This is just to say

One mid-afternoon in July my house got pelted. I was unaware of the assault because I was in the garden. There the heat was slightly more bearable than in the studio where, even with two fans cranking, I get parboiled. I was inspecting the sticky trap hung to catch cucumber beetles. I do this more often than necessary, deriving morbid pleasure in finding the lure half-blackened by insect corpses.

I changed the chemical packet in the lure, speculating for the thirtieth time about why I was doing this, destined to end up with far more cucumbers than I knew what to do with. Not that it would take many to reach that number. Once upon a time we’d harvest wagon-loads. Isabel gave them away on an hourly basis. Who were all those people? Where were they now? No longer in my life. What had I done, or not done?

Before giving myself sunstroke, I went back in the house and turned on the swamp cooler in the living room, something I don’t do normally because it is a rackety contraption. Isabel wanted central air-conditioning, but I fended her off with some moral stance that, like everything but my joints, has gotten less rigid over time. I can’t say I recall what my quibbles were. Maybe it was simply the expense. I can afford it now but inaction is easier than action, to put it mildly. Racket on. I nap no matter.

Suppertime rolled around, the only time the blues can wreck me, when the ghost of Isabel follows me room to room, taunting me for my weakness. For a while after she died I tried to be a good cook, to make a conscious effort to take care of myself. I made some pretty good soups. Now the cupboard is empty even of beans. Supper is a slice of cheddar with a dab of mayonnaise on a cracker. I go to the store when one of these staples runs out. Sprawled in my recliner nibbling cracker and cheese I am reminded of a basic life lesson: never to take love for granted, a lesson arriving too late for relevancy.

By twilight the blues generally dissipate. Before the mosquitoes begin their bloodletting, I often move out onto the porch and if there isn’t a breeze I make one by rocking. That particular July evening stepping onto the porch I thought I was experiencing a neurological crisis, characterized by seeing red splotches. A cool ooze between my toes anchored perception. The front wall, the railing, the picture window and my rocker were plastered with oozing plums. An outrageous sight, not just the violation but the waste. Those plums were at the summit of succulence, sweet as Eden’s own. Each morning I picked and distributed them here and there. My neighbors accepted them with sighs of forbearance, as if the plums were another addition to the list of life’s afflictions. Attitude conversion, I presumed, would occur in one bite and gratitude gush forth.

I hadn’t brought any plums to the new family on the corner. The two boys zipped by on their bikes three or four times a day, never giving me more than a quick glance. I suspected they were trolling for some kind of excitement in this sleepy town. City boys. They’re Black. I couldn’t imagine them fitting in with the white kids in town, and there are only white kids and a family or two of Latinos. Often I saw their mother coming in and out in her bright pants and matching bright bandanas. They moved in not long after Isabel’s funeral, a time I was incapable of being sociable. The longer it went on the more it deepened into a rut, into avoidance. Was it racism? Maybe. Probably.

I took a sponge and cleaned the rocker. The moon came up. The juices of the plums bled into the boards. The blood of my neck poured into the proboscises of mosquitoes. I went to bed and rolled around. At dawn I hosed down the porch before word of sweet syrup got out to the flies. As the sun climbed over the treetops I picked almost all of the plums off the tree, including the greenish ones hard enough to break windows. That afflicted my heart, this disruption of the natural order.

I went to the studio and got to work. Noon came and went, the studio timbers crackling in the heat, sweat runnelling my ribs. The assault had unleashed something; perhaps it was rage. I’m lucky I had somewhere to put it. The painting was not typical of my mannerly landscapes. Slashed white diagonals evoked the porch railing, red blotches proliferated like open wounds. The energy lasted into evening. I knew that once I put the brush down it was over. And when I did, it was. The painting was done. It was hideous.

I was parched and starving. Plums were the only thing in the icebox. I ate at least twenty. Each cold one made its case for being the sweetest in creation. I slept like someone under a spell. The next day every movement was a negotiation with pain. It was all I could do to walk the ten steps to the studio. The painting drew me. Was it as hideous in the light of day as the night before? It was on the easel, in an attitude of defiance. Not caring whether it was awful or not. Which it was. Ugly as sin.

