What Did We Ever Talk About

The funeral spread over three days; the first night the vigil, the next day the Mass, the third day the burial in Lawrence. My brother John and I drove in from Denver to attend.

Cousin Jim and I were the same age. As children he was my companion and ally, harassed as we were by our older brothers John and Tom, but we also shared a sensibility. On summer nights we would lie curled up inside the huge tractor tire tube that doubled as a trampoline by day and speculate on the stars, of which there were gazillions to see thanks to the dry air of western Kansas and the distance from light pollution. We were stargazers and earth lovers. We would have not used those words.

Other than express wonder and unease at the vastness of the cosmos, I don’t know what we talked about those hours. We were budding mystics, not astronomers, and silence brought more to bear than knowledge.

About the time we reached the precipices of teen-dom, his family, Uncle Joe and Aunt Helen’s, moved from the farm to Olathe to be near the School for the Deaf. Patty, the second child, was born deaf, as were Gary and Jodi, the fourth and fifth children. It was too traumatic for all involved to drive them the five hours to Olathe and abandon them there, which is how it must have seemed. Jim and Tom quickly became fluent in sign language, whereas none of my siblings nor I ever did.

My family seldom made the long drive to visit, so my closeness to Jimmy dimmed considerably. It probably would have in any case. Neither of us was someone who shared much of our internal lives, both (I am projecting) beset by the confusing currents of adolescence. By college he was a font of religious pieties and I was going full hippie.

From then on the news I got was about him, not from him. He married a good Kansas girl, had a kid, then another and another. He worked for the Wichita Chamber of Commerce, a job I could not imagine myself having, ever. After a long run they sacked him, for a reason I never discovered because I didn’t ask. My opinion of him went up, or at least had more depth. When I did see him at occasions, weddings, funerals, the like, we talked about…gardening. Once he told me earnestly about a men’s group he was helping start, a brotherhood of the faith, and gave me a card. My pretense of being interested was transparent. He never brought it up again, though that was probably because it died on the vine.

During a long period the dispatches I received were about his son Paul. Paul was shot by a hunting buddy, his body riddled with pellets that couldn’t be removed. The stupid accident in its agonizing aftermath had the depths of tragedy. To this day Paul suffers the effects.

Though you would not know. There he was at the podium the night of the vigil, along with two of his three brothers, reading the eulogies he and his siblings had written to honor their father. Three poised, handsome thirty-some men, whose words of tribute were composed and eloquent. There were no tears from the three. In their place I would have been an Artesian well. A brother and a sister remained seated, perhaps too emotional to read their contributions themselves.

The locale of the vigil was half auditorium and half makeshift church, tucked inside the new parochial school complex. A real church is in the planning stage. On either side of the altar were two screens flashing photos. Jimmy bundled up in a snowdrift outside the farmhouse on the Plains, Jimmy in a homemade go-cart with a cardboard cab. Jim on the deck of a cruise ship in Alaska, his modest smile, so familiar it could have been a mask. By far the most resonant photos were the grainy old black-and-white ones from farm days. I could not tell you what moved me about them, except that it was not nostalgia.

The images flashed by four seconds each, thirty or so and the sequence repeated. The priest said some blessedly brief words and we said a rosary. I watched the vigorous sign interpreter repeat the same gestures again and again. Fifty times to be exact. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. She was getting a workout. Now I know the sign for womb, if I ever need it.

A year ago July, John and I made the same drive from Denver to Olathe for a few days. John stayed with Tom, to whom he has remained close, and I stayed with Jim’s youngest sibling Jodi, with whom I do have actual conversations despite my rudimentary signing skills. I never once thought to contact and visit Jim and Kathy who had moved to Olathe to take care of Uncle Joe in his last years. Jodi told me about Jim’s diagnosis, though she had been asked to keep it secret.

The last night of that visit to Olathe, Jim and Kathy drove over to Tom’s where we cousins had supper together. I never mentioned Jim’s diagnosis, and neither did he. He told us that he intended to drive combine for our still-farming cousin during the milo harvest in the fall and I blurted out, “Are you sick?” Driving combine is not guaranteed fun—it can be pretty miserable—and it was meant as a joke. He flinched. I didn’t mean to hurt him.

