Sunday, April 5, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 206: The Nancy

The Nancy

"Want to guess what the boys down at the hardware store said? They were talking about your boyfriend," I call to her. When Jeannie hangs up the phone like that, I know who she's been talking to.

"I don't want to hear it, daddy."

"Don't you want to guess?" With this, I swallow the last of my spaghetti and start playing with the leftover sauce, stirring it with my fork, watching my fingers tremble, feeling them ache. I drop the silverware and reach for a napkin. It takes me three tries to pick one up and I knock the others on the floor doing it, too, but she doesn't notice. She's ignoring me.

Jeannie unties her apron and stares out the bay window of the kitchen. Her sandy-brown hair is tied in a bun, the way I like it best, but she'll take it down for her boyfriend. When she starts to clear the table and has to pay attention to me again, I try to speak. But instead of words, all I manage is a croak. It's embarrassing.

"Are you all right?" She rolls her eyes away from the stack of plates she is holding to check me over.

"Just burping." A grin. My voice sounds rough but strong. "They say he wears ladies' lingerie!" This is triumph. My throat, after dinner, is usually clogged with mucus and bits of food that won't go down.

"Dammit!" She slams the plates onto the kitchen counter. "You always pick on Roger, and he's so nice to you!"

"He's so nice to me," I squawk, mimicking. The words sound scratchy and I want to say something more but I'm suddenly aware I've got to cough, to cough and spit. I lurch out of my chair,
leaning on my walking stick, and stumble over to the trash can. Jeannie drops the plates down in the sink and rushes over to help. They hit hard, fake china against hard metal, but I don't hear any of them break.

"Keep away!" I can help myself but Jean props my other arm anyway and we go tottering to the trash can together, out of step, our hips banging against each other.
 
"You shouldn't try to move so fast," she says.

I'm too busy leaning over and hacking up tomato-colored phlegm to answer. I feel her hand on my back, patting gently. It reminds me of the thumping caresses she gave as a child.
 
"He's coming over about a half hour."

"God!" My mouth tastes like slimy salt. "Where's he taking you this time? Where are you going to do it?"

Jeannie stares at me, a little shocked, angry too, and I realize I've used the name of the Lord in vain. But I'll apologize to Him later tonight. She takes her hand away and puts it on her hip.

"It's no business of yours," she says, finally. Then she trots back to the counter and leaves me huddling over in the corner. Funny how, when she's angry, she withdraws so quickly. No help for the petulant. No help for the complainers. Keep your mouth shut or we'll leave you to die alone.

"No business of mine?" I stand as straight as I can, using my cane to point, not for support. "This is my house he comes into! My food he eats! What is my business, then?" Jeannie
runs hot water over the plates and pots, scraping the food off with hard strokes of the scouring pad, jamming them into the dishwasher rack one by one. "Hell. Damn him to hell! You can
tell him to stay out of my house! If ... if that man ..." My hand has started shaking. Again. Whenever I get excited, it does that. I curl it into a fist.
 
"You've forgotten his name again, haven't you?" Jeannie turns around, a pained expression on her lips, wrinkles on her forehead. "I just said it a minute ago."

"It's ..." My cheeks turn warm and pink. I'm thinking but I lost my thoughts when I saw that hand. "I ..."

"I've got to go upstairs and change," she announces with a flip of the dishtowel. My opinion doesn't carry weight with her anymore. She never even gave me a chance. "You'd better come
with me. Those stairs are getting to be murder. God knows they're tough for me." The last part is to make me feel better. She's barely forty.

"I have my stick."

"I know."

She takes me lightly by the arm, as if I were a real gentleman and she, my lady, and we each lean on the other a little. It starts out smooth, nice but by the time we reach the steps I'm doing most of the leaning. Jeannie doesn't stop. She leads me up with grace, her hand on the banister, letting me take it slow so I can get both feet on a step before moving on to the next one.

"Do you think you can get yourself to sleep all right?" she asks, and I nod. No need to say something mean. It's been a long day for her, with Bobby, our electrician, coming in and all. She opens my door and props my cane against the wall for me.

"I'll come by later to see if you need anything."

"Okay. I'll be here."

Jean titters, though I don't think she really understood the joke. I don't think she can, yet. Not the way I mean it. She snaps the door latch shut behind me, leaves me alone to undress.

On the edge of the bed, sitting straight as I can with the mattress sinking and shifting beneath me, I draw one boot slowly up until I touch my knee to my chin. The strings keep turning to knots in my hands. Can't give up. This happens every night. Each finger cramps in its own special way, every joint swells and fills with pus. I cut a puffy knuckle once, sitting right here in front of the TV, to see what was inside. After a bit of blood came out, there was just some yellow stuff there. Calcium deposits, my old doctor told me when he was having the same problem, about a year before he died. I don't pay it much attention.

After about twenty tries, I get the candy-striped laces untied, kicking off the shoes, peeling them each with the toe of the other foot, and I feel a shudder shake the floorboards. A
grinding sound runs underneath the house and water clanks through the pipes. Jeannie's turned on the shower. I lie back, listening.

Sometimes, when I lie here, I think I hear Martha's footsteps. She had a rabbity, dainty walk. I always heard her scurrying around downstairs, pattering up in the attic, folding things so neat, dashing over to kiss me smack on the lips in front of my friends. Now I only hear her when Jeannie is asleep, her feet still not quite lifting off the ground.
 
Downstairs, a door slams.

I think, It's him! He's let himself in again! For a second, his name is in me, in my mouth, but before I can say it to myself, I've forgotten it again and all I've got left is a bitter taste, like old coffee, like my spit when I wake up in the morning. Stretching, reaching so far for a hold that it hurts, I put one hand on the nightstand, another on the stool by the bed, and lift myself up. He's down there now, in the dining room, wearing his floppy, red-plaid hunter's jacket, poking around in my things, taking what he wants. It's not right. There's no one around to help me with him, no one to fight for Jeannie's honor except for me. And if no one's going to do it, it'll never get done. I've got to go down there. This may be my last chance ... one day soon, it will be last.

Walking is easier in just socks. Strange, how I'd forgotten that those boots weigh so much. The door to my room creaks, of course, so I can tell when anyone is coming in. But I'm used to it, myself. I can swing the hinge without much noise. My house is like my body -- full of sounds in the places that got used most. It's still standing, though. We both are. Barely.

In the hall, since I know which places squeak and which don't, I move like a ghost. A carpet might help here but I like the color of the wood too much. I don't think I'll ever put one in and anyway, I'd hate to give up the advantage. I can hear everyone in the house from this hallway. But no one hears me.

He's in the kitchen, rattling around in the liquor cabinet. God, he's such a nance! I hope he doesn't break something again. The last time he was here he cracked one of the legs off the
coffee table. I made that coffee table practically with my bare hands, sanded it, polished it ... it was part of me, like a bastard child. Now a leg is cracked and you can't put anything
heavy on it and I don't think I'll have time to make it new again. The only consolation I got was the bruise on his shin after he did it. Though Jeannie had to ruin that, too, when we
came down to see what he'd done.

"How'd did it happen?" she said, crying. She never even looked at the table.

"Bumped it." He always mumbles or whines.

"You poor thing! Let me see." She acted like he'd gotten wounded in a war or something. All you could see was a tiny little blue and red mark, though I hear it turned black later.

Gasping. At the top of the steps, my lungs are gasping. Once they get going, they're hard to stop. After a while they hurt like hell, too. So I rest here, leaning on the wall.

Oh dear God don't let me be this weak, not when I talk to him. If only my body wouldn't betray me every step I take, then I could throw him out, out of my house, and make sure he'd never come back again. Jeannie would hate me for a while, sure, but she'd thank me later - thank me for stopping her from being such a slut.

Why does she sleep with him? Good Lord, why? He's such a clod, a nance. A nancy. That's what the boys at the hardware store called him. A nancy. Baggy clothes, baby fat all over his body, wire-rimmed glasses half as thick as my thumb ... what can she see in all that?

He'll never marry her. That's the worst part. I know he'll never marry her and it seems like that's the least he could do for a woman who's too good for him anyway. My fingers hurt. They've cramped up into balls of twisted flesh.

Jeannie would just die if she saw me. The rail is smooth and glossy. Me and Bobby's father put it up. I have trouble gripping it. Put weight down, gingerly. My right knee hurts. I don't know
what's wrong with it. Maybe someday I'll take it to a doctor, but I doubt it. The new one at the clinic, all he'll do is poke at it for five minutes or so, then give it a name. When doctors give things names, it makes them sound like they can be cured. You know, if you've got something with five syllables, just take a pill that's got six syllables and that'll make it better.
Well, that won't work this time.

Nothing's going to work this time. The knee is just a sign. What's really wrong, what's really got me, is God, crushing me in his fist, my whole body just decaying into a mush of blood and
dust. No matter what names you give to all the little things going bad in me, they all add up to my age and God's great big hands.

My old age. All the medicine in the world isn't ever going to stop it, I don't care what anybody says.

I reach bottom and slip and slide along the floor in my socks, feeling giddy. The wall keeps me from falling. My heart protests. I can feel it in my temples, squish-thud, squish-thud, as steady as ever. Loud. I'll have to rest before I go on. I can't let him see me like this. He'll laugh.