The next day, though I felt better, I stayed away from the studio. I gardened, I napped, I rocked on the porch. I picked the first three ripe tomatoes directly from the vine. It was a lovely day but as it went on I felt like I was calcifying into a total immobility which could be fended off only by moving instantly, that very minute.

I swaddled the painting in an old sheet. In the kitchen I filled one yogurt container with the ripest plums, another with the less ripe ones, and walked to the house on the corner. A dark-skinned whippet of a boy answered the door. He looked abashed, which I was glad to see.

Mom,” he yelled and flitted away, “it’s for you.”

I stood on the porch so long I began to have doubts when I heard shuffling footsteps and felt her presence in the doorway. “What can I do for you?” she asked in honeyed tones of a sales clerk.

I brought you some plums from my tree,” I said turning to look at her. Her tightly curled hair was platinum blonde. Her lipstick, ultra red, extended past the lines of her lips, as if hastily applied.

Thank you anyway. We have more plums than we can handle. But we could use some tomatoes if you got any. I thought you were the phone man. I have been waiting for him for two days.What else have you got there?” she asked.

To have brought that filthy sheet into her house filled me with shame. “A housewarming party,” I said and blushed, “I mean housewarming gift.”

She laughed. “Show it to me.”

It’s a painting. I paint.”

So I heard. You kinda have a name for yourself. Well, let’s see it.”

I took it out of the sheet. She lifted it close to her face, as if she might be near-sighted. “Has it got a name?”

Plums,” I said.

Is it worth something?” she asked.

Millions.”

She laughed again, a pleasant laugh. “I could use that. But plums. Everybody’s giving them away. Never mind. I’ll take them. I can make jam.” She turned the painting sideways and looked at it. “I like it,” she said. “I like it a lot although I have to tell you, this style of of painting is generally not to my liking.”

Mine either.”

Okay, then, there’s no misunderstanding.”

What do you like? In paintings?”

Sunflowers. Any kind of flowers.”

Van Gogh liked sunflowers.”

Well I always said he had good taste.” She laughed again. “Hey, you should meet my boys. Justin, Rafe, come meet our neighbor,” she yelled toward the open door. “Get your skinny butts out here right now. I said right now.” They appeared in the hallway. The one who had answered the door, the one I thought was the small one, was actually taller, both faces a facade of nonchalance layered over vulnerability.

“The tall one’s Justin. For god’s sake, Rafe, shake the man’s hand. With a mother like me, how did I get kids so shy? Maybe I am answering my own question. Clarice is my name. I know yours. You’re famous. Hey, did you sign the painting?”

She got a pen and on the back I wrote “To Clarice, Rafe and Justin. Plums,” and appended an absurdly large signature. She turned the painting toward the boys. “See these red spots? They’re the plums, I’m guessing.”

The boys nodded. As a learning experience I could not have set it up better, but by then I was sure these boys had not done the deed. Already I had another suspect in mind, fat freckled Timmy from across the tracks.

I went home and ten minutes later I was back at her door. She looked at me skeptically. “One more thing. The ones in the bigger container are the ripe ones. They need to be eaten right away. The others may take some time to ripen.”

“I suppose I could have figured that out,” she said and laughed. She was somebody who laughed easily, it seemed. I felt like an idiot.

Over the next two days fifteen paintings erupted out of me with a kind of violence. I sent my agent photographs and she emailed, “Are you okay?” I knew what that meant. There would be no market for them. Too much a departure. Did it matter? Not one bit.

The hiatus in creative energy arrived, as it always does. The difference being the question, would it be the ultimate one? I stayed out of the studio all of August, all of September, most of October. The rays of autumn burnished the yellowing leaves of the plum tree until the leaves fluttered free in the wind.

I wouldn’t say we’ve gotten to be friends but over these months Clarice and I talked a few times. Her boys cleaned out my gutters. I’m not supposed to be on ladders. They did an excellent job, and I found myself getting fond of them, not something that I allow myself to nurture. What’s worse is I’ve been having dreams about Clarice. Is this really necessary, I ask no one in particular. At my age? I feel tinges of guilt, as if I’m betraying Isabel, but I have no control over what goes in the damp corners of my imagination. So I’ll just indulge my fantasies.

