Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 120
As a Glimpse of Your Smile
Copyright © 2019 by Bill Wolak.
The Mirrors Secret Tattoos
Copyright © 2019 by Bill Wolak.
About the Artist
Bill Wolak has just published his fifteenth book of poetry titled The Nakedness Defense with Ekstasis Editions. His collages have appeared recently in Naked in New Hope 2017 and The 2017 Seattle Erotic Art Festival. Mr. Wolak teaches Creative Writing at William Paterson University in New Jersey.
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 120
2 March 2000- Graz, Austria
I’m sitting at the window of our rented flat on Wienerstrasse looking out at the “Pipsi Striptease Club” across the street with its neighboring Auto Sales and Service Stations in the blue collar, industrial belt of this lovely old Austrian city surrounded by green mountains and shale cliffs. There’s a statue of the Virgin Mary, pink stucco, kewpie-doll-faced, and halo-crowned, directly in front of Pipsi’s, alongside a billboard, also pink, depicting a plump topless stripper in a G-string, whose hair is unexpectedly pitch black rather than Aryan blonde . . .
The Australian DJ on the Blue Danube Radio English Language station is playing Shotgun Wedding, an American country music “Oldie” I’m not familiar with. But, then again, being a jazz singer I’ve never cared much for country music.
The graffiti scrawled on the yellow post box in front of our block of flats reads: “Don’t Fuck Nazis.” When we arrived here and I asked Edward what he thought it meant, he said the graffitist was probably an illiterate skinhead who’d intended to write “Don’t Fuck With Nazis” but had left out the word “with.” I said I thought it could just as easily have been an illiterate leftist warning against making love to Nazis and possibly catching the Nazi virus, or, on the other hand, that “Don’t Fuck Nazis” could also mean, “Don’t have Nazi babies”—i.e. “Don’t spread Nazi clones.” Who knows? What with Jorg Heider, dressed in Hitler-style tracht costume, railing against immigrants to thousands of cheering proto-Nazis at his beer and barbecue fests, anything is possible. Heider seems to be everywhere: rallies, street posters, TV, radio . . . creating political chaos. He’s rocked the political situation here so effectively that no Party stays in power long enough to govern. Since we arrived, Parliament has been dissolved and new elections held twice. Political parties, Left, Right, and Center, fall victim to the same warmed-over, mostly local, politics. Austrians are forever dickering over everything but their shameful Nazi past, which politicians of all stripes pretend doesn’t exist, or quickly sweep it under the rug when it threatens to raise its ugly head.
Still, after the intensity of Zurich and Prague, I must say I find Austrian provincialism something of a relief. Being quit with the Dees helps a lot, too. To think they picked up and left for America without so much as a good-bye . . . knowing Edward was so sick. Not that I’m surprised . . . John’s the type who dispenses with you as soon as you’re no longer useful to him. A selfish bastard. Jane’s a bit better, has some heart. But she’s not doing too well herself. Can’t blame them for leaving Europe, though. More and more, I like Europe less and less. Been thinking about Australia lately . . . big, spacious sky, a good place to start over. I’ll bring it up when Edward’s better.
Just saw a speeding car almost knock down a pedestrian. They drive like demons here, probably where the hidden Nazi aggression bursts the seams of all that gemutlichkeit. According to last night’s English Language Television “Info. Show,” there are at least four deaths on the Autobahn every day; what do you expect with virtually no speed limits? For some odd reason, the idea of limitlessness brings me to the subject of our flat’s vintage 1950s plumbing—perpetually leaking, despite, or perhaps because of, the assortment of rubber hoses attached to the tub and sink in the bathroom that snake through a hole in the wall into the WC in the cubicle alongside it. And there’s no curtain around the bath tub, and the shower head is bent, so when I bathe or shower the water pools and spills over the tub onto the floor and sprays through little invisible pinholes in the hoses, resulting in minor flooding that requires constant mopping. There’s also one of those pull out clotheslines over the tub which, if I ever washed my stockings and underwear at home, could be the culprit, but since I bring everything to the Laundromat and never use the clothesline for drying, I’ve ruled it out as a possible contributor to the overflow.
Moving on to odors: The flat has the same sweetish garbage smell that hits you as you enter the building’s front hall through a courtyard with a dusty ivy trellis on one wall and a dark corner staircase opposite a lift with a frightful chasm between the door and the cage on the other. The flat itself is on the third floor overlooking the courtyard—so it’s dark, except for the front room facing the street where I’m sitting now, the one I use most. There’s a narrow kitchen, a bedroom, and the prone-to-flooding bathroom and adjacent WC. And there’s a grim storeroom where the sun never shines which serves as luggage space. Adjacent to it is the bedroom dominated by two huge, heavily scuffed dark wood wardrobes and an ancient porcelain coal stove I shall never use, for it requires fetching coal from the basement, which I have no intention of doing. According to the weather forecast, it’s going to be 4 degrees C tonight, so I intend to swaddle myself in every piece of clothing I’ve brought along to keep from freezing. Fortunately there’s a lovely goose down quilt (like the Swiss, the Austrians have lovely linens) and the coffee is simply divine.
Another positive thing is the flat’s advantageous location across from the tram stop where I catch the #1 that takes me straight to the hospital for my daily visit with E. And it’s only a short walk from here to Mangold’s—an organic veggie restaurant featuring heavenly food and appropriately located down a passageway called “To the Golden Angel.” It’s expensive, but I manage to take at least one meal a week there. My favorites are the mixed salads: beets, lentils, potatoes, celeriac, water chestnuts and lima beans, accompanied by freshly baked rolls and crescents, sesame, onion, caraway. The brilliantly colored vegetables—purple, green, bright yellow, white, orange, mauve, teal—are so fresh they creak on the tip of your fork. . .