Worse, I'll have a damn asthma attack right in front of him and instead of stammering and turning pink at the ears like he always does when I yell, he'll get all smug and concerned-looking. Then he'll call Jeannie because he's got an excuse and she'll come rushing down with a towel wrapped around her and make like I'm about to die.

Feels like I've twisted my knee, even though I know that's not true. I just need to find a chair and relax. I'm glad there's one by the kitchen door.

Without ever lifting my feet all the way off the floor, I creep up on it. The last yard or so I have to walk without a wall for support and my body starts wobbling crazily, like a weighted pin in one of those fixed carnival games that comes around. I have to keep looking down to catch my balance. Collapsing in the seat is a relief.

But the sound of the shower dies. A second later, Jeannie is stomping around between the hallway and her room. I haven't got much time left. She probably already knows which clothes she wants to wear.

So I rest my fingers on the handle of the kitchen door. If I'm going to do it, I've got to do it now. The latch turns silently. The door eases ajar an inch or so. Cold white light seeps in through the crack in the doorway---Jeannie insisted on buying those damn new lights, those things with some kind of gas in them, shaped like tubes. He's in there, all right, sitting at my table, drinking from one of my fancy glasses. I can see him through the narrow, open slot, sitting on his fat ass, guzzling my liquor. Who let him into my house? Into my cupboard?

God, what a face! When I was young, a kid with that kind of face got beat up at least three times a day. And why does he always look like he's wearing hand-me-down pants? He must buy
them four sizes too large.

He raises his arm, trembling, and downs half a cup of my whiskey in one huge gulp. As greedy as that. Have to wonder how much he's had before. I doubt he's still sober. It's hard to tell when someone's sitting down. I'll bet he throws up. That would be just like him, to vomit all over my floor.

His snifter quivers. It looks for a moment as if he's trying to pinch the glass together at the rim. Straining, he jerks his head, so that his foolish mop of long, curly brown hair falls
into his eyes and I can't really see him anymore, only the lower part of his face. There, I can make out shadowy muscles twitching. I didn't know he had any under all that pudge. When I see those ripples on his jawbone and watch the tendons pop out on his neck, I know it for certain. I know he's going to break that glass. On his smooth, little boy's hands, there are veins
swelling up like flooding rivers.

When the crystal starts to bend, it makes a funny, high-pitched noise, like a dog whining. Then the glass breaks apart, like a dandelion puff. Flakes of it float everywhere.
They fly away in spirals, bouncing off the ceiling and floor with the force of the explosion, shattering again and again, until they become a fog of pointed dust motes. He just sits there, in the swirling, falling slivers, and lets himself be cut over and over. Tiny pinpricks, like measles, grow on his arms, and the anger gently fades from his face. He stares at the cloud of
shimmering rain he has created, hypnotized, calm in his fascination. He doesn't move.

The stem of the glass has driven deep into his palm. A thick, red, sticky syrup drips down from the bottom edge of it, staining his pants. Gripping it fiercely, he shivers.

That cut is so deep, the blood so dark, I almost leap up to help him. Only the effort of rising stops me. Partway out of the chair, I groan, crouched between two urges, and I hear Jeannie's footfalls in the upstairs hallway. She comes clacking down the staircase in her heels and even as she takes the first step I'm sitting back down.

In the kitchen, Jeannie's boyfriend hears, too. He lurches up out of the chair and sweeps off all the fragments from the table onto the floor. He winces, stumbling on his way to the sink, recovering with the wrong hand. Maybe he really is drunk. He washes his palm under the faucet, letting the water run clear and bubbly-white from the tap to his hand, thick and frothy-red from his hand to the drain, taking the big pieces out before my daughter can get there.

"What happened?" She is frantic again. She never even glanced at me, sitting out here in the hallway, and she grabs him by the shoulder, jerking him away from the counter top because he doesn't resist.

"I was trying to catch it. Broke in my hand." His voice is deeper than I remembered.

"Oh, Roger!" So that's his name. God, why don't I remember things anymore? I should know him ... Roger, I mean. He's been around long enough.

He looks at her with a pouty expression on his face, as if he's saying he's just a nance and doesn't know any better. Jeannie coos and pats his hand with a wad of tissue, mothering
him the way she always does. She kisses him on the cheek and murmurs something that I can't hear. But it seems to be kind.

It makes her happy, taking care of him like this. I've never understood it, the way she's always liked helping other people. Maybe it's that she never had a child. How could she? She's
never been married, never had anyone to support a family.

Jeannie mutters something about bandages and walks over to the closet. Halfway there, she glances back at Roger. Her face is so sad, so full of crying for him because he doesn't do it
himself, not really, that I want to rush out and hug her - I would have, if I was stronger - but there is a warning in her eyes. She knows. I know she does. She knows what he's doing.
And she protects him from it.

Why did he do it? God! Why? I didn't want to see that. The last thing I needed was to see Roger do something like that. How can Jean be in love with him?


The Nancy by Eric Gallagher, originally published in The Norwottuck, 1985

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 205: Eating Elephants

Lucy the Elephant by Acroterion, Wikimedia Commons





Yes, this is a metaphor for composing a novel or for persevering through any long effort. The work may take years. The results may not represent much of an achievement. But you do it. You get it done.

It's not about actually eating elephants. But also, it is.


Eating Elephants


The first bite is thick, red steak,
fresh catch, initial conception.
Blood dribbles down my chin.
My mouth waters for the next.

The fourth bite is a lump of gristle,
a bit of fatty, knotted muscle.
Already, this is becoming a chore
but I work it into smaller pieces.

The fifty-seventh bite is fur.
My nose rebels. My tongue curls
to feel the coarse hairs and stringy flesh
but I know the deed must be done.

The six-hundredth bite is greasy fat
and the meat's going bad
and oh god I can't finish.
I'm not going to make it.
It's too big for me;
it takes too long; I can't.
Someone at the table mentions
if I'm sick
I'll have to eat it all again.

Bite nine-hundred ninety-nine
I cough back onto the plate,
pick it up, swallow it.
I can't taste anything; my nose is numb.
The meat has gone sticky with disease.
I find it hard to remember
the texture of the first mouthful,
it was so many napkins ago.

Bite two-thousand twenty-five
is a rare bit of good flesh,
hidden in all the stinking rot.
I'm pleased to discover this tidbit,
celebrate with a sip of wine.

Bite five thousand is a morsel
I actually look forward to.
Yes, it's only a bit of tendon and bone
but as I bite down on the tine of the fork,
I bravely grin to those around me.

Bite seven thousand seven
is the very last toe.
I don't like toes
so I decided to eat them all at once,
chopped fine, a salad.
Now I'm finished with them
and feeling better.

Bite ten thousand, the tuft of the tail,
tastes sweet, for I am finished.
My friends raise their glasses in toast.
A smile goes round the table.
"What next?" someone asks.
"Now," I cry, full of victory,
"on to the next elephant!"

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 204: Benedict and Beatrice

"Much Ado About Nothing" image US Library of Congress

Benedict and Beatrice

"Always the savior of the party, eh Benny?"  A woman swung around my right side, reeking of bourbon and chamomile.  "Just as well that nobody pays you any mind."

I'd been trying to convince two men in plaid flannel of the importance of a liberal education.  They smiled at this woman, winked at me, and fled to the television where most of the other guests were watching election returns.

We were supposed to be celebrating Leo Sussman's re-election to Frederick County commissioner.  It was his fourth straight term.  The event had turned into the sort of party you feel obligated to help, as if the guests are drowning in a river and  you're standing on the shore.  You can't resist throwing lines to the host and hostess, who've gone in to save others, or to your old, old friends as they clumsily pull each other under.

"Why, Tricia," I said, "it's been so quiet I thought you'd  left.  Usually, I hear you coming from across the room."

"Hah.  As charming and hostile as ever.  How's tricks?"

"Tricks are for prostitutes, so I wouldn't know."

"That old line again."  Whenever she rolled her eyes or gestured, Tricia staggered ever-so-slightly.  She needed her sight and concentration for balance.  But for a drunk she seemed
sharp.  Her emerald dress pushed her breasts high without slipping.  Her make-up wasn't smudged.  "Are you skagged, too?"

"Alcohol," I said, "has never been my problem."

She glanced doubtfully at the gin in my hand, looking, as  always, for a verbal advantage.  We had a history of one-upsmanship.  It spanned almost eight years, although on this particular night I didn't feel up for it.  It irritated me to be near her.

Rouge made her cheeks seem redder.  Eye shadow blotted her lids with a golden-green, lending color to her hazel eyes.  Powder paled her nose.  Lipstick reddened and widened her lips.  None of this would have seemed out of place on anyone else.  But on her it seemed desperate.  When I'd known her in college she had never used make-up.  She hadn't needed it.

"What is it?" she asked.  There must have been something  on my own face.  "Your poison, that is."

"Hah.  Women, I suppose."

Tricia threw back her head and roared.  With a limp fist, she pounded me on the shoulder.

"Charming.  You're being charming again.  I'm not the least fooled, Benedict.  You men are all liars.  You never say what you mean."  She took a sip from the tumbler.  "And you know,
that's why it's refreshing to talk to you after all this time.  Because I'd rather hear your stupid cynicism than listen to yet another man tell me he loves me."

"Have men been telling you that?" I said, a bit jealous even though I had no reason.  She was beautiful, but there was nothing between us, just a crush I'd had on her during my sophomore year.  I'd  gotten over it when she started dating my roommate.

