LOVE AND HAPPINESS

We were on the highway west of Cozad, still three hours from home, when I asked Dedric if he loved Mom and Dad. Maybe he never considered the notion. Or maybe he was flabbergasted that I would ask such a dipshit question. I cringed the minute it slipped out of my mouth. I was hoping we might do something different on this long boring drive, such as have a conversation. I had been thinking about a statistical category that came up in one of my graduate seminars: children who claim they love their parents. According to the studies, the ones who said they did had a higher happiness quotient.

Course I love them, dumb ass. Doesn’t mean I’ll miss them when  they bite the dust.”

Did this mean Dedric had a leg up on a life of happiness? You couldn’t prove it by me or his two exes and six or so previous girlfriends. He was my brother and for that I had a lot of feeling for him. But we weren’t close though we lived only fifty miles apart. We were the only siblings unpartnered. These drives home for the occasional wedding or death were the only occasions for spending time together.

That was as far as our conversation went and that was fine by me. What could I know of Dedric’s concept of love? Everybody thinks they have a pretty clear idea of it but the truth is it’s a muddle. There was no point in chewing on these gristly concepts, love and happiness, unless you were in academia, which I was, calving more academics ruminating gristly concepts.

Did I love the parents? It was simpler to shift toward Dedric’s train of thought. Would I miss them? They were pushing eighty, and eighty was pushing back. Mom had a kind of leukemia that was stealing her away. Dad seemed in good shape, although he was sinking deep into his silences.

When we set out this morning Dedric had made the offhand comment about this being our last round-up, all the siblings, the eight grandkids, everyone in the house. After the parents were gone the house would be sold, if we were lucky to find a buyer in that husk of a town. I was trying to be dispassionate; the lowering of the curtain was long foreseen, but it was hard to ignore the little caustic burn eating at my heart.

We were the last to arrive at the house, which is how I liked it. I hated to be one of those inside waiting for the last sibling to arrive, for the party to start. I expected our arrival to warrant more fanfare, but when we came in the front door the living room was dark. Two of my sisters were in the kitchen washing dishes.

Where’s everybody? Where’s the folks?” Dedric asked

Dad’s taking a bath. Mom’s in the basement working on a puzzle,” Irene said.

Mom barely looked up from the jigsaw puzzle she was working with my nephews. “Hi, Mom. I’m home,” I said. For a jagged moment she needed to think who I was. Oh yes, one of the boys. The one who surprised us when we thought we were through with all that.

By dinnertime everyone had a chance to warm up to each other, and assisted by the wine Dedric had brought, the evening expanded in liveliness. I knew it would be a somewhat bogus memory but I wanted the nephews and nieces, the next generation, to get a taste of what this family was at its best. Dad had come from his bath with a pressed shirt, the part in his hair carefully set. There was a quality in his face that looked like happiness, though it was a mite too placid. Maybe he was on a new medication. He sat at the head of the table as usual; it would take a massive upheaval to alter the arrangement at the dinner table. Dad said very little beyond pass this and pass that. He wasn’t wearing his hearing aids so I suspected he was missing most of the conversation. His apparent stoicism about his isolation disturbed me; it causes depression.

Mom kept jumping up and running to the kitchen, trying to make absolutely sure all possible needs were met, except the need for calm. It was like she was determined to wear herself ragged proving something to somebody. But it was always that way, her fussing. And she kept it up during the washing of the dishes and afterward, as if she had to do everything; none of her children were capable of making sure everyone had a mattress or couch to bed down on.

I was the exception to her fussing. I knew what was expected. I got my sheets and a thin blanket. My landing place was the living room carpet. I was forever the runt of the litter; the older siblings got the bedrooms, especially the married ones. I didn’t mind as long as everyone got into their quarters and left me alone to get a good night’s sleep.

The nieces and nephews were the first to turn in, or rather, to turn away from the communion to their mesmerizing devices. Before it was eleven o’clock lights were being turned off. On every floor there was the sound of running water. I spread my bedding over the carpet in the living room. I lay down, not expecting sleep but hoping that the prone position would induce my brain into slowing down and from there be able to cross into the frontier of the blessed unconscious.

