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Auntie’s Climax

Since you are all eager to know, here they are: the results of the genetics test I did with CRI Genetics…a swab of the cheek, a kit, a 6 week interval: and TA DA!

The real ME!

86.3 % European (Modest Prize to anyone who guesses the largest percentage (25.6 %) out of these 5 genotypes: Finnish, British, Northwestern European, Toscani Italian, Iberian)

7% South Asian (including 2.4% Gujarati Indian, 2.2% Sri Lankan Tamil)

4.4% Ad Mixed [sic] American (Peruvian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Colombian, (1.5% to 0.8% top to bottom)

2.2% East Asian (Kinh Vietnamese, Chinese Dai, Japanese, 1.2%, 0.7%, 0.3% respectively)

As Taleen aptly stated it: You’re a mutt.

Romantic factoid supplied by the Timeline: the Italian Toscani genotype entered the scene around 1375 (My private Renaissance! Baci a tutti!)  It reappeared in 1550.

The Punjabi arrived around 1575. Oh Calcutta.

 

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BREAKING UP WITH KIMBERLEY

Last year was a banner spring for the rhododendron ‘Kimberley’. It had one blossom. Unfortunately it was not the cheerful sky blue I fell in love with at the nursery in Sonoma but a pallid blue. This year, no bloom came forth, though new leaves are prolific. Now I notice these leaves have a yellowish, pouty cast. This is just about enough to push me over the edge and pawn her off on Vikki who ever since she bought a house with a large lot will adopt anything.

I admit, I have not been Kimberley’s ideal companion, a victim of buyer’s remorse from the outset. We had just emerged from a long drought and were destined for another, so what was I doing planting a rain forest plant? Even so, I was faithful. Last year when she had a bad case of thrips I took off most of the infected leaves and sprayed the remainder with neem oil. Over the winter I blasted the leaves with jets of water. There are no signs of thrips on the new growth, but then thrips camp out on the established leaves. So what is she complaining about? That I haven’t fertilized? I haven’t fertilized anything in this garden and everything else is growing like mad. Maybe Kimberly is reticent, an introvert unsuited to the herbaceous clamor surrounding her. Would she do any better if I hauled her to a different spot? Does she vant to be alone?

Despite decades of gardening my ignorance still has no discernible limits. I spend a considerable portion of my “wild and precious” life on my knees hori-hori in hand weeding small weeds, persistent wretches, whose names I have never encountered and will never know. Cyclically I decide I will co-habit with them. Some even look momentarily intentional, like ground cover, but sooner of later my eye fixes on them, judging them as attractive as hair growing out of an earlobe.

I would like to have a botanist on a leash for about a week every season to answer questions. Would she know the names of the weeds? All of them? A teaspoon of rich soil contains a billion (who’s counting?) microorganisms the bulk of which have never been identified. In my dentist’s office yesterday I saw a arty wall poster that read, “The only thing/ you know for sure/ is that you/ don’t know/ shit.” Goes for soil too.

The real good news is that every one of those billion, at the time of this writing,   is benign. I know that for a fact having consumed, I’m sure, more than a teaspoon of dirt this spring alone. Always my nails have outlying colonies of bacteria…a few million per finger, I suspect, as I peel an orange. And the other really good news is that if you feed the soil, (i.e., use compost, refraining from deadly chemicals) the soil will forgive past sins and show its intrinsic, generous self. This I know by instinct and by observation.

Michael Pollan interviewed on “Fresh Air” recently spoke of plants having a “point of view”, and a “subjectivity”, and every gardener would agree with that, whether tripping or not. But what about the weeds? See above, man on knees with weapon. Is there a wave of lamentation as I go along? Will I have to answer for my murders in the green afterlife? Terri Gross asked Pollan whether his attitude has changed to plants, if he still can eat them, and Pollan laughed. Of course he eats plants.

The third bit of good news is that plants want to be eaten. I don’t know this but I strongly suspect it. Witness this apple so ruddy-cheeked. Eat me, it advertises.

We all want to be eaten, though it can be disturbing to think about.

