might have been driving up the coastal road.

No, it must have been the interior. That is where I met her, that is where we started.

When I was younger.

She was always smoking something from a little pipe, I don’t remember what, but she shared, of course, along with her cigarettes.

She was very kind.

We drove down a red dirt road, under the mossy trees.

We came to a farmhouse.

I don’t remember whose it was, and I don’t think anyone was home.

The hay had been cut, the green bales sat stolid in the fields.

They look, I said, like little houses.

For elves, she said, and laughed at her little joke.

More than four, I said, but she was struggling with the column shifter, bringing the old ford to a stop. We went into the barn, into the golden beams.

Whispering because of the horses.

Chaff floating in the air, she came very close to me, little beads of sweat above her lip.

It was my first time.

She reached under her dress and took off her stockings, pulled up my sleeve, tied my arm.

She took the little paper package from her purse, unfolded the triangles, tapped the fine powder into a spoon.

The lighter flickered, the needle to the filter.

Laying in the hay, lazily, dreamily.

She kicked off her flats, wiggled her toes. She found a little place on top her foot for the needle.

Under the influence, so to speak.

Camping, once, in the national mountains. I do not recall the month, but the weather so fine, the dark-winged birds soaring in the winds.

Perhaps we were in another country.

My hat blew into the ravine. I remember tight pants that split when I knelt for a coin.

All that night we heard what we thought might have been what we didn’t know. Cold air more menacing than we anticipated.

We hurried inside the tent and laid very close, very still.

The coin not legal tender in my country.

When I was older.

She lived in the capital for a time, if I remember. The stories she had to tell, my word.

She brought the little pastries they are famous for.

In the evening she read to me from a novel, something about an undisciplined army entering a village.

Eyes glistening, the dress strap fell off her shoulder. I saw that delicate bone that presses the skin just above her breast.

A tress or two fell into her sight, which she lifted, absently, and in the same motion put back the strap. She never took her eyes off the page.

The collarbone.

When I was younger.

Driving along the interstate, into the dunes, staring at the hills of sand.

Her impregnable eyes.

It looks like someone’s skin, she said. Someone smooth and beautiful.

She smiled, or I did, then winced. The sun was setting, flashing in the chrome. I let go of her hand. I turned the radio a little louder.

I concentrated on the road, on the driving, my grip on the wheel. There was still some distance to go.

It may be that she never lived in the capital.

Sitting on the lake dock, starlings coming down from the yews.

I am not getting any younger, she said.

Silver circles where the fish were troubling the water, from the inside.

I wish I could go back and change it, she said.

All of it.

I reached for her hand.

When I was younger.

Then I was older.

Naked branches. Snipes so cold they shiver.

Changing the clothes in the chest of drawers, the splints of cedar.

Gloves to protect her hands.

Leaves gather in the stonewall lee. She watches the empty fields lie down dark.

She sets the table.

Go on, she says, eat.


Revolving Door

Kasha was the girl in the revolving door joke.

Mike knew it could never be with her, but he couldn’t let go. They met at a café uptown called the Revolving Door. All the rooms were connected by revolving doors. They’d been going around together ever since, “It won’t last,” he told his friend, Nick, “but I can’t get her out of my mind. It’s love.”

“What’s her name?”

Nick was being polite, having not even the slightest interest in Mike’s latest flame. Nick had his own issues. His kid brother, Dennis, put a dent in Nick’s car and made jokes about it instead of paying Nick back. It wasn’t a big dent. Nobody said it was. You had to hunt to find the damn dent, but it pissed Nick off anyway. It was the tip of an iceberg of attitude issues with Dennis. If he’d damaged something of Dennis’s, there would have been a major uproar. Dennis tended to run in one direction.

Mike had his own troubles. A guy named Dan Smith, had the idea that he could park his freaking junkheap in front of Joe and Betty’s place, Mike’s parents, making it look like a bunch of gypsies were living there. “Next thing you know, there’ll be a washing machine on the front porch,” Mike’s mom said.

“They call her Kasha,” Mike said, “but her real name is long and unpronounceable. The family’s from one of those places where they eat goat meat wrapped in grape leaves.”

“You know, Mike, you go off on these tangents, get involved
with a foreigner like this. You can’t even say her family name. You have cultural issues there, Mike. People like that play hardball when it comes to courtship. If they think you’re playing their girl for a sucker, they’ll cut your heart out and make you eat it.”

“It’s not a tangent, Nick. It’s love. I wrote a song about her.”

“What did you rhyme with Kasha?”

“It doesn’t use her name. I’m going to do the tune Friday night at Barkley’s open mike night. The song is about veils. The idea is that a young girl has a beautiful face carved from ivory, but can’t show it in public, as if beauty was something to be ashamed of. I sang my song for her, kind of rapped it a cappella, because I didn’t have my guitar at the time. Kasha was pleased.”

“Really?” Nick acted interested, but could’ve cared less.

“She’s her family’s designated sinner,” Mike said. “She’s the only artist her family’s ever had. She does water colors and writes haiku. Her father calls artists parasites. He says art is corrupt. He’s certain she’ll be corrupted by it, if she isn’t already. He’s already forgiven himself for not preventing her downfall. Kasha plans to live on her own, earn her own living. She plans to have sex if she likes, so long as she loves the person, which is the point that goes right by her family. She calls them cultural thralls and crypto-fascists. It’s very sad. I told her about my plan for the Dr. Skinmag band. She thinks it’s strange.”