When all the lights were out, and all the faucets had stopped their hoarse chatter, the pool of darkness began to distill into shapes; the couch, the TV, the golden disk of the pendulum in the grandfather clock, nodding, saying something to me, saying you’re getting sleepy, getting sleepy. And then it chimed, BONG BONG BONG BONG; BONG BONG BONG BONG. A few seconds later, mimicking grandfather clock in minature, the wall clock in the dining room commenced its lowercase echo.

The night crept by in fifteen minute intervals.

All the next day there wasn’t a quiet corner in the house for a nap, TV’s going, vacuum cleaners (why the hell were they vaccuuming?) yelling toddlers, doors banging. I told everyone about not being able to sleep because of the clocks for which I got bemused laughs and no sympathy. I asked Dad if he could still the mechanism, and he did, though he didn’t seem thrilled about it. The grandfather clock was his most recent shop creation and it was impressive in a Germanic way and he hadn’t cut off any fingers in the process. I guess I was supposed to approve without reservation but he was deaf. I did not point that out.

By evening I was in such a unstable state that one vodka tonic made me tipsy. I told everyone to try to keep it down and to stay out the living room; I was going to crash.

I did. When I awoke, when I was awakened, everyone had gone to bed. The gold disk of the pendulum in the grandfather clock slid to and fro in the crepuscular light. Who had started it up? Anger exploded like a firecracker in time to the chimes doing their idiotic sixteen notes. At the end of that sonic water torture, more sonorously, came twelve knells. Midnight. One minute later diminuendo came the echo from the dining room, and the ensuing corroboration. Midnight there too.

I picked up my sheets and went outside and lay on the lawn. It was cold. It was wet. There were stars, not as many as there used to be.

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Asymmetric

This is the second time he has been out all night. Minutes ago I got out of bed and for the third time checked his bedroom in case he had slipped in. He would do that. Silence is his element. Even at birth his eyes were fixed on something beyond the hospital room, a world he’d been torn away from. I know that sounds weird. His reticence sometimes feels like cunning, though I know it isn’t. I don’t want to be judgmental. I have been enough judged myself.

I gave him as much love as I could, and isn’t that all we can ask from ourselves, from each other?

He has always stood apart from the herd and so gets singled out for attack. Last spring he came home, the side of his face purple and swollen. When I asked what happened, he said, “Asymmetric pummeling.” The next morning I was in the principal’s office screaming holy hell.

Soon he will be grown, but I still get that shot of adrenaline peppered with anxiety knowing that no matter what I do, it will not be enough.

For a while he had a friend named Marvin, a pudgy, bright, Filippino kid. Discovering their friendship I felt a long breath trapped in my body slowly release. A friend would be an ally, augmenting the chances of him safely navigating adolescence. I put out chocolate chip cookies like bait, hoping to keep Marvin onboard. Marvin wasn’t any more communicative than my son but he had learned some manners. When he took a cookie he said ‘thank you,” something I never get from my son.

Marvin disappeared, as traceless in his departure as in his arrival. It might be that my son is at Marvin’s house this moment, that there is no reason to worry.

The first time he didn’t come home I called the school as soon as it opened. He was not there. At midday I called his father, the last of a short list of options. As expected, Ned did nothing to calm my fears with his “when I was his age” ramblings. That was all he had to offer, except to say, give it another day.

The next morning I called the police. I waited for the cops for two hours. The instant they arrived at the front door the backdoor opened and my son was back. The cops sized up the situation: a surly teenager, a crazed mother, giddy with relief. Practically sitcom material.

Once they left, I shouted at my son. He maintained he had been on a field trip to the city, an art excursion. I called the school to ask if there had been a field trip to the city. Why was I not asked permission? I could imagine what the receptionist thought, that woman again. She said she’d call back and never did. Doing the laundry I found a crumpled ticket from the Keystone Corridor Railway in the pocket of his jeans with the words “Hogarth Art Academy” written in ballpoint. I could find no evidence of any such institution in Pennsylvania.

Though he draws back when I reach out to touch him, I can feel his soul imprinted on my own. It is very sweet. This thing, this correspondence between us, is so powerful it’s almost scary. He feels it too. I know it. We will never have words for it.

