The Old in You

The old lady does not live in a shoe, little girl: the grown-ups lied to you. But snuggle deeper into your blankets, safely away from that grave wind, and I will tell you where she really is. There. Ready?

The old lady lives in you. Before you get to scratching yourself pink, though, you must understand and be kind to her; living inside another human—even one who is growing as rapidly as yourself—can be rather cramped, and wet, and dark. On top of that, there was no room for her 27 children (15 of which were from her husband’s previous marriage, but she loved them no less), whom she had to send away to aunts and uncles and a few questionable foster parents. She still worries, though it helps to knit and rock in the cozy crook of your liver.

photo courtesy Anton Singurov

photo courtesy Anton Singurov

Understand that the grown-ups weren’t entirely dishonest—the old woman did actually live in a shoe (a leather boot that had seen better days, if I remember right). As accustomed as she was to living in dark and close quarters, she looked forward to hanging her apron up for good in a place with a bit more fresh air, retiring to Montreal, maybe, or the south of France. (While practical in love, she’s always been a hopeless romantic when it comes to travel.) It had been the one gossamer thread of invention she allowed herself in that gray and stale place.

Of course, these best-laid plans changed the day her husband left to join the oil rush up in North Dakota. Having promised to write like so many other important humans have, Mr. Edison (grandson of Thomas Edison’s illegitimate daughter, the poor girl) faded first in flesh and soon after his voice and scent disappeared entirely, having been overwritten by more urgent memories. With him went his money, and this may surprise you, but mothers are not paid to raise humans-in-training such as yourself in a clean and bright and happy place such as this. Few see this as a reason to complain, and Mrs. Edison was not one of these few. That is, until the bank began to send letters and then make telephone calls until late in the night and finally knocked on the door at an ungodly hour, demanding that the old lady and her 27 children vacate the premises so they could get on with selling it to a more deserving and upstanding family. And would she kindly do something about that foot smell?

Well the Pine Sol was out before the banging stopped, but as for the money it would take to keep the bank at bay, there was little to be done. Child labor laws notwithstanding, William and Wendy—the oldest children, twins, having 24 years between them if I may sneak in a small math problem—ducked under the screech of their mother’s refusals and threats, dashing into the country to find work. They polished shoes and milked cows and ran messages between neighbors.

It’s getting late, so I won’t give you the weight of further details. I think you’re clever enough to guess how it worked out, anyway.

Maybe now you see why you were her last resort. Not that she’s ungrateful—the close quarters, wet and dark as they are, have given her a new start. And, bereft of children and husband, she has all the me-time a woman could want. Basically, she tells me, she’s learning to look on the brightest side available, though she’s still prone to the occasional flour-throwing, rolling-pin-brandishing tantrum. Give her room for these.

One day—and do your best not to fear this particular one, darling, because there are plenty of others that are more deserving of your fear—the old woman will begin to grow into your arms and legs, so slowly that at first you will not notice your limbs doing odd things like taking your coffee black. You won’t notice that you squint when you read the paper anymore, or remember the first morning your bones creaked upon unfolding from bed. Her wrinkles will begin to show through, the color of her eyes will fuse with your own, and your laugh will bind itself to hers. You may even find yourself in the south of France one day, if you two play well enough together.

Of course, this is all speculation. I don’t know enough to know what she will decide to do in there. What I do know is that there is old in you, child, and you ought to thank your stars for it. Off to bed with the both of you.

 

What You Do Is You Buy a Toy Poodle and You Name It “Baby”

He tells me he killed the son of a bitch.

photo courtesy Gavin White

photo courtesy Gavin White

“Emptied the magazine of my gook gun into him, just like that,” he says.

There is the intake of breath from my thought to correct him, and then me closing my mouth and instead retrenching. This is a story you just shut up and listen to, the bar told me. It was in the maple and the neon and the empty booths. Listening the old fashioned way, I thought. No corrections, no requests for confirmation or qualification.

The man called himself Lee, and before he said anything I already knew he was an import– the way he carried himself showed that the smell from the slaughterhouse was only beginning to weigh upon him.

My shift had started with him going on about his toy poodle, “Baby,” and pets in general, how good they are for human beings.

We talk sports, even though this isn’t a sports bar. Maybe I bring it up because I’m new to this whole behind-the-bar thing and sports is a safely banal subject.

He likes football.

I ask him if he likes anything else. He shakes his head.

Football it is.

I ask him if he’s always been into football. He says no, he started when he was trying to impress the father of his then-future wife, Patty. Superbowl II was playing in a bar in San Diego, January of 1968. Her father’s eyes were glued to the screen. Lee mimicked him, and fell in love with her over lowballs of bourbon, which he says he’d drunk a lot of in ‘Nam.

