Shoelaces

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Shoelaces

They tend to disappear and then re-
appear, incarnated by the children into
whips or nooses,
hand- or ankle cuffs.
Clumping laceless around her house she sees the
evidence everywhere: wide-eyed dolls
beaten into surrender, a satin horse
dangling from a doorknob
by its slender neck.

Gentler lives
emerge sometimes –
a ribbon for a stuffed cat,
a ponytail holder for a curly-haired girl.
Rawhide threaded with
colored beads becomes a necklace.

Still, in dark moments it’s the
arsenal that she returns to.
Stop this, she tells them, as the
whip flails and the noose seeks a victim.
No, they say, it’s too much fun.
Their laughter, another sort of weapon,
hangs in the air.

Happy in the Same Way

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Every happy chore makes her happy in the same way – satisfying to perform, tangible results, a smoothing-out-of-life feel when she’s done – but every unhappy chore is unhappy in its own way. Vacuuming is one of her favorites, and so is wiping down the kitchen, and so is laundry.

Ironing? Dusting? Get thee behind her, Satan. If it cannot be put through the washer and dryer without undue harm, it is to be avoided. If it’s small and intricate and grouped with other small and intricate items on glass-fronted shelves, just say no.

Laundry is always a happy chore. Load after load: whites, lights, darks. She is a laundry racist, say her children, who believe in shades of gray and whom she does not allow to touch her clothes, not that that stops them.

Towels are folded first because a minute or two later, there’s a giant stack, and who doesn’t like to feel accomplished with so little effort, at least once in a while?

Then come the jeans, followed by the shirts, followed by the t-shirts, followed by the underwear and, finally, the socks, which are painful and frustrating for reasons all laundry-folders know and therefore best not discussed here.

Recently she went home, to the land where she grew up. There she found the house she grew up in, and the man and the woman who were there when she was born. The fields and woods stretching in all directions, and the pine trees and the white birch and the maple, and the remains of her old tree house.

She went to the diner with her father, and sat with the men who have known her all her life, the ones who heave themselves out of the booth to hug her, and then squish over to make room for her. She ordered the special – hash and toast and two eggs and coffee – and watched as the waitress brought out the special jar of strawberry jam kept in the diner fridge just for her father and his friends.

She was told by one of the men that if you stretch strings across your outhouse hole you can play tunes, that is, if you’re male. She is not male but she is intrigued nonetheless and would like to get to the bottom of this, so to speak.

She came home to sit in the thirty-eight-year-old New Room with her mother, who was still in her bathrobe and had made fresh coffee. Together they watched her mother’s computer, photos from forty and more years ago floating slowly across the screen.

Oh, there you are. So cute. Oh, there’s Oatie, her first birthday, so cute. Oh, there’s Robert John in that little winter coat. Oh, there’s the Christmas where you got the giant stuffed camel, remember? Oh, there we all are at Gettysburg – remember? Oh there you are holding Oatie’s hand on the first day of school, remember?

She remembered.

Late that night, after midnight, she came downstairs to find her mother sitting at the computer playing solitaire. The rumble of the washer and the dryer emanated from the other room.

“It’s late,” she said. “Aren’t you tired?”

“I’ll be going up soon,” her mother said. “I’m just doing your laundry.”

“I am capable of doing it myself, you know.”

Click, a red six on a black seven. Her mother is good at computer solitaire. And regular solitaire. And Scrabble. Click, a black nine on a red ten. Her mother smiled.

“I know you can, honey,” said her mother. “But how often do I ever get to do your laundry, anymore?”

She looked at her mother and listened to the whirring of the washing machine, winding down now. She remembered the years of the clothes hamper in the only bathroom of the house, holding the clothes of its six inhabitants. She pictured her mother, a non laundry-racist like her grandchildren, swapping out the newly dry clothes for the newly washed.

She kissed her mother goodnight and went up to bed. In the morning there was her laundry, clean, fragrant, folded.

She Met a Man by the River

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She was walking her dog near the Stone Arch bridge, high above the Mississippi. The day was a day of dreams, sun and wind and sky and every flowering tree mad with blossom and scent. Far below the water of the mighty river raged and foamed and spun itself over falls.

Her dog was tired and because of his tiredness, well-mannered. They had some extra time and she was tired, too, and so they slowed from their characteristic near-trot to an uncharacteristic amble. Coming toward them on the same path, next to some tall oaks lit by sun, was an old man.

She admired him the way she often admires old gentlemen, the gentlemen who always wear hats, and suit coats, and leather shoes. They remind her of her grandfather, the one she knew, who stooped over the wash basin with Lava soap, and the phantom one she barely remembers, the one who played the violin and emigrated from Russia, or was it Poland, when he was four years old, to escape the pogroms.

The old man brightened when he saw her and smiled at her.