Every evening at this time (6:40) there’s a rattling out on the balcony: the wind playing the blues on the fiberglass screen like an old-fashioned washboard. A cue for the pigeons roosting on the balcony railing to take off for the night.
I ask myself: Lidda, why are you going into such detail over this trivia?
And I answer: Because you are alone in this foreign city with no one to talk to and you are worried sick about Edward, who is in hospital undergoing tests for what he insists is a case of slow poisoning by his enemies in Prague . . .
3 March 2000
Visited E at the hospital early this morning and got only monosyllabic responses when I asked how he felt. I could tell it was already shaping up to be a bad day. The tests had worn him out and he was too tired to talk. I could see he was fighting the pain, fighting being sick, resenting his exclusion from the world of the healthy he’d occupied, and taken for granted, until only a short while ago. It must be doubly hard for a man like Edward who likes to brag about being “as healthy as a horse,” to face the prospect of debilitating illness. In my effort to comfort him, I overstayed. When it finally dawned on me that my desperate assurances were only making him feel worse, I left and sat for a while in the visitor’s lounge with a mug of coffee an aide kindly poured for me from her own thermos. I thanked her, thinking, “I mustn’t let myself break down here.”
The Catholic Church runs the hospital, so there are crucifixes in every room, and though I’m not Catholic, I went to the chapel. To meditate, or pray, or whatever it is you do when you plead for the life of someone you love in front of Jesus on his cross. There were calla lilies on the altar, and a white marble baptismal font spouting a continuous flow of water. When I left, I noticed that, except for the staff dressed in hospital whites, all the other people I saw in the corridor wore running suits—patients, visitors, men delivering flowers. That struck me as odd, and I wondered if Austrians in general favored running suits over street wear, or was it just around the hospital? Then, as I was walking to the tram stop I saw a woman pushing her husband in a wheel chair. They, too, were wearing running suits. Only the man’s pants were pinned up to the waist because he was legless.
Last night’s vexing dream: E and I are two flat, featureless faces in a children’s book waiting in vain for our eyes, noses, mouths, and hair to be painted in. Nobody comes. Nothing happens. We go on waiting.
4 March 2000
Sat with E in the hospital garden café this afternoon, he drinking an alcohol-free beer, I, a cappuccino. I’d bought a slice of cherry sponge cake but couldn’t eat it because of the diarrhea I’d been suffering since learning that, despite the numerous tests they’d performed, the doctors were still unsure of their diagnosis. Could the doctors in Prague have been wrong in attributing E’s condition to heavy drinking? Could he really have been poisoned? How else to explain the unrecognizably glassy-eyed, lethargic hospital patient passively sitting next to me on the veranda in his wheelchair? I asked if he’d like me to wheel him around the garden for a bit, and he nodded. The sun was warm. A woman in the inevitable gray running suit walking a massive Irish wolfhound nodded and greeted us with a Gruss Gott as she passed by. Was my mind playing tricks on me, or was that really E’s clean-cut, sandy-haired doctor—also wearing a running suit—standing at the tram stop at the bottom of the hill eating an apple?
5 March 2000
There is still nothing showing up on the tests. No medical explanation. No trace of poisoning. The whole thing is odd. E grows increasingly frustrated and argues with the doctor, keeps insisting he’s been poisoned; claims that the sophisticated poisons developed by the Russians during the Cold War are so subtle they appear to be undetectable . . . What happens from here? The eminent Austrian toxicologist we were referred to, by E’s Prague doctors, doesn’t know. Nobody knows. E’s condition fluctuates, but he is still in pain. Terrible headaches, yet there are no neurological signs of pathology in the CT scans. Citing studies suggesting a possible link between telepathic ability and the pineal gland, E demands further testing, says he will even consent to surgical removal of his pineal gland for further study. I shudder at the lengths he’s ready to go to; but part of me understands how desperate he is to end the suffering.
Today he seemed more alert and talkative after being told his doctor plans to release him on a “home pass” for the weekend. (This means we get to spend Saturday and Sunday together—until 7pm, when it’s back to the hospital again.) Hiding his weakness from the staff for fear the doctor might change his mind and deny him the weekend pass E made a great effort to lift himself from his wheelchair and got up, hobbling . . . but still refusing a cane. It was heartbreaking to watch.
Thinking to cheer him a bit by dressing up for the weekend, I went shopping after I left the hospital. Tried on a purple beret in the C and A basement, and though it fit me nicely, didn’t buy it. I decided to save the money for a new pair of shoes instead (mine were so worn I had to toss them into the rubbish bin) so I went to the street market and poked around the stalls until I found a pair of sturdy brogans for only 7 Euros, not very glamorous, but comfortable, with enough money left over to splurge on a sparkly strand of fake crystal beads. I also bought a bottle of wine (the doctor says one glass of wine over the weekend won’t do E any harm). My little shopping spree went so well it inspired me to try my German on a passerby asking for directions to the Post Office—with some success, I’m proud to report!