“Bands have strange names, Mike,” Nick said. “Entertainers have strange names. Maybe you can’t wrap grape leaves around it, but Dr. Skinmag is definitely a nutritious, radical and provocative name for a band. You hear it, you think of sweaty excess. You think of alcohol and drug abuse, chunky women with big sweaty tits. You think of power chords and snakeskin boots, trashed hotel rooms and packing heat to an awards show. You think of having your posse bust up some jive ass jock that won’t play your shit because his play list is pre-packaged out of Denver.”

“I have all this stuff, these words and phrases, all these rhymes, riffs and licks, all buried down inside,” Mike said. “If they ever opened me up, Nick, strange birds would come flying out, singing these amazing notes. My soul would come flying out, get itself lost out there in the wild blue yonder.”

“Your soul?”

“Animus, —whatever you want to call it,” Mike said. “I wasn’t aware of it until Kasha put me in touch.”

“Really?” More feigned interest from Nick.

“Putting this Dr. Skinmag thing together won’t be easy.”

“Invite your little girl friend down to see the show, bring her family. Get her up there to read her poetry. Give the manager a couple bucks, get the family right up front. Make sure you get them to whistle and stomp when she’s done. Do Kasha’s tune.”

“Dr. Skinmag’s band needs a name.”

“Dr. Skinmag and the Pervs?”

“That could get me mutilated.”

“If you really love the girl, Mike, it doesn’t matter that you can’t pronounce her name. It doesn’t matter that it will come to the point where you either marry her or they fillet your privates.”

“You’re getting drunk, Nick. Your speech fills up with grotesque Boschy images when the juice gets you going.”

“True enough, soldier,” Nick said, grinning broadly. “We’ll let it be known that Dr. Skinmag himself is going to let all the bats loose out of his belfry at midnight, when the volume will be, as they say, turned up all the way.”

“The place is small, and there’s usually a crowd up around the stage area. The players all bring their friends, to raise Hell when their guy does his tunes.”

“I was there,” Nick said indignantly. “If you recall, Mike, I was the one clowning around, doing fine with a couple of birdies I had on the radar, when I bumped into a guy and caused him to spill his drink on the blond witch with the unflattering red lipstick plastered across her kisser. You must’ve seen her. Next thing you know, it’s me and the mouthy boyfriend outside, where he can show what a big man he is by mopping up the parking lot with me. She’s crying all over the place, telling everybody how I ruined her Grandma’s silk shawl; like, ‘Right, always wear your grandma’s wedding shawl to some rat fuck bar on open mike night. You have to remember Dirk or Turk, the boy friend, whatever his name is, you’ve seen him around. He’s about to introduce my face to the parking lot gravel, he thinks, but he doesn’t get the chance because I light the fuck out of there. Zip, across the parking lot like a scalded monkey, down between the cars. I mean, I’m sorry about your girl friend’s paisley shawl, pal, but I didn’t invent overcrowding.”

“So, the open mike scene is not really your thing, Nick?“

“Oh, no, no. If Turk and the wicked witch with the paisley shawl show, I’ll be gone. She turned nasty after the house landed on her sister.”

“You’re getting drunk, Nick.”

“What time will you come on?”

“Around midnight.”

“I’ll be there.”

“Sure.”

“Dr. Skinmag and the Porn Kings, all the way from Yokohama. My man, Joe Dobbs, on the skins; his brother, Chuckster the Huckster Dobbs, on bass, ripping down the walls, tearing up the floor boards until four am. Crank it up. It’s only rock and roll, but it’s like making a baby. There’s sweat involved, a lot of pain, but it’s worth it.”

“You’re loaded, Nick.”

“I want to meet Kasha, Mike. I want to gaze into those big brown eyes.”

“We met at the Revolving Door, you know.”

“Been going around together ever since, eh?”

“Ever since.”

“She’s with you all the way on the Skinmag thing, is she? Shouldn’t bother a libertine thinker like her. She’ll be there for you, will she, when your turn comes. When old Dr. Skinmag opens up those lyrical flood gates, lets all those twisted syllables fly?”

“She’ll be there. She loves me.”

“You got yourself some girl there, Mike, hanging out with the band like that.”

“It won’t last, Nick. It’s a revolving door, and I’ll eventually have to let it go.”

“Bands never last, Mike. That’s not the point. You were there. You went for the gold.”

“Right.”


Barbed Wire on the Brain

When you said to me, “Hearing your voice is like dragging barbed wire across my brain,” I mutely applauded your simile. Sure, the insult bristled. But does a tree branch complain when a hawk wraps his talons around it? I was used to your criticism. Like the time you said, during breakfast, “You’re ugly, you know that. You’re the ugliest I’ve ever seen.” Or, standing in line at Burger King, loud enough for the kitchen goons to hear: “I set out the red shirt for you to wear. What made you think you could wear the blue one?”

Me, the timid, meek, withered man, flagellated into a corner by you. You, overbearing, stentorian, your eyes tense with static impatience.

So uninventive. All of them. Until recently. I know you’re not reading from my library—the books are still covered with dust. Besides, you can’t read and watch TV at the same time.

“Hearing your voice is like dragging barbed wire across my brain.” You thought my ensuing silence was to appease you. Why would I further agitate you? Not with the iron in your hand, pressing the shirt I have to wear today. I’m not as ignorant as you convince me I am.

I was silent because you dabbled in poetics. And it stunned me. This was Goodman Brown finding the sash after awakening; Mr. Bovary’s first clue to Emma’s infidelity; Lord Wooton uncovering Dorian’s portrait. I had to swirl the simile in my mind several times, trying to decide if you stole it from somewhere I might recognize. Not a book, or a magazine, or even a song. It had to be the TV, something I didn’t watch with you, though since four months ago you relegated me to the spare room: “I can’t stand the way you sit. Go watch TV in the other room.”