This is just to say, I know how to behave myself.

In December on the winter solstice, I finally cracked open the door of the studio again. The smells of paint embedded in the walls had acquired a musk like rotting leaves. I set up my easel. I was starting from zero. The first painting I did was of sunflowers.

In another’s hand

I have the time. There are things that should be done. One part of the list are those things I may get to if I outlast the voices of procrastination. Then there are those things whose prospect causes feckless voices to sing a rousing anthem of Over my Dead Body. Which is a functional, time-tested strategy. Dead, I won’t be feeling guilty making someone deal with these egregious lapses. I don’t know who that poor soul will be so I can’t flesh out, as it were, my guilt. Maybe Sunset Scavengers, an apropos name. I think about the garages of aunts and uncles I helped clean out and horror layers up like a continental shelf.

Conspicuous on the “must yet impossible” list is the cedar chest my father made which sits in my living room under the picture window. It is packed with letters from old lovers, family members, and friends, plus random pictures and even more random artifacts. A poster of Petula Clark. A Tuareg money pouch.

Today I open the lid, striking a blow for posterity.

In a half hour I achieve a small pile of discards. Photos are easier to discard than letters. In a time of obsolescence letters by their very existence are artifacts. To the pile of discards I reluctantly add a letter from Claudia in which the ink has bled into a blue wash. I quell an urge to decipher it. If I succumb to that urge, which is strong, I will bid farewell to even minimal progress. The snippets of letters I permit myself to read, occasionally to decipher whom they are from, are emotional excavators. I deflect as much feeling as possible which comes from all directions, in many of its costumes. Sadness. Shame. Feelings of loss. Regret. Some joy.

Whose hand is this, on the back of a letter that I myself wrote?

Richard—Although each year I discard the last year’s cards and letters, I’ve never been able to not keep this—I read it each year and I think now you might like to have it back. To keep. It touched me so much. But—I’m 75 years old and someday someone will be going through the things I have kept and not know that this is important will simply trash it—So—I love you a lot—you are a dear man.

Clyda. I wrote the letter to her after Ori’s death, letting her know. This is the only note I have from her. And here are Ori’s letters, generous, patient, persistent. I must stop reading.

How about this loose collection? Dear Richeart…” Signed, Sandyl.

She hasn’t called lately. Now I am worried. Please, let us keep the lights on a while longer. So many whose lights are gone. Ori, John, Claudia, Phyllis, Sister Michael, Clyda. Forever.

I close the lid, overwhelmed. Progress has been made, however minimal. I’ll give myself some love. It’s never too late.

Anyone want a wrinkled Petula Clark poster?

Curation

I’ve been putting this off, but now I have the time and the experience. First off I have to do some work on the lighting. It’s either too bright or too dark. Too bright I look either like I’m stoned or else an alcoholic, whether or not it’s true. My skin tones are too pink, blotchy. Too dark I look like a salamander lurking under some ferns. I have a lot of house plants. On camera I trust they make me appear approachable.  Figuratively. Nobody’s approachable if we’re talking literally. Mostly I’m not wearing a mask. I’m indoors, in my own living room, for heaven’s sake. Some people are fanatic about wearing a mask at all times and if they’re on the zoom, too bad, I’m not wearing a mask indoors. Sometimes I wear a baseball or stocking cap. I know that looks a little weird but my house is cold, even in summer.

Once I get my appearance squared away, which may take a few more weeks, I have to get the background thing thought through. I know a lot of people have books in the background which I think is cool. When they sit there with nothing to say you get to try to pick out some titles. Cate Blanchett had all the volumes of the OED behind her. I am thinking about putting up bookshelves in my living room. Right now all my books are on the floor, their spines in process of being broken. Not a look I want to broadcast so I turn my laptop to face the paintings which some people might interpret as representative of my personality although they were on the walls when I moved into this house and to which I am totally indifferent. If they knew that I am indifferent to these paintings and paintings in general they would know something about me. I suppose I could inform them of that during the zoom but it would have to be in context. Everyone is in the zoom for fitness enhancement. Nobody is there to socialize,. People don’t talk about other people’s living environments, and I strive to keep mine from being distracting. I sometimes stack the books. I dust whether I need to or not. l did put some pottery on a shelf in full view figuring nobody has anything against pottery.

