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Four Florences Afloat

First, the mighty blow on the Easter seaboard.

Second, Florence in my swim class persistently worried she’s not doing it right.

Third, in an email from James Mitchell, the publisher of my forthcoming novel: “Given NYC’s stranglehold on U.S. literary culture, I always thought it best just to write and work for the local community and forget the rest of the world. After all, Shakespeare’s England had a population of 1.5 million and Renaissance Florence less the 150,00 and in the 1970s SF did seem to me a lot like Renaissance Florence.”

Fourth, in a short story by Tessa Hadley in the New Yorker. “It was as if, on the first morning of that holiday in Florence, Cecilia simply woke up inside the wrong skin.”

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Accordion Practice

Why haven’t I gotten this by now? So I asked stumbling

over the fingering of La Calenda for the hundredth time.

I may be missing a gene, and this an attempt at self-mutation.

To my knowledge my father never sang a song out loud all the way through.

I’m not blaming Dad. It’s just a fact.

***

The squirrel is in the apple tree doing its squirrelly worst.

Apples plunk onto the patio. I run out the door blast it with an F chord.

***

The Venus de Milo is gorgeous but she’ll never be able to play the accordion.

The Empty House

The house was too big even when Lucas was alive, and he was a man who took up a lot of space. Unless there were guests, we never entered the three extra bedrooms. The living room bore the name ironically. The furniture sat around like third cousins at a wake, never warmed by a body. Mary Bridget, my sister, urged me to sell and move to a smaller place and live on the proceeds, near the center of town. She said I could walk to stores. I couldn’t argue. It was something I wanted to do but I couldn’t lift a finger to do it. Mary Bridget didn’t give up easily but her pushing went for nothing. Grief is a big soggy sack that hangs on your back. You stagger along, more or less vertical, and it is an accomplishment.

It was Lucas’s idea, his compulsion really, to buy this house. It was another thing I never understood, what having a large house meant to him. He wasn’t raised in a shack so he wasn’t overcompensating. He grew up in Tulsa on a leafy street where the houses were modest and sturdy. Nearby there used a neighborhood called Greenwood, a black enclave that in its prosperity and self-containment aroused the envy and hatred of white neighbors who burned the place down. Thirty-five blocks, wiped out. They dropped gasoline bombs from planes.

Maybe Lucas wanting this fortress of a house had something to do with that history polluting his childhood. For the record, the house is not one of those monstrosities you see in rich suburbs like Cherry Creek. It was built big not to accommodate an inflated ego but instead a big family. I did research. The family was Lithuanian. He was a builder. His wife was sickly. They had six children; the firstborn, coincidentally named Lucas, died of the flu at the age of three.

My Lucas and I have no children. I don’t know what to say, have or had. None, though we went along as though we expected they would come. They did not, it was that simple. Neither of us felt, if I can speak for Lucas too, deep regret that we were, are, childless.

After Lucas died I would go into the unused bedrooms and sit on the bed and imagine the lives of the surviving children. I imagined the brothers in two bedrooms, the sisters, Eugenia and Martina, in the other. I had seen photos of the girls in their high-necked dresses so it was easy to conjure them, their blond curls and screechy laughter.

Over time I entered a different phase. “Renovation” makes it sound planned. First I painted the kitchen cream with green trim. It was something I’d been wanting to do a long time but when someone is ill in your house much else falls away. Still, the decision was spontaneous. One afternoon I came home and the pressure had condensed inside me into an insistence: I could not endure those brown cabinets one second more. I drove to the paint store and without much deliberation chose the paint. I worked all afternoon and through the night until the sun came up and I collapsed on the couch in living room. That is where Mary Bridget found me at noon, in my house dress speckled with cream and green paint. She thought I had a stroke.

You always hope you have the right color and when it gets on the wall you often see you have made a big mistake which, unless you start over from scratch, you will regret for years. This was not that way. I was gratified in a way I had forgotten I had the capacity to be.

The surge of whatever it was, joy perhaps, propelled me to take on the funereal living room. I washed the windows, hung new curtains. I rented a machine and cleaned the couch and the carpet. I could have had it done by professionals but I had time. What else but?

Throughout the house on shelves was the effluvia of Lucas’s boyish enthusiasms, geodes, feathers, skulls, hummingbird nests. I arranged as many as I could on two tables by constructing a little hill, a shrine I festooned with a dozen candles. I put the rest of his stuff, two boxes full, in the trash, withstanding the self-criticism the act aroused.

Mary Bridget shook her head sadly seeing the shrines. “Get a roommate,” she said, “before you turn into a complete madwoman and burn the place down.”

This struck home. I was finding out that having a beautiful house with a cream and green kitchen and sheer curtains billowing from crystal-clear windows created another intolerable vacancy in me. I wanted someone to see what I saw with the same pleasure.