He is gone again. Arriving home from work yesterday, I saw the front door ajar. I am no stranger to burglary and I immediately was convinced it had happened again. Disarray was everywhere, drawers ransacked, cabinet doors gaping, curtains splayed on the floor near an open window. But nothing was missing, no TV, no laptop or camera, nor the pail full of quarters on the bookcase, catnip for a thief. In fact the scene included two new components, unnoticed for a long time considering they were not well-hidden, one on a bookshelf, the other beside a cut glass punch bowl on the credenza. Cameras.

Later my son confessed to creating this scenario and filming it so, as he put it, he could “find out who you really are.”

I grabbed his shoulders and squeezed until I hurt him, not stopping until he looked me in the eye. “This is who I am,” I said. “This.” Weeping like an idiot in my bedroom I heard the click of the front door and he was gone.

I am waiting for dawn. I could put the house back in order, close the drawers and doors. I stand instead at the upstairs bedroom window to view the yellow lights along empty streets leading downtown. My life is all melodrama. This happens when there is nobody to talk to, to seek out for comfort and reassurance.

On the computer it doesn’t take me long to log onto the feed from the two cameras. There I am, in color, a fool. I can’t watch, fearful, as if this is a crime scene with some tragedy impending, when it’s just me, having a normal human reaction.

UP to My EYEBALLS

in leaves.  The first poem I fell in love with went something like this:

Leaves are fun in autumn/ on sunny days I found/ you can rustle them and bustle them/ with a crinkly-crunchy sound.

Yesterday I had a visitor to my garden. “Back so soon?” I asked.

“Yes,” the angel said, “I’m here to give you a gold medallion for having raked your ten trillionth leaf. We in heaven are impressed.”

“But you gave me a medallion two years ago,” I said.

“That was for your five trillionth leaf. You have upped your pace.”

Now I am having my doubts about that angel.

 

Francis is a Man with a Beard like that

Francis Yount the Third fell in love with his beard. It wasn’t something he was planning on. He was not planning on having a beard. One day there it was. Obviously it took more than one day to come into existence but it was a singular day the second week of October when it stopped being maverick stubble. A beard at an early-in-life stage can, to some susceptible, be a provocation. Are you man enough to join the lineage of Moses and Santa Claus and John Brown of Kansas. Are you? It puts you on the spot.

For Francis Yount III that was not the question to answer. His beard was asking something else entirely. It was asking what it could do for Francis. Francis looked at it for what it was, a new arrival that would take some getting used to. It was very white, surprisingly white considering he still had a mop of mostly black hair.

The excessive whiteness was a sour note and so Francis, not someone to tolerate sour notes, made an appointment at the salon.

What did he want? He was undecided when he finally got in, and Rodolfo has no patience for hemming and hawing. Especially when you beg for an appointment like its an emergency.

Rodolfo ran some photos by him. One stood out, a geometric beard corrugated like Nebuchadnezzar’s. Well yes, that was the look he was looking for. Radical. They decided to wimp out with the dye; just some black to match Francis’s manly mop.

Francis fell into one of those delicious barber chair sleeps. It was magical. A carpet ride. A glide in the current, balm and bliss, and then he was yanked out it. Rodolfo was escorting him from the chair, another customer waiting.

The mirror behind the receptionist’s desk gave him his first good look at his new beard. It ended his love affair with his beard. A beard like that would cut off your head in your sleep. It was something he’d have to keep placating to keep happy. He camouflaged his thoughts of shaving lest the beard get wind of them.

A Handful of Air

A portly man with carrot-orange hair was tromping through my flower beds. Since the city decimated the privet hedge along the sidewalk above, I have felt more exposed, vulnerable to gawkers. This was the first unwanted incursion.

I stepped out the front door and assumed a stern tone. “What are you doing in my garden?” The man was pawing a perennial and said something I could not make out. “This is a private property,” I said more loudly, though I doubt I sounded more intimidating.

The man turned and looked at me with aggravation and fatigue. “I am looking for my nephew’s tennis ball. He tossed it over the fence and is afraid look for it himself. Do you mind? Once I retrieve it I will go.”

My garden is steeply sloped, carved from the hill on which I live. The footing on the crumbly rock is far from secure. As I anticipated, the man’s feet slid from under him and he slipped sideways, landing on his elbow.