"Much too often.  It isn't true."

"Well, I've heard there's some sort of marriage disease  going around.  John Petriccio caught a severe case of it.  So I guess you ought to stay away from him."

She glanced longingly across the room at John.  But she shook her head and bore down on the ice cubes in her glass.  She cracked one between her teeth.

"I need another drink," she said.  "This bourbon is awful.  Switch me to vodka."

We weaved our way behind the cherry-wood bar.  While I was melting some rocks with the highest quality vodka I could find, I figured on making second gin for myself.  Someone had to get drunk with her.

"Have you seen Leo?" I asked her as we headed out.

"Yes.  On the throw rug in his bedroom, stinking smashed, with a bleached blonde woman wearing only white lace panties."

"Blonde?"

"I didn't know her."  She shook her head and drained half the glass in one gulp.  "I told you.  Men are liars.  He tried to get me in there only last week."

There didn't seem to be much sense in looking for his wife but I have no sense.  We were close to the front door.  I turned the corner to check, thinking she might have gone there to hostess.  The door was open and the foyer was vacant except for a few coats on the floor.

"What a wreck of a life," Tricia said.  She stooped to pick up her soft, leather jacket.  "Not yours, Benny.  Maybe I should leave early, tonight.  Do you want a ride home?"

"A cab?  Your sober driving is bad enough," I said, and leaned through the open door to see whose car was coming around the circle.  It was a white Spitfire convertible, which I didn't recognize, and it was parked behind Tricia's Pinto.

"Oh shit, it's Claude."  She closed the door.

"What's wrong?  You owe him money?"

"No, you big jerk.  He was my boyfriend once, as if you'd  remember.  As if you noticed."

Oh yeah.  A couple of months ago, I'd seen them together at a party.  I pulled one of the window curtains back to peek at the up-and-coming devil.  He was in the process of kissing and
feeling a petite woman in his front seat.  I thought it was safe to assume he had a different girlfriend now.  I wasn't certain it was safe to say so.

"Quick, hide me," Tricia said.  She set her drink on the shelf beneath the hall mirror.

I grabbed a dress coat from the floor and threw it over her.

"Not that way," she said, laughing.  She knocked the black trenchcoat from her head, mussing her auburn hair, and dashed to the closet.  "Oh, this is awful ... they haven't cleaned here for ages ... oh, hell, I think I can make it."

She ripped a big fur off its hanger and flung it to the slate tiles.  As she squeezed herself into a spot by the vacuum cleaner, she hissed, "Don't you dare let him open this."

At that moment, there was a knock on the thick, oak door.  I considered being rude and locking myself into the nearest bathroom but Tricia had played on my curiosity.  I knew if I left I'd wonder about what had been going on for a long while, perhaps months, since she wouldn't be inclined to talk.

After checking my hair in the mirror and pausing to fasten the top button of my jacket, I reached for the handle.  Claude opened the door at that instant and jammed my knuckles.

"Ben!" he yelled.  "Howdy!  How's tricks?"

I sucked on my fingers while he stepped in and cleaned his feet.  The woman came in after him, noticeably hesitant.

"Are you stuck with the doorman job this evening?"

"Temporarily," I allowed.  My fingers throbbed but Claude's gymnast-looking girlfriend stared so hard at me I took them out. Claude studied the coats strewn about the floor.

"You're doing a terrible job."

"It's my first night."

"Where's Leo?"  He removed his driving gloves one digit at a time.  I closed the door behind him, my job as doorman finished, I thought.

"Feeling a little sick, I'm afraid."

"Smashed, you mean."  A sad smile rose at the corners of his mouth.  "Bastard.  Say, he didn't invite that bitch from Detroit, did he?  I think that was her car."

I had a sinking feeling I knew who he was referring to.  "You mean Tricia?"

"Yeah, she's got a mouth on her, that one.  Or maybe you wouldn't notice.  She always flirts with you to get me jealous."

"Oh?  She does?"

"Yeah, well, it drove me crazy for a couple months.  While I was taking her to all those shows and restaurants.  Yak, yak, yak ... Benny this, Benny that ...  all the time, Benny.  After a while, I started talking about other women.  But I don't think she even noticed.  By the way, this is Ursula."

"Good evening, Ursula."  When I bowed, she smiled.  "May I take your coat?  I promise not to leave it on the floor."

She tittered and turned for me to remove the imitation fur. While my hands were on her collar, Claude shrugged off his grey coat.  He was faster than I could be and by the time I had Ursula
half-undressed, he had his chesterfield under one arm, gloves folded into the inside pocket, and was headed away from me.

"Don't bother, Claude," I said as he strode to the closet. "It's full up in there."

"I'll just grab a hanger, then."  He turned the knob.

"None left."  Before he could door move the door, I had my foot down in front of its base.  At the same time, I deftly plucked the overcoat from his hands.  "You may as well mingle while I sneak into the bedroom and hang these in Leo's walk-in. You know where it is?"

He gave me his impatient look.  "Of course."

"Well, then.  Nice to have met you, Ursula."  I tucked the coats under my arm and waved goodbye to them as they strolled away.  As soon as they were gone, I yanked open the hall closet.

"What the hell is this all about?" I hissed.

"We had a fight."  Tricia unfolded herself to step over the pile of muddy boots.  "What else?"

"What else is precisely what I want to hear."  The coattails flapped with every move.  "I did the courtesy of misdirection for you.  And I looked like an ass doing it.  I may have made Claude look bad, too, in front of his new girlfriend."

"Do you think I care about what his lover thinks?"  Her arms crossed in front of her chest.  Although she was a reasonably thin woman, the gesture seemed imposing.

"Well what am I supposed to do with these coats?  It's not like I can actually sneak into Leo's bedroom.  Not with what's going on in there."

"Why would you want to?" she snapped.

"Didn't you hear what I said?"

"No.  I couldn't make out your mumble from there."  Her expression seemed blank and innocent.

I had assumed she'd heard Claude's remark about flirting.  If she hadn't, that changed my mind about what we should talk about next.  Not that it meant anything, but his statement had
appealed to my vanity.  I'd had an unrequited love for Tricia, once.  It seemed only fair that she should have one for me.

We stood in thought, the both of us, for nearly a minute.  It wasn't exactly an awkward silence but it felt reasonably clumsy.  Plus, when I reached for my drink, I knocked the glass over.

"What did he say?" Tricia asked after she emptied her tumbler in a more elegant fashion.

"Claude?  Oh, not much."  Gin had drenched the tablecloth. After I scooped the ice cubes back into the cup, I gazed around for something to sop up the alcohol.  There was nothing but a
summer scarf.  I grabbed it, feeling guilty, and checked the tag.  One hundred percent silk.  My tie did the job, although I should have loosened it first.  As I finished up, another car drove into the circle.  The engine had a familiar rattle.  An Oldsmobile Omega.  It pulled closer than the Spitfire and, as it passed, its lights flickered through our windows.

"That's a relief," Tricia said.  She let the window curtain fall as we heard the parking brake.  "It's just Mrs. Blair and her daughter."

"Heather?  Oh no."  The engine died.

"Oh yes.  Definitely them.  Is there something wrong? I don't remember you dating Heather.  Or betting against her."

"She thinks I proposed to her, once."  I shrugged, ignoring the daggers in Tricia's eyes.  "It's a long story."

"Another story, another lie," she began.  Cars doors slammed not too far in the distance.  "Another great ..."

"I'd better leave."

"Go, then.  Get into the damn closet."  Alcohol had taken most of the disguise off her disguised contempt.  I did, however, leap into the closet when the doorbell chimed.

"Coming," Tricia shouted, two feet away from the foot rug.

Reluctantly, I pulled my prison closed.  It seemed a mistake to consign myself to the boots and parkas but my chance to flee unseen had passed.  A breeze swept into the hallway.  I could
hear the brass knob snap back, shoes scrape against the rug, and the screen door bang against the back of someone's leg.

“Tricia dear.  Darling."  Mrs. Blair had a voice like a brass trumpet.  Not one which is actually played but one which has air pumped through while the keys are stuck down.

Although I've always considered her a generous, loving soul, I'd been afraid of Mrs. Blair ever since I was five, which was when she'd sung to me while her husband accompanied her on the piano.  Heather had never been able to understand why I didn't want to play in her house after that.  It also ruined my piano lessons completely.

"Darling, you aren't hostessing for Angela, are you?"

"I've taken it upon myself."

"Just now?" Heather said.  Looking, I expect, incredulously at what was becoming an increasingly busy floor.  I'd dropped what Claude had trusted me with by the knocked-over umbrella stand.

"Of course," said her mother.  "Angela is a dear but tends to let her husband's parties get out of hand.  No hired staff.  And the furniture just reeks of alcohol.  We really ought to help you clean up."

"Oh, no.  I couldn't let you.  Really."

"I couldn't anyway, mother.  I've got to find my friends.  And Benny.  You know."

"That's right.  Well, run along."  The patter of Heather's footsteps dwindled out of the room before Mrs. Blair could finish bellowing.  "I'll help Tricia clean this up myself.  The two of us ought to get this out of the way in no time, dear.  Then perhaps I can locate Angela."

"Benny?" Tricia said.  I leaned forward to hear her better and cracked my head against the wall.  Fortunately, Mrs. Blair talked right through me.

