Bottom of the Seventh

She was the last one to notice. Blanche, the instructor, stretched her neck and her eyeballs in the direction the sound was coming from. The heads of everyone standing in utkatasana, their butts pushed backward, turned ninety degrees toward the corner with the bags holding street clothes. The noise grew subtly louder. Rachel realized what it was, the tinny bossa nova jingle of her phone. She was horrified. She never brought her phone to class. She was intentional about that, but there was no mistaking it.

“Sorry,” she said, rushing toward it. Because she was in such a hurry to quell it, she had trouble getting it out of her pocket, and when she did, despite having had the phone for at least two years, she had to stop and consider where the mute button was. In the interval she saw that it was her sister’s number. Bad news. Rachel’s sister only called when it was bad news.

Understandably during the rest of the yoga class she had a hard time focusing and a harder time tapping into the equanimity that Blanche extolled so religiously. The minute she got outside she listened to her sister’s message. The news wasn’t a surprise, not even remotely a shock, but it bowled her over anyway. Daphne said she should come, immediately.

There wasn’t a flight going out that night so Rachel took the first one she could in mid-morning. If she got there too late, it was what it was. She spent a lot of time on the plane rolling the question around in her mind, Did she really love her mother? She felt something immense, she knew that, but she didn’t know if it was love. She did know, and she tried to sideline these feelings, that she resented the expense of this trip. It came on top of paying her insurance, replacing a broken window in her car, and succumbing to a merino wool pullover. Her little reservoir of extra cash, so slowly filled, leaked like a burst levee. She wondered if her life would always be like that.

By the time she landed she decided that yes, she did love her mother, and that she hoped she would still be alive when she got to the hospital so they could say their goodbyes. How would they be said? They had no practice, no background for expression of emotion. In her head she practiced saying, “I love you, Mom.” In the back seat of the taxi she said it out loud once, “I love you, Mom.” It sounded as weird and insincere as she feared it would. The cab driver, an Afghani, gave her a worried look through the rear view mirror.

There was a mix-up about what room her mother was in, and she was sent to the wrong floor where she wandered among people in wheelchairs for most of an hour as the pressure built up inside her, the pressure of precious time evaporating. When she finally arrived at the closed door next to her mother’s name, she knocked softly. She could hear voices, remote, from a television. She knocked again with more force and drawing in a caustic breath, turned the latch and entered. The shock she had fortified herself against shifted like a calved iceberg. In the middle of the bed at lounge inclination sat a pale, bony creature holding a remote. An alien. Her mother. On one side of the bed in chairs crowded together were Rachel’s two nephews and brother-in law and on the other her sister and her niece. Only her sister turned away from the baseball game they were watching for more than a few seconds to greet her. Her mother’s eyes, bulging in something like wonder, never strayed from the TV.

“The bases are loaded,” Daphne said. “It’s the seventh game of the World Series.”

She quickly determined that nothing was going to interrupt the drama of the bottom of the seventh in the seventh game of the World Series, certainly not something so common as death, and she sat and watched like the others and even got interested.

The home team lost due to an misplay of a fly ball and the blasted hopes stung the air in the room. The game had gone into extra innings and it was past visiting hours. The brother-in-law, the sister, and their brood went home. Rachel stayed, waiting for the moment when the unreality dissolved into actual life.

Her mother had lifted the claw of her hand when the grandsons gave their awkward hugs goodbye. Now she lay immobile, smiling like she was privy to some joke, her lips stretched outward, her eyelids closed. Rachel had never seen her smile this way, and wondered if it were some kind of rictus. Her mother had said her name, said thank you for coming, so she was at least intermittently aware, but she didn’t say anything else until midnight when she said, “Shame about the error.”

Rachel wondered if she meant the game or some maternal failing, of which Rachel could make a list. But recrimination was over, insignificant. The freshening springs of forgiveness flowed. Death had primed them.

Except that Rachel’s mother kept living. For three days Rachel did not leave the hospital, sleeping as best she could in the only chair in the room that was remotely comfortable. She knew what she was doing. She was waiting for some kind of affirmation that would cauterize the anxiety that seeped from her core.

