Whooping Cough Chronicles: Three

melbaby

Painting by Mel Williamson

Though the doctor has said my son can attend school, we quickly take a down-turn, and go down from there.  He stays home with me, where we cough.  Our strings of coughs often sound like geese honking, like seals barking—animalistic.  And sometimes they are wetter and deeper—more identifiably human, if human-on-the-way-out.  When the coughing fits grip us my son and I do some of the following:  pull abdominal muscles, burst blood vessels in our eyes, pee our pants (just me, he would want me to clarify), get bloody noses, slobber on our clothes, spit on the floor, choke, gag, throw up a mix of mucous and bile.  Because lying down brings the fits on harder and faster we dread nights.  Nights, of such solace to some sick people—when the world like them stops moving.

All day we alternate between holding completely still, to keep from coughing, and drifting around the house aimlessly, coughing our heads off.  I keep thinking if I go to another room I’ll feel better, my son says.   We are trying to get away from our bodies.  They keep following us.  Our coughs double us at the waist, and the gesture—if you panned out and muted the sound—could be one of bowing deeply, reverently.  We bow to cabinets and trash cans and scarred flooring.  We bow to each other.   

**

The lack of sleeping and eating (choking on swallows of phlegm doesn’t mix with food) soon inspires minor hallucinations.  It makes sense that after so much time in his cot, his only movement coughing, my son’s medals on the wall become fuzzy, ghostly with cobwebs.  But then some of them begin to corrode at the edges, as though a rodent has scurried the wall and taken select nibbles.  The ribbons fade before my eyes from royal blue, scarlet, emerald green, deep purple to barely-there color, the kind you get from staring at the sun.  They’re like the strips on a rainbow windsock which has hung in the desert, unwaving, for ten years straight.  One afternoon an Oak Bay Invitational Swim Meet 2nd Place ribbon the color of pink chalk slips off the wall and flutters to a stop on the floor.  It s aligned perfectly between our cots.  When we are blinded in twin coughing fits a muscled, speedoed Playmobil guy we don’t even own freestyles across the floor and collapses right inside it.

**

As we worsen the phrase he could have gone to school he could have gone to school replays in my head, as will the refrains of songs that cause us to cringe.  In attempt to make it go away I venture deeper into it.  I imagine how my son would slump down the hallway to his classroom, his backpack shaking when he coughed.  He’d shuffle right past the kindergarten room, where many mothers (sometimes resembling, in their exhaustion, peeling stickers of superheroes) stand at the doorway, excited and relieved to have a day ahead with “just” a baby.  Let’s say my son stops to look at one of these babies—maybe the one he insists is already so cool!—and he starts to cough.  Let’s say the baby lurches out to my son, cool tagging cool.  Let’s say the baby is perched on a tall mom’s hip, which puts his nose and mouth right in line with my son’s.   

**

When I’m well enough to advise, I may mention the Tdap vaccine like I’m speaking into a megaphone.  Step right up!  Don’t be shy!  Get your tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis here!  But no one, I discover anew, will agree on vaccines.  Everyone wants to explain why to, or why not to.  Voices raise, eyes well up, hands fly and feet stomp.  If you don’t get them you’re a brainwashed fool.  If you do get them you’re a brainwashed fool.  For every video clip on the internet of a baby dying of whooping cough there is a video clip of someone saying a vaccine damaged her baby.  For every article scientifically debunking the myths surrounding vaccines there is an article identifying vaccines as the way pharmaceutical companies slip us dangerous chemicals.  It becomes easier, when you’re sick, to give up on the idea of herd—herd immunity, herd sanity, herd generosity.  I might start to murmur the word Tdap.  I might start to conjure a dead child’s father, dressed as Robin Hood, breaking into sleeping houses at night with dosed needles. Soon whenever I say the word vaccine I picture a field of cows running strongly and loudly in all different directions.  Then I blink and in the spots where each of the cows had been standing before, just peacefully eating, lies a coffin the size of a clarinet case.   

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Whooping Cough Chronicles: Two

ourhands

When my son’s school sends notice that a case of pertussis has been diagnosed, we go in to see the doctor.  But we can’t see our old doctor, because he’s moving away.  Our old doctor makes western jewelry and lives on a farm he calls Ragged Azz Ranch.  I’m pretty sure his pick-up truck has the Zs written backwards—so stellar an aesthetic decision this keyboard won’t let me replicate it.  I used to run by Ragged Azz Ranch while training for marathons, and always I would wave back at the scarecrow placed in the seat of a dead tractor at the end of the driveway.  The first time I waved at the scarecrow my pace picked up considerably, and so it became a lucky thing I did.  Sometimes I wondered if I’d go even faster if I ran over and high-fived the scarecrow, whose upraised straw arm ended in a sturdy garden glove.  But I was still a crazy marathoner training to the millisecond at that point, and it would have taken like forty-seven seconds just to reach the scarecrow’s hand.  Now I only run in the forest, no watch but the sun.  I follow my dog on all kinds of detours.  I like to think the real estate agent, on her initial drive into Ragged Azz Ranch, glanced over at the scarecrow and dictated a note—not to remove it—but to put it in some classier clothes.

**

Our new doctor calls my name as she’s clicking down the hallway, before she even appears in the waiting room, and the effect is of being cued by a backstage percussion instrument.  As we walk to her office I notice my athletic son watching her high-heeled shoes–items he seldom sees on this island–and wonder if he is properly impressed at her pace.  One could believe, watching her, that high heels make a person faster.  Then we are inside her office.  Is admiring freckles perverse and prejudiced, because they’re on a person’s skin?  She has really nice freckles.  She speaks at the pace of an auctioneer.  My son and I seem, in comparison, like people who have been hit over the heads and then submerged in a giant aquarium.  We seem, actually, like scarecrows slumped on dead tractors.  I remember to say that at night especially our coughs plummet us, that we whoop and gasp for breath.  I remember to ask for antibiotics.  But she doesn’t think we sound like we have whooping cough.  As soon as she says it our coughs sputter down into nothing.  They skitter away like invisible friends when a parent asks who you were talking to.   

**     

The doctor agrees to do a swab on us, to send off to the lab.  If it comes back positive we will get the antibiotics.  My son goes first.  We hold hands.  His hand has long skinny fingers now, a hand of bones.  I would never know it was his chubby toddler hand if I hadn’t been holding it all along.  The doctor brings forth a long wand with a padded tip and slides it up into his nose.  Evidently she plans to access his throat via the back of his nose.  I watch.  The sinister silver handle of it keeps disappearing and disappearing into his nose, like a magic trick.  I wait for a dove or a line of silks to emerge from his other nostril.  His hand tightens in mine.  After a small eternity she eases out the wand.  My son’s eyes are watering, but he smiles at me.  The smile is one of disbelief.  His face is full of things he doesn’t say.

Then it’s my turn.  The wand goes in.  It keeps going.  Even after it should have stopped it pushes on. My hearing fades out.  I see stars.  The pain!  I think of accidental lobotomies, of babies being raped.  When at last the doctor eases out the wand, I drop my son’s hand.  He rattles it in the air because I had been squeezing it so hard.  That was so, so terrible!  I exclaim, and shake my head like a wet dog.  My son smiles and nods, embarrassed for me but also maybe pleased to hear it said.

The doctor is filling out the label, and seems to forget we are there.  I’m completely in shock.  For about three whole minutes I feel more shocked than sick.  I’m shocked about how painful the swab was, yes–but mostly I’m shocked about my son.  I know we’re not supposed to confuse bravery with stoicism, that we’re supposed to raise boys who talk easily and loudly about their feelings.  I know, too, that I wouldn’t be admiring my son’s silence if we hadn’t both endured, within minutes, the exact same pain.  In this way the swab provides a revelation of a non-medical sort:  how deeply runs my son’s quiet.  He didn’t cry out and he didn’t say stop.  His face, afterwards, did all the speaking.  Decades ago, during a french film, I may have wished for a certain boy I saw on the big screen.  If I had been younger I would have wanted not for him but to be him.  He had maybe ten lines, tops.  His brain and face whirred, clicking everything into place without the help of his mouth.  We long for things in the dark and think nothing will come of them.  But he stayed with me, that boy.  That quiet boy watching in the doorway, unblinking under his dark bangs. 