We spent E’s “home pass” weekend eating, drinking, and snuggling, not talking much. Not one argument. Not like a married couple. More like lovers stealing forbidden time together. Still, there was something depressingly seedy about it all—not just this flat—but the café where we took lunch, the wrinkled old men with foul teeth and dirt under their fingernails, pinching the waitress and calling her “girlie” . . . the morose friar selling raffles in the town square at the Saturday fair . . . the broad-beamed, splay-footed grannies hawking sausages and tankards of piss-colored beer . . . .The glum cloudy day didn’t help, either. Wouldn’t you know it, no sooner had I dropped E off at the hospital than the sun came out, illuminating the rolling acres of freshly ploughed fields and sprouting crocuses bordering the Mariatrost-Eggenberg #1 tram stop; the row of poplars behind Pipsi’s I hadn’t noticed before; the Sallis and Braunstein Opel dealers and their satellite repair shops . . . and, ever so briefly, the veil of seediness was magically lifted. Sad not to be able to share the moment with E.
I’d forgotten how depressing a Sunday afternoon could be with all the shops closed and no one on the streets. I suppose if E were healthy and we were walking hand in hand together under the poplar trees, the silence might even be welcome. But E is not healthy, and wandering the vacant Sunday streets alone is bloody awful!
Another weekend pass. The doctor gave E a new anti-pain pill, which left him glassy-eyed and cranky again. I let him pressure me into sneaking him a beer, which (no surprise), didn’t help with the walking. He practically fell asleep on his feet.
On Saturday afternoon I took him to lunch at Mangold’s. The food was tasty, as always, but the mood was grim, a foreshadowing of things to come—though the medication had kicked in by then and E’s walking had sufficiently improved for us to climb as far as the medieval bell tower and hilltop fortress at the center of town. It was a lovely day, fresh, birds singing, flowers everywhere. We stopped to look at four ravens perched on a fountain, and when the birds proved to be sculpted rather than live, E smiled—for the first time that day. At the window of a grand yellow sandstone apartment block opposite, an old man in a black weskit and white shirt was playing a Django Reinhardt tune on an accordion. We stood there listening, until every church bell in town started ringing simultaneously and drowning out the music, which made E cranky again.
We returned to the flat and had barely entered when he threw himself on the bed and fell so deeply asleep he barely seemed to be breathing. Fearing he’d lapse into unconsciousness, I climbed into bed next to him and listened until his breathing gradually grew stronger. Only then did I let myself doze a bit. I must have actually fallen asleep (I hadn’t realized how exhausted I was myself) because we both woke up two hours later and got testy with each other but fortunately didn’t let it break into a full-fledged fight. It was my fault for telling E that watching him in his drugged sleep had reminded me of the tranquilized panther locked in a cage I’d seen on a TV wildlife show two nights ago. He didn’t appreciate the comparison, said he’d been treated like an animal for too long. I said I was sorry, and he forgave me and we’d sort of made it up by the time I dropped him off at the hospital.
I’ve been re-reading Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, searching fruitlessly through one of my favorite novels for parallels to our current situation and finding nothing in common with either the characters or the plot. E and I are certainly not as glamorous or exotic as Castorp and Claudia, and his sickness is nowhere as ennobling nor, as far as I can see, is it, as the translator’s Forward claims, “layered with symbolic political nuances.” In addition to being heartbreaking, sickness, when it lingers, is—dare I say it—boring.
There goes that damned balcony shivering on its hinges again, on the verge of breaking free and crashing down on some poor passerby’s head. It’s not the wind, because there’s no wind tonight. Could it be the continuous fluttering of pigeon wings causing all that rattling? Is their nightly flight gradually loosening the balcony? I doubt that pigeon-wing vibrations are strong enough to separate a wrought iron balcony from its moorings. Maybe it’s the speeding cars whizzing past . . . or those deafening church bells ringing all over town again. Whatever it is, it’s grating on my nerves.
On my way home from the hospital yesterday, I passed a drunken couple lurching along Wienerstrasse. The woman, a raucous straw-colored blonde in her fifties, wore a tight red suit and high-heeled sling back pumps. She tottered on the cobblestones, laughing—a harsh, hideous cackle that cascaded into a screech. The man, a scrawny, red-faced laborer in blue coveralls, his sparse greasy hair plastered to his forehead and behind his ears, was holding her up by one arm. He appeared to be younger, and less drunk, only pretending to enjoy himself by whispering sweet nothings in her ear and releasing the fearsome brain-splitting cackle that caused everyone on the street to take notice.
The woman was carrying a bouquet of lilacs wrapped in wet newspaper.
Lovers on the first day of spring in Graz . . .
It began as a day of sounds—waking to the muffled explosion of a car door slamming directly under my window; a bus screaming round the curve at the corner of Wienerstrasse like a guided missile; the hollow seven a.m. clang of a passing tram; a boy whistling for his dog; the insistent pert pert of the nameless bird with the white breast and long black striped tail that shows up here occasionally (I’ll have to look that one up); the belch of a motor scooter . . . All those sounds . . . and then, without even realizing it, there I was, singing (albeit in the shower) for the first time since E took ill.
It was also a day of coping—from early morning to late afternoon. First at the Laundromat, trying to make polite German conversation despite my limited vocabulary and still more limited grammar, remembering to address the grumpy middle-aged proprietor in the girlish pink lipstick who insists I load the machines myself and refuses to do cold water washes, with the formal Sie—all at the outrageous cost of eighteen euros! Then, having decided to buy that purple beret after all, and informed by the C and A cashier that only banks cash traveler’s cheques, I run two blocks to the nearest Sparkasse—only to find the beret gone when I return to C and A with cash in hand. To console myself with a bit of food shopping, I head for the supermarket, where all my polite Sie-ing is wasted on the snippy cheese lady at the delicatessen counter who refuses to serve me when I ask for a smaller chunk of Putterkaese than the one she’s already sliced for me.