We played cards. It was a very Schwarzenberger evening. Pleasantly unmemorable, except for my stupid faux-pas.

In the faux-church the rosary was winding down with a Hail Holy Queen. The vigil over, we transported ourselves over to Austin’s, a nearby sports bar in a mini-mall, where Tabby, Jim’s niece, is manager. Tabby has charm to burn—she arrived at the banquet table bearing a pan of roasted and seasoned sweet potatoes and announced, “This is for the vegetarians,” just as I was making my choices, of which there were plenty. Remarkable. There was even good wine. We weren’t in Kansas anymore. It felt like a party. I walked around asking, you’re whose son?

That night it rained a mini-hurricane, waves lashing the motel window for hours on the outskirts of Olathe where John and I were staying. Earlier I had tried to open the window, irritated that it was screwed shut. There were cicadas outside. There was still some wild nature to be experienced.

Cicadas. Maybe curled inside the inner-tube Jimmy and I talked about the cicadas. In August at twilight they drilled holes into your head, echoes lasting into the night. I can still feel the vibration.

I lay unsleeping in bed. Five shrill beeps pierced the silence between rumbles of thunder. A tornado alert? I rolled over which was as much as I cared to do in response. My left toe was killing me, swollen, inflamed. Gout, a devilish joke played on a devout vegetarian. (The beeps, we found out the next day, were an AMBER ALERT, a child gone missing in Raytown Missouri, fifty miles away. We were profoundly grateful, I assure you, for being alerted.)

My angry toe. Before bed John mentioned he had some Oxycodone he keeps with him in case he ever again has a kidney stone, and asked if I wanted one. Oxycodone! Speak of the devil. I said no. At three a.m. I said maybe, and three-oh-one I said yes certainly, and at three-thirty I said maybe one more. At four I slept.

At breakfast the food tasted like styrofoam and was served on styrofoam. I am ashamed to say I ate breakfast in the motel and added my contribution to the trash barrel.

For the funeral Mass in the morning the partition in the church was moved back, and the space felt more like a typical boring suburban church. The chairs (not pews) were full. The priest eulogized Jim as a good man and a good father. He didn’t overdo it. The evidence was in attendance, his children, his wife, and his fellow parishioners who cooked and served the lunch afterward, like the Altar Society did back home, back in the day.

John remarked later the funeral would have been well-attended if only their side of the family was present. Kids, grandkids, greatgrandkids out of the woodwork. By contrast our side of the family, what with two nuns and the gay number, has not even come up with replacement population: 8 siblings, 7 nieces and nephews, no other issue. You could congratulate us.

My only tears of the weekend were shed that night when Quinta, Tom’s wife, told me how she ran off a lobbyist at the capitol in Washington who was trying to get their union to accept a bad deal in their struggle to regain the pensions stolen through corporate malfeasance. Mild, sweet Quinta yelling for the third time at the lobbyist doing his best to ignore her, “Did you hear me? I said you have to leave.” How when the bill they introduced passed the House of Representatives, the representatives in favor, Democrats all, applauded them in the gallery. How Nancy Pelosi applauded them. That was moving.

In the course of the conversation Tom revealed that Jim and Kathy were Trump supporters. Now here was a conversation I wish I could have with Jim, to discover what about the philanderer, liar, and despoiler of nature he found palatable. Even if I had had the opportunity, I might not have asked.

Saturday morning we drove through the green hills to Lawrence for the burial. Why was Jim being buried in Lawrence, where he and Kathy never lived? Because Lawrence has the only “natural cemetery” in Kansas. A natural burial means no embalming. No metal. No plastic. Something, I’m sure, Trump would mock given the opportunity.

We gathered at the edge of the traditional cemetery with its lawn and granite gravestones. Kevin, the eldest son, announced that his father’s gravesite was a short walk into the wild, wooded area adjacent. Kathy spoke, thanking us for coming and thanking “God for giving us such a beautiful day.” Nonetheless, nature was keeping its own agenda which included mosquitoes, so Off was offered and mostly declined. This wasn’t a swamp in Carolina.