He says they had big bottles of it over there, which you could buy for eight bucks, no tax. He says his CO lined the bottles up on the floor of his hut at base, and one time just after Lee had been flown in with his buddies and the green of that place still saturated their insides, before they’d seen any action, the CO brought them out behind his hut and beat the shit out of them one at a time.

He told his buddies after coming to, his CO having cold-cocked him in the back of the head, his CO with three purple hearts and a scar down one cheek, he told his buddies if the guy ever touched him again he was a dead man.

“A dead man,” he said.

A few months later, he says, they were in serious trouble with Charlie. Surrounded, “fucked,” and here he makes a gesture, two-handed, forming a “T” with the stem of it a middle finger. That, I guess, was their sign for that.

Lee turns and sees the CO with the three purple hearts and the scar down his cheek pointing an M16 right at him.

“Right at me,” he says. He holds an invisible rifle in his hands.

The guy actually pulls the trigger and nicks Lee in the shoulder. Lee looks over my head, straight into the neon, and says,

“I emptied my magazine into the son of a bitch. Killed him right then and there.”

I smile at first. He’s kidding.

He stares.

I smother the stupid grin on my face and keep listening the old fashioned way.

They got back to base and he tells his buddies, who saw the whole thing, that they have two choices: watch him eat his gun right there, or never mention it again. They’re quiet for awhile, he says. How long “awhile” is, I don’t know. Time was a weird thing over there, probably. Briefly I wonder if time ever goes the way it should after a thing like that, or what. Anyway, Lee says a buddy–a Native American named Kyle–hands him one of those big bottles of bourbon and tells him to forget about it.

Kyle was killed a week later, he adds.

He says that’s how he started drinking bourbon. And that’s how he met Patty, and meeting Patty was how he started watching football. And watching football, I think, is all he has left, because shortly after this he says Patty left him.

He starts to cry a little, but takes a swig from his beer and recovers.

“I went to Patty’s parents and told them straight, told them I didn’t want to hurt her anymore.”

He’d become an alcoholic. He drank too much bourbon, and he had too many night terrors, and woke up screaming too many times. He tells me it scared her. He tells me it scared him, too.

I probably shouldn’t, but I buy him his next drink.

Later, my friend tells me the guy must have been full of shit. “No CO earned three purple hearts and was allowed to go back for more,” he says.

You’re right, I say. What I don’t say is that I still believe that there was something true in it, outside of the details and the chest-thumping and all the bullshit that comes from mouths that are propped up on bars, held there by greasy elbows. You don’t name a toy poodle Baby without some kind of damage.

A Kindness

The car pulls up and Henry unfolds from his seat before offering a hand to his Eleanor. Hers rests in his incidentally, if not accidentally, and her face turns to Symphony Hall over his shoulder as the words unpack themselves.

What, no coat spread beneath my feet? I daresay you’ve lost your touch, my dear man.

Her mouth was what had caught his ear at the diner thirty-two years ago today, and he offers her his smile as he did then though the exchange is by now as well-worn as his faded tux, which has long sagged at the shoulders and bulged at the elbows and knees, weary of standing ovations (at least four per year for thirty years, he realizes with a faint shake of his head).

Eleanor and Henry are 50 and 58 years old, respectively. Today is their thirty-first anniversary.

The principal cellist in Boston is Sean Ahearne. He is thirty-eight years old today. On the day of Henry and Eleanor’s wedding, Sean was staring up at a blue Irish sky, busy turning seven. His arms and legs were stretching out from boyhood, his jaw firming, his blood pulsing to American punk music. Tonight Sean rests his bow against his knee as the orchestra paces around and kneads various impending melodies until it finally nests into a single tune. The crowd, with a few final throat-clearing coughs, settles into the dark. Sean’s bow snaps to attention.

The first time Henry asked Eleanor about him was after a winter concert in their second year as season ticket holders. What do you think of that Ahearne fellow, anyway? he said. Bit of an interesting haircut for a principal player, don’t you think?

Eleanor nodded twice and said nothing as the sky let itself out in a drizzle. The cellist’s hair was long and loose, and had that evening threatened to fly straight off his skull in the crescendos. Henry’s wife watched beads of water race down the cab’s windows.

photo courtesy Cory Holms

photo courtesy Cory Holms

Oh it’s going to be such a crowd-pleaser tonight, Henry, would be a shame to miss it, she’d said after he asked her if she was sure, really sure, she wanted to go tonight. Maybe they could surprise the kids up in the city, he didn’t so much say as think aloud.

Besides, you know they have their own lives nowshe told him. And it was Beethoven.

As the house lights dim, Henry watches Eleanor watch Sean, who watches the conductor.