Aber Sie willen die gantze Stueck! She shoots me such a sour look that I panic and address her with a Du instead of a Sie, sending her into such a snit that she rudely turns her back on me and attends to another customer. Refusing to give up, I wait patiently until she’s finished before addressing her with the most unctuously polite Sie I can muster, which not only gets her attention but produces a smile as well. Okay. I point to a different round of cheese and she lightly presses her knife to where she intends to cut, and I nod, and everything goes right from there. The no longer snippy cheese lady even asks if I want to buy bread. Yes, I do. I pick up a long loaf of whole meal bread from the basket in front of the cheese counter. It’s as thick and fragrant as cake and makes my mouth water. In the produce section, I buy a bunch of bananas, two Fuji apples, and a good-sized rock melon. Then it’s back to the Laundromat, and miracle of miracles, pink lipstick has not only washed and folded the laundry but actually asks if I’d like a receipt. Ja, bitte, I say, followed by a sincere Vielen Danke, as I head out the door with my shopping trolley heaped to the brim.
When I get home I eat half the loaf of bread and all the cheese.
The phone rings. It’s E. Sounding elated, he tells me he’s been approved for a full week pass and permission to travel next month! Though his neck and head still hurt, things are looking better since a new doctor arrived, a young orthopedist with his own ideas about treating him symptomatically rather than searching for causes. I would like more information but don’t wish to pressure him, so I decide to wait until my next hospital visit for further details.
We are sitting at a table under a striped umbrella in the hospital garden café the following day, when E describes how this Professor Doktor Roth just walked up to the bed and, with no warning, cricked his neck so hard he thought he’d unscrewed it. Then he injected him with a muscle relaxant that set his entire body on fire but, after an hour, made him feel so much better than anything else they’ve tried that he’s willing to give Professor Doktor Roth a go despite the fact that the other doctors disapprove of his radical treatment and, even more, of the full week travel pass. I am eating a hard-boiled egg sandwich with watercress and drinking sparkling mineral water and E is nursing an alcohol-free beer. He isn’t eating, says the injection left him without an appetite. He may be feeling better, and I’m glad about that, but I have my doubts about this Professor Doktor Roth and his “radical” treatment. The new spurt of energy induced by the miracle injection is bound to wear off sooner or later. Besides, E has that same drugged look in his eyes as before. But I don’t want to dash his hopes, so, rather than carry on about it I reach into my bag and produce the gift I’d bought him, a special edition of “The Adventures of Jerry Cotton,” his favorite boyhood hero. E barely glances at the book before returning it to me. It’s obvious my gift is anti-climactic. All he cares about is escaping from the hospital, which he now refers to as “jail.”
Suddenly, he leans in close and says, “I was angry at you for saying it, but you were right, you know . . . I’m like that panther you described the other day—claws bloodied from scratching at the bars of his cage. I’ll do anything to get out.”
Holding back the tears, I lift both his hands to my lips and plant a lingering kiss on each finger, one at a time.
Copyright © 2019 Perle Besserman.
About the Author
Perle Besserman is the recipient of the Theodore Hoepfner Fiction Award and past writer-in-residence at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Art Colony in Jerusalem, Perle Besserman was praised by Isaac Bashevis Singer for the “clarity and feeling for mystic lore” of her writing and by Publisher’s Weekly for its ”wisdom [that] points to a universal practice of the heart.” Her autobiographical novel, Pilgrimage, was published by Houghton Mifflin, and her Pushcart Prize-nominated short fiction has appeared in The Southern Humanities Review, The Nebraska Review, Briarcliff Review, Transatlantic Review, 13th Moon, Bamboo Ridge, Lilith, Hurricane Alice, Crab Creek Review, Other Voices, Agni, Southerly, North American Review, Page Seventeen, Midstream, and in numerous literary journals online. Her most recent books include a linked story collection Yeshiva Girl (Homebound Publications) and two novels, Kabuki Boy (Aqueous Books) and Widow Zion (Pinyon Publishing). Her recently published novel is The Kabbalah Master (Monkfish). Besserman’s creative non-fiction includes Oriental Mystics and Magicians, The Way of Witches, Monsters: Their Histories, Homes, and Habits (Doubleday); The Private Labyrinth of Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano and the Cabbala (Holt); Kabbalah: The Way of the Jewish Mystic (Doubleday/Random House/Barnes and Noble); The Way of the Jewish Mystics (Shambhala/Random House); Crazy Clouds: Zen Radicals, Rebels and Reformers (with Manfred Steger, Shambhala/Random House); Owning It: Zen and the Art of Facing Life (Kodansha); The Shambhala Guide to Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism (Shambhala/Random House); Teachings of the Jewish Mystics (Shambhala/Random House); Grassroots Zen (with Manfred Steger, Tuttle), A New Kabbalah for Women (Palgrave Macmillan), and A New Zen for Women (Palgrave Macmillan). Her books have been translated into German, Spanish, Japanese, Czech, Italian, Hebrew, Portuguese, Russian, Dutch, Hungarian, and Thai. She has written for publications as varied as Mademoiselle, Manoa (Honolulu), The Boston Globe, The Village Voice, A Different Drummer, Canadian Literature, and East West. Kabbalah: The Way of the Jewish Mystic has been recorded as a book on tape (Sounds True Audio Editions). Based in Hawai’i and spending part of the year in Melbourne, Australia, the author travels frequently throughout the U.S., Europe, Australia, Asia, and the Middle East, and has appeared on national and international radio and television and in two documentary films in connection with her work. Visit Perle on the Web at: www.perlebesserman.net.