Because of my former job, City College was the first place I put up an ad, the old-fashioned method of pinning a card to the board in the union. Instantly I had ten messages from students interested. Vita was the first person I called back. The only. I picked her for her name. Vita. Life. Bring life into the house. Magical thinking, whatever. She described herself as Asian, though she had no trace of an accent. She said she was studying engineering but thinking about being a writer.

I tried not to appear surprised when I met her. I expected a bright, polite thin Chinese girl but here was this person. The word pugilistic came to mind. She seemed coiled. If I had had my wits about me, I would have made up something about other candidates, etc. But this was not an interview, not in her eyes. She had brought her three suitcases and she moved in.

Vita, I think, tried to be mysterious, and she succeeded. One of the minor mysteries was how from those three suitcases so much spilled out. Her room was like the drop-off at a thrift store. Sometimes I resented the disarray but why should I have cared, as long as she kept her door shut here and there were no suspicious smells emanating.

There were only good smells. Lavender. Coconut. I found a bottle of her shampoo in my shower. I don’t know how it got there, another mystery which might seem like nothing at all. I used the shampoo before I returned it to her bathroom. I bought the identical brand and scent, lemon verbena. I spend my day in a gossamer net of that smell.

I wanted her to talk more, so I talked too much. Her face was immobile, unmarked by the small fluctuations that indicate empathy. Her eyes blinked with metronomic regularity, infrequently. Her blankness was liberating. It allowed me to talk and to show her how raw, how scoured I felt inside. She listened. She blinked. That was all.

She came and went at irregular hours, far from the kind of schedule that creates expectation but still I found myself anticipating her being home, and being disappointed when she wasn’t. I presumed she’d dropped out of school but I didn’t ask. Nor did I ask what she did when she went out. She had a right to her mysteries.

Mary Bridget said I should find out what she was up to, make sure she wasn’t doing something illegal. She was suspicious of Vita from the start.

One day Vita approached me with her hand upturned, rubbing the tips of her fingers together. “See this dust? It’s sawdust. You got a badass infestation of termites.”

This terrified me, but Vita said, “I know what to do. Non-toxic. Give me some money. I’ll rout these buggers.”

By the following week my entire house smelled like overripe peaches. I didn’t inquire about the treatment nor its efficacy, merely thanked her for her good work, costly as it was. If the house fell down around me I would remain unruffled. I asked if her work entailed house repair. “My calling is reflexology,” she said. “Have you had it? A foot massage?”

“At the nail salon,” I said. “And once in Hawaii administered by a Seventh Day Adventist named Una. It was torture.”

“This is different,” Vita said. “This will bring your husband back.”

I assumed that was a joke, but with my foot in her lap, her fingers investigating its intricate machinery, Lucas spoke to me, loud and clear. He said, “I’m only here.”

Through my right foot he spoke; I remain convinced of it, though I ponder what “only” means.

Vita has moved out of the house. She has gone to London. Now she wants to be a dancer.

He went on living

Tina said he had a wart on his nose and, to reassure him, it would fall off on its own over time. What kind of friend was that? He wasn’t near a mirror so all he could do was feel for it with his fingers. He wasn’t even sure which side of his nose it was on. His nail picked at every slight bump on his skin, making matters worse, maybe dangerous. He couldn’t help himself. He was mortified to be seen as someone with a wart on his nose.

He had to catch a train home. His parents were expecting him.

Tina and her girlfriend Ella had dropped him at the station at 8:25 a.m. They were speeding down the dirt road over the railroad tracks when the station clerk informed him that the train north had been cancelled, that the next train was eleven hours later. Eleven! If he lay down in the station and slept for eleven hours, and woke up at the moment it was due it would not arrive on time. Being late was the only thing you could count on with the damned train.

The clerk put blank white cardboard in the window and vanished.

If his phone weren’t dead he could call Tina. It had been dead for two days and he had forgotten to charge it. He did not have his charger. He was going to borrow one but he forgot that too. Maybe the clerk would have let him use her phone. Tina was at work on the chicken farm and she couldn’t come back even if he called her.

He was angry at her. How she could mention the wart and be so blasé about it. Maybe it was her way of making a joke. It wasn’t her nose.

He was the only one in the station. The air smelled like wood from sad trees. There wasn’t a choice; he had to walk. He tried to awaken some vivid details from tales of people who went on cross country walks for noble reasons, to end poverty or police brutality or some other intractable thing. He scanned for something to inspire him. How many miles a day could they cover? He would guess fifty at least, and he had only forty-nine to go.

He constructed a mental picture of the road, where it went through the cottonwoods along a creek ten miles north. The interval between the train station and the creek was pretty much a void, plowed fields, windbreaks, weedy ditches, even though he’d crossed the distance multiple times in a speeding car. Going seventy it took ten minutes. He got a grainy preview of his feet on that asphalt, one step, then another, how incongruous they would be. Nobody put feet there, ever, unless they were in a fix.