Whooping Cough Chronicles: One

 

coffin

Whooping cough, at its peak, is like getting strangled while being kicked in the ribs.  At approximately every eight minutes.  All day and all night.  You can even, with not much imagination, feel the leather fingers curling around your neck, the black boot tip plummeting a rib.  Someone has a cough.  But in this case, the cough has you. Dire as it sounds to say prisoner and captive and torture, by day two of the coughing paroxysms these descriptors might float quite naturally and easily into your head.  It is confusing when your body beats you up.  You think, I must save myself from this evil captor!  I’ve got to escape this dark basement, with its little gleams of sinister weapons!  But then you realize the captor is you.  The basement is your own bed.  The sun that you have waited for all fall and winter and spring is finally out there, sneaking into the room in feeble twinkles.

**

My sons are completely up-to-date on their vaccinations.  I say this matter-of-factly, not to start a fight.   

They are both brave about needles.  Even as babies they were brave.  As toddlers, when the nurse filled her needle, I always put my hand in theirs and said, Just squeeze when it hurts.  Squeeze as hard as you need to.  My hand would flex, ready, but no squeeze came.  Sometimes I actually squeezed their hands during the shot.  Just to remind me I was there.

**

A few years ago I stepped on a board in the woods and the nail on it went right through my flip flop, into my foot.  I only knew it had happened because when I stepped forward one of my flip flops was heavier and higher than the other.  The shoe had become suddenly stylish—black upper with a contrasting bronze sole, a fancy platform flip-flop.  I was dazzled.  And I forgot to get a tetanus shot, which would have also carried the booster for pertussis.

**

It happens easily, even naturally:  my older son gets a cold, followed by a cough.  I develop his symptoms a few days later.  Even when our coughs get bad, we figure it’s another virus.  The viruses on this island get passed around as fast as the gossip. I take to sleeping on dismantled bunk bed that rests about five feet from my son’s.  His room becomes a ward.  A ward strewn with soccer socks, some flat (fresh) and some coiled (used).  A room laced, on the slanted ceiling, with ripped superhero stickers.  The bunting I made with Nelly Bly, when she was visiting her tiny grandsons and initiating me on the sewing machine, dips down from the curtain rod, one letter per triangle:  B E B R A V E.  The wall over my son’s bed displays the ribbons and medals he’s won, and when the fan blows they flutter and clank softly, as though rousing awake to rally him into action.  The poster-sized Lionel Messi never looks back at us, no matter how hard we stare at him.  He only looks at a ball.  Will we die without ever having flown on Qatar Airways?  The wooden floor of the ward blossoms white with Kleenex tossed towards the trash buckets by our cough-shaken hands.  All through the night when one of us erupts in coughing fits the other answers back.  It’s oddly comforting, having someone overlap your coughs with his—it registers as evidence your suffering is being heard and replied to.  We become the relentless and unmusical versions of the owls out in the backyard, who duet deep into the night from nearby trees.

A Dream of a Dream of a Poetry Lesson

iseveryoneready

from A Visit To William Blake’s Inn

News arrives, blessedly late, that Nancy Willard has died.  And immediately the table I’m sitting at, with its secret history of stains and scars, the cherry tree blossoming outside the window in a way that appears wet snow is clinging to its branches, the stone campus buildings in Poughkeepsie, New York that that I can’t see, but let’s say even in sun their sides look stained by rain—everything everywhere is seeped of magic.  Of its possibility to be extraordinary.  Which is not true.  Only everything now is seeped of the possibility of being seen by Nancy Willard.  And I feel it all wilt.   But it’s really that I feel myself wilt on behalf of all these things, these things that she would remind me are straightening up and shining just fine.   

**

This is not entirely how it happened, but because this story features Nancy Willard it feels quite true. 

I was being held prisoner in the library of a college campus.  I was both the prisoner and the jail-keeper.  The prison itself was a beautiful attic room at the top of a very old library, and when I pulled back the wooden chair it squeaked a familiar song on the wooden floor—chair and floor, chair and floor, either a love cry or they were yelling at each other.  As dust rose it rolled forwards and backwards in the attic light, like surf does.  The window arched high, so all views from it were framed with an optimistic peak.  When the students down on campus stopped to talk, leaning into one another, their backpacks rose and faced me, zipper smiles.  Lots of students—not just the drama majors—wore all black.  An all black ensemble looked quite nice when paired with bright lipstick, which is something I had to get to New York to know.  From my perch I would sometimes see a spot of crimson gliding around the grey buildings, the dark-clad pedestrians.  It rolled like a fireball.  The red was so bright, in contrast, that it seemed to leave a trail of red behind it:  in the rain, in the snow, in the night falling early.

I didn’t look out the window much.  I had to write an essay.  I had to rewrite an essay.  Most of my classes called for essays and I had to somehow convey the information while making them good—that is, I tried to sneak in nice sentences where they were uncalled for.  Sentences with images, sentences that wondered.  And too many sentences.  The teacher who was so keen on Chaucer that he became (clad all in green and slipper-boots, his ruddy cheeks rising above a carefully-trimmed beard) a Canterbury character himself, scrawled into my reading-response notebook:  This is thoughtful, moving and elegantly-constructed.  But please don’t write so much here at the cost of your other work.   I was trying, too soon, to be a writer.  Or:  for all my learning I hadn’t learned to shut the writer off.  That’s what the little sparrow who landed on the attic window said, anyway.  I would use the word alighted, but he was scruffy and dingy and the light in the room dimmed rather than brightened when he appeared.   

You again, he chirped.  Don’t tell me you’re trying to write poetry into an Ethics of Journalism assignment?     

I was surprised that I understood the bird, but not shocked.  I lacked sleep and social interaction and anyway that’s what happens in prison, they say: the walls start to talk.  At least this wall had a bird on it.  And the bird had a very raspy voice, one that broke a lot—kind of like Scarlett Johansson’s—so it straddled the leap between speaking and singing quite naturally.

You know what you should do?  The sparrow said.  I waited.  But he tucked his head to his wing and began cleaning himself, like he’d never spoken at all.  When I looked up from the crossed-out page to the window again he was gone.    

I soon learned from his visits that all humans bored the bird deeply, especially me.  But because he had been born with the ability to help them, to see people better than they saw themselves, he had been cast out of the bird community.  So he was doomed to perch—song-less, nest-less, void of V travel—on so many man-made windowsills.

Gift, millstone, whatever, he sighed.  It’ll weigh you down whether you use it or not.   

I nodded.  I hesitated to talk to the bird, because it might prove I had gone crazy.  And because my voice, after his, was so flat.   

So listen, the bird said one evening, straightening himself out of a momentary deep sleep.  I had tentatively identified him as a Vesper Sparrow, but between the light and the rain and the snow and the window glass it was hard to tell if his tail feathers were actually white.  Can you scrap together six pages of decent poetry from all that nonsense you’re always scribbling?

Maybe, I said.  In truth I couldn’t seem to write an analytical paper without writing a poem on the side margin—it was kind of like the laughing gas that helped me abide the root canal.  But afterwards these squeezed margin jottings were often illegible, even to me.   

Good, he said.  I’ll come for them on Tuesday.  He did that pre-flight thing where he shifted his weight forward, and I watched carefully, not wanting to miss the split second when he transformed from a toppling ball of feathers to a long-legged, full-flapping elegant thing.  But then he swivelled his neck, looking back at me.  And none of that doubt crap either, he said.  You know, where you put in the poem that you can’t write this poem?  None of that.  Not for this. And like that he took-off, before I had a chance to say: I don’t know if I can do that.

 The sparrow flying away with my poems on Tuesday was one of the nicest things I ever witnessed.  The six pieces of paper flapped so wildly around the clamp of his beak it appeared as if the poems were doing the flying, just carrying the bird along for the ride.   Have you ever been lucky enough to see something you toiled over whooshing away into endless sky?  It makes you feel tiny.  It makes you feel huge.  It makes you feel not here and not there, like you’re something bigger than—other than—a body.

Time passed.  More snow fell.  In white skies the tree branches appeared as fissures—like each one had cracked into the sky, busted a spindly trail in it, and then suddenly stopped.  Sometimes the sky darkened in the daytime, perfectly camouflaging a grey stone building inside it.  When snow fell then it shone like glitter.  I asked the sparrow if he was shaking because he was cold and he said no, that moving non-stop kept the white muck off his wings.  White muck, he said.  I told him him he had a way with words.   