After “Fresh Air” ended an insistent buzzing in my study found a landing spot in my awareness. Very loud; not a horsefly, but a bit fat black bee, dashing its brains against a closed window. I tried to coax it to an open window, but no, it was going to go out the unopenable window. Its buzzing grew louder, frantic, hounded by the human grizzly. Dazed and exhausted, it accepted the ride I gave it on a sheet of paper to the open door whereupon a gentle shake sent it winging into freedom. A relief for all.

Ignorance is that unopening window. I bumble onward, and despite bumbling, despite trial-and-error-ing, the success rate is remarkable because of the generosity of the premise: this earth. The apple tree, even with its fungal issues, goes on year after year producing a bounty for me (less) and the squirrels (more). Raspberries and blueberries enrich the late spring in the gardens where I work.There’s always something to remind me how lucky I am to have a garden. The fruit.The daphne. The scadoxus. The whole concoction.

To speak of knowledge is futile. All is experiment and adventure. We are forever mixing ourselves with unknown quantities.

                                                Virginia Woolf, from The Waves

This morning I talked to Rita in Nigeria. She said, “The spinach seeds you gave me are up and taste so wonderful. The plant is different from any spinach I’ve known. It grows sideways. It’s doing great but I can’t figure out the broccoli. The stem is about an inch thick but it won’t head out.” I propose that it might have something to do with the temperature.

Headless broccoli goes to the head of the line of researchable unknowns. Google rains down answers. At least maybes. Maybe I was right, it’s too hot. Maybe it will always be too hot to grow broccoli, even in Nigeria’s cool and/or rainy seasons. Maybe the soil is unsuitable. Maybe none of that, maybe some parasite is to blame. Where is my botanist on a leash?

I should at least know the name of these little weeds that catapult their seeds. And why some of the apple leaves get mildew, but only those? Why do some get rust? Should I be doing something? Will the beschorneria die now that it has bloomed? Will the thrips be as bad this year as last year?  Why were they so bad last year?  Will Kimberley ever be happy? Will I?

The bottom chamber of my worm box is a basin that fills with worm effluvia, a black soup. It’s full. I dump all of it on Kimberley. It’s not exactly tough love. I don’t know what to call it. Let’s call it scientific inquiry.

FACTORS

I’m the youngest in the group, the youngest male, that is. Of five. We are outnumbered by women by a factor of four. It flatters me that a posse of women is hot on my trail but otherwise it is a one hundred percent sticky mess. I have to worry what I say to Carmen, how I say it to Renate, whether to look in Cecile’s eyes. There are worse things. It tells me I’m still on the right side of my sell-by date. My mirror tells me the same story. It helps that I shaved my head, that the vault housing my fine mind is a creamy brown, that my goatee, white as it is, is impeccably rhomboid. I have been accused of being vain, but show me somebody who isn’t and I’ll show you somebody who’s dead, alive or otherwise.

Other than plumping up my vanity, this female attention does me no good. I have a wife, a wife I’ve had for longer than I’ve not had a wife by a factor of four minus three years. We married at seventeen. My Syl. She bastes in bitterness every Tuesday morning before I go to rehearsal like I’m betraying her. I encourage her to join the choir, knowing that there is not a chance in ten million she will. I heard her sing only once in all these years and I mistook it for the beginning of a seizure. Joining the choir would inhibit her venting, unhealthy for someone who has knitted a personality out of repression. I used to think I could make her happy. I wonder where I got this idea.

We’ve been doing a lot of Latin American numbers, cumbias, sambas, sambucas, jaunty tunes in three-quarter time. My voice has one indisputable virtue: it’s a baritone, and even if I’m not quite sure I’ve landed squarely on a note, it’s a welcome under-story for the vaporous sopranos We do a surprising number of gigs, mostly in institutions geared toward our age demographic, enough to give us false confidence. Sometimes I get carried away on a melodic arc and I find myself singing full force, mindless of the deficiencies of my Spanish and my pitch. Until that moment of truth it’s a blissful ride.