It was indeed a spectacularly beautiful morning. The grass, an electric green, was wet from the rains. Soft, leftover clouds floated overhead. The walnut casket, glimpsed at the funeral, was a deep soft brown, impeccably constructed by Trappist monks in Iowa. Fitting, in all senses. Walnut was the wood Uncle Joe and my father used more than any other to make their clocks. The casket was placed on the trailer.

 Not far into the woods there was a rectangular hole and a mound of clay nearby. A wild rose snatched at my clothes and skin. I put my hand against the foliage of a nearby tree trunk before deciding it was poison ivy. But it wasn’t poison ivy. I saw one mosquito. And no ticks, though later we were warned about them. Ah nature. You’re only safe underground.

Young men, cousins, lowered the casket with ropes into the hole, and dropped the ropes .

The priest said a few words about how we will one day be reunited with Jim. In heaven, presumably. Kathy and her children shoveled the first loads of dirt from the mound into the hole, the wet clods thudding on the casket lid. It’s hard work, Paul remarked after a stint. I took a turn. It felt good to do it, a way of expressing what I felt, as if I was finally keeping faith with my cousin, fellow stargazer and man of the earth. Humus, humility. Relatives relayed each other using the six shovels. In twenty minutes the mound covered the grave. Over time it will level with the neighborhood.

My two brothers and I drove back to Olathe. Both Lawrence and Olathe are spreading out like a cancer, subdivision after subdivision with names like Greenwood Estates. The hillsides that remain un-estated are rapidly being overtaken by scruffy junipers. The junipers march westward at an astonishing rate, already extending beyond Salina. At this rate in fifty years the eastern half of Kansas will be suburbia in juniper. The wood is sometimes used for “cedar” chests, places to store stuff away from the moth that corrupteth. I have two such chests my father and I made.

My brothers and I decided on a return trip to Austin’s for lunch. This time we were seated in the main area. Thirty-eight televisions, we counted them, lined the walls, indoors and out. All showed football games. No wonder people go crazy in America, especially young men.

Driving back to Denver after it was all over, I said to John, “Listening to those relatives of ours, it’s as if they really believe in an afterlife. I wish I could. Do you?”

I don’t know one way or the other,” he said, and we didn’t talk about it any more.

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Dominoes

I am an early riser, often before dawn. I have my coffee out on the patio, relishing the stillness before the inevitable clamor of the aroused city. The punctual rape of every blessed day. That metaphor comes from one the poets we studied as undergrads.

Because it was still dark, because I was not fully awake, I did not register anything unusual in the garden, sipping slowly, avoiding my desk with the pile of my students’ essays on the Roman empire. I could not ignite a spark of enthusiasm for the task. What awaited me in eleven iterations was an ungrammatical mash-up of Wikipedia and Gladiator.

I buzzed through two papers. Eleven, ten, nine to go, B-minus. Be minus. A mealymouth grade. I was afraid that I was as much at fault as the culture. If I were a great teacher I might inspire my students. Did I care? No more than they did. Wasn’t it past time to find a new job? In two years I’d be vested so I was running out the time.

I poured another cup of coffee and went back outside. The sky was brightening, the air cool and refreshing. For a sparkly second I was filled with something like rapture. Then I noticed the daphne in the garden was disordered, deformed, its branches pressed against the ground. Raccoons, I guessed. When I drew closer I saw something was weighing down the shrub, a dull gray-green mass. It was a Christmas tree. In June. Here was a true outlier, rudely tossed over the fence. Then I saw another one crushing the anemones, a third nudging the trunk of the pear tree, a fourth suspended upside down in the bamboo.

Somewhat dazed I piled them on the patio. The assault was clearly intentional, although the method was inventive. I tried to think who might be holding a grudge against me. The only person I came up with was Casey, my landlady’s meth-addled brother who occupied my house before he was hauled off to jail for burglary. Lately I have run into him back in the neighborhood, sitting on various stoops, his eyes clouded, his mouth drooling. “Hey Daniel, you want to play dominoes?” he asks me each time I pass him, each time with slightly more aggression. The first time I answered that I didn’t know how. He said he’d teach me. I said I didn’t have time right then. The next time I said games weren’t my thing. The last times I answered with a straightforward “No.” Twice he asked if I could loan him twenty. Since that reaped no results, he asked if I would buy him a pack of cigarettes. It was irrational to think buying him a pack would put a stop to his mooching but I indulged in that fantasy. Shocking, the price of a pack of death sticks.