Poetics. Poetry. A simile. The first I heard tumble from your virulent tongue. I would have kissed you if you’d let me.

So I folded clothes in silence. You didn’t see the grin I didn’t hide. I wanted you to ask me what I thought was funny. I would have said, “Nuttin.” And you would have said, “Then why you smilin?” And I would have said, “I’m not smilin.” And you would have said, “Yes you are.” And I would have said, “Sorry.” You didn’t look up—you trusted in your admonishment. I folded clothes in silence, with a grin, my arthritic, gnarled fingers like meat hooks.

I finished the four trash bags of clothes, hauled up the apartment steps by me. You outweigh me by sixty-two pounds; you’re nearly twice as strong. But I know better than to say anything. There’s an audible whistle when I pronounce aspirated words—syphilis, sex, ceaseless, cynicism—thanks to a tooth you knocked out when I sassed you thirteen years ago. I put away the clothes, everything in its proper place, tucked neatly in their Rockwell-ian
world. I considered asking what I should do next but remembered your beautiful insult, so I made your bed—again—and Windexed the TV monitor.

I slunk out of the room, quietly opened the door to the hallway. I knew you knew I exited the apartment. The sounds of the neighbors’ brats screaming and wailing barged in. I quickly returned with the mail, holding it in my hands as if the stacks were a baby bird.

“Did the State check come in?” you asked.

I shook my head.

“Did you read all of them?”

I nodded my head.

“Did you double-check them?”

I continued nodding my head.

You read aloud the sender of each piece of mail. An important piece you tucked under your armpit; trash, you flicked to your feet. “You did something right,” you smirked. “Sometimes I think you not retarded.”

I couldn’t believe you said that: “…you not retarded.” Just moments ago you said the most exquisite thing—”Hearing your voice anymore is like dragging barbed wire across my brain”—and then you say something atrociously incorrect. Behind closed lips I gnawed my tongue. You offered a glimpse of the ethereal…and then returned to simplicity. One shouldn’t mimic Swift, then quote someone from Jerry Springer.

You set the mail on the couch—*That’s where I sleep*, I almost objected—and reminded me to watch “Survivor” with you… in the other room. That was five hours away. How to fritter the time?

“Can we go to the park?” I asked. My voice had the tenacity of William Wilson questioning his doppelganger.

“Ouch!” you screamed.

“What?”

“Ouch! Ouch!” You clasped your hair, and I could see your red fingernails in the shock-gray and white and wispy black.

I crumbled to my knees, picked up an envelope, dashed to the end table for your pen, the one you use to circle in the *TV Guide* which shows to watch, which to record. I wrote my question, and you kept wincing as you read it. I backed away.

“I guess so,” you said, “as long as you wear your yellow shirt.”

I whisked through my pile of shirts, found the solid yellow one. I was ecstatic. You had spoken in poetry; I got to watch ducks eat handouts.

The walk to the park, across traffic and impatient whips, sapped me. Limping, wheezing, I had to be propped by you. I pointed to an empty bench, only because I knew you wouldn’t allow me to sit near other people. I chose wisely. You couldn’t have recognized my consideration. I am Bradbury’s vacant house that continues to prepare meals, to clean, to read Elizabeth Browning.

Seated, I found the four slices of bread. I was a magnet, a black hole: the ducks sped, fixated, to my feet.

But my thoughts were still on your simile. “Hearing your voice is like dragging barbed wire across my brain.” It signified something deeper, more symbolic. I longed to tell you. In my mind, I said, “Do you know what that means, your using a simile?” And you would have said, “A what? What the fuck are you talkin about?” And I would have explained *simile*: “A comparison between two things using ‘like’ or ‘as.’ You compared hearing my voice to having barbed wire scraped across your brain.” And you would have said, “So?” And I would have said, “Not only is that the first time you insulted me using a simile, but it shows an inner beauty you have suppressed all these years.” And you would have said, “What?” And I would have said, “If music soothes the savage soul, then poetry—or in this case, thinking in a simile—proves a genial soul. It proves you’re not as harsh as you pretend, that inside you have the propensity for poetry. And hence, compassion.” And you wouldn’t have said anything, so I would have said, “This is a start. Give me something else. Say that I walk like something, or that I eat like something. We can practice this.”

But I didn’t say anything. I knew better. Living with you is like biting my tongue just to recycle my blood.


There is Someone in the Next Room Who Does Not Want to Sleep with You

One of my sister’s friends, a girl with tattoos and absolutely no intention of ever graduating high school, ended up living with us after her mother went crazy and tried to blind herself with bleach. My parents, who must have been rendered completely stupid by their own unhappiness, allowed this wild, bored thing into our house. She slept in the guest room, a few feet away from my own. Thirteen years old, I spent hours each night waiting, on the off chance that she might want to have sex with me, for the sound of her footsteps in the hallway. I imagined her in the next room, twisting the bed sheets into knots with her desire, finding me to be the only available option. I waited, barely breathing, until sleep overtook me, and I would wake the next morning with an erection so painful that I could barely get out of bed.

The closest I had come to kissing a girl was kissing a boy and I was hoping that they were not at all similar. One afternoon, school thirty minutes over and my mother forgetting to pick me up, I sat on the curb next to another boy, also unloved and unremembered. He was a year older than me, slightly heavy and his nose whistling when he breathed. He asked me if I’d ever had sex with a girl and, shocked by the question, I shook my head, afraid to look at him. “Have you ever put your hand inside a girl?” he asked and I again admitted that I had not. “Well, goddamn, have you even kissed a girl yet?” he said, genuinely baffled, and I almost started to cry. “Come here,” he said. “This is just too depressing.”