Performance. It’s such an interesting word, a composite of mechanics and grace. I used to teach math in high school. A few of the classroom prodigies were comfortable getting up in front of class and performing but most were withdrawn and often resented the invitation. Is there any conclusion we can take from this?

During rehearsal Jenn, our conductor, asked me directly if I’d like to do a solo in the Venezuelan piece we were working on. Jenn is savvy; this piece is so basic, so major-chord-ish, something I could attack comfortably. I pretended to be overtaken by surprise and didn’t answer immediately. I wanted to think about it. This was a big step.

We hadn’t gone through every verse before Andrew chimed in, “I’ll do the solo,” and Jenn said, “That’s wonderful.”

It wasn’t wonderful. The next Tuesday I wasn’t eager to get to rehearsal, and when I loitered around the breakfast table Syl duck-marched me out the door, a personality mutation that made made me reflect momentarily on what was she might be up to when I was sambuca-ing. It was what it was.

The fruit of my resentment of Andrew, catalyzed by periodic self-beatings (Carpe diem, you old fool), ripened the following Sunday morning on a stage at the annual street fair. We were slotted in as the first set, a sure bet not to wake late sleepers. There were very few people on the street and fewer still listening, an ideal setting for my solo debut, except Andrew was handling it. Man-handling it. I might have been bad; I surely would have been bad. But I would not have been that bad. It didn’t matter. He got applause. Scattered applause always sounds condescending.

We got to the part of the program near the end where Flora dances as we sing. The street was filling up. Flora is a under five feet tall and weighs her number of years plus ten pounds. Everything about her is bird-like, especially her face. She, or someone, gathers every strand of her ivory-white hair into a large, tidy bun wherein she plants a big yellow sunflower. She is camera bait, every time, all the time, and she handles stardom like a pro. She pretends not to notice the shutterbugs as she twirls around.

The sunlight had burned away the last of the fog. Flora waltzed in a starched tunic her great-grandmother embroidered ten thousand years ago, opening and closing the drapery like moth wings in the palpable warmth. Her eyes looked beyond the last range of mountains. It was hard to tell if her smile was one of joy or of grim endurance.

When she turned away from the audience toward us, her red-slippered feet more and more lagging behind the one two three of the beat, her eyes caught mine, or vice-versa, and all I saw was heartbreak, pure and everlasting. I barely thought; I stepped out of the chorus and took her papery hands and we waltzed, and when it was over there was applause, more than for Andrew by a factor of ten.

HUMAN VOICES

It began on a Sunday evening. We can be certain of that. I am prey to depression Sunday evenings. I’ve learned to accept it, the license it gives me to disconnect the phone, dim the lights and put on some music, preferably Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Dido sung by Lorraine Hunt.

I sit on my comfortable sofa. The window is open. I feel the breeze on my arm, like being stroked with a feather. I play the aria, “When I am laid in earth” and as often happens, tears fill my eye educed by the beauty of the music, the pathos of betrayed love plus knowing that Lorraine Hunt, like Dido, would be laid in earth in the bloom of her life.

The melody carried me into pavilions where thoughts evaporate, a state of bliss. When the music stopped it was disorienting. It seemed I had been gone for a long time but there was no way of knowing. I switched on the light near my chair but the light barely penetrated the darkness. My eyes were closed, the lids sealed shut.

At first it was curious. That simple muscular impulse to open the eyes, that infinitesimal expense of energy, eluded me. A million times done unthinkingly, now I was thinking I had to do something. Another thought. I was in an endless queue of thoughts with no exit. If I could stop thinking, my eyes would open like all the million other times. A hypothesis coalesced: I was adrift in a hypnagogic sea. At some point I would come back to shore.

I also wondered whether my tears had created a kind of superglue.

Frustration started to seep in despite my best efforts to stay calm.  I decided to rub my eyes but before I made the move I got a jolt of high-volt panic: what if I couldn’t move my arms? What if I was paralyzed head to toe?

My arms moved, my fingers too, good as gold, but my eyes stayed shut.

There were clearly worse things than shut eyes. In the bathroom I bathed my face with a warm damp cloth, then faced the mirror, gripped by the notion my reflection would re-order reality, get all four eyes, real and reflected, to open.