Hey, he said, that reminds me.  You got in.

It seemed a funny thing to hear from someone stuck outside.  I looked at him carefully.  His black eyes seemed beady, but I suspected if you plucked them out of all that surrounding fluff they might be the bigger-sized marbles, the shooters.

Your poems, he continued.  They must’ve been okay.  They only let ten people in.

To what? I yelped.  I had a fear of joining, of walking down the attic stairs.

Relax, said the bird. This is going to let you write all that stuff you have to cross out when you do those….papers.  He croaked the word papers with impressive disdain.   

Oh god, I moaned. Is it some sort of poetry class?

Seminar in fact.  Two hours a pop:  ten to noon.  He yawned.  Starting this Monday morning. 

I cursed.

No skipping either. I’m going to escort you personally to the classroom door.  Which, by the way, is a rare service—since I hate flying so low and so slow. 

A strange wish, for a BB gun.  I’ve never wanted one since.   But right then I wished for one and I wondered:  How much slower and softer would the bullet hit the sparrow for having first gone into window glass?

Look, I sighed, I don’t know if I can explain this to you.  But using analytical language to dissect a poem—especially a perfect poem—is something like.  Have you ever tried to sing when a cat’s sharp incisor is pressing on your throat?  Or how about this?  Imagine if after every few notes you sang you had to stop and—in a monotone human voice—explain what you just sang?  Or maybe it’s more like the pain you’d feel from the crash if you tried to fly and clean your wings at the same time….     

Relax, the bird interrupted.  This won’t be that.  You know the fireball you see out the window sometimes?

I jolted a little in my chair.  I had assumed that zip of red was a hallucinatory side effect of having spent too many hours in the attic, staring at too many cross-outs on too many sheets of paper.  Just yesterday I had admired it gliding between banks of snow and thought:  Ah, that’s why fairy tales are always combining snow white and blood red.

What is it? I asked the bird.

You don’t recognize your own kind?

Wait, it’s a human who can fly?

Birds can scowl even harder than we can.  Before this one I always thought they were just warbling as they preened.

She’s on a bicycle, you ninny.    

That got me.  I guess if you lived in a tower you’d think balls and cars and foxes were flying too.

But I only see red, I managed.

That’s her cape.  It has a hood.  And If you’re wondering, the hood has a tie, under the chin, so it doesn’t blow off at speed.  I flew alongside her to check it out.

I thought you didn’t get close to humans?

I don’t.  He turned his sparrow face away from the window, to the sky.  But she’s almost not one of you.

Well, I said.  I didn’t know what to say.  I didn’t know anyone on campus who wore hooded capes, or wore that bright a color.  I had never talked about a human with the bird before and I was disappointed, frankly.  It reminded me that I wasn’t down there with them.

Maybe I’ll try to meet her, I managed.

Yeah you will.  An empty space ensued, into which he trilled a few high, pure notes before turning back to me.  Monday at ten.  She’s your poetry teacher.

**

On the first day of class Nancy Willard handed around a sheet of onion skin.  That’s what we talked about, that’s what we wrote about: the onion skin.

The next class was similar.  I think she brought in some found poems from her medicine cabinet.  It was—like the one before it, the one after it—a dream of a dream of a poetry lesson.

Nobody caught me ripping a fragment of text off a cracker box in the cafeteria.  Nobody caught me trying to take the pulse of a leaf.  Nobody caught me chalking words into hopscotch squares.  Nobody caught me returning a borrowed pencil after I’d dipped the tip of it in yellow paint.  Nobody caught me with bark on my tongue.   Nobody caught me leaving odes to the sky under loose floorboards.  Nobody caught me reading a How and Why Wonder Book of Magnets and Magnetism.  Nobody caught me balancing on a gravestone.  Nobody caught me in a spider web.  Nobody caught me going into the janitor’s closet with a roll of Wint O Green Lifesavers.

If they had I could have told the truth.  I was doing my homework.

**

My feathered visitor was gone for good.  I began to realize what the bird had known already.  That the thing I had been fighting in me in order to succeed in an academic setting—the dreamy, curious, imaginative, isolating tendency—was actually a gift, a source of connection.  I didn’t prize it or tend to it right away.  But I did let some of the fight against it dissolve, which made writing easier.  The first time I realized I was smiling and writing, I looked straight over to the attic window, to the empty spot where the sparrow had perched.  I missed his visits, even when I worked happily.  But I knew if he appeared I would want to keep thanking him.  And surely he’d take gratitude gushed from a human with the same pleasure he’d receive a flung bucket of ice water.    

**

What can I tell about Nancy Willard?  Not much, to be sure.  She was elusive, as most people who would rather wonder than be wondered about are.  She had an impish smile and she smiled often.  In fact, she might be mistaken for totally blind, even as she rode a bike and wore glasses.  Hard-core dreamers like her often are.  Her yellow hair slipped out of its barrettes often.  She rarely seemed to notice but would sometimes shoo a strand  back lightly, absently, as one would a fly.  She was somehow—and I don’t know how on earth this works—both elusive, clearly a dreamer of dreams AND razor-focused, right in the moment.  She was kind.  She said Oh that’s marvellous and That’s extraordinary a lot.  When she said these things we all knew, without a doubt, that she found them so.  She spoke softly and breathlessly, like being stunned by so many things knocked the wind out of her.

I had never—before or since Nancy Willard—known someone who believed so fully in magic, who emanated magic and lived by magic, who so easily and insistently spotted magic in the ordinary every day.  To better process this quality I decided she was a witch.  A good witch, but a witch nevertheless.   The more convinced of this I was the more I realized that burning women at the stake back then for “practicing witchcraft” must have wiped out the best of the best.   Nancy Willard invited our class to her house one evening and I watched a bunch of cats sashaying among six foot high sculptures she’d made of angels and cloaked messengers and such.  Home-made mobiles of stars and moons and odd suns and maybe even bats swung from the ceiling.  I think I’m ready to be a witch too, is what I thought—and then forgot all about it for twenty years until my 3-year old couldn’t even go to the grocery store without putting on his witch costume.   I told him the witch I knew had absolutely used her powers for the good of mankind.  I agreed, when he prodded, that Nancy Willard was maybe a little bit like Glinda—if you subtracted the pink bling and added a shrewd brain.  They both seem to be always on the verge of laughing, I admitted.  I told him a spell is awfully like a poem.  And I told him I had once watched from behind a bush as the front tire of Nancy Willard’s bicycle lifted into the air.  Then, without the bike’s speed slowing at all, the back one drifted up to join it.  Both tires levitated so slowly and smoothly I wouldn’t have realized they had, if not for the strip of scenery visible beneath them.  And then what?  Well then I closed my eyes and shook my head, to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.  And when I opened them again the bike was rolling along normally, both wheels on the ground.   

Tell me again! he would clamour.  Tell me about your teacher on the bike that flew so no one saw!

There is no hurry, I guess, to remember the dead.  Indeed there is an impulse to slow down each memory, stretching it as far as it will go.  Some memories of Nancy Willard I’ve hoarded.  I’ve fought here against putting down some that I did.  By now the cherry tree outside the window has shed all its blossoms, and its limbs look even perkier for it.  A scruffy little bird just launched off one like it was sling-shotted.  How on earth do you mourn a person like her?  By marvelling, by wondering.  I marvel at how, just by being who she was, Nancy Willard changed my world.  Or showed me it could resemble a place I had known as a child.  That world had not a scrap of money or rank or slander in it.  No matter what you lost in that place you held firmly on to your sense of wonder, and to your sense of humour.   All inanimate things there were alive, and if you listened to them they would reveal secrets to you.   Maybe this reluctance to mourn is only a testament to the graciousness and the vivaciousness and the relentless curiosity of the dead person.  Of her capacity to instil hope.  When I think of her I think maybe it reduces spirit—it cancels a vote for magic—to suggest a body gone from this earth has to mean anything’s missing at all.    