He pulled me towards the courtyard, where a janitor smoked a cigarette on one of the picnic tables, completely unconcerned by our presence. The boy shoved me in between two soda machines, the space so negligible I thought I would pass out. “Come here,” he said, once he had wedged himself beside me, and he forced my mouth against his own. His tongue was in my mouth; the smell of his sweat, salty and nauseating, was so pervasive that it felt like a disease that could be transferred. After we were done, he said, “Okay, get out of here,” but his body was in the way. I pushed and tried to force myself past him, but he resisted, smiling. “Go on,” he said, rubbing against me, “get lost.” When I finally got out, I saw my mother’s van pulling out of the parking lot and I ran after her, waving my arms, forgetting my books on the curb. Once she stopped and let me in the van, she said, “I was going to leave without you.” “That’s okay,” I said, trying to catch my breath, my lips stinging as I spoke. “That would have been fine.”

Days passed without my having masturbated, terrified of this girl’s presence, turning the air into some kind of electricity that would not allow me to touch myself. I considered burning down the house in order to relieve the tension.

I had spoken to her only once, after dinner one night, when she asked me where my parents kept the alcohol. “There some kind of hidden compartment in this house?” she said. When I told her that my parents didn’t drink, she seemed to vibrate with disappointment. “They’re pretty lame,” I offered. She frowned and walked away without saying another word.

Later that night, after fighting sleep for hours, I dreamed that she asked me to write my name on her ass with a magic marker. When I woke up in the morning, I could not stop crying and my parents were so perturbed that they let me skip school.

I finally devised a plan that, in the grip of perversion and obsession, seemed elegant in its simplicity. I would walk into her room after she had fallen asleep, take off my clothes, crawl into bed beside her, and then wake her up. I thought that, in her confusion, she might think that we had been having sex and she would continue as if this was the case. From my limited understanding of how people convinced other people to fuck them, this seemed to be a not unreasonable option.

That night, assured that the entire house was dumb to my machinations, I pushed open the door to my room and slid my feet across the wood floors of the hallway, the house ticking and resettling in the humid air. When I stepped into her room, pitch black and dead silent, I allowed my eyes to adjust to the darkness, the scent of lip balm and stale cigarettes hovering around her bed like an aura. “What are you doing?” she said, her voice so lucid and clear that it seemed as if she had been expecting this since she had moved into our house. A sound like a tiny animal dying came out of my mouth. “I’m asleep,” I whispered. “I’m sleepwalking.”

“Well, wake up already,” she said.

“Okay,” I said. My hands were shaking and I wanted to put all of my fingers into my mouth at once.

She flipped on the lamp by her bed and rubbed her eyes. “What do you want?” she said.

“I don’t know,” I answered.

She screwed up her mouth in disgust and then she said, “Well, I’m about one hundred percent certain that I know what you want. And you’re not going to get it.”

“Okay,” I answered. “You’ve got a hard-on under your pajamas,” she said.

“I’ll just leave,” I said, but I found it impossible to move, unsure of the proper way to extricate one’s self from a failed attempt at sexual assault.

“Your parents should have just given me the thousand dollars I asked for so I could rent my own apartment,” she said.

“I guess,” I responded.

“Adults think they can make things better by complicating the situation.”

“I guess,” I said again. I felt like I had just been given the most unpronounceable word at a spelling bee and was stalling for time.

“What did you think was going to happen when you came in here?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “If I knew, then I think I wouldn’t have done it.”

“Sex is one of the stupidest things there is,” she said. “If you can avoid it for as long as possible, you’ll be better off.”

I nodded, though this seemed like terrible advice.

“Okay,” she said. “I’m totally awake now. Do you think you could go make me a sandwich and get me a soda?”

I ran out of the room, grateful for escape, and went downstairs to the kitchen where I assembled a sandwich so large that it looked obscene. My mother walked into the kitchen and asked what I was doing. “I’m sleepwalking,” I said. “I’m asleep.” She poured herself a glass of water from the tap. “Do what you want,” she answered, loose with sleeping pills, “but you’ll just make yourself sick.”

The girl was impressed with the sandwich. “This is so ridiculous,” she said, lettuce spilling out of the sides as she bit into it, “that it’s almost perfect.” I smiled and she turned down the covers to the bed with a flick of her wrist. “Hop in for a second,” she said, and I climbed into bed beside her, holding her soda for her between sips. “If your parents would give me that even grand,” she said, “you could be my butler.” She put the sandwich down and took my face in her hands and kissed me as softly and gently as was possible for her. I could taste mayonnaise and vinegar and it was so wonderful that I came immediately.

“Okay,” she said, taking the can of soda out of my hands, seemingly unaware of what had just happened, “you better get out of here.”

Back in my room, I stripped out of my clothes and folded them as neatly as if they were for sale. Then I placed them inside a pillowcase and shoved it as far back in the closet as it would go. Totally naked under the sheets of my bed, I felt completely calm. For the first time in weeks, the inevitability of sleep did not seem like a curse. In replaying the events of the evening, it seemed that I had learned something important. If I stayed so close to someone that my presence eventually became useful, I might be able to convince them, as an afterthought, to press themselves against my body and make me happy.

That night, and for hundred of nights that followed, I slept without incident, untroubled by my own strange desires.