“Isn’t it wonderful, to be a dog?” he said, gesturing at her black, four-legged companion.

“It is,” she said.

“To be free,” he said.

“To be nothing but yourself,” she said.

They stood smiling at each other. He was much shorter than her, and she tried to place his accent. Eastern European, she decided. He reached his hand down to the dog, who sniffed him and wagged his tail and then lay down in the shade.

“I am an old, old man,” he said. “I am more than twice your age, young lady.”

“You don’t look it,” she said.

He took off his hat. Wisps of silver hair shone in the sun. “Now you can tell,” he said. “Now you can tell what an old, old man I am.”

She shook her head. They kept smiling at each other. He noticed the pendant, her talisman, hanging on its chain around her neck, and asked her what the Chinese characters meant. She told him. He pulled a battered copy of “Japanese in Three Weeks” out of his pocket.

“I was so young when I was a soldier,” he said. “And I almost died the third time the Russians captured me, and I escaped through China, and were it not for the kindness of those people I would have died.”

“Where are you from?” she said.

He traced a map of his history on one of the oak trees. From Poland through the war, and on to Asia and the Himalayas and, after a long time, here. To this city built on either side of the mighty river that bubbles up out of the ground in northern Minnesota and threads and spreads its way south to the Gulf of Mexico.

He told her of his life. He was a child in that war, a child who was a soldier, a child who killed, by his own count, many soldiers on the other side and felt, what? He is not sure, other than that he doesn’t blame them, really, for capturing him.

“It is strange how quickly war strips everything away,” he said.

She sits now at her desk late at night and pictures him in his dark coat, his hat in his hands, that beautiful smile that he kept smiling as he looked at her, there where they stood by the river. He wept at one point, and she put her hand on his shoulder. He kept talking about the war, so very long ago, and the soldiers he had killed, and how he felt, what? nothing? not much? so long ago.

The Mississippi spun and danced far below them.The black dog lay quietly at their feet.

“On that last prison train, the one where most everyone else died, I managed to hoist myself up one day,” he said, “up to where there was a window above us, and I looked down. And I saw a river, far below. And on the river, a boat. And in the boat, a boy and a girl. And I could tell that he loved her, and that she delighted in his attention. And every once in a while, one would reach an oar out, to keep the boat straight. And the sun was shining.

“And I was fourteen,” he said. “And I thought: the river. The river. How beautiful.”

Now he was an old man. She watched him as he stood next to her and spoke to her, a familiar stranger, of matters of the heart. His heart. His life. His youth. All those soldiers. The bright and beautiful river, then and now. Had she been alive seventy years ago, and known him.

When she took her leave he bent over her hand and kissed it.

"The Only Reason to Make Art Is Because You Have To," said the potter to his friend.

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A day without sun, a day of gray rain and gray wind, a day when you suddenly do the mad calculation of spring-to-fall days and think, “My God, if the sun comes out right at this very moment and shines down continually until the cold returns, you will have only slightly more than one hundred days of warmth.”

The mad calculator in your misfiring head fixates on arithmetic like this, the kind that comes click click click on a night – most nights – when you wake slightly after 3 a.m. and think, “My God, if you fall asleep right at this very moment you will have only slightly more than one hundred minutes of sleep left.”

And then you will yourself to fall asleep, right now, right at this very moment, and you flip the pillow to the cool side, and you flip yourself to your other side, and you stick one foot out from under the blankets in an effort to change things up in a tiny way so that your brain will shut down and you will be asleep, right now, right at this, very, moment.

But no. No sleep forthcomes. And no sun either.

You heave yourself into the grocery store. What is it you need? The brain fogs like the sky outside. Butter.  “Most Pulp” orange juice even though you are the only most-pulper in the house.  Red potatoes. Apples. A bag of frozen okra because you have a mighty craving for okra and why the hell shouldn’t you fulfill it, this one small craving you can fulfill, given that your craving for sun and warmth will never be fulfilled because the sun will never shine again.

But what is that? What is that, over there on your left as you make your bleary way down the row of apples?

Why, it is an art gallery. Right here in the grocery store, a painting, a sculpture, a mosaic painstakingly assembled from colors you would have chosen if your name were God and you were creating the earth and it was only Day Three and you weren’t yet in need of rest.

Who is the artist? Is he the man in the green apron spraying down the lettuce? The woman making the pyramid of grapefruit?

You stand and look upon the display, the colors curving and swirling, rising and falling like the tides that are so far from this grocery store on the plains.  These peppers didn’t have to be arranged like this. They could have been lumped in piles, each variety to its own, segregation by color.

The artist stood here with carts full of unpacked produce and had a vision. The artist, name unknown, looked upon dozens of cool, satiny peppers and thought, “If you begin right now, right at this very moment, with these materials at hand, you can make something that will last as long as it takes these one hundred peppers to be plucked, one by one, from these shelves. Something lovely. Something beautiful. Something that won’t last.”