Over the years Nancy Willard sent my sons some magical books in the mail—some written by her, some written by others.  And I decided to let those books tell them about her.  When I thought about taking them to meet her one day I imagined the three of us huddled in the attic window, watching the green plots and dark buildings and backpacked swarms parting for a fireball to glide through.  Hopefully as we waited they would be distracted enough by the busy scenery-in-miniature that I could rest my open hands on each of their soft warm hair–one rough velvet, one more like silk—and a peace would settle in the attic room.  The attic room: where I had once been so alone, and fought so furiously against my imagination!  Such is the power of Nancy Willard.  I envisioned us, too, crouched behind a large tree trunk on campus–me having just sent the boys dashing over to place a tiny metallic-green beetle on the trail.  In the long seconds we wait so many shoes will come perilously close to closing over it.  But then, the sudden song of brakes.  It will be her again, dismounting towards the beetle in a jumble of skirt and cape.  She’ll be leaning down to land on an iridescent galaxy.     

**    

Once upon a time, I left an attic room in an eastern college library to get lost in Australia, and everyone said:  What a shame you’ll regret it all your good grades gone to waste you’re throwing your life away.

But Nancy Willard said:  How wonderful. The stars will be so bright.

forwyatt(28)

“…The things we couldn’t see were as important as the things we could.”

Why I Never Look at Men’s Pants in Airports

Ozzy

(image arrangement, Wyatt McMaster)

1.

The captain comes on the speaker and says we will have to make an emergency landing in Chicago.  The plane lands quickly.  My dad, who once drove a fighter jet, squeezes the armrests and shuts his eyes tight.  I know what all can go wrong here, he says.  Once we are grounded the stewardesses—including the male stewardesses—bring forth many rounds of free alcohol to appease the grumbling adults.  The cart laps the plane again and again, bestowing me with so much ginger ale I can’t tell a sip from a burp.  Then we are herded out into an airplane terminal where, out the glass wall, a small black spiral grows bigger in the purple-green sky.   It looks like someone scribbled it on a page and is holding it up with shaky hands.  The scribble seems to be moving up and down as much as forward.  Tornado! Tornado! The adults exclaim, but jubilantly.  The alcohol has given the terminal—with its giant panes of glass that might at any minute shatter in and impale us with shards—a festive air.  No one seems to question the safety of our window-front view.

Look, my sister says, pointing.  A man stands to the side wearing white pants, and underneath them his boxer shorts are blasting polka dots.  The dots seem as big and red as the ones on a Twister sheet.  I watch the man worrying out the window, while the people around him laugh and chat lightly.  He shows no signs of being a person who would start his day by stepping into polka dots.  But even I know whatever you wear under white pants or shirts will show through, so he must have done it on purpose.  Is it a coded signal to strangers, or to someone he knows?  I decide If he just did it as a style statement then I like him.  A lot.  If he were to laugh I might even love him.   Around me the murmurs and exclamations have grown louder, but the polka dots are hypnotic.  I can’t look away.  I can’t decide who he is.  And just like this I miss my one chance to see a tornado up close.  

Someone said the tail of it flipped and flopped like an animal’s when it blasted by.        

2.

We are standing in a long lineup to board a plane in LAX.   I’m eight years old and in no hurry to leave California, where the people talk so much more than Ohio.  They go on about their feelings and they ask questions that aren’t polite and they bounce around dramatically, which I can only figure is because they aren’t tied to pastures by their roots.  I am taking back sand in my socks from the beach that morning.  Just ahead of us stands a guy with dark hair, dark glasses and black leather everything: boots, pants, and jacket.  Around his neck is both a silver cross and a collar of sharp silver spikes.  He’s a black shadow, the opposite of beachy, and to better stay inside my sunny holiday I don’t look at him.  But just before he steps up to hand the agent his ticket, a tall woman with long silky blonde hair runs up from the side, full speed.   She’s fast, even in high heels.  When she gets to him she falls to one knee on the carpet and presses her face to his butt.  She kisses the black leather there for so long you can blink and shake your head and look away but it will still be happening.

When she pulls her face away I exhale, Whew.  But then she opens her mouth and leans forward again, clamping down her teeth.  She takes a big bite of the leather, his butt under it.  And the man isn’t yelping or screaming at her to stop.  He’s laughing.  When she pulls away I expect her to have a torn piece of black leather between her teeth.  But no, she’s laughing too.  And then she rises to her feet and runs away, just as fast as she appeared.  It all happens in about ten seconds.  I can’t say I’m traumatized by it, but I will say it feels like I’ve been hit by a crow bar.  Is it so disturbing because I’m eight?  Or is it because I’m from Ohio?  I realize this too must be part of California–a part I might never be ready for.  I’m not even ready to look at his butt again, though I really want to see if there are any little holes in the leather.             

When the seatbelt light dings off at altitude, my oldest sister says she’s going to go get his autograph.  I ask who.  She gestures about seven seats up, to the edge of first class, where his black leather is darkening an aisle seat.  He looks to be sitting comfortably on his bite. My sister tells me he’s in a famous heavy metal band, and he once bit the head off a bat during a concert.  A bat, I repeat.  Biting through the neck of a bat makes a human butt seem like nothing, just a marshmallow.  I imagine my sister returning with a mangled earlobe, holding a pen studded with frothy toothmarks.   But when she sits down again she says he was nice.  Nice, I repeat.  She shows me the autograph she got for a boy at school.  What does it even say, I mutter.  She answers: Ozzy Osbourne.  I have to admit his cursive looks cool.  Like you could sculpt the two names out of wire, mount them on bases, and people would buy them, just for their perfect shapes.   I’m almost tempted to spy on him.  But instead I turn to the oval porthole, which is filled with sky so pure and blue it must still be California sky.

Among Aliens

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I grew up surrounded by aliens.  They gathered in the street, just like we gathered.  When the hedge apples fell they clunked loudly, heavy as heads, and rolled to a stop along the gutters.  Green orbs with creepy, gnarled features.  They were somehow both wizened-up and puffy, like we imagined shrunken heads would be.  And they were so solid you could injure your foot if you kicked one the wrong way.   A boy up the hill—the one who always had a new cast on another body part—pulled out a pocketknife freckled with rust, telling us the milk of a hedge apple was as sweet and delicious as a coconut’s.  He cradled one in his palm and sliced cleanly to the milky white center.  The fibres gave a wet smack as they pulled apart.  Then the air got cooler, like the knife had released an icy wind that had been trapped inside the hedge apple.

Here, have a bite.  

No way.

C’mon, It’s an apple.   

My cousin from California did try some of the pulp.  I only insisted because I adored him, his brown face and his white teeth and his faded surf t-shirts that smelled of laundry detergent.  His shiny, straight hair that always fell right back into place after he sprinted.  When we looked for fossils in the creek he talked about the ocean.  When we walked along the street he wished he’d brought his skimboard, to try out along the watery gutters.  Ohio was so strange to him that he believed me when I said we ate those gnarly apples.  I smashed one open on the curb, lifted a chunk of wet pulp out to him.  I called it the heart.  I said the heart was the sweetest.  When he gagged and raised his face to me, it was an eerie replica of the fruit: puckered and green, leaking a thin milky trail.    

I dare you, we used to say, hoisting a hedge apple with both hands.  After rain when the worms curved, pink and ripe, in shallow gutter water.  Dare you to bowl dead more worms than me!

In spring we shouted above the bird songs:  Dare you to ride your bike over that hedge apple!   It is one thing to slip and fall over your bicycle.  it is another to find your cheek knocking into mushy, milky pulp that seems to be peeing, or sweating.

Kids would dare each other, too, by subbing in hedge apples for balls.  A long bomb to the head could kill you.  Or you could hit a homer and break both wrists, but it would be worth the amazing sound of the wet-smash, the slime fireworks.  A croquet mallet worked okay, but the lopsided hedge apples didn’t roll very well.  One neighbour boy took a swing at a hedge apple and his father’s golf club snapped instantly and easily, a mere toothpick.  The girl across the street had a tennis racquet with its strings torn open in the middle from a hedge apple, and the effect was of a secret porthole some lucky ball would get to pass through, breaking forever-there barriers.  And how, so changed, would the tennis ball go back into a sealed can afterwards?  How would it do squeezed among others who merely tapped resignedly on entrances, taking them for walls?  I twirled her busted racquet around and around in my hands, wondering.       