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 120
When I get to the cemetery, I crunch through the ice-encrusted snow as wind rumbles over the expanse. I am not dressed for this. My fingers ache, and I keep blowing warmth into my cupped hands. Here we go:
Meghan Christina Drake
June 17, 1995—October 12, 2017
LIFE ENDS, BUT LOVE LASTS FOREVER
I kneel and tidy up a bit. Upright some overturned mementos, including an owl figurine and a miniature bottle of Woodbridge chardonnay. It’s when I am straightening out the grave blanket that I spot the feather. It’s at the base of the stone, bending like it’s in a wind tunnel but held in place by frost that glues its stem to the ground.
I pluck it. Through my tearing eyes I can make out that the nearest trashcan’s far off. Enough of this. I pocket the feather, then head back to my car’s heat. I drive St. Patrick’s Road to the other side of the cemetery. I’ve one more visit to make.
Norah McNally Chambers
June 11, 1966—September 11, 2001
BE HERE NOW
I forget about the feather until later that day at my house when I throw on my coat and rummage for keys. I take it out and am about to absent-mindedly toss it when the damn thing sticks me. (OK, technically, I stick myself. Quibble.) A pinprick of blood, like I am measuring diabetes. I run the finger under cold water, pour some peroxide on that baby.
That’s when I really look at the culprit. The feather’s white—and I mean stark white—as if it’s been bleached, and the end is serrated like a comb. It’s a snowy owl’s feather. I’ve seen enough photos, thanks to Meghan and Ashley’s obsession. (Ashley’s my daughter.)
I hold it up like I’m consecrating it.
“Hello,” I say aloud in my empty house in the D.C. suburbs.
Donovan Chambers here, a child of hippies who named me after that ’60s singer but I am not mellow yellow, nor mellow anything. I am self-disciplined. I wear a T-shirt that says, “Nobody Cares. Work Harder.” I run (not jog) 20 to 30 miles a week, wrestle with dead weights, do my push-ups and sit-ups. I stand 6 feet three inches, weigh 215 pounds soaking wet. (Full disclosure: I have never, in fact, stepped on a scale in such a state.) Like Cassius in Julius Caesar, I have the lean and hungry look and women want to cook for me. I politely decline. I can do for myself.
But this is not about me. This, as you probably figured, involves two young women dying young. My wife, Norah, and my friend Veronica’s daughter, Meghan. Despite those basics this is not a tragedy. It’s a mystery. In fact, it’s the greatest mystery: Why are we here?
Damned if I know.
So, expect no epiphanies. No reaching for the light. No finding meaning in a meaningless universe. No happy horseshit, in other words. All the loose ends will not be tied up. If the greatest thinkers in history couldn’t figure it out, I sure as hell won’t.
I’m atheist, and before that I was mostly agnostic and before that . . . I didn’t much care. Drank beer and chased women, mostly. And what were you doing in college? It’s a blur. Memory blurs most of our lives. But some days stand out.
I was 36 on 9/11, the morning I refused to kiss Norah goodbye. We’d had a spat, as couples do. About nothing; about her brother, Fred, hitting us up again and me saying, sure, why not?; and she saying that’s the problem, that I am too easy and time for tough love; and me saying he’s your friggin’ brother, after all; and her saying the baby can hear you; and me saying, so?; and her saying what you said; and me loudly asking “friggin’”?; and Norah shaking her head, ending the discussion; but I am pissed because I realize she’s right.
A minute later, our daughter, 5-year-old Ashley—the baby—comes hopping into the kitchen, excited about another day at kindergarten. Delighted that the sun rose once more. And, thankfully, not asking “What’s friggin’?”
Norah announces: “Kissys! I want kissys from everybody!” She’s by the kitchen door; this is her morning routine. Ashley hops into her mother’s hug and complies. Me, I don’t even turn around. I am emptying the dishwasher.
Norah lets out her “you’re so childish” chuckle. I feel her hesitate as Ashley runs back to the living room and Sesame Street.
Norah says, “You’ll get over it,” then leaves, not quite slamming the door.
She’s wrong, for once. I never get over it.
Some people in the Twin Towers or on the planes were able to call loved ones before they died. Norah worked at the Pentagon as a civilian budget analyst for the Department of the Army. Cremated instantly; her DNA riding the ash.
Strange. We never went to bed angry at each other. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Sure, I read the so-called Good Book; know it better than most believers. I’m especially keen on the parts where the God of love guides one army to slaughter another.) Anyway, Norah and I always settled differences quickly. By the time she’d gotten to work I was already figuring out how to make it up to her, planning a date night.
Somehow, I got through those years. Meds and counseling in the beginning when I could barely get out of bed. I also needed help raising my child and was not shy about asking. My sister and mother Amtraked it down from Philadelphia and stayed for long periods for a couple of years after, but they both had lives that included jobs and other family obligations.
So, I turned to someone else—Veronica.