"Why, yes.  He's here, isn't he?  His mother said he was sure to drop by."

"Naturally.  When does that man ever miss a party?"  Funny, the impressions people get of you.  Most of the time I'm studying or teaching but I throw myself into the occasional social event
in order to keep up with friends.  "Still, I couldn't help noticing ... I mean, has he said anything to your daughter?  Made a move on her?  He can be awfully ... elusive, if that's the word.  Not that I mean to pry."

If Tricia hadn't known I was listening, I would have been wounded.  As it was, I prayed for the needling to stop.  Mrs. Blair laughed.  She slapped Tricia hard on the back, which sounded delightful to me.  I know from prior experience what that playful cuff feels like.  The old woman is a bit of a bear although, in comparison, a brown bear weighs only two hundred and fifty pounds.  Tricia coughed on an ice cube until she spit it up.

"My girl's been chasing that boy ever since they were in diapers together.  I'm not worried for her.  Benny, maybe.  He's been marriage-shy for years.  Ever since you, of course, back in high school."

"High school?"  Tricia sounded incredulous.  Or she was out of breath from the ice cube.  "Oh, you mean college.  But we never dated."

"Oh no.  He was much too shy for that.  But he was sweet on you just the same.  I remember seeing the ring he'd bought for you.  He never gave it to you, of course."  The setting had been only fourteen karat, the stones only garnet, but it had cost all of his savings in the world at the time.  "You'd started seeing that boy who became a bill collector ... John, wasn't it?  Poor Benny was crushed.  I think Heather ended up with it."

"The ring?"  A gasp of horror.

"Yes.  Didn't anyone ever tell you?  Heather, she ..."  Their voices drew closer.  Mrs. Blair's footsteps were heavy but precise.  "I'm talking too much.  That's something for my daughter to brag about or maybe confess.  But those coats seem more than you can carry, my dear.  Let me help.  There.  My, what a nice chesterfield!"

"Chesterfield?  Ugh."  I heard Claude's coat fall.

"Never you mind.  You just hold them and I'll hang."

I realized, with lightheaded alarm, two things.  First, I was in danger of being discovered and second, I was too drunk to act sensibly.  Panicked, I tried to pretend I was a vacuum accessory.  It didn't feel as if I were having much success.  Probably, I had turned the wrong shade of grey.

"Mrs. Blair.  Please don't."

"Nonsense, dear."

The door opened.  Mrs. Blair drew back in surprise.

"You look nice tonight, Gwendolyn.  Particularly your hair."  I offered my hand, trying to bluster it out.  The hallway chandelier hurt my eyes.  I almost stumbled; I suspect I looked even more inebriated than I actually was.

"My hair?  I haven't done anything to it in ages."  Her eyes ran up and down my form, perhaps checking for signs of madness.

"Perhaps it's the light."

"My dear Benedict," she said, temporarily immune to flattery, "are you hiding from Heather?"

"Not really hiding, no."  I dusted the wrinkles from my jacket as I wobbled out. "No, that would imply I thought she was looking for me."

"But she is looking for you.  That's why we came."

"In that case, yes, I'm hiding."

"Well, you can help us here.  Couldn't you have slipped quietly out the back?  You seem to have knocked down half of the garments inside."

This was unfair, as it had been Tricia who'd done all the damage, but in a situation like this one there's no sense in protesting.  Everything you say is held against you.  I looked guilty and I was, although not of being as drunk or clumsy as she assumed.  Mrs. Blair put me to work at the glasses and paper plates strewn about the foyer tile.  In a few minutes, the three of us had cleared the area of party debris.

Gwendolyn gathered the worst of the trash in her arms.  With a pile of plexiglass and silverware almost two feet high, she announced she was off to the kitchen.

"No need for the two of you, I suppose.  Not with Ben on the lam, as he seems to be."

"Be careful of your dress," I said.  "It's a nice one."

This hadn't been meant as a peace offering but, apparently, it was the right thing to say.  Mrs. Blair tossed her blondish head and her second chin fell away.

"It is, isn't it?" she said.  I nodded dumbly.

"It's azure," Tricia said.  "That means blue, Ben."

"Whatever."

"A hand-me-down.  My older sister had it made."  She held still for Tricia to inspect it.  Both of us made appropriate, appreciative murmurs about the silk lace and worried aloud about Mrs. Blair wearing it to a party.

"Nonsense," she retorted.  She gave me a meaningful glance.  "I won't be hiding in any closets.  Anyways, I'd best be off.  Before I go, Ben, perhaps you could tell me what's wrong with my daughter."

"Pardon?"

"What's wrong with her?  Isn't she pretty enough?"

"Not as pretty as you must have been at her age, Gwendolyn.  And she won't hold it so well, either.  But that's not the point.  She wants someone with more ..." My hands fumbled with the carefully-picked words "... drive than I've got, but she doesn't know it yet.  I'll be happy to make tenure as professor.  She'd have me running for governor instead, probably on a timetable like five years from now.  She's ambitious and I'm just not up for that sort of life."

Mrs. Blair nodded grimly.  As she marched away from us on what were probably also heirloom shoes, Tricia turned with a smile on her face.

"More lies.  How come you never told me I looked pretty?"

"Good-looking women don't need to hear that."

"Is that a compliment?"

"No."  I let out an exasperated sigh and tried to leave her no room to find an insult.  "It's just the sad way of the world.  Pretty women hear praises all the time, even unwanted ones.  Plain women hardly ever hear what they need.  It's obvious stuff, too, like the fact that people can see their inner beauty, that they've attractive even with crow's feet, or that the bags under their eyes are a reminder of how much love they give each day.  That sort of thing."

"What a hideous dress," Tricia said absently as she broke her last ice cube.

"Is the offer of a ride still open?" I asked.

"No.  You're right.  I can't drive like this.  You're only a couple blocks off, anyway."

"A walk, then?"

The longer we stood in silence by the open door, the more tension grew between us.  It was like electricity in the air before a summer storm.  We could feel implications unfolding before us like an endless series of chinese boxes, possibilities inside possibilities, a secret, far-off end.  There was no graceful way for her to answer.  She took my hand.  We started out, down the drive.

We stopped behind an evergreen tree by the main road, protected from the porch light.  There the darkness seemed supernatural although, in fact, it was more natural than anything I'd experienced in months.  Years.  In the heavens was a sliver of moon, sprinkled with stars, barely enough light to see the watery trails down her cheeks.

"You're crying."

"It's the alcohol."

"Right.  The vodka is overflowing at the eyelids."  In spite of herself, she chuckled.  When I got out my clean handkerchief she nodded and let me dab her face.  It felt strangely right to touch her.  "I should have used this instead of my damn tie on that spill before.  And you know, I could hear every word you said from that closet."

"I know," she said.

"Why?  Why the lie, that is."

"Oh ... just all those things Claude told you.  That business about flirting.  I didn't want to feel caught out.  Vulnerable, you know."

There come those times when you realize with a sick lurch that your heart is not where you thought it was at all.  I'd supposed I was interested in one of the administrative secretaries at work.  But that friendliness was nothing at all to what I felt now with Tricia, or the realization that I'd never gotten over my idiotic crush on her.  I was still a high schooler in my heart, at best a college sophomore lusting after the perfect woman and an ideal marriage.

Now the perfect woman was drunk.  She reeked of alcohol and perfume.  Her mascara had washed away with the tears.  When I lifted her chin to kiss her, she almost didn't resist.

When our lips touched, she pressed herself hard against me.  We kissed for minutes, hours, her arms clenched hard around my shoulders, elbows in my back, squeezing with all her strength,
untiring.  She tasted sugary.  Even the wetness on the corners of her lips tasted deliciously sweet, like lemon in chamomile tea.  I couldn't get enough of her natural flavor, it was so good, so clear, and so like my entire life of knowing her.  Sometime after the stars had spun round us, after the moon had fallen, after the guests in that far-away, long-ago party had gone home and come back, we pulled ourselves apart.

"After all this time," I said, "it's still there.  All those feelings I had.  Isn't that strange?"

"How long has it been?" she whispered.

"Eight years since I was hopeless.  Almost nine, now."  I threw my head back to stare at the stars.  In the perfect darkness where we stood, there seemed to be more than I'd ever noticed before.  Although I still get lost in the local shopping mall, at that moment I felt that I could make out and name the individual pinpricks of the Milky Way.

Tricia nuzzled against my neck, more sweet fragrances, more wetness against me.  After a moment, she chuckled.

"What's so funny?"  My scowl came back, along with old suspicions about her wit.

"You'd better marry me," she said.

"Or else?"

"I mean it.  We're not kids anymore.  Pretty soon you'll be bald and flabby.  You're already mostly bald.  And then you'll be desperate.  No one will want to marry you."

I touched the top of my head.  I hadn't realized it was obvious yet.

"When you put it like that, how can I refuse?"  Although I liked the idea, I also found it intimidating.

"Don't fool around with me Ben.  Yes or no?"  Her hands went to her hips.  Her vanity was involved, too, her needs for security and for feeling good about herself, not just mine.

"After only one kiss?" I asked.

She gave me a warning glance.

"All right.  Yes."

"You're not just saying that?  You're being honest?  You'll love me forever?"