No luck. It seemed best to do my nightly routines. Navigating was easy. I have lived in my house for many years. I switched on all the lights; together they made a golden effusion in which floated the forms of household objects: houseplants, lamps, book shelves. It seemed my retina was doing its job.

Darkness, once you achieve a deep level of awareness, erupts in colors. Swishing effervescent mouthwash between my teeth I was certain my eyes were open. It was a profound relief but they weren’t open for long, if they ever were.

The exact time seemed the important thing to know though I could not have expressed why. It was night. I got into my flannel pajamas and into bed, pulling the comforter around my chin. It was  comforting. I felt safe. I knew that if I slept a good sleep, I would awaken in the former life.

I ventured into the backwaters of dreamland, no memory brought back to share.I heard the mermaids singing each to each. At the shores of consciousness I recalled my predicament. The landing was rough, waves of frustration and desperation. Why was it so difficult to open my eyes? Everything was in place waiting: the lamps, the mouthwash, the comforter; the whole banal miracle.

Again the craving, what time is it, what time is it? Dawn? Looking for my phone  I found the TV remote. The weatherperson on Channel 7 ratified my intuition with her forecast for “your Monday afternoon commute.” Rain. In July.

I had meetings I could not miss. I got dressed, uncertain about the colors of socks and shirt and tie. It was playing a blind person in a movie, like Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark, feeling the world through the palms of my hands. The way she flailed to find the electrical cord to extinguish the refrigerator light was how I groped for my phone when it rang,

The office. Where are you?

Food poisoning, oysters. My apology sounded sincere and was sincere. Two days later I reported  a communicable virus contracted in Curacao on company business. Curable, but it would take time.

I have enough sick days banked to last a long recovery.

I am not comfortable with asking for help but I called Kaycie. She said on the downbeat that I was doing this to myself or else was under some weird compulsion that I needed to get to the root of. An evaluation I had entertained. She took me to see her herb doctor slash guru. He tried to visualize my lids apart, and when that failed, bathed them in rosewater and massaged them more forcibly than I expected. As a last resort he fluffed up my aura and put me down for another appointment.

I was fluffed for a while. The movement of air. It’s hard to describe how significant this has become. Wealth within scarcity, like being underwater, warmth and coolness woven into a quilt.

I have a different life, one I did not ask for. I don’t miss the old one. I’ve stopped pretending otherwise. I am a blind person. Yet I still maintain a belief, perhaps an illusion, that I will resurface into a sunlit world, out of this violet twilight. All it would take is an immaculate act of will.

I tell that to my shrink. He expresses no belief. neither pro nor con. He has a standard of neutrality I can respect. He says anxiety is the norm for human beings. He wants me to believe—my projection—that until I lose all resistance, all blame and shame, I will remain blind.

I am wasting my time with him.

Tonight (what I call night now is arbitrary since I don’t pull the curtains open) I am going to ask Kaycie to locate my disc of Dido and Aeneas. I am going to ask her to put it on, and to leave the house.

 

FOUND AND LOST

The last thing I wanted to do today was drive from Bernal to the Richmond. But this morning when I looked in my tool bucket for my beloved pruners, they were missing. I calculated which would be the best route to the garden where I may have left them.

There is no best route. There is maybe a least worst route.

Unceasing backtalk, how ridiculous not to wait until my normal rounds brought me back to the Richmond.  I have adequate substitute pruners. By the time I unlock the garden gate I have beaten all of hope of finding the pruners into mush, and sure enough, two circuits of the likely places reveal nada. Some things have the intent to be lost.

In the midst of a chorus of “I told you so”, a different voice argues in exasperation that leaving without at least having looked everywhere is dumb. So I go behind the ramshackle pavilion at the back of the garden, into the melee of mattress vine and ivy and plant debris and there it is, my pruners lying on a heap of dead branches having its laugh at my expense.

All is put right. The drive redeemed. The naysayers go mute.

Alas, there is still the drive home.