The second time he’d asked her about the cellist was on the way home from the symphony benefit dinner ten–or was it eleven?–years ago, where Eleanor had leaned in close to Sean (or had it been the other way around?) and Sean had smiled in return. What was that all about, Henry said. And Eleanor told him it was nothing, nothing at all.

The house lights are up and Eleanor is out of her seat, stretching as much as one can reasonably stretch at such an event without inviting judgment. How about that stroll? she asks. Henry supposes, and offers his arm.

Outside it snows. The couple walks in silence awhile, thirty-one years hot on their heels. How about that Beethoven fellow, then? Henry says. Eleanor nods twice. He is something, isn’t he?

He certainly was, is all Henry can think to say.

Inside, Eleanor drifts toward their seats, thoughtlessly resting her hand in Henry’s. He lets the hand slip. I’ll be right in, he says, I forgot my… 

Typical you, she says, offering him half a smile.

His tux sighs, relieved to be excused the obligation of another ovation.

IN RESPONSE TO THE WORDPRESS DAILY POST PROMPT.

Rehearsal

In response to the WordPress daily post promptLook in the mirror. Does the person you see match the person you feel like on the inside? How much stock do you put in appearances?

[An excerpt]

She stood in the bathroom back at your house, at your party, next to your shower curtain, smelling your aftershave, and grabbed the places she thought you might grab. Would you go for the ridge of her hips or would it be higher? Would you, for example, spread your fingers between her ribs? Now it was Prince spinning through the walls and dimming the accreted cocktail effect. She couldn’t do Prince, yet she found herself singing, content with a low harmony. Would you go straight for her collarbone?

photo courtesy Leanne Surfleet at Flickr

photo courtesy Leanne Surfleet at Flickr

A knock on the door jerked her back into seeing herself the way girls see themselves. It was a friendly, made more out of proximity than compatibility, who stood on the other side. She was unsure if this made what she’d been up to in there more or less embarrassing. The friendly told her, after she’d admitted to rehearsing her responses to your hypothetical touch (a silly thing to do, she realized only after saying it aloud. Yes, this was more embarrassing, stomach-dropping embarrassing.), You can’t judge your bedroom-self based on your bathroom-mirror-self, you know, the friendly said. Nothing looks the same. Especially in missionary—everything squishes down like a pancake.

She appreciated the honesty, and thought briefly that maybe she’d underestimated their compatibility, but did not like this flattening idea. The worst thing would be to look two-dimensional. She tried to forget about the bathroom and went to see if you had another full drink waiting in that hand of yours, wading through Prince the whole way.

On Day 211

In response to the WordPress Daily Prompt.

It will, dollars to donuts, be hot as hell on July 30, 2014. My life splits in two after May 1–I will stand either on the edge of what has been a long time coming or–having failed–in the midst of an interminable sameness, the one I have slipped into rather like one might slip into a coma, thinking at some point How the hell did I end up here? and in the very next second forgetting all about it. But if I have not failed, I will stand on the aforementioned edge–my first day as an MFA candidate.

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On July 30, the clothes and books thrown into boxes would fight nerves. I’d try to talk them down and fail miserably; there is no calming books when they set their minds to anxiety. (One more reason to love their corners and ink and their crisp, diaphanous pages.)

There would be a day off, a trip to the lake, sun-bleached straw for hair, sunglasses perched over crinkled eyes that today see more than the myriad reflections offered by the water, sunscreen slathered over skin that today feels more than the wake’s white foam, which instead feels the coming fall and winter and the particular give-and-click rhythm of keys on a keyboard, feels a manuscript feathered through clammy, beaten, victorious hands and that sweaty, clenched, pinpricked workshop-stomach.

There would be a sun-bleached nap in a cool and dark basement, eyes stained with light even in sleep.

There would be supper out on the patio, waving away the flies but glad to be doing so for one more of a dwindling number of nights.

The sun would set late. Maybe there would be one more bike ride around this small town and its dry, warm streets, maybe with a friend or maybe without, maybe rolling past Little League games and the old brick high school and out around the edge of town with a breeze catching just so on peach-fuzzed forearms and brushing my hair back the way I’ve so far only imagined some terribly important person will do at some point.

On the second to last day of the seventh month of this year, I will be a quarter century old.

I hope it will be sunny and warm and still, and that when the treetops and the baseball fields and small-midwest-town storefronts on Main Street begin to glow with dying light and when the shadows yawn and stretch and get ready for another shift, as I rip down the asphalt at what must be the speed of light, feeling the coming days all piled on top of one another in a glorious heap, I hope for a realization at this exact moment, a recognition that these prongs of life are not accidental. And I hope it’s all warm, all sharp, all as sweet as the air sweeping into me.

Bugs in Amber

Quote

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”  – Kurt Vonnegut Jr.