"Forever's the trick, isn't it?"  My fingers slid down her bare back into her hand.  We turned to stride forward together along the dark street.  "I don't want to promise anything you aren't prepared to accept.  For instance, I'm not sure we'll be able to stand each other three years down the road.  But I'll still love you.  I mean, even if we're fighting.  I don't seem able to stop having feelings for you.  No matter what the circumstances."

"Good.  Oh, god, we are awful."

"Yes."  I couldn't help glancing back at Leo's house.  In the still of the evening, warm light glowed from its windows.  Shadows of men in suits and women in formal dresses paraded on the other side of the curtains. "We are.  We may be the underachievers of our crowd."

"We'll muddle through."  She announced it like a decision.

"Or it'll end in disaster."  My professorial instincts kicked in to offer a contrary opinion.

"When I say 'we are awful,' I mean mostly you."  Her eyes glinted in the starlight.  The corners of her mouth trembled.  "You are absolutely terrible.  You make me weaker."

"You seem to find only bad qualities in me.  Since that's the case, for which of my bad qualities did you fall in love?"  I swung her arm as we resumed our stroll.

"All of them.  All of them together.  And for which of my absolutely sterling qualities did you suffer love of me, Ben?"

"Suffer?" I said.  "How appropriate."

She yanked on my arm to make me stop.  Then she spun me around and tried to slap my shoulder.  In the dark, she missed me or, at any rate, I barely felt it as she leaned in for our second kiss.


originally published as Eric Gallagher in The Frederick New Paper, 1991

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 203: Clear Water

Tiny Bubbles DVID by Staff Sgt. Felix Fimbres, Wikimedia

Clear Water

The two photographs sit on opposite corners of my desk.

One of them has a background of brown and yellow.  The man in it has a warm, confident smile.  His right shoulder is higher than the left, as if he were waving when the close-up was taken.  Just beneath the knot of his tie is the caption 'Glenfield for State Representative.'  He autographed it for me, Darren did.  Which I found irritating, since I didn't ask.  It isn't the type of thing you really want from a friend.

The other photo has that grainy look that ad-men insist on giving to artists.  There's a shadow over most of the face and the eyes seem to glare down at you.  The portrait appeared in public as the back flap of a book jack to Ellis's Poetry for the Terminally Gullible.

A person who had never known either of them wouldn't guess they are brothers.  The features of both have been obscured in different ways by clever make-up and tricks with gloss and lighting.  They both have blonde hair, big ears, and penetrating, hazel eyes.  Or had.  Ellis is no longer present tense.  In the photographs, all they share is a similar bump on the ridge of the nose and the sharp, distinctive family chin.  Ellis's photographer thought poets should seem deathly pallid and disturbingly serious, so his hair looks almost black.  Darren's ears seem slightly smaller than life; the lobes have been airbrushed away.

I only keep the photographs because they seem artistically correct.  They sum up a difference in attitude.  More than attitude, fate.

#

He came to the door yesterday in a floppy green raincoat.  Water ran down from the wide plastic hood into strands of his dark, curly, brown hair.  His cheeks and nose were flushed.  His wire-rimmed glasses were covered with fog.

"Mister Turner?"  He handed me my newspaper.

"Yes," I said.  I took the plastic bag from his hand without really looking at him.  "Are you doing our route now?"

"No.  You may remember me from the funeral."

On my first glance, all I noticed were his clothes since he was dressed for the weather, and his height.  He was fairly short, no more than five foot eight and, because of it, I'd assumed he was a teenager.  He had a two-day old beard that I'd missed.  His voice seemed very adult.  Not deep or rough, simply authoritative.  Calm.  Accustomed to classroom lectures, perhaps.

"My name is Gregory Ryan," he said.  "I'm the fellow who wants to write a book about Ellis."

"Ah, yes.  That's right.  You're the one from Berkeley."

Ryan allowed himself a boyish smile.  He was around thirty-five and his features must have seemed endearing to his students.  "You wouldn't talk to the other two," he said.  "I was hoping I might convince you anyway."

"Why?  Aren't you going to interview his lovers?"

"That’s a way to do it."  He stared down at the beads of rain, dripping off his shoelaces.  "Robert, didn't Ellis always seem to know he was going to die young?  Wasn't he always fascinated by death?  You knew him when he was a child.  Before he contracted meningitis, didn't he talk about suicide?"

The question was direct and personal, which I liked.  But I debated whether or not to let him in and decided against it.

"Yeah," I said.  "He was kind of morbid as a kid.  What's your relation to him?"

"We taught together at Santa Cruz.  Also, we skydived together.  For a while."  He grinned.  He must have known how hard it was to picture him in the open door of a plane.  "I blew a couple hundred dollars in return airfare by staying.  It would help me if you could come up with something."

"What do you want?"

"Anything.  Write it down if it makes you feel more comfortable.  Here.  I'm staying at a friend's apartment until next Saturday."  He pulled out an orange spiral notepad and tore off a square of the paper.  "This is the address."

"Can't promise much."

"Just tell me what’s on your mind.  I'll ask the questions later, when we've all had more time to recover."  He crumpled it in my hand, wrapping my fingers around it.  "Please.  Anything that occurs to you.  Ellis didn't like to talk about his past with me.  Now that I’ve started to investigate, I’m finding that he didn't dwell over it with anybody.  He got impatient about the past as if his own was embarrassing, or small, or there wasn’t time to think about it."

#

I envision him on a trip home from a doctor, probably one of the allergists.  He rolls out of the brown station wagon door.  He smiles, grim with secret knowledge, a thin-boned, round-faced kid with hazel eyes.  He holds the ball, a black superball as big as his hand, lips moving to words I cannot quite hear.  He waves to me.  Come on, come on.  Let's play.  We haven't got much time.

Maybe he said that.  Maybe he was telling me, Bobby, we haven't got much time.  But I should discard the memory, if it's even a memory at all.  For sure, that one is tainted by hindsight.  So are all my other memories of him, all contaminated by my awareness that I've outlived him.

His photograph sits on my desk.  In it, there is no sign of the insistent, twelve-year-old visionary.  There is only a weary, young man, around twenty-eight.  The tan has faded to ghostly pale.  His muscles are leaner than they were in his adolescence, when his biceps and neck were nearly maps of his tendons and veins.  He was strong, once, an athlete of sorts, if swimmers qualify as athletes.  I was on his team.  But I swam behind the Glenfields.  Ellis had real talent.  Darren had more.  So I was the slow man in the medley relay that won for our team each year.  Most of the time, I plastered my corkboard with third and fourth place ribbons while Ellis and Darren brought home medals for a showcase.  But when I swam with them, I was a winner.

There is a memory I'm thinking of now that never seemed significant before.

#

Ellis was seventeen.  That summer, his skin was an open wound, burnt shades of red and brown from the sun.  The freckles on his back were skin cancer, though we didn't know that then.  His hair had bleached into curly wires of gold.

Darren was tanned light, a slice of human toast, Wonder Bread.  He was younger than Ellis by three years and taller by four inches.  This was nineteen sixty-two, the summer they were forced to compete with each other.  Electronic timing was new.  Breastrokers still used a frog kick.  The air wasn't clean but it was not yet popular to call it smog.

It was the county All-Stars, the last meet of the season.  I'd offered to replace the back-up timer behind lane six, a grown woman who had just discovered she was pregnant.  It wasn't something I'd done out of a sense of responsibility.  The morning sun cut hard through the morning haze.  It blinded everyone who had to glance up at the backstroke flags or the starting gun.  In that light, being a timer was the only way to get a good seat.

When the hundred meter breastroke came up, the Glenfields came to sit on the diving board behind me.  This was the race all three of us had been waiting for, Ellis because it was his last before he turned nineteen and became ineligible, Darren because it was the only event he'd never beaten Ellis in.

"Here we are," Darren said, with a glance to the other swimmers.  He leaned against the aluminum banister and struggled with his pale, red racing cap.

"Hi, Bob," said Ellis.  He folded his towel into a seat cushion, then turned away from it.

The younger, taller boy swung his arm in a circle.  He bent for a leg stretch.  Ellis kept his back toward us, standing quietly, head bowed.  I didn't take offense, like I might if someone did that to me nowadays.  Ellis had problems concentrating.  He didn't talk to anyone before a race.

"What's it going to take?" I asked Darren.

"An eleven," he replied.  "Probably a fourteen to place, which I might do if I keep my kick tight."

Neither of them had a chance of winning and they knew it.  Ellis was the most experienced swimmer in the heat, but there always seemed to be one or two people who were a few seconds better than he was, too much difference to hope to make up.  This year he was seeded fifth and was hoping for second or third.  It would mean a trophy for his final race.

The first heat of their event churned into the wall, eight skinny bodies struggling through what looked like melted glass.  A few of them improved their times.  Most didn't.  The sun had drained everyone of their usual energy.  The concrete deck was hard to look at.  Glare from the pool made finishes hard to judge.

When they stepped up to the starting blocks, Ellis and Darren glanced at each other.  Ellis was frowning.  Darren gave him a tight, competitive smile.

The younger teen had lane eight and the older was in mine.  I watched the curve of Ellis's spine as he crouched.  You could see his scoliosis then, just before he dove.  When he stood straight his muscles covered the curve of degeneration but when he bent, anyone could tell.  There was something wrong inside of him.  While I was looking, the starter, a dark-haired, pot-bellied man in a white polo shirt, recited the number of the event through a loudspeaker.  The crowd quieted.