Before I left for the juco, I called my landlady. Expecting her to do anything about the trees was like expecting Casey to stop mooching. Her response was that it was my problem and I better deal with it because it was a fire hazard. I asked if she had any knowledge that Casey might be hoarding old Christmas trees. She huffed; she did not want to hear his name mentioned, she had no relationship with him whatsoever. I asked for the phone number of the residents either side of me who were also her tenants to find out if they had noticed anything. She refused to give their numbers, claiming it was unethical, a word I never associated with her.

The stack of the four trees was a pyromaniac’s fantasy. One I shared. I imagined carrying them to the middle of the street and torching them, relishing the explosion of concatenating sparks and the ensuing consternation, the stalled cars and the horrified neighbors spilling out of their ultra-defended homes.

I covered the trees with an old table cloth that I kept in the cupboard, a feeble attempt at concealment. No worthwhile pyromaniac would ever be deterred.

All morning at the juco I carried around the image of the dead trees in my head. The aptness of the metaphor branched out into a deep place that I seldom reached. My lecture on the destruction of Carthage had fire in it. My students gave me intervals of attention between glances at their phones, phones I had not been allowed to confiscate at the start of term.

Before they got into their ships and sailed off, the Romans salted the earth,” I said, and the look on their faces was of sleepers awakening. Salt the earth. Could they divine what that meant? No, they could not. Basic agronomy was another gap in their education. Of course I did not tell them that the Romans salting the earth was speculation.

How badly I wanted to scare them. “They left death behind with every step they took and they did it intentionally. They did it gleefully. Killed the trees. Made the land dead for generations. And dead it remained until the rains leeched the salt deep into the subsoil. And so it will be millennia from now, until the plastic microfibers sink to the bottom of sea.” They were listening. “We citizens of the American empire poison the earth willfully so we can be comfortable, and we are comfortable. How stable is an empire that poisons the earth around it?”

I had veered straight into the ditch of preachers. The pups were were already tuning out, the metaphors muddy. It was ten minutes until the end of class. My mind veered toward problem-solving, or at least, problem contemplation. I saw my arm holding my rusty tree-saw going back and forth, cutting the branches into green-bin-sized bites. Short of fire, it was the only way I could think of to get rid of the trees.

I felt my shoulder ache. Then I looked at Paul in the last row, sleepy Paul and Paul’s awake biceps, and I asked him as the class dispersed if he would do me a favor, I’d pay him for it. Paul is not someone I expect to grasp the politics of the Punic Wars. He is, however, someone who seems to get some satisfaction out of helping others, and for that, for that one virtuous man, the city of Lot was not incinerated.

An hour later I drove Paul to my house.

The Christmas trees on the patio were gone. Besides being shocked, I was disappointed, not getting to watch the biceps in action. I felt like I should pay him for his time, at least. It was awkward.

I invited him into my house. I offered him a glass of wine, he accepted. Presto, we had the scenario, trite as dirt, the teacher seducing the pupil, or vice-versa. We each drank a second glass of wine and I gave him forty dollars and urged him out the door. However thrilling it would have been, it would also have been salting the earth.

Why did I think that? Was it necessarily true?

After Paul left I noticed the trail of needles climbing the stairs. I followed the trail out the front gate. I followed it down the block. I followed it until it disappeared. It went nowhere.

Lucille’s couch

Lucille called and asked if I wanted her couch. She was re-decorating. Lucille re-decorating. Let that sink in. She said the beige didn’t work with her new scheme. I had thought about buying a couch. Visitors sat on the folded futon where I slept. “Sure, I’ll take it.”

Two days later, there were Lucille and Greg on my porch. Greg was someone I’d heard about more than once but never met, recently escaped from a Jesuit seminary upstate. He had curly dark hair and he blinked constantly, as if dazzled by the material world. There was nothing dazzling about the beige couch. Coffee and maybe tomato soup stains. Even if it was immaculate, I intended to throw a covering over it, not that that would necessarily be an improvement.