Some kids said the hedge apples were radioactive.  That they glowed in the dark.  One night I placed a hedge apple on my bedside table, pushing the book and Aqua Man figure far away from it.  It looked to be glowing a little.  Maybe.  No.  Yes?  I couldn’t sleep.  The hedge apple began to hum.  It emitted a faint chemical smell.  It was like trying to fall asleep with a mess of brains doused in fertilizer on your bedside table.  The other-worldly presence of it, so close to my head, turned my thoughts in strange ways.  What if you cascaded a garbage bag full of hedge apples into someone’s bed and then spread it back up, hammering down the length of the blanket?  What if beneath my bedspread one night rested a whole other spread of slime that waited, in little sucks, like a breathing thing?   Did kids make hedge apples evil, or did hedge apples make kids evil?  At last I got up and carried the hedge apple to my closet.  I buried it beneath a jumble of shoes.  Even back in bed with the closet door snugly shut, I kept staring at the slat beneath it.  At any moment the crack would blast with electric green light.  How completely this little piece of nature could take over the house, starting with my closet.   I imagined my favorite sneakers beside it growing rubbery green warts, their laces wilting into strings of pulp.

One morning some older kids placed a line of hedge apples in the path of our school bus.  Last time I looked, a long scar still streaked the pavement at the spot where the bus used to stop for us.  Seeing the scar I saw again the bus driver’s face, a stark white oval framed inside a black window.  But no expression you would want to frame, that contorted mix of fury and panic.  Time stopped and stretched in the bus’s wild glide.  The hedge apples beneath the wheels seemed to grow muscle and lift the bus in little bounces.  When they broke, their thick sheets of slime steered the bus with stronger force than the wheel.  You could say that for about five seconds the hedge apples drove the bus.  Though no one was hurt, the kids who lined up the hedge apples were made to walk to and from school for a week.   I remember thinking they should have to grip a hedge apple in each hand for the mile walks.  But it was not about the hedge apples.  That is what one adult said.  I thought without saying:  yes it is.  And now, all these years later, I still think that.  I’m so far from a single hedge apple now, but I can clearly see the fissured green surface of one from behind closed eyes.  And my empty open hand feels the craggy weight of a hedge apple so exactly that it droops a little.  I don’t know how a thing so gross and weird and menacing can work its way into your best memories, until it becomes your best memories.  But there it is, and here I am, still thinking about them, still thinking yes.  Yes it was.  It was all about the hedge apples.

Open Mouths in Ireland

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Sisters in Ireland, 1974

The soda bread came with a dish of butter curls, a scattering of perfectly chilled O’s.  When no one was watching I pinched a whole curl right into my mouth.  Even today if a single cold shard of unsalted butter lands in my mouth I jolt around to see who’s looking.  Salmon arrived in red-orange sheets that seemed to glow, with balls of capers nestled on them.   My sister called them mouse droppings and pushed them to the side.  But capers were tiny jade alarm clocks.  The more I ate the more awake I was.  Don’t get me wrong, I love sushi.  But when facing a line of it I’ll sometimes attempt a bit of hocus-pocus, a spell to put my mouth back in Ireland.  I’ll wave my fingers over the pink piles of ginger, willing them to turn into salmon.  And likewise over the wasabi, so it might darken four shades of green and roll tightly into capers.     

My dad, Patrick, pulled trout out of the Shannon River.  Their flashing silver bodies flipped on the line lazily, gracefully, and if you didn’t see the hook you might think he was saving them.   He had pulled me up in a similar way, when I got caught with a hand on the boat and a hand on the dock.  I had been out swabbing the boat decks, and I slipped.  I did not open my mouth to call out for dad, the only person on board.  I kept quiet.  My arms shook and then shuddered.  If I had let go I would have been crushed between the boat and the concrete wall.  But Patrick walked up on deck and spotted me, just in time.  In my memory he pulls me up higher than he has to–he lifts me way over his head.  When Patrick jerked a trout out of the river, sometimes the line sailed so far up the fish appeared to fly.  I kneeled by watching him dress and clean it, to show that nothing alarmed me.  I thought without saying so that it was funny to clean a thing only after it dies.  It was funny to say dressed when you meant taking off its skin.  Every bite of trout required hard work. You had to fiddle away all the tiny bones that were the same transparent white as the fish.  But the taste was rich and when the flavour oozed out you got to sense for a split second how it might be to glide at the bottom of a murky, swirling river.       

We walked into this or that village and got fish and chips, which came wrapped in newspaper.  The grease splotches darkened whole blocks of print and that looked neat, the way the black letters and the white page and the grey splotches all competed for my eyes.  Chips were fries, some cut to large ovals.  You could press a warm salty one against your lips and no one would know if you were smiling behind it.  A dog appeared at our bench and waited for something to drop.  When we left school to go to Ireland I was told to keep a record of my trip, but each page of my notebook just described another dog I met that day.  The donkeys couldn’t beg for food because they were out in the green fields.  They might come over to the edge for a carrot but even as one took it he would butt my hand away with his snuffling nose.  We really just got through the fish and chips for the ice cream cones afterwards.  Creamy was a flavour but also a texture.  Very creamy ice cream seemed to stroke your throat as it slid down it.  Into each vanilla soft serve cone they jabbed a Flake, which was a chocolate wand made by Cadbury.  Some kids with will power used their Flakes as spoons: dabbing up ice cream on them, sucking it off, dipping it down again. But my teeth wanted the Flake—so much that they would already be biting down, chomping into each other, as my fingers tugged it out of the ice cream.  At home I would try to tell a friend about a Flake—how it was a candy bar but not shaped like a bar, how the chocolate flakes of it were all pressed together, but when you bit into it they flew apart again.  Weird, he would say.  Or: Gross.  And oh how I wished that instead of feeble words I had a Flake, to shove into his mouth.

In the pubs we ran free, around legs and instruments, meeting other kids or avoiding them.  No one kept track of how many orange or lemon squashes we drank.  The first time a bartender gave me a glass of black current squash I thought it was wine, and I gulped it down very quickly, before anyone could find out.  I waited and waited to feel crazy.  Once the music started everyone in the pub was  deaf to each other, which I registered as freedom.  On T.V. I’d seen a tiny cartoon figure travelling through a human artery, and when the music filled the room I thought of this.  It felt like we’d been placed right inside a thudding, pumping, flowing bloodstream.  On the break a musician handed me his silver tin whistle with a blue mouthpiece and said I could give it a go. It had a strange, sweet taste and as I blasted wobbly notes I realized what it was.  I was eating his spit.

Patrick let me slurp a little foam from his Guinness.  It never tasted like it should—that is to say, like whipped cream.  It tasted bitter, like something not meant to be eaten.  Would sewage foam taste the same?  I vowed never to sample Guinness again, but by the time his next pint came around it would look just like whipped cream.  Whenever we tied up the boat at a new place Patrick would send me and my sisters to the pub for a pitcher of Guinness.  No one kidnapped us, or said we were underage.  No one asked where our parents were.  Even the youngest kid we stopped could point the way to the pub.  We ran there like it was a race.  But once inside our eyes couldn’t see, and we stepped slowly and clumsily, like we were shy.  It took a long time to fill the pitcher.  The bartender couldn’t just spray it—the Guinness had to hit the tilted glass first.  I always wanted to see a reverse Guinness, with white on the bottom and black on the top.  The bartender took a piece of tin foil and pressed it very tightly over the pitcher.  Then she handed it over to us, saying, ‘Twouldn’t do to get a drop of rain in the Guinness.  Once out the dark pub, we shrieked and skipped.  The sister whose turn it was to carry the pitcher lagged behind.  No matter how thirsty she got, she wouldn’t think of sipping from the drink in her hands.  It was all for Patrick, and it wasn’t enough.  Even in pouring rain we could smell the way back to the river.   We tilted our heads back.  We opened our mouths to the sky.