"Gentlemen, take your mark."

Darren was the last person to move into his crouch, lazy and relaxed.

The gun fired.  Ellis was the slowest into the water.  That was normal, for him.  His reflexes weren’t the best.  No matter how much he anticipated the gun, he could never quite compensate for that lack of gut-level quickness.

Darren had done fine, in his lazy way.  After the underwater pullouts, which they were both good at, his head broke the surface in the lead.

It took less than a length of the pool for the leader to establish himself.  He was a tall, brown-haired guy.  I don't remember his name but my head is still full of useless statistics about him, assimilated and retained from wandering conversations with Ellis.  He never went to the Olympics, the guy who won the race, but he made it to the semi-finals to qualify.  That’s pretty close and he was way, way better than anyone else in the summer league.  At the wall, he was a body length ahead.  The Glenfields were part of the pack chasing after him.

#

I guess the swimming event itself isn't that important.  All those details about strokes, turns, and push-offs are irrelevant.  I mean, who thinks about this race anymore, except for me?  Darren, maybe.

What matters is that this was Ellis's last chance.  There was a pretty good mind in charge of his body but the body itself was riddled with deformities, all slight but nagging.  He'd spent a large part of his childhood in bed with asthma.  He was aging fast, too, with pattern baldness showing on the back of his head and arthritis causing him aches in his wrists and ankles.  Darren had grown taller and stronger and had beaten him at everything else they competed in.  Every breastroke race, though, provided Ellis with a lonely-seeming victory.  The event was his last defense against the inevitable.

While the older teen struggled and churned in the pool, striving for maximum speed, Darren glided with ease.  The younger boy's strokes remained smooth.  By the second length, Darren had fallen into rhythm.  If he'd looked over to the other swimmers, he'd have seen he was only a body length off the lead.  That was second place and by a good margin.  But he was in lane eight, too far away to know.

Ellis knew where he was.  He was in the middle of the pack, his fingertips not quite to the lane position of Darren's shoulder blades.  He wasn’t even ahead of lane two next to him.  When the brothers hit the touchpads beneath my feet, they were about a second apart.

The older boy's stroke changed in the last two pulls before the turn.  His concentration had clicked in and he was completely aware of his body in the water.

It was a level of intensity, he told me, that he'd reached only half a dozen times in his life, and I knew the instant it came over him.  His hands stretched out farther, captured cups of water better, frog kicks closing tight behind, catapulting him forward, his face an open-mouthed grimace.  In those two strokes, he pulled half a body ahead of the swimmers around him.  The electronic timer ranked his split time as third, not too far behind Darren.

During the pullout off the turn, Ellis caught his younger brother.  Darren wasn’t swimming any harder.  His turn had looked lazy.  Then Ellis began his third-lap acceleration.  He always tried to be in the lead before the final sprint.  He figured he could hang on until the end no matter how tired he was.  Darren couldn't see anyone but, at about the halfway point in the pool, he gathered his extra strength and narrowed his pull.

Ellis muscled through.  His chest was thick and his arms were short and wide.  Most of his power came from the upper half of his body.  He tried to cut a path for himself.  But I saw him twist his neck uncomfortably.

Around the last turn, Ellis was second.  A swimmer from lane five had pulled close to him and Darren was a fraction farther behind.  The older brother, with fast, pumping strokes, kept holding his edge.  His pullout was perfect, maximum distance with minimum effort and loss of speed.  I could see, on his face, that he knew he was ahead.  The surface of the pool stretched out calm in front of him.  He gave up all his thoughts about grace and style and sprinted towards the end, towards me, as I stood with a watch in my hand.  He nearly lost control of himself in the final burst of energy.  The last four meters were an exercise in discipline.

I leaned over the water to see his hands knifing in.  Five lanes to my left, Darren's long arms were stretching towards the wall.  He had noticed his older brother and had matched pace.  A lane to the right, the other swimmer was synchronizing with Ellis's motions almost exactly.  His head was turned to look at Ellis and Darren as they approached together.

The three of them reached towards their electric pads, gasping chests falling into the transparent water, the last kicks pressing closed, lashing out behind with the final, driving effort.  Ellis's fingertips hit before his brother.

From my position, half a meter above the water, I saw the blink of the finish.  The starter was squinting into the glare.  The finishing judge had stepped out of position.  Ellis out-touched the others for second place.  The competitor in lane two smashed the water with his forearm, angry because he had watched himself lose.

Darren smiled over to his older brother, who grinned back.  They lifted themselves out of the water.

#

This is why the photographs remind me so much of the division between them.  I know what Ellis felt about his body and how mortal it proved him to be.  I know that Darren, even to his day, the day after the funeral, is oblivious to the good fortunes in his life that came from his health.  It's a division between regular folks and heroic ones.  Ellis belonged to the middle of the pack of ordinary competitors, no matter how much he tried to raise himself higher.

Later on, in the conversations we had about that day, Ellis said this was when he first realized he might struggle and never achieve anything much.  And he knew that Darren would always be the golden boy, the natural leader, even though he was younger.  He admitted that for a jealous instant, he despised his brother.  It was amazing that he hadn’t had that moment before.  Darren had stolen victories from his brother without even trying.

They were standing by the scorer's table when the results were announced.  A neon board lit up with the exact figures and a man read the times over a microphone.  First place, at a minute eleven point something, was the boy everyone had expected to win.

Second place, at one minute thirteen point eight six seconds, was Darren Glenfield.

Flapping his towel around him in victory, Darren let out a whoop.  His first reaction was to congratulate himself and he held his arms up high, facing Ellis, smiling a self-contented, still-amazed-at-himself smile.  If that first reaction had come an instant later, or if he hadn't been standing so close to his older brother, things might have happened differently.  He didn't follow Ellis's eyes up to the third place slot on the scoreboard.  He didn't know that the electronic timer had placed the swimmer in lane three ahead of Ellis.  He whooped again while his brother stared in shock.

It wasn't even the cheer, I think, that prompted Ellis' reflex.  It was the smile and the motion, the head rising up and down in his field of vision, the shadow it cast.  He drew back the heel of his hand and thumped his little brother hard in the center of the chest.

Darren had been standing at the edge of the pool.  As he fell, he opened his eyes and saw Ellis's expression for the first time.  His hands let go of the orange and purple towel.  He tried to balance himself.  He grasped at the flagpole.

It was Ellis who grabbed the pole.  With his other hand, the one he had pushed with, he caught Darren's wrist and yanked.  Darren yanked back, climbing up his brother's right arm.  For a second, it looked like they might make it.  Then the flagpole began to tip and Ellis had to let it go or drag it into the water with him.  He gave it a reluctant, longing gaze as he fell.  Darren's grip carried both of them over the water.

This feels like the essential moment of the incident.  But there is no moral to it.  Life gives everyone what it gives.  Ellis compared his life to Darren’s.  In that instant, he felt resentful.  Then it was over and he regretted what he’d felt.  He resigned himself, probably for the hundredth time, probably for all time, to how things were going for him.

Hand in hand, they tumbled over the closest lane rope, a string of red and white beads.  Their legs kicked and they dove in opposite diagonal directions to the bottom of the pool.  I saw the paths they’d taken.  An official in a white shirt glanced around.  He shaded his eyes and noticed the trails in the water, how they diverged, but he turned away in confusion.  He tried to ask another official about it while the traces faded into pale blue foam and glare.


originally published as Eric Gallagher in The Frederick New Paper, 1991

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 202: Memory Kiss

Apple Blossoms by George Chernilevsky, Wikimedia Commons
The Memory Kiss

"Yowza!"  Moses hailed the children with his arm, traced circles in the air.  "Amy and Johnny!  Come see a dirty old man attempt a death-defying knobble.  Of course, I mean a smooch, a flip of the lip, with his frigid old woman."

His sons and daughters and grandchildren gathered around him like chumps to the side-show.  As the star, he put one arm on Letitia's shoulder and hugged her.  It was their wedding anniversary.  This was in Richmond, Virginia, near the end of the hottest week of the summer in nineteen hundred and seventy-nine.  Perspiration stained his shirt.  A fan blew from the window behind him.  Most of the members of the reunion party had wandered up onto the porch.  Flies buzzed around the picnic plates below.

"Not a spectacle," he said.  "No!  Not a spectacle for the faint of heart."

"How about for the weak of stomach?"  Patting a pot-belly, his oldest son Abe smiled from behind the punch bowl.  "No one else has mom’s daring."

"You wound me, sir, you wound me.  Nevertheless, I will carry on.  I will carry on."

"Yes, you do."  Abe poured himself a cup of crabapple punch, complete with a floating crabapple.

"Carry on, and if there are any others who dare to follow in my footsteps, they are welcome to.  This lady has been known to be generous with her favors."

Letitia smiled and tried to set her glass down, as if afraid someone would bump her.  After thirty years of marriage, Moses would have expected her to get accustomed to being near the center of attention but she seemed, somehow, to always hand onto the vestiges of her dignity – straightening her bra strap, covering a hickey with her scarf, or laughing at her shocked friends across the lunch table.  She looked as prim and stiff as she'd been when she was nineteen.

He sighed, patting her thigh.  When he was a young man he thought she'd be the type to loosen up over the years but when he'd reached thirty, he'd realized she was slimmer and more proper than ever.  Her skin had tightened.  Her bones had grown pointed.  She was tan as dry dirt in the summer and as grey as charcoal ash in the winter.  Making love to her was like sailing face down in a birchbark canoe.  Not that he didn’t enjoy it.