Her mother’s alien smile had become a fixture. At certain moments Rachel was convinced they were on the brink of the redeeming moment and each time a nurse would come in and fiddle with the drip bags or else a hideous beeping would banish every glimmer of grace. Her hatred of the nurses grew to absurd proportions.

After three days they sent her mother home, prescribing hospice care. Rachel had stayed as long as she could. She had to get back to work, to pay her bills, so one day she said to her mother, “See you later,” meaning much later, as in the afterlife. “This is Rachel,” she added, “I’m going back home.”

“I’m going home too,” her mother whispered without opening her eyes, and Rachel was whiplashed by emotion. Later in a more rational frame of mind she would wonder what her mother could have meant.

Two months later her mother died. Rachel didn’t go to the funeral. When she thought of her mother her feelings were soft and vague, as if she was thinking about a favorite song, or a favorite color.

Rachel took on a second job giving tours of chocolate shops in the city. She stopped going to yoga and lost contact with the friends she had almost made in the class.

One day in the cafe she saw one of them having a croissant, brushing the flakes off the screen she was absorbed by. It took a second to remember her name: Gloria. Gloria came across as immensely self-confident, somebody who lacked the gene for anxiety. This made her very attractive, and Rachel was glad she had a partner so that she could dispense with having a deep crush on her. Women like Gloria were her downfall.

She would at least say hello.

Gloria’s eyes flew open when Rachel tapped her shoulder.

“Where have you been, girlfriend?” Gloria’s voice was like a trumpet coming through a murmur of cellos. “We missed you.”

Rachel told her about rushing home to witness her mother’s dying only to find her mother sitting up watching a baseball game.

“That fucker,” said Gloria.

Gloria’s response shocked and confused her just the right amount. Days later, on the bus coming home from work, sampling from the box of artisanal chocolates on her lap, she found herself choking with laughter.




Thea asked the guy who unlocked the cabinet why they were locking up toothpaste and the guy, who could not be more bored said, like why do you think?

Were they putting opioids in the toothpaste? How hard up are people?

It was one more reason to hate the place.

She felt a thrill of power when she pressed the button and the store-wide speakers demanded, Customer Assistance in Aisle Six, but the phrase kept repeating well after assistance had arrived in aisle six.  It was annoying. She wanted to check which brands had fluoride. They all do, the guy said. He wasn’t visibly agitated but it seemed like he might be near triggering.

Thea took a box of Crest and saw that a line trailed from every register. In the under-twenty-items express line everyone had nineteen and a request for a bottle from the super-secure booze cupboard on the front wall with its own set of keys procured from a netherworld. A powerful thirst was there in the land.

Crest in hand, Thea walked the whole length of Texas in her mind. At last at the register, the woman ahead who decided after intense deliberation the Polish vodka was not the brand she wanted, abruptly spoke to her.

Do you play Monopoly?

No, Thea said is a less than friendly way.

Well, the woman said, offended, I was going to give you my points.

Thea briefly wondered if she might have blown a chance to put herself in luck’s latitudes. Thea was philosophical about luck. She believed in it, especially undeserved luck, grace, whatever it’s called. You don’t spurn its overtures too often, even in tiny matters, or it may abandon you entirely.

Luck didn’t matter right then.  What mattered was getting out of there, into the rain and back to her van with the toothbrush she had swiped for the pleasure of it and her tube of toothpaste.

Identify This

That was the first time they put me in detention. Who is this in the photo? they asked. It’s me, I said. I shaved and lost weight. A ton. The picture wasn’t the main problem, it was the umlauts had gone AWÖL. The name on the Watch List was Geroge Miller. Misspelled, did you notice? There is a George Miller in every one of my classes. One called himself Jorge to be hip. Futilely.

My true names, first and last, are Jürgen Müller. The name on my visa is Jurgen Mueller, it’s a fact, but behold my signature wherein I restore and embellish the umlauts.

Mr. Miller,” they said, “you have a right to remain silent.” Then they pestered me with questions. What had I been doing in Borneo, in Manchuria and the Pakű-Pakű Islands. I said “Germans like to invade countries.”

Mr. Miller,” they said, “This is not a joking matter.”

I became meek. I said this is a common occurrence with me, they could look up the record, the mistaken identity thing. They said, “You’re not related to the special prosecutor, are you?”