You and a French Man

Bees, even though they use the sun to navigate, can find their way around on a cloudy day. You left me in a cafe in the middle of New York City and I didn’t know what to do. You were going to live with a French man and stop wearing underwear. I wanted you to come back to Michigan. There was all the culture you needed at Ann Arbor. People with different colored skin speaking different languages. I was sure there were plenty of other girls there who went without their underwear, too. Why did you have to come all the way to New York City to denounce your bra and panties?

The French man’s name was Michel. I remembered it the first time you told me, though that didn’t stop you from reminding it to me every time you mentioned him. Michel lives in the village, you said. Michel plays the piano, you said, and feels angst. What did I know? I thought angst was a cut of beef. Michel knows art and classical music, you said. Doesn’t recognize property, and, oh yeah, Michel doesn’t wear any underwear either. Is that how you wanted to live? Michel cooking eggs benedict with his genitals hanging out over the stove? Did you want to go through life having him stare at your crotch every time you tried to sit down to read the newspaper? Michel doesn’t stare, you said. He’s more comfortable with his sexuality than that.

Two weeks of you walking around without your panties on and I guarantee it he’ll be comfortable with yours, too, I said.

Michel said you wouldn’t understand, you said.

Michigan was enough for some people, a lot of people actually, and if it meant that much to you I’d help you burn your panties. Every last pair of them.

You’d lost weight, I could tell from your hips and your breasts and your cheeks, lost the curves that softened your expressions. I noticed it in the way your neck jutted out, too, and made your silver crucifix dangle to the side. You probably didn’t even wear it anymore and only put it on because I was coming. You didn’t ever have to do anything for my sake. It was probably something you and Michel laughed about when you two walked around the house naked, having to arm yourself with it to come and see me. Michel probably didn’t even believe in God, one of those people who looked down at those who did and thought he was superior for it because he wasn’t going to let himself get duped like that. I didn’t care about the crucifix, and only saw that you’d lost weight. Saw it in the edges of your face, hard and tough, like you’d already been in fist fights with other girls since moving to the city. Maybe Michel was the kind of guy who enjoyed making you jealous and didn’t stop you when you charged the bar and slammed that girl’s face right down into her vodka Gimlet. You’d always been tough, and it was the Midwest that taught you that. Michel should’ve known where you came from.

Michel says, L’homme fait lui-meme, you said. It doesn’t make it sound better because you say it in French. Michel knows what time it is in Hong Kong, you said. Michel knows how to pair a red wine with beeftek and a white wine with poulet, you said. Michel knows how to compute the hypotenuse of any three random points, you said, and knows what the heck a hypotenuse is. Knows what complementary colors are, too. You were pissed off because I wasn’t falling in love with him, too. I wished he’d been there and we could’ve really tested the man’s mettle. Michel doesn’t believe in violence, you said. Of course he doesn’t.

Michel’s a very knowledgeable lover, you said, knowing that would hit below the belt. You’d always mocked my insecurity. Michel knows how to properly perform cunnilingus, you said. Knows not to use his teeth. There was a time when you would’ve blushed at the word and never would’ve said it out loud. The first time I suggested kissing you down there—that’s right, I was the one who suggested it first—you had a fit of giggles and peed in the bed. I never held that against you.

Look at what the city has done, I said, and you used to be such a good girl, too.

That’s when you stood up and left. Walked right out the door and disappeared into the crowd. I paid for our coffee and your croissant. Sat there and cried because I was in the middle of New York City and didn’t know how to get back home to Michigan. On top of that, there were strange French men and women who looked just like you walking around without any underwear on.
The waitress came over and asked me if there was anything else she could get me.

Yes, I told her. Can you tell me how to get back to Michigan?

She must’ve thought it was a joke because she started laughing at me. The guy at the table next to mine said that announcing I was a tourist and lost on top of that was a sure fire way to get my ass rolled. I didn’t even know what that meant. I stayed there in the cafe all day, in the same chair at the same table. The city was a scary place.


Everybody Loved Robby

Robby was a talker’s talker. A suave raconteur. A lady’s man and a kibitzer par excellence. A man who could move you with many words or one. And he always had the last word too—that was his signature move.

But that was back, back, way back—in the time when everybody loved Robby. Really did. The girls especially. When Robby’s wife Ida was alive you would say they were comfortable, yes, but you wouldn’t say they were rich. One day he got sick and Ida went out in a fit of love to the best store in town. She bought him a two thousand dollar cashmere robe. She was that crazy about him.

But these days, Robby sat in that robe in the Emeth Jewish nursing home, yelling “bastard” at people, right into their faces. He did it for no apparent reason, although he seemed to do it more on Fridays than other days. Today was a Friday and he did it: Just before the Sabbath service, just before the young girl rabbi, the skinny one with the near crewcut, rode up the driveway on her bicycle and sailed by the security guard, raring to go with the songs and the blessings.

The chapel where they held the service was down from the dining hall, behind carved wooden doors to the left of the foyer, where the residents gathered from the three living floors above. Friday nights they gathered to either attend the service and then dine, or just dine without attending the service.

Robby used to love the service, but once again he didn’t look like he was going tonight – not the way he was acting. He rolled his wheelchair back and forth, back and forth, until they opened the doors to the dining hall. To Sophie and Celia, two of the residents who were in the foyer as well—leaning on the rails of their walkers and waiting for the young girl rabbi—to them Robby didn’t have his good-day look, which was cherubic in that chubby, pink-jowled Winston Churchill way. At this moment he looked like Orson Welles in a black rage.

Cherubic was a Robby thing, it was Robby at his best. When the Jewish orchestra came on Wednesday afternoons and played that Havah Nagila stuff—also Glenn Miller songs from the Ida days—Robby often left his wheelchair, ever so lightly, as though he was levitating, and danced around it, holding onto the arms for support. Wednesdays were Robby’s brightest day. Fridays his darkest.

