|Jan/Feb 2009 Fiction|
Just reading the word, "autumn," hearing a voice say it in my head, fills me with bright leaves and almost-harsh light, everything about to turn winter but held in the companionable darkening of early November.
Alzheimer's: a Disease a Monkey or Even a Slug Would Find Entertaining
There were a pile of days, and if it's a person's job to accumulate interesting ones, then the sisters figured they were doing all right.
What happened last summer? What did we leave behind?
It's more a general decrepitude, at this point, rather than anything specific. Though there are definitely specifics, beginning, I suppose, with diapers. Going on to diagnoses. And from there to lies (hardly white, but told out of the desire to protect, nonetheless). On to love.
To occasional thoughts of murder, or simply wishing death, and back around to love, and if not exactly a wholly passionate love, then something so ordinary and comfortable that it's more like love than anything else.
The dark-skinned women who, like Atlas, hold my parents' world aloft. Let us sing their praises!
One is religious, the other is not. We're in her camp, unreligious and laughing at fate but their feats, worthy of Heracles, make our knees shake and tears form in our eyes. Only someone like God could've put such women on the earth.
Their duties span the horizon. They engage in philosophical discussion, change diapers, indulge their charges with ice cream cones. Their roles span the generations: loving children, doting parents, adoring grandparents.
Without them, our lives would dissolve.
My sister and I called a truce: unnecessary, demented the icy days.
Our hair looked good, our skin fine.
The bird abatement man had put up spikes and spirals to keep away the pigeons. When she heard about it, my mother said: Is that legal? What if something happens to the pigeons? She had a point.
Because the doctor was too stupid to know any better and insisted, our father was told again and again what he had. How many times would the poor man have to go through the full realization of the kind of future he was facing before the brain activity creating the realization would fail, and subside?
And really, was there any point in reminding a man who couldn't be reminded?
This is what we were told: He awakens long before dawn, thinks he's sneaking past the watchful eyes, down the stairs and out the door.
He walks door-to-door, collecting the neighbors' already-delivered newspapers, brings them all home. The watchful eyes then carry the papers back, redeliver them.
If any neighbor dares to complain, we'd explain it this way: Like twice-baked bread, twice-delivered news may be harder to chew, but it's more nourishing.
At the Lagoon
Those people, the ones on the lagoon with the children, his, hers, his and hers, the pretty fabrics, the sparkling things, the studied informality, the way with words, the use of slang, the child's precocity, the older children's modeling careers. The good red wine, the very decent lamb, the interruption of the evening's conversation (the child), the art on the walls (shabby).
Their interest in everything they had to say, their domination of the conversation. More red wine. Dessert—they fussed with theirs and didn't actually eat any—we gobbled ours like pigs. The sparkle off the water. The incessant piped-in music (seductive at first, then annoying). Their thoughts (banal), their desire to live free and simply (trapped by money), their interest not exactly in gods, and certainly not God, but spirits, and what's not visible, and the way feelings can change or be changed, and how one overcomes addiction, and the soul.
Or something like that.
Dividing a Kingdom
The lawyer and I walked a clean geometrical figure in a neighborhood dear to our hearts. The light was diminishing but we saw one another clearly. There were dogs—tall Afghans, one grey, one brown, sprightly, and bouncy. There was a wedding party, mostly fat women in black, who trailed from SUVs into a mansion. We stood at the top of a steep hill and looked out over the water together with a handful of Russian tourists carrying Starbucks cups.
At some point, I told him: I want a handful of dirt—no more, or less.
That child, first glimpsed, didn't look right. It's the only thing that came into my head—not darling, but–simply: not right.
But the thought was quickly buried in the swirl of the afternoon: the other children running down the long hall to the kitchen where she held that child, a long body, against her own.
I wondered what place the child would find, born into the immense ambition of that family. What place would be made for it?
A ruddy boy with a wide forehead and beady eyes. A boy she fussed over, proclaiming his special talent for mischievousness. When she put him down, he ran through the apartment like an evil wind, turning things over, upending cups and plates of just-cooked food.
Even then, nothing in her bearing admitted his difference. Smiling, she chided him for his mischief. I wiped a gob of spit from my thigh. He'd tried to bite me, as well.
My curiosity rose and retreated like a sick ocean. I wanted to ask her if the child was normal, but how?
Then, the question was dislodged from my brain by the child's squealing, a frank high squeal that chased through the apartment, relieving me of my question, setting things on another level. We tried to drink tea and eat cookies, but the very quality of the air had been changed by that sound. He was a special child, indeed. I'd seen him in action. There was nothing to discuss. Her life was changed forever. It wouldn't go back.
For a minute, I envied her. Her life was so different, as if she lived in outer space. Then I left by the front door and took the stairs rather than risk that creaky elevator; my envy popped like a fat balloon.
Lesbians Like Cotton Candy
Like edible spun silk, it melts on the tongue, gone before it's really there.
Looking in the mirror of the other, each one is magnified an infinite number of times. It's an illusion, of course, but when is power ever more than that?
So there's that, or perhaps there's not even that. How would I know?
I'm just a step-mother, looking on.
One daughter is as good as another; I'd hoped to rope a son. Sometimes, talking with them, I can hardly remember which of the two is mine.
A girl to a woman's an appendage that sometimes kicks and bites.
Dan keeps his glasses on when he gets down on all fours and provokes Mary, the Tibetan terrier, grabbing her stuffed teddy with his teeth, growling a deeper version of her dog growl.