What color clashes with that?” I asked, trying to be perky.

Red,” Lucille said. “I’m painting my walls red. On the fuchsia side of the spectrum.”

Once the couch had been maneuvered into place under the print of The Night Hawks, Lucille dropped herself onto it. There was a bulge at the bottom, hinting at a sprung spring. “Do you have any tea? I am parched.”

She kicked off her pink Crocs, lifted her calves and put her filthy feet on the adjacent pillow. It was annoying, but I was going to cover the couch. Meanwhile Greg was snooping around my bookshelf, his hands clasped behind his ass, as if he’d be spanked for touching. He had a nice ass.

I haven’t purchased another couch yet,” Lucille said, lighting a cigarette, then making a little smoky circles in the air. “You don’t mind, do you?” She knew I did . “I’m desperate. I’m down to three a day, except when I drink. Actually, maybe I don’t want tea. You wouldn’t have a beer, would you?”

No.”

That’s a shame. Greg and I are going to the Furniture Barn tomorrow. Aren’t we, Greg?”

Greg turned from the bookshelf and nodded agreeably. He gave me his empath’s smile. A nice one. “You have a lot of German philosophers,” he said.

Kierkegaard is my man,” I said, eliciting a sparkle from his thick glasses.

Lucille began to massage the couch’s shoulders, presumably in farewell. Greg took off his magoo specs. His eyes looked tired, as if he had some spiritual struggle going on. . There were unruly sprigs in his eyebrows but they, like his weltschmerz air, were endearing.

Maybe I will have tea,” Lucille said. “Make me some?”

Cinnamon Mist or Lipton? That’s all I have,” I yelled from the kitchen where I had gone to survey the larder.

Forget it,” Lucille yelled back. “I’ll have coffee. I know you have good coffee.”

How about you, Greg?” I shouted.

Greg said something I didn’t catch but it sounded like “nothing for me.”

What happened to the table?” I asked when I came back to the living room carrying the cup of coffee.

You can’t have it blocking the couch,” she said. “It’s on the porch.”

What happens when it rains?” I asked.

You know it doesn’t rain in summer,” Lucille said. “Ernest, grow up. You have such a phobia about change. You think the universe should stand still so you can feel secure. Get over it.”

What the hell does that mean?” I was ready to toss her out.

Do you suppose I could have a cup too?” Greg asked.

I wondered if I had misheard earlier or if he was trying to diffuse the tension.

The water was still steaming, so it was a snap to make him a cup. When I brought it to him he clasped it in both hands like a chalice. “This smells great,” he said.

Put on some music,” Lucille piped up. “I told Greg about your sound system.”

I put on a CD of Symphonie Fantastique. Like the German philosophers this was a fossil from college days. Here,” I said to Lucille, “listen through the plugs.”

She put them in her ears, sighed and closed her eyes, rotating her whole body and filthy feet into a reclining position.

In less than a minute she was was snoring. Greg had one finger stuck in a fat volume he had extracted from the bookcase. “What is that you’re reading?” I asked.

The Norton Anthology. I was looking for the odes of Keats. Once I memorized Ode to a Nightingale.”

What did you do that for, fun?”


I suppose so.”

What do you do for fun now?”

His face got red, on the fuchsia spectrum.

I don’t know,” he said.

Can you recite it for me? The parts you remember.”

I don’t think so. Not this minute.”

My mind was skidding toward a spin-out. I saw my hands unbuttoning his shirt, then sliding up his rib cage. That would be a disaster with somebody so fawn-like. “What did you study in the seminary? Besides German philosophers, I mean.” It was a joke but he didn’t smile. I would have bet he was humor challenged.

Last semester we had a course on the major heresies.”

Any favorites?”

The blush flared up again. Concentration clotted his face. “I’d have to say Manichaeism, the belief that spirit and flesh are separate and remain so. The Church teaches that is not so.”

I’m glad to hear that,” I said drawing closer despite my sensible intentions. “I believe the flesh is an avenue to the spirit.” He was trying unsuccessfully to shuffle backward. There was no escape. I could smell his coffee breath.

