Write about a word that makes you squirm


* * *

A children’s dentist in a little upstate New York city. A room on the second floor of an old house, light filtering in through large paned windows. A fish tank burbling in the corner, orange and blue and yellow fish darting in and out of the windows of a small castle.

A white dental chair and a gentle man with metal instruments that feel cool and soft in your mouth.

A basket of unpainted, blank-eyed, plaster-cast figurines. The post-dentist-visit treat to take home and paint.

“Which one do you want, Alison?”

You point.

“The angel.”

* * *

The neutral living room of a man reputed to diagnose the undiagnosed and heal them with psychic surgery. You are there with a friend in need of healing. You, interested, sit in the corner and listen and absorb the man’s changing face as he half-closes his eyes and tunes in to your friend’s malady.

But the man suddenly turns to you.

“I can’t ignore them,” he says. “Are you aware of them?”

You don’t know what he’s talking about.

“Angels,” he says. “Your guardian angels. There’s one on either side of you.”

He shakes his head.

“I can’t believe how beautiful they are,” he says. “Tall and yellow-green, rising like smoke.”

* * *

A hair salon in south Minneapolis. The calm and graceful woman who has been cutting your hair for eighteen years. You know secrets about each other.

You remember a look on her face once, long ago. You knew that what you both suspected was going to happen must have happened.

Another time, you sat down in the twirly chair and she stood behind you, lifting your hair and studying your face. Then, suddenly, her hands came down on either side of you and she held your shoulders and kept holding them. She said nothing and neither did you, while you fought to keep the tears back.

Now she is getting married again.

“Tell me again what day the wedding is?” you ask, and she tells you.

“And what exact time is it?” you say, and she tells you that too.

But she intuits what you’re thinking and she tells you that it’s a one-hour time difference, so be sure to factor that in.

“Bring in the angels,” she whispers in your ear as you hug her goodbye. “I want them all gathered around.”

* * *

Walk into your house to see your youthful companion bent over her biology textbook at the dining table. Watch as she mumbles long biology words to herself, prepping for a test tomorrow.

“Help,” you say. “I have to write about a word I don’t like. And I really don’t like the word I picked.”

“Don’t do it then,” she says.

She lifts her dark eyes from the notes strewn around the table and flashes her white grin.

“Write about me instead,” she says. “After all, I’m your youngest angel.”

* * *

Miniature Torta #3: "The Voyage of Life"

My mother, an only child born and raised in Manhattan by poor but arts-loving parents, tried her best to instill an appreciation of culture in her own children. This was a strictly uphill battle.

She used to sign us up for things against our will, such as the symphony usherette program in Utica, 20 miles south. Being a Symphony Usherette meant escorting symphony attendees to their seats, with the reward of listening to the concert for free.

Sounds good, right? But we were semi-feral teenagers, raised in the woods, and we resisted her efforts by 1) never really learning the seating layout of the auditorium, thereby leading elderly patrons up and down various aisles while apologizing profusely, and 2) fleeing to the nearest McDonald’s in our long dresses the minute the orchestra started up.

The one thing she did that actually worked, though, was to take us to the Munson Williams Proctor Museum of Art. We went there a lot. I can still see the galleries in my mind. Our mother didn’t try to teach us anything about art; she just let us wander around. My sisters and I were transfixed from an early age by The Voyage of Life, a series of paintings by a man named Thomas Cole. Childhood, Youth, Manhood, Old Age. They were huge, majestic, old-school paintings. That’s the Childhood one up at the top of this post.

My whole life I have thought about those paintings. I loved them as a child, but they also disturbed me. That sense of inevitability, the passage of time, progressing from Childhood to Old Age. And the last one always felt to me as if the artist had stroked pain out onto that canvas. Resignation. Loss.

The last time I was at Munson Williams was many years ago. I pushed my grandmother around in a wheelchair and we admired the art. There was the Voyage of Life, in its customary place. I remember resolutely pushing her past the last one.

I wish I could paint, the same way I wish I could write music. Thomas Cole knew exactly what he was doing, even though he painted the Voyage of Life when he was a young man.

The closest thing I have to the Voyage of Life are the quotes I have taped to my computer over the years. There have been only three.

A diamond is a piece of coal that stuck with the job.

That one stayed on the computer for ten or so years.

Write a little every day, without hope and without despair.

That one also lasted maybe ten years.

There must have come a day when Thomas Cole looked at his fourth painting –“Old Age”– and thought, Okay. I guess I can’t do any more. And then he must have put down his paintbrush and moved on to something else.

Now I’m on my third taped-up quote, a line I heard in a song by one of my favorite singers.

Make yourself a blessing.

That one’s still in progress. Maybe it’ll be the one that outlasts me. Some of us have oil paints and paintbrushes and giant canvases that hang in art museums where little girls stand before them, transfixed, absorbing something that they will never forget.