She and I met in college, dated for a bit, decided that we weren’t suited for each other, but remained friends. Veronica it was who introduced me to Norah. I introduced Veronica to her ex—and yet she still talks to me. Hey, they lasted a good 12 years before he mid-lifed: cheating, drinking, abusing. Veronica and I majored in public administration, and when her marriage tanked, I pulled some strings and got her a job in the D.C. She works a few blocks over from my office and lives 3.7 miles from my home.
Norah had plenty of friends (she could charm the birds down from the trees), but she missed having a Veronica nearby. When Veronica moved to our area, she and Norah saw each other often. Norah nurtured people—that was just her way—and Veronica needed a lot of TLC at that time. Man, did they have fun. They were an odd visual; my Norah red-haired and freckled, looking so Irish that her lack of brogue came as a surprise. And Veronica, a dark-haired beauty who might have just emerged from the Mediterranean.
After Norah’s execution (well, that’s what it was), Veronica became Ashley’s surrogate mother. Veronica’s daughter, Meghan, was like a sister. The girls are—were—only about six months apart, although that six months put Ashley one grade ahead which, in a way, made the bond even tighter. Ashley became Meghan’s big sis.
Norah’s death tapped a well of protectiveness in my daughter that never runs dry. Ashley—who’s now a 24-year-old beauty—couldn’t save her mother but she sure as hell would save everybody else dear to her. And then Meghan died a few years ago.
Ashley’s shaken and so, of course, is Veronica who called me from the airport a few nights ago.
“Do me a favor,” she says.
Veronica’s going to visit her sister in California. The sister’s husband ran off with somebody younger. Surprise! Surprise! Veronica, being Veronica, drops everything.
“I put a grave blanket on Meghan every Christmas,” she says. “I talked to the kid at the florist’s and he promised to deliver it, but it’s a big cemetery and he sounded so damn distracted, not to mention insensitive, like he couldn’t be bothered.”
“I’ll check,” I say. ”Give your sister my regard. Tell her she’s better off in the long run.”
“Veronica, she’s better off without him.”
“I need to get all the facts.”
“She is better off.”
What? Somehow something the sister did caused the guy to cheat? Is that what Veronica’s thinking? Isn’t that blaming the victim? People are so damn complicated. Even people you think you know.
Ashley found religion during Megan’s ordeal, or was it religion found her? Doesn’t matter, it’s her life. I am here for her and I say whatever gets you through. I also say live and let live.
But that’s not what Ashley says. She needs to convince me. Maybe she’s trying to convert me, I don’t know. Gently but unswervingly working to save her old man’s alleged soul. My daughter. I tread gingerly. I can’t flat out tell her that there’s no way. I don’t want to soil what comfort she finds in a fairy tale.
“Dad, it’s not about a church. A church is a building.”
“You got me thinking, that’s for sure, daughter o’ mine.”
No, not really.
I wouldn’t have snatched her blankie from her when she was a tot, would I? I wouldn’t have exploded any of the myths that magic up childhood, like the one about a certain fat fellow in a red suit whose name I still won’t mention when speaking of unbelief. I don’t want to drive Ashley from my life. Without her, what’s the point? Don’t have much else.
I did remarry after Norah, but that lasted all of seven months. That second wife turned psycho and, to be fair, I guess, I can be uncompromising. That divorce and my tendency to not give in ruins romance for me, though once in a while I’ll test the waters.
Do the math. I am still a relatively young man in this age when people feel cheated if they don’t live to be a hale and hearty 120 and then keel running their first marathon while drinking their last beer. I mean a loving, long-lasting relationship can happen but, realistically, probably not. I adore women but am wary of their power. (Or am I wary of my weakness?)
I just don’t have the juice for modern love, anyway. Texting back and forth. Liking Facebook postings. Twitter. Snapchat. This, that, and the third. Asking about your day. I don’t really give a flying hoot about your day, come right down to it. And I don’t want to get my feelings hurt and I don’t want to hurt anybody else’s feelings. Farewell to all that.
See? No juice.
But I’ll tell you who does have juice these days. Fred.
Yes, that Fred, Norah’s bum brother. He wound up marrying for a third time and hit the jackpot with a rich one, who supported him through a doctoral thesis. Fred’s now an expert on everything; just ask him. He works at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and while I forget his exact area of expertise, he knows about animals. I couldn’t be 100% sure that I’d found a snowy owl feather. But Fred could.
We meet at a coffee shop in Georgetown, huddling as if we’re spies exchanging documents. Christmas jazz feeds a relaxed vibe. Presents were unwrapped a few days ago, most of the visiting’s been done. We’re just chillin’ with the hipsters.
Fred had texted me a few days before: “I have no doubt that it belonged to a snowy owl. Do you want it back?”
Damn right, I do. Hence, this meeting.
Fred’s about my age; that is a couple years older than Norah. He looks nothing like her, and I know that Norah sure as hell would have taken better care of herself.
Fred did kick the sauce about seven or eight years ago. Give him that. But he’s used food to satiate oral fixation. He wears baggy clothes and his sneakers come unlaced too often. He also smokes and the tremor in his hands has gotten more pronounced. I notice this as he slides a small brown manila envelope over to me, I tuck it into my shirt breast pocket.
“DNA doesn’t lie,” says Fred. “Where did you get it?”
“The woods,&rquo; I say hastily, realizing that I haven’t come up with an alternate reality or, more to the point, a convincing lie.
I tell him the name of a park not too far from my home.
“A snowy owl. Man! It is very rare that you find one down this far. He’s a mature male. I wonder if there’s a female in the picture?”
He taps the bill of his baseball cap up a bit, squints at me.