He wants to see a dog's world from low down and thinks it's better to remove his thick lenses. Now, half-blind, he's thrown about by Mary's growls and yips and clipped by her sharp teeth. A tumble on the dirty oriental rug that's at least as reminiscent of childhood as it is descriptive of doghood—low to the ground and frank.
She bites his ear more sharply than she'd done before. What's the pea-brain thinking? Is he already metamorphosed to dog in her shaggy-haired eyes?
I followed her around while she went store-to-store, trying to find her lost cell phone. At every stop, someone looked in a locked drawer but no one found anything. We called it again and again, hoping to hear the faint response. To no avail.
Then she accompanied me up the hill to see my mother. She no longer had a mother, or only in memory—a tricky medium to possess, at best. And my mother had a memory, but a tricky one, though there was no question of her forgetting my friend: this friendship went back in time.
My friend enjoyed seeing the house where we'd been young together, and commented afterwards on my mother's voice, so melodic, and always the same. She's probably do anything to hear her mother's voice.
My mother was gracious and almost elegant; my friend was beside herself with happiness. I'm sure the state was richly complex: herself now, without a mother, reminded of herself then, when all the mothers were whole enough for us to wish we could forget about them for an hour or two.
He said: I want to see your grandfather. By then, people measured his words, mostly throwing them out. One listened, half-heeding, mindful of the need to discard. It was a strange kind of listening, done with a different part of the brain.
But: I want to see your grandfather.
It was a sentiment that I, for one, tried to take seriously. By then, of course, my grandfather was long gone.
The thing begins with a large, buzzing fly. The child, a boy, really just a crawling baby, goes after the fly with ambition and might.
The baby crawls after the fly and gets tangled in the older man's feet. The feet, despite their age, are nimble and practiced, astonishingly swift.
The mother fears a kick; perhaps the feet do as well. But they stay nestled amongst the baby's chubby limbs. A good catch.
The fly flies away, no buzz.
A while later, the fly returns. There's no baby here now, no man, no mother, just a fly buzzing its life against the windowpane of a room.
Together, on the sofa, my son and I watched Oprah and Elie Wiesel walk arm in arm across a snowy Auschwitz. He'd recorded it for me because it had touched him. So, in order to let him feel something related to history, I sat there and let myself be moved by the two of them, personalities, crossing the snow-covered ground, talking together, and bringing us into the circle of their intimate talk. I don't know that it had anything to do with the Holocaust; we were fascinated to see them together like that, and in that place. It was only a form of star-gazing, but I can't help admiring her style.
A Tight Loop
Talking, we walked a tight loop. Our conversation, while not circular, achieved a fullness verging on roundness: the truth is, our satisfaction was determined at least as much by the possibility of future such walks as by the present conversation.
I'm sure I heard her say: I think I tell you these things because you're leaving.
To leave is not to die, though—she wants the things she told me to stay in the world, safe and undisclosed. For me to divulge what was said would be to betray her wish. Still, no oaths were taken, no promises made.
That woman insisted her child was odd. He was building something with small wooden blocks and didn't pay any attention to us. The dog's rhythmic tail failed to prick his concentration, but I told her that's something you want in a child.
She and I had tea in their orange living room. I thought if there were actually something wrong with the child, it could've had something to do with that color.
She assumed it was a disease and planned to meet with experts. He didn't seem very odd to me. I told her so but she shrugged, unable, at that point, to hold more than one idea of her son in her mind at a time. I believe she would've liked to entertain the possibility that her son had been switched in the nursery but the resemblance between certain parents and children is so obvious that even the fantasy of having been switched at birth must be forfeited.
All the female relatives at the Bat Mitzvah were hungry. Our breath was stale but, together for the first time in years, we were too excited to eat.
Like a cluster of pachinko balls turned magnetic, we formed a cluster and couldn't seem to let go. First inside the synagogue, then outside under the redwoods like a bevy of movie stars unaware of the rest of the world. The talk was all rediscovery of each other and how we needed to stay in touch.
Then, just as suddenly, the magnetism waned—we shot off, each in her own direction.
Mother and Son
The boy walked snowy streets in smooth-soled shoes. She prayed the soles would grip the ice. Of course, he was no longer a boy but a man with a circle of friends. Still, any circle is permeable. Wolves get through.
An idea goes nowhere without an inch of ground to stand on.
Ideas are only that: promise. Unused, they revert to type: swirly air.
But music! A recondite swirl that seems to touch your blood with a finger, stirs it.
We imagined the damage, a path to the healing. His throat was a gateway to hidden things; in reverse, there were the beautifully intoned notes, music.
I pictured scabs and pain, blood—and myself, panicked, needing what was not available: an all-knowing doctor. Then, something—fear—made him back off. The internet's do-it-yourself resourcefulness.
Those swollen golf balls are still there. Each day we pray their miraculous defeat.
Their daughter, now an adult, is seamstress of their lives, patching quilts together of their conversation. Over the fence, we hear her spouting bits of talk like Marxism, monotonous and harsh. I've screeched animal sounds out into the dark, to startle her, but she always continues without respite, her voice a drum against the night.
I guess a language is a perfect stand-in for a parent: stern but accomodating, solid but flexible. Immense, well-travelled, with non-negotiable limitations that sooth and please as well as enrage, apparently ageless (but liable to die). Infinitely present. Embracing. Yours for the taking.
How could the truly introspective young man not wonder whether, even without touching the girl, he'd done something wrong?
Sadder even, perhaps, than the murder of civilians, women and children, is the murder of translators, those with the skill to make two people one through words.
Equally as sad if not sadder is the murder of comedians: translators of experience, critics, creators of laughter: light from dark.