And he began.

Is This Where We Are?

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Once there was a baby boy. He was an intense and passionate baby. Before he was born, a couple of weeks before his official due date, his mother sensed that he wasn’t yet ready to be born. She could feel that he needed a little more time, just a bit more, so that all his nerves would knit together and he would be ready for the outside world, with its unpredictable loud noises and its occasional bright lights and the sensation of air all about.

But the baby was born anyway, despite his mother’s sense that just a little more time would have been a good thing. He took a long time entering the world – three days – and by the time he made it they, they being others who were not his mother, felt that extra caution was necessary in case he was sick after his long and difficult journey.

So in went the tubes and on went monitors and there he lay in a bright room with a paper cup taped to the top of his head. His mother held him in her arms in a rocking chair and fed him, and a few days later home he went, minus the tubes and the paper cup.

Soft lights. Quiet. Tight swaddling in a baby blanket. Constant touch. These were things that he seemed to crave.

Many years later his mother thinks of the word “swaddle” and can feel her hands moving invisibly: smooth out the square of flannel, fold down one corner, lay the baby diagonally down, up with the bottom corner and then across – tight – with one side and then across – tight – with the other. Presto, swaddle-o.

The baby wanted to be held all the time. If not held all the time he screamed and shook and made himself sick. So his mother held him all the time. She had a contraption she called the “Red Thing” that she strapped on when she got up, and into the Red Thing he went, so that he faced out. His thin legs dangled down. His thin arms dangled out. His head lolled until his neck muscles were strong enough to hold it up.

From dawn till late at night, the baby boy’s back lay against his mother’s chest and he faced out. She cooked with the baby dangling before the flames – dangerous! but she was careful – and she vacuumed with the baby swinging with the rhythm of the long vacuum pole, and she never sat down with the baby in the Red Thing because if she sat, he screamed.

They stayed in motion. Much of the time, the mother ended up pushing an empty stroller down the sidewalk because the baby screamed if he wasn’t in the Red Thing. When the weather turned cold, the mother buttoned her long winter overcoat all the way up and put a stocking cap on the baby, so that oncomers smiled at the mother and then shifted their eyes downward and smiled at the baby boy. It was a two-for-one smile.

When the mother did sit down, she took the baby boy out of the Red Thing and sat him on her lap with a stack of books beside them. They had two nursery songbooks that they were particularly fond of, and they – they meaning the mother – would sing their way through each page. This was long before the baby boy grew old enough to realize that he did not like the way his mother sang, and long before he had sisters, who backed him up on his “please don’t sing, at least out loud”-ness.

They read their picture books together, baby boy on lap, mother propping each book up while he reached out and turned the pages.

Where the Wild Things Are.

Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel.

Good Night, Moon.

Lon Popo.

Outside Over There.

Ferdinand.

Ferdinand was the boy’s favorite, the story about the little Spanish bull who didn’t want to fight, the little bull who wanted to sit just quietly under the cork tree and smell the flowers.

How many hours did the mother and the boy spend together, sitting on the couch, reading picture books? Many. Many many. Many years’ worth of many. It was their favorite thing.

When the baby turned into a boy, he went to sleep every night listening to stories on tape. He and his mother went to the library and checked out the stories on tape, and sometimes they bought them, and the boy knew the stories so well and loved them so well that once he was in bed he reached out and blindly pressed “Play,” not caring that he wasn’t anywhere near the beginning.

Once, on a long car trip, the boy woke from sleep to look at his mother and say, “Is this where we are?”

Years went by. The boy grew and grew. He grew until he was very tall and very thin, so tall that he towered over his tall mother. More years went by, and the boy turned eighteen.

One day, the boy sent his mother a text message: “Would you kill me if I got a tattoo?”

The mother would have been happy if the boy never got a tattoo, because she had been there at the moment when he was born. She could still see his newborn skin, so soft and paper-thin that touching it was like touching air. She could still remember crying in fury and sorrow the first time a mosquito bit that skin. That first scar.

But the boy was eighteen now, and 6’4,” and his body was his own. His body had always been his own, his mother reminded herself. She wanted to wrap her arms around that body and keep it safe, but. . .

But.

What sort of tattoo would he get, his mother wondered, and where would he put it? She thought of the needles drilling down through the layers of his skin, the ink pushing below the surface, and how much it would hurt. She tried to think of other things. It was hard.

“Not as long as it’s a heart on your bicep with an arrow and the word ‘mom’ in the middle,” the mother texted back.

The boy did his research and saved his paycheck, and the day came when off he went, to St. Sabrina’s Parlor in Purgatory. He got his tattoo. There it is up there. It is not a heart on his biceps with an arrow and the word “mom” in the middle.

But it could have been.