One thing is established: I won’t return the way I came. It would be unbearable. I drive instead into the park and soon am passing the AIDS Memorial Grove. Countermanding the urge to get home I decide: if there’s a parking place, I’ll stop. I could use some leaf-filtered air. And I’m curious; it has been a long time since I’ve been here.

There’s a parking place. There are two.

In the early eighties I was living in the Haight and had a Toyota Corolla. It was stolen three times, and the third time it was found at the bottom of this little vale, then a swamp. With a hundred foot cable extending from the street above it was winched out. Irrigation systems were scrambled. The spare tire was scraped loose. I was able to start the car and drive the damn thing away. I would have gladly left it in the swamp.

A circular limestone patio, its bricks inscribed with names, covers the spot where the swamp once was. Because the names are a mix of living and dead, and not all the names of those who died are included, the effect upon me is like reading the donor list on the De Young, not one of sorrow and remembrance. Near the patio is a large rock inscribed to Timberland, if I’m not mistaken.

Would I feel differently if Richy’s name was on one of the bricks? If Ori’s? What if one was and one wasn’t? Cheap of me not to pony up for a brick, though I can’t imagine either of them caring one way or another.

Such thoughts testify to this: the mind remains swamp-like. The Grove, however, has put on glory. Each time I visit the planting is more eye-catching, the landscaping more dramatic. (My friend Howard and his fellow Stud Muffins have been volunteering there for years—huzzahs rain upon them.) Walking along the oval of lawn you get the feeling of a grand manorial garden, aside from the boulder nearby inscribed to NUN OF THE ABOVE.

More boulders anchor the new zigzag stone walkway at the west side. I am relieved to see none has an inscription, No memorial words. No names. No one to mourn or thank in perpetuity. No lame jokes. No politicians. I am redundant.

Silence.

On my walk back toward my pickup I come across this: PETER J ATANASIO WE LOVE YOU TO THE MOON and everything flies out the window.

UNHEARD (a triptych)

1.

Her being quiet; I should be appreciative after Marianne. The hidden stuff will come out when it’s due. Maybe if she never talks it will be for the better. So she’s not beautiful but you can see how she might have been. There’s a crease going down both of her cheeks, and deep ones on the back of her neck. She told me she used to do field work.

You’re being a pig, Marianne would say if she heard me thinking this way. I have to stop thinking about Marianne.

I want her to stick around, I’m pretty sure. No red flags last night, unheard of for a first sleepover. She’s jumpy but no wonder after what she’s been through. What I imagine she’s been through. She hasn’t talked about it. I have to let her know there’s nothing to be afraid of here.

I wish the damn gardener had let me know he was coming. I thought someone was breaking in, hearing the door slam and him tromping up the side stairs. Maybe I forgot. I need to talk to him and pay him. I tell her to wait inside, that I won’t be long, but she follows me out. It’s like she’s scared to be in the house alone.

It’s a warm morning; the sun feels good. I introduce her to the gardener and neither says a word which doesn’t surprise me.

I ask the gardener to name the plants so I know what they are. I want to be sure none will turn into beasts like the ones Marianne planted in Biloxi. I count the list when we’ve finished. Eighteen varieties. Is that normal, so many? She mumbles something, something about a palm. How it would be a good idea to have a palm.

She thinks a palm would be nice, I say to the gardener, knowing he won’t like the idea. He’s thinks he’s a great artist. He always scowls when I suggest something.

Where, he asks, and then after a few seconds, says, Pygmy date. It could work.

Pygmy date. What’s that supposed to mean? I change the topic.

What are those two plants over there? Those two we didn’t count?

2.

The sun. It hardly ever comes out and when it does, it’s too much. Too bright. You can stay inside, he says, but I want to be next to him. Not because we have grown close. Because if I don’t stay next to him the little cracks will heave open. We need stillness and we need time.

Sex. It always seems to hinge on it, but maybe not this time. I’m lying to myself.  I don’t have illusions. If he doesn’t either, it could work.

I dreamed I was a comet and crashed into a puddle. I awoke. He said, It’s only the gardener. I know what he must think. I mostly manage the fear but I heard the heavy tread on the step. They are coming, I said.