Holy shit!” cried Lucille bolting upright, flinging the earbuds to the floor. “It gets hairy near the end. Ernest, what are you doing? You are such a horndog. Didn’t I warn you, Greg?” She grabbed Greg’s elbow, steering him out the door.

A week later Lucille called again. “Ernest, you know that lamp my granny had? It’s got to go. Do you want it?”

My first reaction was indignation. Why did she think she could dump her used furniture on me? Then I thought of the lamp with its globe of green glass. The glass shield covering my overhead bulb was a barge of insect corpses. “You don’t want to give that away,” I said.

Oh yes I do. I’m going track lighting and all that, dimmers, very moody. I’ll bring it right over.”

It was midnight when the doorbell rang. She was holding the lamp at her side like a crozier. She was alone.

That isn’t the your grandmother’s lamp,” I said. “I thought you meant the one with the green globe.”

Not that one. That was my other grandmother’s. I wouldn’t give that away. It has sentimental value, and besides, it’s an antique. It would look ridiculous with your tacky furniture.”

She barged in and after pulling the couch from the wall and extracting the electrical cords of my sound system, plugged it in. “There,” she said. “Done.” She pushed the couch back to the wall and plopped herself onto it and began disapprovingly fingering the blue and brown afghan spread over it.

I was always surprised how comfortable this couch is. But what do you care about comfort? Men, they think they’re more attractive when they have that look of suffering on their mugs. Like Greg. They think someone will take them seriously.”

Where is he?”

I thought I told you. He went back to the seminary. He decided he does have a calling after all or whatever you call it.”

Well that’s just peachy.”

Your attitude, Ernest, is not surprising. Some of us believe in a higher power. Greg is a very spiritual person even if he is a downer. He told me before he left that I was an instrument of the Holy Spirit. Wasn’t that nice?” She registered the look on my face. “Occasionally I do get a compliment.” She reached over and turned on my new lamp. “Turn off the overhead,” she said. “You don’t mind, do you?”

Today’s Puzzler (Are you feeling your oats?)

Name one book that Joyce Carol Oates did not write.

I am at last getting to my first of hers.  I think I tried one before, maybe the thirty-fourth or thirty-fifth.  The one I am reading, if bouncing around from beginning to middle to late middle to near end to near-near end and back qualifies as reading, is Blonde. In it Ms. Oates inhabits the mind, body and soul of one Norma Jeane Baker, that unfortunate woman whose persona even sixty years after her death radiates heat and light.  Marilyn Monroe.  The book is a breathtaking immersion in empathy, unbearable in all the right ways.

NOSTALGIA

The wife and husband took him back a year before he aged out of the system. They had a pretty good picture of what they were agreeing to. They had fostered him for a few months before the agency shipped him back to South Carolina for a reset with his birth mother. They hadn’t made much progress with him in those few months. It takes time to grow new skin.

The husband was more worried than the wife. She put a favorable gloss on their mutual history, whiting out the late night visits from squad cars, the wailing ambulance. That’s what she did, put on soft gloss on hard facts. Nothing would stop her. He loved her for her bright outlook but in this case a skeptical eye was advisable.

Despite the husband’s reservations, knowing the kid had undergone three additional years of institutional abuse, he agreed to taking him in.

It took nine months before he started trusting him. The process was substantially sped up when he hired the kid to help remodel the basement. The kid was strong, handling sheet-rock nonchalantly. But he was wild. The older man steadying a nail got his thumb whacked more than once.

At the supper table husband and wife would tell stories about life in Bengal. They had spent six years there, the husband working on an irrigation project with the local agricultural department. They never got tired of waxing nostalgic for that time and place, so vastly more colorful than their drab retirement on the High Plains. She especially lit up when talking about the cook, the driver, the nightwatchman. And the garden. And the snake charmer.

The kid spent longer times at the supper table. He never offered to help with the dishes, and he was never asked to. Him sitting there the whole evening not saying two words got to be normal, and both the wife and the husband developed an attachment to his presence.

He turned eighteen, officially beyond their legal reach. He was free to leave. Free. The husband leaned on this word when he talked to the kid about his future. He didn’t want the kid to think he was throwing him out but he thought it would be a good thing if he ventured beyond the limits of their house in this isolated place.