“Can you show me exactly where you spotted it, Donovan? Can you take me there?”
“What? Why? Now?”
“You know, when you can.”
“I can’t do that,” I say.
“Can’t do that,” he echoes.
“I mean, I could give you an approximation.” I repeat the park’s name.
“That doesn’t limit it much.”
I tell him I found the feather somewhere along the path of my usual five-mile run, but I can’t remember where.
“You stop for stuff when you run?”
“It fluttered by me and I snatched it in mid-air.”
He calculates, because now it might have fallen off an owl in flight.
Oh, what a tangled web. . . .
I ask: “How about some time we walk it together?”
“I’ll call,” I say, having zilch intention of ever taking that walk.
“Sure, I guess that works,” Fred says doubtfully.
He’s on to me but hasn’t quite given up.
“If we can find that owl it would really be something significant to document,” he says. “There are a lot of ramifications inherent in migratory alterations that would lead such a raptor to journey so far off . . ..” Yada, yada, yada.
Me? I still don’t know what I am going to do with this find. Do I tell Veronica and Ashley? Do I feed a myth that blinds them? That binds them to superstition?
That there’s a God who loves us and yet lets daughters and young wives die; who loves us, yet stands back and watches suffering; who loves us but isn’t through with us even after all this because there’s this place called hell, you see? I try to protect those I love from such a God.
I was not privy to everything that went on between Ashley and Meghan during those last horrible months of Meghan’s life, but I do know that Meghan’s belief expanded with the cancer, growing to eventually push fear aside. And that’s what sucked Ashley in. Her dying “little sister” believed and that led Ashley there.
“Dad, it was horrible and beautiful at the same time. It was like some light inside her. Like she couldn’t wait to be an angel.”
“You’ve been through hell,” I said.
And though my daughter’s conversion (there’s no other word for it) rattles me somewhat, there are worse ways of dealing. Ashley joined a church, does volunteer work. Up until now, she’s dated feckless, interchangeable young men, with feckless, interchangeable names, and she learned to lower expectations.
Recently, from what I can infer (because she keeps this stuff mostly hidden from me), some of the stallions in the congregation have sidled up. As a father, I am conflicted. I don’t want my daughter’s life dictated by hocus-pocus conjured by some Iron Age charlatan. (C.S. Lewis says that the Christ story comes down to this: lunatic, liar, or lord. He left out bullshit.) On the other hand, a good Christian suitor who’ll show my daughter respect looks mighty fine to even an atheistic da.
In an alternate universe (the existence of which, if it could be proven, would shatter once and for all the God myth), my daughter might have responded to intense sorrow—to the unforgiving fact that she cannot really protect anybody—with self-destructive behaviors. So that didn’t happen. So that I am grateful for.
No matter what we cling to, we all eventually wind up stumbling through grief, a room with sketchy lighting and furniture that somebody’s always rearranging. We hold on to what we can, trying to get bearings. Veronica still hasn’t thrown out a lot of Meghan’s things.
“I should, I know, Donovan,” she says.
“There’s no clock running,” I say.
“I am not going to be one of those morbids. I promised Meghan. Throwing out her clothes, though, that was hard. Still not finished. I still have a closetful, or so. But the owls?”
The stuffed owls. The porcelain owls. The velvet owls. Owls made of wire. Owls constructed with seashells. Meghan and her owls. She’d fallen in love with the snowy owl Hedwig in the Harry Potter books. That fired obsession. Books on owls, owl documentaries, visiting different zoos just to see the owls. Meghan wrote her college entrance essay about owls. She sure as hell would have had one as a pet except that it’s illegal in the United States. It’s illegal even to own an owl feather. (Shhh!) Meghan and Ashley, who’d also caught owl fever, used to talk about living for a few years in Great Britain just so they could own one.
Google isn’t always your friend. Google tells me that the owl is a symbol of wisdom, patience, secrets, mystery, and observance. Owls are magic. And snowy owls? They represent desire for pure unfettered knowledge. Owls are ever watchful. Remind you of Someone?
That I found that feather by Meghan’s grave is something that Veronica and Ashley should know. It’s a story that must be told. To them. I get it. And yet, I resist.
The odds of me actually stumbling upon that talisman by that particular girl’s grave are—. Well, I’ll leave that to Fred. He’d break it down. It’s like the lottery. They say that the chances of winning the Powerball are something akin to being struck by lightning twice and getting attacked by a shark within 24 hours. (Talk about a tough day.) And if you’re at all familiar with the lives of many of the lottery winners, there seems to be ample anecdotal evidence for comparing that “good fortune” with horrible life events.
So, no, I will not show them that feather. I make my stand against the God myth. At least for now. What good could it do?
I take that manila envelope and place it carefully in my little lock box, where I keep all the important papers. You know, passports, birth certificates, death certificates, insurance policies. My plan is to write a note detailing how I found the feather and stuff that in there too. I’ll be gone, by then, one with the void and Ashley can do with the information what she will. That’s the plan.
Then comes today. Another day that will always cut through memory’s fog.
I get this call. I am off work and I hear “this is so and so from Watchamacallit University Hospital.” Ashley’s med school.
“Mr. Chambers, you need to get here right away. Use Uber.”
Ashley had been blindsided by some 84-year-old woman who should not have been driving. It’s bad. By the time I arrive, they had induced a coma and moved her from intensive care into her own room. (That’s called pull.) The doctor, one of Ashley’s teachers, is in tears when he talks to me, and that’s not fair because it forces me to be the strong one.