I swore I was not, and the next thing I knew they were putting a document under my nose saying sign this and date it. I was suspicious of course, but all the document said was, “The undersigned swears under penalty of death he is not related to the special prosecutor.”

I signed it, taking my sweet time to add the two umlauts. The dots gazed like two sets of eyes from the surface of paper, bespeaking probity and valor. To add favorably to the impression of civic-mindedness I let it be known I was an employed lecturer in one of their fine religious colleges.

Shazzäm. They let me out.

I was shocked by the brightness outdoors. It was noon, and the heat on the street was intense. I took out my phone to summon an Über. The next thing I knew I woke up in a bed at Presbyterian with the imprint of an Aüdi on my left büttock.

The car, according to witnesses, had the right-of-way, and it wasn’t going very fast, but that didn’t mean it didn’t feel better to lie motionless in bed than to move a millimeter.

After three days a bill was delivered to me by someone who looked like a policewoman but probably was a security guard. I handed her back the bill, saying I was covered by the insurance umbrella of my college. She said we checked, there’s nobody listed with your name , Mr. Melrose. I said my name is not Melrose nor Melmarigold. She raised her eyebrows. “You’re not as clever as you think you are, Mr. Meller. Now pay up and vamoose.” The bill was for over sixty thousand dollars. I give them my credit card. The name on the card was Georg Muller. Whoever he was was going to be in for a sürprise.

By the time I made it back to school, the semester was half over and I had to beg for my job.

The truth is, I have always hated my job. I said it was a college. It’s really a prep school for pimply hypocrites being groomed for political life. Still, I feel like I know who I am here, the only real German in the German Department. My umlauts are a source of some prestigé.

I Chose the Pencil

The receptionist, who I thought at first might be a robot, told me I could fill out the form online or else in the office with a No. 2 pencil. I chose the pencil. The pencil, if you think about it, has a sophistication that only a highly advanced civilization could bring into being.

One of the questions on the application form was what was my favorite electrical device. It was a tough question to answer. I penciled in Vacuum cleaner because I didn’t want to spend all day thinking about it. I do love my vacuum cleaner. I get an inner tickle sucking up dirt. It’s a Miele. I’m not sure it’s my favorite device though. Maybe one of my ten favorite things. I could do that list in a minute.

The toaster oven would be up there. Butter melting on the dome of a walnut loaf. Yum. The weedwacker too. It’s electric. It does its wacking in a genteel way, like it has nothing better to do, not like the devices that whip around like vipers.

Add my hair dryer, at or near the top. It convinces me every morning that I am a person worthy of love. It cleanses my negative thoughts with clean desert winds.

Thinking about the hair dryer I remembered the motor in my vacuum is making weird noises and there is an unpleasant smell.

I gave some careful consideration how it might look if I did some erasing. To leave behind the scut of eraser, and the faint canyons of Vacuum cleaner. I went ahead and erased. I could not help but marvel at the perfect economy of the eraser. Somebody somewhere calculated mass of eraserhead versus probable mistakes and this is what they came up with.

Generally the eraser outlasts the graphite. Nothing is quite as sad and deserving of disposal as a pencil with a depleted eraser.

I started to worry I was taking too long with the form. I was getting a move-along message from the receptionist, I couldn’t tell you how exactly, but I could feel it, you know what I mean. Some kind of agitation wave. By then I was pretty sure she was a robot but boy, I had to admire the craft, especially the skin tones.

What else came to mind? My blender. Although the last time the cap was loose, boom, soup on ceiling, soup running down counters. I was lucky not to get scalded. Blender descending the list. I will put it on the sidewalk for someone to have their own good times with it.

My final answer, the one I wrote down and a satisfying one, was my Oral-B electric toothbrush. I fire it up before bedtime and when its programmed time ends, my teeth and gums radiate health. In bed I might still have a nightmare or two but with a mouth like that I know they are just nightmares and not fate.

I handed in the form and gave the receptionist my full Oral-B smile and she gave me the exact smile back. She was definitely, absolutely, without a doubt a robot. And her skin wasn’t as good as I thought it was.