“Madre de Dios,” he muttered trying to scramble to his feet and predictably sliding again. A runnel of blood ran down his arm. “Edward, Edward,” he shouted, “will you please come help me?”

A boy, ten at most, gangly from a recent growth spurt, came through the gate. He paid me no attention as he deftly made his way to the fallen man. He helped the man to his feet and let himself become a crutch as they made their way back to the stability of the path. I went inside for some cotton swabs and alcohol. By the time I returned the man and boy had proceeded out the garden gate onto the sidewalk above.

“What is that plant with the velvety leaves?” the man asked as I applied a band-aid. “The one I landed so ungraciously upon.”

“Plectranthus.”

“What has happened to my memory? Plectranthus, a lovely plant but an unlovely name. And what is yours, sir?” he asked. I told him. He offered his name,“Silas,” in a way that sounded like he was trying its fit. “Now Edward, introduce yourself.” The boy extended his thin arm and gave me handshake soft as cotton. “And somewhere around here is Jessica. Jessica, where are you hiding?”

A girl, clearly the boy’s sister, maybe a twin, stepped from behind the trunk of a sycamore. “Jessica loves to hide, and she loves to be found. Don’t you Jessica?” She gave a sliver of a nod. “Jessica, this is Matthew. We just met Matthew in his lovely garden. Wouldn’t you like to get a glimpse of it? Come over here.” The girl, like the boy, maintained the attitude that if you did what the adults asked without fuss, they would soon leave you alone. “Isn’t it lovely,” Silas asked. Jessica at the open gate remained noncommittal.

The boy wriggled free from the man’s weight and re-entered the garden, descending its opposite side. Carefully straddling the polypodiums, he reached out and picked up a green tennis ball. Upon returning he held the ball inches from Silas’s nose, a gesture that seemed at first rude but which later I apprehended as a response to Silas’s nearsightedness.

The children fascinated me. I had not seen them before in the neighborhood. After some prompting, they allowed they lived the next street down the hill, that they went to McKinley Elementary, and that in fact they were twins.

“We are on a walk in the neighborhood. We would be immeasurably honored if you joined us,” Silas said with a rumble in his voice.

I said I would be happy to, and we walked down the hill together. The bell of silence surrounding the children shattered in a burst of chatter as soon as they were distant enough to prevent us eavesdropping. It appeared that a negotiation or a mild argument was taking place.

With Silas progress was slow to the point of laborious. He stopped at every garden, peering intently, and when his gaze acquired a bit of purchase, he would expound on the plants in view, or which he thought were in view, with set opinions, presumably for the benefit of the children who did not seem to be paying attention, but who, I suspected, were. He was more knowledgeable than the casual amateur. When he talked horticulture the poofery of his talk evaporated. He was able to identify for me a beschorneria cultivar in a garden on Bismark Street. He knew which one I was talking about though we were blocks away.

We were were on the return leg of our trip when the boy slipped in next to Silas who was squinting at a ten-foot high prickly pear cactus. The boy had something to say to him. “Auntie,” he said, “we are going to need your space.”

A shadow crossed Silas’s face as he lowered his chin. He turned his back to the boy and resumed his trudge up the hill. At the hilltop was a mini-playground and an overlook with benches. The city, veiled in sheer gray light, spread westward below us. The boy and girl hung onto the ladder of the slide and did not climb. They looked toward us and not the broad vista.

From that high point we turned back toward my garden. Two blocks away Jessica appeared alongside Silas. I thought I might have misheard the boy, but her words were exactly his. “Auntie,” she said, “we are going to need your space.”

Silas’s face became impassive as stone. He raised his arm and grasped some air, then opened his fist and let it go as if there were nothing more to say.

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 went into the three extra bedrooms. The living room bore the name ironically. The furniture sat 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 near the center of town and live on the proceeds. She said I could walk to stores. It was something I would have done, that I wanted to do, but I couldn’t lift a finger. Grief is a 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, and not something I ever 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 street with tall elms where the houses were modest and sturdy. There was once a neighborhood called Greenwood nearby, a black enclave that in its prosperity and self-containment aroused the envy and hatred of their 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 stinking up the air of his childhood.