Even not wearing a mask my glasses often fog up, and I don’t know why that is. Maybe because of general humidity, or else it’s pre-sweat. I’m pretty nervous with the camera on me. I look at other people’s faces and I wonder how they can do this without dying of embarrassment,. It’s not for nothing a movie costs tens of millions of dollars, much of it going I’m sure to the make-up department.

Sometimes I feel more than embarrassment, close to paranoia. I have a strong sense that something in the background is saying something completely misleading and unflattering about me. It might be the rusty wall heater, or the swag in the drapes or the doily my mother made which I keep for sentimental reasons, not because I’m into doilies. So many treacheries. If I had a clean white ironed sheet I would drape it behind me so that our intentions as zoom participants remain uncompromised.

So much to fix, and I keep putting it off. I try not to be self-critical. I congratulate me for showing up. It’s a me I’m just getting to know.

.

Natasha

I’m almost sure my sister is Natasha. She’s in her room, shades pulled, door bolted shut, sometimes an hour, sometimes all afternoon. I asked her once if she was Natasha and she said, “Of course dahlink, eesn’t everybody?” The doors in our house are old; they have keyholes. Hers gives me a view of the window but not the desk where she sits at her computer. I was hoping to glimpse the elbow-high jet-black glove that Natasha wears like a fetish. Or her silky wig, also black, although sometimes she changes it out for a fright wig, lime green, hot pink or orange marmalade.

I don’t know why she is so secretive with me. Maybe her popularity scares her. She is extremely popular, the dangerous level of popular, millions of followers, thumbs-up to the sky. I am a follower too, have been since the moment her fame took off when she was mentioned by Fearless Leader, dismissively, but still, a mention! “I hear she’s very popular, almost as popular as me. I understand, somebody says, she can see the future. All you so-called experts should consult her. She gets it right once in a while.”

See into the future? Who’s this? Like a zillion others I clicked on her site. Last April Natasha predicted a pandemic, a virus that came from the wet markets of Wuhan, that would change lives forever. She predicted social distancing without naming it, that a big Hollywood star and his wife would catch the bug, and so would heads of state in England and Nigeria. That hundreds of thousands would die. She wasn’t pre- or post-dating; her predictions were legit. There were generic aspects to them—the Hollywood star, for instance—but she sprinkled in enough detail to put skepticism in a headlock. And she was telegenic. That solitary left glove, the face-mask with the gold straps and juiciest of all, the thick Pottsylvanian accent. She either recorded or wrote replies to every comment until there were far too many to keep up with. She was adept at shutting down trolls. Her boilerplate response was something like, Everybody has parts of themselves that they don’t like, even hate. The warts, the boogers, the fungus under the toenails of your precious self. You put the mouse of your attention on the unfairness of your pitiful life and drag it to Trash but it still takes up space on your hard drive. You are desperate to dump it somewhere, and here you are. Dump away. I welcome it. Glad to be of service.”

After a short time, predicting the future became, so to speak, an afterthought, a sideshow she visited only on the third Thursday of every month for some bogus numerical reason. You could tell her heart wasn’t into playing Cassandra. Her predictions got monotonous. She predicted an assassination in the Balkans. A coup in Saudi Arabia. A flood in Namibia. To lighten the mood she would always add a daffy statistic such as the sexual happiness quotient in New Zealand would rise six points in autumn.

Her primary focus was on the present, on things like the loneliness of laundromats, or the life of a flea on a dog, or the addictive smell of nail polish. She was making an effort, exhorting her followers to experience the mundane aspects of their shutdown lives as if they were seeing each for the first, or maybe the last time. There was something about her choice of subjects that bothered me, something that was slightly morbid, or maybe it was just her attitude. I started to wonder if I should do some kind of intervention. The traffic on her site plateaued and then slowly headed south.