“The mind is a funny thing,” Sophie said to Celia. “Pieces fall out of it.”

At that moment, the doors of the dining hall opened and Sophie and Celia watched Robby roll right by them to go in. He was greeted by Vivalyn, one of the large Caribbean women who ran the dining hall and, for the most part, ran everything in the Emeth Jewish nursing home.

“What, no service?” Vivalyn asked. “You must be hungry.” She moved behind Robby’s wheelchair and seized it, aiming to roll him to his favorite eating spot.

“Bastard,” Robby roared. It was a loud roar. Out in the foyer, Sophie and Celia heard it. So did several other residents, who were spilling out of the elevators and gathering for either dinner or the service.

“Who you mad at?” Vivalyn asked, in her husky, soothing voice, as though she were talking to an overtired child. “Who make you so mad?”

“Bastard,” Robby roared again. “Bastard. Bastard.” But as he raged, he never looked at Vivalyn, not once.

Sophie turned to Celia, wagging a painted fingernail. “They should call security.

It’s a disgrace. On Friday night too. On Friday night it’s a sin.”

“You think they’ll call security?”

“They should. They should.”

Right then Shulamit, the girl rabbi, breezed into the foyer with her guitar.

And right behind her, a wheelchair shot out of the dining hall like a bullet. It was Robby, his Orson Welles face twisted in a boiling scowl.

Vivalyn ran after him, still trying to calm him down. Also trying to grab the wheelchair, to keep him from tailgating the rabbi. “There, you see? It’s Shulamit, with her guitar. She’ll make music. Don’t you love the music?”

“Bastard,” Robby roared. He roared it so loud everyone heard. Sophie, Celia, and Shulamit had to have heard it too, although you couldn’t tell from her face. It was all hepped up, in that blissful way of hers, from ear to ear.

Smiling sweetly, Shulamit bent down to greet Sophie and Celia, to welcome them to the Sabbath and the service. “I love you two,” she said, in that musical voice of hers.

Robby wheeled his wheelchair right behind her. Scowling. “Bastard,” he roared, right at her back. But she didn’t even flinch, much less turn around.

“What about him? Isn’t he…?” Celia asked Shulamit, who bent lower, and dropped her voice.

“Isn’t he what?” Shulamit asked breezily. “That’s my problem. I don’t love everybody.” She surged ahead, opened the chapel doors and began singing and playing her guitar. Sophie and Celia, moving like tortoises in their walkers, entered and sat down. So did the other waiting residents, all except Robby, who rolled his wheelchair right to the edge of the threshold and parked himself there, glowering at Shulamit and the growing crowd around her. Eventually, Shulamit put down her guitar, walked right up to him and, smiling sweetly and beatifically, shut the doors in Robby’s face. As the doors clicked together they grazed the wheels of Robby’s chair, and he roared the b-word again. Shulamit, serene on her side of the shut doors, went back down the aisle to resume the service. She deftly changed a guitar string, tuned it, and launched into a sustained period of playing and singing and blessing. She sang so joyously it was as though the happy spirit of the Sabbath was bouncing in her every pore.

Vivalyn remembered the day the old rabbi left and Shulamit first pranced into Emeth with her guitar. Right away, Robby muttered something about Shulamit’s eyes or eyebrows looking like Ida’s, his late wife’s. Vivalyn knew the signs. She wondered then and there what Robby was thinking. Whether he had a crush on someone seventy years younger than he was.

Although Celia trusted Sophie, there was one thing she never, ever discussed with her. The night she and Robby made music together, way back when in the old neighborhood. It started out at the old Shangri-la Ballroom, and Celia could still hear the woodwinds and the velvet sound of “Perfidia.” She could still feel the spot in her back where Robby’s arm had pressed as he glided her over the parquet.

And why mention anything to Sophie?—It was just one night, and it was ages and ages ago.

Sophie and Celia still talked about Shulamit’s very first guitar-playing service. Not only was Robby there in the chapel, he was right up front, his face as cherubic and pink as a fat peach. They remembered the way he stepped out into the aisle, moving more into the air than onto the floor—floating on his feet in time to the music. As he floated, he edged closer and closer to the guitar, to the hands that were caressing the strings. Then he put out his own ancient pink hand, like a hungry bear extending a paw.

But that was many months ago, just before Robby’s big birthday. And now, at the age of ninety, Robby sat in his wheelchair and stared at the outside of the carved doors, grinding his false teeth and shouting, “bastard.”

Until, at last, security noticed.

The security guard yawned. He and Robby were the only ones left in the foyer. He rolled Robby into the elevator. The elevator doors slid shut and the foyer was quiet, except for the low buzz from the dining hall—and Shulamit’s rousing voice and guitar echoing from the spellbound chapel.

As the elevator rose, the security guard said, “She’s a good singer. You think?”

As usual, Robby had the last word. He roared his final “bastard” of the night.


Life While You Wait

I am in Bruges. It’s in Belgium. They make lace here. I just bought some for Aunt Tess. She knits so I thought she’d appreciate it. She’s married, after a fashion, to my Uncle Lloyd, may he rot in hell. He has a septic tank cleaning business and uses the ten-wheeler during the winter to plow for the town. Two months ago he pounded on my door. It was a typical Massachusetts blizzard outside, at least a foot on the ground, and the wind picking up as the low pressure system swept out to sea. At least it would be a white Christmas.

“Finish my shift; I’m sick. There’s thirty-five an hour in it for you, cash money.”