It’s only the gardener, he said again. He has a key.

The garden is too naked. Don’t they see this? I don’t know why but I think of the lobby of the Imperial Hotel with the big brown pots crowded with palms where Lucas and I played. Sometimes we hid there. I tell him a palm tree would look good with the other plants. He tells this to the gardener. I wish he hadn’t.

Where? the gardener wants to know. He pretends not to be annoyed. He is a nasty old man in a nasty straw hat.

Anywhere, dig a hole, I almost say, but that won’t do. I point to the bare spot near the fence.

Here? he stands over the spot. Why can’t he figure it out for himself?

I turn away. The garden needs more plants. Anyone can see that.

This man like a schoolboy looks at his notes. Now he says he will look up the palm the gardener mentions. Look up a palm? There are a hundred kinds. He clearly doesn’t want my suggestion, this schoolboy, this person, and that’s the way it is, but is it the way it will be? He crowds me but he takes me to dinner and then here to this house half built, smelling of sawdust and wet concrete and unhappiness.

The gardener comes toward me. He has picked a sprig. He hands it to me. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with it.

3.

I don’t catch the name when they come out of the house. Anna, maybe. A new girlfriend. Just off the boat. Or maybe a girlfriend he hasn’t mentioned. We’re not friends, why would he mention her? I was friends with his ex.

They climb the steps to the garden and sit on the bench, facing me as I weed. He starts asking me questions, what that plant is, what that one. This is new. He has never expressed this kind of interest. Or any kind. I figure he is doing it to convince her he is a man of managerial skills, a man of diligence and capacities. He writes down names. His frameless glasses ricochet two pebbles of sunlight off her bare arms. For a second he looks twelve, but soon reverts to the egg-white fifty-year-old he is. Some plant names I fudge because I can’t remember them.

Why should I? He isn’t going to look them up. Outside the house is a junk heap of discarded sinks, fractured plasterboard, mangled pipes, plastic buckets. Inside is a storm of papers, garments, and bags excreting other bags. Maybe she will change all this. Good luck with that.

She does not look her best, she knows it. Slack brown hair. Bleary lips. Maybe hungover. She keeps her gaze in left field, still in dreamland, or maybe she does not understand our language. Life has pressed upon her features. Only when I turn back to weed does she look my direction.

She says something, in English I think. He transmits. She proposes planting a palm tree.

Where? I say.

She flinches, her gaze flits off. She rallies and points to a spot near the fence. The bed is too narrow, but it could be made to work. She makes an open hand gesture.  A fan palm. He says he will look up the pygmy date palm that I mention and let me know.

Ha. I will not hold my breath.

I will buy the next dwarf blue fan palm I find and plant it there. He may or may not notice. I don’t care. He pays his bills. Maybe I’ll buy two.

What are those? he asks pointing. Those two we didn’t count?

Lavenders.

Oh that’s lavender.

It’s mid-autumn. A few blossoms remain. I snap one off and hand it to her, just to break the mood. Thank you very much, she says in a childish voice. She lifts it intact to her nose. Why? There is no smell if it’s not crushed.

The Friday Nun Report

The sanctuary was being reconfigured and Sister X, quite reasonably, figured some statuary might be expelled. St. Agnes and her lamb, St. Therese with her oozing wounds, the Infant of Prague in his baby robe and crown like a margarine logo.

Statuary, especially in New Orleans, raises operatic feelings. There was no way that a discussion would effect results. Action was the only viable path. Sister R had a key to the church. One night they hauled the statues into the Dodge van and drove out over the Lake Ponchartrain causeway, parking in a pullout. There they tossed the statues over the rail into the water. The Infant’s robe floated in the moonlight before the weight pulled him under.

A week later a Cessna carrying three portly politicians from Baton Rouge crashed into Lake Ponchartrain, narrowly missing the bridge. Dredging equipment was brought in. Sister X and Sister R said many anxious prayers to credited and semi-credited saints, to some avail. The statues were not exhumed. They are there still, awaiting their archeologists.