She was aware of that, and veered into a whole other avenue. Predicting that state or religiously-sanctioned marriages would soon cease, she set up a matchmaking site in which anyone could upload a picture, naked or clothed, any race, any age, any sexual proclivity, with a descriptive tag up to five words. No violence was the only prohibition. Humans presented themselves. Some animals too. A winsome grizzly. A lemur. A sassy rat. The point was, you could choose any one for your mate, and choose as many as you wanted for the same low price of one dollar each. Once you paid your buck you would get a virtual marriage license signed by Natasha herself. People, and some pets took to it enthusiastically. I uploaded a photo, not of me, but of the young Archie Leach, whom I’ve been told I resemble, and so far have gotten 135 matches, 97 supposedly real women, the rest real or unreal men, possibly like Archie himself. I made $135 for my sister is how I think about it, although I admit it is gratifying to be the object of so much desire.

For an additional ten dollars Natasha would forward your email to the mate of your dreams, and then it was all up to you. It was fun. There were a lot of jokes, very little idiocy. Who was Natasha’s match? somebody inquired, Prince Andrey or Pierre? Boris, Natasha replied, rolling her R’s. After him, Squirrrrrrel.

The good-looking eligibles, natch, got many matches, tallying into the thousands. That sometimes bothered me because it seemed so unfair, so like the non-virtual world. I often scrolled through the blizzard of pictures looking for the unmatched and I would put in my request (not with any pets), gratified that a little number 1 would appear next to the photo. I became a little obsessed with doling out marriage requests to the unmarriage-able and I felt good doing it, although I was putting on the pounds. I used to be out in the park playing soccer that time of day.

As in every other unfortunate situation in my life I couldn’t see how it was going to end. It couldn’t until I verified one way or the other if Natasha was my sister. And that could take a while, since most of my day was spent either sleeping or at work. I’m on the night watch at the fertilizer plant south of town.

With all the money rolling in I fully expected some sea-change of behavior in my sister. But there was not a hint of it, although Natasha became a Sherpa hoisting prodigious amount of jewelry, slobbering over each gemstone in a way that looked like parody but you couldn’t be sure.

Given a gigantic platform, every teensy thought gets super-sized and so does the pressure. She got weirder by the week, logging in as Natasha X Zarathustra. Her contributions became sporadic and more provocative. By spitting vitriol back at the trolls she turned the site into a petri dish for creepy crawlers. I suppose this was inevitable since that first mention by Fearless Leader. Everything he touches turns to crap. Yesterday the site went down.

Today I kept waiting for her to come out of her room, to see if I could discern the turmoil etched in lines around her eyes, until I realized that she wasn’t in there, that the sound I was hearing came not from her computer but from the birds in the plum tree in the garden. You hear more birds these days, at least I think they’re birds.

Tolstoy on Napoleon

And not for that hour and day only were the mind and conscience darkened in that man, on whom the burden of all that was being done lay even more heavily than on all the others who took part in it.  Never, down to the end of his life, had he the least comprehension of good, of beauty, of truth, of the significance of his own acts, which were too far opposed to truth and goodness, too remote from everything human for him to be able to grasp their significance.  He could not disavow his own acts, that were lauded by half the world, and so he was forced to disavow truth and goodness and everything human.

Sound like someone in the White House?

All but the bit about “half the world.”  Only the toadies and the deplorables.

The River is Wide

Six a.m. the phone rings. “Your should come,” Mary the Samoan nurse says.“He’s gone into a coma and we can’t rouse him and his vital signs are sinking”

There will be no more words.

Sunlight is streaming through the tops of the clouds as he struggles. The breaths are numbered. His exhalation fogs the oxygen mask. I lie beside him hold him, saying it’s okay to let go, and imagine his voice in descant saying, what is this shit, let go, let go, I don’t want to go anywhere. I tell him I love him more than the stars and the moon.

I sit with him a while before I call Lisa. She calls the others. By seven everyone has arrived.

The breathing stops. Like that . Lisa sings, “The river is wide, I can’t cross over. Nor do I have bright wings to fly…”

Twenty seven years ago this morning. Another time of plague.