“I’m not God, Mr. Chambers,” he tells me at one point. “Ashley’s healthy. She’s young. We got to her in time. I’ll be able to tell you more later in the day.”
The plan is to keep Ashley in the coma for about 12 hours, until the swelling goes down.
“Of course, the swelling could go down well before 12 hours, that’s the hope,” the doctor says.
I am looking at my daughter during this conversation. The oxygen mask fits tightly over her face, her brow’s furrowed like she’s trying to figure something out, and her hair clings wetly to her skull.
I go out to the hallway, text mine and Norah’s siblings. By the time I re-enter Ashley’s room, relatives are catching flights, heading toward train stations.
I know about comas and hearing. My vigil isn’t a silent one. I whisper to my daughter as I hold her hand, and sometimes I am interrupted by one of Ashley’s med school friends peeking in, saying a prayer. I’ll take it. Whatever anybody wants to do that they think might help, I’ll take.
The hours wane into that stillness between 2 and 4 a.m. and there are fewer visitors, the lights have been turned down, and even the obnoxious chatter at the nurse’s station recedes somewhat.
And that’s when I tell her. It’s a tough decision because why bring up cemeteries and friends who’d died young to a girl fighting for her life? Before then my chatter, which I tried to keep natural with my natural voice (and, thereby, discover why celebrities say that it’s difficult to “play themselves” in roles), had been about some good TV shows and quirky little art-house movies that get a buzz. I’d been recalling vacations we’d taken, skiing in Vermont, swimming in the Atlantic off Maryland, sharing bottles of wine with her and Meghan and Veronica and laughing long into the evening about life’s absurdities. Trying to keep it real, as the kids say. Telling her about my new exercise routine and the cooking class I’m taking and how it makes me want to not eat anymore.
I watch her face, but nothing seems to register. She probably can’t hear me. Some patients in comas can, and some can’t. I decide that Ashley can’t. That’s why I tell her, finally, about that feather.
My segue is relating the call I’d gotten from Veronica. Veronica to the rescue, rescuing her sister in California! It’s so Veronica.
“Veronica asked me to do her a favor, Ashley,” I say.
And I tell her. The feather. The meeting with Fred and . . . here’s where I stop.
Because you want to know if a miracle occurred, right? You want to know if God’s love worked through the Parable of the Owl. You want a happy ending and, failing that, you want any sort of ending. You want to make sense of it all.
Did my daughter survive? Did I become a believer? Did Ashley continue through med school and lead a life of healing the sick and comforting the mournful? Did she find Mr. Right eventually and am I now a doting grandfather? Did Veronica cry tears of thankfulness when she heard the story? Is there really a heaven beyond this veil of tears?
Why should I tell you? Does He tell us? Anything? Why does He not reveal Himself?
Come down from that cross!
Only this much I shall disclose.
Fred and I do take that walk.
Copyright © 2019 by Frank Diamond.
About the Author
Frank Diamon’s poem Labor Day was nominated for a Pushcart Prize Award. His short stories have appeared in Innisfree, Kola: A Black Literary Magazine, Dialogual, the Madras Mag, Reverential Magazine, Empty Sink Publishing, the Zodiac Review, Into the Void, Mystery Tribune, and the Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, among many other publications. He has had poetry published in Philadelphia Stories, Fox Chase Review, Deltona Howl, Artifact Nouveau, Black Bottom Review, and Feile-Festa. He lives in Langhorne, Pennsylvania.
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 120
When I look in the mirror
I think of the 1950s
horror flick, Invasion of the Body Snatchers
where a giant seed pod
hidden in a suburban greenhouse
bubbles until it becomes a double of you,
and that alien, at first half
vegetable and half human,
twangs into action
and takes over your life.
But who is this impostor
so much older than I am,
with his domed head,
a body bushy all over, the paunch
mushrooming each month,
his hands and head so variegated
no suntan can hide the spots.
How did that old man
slip into my house
and impersonate me,
grabbing my name,
my friends, my children,
pretending he is me,
and that he’s writing
Copyright © 2019 by Zack Rogow.
Confessions of Methuselah
How long have I lived? So long
I’ve seen slingshots change to fiery missiles
that can burn Persepolis to the ground,
floodwaters carry off bronze temple doors,
markets packed tight as a sheaf of wheat,
and warm cottages abolished
so they could raise towers
with shadows that race across a square.
Women now dress in less
Who even cares?
Only Methuselah. Yes, I stare
but they don’t notice me.
And if they do, they yell,
“What are you looking at,
you old monkey?”
and they laugh with their friends.
Is the flash of youth
worth an old age lasting centuries?
Now I barely
remember when I was spry enough
to fling a javelin
one hundred cubits
and plant it twanging and trembling
in the wet sand.
But I have seen cities with ten thousand sconces ablaze
where once there was only an ocean of sand,
bold heresies become gospel;
and I have laughed with men and women
who now are legend.
Copyright © 2019 by Zack Rogow.
About the Author
Zack Rogow is the author, editor, or translator of twenty books or plays. His ninth book of poems, Irreverent Litanies, was issued by Regal House Publishing. He is also writing a series of plays about authors. The most recent of these, Colette Uncensored, had its first staged reading at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, and ran in London, San Francisco, and Portland. His blog, Advice for Writers, has more than 200 posts on topics of interest to writers. He serves as a contributing editor of Catamaran Literary Reader. Visit: Zack Rogow