And some of us have Precise V7 Extra Fine Rolling Ball black pens and scratch paper that we scissor into quarters and use to jot down shopping lists and to-do lists and, once in a while, a quote that might last us the rest of our lives.

Portrait of a Friend, Vol. 2

You must have known her from kindergarten on, although it was in middle school that you became close friends.

She lived in a small bright green ranch house right across the street from the middle school, which was right next to the high school, which meant that all she had to do was walk out her front door, cross Route 365 –the main street of the town– and there she was, at school.

Unlike you, sitting on that accursed bus, groaning and lurching its way around endless curve after endless curve, down from the foothills, 45 minutes or more to school.

In your memory she is always smiling. She had silky dark brown hair, parted in the middle, falling over her shoulders. Her nose was sharp and red and a bit hooked, and her eyes, in your memory, are blue, blue, blue.

And the smile. A big, merry smile that showed off her high cheekbones. You can picture her in the yearly school class photo. She would have been in the back row, with you, because when you were kids she was tall, too. She would have been smiling that big happy smile.

In middle school the two of you used to escape at lunch and walk across the street to the bright green ranch house. She lived there with her older brothers and her older sisters and her mother, who was, you’re pretty sure, a teacher down in Utica. Her father had died when she was a baby.

Her sisters and brothers were in high school, unimaginably older and cool. They were hippies. You and she were too young, you missed out on that. But often, when you walked into that little house with her, they and their friends would be there. Lying on the old couch, sitting on chairs, laughing and talking and wrestling and making offhand comments and jokes about things like sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll.

Had you been alone you would have been stunned and cowed and half-paralyzed by their coolness, their easy laughter. But you weren’t alone. You were with her.

Why did she like you? In retrospect you were quiet and reserved and an observer and not much fun, although maybe you’re not the best judge of that.

But one reason she liked you is easy: she liked nearly everyone. She had a huge and generous heart. She was also unafraid of things that you were afraid of, like saying out loud that which scared you, hurt you, made you angry. She was honest about things. She saw life clearly, and stating the obvious didn’t scare her.

The boy you had a crush on used to ask if he could have a punch off your lunch ticket.

“Sure,” you used to say.

“I’ll pay you back,” he used to say.

You would watch him run across the grass, back into the school. You and she were nearly to Route 365 now, ready to zip across and into the safety of that little green house.

“He won’t, you know,” she observed. “He won’t pay you back. And you’ll give it to him tomorrow if he asks.”

You looked at her. She looked at you and smiled. She was wise. She was honest. She stated things the way they were. And she was unjudging.

Into her house the two of you would go, breaking the school rule, although in retrospect it’s hard to imagine that any number of teachers didn’t see you zipping across that street every day and mentally shrug.

The cool older siblings and their cool older friends might be lounging about. She would greet them all, smiling, and then the two of you would go into the tiny dark kitchen and pour enormous glasses of milk. Stir in the Quik with tall-handled spoons. Dig the knife into the big jar of peanut butter and spread giant swaths of it on slices of Wonder bread.

You’d sit eating and drinking, trying to overhear the conversations in the other room. Trying to get some sense of what life could be like, were you cooler and older and wore tight bell bottoms and peasant shirts.

She was one of the few friends you kept in touch with after high school. She stayed there, in the tiny town, population 300. She went to college, sure, but she never wanted to leave the town.

You? You left at 18 and never went back other than to visit your family. Not that you didn’t, and don’t, love it there, love the way you grew up.

But staying there never felt like a choice. For her, there was no other.

“I love it here,” she said. “I want to live here my whole life.”

She got a degree in gerontology and worked with old people. She loved them too. People on the fringes, people unnoticed, people quiet and shy, she saw them. She noticed them.

Twice that you know of, because she told you, men asked her to marry them.

“I said no,” she said. Smiling that big bright smile.

You asked her why. She shrugged.

“Didn’t feel right,” she said. “I don’t know. I’m happy just the way I am.”

She was Catholic and that, too, was something she loved. Hers was a happy Catholicism, a big bright generous religion whose God was always with her.

Everyone in the town knew her. At the drugstore, at the one tiny bar, at the church, in the one tiny grocery store, at the bank. She was one of those rarest of creatures, a human being completely comfortable in her own skin.

She’s been gone twelve years now, but you think of her every day. Every morning, you talk to her. Picture her.

When she appears in your mind, it’s always in winter. She’s always brushing up against you, wearing a bright blue nylon parka. That dark hair, those blue blue eyes, that grin.

When you pour a glass of milk and stir in some Quik, you make a toast to her. When you and some of her other friends organize an annual fundraiser in her name, for an annual scholarship in her name given to a high school kid in that little town, you do it for her. When you write your annual check to the food bank in that little town, you fill in the “in honor of” box in her name.

If she were still here, she’d no doubt be running the place.

You wish you could go home and see her again. Walk into that bright green house and have a peanut butter sandwich. You’d go to the bar with her, let her introduce you around.