It made sense, the company was into robotics. Of course they would be interested in knowing one’s personal relationship to machines. I knew trying for a job here was a wild goose chase. They will say I am too old. My decades of experience in Human Resources will terrify them. They will pull out their erasures and I will become a faint impression. They do not see that they are writing their own doom. They have no power over me.

I couldn’t find my car in the goddam parking garage. For a while the hunk of misplaced metal and my thumb had a dialogue. Following the honk I sank deeper into infernal chasms. The gizmo, my mini-Orfeo, led me on. If I had a do-over I might put that little device above my toothbrush.

Why, if the machines are getting so smart, couldn’t they keep the elevator in repair? I walked my legs off. Good I have a brand new hip. Are there other body parts I might upgrade? I’m not against mechanization. My artificial heart, for instance. Without it I wouldn’t be here, wherever “here” is.

Can a machine have the concept of “here” when there’s never been anywhere else? Here, the flat and endless gray plains of robot-land. The robot master might appreciate me, even if these humans don’t. I am an overflowing, colorful human resource. I bring to my sexless masters the past and the future, the wine dark sea, the topless towers of Trebizond.

On the way home I beat myself up about the erasure. I had one chance and I flubbed it. That pencil was not an ordinary No. 2 pencil. It had intelligence. I should have known that. I definitely should have known that.

Pulling into the driveway it becomes obvious that the garage door opener is by far my favorite electrical device. I could have written that without a second thought. Observe how it opens a portcullis to shelter the errant knight. Such a majestic entrance, suitable to a human of consequence. It rattles out its own fanfare which (I get) means I am negligent with the lubrication. There are so many tasks to check off before you can get a moment’s rest. It’s practically unbearable.

The door descends behind me like a swimmer in a dive. I love the blanket of shadow it pulls around me and the car.

I should worry about sitting here with the engine running. It’s how humans kill themselves.

49 Shades of Gray

gray sheets of gray rain

gray branches gray leaf,

in a gray slightly leaky house

I play De Colores on the accordion

with some facility, some felicity,

grateful. I’d be more

if I didn’t have to spend 5 hours on a measure of

Get Up Stand Up wrestling with the rhythm

something a person of modest talent could master in 2 seconds.

Alas alack, I lack gray matter, that shade of it. 


Pie Times

Would you believe it? It’s the second week of February and yesterday I picked enough apples off a tree in a garden on Folsom Street to make three big apple pies (I’m thinking ahead). I lusted after more on the tree but they were too high, and since my risk-taking had already hit TILT leaning over the edge of the garage roof, I decided that foregoing a climb into the highest branches could be justified by an arthritic hip. Damn anyway. They’re still there.

I was being greedy. These apples are so plump, firm and sweet. Normally they would get picked greenish months ago, but these have held on month after month getting yellow and succulent. My clients have no regard for them that I can tell, so I make out like a raccoon.

One pie is already made and half-eaten. Matthew and I had a pie seminar at his house last night, he making a blueberry pie and me this apple, each of us following the all-butter recipes doled out in two hip piebooks, one from a pie-hole in Brooklyn, the other from Detroit. Oh riches, and richness.

I have made many pies and never, not once, have I made a crust that rivals what you get in your local pie shop if you are lucky, like hip me, to live in a town with a nearby pie shop.

Matthew is a neophyte but we were equally giving the recipes a close reading. The Brooklyn crust recipe and the Detroit one are in the basics identical, although minor details vary. Water all at once or dribbled in tablespoons? My first mistake: Matthew has nesting measuring spoons of white plastic, one of which is a one-half tablespoon. Who ever heard of such a thing? Naturally I used it thinking it was one teaspoon. It was sugar, no big deal. My second mistake: forgot to add apple cider.

Matthew starts to notice things, like expiration dates. 2016. Who knew cinammon died? And corn starch too? Oh well, I brought some from my house from an era, no doubt, preceding the requiring of expiration dates.

I did not promise Matthew I would not write about this in my blog. He threated me with mayhem if I did. So all I will say is that there weren’t very many of those little specks and they were easy to pick out.

Listen. I grew up on a wheat farm in Kansas. We ate bugs for protein.

We tested the pie this afternoon. I am still standing. A’s in taste. B-minus crust. The bottoms are tough as jerky.

We have our motto:

Pies to Die For or From.