The following June the young man graduated, a year late but he graduated. They praised him sincerely, as if he had taken a big step, or was about to. But he went nowhere after graduation. He holed up in the refurbished basement.

It seemed like a favorable development when he began corresponding with someone at the university until he began pestering them to borrow their car. Since they refused, to buy one for him. The wife would have acceded but the husband said no. So began their first, and hopefully last, uninhibited family fight with shouts and threats. It was sobering in an awful way. The wife sobbed into her pillow. The husband was unable to sleep. In the morning it was as though nothing had happened. The kid ate his cereal fiddling with his device and said nothing.

The kid found a ride with somebody taking classes at the university. The couple wondered if the friend he went to visit was a girlfriend, whether the person was male or female.

Before long he was spending almost no time with them, though they kept his bedroom in the basement ready. Weeks passed without them knowing where he was. It’s the way it had to be, they knew, what was best for him, but both the husband and wife felt sad, not so much for what they would miss in the future but for what they had missed in the past, a deep connection with the young man.

One day he unexpectedly showed up in a car he said he owned, which they didn’t believe. He announced he had a present for them, a wonderfully pleasant surprise. He make a little production of retrieving something round, green and shiny from a paper bag.

There was a baffled silence. “It’s a mango,” he said. “I remember how you said in India you sat in the bathtub to eat them, they were so juicy. I got it for you at the health food store.”

The wife emitted a sound that was ambiguous. “Thank you so much,” she said earnestly, “that is so thoughtful.” She tried but she couldn’t inflate the dashed expectations evident in the moment.

The next day the green mango lay on the windowsill, hard as a filbert. There wasn’t a chance that it would properly redden and ripen. The three of them sat at the supper table and looked at it, not mentioning it. There were no tales of India.

The next day the young man went back to where he came from.

The mango disappeared from the windowsill. The wife never said what she did with it.

FUGITIVE

I was twenty-seven, working in the warehouse of the art storage operation. This was not an ordinary warehouse: it was a five-star resort for art, climate controlled, cameras every ten yards, plastic surgery available on the premises. We workers were not lowly vassals; we were custodians of the sacred treasures of the race, scraps of cloth and resin and wood oozing market value. We had monthly drug tests. We were provided uniforms, laundered daily. The starch in the white shirts chafed my neck.

As in every earthly paradise, things were sketchier behind the scenes. I was put on forklift because the last guy stuck a prong through a Richter. Maybe it was some other gaseous German. He was terminated, and he sued, claiming the lift was defective, which it was and is. One of its gears, in extreme situations, slips; you have to be prepared for it. That guy wasn’t because he was stoned half the time. I don’t know how he got away with it so long. It came up in the trial. Lawyers got richer.

I didn’t hate the job, but it could have been more interesting. We never saw the art since it was always swaddled in tape and bubble-wrap. And because a truckload of it arrived twice a day, mystique was another popped bubble. So much crap. Channels embedded in the ceiling facilitated sliding 24-rung ladders from one end of the warehouse to the other. Only in the gloomy recesses was there empty space, in the cubicles of levels three, four and five.

Even with the steady deluge of arrivals, I had lag time on most days. The upmost level of the cubicles was out of range of the cameras, except for the one at the ceiling’s apex. That one was on the blink. The fifth level generally features Minor Collections of the Obscure, practitioners whose artistic talent may have surpassed their promotional abilities and/or work ethic. That’s where I’d go to hide out. C5a7 was my oasis. I’d move a few boxes and take a nap. A little refreshing nap.

C5a7 contained twelve stiff paper boxes with reinforced corners. The boxes were separately wrapped in transparent plastic held in place by the blue tape used for so many arty tasks, tape that is easily lifted without damage. Lift it I did one slow day in October when the Giants were in the World Series. I unwrapped the plastic casing and coaxed the tight lid off the first box. It let go with a sigh.

Inside were matted paintings, the uppermost covered by a sheet of acid-free paper. I lifted the sheet. Colors flashed into fullness, a meadow with a jungle at the margins. In the flower-flecked meadow were three giraffes and an angel, a scenario that appeared to be part of a tale. I removed the remaining two illustrations. One depicted an ocean-side cave with an overturned rowboat and the other a view out of a window onto a snowy garden.