I Never Nearly Died of It

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Is weather the last topic you can rant about without offending someone?  And even then, it is always worse somewhere.  And at this moment—at every moment—someone is losing her home or life to the weather.  So it’s smug and entitled to stand inside a house looking out at the weather, whining about it.  A civilized voice would remind you that once you’re out moving through it, really participating in it—the weather seems fine, lovely even.  The civilized voice would connect the word winter to the word lovely.  This is what I try to hear—a scrap of a civilized voice—as I stand looking out at the rain as it shifts from sleet to snow and then melts to layers of slush and mud and then snows again and then rains again and then the wind comes up and the power flickers and is lost and then the snowflakes start again, hitting the pane in little clicks, and then the mounds of snow melt again, making ponds in the field, and the sky goes from white to grey to black to white to grey to black to white to grey to white.  I will myself to find some green, some brown, some beige.  Or sometimes even—in brief flashes before the clouds clot together again—a strip of pale blue.

Neutrals, though.  They bring me all the way down.  I don’t care how clean or modern your house is, if it lacks orange, turquoise, yellow and bright green I’m never going to relax.  I mean bright green too, not olive or forest or sage or whatever name they give green after they mix mud into it.  And yes, I will talk about myself here in terms of your personal house decor because actually I speak for a whole segment of oppressed people whose souls wither constantly by being forced to choose between some shade of grey or black or white or beige.  People who stifle hope whenever met with the phrase colour choices—knowing the choices will all be terrible muddied versions of colours.  It is true you can find a really bright couch, for example.  If you have a small fortune, and if you operate a small barge.  And yes indeed, you can buy a raincoat that is neither neutral nor some tacky polka-dotted or drapey yellow Christopher Robin thing.  If you live in England, and if you wear a child’s size 6X.  You might be well-stocked and perfectly satisfied If you like bright colour and have a high threshold for gaudy.  And If you have no idea what I’m talking about then you are in the right place at the right time.  In the right weather.   Throw on your brown coat over your grey sweater, slide into your black boots and scamper off happily.   Admire the grey slush tracks your black boots leave behind in the white snow, and later relish the colourless steam rising from your dune stone mug.  Don’t mind me, I’ll just be sequestered between these lemon yellow walls figuring out the most-permanent-but-least-toxic cobalt blue paint I could use on this dark eyesore of a pepper-grinder.

But what if winter were the more brightly-coloured season?  Let’s say the cold made nature and humans more colourful, and being in the tropics was like being inside a black-and-white photograph?  What if swimsuits and T-shirts were only available in grey and beige and black, drab solids—but wool sweaters and long johns came in outrageous brights?  Palm green with tangerine stripes, hibiscus red with sea foam elbow patches.  What if sand was always grey and ocean always black and summer skies always white?  If the snow that fell out of bright blue skies was always a different colour?   So despicably unscientific, I know.  I’m just setting it up like this to ask you—you summer lovers you colour lovers you winter lovers you lovers of yawning neutral—what then would you choose?    I might actually choose to give up colour and  live inside a black-and-white photograph, just to be dependably hot.  That’s how much I love the heat.  Probably because I never nearly died of it.  As a child I would beg to be left in the car on a black asphalt parking lot with the windows rolled up.  All summer I dreamed of this.  Even when I was hot I dreamed of being that much hotter.  But rather than being left in the parking lot I was made to walk along with the cart through the frozen food section, shivering.  Had I been allowed to almost die in the car, I might be a winter person.  I might be filling this page with gracious odes instead of ranting accusations.  But no.  Getting goosebumps fills me with disproportionate exhaustion and defeat.  The first whiff of icy wind and I’m a sulky sore loser.  I was probably this way even before I got lost in the forest, and shuddered all night in freezing temperatures on a bed of leaves.

That was what you’d call a long night.  So long that I’m still in it sometimes, when chilly days darken.  I had hiked out into the afternoon wearing shorts.  It was early spring at high altitude, so by noon the day held no trace of the previous night’s bitter cold, or the bitter cold of the night to come.   I had found a shard of ancient Mimbres pottery in a dry creek bed, and it was so beautiful in itself that I got distracted by the dilemma of whether I would have to hand it over to the museum.   My shard—for I already thought of it as that—must look even better than the whole piece it came from, is what I thought.  Because the chopped design on it only told half the story.  At that time I still favoured half stories, the parts unsaid.  So I was fixated on that piece of pottery, rather than on the trail.  And it’s amazing how long you can believe it’s not getting dark.  Maybe I trained myself for this all those nights we held our ground in the street past dark, still catching the ball perfectly.   As the sky went navy I rushed along various trails, then began running them full-out, but the dark won.  Being lost won.  During that long night my assurance-by-investigation impulse withered completely, so I never looked around to see the source of all the footsteps and rustlings.  I don’t know what animals approached me.  I don’t know that one of them wasn’t a lost toddler, someone I might have saved.  I just kept my eyes on the stars, which had never appeared so kind or so needed, even if they couldn’t throw heat.  From across the forest ridge a few houselights were winking at me too, but I registered those as taunting, even torturing.  I thought of them recently while reading The Little Match Girl to my sons. We got to the illustration where she’s standing barefoot in a skimpy ripped nightgown, looking in on a lit dinner table filled with good things to eat.  Too bad the curtains aren’t on the outside of the window, my older son commented, pointing to the narrow rows of fabric I had missed.  Then she could just close them.  As I answered him—She might not, though—I remembered how often that night I peeked at those houselights across the forest ridge, though they made me so much colder.  The distant dog barks I  heard had the opposite effect.  They were as faint as an animal toy with dying batteries inside a closed drawer.  But they put an idea in my head.  Whenever the cold became unbearable I would conjure each dog I had ever known and recall the details of its dog bed.  I would crawl back into that memory and curl myself up on this or that fur-slashed cushion, beside the warm animal.  In this way one faceless dog I’ll never know warmed me up the entire, eternal night—just by talking once.

Another time I got hypothermia while swimming, and it seemed like a good idea to take a little nap in the middle of the ocean.  Upon entering the cold water I had thought if I swam harder my shuddering would stop.  And it did, finally.  My arms slowed.  Then I became convinced my body was stretched flat for sleep, not swimming.  I felt completely peaceful and dreamy, like a true winter lover.  Though I didn’t get very far into the process of hypothermia, from what I sampled in the ocean I would recommend it.  Imagine all the anguish you’d skip, if you were too confused to know you were dying.  Or you could stay where it’s warm and dry and feed yourself drugs, which might even be better.  I can’t describe how tough it was to swim to shore instead of sleeping. I really only made it due to my calm, rational and utterly supportive inner rescue hero voice, which has only ever spoken when I’m in danger of death.  Maybe four times in my life it has stepped up and taken over.  If this inner voice took over daily I would be so fucking rich by now.  Rich enough to have that bright orange velvet couch delivered by freighter to the beach bungalow I’d also buy.  Anyway, ahem, I somehow reached the side of the bay, where rocks were being battered by small ocean waves.  I got battered along with them while heaving myself up.  The barnacles slashed my knees and upper arms red in the climb, but like my inner rescue hero voice said:  That stinging? Think of it as singing.  Your wounds are just humming a little song to you.  Once safely on grass the voice disappeared for eighteen years and I started shuddering again.  I was alive!  I could be offended by the cold again!   Except the man whose sea-side yard I’d collapsed on thought I was the donkey who had been eating his flowers.  He sling-shot a big rock, which hit me squarely in the back.  It hurt.  But I suppose he could have shot me, and what a one-up to the hypothermia that would have been.  Is it possible that now whenever the weather dips below 5 degrees Celsius (that’s 40 degrees Fahrenheit, for you readers who have been patiently converting colour to color) I am doomed to feel as though I’m again swimming through frigid ocean?  As though I’m being nailed in the back by a sharp rock?  Because that is what the cold feels like to me.  I guess it did to that kid shuddering past the frozen waffles, too.   Even before she ever got lost—or lost her senses—in the cold.   