"Let's get it over with, dear," Letitia said.  Her voice was low, not quite a whisper but something close to it and almost as private.

"Abe and John, you boys watch close now."  Moses had been struck, for an instant, with the feeling that he was alone with his wife.  It was the way she had pressed herself close.  He remembered how small and dry her breasts were, how carefully he had to touch them.  "Gonna show you how a real gentleman does this."

Letitia poked him in the ribs.

"Don't bother," she told him, and her arm reached up behind his neck.  Her eyes closed.

He leaned in.  Despite the sheen of sweat over the rest of him, his lips felt dry.  He licked the inside of his mouth to summon saliva to his tongue.  In his biceps, he felt her weight shifting as she rolled up on her toes.  Their hips touched.  Her body fell, firm and tight, against his.  He placed a hand gently over the warm wrinkles of her neck, where he knew he could make her sigh or blush with a stroke.  The other he pressed on the small of her back, below the belt of her dress.

Her lipstick was warm and slipped against his skin like moist clay.  Moses peeked between his eyelids for a moment and caught a glimpse of her blue irises.  She fluttered her lashes at him.  He felt his puckered skin pressing flat against hers and her cheeks growing hot.  The blood rushed to her face.  Sweat ran out of the pores in his hands and seeped into the back of her dress.  He tickled her earlobe and moved his fingertips away, down behind her shoulder blades.

Their first kiss had been like this, no tongues, amidst other couples, a crowd standing by to watch from the dance hall.  Her perfume had made his nose itch.  In fact, he'd nearly sneezed through his teeth.  It had been a scent like the one she wore now, a sweet breath of apple blossoms.  There had been something else in it, a hint of clove or some other spice, but the sticky sweetness of the blossoms had overwhelmed everything else.

His father had planted an apple tree in the front yard during the summer when he was seven years old.  Moses recalled the fragrance, thick and eye-watering.  Every spring, as it burst into bloom, he would come down with a slight fever and a fit of sneezes.  The reaction would take up about two and a half weeks in April or May and he'd retreat to his bedroom, an invalid, barely able to leave the house.  He'd sit by his window and spy across the street on Kathy Lee.

He never opened the window to wave to her.  Those had been protracted moments of shame for him, his fatal weakness exposed.  He simply watched as she passed or he waited for her to skip out onto the sidewalk where she lived, just one house up, on the other side.

She was divorced, now, and double-chinned.  He'd seen her once, at Zayre's, while she was looking at a lime green pantsuit.  But underneath all that fat there was a slim, blonde six-year-old, skipping rope on a cracked sidewalk in Burke, wearing an old blue skirt and a halter, singing Ten Cents A Dance and Cheek To Cheek, calling to him across thirty feet of asphalt.  Every summer and fall, he'd roll his hand-me-down knee socks to the ankles and run along the looping sidewalk for a hundred, two hundred yards to reach her.  Then he would turn the rope for her by tying one end to a tree or they'd play hopscotch and leapfrog or sit by the flowerbed and draw in the dirt with sticks.

Once, he had been standing underneath the willow tree in her yard.  There were a few willow leaves and apple blossoms on the freshly cut grass beside him.  His back was turned to her and he drew his initials in the mud with a rock.  Kathy Lee bent over him, watching.

Her hair fell down the back of his neck and tickled his ear.  He stopped writing.  After a moment, she said, "Kiss me."

"Are you crazy?"  Moses turned around.  Her mouth was a line.  Her blue eyes stared.

"Come on.  Kiss me."

"Why?"  He backed into the hedge.  She took one step towards him, to help, and he edged sideways.

"Because I want to know what it's like," she said.

His eyes widened until it hurt to blink.  He slipped and fell to one hand.  His leathery, brown shoes tore into the soil.  He rolled away and ran down the sidewalk.

When he reached the picket fence about halfway down the block, he stopped to climb over it.  There, he hid himself under a bush in the yard.  He ripped up fistfuls of grass and threw them.  He found a pebble, pressed it into a clump of moss, pulled it up again and wondered.  He had been about to write Kathy Lee's initials in the dirt with that stick.  Right next to his own.  She had smooth, cool skin and smelled like a dandelion.  He thought about the sweet spiciness of her.

After a while, he figured it was safe to go back.  He rolled out, climbed the fence, picked up a whole handful of pebbles, and walked down to her hedge.

She was playing jacks.  Her nimble fingers caught three up on a bounce, snapped the ball out of the air, and put the three back in her purse.  She glanced at him, bounced the ball another time, and snatched up four.

"Want to play hopscotch again?" he said.

She bounced the ball, tried for five, and missed.  She shook her head.

"Come here."

"Why?"  She pulled a golden strand out of her face.

"Just come here."  He stuffed the pebbles into his pocket.  If he ducked his head, standing by the hedge, they wouldn't be in view from her mother's window.

Kathy Lee threw her jacks down onto the sidewalk.  She stood, brushed her long hair back, straightened her skirt, and marched over to him.  A foot away, she stopped.  Her arms fell to her sides.  Moses grabbed her by the elbows and pulled her closer.

"I want to kiss you," he said.

"Why?"

He did.  Her lips were smooth as her hands and hair.  They were as sweet as the spoons of white sugar her mother gave them.  She closed her eyes and put her arms around him they way they both had seen her parents do.  He tried to put his around her but got one of his sleeves caught on the hedge.  They froze.  Kathy Lee opened her eyes.

She fluttered her eyelashes at him, Letitia, taking her arms off the back of his neck and resting one of them on his shoulder.  She pushed herself away.  The other hand reached up to her bun of brown hair and patted it to see if the clip was still in place.  She opened her eyes and Moses felt his chest tighten.  For a moment, her expression had belonged to Kathy Lee – not the woman in the department store with a double chin but the little girl with thin, agile bones.

His chest hurt.  Still staring at his wife's eyes, Moses turned sideways and clutched his ribs.  His right hand dug deep into the flannel shirt and flesh, tugging at his diaphragm.

The scent of the blossoms made him dizzy.  His view of Letitia blurred as tears welled up on his lower eyelids.  For a precious instant, as he tried to re-focus on his wife, he felt as if he were seven again.  The muscles in his chest would not expand, his spine arched backwards from the hip, tilting his head to the ceiling.  He felt something about to roar out of his chest.

"Waaaaachoo!"  He doubled over, surprised.  An instant later, he straightened himself.

"Here Dad, take my handkerchief."  His younger son, John, flapped open a white slip of cotton cloth.  It had the family monogram on it.

"Gezundheit, dear."

"Yes, thanks."  He dabbed his eyes.  He switched the cloth from his right hand into his left so he could reach out to his wife.  He took her fingers in his own.  "Letitia.”

“What?”  Her eyes narrowed at him.

“Thank you.”  He wiped his mouth and stared.


originally published in The Frederick New Paper, 1990

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 201: They Still Matter

They Still Matter

My last major trip with my wife took us to Oregon in 2019.  During our stay, we noticed “Black Lives Matter“ signs in shop windows.

After a while, as I learned about the social dynamics of the area, I could see how slightly different cultures operate there.  That is one of the best reasons to travel, after all. Even though my family remains in the United States during most of our travels, there are still differences to observe, not only between states but between geographical areas. Even in the same state, there are usually strong differences between the cultures of plains inhabitants and the mountains.

The places in Oregon where we saw the “Black Lives Matter“ signs were generally very European-American.  Of course, in Portland, there are significant pockets of different cultures including those of different skin colors. There was not just a Chinatown and some Hispanic neighborhoods but a notable Russian-speaking influence and a few African-American homes.  However, signs in shop windows weren't prevalent in those areas.  They popped up occasionally in the city, yes, but they were more common in the countryside.  Most frequently of all, they appeared in towns that were Swedish-American or Irish-American.

In the town of St. John’s, which touches the outer edge of Portland, we saw “Black Lives Matter“ signs everywhere.  There were no people of color visible in the town.  The signs, it was clear, were a message from some white people to other white people.

The sight of them got me to do a little reading.  As I learned about the area history, it began to look as though the signs were a response from Oregon natives to a white supremacy movement that is trying to move into Oregon from Washington state.

Every few months, the white supremacists arrange a rally in Portland.  Portland natives, almost all European-American of some stripe, arrange a counter demonstration. This is been going on for years.

In the St. Louis area, where the “Black Lives Matter“ movement seemed to start in Ferguson, the dialogue seemed to be black to white and black to blue.  In Oregon, the dialogue is as passionate as ever but it is totally different.

To the way of thinking of the white supremacists, Oregon should be a backbone state for their movement.  Recruiting should be easy.  Instead, as I think most outside observers would know, recruiting was bound to be hard.  Portlanders despise the fact that outsiders come in to march for white power that the natives do not want.

In most of the small Oregon towns, Irish and Italian populations are considered the local minorities since they are not of English or Swedish descent.  In St. John's, it seems that the entire town was settled, from the start, by Irish-Americans.  That might be why the signs are so prevalent.  They come from a group that is nowadays considered white but remembers discrimination and so the signs are meant to be a thumb in the eye of white supremacists.