I climb the hill before dawn. I have been going up there often since the directives were issued. By mid-afternoon the hill is swarming with dogs and people on holiday from their screens. Elaborate dances of avoidance are performed, some poorly. (The human body is a package that can detonate.) I wonder what this new reality is doing to the children passing by, scuttling to the side, being good, doing what they’re told.

When will the body again be a paradise?

I like going up before sunrise, hoping to see nobody, making it a kind of contest. This morning I thought I had made it all the way to the summit when I heard a voice above me, and saw a jogger alongside the metal fence surrounding the radar installation, his chest and face illuminated by his phone. How irritating.

And further irritating when he runs past me, still lit up, still yakking. Now I am swarming with irritations like the mosquitoes literally buzzing my ear, mosquitoes no doubt incubated in puddles collected by the concrete of the monstrosity, the radar crap and cell towers. How could this have been allowed, this defilement of a sacred space? And look there, another discarded plastic glove and another cast off mask. And those two beer cans left behind at fence-line. People! Get a grip. Add to these the damn detritus from the public works branch of the Bureau of Delay and Disorder, two rusty front loaders, plastic fencing, traffic cones, dirt mounds covered in plastic tarp. Two stairways being built into the hill in the amount of time China has built a supersonic train to one of the moons of Neptune.

The quality of your life is determined by the focus of your attention, so I’ve been taught, so I turn my attention to my body, to the rapture which is air itself, this fresh cool wind coming from the south (please ignore the red plastic cups littering the bench, which I, good citizen, would normally deposit in the nearest trash can, but these ain’t normal times. Unless they are.)

I am back to my house before sunrise. On this circumambulation I encountered three more people. Maybe I’ll go up closer to 5 a.m..

I made a lemon pound cake earlier and I can smell it when I come in the door. Life is good. Here is another day.

I’ve lit a votive candle in front of Richy’s photo, that big smile.

Bill Withers

A dozen or so celebrants standing or sitting on the hill facing east.

Nothing thickens time into honey like waiting for the sun to show.

You can anticipate the place, the channel opening the sky

marked by the curlicue of emblazoned cloud. A three-block

network of light shuts off in the city below.

Afar on the placid bay, fretted in places, mirror-like elsewhere,

freighters and tankers, eleven of them, sit parallel to the horizon.

Even with the reduced traffic of this fraught time,

the onrush of noise from freeways is constant.

If there are birds greeting

the dawn I do not hear them.

It is April third.

In Kaduna my sister is flat on her back in traction.

In Denver my brother’s skull is being drilled for a biopsy.

Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow.

There, at last, where it should be

a conflagration which under observation

consolidates into an outline, a circle, a sun.

Clanging cymbals, the light splashes on the windows of Twin Peaks.

Arise, arise, morning has broken.

Ain’t no sunshine when you’re gone.

Out in the world

Issue Eleven

Near and Fear (a poem for pandemics)

Screen-weary, glutted with reading

Mr. Pixel strolls the streets

nobody’s out or everybody is

in something like a state of wonder

six feet apart or six feet under

Ironically the spring days

could not be prettier,

puffy clouds, cherry blossoms,

freesias in exelcis, budding floribundas

six feet apart or six feet under

Often Mr. Pixel is a pretty good citizen

hunkers at home, does crosswords,

seven letters, Aussie slang, to vomit

works out to be chunder

six feet apart or six feet under

His complaints have gotten tiresome

410k in the Tanq-

ueray, travel plans in the ditch

the free time he’ll no doubt squander

six feet apart or six feet under

He washes his hands until they’re chapped,

he imagines the sore throat that isn’t sore,

he zooms his friends, makes morbid jokes,

sneezes, touches his face—a fatal blunder!

six feet apart or six feet under

Look on the bright side, an angel whispers

less polution, less global devastation

a moment to fire up creative urges

the meaning of life to ponder

six feet apart or six feet under

Little brown birds

sparrows and finches with a wash of orange

flit on and below the feeder

they are either messy or picky eaters

spritzing grain which the groundlings

scarf as do squirrels,

the occasional sunflower seed maybe

enough to keep scavenging

it must be contra physics how

the mass of these tiny seeds

transforms into fits of energy

lunging little machines

generating above all

the pure indulgence of their company