Let me be clear, this house is not one of those monstrosities you see in affluent suburbs like Cherry Creek. It was built not to accommodate an inflated ego but instead a big family. I did research. The family was Lithuanian. He was a builder. She 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. No children, 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.

After Lucas died I went into a phase where I would go into the unused bedrooms and sit on the bed and imagine the lives of the surviving children. 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, see their dark curls and hear their bird-like screeches.

I entered a subsequent phase. “Renovation” sounds planned. 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 everything else falls away. One afternoon I came home and the pressure condensed into insistence: those brown cabinets and beige walls were not to be endured one second more. I drove to the paint store and without much deliberation chose the paint. I worked all afternoon and through the night, worked 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 housedress blotched with cream and green paint. She thought I had had a stroke.

You always hope you have the right color and when it gets on the walls often you see you have made an awful 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.

This surge of whatever, 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 time?

The effluvia of Lucas’s boyish enthusiasms cluttered shelves: geodes, feathers, skulls, hummingbird nests. I arranged as many of his artifacts as I could on the credenza, constructing a shrine I dramatized with a dozen candles. I put the rest of the stuff, two boxes full, in the trash, withstanding the fierce self-criticism the act aroused.

Seeing the shrine Mary Bridget shook her head. “Get a roommate,” she said, “before you burn the place down.”

So I did. Even before she said it, I had been finding out that having a beautiful house with a cream and green kitchen and sheer curtains billowing from crystal-clear windows created a collateral vacancy in me. I wanted another pair of eyes 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 a board in the union. Instantly I had ten messages from students. Vita was the first person I called back and the only. I picked her for her name. Vita. Life. Bring life into the house. Magical thinking. 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 at my door. I expected a bright, polite thin Chinese girl but here was this force. The word pugilistic came to mind. Coiled, on the edge of vaulting. If I had thought ahead, I would have claimed there were other candidates, etc. But this was not an interview, not in Vita’s eyes. She had brought her three suitcases and she moved in.

Vita, I think, got a kick out of being mysterious. One of the minor mysteries was how from those three suitcases so much spilled out. Her room was like the drop-off at a thriftstore. Sometimes I resented the disarray but why, as long as she kept her door closed here and there were no malodorous smells.

In truth, there were only sweet smells. Lavender. Coconut. I found a bottle of her shampoo in my shower. I don’t know how it got there. I used the shampoo before I returned it to her bathroom. I bought some similar. Lemon verbena. I spend my days with that smell like a shawl around me.

I wanted her to talk more, so I talked too much. Her face remained immobile, unthawed by the small fluctuations that indicate empathy. She blinked with metronomic regularity, infrequently. Once she mentioned she liked the natural history collection on the credenza. She didn’t have any inkling of its meaning. Her blankness liberated me to talk about Lucas directly, to show her how raw, how scoured I felt inside. She listened. She blinked. That was all.

She kept irregular hours, not 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 had dropped out of school but I didn’t ask. Nor did I ask what she did when she went out.

Mary Bridget was suspicious of Vita from the start. She said I should find out what Vita was up to, make sure she wasn’t doing something illegal. I reminded her that me getting a roommate was her suggestion. She asserted she would not have chosen one by her name.

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

This terrified me, but Vita said, “I can handle it. Non-toxic method. We’ll rout those buggers.”

By the following week my house smelled like overripe peaches. I didn’t inquire about the treatment nor its chances of efficacy, merely thanked her for her good work, costly though it was. If the house fell down around me I would remain ignorant and unruffled in my denial. I asked if her field entailed construction, or house repair. “My calling is reflexology,” she said. “Foot massage. You ever have one?”

“At the nail salon, And once in Hawaii from a Seventh Day Adventist nurse named Una. It was torture.”

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

I assumed she was joking, but with my foot in her lap, her fingers investigating its intricate machinery, Lucas spoke to me, loud and clear. He said, “I am only here.” Through my right foot. I remain convinced of it, though I continue to ponder what “only” means.

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

It’s a-happenin’

Book Launch

Thursday, Jan. 24, 7 p.m.

The Green Arcade Bookstore

1680 Market St.

San Francisco

Come on down!