I didn’t have the nerve to look in the other boxes that day but over the next few months I pieced the story together, the gist. A boy and a girl shipwrecked on an island like Crusoe. Their adventures may have been imaginary, conjured from a hospital bed in winter.

I didn’t mind the story was unoriginal. I had a visceral reaction to the illustrations, my heart beating faster, trying to batter its way into a deeper place. The sensation was primed, I am sure, by the risk involved. Somebody was going to notice my ass regularly disappearing into C5a7 sooner or later. Fishiness is quickly sniffed out in the warehouse.

I cooled it. For a month. When I thought enough time had passed, that is, when I thought that the attention span of the human monitor had petered out, I returned to my oasis. I was aware of the risk. My fascination fixated on one painting, the first I’d seen, the one with the giraffes and the angel. The giraffes didn’t make much sense but there was magic to them. Maybe that was the point. I kept the painting out of the box for easy access. I was careful, making sure the acid free paper was in place. I covered the painting with the plastic originally surrounding the box.

A seed grew, a persistent weed, a need to know more. One day my supervisor left a printout on a pallet and, doing a diligent perusal to return the document to its rightful place, I discovered the last name of the artist of C5a7. Harris. A common name, probably an Ellis Island bequest to an ancestor.

Thus it was no simple task to identify which Harris was my artist. A lucky accident enabled it. I followed a link in an article about neglected illustrators of the twentieth century and came upon the volcano on the island where the children are shipwrecked. My heart did its drumming.

There isn’t much about her in the public record. She died from pancreatic cancer in the 1970’s. She had several moderately successful books. One about crossing the plains in a covered wagon reeled in some prizes.

A half-century later she was not just neglected but erased, a whisper from oblivion. And yet somebody cared enough to pay the inflated fees of the warehouse. Or else the cash came from a periodic flushing of a bank vault. In perpetuity.

My birthday came and went. Twenty-eight. I decided it was time to start looking for a different job. There was no urgency except one. The office was starting to trust me. It’s probably something about me. As soon as something settles I start pushing against it, testing the limits and my luck.

One day I was ordered to retrieve a four-by-four canvas from C5b7, a shall hop from C5a7. If I had premeditated, I would not have had the nerve. I slipped the three-giraffe illustration into the loose paper wrapping the canvas. Slick. On the ground floor I stood the canvas next to three others near the freight elevator. My skin prickled from the stares of the cameras. The service elevator opened, I loaded the canvases, dramatically arranging a quilted fabric over each to prevent abrasion. On the way upstairs I sequestered the illustration into one of the quilts.

Downstairs again, overplaying the drama, I returned the quilts to the pile in the corner of the warehouse. No alarms went off.

Progress ensued, from the quilts to the lavatory stall to the cardboard carried to the recycling bin and finally to the space behind the seat of my pickup. And finally finally, to the wall of my bedroom where I see it every morning, convinced it will charm my life in ways I can’t foresee.

I told my girlfriend a friend had painted it, and she, naturally incurious, believed me. Nobody else goes into my bedroom so I’m not worried about getting busted. Who was going to miss it? The bank vault? In the unlikely event someone decided to publish the series, no one would ever know it was missing. It was better on my wall than in a musty attic, mildewed and riddled with greyfish.

Not feeling remorse about swiping it didn’t mean things felt the same in the warehouse. It used to be that I could breeze through the workday, turn off the mind and sail, but now I was obsessed by theft. I didn’t intend to take anything else but I kept having fantasies of perfect heists. This swaddled statue, that fat gaudily framed thing said to be a Caravaggio. Or a disciple. It wasn’t just latent anger toward the over-indulged. It was the paradox that no collection can be complete without a missing, untraceable item.

Often my fantasies went to a darker place, a cubicle in which I was imprisoned, regretting my impulsive behavior.

I might have returned the picture, gotten back to former times, but I couldn’t. I can’t. The painting has changed. The colors have faded, some disappearing so that all that remains are vestigial brushstrokes. The giraffes are legless.

I figured out what happened. For a half hour each day sunlight comes into my bedroom and bleaches out the pigments. This is what happens with gouache. The colors are fugitive.

Image

Finally some recognition