I do wonder about weather.   I wonder, if someone writes about it hard enough, furiously enough, deeply enough—if she writes about it right enough—can she change it?  If not the weather, then her weather?  If she paints with an electric palette and complete focus, can she lift herself out of a black-and-white day?  And for how many days?  I wonder if we can happily ignore what weather our bodies like?  And if by staying out of that preferred weather long enough will we find, upon re-entering it, that our bodies don’t even like it anymore?   Just as it is our responsibility to get happy and treat others kindly, is it our responsibility to get to—to live in—the weather that makes us happiest and kindest?  Was it easier before airplanes, when you had no experience of what other weather might be?  Even then, did some people put up black curtains against the sun, as simultaneously a neighbour dashed out tearing off layers, to better feel it?   Some people who nearly died in blizzards might be sad every spring to see the snow go.  Whereas others who barely got any snowfall would feel as though the wet weight of it was melting off them instead of the ground.  As though the snow and slush had been packed in heavy piles on their heads and shoulders all winter; it had dripped into their eyes and filled up their ear-holes, making them blind and dumb.  I wonder if way back when an entire town was comprised of identical white farmhouses, someone had the deep-December urge to paint a front door turquoise?  I wonder if right now some child who has never left the desert is dreaming of living in a room that, though invented in her head, resembles exactly an urban movie theatre?  A giant room without windows where rows and rows of people can go and sit in the dark and have cold air beamed at them out of vents.  If she never leaves the weather she was born into, will she always find light and heat oppressive?  Will her grown-up self forget the dark cold paradise she dreamed?

I’m done talking about the cold now.  It’s the 7th of March and the snow and rain have been battling all day for who gets to take up the sky.  I have just gone through this essay and cut out most of the expletives.  There were so many.  Each one warmed me up in its own way.  Now that I’ve reached the end, the child who wanted to be left in the sweltering car with the windows rolled up won’t leave me alone.  Maybe she thinks I’ve forgotten her all these winters.  And maybe she’s right.  At least she’s being quite clear in her bullying.  Tell them about the time you went to Key West! She’s demanding.  Why haven’t you told them about Key West!?!  I don’t know what she wants me to say.  I was nine. It was a long time ago.  I write a sentence including the words Key West, but it lacks heart.  It lacks context.  Do you want me to say the houses were all painted nice bright colours, like popsicles? I ask.  She winces as though stabbed, and starts to dictate:

For spring break I got to leave winter.  It was snowing hard when the plane took off.  But the sky above the clouds was blue blue blue and it stayed that way the whole time, except at sunrise and sunset when it got nice and bloody.  We went to a place called Key West.  It was like being in a warm bath but the water never got cold and even when you were walking around with clothes on it still felt like you were in the bath.  I didn’t have to wear socks or pants once.  Most of the grown-ups I saw were smiling and not rushing.  They were like balloons.  They floated and bounced along the streets, or their strings got caught on porch swings.  Lots of people sat a long time on porches.  Some even put beds out there.  They were like me, never ready to go inside.  Every sunset we’d walk to the beach for a full sky view.  The people there acted happy and crazy, like it was their birthday.  I ate my coconut ice cream cone and watched the guy on the unicycle swallowing fire.  He needed ice cream more than me but I ate it.  Every day I chose coconut.  I tried to put flavours in my memory for when I got back here, where there is no shrimp or conch or coconut ice cream.  But there must be a glitch between the tongue and the brain that keeps you from remembering taste.  In Key West I could stare at people all day and they wouldn’t care.  They wouldn’t even notice or change their words because a kid was around.  Maybe they thought the air and sky muffled their voices?  I’m still figuring out some of what I heard.  We went to the house where Ernest Hemingway lived and when the tour moved on I stayed back in his writing room.  I wanted to sit down in his chair but a cat was asleep on it.  The place was crawling with cats and even though I’m a dog person and allergic I really liked how the paws looked on the ones with six toes.  They looked so wide and round, like they wearing puffy mittens made out of matching fur. I walked over to the window by Hemingway’s desk like I lived there.  No one was in the room so it felt like my room.  I pretended the palm leaves at the window would help me decide my next pages.  Some day I’ll sweat when I write.  I’ll live somewhere really hot with my desk under a ceiling fan on the slowest speed and I’ll leave all the windows open, so the plants poke in.   The next day after our beach swim we had to go to the airport.  I wanted to hide.  I begged not to shower.  On the plane home my skin was stretched tight from salt water and sprinkles of sand kept dropping out of my hair onto the seat-back.  The airplane was freezing.  But that morning I had only pretended to put on sunscreen when my mom said to.  Luckily I had a sunburn, so I got to feel like the sun was still out.

Once Upon a Rush Hour

natulis

nautilus left on a sidewalk

A curious king of a small ocean territory once sucked a bunch of mermaids into an inland city.  Mermen went too—but just a few.  They couldn’t find each other.  Part of the deal was they lost their tails, which would have made them obvious to each other.  And they had nowhere to swim.  Community pools and public fountains weren’t allowed.  Even without tails they would have given themselves away in water.  By their force, their depths, their sheer easy happiness.  The modern times they found themselves inside might mint them mer maids-slash-men, but I’ll just call them water people.  It flows better.

The city was way too loud for the water people.  They went around turning off radios and TVs and vacuums and iphones.  They twisted the keys off in the ignitions of so many vehicles.  Because they had spent their lives swimming rather than walking, they knew the look of their hands more than land people did.  And now they often saw their very familiar hands resting on completely foreign knobs and dials and buttons and switches and keys. Then Here I am! crashed up hard against Where am I?, rendering them fuzzy and dumb.  When the water people missed the feeling of their tails slicing a sharp turn, or wistfully remembered the sight of a single pearl stabbed in an urchin, they were also just missing their own shrewd clarity.  Being in a new land, constantly stunned, softened their sharp wit to dust.  One land person, a very practical one, reported having the unusually strange thought that if he pursed his lips and blew into the face of a certain water person, her features would poof away like powder.

It was so dry, of course.  And busy—all motion on land happened at great speed.  And again, it was very, very loud.  Even when the electric sounds stopped, everyone on land kept talking.  The water people couldn’t do anything about that.  They didn’t much mind deep or dreamy talk, delivered from soft or slow-bouncing voices.  But mostly people spoke in rushed staccato about taking caution, about getting ahead.  The water people had no interest in getting ahead.  They had been taught from babies to trust flow and currents.  They liked to float.  They pushed deeper more often than forward.  They favoured detours and gliding into watery caves that they knew wouldn’t take them anywhere.  So when a land person asked them in one of so many ways, How much ground can you cover? the water people just blinked.  They lacked the momentum necessary even to lie about having momentum.  Another thing the talking asked, in so many ways, was: Aren’t you worried?  But worry didn’t belong to water.  It belonged to the sky.  Or rather to the signs and wires and lights and buildings buzzing in the sky.  Worry belonged to the pavement.  Or rather, to the cracks and litter adorning it, to the drills going into it.  To all the shoes pounding over it, late already.  Some people curled up on sidewalks or benches in the middle of this rush, and these people seemed more akin to them. The water people sometimes mistook on-drugs for dreaming, and plopped down to join.  Dreaming felt familiar as a way of swimming.  Swimming inside the head.

The land people could see these water people were no more useful than babies, and yet some were oddly mesmerized.  A few would even use the words fell in love—but only much later, when it was safe.  The water people did move in a flowing graceful way, and some of them sang beautifully.  The mermaids wore sequins and rhinestones even to take out the trash, which created a certain allure.  The mermen had broad shoulders and long eyelashes and no sign of a temper.  And the water people had very strange insights that admirers took for humorous, or even genius.  Some smitten land people drew closer and closer and then—upon realizing they wanted to get yet closer—turned and ran for their lives.  They knew the water person wouldn’t chase—that if they looked back she or he would be slumped, frozen in confusion, in the very spot where they had started running.  Still, they sped up.   There was a sense if you kissed a water person you would grow dark and lethargic, like the ocean bottom.  You wouldn’t hear anything, aside from occasional muffled chanting.  You’d no longer be able to even pretend to act busy, and you wouldn’t want to.  For although they were locked inside a city, the water people oozed endless ocean.  Even when standing in a crowded parking lot.  Even when smiling into their coat collars.  Even when sitting cross-legged on a bed in a basement apartment, saying, I haven’t actually been to the ocean.  What’s it like?  This really happened to a land person.  He began to gently caress a graph across the mermaid’s leg as he explained about surfing, about how when the wave summit was x you launched yourself y to follow trajectory xy, and etc. xyz etc.   She shifted and sighed and generally acted the opposite of romantic, until finally interrupting in a harsh, exasperated voice, But tell me about under the waves!  About way, way under the waves!   It could never work.  It never did work.  Which is a relief really, as the ocean king had not thought ahead to the consequences of interspecies, if the conception of such a thing was even possible from between temporary legs.  The water people grew less and less tempting anyway.  Their skin began peeling, leaving a small coating of snow on the insides of their clothes.  Their hair split and sizzled when it was brushed.  Their lips resembled two thin strands of ripped lace.   They progressively stood out—not for their watery grace and sheen, but for the opposite. They looked like husks of humans, like other bodies had crawled on and left these shapes behind.  And since they couldn’t effectively serve as undercover spies when all eyes were on them, the king had to call for their return.  He had people owing him favours on on all corners of the planet, as kings do, so it was no trouble converting a blown conch shell warning to a city air raid siren.