They might be appearing in support of racially diverse friends, too; that's not just possible but inevitable, even in a small town.  But based on what I saw, some of those friends-of-color could be theoretical.  Oregon really is very white in the countryside.  That's fine for this much; the locals don't need any more stake in the game other than being who they are.  They, like most people, are simply not hateful. They resent the imported hate.

Maybe that sentiment won't win out.  But it seems natural and, to my eye, encouraging.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 200: Paths Not Taken

Paths Not Taken 
by Draggin Frost

Two paths diverged in the crafty wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
To find you twice, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bore mushroom undergrowth;

Then spied the other, just as planar,
And having perhaps enchanted powers,
Stone and grass laid for this maintainer;
But lacking for a slack campaigner
As both paths contained no nymphs nor flowers.

And both that evening equally lay
In blocks of sod once trodden gold.
Oh, I kept the last for another day!
Yet knowing paths lead long astray
Doubted ever to the second trail behold.

I shall be telling this ages after
Somewhere we have built our garden fence:
Two paths diverged for a silvan crafter
But I forged onward to your laughter
And that has made all the difference.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 199: Footnote to the Battle

Footnote to the Battle

Soldiers march in the space between buildings
between the rows of bodies broken in the road.
Mixed into the scene, the loose limbs
lying in red pools, men crying or dying,
women screaming in the distance,
the tiny forms of children long dead or longer fled,
there is the sound of laughter.

In all of the fear, rage, pain there is a fellow happy.
A buddha?  A saint?  He is a man in army fatigues,
a former sergeant, stripped of his insignia.
The space where the patch was ripped from him
is still cleaner, brighter
than the rest of his uniform.

How does one get demoted in the midst of action?
Who would dare?  I imagine the rank is
on the road somewhere, in a muddy ditch, lost.

Only his eyes do not laugh.  They dart.
He strides fast, speed and terror, anger and joy together.
Somehow, in the killing, he has acquired blood to his elbows.
With chuckling that trembles his lips, his chest,
he is immune to the sorrows of others,
oblivious to the bewildered stares of his comrades.
No one sides with him.  And he is with no one.

He is, instead, the driving force, the killer.  He needs no other.

When I feigned death, I did not imagine this.
Did not foresee anyone with weapons today
although we were warned the night before.
Did not imagine that tears could run out,
that I could rest on a wooden beam, hidden
between the floor and ceiling below
and cry in silence until there was no more.
Did not imagine someone could see this street,
do this to a village, and yet find humor.

Is this how it is?  I am struck with unbelieving
except for this fellow.  He is so real, so his own,
like a visitor from a more-real reality,
a secret land underlying the veneer of civilization.
Perhaps he is the guide to survival.

So I thought, it must be.
But I remained, hiding, knife in hand
taken from my fallen father.
Below, the laughing man's friends spread out to follow the cries of women,
to peer into houses, to stoop and pick up fallen objects,
a bloody wallet, a photograph, a coin.

The laughter fades but the real man remains.
For a moment, his back is turned, all alone,
abandoned by his comrades,
who hate him, and I
emerge.  My foot swings down from the beam.

He scratches his throat,
puts a hand into his pocket,
stares down the broken boulevard.
He does not hear me.
He does not listen for my single footstep
and so I imitate him
with all my speed and strength.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 198: Present Illusion

The Present Illusion

Your voice rings across the water.
Your face, in this precise moment, is hidden.
But it has a hint of an open-mouthed smile
because I can hear it on your lips.
A strand of raven hair has fallen.
You are brushing it away
at this point in time, separated from me,
not quite in the same moment.

Fools say that the past is an illusion caused
by our brains putting sensory inputs in order.
Our inner selves struggle.
They flail and decide wrongly
in the attempt to assemble a puzzle
of a picture partly drawn.
Those fools are right.

Others say that the future is a creation.
It's our ability to throw a rock,
catch a ball, tie a string, cut with a knife,
to project forward to the consequences of our actions.
Shouldn't I have known your next words?
Shouldn't I have reached to your stray strands of hair?
We are so good with futures one second away,
so wavering as we reach farther,
as I am stretching to you.

I have been to the future.
I can say they are right.
We create alternatives, some of them impossible,
like our hands touching across the hundreds of miles,
you in the distant snowfall,
walking, shoes crunching on dry snow,
me by a riverbank, drenched in the rain,
both of us looking to something that exists
in our shared imagination.

In this moment, you and I, our voices touching
our fingers reaching through the air,
me in the right direction, by the way,
while you are angled wrong, your sense of direction
taking you a bit to the northeast.
Please turn just slightly
and tell me you are coming home.

Soon the future will be the present
and we will not be quite in it, either,
only a mile away,
only a riverbank apart,
only an arm's length.
The present moment too, is an illusion,
a creation that doesn't quite exist, an artifact of our minds.

So what?
Now is the moment.
I am approaching a woman
with dark hair and knowing grin.
Her arms spread wide
as if she is presenting herself,
a gift to the world.
My hand opens.

You are approaching a man
as he opens and lifts his left hand.
A smile begins to narrow his eyes.
His mouth drops open without a word.
This.  This is as close as humans come
to being present together
in the same moment.
Now, please.  Come to this moment
with me I am so ready.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 197: Vsfivx I, E Qcwxivc

Vsfivx I, E Qcwxivc

Epp lemp xs Vsfivx I,
jexliv sj e wsr sv xlvii,
qewxiv sj xli evg gswmri,
hiwgirherx sj e omrkpc pmri.

Wempsv sr e wlmt s’ xevw,
Wqsoiv sj xli asvwx gmkevw,
Qewxiv sj e wmqtpi gshi,
Xevkix sj xlmw avixglih shi.

Xiegliv, fymphiv, fieviv sj csoiw,
Xippiv sj xli weqi sph nsoiw,
Wxvsppmrk, fievhih, peyklmrk jvii,
Xlex’w xli kverhte Vsfivx I.

Decoded:

Robert E, A Mystery

All hail to Robert E,
father of a son or three,
master of the arc cosine,
descendant of a kingly line.

Sailor on a ship o’ tars,
Smoker of the worst cigars,
Master of a simple code,
Target of this wretched ode.

Teacher, builder, bearer of yokes,
Teller of the same old jokes,
Strolling, bearded, laughing free,
That’s the grandpa Robert E.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 196: Dead, Dead Rose

Dead, Dead Rose

Oh, my love is like a dead, dead rose
That wilted in September.
My love is like a haunting tune
That I just can’t remember.

As weary as we are, my wife,
So worn out in every way,
It’s amazing that I love you still
And love you more each day.

The days of our summer aren’t done, love,
Though the rose buds fall apart
And dusk settles throughout the lands.
There is sunshine in my heart.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 195: Illusion of Presence

Illusion of Presence

This is to the next moment that occurs
not this one
or the one you thought you were living in
when you began this
but the moment after,

after she said, "We are in this time machine,"
put her pale hand against a black plastic camera,
and described how it would take us
to the smallest units of time,
to the only changes indivisible

between this and the next moment,
between the blade of her tongue and her teeth
as she told me, "I've got to see us both,"
smiled and swung her kinky hair,
always in motion,
like the bright-iron blood through her arm,
like the sweat from our palms.

"We are each in a different time," she said.
"You there and I here in different places,
in different currents, motions so close ...
I can feel the moisture from your breath,
the rhythm of your pulse
though we are not together,
parts of us apart in time
as we reach out for this kiss."

When she spoke she leaned forward
so the machine could catch her lips against mine,
our bonded flesh an ocean of waves between us,
as the black machine swept with us
into a sea of particles.

We went to meet that single wave
she hoped would carry us both.
Her mouth opened, parted to touch me
for the smallest moment we will be together.

This is to the next moment that occurs
because in the next moment, as always, we will all be changed,
mass in motion, molecules tumbling,
rushing through our veins, our arms, our palms, our lips,
into the next moment.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 194: Cold Hopes

Cold Hopes

“My grandmother used to send me Reader's Digest
every Christmas even though I told her I hated it.”

His arms folded.  He held a cup his hand
but never drank from it.  This was back
when we were young
and had not discovered wine.

“I think I liked that one.” 
I sipped from mine, thinking.  The magazine had jokes.
And advice.  There is something lovely about advice
that isn't aimed at us.

“There would be all these inspirational stories,
people saved from death at the last minute.
Then they would give thanks.”  His eyes narrowed.
“I used to search newspapers for opposites and clip them.”

“The opposite of inspirational?”  Depressing stories, I realized,
although he did not think of them that way
just realistic ones, he would later tell me,
to counter-balance his unwarranted hopes.

“There was one great one, a woman lost in Minnesota snow.”
He put down his cup and pantomimed trudging.
“She ran out of gas and got cold. 
So she left her car and made it to a neighbors' house.
There were people home.  The light was on.”

He waited with a smile.  I nodded, ready,
imagining the chill of a night blizzard
but also the baby-blue cover of an issue I’d seen
at the dentist’s office.

“She walked all the way to the front stoop
before she froze to death.”

His arm stretched out to me but locked in place
for a few seconds, motionless,
reaching out to a void,
a world without mercy, without guardian angels.

Not that he wasn’t right.
We knew to fend for ourselves.
That’s why we didn’t drink yet.
But we didn’t know then how often we would fail,
how deadly the consequences,
how it would all end.
Really, we should have.

“Her body was found leaning against the railing by the top stair.”