Past the cottonwoods it was eight miles to Beverly, ten more miles to the Oneida Junction with its two grain elevators, after which there was the last intolerable desert of twenty-two miles. The mere thought of it squeezed the air out his lungs.

How he hated this country where they couldn’t get a train to run on schedule.

It was barely past nine and already a scorcher. He didn’t have a water bottle. He wouldn’t have needed one on the train. He tried the water fountain. A little finger of water extruded across the stainless steel basin.

He was momentarily lifted by the thought that a farmer might pass by in a humongous tractor and look out from his sealed booth and be curious enough to stop. Picturing himself in the open air, astride the gleaming green metal of some impressive implement, he felt an even greater surge, like a breeze in a stuffy room. It vanished when he felt something on his tongue, a little lump. He read somewhere that warts were contagious. Did they spread internally?

It would be very uncomfortable riding on a harrow jolting over potholes. It would mess up his back just when he had gotten it to where he could stand up straight. His lower back was already nagging him for overloading his duffel bag with avocados from the health food store. Avocados were impossible to get at home. His mother turned her nose up at them. He had bought them for himself, but the idea of carrying them forty nine miles was a downer. He would leave them on a bench at the station. All but one, the ripest, which he would put in his pocket. All but two, the second ripest too, one for each pocket. He held them in each hand. The skin was warty.

What if no one picked him up? He could be walking until nightfall. Any calculation was flawed by scarcity of data. Would a farmer stop? Would a car? He looked at his thumbs to see which looked most persuasive when extended, most commanding. Which thumb to extend depended on which side of the rode he walked. Nothing was simpler. He couldn’t remember which side was safer. He decided to walk on the right side to make it easier to jump into a car that might stop. But it wasn’t that simple. Right thumb or left depended on whether he was walking backwards or forwards. Time would tell, he guessed, just as in time the wart would fall off his nose.

Why would he trust time?

How profoundly he wished the thought of the wart hadn’t resurfaced. He needed a hat. The sun would be brutal. If the wart was a symptom of a breakdown in cell structure, he might be embarking on a death march. Considering this he sank down on the bench, the only person in the station, the only person, he could believe, in the world.

Still he went on living.

A Brass Fanfare

Coming soon, gird your loins.

Your mother should know (your mother should…)

Big climate march on September 8. Last night I went to an organizing meeting. High energy. There are many creative ways to be involved. (See: ca.riseforclimate.org)

Show up.

Forgiveness

It didn’t make my brother popular with Dad how he handled the bike thing. I didn’t understand it myself. It wasn’t like there was any doubt Eddie was guilty. The bike was there in the Sanderson’s garage, plain as day. Eddie didn’t even bother to hide it. My brother told me not to tell Dad but I did. There was no point in Dad taping notices to light poles, stirring up the neighborhood. He did not need more evidence the world was hellbound.

My dad believed people should be held accountable for their actions. It was only a theory. I could see his side of things. It wasn’t a cheap bicycle. Whereas my brother acted like his was the only side worth considering. “It’s my bicycle,” he said. “I forgive Eddie. You don’t need to make it a big deal.”

“You forgive him?” my dad said in the monotone he used before exploding. “And you are who, the Pope? It’s only half your bicycle until you pay me off. Get it back.”

My brother did. He went over to the Sandersons’ and took it, easy-peasy. I knew their garage code because I sometimes walked Rex when they went to their relatives in Alabama. It was the house number twice plus Enter.

Getting the bike back wasn’t enough for Dad. He stormed across the street. Sandy Sanderson came to the door and from our porch I could hear them bark at each other. My dad was still steamed when he got home.“He makes excuses for that kid. He’s borderline or some such crap. If he can’t help himself why don’t they put him on a leash?”

Something in Eddie definitely wasn’t switched on. He was two years older than me but smaller, built like a girl. He trailed after my brother like a trained monkey. No leash necessary. It was embarrassing. My brother avoided the Sandersons’ side of the street in case Eddie would see him and come running.

Not even a week passed before the bike went missing again. Dad noticed my brother walked home from school and grilled him on it, jumping to the conclusion that Eddie had taken it again. So did I. Not so, my brother said. He had already checked the Sanderson’s garage and the bicycle wasn’t there. Later in private he told me that Old Lady Sanderson discovered him in the garage and put up such a racket that Sandy Sanderson came running with his shotgun, if you could call that running. It looked like he was going to throw the gun at me, my brother said, grabbing his sides, laughing so hard.

A few afternoons later he rolled onto the driveway on his bicycle. He wouldn’t tell me how he got it back until I promised with every cell not to tell Dad. He was in the park and Eddie rode right up to him. Like there was nothing screwy about this. Eddie being so casual ticked my brother off. He pushed Eddie off the bike and rode away.

My brother sat in the bedroom window the rest of that afternoon, looking down the street. There were thunderstorms in the area with tornados likely. As the raindrops began crashing down and the thunder boomed nearer he rode out of the garage in the direction of the park.