As much I needed the money, it was pushing ten. All I wanted to do was watch a Law and Order rerun, catch Leno’s monologue, then call it a night.

“Look, I’ll level with you. I may have hit somebody.”

“Uncle Lloyd, the roads are horrible. People shouldn’t be out on them. Nobody’s going to blame you for a little fender bender.”

“It was on Route 119 near the Pepperell town line where that little bridge goes over the Squanacook; one of those foreign Smart cars sitting off to the side of the road. I was in a hurry. Who can see something that small anyway, and there were no lights. I clipped it with the wing plow. It went up and over the barrier like I hit it with a nine iron.”

“Christ, was anyone hurt?”

“I didn’t stop. By the time I figured out what happened I was a mile down the road. I can’t back my rig up that distance so I went up to Hovey’s Corners and used the rotary.”

“And what did you find when you got back?”

“I didn’t go back; I came straight here.”

I was in my robe and slippers. I loved Aunt Tess but had never been crazy about her second husband, Lloyd. He fooled around with Cheryl Sykes who bartended down at the Elks. It had been going on for years. I could smell stale barroom beer and cigarette smoke. “You want me to go with you to the cops?”

“Maybe you could go down to the bridge and check out the scene. It might be they abandoned the car.”

“And what if there was someone? How long ago did it happen?”

“I don’t know, an hour, maybe more. I’m a little foggy.”

“You’ve been drinking?”

“I stopped by the Elks for an Irish coffee or two. I’ve been on the road since early this afternoon. I haven’t had a chance to pee or eat so the drinks made me tipsy.”

“Was Cheryl there?”

“She doesn’t mean anything to me. We both let off steam together. When you’ve been married twenty-five years, you’ll know what I’m taking about.”

I stared at him. He knew how much I liked Aunt Tess.

“Please, Ray, I’ll never ask you for anything. I’ve got some bucks saved up that Tess doesn’t know about. I’ll co-sign a car or school loan, anything if you’ll help me out of this jam.”

“So you want me to drive out there and see what the damage is.”

“That’s it. I’ll be here by the phone. If it’s just an empty car, what the hell, like you said, they shouldn’t have been parked on the bridge anyway. There’s even a sign that forbids fishing from it, for Christ sakes.”

“And if it had people in it?”

He slumped down on my couch, his face in his hands. “You got any aspirin? My head is pounding.”

***

I really like plowing. It’s black and white, chaos then clear pavement. I even like snow blowing my driveway. I’ve got a twelve horsepower Ariens with a headlight and plastic bubble over it. Let it blow, sleet or snow; I’m as snug as a bug which is the way I felt in Lloyd’s truck. You sit way up high and know that nothing can stop you. I’d driven it in the past during his shift so he could take his little sex breaks with Cheryl. I figured he loved evening storms so he could cheat on Aunt Tess. I wondered how he managed during the summer.

I’d never used it with the wing plow attached and clipped my own mail box backing out of the drive. It took a few miles, but I finally got my distances right and was doing a decent job of clearing the road and minimizing the drifts on the shoulder.

I neatened up Route 119 in Townsend then headed for the little bridge. Since I like history I knew it was called the Bass Bridge after Paul Bass, a local soldier who died in World War II. Most people think it’s named after the fish. Even from a distance I could see the flashing red, blue and yellow lights. That meant the police, fire/rescue and local volunteers were there. When I pulled up, Pete Collins, our top cop came over to the truck.

“You notice anything the times you been by here tonight?”

“This is my first pass, Chief, my Uncle Lloyd’s been on duty since this afternoon. He’s not feeling too well back at my place and asked me to finish up. How bad is it?

“Two dead. Looks like they went nose diving off the road into the river. If it had been a bigger car, they could have climbed into the back seat and stayed out of the water. Though the impact may or may not have killed them. Did you know Beth Eggleston, big volleyball star a few years back, went to Northeastern?”

I said I didn’t.

“Can’t figure out why the back end of the car is crushed. Looks like somebody palm smacked it like an empty Bud Lite can.”

I grew kind of weak. “Do you think they suffered?”

“Dr. Sprague is on call. Only he can tell. We don’t have identification on the driver, but we guess it was Beth’s boyfriend. Looks like he tried to scramble out before the water got to him. She might have been dead on impact. Passenger seat’s still a death trap even with airbags.”

I put the truck in gear. I couldn’t stand being there. “Anything you want me to plow?”

“The DPW is calling in all the big rigs. They’ll let the pickup trucks do the mopping up until morning. You have Lloyd’s cell number? I like to ask him if he saw anything when he was on his run tonight.”

I gave him Lloyd’s number and took off. I swung through the Willard Brook Conservation land knowing it was a state job, but I needed time to myself. After an hour I drove back to my place, parked the truck and went inside. Lloyd was nowhere to be found, but he had thoughtfully taped the Leno show for me.

***

Three days later the fecal matter hit the fan. Paint from the death wreck matched the orange of the DPW wing plow which was still attached to Lloyd’s truck. I was brought in for questioning. It seems my uncle had sworn that I’d been operating the plow from five in the afternoon on. His rock solid alibi was provided by Cheryl. When it came down to admitting to adultery or manslaughter, he chose to tearfully beg forgiveness from Aunt Tess as well as beat his breast about how stupid it was to let an inexperienced kid like me out in such a storm . My bail was set at fifty thousand which took a week to put up. I had a public defender who said, if I plead to reckless endangerment and involuntary manslaughter, I might only have to do a year or two. Then there’d be a civil suit, which would keep me in hock for my natural life.