The water people got sucked back forcefully and suddenly, which meant they couldn’t carry any souvenirs.  Among the things they might have chosen to take were: flashlights, lip balm, wasabi, pillows, fillet knives, harmonicas, coconut water, Edna St. Vincent Millay poems, disco balls and tube socks.  Animal friends who had made their time less lonely could be heard whining and shrieking and mewing softly.  But they stopped as suddenly as they began.  Except for one favoured dove a water person had been teaching to breathe underwater, who cooed softly all through rush hour.  When the water people left it took the land people a long time to realize they were gone.  Then remembering them was hopeless, like trying at dinner to recall a dream from the night before.  But in certain pockets of the city–spots where the water people had vanished–the air seemed to thicken and hold a person in place.  A pedestrian’s worry would grow quiet inside one, and she would forget she was late.  Whatever small thing she happened to be looking at–a stoplight or a gutter or a mitten–would suddenly appear immense and original.  It would seem at once very close and very far away, like a thing lying all by itself on the bottom of an ocean.

Charmers

hungry

A long time ago now I had a job at a low-income daycare center, funded largely by the state, for children not yet old enough to attend kindergarten.  I was hired as an aide for two boys in particular, who had been assessed as high-needs.  Every woman on the staff was called, regardless of marital status, Miss.  Followed by our first names.  I soon got so that I didn’t think of dead babies when the little voices called out for me: Miss Carrie!  Miss Carrie!  I have never in my life—before or since—been bruised as much, or touched as much.

Keeping an eye on my two charges could be difficult.  Many of the kids at the daycare were starved for love, and of course people starved for love are the best charmers.  Boys and girls alike would compete for my attention like crafty suitors, playing with my buttons, going out for long-bombs, asking about the dogs I knew.  They’d drape themselves over me and tell amazing stories, the kind I only strive to tell.  One might start out about a pony with its rainbow mane flying back, for instance, but then some detail from a crummy home-life would drift in uninvited, a dark shadow cast across a summer picnic.  My pony has diamond teeth.  It can jump higher than the storm clouds!  But if it goes too far away my mom has to drive it home and she is so mad she slams its hoof inside the glove compartment so it can’t move!  If it moves its hand will get sliced off!  I would want to believe the darkness in these stories was invented.  But usually the child’s voice would become more halting, and her eyes more drifty, on the innocent parts.   

Both my charges ignored me.  Well, they tolerated me.  One of them, I’ll call him O Hungry One—we weren’t sure if he got fed, except at school.  He was always sneaking out of the classroom and dashing down the hallway to the kitchen.  The woman in charge of the kitchen, Miss Rhoda, would feed O Hungry One endless snacks, but he had to work for them.  And when I peeked in to see him carefully arranging dough on a cookie sheet, or stirring a pot of soup, I froze.  I gawked.  This boy I didn’t know had O Hungry One’s haircut; he was wearing O Hungry One’s clothes.  In the classroom O Hungry One had no attention span for books or toys or other children.  He liked to systematically destroy crafts, in fact.  He’d sneak around and slam shut the books kids were reading.  But in the kitchen, in the presence of food, he was still and absorbed, completely lost and completely found.  Miss Rhoda treated him with the love and respect his kitchen behaviour warranted, and commented that he had a real future as a chef.  It seemed both a happy and pathetic prospect to me, that our success should be so utterly defined by a lack.  I would hide at length behind the silver industrial shelves full of pots and canned goods, soaking in this version of O Hungry One.  It always impacted me like that thing in books they call a vision.  And it was a vision I wanted to burn into my head clearly, so that later when O Hungry One was biting my hand or filling up my coffee mug with toilet water, it would help me act kindly and patiently.

My other charge—I’ll call him O Wordless One—he didn’t speak.  He squawked and yelled but with no discernible words.  His badly-cut hair had a grey cast, and his skin was greyish too, and he resembled an old man who was far too little.  He acted most like a toddler on the playground, where he wanted me to push him higher on the swings than anyone else did. He wanted to go all the way around the bar.  When I stopped pushing he would kick his legs backwards, towards my kneecaps, sometimes nailing them.  O Wordless One liked being dizzy.  He wanted me to spin him around and around by the arms, but he also didn’t want to be touched. The conflict this created was apparent in the way he would back away with his face down as he lifted his arms up to me.  When I was spinning him he laughed and laughed, seeming to forget we were connected.  I would spin him until I was past dizzy, and still he would protest when I set him back down on the ground.  Maybe sports equipment is a real possibility for reincarnation, I remember thinking.  Maybe in the last life he was—maybe in the next life he will get to be—a tether ball.

We were spinning like this one morning when I heard a pop and O Wordless One began to scream.  Unlike the other kids he never cried; but he suddenly had water rolling down his face.  He was holding his arm, which we noticed now hung at a funny angle.  I was scared of his mother already, but now if she beat me up it would be justified.  When she arrived I would start with I’m sorry I’m sorry and then gesture to the lesser side of my face, the left.  But the director of the daycare said:  Let me handle this.  I was sure I was going to lose my job.  And the first whoosh of remorse, surprising to me, was that I would miss the physicality of it.  At that point in my life I thought of myself as a rock.  And what do rocks need?  The touch of rain and sun and wind seemed incidental to them, not to mention the hardly-ever-happening touch of other rocks.  Yet here I was unable to catch my breath at the imminent absence of all the unthinking pats from little hands, and the heavy leans into me, which were more like trust falls.  The crying, heaving backs stilling inside my arms, the little fingers fiddling braids into my hair.  Within minutes I had another sorrow.  Namely, who else can I be around who will talk in stories, and show emotion so plainly?  But my first dread was for the loss of touch.  Perhaps right before dying, before departing this human body, it will be the same.           

O Wordless One returned in an hour.  His mother signed my accident report and dashed back to work.  The doctor had popped his shoulder back into the socket and presto, that was it.  I got down on my knees and tried to tell him I was sorry, but he wouldn’t look at me.  That was normal.  I told him I wouldn’t spin him around again, because I knew now that it was dangerous, and that we’d have to find something else on the playground to make him dizzy.  He was gone, walking away.  That was normal.  But then nap time arrived.  Every afternoon we would set out the cots, put lullaby music on the tape recorder, and turn off the lights.  Sometimes it took awhile for all the kids to lie quietly.  Miss Ginny and I would travel around the room sitting on the floor beside this or that cot, rubbing a back or shushing as needed.  I had a strategy that worked well:  I rubbed one finger across an eyebrow, gently and repeatedly.  With the grain for sleep; against the grain for waking.

Some kids always wanted me by their cot. They would ask me first thing in the morning— or, more often, inform me I was to be at their cot for nap time.  In a tone like they were drawing switchblades, which was funny in association with lullabies and blankies.  I was sitting beside one of these children, stroking an eyebrow, my own eyelids invariably getting heavy, when I felt a tap on my shoulder.  I looked around.  O Wordless One was standing in the dim light, backing away with his face down as he lifted his arms to me. It was so out-of-character for him to want anyone near him, especially before sleep, that several kids lifted up to get a better look as we passed.  Miss Ginny had to hiss at them to lie back down.  O Wordless One arranged himself on his cot like someone fearing an ambush—on his stomach, with his knees up and his arms flung over his head.  I was happy to note his one arm bent at the same angle as the other.   I lowered my hand slowly, until it touched his back.  He didn’t jolt at all.  Does he like me now because I hurt him? I wondered.  But it was too unbearable a thought, and so I thought nothing, nothing at all.  I pretended this—rubbing a child’s back—was just another required task, part of the job, and that my hand wouldn’t always remember this child’s shirt.  It was a grey-blue flannel shirt, worn thin, with little pills that bumped against my palm.