Nobody asked about my passport so I packed a bag, hitched a ride to Logan Airport and took the first flight they had. So that’s why I’m in Bruges. I guess I should have told you that at the beginning, but I’m not really a writer. It’s mostly rain and slush for winter over here. I miss the snow. Even though it’s Belgium they speak Dutch in this part for some reason. And they hate the Walloons, whoever they are.


What

She was pretty sure everything on the left was broken. The angles of her arms and legs were odd, as if she were a Barbie that someone had tried to position looking natural in a dollhouse chair. She knew there would be pain. It was contained, for now, in a bubble of electricity and light high up under her sternum. She supposed it would burst when they got her out of the car, but for now, she knew of the pain only intellectually. She was breathing rapidly. She supposed that she was in shock.

For now, Julie watched the woman in the purple suit who was standing outside the open window of Julie’s tilted car. How vivid the purple was against the bright weedy green of the ditch. Emerald and amethyst. What month were those birthstones? The woman was well-intentioned, intelligent, but panicky.

The ambulance is on its way, she told Julie, and asked her if she was hurt.

“I think so,” Julie said.

But then the woman did not know what more to say or do. She tergiversated about, now watching the highway for the ambulance, now looking back at her own parked car, now looking at Julie.

Julie was looking at her right hand, because to the left there was blood, and she didn’t like the sight of blood. Her right hand was reassuring. It was too bad she needed to stay still, because she wanted to check her hair. She wondered if it looked okay. She had been running early that morning, ready to leave the house at twenty of eight. Why not trim her bangs, she’d decided, since she had a few extra minutes? When she was finished she was satisfied with the way they framed her face. Not as good as the salon could do, but almost. She turned off the lights and left the house. She got into her car.

Was that what put her on the interstate at the exact split-second when whatever happened had happened, the trimming of her bangs? Or was it one part of that, just the last glance in the mirror, perhaps?

There was also a light that she sped up to make as it turned from green to yellow. There was also her choice to take accounting in her freshman year of college, which is why she went into finance as well as business, which influenced where she worked and when she drove on the highway. Those were some straightforward answers, but the cause could be altogether more complex.

For instance: last night an elderly couple went to dinner at an upscale Chinese restaurant. The man had gotten the General Tso’s chicken instead of his usual favorite, pork lo mein. His order used up the last of the chicken they had cut up in the kitchen, so the man who chopped things—what was that job called?—had to prepare more, and was late finishing his shift. The worker had promised his roommate, who worked at a convenience store, a ride home. The roommate, after waiting for his ride for fifteen minutes, called from his cell phone outside the store. A woman pumping gas decided she also wanted a pack of gum. On her way into and out of the store the man’s foreign, frustrated tones made her nervous, and she walked extra-quickly past him, even though she knew such things shouldn’t make her nervous, so she resolved to chill out, already. As a result the woman let herself be a little late for work the next morning, and this was the driver who had veered into Julie from a lane on the left.

But the chain of causality was still incomplete. Did the elderly man switch his order from pork to chicken merely on a whim of appetite, or did he just find out he had high cholesterol? Why did the woman at the gas station go in to get gum? What one thing, what one particular thing, gives rise to any other, and what powers of logic and deduction, what mysticism would it take to reveal the formula?

You could say the universe was random, chaos theory and all of that, but even so you had to admit that most of what happens comes as part of very long lines of cause and effect. Therefore it could be figured out, and she had nothing but time to do it in. What was she going do anyway? Move her arms and legs? Ha ha. She smiled.

The woman in the purple suit frowned.

Are you doing all right? Hold on, they’ll be here soon.

I’m fine, Julie said.

Perhaps it was the brown shoes that she was wearing—the left one was probably bloody, she wondered if it would come out. Months ago, she had gone to the mall to buy a last-minute birthday gift for her niece, saw the shoes in the window, and loved them. What if they made her drive slightly faster or slower than when she wears, say, the black flats? And her sister happened to do it with her boyfriend on some particular day in late spring seven years ago, which caused Ashleigh to be born on February 11th, which was why Julie ended up buying the brown shoes. Driving in the brown shoes, perhaps she ended up at mile marker 26 on the highway a few seconds before or after when she would have been there if she had been wearing the black flats, and ended up unseen in the path of someone’s lane change. Though unseen why, or why seen too late, was part of the whole puzzle.

She had named several possible pieces. There were thousands more. She would go through them, one by one. She thought of a cloister, built of ancient stone, where hermits dwelt in silence and pondered such questions. Sometimes going mad over them. Isn’t that what people have always done, knowing there must be some way of turning lead to gold, trying to figure out the what and the why of it, for eons now?

There were moths in the cloister, giving movement to the quiet air in their quest for food, water, light. The moths were ages, accumulated wisdom. Their soft wings brushed against her hair; ages landed on the back of her right hand and rested there, opening and closing their wings. Julie and her mind and the wisdom of the ages and her right hand—don’t look at the left—were cloistered here in the tilted car. Her mind had never been so clear. If there was ever a time for Julie Steadman to glimpse the workings of the universe, to figure it out, this was it.

The ages that had landed, mothlike, on the back of her hand trembled and flew away. There was a sound, a shrill siren, that crumbled the silence of the cloister air. It frightened them off. She was left lonely and (she knew now only intellectually) afraid, in fading light. The sound was getting louder, rising fiercely like the pressure of the bubble in her chest. As the ambulance door opened and a pair of black boots charged down towards her through the weeds of the ditch, Julie knew that she would never figure it out. She would never know what did it or probably, after this, even give it more serious consideration. Help was on its way.